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Jul/Aug 2006 Fiction

Spin Degrees of Freedom

by Jeff Haas

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor


He was dreaming of the Aegean when the security alarm sounded. Eyes snapping open, he slipped out of the king-size waterbed, silenced the alarm, and opened the doors to a vast mahogany entertainment center. Eighteen television sets reported activity from every angle of the compound. The approach from Chesapeake Bay was quiet, leaving his long-planned escape route undisturbed. But the main road was another matter. A team of black-clad men with night vision goggles was scaling the wrought-iron gate and dropping down into the courtyard one by one. They would be at the main house within minutes.

But there were only six of them.

Naked, he padded down the hall past the colorful paintings of Parrhasius and Zeuxis and descended the grand staircase to the main floor. He made a mental note about sending for the paintings later through a discreet third party if he could arrange it.

He was going to miss this place. It had been seven years this time, seven full years of relative bliss, poised precariously between the ocean and the land. The ocean had always given him his strength, but the land had offered him a new sensation that he had come to cherish just as much, the sensation of freedom. Maybe it was America itself, or the Americans. In Greece he had heard that for all their openness the Americans could be downright intrusive, but he had discovered quite the opposite. Beneath their superficial "good mornings" and "have a nice days," the Americans mostly kept to themselves, and they were perfectly willing to leave him alone. Until now.

As he passed through the foyer he heard the low hum of a microwave drill penetrating the deadbolt at the front door. Clearly, these men were professionals. He moved stealthily into the great room, moonlight peeking through the bay window to light his way, and stood before a large gold-framed mirror. Whispering a quick prayer to the gods, he summoned the transformative power of the ocean. As he felt the strength swell in his body and surge through his veins, his long mane of silver-gray hair lightened, his six-foot frame shrank to four feet, his massive arms and legs thinned appreciably, and his manhood disappeared completely.

He had become a little blonde girl.

Still naked, he yanked an afghan off the back of a Queen Anne chair and huddled down on the embroidered couch, pulling the blanket up over his bare shoulders.

Just then the drilling stopped, the tumblers fell into place, and the front door creaked open. Now he'd never get the chance to oil that damned door. The intruders entered the foyer as quietly as could be expected for six large men, but in their haste three of them rushed right past him and ascended the stairs, clutching handcuffs and leg-irons.

He watched, bemused, as the three remaining men whispered in the shadows not twenty feet from where he was sitting. The leader, a stout man with a dark beard, pulled a small electronic device out of a black canvas bag and turned it on. Pointing the device up the stairs, the man seemed puzzled that it beeped steadily and that the green light was flashing at discrete intervals.

Tensing on the couch, he realized that the device could pose a problem for him, but there was no time to react.

The bearded man lowered the device to scan the first floor. It beeped and blinked faster, and when he pointed it into the great room the beeping and blinking became a steady pulse. He flicked on a powerful flashlight and aimed it into the room.

"That's him!" he said to his men.

"But... but it's a girl."

"Grab him!"

The men rushed into the great room and dragged him to his feet, revealing his little-girl nakedness as the afghan fell to the floor. The bearded man jabbed a thick forefinger into his chest. "Are you Alexander Zale?"

Zale was stunned. First the device, now this. Who were these guys anyway?

"You are Zale. Dr. Post would like to have a word with you."

Zale didn't know who this Dr. Post was, but one thing was certain--he didn't want any part of him. With the men holding him firmly and the bearded man right up in his face, Zale felt a sudden claustrophobia, something he hadn't experienced in centuries. Summoning his power once more, he quickly turned into a black bear and bit and clawed his captors in a desperate attempt to escape. But, astonishingly, the men seemed prepared for this and held him even tighter.

"Don't let him go," the bearded man said as he ran to the stairs. "Down here!" he shouted.

Zale heard footsteps tramping overhead. With only two men holding him, he knew this might be his only opportunity to escape. He willed himself into the shape of a large copperhead snake, shedding his arms and legs like an unwanted skin. Leaving nothing for the men to grasp, he dropped to the floor and raced for the foyer. The bearded man tried to grab him from behind, but Zale bit down hard on his exposed right wrist and the man was forced to release him.

