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Revision as of 23:08, 29 August 2009



A Trickster's Tail

Author: Phaedrus

Copyright 1996-1998 Phaedrus

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This story contains adult content.
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No further updates are expected.
Author's Comments

This story series is unfinished, and at this point it looks unlikely that it will ever be finished. Still, there's some good stuff in here.

The story contains foul language; and part 10 contains adult sexual material -- nothing is explicitly described, but the nature of the scene may still be offensive.

This story was originally in the No More Fakes universe, but it never really intersected with the other stories, and diverged rather sharply at the end.

Part 1 (Oct. 31; written 1996/12/17)

Keith was so nervous, he was afraid he might need to pee. Which would be more than a bit inconvenient right now.

He was not the sort of person that you would expect to see walking down the street in a coyote suit. But then again, that was probably why he was doing it.




Keith had first heard about the Raucous Chicken Club party back in mid-September; and as soon as he heard about it, he knew it was something that he needed to see--badly enough to extend his stay for two weeks. Not that that was a big deal; he hadn't accepted any new offers yet. (There were plenty of offers; Microsoft and IBM were in a full hiring swing; and no small number of his fellow contractors had felt the call of a guaranteed paycheck, thinning out the field somewhat--but he had been there, done that, thank you very much. Besides, he wasn't exactly hurting for funds; 30000 shares of Microsoft doesn't make you Bill Gates, but it does make your travel plans a lot more flexible.)

Ever since drama class in high school, he had always had an interest in costuming. He was glad he hadn't made a career of it, but he still remembered enough to win most of the costume contests at the holiday office parties he wound up at--and the ones he lost were usually because the boss had showed up in costume. Still, from what he had heard, the Raucous Chicken was two or three orders of magnitude above the average party; some truly unique creations showed up there.

Since this was a special occasion, and since he had plenty of time to kill, he decided to try a full-body animal costume, something he hadn't done since college. A wolf? A lion? No, those would be done to death. Something really exotic, like a dragon? No, he'd never be able to pull it off. Something in between; close enough to the standard dogs and cats that he'd have some hope of putting the head together right, but something that hadn't been done more than a couple of million times before. A coyote-morph? Yes, that might be worth going with as a starting point. He had always liked the Coyote myths; maybe he could do something with that.

But he couldn't go in a coyote costume and nothing else; not only would that be boring, but it would make it that much harder to deal with hiding the seams. He needed something to dress up the concept with, literally and figuratively. He thought about putting some Native American garb together and going as the Coyote, but that seemed awfully dangerous--someone might think he was being disrespectful of other cultures, and he certainly couldn't risk that these days. A fantasy theme? A coyote mage? Promising. Very promising. A tricksterish character, definitely; uses magic for practical jokes, manages to get himself in trouble a lot, and somehow always manages to get back out of it. Since he's an animal morph, he's probably in tune with nature and all that; so maybe he gets his power from natural areas, and can't recharge in a city. Gets around a lot, and has a lot of experience, but not enough of an attention span to put a lot of effort into any one subject; so he can do a lot of different things, but spells cast on anything other than himself tend to wear off after a few hours, or maybe a few days if he's really pushing it--and of course, they don't always do just what he wants. Probably good at sneaking around and hiding, since that's the only way he'd survive more than three months. Good. Good enough for a start, anyway...

So he went out and rented a good sewing machine. Getting the other supplies he needed was going to be a problem--the other partygoers had obviously hit the stores long before him--but a Gold MasterCard can solve a surprising array of problems, once you find the right person to read the numbers to. And Keith knew just the man for the job--an old college theater-major friend, who had gone to Hollywood to pursue The Dream of a show-biz career, and actually managed to pull it off. Three days, some long phone calls and a few frantic email exchanges later, the four boxes from Sony Pictures Studios showed up. Opening them up was like Christmas morning, especially the big roll of wonderful fake fur in just the right shade of golden brown. There was a note attached to the stack of diagrams and photos: "I always knew you were just a lonesome ol' coyote at heart, man. Just remember, if anyone at that party asks where you got this stuff, you never heard of me. And send me a snapshot; this I gotta see. --Jack"

The rest was relatively straightforward; there were mistakes and false starts, and some terrible moments with the muzzle and the ears, but the suit was ready with just over a week to spare. It certainly wouldn't win any awards at the Raucous Chicken, but Keith was pretty sure that it wouldn't embarrass him either. The claws on hands and feet were shorter than a werewolf's, functional rather than frightening. The tail was a bit over two feet long, long enough to be convincing but without the risk of getting it stepped on. He was particularly proud of the head; the pointy ears and the long muzzle were perfect, though they made him sound like he was talking from inside a long train tunnel. For the mage's outfit, he whipped up a green hooded cloak, with trim and assorted mystic sigils in a slightly darker green; it would cover him pretty thoroughly if he so chose, but he planned on wearing it loosely and with the hood down, to show off the suit. (He decided to pass on anatomical correctness--he had never done it before, and he wasn't quite sure what the room was ready for.) With four days to go, everything was ready; he started wearing it around his apartment, getting used to the feel and the heat. He found himself liking it more and more. If this Raucous Chicken thing doesn't work out, he mused, I'll be the hit of the office-party circuit for years...

Now for a name and a bit more of a background story. After some digging around at the library, he decided that "Kickaha" had a nice ring to it. Now, what was he doing on Earth? Some self-created magical accident, obviously, had thrown his life-force across the cosmos and into the body of some human, which he had reshaped into something more "suitable." When his magical power was high, he was in control, and the human personality was pretty much along for the ride; when his power was low, it was the other way around. Hmm. That might be a bit wordy for a costume party, but at least it wasn't cliched. What was he doing at a costume party? Well, having fun, obviously; what else would Kickaha be doing? Keith grinned at that; if anyone pressed him at the party for a detail he'd left out, he could make it up as he went along with a clear conscience--after all, Kickaha certainly wouldn't feel the need to tell the truth about himself...




And so it came to pass that a slightly sweaty human in a golden-colored fursuit pulled his rental car into a lot two blocks from the Raucous Chicken, silently cursing the traffic that had held him up. He adjusted his cloak, donned his Kickaha head, gave himself one last once-over in the mirror, gulped once, and headed for the club, shifting from his usual walk into the confident saunter he'd been practicing.

When he got inside, his nervousness eased a little. Yes, there were some truly impressive costumes here--there was an impressive minotaur, and that donkey over in the corner was extraordinary--but there were also some much more amateurish efforts; when he saw the guy with the sheet over his head, he knew that he wasn't going to get laughed out of the room. He didn't know anyone here, but on the bright side, that meant that he couldn't embarrass himself too much in a full-body costume. So he quickly found himself relaxing, and slipping more fully into the Kickaha persona he had practiced. He compared notes with a barbarian and a knight in shining armor, to see if they were "from the same plane"; when the barbarian jokingly asked him why the mighty Kickaha seemed to have a speech impediment, he replied, "My telepathy is on the fritz again." I should have thought of that earlier, he thought; I could have put a speaker at the top of the head or something. Oh, well; live and learn.

A fellow in a somewhat clumsily-done French poodle costume blundered into him from behind. "Have you no respect for your elders, dog?", Keith said jokingly. "Perhaps this will teach you!" With that, he started an elaborate windup for a spell, streaming nonsense syllables; the poodle cowered in terror and tried to scramble away on all fours, but Keith was hot on the trail. Just after he finished his incantation and thrust both his arms at the fleeing poodle, he suddenly felt queasy. He held his head for a moment to clear it, then looked up.

A large French poodle stood shakily where the man had been. It looked at him, and yipped plaintively.

Around the rest of the room, shouts and screams rang out. The minotaur bellowed, clearly no longer in costume. Something exploded across the room. People started running.

<<Oops,>> Kickaha thought. <<Talk about overdoing it...>>

He quickly looked around the room again, trying to figure out whether there was some way to bring things back to some semblance of what they were. <<Not a chance,>> he realized. <<Anyway, this should all wear off pretty soon. Which means that I should probably be going; someone's bound to not be too pleased about this, and this party is a total loss anyway...>>

As he joined the crowd running for the exit, he looked down to see if he had been caught in the backlash. <<Oh, shit,>> he thought, as he noticed the smooth expanse of fur across his crotch; <<That was one of my favorite parts...>>

Outside, he closed his eyes, feeling for someplace quiet and out-of-the-way. A patch of land about a half-mile north called to him; a wooded area, maybe a park. It would have to do, at least until he could catch his bearings. He closed his cloak, pulled his hood over his head, muttered a few words, and started walking. Even though his clawed feet and twitching tail were still clearly visible, nobody noticed him. People had a tendency not to notice Kickaha when he walked that way.

As Kickaha arrived at the park, a man in shabby clothes staggered up. <<Damn drugs,>> Kickaha mused; <<you can't fog the mind of someone who's already fogged beyond recognition.>> "Spare change?" mumbled the man, lurching and grabbing Kickaha's cloak. Kickaha chuckled. "Well, since you asked, I suppose I can spare one more tonight..." The bum's form blurred and shifted; then a large mutt staggered away. It didn't seem to object to the change; it may not have even noticed.

Kickaha, meanwhile, suddenly felt queasy again. <<Then again, maybe I can't,>> he muttered, as he dropped to one knee...

Keith slowly blinked his eyes, staring down at his nose on the tip of his muzzle.

"Holy shit."

Part 2 (Oct. 31/Nov. 1; written 1996/12/19)

Keith stared numbly down at himself. He didn't have to piece together what had happened. He could remember everything; the party, the shock of the aftermath, the strange feeling of the park drawing him in, the irresistible call of the perfect setup line...

The bum! Dreading what he knew he was going to see, Keith slowly looked back up at the dog, lurching off towards the other side of the park. What the hell was he going to do about that? He could remember the feel of the power flowing through him, but he didn't have the foggiest idea of how the thing was done...

Then it hit him, and he almost gasped in relief; Kickaha's spells were temporary. Hopefully, this one would wear off by the end of the night...

At the realization of what he had just thought, his knees went weak, and he gently toppled over backwards onto the grass; the jab of pain from his tail as he landed on it erased any hopes he had that this was all sort of elaborate hallucination.

Kickaha. Somehow, something had happened to make everything in the party real. That meant that, not only was he stuck in the body of a coyote, but that there was a practical joker named Kickaha stuck in his head--and wielding very real magic.

This was all coming too quickly. <Let's come to grips with one impossibility at a time, shall we?,> he told himself firmly.

He started with the basics: his body. As he looked himself over, he found depressingly few surprises, and the surprises were indeed depressing. He was covered from head to foot with golden-brown fur; the only color variations were at the tip of the tail and the end of the muzzle, which he had bleached white. The tail was very real; an experimental twitch confirmed that it was movable. The structure of his limbs was unchanged; his fingers and feet were longer, as they had been on the costume, with short claws. Leathery pads covered the soles of his feet. He couldn't see most of the head, but it felt like the costume's. He was no clearly no longer anatomically correct; not only was his, er, equipment gone, but he could no longer properly be called an asshole either. <Damn,> he thought; <am I not supposed to eat or drink anymore? Does magic take care of this, or am I going to burst in a day or so? Wait a minute; I just turned someone into a dog--why can't I fix this? Hell, why can't I just turn myself back?> But again, that feeling of helplessness came over him; if he could do it, he had no idea how. He tried concentrating, and even nonsense chanting as he had done at the party, but there were no results.

The more he thought about it, the more he was surprised as much by where the changes stopped as by the fact that they had happened at all; it was as if someone had taken his costume and turned it directly into flesh, with no creativity whatsoever. <Don't go there,> he thought to himself, and shuddered; <next thing you know you'll be trying to rip your skin off. Change-of-subject time...>

<Magic. Either it's real, or it's "sufficiently-advanced technology"--and in that case, it's advanced enough that I may as well think of it as magic. I think; therefore I am. I think I am a coyote; therefore, there is magic. And I just turned someone into a dog; therefore, I can use magic. Or at least Kickaha could use magic. Which leads to...

<Kickaha. Okay; if I can accept being a coyote, I can accept having a mage stuck in my head. But what's Kickaha like? Dammit, why didn't I put some details in that background story when I had a chance? He likes jokes, but does he think that dropping a freeway on somebody is a real knee-slapper? Should I just get the heck out of here and hope he can't come back if I never go near a park again?>

He turned it over in his head for several cold minutes. He could go home, and spend the rest of his life as an anatomically-incorrect coyote stuck in a city, assuming he didn't die of kidney failure first. Or he could stay here, and risk spending the rest of his life as an anatomically-incorrect psychotic coyote turning people into newts for recreation. Not a comforting set of choices.

Dammit, if he could just ask a few questions...

Then it hit him. When Kickaha's power was high, Kickaha was in control; the story said so. When it was low, Keith was in control. But what happened in the middle? He had never said. Was there a point where they were both in control? Could he risk finding out?

When he thought about it, there wasn't much of a choice.

He had no idea how Kickaha got his power; if it involved some sort of ritual, he was screwed. Hopefully, just spending some time here would do the trick. But Keith knew one thing for sure; he wasn't going to let the change happen while he was asleep. He might never get control again.

Sighing, he got up, and walked over to a tree. He gathered his cloak around him; he didn't really need it to guard against the cold, but Kickaha seemed to have used it to avoid being seen--it was worth a shot. He sat down, pulled up his hood, and stared off at the city lights in the distance, and the stars above.

His thoughts were not comforting.

Part 3 (Nov. 1; written 1996/12/21)

The sun slowly rose in the east. Keith sat under the tree, staring groggily out at the park. He had never really been into parks, but he had to admit that this one was pretty; simple, but pretty. And relaxing. It might look better in pink.

He blinked. Where the hell did that come from?

He was still Keith--mentally, anyway. There was no question. Physically, nothing had changed. But he felt...different. Now that he concentrated a bit, he could feel a warmth in him. Was this what magic felt like? How to find out? Well, if Kickaha was a nature mage, then nature magic ought to be easiest, right?

He looked down, picked out a small patch of grass on the ground. He tried to picture it a bit larger, a bit more fully grown. He stared at it. Nothing happened.

He heard footsteps. Looking up, he was relieved and horrified all at once; the bum from last night was back. On two legs. And, judging from his walk, apparently sober--or as close as he was ever going to get. But what did he remember? He looked around the park, and Keith shivered as the bum looked right at him--then past him as if he wasn't there. Shrugging, the bum turned and walked away. <Why didn't he see me?>, thought Keith, then remembered that the cloak was still wrapped around him--and how people didn't seem to spot Kickaha when he was like that. So there was something magic about it.

The thought of magic reminded Keith what he was up to; he thought a bit more about the party last night. He focused on the grass again. Carefully, he waved an arm, then pointed a claw at the grass. As he completed the motion, he could feel a bit of warmth shoot down his arm and through his outstretched finger.

The patch of grass seemed to shudder. Then, slowly, it started to grow. Ten seconds later, it finally stopped, after reaching about double its previous height. Keith could only stare at it.

<So it does work,> he thought numbly. <Well, if that works, can I change myself back?>

Closing his eyes, he tried to picture himself as he was now. Then he pictured himself changing into his real self; 6'3" (a bit shorter than he was now, he thought), white and furless, brown hair, blue eyes, good complexion. He chanted a few nonsense syllables, waved his arms, and pointed them at his chest.

He opened his eyes.

Nothing happened.

<Shit. Maybe I don't have the power, or maybe there's just rules to this that I don't know about. Well, there's only one way to find out, and I guess it's now or never...>

Carefully, he tried to mentally picture Kickaha, somewhere in his mind, with himself in there separately, still in control. When he thought he had that, he cautiously pictured a link in between them. He closed his eyes, gulped once, pointed a claw at his head, and flicked it.

<<And the crowd goes wild,>> came a clear voice from inside his head.

<Kickaha, I presume?>, he tentatively thought back, trying to settle his nerves.

<<You were expecting maybe Uri Geller?>> The "voice" was mocking, but in a friendly sort of way, like a coworker trading Monday-morning barbs on the way in the office. Back when Keith had an office.

<I've got some questions for you.>

<<So I gathered. Mind if I sneak one in first?>>

<Go ahead.>

<<What's the big deal here? I mean, sure, I goofed, but it's happened before. I thought we had an understanding about that. Everybody's fine by now. Why the righteous indignation all of a sudden?>>

<Huh? How can we have an understanding when you didn't even exist before last night?>

<<You're sitting there in a coyote's body watching grass grow, and you think I didn't exist until last night? Boy, I must be one helluva fast learner...>>

<Look, it doesn't make any sense to me either. All I know is, one minute I'm at a costume party having a good time in my coyote outfit, and the next minute all hell breaks loose.>

<<That's the best kind of party, isn't it? But that's not the way it happened. We were at the party having a good time with the mundanes, I... goof, and the next thing you know everybody turns into their costume. Good thing we didn't go as a goat or something. So all we wound up short of is a few key pieces of equipment, and apparently your brain as well. And speaking of key pieces of equipment, mind if I fix things up a bit?>>

<No changing the subject. Does that story make sense to you?>

<<As much sense as anything ever makes.>>

<Look, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but that's not the way it happened. I came to the party in a coyote costume. You're a... character I invented. The next thing I know, everybody's changed, and you're there, just the way the story said.>

<<Oh, of course. That makes so much more sense. Something just arbitrarily transformed a whole party and brought your charming little story to life. However could I have missed that?>>

<But what about the costume we--I was wearing. You remember that, right?>

<<Well, duh.>>

<So what does a wizard need with a costume?>

<<If I didn't think you were crazy I'd be insulted. You can't go to a costume party without a costume. It's cheating.>>

Keith tried to bury his head in his hands, and nearly succeeded in poking his right eye out with a claw. <If you're the one responsible for all these changes, and your magic wears off in a few hours, then how come I'm still a coyote?>

<<Aha! If I just showed up last night, then how do you know when my magic wears off?>>

<It was in the story.>

<<Oh. Of course. The stooooory. How conveeeeenient. Well, of course it doesn't wear off. How many times do I need to explain it to you?>>

<Once would be nice.>

<<No respect. Typical. Okay, I'll explain it; maybe it'll jar some sense back into that muddled head of yours. Magic is chaos. When you cast a spell on something, you're concentrating chaos in one place. It doesn't like that. Eventually it sulks and goes away. But it doesn't go away from someone with the Gift; if it did, they couldn't work magic in the first place. Are you remembering any of this now?>>

Keith wanted to groan. This was getting too weird; and the more they "talked," the weirder it got. <Remember when I told you it was fine to sneak in a question before mine?>

<<Of course.>>

<I take it back.>

<<Testy, aren't we?>>

<You have no idea. Anyway->

<<Shit.>>

<Huh?>

<<Look.>>

A car was driving by outside the park. It was being driven by a goblin. A very authentic goblin.

<<He was at the party, right?>> Kickaha actually sounded almost distraught.

