The AnachronismAkril 6-6-06
(Note: This version of the story includes an Author's Commentary feature. Move your cursor over the hyperlinks to get a look at some exclusive behind-the-story material!)
Final Note: I have no idea what inspired me to write this thing. I haven't written a short story (let alone one in this genre) in years, and I certainly haven't produced one in such a short amount of time (only two days). I strongly suspect that Robert Sheckley's work provoked me to do this, though -- this story might be considered a "backhand tribute", since it mimics a lot of the major plot devices he uses, such as a softer form of science fiction with little detail about technology, often with a strong mythology/fantasy vibe as well, along with some unpleasant and quite unexpected plot twists that make you want to have your memories of them erased just so you can be surprised by them all over again.
Sean stared blankly out of the view port at the dark, empty vastness that was separated from him by a mere 15 centimeters of plexiglass. He couldn’t recall how long he had been doing this, but then again, he couldn’t recall how long it had been he had first set foot upon this intimidating tapered cylinder either.
However long it had been, he knew that his cycle would come full circle very soon. Even in space, with no sense of time aided by the movements of his world and its sun and moon, he knew that it would be only a few more days before his night came.
For on Earth, once a month, when the side of the moon that faced the planet was no longer blotted with the planet’s shadow, Sean Nolan turned into a wild beast which would run rampant in whatever locale it found itself, its animal instincts the only voice that his mind would listen to. He would regain his normal form the following sunrise with thorns of anxiety piercing his mind because of not being able to fully remember what he had done the previous night.
Sean was not a werewolf, however. He was a werefox.
Sean was from Ireland, and he could trace his family’s roots back to the days when the only language spoken in that land was Gaelic. He had pale, milky skin and a head of fiery red hair to further prove his lineage. Though he wasn’t quite certain how he had become a werefox, he was pretty sure why he was this creature and not its much more famous lupine counterpart:
Lunar shifters (as the experts now called them) were common all over the planet, and they certainly didn’t all become wolves during the full moon. Every culture on every continent had its “werebeasts”, and the animal an afflicted individual became was the most feared, and/or the highest link on the food chain -- South America had its werejaguars, Africa had its werelions, India had its weretigers. And in Ireland -- where the largest carnivore stood barely half a meter tall at the shoulder -- there were werefoxes.
Sean had never bitten a human during his “time of the month”; contrary to popular belief, most shifters behaved much like their true animal counterparts when humans were present -- they would run away as fast as their paws could move them. He had certainly killed, but much like the real foxes of the continent, most of his victims had been chickens and their eggs, and after almost getting electrocuted by ALPAs -- automated livestock protection agents -- on multiple occasions, he had spent many more nights hunting rabbits and squirrels in the nearby forests -- something he had never participated successfully in, but at least it helped to keep his raging instincts pacified.
Lunar shifters had existed in both lore and reality throughout the ages, but the researchers that eventually discovered Sean were astonished to encounter an example of a phenomenon that most scientists had decided had died out, except perhaps in some of the sparse pockets of uncivilized land in the wider, untouched patches of the world.
In this age, when space travel was a common affair and new planets were found and explored every year, Sean was a product of ancient superstitions that had existed since mankind’s earliest days, something completely out of place in this current era -- he was an anachronism.
It had been five years since the research began. The men took him to one of the country’s largest scientific research institutes, took samples of his blood from both of his forms (he was sedated when the moon was in phase), and the microscopes only told them that one of the blood samples was from an ordinary Homo sapiens, while the other was from an ordinary Vulpes vulpes. Over time, more in-depth testing revealed an irregular protein present in all of Sean’s tissues, in both human and fox forms.
Sean first imagined that he would go mad after a few months of being observed like a rat running a maze, but strangely, he developed an odd sense of calmness deeper than any he had felt previously, except perhaps when he was a boy and didn’t have a care in the world.
Perhaps this was the answer to his lack of indignation: he had no worries at all in the institute. No money to worry about, since all his expenses were covered by the organization that was studying him; no groceries to buy, since delicious meals were delivered to him three times a day; and when he wasn’t in the lab on the night of the full moon, the researchers let him run free in the Simulator, a huge arena that was completely nondescript until a program was run -- in Sean’s case, an incredibly vivid 3D hologram of the woods of western Ireland filled the Simulator, and he would spend the entire night chasing virtual rodents.
He wasn’t deprived of companionship either: An outgoing young American named Jerry would visit him frequently, to either answer any questions Sean had about the research, or just to chat with him as a friend. And indeed, Jerry had become a friend. He was the only man on the project whose name he knew, and in many ways, he was like the brother that Sean never had.
