|Part 2||HEA: Erosion Index||Part 4|
Copyright (c) 1998 Phaedrus; All rights reserved
The opinions of the characters in this story are not those of the author.
The first few months passed, and ^}'s existence fell into a routine. At the field office, he would assist as best he could with the humans, particularly the high-risk cases. And every day, there were the visits to the field clients.
Much to his satisfaction, the forfeitures among his clients had slowed to a trickle--one or two a month. If he could sustain this low rate of forfeiture through stage one, then surely even \\ would have to take notice.
Some of his clients actually seemed to be accepting their new existence; his visits to them were a pleasure for him, conversing at length with them, watching them adjust. Others had fallen into resignation, hopelessness; they simply went through the motions of their former lives, with no thought, no energy. His efforts to stimulate them almost invariably failed. They saddened ^}; but at least they were stable, with little chance of forfeiture. Perhaps when they began to experience the transformation, to see the benefits as well as the drawbacks, they would show a more positive outlook.
But the humans that tried his spirit were those like Paul Foster--the ones who focused so strongly on anger, on defiance. No matter how polite ^} was, no matter how carefully he studied and applied the human communication techniques, his meetings with them were always the same; they heaped abuse and insults on him, until he retreated. Many, like Paul Foster, had even taken to calling him "Mr. Hitler", a metaphor so obviously defective that it did not even merit consideration. They frustrated him on every level. How could a sensible being devote itself so totally to such a negative emotion? They did themselves no good, and certainly they knew that; the outcome would be the same regardless, and they simply squandered the time they had. And they certainly did ^} no good. Their resentment had a constant risk of boiling over into forfeiture; and how could ^} refine his techniques if the humans refused to even communicate with him at a level higher than insult?
And so it continued, month after month, until one fateful meeting with Paul Foster.
It was November, only a month before the deadline for stage one; and the pressure was clearly building on these problem cases. ^} was concerned that many of them would forfeit, rather than face the change voluntarily; not only would that be tragic, it would destroy his credibility. What use were his techniques if such a large group of humans so utterly failed to respond to them?
^} had prepared materials on each of his clients' chosen forms (or the forms selected for those who had refused); he hoped that seeing the positive nature of these species would help the clients to accept them more fully. Paul Foster's response to the materials had been the same as his response to nearly everything else; he ignored them. He continued to refuse to even look at ^}; he would lie there in the grass, staring at the sky. He usually responded only to direct questions--in the briefest manner possible, and often with a dose of insult or invective thrown in.
^} decided to try once more. "Mr. Foster, it is certainly your decision, and I will not press you any further. But I strongly encourage you to read these before our next appointment; I truly believe they could be very helpful to you..."
Something in ^} gave way.
"Damn you! Do you have nothing better to do with the rest of your life than hurting someone who's trying to help you? Do you think that your marvelous attitude is going to win my heart? Are you trying to throw away four years? Would you just tell me what the hell you're thinking??"
There was dead silence.
^} gradually seemed to realize what he had just said. What had he done? This human would forfeit for sure, and a wild outburst like that could cost ^} all the credibility he was so carefully establishing with his superiors. How could he let a human affect him like that?
Then he noticed something else. For the first time in months, Paul Foster was looking right at him. And when he spoke, there was something different in his tone.
"Well, I'll be. You do have a spine in there somewhere."
None of ^}'s studies had predicted this. Did Paul Foster respect his outburst? What was the correct reaction?
"If I didn't have a spine, I would have tossed you your appointment schedule back in April and saved myself some aggravation."
"But that would be a failure, wouldn't it? That would mean that your noble attempt to teach me the error of my ways hadn't worked; it would put such a big nasty hole in your orderly little world. And you couldn't have that, could you?"
"I am not trying to teach you the error of your ways. That's in the past, for better or worse. I'm trying to help you with the present, and the future."
"What a wonderful slogan. And how wonderfully convenient. The decision to kill us all? That's the past. Let's all forget about that, and just deal with the future, shall we?"
