|Works by Eirik on Shifti|
|This story is a work in progress.|
Part One, The Dumping Grounds
She waited at the end of the alley, hidden partly by the darkness and partly by the large trash can. She waited patiently, as she'd done so many times before. The cold made uncomfortable, but since it did the same to everyone else, it made the usually busy street a quiet hunting ground.
She recognized her prey the moment he stepped out of his building. She'd seem him, watched him even as he watched those around him. Hiding in the shadows, she waited until she was sure, then followed him home to wait for the right moment to strike. She slid further down the wall, listening for the thumping of his footsteps to get closer. As they reached the right spot, she sprang from her hiding place in a practiced motion, slipping the thin, strong wire around his neck and dragging him into the alley before he could cry out. He struggled, kicked, but never managed to break free. It wasn't long before he slumped to the ground, dead.
Quickly, she wrapped him in the drab blanket she'd bought at the marketplace this morning and tied it tightly. She dragged the body to the waiting three wheeler and tied it to the rack on the back. She started it up and began to long drive to the river outside the city.
She only worried about the tip of his tail hanging out of the blanket, but the streets at this cold hour would be too empty for anyone to notice.
Kirby pulled his police cruiser off to the side of the road and switched off the engine. It had been an uncharacteristically quiet night in Seattle. Other than a couple minor domestics and a report of a prowler that didn't pan out, the radio had been almost silent. The sky was wonderfully clear and the air crisp. He looked though his windshield and took a deep breath. He couldn't remember the last time that he could see the entire city skyline so clear at night. It was one of the reasons that he'd chosen this spot for his dinner break.
He reached over and picked up some of his fries. Eating in the car was frowned on, but as long as he didn't leave a mess he knew no one would complain. He popped a few of them into his mouth and looked over in the direction of the Space Needle...
Suddenly, he was laying on his back looking up at a monster.
He didn't know what had happened, but his instincts kicked in. Fries falling from his open mouth, Kirby scrambled to his feet and reached for his pistol. The creature was bizarre; easily twice his weight and looked like a solid mass of muscle covered in shimmering blue-toned scales. "Don't move!" he shouted, even though the idea that thing spoke English seemed outlandish. Kirby tried to hold his position even though a wave of exhaustion passed through him.
The creature actually backed up, changing color from blue to pink. Kirby felt his heart race as he tried to decide what he had to do. He started to reach for his radio when a mass tackled him from the side, sending him sprawling over the grass.
"Okay, friend, calm down!" yelled a voice into his ear. Kirby looked up and found himself face to face with another monster. This one looked like a circus bear someone had been experimenting on. It was black furred with tall, triangular ears and a thick, toothy muzzle, complete with a saber-tooth pair of canines that extended well below its chin. And it talked. "Calm down!" it rumbled again. Kirby struggled for a few seconds, but the bear-thing was a lot heavier and stronger. Slowly, he reached to his belt and pulled out his Taser. "Friend, it's okay! No one here is going to hurt you. If you'll stay calm, we'll explain what... ACK!"
Kirby tried to roll away from the creature as the jolt from his Taser took hold, but barely got to his feet before he was clubbed in the back of his head and the world went dark.
He woke up stripped naked on an oversized cot, his head aching. He started to pull his arms up, but discovered they were tied down. "Hello?" he managed to ask weakly.
"Oh good, you're awake," came the response. He looked to the foot of his bed to see the same bear creature that had attacked him before. "Most can barely stand for hours after coming through. I'm impressed. Soldier?" he asked, simply.
Kirby blinked, "Don't you know? You brought me here."
The bear laughed and sat down next to him, "I didn't do anything of the sort. Neither did anyone else. Soldier?" he asked again.
"Police officer, city of Seattle," he said. "Where are my clothes? And where am I?"
The bear nodded, "I'm sorry about the clothes, but we took them as a precaution. Not many come through armed, and we just wanted to make sure we explained things before we gave anything back."
Kirby laid his head back, wincing at the sore spot where he'd been hit, "Can you at least untie me and give me a sheet?" he asked.
The bear stood and walked to a nearby cabinet, "We get so many here that it's hard to keep straight the notions of decency from culture to culture," He laid the blanket over Kirby with a smooth motion, then untied the heavy straps that kept him to the bed. "I'm trusting you not to try anything for the moment. Right now, I'm a lot bigger than you, and your weapons are in my desk back at headquarters," he said.
Kirby nodded, "Okay, but can you tell me what the hell is going on? Where am I?"
The bear sighed and helped the human to his feet, then motioned for him to come to a nearby window. "You, sir, are just simply part of today's people that have come though into the Dumping Grounds," he said as he waved out the window.
The view was shocking. Across a wide street from the building he was in was an empty field crawling with every manner of monster and creature imaginable. Some were walking, crawling or slithering around dazed, confused. The area was surrounded by a heavy block wall that prevented those from leaving in just any direction, and the place was crawling with those bear creatures, most near the gate with others hovering near the edges. As new creatures appeared, the bears would intercept them, then guide them though the opening into buildings that surrounded the field. "What the hell?" he said breathlessly.
The bear laughed, "I've been here so long that I sometimes forget how strange the whole thing is," he said. "I came though exactly like you, about 25 standard years ago." He shrugged, "I don't know what that means in your time."
As Kirby watched, stunned, about 50 different creatures appeared in the field, one every few seconds or so. There was no fanfare or spark of light, one second there was nothing and the next there would be something else. He watched long enough to see something with massive antlers appear, then turned to the bear again, "You came though?" he asked, "You look like the rest of them."
He nodded, "I know. There's a lot to absorb, a lot we need to tell you. For now, we need to get you processed and up to speed," the bear clasped hard down on Kirby's shoulder, "Based on your little demonstration this morning, my bosses have tentatively drafted you into our police force. Welcome aboard."
They returned his uniform, scuffed and dirty from the fight but in good shape. He noted that his gun belt, back up weapon and badge were all missing. He dressed and was escorted by the bear ("Call me Ryth!") to his headquarters building.
Thoughts of trying to escape were pretty quickly dashed. The streets were a mass of creatures, though as they left the Dumping Grounds the vast majority were those bears. Their dress ranged from flowing gowns to nothing at all. Ryth wore only heavy shorts and a red flexible strap across his chest that tied into a silver badge. Beyond that, there were creatures of all other types walking about, attracting some attention (as Kirby himself did) but it wasn't much. There were also vehicles running up and down the street, most of them resembled covered tricycles, almost like Tuk-Tuks, but with seats much larger for driver and passengers. There were few things that he'd describe as cars and, almost oddly, no bikes.
Kirby protested the entire walk over, dodging these strange creatures, but eventually Ryth cut him off. "Look, I'm not even the one in charge, but trust me, the less you protest the better it will be for you down the road. You've been here just a few hours, I know, but you'll get perhaps ten days to calm yourself down, understand how things work here and get with the program."
"After that?" he'd asked.
"After that, my boss will wash his hands of you and send you to the streets. I don't know what kind of world you came from, but the streets here are not a happy place." He stopped and pulled Kirby into a door frame, letting the sea of bears walk by, "This city is barely controlled chaos on the best of days. We have over ten million inhabitants, most of whom still pine for home. This is a place where you look up before you walk out of a tall building because someone might be coming down the outside. I've been a police officer here for over twenty years, I was something similar before I got here. This place, this city, this planet will kill you if you let it." Ryth stopped his tirade and leaned against the wall, "I'm sorry, Kirby," he said after closing his eyes. Kirby was sure the big creature was near tears, "Sometimes, most of the time, I hate this place. I miss my home, I miss my husband."
Kirby looked over the bear again, feeling certain that he missed something. Ryth looked, eyes wet, and almost smiled, "Confused?" he asked.
"A little," he admitted.
"You'll understand pretty soon," said Ryth, "Nothing here is permanent."
They arrived at the tall stone building a few minutes later and Ryth led him up the stairs to what he'd have called a bull pen. It was a huge room lined with desks, widely spaced. Other than the fact that it looked wrong on some level Kirby couldn't describe, it could almost have been a police station anywhere in the world. They had electric lights, though large windows were used to get the most of it. To his eye, Kirby thought the windows were even odd. They were a good ten feet tall and had small ledges on the inside. At the moment, most were open for ventilation.
They sat down and Ryth pulled out a pad of paper, which is when he realized they didn't seem to have computers, either. "We assumed you were a solider or police officer based on your behavior and weapons. Post industrial with electrical knowledge?" he asked.
"How'd you know that?"
"Your weapons are made of high grade steel, and we noticed some plastics as well. We don't usually see that in people coming though from pre-industrial societies." Ryth then smiled and pulled the dark fur back on his side, showing a bright red burn mark, "Also, that little toy you struck me with gave me a bit of a shock. To build something like that, your society must have some knowledge of electricity."
Kirby turned red, "I was hoping you weren't the one..."
Ryth cut him off, "Don't worry about it. This thing was pretty clearly designed for someone about your size. It hurt, but I can barely feel it now." He reached into a desk and pulled out his pistols, "These are pretty self-explanatory," he said.
Kirby resisted the urge to grab them. He still didn't have a clue what was going on, but Ryth, he felt sure, had nothing really to do with it. Even after such a short time, he was becoming convinced he hadn't really been abducted, at least not in the traditional sense. "Those are my side arms. Pistols."
The bear turned them over in his paw-like hands a few times before sniffing them, "Lubricant shouldn't be hard to find. What does it shoot?"
Kirby reached out, "May I?" he asked. Ryth considered a moment, then handed one over. Kirby slipped the clip out then pulled out one of the bullets. "Lead pellets propelled by explosive powder encased in the brass container."
Ryth nodded, then motioned for them to be put back, "I've seen stuff like this before. Strange how these things get invented all over the place. I assume these capsules..."
"Bullets," he corrected, "are single use?" Kirby nodded. "We'll need to get you to see a fabricator. Off world weapons are pretty rare. Off world anything is rare. If they are of good quality and can be duplicated, you might be able to sell them for a rather nice profit."
"You don't have weapons?" he asked.
Ryth laughed, "Of course we do," he said, "but... look, let me get this process finished then I'll explain. You said your name is Kirby, is that your full designation?"
"Kirby Hutton," he said, "Hutton is a family name," he said to explain.
He reached into the desk and pulled out the gold shield, "We assumed this was a badge of office. Such things are common the universe over."
Kirby nodded, "I'm a patrol officer for a large city, Seattle" he added even though it wasn't likely to mean anything to Ryth. "Not this big, fewer than two million inhabitants."
There was a long pause, "Anyone waiting for you back home?" he asked as gently as possible.
"No wife," he said. "Not much family. No, I'll be missed by the department and a couple cousins I never see."
That seemed to satisfy Ryth. "That will make all this easier."
They talked for a couple of hours, with Ryth asking questions of Kirby's background. For the moment, he dodged questions about this city and what had happened to him. Not everything translated over, but the bear got the general idea and seemed satisfied. He finished writing things up, then started going though the contents of Kirby's wallet, "Have you noticed that we've been talking for hours?" he finally asked.
Kirby blinked, "Well, sure. Why?"
The bear grinned, "That didn't bother you at all? That I knew your language? Or you knew mine?"
