This is a Tomorrowlands universe story; they are listed at http://www.tomorrowlands.org/story/stories.html.
© 2001, Cattywampus.
"Kenneth" =1=. Kenneth leaned back into the only chair he owned, and the comfortable black leather chair rocked slightly against his weight. He closed his eyes and sighed wearily, trying to let himself disappear from the whole of the world outside his window. A pair of eyes pricked the back of his neck. He found the energy to turn his head to see who the voyeur was, and was greeted by thin slivers of pupils set in green eyes, surrounded altogether with a lot of orange and white fur. His cat danced its weight around from one leg to the next and looked expectantly at him again. Then, somewhere inside his mind, he heard -- or felt, he never could quite discern which -- the plea. "C'mon. Pleeeeeeeease. You're the warmest spot in the place!" Kenneth smiled despite himself and patted his leg. The cat wiggled a little and jumped, and Kenneth's lap disappeared under some 25 pounds of house cat. The cat hadn't always been that large, but, apparently, the recent madness in the world didn't apply only to its people. Kenneth's eyes swept over the room, deliberately avoiding the television set resting cattywampus in the corner, the way it had been since it was kicked to the floor. He started to relax again, and let his mind escape into some kind of absentness where all was still. Suddenly, he felt a tremendous tug on his heart; it was a nearly unfathomable yearning, pulling at once at the core of his body and shuddering through every fiber of his being. Kenneth closed his eyes tight and resisted it. "No," he thought, "you can't make me." The sensation grinned and pulled again. Kenneth clenched his teeth and pushed it away until he was thinking again of soaring mountains, deeply wooded hills, and crisp air giving way to warm days. He slept. =2=. Kenneth awoke with a start and shot his glance around the room, trying to find what had awoken him. His senses reeled, and the very first emotion he experienced was one of nearly overwhelming ... wrongness. The cat was gone out of his lap already; he spotted it craning its neck around a corner, peering at the door. The knocking sounded again. Kenneth frowned, and as he got up from the door and hollered at it, he reached out with his mind. He intuited a handful of people, mostly harmless, and couldn't reconcile that with his instinctive edginess. He opened the door to a man with a leather face, flanked on his right by a woman holding a baby in a blanket. Behind him was a kid probably in his mid-teens, and on his left was another woman whose face spelled a practiced look of concern and worry. "Hi there, neighbor. Fine day, isn't it? My name's Jim," the lead fellow drawled, "and we're carrying a petition about those man-beasts." He thrust his clipboard at Kenneth, who stared absently at it for a few beats of a second, before taking it into his hand to read the paper it held. As he read, Jim continued his oration. "We're part of the Human Welfare Committee; our job is to keep this fine city safe for every full-blooded person." Kenneth glanced at him. Jim cleared his throat. "Right. Well, we want every one of them theris to voluntarily --" Jim glanced away from Kenneth as he emphasized that word, and Kenneth knew that it wouldn't be voluntary, or ethical. "... sign themselves up into a database. After all, what if your neighbor turned into a tiger or somethin', and took to hunting your baby?" Nearly on cue, the baby that the woman on his right was holding let out a short wail. "So," Jim continued, "this way, see, we'll know about it." Kenneth looked up at Jim impassively. "And then what?" "Whaddaya mean, then what?" "What would you do once you knew?" "Well," Jim drawled, "I'd put up a 'lectric fence, or somethin'." On a whim, Kenneth opened a door to part of his mind, and immediately shut it. The sense of revulsion he was flooded with nearly started him physically shaking. He fought back the feeling, putting it away until later, and pushed the clipboard back to Jim. "No." Jim stared at Kenneth, and opened his mouth, but no sounds came out. Then his face tightened and he narrowed his eyes at Kenneth. "You ain't one of them ... animal lovers" -- he nearly spit it out like an epithet -- "are you?" Kenneth grinned, and let the grin play openly across his lips. "Good day, Jim. Good luck with those signatures." (The first open line on the petition was already at 394.) Jim shot his hand out and stopped the door, nearly knocking Kenneth back in the process. "Neighbor, I really think you oughtta sign. It's for everyone's safety, y'know. Didn't you hear about that gal, mother of four little kids, who's still in a coma because of that New Year's Massacre? What if that was one of your kids in the crowd?" Kenneth left some part of his mind looking at Jim, set his jaw, and reluctantly opened the rest of his mind again. He fought through intense