"And what past would you like to remember? Only the past year? Or shall we remember the dodo and the passenger pigeon while we're at it? What future did you give them?"
"None at all. So two wrongs make a right? We bump off the dodo, you bump off us?"
"So you believe there are only two wrongs here? How many species have you wiped out?"
"Too many. And that justifies wiping us out? No trial, no second chances, no rehabilitation? Poof, you're gone, game over?"
"And what sort of trial would you have in mind? What evidence would you present that could possibly outweigh the damage that has been done?"
"I'll think about that one."
If ^} were human, he would have blinked. The exchange had been so rapid, he had not even had time to think about it properly. He was fairly sure that he had won... but he was not quite sure why, or how. And he had no idea where to go from here.
"Please do, Mr. Foster," he said finally. "I will return in a month for stage one. Please, try not to worry about it excessively; stage one is really only cosmetics--there are usually no functional changes at all. You still have nearly a year before stage two."
"Thank heavens for small mercies."
And with that, Paul Foster returned to his cabin, and closed the door. And he took the papers with him.
^} almost didn't want to believe what he had just seen. All his careful study had told him that patience and politeness was the key, that a reasonable and consistent approach would eventually cause any human to respond reasonably as well. Yet this human Paul Foster had just turned from a ball of hatred, into an eerily sensible being, in a matter of thirty seconds... because ^} had yelled at him. How could that be? He had to understand this...
He retreated from the sight of Paul Foster's cabin. Then he considered the matter carefully, for several hours. He would be late for his afternoon appointment with \\, but this was more important... and certainly more satisfying.
At last, he thought he had the beginnings on a theory. For most humans, he reasoned, his original plan was correct; patience and courtesy was the key. But for some reason, some humans--such as Paul Foster--seemed to see everything in terms of conflict. For these humans, a nonconfrontational approach would be exactly the wrong thing; before addressing their questions and their concerns, one would first have to work through the conflict through which they perceived the situation. And to a human only able to see in terms of conflicts, someone unwilling to engage in conflict would truly be an alien--incomprehensible, unworthy of respect or consideration.
It was an unnerving theory. But it had worked, where nothing else had. And he would never know whether or not it was correct unless he tried it.
Besides, it had been curiously refreshing.
Over the next few weeks, ^} used his new theory on his more challenging cases. He would begin politely as always; but if that failed, he would suddenly switch to a provocative approach, challenging them, countering their insults with hard facts. He tried it with a few of those lost in resignation, but quickly stopped; it was clearly counterproductive, driving them into even deeper depression. But with the combative humans, it was surprisingly effective. A few were simply more enraged than ever, and forfeited. Some simply continued their abusive behavior unchanged. But the majority responded positively to the confrontational approach. They often still insulted him, but most of the insults were now specific, based on the particular remarks he had made, rather than vague or repetitious slams based simply on his race. Some even asked for additional meetings to discuss the issues further. They were now listening to, and thinking about, what he had to say, even if they still rejected it; and that was a huge step forward.
He threw himself into the planning of stage one with renewed enthusiasm.
^} had expected to have to bring one of the office's doctors along, to perform the actual procedure. He wasn't concerned about the difficulty of the task; once the basic techniques were learned, it was surprisingly easy. But he had expected that the doctors would object to him performing the task that was assigned to them.
To his surprise, there were no real objections. \\ certainly didn't want these dangerous humans parading through his office; and the doctors were busy enough as it was. In fact, they simply put him to work handling transformations in the office for a few days; and ^} suspected that they were motivated as much by a chance to reduce their workload as by desire to make sure that he didn't botch the procedure in the field.
