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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"Hey! That article was a hoax! I read about it in the letter column in the next
"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
* * *
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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?"
"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
"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,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Do you think he might have ascended, like that other fellow?" Ricardo asked,
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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
"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
"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
* * *
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
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
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
Doug glanced up and saw a beautiful woman unfamiliar to him; she was wearing a
very sexy formal dress.
"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
"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,"
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,"
"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,
"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
* * *
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
"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
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
"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
"Well, the closest thing to what we want seems to be 'Coding and Decoding,'"
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
"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
"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
* * *
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
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
"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
"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
Don't be absurd, Blevins scolded himself sourly. The unexpected doesn't exist in
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
"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
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
"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
He entered the information Doug had noted. The computer resumed perking merrily
"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
"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
"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
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
* * *
"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
"Yeah," said Gene, "but if he hadn't screwed up I bet you'd still be a wanted
"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
"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."
This work is Copyright © 2002 Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.