User:Posti/Business Associate

From Shifti
Jump to: navigation, search

Business Associate

Author: Bob Stein
Copyediting is welcome

After being threatened with termination, lawsuits, and even jail time, the last thing David expected from his boss was a party invitation. Especially an invitation to Anderson Blake’s famous Halloween Fest. To make matters even more curious, there was a personal note that appeared to be in Blake’s handwriting – ‘Costume provided – come early.’

David’s first reaction was that it had to be a mistake, but the handwriting on the envelope matched the inscription. There were a lot of rich and famous people who would have given anything for such personal attention from Blake, whose personal fortune was ranked among the top five world-wide. David, on the other hand, lived in mortal fear of the man. A sneaky reporter and some very bad judgment on his part had resulted in a story that caused Blake a tremendous amount of embarrassment – the Christmas party photos were still showing up in the tabloids.

There was no question of refusing – Blake owned him in more ways than one. Far from following through with the original threat of termination, the man had made sure David couldn’t leave his employment. No other company would even look at his resume, and he’d tried as far away as the other side of the country.

His existence was all but erased even from Blake Corp itself. David had been stripped of all authority and moved to a small, barren office on the warehouse level. Although his computer could still access the Internet, he’d been shut out of all corporate servers. So he could play games and browse eBay to his heart’s content, but couldn’t do any actual work. And Amish ‘shunning’ had nothing on the reaction he got from former coworkers. Encounters had become so awkward that he’d given up even token appearances.

As David rolled up to the fortress-like entrance to Blake’s estate, the guard stepped out with a slight frown. “This is a private residence.” Apparently, a ten year-old Honda didn’t rate much respect.

“Uh, I’m a guest?” David offered the invitation, which the guard took and examined closely.

“Miller, David. Costume provided.”

David nodded, a bit puzzled until a voice came from a speaker box on the side of the guard house. “Confirmed. Entrance B.”

“Very good, sir.” The guard handed his invitation back and pointed to the turnaround lane. “Please go to Service Entrance. Mr. Blake has made special arrangements for your costuming, and you will find the rear parking area much more convenient.”

Yeah, right. David noted a slight smirk on the guard’s face. OK, so Blake wasn’t welcoming him in the front door. Faint hopes that his boss had decided to forgive and forget crumbled away. So why was he here? David made the indicted U-turn, clearing the way for a bright yellow Ferrari that had rolled up behind him. Bet they didn’t end up at Gate B.

His dour mood lasted all the way around the estate, through the back entrance, and up to the point that he was directed to park behind a large outbuilding just behind the main house. That was when he saw the semi-trailers with ‘Starblaze Movie Magic’ emblazoned on the side. Holy shit! They were the premiere special effects group in the world, responsible for just about every major science fiction and fantasy film of the past decade. He felt his heart leap, then shook his head. It had to be some special light show. Not even Anderson Blake would contract Starblaze for party costumes.

Or maybe he would. As soon as David presented his invitation to the guard at the door, he was ushered into what appeared to be a large bedroom that had been cleared of furniture. A rather wild-looking young man with enough piercings to set off metal detectors three miles away was leaning over a large storage case. He spun around as the door opened. “You Miller?” It was almost an accusation.

“Uh, yeah.” David heard the guard pull the door shut. “My invitation said the costume was provided.”

“And to be here early!” The guy didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “Go ahead and strip. I’ve got the skin ready.”

David frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Strip? As in take off all your clothes? Get naked?” The young man was obviously annoyed. “Didn’t they tell you?”

“No. I just saw ‘costume provided’ written on the invitation.”

“Oh, just perfect!” The young man threw his arms up in disgust. “I got a multi-million dollar appliance here and an actor who’s late AND ignorant! Hell, I bet they didn’t even make you sign a non-disclosure agreement!”

David was getting a little fed up with attitude. “Look, buddy. I am not an actor. I was personally invited here by Anderson Blake. I’m more than an hour early, which seems pretty reasonable when there wasn’t any specific time mentioned. And I sure as Hell didn’t know anything about having to strip or sign any kind of agreement.”

This brought the guy up short, and he fumbled a moment. “But… uh… I’m sorry. It never occurred to me they’d be setting up a regular guest with this stuff. Uh, I’d better check this out.” He shut the case and made a hasty exit, shutting the door behind him.

David stared at the case. What was Blake up to? It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford to hire a professional actor if all they needed was a model for the costume. The guest list probably included a who’s-who of Oscar winners.

At least he didn’t have to wait long. Another man came in less than five minutes later, this one older, if only slightly less eccentric looking. Instead of piercings, he appeared to have extensive tattoos coving every exposed surface of his skin except his face. He also had a smile and a much better attitude.

“So sorry, Mr. Miller.” He extended a hand. “Brian Spence, special projects director. Lenny is an apprentice – he was just supposed to set up the appliance and let me know when you arrived. He wasn’t aware of the, uh, special arrangements Mr. Blake made. I appreciate your being here early.”

David shook hands, letting most of his annoyance slip away. “Thanks. I wasn’t expecting anything like this. I mean, you guys are famous!”

The man grinned. “Starblaze is the most advanced special effects company in the world. We are also ungodly expensive, so the three of you chosen for tonight’s special characters should feel quite honored. The research alone cost more than most major films have for the entire budget.”

“Research?” Although David was definitely impressed, he was puzzled. “What could possibly cost that much?”

Moving to the case, Spence punched in numbers on what must be a security pad. There was a whir of electric motors as the top folded back and the contents rose up. “Take a look.”

David stepped over and stared as the costume he was supposed to wear rotated upright. It looked like the carcass of a beheaded donkey standing on its hind legs. In this position, the animal was clearly male. “Uh, that certainly looks real.” He wasn’t sure how to react. This guy was talking about millions of dollars for research for a farm animal?

“It’s a full body appliance. Like Ghozur in ‘Star Federation,’ only much more advanced.” The man’s eyes gleamed. “This is a Synth prosthetic - nanotech neural interface with total body function. Pretty much the greatest single advancement in special effects since the invention of stop motion.”

David was stunned. Synth was a huge breakthrough in medical treatment – a programmable organic substance that could replicate flesh, blood, bone, even hair. Although still in experimental stages, it was being widely touted as a medical miracle. “You made a whole costume from Synth?”

“Costume!?” Spence whirled to face him, looking as if he had been horribly insulted. “A costume is something you buy at a variety store, fake fur and glued-on latex. This is a real body! Once adaptation is complete, you will have total function. Tail muscles, ears, the hide itself will feel like your real skin. You’ll even have bodily functions through the animal orifices.”

“Bodily functions?” David blinked, feeling overwhelmed. “That’s a bit more real than I want to get.”

Spence waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, I don’t expect you to need anything like that. It’s critical on the set, though. Hell, when we’re in full swing a potty break for one of the special characters can take hours and costs a hundred thousand in lost time.” He turned back to the costume. “Anyway, now you know why you need to strip. Can’t have anything between you and the appliance.”

“Uh, right.” What had he gotten himself into here? David strained to remember anything he’d read or heard. A little girl who’d lost both legs in an auto accident had been the first recipient of Synth prosthetics just a month or so ago, and was running and playing the next day. However, there was a big difference between replacing lost legs and climbing into a whole new body. How was he supposed to fit in it, anyway? His legs were all the wrong shape.

“Mr. Miller, we really need to get moving.” The man frowned. “It takes an hour or so for the adaptation process and we’re already a bit late starting. Not your fault, of course, but I would hate to disappoint Mr. Blake.”

Right. Given David’s bleak employment prospects elsewhere, he needed to do whatever he could to appease his boss. Besides, despite this guy’s obvious infatuation with the technology, this was just an elaborate costume. It was hard not to be self-conscious taking off his clothes in front of a stranger, though. And parading around in a costume that had such obvious sexual parts was… David stopped in the middle of dropping his pants and had to laugh. Of course. A male donkey. Blake was going to make him look like a jackass in public. Rather literally.

