Memphis, Tennessee (Confederation of American States) – It began on September 19th, 2061, a Monday
The night before, Sam’s dad had taken her on the roof of his office building to watch the comet, even though it was a school night. Originally, they had planned to do it on Saturday, but there had been too many clouds, so Samantha’s father had made an exception. He had told her that Halley’s Comet only passed by every 76 years and he was at least as excited as his daughter about it. They had spent a few hours on the roof, watching the bright new star. Consequentially, she was a bit tired this morning, but she gave her best to pay attention to her teacher, just as she had promised her parents.
Sam was in second grade now and considered a bright girl, even though she disliked math. Her favorite subject was PE, but she wanted to be a veterinarian, when she grew up. Samantha was tall for her age, and pretty, her mixed heritage blending together all the good qualities of her mother’s Korean almond eyes and her father’s Hispanic features. She had alert, brown eyes and short, black hair, since she had convinced her mom that wearing it this way would be more practical during sports. Her dad had promised her to get her into the junior league baseball team next summer and she looked very much forward to it.
Sam sat at one of the tables outside during recess. It was a bright, warm day, the air fresh and still no sign of fall in sight. Her mom had packed her a bento box and Samantha nibbled on a small sandwich, when the itching started.
At first it was irritating, on the back of her neck and she thought maybe some bug had stung her. Quickly, though, it got more pronounced and very uncomfortable. Her back started to itch, then her face and when she scratched herself, it only got worse.
The supervising teacher seemed to have noticed her distress and came over to ask „Is everything alright, Samantha?“
Ms. Walters was a very resolute woman, a former nun. Some of the children were a bit frightened of her, but she had always treated Sam kindly. She looked down at the stockily built dwarf and cried „It itches! I don’t know why!“
Ms. Walters took Sam’s hand and said „Be calm, let’s have a look at you. Where does it itch, child?“ Exasperated, Sam said rudely „Everywhere! Don’t you see?“, but the dwarven woman didn’t take it personally. „We better get you to the school nurse.“
Sam nodded with tears in her eyes, not understanding what happened to her. Her bento box lay ignored on the table, as she was marched off indoors and down the corridor. Then, suddenly, everything got worse. Sam cried out, as a sharp pain lanced through both her eyes and nearly collapsed, but she could feel Ms. Walters’s strong hands under her arms, helping her. She tried to look around, confused and in pain, but even though her eyes were wide open, she couldn’t see anything. Tears streamed freely down her cheeks.
Meredith Walters was unable to cope with the child’s sudden breakdown. It was clear to her that Samantha Hamilton was in considerable pain, but she could see no reason as to why. Her brown skin had red streaks where she had scratched herself, but her fingernails hadn’t drawn blood yet. Additionally, it seemed that her vision was impaired and when Ms. Walters looked her in the eyes she saw something disturbing. The girl’s pupils seemed to get milky before Meredith’s very eyes.
She quickly made the sign of the cross and tried to bring her to the nurse’s office, but Samantha was so distraught that she didn’t answer coherently, so Meredith decided to carry her there. When she laid the girl down on the examination couch, she told the nurse firmly „Call an ambulance, Rebecca. Right now.“
The young woman nodded and did as she was told, while the dwarf held Samantha’s hand until the ambulance arrived.
The hospital nurse wrinkled his nose, when he entered the room in the intensive care unit. Dave had compassion for the girl, but it was a hideous sight and the smell of rotting flesh didn’t make it much better. It was so bad that they had had to separate Samantha Hamilton from the other patients. A few of them were worse off, but not many. Dave had had to close one of the body bags himself, after a man’s greater intestine had apparently liquefied, but what he saw, when he looked at the girl, wasn’t much better.
Her entire outer skin layer seemed to … molt, for lack of a better word. It decomposed and she had to be washed three times a day, but still the smell lingered in the small room. Her eyes were still bandaged, and Dave wasn’t sure she’d make it. Her vitals were very weak and he felt it might be a release if she would die soon. All of her hair had fallen out and he could see something that looked like vestigial horns on her skull.
