|Paradise story universe|
|Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti|
Rob the skunk carried the cardboard boxes from the hall into his room and set them down on the clean floor. It had been almost a year since he'd changed into an anthro-skunk and forced to keep his room clean, and still he flinched his toes to avoid stubbing them into discarded detrius that no longer lingered on his carpet. His friend CM had shown him the necessity of maintaining house and over a week's time helped him turn his room from a pig sty into a place where a Changed could easily keep their true nature a secret.
And now he and his friends were leaving FoxRidge 1600J for good. Trevor, Brett, and Nick had found a house in downtown Christiansburg to rent, while he was moving with Audrey into the upscale apartments FoxRidge offered. A few weeks ago Audrey had accepted his marriage proposal and now his mind was abuzz with managing his and her families as they swarmed in battle over the wedding arrangements. It had to be in Vermont! No in New Jersey! It must be big! It must be small! It must be Protestant! It must be Catholic! On, and on, and on!
Here in Blacksburg, Virginia, he and Audrey could escape for a time and be together without the discomfort of feuding families. In one week's time he'd be out of the Furry apartment and would no longer need to hide. Apart from Patrick whom CM had told because he'd become too nosy, Audrey was the only other among them that knew the secret of the Changed. He hoped she didn't mind lots of potpouri or cleaning up skunk fur.
As the skunk set down the boxes his phone rang. He snatched it from his computer table and read the number. His eyes widened; he recognized that name. He cast a quick glance at the server humming away in one corner and then opened the phone.
"This is Rob. Hello?"
A deep, rumbling voice answered him. "Good afternoon, Mr. Hallman. This is Walter Lundh. How are you?"
"I'm fine, fine, just getting ready to move next week. Already signed the lease and everything." He said that deliberately. The last time the longhorn bull called he'd had to cancel his plans on short notice. "How are you?"
"I am well. I'm mailing you, CM, and Mr. Ryan round-trip tickets to Washington in two weeks."
"DC?" Rob asked, both surprised and relieved that he at least had two weeks before he needed to jump through the lawyer's hoops. "What for?"
"Congressman Sandrick requested an update on the status of your project prior to next month's Change. We want to know where to look and what to expect. You and your colleagues must ready a presentation for the Congressman. Will there be any trouble for you?"
Rob walked to his calendar and studied the dates. "I'm going to have to get off work. So will CM. They'll probably be pissed that they didn't have more advanced warning."
"I apologize for that," Walter replied brusquely. "I'm sure the Congressman can send you each a letter if necessary, though we'd all prefer to keep this low profile. Are there any other difficulties?"
The skunk shook his head. "No. It's good for me, but you'll want to check with CM. She might have plans. Will we see you in DC?"
"I'll be waiting for you at Dulles. All the arrangements for the hotel have been made. I will see you there. Good luck with your move. Don't damage anything."
The bull hung up and Rob set the phone down with a long sigh. A move and a presentation! Well, he'd better get started packing then.
CM carried the footboard into Rob's new bedroom and set it against the wall with the rest of the pieces of his bed. The skunk was rifling through his toolbox with Audrey at his side resting one hand on his shoulder. Rob's tail twitched to the far side as he turned to see the bear.
"Hey Audrey, can you go keep the others busy for a few minutes?" Rob asked.
"Changed stuff?" Audrey asked, and at the skunk's nod, she smiled and nodded. "Sure! Open the door when you're done." She hugged CM as she walked past, surprising the bear, and then closed the door behind her.
"Trevor and the others are busy packing their own things," CM pointed out. She rested her paw on the footboard and tilted it back and forth. "Is there something you need my help with?"
Rob held a wrench out and said, "Well, you can help me put my bed together!" CM laughed. "Seriously, we haven't had a chance to talk. You got Lundh's message last week, right?"
CM nodded. She'd been at work the first time the bull had called. Leslie had taken the message, but of course Lundh hadn't said anything to her other than his name; CM was amazed he'd given her that much! "I've got my part of the presentation prepared. I know you haven't had much chance to look it over or anything but what you've done looked good to me."
"Not much else I could do," Rob grunted as he straightened and looked around the room. "Here, against this wall. The headboard should go here. Do you need a paw?"
CM nodded. "It's a little awkward, yes." Together, they carried the arched headboard to where Rob wanted it and then leaned it against the wall. "Do you need some help with your presentation?"
The skunk frowned as he returned for one of the side pieces. "I shouldn't. It's not like I did anything anyway."
"You kept the server going," CM replied with a smile. She could tell the skunk was bothered by something but she couldn't tell what. "Carter and I couldn't do anything without that!"
"But are we really ready to tell these guys anything?" Rob asked. "Bring the footboard; we'll get these pieces together."
CM pondered the question for a moment as she retrieved the footboard. Rob had both side pieces laid out in front of the headboard and was checking the various bolts to make sure he had the right ones. She ran her tongue along the back of her short fangs and grunted. "We have enough to give them a good estimate. We've ruled out pretty much everything except exponential growth. That's scary in itself."
"And there should be a heck of a lot more of us than there are, right?"
CM set the footboard down and held it steady with one paw. She was careful not to nick the wood with her claws. "Yes, but Carter would know more about where they should be than I do. It'll be good to see him again at least."
"He won't have his jeep with him this time. Did you get stuck in coach too?"
CM nodded and Rob rolled his eyes as he lifted the first side piece and put the bolt through the hole. CM held the other end up with her free paw. She laughed and rumbled. "His note did say that he reserved the two seats next to mine too. Paid extra for that. I'm going to need it." She patted her tummy which was already building up girth for winter hibernation. Of course, if the August Change played its usual tricks, she wouldn't be a bear for much longer.
As long as she became male again she wouldn't mind staying a bear forever. But that wasn't up to her.
"Well, that's something at least. I hope you didn't have any plans for next weekend."
CM grunted. "Jan and Dennis were planning to come down to visit."
Rob's tail darted to one side and he glanced back at the bear in surprise. "The boar and the hedgehog? Wouldn't that be like their third time this year?"
"Jan's fourth, Dennis's third. He couldn't make it last time." CM grinned and shrugged. "Jan's determined to make a biker out of me. He's probably going to succeed at some point too. Just don't have the money for it now."
"And Leslie would kill you," Rob added.
CM's grin didn't fade even though she nodded. "Yeah, probably. They're working on that too."
"So what did you tell them?"
"I told them I'd be in DC anyway, and if time allowed, I'd meet them there. Probably going to have to be in the evening though. Looks like Lundh wants us there to present and get out as quick as possible."
"Probably to keep from too many questions being asked," Rob said. He stood up, brushed his pants off, and walked over to where CM crouched against the footboard. "Okay, the first one's in. Scoot back and I'll get this bolt in too."
Roanoke Airport was a small regional airport with a single concourse. There were direct flights to Charlotte, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Richmond, and of course DC. Their plane left at 2:20, so Rob picked CM up at her apartment a little before noon. They each had packed an overnight bag, though in CM's case it looked like one that would barely fit in the overhead compartment. Rob resisted the temptation to ask the she-bear if she'd packed the kitchen sink.
Traffic was light that Friday as they drove up I-81 to Roanoke. The airport was reasonably busy with families heading out for the weekend to visit relatives as well as several others heading out of town on business. The pair checked in, saw that their flight was on time — which surprised the skunk who'd never seen a plane leave on time — and headed for the terminal.
Both of them felt a little anxious passing through the security station, especially with the post-9/11 heightened security measures. But neither of them were singled out for extra scrutiny and they passed by unmolested.
While Rob went to their terminal, CM stopped at one of the terminal-side restaurants and ordered the largest fish item they had on the menu. That and an appetizer of fried cheese sticks. It did sate her hibernation hunger for the time, but she knew she'd be hungry again in a few hours. At least the flight wouldn't be long. She hoped that Walter would be understanding about how much she'd probably order from room service!
When CM went to their terminal she found the skunk reviewing his portion of the presentation. He'd been able to finish only the day before and only because Audrey let him shirk his duties in setting up their new apartment. He'd have a lot of catch up to do when they got back, but CM had volunteered to come over a day or two and pitch in to make up for it.
CM settled her bulk on one of the benches and grimaced as the arms pinched her paunch. "Ugh. They need bigger seats."
Rob glanced up and chuckled. "How much do you weigh?"
"About two-eighty," CM replied. "I'll hit three hundred again by the Change."
The skunk nodded. "The way you eat, yah. What are you going to become?"
"A rat I expect," she replied. She briefly touched one breast with a claw and grunted, "And hopefully male again. Do you hope to change again?"
Rob shook his head. "Skunk wasn't my first choice, believe me, but I've gotten used to it. I'm happy this way, so why Change again?"
"But if you did, what would you prefer?"
The skunk put his papers down in his lap and leaned back into his tail which curled over the end of the seat. "Something feline I think. Jaguar. Definitely a jaguar. Oh, and male too."
CM chuckled. "Well, odds are you won't change again. How goes the presentation?"
"Slow," Rob grunted and shook his head. "I think I'm going to be reading over this on the plane. I finished the slides at like 3 AM last night."
"Well, if you practice, don't practice too loudly," CM said as her eyes followed a family coming up the causeway and settling in next row of seats. "We won't be alone."
Rob glanced at them and nodded. "Right." He lowered his snout to the pages and though he moved his lips, not even the bear could hear anything he said. She glanced at the clock, sighed, and resigned herself to waiting another hour for their flight to depart.
Despite the fact that their plane was a prop, CM managed to relax and sort of enjoy the flight. Perhaps because bears were natural swimmers, she had no trouble adjusting to the pressure change as the plane gained altitude. And with nobody sitting in the seats next to her, she was able to stretch out her bulk across all three. The seat belt was almost as loose as it could go, but it neither pinched her gut nor did the seat pinch her tail. For all of that she was grateful.
Rob faced a different situation. His lengthy tail made getting comfortable extremely difficult. It wasn't like his car where he could sit forward and lean forward when necessary. In the purgatory of coach, there was no room to lean forward and if he sat forward his knees pressed into the tray table. So he ended up pulling his tail between his legs and doing his best not to get it tangled in the seat belt. The older woman sitting next to him watched him with a vague sense of unease, but of course she couldn't tell what was really going on.
To the skunk's immense relief, the flight lasted less than an hour and soon they were settled back on the ground. He lashed his tail back and forth and hissed as they walked up the boarding passage to the gate. "Ugh! I'm never flying coach again!"
"Yeah," CM said as she hefted her carry-on over her shoulder. "It's a little cramped. If Walter hadn't kept the seats next to mine empty, I think I would have eaten somebody. Just kidding."
"That lady was giving me the creeps!" Rob shook his head and checked behind him to make sure she wasn't nearby. "I thought she was going to have a heart attack and die on me."
The bear chuckled and pointed down the concourse. "Well, we're here now. I think we want to go that way to get to the main terminal."