The idea was so ludicrous he knew it was true. Ironically, the realization lifted a huge weight of worry. Blake was known for grand gestures and over-the-top reactions. In this case, he’d spent millions of dollars to get revenge on a minor employee who’d embarrassed him.

“Is something wrong?” Spence was frowning slightly. He had donned a rubber apron and what looked like elbow-length surgical gloves. The donkey chest was split open down the middle, revealing the large cavity inside. It was rather gruesome looking – real-looking muscles were visible through a thick pinkish gel that coated the inside.

Smiling, David shook his head and finished stripping. “No. Actually, I’m pretty psyched about this now.” He folded his clothes and put them on a table set off to the side. This was obviously Blake’s way to get his ‘pound of flesh’ from David. There was even a reasonable chance that playing along would get him back into the billionaire’s good graces. A test of sorts, and one that David was determined to pass.

“Excellent!” Spence reached into the case as David walked over and pulled out a clear plastic spray bottle full of what looked like blue window cleaner. “Just need to prep you first. Come over here and stand on the pad facing me with your legs spread and your arms out from your body.” He indicated a plastic sheet spread out on the floor directly in front of the case.

“What is that stuff?” David did as instructed, flushing slightly as he turned towards the man.

“Something to prep your body for the interface.”

Whatever the liquid was, it had a rank odor and made his skin itch. And not a square inch of his body below the neck was missed, including his groin and the soles of his feet. Worse, the stuff became a pinkish film that got sticky almost immediately. He had to keep his fingers spread to prevent them from bonding to each other. However, his resolve to cooperate didn’t get seriously tested until he looked down and realized his body hair was dissolving. “Hey!”

The man shrugged. “Sorry. Should have mentioned that. The Prep solution dissolves away the dead skin and hair. Like a major facial for your whole body, really. Don’t worry. It’ll grow back.” He did a quick walk around, spraying a couple of spots again, then put the bottle down. “OK. We need to get you into the Synth. Back up slowly and lift your left leg. Then let me guide you.”

Stepping into the costume was very disconcerting. The gel turned out to be warm, heightening the impression of stepping into a real carcass. However, as he pushed his toes in past the thigh, the hide stretched out like elastic. Spence braced him with one gloved hand until both legs were inserted, and then used both to push him upright as they slid all the way down. He ended up standing on tiptoe, though there was no pressure on his feet. Part of that was probably due to the bracing that kept the skin upright.

Next came the forelegs, which he shrugged into like the sleeves of a heavy coat. They also expanded to fit around his arms but were actually a good bit longer. This left his hands in the short sections between the ‘ankles’ and hooves. He obviously wasn’t going to be feeding himself. Holding the furred limbs out in front of him, David frowned in puzzlement, then looked down as best he could to check out the lower set.

The illusion of an animal body was effectively destroyed where his obviously human legs had distorted the costume. Granted, he’d expected that to happen, but it was still disappointing. Considering the extreme cost and technical expertise, you’d think they’d have found a way to make it look real.

Then he gasped as Spence hefted the crotch up and pushed it over David’s real male parts, which had become partially erect from contact with the warm gel. His penis slipped into cavity within the animal organ, which emerged from its dark sheath in an embarrassing approximation of his real state. The man didn’t help matters – he pushed down at the point where the sheath connected to the split animal belly to seat it firmly.

As mortifying as the experience was, David realized that he might as well have been a mannequin for all the notice Spence seemed to take of his reactions. The man was intent on the costume, eyes bright and eager as he circled, tugging a bit here, pressing another spot there. He certainly showed no signs of sharing David’s disappointment. After a half-dozen full orbits, Spence nodded to himself and then grabbed the open flaps of the chest about midway and pulled them together.

There was a mild sensation of pressure across David’s chest that spread downward as the two sides of the chest pulled together and merged to form an unbroken sweep of hide. He stared down as best he could, surprised at the automatic closing, and even more so by the lack of any seam. The itching sensation got a little stronger, and he hoped it wasn’t an allergic reaction to the gel. “Uh, I was wondering. My skin feels a little itchy all over. Is that normal?”

“What?” Spence had moved around to the side of the container and looked up with a slight frown before nodding. “Oh! Yeah, that’s the first stages of neural connection. Nothing to worry about. Actually, that’s a good sign. Means the receptors are working in.” He stared at David’s head a moment. “Oh! Damn! Almost forgot!” He grabbed the spray bottle and put some of the liquid on a rag, which he used to thoroughly cover each of David’s ears.

Oh, no. He wasn’t… David sighed as the man reached into the case and stood up with a pair of furry appendages. The trademark long ears of a donkey. At least he didn’t have to wear a whole headpiece. Of course, that would ruin the ‘lesson,’ if that was indeed the purpose of all this. Blake needed him recognizable. The ears slid on easily, enveloping his with a thin envelope of warmth that muffled sound slightly.

The man made a final pass, tugging a shoulder and shifting the position of shat must be his tail. Finally, he leaned over and pulled what looked like an old-fashioned flip-phone from a compartment in front of the case. “OK. Time to activate. This will probably hurt like hell – it won’t last long.” He punched a couple of keys and stared intently at David.

”Hurt? What are you…” David jerked and went rigid as his skin suddenly caught fire. He worked his mouth silently, unable to make a sound. Then the searing pain plunged deeper, driving through muscle to melt down the bones in his arms and legs before rebounding and shooting back out beyond his body. Convulsions rocked his body and for a terrifying moment that seemed to last forever, it felt like his heart and lungs locked up.

And then his whole body went numb. David sagged, only the framework around the costume keeping him from collapsing to the ground. Lightheaded and disoriented, his first terrified thought was that he had suffered some kind of paralyzing stroke. Then feeling began to return slowly. The sensation was much like recovering from when a foot falls asleep. Mild tingling in his arms and legs blossomed into throbbing awareness that was especially intense where the support brackets were pushing into his skin. As strength returned, he pushed up unsteadily to relieve the discomfort.

“Not yet.” Spence put a hand on the costume’s left foreleg and patted it. “Relax a couple of minutes more. You need to let the structure firm up.”

Relax? As he regained strength, David’s face contorted with anger. “You sunuvabitch! That nearly killed me!”

The man smiled thinly. “Hardly. If anything, you are safer and healthier right now than any other time in your life. I could pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest and you’d not only survive, but be completely healed in seconds.” He chuckled at David’s sudden expression of alarm. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to test out the theory. I’m sorry about the pain, but there was no way around it.”

It was easier to think now that the pain was gone, but everything below David’s neck was still prickling, along with the sides of his head. There was something else, too. Curious bending sensations coupled with pulling in his temples. Something large and furry dropped down near his right eye and he jerked back instinctively. It moved with him. The costume ear - except he could feel it brush against the side of his face in two different ways – being touched, and touching.

Spence grinned and reached out to straighten the intruder, taking a moment to rub the edge between his fingers. It felt really good, though the contact set off alarms in David’s head. He shouldn’t be able to feel anything there – it was just part of the costume, a sculpture made of… Synth.

Oh, shit. David looked down at himself as he shifted to stand up. His hands and feet were still numb, though the sensations were now further out from his body than before. And what the Hell was wrong with his arms? Shoulders had almost no range of movement outward, and his elbows refused to bend up. He twisted his head, trying to get a better look. It was hard to tell much with the costume on. He blinked and stared, realizing that the contours of both forelegs had resumed their original shapes – but his arms were now inside them!

“So, does it feel natural?” Spence was staring at him with the intensity of a first-time lover. “Can you feel the body?”

David felt his ears lay back, which fueled the growing panic. Trying to flex fingers made his forehooves rock back and forth a little. He leaned over as far as he could in the straps and gaped at his hind legs. Like his arms, they were back to the original animal contours, something that should be impossible. The lower half of his body shouldn’t, couldn’t fit.

