|This story is a work in progress.|
"Say a prayer for the commercial man." Bruce put his feet up on the Studebaker's dashboard and tried to make himself comfortable enough for a doze. "Step on it, will ya Fred? I'd like to get to Cheyenne before next year."
"This is a company car, Bruce. We're in no hurry," Fred replied. The two radio salesmen were somewhere northeast of Denver. Just where, exactly, Fred didn't really care. But there were a dozen prospects in their destination that could pay off handsomely. "Get your boots off the dash! You'll scuff the interior. The boss is looking for any excuse to dock us, you know. I'm sticking to the speed limit, especially in this weather. I shouldn't even be going this fast, for crying out loud."
The lanky, black-haired salesman grumbled a little, though he did take his feet off the Studebaker's long-scuffed dashboard. He slid his fedora down over his eyes and appeared to doze, but Fred knew better. "You know, if you want to get us there faster, you could always look at that map we picked up in Greeley," he suggested.
Opening up the glove box, Bruce rummaged around. "It's not in here."
"Then try the back seat," the bespectacled man suggested. "Probably in a bag."
Fred concentrated on driving while his partner threw himself over the seatback and into their pile of travel supplies and merchandise. The flatness of northeastern Colorado was made only worse by the dead, lifeless landscape dusted in snow and the bitter wind that came out of the north. At times the wind made visibility hover dangerously near zero as the dry powder was picked up and blown around. Road conditions varied from passable to a butt-busting washboard. The highways in this part of the state were fairly neglected, though President Eisenhower's recently approved Interstate Highway bill would probably correct things in years to come.
"Found it," Bruce announced. In the rear view mirror Fred saw the black-haired man unfold the crinkly map. "Where the hell are we right now anyway?"
"Somewhere on US eighty-five. What was that last town? Nunn?" Fred informed. "You find a shortcut anywhere?"
"Um... hold on." More ruffling of paper as he refolded it. "There's a shortcut a few miles up. Take a left, then we go back north again. It'll cut maybe a half hour off the trip, I think." Bruce gave his partner a level look. "Of course, you could always just drive faster."
"I'm not getting a speeding ticket! We'll just have to take the short cut," Fred insisted.
Bruce shrugged and took off his sport jacket, then pushed all the merchandise cases off the seat down to the floor. "Suit yourself, Freddo. I'm going to get some reading done." He took a small book out of his briefcase.
"Not that smut again. It's dry smut, too. How can you read that?" Fred asked disapprovingly, glaring in the rear-view mirror that was attached to a stalk on the center of the dashboard.
"So you have read some of it. Yeah, Kinsey's dry as hell. But this is the Reader's Digest version. Besides, Fred, you're a man of science. We sell transistor radios, for Crissakes. I know you're curious about the female of the species. I've caught you poking your nose in it." He waved the condensed version of Sexuality in the Human Female around.
Fred pushed his horn-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "Tell me you at least got rid of those Playboy magazines. Cripes, man! Company catches us with those and we're both fired!"
Bruce just smiled dryly. He knew Fred well enough to know that the protests were just perfunctory, and that he'd never ask directly. "I'll let you at 'em when I'm done with them."
The portly radio salesman shrunk in his seat a little, cheeks flaming red. "Fine. But I'm not kidding about getting canned. I'm amazed they didn't find anything in that briefcase of yours. Sheesh."
"Just lucky, I guess."
The old Studebaker Business Coupe had seen better days, but the company mechanics were very competent and kept it running. The powder blue paint showed signs of touch up, and there were a few visible patches of rust in the wheel wells. The interior reeked of ingrained cigar and cigarette smoke. It had at least a hundred thousand miles on it and spewed a cloud of acrid blue smoke whenever Fred pushed the accelerator too hard.
Snow pellets rattled against the north-facing windows, over the growl of the engine. And only a few miles in the road conditions were starting to rapidly deteriorate. Bruce had to drop his book to grab on to the seatback, and Fred kept a very tight grip on the wheel...
The pothole took them both by surprise. Fred's head hit the car's ceiling, pushing his hat down over his face and nearly making him lose control. "Shit!" he exclaimed as the Studebaker rattled to a stop with a sad clunking noise, and the sound of a wheel being dragged along the ground.
"What in God's name... ow!" Bruce added. "I think I hurt something."
Fred pulled off his hat, revealing a mess of greased brown hair. "I know I did. Saw stars for a second, there. Damn! I think the car's busted."
Bruce put his hand on his partner's shoulder. "Wait in here, Freddo. I'll get out and check." With that he pulled on his overcoat and slid over the seatback again, then quickly got outside so the heat wouldn't escape. He scowled at the right front wheel, then came back in almost immediately, shivering. "We've got a flat, and the whole damn wheel is bent! Better get working on that spare tire before we freeze up. Feeling well enough to lend a hand?"
While he still felt a little woozy, Fred nodded and put on his own overcoat and gloves, and then his hat again. "I'll grab the jack, you get the tire, and we can get this done in ten."
This was hardly their first flat tire. The duo spent most of their time on the road, going from city to city all over the southern Plains and sometimes all the way into the Chicago area. Texas Instruments transistor radios were a huge status symbol in some markets. No more vacuum tubes! A radio that fits in your pocket! Batteries that last for hours! But the fifty dollars they cost on average put them firmly in the upper middle class sales bracket. That wasn't cheap by any means.
Before they could get to the spare tire they had to remove a thousand dollars in radios, all carefully packed in padded suitcases. Fred grabbed the jack while Bruce removed the spare tire cover. "Uh oh." Snow swirled around his legs, though the wind seemed to be slackening. "Um, I hate to break this to you, buddy."
"It's flat too, isn't it? Did they at least give us a tire pump?" Fred gritted his teeth. His head throbbed a little.
"You know I've been asking for one for months but they don't spring for one. Damned cheapskates." And the company wouldn't let them have anything in the car that wasn't pre-approved, in order to project an image towards the Customer. Which made Bruce's knack for hiding his "reading materials" all the more amazing. They were very thorough.
A gust of wind reminded them just how frigid it was, and that they were several miles from the nearest town. Both knew it was suicidal to stay out in the open like this, so they quickly replaced their merchandise cases and hopped back in the cooling Studebaker. Out of the wind at least things were tolerable in their winter clothes. "Now what, Freddo?" Bruce asked glumly. When he didn't answer, the younger man frowned. "How's your head, man?"
"Just feeling a little slow," he replied, pulling his hat down over his aching ears. "No way we're going to walk anywhere in this weather. We'll have stay in here for a bit to see if anyone else happens by."
Bruce reached into the back seat and handed his partner one of the Playboy magazines. The covers were fairly innocuous--they had to be. Bruce thought of them as classy. Fred just stared at the magazine as if he'd been stung by a bee. Bruce rolled his eyes. "C'mon, Freddo. Read the articles if you don't want to admire the girls. There's some pretty good fiction in there."
It was impossible to ignore the girls, posed in all their nude glory. Fred flipped past those pages at first, feeling hot and bothered. He didn't want to give Bruce the satisfaction that after all these years of prudish refusal, that he was as vulnerable as any man to the beauty of the female form. My parents didn't raise no pervert. But oh God, what beauties!
"Fucking freezing in here," Bruce said eventually, hunching over into his coat. "Reminds me of fucking winter in Fucking Korea," he muttered. "Fucking Chosin Reservoir, Freddo. Did I ever tell you about that? Fucking Chinese!"
"Frequently," the portly man replied. His partner always cursed heavily whenever anything reminded him of Korea. Fred looked up from his magazine to find he could easily see his breath. Condensation threatened to completely block their view of the outside world. Fred rubbed the windshield with the sleeve of his overcoat.
"Geez, Fred, when you focus, you focus! I think we've got maybe an hour of daylight left," said Bruce.
"Um... wind's dying down," Fred added, his nearly forgotten headache threatening to return. Indeed, the snow-fog had almost vanished, leaving the rolling landscape in a thinning white haze. Fred squinted. "Is that a light in the distance?"
Bruce shrugged. "I don't see anything. You feeling okay? You hit your head damned hard."
"Looks like a streetlight or something. Maybe neon?" Fred continued, unsure if he was just seeing things because of the lump on his head, or if the distant light source was really there. "Yeah, it's neon. Blinking yellow neon."
The last of the snow settled back to the ground, revealing a rolling landscape of fallow farmland to either side of the old blacktop road. Clearly visible now, perhaps a mile away, was a squat brown building with a yellow neon sign out front. "Hey, you're right! Is that a motel?" Bruce asked.
"Way out here?" Fred said, incredulous. But it was there, plain as day. Blinking yellow neon just like you'd find in any number of roadside motels.
"I ain't looking a gift horse in the mouth. Let's get walking and get a closer look. At the very least it's a house where we can get in the warm."
The wind had almost completely died down, and it was simply cold. Well below freezing. Both men flipped up the collars of their coats and shoved their gloved hands deep into their pockets, then started shuffling along the worn blacktop road as fast as they dared not to create any wind chill. Huffing and puffing, they kept themselves as small against the breeze as possible.
Fred walked so pulled into his overcoat that it took Bruce grabbing him on the shoulder to get him to stop. "Hold it," he said in a tight whisper. "Just wait."
"What is it? We're not even halfway there!" Fred replied irritably. Then he caught a whiff. Bruce's hand moved up to his head, and gently turned him around.
A half dozen female elk, reeking very strongly of musk in the calm, damp air. Six pairs of ears stood erect, looking at the human interlopers with intense suspicion. Their breath steamed out of their nostrils, and a rime of snow covered a good portion of their dark brown coats in patches. Then, a short distance away, a bugle. The harem crossed the road towards it, spurred onwards.
"That is the bee's knees, Freddo. Wow!" Bruce exclaimed.
"If you say so," Fred mumbled. "I'm freezing my butt off. Let's keep going."
The motel wasn't anything special. In fact, if Fred had to pick a word to describe it, he would have chosen "godforsaken". It was an odd place to put a motel, far away from any main roads. It was a single-story structure with a slate gray roof and dark brown siding. A sodium lamp, apparently burned out, overhung the parking lot that was melded with the road. Two cars sat in the lot, both dusted with snow. A '55 Chevy Bel Air and a beat-up '49 Dodge Coupe. Right next door was an old Pullman diner, from which came the scent of what might be food, but smelled more like over-charred meat.
"'Steam heat'," Bruce read, the sole amenity listed on the sign. "I've seen better signs. Clanking radiators. Joy."
"Any port in a storm," Fred said. The whole place looked like it'd just had some half-hearted attempt at renovation. The sign was relatively new, the yellow "Motel" neon shining brightly, and the red "Vacancy" sign lit. The office occupied the end of the L-shaped building nearest the road. Yellow light spilled out of the windows and two of the fourteen rooms. The two freezing salesmen dashed inside the office.
"Blessed heat!" Fred exclaimed, warming his numb hands over a hot radiator.
"Evenin'. You cats need a place to stay?" It was a young male voice, and when Fred turned to see who spoke, he saw someone who had apparently spent too much time around Beats but not enough to really know how they dressed. He wore a black beret, black sweater, and had a wispy goatee. "We offer very reasonable rates."
"We're just glad you're here. Our car broke down up the road about a mile," Fred explained. The kid appeared to be between sixteen and nineteen. But it wasn't unusual for someone his age to staff the front counter. "Do you have a phone? We need to call a tow truck tomorrow."
The faux beatnik looked apologetic. "Our communications are on the fritz. Sorry."
"Maybe we can catch a ride from someone?" Bruce suggested.
"We can probably accommodate you somehow," the boy replied. "How's about a room? We have very reasonable rates. Eight bucks a night."
"You're kidding, right?" Fred sputtered. "That's..."
"Look, I'm still remodeling the place, okay?" the boy continued. "Where else you going to go on a night like this? Take it or leave it. You cats want your own rooms?"
"We'll share a room," Bruce said, sounding as friendly as ever. "I don't mind sleeping on the floor if you don't mind letting us."
The young innkeeper shrugged. "Suit yourselves, dudes. I'll send over some blankets. Sign the register and you'll get Room Six. That's right in the elbow."
Bruce and Fred reluctantly went back out into the cold. It was getting near twilight, and the sky above was crystal clear. There was a slight breeze once more, making a snowy haze nearer the ground. The elk bugled again in the distance as the two men hurried down to their room and unlocked it. The inside was the same temperature as outside. Bruce quickly turned on the radiator valve, which flooded with a sharp bang. "Why don't we get something to eat while the room warms up?" Bruce suggested.
Fred nodded, still livid about the cost of the room. He couldn't even bring himself to look at it, and followed Bruce towards the diner.
The Pullman diner had seen better days. Apparently few of the renovation dollars had been spent here, or perhaps it was its own business. But the two salesmen had seen worse. The place was a dive, but at least the smells is exuded seemed marginally edible. "Need some coffee," Bruce muttered as he headed for the stairs.
A fragment of conversation stopped him. "...was hoping for cats this time," a young baritone said.
"You always want cats, Ted," an exasperated female voice replied. "You practically meow in your sleep. Can I get some more coffee, Ellie?"
"Sure thing, Terri," a bass voice replied.
"Only took him five damn tries..."the young voice complained irritably.
"Beggars can't be choosers, Theodore," the female voice reproved in a motherly tone.
"Shut up, Terri. Or what are you calling yourself now?" the bass voice strangely referred to as "Ellie" said.
"Look, go easy on her," a fourth voice said sternly. "It's only, like, her second time this way." Then, more gently, "You'll get used to it."
Bruce chose that moment to launch himself up the rickety stairs and enter, curiosity overcoming the desire to eavesdrop on the strange conversation. But it was like a switch had been thrown, and he was a little shocked at the tableau. The burly, aproned man behind the counter reminded him of a younger Curly Howard with a scruffy beard. There were a half dozen stools and a total of four two-seat booths against the wall. A young, thin man of about twenty dressed in jeans and a leather jacket occupied one of the stools while a middle-aged couple sat in a booth. Upon entering it was like a switch had been thrown, as they all faced the newcomers.
"Evening, gents," the man behind the counter said. "What can I git ya?" His voice had a mid-western accent now that it didn't before.
"Coffee, black, if you don't mind," Bruce replied, sitting down on the stool nearest the door. "And I'll have a burger and fries. Fred?"
Fred took a seat next to him, closer to the diner's other customers. "I'll have a Coke," he said. The portly salesman pondered the short, six-item menu on the wall behind the counter. "Liver and onions, if you please."
"Out of liver, sorry," the cook replied. "We're still waiting fer a d'livery. We got steak, though."
He went ahead and ordered steak and onions instead. As the cook started their meals, Fred looked at the other patrons out of the corner of his eye. The middle-aged couple were talking as quietly as possible, the man gently grasping the attractive woman's hand. They were both well-dressed, and their manner said husband-and-wife. The young man, on the other hand, looked like a James Dean fan. He wasn't paying attention to anything but the clock on the wall.
"You guys just passin' through?" the cook asked. "Or are you stayin' the night?"
"Our car broke down about a mile up the road," Bruce said. "Got a flat, a bent wheel, and a flat spare."
"Oh, you poor dears! Stranded out here in this frigid weather!" the woman said. She looked like a grade school teacher. She wore a heavy, ankle-length navy blue dress, with her dark hair up in a bun, and glasses. She was probably nearly forty. "Did you walk all that way without your suitcases?"
Bruce doffed his hat, then nodded. "Yes, ma'am. We left our merchandise in the car, too. We'd be much obliged if someone here could lend us a hand and grab a few things." He spoke in the tone of voice Fred called "Full Sale". The man could sell iceboxes to Eskimos if he'd really put his mind to it. But for whatever reason, he seldom did.
The woman clasped her husband's hands tightly. "Can you give these gentlemen a ride back to their car, Jerry? We can't have them staying here without their things."
The iron-haired man was the only one who hadn't spoken yet. He spoke with a heavy Southern accent. "Shuah thing, dalin'. Be happy to."
"We're much obliged to you, sir. Our thanks," Fred said.
Fred braced himself for the awfulness of the coming meal. The grill the steak and burger were frying on looked like it hadn't been cleaned in years. Though the heat was pleasant, he could smell the steak charring even as the cook turned to pour coffee from a percolator into a mug for Bruce. The younger salesmen nodded thanks, then took a sip. Grunting, he pursed his lips but managed to choke out a smile of thanks. "Good and strong, but a little bitter."
"This ain't Starbucks, mister," the cook said.
"Starwhat?" Bruce said.
The bald cook's eyes widened. "Er... one of those long hair coffee shops. I got cream and sugar if you want it."
"Just black, thanks."
Unfortunately the coffee wasn't the only thing black. When the burger was finished it looked almost like charcoal, though the bun looked fresh enough. Bruce smiled like the wheedling salesmen he could be, and took a bite. The meat crunched audibly from all the burnt bits from the grill. Fred watched with growing concern as the darkening steak was smothered in onions. They smelled like very fresh onions, but no cut of meat, no matter how cheap, deserved what the bald cook was doing to it.
Leather Jacket left his stool and went outside, where he stood facing what Fred estimated was southwest in the deepening twilight. He shaded his eyes and looked intently towards the horizon. "What's he doing?" Fred asked.
"Sputnik," the woman's husband said. He took off his wide-brimmed hat and fanned himself with it. The grill put out a lot of heat. "It's all he's been talking about for days. Wants to see it fly over." The kindly iron-haired man seemed to have lost his accent. "What do you think about it, friend?"
Fred shrugged as his steak and onions were finally placed in front of him, along with a bottle of Coca Cola. "The whole country's gone space crazy because the Russkies put a garbage can in orbit. Panicking about it isn't going to help. We'll catch up. We'll do better!" He surveyed his meal. The t-bone steak was certainly well done. "Looks good, mister...?"
"Jones," the cook said with a fractured, not-too-friendly smile. He waved the spatula at him. "And I ain't buying what yer sellin'! I know your type. See you salesmen in here alla time."
Fred sighed and picked up his fork and knife. I hate my job sometimes, he thought. "I'm not going to try and sell you anything, Mr. Jones. I'm just going to sit here and eat my steak. I've had a long day."
Bruce finished his burger quickly, chowing down with gusto and finishing his fries. After taking a few bites of his blackened, dry steak and trying to choke it down, Fred marveled at his friend's iron stomach. He's going to pay for that later. He picked up the bottle of Coke and took a sip, and nearly choked himself. It tasted syrupy and sickly sweet. Yuck! What the hell? He examined the bottle closely. The logo was different, and when he tapped the bottle on the counter, it didn't clink like glass.
The cook snatched it out of his hands and replaced it with the familiar 8-ounce glass bottle. "Sorry 'bout that. Old batch."
Finished eating, Bruce put his hand on his partner's shoulder. "I'm going to take that gentleman up on his offer and bring all our things from the car. You want to come along?"
Fred shook his head. "Don't think so. I'll wait for you in the room after I finish eating."
Outside the diner, Leather Jacket whooped and started jumping up and down.
"Commie," Fred snorted.
The old tabletop radio put out more heat than the radiator, the hum of the vacuum tubes and glow behind the faceplate a familiar comfort to both men on a cold late autumn night. For all they could have listened to one of their own tiny transistor radios, the sound from the tabletop seemed warmer. There was just one problem. "Can't find any stations on this dial," Bruce complained. There was only static.
Fred was already into some paperwork. "Leave it on anyway. That radiator's useless." He dipped his fountain pen into the inkwell and wrote a detailed account of getting the flat tire. The company was supposed to reimburse them for any expenses like that. The portly salesman looked at his partner. "So, no sale?"
Bruce frowned. "I already told you Mr. Clemens has two of our radios already. I didn't want to annoy him too much, so I dropped the sales pitch right away. Okay? I know we're nowhere near quota this month..."
"They pretty much threw our asses north, Bruce. They gave us this list of prospects and a kick in the ass! I think we need to look for another line of work, buddy." Fred calmly re-capped the inkwell and cleaned off the page with a blotter. He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, I'm just a little tense."
"You need to read something. Relax, Freddo! Here." He opened his suitcase and took out a book and several magazines. "I got some Astounding Science Fiction and this... here, have a look." He handed over the hefty tome.
"The Lord of the Rings? Geez, it weighs a ton! What's it about?"
