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Project Midas, Utah
Bob Stein was leaning against a picket fence admiring the Clydesdale mare and her young foal as they were paraded past him. Their summer coats were glossy and sleek and their leggy grace enough to make him sigh audibly in contentment. This was pretty much heaven: the heavy horse classes at the Three-Counties Show. This was the Working Mares with Foals In Hand class, and ten beautiful horses and their inquisitive, jumpy offspring were now circling the ring, led by their proud owners. The Clydesdale was his favourite. He liked all horses, especially the Heavy breeds: Shires, Percherons, Belgians, but the Clydesdale definitely won him over all the rest: a perfect blend of strength and beauty, both powerful but gentle, not unlike himself. Clydes weren't rare in the States, but how much better to see them in their native country! Especially in such conducive company.
He looked around, wondering where his friends had got to. There were a lot of people about, milling between the craft stalls, the display rings and the animal stalls. The air smelt pleasantly of straw and hotdogs. There was the babble of people enjoying themselves, punctuated by the sounds of animals calling to one another: horses, cattle, sheep.
Geoff was undoubtedly watching the centre ring where the Arab Horse Society was putting on a demonstration. Matthew had last been seen happily perusing the extensive craft market, probably on the prowl for unicorns. Those two made up the English contingent of the informal Wouldbe Equines group. They both wished to be unicorns although Matthew's priorities seemed to have changed a bit since getting married. Bob guessed that was pretty understandable.
His own choice of alternate shape was obvious though, and his eyes returned, a little enviously, to the Clydesdale colt. A potential breed champion: if he were lucky, this little (little!) guy was in for quite a privileged life of shows and stud duties. Of course he would be trained to harness, but Bob seriously doubted the colt was in for a life of gruelling labour.
It was as he watched the colt that it began to happen. Though the July sky was a clear azure without a cloud to hide the blazing sun, it seemed to get suddenly darker. Bob heard a deep, throbbing humming sound, and a powerful vibration that made his skin tingle. And then it vanished. The day was bright once more, the humming gone.
Bob looked around, bewildered and confused, and soon realised that whatever had just happened, it seemed to have happened to him alone. It was obvious from the smiling faces of the crowd that the whatever-it-was had not happened for them too.
So what had it been? he wondered. Some sort of mental breakdown? Hallucination? Had he eaten something? Nothing he could think of.
But whatever it was had passed with no ill effect. He felt slightly shaken, but apart from that... he decided to go find the others. Automatically, he checked his watch... and stared in complete and utter shock at the broad, black hoof that projected from his left sleeve.
With the exception of some minor difference of proportion in his left arm, his hand was all that had changed. It looked and felt perfectly natural, both in itself and when he touched it cautiously with his still-normal right hand. The hoof was abut six inches wide and the coronet ridge was what had previously been his knuckles. The body of his hand seemed to possess only a single bone instead of four distinct ones, and his thumb was missing.
Bob sat down, legs suddenly boneless with shock. Nothing had prepared him for this. Never mind that this was what - or at least part of what - he had wished for for so long: he had always assumed that... well, that his wish was impossible to be honest abut it. But if his wish were to come true then he had always assumed there would be some portent: finding a strange road where none had existed before, or being cursed by a strange figure. Finding an odd ring in a garage sale. Something like that. Not this sudden Zap! you've got a hoof. It wasn't... it wasn't observing the spirit of the thing somehow.
His laughter had a slightly hysterical edge to it, earning him some concerned looks from passers by. He waved his hoof at them which caused a bit of a stir, but not as much as he would have imagined.
Taking slow, deep breaths helped calm himself, and then he noticed something that was perhaps more curious than the drastic metamorphosis of his hand. His left shirt sleeve had changed too. The whole sleeve opened up to the shoulder, buttoning neatly along its length: tailor-made for someone with a hoof to negotiate. And in no transformation story he'd ever read - or written for that matter - did clothing behave so. It tore, yes, or it disintegrated, or it simply vanished or was absorbed into the body. It didn't re-tailor itself to equine anatomy.
The transformation seemed quite settled as it was: the hoof stayed a hoof and was manifestly genuine, but the change didn't advance at all, not by so much as a hair. Heart still pounding, Bob set off to find his friends.
He didn't think he was dreaming. This felt too real, too vital. The smells, the sounds, the throng around him, all convinced him that he was definitely here and awake. Perhaps the hoof itself was a hallucination of some kind, but if so, it was a very convincing one! He could at least rule out coincidence: either he had somehow set this in motion, or someone knowing him had. People don't just grow bits of equine anatomy.
It was Matthew he found first, holding a plastic bag under one arm and grinning widely. "Hey, there, Bob! Look at this tee-shirt I found." He began to open the bag, but Bob stopped him by placing his hand on his friend's arm. "What is it?"
"Ah, I don't know quite how to tell you this," Bob began, feeling oddly embarrassed now. He held up his left arm for Matthew's inspection.
His friend's reaction was not what he had expected. Matthew's eyes ran from hoof to sleeve and back again. "You... found some hoof polish?"
Bob gaped at him. "Look," he told the man earnestly, taking Matthew by the shoulder and showing him the affected limb more closely.
Matthew peered at the hoof, turning it over with his own fingers, but he still seemed to be behaving remarkably densely. "What's up? Does it hurt or something?"
Bob had been prepared for disbelief, or accusations of playing a practical joke, but not this blank puzzlement. "I've got a hoof!" he exclaimed. "You don't find that at all odd?"
"Well, of course I did at first," Matthew admitted. "Doesn't everyone? The envy of the TSA Talk List, that's you. But I'm kind of used to it now. Why? I mean, I'm sorry if I'm being dense, but why do you mention it at this moment?"
Bob opened his mouth and shut it again. Was Matthew mad? Or was he? "This is not the first time you've seen it?" he asked.
Matthew was frowning now. "Of course not. I saw it when you came to Tadworth the first time, three years ago. I admit I wondered if you were joking about it until I saw it for real."
Bob didn't know quite how to react to this. He had always been like this? Maybe he WAS going nuts. "Let's find Geoff," he suggested.
Geoff was, as expected, propping up the fence around the centre ring, video camera tracking an excited Arab stallion as it trotted around the ring, its owner jogging determinedly alongside holding the lead rope. Normally, Bob would have stopped to admire the beautiful animal, but right now... Still, with Matthew's reaction still in mind, and anxious not to appear more of a fool than he absolutely had to be, he played it cautiously. After greeting Geoff, and listening to his enthusiastic account of what he had captured on film, Bob said, "Geoff, you know I have a hoof for a left hand?"
Geoff grinned. "How could we forget it?"
"When did you first hear about it?"
"I think Eric told me about you in an email. Must have been, oh, three years ago now? Why?"
"Oh, just wondering," Bob said nonchalantly. Matthew gave him a quizzical look but didn't say anything.
Bob wasn't sure what to do now. Had he had a hoof all along? It seemed bizarre but no more bizarre than it suddenly changing from a normal human hand. But why did his memories differ from his friends? He was flummoxed.
"Explain this to me in layman's terms, please, Doctor," the General requested in a pained voice. "What happened?"
"We lost a targeting bank at a critical moment," Stevens said. "The odds were heavily against it, but it failed at just such a point that the erroneous data it supplied was accepted before the backups could override it."