And as the "training" ran its course, he began to understand their lack of enthusiasm. In the field, his clients were individuals; he had gotten to know most of them in at least some detail--the law student, who felt betrayed that his years of hard work and study would go to waste; the woman who seemed to dread the day that her soap operas would go off the air more than she did the change itself; the double amputee who had taken an early stage-three to get his legs back, and was now desperately trying to fund and organize a climb up Mount Everest before the shutdown of businesses made it impractical. ^} had offered to simply take him there--with the cleanup of Everest in full swing, it would have been easy to arrange--but Anton had refused. ^} couldn't understand his motivations, but his passion was strangely infectious; ^} couldn't resist hoping that he would succeed. And if that was how he wanted to spend the twilight of his human life, then that was his choice.
But for the doctors in the field office, the humans came and went so fast, they lost their differentiation, became a steady stream. There was so little time to think about them, to get to know them; it became easier to simply think of the transformations as a mechanical process, to consider the humans only in terms of what they would become--horse, alpaca, mountain goat, raven, ocelot, whitetail deer. In a way, they became animals even before the transformation started.
This can't be right either, ^} found himself thinking, as the humans flowed by. Surely there should be a way to make the process more personal, for both sides.
But that was not ^}'s concern; he couldn't control everything. It was important for him to stay focused on what he could control.
And he learned something else about the procedure. At first, the notion of altering another being at such a fundamental level had been terrifying. But, once he became reasonably skilled at it, and the fear subsided, the feeling of having the fate of another being so clearly and directly under his control began to become strangely exhilarating. It was an unexpected reaction, but ^} did not question it; it got him through the days.
And then the training was over, and his field work began again.
Paul Foster was his first stage-one appointment, and ^} felt that same curious exhilaration as he approached the cabin. This was the real test. How would Paul Foster react to the actual change? And how would ^} react?
"Hello, Paul Foster. Would you like to go straight to business, or would you prefer to continue our conversation from last month first?"
"I would like to continue our conversation, and to hell with business. But you haven't left me that option."
"I cannot postpone the stage, I'm afraid."
"Of course not. Mustn't let little things like right and wrong get in the way of..." Paul stopped, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and spoke in a soft voice, as if to himself: "If I die today, I will not let this be the last thing on my mind." He breathed deeply once more, then opened his eyes, staring at ^}. "Get it over with."
"I understand," ^} said softly. He paused for a moment--realizing that he had just opened the door to an insulting remark--but Paul remained silent. "Would you like to review the details of what will take place first?"
"You will not do anything beyond what is required for stage one. Right?"
"That's the only detail I want to know."
"I understand. Please lie down, and try to relax as best you can. You may experience a feeling of floating. I promise you, there will be no discomfort."
"That will come afterward," Paul muttered, staring coldly at ^} for a moment; but then he quietly sat down, spread himself out on the grass, and closed his eyes.
^} did not give Paul any more time to doubt. He enveloped Paul, lifting him slowly off the ground, and began the sequence.
He had planned very carefully. Many nacelites, he had noticed, seemed to treat stage one as simply a chance to practice, and to get the humans accustomed to the procedure. The transformation itself was treated almost as an afterthought, and in ^}'s opinion, it showed in the results. The changes were technically sound, but often aesthetically poor, with an abrupt line at which the human skin simply ended and the fur or scales or feathers began. The result made the animal features seem like an alien growth, encroaching on the top of the human's head--exactly the notion that the human already had, and exactly the one that it was so important to break, particularly with high-risk humans such as these. So he had planned stage one very carefully.
First, there was pain management. Standard procedure was simply to block the nerve impulses to the pain centers of the brain; but ^} used a different approach. After blocking the voluntary motor centers to prevent resistance, he carefully applied only a partial damper to the pain inputs, then rerouted them to the pleasure center. The humans would experience the change as a subtly pleasant experience, rather than an impersonal, neutral one; he hoped that this would increase acceptance.
Now, the physical adjustments could begin, starting with the ears. Reshaping them from the odd human configuration to the wolf's rounded triangles was trivial. But configuring the musculature allowing them to pivot, and modifying the internal structures to allow for improved hearing, was more delicate. And shifting them to the top of the head required careful rearrangement of other internal structures.
