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Human Chapter One
Once again, a cookie doomed her.
“Save the animals! Sign our petition and get a free giant cookie,” a girl’s voice chirped over a speaker.
Pues, if I had been able to sit still on the bus long enough to reach the auditorium, I might’ve missed out on this treat. After all, the sugar will help me stay awake during the concert, and I would have signed the petition before becoming a teleporting shapeshifter, anyway. Though crossing the grounds of the large university on foot would take up most of the time left before her blind date, Zita Garcia spun on her heel in an abrupt right turn into the wide plaza.
Her muscular legs moved in short, swift strides toward the stately edifice anchoring the opposite side of the plaza. Beneath the broad stone portico engraved with “Biology” and “Psychology,” her target, a table at the base of the entry steps, beckoned. Stretched across a white plastic tablecloth, a maroon and gold banner announced: “Testing Animals Stops Today.”
No students lingered near the protesters. A girl with curly brown hair hoisted a microphone and uttered her siren call again as a gaggle of other demonstrators revolved around the table, waving clipboards in a rainbow of primary colors. For Zita, who enjoyed guessing the sports played by fellow athletes, they held little interest as their movements had the zest of youth, rather than any physical conditioning. The only unusual-looking activist, distinguishable by his wild, ungroomed beard and the two giant tufts of hair that stood out above his ears, glowered and shook his walking stick at those who did not sign. Eyes all but closed in boredom, a campus security guard loitered nearby.
As always, Zita assessed the area and the people in it as she marched toward the promised treat. Like a squished spider, leggy pathways led in every direction from the bare, round center of the plaza. Senseless sets of little stairs erupted up and down along and on the paths. Tall deciduous trees dotted the spaces between the trails, granting irregular patches of shade to black metal tables with attached benches. Evergreens nestled close to the buildings. Scattered throughout, students socialized more than studied, unsurprising given fall classes had yet to start. The occasional bird skittered from branch to branch overhead, and squirrels congregated on the tree trunks a safe distance from humans. When my date ends, I can free-run through here on my way to catch the bus, even if I have to re-wear the dirty workout clothing in my satchel. She smiled, pleased at the promise of fun for later, and planned a challenging route.
With a guilty jolt, she remembered she had promised to give Luis an honest chance. Her brother Quentin had said that her date, a prospective client of his, met her standards. Though Zita hoped that meant he enjoyed climbing and extreme sports, she suspected he was just a gym regular. Her traitorous sibling must have needed to divert inquiries about his own frenzied social life; both her mother and her other brother, Miguel, made her promise to be sweet to that “nice Catholic boy” (from her mother) who “lacked a criminal record and maintained steady employment” (Miguel’s contribution). She wondered if the poor guys her brothers set her up with knew how much Garcia attention they received with each date. Since Miguel’s last pick had required rescuing from thugs and preceded a short coma that landed her in months of quarantine, she reassured herself that tonight’s date could not be worse. If nothing else, a decent meal might soothe the sting of having to abandon her plans for Friday night: aerial acrobatics, followed by practice for an upcoming capoeira roda.
As Zita approached, a group of twittering coeds with athletic legs bounced up to the table. Lacrosse sticks and gym bags hung from their shoulders. With eager smiles, the student activists greeted them and proffered clipboards. When the lacrosse team set down their belongings to accept the forms, she hurried as much as her red and lime-green skirt suit would allow without flashing anyone. Oye, don’t take all the cookies! She blessed her own decision to wear her dressy sneakers (she had bejeweled them herself). The sports bra hidden under her clothing kept her generous chest under control enough to risk a higher speed.
A chubby man barreled down the building steps and grabbed the arm of the curly brunette with the microphone, snarling something at her. Clad in a baggy polo shirt and jeans, he lacked the coordination or form of a dedicated athlete. His posture and the hard shove to return his glasses to their position shouted his annoyance as did the unhappy lines of what little face was visible above a prodigious ginger mustache. Despite the ball cap worn backward on his head, he seemed older than most of the activists, closer to Zita’s own twenty-six years. Graduate student, perhaps?
Unimpressed with whatever he had said, the curly-haired girl jerked her arm away and jabbed his sternum with her finger as she responded.
The way the other members of the group, except for the surly, cane-waggling bearded guy, pretended not to notice made Zita slow. Ay, looks personal. Cookies aren’t worth getting near that kind of drama. The promised treats with their telltale chocolate chip dots flirted with her from a plate next to a pile of pamphlets. They’re probably store-bought anyway, she assured herself, veering toward a tiny fountain surrounded by thornless honey locust trees.