Jerry was usually fairly quiet, but he would still talk at great lengths if asked a particular question about a topic he was familiar with. The way he spoke was simple, direct, and the language he used was almost poetic at times -- Sean couldn’t help but wonder whether Jerry wasn’t merely an artist masquerading as a scientist.
As they grew to know each other better, Jerry began asking Sean questions, as if to reciprocate the questions Sean had been asking him. Naturally, the first questions he asked related to Sean’s life as a lunar shifter: What it was like, how did it feel, could he still think coherently after the change, and, of course, the biggest one:
How did it happen?
Although Sean couldn’t give an honest answer to this, he secretly suspected that this so-called “curse” had been thrust upon him after a particularly violent brawl at a pub in a neighboring town several years ago. He could vaguely remember staggering out of the place and wandering aimlessly through a nearby pasture as the stars gleamed overhead, stupefied by alcohol in addition to the wounds that he had received. He supposed that he must have passed out there, since that was where he found himself the following morning -- the morning after the full moon.
Then one month later, it happened, and afterwards he made up his mind that something must have happened to him after that fight at the pub -- either some gypsy laid a curse on him or another werefox bit him. Sean couldn’t recall finding any bite marks on his body the morning after, but this was hardly surprising, considering the myriad of bruises and cuts he was covered with.
After the first few months of tests, inconclusive as they were, Sean’s condition became an item of great interest to scientists from neighboring countries, and soon, most of the scientific world had begun exchanging ideas about therianthropy (the archaic all-encompassing name for the lunar shifters’ ailment). Many questions were asked at formal conferences in the institute, and Sean’s affliction provided the answer for them -- most of the time it all just boiled down to waiting for the moon to wax.
The first and most urgent question was the one that asked whether the condition could be transmitted orally, the same way that the legends said it was spread. Though the researchers had no reason to believe in these stories, they still had a remote-controlled robot muzzle Sean whenever he was transported from one room to another in his fox form. Sean’s animal mind didn’t perceive this mechanical creature as a threat at first, and since all it did was fit something over his snout and remove it again, he eventually accepted it as part of his new world.
After being confronted with this question, the researchers discussed it for several days, finally deciding to have Sean bite a man in New York who was scheduled to receive the death penalty for multiple murders -- and ironically enough, he had been convicted of animal cruelty more than once in the past.
In spite of the circumstances, Sean still objected to carrying out this unsavory task, but eventually, Jerry convinced him that since the man would die either way, it was the least Sean could do to help both himself and science. After a long period of contemplation, Sean reluctantly agreed.
After being flown to the states and waiting several nervous weeks for the night to come, he was shoved into a pet carrier, driven to the prison and released by the researchers’ robot into the murderer’s cell when the full moon shone through the building’s skylights and nervously approached the pale, slightly paunchy man that lay strapped to his bed, quivering in terror. In one quick move, Sean sank his tiny, yet sharp teeth into the man’s exposed ankle, then streaked back to the carrier as the man’s shrill scream resonated through the cellblock.
Thirty-three days later, back in Ireland, Jerry told Sean that an email from the prison confirmed that the murderer had indeed turned into a fox when the moon became full, and he was executed the following morning. Sean didn’t speak to anyone for days after hearing this. He spent every waking hour staring at the walls, sleeping very little.
I don’t belong, he said to himself. In the old days, I would have been a mere monster, a scapegoat, but here, in this time, I’m as obsolete as Morse code. The dark side of humanity isn’t a slathering beast any more -- it’s a cold, calculating machine. The android has become the new werewolf. What the hell is a creature like me doing in this time? Why do we still exist?
There was also the question of whether Sean’s case could be spread in any other ways, possibly becoming an epidemic. The researchers highly doubted this, since no one from Sean’s town had become a werefox, and none of the men on the project had either. The scientists reluctantly accepted the fact that aside from oral infection (and the possibility of the condition being passed on to a child of an infected individual, though Sean flatly refused to test this hypothesis, no matter how much money was offered to him), therianthropy was not communicable.
After these two questions had been answered, the scientists finally put forth the third question that was just as big, though quite innocuous, as opposed to its predecessors. It was actually an amalgamation of several smaller questions, such as:
“Why only the full moon?”
“What makes reflected light from the sun have such an effect on shifters?”
“Didn’t Hollywood come up with the concept of having a werewolf change only during a full moon?”