<I wouldn't be surprised.>

<<But my stuff would have worn off by now; I wasn't trying that hard. That means... that I didn't do it.>>

<That's what I've been trying to tell you.>

<<And you really were just there in a coyote costume.>>

<Absolutely.>

<<Do you realize what this means? This means... that none of this is my fault!>> Kickaha's tone abruptly went back to its normal cheer. <<Well. I'm glad that's settled. Now, what was the question?>>

Keith was nearly in shock. <That's all this means to you?>

<<Oh, of course not. I'm sorry. It means we haven't been properly introduced. Kickaha at your service. A Master of the Art of no small repute, now sadly cast adrift through the multiverse without so much as a body to my name. And you are?>>

<Thoroughly confused.>

<<Nice to meet you, Mr. Confused, even under such awkward circumstances. But I thought your name was Keith something-or-other?>>

Keith found himself chuckling despite himself. <I guess this is why I'm a contractor and not a manager. I've never been good at running interviews. Yes, it's Keith. Keith Dorner. Master of Science, of reasonable repute, I guess. Money in the bank, condo on Mercer Island. Now a coyote sitting in a park hearing voices in my head and hoping a certain bum doesn't decide to come back and kick my ass.>

This drew a mental belly-laugh, a disturbing thing to have in your head when you're not used to it. <<So at least the big things I'm remembering are right; it's just the details that got fucked somewhere. And there is a sense of humor in there. There's hope yet. Don't worry, though. Sure, he remembers everything that happened last night, very clearly. And the night before that, he remembers the magic beavers that came out to play with him. A fascinating mind, really.>>

<How do you know?>

<<Because I'm a Master of the Art. Shall we go through the introductions again?>>

<Once was fine, thanks. Can I ask the questions now?>

<<Gee, you've got a one-track mind.>

<Obviously not, or we wouldn't be having this conversation.>

<<And a man who knows a straight line when he hears it! Oh, it would warm my heart to hear that if I only had one. What's the question?>>

<What do you want?>

<<I want to fix up this body. This is humiliating.>>

<I won't argue. But I was thinking more in the long term. What do you want?>

<<Well, I want to help all life forms throughout the cosmos achieve a higher state of consciousness and a universal brotherhood. But that's not gonna happen, so I'll settle for having a good time before I die. How about you?>>

Keith was a bit stunned, both at the answer and the question. <Well, I like what I'm doing, even if I don't always like the projects. I guess I just want to get enough money in the bank that I can afford to do it just for fun and not for work. And I like helping people out; I'd like to be able to do that more.>

<<Maybe my memories are whacked here again, but don't you already have more money than one human being should be allowed to have?>>

<Well, I've got about five million, but just about all of it is on paper. I could live on it, sure, as long as the market doesn't crash, but it's not enough to do anything really important with...>

Keith got the distinct impression of Kickaha shaking his head. <<Still a ways to go here, I see. Look. Let's cut right to the chase. You're worried about loosing the horrible force that is me on the world, right?>>

<Well, yeah.>

<<And you know that all I'd have to do is be careful with my magic, and there wouldn't be a thing you could do about it.>>

<And all I'd have to do is stay in a city somewhere, and there wouldn't be a thing you could do about it.>

<<More or less. Any wagers on which of us would be more miserable?>>

Keith tried to picture himself, stuck in this body, scared to go near a park. Then he tried to picture someone like Kickaha, carefully measuring every bit of magic he used. <I think I'd be more miserable. But I don't think you could do it at all.>

<<I'd resent that if it weren't true. Now, can I have the body for a second? I need to show you something.>>

<What?>

<<Something that will answer your questions.>>

<What?>

<<That would be telling.>>

Keith sighed. <Go ahead.>

<<I thought you'd never ask.>>

Keith suddenly felt dizzy for a moment. When his mind cleared, he found himself still looking out through his eyes and ears, but he knew that he was no longer in control.

Kickaha got up, stretched. This was going to be fun. He closed his eyes, stretched out his arms, and started the Song, reaching out to the trees, to the grass, to the world. There were a few seconds of hesitation, of questioning, as there always was when the Song was first sung. Then he felt the contact, the rush of acceptance. He could feel the wind rippling through the grass, the sun's early rays reaching the trees. He could feel the power flow, slowly at first, then in a rush. In a few more seconds, he could feel himself complete, the delicious warmth of his whole body flushed with power. He Sang his thanks, and the world returned his Song. Then he opened his eyes.

<What... was... that?>

<<That's what magic feels like. My kind of magic, anyway. Not bad, huh?>>

Keith tried to shake his head; it took him a couple of seconds to remember that he couldn't. <Wow,> he managed silently. A pause. <So you're charged up all the way?>

<<You could put it that way, yes.>>

<Then why am I still here?>

<<Because that spell you did is still there; we just swapped ends. I like it; I should have thought of it before--but then again, I guess I didn't get a chance to think of it before. So, are you ready to see something?>>

<That wasn't it?>

<<That wasn't the half of it.>>

<Go for it.>

<<Don't mind if I do.>>

Kickaha gathered his power, pictured the Change. The gestures helped, but they weren't necessary, not when you were doing something easy. And this was easy. He felt his fur ripple and condense into black feathers, felt his muzzle shift into a beak, felt his cloak vanish to wherever the heck it went when he did this. The world seemed to expand as he shrank; the ground rushed up at his eyes. With the change complete, he hopped off the ground, beat his wings, and rose into the sky.

<<This is a raven. I've always liked them.>>

Keith was at a loss for words; he could only watch as the cars and buildings of the town passed beneath them, feel the wind rush past. He had never liked flying; he knew people who loved it, but to him it was just two or three hours locked up in a little seat in a little box. But this...

Kickaha calmly pictured the link, made a little adjustment.

<<Your turn.>>

Keith felt a brief stab of pure terror as he went into a dive. Then he flapped his wings, tentatively at first, then with confidence as he felt them catch the air; he rose back into the sky. He folded his wings for a moment, dove again, then pulled up into a majestic climb. He leveled off, tried a few turns, did a barrel roll; giddy, he tried for a loop, lost his speed halfway through the climb, stalled, dove again, then pulled out, swooping just over a roof. God, it was glorious. He climbed again, until the city was spread out under him; he could see every detail. He could see...

...a parking lot.

The parking lot of Belchard CyberSystems, Inc.

And in that parking lot, a red BMW 328is coupe, parked in the "Reserved" space.

The property of one Joseph Belchard, Jr.

One of the hazards of contract work is not getting paid. Sometimes it's because there's a genuine problem; sometimes the client goes bankrupt on you. Sometimes the client just figures that, if the contract is small enough, it will cost you more to fight it in court than it would to eat the loss; so they manufacture a problem. And they're right; it does cost more to fight it than to eat it. But you have to fight it anyway. Because if you eat it, and word gets out, someone else will try it. And then someone else.

That's why Keith kept George Gallardo, Esq., on retainer. And Dorner v. Belchard, Jr., d.b.a. Belchard Cybersystems, Inc., was on track, and scheduled for trial on September 12, 1997.

Keith thought of something. It was absolutely nonproductive. It was juvenile. It was infantile. It would accomplish nothing.

And it had to be done.

<<Oh, good. Let me help.>>

Suddenly, Keith was no longer in control.

Kickaha wheeled merrily away. He swooped down low, over the city. And he Called.

From below, a pigeon flew up towards them. Then another. Then a bluebird. They climbed, following the raven.

Kickaha swooped to and fro, over the buildings, the streets, the trees. Again and again, he Called. And from everywhere, birds came, flying up to meet the flock.

Kickaha surveyed the situation. At least fifty; close to a hundred. The lot was only a couple of blocks away.

<<This should do.>>

Keith found himself in control again. He knew his mission. He flew straight for the target, his army in ragged formation behind him.

At the proper moment, he folded his wings, and dove. He lined up his shot carefully, making a few minor adjustments. Behind him, he could hear the whoosh of wings. The car rushed up at him; he aimed for the center of the hood. At the last moment, he stretched his wings and arced, releasing his missile as he rose back into the sky.

From the ground, the sound was like a wave coming in from the sky; the impossible cloud of birds shooting down, reaching the target, then suddenly exploding, birds banking away in every possible direction. And the steady splutsplutsplut of each shot hitting home.

Kickaha took control again, sent his thanks to the birds as they dispersed. Reaching the park took only a minute or so; it was occupied, so he flew on, towards a forest a few miles away. Swooping in for a landing, he Changed just as he reached the ground; he landed on clawed feet, back in the coyote form, cloak rippling behind him.

<<So, what do you think?>>

Keith was too lost in his thoughts to answer for a few seconds. <Amazing,> he managed finally. <I can see how you manage to make your way out of trouble.>

<<It helps, yes,>> Kickaha agreed, smiling. <<But that's not what you were thinking while you were doing it, was it?>>

<No,> Keith thought, seeing where this was going, knowing that he was beaten, and not caring in the slightest.

<<And what were you thinking?>>

Keith tried to shake his head, found that he could. <God, that was fun.>

<<So, do you still think we're so different, you and I?>>

<I think we can work something out.>

<<I thought we might.>>

Part 4 (Nov. 1; written 1996/12/23)

<How do you walk on these things?>

<<Quickly. It comes in handy.>>

<Don't remind me. You really expect me to look like this?>

<<Oh, come on. You'll love it when you get used to it. And besides, we made a deal. When we're out in public, you can use yours. Anyway, we look great where I come from. Stylish, even.>>

<We are not where you come from.>

<<And whose fault is that, Mister Needs-A-Life-Story-For-A-Simple-Costume-Party?>>

Keith was at a loss for a comeback on that one, so he just sighed, and went back to the present problem: learning to walk. At least there was nobody else in the forest to witness his embarrassment.

The next time Keith agreed to let someone "fix up" his body, he was going to be more specific. What he had in mind was being his old self, or at least human. Instead, he was, well...

He had to admit that the fur--his fur, he told himself firmly, at least for the time being--was much nicer now. Instead of the flat golden-brown of the costume, it tapered off to a lighter tan at the chest and the tail, with white patches at the hands and feet, as well as at the face and the tip of the tail. The fur was finer, with a white undercoat underneath; it was also quite a bit cooler, which was a relief--he could get used to a lot of things, but he wasn't sure that panting was one of them. He had no problem inspecting his back, because his spine now bent in ways he found vaguely disconcerting; but he supposed that could come in handy.

He could deal with his arms and hands. The shoulders felt different somehow, and the fingers were shorter, and the pads on the soles of his hands and fingers were still a bit off-putting; but at least everything seemed to bend the way it was supposed to. The head was okay too, he guessed. He still couldn't quite get used to having that long muzzle in his field of vision, but having smell and hearing this good had a lot to recommend it. His vocal chords could produce a good rendition of his old voice, though Kickaha also demonstrated a distressingly realistic set of howls. The eyes had disconcerted him when he first saw them in the pond; they were green with flecks of gold, with no trace of humanity in them--mirth, yes, but not really human mirth. But oh, Grandma, what good eyes he had. (<I thought dogs couldn't see in color.> <<Who are you going to believe, me or some book?>> <The book.> <<Smart man. There's a certain line at which realism stops being fun...>>) And he had to hand it to Kickaha; he imagined that very few people could have made a muzzle that could still manage a grin.

And he was actually starting to think that the tail was kind of neat. It still seemed a bit long to him--almost brushing the ground--but once he'd gotten used to the idea of using it for balance, he could see where it would come in handy.

And he could use all the help with balance he could get.

He was still a long way from convincing himself that his new legs were an improvement. He stood on the tips of his feet--well, "paws" would be a better description now, he supposed. What used to be his ankles had moved to what used to be halfway up his lower legs; his knees had moved up as well, leaving him in what felt like a permanent squat... though at least he had successfully reached the point where he could squat, and even walk a bit, rather than just fall down repeatedly. Kickaha's repeated assurances of the virtues of this arrangement had so far failed to win a convert.

And then there was, well... The good news was that he was now, again, anatomically correct. The bad news was that he was now anatomically correct for a coyote... a rather large coyote. (<What am I going to do with this???> <<If you can't think of anything, I'd be happy to make suggestions.>> <That's what I was afraid of... What happened to the line where realism stopped being fun?> <<We all draw our lines differently...>>) That had been perilously close to a dealbreaker; but at least the fur and the sheath managed to hide things from casual inspection.

<Well, at least I'm not menacing,> Keith mused. <Not exactly ugly, either; kinda cute, actually, in a primal-homely-kinda way... I just can't shake the feeling that I'd be as good on four legs as on two in this.>

<<Oh, damn. And I was hoping to save that for a surprise.>>

<Great. Any other surprises I should be aware of?>

<<Then they wouldn't be surprises, would they?>>

<Sorry I asked... Wait a minute. Shit. What time is it?>

<<Oh, midafternoonish.>>

<Shit. They'll have towed my car hours ago!>

<<You know, a car isn't exactly on your list of must-haves at this point.>>

<Yeah, but if that gets on my credit record, it'll...>

<<You know, credit isn't exactly on your list of must-haves either.>>

Keith wanted to scream, but he was afraid he'd wind up howling instead. <Look... Kickaha. Today has been really... incredible. I can honestly say that I'm glad this happened; I'm not sure how, but I can. But I have a life, too, and I'd really like not to completely mess it up just yet... okay? All we have to do is get the car and the hotel straightened out and catch my flight back home, and then you can magic us right back here and watch all the 'fun' if you want to. Okay?>

Keith was expecting a <<You know, airplanes aren't exactly...>> Instead, he was somewhat surprised to get an almost apologetic: <<Hey, no problem. This is gonna take a little getting used to, for both of us. Besides, I've showed you my place; it's about time you showed me mine. And do they really give you all the drinks you want in these airplane things?>>

<Only in first class.>

<<Well, what other class would the two of us be going in?>>

<I can't argue with that, I guess. Just be quiet, if they figure out there's two of us in here, they'll find some way to charge me for an extra seat...>

<<Some things are constant, no matter what the world.>>




A few minutes later, they were flying over the city. More specifically, Keith was flying; he was remembering the good points of this arrangement.

<<Hold it,>> Kickaha said, but Keith was already on the way down.

In an alley below, a rabbitmorph was down in a heap.

Keith looked around quickly; nobody nearby. He swooped down, mentally handing off to Kickaha as they neared the ground. The raven rippled, expanded, became a coyote as it hit the ground. The rabbit didn't move.

Kickaha surveyed the damage; a few blows to the back and legs, one to the back of the head, all with blunt objects. A broken leg; a minor skull fracture. Figured. Not even enough guts to attack a rabbit from the front. Some things are constant, no matter what the world. Not fatal, but needing treatment, treatment he couldn't give. Not permanently, anyway.

He took a few extra seconds to scan the rabbit's mind. As he had figured, the attack had been from behind--and the rabbit's flight reflexes had kicked in as soon as it started--but he had still gotten a clear look at his attackers as he ran. Four of them; big, with short haircuts and thick wooden sticks. Laughter as the blows came down. Some things are constant.

Kickaha concentrated, shaped the magic, and slowly applied it.

A few seconds passed; then the rabbit stirred, groaned, tried to stand. He looked up from hands and knees, saw the coyote standing over him, and squealed...

<<Paul, it's all right,>> Kickaha thought softly.

The rabbit blinked, at the shock of the voice in his head, and the fact that the voice knew his name. He finally gathered the nerve to speak, in a high thin voice. "What happened? Who are you? There were..."

<<A friend. Don't worry about that right now. You need to get to a... hospital. To a hospital. Right away.>>

"But I feel... okay. How do I feel okay?"

<<Trust me. You need to get to a hospital. Tell them you need observation overnight. They'll figure out what's wrong. But it's very important that you go.>>

"Uh... all right. Thank you, Mister..."

<<You're welcome. And when they ask you about this part, you're a little vague about the details, okay?>>

"Uhhh... Okay. Thank you..."

Slowly at first, then more quickly, the rabbit walked away. The coyote watched him go, waited for him to round a corner, then leaped, rippled back into a raven, and climbed into the sky.

<<Still want to catch that flight?>>

<I can get the red-eye; it'll leave a bit after midnight.>

<<Perfect. That'll give us some time. I take it that we're agreed? Something must be done?>>

<Yes. What do you have in mind?>

<<While you were practicing, I was going through your history a bit. You know, there's some fascinating parallels between your mythology and ours.>>

<Somehow, that's not surprising. Anything interest you in particular?>

Kickaha told him.

<Interesting. Poetic justice, I must admit. Isn't it a little too violent, though? Even for this?>

<<Ohhh, we can fix that.>>

<Hmmm. You're right. I must admit, I like it. What gave you the idea?>

<<Well, it's perfect, isn't it? Besides, it's early in the alphabet. As good a place to start as any, right?>>

<I was afraid you were going to say that. When we get to Lycaon, I'm out of here.>

<<Nag, nag, nag. Still think we're so different, you and I?>>

Keith didn't answer. He was busy flying. And thinking.




From a window several blocks away, a figure watched the raven fly away, through a very impressive-looking pair of binoculars. He spoke clearly into his recorder, taking careful notes...




Getting checked out of the hotel was no problem; the desk clerk wasn't in the mood for small talk, and for once Keith was glad about that. He was just glad to be on his own legs again, though for some reason they were itching a bit. A generous tip to the doorman got him a quick cab to the airport. He calmly changed his reservation to the later flight--using some frequent flier miles to upgrade to first class, and stoically ignoring Kickaha's chuckles in the background. Checking in his bags, he finally approached the rental counter; this was going to be the tricky part. He mentally rehearsed his lines, waited until nobody was in line, then walked up and slapped his membership card down in front of 'Kelly'.

"I'm here about my car," he said, in a quietly menacing voice.

"Certainly, Mister... Dorner," Kelly replied, with a forced-Christmas-cheer kind of smile. Her fingers flew over the keyboard; then her face fell into a oh-you-HAVE-been-naughty look. "According to this, Mr. Dorner, the car was towed in late this morning..."

"Yes, it was," Keith interrupted, in a no-longer-quietly menacing voice. "I was working LATE last night, trying to get MY BUSINESS done, so I could get OUT of this two-bit town. The next thing I know, there's POLICE everywhere, and NOBODY knows what's going on, and they won't even let ME get to MY CAR! And THEN, when I call YOU this morning to find out what WE are going to do about that, you put ME on HOLD for FIVE MINUTES! Now, am I going to see a MANAGER here, or am I going to take THIS CARD and make FRENCH FRIES out of it?"

"Yes, sir; just a moment, sir," Kelly replied, and ducked for the back. Keith heard the faint voices, and the sound of keys tapping; he could imagine the manager scrolling through his record, seeing the number of rentals listed there. <Five, four, three...>

'Lisa - Floor Manager' came out, zeroed in on Keith; she was clearly in Full Contrition Mode. "Mr. Dorner, I've just heard what's happened, and I want you to know that we're truly sorry about all this. There was an... incident... downtown last night, and we're still trying to figure out how to get things straightened out today. But let me assure you that I will personally see to it that all of this is taken care of, and of course we'll handle those towing charges. Now I know how upsetting all this must be to you, Mr. Dorner, and we'd like to make up for the inconvenience you must have suffered; would a week's free rental next time be all right?"

Keith grumbled, quickly allowed himself to be 'talked into it,' settled the bill, and walked away, finally allowing himself a smirk.

<<Where did that come from?>>, Kickaha said, a mixture of amusement and amazement in his 'voice'. <<Are you keeping other personalities in here that you haven't told me about?>>

<One of the perks of frequent flying is the occasional right to be an asshole.>

<<Speaking of assholes, we have a few hours, right?>>

<Right. A-hunting we will go?>

<<The park first, I think; a quick recharge wouldn't hurt.>>

<You should have thought of that before we left,> Keith thought, in his best fatherly voice.

<<But I didn't neeeeeed to go theeennn...>>

<One more word like that, and I'm turning this body right around...>




Bags streamed down the conveyor belts in the airport's service corridors. A uniformed guard checked his list once again, grabbed a few bags as they passed, and loaded them onto a cart, which was wheeled off to a door marked "AIRPORT SECURITY"...




Night was falling over the city, and with all the confusion still in the air, few people had made plans for the evening; the streets emptied out rapidly... except for the people with nowhere to go. Which was just the way Spike and his friends liked it.

"Let's go play some hardball, right, guys?", Spike laughed.

"We're gonna hit one outta the park tonight!"

"Who, us, Officer? We were just out playing..."

"Gonna cite us for cruelty to animals, Officer Friendly?"

"Cool it, guys."

"Okay, Spike."

The park was the first place to check, Spike thought. These freaks always seem to stop at the park. Then maybe down by the shelter...

But the park was clear. Damn.

"Hey, gimme a minute, guys, okay? I need to pee."

"Sure thing, Spike."

Spike went behind the racquetball wall, leaned his Louisville Slugger up against it, and started unbuttoning.

From a rooftop two blocks away, a coyote watched. He pointed, aimed, gestured a bit.

<<Just a little farther, a little farther... yes, right there... yes. Now.>>

The magic flowed.

Spike suddenly leaned against the tree. Dammit, he hadn't had anything to drink tonight... had he?

Then he felt the pressure. He looked down just in time for his pants to start to split.

The change was so fast, he barely had a chance to realize what was happening before it was complete. His legs grew, twisted; his feet and hands rippled, condensed into hooves. A stab of agony hit him, as the antlers sprouted from his head; he never noticed his shirt disappear, or the remains of his pants. He tried to shout, but all that came out was a low moan.

He staggered out from behind the wall...

"There's one!"

"Get it!"

Spike looked up, saw them coming. He thrust his arms out in front of him, shook his antlered head wildly, moaned again; then he saw that it was hopeless, and turned to run on unfamiliar legs. That was hopeless too.

He could hear them closing in.

Then he felt the blow, in the small of his back.

Then another, in the leg.

He went down.

<<And now.>>

Spike looked hopelessly up, saw the leering faces above him, surrounding him. Another blow hit, then another... a bit weaker.

Then the bat slipped from one of their hands.

Another screamed. Then the scream turned into a howl...

As Spike looked on, he saw their faces lengthen, saw the fur sprout, saw them fall to their hands... to their front paws. He heard the howls of fear.

Then the three hounds, still barely recognizable as human, turned and ran--haltingly at first, then gaining speed and rhythm.

After a minute or so, Spike uncertainly got up, and headed in the same direction.

