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A Flash of Lightning
|This story is a work in progress.|
|Work on this story is on hiatus. I'm currently working on another story.|
The coming of August often brought with it late summer thunderstorms. It was something Nicholas had looked forward to as a child, the spectacular show awing him greatly from his bedroom window in the suburbs. Lashing wind and rain, roiling clouds backlit by the flashes, the rolling rumble echoing off of the neighboring houses...
Okay, Nick had to finally admit as he turned from the spreadsheets on his computer, I still like 'em. This is impressive. He stood and went to the porch door, flicking off the lights to get a better view.
It was just past midnight, the sun long down, but you'd almost not know it from the brightness of the near-continuous blue flicker. The clouds were high and there wasn't much rain yet so the jagged arcs of lightning were bright and exposed. Most of them danced between the clouds, of course, providing the background rumble. But every now and then one would come crashing down from the heavens to touch ground somewhere out in the city, sending a cracking peal loud enough to vibrate the glass and dazzling him with its afterimage.
Nick watched silently for perhaps half an hour. Most impressive. The wind and rain had picked up a bit over that time, still nowhere near the level of storm the lightning would seem to be an indicator of but enough to get the foliage outside up to a vigorous rustle. The neighborhood was a fairly recent housing development so the setting wasn't quite like his childhood memories, but it was close enough. He would have liked to have shared the experience with Katrina; he'd only met her four years ago, she'd come from a very different background than his prairie upbringing. Like him she was working late, but unlike him she wasn't always able to work from home. She was off at the University. Hope she's getting at least some of this. The storm seemed to be at its most intense in that direction, so hopefully-
Kra-koom! The lightning and the deafening detonation came simultaneously, the brilliant flare leaving him momentarily blinded. Nick recoiled. "Holy shit, that was..." He blinked rapidly, trying to regain his vision. It took him a moment to realize that it had already returned, at least at the peripheries around the afterimage. The lingering sense of blindness was now mainly due to the deeper darkness of the house and neighborhood around him; the power had gone out.
"Aw, crap." He'd probably have to recover his spreadsheets from the automatic backups when the power came back on. But he wasn't too concerned about that, he realized. More important was the fact that this gave him even more of an excuse to enjoy the storm. "No more work for now, for sure."
The strike had been extremely close. Car alarms were warbling in the near distance. It must have struck that tree just across the street... Nick frowned.
Now he was a bit concerned. The continuing flicker of backlit clouds outlined the silhouette of the massive tree, making it clear to see despite the lack of streetlights. The problem was that he was pretty sure there hadn't been such a large tree there before. Nick squinted, trying to make out more detail from the stroboscopic glimpses he got.
The tree definitely wasn't familiar. It had a tall, thick trunk without branches until it bushed out near the top, as if it had grown up in a dense forest. Dark streamers hung from it and blew in the wind; Nick could have sworn they were vines of some sort. But that made no sense. The neighborhood was a new development, they'd ripped out all the existing vegetation. He'd have remembered something that big across the street. Heck, there wasn't even room for it in the yard across the street...
Streetlights flickered weakly back to life and Nick blinked again, his vision now clear of the afterimage and able to make out the details they revealed. The houses across the street were buried in vegetation, nearly completely obscured, and the wind was roaring through the tops of a whole forest of trees that shouldn't be there. He was confused. Had the lightning strike somehow caused that? He should probably be calling 911 if that was the case, but what would he say?
It was too bizarre, Nick just stood and kept watching while he tried to figure out what to do. The warble of car alarms had been joined by the distant wail of sirens, so clearly the storm had done some damage somewhere. He just wasn't sure what to make of what he saw right here.
I should call Katrina. She wouldn't necessarily know anything more than he about this, frightfully intelligent though she was, but at least he could confirm he wasn't losing his marbles. Nick picked up the phone and started dialing.
Tingly... Nick had just a fraction of a second for the significance of the sensation to register, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling both with nervous tension and static electricity. I should drop the-
The blue-white light and the all-encompassing concussion of thunder were all around him, far too intense to be experienced as actual sound. It felt like the fabric of his very being was trembling under the blow, shredding in the wind and coming loosely back together as he was lifted into the air. Nick screamed, his shriek lost in the maelstrom but at least giving vent to his shock and fear.
