User:Robotech Master/The Future is Paradise

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Paradise story universe

The Future is Paradise

Author: Chris Meadows

Author's Comments

One of the great things about shared-universe Internet settings is that, unlike with pro-published settings, you can write stories that become canonical, whereas with pro-published stuff they would only be "fanfic".

Well, this story is…actually an exception to that. As far as I'm concerned, this story is Paradise fanfic, and not to be taken as canonical. It's just my vision of things, and may not have any resemblance to the ways Jon might imagine the future going (if he does have any plans this far in advance). It's my own equivalent to "Cascade Failure".

The idea began partly as a joke and partly as an exercise in taking things to their logical (or illogical) conclusions (as I did for the "Chakona Space" setting in "The Last Human Being"). Once it started to come together in my head, I realized that I simply had to go ahead and write it. Hopefully it doesn't offend anybody. I know Jon doesn't generally want people to write stories set further in the future than his, but I just couldn't wait fifty years to write this one. :)

(I have plans for a sequel, too, in which I really shake things up…)

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JUNE, 2063

T he newscaster sat behind his desk and peered across it, into a dimly-lit room occupied by a bed surmounted by a heap of blankets. "The funeral mass of Changed-rights activist Christopher Mattiaz, aka 'C.M.', was held this weekend in Blacksburg, Virginia," he read from an invisible teleprompter. "High-ranking members of the Catholic Church turned out in numbers usually reserved for the funeral of an archbishop." The scene changed to the interior of a church packed with clergy in white vestments. "Though never ordained himself, Mattiaz was an advisor to 'Papal Bull' Pope Leo XIV, the first Pope to have Changed prior to assuming office. He was acknowledged as an important influence on how the Church dealt with the Change and its implications.

"Mattiaz first Changed in 1996, making him one of the first 256 people to experience the phenomenon. He was also the earliest known case of perpetual annual reinfection by both the species and gender-change Q-viruses. Mattiaz worked with Walter Lundh's Changed Network on the early statistical models that first demonstrated the rate of Change, and was highly influential in the Changed community thereafter. He was named as the first CEO of the Lundh Foundation for Change Research, and held a seat on its Board of Directors until his death.

"Mattiaz was predeceased by his wife Leslie, who passed away in 2057. He is survived by four children, thirteen grandchildren, and seventeen great-grand—"

"ARGH!" A hand reached out from under a mess of blankets on the bed and waved in a rude gesture, turning off the clock-holo alarm. The holographic newscaster vanished, along with his desk. A slim figure extricated itself and rolled out of bed, hitting the floor with a loud THUMP. "Ow…" it moaned, staggering to its feet and brushing a mass of tousled blond hair out of its face. It held out a hand, palm up, and raised it, and the room quickly snapped into full illumination. "OW!" the figure moaned again, shielding its eyes with the other hand as it turned the palm over and dropped it about halfway and the lights dimmed again.

"Damn it, Jan," the figure moaned under its—his—breath. "'Synthetic' alcohol, my foot. That was the real stuff or it wouldn't hurt like this. Owwww…that wódka wytrawna has a kick like the mule Gran'ther used to be. Donkey. Whatever. Owwww."

But it wasn't as if he could really blame the warthog. Jan had been one of Chris Mattiaz's closest friends since the early days. (Some gossip rags rumored they'd been more than friends.) And Jan would have known this day was coming for a long time, since Chris had refused to take rejuve treatments since they'd been invented decades back. So he'd had a lot of time to get ready to mourn.

"Argh." He thought back to the wake last night, where Chris's oldest surviving friends and some of his relatives had gathered to down a few (or a lot of) drinks in his (and occasionally her) name. (Though Chris had been buried as a man, no one had really cared to correct Jan if his pronouns had slipped from time to time.) It was all a little hazy now, but he didn't think he'd done anything embarrassing under the influence of that flavored Polish vodka Jan had brought. At least, there wasn't anyone else in his bed with him, which was a blessing.

He stumbled into his bathroom, waving at the shower to turn on and heat up to his preferred temperature. He splashed a little water on his face, checked himself in the mirror, considered, and punched for double-sized infusions of analgesic and caffeine on the shower's control board before sliding the door open and half-falling inside.

