Chapter 1: interrogation blues
Dr. Jason Kunik paused with his pen poised over his notepad, waiting for an answer. The old bulldog, Gus, looked aghast. His cheeks quivered indignantly.
"But I... that's not... how can you...?" Gus sputtered.
"It's a simple question," Jason said impatiently. "Your primary caregiver when you were merely a dog. Mrs—" Jason shifted his notes to see the name. "—Mrs. Anderson. I want you to assign a percentage to the emotions you experienced for her before you became quickened. The choices are: A. childlike affection, B. dutiful, C. worshipful, D. romantic, E. sexual, F. resentful, G. obligated, H. grateful, and I. hostile."
Gus had once been a sixty-pound bulldog addicted to the couch. But he’d become ‘quickened’ due to the deep bond he had with his owner. That is to say, he gained the ability to shift into human form. Now he appeared to be a gentle-looking older man with white hair, blue eyes, a round face, and a serious belly. His expression was one of deep confusion, as if Jason were speaking Swahili. Jason nudged the paper in front of Gus closer to his hand and pen, silently willing him to pick it up and write something. Anything. Gus didn't.
Jason gritted his teeth. "If you have difficulty with the concept of percentages, might I suggest a one-to-ten scale? For example, if you felt resentful toward Mrs. Anderson an average of three times a week, you might assign that category a 'two'. Three times a day would be an 'eight'. Oh, and sexual urges are defined as anything from an actual erection to obsessive licking. However—"
Gus covered his face with his hands, got up from the table in the Mad Creek diner, and stumbled to the door.
"Wait! I haven't gotten your blood and urine samples yet!" Jason called after him, standing up from the booth.
But Gus didn't turn around. He hurried out of the diner in an anxious trot. And now everyone in the place was staring at Jason like he had a forked tail and had just composed the Ten Satanic Commandments. With a grumble, he sat back down and arranged his papers and notepad into a neat pile that paralleled the lip of the table. Then he took the unused forms he'd given to Gus and placed each one in its respective spot in the stack before neatening the pile again.
The problem, as Jason saw it, was the diner. It was ridiculous trying to do serious research work in a public setting like this. Totally unviable. How could he expect his test subjects to discuss sensitive topics here? Worse yet, he had no control over the environment, and thus he couldn’t simply lock his subjects in until they responded.
Unfortunately, the small hotel room he occupied in Mad Creek was out of the question—there was no space and it had a lingering odor of wet cat. He spent as little time there as possible. The cabin he'd rented wasn't ready yet, and he was impatient to start his work. So he thought he could make do with the diner in the interim.
But so far, Gus was the fourth quickened to walk out on him without offering even a smidgen of useful data. It was hardly a propitious start to his critical research in Mad Creek.
Jason looked up to see a handsome young man standing at his booth. He had a baby girl with black hair and startlingly blue eyes balanced on one hip. The human infant carrier had long brown hair, diagonal bangs across his forehead, a narrow face, and hazel eyes. He was lanky and had an earthy vibe that Jason could smell.
No, not smell, for God's sake. Jason was a scientist, not a bloodhound. It was a mental impression, that was all.
"Yes?" Jason snapped, still in a foul mood.
"Um... Yeah. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation with Gus. I know it's none of my business, but... I wondered if I could talk to you for a moment? I'm Tim Beaufort, by the way. And this is Molly."
Tim waved the baby's little hand in a ridiculous manner. Jason didn't know anything about babies, but he could tell this one was a baby quick. Tim, on the other hand, seemed entirely of the species homo sapiens.
"Very well." Jason waved at the booth seat opposite him. He didn't have another appointment for thirty minutes anyway.
"Great. Just let me grab my lunch." Tim flashed a smile that looked forced, went and got a plate that had a salad and half sandwich on it, and slid into the booth. It was a bit of a juggle with the baby, and the plate tilted precariously. Jason grabbed it. The last thing he needed to cap off this wasted morning was dressing all over his papers.
"Thanks." Tim didn't look the least bit embarrassed about his clumsiness.