Protected by darkness, Zale slithered out the front door and into the gardenias. He headed for the back of the house with the staccato rhythm of the men's shouts fading behind him. Careful to avoid the main path, he slid through the tall grass down to the bay and entered the boathouse through a crack under the door. Quickly changing back into a man, he unhitched the lines of the Eido and quietly nudged it into the bay. He jumped aboard the sloop and let the current carry him into the heart of the Intracoastal.

 

A week later Zale docked at Savannah's Bull River Marina, pulling the Eido into an empty slip shortly after dark. He tied his long gray hair back in a ponytail and walked inland to Williams Seafood wearing a pair of khakis, a blue pullover, and sockless Docksiders.

This was his first real attempt to reenter human society since leaving Virginia. He had kept to the middle of the Intracoastal most of the way, traveling by night, stopping only briefly to refuel his inboard motor. As an inveterate sailor, Zale thought it a shame not to be able to unfurl Eido's sails, but night travel in the congested waterway made that an impossibility. Anyway, he figured it was better for him to keep a low profile until he figured out what the hell was going on.

He took a booth in the back with a view of the entrance and ordered a heaping plate of fried oysters. Washing his food down with a second beer, he paid for the meal in cash and buttonholed the waitress before she could rush off to another patron.

"Is Charlie here tonight?"

"In the back."

"Could you go get her for me?"

"I don't know--she's pretty busy."

"Tell her Phil McKenzie is here."

The waitress shrugged and headed for the kitchen, miffed by the sudden interruption. A few minutes later a buxom brunette in her mid-forties pushed through the swinging double doors, wiping her hands on an industrial-strength cotton apron. She was an attractive woman even with her hair up in a bun and no makeup or jewelry to speak of.

"Phil!" she said, giving him a big bear hug. "Why didn't you tell me you were here? I could've set a place for you in the kitchen."

"I didn't want to disturb you."

"How long has it been? Six months? A year?"

"Something like that. How's that deadbeat husband of yours?"

"Husband? What husband? You know you're the only man for me." She winked. "What brings you to Savannah?"

"Just passing through."

"You're always just passing through. When are you going to settle down with a good woman?"

"I tried that once, but she up and died on me."

"What about your daughter? Have you found her yet?"

"No, I'm afraid not. Sometimes I think she doesn't want to be found. Besides, you know you're the only woman for me." He winked back. "Charlie, I need to ask you a small favor."

"Name it."

"The satellite dish on the Eido is on the fritz. Could I use your PC for a few minutes?"

"Sure."

She led him to the office and showed him to a desk with a computer. He was pleased to see that there was a door to the outside.

"I've got to get back to work now," she said. "It's so good to see you again, Phil. How long will you be staying this time?"

"Just overnight."

"Oh, that's too bad. Marty's on a fishing trip. He'll be sorry he missed you. You still owe us a rematch at cribbage, you know."

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"Not until we beat you fair and square."

"I can't help it if I have a supernatural gift."

"Gift? Hah! We just haven't figured out how you cheat."

She gave him a peck on the cheek and headed back to the kitchen. He hated lying to her about the satellite dish, but he just couldn't afford being traced through his Internet connection on the Eido.

He googled "Dr. Post" on the PC and reviewed the search results. Sun Tzu might not have been a Greek, but he was definitely onto something when he said "know thy enemy." Zale knew next to nothing about Post, except that he had dangerous friends in the military and that he was hell bent on finding Zale himself. No doubt Post was just another in a long line of desperate humans who wanted to ask him a question, but Zale had stopped answering such questions centuries ago.

He narrowed his search to several promising URLs, finally settling on the website of a small startup company in Norfolk. He navigated to the CEO's profile and found a picture of a distinguished gentleman in a charcoal-gray suit with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and steely blue eyes. The photo was accompanied by a short bio.

Dr. Bingham Post III is the Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer of Generra Enterprises, a privately held research firm specializing in molecular nanotechnology. Widely recognized as the Father of Active Mesostructure, Post pioneered the field as the K. Eric Drexler Professor of Physics at MIT. First to receive a grant from the US government for Active Cell Aggregate research, Post founded Gennera Enterprises to help the American military prepare for 21st century warfare.

With his connections to Norfolk and to the military, this had to be the guy. But what kind of question would a scientist like Post want to ask him?

