|Paradise story universe|
|Works by MatthiasRat on Shifti|
The arrival of Spring in Blacksburg was occasioned by strong winds, overcast skies, and a steady warmth that nevertheless gave way suddenly to chill and thunderstorms. Flowers bloomed and brought brilliant pinks and violets to gardens. Green grass thrived, and the many farm animals living outside the town center contented themselves with the new growth.
The many students at Virginia Tech greeted Spring with renewed enthusiasm. The semester would be over in only another six weeks, and bounteous Summer waited. On the Drillfield students engaged in sports and games even when the winds rose and tried to carry them away. Some students even flocked to the library to study harder in preparation for the coming exams.
But for SOAP, the work of many months had brought them to Technicon, the local Science Fiction and Fantasy convention at which most of them were staff. They had organized a hotel, wrangled guests and dealers, prepared panels, and pulled hair out. But now they could enjoy the con.
At least that was the theory.
"If people would stop asking me ten questions at once I might be able to answer them!" Van said as he rifled through the boxes sitting behind the registration desk next to the stairs at the bottom floor of the Red Lion Inn. "No, I don't have the string. Talk to Trevor about that, he's Facilities. He's supposed to know where this stuff is. Yes, what do you need?"
Christopher, who sat nearby tried not to chuckle at his friend's exasperation. He was in far too good a mood to allow the craziness of the convention to get to him. Finally, after so many false starts and confusion, they would have a gathering of Changed.
Despite Patrick being in the know -- and Audrey a week later when Rob showed her -- they hadn't been able to visit the Bristol Changed, nor had their plans for a gathering around New Year's gone anywhere. But Technicon was an established event. All Christopher and Rob needed to do was invite every Changed living in Virginia and nearby East Coast states. The bear had even invited Carter, but the wolf couldn't get away.
And now he sat in registration with Van to make sure any of the Changed that did show up received the invitation to the special party Saturday night.
"I can't get you any chairs for the writing panel because all of my volunteers just walked off!" Van exclaimed in his level voice into the radio.
While Van dealt with the many crises multiplying by the minute, Christopher gently but quickly tapped his claws on the borrowed laptop to process the registrations. The line of people waiting turned to the left and back up the stairs to the main lobby. About one out of every three was preregistered which made things move slow. So far that afternoon, he hadn't seen any of the other Changed. After taking the latest attendee's money, he picked up his radio and called, "Brett, Patrick? Can one of you get over to Registration? We're swamped here and Van is taking care of everyone else's problems."
Van threw up his hands in frustration and shouted, "I don't need people here! I need people to start doing their damn jobs!"
Christopher smiled. Yeah, it was a typical Technicon.
"Here, plug this cable in the extension outlet." Rob watched the volunteer carry the cable toward the wrong side of the room. "No, the other one! Over there next to the special effects generator."
"The thing with the shiny buttons that looks like you would use it to blow up Alderaan!"
The skunk shook his head and turned back to setting up the speakers. He smelled a familiar scent come from behind. He smiled as her fingers ran up through the fur on the back of his head. His tail twitched and he turned his head to one side. "Hello Audrey."
"I can almost feel it," she said as she drew her fingers back and forth. He brushed his tail across her side, but she didn't seem to feel that either. "Does it feel good?"
She smiled and giggled. "How many of you are coming?"
"Chris has the numbers. I've been making sure Technicon works!" After learning that CM had told Patrick about them, he'd made good on his long-standing desire to let Audrey know that he'd become a skunk. She'd taken the news surprisingly well. The only thing he hadn't mentioned was that CM had become female in addition to being a bear.
"I'm going back to Art Show. I'll see you later." She gave him one last scratch behind the ears and then went back the way she came.
His smiled vanished quickly. A moment later he glared at the volunteer and shouted. "No! That's not an extension outlet! Other side of the shiny buttons!"
By the time the first of the Changed arrived, Registration had finally sorted out its problems and was running as smoothly as things run at a convention. The line had been reduced to a few individuals standing in front of the registration desk. At the back of the group, rubbing his paws together, stood a chipmunk dressed in a medieval tunic and breeches. A plastic sword was slung across his back. Dark brown eyes fixed upon the bear, but Christopher made sure everyone else was taken care of first.
Christopher knew the chipmunk from his profile, but he couldn't admit that in front of Van. When the chipmunk moved in front of him he smiled and said, "Welcome to Technicon! Do you want to register for the weekend or just the day?"
The chipmunk grinned, scalloped ears twitching at every noise. "The weekend. I'm Kyle Paglioni. I'm coming here to Tech next year."
"Oh?" He hadn't mentioned that in their last email. "Well, you've picked a very good school! This is a beautiful area, and everybody here is really friendly. Where are you from?" While he made the overeager chipmunk chat about things they already knew, he processed Kyle's registration. He surreptitiously scribbled a room number onto one corner of his program book. He then handed him a badge and grinned, "Well, Kyle, you're ready to go enjoy the con. I'm sure I'll see you again later."
Kyle nodded and affixed the badge to his tunic. "Definitely. How many others?"
Christopher cast a quick glance at Van, but he was busy registering another attendee. "Five, not including us. Tomorrow, eleven o'clock."
"Night?" Kyle grinned, his incisors sticking out two inches from his lips.
"Yup. Have fun!" He gestured with one claw to the person standing behind him. "Yes, welcome to Technicon!"
Kyle nodded and slipped out of the way. Christopher watched his short tail flit back and forth as he disappeared into the con.
Rob walked past the hotel rooms toward the main lobby and listened to the chatter on the radios. "We've got Carolyn here, but Steven's plane is just now landing," Trevor said. "Somebody needs to be driving to the airport to pick him up."
"We have somebody running transportation," Van replied. "Why aren't they at the hotel already?"
"They just got back with Tom," Trevor replied.
"I'm on my way," Nick replied. "I've just got to drop one thing off and I'll be on my way."
He smelled them first. Rob passed beyond the line of hotel rooms and stared down the concrete steps at the patio at the group of individuals seated around one of the wire-mesh tables. A chipmunk, otter, opossum, and an older man who looked like a Golden Retriever, sat chatting animatedly, their voices complimented by churrs, barks, and chittering exclamations. As soon as he came into view, they turned and waved at him. The chipmunk shouted, "Hey! Here we are!"
Rob grunted and climbed down the steps. He tapped his staff badge with one claw as he came over. "Sorry I can't talk long, I'm on my way to take care of another crisis. Is everyone okay?"
"Doing great!" the chipmunk said. "You're Rob, right?"
He nodded and extended a paw. The chipmunk and he shook, and he said, "And you're Kyle." He then turned to the otter, who still managed by her dress and the color of the fur on her snout to appear in her thirties. "And you're Claire from Bristol. Sorry it's taken so long for us to meet."
She smiled, her whiskers bushing over her lips. "That's all right. It's been a crazy year. This may be the craziest thing of all. I've never been a science fiction fan."
"That's okay," Rob said. "We've got other panels you might like." He looked at the opossum whose age he couldn't quite tell. He was filing his nails and sliding his jowls over rather sharp looking teeth. "I don't know you. Did CM find you?"
"Edgar Burlow," the opossum replied. He half-stood in his seat, long tail dragging against the decorative iron, and shook paws with Rob. "I'm actually Hokie alumni, but I live in Richmond now. And yeah, I met CM on the forums. She said this was the best chance to meet folks like us."
"We hope it will be," Rob admitted. "It's the only con in the area with two Changed on staff at least!" The skunk finally looked at the old dog. His paws rested on a cane and he had an unlit pipe propped between his teeth. "Carl, I'm glad you could make it."