Rob glanced at the signs and nodded. "Yeah, looks like it. Shouldn't be hard to find Walter."
"There is that at least," CM agreed.
The two of them moved through the throng of people waiting for their flight or rushing to catch a connecting flight. Rob held his tail close to his back and twitched anytime anybody brushed too close. CM ambled along at a decent pace over the worn carpeting. It was so old that the long claws on her toes clicked against the concrete beneath every few steps.
Dulles International Airport was immense compared to what they'd left in Roanoke. Vendors and restaurants greeted them the entire way through the concourse, as well as people going every which way. Many were dressed for business, but just as many were dressed as if they were going to Florida, Mexico, or California. A good number were either calling somebody on cell phones or were getting called. And despite the huge throng, not a one of them was Changed like them.
It took almost ten minutes to get from their gate to the security plaza. Once through, they headed into the wide open-air centre lined with airline registration desks and even more shops selling touristry gewgaws. Skunk and bear scanned the crowds in every direction, and found what they sought almost immediately.
"There he is," CM said as soon as she spotted the huge horns sticking out of either side of his black-and-white speckled bovine brow. Rob saw it too and the pair of them made their way through the crowds toward the huge computer display listing arrivals. Walter was dressed in business attire and carried a briefcase in one hoof-like hand. Small, glassy eyes greeted them as they approached. "Mr. Hallman, CM, I see you made it without incident."
Rob held out one hand and the two shook. "And good to see you too, Walter."
"Likewise," CM said before shaking the bull's hand. His grip was heavy and felt odd with those two pointed hoof-like nails. "Where's Carter?"
"His flight is just now arriving. He'll be with us shortly." Walter grunted and glanced between the two. "I hope you brought more professional attire for tomorrow's meeting."
"Yes," Rob said. "I only have the one set of suit pants with a hole for my tail."
"I only have one good suit that fits me at this size," CM admitted.
"That will suffice. If we have too many more meetings, I will see to it that you each have more. My discretionary funds are limited, but they would be ample enough for that if there was a need."
"Discretionary funds?" Rob asked, not sure he could believe what he was hearing. "Just how long have you been a lawyer?"
Walter lightly stomped one hoof. "This is a business meeting, Mr. Hallman. It pays to be professional. As to my years of experience, I will have been with my firm for thirty years as of October 04."
"That long?" CM asked in surprise. "You don't look that old."
"It's the Change," Walter replied with a faint degree of aplomb. "It is much harder to tell people's ages this way. In time we'll adapt and learn to read the clues. Are you ready to present tomorrow?"
"Yes," Rob replied. He patted his suitcase. "Power Point okay?"
"So the meeting's tomorrow." CM shifted her carry-on from one shoulder to the other. "Are there any plans for tonight?"
Walter set his briefcase down and pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. He pulled a pair of small cards from this and handed them one to each. "Once Carter joins us we will ride to our hotel. I am attending to transportation. I have a business dinner to attend this evening with several lobbyists. I would have preferred dining with you myself but that will not be possible. I'm afraid you are on your own for dinner. I do ask that you avoid alcohol. Our meeting with the Congressman should remain out of the news, but it might not if any of you shows up hung over."
Rob grimaced then nodded as he studied the card. An itinerary was listed on the one side while the other was blank. "Yeah, I learned my lesson about alcohol. You don't have to worry about that."
"I won't touch anything either." CM pocketed her card and then waved over their heads. They all turned and saw a black wolf shouldering his way through the crowd clustered beneath the departures board. He grinned, tail wagging back and forth as he approached. "Hey Carter!" the bear called as soon as he was close enough. CM gave him a hug around one arm. "Good to see you again!"
"And you too, CM!" He then hugged the skunk, "And you too, Rob! Been way too long." With the bull he shook hands. "And it's good to see you too, Walter. What did you think of those numbers we sent?"
"I'm not a statistician, Mr. Ryan," Walter said rather gruffly. "I'm looking forward to your presentation tomorrow. Hopefully then I will better understand the numbers."
Carter's tail fell, but still he nodded and managed to smile. "So, what are we doing now?"
"Do any of you have any other luggage?" But they each had everything, and so Walter said, "Then follow me." Walter turned down the concourse toward the parking lots and shuttle buses. Once four sets of furry paws and hooves clattered along the faux marble floor, Walter continued, "We're going to our hotel. You will be on your own for dinner. I recommend you order room service so I can charge it to my business account. If you want to go out to eat you may do so, but you will have to pay for it." He handed Carter a third card. "That's the schedule for tomorrow. Bring it with you to the meeting. We'll be disposing of them afterward."
Carter grinned and pocketed the card. "Wow. I feel all cloak and dagger."
Walter grunted and swung his head to the side. The horns whipped over the wolf's head. "This is not a game, Mr. Ryan. This is professional. Please remember that."
The wolf nodded, "Of course. I know how to be professional." CM and Rob glanced at each other and stifled their mirth.
Transportation proved to be a non-descript blue minivan with Virginia plates. Walter indicated that they should all ride in the back, and once he opened the driver-side door they could all see why. There was only one seat in the front with the steering column only slightly off center. The bull didn't wait for them to ask before explaining, "I cannot drive a normal car with my horns. I'd have to keep the window rolled down and that is not always a convenient option."
"How'd you get this done? I've never seen a car like this before!" Carter exclaimed while Rob and CM climbed into the back. It was all bench seating which in general was easier for the often oddly shaped Changed.
"I contracted the conversion work to a Changed auto mechanic for vehicles in every area I'm likely to be. The work will prove pivotal in the future as more and more Changed need such modifications. You three are fortunate that you have not needed any such modifications. Others less economically stable than myself have had to make do with very unsafe workarounds." Walter set his briefcase next to his seat and then climbed into the car, turning his head as he did to slide the long horns smoothly inside. His chair had a little hole along the left side to allow his tail to comfortably slide into place as well.
Rob pulled the seat belt over his shoulders and grimaced as his tail bunched uncomfortably behind him. "How do you explain this to still human clients?"
Walter shut his door and grunted. "I don't. All non Changed clients ride with me in a limousine if we ever need to travel together. Since this meeting is to be as low-profile as possible, we take the minivan. I hope that doesn't bother you."
"Not at all," CM replied as she settled into place. "What do other drivers think when they see you in the middle?"
"I do get a few queer stares," Walter admitted wearily. "But nothing more than that." After Carter had buckled up, the long-horn bull started the van and carefully eased out of the short-term parking lot. An Easy-Pass system officiated his parking bill and they soon merged onto the highway.
The bright Summer afternoon greeted them as they drove through the crowded highways of Northern Virginia. Though a Saturday, the highways were still jammed with cars going in either direction. CM was reminded why she never wanted to move back to the area with each passing minute. They would have talked, but as soon as they reached the highway, Walter brought up a TV feed of C-SPAN on a dashboard LCD. Some congressman droned about a bill to increase spending on some pet project, but the language and details were so esoteric, CM couldn't make heads or tails of what the pet project actually was. Carter and Rob looked no better off.
They were on the road for no more than twenty minutes before Walter turned off the highway and led them to a nice but unremarkable Holiday Inn. He drove up to front and pulled to a stop in front of the portico. "Your rooms are reserved under my name. Don't use the phones unless it's an emergency. And remember no alcohol tonight. I'll be by at seven o'clock tomorrow morning to take us into DC. Make sure that you're ready to leave by then."
Rob was the first to climb out of the van. "See you at seven then!" The skunk hefted his bag over his shoulder and waited by the curb for the bear and wolf to climb out. CM grunted in irritation at Carter who held the door for her, but the wolf just wagged his tail.
After Carter shut the door, Walter nodded to them and drove off around the back-side of the hotel. CM drummed her claws over her suitcase and sighed. "I guess we should get our rooms and get this stuff put away."
"What then?" Carter asked.
"Dinner I suppose. It's already past five," Rob replied.
A slight grin played at the edge of CM's broad muzzle. "I could call Jan and Dennis. They live in this area. We could get together with them."
"Walter said no phone calls," Carter pointed out.
"I've got a cell phone," CM replied. "I'm sure Walter only meant for us not to use the hotel's phones because those calls will show up on the bill."
"I'm up to it," Rob replied. His long tail danced behind his head and a smile crawled up his cheeks. "They probably know some good places to eat around here. I'm really not up for whatever room service this place has to offer."
Carter gazed at the hotel and began to nod. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Who are Jan and Dennis?"
"A couple Changed we know," CM replied. "Good folks about our age too." CM dug into her suitcase and took her rather large cellphone from its pocket. "So if there's no objection?"
"Not from me," Carter said with a tail wag. "I'm always happy to meet more Changed!"
CM tapped the number with the tips of her claws then set the headset to her left ear and waited while it rang. Three rings and a familiar grunting voice replied with far too much aplomb, "Hello there, sweet lady!"
The bear's eyes narrowed and her lips drew back revealing a few fangs, an effect completely lost on the boar for whom it was meant. "Jan," she said in a warning tone, "how many times have I told you not to answer my number like that?"
"Ya, I'll remember one day," he continued in his usual affable manner. The boar was charming in an irritating sort of way. "How are you, CM? Did you make it in safe?"
"We all did. Rob and I both, with another Changed. Wondering if you and Dennis were free for dinner."
"Dennis should be back soon," the boar replied in a more even tone of voice. "We were going to ride if we didn't hear from you, but we'd rather be with friends if friends are around! Where are you at? We can come pick you up."
An image of three Changed all stacked on the back of Jan's bike clutching each other for dear life flashed through CM's mind. She chuckled and then told the boar the hotel's address. The boar wrote it down and hummed to himself for a few seconds. "Probably be an hour before we get there. I know a few good restaraunts out that way. See you in a bit!"
CM hung up the phone and shook her head. "About an hour, Jan said."
"An hour?" Rob replied. "Good. Maybe I can get some of these knots out of my tail by then!" The wolf and bear laughed. Together, the three went into the hotel lobby to pick up their room keys.
The trio of Changed took advantage of their hour to settle into the rooms and relax. Walter had reserved adjacent rooms with connecting privacy doors each with a TV and single Queen size bed. Rob's room was in the middle which suited CM just fine. She left her privacy door shut while Rob and Carter talked. CM could hear the skunk chuff angrily as he brushed out the snags in his tail like promised.
The she-bear laid out on the bed and breathed heavily, paws resting on her already growing belly. The long plane flight and the ride here had all been without food, something her body craved ravenously. She contemplated ordering some room service while they waited for Jan and Dennis. They would undoubtedly have to wait at whatever restaraunt they stopped at. But she knew that it would probably take just as long for the room service to arrive. She was better off just raiding a vending machine. She'd seen one in the hall on the way to their third floor rooms.
But first she had to decide what to wear. It was easily fifteen degrees warmer here in Northern Virginia than it had been down in Blacksburg. And it was ten times as humid! The first thing she'd done after coming into the room was crank the AC to the max. She was comfortable now, but would she be once they left with Jan and Dennis?