Bruce, dressed in his undershirt and pajama bottoms, sat down on the bed. "Sword and sorcery. Magic, mayhem, and a ring of doom! Well, I'm maybe halfway through. The prose is damned thick at times, but I just can't stop reading." He smirked. "You can look at the Playboy again, too. For the articles, of course."
"Of course," Fred replied tersely.
"C'mon, Sara, you're such a prude sometimes..." a look of confusion came across Bruce's face. "Did I just call you 'Sara?'"
"Yes, you did," Fred replied. But he couldn't help laughing and slapped Bruce on his knee. "You've got girls on the brain, my friend. Who's that, an old girlfriend?"
The man combed his short black hair back with his fingernails. "Uh... yeah, yeah. Redhead. Great gams. Um... Maybe I need sleep. How's your head S... Fred?"
It lasted an instant, or maybe an eternity. One second, or an hour, or a year. The air shattered into a million mirror shards as the two men's flesh writhed and convulsed. Fred watched as Bruce's hair lightened from black to a golden blond, then grew so swiftly it spilled down over his narrowing shoulders and swelling chest. His face rippled and then there was a startled young woman staring back at... him?
Waves passed over Fred as well, melting away the fat, but also changing his nightclothes in the process. He watched in astonishment as his chest began to swell, and further down, a contraction that made him want to keel over with a whimper. All accompanied by a white noise in his head that momentary blotted out all thought.
"Um..." Lacey gasped. "Sara? What just happened?"
Sara searched for some sort of explanation. Nothing felt right and she couldn't put her finger on why. She pushed tangled light brown hair out of her eyes. "I have no idea. I feel... kind of crowded. In my head."
The blond woman frowned. "Me, too. What in the world..." Then it was like a switch had been thrown, and her expression became a mask of panic. She stared down at herself as if she'd never seen her own breasts before and yelped. "I'm... I'm a wo... You're a... a wom..."
"Woman? Yeeess..?" Sara said, confused and concerned. "It's not like we could've gotten that total rebuild, Lacey. Not legally, anyway. Besides, I just can't imagine myself as a m...uh." Then the wall came down in her mind, too. She started trembling and grasped the back of the chair tightly so she didn't slide off. Of course I can imagine myself as a man! I was one five minutes ago! "This is impossible! We're having a.. a nightmare or something!"
"Yours or mine? If this is yours I'm going to be really upset," Bruce replied, frowning. She cupped her half-exposed breasts, then gave herself a pinch. "But these feel damned real to me," she hissed. "Ow! That should have woken me up."
"It's hot in here," Fred mumbled miserably. "Where's that climate control..."
With a soft beep a holographic thermometer appeared in midair in front of her, along with some basic climate controls: temperature, humidity, air movement. "Settings as requested. Please specify," a lilting female voice said from a grille in the ceiling.
The two new women stared at each other, then looked around the room. "Okaaaaaay, so we're not the only ones who changed. What happened to our things?"
Oddly enough, the tabletop radio was still there. But Bruce's open suitcase now had a bikini top hanging over the edge and had a flower print rather than the serviceable black it was before. Fred-cum-Sara's suitcase was even worse; it had turned pink. The merchandise cases were also still there, but Fred was certain that they no longer sold transistor radios.
As for the rest of the room, it hadn't really changed much. It was supposed to be very retro decor. That word both made no sense and perfect sense at the same time.
"What the hell am I wearing?" Bruce said. A long, sleek gown clung to her attractive curves. She stared at her mostly exposed cleavage, then hooked her finger over the edge for a better view. The blond woman shut her eyes tightly and cupped her breasts a few times before running her hands down her wide hips. "That feels kind of... er... tingly. Are you okay, Sara?"
"Don't call me that! Why the hell are you calling me that?" Fred retorted. "We're supposed to be two radio salesmen from Denver not... not flouncing around in women's clothing," Fred replied, trying to keep herself from panicking. "And it's not supposed to fit!" She sighed deeply and folded her arms awkwardly under her breasts.
A few minutes of silence passed, unsure what to do next. "We're not the only weird change around here," Bruce finally said. She stood up, a little unsteadily, and poked her finger into the hologram controls. She dragged it up the air circulation speed slider, and a growing breeze ruffled their long hair and nightclothes. "Okay, so this isn't a hallucination, either. Let's cool it off in here." She switched off the radio.
Fred stood up and started looking through the clothes in her suitcase. "I'm going to get dressed. There's no way I'm sleeping keyed up like this. It's too weird!"
Bruce sighed. "I need some coffee or something. I'm all twisted up inside."
"Twenty-four hour service is available at the automat cafe," the room's helpful voice said.
"That settles it. I need some decent coffee! I'll just throw something on..." She started rummaging through her suitcase and took out a short, light blue summer dress. "My kingdom for a stupid pair of pants! I'll just have to wear this. I'll dress in the bathroom. Let me know when you're finished here."
Fred got as far as dropping the straps over her shoulders before she froze. The "new" woman shut her eyes tightly and whimpered. Bruce found her that way ten minutes later. "What's wrong?"
"I can't undress! It's indecent!" Fred exclaimed.
The blue-eyed blond snorted. "After the hours you spent looking at those nude girls? They're your breasts, honey. You're rather attached to them. Believe me, I know what you're going through."
Fred shook her head. "This isn't real. It's just... too crazy. I'm asleep and having a nightmare. It's that charcoal steak." She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the wall. "Why the hell are you so calm?"
Her longtime partner shrugged and smoothed the front of her calf-length dress. "It's weird, I'll grant you. Hell, I had to tear myself away from my reflection. And it took a few tries before I figured out how to put this thing on. But you know what? I'm way beyond panic right now. I just want a cup of joe and maybe a pastry." She gave Fred an comforting hug that Bruce would never have done before. But it felt right, for some reason. "Maintain an even strain. I'll stay in the bathroom until you've put something on. You obviously can't go out in that see-through chemise."
Giving herself a mental shove, Fred looked through her suitcase of carefully folded clothing. Like Bruce's there wasn't a single pair of pants. Just blouses, skirts, and dresses, all taking up a surprisingly small amount of room. She finally picked out something similar to what Bruce had chosen and got into it as quickly as possible. She smoothed down the front of the knee-length, belted dress. "Um... okay, I'm finished. But isn't it winter out there?"
Bruce came out of the restroom. "If we've changed into women, why can't it be summer? Let's go."
The dank humidity of a late summer night hit both of them. Insects buzzed insistently and the electroluminescent motel sign was angled upwards. Instead of "steam heat" the sign proclaimed: "AI Climate Control". Both new women gawked at the cars in the parking lot, illuminated by the lighting along the edge of the building. Both were now far more streamlined, the round headlights mounted flush against the smooth curves of the fenders. The wheels were larger, and seemed bulkier than before.
It was as if someone had seen a Bel Air and made it look like something that could fly.
"Look at that!" Bruce exclaimed.
Fred looked up to see what her partner was so startled about. It was impossible to miss, and equally impossible that it was natural. On the southern horizon, rising just southeast, was a string of lights going up... up... up into the starry night, impossibly tall.
"The Brazil Beanstalk," a mature female voice said. "Beautiful this time of night. Can't sleep either, Lacey?" The woman was physically as perfect as any female could be. She also showed a scandalous amount of skin, wearing only an old-fashioned string bikini in the hot, sultry air. She had flaming red hair that clung wetly to her shoulders. "I hope Sara is feeling better. She looks a little pale."
"I'm feeling a little peaked," Fred said self consciously, realizing she'd completely forgotten a bra. The words came to her lips unbidden, they were just there. "I just wanted some iced tea. The room dispenser is just awful."
"My treat," the woman replied with a friendly smile. "Let's try the diner. I hate to say it, but the automat at this time of night is better without Ellie doing the cooking."
It was no longer an old Pullman diner, but an equally tiny ground-level coffee shop with a few tables and an automat food and beverage machine in the corner. "Iced coffee, mocha," she said. The dispenser machine looked like the picture of a UNIVAC computer Sara had seen in a magazine, with a series of blinking lights flashing in shifting patterns. A three dimensional picture of the beverage floated in the air with a question mark above it. The woman rolled her eyes and hit the wall once. "No, I said iced coffee, not chai!"
With a bing! the picture changed, and she waved her hand over the physical "confirm" button that glowed red. Ten seconds later a small door slid open and she took out a tall plastic cup. "It's always something, isn't it? You'll have to be firm with this thing. The AI is pretty senile."
Bruce just nodded, but it was impossible to hide her look of surprise. "Um... yes. Of course." She tapped the wall with her knuckles. "Coffee, black, thank you." The image shown was a hot fudge sundae. "I said coffee, black." It was replaced by a Styrofoam cup and a thick black liquid. "That better be coffee. Accept." After hitting the button the door slid open and she took out her steaming cup. "Fr... Sara? Your turn."
She ordered an iced tea because it was the first thing that came to mind. But it took the machine two tries to actually give her what she wanted. She then joined her partner and the bikini-clad woman at a round table, whose name Fred finally--somehow--remembered was called Georgia, as if they had already met.
At that moment someone else barged in. A girl about the same age as the boy at the front counter the day before. She started dancing around the floor, long black hair and dress making long sweeps as she gyrated her hips around. She was dressed more conservatively than even Fred and Bruce were. "I did it! I did it! Did it, did it, did it!" she chanted. "Got it in one! One try! Who's your daddy?"
Georgia looked sideways at the other women, then took a sip of her iced coffee. "I think you're a mommy right now, boss. Or hadn't you noticed?"
"I'm cool with that," she replied, all smiles, eyes sparkling. In fact, her hair literally sparkled in the dimly-lit cafe. "I think everybody got switched on this one. Boys-to-girls and girls-to-boys, baybee!" She smiled at the two formerly male salesmen. "C'mon, girls. Have some fun. Change is the spice of life!"
Fred and Bruce gaped at each other. Fred cleared her throat and stood up. "Okay, can somebody explain just what the hell is going on here? Please? We thought we were just going nuts."
The teenaged girl stopped dancing and, still smiling like a sunrise, headed back for the door. "Welcome aboard the tour bus, sisters. This is the next stop on the Grand Space-Time Tour. Enjoy the ride. I think I'm going to swim in the sweet pools of estrogen for a while. Tootles!"
Speechless, the two new women stared after her as she swept back out again. "'Tootles'?" Fred sputtered. She looked at Georgia. "Not to be rude or anything, but spill. Just what have we gotten ourselves into? What did this place do to us? We're not supposed to be women!"
Georgia sighed. "I was trying to break it to you gently, but the boss had other ideas. She always does. I'll be as jargon-free as I can." She looked at both of them seriously. "Bluntly, you're women because in this world, you're supposed to be women. The Motel has to sidle us into these places somehow so we can't exactly pick our gender--the universe does that. It's all very quantum. But the Motel provides us with jobs and a history. When your car's fixed you can just leave and be done with us."
"We can't go back to what we were?" Fred asked incredulously.
"I'm afraid the boss isn't a very good driver. She doesn't really know how it works. But believe me, compared to some places and some things we've been, this is very tame. The really important thing is that you get new bodies and enough local knowledge to function, but you're still who you are. Same personality, a similar personal history, similar profession, yadda yadda. So if you really like it here, or can't afford to stay longer at the Motel, it's fairly easy to adjust. At least... it's supposed to be. Some guests simply can't deal with it." She shrugged helplessly. "But what can you do, eh?"
Georgia took a sip of her coffee. "That's the basics. There really isn't much more to it. Except the boss could decide to stay here for a month or two on a whim. She hasn't been a human female in a while, so I think we're stuck here for the time being."
"That's horrible!" Fred exclaimed. "Is she as old as she looks?"
"Just turned the equivalent of eighteen. I think her parents--whatever and wherever they are--gave the place to her. Now she's skating across the multiverse and bringing anyone who happens to find the place along for the ride." She shrugged. "Sorry if I don't seem very sympathetic, ladies. I just work here. But you'll just have to adapt like the rest of us.
"But I'm very willing to instruct how to access the knowledge you've been given."
From outside came a growing humming noise that sounded vaguely like a gasoline engine. Fred/Sara looked out the window in time to see a sleek, sports car-like shape rise from behind the building. On the bottom was a dazzling disc of blue light. Its red-glowing wheels rotating from vertical downwards to horizontal, their color changing swiftly to a healthier blue. It zoomed off towards the Beanstalk to the south. Georgia nonchalantly sipped more coffee. "No telling when she'll be back when she gets like this. Good coffee, though."
The duo finally returned to their room around three in the morning, tired, subdued, and more than a little depressed. Georgia had obviously explained things before to Motel guests with widely varying reactions. But it was clear to both "new" women that they had some very tough choices to make.
"We can't stay in the Motel longer than it takes to get the car fixed," Bruce said. "The company--if it's anything like the one we worked for way-back-when--will just fire us on the spot if we stay. Theft of company property, too. Jail time, Freddo."
"I... I don't know if I can do what she taught us," Fred stammered. "But we sell... what'd she call it? Smart clothes and wetware upgrades? What the hell are those?"
Bruce shook her head. "I don't know what those things are, either. But I don't think we're going to keep our jobs for very long unless we put those 'zen' things she showed us into practice." She smirked. "You were doing pretty well as Sara, Freddo. I could hardly tell it was you."
The brunette blushed a little. It was actually sort of fun, though she'd never admit it to Bruce. "That's what worries me."
"I don't see any harm in giving this a try. It won't be easy, but... who knows where this place will go next." Bruce grimaced, then shuddered. "What was that one world she talked about? Giant slug-things? I don't want to risk ending up something worse with that kid driving the bus. I think we should take our chances here."
"You have a point," Fred sighed. She sat down on the bed and fidgeted in her dress. "But I'm not going to like it as it is. I feel like a complete pervert. No man should ever know what this is really like." She crossed her legs and blushed redder.
"I think of it as putting Kinsey's observations to the test. Firsthand." Bruce raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you won't go to the bathroom to piss."
Fred looked absolutely miserable and was near to bursting. "I'm not kidding when I say it's indecent. Obscene, even. I can't even describe what I feel down there, okay? But I still don't want anything to do with it."
"If you don't then you'll just pee all over the floor. I don't think the housekeepers will appreciate that. I know I won't. So try putting the mask on. Let Sara take care of business."
The shorter brunette just looked more intently at her feet. Bruce snorted. "There's nothing to worry about. Here, let me show you." There was a palpably different expression on the blond woman's pretty face. Even her tone of voice changed. "C'mon, Sar... Fred. It's still me in here. Let Sara out. Then we need to get some sleep. Long day tomorrow."
Georgia had described it like surfing an avalanche, like controlling a dammed river by selectively opening certain floodgates. It was an easy skill to learn, but hard to master. You only needed to open the gates for certain types of knowledge, because if you opened them all the resulting flood would simply erode away the old self. What she found hard to tell her partner was that the two times she had done so already it was very hard to close those gates again. Bruce/Lacey didn't seem to have that problem at all.
All she needed was a trickle of peace of mind before she got a real trickle down her leg. Fred held back a momentary surge of renewed panic, then shut her eyes.
Sara sprinted into the bathroom.
"I haven't seen one of these hub grav units in five years!" the small town mechanic exclaimed. "Company car, huh? Studebaker? They must've kept it flying with bubble gum and CAT5 cables. One cruise-plate burns out and the car can't stay airborne."
"But can you fix it?" Lacey asked again. The man couldn't keep his eyes off her chest and spoke to her rather condescendingly. "I have my company credit account. They'll pay for it." A web page came up on her HUD glasses. "There's a 'net auction..."
"What you really need," the mechanic wheedled, "is a complete grav system rebuild. You'll get far better performance, especially in your rate of climb when we replace those ventral booster-plates. But you don't need to worry your pretty head about the technical details. Here's the estimate."
A number and invoice flashed on Lacey's HUD glasses. Her outrage turned white hot. That... that *man* is trying to hustle me! "I'm going to have to call my company," she sputtered. The price was just outrageous!
"You do that, Miss Rogers. But you don't have many real options here," the mechanic wheedled. "That includes towing expenses. We're going to need special clamps to bring it in. The work should take a couple days at the most."
Yeah, right. I know that tone. We'll be here for a week while you find more and more things wrong with it. She left the garage and placed a finger on her ear. "Did you get all that, Mary?"
"Yes, I got it," their supervisor replied irritably. "And it's complete bullpucky. I have a dozen replacements in the company garage. I'm sorry the spare was a dud, hon. Really, we're normally better than that."
"You know the old saw about women and cars," Lacey replied half-jokingly. Their employer was an all-female-run business, which the implanted knowledge told Lacey was a rarity, much like the world they had left. "But the short burned out the whole power system. We were lucky we hit the ground as softly as we did."
Mary's middle-aged visage appeared in the upper right hand corner of the HUD. "That's what he said, Lacey. The car is fine. I'm more concerned about the knock Sara got on her head. Is she getting it looked at? The biometrics I'm getting from her dress are a little funny."
The blond considered her response. "We're still rather shaken. Can we get a couple days off?"
"I've already dispatched a replacement car on AI pilot for you girls. You have until it arrives," Mary replied levelly. "Don't try that Full Sale tone on me, Lacey. You're on probation as it is. Get moving as soon as you can. You need to be in Calgary by Friday." Their boss hung up.
"She sounds exactly like Harvey," Sara observed, arms folded across her chest. She chuckled. "Same temper and everything."
"No kidding. Sheesh." Lacey thumbed her dress's built-in climate controls against the brutal heat. Both of their outfits were Merchandise. The company said that the best way to sell it was to model it. With that in mind, both women had spent some of their meager savings and gotten bodysculpted to perfection. She checked the ETA on her watch. "The replacement car should be here in a few hours. It's coming all the way from Chicago. Sara?"
Sara was looking at the handsome young men clustered around the front of the café across the street. But none of them were actually looking at her. It was Georgia they ogled. Every female in town except her wore knee-length dresses or longer, had long hair, and a modicum of makeup. Georgia was in a skin-tight, single-piece fabric outfit that while it technically covered all of her skin, had other issues. "What a... a... You can see everything!"
"Still, she's a nice girl. Really knows how to strut her stuff," Lacey replied. "Frankly, I wouldn't mind having an outfit like that. I'd look good in a catsuit with this new bod of mine. We could learn a thing or two."
New Greeley only resembled the town they had passed though the day before--at least in subjective time--on a superficial level. That Greeley had been a farm community surrounded by vast fields of wheat. This one was ringed by automated bubble farms cultivating something green that bubbled in tanks. Sara was unwilling to ask much of her female persona just yet. But there was a phrase bobbing at the top.
She was nearly bowled over by a child on a hoverboard. "Out of the way!" the young boy shouted. He was chased immediately by a half dozen of his friends. There were children everywhere, and now that she really looked, few women on the street weren't in some stage of pregnancy. Nannies herded crowds of children into an out of buildings. The town center didn't resemble anything that could have a real history. Everything had obviously been built at the same time, from the same set of plans. All for one purpose: The raising of children. "It's a Crèche Community."
Curious, she queried her HUD. World population was much less than a billion. Less than a third of the world she'd left. "Holyee... What year is this?"
Lacey put her hand on her shoulder. "Does it matter? There's a doctor's office down the street. We need to get your head looked at."
If there was any place that reminded Sara that she was no longer where, when, and most importantly, what she had been, it was the doctor's office. On the inside they dropped all pretense at emulating the 1950s, something she had suspected but hadn't been willing to delve too deeply into her reservoir of feminine memories. The examination room, where she was made to disrobe and stand in a full-body scanning machine, was a humiliating experience. "Tell me again why I can't even wear a hospital gown?" she asked.
"We reviewed your file, Miss Granger, and found that you were due for your three-month post-bodysculpting exam," the doctor said. "You'll be happy to know that the medical nanites used for that procedure are being flushed from your body on schedule. You should be able to get your old eye HUD and interface implants when they're gone."
Sara opened the mental dam a little more so she knew what the old doctor was talking about. "Oh, that's wonderful. Glad to hear it. I feel naked without them. How about my head?"
"Mild concussion. I'll prescribe a painkiller. Otherwise, you're fine. But I would like to bring up another topic, if I could. You can put on your SmartDress and glasses, if you wish."
Now that the female persona was more fully in control, Sara knew what was about to be discussed. She touched up her makeup and put on the most saleswoman-like expression she could conjure up. With the doctor sitting behind his desk, holoscreen of text and images--of herself, she noticed--she sat down primly. "What did you have in mind, Doctor?"
