User:JonBuck/Forgotten Hotel, Part 2
|This story is a work in progress.|
Forgotten Hotel, Ch. 1-5
|Forgotten Hotel||Succeeded by:|
The duel took place in the garden of one of the growing Flatbush neighborhood's more wealthy members. William James was a ten-pointer, roughly Fredrick's physical equal. Among deer, with the social hierarchy during the Rut determined by how many points one had, that meant trouble. James was stiffly formal about it, down to the white glove slap on the face. "This is a challenge for the hand of Victoria Wales," he'd said two days ago, even coming right to the factory construction site a mile outside of the city.
The two stags weren't quite at the top of the heap. There were enough twelvers around that it made those one step beneath fight for the remaining does all the harder. Whitetails didn't keep harems, but neither did they have human-style monogamous relationships with members of their own species. On the road to animaldom Fred estimated they were just over halfway there. The slow, plodding march away from humanity was having some very interesting cultural effects as the animal instincts gained prominence. Only the increasingly infrequent interspecies unions exhibited more human-style relationships. There were more than enough deer of many species in Brooklyn to create their own subcultures.
Both deer-men stripped off their clothing, as had everyone else in the tall-fenced garden. The object of their courtship was a gorgeous-smelling doe with, strangely enough, four nipples rather than two, one set over the other. She lacked any sign of human hair, but had a luscious, long-bodied, full figure. She was surrounded by her fawns from previous years, two still-spotted bucks and four does. A half dozen of them, ages four and up, mostly with different fathers. With her Estrus close Fred hoped she was rooting for the rustic newcomer. But it was unseemly for her to show any preference between co-equal suitors. She would couple with the winner.
The former cowboy lip-curled. Her scent was like fine wine, and she would peak within two days.
For all their animalistic behaviors, there were still many trappings of civilization. A cervine sort of chivalry. Using younger bucks as go-betweens, Fredrick had begun with some anonymous poetry, then progressed to a midnight serenade outside her window, and finally a formal introduction the next day. That's when the other challenge had come.
"Okay, gentlemen," said the old stag who was acting as Proctor. His antlers were shrunken with age, but since he had so much experience, he was the perfect person for the job. "Antlers-only rules. No punches, no kicks. We're going to do this just like the Indians do. May the best rack win. Start at the drop of her handkerchief."
Fredrick rubbed his hands together, then took a look at them closely for the first time. They weren't quite as dexterous as human hands, now that he had something to compare them with. Well on the way to being forehooves, the thick black nails covered a third of the tips of the two thick central fingers. His thumb and pinky fingers resembled dewclaws. They'd always felt a little stiffer during the height of the Rut. Just why, he realized, was now quite obvious.
James was a throwback by comparison. He had five fingers on each hand. He had a mess of brown human hair and a shorter muzzle. Though his legs were a deer's like everyone else, even his eyes seemed more human. He wore the self confidence of one who has conquered many times before, and had a well-earned reputation already. "No fancy chop-chop this time, Granger," he said.
"I won't need it," the former human replied. Most does came into Estrus within a range of five days. Five frantic, wonderful days when almost all commerce within the cervine community came to a grinding halt. Though the other species were doing brisk business in baubles and trinkets for the suitors to give their does. And it would happen again in a month. "You don't know what yer in fer."
James went to the fighting circle and crouched down to that his black-nailed fingertips rested on the packed earth. "I've had four already," he boasted. "You? Even if you win you'll only have had three. And I have two more does a-courting."
"After this they won't want a sorry excuse for a stag like yerself," Fred taunted with a challenging snort.
The doe sat on her throne regally, eyes flicking between her suitors, with an expectant smile on her face. However, this turned out, she still won.
Before Fred went into his own crouch, Lacey walked over and brushed some dust off his rust-colored shoulders. "Wishing you luck," she said. She was as nude as everyone else, and was holding court of her own. As a hare she was outside the cervine subculture. This made her fair game for the younger, smaller-racked bucks. And they clustered around her like lovestruck puppies. "You'll get this one, too."
He grunted thanks, ears laid back, as he crouched down and planted his hoof-like fingertips on the ground. Both were now ready.
Victoria dropped her handkerchief.
Stop to think about what you're going to do next, and lose. It was all split-second reflexes and experience. Under these rules whatever humanity they had seemed to slough away. Ears plastered against their necks, heads lowered, they snort-wheezed challenges at one another. James feinted a couple times, testing his opponent's courage with lowered antlers as they circled one another, looking for some weakness. But Fred wasn't budging. He dug his fingertips more firmly into the ground, clamped in his tail, and lunged forwards.
Their antlers impacted with a resounding bone-on-bone clatter. It was immediately apparent that whoever had the better traction would win, and that unquestioningly belonged to Fred. With effectively four hooves on the ground he pushed his opponent backwards a couple feet as James struggled to bring his not-inconsiderable strength into play with only two. But as the other ten-pointer contended with that, with a martial arts flick of his antlers Fred turned the stag over on his back with an audible grunt of pain.
"Halt!" the old stag called, raising his hand. "Winner, Fredrick Granger!"
Adrenaline surging, it was all Fred could do not to just finish the job. He stood up on two legs and shook out his aching hands while his Second, a young fallow deer named Jack Timbers, handed him a bowl of thick, stout beer as he took a seat on a bench, tail flicking.
James was in worse shape. Groaning in pain, the nails had been torn off his bloody fingertips. His own Second brought a pair of bandages and wrapped them up. "You got the better of me, Granger," he said. "Much more quickly than I thought possible." He was mortified, but not a sore loser. There was also a note of subservience in his tone of voice. In seconds the hierarchy had been decided.
"I accept my opponent's concession," Fredrick said formally. He started lapping at the sweet, thick beer. It was like liquid bread. He'd eaten little in days, hungry for other things besides food.
Victoria applauded, then demurely stood up. She looked coyly at the victor and sauntered over to give him a nakedly passionate lick on his blooded cheek. The action heated his ardor even further, with a somewhat embarrassing effect. But he was among his species (mostly), and none of them thought it unseemly. Here, behind the fence, was where they could briefly let go of civilization. It certainly blew off steam.
She sat down on his lap and cuddled him soundly with a muzzleful of breasts. His scent would be all over her now, telling all whose doe she was. "You have well and truly earned my reward, my rustic roustabout. Our fawns will be strong and smart. I'll have my servants prepare your bed. You will know when I'm ready to receive you, my love." She stood up again, and with a lustful look, walked back into the house with family in tow to re-dress.
Fred still panted from his exertions as Timbers brushed the dust off of Fred's broad shoulders and swollen neck. He hadn't come through the fight completely unscathed. The foretip of one of his opponent's antlers had cut his cheek, drawing surprisingly little blood. The younger buck dabbed at the wound, then cleared his throat in askance. "Well, Jack?" Fred said gruffly.
"Um... your cousin Elizabeth," Timbers stammered. The palmate-antlered stag would be blushing if he was human. Unlike his boss his fur actually had white spots, and a rangier physique. He spoke in a friendly light baritone with an English accent. "I was wondering if you could formally introduce me." He lip-curled in Lacey's direction. "She's not a doe doe, but wow..."
"Jack, you've known her for weeks," Fredrick pointed out. Timbers was one of their new employees. He was an immigrant metalworker who would be making Fred's candelabras and a few Spring-Heeled Jacks, if they could find a market for them. For now he was helping supervise the construction. "If you want to ask her out, it's up to her to accept or refuse."
Timbers knew "Elizabeth" as the woman who brought treats from God-knew-where and was on an easy, informal relationship with his boss. The two partners had decided on the "cousin Elizabeth" fiction to explain their familiarity without having to pose as husband and wife. Their relationship was awkward enough between them right now without adding that unnecessary wrinkle.
"I'd... I'd really prefer the introduction," Timbers stammered. The fallow buck scuffed his left hoof on the ground. "It'd just feel more chivalrous. Propah."
Fred sighed and watched at his female business partner as she skillfully flirted with the three bucks in her "court". She was eating up the attention. Since the gender change she'd simply gone with Lacey's comfortably female persona most of the time, though there was enough of Bruce in there to make it a little uncertain who was responding. But he was coming to think that it really didn't matter, because she knew everything both versions of Bruce did. Just because Fred's male and female aspects were separate didn't mean Bruce-Lacey's were. But there were still obvious differences in the way the male and female versions viewed the world. The more he thought about it the more uncomfortably tangled his thinking became.
As for his female aspect, Sara had been pretty quiet, though he often felt her watching she rarely actively contributed or dared to take physical control. She was deathly afraid of both of them ending up women in this world. Lacey had almost completely withdrawn into herself, which was absolutely out of character for the normally outgoing woman. It had actually taken Sara to cajole her out of doing inventory in Storage to even start visiting the future factory. This was the first real social event she had attended since Albany, and she'd only come because she wouldn't have to wear the "awful, awful clothes" for very long.
She looks a little more like herself, Sara whispered. She makes a very cute hare. A literal Playboy Bunny, here.
"Seriously, Timbers. Go ask her yourself," Fred said, putting his hand on the younger buck's shoulder. "She's not going to laugh at you."
Visibly girding himself, mindful of the other suitors around her, Timber left Fred's side and pushed his way in between them. "It would honor me greatly if you would come to dine with me tomorrow night, Miss Granger," he said in a florid English accent.
"Oh my," she replied. Her expression softened a little, then she sighed. "Jack, it... it wouldn't be proper for you to court your employer's cousin. I hope you understand."
The fallow deer sighed. "It's okay, Miss. I'm used to disappointment in my station in life. Good day to you, Miss Granger." He stolidly kept a stiff upper lip, then gathered his clothes to the chuckles of the three whitetails, who had had as much luck as he.
The group was breaking up now. The loser's hospitality was wearing a little thin. Fred stood and went over to his folded clothing and started to put it back on. Once the three young bucks left to do the same, "Elizabeth" went to the room designated for the ladies to do the same. For some strange reason it was okay to see a nude doe, but not okay to watch her dress.
"Tell me something, Granger," William said. "That song the other night outside Miss Wales's window. What were those lyrics? It was wonderfully romantic."
So he had been there. Well, there was no point in keeping them to himself. It could hardly be kept secret. He cleared his throat.
"Earth angel, earth angel "Will you be mine "My darling dear "Love you all the time "I'm just a fooool "A fool in love, with you..."
"Never heard the like," William said, ears forward. The subservience in his voice faded then, and his expression turned fierce and threatening. "Oh, about that little factory of yours. Once I find out what you're making, I'm going to bury you and that shadowy partner you have."
When Fred left the row house Lacey was waiting for him in front, dressed in the clothing she despised as a medieval torture device. While doing inventory she either wore one of her few remaining Fifties dresses or nothing at all. Fred had simply gotten used to it. "That was very exciting!" she said. Her hair was in a bun rather than loose and her long ears flicked emphatically. "I never had a doubt."
"Thank you, Elizabeth," he replied.
She held her handbag close to her. She wore a new black dress that covered every inch of fur from neck to ankles. It looked very hot, even in the below freezing temperatures that pervaded this time of month. It was going to snow tonight. "I suppose this means I won't see you for a day or two. Do you go right to Victoria's home?"
"To court her with more music and poetry until she's in Estrus, yes," he said. "I think three is a good number for this first Rut. There's always November..."
"You are insatiable. I don't think I've ever seen you so happy, Fredrick. You don't want children, but you don't have to have a hand in raising them here. You don't even have to marry. Why, it must be paradise!"
Fred couldn't tell if she was being sincere, sarcastic, or just teasing him. But she hit a nerve. "I'm not going to be able to supervise the construction site while I'm gone. I want you to do it in my stead."
"That is men's work," she replied crisply, tilting her head up as if something reeked. "I have other work to do at the Inn. Have Timbers do it."
"Those men respect you more than you think, Lace--Liz," he retorted, recalling how she'd pointed out problems and they'd been promptly fixed.
The butterscotch hare trembled a little. She spoke in that odd Lacey-Bruce mix that was common for her lately. "I don't care, Fred. I really don't. It's still not my place as a woman to order men around. Good day, 'cousin.'"
She immediately marched away and left Fred speechless.
When he wasn't sleeping in does' bedrooms waiting for them to smell fertile, Fredrick was staying at a boarding house nearer the factory construction site. Brooklyn was growing explosively, which drove up real estate prices at a prodigious pace. Even with the substantial Roosevelt investment the only affordable piece of land large enough for his needs was available on former farmland a mile outside the diffuse edge of the city. After two months little had yet been done, and with the ground freezing up as winter came some construction would have to mostly stop. While the foundation of the brick smokestack had already begun, it was impossible to finish in mortar-freezing temperatures.
There was two inches of snow on the ground and the still-unpaved streets near the boarding house were a churned, muddy, reeking mess. Fred walked down the street to the livery stable and started saddling his horse. Margie was a good-natured animal and nibble-groomed the back of his head as he checked her hooves and cinched up the saddle with the swiftness of a lifetime of practice.
The cold, dry November air bit his nostrils as his breath puffed in and out. But unlike in a human world, the furry folk didn't need winter clothes per se. Sure, something to keep the rain off. But with his thick furry coat the whitetail felt nice and warm. Hooves in specially-made stirrups, he rode Margie out beyond Flatbush, on the road towards the Inn.
Since their argument two weeks ago Lacey/Bruce had almost vanished. Before then she had taken to bringing baked goods and snacks for Fred and the construction workers, and the men were disappointed at no longer getting any treats. But now he was very, very worried. He'd sent word to the Inn a few days ago. Audrey had responded the day before. The letter made his rumen clench.
The Inn found itself in an odd position for once. Brooklyn had only a very few places to stay. Most people just took the ferry into New York City. But with the city growing out to meet it, the Inn was full most nights since their arrival, and the money was flowing in, to the Boss's delight and Jerry's dismay. The wolfman was far too accustomed to loafing about with very little to do. Now he was a little overworked and had actually hired new staff.