There wasn't anyway around it. She was going to have to dress lightly. That meant no bra and there was a good chance she'd be showing some cleavage. The thought didn't appeal to the male portion of her brain which always lurked in the background when she was in female mode. She thought about briefly making herself think as a guy again, but there didn't seem much point. CM was female for the duration of this trip. But she was a female off limits. The others knew that, even if Jan liked to tease her from time to time. She'd have to trust the boar to behave himself.
"Easier said than done," she muttered ruefully.
Nevertheless, CM pushed herself off the bed and stripped her clothes off. Once naked apart from the panties she glanced a look at her massive ursine shape in the mirror. An unconscious twitch in her jowls brought a beastly smile to her face. CM turned away and grunted at herself, turning all her efforts to digging into her suitcase for something light to wear. She didn't have to worry about revealing too much because she would never buy such clothes, but still, she'd be around other Changed all evening long and all of them guys. It couldn't help but make her predominant female side anxious.
She selected a V-neck blue T-shirt and jeans that fit her comfortably but not too tight even with her expanding waistline. CM took a moment to examine herself in the mirror, turning this way and that to make sure not too much was showing. Jan would undoubtedly stare until she smacked his snout with the back of her paw, but it was at least modest. There may be no bra, but everything that was visible, and that but a crescent lune, was covered in thick brown fur anyhow.
Once satisfied, CM raided the vending machine and then joined Rob and Carter in the middle room. She carried with her a dozen items with an even mix between chips, candy bars, and fruit-based snakcs. Rob sat on the bed combing his tail which stretched out beside him. Carter reclined in the chair by the window with his tail sticking out the front and long gangly legs propped on the little side table. His lupine paws massaged the air as if he were still walking and pressing into the ground.
"Hey, CM, woah! Nice shirt!" Carter grinned and then lowered his ears in a canine blush. "Sorry about that. Just didn't expect you to... you know."
"It's too hot here for anything else," CM replied. She unceremoniously sat down on the floor and proceeded to tear into her packages. Rob glanced once, nodded having seen it all and more before, and then returned to working knots out of his tail.
"A little hungry?"
"A little," CM replied after scarfing the first candy bar in one bite. It was some chocolate thing; she hadn't really cared. She wasn't going to taste any of them for more than a second anyway. "Stare at my chest again and I might eat you."
Carter laughed and quickly returned to talking about the vagaries of polling data and the crazy stuff his company did when there wasn't an election season going on. Rob interjected frequently with little tidbits about stupid users who shouldn't be allowed within ten feet of a computer. CM listened as she devoured her light snack. Oh Jan and Dennis had better get there soon and get her some real food!
About an hour later as promised, CM's cellphone rang. The she-bear had long since finished her snacks and was leaning against the wall, legs splayed in front of her, the girth of her belly weighing down into her lap. Carter and Rob stopped talking while CM fished the cellphone off the floor and answered it. "Hello?"
"Ah, CM!" Jan's voice called back with a grunt of delight. "We're parked outside your hotel right now."
"We're on our way down." She hung up the phone and heaved herself to her broad feet. The claws dug into the carpet, but didn't catch.
"Just a second," Carter said as he leapt to his paws. "I think I took my shoes off. Can't remember." He bent down and fiddled at his paws, and before their eyes a shoe materialized. "Oh, guess I didn't. Nevermind." The wolf slipped the sneaker back over his four-toed paw and it disappeared again. Rob twitched a little as he watched, his long tail tip flicking back and forth in surprise, but after nearly seven years, CM was used to what the Changed now called the 'Shoe-Field'.
They grabbed wallet, locked their rooms, and headed back into the later afternoon heat. They didn't see any other hotel guests, but they did pass one of the cleaning ladies who gave them a brief stare, then snapped her head back up in surprise. All three tightened but the lady turned away again shaking her head and muttering something to herself.
"Okay, what was that?" Rob asked once they were in the stairwell.
"I don't know," CM admitted. "It's like she saw something that wasn't there."
"Saw us perhaps?" Carter suggested.
"That's never happened before," the she-bear growled under her breath. The stairwell resounded with the heavy tred of their paws. "And even if she did, it was only out of the corner of her eye."
"I'll mention it on the Network when we get back. See if anybody else has seen something like that." Rob kept one hand on the guiderail as he made his way down. His snout lifted thoughtfully. "Maybe she's been taking some drugs that messed with her head. We don't know anything for sure. I'm not going to leap to conclusions."
"Good point," Carter nodded and wagged his tail. "Still, it'd be pretty cool if others could see us as we are."
"No it wouldn't," CM muttered, feeling the weight of her breasts with each bouncing step.
None of them said anything more until they were on the bottom floor and walking out the lobby. All three of them began to pant a little as they stared into the afternoon sun. To their left, two familiar voices began shouting.
Turning out of the sun, they beheld a pair of Changed standing in front of an old blue van. The larger of the two was a bristly boar dressed in white tank-top and shorts. His wispy tail flapped on either side of hearty legs ending in hooves with cloves as big as a man's fist. Beside him was a hedgehog dressed in much the same attire but far shorter and plumper. Long spines poked along his upper arms, out from the back of his shirt, and over the top of the back.
"Jan, Dennis!" CM cried as she picked up her pace. Carter and Rob were at her heels as the five Changed all gathered in the lee of the van. CM patted them both on their arms, being careful not to touch Dennis's spines, and rumbled like a pleased bear. "Good to see you both again."
Jan's little eyes glanced up and down CM's attire and his snout broke into a mirthful grin. "Always good to see more of each other."
Dennis rolled his eyes, Rob chuckled under his breath, Carter guffawed, and CM did her best to ignore the remark. "Jan, Dennis, this is Carter Ryan," CM indicated the black-furred wolf who had managed to regain his composure. "Carter, this is Jan Krazinski, and Dennis Meale, friends of ours who live up this way."
Jan extended his two-fingered hand and grinned. "Pleased to meet you, Carter. Are you from Blacksburg, too?"
"Buffalo," Ryan replied as they shook hands. "Down here on business."
Dennis shook his hand next. The hedgehog's pudgy face wrinkled a little. "Changed business I suppose?"
"Yeah, with Walt--- ooof!" Carter's reply was cut short when Rob elbowed him in the side.
"Sorry guys, we're not supposed to talk about it," the skunk cut in.
CM patted her belly. "So where are we going to eat? I'm starving!"
Jan's snout wrinkled into a grin. "There's a great place few miles down the road. They know how to serve food." The way Jan said the word 'food' implied that he didn't think most restaraunts knew what it was. "Trust me, you won't be hungry for long!" They all voiced their approval and followed Jan around the back of the van to the passenger-side sliding door while Dennis climbed into the driver's seat. Jan jumped into the passenger seat and stuck his head and right arm out, pumping his oddly-shaped fist up and down, "Here come the Changed! Watch out food!"
Carter leaned over and whispered into Rob's ear, "He isn't insane is he?"
The skunk laughed.
Despite the fact that Dennis was a generally quiet hedgehog, he drove with an intensity that surprised Rob. The skunk well remembered CM's warnings the first time they drove out to the Cascade Trail to take their hike and bath. Without doctors who could see them as they really were they needed to avoid accidents with ruthless discipline. Yet here the hedgehog flew down the main roads passing cars on both the left and the right and taking turns fast enough that Rob's tail swung with the turn each time. He didn't even seem worried that a cop might pull them over!
CM noticed it too, because she kept interupting Jan and Carter to yell at the hedgehog. Dennis would nod, slow down for a few minutes, and then slowly build up speed again.
They left the highway after a few minutes and followed a two-lane road through rolling green hills filled with horse farms. The road dipped and wove, not nearly as badly as the roads around Blacksburg, but bad enough that the skunk was beginning to sympathize with the bear whose long claws nearly tore chucnks out of her seat. After turning onto an even smaller road, Rob finally decided to add his voice. "Hey, Dennis, can you slow it down? I think I'm going to be sick back here."
"Seriously?" the hedgehog asked. "Fine I'll slow down." And slow down he did. The van no longer lurched about as if it were going to flip over.
"I'm amazed you haven't gotten yourselves killed driving like that!" CM scolded in her Momma Bear voice.
Jan grinned as he leaned to one side in his seat to talk with them. "Ya, I thought the same too. But Dennis drove... what cars were those again?"
"Stock cars," the hedgehog replied. "Only stopped because I can't do it anymore with these spines." He turned back onto a larger road and merged in with the traffic. Apartment buildings and shopping centres loomed in either direction. "Parents said I was going to get killed too. Haven't been in an accident yet."
"Let's not tempt fate," Rob said, eyeing CM. The she bear looked back at him with a 'thank you' in her dark brown eyes. "So do you race bikes too?"
"Not so much," Dennis replied. "You aren't as stable on a bike, so the risk of injury's greater. Bikes are for relaxing. Cars are for racing."
Jan snorted and grinned. "Bikes are for riding and conquering the road."
"You a Jack Kerouac fan?" Carter asked.
The boar blinked in confusion but the smile remained. "If he liked bikes then ya!"
The wolf's tail tried to wag where it was pinned between his back and the seat. "He pracitically invented the romanticism of the road, so yeah, you'd be a fan."
They followed this road past the first set of shopping centers, through a lightly forested area, and then past another set of horse farms. As they neared another highway, Dennis turned the van off at a restaraunt and store which clearly catered to truckers. All the gas pumps came equiped with extra large canopies and most of them were diesel. The parking spaces were long enough for trailers, and a bright neon sign reading 'Open 24 Hours' flashed in red, white, and blue.
"A truck stop?" CM asked incredulously as Dennis parked the van.
Jan nodded and emitted a very pig-like squeal from the back of his throat as he climbed out of the van. "Best food in the area. Run by a Polish couple so they have real food. Oh, they serve American food too for everybody else!"
"Showing a little national pride there are we?" Rob chided as he jumped to the asphalt. It felt hot and grimy beneath his paw pads, but the thrill of working out the kinks in his tail more than made up for the discomfort.
But Jan was already on his way, hooves clopping the asphalt with Dennis and CM right behind him. Carter slammed the sliding door and shrugged his shoulders. "Never eaten at a truck stop before. These guys seem pretty cool though. CM likes them."
Rob's eyes narorwed thoughtfully, but he did not share any of those thoughts even with himself. Together, the five of them crossed the parking lot where already sat several trucks, some of them with engines still running, to the front door of the old-fashioned but moderately clean restaraunt.
The interior looked like any truck stop seen in the movies, long chrome-plated bar along the back behind which pots of coffee brewed and waitresses liesurely made their way back and forth. Stools ranged across the bar and booths along the front windows. Curtains in a red, white and blue checkerboard pattern gave the place an air of Americana, though with the addition of the red and white Polish flag hanging from the backwall beside the clock and menu, it seemed as if the couple were trying a little too hard to fit in.