"You're nearly twenty five, Miss Granger. You have a brand new--and quite attractive--figure. It's really quite lovely. You should have no trouble finding a husband," he said. He brought up a side-by-side comparison between her old body and the new. Before the bodysculpting Sara had been shorter, and had gotten an extra helping in the thigh department and very little in the breasts. Her face was little changed, though her cheekbones were reset, and her nose had been tweaked. She easily surpassed the Playboy models Fred had obsessed over. "You took advantage of the subsidy to get that body. Clearly you had finding a husband in mind."
Sara shrugged, and waded mentally a little deeper. "It's not like I've never had a lasting relationship. They were just never Mr. Right."
The doctor pursed his lips. "You have turned down no less than three marriage proposals, Sara."
"All the men my age are already taken," she pointed out matter-of-factly.
"Hmm... yes, the demographic trends are somewhat troubling. But divorces do happen, Sara. Rarely, to be sure. The State has a good matchmaking service."
The arguments were all familiar ones, and the doctor wasn't a very good salesman. Sara had heard it all before. She sat there, smiled and nodded where appropriate, and only half-listened. At least until something new did come up.
"You can't be happy being a traveling saleswoman. It's not exactly a stable existence, flying from city to city. If you can't get married, there is always the need for teachers and childcare experts. We all know that women are the most suited for a nurturing role," he said condescendingly. "Women who truly have no prospect of marriage are granted a full one-fifth vote if they choose those natural professions. You see, we recognize times are changing..."
Getting too hot under the collar to maintain her even temper, Sara rose to leave. "I'm sorry, Doctor. I have other things I need to be doing."
"Times are changing," he repeated firmly. There was a script of some kind and he wasn't about to deviate from it. Single women like Sara were more and more common these days. "The Government has even authorized self-insemination and financial support in limited..."
Sara smiled and waved cheerfully, but spoke stiff and terse. "I've heard enough, Doctor. Thank you. As reluctant I've been to find a husband, I'm not about to have a child out of wedlock. Good day!"
When Sara stormed out of the doctor's office she met a cheerful Lacey, whose sunny smile turned to concern once she saw the dark look on her partner's beautiful face. She grasped Sara's free hand, the other held her purse in a way that suggested whoever angered her next would come to harm. "Bad news?"
"I'll tell you about it later. You, at least, looked cheerful," Sara replied.
"I sold two dresses in that waiting room," Lacey said, dancing a little on the sidewalk. "I think I took the edge off of Mary's bitching when she received the orders."
The brunette giggled in delight. "That makes my day!"
Both of their watches and HUDs beeped at the same time. Looking up, they saw the eight glowing grav plates that composed an older Studebaker's antigravity systems. With their mottled hues and noise it was easy enough to tell they were refurbished. Newer aircars had a much more powerful single booster-plate to assist with take offs and landings, instead of the four-square. The wheel cruise-plates were larger, too. Bigger emitters could create more acceleration.
This Studebaker was only barely airworthy and had expended all its fuel trying to get to the two saleswomen. Once the wheels rotated to ground mode they could finally unplug their ears as the emitters powered down. "On the other hand, looking at that makes me miserable again. What a piece of junk!" Sara exclaimed. "Where's Georgia, anyway?"
"I just sent her a ping. Neck deep in men. She wants us to join her," Lacey replied eagerly. From her expression she clearly wanted to do so. "You can go back to the Motel if you want and get us checked out. I'll follow along..."
Sara pursed her lips, and opened the floodgates a little more. Fred's experiences waded more deeply into the shallows. She tugged on Lacey's elbow. "Oh, no you don't. I know what happens at those Wallflower Parties. I'll never pry you away from there. We need to get going, Lacey. I'll call Georgia back..."
The redhead's image appeared in their HUDs. "I take it you've made a decision, girls?" she asked.
"Looks like we've decided to stay," Sara informed her, trying to sound positive about it despite what she had just experienced. "I'm actually feeling better about this being female thing. I think we can tough it out."
"Can you?" she replied skeptically. "I can't say I haven't heard that before, and in places more mundane than this. I imagine that the boss will gad about until she has her first period. That always grosses her out. Don't roam too far, okay? I'll try and let you know when she gets back. Good luck, girls. Enjoy the Future. I mean that sincerely. Ellie will check you out."
Lacey and Sara looked at their current dilapidated mode of transportation, then at Georgia's fancy, finned red-and-white Bel Air. "I'll drive," Lacey said.
Whatever had happened in the past few hundred years, the political map no longer resembled the world they had left. Much of the southern former United States was a vast, barely-habitable desert, though currently it was undergoing swift rehabilitation as algae farms pulled more and more carbon dioxide out of the air. Somehow the scaled-up "Studebaker" ran on the stuff, though Fred didn't feel like investigating things too closely as yet. As the aircar flew northwards in the low-altitude slow lane, she rotated her seat to face Lacey. "You can close the gates, Bruce. I think we both deserve a break."
"I'm fine," Lacey said, examining her red-polished nails. "It's easier for me just to keep the mask up. Besides, it's kind of fun. It's like being the perfect drag queen. How are you holding up?"
Fred shuddered. Bruce had always been into some weird stuff during his off time. But Fred had never pried. "It's only been a day and I feel like I've been Sara for years already. I think I went a little too deep."
Lacey shrugged. "Mm. You're doing fine. You braved the doctor with aplomb, the jerk."
Her eyes lost focus for a moment as she looked at some image on her HUD. "These glasses are so clumsy! I wish we were allowed more than basic implants, you know? All women get are corneal HUDs, external interfaces, and a little wetware."
Fred was forced to bring up Sara again in order to respond with other than confusion. "Of course not. More powerful cortex implants might upset our delicate biological balance and damage our ability as childbearers," she said derisively. "Why do you think we sell SmartClothes, Lacey?"
The blond shut her eyes. Bruce retreated a little further. "Right, right. Duh." She checked the aircar's dashboard. Unlike the exterior of the car, the designers had made a completely modern seamless set of touch screens, all sorts of maps, and vehicle condition indicators. There was one stubborn warning light that kept flickering from green to yellow. "'Completely mechanically sound,' Mary said. But fast? No."
The twenty year old aircar could barely manage two hundred kilometers an hour carrying people and their luggage. Almost anything newer could go much faster than that. As the crow flew, they were about 1,500 kilometers to Calgary from Greeley. The flight was going to take all day, in the best circumstances.
From the look of the thunderheads starting to build along their flight route, today wasn't going to cooperate.
Despite their instrumentation, no aircar could fly in turbulent weather like this, so there was still a decent road network on the ground. As a weather alert flashed on the car's central console, the AI autopilot took over and started the landing sequence. "Just great," Lacey said as the steering yoke automatically retracted into the dashboard. She pinged Mary. "We've got weather delays."
"I see." There was a pause of a few minutes on the other end as their boss looked for options. "Well, you're about twenty miles from New Billings. That's our competitor's territory, so you'll have to be discreet. But there are a couple of prospects there who have expressed a preference for our products over theirs," Mary said hesitantly. "It's a bit of a risk... but if you girls can manage a sale here you'll be in my good graces again."
Since there were few career choices for women outside of secretarial work, teaching, and childcare, Lacey listened closely. "We'll give it a try, Mary."
"Good!" the older woman replied. She appeared to be about Sara's age and had tight black curls and an aquiline, somewhat angular face, though she had the best figure money could buy. Her modest makeup had the sameness day-to-day of something applied by a machine. But she didn't disconnect right away. "Could you girls give me some woman-to-woman advice?" she said nervously.
Here it comes, Sara thought, though she couldn't imagine just what exactly was coming. It seemed like a strange turn of phrase to say the least, coming from their supervisor. "I suppose so."
"I don't know if you girls ever figured this out, but..." she sighed. "I've only been a woman three years, and I'm completely stumped on how to find a husband. I've gotten all the maternal and resocialization wetware I could find, but I just don't understand what I'm doing wrong. Even my support group is flummoxed."
Sara covered her mouth with her hand, trying her best not to laugh while muting her microphone. Given their current situation she was having a lot of trouble having any sympathy for her boss, though she had honestly not suspected what her history was. Oh, God. This is really mean of me.
Stranger still was just why a man in this society would choose to become a woman anyway, but that would bear investigation later. It sounded very peculiar indeed. "Have you ever considered that there just aren't enough men out there to court you?" Sara said gently.
"It was a cunt or a casket. I was a hundred year old man with five grown children, and a widower," she replied defensively. "They gave me eighty years of life back, and the procedure was cheap. How could I possibly pass that up? I'm as much a woman as you are!"
"It's okay, it's okay. Of course you are," Lacey interjected, though an unkind animated emoticon in Sara's HUD said otherwise. "I honestly never suspected anything. We'll help where we can, Mary. But I would ask a favor in exchange."
"Oh?" she replied, eyes narrowing. "What?"
"This is Bolger territory we're driving into," Lacey replied as the aircar touched down on the highway with a gentle bump. "These guys don't care that we're members of the fairer sex. They'll hound us out of town if their sniffers discover we're here on the local net."
"Let me worry about that. Your prospect is actually a member of my support group. Rather eccentric couple, and wealthy. Rhonda sent me a list of special orders and I'm feeding them into the fabber in your trunk. She's practically sold already. Just wants you girls to model them for her before we have it wrapped up."
"Mary, we want you to take the heat off us if something bad does happen," Lacey insisted.
Mary sighed, running her delicate fingers through her mane of tight curls. "Fine, I'll do that. I'll even give you a private key so you can prove it. But I'll need to up the ante. How about a Girls' Night Out?"
Sara shut her eyes and winced, but forced herself to nod. The rain had already started, from sprinkles to heavy downpour within seconds. "Okay, okay. You're right, this is your butt on the line, too. We'll do it." When Mary disconnected, she looked at her partner. "Just when I thought this place couldn't get any weirder."
Like New Greeley before it, New Billings was of very recent construction. It was practically the only town of any size in what used to be Montana. But it was a proper town instead of the laser-focused purpose of the place they had left that afternoon. But before they could arrive at the Customer's home, they had to find somewhere to change clothes.
Sara grimaced at the designs of what Mary wanted her to wear. "Where did they find these... miniskirts? I don't remember anything like them being fashionable, even back in our time." The fabber was using the highest-grade compu-weave available. In order to even get close to the standard smartdress in terms of processing power, it would need it.
"Profile says they're history buffs. Garbage mining?" Lacey said perplexedly. The aircar was driving itself towards a fuel station near the center of town, where narrow brownstones projected an air of quaintness and history that belied their actual age. New Billings had been resettled less than twenty years.
"I can't even find much on this internet thing that has much detail before 2050," she said in a very Bruce-like tone. "There's some large record gaps after, too. I haven't looked too closely yet. It's all very chaotic, huge population die-offs worldwide. Wars, climate change, economic collapse, something called peak oil. It's really, really ugly. Nearly nine billion people down to what? Half a billion? The world is only just recovering."
"Yet they found enough about our 'Fifties' to try and emulate it," Sara replied. The fact that she would be unable to vote until she married rankled, a feeling that ran strongly through Fred as well. Information flashed on her HUD. "Apparently through archeological digs. It's so, so strange. Even with Sara's help I can't make head or tail of this." She clicked her teeth together thoughtfully.
"Second thoughts about staying already?" Lacey asked.
"Not... exactly." A convergence of thoughts were coming together, drawn from both Sara and Fred's experiences. Fred had actually proposed on two occasions, as was expected of men. But he had also broken off both engagements, for reasons that he himself didn't understand. But now the reason was plain as day. Without the insight of being on both sides of the fence, Sara wondered if she would have figured it out. "Work first, though. Let's change."
The house had a wide, sweeping staircase down from the second floor into the large living room that the saleswomen used to model their Merchandise. Rhonda Martinez needed very little convincing, explaining that she had bought a large selection of overpriced Bolger smartclothes "and regretted every minute of it." She hadn't bothered reselling them, preferring not to inflict the malfunctioning garments on less fortunate folk.
All Sara and Lacey had to do was saunter down the staircase once and they were literally purchased right off their backs. "Your trunk fabber is ten times as good as anything Bolger sells," Rhonda complimented. She was full of comments like those. Apparently Mary had spoken very highly of her company's goods.
No, it wasn't the easy selling that made this such a trying experience. Not by a long shot. It was the Customers themselves.
Rhonda and Steven Martinez were among the very few gender-swapped couples on the entire continent. But Rhonda hadn't gone the wetware route to learn all the basic how-tos. When the girls had arrived, she was dressed in an old plaid button shirt, well-worn, and likely an favorite garment from her old self. And her husband was dressed rather effeminately.
And they couldn't keep their hands off each other. They did a lot of necking while the saleswomen changed clothes. The duo often had to wait until they stopped before sauntering out for the next modeling.
The girls spent more time actually teaching Mrs. Martinez what went with what than trying to sell anything. This required some very deep immersion. In Sara's mind, Fred was treading deep water now. And from the faintly worried look on Lacey's face, she had the same problem. That she heard the occasional "Ka-ching!" from Mary every time they changed clothes did not help matters.
"I'm learning everything the hard way," Mrs. Martinez explained, posing in a leather miniskirt and a tube top in front of a mirror. "It's the best way to learn. Far better than any wetware--no offense. Your boss is the perfect example of why it doesn't work very well. Don't get me wrong, Mary is a dear girl. But she really needs to make an effort to get beyond the rote wetware."
There was not a single garment in the whole special order that did not display far too much skin in Sara's estimation, but she modeled it anyway. From tiny dresses, to cleavage-revealing bra tops, to bikinis, and even skin-tight denim trousers that were somehow far more daring than the miniskirts. Everything was from a block of about fifty years, from the 1980s through the 2030s. And every single design had been found in old garbage dumps.
And then there was the house. "The Brady Bunch," Rhonda explained. That's all she needed to say. The TV show's theme song started blaring in Sara's ears loudly enough that she had to damp it down. "It's a quaint design, isn't it? Our children loved it."
Sara looked around the living room. "So this was the 1970s?"
"Well, it's more the last decades of the Twentieth all mashed together," she replied. She tapped a large metal box with a plastic faceplate and a number of slots. A TV tube sat next to it, and a typewriter-like keyboard in front. "This is a reproduction of a personal computer."
Sara's HUD read: Pentium 150 MHz, 32MB RAM... and a number of other mysterious specifications. To her, the idea that this would be the only computing power in an entire house just seemed strange. How did anybody get anything done? But to Fred's distant experiences, it was still amazing, even after seeing the world they were now in. From transistor radios, to millions of them imprinted on a tiny chip of silicon and something called the Internet. All in far less than a human lifetime. "Amazing..."
"We've been able to reconstruct a lot of the Twentieth just with their garbage," Rhonda said. She was very friendly, and delighted with her purchase. "I've published several books on the digs and recycling. I'll upload a copy for you in thanks."
"It'll make for good reading on the way to Calgary," Lacey said. "We really appreciate your business, Mrs. Martinez. From the bottom of our hearts."
"I hope I haven't kept you too long," the youthened former-man replied. "Your boss told me that this is your competitor's territory. I was planning to go to your store in Denver but just never got around to it. I was shocked when Mary called me and said you were in the area."
"We really should get going," Sara agreed. "The factory's working on your order as we speak. Should be on your doorstep by tomorrow morning."
When they left the house, the girls couldn't resist hugging each other and dancing a little. Happy emoticons flashed on both their HUDs. In a single evening they had more than surpassed their quota for a month, just by itself. Even Mary was beside herself, and hadn't expected them to sell that much.
But they still had to go to Calgary. "That's fine, Mary. That's fine," Sara said as they headed out towards their car. The rain had only just stopped. Water sluiced through gutters and dripped off of trees, occasionally splattering them. "Did you find us a local motel?"
"Honestly, I think you girls should just set your autopilot and sleep in the car. We need to get out of Bolger territory as soon as possible," Mary replied.
"Reasonable, I suppose," Lacey sighed.
"But you have tomorrow off," Mary added cheerfully. "Good night, girls."
They strolled out to their car across the street. But the click of the locks didn't happen. The dome light didn't come on. In fact, no matter how many queries the saleswomen sent to it, the flying Studebaker just sat there like the lump of corroding metal and silicon it was. "Dead battery?" Sara said, turning white.
"I don't think so, Sara." Lacey frowned at it, then gripped the handle. But the door wouldn't open. Even the manual latch wasn't working. She took out a penlight and shined it inside the window. The beam diffracted oddly. A warning flashed on her HUD as her glasses identified a very small hole drilled in the driver's side window. "What the hell?"
She pinged Mary right away. "What... what is it?" came her tired voice.
"Can you get any access to the car?" Lacey asked.
"Um... hold on. Just a sec." The next thing she said she was wide awake. "It's still reading green, except for that little problem in the secondary coolant system. What's wrong, here?" She went quiet when Lacey fed her the last few minutes from her HUD, especially the diffraction from her penlight. "Fuck! They flooded the interior with metallic foam! That stuff shorts everything. I have no clue why I'm still getting telemetry--they must've hacked something. Please tell me you've checked the trunk?"
"Still locked tight," Sara reported. "I don't see any sign they tried to force it, at least physically."
"Not even the Bolgers could get into our trunks. Try and feed the lock a little power and use your code to open it," Mary said.
This was standard procedure in case they had to leave a dead vehicle on the ground somewhere, like they had near the Motel. The fabber was far too heavy for one unaugmented man to carry, let alone two physically weak women. But that didn't mean their competitors couldn't steal it some other way. But the fabber itself was right where they expected it. The trunk's armor and hermetic seal had prevented any metal foam from entering. Sara's SmartDress linked and ran diagnostics. "Looks sound and secure."
Both women could tell that their boss wanted to rant and rave at them, but Mary knew that there was no way she could put the blame for this entirely on their shoulders. "Get some help and drag the fabber into Rhonda's place," she said. "I'll send someone to pick it up right now. You girls go buy a bus ticket back to Denver. I won't lie, though. I can't keep you two from getting some kind of punishment."
"What about the local police?" Sara said. "Shouldn't we be calling them?"
It started raining again. The saleswomen moved back towards the cover of the Martinez's front porch, waiting for Mary to tell them what do to next. "The Bolgers have them in their back pockets. Not bloody likely. Rhonda will take you to the bus station."
"Polygamists and Full Suffragists squared off in Congress today..." Blink. "The new feminine pheromone fragrance from..." Blink. "I want my Maypo!" Blink. "...daring new fashion sweeping the many single wo..."
"Off!" Fred grumbled all the embedded wall TV, sinking further into the worn easy chair. She wore a comfortable house dress made of dumb fabric, her HUD glasses sitting on the coffee table, blinking furiously with two days of unanswered mail. She glared down at herself accusingly and gave her breasts a squeeze. "This is all your fault!"
"You don't really mean that," Lacey said from the kitchen. While they didn't share the same apartment, they did live in the same building. "This really isn't half bad, Freddo. Might as well be two weeks vacation."
"It's two weeks suspension, Lacey. Or Bruce. Whichever you happen to be at the moment," Fred replied irritably.
"Now I know it's too soon for your period," she said. "I really don't know why you're so glum."
Fred grimaced. "Don't even mention that. I'll cheerfully let Sara handle it when it does happen. But right now, no more playing girl. This body is strange enough without it feeling so damned... normal."
"Look, Sara, I know you. It has to be something else. You wear that body like you were born to it. Otherwise you'd borrow a pair of my new jeans," Lacey said. Ever since the last sale she hadn't worn a dress, discarding the whole idea of open skirts for shorts or pants. The happily married Rhonda Martinez had set a trend among unattached women, who had swiftly discarded the Fifties for the Nineties and beyond.
All in the space of forty eight hours. The competition for available men had just quantum leaped. Reports of catfights at Wallflower Parties were all over the local news. Interestingly enough, most of them were caused by former men.
Lacey knelt down next to the easy chair. "Look, we've known each other five years. We're like sisters. Or brothers, if you prefer. You can tell me anything."
Sara looked at her friend and partner levelly. "Anything?"
The blond looked as sympathetic as she could. "Anything."
"Don't you have a date in ten minutes?" Sara replied, folding her arms under her unsupported breasts. No matter how few available men there actually were out there, she always seemed to nab somebody. "I don't want to keep you."