He barely recognized the place. The renovation that had begun in some other world had been finished here. Although it still had an anachronistic 20th century motel feel with its L-shaped design and rooms with their own exterior doors, the building had been re-faced with red brick. Even more, the old tavern was being replaced with a wooden structure over twice its original size. The frame was up, with some of the first floor walls nearing completion. The whole site smelled of sawdust and industry.
But the old tavern was still there. Fred saw Audrey out front. The puma-woman waved at him with a friendly smile, careful not to show her teeth. As he dismounted a donkey-boy of about twelve took his horse to the expanded stable. Before the boy left Fred gave him a penny as a tip, and got a toothy smile of thanks in return.
He nearly choked when he finally looked at what the puma was wearing, though. He could see her tail. "Isn't that dress a little... daring?" he muttered.
The welcome smile became a frown. "Fredrick Granger, this is the first time I've seen you in a month and the first thing out of your mouth is to berate me for my dress. We cats aren't as prudish as the rest of you. Besides, after what Lacey's told me about your escapades, I don't see how you can take me to task."
The whitetail drooped his ears. "You're right, you're right. My apologies."
"Better," the tawny cat replied, smile returning. "Follow me. We have a few things to talk about."
He followed her behind the Inn proper, towards a home that looked centuries older than anything he'd seen in either New York or Brooklyn. It looked Dutch, with a steeply-sloped gabled roof and whitewashed stone walls, with "1661" chiseled near the peak of the stair-stepped wall. The roof was tiled rather than thatched, at least. "This is the Boss's family home," Audrey explained. "This is where the employees sleep and eat. The originals, anyway. The new ones mostly live in Flatbush."
Outside looked fine, but the inside was a mess. It smelled very old indeed. It wasn't just the Boss's scent, it was Audrey, Jerry, and dozens of others that had occupied it over the years, all mixed with stale, rotten food smells. Little knots of shed fur sat in corners, and the dust made him want to sneeze. It wasn't really a large home, since it had been constructed narrow. He was led to the kitchen in back, and a large table. Audrey sauntered over and took a seat, and motioned for him to sit across. An incongruously modern iron stove had a pot of water heating. "Tea?" she offered.
"I'm fine, but thank you." Fred took the letter out of his waistcoat pocket. "Now, about Bruce..."
"You'll just have to see for yourself, Fred. She hasn't come out of that hole for a fortnight, and when I go down there... Well, she has been doing that inventory thing the Boss asked her. But I don't think I've ever seen anyone try so hard to eliminate everything masculine from their life.
"We world travelers tend to be pretty balanced people, you see. We have to be since we experience both the masculine and the feminine as a matter of where we end up. As my father would say, it builds character. But Lacey's just..." Audrey grimaced. "It's not healthy."
"I noticed you haven't tried to think yourself into a male body," Fred said. The revelation on what the medical nannies could do had generated surprisingly little interest. Nobody had leapt to change their sexes.
She shrugged. "Balance or not, we each have our preferences. I started male but I rather prefer my female aspect. Terri's the opposite, though she started male as well. I think the only thing keeping her female right now is that she has a pretty deep personal history around here. And Jerry, of course. He proposed two weeks ago in the middle of her Estrus. She accepted." The catwoman smiled predatorily. "Methinks the ladydoe doth protest too much. They're getting married in the spring."
"Congratulations." Fred rubbed his skin around the pedicles. The whole thing gave him a headache. "It's a goddamned--beggin' your pardon--soap opera."
"I wouldn't have it any other way, Fred. Makes things interesting around here.
"But seriously, you have to get your partner out of that hole in the ground. I'm a medical doctor where I come from, not a psychologist. I treat the body, not the mind. Here I'm just a 'silly girl' who hung around a medical school, fortunate enough that the kindly professors didn't toss her out. I think they were bemused that a woman thought she could understand what they were teaching. But I haven't let that stop me from treating people. Women have more freedom around here than Lacey thinks. But aside from Queen Victoria we have to be quite behind-the-scenes about it as yet."
Her expression turned more serious. "Lacey's using her gender as a dodge, Fred. A crutch. She thinks she doesn't have to take any risks--in fact, I think that's the cusp of it all. Her self confidence is absolutely shattered, and I have no idea why. But it's a slow poison."
"Lacey would have thought of this world as a challenge," Sara added quickly through Fred's lips. "We were both in make-work secretarial jobs before we got involved in that smartclothes company. Absolutely pointless when our technology could do much better. Now that I think of it, I think she was a Full Suffragist too..."
"She's been like that ever since you got back from Albany. What the hell happened there?" Audrey asked pointedly.
Fred's shoulders fell. Damn it. I'm so dense. Why didn't I see it before? There had been a sequence of events that day that must have set this whole crap-fest in motion. He described the near-crash in the aircar over Albany, the abrupt gender change, Fred himself taking charge of their business situation when Bruce had realized Fisk was simply not a possibility for several reasons. And Roosevelt's no-strings-attached investment that resulted from Fred's short, sweet sales pitch. Long accustomed to being the front man of their business, human or hare, in just a few hours he'd been abruptly relegated to the background. And Fred's continued success in both business and conquests with does since then probably ate at him--her, rather.
After all that, Bruce-Lacey probably felt like there was simply no point in being a man again. No point in taking more "unnecessary" risks with their lives or their money. No point in... anything. Instead she buried herself with "women's work" and steadfastly rejected any of Fred's attempts to give her more responsibility.
"I can't believe this, Audrey! I never thought... Bruce is made of much harder stuff than I am. I've never seen anything get him down--hare or human. He fought for three hard years in the Korean War, you know. A Marine! Was at Chosin Reservoir and a half dozen other battles! Always talks about that one whenever it drops below freezing. I was in the Army, myself, but stationed stateside."
"That's just the human-Bruce's side of it, you realize," Audrey stated matter-of-factly. "I'm sure something similar happened to the hare in this world, whatever that Korean thing was. Civil War battles and the like." Her expression hardened a little, and she stood up and smoothed her dress. "Now, she needs you. Your friendship. Now get her out of that hole!" she commanded.
The buck chuckled nervously. "How can I refuse a smile like that?"
The root cellar was tidy by comparison to the rest of the house. Jars and jars of carefully preserved fruits and vegetables sat on orderly shelves, each neatly labeled with their contents. Fred couldn't resist grabbing a handful of acorns and munching them down for later cudding as they passed an open bin. A half dozen fifty pound sacks of flour sat stacked in a corner, as well as jerky and sausages from the roof. There were also things that humans would not have considered food, though the domesticated crops still had precedence. But when one could just as easily munch on budding maple leaves as well as anything a deer could normally eat, bread and cereal was no longer an absolute necessity. Though they sure tasted better.
Audrey glared at him for doing it, but only briefly. She led them to a corner, where there was a large wooden chest that seemed to be bolted to the floor. She opened the top and removed some moth-eaten old clothes that were probably as old as the house appeared. The puma reached down and flicked a hidden switch. The whole chest rose, then slid aside, revealing a narrow hole that had a ladder. Fred flicked his ears and looked at it, comparing the way down to the size of his antlers. "You weren't kidding about it being a hole in the ground," he said.
"The ladder's made for humanoid feet, or paws," she said. "There's an exterior elevator you may be able to use later, but this will put you down near where your partner's set up shop." Audrey lashed her feline tail. "Down the rabbit hole, deer-boy!"
The whitetail had been down in Storage once before and hadn't liked it one bit. The atmosphere down there felt old, stale. It made his skin crawl, the air was dead and lifeless. Worst of all was that it didn't smell like anything. Not even dust. It clearly wasn't a place for people to live, but nevertheless Lacey had volunteered to make room in the Inn for a more highly paying customer, and closed herself up underground.
The ladder was enclosed by an open metal framework that came out of the ceiling. Letting himself down with the strength of his arms alone, Fred was very careful not to let his antlers get tangled in the cage and possibly break a few points. There was still one Estrus cycle left, after all. Fewer does to choose from, which meant even more intense competition. And on top of that the twelvers at the top of the pyramid could waltz right into a fight-in-progress and lure away the doe!
Keep your mind on the task at hand, Fred thought, gritting his teeth. It was far too easy to get distracted by thinking about does. The whole Rut was like that. It made everyday life more difficult, since The Chase, The Fight, and The Mate was all that mattered at this time of year.
The ladder came down in the middle of a forest of tall, sturdy metal shelves. The shelves were for smaller items, like the container of medical nannies the Boss had used to spike their first meal here. Above each item was a red or green light, denoting whether the item would work in the world outside Storage. The vast majority of them were red, with only a smattering of green. Fred lifted his nose and sniffed, trying to get a whiff of anything that smelled of Lacey. But the dead, motionless air didn't give any hints.
Don't want to get lost down here... he thought. But then he noticed something. A few of the items around him sported newly-printed labels: "Silver rope. Suspected magic-based physics model. Possibly elfin in origin." It looked rather ordinary to him. Next to it was an open box of what looked like candy bars. "Raptor... raptor what?" The new label read that it had some kind of nanotechnology base, like the healing, gender-changing medical nannies in his own body. From the packaging, whoever ate one would apparently change into a small, scythe-clawed dinosaur for a few hours. For fun.
What a strange idea.
Still curious as a fawn, he almost put one in his waistcoat pocket, but the light over them was red.
He was still wondering just how he was supposed to find Lacey when she found him instead. The female butterscotch hare wore a polka-dotted dress and ruffled apron right out of Leave it to Beaver. She also wore a pair of fitted glasses that were out of place. Before he could say anything she embraced him with a chaste, sisterly hug. "Nice of you to drop in, Freddo!" she quipped, long ears erect. "Follow me."
It was immediately apparent that without Lacey finding him that he would have become lost very quickly. The strange absence of musk-trails and dead feeling in the air made his fur stand on end. He felt blind, without bearings, and compelled to add a scent-mark here and there just for psychological comfort. Lacey put her hands on her hips disapprovingly, but didn't stop him.
Around the next corner, in an area somehow cleared of crates and shelves, was Home. At least for his human aspects.
A large console television, becoming so common in middle-class living rooms when the two human men had been torn from their starting place, dominated the "room". On it an episode of "I Love Lucy" played--except Lucy was a vixen, and Desi was quite, quite human.
Desi's face wasn't the only human one in the living space. Anchoring one corner of the plush red carpet was a statue of a man, carved of marble. He had quite a nice musculature, and despite the lack of muzzle or antlers, Fred felt an urge to push the thing over. It sat on a pedestal in a "thinker" pose.
In the rest of the space was a large Davenport sofa, an easy chair, a computer flat on the expansive glass coffee table, and occupying one "wall" a kitchen setup complete with oven, cabinets, and electric stovetop. All accompanied by a dense, nearly suffocating floral odor that screamed "Woman! Woman! Woman!" that oddly had not diffused into the entire Storage space. "Very nice, Bruce," Fred stammered. "Very, very homey."
"I prefer you stay with Lacey," she replied firmly. "Bruce is... not at home." She sat down on the sofa and motioned for him to take the chair.
"I see that," he replied neutrally, looking around without moving his head. The chair automatically adjusted itself to accommodate his tail when he sat down, so there was some more technology here than at first appeared. Sara stirred in the back of his mind, a distinctly feminine kind of worry flooding in. In response he thought, or perhaps imagined, he felt the medical nannies pause to listen. Waiting... waiting...
Sara did not back down. I need to talk with her, Fred. I don't think she's going to listen to you. Since I'm pretty much my own person in here you don't know enough about her to bring her out of this silly girlish sulk she's in. It's a risk...
A big one, Fred pointed out. But I'm willing to take it. If I end up a doe...
We'll adapt. It won't be easy, but we'll survive. Sara's calm reassurance was something of a surprise, given the reasons she'd fled her old world. But I'll let you get started. Start with asking about some of the things she's found. What has she been doing with her time down here?
"I just saw you coming down the ladder," the female hare said. "I would bake you something, but I'm going to have to save some time. How about something to eat?" She slid a few magazines aside from atop a patch of the glass-topped table and then spoke to it. "Let's see. Coffee, black, hot. Also, white acorn bread, recipe B, with butter. And orange pekoe tea, hot, two sugars."
With a high-pitched hum, the marked square on the table started to glow. In a white shimmer, two teacups simply appeared, along with several of Fred's favorite kind of bread roll. The smell made him realize just how little he was eating lately. "What the hell is that thing?" he asked.
"Replicator table. I honestly have no idea how it works, magic or technology. Normally I just have it make raw materials so I can do the cooking myself, but I just didn't have time for that today," Lacey replied. But there was an unspoken undercurrent: Don't think less of me...
Next to the chair was a basket that contained knitting needles and a dozen or so clumsily-made socks. On the table was a sewing basket, and some rather skillfully mended socks and shirts that smelled like Audrey and Jerry. There was also what was apparently a label-making machine, and a few notepads filled from top to bottom. But there was also the round glasses she wore. They fit her perfectly. They could only be one thing.
"Did you have it make the HUD glasses?" Sara asked, trading places with her male counterpart. She tried to speak like he did, because she knew what could happen if Lacey realized just who was doing the talking. But in full control of a physical body for the first time in months, it was impossible not to fidget a little. Some things were not where they were supposed to be, and other things she had never had before. Wow... I really am a man.
"I can't live without them, even in this pooty Nineteenth Century," Lacey replied. "The table can make anything smaller than the square on the top. I found it in one of the first crates I pried open."
It looked quite heavy. "How did you move it?"
The butterscotch hare smiled. "Oh, I have help when I need a man to do heavy lifting. Golem..."
The thing Fred had taken for a statue literally came to life. The eyes glowed a friendly green as it moved, the marble flexing as if it was flesh. The buck couldn't help but gape as it bowed floridly. "Ever at your service, milady," it said in a cultured voice. "Shall we start on the Renaissance Sector today?"