The scent of oil and grease pervaded the air, but overwhelming it was the delicious aroma of cooked meats, potatoes, eggs, fries, and other things they couldn't name but knew they'd love to eat in addition to the faint crispness of fresh vegetables and fruits. A few truckers sat at the bar and with a pair of them arose the pungent aroma of cigarettes. They talked quietly to themselves or ate their food. Talk radio blathered from somewhere behind the double swinging doors to the kitchen. A bell on the door tinkled at their entrance.
Everyone turned their heads to look at them then returned to their food. Jan made a big show of inhaling with his porcine snout, and then drummed his hands on his pants. CM bumped him from behind as Rob and Carter slipped inside. The boar took a step forward, hooves clattering on the linolieum.
From a door behind the bar an elderly lady with pronounced nose and peppered grey hair held back in a bun emerged. She was dressed in a white apron with red blouse on underneath. Her face lit up when she saw Jan and Dennis. They widened when she took in Rob and the others. "Oh, you brought friends this time! Do they like to ride too?"
Jan grinned, "Not yet," he then clasped the bruin on the shoulder, "but this one sh... he likes to ride too. Just no bike yet!"
CM twitched at the near slip but kept a smile on her muzzle.
"Well, just place your order right here, and then find any seat you want." The woman spoke with a stronger Polish accent than Jan did but Rob didn't have any trouble following her. She looked at the boar and hedgehog. "Will you want your usual?"
"Ya," Jan replied. "Been looking forward to it!"
"I will too," Dennis said with a half laugh.
The menu hung on the wall next to the Polish flag. Rob studied it for a while, noting that most of the items were as promised typical American cuisine that one could find at any mid-end restaurant. Then there was the list of pierogies, haluskis, and other Polish items that fleshed out the remainder of the menu. The skunk decided to take a chance and ordered one of the pierogies. Carter selected a half-pound cheeseburger. CM was typical CM.
"How big are your portions?" the bear asked, her claws gently tapping the top of her belly.
The woman smiled sweetly and replied, "We have full portions for dinner menu, but smaller lunch portions if you are trying to lose weight."
All five Changed chuckled to one degree or another. "Oh no," CM replied, a little embarrassment slipping into her voice. "No, that's not it. I'm just very, very hungry right now. Hmmm, let's try two of your fried fish dinners, the chicken strips dinner, a side of onion rings and one of applesauce. Oh, what fresh fruit do you have?"
CM caught the attention of nearly everybody in the restaurant with that order. The lady glanced at Jan as if making sure this was okay. The boar nodded and so she wrote it down. "Okay, sir, we will have that ready in a few minutes. Just find a seat anywhere, ya."
Jan guffawed as he picked a booth at the end of the restaraunt that had wraparound seating. Dennis sat on one end, so Carter and Rob slid in the other side. Jan gestured for CM to follow, but she replied, "I'd rather sit on the end if you don't mind. You know."
The boar nodded and managed not to make the sexist comment everyone expected him to. Still, Rob couldn't help but note that Jan had managed to sit right next to the bear. The boar looked very pleased with himself. He leaned back and polished one tusk with a thick hoof-like finger. "See, I told you this place was good."
"We haven't eaten yet, Jan!" Carter said as he shifted in his seat to get his tail comfortable. Rob had managed to pull his tail between his legs. Somewhat uncomfortable, but he was used to it by now.
"Ah, but this place is good and private," Dennis said in a hushed voice. "We've come here before to meet with other Changed. Those truckers will be gone in ten to fifteen minutes, and even if they do listen to us, they won't have a clue what we're saying."
CM frowned, rested her hearty forearms on the table edge, then finally nodded. "Good enough. So, we know you've found more Changed up here. How is the NoVa community coming?"
"There's about seven of us now," Dennis replied in a whisper. "And that's including Sandrick who doesn't come to our meetings. I've heard through the grapevine that there are a few more working in DC but for security reasons can't reveal themselves."
"Only seven?" Rob asked, eyes narrowing. "As big as this area is?"
"That's the problem, ya," Jan said laconically. "Lots of people, but too big for us to see. We find more after August."
"That's something," CM murmured as she shifted about in her seat, "we're going to have to talk about. August is almost on us. In another month we're going to have a lot more Changed."
"You want us to come down to Blacksburg with the other Changed in VA to meet sometime in the next month?" Dennis asked
"Change day falls on a Sunday this year," the bear replied, counting off the dates on her claws. "Rob and I were thinking of booking a restaurant the weekend before and inviting everyone down who could make it. Drive in and out the same day if ya'll had to."
The boar grinned to the bear on his right. He turned a bit in his seat and said, "Dennis and I can stay in a hotel so we can give you more practice riding!"
CM lowered her eyes at that, and tightened her paws into makeshift fists. "That's up to you. Not everyone can afford it."
"So," Dennis asked, looking over at Carter and Rob, "How many more Changed can we expect?"
Before the skunk could stop him, Carter blurted, "At least twice as many. And that's just in new Changed." The skunk wanted to say something, but shook his head and let the wolf blather on. "There's all the Changed that don't know about the Network out there now. With more Changed period, we're probably going to see the Network population go up to at least ten thousand in a year. At least that's what our models say."
"Ten thousand!" Dennis gasped. "It's hard to believe that there are so many."
"Ya!" Jan agreed, though his sanguine amusement kept the shock from his voice. "But at least we'll still be the old timers in at the very beginning!"
"There is that," Rob conceded. "Although those few at the very beginning would still say were all a bunch of newbies."
The boar waved one hoof-like hand. "In another five years we'll be the old timers. You have to think long term."
"Well," CM grumbled, her eyes staring at a well-laden waitress, "my thoughts are particularly short term right now."
Jan erupted with a squealing laugh.
Dinner proved delicious but not exquisite. CM enjoyed her fish, chicken, and sides, and also enjoyed the fact that her bill wasn't too exorbitant. Jan took care of the tip for everyone and the five of them went back to the van after saying goodbye to their server. Jan and she talked briefly about Jan's mother and how she was doing but the boar quickly followed them out.
"What's wrong with your mother?" CM asked her friend after he clopped across the asphalt.
Jan frowned, an expression that wrinkled his snout in an unfamiliar way. "It's cancer. Had it off and on for the last four years. Mom's doing okay for now, but we have to keep close watch on her. I visit them on Sundays." A faint smile crept back into his countenance. "If things turn for the worse, I'll tell her just what her son is."
"A pig?" Dennis asked without the slightest trace of humor.
"A boar," Jan replied with pride. "Far better than a pig."
"I'll keep her in my prayers," CM offered and the boar's smile widened.
"I have said many novenas for her, but thank you!" To the bear's surprise, Jan gave her a sudden hug and then a slap on the back. "That's what friends are for, ya!" He jumped into the passenger seat and his good humor appeared to fully return. "So can we take you anywhere else? Still plenty of daylight left."
It was past seven already, but they had at least another hour of sunlight left before twilight would bring its darkening touch. Carter yawned and climbed into the van, "We should probably get back. We've got an early day tomorrow."
CM noted out of the corner of her eye the skunk glancing between her and the boar. "Carter's right," Rob said. "We should be getting back to the hotel. It's been a long and tiring day."
"We could drop you two off," Jan suggested mildly as Dennis climbed in beside him. The hedgehog's spines thrummed as he settled into the driver's seat. The seats were cloth and looked recently upholstered but still had a few holes where the hedgehog's spines got the better of the weave. The boar looked at the bear and grinned. "Want to come over and practice riding? You have to keep practicing to ride. You'll be happy you did when you get your own bike."
CM didn't doubt it, and the thought of taking a little time to ride on their bikes along the lightly travelled roads feeling the wind through her fur appealed greatly to her. It would be nice to see where Jan and Dennis lived too. Every time they'd gotten together, it was Jan and Dennis who rode down to Blacksburg and not the other way around.
"That sounds lovely," she said with a warm smile. She then felt an undo measure of scrutiny coming from the skunk and realized just how utterly feminine her intonation had been. Steeling herself, the bear took a breath and shook her head. "But Carter and Rob are right. We've an early morning ahead of us and it has been a long day. Thank you for the offer though. I'll make it up to you next time."
Jan laughed and settled in his seat. "Sure thing. Dennis, to the Hollywood Inn! Warp Speed!"
"Could we try the speed limit instead?" CM suggested with a laugh hidden behind her fangs.
"Ya, we could give that a try too. Dennis, to the Hollywood Inn! Speed Limit!" Dennis turned the engine over and gave the boar a long stare which coming from a pudgy hedgehog face looked fairly ridiculous. Jan's chest heaved with his mirth and he shook his snout back and forth. "Nope, doesn't quite have the same ring to it."
They returned safe and sound to the hotel. Dennis drove slower this time though every time they went around a curve they could feel the hedgehog pushing down on the accelerator. But his dirving skills were just as good as he'd claimed. No matter how he pushed the van, they never felt even the slightest suggestion of danger.
Before dropping them off, Jan extracted a promise from CM to come visit and ride together before the August Change made it more difficult. The she-bear didn't make it too hard, merely worrying about her work schedule and the cost of gas. Rob was surprised she didn't mention Leslie. The skunk knew the bear's wife a little. Leslie was such a private person it was hard to get to know her. But it had never been hard to see that CM and she loved each other, even if Leslie had no idea what CM really was. That CM didn't mention her in her short litany of excuses set the gears in the skunk's mind turning.
After Dennis and Jan drove off, the three Changed marched back into the hotel air conditioning and sighed in relief. Carter's ears and tail drooped as he said, "I'm going to go crash. See you both tomorrow."
"Good Night, Carter," CM said with a weay smile.
The wolf shut his door quietly as the skunk and bear continued to theirs. Rob clicked his tongue against his short, sharp teeth and said, "Hey, CM, you have a minute?"
"Sure, what is it?"
"We need to talk. Let's go into your room so we don't disturb Carter."
CM nodded, dark eyes perplexed but as calm as ever. The air inside her room was arctic cold. Rob drew his tail over his chest in surprise. "Sorry about that," CM apologized in a huff. "I left the AC on full blast. It's actually a little chilly for me too now."
Rob settled onto the bed and sighed loudly while the bear fiddled with the AC controls. "Okay, Chris, this is getting a little weird for me."
The bear turned at her real name and he could see a surprised look in her eyes. She sat down in the chair and rested her paws on her knees. The chair was wide enough and strong enough that it didn't creak from her weight. She self-consciously lowered her snout and almost hid the exposed curves of her breasts. "What is?"
The skunk knew mincing words with the she-bear was a pointless exercise. CM was very good at parsing language to suit her arguments. "You and Jan. The first time I saw you together you nearly tore his head off for making a sexist advance at you. Now you either ignore his constant flirting or you get all girly. It's really starting to scare me, Chris. You didn't even mention you were worried about Leslie's schedule when he asked you to come back in a few weeks!"