The researchers and Sean attempted to answer these queries without much success. The best answers they could come up with on short notice were some theories about how there was probably some unknown type of matter in space that the sun’s rays picked up en route to the moon on their way to be bounced back to Earth that somehow trigged a reaction in afflicted people, how people and popular culture tend to influence each other equally, so conceivably, shifters were changed by the full moon before “The Wolf Man”, and possibly only a certain quantity of light makes shifters change, and the full moon on a clear night is the only scenario which provides enough. These were all educated guesses, though all were very heavy on the guessing. None of them could provide any real answer to the scientists’ questions.
Then there were the inevitable arguments regarding how Sean’s body couldn’t possibly shrink and warp so drastically, since the two bodies were so different. The researchers postulated that the odd proteins might have something to do with the way Sean changed, and also that his innards possibly rearranged on a molecular level, which would throw the impossibilities of growing and losing a tail, fur and long canines plus shifting muscles, bones and organs out of the arena.
The scientists then asked why Sean didn’t appear as a cloud of atoms on the videos of his transformations if the latter were the case (it had taken a lot of persuasion from Jerry to allow the researchers to record Sean’s changes) instead of what even a child would see as a human getting molded and squished into the shape of a fox.
The researchers responded to this by saying there was still a whole lot about Sean and therianthropy they didn’t know, which the scientists countered by pointedly questioning their credentials, which was met by a slightly irate comeback from the researchers, and at that point, Sean realized that if he didn’t leave the conference room soon, he would be in the middle of quite a dispute, and as Irish as he was, he felt that he would definitely not enjoy being in a fight such as this.
Aside from these meetings, Sean’s life in the research facility continued to be a series of tests and examinations, with an occasional surprise on that night that came once a month. Depression came, but he never felt desperate enough to end it all -- he never even came close.
The researchers kept on coming up with new and different tests. They immersed him in a tank of water to see whether liquid prevented the moon’s light from taking effect on him (which it didn’t), and they tired amplifying the light of the half moon with a series of large mirrors to see whether they could trigger a change in Sean out of his normal cycle (which they couldn’t).
He also spent a lot of time in an empty room on the reflective side of a wall made of one-way glass, occasionally donning some bizarre gadget or being subjected to some odd stimuli, but always anxiously wondering what was going on on the other side. What was the point of all these tests? What were they learning from them?
There was one thought that kept nagging at the back of Sean’s mind, though: A cure. Was there a cure for therianthropy? They had cures for nearly everything else these days, why couldn’t they come up with a cure for something that had been around since the Dawn of Man?
It wasn’t that the changes were painful -- they were uncomfortable, yes, but not skull-piercingly agonizing -- it was just that Sean wanted to live a normal life, like the one he had before he had become a werefox. He was sure that there would be a lot of reporters and gawkers mobbing him when he left the lab for good, but he was sure that the madness would die down after a few months -- a few months without having to run wildly through the woods once a month, then spending the next day or so out of sorts from having stayed awake for a full twenty-four hours and having to apologize to the neighbors whose livestock he might have startled or eaten (thank goodness the latter happened so rarely).
Although he was sure werewolves had it much harder than he did, Sean’s problem was hardly the horrible curse that those Hollywood horror films ranted about. He had started watching some of the older werewolf movies from the Internet’s media archives, just to pass the time and to compare his own condition to the one that the boys in the movie industry had fabricated.
He and Jerry often watched them together, and often, they both had to laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the scenarios. To Sean, those cinematic werecreatures seemed more like insane humans with fur, huge teeth and long claws. They looked like wolves -- most of the time -- but acted nothing like them.
“It’s no wonder wolves have gotten a bad rap,” Jerry shrugged. “Maybe it’s a good thing you werefoxes and all your other werefriends around the world haven’t gotten any publicity -- like tigers and foxes need yet another reason for humans to hate them.”
Unpublicized or not, Sean’s feelings of alienation and confusion still lingered, and after four years, he was beginning to get a bit irritated that during all this time, he had been poked, prodded, recorded, injected and sedated, and the people putting him through all this had discovered nothing except things about him that he had already known (or at least suspected) and some minor facts about his abnormal anatomy that meant nothing to him.
He was also starting to get a bit fed up with the visiting scientists that had only viewed his name in print, and when they came to the institute and greeted him, their first words would be, “So you’re Seen Nolan, correct?” This would usually result in a brief argument about how his name wasn’t pronounced seen but shawn, to which the scientist would usually say, “Why are you still spelling it the archaic way? Everyone I know with that name spells it S-H-A-U-N”, to which Sean would say that since that was the way his ancestors spelled the name, he would use that form instead of the Anglicized one, thank you very much. This usually put a damper on the rest of the conversation.
As Sean slowly began to accept the fact that a cure for therianthropy might never be found in his lifetime, Jerry frantically pounded on the door of his room one day, looking more excited than Sean had ever seen him. It was on that day that Jerry told him about the space flight.
