April 6, 147 AL
Cascadia, Dome St. Helens
INT. COYOTE BAR & GRILL - EARLY MORNING
“I’ll have another.” Fiera Romanov motioned to the bat-eared bartender with the empty glass, sliding it down the dark mahogany counter. “In fact, make it a double this time.”
The bartender regarded the Amazon woman. She was just under two meters tall, with long hair the color of honey, with an imposing, yet beautiful physique. Her toned muscles were as impressive as her bustline, as well as the tolerance for strong drinks. “White Russian number five and six, coming right up.”
It was the nearest bar to Fiera’s discount Econolodge hotel, close to the Neorus Consulate. And at five in the morning--very early by the Zharusians 30-hour day she had yet to adapt to--there were only three other patrons. At the far end of the counter was a man with raccoon tail and ears, or “tags” as they called them here. His RIDE was nowhere in sight.
The other two--No, four, Fiera corrected herself--was a pair of rabbit Fusers engaged in a very heavy amount of petting in the booth scaled for their animal armor mecha. Even with the privacy field engaged it was patently obvious what they were building towards.
Still, after the events of Fiera’s last two days, it was barely worth noticing. She resisted the urge to lean back a little and see if she could balance the glass atop her breasts, or maybe stick it in her cleavage.
The bartender watched her sip her drink. “You know, I know a fresh crossride when I see one. But between the lack of tags, and the Wonder Woman cosplay, there’s a story I’d like to hear, if you don’t mind telling.”
Fiera considered the offer to let her vent a little. She decided it was a sincere one. She put her glass down on the counter. “You’re looking at the newest Amazon, a Citizen of Sturmhaven. Winner of a contest among ‘lesser’ men to join the best of the breast--best. Heh. Breast of the breast!” Fiera laughed humorlessly. “All I can say is, read the fine print. I thought I was going to be an honorary woman. Heh heh. No. And I’m a long way from home. Long way.”
The bartender regarded her with some sympathy...or as much as a man could, for a woman like her, dressed in a red bustier with a golden eagle breastplate on it. The costume was part of the prize. The contest had emulated the one in the centuries-old comics that had won the Amazon Diana the right to be Wonder Woman. It was complete with red leather high-heeled boots, tiara, brass bracers, and the most important thing, the golden lasso. Aside from being blonde, Fiera now fit the archetype perfectly.
But they hadn’t stopped at changing her body. No, they had to do some brainwashing besides. They had planted a vague, yet powerful feeling that she was proud to be a woman. Then there was the name, which her sponsor had given her. She could only think of herself as Fiera, proud Amazon--apparently with a high tolerance for booze. The Wonder Woman cosplay was just the icing on the cake.
Her old name? She couldn’t remember it. The brainwashing had done its work. The Amazons had even “helpfully” disposed of all of her old ID, doing everything within their power to erase the old one, going so far as to notify the Neorus Consulate. She’d even been issued a new passport.
She took a long swallow. “This is Neorus vodka. Not fabbed. Tastes like home.”
Fiera shook her head. “No, I think I’ve had enough. I don’t want to smell too much like booze when the Neorus Consulate opens. Want to see what my legal options are. I figure I got two choices.”
She held up one finger. “First, put myself on ice and ship directly home. That would suck, since that would eat up half my Grand Tour.” She held up two fingers. “Second, wait it out here for three Zharus years and become a mmm--” there was that brainwashing kicking in. The thought of being a man just made her sick to her stomach. “My old self again. Pffft.”
“That sounds unnecessarily limiting.” The voice was the only other person at the bar. He had slid over a few stools and. He had a raccoon’s mask over his eyes in addition to the ears, wearing a black fedora and brown suede duster.
“Maybe, but right now it’s all I can think of.” He was kind of cute. Then again, she would have thought he was cute before winning the prize. She was just that sort of person.
“Why, thank you.”
“Wait, did I say that bit out loud?”
“What bit? I can see how you’re looking at me, Miss. It’s your body language. You’re--”
The sound from the two Fusers in the booth changed from heavy petting and moaning to a harsh, shocked screech. The bartender hit a button under the counter, shutting down the privacy field, rushing over to see what was happening.
The female rabbit Fuser’s metal skin was exposed, and she was melting. Her partner was holding her tight, confused and panicky. “My comm is down! Someone call an ambulance!”
Fiera’s suitor sighed. A tigress RIDE had just entered the bar, all by herself. And a brown fox RIDE with very large ears had come in from the bar’s employee area. Both had rather vacant expressions. The bartender was trying to access the comm in the countertop, then he was engulfed in the fox.
A veil of hardlight shimmered away from Fiera’s suitor, revealing a man who was as much raccoon as man. Hardlight lenses were embedded on the backs of his hands. “Well, I’m sorry it’s come to this, everyone.” He pointed at the bartender’s Fuser, then at the other rabbit. Their hardlight flickered out and they too started to melt, collapsing to the ground as they did.
She sprinted for the door, only for the tigress to block the way. Fiera turned to face the...whatever it was. “What the hell is going on here? What did you do to them?”
The raccoon removed his hat. “I’m sorry this turned out to be a really bad week for you. But don’t worry. You’ll be among friends.” He gestured at the tigress.
Fiera didn’t even have time to dodge. The Fuser took her in, then within seconds, darkness.
INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE BEDROOM - DAY
Consciousness returned piecemeal. Warmth coursed through Fiera’s body, accompanied by a slight electric hum from underneath her. It evoked a memory of snuggling down in the blankets while the long winter storms raged outside her childhood home on Neorus. The city of Novy Kyiv occupied some of the best climate on the planet, but growing seasons were short. The planet was in an Ice Age, after all. The sound of voices from beyond snuffed out the dream. She clawed her way to wakefulness.
“Just how many hours were on that poor tigress, Clayton?” The unfamiliar voice was feminine, but growly. “Two, three in realtime? You know what can happen with that kind of life experience disparity.”
The second voice was all too familiar, and on the defensive. “She was new off the lot, I know. But she was also the best I could find. I’ve done forced Integrations before, Ambri. I know the risks. We’ll mourn her if she’s gone. This one was particularly rough. Fresh crossride nannies in her system, plus the Fusers in the tigress. Probably why she ended up like she did.”
“You need to get out of the Snatchers, Clay.”
She heard a snort. “Nobody ever leaves the Snatchers, Ambrosia. I try and minimize the collateral damage. But I can’t control how an Integration goes.”
Fiera tensed at the sound of that voice. Ambrosia apparently noticed. “She’s waking up. You’d better leave, Clayton. I don’t want the first face she sees when she awakes to be yours. Unless you want it clawed off.”
“I hear ya. I’ll be catching up on the Carla’s continuity updates in the Green Room, anyway. I don’t like the way Tallyhawk’s been playing her while I was in Cascadia. She’s cliquish, but not that cliquish.”
“Have you watched everything yet? She also made a pass at Big Jim. Way off Script.”
“What...she...damn! That’s some Drama I just don’t need in her life. Well, I’m going to do some damage control then complain like hell to the Director. Good luck with our new kitty faun.”
Kitty what? Her limbs felt like distant provinces of some weak empire. But her energy levels kept rising. Her ears twitched towards the sound of pouring liquid.
“You need to replenish yourself, honey.” Ambrosia had a gentle, rumbly voice for a woman. An equally gentle arm went underneath her shoulders and lifted her up. “Here, drink. You’ll feel much better shortly, I promise. This is my special N00b Milk. Contains all the essential nutrients for newborn Integrates like yourself.”
She swore she could hear the zeroes. Obediently she drank. It was a hot, sweet, creamy liquid with a hint of chocolate. She grabbed hold of the mug and gulped it down. Full consciousness returned rapidly and she opened her eyes.
Shock number one. Looking right into the face of a busty brown bear wearing a dress and an apron.
Shock number two. Furry hands with little black stripes and retractile claws.
Shock number three. She was lifting off the bed like the gravity had been turned off.
Ambrosia pushed her back down. “Calm down, there. Get control of your lifters.”
“My lifters?” There was a buzzing sensation in her shoulders and hips. Her breasts were squashed as the bear-woman held her down against their force. “Ow!”
“Sorry, sorry! Take a deep breath, Miss Fiera. Deep breath. Calm down. I’m not trying to hurt you on purpose. You’d just hit the ceiling pretty hard. Shut your lifters down.”
“How?” Fiera exclaimed. She was still trying to zoom off the bed. “Who are you? Where am I?”
“Butt on the bed first, honey! Just calm yourself and they’ll click off. Fight-or-flight response. Literal flight, in our cases.”
Feira took deep, calming breaths. The buzzing in her body stopped. Her full weight was back on the bed.
The bear smiled, and it was somehow friendly. “There you go. Welcome to Hellir Enclave. We have cookies and souffle!”
“I’m sorry…did you just say ‘welcome to Hell?”
“Hellir. It’s an Icelandic word that means ‘cave’.”
Fiera was nonplussed. “Oh. Well. Then, let’s just start at the top again, here. Where am I, and more importantly, what am I?” She stared at her hands...or paws...or handpaws. Her breasts were semi-familiar at this point, now it was everything below the waist that drew her attention. Her lifting off the bed had pushed off the blanket. She was in the nude, which gave her a full view of the fur that appeared at her waistline, thickening into a tigerish pattern like her hands. Her feet were quite firmly feline paws. “Really, what am I? What did he do to me?”
“You’re an Integrate. This is going to take a while. So I suggest you settle down. If you’re hungry I’ll have someone bring in some more food. Also, I expect you to tell me more about yourself. Even trade, you see. This is your home for now, so we should get to know one another. I’m Ambrosia. Ambri for short.”
Sighing, Fiera pulled her knees up against her chest. “The Amazons took my old name. Can’t even remember it. I hate the one they gave me, but for now...Fiera. Fiera Romanov. I’m from Neorus...”
“A long way from home, then.”
“Yeah. Forty light-years and two years by starliner. Since I graduated college I’ve been doing the Grand Tour of the colonies. I was going to stop at Wednesday, Earth, and Eridani on the way back. I take it that’s not going to happen now, is it?” She gave her benefactor a skeptical look. “Your turn. What am I?”
Ambrosia took a deep breath. “Well, Fiera…”
It turned into a very long and complicated explanation. A tale of the invention of true AI, of war, and of accidental technological discoveries. She explained she was now a technorganic being, a fusion of two people. That Integrates were basically urban legends on Zharus, they kept themselves separate for vague reasons Ambrosia herself couldn’t detail very much. Hellir was Fiera’s home now. There were almost fifty other Integrates here and she’d soon get to know everyone. Integrates had perfect recall, after all.
Fiera felt more and more...detached as the explanation went on. It was sinking in. Her situation gone from the merely tolerable into a double-whammy. Not only was she a woman, but no longer human, either.
“Wait, hold on.” Fiera pointed at the floor. “Just so we’re clear, here. I can’t go home?”
A guilty swallow. “No. There are ways we have to pass the time. But, no. None of us really can.”
Fiera stared at her, then at herself. I’ve completely lost control of my life. I’ve completely lost control of being me. I’ve...oh God. There had been rumors about Zharus back home. She wasn’t sure she’d believed them. But the truth had turned out to be stranger than anything made up. “I’d like to really get a look at myself, if you don’t mind.”
The she-bear nodded. Fiera looked around the room. It resembled the studio apartment she’d rented for a month in NuJose. A large single room with the bed, couch, an easy chair, a dining table, a pair of dark wooden wardrobes instead of closets, and a preponderance of pink decor and cushions edged with lace. One wardrobe had a full-length mirror.
Okay, so. Walking tippy-toe. Gingerly she put her paws down on the carpeted floor. She had only barely gotten used to how her female body moved. This added a whole new layer of strangeness. The carpet felt odd under the pawpads. She flexed her toes, only for claws to emerge.
The woman in the mirror was at least somewhat familiar, from the waist up she was essentially the Amazon the Sturmhaven women had made her. Hair was still blonde and long. Tiger ears, orange fur on her back with tiger stripes. She was some kind of feline satyr.
“You’re an unusual Intie,” Ambrosia said. “I think you look stunning.”
“Not...really helping.” Fiera looked more closely at her face, then leaned in towards the mirror. There was a shallow metallic socket on her forehead, like a third eye. “What is that?”
“Your Data Interface Normalizer slot. Or just ‘DIN’. I need to get the Rod and make one for you. When you’re ready. Now, is there anything I can get you? Hungry? Souffles are my speciality.”