He emerged a few minutes later, looking a lot more human, with the nighttime stubble shaved off and his hair combed and pulled back into a ponytail. And he felt a lot more human, too. He walked back into the bedroom and gestured at the bed to make itself and the auto-dispensary to make breakfast.

He glanced at himself in the mirror as he shrugged into sweatpants and shirt. With the shadow of the hangover under his eyes, he looked a little older than his twenty years, but given that rejuve tech meant he could have been a lot older and still looked that young, he guessed it balanced out. Then he winced again as the commset chimed. "James!" a girl called through the concealed speakers.

James groaned. He didn't need this, not at this hour. Whatever hour it was by now. "Take a message," he groaned, taking a mug of coffee and the breakfast plate from the dispensary nook.

"James!" the girl called again, a bit more insistently. "James Slater Mattiaz, I know you're there! Pick up the comm right now!"

James sighed. It wasn't worth making her mad. "Okay, pick up. Hey, Shayna. What's going on?"

"Just wanted to see if you're coming to Highside for the big zeeg-ball game this afternoon? Um…I realize this may be a bad time to ask and all. Really sorry about your Gran."

"It's okay, Shayna, but thanks for thinking of me. Actually, I think a game might be just right to take my mind off of things. I was planning to Q-port up there a little later," James said. He wasn't really much into zeeg-ball as a sport, but his sig-friend was Stanford's star player, so he put up with it. Besides, the tight-fitting clothes the players wore plus the anatomical effects of zero-gee were probably half of the sport's appeal even to trufans. "How about you?"

"I'm calling from the shuttle. I really hate how Q-porting messes with my head, ugh."

James chuckled. "Yeah, I know what you mean. But you get used to it."

"Well, sure you do, it's part of your job," Shayna pouted, and he could imagine her tossing her head as she said it. "I don't see why I should have to, though. Shuttles are cheap."

And they let her catch up on her soaps and her social networking, James added inwardly. The perfect "excuse" for downtime in her otherwise busy life. He suspected that was the real reason she professed to hate Q-porting so much, but far be it from him to call her on it. "True enough. Well, I'll see you there."

"Right! What're you gonna be?"

James grinned. "Think I'd tell you, and bust up our little game? Ha. You?"

"Well, it was worth a try! And Penn State's currently running a brute-strength game, so I'm thinking something catty."

"But aren't you always something catty?" James teased.

"Someone's cruising for a zeeg-ball in the face!" Shayna caroled.

"You'll have to spot me first!"

Shayna chuckled. "I'll find you whatever you are. You know I will."

"Yeah, someday I'm going to have to figure out how you manage that," James chuckled.

"Maybe so, but not today! Oops, we're about to launch, they're making us shut down our phones. Gotta go. See you when!"

"See you then." James shook his head, then sat down to his breakfast. Then he'd make up his mind what to be for the day.

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A half-hour later, a grey-furred man-shaped timber wolf in sweats, with a disc-shaped device strapped to his left arm just below the shoulder, stepped out of James's apartment. His ears swiveled, taking in the low sounds of traffic from the nearby streets and skyways, as he adjusted to his new form. This was a variant he'd never tried yet, and he was hoping that it would add to Shayna's difficulty figuring out who he was. It wasn't too hard to get used to, though; in most ways it wasn't too far from the fox Change he often wore as his public face when not trying to play the guessing game with Shayna. (He usually slept human, like many others, to keep from leaving fur or claw holes in the mattress or sheets.)

James flagged down an autocab and set the destination for the Blacksburg Q-port/Shuttleport. He noticed that flags were still flying at half-staff, and shook his head. He'd never really internalized how people felt about his gran'ther. He knew, intellectually, there was a lot of respect in the community, but the emotional side of it still blindsided him at odd moments—especially now. "…Gran'ther," he murmured, blinking back a sudden wave of tears.

He'd mostly managed to compose himself by the time the cab pulled up at the gleaming onyx and marble edifice of the modern transit facility, but he still felt the need to stop in at a restroom. Fortunately, there was one just inside the door. As he stepped up to the paired doors, James noticed a sign on the men's room that read "Closed for Cleaning."

