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|Professional Animals story universe|
It's going to be a long summer.
My instructions are to look natural. Pose for the tourists. Don't speak. Don't scare anyone. And for heaven's sake, don't hurt anyone.
It's going to be a long summer.
Posing for tourists is boring.
At least the dining hall is pleasant and the rec room well stocked and accommodating.
At least the job pays well. And there isn't a lot to spend it on. I will have plenty of money for college in the fall. No need for loans, no need to interrupt studying (and partying) for a measly job that paid minimum wage.
For all it put me through, it had better pay well!
Even if it is boring.
Another tourist. Time to pick up the head. Stare at the camera. Wait for the shutter to snap. Turn for a profile shot. Oh well, that photo is a waste. Poor kid forgot the lens cap. Sorry kid. I'm not allowed to remind you to take the lens cap off. I'll be happy to stay here and pose. Actually I'm required to stay here and pose. Sorry kid. Mom's calling. I hope there is a next time.
Yellowstone National Park is a great place to spend the summer. I should come back sometime as a tourist. Then I'll be able to appreciate the geological wonders. The park rangers frown on me wandering around Old Faithful.
Do I regret taking the job? To be honest, there are times when I do. I have to remind myself it is for a limited duration and the benefits for my future are great. I just wish it wasn't so boring.
Ah, here's a kid in a wheelchair. Approach slowly so as not to scare her. Watch for signs of agitation so as not to seriously invade her space. None so far. It looks like she'll let me get up close and personal. Good. She giggled. Ready to close. Yes! She wasn't shy about stroking my nose. Another point for public relations. Oh good. Mom is checking my ID. I may get an attaboy for this!
Humans have been terrible stewards of the planet. We could see the problems coming. And we still bickered and did nothing. Too many greedy people.
Strange how the timing within science works out. Researchers weren't able to figure out the specific causes of the die-offs before there were no mammals left in North American larger than a squirrel--other than humans.
But at the same time, scientists created and perfected ways to guide the shape of one body into that of another. The North American moose genome may have been lost--at least until the riddle of the die-offs is solved--but the moose shape has been preserved.
Ah. Here comes the fun part. I get to do something worthwhile. Dad has gotten mad at his boy. The boy looks terrified. Whatever the poor kid did, he doesn't deserve that much of a harangue.
At least I can get away with intervention.
I lumber over to them. Dad is beginning to show signs of wanting to smack the kid. Not only do I invade their space. I stick my head between them. They have to back up. Dad takes a swipe at my nose. It stings, but not much. The boy looks grateful. He quickly takes a step so he is hiding behind me, and begins to pet my neck. Dad begins to lose steam as I turn and look at him. In a moment, Dad heaves a big sigh and does the skritch thing. One simply doesn't argue with one my size. And because of the way I look, most people forget I have a human brain. I stay put until they get bored and go back to the car.
Then it is back to my own boredom.
Yellowstone Park was the first to notice the drop in attendance. It seemed that geysers weren't the only draw. Visitors to the park wanted to get photos of the large mammals and when there were no more large mammals, Old Faithful wasn't enough for many of them.
A ranger at Yellowstone was also the first one to make the connection between a population that was in the midst of a love-hate relationship with the new "body-styling" technology and a solution to the park's problem.
A large part of the citizenry thought it was the neatest thing. This was especially true in the high schools in the tonier suburbs where the students (or parents) could afford the styling fee. The in-crowd usually all had tails or wings or--in the more radical cases--heads of the school mascot. This was especially prevalent where the mascot was a mustang or an eagle. It also prompted a few schools to do away with Redskin and similar names to take up mascots their students would be happy to become. One school even chose the timid deer as their mascot. Antlers quickly became the rage there.
The high school in Beverly Hills took it to the extreme. All the boys had themselves styled as a young Tom Cruise, even as the original tottered around with a cane. The women were all styled as Evie Bjornson, the Swedish Nightingale that appeared on the scene four years ago. With everyone wearing only one of two faces (and the student that didn't get with it was branded hopelessly uncool) the school promptly installed retinal scans to make sure each person took their own tests.
My school wasn't in a rich area. Few kids could afford styling. It was that lack of money that made this job appealing.
Another part of the citizenry thought styling was as bad as the devil himself. We should be happy with the body that God gave us, they shouted. The backlash to that idea finally broke the stranglehold of religious fundamentalists, though their leaders became even more shrill.
Even so, there were very few people that considered going all the way. Antlers, tails, ears, and even furry heads and bodies was one thing. Giving up hands was quite another. It wasn't talked about much, but only a couple thousand humans in a population of three hundred million went to a full animal shape.
