Time 2032 (August)
My home-made buckskin jacket fought the morning chill, but I still felt like I should be finding dew on the leaves as I slipped through the brush and quietly approached the spot I'd scouted. I unwrapped my gear and waited.
A sound caught my attention; a moment later I was looking at a magnified image, with the bullseye on a buck entering the meadow. His asymmetrical four-point rack was typical for a mature blacktail. Of course, that's western count; somebody from back east would probably count it as seven-point. (To reduce transcontinental confusion, there's also a system of explicitly numbering the tines of each side separately; in that system, he was a 4x3.)
While the antlers of most deer have the tines all rising off a common trunk like teeth on a comb, black tails and mule deer follow a pattern of subdivided points. Each antler is divided into two branches, and each branch (on the one side, in this case) divided into two points. There are some "non-typical" racks with one or more of the tines further subdivided. (The stubby little "brow guards", one at the base of each antler, are never counted.) I started the recording.
He looked around as he approached the young tree with a pattern of scraped bark. The breeze carried his musky scent to me, so I knew he wasn't smelling me. His antlers had a frayed look from the dying remnants of the velvet that had covered them as they grew. Now they were fully hardened bone, and the velvet had to come off. After taking a moment to sniff the tree, the buck started rubbing his antlers against the trunk and low branches of the tree in order to scrape off velvet and leave his own scent on the tree.
Before long, he looked around, browsed, looked around again, and left. I released the shutter, and was about to put the camera away, when my left eye, not blocked by the view-finder, noticed movement. A shift of aim centered a pair of rabbits in the image. I zoomed in and squeezed the shutter again. Just when I thought I had enough of that cutesy image, there was a distinct >thump< and each of the rabbits was suddenly pinned to the ground by a large talon over the shoulder blades.
I zoomed out for an excellent picture of something I never thought I'd see: a classic mythological beast known as a griffin. It was obviously produced by the gene-splicing power of MORFS. Picture an oversize bald eagle, with an extra-large head, grafted in place of the front half of an undersized cougar. It even had the feline ears, with feathers, I'd seen portrayed in my uncle's reprinted copy of an old heraldry book. The most obvious difference from the old drawings was the tail. It was a bit shorter and a lot stouter than is usual for any "normal" cougar, and there was a fan of feathers at the tip, where a cougar doesn't even have a lion-style tuft of hair.
It looked around as it folded its wings, then its beak quickly made certain that the rabbits were both dead. When it looked around again, there was a moment when those golden raptor eyes appeared to be staring directly into the lens. When the griffin turned away, I had the impression I'd been either accepted as trustworthy, or dismissed as unimportant.
A moment later, taloned forelegs pushed the griffin upright and powerful hind legs propelled it in a mighty leap straight up as the wings unfolded. I remember thinking that a herald would describe the position as "segreant, wings elevated and addorsed". At the top of the leap, the hind legs curled in to shift the weight forward and brace for another push-off if it proved necessary. Meanwhile, the wings cupped air in the first down stroke. Even zooming out, I had a hard time tracking that ascent. Once it was well off the ground, the griffin stretched its body back out. It soon flew out of sight, its prey clutched in its talons.
There's no topping that! I bundled up my gear and hiked back to the logging road where I'd left my bike. The adrenaline rush was still coursing through my veins.
When I got to my motorcycle, I sat down and had a granola bar, another guarana tablet, and some sport drink while my pulse returned to normal. Before taking off, I dug out the download cord and copied the images into my mobile phone. Then I secured my gear, put on my helmet, started the bike, and headed for home in the "thriving metropolis" of Silverton, Oregon.
My name is Jason Buchannon. My friends call me Bucky. As the summer of 2032 was ending, I was seventeen years old. MORFS had already been around for over twenty years. I had friends and relatives who'd been changed by that disease, but my number hadn't come up yet, and I was beginning to doubt that it would.
Can you call it a suburb when there's no "urb" to be "sub" to? My family lived in an outer part of town, but not in the actual rural area. The obligatory rack of weathered antlers was centered over the garage door.
I went to my bedroom and hung my jacket in its usual spot, then sat down and fired up my computer. While it was coming up, I studied the framed Award of Arms scroll (which looked like any other framed certificate, except that it featured hand-drawn calligraphy and illumination) on the wall over the computer. It was dated 24 July, Anno Societatis LXVII (C.E. 2032), and the differing calligraphy in the gap at the top read "Conrad of Wolfmarch". I uploaded the images to the computer, then put the camera away and went to the kitchen for breakfast.