Dave was startled. That hadn’t been there three hours ago, when he last washed her. He notified a doctor over the intercom and started to do his job. Where the skin sloughed off during the washing, Dave could see a light blue under-layer. It was all over her body now. He sighed and remembered the day before, when the girl was brought in with a rash. She had been in so much pain that they’d had to strap her to the bed and sedate her before they could do anything.
As it turned out ‚anything‘ was just a lot of painkillers and keeping her under. No one had any idea what was wrong with her and with the mass of new patients flowing in, there was a serious need for triage. Unfortunate as it was, the girl wasn’t high on the priority list. At least she wasn’t dying … immediately, that was.
Her parents hadn’t taken it well. The kind of cute looking mother was sleeping outside, curled to a ball, but there had been a lot of screaming from her during the last twenty-four hours.
Dave continued to wash her with his sponge, but when he came to her legs something horrible happened. Just as the doctor came through the door Dave cried out in fear and surprise.
One of her feet had just come off! He had never seen anything like it, and he worked as a nurse for 14 years now. A little blood spurted, as Dr. Young rounded on Dave and shoved him to the side but there was no real wound, just a bit of necrotized tissue, where something black was visible.
Sam could see the horror in her father’s eyes. It had been fourteen days, but she had changed. A lot. It was all he could do not to recoil from her sight.
She was taller now, as big as her mom. Her legs were deformed to the point where it was difficult to stand on her new hooves, let alone walk, so she was rolled out of the hospital room in a wheelchair. It was very uncomfortable for her, sitting on the tail and she had tucked it over her thigh and between her knees so it wouldn’t get in between the spokes. Samantha’s skin had a light blue tone now and her eyes glowed white and blue, even in the dark. Her head felt heavy, because of the sharply pointed horns that had begun to grow from behind her temples.
The look on his face hurt her deeply and tears shot into her eyes, but her mom embraced her warmly, until she flinched when Sam’s sharp claws dug into her back. Samantha was crying freely now, so she couldn’t see the terrified expression when her mother looked at her father. Someone said something about a surge, but she really didn’t understand a word.
Memphis, Tennessee (Confederation of American States) – A spring night, 2062
The comet wasn’t visible anymore now, not even with a telescope. Samantha sat at home and watched trid, lying on her stomach, when all the lights in the house went out. She wondered briefly and looked around in the twilight, stroking one hand through the short violet hair that had begun to grow out from her bare head.
She had felt very lethargic lately since her parents left to go shopping and never came back. Sam was tired of crying, but the fridge was empty now after almost a month. The house was a mess, too. At first she hadn’t minded so much. No one to tell her to brush her teeth, no home schooling (which she despised, since she wasn’t allowed to go outside anymore, even though she could walk again) and no one to tell her when to go to bed.
But that all meant there was no one to prepare her food, as well. No one to read to her when she had trouble sleeping and no one to hold her when she woke up terrified from the nightmares. She frequently had nightmares now. Not only of the time she had spent in the hospital when she felt the pain and the smell of her change, even through the haze of sedatives, now she also dreamed of her parents, how they looked at her, with fear and revulsion in their eyes. Sam was sure that they had abandoned her.
The comm was disconnected as well, but she didn’t care much. She was defiant about the whole business and had even stopped praying before going to sleep, usually curled on her side, on the couch or wherever it suited her. In any case she hadn’t even gone to church with her parents anymore. Before her change they had visited mass every Sunday, but since then it had almost seemed as if mom and dad tried to hide her from their neighbors, the congregation, even their friends. No one had visited since the day when Sam had come home from the hospital.
With nothing better to do she put on some clothes, careful not to rip the fabric with her claws and then, on a whim, decided to brush her teeth. Afterwards she bared her sharp fangs to the mirror and for a moment she was frightened again of her own reflection. But then she snorted derisively and stepped outside. One of the neighbors startled when he saw her and quickly went inside to his family. Sam shook her head and began to run down the sidewalk. She could run very fast now and she loved the feeling of freedom when the wind hit her face.
She didn’t come very far. Only two days later she was seized by a patrol car.