James cocked his head, considered for a moment, then shrugged and reached up to the disc-shaped Q-changer strapped to his left arm. A second later, his form slimmed down, his chest expanded, and his furgonomic shoes' fake-heels lengthened, then Jamie clacked into the ladies' room and shut the door behind her.

As she splashed some water on her muzzle, Jamie looked down at her feet and muttered. "High heels. Who the hell puts 'heels' on digitigrade furgo-shoes anyway? My real heels are halfway up my legs!" And for that matter, why did they even need to change at all when her form did, apart from adjusting to fit? But the she-male Q-virus was noted for having a quirky sense of humor. Or something.

Of course, even bothering to change at all was something of an affectation—a sort of genuflection, she supposed, to the values of her late gran'ther. (Or maybe "genderflection"?) Ever since the Q-changer had been perfected, gender issues had become non-issues at a speed that amazed even the staunchest feminists. These days uni-sex restrooms were the norm in new construction, and split-gender rooms were only labeled that way out of inertia. When any individual could be either male or female at a whim, right down to the clothes, nobody thought much of a man nipping into a ladies' room or vice versa. (Some women preferred to change to men just to pee, because the urinals meant they had more options in a busy restroom.)

Except for the older generations, like Chris Mattiaz. Even as gender-challenged as C.M. had been, he'd been raised in a world with firmly-delineated lines between the genders that were not to be broken. It simply Wasn't Done. Never mind that mores from a time where the opposite gender's genitalia were shrouded in as much mystery as a Masonic Rite were completely outdated when you couldhave those genitalia yourself at a whim. (Now opposite-gender restrooms held about as much mystery as the shower rooms after gym class had done in the pre-Change days.)

Jamie chuckled, remembering. Even though Chris had been one of the more progressive members of his generation (and given his situation, he'd sort of had to be), he'd still growled more than once, "If you're going into a ladies' room, young man, you'd better be a lady first." (And when he was a bear or a dog, he had a really impressive growl.)

But come to think of it, he'd been C.M. off and on for over ten years before the Veil came down, Jamie suddenly realized. Which meant he'd had more than his share of having to use the men's room while being a lady. Perhaps that might have explained some of his feelings on the matter. She'd have to ask him next time she—

Jamie nearly broke down again as she remembered she wouldn't be speaking to him ever again—at least, not on this side of a Veil that was much thicker than that other one had been. "Dammit. Should've known better than to go femme if I didn't want to get weepy all over again."

A few minutes later, James stepped back out of the room, composed again. He'd considered staying femme for the zeeg-ball game, to try to make it even harder for Shayna to pick him out, but that might be taking it too far. For all he knew, Shayna might be expecting him to show up distaff for that very reason. It was really hard to second-guess her—he'd never quite managed it yet.

As he got in line for the Q-port up to the space station, James continued his line of thought from the bathroom. He knew he risked breaking down again, but in a way it also felt good to be thinking about the old man and the changes (and Changes) he'd seen in his life. Cathartic, that was the word he was looking for. And maybe it would help him get over these weepy moods.

Chris's old-fashioned attitudes about gender had been even more ironic given that he'd been indirectly responsible for the invention of the Q-changer, the great gender (and species) equalizer, to begin with. It had come out of experiments conducted by the Lundh Foundation, which Chris had lobbied tirelessly to fund.

Building on the success of the early particle-acceleration experiments that had produced Veil-piercing "X-ray specs" and camera lenses, the addition of powerful quantum computers to the mix had enabled Foundation researchers to pierce another veil and come face-to-face with the quantum "reality viruses" responsible for species and gender Change.

James—and just about everyone else on earth, for that matter—still wondered who or what had made the viruses; the researchers had not yet managed to work it out. Of course, even the proof of their existence had sent ripples through science and organized religion both. Were they "angels"? Had they been made by God, or by an agent of God, or by something else altogether? They were clearly sentient, but were they also sapient? What was their purpose, or what did they even want?

They weren't saying. Their communications were gibberish—some sort of high level machine code, perhaps even quantum-encrypted. Whether they couldn't make themselves understood or just didn't care to—and whether they even understood normal human interactions at all—were just more of those imponderables argued by everyone from bartenders to bishops.