"So we repair and try again."
"Uh, well, yes," mumbled Stevens, "But we'd like to find out what we actually hit this time."
"What do you mean? You just missed didn't you? Hit empty space?"
"Uh, no, we didn't, General. This isn't like some kind of laser, where you feed it coordinates and it hits that spot. We target equations: the quantum waveforms that give things their physical properties. We definitely altered a waveform, so we definitely altered something, and our range is limited, so the likelihood is that something relatively local was altered."
"Define 'relatively local'," the general ordered.
"On Earth or within its atmosphere."
"So somewhere, something fairly small has changed into... what, gold? Like we were trying to do?"
Stevens looked embarrassed. "Uh, no, no, not really."
"Okay," the General sighed. "Just how much did you miss by?"
"I think you don't really grasp the nature of holistic hierarchy matter descriptors," Stevens said.
"You can take that as a given," agreed the General drily. "So spill."
"Well, there's no difference in complexity between say, an inert block of metal and a living creature. Size isn't much of a consideration either. We have an upper limit of something about the size of a Greyhound bus, but apart from that, anything on the planet is a potential target. And we could have turned that target into practically anything."
"What!" barked the General. "You mean you might have hit people with that thing?"
"Oh, the statistical likelihood of hitting anything that actually matters is vanishingly small," Stevens hastened to tell him. "Practically zero. It's more likely to be a rock someplace."
"Doctor Stevens?" called a technician anxiously. "I think you should look at this."
"What is it, Nathan?" Stevens leant over the man's shoulder to stare at a screen. "Oh, no. You've got to be kidding me!"
Bob was feeling bemused but resigned as they returned home that evening. He had changed no further, and both his friends behaved as if there had been no change. They found his hoof an intriguing deformity, and he wasn't so sure, if this was all that was going to change, that that wasn't exactly what it was: a deformity. But the hoof didn't disturb him so much as the dichotomy between his and his friends' memories.
Arriving at Matthew's home in Chesterton, they got out of the car and made their way up the steps to the house. Half way up, Bob stumbled as the day suddenly darkened again. That throbbing vibration assailed him, and when it cleared he hastily checked his limbs and then felt his head, but all seemed to be as it should. Matthew and Geoff were already inside, and it was obvious from the way they were greeting Ana and the kids that they had noticed nothing wrong again. No, nothing had changed this time, but he was shaken and worried by what he could only think must be some kind of seizure.
He managed some semblance of his usual good humour as he entered the house. Ana gave him a hug, and the two boys, Christopher and Nigel, immediately descended on him to compete for his attention. Christopher managed to jump in first by dint of shoving his younger brother behind him, but Nigel resorted to a different tactic and Bob suddenly felt a sharp pain at the base of his spine.
"Nigel!" Ana scolded. "Stop that! You've been told several times now not to pull Uncle Bob's tail!"
"Are you okay?" Matthew asked, sounding concerned. Bob was shakily feeling behind himself where sure enough, his fingers found a bushy tail of thick black hair: a horse's tail that fell almost to his knees. "I'm sorry! I didn't think he yanked it that hard. Nigel! Say you're sorry to Bob."
Nigel looked genuinely contrite and mumbled, "Sorry."
"That's all right," Bob managed to say in a more or less normal tone. "It's stuck on well." Very well: the tail like his hoof was most definitely a part of him. It was the neatly hemmed hole in the seat of his pants that disturbed him most deeply though. And there was a button above it, to make dressing easier.
"I'm entirely ignorant of the principles of quantum mechanics," the General stated. "This techno babble is way over my head. Forget the maths. I want to know how, when we tried to turn a bar of aluminum in orbit into gold, we ended up hitting a human being somewhere in Europe, and what's happened to him? Why didn't he turn into gold if he was going to do anything?"
Stevens chewed the end of a pen before replying. "Well, nobody entirely understands the way of this," he admitted. "That's why we're being as cautious as practicable and conducting our experiments deep underground or in orbit. You see, we believe conscious thought has a tangible effect on the universe, normally too small to measure except on a quantum level. It's generally understood now that observing an experiment will affect the outcome of that experiment. All those ESP projects for the last thirty years have boiled down to pure quantum mechanics and the unavoidable conclusion to the Theory of Relativity: that a person's personal view of the universe is of paramount importance to modern science. Two individual observers can witness the same event and both accurately witness totally different and mutually exclusive results."
"I'll take your word for that," growled the General.
"Have you heard of Schrödinger's' Cat?"
"That thing about a cat in a sealed box."
"Right. You put a cat in a box with a device that will release cyanide gas after a completely random interval. Once the box is sealed you have no idea what's going on in the box. The cat could be alive or it could be dead."
"Obviously Schrödinger was scratched as a child."
"Uh, yes," Stevens faltered. "But the point is, to an outside observer, the cat is essentially in two states at once, both alive and dead? Its holistic wave function contains both possibilities. Not until you open the box and look will the function collapse into one state or the other."
It sounded like nonsense to the general, but he grunted as if agreeing.
"Okay, but now imagine the cat's point of view. He can't be both alive _and_ dead to himself, can he?"
"Well, no," the General admitted, "But he isn't really in both states to the outside observer, is he? That's just a mathematical convenience."
"Wrong!" Stevens said, warming to his subject. "That's your classical way of thinking: because the macro-world appears to follow Newtonian physics, you think it really does behave that way, but reality is far, far stranger, and not incidentally, far more mutable than most people suspect."
"Do you think we could get to the point?" the General asked tiredly. "I'm going to have to explain this to the Secretary of Defence, and possibly our funding committee too. What exactly have we done today?"
"Well, like I said, reality is susceptible to individual volition," Stevens said. This was news to the General but he held his peace as the scientist continued. "Usually it's only on a quantum, or at best, atomic level, with only the most gifted parapsychics able to affect visible phenomena, and then only in the most rudimentary ways. Midas here creates a very localised and precise stress on local space, amplifying that effect, and in essence, loosening what we think of as the laws of nature."
"Except it didn't work," the General pointed out.
"It did work, but we... um... experienced an unanticipated quantum resonance in the targeting array, and, um... missed."
"You missed. Localised and precise, and you missed," the General sighed heavily. "So basically, Midas has landed us deep in the sticky brown stuff."
"Well, maybe, and maybe not," hedged Stevens.
"Jesus, Stevens, no wonder you guys talk about the Uncertainty Principle so much! Talk to me here. What. Has. Happened?"
"Well, our data suggests we've hit an adult human male. And he's... um... well, he seems to be turning into some sort of animal. We haven't isolated the pattern yet."
"Nothing to worry about," muttered the General. "No problem, Mr Secretary. We accidentally turned a guy into a frog, but we think that's an acceptable deviation."
"Not a frog..."
"I DON'T CARE IF HE'S A FRIGGING DUCK-BILLED PLATYPUS!" the General exploded. "My God in Heaven! Why didn't you tell me this gizmo could do this sort of thing."
"But the statistics say..."
"Statistics? I thought you said this thing was precise!" The General was advancing threateningly on the cowering scientist.
"But it might not matter!" Stevens cried desperately, finding himself pressed up against an unyielding console.
"How can it possibly not matter?" the General growled.