"Not today, Angelo. I simply wished to demonstrate the reality of magic to my friend here."
"It ain't mechanical?" deer-Fred stammered. "Ah don't see..."
"I am no mere mechanical contrivance," the golem said, mildly offended. "I am the product of Michelangelo Golems, sculpted by the Creator's hands from the finest Italian marble! The runes on my chem are only the finest Words!"
"That's enough, golem. You may sleep," Lacey said in a voice of gentle command, as if daring to order something that appeared masculine was a sin. In response, the golem sat down on its pedestal, and went "dead". Mere stone once again. "I've found some very interesting things down here. Would you like to see more?"
"As nice as all this is," Sara said, trying her best to imitate her male version's tone and speech patterns, "I really came to chat with my friend and business partner."
"I told you, Bruce isn't in!" she insisted.
Sara leaned forward. "Lace, that's bullshit." As the hare gaped, Sara continued bluntly. "Stop hiding behind that apron. Do you really think it's only men who take risks? It was your idea that we quit our jobs as secretaries, you know. I followed. You always had such glowing, clear ideas when mine were so muddy. You are the one who took the risks! You're Bruce with breasts, Lace!"
"Your voice cracked," she replied in a terrified tone of voice. She leaped up and grabbed Sara on the sides of her muzzle. "Go back to sleep, Sara. Please! PLEASE! Let me talk to Fred! Don't talk to me about stupid risks! You don't want us both to..."
Sara reached up and gently, gently removed her partner's hands from around Fred's muzzle. "I knew that would scare you. But we still have to talk. I am not going to let you live down here all by yourself. Fred and I agreed that if I have to become a doe to get you out of here, we'll do it."
"You don't... don't have to. Just stop this, okay? Please?" Lacey pleaded. But the tone changed halfway through. This was Bruce talking. The hare and the human were so mixed together that there was really no difference now, but the male and the female were still quite obviously different. "I'll level with you."
"We have time," Sara said. "I'm going to let Fred back, now. Okay? But I'll be here if you need a more feminine opinion."
Fred felt a little disoriented as they traded places again. Neither were really sure where the other existed when they did that, but wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. "Okay," Fred said, clearing his throat a few times and patted down his chest. "I don't think the nannies did anything permanent." He flicked both ears forward. "But I'm here to listen, Bruce. I don't have as much ear as you do, but I'm first and foremost your friend."
She sat silently for what felt like several minutes, arms folded under her breasts, hugging them like a security blanket. She pulled her knees against her chest as well, ears drooping, heaving great, deep breaths. Once or twice she opened her mouth as if to speak, but stopped herself. She splayed her toes on her huge lapine feet.
"I almost killed us, Fred. We were almost a greasy smear right in the middle of Albany! All because I got impatient," Lacey said in a small voice. "And I can't even claim that the idea exclusively came from one version of me. Hell, there's even an iguanodon who thought it was a grand scheme! And he's the one who traded sharp rocks!" Lacey said in an increasingly loud voice, and a tone that was apparently a blend of every version. "Fuck, I'm such a fucking moron bitchbunny!" She squeezed herself into a very tight ball of butterscotch fur and polka-dot fabric.
Any ideas? Fred desperately asked Sara.
Let her unload at her own pace. You know, I'm not really sure what war-type equivalents Lacey would have, but I think the aircar near-crash is pretty close, the disembodied woman thought. If we bring her out of this somehow, what next? Do you think the gender change is reversible?
No reason it couldn't be, come to think of it. I suppose we don't really know just what these medical nanobots are capable of, Fred replied. He let Sara have partial control, then leaned forward and grabbed one of Lacey's handpaws. The action sent a shudder through the hare's small frame, and she practically strangled the air out of him in a desperate embrace, shuddering with great, wracking sobs.
But he didn't complain. Not a word. He returned the embrace, and let her cry herself out, until relief or exhaustion made her let go. Lacey's eyes were red and swollen, and she had used Fred's jacket for a handkerchief a few times. She stared at the wet smear on his shoulder. "Oh... oh God. I'm sorry, Freddo. I've ruined your jacket."
The buck shrugged out of it and tossed it behind the chair. "I'll buy another one. Or maybe you've found some washing contrivance down here that can clean it," he said. "Either way, who the hell cares?"
She smiled weakly. "I feel better. Really. Relieved. Unloaded. But..." she shuddered and hugged her breasts again, rather possessively. "But..."
"You don't know everything about me, Freddo. Not by half. There's a lot of war stories I've never told you. I'd like to, but I'm just too drained right now." She reached out and tapped the table. "Tea, chamomile, hot. And a chocolate parfait. A big one." She looked at Fred with her knowing green eyes as it materialized. "Okay, okay. I've been acting way too girly lately. Yes, I'm smart enough to know I'm hiding behind my boobs! But this world makes it so easy.
"What I said to you two weeks ago was mean and nasty, too."
"Already forgiven," Fred reassured, putting his hand on her shoulder. She had also hit very close to the mark, but now wasn't the time. "Can I expect to see you topside soon, at least?"
The hare hesitated a little, but nodded. "It's kind of claustrophobic down here, now that I really think of it. Just give me a day or two. I'm in the middle of a very interesting sector down here. Magic, Fred! And in here it actually works!"
Fred smiled. He was as spent and emotionally exhausted as she was. His arms felt like dead weights after being squeezed for so long. "I'm getting a room in the Inn tonight. Erm... Audrey mentioned an elevator?"
Lacey showed him the way.
No matter how many times he did it, the numbers always came out the same. Fred felt like pulling his loose antlers out by the roots. What the hell am I doing wrong, here? He frowned at the accounting ledger. Labor costs for the coming spring had taken a surprising leap, as well as for bricks and planks. If this continued they wouldn't have enough money to finish the factory let alone secure raw materials and start producing product. But there was nothing to explain this. The bills submitted by the building contractors had simply jumped, all at the same time.
Most worrisome of all were the latest commodity prices for Grade AA Blue Cavorite, which was absolutely necessary for the candelabras to work. There was a huge price spike due to military demand and shortages abounded. The British, the Germans, the French, the U.S. Navy, even the Japanese, abruptly every navy in the world needed Grade B and above. No doubt everything from ironclads to dinghies suddenly needed to fly. What was left was the marginally useful but incredibly commonplace Grades C and D, whose prices hadn't been affected that much.
Just to be certain, he opened a secret panel in his desk drawer and removed a small pocket calculator and went through the ledger again. Using that method it only took a few minutes. He rubbed the fur around his pedicles, he always got headaches where his antlers attached. "Shit. Now what? I suppose I could go back to Roosevelt..."
The candles flickered in the drafty brownstone that doubled as office and residence that he had moved into just a week before. Fred depended on his superb night vision most of the time, saving the candles for potential customers. He had contracted out to existing factories to make a few more examples; that way he could demonstrate them to potential customers, mostly wealthy introduced by Roosevelt himself. One room had been set up to demonstrate them. An opulent dinner table and four six-armed candelabras hovering overhead. The results were almost fifty firm orders.
But the way things were going, the price spike across the board would force him to more than double his original price. Even for a luxury item he could expect cancellations. Perhaps too many. On top of that he could no longer promise delivery dates. Fred's pedicles throbbed, the antlers rocked in their sockets. Damned if I do, damned if I don't.
He didn't like that at all. There had to be another option. Had to be!
Wait... what about that 'mad scientist' of Bruce's? he thought. There was that lab about halfway up Long Island we stopped at on the way here. The Irish hare had apparently read one of the man's papers in Scientific American. He'd claimed to have developed a process to purify and crystallize low-grade cavorite several years ago. Bruce had actually sent the man money at the time, planning way ahead for their move back east. Ever the skeptic, Fred had stayed with the naturally-occurring stuff. But now it was no longer available.
But there was one problem.
The man was a recluse. After being rejected by his colleagues he'd stopped trusting people. But continued research cost money, and Bruce had somehow gained the man's trust. I wonder how much she paid for those crystals. I suppose I'll have to ask.
He grimaced. Bringing Lacey back into the world was proving to be a team effort, with all the original world-traveling Inn residents lending a hand. Audrey had found some psychology books in a section of Storage bookshelves Lacey hadn't gotten to and was reading as fast as she could. One she found was an item titled, optimistically, Psychological Profiles of Shapeshifters.
Fred jotted a few final notes on the ledger, then carefully stood up. His left antler was a little loose and rocked in the pedicle. The Rut was over now, and the buck still felt exhausted. A dark cloud of depression hovered over everything, the situation with the ledger and Lacey just making it worse. He knew it was something hormonal. It happened every single year at the same time as his testosterone levels plunged off a cliff. I don't even want to *smell* another doe for six months.
Oh my, Fred. You really *are* depressed, Sara added with a small chuckle.
I'm serious, he replied to his female half. You know, there's something to say about humans being 'always in estrus', as it were. It's not nearly so intense...
No, but being 'always on' has other problems. Don't make me start describing menses to you. At any rate, we're going to have to go see Lacey about this. She's been progressing... if Audrey's letters are accurate. At least she's working in the tavern on occasion. Anything is better than being in that hole all the time.
The buck's left antler rocked a little more almost every time he moved his head. Very soon they would both fall off. He didn't even want to think about it. The past Rut had been the most fruitful he'd ever had. He had won a total of six does, two of which hadn't even required any duels. It was a family tradition to give each doe won a single tine as a token of their tryst, and to give the fawn if she so desired. Otherwise raising the children was the doe's responsibility.
Time for bed. The numbers weren't going to get any better. Fred rose, stretched... and the left antler promptly snapped off with a clatter. "Damn it."
The lopsided weight put a strain on his thinner neck. So he reached up and grasped his remaining antler by the root, and gave it a sharp twist. With a stab of pain, it also came free. Now literally lightheaded, he picked up the one on the floor and held them before him. The pain in his pedicles had already vanished with unusual speed. "Another Rut down." And it would be April before he started to grow a new set of points. Until then...
Don't feel so glum, Sara thought as he went upstairs to his living space over the storefront, carrying a candle in one hand and both antlers under the crook of his other arm. You'll get a bigger one next year.
Doubt it. I've been a tenner for six years in this world. And that's if we're still here next year, Sara. But I don't think there's really anything you can say to cheer me up. I look like a doe, he thought morosely.
Sara didn't respond "verbally", but she did seem amused by the idea. He blew out the candle and settled for a winter night's rest.
The doe sat regally on a throne made of oak and maple leaves, her imperious gaze looking indifferently between her two suitors. Fred and his opponent--a massive stag half again his size, even more animal than he was--faced off on a fighting circle made of a giant wheel of cheese, the cheddar odor drifting from its cracked, waxy surface. This was going to be a difficult fight. The footing was slippery to say the least.
Then laughter. Uproarious, uncontrolled guffaws. Gales of it, from all around him. Ears pinned to his neck, he raised his head and tried a forceful snort-wheeze. But the only thing that came out was a rather feminine blow. "Um..." he squeaked.
Clapping his hands to his head, Fred found no sign of pedicles. Just smooth fur. And below...
The laughter abruptly stopped. The doe was gone. It was just... just... a bucolic autumn forest. And the former rival was now...
The giant stag took the new doe's hand and gave it a gallant lick-kiss. "Enchanted, Miss Granger."
Fred stared at her chest, screamed, and fled as fast as she could go. Her suitors quickly followed...
Sara awoke to the familiar sensation of compression. One that she had not felt for many months. It took some time to finally realize that it wasn't a dream. The last time physical sensations had felt so real and immediate was the brief time she had been in full control of Fred's body. And then as quickly as possible so it didn't make the medical nannies work their gender-changing magic. But...
The problem wasn't that everything felt wrong. Being in a male body was one of the strangest things Sara had ever experienced, over and above the anthropomorphic nature of this world. No. The problem was that everything else felt right.
Sara rolled over on her back, and felt her breasts sink to either side under the tug of gravity. She reached up and cupped them, then felt the two sets of nipples, one over the other, exactly like Victoria Wales. They also had somewhat thinner fur than the rest of her, and when nursing would swell a couple of cup sizes. Fred's cervine counterpart had observed this in homesteading families, who rarely wore clothes in order to save money, otherwise Sara would not have known either.
Fred himself was still sleeping in the mental pocket Sara normally occupied. His dreams, which Sara had sometimes participated in, were filled with the forlorn, nightmarish imagery of emasculation. Apparently the medical nannies weren't smart enough to realize that it was a dream and not a request, so had altered his body accordingly. Sara fingered her labia, giving herself a very clinical examination. Everything was where it should be. A man could not get more emasculated than this! Lordy... now what?
The question of reversibility was still unanswered. Fred had planned to talk to Lacey about it today anyway, given the situation with the 'mad scientist'. But now it was all the more important, and with the growing light outside there was no sense in waiting. There was also no sense in waking Fred. No telling how he'd react to this development, and things were bad enough already. Everything depended on convincing Lacey to change back--if she could change back.
But first there was the clothing problem to solve.
There was a dress, originally intended as a Christmas gift for Lacey, but no underclothes. Given the layers and layers of drawers, petticoats, and bodices, and other "medieval torture devices" as Lacey derided them, she was going to look a little odd without them. It might draw undue attention. The faster she got to the Inn, the better.
It took ten minutes to figure out how to put on the dumb fabric garment. The texture of the cloth felt strange, and Sara realized it was because these were natural fibers, not the nanofactory-grown versions she was so familiar with. Sara had helped Fred pick it out, but it needed tailoring. The bodice was too large, and the skirts were made for a large-footed hare, not a deer. A least it had lacing up the front instead of the back. But it put limits on tail movement also.
Sara checked herself in the mirror. It was obvious that she wore nothing but the dress. The skirts had none of the fullness that came from undergarments. But it would have to do. She admired her cervine reflection and licked her nose with her tongue. The room smelled mostly like Fred, but the fading odors of the workmen who had only completed the brownstone a month before were still there. Unlike Fred, she had no equivalent experience from a female counterpart here to draw from, though she had picked up a lot from Fred over the past few months just by watching the does. But it was going to be like being dropped into a foreign country and knowing only High School-level of the language.