“The ship is going to head to a planet called Nammu,” Jerry had explained. “They just discovered it last month, and it has to be the most Earthlike planet they’ve stumbled across in decades! Nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, no harmful viruses or bacteria…the gravity is a little lower, but it shouldn’t make that big a difference. After a few generations, I’d expect that people there would be averaging about two meters tall, though…”
“That’s lovely,” Sean had replied, “But why are you telling me this?”
“The guys behind this project want to send you there, free of expenses!”
Jerry grinned madly as he said this, while Sean simply gaped.
“But…but why?” he stammered.
Jerry put on a more dignified face as he spoke again:
“They’ve actually been going over this for some time. Even before they found this planet, the guys here were hypothesizing what would happen if you were…”
Here he suddenly looked down at his feet and sighed deeply.
“I’m sorry, Sean. I didn’t tell you about this before because I was afraid of getting your hopes up, but now that they’ve actually found an ideal planet…”
“What’s the plan?” Sean asked, his curiosity well piqued by now.
Jerry sat down on his bed and began speaking quietly, but with firm inflections, accompanied by the occasional gesture with his large hands:
“Well, from what we’ve gathered so far, your transformations are caused by a combination of light from our sun, our moon, and your position on this planet. What we’re wondering is what would happen if you were on a different planet with similar conditions.”
The concept had never occurred to Sean before. He stared out the room’s window, drinking in this far-out, yet oddly intriguing idea.
“Nammu has one sun and two moons, which always reflect the sun’s light back to the planet when they’re on its dark side, just like Earth. The planet also does a full three-sixty in about eighteen hours -- so it has a nine-hour night. The people surveying the planet that have been keeping in touch with the researchers here say that the moons bounce back a percentage of light almost identical to the amount our own moon bounces when it’s full approximately once every two weeks. It’s nearly identical to Earth in every major way -- amazing, isn’t it?”
Sean nodded in agreement.
“And what makes it even more amazing is that that planet might be the answer to your problem, Sean. We’re thinking of sending you out there just long enough to spend one ‘full moon equivalent’ night out there -- an FME.
“In the worst-case scenario, you would turn into a fox during the FME, which would send us back to square one. In the best-case scenario, nothing would happen to you, and we’d be able to study this planet to see whether we can find something that would keep you and every other lunar shifter from breaking out in fur once every month on Earth as well!
“So whaddaya say, Sean? You wanna try it?”
Sean wasn’t desperate for a cure to his condition. He had held onto the tiny dream of living a normal life like other men would hold the dream of the perfect woman or a house on a tropical island -- it wouldn’t kill him to be deprived of this hope, but when he was presented with an opportunity that just might free him from this once-a-month bother, he simply couldn’t say “no” to it.
So three months later, shortly after the night of the full moon, Sean found himself climbing a flight of metal steps that led into a gleaming, towering rocket, which, as small as Jerry kept saying it was, was still large enough to make chill rivulets of astonishment and slight fear trickle through Sean’s nerves.
The takeoff was disorienting, and Sean did become physically ill more than once, as did Jerry.
“Sheesh,” Jerry muttered sadly as their nausea and disorientation slowly began to abate, “You’d think that after three trips to space, I’d get used to this sort of thing. I guess it’s just one of…those…”
Then he passed out.
After clearing the atmosphere, the artificial gravity was activated, and Sean and Jerry made their way to their respective quarters. It would take three weeks to reach Nammu, Jerry explained, and it would be another four days until the first FME, so Sean’s own cycle wouldn’t be off by much.
Now, however, the end of the third week was quickly approaching, as was the time when the full moon was going to shine on Earth. Would the effect of that sunlight traveling ninety-three million miles through the void of space, ricocheting off of the moon and hitting the Earth reach Sean where he was now, light years away from his galaxy, gazing at the glow of a billion foreign stars? Would he still become a fox in the light of a foreign moon -- a foreign pair of moons, he reminded himself.
He was still staring out the view port and mulling over these conundrums when there was a knock on his door.
“It’s open,” he said without moving from where he sat.
He recognized the all-too familiar footfall as the visitor stepped into his quarters.
“What is it, Jerry?” he asked, slowly turning to face his friend.
“The captain says that Nammu is coming up fast,” Jerry said, with a flicker of excitement dancing in his voice. “We should be landing in several hours.”
“Wonderful,” Sean said, stretching his arms. “By the way: did you find out anything more about the life on that world?”