Until Ryth mentioned it, it hadn't occurred to him.
"Don't worry about it. It's a mental block on those coming though. You learn the language somehow from the start. It even seems to cover idioms and phrases and approximate meaning. No one knows how or why." He finally found something that had a lot of writing on it, Kirby's drivers license. "This is written in your language?" he asked.
"Yeah, it is."
"You're literate in your language? You can write fluently? Read?"
"What does this say?"
Kirby took the license and was shocked. It was gibberish. He recognized the shapes of the letters, but the meaning was gone! "What the hell?" he asked.
"You can't read this, though?" he asked, handing over the notes he'd been taking.
Kirby looked, but it was even more gibberish. It almost looked like some kind of Thai script. "What's going on?"
"Don't panic, it's common. Whatever it is that allows you to speak wipes out your ability to read or write. Once you go through your first mixing, you'll be able to start to re-learn it."
"Mixing?" he asked, not liking the sound of it.
Ryth smiled warmly, "Don't worry, I like you. I'll see you thought it."
They kept him occupied though the rest of the day, but never really answered his questions. He was taken later to someone identified as the head of recruitment for the city police. After a once over and Ryths word that he believed the human was a possible recruit, he found he'd been officially drafted. The bear behind the desk looked sympathetic about it, "I know you don't understand what's going on, but we'll get you though." He lowered his voice, as if he was expecting to be overheard, "Frankly, this is the best way. Newcomers are chewed up and spit out in this place. We take care of our own."
Kirby nodded, still numb. As Ryth had said, some things were common the universe over.
After dark, they finally left the HQ. Newcomers were apparently housed in dorms for the most part until they found lodging of their own, but because he was drafted so quickly Ryth offered to put him up in his place for the time being. "It's not like it's the first time," he explained, "Besides, you missed the standard orientation after Bothle hit you on the head, so I've got a lot to explain."
The apartment was walking distance from the headquarters building, a third floor studio that was surprising large, almost like a good sized loft. "I'm not sure what your species feelings on privacy are," he explained, "but if I can make accommodations for you just ask." It was sparsely furnished with simple, heavily constructed chairs and pads around the room. Ryth had a small kitchen, which even though it looked like it had been designed by H.R. Geiger and painted orange, was recognizable.
"Hungry?" he asked.
Kirby nodded. He hadn't eat since... since those French fries in Seattle. "Yeah. God, this isn't a dream, is it?"
"Prayer?" Ryth asked innocently.
"No, just a rhetorical question," he explained. "I think I haven't panicked yet because part of me thinks I fell asleep in my patrol car."
Ryth opened a hatch in the floor and revealed a cooler. He pulled out some strange looking green tubers and set them on the counter, "You haven't panicked because no one does, not in the first few hours." He set them on the counter and started cutting them up, "It's strange, but we've all gone through it. Most of us, anyway. The trip here is like a sedative that seems to last for several hours. I think most of us would have died in the first hours if not for that."
Kirby's head was spinning, "Look, no one has really told me what's going on. You came through yourself? Why do you look like everyone else, then?"
Ryth sighed and scooped the cut up tubers on a plate and handed them to Kirby. "I'd heat them up, but I'm told they may be safer raw, at least for newcomers." Kirby picked one up and smelled it. It wasn't bad, like a wet potato with a strong hint of spice. He tasted one, and didn't spit it out. It wasn't good, but he was too hungry to care.
Kirby and Ryth sat down in a couple chairs by the window that overlooked the street below. "I'm going to tell you what you need to know, my new friend, and I want you to understand that this is the way things are here." He leaned back, "This place is basically like a giant concrete mixer..."
Part Two, The Concrete Mixer
He tracked this one all the way to their apartment, then waited until dawn for them to leave.
The lock had been unusually trivial to bypass. He'd honestly expected better. He slipped inside and waited in the shadows behind a plant for hours. He heard steps outside several times, but never tensed up until he heard the steps with the right cadence.
It was then that he slipped the heavy wire out and stretched it between his fingers.
His prey walked in the door, and he sprung before he could find the light switch. In a flash, he kicked the door closed and looped the heavy wire over the bears head. He felt the familiar attempts to breath. These bears were a tougher lot, though, and it took longer to cut off the air passages. Finally, the form slumped.
He held it tighter a bit longer, just in case.
Once he was sure his prey wouldn't move again, he dragged it over to a filthy rug in the middle of the floor and rolled the body up. Once the city got quiet, he carried the bundle down the back stairs and into the alley.
"Concrete mixer?" he asked, not understanding.
Ryth sighed, "Describe me the best you can," he asked. "Ignore that I won't know what you're talking about, but look over my body and tell me what you see."
Kirby looked over Ryth, "Well, you look almost like an animal we call a black bear on my world, only a bit larger. Your teeth look like a saber-toothed tiger..."
"Saber-tooth?" interrupted Ryth, "I like that."
"Your ears are like a kit fox, a really small animal but on you those things are giants. You've got hands almost like mine... he trailed off. "Why do you ask?"
"I didn't look like this the day I was born, the day I got married, the day I joined the Peace Force on my world. I was far smaller, no outer ear to speak of. My nose was a lot larger, we communicated by smell almost as much as voice. I had fur, but it was short and much lighter. I was female." He paused at that, "In fact, I was female again, only about fifty days ago."
Kirby put the pieces together in his head, "Oh my God," he whispered, "I'm going to... change into one of you?" He felt his heart race.
"Not like this, no," explained Ryth, "But something different. Something on this world makes us all the same creature. It happens all the time, to the point that we're all used to it, as you will be as well. It happens no sooner than every forty-five days, and no more than every two hundred, which here is about half a year. When that day comes, we'll all change, and you with it."
"Into what?" he asked quietly.
Ryth shrugged, "I don't know. I've been here twenty-five years and I can't tell you how many different things I've been. There's no pattern, either. Birds, reptiles, amphibians, we do it all around here. Size doesn't matter much, either. I've been as small as my hand is now," he said holding out a paw that was about a foot and a half long, "and I've been twice my current height." He sighed, "I've been both male and female as well as androgynous."
"What happens to your mind?" asked Kirby. "Do you start to forget?"
"You'll forget some things, but you'd have done that if you'd been uprooted to another world of people like you. There are instincts that go with each body, but you'll figure them out and they won't rule you. Another thing, you won't ever be something that comes though the gate. No one ever is."
"What do you mean, I won't be human anymore? Ever?"
Ryth shook his head, "No, never. There are billions of inhabited worlds out there, and though you may someday again be similar to what you are now, you'll never really be the same. We don't know of anyone who has reported being exactly what they were before they got here. Once you go though the mixer, we'll all be the same."
"I just find it all so hard to believe."
"You will, any day now." He pointed at a few solitary forms walking down the street, "Fifty days ago, they were all reptiles."
Kirby sat in silence for a long time, eating the strange tubers and staring at the street. "What about out of this city? What about a way home?"
"Believe me, if you find one you'll be a hero to the entire planet. Most of us would return in a heartbeat if we could, but the entire planet has been searched, over and over. If there's a way home, no one has bothered to tell the rest of us."
"Are there other gates?"
"No, this is the only one that we know of. Some believe there's an underwater gate, but I shudder to think about that."
Kirby let that sink in, popping into this world but under deep ocean? He'd have drowned in an instant and never known why. "There are other cities, though, right?"
Ryth smiled, "There are, of course. Generally much more stable than this place. By the time people travel to them, they're usually more settled; they've given up on returning home. Some go off to find work like they knew, farm labor is pretty common. Others just try to find a place like they knew."
Kirby thought back on the day, "You implied my guns were more impressive that what you have here, but you have huge cities, manufacturing..."
"We also have a language barrier, at least a written one. It's not easy to re-learn to write, so a great deal of our institutional knowledge dies with those who have it. That, and the fact that the people coming though from different worlds are random. The vast majorities are uneducated laborers or the like. We get people with technical knowledge, but they tend to be the ones with the most lost by coming here. They are the most common suicides in the first week."
Ryth stood up and went to his dresser, pulling out a sidearm. "This is what I carry most days when I'm on patrol," he said handing it over.
It was an impressive piece, but to Kirby's eye it looked like it was primitive. It took a second to realize that it wasn't actually a gun. "Gas?"
"An irritant, yes. Guns like you have exist, but designs are haphazard and materials like high quality steel are expensive." He pointed at the Glock on the table, "You'll find weapons like that, but not many here in the city."
Kirby sat back and chewed another tuber, "What happens now?" he asked.
"My commander gave me the day off, first one I've had in about... well, since I grew fur. I'm going to get you introduced to the city."
Kirby woke up slowly at first, then shot up. "Oh, crap," he said finally. Sleeping had been an ordeal, and he really had hoped to wake up in his cruiser.
Ryth was still asleep. Kirby had to hand it to the big guy, he really helped keep him calm. It was so much to absorb so fast that he couldn't decide what to do. In a way, it surprised him how much he simply went with what he was being told. He didn't even consider seriously that they might be lying to him.
He yawned and stood up, feeling hungry. Wandering into the kitchen, he opened the cooler on the floor and was confronted with a mass of strange shapes colors, but nothing that resembled anything he knew. He closed the floor and looked up, averting his eyes, "Ryth! You're nude."
The bear stopped short and yawned wide, "So?"
Kirby continued to avert his eyes, "Sorry, it's just... you were wearing shorts yesterday."
He heard a laugh and saw Ryth turn and get his clothes, "You ever try carrying a weapon with nothing on?" He slipped his shorts on, "On my world, we didn't wear unnecessary clothes. The standards of decency are a lot different here. You could walk nude through the marketplace and get about as much attention as you will with clothes on. Unless you run into someone from your home world, of course."
Kirby perked up, "You think there are some out there?"
He shrugged, "Maybe." He pointed at the cooler, "It's not that well stocked, and I'm not much of a cook. We'll head over to the main city marketplace this morning. You'll see everything you need to see there, I suspect."
It was really the first time Kirby saw the city in daylight. The day before had just been too traumatic and he'd been too distracted. Most of the buildings were simple affairs, a few stories tall and made of stone or brick. He noticed a number of oddities, like the commonality of pet doors.
Ryth had just laughed. "Remember, next week we might all be that small," he pointed out. "Most everything here is built with that in mind."
They arrived at the main marketplace after about a long walk. They came over a low hill and looked down on it. It almost defied description. It was a sea of stalls all covered in tarps or cloths. Even from a distance, he could smell a wide variety of foods and spices mixed in with the smells of the city.
"The main city marketplace," said Ryth with a bit of awe in his voice. "If it could be found on this world, it can be found here."
A question finally occurred to Kirby. "Ryth, what is the name of this city?" he asked.
"Doesn't have one to speak of," he answered with a big toothy grin. "Oh, it's had a few over the years, but nothing's stuck. If something catchy comes to mind, let me know." He waved forward, "Let's head in."
Ryth led the way, weaving between the stalls. Kirby noticed that most displayed a variety of banners or flags. "Identification," he said.
"Of what they sell?"
"Of home," he said. "If you see one you recognize, stop. Might be someone you know."