The dog's tail wagged once and his ears turned back. "My nephew always had good things to say about Technicon. Now ya'll better not disappoint."
"Your nephew comes to Technicon?" That genuinely surprised Rob.
"Few years back. He's overseas with the Navy servin' his country."
"Good for him." Rob clasped his paws together and nodded, long tail flitting behind him. "I'd love to stay and chat, but I have to go strangle one of my volunteers who's fried a circuit board in Main Programming. You guys have fun, and remember, keep track of your fur. This hotel has a no pet policy, and we'd rather not get in trouble!"
"Rob! We really need you in Main Programming!" one of the video staff shouted through the radio.
The Changed laughed as Rob rolled his eyes and vaulted up the stairs.
"I'm going to take a break," Van announced as he stood up. There were only a couple people waiting to register, but as it was already getting late, they both knew that registration would slow to a trickle soon.
"Going to get some food?" the bear asked. His stomach rumbled eagerly. In the last couple of weeks his appetite had finally returned. Over the course of the winter he'd lost nearly a hundred and fifty pounds, dropping him to something reasonable for his height and build. But with winter over, he felt the hunger growing again, and just the mere thought of food made his fur twitch with rapacious desire.
"Yeah, I was going to stop by Staff Suite. Do you want anything?"
"Oh yes, please!" He grinned and made a show of licking his jowls. He wondered what Van saw, but his friend just rolled his eyes and climbed around the registration desk. "Just grab me whatever. I'm sure it'll be fine."
After Van left, Christopher finished the last of the registrations and then pulled up his browser on the laptop. During a previous lull he'd surreptitiously logged onto the Changed networks to see if there was anything he should take care of. With so many humans around, he wouldn't use his mantra to put himself in CM-mode, but as he began to type a few replies, a little of the she-bear started to come out.
But her mind snapped back to the present when an unfamiliar scent came to her nose. CM... Christopher lifted his head and sniffed again, turning to his left and staring in surprise at a tall black cat. The cat stood five and a half feet tall, slouched from a backpack over her shoulder, and seemed to be greying at the sides of her muzzle. She was dressed in an old blue jacket, jeans and sagging paisley shirt. The way she stared at him with trembling paws and quivering jowls, he knew that he was the first Changed she'd ever seen.
Christopher rose and smiled to her as best he could. "Do you need some help?" he asked, trying not to sound too excited. His heart pounded and his nostrils flared, and he wondered how well she'd be able to read his expression. The registration area was mostly empty, as everyone else was attending panels or over at the gaming area. When the one human staring at their hotel map finally disappeared inside another room, he ventured in a low voice, "How long have you been a... panther?"
She took a single step down the stairs, wary, but calming down. "Since August... and how long have you been a bear, miss?"
Christopher cringed and touched one of his breasts with a paw. "That's complicated. And it's Mister. I was a man before this. Have you never seen another of us before?"
She shook her head, but she did come down the stairs and over to the registration desk. Her green eyes blinked in sock, but also in delight. "I thought I was going crazy at first."
"We all did. But there's several of us here at Technicon. I'm Christopher Mattiaz. And you are?"
He extended a heavy bear paw and she took it gingerly with her much smaller feline paw. Her scent was wild and strong, mixed with many different flowers and herbs. Did she do gardening? A faint smile pierced her jowls. "I'm Barb Fletcher. Your name sounds familiar. How long have you been coming to Technicon?"
"A few years now," he admitted. "I moved here in 98."
"I think I may have seen you a few years ago then," Barb let go and frowned. "You were human then?"
"I haven't been human in a long time. So you live in Blacksburg?"
"On the other side of Main Street near Nellie's Cave Park."
"I know where that is." His eyes stole to one of the conference rooms when a pair of humans stepped out laughing and talking to each other. "Look, we can't talk about this right now. Too many people around. But tomorrow night we're all getting together. There's six of us here already, and I expect another pair tomorrow evening."
"Well is there anywhere I can wait for them? I don't feel like searching around for anyone."
"This is a good place. Everybody has to go past here, or up in the lobby. Either one will work. First, let's get you registered. Security will kick you out if you don't have a badge."
Barb smiled, her long black tail dancing behind her backpack. "That's why I'm here." She leaned in a little closer. "How'd you end up female? And how can you type with claws like that?"
Christopher shrugged as he typed her name in the system. "I don't know, and a lot of careful practice. You just get used to it." He smiled and growled deep in his belly. "That makes three of us living here in Blacksburg. And another is coming to school here next year. So from now on you don't have to worry, you'll have plenty of support."
"Well thank you very much, I do appreciate it." She nodded her head and smiled broadly.
He handed her the program book and tapped the back page with one claw. "Here's the room number. Eleven o'clock tomorrow."
"That's a little late for me, but I'll make it."
"Oh good, I–"
Van's voice in his ear interrupted him. "Hey Chris, they've got spaghetti, chili, sandwich fixings, chips, whatever you want. What can I get you?"
"Snag me a sandwich. Two of everything for fixings."
Over the radio, Van sounded dubious. "Okay. That's going to be one hell of a sandwich."
Christopher grinned. "I know. Thanks!" He turned back to Barb who was reading the schedule. One of the conference room doors opened as the panel let out. He motioned with his eyes, but the black panther had already seen them. "If I don't see you again before then, I'll see you tomorrow night. I hope you enjoy Technicon, Barb!"
She smiled enigmatically, and turned, long tail bumping against the registration desk. "I'm sure I will! See you tomorrow, Chris."
Rob found Brett milling about the Dealer's Room. His lanky roommate had elected to work Security at Technicon this year, and held a bundle of ribbons in one hand as he patrolled the tables of merchandise. Some brought gaming supplies, dice, books, maps, even plush toys. Others brought clothes both medieval and modern. Many sold art and fiction. And a couple of them sold honest to goodness weapons, though most were for display. But even those could kill if they weren't careful.
"Everything going smoothly up here?" the skunk asked his friend. Behind him, he could see one of the ladies rubbing her nose. Great. He'd need to use more cologne to cover his musk.
Brett grinned and stammered, "Yeah... everything's fine up here. When am I going to get somebody to replace me?"
Rob nodded. He was starting to feel a little hungry himself. Hearing Chris and Van talking about food over the radios an hour ago didn't help either. "The Dealer's Room should be closing in a half hour. Can you hold out until then?"
Brett made a "murr" noise but nodded. He chuckled then and pointed to one side. "What's that guy doing?"
Rob turned his head and saw the opossum sharpening his claws on one of the swords. To a human, it would look like he was waving his hand back and forth over the blade. The skunk felt his tail fur frizz as he stomped over to the opossum. Edgar saw him coming and grinned, revealing a wide plethora of sharp teeth.
"Oh, hey Rob. Nice stuff you guys have here."
"Is there anything we can help you with, sir?" Rob said, making sure to use his I'm-in-charge voice.
Edgar's scalloped ears folded back, and his long tail curled tightly about his pants-leg. "No, just admiring these blades."
Rob leaned in closer and hissed between his fangs, "Can you not sharpen your claws on them? Everyone is watching you!"
The opossum glanced around, as if suddenly aware of everyone else standing around the Dealer's Room for the first time. He chuckled nervously and set the blade down. "Right. Just couldn't help myself."
"Just cause there's a few of us here doesn't mean you can loosen up." Rob patted him on the shoulder, and dug in a tad with his claws. "Enjoy the rest of the con!"
Edgar glared at him for a moment, then shrugged and went back to admiring the blades. This time without his claws.
