|Paradise story universe|
|Works by Jon Buck on Shifti|
The registration line extended all the way out the hotel's front doors, filled with nervous newbie furs shifting nervously to from foot to foot--paws and hooves alike. The horses had all congregated in an ad hoc herd, forming a lump in the middle of the line. Closer to the front, Jerome Slater and his fellow whitetail Tara Janssen, kept watch on them with one eye. There was an amazing number of human "furries" mixed in.
They were, of course, completely oblivious that the "anthrocon" they were attending had actual furries. The so-called Reality Distortion Field saw to that. Most of the furs were like Jerome and his girlfriend, only having changed two months ago. This "convention" was more intended as an information session for new furs than for humans to roam around in. But it still had a public face to maintain.
Tara flicked her ears nervously and stayed close to Jerome. Close enough that she could gently grasp his tail and fidget with it. "There's wolves here, honey," the doe said.
"I smell them too," the buck replied. As a human he would have stood tip-toe to see over the people in front of him. But since he was half a deer, he was already as tip-toe as he could get. Whatever was holding up the line had delayed registration for almost an hour. "Move your tails!"
The pudgy male raccoon behind the table looked in his direction. "We're working on it." Merely human ears could not have heard him over the grumbling crowd, but Jerome could rotate his to focus in a specific direction. He leaned over to tap on a keyboard with claw-tipped hands. "Almost there. Keep your fur on."
"This is a lot bigger than I expected," BD said. The female lynx waiting in line behind the two deer wore a rather typically male outfit--a polo shirt and slacks. After two months she spoke with a clipped Canadian accent tainted with a little New Englander. "But the newbie distribution tends to be uneven, from the data I've seen. Maybe there were more in this area..."
The young human woman behind BD tapped the feline on her shoulder. "Are you from Canada? Whereaboots?"
BD reflexively folded her arms across her breasts. Unlike Jerome and Tara, her sex had changed as well. But due to the Reality Distortion Field the woman still saw a short, goateed man dressed in the same outfit BD was wearing. The woman shared her Canadian accent. "Edmonton," BD said.
The lynx swallowed awkwardly, not sure how to respond to the overture. Thankfully, the line started moving before she needed to reply, interrupting them as the Canadian girl started rummaging in her purse for a pair of cat ears.
Once started the line moved quickly enough. Jerome and Tara paid their fees, then stood aside to wait for BD to get her own. The raccoon was one of a half dozen furs--and one human--behind the registration tables. He took one look at BD and put a little sticker in the upper left corner, and gave her a separate pamphlet. "Have a good time, Mister Derringer," he said, hopefully so other furs would hear it.
The sticker--which looked like a hollow square--identified as a gender-changed fur. Considering how many humans mixed in with this crowd, this convention was going to be very difficult for BD. In her everyday life people still treated her like the man she had been, because that's what humans saw.
Furries, though, saw her as she now was and would likely react to her as a woman, simply out of reflex. Even after being changed for fourteen months, she was more nervous about this convention than the new deer were.
Jerome motioned for the lynx to follow. BD padded behind them as they looked for a hopefully more private space for a moment or two. The three of them were already sharing a hotel room. They ducked into an unused conference room. "You going to be okay, Brandon?" Tara asked.
"Never seen so many other cats before," she said. BD took a cell phone with larger buttons out of her pocket. "Wonder if DL is here already. No offense, my dear deer, but I need to find that transgender support group that's coming together."
Tara's ears drooped a little. "I've tried to help, haven't I?"
Brandon nodded, holding the phone up to her tufted ear. "Er... yes. A little too enthusiastically, to be honest. I'm just not ready for the really girly stuff yet." Her ears perked as someone on the other end picked up. "Ah! Hey there, Derek... You're in the lobby? I didn't see... oh. Oh my. I'll be right there." BD looked apologetically at the two deer. "Pardon me. I'll catch up with you two later, okay?"
"Fine with us," Jerome replied. Tara nodded her agreement.
In just a few minutes the area outside the empty conference room became crowded with dozens of furries. Many had wrinkled noses, and the odors hit Jerome like a hammer. It was more than the "con funk" that he'd read about. It was the sheer volume of animal musk that pervaded the air, mixing with each other. Add human sweat and attempts to use Febreze on the whole thing, and the deer felt like gagging. It was only the sight of several other pairs of antlers that took his mind off.
The antlers acted like magnets, drawing the eight of them together. Jerome felt his heart thump in anticipation. He had emailed some other deer the past few weeks, but now he could meet them in person. Elation and a little anxiety simply drowned out any instinctual responses. Three other whitetails, a mule deer, and two elk. Five men, three women. It was the elk's massive antlers that really caught everyone's eye.
Everyone started talking at once, the three females--Tara, another whitetail, and the elk cow--quickly hived off into their own little trio. The men quickly exchanged business cards, shook--and sniffed--hands. Jerome was absolutely overwhelmed. Suddenly here was a group he could talk to.
"Okay, forehooves up. Who here bought a convertible?" James the elk said.
Two raised their four-fingered hands. "I have a sunroof in my RAV4. Puts a kink in my neck, but it keeps me mostly in the dry when it rains," Jerome added.
"Adaptation is hella expensive for us," Peter added, ears a-flick. "Could be worse. Could be a giraffe. Or have horns. At least we'll drop these in a coupla months." He sounded like he was from Minnesota. "I always just take the bus until then, hey."
Aaron the mule deer pointed his thumb back towards the chatting female cervines. "And then we'll look more like them," he said with a snort. He looked at the business cards he'd collected from everyone. "Diverse group, ain't we? Sorry I didn't have one to give you guys. I'm just a college student." Cocking his ears, he gave the impression of a smirk. "Any more does around? Ah figure as long as our lives've gone all furry I might as well enjoy meself."
"There's at least twenty of us signed up for the deer SIG," Jerome said. "Should be a few more around."
The one stag who hadn't spoken yet was somewhat effeminately dressed with a circle on his nametag. Correction, "her" nametag, Jerome thought. Mary Pickens.
"Just call me MP," he said glumly. "I hate to think I've drained all the conviviality out of this group..."
"Convi... what?" Peter said.
"It's great to meet all of you. It really is," MP continued. He seemed close to tears. "But it's even harder to have this happen to you when you have young children and a husband. So just... bear with me?"
"Okay. No problem," James said quickly. "Meet again for dinner? When's that group meeting thing?"
"Tomorrow at three." Jerome looked at the program. The book was a fancy one, with color art that he suspected was actually drawn from life. There was an invitation-only newbie meeting in the Main Ballroom that evening. Then the various Special Interest Groups--SIGs--were scheduled over the three and a half days of the convention. Canines, felines, cervines, equines, rodents, and others. Strangely, no birds. There was a betting pool on whether they were going to show up at some point. There were always a few new species reported every year, as the number of furries doubled.
"I'm glad I'm not a dolphin," Aaron said. Those were the newest ones, and were proving to be a nightmare to both themselves and to furries. There were isolated reports of people aboard ship seeing naked people swimming around far out to sea and in harbors. Modern mermaids. "See you bucks and does later."
"After you, Dr. Janssen." Jerome politely opened their hotel room's door for the doe. The duo were fortunate enough to both work at the same suburban college campus in Rhode Island. It had made the past couple months bearable, especially with BD around to explain things.
"Watch your head, dear," she said, more out of reflex. "Wouldn't want you to snap any of those wonderful tines of yours."
Jerome chuckled, ducking as they walked through the door. "I thought this would be harder to get used to. Physically, I mean. Instead I'm thinking about relaxing and cudding lunch."
"If we're going to be in here for a while I should get a shower. And you know how long it takes to dry off," the history professor said. She started to unbutton her blouse.
There were times when they both wondered just how much deer instincts affected them. It was October, the height of the Rut. The two anthro deer were both unmarried, and their sudden romantic relationship had caused a bit of a stir at the university where they both worked. They had spent nearly every night together since the change. Tara had even helped Jerome peel off his velvet. What a night that had been! And the shared experience had only made the two of them closer.
The fact that she found his ten-point antlers quite attractive was evidence enough of new instincts. But Tara said she just didn't care.
The doe stripped down to her fur, carefully laying her clothes on the bed they were to share and giving him a wink.