What do I need? Well, it’s not food! She growled. “What I really need is some kind of control over my life! Can you give me that? I don’t even have my old name! I can’t even remember it! The Amazons stuffed my brain full of...I don’t know what! I don’t know me anymore, okay? Who am I now?”
“For someone in your situation...I’m honestly not surprised you feel that way. Clayton told me the story he overheard at the bar. I thought the Sturmies had stopped doing that kind of crossride brainwashing when the War ended.”
Fiera smiled humorlessly. “When I refused to accept, they drugged me and tossed me in that chamber. Something about ‘Male Transgression Laws’. After they took me out, they welcomed me like I’d wanted this all along. I can’t even think about being a man without feeling a little sick.” She turned to her strange reflection, and felt a fierce unnatural pride about her new sex. The Amazons had insisted she’d actually wanted to be female her whole life, and had merely ensured she’d be happy with herself. What was that song they played during the contest? ‘I am Woman, hear me roar.’ Huh. I wonder if I can literally roar now.
“Now, if I understand you correctly, to keep your little secret you kidnap people and make them into one of you. So I think I have a right to be a little pissed off right now.” She growled and snarled through her words. “Damn you, I will escape at the first opportunity. I’m not Zharusian, so I don’t give a damn about your secrets!”
Ambrosia was unperturbed. “Honey, you’re about as Zharusian as it gets now. As for escape, well, you’re welcome to try. They’ll always bring you back, assuming you can find your way out of Hellir. N00bs don’t have access until they’re trusted.” Ambrosia sighed. “Fiera, I’m your friend. Believe me. There’s a half dozen other crossriders here that’ll help you through the hard stuff. As your friend, can I make a suggestion?”
The new Integrate regarded the friendly bear for a few moments and decided she was being sincere. “Sure.”
“The Amazons gave you a new name.”
“Yes. And brainwashed away my old one. I hate ‘Fiera’. It’s pretentious and just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
“I was going to suggest choosing a new one anyway, but this will make it easier. I doubt the conditioning will let you choose anything un-feminine, but I’m sure one will present itself that you do like. You have more control over your life than you think. Start with something fundamental and work your way up. What do I call you from now on?”
There was one. She didn’t know where it came from. But it was right at the tip of her tongue. It felt...familiar. “Jade.”
“Jade, then. Happy to meet you, Jade. Now, I’m leaving what happens next up to you. The rest of the Enclave is concerned about you. When you’re ready, you can meet them. Just tell me what you want to do, and how. You choose, Jade.”
Jade looked at her naked self. All this time she’d been so off kilter her own nakedness had simply fallen by the wayside. “I think I need to put on some clothes. And, I’d like a hand. I have no idea what I’m doing with women’s clothing.”
Ambrosia clasped her hands together, delighted. “A good, very practical start for a new young lady. Let’s go from there.”
April 13, 158 AL
INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE - DINING ROOM - DAY
Jade met the rest of her new Integrate cohorts on a daily basis. There was DevCorby, the name combination of the bartender and his bat-eared fox RIDE. Hanley Rose was a gray lop-eared rabbit, the boyfriend of Aeolia Keys, the woman who had Integrated naturally that night. They weren’t unfriendly people, and she felt a greater, more trustworthy connection to them than any of the Enclave’s residents.
A few days after their Integration the four of them had their own table in the Enclave’s Dining Room. They’d been given some materials to study, a Guide for N00bs. The chapter was “getting to know your body systems”. Jade had reluctantly done the various exercises. It was one thing to know you had ovaries and a womb, it was another to actually feel them on the inside down to individual ova. But there were other systems adapted from her RIDE half. The lifters in her hips and shoulders, the hardlight emitters embedded in her skin, the changed Fuser nanites that made up almost half of her being.
“Who wrote this...stuff?” Hanley scoffed. “There isn’t even very much here. Not much of a guide.”
After the last chapter Jade was feeling a little green around the gills. Aeolia looked at her and tilted her head. “Are you okay, Jade?”
“When am I ever okay?” She drank some n00b milk. Her body systems were still out of whack from the rough Integration. The DIN gem (jade, of course) in her forehead glittered with data transfer, then flashed out. As was now habit she ejected it and placed a new one in, tossing the burned out one in the fabber garbage.
“I’m six years a crossrider,” Aeolia said. “I keep telling you, Jade, ask me anything you want. Even the gross and nasty stuff. We can do girl talk over a private channel so the guys don’t go nuts on us.”
Hanley thumped on his tablet. The tablets were hardly necessary, but it was more comforting to go through the motions. “It says here we can ‘pee sunshine and poop rainbows’.”
“Really? Ick!” DevCorby made a disgusted face. “Too much information, Hanley.”
An attention signal came in on their DINs. An excited voice rang out. “Everyone! Everyone! Check out the raw feed from the gym! Carla and Big Jim are having it out!”
Hardlight screens rezzed all around the Dining Room, on the walls and in the middle of the tables. They resembled the kind of ancient CRT television replicas that Jade had seen all over Zharus. The scene was a rapidly changing focus as whoever was running the camera changed between points of view. It was the inside of a generic gym. The only woman in the scene wore a tank top with HOOTERS emblazoned on the front and a pair of bright orange shorts. She was even bustier than Jade.
The other person was a bald, bearded man in a black muscle shirt. He practically oozed testosterone from every pore. “You should never play with a Man’s affections like that, woman!”
I swear I heard a capital letter there. Jade watched the scene, as did everyone else. She wondered what the big deal was. “Just what are we watching here?” she said, only to be shushed into silence from every direction. Okay, fine.
The woman, a sultry beauty with black hair, sharp features, and flashing eyes snorted derisively. “Real Men learn how to recognize such things, Jim. What kind of man are you?”
The watchers cringed, and Jim backed away as if slapped. The clear de-emphasis on the M was apparently the thing.
“Oh, he’s going to lose points for that one,” someone said.
Aeolia laughed. “Oh. It’s Cape Nord. What a silly place.”
“You’re thinking of Camelot, n00b,” a hawk-woman added.
“Since she’s a n00b I rather think she isn’t, Tallyhawk,” someone else said. “We wouldn’t be having this scene if you hadn’t meddled with the Script. Silver lining and all. Now shush!”
The melodrama continued. Whenever anyone spoke up, they were shushed again. There were mutterings about “shipping”, speculation on how this would affect Carla’s relationship with her workplace’s owner for some reason. But the scene didn’t move on like it would on a real drama, nor was there any musical accompaniment. It was more like one of the so-called “reality shows” that were popular in NuJose.
When Carla left Jim suitably cowed and left the room the feed came to an end. “Well, that’s it for now, everyone. Be sure to applaud the Players when they get in.”
“Is that some kind of roleplaying simulation?” Hanley wondered. “Like Nature Range?”
“Something like that,” Tallyhawk said, putting a taloned fingertip on the side of her hooked beak. “You’ll find out soon enough. All I’ll say is that it’s how we pass the time here.”
“It’s like one of those soap operas Steader Entertainment dredged up on Earth. Is that the the only thing to do around here? I’m already getting bored.”
Aeolia pouted. “Already? Aren’t I enough for you?”
“That’s not…” Hanley sighed. “That’s not it. Ever since that fast-time exercise yesterday it feels like we’ve been here months already. I must’ve watched every episode of Hill Street Blues and M*A*S*H a half dozen times. I know I watched Watership Down about fifty.”
That was an exercise Jade hadn’t done yet, and she wasn’t sure if she would actually follow through. She had watched a few movies, read some books, and caught up on some Zharusian history as a matter of course. Some part of her would never feel like Zharus was home. Her thoughts stopped wandering when Ambrosia--then Clayton entered. She felt herself growl and grasped the tablet more tightly.
DevCorby put his hand on hers. “Easy, Jade.”
The rest of the Dining Room--except for herself--broke into a round of applause for them both as they took bows.
“Thank you, thank you,” Ambrosia said. “You are such a gracious audience. Thank you!”
“So, I’m guessing they were acting out those parts,” DevCorby mused. “Wonder if I could get in on something like that.”
Clayton, narrow muzzle smiling from the praise just heaped on him, sauntered over to the cohort. “Funny you should ask there, Hanley. Y’all have earned some trust, and you’ve been diligent in your studies. So, you’ve earned some reward. Yes, even you Jade.”
Jade folded her arms. “You’re not going to be so foolish as to let me go outside, are you?”
“We’re confident that you won’t do anything we can’t fix. Now, n00bs, follow me.”
The Enclave itself was only large enough for its residents to not feel crowded. Clayton and Ambrosia led the new Integrates down a corridor near the Dining Room none of them had seen, then into a larger room about the same size as the one they’d left. There were a half dozen wall-mounted clothing fabbers, and another female Integrate sitting at a desk. She was a white lab mouse, about half the average size, with a pencil in her mouth, peering intently at something only she could see.
Ambrosia ambled up to the desk. “The n00bs are here, DesiLu.” The mouse was a little too focused on her internal world. The bear gently tapped the desk. “Des?”
The mouse opened her mouth, the wooden pencil falling out. “What? Oh! Sorry, Ambri. Script rewrites. Will you be checking out Big Jim again? He’s still available.”
“Nah, I think he’s earned a break from me. We just need the ‘out of town visitors’ standby for our n00bs here.”
Looking at the four n00bs, she fixed on Jade. “Wow! I don’t think we’ve actually met. I practically live in the Green Room here. So, um, let me get everything squared away for you. Procedural generation for generic vacationers, or are they going to be friends of someone established?”
“Generics are fine,” Clayton said.
Jade smiled toothily. “So what are we doing here? Are we joining your little soap opera somehow?”
“Always room for some bit parts.” Clayton clasped his hands. “Anyway. Aeolia, Hanley, DevCorby, Jade, I want to welcome you to The Show. Today’s outing will serve a dual purpose. One, it’ll show that we trust you enough to venture outside the Enclave; and two, it’ll bring into practice the hardlight glamours we tested you on yesterday. Desi, send them their CP and Script packets.”
Her DIN burned out once during the data transfer, and Jade found the files were still encrypted once finished. “Now what?”
“Okay! Unpack both and execute,” DesiLu said.
All at once, the hardlight emitters on the four n00bs glowed and flashed. The other three were replaced by human women all wearing revealing clothing. Hanley and DevCorby were a little taken aback, the way they immediately took to staring at themselves. For Jade, the glamour itself was hardly worth mentioning. It was the Script that went along with it. She reviewed the rather sparse character notes.
TONI BLAKE is a sorority girl from ALOHA on vacation in CAPE NORD. She’s a little shy, but fun-loving girl who likes to flirt. She’s with her sorority sisters PHOEBE, YUMIKO, and NICOLE.
To go along with the notes, the Script included some hard-coded personality traits. A guide that would help her play the character to type.
“So, apparently I’m Phoebe. Uh, I’m DevCorby, by the way.” She cupped her breasts. “Holy crap! This feels weird. Doesn’t it, ‘Nicole’?”
Nicole-Hanley nodded emphatically. “She” looked at Yumiko-Aeolia and Jade-Toni with respect, before her expression abruptly changed. “Like, ohmygod! This is so trippy! I totally have bodacious boobs!”
“I see you found your Script,” DesiLu said, smirking. “Nicole’s a generic Valley Girl. Is that okay? I can give you a male role if it’s too oogy. But in Cape Nord it’s just easier to have all of you female as a group. Women here are almost never by themselves. It’s not a safety thing, just an enforced stereotype.”
“If Jade can do it permanently, I can manage for a couple of hours,” DevCorby said. Then, in character, “right, Toni? We need to get you to loosen up a little.”
Jade felt a tingle as the Script dialogue wrote itself. “Um, then we should have stayed in Aloha.” She coughed and shook her head, pausing the Script, then looked at Clayton and Ambrosia. “So, are you two going to be our escorts?”
“We’ll be watching, discreetly,” Ambrosia said. “You girls have a good time.”
DevCorby shut down the Phoebe glamour. “I just have one question.”
“This isn’t really a simulation we’re walking into, is it?”
“I did say we trust you to go out on your own. Might help to think of it as a reverse-holodeck. The world around you is real, but the people you’re playing aren’t. They’re one-offs without any real backstory. They won’t stand up to scrutiny, so don’t get into trouble.”
“But...Cape Nord?” said “Nicole”. “You know how they treat women here?”