“Yes,” Jerry said. “There’s quite a variety of life there, just as there is on Earth. According to the computer simulations the guys ran, the life on Nammu also evolved in pretty much the same way, with a few minor differences -- the first vertebrates to leave the water had six limbs and horizontal flukes like whales. Some of the modern-day vertebrates have vestigial rear appendages, but the majority of them have six legs. They also don’t have eyes per se, just a strip of highly-developed light-sensitive tissue that circles half of their heads.”
“Charming,” Sean smirked. “Have you named any of them yet?”
“I haven’t, but some of the people camped down there have,” said Jerry, fishing a handheld computer out of his pocket and switching it on. “They beamed us some images of the critters from their location as well as brief descriptions of their habits.”
He handed the computer to Sean, who stared at the screen with his brows furrowed. A svelte, vaguely camel-like creature with horizontal gray and tan stripes had been captured in mid-stride, its image frozen in time on the LCD display. It had the bulbous strip on its head that Jerry had described, along with a long, muscular tail and three sets of gangly legs. Some text that was too small for Sean to read without squinting was displayed beside the creature, along with a slightly larger (and legible) snippet of text that read, “L: 95 cm, H: 80 cm, Wt: 3.5 kg”
“What is this thing?” Sean asked, looking up at Jerry.
“You can’t read this?” Jerry said, tapping a tiny scrawl near the top of the screen. “It’s a kulosa. They travel in herds and they live on the grasslands -- kinda like antelope.”
With some blind groping, Sean found the button that took him to the next species entry, which displayed a small, lizard-like beast crouched on the ground. Its middle set of limbs seemed disproportionately large and oddly deformed to Sean.
“That’s a sindu,” Jerry explained. “And this picture doesn’t show it very well, but those middle legs have developed into wings -- it’s a miniature dragon!”
Sean guffawed in amazement.
“I can’t wait to see one of those flapping about,” he said, pushing the button for the next entry. As soon as he did, the smile on his lips instantly vanished.
The image currently on the screen wasn’t a lithe little antelope or a fanciful flying lizard. It was a heavy-set, muscular creature with six powerful legs and thick, shaggy, matted fur. Even if its double row of serrated teeth hadn’t been visible in its gaping maw, its position on the food chain was more than obvious by the half-eaten carcass it was standing over (which looked unsettlingly like a kulosa). Sean shuddered and reluctantly looked at the only text he could read: “L: 300 cm, H: 150 cm, Wt: 90 kg”
“A tiuven,” Jerry said, almost in a whisper. “These guys are a nasty piece of work. One of the surveyors got pretty torn up by one of them. Tiuvens are definitely the top carnivores on their home continent.”
The bottom suddenly seemed to drop out of Sean’s stomach. He slowly tore his eyes from the tiuven’s frightening picture to look Jerry in the eyes.
“And we’re going to that continent?” he asked quietly.
“Yep,” Jerry affirmed.
“Well, tonight’s the night,” said the face on the monitor. “Are you ready for it, Mr. Nolan?”
“I’m ready,” said Sean. “How much longer?”
“The sun sets in forty-five minutes. We’ll keep you posted, though.”
“Glad to hear that,” Sean replied. The face vanished and the monitor became a dead black thing once more. Sean sighed apprehensively and turned around to take in his surroundings, recalling the events that had led up to this one.
The rocket’s landing four days before was appreciably smooth, and it didn’t take long for Sean, Jerry and the rest of the crew not only to grow acclimated to Nammu, but to gain a sense of wonder for this strangely beautiful planet that was so much like home, yet so unlike it.
The survey team had set up a small colony atop a large hill overlooking the wide plains and jutting mountain peaks that dominated most of the continent, surrounded by a high-voltage force field to keep out the various fauna, especially the tiuvens.
It was here that Sean spent three days eating, sleeping, reading, and preparing himself for the night of the FME. He had no idea what was going to happen, and he didn’t think that speculating on the possibilities was going to lessen his anxiety one iota.
When the day before the FME finally arrived, Jerry and the team of researchers that had volunteered for the mission began setting up another force field that covered about four acres of land near the base of the hill.
“You’re going to stick me in there?” Sean asked.
“Yeah,” Jerry said. “Two hours before the first moon rises, in ya go. Don’t worry, though. You’ll be safe from anything troublesome that should show up, even the tiuvens. We’ll keep in touch with you, though.”
Sean had no idea how technologically staggering “keeping in touch” in this context was until he saw some men just outside the force field’s barrier setting up a monitor that was larger on each side than he was tall.
“It’s a two-way screen,” Jerry explained. “Works in the sunlight as well as in the moonlight. We can see and talk to you and you can see and talk to us.”