They stopped at a small brick building first, one of a small number of permanent structures. Inside one of the bears was hard at work on a lathe when he stopped. "Can I help you?" he asked eyeing the human.
"It's Officer Ryth, Bateet."
"Ryth?" he asked. "Haven't seen you since..." he though, "Oh, since we were last avian."
Ryth nodded, "Have something you might want to see, off world weapon."
Bateet's eyes opened as Kirby handed the unloaded revolver. He held back the more complicated Glock for now. "It's a pretty common piece on my world..."
Bateet waved off his explanation and looked it over. "The steel is going to be hard to get, but not too impossible," he mused. "I might be able to sell it to a concern I know overseas..." He looked up and rubbed his muzzle, "I can give you one hundred coin to keep it long enough to make casts of the parts. Five hundred to keep it."
Kirby looked to Ryth, "Is that good?"
"It's fair. What about your bullets?"
Kirby nodded and set both the .38 and 9mm shells on the counter. "How about these? They're filled with an explosive..."
Bateet waved him off again. "Your people aren't the first to invent projectile weapons." He picked them both up and immediately noted the size difference, "Holding out on me? he asked.
"He has another," answered Ryth simply. "Can you make those?"
He considered it, "I believe so. Klys has made something similar in the past." He considered, "It'll take me a couple weeks, but how about this. If you let me keep this, I'll supply you with these," he said indicating the 9mm bullet, "As well as give you two of the duplicates. I'll throw in two hundred and fifty coin for that."
"How many of the bullets will you give me?" he asked.
Bateet considered a little longer, "One thousand, per year."
"Is that a good deal?" he asked Ryth. Not knowing what the value of coin was here was a severe disadvantage, but he had to trust Ryth for now.
Ryth, for his part, nodded, "It's about half a years' salary for you. It'll start you off better than most on this world." He pointed at the fabricator, "He's also one of the more honest folks around here. Because of the mixing, people can reinvent themselves a couple times a year. Bateets been doing this... how long?"
The bear looked grim, "Longer than you've been on this rock. Deal?"
Kirby nodded, "Deal."
They left to find food, eventually settling on a vegetarian mix that Kirby thought smelled edible, if not pretty good. They hadn't spotted much meat, and Ryth told him it was a bit of a planetary bias. "Meat is raised here, but the next mixing might make us all strict herbivores. Even when we become forms that need meat, we can make due with vegetable substitutes for a while." He pointed at the plate Kirby was about to eat, "Be careful, too. We lose a lot of newcomers to toxins we don't even realize are in the food, also few after each mix. If you feel funny at all, tell me."
Kirby had thought he was joking, but realized that Ryth almost stared at him as he ate. The food was odd, but edible.
They spent a good part of the day looking though the various stalls. Kirby bought a couple changes of clothes that were loosely tailored to his frame, set up more like a poncho than a shirt. Ryth had stopped him from buying too much, "You might not be able to wear them again for years," he pointed out. "Just get what you need."
The marketplace was also a tremendous mix of cultures, with artwork, tapestries and a lot that Kirby had a hard time identifying. There was even a number of religious shrines. "This is a planet of about five billion," Ryth pointed out, "And about 3 billion different religious beliefs." He shrugged it off, "After a while, you'll find people will gravitate toward sects that they feel most closely match what they had back home, if they don't renounce it entirely. Here in the marketplace is about the last place on the planet that you'll see pure religions, as people wait for off worlders from home to find them. It happens. Once you leave here, you'll find everything gets boiled down. Everything from artwork to kitchen utensils become a homogenized mix. You'll see innovations here and there, but even simple things like chairs and tables might need to be adjusted next week. Even artwork loses something if you mix and then find you can't see the right colors." Ryth shrugged, "It's just the way things have become here, and probably always will be."
In the distance, the human and bear didn't notice they were being watched. Neither would have given the bear a second glance, but he recognized a human when he saw one, even if had been so, so long. He resisted the urge to seek him out, to find out what was happening back on Earth. The truth was, he recognized that the human was wearing a police uniform from back home, and he didn't want to risk the attention.
He still had a mission to accomplish.
Chapter Three, On the Job Mixing
"Get inside, get inside, get inside!" he shouted as he grabbed the larger bear creature and dragged her off the street. The mob that was beginning to form around her was getting angry, and there was no telling what was going to happen. The last time Kirby saw this happen, the focus of the mob had ended up ripped apart.
He didn't have the strength to physically pull her away, but she seemed to be grateful to be guided even as the mob followed. He dragged her into a store and slammed the door, scaring the shopkeeper and a couple customers. "Do you have a back door?" he shouted. The woman behind the counter looked stunned, but nodded, "Close it and lock it!" He reached for his radio before cursing and going to his belt. The radios they had here were primitive and weighed a ton, "This is Officer Kirby, I've got the focus of the mob inside..." he trailed off and looked around, "Some shoe store, I think."
"What street are you on?" asked the dispatcher.
He cursed again, "I think it's 101 street, I think!" A rock slammed into the window, "Just look for the angry mob!"
The people started pounding on the glass. Kirby pulled his Glock and started to point it out the window when he heard shouts and pink gas started to fill the street. The crowd fled almost as fast as it gathered. They waited for it to clear before he unlatched the door and let the officers in. "Ryth, nice of you to join us," he deadpanned.
The bear shook his head, "Not my fault you have a knack for finding riots." He gestured to the woman on the floor, shaking in terror, "What happened?"
Kirby picked up a notebook from the floor. "She was standing on the corner, taking notes."
Ryth nodded and knelt down, "Are you okay? What's your name?"
She shuddered and looked up, "I'm Klu."
"What were you doing?"
"I was just taking notes. I was a sociologist back home. I thought if I ever returned I could..." her voice trailed off and she started sobbing again.
Kirby felt for her. After just a few weeks, he'd already given up on finding a way off this rock, but she'd obviously been here long enough to go through at least one mix. "Didn't you think of the danger?"
She looked at him blankly, "Of taking notes?"
The truth was, there was a danger in taking notes, or even of just looking like you were too interested. Exactly what this place was, what purpose it served, was a source of nearly endless speculation and rumor. Almost no one thought it was a natural event, the fact that every single life form to fall though was sentient and came from at least metal working civilizations seemed to discount that. Beyond that, the rumors ranged from reasonable to bizarre, from religious to scientific. One common one was that this place was essentially a giant experiment, either long forgotten or still running, of a far more advanced race. An experiment, of course, would need observers. If you looked too interested in what was going on, you could find yourself accused of being one of them, and there were plenty of people who wanted off this planet, or just wanted to punish someone responsible.
Ryth had her taken to the station to be checked out and educated about the risks. "How many riots have you been in so far?" he asked Kirby.
Kirby thought, "Five, I think. At least this one didn't turn out fatal." He motioned to the woman being helped into a police Tuk-Tuk. "What'll happen to her?"
"Hopefully, she'll be a little more subtle about her observations. If she's really a trained sociologist, I'm sure she can find work somewhere in the universities outside the city." He shrugged, "Otherwise, we'll probably be collecting her body in the next few weeks."
It was the one thing that Kirby almost hoped he wouldn't get used to: collecting the suicides. In just three weeks, he'd personally been involved in over a dozen. With no way to identify anyone, and few with loved ones to claim the bodies, it was about the most depressing part of a place filled with depression.
Something odd struck Kirby suddenly looking at his friend. "What's with the feather?" he asked indicating a long green feather on his arm.
Ryth took a quick look at his arm then looked up and almost screamed, "Aw crap! I hate being avian!"
Kirby had been told what to expect, several times in fact, but it couldn't completely prepare him.
Action on the street became animated as people started rushing home or to the common dorms. The process would take about a day and tended to drain everyone of energy for a short time, so there wouldn't be much going on. As members of the police, Kirby and Ryth would technically be on duty, but for a while everyone would be stationed at HQ. "There won't be any activity once we get rolling, and it'll take hours before anyone will feel strong enough to be up and about," Ryth had explained, "But there will be a lot of cleanup after."
They left the shoe shop and made haste though the traffic back to HQ, which had already filled with most of all three shifts. There were a fair number of newcomers, all were herded into the main bullpen. Kirby didn't recognize any of them, but they made a menagerie that looked like a scene from "Star Wars", with half a dozen mammals, three reptilian, two avian and one amphibian. "We need you here, because not everyone survives their first mix," the Commander of the day shift said bluntly. "If any of you have any implants that we don't know about, or have had extensive surgical procedures, we should be told now."
One of the reptiles flipped his tail around, "I've got an artificial knee joint."
The Commander grumbled, "And you didn't tell us about this forty days ago because...?" he left the question hanging in the air.
"I didn't think about it, it was implanted half my life ago."
The Commander snapped his finger in the air and summoned two others he recognized as paramedics. "Go with them, if something happens they may need to work fast." He looked at the rest of the small group, and even as he did Kirby realized that the fur on his muzzle was shedding, the skin turning dark yellow. "Damn, it's happening pretty fast this time," he muttered. "Okay, hunker down, and call out if you get into trouble. Open the hatches, just in case." On that order, the oversized windows were opened over their heads.
Kirby slumped into a chair, squirming as his bare skin touched the wood. Like everyone else, he'd stripped off his clothes in anticipation. He glanced at his reflection in a nearby window and felt a knot in his stomach. It was the last time that he'd have this body. Even as he watched, his feet started to feel odd, and he watched as they painlessly shifted and stretched, the skin growing bright yellow and scaly.
He watched Ryth walk up behind him. "You doing okay?"
Kirby watched as his friends face started to coalesce into a beaked bird, then realized that his own was doing the same. He raised a hand up and felt along the bill before he felt his joints begin to shift. "I think so. At least it's not painful, but I feel like I've run a marathon." Even as he said it, his head began to swim with exhaustion.
Ryth looked perturbed and then watched his hands wither into the tip of a wing. "Aw, double crap!" he bellowed again, causing a lot of beaked heads to turn toward him. He held up his arms, "No hands!" he yelled, which brought a series of groans from the room. He looked back at Kirby, "I really hate avian forms, but these are the worst," He opened his half completed wings, "These are useless for holding weapons, and your feet won't be fast enough."
Kirby tried to look at the bright side as he watched his own hands reshape into wingtips, "Won't we be able to fly?"
Ryth nodded, "Yeah, and so will anyone we want to catch. Damnit, I'd rather be a slug again!"
Kirby let that slide past, he was too tired to find out if Ryth meant that literally. As he watched more iridescent green feathers cover his body, the world seemed to grow dark and before he knew it, he was asleep.
In a darkened flat deep in the city, he put his preparations to good use.
His mission didn't allow him to wait around feeling sleepy while he recovered from something as minor as a physical change. He kept stimulants around, taking a couple as he felt the feathers travel up his body. He'd been a bird before, once, but as his hands withered away into wings he knew that he would have to make some kind of adjustment.
He had a very small window, when the city would be quiet and everyone would be confused. He'd have to adjust on the fly.
Kirby woke slowly, feeling strange, warm and contorted. He had the sense that he was standing, which didn't make any sense if he was really asleep. He opened his eyes and saw just filtered light. There were noises all around. The bull-pen?