As the first night of Technicon wore on, Christopher realised that the mountain of a sandwich Van brought back for him wouldn't be enough. So, after closing down Registration for the night, the she-bear lumbered out the lobby and down along the hotel. Only the main lobby and conference room were set indoors, the rest of the hotel opened out to the parking lot or the sidewalk and woods in the back. Most of the con-specific rooms faced the parking lot, including Con Suite and Staff Suite. And both of those had food, which is exactly what the bear wanted.
Staff Suite was two doors farther down from Con Suite to discourage the regular attendees from trying to crash the place and get the better food. But a canine scent in front of Con Suite mad him change his mind. With one heavy paw he pushed the door open and saw the tables lined with chips, gummi bears, cookies, and an assortment of snacks as well as a pot of chili burbling contentedly in a crockpot. Carefully spooning out some of the chili was the elderly golden, Carl.
His tail wagged as Christopher entered. A few other con-goes were there as well and a staff member whose name he'd forgotten. He waved to them and then sidled next to the canine. "Enjoying the con so far?"
Carl glanced up at him, being gentlemanly enough not to so much as stare at his breasts. "I'm not much for science fiction, but ya'll have some interestin' things goin' on."
Christopher grabbed a handful of cookies and, making sure no one was looking, stuffed all of them in his maw. He crunched them with his molars, rubbing his huge tongue back and forth as he swallowed. He still managed to get crumbs on his wide, black nose, but another swipe of his tongue and they were gone. Satisfied, he asked, "So what have you seen?"
"That them there art show was somethin'. If not for what's happenin', I wouldna believed anybody could have an imagination like that!" He grinned and panted as he moved down the food line. Christopher noticed that apart from the chili, he'd not taken anything else. The golden sniffed at the table curiously a few times, but didn't seem to like anything. The bear couldn't blame him. Most of the rest of the goodies were chocolate or had too much sugar for a dog's heart.
"There's a lot weirder stuff out there; stuff even I don't want to know anything about."
Carl set his bowl of chili down and glanced over the drinks, "So ya stayin' at the hotel?" "No, I live here in town. After I eat I'm driving back home to get some sleep. I'm surprised to see you up still."
The dog shrugged his shoulders. "Ya want us up late tomorrow, so may as well git used to it."
"Hey!" a third voice cut in. Both bear and dog turned their heads to stare at the girl standing over the chili pot. "Who put all this hair in the chili!" She lifted a wad of shed brown fur out of the chili.
Christopher tapped his claws together and whispered to the dog, "Time to go." Carl chuckled under his breath.
Things were finally winding down for the first day of the con. Rob was tired, but he could stay up at least another hour. Not that he'd have to, as the last panel for the night had just ended. Chris had already left to go home, and Van was busy securing all of the registration equipment. Brett and Randall stood security outside the last panel and one of their very few adult panels. Although they talked to each other, Rob could tell just form their scent that they were ready for sleep.
"Hey Van," the skunk asked, "when's Reg opening in the morning?"
"When Chris gets here. I told him to be here by eight o'clock."
"Not that any of us will be up then."
"I'll be up," Van muttered. "Nobody can get this system to work without me."
Rob wanted to say something more, but the doors to the panel opened and people started filing out. What surprised him was that he saw Claire the otter and their surprise arrival. They saw him and immediately came over.
"Ah, there you are," the black panther said. Her name-tag read "Barb". "Is there somebody who could give me a ride home? The buses stopped an hour ago."
"I can take you," Rob offered. "Just tell me where you live."
"Thank you very much. Claire and I were just enjoying one of your many wonderful panels."
"Wonderful?" the otter sounded quite dubious. In fact, now that Rob looked at her, she looked positively appalled. "I've never heard of such things! How can they live like that?"
"Polyamory is definitely not for the faint of heart," Barb admitted.
Claire shook her head, her long thick tail pressing against the back of her legs as if it was a child clutching to its mother for safety. "I jut can't picture it. I wouldn't want to have anybody in my life other than Harold. There's just something not right about more than two people together."
"Whatever floats their boat," Barb replied with a shoulder shrug.
Claire didn't seem convinced, but she didn't press the subject. "I'm going to go to my room and sleep. It was very nice meeting you, Barb. I'll see you tomorrow morning. I didn't finish telling you about my boy."
"You should bring him next year," Barb suggested.
Claire glanced back at the panel they just left and shook her head. "I don't know... good night, Barb. Rob." She waddled up the steps and out the lobby toward the hotel rooms.
Rob fished in his pocket for his keys and waved to Barb. "Let's get you home."
"Do you have anything you need to do?"
"Just take you home. Then I'm going to sleep. Good Night guys!"
"Make sure you don't drive off the bridge and kill yourself," Randall suggested.
"I'll remember that," Rob laughed and flicked his tail as he and the black panther headed toward the parking lot. Yeah, it was a typical Technicon all right. Thank goodness the first day was finally over! Another day and a half and he could get some real sleep.
The bear didn't get a lot of sleep that night, but now that his hibernation was over, his body was just fine with that. In the last few months, he'd snooze for ten to twelve hours a night if he didn't use his alarm or if Leslie didn't make him get up in the mornings. It was a crummy way to lose weight he decided, but he couldn't deny that it felt completely natural.
So after pulling on a bra and t-shirt, he popped online to check his messages. Carter had some good news about the demographics models they were using, but Christopher didn't have time to look over that now. The two other Changed he was hoping would come today hadn't left him any messages, so he had to assume they were on their way. He would have sent them a message to let them know he was coming, but not everyone was as thoughtful.
He growled at himself for his Momma Bear moment, wished Leslie a good day, and squeezed into his Saturn and left the Chasewood Downs parking lot. The morning was cool and bright, with the sun peeking beneath the cloud cover and casting weird shadows across the sky. The weather report had called for rain in the afternoon, but they'd probably only get a drizzle if anything.
"My name is Christopher Mattiaz," he said to himself in a rumbling growl. "I'm a she bear and I'm going to be in the presence of those who see me as a she bear, and also those who see me as a man. All those who see me as I truly am know to treat me as a man. I will not fear exposure, and I will compose myself carefully. I will relax and enjoy this convention being both bear and man. And when the time comes for me to become CM, I will enjoy that also and be as much of a Momma Bear as my instincts warrant."
He chuckled and growled as he finished his mantra just as he pulled into the Red Lion Inn parking lot. It was time to get started with day two of Technicon. He couldn't wait.
"Facilities to Con Chair!"
Rob put the brush down and grabbed his radio. "This is the Con Chair. What is it, Trevor?"
"I'm having some complaints from the hotel staff that a couple people brought pets to the convention."
Rob blinked and stared at his long black and white tail which he'd stretched out on the hotel bed. In the dog brush bristles and all around his tail was piles of shed fur. He could already imagine what had happened.
He tapped the radio with his claw and said, "Tell them we'll look into it. Ask them for the room numbers and I can investigate."
Trevor replied in his usual cheery voice. "I will relay that message and get back to you when I have the room numbers."
"Thank you, Trevor." He put the radio aside and quickly scooped up his fur and stuffed it in a trash bag. He'd take the bag with him when he left. No need for his room number to be added to the list! Great, one more thing to tell the Changed to watch out for. What better time for them to get together like this than the beginning of the Spring shedding season!
He churred to himself, shook his head, and grabbing his radio, walked out to see what other craziness Technicon had in store for them this day.
"Excuse me." A woman wearing thick glasses with faded blonde hair came to the registration desk during a lull. She carried a light coat in one hand and a program guide in the other. "I'm looking for the Edward room. Can you tell me where that is? I'm supposed to be heading a panel there in a few minutes."
Christopher blinked in surprise at the question before his eyes settled on the woman's con badge. He growled a laugh. "Oh, of course! It's just down this way. Wait, I have a better idea." He stood up and glance down the hallway. "Hey Brett! Can you escort Mrs. Cloves to her panel in the Edward room?"
