Go to my Home page.
Go to my Stories page.

The Ultimate Equation


by


Rodford Edmiston








Doug knocked, then entered upon hearing a distracted "Come in." Professor Titus was at his desk, three reference books open, scratching notes on a pad of lined paper.

"Good morning," Doug announced, plopping a manila envelope into the Professor's in basket. "Here's the Calculus II test papers, all graded."

"Excellent," said Titus, not looking up. "Pardon my rudeness, but it took me three hours to find the equation I was looking for and I'm not shifting until I have it safely written down."

He scribbled some more, checked the line he had his finger on to make sure he had copied the material correctly, then sighed in tired contentment and smiled up at the young man.

"Anyone who thinks mathematicians don't get any exercise hasn't lifted a good calculus text," he said.

"Yow," said Doug, glancing at the older man's tiny script. "I hope that's not for our class."

"No, this is for a private project of mine," said Titus. He stood and went over to the small chalkboard to his left, taking the notes with him. He pointed to an equation written on the board. "This, Douglas, is known as the Ultimate Equation. A rather pretentious name, you might think, but this deserves it. Legend has it being presented to Isaac Newton by a clergyman, who claimed to have found it on a Greek scroll from the First Century AD. Which doesn't make any sense, since it uses mathematical terms invented by the Arabs about a millennium after that. Still, the attempt to solve this equation was supposedly one of the motivations for Newton's invention of Calculus."

"Yow," said Doug again, only this time softly, in awe.

The equation itself wasn't all that long, and at first glance seemed like it would be easy to solve. However, as he studied the steps Titus had already taken, Douglas began to get a glimmer of what was involved, and it left his mind swimming.

"According to the legend, solving this will provide the person who does so with insight into the very foundations of the Universe." Titus laughed and shook his head. "That, of course, is just the legend. And such a reward has less temptation for a mathematician than the thrill of actually solving the equation."

Titus, holding his notes in his left hand, made some changes in one of the steps, then worked those through to the last line on the board. He stared at this for a moment, then began writing the next step. His movements were confident for a while, but slowed, then became tentative. He hesitated, wrote something, wiped it out, tried something different, wiped that out, then just stood for a moment, staring. Doug wished he could help, but this was far beyond him. Finally, Titus sighed and went back to his desk.

"Enough for today," he announced, closing the reference books and putting them away. "If I spend any more time on it I'll be neglecting my work."

Doug stood staring at the board for several moments while the Professor worked.

"Y'know," he said finally, "you keep telling me that there are two ways to solve an equation. By brute force, and by cleverness. Well, you're a lot cleverer than me, but a good computer is better at brute force than all the mathematicians who have ever lived..."

"I know what you're going to suggest," said Titus, holding up a hand. "It won't work. I was told several years ago that it would take about twelve million years for the best supercomputers in the world to solve this. Computers have come a long way since then, but still not far enough to reach a solution in my lifetime."

"Yeah, but mathematics software has come a long way, too," said Doug, still staring at the board. "With the start you've made, and the massively parallel computer I've put together, plus a special software ensemble I developed, I might just be able to solve this. It would be a team effort."

Titus stared at him for a long moment.

"Besides Newton, such people as Fermat, Euler, Legendre, Lagrange and Lobachevski have tried to solve the Ultimate Equation," said Titus. "All have failed. Well, except possibly for Bono, who vanished from his cell during the French Revolution. Some say he was driven to succeed by his impending beheading. A more pragmatic explanation is that friends bribed a guard. Of course, it is also true that he was only seen a few times afterwards, and then was described as being very distracted, almost obsessed, by something he wouldn't speak of."

"We have today not only the work of those who have gone before us," said Doug, feeling expansive, almost poetic, not even realizing he was interrupting his mentor, "but also better tools than any of them possessed. Fermat's Last Theorem has been solved. Why not this?"

"Why not?" said Titus, a fire lighting in his eyes. "Why not, indeed?"

He suddenly spun around and rolled his chair to his own computer. He tapped quickly for several moments, occasionally turning to look at the board. Then he presented Doug with a disk.

"Here is all the work I have done on the equation over the last twenty-three years, and all the data I have gathered about the work of others," he announced. "If you can solve this I'll let it count as your doctoral thesis."

He laughed as Doug took the disk, then shook his head.

"Damnation! If you solve that, we'll both win the Fields Medal!"

Doug, grinning, nodded and turned to leave.

"Just don't let it interfere with your school work!" was Titus' parting cry.

* * *

"Hiya, math boy!" was Gene's greeting, as Doug walked into the common room of the small apartment building. "Read any good equations lately?"

Doug ignored him. Seeing that his opponent wasn't going to rise to the bait, Gene went back to watching Freakazoid. There was an agreement between these two, one arrived at after a long feud. Gene refrained from getting physical, and Doug didn't erase his scholastic record.

In his room, Doug immediately fired up his baby, a hand-built custom computer on open racks, appearing to be the mutant offspring of a component stereo system and a pile of spare parts. A grounded copper screen was securely fastened all around the metal bookcase it filled, to keep RF both out and in. The large monitor - scavenged from a defunct Intergraph machine - flickered a bit, then steadied. Some computer buffs went in for elaborate frills, like a smiling, software-generated face lip-synching a stereo voice welcoming the user. Doug, instead, went for performance over image. You wouldn't know just how fast and powerful his machine was from turning it on, or playing an arcade-style game. You had to do something challenging. Like run a Master-level speed chess program.

Doug called up his special equation-solving software. He inserted the disk Professor Titus had given him and used an editor to copy the Ultimate Equation into the proper field. Other information went into other fields, not only the work Titus had done but also as much of the background as Doug thought appropriate. He checked the data, then started the program. It ran smoothly for a few seconds, then beeped for attention; a minor clarification was needed. With that out of the way, the program resumed operation, this time for nearly five minutes.

The process continued in this fashion. The software would run longer each time before hitting a snag, which Doug would then work through. Usually his response only required a few seconds of work, but twice he had to search through the diskette files Titus had provided him, and once he had to call the Professor for advice. By the time Doug was ready for supper the program had run nearly an hour without an interruption. He went downstairs to the kitchen.

"Doug, you forgot to check your mail," said Ricardo, handing a small bundle over as Doug entered the kitchen.

"Sorry. Was working on a project for Professor Titus."

"More of those weird porn magazines with all the animal people?" sneered Gene, spotting a large envelope in Doug's mail.

"At least I know mine aren't real," said Doug. "You still won't admit that one woman was digitally enhanced, even after I showed you the article on how they did it."

"Hey! That article was a hoax! I read about it in the letter column in the next issue!"

"All right, children," scolded Ricardo.

More might have been said, but about then Vinnie, the youngest member of their household, came in.

"Gotta ditch my books, grab my gaming stuff and run," he announced hurriedly. "There's a big Werewolf tournament over at the Scabbard. I'll pick up something on the way."

"You're supposed to give advanced notice when you miss a meal!" Ricardo called to the departing boy.

"I didn't find out about this until after Physics class," Vinnie called back, as he headed out the dining room door.

Supper was uneventful. All of them had work to do for class the next day, so the meal was both quick and quiet. Doug did his share of the clean-up then headed back to his room.

The program was paused again, but the problem was something minor. Doug placated it and settled in to start on his homework. Two hours went by before the program again called for attention, and again the fix was trivial. Doug attended it, then finished his classwork assignments. A check showed the software perking along smoothly. Doug put it in the background and started his e-mail program. He dealt with the messages waiting, then sat back and read the issue of Yerf! which had arrived in the day's mail. He smiled as he saw that this issue had as contributors Tommi Jones, Roger Striker and several of his other favorite artists. He skimmed the issue, put it down beside the computer with the intent of re-reading it more carefully later, then dealt with a few more e-messages which had come in during that time. The mathematical analysis program was still running fine. Doug left the room to shower and brush his teeth.

When he came back, naturally, the computer was waiting for him to help it. That done, he checked his e-mail one last time. Then, just before putting the monitor to sleep, he started a graphics utility he had designed. If the program ran through the rest of the night without calling him - which it now looked like it would do - this would plot the results. Right or wrong, the image generated would give him an immediate and intuitive indication of the result.

Doug climbed in bed, turned out the lights, made sure his alarm was set, and settled in to sleep.

* * *

Very early in the morning, when all in the building were asleep, the darkened monitor took on an eerie glow. Pale and pastel, shifting in color from green to blue and back, it spread across the surface of the monitor. From there it moved to cover the desk. It hovered, pulsing for a moment, brightest over the furry 'zine Doug had left beside the keyboard. Then it spread down the metal sides and legs of the desk. Once on the floor, glowing tendrils spread in all directions. Some things were touched, then avoided. On other objects the tendrils lingered. Then one of them found Doug's bookcase. Others retracted, adding their strength to the tendril already concentrating on the collection of publications. Within minutes, the bookcase was the sole object of attention. The glow skimmed the computer books and magazines, and the mathematics and physics texts. Slowly it concentrated on Doug's collections of fanzines, especially those dealing with anthropomorphics. For several long moments, the glow soaked into and through them, pulsing gently, silently. Then, with an accompanying snap, the dim glow exploded into a bright flash. When that was done, all was back to normal. Doug never stirred.

* * *

Doug's alarm sounded. He shifted, rubbed his eyes, then remembered his project and sat up with a jerk. He fumbled with the alarm for a moment, got that off, then went to the desk. He tapped the ANY key to bring the monitor back on and saw... the boot screen.

"Oh, great," Doug muttered. "It crashed. Oh, well; might as well restart the program and see what went wrong."

Except that the data files which should have logged the process were empty. So were all the others having anything to do with the work of the previous night. All he had was what had been on the partition before he started, and the original diskette.

"What the sheep..." said Doug, not wanting to believe what he saw.

After staring at the screen for a moment longer, he shook his head.

"Maybe this will make sense after I pee," he muttered. He walked off, rubbing his head and yawning.

Returning from his trip to the bathroom, he found the situation no clearer.

"Argh. Oh, well; guess I'll have to wait until this afternoon, when I can restart the thing and have time to watch it."

Doug started the mail program, wanting to do a quick check before breakfast. His in basket counter revealed that he had about a dozen messages, which was normal. What wasn't was that the out basket counter listed several hundred sent messages.

"Now that's impossible. I emptied that folder just last night. Although, now that I think of it, I did leave the e-mail app running..."

A quick check revealed that the same large file had been sent to every address in his list.

"Which is also impossible," muttered Doug. "Even if something did trigger a global mailing, it would be just one message with every address from the list in the "To" field."

Doug opened one of the sent messages, but found it to be an empty file. Which fit the small size of the sent messages.

"Well, that's a relief. At least I didn't send a partition dump to everybody I have an e-mail address for." He laughed. "Wonder what the guys on Furball-l would have thought about that!"

Deciding this was another mystery that would have to wait, Doug dressed and went to breakfast.

He and Ricardo were already eating when Vinnie came in, yawning.

"Man, what a game! Lasted six hours. Talk about interplayer conflict! Glad my first class isn't until ten today."

"You need to get more sleep," said Ricardo, scolding.

Vinnie as about to agree with him when a piercing scream echoed down the stairs. A female scream.

"Bet Gene's date woke up and saw what she slept with last night," snickered Vinnie.

The three of them rose and headed toward the stairs. They were met by the sight of a wet, buxom woman bolting out of the bathroom, hastily wrapping a towel around herself.

