User:JonBuck/Open Secrets

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I started this story in February 2008. Oil prices had some huge ups and downs over the course of that year. Even here in San Diego prices bottomed out at about $1.69 a gallon. But given the differences between the real world and this one, a few events would turn out differently.

Open Secrets

Author: Jon Buck

August 17, 2008

Holly snarled at the gas pump as she filled the tank on her Honda Odyssey minivan. "Five effing fifty a gallon! That's outrageous!" She thought that all those oil discoveries and that new wastewater process was supposed to make gasoline cheaper! So what the hell is this?

OPEC had panicked, cutting oil production so much that it drove prices over $150 per barrel, trying to milk it for all it was worth before the new American and Canadian cheap stuff from the Bakken Formation gushers hit the streets. At the speed new wells and renewable bacterial gasoline facilities were being built, gasoline would be back under two dollars next summer. But the vixen felt like rending those sheiks limb-from-limb! She drummed her claws on the rear window, covering her muzzle to keep out the stinging reek of the gasoline from her sensitive nose.

Holly yawned, checking her watch. Barely six in the morning, but summer traffic in the Monterey area could become a slow gridlock on Highway 1. From her home in Carmel Valley her first stop was all the way in Gilroy, the so-called Garlic Capital of the World, to visit another fur for a needed checkup. Once the tank was full she checked to ensure the ultrasound equipment was still secure behind the rearmost seat, before a mewing cry made her yank the tailgate closed. The vixen moved swiftly, opening and closing the sliding side door behind her.

It was only a moment, but her three-month old baby had woken. Dr. Holly West double-checked to make sure nobody was looking, then uncovered the child in her secured bassinet made for vehicles. "And how is my little kitten?" she cooed, sniffing. At least she didn't need changing.

The infant anthropomorphic cheetah regarded her mother with a studious feline smugness. She took after her father, as far as species was concerned. She had that fuzzy kitten look to boot, with the dark tracks down her cute little muzzle. She was pudgy like a human baby, but those little claws were quite sharp and needed frequent clipping. There was not a hint of fox in her, but Holly was so relieved just to have a healthy baby she didn't care. There was only one problem.

Unlike her mother, little Roxanne had no human past. Her human ghost was tenuous at best, confirmed by some of the non-furry Friends she had. While the image of a human infant was there, anybody who touched her felt the fur, the tail, the muzzle, and the ears. They saw human, but felt the cheetah. So just in case, Holly kept her out of sight out in public.

Unfortunately leaving her at home for this trip was not an option. The baby needed nursing, formula was an unknown, and she couldn’t pump enough milk to keep her fed for the ten days she'd allotted for this trip to Seattle to check up on other pregnant furs in small towns up the coast, and in some cases other babies. She'd already postponed the trip several times, but even though Change Day was here it could no longer wait.

She checked her iPhone. She'd rushed out the door so fast there were quite a few emails on the PregFurs list she hadn't yet read. It'd just have to wait for the next stop. Holly nuzzled her snoozing baby one last time, hopped in the driver's seat, then headed northward.

Traffic moved at a sedate pace in the ever-present early morning fog, but she got to Highway 68 to Salinas at a decent speed. She reached Highway 101 at about the time the Change had hit her two years ago. Holly started looking at the other drivers around her on the off chance one of them...

"Oh, crap!" Holly swore. The highway was nearly empty, and in the mist she watched an old Ford Escort go off into the dry grass and only miss running into a highway sign by sheer luck. The red vixen stopped as quickly as she dared, but on a hunch, didn't call it in just yet. She reached the car only ninety seconds after the accident.

Frightened doe eyes looked back. She was right in the middle of the "American Werewolf" change, as someone had called it years ago. The special effects in that movie had turned out prescient. Watching someone get a muzzle of any kind was a strange sight indeed. Holly double-checked to make sure this wasn't one of those gender-changed victims. But there was no sign of antlers, and she was obviously not wearing anything unisex. Not in that top.

"Muwaooow!" she bleated in panic, fumbling for the door handle with fusing fingers. "Holy shit!"

"Calm down! Don't panic!" Holly said. The doe-woman scooted across the center console to the passenger seat, torn between her own transformation and the predatory apparition in the fog. "You're fine! Just go with it."

She was hyperventilating, putting herself into even more of a panic. Holly didn't care about species at the moment, but knew the first few hours for new deer tended to be anxious ones. Rodents and lapines were even worse.

She finally decided that her own changes were more important than the vixen outside. She stared at her hands, wiggling her cloven hoof-like fingers, an expression of surreal disbelief on her face. In that pool of calm beyond panic. "Oh. Oh my! Oh my God! My face! My hands! My hands!"

"I'm Holly West," she said. "Can I open the door?"

"Elise... um... Elise Rosenberg," she stammered. Her shoes had vanished, and now she was staring at her feet sticking out from under her skirt. "Am I some kind of demon?"

"Hardly," Holly replied with a chuckle. She flicked her ears back, listening to see if the baby had awakened. "You're a deer of some kind. Are you feeling okay? You're not injured?"

"If you can call this okay!" she exclaimed, panic rising again. But the post-Change endorphin rush put a lid on it. For a lot of new furs it was impossible to feel bad the first few hours. Going from being so sick to suddenly being so well was quite an unnatural high. The doe folded her ears back. "Open the door if you'd like, um, Holly. The passenger side. I think I've wedged my behind in a bad spot. Is that a tail I feel?"

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It took half an hour for the tow truck to come, and during that time Holly filled Elise in on all the basics, interrupted only by Roxanne's hungry bawling. The baby made Elise stare even more than the changes to herself. "I don't understand this at all," the doe said, unable to keep her altered hands off of her changed anatomy.

Holly draped a nursing blanket over her shoulder, then pulled up her top. She wasn't wearing more than a token bra, just enough to absorb any milk she might be leaking. It was time to feed the baby anyway. She shifted in the minivan's empty back seat opposite the highway as Roxanne found her nipple and started suckling. She draped the blanket over the infant's head for some privacy, bushy tail through a hole that had been skillfully cut in the back by her husband. "Get used to it. A million more today, two million next year. Things are starting to accelerate..."

Despite having been told about the RDF over and over again, Elise still hid from the tow truck driver when he arrived. She only poked her ears out of the minivan after it was obvious he didn't see anything amiss. "She's a little skittish after the accident. I think she ran through a patch of oil or something," Holly explained.

The tow tuck driver was a clean-shaven man in his mid-twenties. As always, he looked at her with obvious attraction, despite having her having gained ten pounds after her pregnancy. "Can't blame her. I think she knocked something loose after she went off the highway, too. See that oil slick?" He pointed out a long, black smear that started at the highway's edge and went all the way to where the Escort had come to a stop. "You knocked off your oil pan. You hurt, Miss?"

"I'm fine! I'm just... out of sorts," Elise replied, looking askance at Holly. "Dr. West here checked me out. I'm... I'm fine."

"If you say so. I'll pull the car out. Only take a few minutes with a winch. Let me get your insurance card."

As the man made good on his word, the doe sidled up to the vixen. Roxanne was sleeping now, her spotty tail swishing lazily beneath her mother's forearm. "You're right. He can't see us at all," Elise said.

"Right. So, before you were interrupted, where were you headed? Perhaps I can help?"

Now the new doe started getting upset again. "Portland. I'm... supposed to be a bridesmaid. It's my younger sister's wedding, you see. And I'm already leaving a day later than I planned. Damned flu! And that car was on its last legs anyway. I don't have the time to get it fixed, or the money for a flight. Even at these outrageous gas prices."

The vixen carefully scratched her muzzle thoughtfully, switching sides so Roxanne got fed from both breasts. Next time, it was the lowers' turn. I could do without having four tits, thank you. The lower set of breastlets had only become slightly swollen after she gave birth, more like a normal vixen's milk glands would. But the uppers were essentially human-normal. I barely know this woman. But I'm not going to leave her in the lurch.

"Don't worry, Elise. I have a proposal for you."

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Salinas was only ten miles back, and Elise's home was on the outskirts of town, in a new development surrounded by fields of lettuce. The tow truck driver dropped the old Escort at her driveway, doffed his hat to both women, then went on to his next job. "You'll have to pardon me for a few minutes, Dr. West. I need to check on something really fast..." the doe said, with that distracted expression of the newly Changed.

Holly decided not to rush her and called her patient in Gilroy, letting her know she'd be late.

When Elise came out again a half hour later, the vixen had transferred her luggage to the minivan and nursed Roxanne a second time. The speechless woman climbed into the passenger seat, and said nothing until they were halfway to Gilroy. "Um... I just can't believe it. Anything, really. I feel better than I've felt since I was sixteen, and even then I couldn't hope to have the body I have now. Is this some kind of sick cosmic joke? I'm a hot chick, but now I've got ears like these?" she tugged on them. "And this damned tail? And what about my face? Lord in Heaven, I'm a deer!"

"I'd say the strangest part is looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking: 'yes, that's me.' About three quarters of us go through a phase of disassociation, but it passes quickly," Holly explained.

"I'm up two whole cup sizes!" she complained. "I was an A-cup and I liked it that way!"

Holly checked the clock on the dashboard. Already pushing nine, but it was only another fifteen minutes to Gilroy. "How quickly do you need to be in Portland?"

"The wedding isn't until Thursday, I'd planned on spending a few days with my sister. Batchelorette party and all that beforehand." She looked at her hands, ears vibrating a little.

It was Sunday now. "There are a few patients I absolutely need to visit before we get there, Elise. About four pregnant furs and two toddlers I need to examine. And another five on the way back down from Portland. I can afford to fly you home from there, if you like..."

"Oh, no! Not like this!" the doe said. "I can't fly..." She blinked at the vixen's questioning look. "I'm on vacation anyway, and I hate flying to begin with. More, since they started making you take your shoes off."

Holly snorted, nodding. "I agree with you there, Elise. If you don't mind traveling with a veterinarian getting a crash course in anthropomorphic anatomy." She chuckled, thinking at what her professors at UC Davis would need to re-learn over the next few years, if they didn't have some idea already. "See, I normally doctor horses and the occasional wildlife."

The doe flicked one of her ears and snorted, looking at her hands again. "I guess that makes what?"

"Two million of us."

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Gilroy was famous for its Garlic Festival in July, which most furries avoided like the plague. Patricia professed to love the odor, though there were times when Holly doubted her honesty. Detectable even to a human nose from miles away, to a vixen and a doe the next few hours were going to be a trial. "Patty's the only one I'm able to check up on regularly," Holly explained.

Elise covered her wide, black nose, eyes watering. "My sense of smell is shutting down."

"Good! That'll make it a little easier. How are you holding up, otherwise?"

"As well as can be expected, I guess. It's a lot to absorb."

"So don't think about it too hard. Just do what comes naturally. What kind of deer are you?" Holly cocked her head as she got near Patty's driveway. There were two more cars parked out front than the previous checkup a month before. Aside from her ratty husband, the two of them were pretty solitary.

"I really have no idea, and I really don't care right now. What are we here for?"

"We're going to make sure that furs are giving birth to healthy babies." Roxanne belched a little as her mother parked next to Patricia's Chevy pickup in the driveway. It was a modest bungalow, painted white, not the most cushy place to live. The air was already getting hot. The air conditioners were already running full blast. To the vixen's surprise, an older woman came outside, husband in tow, with the gravid red panda right behind. "You really shouldn't be moving around in your condition, Patty."

"If I don't get at least a little exercise I'm going to go crazy," the red panda replied, arms around her belly. She was dressed in some used maternity clothes. The fact that she had once been physically male didn't make her situation less enjoyable. In fact, Holly had never seen a woman so happy to be pregnant. The most important thing by far that as a human she had been a transsexual.

"You're Dr. West? You weren't a man too, were you?" the flustered older woman said.

"No, mother. She was born a woman, just like you," Patricia said. "I've tried explaining that only a tiny fraction of us change gender, too. But..."

"She knows?" Holly asked warily, opening the door to get the bassinet out.

"My whole family knows, Holly. When I got preggers my human ghost went female, even to them," Patricia said, delighted. She cocked her head at the vixen's obvious confusion. "I'm a woman to everyone now. Even my birth certificate. Even my high school yearbook--you should see me in my prom dress. It's so cute! I never told you?"

"No. That's the first I've heard of that. That's sort of important information."

"Why, I assumed you knew. I told the PregFurs list back in March."

"And I finally joined in April, Patty. But never mind. Just make sure everybody knows." Patricia was the first transgendered fur anyone knew of who had gotten pregnant. Which was amazing, given their growing numbers and how some of them played around. She looked at Elise, who was almost hiding behind the other side of the van, so quietly that the humans hadn't noticed her yet. As quiet as a doe already. "Come here, Elise. Let me introduce you to Mrs. Jones, here."