"I just sent him a cancellation ping. He'll understand," she replied. "You are more important. You haven't left your apartment for days, Freddo. You--and I mean both versions---are far too mopey and I don't like it. I haven't seen your female self since this morning."
The revelation of a few days before weighed heavily. The continued urgent blinking of her HUD wasn't helping matters. In fact, it made the whole thing vastly worse. "Let me show you part of it, Lace." She picked up her HUD briefly and sent a copy of the mailbox subject lines to her friend.
Lacey's eyes widened. "Who enrolled you in the Federal Matchmaking Service?"
"That last doctor," Fred replied darkly. If she ever got her hands on that... that man he was going to pay. "I just don't want the help."
"You haven't had a date in three years, Sara. Or Fred. Both of you need to get out more. That's not normal," Lacey replied. "Bruce wasn't going to bring it up. Guys are like that. But neither of us are men anymore, so maybe we can talk it out."
"Spare me the girly hormones for a change," Sara snapped. "I... I don't... gah!" She threw up her hands in frustration.
Then started sobbing.
Lacey let her cry herself out, holding her comfortingly. "There, there. What is it, really?"
Sara wiped her eyes and nose. "I don't want children, Lacey. I don't want to be a mother, or a father for that matter. I don't want to get married. I don't want to worry about children underfoot. I just wanted to be a... a bachelor. A single woman. Whatever!" She sighed. "And I thought I felt pressured when I was Fred! But here? Nothing makes a lick of sense!
"Absolutely everything is geared to make women into mothers. They make old men into mothers! They even allow them to keep their ability to vote. But you and me? Pshaw, we can't do a thing unless we're married. Or in childcare where they grudgingly give us a whole fifth of a vote." Both Sara and Fred spoke with one voice on this. "The demographics are all messed up, and getting worse. It's reaching a flashpoint, Lace. There's just too many women. Too many contradictions. And you know what? We don't have to be here to watch it unfold."
Lacey just stared at her, dumbfounded. "You don't want children?"
"Et tu?" Sara said, rolling her eyes. "Come on, Lacey."
"Sorry, sorry. Do you want to leave? I just pinged Georgia. Her boss is coming down the Beanstalk right now, you know. I mean, would you rather be a slug?"
Sara looked at herself, and found that she actually liked her body. "It's not the breasts. It's not the sitting down to... you know. The physicality is really no problem. It's the rest of this shit I can't stand. We're treated like baby machines. Our country is so focused on recovering its population nothing else seems to matter."
"Why else would you make men into women and expect them to find husbands?" Lacey said with dawning understanding. "Why else start sperm banks and actively encourage having babies out of wedlock? You're right, this is absolutely insane." Her eyes focused on something on her HUD and shuddered. "You know they tried artificial wombs about five years ago, but they were a horrible failure?"
"At least they're requiring most of the new women to only have boys," Sara added. "But that won't fix the problems they're having right now. Do you really want to stay here and watch it all fly apart?"
Lacey pondered. "My grandmother was a Suffragette. She said it was rough, but exciting at the same time. Could actually be fun, Sara. Did you consider that? There were marches, protests. All in sisterhood. You do realize that men don't get this close, don't you?"
Sara snorted. "There's no guarantee we'll end up men again, either. So what. The only thing I'll miss are the flying cars and not seeing Earth from orbit with my own eyes."
The blond saleswoman put her arm around her friend's shoulders. "Then we'll throw caution to the wind. Let's head to the bank, though. We'll need cash to pay for the room. I hope it translates, because there's no telling when we'll find a place we like. Get packing, sister. Maybe we'll even end up back home!"
Lacey's little Nash Runabout skimmed over the prairie, only a couple hundred feet above the ground. As aircars went it was basic transportation. It was a green two-seater, a grocery-getter, and in Sport mode, incredibly fun to fly. Sara held on to her hat as her best friend whirled and sped about, the car's two small turbine engines roaring at top speed. "You weren't kidding about missing these cars!" she said, heart-pounding through a 3G turn. "Slow down a little, Lace! I really don't want to test the parachute on this thing," Sara said.
"Okay, okay. Spoilsport," Lacey grumbled, slowing to a more sedate pace and climbing a couple thousand feet. "Georgia's boss will take hours to get back. It's a long way from Brazil, even in a sports car. We're like twenty minutes from the Motel."
Sara chewed her lower lip. And for the first time, quashed Fred further down on her own. "Okay, so we go somewhere else. We become something else. And maybe even someone else. What happens to us?"
The blond looked at her sideways. "What do you mean?"
"What I mean is, there's this me. The Future Girl me. But there's this Commercial Man from the Twentieth that is also me. So which me is me? The real one, I mean."
"Hell of a question," Lacey replied. A look of worry crossed her face for a moment, then she shrugged. "I don't see that it matters. Both are you. Us, that is. The differences are in the details."
Sara cupped her breasts. She had chosen to wear one of Lacey's daring new outfits, though the snug blue t-shirt and denim skirt was as revealing as she got. "Details like these? I paid a lot of money for this figure! What about experiences like... like growing up female, playing with dolls, dates with guys. What if we end up men again? Fred's nice and all, but I don't know if I want to be him. I may not like kids, but I love being a woman. I just can't imagine myself with dangly bits."
"Don't tell me you're changing your mind already," Lacey asked archly. "I can turn this car right around..." She turned the yoke and the car started arcing slowly.
"No, no! No. I'm not changing my mind. I'm just a little scared. This is a huge risk. And I'm confused as all heck," Sara said. She grimaced, then brightened. "Maybe Georgia will know. She's obviously been through this a lot. We should talk to her before anything is really set in stone."
"Good idea," Lacey echoed.
They circled over the Motel grounds before landing, noticing for the first time a modest-sized single story house behind the building proper. From ground level it would be invisible, but from above, the yellow home stood out in the lush green landscape. Georgia, dressed in a red bikini top and khaki shorts, waved at them as Lacey came in for a landing. She held a cup of iced tea in her other hand.
"You made it. And you both look great, too," the redhead said cheerfully. "I honestly wasn't sure you'd follow through. I actually rather like this world. I have no complaints about the body I have for a change."
"But you don't like it enough to stay?" Sara asked.
Georgia shrugged. "There's always something better just over the next hill. Well, maybe not necessarily better. But different, anyway."
"About that," Sara began. "I have something to ask. It's kind of, well, heavy."
"Fire away," Georgia replied, folding her arms. She listened intently as Sara stammered her concerns. "I'm not exactly clear what you're talking about."
The brunette sighed. "Which of me is me? The girl or the guy?"
"Oh! That. Well, to be honest, you're making a distinction that doesn't really exist. Both of you are you. Take it from someone who's used to waking up in the morning not knowing if she'll need a bra or a jock strap. Or maybe both."
"Both?" Sara sputtered.
"Both. To tell the truth I barely notice these things any more. And that's just on the human scale of possible changes, Sara. Some mornings you don't wake up with the same number of feet you went to bed with," she said laconically. She took a sip of her tea. "But if you really can't stand it here. And I do mean really, there is a single rule that you need to know."
"And that is?" Lacey asked.
"The bosslady says, 'If you can't pay, you don't stay.' You either need to pay for the room somehow, or you'll find the Motel just leaves without you, whatever you happen to be. We give you a twenty percent discount for long term stays. But you need to plan for meals at the café. Otherwise..."
"We're not rich, but we can stay a while. We don't have to stay at the Motel for lengthy stopovers, right?" Sara said. It made sense that if the other worlds were anything like this one, they'd have lives there they could slide into while the boss did whatever she--or he--felt like doing.
Georgia shrugged. "Do what you want, girls. Let's get you settled. Boss is only a couple hours away."
As the two got their luggage out of the Runabout, the redhead walked around the car appraisingly. "Sharp little vehicle. Looks what? Maybe four meters long?"
"I think so," Lacey replied. "I suppose I'm worried what's going to happen to it. What happens if we end up someplace, I dunno, medieval?"
"You'll get a nice little wagon and a horse, though the Motel's a bit inconsistent when it comes to providing living things for transport. Hmm..." Georgia thumbed her chin thoughtfully. "Tell you what. We'll put it in Storage."
"Where?" the pretty blond replied.
"Follow me around back in your car when you finish with your luggage," Georgia said. "That is, if you really want to keep it."
The room was as they had left it. Even the bed was still unmade. The air smelled hot and stale. "Doesn't anyone clean up around here?" Sara asked.
"That's kind of my job," Georgia said with a guilty smile. "I've been slacking off lately. You were the first new guests we had in subjective weeks, besides Terry and Ted. Terry's new and Ted has been around forever. Now there's you guys."
"Girls," Sara corrected. Having given up on fighting his stubborn female self, Fred had decided to let her run things for a bit, as an experiment.
Georgia giggled. "Presently, yes. But don't expect it to last, Sara. Now that you're settled, let me show you two something."
The underground space was about the size of a large department store, with shelves, boxes, and crates stacked as far as Sara could see from the top of the ramp. But only the area closest the ramp seemed to be used, and it was so disorganized that she'd had to help Georgia clear a space in the junkpile for the Runabout. Lacey backed it into the narrow space in ground mode, carefully enough not to scratch the paint. But even then she had to climb out of the window in order to exit.
Sara walked down the ramp and picked up a plastic bottle of Coke she recognized. "It's from the Twentieth. This is the bottle male-me got in the diner."
"Ellie keeps a lot of her supplies down here. It's a place 'out of time', I suppose you could call it. Nothing changes. Keeps food absolutely fresh," Georgia replied. "Speaking of food, let's go feast at the automat. Maybe we'll get lucky and Ellie won't be cooking..."
The boss arrived at the Motel with a stormy look on her pretty face. Her red dress was dirty and ragged, makeup mussed, and the sparkles in her long black hair had been mostly put out. Nobody dared ask her what happened on the Beanstalk. Not with the sulking, almost hateful expression on her young face. "We're leaving, like, right now," she stated in a tone that brooked no opposition.
Everybody quietly gathered in the café while the boss marched into the Office in a huff. Georgia gave a the newcomers look that implied it was best not to ask questions, and they took the hint. And the others welcomed them. "Glad to have you along for the ride," Terry said. He was a handsome man of middling age, and the way he and Georgia looked each other there was something between them.
Ellie was a hatchet-faced, full-figured woman that Sara estimated was around fifty. While this female version bore little resemblance to the bald, bearded man back in the Fifties, the personality was just the same. She wore a pink uniform with a white apron, and a paper hat. The reek of over-charred meat came from the tiny grill.
Then there was Audrey, who normally went by Ted or Theodore when male. A pretty young thing herself, she was dressed in a rather nondescript outfit and otherwise would look right at home in any one of the outfits the two saleswomen sold. Sara tried to banish that thought. It was hard not to think about business sometimes, though.
Terry was the only man in the room, and it wasn't that difficult to match his angular features with the kindly schoolteacher from their last stop. He could have been her brother.
"What's the boss on about?" Audrey said, sipping a chocolate shake through a wide straw. "Didn't she like Brazil?"
"All I know is that she's pissed and we're going to shift any moment," Georgia informed quickly. "So..."
Then the world went mad. The sky opened above them, the roof peeling off as if blown by powerful winds. Once more the air shattered into a billion mirrors, wrenching their bodies as if they were so much taffy. But this time felt much more extreme. Sara reeled on her feet and fell very heavily to the ground, a barrage of sensations blotting out all thought, the white noise filling every nook and cranny.
Until Fred finally opened his eyes again.
One saw dark brown dirt, the other, pale turquoise sky. The sharp reek of a nearby fire filled his nostrils, which he shut against the hot stink. Somebody was burning the chalm again. An almost impossible task, since the huge tough-husked fruit needed the fire to fully open. He lifted his long head upwards to reorient himself.
He felt his partner's hand on his shoulder. "Freddo? You're not going to believe this. You're really not." A familiar lizard-like head came into view. It was covered with the brightening yellow-and-red whorls of the coming mating season, nearly blotting out the base green. "I thought just being a human woman was strange."
Fred used this thumb-spike to scratch an itch, then heaved himself up so his spine was comfortably off the ground. Tail-balanced, he peered at his larger friend in confusion before the initial mental wall came tumbling down. "This... what the... what the hell are we?" he bellowed, swinging around and nearly knocking Bruce over with his thick tail.
"We ain't women, that's for sure," he replied. "Or anything mammalian, for that matter. Huh." He swung his huge tail around a little, himself. "Okay, so this is a balance thing. How about hands?"
Fred fumbled for the name of the species. It was so familiar, but from the inside he wasn't so sure. But the thumb-spikes were a dead giveaway. Except that the "forelegs" were clearly useful as actual hands. The grasping thumb was reversed from a human's perspective, but he had three separate fingers that seemed quite dexterous. It was just that when he stood, his spine was parallel to the ground. "Yes, hands," Fred stammered in confusion. "We're iguanodons."
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could still feel Sara. It was a funny sensation, but he didn't have time to explore it now. The rest of the little herd surrounded them.
"This is marvelous! What a lovely tail!" Ellie--or who he assumed was her--said. She had the dun-brown and gray striping of females and was busily admiring herself.
Georgia, now another male, snorted. "Okay. That's a little unexpected." The colorful iguanodon bull said. "What happened to the Motel? I don't think we've gone back quite this far before. I'm going to find the boss."
"I'm right down here, Jerry," came a high-pitched sound. The larger dinosaurs all saw a tiny, spindly-legged creature that nevertheless had very large claws on its feet, though its hand-talons were much smaller. It also had thumbs. "Er... sorry folks. Brazil pissed me off, see. I think I misplaced a decimal point. Totally my fault. Give me a few subjective minutes to recharge."
"Of course it is. You won't let anyone else drive," Audrey huffed irritably. "We're only what? Seventy million years too far?"
The toothy little dinosaur bared her sharp teeth, hissed, then headed back into the hide-covered tent the Office now was. The whole Motel was like that. Just over a dozen tents pitched on the crest of a long ridge, with a river a glistening ribbon in the far distance... "Wait a second. That's not a river," said Fred, shading one eye with a hand.
"North American Seaway," Georgia/Jerry supplied. "And... this is a stop on the Eastern Trade Route. At least, it's supposed to be. We're a bunch of Neolithic dinosaurs, folks." The blue-green iguanodon bowed proudly at Fred and Bruce. His tone of voice changed. "Would the honored traders enjoy freshly-cooked chalm fruit?"
Fred was afraid to go into the saurian frame of mind. Not after what had happened with being Sara. Instead he decided to figure it out on his own. He wasn't wearing clothing per se, just a harness for carrying goods in leather sacks. One of them was in the huge room-tent, and it clinked like glass when he carefully picked it up. Bruce came up behind him and grunted. "Well, open it. We went from radios, to smartdresses, to... what?"
Very carefully, to not damage the Merchandise, Fred dumped out several large glassy rocks. They were all jet black, and showed signs of being knocked around no matter how much leather padding there was. A second, carefully rolled pack contained finished blades. "Obsidian."
"True cutting edge technology. I'm detecting a pattern, here," Bruce observed dryly. He turned his head back to look at his long, long tail. "Gyah."
A commotion arose from the area around the "diner" firepit. A number of sorrowful feminine cries brought the two males full attention. They rushed back over to find that Ellie was already walking away, her own tail swinging gently as she went quickly downhill towards the Seaway. Audrey looked quite upset. "Can someone fill us in?" Fred said.
Jerry ground his teeth. "She said she's as close to home as she's going to get, so she's leaving before the boss flips the switch, or whatever it is she does. Damn it."
"You didn't stop her?" Bruce said.
The bigger iguanodon shook his head. "We never stop anyone who wants to leave. She got on maybe thirty shifts ago and volunteered for the job. Maybe we can hire a new one at our next stop. Otherwise, guess we'll just have to make due."
"Wait, she said this was the closest to home...?" Fred asked.
"Wonder why she always burns everything? We landed in a dragon world. Was kind of fun, actually. Wings, fire breath, the whole shebang." He sighed. The ground started to vibrate, a low-frequency hum that went right to the bone. "Oh, get ready for the shift. Shit. This'll be a big one!"
Fred barely had time to take another breath before the air shattered once more.
He lay on the floor for several minutes, first checking that he was indeed a "he". Confirming that fact to his satisfaction by both patting down his chest and carefully feeling his crotch, Fred still kept his eyes closed. Unlike the last two shifts the momentary wall of implanted knowledge had not appeared. So, somewhat afraid at just what he might see, he reached up with a thick-fingered hand and confirmed a very long, wedge-shaped snout and ears that flicked when he touched them.
And there was lots of fur. The only bare skin he found was a wet, leathery nose. Wolf? he thought. No, his tongue reported flat teeth and an odd absence of upper incisors. When he moved his head, the center of gravity was somewhere over his ears. So he reached further back and plinked a fingernail against the suspected bony protrusion, and felt a vibration down into his skull.
"Going to get up, Fredrick?" came Bruce's amused voice. "Everyone else is waiting. But if you prefer to go on with your performance, we'll tarry a bit longer."
"Fredrick? Tarry?" he replied, opening his eyes. Like the dinosaur's just a few subjective minutes ago he had very little depth perception. But he stared down the length of nose all the same. Carefully he lifted his antlered head, propping himself up on his elbows to look at what had become of the rest.
Bruce smiled, lapine ears askew. "Get a load of me, doc. I'm Bugs Bunny!" He was a human-sized anthropomorphic brown hare, his overlarge feet shoeless and clawed. His eyes seemed to be set somewhat more forwards on his face than a real rabbit, his short muzzle giving him a rather human expression. He certainly had human-like eyes, with a hint of an oblong pupil. His voice had a trace of Irish brogue that hadn't been there before. "Anyone have a carrot?"
"I'll go check Storage," a voice purred that sounded a lot like Audrey. "We're bound to have a few fresh vegetables down there." The voice came from a tawny feline muzzle. She was clearly still upset from Ellie's departure. Her tail waved sadly. She was a catamount, a cougar. The males watched her, hypnotized, as she sauntered out of the room.
"I didn't think she and Ellie were that close," a wolf-man Fred assumed was Jerry growled. "In fact, I didn't think Ellie had any friends at all. Dragons are solitary creatures, for the most part." He examined his paw-like hands. "A furry world. We haven't had one of these in a few shifts. Woof!"
Their clothing seemed to be rather Victorian in nature. The males wore sober dark suits, while the ladies were in dresses that looked cumbersome with hems that nearly dragged on the ground. Fred looked up, up into a feminine cervine face, and tried not to gape at Terri. She folded her arms over her chest and looked at Jerry. "I think he needs a some help to his hooves, dear."
Jerry offered his clawed hand, which Fred reluctantly took. "I'm not going to eat you, buck," he reassured. "It's quite uncivilized." He lolled his tongue and pulled the new buck up firmly.
The illogic of it all made Fred's head hurt. The diner was apparently a very small tavern now, with two large casks of sour-smelling beer behind the bar and wine bottle windows casting a greenish light inside. The floor was covered in old straw that reeked mightily of rot and a little vomit. His nose told him a lot about the place. Far more than the new deer-man really wanted to know. He realized he could likely get used to it if he simply used the persona that came with the new world, but after what had happened as Sara (and she was still in there) he wanted to try and figure things out first.
"So," Fred said, astonished that intelligible English could come out of an animal mouth, "what's the next step? Where the hell are we? And what, if the pattern holds, are we selling?" He flicked his tail, then turned his head back to have a look at it. The longer fur on the underside was bright white. Whitetail buck. Okay...
Bruce half-hopped over to sit on a bar stool. "Um... something called cavorite. I haven't really gone too deep yet." He shrugged. "Where's that carrot?"
Audrey re-entered at that moment with a raccoon-woman whose manner immediately told everyone that this was the Boss. Unlike the feline she possessed human-like hair, though the texture of the black locks resembled fur. "Yes, all. It's me," she said. Her dress was the least conservative of the females, actually daring to show a little cleavage. "And we're staying here for a few weeks. Sorry, but it's not really my choice. That last couple long shifts drained the place. Them's the breaks, folks. Deal."
"You're kidding?" Terri said, upset. "The Rut's just starting! Do you know what that means?" the doe exclaimed, looking sideways at Fred.