“Come on! Talk to me!” Spence reached out suddenly and pinched the hide on David’s chest. “Can you feel this?”

The resulting twinge of pain startled David out of his horrified stupor, and he swung an arm/foreleg at the man, who jumped back. “What the Hell have you done to me!? What’s happened to my arms and legs?”

Spence looked dumbfounded by the question. “Are you serious? What do you think we’ve been talking about this whole time? Didn’t you listen to a word I said?” An angry scowl darkened his face. “Shit! This is Synth, not a fake fur suit from Wal-Mart! It’s you, now! Just as real as if you’d been born that way. Hooves, fur, bones, muscles.”

“My hands! My whole body! You turned me into a freak!”

The man blinked, then gave an exasperated sigh. “Yeah. That was the point of all this, remember?” Then he stopped and stared. “Don’t tell me you think this is permanent?”

“But it changed me! My skeleton, my muscles!” David flushed, scared and bewildered. Why hadn’t he thought this through?

“Yeah, but just for tonight.” Spence gave a harsh laugh. “How useful do you think this would be if you couldn’t change back? Any actor you know willing to become a shambling monster for the rest of his or her life? As long as it is used properly, this Synth body is no more permanent than latex and spirit gum.” He held up the control unit. “When we are done tonight, I just have to enter the release code and it will all revert back. You’ll be your old self, and the Synth will be an appliance ready for the next actor.”

“Turn it off now!”

“If I do that, the whole appliance has to be reset. The party will be almost over by then, and you’ll have to go through the conversion again!”

“Like Hell I will!” David seethed. “Once this thing is off I’m outa here!”

“That is truer than you might think, David.”

A new voice cut the silence, one that David knew well. Twisting his head, he saw the tall, distinguished figure of Anderson Blake standing in the door. He had on the robes and crown of a king – knowing Blake they were the genuine articles on loan from Buckingham Palace. Blake moved inside and gestured towards the door. “Give us a few minutes, would you?” Spence nodded and stalked out, still obviously upset. As soon as he left, Blake shut the door and locked it.

David was torn between outrage and fear. However, the sure knowledge that this man help his future in his hands helped curb anger enough not to say anything for the moment.

His employer regarded him a moment, then smiled slightly. “Even better than I had hoped. A marvelous achievement in cinematic technology. With more than a few possibilities for other applications. The military, for instance. Soldiers can be given new bodies designed to meet specific terrain and tactical needs. And be nearly invulnerable to boot. Synth is the greatest single achievement in human history since the discovery of fire. I am very disappointed that you do not want to be part of tonight’s demonstration.”

“Look, Mr. Blake…” David struggled to find the right words, but was cut off by a raised hand.

“Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?” Blake smiled coldly. “We both know why you are here. You embarrassed me. Very badly. And I did not get where I am today by allowing people who cause me grief to go unpunished. You have been kept in a holding pattern for the past months so that I would have time to devise something I deemed appropriate.”

David nodded absently, having already figured that much out himself.

“Tonight’s party has provided the perfect opportunity to settle the score with the three biggest transgressors. As you may already know, there are two other costumes. One is being worn by a stockbroker who tried to screw me in a deal, and the other is a lawyer who used blackmail to force an out-of-court settlement.”

“But they intentionally did you harm!” David flushed slightly. “I just made a mistake! Hell, I was stupid, OK? It’s not like I was out to embarrass you in front of the whole world.”

Blake raised an eyebrow. “But that’s just what happened, isn’t it?” There was an awkward silence, then the man smiled again. “Be that as it may, you are now in a position to not only square things, but help me out a great deal. These Synth costumes are a technological miracle, and they need to be shown off properly. If you cooperate fully tonight, you will find me most appreciative.”

“And if I leave now?”

The tycoon shrugged casually. “Then you will be free to go. Under the same black cloud that has plagued you these past months, but without the benefit of employment by Blake Corp. And I will be even more annoyed with you than I was before.”

That statement sent a chill of fear that overshadowed everything else. Blake had already reduced him to a non-entity. It was quite easy to believe that David would spend the rest of his life eating from garbage cans if he did not make some hasty amends.

“I – I’m sorry, Mr. Blake.” David flushed, ashamed of his own cowardice. “It’s just that it hurt so bad…”

The man nodded and smiled slightly. “Yes, I had been told it would be unpleasant. But the pain is over, correct? All that is left is enjoying a very nice party. Oh, I am sure you will be asked to do things, perhaps even some embarrassing things. But who would you know here, anyway? They are all strangers, and to them, you are as you so correctly put it, a freak.”

David sagged in resignation. He had no choice at all, really. Even if he’d been fully prepared, told about the pain and the Synth effects, he would have had to go through with this. “I’ll do whatever you ask, sir.”

Blake beamed the smile that had appeared on the cover of countless magazines. “Excellent! I am not a vindictive man, David. Once my honor is satisfied, I promise you will be taken care of for the rest of your life.”

That should have cheered David, but he was too mired in shame to do more than nod. No matter what he was asked to do, regardless of the humiliation, he’d cooperate. Perform tricks like a dog, eat from a bowl, anything. Hell, if they brought a Jenny in for him to mount, he’d do it. It was the only way to get his life back.

“See you in the ballroom.” Striding back to the door, Blake opened it and left without a look back.

Spence returned almost immediately, still scowling. “So, can we get on with it?” Despite the gray hairs, he sounded like a pouting child.

A mild twinge of annoyance was allowed to drown in the sea of David’s despair. He nodded slowly. “Yeah, whatever. Let’s get this over with.”

“I don’t believe you!” The man slammed the door shut. “I’d give my left nut to be in you shoes, and I know a couple of special effects guys who’d had given up both! You’re part of a fuckin’ miracle, and you act like you’re being asked to eat shit!”

“Look, I didn’t expect any of this, OK?” David twisted one of his useless forelegs and stared at the hoof. “This may be high heaven for you, but it’s Hell for me.”


David blinked. “Why what?”

“Why is this Hell for you? What’s so awful?” Spence leaned against the edge of the packing case and folded his arms.

“You mean besides looking like a mutant jackass? Not having hands? Or being expected to parade around naked?”

The man sighed and shook his head. “It’s a costume party. How about spending the night as a drooling minotaur bull who stinks like a barnyard and can’t talk? Or a great white shark on display in a big fish tank? Both of them have worse limitations than you, and they were happy to get chosen. Figures that I’d be stuck with a chicken-shit.”

David suddenly remembered Blake’s comment about the stockbroker and lawyer. A bull and a shark? Apparently their costumes were as literal as David’s jackass. Given their offenses against the tycoon, he could understand seizing any opportunity to make amends. “The others have Synth costu.. uh, suits like this?”

“Yeah. And ironically, you ended up with the best.” The remote gave a soft beep. Spence looked at it again and nodded to himself, then flipped it closed and slipped it into his pocket. “OK. The Synth has stabilized. You can either try walking around and getting used to your new body, or I can start the removal process.”

They both knew that David’s choice had been set when Blake left. So why the dialogue? Probably just a distraction to keep him occupied while the Synth finished up. That seemed likely, for Spence moved to undo the support framework straps without waiting for an answer.

David took advantage of the freedom to get a better look at himself. The donkey body appeared the same as it had when he had first seen it – however, the viewpoint was rather different. He reached instinctively to feel the barreled chest, and succeeded in hitting it with his right fore hoof hard enough to hurt.

“OK.” Spence finished undoing the last brace and stood up to place both hands on what used to be David’s shoulders. “The neural connections are all in place, but your center of balance is a lot different. We’ll start slow. Stand up.”

Although he was in an upright position, David realized most of his weight was still resting on the support framework. His first instinct was to push off with his arms, but they no longer moved the right way. And while his legs responded to commands, it didn’t feel like the right muscles were moving. Finally, he simply lurched forward – and would have toppled over if Spence hadn’t braced him.

“Whoa! Steady, boy. Lean back a little, try to find your balance. The hind hooves are oversized, so they should support you.”