"Newbie?" the pregnant red panda asked.

Holly hefted the handle of her baby's bassinet. "Just a couple hours ago. Let's get started, shall we? We'll stay long enough for lunch, then move north. If your husband would be so kind to carefully get the equipment out of the back, this won't take long."

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It wasn't an empty house. Two kids, ten and twelve, sat in front of the small LCD TV, watching the Summer Olympics. Next to them was another woman in her early thirties who bore a strong resemblance to Patricia's mother, had come back inside with her waddling other daughter. The news crawl at the bottom of the screen told of the cancellation of several events due to illness from the participating athletes. Elise, still feeling uncharacteristically skittish, walked into the cooled air inside the living room. Every window had a humming air conditioner.

It smelled like rat and red panda musk, but it was much better than the redolent, cloying reek of garlic.

The girl, a bored-looking ten year old, looked at Elise's feet. "Are you one of those furry people? You're not wearing any shoes."

"Well... um..." she stammered. From the dining room table, Holly's half-human baby started crying. It was a strange mewling sound, something that certainly didn't come out of a human throat. Elise folded her ears back.

"Oh, dear! I'll get her," Patricia's mother said. She happened to be closest.

"No, wait..." Holly said, torn between her child and her heavy ultrasound equipment.

To her credit, the gray-haired woman didn't drop the baby. The fuzzy little cheetah stopped crying, smacking her lips together. She started purring. Loud kitten purrs, the kind that rumbled through your hand if you were petting them. This was only the second time Elise had seen her, and she was nearly as floored as Patricia's mother. "Oh, Lord in Heaven. Give me strength in the years ahead," she whispered.

"Watch her claws, Mrs. Dale," the vixen said gently. She and the rat had put the equipment down on the floor. "They get sharp quick."

Mrs. Dale handed the baby back to her mother. Patricia had come in behind them, closing the door. The pregnant woman waddled towards a worn easy chair. "I told you, mother, that I didn't just become a true female physically. There's more to it than that. I've have a rather long tail, too."

"I just thought... the Lord saw fit to correct my error of praying for a boy, and that was it," she said. "I heard you, Patty. And you know I always supported your transition. And... and... I need to go lay down for a while."

The woman Elise had taken as Patricia's sister looked concerned and got to her feet. "I'll help you, Mom."

Holly put her baby back in her bassinet, then opened her bag, removing an electric razor. "Let's get started, shall we?"

Patricia grimaced, pulling up her top to reveal a somewhat bare belly. "I hate this part. It's barely grown back from the last time."

"Thirty-seven weeks, Patty. You're almost finished," Holly reassured.

"The midwife is coming down tomorrow, and you can imagine this is why my family is here," she replied as Holly shaved the short fur off her stomach, while her niece and nephew watched in fascination as black fur fell to the floor. "To tell the truth, I think everyone's just a little loopy today."

Elise snorted. "Loopy."

"I'm sorry, where are my manners?" Holly said. "Patricia Jones, Elise, um..."

"Rosenberg," the doe said. All the conversation from the past ten minutes clicked into place. "You were a man?" she sputtered. Somehow, that seemed even stranger than becoming part animal.

Patricia's expression hardened. "No matter my accident of birth, I was never a man. You heard my mother. She prayed for a boy, but got a boy with a girl's brain. But that mistake was corrected. If you want the whole story, Holly knows. Who is this woman anyway, Holly?"

The vixen finished with the razor, then started to spread clear gel on the newly bare skin. "Go easy on her, Patty. She just Changed today. I met her on the road and we happened to be going the same direction. We're traveling together." She flicked on a few switches, and the wand began to hum. Adjusting her laptop so the screen faced the two women, she started the exam. "Let's see how that little ratboy of yours is coming along."

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The new doe's discomfiture created a long silence after they left Patricia's modest home. The next stop was north of San Francisco, in a tiny town called Inverness. With Roxanne sleeping soundly in her bassinet, with only the occasional purr to give her away, Holly tried to make conversation. "So, what do you do for a living?"

"I'm a Special Education teacher," she replied in a disinterested voice, as if reciting by rote. "I teach kids with Downs Syndrome, Autism, and the like. It's a good job. I enjoy myself." She looked at her hands and flexed her fingers in a pattern, and bleated a little. "I'm sorry, I'm just not a good conversationalist today.

"Holly--do you mind if I call you that? Holly, that was the most uncomfortable three hours of my entire life! That... that woman was a man?"

The vixen grimaced. People always reacted more strongly to transgendered furs than they did to their own changes, oddly enough. "If you overheard, it's more of a correction, honestly. It's nice to see a happy ending for one of them."

Elise now looked at herself. "And does that mean that I could have ended up a man today?"

Holly remained silent, not sure what to say. She didn't want Elise to completely lose it. "There was a slim chance. One in a hundred."

Strangely, she didn't seem all that horrified. "You know, I'd rather deal with having a penis than these." She tugged on her ears, which flicked when she touched them. "I honestly have no idea where I stand now. I don't know anything about being a deer!"

Holly fished her iPhone out of her purse and handed it to her passenger. "Here, find some Web references. We're not really animals. Well, not where it counts, in my view. It's like the animal bits are just tacked on, though we do have some instincts to deal with as well. There's some bookmarks you should check out, too."

Somewhere north of San Rafael, both the reception and the battery ran out, and Elise wasn't mollified. She only had more questions. "You're a vixen? And your baby is a cheetah?"

"My husband is a cheetah. Eric's such a sweetie," Holly said. "We married soon after we both Changed in '06. We're both Veterinarians. He does cats and dogs, me horses. But with this thing that's happening we're both studying human anatomy, too. A whole new education, basically."

"I hate to say this, but I don't look like food to you, do I?" Elise asked half-jokingly.

"You have nothing to worry about," Holly reassured. "We're not going to allow ourselves to degenerate into that kind of society."

"Heh. That's nice to hear. I was looking up my exact species on the web before the battery died. I think I'm a blacktail. I checked myself out in the mirror before I left home."

Holly raised her black ears. "Never heard of that one."

"They're more common in California and the Pacific Northwest. I'm from Portland, originally. Longer tails and smaller ears than mule deer, but they lack whitetails' distinctive feature. Um... I still really have no idea how this is going to affect my life. I mean, if everyone other than people like you still see me as a human..."

The vixen mother let the new doe ramble as she drove up the narrow highway towards Inverness. There was always a period of self discovery post-Change, as people started reading about their new species and tried to fit it into their new sense of self. There were a number of Changed psychologists who were still trying to make sense of just how quickly this integration happened. Some "got it" within weeks, others still struggled to this day, even if they'd Changed when there were only a few thousand others in the world.

Holly liked to think she was one of the former. But being a red fox had its own baggage. The very first furry was supposedly a vixen. They had a bad reputation of being promiscuous in the human "fandom" that had formed around the Veil-protected real anthropomorphics. The fact that she was a married woman hadn't stopped a few boors from asking her for a quick yiff on Second Life, IRC, or on pure-text MUCKs. So much so that she kept to the PregFurs mailing list almost exclusively these days.

"I'll put you in touch with Tara Slater, Elise. She's not a local, and she's a whitetail, but she's been a doe for a year now herself. She can give you all kinds of advice," Holly said.

"I'd like that," Elise said. She rolled down the window and took a deep breath. The air smelled of pine and seasalt. Inverness sat at the head of Tomales Bay, formed by a long, narrow gap between two ridges along the San Andreas Fault. "Who's next on your list?"

"A rather unusual case, even as we furs go," Holly explained. "They had an infant who Changed when he was just over a year old. Very, very fortunate they were in San Francisco at the time. One of us caught them before they went into hysterics, though they did that anyway out of public view. You see, the parents aren't Changed yet. Although..."

"Maybe one of them Changed today?" Elise wondered. "They probably would have called you."

"Maybe, maybe not. They've gone reclusive and they're wealthy enough to wait until their child grows up enough to have a stronger Veil. But we're almost there anyway. Just keep yourself from nibbling on their garden, and we'll be just fine." Holly lolled her tongue.

Elise folded her arms. "Oh, ha ha."

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When Holly parked the minivan in the driveway, the Hoskins' dog immediately started barking loudly behind the fence. Her angry snarls made Elise quiver in fright and grasp her seat tightly, ears raised high. "Be back in just a minute. They should know we're here now, at last," Holly said.

The Doberman barked all the more when the vixen approached the fence. She was downwind of the animal, so the dog hadn't smelled her yet. In response, Holly yipped, then snarled viciously. The guard dog shut up and immediately started whining. "She's just a big softy, Elise. No worries." She rotated her ears, expecting to hear the front door open. When that didn't happen, she strained for other noises, and heard the sound of one... no... two otters behind the house. The house itself backed on the Bay.

"I'm going to stay here until they at least put that dog on a leash, Holly," Elise said.

"That's okay with me. I'm going to paw it out back and see what's going on. Keep your nose on Roxy if you please?"

"My pleasure. And don't you mean my eyes?"

"Your nose is a better asset now. Trust me. Back in a few."

With the Doberman barking and trying to lick her muzzle, Holly walked out behind the modest home the high fence surrounded. The sound of otters got louder, as she expected. But as she broke into a jog, she found exactly what she expected. Young father Roy Hoskins was sitting on a lounge chair next to a tidal pool behind their property, watching not one, but two anthro otters. One was clearly his wife, and the other, a little boy just over two years old, their son. He had a wistful expression on his face. Holly coughed politely.

Roy didn't look up. "Michi changed this morning. They haven't been out of the water since," he said. There was a wetsuit over a low branch of a young redwood, still dripping. "Too cold for me for very long. Perfect for them. With my luck I'll end up a camel."

Michi floated belly-up in the water, wearing a bikini, with the otter toddler sitting on her belly. "Oh, look! Your Aunt Holly is here!" she said, waving. Young Roy Jr. waved as well.

Holly waved back. "Hey there! Any way we can persuade you out of the saltwater?"

"This fur is wonderful! I don't feel the cold at all!" she replied. "And we're so fast in the water! I love it!"

"Don't rub it in," Roy muttered. "I'm going to need a better wet suit, and a jet ski."

Michi Hoskins was now long in the body, with shorter legs, and a long, thick tail. Her fur was a deep brown on her back, lighter on her belly. And like most other Changed, her chest had filled out considerably. She picked up a hose and started to wash the salt water off herself and her son. "God, what a relief! I was afraid I'd end up a cat."

"I have someone I need to introduce to you two," Holly said. "If you wouldn't mind putting your dog away... Well, she's a deer."

"Oh? Oh! Sure, Holly," Roy said. "I'll take care of it." He walked away.

Michi twitched her whiskers sadly. "He's gone all distant on me."

"Give him time. Let's head inside, shall we?"

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This visit wasn't any more comfortable for Elise than the first one, but it was made all the worse by the baby grand piano that took up most of their living room, and the slippery hardwood floors. And the whole house smelled an odd mixture of dog and otter. Then there was little Roxy, who needed frequent changing.

"We're lucky they have bare bottoms for the first couple years," the vixen vetinarian said, finishing up a diaper change.

"Don't even talk to me about potty training," Roy said with a disgusted look on his face. He was a fit man, mostly from trying to keep up with his energetic son. The toddler could swim long before he could walk. "They need a quick bath every time."

Elise sat on the couch, one eye on the piano, and the other on the toddling otterboy. It was just a checkup, and wouldn't take long. But the more time the doe spent near the piano, the more she was tempted to see just how bad losing a finger actually was. She stared at her hands. The middle fingers were larger, the tips mostly covered by thick black, pointed nails that were annoying to keep filed down, according to the information she'd read on the iPhone. And the pinky and thumb resembled dewclaws. A deer's cloven forehoof remapped to human proportions.

She flexed them carefully. Her brain had also been remapped to the extent she didn't notice the missing finger any more. An important question weighed heavily on her mind. With everyone focused on the Hoskins' toddler, Elise walked over towards the piano.

Dare I? I should know for sure, she thought, opening the keyboard cover. Then she nervously placed her fingers on the keys, and tried to play a chord. Her thickened middle fingers pressed down several keys at once, let alone the missing finger. "Oh..." she stopped herself from swearing. "Oh no."

"What's wrong?" Holly asked, looking up from her physical exam of the otter child. "Elise?"

"Oh... just. Just thinking. Listening, really. These keys sound different."

"Our hearing is much better than humans'. Yours is probably better than mine with those ears, actually. I could do some tests once we return home. I have an office in Carmel Valley..."

The doe plinked a few keys, trying to do chopsticks. She only partly succeeded. She folded her ears back, frustrated. "Oh, I couldn't afford..."