"Well, for a start, there's no possible way any blame can be traced to us."
The General's gaze turned thoughtful.
"And we think probably no one will notice in any case."
"Huh?" the General asked intelligently. "A man's turning into a dog or something, and you don't think it will be noticed?"
"Schrödinger's Cat, General. The unfortunate man is in two states: his original form and his new one, whatever that may be. But the observer will see nothing so paradoxical, It's a bit more complex than the cat in a box scenario, but we think that any witnesses to the transformation will simply accept it as the way the guy always was. Only the subject himself, and to a limited extent us, because we know what we did, will be aware of any change."
The General thought about this. "I don't like it," he said at last. "I've never subscribed to the Nixon theory of politics."
"Neither have I, General," Stevens agreed. "And if we're quick we can track this guy down and help him. I'm just saying: this is only an emergency to us and the subject: no one else will ever know of it, because to them, it didn't happen."
"Can you find this guy?"
"I think so. We can home in on him by degrees. The closer we are, the more precisely we can isolate his wave function," Stevens said. "I can probably rustle up some kind of portable scanner if you give me a few hours. Um, can you arrange any kind of transportation?"
The General bit down on a few sarcastic comments he could have made to that request and called his aide. "Where are we going?"
Stevens consulted with a colleague. "Europe, somewhere," he said. "Paris? Berlin? It doesn't much matter to begin with, but we'll need to jump about a bit to home in on him."
The General sighed. "Paris," he instructed his aide.
Bob couldn't eat that evening. His stomach was turning somersaults with nervous anticipation. Both his hands were hooves now (all his clothes had suddenly acquired Velcro fastenings), and his tail had grown another foot. Pointed, furry ears, brown darkening to black at the tips, now adorned the sides of his head, set slightly higher than the human ears he remembered but no-one else did. None of his friends here seemed to be aware of any difference. Even his passport photograph showed his ears. Only he himself knew that something incredible was happening. He was quite convinced that he was turning, in a bizarre, staccato fashion, into a horse. At the moment, with further developments turning up every three hours or so, he guessed the transformation might be complete in a day or two.
Accepting Stevens' assertion that time was of the essence, the General pulled out all the stops. Utah to Paris wouldn't usually be a six hour journey, especially in a pretty conventional-looking executive jet. The jet was anything but conventional however, which was why when three different French air-traffic controllers tried to file reports about the UFO descending at MACH 3 from a very high altitude, they were each taken quietly aside by soberly-dressed officials and persuaded that, in the interests of Global Security, they hadn't seen anything.
"How long do you need?" growled the General.
"Um, an hour?" Stevens said. The two assistants he had brought along were positioning what appeared to be miniature versions of Midas in an equilateral triangle.
The General left them to it while he issued a totally fabricated explanation to the French government official. Fortunately they were more interested in the plane than what it was doing here. Since the plane would soon be off the black lists and into the grey, and as the French had contributed some of the components of the magnetic ram jets, he was able to drop some tantalising suggestions about a private presentation in the near future, which hooked the official's attention far more thoroughly than the urgent need to locate a downed satellite's radioactive debris (the French were used to that sort of mission).
"Well?" he asked, forty minutes later.
"North-west," Stevens said, peering intently at rows of figures on a lap-top before him. "Several hundred miles. That puts us in the UK, I think. And we've identified the target. A Mister Robert Stein. And you'll be delighted to know he's an American citizen, General."
"American, hmm?" That was good. It solved a lot of jurisdictional problems.
"Resident of Norfolk, Virginia, sir," his aide told him, handing him a file.
The General flicked it open. "Norfolk? He isn't military is he?" He looked at the photograph inside. "Good God! What's this? Some sort of joke?"
The aide looked at the picture. "Some sort of freak abnormality from birth, sir," he said. "Known locally as the Horse-man."
The General looked up to give Stevens a significant look and the scientist nodded. Motioning the General away from his aide, he whispered, "Probably a perfectly normal guy until we ran the experiment. He seems to be turning into a horse."
"Son of a bitch," the General breathed. Then he frowned. "But Johnson was with us at Midas…"
"Mmm," murmured Stevens. "I wondered if this might happen."
"Now what?" demanded the General. "Stevens, I'm getting just a little tired of learning about Midas's drawbacks in this piecemeal fashion. How much more is there?"
"Well, you remember me telling you that only the subject, Mr Stein, and us will be aware that anything is happening. Mr Stein is Schrödinger's cat, you see."
"Except he's a horse."
"Well, yes. But he's the subject and so he'll always know what's happening. But we are granted special status by virtue of our proximity to Midas and the fact that we instigated his transformation, however inadvertently. We shouldn't really know about it, and as his waveform collapses from human-and-horse to simply horse, we will gradually forget about it: the memory of what we did will vanish. It looks like a gradual effect. I expect it will be proportionate to personal involvement. You and I, most intimately connected with the situation, will remember longest, but ultimately, if we don't find Mr Stein in time, our memories of this event will fade and he will be the only person alive that knows he wasn't always a horse."
Bob awoke in the small hours of the morning to the now-familiar throbbing hum, and a surge of dizziness. Then, although he personally felt no different, he was aware of a change in environment. He had been lying on the cot in Matthew and Anas' caravan in their backyard, this being a convenient spare room. Now he was till in the caravan, but he appeared to be lying on the floor. There was still bedding but no longer a bed.
He groped for the light, and the dull clonk of horn on wood reminded him that he no longer had hands. Being a little more careful, he located the light switch and carefully pressed it with the rim of his right hoof.
It was quite apparent in the light (and once he tried to stand up) why he had not been in bed. He couldn't stand upright. Not because he wasn't capable (although he suspected the change to a quadrupedal stance was not far off) but because the ceiling was way too low. And the caravan cots would have been way too short. With the aid of the half-length mirror on the wardrobe door, and by simply looking down at himself, he saw that the latest change had been quite a general one. For a start he must have grown to at least seven feet tall. His whole body was covered in hair: a short, sleek coat, reddish brown in colour. Below the knee and from elbow to hoof, it darkened to black, which matched his tail, and, he saw in the mirror, the hair on his head, also an unblemished, glossy black.
"I'm a bay," he thought with amusement.
His body and limbs had thickened, and he could feel the increase in musculature. He moved carefully, for the caravan felt more than a little fragile to this suddenly powerful body. His feet were still recognisably human but his toes were dark in colour and rough and callused to the touch.
Bob sat back and leant against the foot of one of the seats. For a time it was enough just to stare down at himself in wonder. It was hard to take in. A long-held, whimsical dream was now abruptly to be fulfilled, and it did not seem that he had a lot of choice about it. How and why it was happening he had no idea. The question was, did he want it to continue?
Following it through logically, he guessed that it would not be long before he changed completely into a horse, if he wasn't destined simply to become the sort of Clydesdale-morph of some of his fictional writings. Dr Bob of the Blind Pig scenario sprang to mind. Could that be what this was, bizarrely made real? But no, there was no reason to suppose so. It wouldn't explain why everyone around him thought his appearance, although exceptional, was normal for him.