"So," Jason prompted, setting the plate carefully on the table.
Tim gave him an unfriendly look. "So. Don't you think—"
"Wasn't Gus just sitting here?" Daisy, the waitress, arrived at the table looking perplexed.
"He left. Sorry, Daisy," Tim said.
"Oh, don't be sorry, Tim! I'm glad you met our Dr. Kunik. Jason and I went to high school together. Didn't we, Jason? And now he's got a PhD and everything!" Daisy said this loudly, and Jason felt a wave of self-consciousness. He didn't like being the center of attention. It made his inner anxiety—his inner dog—grow restless. His fingers nervously straightened the stack of papers once again. Focusing on a neat and orderly environment was one of his coping mechanisms.
"Oh? That's nice." Tim didn't sound impressed.
"And Jason, have you met Tim before?" Daisy went on. "He's married to Lance! You know, Sheriff Beaufort? He was in school at the same time as us. And isn't Molly the sweetest, cutest, wabba-bubba, pookie-dookie...." Daisy's words disintegrated into an annoying babble as she tickled the baby's stomach and chucked under her chin, possibly checking for glandular irregularities. The baby gurgled happily. It sounded a little like a dog's excited whine.
Hmm. Jason wrote it down. His research was focused on the newly quickened, what he called ‘prime progenitors’, those who had been born ordinary dogs. So he hadn't given much thought to quickened children. But now that he was here in Mad Creek, all sorts of new opportunities for research were occurring to him. There might be clues to the dog-human transition observable in the infants of the—
Jason looked up from his note-taking to find Daisy and Tim looking at him. "What? What did I miss?"
"I asked if you wanted to order some food?" Daisy said.
"No, no." Jason checked his watch. Sufficient time had passed to allow for another dose of caffeine. "I would like another cup of coffee, however."
Daisy left them alone. Jason wasn't entirely sure he wanted to be alone with Tim. But he was mildly curious about Tim's relationship with Lance Beaufort. Jason remembered Lance all right. He hadn't been a bully exactly, but he and Jason were far from friends. Jason's mother moved them to Mad Creek when Jason turned twelve. "You need to be among your own kind,” she told him. Ha! As if Jason's inability to relate to others was because he didn't know other quickened. As it turned out, he wasn't any more of a social butterfly with the teenagers of Mad Creek than he had been with humans his age.
Lance had been in Jason's class back then. He was intense, unwelcoming, and xenophobic about outsiders, and he didn't like the new kid. He must have really changed if he'd ended up married to a human male.
"You don't know much about the quickened, do you?" Tim asked Jason in a quiet voice, as if not wanting the others in the diner to hear.
"I-I beg your pardon?” Jason sputtered. “I know more about them than anyone on earth!"
Tim looked dubious. "Huh. Okay. Well. First of all, if Lance heard you talking about the... you know... like you did with Gus, in the public diner, he'd pitch a fit." Tim looked around. "There's at least one couple in here I don't know. They're probably tourists. We're very careful not to let outsiders know about... things."
Tim was looking at a young couple, dressed like hikers, who were across the room.
"I wasn't speaking loudly," Jason huffed.
Of course he knew better than to talk about the quickened with outsiders. Then again, he hadn't noticed Tim earlier, either, and Tim was human and had been sitting right behind him. That wasn't good. He had to be more careful. He realized he felt at ease simply being in Mad Creek. It’d been years since he'd been able to discuss the quickened with anyone at all. He forgot not everyone in town was in the know. Still, he wasn't going to apologize to this stranger.
"Second," Tim went on, "I don't think Gus understood half of what you said. And what he did understand was a little...."
Tim sighed and leaned back against his seat. He shifted the baby in his lap and bounced her. She was currently gnawing intently on one fist. "Um... harsh? Gus works for me so I know him pretty well. He has very sentimental feelings about his previous owner, Mrs. Anderson. And he's still very emotional about it even though she's been gone for several years now. Your questions upset him."
Jason felt a flash of annoyance. "I assure you, my questions are both logical and necessary. I'm attempting to do serious research. But I admit, interviewing qui—my subjects—has been difficult. I sense I’d be better off trying to count a dump truck full of worms.”