Kickaha brought his finger to his muzzle, blew over it.

<So, what happens when they get to the hospital?>

<<That won't wear off for a couple of days. In the meantime, they'll have spilled; they don't have the brains to keep their story straight as humans, much less this way. So hopefully the police will take care of things. And if not... well, now that they're convinced that it's contagious, I don't think they'll find their little game nearly so entertaining.>>

<I can imagine. But how long will they go on thinking that?>

<<Sometimes, you don't have to change people's minds; sometimes you just have to reinforce what they already suspect, and they'll go right on thinking that on their own.>>

<How conveeeeeenient.>

<<Quite. Well, shall we catch this airplane of yours?>>

<Don't you need a recharge first?>

<<We've barely known each other a day, and already you care about me. It's so... touching... I may weep.>>

<Care, schmare. I just don't want to turn into a coyote at 26000 feet.>

<<That's your own brand of caring.>>




From a window several blocks away, a figure in a black suit watched the grainy red images through his viewfinder. The camera shutter clicked, clicked again.

He tongued the push-to-send on his headset.

"We have a situation here."




Flight 804 to Seattle-Tacoma sped through the night. Kickaha found it all fascinating. Keith was glad it was a nonstop... the itching was killing him.

<Kickaha, what the hell's wrong?>

<<I don't know. It's like something is fighting this form.>>

<Well, what do we do about it? I don't know if I can take this all the way to Seattle.>

<<I don't know if we can do this all the way to Seattle.>>

<Shit. What's the alternative?>

<<Well, we could try a partial change and see if that relaxes the pressure.>>

<Shitshitshit. Wait a minute.>

Keith went to the first-class bathroom. He felt the fur sprout under his jeans, and almost gasped in relief as the itching subsided. He went back to his seat; was it his imagination, or was the lady in 3A staring at him?

<<I already told you; nobody's watching. Don't be so paranoid.>>

<I've earned the right to be paranoid.>

<<In that case, can we be paranoid with some more of those peanuts?>>




Keith had never been so glad to be in his condo. He quickly took off his clothes, then collapsed into coyote form with an almost audible pop.

<<You've gotta be kidding me. This isn't a home; this isn't even a house. This is a box. There's not even a potted plant in this place!>>

<Can we just save the decor tips for a minute? What's happening here?>

<<I don't know.>>

<What you mean, you don't know?>

<<Which word do I need to explain? You think I enjoy hearing you gripe about it? Mr. Dorrrner can't get what he wants, so nobody else can have a good time, huh? Can't we just get a good night's sleep, and we can work this out in the morning?>>

<Kickaha, I ought to... I don't know. You know what? A night's sleep is a fine idea.>

<<I'm glad I thought of it.>>

For some reason, the mattress wasn't particularly comfortable for Keith's new form. Kickaha apparently managed to get to sleep right away anyway. Keith took a bit longer.




(November 2; 10:00 am)

Kickaha had assured Keith that he was working on the problem. He hadn't needed to leave to recharge; apparently the nearby greenbelt was close enough for some spillover. Meanwhile, Keith was grimly practicing on his new legs, and had at least reached the point where he could walk with some semblance of dignity.

There was a knock at the door.

<<Oh, this should be interesting,>> Kickaha said.

"Mister Dorner? We need to have a word with you..."

Part 5 (Nov. 2; written 1997/01/12)

"Who is it?"

"We're with the government, Mister Dorner... Could you come out for a second?"

<Ohhhhhh, shit.> "Just a minute, okay? I'm not dressed."

"Fine, Mister Dorner. Could you hurry, please?"

"Uh, okay."

"Thank you, Mister Dorner."

<Quick. We've gotta change back.>

<<Why?>>

<Because we've gotta talk to him, and I just don't feel like doing it this way!>

<<Bad plan. Very bad plan.>>

<Huh? Listen, Kickaha. I was hoping the government wouldn't get in on this, but it looks like they are, and my life is toast if I start running away from every-->

<<You're not listening. Bad plan.>>

<Why??>

<<Watch this.>>

There was a brief moment of disorientation; then Keith found himself looking down at the hallway outside. Two men in expensive-looking black suits bracketed his front door. One of them fidgeted, reaching inside his jacket and stroking the handle of his gun. Keith's viewpoint rushed in at the other one...

...too many ears here; got to keep things quiet. Get him outside; then tranq him and work from there. Maybe he'll play. If not, he's got no appointments, not many contacts; no problem burying things afterwards if it comes to that...

Keith abruptly found himself back in his own skull.

<Bad plan,> he thought numbly.

<<Told ya.>>

<Well, let's get the hell out of here!>

<<Then they follow us. Besides, they only sent three guys after us. Personally, I'm insulted.>>

<Three?>

<<There's one watching the window. Now that I think about it, I like your first idea better. They want to talk to you? Fine. They can talk to you.>>

<But they'll kill me! Uh, I mean, us...>

<<So? Let 'em have their fun.>>

<Uh, Kickaha, if this is your idea of a joke, I'm not laughing.>

<<You're right. It is my idea of a joke. And I think you'll like the punchline. All we need is... ah, yes. Here we go.>>

Kickaha reached out his hand; with a *pop*, a rat appeared within it. It looked up at him inquisitively. Kickaha stroked its head with a finger. <<Sorry, little one. But better you than me.>>

He put the rat on the floor, stepped back, concentrated, focused, gestured. Keith suddenly felt like his brain was itching. The rat twitched, rippled, expanded, reshaped; in a matter of a few seconds, Keith stood there, looking down at the rat on the floor with the same inquisitive stare. The rat scurried into a corner, under the couch. Keith stood for a few seconds, then shook his head as if to clear it, and went to answer the door.

"Hello, Mister Dorner." An ID card was flashed. "We understand you flew back into town last night; is that correct?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Mister Dorner, we need to ask you a few questions. I think you know what this is about, and I'm sure you'll understand that this might not be the best place. Could you come with us, please?"

"Ummmm, sure. This won't take long, will it?"

"Not long at all, Mister Dorner. Thank you very much."

The door shut; Keith and the two men in suits walked off down the hall. Outside, they were joined by a third; they ushered Keith into the back seat of a waiting car, and smoothly drove him away.

A minute later, the rat emerged from under the couch, and resumed its familiar coyote form.

<<That went well, I think.>>

<Ummmm. quick question. What just happened?>

<<Well, they captured us, of course. They'll take us somewhere and question us; we won't tell them anything important, or do any magic for them--it's not in our heads. Eventually, they'll get tired and let us go for now, or they'll kill us and dump us in an alley somewhere, or they'll just leave us locked up somewhere until we turn back into a rat in a few days. In any event, it oughta confuse the heck out of 'em. In the meantime, of course, we should probably think about being somewhere else.>>

<I can see that. Ummmmm, Kickaha, does this sort of thing happen to you often?>

<<Is there any other way?>>

<I was afraid of that.>

Part 6 (Nov. 2; written 1997/01/18)

Kickaha flew, gliding over Lake Washington. It was remarkably clear, for being so close to a city this size. Dotted with boats and crisscrossed by a couple of long bridges, it nevertheless seemed largely undisturbed. Along the shore, there were houses and buildings of all sorts, but large areas of green too. <<This really isn't such a bad place, as cities go. You know, with a little bit of work, I think your place could even be decent.>>

Keith didn't answer.

<<Sure you don't want to take over? There's some great thermals to try.>>

Still no answer.

Kickaha sighed. He did a couple of quick circles, contemplating things, gaining a bit of altitude. Then he rolled over, folded his wings, and dove. Two seconds passed, then three. He gained speed, the air rushing by faster and faster. The water started to rush up at them. Still he gained speed.

<Ummm...>

The water was too close now, past any hope of pulling out. Fifty feet.

Thirty.

<Hold it!>

Ten.

<GAA-->

Kickaha never twitched, but suddenly they were stopped, six inches from the water. He fluffed his wings, and dropped to the surface with a gentle splash.

<<Oh, good. I was beginning to think you'd moved out.>>

<Kickaha...>

<<Now, are we going to talk, or do I try bouncing off that bridge over there? I think I can time it so we hit between the cars, but you know how things go...>>

Several more seconds passed, and for a moment Kickaha thought that he was actually going to get to go through with it.

<How do you do it?>

Kickaha was a bit rattled; not by the question, but by the tone. It wasn't angry. He was used to angry; he could deal with angry. It was quiet--almost a plea. It made him uncomfortable.

<<Well, I flap the wings, and then I sort of repeat,>> he countered, hoping to break the tension.

Keith didn't bite. <I mean, here you are, in somebody else's world. You've got nothing. You're stuck in the body of somebody who says he thought you up before a costume party. How can you not be unhappy?>

<<Hmm. That's perilously close to a philosophical question; I should refuse on religious grounds.>> A pause; nothing from Keith. Dammit. He's serious about this. <<Well, I imagine I could get pretty pissed about it if that would help...>>

<No. It's just that... I wish I could do it. I mean, I'm never going to be able to get work like this. Somebody's trying to kill me, if they don't think I'm already dead. I can't go home, I can't get at any of my stuff, even if the government doesn't decide I'm dead and take it all. I mean... I'm going to lose everything, aren't I?>

<<Oh, come on. There's ways around that. We'll figure something out. A little magic can make up for a lot of shit.>>

<But that's just it. Kickaha, I don't know quite how to put this, but... what happens if everything gets messed up, and then something comes along and reverses what happened at the party? Then...>

<<Then you're screwed, and I guess I hope I'm not just something you dreamed up in your hotel room.>>

<Exactly. I mean... how can it not worry you, knowing that you could just... disappear like that?>

<<Well, gee. You managed to go to sleep every night before I showed up; how did that not worry you, knowing that you could just drop dead in the middle of the night?>>

<Oh, come on. The odds aren't the same.>

<<So? The odds of your getting hit by a bus when we got out of that cab at the airport were pretty damn small; why did you look?>>

<Because I'd be stupid not to!>

<<No comment.>> Nothing. Gods. <<But exactly. It's something you can control, so you'd be stupid not to. When you go to sleep at night, you don't think anything will happen, and if it does there's not a damn thing you can do, so you don't worry. Well, if something happens like you said, I don't think I'm just gonna go poof; and if I do there's not a damn thing I can do. So why should I worry?>>

<And that's it? You know that worrying doesn't do any good, so you just don't?> A pause. <I wish I could do that.>

<<Years of practice.>> Another pause. Shit. <<Look. You get things, you lose them. Magic just makes it happen faster. You get lots of stuff, you lose it next Tuesday. Worrying about the stuff that's already gone isn't going to make it come back. You may as well just try to make the most you can out of what's in front of you, right?>>

<Yeah, I guess so.>

Please, if there's anybody listening, let this not be another question coming up. This is waaaaay too much bonding for one day.

<You know, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be taking life advice from a fictional character.>

Thank you. <<Yeah, well, it is a sign of impending mental collapse.>>

<Impending?>

<<Can't I try to be nice? Look, can we go now? We're getting waterlogged here.>>

<You know, I never got around to learning to swim.>

<<First time for everything.>>

The bird bobbed down, disappeared; a moment later, a seal poked its head up, breathed, then dove for the bottom.

Part 7 (Nov. 2; written 1997/02/06)

The sun was setting in the west, behind the downtown Seattle skyscrapers. A few boats still sailed across the lake, but most seemed to be heading for the docks. To the south, cars streamed across the floating I-90 bridge; to the north, they crept across 520, drivers slowing to gawk at a jet-skier in a Santa suit buzzing alongside the westbound lanes and waving.

Out of sight in the weeds near the edge of the lake, a seal floated lazily on its back, watching the seagulls circle the sky.

<So, what do we do now?>

<<Hopefully, we eat.>>

<I was sort of thinking a bit longer-term than that.>

<<I've found that a full stomach does wonders for long-term thinking.>>

<Why did I expect that answer?>

<<Because you're getting the idea.>>

<If you mean that I'm starting to think like you, can I shoot myself now?>

<<Well, you'll need a gun and some opposable thumbs.>>

<Technicalities. So, what do seals eat anyway?>

<<Who cares? Where's a good restaurant?>>

<Ummm, is going out in public really a good idea right now? I'd rather not have our friends show up again.>

<<Don't worry. I have a rule; I never let anyone kill me more than once a week. It gets boring after that, and frankly, it's just plain rude. I've got a few tricks I haven't used yet. From now on, nobody recognizes us.>>

<Cool. How does that work?>

<<I'll explain it over dinner, which we're having in the next fifteen minutes or somebody's getting hurt.>>

<Oooookay. How are we paying? And giving people money that's going to disappear in a few hours is not an option.>

<<I never would have dreamed such a thing. Well, I would have, but I would have let you talk me out of it. Besides, why magic something up that you already have piles of?>>

<Now let's see; which pocket did I leave my credit card in? Besides, I imagine our friends may notice if the prisoner starts making withdrawals...>

<<Not to worry. It'll be real money, it'll come from you, and nobody will notice.>>

<How does that work?>

<<That's the beauty of magic. I don't have to give a rat's ass how it works. It just does.>>

<I can't tell you how reassuring that isn't.>

<<Yes, you can. At dinner. Now.>>




A few minutes later, Keith stood in the Outback parking lot, looked down at himself, fingered his cloak nervously, and took a deep breath.

<Is this really going to work?>

<<Sure. It's not what we see that counts; it's what they see. Besides, would you rather spend the whole night itching?>>

<But what if there's another magic-user in here? Aren't they going to notice?>

<<Of course not. What do you think I am, an incompetent? Don't answer that.>>

Keith sighed. <Well, if it doesn't work, at least I'll get a chance to practice running on these legs...>

He opened the door, stepped in as confidently as he could manage, and waited for the explosion.

Nobody batted an eyelash.

<<Told ya so.>>

"G'day! Just yourself tonight?"

<If only it were so...> "Yeah, just me."

"Right this way, sir."

<<And will you be sitting in furry or non-furry?>>

<Waiter, can I have a table away from myself?... Wait a minute. You know, I just realized something. For once I get to eat in this place without worrying about fat and cholesterol...>

<<Finally. Something we can agree on.>>




But the agreement stopped almost as soon as Keith sat down.

As always, there were two kids who just wouldn't stop yelling at each other, and one set of parents who just wouldn't do anything about it. In this case, they happened to be at the next table. Keith tuned them out. So did Kickaha... for about two minutes.

<<Oh, enough already.>>

As the younger of the two kids picked at his salad, his fork suddenly twisted in his hand; a tomato slice caught Dad right between the eyes. "THAT'S IT! Get in the car!", Dad shouted, and moments later they were gone, Mom stopping just long ehough to pay the bill and beg forgiveness to anyone in range.

<KICKAHA!>

<<What?? At least they'll be leaving in a second... if they can't shut up in public, then they shouldn't be in public!>>

<That goes for you too! The kid deserved a lot of things, but he didn't deserve what he's probably getting for that! Couldn't you have just calmed them down or something?>

<<I couldn't think straight with all that screaming going on...Look, I'm sorry, okay? Can we just eat?>>

<Can we do it without turning anybody else into a newt?>

<<Yes, daddy.>>




About an hour and two innocent plates of appetizers later, Keith was digging into the biggest steak on the menu (rare), and for the first time since the party, he was starting to feel relaxed. Maybe this was all going to work out after all. Or maybe it was just that big mug of Foster's.

<So, how long do you think it's gonna take for all this to blow over?>

<<Hell, I dunno. It's your world.>>

<Yeah, but I'm not used to getting chased around. I get the feeling that this is business as usual for you.>

<<I get the feeling it is too. But my memories are so fucked up that I'm not sure. Besides, why would we want this to blow over? This is kind of fun.>>

<Oh, yeah. Imminent death is always heaps of fun.>

<<Hey, imminent death is great. It lets you know you're alive. It's the actual death part that's a pain. And that's not gonna happen.>>

<And what makes you so sure of that?>

<<Because death is boring. And I'm no good at boring stuff. Of course, we may have to do something about you...>>

<Hey! Are you saying I'm boring?>

<<No. Just kinda...mundane.>>

<If I'm mundane, what was I doing at a costume party getting turned into you?>

<<That shows you've got potential. That's where I come in.>>

<Kickaha... I am not your little reclamation project. I was doing more than all right before you came along, and I was pretty damn happy with myself. This is my body, no matter what it looks like, and I'm not going to change just because you want me to!>

<<And you're saying that you don't want to?>>

A long pause. <Of course I do. If I didn't think the whole idea was kinda cool, I wouldn't have been at a costume party pretending to be you. But I don't want to be you. There's gotta be something in the middle here. If I'm going to work on not being 'mundane', you've gotta work on thinking before you pull damnfool tricks like that last one...>

<<Look. I'm just not good at being responsible. Can't that be your job?>>

<I don't work for free. If that's my job, then what's the pay?>

<<Pay? You've already gotten my good looks and my sense of style; what more do you want?>>

The mental silence was deafening.

<<Welllll... You're smart enough, and you've already done a little magic. How about if I show you the fine points?>>

<Why do I need to know magic with you around?>

<<You don't need to know how to fly with me around either; but it was a lot more fun to do it yourself, wasn't it? Besides, if I go poof, then it'd be nice to still be able to go swimming once in a while, wouldn't it?>>

<Kickaha, I... I need to think about that one.>

<<Fine. Eat. The steak's getting cold.>>




After finishing off the steak, two slabs of cheesecake, and two more mugs of Foster's, Keith was finally ready for the check. He groaned silently when he saw the Visa card Kickaha had magicked up--the name on the card was Paul Bearer, for crying out loud--but the waitress didn't blink, and apparently, neither did the computer.

A leisurely and slightly erratic flight over the lake later, Keith checked into the downtown Hilton; this time the name on the card was Peter Pan, and again the clerk didn't notice in the slightest. The suite included a very nice television, and a well-stocked "honor bar". Kickaha seemed fascinated by the whole concept of TV; and after a few more drinks from the bar, Keith was seeing a deep inner meaning in the Dukes of Hazzard that he had never appreciated before. During his third attempt to explain to Kickaha how Roscoe P. Coltrane represented the danger of physical power without a corresponding moral imperative, the two of them finally drifted off to sleep.

Part 8 (Nov. 3; written 1997/02/11)

"Housekeeping..."

Keith groggily rolled over, blinked, called out "Give me a minute, okay?" Then he realized that he hadn't done any of those things.

"I'll be back in about an hour, okay?"

"Thanks; you're a doll," Kickaha called. He rubbed his eyes. Something was wrong with his hearing. He put a paw to his right ear; it came away dark, sticky. He tasted it.

Chocolate.

He blinked, looked down at the pillow. He saw the green wrapper, the brown stain.

<<Oh. That's what that was.>> He shrugged, and licked his paw clean. Then he started on the pillow.

<Eeeeewwwwwwww. Kickaha, that's gross...>

<<It's pretty good, actually. Does the maid have any more?>>

<I imagine so. And I imagine she's going to be having words with the person or persons who got chocolate and coyote spit on her pillow.>

<<What? I think you're hallucinating.>> As if on cue, the stain on the pillow disappeared... and the hairs on the sheets along with it.

<Ummmm-hmmm. Speaking of hallucinating, didn't we have rather a lot to drink last night?>

<<I seem to recall so, yes.>>

<So how is it that I can still think?>

<<Hangovers aren't very fun, are they?>>

<Can't argue with that. You know, we should probably be careful about drinking that much. Things might happen.>

<<Things always happen. Some of them are just funnier when you're drunk.>>

<Maybe so. But as the voice of reason in this relationship, I just have to point that out.>

<<So you're taking the job?>>

<Kickaha, it still has to be a two-way street. You have to try to be a little responsible too.>

<<Oh, I promise to try. Really. I just want you to know up front that it never works.>>

<Well, then, if I want out of this in one piece, I don't have a lot of choice, do I?>

<<Great, Trust me; once you resign yourself to your fate, things get a lot more fun. So, are you ready for your first lesson?>>

<Let's go to the bathroom first, okay? I still have this nagging feeling that all this is a dream, and I'm going to come to my senses in the shower and laugh at all this.>

<<So I either get to crush your last hope or kill myself. Cool.>>




The Olympic Peninsula, on the western coast of Washington, is home to some of the most beautiful forests in the nation. By car or boat, it can be a day trip from Seattle. By air, things get substantially faster.

And so it was just before noon when Keith stood, in the middle of nowhere, with the pouring rain dripping off his snout, breathing in the incredible scents and wondering what on Earth had possessed him not to go out here before.

When asked why a park wouldn't do, Kickaha had said that introducing someone to magic was a major event... difficult to hide, even for him. So a quiet area seemed prudent. Keith was no longer in a mood to argue.