Eager to circumvent the argument, she almost missed the first mental flicker as a male voice called out, the words too garbled and distorted by static to understand. Stopping, she scanned the area, her shoulders tensing at the intrusion. Wyn? It doesn’t sound like her, and Andy and I don’t have telepathy. We can only talk that way when she links us together.
Huge edifices towered on three of the four sides of the plaza. One was a library for undergraduates; her bookish friend Wyn, who worked at a graduate-level library on campus, had pointed it out on Zita’s last visit. The others were fancy campus classroom buildings, complete with pillars and overdone stonework hiding the plain windows and doors of repurposed historic structures. Everything appeared innocuous enough, and no one had stirred. A breeze, a relief from Maryland’s late August heat and humidity, teased the leaves into periodic murmurs and carried the scents of crushed grass and cooking food. The rise in volume of chittering alerted her, and a glance up showed that the handful of squirrels had multiplied, and now every tree had several. The birds had fled. She rubbed the short, choppy black hair on the top of her head as unease grew, and she sped up to reach the side of a building.
Is a male telepath poking around heads? Zita ran through the exercises Wyn had taught her to close her mind and make it harder to read. Noise broke her concentration.
The curly-haired activist’s voice ascended to a screech as she accused the chubby graduate student of bowing to the will of his professor. The name meant nothing to Zita, and she blinked as the bearded fellow moved behind the quarreling pair with a speed belied by his average physical tone and coordination. He joined in berating the graduate student.
Her stomach clenched.
When the security officer sensed the disruptive trio’s imminent altercation and tried to intercede, her disquiet receded. The aggressive bearded man withdrew a few paces, and the mental muttering increased. Although the words were unintelligible, they held notes of command.
She cursed inwardly. Let campus security handle it, she told herself. He’s trained for it. You’re a dilettante with a couple of powers, and telepathy isn’t one of them. If there’s a mind reader hanging out around here, I need to go before he learns my secrets. She stomped away, sans cookie, settling her clothing satchel on her shoulders. Zita had only managed a few more steps when shocked shouting made her look back.
The security guy and graduate student were sprawled on the ground, and the bearded weirdo stood over them, cane raised. With a dramatic flourish, he slipped off the tip of his walking stick to reveal a sword. The activists and lacrosse girls had taken several steps away but stopped when he unsheathed the blade. He pointed to the curly-haired girl and held out his hand in demand. One or two of the students had their phones aimed at him.
Eyes wide, the curly-haired girl handed him the microphone.
A melodic basso transmitted through the scratchy speaker as he spoke. “I have been patient. I have gone through channels. No more. You will all bow and present Professor Clarise Weppler to me! She must answer for her crimes against squirrelkind!” He wove a dramatic pattern in the air with his sword, a move that would have gotten him skewered in an actual fight.
Squirrelkind? Is that a real word? Zita shoved away the incongruous thought. Right, so he’s the guy mumbling in my mind, even if I have no idea what he’s saying or why I can hear him since I am happily not telepathic.
He continued ranting into the microphone, waving his naked blade. “Should you think to silence my voice, know that I have placed at least one bomb on campus. Should I fall today, my people shall be avenged! If you bring me the foul evildoer, I will remove the bombs!”
Oye, someone took extra drama pills instead of their medication. Zita ducked behind the corner of a building, one that looked as if a giant toddler had glued multiple medium-sized houses together and then tried to cover up the mess with columns and classical ornamentation. Slipping into the shadow of a trio of evergreens, she pulled her satchel closer to her body, freeing it from a squat holly. The police can handle this. They have negotiators who have to be better than me at talking. De verdad, the police likely have janitors who are more diplomatic, she tried to convince herself. Much to her discomfort, the muttering in her mind grew louder but no more understandable.
The reply to the call came in a susurration of sound, like distant thunder, growing louder as it approached. A throng of squirrels (and their probable accompanying horde of fleas) poured down the path between buildings, fearless. Rather than going around people, the rodents swarmed over them. One girl, frozen in shock at the sight, disappeared beneath the tide of tiny bodies. When they passed, she began a broken wail despite seeming unharmed. The animals headed toward Zita’s hiding place.