CM bristled and her jowls drew back. She heaved, her breath still reeking of onions and fish. "I am not flirting with Jan!"
"But you sat next to him. You've seen him how many times this year already, four, five? Normally when you're around other Changed you act like a Momma Bear. But you aren't doing that with Jan. Good grief, Chris!"
"I get together with Jan and Dennis," she growled. "And I've been consciously trying not to be a Momma Bear."
"Well you're succeeding, cause you're acting like a young woman falling in love instead!"
CM growled again, but this time kept her tongue behind her teeth. She glared down at her legs and paws, digging her claws through the thick, brown fur. "I'm not in love with him. He's just a friend. I love Leslie."
"When was the last time you and Leslie did anything together?"
"I..." CM shook her head and flecked her lips at the skunk. "Stop trying to fix me, Rob! My relationship with my wife is complicated! I love her, but I have to hide this from her. If she knew that I was female... No, I can't let that happen."
"You have to tell her sometime. I told Audrey, and we aren't even married yet."
"You're lucky!" CM snarled. "You're still male!"
"That could change in month like it did for you."
"I'm exceptional! There aren't many of us who've changed genders as well as species! You don't understand."
Rob took a deep breath and let the bear get her rage back under control. If she got any angrier she'd tear gouges into the chair arms with her claws, or worse. The skunk lowered his snout and ran one paw through his thick tail. "You cannot be yourself with Leslie, Chris. But you can with Jan. And right now you're female. I'm worried you might do something you'd regret because your body so badly wants..."
A dangerous glint came to the bear's eye. "Sex?"
Rob knew better than to go there. "Companionship. Whatever. Jan isn't your answer."
"He's a friend. That's all. I'm not going to betray Leslie." Every word came with a fresh growl.
Rob did his best to smile as he stood. "Good. I trust you. Now stick with it."
CM appeared to seeth for a few moments. As the skunk rose to leave, she composed herself and stood. "I'd like to be alone now. Thank you for telling me what you think, Rob. Get a good night sleep and I'll see you tomorrow morning."
The skunk nodded and left the bear alone. He'd said what he had to. He swung his tail free and quietly shut the door behind him.
July 19, 2003
I'm tired of being female. I've been female for almost three years now. Leslie doesn't know because I don't know what it would do to our marriage. Only the other Changed know and that is what makes things hard. They see me and treat me like a woman, and half the time I act like a woman and don't think anything of it! How can I lead a double life like this? How can I keep doing it? It just hurts too much! <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Rob came by this evening and accussed me of flirting with Jan. He said it looked like I was falling in love with him! I'm not! Jan is... Jan! While I confess he's not as irritating as I thought at first, and the manner in which he displays his masculinity is far more appealing to me as a woman than I would have ever expected, there is someone else I'd rather be with. Oh Leslie, if only I could be with you, all of this would go away! If only I could be male again! If only you were Changed and could understand! <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">I don't think Jan does more than tease me for the sake of teasing me. When I first met him I think he was still being a pig. But since then, he seems more intent on getting me into bikes than he does into my pants. I think he understands my struggles and while perhaps he isn't helping as much as he could, he isn't making things harder. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">But am I? That's what Rob seems to think. I wanted to smack his snout with the back of my paw for hearing him suggest such things. But is he right? It's taken me a full hour of Discovery Channel just to calm down enough to write in this journal. And I still don't know for sure how I feel. I was alone for six years with this Change. Now that I can finally be with others, am I trying for things I shouldn't have? If not for Leslie, would I have given in and dated Jan? The thought sends shivers through my fur! <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">I hope and pray that in a few weeks I'll be male again and all of this can be straightened out. Tomorrow we go before Congressman Sandrick and tell him our projections for the Changed population. If we're right, things are going to get very interesting in a few years. Somehow, I'm far more confidant about how the world will accept the Changes than how I will deal with my own. What if I stay a female bear? At some point I will stop Changing. What will I do then? I just don't know. For now I will sleep on it and hope for the best. <p style="text-indent: 2em; line-height:1.2;">Lord, give me the wisdom I need to do Your will and to follow in Your ways. In nomine Patri, et Filii, et Spiritu Sancti. Amen. </div>
By the time Walter the longhorn bull came to gather them, all three were dressed and ready. They carried their luggage down to the hotel lobby a full five minutes before Walter descended the stairs. The bull dressed as was his custom in a black suit that blended with his splotchy hide at the neck, with a patterned red tie and ironic bovine tie tac. He noted their attire and nodded gratefully before checking out of the hotel.
Both Rob and Carter were also dressed in black suits which blended with their fur. Apart from Carter's white shirt and golden eyes, the wolf nearly blended into his outfit. Even his tail wagging between his coattails struck the bear as unremarkable. Rob's monochromatic tail was more noticeable, the base pushing aside his coattails as it curled upwards in a characteristic question mark. But despite the incongruity of animals in business attire, they each managed a look of dignity that surpassed most of the other hotel patrons they saw walking in and out the entrance.
CM, due to her physique, wore a plus-size woman's business jacket and blouse with matching navy blue slacks. Both blouse and jacket were modest and sufficiently androgynous that she garnered no unusual looks from the other hotel guests, but she still felt conspicuously feminine. Before last night she hadn't thought much on her business attire, but now she knew that all the other Changed would even more consciously think of her as female. There was nothing to be done for the moment but to accept it and all that went with it.
Besides, in a month she hoped she'd be male again and could put this chapter behind her.
Walter Lundh nodded to each of them as they gathered by the lobby doors. "Do you each have everything?" At their positive reply, his bovine snout parted in the faintest of smiles. "Good. Follow me and we can be on our way."
He led them into the parking lot and right back to the minivan. They stowed their luggage in the back and climbed inside. Though it was still early in the morning, already the air was too humid for CM's taste. Even Carter began panting as the van got underway. Walter cranked the AC and pulled back onto the highway. "It won't take us long to get into DC, so I'm going to briefly go over our schedule. Congressman Sandrick has arranged a breakfast for us in his office. After we've had a quick bite to eat, you will begin your presentations. CM, you will go first since your presentation has the punchline. Mr. Ryan, you'll go next so you can better explain the methodology, and Mr. Hallman you'll be last to describe the resources used. Once all are done we are at the Congressman's pleasure to further explain anything he wants to know. We'll then have lunch and afterward I'll drive you back to Dulles to catch your return flights. Are there any questions?"
"No," Rob replied. "It's better to get in and out."
"How bad will traffic be?" Carter asked. The wolf glanced at the cars flanking them on either side of the highway. While not nearly as many as there would be on a weekday, traffic was far heavier than anything they were familiar with seeing.
"This should be the worst we see," Walter replied with a bovine grunt. "In about ten minutes you'll see the Pentagon, and in another ten we'll be at the Rayburn building. If you have any last minute preparations to make, now is the time."
CM reached into her satchel and pulled out the hard copies of her slides. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rob and Carter do the same. With a growling chuckle, she began rehearsing her lines.
It took a full half-hour before they parked in the underground parking lot beneath the Rayburn building. Even for a Sunday the lot was two-thirds full. After parking, Lundh made a brief call while Rob, Carter, and CM put their presentation materials back in their briefcases and climbed out. The air was still humid, but the darkness brought a relief from the Summer heat already building outside.
The longhorn hung up and gestured toward the far end of the lot. "We'll be met by the elevators in a few minutes. Do you each have everything you need?" They nodded and then so did he. "Good. I'm told Number Two is already here so we can begin as soon as we finish eating."
"Number Two?" Carter asked, his tail lowering between his legs. "You mean the second guy to Change?"
"Yes," Walter said with an almost perceptible roll of his glassy eyes. "Of necessity Mr. De Smet has been a leader in the Changed Community. For the sake of his privacy, he prefers to be known as Number Two now."
Together the four of them made their way through the crowded parking lot. Most of the cars parked within were luxury sedans though there were a few sporting vehicles and a handful of trucks too. As they reached the line of elevators at the far end one of them opened and out stepped a raccoon in a business suit. His masked face brightened with a show of fangs when he saw them approach.
He extended a black-furred hand toward the bull. "It's good to see you again, Mr. Lundh."
The longhorn shook his hand and nodded. "And you, Mr. Norton. This is Robert Hallman, Carter Ryan, and Christopher Mattiaz. Gentlemen, this is Mr. Evan Norton, Congressman Sandrick's Internet Coordinator." There was no hint of irony in the bulls's voice as he pronounced the raccoon's title.
Evan shook their paws one at a time, green eyes noting CM a little more closely before turning back to the elevator. It looked large enough to host a small convention. "All is waiting for you. Just follow me and we'll be there in moments. Do you have your passes?"
Walter handed each of them a lobbyist pass which they clipped to their lapels as they stepped onto the elevator. Their nostrils flared as they took in each other's scents in so close proximity. The elevator hummed softly as they went up two levels. Evan tapped his claws together nervously and CM realized that he was just as young as they were. "Have you worked long for the Congressman?" the shebear asked.
"Only since last December," Evan replied. "The Congressman needed somebody who could be a connection to the Changed community without drawing too much notice. Nobody pays attention to internet staffers yet, so here I am." His smile was half-hearted, but he didn't sound disappointed with his lot in life. CM nodded and settled in her corner of the elevator for a few seconds more.
The Rayburn office building was one of many office buildings in DC for Congressmen. And with Congress still in session, even on a Sunday the halls were busy with Representatives, their aides, and lobbyists scurrying back and forth to curry favor on this or that bill. Evan led them from the elevator down one hall all the while assuring them that their passage would not be noticed. Not that they needed assuring; everyone else they saw was still human and far too wrapped up in their own affair to care about them or the internet staffer to a sophomore congressman.
Congressman Sandrick's office had a front desk where a receptionist could sit and handle all comers but there was no one there now. A sign sat on the desk apologizing to any lobbyist that the Congressman couldn't see them today. Evan ignored this and headed straight for the door to the back office where the real work was done. Walter followed him and with the opening of the door two new animal scents greeted them as did the delectable aroma of fresh fruits and cooked meats.
Standing behind a solid oak desk was a broad badger with dark eyes. Black paws with long claws were folded over his middle. Sitting in a well cushioned chair was a tall red fox in a tan suit. Both smiled as they entered.
The congressman smiled and waved one of those long-clawed paws at the array of chairs set around his desk. "I'm Congressman Phillip Sandrick of South Carolina. I know Walter Lundh has been having you do work for the Changed Community and you're here today to report on your findings. You can speak freely in this office. I've cleared my schedule for the day and my chief of staff is off on a fact finding errand that will keep him from disturbing us. The rest of my staff have the day off. We have as long as we need. Please refresh yourselves and enjoy a bit of breakfast. I'd like to get to know ya'll a little before I take your advice."