And if that was the case, presumably there was a limit at which point they would think him a deformed horse with human qualities, rather than, as at present, a deformed human with equine ones. God, was he going to lose his intelligence or sense of self? He hoped not, although there was a certain seductive charm to assuming the naïveté of an animal. The idea didn't worry him as much as perhaps it should have done. But that aside for now, what would he do? The world seemed to be adapting around him as he changed: his friends' attitude towards him and the changes to his wardrobe strongly indicated that.
For the first time he wished he was at home rather than in a foreign country. He wished at least one of his friends was aware of him changing so he share this with someone. He felt suddenly alone, like that conspiracy series a few years ago where a man returns to his home to find no one knows him and all record of his existence has been erased by a sinister government organisation.
Feeling suddenly insecure, he carefully extracted his wallet from his belongings. It was not the same wallet he remembered, being oversized and not too difficult for use by someone with limited manual dexterity. He emptied it onto the floor beside him, having to use his lips for some of this.
Credit cards fell out, looking much as they always had except that the signature was now a large X. He had earlier, following the moment his right hand had become a second hoof, discovered in his backpack several custom-formed rubber cups with sockets for various extensions: "hoof-mittens" that could be made to hold pens and similar tools.
His driver's licence was endorsed with a stamp that noted he was registered disabled and could only drive modified vehicles. He felt a pang as he realised his beloved cars were slipping out of his reach, beyond any hope of retaining them. Or had they gone already? He couldn't find his Antique Car Club membership card. Emptying his pack onto the floor, he located the packet of photographs he had brought with him to show his friends. His appearance had changed in them all, which startled him a little, even though he should have expected it. His face was still the one he knew, even framed by equine ears, but now he towered above everyone else. He looked through for the pictures he specifically remembered being there – especially his prized Dodge proudly gleaming on the front drive. It wasn't there. There were some pictures of a recent trip to visit Eric in Massachusetts. He remembered the trip but not the photographs – there was one of him with his arm over the shoulders of a big Clydesdale mare, except she didn't look quite so large next to him any more. In pen across the bottom was written, "I think she likes me!" Eric's horse, Prophet, looked like a pony when pictured beside him. There was a shot, obviously contrived, of him and Prophet raiding the food shed: the legend read "Brothers in Crime – Bonnie and Clydesdale?" It was his writing and his sort of humour, but he had no memory of having written it.
There was a picture of his house, and to his dismay, the large garage had been replaced by a lean-to beneath which sheltered a dull yellow GEO Metro. It was the only car he could find, and a close-up of the controls showed how it had been modified for use with hooves: all the major controls sported large rubber cups designed to hold a hoof without it slipping off. A blue disabled badge was displayed in a pouch on the windshield.
He let the photos fall, feeling numb. The physical transformation was nothing compared to this arbitrary editing of his past. He didn't know his past any more! He assumed to the rest of the world he had been born this way. Did this mean his family were similarly affected? Was it inherited? Or worse, had something drastic befallen his mother in this timeline? Although what kind of accident could cause a mother to give birth to a half equine child he couldn't imagine.
A strange notion suddenly occurred to him. It was a nagging feeling, easily dismissible as imagination, but he had a peculiar sense of… well, the mental equivalent of wearing a tight tee-shirt back-to-front. He was a square peg in a round hole: reality was stretched taught around him as if he was somehow stressing it. He didn't think it was just a fancy. And he suspected, reasoning it out, that the feeling would persist until he was completely equine. Wholly human or wholly horse was okay, but this halfway phase was unnatural, and reality was struggling to come up with a plausible explanation. He suddenly felt really strongly that probing at his current condition too deeply would be a Really Bad Idea. Some bizarre Event was transpiring, like an asymptote on a graph: the Bob Function was rapidly tending toward Infinity. Before that he was basically human: after that, he would be basically equine, but now he was at the transition point and he sensed without knowing how that it would be unwise to draw the Universe's attention.
Despite his coat of bay fur, Bob Stein shivered and pulled the blankets up to his neck.
The unmarked grey jet was standing at RAF Norfolk, south-east England, looking sleek and determined next to the complacent bulk of a Hercules transporter. Fewer awkward explanations were required this time, as the jet had followed a quite conventional route, both physically and diplomatically, to the United Kingdom.
An odd sense of urgency possessed the General and Doctor Stevens now, despite their knowledge that if they failed to find their quarry on time they would never know it, or suffer because of it. Only the two of them and Steven's closest assistant, Nathan, now seemed to fully understand what they were doing. The other assistant, Carol, was going through the motions with a faintly puzzled look, and kept surreptitiously asking Nathan what they were looking for.
In response to the General's umpteenth urgent query, Stevens closed his laptop and gave the order to prepare to move on again. "We've got about nine hours," he said. "There's just been another resonance surge. And we're close. Two, maybe three hundred miles. Wales or the West Midlands I think. Let's try Birmingham."
As they boarded the plan, the General asked, "What are these resonance surges?"
"Mr Stein is transforming in sudden steps, approximately once every three hours or so. It isn't physically possible for a man to spontaneous grow into a horse due to the severe difference in mass, and the Universe won't break its own rules except for miniscule periods of time we usually call Delta-tee. In quantum mechanics, you can break any natural law providing everything is squared and stable again at the end of Delta-tee. We're talking trillionths of a second here. The universe contains Mr Stein weighing two hundred and eighty pounds one moment, and four hundred the next, rearranging things in that instant so that physics believes he always was four hundred. He must be right on the border line right now between people remembering him as a human and remembering him as a horse. Poor chap. It must be pretty uncomfortable."
Bob awoke to discover he was Posti. Matthew was tapping lightly on the caravan door with an oversize mug of coffee, but the name he called was not the one his mother had given him (in his memory at least), but his self-adopted play-name that he had taken from that Jack Chalker novel: the name of a farmer transformed into a draft horse by Circe and who decides he is happier that way.
What else? he thought ironically. And Posti might be a better name for a horse than Robert. Robert was too human. Although, he conceded, as he slipped on the rubber hoof-mitten designed to let him hold cups, Bob was not bad for horse and human alike. But he rather liked the idea that fate had decided to make him Posti.
His feet had become more hooflike, though they were fighting shy of the sudden, one-stage transformation of his hands. He now had three hard-skinned toes on each foot, black in colour. In fact, except for his face, his skin was much darker, where it could be seen beneath his bay coat: a dark, pinkish grey. And his chest protruded more than he was accustomed: his upper torso had assumed a more rounded cross-section.
He was also intrigued to discover he was beginning to smell like a horse. Not strongly, but if he held his arm to his face and inhaled, the scent was a pleasantly familiar, sweet, musky smell more associated with a field-kept horse.
He wasn't walking as easily either and discovered his belongings now included a pair of custom-designed crutches that strapped onto his forearms with Velcro. They were neatly leant against the corner of the caravan.
Matthew had wished him good morning, deposited the coffee and returned to the house, leaving him the leisure to rise at his own pace. He felt a little sleepy and so it wasn't for several minutes that he frowned and looked down at himself. Then he looked around. He opened his bag and looked in, and found it much emptier than expected.
The first thing he had belatedly realised was that he had received the coffee completely unclothed, and never noticed. He tried to feel self-conscious, and couldn't, even when he looked down and admitted that his manhood now looked somewhat more prominent than it had last night. Matthew hadn't given any sign of noticing anything amiss either, although he might simply have been too polite: it was the sort of thing that might easily be forgiven of one rising from sleep.
