|Paradise story universe|
|This story is a work in progress.|
|Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti|
To Rob's complete surprise, the real problem with inviting Jan and Dennis to Blacksburg the last weekend before the August Change to join them on their trek down the Cascades Trail was not that Jan would get to see CM the she-bear naked. Rather it was that the boar would have to disrobe himself and as it turned out, he was genuinely nervous about doing this around others.
To even convince Rob that this was something they could do CM had promised to wear a male swimsuit. But the skunk had never expected that Jan would insist on wearing even more before agreeing to go into the water with the rest of them. Dennis the hedgehog had no such inhibitions and skinny dipped like the skunk, his spines rustling like a swimming sea slug as he moved through the waterfall fed pool.
Jan slipped into the water so only his porcine head was visible. "This is very nice," he admitted, his nostrils flaring momentarily as he settled down. CM swam on the other side with Rob and Dennis between them. Their cleaning gear remained on the bank. "Are all your Summer days like this?"
"Yeah, this area is great in Summer," Rob replied. "No humidity, rarely over eighty degrees, it's great."
"Especially with all this fur!" CM trumpeted before diving beneath the water. A dark brown mass swam back and forth and then lifted up with a fish trapped between her jaws. Even though he'd seen his friend do this a few times now, it still unnerved him. Dennis gaped, little eyes widening in disbelief. Jan stared for a moment and then guffawed.
"I think you've been a bear too long, yah!"
CM climbed on bank and deposited the fish in a plastic bag filled with water. Her thick fur clung to her body and as she lumbered on all fours, apart from the swimming trunks, she looked very much like a normal bear. "Leslie loves it when I bring back fresh fish. And since you both are staying for dinner, I'm going to catch some extra."
Jan shook his head and waved his arms in the water. After getting into the small pool beneath the forty-foot waterfall, he'd not moved from the rock shelf he'd settled on. Rob swam a little closer and found another shelf nearby. "So, Jan, I've never asked you what you do for a living."
The boar kept his eyes on the rippling surface of the crystal clear water. He twitched when a small fish brushed one of his bristly legs. "I work at a small engineering company. We do contract work around the area, so I get to play with all sorts of toys. Is how I met Dennis."
"I thought you worked as an insurance auditor," Rob said, turning to the hedgehog.
"I do. We contracted Jan's company to verify a client's claims. We'd used them before, but I never really knew Jan until he changed. I've met a few other Changed because of my job too. Just last week we added three more Changed to the NoVa community."
Rob idly watched CM catch another fish in her jaws. He really hoped no hikers came up the trail. The skunk dunked his head under the water and then shook it out of his fur. "You met three at once?"
"Through this Jack Russell lady. She filed a claim on some furniture she'd destroyed. Claimed her dog did it, but those claw marks were obviously not her dogs. I made her drop the claim to prevent an official investigation. She already knew two other Changed in the area, and we all got together and pooled our money to buy her new furniture."
"That's interesting," Rob admitted, glancing between Jan and Dennis. "I wonder how many Changed know each other but haven't met people in the network. CM, what do you think?"
The she-bear dropped her fourth fish from her jaws into the plastic bag and licked her jowls. "Finding isolated pockets of Changed? It's happened a few times. I think it's going to happen a lot more over the next few years. I wouldn't be surprised if we found some other websites for Changed communities that don't know anything about us." CM shook like a dog and sprayed water all over the river-smoothed rocks.
Rob pondered that thought as he relaxed in the water. The day was pleasantly cool in the shade of the valley, while all the trees swung with a light breeze, green leaves rustling and pines thrumming. The falls provided a constant crashing splatter that drowned out everything else. The vaulted walls of slate rising upward, domed by a variety of deciduous trees, sheltered them in an arboreal sanctuary.
"The network scrubs the web already," Rob pointed out. "If there were any such sites, they would have been found. Or they're going to be found eventually. Whatever."
"We're going to see a lot more Changed after next Sunday, ya?" Jan asked.
"Well, probably not right away," CM admitted as she slipped back beneath the waters. Rob wondered why she bothered to shake off if she was just going to get back in, but knew there was no point in asking. The Change brought some strange instincts that were often hard to resist. "Odds are we won't know anybody who Changes, but we need to keep watch anyway. Which reminds me, what are the NoVa Changed doing to prepare?"
"We've made lists," Jan replied. "At least ten people each that we'll check up on next Friday and Saturday for the sickness."
"And we've got everyone's phone numbers," Dennis added with a shrug of his shoulders. His spines rippled along his back and upper arms. "I'm not sure what else we can do except keep our eyes open."
"There's really not much else you can do," Rob pointed out. "I just hope there's more people here locally who've Changed."
"Kyle's coming down to Tech the week after," CM pointed out as she sank into the water. "And Barb knows a lot of people we don't."
"I'm hoping for somebody middle-aged," the skunk said with a churr in his throat. "We'll have three college students and a retiree. We need more variety to make all the connections we need in town."
The she-bear frowned and waved her arms back and forth to keep steady in the natural pool. "Well, as college students, we probably won't be living here forever."