This wasn't the first time he'd seen her in the nude. Like him, she had two sets of nipples, one over the other, though her breasts were otherwise fully human. And like him, the change had actually improved her physique. If she were human, she'd be a lingerie model. Jerome nodded in gratitude. "Thank you kindly. You smell divine."
"The real trick will be not slipping on the floor," she said. Concrete, blacktop, and especially tile and linoleum, were a hoofer's worst nightmare even with the "ghost shoes". Tara clicked her nails together. "Oh, I forgot something."
She bent over, tail flicking up, and groped for the kind-of-there slip-ons and socks. Each shoe reappeared after she went through the motions of removing it. "I don't understand; if we have ghost human feet why do we leave hoof prints and slip all over the place?" the doe said, voicing a common hoofer complaint. "I’m off to shower."
Five minutes later Jerome was still munching through lunch a second time when BD entered with her friend. The buck licked his nose and sat up, sliding off the bed as the two gender-changed furries entered the room. "Hello in here!" BD said. "Are we interrupting anything?"
"Just kicking back a little before heading back down," Jerome replied. He looked at the female coyote who had come in with the lynx. She had a rather rangy physique, but was quite "blessed" in the breast department. What really set her apart was the attractive women's clothing she was in. It was actually quite an outfit, a snug top and a short skirt. But to humans she would've appeared as a crossdresser. "I don't believe we've met?"
"Derek Lowe," the she-coyote said. Her ears were drooping a little, and a hot funk of embarrassment emanated. "Can I sit down for a few minutes? I've had a bad half hour. BD thought since her room was closer..."
"No problem at all," Jerome said, gesturing at an easy chair. "Take all the time you need."
"I'll head back to your room and get you a change of clothes," BD said. DL willingly handed over her card key. "Back in a few minutes."
Jerome introduced himself, then sat back down on the bed. The coyote whined a little, burying her muzzle in her handpaws. "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" she said. "Too soon..."
I'm not going to ask. I think I can figure out what happened, Jerome thought.
From inside the bathroom the water was shut off, with a bump from the plumbing. When Tara came out of the bathroom her rust brown hair--the same shade and texture as her fur--was damp and plastered to her shoulders. Fortunately she had brought her own towels, which meant her torso was covered enough. She had obviously overheard the conversation. "Nice outfit, honestly," she said to the coyote. "Very cute. You must have spent some time picking it out."
"I did! I'm glad someone thinks so," DL whimpered. The cinnamon-colored coyote sighed. "I was already a coyote from '06. Now I get this crap on top of all that two months ago! It's almost too much to take. So I figured, the hell with it! If I'm going to be a girl, I might as well dress like one. I honestly didn't think that would be a problem here. Guess I was wrong.
"You're Tara? BD's talked about you. In all honesty, I mostly dressed this way for comfort. It only ended up looking even girlier than I thought." She cupped her handpaws around her breasts. "These... these things get really annoying after a few hours of bouncing, so I found a bra that fits. But the RDF does funny things when you wear one. And around here it seems worse."
The doe nodded. "I'll take your word for it. Jerry, hon, can you pick up my clothes and hang them in the bathroom? I'll just wait in there to dry out."
The doe was dry and dressed by the time BD returned with a change of clothes. "I wish we had some way of seeing how clothes actually look on our human images," the lynx said. "You said that humans could see your breasts?"
"Somehow," DL said. "Out of the corner of their eye. Some guy kept looking at me, turning his head, then straight back, then turning it again. I don't see how it could be anything else. He was looking right at my chest. He definitely saw the bra. That's what caused the problem in the first place."
"Do you think he saw the fur?" Jerome asked. "Or anything else?"
"Doubt it. I think an anthro coyote would've provoked a different reaction."
"Like screaming in terror?" Tara said dryly. She looked back at Jerome. "Let's head down to the Dealers' Den and wander around a little, dear."
"We'll follow you down in a few minutes," BD added. "There's someone else I want to introduce you to before dinner, okay?"
"Nice meeting you, DL," Jerome said. Tara echoed the sentiment. The she-coyote lolled her tongue and waved at the deer as they left the hotel room.
Halfway down the hall, Tara snorted derisively. "I just don't understand that at all."
"What's that?" Jerome said.
"It's not like she's huge. She has a very nice figure. I guess it's that stupid distortion thing that's making everything so complicated. I wonder why the human ghost image doesn't change to female to match?" the doe said.
"Not going to matter in a few more years. There'll be enough of us. BD, DL and the others will just have to tough it out like everyone else."
Tara snorted again. This felt like an argument in the making. Tara was determined to make a lady out of BD, even encouraging her to pick a female name she liked. But the prospect of another new female to shape in DL seemed to make her feel frustrated instead of challenged. BD was unflappable enough to humor her, but lately her patience was wearing thin. Thankfully she was heading back to Canada in a couple of weeks and wouldn't have to put up with it much longer.
No birds, no reptiles, no fish. The Dealers' Dean was like an Audubon Guide to North American Mammals on two feet. Easily two thirds of the furry species originated from there, with a healthy amount from the other continents as well. Along with numerous horses, there were domesticated cats, various breeds of dog, even a cow or two. A leonine couple caused a bit of a stir. A third of the attendees were humans. And some humans even wore fursuits.
"This is so surreal," Tara said, repressing a giggle at someone walking around in a rather elaborate fox suit. His so-called "furless lackey"--the person who walks with a fursuiter and fends off trouble and troublemakers--was anything but, and a vulpine herself. The silver vixen had to work even harder to repress her giggles, but couldn't resist a very human smile. "What goes on in people's heads?"
There were already some furs in high places in various businesses. On a computer screen a commercial for a French orange juice soda played over and over again. What drew Jerome's attention was that one of the stars was a doe. Tara poked him in the ribs. "You've got a real doe right here, bucky boy," she jibed playfully.
"I'd like to see you in a denim outfit like that," the stag said, giving her a little lick on her nose.
"I'll have to make one, then."
The commercial was laden with all kinds of sexual imagery. The too-thin (to Jerome's thinking) yet muscular grizzly bear dancing with the shapely doe. The doe pulling a "Splash Dance" with the orange drink. The oddities were a female octopus, and anthro flowers. It took a few viewings to take it all in. "I think that might be a little too racy," Tara said. "It isn't all about sex. It's about finding a chair that won't put a kink in your tail. It's about being picky at the salad bar. It's about looking for those grippy rubber cloven-hoof boots I was reading about on the listserv so we don't fall on our faces on concrete."
Strangely, only about a third of the artists were other furs. The real showcase wasn't the art, at least for the furs. It was themselves. And most of them were newbies, marveling at their own bodies. There was no doubt others were still out there, hiding from the world and themselves, but there were crews of experienced furs who knew how to find them. There was nothing worse than being alone with this. Especially if the victim was like BD had been the first few months.
After her change she had been on the edge of madness, until she was picked up by a fur while wandering around in well-below-freezing wind and snow, dressed in only shorts and a tee shirt. The lynx's winter coat had been more than enough to shield her from the elements, but everyone else perceived a crazy man about to get frostbite. BD had shown the deer newspaper clippings about a huge feline pawprints found in the snow, too. It was eventually dismissed as a hoax because it was clearly done by a biped. But the local fur had figured out what was going on.
"Time for the meeting," Tara said, tugging on her lover's elbow. Other furs were starting to drift in the Main Ballroom's direction for the invitation-only event, laughably called "Orientation". As if the last two months hadn't been.
Jerome and Tara were two of the first to arrive, with one of the cougars checking their invitations. He politely didn't smile, and gestured at a number three on his nametag. Three years since his change! There were only a tenth as many furs the day he changed compared to Jerome.
All the plastic chairs inside had a unique design that accounted for tails, large and small.
The first to enter the room behind them was a pack of half a dozen wolves. The whitetails' ears perked up at that, and the two species watched each other carefully for about fifteen seconds before a pair of cougars pushed the canids all the way inside, and also looked at the deer. Jerome and Tara started to edge towards an exit. But then a half dozen deer came in behind all the predators, including James the elk. "Is there something wrong?" he said, ears a-twitch.