Brett had been lounging around the Operations desk chatting with Isaac. His head snapped around at the sound of the bear's voice and he stuttered, "The.. The Edward room? Sure, it's right this way."
Mrs. Cloves smiled to Christopher and followed Brett. The bear sat back down and brought up the Changed forums page again. He was reviewing emails from Linda Blayless asking for an update on behalf of Walter Lundh. Not having any of his research materials on paw, he couldn't easily answer the ewe, but it did allow him to compose his thoughts in the meantime.
He looked up from his work to find somebody staring at his real face. The otter from Bristol was there, a confused look on her short muzzle. "I'm trying to find the Henry room, which one is that?"
"The Henry room is right over there. You have to go through that little passage. See it now?"
Claire thanked him and headed off.
A minute later, another set of guests asked him where the panel with Carolyn Cloves was being held.
A few minutes after that, Kyle came buy and asked him where the Fest Halle was.
And a few minutes later Christopher put aside the Changed Network, opened his word processor, and within forty seconds created a sign informing everyone on exactly what page in the program book where the hotel map could be found and taped it to the front of the Registration booth.
Two minutes later, Randall with an evil glint in his eye asked him where the Stuart Room was.
As Con Chair, Rob's duties involved being where people needed him, officiating opening and closing ceremonies, introducing guests, and otherwise just being available. This gave him plenty of opportunity to wander the convention space and keep an eye on things. While he was dedicated to making sure that everyone attending had a good time, he was constantly keeping a watch out for the other Changed, some of whom had little to no interest in science fiction or fantasy and were here solely for the meeting that night.
One of the best things about being Changed, in his opinion, was his improved senses. Especially his sense of smell. Where the world had always been rich with a panoply of fragrances, now it was awash in minute details he had never suspected. A walk around the convention brought the pungent odor of unwashed bodies, the bite of cigarette smoke, the sweetness of candy, the chemical concoction of costume makeup, and the earthy aroma of the trees, the grass, and the small animals that lived within.
Rob also could detect the stronger scents of his fellow Changed, and he was even learning to tell how long ago they'd been anywhere. So as he stepped into the art show, even though he couldn't see the opossum, he knew Edgar had to be there somewhere.
The Art Show featured mostly local artists in addition to several pieces provided by the guests of honor. Many of Audrey's works were on display, and he saw that a couple of them even had bids on them. The display panels were wire mesh, so there was only one place Edgar could be. Rob stretched his toe claws into the carpeting for a moment, smiled, and walked over to the adult section.
He found the opossum staring at drawings of furries without their clothes on and in very suggestive if not explicit poses. Thick canvas hung off the back of the display panels, keeping them hidden from sight. Edgar's tail curled around one leg, and his right ear turned to the side as the skunk came around.
"This is really disturbing," Edgar said.
Rob noted the pictures, but he'd seen them all before. "Why is that?"
"I never thought anybody would draw anything like this," he replied, shaking his head. "My wife would kill me if she caught me looking at this stuff. But... its...."
"Well, it makes me think. What would I do if I saw a female naked Changed opossum? Just the thought of it is kinda... appealing." Edgar shook his head again and tore his eyes away from the picture. "You know what I mean?"
Rob laughed and patted him on the shoulder. "I thought they were appealing before I Changed."
Edgar chittered and rubbed his dark paws together. "Okay, now you're freaking me out."
The skunk laughed again and asked, "So, are you enjoying the convention?"
"It's interesting." He turned his head to the side and glanced at the adult art. "Eye opening at least. Maybe I'll go check out those games at the Fest Halle again. Do you know where Carl went?"
"I think he's watching movies in the video room."
"I can do that too," Edgar chittered again and stretched, long tail uncurling before settling around his other shin. "See you later tonight."
"You too." Rob watched him go and then chuckled. It was a good question though. Had his preferences changed along with his body? He tried to imagine Audrey as a female skunk. A smile began creasing his snout as he imagined her beckoning him with a flick of a long, lush striped tail.
"Facilities to Con Chair!" the radio screamed.
Rob sighed and picked up his radio. "This is Con Chair. What do you need, Facilities?"
The she-bear studied the program schedule for a few minutes. The day was already growing late and evening would be upon them in a couple hours. As a bear, Christopher didn't mind sitting on his rump all day long, but even he felt the foraging instincts when his stomach started rumbling. With Van off on another food run, he had only the occasional con goer coming in to register, and whoever was doing security in the main hall at the time.
At the moment, Brett was pacing back and forth, a cougar tail attached to his jeans. Christopher hoped that when Brett finally Changed, he got his wish and became a cougar too. Anything else would probably depress him no end!
"Having fun?" Christopher asked.
Brett turned, surprised at being addressed. "Oh... well, you know security. At least I get to look in on the panels I like."
The bear laughed, a deep rumbling growl that was completely lost on the human. "Yes, I do. I'm hoping to see the Writing panel with Stephen Bruce this evening, but we'll see."
Brett nodded, started to pace again, then turned back to the bear and asked, "Hey, Chris, I met this kid named Kyle. He started asking me about apartments in the area. Said he knew you."
He made a mental note to bonk the chipmunk on the head. "Kyle? Yeah, he's going to be a student here next year. I bumped into on a furry forum and told him about SOAP. I thought he'd stay on campus."
"I didn't stay on campus," Brett pointed out.
"All freshman deserve the campus experience. That way they can appreciate living in an apartment."
Brett chuckled, which made his shoulders shake and a goofy grin appear on his face. "He seemed really hyperactive."
"Kyle's furry form is a chipmunk, of course he was going to be hyperactive." Not that Brett would understand just how much of a chipmunk their new friend was.
Brett said something in reply, but Christopher didn't hear it. He smelled them first, and turned his head to look up the stairwell. Walking in the lobby doors was a pair of Changed. He recognized the boar and hedgehog from their profiles on the Changed forums.
The boar stood about six feet in height, with a hairy snout sticking a good eight inches from his neck, white tusks framing his pink nose. He was dressed in a black biker jacket with fingerless gloves redesigned for his two thick fingers and leather pants with a little hole for his wispy tail. He had a travel pack slung over one shoulder, and a set of sunglasses oddly perched on the bridge of his snout and curled around his triangular ears.
The hedgehog was only five feet, a bit pudgy, and also dressed in biker gear. The back of his jacket bulged outwards from his spines, some of which poked out the bottom. Beady black eyes scanned the hotel lobby, and his pudgy snout sniffed. A smile crossed his features as he saw the bear and waddled down the stairs. The boar's hooves thumped softly on the carpeted steps as he followed his friend down.
Wide-eyed, Brett stood back and let the pair approach the registration desk. Christopher quickly penciled in the special room number on two program books and the pulled up the registration page. "Welcome to Technicon! I take it you'll be wanting the weekend pass?" He made a point of eyeing their biker gear.
The boar nodded tapping his fingers on the strap for his travel pack. "Yeah. We've preregistered."
Christopher remembered their names, but he didn't want to admit that in front of Brett. "Just tell me your names and I'll find you in our system."
"Jan Krazinski," the boar said, doffing his sunglasses and wrinkling his snout. His voice betrayed a slight accent. Christopher remembered reading that his parents were Polish immigrants who'd escaped the fall of the Iron Curtain.
"Dennis Meale," the hedgehog said, the spines rippling beneath his jacket as he shifted his travel sack on his arm. "Come all the way from the wilds of NoVa."
Brett and Christopher laughed at that. "Where in NoVa?" Brett asked. "I'm from up that way too."