David was nearly overwhelmed by the rush of sensations that came from movement. Muscles, hide, even the fine hairs in his ears made themselves known, and the intense self-awareness was very distracting. The numbness in his hooves remained, yet he could feel the pressure and even sense the hardness of the surface under him. It took effort to focus on the simple task of standing, but after about a minute of swaying back and forth he was able to balance without help from the makeup man. Spence remained close, hands ready to grab him again.

“Great! OK, now step out of the case. One leg at a time – and there’s a drop of a couple of inches, so be careful.”

Lift the left leg. David felt the limb quiver, almost convulse. Trying again brought more muscle spasms and his right foreleg jerked. The problems were repeated when he made an attempt to lift the right leg. “What’s wrong? I can’t make them move!”

Spence nodded slightly, apparently thinking. “OK. You have connection, or there wouldn’t be movement at all. Gotta be the structural differences.”

“But if I can’t walk, I’m no good to Blake!”

“Oh, don’t worry. I can sort it out.” Spence pulled the remote back out and flipped it open. “Good thing we have adjustments.”

David looked apprehensive. “Huh? What adjustments?”

The man punched in some sort of code which made the remote beep twice. “We figured there would be some issues with yours. Both the minotaur and shark are big enough to completely encase the actors… uh, wearers, and there’s a direct connection to the brain. This one was harder, because your arms and legs had to be totally restructured. And Blake insisted on leaving the wearer’s face exposed, with the minimum cognitive enhancement. Took a whole separate development team. They set up the interface in steps, so we can work up to the minimal level required.”

So he was the only one of the three who would be recognizable. David sighed, then frowned. “Wait a minute! You’re going to…” His protest was cut off by a sudden wave of disorientation that was followed by odd pulling sensations in his neck and face that rolled down his body. “Shit! You already did it?”

“Now that is too cool.” Spence was staring at his face with a curious grin, but nodded. “Once you get through the initial restructuring, little stuff is easy.” He repositioned himself as a brace. “OK, try again.”

What had just happened? He couldn’t see any noticeable change, but when he tried lifting his left leg again it responded immediately. The sensation of movement felt different than lifting his real leg – as if he were also twisting his ankle and toes at the same time. However, he was able to step out of the container with no trouble. It was a bit startling to find that he was now a couple of inches shorter than the makeup man.

“That’s perfect!” Spence looked like he might explode with enthusiasm any moment. “Let’s walk now. Slow and easy.”

The man’s excitement was contagious. David was nervous about trusting the small-looking hooves, but gained confidence after the first few steps. In truth, it was more a cross between walking and a goose-step march, but it worked. He felt full of energy, and the constant bombardment of sensory input was oddly reassuring once he got used to it.

After they had completed two full circuits of the room, Spence stepped away and let him walk around on his own. Despite being forced into a slightly squatted position and being unable to keep his forelegs still, David realized that he felt perfectly normal. He knew this was all way different than how he had moved before, yet the slight hopping steps were already second nature.

There was a knock on the door, and Lenny stuck his head in. He gaped at David in obvious amazement. “Oh, awesome! Dude, that’s the most incredible thing I ever saw!” He grinned. “And good timing, too. Mr. Blake wants you in the ballroom ASAP! He just introduced the minotaur, and the shark has been out there in the tank all night. But you’re the crown jewel.”

This sudden status was pleasing, but also a little surprising. “I’d think the minotaur would be more impressive. And the shark is breathing water!”

Spence sighed and shook his head as he motioned David towards the door. “I guarantee that most of the morons out there are convinced the shark is real and the minotaur is either a robot or someone in normal makeup. But you? Hell, they are gonna freak.”

There was another surprise waiting outside the bungalow – an elaborately decorated carnival wagon pulled by a team of four gray donkeys that closely matched David’s equine parts. The cartoony artwork and carvings were vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t until David saw the fancy lettering on the sides that he caught the reference. Pleasure Island - the place where bad boys became jackasses in Pinocchio. Another dig by Blake, no doubt, though it did make for a showy entrance. Especially when a real steam calliope on the front of the wagon began shrieking out a song from the old Disney movie.

The back was set up as a horse trailer, complete with wooden ramp and straw on the floor. David shook his head as he trudged inside, wondering what kind of introduction the other two Synth costumes had been given. Then he had to brace himself against a wall as the wagon lurched into motion.

It was pretty obvious when they reached the mansion – the calliope echoed harshly and he heard the donkey’s hooves clopping on hard floors. Then applause started up as guests caught sight of the wagon. It rolled to a stop perfectly timed to the last toot of the song, but the ramp did not open right away. Instead, he heard Blake’s voice.

“Our next surprise of the evening is a very special guest. I am sure you all remember the story of Pinocchio and what happened to bad boys on Pleasure Island. Well, this fellow has been a very bad boy indeed, but he hasn’t made a total ass of himself quite yet. Let’s have a warm welcome for that obnoxious hooligan, Lampwick!”

The ramp lowered down to reveal an immense room packed with the weirdest assortment of people David had ever seen. There had to be hundreds of guests, all dressed in elaborate costumes, and all staring at him. A very real-look shark was swimming slowly around an immense glass tank in the center of the ballroom. The Minotaur, a massive black humanoid bull, stood amid the simulated ruins of an ancient Greek temple on the opposite side. Blake was center stage, of course, standing behind an elaborate gold podium.

Some of the guests closest to the wagon began to snicker, and David’s sensitive ears picked a few comments about him being ‘just a guy in a donkey suit.’ However, as he stepped out into full view, there was a collective gasp that was followed by stunned silence. Blake grinned broadly and motioned for David to walk down the ramp towards a curtained alcove to his left.

The audience was mesmerized, following every step David took as he complied. There were whispers all around, but no one actually spoke until Blake broke the silence. “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is not a trick of lights and mirrors. I know some of you think I’ve been pulling your collective legs with my previous two offerings. However, as you will have the opportunity to discover, all of them are absolutely real. New bodies created in Synth, fully functional, and as you can see, limited only by our imaginations! I invite you to inspect all of them in any way you want short of physical harm. I assure you that none of them will resist anything you want to try.”

He grinned and made a gesture. The curtain rose to reveal a duplicate of the cartoon pool hall where Lampwick had met his fate in the old Disney film. “In fact, I challenge you all to lure our asinine friend further down the path of sin and corruption – a road all of us know by heart!”

That brought laughter, which was joined by thunderous applause. However, the accolades did nothing to cheer David. Damn the man! Blake had just enlisted the aid of every guest here in embarrassing him.

Surprisingly, the tycoon wasn’t done yet. As the noise faded, he opened the top of the podium and lifted out something the size of a large pumpkin draped in red silk. “One last demonstration before we get down to serious partying.” He jerked the cover off to reveal a realistic lion’s head. “I need to put on the rest of my costume.” Blake slipped the animal head over his own, then pulled out a small device that looked like the remote Spence had used. “As the King of Beasts!”

He pressed a button and suddenly stiffened with eyes clenched shut. David was stunned – he knew the kind of pain involved, yet Blake endured with barely a shudder. Then the man opened now-golden eyes, wrinkled his muzzle to reveal dangerous-looking fangs, and produced a deafening roar.

The response was immediate and even more enthusiastic. Even David, whose own Synth costume was far more involved, couldn’t help but be impressed. Blake might be a petty, vindictive son-of-a-bitch, but he was also a master showman. The display also eased fears that had been creeping around the back of David’s mind – if his boss was using a Synth costume, the technology had to be safe.

After the applause died down, Blake growled once, then shook his head and poked at the remote. “There. It’s a bit hard to carry on a conversation when all you can do is growl and roar. Though some of my assistants would say that’s all I do anyway.” His voice was recognizable, though pronunciation was a bit sloppy due to the muzzle. Laughter swept through the crowd. “Now let’s all enjoy the party!” A small orchestra on the other side of the room started playing and the guests began drifting into small clumps. Blake stepped down from the stage and walked over to David’s display.

