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User:Sturmovik/Back in Business

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Back in Business

Author: Sturmovik
Author's Comments

This story this is the second story in my "Justin, Lauren and Ted Saga." Like Bridge to the Unexpected this also contains some railroad related themes, specifically references to ZOO Interlocking in Philadelphia. If you are interested in how Union Switch and Signal Model 14 interlocking machines function I suggest watching this video taken at the HARRIS tower museum in Harrisburg, PA. This story was initially posted in 2001.


Lauren looked up from her book and down at the professor as he clomped about in front of the lecture hall. Her duties as a Teaching/Research Assistant were paying her way through grad school at the University of Pennsylvania. A lot had changed in the three years since their misadventure and now the sight of a centaur teaching an undergraduate class on the origins of Greek Mythology was something most people wouldn’t think twice about. Lauren had been trying to read a book for another class, but she had been having trouble concentrating these last few months. Her mind would always start to wander, racing around in circles like it was trapped in a cage. Life was seeming a lot less bright.


“...And for Monday’s class I would want you to read pages 157-213 in your text. Please make sure you handed in your papers.”


“That’s my cue,” mumbled Lauren and she got up from her seat and walked down to the front of the hall.


“Ah, hello Lauren,” said the professor towering above her, “would it be too difficult to grade these by Monday?”


“No, problem.”


“Have a nice weekend Lauren.”


“You too professor.”


As the professor walked out the special extra-large exit as Lauren stuffed the stack of papers into her bag, then went to check her mailbox before heading back to her apartment. Once again it was another disappointing mail day with, four bills, three credit card applications and only one small stipend cheque. However, the last piece of mail made Lauren chuckle as she walked down Market Street to the Powlerton section of the city where her apartment was located. It was another application from the Government Transformation Agency and they evidently felt that she was a good candidate for a new body. She wondered if they would take her off the mailing list if they ever found out what she really was. After a short 10-minute walk she arrived at the door to the apartment she shared with Ted. They were not a romantic couple, most “biological urges” had decreased substantially since their change, but simply lived together to cut costs (although this didn’t mean they never experimented).


“Ted? Are you here?” Lauren called as she opened the door. Upon hearing no response she set her stuff down and felt it was a good time to get started on her grading work. She pulled the first paper off the stack, read through it in a minute and a half, graded it A- and wrote some comments. Since her brain was now the size of a microwave oven Lauren found many human tasks infinitely easier.


“Hey Lauren, are you home.”


“Yeah Ted, I’m in here. Just finished grading my last paper. Do you want something to eat?”


“Sure, I picked up some pasta on my way home from class. Hey is this your mail?” said Ted, holding up the GTA application.


“Yeah, tell me about it. Ted, is it just me or am I the only one who feels bad about this. I mean I feel like we’re acting like criminals or something.”


“You know that the Supreme Court ruled that ex-humans have to in no way register or declare their new forms. It is always better to know something or have something that nobody else knows about. It puts you in a position of strength. You know if the government did find out that we were dragons it would only take a few cross references for them to find how what really happened back in New Jersey.”


“I see your point, but I still don’t feel right about it. And by the way you’re one to yak about keeping a low profile,” she said, pointing at Ted’s emerald tail sticking out the back of hi pants.”


“You know the way Justin duded up this house with spells. Nobody can spy on us and even if they did they would quickly loose interest. What can’t you guys accept the fact that I really like my tail?”


Ted sat down to watch the evening news while Lauren took the groceries and began to whip up a healthy pasta dish.


“Do you know if Justin will be joining us tonight?” asked Lauren as she shopped up some green peppers.


“No, he said he had something to do. Hey, it looks like SEPTA’s going to go on strike again.”


A sudden yell of pain from the kitchen caused Ted to jump up and spin around, his tail gracefully arcing over the lamp (itself covered with cracks from a time when Ted hadn’t as been as graceful). He ran into the kitchen to find the knife on the floor and Lauren staring at her finger, a dark black-red liquid forming a puddle as it dripped on the counter.


“Oh my god!” exclaimed Lauren in an anguished cry.


“What, you gave yourself a little cut. Here, I’ll wrap it in a paper towel and stop the blood.”


“Blood!?” Lauren yelled. “Look at it! That’s not blood! Blood is red. This...this “stuff” is some sort of foul ooze. Look at it, I’m not a person I’m a monster.”


Ted put his arms around her as she burst into uncontrollable sobs, completely baffled by her uncharacteristic outburst.


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“...And she just burst into tears?” said Justin.


“Yeah, I couldn’t understand it.”


It was later that night and Ted had come over the Justin’s nearby basement apartment. When they had all decided to go to Penn for grad school Justin decreed that they should live in two separate places as to put a wall between Ted and Lauren, and Justin and his stuff. This way, if either one of them were caught, the others could avoid suspicion. Justin’s basement apartment was not only dirt cheap, but also gave him a nice place to work and experiment with magic. Justin’s parents were rather wealthy and he was able to spend his free time tinkering rather than working at a job.


“This is really strange. I mean she’s seen her blood before.”


“Yeah.”


“And she’s never voiced a problem with her new form before.”


“Yeah.”


“Maybe it’s her time of the month.”


“Dragon’s lay eggs you twit, she doesn’t have a time of the month.”


“Maybe she’s just stressed out or something, you know she’s working on that thesis.”


“Yeah, I guess you’re right, but what can we do?”


“What else can you do in May to cheer someone up. Let’s drag her to the shore for a day of fun in the sun.”


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“NO!”


“Aw come on Lauren, it will be fun,” pleaded Ted.


“I said NO! I have a fuckload of work to do.”


“I know how fast you work, you’ll have plenty of free time,” said Justin.


“Fine! Then I just don’t WANT to go.”


“Something’s happened to you. The Lauren I know would have loved a day at the beach,” said Ted.


“Don’t give me that “you’re changed” bullshit Ted. My final answer is NO ::yawn:: and it’s ::yawn:: not going to ::yawn:: cha...” Lauren passed out and fell on the floor.


“Sleeping spell,” said Justin to Ted, “works every time.”


“She’s going to KILL you when she wakes up.”


“Shut up and help me get her in the car before someone sees us and calls the cops.”


“Shouldn’t we bring some of her stuff?”


“Not for the way we’ll be swimming.”


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They were in the middle of Rt. 55, just south of Vineland, when Lauren finally woke up and, as anybody could have predicted, she was very pissed off. The Bronco’s interior developed some new gashes after Lauren let her arms change back to scaled talons and soon after that, it took all of Justin and Ted’s persuasive power to stop her from shifting to full dragon form right then and there in the back seat.


“I can’t believe you kidnapped me!”


“Calm down Lauren,” said Justin, “its for your own good. You’ll thank us later.”


“How about if I give you some new openings on your neck instead.”


“Can you please put those things away? You’re ruining my car,” said Ted.


“What bathing suit did you bring for me? This trip had better involve a new one.”


“You won’t need one where we’re going,” said Justin suddenly finding a claw at his throat.


“I am so NOT in the mood for this,” hissed Lauren.


Justin took this opportunity to grow scales on his exposed neck and then stuck his tongue out at her. Lauren responded by grasping one of his blood red scales between her claws and then ripping it out.


“Ahhhhhhh, shit! You bitch! That fucking hurt.”


“Now we’re even,” said Lauren, a draconic smirk on her face.


The reason they didn’t need bathing suits was because they were going to go swimming wearing their wings and scales. They didn’t even need to go to a special beech as many courts had ruled that scales, fur or feathers were acceptable for public decency laws. After getting off Rt. 55 they got on Rt. 47 and continued south on to the Cap May peninsula. The ocean beaches would be way to crowded for a dragon’s comfort this time of year so they headed west and found a nice deserted beach on the Delaware Bay side. They parked their car in a secluded spot and walked some distance away before shifting to dragon so that nobody could make the connection between the three large beasts and the three humans’ car. It was a nice sunny Saturday and although the bay was filled with seaweed and floating shit Lauren was starting to have fun. The emerald green Tom and blood red Justin jumped into the water and began to cavort and splash while Lauren was content to spread her azure blue wings out on the diminutive, horseshoe crab shell covered beach. While Lauren wondered if dragons could tan Ted and Justin swam further out and began to dive under the water. About half an hour later they surfaced, each holding two large fish.


“Hey Lauren, we’ve got lunch!” yelled Ted.


“Take you pick,” said Justin emerging from the water and shaking his wings dry.


“Is that a shark?” she asked.


“Looks like it,” said Justin.


She grabbed the big fish, bit the head off and started chewing, but as she went back for a second bite stopped and stared down the fish half in her talon. Her arm started to shake and she threw the rest of the carcass away.


“What’s wrong Lauren, something with the fish?” asked Ted.


“I...I...I can’t do this.” Lauren stammered.


“Can’t do what?” Justin asked, his maw full of fish.