"Like I said, you'll just have to deal with it." The raccoon-lady shrugged indifferently. "I'm not too happy with this, either. I was hoping for what Audrey got. Not this... whatever this is." She was somewhat plump, but for a humanoid raccoon she looked right, in Fred's eyes. She was even attractive, in a motherly sort of way. "Oh, another thing. We didn't get any horses, so someone will have to go hire some. And fresh supplies for the tavern in case we get guests. Head down into Flatbush, will you Jerry? Maybe see about a new cook, if you like."
"Sure thing, Bosslady," the wolfman replied. He looked at the two cavorite salesmen. "You gents might as well hop along with me. Pity about that storm scaring off your carthorses, eh?" He lolled his tongue. When he spoke next it was with a thick Brooklyn accent. "Oh, youse guys should turn on your new personas if youse don' want to gawk all the time. From what I 'member already in my head, youse ain't seen nothin' yet."
Outside is was the beginning of Autumn, with the oaks, maples, and elms just beginning to show hints of color. The landscape was certainly no longer Colorado prairie. This was Eastern forest. Fred had never been this far east before, and he still refused to open up to his cervine persona just yet. Sara still sulked in the back of his mind, and he didn't want to join her there.
The Motel was now a small roadside inn that looked like it had occupied the spot for a century already. Red-tinted broadleaf trees shaded the front "parking" area, where a relatively new sign hung off a thick bough: INN, all in yellow capital letters. Below that, in less visible white: "Bay windows, in-room fireplaces". It seemed a little anachronistic. And like at previous stops, was just far enough off the beaten track not to get many guests.
"Main road is that way," Jerry said, pointing down the shaded country lane. "Hope you guys don't mind walking. We're a few miles from town."
"You're not speaking like a born Brooklynite," Bruce observed.
The gray wolfman shrugged. Unlike the other two males he was dressed in a workman's outfit, a simple waistcoat and breeches, with a black bowler hat that had slots cut out for his ears. His boots only served to keep the mud off his feet, for they were definitely for paws underneath. "I was just trying to advise you two. I want some surprise. It's always fun going into town the first time in a new world. I dressed in that catsuit that first time you shifted just to see what kind of rise I'd get out of the townsfolk. I was hot."
Fred had an image of a wolfman in a form-fitting catsuit and banished it instantly. He only nodded to show he was listening, paying more attention to the world around him and the symphony of odor and sound. His large ears rotated of their own accord, picking up noises from all directions. Wood smoke mingled with the rustling of drying leaves. It was somewhat intoxicating. An entirely different way to perceive the world. "This doesn't make any sense," the buck finally said. He hopped in place a little, cloven hooves digging into the damp dirt. "Why am I not pitching over? I have a deer's legs!"
"You think too much, doc. Dis place plays by its own rules, see," Bruce said in his best Bugs Bunny impression. He hopped in place a little himself, then gathered his muscular legs and leapt almost ten feet. His ears twitched excitedly. "Bet I can do better than that! Hey..." He bounded over towards a parked wagon. It had all sorts of lock boxes on the sides. "Hold on a couple minutes, gents. I need my Jacks."
Curious, Fred watched as Bruce-the-hare took out a pair of very large metal boots out of the cabinet and strapped them on. There was a joint at the hare's heel, and what looked like a leaf spring going through it down under the foot. A pair of mysterious wires were connected to a thin chunk of polished bluish stone on the backside of his ankles. Once securely strapped on he turned a black switch atop each boot. There was a very slight electric hum. "There!" he announced. "Look out, boys. Coming through!"
"Bruce, I don't think..." Fred blurted quickly, with a feeling of sudden foreboding.
But it was too late. The brown hare leapt effortlessly into the air... and went "Ooof!" heavily as he hooked himself over an overhanging branch twenty feet up. For a moment Bruce hung there over the limb, the breath knocked out of him.
"Watch out for that treeeee!" Jerry added between canid guffaws. "What is that, a time saver for squirrels?"
Fred frowned at the wolf and looked up at his hanging partner. "Need a hand up there?"
"I'm okay, I'm okay," Bruce replied quickly. "Just give me a moment. Or two." He grabbed hold of the branch, and to Fred's astonishment, floated gently to the ground when he let go. "Ta da!" The insides of his ears turned red. "I'll just go put these back, then."
Fred looked at the boots, then at Bruce's sheepish lapine face. "What the hell?"
"Going to need a warning not to use in wooded areas, too," Bruce muttered as he took them off and headed back for the Merchandise wagon. His ears perked at his partner's question. "If you'd let your deer self in a bit, you'd know, partner. For now, let's see about those horses. We can't sell anything if we can't move Merchandise."
The country lane that connected the Inn to the main road obviously saw little use. They followed barely visible wagon ruts obscured by overgrown summer grasses, now turning gold as they died off for the coming winter. There were a few signs of recent use, probably belonging to the two businessmen's wagon. Jerry forged through the knee-high grass to where the lane met the muddy main road, and the forest became farmland. A faded sign hung at the corner: "INN" it declared, and an arrow down the lane.
"Does the Motel always end up somewhere out of the way like this?" Fred asked as they turned the corner.
"Pretty much," Jerry replied. "We take a sizeable acreage with us when we shift. Can you imagine what would happen if we ended up in the middle of New York City? We'd take a couple city blocks with us on the next shift, that's what."
"I thought you said the it'd just leave us if we didn't pay," Bruce pointed out. In the distance came a new humming sound. The hare's ears flicked towards it.
"Yeah, well, let's just say that it's not something we want to experiment with, okay?" The wolfman's ears also rotated towards the new sound. "Hmm..."
Fred covered his ears as it quickly rose towards a painful level. "It's getting louder!" Then they were covered in shadow. The deer looked up to see where the noise came from.
It was massive. Many times the size of any airliner Fred had ever seen back home. It was also bright white, and he'd honestly mistaken it for a cloud at first. But it bristled with guns of various sizes, and off the stern flew a British flag. It was perhaps one step removed from a mid-19th century ironclad warship, decades before dreadnaughts would take shape. There were no visible propellers, but the place they would have occupied on the stern were a pair of round black stones with one hemisphere narrowing into a cone. When the stones turned, so did the flying warship. The low superstructure and wireless aerials were decked out in colorful flags.
"What's... what's keeping it up?" Fred stammered, wanting to get out from under it. The airborne warship was only a couple hundred feet over the landscape. Whatever kept it airborne surrounded the hull in a haze, the two "propellers" churning up the air behind it. There was even a "wake" of sorts. Ripples spread in the air as the bow moved through, going about ten miles an hour. He flicked his ears nervously against his neck. Black smoke covered the previously clear sky from the warship's boilers. "We're not being invaded, are we?"
"Nah. It's just the limey's showing off. Fooking British Empire," Jerry growled. "Lacey's aircar would easily fly rings around that thing. I mean, look at it! It's barely faster than being in the water!" he scoffed. "Bet it takes a lot of energy, too. That noise is mostly machinery."
Bruce put his hand on his partner's shoulder. "What makes it go? Same stuff that gives my Spring-heeled Jacks a bouncy step, Freddo. The wonder of the age! Cavorite! And guess what we sell?"
"Um... cavorite?" the buck replied.
"Yes and no. Aw, hell. Just follow us for a bit. It'll be a surprise."
The whitetail buck walked them onwards, trying to pay attention to everything at once, but prepared to be shocked for a third time.
Brooklyn was undergoing a period of explosive growth. The first buildings they encountered were wooden, with a few brownstones mixed among them. At the very end of the block they were still getting the finishing touches. Large, horse-headed men handed shovels full of bricks to chipmunks and squirrels higher up on scaffolding. What was odder was that there were real horses, too. The four-legged kind. Seeing both in one place made Fred's antlered head spin.
"Damn, they're working fast," Jerry said, nodding cordially to a couple other wolves on the street and doffing his bowler hat to several lupine ladies. "They weren't half done a fortnight ago."
"How much is real estate going for in these parts?" Bruce asked, his light Irish brogue returning. They'd seen many "for sale" signs on open lots for the last mile.
"Mebbe forty dollars an acre. Check the broadsheets, though. It changes damned fast," the wolf-man replied.
There was a scent in the air that Fred quickly realized were other deer-people. There were quite a lot of them, but most of the "notes" in the scent were different than what he thought of as normal. Most of them were red deer, not whitetails. European immigrants. He could feel the pressure on his mind from the persona that went with this body, and reluctantly let a little bit in. "Guess this makes me a native," he muttered. "Um... I think."
People on the crowded street were all talking about the air-warship. It had taken them a couple hours to walk from the Inn to Brooklyn proper. And from the heights both men could see the air-warship descending towards New York Harbor. The city itself was hardly visible for the coal smoke and soot in the air. But there it was. A four-storey skyline taking up only half the island of Manhattan.
New York City.
Jerry scratched behind his triangular ears, then sniffed the air himself. "I think I smell a horse dealer over dis way, gents."
The growing city itself smelled surprisingly clean. Apparently having sensitive noses was a boon, because as the town grew, so did the sewer system and manure sweepers. The real stink came from the reek of unwashed furry bodies. In town the symphony of smells became a raucous, clashing band of rank odors: the sharp predatory spike of wolves and cats, the bitter choke of coal smoke, the warm gooeyness of manure, the sweet tang of does, all wrapped in the pungent rush-rush-rush urgency of commerce going full steam.
Traffic jammed the streets. There seemed to be no formal traffic control at all. Buggies, steam-powered streetcars, hansom cabs, heavily loaded wagons, and people on foot all trying to be in the same place at one time. It was all Fred could do sometimes to keep track of a certain pair of ears as the two men often became separated, dodging pushcarts selling just about anything that could be sold in little pieces for a few pennies. Though he tried to keep it out, the knowledge of his persona here seeped in through osmosis. I hate the city.
But Bruce was right at home here. The Irish hare navigated through the multi-species crowd with practiced ease. Jerry was just as practiced, though the crowd seemed to part in front of him instead. Must be those teeth, Fred thought. I know I'd give way for that smile.
The livery stable could not have been in business for more than two years but it already looked ten times that age. It was a ramshackle affair, something more appropriate to a western boom town. A trio of pushcarts had set up shop in front, selling eggs, slightly rotten vegetables, and lengths of broadcloth. A rather pretty whitetail doe was trying to haggle a half penny off an egg yolk from the skunk cart pusher.
When Fred finally caught up with Bruce, he was chewing on a carrot and had a couple more in his coat pocket. "I nearly lost you both back there," Fred grumped over the noise.
"Sorry about that, Freddo. But this is just very refreshing. I think I grew up around here, at least this version of me. 'Course, this was all farmland when I left," the brown hare said. "You okay, doc?"
"Let's jus' get those cart horses and leave, okay?" Fred answered, nervously flicking his tail. "And stop with the Bugs impression. It's just... wrong."
The stable's proprietor was a portly red fox in a top hat, red waistcoat, and a dusty black overcoat. He waved a cane topped with a brass ball at them. He took one look at Bruce and Fred and recognized them immediately as fellow salesmen. He visibly girded himself for a battle royal. "Afternoon, gents! How can I help you?"
Fred kept himself from looking around for Pinocchio skipping around the corner. As usual, Bruce took the lead and went Full Sale. But before he could open his mouth he was interrupted by an angry horse-man dragging what appeared to be a dead horse behind him. The animal had jury-rigged wheels attached to its back hooves. The animal had apparently died standing upright and somehow locked that way. "Where is zat stupid lying fox?" he bellowed.
The stable owner had nowhere to go. So instead he put on a friendly face, then reached into his pocket and squeezed something. The bite of odorous cologne completely blotted out the sharp tang of obvious fear. "Right over here, Mr. Schneider. What can I do for you?"
"Zis nag you sold me is a piece of junk!" the bay horseman said in German-accented English. "Have a look at zis!"
Fred quickly realized it was some sort of mechanical horse. The hide of a real an animal had been laid over it in a lifelike manner. It was large enough to carry the horseman. Easily the largest animal Fred had had ever seen, if it had been real. To the buck's astonishment the angry horseman reached up near the mechanical animal's ears and pushed a button under the skin. With a click the whole top of the head between the eyes opened forwards. He pulled out a cube-shaped mechanism about four inches on a side that looked composed of thousands of tiny gears. He then shook it really hard. Ants and tiny roaches fell out, dead and alive. "It's full of bugs! Ze whole damned thing is crawling with zem!"
The fox hesitated but a moment, probably not noticeable to the angry customer but definitely to the salesmen. "They're a feature, Mr. Schneider. Why, you can see just how robust the Babbage Equine Calculator Mark Two is. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking!" he said weakly.
"Reallly?" the horseman replied. He scratched his mane below the yarmulke nestled behind his ears with a three-fingered hand. "I had not thought of zat, no..." For a few seconds he seemed mollified, then his expression turned stormy again and he grabbed the fox by the lapels. He bared his teeth, clicking them angrily together. "I want my money back you mangy swindler!"
Fred tugged on Bruce's shoulder. "We should find someplace else."
The hare shook his head. "Nah. I think after this he'll be more inclined to make an honest deal. Especially with the likes of us, eh?"
He had a point. "I'm going to step out for a moment. Whatever that fox sprayed in his suit is giving me a headache," Fred said, covering his nostrils.
Bruce's lapine nose twitched. "I've smelled worse. And so have you; remember our Chinese neighbors in Carson City? I have no idea what they ate, but phew!"
"No, no I don't," Fred replied levelly. "Nor do I want to. Pardon me."
The headache really came from a mental dam about to burst, though Fred wasn't going to admit that to his partner. His persona here would come out sooner or later, but he was determined that it be later. But going back outside he found a lingering sweet scent. The doe had been here for some time, though the ever-moving crowd had already blotted out a lot of her smell. He lip-curled reflexively and determined she'd gone off to the south.
That he could still pick out a single scent among an uncountable multitude was a skill that hadn't been there before. Or rather, was a natural part of being half deer. Fred felt like the Little Dutch Boy sticking his finger in the dike. More leaks appeared by the moment, but Fred allowed his nose to lead him on all the same, stopping every so often to lip-curl again.
He kept this up until he almost ran into an old stag, who folded his ears back and angrily pointed a thick, black-nailed finger at him. He had long fur around his long lower jaw and mouth that roughly resembled human facial hair and wore a very long, moth-eaten frock coat. "It is unseemly to flehman in public, young buck! A gentlebuck keeps those lips closed!" he snorted, waving his cane with his other hand.
Fred gawped for a moment, then closed his mouth. "Thank you, sir. I'll keep that in mind."
"You'd better!" the old stag shouted back. He then staggered off down the street, muttering about "country bumpkins" and "moral depravity."
The crowds were much thinner now, but the doe's individual scent was nearly gone. But there were other does. And other bucks. A few distinctive whitetail scents among the anthropomorphic red deer and elk. Fred looked around. He had somehow wandered to a fairly quiet tree-lined avenue. The bark at the bases of most trees was a cervine sign post. For a moment he was tempted to add his own mark, but decided against. He finally forced himself to look at the place rather than just smell it.
It was a neighborhood of row houses and comparatively few huge signs that characterized the main commercial drag. But there was also an indefinable sense of decay setting in. While the neighborhood still smelled healthy enough, a couple houses looked recently abandoned, and the stores on the first floors were vacant. Perhaps as the city grew up, away from the harbor, the wealthier folks were moving uptown as well. It was still middle class, but on the downslope. The doe's clothing had been careworn, but quality fabric. And she had gone into one of the row houses here. With a little more nasal detective work...
What in God's name am I doing? Fred wondered.
The attack came almost fast enough to kill him. But some unknown reflex took over, and Fred nimbly dodged, rolled, then was instantly back on his hooves, facing his shocked attacker. Fred expected a cat, or maybe a wolf. Instead he was face-to-face with a battle-scarred, notch-eared gray mouse holding a bowie knife. His beady eyes were wide with shock and surprise. "How da hell did you do that?"
But now the dam had finally burst, the knowledge of Fred-the-human swamped by Fred-the-deer. He immediately got into a ready stance, further confusing the rodent. A Western accent crept into his speech. "Want ta try again, partner?"
Apparently not having learned his lesson the first time, the mouse attacked again. With a quick, practiced move, Fred used his attacker's momentum against him, sending the mouse flying to the ground flat on his back. The knife spun out of his hand and plinked against the nearest brownstone's steps.
The mouse just laid there, staring at the sky, notched ears a-flick. He grabbed hold of his aching head. "Holyeee... sheeit!"
Some people around Fred applauded, but otherwise went about their business. Fred turned to flee but almost literally ran into Bruce and Jerry. "Whoa there, bucko!" Bruce said. He was panting hard, as if he'd just sprinted a distance. "We were coming to rescue you, but I see you don't need it." The hare looked at the mouse, who hadn't moved far yet. "What the hell did you do to him?"
"Cain't really talk 'bout it, sorry," Fred replied. The Chinese had sworn him to secrecy. In three years he hadn't even told his best friend and business partner. But now, a couple thousand miles from the Chinese tigers and spotted sika deer who had taught him, maybe he could. "Look, I'll tell ya a little but not here, okay?"
"Okay. While you were doing whatever the hell you were doing, Jerry and I got horses and supplies. They're still back at the stable. You can tell us about it back at the Inn, Fredrick."
In retrospect it was a good thing the cervine memories flooded in when they did. Because on the ride back to the Inn Fred felt an urge to unswallow his last meal. Tension relieved, it came up of its own accord. If he'd been in a human frame of mine he might have choked on it. Instead he just started chewing his cud. Unswallow, chew, reswallow, repeat.
He rode the cart horse bareback. Human Fred had never ridden a horse in his life, but it was a highly practiced skill for his cervine counterpart. Fred examined his "new" memories with great interest. Much to his surprise, they had not simply washed away the human ones. Instead they coexisted, though it was understandably easier to use the nonhuman version at present. But both were from Denver, and though there were quite a few points of departure, he wondered just what he'd worried so much about.
But then, I've always been a worrier. I suppose it fits being a deer, he thought. The only real frustrating thing through all this was Jerry's smirking. As they turned down the Inn's country lane in the deepening twilight, Fred finally got fed up. "It's on the tip of your tongue, Jerry. You might as well say it."
"You know kung fu!" he blurted, pausing to bark laughter and slap his knee. "Seriously, Fredrick. That's the damndest thing I ever saw. A kung fu deer! Where did this version of you learn how to do that?"
Fred let the Western accent back into his voice. "Bruce and me met during the Cavorite Rush in Nevada 'bout five years ago. Tried minin' at first, but all the best claims were already gone when we got there. Was Bruce's idea that we set up shop instead. Miners need things. Picks, shovels, groceries, what-have-you. But we didn't have much to get started. Only land we could afford was right next to a Chinese laundry."
"That place stank. It really, brutally stank," Bruce added. "But it was dirt cheap."
"Ah dunno how he did it, but Bruce managed to bring in customers, despite the smell," Fred continued. "But there were days when there was nobody, and Bruce was off doin' whatever. And one day I peeked over the fence. There wuz our neighbors, doing this weird dancin'. Or at least it looked like dancin'. At first. Well, they wuz actually friendly folk. And I asked 'em if they could teach me, too. Dancin' gets the does, ya know. Spent two years learnin' and ah don' think ah ever did better than a greenhorn."
"I always wondered what you were doing over there," Bruce said, hopping alongside the other cart horse. "Figured it was your business. Any chance of teaching me?"
Fred felt his ears redden. "I shouldn't have told you this much, no offense. I said they're nice folk, but they didn't want me tellin' anyone. Honestly, I'll stick to my gun."
The grocer's wagon had passed them an hour ago on the way back. The wolfman was unhappy about the price the bear had demanded for the late delivery and for the goods themselves, but given the state of the Inn tavern's larder, only grumbled a little. They had plenty of edibles in Storage, just nothing that would fit in a 19th century world. Plastic bottles of soft drinks, plastic-wrapped packages of ready-to-eat meals, microwavable frozen dinners. Food that mostly appealed to a growing teenager, maybe. But completely inappropriate for here.
"Smells like stew," Bruce said, taking a deep breath as they neared the Inn. Smoke poured merrily out of the tavern chimney. "Veggie stew and something meaty."
"Hey, a wolf's gotta eat, too," Jerry added. "I'll settle the horses in the stable while you two go eat." He hesitated a moment, then looked puzzled. "Hey, just who's doing the cooking anyway?"