The black dress was equipped with a couple small pockets, into which she stuffed some coinage and a few bills. She knew she was leaving her scent everywhere she touched. If Jack Timbers came by for a visit he'd either think his boss was entertaining one last doe, or she was some kind of thief. In fact, he normally came by early in the morning... Time to go.
She left via the front door, a fresh breeze tugging at her skirts. Someone had already been by to salt and sand the steps to free them of ice, but they were still quite slippery. Otherwise the shovelers had been very efficient at clearing snow from the roads overnight. There were enough empty lots in this part of the city to put it. It was going to be the people who were the obstacle.
There were mostly deer and a few sleepy nocturnals out and about at this hour. A few bucks still had their antlers, but this close to Christmas they were shedding them like crazy. A few bucks wore their old racks hooked to their belts, and tried to keep the Rut-swagger in their steps for a little while longer. But the mood was still somber. Not a single one of them even looked at Sara with more than a disinterested glance.
But after a few severe looks from the other does on the street, she knew that if she didn't get away, things could get dicey.
Sara flagged down the first hansom cab that came by. The stag who drove the horse still had his antlers--an impressive eight-pointer who lip-curled in a most ungentlemanly manner. He hopped down from the driver's seat and opened the door for her and offered his other hand. "Where to, Miss?"
Sara lifted her skirts, not wanting to get the dress muddy, but her hooves still sank an inch into the churned, slippery surface. Reluctantly she took the offered hand. "Thank you," she stammered. "Do you know the Old Inn about five miles east of here?"
"The old Janssen place? Yeah, I knows it," he replied. "It'll cost extra, though. Can't count on a fare back."
"Just get me there, if you please. I have business," Sara replied evenly.
"If you say so, Miss." The eight-point buck pulled himself back into the driver's seat and gave the reins a slap. "Heeya, girl!"
The farther out of town they went, the less passable and snow-covered the roads became. After a couple of miles the poor horse had to trudge through three-foot drifts. Nobody had been through here since the nor'easter. But the cab driver kept forging onwards when she expected him to halt and turn around. There was a determination in the set of his ears. Sara realized he was trying to impress her.
It was then that Fred finally awoke. Her hands went to her chest, and Sara had to stifle Fred's gasp. Don't panic, she told him firmly.
I'm a doe for real? he thought, incredulous. There was a panicked, irrational edge to his thoughts. What the... did you do this to me, Sara?
Please! You know yourself better than that, she replied pointedly. It was your nightmares, Fred. And stupid nanobots. I can't believe they're advanced enough to read thoughts like that but not intelligent enough to...
The cab, which had been slowing up, came to a halt. The driver looked back. "Can't go any further, ma'am. My poor horse might step on something and damage a hoof. I hope you can understand."
Male and female tried to use the same mouth at once, the result was a cross-eyed feeling and a bunch of gibberish. Fred was nearly in an uncontrollable panic, so Sara took firm control of their shared body. Let me do this, Fred. Let me be the doe, if you don't mind, she thought as firmly, and calmly, as she could.
"I'm sorry, got a little tongue-tied there," she replied to the confused buck. "We're pretty close to the Inn Road. I can make my own way from here."
"If you say so, Miss," he replied. "Though I can't imagine what's so desperate. You'll get that fine dress all soaked."
"I'll be fine," she insisted. "How much do I owe you?"
"No charge, Miss. I couldn't get you there, so I'm not going to ask for any money," he replied ingratiatingly. "Just think of me if..."
Sara smiled, ears upturned. But it was Fred who spoke. "Thank you for your kindness. But I'm past my last Estrus this season. I am simply not in a position to raise fawns."
"Still, think of me anyway," he insisted, opening the cab door for her and helping the doe down into the deep snow. "It's not far, but be careful, Miss...?"
"Granger," she replied. He was actually very sweet, and the Rut-musk hung in the damp air. He must've spent some time in the South. He's out of synch, Fred added. He was a little less panicked now.
The cab driver lick-kissed the back of her hand. "Enchanted, Miss Granger. Hope to see you again soon." He hopped back into his cab, and with deliberate care, turned the cab around and headed back towards Brooklyn, leaving Sara all by herself in the snow-covered landscape.
Sara watched her hands untie the bodice of their own accord. Just what are you doing?
It'll be easier to move through these drifts in fur. Besides, I don't want to ruin this dress. It's not cheap, Fred replied. But his temporary determination fell apart once she saw her new body. Oh god. This is a nightmare come true...
I beg your pardon! Sara replied angrily, despite the fact that it literally was for the depressed stag. I've been tucked into a corner for months. But if this is going to be the future, then consider it a challenge rather than a nightmare. I heard enough of that from Lacey and I'm not going to take it from another version of myself, thank you very much.
You don't understand... Fred replied feebly.
Try me! And just let me do the driving, if you dislike being female so much. I don't have that problem. Let's focus on the task at hand and see if it's reversible. Maybe then we'll be able to salvage our situation, she thought back, finishing getting out of the dress by herself. She folded it as carefully as she could, then held it against her chest, where the air chilled her the most. But even with the breeze, she felt warm enough. The problem was the snow. I think we're just around the bend from the Inn Road. That cab driver got us pretty close.
Jerry and an unidentified male puma were about halfway finished shoveling snow when she rounded the corner. Both men were as stripped as she was, and unmelted snow dusted their furry shoulders. The shovels themselves were an odd design: Long, bent handles and what seemed to be plastic spades. They didn't notice her at first. She waited at the corner and watched them for a while, as they'd take opportunistic snowball throws at each other between a dozen or so shovelfuls. If the wind had been from the other direction, they might have smelled her. Sara pondered how best to approach Jerry with that puma there.
There was no small amount of cervine fear, too. She wanted to keep those predators at a distance.
The puma noticed her first. There was over two hundred feet of three and four-foot drifts between them. "Hey there, Miss!" the puma called. "Need a hand?"
"I sure could! And I'm looking for someone... I think your friend there would know her." Maybe even he did. Mating season for many people happened in the winter. Maybe that puma was Audrey's paramour. "I'm looking for Audrey Crane!"
The wolf and the puma looked at one another. "Who's askin'?" Jerry shouted back.
"Sara Granger!" she answered
They both gaped, the nude puma even more than the wolf. "Well, shit! Excuse my language. Just stay right there, Sara. We'll get to you shortly."
It took them only fifteen minutes to cover the distance, a narrow path through the drifts. Only when they closed in did the duo clear up the confusion. The puma-man just looked embarrassed. "Um... I'm Audrey."
Sara flicked her ears in surprise and put one hand on her hip. "And here I thought you liked being female."
"I do. But one must make sacrifices for the advancement of science. I'm testing how long it takes until these nanobots will change me back again. Been this way three days so far. I think girly thoughts every morning," Audrey replied. He looked her up and down. "Speaking of girly thoughts..."
The doe felt the insides of hear ears redden with embarrassment. "I'll explain after we get into the warm, if you don't mind."
Sara explained the gravity of the situation to the men over a hearty breakfast of hot oatmeal in the old Dutch house behind the Inn. They listened intently, the puma's tail swishing back and forth thoughtfully. Audrey--who went by Ted when male--unfortunately had nothing to suggest regarding the financial situation. But the point would be moot if they couldn't somehow convince Lacey to bring Bruce back--if it was even possible to do so.
"I went into this knowing full well it could be permanent," Ted said. "At least, until the next shift. We still have a few months before this thing repairs itself."
"The Boss is getting antsy to move on," Jerry added. "We've only stayed this long maybe twice since I've been along for the ride." The wolfman scratched himself behind an ear. "What'll you do if you're both stuck?"
Sara sighed. "To be honest, I haven't thought ahead that far. I suppose we could live in Storage doing inventory until the Inn moves on. We could earn our keep in other ways. But Fred's disappearance means they'd come looking for him--and his 'cousin'--for sure, so we couldn't poke our noses aboveground." She sipped some hot tea. The stimulating brew felt nice going down into her rumen, warming her from the inside out. "But to be honest, I've grown to like it here. Fred and I both, that is. Kind of a dilemma."
"'Kind of'?" Lacey said, entering the kitchen from the front of the house. The butterscotch hare didn't seem surprised at all at the doe's appearance. Like everyone else in the room she hadn't bothered with clothes. There were no guests, but unlike the men she didn't have the excuse of the hot work of shoveling snow. "You've always had a talent for understatement, Sara."
The hare folded her arms and sighed. "What did you do to yourself?"
"Don't blame Sara," Fred said, ear-blushing. "It was all my fault. My antlers finally came off..."
"And you felt like you weren't half the man you used to be," Lacey said dryly, ears a-twitch. "Great! Just fucking great! Now what are we going to do? I can't run the business!"
"Not that way you can't," Ted said pointedly. "You should hear your partner out, Lacey."
The female hare ground her teeth together. But weeks of emotional support from Audrey and the others had had an effect. She sat down in the open chair and poured herself a cup of coffee that smelled so strong that Sara felt like she was absorbing the caffeine through her nose. "Well, we don't have anything else to lose. You might as well tell me. Who knows if I'll be able to do anything about it."
"I was planning on bringing a copy of the ledger with me, to illustrate how bad things are. But I couldn't," Sara started. "But here's the situation as of last night, unvarnished and raw."
Lacey pretended not to listen at first. She even yawned a few times, trying to show her extreme disinterest in the partnership's worsening financial situation. She wrapped her arms around her breasts as she had before, as if they were some kind of fleshy security blanket. But there was a light of interest in her eyes that had been absent since she had nearly killed them in the aircar. Her ears rose forwards again, and she let go of her boobs to drum her claws on the table. Fred had clearly grabbed her.
"...and that's it. We need that scientist of yours to make this work. But I'm missing some important information. How much did you pay for those crystals of yours?" Fred said, trying not to fidget too much. She hadn't felt this way when she'd been in Sara's human body, but at the time the deer's male and female aspects were more melded together--and both were human. Perhaps it was the stag that found the situation so disconcerting. It seemed to confirm all his post-Rut nightmares.
Lacey sighed. "You're a good businessman, Fred. I wouldn't have gone into this partnership if you weren't. But when things start going wrong, you don't adapt quickly enough. That's been my job. Shit."
"Lacey..." Sara said, reaching out to her friend and partner.
"Okay, okay, okay. Sheesh. You don't have to say it because I know you're going to ask. But I'll do it on one condition. If it'll even work, that is," Lacey said.
"Anything," Sara replied sincerely, grasping the hare's hand.
"I'll only do this if you plan on staying here. Otherwise there's no point. Do you want to spend the rest of your life in this world?"
Well? Sara asked her male counterpart. What do you think? Do you want to be a doe for the rest of your life?
If she can change back, I won't have to be, Fred pointed out. The real question is, how much time as yourself do you want? Er... I may not like this but I'm not selfish. You have been in a hole of your own for several months.
I know, I know. You don't have to tell me. But it was my own doing most of the time because I didn't want *this* to happen. We can work out the details after we get Bruce back, Fred, Sara replied.
They both realized that the question had been long settled. "I'm staying, Lacey," they said in unison. "I've grown to love it here. And you have to admit another shift is very risky. I'm the picture of health. I haven't been ill since we arrived. At least the nannies are doing their jobs that way. We just have this little quirk to manage..."
"'Quirk', she says," Lacey replied with a chuckle. "We make a pair of gorgeous quirks, don't we Sara?"
"What about me?" Ted added. "I think I turned out a rather handsome cat."
Sara stood up and gave her lapine friend a sisterly hug. "Stay here with me, Lace."
The butterscotch hare sighed, but she returned the hug. "You'll have to give me more time on that one, sis. But I'd be a really horrible friend if I didn't help you out. I'm willing to change back, for your sake. I don't want our business to fail. We've put our souls into it, after all."
Bruce spent almost three hours the next morning going over the accounting ledger while Sara looked on nervously, literally on the edge of her seat. The Irish hare said little but a few grunts of concentration, but the few looks he gave her did not bode well at all. All the candles were lit, and he had even smuggled in a small battery-powered lantern that resembled an oil lamp enough that someone entering likely wouldn't notice anything odd. "I can tell where you started using the pocket calculator," he finally said. He spoke calmly, but Sara could tell he was quite upset. "You stopped bleeding money like a sieve and it instead just became a slow drip. You should have planned for price spikes like this."
Sara and Fred alike felt mortified, and was justifiably chastised. She rubbed her forearms nervously. "I'd suspected foul play, honestly. I don't see how everything could go up like that all at once."
"I can't rule it out completely, but the booming real estate market around here... It just seems like the kind of volatility I'd expect for labor and building materials." The brown hare tapped the tip of the empty pen on the page, then brought up the end and chewed on it a little. "Hmm... How is our standing with Roosevelt? I fear we're going to need a little more money. Will he give us as good a deal as the last time?"
"He'll probably demand a real stake. Possibly a minor partnership..." Sara began. But both heard the front doors open and close, and the scent of Jack Timbers announcing his presence. "We have company, Bruce."
"Let me handle this, Miss Granger," the hare replied, knowing that they'd likely be overheard anyway. Fred stood and straightened his new waistcoat.
Timbers still had his palmate antlers. They were something like a smaller version, similar to a moose's, though they angled backwards in an upward curve. There were few fallow deer locally, so it gave him quite a distinctive look. Like the southern buck cab driver, the English stag was out of synch with the native whitetail population, and even most of the red deer immigrants. His ears flicked suspiciously, and he peered at the hare and the doe. "Who the 'ell are you?"
"Jack Timbers?" Bruce said. "I'm Bruce O'Sullivan. My partner Fredrick Granger probably spoke to you about me on several occasions. My name is on the building."