While I was eating breakfast, Vladimir stroped against my legs and arched his silky gray shoulders against my offered fingers. After I cleaned up the dishes, I grabbed a towel and left. On the way out the door, I glanced at my longbow hanging across a forked-horn rack. The quiver of hand-fletched arrows hung from a brow guard. The long fletching went with the tips, hidden in the quiver, which had the two-step taper called field point. I locked up, tossed the towel into the stowage case on the bike, and I was gone.
I didn't even leave any rubber on the driveway.
Well, hardly any.
The rack of antlers over the Hirschbergs' garage door was even older and more weathered than ours, and they were elk instead of deer. A luscious young woman named Tabitha, with a bushy head of light brown hair and curves in all the right places (900 millihelens, easy), met me at the door, and we spent several pleasant minutes in each other's arms. We fit together well; her eyes were even with the top of my shoulder. Finally, we came up for air and she put on the second helmet I kept strapped to the back of my bike, and we were on our way to the pool. It didn't take us very long to get there, and we were soon peeled to our swimsuits, poolside with our friends.
Morning Glory was the tallest and most eye-catching of the bunch. (Almost nobody ever called her by her real name of Gloria Jones.) I don't know where she found it, but she was actually wearing a musical cliché: "an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini". It was a sharp contrast to her green skin, and she had the curves to fill it out very nicely, indeed. (Having a girlfriend has never caused blindness –– at least, not directly.) Her hair was tulip red, and her eyes were buttercup yellow. Every so often, she would shift the straps of her top to try to even out her green lines. Her skin cells had chloroplasts instead of melanoplasts, and she was a pasty yellowish white wherever she didn't get enough sun. 825 millihelens.
Her closest rival for catching eyes was Barbara Washington, on the next lounger. Her shoulder-length chestnut hair was pulled back in a pony-tail, exposing the rounded little ears poking up, almost on top of her head. Except for the dark brown skin of her face, palms, and soles, her entire visible body was covered in shortish, glossy black fur, with prominent white stripes veeing out from the top of her neck and running in parallel down her back and out to the tip of her long bushy tail. She wore a red monokini with yellow flames. Pepé was never shaped like that! 800 millihelens.
Bambi (her real name was Dorcas) Hartshorn was on the next lounger in line. She looked like a stereotypical dumb blonde cheerleader, and she actually was on the squad. She often enjoyed acting the part, despite the fact that she was an honor student. Her bikini matched the Crater Lake Blue of her eyes, and her hair was in two long braids. 850 millihelens.
Dolores Tortosa, in her black bikini, was the curvaceous, raven-haired latina on the next lounger. 875 millihelens.
Jennifer Carlyle wore a dark green, old-fashioned one-piece swimsuit that covered most of her lovely body, plus the most UV-proof sunblock she could find, and still she stayed in the shade as much as she could when she wasn’t actually in the water. Her hair was bright red, her eyes were green, and her skin was only a half shade darker than an albino's, with freckles but No Detectable Changes to her strictly mundane genetics from her own bout of MORFS a couple years earlier. 825 millihelens.
Tabitha, in her emerald bikini, hurried over and started talking with Bambi and company, as if she hadn't just been chatting with one or another until I pulled into her driveway. Now, there's a serious concentration of eye candy!
I saw Bill coming toward me, and held out my soft drink toward him. "Bless me, Brother."
He mumbled something and made a gesture that was carefully neither obscene nor too irreverent. I sipped my drink, and there was a faint hint of a kick to it. As a chemical elemental, he could easily have converted all of its sugar into alcohol, but we both knew better. Sometimes we even acted like it.
Bill had gone through MORFS at the start of the summer, just a couple months behind Glory. We addressed him as "brother" because the syndrome had made big changes to his hair. Other than his eyelashes and his newly bushy eyebrows, the only hair left on his head was in the form of a monk's tonsure. It was all a pale shade of blue-gray known as Saint Patrick's Blue.
I dug my mobile out of my rolled-up towel. "Hey," I said, "you'll never believe the video I just shot this morning!"