To all of their surprise it was the Boss sitting at the fireplace, stirring a pair of stewpots hanging over the flames. She smiled and waved as they came in, but was otherwise very intent on the task at hand. Audrey and Terri were sitting at a table, chatting about what Fredrick could only call "feminine issues". Terri looked more than a little upset. And Jerry gravitated right to her and clasped her hand.
"We'll eat in ten minutes, all. So don't go anywhere," the Boss said. She opened a gray container and sprinkled something into both pots. It had the ruddy color of red pepper. "Just a little something extra."
"I didn't know you could cook, Boss," Audrey said.
"Heh. Well, this me can. Set the table for everyone will you, Audrey?" the raccoon-woman said.
"Yes ma'am," the cougaress replied, standing up and smoothing down her skirts.
The salesmen watched the women work from the corner, next to the bar. "I'm glad I didn't end up female on this shift, let me tell you," Bruce whispered. "Damn. Those clothes look like they need an hour just to get into."
Audrey looked up from her task of setting out ceramic bowls and large spoons and smiled toothily at the two herbivores. "To use a phrase I heard on one of our stops. Ahem. It sucks. Hard. I'm wearing a bodice and an underskirt, in addition to my fur. I just don't understand why a society based on anthro animals would even need clothes, frankly. It doesn't make any sense at all."
"What we have here is an Allegory World," Jerry opined. "I've seen them before. Worlds like this only exist as a symbol for things in another place--world, that is. I'm pretty sure the animals we look like are close matches to our personalities, for instance. But don't quote me on that." He licked the back of his paramour's hand. "You make a lovely doe, darling."
"Boy howdy," Fred blurted. It was all he could do to keep from lip-curling.
"Look, boys," Terri began firmly, glaring at both Fred and her boyfriend. "I'm not really comfortable with the gender changes at all. I don't know how you deal with it so well, but I'd rather just move on to the next world as soon as possible."
The Boss took one pot and then the other off the fire with a long handle. "Er... yes. About that," the plump raccoon-woman said. "I have some news. But let's chow down first."
With that ominous pronouncement, they sat around a large table that with the chairs took up almost the entire free space in the tavern. It had been attached to the ceiling with an ingenious rope-and-pulley system and had folding legs. New candles were lit and placed in sconces around the walls. They cast a pure, steady light in contrast to the flickering whale oil lamps in the center. The scent of the appetizing hot stew tickled Fred's tastebuds, contrasting with a rancid, nervous uncertainty that filled the room from those seated.
Fred filled his bowl most of the way with vegetables and broth, then surprised everyone except Bruce by putting in a little meat. "What?" he said. "Look, folks, when you ride the open range you eat what the cookie makes. There ain't a lot of forage fit for a buck on the Plains and buffalo grass tastes like sh... horrible. A little meat goes a long way."
There was fresh bread to go with the stew, and a bowl full of acorns just off the tree. It was the best meal the salesmen had had in weeks. Even the home appliances in the Future World could not match it. Through the whole meal the Boss hovered around them, making sure everything was just right.
Eventually, bowl empty, Jerry dropped his wooden spoon. "Okay, Boss. Out with it. I've never seen you do anything like this before. It must be a special occasion."
The young raccoon-woman grimaced. "Er... well. Yes. Of course." She girded herself for the response. "The last couple shifts kinda messed up the machinery a bit. A hundred and forty million years plus some reality twisting both ways will do that. The self-repair whatevers are working on it, but the best time estimate they can give me right now is six months to a year until the repairs are complete."
Terri primly dabbed her mouth with a napkin, stood up, then went out the back door. Whereupon came an angry uproar the likes of which Fred had rarely heard from any female. Jerry promptly shot to his feet and dashed outside as well to comfort her, after a parting snarl at his Boss.
The puma-woman's tail was lashing beneath her skirt. "Boss, do you know just how many diseases there are in this century that have no cure or treatment? We're long before the germ theory of disease. Here, let me count off a few." She ticked them off on her clawed fingertips. The claws were extended. "Cholera, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, polio, yellow fever, smallpox, whooping cough. And who knows what flea-borne animal diseases and parasites we're susceptible to! Shall I go on? Shall I start on the rampant pollution?"
The Boss folded her arms and seemed to shrink a little. "Er... I thought of that, Doctor A. I'm not that stupid. So I put some medical nannies in tonight's meal. They'll fend off all sorts of ailments and knit bones in just a few hours. But you might feel a little feverish for a day or two as they multiply and establish a baseline health. The furry physiology is new to them."
Audrey shut her eyes and sighed deeply. "If I didn't know you so well I'd be angry. Instead I'm just... disappointed. Your heart is in the right place, though. Pray, do you at least have the packaging? I'd like to have a look at it."
The raccoon-woman sheepishly gave the puma the gray cylinder after giving it a tap on the top. The surface exploded into sound and video, which the puma-woman quickly turned off. Audrey read the label, then relaxed a little. "At least it's a commercial product and not something experimental. I assume that the physics model of this universe is compatible, else they would have just dissolved when you took them out of Storage."
"Pretty much. The light on the shelf was green," the Boss replied. "Look, I'm not as dumb as I look. I've been places. Before you and Georgia arrived it was just me," she said defensively. "And the 'rents, of course. Been places and things you can't even imagine."
The salesmen had watched the entire exchange with great interest, Fred occasionally staring at his licked-clean bowl. Combined with the lager beer, it had been a great meal. He was tempted just to spit out his cud when it came up, but suspected that it wouldn't help. "Er... I hate to interrupt, but what the Hell are 'medical nannies'?"
"Ask your female counterpart, if she's still in there," Audrey purred crisply. "I'm sure she could explain it to you more easily. Now, are you gents going to help me clean up or what?"
The Boss wasn't kidding about the fever. After opening all the windows the deer and the hare stripped down to the barest underclothes, but found that didn't help. So with great reluctance they removed even that and wore nothing at all. Even in the chilly Autumn night they felt hot. It was very like having the flu. "I won't look if you won't, Freddo," Bruce said from the floor.
"Meh." Fred panted from the rope-supported mattress. The linen sheets were very light anyway. No more than a token covering. It's probably this having fur again, the human-Fred reasoned. The deer wondered what the problem was. He had often slept in the buff with his buddies out on the range. Clothes were simply too restrictive for sleeping with a heavy coat of winter fur. That nudity wasn't accepted during waking hours was simply one of those funny contradictions about civilization.
"Open the top door, Bruce. I'm boiling," Fred said between pants.
The sound of claws on wood as Fred got up came next. "I'm really missing that AI climate control right now," he said. There was a slightly feminine timbre to his voice. He opened the top of the Dutch door. "When are they going to invent air conditioning?"
"What are you talking about?" Fred replied. "'Aay-eye'?"
"Artificial intelligence? C'mon, Freddo. It was just yesterday," Bruce continued, sounding even more female. He also seemed a little delirious with the fever, his voice was slightly slurred.
"Why are you talking like that? That's... not right," Fred replied.
Bruce's ears flicked in the semidarkness. "I'm a regular Mel Blanc, doc. You don't remember being Sara? Great figure, nice breasts, sweet disposition, and breaker of men's hearts?" Fred could see the hare patting his chest. The cool breeze carried in the scent of coal smoke and the reek of thousands from the nearby city. "You don't remember sitting around the apartment in that frumpy old dress?"
There was a little sleeping knot in Fred's mind called Sara. But otherwise there was a blank space where human-Fred's last few subjective days were. Deer-Fred had spent much of that time on Long Island on the way down from Boston. Bruce had been very insistent on it, and spent several hours inside while the buck had kept the four-legged deer company while recovering from seasickness. But human-Fred did remember wearing that dress, and frequent staring at hims... herself. "I really try not to think about being her too hard." He hesitated, not liking the restless feeling that radiated from that feminine knot. "And I don't think she's too happy with me, either. You don't have this problem with Lacey?"
Bruce imitated her voice perfectly and put his hand on his hips. "What problem? I am Lacey, bucko. And you're supposed to be Sara, too. I don't know why you're having this problem with yourself, but it sounds weird."
Fred threw a goose down pillow at "her", which "she" dodged. "Hey, I'm not the one who sounds like a woman. We should try and get some sleep. I'm beat."
The hare persisted in Lacey's voice. The human woman seemed a little petulant. And in the half-light, Bruce's silhouette even looked a little curvier, softer. "You know, this wasn't my idea to end up here, Sara. We could have stayed home and watched the country change. We could've been part of something big! Now I'm a giant hare and a man to boot!" she complained.
"Stop that!" Fred snarled. But the sound of his female counterpart's name in her best friend's voice jolted the Sara-knot in his head. "Just go to sleep, okay? You're not yourself."
"I beg to differ! You're the one who's not all in one piece. But whatever. Sheesh, what a grouch," Bruce said normally, though irritated. He paused, then sound rather apologetic. "I suppose I'm feeling kind of woozy anyway. I'm... I'm sorry I messed with you. I'm a bitch sometimes, I guess. G'night."
Bruce looked normal again, but Fred was certain he'd just been seeing things. Damned fever. He put his own head down, careful not to bump his antlers against the headboard, and dropped into a fitful doze.
When Fred finally slipped into a dream state, Sara awoke.
She had been in a state of semi-consciousness all day, though it felt much, much longer. First there had been the sensation of a huge, heavy tail, then a few moments of tangled thoughts as the masculine and feminine traded places. But for a while now she'd been stirring, catching pieces of conversation and sensation. And she didn't like what she heard and felt.
Eyes shut, breathing shallowly, she reached back slowly and grabbed hold of the antlers that sprouted from her skull. The odd thick-nailed hands came down to touch the ears next... then to the muzzle, where Sara held her nostrils shut. She probed her mouth with her tongue.
Then she patted her chest, and her eyes snapped open with a gasp.
White, furry pectorals and not a hint of cleavage. And, further down, being tickled by the chilly breeze coming in through the Dutch door...
Sara had a stab of memory from the slumbering Fred, and felt sympathy for him for the first time he'd seen her body from the inside. But at the moment she wasn't getting the same level of help from him after he had somehow learned to access her experiences. It had been Lacey's voice that actually reawakened Sara, wherever she had been in Fred's head.
It was time to enjoy a few hours of full consciousness.
She tried to push herself up on her elbows, but those wonderful biceps seemed weak and flaccid with fever. The weight of her antlers pulled her head backwards, so she let herself down again and panted some more. "Okay... maybe not," she said in a voice that felt like it rumbled out of her throat.
Exhausted, she stared at the ceiling and her muzzle, then down her broad chest at the sheath between her legs. And this is what being a man is from the inside. Dangly bits. And--though the thought itself seemed indecent--an actual penis. With the scrotum, it was like having her breasts down between her legs. And the furry thing added a whole new layer of weirdness on its own.
Bodily fatigue caught up with her as well.
"I never thought I'd end up in New York City," Fred said, fighting seasickness on the ferry from Brooklyn two days later. "I thought Boston was a busy place."
"Boston and Chicago were practice for you, my rustic deer friend. This is the center of the world, as far as we're concerned." The Irish hare flicked his ears, then stepped close enough to whisper. "Confidentially, we Brooklynites are going to show up Manhattan inside twenty years. We've got all of Long Island to spread out on. But don't tell that to New Yorkers."
"Heh," the buck replied, both knowing full well that the Brooklyn Bridge and skyscrapers would make that untrue. People were packed around the Merchandise wagon. There was not, human-Fred noticed, a single bird among them. Mammals only. However, what struck him even more were the children.
A five year old rabbit might be riding on his lupine father's shoulders, while the lapine wife fussed with her wolf cub daughter's clothing. Intermarried couples seemed somewhat rare, though. For the most part it was deer with deer, horses with horses, and so forth. It was more amazing that this society functioned at all and was even recognizably human.
But with human-Fred to observe, sometimes animal behaviors stood out in bold relief.
Trees or wooden posts were placed for people to leave scent-marks. It wasn't considered indecent for a wolf or dog to unzip his pants and piss on them. Or for deer to leave their own marks. Some posts were so antler-rubbed that any more marks would leave nasty splinters in one's fur. As they slogged slowly north of Wall Street through the worst traffic Fred had ever seen, he sized up the potential opposition.
It was easy enough to tell which bucks got the best nutrition. There were a sizable proportion of irregular shapes. In one case one antler curled down around the buck's lower jaw, and sometimes very lopsided shapes stood out. Broken tines were much in evidence. Perhaps not enough dietary calcium.
To his delight Fred's own hefty ten points put him somewhere nearer the top. Good country living, he thought, proudly raising his head. But if Bruce's plans panned out, perhaps not for too much longer.
Or perhaps not, with the "medical nannies" in his body even all the aches and pains that had developed over the years were slowly vanishing. There was even a missing front tooth that had reappeared overnight. You don't remember our chat? Sara thought.
It was kind of, well, magical, he replied. I don't think anyone ever thought of tiny robots like that in the Fifties. Not even in science fiction.
I'm not familiar with the kind in my bloodstream right now. The ones from my world needed a controlled medical environment to work properly. I still had dead nanobots in my system for months after bodysculpting, she said. Fred's left hand came up and scratched his muzzle. Hmm. I need a shave.
Please, I asked you not to do that, Fred reminded his female self.
It's my body, too. We're supposed to be the same person, remember? Really, this is rather fun. This watching yourself as a man. You should try it.
Funny. I've already looked myself in the breasts, thank you. And the view was distracting. Just sit back and watch, if you please. Having Sara's running commentary was just something he was learning to put up with. That she had some limited physical control was something else. She was entirely too curious about their shared anatomy.
The middle class in this time period was smaller. And since this was long before the automobile, the disparities between classes could play out within surprisingly short distances. They pointedly avoided the notorious Five Points slum, heading up Broadway towards Fifth Avenue, where overcrowded tenements gave way to row houses, and even a few palatial residences under construction. This was a neighborhood on its way up.
"We're doing this cold, Bruce. Any ideas?" Fred asked. The smell of sawdust and cut stone predominated the street, over and above the ever-present horse manure and animal musk. Just down the avenue some older row houses were being torn down, doubtless to make room for yet another mansion.
"I'm looking for an investor. A ram named Fisk," Bruce replied, looking at a sheet of scrap paper with directions written on it. "At the very least we'll catch his secretary and get our names in the pot. We're going to need more capital if we're going to have more than a small factory."
"We may have to settle for just that," Fred said. He nodded at a doe as she sauntered by. Then the gears turned in his head. "Wait, you're not talking about Big Jim Fisk, are you?"
"The one and only. If not him, I thought I'd try Vanderbilt next." He folded the paper with one hand and pushed it back in his coat pocket. "We're about two blocks away."
Fred had a sour taste in his mouth. "Bruce, he tried to corner the gold market last year. He's up to his neck in corruption. He's in with Boss Tweed, for Christ's sake! Why should we taint our honest money with his filth?"
"It's just the way things are done in New York City, Freddo. Me father was in with Tammany Hall, you know. I don't see that I have any choice," Bruce replied. There was a hesitancy in his tone of voice, as if he wasn't really sure of this course of action either. "We really don't have very much profit to show for ourselves after three years in the shop."
"We have a damned good grubstake for startin' small, I don't call that nothin'," the buck said. "Wish you'd said somethin' earlier. I thought we were just going to sell those fancy chandeliers of yours."
You sound like a real cowboy, Sara observed. But she didn't mock. She sounded more interested than anything. Or should that be, 'We sound like a real cowboy'?
Fisk's residence was an ostentatious marble-faced Greek edifice with huge columns and a burly bear as a guard. The hare and the whitetail halted their wagon out front and watched the scowling grizzly for a few minutes. Bruce cleared his throat then scratched behind his twitching ears. "Er... perhaps you're right, Fredrick. Maybe this isn't the best place to approach the man."
"Still want ta try Commodore Vanderbilt?" Fred asked, raising one eyebrow. "I think our reach exceeds our grasp, Bruce. We should sell what's left in the wagon then get a hold of some of that real estate uptown."
The hare pulled the paper back out of his coat pocket. "Fisk's office is on Wall Street. We should try there first."
Fred ground his teeth together without cud in frustration. "You ain't going to let this go, are you?"
"If I weren't this persistent than I would have stayed in Brooklyn. And never met you," the hare pointed out.
Very true. Lacey never lets go of anything, either, Sara added. Though she's a little more flighty than her male counterpart, I admit.
"It wasn't three months after I got out of the Army that the news of the Cavorite Rush reached here and I was off and hopping," Bruce continued. The hare combed his claws through his furred lower jaw. "Do you really think we could do this on our own?"
"Let me just point out one little fact," human-Fred started, holding his thumb and first finger a little bit apart. "Just a little fact. This wagon, our store, and everything we've done the past five years, we've been beholden to no one but our customers. Unlike our human counterparts, this whole business is ours already. If we get someone like Fisk to invest, it won't be any more. Even if he's just a minority partner, he's going to expect a hefty return. Even if it wasn't dirty money I'd still have a bad taste in my cud."
But Bruce still wasn't convinced. "We need the cash. These cavorite crystals I bought a few days back aren't cheap, but we're going to need as many as we can afford to get started. I just thank God my little mad scientist can grow them to specification so we don't need jewelers to cut them." He smoothed his ears back. "No, we need Fisk. You make a good case, but that's just the facts."
Fred sighed and pulled on the reins to turn the wagon around. The new carthorses had never worked together before, so it took some doing to get them moving in unison. The only way he's going to see this won't work is face-to-face with Fisk and he sees we're being swindled, he thought glumly. And I know damn well I'll just follow him like a sheep if he does go through with it.
Buck, not sheep, Sara poked dryly. But yes, I know what you mean. It was Lacey's idea to get bodysculpted. I wanted to spend my money on an aircar for myself, but noooo...
I'm more wondering why she decided to go along with your suggestion to try for a new world, Fred pondered as the wagon slogged its way through New York City traffic. I mean, she had a point. We could have stayed in your world. Look where we ended up. An even more restrictive Victorian society.
Sara responded with cold silence. And that was the end of that conversation with his female self.
The wagon trundled onwards to Wall Street.
Fisk's office was as ostentatious as his home. Mahogany chairs and plush red velvet cushions. Dark-stained oak wainscoting exquisitely carved in curlicues and roses. What really stood out was the smell: sharp, pungent anxiety and fear pervaded everything, impregnated into the wood. Just entering the room made the two salesmen twitch and want to flee. The portrait upon the wall of a portly, mustached bighorn ram looked down his muzzle at them with disapproval.
The atmosphere was clear enough: Anyone here is a supplicant. A serf. If Mr. Fisk deigns to make time for you, consider it the greatest honor.
But the portrait was not the only notable thing in the room.
It was in a square glassed-in pedestal in the corner, the edges of the box also mahogany like the rest of the waiting room. Bruce squinted at it in disbelief. The display case was unlabeled, but it was obvious to both men what it was. "A human skull?" Bruce said, nose twitching.
"It has horns," Fred pointed out, equally shocked, pointing just over and behind where the ears would be. "Tiny horns. And the nose and lower jaw projects a little. Unbelievable!"
"That skull is thought to date from immediately after the Atlantis Catastrophe," came a new voice. "It is one of the first extant examples of the long transition from ancestral 'humans' to our kind on this continent. Supports Mr. Darwin's thesis wonderfully." It belonged to another bighorn ram, though one with only a half-curl of horns. He had a mass of fur-like "hair" cut and trimmed. And he smelled quite musky. "I'm Harvey Denton, one of Mr. Fisk's associates."
"Bruce O'Sullivan," the Irish hare said, standing up fully with ears forward. "My partner is Fredrick Granger. Pleased to meet you, sir."
The bighorn sheep looked at the wooden boxes the two salesmen had brought in with them. He was dressed in a sharp, tailored black suit and tie. His hooves clopped on the wooden floor. "I'm afraid Mr. Fisk is not receiving inventors today. In fact, he's not even in New York City. However, if you wish you can make your sales pitch to me."
The hare flicked one ear back and forth indecisively. "Can we make an appointment with Mr. Fisk directly?"
"Mr. Fisk's calendar is full through next March," Denton responded stiffly. "He is a very busy ram. Much to do in Albany this session."
"I see," Bruce said. "Well, we could always take our inventions elsewhere..."