"Look what happened to me!" she screamed when she saw the others. "I've turned into a girl!"

"That not girl," growled Vinnie, in his best Crinos voice, "that woman!"

"This isn't funny! I was taking a shower and suddenly found myself with a handful of tit!"

"Let me guess," said Doug, "you're supposed to be Gene."

"I am Gene!" She did a double-take, then stared at Doug with sudden suspicion. "You did this to me! I don't know how, but it's your idea of a joke, getting back at me for that crack last night!"

"Typical Gene gag," said Ricardo. "Well planned, well orchestrated, original, and completely unbelievable."

The woman stared at him for a moment, then snarled and stalked quickly into Gene's room, slamming the door behind her.

"Wonder how he got her to do that?" asked Vinnie, as the trio headed back to their meal.

"Ah, you know those music majors," laughed Doug. "Lots of sex appeal."

A few minutes later they heard someone much heavier than the statuesque redhead thundering down the stairs. Gene stopped in the door to the dining room, gave them a glare, yelled "Fuck you!" and left.

"Nobody likes a poor loser," sighed Ricardo.

* * *

Doug was in his eight o'clock Freshman algebra class when he began feeling hot. He had actually noticed earlier that he felt unusually warm, and wondered if he was coming down with something. There had just been too many distractions and too much going on to do anything about it. He hadn't even felt sick; just warm. Now, though, the warmth had definitely become heat, building inside him. This wasn't like any illness he had ever experienced before. Maybe he had appendicitis? His class was nearly over, and he had an hour's gap before the next; he decided to head over to the Medical Center as soon as he was finished.

Of course, he still had to make it to the bell. And he wasn't sure he could.

"Okay, one last thing, then you can go," he announced, as he turned toward the board.

He was feeling very uncomfortable, now. Still not really sick, but like he had pressure building up inside him. Food poisoning, maybe? He focused on what he was doing, just wanting to get through this class so he could go find help. And as he concentrated on writing out the example equation, the heat inside flowed down into his arm... and his hand began to change.

It grew smaller, and fur sprouted, and the nails curled into claws... and the change was moving rapidly up his arm.

Stop that! Doug ordered, horrified.

There was a feeling of release frustrated, like stopping peeing after only a trickle. The change ceased.

Go back the way you were! Doug thought frantically.

There was a resistance, then the change reversed, slowly, protestingly, fighting all the way. Doug did not relent, forcing his hand to return completely to normal. He stood there for a moment after his victory, sweating and panting. His body had been between his hand and the class, so the students hadn't actually seen the change, but they were bound to be wondering what was going on. How was he going to cover this?

To Doug's immense relief the bell rang just then. Grinning weakly, he turned back to the students.

"Okay, well, I guess I'll have a chance to review my notes before next class. See you Monday." It was a bit lame, but most of them would accept it.

Doug waited as the students left, making a show of gathering his papers. Then, fighting the urge to run, he made his way to the faculty men's room. Blessedly, it was empty. Doug locked the door, grabbed the sink and let the lid off pressure inside him.

The heat flowed through him like an orgasm. The simile was apt, for while the sensation was completely alien, it was far from unpleasant, and it left him shaking with release. His vision wavered back into focus, and he found himself staring at hands that weren't his, though they were undeniably attached to him.

They were small, and fur-covered, and had claws instead of nails, and there were only three fingers and a thumb on each. What little skin he could see was dark brown. Trembling, he looked up, into the mirror.

"Sheep!" Doug yelped, in a voice that was not only female but had a French accent.

For he was the image of Madame Odifurous, a skunk-morph created by Shaun Clay. There was no doubt about that. Doug had been looking with undeniable lust at drawings of her just the night before.

Not only had Doug changed into her, but she was wearing the revealing outfit from one of the images...

The impractical top had slipped down, revealing a hint of aureole on the left breast. Without thinking, Doug reflexively reached up and tugged it back into place. The math major grimaced, hesitated, then pulled the top down. The bountiful, fur-covered breasts of Madame Odifurous tumbled free.

Trembling, Doug cupped her breasts. They were warm and soft and sensitive; they felt very much like a human female's, except for being covered with soft fur. And except for Doug being able to feel with the breasts! Something occurred to Doug, then, as she squeezed her breasts and felt a stir of arousal. And she winced, because she knew that the next time she saw Gene she would have to apologize. This must be what had happened to him!

Gene... he had changed back! That meant that Doug could change back. She noticed, now, that the strange internal heat was much reduced. Doug's hand had changed back through willing it; this could be reversed the same way.

"Okay, body, zis is your boss," said Doug, just now feeling more embarrassed by the hokey accent than anything else. "I want to return to normal!"

After several moments of concentration, Doug felt the heat rising again. The change started, and this time Doug watched it, switching between looking in the mirror and glancing down. Once begun the transformation only took a few seconds. Doug gasped with relief as he saw his old self in the mirror.

Doug was a student in the rest of his classes for the day, with no more obligation to teach. While he didn't like skipping class he figured he had good reason. After a brief stop at the TA office to explain that he wasn't feeling well, Doug hurried home.

* * *

"Apology accepted," said Gene, with a slight sneer.

"Great," muttered Doug. "Now we have to figure out what the help is going on here."

He dropped onto the couch opposite Gene, and stared at the coffee table between them without seeing it.

"It can't be the Ultimate equation," he said, quietly.

"The which?"

"A special project I'm working on for Professor Titus," Doug explained, sighing. "I used my computer to try and solve an old problem that's baffled..."

"I knew it was you, you bastard!"

"Now, wait a minute," said Doug, raising his hands in a warding gesture, "why couldn't it have been something Vinnie did? He's into all that supernatural stuff".

Gene ignored him, instead grabbing a piece of paper and a pen.

"Look. Here's your room, and mine. Your computer is here, against this wall. My room is on the other side of that wall."

"Oh, sheep," said Doug. "Okay, so I probably did it. But why did we turn into people we fantasized about?"

"We didn't," said Gene, grinning smugly. "I'm 'way ahead of you there, math boy. We changed into people in the magazines nearest the computer. And not just one; I have already been three people from my magazines, including a guy in one of the adds."

"Sheep," groaned Doug. "This just keeps getting weirder."

"Will you stop saying that!" Gene shook his head in irritation. "What is it with you and swear words, anyway?"

"Sorry," sighed Doug. "My mother wouldn't allow swearing in the house, so my sister, father and I substituted innocuous sound-alikes. Mom never seemed to catch on. And it got to be a habit with us."

"Man, we've got a gold mine, here," said Gene, almost chortling. "We need to figure out what to do with this!"

"You mean besides visit the girls' shower at the gym?" snickered Doug.

"How did you...!" Gene stopped as he saw Doug's startled expression. "You bastard."

"You mean you actually..."

"Yeah, yeah, I spent about half an hour there," Gene muttered. "No big deal. I was better built than most of them, anyway."

"I wonder if it's just us," said Doug. "Have Ricardo or Vinnie said anything?"

"Ricardo didn't, and I haven't seen Vinnie since this morning."

"Well, Ricardo's room is at the back of the house," said Doug, "but Vinnie's is right below mine. If he got back from his game in time for whatever happened, he was about as close as you."

"But why magazines?" asked Gene, returning to the question Doug had asked.

"Maybe not magazines," countered Doug. "Maybe images. There are certain mathematical relationships in drawings and photographs, and I was working on a math problem."

"No, even if that's part of it, there's more to it," said Gene, shaking his head. "Like you pointed out, we turned into images we were lusting after."

"Uh, I wouldn't go that far..."

"Hey, admit it, skunk fucker, you wanted that critter you turned into," sneered Gene.

Doug kept silent, but his red face and ears made Gene laugh.

"Man, what a houseful of perverts we are," he chuckled. "I like big boobs, you like animals, Ricardo and Vinnie are both queers..."

"What?!" said Doug, literally jumping.

"Yeah. That's how a Freshman got in this place. Ricardo's his - what do they call it - mentor."

"Wait a minute," said Doug. "If you hate gays why do you room here?"

"I don't hate queers," said Gene, blandly. "Long as they don't bother me, what they do in their bedrooms is their business."

"Then why do you call them queers?" demanded Doug.

"Because they are queers," said Gene. "Duh! Besides, they call themselves that."

Any further discussion of the matter was interrupted by the arrival of Vinnie. He jerked the alley door open, stepped quickly inside, slammed the door, and sank back against it for a moment. Then, obviously gathering his strength, he straightened and headed for the stairs.

"You changed into something, didn't you?" Doug called out quickly.

Vinnie stopped, whirled, and stared at the two in the den for a few seconds, visibly rearranging his thought patterns.

"Wait a minute," he said slowly, pointing a finger at Gene. "You mean he really did... Did you?"

"Yeah," said Doug. "I changed into a character from one of my fanzines. Gene says he has changed into three different people, all from his magazines."

"And I changed into a satyr," groaned Vinnie. "In the second floor Men's room."

"Well, so much for keeping this a secret," muttered Doug.

"I don't think anyone there recognized me," sighed Vinnie. "I sure didn't!"

* * *

"You mean a program did this?" Vinnie exclaimed, after being brought up to speed on what Doug and Gene had figured out.

"Probably," said Doug, cautiously. "We aren't sure, but that's the best bet."

"Unless either of you've heard about someone else changing who doesn't live here," said Gene.

"Wait a minute," said Vinnie, suddenly brightening.

He stood, and concentrated. And turned into a young man about his age, but much darker, Native American-looking, and wearing a different outfit. Then he changed again... into a huge, monstrous werewolf whose head brushed the high ceiling.

"Yow!" yelled Gene, cowering. "Warn a guy before you do that!"

"Sheep, Vinnie, don't scare us like that!" was Doug's almost simultaneous cry.

The monster changed back into the Indian, who was grinning like a maniac.

"Don't you get it? That was a Werewolf character. I didn't just change into him, I have his powers!"

"Maybe," said Gene, frowning. "Or maybe you just changed again."

"Well, there's one way to find out," said Vinnie.

He looked around the room for a moment, then stepped to the mirror over the fireplace. He stared at it, frowning. Nothing happened.

"Damn! I can't step sideways!"

"Whatever that means," muttered Gene.

Doug was thinking hard. He recalled a unicorn morph - Ray Callahan - who had healing powers. Doug concentrated for a moment, picturing the white equine-morph. He felt the strange heat inside him stir, and flow, and he was suddenly Ray.

"Aw, Jeeze," groaned Gene. "A pansy horse!"

"Anybody got a cut or bruise or any other injury?" Doug asked, in Ray's exaggerated Texas accent.

"You're not touching me with that ivory phallic symbol!" snapped Gene.

"Oh, yeah," said Vinnie. He stepped towards Doug, pulling up his shirt to reveal a large, livid scar on his left side. "Walks-in-Fire has a battle scar that bothers him. In fact, it's bothering me."

Doug leaned forward, carefully touching his horn to the wound. He saw the portion of the horn within his vision glow, and watched the scar fade.

"Damn, that feels good!" exclaimed Vinnie. "Yahoo! We do have the powers!"

"At least some o' them," said Doug, examining his hoof-like hands.

Doug wanted to experiment with other forms, but found himself unable to change. In fact, he felt strangely tired. This fit with what Gene had related, earlier. After changing for the third time he had needed to rest a while before changing back. This was only Doug's second full change, but both of his had been more extreme, and he had not gone as long between them. So for a while he would be stuck as Ray. He just hoped that no-one saw him before he could change back.