Christopher let the Changed chat with his friend while he made their badges. He'd have time to chat with them later. Finally, all of the Changed he knew about were here at Technicon. Now he could relax and get risk leaving the registration deck! That is, once Van returned with the food. He was starving!
After a full day of Technicon, Rob was beat. The skunk had run from one end of the hotel to the other at least a dozen or more times already, defused five situations with the hotel staff -- four of which were Changed related -- reminded his staff what their jobs were at least half a dozen times, and still had yet to sit down for more than ten minutes at a time. Even when he'd gone to grab his lunch around two o'clock he'd only been able to stay there for a few minutes before somebody called for him on the walkie.
And now, just before nine o'clock, he was finally escaping the end of the costume menagerie to grab a bite to eat. CM may complain about not being able to see any of the panels, but at least she was able to sit down and rest any time she wanted! Rob had seen her talking with any number of people who came by the registration desk to see her. Half the time it would be another Changed, but with Van there next to her most of the time, she probably couldn't say much.
Rob on the other paw had only caught snatches here and there, like when he'd bumped into Edgar in the art show earlier. But in a couple of hours they'd all gather at his hotel room and they could finally be themselves! Just the thought of grabbing his brush and working some irritating kinks out of his tail fur made him walk faster to Staff Suite.
The hotel had enough lights that he couldn't see any stars when he looked into the sky on the unusually clear night. The cold air tried but failed to penetrate his fur. Ahead of him he could see the black panther slowly making her way down the line of hotel rooms. The light gave her fur coat a luminous sheen that he couldn't help but admire. After returning from a hike and bathing trip with CM, his fur always held a similar luster.
Barb pushed open the door to Con Suite and stepped inside the doorway but went no further. Staff Suite was two doors down from Con Suite, so Rob picked up his pace to say hi to the feline before continuing on. He heard a gaggle of voices in Con Suite, many laughing at some joke he'd missed.
As he got closer, he felt his heart skip a beat. The door was swinging shut and there was still a black tail lazily flitting back and forth outside it! He jumped the last few steps and shoved his paw between the door and the jamb and pushed it back open. Barb turned around in surprise, her wide eye laconic. "Oh, hello there, Rob."
While several people turned to stare at him, Rob took a breath and said, "Just made it. What do we have here?" He leaned in closer, his blunt snout pressed against the inside of one triangular ear, "Your tail. Almost stuck in door." He leaned back and pressed his shoulder against the door to wedge it open and then glanced around. "Hey, is there anything we can use to wedge this door open? I don't want anybody's hands to get smacked by a slamming door."
"We did have a wooden block somewhere," the volunteer manning Con Suite replied. "It just disappeared a half hour ago."
"I'll see if I can get you a replacement." Rob sighed and picked up his radio. "Con Chair to Operations."
Barb, still looking at him, quietly mouthed, "Thank you."
It took Christopher an hour more than he expected to finally get away from Registration. A late surge of people wanting to come see author Steven Bruce had come in just after he'd eaten his dinner and so while they went to Mr. Bruce's panel, he sat behind his laptop trying to close everything down.
"Something wrong, Chris?" Van asked him out of the blue.
Chris turned and felt his jowls quivering. "Why do you ask?"
"You've been growling the last five minutes. Maybe it's just me, but you don't sound too happy."
He'd been growling, great! He checked himself, took a deep breath, and nodded. "Oh, I wanted to hit this panel with Steven Bruce, and I'm stuck here. Heck, his panel is almost over."
Van waved his hands at the bear. "Well just go! All you have to do is ask Chris. I'll keep an eye on things for now."
Christopher grimaced and asked, "You sure?"
"Yes, now go enjoy what's left of the panel."
The bear sighed and got up. He felt guilty for leaving Van alone like this, but he wasn't going to argue with him. He squeezed out from behind the registration desk and lumbered toward the main programming room. Slipping through the doors, making sure to duck his head lest he hit it on the sign they'd hung on the transom, he found himself in the comfortable meeting hall currently arrayed with stackable chairs. A good fifty to sixty people were there listening to a man at the front regale them with tips and tales.
Christopher kept himself at the back, arms crossed just beneath his breasts. Steven Bruce was a best-selling author of fantasy, although the bear had never read any of his books. But many times he'd dabbled his paws in writing and fancied himself an amateur writer. So he listened attentively to Steven's tips and suggestions. By the time the panel ended another fifteen minutes later, the bear had forgotten his earlier anxiety.
As people began filing out to look for the next panel, Christopher waited behind until he could get close to their guest of honor. Steven Bruce was of medium height and build, with long black hair and a goatee dressed in black casual. He smiled as the bear approached, "Sorry I was late to your panel, but being staff, had trouble getting away. I was hoping to ask you a couple questions if you had time."
Steven nodded and smiled. "I know how it works at cons. Come on, I'll buy you something at the bar and we can talk. I've got nothing the rest of the night."
The bear blinked in surprise, a grin crossing his muzzle. "Sure! Thanks!" What in the heck was an award-winning fantasy author doing buying him a drink at the bar?
The bar was behind the hotel restaurant, and at that hour Steven and Christopher were the only ones there. They selected a small table in one corner, with Christopher making sure to take a wall seat, as the floor chairs looked rather flimsy. He may have lost a lot of weight, but he was a bear and wasn't taking chances.
Steven bought beers for them both, and as they drank, Christopher asked a few straightforward questions he was sure Steven had heard a dozen times before. But Steven was polite, friendly, and even asked many questions of his own. He wanted to know about Christopher, who he liked to read, and what sort of stories he wrote.
After fifteen minutes, Christopher felt completely at ease, and their conversation seemed more a thing between old friends than between a well-known writer and a would-be fan. But after their second round of beers, all that changed.
Into the bar walked a tall man with long, curly dark hair, long face, and a disregard in his eyes that immediately set the bear on edge. Steven greeted him warmly and introduced them. "Chris, this Warren Lutrine, Warren, this is Chris one of the staff here. We've been talking about our stories."
Warren didn't even offer his hand, just nodded, eyes regarding the bear briefly, before sitting down and turning to Steven. "What did you think of my latest magazine? Beat the hell out of Analog doesn't it?"
For the next thirty minutes the conversation went something like this: Steven would talk about stories, authors, and the like, deliberately posing questions to the bear to involve him in the conversation, Warren would begrudgingly acknowledge the bear when he had to, otherwise he wouldn't even look at him and turned the conversation back to his magazines and how much better they were than other science fiction rags, and Christopher sat fuming, doing everything he could to keep from growling or swiping this sanctimonious prick's head from his shoulders.
Finally, after his fourth beer, Christopher grunted loudly and smiled to Steven whose manner had only impressed him further. "Hey, Steven, thanks for the beers and the wonderful chat. I've definitely learned a lot already. I have to get going to another event I'm moderating, but I wanted you to know I enjoyed chatting with you."
"Hey, good talking with you too, Chris. Good luck with your stories," Steven smiled and patted him on the elbow, which is where he probably thought Chris's shoulders were.
Warren had sat down in such a way that Chris couldn't get out unless he moved, and it didn't look like Mr. Lutrine had any intention of moving. The bear grunted and stood up, pushing himself against the table and nearly spilling some of Warren's beer. "Excuse me, please." He only barely managed not to growl the words.
With a nod, Warren shifted aside, not even deigning to rise from his seat. The bear clipped his claw on the seat edge, and was half tempted to shove, but he restrained himself and walked on past. When he left the bar he growled and planted his paws firmly on the registration desk. The laptop and all the other equipment jumped. Van blinked and said, "What's gotten into you?"
"What a jerk! A fu... a frickin butthead!" It was all the bear could do to keep from swearing.
"Who, Steven?" Van asked incredulously.