"Yes, yes he did," the fallow buck replied. "Where is Mr. Granger, anyway? And who is she? I smelled 'er trail from the boss's bed yesterday morning."
Bruce was going with the story Fred had concocted to explain his partner's absence. "I've been managing our operations out west, Mr. Timbers. We arrived on the ferry yesterday morning. I sent Miss Granger here so she could say hello to her brother. She hadn't seen him in several years, of course. It's a pity they only had a few hours to chat before Fredrick had to go westward again."
Timbers was not convinced. "Partner and sister, eh? Forgive me, but this is awfully convenient. He never said he planned on leaving like this. He would have told me, certainly. Do you have any proof you are who you say you are?"
Bruce had expected this. "There are some old suits of mine in a trunk on the third floor. I understand you've been up there before? Good. Fetch one of my overcoats and smell it, then compare the odor to myself. That should settle your concerns. Besides my name being on the building, of course."
"There's a lot of hares named O'Sullivan, sir. But I'll go check." Timbers turned and trudged up to the third floor, where Fred had set up the space for his then-absent partner's anticipated return and the two trunks of useless male clothing.
To cover their backstory, four more trunks sat in the entranceway. The duo had spend the last day and a half concocting their personal histories and forging tickets, telegrams, and letters in both directions using the replicator table. They both had full sets of clothing, and Sara now knew firsthand just what Audrey and Lacey were complaining about. But this was the first test of their planning. Timbers was intelligent and wouldn't be easily fooled.
Sara adjusted her uncomfortable bodice, while Bruce smirked. "See what I mean?"
"Yes, I do. You still haven't told me how much your scientist charged for those cavorite crystals," Sara said.
"Don't worry. They're shockingly inexpensive and will fill our needs perfectly. But I have to send him a letter before we can actually go over there, Sara. He doesn't like uninvited guests, so if we just show up on his doorstep he'll just shut us out," Bruce replied. "I sent one off when we arrived yesterday. But he's fifty miles up Long Island, so it'll take some time." He sighed, and looked at the basket of knitting he had brought with him. "We need to meet with Roosevelt as quickly as possible."
"He has an office on Wall Street," Sara informed. "I'll take you there."
"I should do it by myself," Bruce replied shortly. "Just give me an address."
"I'm still coming," Sara replied firmly. "I'm not going to sit in the background while you do all the work. I know..." she stopped herself and remembered to keep the façade up. Timbers would likely overhear. It was very difficult to keep many secrets in a furry world where everyone had acute hearing. "I know my brother erred in keeping the company finances, but if I'm to manage his half of the business in his stead, I'm coming with you. Just give me a few minutes to make myself more presentable."
The hare folded his ears back, but did not protest as the doe went upstairs to where her luggage had been placed. She had actually adlibbed the last few minutes. Neither of them had really agreed that she'd be a part of the business. But neither Fred nor herself wanted to be pushed into a figurehead position. What Bruce didn't know--nor would he--was that cervine females often ran businesses, though normally through a frontman to keep some modicum of respectability. Oddly enough, wolves and other predators often filled that role.
Fred's own mother had done it, since the whole immediate family were all deer and human-style marriage was unknown. The females and their fawns lived communally and had to bring in money somehow, though the details were lost on him. He had left home at an early age.
Sara nearly ran into Jack on the landing as she lifted her skirts and went upstairs. "Oh, I beg your pardon."
"Quite all right," he replied. He seemed more at ease, ears slowly rotating. "I should tell you that Mr. O'Sullivan's scent is the same. Is Mr. Granger really your brother?"
"We've stayed in touch," Sara replied. His musk had a spicier note than a whitetail's. It tickled her nose like a fine wine. The doe felt a little warm. "He's entrusted me with his half of the business here while he's attending other matters."
"I see," Timbers replied, the suspicion returning. "I considered Fred my friend as well as my boss. He never spoke of his family."
Sara tried to clear her head, thinking of cold showers. As a result she was more brusque with him than she really intended to be. "He wouldn't have. I'm sure he would apologize for leaving so abruptly if he were here. Now, if you'll pardon me, I have work attend to."
The snow-covered city reeked of soot and smoke. The air was filled with wood ash and embers from thousands of chimneys and tiny factories. It was no wonder that gray and dark clothes were so popular. They hid the ash that inevitably settled all over buildings, horses, furniture, and clothing. "I'll never wear blue again," Sara said, using a brush to remove the dark patina off the replicated woolen compu-weave. She also had to keep hold of the seat, as the badly-sprung cab made the trip from ferry to Wall Street an adventure in itself.
"I still think this is a foul idea. In this day and age he'll never take you seriously," Bruce said.
"I tried to dress in something that makes me look like a respectable businesswoman," the doe said. It was a very conservative outfit. There were even gloves. The blue made for an interesting contrast with her rust-brown winter coat. "Besides, I managed to get some underthings that don't make me short of breath."
"Told you," the hare replied smugly with Lacey overtones. He dusted some soot from the shoulders of his own fashionable coat.
The cab came to an abrupt stop, an ill-sounding grinding noise coming from the mechanical animal's rump. The feline cab driver growled under his breath and hopped out of the driver's seat, opening a panel that exposed the workings under the rump. Busy Wall Street traffic flowed around them. "Sorry, folks. This nag's had it," the driver said. He walked over to the door and opened it, offering his hand to the doe.
"Thank you," Sara replied, taking it to steady herself coming out of the cab.
Bruce followed, nose a-twitch with the acrid reek of coal smoke. Sara took a scented handkerchief out of her purse and covered her nose with it. But it was like trying to hide an elephant from view with a bed sheet. The hare offered his free elbow in a gentlemanly manner. Sara took it with her free hand as the cab driver gave her business partner his merchandise case. Bruce fished in his pocket and paid the man his fare.
You okay in here, Fred? Sara asked her counterpart after an involuntary shiver. You're not going to panic again, are you?
No... I'm okay. It's just that I'm a doe in a dress. The stag in me is a little revolted, to tell the truth, he replied. The sensations from the clothes and the view are... distracting.
Steady on, Fred. Steady on. I'm going to need you with a clear head very soon, okay?
Where Fisk's office had been ostentatious to the point of excess, Roosevelt's was opulent without pretension. This was the office of a self-made man who had everything he wanted, but nevertheless did not parade it about arrogantly. The oak-paneled room where the duo waited for their only investor smelled of pine and cedar, a scented candle burned in a corner sconce. Roosevelt's own feline scent was quite fresh, tickling Sara's nose with its spicy tang.
There was another smell also, one Sara struggled to identify. It was also feline, if she was reading the air correctly. But it seemed a little sickly. The doe rotated her ears at the sound of a young male voice from behind the heavily soundproofed doors. There was a cough just as Roosevelt opened them. "Ah, there you are. I did get your telegram. Come in, Mr. O'Sullivan and Miss Granger. I believe we have some financial matters to discuss."
Sitting in a chair near the fireplace was someone Sara thought was human at first glance. He appeared to be about twelve years old, and though his features had a strongly feline cast to them, he had a high forehead and snub muzzle. His fur looked thinner than normal, and he was bundled up in blankets. A number of handkerchiefs were piled on the floor before him. "My son, Theodore Junior," the elder puma explained. "C'mon, lad. Buck up. The worst is over," he said to his son.
"I don't mean to intrude, Mr. Roosevelt," Bruce said apologetically. "If you have family matters to attend to..."
"Nonsense. Besides, I wish my son to watch our dealings. He'll learn something. Now, speaking of illnesses, I'm happy to see you've recovered from yours," Roosevelt said. "Though I am understandably surprised at the abruptness of your partner's departure." He looked at Sara and smiled warmly. "Pleased to meet you. You are a lovely example of your kind, Miss Granger. But if I understand the telegram correctly, you are acting in your brother's stead?" he said, with a heavy note of skepticism in his tone of voice.
"Fredrick left copious notes on his business dealings, Mr. Roosevelt. I have been in constant contact with him since he left Denver to go to the cavorite digs," Sara replied. "I assure you I have as much knowledge as is possible on the state of his business dealings."
The puma's tail lashed, ears flicking. "Forgive my skepticism, Miss. But it's curious that he should leave the moment his partnership's finances become so upset. And as for Mr. O'Sullivan, it's also quite convenient he should return just now."
Bruce set his merchandise case on the desk and opened a side panel, handing Roosevelt a couple of replicator-forged telegrams. They had to smell and feel perfect. The tawny feline businessman looked them over, then snorted. "I see he insisted. Perhaps, then, I should be asking why I should grant you any further funds when your partner mismanaged your finances so badly."
The insides of Sara's ears felt quite hot with embarrassment at that. Fred shrunk into the mental pocket, mortified. Sara felt she had to say something. "Believe me, sir, my brother is keenly aware of how severe our problems are," she said.
The Irish hare smiled, himself, both ears erect and confident. "Yes, we would like to entice you to make a further investment. However, I have more to offer than just my partner's candelabras. My illness several months ago prevented me from demonstrating my contribution. Now, Mr. Roosevelt, prepare to be impressed."
Each corner of the merchandise case was covered down with a large lead weight. But even Sara could easily lift the thing. Bruce had even tossed it across a hotel room in Boston, once. Fred had expected to be knocked over, instead it only seemed to weigh a few pounds. He set it down on the table and opened the latches, but held it close with his paw-like hand. "Only my partner has seen these, Mr. Roosevelt. What my scientist has rediscovered will change everything. And quite inexpensively."
"'Rediscovered?'" Roosevelt repeated. "If this is some kind of humbug..."
Surrounded by a metallic framework that held a lead weight beneath was a hoofnail-sized transparent crystal. Etched on the lead weight was a number: sixteen pounds. Yet when Bruce took it out, he hefted it as if it weighed nothing. "This is a one-ounce crystal. By itself, it will hold over two hundred and fifty times its own weight." He let it go about shoulder height.
It floated, the light reflecting through it almost like a diamond. The Irish hare walked around the sample, nose a-twitch. "Far better than even Grade A Blue."
Roosevelt folded his ears back skeptically. "Really? This is hardly the first attempt at a humbug on me, sir."
Bruce removed a wingnut that was holding the crystal in place and put the lead weight down on Roosevelt's oak desk. The cubic crystal tumbled gently end-over-end. "You seem to know your cavorite, sir. Please, feel free to test that for yourself. I have a pound of Grade A in here as well..."
A much larger blue cylinder, much like those Fredrick used to suspend his candelabras, joined the angular crystal. The difference was striking. Grade A cavorite did exhibit some crystalline characteristics, but they were tiny, and mixed with other impurities in varying amounts. But it wasn't a metal, and there had been various efforts at further purification over the years. Supposedly the British had had mixed success. But only Bruce's "mad" scientist had experimentally created a process that worked.
"Okay then," the older puma said, eyeing the floating cavorite critically. "If you insist. Teddy, come over here for a moment. Some exercise will help you get your color back!"
The hare and the doe watched the felines as Roosevelt's son, who appeared to be about thirteen, set about to test the cavorite with every impromptu method they could devise. One ounce of pure crystal versus one pound of the purest naturally-occurring mineral. Both could keep the same weight of material afloat: Sixteen pounds.
Sara wished she could loosen her bodice, just a little. Despite wearing a real bra instead of the rib-crushing whalebone monstrosity that was currently in fashion, woolens over her winter coat while indoors was borderline unbearable. She folded her arms beneath her breasts and tried to look prim and proper doing it. But her tail flicked anxiously under her skirts.
"I think we have his interest," Bruce whispered into her ear. "But he still needs some convincing."
Sara sighed, then pursed her lips--as much as her cervine anatomy would let her. Some human expressions didn't quite translate and in fact, came out in other ways. This made body language much harder to read in a society where one might encounter a couple dozen other "species" in a day. Sara was having trouble learning the nuances. It took Fred's presence to let her know if she was reading a body posture or a scent wrongly. Then again... He's only halfway there, I think, he added. But Ah'm not completely certain.
Why not? she asked him back.
Believe it or not, it's this female nose. Things and people smell just different enough that I'm not quite as certain as I could be. He sighed, with a Western accent to his mental voice. Ah'm sorry.
It's okay. I'll just wing it, Sara reassured. He still seemed a very disturbed by the very idea of being a doe.
As the Roosevelts finished their playful experimentation, the old puma's tail lashed with interest. But the convinced note in his scent had diminished significantly. "I see it isn't a humbug," he said, though the skepticism was still there. "This is truly an incredible discovery, yet... who discovered the crystallization process?"
"Doctor P. A. Sloan," Bruce supplied, a little hesitantly.
"Sloan?" the old puma repeated. "Wasn't he discredited?"
"His critics were all Neo-Luddites, sir. I'm certain of that," Bruce replied evenly. "Their arguments were specious and poorly reasoned. But they have a great deal of power in the scientific community right now."
"I admit that without this crystal I would have simply sent you away and be done with you," Roosevelt said, ears folded back. But then he put the crystal in the air and spun it around, end-over-end. "But you brought this..."
Sara's ears perked up. They had him, at least for now.
"And?" Bruce said.
"I want confirmation. Bringing something like this into full scale production will not only upset the Neo-Luddites, but I am not certain Sloan can make them in the quantities we need by springtime," he pronounced. "But if it works, you can count on a very large investment. However, there are conditions.
"First, I want a minor partnership in your firm. Second, a stake of fifteen percent. Third, to be my voice in the partnership I will assign a factor to manage affairs. Last, I want him to meet Dr. Sloan in person and verify he can bring his process up to snuff." He ticked each point off on his fingers, claws half-extended to show he was being quite serious.
All the while he wouldn't even make eye contact with Sara. This was, after all, Men's Business. I feel like a... a...
Hood ornament? Fred supplied with a mental snort.
"Ten percent," Bruce replied without hesitation in his Full Sale voice. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
"Yes, yes it is. Which is why you need my investment capital to have the right-sized facility..." Roosevelt began. And the negotiations began in earnest.