<So, this is where you teach me how to Sing?>

<<Nope. This is the one part I can't teach you. This is the part the world just teaches you. Or it doesn't. If it doesn't, I guess we come up with a new plan. But it should. I mean, it took me, so its standards can't exactly be very high...>>

<What are you getting at?>

<<You'll find out in about thirty seconds. But first, do you have any reservations about this?>>

<Well, yes!>

<<Very smart man. Just pay attention. And remember, I'm vouching for you here. Don't make me look bad.>>

Keith was so flustered he couldn't even come up with a comeback for that.

And then Kickaha Sang.

The beginning, the greeting, was largely the same as always. He reached out to the world; and, after a few moments, he felt the contact, the questioning. He closed his eyes as the rush of sensation hit him, the exhiliration of acceptance. He briefly joined the Song, not rushing, not trying, just being.

Then, as the warmth of the power started to flow into him, he smoothly altered his Song a bit, smoothly transitioning into the Introduction. He couldn't recall ever using it before--certainly not in this situation. The rhythm of the Song seemed to falter, and there was a deep sense of questioning. Kickaha made his reassurances, but to no reply. Even in the peace of the Song, Kickaha began to worry; perhaps this world had decided not to take newcomers at all. Then, finally, he felt acceptance. The Song resumed its rhythm, and its tempo seemed to slow in waiting.

And Kickaha pushed Keith into the Song.




Keith had caught none of the nuances of what was happening; he only felt Kickaha begin whatever it was he did, saw his eyes shut, felt the warmth start, then stop.

Suddenly, the world reached up and swallowed him.

He felt the rain beat down on the grass...

saw a flicker of prey from the ground below...

heard the rustling of the eagle's feathers as he scrambled for cover...

the warmth of the sun on his leaves...

the rumble of a car from the road overhead as he tunneled...

the shriek of a rival male from the tree...

the smell of blood trickling from the kill...

the pain of a tick burrowing under his skin...

the water flowing through his gills...

He saw the world through a thousand sets of eyes, heard and felt and smelt it from a thousand directions. It was all too much. He tried to block it out, tried to close his eyes and ears and noses, but he could not. He could feel himself slipping away. Where am I? Why am I here? Who are you?

Who are you?

It took him what seemed like forever to realize that he was being asked a question.

Who are you?

He tried to remember, tried to picture himself; he could not. He was a blur of eyes and wings and wood and fur. Nothing seemed right.

Who are you?

He felt hopelessness, loss, anger, desperation. And finally, a flash of understanding.

He was trying to answer the wrong question; the answer wasn't a picture, wasn't a form.

Who are you?

I am me.

Welcome.


Then, everything went black.




And suddenly, his eyes were open, and he was seeing the world through his own two--two!--eyes, gasping for breath. He toppled over backwards, felt the ground at his back, clenched at it with his claws to satisfy himself that it was there, that it was where it should be, that it was only in one place.

<<You're all right. You're all right. You made it. It's over. You passed.>> Kickaha sounded almost panicked. <<You're all right. I'm sorry. What happened? I couldn't tell. What scared you? I didn't think it was supposed to be scary. Mine was pretty fun. Oops... I mean...>>

<Kickaha... I'm fine. Really. I think.>

<<Then, um, can we get up now?>>

Keith picked himself up. He had gotten pretty well used to his new legs before, but suddenly they felt... normal. He didn't need to try running; he knew he could.

<Um, Kickaha... if you don't mind, I really think I'd like to be in a city for a few hours right now.>

<<Sounds like a plan. Wanna fly?>>

<Why don't you do it, okay? I'm still feeling... a little weird. And I don't think I need the practice anymore.>

Part 9 (Nov. 3; written 1997/02/15)

Kickaha flew across Puget Sound, black wings slicing through the rain. He didn't even try to talk to Keith; after that thing with the Song this morning, Keith was deep into thinking about something. If he butted in now, Keith would bite his head off. Or worse yet, he'd want to talk about it...




Keith looked on, watching the clouds, the water, the occasional beam of sun. It was all so beautiful. It was all so... right.

And that was what bothered him.

He thought back to Halloween night, to the panic of realizing that he was trapped in a form that wasn't his own. He could remember that clearly, just as he could remember the terror of being alone in a dark room as a child. But he couldn't recreate either one in his mind; one fear seemed just as detached, just as irrational as the other. He could think of any number of reasons why that shouldn't be; he just didn't feel them.

And then, beyond the lack of fear, there was this sudden feeling of utter competence--normalcy. On the way across the Sound this morning, he had felt like a pretty good flyer; but now, he knew he was--just as he had known that he could run as a coyotemorph, just as he knew that, if Kickaha decided to dive and go the rest of the way as a fish or a dolphin, he could handle those too.

On a certain level, he was happy with all this; as long as he was in this situation, and as long as there was no sign that it was going to end soon, it didn't make a lot of sense to waste time being afraid of it, and not having to learn to walk another fifty times was certainly a plus. If someone had offered him those things, he would have given a lot for them. But the implications of having them just show up unannounced... If something about him--about the way he thought--could change that quickly, what else could change? What else might already have changed, without him realizing it? And if he could suddenly learn so much, so quickly, what might he have forgotten equally quickly? He couldn't think of anything he couldn't remember, but then again, what did that prove? Was he even still human?

He had to think about that one for a while.

Finally, he decided not to think about it so much.

Whatever it was that he had just contacted, it certainly wasn't hostile; if it was, he'd be dead. And if it wanted to change him without worrying about his opinions, why wouldn't it have just made him not realize he'd been changed? Besides, when it came down to it, he'd already changed, and he was probably going to keep changing, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it; so he may as well stop worrying about it and hope things work out for the best.

Hmm.

Maybe Kickaha had all this right after all.

And then they were over Seattle.

<Does that spell you used to pay last night work for something a little more expensive?>

<<No reason why not.>>

<Good. I think I need to do a little shopping.>

<<Cool. Can I go shopping later?>>

<Sure--this shouldn't take long. I just need to grab a couple of things, and then spend an hour or so at the hotel; we can get back out before the stores close.>

<<No problem. Unless I miss my guess, the places I'm after are open all night.>>

<Kickaha, that's not even a thinly veiled threat. Do I look like someone who needs more trauma today?>

<<As a matter of fact, yes.>>

<Figures.>




Keith had never really liked Computer City; the selection was good, but the help always seemed like they didn't really care what was going on. Now that was exactly what he was after. He picked out a high-end Pentium laptop, then loaded up on software--Developer Studio, Procomm, a good selection of games "for Kickaha"... It made quite an impressive pile at the counter, and Keith blinked hard when he saw the total--the last time he'd spent $5K at one time was when he'd paid the down payment on his condo. This time the Visa card was gold and in the name of Howard Hughes--again, no reaction, from the clerk or the register.

Outside, Kickaha started pushing the boxes into a small pocket in his cloak; even the smallest box had no business fitting in there, but they didn't seem to object.

<Kickaha, how is it that nobody seems to care what's on that card you use?>

<<Great spell, isn't it? You've gotta learn it. You can walk up to a total stranger, lick 'em in the face and call 'em Mommy, and they wouldn't think twice about it--probably wouldn't even remember it afterwards. I mean, it's the sort of thing that happens a million times a day; nothing worth remembering, right?>>

<Not bad. But isn't someone going to notice it when they're adding up the charge slips at the end of the day?>

<<Oh, it turns into boring stuff in a few minutes. After you get thrown out of places a few dozen times, you start thinking about stuff like that.>>

<So you're an expert at getting thrown out of places, then?>

<<A lifetime of experience.>>

<Not surprising. Can we go back to the hotel and play with my toys for a little bit while I ponder my fate?>

<<Ponder whatever you want, as long as you're done by tonight. My turn then...>>

<You know, something tells me that I'm never going to worry about having nothing to do in the evening from now on.>

<<Anything I can do to help...>>




Keith had never been so glad to see "Hello, world..." in his life.

As soon as he'd gotten back to the Hilton, he'd set up the laptop, fired up Developer Studio, and started programming. To his immense relief, if something was missing in his head, this didn't seem to be it; the code flowed out of his fingers (after a few minutes of claw-induced typos), and in no time he had those magic two words bouncing around the screen. He looked through some of the sample code provided, and found that it made as much sense as Microsoft code had ever made to him. If he could ever find someone to hire him, it looked like he could still work.

Kickaha found this fascinating, for about five minutes. Then the TV suddenly turned itself on, and started slowly flipping through channels. Eventually, it came to the Cartoon Network, and settled to a stop.

<<Now this is entertainment.>>

Keith had hooked up the modem; with some degree of professional embarrassment, he fired up the AOL trial disk that came with the machine.

<Hey, Kickaha, can you fire up that Visa card of yours?>

<<It's in the cloak,>> Kickaha said distractedly, clearly enthralled.

<How are you watching that, anyway? I'm not even looking at the screen.>

<<Magic. Go 'way.>>

Keith shrugged, reached in the small pocket in the cloak, found the card. "STEVE CASE," it said. He grimaced, but dutifully typed in the info anyway; in no time, he had an account. He headed immediately to Usenet; he was expecting the Raucous Chicken incident to be the talk of the town. And, to a certain extent, it was--but not nearly as much as he expected. He scanned somewhat wistfully through the headers of misc.jobs.offered, wondering if being a coyote qualified under the Americans With Disabilities Act. With a grin, he looked in alt.fan.furry, knowing what he'd find; sure enough, several groups were furiously constructing costumes and organizing pilgrimages. Keith resisted the urge to post "Be careful what you wish for..."

On the TV, a Road Runner cartoon came on. Two minutes passed. <<Hey; what kind of crap is this?>> The channels started clicking again.

Keith grinned, logging off. <Why, Kickaha, whatever happened to entertainment?>

<<It's blatant speciesism. Everybody thinks the dumb birds are cute.>>

The TV clicked to the news. The owners of the Mariners were threatening to sell again; the forecast was for rain through Thursday. Typical.

<Shit; is it five already? Sorry; I sort of lose track of time when I'm on the computer sometimes.>

<<So I see. Well, are you done pondering?>>

<Yep; as near as I can tell, I'm still me.>

<<Really? How sad. Well, let's go work on that...>>

<Gee, thanks for your support.>

<<Anytime.>>




Kickaha's first stop was at KFC, for an eight-piece Extra-Crispy bucket, to go. He stashed it in his cloak, shifted to raven, and flew to Woodland Park, a few minutes to the north. There, he landed in the top of a big tree, shifted back, and mercilessly attacked, finishing off the chicken in ten minutes flat.

<Still working off that latent roadrunner hostility?>

<<Phbbbbbt.>>

It was getting dark, and the rain was picking up; the few picnickers left in the park headed home. Kickaha waited for the place to clear out, then climbed down.

<<You're not going to freak on me when I do this, are you?>>

<I promise.>

Kickaha nodded, and Sang, tentatively at first, then with greater confidence. He hadn't used much power; it didn't take long--a minute at most. As he finished and Sang his thanks, he hoped the Olympics would forgive him for forgetting earlier.

<See? No problem.>

<<Sure about that?>>

<Why should there be a problem?>

<<I'm glad you feel that way. Your turn.>>

<Ummmm. My turn.>

<<Yep. Cool, huh?>>

<Ummmm. Shouldn't I find out how to do this first?>

<<I guess this is where I just wait for realization to slowly filter in.>>

And then Keith realized that he did know how.

<Oh.>

<<That was what you were supposed to be learning, you know.>>

<Kickaha, is there anything else in my head that as its owner I should be made aware of?>

<<If there were, and if I knew, I wouldn't tell you. You always want to spoil the surprises...>>

Keith just sighed, closed his eyes, tried to clear his thoughts, and Sang.




Instead of letting the world crash in on him, Keith tried to reach out, expand himself to meet it. He felt the park wash over him, the beat of the rain on the pine needles, the gentle squabblings of the birds picking through the picnickers' leavings. There was no panic, no sense of loss; just... belonging.

He drifted for a while, absorbing it all, dimly feeling the power washing through him. After some time, he realized that he was full, that it was time to go. He focused, found his body, pacing around a tree. He Sang his thanks, without hesitation; then he contracted, rushed in...




<<SHIT! Are you okay?>>

Keith blinked. This wasn't the reaction he was expecting.

<Yeah, as far as I know. What's the problem?>

<<That was weird.>>

<Ummm, isn't that supposed to be my line?>

<<Keith, you were... gone. For, like, half an hour. I would have gone in after you, if I had the damnedest idea how to.>>

<Was that half an hour? It didn't feel like that long at all.>

<<That's not the point. That's not the way it's supposed... Wait a minute. How did you do that?>>

<Kickaha, if you don't say something coherent in the next ten seconds...>

<<You got magic, didn't you? How did you do that?... Shit. You got a lot...>>

<KICKAHA!>

<<What?>>

<Kickaha, I want you to stop. I want you to think about things for about five seconds. Then I want you to tell me exactly what you're talking about. And if you don't, I'm going to whack my head repeatedly against this tree until you do.>

<<Okay.>> A pause. <<Your Singing is different from mine. I expected that. But yours is... really different. And... I didn't think that having two people with magic in the same body was going to work this way. I thought we were both working out of the same pool. After I finished Singing, I thought we were both already full; I didn't think that you were going to be able to get any magic from the Song... I just wanted you to Sing to get used to it. But you got... a lot of it. Not, like, mindshatteringly a lot... but a lot. More than me. I think. It's hard to compare; it feels like it's... not quite the same type. And I would really, really like to know if you think you can do it again.>>

<Oh. Well... I think so. I mean, not right now... but I don't see why not.>

<<Do you feel weird? Is there something you suddenly need to do? Do you feel any sudden urges to sacrifice anything?>>

<Umm... no. I don't think so.>

<<Keith, have I mentioned lately that you're my favorite person on this planet and a helluva nice guy?>>

<Shit. Now you've got me worried.>

<<No. No worrying allowed. This is great. This is important, I can feel it. This is the beginning of a truly beautiful relationship. Tomorrow, we start teaching you some serious stuff. But tonight, we party like crazed weasels!>>

Kickaha shifted to raven, in such a hurry to get off the ground that he was flapping his wings while they were still arms. He darted towards downtown like a black arrow.

Keith, still a bit stunned by the evening's turn of events, silently hoped that Kickaha meant that last line figuratively.

Part 10 (ADULT; Nov. 3 & Nov. 4; writtten 1997/05/23)

The night club was full of college students, and thirtysomethings trying to feel like college students.

It was dark. It was crowded. The music was loud. The smells were intense. The dance floor was packed. There were over two dozen varieties of beer.

Kickaha was in his element.

He danced indiscriminately; he had no idea what he was doing, but that was part of the fun. What he lacked in talent he made up for in exuberance. He danced with every woman he could reach who wasn't nailed down, and a few men who didn't get out of the way fast enough. Some of them talked. Some of them bought him drinks. Who was he to be unsociable?

For some reason, Keith was taking exception to this. He pointed out the problems last night. Kickaha taught him a quick spell to dampen the alcohol level in the bloodstream. This let Keith keep him at the "comfortable with life" stage of drunkenness, which made Keith happy. And it gave Keith something to do other than nag, which made Kickaha happy.

And, when Kickaha was in the mood for a little more fun, the place put the "rich" in "target-rich environment". People were doing stupid things left and right. Nobody was paying much attention. And, of course, if people did happen to see something weird, "magic" wasn't likely to be the first explanation to come to mind--unless they were really drunk, in which case who cared?

Over in the corner, a balding manager in a three-piece suit was trying a bit too hard to "get to know" his new secretary, buying her drink after drink, while he sipped at his own. Odd how she didn't seem to be getting tipsy at all, while he seemed to be having a hard time getting the glass upto his mouth...

At another table, some twentysomethings were playing poker; the quality of play had gone down steadily as the night wore on, and now all but two were cleaned out. The remaining two looked at their cards, blinked, bet heavily, raised, reraised; finally, they both smiled broadly, showed their hands--each had a seven-high straight. A tie. They dealt again, blinked again, bet even more heavily, until all their money was in the pot; again they showed their hands--this time both had a royal flush, one in diamonds, one in hearts. They stared at the hands for a while, then agreed to call it a night...

A UW student in a "FUCK OBSCENITY" T-shirt was clearly convinced that he was God's Gift To Dance, and that entitled him to whatever portion of the floor that he might dignify with his presence. Shortly after elbowing Kickaha in the back for encroaching on his territory, he went into one of his patented spins, heard a long, loud ripping sound from the direction of his pants, and suddenly felt a draft...

The night seemed to spin on and on. Finally, the crowd started to thin out. Just past midnight, Kickaha sauntered out, walking back towards the Hilton. He looked up, howled noiselessly at the starless sky. Life was damn good.


Just a block away from the Hilton. If Keith could have, he would have breathed a sigh of relief.

<Well, I've gotta admit it; that went well. And it was damn fun to watch.>

<<Why, thank you. I do try.>>

<So, ready to call it a night?>

<<Not quite yet. Good things have happened today; it seems like we ought to help somebody. Even up the karmic balance a little bit, you know.>>

<Why, Kickaha, that's... sweet. But who's going to need help at this time of night?>

<<Funny you should ask. I have just the person in mind.>>

Then Keith noticed where Kickaha was looking. Standing under an umbrella near the entrance to the Hilton, a blonde in a tight red dress and high heels stood idly, facing away from them, watching the street. She didn't exactly look sleazy, but she clearly wasn't waiting for a cab.

<<I think the evening just got a lot more interesting,>> said Kickaha, as he picked up his pace a bit.

Keith's heart sank. <What sort of "help" are we talking about here?>

<<Oh, the best kind.>>

<Kickaha, please tell me you're not talking about what I know you're talking about.>

<<Hey. I didn't go telling you how to spend your time.>>

<I didn't go breaking the law...>

<<Oh, sure. Ringing up a few grand on a magic credit card is perfectly legal. Besides, how can you pass up a damsel in distress?>>

<What sort of 'distress'?>

<<You'll find out.>>

Keith knew when he was beat. <Isn't she going to notice our, er, anatomical differences?>, he said halfheartedly.

<<Magic is a wonderful thing, isn't it?>>

<Oh, words can't describe it.>

<<You'd be amazed at how many people say that.>>

<No, I don't think I would.>


As they approached, she turned around. She wasn't beautiful, but she was certainly attractive. "Hey, sugar. Whatcha doin' tonight?"

"Oh, just getting a feel for the town."

"Like what you see so far?"

"Oh, absolutely."

"That's real nice. I'm Candy. How'd you like me to show you a few more things tonight?"

"Sounds reeeal interesting."

<As in, "May you live in interesting times"?>

<<Shaddup.>>


Keith wasn't sure whether to be fascinated or appalled. He decided to be fascinated. For now.

He had never used a prostitute before; he'd certainly thought about it enough times, but he'd never actually gone through with it. He had often imagined what it would be like. This wasn't it.

The preliminaries had been dispensed with very quickly. Kickaha seemed to approach sex in the same way that he approached dance. It was athletic; it showed very little sense of timing; it sometimes involved bumping into things. You certainly wouldn't teach anyone to do it that way. But it was a heck of a thing to watch. And everyone involved seemed to be enjoying it.

Keith wasn't quite enjoying it yet. Okay, he was a humanoid coyote; he had that part down cold. And he could even accept that he was a humanoid coyote having sex. Appearance aside, he had to admit that it had some pretty compelling advantages; his weapon seemed to have unlimited ammunition, for one thing. But there was still something a little bit weird about just watching himself have sex. Candy wasn't very active either; she seemed to have given up on trying to keep up with what Kickaha was doing, and had just settled in for the ride. But she was still obviously having a good time. She leaned into Kickaha, as he licked her ear...

...which was getting longer.

If Keith had been in control of his body at that moment, he would have bounced about two feet off the bed in surprise. As it was, he did nothing of the sort; Kickaha kept things going smoothly (or what passed for smoothly with Kickaha), and he chose that moment to close his eyes. But Keith could still feel the fur starting to sprout from the middle of her chest.

<KICKAHA!>

<<Yeeeeeesssss?>>

<WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON???>

<<I'm helping. Just like I said.>>

<HOW???>

<<Keith, I'm really kinda busy right now. How about if you take a look around for yourself and get back to me in a bit?>>

<KIC-->


And then Keith was in Candy's head.