As realization dawned, he tried to straighten himself out. It took a moment for him to realize that his head was tucked under his arm... his wing. He pulled his head up and looked around. The bull-pen was coming back to life, with most everyone up and moving. They were definitely avian, looking like a cross between a parrot and a Japanese crane, though the feathers lacked patterns, tall, thin yellow legs, tapered body and a long neck. Everyone in the bull pen were covered in bright feathers, but about half were green and half were blue.
Kirby dared for the first time to really look at himself. He pulled his wings forward and stared. There were no hands, nothing to grip with, though they were more flexible than he'd feared. He was able to move them to run it along his beak. His tongue, now long and thing, ran along the edge and he was surprised to find teeth, or at least something like them. They weren't particularly sharp, but the sensation along his tongue was like Velcro. "Enjoying the new body?" came a high-pitched voice hind him.
Kirby turned to see another bird, also covered in green, "Not sure yet, this is pretty new," he blinked at the sound of his own voice, which to his ears was completely foreign. He ventured a guess, "Ryth?"
He nodded, his beak bobbing up and down, "It's me. I really hate these forms, but at least they're pretty." He bobbed his head toward Kirby, "If you care, you're still male, I think."
Kirby chuckled, "I guess that's something," he looked down at his body but couldn't see the anything that gave it away, "How can you tell?"
Ryth somehow looked embarrassed despite the passive face, "When you're here long enough, you learn to tell the difference in these odd forms."
"Can we fly?"
"Haven't tried yet," admitted Ryth. "We're a little large with wings a bit small for real flight, I think, but we should be able to glide, ride thermals. There are plenty of those in the city. Just be careful if you give it a try, you may have hollow bones now, and it'll be a couple weeks before we know how fragile these bodies are."
Kirby hadn't considered that, "I'll be careful," he sighed, "It would be nice to fly for a bit, get something special out of this after all I've lost."
Ryth laughed, "Hey, you're getting off lucky. First time I mixed it was into a insectoid form. The form wasn't bad, but on my home world we have a cultural issue with insects. I was convinced I was being punished by my God." He picked up his badge and adjusted the red strap with his feet and legs using the wings for leverage. It took a few minutes, but he finally managed to get the elastic straps adjusted. "I hate these forms," he muttered again. Once he got the straps on, he picked up Kirby's and tossed it over. "Are you up to a little detective work?"
"Detective?" he asked as he slipped the strap over head and centered the silver badge against his green scales. "What are you talking about?"
"Right after things started waking up, we got a call about a murder. The Commander wants to see how you handle it. You said you'd worked some cases back home."
Kirby nodded, "Yeah, but as a patrol officer, mostly helping as a part of a task force, running down tips on a couple serial killers. We seem to grow a lot of them in Seattle."
"Now's your chance to see how you do here."
The scene wasn't that far from the headquarters, but they decided to walk rather than test their wings. There was time for that later, and they needed to arrive in one piece. Kirby took his first steps as a bird tentatively, afraid that he was going to fall over. He was shocked just how easy it was. After just a couple steps, he was walking like he'd been this form all his life. He noticed a slight bob of the head as he moved forward, and that he wasn't the only one doing it.
The streets were still nearly empty. Most people were in their homes or businesses trying to get used to this. "We've all been bipedal with arms for the last couple of years, and we usually are," explained Ryth. "This is the most we've changed in a while. The veterans will be up and about by the morning. Some of the newer ones might take a while." He paused and sighed, "And we'll start finding the suicides right after." They arrived at the building shortly, a five story brick affair that looked like it had been designed in Soviet Russia. "The body was found on the fourth floor."
Ryth virtually raced up the stairs, but Kirby had more trouble. His feet didn't quite feel right on the steps and he had to angle them sideways to get up. Ryth was waiting at the top and cut him off before he could ask, "Not my first bird legs. You'll get used to it." He pointed at a door down the hall. "The body was found there."
"We know it wasn't a suicide?" asked Kirby as they stepped into the apartment. He stopped short. "Oh my God," he muttered.
The person had been completely beheaded. The blue feathered body was laying across a rug in the center of the room, the head laying several feet away. The rug had been folded over the body in an effort to conceal the body, probably to move it. Another officer was at the scene already looking it over, "She was strangled with a wire, but our necks are a lot weaker than before. She was choked hard enough to completely sever the head."
"Any idea who she was?" asked Kirby.
The officer shook his head. "We haven't talked to most of the neighbors, but she wasn't new here. She'd been mixed several times, and the owner of the building can't recall when she moved in."
"Can't recall? He doesn't have records?"
The officer flapped her wings slightly in frustration, "Records? Are you new?"
Ryth stepped in. "This is Officer Kirby, it's his first mixing." Ryth paused, "Who are you, anyway?"
"Bateet, you disagreeable bastard," he replied with a smirk that was more heard than seen. He looked at Kirby, "That explains it, you haven't been here long. There are records, but they are rarely official. No one cares. The owner gets payment up front or you're out. He might have written down when she got here somewhere, but if he didn't, no one cares."
"Do we even know her name? Where she worked?" asked Kirby.
"Manager said her name was Suma, that she'd kept the same name for at least the last few mixings so it's not unlikely she'd been named that for a while. He doesn't know where she worked."
The officers started looking over the apartment while the coroner came to collect the body. Kirby had almost marveled at how loose things were here. Back home this apartment would be sealed, a few highly trained technicians would be going over the place with a fine-toothed comb, detective would be searching all over for the killer.
Here, they were their own evidence collection. Much of what they would normally collect would be useless here. Fingerprints, DNA, hair samples all change so often that if you didn't catch the killer right away, you most likely never would. It was these reasons why the department had an abysmal rate of solving these crimes.
Kirby opened the cupboards and did a double take. "Ryth, take a look at this." He started to reach up with a wing, then stopped and just used his beak to pull the bag off the shelf and set it on the counter. "Some kind of seeds."
Ryth looked at it, but didn't seem to notice anything strange. "Those last forms were extremely omnivorous, we could pretty much eat anything."
Kirby bobbed his head, "I know, but look at the cabinets, this is almost all she has."
Ryth took another look, then opened the cooler in the floor. "There's a little leftover food from the last form, but otherwise it's all bird specific." He picked up a back of small red berries from the cooler and experimentally tossed one into his beak, "It's good."
The wheels were turning in Kirby's head. "Who called this in?"
Bateet spoke up, "The call said it was a neighbor that heard a commotion... but..." he stammered and went to the window. "Hold on, give me a second," he said as he raced out the door, his wings flapping in agitation.
"She was killed right after the mixing, wasn't she? I mean, minutes after, an hour at most," asked Kirby, but he was interrupted by Bateet returning, his chest feathers ruffled.
"I just checked from the roof," he said between breaths, "this building doesn't have voice phone service." "It's not connected to anything but the electric grid."
The three of them looked at each other, "So who called it in?" asked Bateet finally.
Ryth looked at the cupboards and at the form on the floor, "the killer did."
She watched from a perch atop a building several doors down. If any of them saw her, it would look as though she was just another citizen testing out her new feathered form. She hadn't planned well enough, she'd rushed things. She hadn't wanted to lose this one. She had the sense they were looking for her.
Not the police, of course, but her victims.
When she couldn't move the body herself, she decided to call the police. She'd been chased before, and escaped. The police here were a mess. She could give them an engraved initiation and they'd never find her. But if they figured out what she already knew, then they might do some of her work for her.
Part Four, The Outer Marsh River
The watch commander wasn't as impressed with their detective work, "What are you saying, that she was targeted?"
Kirby felt his blood boiling. He couldn't' figure out how he'd been promoted, but that wasn't uncommon in this city. It was rare that someone came though the Dumping Grounds that had a specific and useful skill set, and much of the police force here was drafted initially, and stayed because the position was safe. "The call came into the department less than half an hour after the earliest anyone could be up and about after the mixing, and we think the killer made the call."
"How would the killer be out and about, then?" he asked.
Ryth spoke up, "Stimulants." He looked around when all eyes fell on him. "Oh, you all know that you can stay awake during and after a mixing, but it's dangerous and takes stims."
The watch commander fluffed up his feathers, "That's crazy, if he misjudged his new form, or if it was allergic or toxic, he'd be dead."
Kirby bobbed his head, "I think this guy is arrogant enough that he doesn't care about that. He felt the need to kill this person, for whatever reason. I can't tell you if he planned for the mixing and took precautions, or if it just came about at an inconvenient time, but suffice it to say he was dedicated to killing her."
For the first time, a light seemed to go off in the watch commanders head, "Wait a minute," he said and he scrabbled over to a large filing cabinet. Pulling it open with his feet, he expertly used his beak to rifle through he papers until he came up with a bright orange file. He bobbed back to the desk and dropped it down, then looked at the stares. "Believe it or not, this form isn't all that different than what I came in here as," he answered their unspoken question, "though I was more colorful than this." He motioned to the file, "Take a look at that, it's from a body that was found dumped in the Outer Marsh River a few years ago."
Kirby and Ryth opened the file and found old, faded pictures inside showing a black and red furred form that Kirby though at one point had resembled a bobcat. "I remember this form," muttered Ryth, "hands, but we were quadrupeds. I hated it."
Kirby didn't even look up, "Do you like any body, ever?" he asked rhetorically. That's when he noticed what the watch commander was talking about, "He was garroted?"
"Yes, with a long, thin wire and a lot of force, and wrapped in a rug." He reached his beak over and flipped to some drawings from the coroner, "You may not remember, Ryth, but that form had boney plates in the neck. They weren't thick, but they protected the blood and air passages." He tapped his beak on the drawing, "The killer managed to break those. The coroner at the time thought the killer had to be on stimulants of some kind to manage that. The upper body strength of these creatures wasn't strong enough."
"Can we talk to that coroner?" asked Kirby.
"She moved to Niap, it's a city about as far away from here as you can get and still be on this rock, about five years ago. She'd seen so much here..." his voice trailed off, "I got a message a few months later that she'd killed herself." He got distant for a while, and Kirby and Ryth both let him collect his thoughts. When he came around, he again tapped his beak on the file, "We never identified this victim, but I'm sufficiently convinced we need to look at this. You two are both detached from regular duty. I want to look into this new victim and see if this is just a coincidence." He bobbed his head out toward the bull pen, "Talk to some of the other old timers. See if anyone else can remember any killing like this."
Ryth cocked his head at an angle, "Getting scared on me?" he asked.
"Where I come from, when we fly we go through two hour of security checks and get loaded into long, aluminum vehicles full of fuel. That's after we get drunk because we don't want to do it in the first place. We don't go to our rooftops and jump off!"
Ryth chuckled, "Don't worry so much about it, Kirby." He opened a wing and swept it across the sky, "Everyone is doing it."
Kirby dipped his head down, not wanting to think about it. The truth was, this form was better able to fly than Ryth had first though, though taking straight off from the ground seemed a bit beyond it. Jumping off a ten story building seemed to be more than enough. "Look, you've done this before, you go first."
Ryth bobbed his head, "Fine, fine. Just remember, let your body do what it's programmed to do. The mixing screws us all up, but it gives you the instincts you'll need. Besides," he said with a wink, "It's going to be the fastest way out to the Outer Marsh River."