There was no time to wonder as Zale heard three helicopters approaching from the west. He turned off the PC and wiped down the mouse and keyboard with his shirttail, quickly leaving the office by the back door. He followed the pier down to the marina, jammed a hundred dollar bill into the office slot, and hopped back on board the Eido. His only regret was that he didn't have the chance to say goodbye to Charlie.

Safely downstream an hour later, Zale considered how Post could have tracked him all the way from Norfolk to Savannah. It couldn't have been the computer, so it must have been that damned tracking device. But if the tracking device was that powerful, why couldn't Post track him while he was on board the Eido? Then it struck him: the tracking device only worked when he was on land, separated from his source of power. He resolved to stay on the water until he could decide what to do next.

 

Two weeks later, confined to the relative safety of the Eido at Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar, Zale ordered a late supper from dockside room service for the third time that week. He was tired of running and tired of being alone, yet he couldn't quite bring himself to make the decision he knew he needed to make, and make soon.

Paying the waiter in cash, he carried the heavy silver tray to the forward deck and set it down on a small card table. He just couldn't bear the thought of eating alone in the cabin again. He popped the cork on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and dug into a thick wahoo steak, a tattered blanket of stars his only protection from the deepening night.

Zale figured he had three options: stay in the United States and eventually be hunted down like an animal; return to Greece and hope that the tracking device couldn't follow him there; or confront Dr. Post before Dr. Post confronted him.

There was a fourth option, but he preferred not to think about that.

Three-quarters of the way through the bottle he saw the Jungle Queen returning from a dinner cruise with a large contingent of smiling faces. He silently wished that he could be one of those carefree Americans laughing their troubles away, but he knew deep in his heart that he never could be. Perhaps he had been fooling himself all along; perhaps he was never meant to live in human society.

The large riverboat passed in front of the Eido, but the wake was slight because the marina was at low tide. Zale had a fleeting thought that there was something significant about a low tide, but he was too tired and too drunk to care. He polished off the remaining champagne and headed for bed, delaying his important decision to the morning.

 

Dawn showed with her rosy fingers but Zale was too hung over to get out of bed, and by the time he heard the sharp click of the concussion grenade it was too late. Stunned, he lay helpless as the bearded man and his cohorts strapped him securely to the bed, water dripping from their black wetsuits onto his naked body. His one consolation was that the bearded man's right hand was still swollen from the snakebite. But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

When Zale's head cleared, Dr. Bingham Post III stood at the foot of the bed in tan slacks and a red pullover, the tracking device in one hand and a sleek black briefcase in the other. The soldiers stood behind him in a ragged semi-circle.

"Good morning, Mr. Zale," Post said. "Or should I say Mr. McKenzie? Or perhaps--"

"-- Why can't you people just leave me alone?"

"I won't keep you long," Post said. "I just need a little of your blood." He handed the tracking device to the bearded man and opened the briefcase on the bed, revealing several syringes, a dozen plastic vials, and a tourniquet.

"My blood? What do you want with my blood?" Zale felt a sudden panic as the cabin seemed to close in around him.

"Your blood could be very valuable in the right hands, and believe you me, these are the right hands." Post pushed a syringe into a small plastic holder, then inserted a vial onto the syringe.

Summoning his power, Zale tried to turn into a fearsome alligator, but without the freedom of movement his powers were useless. Frustrated, he settled back down into human form and saw Post smiling above him.

"So... she was right," Post said, pulling the tourniquet tight on Zale's arm. "Your daughter. She said if I could hold you still long enough I could collect a specimen."

"Eido? What have you done with her?"

"I haven't done anything with her, unless you consider marriage a crime. And her name isn't Eido anymore, it's Thea. She had it changed, legally."

Post jammed a syringe into Zale's vein and removed the tourniquet. Blood started bubbling up into the vial.

"She told you how to find me? Why? Where is she? Can I talk to her?"

"She doesn't want to have anything to do with you. Face it, old man, you abandoned her a long time ago. I'm afraid you're just a deadbeat dad to Thea."

Zale's face turned red at the betrayal. He tried to calm himself down by taking several deep breaths, hoping that this nightmare would be over soon.

"I guess that makes you my father-in-law," Post laughed. "Hadn't thought of it that way before. I'll accept this blood as a belated wedding gift. Thanks, dad."

Post popped off the first vial and inserted a second.

"What are you going to do with it?" Zale asked.