Tim smiled. It was a warm, genuine smile. "Yeah. The, um, people who live here can be a handful, that's for sure. Isn't that right, punkin'?" He bounced the baby, her tiny feet pushing her up and down on his thighs. Her fist fell from her mouth, stretching a long strand of drool as she grabbed for Tim's chin. But Tim didn't seem to mind.
Jason’s temper waned as quickly as it had flared. Tim had a point. People skills had never been Jason’s strong suit. He'd always been more comfortable with his test tubes, computers, and microscopes. But the time had come to collect data of the personal kind, and his work was too important to fail because Jason Kunik was an ineffectual communicator.
For the hundredth time, he lamented the fact that he was his own entire team. Most researchers would have staff for things like this. But the secrecy of his work left him without any such resources. Unless he could find some promising young science students among the quickened of Mad Creek, he was a one-man expedition into the vast uncharted territory of a new species. It was daunting, to say the least.
Daisy came and refilled his coffee. She brought Tim a fresh glass of water too. Then she tickled the baby's glands some more before leaving.
Jason neatened his papers again. He took a drink and sighed into his cup, discouraged.
"Let's start over," Tim suggested. He leaned over the table and held out his hand with a smile. "Hi, I'm Tim Beaufort. Sheriff Beaufort is my husband, and this little angel is Molly, our daughter."
Jason briefly shook the offered hand. Unlike most quickened, he avoided touch. "Hello, Tim. I'm Jason."
"Hi, Jason." Tim looked like he was getting ready to ask questions, but Jason had a few of his own.
"The infant," he gestured at the baby. "She's a qui—"
"Yes." Tim looked around nervously. "Yes, she is a... you know."
"And you are not."
"Also, you're married to Lance Beaufort. Not a uterus in sight."
Tim chuckled. The baby made a bright sound and reached for his throat as if she wanted to feel his laughter. "That's very true. As a couple, we are short one uterus. Molly was born to Lance's brother, Lonnie, and his wife, Truly, who are both... you know." His eyes sparkled mischievously. "It was Truly’s second pregnancy. She had three babies the first time and this last time they found out she was expecting four. She was overwhelmed, to put it mildly."
Hmm. Interesting. Jason wrote it down. Now that Tim mentioned it, Jason recalled there had been quite a few twins and triplets when he'd gone to school here. Multiples were yet another canine trait and always of interest to a geneticist. If he could compare the DNA of one dog who had gotten the spark and become quickened with that of a litter mate who had remained an ordinary dog, it might help him identify the genes affected by the mutation. Litter mates were not identical twins, but even so, they’d have more similar DNA than two unrelated dogs.
Tim was still going on. "Of course, we didn't just say 'Hey, four babies! You won't need all those. Think of the college tuition!' But it was decided before they were born. Well. When I say decided." His tone was wry. He looked up at Jason. "Do you know Lily Beaufort?"
Jason tried to recall her. "No?"
Tim snorted. "You will. Believe me. She's Lance and Lonnie's mother. Anyway, it was more or less agreed upon before the babies were born that Lance and I would raise one of them. You'd think that would be weird, but we all live in the same town, and Molly gets to have play dates with her siblings. Don't you, punkin'? Plus, Lonnie and Truly have been amazing. They really wanted to help Lance and me have a family. And, oh my God, Lance? Mister 'I'm the Sheriff so I don't have time for a personal life'? He's the most ridiculously smitten daddy you’ve ever seen, from the very first second she laid eyes on us."
"That's.... Yes, good for you. But I really need to prepare for my next—"
"And then this little devil appeared." He bounced Molly again, beaming at her. "She picked us to be her parents, that very first day at the hospital."
Jason couldn't help himself. "A newborn picked you. Did she say 'forsooth, I am your long-awaited child’?"
Tim laughed. "No. She opened those gorgeous blue eyes, looked up at Lance and me, and raised her arms as if she wanted us to pick her up. The other three couldn't have cared less that we were there."
"They can raise their arms when they're that small?" Jason was dubious.