"Y'know," he drawled, "I really don't want to spend the rest of my life in a laboratory. Or even the next decade or so. What say you and Gene pull the shades?"

They did this, with some grumbling on Gene's part. Both of them then quickly came back to the couches, Gene resuming his seat, Vinnie plopping down beside Doug. Several seconds of silence lapsed.

"Wow," said Vinnie, finally, as a huge grin spread across his face. "This is gonna be fun."

"Mebbe," said Doug. "This could be temporary and unrepeatable. It could be harmful in some way that isn't immediately obvious. It..."

"Are you always this cheerful, or did you just get up on the wrong side of the stall this morning?" muttered Gene.

"Hey, at least I didn't turn into a centerfold in the shower," countered Doug, grinning as he cocked his head to one side.

"Yeah, Gene, we've shown you ours," said Vinnie. "Now it's your turn."

"You saw enough this morning," growled Gene. "Besides, I've already made three changes there and back. I'm tapped out."

Vinnie, still in the form of his RPG character, stood and began pacing the den.

"I can't think straight!" he chattered. "I'm too excited!"

"Say, ain't the type of critter you changed into supposed t'be hot tempered?" asked Doug.

"Hah! That's putting it mildly!"

"Wall, mebbe you outta change into somethin' a little calmer. Might help you think." Doug chuckled. "Might also be safer for us."

Vinnie ducked his head and gave them a rueful grin. That faded as he thought for a moment.

"I can't decide what to change into," he muttered.

"Well, you're a queer," said the always-diplomatic Gene. "Change into something female. We both already have."

"I'm not queer," said Vinnie, absently. "I'm bi. But that's a good idea. I've always wondered what it felt like from the inside."

He concentrated again for a moment, then shifted into a tall, delicate-looking, blond woman.

"Nice..." was Doug's judgment.

Vinnie grinned, and cupped her breasts, giving a little squeal of combined delight and surprise.

"Wow," she gasped, kneading her bosom, "this feels great."

"If she's going to play with herself, I'm leaving," muttered Gene, disgusted.

Vinnie glared at him, but pulled her hands down. She frowned, and shifted again. Her figure became even leaner, her face triangular, her ears pointed.

"I'm a sidhe character from Changeling," she explained, examining herself in the mirror. "I'm just showing you two my true appearance. Wow, this is cool!"

She turned and looked at Gene with a strange smile on her face.

"Come here and kiss me."

To Doug's immense surprise, Gene did just that, smiling like a man in love.

"Whoa, hold it!" Doug yelled, jumping up and forcibly separating the two. "Ah know yo're jus' playin' with yore powers, but when yah stop he's gonna be powerful mad."

"Okay, okay," said Vinnie, giggling girlishly. "I've dropped it."

Gene stood back, shaking his head, whether to clear it or in denial Doug couldn't tell.

"You bas... Bitch!" he yelled, finally. "I ought to..."

He stopped, took a deep breath, visibly calming himself.

"You ever do that again," he said, quietly, menace in his voice, "and I'll smother you in your sleep."

Vinnie looked shocked, her unhumanly beautiful face twisting into an expression that made Doug wonder if she was about to cry. Doug took her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him.

"Ah think the form we take affects our minds," he told her earnestly. "Ah'm talkin' like a caricature, and yo're actin' like a she-elf. We both better change back and settle down."

She pouted for a moment, but then nodded. Doug sighed in relief and released her. He didn't know what he would have done if she had refused. A battle of powers between a high elf and a unicorn was something he didn't want to think about.

Doug stepped back, concentrating hard. Changing took several long, tense moments, and when he finished he felt drained, but he was back to normal. Vinnie was still the elf.

"Uh, I can't change back yet," she explained, timidly.

"Well, please be on your best behavior until you can," said Doug. "Now, getting back to what I was talking about earlier, we seriously need to decide what we're going to do. Just playing with this could get us into deep trouble, or even killed."

"You got that right," muttered Gene, glaring at Vinnie.

She gave him a timid, apologetic smile and shrugged.

The three of them did sit down and discuss things, but with little progress. They didn't have much information yet, and hadn't really had time enough to think about the situation. After about half an hour Vinnie tried again, and did manage to change back, after which Gene was more relaxed. Then they mostly just sat in silence. Until the phone rang.

"It's for you," said Vinnie, who had reached it first, handing the phone to Doug.

Doug took the call, and after a few seconds began looking quite worried.

"Do you know where he is now?" he asked. "Well, if you see him, please have him contact me right away!"

He hung up and turned to the others.

"That was Professor Titus's wife," Doug explained. "She says she found him staring at a blank computer screen, smiling. When she asked if anything was wrong, he said the he was fine, in fact perfect. He also said that if she spoke to me to thank me for the message. When she checked back later, he was gone, and neither she nor anyone else have seen him for over two hours."

"So?" said Gene. "We all know how you math types get preoccupied with a problem and wander off to think in private."

"You don't understand," said Doug, almost panicking. "I didn't send him a message, but when I checked the computer this morning everyone on my list had been sent one. Probably by the program running the Ultimate Equation.

"Which means it's out on the Internet."

"Sheep!" groaned Gene.

"Hey!" Vinnie yelled after Doug, as the latter ran up the stairs. "Where are you going?"

"To tell people who haven't opened that message yet not to!"

"But..." sputtered Gene. He turned in irritation to Vinnie. "Yeah, right. Send an e-mail message to people not to read any e-mail messages from him."

"Some people read their mail in reverse order," said Vinnie, shrugging. "And some people by subject. He said this one had an empty subject field, so they may save it for last. If so and they read his next message first they'll know which one he means. Of course, if it was me, after hearing about the message, I'd go ahead and open it."

"Yeah," said Gene, thoughtfully, "probably me, too. Though I'd try to make it change me into something else, instead of just people from my girlie magazines."

"Yeah," said Vinnie, wistfully. "Don't know what I'd have picked, but I would have liked the option to choose."

They both started as the alley door again opened, this time to admit Ricardo. He nodded at the two of them, apparently not noticing anything unusual. Ricardo headed for the kitchen.

"Hey, Ricardo!" Gene called out, rising and going after the him. "We got something to show you!"

* * *

When Doug came back down the stairs the living room was empty. He found his three housemates in the kitchen, Ricardo sitting in a chair, mopping his face with a wet paper towel and looking stunned. Gene was back in the form of the centerfold from that morning, the table cloth wrapped modestly around her.

"Incredible," gasped Ricardo, looking over at Doug as he entered. "Just incredible. Did you get your warning out?"

"Yeah, but I don't know how much good it will do."

"You didn't tell anybody that the other message would make them turn into people from magazines, did you?" demanded Gene.

"Well, I pretty much had to, didn't I?" snapped Doug. "Besides, I figure I owed an explanation to everybody who had already opened the message and was wondering what the Help was going on."

"I don't know whether to beg you to try again," said Ricardo, "or run screaming to my priest."

Doug scowled and sank into a chair.

"I also called Mrs. Titus before coming down," he announced. "The Professor is still missing. Just in case, I sent an e-mail message to him, explaining what's going on."

"Do you think he might have ascended, like that other fellow?" Ricardo asked, looking thoughtful.

"Bono. And people just assume he ascended," Doug replied. "He might have just gone off to think about what had happened to him. Hopefully, so has Professor Titus."

"You really like him," said Ricardo, gently.

"He's been my advisor since I decided to add a math major to my computer science major," said Doug. "He's smart, fair, concerned about people..."

"Sounds like a perfect candidate for ascension to me," muttered the still-female Gene.

"I wonder if this is something permanent, or if it is a charge of some sort," mused Ricardo. "Something which can be used up. Have you considered trying to run the program again?"

"Yeah. I even set it up, but I haven't had the courage to start it. I figured I'd wait a few days, maybe a week, then decide, after we had more data."

"I confess, I'd like to have abilities like yours," Ricardo said. "So if you need a subject, I'm volunteering."

"Great," muttered Gene, sourly. "I'd love to see what magazines you'd pick."

"I have to admit, I'm curious, too," said Vinnie. "What images would you pick?"

"I really don't know," said Ricardo, quietly. "But I am certainly going to give the matter some serious thought."

* * *

"Any time you guys are ready to stop staring at my chest is fine with me," muttered Gene, hands on her hips in an attitude of irritation.

It was Saturday morning, and all three were in female form, the only way that Gene would agree to participate in this particular experiment. Doug was a grey fox vixen-morph, Vinnie a green-eyed Irish lass who happened to be a werewolf, and Gene was a buxom woman with no nipples.

"That cinches it," said Doug, nodding. "You look just like the photo, airbrushed-out nipples and everything. We don't become the reality; we become the image."

"Well, of course," snapped Gene, gesturing wildly at Doug, breasts bobbing. "You aren't real! How could you become that if we became reality?"

"I still cannae step sideways," whined Vinnie, in a delightful brogue.

"And that fits with what I figured," said Doug. "We become the image, right down to personal equipment and special abilities, but we don't bring any of the character's universe into ours. You can be a werewolf, but there's no Umbra for you to step sideways into. I can become Ray Callahan, and even use his healing abilities, but his battle-mech isn't parked outside."

"But you two do get powers," muttered Gene, looking disgusted and maybe a bit envious.

"Say, wasn't there a fumetti parody of Supergirl in one of your magazines?" asked Vinnie, looking thoughtfully at Gene.

"Whoa!" Gene replied, looking startled. "I hadn't thought of that! Yeah, I might be able to have powers after all!"

"Well, I, for one, want to get back to my real shape," said Doug, looking down at herself. "I mean, having fur and a tail aren't so bad, and I could probably get used to being female, but I'm tired of being short!"

Vinnie laughed at that, and even Gene smirked.

"Aye, that's the problem with furries," said Vinnie. "They are usually smaller than humans."

"Well, first we need to try Phase Two," said Doug. She stepped over to Gene's discarded clothing. "Any time you're ready."

Gene muttered under her breath, then frowned in concentration. Abruptly, she was a slim, young black woman with a lean athletic build.

"Now that's weird," said Doug, frowning as she straightened to look back at the others. "It changed from lingerie to a track sui... Oh. Why'd you change into that and not back to yourself?"

"Because I'm not going to be standing here naked in front of you two as a guy," said Gene. He spared a brief glare at Vinnie. "Especially not in front of him."

"Hey, I told y, I'm bi," said Vinnie, leering at Gene in an exaggerated fashion. "You turn me on this way, too."

"Okay, children, enough," said Doug, tiredly. "Well, we have more data, now. Though I'd still like to try it with the clothing further away. And what happens if something is torn? Will it still be torn when it changes?"

"Remember when ye healed me yesterday? When I changed back an old scar was gone. Like it was never there."

"Okay," said Doug, slowly. "That is interesting. I'm not sure what it means, but it is interesting."

"I have an old scar, from when I went over the handlebars of my bike when I was eleven," said Gene, looking at her left forearm. "There's no sign of it in this form, and scars like that are more noticeable on dark skin."

"Looks like the rules for this are the same for all of us," mused Doug, raising her left leg and checking her ankle, "and extremely complicated. I'm missing a scar, too."

"What about the other people who were affected?" asked Vinnie. "Have y heard anything useful from them?"