He backed off a bit at that remark. It had been his suggestion to check out the river banks, especially after finding out that two other officers had worked body dumps out there over the years. One was too badly decomposed at the time for a cause of death, but the other was garroted. "Okay, you first, and I promise I'll follow."
Ryth didn't say another word, just turned toward the edge of the roof and jumped. Kirby felt his heart in his throat as he raced to the edge and looked down, only to see that Ryth had only fallen about two stories before his wings had caught the air and he was slowly rising on the heat from the street below. With a couple flaps, he quickly got over the top of the building and went into a circle around it. "Hurry up, we've got a long flight."
Kirby got to the edge of the roof, and for a moment hoped he'd wake up in his patrol car, but when that didn't happen he jumped. The wind whistled slightly around his beak as he fell, and for a moment he thought about just letting himself fall all the way to the ground, but without his bidding his wings popped open. For a split second he felt some real strain on the wings and his shoulders before everything evened out. The sensation was amazing. He could sense the heat rising off the pavement below, and felt the wings adjust slightly, naturally, to the slight differences in air density. He was losing altitude, but he could glide like this for a long time before hitting the ground.
Of course, he was also below the roof line of a lot of buildings, too.
He flapped a couple times and felt his body adjust to every flap. His first couple attempts actually cost him some height before he just did what came naturally. After that, he shot up in a hurry. It wasn't until he was up fairly high before he realized that he'd pulled his legs up like landing gear. He looked down, and for the first time he saw the entire city. From this high, it looked almost pretty.
Ryth joined him at wingtip, "Worth it?" he asked.
Kirby looked at him askance, "For someone who hates being avian, you seem to be enjoying yourself."
"You take the good with the bad," he replied. "The Outer Marsh River is in the other direction, if you're still interested in working today."
The pair turned around and headed for the river.
They circled the river marshes for some time. Though there were some roads cut into the more stable parts of the marshland, it was a pretty vacant place. Kirby was almost surprised, half expecting it to be a getaway spot for the city. It wasn't that far, they'd flown here in about twenty minutes, and even the Tuk-Tuks that they used here could make it in about an hour. He asked Ryth about it as they circled.
"It is, actually. You'll see a number of people out here from time to time. The river has some local fish, you tried it at the marketplace last week. It's just easier to catch them downriver in the city itself." He dipped his wings toward a small structure that Kirby had missed, "That's about the only thing out here that's built, a small store run by a very old timer. Otherwise, most people come here for the solitude. There just aren't that many families here looking for a day trip."
They angled their wings and started circling down toward the store. Kirby knew what Ryth meant; there just weren't many families in the city. The mixing made it very hard to have children, and it was planet-wide. He'd been told in his first days that if, or when, he turned female that pregnancy wasn't always dangerous to the female, but fetuses had a lot of strikes against them from the first moment. If you mixed and became male, the fetus vanished into your new form and didn't come back. If you stayed female, but the forms were very different, it wasn't uncommon have a miscarriage. If you were lucky, you'd transition into another female form of the same general type or you'd be in a form with a fast gestation.
All told, fewer than half of all pregnancies on the planet ended in a live, healthy birth. Pregnancy in the city was especially rare, as the long-term population was actually fairly small, perhaps fewer than half a million in a city of more than ten million. Everyone else, it seemed, had either just arrived or was planning on getting out.
Kirby was headed for landing when he suddenly remembered, Ryth hadn't told him _how_. Before he could ask, he beat his wings back trying to slow down, but actually seemed to stall himself and dropped like a rock the last ten feet to the dusty parking area in front of the store. "Damn it!" he shouted as Ryth landed expertly next to him.
"Don't over think it," he said amused. "You okay?" he asked now with more concern.
He popped his feet out from under him and rose up, using his head as a balance. "I'm fine, I think my ego just took a beating, though," he said as he dusted off his chest feathers.
There was a gale of laughter from inside the shop, "First time as a bird, officer?"
They looked over to see a female bird, her head poking out a window. "Yeah, first landing. My second will be better."
"Are you Ragouck?" he asked.
"Sure am. What does the city police want with me all the way out here?"
Kirby turned his head completely around and fished the files out of his small satchel. "We're following up on some old cases, and there were some back at the office that thought you might know something. Word is that you've been out here a long time."
The blue bird bobbed her head, "That's the truth. Set up here just a few months after my first mixing. That was...." she trailed off for a moment, "Goddess of the Plains and Stars, it's been over a hundred years!" she said with wonder, as if she hadn't considered it in a long time.
Kirby glanced at Ryth, who bobbed his own head, "It's possible," he said quietly. "The mixing is a bit of a regenerator. Tends to make irrelevant diseases from one form to the next. If you're careful, watch what you eat right after a mix... you could possibly live forever."
Ragouck laughed again, "I take it he's new around here." She pointed her beak at the door, "Come in, let's see if my old memory is enough for you."
She was already stalking her next target.
In the last mix, they'd been a she, but now she was a he. Right after a mix was always the worst time for hunting. They tended to move around a great deal to cover their tracks. This one, he felt sure, was still the same target. She flew past the fifth floor window, eyes forward but watching out of the corner. He had a roommate moving in.
There were several wooden crates stacked along the far wall. Too many to be a normal delivery.
She didn't dare make another pass today. But if they were doubling up, then she might have to rework her strategy.
Ragouck wasn't laughing anymore.
She was perched on a horizontal swing hanging from the ceiling, a leftover, she'd informed them, of a much earlier bird form. "I found then that it was a comfortable way to relax, so I kept it around for future avian bodies." She held one of the pictures in one foot while balancing effortlessly on the other, "I remember this one," she said looking at the black and red bobcat, "they were found just a short distance from here. They talked to me at the time, but I hadn't seen or heard anything all that odd."
Ryth looked through the file, "no one wrote down that they'd talked to you."
"Are you surprised?" muttered Kirby. He hated going over old ground like this. "Do you remember anything at all from that night?"
Ragouck shook her head, "This body was found days after they'd been killed, I don't even know what night to remember, and it was many years ago." She tapped her head with a wingtip, "I might be smart, but I don't have it all down in stone in here."
"I'm going to come out with it," said Ryth finally. "We're beginning to think this person has done this before, and may have killed again recently. It's possible that they like to dump the bodies out here. Have you noticed anything odd at all out here, anything at all?"
"They'd probably need some kind of vehicle, something with a heavy load on back," Kirby added. "At least two of the bodies were wrapped in rugs."
That last detail caused her head to pop up and look out the window. "Rug?" She asked, then hopped off the perch and started out the door. Kirby and Ryth followed closely. She got to the edge of the old dirt road and pointed down. "Officer Ryth, you've been here a while?" He bobbed his head. "Do you remember the last time we were reptilian? It wasn't that long ago."
Ryth nodded, "I remember. Cold blooded, hard to get moving in the morning, quick to shut down at night. I hated that form."
She was still pointing. "He went that way."
The two officers were confused. "What do you mean?" asked Kirby.
"It was a really cold night," she recalled, "I was only awake because I had my heat turned up high. A tuk-tuk came up the road and went down that way," she said, emphasizing her pointing. "He didn't got that far before he turned around and came back. He'd been carrying a load, I thought at the time it was a bundle of trash or something, but come to think of it, it was a rug."
The two officers exchanged looks, then started bobbing down the road.
For the city, the police presence was unprecedented.
Ryth and Kirby were standing inside the small shop, looking over maps of the area. They were old, mostly hand drawn, but were close enough to the current conditions to work. On it were several flags, one for each body they'd found so far.
Ryth had spotted the body first that day, several feet off the road and covered in brush but dumped in obvious haste. The problem was that it wasn't the reptilian body they'd been led to expect, but rather one of the bear forms that had just passed into history. It took them another two hours to find the reptile, dumped only a half mile up the road. Both, they found, had been garroted to death, the wires still wrapped around their necks.
At that point, it was clear even to the department brass that something was going on that needed attention. They authorized a huge search party to look for bodies around the Outer Marsh River. They weren't' disappointed.
Kirby read the latest message from the search teams, "They found one, about ten standard miles upriver. Reptilian, but not the same as the one from your last form. Bright red scales?"
Ryth considered, "That puts it at least four years ago. They think it was garroted?"
"Wire still around the spinal bones," he read off the note. "What's that make so far?"
Ryth stuck a small flag in about the same spot where the new message came from, "With that one, that make seven we know of, including Suma, the one the Commander told us of and the two we found. We've got a dozen others, but they look like accidents or suicides," he shook his head, "That's assuming he dumps them all here."
"I have a feeling we'll find more once we can dredge the river."
Ryth chuckled, "Yeah, once the city workers figure out how to adapt their heavy equipment for these bodies. They'll manage, but it'll take a few days. Have you ever dealt with something like this before?" he asked.
"Never have," came a voice from behind. They turned to see an unfamiliar bird, but she was wearing a distinctive copper badge that signified she was Department Commander, basically the chief of police. "I've been with this department for decades, and I'm not sure that we've ever had anything like this."
"I have, Commander," said Kirby. "On my home world. Called a serial killer."
Part Five, Connections
Once the heavy equipment arrived at the river, a much fuller extent of the horror started to emerge. Not just the garroted bodies, but the bodies dumped over decades, even centuries.
Kirby looked at the pictures and tried to work out the words associated with the files. He was taking a crash course in reading and writing here, but it was slow going. So far, they'd pulled forty bodies out of the river, most too badly decomposed to figure out what had happened. Once the Police Commander put a stop to the dredging operation, they'd identified fifteen total victims for their case.
Ryth had started to lay out the files on a table in a large meeting room based on form. "That's about the only advantage we have in this, we can narrow down the deaths by form, which at least closes the timeline a little," he said with little cheer.
Kirby clicked his beak together, "It would help if we could identify any of them, I guess," he said flatly. The truth was that even having names wouldn't likely help. "We only know the name of his last victim, Suma."
Ryth chuckled, which in these bird forms sounded like a bit of a sing-song, "That assumes that she kept the name."
They had found a little out about Suma. She'd worked most recently at a small office run by a real rarity in this city, a native born. Like everyone else, he changed with each mixing. He worked in importing goods from the more stable cities around the planet, mostly food and raw materials. Suma had been little more than a clerk, managing the paperwork and keeping track of shipments. "She was a good worker," he'd said. "She'd worked for me for years." Once she left the office, though, he knew nothing about her.
One thing had struck him, though. Over the years, she always seemed to be female. "I was a little jealous," he'd said. "I've got a mate and we've wanted to have children for years, but I seem to flip genders every shift. She's stayed female twice in a row, but lost the baby in this last mix."
Kirby and Ryth had noted it, but weren't sure what to do with information like that. Unless they could identify any of the previous victims, they were going to have a hard time making sense of this guy.
Ryth finally ruffled his feathers and whistled out a sigh, "My eyes are beginning to cross. Why don't we get some food get back to this after a break?"
Kirby looked again at the pictures of all the bodies. He really didn't want to leave, he wanted to figure this puzzle out, but the truth was he was getting hungry. Besides, he'd taken to the whole flying thing and it took a lot of energy. "Sure, lets go."
They started walking though the bull pen toward the steps that would lead up to the windows when he stopped short, "Ryth!"