Camp Bethany, near Austin, Texas (Confederation of American States) – A summer evening, 2067
The CAS authorities hadn’t known what to do with a lot of the changelings, so the natural solution was to round them up and put them into camps. Apparently it was a tried and true method to displace minorities, but in this case it was mostly done to those with no family to care for them. They had shelter, food and clothing, but not much more. The shelter consisted of plastic sheets, barely able to hold the heat in winter, sweltering hot in the summer, the food was soyslop and the clothing usually was made from recyclable paper. It wasn’t criminal to be a changeling, but you also couldn’t leave until the government knew what to do with you. There were a lot of minors around, but also a few adults, mostly those who had nowhere else to go and decided to help their own. On the bright side, the low tech nature of the camps had made them weather the crash 2.0 fairly well.
Sam had been relocated two times in the last five years, from Memphis down to Houston, then to the current camp, near Austin. She was the proud owner of two shirts, five changes of underwear and a few personal hygiene articles she had stolen or bartered over the years. No one called her Samantha anymore and she had permanent criminal marks on her SIN for ‚unlawful leave-taking‘ or somesuch. She really didn’t care. She had no education, no professional skills and no way to get them. In short: no future.
Sam was fourteen now, a young woman by any reckoning, but she could take care of herself. Larry, one of the older people in the camp, and a friend who had come the same way as Sam had shown her how. He had been a goblinized, SIN- and homeless ork, and after his second change was rounded up around the same time as she was. Despite his grizzled, leathery skin and shuffling walk, Larry was actually a real treasure trove on a variety of topics. Before and after his first change he had been a sergeant in the CAS army and he gave his advice freely. He had taught her how to read and write properly, how to shoot and even how to get around on their ‚excursions‘ beyond the boundaries of the camps. He knew a lot about survival and had shown her a kind of unconditional love that her parents were unable to.
Her abandonment had been inevitable, Sam thought sometimes. Both her parents were devout Catholics and she looked like a demon made flesh after the change. SURGE it was called, she had learned later. SUdden Recessive Genetic Expression. Basically, no one knew what it meant, only that it was brought on by intense spikes in local mana flow. In this case, theories said that Halley’s Comet had been the catalyst for a surge in the ambient, worldwide magic level. And the eggheads just loved their acronyms.
Apparently Sam and the other interred changelings were creatures of magic, similar, but still remarkably different to the other metahuman races. Ironically this didn’t mean that they were more prone to being able to actually do magical stuff like slinging spells or summoning spirits. They’d just had the dubious honor of mutating into a variety of weird and often ugly traits. One of her friends had to stand in the sun all day, not being able to process food anymore, for example.
In hindsight, Sam had probably been lucky. She didn’t die and even with her glowing eyes, tail, horns, fangs and claws, the hooved ’satyr‘ legs and her blue skin, she didn’t look too ugly. Just really, really weird. Some doctor had told her that her expression was one from the most severe category, but the scientific explanation didn’t hold much interest to her. The fact that she wasn’t free was a lot more interesting. And infuriating. She was a minor under state law and care, but who gave them the right to restrain her?
To add insult to injury the ‚care‘ was a joke. The camps were generally under guard, but only to prevent people from leaving. Inside there was gang law, survival of the fittest. It wasn’t uncommon for people to just turn up dead from one night to the next, stripped bare of any meager possessions. And no authority stepped in to protect the weak.
Fortunately, Sam was anything but weak. Her appearance was intimidating enough for most of the troublemakers to leave her alone and she was close to two meters in size and still growing. Sam was fit and strong and when she growled, it was usually enough to make everyone think twice about taking her on. Some boys had tried anyways, but Larry had also taught her self-defense. She knew how to incapacitate a person, even wound them if necessary. She didn’t enjoy violence, but Sam had no qualms about striking first in a confrontation if it looked like it might come to blows.
She had also seen her share of riots, three in total, but Larry had always had the presence of mind to prevent her from being too near. It always had left a lot of dead bodies and she was glad that she wasn’t anywhere near the shooting, even if Larry was always armed with a firearm, wherever he got them from.
Lately, he had renewed his lessons with her. Sam wasn’t stupid, she knew why, even if he didn’t say it out loud. In the last months, she had begun to ‚fill out‘ as he called it. It was very clear to anyone with eyes that she wasn’t a girl anymore and rape wasn’t uncommon.