Clayton nodded. “We know. But you’re tourists, so certain standards won’t apply. Just go and have some fun, ladies. Let the Script guide you, but don’t feel too beholden to it.”
DesiLu snorted. “The Director says, stick to the Scripts, n00bs. That’s me, by the way. See you all back here in two hours. Just remember, we’ll be watching.”
“I’ll show them the way out,” Clayton said. His outline fuzzed for a moment, then Carla from the earlier scene stood there. The woman’s tone of voice was so different than Clayton’s it was hard to believe they were the same person. “Ladies, this way. I’m sure you’ll want something to eat first. Hooters is happy to serve pretty young ladies as yourselves.”
“Especially when we’re additional window dressing,” Nicole-Hanley quipped.
Carla giggled. “Yes, there is that. Right this way. Put that glamour back up, Phoebe. Scripts on.”
The door out led to a long corridor with several other doors on the end and either side. They were unlabeled in the Real, but with her Integrate augmented reality they went to different businesses. On the left: Big Jim’s Gym, another dark passage, and Barb’s Body Salon. To the right, Hooters and the Goldman Detective Agency. The metal door at the end went outside to the street.
“I’ll head in to work through this door, you head out to the street, then enter the normal way. Just remember, stick to your Scripts for now until you get the knack of it. If you want to say anything OOC--that’s out of character--stick to the private channels via your DIN.”
Jade raised her finger. “Just, wait. One more thing. What is the point of all this? If you’re just playing parts in a play, why do it out in the world? It’d be much easier just to make a holoroom in the Enclave, wouldn’t it? No risk of exposing ourselves?”
“That is a very good point.” Clayton-Carla smiled. “But it’s not how or why this all started. I really have to get back to work now. The history of the Show is in the packet we gave you. So read up, and have some fun.”
They paused in front of the door before leaving, syncing up their Scripts via their DINs. They emerged from the corridor talking about makeup, and clothes, and chatter that was stereotypically female even on Neorus. Over secure comm, DevCorby expressed his displeasure. :This script thing is killing me. No woman I ever served at the Coyote talked like this. And I’ve met many Nordy women.:
Aeolia sent a wink emote. :Just go with it, Phoebe. Welcome to Cape Nord. Just keep gossiping like the Script says. This is what Nordy Men think women talk about all the time. How we talk in private among ourselves is something else.:
The pungent odor of stale beer and buffalo wings from Hooters mingled with masculine sweat from the gym next door. Most of women on the street who were about their apparent age seemed to be stamped out of the very same mold, and showing an awful lot of skin. Jade looked at the sky overhead, and saw stone with many skylights for allowing some sunlight in--which wasn’t that much at any time of day, several hundred meters below the surface. Lighting on the cavern walls and ceiling provided daylight.
She’d read about Cape Nord. The city-state was inside a massive cavern system under the surface. The caves were climate controlled, because the weather this far north was still chilly even during summer. Jade had never planned on visiting this city-state, though the climate reminded her of home. :What is wrong with this place?:
:In Cape Nord, the women all look the same,: Aeolia explained. :In fact, they get free body sculpting to fit whatever standard is fashionable. Men, on the other hand, have to work for it. A Man who bodysculpts his way to fitness is no Man at all. Might even get his Man Card revoked. That’s a lot like what the Amazons did to you, by the way. Women, on the other hand...we’re women. We don’t need to constantly prove ourselves. Already being a woman is enough.:
It wasn’t about the color of skin, hair, or even complexion. Just body shape, as if they’d come off a production line. Instead, women seemed to set themselves apart from one another with rather outlandish outfits and hairstyles. Though the outfits all seemed to expose at least half their skin. In her halter top minidress Jade still fit that standard. They all did.
The girls were all from Aloha, though. They were actually showing less skin than usual. Nudity didn’t have nearly the same sexual connotations in that tropical polity as it did here. Of course, on Zharus it was cheap and easy to have any physique you wanted, of either sex. A fifteen minute bodysculpting job on Zharus would take hours or even days on Neorus. Gain a few kilos? Why, just head over to Barb’s Body Salon for a quick tune-up.
Compared to the other polities, Jade saw extremely few RIDEs or people with tags on the street. The Script told her that those who did have them were more likely to be out-of-towners.
Carla greeted the four girls on entering the restaurant with the promised welcome and cheerful smile. They were put at a table in the center, so the Men could ogle them as well as the employees. Their menus displayed a substantial “center table discount” for them.
“This is disgusting,” Phoebe said, looking around. “Why did we come to Cape Nord again? These people are primitives.”
Jade couldn’t quite tell if the last line was in the Script or not. It felt like borderline ad-libbing. Jade decided to respond in kind. “Wasn’t this your idea in the first place, Phoebe? New place, a new corner of Gondwana we’ve never seen...”
“It was here or Punta Sur,” Yumiko said. “And there’s nothing in Punta Sur worth seeing.”
“Girls, can we just order something? I’m famished,” Nicole said, glaring at her friends. “Why don’t we just catch the sub back home in two hours? I think I’ve already had my fill of this place.”
Clayton sent a chuckle on the OOC channel. :Oooooh, burn. Really putting the Nordies in their place, eh? Now, my turn.:
A few seconds later Carla returned to take their orders. She was nonplussed by the conversation at the table, and just stood there with a slightly condescending expression on her face. “Your orders, girls? Do any of our specials interest you?”
It really didn’t feel like anything special so far. The Scripts, adapting as the situation changed with their ad-libs, had the four of them snarking about the polity atmosphere, food, the uniformity of women’s bodies, and anything else within earshot. The other patrons took this as some sort of entertainment. Jade wondered how many of them were actually people and not other Enclave residents assigned to watch them under their own personas.
:What you’re doing right now? It’s pretty close to the way this started,: Clayton said in fast-time. :The vast majority of Enclaves are way out in the Dry, away from people. It was a really hard-sell to Fritz, so I understand, to found one here. But after they showed him this thing they were calling ‘Cover Personas’ at the time, he said it was copacetic.:
They all knew the name and profile of Fritz, the first Integrate and beatnik “Bosscat”. He had decreed that the Integrates separate themselves from “the meat and the mech”, and to keep their secrets by any means necessary.
:The Enclave isn’t really self-sufficient, so we need things,: Ambrosia added. :Decent foodstuffs, especially. And everyone who left under a CP naturally had to be watched. So, to help make things more interesting for the watchers and themselves, they started to ham it up for the cameras. It’s pretty much snowballed from there.:
:Well, you certainly have my attention,: Jade said. There really was a kind of thrill, like being on stage. :I remember what happened in the Dining Room earlier. I guess you have persistent CPs, too?:
:Most of us have a preferred CP, but yes. The ones you’re inhabiting right now are one-shots we use for n00bs,: Clayton said. :We’re willing to whole-cloth one out for each of you, but keep in mind we’d rather the persistent cast stay as small as possible. So, look at the Cast List and find a role you’d like to play.:
:What makes you think I won’t just use it to escape?:
:And go where? Look, we’re about out of fast-time pause. We’ll talk more once you’re back home. Enjoy yourselves. And when you get back, you won’t be n00bs anymore. Congrats!:
April 15, 147 AL
INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE - GREEN ROOM - NIGHT
“For this outing you’ll all be assigned a persistent CP,” Clayton announced. “These personas are one step above the one-shots you played last time. They have backstory. They have depth. You’ll be expected to play them for the next day or so. Live our their lives according to the Script. Got it?”
“Got it,” everyone echoed--almost everyone. Aeolia wasn’t here yet, and...
“I’d rather just...do Nature Range in my bedroom.” Jade had only discovered it the day before. With her perfect recall, she could visit almost-perfect simulations of Novy Kyiv. It wasn’t...quite right. The people she could also simulate were very cookie-cutter and stuck in the Uncanny Valley. But it was maybe better than nothing, she wasn’t sure yet.
“None of us spend more time in the Enclave than we have to,” Clayton said. “It’s one of the benefits of living in Hellir. I could have brought you to any number of isolated Enclaves far out in the Dry. They’re...weird.”
Hanley folded his arms. “If you consider them weird, what does that make us?”
“Normal people going about our daily lives. Speaking of, go ahead and unpack the personas you’ve been assigned. Read the character notes, catch up on their continuity, then we’ll turn you loose. As for me…” He started to take off his clothes. On the table next to him was Carla’s Hooters uniform. “I have a restaurant to assistant manage.”
Jade stifled a chuckle as he put the uniform on, then he briefly glowed like before, then there was a busty young woman there. Then she looked back at the others. “Hanley, you’re a guy today.”
“Thank you!” the gray rabbit said. “Jack Wilson, huh? Okay…”
“What about me?” DevCorby asked.
“Luisa the foxy bartender, where I work. You played Phoebe very well. I think you’re a natural CrossPlayer.”
“Uh, I’m flattered, I think. But if she tends bar, I’ll be just fine. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of tips.”
With the CP information unpacked, Jade read the character notes.
JANE WYMAN works at the QUICK-E-FAB down MACKENZIE STREET from her modest apartment. It’s not glamorous work, but it keeps her in decent living conditions for a single woman of her age. Her roommates are LUISA MENDES and JACK WILSON…
Okay, okay. Yadda yadda yadda. She didn’t read it all. The descriptions of her life and times were rather unexciting, not even that different from an average person on Neorus. She loaded the Script, then put on Jane’s humdrum (for Cape Nord, just a store uniform) clothes, then rezzed up the hardlight glamour. Her body shape was rather different. “I look like somebody’s mother.”
“You’re a divorced mom from Cascadia, remember?” DesiLu said. “Read the whole thing.”
So Jade did. Jane was a 40-year-old divorced mom who hadn’t seen her kids in five years due to bad blood between herself and her ex-husband. An immigrant from Neorus, she had no other family on the planet. Jade sighed at the last character detail. “She’s from Neorus? No way that’s a coincidence.”
“I thought a sense of familiarity would help you in the role,” DesiLu said. “You can even ad-lib a little.”
“I don’t know how to be a 40-year-old divorced woman with two kids.”
DevCorby--or rather Luisa Mendez, the young woman with fox ears and tail and the Hooters uniform--rolled her eyes. “I don’t have a clue about how to be a Hooters girl, either. But it’s better than being bored down here. I’m heading up to work, then. See you at home, Jack & Jane. Tootles!” She gave them all a friendly, girly little wave.
With “Luisa” out the door, Hanley dressed up--in pajamas. “Script says I’m supposed to be up in bed, asleep. I dunno, Miss Director. What’s my motivation?”
DesiLu laughed. “Get along, you. Now, where’s Aeolia? Anyone?”
“Still chowing down on some of Ambri’s dinner leftovers, last I saw,” Jade said. “I’m sure she’ll be along. I suppose I’d better go to work.”
INT. QUICK-E-FAB - MORNING
Even after living here twenty years Jane wondered why Zharus did things certain ways. There was no reason for the storefront to have anyone to monitor it, let alone a cashier. But handing over big wads of paper money to pay for physical goods was one of the things the Men of Cape Nord liked to do--to impress women, and to one-up each other.
Jane didn’t toe the line on local body fashions. Her upbringing still considered the free bodysculpting here an incredible extravagance. Not to say she was out of shape, but she just didn’t have the cookie cutter physique even women twice her age had here. Still, the pay was decent, even for busywork, and it gave her time to do the hobbies that gave real purpose to her life at present.
Jade was unhappy with this. These ‘hobbies’ are all boring. Knitting, sewing--dressmaking, in particular--and a half dozen inoffensive others. Jane’s life was busywork. Jade opened the OOC channel. :Desi, does this woman actually do anything for a living?:
:Jane is a ‘low impact’ CP. She was one of our first, too. A lot of the things listed for your hobbies were supplies we needed when we were setting up the Enclave five years ago,: the mouse said. :Not so much anymore.:
During her shift, Jane’s background had given Jade a few ideas. :Look, I...I’m going to shake up her routine a little, okay?:
There were a few milliseconds of silence. :Okay, Jade. I suppose everyone needs that every once in a while. But not too much. Remember, we’re watching.:
DISSOLVE TO:</br> EXT. PATTON PARK - ICE CREAM STAND - DAY
After work Jane decided to do something off the beaten track for her and get an ice cream. Normally she just went directly home, but today it felt right to try something new-ish. “Kinda early for you, ain’t is Missus Wyman?” the young man behind the window said.