"No cost, my dear deer. We're still trying to establish some baselines."

"Speaking of baselines, how's my little otta?" Michi asked.

"He's fine and dandy, Mrs. Hoskins, though you should probably think of breastfeeding again, if you haven't already. You found some formula, but I think you should try and do what comes naturally now," the doctor suggested.

The newly Changed otter woman sighed. "I don't know if I can get any milk. I've fed him on occasion, but without the nursing, it just goes away."

"Well, the Change might have corrected that. Do try, Michi. And eat more shellfish."

The woman smiled. She had a cute face, almost cartoon-like in its human expressiveness. "Oh, I will. But right now I feel like a sandwich. Are either of you hungry?"

"I could use a bit of salad," Elise asked, feeling a little queasy. She'd read that she was a ruminant, and wasn't looking forward to the "unswallow" that the other deer furs had termed it. She hadn't eaten much at Patty's house, mostly because nothing smelled right. This house smelled a little of varnish from the piano, and the otter musk was more pleasant than the red panda and rat.

"We can offer you two a room for the night," Michi offered.

"I'm afraid we have to move on," Holly said. "I have to get Elise to Portland by Wednesday, which means we need to hit Eureka by tomorrow afternoon. I have some patients in out-of-the-way places. I want to make some time before dark today."

Michi's ears drooped. "Oh. Pity, Holly. We have so few visitors."

"Because that's the way it has to be," her husband said. "We can't risk..."

Michi's eyes narrowed. "Maybe it's time to reconsider. This is a great little town. It's time we got to know the neighbors."

Holly coughed. "Let me just do a quick exam on you, Michi. I'm sure you're the picture of health, but I'd like to get a few observations down before we go."

The ridge on the western end of Tomales Bay, casting its shadow across the water when Holly and Elise left the two-thirds Changed family to figure out what to do next.

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The vetinarian's iPhone beeped at her the second she plugged it in at the Best Western in Petaluma. The touchscreen surface would only work if she used the pads on her fingertips, and her claws could score the surface if she wasn't careful. Holly lolled her canine tongue at the High Priority message on the main MedFur list. "Welcome to the land of fur at last, Ed."

"Ed who?" Elise asked.

"Dr. Edward Frasier. He wasn't sure if he had just a run-of-the-mill summer flu, or the Change Flu. As it turned out, he's now some kind of weasel, I think." She looked at the photo attachments. Brown fur overall, with darker belly, paws, and tail. "Hm... now he wants us to identify the species. He doesn't look like a mink. They're more uniform..."

"Marten," Elise said. "Look at his ears. They're taller and larger than other weasels. I saw a few of them growing up in Portland. They made a home under our deck at one point."

Holly lolled more, and answered the "guess-the-species" email, and informing him that she'd be in Seattle about a week ahead of schedule. At the end of the email were more pics of him with his daughter, who was a vixen herself and called her "Aunt Holly" because they were such a good match. She sent a congratulatory message to Annette as well. The eighteen year-old was due to start college at Reed next week, and this was a great gift from the universe for her. Though the young vixen had hoped that her father would end up a fox as well.

"Don't... don't turn on the news," Elise said. "It's all bad these days."

Holly puzzled over an email from a Thomas Janssen. I don't know a... wait a second. She opened the message.

You're not going to believe this, Holly. It's me, Tara. Jerome and I traded places this morning. Poor Jerry--Janice, now--is at a conference in Baltimore and was sitting in the audience at a panel discussion. She managed to slip out before anyone noticed, thank God. Believe it or not, the role reversal isn't the strange part.

No. You're not going to believe this. Poor Janice is even lactating! From what she told me it's like *she* actually had the baby instead of me. There are even stretch marks on her belly under her fur! She ended up in one of my outfits, too. Apparently ROB simply exchanged our wardrobes in her suitcase, including what she was wearing at the time. At least we don't need to buy new clothes. Well... suffice to say that 'Janice' is on her way home as fast as she can. Our son is hungry.

More later, okay? I'm a little freaked out myself right now.

TJ--Thomas Janssen.

"Oh my God," Holly gasped. This was new. Their little buck was no older than Roxanne. She sent a quick reply of support to TJ, then picked up her own baby to give her another feeding.

"I'm going to go to that Denny's across the street and get something to eat," the doe said. She looked exhausted, drained. The post-Change endorphins were probably starting to wear off, and the enormity of what had happened to her was written in every nervous twitch of her ears. "Can I bring you anything?"

"We'll be along shortly, Elise," the vixen replied. I'd hate to be Jerome right now. Sore breasts filled with milk, and no pump, were no fun. And given what had happened to Patty's ghost, there was a strong likelihood that the newly-minted Thomas and Janice would be seen that way by everyone, too. Family, friends, and co-workers alike. What a mess! "Take your time."

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August 18, 2008

Gas at a station in Santa Rosa was $5.20 the next morning. The chaos spreading across Africa had shut down all the oil production in Nigeria. The news said that there were already a hundred thousand barrels online from our own new oil fields, but it wasn't enough in the short term. The President had authorized use of the Strategic Oil Reserve to make up the difference for a couple of months.

"All bad news. All of it," Elise said morosely, flexing her thick fingers. "Ever since the first of the year. Just gets worse and worse..."

Holly could relate. Even in wealthy Carmel Valley there were abandoned houses. The bankruptcy of a few large financial institutions was causing a sharp recession, and the Dollar Crash wasn't helping matters either. There's going to be some major oil shortages... the vixen thought. Despite the new oil fields, production simply couldn't be brought online fast enough. And the prospect of cheap oil coming back to the market within two years was making commodity prices fluctuate wildly across the board.

"You'll get no argument from me about that," Holly replied, happy to be finally out of the choking fumes from the gas station. I wonder if we've reached some kind of critical mass? The furry sites were abuzz with an explosion of traffic. Almost half of the new furs seemed to be Known, or family members, or a combination of both.

"Who's next on your roster?" the doe asked.

Holly got on the Highway 101 North onramp and tapped the navigation screen on the dashboard. "Going to be a long drive today. Eureka, and right up my alley. Or my stable, you could say. A pair of horses with a six-month old filly. If you think the little otter-boy was a handful, wait until you meet them."

Elise pulled on her top that looked two sizes too small in the bust. "We're going to have to stop, Holly. I need some new clothes. My bras don't fit any more. This top is killing me. I'm not as petite as I was. I think I'm four inches taller on these new spindly legs of mine."

"No problem, Elise. We have time. Find a Target on my iPhone and give me the directions."

The doe did so, and ten minutes later they were at the big box store. Holly spent the next hour waiting while Elise found what she liked, and actually fit, before she was finished. But the doe blanched as the bill ran up over $75. "I can't pay for that."

The vixen pulled out her debit card. Paying for all the gas on this trip was going to strain her own budget, but this just felt like the right thing to do. "I'll take care of it. Here..."

"You don't have to..."

"Oh, I believe I do. It's what friends do for one another, so hush," she chided gently. Her iPhone beeped at her while they were walking out to the minivan. From the sound she knew it was a business call. She pulled it out of her purse. "Dr. West speaking."

"Um... er... Is this Dr. West?" a voice on the other end stammered. It was deep and guttural. Horse-like, but still feminine. "Um..."

"Did someone give you my number, ma'am? Someone... special?"

"Please tell me there's a cure for this!" the woman nickered. "Dear God!"

"We don't even know what's causing it," Holly replied calmly. "Are you in the Monterey area?"

"Morgan Hill," she replied. It was a town they had passed through between Salinas and San Jose, so she wasn't terribly distant. "I'm... I'm a freaking mare!"

"If you were just an animal, you couldn't hold the phone. I regret that I'm not in my office right now, Ma'am. I'm traveling right now and I won't be back until next Tuesday at the earliest. Can you keep yourself together until then?"

The voice on the other end wavered between anger, panic and shock. "Let me emphasize something. I'm a mare. As in, female? My name is Gerald. Except there's this woman's picture on my license now and it's called me 'Geraldine'. I mean, holy Jesus fuck! I have breasts and everything! And there's a tail... and and... an orifice I shouldn't have! I don't want to buy tampons! You've got to help me!" she pled.

I just can't cope with this right now. Nope... not at all, the vixen thought, gritting her teeth. "Well, I'm going to give you the number of another fur who lives in Gilroy. I'm really sorry I can't do anything for you, Gerald. But you're far from alone. Here's Patty's contact info..."

With that over, Elise stared at her. "Just how many of them are there?"

"Them? Oh, transgendered. They're a vocal group out all proportion to their size, frankly. Well, since the numbers are doubling every year, there'd be... hmm..." She did the math in her head, swishing her bushy tail thoughtfully, running her fingers through her long black hair. "About ten thousand new ones on top of the ten thousand there are already. Perhaps a lot more, come to think of it. Some of us change again the next year, like Thomas and Janice--Tara and Jerome, that is. Nobody has any firm numbers because it's hard to get them to come forward, and after what happened to them last at Tall Tales Con last year..."

"No, don't tell me. I've heard enough, thank you. I'm just happy I stayed female," the doe said. She looked at her chest ruefully. "Though perhaps I'm more girl now than I really wanted to be. Maybe being glad there's someone out there worse off makes me an awful person, but..."

"Is there something else wrong?" Holly asked. Lord knows I'm happy with this bod of mine.

Elise sighed and held out her hands, palms down. She wiggled her finger-hooves. "I was supposed to play piano at my sister's wedding, you see. Now it's impossible. I can't hit the right keys! Can't play chords! And I hit more than one. What am I going to do?"

The vixen didn't have an answer for her right away. She picked up her baby and secured the carrier in the Honda. "I'm a doctor, Elise. I can put a bandage on your hand and explain the accident injured you."

"I gave my word!" the doe-woman wailed.

"And there are extenuating circumstances. A lot of things are going to have to change in this world. Lots to adapt. Ergonomics are going to be a nightmare. Calm yourself, and we'll think of something."

Sighing, Elise looked like she was about to cry. Holly gave her a sisterly hug. "Look at me. I have to wear a full body suit now to do any surgery, lest I shed fur and it gets into an open wound. Do you think they make any suits for vixens? Poor Doc Frasier is a surgeon in a big hospital. How is he going to explain his needs to his staff?"

"Why don't we just go public with this? I'm really unclear why we haven't."

Holly knew the answer to that one. She opened the driver's side door. "Mostly internal politics, frankly. We're just scared what's going to happen when--and it's a certainty--normal people find out. Panic, at the very least. Genocide at worst. Could be this year, could be five years from now. But it's going to happen, the Veil will come down. There's just too many of us, and too many who already know to some degree or another."

"I think it should be this year," the doe opined. "It's wrong to keep people in the dark about this. It's just too important."

She's been one of us a day, and she already has her own ideas, Holly thought. "Try posting that to one of the Changed message boards and see what kind of flame war you stoke. I really have no opinion one way or the other. We should really get going..."

"I'm not kidding. We should go public with this, soon." With the breeze ruffling her headfur, Elise came back around and got into the passenger seat, a resolved expression replacing the self pity from just a few minutes before. Holly just shrugged and decided to change the subject.

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There were still hippie communes in this part of California, the most liberal part of the state. Unlike the east coast, most of California's coastline was a rocky shore dominated by tall cliffs and huge rocks jutting out of the ocean just off shore. The air smelled of sequoias and redwoods. They had passed through a few groves already, driving slowly to enjoy the landscape. "Beautiful. I confess I've never been in this part of the state before," Elise said. "Oh, look!" she pointed.

A couple of blacktail does stood on the side of the road. Holly slowed to a stop to allow them to cross, hooves clacking across the blacktop, muffled a little by the ever-present fog. With gas prices the way they were, the two furries were practically the only people on the road. "I love this place. Absolutely love it," Holly said. "Should we stop?"

"We'll drive slow," Elise suggested, rolling the window all the way down. She licked her nose and leaned out the window. "I know this is more a dog thing, but I can't get enough of this."

It was an additional half hour before they pulled into Eureka proper, pulling into the Humboldt Street home at two in the afternoon. The whole equine Pelton family came out to meet them. Their six-month old bay filly was already toddling on her little hooves. She whinnied at the newcomers. Holly blanched and looked around. "Won't somebody hear that?" the vixen asked.

Mrs. Pelton shrugged. She was of indeterminate breed, since it was sometimes impossible to tell from anthros. "We've stopped trying to hide her, Dr. West. She's already walking and, well, watch this." She let the leggy baby go, and the child was off and running.