Thankfully two of the convention organizers came in. A mare and a fox. The pony-sized horse woman whinnied to get everyone's attention. "Okay! Rule One!" she said. The pony-woman had a fiery red mane and reddish fur. "Mix it up, people! I don't want this room to segregate itself by species, or by predator-prey! We're not going to let our new world become some Kevin and Kell shithole where predators try and eat prey, and the prey shoot back! Mix it up, everyone!"
Who could resist a commanding tone like that?
Jerome and Tara soon had a pair of wolves on one side, and a skunk on the other. The female skunk's enormous, bushy tail looked like it'd be a huge liability on a windy day. "It's lighter than it looks," she said.
"I should hope so," Tara replied. "I'm happy with my flicky tail, frankly. But it's hard to take care of."
"I don't mind keeping your tail brushed," Jerome said, putting his arm around her back while watching as a menagerie come in. There were hundreds of chairs, and new furs were flying in from all over the eastern seaboard, or even across the country to come stay with friends. He counted at least a dozen pairs of antlers--whitetail, mule deer, elk, and even moose. There were females he couldn't see, though he could smell them. My antlers are a huge bother already. Poor James. I can't even imagine...
The buck lip-curled and held his doe a little closer, eyeing the competition.
"Getting awfully fragrant in here," Tara said, covering her own nose.
"This won't take long!" the pony-woman said. "Okay. I'm Red, my colleague here is also Red. So just call me Shetland, 'cause that's my breed." There was some snickering in the crowd. "Yes, I'm that Red Shetland. The comics were based more-or-less off of me. I'm also the first horse anthro.
"It's no stretch to say you're all a confused bunch. Well, I was the third folks. That year it was just two foxes, me, and probably some poor schmuck in Sheboygan we never found. It was sheer chance I even met another fur that year.
"Well, here we are. One million! And a whole herd of horses!" She got some whinny-whistles in response. "And I bet all of you are wondering, just what the hell is going on? Why is this happening? Why are we all furry half animals?"
"Hell, yes!" someone shouted back.
"We've all gone fucking crazy!" a gray vixen opined. "It's just a mass hallucination!"
The Shetland interrupted. "The bare fact is that even after twenty years, we still don't know. Not a single clue. We're only just starting to get enough furs in science to even think about looking into it that way. So until then, all, your guess is as good as mine."
There were many more opinions, one after another. "Wrath of God!" "No, gift of God!" "Or Gaia!" "Aliens!" "Microscopic magic pixies!" "What, you mean nanotechnology." "Basically, yeah." "Ever read The Stand? This is like Captain Tripps!"
"Actually, we're living beings in a simulated universe within a post-Singularity cloud of computronium," said someone else in a very reasonable tone of voice.
Jerome stood up to see who was talking. It was another whitetail buck. "Say that again?"
"It's a kind of computer virus. A furry virus," the unnamed stag continued. "The Reality Distortion Field is a kind of antiviral measure to keep the society within the simulation space from breaking down into complete chaos. It's giving us time to adapt, see?"
"So, what? You're saying we're all stuck in the Matrix?" said the fox up on stage.
The stag shook his head. "No. We have no physical bodies. But the kind of computer we're talking about are so far beyond anything we know, there's no significant difference between us and a real person. The simulation is just that good. I'd hesitate to call it a 'simulation' at all, frankly. But the physics model here is getting bent by the virus. Go read Accelerando by Charles Stross, and I think you'll get a better idea what I'm talking about."
"Um," said Shetland. "That's actually less far-fetched than others I've heard, folks. And I've heard a lot. I've come up with a lot worse. Thanks for your input. Anyone else?"
"What a load of horse shit!" someone shouted from the very back of the room.
Red Shetland perked her ears. "Oh, really? Do you have a better explanation?"
Jerome could see people quickly moving away from the speaker. "I came here for a fucking cure, you horsecock-sucker! I don't even know what the hell I am!" the angry man continued, storming up to the front of the auditorium. He smelled like he hadn't bathed since his change, and wore a tattered pair of shorts and shirt. He was surprisingly short, but had very large, dangerous claws.
The organizers were prepared for something like this. A polar bear and a pair of wolves joined Red on the stage. The angry furry growled, and it didn't sound like a canine.
"Wolverine," the skunk-woman sitting next to Jerome said. "I recognize the coloring. They're a nasty piece of work. I'm sure that's not making things better. Damn, look at those claws!"
"There is no cure," Shetland said calmly, maneuvering so her bodyguards were between her and him. "We don't even know the cause. I thought I made that clear."
"Fuck you!" He snarled, then tried to pounce.
What ensued was an on-stage fight, four against one. Bear, two wolves, and lion all trying to keep the wolverine from hurting anyone. People immediately started to leave the room, even as more leapt up on stage to restrain the angry desperate man--or former woman, now that Jerome saw his clothing. Because as the cussing continued, he broke down into sobs. "Oh shit... oh shit... oh shit..."
The hotel manager had walked inside during the fight. "Do you want me to call the police, Mrs. Watkins?" he asked the pony. He seemed to squint, some uncertainty in his voice. He looked at the restrained wolverine. "Is that, um.... woman threatening you?"
"We're not going to press charges," Shetland said. The wolverine no longer needed restraint. He was curled up in a whimpering ball of misery. "I know a rough time when I see one."
The manager put his fingers against his temples, as if he was getting a huge headache. "As you wish, but let me know if you change your mind. I'll let you deal with this in the meantime. I'm going to get a Tylenol."
The former woman was taken aside with a couple other mustelid volunteers, while everyone else started talking all at once. Shetland let this go on for a few minutes before she called for attention. "And that's another unanswerable question," she began once the room was quiet again. "Why aren't we all like him? Sorry... her, rather. Why aren't we running around, tearing our fur out, begging scientists and doctors for a fucking cure?" The stag who had raised his hand earlier did so again. Shetland motioned for him to speak.
"Antiviral measure. It's protecting our psychology. Tweaking it so we don't go tossing ourselves off of bridges--most of the time," he added quickly. Suicides and madness were more common among isolated furries. Jerome thought of Brandon's experience in Edmonton again. "But it's not perfect. We still have to make our own effort to fully adapt."
"It's hard. It's really, really hard," Shetland agreed. "And those of us with a double-whammy like our transgendered have it harder than the rest of us. Remember that, folks.
"We're going to spend the last twenty minutes or so just meeting one another, exchanging information. Feel free to show off anything about your new selves you feel proud of, or just think is neat. And keep in mind that we're going to add a full million to our numbers in just ten months. If you want to volunteer to help out newbies at next year's furcon, let the organizers know. Those of you with medical questions, please see Dr. Clay's panel with the vets tomorrow. Thanks, everyone."
After the meet-and-greet ended, Jerome tried to find the buck who had spoken earlier, but the man and his distinctive drop-point antlers had gone. He and Tara met up with the other deer as everyone shuffled out, leaving the auditorium smelling like a zoo. Jim looked a little stunned as the eight of them went looking for someplace more private. "Sat next to this huge white tiger," he said nervously. "He kept licking his chops."
"Where was he from? India?" Peter asked.
The elk shook his huge-antlered head. "Canada, believe it or not. Guess ending up a native species isn't a hard-and-fast rule..."
There was a banner overhanging the entrance to the convention area advertising the inexpensive breakfast buffet. Jim's antlers caught in it, and tore it away from its nails. It fell down around Jim's head and nearly Jerome's as well. "Shit! Get this thing off of me!"
Peter and MP each gave a yank on their respective sides, only to tear some very large holes through the vinyl fabric. They had only just gotten it off of him when the hotel manager game up. His eyes were red, watery. The man was in the middle of some kind of allergy attack. "What is going on here? You people will have to pay for tearing down that sign!"
The elk obviously couldn't point the human to his antlers and explain that the banner was too low. Jim ground his teeth in evident frustration. "I'll do it, sir. It was my fault."
The manager sneezed. "We've put up with far too much vandalism from you people already! Someone's brought pets, and when we find out who they're going to get tossed out on their ear! We have health codes to worry about."
Standing behind him was one of the housecat furs, his triangular ears and magnetically green eyes full of smirk. He was in a tank top and shorts, tail-tip lazily swishing his dander towards the allergic human. Jerome glared at him, ears folded back, until the cat retreated enough so that the manager could breathe again. Damn, that's rude.
"Who would bring a cat in here?" the manager was saying imperiously, apparently to himself. "And how did the cleaning staff miss them?"