“Just treating myself, Max.” Jade checked the young man against her cast list. Ambrosia owned the ice cream stand, but the employee was just a normal human. “Feeling adventurous today. I’ll have a Double Peanut Butter Dip.”
It wasn’t nearly as tasty as the ice cream she’d had in Uplift, but it did lift her spirits all the same. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a man.
He had a face that might have been chiseled from the Southern Crystal Range back home. He wore rumpled slacks, a button front shirt that may have been white once, and a long brown leather duster coat. But it was the felt fedora that really gave him a certain look. A certain masculinity that made send the hearts of the ladies (and some men) aflutter. Tall, muscular, he walked with a strength of purpose.
The man walked up to the Ice Cream stand window behind her. “Tutti frutti mondae, please.”
“Mr. Goldman! Long time no see.”
“Been busy on a case out of town, Max. Make it snappy, willya?”
Max looked doubtful. “Uh, you sure you want a Tutti Frutti, sir? I mean, that’s a bit guh..girl...I’m gonna…have...deduct...”
Goldman calmly reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his wallet, removing a card from it. He showed it to the boy. “Do you see this, Max? Do you see this right here? What does it say.”
“You can’t deduct any points, so give me my damned Tutti Fruitti!”
The Script said to laugh, but this time Jade felt the same way, so her laugh was genuine. Cape Nord didn’t make any more sense than Sturmhaven--maybe even less. The handsome man heard, then looked her direction. He gave her a friendly nod, then took his ice cream to a vacant table to eat it.
Silly Men and their silly games, Jane thought. Yet her thoughts strayed to young Max. He reminded her of her son, whom she hadn’t seen in years, down in Cascadia…
The thought that was natural for the Cover Persona gave her Player an idea. Jade wondered just how long it would take to catch on, or if she would even make it a fraction of the way before they caught her. But it was time to make an honest attempt at escape. But she couldn’t reveal herself to the crowd. Who knew how far Clayton would be willing to go to keep Integrates and the Enclave secret. She couldn’t risk anyone else going through what she was. That meant no lifters, either.
Steal a car? No, she cringed at committing one crime to rectify another. That left what? A suborbital trip? No, she didn’t have enough cash on her to pay for that. That left the skimmer bus to Cascadia…
Oh, no. They’d never anticipate that, Jade. No, never!
Jade picked up a SegSkimmer from the sharing rack near the ice cream stand, then popped out her DIN after putting her hand against her forehead. She dropped it on the ground and sped off towards the Greyhound station.
Have to make the effort, have to...feel like I’m doing something to get home...
She saw none of the CPs she knew about on her way to the ticket kiosk. The next bus to Cascadia was only ten minutes from departure. A desperate hope arose. I might actually make it, I might…
Then a large hand gently grasped her on the shoulder. She turned to be face-to-face with the man who bought the Tutti Fruitti mondae. “Mrs. Wyman? I’m Mitch Goldman, Gumshoe. I’m under the employ of your former husband Mark.”
“Well?” Jane could only choke out a single word.
“I’m here to remind you that there’s a restraining order against you. Jane Wyman may not set foot in the polity of Cascadia without a hefty fine and possibly jail time. I’m sorry, ma’am, but I won’t allow you to ruin your life like this.” He held out his hand, holding her DIN in the palm.
Jade snarled. “Up yours, Gumshoe!” Then she threw it in his face and fled the building.
Was that Clayton? It had to be Clayton! Only Clayton is that much of an asshole!
She ran. She rain from Patton Park in the South Cavern to Herakles Arena in the North. Never once did she spin up her lifters, still mindful of the risks to innocents and the Snatchers’ extremism. Every few streets, Mitch Goldman awaited here. He made no motion to actually catch her, but she turned away from him anyway. At some point, though, her batteries had run down so much that the glamour shut down, leaving her in Jane’s clothes. Few even gave her a single glance.
Then there he was again, waiting.
This time she didn’t turn. This time she allowed him to put his hands around her shoulders, then pick her up in his arms as if she weighed nothing. The air around them shimmered with a cloaking field as he lifted off the ground and flew towards the Enclave.
Jade sobbed against his chest.
INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE - DAY
“When you break the rules, you pay the price.” Ambrosia, DesiLu, and a dog named Ubu sat at a long table in the Enclave’s makeshift courtroom. DesiLu spoke in the gravest of tones when announcing judgement. “Even if you didn’t seriously think you could escape, as you claim, we’ve been around long enough to know a test run when we see it. The next time you’ll actually use your cloak and lifters. And we’ll have to get more serious.
“As of now, your Show privileges are revoked for at least the next two weeks. More if we deem it necessary. You’re returned to N00b status during that time. If you’ve mended your ways, earned back some of our trust, the following two weeks you’ll be restricted to one-shots under heavy supervision. What steps are necessary after that, we’ll make those decisions when we come to it.”
Jade exploded. “How fucking dare you! You can’t bloody sit there and pronounce judgement on me when you kidnapped me! I’m sitting here, in this weird body nobody from home would ever recognize me in, forty light-years from home! I’m more alone here than any of you could possibly imagine! I’m no fucking threat to you if you’d just put me on a starliner and send me back to Neorus!”
DesiLu gave the angry catfaun such a pained, sorrowful look that Jade actually backed down a little. “Well, Jade. I know that forty light-years is hard. But imagine, just for a moment, that it’s just forty meters. That you can see, but never touch, never communicate. And they’re just right there. You can’t imagine, can you?”
“That’s the situation that many of us are in,” Hanley added with a very bitter note. “I have family here, myself. Family that thinks I’m dead.”
“At least you and Aeolia have each other,” Jade muttered. “I don’t understand why any of this secrecy is necessary! It makes no sense!”
“We’re just not ready yet,” Ubu said. “At least, I like to think that’s the reason. You haven’t met the Bosscat yet, Jade. You will at some point soon. He always makes the rounds to welcome n00bs.”
In the back of the room, whoever was playing Mitch Goldman hadn’t yet shut down the persona’s glamour. He just stood there impassively, arms folded, watching the proceedings.
Jade growled. She was only partly recharged, but she still stood up and walked right up to him. “You…” she hissed. “You...fucking...fuck you, Clayton!”
She punched, she kicked, she clawed. But he still stood there and took it all, as if the beating just wasn’t getting through. Everyone waited for her to exhaust herself again before Ambrosia took her back to a comfortably padded chair, panting.
“There there, honey. There there,” Ambrosia soothed.
“I’m not Clayton,” the faux detective said. “Hate to break it to you.”
“Then who the hell are you?”
The hardlight shimmered away, leaving someone with the head of a hawk, wing-arm feathers sticking out of the sleeves. Jade couldn’t tell under the overlarge clothing if the hawk-person was male or female, until they spoke. “You may have heard my name earlier, Jade. I’m Tallyhawk. We haven’t personally met.”
Jade stared at her, slack-jawed. “Ma’am, you are one dogged detective.”
“Well, I have a few advantages over the everyday gumshoe. But yes, I’d like to think so.”
“Uh, I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Jade said sheepishly. “Not that I don’t want that raccoon’s tail as a hat.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s threatened to skin me for some Davy Crockett headwear.” Clayton appeared in a corner of the room. “And if you still want to, be my guest. I deserve every blow. In fact, I’ve taken more than a few.” He nodded at various Integrates around the room--most of them. “If you want, I’ll let you beat me up like you did Tally, but with no shielding. You’re entitled.”
She could only growl a little. “If I had any energy left at all I’d take you up like that. But I need about ten hours of sleep, a kilo of food, and a full charge before I can do anything. You...you...motherfarking dickweed!”
“Food, then bed,” Ambrosia suggested. “Sound good? You need to rest.”
Jade yawned, tongue curling like a tiger’s. “I think it’ll have to be sleep first, Ambri… In fact, I’ll just catnap right here in this chair.”
She made good on that. Cats can sleep anywhere, after all.
May 20, 147 AL
INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE, JADE’S BEDROOM - NIGHT
Completing a Grand Tour was the ambition of every young person on Neorus. After college, see all the Colonies, and maybe Earth. Naturally Zharus was the halfway point of the years-long journey. Neorus was the last officially established colony, yet it already had over a hundred million in population. Zharus was larger than it in every conceivable way. And weirder in every inconceivable one.
A number of young Neorussians had gone to Zharus and not come back. Jade herself now numbered among them--just another statistic the government would use as a warning. So far Jade’s journey had also included Ibn Rushd, Centauri, Proxima, and Zheng He. All spectacular in their own ways.
The archipelagos of Zheng He, the twenty man-made worlds of Proxima, the painted deserts of Ibn Rushd, the cavorite caverns of Centauri. But even her own memories were glitched because of the Amazon conditioning. As she tried to relive anything, her virtual body remained stubbornly female. It was less disconcerting to prowl the streets of New Singapore as a tigress than a human.
From the Real came the soft beep from her DIN. Someone was trying to connect. Reluctantly, she opened the channel. “Yes, what?”
“Can I come in?” Tallyhawk asked. “I’ve been wanting to apologize, but you haven’t left your bedroom in days.”
Jade shut down her internal world and returned to the Real, reluctantly unlocking the door. The hawk-woman came inside, unclothed. A barred gray pattern covered her front from her neck to her knees, with her arm feathers a darker, solid gray. She had large red eyes in a gray feather mask. Her body shape seemed rather humanoid. She even had breasts. But her feet were almost entirely bird-like. She appeared to walk, but with a bounce that probably meant she had lifter assistance.
“I hope you don’t mind my so-called nudity. Clothes and feathers don’t mix for me,” Tallyhawk said. “I thought now might be a good time to properly introduce myself. I’m Tallyhawk. I can’t say it was ‘my’ RIDE’s name, since I we were forcibly Integrated just like you were. Or should I say ‘you two’?”
“Uh, they tell me that the RIDE’s mind was basically absorbed into the rest of me. She was brand new off the lot. Something like that. But apparently I picked her name as my own, since I’m not going to use what the Amazons gave me.” She was just not sure how to react to that fact at all. That’s all that remained of the RIDE, her name. But Jade herself couldn’t mourn for someone she’d never known. It was just a great big nothing, and she had enough trouble adapting to her present situation as it was.
Jade sat up on bed while the hawk-woman found a chair to sit in.
“I can understand that. I sort of did the same. Picking a feminine version of ‘Mitch’ as a new name just didn’t sit right, but Tallyhawk does. About a quarter of me is her.”
“Wait, you were a ‘Mitch’?”
“Yes, yes I was. Six years ago I was a Detective for the Aloha Police Department named Mitch Gardener. There are understandably a lot of missing persons cases. Just think about that for a moment and the reasons why will become apparent.”
“Of course,” Jade said dryly. “Go on.”
“I was actually searching for a missing APD beat cop, guy named Mitchell. The trail went out to Bartertown, way out in the Dry. Wretched hive of scum and villainy and all that. Trail turned hot there. Too hot. Next thing I knew I woke up melded with a female hawk RIDE named Tally. My first few weeks were almost as rough as yours.”
“How do you deal with...with…” Jade grasped her breasts. “These? You know. All this. Everything. They took away your humanity and your manhood.”
“Not only those, but my mammal-hood too.” The avian Integrate laughed. “To be honest, I think of myself as an Intie first, a bird second, and a woman a distant third. I mean, look at me.” She fluffed up her chest feathers to expose herself. “My ‘breasts’ don’t even have nipples. They’re vestigial. Purely for show. I don’t have any curves to speak of, really.”
“Not...really an option for me. The complete opposite, in fact. Woman first. Woman always. I swear they soaked my brain in some kind of super-estrogen.”
“What they did is technically illegal, you know. Even by their own laws.”
“Pffft. Like I can do anything about it now, thanks to you.”
“A point against us, yes.”
Jade decided to change the subject to something slightly more pleasant. She sat up on her bed with her legs over the side. “About this Mitch Goldman guy you were playing. Same name as your human self? They’ll do that?”
“It’s called a ‘Danza’ role. Here, let me explain the trope...”
She explained it wasn’t unusual back in the day for a character to have the same first name as the actor playing them. The namesake was Tony Danza of the ‘80s sitcom Who’s the Boss? Will Smith of the Fresh Prince of Bel Aire was another example in the next decade. Jade wasn’t too familiar with the idea, but the Zharusian obsession with media five hundred years old was well known even on Neorus.
“So, this Goldman guy is a lot like you,” Jade said.