“I trust you will cooperate with all requests tonight.” The tycoon towered over David’s shrunken form, his presence even more menacing with the predator’s features. “After all, it’s all in fun.” He smiled with no pretense of friendliness, showing the long, yellowed teeth.

David nodded wordlessly, every instinct screaming danger. To his intense relief, a crowd of costumed celebrities arrived at that moment to congratulate and generally suck up to their host. The worst was over. All he had to do was endure the stares and probably some insulting remarks from the crowd for a few hours. After all, this was the cream of society. How bad could they be?

It didn’t take long to find out. David was approached almost the instant Blake was drawn away – actually, attacked was more like it. A half-dozen scantily-clad women were grabbing, stroking, and fondling him with reckless abandonment. Most of them were of an age and shape that should have had more clothing rather than less, but even the few attractive ones offered nothing in the way of pleasure. David was an object to them, a sex toy sculpted in Synth to be used and abused with no regard for his feelings or modesty.

All of that made it easier to accept the drinks pushed at him by leering, grinning fools. A lit cigar was stuffed in his mouth, but the first triggered racking coughs and watery eyes. He spit it out, only to have another jammed between his lips. Giving up, he resorted to letting it dangle and breathed in through his nose in hopes that the stinking stogie would go out.

“Is that the best you can do?” Blake sounded disappointed when he came back, giving David’s torturers a reproachful look. “I thought you would have more imagination than that.”

“You want imagination?” One of the women grinned drunkenly and yanked open the front of her costume, rather ironically leaving nothing to the imagination at all. Leaning close to David’s face, she fondled an impressive bosum. “Does the bad boy like what he sees?”

Flushing, David caught a warming look from Blake and nodded his head. “Uh, yeah. They’re real...” The rest of his comment was muffled as she yanked his face forward into her breasts into his face. Startled, he jerked back instinctively. Unfortunately, the woman had a strong grip around his head and the Synth body was a more powerful than he realized – she ended up flung screaming over his back.

Horrified, David twisted around as the other guests broke into laughter. The woman had hit the cartoon pool table, an inflatable prop that had blown out under her weight. Relieved, he glanced back at Blake and saw him working the remote again. Except that it wasn’t the remote for his lion mask. David felt the familiar prickling and warmth in his face and neck as the Synth suit activated.

“Congratulations, Velma!” Blake strode over, pocketing the remote. “You took our bad boy to the next stage of Donkey Fever! I expect he’ll make a total ass of himself before the night is out!” He guided David’s head towards an ornate mirror hanging on the side of the pool room set. “What do you think, ‘Lampy’? Ready to cry for your momma yet?”

David stared at the reflection, then stumbled over for a closer look. Except for the head, he looked like a medium-sized jackass balancing awkwardly on its hind hooves. That much wasn’t really a surprise, given what he’d seen of his body before. But his face was a shock. Vaguely familiar features were distorted by a broader skull to make him look both ugly and stupid. Spence had said something about a stepped interface. Obviously, Blake had triggered the next phase.

Oh, what the Hell? David was the center of attention for some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world tonight! Not one of them outside of Blake himself had the slightest idea who he was, and they sure wouldn’t recognize him without the costume. That realization filled him with new resolve – let Blake do what he wanted, David was going to enjoy himself!

The guests were already drunk enough to crush in around him despite the earlier demonstration of his strength. More beer and stronger liquors was shoved in his face, and this time he did his best to sample it all. And when the bare-chested woman showed up again, he had enough of a buzz to thrust his own face into her dangling breasts.

It took a while to realize that Blake wasn’t watching him any more. Part of the clue was the dwindling attention he got from his would-be tempters. Most of the guests had joined the tycoon by the shark tank, whose occupant was darting back and forth. A woman dumped a small bucket of fish heads into the tank, and he realized the shark was snapping them up. David shuddered. Being a donkey freak didn’t seem so bad after all.

The minotaur seemed to have made out the best of all three Synth wearers - until Blake showed up at the bull-man’s display. David had trouble making out conversations with so many people talking at once, but he picked out Blake’s voice saying something about marking his property. A moment later, there was a loud bellow from the minotaur’s area, and the gathered crowd backed away even as they cheered and applauded. David caught a faint stink of burning hair, and as the guests broke up, saw a still-smoking branding iron in Blake’s hand.

David winced in sympathy. If the sensory input from his donkey costume was any indication, the stockbroker felt the branding as if it had been his own flesh. Obviously, the restriction against physical harm obviously didn’t apply to Blake. Granted, whatever was done to the Synth bodies was temporary, but David was not fond of pain.

At least one other person in the room disapproved of Blake’s actions – Spence. The special effects genius was glaring at the tycoon with clenched fists. He stalked over to Blake and gestured angrily at the brand, though he kept his voice down low enough to prevent being overheard. Whatever response Spence got did nothing to improve his mood. He spun around and stormed out of the ballroom, with Blake glaring at his receding back.

Unfortunately, the tycoon shifted his gaze to David, and twisted his muzzle into a sneer. Oh, shit! David turned back to guests who were sampling some of the cigars and beer in his display for themselves, desperately hoping Blake would get drawn off by other party goers. However, a sudden surge of interest in his area by the guests had him cringing even before he heard the man speak directly behind him.

“It looks like poor Lampwick here has been sadly neglected.” Blake’s voice was still a bit ragged, but he’d improved pronunciation with the lion’s muzzle. “Perhaps we can find some new ways to lure him deeper into Donkey Fever.” He moved past David to a large box set off to the side and pulled out a gaudy red saddle and matching harness. Both were festooned with ribbons and rhinestones. “Anyone here know how to ride?”

That brought a wave of laughter, and a few hands rose. Blake pointed to an attractive young lady dressed up in full western cowboy regalia. She made her way to the front, looking uncertainly at David. “I can’t ride if it’s standing up like that.”

“Not a problem. Lampwick will be happy to drop to all fours for such a lovely rider, won’t he?” The tycoon twisted his muzzle into a semblance of a smile that was not reflected in his eyes.

At least his boss had chosen someone both small and pretty, though David rankled a little at being referred to as ‘it.’ He crouched down, then let himself fall forward. After a few cautious steps, he managed to walk fairly smoothly. Not really surprising, given the changes to his arms and hands. The only problem was his neck, which was not quite long enough to compensate for the 90-degree angle.

Once he stood still again, the girl took the halter from Blake and approached cautiously. “That’s a good fella.” David felt his face flush as she slipped the straps around his head, surprised that he could be embarrassed any more. Then the girl looked startled and backed away. “Oh!”

David realized the heat was flowing down his neck and back, and looked back at Blake. Sure enough, the remote was being used again, taking him one step closer to full donkeydom. Though David’s resentment flared, he realized that the strain of keeping his head up was easing. If he had to spend the rest of the evening on all fours, at least he’d be more comfortable. When the sensation stopped, his face protruded noticeably further out and he could swing his head comfortably around in an impressive arc.

The guests applauded, then laughed as his designated rider tightened the bright red straps and fluffed up the ribbons. He jumped a little when the saddle was dropped on his back, and flushed for real as the girl worked under his belly to get the belly strap cinched up. Though he knew it was the Synth costume’s genitals hanging in the breeze, they still felt like his.

Even with the tack in place, David was not really prepared when the girl suddenly swung herself up into the saddle. His forelegs buckled and they both almost went down, but he caught himself and straightened his forelegs. Once he got used to the new weight, he found that having a rider was not really a strain at all. She was obviously nervous, squeezing his sides with her legs.

“Well, go on! Move!” The girl sounded annoyed, and continued pressing in with her knees.

“Which way do you waawwwww.” David’s words twisted into a braying sound as heat tickled his throat.

Blake shook his head. “Donkeys don’t talk, Lampwick. Time for you to learn how to be a real jackass.”