The bird stopped and turned, "What is it?"
"Am I seeing things?" Kirby said in a near whisper and poked his beak toward one of the desks.
"That looks almost like you did, a human?" he said in a befuddled tone. She was giving her information to the officer, but looked tense and tired at the same time. She was wearing casual clothes that screamed cooler weather American casual. "He's a newcomer, you had the same look."
"He's a she," corrected Ryth. "Once more, I think I might know her." Ryth didn't have a chance to register that before Kirby bobbed over to the desk. She didn't notice him in the bustle of the bull pen as he approached, and only looked his way when the officer taking her information did. "What's your name?" he asked.
She still had a dazed look on her face, "Linda. Linda..."
"Pratt!" he shouted in excitement. "It is you!" He flung his wings and jumped forward to hug her. Despite her fatigue, her response was to jump out of her chair and punch him straight in the beak. He fell back, surprised, and landed at Ryths feet.
She was standing now as other officers moved in to swarm her, but Ryth shouted, "Back off, it's a misunderstanding!" Ryth, it was said, had a commanding voice in every form he took. The other officers stopped and stood their ground but didn't back off. He looked down at his partner, "I assume that it is?"
Kirby rolled his body over and popped back up on his feet. "Linda doesn't realize that she knows me."
She stared hard at him, as if she'd be able to make out who he was, "You've got to be kidding. Who the hell are you?"
"We didn't know each other well, but we worked the Capitol Hill Rapist case when I was new to the force. I just answered phones for the tip line. You were my sergeant then. Then I ran down leads for you when you were detective on the Waterfront Strangler."
She looked even more confused, but she started putting something in her head together, "Wait a minute. They said at the orientation that everyone here changes. You're... You're Hutton? Kirby Hutton?"
He bobbed his head up and down again, "I am at that. Can I get a hug now? Or do you want to hit me again?"
They went straight back to the conference room they had just left. Ryth pulled a more human-friendly chair out of a small storage closet and they sat down. She was clearly still in shock, "This isn't a nightmare, is it?" she asked.
Kirby shook his head, "Sorry, it's all as real as it looks." He held up his wings, "It's not exactly Seattle around here." He paused, "I've got a lot of questions for you."
She smiled for the first time, "You have questions?"
"How long have I been gone?" When her eyebrows went up, he clarified, "I've been curious, it's one of a billion mysteries about this place."
"Having two people from the same planet, the same city, is unprecedented as far as I know. There will be some questions about it, things a lot of people will want to know."
She thought a second, "You vanished about four months ago, I think."
Kirby did some mental calculations, "That's a couple months more than I thought," he said. "I wonder if it takes time to get here in the first place."
The questions went back and forth for a few minutes, mostly about nothing important back in Seattle, or at least nothing that was likely to be important anymore. It wasn't long before Linda got curious about the files around the room and opened one. She barely reacted when she saw it. "You're looking for a pet killer?"
Ryth craned his neck over her shoulder. The picture showed a badly decomposed body that had been pulled from the river three days before, wire still looped around the neck. It had been a smaller, rounder, furry form, but in the picture it was hard to make out. "That's not an animal, that was a person."
Linda looked shocked, "Oh, I'm sorry. I kind of forgot..." Her voice trailed off as she looked at the two birds. "You'd think it would be all I could think about."
Ryth didn't say much as the two talked, but during a lull he finally let out a breath, "Why are you here?" he asked quietly.
She looked at him, "Why? You'd know better than me."
He clicked his beak, a habit he was getting into when he was getting lost in thought, "This doesn't make any sense." He looked at Kirby, "You said you used to work with her, right?"
Kirby nodded, "In a way, I did scut work on a couple serial killer task forces."
"I don't remember you the first time, but I do from the second. I had a feeling you'd make detective eventually." She looked back at Ryth, "Why is that important?"
He waved a wing over the table, "These are the known victims of a serial killer who has been working in the city for at least the last ten standard years." He jabbed his beak in her direction, "And just as we discover this, someone with experience in these matters drops into our laps, someone who knows a new member of our own police force." As he spoke, his feathers puffed up in a menacing way.
"What are you saying?" asked Kirby. He hadn't seen his partner like this before. It reminded him, uncomfortably, of what he'd seen as mobs started to form.
Ryth looked between the two of them with suspicion, "Either you two know a lot more than what you're telling me, or someone out there is pulling strings."
"Ryth!" yelled Kirby. "You know me better than that!"
Ryth glared at him, "I do not. You dropped into our laps a couple months ago. All I know is what you tell me!"
Thorough the soundproof glass walls, Kirby could see Ryths reaction was starting to attract attention from the bull pen. He tried to get Ryth to simmer down, but he was getting more paranoid by the moment, "It would explain so much if this place was some kind of experiment, and they're dropping in people to poke the lab animals every so often. But something either went wrong, or we're not cleaning up your mess fast enough!"
"Damn it, that's not true! I came here just as confused as you did!"
"How do I know that?" he yelled. "Kirby, if you're one of them, I just want to go home! I'll do anything!"
"That's enough!" shouted Linda, drawing both their gazes toward her. While they yelled, Linda had been flipping open the files to look at the victims photos. "Were they all killed with wire?"
Ryth simply glared at her, "Don't you already know?"
She sighed and looked at Kirby, "Were they?"
He nodded, "A very narrow wire, steel or copper or brass."
"Dumped in or near water? Wrapped in rugs or blankets?" Kirby nodded.
She looked at Ryth, "I'm not anyone special. I was a homicide detective where I came from. But if there is someone in control, someone bringing specific people over, then I think I know why they grabbed both me and Kirby." She pointed to the pictures, "The M.O. is too similar, the timing too perfect. It's got to be the Union Bay Strangler. I think he is, or was, human!"
Ryth still looked a bit wild eyed, but he was calming down fast. "Do you people always name your killers?"
Ryth calmed down considerably after a few minutes. There had been a change in Kirby's friend, he could see it plainly, but he wasn't as suspicious or paranoid. It had been a little sobering for him. Ryth had been on this planet for over 20 years, but even a possible hint that there might be a way off had broken though his years of denial and acceptance. Kirby had heard much of his friends lost home, the beauty of the city she grew up in, the family that she left behind there. Even though they would have all moved on, she wanted desperately to return.
Kirby had no one waiting in Seattle, so he'd been far less devastated by his loss coming here. Linda Pratt, though, was a different story. She'd left behind a husband and extended family.
Like Kirby, she'd been almost instantly drafted after her orientation to this world once they found out what she'd done back home. "I told them I was a detective, and they practically dragged me down the street," she said.
They knew they didn't have much time today, Linda was likely to get very tired soon from her arrival, but they decided to fill her in on the details of the case. It took a while since she couldn't simply pick up a file and read it, and for the most part neither could Kirby. "Anything similar about the victims?" had been her first question.
Ryth approximated a shrug, "Impossible to say at this point, perhaps ever. Most of these we didn't even know existed until we dragged them out of the river over the last few days."
She kept looking over the pictures, arraying them out back and forth. "Were any of these people newcomers?"
Ryth looked taken aback, and then started looking again at the pictures. "No, I've been all of these forms. They'd all gone though at least one mixing."
She sat back and mused, "Why isn't he killing newcomers?" She looked at us, "Wouldn't they be easier targets? People confused, alone, even lost? Some of these bodies look pretty formidable." She reached over and picked up a picture of the bear-like form Ryth had been just a few weeks ago, "Even if I was the same size as this guy, it could turn into an ugly fight. So, if you've got a size advantage, why not go after some newcomer that's half your size?"
"A lot of them have guides or travel in small groups at first," pointed out Ryth. "But you're right. He's only going after established folks."
"Exactly." She looked at the pictures some more, "You have any luck tracing the wire or the wrappings?"
Kirby whistle-sighed, "It's too early. We only just realized what was going on. Seems to use the same general type of wire, though the material changes from time to time."
"What I've seen looks industrial," commented Ryth, "We'll try and run it down, but the changing materials might be out of necessity. Very narrow." He pointed at three of the victims, "These are the earliest. He used steel wire, high quality. It's also hard to get in the city. These bodies are years old, though."
"Recordkeeping here sucks," commented Kirby. "Don't expect credit card statements or receipts."
Ryth continued, "He switched to an easier to find copper wire for a while, then to a narrow but different style brass. Most recently he went back to steel."
She looked at the pictures. "You don't know if these are all the victims, do you?"
"Not even close," admitted Ryth. "So far we've only found one per mixed form, but that could just be a coincidence. There are several forms we haven't found bodies for." He flipped his wings upward, "At least one form missing was small and light, river could have carried it down. There are scavengers out there, too. I suspect we've got several bodies we'll never find."
She looked at Kirby, "Any missing persons?"
He actually burst out laughing, "Are you kidding? They don't even have a missing persons department here. They barely keep files. This," is said waving his wings over the table, "is the most organized I've seen this place get since I got here!"
She got quiet, then sat back down heavily. "Sorry, I'm just feeling tired."
"It's getting late and we all missed mid-day meal," he said. "Let's check in with recruitment for you to get official, then we'll get something to eat."
They went to a small restaurant near the station. Kirby had been there before, and had marveled at the owners ability to make food on the fly. Before he'd changed, once they'd established a large enough number of items that were safe for his human body, they'd gone in and given the waitress that list. What came out of the kitchen had tasted a bit alien, and perhaps a bit salty, but actually had been the best food he'd eaten between his arrival and his first mixing.
They found a quiet table in the back. Linda sat down heavily and looked at her dinner companions. "You know, this isn't exactly what I expected to be doing this evening."
Kirby chuckled, "You weren't? Well, that's just poor planning."
"Lay off her," Ryth said in a low voice, "she's had a rough day."
The food came quickly, but it was clear that Linda was distracted as she ate. "I'm not good company tonight, guys," she said finally. "I'm…" She looked at Ryth, "You've been here twenty years?"
Ryth nodded, "Something like that."
She ate a few more bites, "I miss my husband already," she said finally. "But I can't seem to care."
Kirby sighed, "It's the process," he explained. "For the first few hours, even days, it won't let you care that much." He looked at Ryth, "It'll get worse before it gets better. I'm sorry."
Ryth cleared his throat. "Tell me about this person you think we're pursuing. Union something?"
"The Union Bay Strangler," she said with a slight node. "The local media started calling him that after the third body was recovered. The number of dead eventually hit nine before the killings stopped. They were mostly young women, but he killed men, too. They were all garroted in their homes, then wrapped in something from the house, usually a rug or blanket, and dumped."
"We thought that he laid in wait, as I recall," interjected Kirby.
She nodded, "There was some thought that his victims were random, but he would wait for hours. That never connected for me, but that was the prevailing theory. We never knew his motive."
"You never caught him?" asked Ryth.
She shook her head, "No, never. We had some suspects, a couple of good ones, but nothing panned out. Then the killings just stopped eleven years ago."
"Any idea why?"
She shook her head, "I always thought that he moved and we just never got a line on where, maybe to another county, or that he had been picked up for some other crime. Or he'd died."
"He might have just stopped," noted Kirby, "The Green River Killer just stopped for a decade before he was caught. BTK, too."