“THIS! THIS!” she screamed, gesturing wildly. “I can’t do ANY of this. LOOK AT ME!” she bellowed. “I’m a monster. I’m a fucking killing machine. Look at these spikes and claws and teeth and horns and scales, THIS ISN’T ME! This isn’t the person I am. I can’t stand living like this any more. I can’t bear to see people on the street as potential prey. I’m sick of always having to deal with the anger, the rage and the arrogance. I...I just don’t know what to do.”


Her explosion also left Ted and Justin not knowing what to do. They managed to calm her down enough to shift into human form and then walk back to the car. It was going to be a long ride back.


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“So if you don’t like being a dragon why did you pick that form when we all crossed the bridge?” asked Ted, trying to pay attention to the road.


“I thought it sounded cool at the time, duh.”


“So what, you just don’t like being a dragon anymore?” asked Justin.


“No, it’s worse than dislike, it feels just plain wrong. In the pit of my stomach it feels like I’m being eaten away from the inside out. It feels like I’m loosing control, like something is slowly killing me.”


“What can you do?” said Ted. “You could go to the GTA. I’m sure they’d be more than willing to turn you back human. You can then fill out all those applications they send you, go back through the usual process.”


“That would be even worse. I’d rather be as I am now than go back to being a human trapped in a pathetic mortal body. Sure I could go to the GTA, but you know they send those stupid applications to all the bright college students. All they want is to get you in their grip and use you while stringing you along with empty promises of that double A transformation you’ll get after just six more months...a year...two years.”


“What about the army?” asked Justin. “I heard they have some pretty good deals.”


“In case you haven’t heard I’m trying to avoid conflict and killing and have you read the official policy? Sure you’ll get a cool transformation, but only while you’re enlisted. When you leave they get to determine that new form you are eligible for. You’d probably have to serve for 40 years and retire as a full colonel to keep a double A transformation. I’ll bet you when most of those “army dragons” are discharged they get nothing more than a class B, A if they’re lucky. So no, I’m not going to join the army.”


“So what are you going to do?” asked Ted.


“I’ll find some way to deal with it I guess. Therapy, meditation, long flights at night, sex...yeah you heard me, sex, wild shameless dragon sex. I’m sure that’ll take my mind off whatever’s bothering me and I’ll bet you two guys would be thrilled.”


Ted and Justin didn’t know what to say with their concern about their friend conflicting with their natural male desires. Unfortunately their pause ran a little too long.


“Yeah that’s just what I thought,” accused Lauren. “Thanks for being so supportive.”


Ted and Justin felt their stock take a big plunge.


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The buzzer in Justin’s basement apartment went off and he went over and slid open the big fire door to find Ted there waiting.


“As you can see I got your little telepathic message about the “executive meeting”. Next time can you please send your little mind-gram sometime when I am NOT about to take a sip of hot coffee? I think you need to lower things down a notch and get out of this “secret agent” phase you’re in.”


“I’m sorry about the coffee, but as you will soon see, we can never be too careful.”


“I don’t even know why you even call these stupid meetings anyway. We see each other every day.”


“I’m just trying to be professional here,” Justin frowned as he watched Ted get “comfortable”, “unlike some people I know.”


“Get off it. Remember we decided at the last executive meeting that it was perfectly acceptable for me to wear my tail around either apartment because I am the only one with a car. By the way, if this is an executive meeting then where is Lauren?”


“This meeting concerns Lauren so it was not prudent to invite her.”


“Maybe we should hold meetings about you sometime.”


“It’s in the bylaws that if one member becomes mentally unstable the other members can hold the meeting with out said member.”


“Oh you and your stupid bylaws. I can’t believe you fucking drafted a whole set of bylaws.”


“Please quiet down Ted, the meeting is about to start.” Justin picked up two rocks and banged them together. “Hear yea, hear yea. This executive meeting of the Penn Jersey Magic Club is called to order. Waive reading of members present and the minutes of the previous meeting.”


“Thank god,” muttered Ted.


Ignoring him Justin went on. “We will open with old business. Does anyone have any old business?”


Ted looked around and raised his hand.


“Yes Ted.”


“As long as we’re here I would like to reopen the discussion about us all choosing draconian names and using then whenever possible.”


“Ted, we’ve been over this before. #1: its stupid. #2: it can only lead to confusion or an ill-timed slip up. #3: you seem to forget that we are NOT real dragons, but just humans with dragon bodies.”


“And I continue to insist that we ARE real dragons and you are just afraid to embrace your new species. Why don’t we try it out? For the remainder of the meeting call me Stormshadow.


“Ted, please...”


“My name’s not Ted, it’s Stormshadow.”


“Ok fine, if you just let me get to new business I’ll call you Stormshadow for the duration of the meeting.”


“Deal.”


“Ok, I am closing old business and opening new business. As you might have guessed I have some new business and it is regarding Lauren’s condition. I have come to the conclusion that we need to get Lauren into a different body. I suspect there is some sort of incompatibility between Lauren’s soul and her new body.”


“Soul incompatibility? Where did you come up with that?”


“Leave me alone T...Stormshadow, I’m making this us as I go and I don’t see you coming up with a theory.”


“I think she’s been possessed by a demon.”


Ignoring Stormshadow Justin continued. “Anyway I have determined that to remedy this problem we will have to go back in business.”


“Oh, I don’t like where this is headed,” said Stormshadow.


“Calm thyself Stormy,” said Justin handing Stormshadow a manila folder, “I have prepared a detailed plan.”


“What...no PowerPoint?”


“Cut me some slack, I had a paper due this morning. Our second business venture will be made possible by the new magic technologies you have been pioneering. Most importantly those Plexiglas sheets with the components painted on in a lead based paint suspension. Thanks to your discovery out magic can use all the flexibility of a printed circuit board.”


“Don’t thank me. Thank Campisi Hardware for paying me to take all that toxic paint off their hands. I just happened to find a use for it.”


“My plan also calls for the use of your energy amplifier that lets large magical processes be carried out by the delicate pattern boards and last but not least your energy converter that allows magical energy be transmitted by ordinary metallic conductors.”


“I thought we had already decided that those didn’t have any practical use. Remember when we were trying to find a way to send transformations over a phone line? Nothing! Magic is completely incompatible with modern digital technology and when I tried to combine it with even analogue forms of modern technology it gets all screwed up. Do you also remember what happened when we tried to augment the battery and electric motor on the go-cart. The damn thing turned into stone and then it grew fur. You had to chip me out with a crowbar and it took months to vacuum all that damn fuzz up. Damn thing shed worse than a cat.”


“I know that, but do you remember the experiment when he made that magical device out of your pattern boards, ran the signal through your amplifier, then through your energy converter, into the apartment’s electrical system, over to that stool where we turned an apple into an orange.”


“Yeah, but you still had to rune up the stool.”


“But I didn’t have to rune it up very much. The pattern boards did all the real work, the stool just acted like a remote terminal and the magical energy didn’t even interfere with the normal electrical currents.”


“Great, so where are we going to find a system that is lo-tech enough not to fuck up the magic. If we build one ourselves we might as well paint a big sign on our chest saying, “please arrest us”. Not to mention you can forget about remote operation unless we lay our own cables. The normal power grid is so full of induction devices we’d stand a 100% chance of unwanted magical side effects.”


Justin flicked on a nearby CCTV monitor. “Take a look through my “trouble cam” and tell me what you see.”


“I see the 30th Street Station rail yards.”


“No, you’re looking at state of the art 1920’s technology.”


“What on Earth do you mean?”


“The Railroads haven’t had the money to upgrade their equipment since 1953. Do you know what that leaves us? A ready-made, low-tech system we can work our magic on. Turn to page 7 of the plan.”


Stormshadow turned the page and saw a photograph of a large brick building.


“Pretty, what is it?”


“That is ZOO interlocking tower, it controls the large junction just north of here, it was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1930, is now operated by Amtrak, and contains a 213 level Union Switch and Signal Model 14 electro-pneumatic interlocking machine. The interlocking machine is completely mechanical in operation, 0% solid state. It’s full of relays, spindles, contacts and miles of copper wire. It has a direct electrical connection with every single segment of track in the junction as well as direct control of every signal and switch. Over the years the interlocking plant has shrunk and there is now plenty of extra space in the machine.”


Stormshadow flipped the page and looked at the 50-foot long dark metal cabinet, covered with metal cranks and lights and sitting in a well windowed room.


“Not to mention the junction is filled with bridges and tunnels that are perfect for remote transformation terminals.”


“Well, it looks like the perfect site. I’m guessing that if we ask nicely Amtrak will just let us use it.”


“Ah, that brings us to phase one of the plan. If you turn the page you will see a picture and personal information regarding a one Thomas Whitman. Poor old Thomas is 67 years old and ready for retirement from his job as second track train directoy at ZOO tower. Unfortunately, because manned interlocking towers are being phased out there are no replacements due to the job having no security and no possibility of promotion. No replacements that is...until now. About six months ago I signed up for the tower operator training program and I have since been taking classes on how to be a tower operator and working various swing jobs. I am still in my training period right now, but in another month I will be taking over the night shift at ZOO tower.”


“So that’s what has been happening to all your free time as of late. You know you shouldn’t have started this plan with out consulting us first.”