"The reports are pouring in," sighed Doug, running a hand through her shoulder-length hair in a mannerism which came directly from the character she currently was. "I read over a dozen this morning, and hardly made a dent. I'm making sure to save them all, even the ones which are incoherent. So far the best information has come from the regular contributors. The lurkers are still mostly lurking, and when they do send something they aren't very clear."

"I'm going up to my room," said Gene, stepping over to pick up her clothes. "Besides being tired from all this changing, I still have homework."

"Aye," sighed Vinnie, staring down at her chest. "I want to go play with meself, too."

Doug unsuccessfully tried to stifle a snort of laughter. Gene glared again at Vinnie, then quickly slipped her track suit on and walked out, slamming the den door behind her.

"You shouldn't tease Gene like that," chided Doug.

"Hey, it's the only way I can get him to respect me," said Vinnie, shrugging. "Besides, it's the truth. I mean, you're gonna go have a little furry fun as soon as y leave here, right?"

Doug was glad the fur on her face hid her blush. Vinnie's knowing grin didn't help her embarrassment any, either.

"I'm gonna go to my room and try out the vibrator I bought last night." Vinnie gave Doug a coy grin. "I'll let y borrow it, if y want. Later. If y promise to clean it and buy new batteries. I'll even teach y how to use it, if y want some... personal training."

"I have to admit, I've been experimenting as several different characters," said Doug quickly, eager to change the subject. Even if it was to one closely associated with her roommate half-seriously making a pass at her. She grimaced. "It's been fun, but I had a few rude surprises, too. But I really think this is too important - and too broad - to spend all my time on exploring the sexual aspects of it."

"Might as well enjoy it while it lasts," said Vinnie, walking slowly for the door. "This might wear off tomorrow. Or we could all be arrested by a secret government agency and dissected."

"And Gene says I'm a pessimist." Doug gave a wry laugh and shook her head. "Okay, and just what government agency would have authority over people who change shape?"

"Well, the CIA would want to know how we do it, so their agents could," said Vinnie. She laughed too. "Hell, the FCC could arrest y for sending dangerous e-mail messages!"

"Actually, that's one of the few ways I'm worried about the government actually interfering with us," Doug confessed, as they walked out into the hall. "Given all the fuss some people are making about the dangers of the Internet, I could be used as a test case."

"Too bad y can't cover up who sent those messages," sighed Vinnie.

"I didn't want to bring this up before," said Doug, quietly, "but I've had several threats from people affected, and from friends and relatives of those affected. Fortunately, all of them were from folks who live a comfortable distance from here. But the idea of an angry lynch mob worries me a lot more than your secret government agency. If knowledge of what I did becomes public, I might even have to request police protection."

"I hadn't thought of that," said Vinnie, now looking worried. "There are a lot of people in this world who automatically attack anything they think is strange or different. And y can't get much stranger or more different that we are."

As Doug started up the stairs, Vinnie took her arm.

"That reminds me. What are we going to call oursel'es? People changed by this equation, I mean. Equators? Ultimates?"

"I hadn't even thought of that," said Doug. "I guess we'll just have to think about it."

* * *

Life goes on for the living. In spite of the confusion and concern caused by Professor Titus' disappearance and the exploration of their new abilities, Doug, Gene and Vinnie were still students. Given all the transformations the three of them tried throughout Saturday, Sunday was a day of rest... but not of relaxation. Besides the classwork all three of them had due, and the classes Doug had to prepare to teach, they were also busy with private matters. Experimentation, soul searching and data gathering were all engaging the three young men, in different proportions.

Doug spent a huge amount of time using e-mail and a pair of chat rooms to communicate with those who had received the Solution to the Equation. Some of the recipients didn't reply. Others weren't talking to Doug, and told him so, repeatedly and at length. Most, however, were understanding of Doug's situation, and many even thankful to him for fulfilling their dreams.

As the base of data grew, interesting patterns began to emerge. The effect only worked on actual images, even if those were produced by glowing phosphors on a screen. At least three people had gained the ability to transform into something from their computer wallpaper. No-one was able to turn into something they had solely as a stored image file. There also seemed to be a limit to the number of forms someone could change into. Given the effort required to transform, few of those Doug communicated with had changed more than twenty times, but several people reported being unable to change into a form on the page opposite from one with a form they could assume.

Adding a note of absurdity, a very high proportion of first changes occurred in restrooms or bathrooms. There seemed to be a deep-seated urge for people to head quickly to the john when they felt strange.

Doug found himself wondering what would happen to someone without any images near enough to be affected. The range seemed to be at least twenty meters, in all three dimensions, and nearly everyone would have some sort of image nearer than that, even if it was only photos in computer magazines. Professor Titus, for example, had a calendar with faculty photos on the wall behind his computer desk at home.

As for what happened when someone opened the mysterious message Doug's computer had sent, that was pretty much uniform. Everyone reported seeing an immediate flash of pale, multi-colored light, and feeling a strange warmth flowing through them. Then nothing out of the ordinary for the next several hours, when, as had happened to Gene, Doug and Vinnie, the warmth returned and forced them to change. The first form taken was almost always one the subject had been thinking about shortly before the message was opened.

There were complications, of course. People had opened their Ultimate message at different times, both locally and absolutely. A few had not opened their message until after they learned about it, and actually been prepared. That didn't seem to affect what happened afterwards, except that they had the opportunity to assemble specific images for the event.

Doug leaned back in his chair and sighed. He'd worked on gathering this data intermittently all day, doing his class assignments and preparing for his morning class between times. Being a methodical person he not only made notes on paper and saved all the messages he sent and received but also used his graphing utility to try and organize a plot of the information. So far, his best efforts had resulted in an indecipherable mess.

One disturbing fact had penetrated his concentration. According to his housemates, word of what had happened was leaking around the campus. That wasn't surprising; several people had seen Vinnie change, and there were a number of Furball-l members among the student body and the fannish community in Lexington. Doug was just glad that list members didn't normally know where other members lived, what they looked like, or even their real names. While he was mildly concerned about the threats he had received, he was more worried about the fawning adulation some of the more extreme furverts had been passing his way.

"Enough of this," said Doug, finally. "All work and so forth."

He glanced at the clock and saw that the time was a bit past nine. He'd skimped on food today, barely touching his supper, and now was ready for a major snack. Doug had personally verified that changing took energy, and that a person's general state of well-being remained constant through changes, baring certain notable features such as scars. He hadn't done much changing today, and wanted to have some fun before bed, but for that he needed food. So, off to the kitchen he went.

The house seemed empty. There was a light shining under Gene's door, but he had a habit of leaving one on and Doug couldn't hear any signs of life. He recalled Vinnie and Ricardo saying something earlier about a meeting of some sort, and figured they were still there. So it was probably just him. Which was fine.

A cold roast beef sandwich and a cup of hot cider later, Doug felt much better. He puttered around downstairs for a while, cleaning his dishes and checking the news on TV. There was nothing on CNN about people changing into magazine photos or such, so Doug figured knowledge of the situation was still pretty much contained within a small, select group. The longer things stayed that way, the better, as far as he was concerned.

Doug realized that he was actually reluctant to go up to his room. He knew that once there he would try some - as Vinnie put it - "furry fun." Doug had never thought of himself as a prude or conservative, but he was disturbed by just how much he was masturbating lately. And most of it was in female form.

"C'mon," he muttered to himself, as he went slowly up the stairs. "It's attractive to me because it's something new. It's the lure of the novel."

"Y'know, you worry me when you talk to yourself like that," said a female voice from above.

Doug glanced up and saw a beautiful woman unfamiliar to him; she was wearing a very sexy formal dress.

"Gene?"

"Well, who else would it be?" the woman sneered.

"Around here, you never know..."

* * *

Doug was in the middle of his Freshman calculus class when the two men in very conservative suits entered.

"Are you Douglas Fender?" one of them asked.

"Uh, yeah," Doug replied, going numb with terror as visions of secret government agencies flashed through his mind.

"Could we talk somewhere private?"

"Okay," said Doug, thinking quickly. "We could try the teacher's lounge. There should be at least a corner there where we can be away from others."

And in a public place, Doug thought. He turned to his students.

"Sorry class, but I guess you get out early today. See you Wednesday."

I hope, he added silently.

There were others in the lounge but they were busy with their own affairs. Doug guided the two men to a corner table. Once seated, the two men produced badges.

"I'm Agent Blair," said the man who had done all the talking so far, "This is Agent Freeman."

"FBI?" said Doug, confused. "What does the FBI want with me?"

"To be honest, we're not sure," said Blair, with an uncertain smile. "Let me start from the beginning. At least, the beginning as far back as we know it. Yesterday morning a judge in Alabama signed an extradition warrant for you."

"Alabama!" exclaimed Doug, startled. "I've never even been to Alabama!"

"Mister Fender, please," said Blair, earnestly but quietly. "As you will understand if you let me finish, this is a delicate matter and we are trying to keep it quiet while we check into it."

"All right," sighed Doug. "I'll try to keep still. But this is all pretty disconcerting to me."

"I understand," said Blair. He shifted a bit in his seat and continued. "Getting back to the sequence of events, since this was an interstate matter, and a very strange one, the governments of both Alabama and Kentucky asked the FBI to check into the matter. It seems the warrant was for child abuse..."

Doug started so hard his chair squeaked, but he managed not to say anything. He did a lot of thinking, though. That's it; my career is over. Even though it's nonsense, just being accused of this will ruin me. I'll never get tenure.

"...only the specific abuse listed is like something out of Medieval Europe," Blair stated.

"She claims you seduced her son through the Internet, and caused him to turn into a demon," Freeman added. "Now, on the surface of it, this is absurd. However, the fact that she was able to get a judge to issue such a warrant on a weekend indicates either that something very odd did happen to the boy or that she has some sort of powerful political influence. Either way, to avoid a miscarriage of justice we were sent here to contact you and try and find out what you may know of the situation."

Doug thought fast. The boy in question had obviously received one of the messages with the Solution attached, probably as a member of Furball-l. Doug couldn't remember off-hand who on the list lived in Alabama, though.

"What is the boy's name?" he asked Blair.

"That information is being withheld until we find out just what is going on," the Agent replied.

Doug sighed. Both agents looked suddenly more attentive, realizing from his reaction that Doug indeed knew something about the situation.

"Okay, he's probably a member of an e-mail list - a discussion group - that I belong to. A few days ago my e-mail client went haywire and sent a weird message to every address in my computer. I've been working with other members of this list to try and figure out what the message actually did, but so far haven't made much progress."

Doug looked back and forth between the agents, and saw them pass a meaningful glance between themselves. He felt satisfied with both his statement and the response. Doug had told the literal truth, without getting into the matter of people transforming into characters from images.

"That fits with what we know about this case," Freeman said. "The mother did claim this was done over the Internet. From other elements in the charge against you I believe she is a religious conservative of some sort."

"Y'know, some of the people who received the message, and the relatives of others, have sent me threats," said Doug, who found looking worried to be easy, since he was worried about this. "Could you guys check into this? I mean, I don't think any of them are actually serious, but I'd like some documentation in case one of them actually decides to do something."

"Did you keep these threatening messages?" asked Blair.

"Yes," said Doug, nodding. "Since I realized that something strange had happened I've been saving everything. Multiple copies, in fact. If you gentlemen could come to my room I can show you those messages and the rest of the documentation."

"That sounds acceptable," said Freeman. "Our car is just outside."

"We better take the shuttle bus," said Doug. "Given the parking situation near our house, we might wind up walking a long way if we drive there."