"I'm sorry about the banner," Jim repeated.
"Come with me to the office. We'll get this squared away," the human replied. "Someone your age should know better!"
Once they were gone, Jerome approached the tabby. "That was rather cruel, you know."
The cat-man gave him a nasty look, grinning smugly like only a feline can. "So what? I was worse than he was before I ended up this way. Mind your own business, venison."
That got the attention of the others. The cat had fourteen eyes, seven pairs of folded ears, and roughly thirty-five points staring him down with Hard Looks cervines used to challenge other males. The tabby cat wrapped his tail around his waist and shrugged. "Fine. Whatever. Smell y'all later."
"Useless guttertrash alley cat," Peter muttered, snorting angrily, smacking his fist into his opposite palm. "I oughta..."
"Rise above it," MP said, though he smelled as pissed off as the rest of us. "There's assholes everywhere. Even among ourselves."
"Let's go back to the room, Jerry," Tara said, wrapping one arm around Jerome's waist. "After all that, I need a break. We could call room service for lunch."
Unfortunately when they arrived at the room, there was a plumber. The large man glared at the two faux-humans as they walked up. "What did you people do to that drain? This is the third one I've had to unclog on this floor!" he growled. If Jerome didn't know better, he'd say the man was a wolf or dog of some kind. But he was evidently in some pain, the way his forehead was wrinkled. "I found dog hair in the room down the hall! You people are crazy if you think you can hide animals from us!"
He stared. He blinked. He stared again.
He stumbled back, colliding with the cart that carried his supplies, yelping.
Tara bleated in surprise, then left Jerome to see if she could help him. The stag wasn't so sure he wanted to. Something felt wrong about this. Very, very wrong. When she got to him, the man wasn't unconscious, but he was staring at her like she was an alien. "What the fuck?" he said. "What the fuck are you!"
"Jerry..." the doe said, backing off again. "What's going on here?"
The plumber groaned, shutting his eyes again. When he opened them, he held both palms to his temples. "Argh... I must have hit my head, folks. Sorry... been strange like that all day. Seein' things."
"Oh? Like what?" Jerome asked.
"Hell. You'd think I was crazy. Thought I saw a couple deer on two legs, like on some of those drawins' downstairs. Gotta admit, it's kinda intrestin' in its own way. But... I think I'm going to take the rest of the day off." He slowly got to his feet again.
"You do that, Mister," Jerome said. He and Tara looked at each other, the librarian tugging his girlfriend's elbow. Once they were out of human earshot, he spoke again. "Did what happen what I think happened? Did the Field break down there for a moment?"
"We need to talk to somebody, right now," Tara said. "Let's go find one of the Convention organizers."
There were hotel maintenance people all over the place. Unstopping drains, vacuuming mysterious "foot" prints off of carpet. Jerome grumbled when he saw them. "Somebody did that on purpose. What are they trying to do? Break the field intentionally?"
"It may have worked," Tara replied. "It could be unraveling as we speak."
"There are so many of us here. Remember the hotel manager at the presentation? Headaches. We need to find somebody, now."
Unfortunately it was a large hotel, and so many furs had flown in from all around the continent, the air conditioning simply could not keep up. The deer and everyone else were overwhelmed with odors to the point that their sense of smell had almost shut down. And there simply weren't enough words in any human language to describe what a deer, cat, or dog could smell. "Let's try the registration tables first," Jerome suggested.
>> Astringent odors filled the hotel, with the plumbers working overtime and the cleaning staff openly glaring at the convention-goers. Down at the registration tables there were only a couple humans working, one of whom looked up from her work organizing the few leftover badges. Tara fished one of the convention's program books out of her purse, and Jerome wondered how they dealt with the transgendered furs. "We're looking for Vince, or Ronald, or PD, or someone. It's urgent," she said.
The black-haired woman shrugged. "They went to some meeting about ten minutes ago, I think. Or maybe they just went on lunch break somewhere. I really dunno."
"What about your colleague?" the doe said.
"He only just got here. I'm sorry, but I really have no idea. They were trying to negotiate some more conference rooms. This place's turned out way too small."
We noticed, Jerome thought.
"And it smells like a damn zoo in here. Jesus," the newcomer said, waving the palm of his hand in front of his nose. "You know, I kind of like this furry stuff. I'm a fox myself. But using real animal musk is just over the top."
Jerome flicked his tail in agitation. "Do either of you have a cell phone number?"
The woman shrugged. She was looking at both of them closely, turning her head left and right, like she was trying to see the image in one of those "Magic Eye" posters that were so popular ten years ago. Her mouth made a little "O" of surprise, and Jerome wondered if she had seen them for what they really were, if only for a moment. But she didn't scream. Her only reaction was a beatific, satisfied grin. "Here. Let me help you two find them."
"We can do that on our own," Jerome said, backing away a little.
"I don't bite," she said, still grinning. "My husband might, though. He's a fox."
"Hey, I'm a fox," the other guy said.
"Not yet," she said. "Maybe next year." She looked at the two deer. "Come with me, my dear whitetails. Tell me what's going on. Barry, it's been quiet, so you can hold the fort by yourself for fifteen minutes."
The twentysomething frowned and warily tapped a few keys. "Don't leave me alone here, Becca. I barely know how this system works."
"I think I know where I can find Vince. No sense in letting these two wander around aimlessly." Becca did the "magic eye" look again before standing up and coming around the table. "C'mon."
She led them to an empty conference room and shut the door behind her. What was amazing wasn't that this room was empty, but the joyful expression on her face. "You're really deer! My God! My husband is going to yelp for joy! I can actually see you guys if I kind of cross my eyes a little. Wow!"
Oh, shit. Another one, Jerome thought. He wasn't sure what to do now. "Can you still see us as we are?"
"Only if I look out of the corner of my eye. This distortion field thing my husband talked about is fighting back," she replied. "You know, not all of us still-humans are oblivious to this. It was damned obvious that something was wrong with my husband a couple years ago. He was leaving pawprints everywhere. And all that shed red fur in the drains. And he spends like an hour with a hairdryer. The smells--you know how foxes reek, right? Of course you do, with noses like that. All sorts of things..."
The young woman stumbled through her words. Jerome had to interrupt her. "Look, we absolutely need to find the con organizers, okay? Please? We think there are so many furries here that it's straining the Field."
"The Veil?" the human woman said. "Yeah, I can see that. I've had a raging headache ever since I arrived here. There's rumors that someone snuck into the con with a hidden camera, though. I think they caught whoever it was and took them for a talk. Try Con Ops on the third floor first and I'll keep looking for a cell phone number, just in case."
The number of furs wandering around with their portraits--their real ones--drawn on their badges was a little amusing, given the circumstances. Even more amusing were the fursuiters. Jerome and Tara rode the elevator with one and his companion. The sound of very heavy panting came from inside the wolfish head. "Help me with this, Farah," said a muffled voice within. The faux paws reached and removed it...
Revealing a panting, sweat-soaked mouse. "Damned cooling system failed! Help me get out of this thing."
"In here, Vera?" Farah said. She was a human, and the voice inside the fursuit was masculine to the furries. "But you're not..."
"I've got underthings on. But I'm dying in here! Dying!"
The faux-female, faux-wolf shed the costume as if it contained the Sahara. Sweat matted his-her fur against his body--and the glaring presence of a bra stuffed with a pair of false breasts was an odd thing indeed. He was quite muscular, for a mouse. "I'm never wearing that thing again," Vera said in disgust.
"And after all that time you spent making it," Farah said, standing in front of her friend as the deer moved to the opposite side of the elevator. She took off her jacket and wrapped it around Vera's shoulders. "Don't you two stare, now! We're lucky the room is right across from the elevator."
"We won't," Tara reassured. The elevator dinged the third floor. "We're going out now. Good luck."
"I'm not much of a wolf anyway." the mouse said sullenly as the doors closed. "And I should be at..."
For some reason they put Con Ops on the third floor. Jerome recognized the odor of the raccoon from the registration tables, but it was faint and unfocused. The hotel's air conditioning on this floor was at full blast, freshening the air but inconveniently masking personal odors. Normally the deer could determine who had been somewhere and how long ago. Now the best Jerome could do was "maybe ten minutes, or a half an hour." But there were other, fresher smells. Worried smells. With an edge of near-panic. Sharp, like a knife.