“I haven’t started anything. It was a strategic move that would let us implement a plan, when approved. The plan will actually start when I take over the shift and we begin altering the interlocking machine. I already have the design plans mostly finished. Here’s how it will work. After someone orders a transformation we send them a train ticket and a little rune etched bracelet. The transformational power can only affect a person wearing the bracelet. Depending on the type of transformation they ordered they could be changed into an “ideal” form (locked away in their subconscious) or a personal choice. The choice is made by holding the bracelet beforehand and picturing what you want to be. The actual transformation will be set to take place 24 hours after exposure to the energy and their memories of the events will be erased except for the fact they ordered a transformation, how much is cost and a way to spread favorable word of mouth through the black market. Basically as a train makes it way through the interlocking, the person’s bracelet will be read as the train moves through the approach block. The signal is then sent to the main pattern for processing and finally, when the train passes through one of the remote transformation points, the bracelet holder is infused with the transformational magic and soon after the bracelet disintegrates. I have also installed multiple checks to make sure any undercover cop or informant is mind wiped and turned into a pigeon or rat after 6 hours.”


“A truly fitting end,” said Stormshadow.


“I propose that our first “customer” be Lauren. If we work hard we can change her into her ideal form in time for her birthday in October. So, all in favour of embarking on Project “L”?”


Stormshadow and Justin both raised their hands.


“Ok, then,” announced Justin, “it’s official. We will begin immediately.”


ZOO-Model-14.jpg

Construction of the pattern boards began the next day and five weeks later Justin too over the third trick job at ZOO tower. He hacked into the Amtrak computer and set Ted up as a phantom signal maintainer and printed him up an ID. By not actually getting paid, Ted he could fly under the management radar. The last two cabinets on the end of the big model 14 machine were opened up and the pattern boards were installed. Justin then spelled everything up with the standard loss-of-interest spell and a self-destruct mechanism. Hemp rope soaked in horse urine was utilized for magical wiring and everything was soldered together with red river clay mixed with aluminum oxide powder. As dragons they were no longer bothered with such trivialities as needing 6-8 hours of sleep every night, so working on the project and keeping up with their graduate classes was not really a problem (although Justin did end up lowering his course load). Some nights Ted would don his hi-vis vest and hardhat, and go out painting the river line duck-under, 36th St. tunnel and New York-Pittsburgh subway with inconspicuous brown and black paint. The amplifier was built in the attic space and an energy collection pattern was painted on the interior roof and the exterior rear wall. The energy would then be fed into the Model 14 via a large hemp bus that ran down the wall behind a cabinet and then snaked under the floor to the machine. Inside the machine the pattern boards were hooked in to control the energy flow from the bus and the finished product was run through an energy converter and routed into the “working” part of the machine where the altered magic was free to flow to the track segment where it was needed. Justin was not about to repeat the mistakes of last time and aside from the fact that only the wearer of the bracelet could be transformed, the magic would only be turned on when and where it was needed (using the levers on the “magic” part of the machine. Furthermore the machine would default to one’s ideal form if no form were chosen.


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As summer turned into fall, Lauren’s condition only got worse. She seemed to bounce back between depression and aggression, but the constant vigilance of Ted and Justin were keeping her out of any real trouble.


“What’s wrong Lauren? You seem upset. Even more than usual,” inquired Ted.


This is what’s wrong,” said Lauren, throwing him a news magazine.


“Oh...yeah, I heard they were restructuring the transformation classes.”


“High magical creatures like dragons, Phoenixes and unicorns have been moved up into their own triple A class. I guess that makes a swap all but impossible for me.”


“Well not everything is bad news,” said Ted looking at the article. “Creatures like Centaurs, Pegasi, Pegatuars and Merfolk have been moved down from A to BB. Oo, but they moved most dinosaurs up to class A many dangerous predators up from class CC to B. It looks like they are moving from a more generalized to a more specific approach to classifying transformations.”


“It still sucks,” mumbled Lauren.


“Cheer up Lauren, we got you something for your birthday.”


“You won’t have what I really want.”


“Well...what about $500 in cash and a round trip train ticket to New York City for a shopping spree.”


Justin felt that appealing to her draconian sense of greed and material ownership would be the best way to jump her through the hoops that would lead to her transformational surprise.


“$500 all for me? New York? I don’t know what do say.”


“Don’t say “thank you” yet because you’ll need to make absolutely sure that you’re on that one specific train home cause we have another big surprise planned for you,” followed Ted.


All this wonderful treatment quickly turned Lauren to jelly and she left the room and started to prepare for her one-day junket to the big apple.


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“So, do you think she’ll be on the right train?” Wondered Ted, looking at his watch as he sat in the upper floor of ZOO tower with Justin.


“She said she would or she’d call.”


“Yeah, but you know how she’s been acting. She could be sitting in an alley crying her eyes out or lying dead after being shot be police. I just don’t feel right sending her there alone. One of us should have gone with her.”


“It couldn’t be helped Ted. I know it’s a risk, but we had no other option.”


The block phone rang and Justin picked it up, chatted for a minute, wrote some stuff down and hung up the line.


“That was NORTH PHIDELPHIA calling,” said Justin, “the train’s on its way. It’s show time.”


Justin aligned the switches to divert the train onto the River Line and cleared the home signals. He then manipulated the special levers on the “magic” part of the machine to activate the input mechanisms and energize the tunnel for the first time.


“Let’s pray this works,” said Justin.


As Lauren’s entered the approach block lights on the magic cabinets light up and began to flash as Lauren’s ideal form was read from her mind, the transformational process created and then arranged into a neat package for instantaneous delivery. Suddenly, just as the 5th car entered the tunnel the lights dimmed and an alarm bell ripped through the midnight air. Completely forgetting about Lauren and the train, Ted ran to the rear window to see what was causing all the racket.


“Holy shit, something happening over at the substation.”


The railroad substation, used for supplying the overhead centenary with electrical power, was adjacent to ZOO tower. Usually still and devoid of activity as the giant transformers silently went about their work, what greeted Ted’s eyes were flashing strobe lights, ringing alarm bells and the distinct smell of burning oil and ion. The dispatcher’s direct line rang and Ted watched as Justin picked it up and struggled to play dumb.


“What the heck is going on?” asked Ted.


“Apparently there was just a massive power drain from this substation. It nearly blew out the breakers and they are sending over a maintenance crew to find out what went wrong.”


“Oh fuck, we are so screwed. They’re going to come and they’ll come in here and they’ll look around and they’ll find it and oh FUCK!” Ted panicked.


“Don’t worry, this stuff is protected with enough spells that they’ll never think to look around in here. The only bad part is it looks like we’re out of business again. At least until we find a better energy supply.”


“What about Lauren? Do you think the transformation went through?”


Something sure as hell went through,” said Justin.


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23 hours later Ted, Lauren and Justin were sitting around in the dark, in the middle of a recently cut cornfield in suburban Bucks County. The farmer who owned the field let Justin use it for a hunting ground as to protect his crop from woodland pests. Lauren had come off her shopping induced good mood and once again acting irritable.


“Why are we sitting in the middle of this empty field at midnight? Is this the surprise you had planned for me? Because if it is it really sucks ass.”


“Keep your shirt on Luaren,” said Ted, “it’s coming. You need to have a little more faith.”


Lauren looked down at her blue-scaled chest and hissed. “If I could remove this “shirt”, it would have come off a long time ago. I hate these stupid scales, they’re so cold, hard and lifeless.”


//What time is it?\\ asked Justin, sending a little mind message to Ted.


“12:04.”


“You don’t need to remind me how late is it,” snapped Lauren. “You know I could have spent my birthday night at a movie or a fancy restaurant, but NOOOO, I had to have a dragon’s night out in an empty field. Can we at least go flying, my wings are getting stiff.”


She spread her wings in a effort to stretch them, but gasped in surprise when she noticed that instead of being their usual brilliant blue they were now an ash gray. As all three dragons looked on, hairline cracks spread across the wing surfaces and within seconds her once powerful crumbled to dust.


Lauren was most definitely NOT amused. “Oh I see, you wanted me to kick your asses and then slowly torture you while you scream for mercy. Aw, that’s the most thoughtful gift anyone’s ever given me. Prepare for pain boys!”


//Shit dude, she’s going to kill us!\\ yelled Ted in Justin’s mind.


//On man, she’s so mad she’s steaming.\\ thought Justin looking at the steam that was rising from all over her wingless body.


//Wait,\\ thought Ted sniffing the air, //that’s not steam. That’s SMOKE.\\


“Lauren,” yelled Ted, “you’re sm...”


KABOOM!


Ted didn’t get the finish his sentence as he was caught up in a blinding white flash and a shockwave that threw him halfway across the field. The next thing he knew he was lying on his side surrounded by bits of burning corn stalk. Justin had come to rest about 50 feet away and both their scales were covered with a thick layer of black soot. He got up and looked over to where Lauren had been only to see a smoldering, roughly dragon shaped lump.


“What the fuck did you do to her!” Ted screamed at Justin. “You fucking KILLED her, blew her up, you and your STUIPD magic. Now that our FRIEND is dead will you finally admit that you don’t know what the FUCK you’re doing?”