"True," Rob admitted. "Which just makes our need for more people who do live here more important."
Jan grunted through his nose and played his hoof-like hand across the water's surface. "I'll be happy so long as I stay a boar."
"I'll be happy as long as I go male again," CM said with a heavy sigh.
"Ya, I hope so too," Jan replied, a twinkle filling his beady eyes. "You look too good to be a woman."
CM glowered and splashed him with a wave of her paw. Rob and Dennis laughed. The hedgehog shook his head and sighed, "Well, I'm stuck this way. Coming up on two years for me now. What about you, Rob?"
"I wouldn't mind changing again as long as I stay male. I'd love to become feline. But skunk isn't so bad. I'm not drinking as much as I used to which helps. I really hope Audrey changes though. And it'd be nice if some others from SOAP did too."
"It'll happen eventually," CM said. "Well, if we're right it will. Anyway, we've been checking in with the other Changed in the area, and things sound pretty good. I think everybody's ready for next week, or as ready as we'll ever get. Everybody's trying stuff similar to what you NoVa Changed are doing, so we'll compare notes and see how we did in two weeks."
"Sounds fair," Jan nodded. "Are we going to try meeting again like we did at Technicon?"
Rob groaned, "Oh I hope not! At least not at Technicon. I don't even want to think about Technicon for another three months."
CM chuckled and snuffed. "We probably won't be able to get everybody together like we did that time, but we may try to organize a couple get togethers. We'll see. First, we have to get through another Change Day."
"Do you really think it's going to be that bad?" Jan asked.
"Who knows!" Rob shrugged. "All I know is that I'm going to spend all day tomorrow working on the server, changing out cables, and figuring out why I'm getting an intermittent signal on my remote laptop." The skunk then elaborated on exactly what the problems were and what he thought he needed to do to solve them.
When he finished, the hedgehog, eyes raised, said, "And on that note, I think I'm going to start scrubbing." Jan guffawed and followed his friend to the slate ledge where they'd left their gear. Amazingly, CM's shaking hadn't completely drenched their things.
The sky cleared by the time late afternoon arrived. The four friends laughed and teased each other as they made their way back down the Cascades trail. After scrubbing the shampoo through their fur, or in Dennis's case, bristly spines, they'd washed clean, played around a bit longer in the pool, and then lay in the open air drying off. Jan never lost his self-consciousness and kept his swimming trunks on despite how sopping wet this made him all the way back down the trail. When they reached the parking lot, he rubbed his middle down one last time with his towels while CM, Rob, and Dennis stowed their gear in Rob's Matrix.
As Jan finished drying himself off, his brow furrowed, eyes staring fixedly at the pair of bikes parked next to Rob's Matrix. He wrapped his towel behind his neck and snorted. "Hey CM! I got an idea."
The bear lifted her head from the trunk of the car and said, "Uh oh. What's the idea?"
Jan laughed and gestured to his bike. "Would you like to ride my bike down to the main road? Is not a long ride and there won't be many cars."
CM shifted her weight and regarded both the boar and the bike. He had shown her so much in the last five months that she had begun to feel very comfortable on a motorcycle. However, he'd never let her do more than drive around parking lots. If she became a rat again like she suspected, with such a long tail it would be nearly impossible for her to ride until her next Change. This was probably her last opportunity.
"Just to the end of the road. Not onto 460?"
The boar grabbed either end of towel draping over his neck and pulled gently. "Ya. It'll give you a taste of what bikes are really like."
Rob slapped the bear on the back and said, "Get on the bike and get it over with. You know you want to."
CM laughed, her fur and jowls shaking with the pleasure. "Okay, fine. You sure you trust me?"
Jan patted the seat and grunted. "Yah. Speed limit's only thirty-five. Take it easy on the turns and you'll be fine."
While CM took those few steps toward Jan and the motorcycle, Dennis climbed on his bike and chuckled under his breath. "I'll set a good pace for you, CM. Just stay a car length behind me and you'll do fine."
"Thanks, Dennis." CM swung one leg over the bike and felt her bulk settle comfortably into the seat.
Jan handed her the keys, patted her shoulder once, and followed Rob to his Matrix. "We follow you and watch you," the boar declared with his usual aplomb. "I'll let you know how you did!"
CM ignored the boar's attempt at a joke, inserted the key into the ignition, and started the bike. It rumbled to life and roared pleasantly when she gave it gas. Dennis nodded his pudgy head in approval, started his bike, and slowly eased out of the parking space and into the empty lot. CM gently followed him, feeling an anxious tightening in her heart as the bike responded to her commands. With a twist of her wrist, she shifted gears and turned to follow the hedgehog.
The parking lot was shrouded by deciduous forest on every side. Only the road leading to 460 offered a way out. Dennis eased down the road as it plunged beneath leafy boughs that obscured the solitary power line, and CM followed him, her paws gripping the handlebars tightly. The road ducked and wove as it followed the meandering stream to the valley's entrance. Rocks clustered on their right, huge stacks that supported trees and the vast hillsides that stretched from the mountains. Moss clung to their surface, and even as they cruised past, CM could smell the rich aroma of the wide variety of deer, grouse, and other game that made these mountains their home.