It was probably the right thing to let Bruce handle it, but it still rankled. She and Fred were of one mind on this one. The doe tried to make herself comfortable sniffing the bookshelves, looking at titles that were both familiar and very different. There was a whole section devoted to Atlantean Archeology, for instance.
"You're pretty," a young voice purred. There was a sniffle.
Sara turned to see the man's recovering son. He did smell ill, and kept his distance by sitting across the table. But he also smelled... what was that? Enthusiasm? Fred just shrugged internally. "Why, thank you, young man."
The puma-boy had a rather mischievous, toothy grin despite his sickly odor. While experimenting on the cavorite he had bounced around the room excitedly. As politely as she could, the doe slowly moved towards the far end of the bookshelves.
The men finally shook hands on the deal, Sara having never been once consulted. The elder Roosevelt obviously smelled her displeasure, as did Bruce, who had the courtesy to look apologetic over it. "I do apologize, Miss Granger. This is men's business, don't you know."
And don't worry your pretty ears over it, she thought grumpily. "Of course. However, I am still my brother's proxy. The terms are agreeable."
"Your brother's partner is a wonderful salesman. My factor will arrive the day after you receive word from Dr. Sloan about your upcoming visit. I'm sure he'll understand your business situation."
"I will send him a telegram today," the Irish hare said. Bruce walked over and offered his elbow like a gentleman. "We should be going, sir. You won't be unhappy with eleven and a half percent."
"You drive a hard bargain, sir. But I'm certain I shan't be, either. Good day."
With her eyes set as they were, Sara could look a fair degree backwards. She rotated her large ears out of the way to take once last look at the father and sickly son. Sara herself didn't know much pre-Catastrophe history, but the names rang bells in Fred's long-unused memories of high school history. Is that... no... he thought.
Is that who? the doe thought back.
Teddy Roosevelt. One of our greatest Presidents. Funny, I thought here he'd be a bear or something. But he was a sickly child, and that boy is just the right age, I think. He sounded worried. What if...
There's a lot of history different here, Fred. Did you see some of those books? Atlantis, Atlantis, Atlantis! And we're all *furry.* Besides, if the Motel's taught me anything is that *anything* is possible. She smiled to herself. Even having a version of yourself growing up a man in a pre-Catastrophe world.
Christmas and the New Year came and went, and with it, any hope on Sara's part of getting her male counterpart quickly back into the game. Ted/Audrey said that the day he changed back there would be a letter, or an appearance in person. But after three weeks, Sara was beginning to plan for the longer term. The longer she stayed in the role of Fredrick's "sister", the harder it would be to extricate herself without creating suspicion. Fred's disappearance had caused enough problems already.
Creating further complications was a strong desire not to commit any faux pas among the other deer. Putting aside the fact that they were half animal to begin with, there were all sorts of Victorian sensibilities and manners that were alien to her Future Girl experience. And it wasn't like she could use her implants to call up etiquette files to upgrade her wetware. So instead she bought books and magazines, trying to get a sense of the world she found herself in. More often than not, she failed. This doesn't make any sense at all!
Makes perfect sense to me, Fredrick's western mental voice replied. S'what a doe's supposed to do after the Rut if she's not expecting fawns.
A green scarf tied around my left arm? I don't understand the meaning.
Fred shrugged mentally. I can think of a couple things back in your world that confused the hell out of me. And I've dated a lot of girls. Frankly, being female is just plain weird. I can't understand why so many men in your world were making themselves into one.
"Oh, really?" Sara said aloud. There was nobody else in the building, but she still kept her voice down. "Fredrick, you know more about this world than I do. You grew up in a house full of does. I've caught enough pieces of your thoughts to realize that you know what is and isn't a faux pas. So why don't you take control for a while, hm? You're suppose to be me, what's the big deal?"
They were still enough alike that she already knew the answer, but after having spent three months as a stag, wanted to hear it outright from her manly counterpart. It was strange. They were so alike in so many ways; they had ended up with the same kind of friends, the same kind of boss, and didn't want to be saddled with marriage and children. But in other ways she could not quantify they were quite different. Maybe being raised male or female was just that sharp. One self, but two minds that could never quite merge together.
In contrast, the stag and the human man thought with essentially one voice. No offense, but this is like all my post-Rut nightmares coming true. The antlers come off, and bam! No more stag...
"I know, it's how we ended up with me in charge in the first place," Sara replied, scratching her muzzle with her hoofnails. But there was something else. From subjective months ago when Fred had actually been in full control of her female human body, before he let her in so much that she had somehow became her own separate person. Before she had shut him into that mental pocket...
"You like it," she said. "Don't you? It's actually fun being me, isn't it? You like being a woman. A doe. Don't you?" When he didn't reply, Sara pressed the issue. "I was a stag for three months, you know. You thought I had an 'unhealthy interest in our shared anatomy.' You know what? I damn sure did! It was fun! I got to see life through your eyes! I even got to be you on a few occasions."
Fred seemed to choke on the idea. What? When did you...
Sara had spent months in the mental space her male counterpart had only been for weeks. She knew things about it that he hadn't picked up yet. She grasped him with a mental "hand" and, gripping his persona tightly, quickly traded places with him. Now he was in control of their body. The next thing Fred knew, she had a muzzle full of her own cleavage, with her nose resting between her breasts. In the privacy of the brownstone's second floor living room, Sara had stripped down to nothing at all. "Mmmph?" Fred said.
Have fun, Fred. I know you like I know myself. Which is to say, I know myself better from watching and being *you.* I'm going to sleep, so have fun. Don't be afraid to experiment. It's your body, after all. Think of it as a vacation. Repressing a giggle, she shut herself in, leaving Fred "alone".
The shock of full sensation and control left Fred speechless for a few minutes. Simply because she suddenly could not deny it. Every accusation Sara had made was true. Yes, there was fear. Yes, there was the humiliating feeling of being emasculated. But here she was, sitting in a soft chair in front of the fireplace, a reading desk full of magazines and books sitting beside it. It was, perhaps, a little hot for her winter coat. But it felt good not to have a draft tickle her thinly-furred breasts for a change...
From outside there was a flutter of wings, then a vigorous rapping on a window. Fred sprang out of the chair, then walked over to the window. Unlike the other windows in the brownstone, this one had a ledge just wide enough to accommodate a medium-sized bird. Fred had been expecting this courier for some time, but the nasty winter weather had made it hard to keep the ledge clear of snow and ice. "Open up, already!" the raven cawed.
The doe struggled with the latch for a moment or two, and when it was open the raven practically threw himself inside, landing on the hardwood floor with half-opened wings. A brass message tube from Dr. Sloan was strapped to his back. The "mad" doctor had befriended the birds since they had last met. It was certainly faster than using the post, since no telegraph lines went that far. "Storm coming. Got anything to eat, Miss Granger?"
Fred removed the tube off the bird's back. She didn't know if the raven was male or female, since the voices were so similar, and the close-beaked bird hadn't even volunteered a name. "Let me get you something."
Just act natural, 'Sara,' Fred thought nervously. The kitchen was downstairs in the back of the brownstone. While she was the only person in the building, she went and picked up the clothing Sara had worn for most of the day: a lacy dark blue dressing gown. It felt comfortable, having been designed by a replicator rather than the inexact tailoring available in this world.
She stopped in front of a mirror to make sure everything was on right. She tried not to look at her own reflection, but was drawn to it anyway. Who's going to know? Fred thought, feeling the spots over her ears where the pedicles for a buck's antlers would be. There was just fur there. Nothing to blemish her finely-shaped muzzle. That absence, more than anything else, made the whole situation real and not some strange, twisted dream. Weeks of denial evaporated, and she arranged the dressing gown around her breasts. Nobody. There's nothing masculine about this image. Sara's right, I know more about being a doe in this world than she does. Only human, I guess. Hmm...
The doe went downstairs to the kitchen, which was kept only just above freezing. The winter diet here was mostly composed of acorns, bread, dried herbs, and unground grain. It wasn't exactly healthy, and with no meat eaters in the house, finding something suitable for a raven took some time. I suppose I could go to the butcher before he closes for the day... She gathered up some very stale bread before heading back upstairs.
"Much obliged, Miss!" the raven cawed, pecking at the food, scattering breadcrumbs all over the floor. "What's the good Dr. Sloan say this time? Quork."
"You know I can't open a private letter," Fred replied, folding her arms. "It's a locked tube. Only Bruce has the key."
"You could always go up and get the key," the black bird pointed out. "I saw it sitting on his desk."
Every bird Fredrick had ever met that could talk was always asking questions, trying to ferret out secrets. One could never tell if the cardinal outside the window was smart enough to understand every word, chirp them to his friends, then suddenly there's a rumor going around that someone was having an affair. Birds were dreadful gossips. They had a very loose society of their own, though they were the first to admit that it wasn't a civilization. To have that, you needed a written language.
But if the books were right, the birds still knew more about Atlantis than anyone else. However, they were very close-beaked about it.
Fred waved her finger at the raven. "I'm not going to spy on my partner, Mister Raven," she said with a note of reproach. "Or is that 'Miss'? You've never been forthcoming on that question."
"My little secret, two-legs. There are ways to tell by looking if you'd care to research them. I don't propose to enlighten you. Quork," said the raven bluntly, fluffing up his/her feathers. "All the same, the weather's going to get nasty really fast out there. I'd prefer a nice, warm place to roost for the night, if you don't mind?"
"I'll see if I can arrange something, I..."
The sound of a key in the back door interrupted her line of thought. Ears a-flick, Fred stood up and walked over to the staircase as the raven hop-hopped behind her, as curious as she. A strong odor of female rabbit wafted up from below, mixed with Bruce, and... a metallic tang of blood.
The doe sprinted downstairs, wishing for the hundredth time for something better than oil lamps and candles. She nearly fell down a full flight of stairs in the rush. What she found...
Fred-the-doe and Bruce--or rather, Bruce made up as Lacey--stared at each other for a long time. Her nose lied to her, smelling mostly rabbit-doe. But she simply could not believe her eyes. "Where did you get that... that... what the Hell is that? What in God's name happened to you?"
It appeared to be some kind of body suit, but one of the breasts had been torn off, along with most of the clothing. But what really caught her eyes were the crusty, blood covered slits. There were at least a dozen, all over him. The dress was stained red, absolutely soaked through. He was even missing an ear! The rabbit-man was a quivering wreck. "I c-c-can't... c-can't..." He visibly grabbed a hold of himself. "They killed me. They found out, and they k-k-killed me!"
He quivered, and began to pull off what remained of the former body suit. The only thing Fred could think of was something created from that replicator-thing in the Storage space under the Motel. She had seen incredible things. Then there was the so-called "medical nannies" in their bloodstreams.
The whitetail had no doubt that Bruce was being truthful. But she also wondered just how whoever had seen through the suit as she helped him strip the rest off. It was made out of some rubbery synthetic material--the Fifties Fred thought of plastic and nylon, but far more advanced. It was completely anatomically correct, and it even smelled right. Maybe too much.
Underneath, the wounds had sealed up enough that only a reddened scar remained. "Did anybody see or smell you?" Fred asked.
"I don't think so, Fred," he replied in that odd Lacey-Bruce mix. "Yes, I can tell you're in control, old friend. Is Sara around?"
"Sleeping," she replied. "And we have company."
The raven had followed her downstairs, flapping up to perch on the edge of a kitchen chair. The intelligent, talkative bird tilted his head left and right. "Oh, don't stop talking on my account. Quork. This is all very interesting."
"Let her see," Bruce said sullenly. "She knows more than she's letting on. Birds like keeping secrets, don't you Kharak?"
"I could recount you some things we know from Atlantis," the female raven replied. "Incredible things. Now, I'm only confiding this in you two because I can see you've a few, yourselves. Call it a gesture of good faith. Quork. You and your friend here either found a cache of ancient technology we were never told about, you're from off-world, or you're something else entirely."
"Off world?" Fred said, putting a hand on her hip. "Do we look like radioactive alien monsters?" Frowning, Bruce yanked on the shift she was wearing. From the neck up, he had dyed his fur butterscotch. "What?"
"'Radioactive', you say?" the raven said. "New word, new word. The prosecution rests. Quork." She flapped her wings a bit, moving over towards the staircase. "I'll be finding someplace out of earshot, methinks. Call me when the storm's over. It's rattling the windows already." With a flap of her wings, she started ascending the narrow, darkened staircase with an amazing skill.
The wounds were nearly gone now. Another hour or so and there wouldn't even be any scarring. Bruce looked strange, with butterscotch forearms, head, and feet. But the rest of him had apparently been shaved, though the chocolate fur was starting to grow back again. Fred examined the tattered, anatomically correct body suit.
"I replicated it a couple days ago," he confirmed. The lost ear was growing back as well, though it would take more time. "I just... I couldn't stay away."
"Lacey wanted her time?" Fred asked.
Bruce just shook his head. "More than that. More than that. I owe you an explanation, I think. But I also need something to eat. These nannies saved my life, but they're demanding more energy. I think I preferred the bodysculpting tanks back in our world, though. These tingle." His voice modulated in tone, becoming a rather eerie version of Lacey's. The brown rabbit put his hands to his temples. "Oh, no you don't. You owe Bruce an explanation," he/she said, apparently to himself. He gave Fred a grave look. "You might want to wake Sara, Freddo. I want her to hear this, too."
Insulation had yet to be invented, but on this furry world they hardly needed it. But in this storm Fred could still feel a draft around her legs. A Nor'Easter was blowing up the coast from the south, bringing a full-on blizzard. The raven turned out to be correct. As Bruce convalesced upstairs near the fireplace, Fred busied herself with boiling some water for coffee. Whatever the brown hare was going to tell her, it was going to be a long night.
Bruce's ear was nearly healed by the time she returned upstairs. He tugged on it gently. "I'm amazed I'm not more notch-eared like this. Got really lucky on a number of occasions during the War. Both wars... Korea and here," he began. "Have you noticed that our experiences as men mesh so well that we can't really distinguish between them? But the female..."