But one thing that was certain was that they were almost entirely passive when it came to reacting to human meddling. Perhaps they had been programmed that way as an anti-abuse mechanism: "If humans ever discover you, submit." It seemed to make sense they should be programmed not harm humans, given how much care they took not to harm people's integral senses of self apart from the gender and species changing in their normal activities. Either way, it soon became clear that with the proper technology, they could be coerced into changing an individual immediately, and in specific ways.

At first Q-changers had been big bulky things requiring as much power as a twencen particle accelerator, but after a few years they were small enough to fit in a living room, and then on an arm. James suspected a few more years would see Q-changer wristwatches. They could change gender to male or female (and even herm and neuter, though apart from a few minor subcultures not too many people really cared to experiment with those very much), and species from human to Changed or back—or even beyond, into non-anthropomorphic animals.

(Prolonged existence in a pure animal form had been found to lead to eventual loss of human intellect, so most consumer Q-changers had interlocks preventing that kind of change—though instructions for circumventing them abounded in the hacker community. Quantum trace scans were now part of ordinary procedures for processing donated zoo or rescue animals—though some "volunteer zoos" also existed, in parts of the world where they weren't illegal. And some countries were using death-row inmates to repopulate extinct species of mammal…)

And over a couple of decades, the entire time James had been alive, this had led to landmark changes in the perception of gender and gender-identity. When people could swap at a whim, especially people who grew up never knowing a time when they couldn't, they didn't identify as strictly one gender or the other anymore. Children were given pairs of names at birth—James/Jamie, Shayna/Shane—and they could decide which one suited them more. (It was increasingly common to leave birth gender off of the birth certificate entirely, so as not to prejudice the child's choices down the road.) There was a lot of argument among parenting experts as to whether it was best to raise a child as only one gender or the other or as both from the beginning, but either way seemed to work out about the same in the end.

And gender job restrictions suddenly seemed silly and outdated. No female soldiers in combat? No female priests? How did you even decide who was "female" anymore, anyway? (This was perhaps the hardest implication for the Catholic Church to handle, though it'd had some practice figuring out what to do with all the priests who secretly gender-Changed during the uncontrolled years. It had ended up "grandmothering" most of those cases, in the same way it grandfathered the occasional married Anglican or Lutheran priest who converted to Catholicism. Now that gender-control was possible, the Church insisted priests be male while preaching or otherwise representing the Church—and since there was no longer any real way to tell whether someone had actually been [i]born[/i] male, left that part of it up to the individual's own conscience and relationship with God.) Professional sports franchises by and large went from single-gender to mixed-gender. Colleges kept male and female teams out of tradition, but often fielded some of the same players on both teams.

Heterosexuality and homosexuality became quaint terms that didn't really apply anymore, because everyone was now potentially "bisexual"—or at least "ambisexual". People began to fall in love with each other as people without gender being an issue—if it came down to sex, they'd simply decide on the fly who preferred which role at any given time. A whole new class of romance novel emerged, in which one or both women or men in a relationship were at first scandalized to learn they'd fallen in love with someone of their own gender—then they went with the Q-change flow in spite of themselves and found happiness.

Not everyone took to it so easily, of course, especially fundamentalists and extreme conservatives who believed people should stay the gender they were born. (Many of these were also human-form-supremacists, who strangely enough seemed to be able to get over their objections to the "unnatural" Q-shifters when it came to shedding unwanted fur. But perhaps the strangest thing of all was just how few of those people there actually were—the Change had been around long enough by now that most people saw "pure human" as simply another Change to try out.) Others just thought it made life more interesting to take their chances with the occasional Changes that still happened naturally (for some value of "naturally").

And a lot of people of Chris's generation had also been unable to get fully into the "swing" of things either. Chris had firmly—even devoutly—refused to use the devices, even when he was having to endure being C.M. again. Her closest friends, the ones who knew how hard she'd prayed about it during the early years, would sometimes find it odd that she didn't at least "correct" her gender, but she'd just smile and say that if God hadn't seen fit to remove her "thorn" by now, it would have been awfully presumptuous of her to pull it out on her own. (He hadn't objected so much to other people using it, though—such as when Leslie decided she wanted to match her spouse's species Changes as well as complementing his gender.) That was apparently why she—he—they had refused rejuvenation, too.