"Thank you," CM said, her eyes going to the platters of fresh fruit, jerky, and sausage beneath the windows on the left wall. A projector had been set up facing the right wall and Evan immediately sat down at a nearby computer and began clicking through windows.
The badger gestured to the fox who rose from his seat and wagged his tail once. "This is Mr. Reynaldo De Smet, more commonly known as Number Two. He's been regaling me with the history of the early Changed community for an hour now, and while very interesting, I'm going to have to strangle him if he tells the tale of foiling the traditional English fox hunt one more time."
The fox laughed and waved one hand. "You are too kind, Phillip." The badger rolled his eyes while the fox turned to the rest. "As my easily irritated friend has said, my name is Reynaldo De Smet. My mother was French, my father Belgian, and they must have known I'd go into acting when they named me."
"I've never heard of you," Carter said.
The fox nodded. "As it should be. After I became this back in 1988, my career took a decided turn to the local markets. And since we are still too few in number to risk having too many in prominent positions, I am known in the Changed community as Number Two."
"Walter said you wanted to be called that for your privacy," Rob pointed out. "I thought actors wanted fame."
Reynaldo shook his head and sat back down. "Very true! But for now, I need the anonymity to maintain my standing as a local artist only. Once I become known by my real name as a Changed artist, I won't be able to do just local venues anymore. But that is enough of me. I understand it is you three who've achieved something for the Changed community. Tell us of yourselves. I can talk forever if I must."
Phillip nodded from behind his desk. "I'll vouch for that. You should be in Congress, De Smet. You make more sense than a lot of the clowns I deal with and still manage to irritate."
"It is a gift," Reynaldo agreed with a playful wink.
CM and Rob laughed while Carter filled his plate with jerky and sausage. CM selected several choice fruits and berries in addition to a two plates of jerky and sausage while Rob chose a similar proportion only much smaller. Walter only chose fruits. Together the four sat down and one by one introduced themselves. Reynaldo asked questions here and there about their lives while Sandrick kept his focus on their technical qualifications. Nevertheless, by the time they'd finished eating everyone in the room felt comfortable with each other and the mood had lightened considerably.
"Well, if everyone is settled," Walter Lundh suggested, "perhaps we can begin the presentations?"
"Of course," Sandrick gestured at the raccoon and Evan came to where the rest sat.
The raccoon folded his paws as he looked over the trio. "I'm prepared for Power Point Presentations if you brought them. I'll clean any residual data from the computer once were done." They each reached into their briefcases and handed him disks which he took and loaded one by one into his computer. "Give me one minute and I'll have them up. Who is presenting first?"
"I am," the shebear said as she rose to her heavy paws. She pulled her business suit taut and glanced one last time over her preperation materials. CM set them back in her chair and then walked over to the projector screen, laser pointer in paw.
"I'll get the blinds," Reynaldo said. The fox jumped from his seat and drew the blinds shut. He sat back down with the quiet grace of a professional actor.
CM felt all eyes turn to her. Sandrick leaned back in his wide chair, lightly durmming the tips of his claws against his knees. Lundh gazed placidly at her as any bull in a field might. Rob and Carter watched with polite encouragement writ in their beastly eyes. Reynaldo couldn't keep the twitch out of his tail as it dangled through the gap in his chair. Only Evan wasn't looking at her, and that was only because he was busy loading her presentation.
And then with one final click the raccoon scooted back in his seat and the projector splashed the first slide on the screen. "There we go," Evan said. "Just say 'Next' when you want me to advance the slides."
CM nodded and half turned between her audience and the screen. Her first slide was merely a title and her name. "Last year Walter Lundh contracted us to examine the issue of the Changed population and how it was growing. We were to develop a statistical and demographic model on where the Changed are, how many of us there are, and how many more of us there will be in August. Over the last ten months we've been collecting data from the Changed network, collating it, and running various models to determine what is the most statistically likely scenarios. Next."
The slide changed to an outline for the three presentations. It wasn't in the same order that Walter requested, but CM decided to gloss over that. "In my presentation I'll tell you what numbers we've found and what they mean. Carter will tell you what the demographics look like and where we can expect new Changed to crop up, and also, where we think all the missing Changed can be found. Rob will go over the technical systems we've developed in order to store and process the model data. Next."
She turned on the laser pointer and circled the bar graph showing. The horizontal axis had a list of years, while the vertical axis had population numbers. Except for the first few years listed, each block was larger than the one before it. "Here's where things stand now if you plot the Changed population in the Network versus the year that they Changed. This includes those who've died after joining the network." Which, she was grateful to learn, was only a handful so far. She circled the pointer over the very small block on the year 1988. "This block has only you in it, Reynaldo." The fox's ears flicked back and his muzzle tightened in a vulpine grin.
"But what is immediately obvious from these numbers is that every August the Changed population increases exponentially."
Sandrick shook his head. "I'm a Congressman, CM. I can't even balance a budget let alone do advanced math. What do you mean 'exponential'?"
CM rolled the pointer around in her heavy paw as she tried to think of a way to explain it that would make sense. "Every August, the total population of Changed is multiplied by a fixed amount. We're growing and we're going to grow faster every year. This we could see just from the numbers of Changed we know about. There are more in the Network who Changed last year than in the previous ten. What we had to do was determine what that fixed multiplier was."
The badger grimaced but began to nod. "I think I understand what you're saying. So do you have a number?"
CM nodded. "Next." The slide changed by adding some captions to the graph. "With a little over 86 percent certainty, the Changed population doubles every August 17th. Which means, that there should be ten times as many Changed worldwide than what we currently have in the network. And also, it means that after August 2007, there will be a million Changed worldwide. In 2017, a billion Changed. And after 2020, everyone will be Changed."
For several seconds, no one said anything while those staggering numbers sank in.
At last Reynaldo let out a short yipping laugh. "Well, we knew we were growing fast, but... are you sure about this? We've only three thousand in the network. How do you know we're doubling like this?"
CM rumbled and gestured with a claw at the black wolf. "Carter's demographics analysis of the Changed population. That and my analysis on the trends in the last few years showing when Changed are discovered and added to the Network. That said, we have only 86 percent certainty about these results. We could be overestimating or underestimating actual growth, but we're almost one hundred percent certain that the growth is exponential. Which means unless the Change stops, in the next thirteen to thirty years everyone on Earth will be Changed."
"How did you arrive at that date range?" Sandrick asked as he scratched behind one circular ear.
CM waved her paws at the projector. "The next slide has the tolerance figures we've put on the exponential growth. It's what gave us the range. Evan?" The raccoon nodded and tapped a key. The screen changed to show a table of figures. CM drew her laser pointer along the top row. "Here we have the lowest and highest possible exponent bases that fit the models. At the low end, we have the population increasing by a little over 1.75 each August. At that rate, it would be 2027 to 2029 before all the world was Changed, barring major shifts in global population trends. Carter will talk about those details. At the high end the rate is just shy of 2.25, which means that by 2015 everyone would be Changed.
"Now both of these are extreme cases and represent the tolerance for our analysis. But the probability that the real rate is one or the other is very slim. The most likely situation is that the rate is closer to 2 if not 2 precisely."
Reynaldo tapped one claw against the side of his snout. "It didn't look like the Changed were doubling each year in the graph you just showed us. Some of them looked like they'd more than doubled. Could this rate be changing each year too?"
CM nodded and tapped her claws together. She rather liked the fox. He put things in plain language yet seemed to understand and anticipate her explanations. It dawned on her as she studied him that he was the first Changed she'd met that had been Changed longer than she had. A smile teased the edges of her heavy jowls. She'd have to talk with him afterward if possible. But first, she said, "We considered that and it still may be the case. With Congressman Sandrick's assistance we'll be able to keep analysing the Changed population over the next few years. That will help us refine our conclusions. But those variances you've noted can also be explained by demographics. We think that is much more likely given the intelligent nature of the Change and how it manifests in the world."
Sandrick frowned, glancing briefly at Walter Lundh who watched the presentations with bovine placidity. The badger turned his gaze back on the bear. "Could you explain that comment please? What do you mean by the intelligent nature of the Change?"
"Well, I'll be spoiling one of Carter's points but I don't think he'll mind too much."
The wolf laughed and wagged his tail. "You're the one who put a name to it, CM. Go for it."
CM nodded her thanks and turned back to the congressman. "There are a couple of reasons. First, the reality distortion field, or RDF, as it's called on the Network. A radical change as we've undergone would surely be noticed unless there was some aspect to it that made it imperceptible to others. But it isn't fully. I've had a friend swear they were pushing against thin air when they touched my head. Our Change is more than just illusion, it is real. An the altering of perception is constrained to a fixed area about ourselves. Which is why we leave hoof prints or paw prints when we walk. Separating one part of our body from another doesn't change the effect either, which is why shed fur just looks like human hair to others. So in that sense, the Change operates under rules, rules that we can discover through scientific inquiry and also through deductive and historical science."
CM gestured to Carter and continued. "Secondly, the pattern in which the Change spreads, so far as we've been able to determine, is centred around Chicago and expanding in what appears at first blush to be a fractal. This is very incomplete because we've used a lot of conjecture to fill in the gaps of Changed we know based on our population model who aren't in the Network. But, in the last few months we've tested this model based on the newest Changed we've discovered. We've had to make a few tweaks, but with a little over fifty percent accuracy, the Changed originated where we predicted them too.
"And that leads to the third reason I state that the Change is an intelligent phenomenon. With as little data as we have, we've been able to construct models from which we can make predictions and have such confidence in them. Our model's predictive capability is slightly better than flipping a coin, and it's leagues better than any odds you'll get at a casino. And our estimates of exponential growth indicate the most likely base is an integer! Nature, undirected, doesn't typically operate with integers. That speaks strongly, from a philosphical perspective, of intelligent direction in the course of the Change."
Reynaldo waved his paws in the air and laughed. "It sounds to me like you might be making the ROB argument. That the Change is proof of the existence of the divine."
"ROB?" Rob asked with an amused twitch of his long tail.
"Random Omnipotent Being," Walter grunted. "It's a term being tossed about in the forums by those who believe the Change is of supernatural origin but are unwilling to ascribe it to a particular religion." From the tone of the bull's voice, CM could tell he didn't think too highly of the concept or those pandering it.
"Ah, I must have missed those threads," Rob said softly.
CM rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically. "Apart from being an oxymoron, an omnipotent being cannot be random because random implies that there is more than one and an omnipotent being by the very quality of omnipotence is singular, I'm not actually proposing the ROB theory. I happen to be Catholic and believe very strongly in the existence of the divine as the source of ultimate creation. I can recite the creed if you want. What I'm saying is that I think the Change is intelligent in the sense that it is the consequence of intelligent action and design. It need not be an act of God per se because nature as I said does not usually rely on integral rates for anything. That typifies more the act of a limited intelligence and suggests to me that while I cannot tell you how it is being affected, the Change likely has its source in natural intelligence rather than supernatural."