“Until I change,” Sean muttered. “Unless you’ve got something that translates fox barks into human speech, I don’t think…”
“Quit acting so pessimistic,” Jerry said. “And we’ve got something better than a language translator -- this.”
He held out a hemispherical device about the size of a large orange half.
“Oh,” said Sean in surprise. “I remember this -- they were testing this with me at the institute several months ago. I just never could figure…this is the teletranslator, isn’t it?”
“Right-o,” Jerry said with a grin. “As you probably already figured out, it picks up brain impulses and converts them to speech. If you should change into a fox, just nudge your noggin against this baby.”
“Ah, yes,” Sean said. “And then those horrible little metal prongs it has clamp down on my head and they don’t let go until I start changing back, right?”
“I’m afraid so,” Jerry sighed. “They haven’t given much attention to the comfort aspect of the thing yet…but at least it works.”
“It does?” Sean asked. “I’ve never seen its output; I was always on the other side of the one-way glass…”
“Oh it works, you mark my words,” Jerry said. “If that worst-case scenario pops up against all odds, you’ll see it work -- I’m sorry, hear it work for yourself on the monitor tonight. By the way, I just heard from the institute today. They’re going to be going public with their research.”
“So now the whole world is going to be in a panic about lunar shifters, is that it?” Sean asked tersely.
“I sure hope not,” Jerry chuckled. “It should help raise the world’s awareness of people like you -- and you should be pretty famous by the time we reach Earth again.”
“Whatever. We’ll just have to -- ”
He was interrupted by a loud squawk as a tiny sindu suddenly swooped down from the afternoon sky with its claws splayed like an eagle’s talons, heading straight for Sean’s head. He was just able to parry its plunge and shoo it away with Jerry’s help.
“I guess that’s one way of reminding us that we don’t have much time,” Jerry remarked. “We’d better hurry up before the tiuvens decide to show up.”
“Twenty minutes,” said the face on the monitor as it flickered to life again. “How are you doing, Mr. Nolan?”
“I’m good,” Sean replied. “Where’s Jerry, by the way?”
“He’s sitting back there, twiddling his thumbs,” said the face. “Do you wish to speak to him?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
Jerry’s jovial face soon loomed on the gigantic screen, looking ominous in the light of Nammu’s setting sun.
“Everything okay out there, Sean?”
“So far,” Sean said. “How are the blokes atop the hill?”
“We’re all a little nervous,” Jerry admitted sheepishly. “We have no idea what’s going to happen.”
“As you Americans would say, ‘Welcome to the club’,” Sean intoned.
Jerry laughed nervously.
“I guess it’s going to be an all-or-nothing,” he said. “Either you go fox and we tear our hair out, or you stay the same and we spend another twenty billion bucks trying to find out how to permanently fix therianthropy for the people that can’t afford to immigrate to another planet.”
“Jerry…why are you and the men doing all of this on my account?” Sean asked. “Surely there can’t be more than a couple dozen lunar shifters on Earth -- why go to all this trouble for such a tiny handful of people who don’t even belong in this day and age?”
Jerry breathed deeply.
“Personally, Sean, I think we’re trying to find a cure because of this day and age. We’ve almost broken the umbilical with Earth, we’re almost ready to live a self-sustaining life out in the stars, possibly even leaving the planet altogether, leaving Mother Earth’s first children -- Flora and Fauna -- to live their lives without having to deal with us anymore.
“But now that therianthropy has popped up in the civilized world…call me superstitious, Sean, but that seems like a sign to me. A sign from nature, telling us, ‘Nope. You can’t leave yet, my dear. I’ve still got you. See? Here’s a full moon -- how does it feel to be one of my good children now?’
“Something like that is just…well…embarrassing for the scientific community. They’ve found cures for every other so-called ‘curse’ that nature has laid on us -- arthritis, obesity, even menstruation, thank God, but I guess their mindset is that until we find a way to put an end to an ancient, universal phenomenon like lunar shifting, we’ll never cut ourselves free from Mother Earth’s apron strings.”
“Aren’t you afraid that we might have to deal with Mother Nammu in the future, though?” Sean asked. Jerry looked perplexed for a moment, then he chuckled again.
“And to think that all those authors and screenwriters thought that werecreatures were angst-ridden psychopaths,” he said, running a trembling hand through his hair. A loud voice from behind him made him turn away from Sean for a moment, then turn back with a very anxious face.
“You’ve got five minutes, Sean. Five minutes. You remember what to do, just in case…”
“Press my head against the teletranslator,” Sean said. “I remember.”
“Good,” Jerry said, his voice quaking. “I’m signing off now -- remember, even when the monitor is off, we’ll still be able to see you. Well…good luck, Sean.”