The Agents agreed, though Blair seemed a bit reluctant. The bus trip was uneventful at first, but as they neared the house traffic became unusually heavy. Doug frowned, a growing sense of unease building as it became obvious that the closer they rode to the house, the worse the crowding got. Then he saw police cars ahead, both Lexington and campus, around the house, and an ambulance pulling away.

"Oh, Gosh," said Doug, standing. "What's happened?"

"Easy," said Freeman, standing beside the student and putting a hand on his shoulder. "Take it easy. We'll find out pretty soon."

They got off the bus and walked up to a pair senior police officers, one each from the city and the campus. Blair and Freeman produced their badges and identified themselves.

"That was quick!" exclaimed the city police Lieutenant. "We just got word of this about fifteen minutes ago, and didn't realize we might be dealing with a terrorist attack until just now."

"Terrorist attack!" yelled Doug, feeling faint.

"This young man lives at that house," Freeman explained. "We were meeting with him about an Internet matter, and were on our way here to look at his computer."

"Well, that just about confirms it, then," said the campus cop. "The only thing taken was a bunch of computer equipment."

"Argh," groaned Doug, squeezing his eyes shut in almost physical pain. "I spent three years putting that together."

Something occurred to him, and he suddenly opened his eyes.

"Wait a minute. If you know what's missing so quick, there must have been someone here. I saw the ambulance... Who's hurt?!"

"Easy," said the city cop, raising a hand. "He's all right. He was just upset by the break-in."

"A fellow named Ricardo Esteban," said the campus cop, reading from a small notebook. "Poor guy was more than upset; he was practically hysterical. Says these masked men kicked in all three outside doors at once. Three of them forced him onto the floor at gunpoint and held him there while the rest searched the house. They kept yelling at him, asking him who he was, and where Douglas Fender was. The didn't believe him at first, threatened him if he didn't tell the truth. Then, they just left."

"My Gosh," groaned Doug. "What's going on here?"

* * *

The small electronics lab was filled with quiet activity. Technicians checked connections and made notes. Programmers examined files on high-performance desktops, and occasionally ran test programs. Other programmers studied the results of previous tests, looking more confused as time passed. Doug's computer system - desk, rack and all - was set up against one wall, and was the center of attention for most of the techs. They fussed and labored and had subdued but intense discussions.

Dr. Theodore J. Blevins was a top-level spook, a master of computer security and data encryption. Right now, though, his skills as a manager were more important. This particular problem did not involve translating a coded message or breaking into a remote system, but understanding what one talented young man had done with custom-tailored software on a homemade supercomputer.

Noting the time, Dr. Blevins sighed. He looked towards the door, actually counting down the seconds. While the one he was expecting didn't arrive exactly on the predicted tick, he was close. Dr. Blevins sighed again, and moved to meet his boss.

"What progress have you made?" Taison asked, without shaking hands or making any other kind of greeting.

"About what I told you to expect last time," said Blevins, not bothering to hide his irritation. "This isn't an easy task, and it isn't a fast one, either."

"I don't want your excuses," said Taison. "I want results."

"You need to understand the difference between excuses and reasons," said Blevins, voice tight with barely restrained anger. "This boy has put together a custom machine unlike anything we've seen before. That computer is about three times as fast as any of the computers we have for pure number crunching. It has a neural net architecture, using eighteen Power-PC processors. The fact that there are twenty-four processor sockets, and that some of the chips are different models, or the same models but different lots, indicates that he added processors as he acquired them, and probably intended to add more. This means that we are not only dealing with a neural net, but one that has had time to change and adapt. And on top of all that his operating system is a completely custom affair, built around a UNIX kernel."

"Spare me your technobabble," sneered Taison. "How long until you can replicate what he did?"

"I'm giving you the same answer I gave you last time," snapped Blevins, hoping that repetition might get through to the man. "I don't know. We need to get some mathematicians in here. The electronics and the code are just a matter of time, but none of us can understand more than a small portion of his notes on what he was actually doing. I'm not even sure we can enter all the right data in the required fields without a top-grade mathematics expert helping us."

"Out of the question," said Taison, making a chopping motion with his right hand. "No mathematician of the level you requested has the required security clearance."

"Then I suggest you get one approved, and soon," said Blevins, folding his arms. "That is, if you want this project to succeed."

Taison stared wordlessly at Blevins for a moment, his trained poker face revealing nothing. Then he spun on his heel and marched out.

* * *

"The NSA?!" said Doug, startled. "What does the National Security Agency want with my computer?"

"If it can do what you say it can, that's obvious," said Agent Blair. "Much of their job involves computers and programs."

"I can't believe they kicked the doors in like that," muttered Doug. "Ricardo came to America to get away from that sort of thing!"

"Well, they did have a warrant," said Agent Freeman.

"Then why didn't they use it?" demanded Doug.

"They over reacted," admitted Blair. "And they will probably pay for that, if this goes to court."

"I'd heard about this sort of thing happening, but thought it was the exception," said Doug. "The first time I do something to attract these guys' attention, it happens to me!"

"Calm down," said Freeman. "It is the exception. I'll even admit that the FBI has had this sort of problem, and to some extent still does, but we've gone a long way towards cleaning up our act."

Doug sighed and turned his attention to the room they were in, not wanting to reveal doubts connected to that claim. The house was a nice place, an actual country home with good quality furnishings, everything well taken care of. It even had a lived-in feel, because it was lived-in. This was an FBI safe house, with a permanent staff. Doug had been brought here immediately after learning about the break-in at his place, not even given time or opportunity to gather any clothes. In fact, the Agents had marched him straight back to the bus stop. Doug wasn't sure where he was though he was certain he was still in central Kentucky. The trip had taken a bit over an hour, but it had also been very roundabout. Even after he got here, and been introduced to the staff, several more hours went by before he learned anything about his housemates.

The others were safe. Ricardo was still in the hospital, for observation, with a combination of FBI and Lexington police guarding him. Blair told Doug this would be retained even now that the FBI knew the NSA was responsible for the raid on the house. From what Doug had gathered the FBI felt insulted that the NSA had poked its nose into a matter it had

already been assigned to handle. The NSA hadn't even notified the FBI that it was involved until after an APB had been put out on the raiders and their vehicles. The communication from the NSA to FBI headquarters had actually been a complaint about interference, which was not making any friends among the FBI agents involved. Doug wondered what the reaction at the NSA would be when those in charge there learned that the reason given to the police for calling off the APB was the truth: That the raid had been performed by overzealous government agents with a legal warrant, who had not only acted with inappropriate violence but failed to work with local and Federal authorities who were already involved. Once that reached the media there would be Help to pay, and Doug was actually rather pleased this was the case. He didn't like the idea of government agents - warrant or not - breaking into his home and stealing his stuff.

Vinnie and Gene were in class. The FBI had decided to wait until they were through for the day to avoid causing too much of a disturbance, but agents were watching the pair to make sure the NSA - or someone else - didn't try to grab them. Neither was wanted - legally, that is - by anyone, so the FBI couldn't arrest them, though protective custody would be offered. Personally, Doug doubted either of them would go for that. Both were suspicious of authority normally, and right now might bolt even at an attempt at contact. Besides, Doug thought having Vinnie, Gene or both free to act was a very good idea. In spite of Agent Freeman's claims, Doug wasn't sure he completely trusted the FBI. The agents he had met so far seemed to be good people, but all it took was one power-hungry bureaucrat in the Bureau to cause severe problems for Doug and his friends.

Doug himself was no longer a wanted man, in fact. Thinking he might be the target of terrorists, the FBI had persuaded a federal judge to issue a stay on the Alabama warrant. He was here strictly voluntarily, having formally requested protective custody. Doug didn't like the idea, but it seemed like the smart thing to do. Also, he wasn't anxious to test his freedom by insisting on it. He had a feeling that the FBI would - if necessary - arrange for him to be arrested by them if he told them to take a hike.

These thoughts were interrupted as one of the staff assigned to the house entered the room. He handed Blair a note, then left, never saying a word. Blair read the message and nodded.

"The NSA has taken your computer to a secure location and is trying to duplicate whatever it was you did," Blair stated. He looked at Doug. "How likely are they to succeed?"

"I have no idea," said Doug. "I haven't tried it myself, so I don't know if the process can be replicated at all. If the environment of the house was part of what made it happen, they have no chance. If producing the effect is simply a matter of running the software - which I think is the case - then all they have to do is what I did. That is, start the program and enter the data."

"They won't require a mathematician to figure out what to enter where?" asked Freeman.

"Maybe. But I documented my steps. Even the..."

"What?" asked Blair, as Doug's voice trailed off.

"I just realized... You said they dismantled the equipment."

"According to your friend Ricardo, and from the way our people investigating the scene reconstructed the events of the raid."

"Makes sense," agreed Doug, nodding. "I don't think you could even fit the rack through the door without taking it apart. I put it together in the room from a kit.

"My point is, that's a neural net system," Doug continued. "There's a good chance that any disturbance in the connections - even if one of the components just gets a good whack - could change the neural net architecture. That means it will be working poorly until the operating system re-optimizes."

The two agents gave each other blank looks.

"Look, a neural net operates like a brain," Doug explained. "If someone has a minor injury to their brain they may forget how to read, but if the damage isn't too bad they can re-learn. And they'll probably learn faster the second time because some of the old connections are still intact. In some cases erroneous input which is close to right will even stimulate the old, correct pathways to regenerate. But until they do re-learn they won't be able to read, and while they are re-learning they won't read as well."

"So what you're saying is that this gives us some time," said Freeman, nodding. "How much time?"

"I hate to repeat myself, but there's no way to tell." Doug sighed and scratched his head. "It may not work at all, if the specific architecture of the house is important. Neural net systems are inherently chaotic. A small change can lead to major differences. And with the limited data I have on this particular situation, there's no way to predict what sort of differences or how big they will be. Or whether even major changes will prevent the program from working."

"Y'know, if you hadn't demonstrated what being exposed to the results of this equation let you do," said Blair, slowly, "I don't think we would be taking this so seriously. If it were just a case of restricted data or illegal encryption software, or someone claiming Internet seduction of their child, it would hardly be worth our trouble. This whole thing was obviously a fluke, an accident. I'm convinced you didn't know what would happen, and a judge probably would be, too, so it likely wouldn't even go to trial.

"But this isn't restricted data or encryption software," Blair continued. "It is something completely outside the experience of every law enforcement and national security agency. Which means people are going to be scared. And

scared people do stupid, desperate things."

"If you're trying to worry me, don't bother." said Doug. "I'm already worried."

"I'm not trying to worry you," said Blair, seriously, "I'm trying to prepare you. Things could get nasty. Even violent. If I didn't think the risk of attracting attention outweighed the need, I'd have another dozen agents in here before nightfall."

"The situation probably won't require it," said Freeman, picking up on his partner's point immediately, "but you should think about what you would do if you were attacked. Your ability to change into other forms gives you an edge which we can't properly evaluate, because no-one has ever had it before. We're in charge of protecting you, and that means we do whatever we need to do to keep you safe. Right now, that includes planning a way for you to escape or defend yourself if we can't ensure your safety."

"Like Ray said, think about what you can do, from a self-defense standpoint," Blair said. "Feel free to ask us questions, about this place, about the equipment we have here, about where you should go if we get separated."

Or if you get killed, thought Doug, as he realized that these men would, indeed, sacrifice their lives for him if the situation required it. It was a humbling thought.