“There’s still some differences, but yeah. He’s kind of hard for others to play, since he’s a licensed detective and those skills don’t translate into character notes. So he’s out of town a lot while I take on other roles. Some of the Players get a little too complacent with their plotlines, so I mix things up a bit. Throw their CP curveballs. That sort of thing. It’s my speciality.”
Jade smirked. She was warming to Tallyhawk. She had a sense of humor and a mind as sharp as her talons. “Like you did to Clayton’s earlier, right?”
“Any CP Clayton plays, but Carla especially.”
They shared a laugh at Clayton’s expense.
“Would it help if they made a Danza role for you?” Tallyhawk asked. “I doubt the conditioning would allow a male one, but a woman named Jade something might work out.”
“What makes you think they’ll trust me to leave the Enclave again?”
“Boredom. On your part. Maybe you could do some behind-the-scenes work. But unless that really interests you, I suggest not trying to escape again. You’ll be banned from the Show for good. You don’t want to spend the next few years just watching the rest of us have fun, do you? Or worse, expelled out to one of the isolated Enclaves in the Dry. They’re nuts out there.”
Bitterness smouldered, but she did have a point. “I’ll be good. I promise. As long as I don’t have to play anyone like Jane Wyman again.”
“Hey! Jane was my first role,” Tallyhawk needled dryly. “At any rate, what if I finagled a Danza for you to play? What do you think about that? “
“You sure you can trust me, then?” Jade raised one eyebrow. “You’re willing to do this for me?”
“We want you to make a life here, and if this helps, then this is what we’ll do for you. I’ll see it through.”
Jade stared. She knew an offer of friendship when she heard one. “Um, yeah! Sure. I’ll give it a try. I don’t know how to thank you, Tallyhawk.”
“Just ‘Tally’ is fine. Don’t worry about thanking me. I’m only repaying the kindness done to me.”
June 15, 147 AL
INT HELLIR ENCLAVE, JADE’S BEDROOM - EVENING
Jade thumbed through the virtual pages of Tallyhawk’s special CP for her in disbelief, for the third time in as many realtime minutes. Her name would be Jade Cattano, a Danza-type role, just for her.
Jade Cattano had more than the real person’s first name. She also had her physique, feline characteristics and all. The only hardlight touch was to tiger-pattern her hair rather than keep it blonde. “How do you even explain this to anyone?” she asked him.
“Well, unlike the rest of us, you can easily pass as having extreme tags. Though in Jade’s case she went to the Body Salon upstairs. It’s body fashion choice on her part,” Tallyhawk explained.
The personality notes described a very strong streak of independence. Cattano didn’t care for prevailing Cape Nord fashions, preferring to do her own thing regardless. After seeing the uniformity among the Nordian women going her own way did hold a certain appeal. “Here I thought you’d want me to be invisible. I’m--Jade is going to cause a stir wherever she goes.”
“Oh, you’ll be in good company, don’t worry,” Ambrosia said. “Wait until you meet the female CP I normally play. I’m a tall, big Woman of Sturmhaven. Hardlight can only do so much to make you appear smaller.”
Jade smiled. “I think I’m getting it now. There’s always a few black sheep in the flock.”
“Yep! Now, a few more rules of the road before we do a test run.”
“Okay, first,” Tallyhawk smiled. “Although this CP was made for you specifically, she’s not yours exclusively. CPs like this are persistent. They’re seen in public all the time. So they need to be out and about as much as possible in their day-to-day life. No unexplained vanishings. So, when you’re not playing Jade Cattano, someone else probably will be. It might be Aeolia, it might be Hanley, it might even be me. So she may not even be available when you want her.”
“Second,” Ambrosia added. “Keep up on your CP’s Continuity Notes. Whoever was playing her last will leave you a mem-summary. You’re also responsible for leaving one when you check out. Instructions for packing one are in the CP notes.”
“Last, and really the most important.” Tallyhawk looked deadly serious--fairly easy for a bird of prey. “Keep Drama between CPs between them only. If you find you’re taking things too personal with someone playing another CP, take a break. Related to this, don’t go too far off Script. We do love a good ad-lib, but you have to really pick an appropriate moment to use one. Okay? Everything square?”
Implicit in their rules was that she couldn’t be Jade Cattano full time. The Enclave itself was her home, not whatever apartment she’d live in up above. Still, it was better than what she had now. Boredom had set in just like it had with the others. “I can do this, sure.”
“Welcome to the Show, Jade Cattano!” Ambrosia cheered. “How about a test run? We’ll get her on-set in a day or two, once the bugs are worked out of her Script.”
June 18, 147 AL
In Hellir Enclave life was the Show, and the Show was life. All of Cape Nord was its stage. To really be a part of it one had to spend a lot of fast-time catching up on the Continuity. But there were loads and loads of characters, with cobwebs of interrelationships that were hard to track. Some had been retired, even killed. Others were like Jade Cattano, created for n00bs. With new Integrates trickling in on a weekly basis there were many more of the former than the latter for the 53 Integrates who called the Enclave home.
To make their job easier of changing in and out of their CP, the Integrates had bored a series of tunnels covering an area of a few city blocks near the Enclave. They led into storefronts and apartment buildings the Enclave itself owned under several front companies. Personas ranged from shopkeepers and business owners like Big Jim McGee to waitresses like Carla and now Jade. Nobody was in any governmental position, or law enforcement. The rules that the Bosscat had set down excluded those. They were all just normal people going about their normal lives.
Jade Cattano had moved to Cape Nord in mid-April, arriving on a bus from Dome Rainier, Cascadia (or so her records would say). Despite its bad reputation there were still opportunities for women in Cape Nord. She found an apartment on McKenna Street, a block from Hooters, where she’d quickly found a job despite her outside-the-norm catfaun looks. Among her co-workers she was unique. The work uniform’s shorts almost matched the color of her leg and back fur.
The owner of the restaurant, Johnny McGee (who happened to be the younger brother of Big Jim), had hired her just for that uniqueness. Having someone on-staff who didn’t quite fit the current fashion always generated a little more customer traffic than having everybody look the same. It was part of how new fashions took hold.
The other staff grumbled, especially Assistant Manager Carla Pearson and her clique. Jade took home better tips than the other girls, who were told by Johnny not to follow her into that type of body modification. He said that fur and food service generally didn’t mix, but everyone else suspected he had ulterior motives. Johnny was quite taken with his new waitress, but too shy to act on it.
Next door, Big Jim had noticed the new hire. He was also quite taken with the catty waitress was little more aggressive in following his desires. He was a man of deep insecurities, and Jade responded in the subtle way women often do. On the other hand, Johnny had the habit of misreading her.
Then there was Carla’s Clique…
The three of them made Jade’s life difficult in a hundred little ways. Her fur comb frequently went missing. They would make little meowing, hissing sounds at her just in earshot. A thousand snide comments were muttered behind her back between the Clique and the other girls on staff.
But Jade was not without her own growing circle of friends. There was Natalia Petrovna, who was a self-professed “Voman uf Sturmhaven” studying “Boorish Masculinity” in Cape Nord for a doctoral thesis. Doreen Parker was another woman with unusual tags. Her head and face was a doe mask, but the rest of her was unaltered aside from a tail. Like Jade she didn’t have a RIDE. Her cervine looks were a fashion choice.
Then there was Jeanine McCray. A former Man who had recently lost her Man Card for unspecified reasons, currently in heavy therapy for a very rough transition. She needed a gentle introduction to the new world of Womanhood, but wasn’t getting one. Doreen and Natalia often argued over what philosophy of womanhood Jeanine should follow. It was a classic Sturmhaven vs. Cape Nord tug-of-war, good for a lot of laughs in the Enclave.
Under the hardlight, Natalia was Ambrosia, Doreen was Aeolia, and Jeanine was Hanley. Somehow Aeolia had convinced her boyfriend to take on a female CP. He’d decided to go against the crossrider stereotype and play one who was having a rough time adapting. Jeanine also worked at Hooters, which made her situation all the more awkward for her. Inside their apartment it was perfect sitcom material, with unlikely misunderstandings, awkward moments, and humorous plot twists.
Though it did confuse the neighbors some. To keep that to a minimum, the Script backed off on the tropes when regular people were around. Though sometimes it was hard to resist a little ad-lib here and there. Jeanine could be quite endearing at times, even with her discomfort.
“I play her a bit of a Woobie,” Hanley explained one evening in the Enclave over an after Show coffee. “And frankly, there’s a lot of things about women that honestly confuse me. I thought this would be a good way to get a clue.”
“Since crossriding is out of the question now?” Aeolia said, raising one eyebrow. “I hear there are some shapeshifters out there you could learn from.”
“Uh, no. Hardlight breasts are quite enough, thank you.”
“Took me months to shake that oogy feeling as Carla,” Clayton said. “So don’t sweat it, ‘Jeanine’. You’re doing fine. Adds realism.”
“Say, what’s DevCorby been up to?”
“Schedule says he’s on Johnny McGee right now. Let’s check the live feed…”
Jade stood up and glared at the screen. While she was guaranteed majority time as her namesake CP, others wanted a chance to play her as well. Playing out on the screen, Jade Cattano was flirting pretty openly with her boss. The real Jade checked to see who was playing her. Seeing the name, she laughed and sat back down on the couch.
“Tallyhawk?” Clayton said. “Yeah, that’s her MO. And after you were flirting with Big Jim, too. That...what the hell does Tallyhawk think she’s doing?”
“She’s setting up a challenge for me. What else? This double-flirting isn’t really that out of character for Jade. Still...” Something like this needed to be resolved soon. She connected to the OOC channel and pinged Tallyhawk.
:Why hello there, RealJade,: she replied, sending a smirk emoticon. :FakeJade was just going to give Johnny here a smooch.:
:Just a peck on the cheek, eh? Well, I’m invoking my Primary Player Clause. Extricate yourself from the scene and meet me the Green Room stat to swap out, you sneaky, sneaky bird.:
:Happy to oblige, RealJade. How’ll you get out of this one, I wonder. Challenge! But if you’re not up for it...:
:Don’t worry, Tally. I’ll put on a good show for everyone.:
Clayton brightened. “Hey, you going up top?”
“Yes, and I’m actually going to need you as Carla up there for this. I’ll need Jeanine, too.” A rather fun way of resolving the dilemma started to germinate. It would probably require going off-Script, but after Tallyhawk’s actions with the CP, she could rationalize what she was planning. She sent pings to Ambrosia and DevCorby as well, not really giving them instructions. The way the Script was adapting to the curveball would work just as well for setup.
Clayton rezzed into Carla, complete with uniform. “Almost time for my shift anyway. Can’t wait to see what you come up with, Jade. Tata!” She swept off towards the Green Room.
A confrontation with Carla was inevitable. She and Jade sparred with each other frequently while on the job. Jade often protected poor Jeanine from their hazing the new girl. Hanley’s CP was about as average-looking for a Cape Nord woman as it got, but it was more about the mysterious loss of the Man Card that caused her so much grief.
Everyone was heading towards the Green Room. Apparently Tallyhawk had spammed that something big was going to happen up top, and every CP who could reasonably be there, would be. Everyone else would just have to watch the raw feed. Hanley had also invoked the same swap-out clause Jade had. For a moment there were two of each CP in the Green Room as Continuity packets were exchanged and the Player went out.
DesiLu stood up on the Green Room’s central desk to get everybody’s attention. “Okay, everyone. This feels big. Tallyhawk, nice setup. Jade’s going to have some fun resolving the situation. New Scripts are loading. Places!”
Script notes unfolded in fast-time, telling each player what they needed to do to get into the proper setup.
The Green Room was a flurry of activity as the Players put on real clothing to go along with their CP. Ideally it had to be real (hard to leave clothes on the floor if they vanished a half meter away), but for the timing of this scene it could be hardlight. Hanley quickly put on the Hooters uniform then rezzed into Jeanine before dashing towards the restaurant’s door. There was a great deal of hardlight nudity around the room. Cross-Players like Clayton, Ambrosia, and Hanley abounded.
When the players neared the start positions, DesiLu called out via the Director’s own channel, “Action!” The mouse Intie snapped a virtual clapboard.
INT. HOOTERS RESTAURANT - BREAK ROOM - DAY
JEANINE has been cornered by CLARA, who is giving her the third degree about losing her Man Card and manhood. JADE arrives to defuse the situation.