"Do you think they know?" Tara asked.
"We'd better act as if they don't," Jerome said, looking at the German Shepard in a Philadelphia Police Department uniform standing outside the closed doors. The stag nervously approached him. "Hey. We have something important to tell these guys," he said firmly.
The police dog regarded them with suspicion, but opened the door. "I have a couple deer out here with something..." he said.
"It is about the Field?" a tense voice answered. "If it is, send them in. This shitstorm can't get any worse. With more info we might be able to cope. We're going to need help to spread the word anyway."
About what? Jerome wondered. He licked his noise, and discerned another panicked scent-note. Human, this time. Female.
Con-Ops was a darkened room filled with a half dozen computers. The room was crowded, with a large polar bear bending over near the far wall, with a human standing next to him. "The sedative is helping, Dr. Clay," he said. He turned his head left and right. "The Field is flickering in here. I can easily see that bearish face of yours." He looked over in Jerome's direction. "And his antlers." And a tigress. "And her stripes. You still fade-to-human, but... more slowly."
"What about us?" said a familiar voice. Jerome hadn't seen BD, nor been able to discern the female lynx's odors among the others in the packed room. "She came in the door with that camera-purse of hers. She didn't even scream, you know. She just sort of folded over..."
"If she had made any noise, Brandon, this situation would be far worse," the polar bear said. "What's the word, Dr. Frasier?"
"Excuse me," Tara said. "I hate to interrupt, but we have something important... um, maybe not as important as this, but..."
"The Veil's breaking down," said a female red panda with a red badge that meant she was Con Security. She also had the hollow square sticker of the gender-changed, though one wouldn't know it from her outfit. There was a "TS" penciled into the center as well. What did that mean? "Where, this time?"
"Fifth floor. One of the plumbers," Jerome said.
"Ah. I see. Thank you, both," she replied, jotting down the information. "That's six in the past two hours," she said gravely. "Any luck, Vince?"
"Don't rush me, Patty," a squirrel snarled. If a rodent could look angry with those teeth, he managed it. "All the other hotels in town are booked up! We're stuck in here."
"Then we're going to have to spread out," she said. The transgendered panda wore overtly feminine clothing--one of those slick red Chinese silk dresses with an embroidered gold dragon on it. She honestly looked stunning, but to Frasier and the other humans, would be a man in drag. "Let's get the SIGs to meet in restaurants. Spread the word that furs should find other hotel rooms, if they can."
"Didn't anyone anticipate trouble like this?" Jerome said.
The panda glared at the deer, then glanced at his nametag. "We've never had so many furs in one place before, Mr. Slater. Never! Nobody thought the Veil would take this much of a beating. We were hoping it'd break down for certain humans, like Dr. Frasier here. But that's out of our control."
"And I'm curious what's on that tape!" said DL's voice from the very back. "Can someone get out of the way and let me in? I'm feeling a little weird, myself. Kind of queasy. And I don't think it's PMS."
"Let the young lady in," Frasier said. "I should have a look at her anyway."
The coyote-woman apologized as she slipped past the two deer, nodding at them as she went. "That camera of hers was on me for like two minutes! How is she?"
"Resting comfortably," Dr. Clay said. "We don't know what's going to happen when she wakes up, though."
Frasier--an iron-haired man who was in his mid forties--stared openly at DL. "Aren't you supposed to be a man?"
The coyote's tone of voice turned from curiosity to suspicion. "Why? Aren't you supposed to see me as one?"
"For a moment there I thought I saw a woman. Not a coyote. Just a woman with cinnamon hair. But you're back to being a man now. But if I turn my head a little and not look directly at you, I can perceive your breasts and womanly shape quite clearly. Farther, and you're a female 'yote." Frasier informed.
"That's what happened in the lobby earlier," DL said, folding her arms awkwardly. "What did I look like? I’m a little curious..."
Jerome recognized the name now. Ed Frasier was an accomplished--and popular--furry artist because he could see furs for what they really were. Jerome wasn't sure what kind of trick that required, but the woman down at the registration table also seemed to know it.
There were a few other transgendered furs packed into the room. There was really no way to fit anyone else in it. Ten formerly male or female people pushed their way to the front, demanding to know what he saw.
"I'll draw something for each of you later," Frasier said.
"Leave it for later, everyone," BD said. "We have more pressing concerns. What's on that tape?"
"Clear the room," PD said. "We need some space. I don't want anybody else in here but Dr. Frasier when that woman wakes up, hear me? We'll go watch the tape somewhere else. Bring Becca up from the reg tables." She looked at Jerome, and nodded. Thanks for the information, Mr. Slater."
BD looked at him, worry in her eyes. "I'll give you a call once I know what's going on here, Jerry, Tara. But I suggest you go back to your room for now, if you can."
The Canadian lynx and Dr. Clay had done business together even before either changed. BD's medical equipment business had taken her all over North America. Over dinner at a Denny's twenty miles away from the hotel, outside of Philadelphia, BD described their first meeting last March. It'd been the polar bear's first real encounter with a transgender fur, and BD's first client after taking an extended "mental health" hiatus. Being pragmatic people, the lynx had taken the opportunity for a physical exam, and had left the office feeling better about being female and a few thousand dollars richer.
Dr. Frasier had come with them to dinner. The five furs and one human sat at a large table, with DL and BD passing around the drawings of them as human women. The coyote stared at hers. "This is really creepy. I mean it! It's a face I never had."
"I can still see it easily if I put myself in the right state of mind," Frasier explained. "It's like there's two of you stored in the Veil. Tell me, have any furs like you become pregnant?"
"There haven't been enough of us. Until now, maybe," BD said. "But this explains why that reporter fainted. What did she say when she woke up?"
The iron-haired man nodded. "She was still a little hysterical, but when I calmed her down enough she talked about a room full of people who just changed sex right in front of her. Like someone had flicked a switch. She just couldn't take it."
"What about the tape?" Tara asked. "There were rumors all over the hotel about that."
"It's already been erased, just in case," BD said. The conversation paused as the waitress brought their food. The polar bear, lynx, and coyote were having burgers, while the deer had ordered a chicken Caesar salad. The restaurant was only half full, and the place was short staffed. This at least gave them some privacy to chat. She waited until the waitress was gone before continuing. "But the incident was there. Becca saw it. A room full of people that changed sex right on video. The reporter must've thought she was going nuts. The Field's never been that obvious before."
Jerome shuddered. "We came close on that one. I bet that reporter was upset about the erasure, though."
"Yes, and I ended up driving her home," Dr. Frasier said. "I suggested she take some vacation time. But who knows what's going to show up on the local news. Maybe an 'I See Furry People' segment."
"I dunno, Ed. At least she didn't see anyone as furs. But you've got to admit it's just as strange," Clay said.
"I'm actually looking forward to 2020," BD said. "I'm tired of living this weird double life." She tore into her burger. "It's near impossible to have any sort of relationship. Those blood tests gave me the correct blood chemistry for a woman my age, didn't they Bryce? Sometimes I wonder if I'm even thinking like a man any more. If I've got lynx instincts it stands to reason I have a woman's, too."
Dr. Clay nodded. "Stands to reason. And you're right about those blood tests."
"What about Patricia? I mean, PD," DL said between bites, referring to the red panda. "One of us got lucky, for once. She was a transsexual before her change in '05. Aren't they supposed to have a female brain in a male body anyway?"
"I'd love to run a medical study on this topic," Frasier said. "Get some MRIs and EEGs in. We finally can test to see if there are real gender differences in the brain in a before-and-after way with you folks. Why... wasn't there someone in your group who's been female off-and-on since '97?"
BD nodded. "'Christina'. CM. The ratgirl. She's been regularly species-swapping during that time, too. Every year. Poor girl. Says if it's 'God's Plan' for her she might as well start thinking of herself as woman. She's married, though. I have no idea how she's going to deal with that." Her golden eyes widened. "Speak of the devil..."
The lynx broke off when another group of furs entered--it appeared be the rodent SIG. The newbie convention had practically exploded when word got around that they should spread out as much as possible. Roughly a third of those staying in the hotel itself checked out, some going home, others finding places to stay a good distance outside the city. The hotel manager wasn't sure what to think, since the people with the secret pets were apparently leaving, but they were taking their money with them.