That Yellowstone ranger figured why not go all the way? Why not "style" humans to replace the deer, elk, moose, wolves, coyotes, mountain goats, and bears? Such humans could then be put on display in Yellowstone and other parks as a draw for the tourists.
This next carload includes a toddler. Kids that small are easily scared by the big and I'm certainly big. Best to keep my distance. Let Mom and Dad take a photo, let them point to me and exclaim.
Posing for tourists is boring.
It's going to be a long summer.
To attract people to be display animals, the Yellowstone ranger knew the park would have to pay well--or at least pay well according to the target audience, the college student. Dangle enough money to pay tuition at top schools and college students will consider all kinds of summer jobs. Throw in two free stylings and there would be enough applicants.
Wearing a watch would spoil the illusion, so I have to rely on the position of the sun or amble over so that I can read the clock mounted on a pole in the parking lot. I think I've managed to glance at it without being obvious. It won't do for a kid to exclaim, "Look, at that! He knows how to tell time!"
Yellowstone knew it couldn't get funding from Congress for display animals. The National Park system barely had enough for operational costs and Congress was already running up a big deficit each year.
Instead, the park management contacted World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth. These groups couldn't go up against the corporate interests that caused the die-offs--no matter how much money they raised, the corporations had more. But in their guilt over their failure, they were glad to pay for display animals--and create just enough corporate guilt to pay for a few more.
Quitting time. The sun is low. And, thankfully, there are no cars in my parking lot. The rules say that I have to stick around as long as the tourists want to snap pictures.
I make my way back to the employee cafeteria and rec hall. Meals are included as part of the compensation. While I am still human--I still have human intelligence and any offspring I might father would pop out of the womb as human--my digestive tract was styled to match the rest of me. It will be a vegetarian summer for me. Through feedback from the employees, the cooks have come up with some mighty tasty meals, combinations that simply do not occur in the wild.
I take my place at a trough that has already been filled for me. Jordan and Sandra are already working through their greens. Steve ambles up shortly after me. We greet each other. It doesn't take long to comment over the day's events. While the tourists do some surprising things on occasion, I do believe I said it was boring.
With that out of the way, our talk turns to our lives before this job. The four of us have gotten to know each other pretty well.
Applying for such a high paying job doesn't mean the park will take all applicants. Some people are too active and couldn't stand the boredom. Others are too aggressive or too shy to pose in front of tourist cameras all day. Some couldn't stay "in character" even in the best of all costumes. Others couldn't handle the public relations part of being gentle in spite of the petting, poking, and sticky fingers. Oh yes, we were well screened.
I'm sometimes envious of some of the other employees, even though I chose my form. The bears can sit in chairs and can grasp cups, even if they must do it with two paws. I have to stand and drink through a straw. The coyotes and wolves get to eat meat. I miss the meat, though at the moment, it wouldn't taste all that good and would cause digestive difficulties--and wouldn't that make a pretty picture! For meals, we vegetarians tend to stick together.
Afterwards, though, is another matter. Since our jobs are to pose for tourist cameras, we can't be running around while on the job. We do need to exercise and after dinner is when we do it. A few of us gallop around a track, but the main event is the ongoing game of soccer.
Playing soccer on four legs with a substantially horizontal body is nothing like playing it as an unstyled human. It is even wilder when one considers that a wolf or coyote could pass beneath me with plenty of room to spare. I think we gave up on rules within the first week and stopped keeping track of score in the second. You do get ejected from the game for roughness--can't have an elk in a cast, now can we?--but other than that, the free-for-all nature of our sport gives us the excitement we have come to crave.
Not only were we well screened, we were also well counseled. They wanted to be sure we knew what we were getting into and that we knew their expectations of us. There were discussions of which animals were appropriate for which kind of personality.
I chose moose. There were two main reasons. The first was that my psych profile described me as lumbering and placid. Well, not exactly those terms. They had a much more polite way of saying the same thing, but I don't remember the words they use. It doesn't matter now.
The second was that before my styling, I was a small guy. My family didn't have the money for a body styling even if it was to bring me up to average height. As a moose, I now tower over everyone else. It's a good feeling.
When it is time to give up my moose form, I get to choose the details of my human shape. I don't think I want to keep much of my moose body--a little too ugly for daily living and those antlers are way too big--but I can go with straight human or blend with any other animal I wish. I've already decided I definitely want tall. I still have the summer to decide on other features.
While I have been accepted at the college of my choice, I am very reluctant to be styled after the school mascot. It is a prestigious college and I'll have enough money to pay for tuition, but I probably won't have enough to pay for a styling when I'm done. Though fashions may change, at the moment it just won't do to show up for a job interview with a tail or antlers.