“Oh, hell no,” she said and teleported to the top of the building she hid beside. As the roof was a collection of odd angles where pitched rooflines met, it hosted a plethora of small, hidden areas invisible from neighboring buildings and from below. Safe from the rampaging rodents, the athletic Latina climbed over the rough, tarry shingles to a spot where three sharp, angled peaks rose from a relatively flat surface. Though no one would be able to see her there, she couldn’t see anything, either, but as she pulled her flip phone from her satchel, screams sounded. Zita clambered up the closest peak and observed the chaos below through gaps in the trees.
Squirrels eddied up and down the tree trunks in the plaza, several clustering by the now-abandoned table. All humans had fled, save for the bearded bomber and those who had been standing or lying closest to him: the security guard, the graduate student, the curly-haired girl, and one of the other female activists, who held a phone. The two men sat on the pavement, the graduate student holding his head in one hand. The mad bomber (Zita named him Squirrelly) punctuated words with his sword, coming close to puncturing his hostages multiple times. Abandoned bags, lacrosse sticks, and clipboards littered the ground by the table.
“The time of the rodent is upon us,” Squirrelly intoned, the microphone amplifying his words as he produced a thick sheaf of papers from nowhere. For a moment, he performed an awkward juggling act with his sword, microphone, and papers. When he managed to get everything else in one hand, he pointed his sword at the girl with the phone and spat, “Keep filming.”
His furry audience stopped moving and sat motionless, every tiny nose directed at the man speaking, save one. That squirrel ran up his leg and perched on his shoulder, its brown fur so perfect a match with the man’s hair that Zita wondered if he had chosen the animal for that reason.
Zita pressed a number on speed dial.
The girl with the phone—Camerawoman—held it higher and nodded, her trembling noticeable enough that Zita could see it from the roof.
With a smile, Squirrelly licked a finger and turned a page. He pontificated into the microphone. “Mankind is not our friend. Its so-called science imprisons and tortures us. The kindest feed us only leftovers. We must rise, my rodent brethren, and begin a glorious revolution!”
“If squirrels are your brothers, your mother’s got a nasty kink, buddy,” Zita mumbled as someone picked up the other end of the call.
“What was that? Zita, is your date over already? Is everyone unharmed? It’s Friday night, so of course, a professor sent me additional requirements for a special project, but if you want to talk, I’m here,” her friend Wyn said. Concern warred with amusement in her dulcet voice.
Descending back to the flat spot on the roof and ignoring the continued blather coming from the square below, Zita frowned at sunbaked asphalt shingles. People can easily eavesdrop on phones, so I’ll have to be indirect when I ask Wyn to use her telepathy to talk privately. Nobody’s learning about that or her magic from me. Great, subtlety and conversation, two things I suck at. Quizás, I could reference the party-line joke, about how her telepathy tied us together like a shared phone line, to cue her in to use it.
Zita cleared her throat and took off her satchel, holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder. “My dates don’t get injured that often—well, depending… Never mind, you need to get off campus. Some loco, I mean, crazy man, put a bomb somewhere at the university. If you find a party line, you can call me back on it.” She let her bag drop to the roof.
“Here?” Wyn replied incredulously, her Southern accent thickening. “Wait, you’re on campus, and you didn’t mention it? Weren’t you too busy to get together with me today?” Her questions held an odd tone.
Zita paced the three steps her hiding spot allowed. “Yes to all the questions. Get to safety. Party after.”
“Oh, but the Hades project… Fine, I’ll go, but we need to talk,” Wyn said and hung up.
Crashing chords, like a marching band at a football game, underscored by a shrill, unintelligible chorus, rose whenever the tirade below paused.
Squirrelly brought music to rant to? Zita wondered as she tucked away her phone.
As expected, a few seconds later, Wyn’s voice spoke in her mind. Unlike the man below, her tones were clear and her words sensible. I do hope this is all a tasteless joke, she sent.
No such luck. Can you find out from Squirrelly’s head where he put the bombs? Given the amount of special sunshine he’s sharing with everyone, he should have a distinctive brain.
Exasperation trickled through the mental connection. Even if I locate him in the crowd, what would we do with the information?
Zita rolled her eyes, forgetting her friend could not see her. Call the police and leave an anonymous tip so they can take him out of action as soon as the bomb’s disabled. If possible, warn them he’s a squirrel hypnotist telepath because he’s controlling them somehow.