The group of twenty or so rodents of various species paused while CM came to Jerome's table. "Don't rush on our account. We can find someplace else," she said. She nodded at the other two faux-male furs. She looked at the two doctors. Among other furs she dressed her gender, though in a less extreme manner as PD. Strangely, the other patrons didn't even give her a second glance, though the waitress herself looked at the sheer size of the group and turned pale. "Are you still having that special panel for us tomorrow morning?"
"It won't have anything you don't already know, CM," Frasier said. "You wrote half the book anyway."
The short rat-girl blushed, tugging self-consciously on her blue dress. She was barely over four and a half feet tall, not counting her ears. "I suppose I did. We'll keep looking, even if we have to split up more. See you all later."
When the overworked waitress finally arrived with their check, BD said she'd pay for it. Business had been very good lately, much of it with other furs and sympathetic humans in the medical field like Clay and Frasier. Certainly good enough that she could take two months off and do a couple of business courses at the university where Jerome worked, which was how they'd met in the first place.
But the evening had one more bombshell waiting for them.
"Thanks, ma'am. I really appreciate the tip," the waitress said.
BD cocked her head. "What did you say?"
The waitress didn't appear to be fighting a headache. "Thanks for the tip?"
"No, before that."
"Um... ma'am?" the young waitress said, confused. "Should I say 'Miss' instead?"
The lynx looked at everyone in shock. Dr. Frasier only nodded slightly in confirmation, his eyes wide. He looked very briefly in DL's direction as well, and nodded again. BD wrote in an even bigger tip. "No, thank you. You've had a rough night, I can see that," she said.
"Well, thanks. Here's your card back, Miss Derringer. Have a good evening, all." She left the table.
BD stared at the card. "Brit... Brittany Derringer? What the hell?"
The furs all rushed out of the door as fast as they could and piled into the rented minivan. It had a sunroof for Jerome's antlers. Once they were inside, Frasier spoke up. "It's okay. Don't panic. You're fading back to your male versions again," he said.
"Danielle Lowe," DL sputtered, looking at her driver's license. "Danielle! What the fuck is this? Are we being replaced or something? Even I can see the changes this time! Look at this photo!"
Jerome only saw it for a moment before the plastic card flickered, and the frizzy-haired woman ended up a frizzy-haired man again.
"'Random Omnipotent Being,'" Tara opined. Everyone looked at her. "It's a term I ran into on one of the furry mailing lists. ROB. Maybe there are too many furs for the Field to work properly in large groups? Maybe it takes a lot more effort to hide being a fur and being gender-changed? Stands to reason it'd be simple enough for it to just flip your human gender in some situations.
"I think that's where the evidence is pointing, everyone. It's obvious something like that exists. Call it God, ROB, Krishna, or whatever you want. I think the naked physical identification changes we've seen are less incredible than everyone going furry and changing sex, honestly. And there's going to be a lot more newly-transgendered furs like you next year. So It's starting to cut corners where It can."
"We probably got another couple thousand transgendered this past August," Dr. Clay said. "Both new furs and people like DL who got flipped."
"If this thing starts fucking with my memories I'm going to be very upset," DL snarled. "I'm going to give the others a call. They'll need to keep watch on this. Some of us are married with kids. Let's hope it's isolated."
Listening to what BD and the others had to deal with, Jerome was happy he only had hooves and antlers to worry about.
Frasier, who was in the driver's seat, stopped the minivan on the side of the road and swiveled the seat around to face everyone. He might have been in his mid-40s, but gave the impression of someone much younger, with a youthful exuberance when he spoke. "I hear female voices back here, you know. I can also flick between male and female versions if I concentrate a little. This is changing by the minute, folks. I don't know where you're going to settle."
Tara rotated her ears thoughtfully. "Didn't we pass a mall on the way here?"
"Yes. Why?" BD asked with suspicion.
"I'm pretty sure that waitress saw you as women all along, including 'Christina'," the doe replied. "Dr. Frasier doesn't know you very well. We need to experiment to see how deep this thing goes, since the Field keeps flicking back and forth. So we're going to try a few shops in the mall. One of you should call a human who knows you very well, like your parents, and see what they hear."
The lynx looked doubtful. After weeks of Tara's "how to be a girl" lessons she didn't want to give the doe any satisfaction. But she was also one of the most pragmatic people Jerome knew. "If 'Danielle' agrees, fine. Otherwise, I think we should check out early tomorrow. No sense in tempting fate more than we have to."
"Works for me, 'Brittany'." The she-coyote snorted ruefully. "You know, I wanted to go all the way with this 'being female' until a few minutes ago. I don't like that choice taken out of my hands. Not one bit," she growled.
Jerome planned to wait in the minivan with the two doctors, but Tara insisted he come in with her. He wasn't looking forward to the slippery floors. For hoofers, simply walking on blacktop was an art. Even the ghost shoes didn't help. But Tara was as skilled as an ice skater. She balanced easily, putting a little slide into her steps. With the two pawed furs next to her she was even more confident. Jerome stayed along the wall, precariously balanced. Thankfully they went into the first clothing shop they found, a Gap.
The sales associate who came to help them surveyed the trio. "Is there something I can help you girls with?"
The coyote-girl's mouth hung open. "Um... no. We're fine," DL stammered. Danielle lolled her tongue stiffly. "Just browsing. You know. Like women do."
"Well, okay. Let me know if you need anything. I think you'd look cute in the outfit on the second display, though. You have the figure for it," the sales associate said cheerfully. The stag flicked his ears and groaned to himself at the way Tara's eyes just lit up.
BD noticed right away and pulled on the delighted doe's elbow. Jerome had no doubt that his girlfriend would drag both newly "human" females into a lengthy shopping trip. The lynx acted immediately to prevent that. "That's it. We're leaving. Call your mother when we get out to the car, 'Danielle'."
The mood turned somber in the minivan on the way back to the hotel. DL's mother had heard her son's voice.
"That's it! I'm going upstairs," Jerome grumbled at the noise. Thump, thump, thump! The sound of footsteps in the room above had kept the deer awake for two hours now. Like many other furs they had left the rather cushy downtown hotel for someplace farther away, choosing the same Holiday Inn BD and the other transgendered furs had. The lynx herself was curled up on the next bed, purring softly in her sleep.
"She can sleep through anything," Tara grumbled, sitting up in bed in her chemise. "Cats."
Jerome lip-curled. The doe smelled like she was getting close. "You smell divine, Tara."
"And I'm feeling a little warm." She leered at Jerome's ten-point antlers. "Nice rack, honey."
The whitetail buck chuckled and leered right back at her breasts. "Hey, that's my line. That's something I'm supposed to say to a pretty doe like you." The sound of music and laughter filtered down from the floor above, more loudly this time.
Loud enough to make BD open one eye. "Just how long is she going to party up there, anyway?" the lynx said tiredly, one side of her lips curled in a half-snarl.
"I'll go up and ask them to quiet down," Jerome volunteered, throwing off the thin sheet and picking his shorts up off the floor. He saw no reason to put on anything else, and it felt good to be mostly free of clothes for a change. This hotel had actual shallow-pile carpeting, which made him more surefooted than usual. Grabbing the keycard off the TV, he pocketed it, ducked through the door, and headed for the elevator.
Whatever she was doing in there apparently wasn't loud enough to wake the humans on this floor, but to Jerome's very sensitive hearing it was like fingernails across a blackboard. Worse was the smell of vodka, which got stronger the closer he got. How can she stand that? he wondered. He tapped on the door with his thick black nails.
"Be right back, lovey," a tipsy voice said behind. Jerome heard footsteps approach the door, then the handle turned.
The newly-christened Patricia Dale stood there in nothing but her black-and-red fur, long ringed tail arching up behind her, with a half-full martini glass in one hand. "Oh, hello there, you handsome stag you," she said. "Come in! We have room for one more..." She leaned against the doorjamb and looked at him coyly before emptying the martini glass in one gulp. Whoever was in the room with her had apparently already passed out.
"Can you keep it down?" Jerome choked out. Red panda and vodka odors mingled unpleasantly. "We're trying to sleep. And put some clothes on if you're going to answer the door."