"No, Warren. He comes in there, interrupts our conversation, won't even look at me half the time, and makes me feel like an idiot! Steven bought me drinks and wanted to know about me! That Warren Lutrine, who the heck is he anyway?"
Van nodded and returned his attention to his laptop. "Magazine publisher from Roanoke. Yeah, he's an asshole. But he's a successful asshole so we put up with him."
"They should call him Warren Latrine, cause that's all he's good for! I'd like to paddle his hind end until its black and blue." Van laughed, but said nothing more. Finally, having gotten control of her emotions, CM straightened out her shirt and glanced at the clock. It was nearly eleven. "It looks like this place is dead fort he night. I've got something planned so I'm going to go off walkie for the night."
"Okay, good night."
CM set her walkie on the registration desk and climbed the stairs to the main lobby, then took the door out into the night air. She leaned against the stone wall a moment, finally realizing that in her anger she'd slipped into her Momma Bear mode. It was just as well she knew, as she had planned on being a Momma Bear once all the Changed were together for their get-together, which was starting in another ten minutes.
A smile crossed her muzzle, faint but real. This meeting was going to be the best part of the weekend so she couldn't let people like Warren spoil it for her. Besides, the thought of actually straddling that obstreperous man over her knees and paddling his butt with her paw brought an uncontrollable laugh to her throat. Several con-goers stared at her as she enjoyed her mirth.
Rob made sure to arrive early to his room so he could set up enough chairs for everyone. The skunk had snuck the folding chairs out of the storage room throughout the day and was grateful that nobody had noticed. He hadn't even finished arranging them around his bed when he heard a knock at his door. He poked his muzzle through the curtains and saw the ladies outside.
"Barb, Claire, come in, come in. You're the first."
The otter lady stepped aside and let the older panther go in first. Barb nodded her thanks, but declined one of the chairs, "If I sit down, I'll never get up again."
"So, have you been enjoying Technicon?"
Claire's whiskered snout seemed to contort as if she were trying to find the right words to say. "It's... interesting. I've never seen a lot of the things you do here. That Who's Con was really funny."
"Yeah, the Improv is great," Rob replied. Everyone's ears turned at the sound of clopping hooves. Rob opened the door seconds before the boar could knock. "Come on in you guys!"
Behind the boar was the hedgehog. They'd doffed their biker jackets and gear and were now both dressed in matching black tank tops and jeans. The hedgehog's spines thrummed along his arms and upper back as he stepped through the doorway. Both boar and hedgehog were quite muscular and clearly not afraid to show it. The boar nodded to Rob and then grinned at the ladies. "Good evening ladies. Will you need a ride home tonight?" The hedgehog patted down his spines along his arms
Claire stared at them aghast. Barb chuckled under her breath and replied, "No thank you. I'm afraid my old bones couldn't take that sort of ride."
Jan the boar laughed and took a seat. He propped his cloven hooves on the edge of the bed and wrapped his arms over his chest. "So where's the bear chick? Maybe she'd like a ride."
Rob flicked his tail angrily. "CM has a wife, Jan."
The boar laughed, "I know. A joke, ya?"
"I don't think it was all that funny," Claire said. "The poor man didn't ask to be made female."
Jan rolled his eyes as his friend Dennis took the seat next to him. Dennis didn't lean back in his seat.
The next to the door was Edgar the opossum, who was quickly followed by the elderly Golden, Carl. Rob offered everyone something to drink as they waited for CM and Kyle to arrive. Carl and the ladies declined, but both bikers and the opossum gladly accepted a beer each.
CM arrived a minute after eleven. She frowned as Rob let her in. "Sorry I'm late everyone. I hope you haven't been waiting long."
"CM, you're only one minute late. We're still waiting on Kyle."
The she-bear glanced at everyone and smiled. "I'm so glad ya'll came. I hope ya'll've had a good time here."
"Oh, I am now," Jan said and leered at her over his can of beer.
CM put her paws on her hips and scolded the boar, "Didn't your mother teach you better manners, Jan Krazinski?"
"Learned it all from my Da," he replied and winked at her. Rob saw the look in CM's brown eyes and climbed over the bed to get out of her way.
"Oh really?" CM asked, then in two swift steps stood behind the boar. She wrapped one thick, furry arm around his neck and shook his from side to side. Jan flung his arms wide and threw the empty beer can across the room. He squealed in surprise as the she-bear growled in his ear. "Have you forgotten what the initials mean? Have you, Jan?"
The boar grunted and waved his two-fingered hands in the air. "Ya, ya!! I know! Sorry, lemme go!"
CM pushed him forward and stomped across the room in a huff. "First I have to deal with one of our guests treating me like crap, and now a fellow Changed has to do this to me. You should be ashamed of yourself!"
Nobody else said anything while the boar rubbed his neck and turned his head from side to side. Beside him, the hedgehog tried not to laugh. The boar out his hooves back on the ground, stood up, then bowed to CM, "Forgive me my rudeness. I just... I..."
"What he means to say," Dennis said with a wry grin, "is that when it comes to women, he's a real pig."
Everybody laughed at that, and even CM felt the humour tinge her anger. Rob watched them both and felt a great measure of relief when both she and the boar joined in the laughter. Into it came a sharp knock on the door. Barb opened it and there stood the chipmunk, a bright grin stretching from one cheek to the other. "Did I miss anything?"
"No, we're just getting started," Rob said. "Come in, sit down. Want a coke?"
"Nah, been sucking down the Red Bull all afternoon," Kyle replied. His whole body quivered with energy. He sat down and bounced right back up again. He drummed his claws along the back of the chair, jumped back and forth between his seat and the curtains, wriggled and wiped his face with his paws, and otherwise acted like a hyperactive rodent.
"Okay, Kyle, could you throw the dead bolt?" Rob asked. The chipmunk had it done before the words were out of the skunk's mouth. "Thanks. Now that we're all here and settled, CM and I wanted to let you know why we wanted to meet."
"I take it you didn't just want to increase attendance at your con," Edgar said as he leaned back in his seat. His long tail had curled twice around one of the chair legs.
"No, we wanted to organize and talk about what we can do in the coming years. Come this August, there's going to be more of us around, and we need to be there for the new Changed to help them make the adjustments they'll need. CM was there for me when I became a skunk this last August. And until yesterday, Barb didn't even know there were other Changed!"
"You mean you just stumbled on us accidentally?" Dennis asked. The hedgehog grimaced and shook his head. "Man, I'm sorry to hear that. That must've been hard."
The black panther shrugged and then offered a faint smile to them. "Eh, I've had a hard life in general. Just some icing on the cake."
CM tapped Rob on the shoulder and the skunk stepped back to the let the bear talk. CM rubbed her paws together, her claws clacking like the rasp of dry leaves. "I know everyone here because we've talked on the Changed networks, or like Barb, we've already met. But I know not all of you have had a chance, so I thought we should each introduce ourselves, and say just a couple quick words about ourselves, including when we've changed. I'll go first. My name is Christopher Mattiaz, but for now I'm CM. I'm a graduate student here at Virginia Tech in Mathematics and Statistics. I've been Changed since 1996, but I only learned that there were others like me this last August when Rob changed like he said. I haven't always been a bear either, but everyone knows that already. Rob?"
The skunk nodded, long tail dancing behind his head as he watched the others. His nose was already twitching from the overwhelming number of musks and scents gathered together in his room. "I'm Rob Hallman, and I'm a Network Administration student here at Virginia Tech. I changed last August, and I'm the Con Chair. Next!"