That was another thing, James reflected, as the line in front of him grew shorter. The effect it had on the language. Strangely, all the people who had objected to "his" being used as a gender-neutral pronoun had fallen completely silent, even as it was arguably less correct than ever. It was one thing to say "his or her" in just those cases that could refer to someone of more than one gender, but to have to say it about everyone?

Some people flirted with the herm pronouns that had come out of furry fandom—"shi" and "hir"—but the people who actually wanted to be herms objected that those should be reserved to them. Other people experimented with altering genders in alternate sentences, or even within the same sentence, but it was too much work to keep up and came off as rather twee besides. In the end, most people just shrugged and used whichever gender of pronoun they felt like at the time.

And gender-specific terms fell into less common use, since they weren't really appropriate when the individual could be either gender at any given time. Except for people who insisted on staying in one gender, there were no "brothers" or "sisters", only "sibs". "Girlfriends" and "boyfriends" became "significant others" or "sig-friends". The term "gran" became unisex. And "gran'ther", previously an archaic backwoodsy contraction, came back into vogue for referring to someone who could either be a grandfather or grandmother (though, admittedly, there weren't many of that age who actually cared to be, yet). And, for that matter, might well be a panther too.

The invention of the Q-changer had led to other advances, too—most notably Q-port technology. The quantum teleporter was effectively a way of telling the underpinnings of reality, "No, look, that person isn't really over here, they're over there, and they always have been." And as the ever-gullible underpinnings quickly corrected their mistake, suddenly that person was over there after all.

Of course, it was still in its early stages, just as the early Q-changers had been. And even though it had been passed as safe for public use, it still had a side-effect that sometimes made shuttles more attractive even to James. For the first few minutes after the 'port, the Q-ported traveler (and sometimes his close friends or relatives) would have to deal with having two conflicting sets of memories in his head: one in which he'd just been where he'd ported from, and one in which he'd instead been where he'd ported to.

The fake set always faded away like a dream as reality caught up, leaving no record unless the victim recorded or wrote them down. Still, it gave James a new respect for the finesse that had gone into the gender- and species-change viruses, which managed to change everything except people's actual memories.

And speaking of which, the 'port booth in front of him had just emptied out. James sighed, took a deep breath, and stepped inside. "Highside Station," he told the control computer. And then—

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James arrived in the Q-port chamber at Highside Station—

James had shuttled up to Highside Station the night before, sleeping off some of the inebriation of Jan's dratted vodka on the shuttle up and dozing the rest away in a hotel room. Then he woke up, had breakfast, and Shayna called him to ask if he was there yet. Then he'd just happened to wander down here and stand in the Q-port chamber for no really clear reason—

"Argh." James shook his head, leaning against the wall and trying to pick out which reality was the real one. It was like waking up from a really vivid dream, only about ten times worse. It passed after a while as the universe caught up with the teleport effects, and James headed out of the port chamber into the entrance gallery.

It was a really impressive sight, standing at the window and watching the earth slowly rotate through his field of vision. He always spent a few minutes taking it in as the aftereffects of the 'port faded away. It helped clear his head. All around him, he saw other furs (and a few humans) doing the same thing. It really was a heck of a view.

He chuckled as a pair of fluffy snow leopard Changed passed by, tails twined together. They must have been new to the station. He predicted a rapid Q-change to something with less fluff would be in their future if they were here for the zeeg-ball game. All that fur drifting in zero-gee was often more trouble than it was worth (and made them look a bit silly, too).

And speaking of which, it was just about time for that now. He headed spinward to one of the elevator columns that led to the zero-gee section of the station, where the zeeg-ball arena and seating were housed. Under the name "zero-gee ball," it had originally been invented to help astronauts keep in shape during their time on the older, non-spinning stations like the International Space Station or the subsequent, larger Liberty Station—and it became popular enough for downsiders to watch that all the newer rotating stations had zeeg-ball courts in their zero-gravity centers.