"Why? All the humans'll see is a hot, naked chick," she giggled. Patricia had a very euphoric smile. The profound joy in her voice was palpable. "No more being a freakin' obvious transsexual! No more pretense. No two fucking years in transition, and I'm fin... finally the woman I am. Who the hell cares about the fur. Huzzah! It's a girl!" She held her empty glass up over her head in triumph, posing like a centerfold.
"Congratulations," Jerome said. "But... please."
"Gonna quit my job and start anew somewhere nobody knows me..." she continued, apparently not hearing him at all, sliding down the wall a little. She had quite a stunning figure, her black fur-covered breasts pert and well-shaped. Jerome was in the middle of the Rut, and he felt drawn to her anyway. But her breath was repulsive. "Gonna be a real woman now... I waaa... want babies..." Completely besotted, she started fading away and slid down the wall behind her before passing out. The empty martini glass rolled in circles down the hallway.
Jerome saw them coming. BD and Tara both. Amazingly, the doe wasn't even upset at seeing a nude woman. But BD seemed ambivalent. "Well, I'm glad one of us is happy. This is going to play merry hell with my business. How am I supposed to find new clients? How am I supposed to introduce myself? I guess I'm 'Brittany' to everyone except those I've known personally," the lynx grumbled. "Damn it! The free ride is over. I guess I'm really a woman now."
"I'm willing to help, Brittany," Tara said. "I've been trying to for months."
"Far, far too enthusiastically. And don't use that name! I've had it up to here," she said, waving her handpaw over her eartufts, "with your lessons. What I can't figure out is why you're so exuberant about this..."
"Um... ladies," Jerome interrupted, hearing people stirring behind their doors. "It's two in the morning. Can we discuss this after we do something about Patricia here? I don't want to leave her slumped naked in the doorway."
"I'll take care of her," Tara volunteered.
"No, I'll do it. She's one of us," BD insisted.
"Yes, but you're also one of me," Tara added plaintively.
BD looked furious, even extending her claws. But she clamped down on her anger. She wore a pair of plain, unisex pajamas. "Stop! Just... stop." The Canadian lynx took a deep breath and walked into PD's motel room. "I may not be back down tonight, okay? I need to cool down a little. Good night!" She carefully pulled the unconscious red panda away from the door and closed it behind them.
I hate this. I really, really hate being caught in the middle, Jerome thought as he lead his distraught girlfriend back downstairs. She started crying before they got in the door, and was in full sobs when they reached the bed. Jerome held her close, nuzzling the nape of her neck, until she regained enough composure to speak again. "What happened up there?" he asked.
"I... I guess I have pushed BD a little too hard with this," she said, grabbing a handful of tissue paper. A doe blowing her nose is not a pretty sight. "Okay, I pushed her a lot. I can't help myself."
Jerome looked at her, puzzled. "Oh? Why is that, if you don't mind me asking."
Tara slid down so she was basically laying with her torso in his lap, looking up at him. Her ears tickled his thighs as they moved. "This is going to sound weird, Jerry."
"Tara, we're living weird. Look at us."
The doe reached up and stroked his muzzle from nose to cheek, then up far enough to touch his ear, then antler. She rubbed his scent gland under his eyes, then sniffed her hoof-like fingertips, for a moment blissing out on his masculine odor. "I suppose you're right. Well, brace yourself anyway.
"When I was a nerdy teenager, guys frustrated me. They were immature and boorish. They didn't know anything about how to please a girl. I was a little perfectionist at that age, and in hindsight was way too hard on my dates. But I started having this... um... this fantasy."
"Fantasy?" Jerome said.
The doe visibly blushed through her short facial fur. "It's really, really weird. Um. I started imagining all sorts of methods, too. Magic spells, genies, Sci-Fi technology, what-have-you. I fantasized that my boyfriends were turned into girls. Not really as a punishment, but... more like so I could show them what being a girl is really about. We'd go shopping, I'd even arrange dates for them so they could see what it's like. They'd have a period or two. After a couple months they'd get changed back and be Mister Perfect." She paused and sighed. "Though sometimes they didn't change back and we became Best Friends Forever instead. I've written so many silly little stories about it."
Jerome truly had no idea how to respond to that. Although something did come to mind. "And have you ever imagined me as a woman? Or a doe?"
The history professor nodded, smirking. "A little bit. Maybe. Don't worry hon, you're really cute. Your girly rack is just as impressive as that one." She giggled and gently tickled one of his lower nipples, squeezing a phantom breast.
The stag snorted. "Well, the way things are going lately, it just may happen next August."
"Or I'll end up a stag. I've never fantasized about that. So I have no idea how I'd do," she said, tugging on his white chest fur. "Having a manly chest like that. I can't imagine."
"Tell BD about this. Seriously," Jerome said. Upstairs, the music finally stopped. "If she knows what's motivating you, maybe she'll..."
"Forgive me? I hope so." Tara sat up, tail twitching. "My God! She's not the only one who's going to need help. I doubt Patricia needs it, but..."
"Hold on, there. Let's sleep on it, okay?"
Tara nodded sheepishly, then moved over to her side of the bed. Whatever mood there could have been tonight to play around was simply impossible now. And from the gravity of the day's events, both furries needed their rest.
It took over an hour in traffic to get to the convention hotel the next morning. BD had come down from Patricia's room, reeking of alcohol and much less pleasant odors. She said she didn't want to talk about it, and had gone right to the shower to clean up. All the while ignoring Tara. Since the doe was driving, she plead she needed to concentrate on traffic over the noise of Jerome's antlers in the wind. And the cold wasn't just from the open sunroof. BD and Tara studiously kept from making eye contact. Hard, for a deer sitting in the same space as a lynx.
"It's dead in here," BD said, looking around the hotel lobby. Indeed, the registration tables were closed, since the organizers decided they just could not let any more furs in. The bulletin board, which was covered with Photoshops of jokey felines doing "Real LOLCats" had been cleared, and a new schedule posted. The night before, Jerome had attended two IRC meetings, one for the deer a general one for everybody else. Aside from the necessary medical panels, the art show, and a few others, all SIGs were to keep meeting at least five miles distant and coordinate with the other groups so they didn't run into each other. Bus routes were posted. And some rich fur had even hired a few charters.
The mouse from the elevator the day before walked up to BD. "Hey there. How are you holding up? We didn't really get a chance to talk yesterday," he said. He approached them and looked left and right for any human to overhear. "I ended up 'Victor'. Victor! Like on Days of Our Lives. Feh. You?"
"Brittany," BD replied reluctantly.
The mouse gestured with the tip of his muzzle. "Pretty name, actually. Let's go talk. I'd appreciate some advice. If you don't mind me offering mine. God, what a bombshell."
Tara let out a little sigh, provoking an icy glare from the Canadian lynx. She and the mouse, an odd couple if there ever was one, walked off towards the elevators.
"Let her cool down some more," Jerome suggested, resting his hand on her shoulder. "Maybe on the way home."
"If I can't mend this before she leaves, I'll never forgive myself, Jerry," the doe said morosely. "What's still being held here that's interesting?"
"'Fur-gonomics'," the buck read. "Looks like clothes, furniture, cars, shoes..."
Tara looked down at their feet. "How would you make anything that works for deer hooves? At least the horses could go to a farrier, if they really wanted. That's piqued my curiosity."
This was a presentation rather than a panel discussion, and since it wasn't a SIG, it remained at the hotel. Since so many furs had left the convention there were mostly humans in the audience. Jerome smelled Peter in the room, and he and Tara threaded their way towards him. The other buck had a tattered right ear, and his eye on that side had apparently narrowly missed whatever had gotten him there. The twelve-pointer looked at his direction and nodded.
"Hey, Pete. What's the good word?" Jerome asked.
"Funky, Jerry," the Minnesotan replied, moving his tattered ear. "But this looks like a good 'hypothetical' presentation, from what I can see here." He noticed Jerome looking at the ear. "I'll tell you about that, later."
"Bet it's a hell of a story," Jerome replied.
Peter snorted. "I'd gone hunting with an old friend, and... er... I'll tall ya about it later, okay?"
Hunting? Are you crazy? Jerome thought. Then the presentation started.