whirls of revulsion until he reached the minds of those four people, and, gently, he suggested that it was getting cold outside and they were hungry. Kenneth mentally retreated from their presence and shut his mind's doors again, focusing on an apathetic attitude to the world at large. "I think you should go now." Jim started to argue, and the teenage kid behind him started forward. Kenneth closed the door to them, and this time, they didn't resist. They left, and, a few yards out, Kenneth barely heard, "Brrrr. It got real cold all of a sudden, didn't it? How about going in for some lunch?" Kenneth went in to nap again, to retreat from the world and every part of it that he could sense at some level. This time, though, he had nightmares reeling around fighting, darkness and oppression, and being chased by some creature that he could never quite see. When he woke, he didn't remember any of his dreams, but he felt unnerved and sought out one of his cats for some quality petting anyway. =3=. Kenneth retrieved January 6's paper from the sidewalk and paused for a few minutes to admire the bright, chilly morning. As he walked back in to the warmth of his home, he unfolded the paper to the headline, "Nonhumans Must Report To Relocation Camps". Kenneth stared at it in disbelief, and fleetingly, the notion crossed his mind that he was still dreaming. The article spanned nearly half the page, detailing which local places nonhumans were supposed to report to, as well as the provisions available at the centers. Inside were two op-ed pieces, one arguing that the President's executive order was for everyone's own safety and well-being (which reminded him of last night's encounter with Jim), and the other arguing that the order was a glaring reminder of some of the darker chapters of America's history. Inside pages had pictures of protests for human rights, protests for nonhuman rights, and even one protest against the protests. Even the comic page wasn't an escape; that day's "Garfield" strip had Jon drawn as an overgrown version of Garfield, and complaining that he was shedding all over his breakfast. Kenneth's smaller cat jumped up onto the counter, wiggled her tail at him, and proceeded to lie down on the paper. She looked at him and slowly blinked; in his mind, Kenneth heard, "You didn't wanna read that anyway." Kenneth smiled despite himself, grabbed his hot chocolate, and put on some Simon and Garfunkel. He was in the middle of a morning stretch when he felt a twinge in the middle of his back, and then the grasping, tugging sensation at his heart again. This time, though, it was strong enough to cause him to cry out, and he doubled over with his jaw clenched against it. Every time he tried to close his mind, to stop being overwhelmed by every emotion surrounding him, another part of his mind opened itself to him, flooding him. He growled the words out. "I don't WANT to Change." In the background, Simon and Garfunkel played "Silent Night". =4=. He was afraid, scared nearly to death. His heart pounded its way through the sides of his head, and something punched him in the stomach. He looked up and saw a cat's smiling visage, and then something large threw him into the middle of a street fight. Somewhere in the distance the cat laughed, and on either side of him humans were battling creatures that, weeks before, hadn't existed since mythology's day. A fist appeared out of nowhere and soundly clocked him. Now he was angry, insanely furious, and he stood to face his attacker, only to be met by a void. He felt claws on his flesh, and looked down. He wasn't bleeding, but now he was the battle; one half of his body assumed fractal images of humans in his flesh, and they were tearing at and battling disparate images of beasts and tangles of fur and scale on the other half. He screamed. A disembodied eye glared at him, while a relentless grin mouthed the words, "What are you?" The last thing he remembered as he woke were the words, "I don't know." =5=. Kenneth decided that morning to forego the paper, and take a stroll instead. He hadn't been outside since the Flyby, 6 days before. He didn't know where he would go, or care really, as long as it was somewhere else. He still felt strangely unsettled by his previous night's slumber and couldn't puzzle out why. So, he pulled on an old T-shirt with a print of two cougars on it, and soon found himself sitting in the sunlight at a nearby stream made pregnant by the winter's rains. He pressed his hand against the trunk of a tree beside him, and closed his eyes. Kenneth didn't consider himself a "New Ager," to the point of finding it massively difficult to socialize with that crowd. Still, though, when he closed his eyes and tried to see without them, what he saw -- or, rather, felt -- was a deeply interwoven mesh of gently flowing thoughts and sensations. Energy. It all had a kind of unique vibration, the way the strands of a spider's web dance when some