But his clothing was not where he had left it, lying upon one of the cots. Nor was there the expected clothing in his bag. He discovered instead four sets of what amounted to Velcro-fastened loin-cloths. Quite attractive actually: he picked up one decorated in a native-American fashion with a pattern largely composed of blue chevrons of different shades. It took a moment or two to learn the trick of slipping into it, but once he discovered that the straps were also elasticated, it was easy enough to don. He looked quite exotic, in front of the mirror, though he couldn't wait to leave the caravan: he was way to big to comfortably stand inside now.
The last thing he discovered before he left was that his driving licence was missing, and none of the photographs gave any hint that he might own a car.
He felt a pang of loss, and suddenly realised that one of the mainstays of his human identity was gone forever. His cars and his love for practically anything on four wheels with a motor had been as much his trademark as his love of horses.
But he had to admit, they were a severed tie to being human too. The starship Posti was departing space-station Humanity, and his love for automobiles was a final docking clamp releasing.
He took a final look at himself in the mirror. He rather thought the transformation would be complete by the evening. It was time to go spend what was probably his last day as a human being.
"Not far, not far," Stevens mumbled. "Fifty miles? General, I think it's time to head out by road, but we need to hurry."
"Why? I thought we had hours yet?"
"We do, but the area of field effect is rapidly diminishing. I'm not tracking radio waves. This is like a ripple from a splash but in reverse, and when ripple meets splash, that's it: show's over. Outside the ripple, the universe has normalised and Mr Stein does not exist, at least as a human."
"So if we get left outside the ripple, we forget all this, right?"
"It's not so simple in our case, because of our unique perspective on this event. But my equipment will no longer be able to find any distortion to tune into."
"Swell," the General said. "Johnson! Get me a car. A fast one."
It happened half-way through the afternoon. The throbbing hum and the strange darkness descended, and Posti's world trembled and shook. When it ceased and light returned, Posti found he was finally a quadruped. More than that, he was now undeniably a weird-looking horse, and not a weird-looking human.
He had been out walking with Geoff and Matthew, out along a farm track through fields near Chesterton. Geoff had shown him the field and stables where he had once owned a couple of horses. They had stopped to make a fuss of a scruffy and cheeky-looking pony Geoff called Gypsy.
Posti found himself in a slightly frustrating position. There were no mirrors and he no longer had any limbs suitable to explore this latest change, but many of the changes were obvious, even from this perspective. He was standing comfortably on four legs, and even in this position, he could easily meet his friends' eye level. His crutches had vanished, and so had the watch he'd been wearing on his wrist. His loincloth had turned into, or been replaced by, a quilted horse blanket with a border of blue chevrons just like his loincloth had sported.
His neck was long and greatly flexible, and by craning his head to one side, he saw that the sides of the blanket were blazoned with the name "Posti" in twelve inch letters, and a panel beneath read, "Sponsored by Spillers, equine nutritionists by royal appointment. A more intelligent way of feeding." What was that about?
He wondered how to broach the subject. He cleared his throat, and was greatly reassured to discover his mouth felt just as he remembered and seemed to sound the same too.
"What's up?" Matthew asked, having noticed his antics in trying to read the panels.
"I wish I had a mirror," he replied honestly. His voice did sound much as it always had though a little nasal, with an odd overtone to it like a resonance effect, at a much higher pitch. Something to do with his much longer neck, he supposed.
Geoff chuckled. "Getting vain in your old age?"
The casual comment struck a nerve and he couldn't help asking worriedly, "How old am I?" Was he turning into a horse only to find he had a year to live or something? It would be a cruel irony after all those age-regression stories he had written.
"Twenty seven in August, if the lab's records are to be believed," Matthew answered, and there was a certain patient quality in his voice as if this was a long-established habit. "And given the slow rate at which you matured physically, likely to live as long as any human.
Lab records? Posti wondered. What am I becoming?
They returned home, Posti finding most astonishing novelty in the simple act of walking on all fours. It was easier than he had feared, and though he felt too self-conscious to try trotting or any other sort of equine movement, he felt it would not be difficult. He felt very fit, and knew his body contained much more strength than he was accustomed to. He certainly didn't feel old! In fact if Matthew's statement was to be believed, he might actually have gained on the deal!
He was slightly confused when his companions made a different turn than the one they usually did, and instead of entering the Birchhouse estate, where Matthew's ex-coal-board semi-detached house was located, they approached a much larger and more expensive-looking property. It looked well-maintained and a walled enclosure topped with barbed-wire and cameras surrounded a large garden area, a house, a bungalow, and a small stable area.
"I'll see to the gate," Geoff said as they entered.
Posti was dying to know what this was but dared not ask for fear of sounding stupid. There was Ana at the door to the larger house, and Christopher and Nigel and their cousin Felipe playing some noisy rough and tumble game on the lawn. In the drive was a very new-looking Nissan Terrano, the large diesel deluxe model, and next to it a sleek and equally new-looking horse-van. The van's sides offered some clues, and he stared.
"Posti – the intelligent horse," declared huge letters in the same style as the blanket he wore. The same sponsorship declaration by Spillers' horse feeds blazoned the corner.
"Hi, Gorgeous!" Ana called as she saw them. "Yeah, you're gorgeous too, Posti, but I was speaking to my husband. Oh, Mrs Sutwithe-Jones called. They want to know if we can do the Horse Of The Year Show next year as well. I said yes. Was that okay?"
Posti realised the question was being addressed to him. "Uh, sure," he answered, hoping that was the right thing to say.
"I'll drop by in a minute," Matthew told him, starting off to the house.
Posti stood for a second, feeling bewildered and torn between demanding an explanation and fear of looking foolish.
It looked very much as if he lived here. It looked like he was quite established, and apparently, a celebrity of some kind. Which was kind of understandable for a talking horse.
Lacking any other inspiration, he ambled over to the stable area. It was quite unlike any stable he had ever seen before. Stables don't usually have bookshelves or television, or PCs with an outsized keyboard. The stable had large, double-glazed windows, and the floor was covered in fine wood-shavings, which was soft and very practical. There was a bathroom area with an industrial-scale shower head and custom designed equine flush toilet. And best of all was the huge wall mirror that at last permitted him to view the latest changes.
A human-headed Clydesdale foal. That was the instant impression he got. His body was quite slender for those long, muscular legs, and he looked a lot like the gangly colt he had been admiring… had it really only been yesterday? But at the end of that long equine neck, the head was flat-faced, and remarkably human, although his nose was definitely broader and much larger of nostril.
In fact he looked a lot like the creature in that supermarket tabloid article he had once found: Manny, the human-faced horse. That had been a hoax of course, relegated to the same department as "Elvis was an Alien" and "CIA drugged my Dog". And unlike Manny, who had reputedly just been a horse with a remarkably humanoid face, he, Posti, was fully intelligent: a human being in an equine body.
Exploration turned up a big plastic file beside the computer. The pages were large plastic folders with rounded corners, suitable for him to turn with his lips, although a number of hoof- and mouth-fitting implements hung from the walls.