Damn the man! Speech had been his last real link with humanity –stripped of it and his hands, he really was little more than a common animal. And it didn’t help him know what the girl wanted. She squeezed his sides again. Guessing this was a signal, he shuffled forward, and felt a tug on the left lead. That seemed pretty obvious, so he turned towards the left. She patted his neck and let him plod slowly around the display. Her cues were not really all that hard to follow, once he got the idea. Several of the guests moved props and furniture out of the way to open up space, allowing the girl to work him in more complicated patterns.

This was probably intended to be humiliating, but David found he didn’t mind at all. From what he could see in the mirrors, Blake had made him almost totally a donkey. Only his face retained any semblance of humanity, and even that was so changed that most people wouldn’t give him a second thought. Some of the guests were already wandering off. It was probably little more interesting than watching children get pony rides at a party.

It was pretty obvious that Blake was done with him. The man had already moved back to the shark tank, and was motioning folks over. The girl got off, but stayed with David as the crowd gathered and started stroking his ears. This provided some extremely pleasant sensations that actually had his eyelids drooping before animal squealing startled him back to alertness.

The audience was parting to make way for a large rolling cart pushed by someone in full chef’s regalia. Something special for the shark? After the fish heads, David figured most anything would be an improvement. Except that the squealing was coming from the cart. David saw a huge silver cover rise up with a flourish, and a mix of gasps and nervous laughter from the crowd.

The chef next hoisted up a cage containing a small, black and white pot-belly pig. The animal had been decked out like a pampered pet, complete with a collar sparkling with jewels and a big blue bow. Blake gestured at the tank. “I think our friend here must be tired of fish heads. How about we give her something a bit fancier?”

For the first time, there were protests from the guests. Not all of them by a long shot, but enough that Blake’s expression of anticipation darkened into a scowl. “Oh, come now! No one here shied away from the pork loin or spare ribs.” Finally, one person shouted “Yeah, it’s just a pig. Drop it in!”

Before anyone else could object, the chef tilted the cage sharply and the animal hit the water with a splash. A few of the guests looked squeamish, turning away. However, the shark remained still even though the animal was swimming within easy reach. It seemed that fish heads were one thing, but live prey was another. Or was it something more? Maybe the pig really was a pet. David winced, guessing it belonged to the lawyer.

Blake watched the shark a moment, then looked down. The shark thrashed and began darting frantically around the tank. No doubt the tycoon had done something with the remote. How much of a real shark’s mentality could be wired in?

The crowd sensed the changing attitude in the tank, and clustered around. Even those who had looked away at first were being drawn close. The girl next to him shook her head, muttering “Sick bastards.” But she didn’t turn away either. Not even when the shark lunged and the pig was suddenly a cloud of blood in the water.

However, a line had been crossed. At least a dozen guests made an immediate beeline for the exit, and within the next ten minutes more than half the people had vanished. Those that remained were probably either too dependent on Blake or genuinely twisted enough to enjoy the spectacle.

The sick feeling in David’s gut got stronger as he watched the exodus. Blake had already sunk further than he would have ever thought possible. Without the imposed morality of his more respectable guests, there was no telling how depraved the man might become. David shivered, and felt his ears lay back. His fellow victims had actively harmed the tycoon – perhaps he would focus on them. Though David felt a little ashamed at that hope, he also realized that it was unfounded. Blake had gone to great effort and expense to include him in this evening of revenge. More so than the lawyer and the stockbroker, if Spence was to be believed.

The party got relatively quiet for a while. Blake was circulating among the remaining party goers, his leonine feature unmistakable as he continually scanned the people around him. Taking inventory, seeing who had stuck with him? Or perhaps making sure no one remained who he needed to worry about. David dropped his head and lipped at scattered straw, keeping as low a profile as possible.

The strategy seemed to work, for Blake returned to the minotaur. Despite his enormous size, the stockbroker backed away until he was up against the fake stone columns of his ‘temple’. Even David felt a prickling of fear as he watched the crowd gather. There was no pretense of civility here. They were looking for pain and blood, eager to see someone suffer.

“Anyone here know what Rocky Mountain oysters are?” Blake twisted his muzzle into a smile.

“Bull’s balls!” A woman dressed in a black leather body suit shouted out her answer and then grabbed at her crotch. That brought raucous laughter from the others, and a nod of approval from their host.

“Exactly. I have an appetite for some prairie oysters tonight. Can anyone point me to a bull who doesn’t need his balls?”

Before any of the guests could answer, the minotaur gave an angry bellow and slammed the plaster column beside him with enough force to shatter it. Whatever Blake might have on him, the stockbroker was making it clear he’d had enough. The crowd gasped and fell back from the display, but Blake didn’t even flinch.

“It took balls to steal from me.” The tycoon smiled coldly. “So I am going to make sure you don’t make the same mistake again.” He opened a hidden door in the side of the display and pulled out what appeared to be large pliers with wide, curved grips that came to a fine edge.

There was a splintering sound as the minotaur ripped a large section of the stage set off and hefted it like a club. He bellowed at Blake and took a step towards him, the threat unmistakable. David took great pleasure watching the bastard recoil from his intended victim, wishing he had a voice to make comments about a ‘cowardly lion.’ However, his satisfaction was short-lived.

Blake stopped his retreat and faced the angry bovine, muzzle twisted to reveal his fangs. The room fell silent as they glared at each other, defiant bull and ferocious lion. Then the minotaur shook his head slightly and lowered the makeshift club. David was disappointed. The stockbroker was giving in. Or was he? Blake had a triumphant sneer, but he was looking down. The remote! He was doing something to the minotaur’s mind, just as he had the lawyer.

Unlike the shark’s enforced behavior, it was easy to see the stockbroker get dragged into bestial mentality. Anger became confusion, then fear. He bellowed and dropped the club, stumbling back to get away from Blake. Slamming into the display, he knocked another section off. There was no sign of recognition or intelligence in the liquid brown eyes.

Blake advanced on the docile beast, holding the odd tool up. Some sort of castration device, obviously. His audience pressed forward again, only a few soft murmurs breaking the eerie silence. Turning away, David shivered in terror. The bastard was actually going to do it.

“Put that down, you sick fuck!” Spence shouted from the ornate speaker’s podium. His face was twisted in rage. “I don’t how the Hell you managed to get that kind of mind control built into these suits, but you’re going to release them now!”

Blake pulled a handful of debris from his robes. “Oh, dear. Looks like the remotes for our shark friend and little Lampwick got broken.” He made a show of fumbling with the Minotaur’s device and then quite deliberately stomped on it. “Oops! Clumsy me. Without the remotes, the changes are permanent, aren’t they?” He wrinkled his muzzle in a cruel grin. “Security! Remove this intru… “ The last word was lost in a guttural snarl. Blake grabbed at his throat, then roared.

Spence smiled and held up a familiar-looking object. “Master controller. Overrides all the others. You think I didn’t have a backup?” He glared at the stunned guests. “Your happy host was going to effectively murder three people. The police are already on the way.”

There was movement for the doors as Blake’s supporters suddenly had a change of heart. Spence shook his head and turned towards David. “Let’s get you sorted out first. All I ask is that your first words not be ‘I told you so’.” He punched in some numbers on his remote, and an intense heat built in his head and neck.

There was a loud roar followed by crashing from the far side of the ballroom. Blake appeared to be having a temper tantrum, speeding up the exodus of remaining guests. Spence chuckled. “I think our host just discovered his own remote is useless. He’s stuck like that until I send the new release code.” He pointed his device towards the dull-eyed minotaur and punched in more numbers. “Let’s get our bovine friend on the road to recovery, as well. Maybe he’ll have time to beat the shit out of Blake.”

“I’m going to leave the lawyer as she is until the police arrive.” Spence wrinkled his nose. “We’ll need witnesses to make charges stick, and I doubt if any of Blake’s cronies are going to testify against him.” He grinned suddenly and pointed towards the ballroom. “Assuming he survives the night.”