The presenters were two furs and a human Jerome presumed was like Dr. Frasier, someone who knew that the world wasn't what it seemed. "Fur-gonomics is the design of actual consumer products if the world really was populated by anthropomorphic animals," said the snow leopardess giving the main presentation. There were comparatively few furs in the audience this time. "It's not... wouldn't be a simple ergonomic world any more. Paws, tails, hooves. Greater size differences. We're assuming that people would have mostly human-shaped torsos, but heads and extremities are rather more animal. Most of our items here are handmade or done with rapid prototyping..."
She was a very good speaker, but Jerome had a hard time focusing on the presentation. She was the most stunning creature he'd ever seen... "Ow!"
"Nose down, bucko," Tara said crisply. "You're doing that flehmen thing. I'm standing right next to you."
"I'll admit she's pretty. But I think we've seen enough. Come on," Tara said, pulling on her boyfriend's elbow.
As they left, a female otter at the door handed a business card to each fur. "Shoes, chairs, anything you need," she said. "We've got a full-up production facility. Reasonable prices."
The deer promised to keep that in mind, and went and found something else to do before their SIG.
"So then he says, 'Sorry, Pete! I saw a deer and I had to take a shot!' Now, I don't even have to tell you that we was duck hunting anyway. But when he drops his gun and sees me there, I just glared at him. I'm lucky I didn't get any of that damn buckshot in my eye! The ear's a wreck, though," Peter said, gesticulating at the other cervines. They had lucked out and gotten a semi-private meeting room at a VFW in one of the suburbs. He flicked his tattered ear. "I figure ending up a buck's just comeuppance. I deserve this."
Jerome looked around the table, fixing the scent of each one in his mind. Of the twenty deer he'd smelled yesterday, four had left. But that left sixteen more or less evenly divided by gender, but there were multiple species represented. Whitetails were the most numerous--about half the group. There were the four elk, a moose, three mule deer, and a spotted doe who identified herself as a Sitka deer.
"What the hell were you doing hunting anyway, Pete?" Jim said. The elk had listened incredulously the whole time. Peter had evidently changed in '05. But he was retired Air Force. For being so old, he still had a very good, thick, and intimidating twelve points. "I mean, come on! I know you were just..."
"Been a hunter for thirty-odd years, Jim. It's what I do with my friends when the season's right. It took me forever just to pry myself away from it without compromising those friendships. Hell, I even went deer hunting that first November!" Peter continued. "Never took a shot at any, though. Confused the hell out of poor Ryan."
Everyone around the table groaned. MP glared at him, then threw up his hands. "This must be some silly macho male thing."
"Careful, 'Malcom', you're one of us now," Peter said.
The eight-point formerly-female stag just gave his elder a Hard Look, ears pinned against his neck. The fur on the back of Jerome's neck prickled, and he felt himself almost respond in kind. The air crackled with growing animosity. Aaron flicked his mule deer ears, then put a restraining hand on MP's elbow. "Cool down, there. Hold your horses..."
"The hell I will! I didn't ask for this! My life's just turned into a living Hell! You guys can't understand what's going on, here! You can't!"
"Nobody does," Jerome added. "Not even those living it."
"Fuck you, Jerry!" MP swore. "Just... fuck. Let go." He jerked his elbow out of Aaron's grasp and stood up. "I'm going for a walk. This place reeks of old men. And I never wanted to be one of those." He stormed out.
Jim gritted his teeth, snorting. "If God or whatever really wanted to mess the world up, he, she, or it would just swap our sexes. Why bother going through the trouble if making us all half animal, too? Think of the shit that would happen in the Middle East of the Iranian mullahs ended up female. Hah!"
The elk's female companion poked her 'mate' on the shoulder. "Well, that could be you next year, Jimmy-girl. Just keep that in mind. We don't know a thing about what our society will look like when we're all on hooves or paws. But the differences between male and female have been around for hundreds of millions of years. Double-whammy, everyone. Remember that! You guys should be helping MP, not prodding him!"
"You know, I wonder," Tara said. "Some of us change species, then might change sex the next time, or a few years down the line. What if someone did the opposite? Are there people out there who spontaneously changed sex last August, or even ten years ago, but didn't get furry?" the doe mused. "They'd still be human. Would they even need a 'ghost' or a Veil? Could they see us for what we are?"
"Never heard about anything like that, Tara," Aaron said. "If they exist, they're even more secretive than we are. Wouldn't they just blend in anyway?"
"Or nobody's ever looked," Tara said. Jerome could hear the anticipation in her voice.
Jerome's phone rang before he could caution her not to go off on a wild goose chase, so he fished it out of his pocket while the others started to talk on that topic. "Heylo. Slater speaking."
"It's BD," the lynx said. She didn't sound angry, but there was still a gravity in her tone of voice that didn't bode well. "Something's happened here."
"What now?" Jerome said. The sound of his voice made everyone else go quiet. All ears were upon him. The whitetail felt like shrinking a little. "I'll put you on speakerphone, BD. Go on."
"Okay. Everyone, here's the scoop. We've had a total Field failure. Some guy with a blue raccoon for an avatar. I don't know many details, but Patricia and the others are still grilling him a little on how it happened. He's about as furry as a human can get, though. He's been to a lot of cons this year and last. But he isn't like Doc Frasier. It's just all gone.
"The rest of the Con is cancelled. I know it's only Saturday, but that's Vince and Patricia's decision. There's still too many of us. And we're not going to risk it further. I don't know what they're going to come up with--Sleeping Sickness outbreak or something--but you're to come in, get checked out by Dr. Frasier and Clay, and they'll send you home. I’m sorry, everyone."
"We're sorry too," Jim said. The elk had become the de facto "herd leader" of the group. He slammed his fist on the table. "Fuck. But it was great meeting all of you. Keep in touch, everyone."
As luck would have it, what happened at the Philadelphia furry con was far overshadowed by the news. It was all over CNN, MSNBC, Fox, NPR in the car on the way back to Providence. "Twin Energy Breakthroughs," Jerome repeated. "Well, what are they?"
There was talk of a "New Saudi Arabia" of oil under the Dakotas and southern Canada. How anyone had missed a massive ocean of light, sweet crude that large no geologist could explain yet. They swore that when the Bakken Formation was first surveyed in the early 50s, the geology had not indicated such obvious potential. Also, in the past few days researchers at MIT announced a newly engineered bacterium that basically "crapped diesel and gasoline" in large volumes for about one dollar a gallon, in the blunt words of one of the researchers. It would still be a year or two before the pilot plant was verified as commercially viable, but the process was very simple. Municipal wastewater went in, fuel and clean water came out.
"Just what we need. More oil," Tara said derisively.
"Fort McMurray is going to dry up and blow away. No way tar sands can compete with that," BD said. "We're back to the cheap stuff. From the sound of it, it's like the old days again. Just drill a hole and it just gushes out." She unbuckled her seatbelt and levered herself so she was looking between the front seats. "Feel like stopping for a meal? I'm famished."
They had just passed over the Tappan Zee Bridge, avoiding the New York area completely after spending about ten dollars in tolls in New Jersey. "I know there's a TGI Friday's near here..." Tara said. "It can't wait another hour and a half? We're not that far from home."
"I really don't want to wait until then," BD said. "Besides, I'd like to stretch my short legs a little. And I don't want to put this off any more."
"Put what off?" Tara replied, her voice loaded with hope.
"My treat," the Canadian lynx said.
They asked to be seated in a corner, out of the way from other patrons. The waiter just smirked at Jerome. The stag easily read the man's expression. Here he was, traveling with two attractive women. But he was obviously attracted to BD, going so far as to pull her chair out like a gentleman. "Thank you," she stammered.
"Pleasure. Take your time with the menus."
Jerome covered his nose. "I don't know if I can eat anything here."
"You're so finicky," Tara said disapprovingly.
After they ordered, the lynx looked around to make sure nobody was listening. It was hard for Jerome to tell who was more contrite. "I'll go first, BD," the doe said.
"If you insist," the lynx replied.
She told a shortened version of what she's told Jerome the night before. To her credit, BD didn't get angry again, though she did flex her claws a little. "I'll curb my enthusiasm, BD, really," Tara reassured.
The expression on the lynx's face told all. "Victor set me straight yesterday. I know you're trying to help, Tara. And to tell the truth, I think I need it now. Danielle's going to need some help, too. Just don't go bananas is all I ask." She smiled. "Call me Brittany."