Bill turned toward Tacitus and did his best impression of Maxwell Smart, from the old TV show. "I demand the Cone of Silence!"
Arthur Strathclyde had a stocky muscular build, with dark green hair and burnt-orange eyes. He dutifully stepped up to me and gestured. The air on a perimeter around us shimmered briefly, and suddenly I couldn't hear anything from the other side of the line. (The barrier was actually round, but the nickname had stuck.) Arthur was a sound disruptor, and we usually called him "Tacitus". Bill, of course, was left outside the barrier, even though we all knew that Tacitus could have made the Cone large enough for all three of us.
Frustrated, Bill went over to start flirting with Barbara. He'd been shyly pursuing her for at least five years at that point. He never quite stepped over the line into stalking behavior, and she was usually gentle with her rebuffs.
Tacitus was suitably impressed with the deer video. When it got to the rabbits, he said, "That's cute, but –– WHOA!"
After the video ended, he turned to me and I noticed a hint of a green beard shadow. He looked me in the eye and said, "There's no way you can claim that you meant to photograph that –– whatever it is!"
"It's a MORFS re-creation of a mythical beast called a griffin."
"Okay, there's no way you can say you meant to photograph that griffin!"
"Sure I can claim it. But you'd know I was shitting you."
"Hell yeah, I would! Never try to lie to an empath, even a feeble one like me."
I put away the phone and we got into a friendly debate, rating the girls we could see. The Cone stayed up because there were limits to our foolishness. Our debate hadn't gone on for very long when Tacitus tapped my arm and pointed off to the side. "Check it out."
Bill was trying to cajole Barbara into the pool. She didn't seem to be in the mood for it at the moment, and began tapping her foot. We watched the silent drama, since we still couldn't hear anything outside the Cone. He took hold of her hand and tried to pull her toward the water. That, or something he said, was apparently the proverbial last straw.
Skunks are just as limber and agile as cats, and Barbara was a gymnast. She had her hand free in no time at all, and she stiff-armed him in the chest with her other hand. He flew six feet out over the water, then stopped with his feet about six inches above the water's surface.
The air around Tacitus and me shimmered briefly, and I could suddenly hear the pool sounds again. But there were fewer sounds than there might have been, because everyone who saw Bill's wiry frame hanging there over the water had stopped to stare.
Bill was obviously just as surprised as the rest of us, but his comedic reflexes were always excellent. He looked down, flailed his legs like he was trying to run back to the side of the pool, then stopped, and sank into the water.
He wasn't far from the shallow end, so the water didn't even come up to his shoulders. I hollered, "Who do you think you are? Wile E. Coyote?"
Tacitus clapped a hand onto my shoulder. "That's it! He's Brother Wiley!"
Deciding to play it up, I stood up and proclaimed, "Hear ye, hear ye! The man" (at this point there was a volley of skeptical heckling) "we have known as William Effingham shall henceforth be known by the name of Brother Wiley!" The rest of the gang all heartily approved, and so the nickname was etched in virtual marble.
For a moment, it was plain to see that Wiley was trying to fly back to poolside, or at least levitate above the water. All that happened was that he floated up off the bottom til he gave up.
"The MORFS examiner said he thought I might have a physical modification, but he didn't think it was very strong. It looks like I can sorta levitate."
Barbara sneered. "'Sorta levitate'?"
"Sure. It seems to be a physical morf, and not psionic or elemental. I have the ability at something like its minimum level. At its maximum, I could probably fly like a comic book superhero."
Bambi interjected, "Without wings or any other control surfaces, you'd likely be as unstable in flight as that guy on the old TV show. You know, the schoolteacher. What was his name? Ralph?"
She went on, "Any time you see a flying morf that's bigger than an ordinary bird, it has to be getting lift from more than just its wings. Some of them use the powers of an air elemental or gravity disruptor, and some use a sort of telekinetic flight power. Levitation is another. Without some sort of boost, most of those morfs would fly like striped bricks."
Tabitha raised an eyebrow. "'Striped bricks'?"
I put in, "One of the pilots of the old 'shuttle' bragged that he could fly a brick if you painted stripes on it. The boast was received with, shall we say, a degree of skepticism."
Brother Wiley walked over to the side of the pool and grasped the edge, then crouched and jumped as he pulled with his arms and boosted with levitation. It was almost graceful. He picked himself up and we all huddled to plan the experiments.