Justin was too shocked to answer.


“What’s the matter Justin? Trying to figure out a way to correct this little design flaw for our next attempt?”


“Mmmmmmph.”


Both Justin and Ted stared at the charred remains.


“Mmmmmph.”


“Oh Shit! She’s not dead! You fucking turned her into disfigured horror you bastard.”


“Shut up and help her!” said Justin regaining his voice.


Justin reached down and grabbed what looked to be an arm only to find it break off and crumble in his talons.


“Mmmmm! Mmmmmph!” came the now agitated voice from within the charred lump.


“She can’t breathe,” said Ted. “We need to clear her airway.”


“Forgive me,” said Justin grasping a hold of the remains of her lower jaw.


He ripped it off and reached inside what had been her neck trying to feel for air movement. He thought he felt something and began scoop out talonfulls of smelly burnt gunk. Finally, as he was in the process of going back for another scoop he hit something hard and felt a rush of air. Ted had shifted to human form and was shining a flashlight down what had been Lauren’s lovely blue neck.


“What the fuck is that,” exclaimed Ted shining the light on an orange mass buried deep within her neck.


“Let’s find out,” said Justin grabbing the base of Lauren’s neck.


“No wait, her brain’s in there,” yelled Ted.


“If it is it’s dead by now.”


And with that Justin ripped off the long black mass that sat upon her shoulders.


“Is that a beak?” asked Ted.


“Ha, and you thought I killed her o yea of little faith.”


Ted ran forward and embraced the large read and orange plumed avian head, brushing off the residual black grit. After a few minutes Lauren finally began to speak.


“Ooo, I don’t...feel so good.”


“Don’t worry,” comforted Ted, “we’ll take care of you.”


“I...can’t...move or...speak at...normal...rate,” she moaned.


Justin then began to carefully peel Lauren out of her former body. Black burned scales gave way to brilliant red, orange and purple feathers and her legs cracked open to reveal birdlike appendages. 20 minutes later the azure dragon had been replaced by a 15-foot tall Phoenix.


“So Lauren, are you happy?” asked Justin.


The big firebird nodded, flaming tears in her eyes. She walked forward, slightly unsteady on her new legs, and gave Justin a large feathery hug and a beaky kiss.


“Thanks, I think,” said Justin, rubbing his eye.


Human form Ted was happy to settle for just a hug.


“Ok Lauren,” said Ted, “we need to get out of here before someone comes to investigate your little mushroom cloud. Do you think you can shapeshift?”


Lauren closed her eyes, concentrated and promptly burst into a white-hot flame.


“Ahhhhhhhhh!” screamed Ted.


The flame went out revealing an unharmed and now human Lauren.


“Whoops, wrong button. My bad.”


“Don’t DO that.”


After Justin finished piling the remains of Lauren’s old dragon body into a pile and gave it a long blast with his fire breath to eliminate any evidence he too shifted to human and the three best friends walked back to their car through the swampy woods that bordered the farm.


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Two weeks later Lauren was as happy and content as a girl could be, but Ted and Justin might have been starting to reconsider their “new” forms.


“Gee Ted, you look like a compost heap,” remarked Lauren, watching Ted and he emerged from his bedroom.


“Bah, it was another one of those nights.”


“What happened?”


“I was having this great dream about trying to eating president Shrub to prevent him from running again and when I woke up I found that I had partially shifted in my sleep.”


“Oh no...The bed?”


“Yeah, it’s ruined. The sheets are shredded, feathers are all over the place and there are holes in the mattress.”


“Well I sleep partly shifted every night,” said Lauren, gesturing down to her fire like plumage. “It’s been the best rest I’ve had since...well, ever.”


Ted emitted a low growl and walked back into his room. There was the sound of a drawer opening and then a curse.


“What’s wrong Ted? Run out of clean underwear again.”


“Yeah, and I don’t have any quarters for the machine.”


“Why don’t you just do this,” said Lauren as her night plumage faded into her pink human skin only leaving an orange feather bra and red feather panties.


“Showoff,” sneered Ted. He gritted his teeth and put a look of concentration on his face. He then pulled down his less than fresh boxers to reveal his handy work. His groin and ass were now completely covered with emerald dragon scales and his tail grew out to complete the effect. “Ha!”


“Is that comfortable?” Lauren asked.


“Well, yeah...sorta...kinda...no. It’s all cold and it feels like I’m wearing a cup. Mr. Happy is quite sad.”


“See, feathers beat scales any day. Put you pants back on and I’ll make you a cup of coffee.


As Ted tried to get his pants back on (tail!) Lauren filled a mug of water and held it in hand as a warm light filled the room. In twenty seconds later she was holding a nice steaming cup of French roast. As Ted sipped his coffee there came a knock at the door.


“Don’t worry, it’s just me,” said Justin out in the hall.


Lauren walked over, undid the lock and opened the door up.


“Feeling a little cold?” said Justin, noting Lauren’s lack of clothing.


“You know I’m always hot,” grinned Lauren as she traced a flaming circle in the air with her finger. “I was just demonstrating to Ted how superior my feathers are to your brutish scales. Here, feel for yourself,” she said, holding out her chest.


Justin reached out his hand and cupped around her breast. “Oo, it does feel nice. Mmmm...soft.”


“Alright, you can move your hand now.”


“I’m not sure if I want toAAAAAAAAH!” Justin pulled his hand away and held against his shirt.


“See what happens when you play with fire,” remarked Lauren. “Anyway, to what do we owe the honour of this visit.”


“Oh nothing, I just SOLVED our little “energy” problem.”


“You what!” exclaimed Ted.


“You heard me. I solved our little energy problem.”


“But you’re not an engineer,” said Ted.


“I didn’t need to be, it was a software fix.”


“Software how?” asked Ted.


“Well I was reading some of the Books again and they went down the path to an unlimited supply of energy. Just a few simple runes and I had all the power I needed.”


“Where is the power coming from? You know that not even magic can create energy,” said Lauren.


“It’s not being created and it’s definitely coming from somewhere, but I have no clue where that somewhere is and frankly I don’t want to know.”


“So we’re back in business?” asked Ted.


“We can start by the end of the week. Our first “customer” will be my uncle. He’s done some nice things for me recently and I felt I needed to pay him back. He’s been aching to become a dragon and I don’t think we can really charge our “test” customer.”


“Does he know about our operation,” asked Lauren.


“No, I just told him I had some “contacts”. I can hand deliver the bracelet and tickets tomorrow. So, is this a go?”


“Go,” said Ted.


“Definitely, go.” Said Lauren.


Three days later Lauren, Ted and Justin were all sitting in ZOO tower waiting for the completion of the first business dealing of the Penn Jersey Magic Club.


“Did you enable the memory erasure?” Lauren asked.


“Yeah, he may be my uncle, but I don’t trust him that much.”


“Hey,” asked Lauren again, “what happens if you have two or more “customers” on the same train. Would the machine overload?”


“Don’t worry,” Justin quickly replied, “although our “magic” is staring to look like a computer it couldn’t be more different. The pattern can handle multiple tasks as once with the number being limited only by the amount of magical energy the pattern can handle.”


“And how much is that?” said Lauren.


“I estimate that this machine could handle upwards of 1000 simultaneous transformations,” injected Ted.


“1000!” gasped Lauren. “But how, the energy bus is only about 1 inch thick. How could you fit all the energy into it?”


“The energy that flows through the bus isn’t all the physical energy that’s used in the transformation,” continued Ted. “It’s just the energy for the magical spell runs in the machine and that is sent out to the customer. When the machine spell is activated, an appropriate amount of energy is gathered. Then the spell creates a magical field around the customer that guides the transformation and controls the collected energy, like a computer programme running independent of the computer. Then the machine takes the physical energy needed for the transformation (i.e. the stuff that reshapes the matter etc.), it puts it in an alternate plane of existence and then gives the customer’s magical field a pointer to the energy’s ethereal location. Finally the magic activates after 24 hours, using the pointer to tap into all the energy it needs.”


“It sure made my job a lot easier,” remarked Justin. “This spell was shaping up to be a real pain until I realized that I didn’t have to manage the physical energy at all. I just needed to allocate it and then make sure the spell knew where to find it when needed.”


After a bit more waiting Ted came back over to Justin and Lauren.


“CTEC 5 just called,” said Ted, putting down the block phone. “The train is on its way. Did you remember to clear the signal?”


“Yup, the signal is clear and the route is aligned. I think my uncle’s going to enjoy his transformation a lot more than his Amtrak trip. There’s an MoW crew out on two and I’m having to route them via the Berry track. By the way who told you that you could answer the block phone? The person who is ZOO answers the phone and works the machine. Right now I’m ZOO and you’re not, you’re not even a real employee. Shit, it would be a disaster if I suddenly got fired so stop screwing around and keep a low profile.”


“Jeez, sorry man. I was just trying to help.”


As the train passed through his plant the lights flashed on the machine and as far as the three walking myths could tell everything went smoothly.