Thankfully her father was faster, or the half-gallop would have put her close to the freeway at that speed. Two pairs of hooves clattered down the street, since Mr. Pelton apparently had seen a farrier. This was the first time they had met in person, and the first same-species couple on Holly's patient list. "Well, that certainly is a surprise," the horse doctor said. "But real foals can walk just a few minutes after birth, so I suppose this works on some sort of scale. You said she was very active in your email, but..."

"We could've sent video of this, we know," Mrs. Pelton said. "I'm sorry but it just slipped my mind. My stallion and I have to gallop just to keep up with her."

Mr. Pelton blew raspberries into the giggling baby's belly, then kissed her soundly. "Shall we get started? We'd like to show you around town after, if you like."

"And I want to meet your friend, and Roxy," Mrs. Pelton added.

"We don't have to be in Grant's Pass until tomorrow, right Elise?" Holly said. "I can get you to Portland tomorrow night."

"What? I don't mind staying here a while," the doe said. "I'd like to see the redwoods more. Perhaps see some of more of my four-legged sisters."

Oh boy. I hope she isn't going to go all mystical-connection on me. I certainly don't feel like spending any time with real foxes. Not that I could get near them anyway. Holly just nodded and picked up the bassinet out of the minivan. It was time for Roxy to stretch her legs a little, herself. Her mother carried her inside, with Mr. Pelton taking in her black bag.

Holly was in the middle of giving Mr. Pelton a once-over when her phone rang with Dr. Frasier's distinctive ringtone. Delighted, she apologized to the big horse and went to pick it up. "Edward, hello and welcome!"

"Thanks, Holly. I wish I could say that this was a social call, but it isn't," he said irritably. "Congressman Buttes changed yesterday. Do you know of him?"

"Can't say that I do," she replied. But the fact that another member of Congress had joined Sandrick was definitely notable.

"Well, he's Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. That's a hugely important position, Holly. With the plane crash and what's going on in Africa, he has to be back in Washington soon. But he wants you to give him a clean bill of health before he goes. So I need you here at Harborview as soon as you can."

"I'm in Eureka, Ed. That's almost six hundred miles from you. And I have other patients..." she paused. "And how does he know about me, anyway?"

The middle-aged marten sounded apologetic. "I'm afraid that's my fault. I told him about you. He's a percheron, you see."

"I don't see why he needs my opinion. Isn't yours enough? I have three more pregnant furs I need to check up on soon," Holly objected. "He should be utterly healthy."

"Frankly, his medical history is a mess. I don't quite trust the Change to give him that clean bill of health, and the way things translate during the transformation there could be some horse-related maladies he's got instead that I just don't know how to diagnose. His anatomy is different enough--especially in his intestinal tract--that I just don't know what I'm looking at. Especially since I don't have the Veil to translate the medical imagery into human versions for me any more. Please, Holly."

If she wasn't a carnivore, she would have ground her teeth together in frustration. But her teeth went together like a pair of scissors. Instead she bared her teeth. "Okay, fine! Damn it. I'd better get going right now, then. We'll have to hotfoot it out of here right now if we're going to make it by tomorrow afternoon. And that's the absolute earliest I can be there. I am traveling with an infant myself, you know." She sighed heavily. "But I'll do it, damn him. See you soon, Eddie."

"Annette will be overjoyed to see you here so soon. See you later, Holly." The surgeon hung up.

"We're going, aren't we?" Elise said.

"Looks like I'm going to get you to Portland faster than we thought," the vixen replied, standing up and pulling on her pants where it had bunched up around her tail. She looked up at the foot-taller golden palomino mare. She liked the small of horses, even as a vixen, and being around this family felt strange. She was still unused to her clients talking back. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Pelton. Your exam will have to wait until my return trip."

The mare folded her ears back. "I heard. Stupid politician. Go on, then. See you in a few days."

It was already three in the afternoon, and Google Maps put her at nearly six hundred miles and ten hours driving under ideal conditions. Elise offered to take a shift or two, which the veterinarian gratefully accepted. "I'm feeling like a fifth wheel. I don't mind getting to Portland faster, though I'm going to be there a few days. Do you still plan on taking me home?"

Holly nodded, picking up her keys. The next day or so was going to be horrible. There was no way they could make it there in one trip. With any luck they'd make it to Grant's Pass before it got too late. The shortest way northward was on a windy highway. "I said I would, and I have a few patients in Oregon I can visit before I return to pick you up. Let's get going, we'll be driving all night. That Congressmen better be worth it, or so help me..."

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Highway 199 followed the Smith River from Crescent City, and it wasn't called the Redwood Highway for nothing. The scenery was literally breathtaking, with the massive trees overshadowing the narrow, two-lane highway. Holly drove as fast as she dared, but wasn't about to put themselves in danger. The river itself, a narrow thing with rushing, splashing rapids, was just off the passenger side. Elise said very little while in this landscape, entranced, enraptured, and keeping her nose out for other deer.

The highway met Interstate 5 at Grants Pass, hours after leaving Eureka. But by then it was dark. After getting something to eat at a McDonald's, they switched drivers. "My hooves are so tiny," she said. "I'm not sure I'm going to hit the pedal."

"Keep it on cruise control," Holly suggested, yawning. She was still very irritated with this self-important Congressman, new fur or not. "Think we'll make it to Eugene tonight?"

"Doubt it. I'm exhausted," the blacktailed doe replied. "I'll start looking for a place to stop. How far did we make it?"

"Four hundred miles, believe it or not. That makes what? Five hundred today?" Holly said.

"At least! What a day... what a week! I think I'm going to collapse into bed."

A sharp odor from Roxy's bassinet told them that now was just the right time to find that bed. After changing the little cheetah at another McDonald's, they pulled into a Best Western, checked in, then settled in for the night. "We should make Portland by noon tomorrow. It's only a couple hundred more miles," Holly said. At least cats like to sleep. I don't know what I would do if she was a fully human baby.

Elise grimaced, and said nothing. She had dressed in a new nightgown to accommodate her perfected figure. The room air conditioner hummed under the window. Both furries knew it was simply too hot to sleep with the air conditioning off at this time of year. She glared at the necessary contraption. "Do you have those earplugs? Do they work?"

"Foam works best since it adjusts to the shape of your ear canal. You'll just have to hold your ear steady, since they like to flick," the vixen said, taking a package out of her suitcase. "Sleep well. You probably won't even hear the baby over the noise of that thing. Now, I'm going to feed her one last time before bed."

Elise nodded, and after only a little struggle with unruly ears, finally got the noise down enough to be tolerable. She curled up under a sheet. Holly shut the light out and followed suit in her own bed.

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August 19, 2008

The baby that was so quiet, so easy to deal with, became a nightmare between Eugene and Portland. What should have been a two hour drive dragged on to three, then four, as Roxanne simply would not settle in her bassinet, needed frequent changing, and constant feeding. Holly fretted that she was getting sick with something, a feline version of the common cold, perhaps. And when they did stop, her mewling cry got peoples' attention. Sometimes they openly stared at them. This made Holly want so snarl right back.

"I wish I could help," Elise said. "But I work with high school kids. My husband... former husband," she said in a firm, bitter voice, "wouldn't even think of having children. Scared the crap out of him, being a father."

Only thirty miles to go to Portland, and they were stuck at a Chili's, hovering near the women's restroom where they had a changing table. Keeping her fur from getting soiled was proving a time-consuming task, requiring dozens of baby wipes that were flushed. Both women felt like throwing up at the sharp stink. At least she's not on solid food yet, Holly thought.

Eventually Roxanne settled, curling up for a long snooze, and they were able to leave. Elise called her sister as they accelerated onto the freeway, telling them they'd be arriving in half an hour. The doe's ears flicked in agitation as she hung up. She flexed her fingers again. "I still don't know what I'm going to tell her, Holly. I can't play!"

"My opinion as your doctor--and I know hoofstock, Elise--is that you shouldn't use that forehoof for any strenuous activity. Keep off it for at least the next seven days," the vetinarian replied.

Elise snorted. "Forehoof. I suppose it is. Will you tell her something similar to that? She's going to want to meet you before you leave."

The vixen nodded. "I will, Elise. Keep in touch, will you? I should swing back around to pick you up on Friday. I plan on staying a day or two in Seattle with Edward, too. I need a vacation as much as anyone else."

Holly only needed to stop three times between Portland and Seattle. She sighed in relief as Mt. Rainer came into sight, a comfort from miles away that she was close to her goal. The sooner the Buttes checkup was over and done with, the better. It was nearly two in the afternoon before she finally pulled into the visitor parking at Harborview Medical Center.

The tang of blood surrounded the building, human blood having a different, sharper note than the animal blood she was much more accustomed to. Holly pulled her cell phone out of her purse and gave Frasier a call. The surgeon must have been watching, because the dark brown creature that came out of the hospital's front doors could only be him. "Holly! Hey there!" the marten shouted.

Anthro weasels were long I the body, with shorter legs than the human norm. They were short, too, and Dr. Edward Frasier was a good six inches shorter than he had been. He was in his mid-40s, but the three times Holly had met him before gave the impression of someone half that age. Now, with the addition of dark brown fur and the boundless energy of mustlids, he seemed even younger. Though there were a few gray hairs on his head.

He was now a shade shorter than she was, and clearly not used to that yet. He gave her a brotherly hug all the same. "I'm sorry about this, Holly. But the Congressman insisted this was urgent."

"I haven't been keeping up on the news," the vixen admitted. "But I'm not happy about this, Eddie. The numbers of pregnant furs are growing, and we desperately need to keep up."

"I know, I know. But things are moving faster than any of us have been thinking, especially on a government level. I can't say any more than that, but Buttes needs a general prodding before he goes back to Washington," he said, his ears a-twitch. He straightened his white oversized overcoat. "So, how's Eric?" he asked, referring to her husband.

"He sends his regards," she replied. There was email, there were even webcams these days, but saying it in person still felt more genuine. "And thanks you for those human anatomy books, and the MRI scans. We have a lot of work ahead of us, don't we?"

Roxanne started mewing from inside the minivan. Her mother reacted instantly, opening the sliding door and picking her up out of her bassinet. "Hungry again," the vixen muttered. "I feel like a cow."

"To be perfectly frank, I'm glad I stayed male," Frasier said, helpfully picking up the baby's diaper bag in one hand, Holly's laptop in the other. "I'll leave the childbearing to the professionals. I'll give Buttes a call. He should be here within the hour."

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He was a big grey Percheron, and Holly disliked him on scent. He barged into the examination room with an arrogant swagger, and never having met a politician in person before, Holly had to repress an urge to bare her teeth at him. Buttes came in with Frasier and a bighorn ram she recognized as a local judge, and a pair of humans in sunglasses and earphones who could only be Secret Service. The Judge offered to watch Roxanne, insisting he was a father of four kids and knew his way around a baby. Him, Holly liked, and allowed him to do so.

One of the Secret Servicemen remained, looking at her and everyone else in the room oddly. First looking through his glasses, next over them. He tried to hide it, but the horse doctor wondered if he could see them for what they really were. The way he stared at Buttes was telling. She had no doubt they were Known, at least. "I suppose it's necessary for them to be here?" she asked.

"I'm afraid so, but they won't be in the way. I'm Sheldon Buttes," the towering anthro horse said, extending a three-fingered hand. "You must be Holly West."

"Doctor Holly West," the vixen said firmly. "Pleased to meet you, sir."

"I apologize for taking you away from your patients. Dr. Frasier made your displeasure clear," he said, taking a seat on the exam table, spreading his tail hair behind him. "But I need to be in Washington by tomorrow, and this simply can't wait. There just aren't any vets around here with your expertise who are Changed."

Frasier looked at the human in the room. "Forgive me, but does he... know?"

"Suffice to say your government hasn't been completely ignorant of what's happening, Dr. Frasier. I'm not at liberty to say. Now, what do you need me to do?"

"Disrobe, please," Holly said, trying to keep in mind her bedside manner. Normally that meant keeping calm so that the horses didn't pick up on it and get skittish, even more important now that she'd gotten fur of her own. "I'm sure you're fine, but if you'll give me a few minutes to check your chart, I'll let my human-medicine colleague start."

The marten nodded, then picked up his instruments.

As she read the file, Holly's opinion of the Congressman went down a few more notches.

He was a man of many vices. Hard liquor, big cigars, and indications of being very promiscuous. He'd had bypass surgery before he was fifty, and notes from Dr. Frasier mentioned that the day of his Change they'd sent a local doctor--a polar bear--to see him through it, just in case the transformation ended up causing heart problems. That doctor have provisionally given him a clean bill of health, but he didn't have the hospital resources at his disposal. Buttes was supposedly here as a checkup after recovering from his sudden illness.