Since she suspected what she would need to do, Zita sighed and shapeshifted into a South American pipe snake. If she had to switch to a large animal later, the last thing she wanted, given her tight budget, was to destroy one of her few viable work outfits. Slithering out of her clothing, she transformed into to a different human form, the one she thought she’d never have to take again. Since taking any human form other than her own made her feel off balance, always bad in a fight, her disguise was identical to her natural body, except for the different face, pointy ears, and the mass of long black hair that hung like a cape to her thighs. She reminded herself to carry a tie to keep the hair under control in case she ever had to do this again. After a moment, she altered her fingers to hide her prints.
Silence greeted her words. When Wyn replied, surprise laced her tone. That seems unusually prudent for you. If I could find him, I would read him for the bomb locations, but I can’t locate him. All the staff, including myself, just got orders to clear the library, thanks to a student who ran in shouting about bombs and terrorists. People are going mad.
Carajo. Can you use me to find him? If I look at him, would that help? After rummaging through her satchel, Zita withdrew her exercise gear, wrinkling her nose at the clammy touch of the still-sweaty material as she slid it on. At least I have my ancient and boring black stuff today if it gets wrecked in a shapeshift.
Dubiousness tinged Wyn’s reply. I’ll try it. Why are you contemplating changing shape? You’re staying back, right?
Despite her disgust, Zita tried to tie a used hand towel around her lower face, but the fabric was too small. She dropped it. After worming her way up to the peak, she checked below again. Try now. For a second, her vision doubled, and she felt crowded, as if someone stood too close. How about now?
No, sorry, Wyn replied. The claustrophobic feeling receded.
Frustrated, Zita pushed loose hair out of her face and propped herself up on one arm. How can the brain of a man controlling hundreds of squirrels and reading from something he calls the “Squirrel Manifesto” not stand out?
Irritation colored Wyn’s reply. Which one of us is the telepath? Right now, I can’t find him. I’d have to see him myself, or you’d have to get closer so I could use your sight.
How close? Zita asked, hunching down to avoid being seen.
If I used you to triangulate, you would have to be within… Wyn’s mental voice broke off. In a sharper tone, she said, Zita, what are you planning? Don’t approach someone who has a bomb.
A shriek, followed by terrified screaming, made Zita climb back up the pitched roof and peek below again. A group of squirrels swirled near the hostages then withdrew, revealing the graduate student lying in a fetal ball. Myriad tiny red circles expanded to larger ones, drowning out the white and blue of his clothing. He’s hurting people. Revulsion filled her, twisting her focus. Not the time to relive Brazil, she thought, sweating as she forced the memories of a friend’s death away before they leaked into her communication with Wyn.
Squirrelly gestured to the bloody man. “Do not try to run. The monkey will fall beneath our rodent might,” he intoned in his sonorous voice. “You! Tie up the transgressors.” He tossed a roll of duct tape to the feet of the curly-haired activist, who had a hand touching her mouth. Turning, he smiled into Camerawoman’s phone.
Both of the hostage women stared at him, their mouths agape. Music rose. The one with the phone almost dropped it as she fell to her knees and vomited.
“Now!” he thundered, with a theatrical gesture toward a clump of squirrels.
With uncanny synchronization, the selected rodents swarmed up the stairs, a churning mass of fur. They fixed their beady eyes on the captives.
All the hostages flinched at their proximity.
Once the animals were in place, Squirrelly tucked the sword beneath his arm, stroked his unruly beard, and flipped through the stack of papers as if he had lost his place. He glanced over at Camerawoman’s phone. With a scowl, he gestured for her to raise it.
The frightened young woman, pale beneath umber skin, wiped off her mouth and held the phone higher.
Although most of her attention was on the people, Zita noted that the squirrel audience grew restless as the selected rodent soldiers menaced the hostages. A few even scampered away between buildings.
The curly-haired girl (Zita named her Curly) picked up the duct tape and obeyed, beginning with the security guard. After taping his arms behind him and his ankles together, she did the same to the graduate student, propping him against the guard to keep the student sitting upright. He turned his face from her as she worked, unwilling or unable to do more. When she finished, she gestured toward Camerawoman and asked a question.
The bearded bomber shook his head and gestured for Curly to come nearer. As she drew near enough, he swooped down, pressed a kiss onto the back of her hand, and murmured something. He waved at his feet.
Her eyes glassy, Curly complied, sitting on the steps at his feet.
After clearing his throat, the man spoke into his microphone again. “You see before you the King of All Squirrels and their kin. Today, I shall judge the vile creatures who would perform horrific experiments on my noble people. Rise, my rodents, and speak! No more will we be victimized! Bring me Professor Clarise Weppler!” The group of squirrels split to stand like rodent bookends at either side of the stone steps, and the chittering increased enough to be audible.