insect stumbles into it. In the same way a spider would, Kenneth could sense what was happening up or down the weave according to changes in vibrations or flow of individual threads. The tree met his mind and told him stories in impressions, of warm, free summers and desolate winters; of dangers from people and marauding insects; of the feel of the soil as it stayed cooler than a warm day and warmer than a cool day; and the odd sensation of moisture seeping through the ground around it. After a few moments, he became aware of a perturbation tugging at the back of his mind, unrelated to the tree; he refocused his attention to it, and immediately noticed the shift in the area's background energy. Something was putting a tremendous drain on that energy, and each time the weave tried to fill in the deficit, it was drained again. Although it wasn't unusual for individual strands to be temporarily drained, Kenneth hadn't before seen this sort of large-scale demand on the area's resources. It was, to Kenneth, an alarming offense against the ethos of low-impact magery. Kenneth searched for and found the source of the drain, a mage he didn't recognize. He set his jaw and started focusing, gathering his will together. A scant moment before he intended to appear before the unknown mage, he sensed not one, but five different mages simultaneously circle the attacker. Kenneth realized he wasn't the only one who had noticed the drain, so he settled in to watch; he would likely be totally invisible to everyone involved, unless they specifically looked for him, and he was just as happy to observe as to participate. The attacking mage immediately drew up a bubble of varied energy around itself and began thickening its hull. One of the five defending mages -- who resembled something of a werewolf to Kenneth's mind -- made its inexperience obvious when it lunged directly at the bubble. Kenneth winced as the werewolf turned a bright hue of orange and was deflected into one of the other mages' shields. It disappeared from the area, probably to recuperate for a while. One of the remaining mages tried to bind the attacker from accumulating any more energy, while two other mages each concentrated on pouring so much random, disharmonic energy into the attacker that it would be overwhelmed and suffer a magical burn-out. The other mage rained deadly shards of energy on the attacker's shield. Alone, Kenneth thought they might not have been much of a challenge, but their combined wills would eventually overrun the attacking mage, powerful as it was. Kenneth watched quietly as the counter-attacks gradually increased in strength. Swirls of energy parried blasts of wildly different energy; for each trick of one mind, another mind conceived a new, more elaborate trick. He was certain that the attacking mage would be defeated by the mages' collective effort, but he had to return home soon, and didn't want to leave until the matter was settled. Kenneth deliberated for a few minutes, and ultimately decided to contribute to the defense, indirectly. His brow knitted visibly as his mind groped for the delicate wisps of background energy and refocused them; effectively, he was transforming himself into a convex lens, sharpening the focus of any energy that passed through him from one direction, and diffusing energy from the opposite direction. When Kenneth was sufficiently content with the effect, he moved his mind -- and in a sense, himself -- between the attacking mage and the four other mages that had dedicated themselves to the defense. It was a subtle and definite finishing blow. For a brief moment, every action made by a defending mage was multiplied five times over, and every action made by the attacker seemed to simply dissipate before ever reaching its opponents. Kenneth felt the attacker's scream of agony in his mind, and saw the multicolored disco effect as the multiple attacks penetrated the mage's shield and struck like pinpricks in its mind. Then it was over; the attacker disappeared, vanishing into some other place, and before any of the other four mages could begin looking for the source of the magnifying effect, Kenneth withdrew into the background and then disappeared from their individual senses entirely, returning to his body. He blinked at the suddenly harsh sunlight, the result of having had his eyes closed for more the twenty minutes, and gradually a grin crept across his face. In the world of minds and wills, he could actually do something. Not like the world of muscle he usually lived in. =6=. The day was giving way to night, so Kenneth stopped wandering around and reluctantly headed for home. He had strolled about a mile, and was partway across a grassy field, when the hair on the back of his neck stood stiffly up. Kenneth froze. "Hey man, where ya headed?" Kenneth turned his head to the voice. "Say, got any cigarettes, man?" Kenneth's eyes found the source of the second voice. "Nope, none, sorry," was