First came the deep end of the pool, then the low diving board. In deep water, he could make himself float higher, but he couldn't levitate himself out of the water. He climbed out of the pool and onto the board, then walked toward the end, jumped, and boosted. We watched him angle up in a straight line, with no sign of slowing. Before he got to the height of the high dive, Bambi yelled out, "Stop boosting!"
He said, "Right," and suddenly started following a ballistic curve. A moment later, he hit the water near the middle of the pool, then hurried back for another huddle. He'd scared himself by almost overshooting the deep section of the pool. It was decided that he should time the boost for the top of his jump off the board.
This time, he rose a little bit higher than his jump would account for, then he just hovered there several feet above the water, drifting slowly away from the board. No amount of boosting effort could make him rise any higher.
"Okay," Bambi called, "now try to release it only partway."
That one took him a while. When he was finally able to ease himself slowly into the water, he was looking pretty tired. We called a break for lunch, and he didn't argue.
For some reason, I felt almost as tired as I would have if I'd been the one doing all that swimming, climbing, and jumping. The day was warming up, and the big thermometer on the wall already read 79 Fahrenheit, but I felt cold enough to put my camera T-shirt back on. (It was printed with an image of a camera slung around my neck.)
During lunch, I showed my wildlife video to the rest of the gang. Their reactions were about the same as Tacitus'.
Once he felt rested and refreshed, Brother Wiley headed for the high dive. Everyone else got into the water, too, all except Tabitha and me. She and I volunteered to keep watch on everyone's stuff. I noticed that she, too, had put a shirt on. We didn't say anything, but it looked to me like she was feeling a little off, just as I was.
I pulled out my mobile and took some pictures. The resolution and optics didn't even begin to compare with my real camera back home, but it was what I had on hand. Wiley, of course, saw what I was doing and played to it. He would jump off the board and just ham it up, suspended in midair. A couple times, the lifeguard had to tell him to get out of the way so the next person could use the board.
In the course of his play, Wiley gained better control of his levitation. He could fall in slow motion the whole way, sometimes parodying the acrobatics of a competition diver. When he did that, he fell erratically. But he got the most dramatic effect by free falling halfway before applying full boost. When he figured it exactly right, he came to a full stop just before his feet hit the water. Then, he slid in smoothly without a splash.
Tacitus quipped, "Parachute?! You don' need no steenking parachute!"
Just before we all had to leave, Wiley moved over to the shallow end and tried his skill at walking on water. That didn't go so well. Bambi said she guessed it was a vector thing.
His highly eloquent response was, "Huh?"
She rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. "Don't you know anything about physics?"
"Not much. I did okay in chemistry, and I've been boning up on that since I morfed."
"Okay, Billy One-Note, try this. Imagine you're high in the air, but not above the place you want to land. You have a portable jet-pack, but it's just barely strong enough to let you hover if you point it straight down with the throttle wide open. What would happen if you pointed it straight to the side, away from your target?"
"Uh, I'd gradually move faster and faster to the side, in the direction of the target?"
She nodded. "But, . . . ?"
"Meanwhile, I'd be falling with the full force of gravity."
Barbara winced. "That'd leave a mark."
Bambi gave her a lop-sided smile, and turned back to Wiley. "So, what happens if you angle the nozzle somewhere between the two?"
"I wouldn't move to the side as fast, but I wouldn't fall as fast, either."
"Right. The question is balance. You need enough lateral thrust, without losing too much vertical thrust. In your case, balance is literal. When you were clowning around up there, it looked like your 'thruster' was in line with your body."
Barbara gave Bambi a sharp look. "I didn't realize you were watching him that closely."
"Somebody has to. If he screws up and gets blood in the pool, it'll ruin the afternoon for everyone."
"You're right about that." She turned back to Wiley. "And now that I think about it, she's also right about what she saw. You're lucky you didn't go for a full-on belly-flop, or dive head-first at full boost."
"Why? What do you mean?"
"Think about it. A boosted belly-flop could come close to missing the pool entirely, and a boosted head-first dive would speed you up. You'd be falling at two gees, instead of one. You'd hit the water hard, and the bottom harder."
"Ouch. Talk about leaving a mark!" He turned to Bambi. "Okay, you have my attention. What's your advice?"