The monitor went dark, and Sean suddenly realized that the rest of Nammu had gone dark as well, except for a tiny sliver of light peeking over the crest of a faraway mountain -- the first moon. Sean trembled a little at the sight of it. He stood motionless, watching as it slowly rose in the sky full of unfamiliar stars, finally freeing itself from the mountains ten minutes later.
Sean slowly sat down on the cool grass. Because of the lower gravity, standing in place wasn’t as taxing as it was on Earth, but he eventually tired of it here as well. He looked up at the first moon, which looked as if it were four of five days from being full. According to the researchers, the moons had contrary orbits, so the second moon would be rising on a different spot on the horizon -- exactly where he hadn’t been told, but he knew that it would be happening in about fifteen minutes.
The monitor remained silent and still. Sean wondered what was going on at the other end, in the colony. It was just like that one-way glass again, he realized. He was tempted to start talking and ask for Jerry again, but he decided simply to wait in silence. He may have been a lab animal for five years, but he still had his pride -- as frayed and tattered as it was.
The minutes quietly rolled on. Sean’s heart began pounding more fiercely as the familiar anticipation commingled with the fear of the unknown spread over him. He nervously drummed his finger on the ground, alternately glancing at the teletranslator, the monitor, and the many nondescript dark poles between which was strung the force field.
Then, there it was -- a tiny, barely existent sensation on the back of his neck. He turned to see a sliver of light washing over the plain behind him -- Nammu’s second moon. He rose on trembling legs; he was not going to face this potential cure for therianthropy while sitting on his arse.
He watched and waited as the second moon continued to rise. He looked down at his feet to see a second shadow darkening behind him, a twin to the one the first moon cast. He spread his arms and closed his eyes, feeling that mysterious cool of the night that even this planet held surround him as the subtle blue of the moonlight that caressed his eyelids. Even with his eyes shut, he could sense the moon growing brighter as it climbed into the sky to join its sister, an incomplete glowing circle, just like it was, but together…
Then he felt it.
Instinctively, he dropped to all fours, feeling the familiar push that Earth’s moon always seemed to manifest in his body in some way -- now these two smaller moons were pulling the same trick.
He felt a splash of light hit him from behind as the monitor snapped on again.
“Something’s happening!” It was Jerry’s voice, hurried and high-pitched with fear. “Sean, don’t panic. I know this is a different world, but you’ve been through this a hundred times before…”
In his frazzled state, Sean couldn’t help but feel that Jerry was only saying those words to reassure himself. The familiar prickling feeling of the fur began to spread over his skin, the tail sprouted like it always did…
Wait, he suddenly thought. Something’s wrong. That isn’t…
But his thoughts were forced from his mind as a new stage in the metamorphosis flooded over him and his nails began developing into claws and his muzzle started to lengthen…This isn’t right…this isn’t me...what’s going…
The physical change that slammed into his body like a tsunami once again sent his thoughts scurrying for cover. What was going on? He wasn’t shrinking as he always did -- in fact, he seemed to be growing. Something very wrong was happening around his midriff, but he couldn’t bear to open his eyes now…in fact, he felt like he couldn’t open his eyes even if he wanted to.What in God’s name is…
Jerry screamed and yelled a word that Sean would have been quite shocked to hear him say if he hadn’t been in his current state.
“Holy…Hey guys, what the hell is going on? Don’t you have any idea…? That’s my friend out there, you f-”
The monitor went dark again. The change had stopped. Sean lay on the ground, barely able to move. He didn’t feel like himself -- like either of his selves. Everything felt wrong, different. He tested a few minor muscles. Even though they worked perfectly, this did nothing to reassure him. Eventually, he realized that he would have to open his eyes, get to his feet and come to terms with whatever he was now.
Taking a deep, anticipatory breath, Sean opened his eyes --
Wait…he didn’t have any eyes.
Yes he did…how else was he able to see the moonlit plain, with the monitor several feet away and the mountains on the horizon?
But what he had now wasn’t a pair of eyes. He knew that much. He began taking the rest of his new features into account.
He had fur and large clawed feet, but they were not the fur and feet of a fox. He had a tail as well -- he could tell that without even turning around, but something was terribly different about it as well.
Suddenly, Sean remembered the teletranslator. He cautiously stepped forward -- and yet another feeling of dread churned within him. He didn’t dare inspect whatever this new terror was; he had to contact Jerry, to try to tell just what went wrong. He nudged the teletranslator with his head that, like the rest of him, seemed so very abnormal. The device dug its metal claws into the thick skin of his pate. He knew it was ready now.
Hello, he thought. Jerry? Anybody?