As if prepared for him as a briefing, he found his life story in newspaper clippings. Fascinated, he read how he was the result of an experiment in trans-eugenics: melding entirely different DNA components into a coherent life form. He snorted when he read the work had been done by a Professor Robert Stein of Stein Genetics. It was pioneering stuff, decades ahead of its time. Posti was the only viable result, and the only intelligent creature to result. Stein had only revealed the results when an audit had caught him out, and Posti was seventeen years old.
The next clipping showed the massive public outcry at Stein's work, even though the professor claimed Posti had been an accident. His laboratories were picketed by animal-rights activists.
Next was a front-page article, bannered, "FRANKEN-STEIN MURDERED!" The professor's lab had been attacked by a mob of animal-rights terrorists and he had been beaten to death. They had apparently made an attempt to kill Posti too, but the intelligent colt had managed to escape. In doing so, he had nearly been run down by a car when he dashed across a main road. In the car had been Matthew Webber and Geoff Rigby, both avid horse-lovers. They had whisked the traumatised creature to safety.
And that had been ten years ago, since when the threesome had become inseparable and Posti had become a major celebrity.
Bemused, he flicked through page after page of promotional pamphlets and show flyers, all featuring him: Show to be opened by Posti, the Intelligent Horse; Interview with Posti; Parade led by Posti!
But just when he was thinking how good this looked, he found the down-side. In amongst the hype were more newspaper clippings of a more sinister nature. "Front for Genetic Purity announce Jihad against Posti, the Intelligent Horse." "Genetic Nazis arrested breaking into Posti's stable." "Posti tells how he and friends are prisoners in their own home." It was unpleasant reading.
He shut the file, and looked out of the window. The ten-foot wall topped by barbed-wire and surveillance equipment took on a new and forbidding significance.
But was this it? Or was this just an elaborate justification for his current stage of transformation. His past seemed to be like a twisted rope: twist the end and the rest of the rope must twist too. Twist it far enough and the rope will contort into knots. If he really thought about it, how else could Reality justify a human-headed horse? Random mutation? The probabilities of that were so small as to make winning a national lottery a virtual certainty by comparison. An artificial genetic fluke, while far-fetched, would satisfy reality far more plausibly.
To carry the twisted rope analogy further, imagine a plank of wood being tied to the far end. One side is marked 'human' and one side, 'horse'. Twist the rope and at first there won't be quite enough torsion to flip the plank over, and the rope will twist and knot as it was now. But sooner or later it will be easier for the plank to flip than the rope to twist more, and when it does, it will give relief to the rope.
One more change, he thought. Just one more. That ought to do it. And it ought to happen in the early evening. It should be safe enough here until then.
Taking something of a gamble, Stevens had triangulated a rough position and they were heading for it as fast as they could. Johnson was at the wheel of their hastily hired car. It was not outstandingly fast, but it was big and powerful: a new , and the five of them with the bare minimum of equipment made a very tight squeeze. Johnson was pushing a hundred down the M6, having been convinced by the General that the matter was urgent, but he hadn't the faintest idea what they were doing here. He was just glad he'd spent a bit of time in this country only last year: a high-speed dash on the wrong side of a three-lane Interstate – okay, they called 'em motorways here – was not his idea of a fun weekend. As it was, he hoped they didn't draw the attention of the local police. They were hardly here in any official capacity, of that he was sure.
"Take the next exit," Stevens ordered. He was mopping his brow. "I think we've got about twenty minutes."
"What for?" asked the General vaguely. Then he concentrated. "Oh, er, yes. Mr Stein."
"Concentrate, General," Stevens said urgently. "If we forget what we're doing now, we'll never find him. We're close now."
The Cavalier turned left onto the slip-road, cornering on two wheels as the exit turned out to be a ludicrously sharp turn for such a major exit. Righting miraculously, the car fishtailed briefly and then courted death with a eighteen-wheeler before accelerating away to a chorus of claxons.
Matthew knocked on the door, and Posti pushed it open with a foreleg. "Hi!"
Matthew looked uncharacteristically serious. "We've just had a call from Staffordshire police," he said worriedly. "They've found something on the Internet and they think we've got trouble on the way."
"What sort of trouble?" Posti asked.
Matthew gave him a wan look. "The usual sort."
Posti stared in shock as Matthew drew a large hand-gun from his belt and checked its load with disturbing proficiency. This was England! This was Matthew! They didn't have guns here! And Matthew especially! There was something very wrong about Matthew with a gun.
"Clockwise! Clockwise!" shouted the General.
"Damn," muttered Johnson. Good job it wasn't a weekday. It made the prospect of surviving this trip merely insane instead of instant suicide. At this wasn't LA. He didn't need to be overly concerned about a disgruntled motorist opening fire on him.
The Cavalier squealed wrong-way round the roundabout and onto the A500, clipping a sign that proclaimed '50' and flattening it.
"If the sign ain't there, it ain't speeding," he said.
Max was an Agitator. An anarchist of the purest form, he was simply Trouble. The police knew of him only because they knew _someone_ organised things like this. Protest marches that erupted into riots. Football "fans" not remotely interested in football. Activists turned terrorist.
He loved this: the adrenal high of being completely and utterly outside the law. He didn't live like ordinary people. Ordinary people were alien to him, and he to them. The authorities had so little power over him it was joke, and one that never failed to amuse him.
"Are you sure about this one, Max?" asked Ruth, pulling a mask out of her bag.
"What?" he demanded, without taking his eyes from the walled enclosure. "I thought we all agreed the abomination had to be destroyed?"
"I'm not arguing that," she snapped. "I mean attacking him in broad daylight."
"At night they have all their security on," Max said. "Electrified gates, security men, and maybe even a copper or two. Here and now, it's a quick, fast strike, and we're out of here.
They got out of their car and joined the others. There were eight of them, dressed in army fatigues and all wearing masks: woollen hats pulled down over their faces with two sinister-looking eyeholes cut in the front. Several of them carried backpacks holding tools.
"Okay, Ced, Nick, you two take out the external power lines. They've got a generator but it doesn't feed the electric fence."
Two of the figures nodded and ran off toward the rear of the compound. Max smiled. How idiotic to have a security system powered by regular domestic feed. Quick sabotage of the supply conduit shown clearly mapped on the local council's utility maps would render most of the active defence completely inert. That would only leave human defence.
The small screen clearly showed four empty cars parked just up the lane. "Damn," Geoff said. "They're here already."
"The police are on their way. I'd better tell Ana not to leave," Matthew said worriedly. "They're bound to be watching for anyone leaving. Can you see any of them?"
"Two of them, but with four cars, there's got to be at least two more, and probably much more than that. Hmm. They're going to try and cut off our power."
"Did you install the jangler?"
"Jangler?" asked Posti. He felt slightly sick. There were people out there trying to kill him; to whom he was nothing but a soulless abomination from a genetic lab. His friends were about to risk their lives for him and there was practically nothing he could do to assist them.
"Um, the special branch officer who advised us on setting up a secure perimeter had some unofficial advice," Matthew admitted.
"Mmm," Geoff agreed. "Some very interesting applications for a few electric-shock guns. You know those personal defenders that were almost immediately outlawed because they were far more use to a mugger than a victim? The police use them sometimes though, and we got a few. There's one in that inspection cover they're just opening."