Jade Cattano sauntered downstairs from Johnny McGee’s office, hips and tail swinging. The nuances of Cape Nord culture were finally starting to sink in for her. Only in Cape Nord was sleeping the way to the top considered a valid way for a woman to advance her career. While she hadn’t gone that far yet, the groundwork was laid. Of course, it didn’t take much here to lure any Man into a woman’s bed.
She liked to think that her purpose was nobler than most. Jade only sought this path for the sake of Jeanine. Only by becoming Assistant Manager would she be able to do something about Carla. For all her faults, Carla herself was a little too nice to use her position for personal gain. Jeanine was too financially and emotionally fragile to simply quit.
While heading down, Jade’s feline hearing picked up some talk from the Break Room.
“Leave me alone, Carla! Can’t I have five minutes without you looking over my shoulder?” It was Jeanine, and her squirrelly voice was trembling under the pressure Carla had her under. “I’m not telling you that!”
“I knew some details I could at least reassure you about...things. Why did they revoke your Man Card? Really, everyone wants to know.”
“It’s...really embarrassing, that’s why. I haven’t even told Jadekitty.”
Jade smiled despite the seriousness of the situation. Jeanine had a cute nickname for almost everyone--except Carla. Unless Jade did something, though, Carla would hound the poor girl about it the rest of the day. It was time to intervene.
“I promise I won’t laugh,” Carla continued. “Let me tell you about my mother sometime, then you can laugh.”
The catfaun turned the corner, then leaned against the doorjamb, tail swishing. She folded her arms. “Hello Carla, Jeanie-girl.”
“Jadekitty!” Jeanine shouted. She flounced over and hugged her friend. “Where have you been the past hour?”
“Strutting about like a tigress in heat for that so-called Man Johnny, no doubt,” Carla sneered. “And after you flirted with his brother, too. You know that Man hates mixed signals, right? Ask me how I know.”
Shouting out in the restaurant proper interrupted their catty little spat. Luisa rushed into the break room, out of breath. “Jade, get out here, quick! Johnny and Big Jim are fighting!”
Carla smirked. “Really? Over who this time?”
“Where have you been lately, Carla? Who do you think?”
Luisa grabbed Jade by the arm and pulled her towards the fight. Chairs and bar stools were being thrown, while the rest of the patrons had simply made room to watch the fracas. Jim and Johnny McGee barely tolerated one another at the best of times, but since Jade’s arrival they’d finally come to blows, apparently having realized they were both competing for her affection. The Script said it was finally time to resolve this.
Jade’s arrival made the two men stop, with Big Jim on top of his younger brother, and Johnny developing a real shiner of a black eye. It was the classic female dilemma. Big Jim was the standard alpha male, all muscles, a real Mr. Right-Now. His younger brother was more emotionally stable and reliable--the classic Mr. Right. The kind of man a woman could go into a long term relationship. The Script rolled onwards in her head. “Guys, please. Stop this right now or I’ll drag you apart myself.”
“Women!” Big Jim scoffed. “You never make decisions. If you’d stop with the mixed signals--”
“We’d really appreciate if you’d decide which one of us you want to bed with.” Johnny smiled sheepishly.
The procedurally-generated Script unrolled in Jade’s head. She grimaced to herself, then wrested the resolution away from it. She folded her arms and sniffed. “Men! What makes you think I was serious about either of you? I’m bi. I like you two, and I don’t mind playing, but I’ve been after Carla all along.”
Clayton sent her a giggle over the OOC channel in fast-time. :Oh, really? Wow! I think you just buggered up my Script with that plot twist, Jade. Guess I’ll have to ad-lib.:
:Don’t worry, Clay. It wasn’t in my Script, either. The Scriptwriters are really getting controlling lately, you know. They’re not actually supposed to give us dialogue:
The rest of the cast in the room joined in. Ambrosia chuckled. :Damn, catgirl! When you go off Script, you really go off it! You were supposed to pick Jim!:
:Then Johnny was going to drink himself stupid in his office,: DevCorby, playing Johnny today, added. :Now what?:
:Ad-lib it. The meat are watching,: DesiLu said. :It’ll be at least ten seconds before the Scripts catch up with us again. Places! Action!: The mouse Integrate clapped the slate.
A stunned Carla walked out of the break room.
INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE - NIGHT
The scene was easily the most popular in the Video Room that evening. There was much praise and applause showered on the members of the cast who had played it out, including Tallyhawk for setting it up so well. After Jade’s admission, a tearful Carla had admitted she actually enjoyed the catfaun’s company after all, but not in that way (unrequited love was great Drama). The result had actually warmed the relationship between them, despite that fact. Then the others revealed what hadn’t played out quite as planned after the Scripts caught up.
Dev went first. “Right now, Aeolia is playing a heartbroken, drunken Johnny McGee lurching down down McKenna Street to the Maidenform Salon. After one rejection too many and losing the fight with Jim, he’s turned in his Man Card. By the time Hooters opens tomorrow, Joanna McGee will be the owner.”
Clayton snorted, leaning back on the comfy u-shaped couch in front of the largest TV. “Well, that’ll make it easier for Aeolia to use that persona. She’s never quite gotten used to playing men. Though not for lack of trying.”
Dev put his paws up on the coffee table, where empty beer mugs and half-empty plates of sweet and spicy snacks were placed. “I was getting tired of playing him anyway. I’d like to do more behind-the-scenes stuff. She can have the role if she wants it so badly.” He picked up his mug and gulped some beer, then gestured at the guest bartender occupying the wet bar at the back of the room. “Hey, Serena, you have any more of that Shangri-Lager?”
“You’re drinking me out of house and home, Dev. I’ll have to bring in another shipment,” the clouded leopard Integrate said.
There was another round of applause from the back of the room, and the sound of a voice nobody wanted to hear. “Bravo, bravo. That’s, like, one of those old soap operas. Like Days of Our Lives, or Melrose Place, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bravo.”
Clayton cringed. “Oh, hey there Bosscat. Didn’t see you come in.”
“Hey Clay. You retiring from the Snatchers? I noticed you’ve been absent lately so I decided to check up.”
“Well, the Show needs me,” Clayton muttered.
“I can see that. Don’t worry. It’s copacetic for now.”
Clayton visibly relaxed. “Copacetic” was the word anyone always wanted to hear from Fritz. “Glad you like it, Bosscat.”
“Needs a proper title, though. I dunno, maybe The Days of our Meat.” The lynx snickered. “One Meat to Live or something. I mean, there you cats are, living among the meat as one of ‘em, hamming it up for your fellow enlightened Inties, and they don’t even know.” There was a light in his eyes--the same one from many an aspiring actor. “Gonna pull a Joe Estevez here. Got any spare roles for me to play?”
Now it was Ambrosia’s turn to cringe. “Uh, not really any you’d like, Bosscat. We could make one for you special. One that makes sense for coming and going like you do. Maybe a Nextus war hero--”
“Naw, I’m already that in real life. I want a challenge. Maybe I should play a chick, like Clay there.” He snapped his fingers. “Coo coo. Hey, I got a ginchy idea. I call this one ‘Major Hayseed’. Dig?”
The concept was a rather unsubtle one. The Major spoke with an exaggerated country accent, tended to drink and curse a lot, and wasn’t very smart. Ambrosia smiled and nodded. “Uh, sure. Sure. I can get started on that, Fritz.”
“You do that, dutchess. You do that. Now, I’m gonna split. Keep it up, my hep brothers and sisters! I’ll be back once Major Hayseed’s ready for me.”
When everyone was certain Fritz was safely gone they relaxed, but only a little. Hanley pulled in his ears. “Holyyyy shit.”
“I know. Rock and a hard place,” Ambrosia said. “For the life of me I can’t imagine Fritz being a good actor. Let alone playing a woman.” The she-bear sighed. “Anyway, I still want to reiterate that you’ve all done good today. I’ll call this one a wrap and send it to DesiLu for the final touches before putting it out on IntieNet.”
Jade put her hand up. “Wait, you’re officially going public with this one?”
“Now that Fritz knows about it, we need to get ahead of the game. Some folks here have put some of their favorite scenes up for friends in other Enclaves. Might as well do it with a more professional touch. We’ve been moving this way for a while now, so why not just make it into a full production? Hellir Studios.”
“I can think of a half dozen reasons why not. You know what TV and movies are like.” She ticked each one off on her beclawed fingers. “One, it’ll bring in more Inties to the Enclave than we can handle, all of whom wanting a role. Two, if we deny them a role they’ll find some way to bully in on the production uninvited and mess with our Scripts. Three, the fanfiction. Oh God, the fanfiction. We, and the personas we play, will be celebreties.”
Clay smiled at her. “Come on Jade. You’re having tons of fun. You’re the queen of the Script-snarl and ad-lib. We’ve had more plot twists just this past week than we did the last five months.”
“And what am I, chopped liver?” Tallyhawk huffed.
“No, that’s just your dinner,” Ambrosia said dryly.
“Oh, and a fine dinner it is.”
Ambrosia stood up and shut off the replica twencen console color TV by the switch. It shut down with the hum of vacuum tubes. “Okay, Jade. Okay! I get it. I don’t need to hear all of your reasons. I understand what you’re getting at, but I think you’re being too, well, jaded about it. We’ll hold auditions, and we can take measures to keep another Intie from trying to surprise us with a walk-on.”
“We won’t have to worry about that, at least for a little while,” Clayton said. “Now that the Bosscat’s interested nobody’ll do anything that stupid. But you know him. He’ll eventually lose interest, then we’ll have that problem.”
Whatever else had happened, the Show went on. Freed from the pressures of having to maintain Manhood, Joanna McGee would be a far better businesswoman for it. But the women of Cape Nord had their own cultural expectations. While Men got into open fistfights with each other, women were usually far more subtle about relationships among other women. As the old saying went: “Betrayal may come easy to women, but Men live by iron codes of honor.”
This was supposed to be the case, but Joanna had yet to learn subtlety. Shortly after returning to work the next day, she called Jade into her office. Shortly thereafter Jade found herself out of a job for publicly humiliating her in front of everyone. When Jeanine heard, she took a stand herself and quit, then the two of them marched out of Hooters together.
“You know, I hear Detective Goldman upstairs needs a secretary,” Jeanine said. They were enjoying some comfort food in Patton Park. Chocolate ice cream seemed to cure all ills (especially when it was Ambrosia’s, since the ice cream stand was actually one of her three CPs.). “I think it’d be a good fit for you.”
“Maybe.” OOC she sent, :Hanley, I’m curious. Why did Jeanine lose her Man Card?:
:Have Jadekitty ask her, and she just might tell you,: he replied.
That wasn’t a bad idea, and the Script allowed it. Now that they had a bigger audience than the rest of the Enclave, there was some pressure to move things forward.
Jade decided to leave out that she was going to sleep with Johnny so she could fire Carla. There were a few moments of quiet between them as they focused on their ice cream cones.
“Jeanie-girl, can I ask a question?”
“You can ask, Jadekitty, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.”
There were times when a girl had to be blunt. “Why did you lose your Man Card?”
Jeanine grimaced as if she had an ice cream headache. “Okay, I think we know each other well enough I can actually come clean on that one. So…
“You’ve seen my bedroom. It’s all cute stuff. Stuffed animals, wall vids of kittens, puppies, fawns, baby animals of all kinds. I was a sucker for capital-c Cute. Still am, of course. But it’s perfectly okay for a woman.” There was an edge of bitterness in her squirrely voice.
“I can’t see you really losing a Man Card for that. Maybe you’d lose a couple ranks, but getting it revoked and making you a woman?”
“Then a friend found my Lisa Frank collection. And my Hello Kitty. And my six generations of My Little Pony.” Jeanine looked down at herself. They were still in the Hooters uniforms. “I must’ve crossed a line somewhere. They called a Ref in. He pronounced sentence, they ceremonially tore up my Man Card, and it was off to the Feminatrix Body Salon.”