"Swear to God." Tim gave him a dire look, as if the story was the stuff of myth and legend on par with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and he was committing blasphemy by doubting it.
"Perhaps it was a fortuitous bout of gas," Jason suggested.
Tim cocked his head and studied Jason's face. "I get it. Scientist. You don't believe in fate or magic."
"Not even remotely."
"Yet you are... you know... yourself. Aren't you?"
Jason could hardly deny that he was quickened. Most of the town knew his mother and her history. But it had been so long since he'd admitted it to anyone out loud. He blinked rapidly. "Yes. I am," he said tightly.
"So how can you not believe in magic? I've always found this whole place rather magical myself."
Jason huffed. "Qui— that is, the condition of which we speak is hardly magic. It's genetics. DNA. There's a perfectly logical explanation."
"Of course! Just because we can't explain it yet doesn't mean it's magic." Jason leaned forward. He felt so passionately about this. "The answer lies in DNA."
"Really? That's cool. How does it work then?"
Tim appeared to be genuinely interested. And Jason rarely got a chance to talk about his work. He spoke excitedly. "I haven't pinpointed the precise mechanism yet, but I have some promising hypotheses."
"We know there are switches which determine if a gene is expressed or silenced, that is turned on or turned off. For example, everyone has a gene that, if turned on, would cause the growth of a vestigial tail in a human fetus. But only a tiny fraction of the population has the specific switch that turns on that gene."
"Really? So you're saying it's possible that all dogs have, within their DNA, the ability to um... you know... but only those who somehow have the right switch actually end up... you knowing?"
"It's not about having the right switches. Well, let me rephrase that. Those who are born canis sapiens, or quickened if you will, like Molly here, do already have them at birth. But for those who begin life as ordinary dogs, I believe their bodies evolve or manufacture the switches due to extreme circumstances."
Tim shook his head. "And you're going to figure out exactly how? Heck, that's ambitious." Tim smiled at the baby. "We say 'heck' now, don't we? Yes we do."
“It is ambitious, but think of the implications! If we can understand the switches that turn on a powerful mutation like this, perhaps we can find others that stop aging or enable a person to regrow a severed limb, like our ancient amphibian ancestors."
“So what ‘extreme circumstances’ cause a dog to become… something more?"
"That's what I'm attempting to find out." Jason neatened his stack of papers, feeling the nervous excitement he always felt when he thought about his work. "I want to interview every first-generation subject in this town. There's got to be something they all have in common that caused the, um, change. We know emotions create a chemical response. For example, feelings of safety and bonding, like that of a mother and child, create the chemical oxytocin. Then there're hormones, pheromones, stress reactions, adrenaline.... There may be a precise chemical cocktail that opens certain genes and switches them on."
Daisy was walking by. She turned around and came back.
"Hey, Jason! Did I hear you ask for a cocktail? I'm afraid we don't have a liquor license. Lance refuses to give us one." She leaned in and reverted to a stage whisper. "Doesn't want strangers drinking in town, though it's a pain in the rear, if you ask me. A beer with lunch never hurt anyone!"
Jason pushed his glasses up on his nose. "No, Daisy. I wasn't.... I'm not asking for a cocktail."
Instead of walking away, Daisy tickled and blathered nonsense to the baby again. Tim seemed used to the parenting routine. He put Molly in the crook of one arm so she could play with Daisy while the other hand stuffed food in his face like he had two minutes to live. Which was about how long it took before Daisy moved on, Molly got bored, and the screeching started. The noise the infant produced was something like a blackboard scratch, an air-raid siren, and a parakeet all mixed together. There was nothing human nor dog about it.
"That's my cue." Tim smiled at Jason and wiped his lips on a napkin. "Time to go home for napsies. Her, not me. Though goodness knows I need one. Hey, Jason, it was nice to meet you. Good luck on your work, and if there's ever anything you need.... Oh, and every Friday is the pack party and the last Saturday of the month is Howl at the Moon night. You don't want to miss that! Will I see you there?"
"Oh. Um. Okay, then. Bye."