|Preceded by:||First story|
|Succeeded by:||Window of Opportunity|
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"You are hereby sentenced to death by quantum cannon for high treason against the Lord of the Directorate. May the One On High grant you forgiveness." The pronouncement wasn't exactly unexpected, but it was read by a creature best described as an evil teddy bear. What the aliens really looked like nobody was quite sure, but this was the public form they chose to show Earthlings. Three feet tall, furry, with a bear-like face. This one had blotchy brown-black fur.
Maybe they were just trying to be cute and lull us humans into a false sense of security. They came in a half dozen ten-mile-long invasion-colony ships that spewed countless devices that nothing we had could hurt, and that wiped out anything they were aimed at without harming living things.
The muzzle of the gun was bigger than me, while the machinery behind it started to hum ominously. I smiled at my executioner. "Third time's the charm, eh?"
The first time, I had pissed my pants and soiled myself. The second time I'd been nervous, but managed to mostly keep my composure. This time, when the blast of energy washed over me like a blast of hot air, it was all I could do to keep from yawning. I had seen this cannon work. I had watched as some of my comrades were erased from existence, exploding into a cloud of gas. But to me it felt like a weak hair dryer.
The capacitors went silent. The beam shut off. And for the third time I stood in front of the confused executioner standing at his panel, unscathed. "This is getting really irritating," I quipped. Then the tension broke, and total relief flooded me. My anger burst on my captors like a breached dam. Good God! I was still alive! "Eat that, you furry bastards!"
An angry voice shouted from the observation balcony above. I couldn't understand the language, but the way the inside of the bear-thing's ears went pale, it wasn't good for him. "You... you are hereby sentenced to life imprisonment in the South Enclosure. Take him away!"
It wasn't an "enclosure" as much as an outside POW camp. Apparently the aliens' survey ship had last visited Earth during the Ice Age. They had been quite upset to find that the climate had shifted in the meantime, even without all the additional carbon dioxide in the air. Most of their ships had landed in far-northern Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. They were busily doing what so many had wanted: Busily reducing the CO2 in the air.
It only cost us our freedom, our lives, and our sanity.
After a couple years of complete chaos, many had welcomed their arrival. But it was clear within a couple months that the weren't here to play nice. It wasn't as if we could offer any kind of organized resistance. The planet had started feeling the effect of their weird FTL drives long before they'd even arrived. Crops failed, governments fell, and we were just too busy trying to survive.
The prison enclosure--which was little more than an open-air zoo, really--was on the lower slopes of Mount Washington, nestled in forest. The aliens had thoughtfully reconstructed an Ice Age camp made of fake mammoth tusks, covered with fake skins. They gave me a "uniform" that, on the hot, humid lower slopes, was simply a leather loincloth.
"Still alive, Jason?" one of my prison mates said. When we'd first arrived he'd been overweight. But the enforced hunter-gatherer lifestyle had turned his flab into muscle. He was the de-facto "clan chief's" thug. "You don't even look singed."
"They just wanted to chat, Randall," I replied calmly. "If they really wanted me dead they'd just put a bullet in me."
The muscular man snorted derisively. "Don't be coy. You damn well know they just don't think that way. Their technology is so far above ours that they just can't conceive of something that simple."
I shrugged noncommittally. The aliens did seem to have some recognizable sense of honor. But I had no doubts that I really would be in here for the remainder of my natural life--which, if things continued as they were going with the rest of my "clan", would be nasty, brutish, and above all, very short.
"I... uh... I think I'll go and draw some water from the pond," I stammered, looking around for the leather bucket. The aliens had known of humans from their survey, but hadn't thought of us as more than simple tool-users, like chimps. Obviously someone had failed to do their job. But now that they were here they weren't going anywhere, and they were going to put the planet back how they'd found it.
"You do that," Randall said with a glare. He picked up the bucket and threw it at me hard enough to knock me back almost a yard. I wasn't a very large man, and with his mass of muscle, he could probably just snap my neck.
The others were afraid of me, somehow. Maybe I should be afraid of me, too. Nobody survived a point-blank blast from a quantum cannon. But after the increasingly strange events of the past few years, I wasn't about to run around in a panic. I had survived a lot of bad things at this point. This was just another challenge.