The marten spent almost an hour going over his patient's new anatomy, with Holly paying attention to how he conducted himself. Dr. Frasier had an easy bedside manner, chatting amiably with Buttes over various innocuous topics--such as the weather. With the Secret Service here and watching, just to ensure Frasier didn't broach anything sensitive.

"If you were human, I'd say you were in supreme good health for a man your age," the new marten said. "But you are still a sixty-six year old under all that new muscle, Sheldon. The signs of aging are still there."

"So I shouldn't be galloping around the halls of the Capitol anytime soon?" the draft horse quipped.

"Those are just the parts I know, though," Frasier cautioned. "Dr. West will check the rest of you."

Holly watched as the old man leer at her, eyes hovering over her chest. The snug top she wore was for easy nursing access, so she hadn't worn a bra. And a nursing mother could easily swell a cup size. "What first, Doctor?"

"Hooves," she replied. She looked them over, noting the healthy sheen and the obvious strength. These were more or less virgin hooves, with a few small pebbles caught in the frog that she picked out. And the white feathering was only a little dirty. The man had probably done some running. "You're fortunate to only have two, but you're going to be walking on hard surfaces much of the time. I have instructions for taking care of them."

Buttes nodded, sitting on the exam bed. He scooted forward and let his legs drop over the edge at the knees. "I'm having a furry farrier come in before I leave. He's going to fit me with some rubber shoes from Furgonomnics so I don't make a clatter."

"I see," Holly said neutrally. "Let me check your gut sounds. I've prepared a diet list for you as well. From what we can tell, equine furs are as susceptible to conditions like colic. This is very bad for horses."

"Oh? Why is that?" Buttes asked.

"Horses can't throw up, Mr. Buttes. Their intestines get all tied up into knots. Surgery is sometimes necessary to untangle them. Otherwise sections can die and need to be removed," Holly said. "Equine colic is nothing to sneeze at."

"I'm afraid I haven't had time to read up on my new anatomy," Buttes replied. "Too many other things going on at present. I need to be back in Washington very soon."

"This won't take much longer, sir." Holly placed her ear up against the man's chest. She hadn't found a stethoscope yet that didn't make her ears flick, but her hearing was good enough now that it served the same purpose. She placed her triangular ear against his chest to listen to heart and intestines alike. But like Dr. Frasier, she couldn't be a hundred percent certain of what she was hearing. There were still very few baselines. I think I hear a murmur...

"Can I ask you a question, Dr. West?" Buttes said.

Holly leaned back on the stool, swishing her tail behind her. "Depends on what it is, Mr. Buttes."

"What do you expect from your government in this crisis? I'm a powerful man. What can I do that will smooth the transition?"

She was taken aback by such a direct question. "Um... I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer. I'm just a country vet."

"Which means you have more education than most, you're familiar with animal anatomy and behavior, and you have two years of experience with this on me. We need people--or furs, if you will--like you. I've discussed this with Phillip off and on for two years now, and I barely grasp the facts, let alone my own Change."

"I'm sorry, I don't have an answer for you off-the-cuff." Holly shifted uncomfortably. He had a direct, discomfiting gaze. She wondered if he used this tone of voice on the House floor. "I'm finished here, sir. If Eddie here is also done, you can put your clothes back on."

"I'm finished as well. If you wouldn't mind, Congressman, we'll confer in private for a few minutes. But I can say that you're far healthier than you were. Though I'd like to get an MRI of your new physique when it's convenient," Frasier said. "And we need to run an EKG at the earliest possible time. New heart data will lay a lot of concerns to rest."

"I'll keep that in mind, Ed. But consider yourself and that bearish friend of yours my personal physicians when I'm in-state. Unless I can entice the lovely Dr. West to move to Washington?"

Holly shook her head, folding her arms across her chest. "I'm not at liberty to simply pull up roots, Mr. Buttes. My husband and I have a very good practice where we are, and I think it's too early to be quite so open about this, don't you think? Why would you need a horse doctor? Do you own any animals?"

He shook his head. "Hmm. Quite right," Buttes replied, carefully buttoning up his shirt. Someone had already bought him clothes that fit. "You'll be compensated for your time here, of course. Thank you very much for changing your schedule on such short notice." He nodded at Edward. "Dr. Frasier, thank you as well." The gray horse left the room.

Holly and Edward both sighed in relief. The vixen had a slimy feeling she wondered came from all politicians. Relief turned to concern on Edward's newly furry face. He ran his claws through his short headfur. "Did you hear a murmur?"

"I did," she confirmed. "Did he have one before?"

Frasier nodded. "He did, but I think louder. We need a cardiologist to confirm it. Don't get me wrong, he really his far healthier than he was. But I'd like to get a clearer picture of how the bypass surgery translated. That's why I want the MRI."

The vixen nodded, picking up a paper cup and filling it with water from the sink. She leaned tiredly against the counter, pouring a few cups down her muzzle. "So, has Annette settled in at Reed yet?" she asked, deciding to move on to happier matters.

"She was here for my Change, then went back yesterday," the new fur said. "She really wants to see you again, Holly. She likes having other vixens around. She somehow managed to get into Reed with a half dozen of the Changed teens she's met online over the past three years or so. Apparently they all decided to go there."

"I need to stop by Portland going back south anyway. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to find a nice hotel and sleep as long as my child will let me."

Frasier smiled, showing sharp little canine teeth. He looked more cute than threatening. "Deservedly so."

"And how are you holding up, Eddie?"

Frasier looked at his Changed hands, and ran his claws through is furry cheeks. His almost cartoonishly human eyes crossed as he looked down his muzzle. "As well as you'd expect for a surgeon who now needs a tail hole in his pants. I've been thinking about those special needs for surgery you use, also. Not sure how I'm going to finagle them out of the administration yet, but I'll think of something." He sighed, watching an ambulance pull into the ER entrance. "Overwhelmed, frankly. Everything I learned in med school is going out the window. But after so many years being an outsider looking in, it's actually a relief I'm finally Changed. I'm more worried about my artistic skills going downhill more than anything. Have fun in Seattle, hear?"

She hugged him again. "Just hold tight, Eddie. Talk to Annette. We'll be in touch." Two days in Seattle, free of any worries, were just what the Doctor ordered. Holly picked up the bassinet that held her snoozing baby from Judge Pickford and retreated to her minivan.

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August 22, 2008

Holly lay on her left side on the hard motel bed, naked, with Roxanne sucking at her lower nipple. She had tried to let go the past two days, to allow herself to unwind. Pike's Place Market, the Space Needle, and a few other tourist traps later and she had only become more frustrated, more concerned. Unable to resist it any longer, she turned on the news. The TV news, since it was simply too awkward to use her laptop at the moment. Her baby had awoken her at five in the morning.

"Today on Good Morning America, we tour one of the new wastewater-to-gasoline facilities under construction around the nation," the host said. "President Rand hails it as a new era in energy and sound environmentalism. However, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club question her commitment due to her open support of the new Dakota oilfields..."

The vixen snorted and changed the channel. Never trust the wife of an oilman. First Gentleman my tail. What else is going on?

Africa was still a mess, with Zimbabwe at the center. Word from the few known furs on that continent said that there was apparently a large enough increase in their numbers there to make people panic, despite the Veil. With the belief in animal spirits and other such religions still quite common there, Holly wondered if the Veil was quite as strong. But it was clear that, at the very least, the President of Zimbabwe had at last been removed from power. A silver lining in the dark cloud.

Not for the first time the past couple days, Holly pondered Buttes' question: What did she want her government to do about this? The Change sweeping the world with increasing speed demanded some kind of response, but after being in deep secrecy for so long, any time anybody brought up going public on the various secure forums, there was an instant flame war. And the fear was palpable.

But they do have a point, Holly thought, sitting up on the bed and removing her sleeping child from her breast. Now, with two Congressmen Changed, more government involvement was inevitable. Buttes implied that they already knew what was going on, though to what degree... well... Sandrick's been Changed since 2002. It's reasonable to assume about six years.

That the Changed had been left alone during that time, Holly didn't know what to make. There were North American and European Changed alike, even a few in Japan and China now, and no government had taken public action yet.

Her iPhone vibrated in her purse. The vixen got to her paws and pulled it out. "Holly West," she said in a business-like tone.

"Holly!" Elise said. "Did I wake you? I'm sorry if..."

"I was already up, my dear doe. What's going on?" There was a frantic edge to Elise's voice.

"I told them everything," she replied. "Everything! The night before the wedding. It was a hell of a party, Holly. My rumen--I guess--absorbed the margaritas pretty quickly. So I babbled..."

"It's okay, Elise. You're not the first to..."

"I showed them my hoof prints! In the mud!" She sounded frustrated, and a little distraught. "But we were all drunk, so..."

"They thought they were just seeing things?"

"At first," Elise bleated. "But last night during the wedding reception, they tried to get me to dance on that linoleum floor, and... I couldn't stand up on it. They just assumed I got a knock on the head in the accident, but... I think a couple girls suspect I was telling the truth. I do smell like a deer."

Holly blinked. "Why call me now?"

"I want out of this house before anyone else wakes up," the new doe said. "Everyone's still sleeping off last night, I thought..."

"I'm still in Seattle, Elise. I'm sorry, I can't make it there before ten at the earliest."

"What am I supposed to do if they give me the third degree?"

Holly flicked an ear. "I thought you wanted to go public?"

"Not now! I'm still not used to this!" Elise replied. "I guess I'll call a cab..."

The vixen had an idea. "No, hold on there for a few minutes. I'm going to make another call." She hit flash, then switched to the other line. It was an expensive addition, but now finally panning out. She dialed Annette's number, and got her on the third ring.

"Aunt Holly!" the younger vixen exclaimed in her chipper voice. "Up early?"

"You're the morning person," Holly replied. "Actually, I have a favor to ask. I was going to stop by to see you on my way south, but there's someone I'd like to go pick up. Here, let me conference call..."

Holly introduced the two of them. Annette had a trace of a French accent, apparently from her deceased mother. The two hit it off almost immediately, and the young furry college student said she'd pick the doe up in about fifteen minutes. Her "aunt" thanked her profusely, then started getting ready to check out.

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Greeting her on arrival at Reed was a young man on a single rollerblade. There was the gray business suit, the John Lennon glasses, the half-shaved head, with the other side flopped over the shaven part and dyed red. He pushed himself along with the rubber end of a golf club. As if that wasn't eccentric enough, he was scooting along beside a ground squirrel who had somehow dyed himself blue. In fact, there were more than a few furs in sight. A few waved at Holly, but did not walk over.

Among these strange fellows, Annette stood out for looking normal, if you ignored her anthropomorphic vixen aspect. She wore glasses herself, custom jobs that stayed on her muzzle somehow. A lime suit jacket with a pleated short skirt the same color, and her long hair tied into a high ponytail. Compared to the oddly-dressed students around her, she looked rather subdued. The young vixen waved at Holly excitedly, and broke into a run. Her claws clicked on the concrete as she approached. She embraced the other vixen. "You're here!"

"I'm here!" Holly replied. "Where's Elise?"

"Gabbing with my friend in my dorm room," Annette said, tongue lolling. She had retained a hint of a French accent from her mother. "I've never seen a girl so willing to spill so much all at once. Did you know she was divorced four months ago and her husband got the cars and the furniture? She's been living in an empty house! And she lost her job when the state budget when to crap!"

"Somehow we've been preoccupied with other things," Holly said, tugging on one of her ears. Annette had fully three years more experience as a fur than she did, and had even gone through most of puberty that way. "What species is your friend?"

"Wapiti. Elk, that is. That doe's just talking her ear off. Another deer-type and all that. But Charlene's a listener, so it all works out." Annette looked in the bassinet-stroller. "Oh, wow! She's so beautiful, Holly."

"Yes, she is," the older vixen replied. "She also sleeps almost as much as a cheetah kit would. It's a mercy, really."

"I'll call everyone down. There's more furs here than I thought. At least a couple dozen of us! I haven't met everyone yet, but I'm sure that'll correct itself soon." She fished her phone out of her leather satchel.

A minute later a husky elk-woman leaned out of one of the dorm windows, waving. Elise was behind her. "We'll be right down, Annie! Just give me a few!" She retreated back through the window.

"Do you have time to visit? I know you have other patients that need your help," Annette asked.

"I can spare a few hours." Holly gave her a pointed look. "Unless you should be in class."

"We moved in just yesterday, and it's orientation going on this week. No classes yet."

Holly wiggled her paw. It felt like her feet were jammed into her shoes, but that couldn't be... She looked down, and got a shock. The sneakers she had put on that morning, vanishing as usual, were there again. And they fit as well as could be expected over a digitigrade paw. "What's going on?" she asked, shaking a shoe off one foot. "What is this?"