Sandrick shook his head and started laughing. "You use a lot of big words and I confess I'm not following all of it. But are you saying this is the work of aliens?"
Carter let out a single bark in amusement, Rob covered his snout to stiffle his laugh, and Evan had to wrap his muzzle in the crook of an elbow to keep himself from breaking down. Even Reynaldo's tail and whiskers trembled in mirth. Only Walter was unmoved by the suggestion.
"I don't know," CM confessed. "I can't speak to the particular mechanism of the Change. Only that it seems to me to have as its origin a natural intelligence. Now, I also believe that, like all of nature, it is used by God to further His will, and that for some reason He wants me to be female for a time. I do not understand it but I accept it as best I can. But I also believe He gave us the capacity to understand the Change. The fact that we've been able to learn so much with such a small population sample tells us something that I don't think we should ignore."
Reynaldo waved one paw. "I'm satisfied with that answer. I'm a little unnerved by your suggestion, but since we don't know either how it works, I don't see how we can say no to it. I'd love to see you write your theory up and post it to the forums. It's certainly worth exploring some. But that's beside the point. I've lived with being a fox for a very long time. You say you can make some predictions. What are we looking at come this August?"
The she-bear felt a bit embarassed that she allowed her temptation to erudition to wander so freely in front of these important men. She did have a presentation to finish. Turning back to the projector, she circled the left column. "Here are the years, and here are the population projections by exponential base. If we are doubling, then we can expect an additional 32,896 Changed on August 17. With that many more, we anticipate an even higher percentage of the Changed population will find the Network, both for new Changed and those who have believed themselves to be alone."
"It might be time," Sandrick mused, "to consider changing our recruitment tactics." The badger stroked the fur under his snout with one claw. "Any Changed that watches C-SPAN will eventually see me and figure out they aren't alone. But that isn't going to be a lot. I've kept a low-profile since I Changed. Maybe I should seek more publicity?"
Walter shook his head ever so slightly. Still, the tips of his horns swept out large deadly arcs in the air. "The more publicity any of us seeks, the greater risk we expose the Changed community. Our numbers are too few at this time to risk exposure."
"We're going to be exposed at some point," Rob said. The skunk laconically shrugged his shoulders. "What difference does it make now or later?"
"The infrastructure for Changed is still in its infancy," Lundh said, jabbing his hoof-like hand into the air. "It needs more time and more Changed to mature. I'm looking at your numbers, and if you're right about the doubling, then we have a few years to go before I'm willing to even consider risking more publicity."
Sandrick lowered his paw and nodded. "You're right, Walter. There is a lot of work still to be done, and much of it will not be done here today." His dark eyes focussed on the bear and his voice took on a note of authority. This was a man who was used to people doing what he told them. "What more do you have to say in your presentation?"
CM folded her paws over her growing belly. "Mostly various projections and the data to back up our claims."
"No more bombs to be dropped?"
"No, sir. From here on out we explain the data behind the bombs we've dropped."
Sandrick grinned, exposing the many pearly, white spears the Change had given him. "Then let us hear the data."
CM nodded and looked to the raccoon. "Next slide please."
"And that's all I have," Rob said. The skunk shurgged his shoulders, long tail dancing behind him and occasionally getting in the way of the projector.
Phillip Sandrick stood and spread his paws on the table before him. His long claws tapped the wood with a pleasing rattle. "Thank you gentleman. Seeing as it is nearly noon, I suggest a short break. I'd like to share some of my thoughts with you before you depart, but as I'm starving, you'll forgive me if I make you wait a few minutes more. I won't be interfering with your travel plans will I?"
"No," Walter replied. "I've arranged for seats on later flights if necessary, but we still have a few hours yet before they're needed."
"Good." The badger patted his paws once on the desk and waltzed around to snag something to eat. "Let's take as least fifteen minutes to relax and enjoy some food."
Nobody else needed convincing. Evan bolted from his seat by the computer and was rifling his paws through the crackers and meats. Rob and Carter flanked him. Walter kept to the other side where the vegetables were. Only CM, who'd been snaking from the buffet table ever since finishing her presentation, didn't join in the rush for delectables. She caught the fox's eyes as he returned to his seat with a plate full of cold cuts.
A little nervously, CM asked, "Number Two, do you mind talking privately for a moment? There's some things I'd like to ask you."
Reynaldo's ears lifted and his jowls brimmed with good humour. "Of course not. Let's go back to Sandrick's reception room. That's probably pretty private today."
None of the other Changed objected and so the bear and fox stepped into the reception room. Along the wall beneath the light of the windows was a row of large old-fashioned chairs. CM gingerly sat in one, and though the wood groaned, it held her weight. Reynaldo draped his tail over the decorative arm and sat cross-legged next to her.
"So, what's on your mind, CM? Curious to know what things were like in the beginning?"
"A little," CM admitted. "I know it must have been lonely. I was. I guess I just wanted to finally talk to somebody who's been this way longer than I have. You're the first I've ever met."
Reynaldo nibbled on a bit of shredded ham. "And judging by the numbers you've crunched, there aren't too many of us that have been Changed longer than you. Ninety-six, right? So I've been this way only eight years longer than you. The numbers become less important with time. Eight years. Ten years. Twenty years. After you've lived them, they all blend together."
"But still," CM said softly, her eyes straying hungrily to the fox's plate, "You have been Changed longer than I have. I know that I'm always going to be one of the oldest Changed, if not the oldest, in any gathering of Changed. Has it always been that way with you?"
Reynaldo yipped a laugh and shook his head. "Actually, no. The very first Changed I met was Number One. She's a musician, and I an actor. It turns out her band was booked for the same theatre that I was working in at the time between roles. This was back in late ninety-three. So for five years I thought I was the only one. Seeing Cass there," his golden eyes took on a faraway look and the slit pupils narrowed as a flash of sunlight poured through the windows, "was like falling in love for the first time all over again."
"The two of you are together?"
Reynaldo shook his head. "No, no. She married before the Change to her drummer, and they have three kids already. He's a good man and all three are good kids. Shortly after we met, she told him about the Change which he took in good stride. He hasn't Changed yet himself, but her youngest boy became a bright looking fox last August. Of course, he's seventeen now, but I still remember him when he was little trying to sing along with his Mom; he could hit the high notes just like she did!"
CM felt herself smiling and delighting in the little aside about the boy. It was the Momma Bear in her again, but she indulged it for now. "That's so sweet. So how long was it before you met the others in Chicago? It seems there's a lot of older Changed there."
"We met Red, Number Three I mean, a year later, and the rest of the early crowd by 2000. Nobody else from that time period has shown up in or near Chicago. Did you model predict there would be more there?"
"A few yes, but most are probably like me and appeared in isolation as new seeds. I've already had two people in my current hometown Change in the last year. I guess... how did you handle it?"
"Being alone? Probably the same way you did," Reynaldo admitted. He shoved the last of the ham on his tongue and swallowed it with only a few quick bites. "Once we started finding each other, we started having weekly meetings to help each other out. With five to seven of us it was easy. Once we had twenty, we had to move to monthly meetings, and then it was the mailing list. We had somebody hack the list in ninety-seven so that got shut down. Then, some tech savvy mouse put together the website and security measures and we've bene online ever since. When Walter joined us a few years back he got the money together to buy the current servers and to wrap up the domain names for any sites we might want to use in the future."
"And your role in the Network?"
"Spokesman, old fart, wily fox, something like that," Reynaldo laughed and held out the plate. "Here, you finish the rest before you start drooling on it."
CM took the plate in one paw and lowered her owls. "Oh, sorry!"
"Don't worry about it. I've seen worse. A friend of mine got Changed into a St. Bernard. He carries handkerchiefs with him just so the humans don't notice. And heaven forbid he shake!"
CM laughed as she picked through the meats. "I've been a Rottweiler twice now, so I know what it's like being a dog and contending with drool."
"Now that's one thing I don't think I could have managed," Reynaldo said as he gestured at the bear. "Changing shape again and again. And gender too. I see you're married. Wife or husband?"
"Wife," CM said a little more quickly than she would have liked. "She's still human and doesn't know. We married while I was male. I'd hoped marriage would keep me male, but that hasn't happened."
"I'm sorry. You just didn't say anything about her, so I didn't know what to assume."
CM swallowed a bit of turkey and nodded. "Fair enough. It has not been easy on me. Before I met any other Changed, being female was just something I knew about myself. Now others are treating me like a woman and it's getting harder to supress."
"Who's been treating you like a woman?"
"None of you, but all Changed who see me before they find out do. There's one guy who knows but slips up frequently. I think he does it on purpose."
Reynaldo shook his head. "What an ass."
"Boar actually," CM replied with a laugh threatening at the back of her throat. "He's a good man, just aggravating at times."
Reynaldo blinked and ran one paw over his forehead. "Does it bother you when he does it? I know one gender Changed in the Chicago area that gets absolutely livid when she's treated like a woman."
"It depends," CM replied. "If I wasn't married or if I knew I'd be stuck as a female I might feel differently about it. But since I keep on Changing, until I stop I don't know what to do!"
Reynaldo nodded and scratched himself behind one ear. "I've seen some of those guides you've been writing up on the Network. Keep doing that. It's been very helpful to the others."
"Thank you, I will."
"And since," the fox smiled that impish smile which made his golden eyes gleam, "you Changed back in ninety-six, that makes you eligible for the First Ten club. I think we need a better name, but it's something Cass and I've been tossing back and forth since the Change started exploding like it has in the last few years."
The shebear picked the last bit of salami from the plate and downed it. "What is it?"
"Just something we've been talking about on the side. Just for us who Changed in the first ten years. There were never many of us, so we all have that alone story in common. With the way things are going, most Changed won't remember what it's like to be alone. Those of us who were will always feel a little out of place, even once the whole world Changes. We don't know what we're going to do, maybe meet once every few years like a reunion to gripe about all the youngins, but if you're interested I'll add you to the roster."
CM smiled and set the plate aside. "Thank you, Reynaldo. I really appreciate that. I would like to be part of it. I don't know how much I can contribute."
"Just do what you're doing. Let old timers like Cass, Red, and I worry about this for now."
"Okay," CM agreed and leaned back a bit. The chair groaned under the bear's weight. "So are you in anything currently?"
Reynaldo's eyes looked skyward. "We're doing Lerner and Lowe's Camelot this Season. I'm playing Lancelot of all people. After that I just have minor roles. If you could get to Chicago I could get you tickets."
"Unless Walter wants to foot the bill, I'm not going anywhere!"
"I'll see if I can send you a video then," Reynaldo stood up and patted the bear on the shoulder. "Shall we go back in? Or was there something else."
CM shook her head and stood much to the chair's relief. "No. I didn't even know what I wanted to talk about. I just wanted to talk to somebody who'd been this way longer than me for once."