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Machias stood ready, his wings spread and his feet apart, a blue metal ax in one talon and a hooked red metal knife in the other. His deepwater green scales glistened in the eerie glow of his protection spells in the few places where they weren’t covered with black body armour. He stood there eyeing two black dragons only slightly smaller than himself. It was going to be tough, but Machias was confident of his victory. Once clan Starwing was defeated in this “corporate takeover” he would have control the whole ore trade out of the Sira system easily increasing his company’s profits by 25%. As the great dragon began to circle in anticipation of his first strike there was a bright flash of light followed by the sound of crashing equipment. Machias hit the dirt as his razor sharp ax and knife clattered a few yards away from his body. Looking around he saw that he was now standing amongst his armour instead of wearing it and his powerful draconic body had been replaced with some sort of poorly evolved bipedal lizard creature with no wings, scales, claws or horns. Machias was intrigued by this new development and would have taken some extra time to study his new body had he not looked up and seen two big black dragons slowly licking their chops. Machias was in for a VERY bad day.


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Over the next three months Justin, Ted and Lauren raked in the cash. Basic transformations could net them $5000 to $10,000 while something more exotic could range from $25,000 to $50,000 and all the way up to $100,000 for something like a dragon or phoenix. With an unlimited energy supply the Penn Jersey Magic Club was transforming busloads of people every night. The best part was their “snitch detector” hadn’t been activated once.


All the money was stored in offshore accounts. In most cases the government catches lawbreakers when a bank notices unusual account activity or a neighbor notices you have 3 new SUV’s and a pool. Since Ted, Justin and Lauren were going to live for hundreds if not thousands of years they could afford to wait a little and have their money quietly work for them in some sound investments. They planned to cash into a life of Luxury maybe a decade after they shut down operations. Things were finally getting good.


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There was a flash in the 36th St. tunnel and a small lizard man walked out, squinting in the noonday light. He quickly cast a heat spell to ward off the January chill and he began to walk towards the magic source, standing out like a beacon amongst the other strange technology. Machias stepped aside as a silver rail transport vehicle glided by with carefully weaved spells protecting him from any possibility of detection. He walked toward the large brick building and clicked the door open. On the upper floor he finally found the magical device he had been searching for these last three periods. Walking past the odd simian creatures that inhabited this world, he made his way to the attic and saw the dimensional energy collector. He didn’t know weather if the mage who used it was arrogant, lazy or just plain stupid, and frankly Machias didn’t care. When you go around stealing energy from other realities sooner or later you pay the price and Machias was going to collect, but first he had to get his body back. Machias wasn’t an engineer, but he knew his way around techno-magical devices. He ripped out the trans-dimensional patterns and replaced then with an omnibus energy-gathering programme that would use the transport system rails to gather all free energy for a 30-cumbit radius. His work in the attic being completed, Machias went back into the main room and walked to the large box that ran down the centre. Easily deactivating the primitive spells that protected it, he opened up the cover and stared at the patterns within. Machias didn’t care how he altered the spell, just as long as he got his body back. He ripped out all the memory erasure patterns and the infiltration protection. All safeties were removed and the spell would work on any and all people who passed through the interlocking plant, turning them into the forms they wanted most. His work now done Machias closed the machine back up and re-activated the protection spells. He walked out of the building and down between the steel transport rails thinking of his old body. As he entered the tunnel he felt the transformational energy flow into him and as soon as it had finished he opened the door back to his own reality. First he would regain his allies, then his power, then his fortune and finally he would have his revenge.


24 hours later the transformations began with thousands of people suddenly changing all over the northeast. 12 hours after that the FBI had pinned down the connection to traveling on the Northeast Corridor, 2 hours after that they had pinned down the location and one hour after that they had reviewed Amtrak employment records and assembled a strike force totaling over 100 law enforcement officers.


Lauren and Ted were in New York City attending a Broadway play leaving Justin to tend ZOO alone. All rail traffic had been halted due to what the dispatcher has said was a wide spread power failure. Justin was getting a very bad feeling. Even during a power failure diesel MoW trains could always been seen running about and the Amtrak Harrisburg line was on a separate power source, but nothing was running, not even freight trains on the independent CSX Hi-Line.


When Justin saw the glint of a sniper rifle on the roof of the big cat house at the adjacent Philadelphia Zoo he knew he had only seconds to act. Picking up the phone with one hand while activating the local self destruct spells with the other he had barely uttered the words that would cleanse his apartment when he was tackled by four burly dragon morph FBI agents. He tried to struggle, but everything went dark as the butt of a rifle smashed into his skull.


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Justin woke up in his dragon form staring up at the metal enclosure that had been built around the Paulens Kill viaduct, every part of his body firmly bound to a railroad flatcar. He was surrounded by a dozen draconian NSA agents all armed with dragon sized automatic rifles. One, apparently unarmed dragon with olive-green scales stepped forward.


“My name is Army General Leslie Hapablap and you are in a real pile of trouble son. I have been empowered to deal with any and all issues involving the ILLEGAL use of magic using any and all means at my disposal. Do you understand me?”


“I want my lawyer,” said Justin.


“Isn’t that cute. You seem to think you still have rights. LISTEN UP MISTER, if you tell me everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, you might just walk out of here alive.”


Justin grinned mentally to himself. He wasn’t fooled by the General’s tough act. He was an invaluable resource to the country and was holding all the cards.


“With all due respect General, I don’t think you’re in any position to make demands,” stated the firmly bound dragon. “You see, you, this country, needs me and the skills I have to offer. I can provide you with missile defense, unlimited supplies of energy, heck TEN more transformation bridges. Untie me now or I’ll have to start adding some rather nasty surcharges. Of course this will all be contract work as I’m not going to tell you guys anything. In the end you’ll just be paying me large sums of money and LIKING it.”


The general moved his fearsome head down towards Justin’s ear. “You seem to think that we would want your brand of services. You see this country was doing just fine before your little experiments and now you have personally done a great deal to put that in jeopardy. This bridge and what it can do is slowing this planet towards world war. It’s a new arms race to counter our dragon soldiers, there’s religious upheaval most other countries fear if not hate us. My job isn’t to control magic, it’s to see that it stops fucking things us and it looks like you’ve given me only one option.” The general lifted his head and spoke, “roll him through boys.”


The flatcar he was strapped to began to move across the bridge and his bonds became loose as his mass melted away. His red scales softened and his wings started to sink into his back. Of course Justin had anticipated this ploy and was acting as cool as ice. They’d keep him this way for a little while, but give him some time and those government goons would come crawling back. He’d get his dragon body back and be able to extract a hefty penalty. There were the usual cracking sounds as his muzzle reformed and his tail shrank into his ass. His vision shifted as his eyes lost their golden sheen and his hearing became fuzzy and distorted. As the flatcar completed its journey a dark black grabbed the calm human and tossed him in a 10’ by 5’ by 4’ steel cage itself mounted on rails. His cage was then wheeled back to the other side of the valley by means of a newly built parallel bridge.


“Care to go around again?” asked General Hapablap.


“Bring it on,” said Justin.


“Don’t think big, that cage’ll pop you like a grape.”


As he was once again pushed over the bridge Justin pictured a lion and slowly began to grow thick tan fur. He felt the best way to spite them was to enjoy himself. His human nakedness was soon hidden by his new sheath and pelt and a wispy tail once again decorated his butt. He fell onto all fours and intently watched his hands form into paws as a thick mane sprouted from his neck. Once again he reached the other side of the bridge and the transformation was complete.


“Feelin OK?” asked the General.


“Just peachy,” growled Justin.


“Do you have anything to say?”


“Not to you,” Said Justin.


“I’m serious,” said the General in a warning tone. “This might be your last chance for a long while.”


“Not ever,” said Justin.


“Well, let’s see if the third time is a charm.”


A brief chill passed down Justin’s spine. He didn’t know what would happen if an animal went west over the bridge. It looks like this little “adventure” was going to turn out to be a real learning experience. This time Justin kept his mind blank as he once again crossed the plane of the bridge. Justin realized what was going to happen as soon as he began to shrink and his feeling was confirmed when his hair began to disappear. He felt his skin begin to stiffen and turn green as the shrinking accelerated. A pain grew in his chest and two nasty looking pairs of insect legs burst forth and an ache spread through Justin’s body as his bones dissolved. He became aware of his new wings just as his exoskeleton lost sensitivity and his vision split into a thousand points of light. By this point, not even the spell could preserve his ability to speak, but his mind was still fully intact. Well...it was fully intact in the scene that his personality, memories and awareness were still there floating about, but the ability to think still requires some sort of brain and in Justin’s case it was like trying to play Quake on an 8088 machine. Justin’s small world became fragmented and things sped up. He was vaguely aware of being put into a small container and then the container being moved by some outside force and his best guess figured he was some sort of praying mantis. Justin was still far from scared. He was still confident that he’d be back in scales by the end of the year and was using this for a time of discovery. Justin might have started to worry when he felt himself shrinking again and the hard parts he still had left slowly turning to mush, but just as this began to process, Justin’s sesame seed sized brain turned into useless mush and his mind became just disembodied energy. Had Justin still had the ability to see or feel or think, he would have seen himself slowly settling down into a nutrient dish into the form of a complex multi celled organism. He would have then saw the cart be pushed back around for a fifth transformation that would cause his multi cells to undivided into a single cell bacterium. If Justin had any active awareness left it was probably thankful that they weren’t turning him into a virus (or something worse like a piece of RNA, a protein or an amino acid), but even that slight feeling would have stopped as his dish was flash frozen and placed in long-term cold storage.