The monitor came to life. The sound of Sean’s thoughts converted into digital speech came through the audio outputs as Jerry’s ashen face hovered in the center of the screen, with several of the researchers peering over his shoulder, some looking astounded, some looking revolted, none looking calm.
“Sean,” Jerry gasped. “Is that you? Are you okay?”
Yes, Sean thought. Yes, I am.
Jerry sighed with relief and almost slumped against a nearby wall.
“Thank God,” he muttered. “But jeez, Sean, I…I don’t know what to say. I never would’ve expected this…”
But what’s happened to me? Sean asked.
Jerry blinked several times in quick succession.
“You don’t know?”
I’m afraid to look.
“Don’t blame you,” Jerry said with a tremor in his voice. He turned to one of the men behind him.
“Can we set this thing to reflect what’s at the other end?” he asked. After receiving a nod in response, he turned back to Sean.
“Just wait a minute,” he rasped. “Just don’t freak out when…” he paused uncomfortably. “Don’t freak out.”
The monitor went blank. Before Sean could formulate another sentence in his mind, an enormous, alien creature suddenly appeared on the screen. Sean leaped back in surprise and terror, but then the truth dawned on him -- he was only looking at his own reflection.
He forced himself to take in every detail of the image, the image of what he was now. He was almost three times as large as he would be as a fox, with a thick, muscular, tapered tail and six huge legs ending in thick claws -- the extra pair was attached to his torso. His fur was thick, long and shaggy, with a broad dark strip along his back. His eyes were now a single convex strip, his nose was like a smaller edition of an elephant seal’s drooping proboscis, and his ears were nothing more than tiny holes with ridges encircling them. As his jaw went slack, Sean could clearly see the pointed tongue and the two rows of jagged teeth that now lined the inside of his mouth reflected in the monitor’s all-seeing dark eye.
All these details combined into a zoo of tiny terrors for Sean, and yet, something about his present shape in its entirety seemed horribly familiar, but he couldn’t pinpoint just what it was. New feelings were stirring within him, like the feelings he had had as a fox, roaming the forests, but much, much greater. His new instincts were calling to him, coaxing him out into this world, where he would…
No. This planet wasn’t his planet. Yet strangely, something kept telling him that it was. He couldn’t tell which voice to trust, the one that screamed that he was on an alien world or the one that soothingly said that this world was his own. He lowered his head and shook it, trying desperately to gain control of his mind.
Jerry’s voice broke the stalemate between Sean’s thoughts. He looked up, but saw only his reflection in the monitor, no Jerry, no researchers, no colonists.Yes?
“Do you get what’s happened now?”“Get?” What do you mean? I don’t understand…
“I couldn’t believe it myself at first, but I can’t think of any other explanation for this… It looks like there is a Mother Nammu to deal with after all, and she certainly has a different way of doing things here.”
What are you talking about? Sean thought strongly. Jerry’s poetic talk was starting to grate on his nerves.
“Sean, you may be an anachronism on Earth, but as far as the rest of the universe is concerned, we’re all still primitive little men, tied securely to that planet…I wonder if she’ll ever let go of us.”
Sean was about to respond again when a light flicked on in the back of his agonized brain. He suddenly remembered something he had heard, something he had seen…
It all became clear in an instant -- the fox was the most powerful predator in Ireland on Earth, and hence, any werebeasts native to that land became foxes under the full moon. Here, on a planet that was so similar to, yet so different from Earth, with a pair of moons that bounced sunlight that traveled millions of miles through the deep black mystery of space back to the planet, just like back on Earth, things worked in a way that was also similar, yet different.
Sean’s heart (if indeed he still had only one) slowly sank as the reality of the situation came trickling into his mind. To this planet, it didn’t matter whether a lunar shifter had come from another planet, or even another galaxy. All that mattered was that he was standing on this particular continent, which, like all other regions of this world, was the home to one species at the very top of the food chain, and if this continent had primitive humanoids living on it, this creature would be the most feared beast of all in their culture, perhaps enough to spark myths and superstitions about it, even stories about men that turned into this beast when the two half-full moons shared the sky…
“Yep,” Jerry’s voice said soberly. “Here, you’re not a werefox anymore, Sean…you’re a weretiuven.”
Ever since reading a good portion of his work, I've had a few half-formed short story ideas kicking around, but I dismissed most of them as things that just wouldn't fly. This one, however, just had to be written. I'm still a bit amazed by the whole thing -- its plot, its characters and its genre are so different than anything I've written about before, yet it all seemed to come so naturally. If this is a birthday present, it's one of the strangest I've ever gotten (yes, I did finish this story on my birthday).