all he finally managed. "Aww, that's a shame." A third voice. Kenneth put his feet together, realizing he still stood in midstride, and tuned out the sound of his beating heart. "Can we borrow some money then, man? We'll give it back next time we see you," from the second voice. The two other people chuckled at their humor. Kenneth turned to face them, and paused. He recognized one of them as the teenage kid that had been at his door with Jim, collecting signatures the day before. He suddenly wished he wasn't wearing that cougar T-shirt. "Heeey, I know you. You're that dude that wouldn't sign our petition. Check his shirt, guys." They moved in closer to Kenneth; all three were high-school age. "Yeah, what's with the shirt? I mean, it ain't very cool to start with, and you know the other day my little sister was chased by a dog that ran on two legs?" The center boy reached for Kenneth's shirt, and Kenneth flinched; he shot his hand out to slap off the boy's hand, and the rest of his body froze, terrified. The boy to the left pushed Kenneth's shoulder. "What's up, huh?" Kenneth panicked; his previous experience in street fights was limited to a playground tumble in kindergarten. The center boy howled as Kenneth's knee found a home between the boy's legs, and Kenneth rushed the kid on the left. He swung wild, barely clipping the kid's jaw, and pulled his fist back for a second try when the third teenager buried his fist into Kenneth's ribs. Kenneth stumbled sideways onto the soft dirt, and swung up hard with his left fist into the third kid's stomach. By now, though, the first teenager was on his feet, and Kenneth knew he was out of options. His heart beat its way through the sides of his head and, in the midst of the brawl, something snapped. It wasn't a bone, or any other part of Kenneth's body. Kenneth was back in his nightmares, seeing them for the first time. He felt something well up from within him and then was riding an intense wave of deeply buried emotions. For just one split second, the tiniest fraction of time, Kenneth lost control of Kenneth. He exploded. Not figuratively. His three attackers found themselves on their backs, still blinded by an intensely bright light. They felt hot from the inside out, and felt loose cinders of dirt under their fingers. Kenneth's psyche was fractured into a handful of different sensations and thoughts. Disbelief, and anger. Pity. Kenneth put his hand on the ground as he stood up. Most of his mind noticed that he was densely covered with fine fur, and that it glowed a gentle light green. Hues of crimson confused Kenneth until he moved his eyes and realized that everywhere he looked, the edges of his sight remained red. The teenage boys, as a one, found their sight and stared at Kenneth. What they saw was six feet of green-glowing tawny feline wearing a T-shirt and jeans. With red eyes. And it was clearly angry. Their feet started running, and it took a moment for the rest of their bodies to catch up. They stumbled into each other in their haste, and Kenneth was nearly certain that one of them had swallowed his cigarette. The red tinge suddenly disappeared from Kenneth's sight, and he was able to think in one thought at a time again. Instinctively, he glanced around, and decided it wouldn't be a good idea to keep walking home. It took a good deal of effort, but he finally managed to melt into the ground where he stood and, sliding alongside tree roots and the burrows of small animals, appear at his doorstep. =Epilogue=. Kenneth spent hours trying to get back into a human form again. He knew, instinctively, that he should be able to. But for whatever reason, he couldn't seem to make it happen; his fear had been realized, and it would be his struggle for some time to come. He also spent a lot of time trying to sit in his favorite chair. The presence of a tail made that a painfully dubious experiment, and with a disheartened sigh he finally gave up and found a footstool to sit on. The look on the face of his housecats was nothing short of classic. Whenever he needed a laugh, Kenneth just remembered their expressions. Showering went from being a blissful retreat from the world to being a prelude to hours of miserable dampness (not to mention the overpowering wet-cat odor). His fingertips itched, and it took a while for the impulse to use the housecats' scratching post to overcome him. They looked indignant as it was nearly shredded. An odd whining sound from a corner of the room caught his attention; he found a spider there and released it outside. Kenneth finally started to feel overwhelmed, so he sat down in the middle of the room, took a few minutes to adjust to the feeling of fur brushing against the carpet pile, and closed his eyes. With so many things on his mind already, he never paused to consider what would happen when the kid that attacked him in the street got home to Jim.
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