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