"No equivalent experience, at least in war," Fred said, nodding. Sara agreed as well. "Nothing even close."
"Idyllic by comparison," Bruce said. The hare's ears lowered, and he shook a little. "Chosin Reservoir. Did I ever tell you about that, Freddo? Frozen Chosin! Surrounded by the fucking Chinese!"
"A little," Fred said. "But I was just a stateside Quartermaster, myself. I made sure you guys got all the ammo you needed. I've never pulled a trigger in my life. Even here, as a deer," she said. "I sat in a cushy desk in St. Louis and shuffled paper. You, well... I've always had a great respect for you. You were a Marine, I was just a soldier."
"I'll start with the human experience," he said, and shuddered.
"I can't describe the battle, Freddo. Even after seven years. But I got what they call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Shellshock up the wazoo. It was a meat grinder... I... I snapped. I went blind, my legs stopped working. They pulled me off the line. Ended up at a MASH unit. I barely remember the trip back Stateside...
"They put me in a mental asylum. That wouldn't have been so bad, if it wasn't for the old quack of a doctor they assigned!" he spat.
"What kind of treatment did he give you?"
"A Freudian nightmare," Bruce replied. "He used me and a couple others as guinea pigs. He thought we needed a complete break with our war trauma, so we were taught feminine things. Knitting, weaving, housework. We even wore dresses! He thought he could cure us by taking everything that made us men, and turning it inside out. For all I know he was even giving us hormone injections!" He snorted. "You think you were emasculated just because you lost your antlers, Fredrick? He took away everything."
Fred stared, then cupped her breasts. "Um, I hate to say it..."
"You're a better man than me, even as a doe, Freddo. Let me finish." He cleared his throat. "The worst part is that I can see this in myself, see how screwed up that idiot made me, but I can't do anything about it. But, let me tell you about my experience in this world. It's different... But no less humiliating."
"Cold Harbor?" Fredrick asked.
"It wasn't any one battle," he replied. "Compared to here, Chosin was a cakewalk. But..." he shuddered to a stop, then started rubbing his shoulder. There was a scar there--or there had been, before the medical nannies had removed it. "Um... give... give me a moment. Damn things even took away my remembrance!
"Here, it wasn't what was done to me. It's what I done to myself."
"Yourself?" Sara said. It was like Bruce was clinging to Lacey, as if she was some kind of life preserver. "Wait, the dress?"
"A dress," he said. "You... you see. After I was injured in Cold Harbor--flesh wound in my shoulder--I gained the sympathy of one of the nurses. She helped me desert. I was an actor before the war, you know. But I'd never played a female role before. She fetched the right scents, I practiced the voice, and... well..."
Tears started rolling down his face. "Truth is, Fred, I'm no man. I hate being a man most of the time. I despise it! I... I... having two of me like this has made everything crystal clear. I don't know what happened. And suddenly, I have Lacey. I look at her life... I really wanted to stay in her world, but..." His body shuddered in one huge sob. "After I almost killed both of us, it's clear I can't handle being a man. So why bother? It's a choice I can actually make, here."
Well, that sure puts our newfound curiosity in its place, doesn't it? Sara thought solemnly. Lacey always reveled in being female, come to think of it. Crap on a stick. What the hell do we do?
But there was a conflicted expression on his face, beneath the tears. His tone of voice changed. "I thought I was screwed up," Lacey said. "But I suppose it does look idyllic by comparison. World turning upside down, but incredible technology, like in all those books and science fiction magazines he likes to read. But I really don't know what to do, either..."
Bruce broke through again. His smile was very strained. "Do you know what I was doing, those days when I vanished in Carson City? I was dancing in drag--very good drag--in a burlesque show. They needed girls, you see. And they paid well. I got to be very good at passing, so I have no idea why my perfect disguise ended in disaster tonight."
"You never did anything like that as a human," Fred pointed out.
The brown-and-butterscotch hare shrugged, then reached for a pink handkerchief to blow his nose loudly. "Different world, different limitations. It didn't really come together until we found that Motel. And the very next place--and people--we ended up were the Future Girls. It was a dream come true!"
Sara felt really, horribly guilty. "And I chickened out because... I'm so sorry, Lacey. Bruce. Whoever you want to be, it's fine with me."
Bruce shrugged. "It still turned out okay. But to be honest, my friend, I left because of you. You wanted to leave, so I went with you. Honestly, I can't imagine life without my sister--or brother, if you will. I met you two weeks after I got out of the asylum. You remember how I was back then, don't you?"
Fred swallowed from a cup of harsh tea. Back then, after being discharged from the Army on the GI Bill, he'd been intent on going to college. Instead he had met Bruce, who had been a little loopy, though he hadn't discussed his experience in the asylum until now. But he had this massive flood of ideas--and although they hadn't been too successful, they had at least kept their heads above water financially, similar to their store in Carson City here. I kinda wonder how I ended up a kung-fu deer, in this world, Fred thought. Compared to where he had originally started, the three other worlds he'd visited had seemed much more exciting.
I suppose so, Sara added with a mild mental poke. I guess we get to live with this multiple personality disorder because we just don't mesh, Freddo.
Maybe we just need to try harder. But this isn't really about us. Is there anything we can do for Bruce and Lacey? I mean, is there anything at all in your friend's experience that's comparable? Fred asked.
We met in a make-work secretarial pool. Remember, we're just baby machines where we started from. Frankly, I doubted that would change in my lifetime. And with our medical technology developing as it was, that could be *five hundred years.* Here, at least, we have a chance at real equality.
You also had men joining your sex in droves to get rejuvenation treatments. As curious as I've become, I still don't understand that.
Sara snorted mentally. To be honest, neither do I. Which is why I have no idea how to help our 'brother'.
"You have a chatty look on your face," Lacey said. Bruce's voicebox could do a very credible imitation of her voice. "Sara giving you an earful, is she? Honestly, I have no idea how to help my other selves, either. We should just take it one day at a time. I plan to get my boobs back when these nannies will let me, anyway."
Fred folded her arms. "I hope you'll let me change back first."
The voice went male again. "Of course. But I can't help but think--and this is kind of a crazy idea--if this falls through, maybe we should try and start something as women. Think about it. We could be a suffrage movement and successful businesswomen all by ourselves. Besides, you whitetail does like to run things behind the scenes anyway. We'd just have to be more forthcoming about it. No front man..."
The doe just stared at him for a moment, then started laughing. That was the Bruce she knew! She actually started to chuckle. "One crazy escapade at a time. Please."
The atmosphere in the room had changed--Bruce was obviously intent on changing the subject, and Fred and his female counterpart both felt like letting him. "There's a note from Dr. Sloan on the table," she said.
Bruce rubbed his paws together. "Oh, good! Let's find out if we'll have to give it a go as women anyway, shall we? I'll be right back with the key." He rushed upstairs.
This isn't healthy, Sara thought. We need to get a hold of Ted. We could always...
Not with the raven here, Fred pointed out, drumming her fingerhooves on the armrest of her chair. And not with this storm raging, anyway. Damn, I forgot to close the shutters on that window!
"Sara! You'd better come up here," Bruce called. By his tone of voice, it sounded serious.
She found him holding the key to the tube, but he hadn't opened it yet. Instead, in the flickering light of a half dozen candles, he gestured at the jet-black bird sitting on the table, looking into a pair of spectacles. Fred blanched, now seeing the real problem. The glasses were a very simple HUD unit she'd had replicated to interface with the compu-weave clothing she still possessed. It wasn't anything fancy, and in fact fit in perfectly in style with this world. "Oh... crap."
"Ladies shouldn't swear. Quork," the bird said dryly. "Very, very interesting. I've never seen anything like it. At least, not in about twelve thousand years." The raven looked at them both. "Your genders are flipped, but after what I heard from downstairs, I gather you have some type of micro-machine in your bodies that allows you to change your sex. You would be the ones with the flying carriage from a few months ago. Quork."
"Those glasses are keyed to me," Sara said, taking over. "You couldn't possibly have activated them unless you're enhanced with some kind of implants, yourself."
"You two have secrets to keep, and so do I," Kharak said. "But I see no point in noising anything about. I'm pretty sure you're from off-world. Our Mars terraforming effort was in full swing when the Luddites made their move..."
Bruce got a twinkle in his eye. "What do you think, Fred? We're going to be stuck in here for a few days, the way that storm is going. Why don't we give her the whole sorry tale? Hmmm?"
Sara grimaced. This seemed like a bad idea on the face of it. But maybe not. After what the bird had heard, and her clear ability to break the encryption in the HUD glasses without any visible means, they probably didn't have anything to lose. "Guess I really don't see why not, Lacey. It'd be nice to have a confidant in this world anyway."
Even in winter, the Inn still enjoyed a popularity that made it more prosperous than it had been, at least in the Boss's living memory. But the raccoon lady was still intent on moving on once the automated repairs were complete. The Inn was full of guests caught in the storm, and it was days before the roads were clear enough for Fred, Bruce, and their new avian friend could leave Brooklyn. While Kharak didn't have their limitations, she thought it a good idea to stay close, as a matter of trust.
And then there was Dr. Sloan's letter. The reclusive scientist had finally agreed to meet them and Mr. Roosevelt's representative, whoever that might be. They were to arrive no later than the Equinox, which meant they had some time.
Kharak was incredulous at first. But once she met the Bosslady, changed her mind. "I have all sorts of crap from a half dozen versions of Atlantis. If you think you can impress me with flying cars and 'free' energy, I've seen it all," she said. She herself was angry with the two former guests for spilling the beans.
Everyone had gathered inside the old Dutch house, which had been renovated somewhat. Ted was waving some kind of sensor over Kharak's head. A readout on a tiny TV screen made him frown. "The computational limits are very different in this universe. You've got something inside your head that is some kind of hybrid between microscopic Babbage brains and electronics. Interesting variation on nanotechnology..."
The Boss was resting her head in her paw-hands. "You could do the same with magic, in a pinch. Microscopic magic pixies! It's always fun to pop open a jar and see what kind of havoc they raise." She snickered. "Turned my parents into... gods... I can't remember now."
"What I can't figure out is how we know this place and your family have been here for centuries, but you say you've only been here since September? Quork," Kharak said.
"Look, I don't know how it works. I just push the buttons," the Boss replied.
The raven fluttered her wings, and gave Sara a shocked look, shaking her head. "Let's get down to business. The reason I wanted to see this place and meet you is that I think I have something to offer in trade. I'd like to see those, what did you call them? Medical nannies?"
"I'm curious what for, and what you could possibly offer me," the Boss replied, picking her pointed teeth with a claw tip. "I'll negotiate, but I don't want anyone else in the house. Shoo! All of you."
As they left the room, Fred realized Ted wasn't exactly Ted any more. He exhibited all the signs of a gender reversal, even smelling more feminine than normal. His body had also developed a few new curves. Total time elapsed: Four weeks, three days. That meant there were only a few days left before both Bruce and Fred could swap themselves back.
"She can drive a hard bargain," Ted/Audrey said, walking towards a new guest house in the rear. Smoke poured from the chimney as the three of them trudged through the ankle-deep snow in nothing but their fur. The walk had been shoveled, but there were still snow showers. The skies were gray, the trees were covered in white. It was a monochromatic world. "How are you two holding up?"
"I'm not," Bruce said with a strained voice.. "But I can't change back until this thing with Dr. Sloan is squared away. I'll have to bide a while longer, but we're doing this as quickly as possible."
"Think manly thoughts," the puma said.
The brown hare snorted derisively, then half-hopped into the tiny house.
Audrey sighed, stopping and folding his/her arms. "He's a real basket case, isn't he?" he/she said in a rather androgynous voice.
"Any ideas? I could use a few."
"The main thing for shapeshifters is that they can easily retreat from their fears, or learn how to face them, by simply assuming another form," Audrey said. "Frankly, if Bruce becomes female again I don't think he'd ever change back. He'd just let Lacey be in control all the time. What he needs, desperately, is to get his self confidence back as a man. Exactly what that would entail, well, you know him better than I do. What would bravery for a hare be, I wonder?"
Inside the small house, Bruce was enjoying a mug of hot, black, and from the smell of it, strong coffee being served by Terri, who had a green scarf around her left arm. The other doe nodded at Sara. "I didn't think it'd be a good idea to follow through on Estrus if my husband and I were just going to shift again," she said, nodding at her lupine husband. "Besides, what would the fawns look like?"
Normally, the children of a mixed couple would alternate. Wolf-deer-wolf-deer, and so forth. Fredrick's mother had been a European red deer, father a whitetail. Sara flexed her fingers, having a little trouble grasping the mug. Terri's hands were more human-like than her own. In fact, she had some short hair as well. "It's weird that you're considered a throwback, Terri. I can almost walk on all fours with these hooves."
"From what I've been able to figure out, that's what it's like in this world. A steady descent into beasts," Audrey said. "Are you two sure you want to stay here? Think of your children, and their children. What would life be like for them? There will come a point where they won't have usable hands, or maybe even voices."
"That won't affect us in our lifetimes," Bruce said.
"Don't be so sure about that," the feline doctor replied. "I took some time to study these medical nannies. You two will live a long, long time. Not forever, but I can't say for certain when your bodies will stop renewing themselves. Plus, there's some kind of interaction going on with the nanobots already in us. And I mean everyone. I just can't figure out what they're for."
Sara dropped the piece of bread she was holding. "What? More Atlantean technology?"
"No doubt in my mind," Jerry added. "These medical nannies should not be able to change our sex like this. They're not advanced enough."
"Don't be so sure, my wolfy friend," Audrey replied. "I suspect there's been some kind of synergistic interactions, and..."
This was way beyond even Sara's Future Girl experience. "Hold on there, you two. I'd like to eat a meal without this techy talk, if you don't mind. What happens if our minor partner's factor overhears?"