"I don't know, but it's not just you," Annette said. She was standing in a pair of ill-fitting pumps, which she quickly slid off. Her socks were visible as well. The younger vixen frowned. "What's going on?"

"I need to sit down and take these off... maybe try putting them back on again," Holly said. With some difficulty she pushed the stroller over into the grass, then carefully had a seat. After a half dozen tries, the shoes still refused to vanish again. "Oh no. Oh God..."

"Is it just us?" Annette asked quietly. There were other students around, mostly not paying attention to them. But the few who did look in their direction seemed as confused as the furries were.

"It's not," Elise said. She held her own shoes, hooves making prints in the grass. "It died for us in the hallway. Has this ever happened before?"

"No, never," Annette said. "What am I supposed to do without ghost shoes?"

The elk-woman looked around to make sure nobody was listening. She easily carried both of Elise's heavy suitcases. "We need to call Furgonomics, quick. See if fitted shoes will actually work, though I don't know if the Veil will translate those correctly, either."

"It's worth a try," Holly said. It's not like she really needed shoes, but there was the little matter of No Shoes, No Service in most places of business, and Annette and her friends had classes to attend soon as well. "Well, we'd better be certain before we go. Let's get Elise's bags in my minivan and we'll go from there. We'd better get the word out."

By midafternoon all of the college's two dozen furries had gathered in a secluded spot down in Reed Canyon in the middle of campus. Charlene thought it an appropriate place. As they walked she waxed philosophically about the Change bringing everyone closer to Nature. Holly smiled and nodded politely, not buying a word of it. "Eventually, we may even discard our clothing in daily life," Charlene opined. "There is simply no need any more."

Not this vixen, sister, Holly thought. Apparently Elise agreed with her, the way the blacktail doe nodded.

There were almost as many Known as furs here. It made the meadow somewhat crowded. Annette took control of the meeting, jumping up on a bench. "Okay, everyone! Settle down! We need to..." she broke off, then looked behind everyone. "Oh, hello there. Can we help you?"

"Don't mind me," the man replied. It was a human in a pair of sunglasses. The dour man had Secret Service all over him, and Holly recognized his scent as one of Buttes' bodyguards. "I just need to talk to Dr. West, if I could. Don't worry, I know what's going on here. You furries lost your, what's it called, shoe field?"

"Just how long have you been listening?" Holly asked, tapping her truly bare paw.

"Long enough to know the severity of that situation, ma'am. I'm a Known. Or a Friend. Please, I have a message from Congressman Buttes."

"I'll watch the baby while you chat with the Man in Black, Holly," Elise offered. The human snorted at the implication. "Isn't that what you are?"

"I'm just a grunt watching the people around me turn into anatomically correct funny animals, ma'am," the Secret Serviceman said. "For the life of me, I can't imagining it happening to myself. And I'm not going to disappear anybody here, if that's what you're worried about."

"I'll be right back, Elise, Annette," Holly huffed. "This had better be good."

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Holly folded her arms and looked skeptically at the balding man, far enough down the riverbank to be out of earshot of anyone. The trees over them cast dappled shadows over the ground, fish were visible in the slowly-flowing river. "You know, Reagan once said, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help' is one of the things Americans loathe to hear."

The agent took an iPod Touch and a pair of earbuds out of his suit pocket. "Dr. West, I'm not here to second guess my orders. But I do want you to view the video here. Congressman Buttes made it specifically for you. I'm honest when I say I'm not going to disappear anyone. Listen to what he has to say, then decide."

They were Furgonomics earbuds, at least. Still highly skeptical, she put them in and navigated to the video on the iPod. Buttes' equine continence appeared on screen. He was apparently in his Washington DC office. "Greetings, Dr. West...

"Five days ago, I wasn't the only member of Congress to Change. There are now four of us. One of my colleagues in the House joined us, Anthony Rowe, from Kansas. The other is a Senator from Pennsylvania, Paul Anders. They are, respectively, a pronghorn and a whitetail. Poor Phillip is surrounded by hoofers! But I digress.

"Events are accelerating faster than we expected. To that end, your country needs your help. We are setting up a Joint Special Committee on Sleeping Sickness. Bluntly, I need you and your husband as civilian consultants on medical matters. Please consider this carefully, but I'll be up front and say we've already conducted the necessary background checks. You've passed with flying colors. Call me within 48 hours with your decision. I know you have other patients, Dr. West. But I assure you they will receive the proper medical care should you decide to accept.

"I look forward to your answer."

Her first impulse was to refuse and throw the iPod in the agent's face. And she nearly did. But Buttes' tone of voice had been contrite, not cajoling. She had no sense that if she refused there'd be repercussions of some kind. Her instincts told her it was an honest offer. She handed it back to the human. "I'll be in touch."

"That's all I came for, Dr. West. Thank you for your time." He turned and left her by the side of the little river.

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August 25, 2008

Elise was in the driver's seat, concentrating heavily on the road ahead. Her lack of decent depth perception and new dependence on her sense of smell made her the most cautious driver Holly had ever met. But with the two of them they could at least get home much faster. For two days they were either driving, or seeing patients. And where the doe was very talkative with Charlene, she refused to talk about the wedding much with Holly. "Every time I open my mouth lately I put my foot in it," she muttered. "Make that 'hoof'. We still don't know each other that well, all things considered."

"This is true," Holly admitted.

"Maybe we'll see more deer up here," the blacktail said, ears perked forwards at the huge sign they were coming up towards. "You're kidding me? This town is called Paradise?"

Skyway to Paradise, Holly thought as they ascended into Sierra Nevada foothills above Chico. There had been three more patients between Portland and Paradise. A pregnant opossum in Coos Bay, twin elk calfs in Gold Beach, returning to Eureka and the Peltons to finish her checkup. Her time was almost up, and she still hadn't made any decision. But her husband agreed that it was best she return home as quickly as possible, so she had spent the past two days moving from patient to patient, collecting data, and unfortunately socializing little.

"Yes, they've been here," Eric had said on the phone that morning. "I saw a similar video that you did. Frankly, I think we should consider it. Two million new furs next year, honey."

"But as a percentage of the overall population, it's still incredibly tiny," she had pointed out.

"It's an exponential expansion, dear. In four years, there will be thirty three million of us. Four years! That's bigger than whole nations, Holly. The Veil may even fail completely by then! Remember your paws."

He made a very good argument. Holly was certain Buttes had convinced him, but he wasn't about to do anything unless she went along with it, also. She checked her watch. It was technically over 48 hours since the Secret Service Agent had shown her the video, but...

Damn it. She hated the idea of working for a government she despised. The Rand Administration had done a lot of stupid things, in her view. Not as stupid as it could be, she supposed--even with the Iraq War, at least the budget was balanced--but as what some people could consider a "mushy centrist", she belonged to neither Party anyway.

Decision made, Holly looked at her iPhone. Reception here was sketchy at best. With a steep drop off to either side of the aptly-named Skyway, Holly had to continue up into the town proper. She pulled into a supermarket parking lot, where there was only a single bar. If this doesn't work I'll have to find a payphone. She dialed the number she was given.

"Sheldon Buttes -fice," said a woman on the other end. Her voice was faint, broken.

"This is Dr. Holly West," she said, trying to enunciate so the staffer would hear clearly.

"I'm sorry? Could you repeat that?"

"This is Doctor Holly West!" she yipped. "I'd like to talk to Representative Buttes!"

"He's in a meeting right now, but... did you say you're Dr. West?"


Holly heard papers shuffling. "So, I take it your answer is yes?"

"Yes, it is!" the vixen said.

"Okay! Well, the next step is for me to ask you where you are. We need you and your husband in Washington as soon as possible."

"Paradise, California."

The woman seemed taken aback. "Where is that?"

"Google it," Holly said irritably. Just trying to get any kind of service without shoes made life as difficult as she'd feared. Last night had been a seedy Motel 6 whose manager didn't care, and the best she could do for food was a drive-through window. Keeping the baby changed and clean was yet another problem, though she'd managed to play on the sympathy of a few restaurateurs who were harried parents themselves.

After the rodent patient in Paradise, home was only a few hours away. But getting there in the immediate future was now out of the question.

Holly heard the distinctive sound of claw tips on a keyboard, a canid growl of frustration. "Oh, there it is! I'm sorry. Anyway, I've been authorized to buy a ticket for you from anywhere. Can you get to Sacramento in a couple of hours? I'll have your husband fly out of Monterey."

Holly complained that she'd need more time, since she had another patient here in Paradise she wanted to examine first. But she was willing to take a redeye flight, provided she'd have time to rest with her husband when they both arrived in D.C.. "Agreed," the staffer said. "See you tomorrow, Dr. West. I'm a gray wolf, myself. Mr. Buttes is a nice man to work for, now he's one of us. I'm Gina Patino," the young voice said.

"Just make sure he doesn't stuff himself with oats. I suppose I'll see you then, Gina. Thank you." The vixen grimaced, remembering her predicament again. She was going to feel guilty about this for months about spending so much taxpayer money, but there just didn't seem to be any options. "Gina, I have another problem that's going to foul things up. A big one. I don't think I can take a commercial flight..."

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August 26, 2008

Even the sound of two purring cheetahs couldn't drown out the whine of the engines. Though it had taken an additional half day, Gina and Buttes had managed to free up a government jet to bring in Holly and her husband. The jet had picked him up in Monterey first, then landed in Sacramento to get Holly and her child. The two spotted African cats were now sleeping soundly in a reclined chair, purring in concert. Holly felt a great deal of warmth and love. Eric had the baby resting on his chest, arms securely around her. Her tail swished lazily.

I definitely married the right man, Holly thought. He was as lithe as the cheetah he resembled, a result of the Change. Like a lot of male furs, he lacked human hair. He was equally fast on his feet. Holly had clocked him over thirty miles per hour for short sprints. His spot pattern resembled the king cheetah, with dark stripes down his back and larger splotches instead of spots.

Eric cracked open his yellow eyes and turned down his purr. "Did Elise make it home with the minivan, you think?"

"I'll give her a call as soon as we land, honey," Holly said. She reached across the narrow aisle and stroked his spotted forearm. "I hope she'll be okay. I gave her the keys to the house in case she wanted somewhere else to stay. From what little I could get out of her, the house she has is in foreclosure."

The king cheetah sighed. "I'm still not sure I like someone you just met having the run of our house. But I do trust you." A falling sensation told them both that the plane had begun its descent. Eric raised his seatback, careful not to disturb the baby. "And it looks like we're almost there. Were you able to sleep at all?"

"I wish." Holly gripped the leather arms of the chair, careful not to pierce them with her claws. The interior of the plane smelled like antiseptic, and ever so faintly, like a certain equine Congressman. But there were other distinctly furry odors, too. One she assumed was a badger. The seats actually had tail slots. And the pilots...

One was a lion who had (jokingly, she hoped) renamed himself Aslan. And the other was a female Irish Setter. Buttes and Sandrick seemed to have surrounded themselves with furries, since the pilots mentioned working for them for several years already. This isn't going to help any conspiracy nuts if this is as common as it looks, Holly thought. The last thing they needed, when things eventually went fully public, were rumors of furries taking over the government from within.

They landed a half hour later, pulling aside a large SUV on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport. Holly allowed Eric to carry the baby, though she would need feeding soon. When the door opened Holly had to gasp at the heat and humidity. She immediately started panting. A female gray wolf met them at the base of the stairs. "Gina, I presume?"

"That's me. Nice to meet both of you in person, Doctors," the shewolf said. She wore what Holly considered the minimum and still manage to look semi-professional: a light gray blouse and a knee-length khaki skirt. Her hair was the same dark gray as her fur. "Come on. The heat in August is murder for furs. Let's get the three of you into air conditioned comfort. I'm afraid we're going to head right to work. I have some forms for you to sign inside."

"What about our luggage?" Eric asked, handing Roxanne over to his wife.

"It'll be taken care of, Dr. West. I assure you," Patino said. "But we simply can't wait any longer. You're the last to arrive."

"Well, that's encouraging," Eric said dryly. He yawned like cats do, with a curly tongue. Though since he wasn't a lion like the pilot, his teeth weren't quite so impressive. "Just how many of us are there around here, Gina?"

The shewolf's ears folded back. "I can't really say. Honestly, I can't. Security clearance and all that. Speaking of, I need you to carefully read and sign the forms inside. Let's get going."

Holly had never been to Washington DC. She'd rarely been east of the Mississippi River except for a few conferences and Tall Tales Con. Now here she was, signing forms that would put her in federal prison if she ever broke her word. Just what, exactly, she was getting herself into?