Then he was flying through the air, the wave passing through him and leaving mundane physics to pick up where it had left off. Nick curled into a ball as he crashed backward into the bushes, the leaves and branches lashing at him but at least serving to cushion his landing to some degree. He was still winded when he hit the ground, though, and combined with the temporary blindness and deafness of the lightning strike it left him unable to do anything except cower helplessly in the storm.
He had lost track of time, certainly, but even so the wind seemed to die down surprisingly quickly. It couldn't have taken him all that long to regain his senses, after all.
Was he outside? He wasn't quite sure at first, and soon he couldn't blame that uncertainty on his addled state. He was huddled under the cover of a shrubbery. But the roots under him were woven through familiar shag carpet, and there was definitely a ceiling overhead. He was still inside his den. That was reassuring in some small way.
But the lights were still out, the den was filled with strange vegetation, and... Where are my clothes? He wasn't entirely sure but he seemed to be naked. The lightning had blasted him right out of his clothing. He didn't know how that was possible without killing him. Maybe it had come close; his whole body felt weird and tingly and he was having trouble controlling his limbs.
His racing heart was under control, though, and he'd regathered enough of his wits to feel the desire to explore. He crawled out from under the bushes, blinking in confusion at the strange sights around him. The distant flicker of lightning reflecting in through the empty frame of the porch door was more than bright enough to illuminate the place in the absence of power. The walls were covered in a network of vines and roots entwined through the structure of the house, having somehow erupted through the plasterboard in a matter of seconds but looking like they'd spent years growing there. It seemed impossible.
Then Nick tried to climb to his feet and all consideration of what had happened to his house faded away into the background. His body felt weird because it, too, had changed. He was only half his original height, perhaps less, and the proportions of his limbs were all wrong; his legs were approximately the same length as his arms now and his hips and knees having trouble straightening enough to bring him fully upright. His balance thrown off, he nearly stumbled and fell. Only the reflexive flick of his long tail kept him from toppling.
"Chee!" He let out a high-pitched inhuman cry of shock, then slapped his hands to his mouth - or rather, his paws to his muzzle. There were claws on the tips of his fingers and his palms were thickly padded with leathery skin. Staggering a few uncertain steps forward, Nick caught himself against the wall.
One of the decorative silver platters that had hung on the mantle had been knocked off by the growth of the vegetation and was lying propped up at an angle next to him. Nick glanced down into it just in time to catch his reflection, illuminated by the actinic flash of distant lightning. The reflected glow from his own retinas startled him most of all, the huge vertically-slitted pupils for a moment giving him another shock as he imagined some kind of huge predatory cat was lurking right over his shoulder. But his reaction was to freeze for a moment, giving him time to realize that there was only him. And the rest of his features weren't quite so feline.
It was hard to place exactly what he looked like, actually. His face bore a stubby muzzle with prominent canines visible thanks to his jaw hanging slack, his ears were triangular and twitchingly erect, and his cheeks bore twin ruffs of dark hair. His whole body was covered in fur, in fact. He tore his attention away from the face in the platter to look back at the rest of himself. Some sort of monkey-cat? He could still flex both his fingers and toes, both more like hands than paws. Or lemur? Maybe lemur-cat. The facial structure seemed to fit lemur that better but he was no zoologist and he certainly wasn't about to go surfing the net for photos to compare.
His ears flattened and he cringed at another nearby crash of thunder. He had no idea how any of this had happened and for the moment it was all so overwhelming that he didn't really care. He just wanted to hide some more. Or at least speak to Katrina... The thought reminded him of what he'd been doing right before the lightning had hit and he dropped to all fours, searching for the dropped phone and glad to have a target to focus on. He found it, fumbled for a minute with the handset, then let out a frustrated snarl when he realized the phone line was as dead as the power was.
The storm was fading into the distance. When would the power come back? Nick glanced around at the ruined interior of the den and realized it probably wouldn't, not with this amount of damage to everything. Heck, there was even a bush growing out of the burst casing of his computer. Not going to recover that spreadsheet so easily after all...