One of the masked figures on the screen lifted the manhole cover in the lane and started to climb in. Suddenly he jerked back as if something invisible had punched him, as in a sense it had. He flew back and landed twitching on his back. Geoff laughed. "Bet that was a shock." Matthew groaned.
The second figure didn't hesitate but jumped for the hole, stabbing with some tool. On the console a red light illuminated.
"Damn!" Geoff exclaimed. "He disabled it before the capacitors had recharged.
Seconds later the lights dimmed briefly and a quiet alarm told them what they already knew: the external power had been cut.
"They'll be coming in now," Matthew said tensely. "Where are those damned police?"
The Cavalier had slowed to an agonising crawl. They were very, very close now, but finding one person in a built up residential area for which one has no map, even when they effectively have a built-in homing signal, is not something that can be done at sixty miles an hour.
"Down that lane, I think," Stevens said. "No, wait. No, go up there a bit, please. Damn. We haven't got long."
"What are we going to do if we do reach him in time?" the General asked. "It won't stop him changing, will it?"
"That big metal crate in the trunk is a quantum field generator," Stevens said distractedly.
"Does Captain Kirk know you stole that?" the General asked sarcastically.
"No, really. It's like a portable and very limited version of Midas. It works on the same principle as the trackers. They're all tuned to pick up macro-quantum disturbances. These don't occur in nature. In the case of the field generator, if it finds a radically changing matter descriptor, it asserts a virtual copy of the original state of the descriptor, which has the effect of rewinding a tape a second or so. And it keeps doing it, which will arrest Mr Stein's transformation. As long as the transformation hasn't actually finished, we've got something to work with. Oh, damn! No, it was the first lane, Corporal!"
Johnson sighed, and sent the car around in a tight U-turn. The suspension didn't sound or feel healthy as he bumped up the left curb and then around onto the right curb, but as long as the car got them there… wherever 'there' was… it really didn't matter.
"John, Scaz, Cath; you three assault the main gate. They're armed so be careful," Max ordered. "Ruth and Tad and me'll go over the wall at the back."
With the diversion set, he led his two comrades through the light woodland that surrounded the compound. At the rear wall he waved them down behind some bushes. This was a joke! Two cameras on each end of the rear wall swept back and forth in a two-hundred degree arc, but there was a clear blind spot when the camera's were at opposite ends of their sweep. And the amount of cover available to hide in was just unbelievable.
Max waited until a loud thud announced the commencement of the diversion attack: Scaz's weed killer bomb at the front gate. Max watched the cameras until the moment was just right. "Okay, go, go!" he ordered, urging the other two ahead of him.
In a well-practiced drill, they flattened against the wall. Tad and he bent and boosted Ruth up the wall, hugging the surface so closely that even when the cameras returned, they were hidden from view beneath the camera's sight. Good security, reflected Max, has security to watch the security. He grinned. God, those idiots inside deserved this! Let Ruth and her idiot friends believe this was all some righteous animal-rights crap. He was just here because he hated the complacency of the law-abiding idiots who built and lived or worked in places like this. They should thank him for showing how vulnerable they really were.
Matthew fired two shots over the attackers as the smoke cleared from the bomb. It had misfired, and although it had contained power a-plenty to destroy the electric gate, it had only buckled it slightly.
"Shouldn't we be watching the walls?" Posti asked worriedly.
"Geoff is," Matthew said, eyes intent on the gate. "They'll have a hard time getting through that, unless they try to drive a car through it. Yeah, Geoff's watching the cameras, and if I know Ana at all, she's watching the walls from the upstairs windows instead of keeping with the kids in the cellar like I told her to!"
There came the furious revving of an engine and Matthew said, "Ah. Let's see if those tyre spikes are really as good as they claim."
A car approached, accelerating furiously. Four sharp explosions occurred almost simultaneous and the car, hoving into view, swerved violently off the drive and into a tree beside the gate. A figure, staggering, exited the car and ran for cover.
"Officially, the spikes have these little detachable tubes fitted over them," Matthew commented. "They stop the tyres exploding when they're punctured and stops the car without it losing control. Some bugger seems to have forgotten to fit 'em though. How despicable."
Posti stared at his friend. The sense of humour was Matthew's but the calm attitude towards the situation, the weapons, the violence, was not. Somehow, the change was almost as frightening as the attack itself.
There was a roar from behind them and smoke and debris filled the air. "Damn! They're inside! Got the generator!"
Max was alive. He had the idiots neatly pinned; some of them in the house and some of them in the stable building. He didn't know how many and he didn't really care. His homemade bombs were small but powerful enough to shatter brickwork, splinter wood, or make a real mess of a human being. Or anything else that might show up. He threw another one toward the stable, the air fuse hissing faintly. The compound within reacted with oxygen and after about three seconds there was a roar and a chemical stink as a corner of the building vanished behind smoke. Several gunshots emerged from the smoke, but none of them appeared to be aimed.
He drew his baby out of the rucksack. He was famous for these. The police knew nothing about him except his style: mayhem and random violence rounded off with a home-made incendiary device.
It didn't look impressive: a brown paper package wrapped in tape, of no particular shape. It was a bundle of ingredients wrapped around an old signal flare. Petrol-soaked flour acted not unlike napalm when ignited, and there was plenty of that within. There were ten railway fog signals in it too – the things were simplicity itself to steal – guaranteed to go with a bang, and not incidentally spread things around a bit.
He figured he'd torch the house. With luck it'd catch the adjoining buildings pretty easily. He'd already blown several windows out in the house and tossing the package in through one would be easy, and practically ensure that inferno ensued. He grinned savagely. He felt like howling.
The sides of the Cavalier looked as if they had been sandblasted and the left wing was seriously crumpled. Both wing mirrors were mere memories. The car was still running though, despite the ominous grinding noises it occasionally made from engine and suspension.
"We're close, we're close, we're close," Stevens was muttering feverishly. They were also practically out of time. Minutes? Seconds? It was impossible to tell: the last resonance burst was imminent and the stress on the plenum wasn't strong enough to give any clear readings. The universe seemed to have found an almost stable temporary state.
The car had been racing around for several minutes, searching for the elusive trace that would finally locate their quarry. Stevens and the General were becoming increasingly worried, not just because time was running out, but because sooner or later, their car and its speed was bound to draw unwanted official attention, assuming, by some miracle, that it hadn't already.
The resonance trace was now so weak that Stevens was using a stochastic method to gather enough of an image, like a deep-space telescope painstakingly building a picture of a very distant galaxy by collecting remote photons that could be minutes or hours apart. But finally…
The lane wasn't obvious. If it had a name, it wasn't posted anywhere, and the untarmacked road looked like a farm entrance as much as anything. The Cavalier's tortured suspension squealed and grated as Johnson pushed the car onward. The lane ran between high hedges into an area of woodland, and then, around a corner…
"What on earth..?" demanded the General.
A car was crumpled against a tree before a high brick wall in whose entrance swayed a badly damaged mesh gate. Smoke billowed and eddied within, hiding anything from clear view, but they could see flames, and hear small explosions. Now and again came the sound of a gunshot.
"Stevens, stay here," the General ordered, climbing out of the car. "Johnson, with me."