Yes, she was definitely having a good time. There was a warmth all over; her eyes were closed, her breathing slow and even, her perceptions muted, detached. Kickaha and the real world hardly seemed to register; it was like floating in space. When he tried, he could feel Kickaha pumping into him--into her, his fur pressing on her chest, his legs bracketing hers, his nose behind her ear. He could feel her push back into him, almost by instinct. He could also feel the beginnings of her own fur emerging, working its way across her chest. Another patch ran along her spine, down the back of her legs, starting to spread out over her back. Her mouth had pushed out a half-inch or so, and her nose was flattening a bit, moving closer to the mouth. The stub of a tail had emerged from the base of her spine, and it slowly pushed out another inch or so, pressed up against her back. The change felt nothing like what he was used to; there was no sudden rush--just slow, even ripples.

When he tried, he could feel all this. But he knew Candy wasn't trying. And he could understand why not.

Then Keith changed his focus, looking towards her mind, her memories. And as he found himself drawn in, he too lost track of reality.


Her name was Tabitha Wilkins.

Her family was poor. Her father often worked two part-time jobs, when he worked at all; her mother did odd jobs when she could. They rarely fought, but they rarely loved either; their marriage was largely taken on as an obligation, "for the child's sake." But "the child" was largely left to fend for herself.

At school, she was a good student; she was never exactly popular, but she always had friends, and she spent most of her time with them. She had always had an interest in the law; so she was thrilled when she was accepted as a pre-law major at the University of Washington, with a partial scholarship.

But once she got to Seattle, she quickly found herself swamped. She had never had to work very hard at her studies in high school; but here, nothing came easy--she was getting average grades, and she knew that "only average" wouldn't get her into law school. And her scholarship didn't cover all the bills; she had to take night jobs to make ends meet. She often got back to her dorm after midnight, studied till 3, then woke up at 6. Coffee helped at first, but it lost its punch quickly. She found herself falling behind; she was certain that she wasn't going to make it.

Then, at one late-night study session, someone offered her some cocaine, saying that it would give her an energy boost. Out of desperation, she tried it. And it worked. While the high lasted, nothing could stop her; she could understand anything, remember anything. She snorted some in the restroom just before a crucial midterm, and aced it. She thought she finally had her answer.

And she had. For about a month.

But then it all came crashing down again. The high wore off too fast, and left her feeling more and more drained. And her financial situation, bad before, was desperate now; she maxed out her credit cards, borrowed money from friends, pawned her stereo, finally sold her books. It wasn't enough. But she couldn't stop.

She drifted away from her friends. She stopped going to classes, tried to find work--any work. But she couldn't hold a job. Finally, someone offered her a way to work at night, to make some quick money--and get a quick fix--while meeting interesting people.

She took it. She had nothing left to lose.

Everything became a blur.


Keith was back in his own skull. He wanted to shiver. It was one thing to hear about people making one wrong decision and derailing their lives as a result. Living it was something else again. He didn't know what to think anymore.

Keith had clearly been away for a while. The change had progressed; Tabitha--he couldn't bring himself to think of her as Candy now--was almost as much a coyote as he was now. She was on her chest now, her head turned to one side, her muzzle--just reaching its full length--pressed gently against the mattress. Her tail draped off to the other side, its tip just curling over the edge of the bed. The bedcovers were in a lump at their feet, which was a good thing; it was getting awfully warm in here. And Kickaha showed no signs of slowing down; neither did the transformation.

And didn't his legs used to be a little longer?

Just then, Keith felt his fingers start to shorten. A tingle ran down his spine and into his pelvis, and he felt his legs twist forward a bit.

<Kickaha?>

<<Is that you, Keith? You sound so different when you're not SCREAMING...>>

Keith paused, took a deep mental breath. <How far do you have in mind to go here?>, he finally said, as calmly as he could manage.

<<I always try not to leave things half-done.>>

<I see. How exactly is this helping her?>

<<You know, if we have to explain everything we do to each other, we'll both go bugfuck nuts.>>

<So, no change then.>

<<Tou-damn-che! There's hope for you yet. Yes, there's a point to this. I suppose you'd like to know what it is.>>

<Urgently.>

<<Good. And I'll be happy to tell you. In juuust a few minutes. Right now, there's something I gotta do. And I need to concentrate. So it's reeeeally important that you take over right now. 'kay?>>

<Wait a sec! This is-->

<<Great. Knew I could count on ya.>>

And then Keith was in control. In a manner of speaking.

The changes in both of them seemed to be accelerating; their legs weren't much longer than their arms, and the whole bed seemed to be growing slowly larger.

His vocal chords still didn't seem changed, though.

"Is it just me, or has life gotten too complicated?", he muttered softly.

Tabitha had no reply.

"I knew you'd agree."

Keith didn't think he could stand up. His fingers were nearly gone. And his member had swelled to the point where he didn't think he could withdraw completely in any case. That was good, he supposed. That limited his options. That meant that he didn't have to think as much. And he really didn't want to think very much right now. He just tried to settle into a steady rhythm.


Kickaha's attention was elsewhere.

He had a very clear picture of his target, and he knew that he'd be around somewhere. He extended his awareness, taking in the streets below.

It didn't take long. Sure enough, there he was, circling the block.

He wished they'd gotten a room nearer the ground. At this range, under these conditions, there wasn't much he could do; just little things, nudges. But maybe that would be enough.

He reached out a bit farther. Yes, there was what he needed. And it was always nice to actually get some use out of one of them. Yes, this could be fun after all.


The red Camaro passed the front door of the Hilton. Still no one there.

Hank slapped the dashboard. Shit. The bitch had never been this late. She brought in good money, but if he had to have this little conversation with her one more time... He clenched the wheel, picturing her neck.

Blue lights flashed in the rear-view mirror. Shit. Just what he needed. He pulled to the curb, rolled down the window a bit, tried to pull himself together.

"Good evening, sir. Could I see your driver's license and registration, please?"

"Sure thing, officer." He fished them out of the glove compartment, a practiced move. "What's up?"

"Mister...Calhoun, I noticed that you've been around this block four times. There's an anti-cruising ordinance in effect after eight PM. What brings you out here so late?"

"Oh, nothing really, officer. I'm just... waiting for a friend."

"I see. Is your friend at the Hilton, then?"

"Yeah, she's just in town for a few days."

"It's after one in the morning, sir; isn't that a little late to be picking someone up?"

"Well... we were just going to talk for a little while, you know, maybe find a drink somewhere."

"I see. Well, maybe she'll show up in a moment here and we can straighten things out. In the meantime, just sit tight for a moment, okay? I'll make sure you don't have any outstanding warrants, and we can get you on your way here."

"No problem, officer."

As the cop went to his car, Hank drummed his fingers over the wheel, slapping the dash once in frustration. Another damn ticket. The bitch was gonna pay for this.

Then he noticed that the cop was coming back. So was his partner. Their hands were on their holsters. And another set of blue lights was coming in the distance.

"Mister Calhoun, I need you to open the door and step out of the car. Now. Keep your hands where I can see them. Do it now."

Hank climbed out slowly, hands in the air. "What's the problem, officer?", he said, forcing a laugh.

There was no laughter in return. "Sir, we'll get to that in a second. Step around to the front of the car. Lean down on the hood. Put your hands on the hood. Spread your legs. A little farther, please."

Hank complied. Firm hands pulled his arms behind his back, locked the handcuffs on. Another voice read him his rights.

"What the hell is wrong here? I don't have a warrant out for me, right?"

"Sir, that's not the problem. Let me show you the problem." Someone hauled him around to the passenger side; a flashlight lit up the floorboards. "The problem is that large bag of white powder that fell out of your glove compartment. Would you like to tell us something about that, Mister Calhoun?"

"That's impossible! I never keep that there!" He stopped. What the hell was he saying? "I mean... I never saw that before! Get me my lawyer now..."

"We'll arrange that soon enough, Mister Calhoun. Right this way, please. That's it. Just get right in back here. Watch your head..."


Ah, yes. Kickaha did love it when things all came together.

<<Sorry 'bout that. I'm afraid that Tabitha here is just going to have to find a new employer. Seems that hers just ran into some legal complications.>>

<That's nice to hear. Could you take over here? You seem to be getting a lot more out of this than I am.>

<<Oh, that's okay, you can stop now. All done.>>

<I would hope so.>

The changes had certainly completed. Two coyotes were stacked on the bed, Keith still firmly embedded in Tabitha, who looked to have fallen asleep underneath him. There was fur everywhere, among other things. Keith didn't feel at all uncomfortable physically; but the whole situation just seemed like a big social "don't".

Keith knew--in the same way that he knew everything else about his body now--that the swelling would take another hour or so to subside. He was also pretty certain of what Kickaha's reaction to his mentioning that would be-- <<Who's in a hurry?>> And, when it came down to it, he wasn't sure he had an answer.

<Since we're not going anywhere for a while, how about letting me in on what the hell is going on?>

<<Oh, I suppose. Well, if you do a change the right way, it's really great at getting bad stuff out of your system. And it makes withdrawal a lot easier to deal with. Sort of resets things.>>

<Is this the only way you know of to do that?>

<<No. Just the best way. And the most fun.>>

<Won't that just wear off when the change does?>

<<She's already burned up what was in her system; that won't come back. She's still gonna want it in a few days, though; you're right about that.>>

<Is there anything we can do about that?>

<<Not a whole lot. I mean, if you were her, would you want us coming around every few days?>>

<I think I'd take my chances on cocaine and prostitution.>

<<My point exactly.>>

<So, she's still got no job, no support, no money. She's just going to wind up going back to the same old crowd, isn't she?>

<<Could be. I'm a mage, not a miracle worker. Got any bright ideas?>>

Keith thought for a few seconds. <Yeah. Maybe I do.>

<<I was hoping you might say that. Need anything?>>

<Just the PC.>

<<Got it.>>

There was a puff of smoke, and the laptop was sitting on the bed in front of them. Keith felt his forelegs grow a bit, his paws expand into clawed hands. He sighed a bit; this wasn't quite what he had in mind. But he prided himself on his ability to work through distractions. He fired up AOL's Web browser; the modem wasn't connected to anything, but that didn't seem to matter. He tapped in an address, and set to work...


Tabitha opened her eyes, looked around. The last thing she remembered, she was working; now she was sitting on a park bench, and the sun was high in the sky. Damn. She'd never blacked out before. What happened?

Wait a minute. If she'd blacked out, then why didn't she feel like hell? Geez, she felt...

Normal.

"Not a bad feeling, huh?"

She whirled around. A man was sitting next to her, an ordinary-looking man, in a jacket and tie. Where had he been a second ago?

"Who are you?" she said weakly.

"We met last night, Tabitha. I don't know how it was for you, but it was very educational for me."

This was too weird. She stood up, backed a few steps away.

"Tabitha."

The voice was still calm. But something in it made her stop, turn around.

"Tabitha, I need you to answer two questions for me, and I need you to think carefully before you answer them. And once you've answered, you can walk away if you want. Is this the way you want your life to go?"

She thought about what she had been through. It didn't take long. "Hell, no!"

"If I give you a second chance, a chance to do what you want to do, are you ready to work as hard as you ever have before to make it happen?"

"Yes. Yes."

"That's what I needed to hear." He reached into his jacket, pulled out an envelope, and held it out to her. "Take it."

Trembling a bit, she took it, looked at it. "AST Travel Agency" was neatly printed in one corner; "TABITHA WILKINS" was handwritten across the front. She opened it; inside was a ticket, some sheets of computer printout, and a quarter-inch stack of $50 travelers' checks. Disbelievingly, she pulled one out. It was already signed. In her handwriting.

"You're booked on Alaska flight 403 to San Jose. It leaves at 5:40. You have a room booked at the Airport Inn down there for a week. The first thing you will do is call Anna Connell, at the law office of Connell, Gregors and Tucker, and confirm your interview. The number's in there. Be honest with her; tell her that you're looking for a new start. She will hire you as a clerk, and help you find a place, and treatment if you need it. It's her way of building good karma. You should learn a lot from her. And once you've done good work for her for about a year, she'll help you get back into a good school. Her recommendation carries a lot of weight, and not just with law schools. Don't waste it."

Tabitha numbly looked at him. "Why are you so sure I'll do all that?"

"Because if you don't, if you mess this up, then you're going to know for the rest of your life that somebody gave you a shot, as good a shot as you ever hoped for, and you blew it. And I don't think that you'll let that happen. Am I wrong about that?"

She shook her head, still in disbelief. "Who are you? Why are you doing this?"

"Because sometimes good things just happen. And sometimes they just need a little push."

"I can't pay this back."

"Yes, you can. Someday, when you've got your life together, find somebody else who needs help, and return the favor."

She stood still for a few seconds. "I don't know what to think."

"Then don't think. Do something. You've got about three hours to get to your place, pack what you need, and get to the airport. Good luck, Tabitha. You sure as hell deserve some."

Tabitha stared at the envelope again. This couldn't be happening. "But who..."

She looked up, and her voice left her in mid-sentence. The bench was empty. She was alone.

She pinched herself. She was awake. She held the envelope in her hands, even tore the flap a bit. It was real.

She sat down heavily on the bench. She sat there for a few long minutes, staring at the envelope, staring at nothing at all.

Then she got up, quickly, and walked to the cab.

Part 11 (Nov. 4; written 1997/06/02)

<So, do you think she's okay?>

<<Considering she probably hasn't even made it to the airport yet, I'd have to say yes. Of course, it's been five whole minutes since you asked that last; anything can happen in that kind of time...>>

<Phbbbbbbtht. Can't a guy do a little good-natured worrying around here?>

<<You worry enough for ten of us. Now could you concentrate?>>

<I've been concentrating.>

<<Well, do it some more.>>

<Oh, sure. "Concentrate," says the strange voice in my head.>

<<You're in a lousy position to be calling other people "strange," you know...>>

Keith had never been a fan of taking Mondays off. For some reason, no matter where he was, or how much fun he was supposed to be having, he always felt like he'd rather be at work. Things always went wrong for him on Mondays when he wasn't on a project.

This one was going worse than usual.

They'd retreated to a patch of forest on the east side of the lake. There was one advantage to it being midafternoon on a Monday; at least fewer people were out and about. Keith and Kickaha had the place to themselves. Not that it was doing Keith any good.

As promised, Kickaha was trying to teach Keith the finer arts of magic. And "trying" was about as far as they were getting. If the magic was simple, and if it only involved their body, then Keith could generally pull it off after some effort; when he tried shapeshifting a hand to a paw, it was no problem at all. But anything outside of that--even the trivial trick of making grass grow, which he had pulled off on the night of his transformation--seemed to be beyond him now. He could feel the power in him, but he just couldn't focus it; it was like it evaporated as soon as it left his body... if magic was something that could evaporate. He'd even tried tapping into Kickaha's magic again. No luck; he couldn't do it.

<<Well, this is a bummer and a half,>> Kickaha finally said.

<This is nuts,> Keith fumed. <Last week, I didn't even think magic existed. Now it does, and it's not working, and it's pissing the hell out of me!>

<<The whole thing is kinda weird,>> Kickaha agreed. <<And I say that as an expert.>>

<You said that you didn't think my magic was the same type. Maybe the rules aren't quite the same either?>

<<Yeah, I guess that could be it. I sure as hell hope not, though. 'Cuz if it is, I sure don't know what to do about it. Look, maybe we're banging our head against the wall for nothing here. Maybe it just takes time. Or maybe if you Sing again something'll shake loose; it was sure weird enough the last time...>>

<Not right now, okay? I'm tired, and I'm frustrated, and I'm ticked. I just don't think that's the right frame of mind.>

<<Gee, that's usually when I enjoy it the most. But suit yourself. Mind if I go ahead, though?>>

<Fine. I'll watch your back.>

<<My back is fine. Watch for other people's backs.>>

<Kickaha...>

<<Juuust leaving.>>

Kickaha only took a minute or two. Keith felt the incoming rush of power, and it was bittersweet--so close, so far away. He briefly thought about changing his mind and Singing too, then decided against it. There'd be time later. Time seemed to be one thing he wasn't short of.




They drifted back downtown, checking out of the Hilton; after the "events" of last night, it seemed prudent to change. Besides, with those magic pockets in Kickaha's cloak, they didn't exactly need a place to stash their stuff--a fact that Kickaha demonstrated by loading them up with all the toiletries from the bathroom, only stopping when Keith drew the line at the towels.

Rush hour was coming closer, and the traffic on First Street was just starting to get interesting. Kickaha stood on a corner, tapping his claws against a building, idly watching the traffic work its way through the light. Well, not exactly "idly." People who ran the light or blocked the intersection mysteriously found themselves dropping their lattes on their immaculate floor mats; pedestrians who crossed against the red were splashed by a puddle that never quite seemed to empty. A cop working the corner didn't quite know what to make of his unexpected bounty--nobody seemed to notice him until it was too late. Keith found himself cheering up; he may still have wished that he was in that commute instead of watching it, but that didn't make it any less fun to watch.

Then a bolt of cold fire hit him in the chest.

For a moment, the world seemed to dissolve; Keith saw nothing but blue, heard nothing but a roaring in his ears. Then the fog cleared, and he stood stunned, looking down at the sidewalk, waiting for the pain that he was sure would be coming. Waiting for Kickaha to do something.

Someone screamed.

<<No power... run...>> The voice in his head was muted, distant.

Keith ran, not sure which way to go.

The second bolt hit him in the back.

Keith howled in pain as his skeleton lurched, convulsed into another shape. As he crashed face-first to the sidewalk, he dimly felt the weight of the cloak disappear from off his back, coalescing into a ring around his neck, choking him. He picked himself up, on all fours this time, whimpering in pain, running again.

Something poked into his hindquarters, throwing him off stride. He tried to recover, and managed a few more loping strides, but his hind legs weren't working right; he couldn't feel them anymore. A wave of numbness ran up his right side; it reached his forepaw, and he collapsed to the sidewalk again, panting, too weak to whine. Something lifted him off the ground, just as the nothingness reached his head, and everything went dark.

Part 12 (Nov. 4; written 1997/06/06)

A plain-looking black van rolled south on I-5, leaving the downtown skyscrapers behind. The driver was dressed in sunglasses and a black suit; he flicked the radio buttons, finding a traffic report. "I-5 north and south through the city still movin' along just fine. There's a blocking disabled on eastbound 520 at the western highrise; I-90 is definitely your bridge of choice tonight. If you're heading downtown this evening, steer way clear of First and Pike; there's a horrible backup there--no word yet on what the hold-up is, but police are on the way. And we just got word of a car-semi collision southbound on the Valley Freeway; at this rate, looks like it's gonna be a rocky commute tonight..."

In the passenger seat, an almost-identical man picked a few stray brownish hairs off his suit. A small tranquilizer gun sat in his lap; a revolver was holstered at his hip.

The side walls of the van were loaded with cabinets of various sizes, their contents hidden from view. At the very back, a small bench was mounted to the left, a large cage to the right.

On the bench sat a man, who looked like he had just stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel. Every inch of him screamed "wizard". His eyes had just the right amount of fire; his silvery beard was just the right length; his boots had just the right curl at the toes. His blue robes crawled with magical symbols. He stared levelly at the cage.

And in the cage, a coyote lay motionless in a corner. A thick black collar, with no sign of a buckle, was tight around its neck; a muzzle was strapped to its head.

It finally stirred.

"About damn time," the wizard muttered.

Keith slowly raised his head, looked around, towards the front of the van.

"Over here, you dumb mutt!"

An unseen force gripped Keith's muzzle, wrenched it around towards the wizard. He couldn't move, couldn't even blink. He felt cold, despite the fur; he knew that there was no trace of power in him.

<Kickaha?>

There was no answer. The link was dead.

The wizard looked right into its eyes, leaned over until his head nearly touched the side of the cage.

"So, we finally meet, Kickaha. Or should I say, Mister Dorner? Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Maelstrom. Not that it matters to you, since you're never going to be in a position to call me anything at all."

This certainly isn't how I expected to die, Keith thought.

"You know, this is really all your fault," Maelstrom continued. "If you'd had the common sense to just go along the first time, we could have met under better circumstances. We might even have been partners. As it is, you made me look bad. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to have the person you're interrogating turn out to be a rat? With your superior watching? Do you have the slightest clue how many explanations that takes?"

He smiled coldly, leaned back casually. "But frankly, I'm glad now that it turned out this way. I actually thought that catching you would be a challenge. But frankly, you were a joke. And if there's one thing I can't stand, it's working with losers."

He stood up, stepped forward, and leaned down on the roof of the cage, head and hands pressed against the bars, smile never wavering. Keith was still frozen in place; he could no longer see Maelstrom's face, and he was not at all unhappy about that. But he felt an unseen icy hand stroke the fur on his cheek, work its way down his side, a mockery of tenderness.

"So right now, Mister Kickaha, you are going to see my employer. He's very anxious to talk to you. And I suggest you pray very hard that he decides to kill you himself. Because if he turns you over to me, I have some ideas of my own that I've really been looking forward to trying."