Ryth cocked his head, "Just how many of these killers do you people have?"
"Too many," Linda said with a sigh. She looked out the window at the birds flying in the gloomy dark outside, "Now? I think that he's here, has been here, for over a decade."
It had taken him a while to figure out who his pursuers were, but once he had it was almost comically easy to keep tabs on them. They still roomed together, worked the same shifts.
If they ever actually got close, it would be childs play to take them out.
He perched across the street and watched them eat, noting more than idly that the newcomer was human. It had been many years since he'd seen a human woman. Even still, when he realized who he was looking at, he cursed himself for being sloppy.
She'd been the only one that had ever gotten close, closer than she even knew. It seemed proof of his theories, the theories that he'd spilled so much blood over. There was no chance that this was coincidence.
Of the hundreds of trillions of people in the universe to choose from, they had managed to find the one detective that could catch him. Indeed, the one that almost did.
He would have to be patient, he had his next target already chosen, but her time would come soon enough.
Though it was getting crowded, Linda stayed with Ryth and Kirby for the time being. "I'm going to have to move out if more of you come through," he'd groused.
They had thought to take a day to get Linda more oriented to the city, but she'd decided to jump into this new case. "You guys are the experts about this place," she'd pointed out, "but I'm sure I know this guy."
The first order of business had been to try and trace the only common evidence in the crimes, the wire. Ryth took a couple of samples of each of the four types and took it to the only source he could think of.
Bateet was sitting behind his counter when the three of them walked in. He barely glanced up at first, then did a double-take. "Kirby? I thought you were here before the last change."
He chuckled, "I was," he said and watched the bird behind the counter shift his gaze, "but someone else from back home came though."
The old fabricator squinted a little then shrugged, "I can't tell you apart, I guess. I don't have your weapon yet," he said quickly, "I was almost done when we mixed the last time."
"You stopped working?" asked Ryth, surprised. "I thought you worked though every form."
Bateet chuckled, then pulled a feather from his chest with a slight wince. "I'm working on blueprints right now, but I'm not sure you've gotten all the details about these avian forms," he said as he dropped it on the counter and lit a match, "But there's a design flaw." He put the match to the feather, and much to their surprise it burst into flame. "First day after we mixed I tried to work, feathers usually self-extinguish and I've done this without hands before. I caught myself on fire, though. Burned half my wing feathers before I could get it into the water."
The three of them were stunned. "Had you heard about this, Ryth?" asked Kirby.
He shook his head, "I hadn't, but we've both been busy with other things. Are there oils in the feathers?" he asked Bateet.
He nodded, "Some kind of waxy material. It's actually pretty waterproof."
Linda watched this with fascination, then cleared her throat, "Uh, what about…?" she asked, her voice trailing off.
Ryth nodded, "Oh, yes. Can you take a look at these and tell me what you make of them?" he asked setting the short lengths of wire in front of Bateet.
He picked them up and looked, "They're wire," he said plainly. "Not my handiwork, I don't make the stuff. Too hard without the right tools to make enough of it to turn a profit." He turned over the more rusted bit, "Looks like it was underwater for a while."
"It was," said Kirby simply.
He checked the other three samples. "The copper wire is industrial quality. Submerged as well, I would imagine. It has a lot of uses, but it's got good conductivity. Someone might have sold it for use in electrical devices. The brass wire is interesting. It's got a lot of industrial uses, but this stuff looks decorative."
"Decorative?" asked Kirby, "Like artwork."
Bateet nodded, "Something like that. Jewelry, most likely. It's pretty easy to shape if you're skilled enough. Not nearly as strong as the steel, though. This stuff is braded in a strange way, like a half-circle," he said as he picked it up in his beak and twisted it around, setting it back on the counter. "I think this stuff was originally designated as a bracelet."
Ryth's feathered brow sank lower, "A bracelet? We've got samples of this stuff back at the office as long as your wing. A few of them, in fact."
Bateet simply shrugged, "You can get stuff like this in spools, just like the industrial wire. It's isn't that hard to cut it and temper the ends so it won't unravel. It's not hard to find, but this stuff is a little different, it's been strengthened."
"How so?" asked Kirby.
Bateet tapped the end of his beak on the end of the freshly cut piece they had done at the station. "There's a core of something running though it, perhaps steel." Bateet suddenly looked interested beyond professionally. "What was this stuff used for?" he asked.
Ryth looked at his fellow officers, then shrugged, "Strangulation killings," he said simply.
Bateet looked over the three of them, then nodded, "Normally, brass wire this thin wouldn't be strong enough for that, I would think. Whoever used it knew that, and looked for something with a strong enough core."
"What about the other steel wire?" asked Linda.
He looked it over, "Pretty standard, very much like the first wire. The quality is really high, so that might narrow it down a little, but frankly these are all pretty common elements." He held up a wing, then walked into the back room and returned with a spool of copper wire in his beak. He set it down on the counter, "I buy this from a supplier right here in the marketplace. They probably have sold all three grades of this."
Linda glanced out a window at the perpetual carnival that made up the market. "I'll bet there are a dozen places that sell this stuff," she fumed.
Bateet shook his head, "Not really. The city doesn't have a lot of manufacturing, almost everything is imported. Spools like this wouldn't be terribly common, but it wouldn't be easy to track down."
Kirby nodded, "Yeah, even if they gave us a description of the buyer, he wouldn't look like that anymore."
Bateet looked over the wire more, "How is he holding this?"
"What do you mean?"
Bateet looked a bit exasperated, "Holding the wire? If he's pulling hard enough to strangle someone, especially some of the forms over the last few years, he'd slice into his hands, paws, whatever. What's on the ends?"
The three looked at each other, "Nothing, you're holding the ends of four of the wires we have."
The old fabricator shook his head, "Only if he's protecting his hands with something."
Kirby looked at his partner, "Suma was killed just after the last mixing, perhaps just minutes after."
"There wouldn't have been time to get any protection for his feet," agreed Ryth.
"So he's either got something he clips to the wires that he takes with him," noted Linda.
"Or he knows what we're going to become," said Ryth.
The trio were put full time looking for this killer. They spent the better part of the next month looking all over the city tracking down the few leads they had. Even after weeks, they had identified none of the other victims. In the end, they had half a dozen different suppliers of wire and vague knowledge of perhaps half a dozen more that had gone out of business over the last decade.
Finding just one customer wasn't going to be possible. Every clerk at every store and supplier, in and out of the marketplace, remembered the occasional strange buyer: The one who walked in darkly with apparent ill intent. The problem was that description didn't make much difference.
It wasn't until they started trying jewelry shops, trying to trace down the more unique jewelry style wire, that they had their first really solid lead. Linda had casually noted that a small red flag with a white cross hung low in the front shop window. "Looks Swiss, doesn't it?" she said.
Kirby nodded, "You don't think…"
Any doubt was washed away when they stepped through the door. The shopkeeper looked up casually from her work and her beak dropped open. "Oh my God…" she said, her voice trailing off. She leapt to her feet and scrambled around the displays. "A human! Another human!"
Linda braced herself slightly, but allowed herself to be embraced. "How long have you been here, when did you get here? Where are you from?"
They answered her questions and dragged much out of her. She had been born a he, Alexander Heinrick in 1890 Zurich, and had been in the City since 1910. "It has been a bit of a shock," she said. "You're only the second, well third," he said indicating Kirby, "humans that I've seen since I got here."
"There's another human around? When?"
"Well, he came in about a decade ago or so. Seemed good with his hands, so I hired him on the spot. Got me caught up on events back in our world." She paused, then looked confused. "You're both American's, right?" he asked. She seemed to be struggling for a name, "He was from a western city there I'm not familiar with. San Francisco? San Diego?"
"Seattle?" suggested Kirby.
"He was from Seattle," he said looked at them significantly. "What is going on here?"
They explained what they were looking for, and why. Alexander was familiar with the investigation; it had made the news, but not the details. It wasn't until they showed him the brass bracelet wire that his eyes lit up. "I knew it!" she shouted.
"He quit right after the first mixing he went through. It was a really awful form, like a giant snail with arms."
"Ugh," grunted Ryth, "I remember. Completely boneless. Barest cartilage skeleton to keep shape along with a shell. You had to stay hydrated something fierce or you dried up and died. Slow, too. We lost a lot of people in that form."
Alexander nodded, "Yes, yes. I took it in stride, I don't know how many forms I'd been by that point, but it was close to the worst. It seemed to break something in him. He recoiled at his own reflection. He quit a couple days later and I never saw him again."
"Okay, what does that have to do with anything?" asked Linda.
"When he left, I didn't realize that he'd stolen several supplies, including copper wire and that bracelet wire, until it was too late."
"Do you remember his name?" asked Kirby.
Linda held up a hand, "Wait, good with his hands? He was a skilled jeweler?"
"Not really, but he'd clearly worked with metals before and had some artistic talent."
"His name was Logan?"
The old jeweler bobbed her head, "Yes! Logan Knight! How did you know?"
Kirby and Ryth looked at her themselves, "Yeah, how did you know?"
Her face reddened and took a hard expression that Kirby and Alexander could recognize as deep anger, "Because I had him. I had him right in front of me and I let him go!"
Linda explained what happened as they walked back to headquarters. "Knight was a suspect, although a rather tenuous one," she explained. "We had five dead women at that point, all strangled with piano wire or something similar. He was linked to two of them."
"Who was he?"
"He worked in art restoration at the University of Washington, primarily with damaged statues and other metal works of art. He was considered pretty skilled at it."
"How did you come to suspect him?" asked Ryth.
Linda shrugged, "It was just one of those things. We discovered that he had known two of the murdered women, so he was questioned. Nothing really came of it. He didn't have an alibi for the murders, but we also had no evidence at the time that connected him."
"Then why do you even remember him?" asked Kirby. "You must have had dozens, maybe hundreds, of suspects from time to time."
She shrugged, "I don't know, really. Something about the interview bothered me. He didn't seem scared enough at the thought of being accused of five murders." She thought a bit more, "I guess when he disappeared mysteriously and the murders stopped, we all started to draw the conclusion that he had been the killer."
Ryth tilted his head and clicked his beak, "That seems a little sloppy for you," he chided.
Linda nodded, "It was, but by the time he vanished we'd found seven bodies. After he disappeared we didn't have a single one." She wrung her hands in frustration, "Now, knowing that he ended up in this hell hole, and that the same kind of murders started then, I'm sure it was him."
Kirby nodded in agreement, "I'm sure that you're right, but I'm not sure that does us much good. We have no idea what he looks like now. You could talk to him tomorrow and not have a clue."
"We have a name," she pointed out, "He wouldn't have had much reason to change it."
"Or to keep it," pointed out Ryth. "He could have changed it anytime in the last decade. And once he knows we're on to him, we can't even ask for the publics help. All it would take is one mixing and he vanishes into the crowd."
Linda suddenly stopped and stared at the two of them, "Speaking of which…" she said, her voice trailing off.
Ryth and Kirby stopped and looked at her a moment before looking at each other. Though they were still mostly birds, each had a tall, furred ear slowly growing out of their head. Ryth cursed under his breath a few times, "Damn it, here we go again."