Hefting the leather bucket, I walked down towards the small pond that served the tribe for drinking water and bathing. A few members of the tribe were down there, performing the tasks the aliens had observed in their survey: weaving baskets, doing what passed for laundry. The women chatting up a storm.
When I came into view, the look they gave me could have peeled the paint off a car.
So many of us had been executed by the psychobears. For some reason, my inexplicable survival made me persona non grata.
Avoiding the others, up the hillside I went, towards the artificial spring that the aliens intended to be some kind of sacred spot. The result was that nobody came up here. The thick undergrowth scratched my bare skin, though I eventually found a very narrow deer trail.
Once reaching the top I felt no urge to finish my chore. There was a small cave near the spring source. I sat down there, out of the sun, and pondered my next steps. As the hours passed, the skies turned gray and drizzly. "Fucking with the climate," I muttered, throwing the bucket into the stream. But it was still going to take them centuries before there were glaciers again.
From inside the cave, a large raccoon trundled out. He was the largest such animal I had ever seen, so I stood up and made room for him to pass. The animal looked up at me with an astonishingly intelligent gleam in his eyes. The raccoon sat on its haunches. Oh, so you're the one! came a voice in my head.
"Um... yes?" I stammered, looking around. The words had appeared in my mind without first going through my ears.
The raccoon began to glow, surrounded by a soft green- blue aura. Standing up on two legs, his animal muzzle started to pull inwards, head inflating as if it was some kind of balloon. In the end, there was a rather furry-looking man with raccoon ears, a human face (though his nose was black), and clawed hands and feet. He wore a belt with a small leather sack that hadn't been there a moment ago. "Hey there. Sorry to startle you like this..."
"Um... uh... Yeah. I'm fine."
"Good! Because I'm here to get you out of here. But I don't have much time, so I'm going to have to skip detailed explanations. Let me sum up. I'm a raccoon- mage in the Resistance and I have maybe five minutes to turn you into a deer so you can get your tail out of here. Okay?"
He sighed at my blank look. "You have some terribly powerful magic potential, whoever you are. But I only sensed it a few days ago. I didn't have time to grab any other spirit tokens than these two and I didn't know if you were male or female." They were discs of wood, into which had been burned the image of a deer. One with antlers, one without. "Most new recruits want to be a wolf or a cougar. This is what I had. You're lucky I had a stag. They're gender-specific."
A year before the aliens had arrived I had watched as a friend of mine had spontaneously changed gender. The poor new girl had gone a little bit mad for a while, but a couple months later she was about as well-adjusted as anyone could be in that situation. I didn't have long to absorb what he told me, but I took one look at the thick undergrowth and made a decision. "I'll take the doe anyway."
"Um... what?" he stammered.
"Let me sum up. They'll come after me. I'll have to flee as quickly as I can and avoid the tribe in the process. Antlers get caught on branches and could seriously trip me up since I won't be used to four legs," I replied quickly.
"It's permanent, okay?" he replied. But seeing that I wasn't going to budge, sighed. "Nevermind. Break it in half to invoke. I can't stay in this form much longer or they're going to detect me. And when you disappear off their scanners, run like the wind. Head east!" He put it in my hand. There was a flush of magical energy, and the raccoon was at my feet again. He chittered at me, then found whatever hole he was hiding in.
"Magic," I said. There was really no other word that fit. But before I was captured for daring to pass around a copy of Accelerando, I'd heard rumors about this. People who could change into animals and were somehow rebuilding human civilization in the new wilderness, right under the aliens' noses.
There was certainly no future for me here. I broke the medallion.
I wondered what would happen first. Would I change genders? I held the palms of my hands out a few inches from my chest, imagining a pair of breasts filling them. I soon had my answer.
The same blue-green aura covered me. Lurching forwards on feet that were abruptly replaced with cloven hooves, I carefully balanced upright and watched as fingers elongated, melded together. Then I came down on all fours, new hooves clopping on the rocks, the sound echoing around of the cave mouth. Strong hands squeezed my head and pulled on my torso.
Oh my G...
For a moment I was totally overwhelmed by the sensory assault, (Sound and smell and fur and hooves...) which may have saved my life. Pure instinct took over as I remembered I had to flee. Tail flagging, I sprang forwards, propelled by fear and wonder at the same time.