The game was a sort of combination of soccer and volleyball, played inside a plexiglass sphere, involving a large inflated ball that athletes had to try to knock past obstacles into an enemy goal. The athletes wore compressed-air thrust packs on their backs, wrists, and ankles which they used to control their vectors of motion or to propel the ball when they couldn't reach it with their hands. And just to make things more interesting, compressed air jets were spaced around the rims of the court and within field obstacles to fire randomly at ball and unwary players alike (as well as soften the impacts of players tossed toward hard objects).

Chris and Leslie had enjoyed watching the games for the last few years of their lives, since a number of their grandchildren or grandchildren's sig-friends had gotten involved in it. As a kid, James had been puzzled for a long time when Chris and Leslie had laughed together at Chris's joke, "I guess this time the enemy goal is down." He felt a twinge of loss even now, thinking back on those days.

James paid the ticket fee and found a "seat" with plenty of time to spare. It was actually a body-length pad with velcro straps to hold its occupant down. Gravity was only about 1/30 G at this distance from the core, so he would only weigh about four to five pounds—not enough to hold him in place without them. He reached down and pulled out the section of padding that covered the tailhole in the cushion, then settled into place and strapped himself in to watch.

The Penn State team took the field first, wearing the tight zero-gee jumpsuits that were the sport uniform in their school colors of blue and white. James found it interesting that there weren't any lions on the team, Nittany or otherwise. For the first few years after the Q-changer had come out, it had been a fad for animal-named sports teams to make a Change to resemble their mascots part of the "uniform." This had fallen out of vogue after it turned out that teams with a varied makeup tended to have better flexibility than single-animal teams.

Of course, if their animal makeup was varied, their general type wasn't. As Shayna had said, the Penn State team seemed to be going for a "raw power" playstyle, mostly masculine in gender and made up of the heavier range of Changes such as Percheron and Clydesdale horses, bulls or buffalos, and…James blinked and rubbed his eyes. Was that an elephant? Wow. That player was either a complete poseur or someone to watch out for.

Most people didn't bother with elephants (or any of the other anatomically weird Changes) anymore—learning to do things with your nose rather than your hands was one thing when you had no other choice, but even many who'd taken that Change naturally had switched away by now. But for certain sports, like zeeg-ball, the added flexibility and strength of a trunk could make it worthwhile—if you took the time to practice. There was always someone who thought he could just jump into the form and use it by instinct. James suspected that any halfway decent coach wouldn't let that happen on a college team, though.

As the Penn State team took up their positions in the upper half of the globular playing field, the cardinal-and-white Stanford team floated into the lower half. James whistled. Whereas Penn State was a team of big bruisers, Stanford had gone the other way—mostly female and feline, but with a couple of chimps and an orangutan too. Even some of the players he knew usually went masculine were wearing sports bras under their jumpsuits this time. James wondered if the Stanford team together massed even half of what Penn State's did.

James had tuned out the announcer calling out player names as they took the field, but perked up when he heard, "…number 36, Shayna Ford." Though he tried not to show it too much. After all, she might be watching for that kind of sign.

Shayna was a slim, athletic spotted cat with big ears—a serval, he realized. Of course, he'd have had a hard time recognizing her without the number and the announcement, since facial features didn't always stay constant across all the Changes. She was looking around, her ears swiveling—seeking him out, James guessed. He glanced down-field, careful not to meet her gaze. But when he chanced to look again, she'd drifted over in front of him and was grinning right at him, mouthing words through the plexiglass wall that it took him a moment to make out: Don't ever play poker, love!

James muzzlepalmed. Oh well, at least he could concentrate on enjoying the rest of the game now.

The game began with the ball in possession of Penn State, and the bruisers used their greater mass for all it was worth—pushing off of the walls and the randomly-placed obstacles to gain greater and greater momentum as they shoved the ball toward the enemy goals. Inertia being what it was, they were very hard to stop once they got going, and more than once they slammed through a knot of Stanford players, scattering them in all directions.

The smaller players went flying at incredible speeds while barely slowing the bigger players down. It wasn't as painful as it looked—in zero-gravity, all the energy of collisions went into flinging the whole person backward rather than into compressing soft tissues. Still, without the airjet cushions there would have been some bad sprains or breaks when the players hit the walls.