Jerry lolled his tongue. "Funny how that turned out, eh? Where is he, by the way?"
"Probably drinking beer in the tavern," Bruce said. He started laughing. "I still can't believe it."
Sara stood up, swallowing a couple hunks of bread for later cud. "Well, we'd better get our clothes back on and see how he's doing. I don't think that ram's ever been outside of New York City. And that mechanical equine monstrosity of his is going to be a trial to keep running. Haven't these people ever thought of a motorcar?"
They took the train as far up Long Island as the line would let them, getting off in a small town at the end about ten miles from Dr. Sloan's laboratory. Roosevelt's factor, a Mr. Harvey Denton, had protested strongly that there was going to be a woman along. Sara had listened politely to his rambling diatribe against the fairer sex before responding with a blistering retort of her own. The bighorn ram, who had left the employ of Mr. Fisk only recently, was reminded that he was in no position to berate anyone for anything after working for such a corrupt man for so long.
This was the same person as the boss they had left in the Fifties, as the newly-female Mary in the Future Girls had worked for. A ram fit him perfectly, as he could be very stubborn and unyielding. The kind of man, Bruce had once said, he would have liked to have at his back in Korea. But it took a verbal sledgehammer to get him to change his mind, and Sara wielded hers with some skill.
It'd taken the political cartoons of a mousey Thomas Nast to pry him away from Big Jim Fisk. The unfolding Tammany Hall corruption disaster was happening weekly in Harper's Magazine and the New York Times, as it had back in the human world. Boss Tweed was going down, and going down hard. But why Roosevelt had hired Denton, neither Bruce nor Fred could figure.
"Maybe it's just fate," Bruce said. He and Sara were standing a distance away from the ram as he worked on the malfunctioning mechanical innards of his Babbage-brained horse. Far enough up the road that he wouldn't overhear, and out the cold wind. "These are supposed to be parallel universes. We didn't exactly end up his employees, but it's pretty close."
"We weren't dinosaurs long enough to really get a hold of how they thought," Fred added. Under her dress she wore a smartbra, and a pair of simplified HUD glasses were a welcome addition. They presently displayed air temperature and wind speed. "What do you suppose this means for us?"
"Well, I'm staying," Bruce declared. "Having two of me with my... ahem... particular problems and predilections was damaging enough to my psyche. I'm not interested in taking that risk again and add a third sorry-excuse-for-a-man to the disaster chorus."
"Makes me wonder what will happen to our memories when the Inn moves on."
Kharak landed on the branch above, dusting the two herbivores with a shower of snow. "Oops! Sorry about that," she cawed. "Dr. Sloan knows you're coming, and that you're stuck in the snow. He's coming to help."
Bruce's long ears perked. "Really? He hardly comes out of that castle of his!"
The black bird cocked her head. "Well, this time he's feeling particularly inspired, thanks to us. He was about to test a new flying contraption to begin with. You should see him in a minute or two. He's bringing some parts to fix yon broken horse. Quork."
A humming sound came from the direction of the lab. It had strange, but not unpleasant harmonics. And when it came into eyeshot, everyone gaped. "Let me guess. You told him about my Nash," Bruce-Lacey said.
"Not in detail, but we inspired the concept. We've been pushing technology faster and faster for over a century. No reason we can't speed things up even more. Might cause a war or two, but the stakes are getting higher," the bird said. At the deer and the hare's quizzical look, the raven mantled her wings, and spoke more quietly. "I'll explain things later. But I'm glad to hear both of you are staying. We need you." She took off.
It was a very rough approximation, well over twice the size of the Nash Runabout. But it had six locomotive wheels, presently turned downwards. The rims were alight with what looked like dozens of fist-sized cavorite crystals, and there were more on the bottom. Occupying the center of the vehicle was a reciprocating steam engine driving a generator and pouring out black smoke. It moved slowly, perhaps ten miles an hour, about ten feet above the ground. A figure in a white lab coat waved at them from the driver's seat. "Hello down there! Wonderful to smell you again, Bruce!"
Bruce struggled to keep his horse from spooking. "I'm amazed you can smell anything so close to that thing, Doctor!" Bruce shouted back over the noise. It reeked of coal smoke and machine oil. It looked like he'd taken a very small or antique locomotive and stripped it down.
Sloan pulled one of the many levers, and the wheels rotated back to the vertical position. The "flying locomotive" floated gently to the ground. The badger took a few minutes to make sure the steam engine wouldn't explode unattended. Bruce could feel the heat radiating from the boiler from fifty feet away.
Denton looked like he'd just been hit over the head. And for a ram, it took a lot of doing.
Sloan picked up a black tool bag, then came down the ladder. He trundled over to the steam-powered horse and gently pushed Denton out of the way. After looking at the innards for just a few seconds, he took a couple of tools out of the bag. There was a pronounced hissss as it finally got moving again. A heat-shimmer came out of its nostrils, they eyes blinked with a click, click, and it started to tug on Denton's overcoat. "I'll be damned," the ram said.
"This model lacks good lubrication in the main transfer case, Mr. Denton," Sloan declared as he closed the automaton's side. "Unfortunately the state of the technology doesn't allow for automated lubrication. And vegetable oils are inferior for the job. I highly recommend using petroleum. Spindletop in particular."
Not that again, Sara thought, repressing a little shudder.
What? Fred thought.
Never you mind, Freddo.
The badger's labortory was an old Revolutionary War fortification that had been used in the recent conflict, then abandoned almost as soon as it was over. It reeked of gunpowder and old musk, mixed with the newer tang of metal, coal, and acidic chemicals. Dr. Sloan had twin obsessions in electricity and cavorite. The flying steam car was merely the latest manifestation of this. Denton's horse was "parked" in a stall while the other two were put in more normal accommodations. The poor animals were skittish enough from the hiss of the steam.
Even after some time as a doe, Fred just wasn't sure what to do with her hands. She stayed behind Denton and Bruce, nearer the hare than the sheep, taking the proper woman's place as Sloan led them into better-appointed living quarters. She detected Bruce's scent, even months old, in the room, as well as an unfamiliar female badger, almost unnoticeable under the overwhelming chemical and male badger musk.
I think this female nose is better, she thought.
Or it's the medical nannies fine-tuning your senses. But yes, I smell it too, Sara added. Here, let me in the driver's seat for a few minutes.
The two of them traded places. It was easier now, like they were riding a tandem bicycle and were simply switching who controlled the steering. It barely took a moment. Unlike her male counterpart, she knew what to do with her hands. She noticed Dr. Sloan watching them. "Your laboratory is filled with wonders, Doctor," she said.
"Wonders that could make you and your investors quite wealthy, I might add," he replied, giving her a Look. Badgers were stocky and short. Sloan's masculine odor had few personal cues to it, and there was an odd undercurrent. "Shall we begin the negotiations, or would you prefer a meal first? I'm afraid my circumstances here force me to do my own cooking, so I put a stew on this morning."
The dining room table had been set with silverware that had seen better days, but the room was decorated with what Sara could only call a feminine touch. Perhaps the female badger smell was from a seldom-used maid? But no, even though it was faint, it seemed fresh. She wondered if the others could smell it, too.
"Oh, where are my manners?" Bruce said. "Dr. Sloan, this is my business partner's sister, Sara Granger."
"You mentioned her in your missives, Bruce. My pleasure, lovely doe." He took her hand like a gentleman, and kissed the back of it, looking up into her eyes. The female badger odor got stronger, but only for a moment. Denton was more far interested in the various examples of gadgetry sitting around the room. The badger glanced in the bighorn's direction. "Just like a man to be more interested in machinery than the lady in the room, wouldn't you say?"
Denton stood up straight and looked like a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar. "Forgive me, Miss Granger." He immediately walked over and pulled the dark-stained chair out from the table. "Allow me to make up for it."
Sara chuckled to herself, her inner man snorting but not arguing with the point. She took her place and was pushed back in. "No offense taken, Mr. Denton."
With the three supplicants sitting around the candle-lit table, Sloan walked back over to the fireplace, where the fragrant stew hung simmering. With his back turned to everyone, he spent the next few minutes ladling the food into bowls, then adding some boules of crusty bread. Simple fare, but after hours on horseback, the body Sara and Fred shared would eat a steak if it was the only thing available.
Since he was closest, Denton was served first, then Sara, Bruce, then Sloan took his place at the head of the table. After a minute to say Grace, the four of them dug in.
"Dr. Sloan, your insistence on fifteen percent is surely negotiable," Denton said after a half dozen spoonfuls.
"Please, sir, I don't wish to discuss business while eating," Sloan replied firmly. "Finish your stew. Today's bread came out particularly fine."
"You sound like my mother," Denton snorted. Then, oddly, he yawned.
Sloan narrowed his eyes. "Go further in that direction and I'll insist on seventeen percent, sir."
Denton yawned again, more widely, showing his ruminant dental machinery. It was the horns one should fear rather than his teeth. The middle-aged ram had a few chips in his half-curl of horns. To her astonishment, Bruce yawned as well, as if he was suddenly very tired. Denton blinked. "Oh dear. Forgive me, sir. I fine I'm suddenly very tired. Keeping that horse of mine fueled and running simply took more out of me than I thought."
"Agreed," Bruce said. "Perhaps our host will allow us a brief nap before we begin negotiating in earnest?"
Sloan nodded. "Yes, that would be fine. I have a duvet in the next room where you can rest, Mr. Denton. Follow me." He pushed his chair out and led the badger through the double doors. When he returned, he shut the doors behind him, then sighed in profound relief, slumping. "Oh my... oh God..."
"You held out longer than I expected," Bruce said, rushing to Sloan's side. To Sara and Bruce's astonishment, the hare embraced him like a lover. "It won't be much longer, now."
Sara and Fred spoke with one voice. "Not to speak out of turn, but... what on God's green Earth is going on?"
"I believe this version of your partner is easier on the nose, and the eyes," Sloan continued. "Is that Sara or Fred speaking?"
"Both of us," they replied in astonishment. The doe licked her nose and sniffed. It wasn't just in the way he smelled, it was in his mannerisms. "Wait a second. You're a female badger!"
"How long will Denton be out?" Bruce asked.
"A good twelve hours. I wanted to make sure we could talk without being overheard. Now, we owe your partner--or should that be partners?--a detailed explanation."
Her real name was Annette Patricia Slocum, born outside of Boston to immigrant parents. Unlike most people she talked to the birds, and they were smart enough to realize that there was an insatiable curiosity about the world in the young badger. Unfortunately being a woman was a liability in this world, so much so that the birds used what technology they had left to help her appear more masculine, both in appearance and in odor. But they could not change any gross physical aspects. Her breasts were bound quite tightly, for instance. And the male musk was produced by an uncomfortable implant.
"Annette and I met when she was taking one of her frequent holidays from her fake persona," Bruce explained. "It's very stressful, you see, pretending to be something you're not for long periods. Even I had to come away from the female fakery after a while."
"Bruce, we danced together twice before I realized you weren't a woman. Don't sell yourself short," Annette said. With Denton out cold, she had sloughed off the Dr. Sloan persona like a butterfly coming out of its pupa. She looked at Sara-Fred. "Now I see that it need not be fakery at all. Unless you filled in your pedicles somehow?"
"No, it's all here." Sara stood up and started unfastening her bodice. "Here, I can show you if you like..."
"It would give me some peace of mind," the badger continued. "And it's always good to get out of those stuffy clothes. Here, let me help, Sara."
"How do you know which is which?" the doe asked.
"You carry yourself slightly differently. Nobody would notice unless you were like me and your partner. We're used to playing as the opposite sex." She looked over the now-nude doe, and seemed satisfied. "Yes, there is no way that's fakery at all."
"Could we make Dr. Sloan a suit like you wore, Bruce?" Fred asked. "If was very convincing."
"No, that won't do at all. Especially since something tipped off those attackers," Annette said. She gave a serious look to the brown hare. "Did you bring it?"
"It took a great deal of negotiation to get this, Annette," he replied, reaching for his salesman's case. "But I'm assured it will make a man out of you."
"Then let's get on with it. I've been thinking about this for weeks, ever since the birds told me. I'm too close to major discoveries and marketing them to stay secluded like this. But if I'm discovered to be a woman, all of my research will be discredited." The pained look on her face was absolutely heartrending. This was a huge sacrifice for her. "This technology is simply too important to remain a woman."
"Then I will be the woman. It's not a huge sacrifice for me, my love," Bruce declared, hugging her close.
Lord almighty. It's like watching one of those soap operas back home, Sara thought. I think we just lost Bruce. I can see Lacey isn't too unhappy about it, but...
If they're using the same medical nannies that are in us, Sara, then we're going to live a long time. Perhaps long enough to see things change for the better, replied Fred. They can trade places as much as they like.
"One more thing," Annette said, licking Bruce on his twitchy nose. "I want the car."
Bruce's ears drooped. "What?"
"The car, Bruce. The flying car your female counterpart owns? If we can duplicate the cavorite antigravity principle without actually needing any of the mineral, we'll be that much safer. Also, I want some of those... what did they call them? Smart clothes? HUD glasses? All of it!" her sadness had turned to that obsessive curiosity again.
"Well, I don't know..." Bruce stammered. "I'd have to fly it here."
"Well? What's stopping you?" she replied.
"Okay, okay. I'll bring it as soon as we get back to Brooklyn," Bruce said sheepishly. He took a small phial out of his carry case. "Now, let's make a man out of you..."
"Hold that thought." Annette motioned up the stairs that went to her bedroom. "Before I leave this body for the next few decades, I want one more thing from you. I want to be a woman one last time."
"What? Oh..." he put the phial back into the case. His expression softened. Amorous pheromones started filling the room. "Of course. Of course. Please excuse us, Sara?"
"No, that's quite all right," the doe replied quickly, feeling herself flush under her fur, all the way down to her shoulders. "You two, go have fun."