by Michæl W. Bard
Text ©2007 Michæl W. Bard; illustration ©2007 The Artist

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This is a WoC (Winds of Change) story. Go here for info on the WoC setting

   The water was thin, and so hot it felt like steam. She labored, forcing herself further and further upward, gulping the fiery water down and across her gills, ignoring the pain. It was the time of the new moon, and she refused to miss the meeting.
   No matter the cost.
   Then, for an all-too-brief while, she wouldn’t be alone.

   He stood on the beach, his hooves sinking into the wet sand. Hissing into the water, a light rain pattered down as thin clouds high above shaded the moon to dimness. The waves went thrush thrush against the shore. Off in the distance a foghorn blew, its sound long and low and haunting.
   It had been five years since The Change remade every living human being on Earth into part-animal creatures. Five years for language to adapt to the new reality; for the emergence of terms like ‘high-degree’ and ‘low-degree’ to denote how extensive a person’s changes were, and for those terms to shrink to ‘hi-D’ and ‘low-D’ in normal conversation. Five years during which it became clear that many people had been gifted with strange powers, often including the ability to transform fully into the creature they resembled—‘norm-shift’, as it was called—but never the ability to assume a truly human form.
   Five years since Linda, the love of his life, had become an alien creature, one whose biology was wholly adapted to the deepest, darkest depths of the sea. Both of them had sworn never to forget the other, sworn to meet and talk and cuddle.
   To remember.
   And yet…
   He’d met Jackie, another hi-D horse like him. He could sense the relationship was getting serious.
   It was wrong! Absolutely! Linda still loved him, and he her…
   But his love for Linda was old, worn down. It had reached the point where the only reason he met her was for her sake—and for the problems she was solving, answering for him so that he could make a living, while she swam in the depths. Alone.
   And he wasn’t sure any more which was more important. Love, or pity, or business.
   Snorting, he turned and made his way up the beach, the wet sand oozing around his hooves. It was almost the new moon. He had to get to the boat, to make his way to the rendezvous point they’d set up and used for the past five years.

   As she rose, she let her body acclimate to the painful warmth, getting used to desperately gulping in painfully thin water for its infinitesimal quantities of oxygen. She’d fed as well as she could in the abyssal depths before beginning her arduous journey for the quarterly meeting that was all that she longed for. In the blackness, all she could dwell on was the ideas her love gave her, numbers to play and twist, equations that were her only company in the eternal blackness. Originally he’d asked her because some friends had asked him, and so that he could afford to be with her when she could come. For her to come up to him was difficult; for him to enter her world was impossible.
   The world lightened to searing brightness. Pinching her eyes closed, concentrating on her other senses—smell, current, magnetic field, pressure—she kept herself on course. Even here, hundreds of meters deep, the light burned into her.
   And it would only get worse.

   Jackie stood on the wooden dock, looking down as he prepped the small solar-assisted sailboat. Its primary propulsion was wind, but the sails were lined with the same flexible solar panels which covered the roof of the boat’s small cabin. Together they charged the battery that powered the electric motor. Seagulls screamed and called; some were animals, one or two were gullmorphs in norm form.
   “Joe. You have to tell her about me.”
   He stopped and looked up. He knew he should, knew it was well past time. But he couldn’t! Not because of the money her thoughts and puzzle-solving brought him. Because of what it would do to her. “I… I can’t!”
   She pressed her hands against either side of her waist and looked down at him, the waves clacking against the wooden hull of the boat, and the wooden posts of the dock. “Joseph R. Anderson, if you don’t tell her—”
   He just looked at her, and she could see the pain in his eyes as he clopped his way across the deck and up the gangplank to the dock. He hugged her, resting his muzzle on her shoulder. His ears were half lowered, his tail scraping the wood as he pulled it down against his legs. For a moment she resisted, but, grudgingly, she let herself press against him.
   “Jackie—I… You don’t know what it would do to her! She’s told me about it: The absolute darkness, the total lack of company. No words, no music, nothing but the clicks and grumbles and whistles of the occasional normal fish only miles away. Nothing to occupy her mind, nothing to fill her heart! She’d go mad—become a animal, for real—if it wasn’t for the math problems I ask her to solve. That, and her dreams of me, of what we had before…” Here he faltered. It was just as well; both of them knew what ‘before’ truly meant. “They’re all that give her the will to keep on living.”
   He pushed himself away and looked from one eye into one of hers, both turning their muzzles enough so that each could see the other.
   “Jackie, I care for you. Deeply. Maybe I love you. I—I don’t know. But Linda… Don’t you see? For Linda, I’m all she’ll ever have!”
   Jackie turned away. He could scent her regret for bringing the topic up again, for opening the wound that neither really wanted to acknowledge.
   “Please, Jackie… I just, I can’t abandon her. Look… it’s only for a week, alright? Just a week, and then I’ll be back. Wait… please..?” He pushed himself away, letting her slide out of his embrace, and looked at her over his muzzle with his black eyes. Begging.
   She sighed, ears relaxing. “Alright. I’ll wait. You know I will.” Forcing a grin, she continued. “Some girls have to deal with memories of dead ex-girlfriends. With you, I have the living that I…” She suddenly sobered. “I can’t bring myself to fight her.”
   Joseph kissed her cheek. “I know, dear. Why do you think I care for you so much?”
   The two lovers embraced and kissed. Then Joseph clopped back into the boat, pulled up the short gangplank, untied the rope, and set sail towards Linda.