Penn State scored twice, and it started to seem like momentum was on their side in more ways than one. James got the sense that Stanford hadn't had as much practice at its "flexible" game lately as its coach might have wanted.

But in the second half, they started to turn things around. Shayna in particular took the offensive, flinging herself off of obstacles and changing directions with her airjets with a deftness that the lumbering bruisers couldn't hope to match, practically flowing around them as she plucked the ball away time and time again. Her teammates picked up on her example, matching their playstyle to hers, and they'd soon evened things up.

The Penn State players were starting to feel the strain now. Most of the equines were starting to show the whites of their eyes, and the bulls were seeing red. Even the elephant, who true to form turned out to be the biggest threat on the Penn State team, couldn't carry the game by himself. James grinned. Too bad that the game's rules prohibited Changing during play. Penn State had made its bed, and was just going to have to lie in it.

James suspected that Penn State could have had a chance, if it had adjusted to a more conservative style of play. If it took a lot of effort for them to move or stop, it took a lot of effort for someone else to move them, too. They could have countered Stanford's flexibility by playing less aggressively. But by this point, they were playing too scared or angry.

James wondered how many of them had much experience fighting down the instincts of their particular animal forms. One thing Gran'ther and other natural multi-changers had learned was that there was a world of difference between knowing how to move in a shape and understanding how its additional hormones and neural patterns affected your mindset. The latter understanding required spending a lot of time in-form to get used to its mental effects.

Apart from the elephant, who he suspected had been born to it, it wouldn't have surprised him if the Penn State team only wore their bruiser species on the practice field. Most people who hadn't grown up that way didn't like being a lot bigger (or, for that matter, a lot smaller) than "normal" when they didn't have to be. It often led to painful accidents, like bumping your head on a door that wasn't "supposed to be" too low for you. Shayna, on the other hand, spent a lot of her time in feline species and most of their instincts tended to be similar enough to each other for the experience to carry across. Her perfect calm only made the Penn State team look worse by comparison.

As the clock ran down on the final half, Shayna shoved off an obstacle near her goal, firing arm and leg jets behind her, and caromed off the globe wall, coming in at an angle so the jets bounced her away rather than slowed her down. She flew directly at one of the opposing bulls, a longhorn with foam-rubber-globed horntips, grabbed his horn in passing and swung through ninety degrees of rotation before letting go, and whizzed right past the elephant, snagging the ball from his trunk as she passed. She kicked off another obstacle, dived through the narrow space between the Percheron and Clydesdale playing goal defense, and slammed the ball home just as the clock ticked over to zero.

The Stanford fans went wild, and James grinned. Perhaps he enjoyed the game more than he actually let himself admit. Or maybe it was just watching Shayna play it. He kicked loose from his "seat" and floated down to where the Stanford team was emerging from the exit in the lower half of the globe, to mingle with fans and towel off the sweat.

Shayna grinned at him as he approached. "Wolf, huh? That looks good on you."

James grinned, putting two fingers into his muzzle and attempting, unsuccessfully, to shape a whistle. "You know, whoever came up with the term 'wolf whistle' didn't know what he was talking about. But how'd you guess?"

"Oh, you have a few little 'tells'," Shayna teased, flicking an ear nonchalantly. "For one thing, you never repeat the same species, so I can reject anyone who's one you've already been. And you always sit in the equator seats."

"But those are the best ones!" James insisted. "Are those your only clues?"

"Oh, not the only ones," Shayna purred. "But they're enough that maybe you'll make it alittle more challenging next time, huh?" She winked.

James grinned, his tongue lolling out of the lupine muzzle. "Oh, I'll show you 'challenging,' you little minx."

"No, no, I'm a serval. But maybe we'll try minks next time." She grinned. "You know, I'm free for the rest of the day. Feel like taking in some dinner, maybe a show?"

"And maybe a room, later?"

"Jaaaaames." Shayna rolled her eyes. "Well, you are a wolf, I guess I should make allowances. C'mon, I hear they're showing a Paradise retrospective in the holo-theaters up here. You know I'm a sucker for the classics."

James chuckled, and let his sig-friend lead him away.

Separator stars left.png TO BE CONTINUED Separator stars right.png

Preceded by:
The Future is Paradise Succeeded by:
Paradise Forever