(As was often the case, this shift actually took the ears substantially higher than they would eventually need to be; they would have to be relocated down, as well as to the rear, in stages two and three. But it had been found that, on the rounded human head, placing the ears in their final positions now resulted in an unnatural appearance, as did leaving the positions unchanged. For some reason, the psyche of humans was much more comfortable in seeing the ears of anthropomorphs near the top, as demonstrated by their illustrations and "cartoons". Adhering to these societal conventions as closely as possible could only help the process of acceptance.)
With the ears correctly situated and adjusted, the remaining modifications to the head could proceed. Leaving the facial hair unchanged, he replaced the head hair with the necessary fur, adjusting the skin accordingly. He carefully adjusted the length and color of the fur, shortening and lightening it near the edges; combined with a gradual darkening of the skin tone near the affected areas, this produced an aesthetically pleasing transition from skin to fur, with no visible "seam" at the edges.
Satisfied with the look of the head, ^} next turned his attention to the internal organs. The lungs and heart were left essentially unchanged at this stage; but the intestinal tract required extensive changes to better accommodate the wolf's carnivorous diet. The stomach and esophagus were toughened, and the digestive acids strengthened somewhat; the immune system was also altered, to provide better resistance to the bacteria and other contaminants frequently found in uncooked meat. The relatively weak human saliva might still pose a problem; but strengthening it would require substantial changes to the mouth tissues, which would be best left for stage two.
These changes complete, ^} proudly surveyed his work. It was his first transformation conducted outside the time pressures of the office, and he found that the more relaxed pace made it even more enjoyable. There was no need to rush through one procedure and on to the next; one could take the time to better appreciate the changes, to consider them thoroughly and carefully.
In fact, as ^} contemplated Paul Foster with the leisure of time, he began to consider other factors.
Would it be appropriate to augment his sense of smell now? No, he concluded; to do the job properly would require visible physical changes, that were outside the scope of the first stage. Besides, augmenting a sense without an accompanying physical change would send the wrong message; in order to better appreciate the new form, it would be important for the human to perceive the sensory advantages of that form, rather than retain an unnecessary attachment to the old senses. Having time to appreciate the improved hearing allowed by his new ears would be helpful for Paul; an improved sense of smell in a still-human nose would be counterproductive.
What else could be done at this stage? Claws were well within the stage-one protocol, and their presence now would help Paul to adjust more to the idea of change, which would assist him with the more extensive changes of the later stages. So ^} gently reshaped and lengthened the fingernails into short claws, making the necessary structural adjustments to the fingertips to accommodate them, and slightly darkening and toughening the surrounding skin for a better aesthetic and functional effect. Carefully removing the shoes and socks, he altered the toes and their nails in the same fashion.
The claws on the feet could certainly cause problems with the wearing of shoes, ^} realized; but open-toed shoes or sandals could be used to compensate. And it would be wise to encourage Paul to acclimate himself to going barefoot, since it would be mandatory in stage two. So ^} toughened, and slightly thickened, the soles of Paul's feet, careful not to alter the physical appearance of the skin in the process. After a further moment's reflection, he very slightly increased the sensitivity of the other surfaces of the feet--just enough to make the pressure of shoes or sandal straps on those surfaces subtly more uncomfortable.
That would seem to be all the physical alterations required at this stage--but the issue of senses still troubled ^}. Humans were essentially visual creatures, with hearing playing a secondary role, and smell a distant third; the wolf--along with many other species--was primarily auditory and olfactory, with vision being secondary. The improved hearing would certainly help Paul to begin this shift in emphasis; and smell could not be improved at this stage. But would it be helpful to slightly degrade vision at this stage--perhaps by inducing a very slight degree of nearsightedness--in order to further encourage the use of the other senses? ^} pondered this, but eventually rejected it; it was too experimental, too unproven to be used in a case such as Paul's. But he would test this theory on some of the humans that were not so high-risk; if it proved successful, he could use it more widely in stage two.