Reynaldo's grin was true and his grip on the bear's shoulder was firm. "You're doing just fine, CM. And thank you for all you're doing for us. Just knowing what's happening is a great blessing."
"That it is," CM replied as they made their way to Sandrick's office again.
"First," Congressman Sandrick said once they were all seated and paying attention to the badger, "I want to commend you all on your work. You've done a hard but necessary task for the Changed community, and as one of its spokesman, I thank you. Your numbers will help us plan for the coming years. In the next five years I think we can expect vast changes as we prepare for the day when it will be impossible to keep the Change a secret. And for that reason I believe you three should continue your work."
The badger gestured with one paw at the projector which now lay dormant. "While you won't need to come give me presentations like this again, and it is probably safer if you do not, I would like quarterly reports on the Changed population and what your models show. We can quibble about the format of the reports later, but I do want updated numbers and graphs like you showed me today. Send whatever you have to Walter and he'll make sure it comes to me.
"And," he said, holding out one paw to forestall any objections or questions, "because I'm asking you to do this on a schedule, and because of the good work you've already done, I'm going to find a way to pay you for your services. Walter and I will work out the legal aspects, but you will be reimbursed for your efforts to date and any work you do for us in the future." Carter wagged his tail and panted in delight, Rob pumped his fist, and CM rumbled deep in her chest. Finally, some money!
"Now I want you to realize something. The Changed organization can control things by and large for now because we are small and unnoticed. If your numbers are correct, then this is going to spiral out of our control very quickly. People on the ground are going to have ideas that we would never think of that will make our lives easier. Already people are doing what they must to adjust to this life. Although I didn't have to resew my clothes, I've heard that there are dozens of guides already posted on the forums. That's just the beginning."
Rob shook his head and asked, "So what are you getting at?"
Sandrick frowned at the skunk. "What I'm getting at is we have some of the most powerful members of the Changed community in this room right now, and I'm telling you that we aren't all that powerful. I'm only in my second term as a Congressman; I have to spend most of my time making sure I stay in Congress. Walter has his own clients, and Number Two only has power because of his position in the community. We are very much finite. Do not expect that because you are involved at this level that you will have much say in how the Changed community develops. You won't. But neither will we."
"I'm just happy to be getting paid for this," Rob replied with a shrug of his shoulders. "I've got enough on my plate as it is without worrying about impacting the community."
"Good. That makes you ten times a better person than half the people who come into my office," Sandrick replied with a low growl that was not directed at the skunk. "And to be frank, it is refreshing talking to you because you aren't here with an agenda. I wish I could meet with you more often. But there's nothing to be done about that." He spread his paws on his desk and frowned, his muzzle scrunching and whiskers twitching on either jowl. "Are there any questions?"
Carter lifted his paw. His golden eyes kept sliding away from the badger's resolute stare. "You said that you didn't have the power to direct the Changed community. What can you do? You talk about planning, but what are we going to be planning?"
"We need to spend the next few years building up the Network. There's going to be a lot of people joining who are going to need help adjusting. Right now the network is in a support and grow phase. That is the best we can do. From a high-level we can discuss ideas on ways to support the needs of the community, but the actual implementation of those ideas will need to be done by those on the ground. For instance, Walter has done work with Changed who've been placed in mental institutions. Right now he has various connections scouring medical notices to find patients who meet the profile. When he finds them, he goes to interview them and help them adjust and if possible, take legal action to have them released. To date he's found... fourteen?"
"Fifteen," Walter supplied.
"Fifteen Changed in institutions. We're probably missing a large number of them, but until we have more people who can help, that's the best we can do. Walter, in addition to coordinating your efforts, is also spearheading a team to develop better approaches to this problem. They expect to be very busy after August 17th. Things like this we can plan for. But there's a lot we'll miss."
"That's all well and good," Reynaldo interjected, "but everyone else needs to know that we are doing something. That will give them the confidence to do what they need to do."
"And we are, and we will." Sandrick nodded to the fox. "You and everyone else need to get the word out that we are not going to let any more Change days pass without some plan to handle them."
"Even if our plans are just to do what we've always done and keep an eye out for anybody getting sick?"
"Yes, that's right."
The fox nodded and relaxed in his chair. "I'll do my part then."
Sandrick nodded and then turned to the skunk and bear. "I understand you two have appointed yourselves the leaders of the Changed living in the Virginias and neighbor states to the south. Do you have plans for the Change Day?"
Rob nodded. "Much the same. We've met with all the Changed we know in the area and have given them as much guidance as we can. Neither of us has a lot of experience finding new Changed. I Changed last year, and I'm the only person CM's ever talked through it."
"That's more than many receive. But as long as you have a plan you should be in good shape. Are there any other questions?" When nobody lifted a paw, the congressman grinned, showing a wide array of white fangs behind his lips. "Then it was a great pleasure meeting you all. I wish you the best of luck next month and in the years to come. I'll work out the details on what I want from you with Walter. Evan will show you out."
They all said their thanks to the badger who was polite, but from the way his eyes twitched to a stack of papers on his desk made it clear that he had other things he really needed to be getting to. The raccoon ushered them all back into the hallway and toward the elevators, including the fox. Reynaldo smiled at all the women he passed in a way that CM felt sure was risking a lawsuit in their litigation-happy society.
The elevator was even more cramped than before but they made it to the parking garage safely. Evan thanked them all and wished he could spend more time with them, but he had other duties for the badger that couldn't wait. They said their goodbyes and the raccoon disappeared back into the elevator.
Reynaldo stretched out his arms and yawned like a canine with wide jaws and long curled tongue. "Well, that was very interesting. We knew we were growing a lot but... marvellous work you three."
"Thanks," Rob replied. "I'm just glad to be getting paid for it."
The fox smiled and folded his arms behind his back. "I may see you again at another of these meetings or at a Changed gathering of some sort. If so, I'll make sure to have at least a meal with you. I wish I could promise more, but fame is a pain like that. Even only Changed fame."
"Hey, maybe we'll be famous for this work," Carter replied with an eager puppy-dog look to his face.
"Nobody cares about the number crunchers," Rob pointed out.
"We do have a flight to catch," Walter pointed out in a breathy grumble.
Wolf and skunk frowned, while CM extended her paw to the fox. "It was a great pleasure meeting you, Number Two. I hope our paths cross again."
Reynaldo smiled at her and he let his paw be engulfed in her own. "And I you. I hope your next Change makes you a man again." CM smiled a little more but said nothing.
Rob and Carter said their goodbyes to the fox too. Walter nodded to him and they briefly shook paws. Then they went their separate ways, each wondering if they would ever see each other again.
When they finally reached the van, all their minds a flutter with thoughts of money, impressing the congressman, and meeting one of the oldest of the Changed, the taciturn bull surprised them all when he turned and his muzzle broke into a firm, proud grin. "You three did a very good job in there. Thank you." And like that, the moment of praise passed and they were on their way back to the airport with yet one more thing to marvel at.
Rob and CM said goodbye to Carter and Walter at Dulles. The bull dropped them off, thanked them for a job well done and wished them a safe flight home. He helped them unload their luggage, assured them he would contact them soon about the reports Congressman Sandrick wanted, and then drove back to the highway.
The wolf's plane was the first to depart and the trio stayed together until the boarding call. Carter waved and wagged his tail as he followed the other passengers. They stayed to watch his plane taxi and then made their way to their terminal.
Dulles was too crowded an airport to let the skunk and bear talk freely so they chatted about movies and school while waiting for their afternoon flight. Though the Roanoke airport was only a regional airport, the flight was still fully booked. Again, Walter had managed to secure an empty seat next to CM, and apparently with enough money he was able to keep it empty. Rob had to sit next to a guy covered in tattoos with whom they chatted amiably during the hour flight. He ran a tattoo parlor in Roanoke and was looking at expanding his business. Both CM and Rob wondered for how much longer he'd be able to stay in business with the Change giving everyone thick coats of fur.
The flight was otherwise uneventful and they landed with ease and a few minutes ahead of schedule. They wished the tattoist the best of luck and made their way back to the skunk's car. CM sighed as they walked through the much cooler air of the Appalachians. Her muzzle broke into a predatory grin as she surveyed the green-capped mountains surrounding them. She loved it here; so much more beautiful than the DC area.
"Well, another hour's drive and we'll be home," Rob said as he stuffed his luggage in the trunk. "It feels like this visit took a week."
CM nodded and settled her bags next to the skunk's and then shut the trunk. "We've done a lot. It'll be good to get home."
"Audrey promised to cook up some steaks this evening. Care to join us? Both you and Leslie are welcome to come."
CM's stomach grumbled and she nodded. "Thank you. I'll ask Leslie when I see her."
Together they climbed in the car and Rob drove back down interstate 81 toward Blacksburg. The stereo serenaded them with something by Mythus. It wasn't until they passed the Ironto exit that either of them said anything. "You know," Rob said as the tip of his tail flicked behind his head, "Things are really going to be strange these next few years."
"Things have already been strange for me these last seven years," CM pointed out, though there was a laugh in her voice. "They will certainly be interesting. I wonder if anyone else we know will Change next month."
"I hope so. I hope it's Audrey. And Leslie. Be good for both of us."
CM grunted, paws resting in her lap. "As long as I'm male again."
"You will. Come on, CM, it'll happen."
"We'll see. It's only four weeks away."
The skunk nodded, sighed, and fell silent again. The roads through Blacksburg were lightly travelled in Summer and so once they left the highway it took very little time before they pulled into the Chasewood Downs parking lot. CM climbed out of the car and smiled to Rob. "I'll give you a call if we plan to come over."
"Great! Hope to hear from ya!"
CM collected her things and watched Rob drive off. She sighed and turned her eyes to her apartment. Leslie's car was parked in its usual spot but CM couldn't see her through the window. She took one step forward and stopped when she heard the familiar click of claws on asphalt. But they weren't her claws.
Turning to her left, CM smiled brightly as she saw Leslie walking their little Cairn Terrier around the complex. They were just coming back. Leslie had on a bright blue western-style shirt tucked neatly into her pants. She wore the short boots they'd bought her a few years back. Crystal, their dog, carried a tennis ball in her mouth, but she dropped it when she saw CM.
"Hey sweetheart!" CM shouted, waving one paw, "I'm home!" And silently, under her breath, CM repeated the mantra to put her mind back into the male husband mode.
Leslie followed Crystal with a bright gleam in her face. "Hey," she said with quiet love as she neared. "How was the trip?"
Chris wrapped his wife in bear arms and pulled her close. "Good, but not as good as this." Together, husband and wife laughed and hugged while their elderly dog sniffed about their feet. The bear sighed, the weight on his heart lifting even as the words drifted off his tongue. "I love you."
"And I love you too. Now let's get your things inside." Chris the shebear hefted his luggage and followed his unsuspecting but wonderful wife back home.