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The bacteria that was Justin first felt the warmth and then it’s cells dividing and taking on different, specialized roles. You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you’re relieved that your cells are finally differentiating themselves again. As the multi-celled blob regained its mantis brain the first thought in Justin had was “I’ve won”. Justin rejoiced as he regained his solidity and was amazed about how strong this insect felt. Even with it’s small size the mantis was a very powerful predator. Justin didn’t have much time to marvel at his new form as he soon felt himself growing again. The fur returned along with a tail, an internal skeleton, constant temperature regulation, blood, organs, skin and all the other things animals usually take for granted. As soon as Justin’s voice returned to looked over at an instantly recognizable General Hapablap and grinned.


“So General, I see that you have finally come to your senses. What took you so long? And on that note, how long was it, I had a little bet going with myself”


“It’s been almost a year Justin and the only reason we are bringing you out of single cell storage is because you need you,” said the General, a worried tone in his voice.


“See, I knew you’d need me,” Justin sneered back.


“Please Justin, things are different. It’s too difficult to explain just watch this as you turn back all the way to dragon form.”


Justin was sitting on a clean stainless steel flatcar not restrained in any way. He couldn’t even make out a guard. The sprawling complex was definitely a lot less busy as it had been before Justin’s little nap. The General popped a VHS tape into a VCR, pressed play and hovered behind as Justin changed and watched.


There was a shot of a coat-wearing reporter with a microphone standing in the middle of the street. “Hello and welcome back to the 2005 Mummers parade here in the lovely, but cold, city of Philadelphia. We have a lot of great things heading right our way up Broad St.”


Suddenly a stiff wind started to blow and there were flashes of lighting. The camera panned over towards the disturbance to reveal three very large dragons towering in front of City Hall.


“What the fuck,” exclaimed Justin, “that looks like my uncle...but bigger.”


What came next out of the TV was more a clap of thunder than speech.


MY NAME IS MACHIAS!,” bellowed the creature. “I FELT THAT IT WAS NECESSARY FOR YOU PATHETIC CREATURES TO KNOW THE NAME OF THE ONE WHO BRINGS YOUR DOOM! ONE CYCLE AGO I HAD MY BODY PAINFULLY RIPPED FROM ME BY ONE OF YOUR WORTHLESS KIND AND ON THAT DAY I SWORE I WOULD HAVE MY REVENGE. I HAVE REGAINED MY BODY, I HAVE REGAINED MY FRIENDS, I HAVE REGAINED MY FORTUNE AND NOW I STAND TO REGAIN MY HONOUR.


The horrible dragon reached back and pulled forth a brightly glowing sphere.


“HEAR ME FOOLISH BEINGS, IT IS TIME TO PAY.”


With that the dragon crushed the sphere in his talon and the TV screen filled with a blinding glow. After a few seconds the glow faded revealing three smirking dragons who suddenly shimmered and disappeared leaving a scene eerily devoid of noise. Another few seconds later and the quiet was broken by an incomprehensible din. With out any Oobvious human assistance the camera began to slowly slip back towards it original angle. Justin gasped in horror as the stands cam into view. What had been filled with Oseveral hundred people was now filled with almost every type of animal common to the area. Foxes, duck, raccoons, geese, squirrels, gophers, snakes, rats, cats, dogs, badgers, Odeer, horses, cows, you name it, it was there and struggling to get free. Soon the whole frame was filled with panicked animals, the camera tipped over and the image buzzed Oblack.


“Oh my god,” said Justin barely louder than a whisper, “he turned everyone in the city into animals.”


“It’s not just the city Justin,” said the General.


“The state?” asked Justin, unable to comprehend.


“No.”


“The region?”


The General shook his long scaly head.


“Oh shit, the country?”


“Justin, I’m afraid the spell’s effect was global.”


“The-the people...their-their minds?” stammered Justin.


“Their minds were reduced to those of animals, their sentience and knowledge was wiped out. Justin...in that single instant, over six billion people, died.”


No amount of scales could project Justin from the blow that struck him. Even thought he was in the middle of transforming into a dragon Justin jumped off the flatcar, ran to the side of the bridge and began to throw up. Six billion people were dead and it was all his fault.


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“So,” said Justin as he sat with the General and gulped down the food that had been brought, “I’m assuming that magical creatures were not affected.”


“No they were not and therefore core leadership of this country was largely unaffected, but while we were still bumbling around trying to figure out what happened the invasion began.”


“Invasion?”


“It was led by this Machias character and the force consisted of mainly of dragons and half a dozen creatures we’ve never seen before. Their primary weapons are various types of magic disruption devices. When used on something like a dragon, unicorn, phoenix, etc the effects are devastating. Low power hits will cause pain and scales to fall off while high power hits will do this.”


The General picked up the dragon-sized remote control and cued something up on the tape. Justin watched as a Marine aimed a strange looking gun at tightly bound draconic prisoner. There was a flash as a bright yellow bolt of energy left the muzzle and impacted with the large creature literally causing it to dissolve in a golden light with Star Trek-esque transporter effects.


“Shit, does that have any effect on non-magical creatures?”


“Nope,” said the general.


“Have you tried turning some dragons back to humans?”


“Yup and do YOU see that little attachment under the weapon that looks like a grenade launcher? Well, that is a little device that turns non-magical creatures into animals. So we’re basically screwed up the ass either way.”


“Wait wait, what about just using the bridge to make more dragons. Make them from animals, run them across a few times.”


“We’ve tried that also. Anything other than predatory mammals were found to be wholly unacceptable, there was an inordinate amount of training necessary and in most cases the animals didn’t want to help us. Once given a voice they would clearly vocalize their hatred of the human race, how they couldn’t wait until out kind was wiped off the face of the planet and then their desire to be immediately returned to their old forms. They would usually give us the finger too.”


“Ooooooh, I don’t know if I can deal with this,” said Justin, pressing his talons to his head in an attempt to rub away his headache.


“Don’t get too depressed Justin. We’ve been giving just as good as we’ve gotten and in most engagements we’ve been kicking enemy tail. However, there are only a few million of us Earthlings left to fight. The means of production are non-existent and we’re rapidly running out of supplies. As it is we’re only delaying the inevitable and our best estimates give us only about six more months before of our government is overrun. Of course you know that we will never let it come to that and the last order this army gives will be to unleash full nuclear, chemical and biological destruction upon our once beautiful planet. However, if with your assistance it won’t have to come to that. Justin, we need your magical skills to save the planet and the human race. Well, what’s left of it anyway.”


“Well...I-I-I don’t really know what to do. I can’t even do anything without my equipment.”


“Your equipment was retrieved Justin, it’s waiting in our labs. Your friends Lauren and Ted were instrumental obtaining the magical tools before they were lost to the enemy.”


“Lauren? Ted? Oh shit, you’ve got to take me to them. Aw man, they’re going to kill me over this.”


“I’m sorry Justin Lauren and Ted were...um...lost in their heroic effort to retrieve the magical equipment. They willingly gave their lives so that you might be able to save the planet.”


Tears began to well up in Justin’s big, golden, cat-like eyes as the consequences of his actions finally hit home.


“NO! I-I-I can’t believe it! Oh god no. Not my friends. What have I done.”


Justin put his head down between his legs again and began to sob. Suddenly he felt a large impact upon his posterior and found his muzzle pressed to the ground eating gravel.


“STOP YOUR GOD DAM SNIVELING THIS INSTANT YOU RED SACK OF PUKE,” bellowed General Hapablap. “YOU’RE THE ONLY FUCKING CHANCE THIS PLANET HAS TO MAKE THINGS RIGHT AGAIN AND YOU CAN’T ACCOMPLISH THAT GOAL IF YOU ALL CURLED UP CRYING LIKE A GIRL.”


Acting on instinct Justin snarled with rage and leapt at the General intent on ripping him to shreds, but the General adeptly wrapped his arm about his neck and put him in a choke hold until Justin passed out and fell limply to the dirt. A few minutes later Justin awoke sputtering for breath looking up at the General holding a large tank of water.


“Now Justin, is your temper tantrum over so do you need another demonstration?”


“I’m fine,” he mumbled. “Just show me where my stuff is and I promise you that I will fine a way to win the war.”


The General whipped his long neck over his shoulder and yelled at another soldier. “Roy, take Justin here below and start working with him on a solution.”


A smaller dragon with battleship gray scales and bright yellow eyes walked over, took Justin by the talon and led him toward the entrance of the deep bunker. Justin started to make idle conversation in an effort to forget the situation he now found himself in.


“So Roy, where are you from?”


“Northern Forest.”