Zita teleported to her chosen spot, behind one of the decorative columns and Camerawoman. She crept closer to the security guard, keeping low to remain unseen. Using his bulk as cover from the madman, she worked to release him. “Shh,” she whispered, “I’m here to help.”
Shoulders stiff, the security guard inclined his head an inch. This close, the sour perspiration staining his uniform reeked, and the movement of his throat was visible as he swallowed. Although he recoiled when he saw her there, the graduate student hunched closer to the other man. To their credit, both men stayed silent and leaned together, shielding her from view with their larger bodies. More bitter fear mingled with blood and sweat in their scents. The bellowed demands for the professor and the bombastic music (now repeating itself) hid the noise of duct tape ripping.
How can you not appreciate the glorious utility of duct tape? Assuming you’re not as inept as Curly when you use it, Zita thought.
Duct tape? What? Don’t do anything stupid, Wyn warned.
Too late for that, Zita sent. Can you read the nut job now? Although she had braced herself for the double vision, the sensation of a person standing too close had her fighting her instincts to defend herself. Her fists curled, and she inhaled and exhaled slow, controlled breaths to even out. She snuck peeks at the self-proclaimed monarch.
Her friend’s unhappiness rang through their mental link even as the feeling receded. No, he’s on a bizarre mental path, like you, Wyn sent. Also, that pun was terrible.
Andy would have appreciated the nut job pun. What do you mean bizarre? Zita thought, tearing off the last of the tape from the guard’s wrists. She kept a wary eye on the posturing Squirrelly—the erstwhile Squirrel King—as she switched to working on the graduate student. The security man curled his legs back and began scraping at the tape on his ankles.
Wyn explained. When you’re in animal form, you don’t register as human.
Zita paused for a second. I am always a person, no matter my shape. Hoping to sever the tape fast and avoid inflicting any more pain than necessary, she dug her fingers into the bindings on the graduate student’s wrists and gave a sharp yank. “Sorry,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. He winced but continued blocking her from view. Her respect for the rotund student increased; this close, the vicious bite marks covered so much of him that blood hid much of his visible skin. Her determination to help grew.
Frustration vibrated down the mental link. You are? Just kidding. You’re like a website that never appears in search results, or the more distant radio station between two louder stations that drown you out; a person has to know what channel to search for. When Andy’s a giant bird, he’s the same way, although a different frequency. Neither human nor animal. That’s part of why it’s so restful to focus on the two of you. Wyn apologized, I’m sorry, I’m trying, but I can’t find your bomber, which might be a mercy if his mind is as horrendous as his hair. I can see him through your eyes, but all the squirrel brainwaves are hiding his mind. Every now and again I pick up a weird chitter telepathically, which I’m guessing is him, but I haven’t been able to follow it to him yet.
“I am weary of the delays!” the Squirrel King declared. “The death of the transgressor who assisted the vile Weppler was foreordained, but you shall watch it now.” When Camerawoman fumbled her phone at his words, he directed his sword at her. “You will continue to film. They must know the truth.” He murmured something to Curly, his tone softening.
Her eyes glued to him, Curly folded her hands in her lap.
Zita worked faster, unbinding the student’s hands. She seized the ball cap from his head, revealing a small bald spot. After putting on the hat, she pulled the bill low to hide her face from the cameras. Even transformed, she preferred to leave as few clues as possible. Apropos of nothing, she wondered if she should name her disguise. I should just call it Arca, she thought, as that’s what the media thinks my name is. Miguel would call it my death-wish shape given what I do with it. “I’ll distract him. You get to safety,” she whispered.
The synchronized squirrels bounded back up the stairs, one group encircling Camerawoman, and the other following Squirrelly. With a flourish of his blade, the Squirrel King turned to approach his captives. He had taken only two steps before he caught sight of Zita hiding behind the men.
“What is that?” he bellowed, lowering his weapon. The squirrels at his feet flashed their tails and made repeated “kuk” alarm sounds.
Beyond them, the horde of squirrels fled up tree trunks, even scampering over each other to escape. Many escaped the area entirely. In comparison, until emotion got the better of their “King,” the controlled squirrels seemed like zombies or robots. Tiny, furry ones.
When he recovered, the Squirrel King pointed his sword at Zita.
Hope you enjoyed reading Human Chapter One! Did you want to read more? Pick your retailer!