Since my job is to be on display, I have to be within sight of the parking lot designated for my "habitat." It just won't do for cars to pull into the "moose" parking lot and the tourists can't find the moose. There is a clump of bushes that I can partially stand behind when I need to relieve myself without embarrassing the tourists. I even get a meal delivered so I don't have to munch away at the local flora.
When dealing with real animals in a zoo, the keepers can say, "Sorry. The lions are inside today." One just doesn't argue with a lion. But when the animal has a human brain, you can make them sign a contract saying you *will* be on display.
Jordan is also a moose. That allows us to trade off at times, though it is expected we will both be on site as much as possible. He is a lighter color and his antlers aren't quite as broad as mine. The differences allow the tourists to tell us apart. Many of them enjoy that. They will study the sign that contains our ID photos (after styling only) and names, then tell the kids, "That one is Jordan. This one is Mike."
Once you are accepted as an employee, they deposit a signing bonus into the bank account of your choice. The money will sit there until September with hefty deposits each week. Then they start the styling process immediately. No need to wait.
I would have thought they would put us to sleep for the process, but no. Their research shows the mind deals with the change better if it experiences it. They told us that some of the first people that went for a full animal styling didn't handle it well when they woke up in a strange body.
So I watched as some fingers and toes grew and formed hooves while others shrank away to nothing, as arms and legs grew and reshaped, as muzzle extended, as neck lengthened, as ears and antlers grew, as torso became rounder, and as fur grew in. My change room had mirrors so I could see all aspects of the change. It was freaky to watch. It was also strangely arousing. Yep, even that changed.
My own parents are here today. They started making plans as soon as I told them I got the job. We kept in contact through phone calls. The dorms have speakerphones programmed with our own frequently called numbers and the buttons are big enough they can be jabbed with a pencil held in the mouth.
I was a little on edge knowing Mom and Dad would see me in this form. I wasn't embarrassed about this form, exactly. I guess I knew I had done something major and I hadn't asked for their permission.
I amble up to them almost as soon as they get out of the car. Some other tourists are a little surprised--and disappointed--that these other people are greeted by the moose and they aren't. Jordan catches on and ambles over to them.
It means I don't dare speak until the people from the other car get tired of Jordan and leave. Mom and Dad understand and don't talk either. They simply stand there with their arms around my neck. That is, when one of them isn't taking pictures of me and the other one. Before the other car leaves, Dad asks the woman to take a picture of all three of us. I think I know which one is going to be the family Christmas photo this year. Dad has already joked about Christmoose.
There is more to do in the evenings than play sports outside the rec hall. There are several computers with voice activation and buttons easily poked with a pencil that have various computer programs and games. They also have web browsing that can be done reasonably well with the touch sensitive screens. There is also a vast library of ebooks and voice controlled page turning. I've completed three novels already this summer.
A guy has been hanging out at my parking lot all day today. The reason is quite obvious. His head has been styled in the shape of a moose, but looking more like that cartoon moose--the one with the squirrel sidekick--than like me.
I wonder if he is studying me to find out what "real" moose do. Sorry to disappoint you, kid, ain't no such thing at the moment. Perhaps he is merely studying what I look like. I'm a good model. My styling is quite accurate. He certainly takes enough pictures for that to be the case.
I actually find this guy unsettling. His face is way too cartoonish for my taste, yet it seems to work for him. I guess after being around authentic stylings all day I've gotten to be a bit of a style snob.
My room at the dorm doesn't have much in it. There is a small desk with the speakerphone and the large (and I mean large) mattress on the floor. The only personal item is last year's Christmas photo in a frame propped on the desk.
There is no bathroom. We're supposed to do our thing outside. There is no shower, though if we stink real bad or need deskunking (as happened to Greg, one of the wolves), one of our caretakers will take us into the shower in the rec room.
There is no closet as I have no clothes. The ones I wore on my trip here won't fit for the return trip as I will be much taller. There are no other personal items as I can't manipulate them in this form. There is no lock on the door as I have no place to keep a key. Just as well. I only sleep here and use the phone to call my parents.
The news today is that Travis, one of the coyotes, was fired. The accusation was that he broke character and played with some tourist kids. This went way beyond letting the kids pet him. It included participating in a game of soccer the kids were playing on the parking lot--and it was the bear parking lot no less.
That left Travis in a bind. Because he violated Terms and Conditions of the contract, they won't pay for the second styling. He hasn't earned enough money to pay for it himself. It is too early in the season. Though he is banned from the employee grounds, he was not banned from the park itself.
The news of his firing made the rounds at dinner. Along with it came the speculation that Travis did it on purpose. He wanted to go feral. If true, he is likely in for a lonely life.
More tourists. Time to pose. Time to show off my magnificent antlers and large form.
Posing for tourists is boring.
It's going to be a long summer."