The unseen hand stroked Keith's tail.

Maelstrom smiled, still leaning on the cage. He could watch this all day...




A few hundred feet ahead, a garbage bag swirled in the breeze, just above the right center lane.

A Ford Escort swerved to avoid it, cutting in front of an old pickup in the left center lane. The driver jammed on the brakes for a moment, honking and swearing in German. In the bed of the pickup, a heavy oxygen cylinder lurched forward. A rusty chain snapped. As the pickup accelerated again, the cylinder toppled over, rolling backwards, building momentum. It slammed into the tailgate, popped it open, and rolled those last two feet off the edge, bouncing off the pavement and into the left lane, just in time to disappear under a passing black van...

The van vaulted into the air, spinning sideways, front axle swinging wildly, fuel spraying from the undercarriage. It landed on its roof, skidded upside-down for a few dozen feet, then caught on something, flipped end-over-end, and slammed down on the remains of its wheels with a horrendous crash. Facing backwards now, it scraped its way down the pavement, leaving a trail of parts and fire, then finally ground to a halt against the median.




Keith shook his head, groggy from being slammed against the cage. He was his old Kickaha-self again, crouched in the cage, collar gone, cloak wrapped around his chest. He could feel the power in him again; how could that be?

He twisted around, looked towards the front of the van. Smoke and fire filled the windshield. The two men in suits were slumped in their seats. Between them, someone lay dead on the floor, neck bent at an impossible angle. He was dressed in blue jeans, Keds, and a gaudy blue robe that was clearly bought at a costume shop somewhere

He couldn't have been older than fifteen.

Keith turned his head away.

<<Would you terribly mind if we didn't roast in here?>>

Keith found himself condensing, shifting into raven form. The door of the cage popped open, followed shortly by the rear doors of the van. Keith found himself flying out, circling, gaining altitude, finally heading north.

<<A damn illusionist. I should've known. It was all so perfect.>>

<It was just a kid,> Keith mumbled, still disbelieving.

<<That's the breaks... Sorry. Bad choice of words.>>

Below and behind them, the van exploded in a plume of fire.

<<You know, it's like I said before. Getting killed twice in one week is just too damn much. I think it's about time for a long change of scenery.>>

Keith was silent for a few seconds. <Not yet,> he said finally.

<<Huh?? Ummm, Keith, need I remind you that...>>

<There's one thing I need to do.>

It was Kickaha's turn to pause.

<<You know, I'm not usually in a position to say this. But this isn't very smart.>>

There was no answer.

<<I'm not going to be able to get a moment's peace if I say no, am I?>>

<Nope.>

<<That's what I thought.>> Another pause. <<What the hell.>>

The raven turned, headed west.

Part 13 (Nov. 4 & Nov. 5; written 1997/06/13)

Night had fallen over the Olympic peninsula. Clouds blocked the waning moon; barely a glimmer of starlight fell on the forest. All was peaceful, with only the occasional bird call breaking the silence.

High in the branches, a hawk perched.

Kickaha preened his feathers. <<This is as good a spot as any, I guess. If someone wants to find us here, they're gonna have a bear of a time. And if they do, well, it's a helluva pretty place to die.>>

<Good, I guess. I don't know how long this is going to take. If something happens... improvise.>

<<I always do...>>

Keith didn't answer. He Sang.




The world rushed in to meet him once again. Keith felt his worldview expand, lost the sense of his body. He felt the life of the forest washing over him, as it had when he had first come here; so much richer, deeper than the park. He felt the belonging around him.

But he could not lose himself in it. He could not feel it in himself.

The forest seemed to withdraw a bit. He felt a questioning note.

Keith was lost for a moment. He wanted so badly to explain, but surely there was no way he could.

But he had to try.

Why is all this happening?

There was no response.

Helpless, angry, Keith felt the thoughts flowing out of him even before he knew what they were. Everything I've worked and planned for is gone. You gave me this gift. A child died over it. But I could do more before I had it. What is it for? What am I supposed to do now? Why... is all this happening?

Still nothing. Just the Song.

Keith floated for what seemed like minutes. He wanted to cry. This was hopeless. How had he ever expected this to work? This wasn't a person to discuss things with, to...

What do you want? The voice in his head was calm, strong, oddly familiar. There was no anger to it; just a strong sense of purpose.

I just want... people to leave me alone.

And then, everything changed.




The alarm clock rang.

Keith yawned, pulled himself out of bed, slapped the clock into silence. Thank God it's Thursday, he mused, as he headed for the shower. With any luck, if I find that damn sorting bug today, I can finish things up tomorrow... then maybe I can actually see what Chicago looks like before the flight home on Monday. I wonder if it's too late to find some Bulls tickets somewhere?

As he waited for the water to warm up, he went to the desk, found a pen and paper, and scribbled out a note to Housekeeping, asking them to bring someone in to fix that rattle in the air conditioner...




Is this right?

Keith suddenly found himself in the Song again. It had been a memory. He remembered that day; it was less than a year ago. He'd found the bug, gotten the tickets for Saturday's game--a yawner win for the Bulls, as usual. It seemed... distant, now.

Was that what he was being offered? Could he actually have his old life back?

Did he want it back?

He thought about it. Then a realization hit him. Oh, God, no, I couldn't. Kickaha...

Peace washed over him. Would be fine.

Keith didn't ask how that could be. Somehow, he knew it would be.

He could lose all the insanity of the last few days. He could have everything back. He could just be normal again.

He thought about it.

No.

What do you want?

I want to learn magic.

I was thinking more in the long term.

Now Keith knew why the words he was hearing sounded familiar. They were his own.

He thought about Kickaha's answer to that question. It was tempting. It even felt close to right... far closer than his own answer seemed now. But he knew that the answer was still somewhere in between.

I want to stay with Kickaha. I think we can learn from each other. If I were just like him, I don't think I'd regret it. But I don't want to be a load on his back. And... I really want to help people. I want to change things. And not just with money. I'm tired of worrying about people taking things from me...

Then that's what we'll do.

Keith wanted to smile; that was his "handshake line", when he'd finally settled the details of a contract with a new client. He Sang his thanks, drifted back towards his body...




He looked out at the forest floor, staring at the acorn he was holding in his forepaws.

He was a squirrel.

Wait a minute. Wasn't he a hawk before?

<Kickaha?>

No answer.

Keith dropped the nut, whirled around in panic, looking for a hawk. Shit! How had he wound up in the wrong body?

<<Gotcha...>>

Keith closed his eyes, trying to bring his breathing back to normal. <Kickaha, if we weren't in the same body I would...> He stopped, trying to think of something suitably violent. Then he broke up laughing, a strange thing coming from a squirrel.

<<I know. That's the beauty of it,>> Kickaha countered, laughing too. <<That was a little quicker than last time. Did you get anything settled?>>

<I think so.>

<<Good. Now let's get the hell out of here before we wear out our welcome.>>

Keith nodded, handed off to Kickaha. The squirrel shifted to a raven, flew up through the treetops, heading south.

<I think I know what I'm doing now.>

<<Man, I'm glad I don't. That sounds like way too much-->>

They never felt the bullet smash through their head.




From a few hundred yards away, the hunter lowered his rifle. Despite the dark, he had no problem watching the aura of life leave the raven, watching the body fall to the forest floor.

That was that.

He knelt down, opened the case at his feet. Carefully, methodically, he disassembled the three pieces of his rifle, packing them away in their proper places. He walked a few paces, picked up the shell casing, put it in his pocket.

Then he closed the case, concentrated for a moment, and disappeared.

Part 14 (written 1997/06/22)

Then Keith found himself in another place.

The sun was high in the sky. He was standing on a sidewalk, next to an ordinary-looking two-lane street, the center line freshly painted. Nearby was a parking lot, and just beyond that, what looked to be a small office building, nicely landscaped. He couldn't see a name on the building, but everything about it screamed government.

He'd seen this scene a thousand times before.

Only this time, the street was empty. So was the parking lot. There were no other buildings in sight, no intersections, no traffic lights. Only the street, stretching all the way to the horizon in both directions. Everywhere else was a featureless plane of green.

<Kickaha?>

There was no answer. And somehow, Keith knew Kickaha wasn't kidding this time. He was alone.

His chest felt cold. His magic was gone.

So. This is it.

He had never really given much thought to what being dead would be like. But this wasn't what he had in mind at all.

Numbly, Keith looked down at himself. He was human again, dressed in a blue knit shirt, slacks, leather shoes.

Great, he thought absurdly. I'm dead, and I'm still dressed for work.

He thought about it for a few seconds.

Well, it's not as if there's a lot of alternatives...

He walked across the parking lot, towards the door at the corner of the building. The windows were tinted, blocking his view. But as he got closer, he could read the sign next to the door: DEPARTMENT OF CLASSIFICATIONS. And below that, OPEN.

He reached the door, and stood there for a few seconds, gathering his resolve...

He barely had time to see someone run around the corner of the building, someone wearing a familiar-looking cloak. He didn't have time to avoid that someone. They went down in a heap.

Keith looked up into the face of his assailant, just a few inches from his own.

"Kicka..."

He stopped in mid-word. He might be human again, but he still knew more than the average human about animals now. And even the average human would have known that he was staring into the eyes of a fox, not a coyote.

"Oh, hi," it said, panting. "You'll need this."

It licked him on the nose.

Keith felt a gentle *snap*, like a static shock. He was at a loss for a response.

Then the fox hurriedly disentangled itself from him, got up on four legs, and ran off, gaining speed until it became a blur, vanishing around the other corner of the building.

As Keith picked himself up, he was nearly run down again by three more men rounding the building, racing past him. They were running too fast for Keith to see them clearly before they disappeared behind the building as well, but he got an impression of blue uniforms, badges.

Disbelievingly, Keith picked himself up, dusted himself off.

Curiouser and curiouser...

Then he noticed something... a trickle of warmth in his chest. Magic? Where did that come from? Could he use it? He thought about a spell, then hurriedly decided against it. If he had it... well, he'd need it.

He opened the door, looked in. And, for the first time since he arrived, he felt true fear. For he had seen these chairs, those podiums before--only five or six times, but that was more than enough. He probably would have run, if he thought there was anywhere to run to.

My God... It's the DMV...

The chairs in the waiting room were empty; so were the testing stations along the wall. On the other side of the room, there was the same old counter, the same old five windows with the same old bulletproof glass. Four of them were closed. From behind the fifth, a balding man wearing horn-rimmed glasses looked up from his computer, smiled at him. "Good day, sir."

"Ummmmm... hello."

"Could I ask you to please take a number as you come in? It's for staffing analysis, you see."

"Oh. Okay." The red TAKE A NUMBER reel was just inside the door; numbly, Keith grabbed the ticket from the reel, pulled it out. 423, it said; and in smaller letters, VALID TODAY ONLY--PLEASE WATCH DISPLAYS.

The clerk pressed a key. A bell rang, and 423 lit up above his window.

"Thank you, sir. Step right over, please. Is this your first visit?"

Keith walked over, timidly. He noticed the nameplate on the desk: JAY. "Ummmm, yes. As far as I know, anyway."

"That's fine, sir. Let me just pull up your records... Could I have your name and your last known birth date?"

"Ummm, Keith Antonio Dorner. June 9, 1966."

"Thank you, sir. It'll just be a moment..." He started typing rapidly.

"Sure. Ummmm, if you don't mind my asking... I would have thought the afterlife would be a little, well, busier."

"Most people say that, sir," the clerk nodded, typing all the while. "You see, things are pretty well automated these days. It used to be that we manually processed all the incoming souls. Now, of course, that would be impractical. Policies have been established to cover the vast majority of cases; the souls get routed to their proper destinations automatically. Now, we only handle the souls for which the policies do not yield a clear resolution for some reason. It's usually just a minor records discrepancy; we get it straightened out in no time."

"Oh. I see." Keith closed his eyes, trying to deal with this. The clerk continued to type, much to Keith's amazement; why was it that, even in the afterlife, government clerks and ticket agents always had to retype War and Peace from memory just to look something up? Keith still didn't know; but it gave him something not quite so disturbing to think about...

"Ah, here we go..."

Keith opened his eyes, only to find that the world had just gotten larger. He stood up on tiptoe, trying to reach the level of the counter, but he couldn't quite make it.

"Um, excuse me?"

The typing stopped. "Oh, terribly sorry, sir; I must have made a slight error on the height..."

A few more keystrokes sounded, and suddenly Keith was back to normal again.

"Is six feet three point two inches correct, sir?", the clerk said, sounding contrite.

Keith swallowed hard. "Um. I think so. This feels right, anyway."

"Thank you, sir. Now, let's see what the problem is... Well. This is a bit unusual. Sir, according to this, you are by nature an agnostic, with Judeo-Christian leanings... but, for a period of time preceding your death, your body was cohabited by an extraplanar soul, with a conflicting belief structure. Is that correct?"

Keith almost laughed despite himself. I'll take Things A DMV Clerk Would Never Say for $1000, Alex... "Well... yes, I guess that sums it up, more or less."

"I see. We don't get a lot of that these days."

"I would imagine not."

"Well, that explains things. You see, souls are normally processed according to the standards of their belief structure--in this case, a modified Judeo-Christian--and routed to an appropriate afterlife. However, in cases of bodily cohabitation, there are issues of fairness--one's judgment could easily be influenced based on actions performed while under the influence of the conflicting ethos."

"I see." Keith paused. He was sure that the implications of all this hadn't fully sunk in yet, and he wasn't sure he wanted them to. "So... what does that mean?"

"Well, it means that a decision needs to be made. We can exclude the portion of your life in which the cohabitation occurred, and evaluate and assign you based on your original belief system as of the point of cohabitation. Or, since the cohabitation occurred at the end of your lifespan, you can be evaluated and assigned based on the ethos of the cohabiting soul--a modified Native American, in this case. Your case has been submitted to the Oversight Committee for resolution; based on the current backlog and the priority of the case, a hearing will be held in approximately... fifteen days. However, there is also the option of self-adjudication."

"Self-adjudication?", Keith repeated numbly.

"Yes, sir. Basically, if you were to formally select one of those options, your decision would receive automatic approval. Self-adjudication is offered in certain classes of cases, as a way to reduce the Committee's backlog."

"Wait a minute... are you saying that I get to choose my afterlife?"

"Not precisely. You can select the ethos you wish to be applied. The actual evaluation and assignment to an afterlife still takes place automatically, according to the policies established for that ethos."

"But... but..." Keith could feel his brain overloading, shutting down. Desperately, he latched onto a minor detail, something he could handle. "How can this committee have a backlog, when I'm the only one here?"

"Each field office only handles cases from a particular plane. Each Oversight Committee deals with cases from a number of field offices."

Even in his rattled state, Keith noticed a distinct lack of enthusiasm in this response; he knew an Official Line when he heard it, and this was definitely one. For some reason, this gave him some hope. All right, so I'm dead. But this is a bureaucracy, the same as any other. And if there's one thing I can handle, it's a bureaucracy.

"If you don't mind my asking, Jay, what do you do between customers?"

"Not much, actually," the clerk replied. "The paperwork essentially takes care of itself these days, and the case load is rather low. I was formerly able to access your plane's computer networks, but then a new policy was passed forbidding non-work-related materials on the system..."

"That's a real shame."

"Well, I can see the point," Jay answered, in a tone that strongly suggested that he couldn't. "It was never precisely wonderful, anyway; there was a temporal distortion in the firewall that they never repaired. It was somewhat hard to follow discussions when the replies usually arrived one to two years before the original messages."

"Yowch. And I thought a few days was bad. How long is your shift here, anyway?"

"I'm approaching the halfway point. Eighteen years down, twenty-two to go, as they say."

"A forty-year shift???"

"Well, yes. When I died, my evaluation was marginal, so I was given the option of a purgatorial assignment. If my performance reviews are positive, my permanent afterlife assignment should be much more favorable."

"Wow. Being here for eighteen years... even with a slow case load, you must really have seen it all by now."

"I have seen some interesting cases come through, yes. Normally, I would love to tell you about some of them, but... well, confidentiality requirements apply, and..."

"The purgatory thing. I understand. Say no more."

The clerk simply nodded, clearly relieved.

"I see. Jay... you've got more experience with these kinds of things than I could ever hope to. What would you do if you were me?"

"I do apologize, Mister Dorner, but... well..." He gestured to a sheet of paper taped to the desk. On it was printed: EMPLOYEES ARE NOT ALLOWED TO RENDER SPIRITUAL ADVICE. "Disobeying posted rules or regulations..."

"Policy violation."

"Exactly. I can answer questions of a factual nature."

"Okay; just stop me if I cross the line. Has Kickaha already been... er, assigned?"

"I'm sorry, but the confidentiality requirements..."

"Oh, come on. If I'm supposed to be deciding whether to be evaluated like he was... will be... whatever, I'm at least entitled to find out something, aren't I?"

"An intriguing question. There may be an exception for cases of cohabitation. I would have to go in back to check the Procedural Guidelines; they're not online yet."

"Could you do that, please? I'd really appreciate it."

"Certainly. I'll be back in a moment."

The clerk put the CLOSED sign up on his window, disappeared down a corridor in the back.

Keith put his head in his hands. This is nuts. I could ask questions until this committee meets, and I still wouldn't know what to do. If I could just ask one or two questions without 'disobeying posted rules or regulations...'

He stopped. Posted rules or regulations...

He had an idea. It made no sense. But then again, suddenly being three feet shorter hadn't made sense either. And anyway, look where logic had gotten him...

He looked through the glass, concentrating on the paper, focusing on the letters. He closed his eyes, picturing one minor change. Please, let this work. He poked a finger at the glass, and felt that tiny trickle of warmth leave him.

He opened his eyes. EMPLOYEES ARE NOW ALLOWED TO RENDER SPIRITUAL ADVICE.

He smiled nervously, and waited...


A few minutes later, the clerk returned. "Good news, Mister Dorner. There is a limited confidentiality waiver available in cases of bodily cohabitation."

"That's wonderful. I still just wish I could ask you for a little advice."

"I apologize, Mister Dorner, but we have gone through this. The policy clearly states..."

He looked down at the sign, and paused for a few seconds.

"Mister Dorner, I am fully aware that this sign has been altered, and I am fully aware of the policy. Are you responsible for this?"

Keith looked at the floor, shuffled his feet. "I'm really sorry. I had to try."

"Mister Dorner, are you aware of the potential penalties for tampering with official documents?"

"No, I'm not. But I can imagine."

The clerk paused for a few seconds. "Mister Dorner, I have been here for eighteen years, and I have seen a great many things, as I said. It would not be a violation of confidentiality to say that I have seen any number of people attempt to obstruct policy, in any number of ways. But in that time, you are the first person to ever cheat in order to attempt to obtain my advice." He paused again. "I must admit that I am flattered." Then, in a sterner voice, "Nevertheless, I must insist that you not attempt any similar tactics in the future, or I would be forced to refer you to the Disciplinary Board."

"I promise. I don't think I could anyway."

"I see. Well, I shall just have to print up another notice then. It's not as if there's a shortage of paper."

Keith had no idea what to say. He just stood and waited.

"Mister Dorner, I am not allowed to render spiritual advice. However, I am most certainly allowed to present certain facts relevant to your case, within the limits of confidentiality, of course. And such a presentation of facts would not fall within the meaning of 'advice', even if the totality of the facts presented would tend to lead a listener toward a particular conclusion."

"Oh. I see... Jay, I would be extremely grateful if you were to do that."

"I suspected you would. Mister Dorner, I assume that you are aware of the range of afterlife possibilities presented by your own religious upbringing, correct?"

"Yes, I guess I am."

"I am not allowed to divulge the specific afterlife to which Kick...your cohabiting soul has been or will be assigned. However, I am allowed to describe the range of possibilities of assignment under his ethos, and the factors entering into the evaluation process, in order to allow you to make a meaningful comparison with your own."

"But he's 'cohabiting' too; he could have chosen my ethos, couldn't he?"

"Yes. If he wished to be assigned to a permanent Judeo-Christian afterlife on the basis of his actions, he would be free to do so."

And monkeys would be free to fly out my ass. "Sorry I asked. Please go on."

"As I was saying. His ethos is rather unusual, in that there is only one possible evaluation, and one possible assignment."

"Only one? What kind of crazy scheme is that?"

"It is somewhat appropriate that you chose the word 'crazy' to describe it, Mister Dorner. His ethos is based around the Native American system of the Pacific Northwest region, specifically the Coyote archetype. Is that correct?"

"Yes," said Keith. And then something clicked in his brain, and his jaw fell open.