Following the gesture, David saw that the minotaur had regained enough mentality to go after his tormentor. Their lion-headed host was scrambling to escape, making guttural growls and grunts that could have been cries for help or promises of restitution. David doubted that the bull-man would have stopped to listen even if Blake’s voice was working – he strode after the fleeing tycoon like a machine.

Chairs and tables were knocked aside, and two guards who made the mistake of trying to tackle him went flying. Blake was still smaller, lighter, and faster, and reached the doors well ahead of his pursuer. He stopped to look back and give a snarl of defiance. Unfortunately, Spence took advantage of the moment to emphatically present his middle finger.

Blake shook the room with a deafening roar, rage overpowering even his survival instincts. He charged back into the room, directly towards the lumbering minotaur. However, instead of attacking into the bull-man, he slipped past with surprising grace and headed directly for the podium. Spence paled and spun around to get away, only to realize that the elaborate backdrop was solid. The closest cover was the Pool Room set, and he leapt off the stage just ahead of Blake.

David had thought the tycoon was intent on retrieving the remote, but Blake had fangs bared and bloodlust in his eyes. Although every instinct was screaming ‘run away!’, David launched himself from the stage and managed to knock the bastard to the floor, only to go sprawling himself. Then Blake’s jaws clamped down hard on the back of David’s neck and twisted cruelly.

Stunned by blinding pain and a sudden flare of heat, David gave a bray of terror that shifted into coarse human screaming as Blake twisted suddenly and lunged for his throat. There was a sharp crack and the bloody muzzle got knocked away at the last moment. Blake staggered back, grabbing at his head.

“Get away from him, you son of a bitch!” Spence jumped between them, brandishing the splintered end of a pool stick. Unfortunately, he was also between Blake and the charging minotaur. Unable to change direction in time, the monster slammed into Spence with enough force to send him flying. Blake took advantage of the confusion to escape out the side entrance.

David lay on his side, wide-eyed and panting. God, was he dying? The stink of his own blood was nauseating, and he could see a raw hunk of flesh that Blake had spit out. Even so, the pain had already faded to a dull throbbing. Was that good or bad? Breath came in deep, ragged gasps, and his heart was pounding.

The minotaur stared after Blake with massive fists clenched. Then he snorted and shook his head before turning back towards David. His eyes widened suddenly and he stepped back from the gore. Apparently he’d been so intent on getting to his tormentor that he hadn’t really paid attention to anything else.

Which reminded David of his rescuer. “Spence?” His first real word sounded wheezy, but was at least recognizable in his ears. “Spence! Are you OK?”

“Depends on your definition of OK.” The man’s voice came from across the fake pool room. “That 900-pound sirloin broke my leg. Too bad this is the real me.”

That last comment puzzled David at first – then he realized what Spense was talking about. He gave his neck an experimental twist. Other than some fading sensations of warmth, he felt fine. The Synth suit had healed itself. Relief was so great that David felt lightheaded, and it took a moment to focus again. He looked around and spotted the makeup specialist slowly pushing himself to a sitting position. “Thanks for the help. Blake almost ripped my throat out.”

Spence managed a slight smile. “Glad to help. Anyway, you think I’d let him destroy my greatest creation?” He chuckled, then winced in pain. “Damn. Well, all of us are gonna be set for life once the lawsuits and criminal charges are settled.”

“As much as I appreciate the benefits, I think all of us would like to get out of these damned suits as soon as possible.” David looked back at the minotaur, who nodded his head. “You have the shark as proof, not to mention Blake himself. He’s gonna have a hard time talking his way out of this one. Especially with no voice.”

Spence looked towards the side exit with a slight smile. “And he has to come to me to get fixed. Be a shame if I happen to forget the key code, since I’m the only person who knows it. Well, might as well get the reversal…” He stopped suddenly and looked around. “Oh, shit! The remote! Where’s the remote?”

The minotaur looked around, and then suddenly stared down at the ground and gave a mournful bellow. Part of the missing device was sticking out from under his right hoof, and the rest was obviously crushed.

“Aw, shit.” Spence pursed his lips. “Well, I have the codes. All we need is a remote. If we can’t find Blake’s, I can build another one from the spares bin. We have days before the Synth locks in.”

“What happens then?”

“Your original patterns get dumped and whatever you are at that point becomes real. Just like Blake said.” Spence looked puzzled. “But there’s no way he could have kept you here that long. A minotaur is a little hard to hide, and anyone really looking could tell you aren’t a real donkey.”

David frowned. “What about the mental changes? You said that shouldn’t have happened.”

“Yeah.” The makeup artist stared at him a moment then shook his head in disgust. “Crap. He had someone inside Starblaze. Someone who could work in the mind control programming and give him the codes.”

“Who else would be able to work with the Synth? Blake wouldn’t take a chance getting stuck with a lion’s head. He has a backup somewhere.”

Spence jerked his head up. “Lenny! My assistant. He’s been involved in the project from the start, and coordinated with the special development teams. It would have been easy for him to sneak the modifications past me.”

A new voice cut in. “Took a jackass to figure things out for you?” Lenny was standing in the side door.. “You didn’t have a clue, did you? Everybody hailing Spence, the genius, when it was me doing all the work.”

The minotaur grunted and took a step towards Lenny, only to stop when a larger and more dangerous shape moved to stand next to the young man. Blake gave a low growl, and showed his fangs. Lenny smiled, and then held up a remote. “I believe you were looking for this?”

The makeup artist regarded the young man coolly. “You’re in way over your head, Lenny. What did Blake promise you? Money? You’ll be too old to enjoy it when you get out of jail.”

“And just what would I go to jail for?” Lenny looked smug. “An equipment malfunction? That’s Starblaze’s problem. Oh, and maybe yours, since you were in charge of everything. In the meantime, I’ll be seeing what I can do with $200 million dollars.”

“Yep, you are the clever one, all right.” Spence smiled evenly. “So, why come back here? Maybe you aren’t quite so clever as you thought you were?”

Lenny’s expression darkened. “You locked Mr. Blake’s coding. My remote doesn’t work any more. I can’t change him back.”

Spence folded his arms over his chest. “What a shame. Tell you what. I’ll change him back just as soon as the police get here.”

“I don’t think he wants to wait quite that long. Since they aren’t coming.”

“I already called them!”

Lenny chuckled. “And they called back. Seems the local communities owe a lot to Mr. Blake, and they don’t like to break up one of his important functions every time some crackpot calls in with a wild story.”

“Then we’ll go to them!” David shuffled forward. “His story won’t be so wild when we walk into the station with him.”

“Oh, really?” Lenny punched some numbers into the remote. “And what will you tell them?”

The minotaur suddenly bellowed and stumbled back, his body twisting. He grabbed at the podium for support, but his fingers seemed unable to grip and he fell over backwards with enough force to actually break through the wall behind him. Before he could react, David felt a familiar flush of warmth in his head and neck and tried to cry out, only to find his voice was once again that of a jackass.

Spence clenched his fists angrily, look first at David, and then back at the minotaur. “That explains how Blake planned to keep them around. Who’d pay attention to a couple of normal animals?”

“You guessed it!” Lenny smiled. “A couple of long-term vacations. Bully-boy goes to a dairy farm, and our long-eared friend gets to visit with a herd of wild asses on one of Mr. Blake’s wildlife preserves.”

David brayed in alarm, feeling his jaw continue to shift outward. An angry bellow came from the gaping hole in the wall, and the minotaur lurched up to what were now four legs.

“This doesn’t change anything.” Spence glared at his assistant. “In fact, you’re just digging yourself in deeper. I can reverse a full change just as easy as a partial. It just takes longer.”

“Aw, gee. I never thought of that.” Lenny’s grin widened. “Unless, say, somebody short-timed the Synth?”

“What? You bastard!” Spence jerked up, eyes blazing. “How long before they set?”

“Less than an hour.” Lenny leaned forward and slid the remote on the stage, then moved back to stand next to Blake. “So you’d better get busy.”