The opossum tried to stand, but his tail had a death grip on the chair leg, and as he rose, he took the chair with him. He laughed and finally managed to loosen his tail and set the chair down behind him. "Okay, as you can tell, I'm an opossum! Name's Edgar Burlow. I used to come here to VT, but that was ten years ago. I'm a civil engineer out in Richmond, and I've been this way since 2000. I found the network about a year ago, and believe you me things had been really weird in my family the year a half before that." He laughed to himself. "My two-year old boy saw me hanging from my exercise bar by my tail one day. That was funny."
"You can hang by your tail?" Kyle asked, wide-eyed. "Wish I could do that."
Edgar grinned and showed off his numerous razor-sharp teeth. "Took a little practice and a lot of beer the first time."
The otter sitting next to him shook her head and then stood up. "Hi everyone. My name is Claire Boellen. I have two young children who've just entered grade school." She fished in her purse and pulled out a billfold filled with pictures of a young boy and girl with bright faces and blonde hair. Both Barb and CM leaned in closer to get a better look. "This one's Jeff and here's his little sister Emma."
"Oh, they look adorable!" the panther purred.
CM rumbled in delight, "Oh what sweet little children!"
Rob rolled his eyes as his friend went Momma Bear again.
"So, I changed in ‘01," Claire continued, "and I thought I was going nuts. Last August I was watching C-SPAN while folding clothes and saw that Congressman start to Change on TV and that's when I knew I wasn't the only one. I found the network a month later."
"We're glad to have you," CM said and handed her back her photos.
Barb waved to everyone. "Hello! I'm Barb Fletcher, and I live here in Blacksburg. I have a nice garden in my backyard, and I love reading science fiction. I changed into this lovely feline form you see here last August. And yesterday I met CM, and here I am."
The Golden Retriever had an empty pipe between his molars. "Name's Carl Hoskins, an' I'm from South Boston. Been retired for a number of years, an' when I changed last year, I asked my son-in-law to show me how to use this Internet thing. Ya'll dun know how hard that is for somebody like me." He grinned and wagged his tail, brown eyes brightening with good humor. "I got nuthin' else to do, so I found ya'll online. I tell ya, there's some weird stuff on that there Internet!"
Everyone younger than thirty started laughing. Carl grinned and licked his nose.
"Well, I guess I'm next," the hedgehog said. "I'm Dennis Meale, and I changed back in 01. I tell ya it took me forever to figure out how I could ride my bike with all these spines. I tore up a couple really good jackets before I got it sorted out. And tore up some of my business suits too while I was at it. Thank goodness I found the Changed network only a few weeks after changing. I got lots of tips on how to handle spines from this porcupine girl living out in Wisconsin. They make leaving paw-prints seem like a gag, I tell ya."
"So what do you do?" Kyle asked.
"Insurance Auditor," Dennis replied. "I make sure people who file claims aren't lying about it."
"And you ride a Harley? That's so cool!" The chipmunk bounced up and down behind his chair.
"And what about you?" Dennis asked.
"I'm a High School student, but I'm coming here to Virginia Tech next year. I'm going to major in engineering or something. I live up Hagerstown, and I've been a chipmunk since 99. It made High School a lot of fun cause I could do all the gymnastic stuff that the other guys couldn't. And you should see the stuff I can squeeze through! I love being Changed, it's the greatest!"
Jan snorted and nodded. "Ya, I agree. Some folk say being a big pig is the last thing they want to be. My family comes from Poland. We do things the right way over there. Our family coat of arms features a boar, so I'm definitely the way I should be." He glanced at the women and a faint look of apology crossed his beady eyes. "I met Dennis on contracting job after changing last year and he introduced me to motorcycles. I like that they call them hogs too. And I'm glad you guys invited us down here. I know I can be a jerk sometimes, but hey, I don't mean nothing by it. You think you can forgive a stupid pig for being a pig?"
CM took a deep rumbling breath and nodded. But her dark eyes still glowered dangerously over her broad ursine snout. "Of course. Just don't do it again, all right?"
"I won't. I'll show you my bike later if you're interested, to make up for it."
"Thank you." CM smiled again, and Rob could see the heat of anger leave her. The great big she-bear relaxed and settled into the pose of a contented mother teaching her cubs. "Now that we all know each other, we need to discuss where we as Changed go from here. There is only one thing we know for certain, and that come August, there's going to be a whole lot more of us out there. The Changed Network has a little over two-thousand people in it right now, but as Barb proves, we're discovering more all the time who've never seen another Changed. It's up to us to keep a look out for others. And especially on August 17th and in the days and weeks that follow."
"How are we supposed to do that?" Claire asked. "I'm a stay at home Mom. Who am I going to see?"
"You go to the grocery store, right?" Rob asked. The otter nodded though he could see the confusion in her brown eyes. "Well, you also do the clothes shopping, the laundry, any number of other chores that take you outside your home. That's where you see other Changed."
"You probably won't know them," CM added in a deep soothing voice. "If we hadn't Changed, we likely would never have known each other. Every time you leave the house you'll have an opportunity to see other Changed. And there's also your church. If it's anything like our parish, half the people stick around to talk and trade news after Mass is over. In the middle of August, if you hear about anybody having a real nasty illness, they're people you'll want to check up on."
"That goes for the rest of us too," Rob pointed out. "And when we do meet others, we need to explain things and bring them into the Network. It's very important that they register in the Network. We need doctors who can see what we are. We need psychologists who can help Changed who can't take it. We need more lawyers to help shield us from legal scrutiny - I can't believe I just said we need more lawyers! And we definitely need people in law enforcement who can protect us."
The boar grunted and rubbed one hoof-like finger over a tusk as if he were polishing it. "And how are we going to manage that? The Change is random as far as anybody can tell."
Rob slumped his shoulders. "Yeah, we can't make anybody change, but if we can find these people it'll make our lives a lot easier."
"And there's one other thing to keep in mind," CM said. The bear leaned forward, placing her paws on the back of the chair. The metal groaned. "When you do find others, especially those who've just changed, they'll look to you to show them what needs to be done. Whether we like it or not, we're going to be leaders for the next few years for the Changed in our communities. We don't know how quickly the population is growing, but some estimates suggest that there are at least ten times as many Changed out there than are in the network right now."
Rob had been surprised when Carter and CM had come up with that estimate. That meant for every one of them, there was at least another nine Changed out there who hadn't been found yet.
"And we can make Blacksburg the parent organization for everybody around?" Kyle asked, a hopeful glint in his bouncy eyes.
"Well, for now," Rob admitted. "But I'd be surprised if there aren't more Changed up in Northern Virginia. We'll see where we are after August. But I think this is as good a place as any."
"It's a good place," CM added. "Lots of rural areas around here where we can get out when we need to. I know I need to get into the woods as often as possible."
"Me too," Edgar said with a firm nod. "Not so easy to do in Richmond."
"So what ya'll planning on doin'?" Carl asked.
"Sounds to me," Jan replied, "that you want us to organize the Changed in our area, report stuff to you, and keep on the lookout for new Changed. Why should we report to you?"
CM put one paw on her chest just above her breasts. "I've been Changed the longest of any of us by three years. I know the most about living as a Changed. Plus, none of you tried to set up a meeting like this. We did, Rob and I. We're the ones coordinating things, so ya'll want to get this information to us. In time, ya'll be coordinating things yourselves, but for now, we are the center of things in Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, and western Maryland. That won't last forever, but for now that's how it is."
"Fair enough," Jan replied, and next to him the hedgehog nodded in agreement.
"So now what?" Barb asked. "Seems everybody agrees you two should continue to run the show for now. But what does that mean?"
CM nodded thoughtfully and replied, "Now, we make sure everybody does agree, and then we discuss details on what we're going to do. We have to find a better time to gather than Technicon for one. I know a lot of you were bored this weekend, and I'm sorry. This isn't for everyone."