"Guys, I haven't been in a fight since I was a Sophomore in high school," said Doug. "And I lost that."

"Then don't fight," said Blair. "Run. Unless you're cornered. Then you fight with everything you have. If you think your life is in danger and you can't get away, turn into something tough and deadly and tear into them."

"The most important factor in surviving a fight is mindset," added Freeman, firmly. "Get mad, as long as you don't go blind with rage. Get afraid, as long as you don't panic. But be determined to survive."

"If we have time I'll see that you get basic self-defense instruction," said Blair. He gave a humorless laugh. "This house and its staff are primarily used for the early stages involved in witness relocations, so that's not a problem."

"And that's something else to think about," said Freeman. "You may need to change your identity. Take up a new life."

"As if I didn't have enough to worry about," groaned Doug.

"Keep in mind that this is a worst-case scenario," said Freeman. "For that to happen a lot of people would have to commit rash and illegal acts. Still, we always recommend that protected witnesses learn how to defend themselves, and given the situation and the availability of the resources to do so, we recommend the same for you."

* * *

Gene arrived at the house a couple of hours after the raid, ignorant of that event. He was surprised to find his home under guard by campus police. While he was learning why, Vinnie arrived, half-panicked from the mixture of news and rumors he had picked up between classes. After learning what they could from the UK cops they decided to find someplace public where they could discuss what to do next. Which is how the two of them wound up sitting in the Student Center main lounge.

After a couple of hours of alternating energetic discussion and silence, they were startled when one of the Student Center employees approached them.

"Excuse me," she said, handing Gene a note. "The man over there asked me to give this to you."

Gene, frowning, glanced over where the woman was pointing and was mildly alarmed to see a man in a suit. He absently thanked the woman and opened the note

"Well?" said Vinnie, impatiently.

"It's from Doug," Gene reported. "He says he's safe, and voluntarily under FBI protective custody. The people who raided our house were hyperactive NSA agents. Doug says that so far he's being treated well and thinks the FBI will help straighten out the trouble he's in. We're not officially wanted for anything, but the FBI is offering us protective custody, too."

"Do you think this is genuine?" asked Vinnie.

"Well, he does say 'Until we can figure out what the truck is going on,'" muttered Gene. "So, yeah; if it was fake, or someone was making him write it, it wouldn't have that phrase."

"Yeah, that's Doug, all right," chuckled Vinnie. He stood, turned and waved to the waiting man, who came over.

"Hello," the stranger said, shaking hands. He was younger up close than the boys had first thought, not that much older than them. "I'm Agent Baskin. Do you want to accept our offer of protective custody?"

"No," said Gene, barely beating Vinnie.

"If you want to stay at your house we can put guards on it," the man said. "Inside or out, your choice."

Vinnie looked over at Gene, and saw that his housemate was actually considering the offer.

"No," Gene said, finally, shaking his head. "The campus police said they and the Lexington police would take turns sending patrol cars by. That should be enough."

The agent nodded and handed each of them a card.

"If you change your mind here's the name and number of the Agent in charge."

"Can we talk to Doug?" asked Vinnie.

"No; sorry. He's being held incommunicado. If you want protective custody you'll be taken to the same safe house, but that's the only way you'll get to see him."

"Then I guess we'll just wait," said Vinnie, firmly. "What about Ricardo?"

"The guards at his hospital room have been told that you are allowed to see him during regular visitor's hours," said Baskin.

"Good," said Vinnie. He glanced at the clock on the far wall. "Uhm, that's not for much longer, either. I guess we better head over there now."

* * *

Ricardo was very happy to see them.

"I don't know which is worse," he exclaimed, after asking the others how they were, "the violation of my civil rights by the NSA or the violation of my physical body by the doctors in this hospital!"

"You're fine," chuckled Vinnie, grinning.

"So, what news of Doug?"

"You mean they haven't told you?" asked Gene. When Ricardo shook his head, Gene sighed and related what they had learned.

"So, he is safe, for the moment," mused Ricardo. "The big question is, will any of us be safe if the people who did this to me - to us - learn how to make more people who can do what you do?

"You're the lawyer," said Gene. "Can't you file a conjunction or something against them?"

"Injunction," Ricardo corrected. "And I'm not a lawyer, I'm a graduate student in law. However, I have already contacted some of my teachers and the local office of the ACLU on this matter. Measures are being taken, but they will require time to work. And in that time these people may figure out how to operate Doug's computer, or hide it and themselves too well for us to find."

"Wait a minute," said Vinnie, "do you know where they are now?"

"Yes. They took the computer to an office they have in Cincinnati."

"Y'know," said Gene, slowly rubbing his chin, "that's close enough that we could go up there and get the computer back."

"What!" yelped Ricardo.

"How do you know that's where they took it?" asked Vinnie quickly.

"Uh, three sources," said Ricardo, eyeing Gene suspiciously. "One of the FBI men mentioned that they had located the team working on the computer, the State Police tracked the vehicles used in the raid crossing into Ohio south of Cincinnati, and one of my ACLU contacts was able to query an anonymous informant who works for the NSA."

"Heh," said Gene, grinning, "looks like you can't keep a secret these days."

"Now, promise me you won't do anything foolish," said Ricardo, nervously.

"Hey, don't worry; it won't be foolish if we're both bulletproof," laughed Gene.

"No, you'll be bulletproof," said Vinnie, grinning, "I'll just be tough and a fast healer."

"Please don't do this," said Ricardo. "Even if you don't get killed, even if you get the computer, you'll be breaking the law. I don't want my roommates hunted by the government!"

"Hey, they won't even know it was us!" said Gene, grinning fiercely.

"Wait," said Vinnie. "He does have a point. What if, instead of stealing the computer back, we sneak in and sabotage it so that they can't get it to work? If we do it right, they'll never know they didn't just fail on their own!"

"Please, if you're going to do that, make sure you have support of some sort!" said Ricardo. "I remember Doug talking about some of his hobbyist friends living in Cincinnati, people who would be on the list which received the message. Contact them and ask them to help you with this."

"Not a bad idea, but how do we contact them?" asked Gene.

"I know some of the Furball-l members here in Lexington," said Vinnie. "They play Werewolf too. I can get them to give me the e-mail addresses."

"Be careful!" said Ricardo firmly. "Remember, Vincent, you are still a juvenile in the eyes of the law!"

"We will be careful," Vinnie reassured him, patting him on the shoulder. "And now I think we better get out of here before the nurse chases us out. Oh! When are they letting you go?"

"Tomorrow, if there's nothing in the tests," said Ricardo. "I guess it's too much to ask for you to wait until then."

"Yep," said Gene, grinning. "We'll be all done by then."

* * *

"Who is this, again?" muttered Gene, as Vinnie rang the apartment doorbell.

"Jimmy Braxton. He's a friend of Doug's. Works in a computer store, helped build Doug's computer. He's also a furry fan, and a gamer. I know him, vaguely."

A man appearing to be in his early twenties and wearing thick glasses opened the door a few seconds later. Gene and Vinnie introduced themselves, and asked to come in.

"As a matter of fact, I've been expecting you," said Jimmy. He stepped aside and urged them in. "I know your names from Doug. I think I even saw you, Gene, once, when I was helping Doug with an installation problem."

Once the pair were in he shut the door, then frowned at them.

"What?" asked Vinnie.

"I need proof. Change."

"Huh?" said Gene.

"Oh, I get it," said Vinnie, grinning. "You want to be sure we're people who were affected by the message, and not ringers."

He shifted into his female elf character from the Changeling game. She smiled, hand on hip.

"This good enough for me?"

"Stop flirting with him," growled Gene.

"C'mon, handsome," cooed Vinnie, playing with Gene, "change."

"Well, he doesn't really have to," said Jimmy. "I mean, I'm pretty sure I recognize him."

"What about you?" said Gene. "I don't remember your visit. How do we know you're the guy who's supposed to be here?"

"Well, I could tell you some details about Doug or his computer or his room, or some of the things he's told me about you, but I think I'd rather do this."

With a grin, he changed into a male, anthropomorphic rabbit, one familiar to the others from Doug's own set of forms.

"We were discussing the critters we could change into by e-mail, and realized we had several in common," said Jimmy.

"That's good enough for me," laughed Vinnie. She looked at the buff rabbit appreciatively. "Say, you seeing anybody?"

"Don't mind her," said Gene, rolling his eyes. "That character is a total slut, and it rubs off when he's her."

"Wow," said Jimmy, grinning - leering, actually - at the cute little elf. "Well, you know what they say about rabbits and sex."

"Enough, already!" snapped Gene. "Listen, we've got a problem and we need your help to solve it."

Quickly, he outlined the situation and the general plan.

"So, we need expert advice on just how to sabotage Doug's computer without the NSA realizing what happened."

"Hmmm...," said Jimmy, rubbing his white-furred chin with a blunt-fingered paw. "I think I have an idea, but it will take some time to prepare. The basic idea is to replace the information on both the hard disk and all the backups with something similar enough to pass muster, but different enough not to work."

"Tol'ja we came to the right place," said Vinnie, threading her arm through Jimmy's and cuddling against him.

"Will both of you please change back to normal?" demanded Gene. "This is serious business, here, and we need to concentrate."

"Okay, okay," sighed Vinnie, shifting back to human male. "Geez, you just can't stand a little role-playing."

Jimmy also changed to his normal form, and invited the duo into a back room, where he had his own computer setup. He began searching through a box of diskettes, making conversation as he looked.

"Did Doug tell you I got three copies of his message? I'm on two mailing lists he's on, plus his regular address list. I don't know whether to go ahead and open one or both of the other two, or sell 'em to the highest bidder."

"I wonder how many other people got more than one copy," mused Vinnie. "I remember Doug mentioning this, but things have been so busy I didn't really think about it. But does this really change things all that much? We already know that only the original messages sent out cause the change. Even the copies in Doug's 'Sent Messages' folder won't do it. But what about forwarding an original message?"

"Since mailing list messages are forwarded - and even copied, in a sense, since they're repeated to all subscribers - I'd say that would work," said Jimmy, looking deeply thoughtful. He suddenly gave them a mischievous grin. "Actually, I know it would. Some of the other guys who got multiple copies have already tried that and it works."

"I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of money changing hands over this," said Gene.

"Ah, here it is," announced Jimmy, holding up a diskette. "My copy of the equation-solving program Doug wrote. He was having some problems with some of the functions and brought a copy over on disk so we could work on it together. The theory behind the math is beyond me, but I'm good at algorithms."

Jimmy loaded the file into an editor and worked on it for several minutes.

"I'm not a mathematician," he explained, as he slowly scrolled through the file. "This could take some time. Of course, that's probably for the best. We need for Doug's computer to be up and running before we make the change."

"We've already contacted some of Doug's friends in Cincinnati," Vinnie explained. "They're checking into the situation there. Finding out the exact building, checking on security, and so forth. So they'll probably need a day or two, anyway."

"Umph," said Jimmy, absently. "Well, this may take longer than I thought. Why don't you let me work on it? I'll give you a call when it's ready."

"Okay," Gene replied. He scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to the computer guy. "Here's the house number."

Jimmy looked briefly, nodded, and went back to work, already absorbed by his task.

* * *

Agent Angelou did a double leg-sweep of the female cat morph. Fighting her instincts, Doug surrendered to the fall, slapping as she landed to take some of the shock away from the rest of her body.