The bighorn smiled warmly. "You're certainly welcome to. You men are fortunate that you came here on a slow day. Normally Mr. Fisk entertains dozens of inventors each day in these offices. However, I should reiterate that I am fully qualified to judge if your proposal merits Mr. Fisk's investment."
Oh God. That's Harvey to the quick, Fred thought, reminded of their former boss in the Fifties. The human Harvey was nice enough, but a strict taskmaster who expected results, results, results. Not meeting their monthly sales quota meant instant probation. But if you did well, he'd invite you for drinks, and there were monthly dinners. If this sheepish version was anything like him. Wish he wasn't in this deep with Fisk. He looked at Bruce with one eye, and decided to take the initiative. "We'll try back on a different day."
"Suit yourselves. I realize that you are likely shopping around. Just be mindful that Mr. Fisk's investment terms can be generous on the first offer, but not so much if you return later," Benton said. "Good afternoon to you both."
Bruce watched him leave, then gave his partner a nudge. "You know, I'd be angry with you, but I got an idea."
Fred groaned inwardly. "I'm not gonna ask, Bruce. Not a..." he snorted and flicked his ears. "Another hare-brained scheme?"
The hare shrugged and smiled. "Let's go back to the Inn."
The whitetail buck shuddered to think what his partner had in mind, but knew he'd follow through with it without him. In Fred's experience just letting Bruce do what he wanted on his own could result in disaster for both. "After we get something to eat, okay? My rumen is empty."
"Rumen..." Bruce muttered. He then went back to the skull in the glass case. "Fred, everyone started out human in this world. Look at this thing! I wonder how old it is."
"It's probably just a fake. C'mon, Bruce. Atlantis?" Fred scoffed. "You're too gullible about these things. This city is the home of P. T. Barnum, you know. That skull ain't nothin' but a humbug."
"Says the anthropomorphic deer," the hare retorted. "After what we've experienced, Freddo, I'm putting nothing in the 'impossible' column. I have too many fleas. And a tail, Freddo. Don't forget the tail. You've got one too. And antlers. Need I remind you we both were female a couple days ago?"
"Okay, okay!" Fred replied, gesturing for Bruce to stop. "Maybe you're right. But who cares? We're pretty much forced to put down roots here anyway. Let's invest that grubstake and get those cavorite jumping boots of yours to market."
They finally reached the Inn as dusk descended, pushing the horses as much as they dared. They'd been asked to do a lot today, and showed signs of strain and fatigue. They reeked sharply of salt-sweat and manure. Fred was upset at having to ask so much of them, but since there was really no place to stay in Brooklyn proper, the Inn it was.
From the look on Bruce's face, though, he had an Idea. But as long as they were where anyone could overhear, he wouldn't discuss it. People here obviously had more sensitive hearing, and you never knew just who was listening in.
You know, with both Bruce and Lacey in one person, I'm not going to be surprised at anything, Sara thought.
Yeah, no kidding. The buck pondered something that had bothered him for hours. I still wonder why we're like separate people, Fred replied. Fred and Lacey aren't. Neither are Jerry and Georgia, from what I can tell.
Erm... I have a theory, she replied, a little embarrassed. I really, *really* couldn't imagine myself as a man. So I folded myself up somehow when that first shift happened. You're nice, Fred. Or I'm nice. Whatever. I just... Her thoughts were worried more than anything. As if she was afraid she'd just vanish.
How do you comfort a woman who was supposed to be yourself? Fred had no idea where to begin, or even if it was possible. He felt like she was a "Ms. Hyde" to his Jekyll. Oh boy. Freud would have a field day with us, eh?
Sara chuckled dryly from her corner of their mind. I do like being you, Fred. I thought I wouldn't, and it scared me. But I do. But I don't know how we can meld together again, either. So I'll just come along for the ride. I'm here if you need me, of course.
Now we'll just spend our time worrying about what Bruce has in mind instead, thought Fred, flicking his ears. He licked his leathery nose and sniffed. "I think I smell a meal on the fire, Bruce. Let's get some chow."
The only way they could get the aircar out of Storage was to lower the ramp. But the Inn had an unusual number of guests. In fact, since the weather had turned for the worse, every room was occupied. Most of the other guests were wealthy travelers who'd opted to use their newfangled mechanical horses instead of the train. Their only excrement was smoke and steam. And they only needed coal for food.
The other guests were one problem. The other was the Boss herself.
The raccoon-woman stood and listened to Bruce's proposal with great skepticism, holding a wooden spoon with her clawed fingertips while sitting in the Office. The first thing she'd done was call in Jerry. She waved the spicy-smelling spoon at him reproachfully. "Whatever possessed you to let Lacey put her car in there?"
The wolfman lolled his tongue. "Could be useful. Like right now, eh?"
The Boss tapped her desk with the spoon. "Normally I'd say yeah, sure. But since we're going to be stuck here for so long I don't want to draw undue attention to ourselves. It's bad enough that this version of me is a single woman--widow, actually--running this Inn. But if we start throwing 'magic' around, we'll have the government on us like flies on a carcass. Lasers or not, I can't hold off an army, gentlemen."
"I'll be discreet," Bruce said. "We'll fly at night..."
"Daylight," she said. "Those aircars are lit up like... like Christmas trees. It'll shine like a UFO. In daylight you'll have to climb at least ten thousand feet or more to stay out of sight from the ground. And then there's the birds."
Fred scratched his lower jaw with thick, black-nailed fingertips. "I'm sorry. What about them?"
"They gossip, especially the mockingbirds and the ravens. Don't tell me you don't know?"
"Umm..." deer-Fred searched his memories. "I've heard voices sometimes, from the sky. And Bruce and I sometimes heard things in the mountains."
The Boss raised her clawed thumb and pointed upwards, then looked at Fred like he was just being dense and unobservant. "I actually have a roost in my trees. They don't use money, but the phrase 'a little bird told me' is quite literal here. What I'm getting at is that you'll need to be damned careful. Keep on top of that radar and stay away from any flocks." She licked over her pointy teeth. "And there's something else." She glared at Jerry. "You should've told me ahead of time."
"C'mon, Boss. The way you were pissed off about whatever happened in Brazil, there really wasn't any," Jerry insisted.
The raccoon actually shuddered. "Okay. You have me there. But I want rent for the space that aircar is using, gentlemen."
The brown hare sighed. "Yes, I'll agree to that. What did you have in mind?"
The Boss made an expansive gesture with the wooden spoon, nearly hitting everyone with it. "My parents left me this place and retired to wherever. But they didn't exactly leave an owner's manual. And they certainly didn't give any hints about what's down in Storage. I realize you gentlemen will be busy, but I think I need to know what's down there. Laser guns, magic amulets, trinkets, gadgetry, and souvenirs from a thousand worlds. Who knows?"
Fred thought of the huge space beneath the Inn. The dozens--hundreds--of dusty boxes, crates, and loose items on shelves. "What would you do if we don't want to pay rent?" the buck asked.
"I'd just have the autopilot drop it in the ocean, that's what. Now, can we come to some sort of mutual agreement?"
There was a knock on the door at that moment. A weasel-man rudely opened it and stuck his head in. "The meat in the stew was overcooked, madam! It was as tough as old boots!" he complained.
"I'll be right with you, Mr. Gould. I'm just finishing some other business momentarily," the plump raccoon-woman said politely. "What do you say, Mr. O'Sullivan?"
"Okay, okay. We'll do it. Right Freddo?" the hare replied.
Of course the deer agreed. There was really nothing else he could do. But the whole crazy thing hinged on if the car even worked in this world. And that neither was certain of that critical fact.
There was only one way to find out.
The Inn was empty by nine in the morning the next day. The Boss spent some time counting her money before she let them open the ramp down into Storage. The Inn, whatever its incarnation, hadn't been that full in years. Either in this world, or any other. She hoped it would keep up. While there was currency in Storage, none of it fit here. They mostly had humans on the coinage.
Fred waited at the top of the ramp as Bruce half-hopped his way down to the Nash Runabout. To their 19th century eyes, the sleek, aerodynamic aircar was a wonder. But before he could get inside Bruce had to shovel away a pile of plastic-wrapped "Meals, Ready to Eat". Jerry described them as some sort of military ration, only used by the Inn when there was really nothing else.
When Bruce stuck his nose in the window, he covered it. "Faugh! You have to come down here and smell this, Freddo. Godalmighty!"
"I can smell it from up here," Fred replied. Was that what human females smelled like? No, it was more like the inside of a woman's purse. A half dozen different perfumes clashed with one another, attacking the nose like an advancing army, some dirty clothes added their own fragrance, and maybe even something had died in there. Bugs?
"You wouldn't believe the crap behind the seats," Bruce went on, rummaging around. Ears visible behind the windshield as they pressed against the roof, he brought out something quite pink and lacy. It was a bra, sort of. "What do you think? Mine or yours?"
Lacey's, Sara said derisively. God, that stinks.
"Leave it be and just drive it out," Fred suggested. "You wanted to be in Albany by noon, remember?"
"Give me just a few more minutes, 'Sara'. Hold on." The Irish hare put the driver's seat back in position then slid in, wincing visibly. "Okay. No tail accommodations. We're shorties, so we can handle it," he said. He then opened the glove box and waved the key about. As Lacey she had left it inside. Now, theoretically all her furry counterpart had to do was push the start button.
The headlights flashed for a moment, then it went dead. Various alarms blared from inside the car as the hare got an extremely puzzled look on his face. "'GPS not found. WeatherNet not found. Ground navigation not found. No network available. Please contact technical support before driving this vehicle.' What the hell does that mean?"
"It means that the car's computers found absolutely no supporting infrastructure," Jerry supplied. "That car of yours is probably the most advanced thing on the planet right now, but it's going to be Spartan without the NavNetwork. Does it have a fully manual mode? How do you think you're going to fly it, anyway?"
"Why, I'll just be Lacey. She's a very good pilot," Bruce said in his human female version's voice. Or as close as he could get to it. "As for a manual mode... er... hold on."
More rummaging, but this time he put a pair of HUD spectacles over his face. Unfortunately they were made for a human, so the bridge wasn't large enough He had to peer into one lens with a single lapine eye and see if it would respond. Amazingly, it did. At least to Lacey's voice, which he imitated better and better after a few frustrating failures. "There's a switch under the dash. Hold on, Freddo, we're almost out of here," "she" said.
"Will you stop doing that? It's creepy as hell," the buck complained.
It still took hours before Bruce could even drive the car up the ramp on batteries. He first had to find the Manual Mode switch under the dash. It was a red lever hidden in a tiny nook, behind a nearly invisible panel between the dashboard and the firewall. Once that was finished, a series of warning screens needed acknowledgment with all sorts of legal language saying that the driver was fully responsible for what would happen under any circumstances should he or she decide to operate the vehicle without navigation network assistance. And once that was over with he had to play with the seat for thirty minutes and settle his big hare feet on the pedals.
Out the car came, smoothly and quietly up the ramp. Falling leaves swirled around the tires and twenty-inch wheels. Now they had to see if it would fly.
The main turbine started with a high-pitched wine that made Bruce and Jerry fold their ears back. There was a scent of burning oil out of the exhaust pipe in back. All the lights flickered on, then off. Then finally, the booster plate flashed and lifted the aircar five feet off the ground. The wheel hubs started to glow, then rotated out and downwards. The ground under the aircar was lit by four pads of light as the booster-plate went out, and the air between car and ground had the same distortion that had surrounded the airborne ironclad. Bruce leaned out of the window and cheered in Lacey's voice. "All right! Sale's on, Freddo. Let me land again and let's get saddled up."
The buck had already resigned himself to trying to cram himself into the car. His antlers precluded sitting up straight. And since the aircar was a two-seater the passenger seat could only recline so far. After putting their smaller merchandise cases into the trunk, he pondered just how to contort himself and ignore the reeking interior.
"You could always just saw them off," Bruce suggested in his own voice. He made sawing motions with his hand-paws.
The human part thought that was reasonable enough, but only for a moment before the stag overwhelmed it. He folded his ears back and snort-wheezed at Bruce. "The Hell you say! Don't even joke about that."
The brown hare backed off a couple steps. "Okay, okay! I'm sorry I joked about it. Sheesh, you stags are so possessive over those things. I think I'd prefer a rack that doesn't fall off once per year, if you know what I mean."
"I do know," Fred replied, ears still folded irritably. "Really funny, Bruce. Let's just get in the air."
With the climate control blowing fresh air at full blast the aircar's interior became a tolerable mix of stale perfumes, exterior aromas, and the musk from two furry men. Bruce set the temperature at about five degrees Celsius, a comfortable range for both with their thick winter coats. Fred's antlers were jammed between the sloping rear window and the pass-through to the trunk. He could not see out directly, though the view of the ground from the landing camera was visible on the dashboard. Every screen there was rimmed in a flashing red border with "WARNING! Manual Flight!" writ in a large, hard-to-miss font.
The interior was surprisingly quiet, the silence only broken by Fred's cudding of lunch. He tried to chew as quietly as possible, given the look of extreme concentration on Bruce's lapine face. The hare's ears were splayed against the roof of the car, bent in a way that looked nearly as uncomfortable as Fred's predicament. All through the bumpy ascent Bruce muttered monosyllables of concentration, little grunts in Lacey's voice.
Finally, Fred had to ask. "Just how deep are you, Bruce?"
"You should call me Lacey right now, Sara," "she" replied. The voice and the tone it was spoken in told Fred his partner was very deep indeed. It was solely his female counterpart's. "Or Fred. Sorry about that. If I don't get into my female self's frame of mind as much as possible, I don't think I can fly this thing. This isn't like Sport Mode."
A little alarmed, Fred's antlers scraped against the sloping rear window as he tried to sit up a little more. The dashboard instrumentation indicated they were going barely over a hundred twenty kilometers an hour at an altitude of 2,500 meters--about seventy five miles an hour and seven thousand feet. "Shouldn't we be going faster?"
The chocolate brown hare shook "her" head. "It's as fast as the car will let us go in Manual Mode. And it's a lot harder than I thought. Especially without somebody to navigate since you can't sit up. Here, let me give you a better view of where we are." Lacey pushed a few buttons on the dash, and the landing camera view showed New York City. They were right overhead. The white British ironclad, currently moored in the harbor, was clearly visible. "We'll just follow the Hudson. It'll just take a couple hours to get there instead of half an hour. We'll be there just after noon."
It was more than a little disconcerting to hear such a perfectly female voice coming out of Bruce's male mouth. But if he closed one eye Fred could imagine Lacey sitting there instead. Unfortunately that was even stranger, since his deer-self had only ever read of humans in mythology books, and he still smelled male hare.
Fred felt Sara wake up a little more, and let her speak through his mouth. He didn't have Bruce's ability to change his voice much, though. So it was less in pitch and more in tone and inflection. "Hey there, Lace."
"Oh, so you're still in there. I was getting worried," Lacey replied sincerely.
"I'm... I'm sorry I made us leave," Sara continued.
"Don't apologize for anything, okay? How many of my schemes have you followed along with, and not even a complaint? I owed you. I have some really nice pecs here. Furry, sure. But at least I ended up handsome as hares go. Don't worry your antlered noggin over it, hon."
"Um... thanks. I'm going to let you fly now," Sara said, clearly not expecting the response she had gotten. She receded back into Fred's head again. I just wanted to make sure she knew I was in here. I hope you don't mind.
Fred just grunted in affirmation, and tried to make himself comfortable.
It was a very bumpy ride. Cloud cover and a little clinging, late-day fog made keeping track of the river difficult; and without a moving map and GPS, a compass and a distance-from-Inn indicator was the only thing that kept them from getting lost. Lacey had to stop a half dozen times and reorient the aircar to the river again. This made their trip even longer, and increased their chances of being seen. "The birds, the birds..." Lacey muttered a couple times. Fred passed the time by watching the ground on the landing camera. The farther north they went, the more the ground resembled frozen fire, with patches of blaze oranges, fiery reds, and bright yellows.
"I'm getting a crick in my neck," Fred complained. "Can we put down and stretch our legs a little?"
"We're almost there, Sara. Fred. I mean Fred. Give me another fifteen minutes." The woman-voiced hare turned the wheel and the car spun around through two hundred seventy degrees. "Ah! There it is. I think I see some church steeples and the Capitol dome. See that coppery shine? Now I just need to find somewhere to land."
"You know, after all this we're not gaining that much time," Fred pointed out. "We should have just taken the train."
"They're deathtraps, Fred. They don't even have proper brakes in this period. Do you know how many people die in train accidents these days?" Lacey-Bruce replied firmly. "Flying's safer..."
It happened with apparent glacial slowness, at first in Fred's inner ear as Lacey turned the wheel hard over and banked the car over a potential landing space. Then came the sudden drop, a gut-clenching sensation as the aircar slid sideways as if it was on a slope, then nearly pitched over upside down. The wind outside became a scream, the three electric actuators going *whump* as they extended the airbrakes, the main turbine under the hood screaming protest, the alarms blaring painfully in his ears. Everything behind the front seats came loose and was thrown around the cabin. Empty drink bottles, used makeup compacts, and a pastel blue top that tangled itself in Fred's antlers.
The sharp smell of urine and panic filled the cabin. Fred's tail squirmed beneath him as it attempted to flag, rump fur flaring.
Somehow Lacey got them righted again. The aircar leveled out, the screaming and alarms stopped. There was less than a thousand feet of altitude left. "Shit, Lacey! What the hell?" Fred and Sara exclaimed in unison.
"The antigrav works funny here," Lacey replied in a shaking voice. "Goddamn it! That wasn't a joke, Fred. I was in a steep bank and I think I went over too far, so we got yanked down. It shouldn't work like that! I'm going to put down the very first place I see."
"Good!" Fred desperately wanted some solid ground beneath his hooves.
The landing spot was a meadow that had some large granite rocks as a pavement. Ten feet above the ground the wheels retracted to ground mode and the booster-plate set them down with a jerky double bounce. Fred tried to stop his hyperventilating and opened his door. But he didn't get out before untangling the camisole out of his antlers. Sara chose that moment to complain about Lacey borrowing her clothes, but it felt to Fred like she was just trying to calm herself.
"I think I peed my pants," Lacey whimpered.
The walk into town was anticlimactic. The meadow was located in a small hidden valley about a half mile from some poorly maintained railroad tracks. The two salesmen followed those tracks another couple miles into the capital proper. But the duo smelled more than a little odd. The problem was that both reeked like the perfume mix in the aircar. It was incredibly clingy stuff intended for human noses, so it smelled quite strange, in a feminine sort of way. As they'd left the meadow Bruce, still talking in Lacey's voice for some reason, had suggested they find a Scent Shop before approaching Fisk.
Just as the town became city, Bruce took them behind a large pile of hay near a livery stable. He was still shaking a little from the near-catastrophe, though the insides of his ears seemed flushed. "How's the voice?" Fred asked.
"That's just what I wanted to talk about," the brown hare replied, sounding as girlish as ever. He spoke quietly. "It's stuck."
Bruce shook his head, ears nervously a-flick. "I wish I was. I've been trying to sound like myself for half an hour, but no dice." He'd switched to a lower register, but it still sounded like a woman failing to imitate a man. "But I don't seem to have the knack. It's like I really have Lacey's voicebox now. Apparently she didn't have my hare-self's changeable voice, so now I don't either." He sounded a little frightened, and rubbed his furry throat nervously. "You're going to have to do the talking, Freddo."
"I'm no good at that! You always make the pitch," Fred sputtered.
"I can't make our sales pitch sounding like this," Bruce pointed out. "And I'm feeling kind of weird, too. I can't really place it. I'm a little feverish, my chest is sore, my skin is tingling all over, and my bones ache. It started in the aircar maybe an hour ago, but..."
"Sounds like the flu," Fred replied. He licked his nose to moisten it, then did something he only normally did with does. He lip-curled for a moment to trap the aromas inside his nose to enhance them further. The whitetail's mind easily sorted through the myriad number of smells, pinpointing Bruce's. He flicked his ears back in surprise. Under all the other aromas, including his clothes, there was a very slightly feminine note to his partner's personal smell that seemed freshest.
"Well?" Bruce said, folding his arms across his chest in a rather Lacey-like expression.
"It's the perfume," Fred lied. "We should find that scent shop. How are we supposed to find Fisk? I don't know where to start."