OOC, Jade sputtered. :Really? They’d really do something like that here? Shades of what those crazy Amazons did to me!:
:Oh, yes. Cape Nord and Sturmhaven aren’t really that different. Besides, Jade, look at the real me. I’m a cute bunny rabbit, and I do like Lisa Frank and the rest of those things. I love cute. It warms my heart. Makes me feel good. But I’d never get a Man Card here. Not that I want one anyway. Think I’m going to stick to CrossPlaying.:
DesiLu chimed in. :Good scene, you two. But wrap it up. Aeolia’s little ‘you’re fired’ curveball there is a good setup for a standard ‘Girls Night Out’ for Jeanine and Jadekitty. So, unless you want to check out, I want you to prepare your CP for that.:
Normally DesiLu had a very light touch, but things had changed. The reception to the “pilot episode” the Director had constructed and sent out to the other Enclaves had been positive so far. Now the mouse was exerting tighter control over ongoing plots and storylines. :Okay, Desi, will do.:
Back in the real world, Jadekitty was more stoic about it. “That’s...actually a good body salon, you know?”
“I know. They didn’t skimp on making me into the cutest pretty young thing ever. And you know what? I’m trying, I’m really trying to learn how to be a Cape Nord girl, but...between Natalia, Doreen, and you...I just don’t know. It’s not exactly coming natural to me, you know.”
The Script was just inadequate sometimes, and this was one of those times. Jadekitty’s next line was supposed to be “just keep at it, you’ll find your way.” But that didn’t seem nearly insightful enough to Jade. It was time to ad-lib again.
She turned so she was face-to-face with Jeanine. “I know this is un-asked-for advice, Jeanie-girl. But it has to be said. Stop trying so hard. You’re a Nord Girl now. There’s no ‘Woman Card’ to lose. Let the silly Men play their even sillier games and keep track of stupid points. You’re one of us now, and you have nothing to ‘womanly’ prove.”
Jeanine stared at her, dumbfounded, then understanding dawned. She put her hand on her chest. “I...didn’t think of it that way, Jadekitty. I...no, I really didn’t. It’s like a great weight’s been lifted...” She looked down at her chest. “Well, figuratively.”
“Well, there’s that.” Jade giggled. “I think we’ve earned a Girls’ Night Out, don’t you?”
“I’ve...never done that before.”
“Well, then we’ll make a real night of it! Come on, let’s go back to the apartment and put on something that’ll knock everyone’s socks off!”
:End Scene,: DesiLu sent as the duo left the park. :A little ham-handed, Jade, don’t you think? Is Cape Nord really that bad?:
:Why, yes. Yes it is. I’m going to check out once we’re back at the apartment. Last couple days have been exhausting in this role. I think I need a break from it. A few days at least.:
:Well, a half dozen others want a go at Jadekitty.: Jeanine’s nickname for Jade’s namesake role had caught on. It helped differentiate the fictional version from the real one.
:My preference is for Tallyhawk to play her, but fine. See you in the Green Room in a few minutes.:
After she finished making the Continuity Notes in the Green Room, Jade went to her own quarters in the Enclave. She’d barely seen the inside of it for weeks now. The decor was very Spartan. With a tired sigh she lay down in bed and popped out her DIN. If anyone wanted to talk to her they’d have to just knock.
It felt like a lifetime since Clayton had brought her here. When was the last time I thought about home? She searched her memories and found the exact moment, when she’d left the Enclave that first time as Jadekitty. From then on it was all about the Show. It set her imagination on fire. Other Enclaves, the ones out in the Dry, were reputedly intensely fixated on a genre, or even a single creative work. Not so in Hellir.
Hellir absolutely fizzed with creativity. It was a thrill to be a part of. She could almost forgive Clayton for Snatching her here. Almost. In the quiet moments like this one, when she wasn’t in the role, the homesickness returned.
Briefly, she entered Nature Range to see the glory of the Southern Crystal Range. Neorus’s geology was unique among the colonies. Its crystalline metamaterial neosilicate had infinite information density when refined into Infinium. It was a lot like Zharus’s own qubitite, but the planet literally had continent-sized deposits of the stuff and more of it was liberally scattered around various planetary bodies in the system.
Like the other metas, it had a number of other uses. But unlike cavorite production, the method for enabling that infinite information density was the most-guarded secret on the planet, as were the Infinium datacrystals themselves. The penalty for trying to smuggle a datacrystal off-planet was life imprisonment. Raw neosilicate itself was exported in limited quantities. It had uses when combined with other metas, just not the one use it was renowned for.
Funny thing was… She remembered what had sparked her wanderlust. Funny thing was that someone had managed to sneak a RIDE off Zharus, or at least the shell of one, and brought it to her hometown. Remembering perfectly now, it obviously had lacked an RI core. Then there was the time she managed to go to the Star Circus and see the Zharus Zoo, and the animal-featured performers there.
The problem was…
Even her own memories insisted she’d been a young girl at the time, when it was clearly not the case. The dissonance gave her a very strange headache.
Jade snarled, extending her claws, grabbing the blanket underneath and tearing it. The memories themselves weren’t changed. It was just a very insistent background nagging that would. Not. Stop.
She sat up and brought her knees against her chest, thinking. Just how bad is this conditioning? What can I do about it? I’m an Integrate! Why can’t I find where they’ve screwed with me and change it back?
Was it even possible to have that much control over herself? Messing with her own brain was incredibly risky, even if she did. I wouldn’t even know what neuron to begin with.
If there was no way to be subtle about it, maybe she could brute-force her way through. Jade laughed ruefully. Just like a man to punch something until it gives. Just like a…
She facepalmed. “I’ve been in Cape Nord too long.”
Maybe using the stereotypically feminine approach for this polity was the wrong way. Maybe she could…
Jade grabbed her DIN off the nightstand and plugged it back in, then called DesiLu.
The harried Director looked more than a little frazzled, even in virtual. The mouse had bags under her eyes from lack of sleep. “Hey, Jade. What can I do for you?”
“Before I get to that, Desi, just how much multitasking are you doing right now? You’re looking a little frotzed.”
DesiLu sighed deeply. “I’m managing five major Scenes right now and twice that many minor. I’m turning raw footage into something usable and working on musical accompaniment, I’m…”
“Doing far too much for one person. C’mon, Desi. Get some help. Mark Seven and Ubu--”
“Aren’t as good at this as I am. But, point taken. Do you want to check out Jadekitty again? Nobody’s taken her out again as yet. Tallyhawk’s wrapping something up with her right now. She’s scheduled to do the Girls Night Out scene with Hanley.”
After revealing Jadekitty was bisexual, Jade herself had some idea of where Tallyhawk could take the CP on a Girls Night Out with Jeanine. But, at times like this she had to remind herself that the Cover Persona wasn’t really supposed to be her real life self. It could diverge, and when being played by someone else, generally did. The curveballs and sometimes outright OOC moments other Players brought to the characters was really part of the point of the whole thing. Tallyhawk was especially good at it.
That gave her a potentially very fun idea.
“Desi...is anyone playing Mitch right now?”
“Uh, no, but that CP has some pretty hefty restrictions. You need actual investigation skills if you want to do anything official, for one. I could make up a one-shot for you if you just want to flounce around with testosterone poisoning for a while. Can you even do that with your Amazon conditioning?”
Normally thinking about being a man gave her a bad case of nausea and a light headed sensation. But so far, this wasn’t having the same effect. “All I want is a few minutes in Goldman’s gumshoes. I won’t do anything else but maybe stand at the window and look out over the city street.”
“I can allow that. Pick up the Continuity in the Green Room, and make sure you dress the part. Real clothes, not hardlight. Even if you’re only up there five minutes.”
“Got it, Desi. Thanks.”
Jade took a deep breath, ignored the nausea that was only now starting, and headed for the Green Room.
The ill feeling only got worse when Jade read through the character notes. This wasn’t going to be an end-run around the conditioning as she had hoped. She read through the notes.
DETECTIVE MITCH GOLDMAN, Private Investigator. Man Card, Top Rank. A real True Nordsman. Former detective in the Aloha Police Department. Claims he quit to go out on his own. Moved to Cape Nord recently to establish his Private Investigation firm. A tough-as-nails, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking womanizer.
Goldman fit the Cape Nord masculine ideal to a T. Once a Man reached True Nordsman status it was very difficult to lose it. It was a lot like how university professors attained tenure. Even if Goldman had a secret cache of Lisa Frank art somewhere, he wouldn’t lose it. The True Nordsman rank was what every Man aspired to be--in some ways it was akin to just throwing in the towel and turning female. It was even on the Agency’s front door: Mitch Goldman, Private Eye. True Nordsman.
“Scene notes for Mitch are up, Jade,” Desi said at her desk. She looked just as overworked as in virtual. “And, I’ve called in Ubu. I do need a break. This whole thing is getting away from me. We need more behind-the-scenes people to really make this work. The demand...”
“Is it really that big? I’ve been afraid to look. I haven’t seen anything about it in my mailbox.”
“We’ve set up some fanmail filters, that’s why. Don’t worry about it now. Just go do your Mitch Scene and get back here pronto.”
The wall fabbers spat out Mitch Goldman’s outfit. Jade removed her clothes and started putting it on. The nausea increased sharply. She started to try and track down the source. Even the black leather shoes weren’t hardlight, but a lightweight armature that imitated plantigrade feet. Her own feline feet fit inside the back of the shoe. The clothes were very loose, even though she was tall for a woman here. The clothes were rumpled, dirty with raw q-dust, and hard-worn.
“Moment of truth,” Jade said aloud. Then she activated the hardlight costume. She was suddenly very, very dizzy. It took every bit of willpower she had not to shut it down again or faint. Then something inside her head snapped.
“Jade!” DesiLu exclaimed. “How...are you okay now? Was it the brainwashing?”
“Feels like I broke something, I don’t know what,” Jade said in Goldman’s gravelly bass voice. “I’m okay, really. Ready for the Scene.”
“Well, the Script is ready, ‘Mitch’. Just make sure you read and re-read every single character and continuity note. I mean it, every one. And don’t go off Script! I’m not sure what Tally’s going to do when she finds out.”
“Well, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, dollface,” Jade said in-character. The final touch to go with the duster coat was the brown fedora. “Let’s roll.”
INT. GOLDMAN DETECTIVE AGENCY - DAY
Having run into a block on an important missing person case MITCH GOLDMAN arrives home for a brief respite from the work.
According to the notes, Mitch Goldman wasn’t a very good detective. He couldn’t be because he didn’t want to attract too much attention to himself, but it also made for good Drama. He was formerly of the Aloha Police Department, fired because he wasn’t very good at his job. But most of his failed “cases” were actually from other Players. Those few the Detective took from real people had a much higher success rate. He wasn’t bungling those jobs he failed on purpose, either.
It was huge in the character notes: NO DRAMA when real people are involved. Just do the damned job. No melodramatic dialogue, either. Just keep it real.
The others who returning from their scenes were a little surprised to see Mitch in the Green Room. “He” tipped his hat to them, then went into the corridor, up the stairs to “his” office, then tried to settle into the Script.
More Script notes. Primary Style: Film Noir. Begin the Scene with an internal monologue. As Mitch, she let the Script get started.
Weather in the South Cavern never changes. After the unremitting heat of the Dry, the chilly air of Cape Nord was like a fresh draught of cold beer. I needed that beer. No, I needed more than beer. Something much stronger.
In keeping with the theme, the inside of the office was a darkened place with half-open blinds that let in only a tiny bit of light through slats, leaving bright lines on the hardwood floor. There was just enough light to make out the dusty, grimy desk with the tablet carelessly laid on top of it and an unemptied ashtray full of half-smoked cigarette butts.
The trail ran cold on me on the Mitchell Case in Bartertown. The missing fat slob of a former cop wasn’t as easy to find as I expected. I went to the wall safe to find the object of my return home.
:Not bad so far,: DesiLu informed. :Keep it up, Jade. Stick to the Script. Holding up okay?:
:My boobs are going to be so sore when this is over.: The hardlight glamour still had to squash them down in order to fit inside Goldman’s muscular chest. Tallyhawk’s own were barely even there, though she did have the arm feather and shoe problem. Still, with the Script running like this, it was getting easier to pinpoint the brainwashing hotspots and fix them.
Inside the wall safe was a treasured bottle of vodka, imported all the way from Neorus. The clear bottle with the blue liquid inside showed it was three-quarters empty. The Detective sighed. He wasn’t likely to afford something like this again anytime soon.