"I'm going to study your DNA to find out how you change shapes, and then I'm going to adapt that capability for humans."

"But my powers are god-given. You can't replicate them artificially."

"I can, and I will."

Post popped off the second vial and inserted a third, shortly followed by a fourth.

"Think of what the American military could do with an army of shape-shifters! I get goose bumps just thinking about it."

When he was done, Post removed the syringe from Zale's arm and placed four full vials in the briefcase, latching it securely.

"Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" he said, patting the briefcase like it was a baby. He turned to the bearded man. "I need a few minutes alone with Mr. Zale," he said, and the soldiers promptly left the cabin, closing the door behind them. Zale felt like a bug trapped in amber.

Post walked to the bed and leaned over him, nervous and apprehensive. "Thea told me that I can ask you any question I want... about the future..."

Here it comes, Zale thought, the one thing he had been avoiding for so many years. "Why don't you just ask her?"

"Unfortunately, she didn't inherit your powers."

"All right, let's just get it over with," Zale said.

Post cleared his throat to voice the question. "Will my shape-shifting experiments make me rich?"

Zale was incredulous. "So that's what all this has been about? Money?"

"She said you have to answer."

But Zale had already resigned himself to answering the question--any question--in exchange for his freedom. He closed his eyes tight and pictured Post in his mind. Soon he was presented with a series of vibrant images of the future: Post experimenting with blood late at night in his lab; Post at a press conference announcing his discovery; Post ringing the bell at the opening of the stock market; Post receiving the Medal of Freedom from the President...

But when he looked further into the future he was disturbed by what he saw: the President declaring war on the Islamic world; an army of shape-shifters dismantling Mecca brick by brick; American soldiers murdering millions of defenseless Muslim men, women, and children...

Compelled to look even further, he saw the most disturbing images of all: a lone American shape-shifter dying from a terrible disease; entire brigades of soldiers becoming infected by the shape-shifter; the virus spreading like wildfire through entire human populations...

Finally, Zale saw an image he knew he would never erase from his mind: all human life on Earth, dead.

He opened his eyes and looked up at Post. "Filthy rich," was all he said.

Post smiled. "Good." Cradling the briefcase in his arms, he headed for the door.

"Release me!" Zale shouted.

But Post left the cabin without another word.

 

Alone in the cabin an hour later, Zale felt his power gradually returning to him, and as his power grew so did his anger. He was angry at Eido for betraying him; angry at Post for not releasing him; but most of all he was angry at the gods for allowing him to see the future without being able to change it. For this was his terrible gift, the gift that had caused him so much pain, the gift he had sworn never to use again. He had seen the future as clearly as a summer sky, but it was a future without man, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Had he warned Post of the unintended consequences of his actions, it wouldn't have made a bit of difference. The future would have unfolded just as he had seen it. So he had chosen to keep his vision to himself, and he answered the question exactly as Post had asked it, literally.

Soon his anger grew into an uncontrollable rage, and he began to change. His arms and legs withered; his torso turned black, scaly, and serpentine; and his teeth started to protrude from his mouth, long and sharp. And he grew...

...so large that he popped the leather straps as though they were rubber bands...

...so large that he cracked the cabin walls like matchsticks...

...so large that he burst through the hull, splintering the Eido as if it was made of kindling.

He was becoming a ketos, a giant sea monster of the deep, and if he continued to grow he would be trapped in the shallow waters of the marina, where he would die. Unable to control his rage, he instinctively started swimming. He swam as fast as he could out of the marina and into the Port Lauderdale Inlet. Then he made his way through the inlet and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually, he swam beyond the continental shelf and plunged into deep waters.

But now that he was free he didn't know who to target with his anger. Eido? She would be a widow soon enough. Post? He would contract his own artificial virus and die a horrible death. That left only one possible target, the gods themselves, but Zale knew better than to incur the wrath of the gods. So, as his body stopped growing and his rage gradually turned into grief, he let out a long, low moan that rose high into the heavens.

But the gods chose not to answer his prayer, and he decided to go home. He swam the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean and made it all the way to the North Atlantic. Passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, he swam the length of the Mediterranean and entered the familiar waters of the Aegean. Finally accepting his fate, he turned himself into a large boulder, sank to the bottom of the wine-dark sea, and waited for the future to wash over him.

 

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