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The oak-paneled Committee Meeting Room had obviously seen better days, and it was quite old. Some of the lighting fixtures looked modified from gaslights, though Holly wondered if that was intentional rather than indicating their actual age. It was one of those smoke-filled rooms where one would expect deals to be hashed out between partisans, and earmarks handed out to lobbyists. This was where the meat was ground to make the sausage that was legislation. The chairs around the table had microphones. "Is this being recorded?" Dr. Frasier asked nervously.

Holly wasn't surprised to see him here.

Whoever created the seating arrangements had smartly mixed furries and humans together, instead of creating an atmosphere of pitting the humans against the former humans by putting the two groups at opposing sides. Phillip Sandrick sat at the head of the table in the Chairman's seat. The badger from South Carolina had been put in charge, much to Buttes' apparent disappointment.

"It will be, but I assure you it will take high security clearance to gain access. An FOIA request won't work for at least a decade," Sandrick said. There were a total of thirty-one people at the table, though seven of them comprised the actual Select Joint Committee on Sleeping Sickness Response. Four were the Changed Congressmen, the rest were shocked-looking humans. Three Senators and four Representatives in total. The rest were like Holly and Eric, civilian consultants.

The humans also wore glasses similar to the ones the Secret Service agents had.

"This first portion will be off the record," Sandrick said, flipping a switch. The sign over him, a holdover from the Sixties at least, changed to indicate that.

The gathered humans exploded into chatter, all talking at once. To a man and woman they had spent the past twenty minutes taking off their glasses and putting them back on again, slack-jawed in shock. Holly was dead certain that whatever had been done to those glasses allowed them to see the furries for what they were. Sandrick banged the gavel a few times before standing up. "Order! Order in here! You've all been briefed, days ago!"

"I thought it was a joke!" a Senator said. "How is this even possible, Phillip? I've known you for ten years!"

"And I was human when you met me, Serena. Remember the briefing. Did you view the tape I sent?" the badger said.

"It looked like some special effect," she stammered. She took off the glasses and looked at them closely. "I don't see any electronics. Just how do these work? It's just uncanny how human you still seem with them on."

"I'd like to know that, myself," Congressman Rowe said. The pronghorn reached up and felt one of the tips of his forked horns. "I thought this Veil was supposed to protect us."

"Reality Distortion Field," a twenty-something man in glasses corrected. He looked like a graduate student. "You see, we place them next to a single location at the Stanford Linear Accelerator. We believe the intense magnetic fields and particle scattering..."

"Later, if you please," Sandrick said, gesturing for him to sit back down. "I'm not here to argue about what reality is. What we are here for is how we're going to introduce the public at large to this fact of life. And how we can mitigate some of the more difficult problems facing us. Like making sure the Changed get proper medical care."

"Yes, that is our top priority right now," Buttes said, banging his fist on the table. "You've read the incidents where medical errors have resulted in deaths. These poor people..."

"I believe that's the purpose of today's meeting, Sheldon," Sandrick interrupted. He flipped the switch back to On the Record. "First thing's first, introductions..."

Eric sighed and scooted closer to his wife, putting his arm around her waist. "This is going to take all night."

It didn't. With the humans too shell shocked to offer much input the first meeting, Sandrick quickly adjourned the Committee until the next day. While the humans left in a complete daze, the furries were bussed to their hotel. Oddly, only Holly was having shoe problems. Everyone else remained still had ghost shoes, though when she told them of the field failure for herself, they looked almost as shaken as their furless counterparts.

Something like this had happened to the transgendered last year, after Tall Tales Con. What had begun at the Convention, with strangers now perceiving their real gender, had spread to all the others over the course of the year. So it was only a matter of time before what had started with Holly, Annette, and the other furs at Reed would reach everyone else. But someone had on good authority that the shoes made by Furgonomics were translated by the Veil, though they looked rather odd: handmade, misshapen, even paw-like in some cases.

As fortune had it, the owner of Furgonomics was among the dozen furry consultants. The snow leopardess measured Holly for a pair of pawshoes at the hotel and said she'd have them in a couple days at most. Half of the furs were in the medical field. In addition to Holly, her husband, and Dr. Frasier was a Dr. Bryce Clay, a polar bear and close friend of Frasier, and two exotic animal specialists. The rest of the furs were split between businesspeople, an engineer, a social worker, a Physicist, and a foreign relations expert. There was a similar distribution among the humans.

Among the furries, two of them were transgendered. One in each direction. Though since this meeting was being held among total strangers, they appeared as their new gender. With the Veil now cleaning up the paper trail also, convincing the other Committee members and the humans that they had, in fact, once been the opposite sex from what they were now would take some doing.

"I think we made an impression," Edward said in the hotel restaurant. He pointed at the group of human consultants on the other side of the room, muttering to themselves. The marten perked his ears to pick up any passing phrases, but the acoustics in this place made each table like a Cone of Silence. "What do you think of those glasses? What makes them tick?"

Holly liked Dr. Clay, though he seemed a little haunted. He was an earthy sort, and had brought his wife and children to Washington D.C. with them. His exotic wife had caught Holly's eye right away. She was the first scimitar oryx she had ever seen. Their relationship seemed rocky at the moment, also. Clay explained that she wasn't about to let him go off by himself right now, and had insisted she come along. Their children were un-Changed, which made Holly cautious around them.

"I don't know. We may find out tomorrow," Clay said. He had ordered two rare steaks. His wife was currently with their children in their hotel room. She had graciously volunteered to look after Roxanne for the duration.

Tomorrow. There were so many questions. And all Holly wanted was a good night's sleep with her husband and her baby.

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August 27, 2008

The next morning, Sandrick spent hours going over facts that Holly and most of the other furries in the room already knew about the Change, often interrupted mid-sentence by question after question from both the humans and the newly-Changed members of Congress, who were still absorbing the situation themselves. Anders was particularly sharp with his questions. The way the new whitetail kept reaching up to touch the fuzzy velvet on his growing ten-point antlers was always carefully watched by the humans, as if he was going to take the head of an incredibly elaborate costume off and go "surprise!"

"You can actually feel that, Paul?" Senator Serena Frickman said. She was from Arizona, and had known Anders for years.

"They're really part of my own head. Frankly, I think the velvet's already drying out. It's itchy as hell! I honestly can't put these senses into words," Anders replied, his red tongue licking his nose, apparently out of reflex. "Can we bring in more psychologists, Phillip? I really don't understand why we don't just go insane with these extreme physical changes. And we need to get a sense of how the country as a whole would react to it."

Sandrick made a note of that. "We haven't been able to find any yet that will clear a background check, Paul. We'll keep on looking. Call it the Grace of God, if you like. It's as rational an explanation as anything right now.

"You've seen the CDC report. They can't find any physical vectors for this so-called 'disease'. The only warning that the Change is going to happen is that bad flu."

The buck snorted derisively. "Sick as a dog--deer, that is. And what kind of disease actually leaves you healthier than you started? If I disregard these so-called 'side effects', I haven't felt this good in thirty years! Sleeping Sickness my damned tail! How did the CDC make anyone swallow that codswallop?" He grunted like the stag he was and gave the paper in front of him a hard look, ears folded back in frustration. "Next item on the agenda is a history? How you discovered this thing was doubling every year?"

"How long has the President known about this?" Frickman asked. She was an older woman, known for a fiery style on the Senate floor. Her eyes were a hypnotic green. She was like the English teacher nobody wanted to get in high school. A taskmaster who had spearheaded the President's efforts to keep the budget balanced, herding other Republicans in both Houses of Congress like sheep to keep to fiscal responsibility. "You didn't approach her right after you Changed, did you Phillip? I didn't see that in the briefing. Why in God's name did you wait two elections?"

"The bare facts--sorry, Dr. Clay--is that we didn't even know there was a pattern until a Changed lawyer living in Paul's home state approached me for funding," Sandrick said. "So soon after I Changed, I got an earmark..." The badger broke off from a hot glare from Frickman. "It was a few hundred thousand dollars. Itemized on page 106 in your briefing. Through Walter Lundh, I employed several Changed people to collect and analyze demographic data to detect patterns. They're the ones who mathematically proved the doubling effect and that fractal expansion pattern. See the executive summary in your packet."

Anders perked his ears. "And the work was completed by a... a..." They flicked in confusion. "Man? Woman?"

"Back to being Christopher at present," Sandrick supplied with a grin. "And now a Rottweiler dog instead of female rat, like his very first Change. He's one of the earlier Changed, Paul. Ninety-six, in fact. And he's toggled between species and gender ever since. Been a woman more than man."

Frickman snorted. "That I find hard to swallow."

"I suggest you speak with him yourself, then," Sandrick said. "Unfortunately his recent change has made his life more difficult. The Veil-image is still feminine to his co-workers. Also, speak with RE and KT as soon as possible. They'll set things straight. But I digress."

"But if they were the ones who really helped figure this out, Phillip, why aren't they here? At this Committee?" the older whitetail said.

Sandrick looked stunned, provoking chuckles from the other Congressmen. Anders patted his colleague on the shoulder. "It's okay, you old badger. We know you've never Chaired a committee before."

"I'll correct that immediately," Sandrick said. He was now a four-term member of the House and looked embarrassed at making such a rookie mistake. "At any rate...

"The data was finally collated and made into a report in 2004. We presented it to the President a couple days before the election. She was understandably preoccupied with that event, but remember how she seemed distant before and after? It took her months to completely digest the report. We brought in some military furs to prove things to her beyond a doubt physically, with paw prints and feats only animals could perform. We had a hound identifying drugs by scent alone, for instance."

"I'm not so stubborn I can't see the value in that," Frickman said. "Where do we go from here?"

"That, Serena, is the point of this Committee," the badger said firmly.

"Obviously. Phillip, why we shouldn't go public with this information immediately? If everyone is going to end up an anthropomorphic animal, possibly even change genders, they should know about it."

Sandrick shook his head. "We've done very little prep for that, honestly. The President has had other things on her mind, so she delegated the responsibility to me. Until I obtained enough modified glasses there was no way I could reliably prove to you that this was real, I saw little point. But now conditions are right, and it's time to act.

"Here are the Working Group assignments..."

Holly and the other medically-oriented furs and humans got their own group, with everyone else split up by specialty, each headed by a member of Congress. Anders was theirs. But there was also a second set of two groups, with the specialties more mixed up. While the first groups were self-evident, the second set was supposed to come up with scenarios for going public: Uncontrolled (loss of the Veil, more or less), and a specific timetable.

"Now, let's adjourn for lunch," Sandrick said. He banged the gavel.

Buttes smiled toothily and patted his muscular belly. "Now you're talking."

The older Senator looked at him sourly. "If you say you're as hungry as a horse, Sheldon, I'll have your furry gray hide."

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August 30, 2008

The next two and a half days were the most grindingly boring Holly had ever experienced in her life. More experts kept being summoned; the bullish Walter Lundh and canine Christopher Mattiaz arrived the next day, a trio of furry psychologists, two human foreign policy experts who had to be introduced to everything anew, which slowed things down even more. The number of civilian consultants were quickly doubled, which meant they were moved into a larger room in another building. The only high points the whole time was the arrival of the vixen's paw shoes, and the time she spent with her family in the evenings.

After his initial missteps, Sandrick was coming into his own as Chairman. Bickering between the Congressmen--four Democrats and three Republicans--was kept to a minimum, though they could go on and on about minutiae. More Working Groups were formed, and sometimes re-formed, but there were no specific assignments yet. Holly felt like they were being shuffled like a deck of cards in a game of poker, not knowing what hand they'd be dealt into. And Holly couldn't help but notice that many of the new experts happened to be from the Congressmen's home states.

Holly was relieved when Sandrick dismissed them for a weekend recess, without having accomplished much besides getting everybody used to each other. This was admittedly important, but there was work to do.

She put on her paw shoes that Saturday, carefully lacing them up around the hooks. The design had to account for her pawpads, and especially her claws, which could only be clipped so much and needed special padding to keep from putting too much pressure on the rest of her toes. They also had to keep from rubbing so much they created furless gall marks, like horse saddle cinches did. They were soft brown leather, and didn't have a rubber sole. They looked like something made by a cobbler at a Renaissance Festival. The snow leopardess assured that the design and production methods would improve rapidly. Especially since they expected every fur would need a pair very soon.

Finished, she gave her catnapping, but otherwise ready to go, husband a nudge on his shoulder. "Up and at 'em, hubby. The Smithsonian won't be open all day."

The cheetah opened one eye, then in one fluid motion spun around and got to his feet, totally awake. Unlike her, his ghost shoes still worked. "Going to call Edward?"

"Eddie will be there. It's the Clays I'm worried about," Holly said. "They seemed rather distant from each other. And they're so tense. Jenny hasn't volunteered much information. Roxy loves her, though."