To Sam, her ‚condition‘ was mostly annoying. She had bouts of rage, her usually balanced temper flared and sometimes she felt depressed and cried for hours in the shelter of her small hut, for no apparent reason. Sometimes her hunger was ravenous, other times she couldn’t eat for days. Additionally, Sam only owned two real t-shirts in addition to her standard issue paper jumpsuit, which she had shortened at the knees to gain more freedom of movement. And those shirts really didn’t fit anymore, even if they had been wide before.
In fact, that was the reason why she was walking through the camp. Sam had been able to barter with a busty woman for a new bra in exchange for a bundle of dried meat strips, the remains of a recent hunting trip with Larry. She loved those trips. Not only did it mean time outside the camp with only her friend around (not to mention the excitement of sneaking out), but Larry said that she needed the meat and Sam tended to agree with him. She liked the taste and she always felt stronger when she could expand her steady soy diet with real food.
They never had to sneak back in. Instead, they usually just gave a few pounds of meat to one of the guards in exchange for not ratting them out. Most times it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Today was a good day, even if the bra didn’t quite fit her yet. Sam’s mood was good, as she walked through the mud of one of the narrow side lanes, at least until she heard a muffled scream from somewhere in front and to her left.
She stopped and listened and heard a few male voices, in a taunting inflection. Sam ducked and sneaked closer, inwardly cursing the stinking mud sucking on her hooves. It wasn’t ideal ground for sneaking, let alone a fight and she hoped worse wouldn’t come to worst. Yet her cautiousness paid out as she looked around a corner where she could see two large boys, presumably souped up on a variety of drugs and steroids, one with his forearm across the mouth of a young woman, the other ripping open her paper jumpsuit with both hands and leering at her while calling her a ‚hot furry‘ in a strange sounding voice.
Racism was common as well. Almost every changeling looked different and Sam had learned that people generally hated other people who looked or acted differently than themselves. No common ground on which to identify generally exacerbated the problem in the camps.
Now was not the time to think about this, though. She bared her fangs in anger and slid a step closer, but the brute behind the woman saw her and opened his circular mouth. It was a mouth full of pointed teeth, either a mutation or filed. Sam straightened up, now that she had been seen and said loudly „Leave her be!“
The other boy turned around and she could see that his nose had been replaced by a long trunk, which explained his strange tone.
„Or what, slit? You gonna bleed us?“ Sam realized that both were almost as tall as she was and heavily muscled. Gang colors, too, red bandanas slung around their left biceps. But it was too late to back down now.
Instead she hissed at them and tried to look more intimidating than she felt. It seemed to work and the one holding the woman let her go, only to kick her in the ribs as she tried to crawl away. Unfortunately, just to go into a fighting stance. His face contorted around the circular mouth and with a start, Sam realized that he grinned.
She tried really hard, to mask her trembling voice with bold words „You let her go and I let you go Drekhead!“ Sam had never been very good at insulting people and it showed again.
The boy with the trunk snorted „Cute li’l devil girl. I think we may have us two tonight, Burt. Maybe we can switch.“
Burt laughed, then suddenly lunged at Sam. He was quick, despite his size, but she had anticipated something like this. It looked like he’d try to bite her, but she ducked sideways and hit him hard in the midriff with a closed fist. Sam was really strong, especially for a girl. Larry always had said so and Burt now experienced it firsthand. The air was pressed from his lungs with a wheeze and he was thrown out of balance, stumbling into a plastic hut.
Time always seemed to slow down when she got into a fight and the adrenaline cursed through her veins, but this time she couldn’t react in time before she felt a sharp pain on her right shoulder blade. The other one had pulled a shiv made from scrap metal on her and had slashed her back. Sam cried out, hurt, and whirled around to face him, a huge smile on his scarred face, half concealed behind the proboscis.
He seemed confident, cocky even, as he danced from one foot to the other, the home-made knife in one hand, making a taunting gesture with the other, beckoning her to come over. His confidence waned, when she opened both hands to show him the half-inch long black claws on her fingertips. Sam made a tall step forward, planted a hoof on one of his boots and slashed the knife hand, then square over his breast. Her opponent shrieked with an absurdly high, trumpeting noise and let go of his knife then tried to make a step backwards, hindered by his pinned foot and collapsed to one knee. She stepped back and looked over her shoulder, but Burt had already started to run away.