:Holy...that’s Infinium Ice Vodka! That’s pricey stuff even back home!: Jade exclaimed. :I’d...better not touch it. Tally...:
:Uh, speaking of Tally,: DesiLu intoned. :She found out. And she’s on her way. As you. Well, Jadekitty.:
Jade remembered a line earlier from Jeanine suggesting she get a job as Goldman’s secretary. :Shouldn’t she be doing the Girls Night Out about now?:
:Yes, but this is Tally we’re talking about. Get ready. New Script rolling out.:
Mitch saw her silhouette against the frosted glass window in the bright hallway. The tiger ears stood out, as did the rest of her luscious curves. She knocked on the door, three quick, precise taps. “Mister Goldman? I hear you need a secretary and I’d like to apply for the job. Can I come in?”
Jade feld an odd twinge. Not from the Amazon brainwashing, but an entirely different kind. There was seeing yourself in photos or recorded on screen, but this? Still, the other Players often interacted with their Mains this way. Now it was just her turn.
“I’m closed, toots. Come back later,” Mitch said.
“I really need a job, Mister Goldman,” Jadekitty pleaded. “Please, can we talk for just a few minutes? That’s all I’ll need.”
There was an OOC ping from Tallyhawk. :Of all the male CPs we have, you choose that one for your first? I didn’t think you were capable of that kind of role. Playing Mitch isn’t for the faint-of-heart, kitty cat. Many others have tried, all have failed.:
:Maybe they just weren’t motivated enough. He’s helping me break my conditioning.:
:Really?: Tallyhawk exclaimed. :Well, let’s break it good and hard! Let me help.:
:Action, you two,: DesiLu commanded.
I unlocked the door. She walked into my office in a red dress and a pushy attitude. Jade tried not to sputter too much over the sexist Script monologue. She might have come right from a party. There’s always a party somewhere for dames like her. “What makes you think I even need a secretary, toots?”
Jadekitty handed him a printout from the local craigslist. Her voice purred. “Your ad, Mr. Goldman. It’s been up for five months.”
“I’m really picky about who works for me, miss…?”
“Jade Cattano,” she purred. The cheeky broad looked poured into that dress. “When do I start?”
“Now, just wait a second here, toots,” Mitch sputtered. “I--”
The woman’s shout boomed through the hall. “Mitch Goldman! You owe me four months of back rent!”
The Script stuttered. It was Joanna McGee. He was utterly unprepared for the newly-female landlord marching right into his office, apparently not even seeing Jadekitty standing next to him. “Well, uh…”
“You can’t intimidate me anymore, Goldman!” Joanna growled. “I don’t have to worry about a silly Man Card now! Pay up or you’re out on your ear! No more empty promises!”
:What the hell is this?: Jade sent OOC. :Aeolia? That’s not very ladylike.:
:Joanna’s a real hard-ass now,: the rabbit replied. :But then, Jadekitty knows that. She just doesn’t care about ladylike. Why should she?:
The Script caught up and Mitch smirked. “So, they finally revoked your Man Card, huh? Figures you had to lose your dick to grow a spine, Johnny McGee.”
“Joanne, thank you. Like I said, you can’t intimidate me now. Rent now, or you’re out.”
“Just how much back rent are we talking about?” Jadekitty asked.
The sound of her voice brought Joanna up short. She turned her head and stared at her former employee and potential bedmate. “Six thousand mu,” she sputtered out. “Plus I want the next two months in advance. Eight thousand mu.”
Jadekitty gestured flippantly. “Is that all? I made that much last month in tips alone.” She took a tablet out of her purse and quickly paged through the right screens. “Here’s ten thousand. Take it or leave it, Joanna.”
:I happen to know I didn’t make nearly that much in tips,: Jade sent. :Where’s the money coming from?:
:Oh, here and there. Plot requirement. Don’t worry,: Tallyhawk said. “Well, Miss McGee?”
“It’ll do,” the new woman huffed. Then she smiled. It wasn’t a friendly smile in the least. It was a triumphant smile. A promising smile. “You know, turning in my Man Card was the best decision I’ve ever made. And it’s not like they can make me take one again for three years. Take a look at what you’ve unleashed, Jade Cattano. I’m a free woman now. Tata!” Joanna swept out of the office and shut the door behind her.
“That dame is pure trouble,” Mitch said aloud, tugging on the lapels of his duster.
“And what am I? Chopped liver?” the other dame said, hand on hip.
“Nah, you’re trouble, too. But maybe the good kind. I owe you a lot today, Miss Cattano. You’re hired.”
:Wrap it up, Players,: DesiLu ordered. :How are you holding up, Jade?:
:Not a twinge since that ‘snap’ I felt downstairs.:
:I think you’ve got Mitch down pat, too. I’m impressed,: Tallyhawk added. :Let’s wrap this Scene and have a chat downstairs.:
<tt>INT. HELLIR ENCLAVE - VIDEO ROOM - DAY
Down in the Enclave, an emotionally exhausted Jade lay sprawled out on the shag carpet of the Video Room. Word had spread about the Scene between Mitch, Joanna, and Jadekitty and everyone was waiting for DesiLu and Ubu to put it together. The black dog Intie had said it begged some jazzy music to go along with it, so he was busy composing. Even with Intie fast-time it would take a while.
Tallyhawk was very effusive with her praise. “Seriously, Jade. If you want to play Mitch again you’re welcome to him.”
“That was mostly the Script,” Jade protested. “I was too busy burning out my conditioning to do much else than follow it.”
“Think you got it all?”
“Doubt it.” Jade shrugged. “It’s a start.”
“So you should keep playing him until you do. Frankly, turnabout is fair play anyway.”
“You make a good Jadekitty yourself, though it was weird to see myself like that.”
“Heh. I know exactly how you feel, Jade.”
Clayton swaggered into the room. He used his lifters to throw himself on the opposite couch. “Ubu’s almost ready with the Scene you guys did. I can’t wait to see it! After the big scene earlier, I’m surprised you still had any energy to keep going. I’m done for the day.”
Jade propped herself up on her elbows. “I sure am now, for several days at least.”
“Food, everyone!” Ambrosia announced in a singsong voice, carrying in a train of trays in a lifter field. “Popcorn, fudge, souffles, cookies!”
“Did I hear someone say fudge?” The voice came from the corridor. A short apparition in white stood there, blinking.
“Desi! You’re out of the Green Room!” Clayton said.
“I went to the bathroom. A girl has to take care of business, you know? I’d just finished editing the last Scene...when I came back, Ubu and Mark Seven locked me out!”
Ambrosia motioned for her to take a seat. “Join the rest of us and enjoy the fruits of our labor, my dear. Please. Then you can sleep.”
Everyone found a place to settle in front of the giant screen. All over the Enclave Integrates were stopping whatever they were doing to watch the Show. It started with a simple title card in black and white and a jazzy riff on a saxophone. The narration was Mitch’s and the opening monologue from before.
“Weather in the South Cavern never changes. After the unremitting heat of the Dry, the chilly air of Cape Nord was like a fresh draught of cold beer. I needed that beer. No, I needed more than beer. Something much stronger.”
Camera angles shifted as Mitch moseyed up to his wall safe. It was still in black-and-white, like a genuine Noir film from the 1940s. Nobody in the room said a word. DesiLu’s camera work was masterful as it shifted between the door as the silhouette appeared, then Mitch, then back to the door with Jadekitty’s dialogue.
Joanne’s outburst and Jadekitty’s paying the back rent was the dramatic moment of the Scene. Then came Jadekitty’s departure.
“Well, I have a party to go to, Mr. Goldman,” she said. “So I’ll be seeing you very soon. This office is a dump.”
“I consider it homey,” Mitch said, mildly offended. “Lived-in, even.”
Jadekitty turned and walked towards the door. She opened it, then looked over her shoulder. “By the way, my friends call me JadeCat, Mr. Goldman. You may use the name, too.”
“Just call me Mitch, then.”
“Okay, Mitch. See you later.” She walked out and shut the door behind her.
The Detective had nearly crushed his own hat in his hands. The closing narration began. “In the end, I’m not sure who hired who. But this catty dame saved my bacon, and a Nordsman always pays his debts.”
The scene faded out, the credits rolled, the room remained silent. Jade, Tallyhawk, DesiLu, and Aeolia got very, very tense.
“That, my friends, is the touch of a good Director,” Ambrosia said, breathless. “But Tally, Jade, the sheer chemistry between you two in that scene! Bravo, brava!”
“Well, I’m not really sure about the ‘JadeCat’ moniker, but it felt more appropriate for a noir setting than ‘Jadekitty’ does.” Tallyhawk wiggled her hand. “What do you think about it, Jade?”
“No objections then, none now,” Jade said. “If it’s ready to put out on IntieNet, go ahead. You have my permission.”
“Mine, too,” Aeolia said. “I don’t mind playing the villain. Joanna is so delicious to play in this polity.”
“Antagonist, Aeo,” Hanley said insistently. “Not the same as a villain.”
“Cut, print, that’s a wrap!” Tallyhawk said. “Publish it, Desi.”
“Okay,” DesiLu rubbed her hands together. “It’s been published! Now, we wait.”
December 30, 147 AL
INT. BLIND BOAR TAVERN - NIGHT
“I’ll have another White Russian. In fact, make it a double. And use the good stuff this time, Brenda.” Private Investigator Mitch Goldman ogled the young woman behind the bar as she mixed the cocktail. He downed half of it in one gulp. “Ah, Infinium Blue. The best.”
“You gonna pay your tab anytime soon, Mitch?” Brenda asked. The foxy young woman angled herself to display some very fine assets. She was DevCorby’s regular role these days. “It’s due at midnight.”
“I’ve--we’ve had had a good run lately, so, here you go. A Nordsman always pays his debts.” Mitch looked into JadeCat’s eyes, and the two kissed long, deep, and passionately.
:And we’re officially off-camera!: DesiLu announced. :I’ll be there soon myself. The mundanes are gone and bar is ours for the rest of the night.:
The Players relaxed, but didn’t drop their glamours. It was just a precaution when out of the Enclave. Tonight was special. It wasn’t just New Year’s Eve, it was a celebration of months of success. Ratings were off the charts, and other Enclaves had even put their own Shows together. But mostly they were just by-rote reenactments of scenes from the creative works they obsessed over. None could quite match “Hellirwood” for originality.
Tonight was a special night. After months of beating back the Amazon conditioning, Jade could finally make an announcement.
“It took some digging in starliner records, but I found it in the starliner passenger manifests. My given name is Pietro Romanov. And I can say it aloud without getting a monster headache.” Jade downed the last of the White Russian. “And this tastes just like home.”
“With a name like that, you should be one of the X-Men or an Avenger,” Clayton said, still in Carla guise. “And it’s a good, stronk Sturmhaven name for a guy.”
“I suppose it is.” Jade shrugged. “As for my chosen name, well, I think Clayton can answer that, can’t you?” Jade gave “Carla” one of Mitch’s trademark glares that made a number of crooks spontaneously confess to the crime.
“Um…” Clayton cringed. “Jade was...the RIDE that...I...you know.”
“And it’s the only thing left of her.”
Ambrosia growled. “Cut the Drama! We’re supposed to be having fun tonight!”
With her arm possessively around Jade’s masculine waist, Tallyhawk used her free hand to raise another toast. “Don’t worry, Ambri. Nothing can get me down. Salud!”
“Salud!” the partygoers echoed.
“Still homesick, Jade?” Tallyhawk asked.
“I think I always will be, Tally. That reminds me, I owe you a tour of Novy Kyiv in Nature Range.”
“And I owe you an apology,” Clayton said. He shut down the Carla glamor, leaving himself in her slinky, sparkly minidress for the cast party. He prostrated himself before Jade, DevCorby, Hanley, and Aeolia. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! Oh, GOD, am I sorry! I hate what I do! But what I do...it’s necessary.”
“I’m not convinced of that,” Ambrosia said in Big Jim’s bass. “There used to be a lighter hand in this. The Candlejacks rarely needed to do forced Integrations. But…not anymore.”
“Even if it is necessary it’s not very nice,” Hanley-as-Jeanine said.
“Sadly, I’m very good at what I do. And what I do isn’t very nice. But, you know. New year and all that. I’m glad you finally found yourself again, Jade. That’s been nagging on my conscience for months.”
“This secrecy situation won’t last forever, Clay. Not by a long shot. I’m a patient woman. One day, I’ll go home. I’ll have a lot to explain to friends and family, but you’d be surprised at the tall tales we hear about Zharus on the other side of human space. They might even believe me.”
“Do you mind if I tag along?” Tallyhawk asked. “I wouldn’t mind seeing those crystal mountains of yours from the air.”
Jade smiled and let Mitch speak. “Of course. What would I do without you, dollface?”