"And one of the fundamental tenets of that archetype is that Coyote routinely overreaches his capabilities, or simply falls victim to fate. And as a consequence of this..."

"He dies," said Keith numbly.

"Repeatedly. Yet, inevitably, he is restored to life, in the same corporeal form, with full memory of his past experiences, though generally without learning the appropriate lessons from them."

"So if I choose to be judged as Kickaha would..."

"Your assignment would be automatic. You would be restored to your former body, with full memory of your past experiences. And, since your cohabiting soul would be assigned in the same way, your cohabitation would continue, as you would both once again be reassigned to the same corporeal form."

"And, when we died again..."

"In that case, since you would have cohabited for your entire most recent life span, and since you would now both be under the same ethos, there would not even be a decision required; you would automatically be evaluated and reassigned in the same way, and the process would repeat."

"So that would go on... forever?"

"Barring a major policy change, yes."

Keith stared at the wall. "That's a hell of a decision to make."

"Would you like to hear another relevant fact, Mister Dorner?"

"Yes. I would very much like to."

"Thank you. Under the circumstances, it would be within my authority to leave your file flagged for special handling. That would mean that you would return to this field office at the conclusion of each life span. If you wished to continue under your current ethos, then it would simply be a rubber stamp, as it were. On the other hand, it would also be within your rights to file a request for return to your former ethos."

"And who would have to approve that request?"

"The Oversight Committee. And, based on my experience, it would be extremely unlikely for such a request to be rejected. The Committee tends to react very favorably to requests to make things more... conventional."

"I see. Won't the Committee see the results of this case?"

"Yes, they will."

"Well, if the Committee... appreciates the conventional so much, then if I choose to take Kickaha's ethos, won't they just overturn my decision?"

"That raises an interesting point. In theory, all these sorts of decisions must be approved by the Committee. In practice, under the Committee's own self-adjudication policy, your decision has the force of their approval, eliminating the requirement for them to consider the matter. Therefore, if they wished to reverse your decision, they could not simply do so on their own, since they have technically already decided. They would have to appeal their own decision to a higher level."

Keith started to smile. "And that, of course, would require the Oversight Committee to admit to their superiors that they didn't consider actual oversight of the case to be worth their time in the first place."

"That would be inappropriate for me to address," the clerk replied. But the corners of his mouth turned up a bit. "Of course, if they considered the outcome of the case to be undesirable, they could change the self-adjudication policy, and evaluate such cases personally in the future. But that would only affect your case if it were made retroactive, since your future evaluations would not require a decision. And retroactive policy changes would require approval at a higher level..."

"Which they wouldn't do, for the same reason."

"That would be inappropriate for me to address. For the same reason."

"You know, I think the facts presented are leading me towards a particular conclusion."

"I suspected they might. And, if I might say so, based on the...initiative you displayed here, the ethos in question does not strike me as particularly inappropriate."

"That's pretty close to giving spiritual advice, isn't it?"

"You have a point. But I suspect that my superiors will not be raising any aspect of this case for further review."

"That would be inappropriate for me to address."

"Probably so. I take it, then, that you have decided to adopt your cohabiting soul's ethos?"

"Yes. Yes, I have. And thank you."

"Very good, Mister Dorner. I'll just print out the self-adjudication forms for your approval... and there are two other points that you should be made aware of."

"Namely?"

"First, bear in mind that if you do decide to return to your own ethos, your final afterlife assignment will be based on all your actions, including those made while cohabiting. So, if you wish to keep your options open, you may wish to avoid reckless excesses of behavior."

"Thanks. I'll certainly bear that in mind. And second?"

"There is one other policy involved. Humans are not allowed to reincarnate with memories intact; it creates too many societal disturbances. You could theoretically apply for a waiver, but that would require approval at a very high level... given the low priority of the case, it would probably take at least two millennia to even come up for consideration. So, since the policies governing this case would reassign you to such an ethos, a conversion to a nonhuman genotype is automatically approved."

"You're saying... I have to pick a new species?" The thought didn't disturb him nearly as much as he thought it would; but it still came as something of a shock.

"Yes, sir. The policy is very firm on that, I'm afraid. I've loaded up the appropriate choices on Station 3; you can visually make your selection there. The default choice is the current form of your cohabiting soul, but that is not required; any form appropriate to the belief system is acceptable. The choices available to you have been constrained accordingly."

"All right..." Keith walked over to the console; Kickaha, minus the cloak, was on the screen. He thought about it, tapped a few buttons, rotating the image this way and that. It might make things simpler, matching Kickaha for once. And it was kind of cute, in that primal-homely kind of way...

But it wouldn't hurt to at least explore the possibilities first. He looked over the controls available, and pressed GENOTYPE SELECT. He looked over the list of choices, tried a few, surveyed the changes on the screen. Bear? Too imposing. Crow? Naaah; too small, and having hands on the ends of your wings like that looked way too awkward. Deer? No way; he'd put somebody's eye out with those antlers...

Then he touched Fox, Red.

He stopped, stared at the screen for a few seconds, jaw hanging loose. He didn't need a computer to know what this body looked like from all angles. He had seen it before... just a few minutes ago.

He looked away in disbelief, staring at the front windows for a moment. This is like something out of a bad movie...

Then something clicked in his head.

He started laughing, softly at first, then building momentum. He lost his balance, toppled backwards, sprawled on the floor, eyes closed, arms spread wide, laughing like he would never stop.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was imagining things.

But he didn't think he was. A pun like that was just too horrible to happen by chance.

And he couldn't wait to see how this was going to work out.

"This is the one, Jay," he finally gasped. "I think I'm going to like this..."

Part 15 (Nov. 5; written 1997/07/08)

It was a dark and stormy night.

Rain pounded down on the forest; a stiff wind blew through the treetops. To the east, just a hint of a reddish glow on the horizon marked the rising sun.

Three squirrels darted from under a thorny bush.

A moment later, the bush shuddered.

"YEEEOOOOWWWW!"

A pause. Then the bush began shaking again as... something slowly worked its way out from under it. Red fur mixed with black feathers in ragged patches all over its body. Its front limbs were weirdly elongated; the hind legs short, ending in clawed talons. Its head was... well, mostly gone.

Eventually, it made its way into the open. Then it rippled, expanded; limbs reshaping, feathers vanishing, head reassembling itself from thin air, something green spreading across its back...

In seconds, the change was complete, and a large fox stood on all fours, most of its body draped by a familiar cloak. It rose to two legs, felt its head with both hands as if to make sure it was all there, turned, and looked at the bush.

<Oh. That's what was in the way.>

<<Major style deduction. The Russian judge gives a nine two. Kiss the medals goodbye.>>

<How was I supposed to know? It's a little hard to take in your surroundings when your damn face... is...>

Keith's voice trailed off, as reality slowly sank in.

<Kickaha... we just died, didn't we?>

<<Yup. Weird, wasn't it?>>

<That... doesn't even begin to describe it.> The words spilled out of him--the strange world, the office, Jay, the Oversight Committee, the strange fox whose body he was now wearing... His own mental "voice" sounded different to him. That unnerved him. Through it all, Kickaha listened silently, never offering a comment... which unnerved him even more.

<<So. You ran into a fox that you think was you showing up to help you?>>

<Yup.>

<<Uh-huh. I'd definitely call that weird, all right.>>

<So... what happened to you?>

<<You don't want to know.>>

<WHAT? We're probably the only two people on this planet that can have this discussion, and you're telling me that I don't want to know?>

<<Look. You don't understand. You were there. You told me. You don't want to know.>>

<Oh. Uhhhhhh.... Oh.>

<<It was really cool, though.>>

<I'm sure it was.>

<<Especially the part where we-->>

<I don't want to know, okay?>

<<Geez. Touchy.>>

<Sorry.>

<<No problem.>> A chuckle. <<You mellow with age.>>

<Not if you keep this up, I don't.>

<<Point taken. So, you're a fox now. Good choice. I mean, not as good as the obviously superior alternative, but good.>>

<Thanks, I think.> He looked himself over, twice shifting briefly into Kickaha's coyote form to compare. As far as body shape went, he wasn't really any different; the effort to change between the two forms was barely noticeable. But the difference was in the details. His fur was shorter, finer, more even; a deep red across his back, lighter across his chest. His muzzle was an inch or two longer, a bit narrower; his ears were longer, more pointed. The fur at his paws was nearly black, a sharp contrast to Kickaha's. His tail was bushier, and longer--long enough to drag on the ground if he let it. The fur at its tip was a dazzling white--it made Kickaha's seem dingy by comparison. Overall, he seemed a bit sleeker, more refined. And somewhat more modestly endowed.

<<Not bad,>> Kickaha observed. <<I mean, I wouldn't use it myself; it's a little too... nice. But when it's your turn with the body, no problem.>>

<Why, thank you ever so much,> Keith countered, laying on the sarcasm. <I happen to like it. It's a little more... dignified.>

<<I suppose. If you're into that sort of thing.>>

<Some of us try.> He stopped for a few seconds. He wasn't sure he wanted to think about this, but he wasn't sure he wanted to think about the alternatives either. <Kickaha, did you know this would happen?>

<<Not a clue. I'm a great fan of loopholes, though... and as loopholes go, I think we've got a world record here.>>

<No argument here. So... what do we do for the rest of eternity?>

<<How about the interview circuit? I mean, between our... physical eccentricities, and our harrowing tale of life beyond the grave, we could milk the talk shows for years. And think of the merchandising...>>

<Not a chance. If anything would get that committee to actually get off their ass and do something about us, that would be it. Besides, I've always hated talk shows.>

<<Yeah, but wouldn't you love to turn Geraldo into a...>>

<Don't tempt me. Forget it.>

<<Fine. Be that way. Well, what's your bright idea?>>

<Well, somebody did kill us just now... horrible vengeance is always an option.>

<<Naah. First, there's the slight technical problem that we don't have the foggiest clue who did it. And besides, when it comes right down to it, where's the harm? I mean, we're still here. And frankly, the change can only be considered an improvement. I mean, at least you're close to the right species now.>>

<You're just jealous because my tail is nicer than yours.>

<<Nicer for what? Dusting?>>

<Ouuuuch. Well, let's see. I guess this leaves us wandering around blindly and waiting for the next crisis to come up.>

<<Yep. Neat, huh?>>

Keith paused for a few seconds. <It could be a lot worse.>

He shifted to raven, and headed south once again.

Part 16 (Nov. 5 & Nov. 6; written 1997/08/09)

Sees-Too-Much sat and looked out across his fire, at the night beyond

His parents had given him a proper name, a white man's name. But he always knew that it was not his. When he had reached twenty-one, he had gone to the courthouse, asked to have it changed to Sees-Too-Much. The judge had refused, called it frivolous. They had compromised.

Back in his better days, he had even gotten a credit card, with his name printed on it... FREDDY SEES-TOO-MUCH. They had cancelled the card long ago, of course, but he still kept it. It reminded him of things. It reminded him of what it felt like to be young, to wake up full of life, to know that the day had so many possibilities.

These days, he just told stories. Sometimes he told them to the youth of the tribe; sometimes he sat on the sidewalk near the casino, and told them to the tourists coming to gamble. Nobody paid much attention, but at least the tourists gave him money sometimes. At night, there was the shelter, of course; but the company there was miserable. So unless the weather was too bad, he just slept under the stars.

He looked into the night, stroked the eagle feather he held in his right hand, and waited. It couldn't be too long now.




A fox padded through the darkness.

Keith had planned on heading for Portland; he had always liked the place, and it seemed far enough away to be safe. But he needed to think about things. Staying in the Olympics was out of the question, but this place--an Indian reservation, from the look of it--had appealed to him somehow; it was still close to the freeway, but just far enough away that the drone of the cars was peaceful rather than distracting. He still wasn't at all sure how the magic worked, but he knew somehow that no one would bother him, and he had been right. And for once, Kickaha hadn't said a word. Maybe he was enjoying himself; maybe he needed to think about things too. Or maybe he was just afraid that Keith would start talking to him about life again...

Keith had spent the day here, Singing for a while, wandering aimlessly. At the end of the day, his thinking hadn't really gotten him anywhere. But at least no one had tried to kill him; and as far as he was concerned, that made it a damn fine day indeed.

As he pondered whether to spend the night here or take off for Portland, he noticed the firelight in the distance. Intrigued, he slowly circled closer, staying low to the ground. He could see the silhouette of the figure behind the fire; as he got closer, he saw the old man's face, looking right back at him. He froze. This shouldn't be happening.

"Come on, then!", the old man called, waving him closer.

Keith stared at him, his fear giving way to curiosity. He started forward again, straight towards the fire, almost without thought. Before he knew what was happening, he was standing by the warmth of the fire, almost within the old man's reach.

The old man smiled. "You're late."




"Late for what?", the fox replied nervously, tail between its legs. Its voice was high-pitched, and with more than a bit of a yip to it, but still understandable. It blinked and took a step back, as if surprised by itself.

"Late for what?", he countered, in a pale imitation of its voice. "I've been waiting to die for the last five years, that's what! And now you finally get around to picking me up? I knew you must be busy these days, but with shitty service like that, no wonder the world's gone to hell..."

"I'm sorry, but I think you have me mistaken for somebody else..."

"Somebody else? Looked yourself in the mirror lately, Fox? Who the hell would I mistake you for? And if you're a skinwalker, then I'm Skunk."

"Ummm, no... I mean, I'm a fox, I guess, but not that Fox... not the Fox... it's sort of complicated..."

"It would have to be," he said, rolling the shaft of the feather back and forth in his hands. "Well, fox-but-not-that-Fox, who are you?"

"Well, I'm Keith Dorner, and I'm..."

"Bullshit. You're no more a Keith Dorner than I am a Frederick Peterson."

The fox's eyes widened; it looked almost pained. "Well, yes I am... like I said, it's a little complicated... have you seen the news lately?"

"I stopped paying attention to news ten years ago. Always different words, always the same old song."

"Well, you see, um..." The fox stopped, seemed to stare past him into space for a moment. "Look, I'd like you to talk to, well, a friend of mine, okay? I think he's a little more like what you have in mind; maybe he can explain things better."

"Suit yourself."

The fox nodded. Then it slowly grew, and changed...

"Oh, Coyote," he nodded. "With the kind of life I've had, I figured you'd show up. But let me guess, you say you're not that Coyote either, right?"

The coyote's whole demeanor had clearly changed as well; while the fox had been ready to bolt, the coyote clearly felt in charge of the situation. It paced back and forth through the firelight as it talked. "Not unless you're a worshipper prepared to do anything to serve him, in which case it's always nice to meet a fan."

He threw his head back and laughed. "I may be old, but I'm not crazy. Not quite that crazy, anyway. So, do you have a name?"

"Kickaha. And I don't believe I caught yours."

"Sees-Too-Much. So, if you're not that Coyote, and you're not here to haul my ass to the other side, then what are you?"

"That, as they say, is an interesting story."

"Those are my specialty. Do tell."

"Well, it's like this. As near as I can tell, up until a few days ago, Keith... he's the fox... he did stuff with computers, and I was a fictional character. I guess he made a coyote costume for a party, and I was his charming little background story. Well, something weird happened, and everyone turned into their costumes. So he turned into me, only we were both in the same head. So we got out of there, and sort of did our own thing, and I taught him some magic, and people kept trying to kill us. And last night somebody managed it, so we went to the other side, as you put it, and Keith managed to run into boring people even there, believe it or not. And some other things happened that he made me promise not to tell him about yet, and eventually they turned him into a fox--and it's quite an improvement, I've got to tell you--and sent us both back here, and apparently we're just gonna keep on coming back every time we die from now on, so I guess we'll see how long it takes to drive each other--What? If you don't like what I'm gonna say, then don't--oh. Sorry. Talking two ways at once takes some getting used to. So anyway, how was your week?"

He stared at the coyote for a few seconds. "No shit." The smile slowly crept back across his lips. Then he laughed. "That's a fine story indeed, but I'll never make a dime from it. You know, in the old times, you at least had to wait for Fox to show up to bring you back to life. Everyone's trying to save time these days, I guess."

The coyote yawned. "Whatever."

"So, what do you think of the world so far?"

"Not bad. Kinda dull, but not hopeless. Oh, speaking of which, Keith wants to talk again."

"You shouldn't say such things. This is how things are for you; you know nothing different. His whole life has turned upside-down."

"Yeah, can you believe it? Some people have all the luck..."

With that, the coyote shrank back into a fox.

"I don't know whether to envy you or pity you," he told it.

"I'm not so sure myself," it said. "But I had a choice... not all that great a choice, but a choice. And it's been fun... well, apart from getting killed, anyway. I always wanted to be different."

"You certainly are that," he nodded. "So, what did you want to tell me?"

"Well... you seem like you know something about this kind of thing."

"My grandfather told me some things," he nodded. "He said the magic had left him long ago, but he told so many stories. My father never believed a word of it; he always wanted to be modern... I always believed; I saw the look in his eyes, and I knew that he was seeing it all again in his heart... he knew it was true, and so did I. But I never thought I would see it... at least, not in this world." He stopped, looked again at the fox from head to tail. "Be careful what you wish for, eh?"

The fox just nodded. "But if this happened to you, if you had the magic, if you could live forever... what would you do?"

"What would I do?" He thought for a few seconds. Then he got up, and looked into the night sky. "What would I do?" he said again, softly. Then he looked back down to the fox. "That reminds me of a story Grandfather told me," he said, as he sat back down. "I think your friend will like it. Have you heard how Coyote put the stars in the sky?"

"I think I've read this one," the fox replied, looking down. "That's where Coyote put up the constellations, and then got bored and just threw the rest of the stars around, isn't it?"

"That's how some tell it," he nodded. "But Grandfather heard it a bit differently. Let me tell you about it. And sit down; just looking at you makes me tired."

The fox nodded, curled up near the fire, head on the ground, looking at him.

"Well, back when the world was young and things weren't settled yet, Coyote was travelling. And one night, he saw a pack of wolves, five of them. They were all looking up into the sky, like I did just now. And Coyote asked the oldest wolf, 'What do you see up there, brother?'

"'Nothing; nothing at all,' the wolf replied. So Coyote went on his way.

"On the next night, he came back to the same spot, and again he saw the wolves looking at the sky. So he asked the next-oldest wolf, 'Brother, what is up there that interests you so?' 'Oh, nothing,' the second wolf answered, so Coyote left again.

"This went on for two more nights. Finally, on the fifth night, Coyote asked the youngest wolf. And the wolf said, 'I won't tell you. You would meddle.'

"'I would never do such a thing,' said Coyote.

"So, finally, the youngest wolf told him. 'We see two animals up there, up in the sky where we cannot reach them.'

"'Well, then, let's go up and see them.'

"'How can we do that?'

"'I can do that,' said Coyote. 'I can show you how to get up there.'

"So Coyote did his magic, and he wished up a bow, and a big quiver of arrows. He shot the first arrow, and it stuck to the sky. Then he shot another one, and it stuck to the first. He kept shooting his arrows, until finally there was a big chain of them all the way back to the earth.

"'See?', said Coyote, and he started climbing the arrows. The wolves followed, and the oldest wolf took his dog with him. So they climbed and climbed, until they were all the way up in the sky. Then Coyote could see the animals the wolves had seen from down below. There were two grizzly bears up there.

"The youngest wolf started towards the bears. 'Don't do that,' called Coyote; 'they will tear you apart.' But the wolf went there anyway, and another wolf followed, and then two more. The oldest wolf and his dog stayed back. But when the wolves got close, they just sat down and looked at the bears, and the bears looked back at the wolves. Finally, the oldest wolf and his dog came over too. Only Coyote didn't go over there, because he didn't trust the bears.

"Coyote looked at them all, sitting there like that. 'That makes a nice picture,' he thought. 'If I leave them like that, then whenever people come along and look at that picture in the sky, they'll say "There's a story about that," and they'll tell a story about me.'

"So Coyote climbed back down, and he pulled the arrows out of the sky as he went, so that nobody else could get back down. Those wolves and those grizzlies are still up there today; we call them the Big Dipper now. Three of the wolves make the handle, and the one in the middle, the oldest wolf, still has his dog with him. The other two wolves make the part of the bowl that's next to the handle, and those bears; they're the other part of the bowl, the part that points to the North Star.

"Coyote liked that. 'If I put up lots more stars, they'll tell lots more stories,' he told himself. So he got a big bucket full of stars, and he made pictures with them all over the sky. But before he could finish, he dropped the bucket, and those stars spilled across the sky, and they made the Milky Way.

"And that's how Coyote put the stars in the sky."