Nick's own chittering laughter caught him off guard. I'm going hysterical. Stop it. He didn't exactly have any solid plans to try but panicking certainly wasn't going to accomplish anything. I may be a lemur-cat-thing, but I'm still human. Or smart like one, at any rate. I have to keep that.
What to do in a long-term blackout? Nick didn't think he needed a flashlight, his night vision was eerily clear despite the lightning having faded into the far background. "Radio!" The exclamation came out of his muzzle sounding more like 'ree-chee-oo', but the idea was clear enough; there were several battery-powered radios in the house. There had to be something on the news.
Nick started searching. It wasn't easy; everything looked different both due to his changed perspective and the rampant vegetation entwined in everything. But Nick kept his mind focused on the task at hand, and it was surprisingly easy clambering up the viney walls to reach shelves. He found a radio on the top shelf in the hall closet and remained perched securely in that high nook while he carefully worked the controls with nimble clawtips.
Just static. A popping surge of hiss every once in a while when a particularly bright flash went off somewhere, but no sign of human activity on the radio spectrum. This must be big, whatever it is...
It had of course been obvious that whatever had happened was something beyond his understanding, possibly anyone's understanding. But now it wasn't clear whether there'd be any help at all coming, useless though it may be. Nick nestled his shrunken body tighter in the small space at the top of the closet, tail curled protectively around his feet. The shock was starting to wear off and more serious concerns starting to sink in.
It was going to be a long night. He wished Katrina was with him.
Katrina was having a hard time keeping her scientific detachment. The experiment had gone awry, which was to be expected with something this far on the fringe of science. The plan had been to attempt to get a photon to tunnel through a grid of microscopic charged columns on a silicon chip. Ideally, the photon would come out the other side nanoseconds before it went in - a seemingly trivial instance of actual time travel that could have profound uses in computer design years down the road. In the worst case, they'd worried about some sort of feedback that would burn out the chip. It had cost a few thousand dollars to have it custom made.
None of them had expected the lab to be overrun with roots and everyone present to be turned into giant freaky lizards. Katrina remained crouched behind a desk while two of her colleagues engaged in a panicked screeching match at each other. At least, she assumed they were her colleagues. There was only dim illumination from the two battery-powered emergency lights hanging shrouded by vegetation on the lab's walls but it was enough to tell that they looked a lot like what she herself had become.
Bipedal, a small relief, but not with an upright posture. She stood on birdlike legs about three feet tall at the hip, based on comparisons with the furniture around her and assuming it was unchanged aside from becoming entwined in plant growth. But her huge tail stuck stiffly out behind her and forced her spine into a horizontal orientation, leaving her constantly afraid of falling over on her hugely protruding reptilian muzzle. She clung to the edge of the desk with her shrunken clawed forelimbs to keep herself steady.
For some reason she was convinced the two lizard-creatures were doctors Paul Martell and Clive Sanders, though her grad student Angela had also been present and she had lost track of everyone's positions in the disorientation immediately following the experiment's startling result. Katrina wasn't a good judge of reptilian body language but they seemed both terrified and angry and it was somehow translating into this inarticulate yelling match. They both had orange crests of some sort on their scalps, bright even in this poor lighting, and Katrina had the presence of mind to give her head a little shake to see whether she had one herself. She didn't seem to. Interesting.
That sense of analytic detachment was the only thing keeping her calm, but it couldn't last forever. She finally spotted the huddled shape of a third lizard-creature lying in the shadows on the floor between them - well, the fourth counting herself - and just as quickly noticed the absence of an orange crest on this one too. Angela!
Katrina rose up as tall as she could manage, tail pressed down on the ground and elongated neck craned high. "Haak!"
Her exclamation caught the two lizards' attention, cutting through their panicked state. For a moment the three of them just stared at each other and the reptilian gaze made her want to break out in a cold sweat for a moment. But then both of them seemed to relax a bit, their crests smoothing flatter and a more intelligent glitter surfacing in their yellow eyes. "Kha... Kharina," one managed to utter her name surprisingly clearly despite the changes to his mouth and throat.