The two men quickly sprinted to the gate, and after a cursory scout, slipped through the damaged gate. Stevens got out of the car and with Nathan's help, extracted the heavy quantum field generator from the trunk. "Uh, what are we doing here, exactly?" Nathan asked worriedly. "I mean, I know the military fund us, but I didn't join this project to enter a combat zone."
"This wasn't anticipated," Stevens said. "Stay here with Carol and keep your head down. I'll explain later." He looked at the smoke and hoped this was true.
The house was ablaze. Flames roiled within the lounge window and black smoke was pouring out. There were frightened cries from within and Max grinned ruthlessly. It was time to vanish. Let Ruth and the others continue to pursue their target: he was no idiot arsonist to get caught watching the pretty flames when the authorities showed up.
Keeping low and moving stealthily, he began to work his way toward the gate. He had a couple of weedkiller bombs that it would be a shame to waste. He crept around the side of the horsebox, and looked at it and the Terrano. Both looked brand new. His kind of target.
He was reaching for the first bomb when around the corner, hurrying too much to be careful came a young man with a pistol. He saw Max about the same time Max saw him, but Max reacted first. He didn't hesitate: he had no consequences to think of beyond his own survival. The man might be armed but he was no soldier, and obviously not used to fighting like this. For a moment he hesitated, and Max flung the rucksack at him and followed it. He grabbed the gun even as the man was still evading the thrown pack, wrenching it from his opponent's hand without stopping to think what might happen if the man's finger had tightened on the trigger. The gun continued round in a tight arc, now in Max's hand, and the grip hit the man hard behind the ear – he went down soundlessly.
A sound behind Max, and he spun, pistol seeking like a cobra's head. He stared. This was the first time he had seen the "Abomination" as Ruth and the others called it. "Damn," he breathed. It was like a small, slender horse, but at the end of its equine neck was a very human-looking head. The face showed an expression of fear and shock as the eyes beheld first the man sprawled on the ground, then Max with the gun.
Oh, this was sweet! The creature was supposed to be intelligent, wasn't it? "Friend of yours, huh?" he asked casually. "Not much good though, was he? One shot and he just gives up!" He laughed as he saw the creature's eyes fill with horror. "Oh, it's no big deal. Let me show you." He pointed the gun at the creature's head. He'd threatened quite a few poor fools this way, but never killed them: though there'd been quite a few incidental deaths and numerous injuries following his attacks, shooting people wasn't his style. This wasn't a person though, no matter how many brain cells it had. It was a real honest-to-goodness freak. Killing it would be as easy as killing any other animal. "Ta-ta," he said. "Ung!" And he fell slowly forward to land on his face.
"Damn," said Stevens, lowering the heavy metal case. He rubbed his arms. "Mr Stein, I presume?"
It was a mess, but it was wrapping up rather nicely. The police had arrived and made eight arrests. Four of Mr Stein's friends were attending hospital but weren't seriously hurt – three cases of smoke inhalation and shock, and one concussion. The house was badly damaged by the fire, and there was a lot of scattered damage from the surprisingly effective weedkiller bombs.
The quantum field generator wasn't working. Stevens had opened it up – somewhat gingerly as he had pulled several muscles in his arms lifting the heavy device for use as a weapon – and found several fragile components had not survived. He had no replacements with him.
"So we race half-way around the world for nothing?" the General asked. "Huh. Figures."
"I'm afraid so," Stevens confirmed. "In a few minutes, Mr Stein… I mean, Posti here, will finish turning into a horse, and we'll all be wondering exactly what we're doing here. If we don't just spontaneously find ourselves back in Utah, unaware we were ever gone."
"Mr Stein," the General said. "I sincerely apologise for this. I hope you understand this was a genuine accident and that the US government does not make a habit of transforming good American citizens into draft animals."
"That's a pity," said Geoff with a snigger. He was trying hard to believe that his entire life since the day he and Matthew had met Posti had only actually been in existence for a few hours, and that yesterday Posti had been a regular human being. He'd have said the strange Americans were a few brain cells short of a pair, but Posti obviously believed their tale and confirmed his own personal past.
The General cast a suspicious look at the man, uncertain how to take the comment. He wasn't used to dealing with people who would rather be animals.
"General, it's quite okay," Posti assured him. "As Dr Stevens said, it was my own desire that triggered this. It caught me unawares, but it's okay. It's just a bit of a shame no-one else will ever know who I am."
"Mr Stein, you are a very unusual man," the General said.
"Thank you, sir."
"It's happening!" Stevens said suddenly. "Good luck, Posti!"
Posti blinked. There was a massive change in his peripheral vision – a blurred hint of what he knew to be a long muzzle. His colour vision had altered subtly but not as much as he might have expected.
The most dramatic changes were in his surroundings. The house was miraculously restored, but the compound and the outbuildings were all gone, replaced by a quite modest and conventional wooden stable. He stood in a small paddock adjoining. A low sun cast his shadow against the wall of the stable and he knew that his bizarre transformation was complete.
There was a man leaning over the paddock gate, and Posti was a bit surprised to recognise Dr Stevens. Evidently he hadn't zapped back to Area 51, or wherever he had come from.
"Not bad," the scientist called. "Not bad at all. If it helps any, you make a good looking horse."
"You remember me?" The words emerged from his equine mouth before he thought about whether he could still talk or not. It was a horse's voice, full of squeaks and grunts, but intelligible for all that.
Dr Stevens laughed. He opened his shirt collar and showed Posti the silver collar that fitted snugly around his neck. "Prototype quantum stasis generator," he said. "The only one. Allows me to remember what happens. Someone has to keep track of the changes. I knew things like this would happen when I first invented Midas. I took precautions."
"I'm still intelligent. Will I remain that way?"
"I'd say so. Don't forget that ultimately you wished yourself this way. Given complete free rein – so to speak – what would you have wished upon yourself?"
"A Clydesdale colt," Posti murmured. "A good home. To still be myself, Bob Stein, and to have a good long life ahead of me."
"None of which will exactly threaten the stability of the universe," Stevens said. "I'd say you've almost certainly got all of that."
Posti laughed, a deep whinnying sound. "This is all pretty sudden. I don't really know what to do now."
"Enjoy yourself," Stevens said. "Horse around. Ahem. Sorry. You could even reveal your intelligence to a few selected friends, although I wouldn't make too much of a show of it if I were you. Remember the last reality? That could easily happen again."
"I might tell one or two people," Posti agreed. "I have an owner?"
"Probably the same friends looking after you as last time."
"Kind of neat."
"If you force it to alter radically, the universe usually does manage to find the neatest solution," Stevens agreed. "Well, I'd better go. I just wanted to offer a little reassurance before I started back."
"What will you tell your boss?"
"The General? I shouldn't have to tell him anything. Reality will have provided some kind of rationalisation. He wouldn't come all this way for no reason."
Posti laughed again. He looked down at his large body, down the stocky legs with their large, feathered hooves. "I think I'm going to enjoy this," he admitted.
"Good, I'm glad." He turned to go. "Oh, by the way, I took a look at some of your fiction and your email affiliations. Don't be surprised if the near future throws a couple more surprises. I think you'll approve."
And when, two days later, Matthew approached the field leading a grey Arab colt and a brown donkey, Posti did indeed approve. And so did they.