After only a few minutes the forest thinned enough that they started to see houses and yards on either side. Most were run down or in poor repair, with plastic siding or wooden beams long in need of replacing. They weren't truly poor, those who lived here, they just didn't have enough to rebuild what was slowly falling apart. The four of them were fortunate so far in their lives, but they could all just as easily end up living somewhere remote. For a Changed, it might not be such a bad thing either.
But none of this was on CM's mind. For the first time, the she-bear was riding a motorcycle down a road without assistance. And as she made turn after turn and kept her speed under control, she felt her confidence increasing. The wind sliced through hr fur and pounded at her chest, but it was a good feeling, strong and powerful that made her call on her strength to beat it back. She sat firmly in the chair, her thick legs supporting her upper body as it bore the brunt of the air's cloying hands.
Her nostrils flared with the rich scents pouring her way. CM's ears folded back as she listened to the growling of the engine between her legs. She smiled and chuckled to herself at the odd sensation of the wind cleaning her fangs. Her stub of a tail twitched with delight in her shorts.
And then they passed out of the hills and onto the small plain that was the town of Pembroke. The road straightened as it neared the much larger and far busier 460. Dennis slowed and CM eased back with him. Behind them, Rob pulled the Matrix off to one side while Dennis and CM parked on the shoulder. CM let out a long sigh of pleasure as she turned the key and rubbed her paw pad over the bike's chrome handlebars and across the fuel tank.
"That good, huh?" Dennis asked with a knowing smile crossing his snout. His spines shivered down his back like a wave passing through sand.
CM nodded and could not disguise the awe in her voice. "Oh yeah. That was amazing."
Jan laughed as he climbed out of the Matrix and clopped his hooves to her side. "You looked like a natural, CM! Did you like it?"
"I loved it! I'm so getting one of these when I can afford it!" CM roared in delight, rubbing her paws along the bike's front some more. "This was a really sweet ride. Thank you, Jan."
The boar nodded, "You look right for a bike. Maybe one day we go riding together, yah?"
"I'd like that. These mountains beg to be ridden!"
Jan crossed his arms, glancing once at the low, green mountains that surrounded them. "Yah, they do. But there's just one thing."
CM looked back at him. "What's that?"
The boar's expression was of pleased amusement. "Could I have my bike back now?" Rob beat his paws against his steering wheel to keep from laughing.
When not working, CM and Rob spent the next few days calling the few Changed they knew in Virginia and the surrounding states. They discussed strategies for looking for new Changed, and the warning signs that would precede the Change. Much of this was merely refresher for the others who'd been preparing on their own, but for most of them, this would be the first time they'd be actively looking for new Changed.
Much of their time on the phone was spent catching up with those who they'd gathered with at Technicon earlier in the year. Claire, the otter from Bristol, had her paws full getting her children ready for the next year of grade school. Edgar, the opossum from Richmond, boasted of his recent promotion and how smart his three year old boy was. Carl, the Golden from South Boston, spent most of the time asking them what they were doing in their lives, but did admit that his nephew was home from his tour of duty overseas and was most amused that his old fogey of an uncle had attended Technicon. Kyle the chipmunk wouldn't stop raving about how excited he was to be coming to Virginia Tech in another week. And of course Jan and Dennis were already talking about dragging CM on a biking trip into the Jefferson National Forest in September.
The only other Changed that had been there, Barb the panther, was local and had her own network of friends that she promised to keep an eye on. And so with little else to do but wait, Rob and CM kept up the facade of a normal life around their friends and coworkers as the days of the week trickled past. Until the sickness came on the fifteenth, they wouldn't know who might join their August company on Sunday morn.
Leslie could tell that CM was a little anxious, and it pained the she-bear not to be able to tell her wife what was amiss. But there always lingered that hope in her ursine chest that in a few days Leslie would join her amongst the ranks of the Changed and there would never need be any secrets between them again.
By Thursday night, CM's anxiety had reached such a height that he could only be thankful that Leslie worked that evening. The she-bear climbed into her Saturn and took the long drive down Harding Avenue heading out of Blacksburg. It was a particular favourite of theirs, winding down into a valley lined by ridges with ranches and old country homes on either side of the twisting road. At that hour of the night, he saw deer at the edge of the woods, and sometimes a raccoon or skunk.
The road changed names and turned down several other roads, including route 42 which climbed up a steep mountain face before returning to 460. By the time that CM returned home it had been a two hour drive, but it had done its job. The bear was finally able to calm down and collapse in bed. The metal groaned under her weight, but she was long since used to it. Her mind, once racing with wonder what the next day would bring, had calmed down enough that simple prayer kept it focussed.
Dreams of Leslie sprouting fur in a few days kept her in a pleasant slumber. CM could never quite tell what Leslie was becoming, but the sight of her changing was enough. With such sweet dreams, CM never cared what happened to herself.
But when her eyes crept open Friday morning and felt a crushing headache pounding on either side of her massive ursine head, and a sickening tightness stirring her corpulent gut, CM couldn't think of anything but herself.