Katrina nodded carefully. "Paul?" She asked, her lips not well suited to pronouncing the 'P' but getting the meaning across well enough.
The other lizard raised a forelimb. "Me," he acknowledged, and glanced at his partner. "Clive?" The first lizard nodded, establishing everyones' identities. Katrina hoped she could keep track.
But there were more important issues than those two. "Angela," she grunted, looking down at the fallen lizard-creature. "Is see..?" The two males - Katrina wasn't sure if she should think of them as 'men' right now - glanced down too and both hopped a step back from her. Katrina wasn't sure how she was so confident in her assessment of their body language but they both seemed suddenly quite embarrassed.
Angela's form stirred and she gave a small groan. Katrina sighed in relief; she might be unconscious or injured but she wasn't dead. One small bright spot. Katrina came out from behind the desk, stepping lightly and uncertainly on her toes, and the three of them leaned down to examine Angela more closely.
She opened her eyes to be confronted by three toothy lizard snouts hovering around her. "Ky-ahhh!" She yelped in alarm, trying to leap to her feet but only managing to flop around for a few seconds. The three of them jumped back and Katrina stifled the bizarre urge to laugh. Okay, so Angela's got her human wits about her too, she realized with relief. That's good, at least we still have that.
Angela looked around the dim, devastated lab. Katrina could see the panic fading quickly from her eyes and the wheels spinning fruitlessly in her head as she tried to make sense of her surroundings. "Wha happen?" She asked. "Wha... wha are we?"
Katrina shook her head. "Very good questin'." She glanced over at the lab's door, overgrown with the same roots that covered the walls and floor, and sighed. The building would have been practically deserted at this time of night, they'd wanted to minimize the vibrations their equipment might have to deal with. "No help comin' soon."
"Maybe no help comin' ever," Clive added darkly. "Who knows?"
Katrina's scaly skin twitched as a shiver ran down her length. Very good question, she repeated to herself. Whatever had happened was unprecedented, there was no telling what sort of range it might have had or what the effect on the world outside had been. She reached out a clawed forelimb to help Angela up and she hesitantly accepted it. "Let's get out of here and figure it out," Katrina suggested.
The physics building was eerily like the set of some sort of horror movie. They were lit just barely bright enough for Katrina to see, the spotty emergency lighting and the strange profusion of vegetation covering everything leaving much of the place cloaked in threatening shadows. The old building creaked slightly, perhaps not happy with what the roots had done to its structure, and there was wind rushing through broken windows behind the jammed doors. And, of course, there was a pack of monsters stalking the halls.
She tried to reassure herself that it was just her and her colleagues. The place seemed otherwise deserted. "Krrr, the effect's spread far," Clive growled under his breath. "Hit the whole campus, maybe."
Katrina shook her head, managing to not wobble from the motion. Getting used to moving around with this new body was hard in some ways but they all seemed to have picked up a set of reflexes to go with them; by the time they'd finished ripping down enough roots and vines to open the lab's door they were able to strut around in a reasonably confident manner on their clawed three-toed feet. It still felt weird, though - especially the ever-present counterbalancing weight of her massive tail. And she wasn't fond of the apparent lack of thumbs on her forelimbs, effective at root-ripping though they might be.
"If we really did this with the array," she mused, "perhaps there was some sort of feedback effect and we somehow sent an effect farther back than we meant to..."
"Like to the dinosaurs, you mean!" Clive's crest rose slightly, flashing orange as excitement gripped him. "If we changed our own ancestry somehow-"
"Rawk! Stupid!" Paul's crest rose too and he snapped his jaw in a dismissive gesture. "Makes no sense. Why would we rememer? Why would only living things change and not the buildings?"
"Krrr!" Clive snarled back, spreading his stubby fingers threateningly. The two males had remained on a hair trigger with each other since this had happened and Katrina had been reluctant to broach the subject, but they'd barely made it to the stairwell and they were already gearing up for another fight. She'd interrupted them once before but was unsure whether they'd take it as well if she did it again.