Satisfied that there was nothing further to be done at this time, ^} surveyed his work once more with pride. Then he carefully lowered Paul to the ground, restored the pain centers to their normal function, and removed the motor block. He retreated a few meters before he spoke.
"It is complete. Do you feel all right?"
There was no response for a few seconds. Then Paul opened his eyes, and brought his right hand to his face, examining his fingers. Then he slowly brought it across the top of his head, scratching one claw through the fur, and tracing the outline of his right ear.
"I am not in pain. I most certainly am not 'all right'."
"Is there something I can do to assist you?"
"Yes. Stop screaming."
"I am sorry, Mr. Foster. Your improved hearing will cause you to perceive sounds as being louder, until you adjust to it. I will lower my volume to compensate. As you grow accustomed to it, you should find that your ability to isolate the direction of sound is also improved. Would you like a mirror?"
"Yes. I would like my mirror. And I am perfectly capable of getting it myself. Go away."
^} let him walk several steps towards his cabin before speaking.
"Mr. Foster... your brother says hello."
Paul stopped, seemed to consider this for a few moments, then turned around.
"You're doing this... thing to Luke too, then?"
"No, Mr. Foster. I simply wanted to discuss your case with him. And his store had several interesting books. He has already received stage one through normal channels. When I introduced myself and explained my function, his first question was what form you had chosen. When I told him, he laughed, and said that he knew you'd choose something that 'wouldn't give anybody an excuse to haul him off that mountain.' Was that your motivation?"
"That's none of your damn business."
"That may be true, Mr. Foster... but if that truly is important to you, then I will make every effort to ensure that relocation will not be necessary. And I suspect that if your brother were not at least partially correct, then you would feel no reluctance to tell me so."
Paul gave no reply.
"Your brother told me something else that puzzles me. He said that you were an accomplished and prolific liar... that you could 'talk a zebra into giving you his stripes', to use one of his expressions. Yet, in all the times we have met, I cannot identify an instance in which you have lied, or even distorted the truth. Even in situations where it would probably be satisfying to lie, you have refused to speak at all, or used insult in place of a direct answer. Why is that?"
"Is it that unless you strictly abide by your own moral code, you cannot bring yourself to hate my kind and myself properly for violating it?"
"HOW DARE YOU??" Paul shouted, recoiling from the volume. But even ^} could tell from the look in his eyes that the words had struck home.
"Mr. Foster, I cannot prevent this from happening. If hating me will make you stronger, then hate me. If hating my people will inspire you, then hate us. But when your hatred prevents you from telling me what you need to enjoy your life to the fullest extent possible, then it harms you. And I cannot--I will not--stand by and allow you to harm yourself."
"You... genocidal... bastard. You're killing us all slowly, and you have the damn nerve to stand there and give speeches about 'harm'? You son of a bitch!"
If we weren't concerned about harm, thought ^} sadly, we could have saved several thousand years.
"I am sorry, Mr. Foster. You should get some rest. I will return tomorrow, after you have a chance to recover more fully, and we can talk then. Is that all right?"
"I'll be all ears," Paul spat, and he turned and walked away.
^} could only watch as Paul slammed the door. These humans were so complicated... so many layers to them. The direct approach he had taken was obviously improper; but how was he to know? At this rate, his theories might never be complete.
And he had not even had a chance to mention Luke's desire to visit.
But at least Paul Foster had not forfeited. Perhaps, after a few hours of thought, the human would come to appreciate the effort ^} was making, the virtues of the changes. ^} found himself greatly looking forward to tomorrow. No matter what the outcome, there was sure to be so much more to learn.
And there were still three more stage-ones to be done today; one of them was a perfect candidate for the vision-adjustment technique.
Everything would all work out in the end.
|Part 2||HEA: Erosion Index||Part 4|