   Linda’s norm form, although fully adapted to existence on the ocean floor, could nevertheless cope with conditions at shallower depths. Unfortunately, that body’s upper limit of tolerance was still far below where any could venture; fortunately, her more-human anthropomorphic form was not so restricted. She made the mental effort needed to shift, effort that felt to her like pressing herself through soft clay in her mind, and felt her body respond to that command. Her ’morphic form was even slower, more vulnerable… but that body could survive in the shallows, near the surface, where her norm form never could.
   And she could touch Joseph…
   It was almost time; the sun was setting and she was close to where she needed to be. Her world was silent—the water was so thin that she could hear nothing. But her other senses still worked. She could sense the magnetic fields around her, firm and strong. She could feel the electric pulses of the hoards of fish surrounding her. Once she’d tried to catch some, but they were far too fast and alive, and she was too slow. All the life filled the shallows with food, and energy for those who could catch it. Whatever creature the Change had blended her with, it was evolved for the stygian blackness where food was rare, and where what energy one had was hoarded. Her electric sense twitched as she turned a little, reading the field that existed all around. Ahead was a slight distortion, something she’d learned was caused by the tiny amount of metal in Joseph’s ship.

   He sat on the side of his gently rocking boat, kicking his rubber-fin-shod hooves in the water. He'd tried SCUBA, but the bubbles, the metal, it had all irritated her so… The sea was calm, brilliant in the infinite reds and purples of the setting sun.
   He tried to shove the memory aside as his heart beat faster. She would be here soon.
   He didn’t know what to do any more. As so often before, memories replayed themselves behind his eyes…

   They were on a cruise ship when the Change hit. Bodies warped and twisted all through the hull—theirs included—and it became increasingly clear that whatever Linda was becoming, it could not survive out of water. Just before she dove into the sea, she swore to be here at the next new moon. A newly-minted raccoon had to forcibly hold him back from diving in after her; he swore to meet her.
    That first meeting… He emptied their—his—savings, renting a boat that was barely seaworthy enough to take him to her, but it was worth it. They spent long and joyful hours each cuddling the other. Their tears intermixed, utterly lost and dissolved in the endless ocean.
    That first night they learned to communicate. Linda’s vocal chords were sufficiently intact that she could simply talk; her ears had changed enough that he had to shout directly into her body, the special spot where she could sense sound. They swore their undying love, swore to meet here every fourth new moon. They hugged and held each other, rubbed against each other, and cursed the Change that had torn them apart.
    He missed the second rendezvous, four months later. He tried to go, but a storm had moved in; the coast guard stopped him, dragged him off his tiny sinking vessel. Both of them were heartbroken. But she’d felt the storm, swam in it. She searched the area all that night and the next three, fearing what she might find, before she finally had to return to the depths so that her body could heal from the burns the warmth and light had gifted her.
    He was terrified that he’d lost her, had cursed everybody and everything. He lost his job—a teaching position, just shy of reaching tenure—but friends helped him stay afloat. And four moons later, he again reached the rendezvous… and she was there for him.
    They'd talked and hugged, and it hadn't taken long for her to figure out something was wrong. She'd dragged it out of him, his loss of job, his loss of income. In frustration he rattled off some math problem a friend had asked him about. He had been a mathematician, after all.
    When she came back, she had the solution. They made new plans, for she’d always been smart, always good at patterns—and now she was even better.
    And it wasn’t as if she had anything better to do.
    He spent the next four months memorizing the major stock trends. Then he passed them on, along with more problems. Four months after that, she came back with suggestions on what to buy, and more answers. He didn’t get rich—there were far too many variables for her to always be right—but she was correct often enough that he made a fair living. It became a comforting, familiar routine, a point of stability in a world which hadn’t quite settled down from the Change.
    And then he met Jackie…

   The sun was lower now; he knew she’d be here soon. Snugging the goggles over his eyes, he slipped into the warm Caribbean waters and splashed around clumsily, getting used to the way it felt, re-learning how to swim yet again.
   Waiting for Linda, and not knowing what he should say.

   She arrived hours early and spent the time in a cave she’d found, gasping for breath and hiding from the burning sun. Soon, soon—soon she'd be able to breath again, just below the surface. Soon she'd be with Joe again! As the light faded, she peered out, hardly able to wait. She could sense the movements of his body against the magnetic distortion caused by his boat. His electrical field brighten as he slipped into the water—her heart leapt! She longed to rise up… but she waited, waited until the sun was gone.
   Once she hadn’t. The burns nearly killed her.
   Finally it was time; the only light the stars twinkling in the heavens, and the flashing bulbs on his boat. Her tail moving with as much energy as she had, she cruised out into the open water, and upward towards him. He saw her coming, and dove to meet her. There they met, each holding the other, pressing their bodies together. She could feel his joyful heart beating as they met, even as his burning hide scalded her sensitive flesh. For well over a minute they held each other, drifting up towards the surface, before he pushed her away and fled to the air he needed, and she couldn’t stand.
   She ascended a bit further to just below the surface, and waited until he was ready. They had so much to talk about! So much news, so many thoughts and stories, so many things that made her feel alive!

   With his lungs screaming for air, he pushed her frigid, slimy, body away and kicked hard for the surface. His head burst into the darkness, almost bumping into the boat he could only see by the dim running lights at its bow and stern. He knew he shouldn’t push himself so hard… but if he didn’t, he was so afraid that she’d know.
   He felt her brushing against his legs as he got his breathing under control. He knew then that he couldn’t leave her. Not alone. He had to be here for her because she needed it so much.
   And yet… he knew that the day would come.
   He knew that one day, Linda would show up, and wait for him…
   One day, she would wait for all eternity…

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