Branches ineffectually pulled on my fur as I flew between them down the deer trail, initially heading back towards the tribe's camp. I'm fucking flying! I exclaimed, exulting in the sheer joy of swiftness. Animal terror was quickly replaced by equally powerful joy. Then I remembered, east! Head east!
By then I was at the bottom of the hill. I burst out of the trail, nostrils flaring, the reek of a dozen unwashed human bodies adding to the new symphony of sound and smell. The humans, as startled as I was, stood up and grabbed their spears. I bounded sideways, turning a hard left, away from the descending sun. They were had to be quicker than that if they wanted to catch me!
Now a mile away from the hillside spring, the skies darkened again. But this time with an alien scoutship. Even their small craft were three hundred feet long! I folded my ears back at the noise, an awful humming that went right to my bones. The tribe behind me scattered, but they couldn't go far. The aliens knew where every remaining human was, everywhere, which allowed them to pick us off at their leisure. They even allowed most of them to live in some semblance of their old civilization, as long as they didn't make trouble. Like I had.
Deer are short-distance sprinters. I knew this from my own numerous hunts. After a couple of miles my muscles burned with exhaustion. I slowed to a canter, then a trot, and finally to a walk. (Pant pant pant pant...) Ears a-whirr, head drooping low, I walked slowly towards a stream I smelled a short distance away. First checking to see that there were no hunters, with a sniff and an ear-flick, I drank deeply.
The alien ship had scattered the clouds and stopped the wind, making the surface of the tiny pond glass smooth. I looked down the length of my muzzle and caught my reflection.
The raccoon hadn't given me the stag by mistake. I licked my nose, the reflected whitetail doe did the same. I lifted a forehoof, so did she. Curious, I lifted a hindleg and moved my head around and saw what I expected to: a thinly-furred udder with four teats and pink skin. Lifting my head again I reflexively used my tongue to groom myself. The spell--or whatever-- apparently came with a suite of instincts. But I had somehow retained my color vision.
East, I thought. But how far? It couldn't be that far, could it? A raccoon couldn't exactly travel very fast, but if they were too close to the alien prison they risked detection. Didn't they?
But come to think of it, I hadn't encountered the Fence yet. The prison enclosure was a huge one, since they were trying to give the "tribe" enough area for a band of hunter-gatherers. And the Fence... Well, it wouldn't let humans through. But I was no longer one of them. No problem, right?
The return of the wind made me tense up again as it flowed through millions of leaves. I could easily follow it from one end of the valley to the other. Tail flicking, I sniffed something familiar--other deer?
I was having real trouble recognizing anything. It didn't look the same. Smell the same... feel the same on four feet. East? Which way? I sniffed, drinking in the air. Like wine, it was. Filled with the subtleties of loam and bark and squirrels and birds and... sounds of... tastes of... Hungry.
It didn't matter that I was female. A mere gender change was overwhelmed by this sensory intoxication. Every fiber of my being geared towards seeking out potential threats. It was like drinking a dozen cans of Red Bull all at once. Naturally caffeinated, I guess.
Before I could go further I was going to have to put something in my stomach. I let my instincts guide me, and was rewarded. All I had to do was smell where other deer had been, then sample some for myself. Before long I filled my belly (rumen?) with torn bits of leaves, grasses, and other succulents. Eating was a very holistic experience.
Hooves in the dirt. Munch, stop, raise head, sniff, listen, munch, stop, raise head, flick ears, sniff, listen... The reek of the camp was far off. Were the aliens looking for me visually? Maybe. But they wouldn't be looking for a solitary doe...
It was hard to hold the moment, sometimes. But the sense of urgency to find the Fence kept me focused. Inside the Fence there were human hunters who would make a meal of me for the tribe without a thought. Outside there were cougars, wolves, and bears. But none of them were as intelligent as I was. If I found other deer I could find safety in numbers, then possibly...
I shook my head. Just find the Fence, you silly doe. Planning too far ahead.
As the sun neared setting, I felt more energetic. Though I did pause to chew cud--which tasted better coming up than it did going down--I rounded an area I finally thought I recognized. A ridgeline that snaked through most of the area hereabouts. At the very top, were the white metal posts of the Fence.
I paused there, looking at freedom beyond. A steep, wooded slope that wasn't going to be fun descending. But the view was absolutely tremendous, with the sun just vanishing behind the other side of the valley. A few noisome insects buzzed around my hind quarters, a fly actually landing long enough to bite. The sharp pain nearly made me cross the fence line.