“Shit!” Spence lunged for the device, gasping in pain. “That’s not enough time!” He started punching in numbers frantically, and looked at the glass tank. The shark suddenly started thrashing around in the murky water.

Blake roared angrily, and making Lenny jump back. “Shit! Don’t do that!” He pulled a gun from his jacket pocket and leveled it at Spence. “Wrong suit, old man. Mr. Blake first, then you can do what you want for the others.” He pulled the hammer back on his pistol. “No more warnings.”

“But…” Spence bit his lower lip, but entered another sequence of numbers. “There. Try talking, Blake.”

“I.. Yes. I have my voice back.” Blake’s eyes glittered, his muzzle twisting in what was probably a smile of triumph. “Now turn off the rest of it.”

The makeup artist looked grimly at Lenny as he punched in another code. “So, what’s to keep you from killing me once Blake is restored?”

Good question. David realized that with the three victims rendered mute, Spence was the only one able to press charges. The young man seemed capable of murder, but even Blake’s sense of vengeance couldn’t include killing. Or could it? David’s ears flattened back as Blake growled softly, his muzzle twisting into the feral expression he’d had when he’d attacked before.

“Guess you just have to trust me. And know that I will definitely kill you if you don’t.” The young man’s eyes narrowed. “It doesn’t sound like Mr. Blake is too happy with you right now. That’s a bad thing.”

“He’d probably be even more unhappy with you if he knew you’d short-timed his Synth, and screwed with his mind, too. That’s why he attacked before, isn’t it?”

“Shut up!” Lenny took a step forward, only to freeze at a snarl behind him. He spun around just in time to expose his throat to the same fangs that had torn open David’s neck.

David recoiled from the grisly attack, but Spence watched calmly until it was obvious the young man was quite dead, then entered another code. Blake froze in mid-bite, then scrambled away from the body. His eyes widened and he pawed at his bloody muzzle frantically before making a guttural yowl and running out of the room.

Spence watched the man leave, then turned back to David and the bull. “Mourn the bastard later. We’re running out of time.” His fingers danced over the keys of the remote. “They had your voice isolated. Even like this, it might still work.”

David felt heat in his throat that faded quickly. “Haawww.” Still a bray, but not quite the same as before. He tried e again, this time concentrating on making a more human sound. “Ahh.. Ahhh auhhm dha-bitd.”

“I think you just said ‘I am David.’ It’s going to take practice, because your mouth and throat are all wrong.” He turned to the bull. “There never was a provision for a voice in your suit.”

The former minotaur shuffled forward, already noticeably larger, and bellowed softly. Spence bit his lower lip, then shook his head. “Synth follows its programming automatically. Reversing it requires a steady signal from the remote. And each regression stage takes a good thirty minutes. You were screwed the moment Lenny triggered the animal form. The best I could do is make you a minotaur again.” He looked at David. “And you’d end up smaller and have a deformed head. So I’m going to leave you as animals.”

The minotaur bellowed angrily, and pawed at the ground. David just felt sick inside. Was it better to be a ‘normal’ donkey, or salvage a trace of humanity and spend his life as a freak?

“There are worse things.” Spence nodded towards the tank, already working the remote. “I restored her mind as soon as I got the remote. I hope that wasn’t a mistake. But she’s the only one of you still in the prime stage. I can save her.”

David looked at shark, and then at the bull. There was no question about who was the worst off. Even as animals, he and the stockbroker might be able to enjoy some sort of life. A shark was little more than an eating machine – a human mind couldn’t survive. However, the bull didn’t seem convinced. He bellowed again and took another step towards Spence.

Moving with a certainty that surprised him, David trotted over to stand between them. The bull snorted, sending warm blasts of air at David’s muzzle. They were both still growing, he realized, feeling the faint tingling that signified active Synth. The bull was gaining mass faster, though, and was already large enough to knock David aside with a casual toss of his head.

Didn’t he realize there wasn’t anything they could do? Attacking Spence would just doom the lawyer as well. On the other hand, he could understand the stockbroker’s desperation. Monster or not, the minotaur form at least had hands. And he was probably feeling his own Synth at work, finishing up the last stages of his transformation. The bull shifted on his massive cloven hooves, his breathing becoming more rapid. David stared up at the slick, dripping nose and wide eyes, and then shuffled forward to press against the bull’s massive chest.

He snorted and pawed with one hoof, and for a moment David was afraid he would end up knocked down and trampled. Then the huge beast sagged, and David felt a bovine chin settle on his back. They were still comforting each other when the police finally arrived.

Separator k.png

“Damn, David! Can’t you find grazing closer to the road?” Spence was flushed from the long hike, and he still limped a little. He was carrying a stack of DVDs and CDs that could have just as easily been mailed, but he always brought his offerings in person.

David trotted over and nuzzled the man, then tossed his head towards a group of jeanettes on the far side of the field. It took a couple of tries to get his voice working – these visits were about the only time he spoke any more. “A couple of the girls are due to foal soon, and I’m standing watch. I can call for a vet if either of them run into trouble.” He lifted his right hoof to show the specially-built phone strapped just above it.

Spence grinned. “So, you gonna be a daddy?”

“No. Not yet, anyway.” David tested the air, his upper lip curling. “You did a good job on the suit, though. Vet said I’m full capable – great sperm count and correct DNA. As far as she can tell, I’m physically perfect. And normal, except for being able to talk.”

“More a case of using a good jack as a pattern.” Spence looked around the grassy clearing. “Blake’s people actually provided the resources – you might be related to someone here.”

David snorted. “Oh, that helps a lot. I can combine bestiality and incest.”

“Doesn’t bother James.” Spence chuckled. “He’s adapted to his new duties with remarkable enthusiasm.”

Ironically, David and the former stockbroker had ended up right where Blake had planned for them to go. Although both now had access to virtually unlimited wealth and resources, James had moved to the dairy farm and given up any pretense of being anything other more than an animal. His lack of speech and the physical needs of a champion bull’s body made any pretense of normal life impossible, though the extent of his acceptance indicated a declining mentality.

David had put up more of a fight, living independently for a short period and indulging every whim a four-legged millionaire could manage. In the end, he’d realized that James probably had the right idea. He’d visited the nature preserve out of curiosity, and ended up staying.

It was beautiful out here, and he’d been accepted by the herd with only a few nips and kicks. His relationship with the other donkeys had been shifting into a gray area between master and equal in recent months, and in truth, he had already decided it was time to let himself be a Jack. But not all the way. There was a rather unusual stable about halfway down the mountain, supplied with running water, cable, and power through underground cables. There were also a surprising number of modern conveniences all designed to be operated with hooves. It was amazing what could be done when cost was no object.

He nosed Spence’s hand. “Let’s head down to the house. You can load the systems up for me.” The man reached out to rub one of David’s ears as they walked. “Cassie flew in today for Blake’s medical hearing. No change. I almost feel sorry for the bastard.”

The tycoon had adopted the feral mindset again when he was found by police, though it was still unclear if it was the result of some final meddling by Lenny or a mental breakdown. From reports, he lived like a caged lion in a large padded cell. Cassie, the lawyer and almost shark, was the only one who’d escaped mostly unscarred from the ordeal. She had handled the settlements with Blake Corporation, and done very well for all concerned. All of the victims were now major shareholders, owning stock transferred from Blake’s personal holdings. All except for Spence. The makeup man had refused to accept anything at all.

As they worked their way over the rough terrain, Spence sighed and looked around. “This is really beautiful up here. I think I could be happy living the rustic life.” He grinned. “You know, old fashioned log stable with cable, central air, and hot water.”

David snorted. “And flies. Come on up any time. There’s always an extra stall. I can probably even set you up with a date.”

“Oh, thanks a lot.” Spence shook his head. “Trying to make me part of the family? I prefer to keep you a friend and business associate. Or in your case, a business ass.”

It was surprising how fast the old guy could run.

- end-