Kyle bounced on his hind paws. "I had a blast!"
"Yeah, we know," Rob said. "So, does everyone agree that we should run the show for a little bit longer?" One by one every began to nod and agree, and both skunk and bear grinned as they saw it. Even the boar looked happy with the arrangement. "Good," Rob said, "it's settled then. Let's get started on the real work!"
The meeting ran on for another hour before people started falling asleep. Barb was the first. Two minutes after she finally took a seat her head leaned to one side and her eyes closed in slumber. Carl fell asleep slouched with his pipe in one paw and his jowls sagging. Shortly before they called it quits even Kyle came off his caffeine rush and collapsed in a pile next to the windows.
Jan and Dennis helped Carl back to his room, Claire saw to Kyle, while CM took Barb home before heading back to her apartment with Leslie to get some sleep herself. Leslie was working the late night shift at Pizza hut and wasn't home yet. When CM woke up in the morning, her human wife lay in bed quietly snoring. CM slipped out, careful not to wake her, dressed as decently as she was able, and headed out to the early morning Mass.
By the time the she-bear returned to the Red Lion Inn, things were starting to kick back into gear. She replaced Randall at the Operations desk, thanked him for keeping an eye on it all night long, and then settled in for the final day of the con.
Compared to the last two days, Sunday proved uneventful. The art auction and White Elephant auction drew the largest crowds, and several people came to register just for them. All of the Changed came by to say hi throughout the day, but he could tell that each of them were readying to go home.
Edgar and Carl were the first to say their goodbyes. Shortly after noon, while CM scarfed down a box of bagels and honey, the golden and opossum came down to the table. The opossum had an old threadbare suitcase in one paw. "Well, Chris," Edgar said with a toothy grin, "It's time for us to head off. It was good to be back in town for a weekend. Feels odd to be here and not seeing some Hokie football."
"Yeah, Technicon is in Spring precisely because of that!" CM replied. She'd never bothered to put herself back in male mode, but she would once the con was over. Most folks were used to her Momma Bear mode anyway. "Ya'll driving out to South Boston first?"
"Yup!" Carl said with a smile. His chestnut pipe was clutched between his teeth, but CM couldn't remember ever seeing it lit. "Edgar's goin' ta drop me off first."
"It's not that far out of my way," Edgar replied. "Besides, it's a lovely country drive." He extended one paw and he and CM shook. The bear's paw engulfed the opossum's almost hairless one. She then shook Carl's paw, although she kept her grip light, and her fingers as straight as possible so she wouldn't prick them with her claws.
"Well, ya'll drive safe now, ya hear," she smiled and a faint growl escaped her chest. They waved once and walked up the stairs. A moment later, they were gone.
Kyle had to leave an hour later, and Claire was quick on the chipmunk's heels. By three o'clock, CM and Van began disassembling the registration and operations desks. They kept their walkies on, but otherwise, everything else was packed up in boxes and set aside. Within a half hour, they were carting the boxed out to the rental truck which would take it to storage for another year.
On her fourth trip up with boxes under either arm, the thrumming growl of motorcycles caught her ears. She set the boxes inside the truck and turned to see Jan and Dennis gliding to a stop on two large Harleys. The boar grinned and brought his bike to a stop. "Hey Chris. Since I was a jerk last night, I thought I'd give you a chance to see my bike before we head out."
CM glanced at Van who was walking out the door with another box of supplies. "Hey Van, I'm going to be just a minute. Can you handle everything?"
Van rolled his eyes. "Yeah, fine."
The she-bear walked over to where Jan and his bike were parked. Dennis parked a short distance way, the spines on his back rippling beneath his leather jacket. The bike had a sparkling silver undercarriage, glossy black seat, handlebars, and rear carriage with enough cargo space for a small suitcase. The motor thrummed heartily.
"Very nice," CM admitted. She pointed at the plastic guards on the pedals for the boar's hooves. "Do folks notice those?"
"Not when I'm on the bike," the boar replied. His hands, apart from his earthy odor, stank of oil from where he'd put the braces on a few minutes ago. "Just like the tail hole in my pants, or this little knapsack I use to keep my tail from getting stuck in the gears." He patted a black knapsack snugly tied around his waist into which the boar had shoved his hairy tail. "Care to give it a try?"
"Sure! I owe you after last night."
CM smiled gratefully as the boar acted the part of the gentleman. He held the back of the seat in one hand to steady the bike as CM swung her leg over the top. She was only six inches taller than the boar, so the seat was at a good height. The bike sank with the shocks as she settled her weight on it, but it held her without trouble.
Jan knelt down and removed the braces from the pedals one at a time. "There, now you can ride."
"What do I do?" She put her paws on the handlebars and wiggled the front wheel back and forth. "How do I move?"
"Turn there to take it out of neutral. Wait! You have to give it some gas. Twist the handle forward. Gently now. Too much!" CM bolted forward and almost ran into the truck, but she managed to turn in time. Dennis laughed as Jan raced after her. After getting the bike out from behind the truck, she turned to the mostly empty Red Lion Inn parking lot and gave it some more gas. The bike sped down at a leisurely pace, while Jan chased her, the clopping of his hooves still audible over the purring of the motor.
CM rumbled in delight as the breeze pressed back her face fur. She could get used to this! It was almost a disappointment to bring the bike to a stop and give it back to Jan. The boar had a broad grin on his face. "I don't mean to be rude," he said, "but you look mighty fine on a bike!"
Much to her irritation, she felt a flush of pleased embarrassment. "Why thank you. It is very nice. I've never tried a bike before."
"They're great for us Changed." The boar was quick to reclaim his bike and check it over for any scratches. While he reattached the braces he explained, "You don't have to worry about cramming yourself in a car. Just be careful with your tail like we have or you'll really mess yourself up."
"If I wasn't likely to become a rat this August, I'd have to seriously consider it. Oh, if I had money too."
Jan laughed and patted her on the shoulder with a heavy hoof-like hand. "If you get a bike, let us know. We go riding together!"
"Might be fun," CM admitted. She did wonder how it would feel to ride down the highway with the wind rushing through her fur. "So you're heading off?"
Jan nodded. "Was fun here. Dennis and I will be coming back. You take care." The boar looked her up and down one more time, laughed, and followed the hedgehog out of the parking lot. CM watched them go, trying to decide whether she wanted to thank the boar of shove his snout up his exhaust pipe. Finally she shook her head and returned to helping Van load up the truck.
By the time they finished packing up the truck, Rob had completed the closing ceremonies and the guests were on their way home. Within an hour, the number of cars in the hotel parking lot dropped to a mere handful. CM met the skunk out by the hotel entrance and waved him to one side. The skunk excused himself from Audrey's side and followed.
"Is Barb still here?"
"She took the bus home while you and Van were loading the trucks," Rob replied. "It's just us left."
CM nodded. "It had to happen. At least Barb is local. We're building things up. Bit by bit now. I think this year is going to see a lot more events like this."
Rob laughed. "I'm not doing more than one Technicon a year!" When CM opened her snout to object the skunk held up his paw. "I know what you mean. Yeah, we definitely are building something. Our little part of the Changed network, that's what."
CM grinned and gently patted her friend on the back with one paw. "Well, Technicon's over. I'm already looking forward to next year."
Rob snorted, long tail flicking the bear in the side. I'm looking forward to that Jack Daniels I have in my fridge. I'm going home and getting rip roaring drunk."
The she-bear's grin took on a mischievous cast. "That will take what, two sips?" She laughed heartily as she dodged Rob's swipe. Yeah, it'd been a typical Technicon. She liked it that way.