The fox looked quietly at him for a while. "I think I see what you're saying," it said finally. "If I let somebody else tell me what I should be doing, I'm likely to wind up stuck somewhere I shouldn't be."

"I just tell the stories," he replied, smiling. "If you think they mean something, that's your own business."

"Thank you," the fox said, quietly. "Is there something I...we could do for you?"

"Yes. Yes, there is. Something tells me that you'll have some wonderful stories to tell before too long. I want you to come back here, when you're ready, and tell them to me. I'm an old man, and it's been ages since I've heard something really new. And maybe I'll have some stories for you too."

"I'll do that," the fox said. "But I thought you were just waiting to die."

"I thought I was too." He smiled. "But maybe I'm not quite ready to leave after all."

The fox seemed to smile. "I'm glad to hear that." It stood up, looked around. "Well, I guess we should get going. Somebody might still be after us, and I wouldn't want to bring them here. Thank you... very much."

"Wait a minute. Before you go... I need your friend back for a moment."

"All right." The fox closed its eyes, became a coyote again.

"That was a good story," it said. "Other than the part about dropping the bucket. That wasn't necessary."

"If I told you and your friend a good story," he replied, "then you should pay me for that."

"I suppose so," the coyote said. "But I don't know what I could pay you with. I could magic up some money, I guess, but Keith probably wouldn't like that. Besides, it would go away in a little while anyway. My magic does that."

"That's all right. I know how you can pay me." He reached into his pocket, and came up with eight quarters... all he had left from the day, after he had got something to eat for dinner. He held it out to the coyote. "Just take this money and hold it for a moment."

The coyote looked at him strangely. "All right," it said finally. It held out its right forepaw, and the paw shifted, grew fingers. It took the coins, and held them in its paw for a few seconds.

"Now, breathe on it."

The coyote looked at him again. "Whatever makes you happy," it said finally. It held the coins close to its muzzle, and breathed across them. Then it held them back out to him.

"Thank you," he said, as he took the coins, put them back in his pocket. "Good luck on your journeys."

The coyote just nodded. Then it turned into a raven, and vanished into the sky.

Sees-Too-Much nodded. Then he carefully put out his fire, and walked away. He walked to the road, the road that led to the casino, the place that had promised so much and given so little. It would still be open, he knew. When they had opened the place, they had promised that it would close at dark. But now they kept it open later and later. Nighttime was when the money came, they said.

So he walked into the casino, walked straight up to one of the roulette tables. One man in a suit was playing. The dealer spun the wheel, sent the ball on its way. The man in the suit put a ten-dollar chip on the black.

Sees-Too-Much held out his eight quarters, stacked them neatly on the red 21.

"Money plays," the dealer muttered. "No more bets."

The ball went round and round, finally clattering to a halt above the "21".

"A winner," the dealer called. He took the other man's chip, pushed a small pile of seven ten-dollar chips to Sees-Too-Far.

"Let it ride," he said calmly, pushing them back onto red 21.

As the man in the suit reached to put another chip on the black, he looked Sees-Too-Far in the eyes for a moment. He faltered, nearly dropping the chip. Then he put it on the red instead, and added three more.

"No more bets," the dealer called, a little more loudly than before, and spun the wheel. The floor boss walked by, stopped to watch. The ball circled the wheel, almost settled on the double zero; then it seemed to lift itself back out, bounced three times along the edge of the wheel, then fell firmly into red 21.

"A big winner here," the boss shouted. People at other tables turned to watch. The dealer gave four more chips to the man in the suit. Then he nervously counted out two more tens, five hundreds, and two of the gold thousand-dollar chips. "Congratulations," he said with forced cheer, putting them in front of Sees-Too-Far.

He looked the dealer in the eyes. He smiled, a snake's smile. His words were quiet, but they seemed to cut through the noise of the place.

"Let it ride."

The dealer looked to the floor boss, sweat starting to roll down his cheek. The floor boss studied Sees-Too-Far. "I'm sorry, sir," he said finally. "That's above the limit for this table. If you'd step over to the main table, we could take that bet there."

He nodded, gathered up his pile, and followed the floor boss to the other table. The dealer there stepped aside, and the floor boss stood behind the wheel, watched the old man pile his chips on the red 21, the quarters still on top. "No more bets," he called quickly, but not before three others had slapped their bets down on the red.

The floor boss spun the golden wheel, threw down the ball; they seemed to spin for hours. Dozens of people watched the ball spiral towards the wheel's edge. Sees-Too-Far never looked; his eyes were fixed on the floor boss, and his smile never wavered. The floor boss refused to return the old man's gaze; he looked only at the wheel, at the ball.

And so he saw it lose speed, dive to the edge of the wheel, land in red 21 without so much as a rattle.

The crowd erupted with cheers, pounded the old man's back.

The floor boss just stared at the wheel, feeling the old man's smile. "The roulette tables are closed," he said finally, as he turned and walked towards the cashier's cage.

Sees-Too-Far thought about trying his luck at blackjack or the dice, for he knew that he could not lose tonight. He could own this place, he thought. But he decided against it. It was not good to overuse the power of the gods. So he followed the floor boss to the cashier's cage, took a hundred dollars in cash, and a check for $93,210. And he slipped the quarters quietly back into his pocket. He would never use them again, but he would keep them. They would make a great story.

He would sleep in the hotel tonight. Tomorrow he would go to the bank, then to the courthouse. He didn't feel like compromising anymore.


Author's Comments

"Coyote Places the Stars" is a classic Coyote story, told by a number of tribes, with variations. The version I've given here is a mixture of some of them I've heard. If you liked it, I encourage you to read Giving Birth To Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter: Coyote Builds North America, by Barry Lopez; it contains dozens of great Coyote stories, including a slightly different "Coyote Places the Stars", as well as a good bibliography.

Part 17 (Nov. 6; written 1998/01/28)

Kickaha was finding Portland even more to his liking than Seattle. It was still large enough to get lost in, but not large enough to make him feel cut off from the real world. There were parks and trees everywhere, even more so than in Seattle. The air was a little clearer, the sounds a little calmer. And there was this simply wonderful place called Powell's, that seemed to have every book that existed in this world. He was going to have to talk to Keith about setting up housekeeping there tonight; with a little magic, there was no reason why they couldn't... and he didn't think that Keith would need too much persuading. After all, he could always threaten to find other forms of entertainment...

Everything was looking great. Their disguise spells were working perfectly; nobody batted an eye at the fox browsing the shelves at Powell's, or at the coyote loping through the shopping district on all fours.

Of course, all of this good news meant that it was about time for something to blow up. And Kickaha had an idea of what that might be.

Keith was up to something.

About ten minutes after they'd left that old man, Keith had started smiling. He'd stopped at the next decent-sized forest they came to, and Sung for just a few minutes--a land speed record for him. When he came out of it, he'd kept on heading south, as if nothing had happened; he'd even let Kickaha do the flying. But that mental grin of his was ear-to-ear now. He'd figured something out. And he wasn't talking about it--he was waiting for Kickaha to ask, and knowing that he eventually would.

And, of course, that redoubled Kickaha's resolve not to ask; he'd been someone else's straightman just a wee bit too often lately. Oh, sure, he could just look in Keith's mind... but that would be cheating, and they both knew it. Twice over the course of the afternoon, he started to peek... then immediately caught himself, and went nonchalantly on about his business, as if nothing could be less important than Keith's little insight. And Keith's grin got just that little bit wider...




It was about seven o'clock--the workers had largely cleared out of downtown, and the streets were coming alive with the nighttime rush. Keith wandered the streets at random, taking in the sights; Kickaha amused himself--and distracted himself--with incidental magic. An odd trail of spilled drinks and Freudian slips marked their passage.

Just as Kickaha was getting bored, and deciding how to sell Keith on the Powell's thing, he noticed the magician working the corner across the street.

<<Mind if I take over for a sec?>>

<By all means, go right ahead.>

<<Damn, you're agreeable today,>> Kickaha muttered, as they rippled into coyote form.

Keith just grinned some more.




Gregor was about to pack up his card table and go home. There couldn't be more than ten dollars in his hat, and he'd put half of that there himself. His tricks were working fine, and people were stopping to watch, but not for long. Maybe this whole street-magic thing just wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

As he shuffled his cards, he noticed a new onlooker--a guy in a coyote suit, wearing a cloak. Just when the day couldn't get any more surreal. Cool suit, though. Well, it never hurt to try...

"Perhaps you could help me, sir." He slid the deck across the table, letting the cards fan themselves out face-down. "Would you be so kind as to pick a card?"

"Anything for a total stranger," the coyote said. He tapped a card with his claw, and Gregor flipped it over--the Queen of Diamonds.

"Watch that card carefully, sir; you never know where it might turn up next." As he said this, Gregor smoothly gathered the cards back up, palming the Queen in the process. Squaring the cards up--and sliding the Queen back on top of the pack--he shuffled them repeatedly, keeping the Queen on top each time. Finally, he squared the pack up once more, palming the Queen again in the process, and started dealing cards off the deck. "Now, sir, I need you to concentrate on that card--and when you feel its presence, tell me to stop."

The coyote smiled, let him deal cards for a few more seconds. "Now, I think."

"A fine choice," Gregor said, picking up what was left of the pack in both hands, and dropping the Queen back on top once more. "Now, let us see what we've arrived at." He smiled, picked up the top card, and slowly flipped it over, to reveal... the joker.

"A tragedy, really," the coyote replied sadly, drooping its muzzle. "It's the story of my life. Whenever I go in search of feminine companionship, I find nothing but laughter and jests... and the object of my affections always seems to hide at the bottom of the deck."

Gregor stared at the coyote, eyebrows raised. He slowly turned the pack of cards over in his hand... and there on the bottom was the Queen.

"And there she is," Gregor said, almost as much to himself as to the coyote.

"Say, you are good at this," the coyote replied.

An older couple had stopped to watch, along with a young man in a business suit. The couple applauded politely, and the husband put a dollar in the hat. After a moment, the young man followed suit. A group of four college students stopped to see what the fuss was about.

"I feel like I should pay you for such a wonderful trick," the coyote continued, fishing into his cloak and pulling out a bill. "But I'm afraid I don't have anything smaller than this twenty. Perhaps we could make this a contest. I can't help but notice those three cups on your table. May I assume that you are familiar with the Cups and Balls?"

"Why, yes; I believe I could manage that trick," Gregor replied, the smoothness coming back into his voice. He didn't like the idea of another magician horning in on his turf--and that's clearly what this coyote character was. But he'd just made more in two minutes than he'd made in the last two hours; he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. And he really wanted to know what happened to that last trick...

"Splendid. It's a favorite of mine. I would truly appreciate it if you would perform it for me--and if I can't guess which cup has the ball, these twenty dollars are yours. But if I guess correctly, I get five dollars from your hat. Fair enough?"

"Fair enough." To be honest, Gregor was more than a bit taken aback by the wager--if this fellow knew the trick, then he knew that Gregor could make that ball show up anywhere he wanted. Why would he want to make a bet that he knew he would lose? He had an angle somewhere. And Gregor would gladly give five dollars to find out what that angle was.

So Gregor arranged the cups, showed the ball to the coyote, and let him put it under the center cup. Then he started shuffling the cups, keeping up a steady stream of patter. Three more people stopped to watch, then two more, forming a solid wall around the table. Every so often, he raised a cup to show the ball... and, just after the last time, he made The Move, and he felt the ball slip under the back of the cup and into his palm. A few shuffles later, as he slid another cup, he raised the back edge just a bit, and slipped the ball underneath. He snuck a quick glance at the crowd, and at the coyote in particular; there was no hint of recognition.

He quickly shuffled for a few more seconds, then shuffled, and waited for the coyote to make his choice.

The coyote smiled--How do you make a mask that can do that?, Gregor thought--and pointed to the leftmost cup. He was right, and he was wrong. The ball had been there, but it wasn't anymore. Smiling, Gregor lifted the cup, to show the empty air.

The coyote lowered his muzzle again. "I can never seem to follow it--it's always that last move that gets me. Where was it?"

Gregor almost felt guilty. "I have the same trouble myself--the cups just seem to blend together, don't they? It was over here, I believe."

He lifted the center cup--and nothing was there.

"Perhaps that last move was even better than I thought," Gregor said with forced cheer, and lifted the rightmost cup. Nothing there either.

"Well, I've never seen that happen before," the coyote said, clearly puzzled. "Under the circumstances, I think we'll have to call it a draw. Perhaps if we reverse roles? If you can pick the cup where I've hidden the ball, the twenty dollars is yours--if you can't, I take the five. Agreed?"

Gregor gave a nervous glance at the crowd; this wasn't the right time to make waves. And, dammit, he'd give twenty himself to see this guy work. "Agreed."

"Fine, fine. But we still seem to be missing a ball. Perhaps we can improvise something... excuse me, miss? Would you terribly mind if I borrowed your son's yo-yo for a moment? I promise to return it promptly."

The young mother chuckled, nodded. The young boy next to her wrapped up the string on the yo-yo, then handed it to the coyote, giggling. The crowd was getting thicker, Gregor couldn't even see how many people were watching.

"Yes, this will have to do." The coyote put the yo-yo on the table; it was so large that it barely fit inside the cup. He started shuffling them, clumsily. Every time he moved the cup with the yo-yo, the entire crowd could hear it sliding; every few seconds, the end of the string would even peek out from under the cup. The coyote didn't seem to notice. The crowd chuckled, but a bit uncomfortably; was he really that dense?

Finally, the coyote stopped--sliding the leftmost cup one last centimeter, and producing that telltale sound--and smiled. "Go ahead; guess."

Gregor tried to keep a straight face. "I'm not at all sure; you've clearly done this before. But I would have to say... that one." He pointed at the leftmost cup.

"Why don't you look for yourself? I'm really rather nervous."

"Certainly, kind sir." Gregor lifted the cup... and his jaw dropped, as the crowd gasped along with him. There was nothing there. He even flipped the cup over, to see if the yo-yo had somehow gotten stuck in it--knowing all the while that it wasn't; the extra weight would have been a dead giveaway. Sure enough, there was nothing there.

Disbelievingly, Gregor lifted the other two cups; there was nothing there either. The buzz of the crowd grew to a dull roar.

"Now this is just becoming bizarre," the coyote said. "We're still getting nowhere, and now I owe this poor child a yo-yo. Where could it be?"

The crowd was staring at the coyote, in rapt attention. Gregor was an afterthought.

"There must be a logical explanation for this," the coyote continued, thinking out loud. "They say that nature abhors a vacuum. So, logically, if an object were to disappear, the most likely place for it to turn up would be the nearest empty spot. Now, where would that be... I have it!" Without the slightest hesitation, he slapped his right ear--hard--with his right hand.

And the yo-yo sailed out from his left ear and landed on the table. The ball was right behind it; it bounced once, then landed neatly in one of the upturned cups.

The crowd stared in absolute silence for a moment... then erupted in applause. Kickaha presented the yo-yo to the boy, bowing; the boy laughed, turning the yo-yo over and over in his hands, as if looking for the magic. Someone threw a five-dollar bill on the table; a flurry of money followed it--ones and fives, mostly, but several tens mixed in.

"Well, that's one mystery solved," the coyote said, smiling. "But I'm afraid that our little contest still seems to be a draw."

"On the contrary," Gregor said, still not believing what he had just seen, but determined to play his part for all it was worth. "You certainly guessed where the ball was--even if it was after the fact--and I certainly never guessed correctly. In fact, you would appear to have won twice."

"Why, how kind of you to look at it that way. And it seems that there is more than enough here to go around." The coyote tucked one of the tens from the table into his cloak. "Well, I fear that I have stayed up far past my bedtime tonight. Best of luck with your career, young man." And with that, the coyote turned and walked away, to another ripple of applause from the crowd.

Gregor applauded along with them. "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. But I fear that I have had enough for tonight as well." And there's no way in hell that I'm following an act like that.

The crowd nodded, applauded once more, and started to disperse.

"Maybe I should get a suit like that," Gregor muttered, as he gathered the money into his hat.

"A suit like what?", a man standing nearby asked.

"Like that coyote suit. Have you ever seen one as good-looking as that?"

The man chuckled nervously. "I don't get it."

Gregor looked up. Most of the crowd had dispersed, but several of the people who were left were staring at him with confused expressions as well.

Gregor looked in the direction where the coyote had gone not twenty seconds before. There were several dozen people there, walking in the right direction, but nobody looked out of the ordinary at all.

But just then, one of those people--a man in a black shirt and blue jeans--turned and looked back at him for a moment, and smiled. And just for that moment, Gregor could see the long ears, the muzzle still turned up in a grin.

"Don't mind me," Gregor said quietly. "Just a little private joke."

He went back to gathering up his props.




It was five in the morning. Powell's was dark and quiet; even the late-night stock clerks had finished for the night. Not a creature was stirring.

Well, one creature was stirring.

In the Rose Room, curled up on top of one of the massive bookcases, a fox was just finishing The Dilbert Principle.

<<I still don't believe that people actually spend their lives doing these things.>>

The fox just nodded. <Believe it. A few years ago, I was there.>

<<And now look how far you've come.>>

<Yep. I'm sleeping on a bookshelf. How could I ever ask for more than that?>

<<I don't see anybody sleeping...>>

<I was just about to bring that up.>

<<You know, it's not as if we need to sleep at this point.>>

<Humor me. It feels good. And it's a few hours of peace and quiet.>

<<I can't argue with that.>>

The fox closed the book, then curled up nose-to-tail, and closed its eyes.

For a few seconds, there was silence.

<Okay. You win.>

<<Ummm-hmmm. I win what?>>

<You've got more self-control than I thought. You never did ask.>

Kickaha didn't have to say <<Ask about what?>> They both knew.

<Remember when we were trying to figure out what sort of magic I had?>

Interesting. <<Ummm-hmmm. Any insights in that regard?>>

<Could be. Could be.>

<<And will you be sharing these insights with the rest of the class?>>

<Could be. I just need to check one thing first.>

<<The tension is electric.>>

<I thought so. Could you do a little magic for me? Anything will do.>

<<Mysteries upon mysteries. Okay, I'll play your little game.>>

Kickaha thought for a moment... then the fox's eyes opened, and concentrated on the book still lying next to them. The nose twitched... and the air above the book shimmered. In a moment, a second copy of the book had appeared, on top of the original.

<<There you go.>>

<Scott Adams is gonna be pissed at you, buddy. But that'll do. Now, watch this.>

Now Keith concentrated on the books. Kickaha felt the strange magic flow--from the feel of things, quite a bit more than Kickaha had used. Kickaha waited to be impressed...

...and nothing happened.

Absolutely nothing.

The fox grinned.

<Perfect.>

Kickaha said nothing for a few seconds. <<All right. I'm waiting for the explanation. And you know you're dying to give it to me.>>

<It's simple. Look at the books.>

Kickaha looked at them.

<<Congratulations. They're still books.>>

<No, no. You're missing it, and you'll kill me if I tell you. Look at them. Look.>

<<Oh, for the love of...>> Kickaha took full control of the body; it shifted into coyote form as he did. He got up and paced around the books, looking at them from every angle. He shifted his forepaws to hands, and opened them up, comparing a few pages. As near as he could tell, they were absolutely unchanged, and absolutely identical. There was nothing unusual about either of them. There wasn't even any aura of magic around them.

So why the hell was Keith so damn smug?

Grumbling to himself, Kickaha flipped the books shut again, looked at the covers once more. There had to be somewait a fucking minute...

No aura of magic?

Concentrating harder than he ever had since he'd shown up on this godforsaken planet, Kickaha stared at the second book, the one he'd just created two minutes ago. There should be magic seeping away from it, ticking away the moments until it vanished into the ether from whence it came.

There was absolutely nothing there.

But that meant...

Kickaha sat down on his haunches with a thud, still staring at the book.

<<Keith.>>

<Yeeeesss?>

<<Am I really not seeing what I'm not seeing?>>

<That would depend on what you're not seeing, wouldn't it?>

<<Keith. There's. No. Magic. Here.>>

<Really? What an interesting observation.>

<<Keith. Are you telling me that this is fucking PERMANENT?>>

<I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that I've stayed up far past my bedtime tonight. We'll continue this fascinating conversation in the morning, okay?>

<<We're already in the damn morning!>>

<Then it won't be long now, will it? Pleasant dreams.>

Kickaha started to reply--then he caught himself. He curled up just as Keith had done, and closed his eyes. But those two books were still etched in his mind--the books that he knew would still be there when he woke up.

For long minutes, his mind buzzed with all the possibilities.

Then he picked out a few possibilities he liked.

And when he finally got to sleep, his dreams were indeed pleasant.