"You mean she'd like to chase her down the savannah," Eric said. He shrugged at his wife's puzzled look. "There's just something weird about an oryx taking care of a cheetah baby."

"There shouldn't be. Besides, Jenny's still adapting to her own Change right now. Hasn't even been a fortnight yet," the vixen said. She picked up her baby and placed her in the bassinet-stroller, pulling the top over it enough to both keep her out of the sun, and out of view.

Purring, Eric hugged her from behind and licked the side of her longer vulpine muzzle. "It'll be a good day, honey. I'm sure they won't keep us here too much longer. We'll absorb the loss."

"And if we don't, I'm going to be very upset at Phillip Sandrick and Sheldon Buttes," Holly said, eyes flashing. "Things are bad enough right now without losing our business."

She checked the Changed web boards before they left. Every one she knew about was abuzz with rumors that there was some sort of meeting taking place in Washington DC. They were right, but the wild speculations--like they were planning to go public immediately--roiled new flame wars and reignited old ones. With such a large infusion of new furs who had little or no opinion on the matter and were easily influenced, servers bogged down and crashed under the load.

The first few weeks after Change Day, the web servers that ran the password-protected forums never failed to fail, since everyone always underestimated just how busy they would be. Perhaps the numbers of newly-Changed were getting too high, year after year. Too fast to bring into the system. Holly had already seen Elise's rather opinionated posts on the Deer Garden section, arguing passionately that yes, they should go public.

Holly really needed a day away from heavy things. And the going to the Smithsonian with her family was just the thing.

With the white dome of the Capitol visible in the distance on the Capital Mall, they tried to stay in the shade in the sultry summer heat. Holly couldn't keep herself from panting, which drew a few looks from the few people at the entrance. She was used to it by now, though the weather was making all of them hotter than they were comfortable with. She wore a tank top and a pair of shorts.

The vetinarian's phone buzzed inside her purse. Eric gave her a look. "I thought you were going to shut it off," he said.

"I forgot, hon. I'm sorry, but it's the emergency buzz. I have to take it," the vixen said. She fished it out and thumbed the answer button. "Holly West."

"I'm glad I caught you," came Frasier's tense voice on the other end. "Holly, I need you at Georgetown Hospital, now. Sheldon Buttes has come down with some intestinal trouble that I fear can only be cleared with surgery. The doctors here tried to induce vomiting, they've tried enemas... but it's just not budging."

"What are his symptoms?" Holly asked. She listened while her colleague went through them. "Sounds like a pelvic flexure impaction, and perhaps some spasmodic colic for good measure. What's he been eating, Eddie?"

"He won't say. The man should've been a mule instead," the marten grumbled. "Where are you? I'll send a car."

Once she was off the phone, Eric gave her a knowing look. "I guess I'll meet you back at the hotel."

"No, you go have some fun with our daughter. With any luck, this won't take more than a few hours. Though I have no idea how Eddie is going to get me in there after they see my credentials. However this turns out is going to look damned suspicious"

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The Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee was conscious when Holly arrived. One of Buttes' Secret Service agents, with his Field-busting glasses, waved her in before anyone asked to see her credentials. But once inside, the Head Nurse examined the vixen's ID and pursed her lips. She checked his chart. "Says here he contracted Sleeping Sickness last month... Equine variant? Forgive me, but this is very confusing."

"Sleeping Sickness results in some peculiar after effects," Holly explained. "Victims sometimes become vulnerable to diseases or physical problems from non-human mammals. Please, I need to see him now."

The nurse eyed Holly's own bracelet. "I see you're a victim yourself, Dr. West. May I ask which animal is yours?"

Holly lolled her tongue, knowing the woman couldn't see it. "I'm a foxy lady. Now, if you don't mind?"

Inside the hospital room, Buttes lay on his side, groaning loudly. The large gray horse-man's posture was exactly like a horse with a bad case of colic. Holly nodded at the marten. "How's he doing, Eddie?"

"Not good. What can you do for him? Is he going to need surgery?"

"Lord, I hope not. But I need to do a rectal exam. First, let's get suited up. I have to admit, this is the least favorite part of my job. I'm going to need some help moving him. Nurse, can you give us a paw... hand?"

"Paw?" the woman said. She shrugged, then looked confused. "You're a vetinarian, aren't you? Why are you being allowed to even examine him?"

Holly gave the Secret Service Agent a look she hoped translated. "Sir, just how much security clearance does the hospital staff have?"

"I'm cleared Top Secret," she replied officiously, holding out her ID badge. "Mr. Buttes and many other government officials in this city deal with a lot of very sensitive information, Dr. West. Is this about those side effects you mentioned?"

"Holly..." Eddie began, apparently figuring out what she had planned.

The vixen held her handpaw out to the black-suited Secret Service Agent. "I need your glasses for a moment, if you please."

"I can't do that, ma'am," the man replied, true to his type. "She hasn't been cleared specifically..."

"That's a load of horse shit and you know it, Paul," Buttes said, startling everyone. His ears were flat against his skull, and the pain and exhaustion in his equine eyes was clear. "Give the lady your glasses." He looked at the nurse with one eye. "I don't have to tell you that this doesn't leave this room. Suffice to say, nurse, that I need all the care a horse doctor can give me. Because my life--and everyone else's--has become a helluva lot more complicated. Hand 'em over, Paul."

"If you say so, sir," the Agent replied. He took the cheap Ray-Bans off carefully, and handed them to the nurse. "Keep in mind, it's going to be a shock. And I'll be straight with you, ma'am. You and I are the only two humans in this room."

"Um..." the middle-aged nurse stammered. "You're not aliens, are you?"

"Not aliens," Buttes said, chuckle-nickering. "It's not that simple."

She repeated the performance the human Congressmen and others had given the week before, taking them off and putting them on again. Unlike the others, she took it much more calmly. With her thoughtful expression the furries could see the gears turning. "This... this actually explains so much. Oh my God. You're all over the media. That silly Furry Party in Canada, all those commercials. Oh my God!"

"I was human not two weeks ago, ma'am," Buttes continued. "This is what's in store for all of us. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get this real horse shit out of me."

"And I can't treat him unless you follow my instructions, and send someone to fetch some specific implements. His MRI indicates his GI tract is more equine than human," Holly said. The vixen folded her ears back and her arms across her chest. "Just what have you been eating, sir?"

"Well, I'm a horse--or half a horse--so I thought I should eat like one. Oats, hay, sugar cubes for garnish, and some nice Jack Daniels to wash it down," Buttes declared unrepentantly. But then his insides gurgled loudly enough for everyone to hear. "Think I ate too fast or something."

Frasier groaned. "Well, get those orderlies. He's heavier than he looks, nurse. About a hundred pounds."

"We noticed," she said.

Holly looked at the nurse. "Are you going to be okay?"

"Honestly, this explains so much. So many strange medical mysteries around here the last three years or so," she said, on the verge of being overwhelmed. "Just tell us what you need, doctors."

The procedure took hours, since Holly and Eddie took great care, comparing notes where Buttes' anatomy didn't quite match human or equine, before moving onwards to remove the blockage. Surgery wasn't necessary, but the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee wasn't going to be a happy horse-man when he awoke. They needed a whole support group for the treatment, which necessitated sharing the glasses among technicians delivering anesthetic, more nurses, and others. They all had high security clearance, but the furries knew that rumors would spread.

"There's just no way word doesn't get out, somehow," the marten opined. "The Veil is going to fail soon, I think."

"What value of 'soon' would that be?" Holly asked. They were both out of the hot, body-covering isolation suits that had been cobbled together. "Years? Months?"

"All I know is there's going to be Hell to pay in front of the Committee, Holly," Frasier said.

We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Holly thought, nodding agreement.

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The two doctors withered under the glare of Senator Frickman and the badger Congressman. Frickman in particular made Holly feel like a child caught doing something Very Bad. And punishment was coming. "What gave you the authority to unilaterally decide to involve people not cleared for this?" she said, eyes flashing. "Really, Doctors! We should revoke your clearance."

Buttes looked a little worse for wear, seated in a hastily-modified power chair. "Don't be too hard on them, Serena. They only did what they thought best."

"I almost needed to perform surgery, Senator Frickman," Holly said firmly. "Equine colic is very serious. It was a very near thing. And you shouldn't be up and around yet, Mr. Buttes. You need another day of bed rest."

The gray horse waved his hand dismissively. "I'll go home as soon as I make sure Serena and Phillip lay off you two. I take full responsibility..."

Everyone rose as the double doors behind the two furry doctors opened. Holly turned her head to see the President sweeping in, and tried to keep from gasping. The whole room remained silent as Sandrick moved aside and allowed President Rand to take his place at the podium. She was a quiet, unassuming woman, but when provoked, had gained a notorious reputation. Like the other humans she wore one of the cheap glasses that revealed the transformed humans for what they now were.

She took off the glasses, cleaned them, put them back on. "The media openly calls me the 'Queen Bitch'," she said. She looked at herself, as if expecting to find fur. "Well, maybe next year."

"Madam President..." Sandrick started.

"No offense, Philip, but badger suits you," she said. Rand had been a controversial President, but her approval rating was now worse than Nixon's. With the country facing fuel shortages soon, even that was getting worse. Holly had never seen her so... contrite. "To be perfectly honest, everyone, we should have gone public with this a couple years ago. But I was simply too busy with... other matters. History will chalk up yet another failure on me. Now I have to get something ready for my successor to act upon. Speaking of that...

"Both Candidates have been completely briefed on the situation. You'll be hearing from them shortly.

"I am tentatively putting a timetable of two years on this. By then there will be how many anthros? Eight million? There are whole nations that have far fewer than even the two million now. And it doesn't take nearly that many to affect the course of world events.

"Two years, barring the unforeseen that might cause a delay or even if it happens tomorrow. But we'll start immediately with the medical situation, somehow. See to it." She left the podium and headed out the doors in a hurry.

"Well," Anders said. Rand could be very autocratic as well. "The 'Queen' has spoken. Let's get to work."

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September 18, 2008

"Goddamn this shit," Eric swore, tightening his grip on the steering wheel. There were gas lines down the street, the growing shortages hamstringing what remained of the economy. The President, with the approval of Congress, had implemented rationing to stretch the supplies in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as far as they could. But at $200 a barrel and still going, the economic effects would last for years.

The talking heads on the news were all saying Second Great Depression.

Rand's approval rating had fallen into the single digits. And the Vice President was even less popular.

Eric wasn't referring to the oil shortage, though. He was referring to the reaction of the furry community to the plans the President had made public to them.

"We've been secretive for so long, honey," Holly said. There were at least twenty cars ahead of them. And the summer had turned hot. With the engine shut off all the windows were open. The vixen panted in the heat. "You can't expect them to..."

"We worked so hard on it!" the cheetah said, sounding angry and heartbroken. "So _damned_ hard! There was so little bickering. Those ungrateful little..."

Holly shushed him gently. "Give them more time. Now, about Elise..."

"She can stay as long as she needs to," Eric reassured. He leaned out the window. "Damn it! All this for ten fucking gallons!"

I'm more concerned with what people will think about the future, on top of all this, Holly thought, looking at her hand-paws. Will civilization even hold together under all this strain? It's going to take an act of God to... She looked at her vulpine reflection in the vanity mirror. One she'd accepted as her own at least as much as her homely human face.

If this wasn't an act of God in itself, what was?

The Committee had adopted the more politically correct "Random Omnipotent Being" popular among the Changed in the minutes, though not the planning document itself, which avoided any mention of the supernatural. Holly flicked her ears. The radio had been turned down very low, enough so even her ears had trouble picking up the news channel. Like Elise had said, there was no good news these days. But what she heard sounded just as incredulous as becoming an anthropomorphic fox.

"...Texas oil wells, formerly thought dry..." she was saying. "In some cases gushing as if freshly-drilled. Many oozing crude to the surface..."

Eric blinked. "Remember that old geologist? The one who testified about the Bakken Formation? He swore up and down that the when he explored the area in the Fifties the geology was completely different. Some kind of... what did he call it?"

"Continuous oil reserve," Holly said. Not the easily-tapped types filled with more oil than in the whole of Saudi Arabia and Iraq combined. She looked out at the gas line, and the cars lined up behind them. On the radio, the woman continued her report. ExxonMobil swore they could get those old wells into full production within weeks. Well within the depletion rate of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. "How much longer do you suppose this will last? And how will they possibly explain this? People are going to think that the oil companies hid these reserves from the public. There's going to be investigations!"

"Act of God," Holly said matter-of-factly. "Those investigations will last for years, Eric. And in 2010, nobody's going to care about oil."

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Author's Comments

There is a perfect picture of what Holly looks like over on ArtSpots.