"Very good," said Angelou, smiling. She stood back as Doug flowed to her feet, tail twitching. "Now, let's try it your way."

Doug made the preliminary attack, and Angelou countered, going for the leg sweep. This time, though, Doug let her reflexes do their job, and bounded over the agent's leg. She dropped, pulling Angelou with her. The agent and Doug wound up dropping side-by-side on the mat, but in a way which sent most of Doug's momentum into Angelou. The agent made a successful slap out, though, so that neither was hurt. They stood, Doug grinning a toothy feline grin.

"I've never seen anyone learn that counter so fast," said Angelou, obviously impressed. "Or do it so well."

"It helps to have catlike reflexes," said Doug, fighting to repress Madame Catryia's Russian accent.

Angelou nodded, smiling again.

"Well, let's see how they help you with this pin."

Doug had been assigned two self-defense instructors, one male and one female. Not to have sexually segregated classes, as Doug first thought, but because they alternated. Doug was required to use the same forms with both instructors, which s/he still found uncomfortable with Agent Grady, the man. Doug insisted on only using only his own form or those which had roughly normal human speed and strength. After turning into Major Asia, an Asian tiger morph whose ears had brushed the ceiling, this stand had been readily - even eagerly - accepted.

"You are probably the best non-Bureau student I've had," Agent Angelou stated, smiling, as they move to ready stances.

Doug nodded, and would have blushed if she could in this form. One reason for picking Madame Catryia for much of her practice was that she was a PG furry. While she was known to be sexually active, she was a responsible character, who was both very much in control of her desires, and already had (in fiction, at least) considerable hand-to-hand combat ability. Still, Doug was glad she had changed from Madame Catryia's usual catsuit to a jujutsu gi, with a sportbra underneath. She did become aroused in this form and such intimate physical contact caused an almost inevitable result. Disconcertingly, this happened with her male instructor, as well. When Angelou put the pin on her, her modest (for a furry female) chest was shoved hard against the mat and her partner's chest shoved hard against her back. Doug was feeling quite stimulated.

"Can you get loose?" asked Angelou?

Doug tried, but the pin was too good. And all that wiggling around wasn't making keeping her mind on business any easier.

"You haf... uh, have me good," said Doug.

"Now you do it."

Reversing the situation was even more stimulating, and Doug was glad the double layer of fabric around her chest masked her arousal. Still, she got the pin right; Agent Angelou couldn't get lose. Once that was confirmed, the two females untangled and sat up, resting for a moment. Doug noted that the fur on her left forearm was ruffled, and absently licked it back in place. She noticed Angelou watching, and stopped, suddenly feeling self-conscious.

"I remember you saying that some of the characteristics of the form carry over," the agent observed. "You don't actually speak Russian in this body, right? And you don't seem to actually know any of the techniques we've been teaching you. But you pick up on them fast, as if you already had some training."

"I've been thinking about the same thing," Doug replied, nodding. "It's as eef - uh, as if the details of whatever knowledge the character is supposed to have are missing, but the general neural patterns are there. Pretty weird, but useful."

"Very useful," Angelou confirmed. She grinned and playfully slapped Doug on the thigh. "Anyway, we need to get changed. Time for target practice."

"I just wish I knew what was happening with my friend. Not just Vinnie and the gang, but online."

"No unmonitored communications," Angelou repeated. "Some of your friends have been nosing around secure files as it is."

"Well, if you let me talk to them - even my e-mail - I can probably stop that.

"I'll as Agent Freeman. We might be able to arrange a secure Internet connection for you to use. Briefly. If you promise to not reveal anything about the safehouse."

"That would be great," said Doug, tail going high with her change in mood.

* * *

Jimmy opened the door and welcomed them with a big grin.

"So you got it?" Gene asked, as he and Vinnie entered the apartment.

The somewhat pale and pudgy computer expert nodded. He beckoned for them to follow and headed to his computer room. There he produced out a floppy, which he handed to Gene.

"There. I changed one of the subroutines, and in a way that isn't obvious to anyone not both a computer whiz and a math whiz. It will still run, but it won't run right. They'd be able to write the thing from scratch about as fast as find and correct this."

"Good," said Gene, nodding. "None of the Cincinnati folks have been able to get into the building - I think they just don't want to, and I can't blame them, actually - but they gave us the exact address and suggestions for how to get in."

"Just remember, you'll have to make sure you replace every copy of the subroutine file. Do either of you know enough about computers to do that?"

"I think so," said Vinnie. "Just use a file search to find all the files with that name, then copy over them."

"Yeah, but remember, this isn't Windows(TM)," said Jimmy, with a spitting sound. "Have either of you ever even used UNIX?"

There was an embarrassed silence.

"Well, it looks like I'll just have to go with you," the computer expert sighed. "That's probably for the best, anyway. I know that system nearly as well as Doug does, and am the best candidate for knowing where to look and for what. I can even make sure the replaced files have the original date stamp. Now, just how are you planning to get into a secure government building?"

* * *

Two women approached the building. One was tall, extremely buxom and appeared to be in her mid-twenties. The other was about average height, more modestly endowed and in her late teens. Both were blond and unusually attractive.

"Damn, this is embarrassing," muttered the buxom woman. "I'm jiggling and swaying like I'm made of jelly. I hate the way guys are staring at me."

"Hey, you chose that form," said her companion, smirking. "I told you to pick something less conspicuous, but no, you..."

"Oh, shut the Hell up," snapped Gene, though quietly. "This is the only form I can take which has powers, and I'm not gonna be caught helpless if something goes wrong."

They walked up to security station at the entrance, and the two women proffered index cards with random scribblings on them. Both anxiously held their breath - a process that was more obvious and impressive with the larger woman - as the guard glanced at the pieces of paper. They relaxed when he returned their 'ID cards,' handed them visitor passes and waved them through.

"How does that work, anyway?" asked the tall woman, once they were well down the hall.

"I can manipulate both the scene and the person," Vinnie explained. "I simply cloud their minds so that they see what they expect to see, and modify reality on a very limited and specific scale so that things go our way."

"Wait a minute. This is your character, right? So how did you have artwork for someone you made up?"

"I had an artist draw her, based on a description I wrote, plus some reference materials," said Vinnie. She shrugged. "I have drawings of lots of my characters. That's mostly what I can turn into. Didn't you realize that before?"

They reached the lobby just then, and stopped to peer around. For a mission where the key was not being noticed, they were certainly attracting a great deal of attention, something which distracted Gene greatly. She ignored the lustful stares being sent in her direction and focused on the directory beside the elevators.

"Well, the closest thing to what we want seems to be 'Coding and Decoding,'" mused Gene.

They found the entrance to that room, and tried the door.

"Locked, and we don't have a key card," muttered Gene.

"Can't you look through the walls with your X-ray vision?"

"I don't have X-ray vision," said Gene, blushing. "I have sex-ray vision."

"Oh. You mean you can make people horny by looking at them."

"Yeah..." sighed Gene.

"Well, I can gimmick locks, too, but not too many times without recharging my Glamour," said Vinnie.

She put her hands on the knob, concentrated for a moment, and turned it. The door opened. Inside were cubicles of busy people bent over their work.

"Wrong room," whispered Vinnie. "Let's go back to the directory list."

"No, let me try my power to cloud men's minds, first," said Gene.

She sighed in resignation, took a deep breath, smiled, and approached one of the cubicles.

"Hi!" she said in a breathy voice. "Can you tell me where they put that new computer? The one on the metal shelving?"

"Uh, sure," said the young cryptologist, looking faint. "I saw them rolling cartloads of that sort of stuff into room 233 a few days ago."

"Oh, thank you!" exclaimed Gene, with a girlish giggle.

She wiggled her way back to Vinnie, feeling eyes staring at her prominent behind the whole way.

"Well?" asked Vinnie, not bothering to conceal a smirk.

"Room 233," muttered Gene, her vapid smile becoming strained. "Now, let's get out of here before I cause someone to cream his jeans."

Five minutes later and one floor up, they found the right room. Gene started for the door, but Vinnie held her back.

"Let's wait a minute. Instead of gimmicking the lock, I'll modify the scene and we'll go in with someone. That way, we'll attract less attention, and put less strain on the bunk I'm casting. We just act like we belong, and the spell makes people believe we do belong."

They didn't have to wait long. Soon two men exited the elevator, and headed straight for the target door. Gene and Vinnie fell into step behind them, and the men accepted their presence without question. Though both of them did give the two women appreciative glances.

One of the men ran a card through the lock, punched a number sequence, and opened the door. He held the door for Vinnie and Gene, then he and other man followed the women through. Inside the disguised intruders saw their goal, standing unattended against one wall.

Both men stopped at a desk to sign in. Vinnie bent over the roster and pretended to sign, then straightened to hand the pen to Gene, who aped her partner. Nervous, but trying not to show it, the women walked slowly but directly towards the computer. As they passed a small knot of women and men, clustered around a cartload of knew equipment which had apparently just been brought in, they overheard something.

"What's all this for, anyway?" an older man asked.

"This kid, this mathematics student, used an equation to generate a computer file that causes people who see it to hallucinate. And you can send it by e-mail."

That from a young supervisor type. Gene and Vinnie exchanged startled glances, but kept walking. The reached Doug's computer desk, which was currently unoccupied. Vinnie looked around surreptitiously, made sure no-one was paying them any attention, set her purse down carefully on the desk and opened it. Out crawled a female mouse wearing coveralls and dragging a diskette.

"What was that business about hallucinations?" Gene whispered, as Jimmy set to work. "And how come they just happened to mention that as we walked by?"

"I don't know about the hallucination part, but the other is me. I'm generating coincidences that work in our favor."

With Gene and Vinnie using their bodies to block any view of what the mouse was doing, Jimmy set to work. Occasionally she had to ask one of the others for help with something, but within minutes the job was done.

"You sure that's all of the copies?" whispered Jimmy.

Both the human females looked around the desk and on the nearby tables, then nodded to Jimmy.

"And everything is back where you got it?"

Again, they nodded. The mouse crawled into Vinnie's purse and the trio quietly left.

* * *

Once outside, past the security station, Vinnie and Gene walked into the gated parking lot, retracing their steps. They moved to a secluded spot, away from prying eyes. Gene then grabbed Vinnie and flew over the fence. After a quick glance around to make sure they hadn't been seen, they walked two blocks to Jimmy's Volvo.

Vinnie pulled the keys out of her purse, being careful not to hurt her tiny partner, and opened the driver's door. She then carefully lowered the purse until Jimmy could crawl out onto the seat.

"Coast is clear," said Gene.

Jimmy shifted to his normal form, took the keys from Vinnie, started the car, and unlocked the other doors. The two women piled in the back, and Jimmy drove away, not too quickly.

"I think we made it," said Jimmy, a few minutes later.

The trio began to laugh, from a combination of nervous relief and triumph. Vinnie actually broke down into a fit of giggles, holding onto Gene to keep from collapsing on the floor. Gene didn't seem to mind.

"You gotta admit, that was a great plan!" gasped Gene.

"Yeah!" said Jimmy. "Though I think my idea to hide in your cleavage was a better one!"

"Great," muttered Gene, still smiling in spite of her irritation. "I'm trapped in a car with a pair of perverts."