“The northern forest? I’ve never heard of that town.”


“It is not a town human, it is a forest.”


“Human? You’re one to talk...Roy.”


“I am not a human, I am a wolf. You must have a very high opinion of your species, human, to think that another of you kind would still be versed in the Natural Arts.”


“Since when did wolves start taking human names?”


“Since when did humans start stealing wolven names?”


“Touche.”


Roy stopped short and turned toward Justin. “Listen human, before you become a tangle in my fur I would like to set a few things straight. I am not doing this for any love of you and I am definitely not doing this for any love of your kind. You are petty, destructive, mean little creatures that deserve nothing less than to be wiped out of existence. However you are still part of this planet and it is for the Earth I fight. To do otherwise, to let you sink into oblivion would be a human response.” Roy readjusted his wings into a more comfortable position and began to walk back down the sharply inclined stairway. “Furthermore,” he began again, his voice echoing back along the passageway, “I would seriously doubt these newcomers would treat this planet any better.”


Roy flashed his ID at the guard station, walked through the 5 foot thick steel blast doors, made a few more twists and turns, passed another guard station, another set of blast doors and finally entered the lab. All of Justin’s magical materials were arranged around the room, but the absence of his friends was most noticeable of all. Tears once again began to flow from his eyes.


“Friends die human,” said Roy, noticing Justin’s breakdown, “it is a part of life. Deal with it least we all perish.”


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Over the next few weeks as Justin and Roy experimented they watched their options melt away until there was only one clear path of action. Ted’s sprit lived on in the form of a theory made only days before Justin was hauled away by the Feds. Ted had postulated that by applying the right form of energy in just the right way it would be possible to travel a short distance back in time. By doing this Justin would be able to go back and give his former self a big dope slap and tell him that stealing bodies from other realities was most definitely NOT a good course of action. However Ted had not been kind enough to do anything besides stating that time travel was possible.


“SHIT!” yelled Justin as he hurled a beaker of mis-mixed component across the room, hitting Roy and covering his tail with blue goop.


“DAMN IT HUMAN, watch where you vent your rage!”


“Sorry Roy, this shit’s just getting to me. I just can’t make this work and I can tell by the look in General Hapablap’s eyes that time is running out.”


“Calm thyself human, we will find the answer. We will find a way to make this work.”


Ignoring the blue goop that was now running down his leg Roy went back to work. Justin tried to turn back to his patterns, but his mind was to juiced to concentrate. He set down his tools and picked up a small picture frame that contained the last reminder he had of happier times, a cropped photo plucked from his human wallet. Justin sighed as he ran his claw over the miniature faces of Lauren and Ted. He had been the cause of so much pain, but even now it was still scared...scared to do what needed to be done. Justin knew that it was his own selfishness that had killed the ones he cared about most. He had wanted wealth so badly that simply chosen to ignore all the ramifications actions might bring. As he stared at the faded picture Justin looked back on his life, at all the times he had furthered his own pleasure at the expense of others and all the times he had taken the easy way out. Stealing from his parents, cheating on tests, just about the only good thing in Justin’s life had been the relationship with Ted and Lauren, but his selfishness had come with a price and they had been taken in payment. Without warning Justin crumpled the picture frame up in his powerful talons.


“What did you do that for?” asked Roy, drawn by the sound of braking glass. “I thought you were fond of your friends.”


Without replying Justin threw the remains on the picture on the floor, ground it under foot and then incinerated it with a white-hot jet of flame. Roy looked on even more puzzled.


“They are dead Roy. Now I am dead. There is nothing left for me to loose.” Justin paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “I know how to make the spell work Roy. I’ve known for some time.”


“What do you mean Justin? Even if you solved the problem with portal stability we still have to figure out how to extend the energy matrix.”


“No, no, I didn’t solve portal stability, I solved the whole thing”


Justin lifted up a stack of papers and tossed Roy a blue notebook, which the gray dragon began to study intently. After a few minutes Roy looked up and started at Justin. “This does appear to be a valid solution, but your spell appears to be incapable of resolving the subject matter in the past...” The wolf-dragon turned again to the notebook. “...or any type of dynamic energy field for that matter. Justin, using this spell will result in your death.”


“I know, that’s why I was unwilling to show it to you. I was scared to die and I thought maybe we could find another way, but all I did was waste valuable time, time that we don’t have.”


Roy looked like he didn’t know weather to respect this human for his newfound courage or breath hot ash on him for his treasonous cowardice. “Hurry human, we have little time to prepare the spell.”


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Over the next two days Justin and Roy hurriedly etched runes into a 20-foot diameter tungsten ring that would define the event horizon of the time portal. Once Justin stepped through his body and consciousness would be lost in the vast space between time, but his memories would live on, finding their way into the mind of his former self as he slept.


“WATCH WHAT YOU DOING JUSTIN!” cried Roy, his normally monotone voice bristling with concern.


Justin pulled the cutting torch away from the ring and resting his goggles in front of his horns. “Would you mind not SCREAMING in my ear please? You are going to make me mess it up.”


“You don’t need my help for that human. You’re cutting to deep and we do not have the time to repair mistakes.”


“I am NOT cutting too deep. Leave me alone. Jeez, I’ve etched almost the whole ring without messing up. I think I know what I’m doing.”


“Looking back at your track record I am surprised you do not make a mess while excreting your liquid waste. Anyway this is not the time for idle chitchat, your General informed me that the enemy forces are just days from reaching our position.”


Justin put his goggles back on and resumed cutting along the traced line. He had almost finished the line when suddenly the lights went out and then flicked on again, somewhat dimmer then before. About a minute later a heavily armed General Hapablap entered the room with a grave expression on his face.


“Put the peddle to the floor troopers there’s been a change in plan. Enemy forces broke through our perimeter and are now assaulting the compound so I’m guessing that if you two aren’t done in the next four hours it won’t matter anymore. I’m sorry Justin, but we are prepping the bridge for immediate demolition. I hope you weren’t too attached to it.”


“That’s ok General.” Replied Justin as he and Roy worked to get another cutting torch operational so that they could start working double-time.


“We’re also prepping this base for demolition. We don’t know what value these magical items could hold for the enemy, but we’re going to blow them anyway. Here, you’ll each need one of these.”


The General walked over the Justin and Roy and stuck a small, LED covered metal disk on their underscales just over their heart and then he did the same for himself. Next the General walked over the wall, opened up a panel, inserted a key, then spoke a 26 digit alphanumeric access code and then depressed a large red button.


“What ever you guys do, don’t remove these things from your person. I have just activated a 25-megaton nuclear device that sits under the floor we are standing upon. If the detonator receives the signal that all three of us are dead then the bomb will go off, incinerating the entire base. We’re all in this together so I would suggest you two get back to work if you want to avoid nuclear inhalation.”


Justin and Roy both went back to work, racing to finish the last few lines that would make the rune pattern complete. About 90 minutes later the last bit of tungsten was melted away and the pattern was completed.


“I’ll start testing it,” said Justin as intermittent explosions sent vibrations through the ring.


“Do not bother yourself with that human,” said Roy. “We would not have time to repair any mistakes once we found them. Help me attach the power cables, we need to activate the portal as quickly as possible.”


Justin hooked up the 5-inch thick cables like he was plugging in an extension cord and Roy placed his talon on the ring and recited something in an incomprehensible dialect. A humming filled the room as the ring began to absorb power from the base’s nuclear reactor. The explosions outside began to gain in intensity, steel blast door doing little to diminish the noise. The General picked up a 50mm pulse rifle, chambered a round and did the same with his small refrigerator sized 75mm pistol before taking a position behind a barricade he had set up in front of the lab entrance.


“This one’s going to be close. If you two aren’t doing anything useful I would advise you two arm yourselves.”


As Justin was sliding a loaded magazine into his side-arm Roy pulled him aside. “I would like for you to remember something for me. After my time as a dragon I would find it hard to go back to being a plain old wolf, in this timeline or in any other timeline. The humans, they had put a tracker on me. That’s how they found me for this job.” Roy handed Justin a scrap of paper. “That us my frequency and the coordinates of my hunting range. Remember them so that your former self might seek me out and change me. Speak into my mind and call me by name. I will believe you.”


“Sure Roy, anything you say.” Justin looked down at the scrap and began to commit it to memory.


Just as the charge hit 83% there was a scale-cracking explosion that came from right outside the second blast door. Suddenly the large steel construct began to glow and it unceremoniously crumbled into dust. Cursing under his breath the General placed his rifle in reserve and picked up a dragon-portable 20mm Vulcan gun unleashing a hailstorm of explosive shells at whatever unfortunate souls were standing outside the room. Roy too grabbed his rifle and took up a supporting position, but as Justin went to better arm himself Roy whipped his neck around and hissed.


“NO! You stay back and jump through the portal the second it’s ready.”