Part Six, Rumor Mill
They hustled back to headquarters as fast as they could and joined the rest of the police force. Linda had no history of surgery, so they weren't worried about her transitioning too much. By the time they got settled, they all had ears that looked to Kirby like those off a donkey, except the fur was lavender in color.
Linda looked amused and terrified at the same time, "That's a horse of a different color," she said with a strained smile even as she felt her own elongated ears.
Like before, Kirby felt no pain as he watched his beak begin to recede, slowly to replaced by a muzzle that could only be described as equine. He had a hard time seeing on himself, but it was clear that on Ryth and Linda the fur pattern was beginning to look like it was designed by a hippie on a drug trip, with stripes of green, lavender and orange and other colors mixed in.
Ryth looked at himself in a mirror and grumbled, "This looks awful. I swear if I ever find out someone is designing these forms I'm going to kill them."
Kirby felt a strange pulling sensation as his shoulders remolded. The large flight muscles vanished along with the feathers, only to be replaced by more garish fur. Much to his delight, the tips of the wings suddenly started to mold into fingers, four of them. They were odd shaped and actually seemed to stick together somewhat when closed.
Kirby was still trying to figure out what that meant when Ryth cursed again, "Crap!"
Everyone turned to him. Kirby had figured since the last mixing that Ryth was the usually the first to dump cold water on any changes. "What is it?" he asked.
Ryth held the hands together like an alien hand model, then set it on his desktop flat. "It's not a hand, it's a hoof. We're going to be four leggers this time!"
Neither Kirby or Linda had time to process what that meant before a wave of nausea passed through them and they both fell asleep.
For all their caution, they still opened the door.
She had been ready for them to hide out, perhaps even to wait until the end of the mixing to finish the job. It had almost been a surprised to find them to be so careless. She had simply knocked, then flew up a few feet. As the door opened, she dove in, legs out, and wrapped the wire strung between her feet around the thin neck of the bird that answered. Like before, she watched as the wire simply dug into the flesh and then cut. It took surprisingly little force for the head to come off.
The second turned out to be a little tougher, but with stimulant raging through her blood as her next victim started to tire, she managed to get the upper hand. With a smooth motion as her wingtips turned back to fingers, she switched to her hands and tugged hard on the wire. It took longer, the neck was getting thicker even as she pulled, but finally her victims' changes stopped and he slumped to the floor.
She looked proudly at her handiwork, her new fur glowing blue as she leaned back on her tail. She thought about wrapping the pair of them up and taking them to the river, but decided against it. It was too dangerous to travel though the city with bodies anymore, they were actually on the lookout.
She took a match and set it to one of the feathers now scattered around the floor, using it first to torch her second kill, then the first as she walked out the door.
Kirby stirred out of the darkness and slowly opened his eyes. He remembered that he was in the bull-pen, and a quick glance out the windows showed that it was dark out. He'd been out at least a few hours.
Slowly, he stood up and looked around. About half the police force were up and moving about, mostly in a daze, trying to avoid the other sleeping officers. Kirby tried to take it all in, but the scene seemed to short circuit something in his brain and all he could do is stare.
Most anyone walking was doing it on all fours, though a few were doing it on two for short distances. The forms were a lot like large zebras painted in dazzle paint and merged with some other mammals for good measure. The females that he saw sported a very bovine udder, everyone had tails but they looked almost like it had been taken off a kangaroo that stuck out stiffly a good two feel behind them. He couldn't figure out a use for that until he noticed a couple of officers talking and essentially sitting back on their tails like stools.
He dared to look down at himself for the first time and got his next shock: he was sporting an udder. Kirby sighed and tried to take it in stride. Gender changes were pretty common in this world, this was just his, or her, first.
A heavy hand clasped her shoulder, "Doing fine?"
The voice was strangely deep but still feminine, and Kirby turned to find another female like herself. "Ryth?"
She nodded, "Yeah," she grumbled, "I'm just glad to have hands again. And to be female again. I was born that way, you know."
Kirby didn't like the idea of being switched around like this, and worried a little. "Just how female are we?" she asked.
Ryth smiled. It was clear that these forms were far, far more expressive than the birds they had just been. "Don't worry. If you never want to experiment with it, you won't have too. So far, whoever runs this place hasn't seen fit to force us into mating." She pointed at the sleeping Linda nearby, who was clearly male now. "We need to wake her up. We got another call just as the mixing started."
Kirby sighed, "Another murder?"
Ryth nodded, "Two, with a little arson thrown in for good measure."
Linda was shaken when he woke up, but was all business the moment he heard about the murders. "I'll figure this out later," he said. The three gathered their gear and headed out. "Don't we need clothes?" asked Linda.
Few of the officers had any on hand because the avian forms simply didn't work well with clothing. Ryth simply shrugged, "Remember, no one really cares around here, after a while. We'll probably see some form-specific clothes pretty soon if it bothers you, but honestly we're usually bipedal on this world."
They watched as the idea of going out naked with his new male parts visible caused her fur to literally glow purple. He noticed it and plucked at the fur with his thick fingers, "Great, mood fur." He grumbled a bit more, but then the three of them left.
The murder scene was a good distance away, but they made good time on all fours. Kirby couldn't help but think of mounted officers as they ran though the streets, which were only just now beginning to fill with the new equine forms. As it did, even small groups of moving forms was hard to watch, with all the different colors going in different directions. Kirby started to get a headache just looking.
It was also the first time the she'd gotten a good, solid smell of this place. Her human nose had picked it up, but it had been a bit muted. The avian form didn't have much of a sense of smell, but this donkey nose filled instantly with the smells of a rundown city. Urine, trash, exhaust, decay, it all filled her nose. She could smell the scents of those around her, picking up the different scents of musk from males and females.
As they got closer to the murder scene, they all smelled something new and stomach churning: burned feathers.
A small fire brigade was in front of the three story stone building, but they clearly hadn't had to do much. There were no signs of fire outside the building and only the stench gave anything away.
The head of the brigade stopped them at the door, "It's a mess in there. We're not sure what happened, but we got the fire call just as the mixing started. Thankfully, it burned itself out before we got here." He shook his head and his fur started glowing green, "It's not pretty in there."
The three detectives exchanged looks, then rose to their hind legs to climb the stairs. Kirby discovered quickly that walking on two legs in this form was not really a problem, but quickly there was a nagging sense that this was somehow wrong. As soon as she reached a flat surface again, she fell to all fours, her finger fitting together like a solid hoof.
The smell got worse as they got to the open apartment door. A fire brigade member was standing by with a large purple fire extinguisher, his fur color almost glowing green. Kirby figured that this was nausea or disgust, since her own was beginning to do the same.
The scene inside the small apartment was hard to absorb. There were two bodies, both horribly burned. One was clearly mostly avian, though stubs of equine ears were visable in the seared flesh. Like the last victim, the head had been severed by the wire used to strangle her. "This one went first," noted Ryth clinically even though her fur was almost blazing green.
The second was much more equine than avian, his head was still attached but the wire cut deeply into the thickening neck. They'd been killed once they had hands and the start of their thick tail, but their feet were still avian. "This one…" said Ryth before trailing off. "How did he kill this one?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" asked Linda.
"The mixing is almost the same across the board, with little variation, we all change at the same time. But by the time our tails came in, we were all passed out. Everyone but the killer."
"You said before that he was probably using some kind of stimulant," Kirby pointed out.
Ryth nodded, "I know, but you'd have to judge pretty closely what you're going to become for this to work. These forms are a great deal heavier than the avian ones. If he took enough to stay awake through the mixing, he'd have to have some idea of how much to take."
Linda started to nod, "Sure, because if he didn't take enough he'd fall asleep anyway, and if he took too much, like if we got smaller, he'd die." He looked around the room, "And unlike the other murders, he was right here during the mixing."
Kirby stepped into the small kitchen area and opened the cabinets. "No seeds," he said flatly. "It's all dried greens."
"Like hay?" asked Linda.
Kirby nodded, "Something like that. Dried greens and cereal. On Earth, it would be what you'd expect to feed to horses. I suspect it's pretty close to what we can eat now."
Ryth went to the floor cooler and opened the top. "Large fruits and tubers." She closed the door. "We couldn't eat tubers, and these are fresh."
"This remind you an awful lot of Suma?" asked Kirby. "A couple of people extremely ready for the next mixing?"
"How could they know?" asked Linda. "I thought there was no way to predict the next forms."
Ryth nodded slowly and sat back on her tail, her green color fading and being replaced by a somber yellow. "There isn't. At least I thought there wasn't. But someone has either figured it out…"
"Or someone is controlling it," finished Kirby.
They looked over the apartment for several hours, coming up with more questions than answers. They had clothes in their closests for several different forms, but definitely were ready with clothes for these equine forms. It was Linda that noticed they looked home made, but not. "The visible stitching is rough," she flipped the garment inside out, "But it's solid underneath. I think it might be some kind of camouflage." The garments were definitely newer than anything else in the closets, lacking any kind of scent.
They finally left the apartment and headed back to the bull pen. They went into their private conference room and sat on their tails. It was Ryth that finally broke the silence. "What we've found, for now, can't leave this room," she said.
"Why not?" asked Linda.
Kirby sighed and remember the small riot he's been in the middle of a few weeks before. "This place is a fever swamp of rumors and conspiracy theories. If anyone out there every thought we were investigating the murders of people that look like they are in on it, it could be a disaster."
Ryth nodded, "I think you'd see riots the likes of which you'd never seen before. Only about half the population of this planet were born here, the other half have homes somewhere else in the universe. Everyone here has lost family, lives. Some have made better lives here, but most would return to their own place in a moment."
"And if you think that your neighbor, your co-worker, even perhaps a mate, might be from a race that's actually controlling this mess?" added Kirby, "You might be willing to do anything to convince them to let you go home."
Linda nodded reluctantly. "I'm not sure I like hiding this, since it may be the only way to find them."
Kirby looked at some of the pictures of previous victims. "That brings up, how is Knight locating these people?"
Linda shrugged, "Could be he was brought into the conspiracy."
Ryth shrugged, "I doubt it," he said looking signifigantly at his partners. "You two make that seem less likely. I think they know who this is, too. Or at least that he was from your world. They brought you two in to find him."
Kirby shook his head, "Why me? I didn't work this case at all."
"Because all we knew was that we needed someone from the local police, and from there we could learn more."
All three jumped at the new voice from behind them. Ryth had her weapon out and trained on the newcomer. "How did you get in here?"
There was an easy smile across the donkeys thick lips, and her color went slightly white with amusement. "Detective, if we wish we can be anywhere." She pointed at the door, "And you left this unlocked. With all the noise you just didn't hear me come in."
Ryth didn't lower her weapon, which had started to attract attention though the glass. "Who the hell are you?"
The newcomer motioned for Ryth to lower her weapon, "Please, I'm unarmed and want to help your with your investigation." Ryth slowly lowered her gun and holstered it.
"Who are you?" asked Kirby.
The newcomer smiled again, "My name isn't important, but suffice it to say that it is my people that are being slaughtered.
Ryth slowly let her hand drop to her weapon again, "And your people…"
"Are running the experiment," she confirmed with a curt nod.