Fortunately, and much to Katrina's surprise, it was Angela who spoke next. "Guys! Please!" She'd been keeping quiet and close to Katrina, seemingly drawing reassurance from the slightly larger female's presence despite how frightening Katrina assumed she must look, but now she stepped forward to catch everyone's full attention. It worked, and for a moment she hesitated again. Katrina gave her a nod, hoping her reptilian visage conveyed her support properly.
"Maybe it doesn't make sense. But whatever happened, happened, right? Our bodies changed but our memories didn't. We have to deal with that. What we are right now, what we feel like-" her gravelly voice faltered for a moment but quickly recovered. "We have to keep a grip on things until we figure it out. Both of you."
The two males glanced at each other, literally crestfallen. "Sorry," Paul grunted. Clive hissed quietly but nodded.
Katrina breathed a sigh of relief, and felt a glow of pride for her student's strength in the face of this absurdity. "Okay. Let's get to the exit and see just how far this effect really did go."
The stairs were tricky, draped with tripping roots and not the right shape for their feet, but they only had a few flights to go. The exterior door at ground level was already bent partly open, the twisted trunk of some sort of tree wedged out through it. Katrina carefully poked her snout out through the opening, blinking at the comparatively bright moonlight.
She could see part of the quad, the chemistry and mechanical engineering buildings, and the V-wing lecture halls. Sort of. The solid rectangular black edges were ragged with plant growth, huge trees that made the one growing through this door look like a sapling protruding from the sides. Katrina snorted. "It's a jungle out there. Literally."
They squeezed out through the gap one after the other and paused to take in the full extent of what had happened. In addition to the plant growth the campus was dark, power having been disrupted to more than just this one building. The ground was wet under their bare-scaled feet, the air was heavy with moisture and the tang of ozone, and a distant sound of thunder suggested a storm had just passed through.
"I hear sirens," Clive reported. The four reptiloids all peered about alertly for a moment, cocking their heads back and forth to listen to the background noises, and Katrina stifled another laugh at the thought of what they must look like. Like a pack of wild dinosaurs... She wondered if this body could still wear a lab coat comfortably.
"Pretty far away," Paul added. Clive shot him a glance, evidently still sensitive to anything resembling a challenge, but managed a nod without raising his crest again.
"So a lot of area must be affected," Katrina sighed. "What have we done?"
"There was no way you guys could have predicted this," Angela murmured, putting her clawed hand lightly on Katrina's arm to return some of the support Katrina had given her earlier. "It doesn't make any kind of damn sense. I wonder if my folks have seen anything about this on the news yet..."
Angela's family lived half a continent away in California, safe if anyone was. But the thought sparked a new and even more worried sigh from Katrina as she wondered where Nick was, and whether he was sporting an orange crest of his own by now.
The radio had tantalized Nick just enough with a few barely-audible hints of human speech that he had continued fiddling with its knobs for what must have been close to an hour. He felt relatively safe perched up on the closet shelf and so hadn't moved much, allowing himself to focus his attention on trying to hear news of the outside world. Even though he hadn't managed to make out much - something about storm fronts cutting off the city - it had had the benefit of giving him time to get at least vaguely comfortable with what had happened to him.
His focus wasn't so tight that his ears didn't perk up and swivel to catch any changes in the background non-radio sounds, however. Most of the sirens had cut off over time, perhaps giving up in the face of the scope and incomprehensibility of the disaster that had befallen everyone nearby or perhaps disabled for darker and scarier reasons. They had gradually been replaced by what would under other circumstances have been the almost relaxing rustle and murmur of a jungle at night. Insects chirping, the occasional whirring flutter of birds or bats... quite wild and alien to the suburbs he was used to.
As a result, the jarringly normal sound of an engine approaching slowly down the street caught his attention more easily than it normally would. A car? He immediately shut off the radio and looked up, clutching the inert device tight in his forepaws while ears and whiskers trembled alertly. Too deep to be a car. Truck? But whose?
He had been holed up in here a long time and hadn't learned anything of significance from the radio. He was starting to suspect it would be futile - or at the very least a much longer wait still - to expect more information or outside help to simply come to him. That meant the only way he was likely to find out anything was if he was to go out and learn it himself.