Justin positioned himself by the portal as the charge meter slowly ticked up, fingering his pistol and nervously glancing over at the doorway where the General was still unleashing a barrage of death. Despite the return fire, the enemy had stepped up their attack and harmless looking balls of light were flying into the room having what looked like absolutely no destructive effect. Suddenly the roar of the Vulcan was replaced by a hollow clanking sound as the bathtub sized ammunition tank ran dry. General Hapablap threw the cannon aside, took up his rifle and was thrown to the floor like a rag doll when one of the harmless balls of light impacted with his head. From the General’s maw came a horrid half scream half gurgle and his arms, legs, wings and tail flailed as if someone was running a current through his body. Justin watched in stunned silence as the General’s face melted into golden light, his skull becoming transparent and revealing his brain, now boiling into formless energy. Within seconds what had been a proud draconian head now resembled a computer wire frame model and soon even that faded away, the General’s body stilled and red/black blood gushed out of the lifeless stump.


A lemon yellow dragon in metalic body armour charged into the room, roaring loudly. He got three paces before Roy cut him down with his rifle, yellow scales and gray brains splattering all over the concrete wall. Roy eliminated a big green dragon in much the same way before the enemy went for a change in tactics. With a massed yell from about 20 small, bipedal creatures stormed the room backed up with a few griffons hoping to overwhelm the defenders with sheer numbers. Without missing a beat Roy lowered his rifle and spewed a wave of hot ash from his mouth, scorching the motley force of lizards, felines and gryphs to death. The counter now stood at 96%, but Justin knew they needed to buy some more time. He shut his mouth and opened his fire gland, letting the bitter, sticky fluid fill his maw. Mixing it with his salvia Justin was able to form a fairly cohesive ball and then ejected it towards the doorway where it landed with a giant sploosh amongst the second wave of vaguely humanoid bipeds. Grasping a nearby flare in his claws and struck it on his scales.


“Yippee-ki-yay motherfuckers.”


Justin artfully let the flare fly like a human flinging a toothpick. It hung in the air for a second before the room was filled with a giant BA’WOOSH. As the flaming griffons flew around the room like oh so many short-lived fireworks Justin turned to Roy and gave him a claw’s up.


“JUSTIN! STAY DOWN!” Roy screamed, emptying the last three rounds in his rifle an orange dragon who was trying to charge through the flame wall.


Justin felt something hit him and his arm was enveloped in a warm glow. He watched with an odd detachment was his scales gave way revealing his vulnerable skin, which in turn bubbled away revealing his muscles and tendons that then went and frayed into tiny gold sparks. The light faded revealing a bleached white skeleton arm that fell limply to his side, his weapon slipping from his grasp and clattering to the ground. Roy let loose his own blood curdling roar, drew his pistol and blew a hole through the wounded orange’s chest, but there was no rest for the valiant wolf as two more dragon troopers charged through the white hot flame toward him. Roy emptied his weapon into the first and jumped the second, clawing and biting for all he was worth. The control panel attached to the ring beeped and Justin instantly punched the button that would activate the time portal with his still animate talon. There was not much excitement as the event horizon manifested itself with all the glory of a neon sign turning on, but just before Justin launched himself through it he felt a touch on his mind. He turned slightly to see Roy, still grappling with the enemy soldier, his body rapidly dissolving outward from a hole in his middle.


//Goodbye Justin, may the ancestors guide you on your journey. You are a credit to your species and may your sacrifice be rewarded in the world beyond.\\


On that note Justin jumped into the unknown.


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Justin found himself is a realm full of multicoloured light, without form or pattern, but as random as this place was Justin was unerringly drawn towards some final destination. Unlike the warm glow of the disruptor that had taken his right arm this place was cold and Justin felt as if his whole body had been dipped in acetone. He tried to breathe, but found he could pull no air into his lungs and he could make out an odd mist surrounding his body as it evapourated. Justin’s eyeballs deflated, but somehow he was still able to see as muscles, bones and vital organs floated by as they were freed from their moorings. Breaking into ever-smaller components, his physical self floated off to the big cosmic recycling centre while Justin’s awareness kept moving down the invisible tunnel. His fear was replaced by curiosity, Justin caught himself actually enjoying this little ride and he began to wonder what stop he needed to get off at and if he would be required to change trains at Jamaica. His mental laughter was cut short when he began to have trouble thinking. Memories began to fade, emotions became unavailable, senses blurred, vocabulary disappeared and his conscious voice became distorted. His last thoughts wondered if he would ever meet his friends again in the world beyond.


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“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”


Justin threw off the covers and ran around his basement apartment eventually making his way to the bathroom, throwing up in the sink until there was nothing left to heave and collapsing to the floor unable to stop the tears. In the last few hours he had lived weeks worth of memories, painful, horrific, memories. However as the morning sun rose in the east Justin realized that nothing had yet occurred. The future was his to make and he had been given an unheard of chance to do it right. Wiping the tears from his face he set some water boiling on his hotplate and watched the morning dawn on the LCD screen of his “trouble cam”. First thing after coffee he was going to call Ted and cancel this night’s upcoming test. Second thing was to go down to the corner deli and buy a lottery ticket. Justin had a very good feeling as to the outcome of the drawing.


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“Well, all that matters is that you learned your lesson,” said Lauren in a comforting voice.


“Why are you being so nice to him?” spewed Ted. “His irresponsible actions lead to our DEATHS!”


“His ACTIONS also bought us back to life...or prevented our deaths in the first place, I’m still confused about this whole thing.”


“I just want to forget about this whole thing,” said Justin.


“Honestly Justin,” said Ted, still spewing, “the prospect of FREE ENERGY didn’t seem just a TAD bit suspicious to you? Huh? Listen, give me a week and I’ll whip up some sort of magical energy capacitor for you. Honestly, one should never trust a programmer to engineer something.”


“I get your point Ted.”


“Do you?! Are you sure you don’t want to DESTROY HUMANITY again?”


“Leave him alone Ted.”


“He killed 6 billion people!”


Lauren conjured a flaming ball of plasma. “If you say something else it’ll be “Goodbye Tail”.”


Ted got the point and shut his maw. After a longish pause Justin spoke up again.


“I hope you guys aren’t going to back out of the new plan, pending modifications of course.”


“Can I yell at him again Laur?”


“Shut up Ted, I have it on good authority that EVERYTHING ELSE worked perfectly fine and my inner dragon wants a Hummer. So that’s why I bought this lottery ticket, but my inner dragon also wants a house in the Hamptons and our new plan is still the way to do it.”


“Lottery ticket? What lottery ticket?” queried Ted.


“To subtly change the subject I have a little something I need you to take care of Lauren.”


“Sure, what do you need me to do?”


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“Stupid Justin,” muttered Lauren under her breath as she blasted through the sub-freezing air above the Canadian Rockies. Of course she wasn’t cold, but it was the principle of the thing. “Trying to find a particular wolf in Canada is just like trying to find a needle in a haystack, because it IS.”


Laura was aided in her flight by two metal pipes strapped on her body, just under her wings. By superheating the air inside the pipes she could use them like a Ramjet and achieve supersonic speeds, but to avoid having the FAA bitch at her she made an effort to keep it under 700. As she neared the coordinates given to her by Justin her radio tracker began to receive a signal. Lauren landed, un-strapped the now cherry red pipes and shifted into human form. Walking along leaving little patches of melted snow behind her, Lauren did have to admit that it was the most comfortable she had felt since she got her new body. The signal was now quite strong and as she popped her head over a rock she spotted a large male gray wolf engrossed in finding some way to remove the radio-tracking collar that hung around his neck. A twig cracked under Lauren’s foot and startles, the wolf jumped three feet in the air and moved to dash off into the primeval wilderness.


“No, Roy, wait!” Lauren cried at the rapidly departing wolf and no sooner had the words left her lips the animal skidded to a halt and turned to face her.


//How do you know my name human? And why is it that I can not smell your scent.\\ The wolf asked in a accusatory manner.


“I am a phoenix, I do not have a sent...at least not one “you” can detect.”


//You are NOT a phoenix. Phoenixes are wise and graceful. You are a clumsy fool. I will speak to you no longer.\\


“No, please Justin sent me,” replied Lauren, not knowing what else to say.


The wolf paused again. //Justin you say. Yes, I know this Justin and the fact that we are destined to meet some day. I guess that time is now.\\


“You mean you actually KNOW Justin?”


//I am privy to many things that are beyond your species’ limited comprehension. I know Justin without ever having met him...at least in this world. Come now, I sense that you are here to take me to him and I am most happy to comply.\\


“I hope you’re up to this Roy. Riding in my talons can get a tad bumpy.”


//Don’t lecture me on comfort human. I have to hunt my food when it is cold enough to freeze my urine before it hits the ground. No please human, make all haste in changing to your phoenix form, I am quite eager to trade this collar in for scales.\\


“How would you know about that? Oh never mind, I don’t want to know. Here, let me help you with that.”


After she cut the radio tracker free and threw it into the snow, Lauren sprouted feathers and shifted back to her full phoenix form. She attached her jets and gently cupped the warm, furry wolf in her left talon. The occasional problem aside, Lauren had to admit Justin DID make life much more exciting.

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Preceded by:
Bridge to the Unexpected
Justin, Lauren and Ted Saga Succeeded by:
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