"When you stood on the water and tried to walk, how much progress did you make?"
"That's because you didn't have much traction on the water. It mostly just moved away from what little contact you had with it. If you let yourself sink a bit, you'd get more of a bite, but it'd be like high-stepping through snow." She got a gleam in her eyes and grinned. "You could probably make more progress if you leaned forward and ran across the water."
Everyone (and I include myself) looked surprised at that.
She continued, "If you balance it right, your feet driving against the water will make up the lost lift to keep you up, as well as adding to your forward motion. A sprint would probably be best."
Tacitus grunted, pointing at the posted safety rules. "Not here; no running."
"Right. How about we spend tomorrow at Silver Creek Reservoir?"
There was general agreement, but I said I might not be able to make it, so somebody else should plan on recording it for posterity –– or the accident investigation. Tabitha said she might not be able to make it, either.
Bambi looked at us over her sunglasses. "Both of you at the same time? Bucky? Tabitha? Is there something you want to tell us?"
We both made gestures of denial, and I said, "No, no, I just –– might not be able to make it."
We all gathered up our stuff, threw away our trash, and went home. Tabitha gave me a quick kiss at her door. She wasn't quite staggering with fatigue as she went inside.
Once I got home, I parked my bike in its usual spot in the garage, then went inside, put on a long-sleeve shirt, and sat down at my computer with Vladimir purring on my lap. My bedroom was on the back side of the house, and my window faced out across the back yard. The lot our house sat on was fairly deep, running to and partly up the side of a hill. We had an archery target butt at the base of the hill, and I could hear it calling to me, but I just didn't feel up to my usual afternoon target practice.
I copied the afternoon's pool pictures into the computer, then extracted two still images from the morning's wildlife video: the griffin crouching and looking straight into the camera, and the griffin leaping into the air. I put a couple copies of both, along with the full video, onto portable media, and archived another copy. I cropped the crouching picture down to just the head, blurred out the background, and made that my new screen-saver image.
About then, my parents got home from work, and I showed them the pictures. They reacted to the wildlife scenes about the same as my friends. Then I told them how Brother Wiley got his new name, and they laughed.
Before I shut down the computer, I e-mailed the stills to Uncle Fred in Woodburn. He's the canton herald, and I'm his deputy. Aside from its interest value as morfed wildlife, a griffin is the primary charge (that is, the central image) of the arms for the Kingdom of the Summits. That's what inspired the name and heraldry of our canton on the northern edge of the kingdom, Greifsmark ("Griffin's Border").
While Dad grilled some venison steaks that had been thawing, and Mom nuked a few spuds and unbagged a salad, I tried to ignore the rumbling in my gut and the sense of queasiness I felt. Wandering into the living room, I turned on the news. The echoes of the Robert Knight case and the Carmichael / Caverhall scandal hadn't died down yet. It was an election year, after all. Ecuador was still the same war-torn hell-hole I’d always seen reported.
Supper was delicious, but it didn't sit well. After I had to make a mad dash to the bathroom, Mom realized I was feverish, and we were soon on our way to the doctor. After office hours, and without an appointment, that meant the emergency room of the local hospital, where I was officially diagnosed as positive for MORFS. Two hours after my bathroom run, I was in bed with an energy pack and meds to get me through the possible change.
During those two hours, Dad commented on how long we probably would have had to wait if the Marxist takeover of the healthcare system hadn't been defeated twenty-odd years ago. He also went on about how it would have stifled the research that developed the high-nutrient energy packs which brought the mortality rate of MORFS down almost to zero by fueling the changes. He even speculated that it was the MORFS outbreak, itself, which had showcased the strengths of free-market medicine and derailed the takeover effort. It was a familiar rant, and he was preaching to the choir.
Lying there in bed, I was reassured by the knowledge that my Dad and all three of his siblings had gone through it, but neither Dad nor Uncle Bob had any detectable changes. Uncle Fred got green hair, and Aunt Melissa became a telepath. (Those cousins don't get away with anything!) My older brother Keith simply buffed up. He wasn't in Silverton just then; he had an apartment in Eugene, where he was attending the university.
As I faded off to sleep, Vladimir was a vibrating warmth against my ankle.
* * *
The entire MORFS Universe can be found at http://morfs.nowhere2go.org/