"We haven't come this far just to give up," Bruce-Lacey said firmly, though there was some doubt in his tone that hadn't been there before. "We'll make a few rounds of the taverns and restaurants around the capitol building. We know what he looks and smells like. I'll just keep my mouth zipped. Say I have laryngitis or something."
Fred agreed, since there was really nothing else he could do. Bruce made a zipping motion over his lips and then led them into the state capital.
As they walked it was apparent to Fred that there was something physically wrong with his partner, though unless one knew him closely it'd likely be missed. He seemed shorter by a fraction of an inch. When he walked his hips swayed more than normal. And there was a dime-sized patch of butterscotch fur on the back of his neck, where it met his shirt collar. But he said nothing, even though he had a really bad feeling about what was happening. Sara was troubled, too. She had receded quite far in their shared mind for whatever reason.
They carried one merchandise case each. Bruce carried his Spring-Heeled Jacks, and Fred a special candelabra that was his contribution to their endeavor. Bruce always went for something showy and somewhat impractical, while the former cowpuncher wanted elegance. They found the scent shop pretty quickly--they were a pretty common type of shop in a world of sensitive noses--and exited smelling much more like confident businessmen instead of a couple of over-doused females.
But there was still the hint of feminine scent from Bruce under all the expensive cologne.
Albany didn't have the hustle and bustle of New York or Brooklyn. Instead there were people who thought themselves on Important Government Business going to and fro, carrying parcels and courier bags. Bruce was right that taverns surrounded the Capitol Building, which was itself a rather grand structure of marble and the copper dome, would be a good place to look. Small groups of men who were obviously legislators each seemed to have their own tavern. The two men kept their eyes and noses open, trying to find anything that smelled of Fisk.
After an hour of circling the butterscotch patch on Bruce's neck was over the size of a silver dollar. And his clothes seemed a little more ill-fitting. He kept tucking in his shirt, over and over again. The feminine scent was a little stronger.
Fred suspected what was happening to his partner, but it just seemed too incredible to admit. Sara was no help. She'd balled herself up again. Hey, girl-me, do you know what's going on? he asked her.
Call it feminine intuition, came the distant reply. But think manly thoughts, Fred. We'll talk again later.
On the third time around the Tavern Circle they were starting to lose confidence. Bruce's ears drooped, and Fred was getting concerned that the sloping shoulders were more signs of accelerating change rather than just depression. Amazingly Bruce hadn't yet drawn any attention to himself. Or herself. Whichever really matched at the moment.
But then Fisk's scent flitted across the street, and in a rather exclusive-looking tavern that had been one of the potential spots they had marked, there he was. Same mustache, horns curled slightly longer than the portrait, different expensive suit. But it was the same odor from the office, and that clinched it. Standing next to him at the storefront under a red awning was a literal bear of a man in a red waistcoat. He was at least seven feet tall and surprisingly graceful on his feet. Both men took seats at a large table near the tavern's entrance. A few servers promptly followed, setting four steaming roast beefs in front of him, then a huge salad bowl in front of Fisk that smelled of a tangy dressing.
A line had already formed going halfway down the block. Supplicants hoping for a political handout? Some of them even appeared to be legislators from the other taverns. These men weren't sitting down to dinner, they were holding court!
Bruce's shoulders slumped even further. His ears drooped down over his back, and the momentary expression of hope on his face turned to utter despair. He tugged on Fred's near elbow, and the buck leaned in to listen. "Let's go back to the aircar. There's no point in waiting. I... I don't think I'll last that long."
"Okay," Fred replied. There was a splotch of butterscotch on Bruce's left cheek now, too. The hare had shrunken fully another inch, and the shape of his ears had also changed subtly. Fred could tell that the body contours under the increasingly baggy clothes were now changing in earnest.
"It's disgusting," someone growled from behind them. "Fisk and Boss Tweed. They act like kings and everyone bows to them."
Fred smelled mountain lion, and turned his head to see a bespectacled one behind him. His feline head lacked any human cues. No facial hair or anything. He didn't even wear a hat, which was uncommon for non-horned and -antlered folk. But the orange eyes had a fierce, even friendly charisma to them. For the two corrupt financiers was only hatred, but for the two salesmen there was a wary friendliness. "My partner and I have realized this," Fred said. "In fact, we have to catch a train..."
"I won't take more than a few minutes of your time," the older mountain lion replied. "I just come down here to remind myself that these men are the enemy. They use the new immigrants to their advantage, and I'm sad to say the poor Irish swallow it. They don't even realize they've been bought with their own money. And I also saw the look on your faces. You want in, don't you?" Now there was danger in those eyes, and however they answered would color everything that followed. His lips twitched over his sharp canine teeth.
Fred thought it would appear dishonest to claim it wasn't his idea. He let the human-Fred do the talking since he didn't have the accent. "Wanted, sir. Past tense now. It just took watching this travesty to see it."
"If you want, if you gentlemen have time, you can follow me back to my office," the tawny-furred man went on. This was, apparently, the correct answer. He had relaxed, apparently taking Fred at his word. "I won't take but a few minutes, I promise."
Fred looked at Bruce, who shrugged. The changes weren't happening with visible speed at least. And the ever-shifting crowd and traffic kept anyone from noticing. But Fred drew a few odd looks now: a slender male-smelling hare in ill-fitting clothes that smelled subtly wrong.
"You'll have to excuse my friend here. He's ill. No voice right now."
"Ah. I see. Pity. Well, follow me."
The modest office was only a half block away. The name on the door proclaimed "Roosevelt and Co." "Theodore Roosevelt, Senior," he finally introduced himself. "Now, since you gentlemen are pressed for time, make your pitch as quickly as you please. Whatever you are selling, perhaps I'm even in the market."
Fred introduced them both, and while Bruce stood in a darkened corner and fidgeted with his clothes, Fred fumbled to open his case on the man's careworn desk. "Thank you sir. I'll be very brief."
Sitting in its velvet-padded case, Fred removed the two main pieces of his candelabra. They were made mostly of cast iron with pewter candle holders that he had carved himself. Next, he took out a two-inch wide, four-inch long cylinder of the purest cavorite crystal he had ever found. A miner had used it as payment for two bags of flour years before. He quickly rubbed it several times on the front of his wool waistcoat. With that little priming electric charge, he quickly clamped it into the center of the lower cast iron arms, then slid on the upper half and screwed them together. Assembled they formed an ornate cross. Finally, he placed one high-quality taper in each of four holders, then lit them with a match.
Mr. Roosevelt's orange eyes widened in wonder as Fred lifted it effortlessly into the air to shoulder height, then left it there. It floated as if rooted in the air, the candles putting out a steady, cheerful light.
"This is only a prototype," Fred explained. "But perhaps you can see the potential for cut glass and brass fittings to make it sparkle. I imagine that people of means like yourself might find it an elegant addition to your dinner table."
"Hmm..." Roosevelt pondered. "Just what do you gentlemen need?"
"Enough investment capital for a fair-sized factory. We need some skilled blacksmiths and brassmen. And this grade of cavorite is not cheap."
The mountain lion's tail swished, and he walked around the suspended candelabra a couple times, waving his hands above an below it. "I am thoroughly impressed, Mr. Granger. I've seen all sort of poorly thought out uses for this rock, but yours is the first that has my full attention. If you will give me some way to contact you in the near future me and my partners will be in touch." He extended his hand, claws retracted.
Fred's heart leapt into his throat. He shook calmly and firmly.
"What about you, then?" Roosevelt then asked Bruce.
The splotchy hare just shook his head and rubbed his throat, then pointed at the door.
"Ah, it looks like my ill colleague wants us to make sure we're not left here for the night," Fred added smoothly, blowing out the candles. The buck quickly wrote down the location of the Inn on some scrap paper. "Our thanks, sir."
Bruce's clear dejection, among other things, kept a lid on Fred's cheerful mood. The two practically dashed out of Albany, leaving the city behind with about an hour of real daylight left. It was all the whitetail could do to keep up with his partner. By the time they were out into the countryside, over halfway back to the aircar, there was no way Bruce could hide it. As he half-ran down the road his hips swayed in a decidedly feminine manner.
The hare stopped, puffing and panting, at a secluded spot about a mile from their transportation. He sat down on a tree stump and started unbuttoning his waistcoat. Before Fred could protest, he'd opened his shirt as well. The buck tried to avert his eyes, but found he couldn't look away. They were small, but they were clearly breasts. Prominent nipples and areolae stood out in a sea of creamy butterscotch fur, a much lighter shade than on his back. The half-woman sighed deeply. "It's the medical nannies. I'm sure of it. They don't operate quite as advertised in this world either, like the aircar's antigrav."
The patches of darker butterscotch fur on her--definitely a "her" now--were visibly spreading and had run together so that Bruce's chocolate shade was being eaten away. Longer strands flowed down from the back of her head, behind her ears, in a rough imitation of human hair. Even her face had changed, gaining an unmistakably feminine aspect at some point in the past few minutes that Fred had missed.
"Can you button your shirt back up?" Fred choked out. "Please?"
"They're still growing, Freddo. They're sore, and the fabric's too tight and itchy. I've been absolutely baking in these clothes almost since we left the Inn. So no, I don't think I will. There's nobody around to see them besides you and some four-legged deer," she replied. "Besides, you know what it's like to have your own pair, right Sara?"
"She's not in right now," he replied stiffly, trying not to sound offensive. "I think it was you getting 'into' Lacey's head that did it. She's gone back to sleep."
Lacey's nose twitched, and she sighed again. "Think like a woman, end up one. Just wonderful. Our entire business goes out the window in this world if we both end up women, Fred. So Sara's right to do what she did." She sighed deeply again, cupped her slightly larger breasts, then stood up. It was Bruce talking, by the tone of voice. "As it is you're going to be in charge."
"What?" Fred stammered. "Can't you... er... think manly thoughts and change back?"
Tears filled her eyes. "What do you think I've been trying to do for the past two hours, Freddo? I think it's a one-way ticket," she wailed.
"What makes you think that?"
"Female intuition," the mostly-female hare replied matter-of-factly. She sighed again and stood up, then started removing the rest of her clothes. Her pants clearly didn't fit any more. She thrust the waistband down over her newly widened hips, followed by her underwear. The waistcoat and undershirt soon followed, leaving her naked--or as naked as a furry creature could be, at any rate. This revealed only a few remaining patches of chocolate fur, and a developing curvaceous figure that would be stunning when complete. There was nothing prominent enough between her legs to merit even a raised eyebrow.
She gathered up the clothing and folded it carefully on a rock, then put the waistcoat back on, covering her swelling chest but not buttoning it. "Be a dear deer and go back to that last general store, will you Fred? We could use those tins of olive oil we saw out front," Lacey said. "I'll bring your case back to the aircar."
"It's getting dark," the buck protested, keeping himself from the flehman with pure strength of will. "We should be in the air as soon as possible. What do you need olive oil for?"
She held her old clothes in the crook of one arm, and the merchandise case with her free hand. "We need gas, Fred. These turbines can burn just about anything. Make sure you get a narrow funnel and a churchkey, too. I'll meet you there."
It took nearly an hour to lug the six one-gallon tins of oil back to the aircar in a burlap sack. Fred wasn't normally one to boast, but he was pretty strong and fit. Perhaps even moreso since the medical nannies had cured all the aches and pains that had developed over many years of horseback riding, not to mention the arm that had been broken and not set quite right after that horse threw him. If it hadn't been that his partner had just spontaneously changed sexes before his eyes over the last few hours, he'd be feeling quite happy about those developments. Instead, he thought of does he had trysted with since adolescence, starting with Lizzie Greer. Manly thoughts, manly thoughts.
More than once he paused to add his mark at obvious signpost trees. On one occasion he unbuttoned his pants, kicked them off, then added a rather animalistic scent-mark. After scraping a hollow in the fallen leaves with his cloven hooves, he pissed on the musk glands on the inside of his hocks. Before moving out east he'd actually done this quite often, but "civilization" made other demands on a person. "Fredrick Granger was here," he muttered, rubbing the low part of the tree with the knobby base of his antlers, and depositing even more musk from his forehead glands deeply into the little elm's bark. This poor, innocent tree would smell like him for months.
He felt positively primal. A man--and a stag--to the core. "Look out, does!" he declared.
But he nevertheless felt absolutely ridiculous for doing so. He had nothing to prove to anyone about his stag-hood. His robust ten-point antlers were something to be proud of, and his neck had begun to swell for the Rut.
Approaching the hidden meadow brought something new to his ears. Strange music filtering between the fire-leafed trees. It sounded like a guitar at first, then some piano, and then some instruments he couldn't quite recognize. Then he made out lyrics, in a voice that wasn't Bruce's or Lacey's.
"He may play the Jack of Diamonds, he may lay the Queen of Spades..." It was a rather haunting tune, and the singer was very good. But it was nothing like the Fifties. "That's not the shaaaape of my heeeeaart..." the male singer lilted.
The aircar still sat on its granite parking place. The driver door was open, with the music coming out of it, but Lacey was nowhere in sight. What startled him more, though, were the half dozen songbirds perched on the hood, heads tilting left and right. They were obviously entranced by the music, so much so they hadn't noticed Fred's arrival. Unfortunately the wind was from the wrong direction. If Lacey was around, she knew he was here. So there was only one way to get her attention. "Lacey, I'm back!"
A slender butterscotch arm raised up from the dry summer grasses in the twilit meadow. If she hadn't moved Fred would have missed her completely. "Over here, bucky boy. Just trying to relax before the flight."
Fred lugged the heavy sack over and left it next to the car, the birds ignoring him completely as the music changed to a different style, all drums and bass guitar. It was good music, he decided, but the instrument range was amazingly narrow. Human ears, he reminded himself.
Lacey had removed the vest again. She laid in the grass, legs crossed, with not a hint of masculinity about her scent or her shape, or any chocolate fur whatsoever. She looked and smelled like a completely different person. Her large, full breasts rose above the grass like a furry mountain range, nipples erect twin peaks in the chilly early autumn air. But she seemed at ease, much of the tension gone in the last hour. With Fred watching, she rolled over onto her belly in one fluid motion. Her furry "hair" flowed all the way down her back. It was, perhaps, the most aesthetic mix of hare and human woman Fred could imagine. But he had to remind himself quite firmly that this was his business partner.
"Feeling better?" he asked stiffly.
"Much. I feel like myself again," said Lacey. In her case, that might be true. Her powder puff tail flicked. "Except I have no idea how to be a doe. I guess I'll just wing it." She looked at him with wry green eyes. "Bunny doe, of course. I'm not a deer."
"I hope that olive oil is good stuff. There's no food regulations in this period, so who knows what could be in it," Fred said, changing the subject.
"It should be fine. Olive oil was in the manual as an acceptable fuel," Lacey informed. She stood up and stretched, sticking one long, shapely leg out, then the other, splaying her clawed toes, then reaching with both arms above her head. Fred was entranced as her chest heaved with her movements. "The nanobots were pretty thorough. Everything's where it's supposed to be. For a woman, I mean. Though I think I'm a little overendowed, don't you?" She giggled and jiggled lightly.
Fred felt himself grow a little angry. She had to know the effect she was having on him. The sight of her, the smell of her, was nearly too much to bear. "What are you trying to do to me?" he choked out, covering his nose.
The smile faded, and so did the veneer of happiness. It broke his heart to see her crumple like that. She immediately folded her arms across her chest and choked back a sob. "I'm sorry, Fred! I'm... I'm not myself. I can't describe it. I have mood swings like the most horrible PMS I've ever had. Let me put something more substantial on."
She half-hopped to the aircar's open door, then pushed the driver's seat forward to access the storage space behind. The near-crash had made an already disorganized mess into a pile that needed a lot of searching to find what she was looking for: a large, vacuum-flattened plastic bag that contained bra, panties, and one of the ubiquitous 50s-style belted dresses that Future World liked so much. "This is just dumb fabric, but it'll do," she said, slicing open the top with a fingertip claw.
While she dressed and Fred opened the gas cap, a bright red cardinal finally broke out of the spell the music had him under. "Oh, hello there," the bird chirped at the buck. It was a high, musical voice with masculine overtones. Hearing anything intelligible out of that beak was surreal. "Miss Hare said you were coming."
"Well, we're going to have to get going soon once I get the tank full," Fred replied, not knowing what else to say, nor what Lacey had said to them. He put the funnel into the fuel spout, then used the churchkey to puncture the gallon-size tins in several places. The oil smelled pretty fresh, though there were apparently a few herbs mixed in. He hoped it wouldn't foul the turbine. The slow refueling process began. "Um... I'm a little startled by your... uh..."
"Most Wingless generally are, except the bats," the cardinal said exasperatedly. "Frankly, there just aren't that many of us who can still talk. I'd say that only one of my chicks was even as smart as I am, and she still can't speak. But at least it's not getting any worse since the Catastrophe."
"Wait... wait," Fred said. "Atlantis again?"
"The deer is smart and learned." He looked at the green car he perched on. "We have stories of flying buggies like this from Ancient Skies, but I never thought I'd see one! Where did you find it? The ancient Luddites swore to destroy all our technology."
"And changed humans into animals?" Fred said, testing out an idea that had popped into his head. He thought of the skull in Fisk's office and put two and two together.
"The deer is learned," the bird repeated, bobbing up and down. "They thought it was better than killing people, or so our songs say. But someone on the other side gummed up the works and prolonged the process by a few orders of magnitude. Unfortunately it only took we birds a few hundred years to make the transition. You mammals are still going after what? Twelve thousand years? And you're even getting back into the forbidden territory the Luddites hated so much! I love it!" he sang.
"Remember our agreement," Lacey said. The blue dress she wore, modest by Fifties standards, would still be scandalous in this furry Victorian age despite the weird nighttime nudity taboos.
"Yes, yes. The music is good payment for our silence. But you can expect to hear some of us singing it by spring! We're always looking for new ways to impress our females."
By the time all the tins had been emptied into the fuel tank it was already late twilight. Dawn and dusk were the most invigorating times for Fred, reflecting the highest activity periods for his four-legged cousins. After the birds had flown off to roost for the night, Lacey waited while Fred contorted himself into the passenger seat again, though not before picking a few beechnuts off the ground. He used Bruce's old shirt to hold them, with Lacey's permission. A snack for them both on the flight back.
A couple minutes later he still waited, with Lacey pacing back and forth outside the open door. It was already dark, and he was wondering if they were just going to have to stay the night out in the open. The breeze had picked up enough that he couldn't smell her at all. But her body language was clear. She was trembling with fright.
"Do you want to wait until morning?" he said.
She actually jumped a little when he spoke. But shook her head emphatically then sat down in the driver's seat, then closed the door. When she gripped the wheel her hands shook. She rubbed them a little, then smiled uncomfortably. "We're kind of in luck. We don't need to use Manual Mode to go home."
Fred raised his ears. "Oh really? How're we going to pull that off?"
"Inertial navigation system. The car's AI knows exactly where we came from and can fly us there without me even having to touch the wheel. And it can do it at speed, if the weather holds. We'll be back in less than an hour," she said, trying to sound cheerful and confident about it. There was already a light blinking on the dashboard: "Accept Course?" All she had to do was push it.
But it was also clear that she wouldn't. There was a pleading look in her eyes. She glanced at Fred, then the flashing button, and back again, several times.
Shit, Bruce, what's wrong with you? Fred wondered as he contorted himself to try and reach it. It turned out to be easier to lift his left leg out of its slot and hit the touch-pad button with a hoof. The car immediately started going through its diagnostic checklist. Fred kept an eye on the Fuel Quality indicator that flickered from green to yellow a few times before it settled on green and the main turbine whirred to life.
The aircar lit up the meadow as it lifted off, antigravity plates and landing lights ablaze. They were probably seen from Albany in the deepening twilight, but neither really cared. It quickly climbed to ten thousand meters into smoother air and accelerated to over four hundred kilometers an hour. A green light indicating a pressurizing cabin flashed.
"Let's make ourselves less conspicuous," Lacey finally said. Pushing a few buttons on the dash, everything except the most critical dashboard instruments and a couple navigation lights went dark. "We probably look like one of those UFOs I've read about in the news as it is."
She only lightly touched anything, wringing her hands every time she did. She never touched the wheel, but after a few button presses on the center console, soft jazz filled the cabin. That was the only sound all the way to the Inn.
|Forgotten Hotel||Succeeded by:|
Forgotten Hotel, Ch. 6-current