„Yeah, I’m gonna make you bleed. Now run along before I do more“, she snarled at the remaining thug.
He got up and followed his friend.
Sam’s shoulder stung and she could feel the blood running down her back, soaking the thin paper cloth, but she turned to look after the ‚furry‘. She hoped that the slash wouldn’t need stitches. The girl couldn’t be much more than a year older than herself and she tried to get up. Sam held out a hand to help her „Are you alright?“ She nodded and got up, taking Sam’s hand carefully.
„Thank you.“ She hesitated for a moment and then observed „You’re bleeding.“
Sam shook her head „It’s nothing. Come, let’s get you home. I’m Sam. Friends sometimes call me Blues. What’s your name?“ „I’m Dot“, she answered as she held the torn paper together with one hand.
Together they made it back to Dot’s shelter, where a friend took a look at Sam’s shoulder and stitched it up, natch.
It was late and dark when she got back home to her own hut. Before she rounded the corner, she could already hear a commotion going on. She heard a shot, then a cry of pain, followed by a gargle. Then some gang kids with red bandanas ran by her, ignoring Sam and her puzzled look entirely.
She felt a flutter in her stomach when she picked up the pace and ran the last few steps. A ganger lay in front of her hut, the missing side of his head and a big puddle of blood telling her that he was dead. Sam forced back the bile that threatened to creep up her throat and looked at the neighboring hut, where something still happened. Larry lived there and someone was half inside, brawny legs sticking out in the mud. It looked like a fight.
Ignoring the pain in her shoulder, she stepped forward and pulled on one leg, hard. A muffled cry of pain came from inside the hut, and the owner of the leg kicked at her while spinning around, hitting her in the stomach and driving her back. Sam doubled over, struggling to stay standing, her tail flailing wildly. When she regained her balance, Burt was standing in front of her, his terrible mouth, chin, breast and hands smeared with red blood. She looked at him, terrified. „You “ He grinned his weird smile, made even worse by the evidence of his cannibalism.
„Yeah, me. I killed the old fragger when he pulled a gun on me, slit. You want some, too?“
He flung himself at her, trying to surprise her again. And failing, again.
But this time, Sam didn’t sidestep. Instead, she howled in anger and merely got down on one knee, lowering her head and pushing forward, her hooves planted in the mud as firmly as possible. She could feel the impact wrenching back her head a bit. It hurt, but it was a two-hundred pound brute after all. Then she felt the pull, as his legs buckled and she pulled her head back to look at the ganger who had impaled himself on her horns, now lying on his back in the mud with a huge sucking chest wound, bubbling bright blood.
Sam looked at him numbly, then stepped on him on her way to Larry’s hut, making the blood spurt up her leg. She ignored it, as she ignored Burt’s dying pleas and rattling breath and looked inside.
Larry was a mess. His neck was torn open by Burt’s teeth, his hand clenched firmly over the wound and there was blood everywhere. It was strange, seeing him lie there like this. It was true, Larry was an old man by now, over sixty at least, but to Sam he had always seemed invulnerable, with his leathery, grey skin. But now here he was, bleeding out, his breaking eyes looking up at her. „Sam “ he whispered when she knelt down and stroked his cheek tenderly.
„It’s okay, Larry. I’m here.“ „No, listen!“ he urged, his speech slurred, even more than usual, impaired by the tusks in his lower jaw. „You killed dat boy, dintcha?“ She nodded, with tears in her eyes. For her friend, not the scum outside, of course. He gripped her wrist then, firm enough to hurt her and focus her attention again.
„Ya gotta get goin‘! Now! Dey’ll hurtcha, girl. Get mah stash and leg it, ya unnerstand?“ Larry coughed and blood spurted from the wound between his fingers.
Sam shook her head „I won’t leave you. You’re hurt, Larry.“ He gave her a shake then.
„Naw, dammit. Ah’m dead, girl. Ya go now or dem gang bangers gonna string ya up. Ah’ve friends in Denver. Go dere. Direcshuns an‘ cred are in da pack. Unnerstand?“ His grip weakened, but he shook her again, until she nodded.
Sam left, and Larry let go of his wound.