Giving a resolute little snort to clear his mind and firm his resolve, Nick put down the radio and then jumped down to the floor. Though the drop was easily three times his current height he only realized a moment later that he should have been frightened by it; evidently the reflexes that came with this body were settling deeper into his brain with time. He shook his head and scampered over to the front window to peer out through the glass.
The vehicle was a large military-looking jeep of some sort, headlights off but clearly visible in the dim moonlight thanks to Nick's enhanced night vision. It was moving slowly down the road, bumping over the network of thick roots that had covered the surface of the pavement and heaved it up where they burrowed underneath. Nick blinked, a frown on his vaguely feline face. Its slow movement didn't seem to be solely a result of the bad road conditions, it looked awkward even on the smoother patches. Who was driving that thing?
More movement drew his eye, small shapes flitting here and there in the darker recesses of the vegetation covering everything. There were things out there, watching the vehicle with as much interest as he was. Nick caught a glimpse of pairs of eyes glowing briefly as their retinas caught the light just so, evil-looking predatory slitted pupils, and for a moment he feared the jeep was about to be attacked...
Nick stifled a chitter of relieved laughter when he realized they looked a lot like his own. The neighbors are just curious too. And then he saw another similar pair of eyes peering out over the steering wheel, barely able to see where the vehicle was going, and he couldn't keep the chitter stifled any more.
A jeep being driven by monkeys. The thought was quite comical at first, but then it finally dawned on him that he was in exactly the same condition himself and the humor faded. Where are they going?
Nick realized that it didn't really matter, at least they were going somewhere. He felt a surge of envy. These were monkeycats - people - who had a goal. He wanted in on this! Scampering to the front door, he leapt up to cling to the knob and try pulling it open. It was wedged shut, the cracks around the frame jammed tight with vegetation. Nick gave a frustrated screech and then scrambled up higher to peer through the window over the door at the vehicle passing by just outside.
The window was in much better condition, unlatching and falling open under his weight. Nick let out another screech, this one of alarm, as he fell out through the ragged scraps of the screen. He barely caught hold of one of the branches hanging outside, swinging out and landing in the open space still remaining in the middle of his front yard.
Open Space. The sky was directly exposed, and for some reason Nick found that terrifying. He scampered onward as fast as his four limbs would carry him, straight toward the huge rumbling presence of the vehicle. Normally he would have hesitated, not knowing anything about who was inside or whether he'd be welcome, but reflex had him firmly in its grip; he leapt right onto the vehicle's side, caught hold of the open frame of the rear window, and pulled himself inside.
There was an instant chorus of noise from the other passengers, three monkeycats in the rear and two more up front. Their high-pitched screeches of consternation were met with Nick's own, for a moment nothing but a bunch of meaningless animal sounds. But the distraction sent the vehicle over a jarring bump, interrupting them all, and by the time the vehicle came to a stop they'd had the opportunity to recover their wits enough for intelligibility.
"Sorry," Nick cheeped, "sorry-sorry, I fell and had to run."
"Who're you?" One demanded, trying to sound gruff and failing utterly.
"Nick Fortier." It felt strange saying his own name with such an unfamiliar voice, like he was talking about someone else. "Where are you going? Can I come?"
Everyone glanced around at each other, not sure how to respond. Nick noticed that one of the three monkeycats in the back with him was lying prone on the seat, being held supportively by the remaining two; he - or she, Nick actually wasn't sure at first glance - seemed to be injured. "Hospital," One of them finally answered.
The nearest hospital was the University hospital, Nick realized. "Oh! Kat- I know someone! She works at the University!"
"You know the way?" The monkeycat standing behind the steering wheel called back. Nick nodded earnestly and the driver grinned toothily. "Get up here!"
Nick climbed easily over the seat back and plopped down in the passenger seat. The other monkeycat up there with him had a badly crumpled map spread out and seemed relieved to relinquish his navigational role. "Left at the stop sign," Nick directed with as much confidence in his voice as he could muster.
The driver nodded, then looked down. "Morty, gas it." There was yet another monkeycat crouched on the floor to operate the foot pedals, Nick hadn't noticed him until now. The vehicle lurched back into motion. "I'm Harlan," the driver introduced himself. "Hell of a night, chee?"
Nick could only give an agreeable chitter in response.