Pest removed, I licked my nose and, with great caution, put my forehoof where the strange force field should be.
Nothing. Not a single shock. Or push back. Or even a warning tingle.
The downward slope proved more difficult than it looked. There was soil and some trees, but areas of bare rock made for treacherous footing for hooves. And despite my great night vision, the last ten or fifteen feet made my heart pound. Damn it... Fucking...
A nice lady like yourself shouldn't swear, came a new voice. It was a masculine "voice," a bemused chiding more than anything. Hold tight, miss doe. I'll be right there.
It was a buck, his fuzzy, velvet-covered antlers maybe half grown. I finally caught a whiff of his distinctive musk. And I wondered if my mental voice already sounded female, somehow. I certainly couldn't tell for myself.
Hold on tight, Miss. Just going to do a little magic, he continued. Going to move you to the ground telekinetically. Take a deep breath, stay calm.
I shut my eyes and tried to do as he asked, but it was all I could do to keep from pissing myself when I lifted gently off the hummock, then floated down to solid ground next to the buck. Thank you! I thought.
Brian said you'd come this way. He also said you'd picked the doe medallion. I'm going to reiterate what he said. You are permanently bonded with a doe. There are ways around this, but your essential nature has been completely changed. You're also irrevocably female. And there's nothing we can do about that at all. Get it? He stamped a forehoof in emphasis.
I get it, I replied irritably, with a stamp of my own. I chose doe for pragmatic reasons, okay? I didn't want any troublesome headgear--no offense. And it worked! Just take me wherever we go next.
The buck's ears twitched, the tops brushing against his velvety antlers. Okay. But it won't be easy on you. Fawns and all that. We'll head back to homebase. It'll take the better part of a day. Just act natural. The psychobears don't even know to look for us.
He came forward and gave me a nudge with his nose on my shoulder. The gesture seemed apologetic. I'm sorry we haven't explained much. But there will be plenty of time for that later. You'll know me by my scent, but we still think of ourselves as human, so we still have names. I'm Paul Reynolds.
Jason Tuturo, I replied. I don't know how I sound, but yeah. I was a man. Guess I'll have to think of a new name at some point. I nudged him back, trying to be friendly.
Nah. No reason to hide yourself. It's not that unusual. But, honestly, your think-voice does sound girly already. Let's get going, okay? Need to get you settled.
Aside from that introductory conversation, we spoke very little over the next couple days. It was all cervine body language. It was unusual for a buck and doe to travel together at this time of year. Periodically we'd have to give ourselves a nudge to stay together. But during that time we were little different from the other deer that populated this landscape. There were still signs of human habitation everywhere--from the odd abandoned cabins to entire towns burned to the ground. They all smelled... creepy as hell (dead places). The arrival of "magic" had softened us up a lot.
You okay? Paul asked after we'd skirted one ghost town.
No. But it's nothing we have to deal with now, I replied with a sigh. How much farther?
Close. We can dash the rest of the way. The buck broke into a trot, keeping his tail down. I followed the larger deer at a good clip, since he had a larger stride than I did. Our destination was apparently a grove of "old" growth forest. There were places where the magic had twisted things. Dangerous places. When we entered it, I was reminded of Tolkein's description of Lothlorien.
You're kidding me, right? I said, stunned. The aroma of the giant oaks and maples rolled over me. The psychobears don't consider this area strange?
You forget, Jason. We're just animals. Besides, there's a lot more of these places than you think. Where have you been for five years?
Living hand to mouth, like everyone else, I replied hotly. I felt an urge to flail my forehooves at him.
The buck sighed. Forget it. We're going in.
He led me towards a tree trunk that was perhaps six feet wide. The branches covered an entire acre at least. There was a cave-like hole at the very bottom, over which some wag had scratched "TARDIS". You're kidding, right? I said, incredulously.
Nope! Come on in. There's a lot of people you need to meet. If what Brian said is correct, you're going to end up very useful.
With a flick of his tail, Paul strode into the hole... and vanished. Sniffing the ground told me an awful lot. This was a major entrance/exit point. But if I went in there... what of after?
Another choice loomed. I could just run off and live like an animal. But something told me that was simply unnecessary. Inside that tree was, perhaps, home.
In I went.