* * *

Jimmy let them out two blocks from the house, then drove away with a wave. The sun had set by then, and it was dark enough that Gene could fly them to their home with little risk of being spotted. However, as she hovered outside her window, holding Vinnie while the elf opened it, Gene suddenly wavered, and dropped a bit. She recovered, quickly shoved Vinnie through, and followed.

"What's wrong?" asked Vinnie, as she helped Gene over the sill.

"I'm feeling weak," said Gene. She stood, waving Vinnie off, steady on her feet now but looking very uneasy. "I'm also feeling really, really horny."

"Do you know what's the matter?"

"I don't... Oh, shit..."

"What?!" demanded Vinnie.

"The character recharges her powers by having sex. With a man."

"Oh." Vinnie grinned. "Well, I'm available. I think one of my male werewolf characters would be able to handle sex with SuperGal."

"No. Forget it. No fucking way."

"Well, you can feel weak, or you can change back," said Vinnie. "But think about what happens if you need that form again. Will it recharge in storage, or whatever? Or will you still need sex to be super the next time you change into her?"

"Shit," muttered Gene. "Y'know, the bad part about this is that I really want sex with a man right now. I'm getting wet every time I see a guy, or just think about one. My nipples feel like..."

She trailed off into silence, embarrassed.

"Remember what you said this morning about me being a slut when I'm Arleyah. Well, now it's tit for tat. Pun intended."

"Damn!" snapped Gene, looking both furious and resigned. "Y'know, the only thing I hate about this situation more than the fact that I'm about to have sex with a guy, is that you're gonna enjoy fucking me entirely too damn much!"

* * *

"And that's about it," Doug typed. "I'm safe and secure, and not even bored, but wondering how everyone else is."

"Pretty good," Jimmy replied. "I helped with a bit of program alteration which have some benefit."

Doug frowned. He'd stated, first thing, that the room was being monitored by the FBI computer team who had arranged this anonymous log-in. Which meant that Jimmy was indirectly talking about something he and some others had done which they thought might help him. Or hinder the NSA. Doug decided to play along, and give him an opening.

"In case I never get it back, how long and how much do you think would be needed for a new computer?"

"I'm not sure," said Jimmy. "I might just go ahead and build one for myself. It's a pretty impressive machine. Oh! You know that algorithm you named tic-tac-toe? I had to change it. Don't know if it will work, since I don't currently have a machine it will run on. Based on out previous experience, I bet it would run, but put all subsequent routines on the wrong track."

Okay, they'd never had such trouble with tic-tac-toe, so that meant Jimmy had changed the algorithm on the impounded computer. Doug didn't know how he - or they - had done this but someone with the ability to take on the form and powers of fictional characters could probably do such a thing with almost trivial ease.

"I'm looking forward to the results," Doug typed, grinning.

* * *

Dr. Blevins watched as the others filed in. He was early, as was his habit. It gave him a chance to get settled, to evaluate any potential opposition or aide. As always, Taison walked through the door right on time. He sat at the head of the table, opened a folder and looked out at those assembled for the meeting.

"Good morning, gentlemen," he announced. "As you know, tomorrow is the big day. I called this meeting to take care of any last minute problems or thoughts."

As always, Taison began by stating the obvious, and included one of Blevins' pet twinge-phrases. This wasn't a review, it was routine procedure, pure and simple. Blevins sometimes wondered how Taison would handle something genuinely unexpected.

Don't be absurd, Blevins scolded himself sourly. The unexpected doesn't exist in his world.

Dr. Blevins realized that Taison was about to move on to the next step in his schedule, and hastily spoke up.

"I just want to state on the record that I object to this test. The discrepancy between the files the logs say should be there and what are actually there still bothers me."

"Fortunately, Dr. Blevins, our progress is not determined by being required to deal with what bothers you," said Taison, blithely. "If tomorrow's test is unsuccessful then you may pursue that and other questions. For now the procedure seems straightforward."

Blevins sat back, scowling. He just couldn't seem to get the man to understand even the reason for his concern, much less the significance if it was valid. Taison had actually told him, straight out, that since there was no evidence sabotage had occurred, then no sabotage had occurred.

"Dr. Burkhardt, is your team ready?" Taison continued, turning to a latecomer to the project.

"Yes. The volunteers, observers and monitoring equipment are all ready. If and when the hallucinogenic effect occurs we will record all appropriate data."

"Wait a moment," said Blevins, suddenly confused. "What hallucinogenic effect?"

"That is not your department, Doctor," said Taison.

He tried to move on, but Blevins persisted.

"I thought the story about hallucinations was just a cover, to keep people without a need-to-know in the dark about what we were actually doing. Don't tell me you believe it?!"

"Don't tell my you actually believe that nonsense that this equation message causes people to physically transform into fantasy creatures," sneered Taison. "Really, Doctor; the pressure is getting to you. I will have to recommend a psychiatric evaluation for you after all this is over."

"I saw three of the people affected demonstrate their ability on TV!" exclaimed Blevins. "Didn't you see it, or at least hear about it?"

"I never watch such trash," said Taison, sneering even more. "I'm surprised that you do. As for what you saw, that was obviously a special effect. Now, if we may forget your gullibility for a moment, we have important matters to discuss."

Blevins sat there, stunned, as Taison went on. And something slowly dawned on him. If the experiment worked, then tomorrow, seeing Taison's face when he was forced to confront the reality of something he had just denied even the possibility of would make all this worth it.

* * *

"Do you really need to have the volunteers here already?" demanded Blevins. He pointed through the heavy window at the men and women sitting at idling computers. "We know from Douglas Fender's notes that the process takes several hours. Why have them locked in that bare room for all that time?"

"Controlled experiment, Doctor," said Dr. Burkhardt evenly, as if he expected such a concept to be foreign to Blevins.

The computer expert held his tongue. A late night conference with some of his people had convinced him that the subroutine file he had been questioning would work, but less efficiently and directly than the file Fender's records said should actually be there. So, whether the difference in files was the result of a deliberate act or some accident or oversight - or even an unrecorded change - the program would still work. And the results should be the same as the original; they'd just take longer to happen.

"Okay, Ted, we're ready to run the app," said one of the technicians.

Blevins glanced in turn at Burkhardt and Taison, receiving nods from each. He gave the high-sign. The technician hit the ENTER key. There was a moment of tension... and then a slow relaxation. Several seconds later the computer beeped for attention. The technician made a quick check.

"That's exactly what it did for Fender," he announced. "The same message at the same time."

He entered the information Doug had noted. The computer resumed perking merrily away.

"Man, I can't believe this thing!" said another technician, who was monitoring the machine's progress. "I know we had some spectacular results when we ran tests, but right now it is setting speed records."

"That's the advantage of a neural net," the first technician replied absently. "The more you use it, the better it gets. Though most of the improvement occurs early on, and it was used enough before we got it to have the algorithms pretty much optimized."

"That is enough idle chatter," said Taison.

"It's hardly idle," said Blevins, defending his men. "They're discussing matters appropriate to both the project in general and this experiment specifically."

"Then let them bring those matters up in the debriefing," snapped Taison. "This is not the time or the place for doing anything but focusing on the job."

Except this job was taking a long time. And as the team followed the steps previously recorded by Doug, the time between the request messages became increasingly longer than the notes stated.

"What's happening?" demanded Taison. "Why is it running slower than before?"

"I've already explained that," said Blevins, deliberately occupying himself with some unnecessary paperwork.

Taison fumed, but kept quiet. The time stretched on. Finally, after nearly ten and a half hours the computer reported the process complete. It began plotting the result.

"Estimated time to completion: just over five minutes," said the technician, growing more excited with each passing second.

It was difficult to avoid crowding around the monitor, but Blevins not only forced himself to stay back, he ordered all his people to do so, as well. That way they all could see. The counter reached zero...

And an eerie, blue flash filled the room.

"What the Hell..." demanded the technician.

They looked at each other, puzzled.

"Fender's notes didn't mention *that*!" gasped Dr. Burkhardt.

"He was asleep when the program completed," said Blevins. "He probably didn't know about it. Though I do recall in the e-mail messages he saved that there was repeated mention of a flash of light from those who received the e-mail message."

"Speaking of e-mail messages, the computer didn't send any," said the technician. "I don't think it even activated the e-mail software."

"From the time and date stamp on the outgoing messages, we know they were sent very shortly after the completion of the program," said Blevins. He checked his watch. "We'll give it a few more minutes."

Half an hour later there was still no further activity, the computer not even rebooting after the blue flash. The volunteer subjects were released, with much grumbling on their part for being forced to wait so long for nothing. The test staff stayed on until late the next morning, when Taison finally admitted the test had been a failure.

"When will you be ready to try again?" he asked Blevins.

"I don't know," the computer expert replied, more than a bit testily. He sighed and rubbed his eyes, then continued more politely. "We have to go through the run step by step to see what happened. Then we make a change - *one* change - and try again."

Taison just nodded.

* * *

There were times when Blevins was glad he lived near his work. He pulled in just as dawn was breaking in the east, and simply sat in the car for a few moments, gathering enough strength to get out. He felt an odd, feverish warmth building, and wondered if he were coming down with something. It was a measure of his fatigue that he didn't think it might be due to something much stranger.

Inside his wife was already up, or maybe she had never gone to bed.

"Oh, dear, you look terrible," she announced, coming over to give him a kiss.

As their bodies met the warmth rose to a furnace-like heat, and Blevins knew immediately that something strange had happened. He stepped back, gasping, his voice strangely high in pitch.

Dr. Blevins' wife stared in confused disbelief; her husband, still in his own clothes, had become an exact duplicate of her. It was then Blevins remembered that Fender had gained the ability to change without reading his own e-mail message.

* * *

"So that's it," said Doug. "All charges against me dropped, an official apology from the NSA, and the people responsible for trashing our house under arrest. The FBI kept my computer, though. Can't say I blame them."

"Hmph," said Ricardo. "More like a face-saving than a genuine repentance."

"Well, the bosses are claiming that Taison hadn't told them exactly what he was doing," said Doug. "After his experiment blew up in his face - he changed into his cat, if you can imagine someone like him having a cat - the ship hit the fan and it all came out. The press is having a field day. You can't cover up twenty-three of your people gaining the ability to spontaneously transform into any animal they touch. And they were smart enough to realize this and not even try."

"Yeah," said Gene, "but if he hadn't screwed up I bet you'd still be a wanted man."

"Except the screw-up wasn't really their fault, now, was it?" asked Doug. "By the way, I'm going to have a long talk with Jimmy about his 'sabotage' of that algorithm. All it did was slow the process, not derail it like he claimed it would."

"You're still in trouble, you know," Ricardo pointed out. "Even though the federal government has officially dismissed any grievance against you, there will almost certainly be civil suits."

"Yeah, I'm just glad the University has decided to stand behind me," said Doug. He sighed, leaned back and stretched, looking at his friends. Not just his housemates, but nearly everyone he knew at UK and many from further away had showed for his welcome-back party. Doug grinned.

"Y'know, someone's gonna try again," said Vinnie, after thinking a bit. "Solving that equation, I mean."

"I might even try it myself," said Doug, nodding. "But not any time soon. And certainly not tonight."




End




This work is Copyright 2002 Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be contacted at stickmaker@usa.net. Copies may also be made and kept for private use only. Anyone else wishing to post this story to a Web page or include it in a publication must request permission from the author.

Werewolf: the Apocalypse and Changeling: the Dreaming are Copyright White Wolf Games. Gadget Hackwrench Copyright Walt Disney Enterprises.