|Paradise story universe|
Author: Chris Meadows
The sign on the door read "ONE LIFE TO LIVE EXTRAS CASTING CALL". Tiffany smiled and opened the door. The room inside was filling fast, with would-be actors and actresses of all different colors, shapes, and sizes. Many of them were familiar to Tiffany, from the time they had all shared in the room. Day after day, many of them came back—hoping to land a background appearance in the background of a soap, or even (wonder of wonders) a minor speaking part.
Tiffany took her place among them, chuckling at how out-of-place she would seem if people could see her as she really was. For while everyone around her saw an attractive, slightly nervous 5'6" woman with long brown hair, she saw herself as a 6'3" anthropomorphic tigress with long brown hair.
Tiffany sighed. To herself, she looked as if she should be bounding through the veldt, chasing down gazelles. Instead, she was slinking through New York, chasing down roles. Fairly unsuccessfully so far, but she kept trying.
There was another Changed in the room, this one—a lioness—sitting in the far corner and glowering at her. Tiffany wasn't sure exactly what her problem was, but they never had hit it off. Tiffany suspected she kept getting the roles the lioness was trying for. Anyway, if she wanted to keep to herself, that was fine with Tiffany. She just didn't feel like getting into an argument today.
There was something a little strange about the atmosphere in the room today. Tiffany's sensitive nostrils picked up a smell of nervousness, confusion, and…something else? Tiffany blinked as the door at the end of the room opened and the casting director—a short, dumpy woman in her fifties—entered with a pair of men in dark suits, dark glasses, and earpieces on curly telephone cords that marked them as Men In Black. Tiffany twitched nervously. Even though she'd been Changed for over a year now, she still wasn't entirely convinced that she wouldn't be hauled off by the government for vivisection in some secret laboratory if they found her out.
The two Men In Black looked around the room, and their gazes settled on the lioness…and Tiffany. Tiffany blinked as the Men peered over the tops of their sunglasses, then through them again—then one of them took his glasses off and handed them to the casting director. The woman took the glasses nervously, and put them on—then nodded approvingly. "I think I'd like to see you first, dear." She pointed right at Tiffany.
Tiffany blinked. "…me?" she squeaked, halfway ready to bolt.
"Yes, dear. Right this way please." She beckoned toward the door. Tiffany swallowed, but knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. She got up and made her way to the door. The Men In Black swung in to follow behind her.
The casting director led the way up a narrow hall to an office, where she sat down behind a scarred wooden desk. As Tiffany followed her in, the agents took up positions to either side of the door, outside in the hall.
"Now then, dear." The casting director shuffled papers on her desk, then examined Tiffany again. She was, incongrously, still wearing those sunglasses—and, Tiffany suddenly realized, was looking her in the eye instead of in the neck the way people did when they could only see her human "ghost".
The woman continued, "My name is Judith Karr, and I'm casting a role that—of all the applicants out there—only you and the lioness could possibly fill."
Tiffany blinked again. "You can see us?"
Judith tapped the frame of the sunglasses she was still wearing. The big cheap shades looked entirely incongruous on her face, which was made more for wire-rimmed spectacles. "Thanks to these special sunglasses, yes. I don't know why the Secret Service has them. I'm not even sure I'd care to speculate. But when I passed word through my political connections about what I wanted to do and why, the men outside were sent to help me."
"You're…wanting to cast a Changed?" Tiffany asked weakly.
Judith nodded. "Absolutely. It shouldn't come as a great surprise, you know. One Life to Live was built from the very beginning on ethnic diversity, back in 1968 when ethnic diversity was a good deal more controversial. And now that you and people like you represent the new ethnic controversy…well, it's traditional."
"I…see," Tiffany managed.
"But I do have some questions. What with all the sensationalism surrounding, ah, people of fur lately, it has been hard to know what is true and what isn't. Can you tell me…how does it happen? Why can't other people see you without these glasses?"
Tiffany leaned back and crossed her legs, trying to get more comfortable. "I don't know the answer to the last one. Nobody does. Nobody knows why it happens, either."
"But every year in August, some percentage of the population…Changes? Goes from being human into…some kind of anthropomorphic animal?" Judith prompted.
Tiffany nodded. "That's how it was up 'til this year anyway. Now there are people Changing out of phase—a few more every day."
"And once you Change…you're like this permanently? You don't…revert under the light of the full moon or some such nonsense?"
Tiffany chuckled. "As far as we know, it's once Changed, always Changed. Some people Change more than once, but nobody's ever heard of anyone going back to human." Tiffany wondered if she should mention that the accelerating rate of the change meant that everyone would be furry within about ten years, and decided against it. She really wanted that part, and didn't think potentially discomfiting the casting director was the best way to get it.
Judith glanced at a clock on the wall. "This is all fascinating and I'd like to discuss it further sometime…but right now I have a schedule to keep." She slid some papers across her desk. "I have some sides here that I would like to hear you read…"
Tiffany nodded, took the sheets, and began.
Several weeks later the stairwell of Tiffany's apartment complex resounded with the faint echoes of human-sized paw-feet bounding up the stairs, two at a time. She was fairly tired after a long day of shooting, but she was also pretty happy. It had gone well—a good end to a good week.
This had been Tiffany's first week of shooting. It was fun, but also very demanding. And that was as it should be. After all, Tiffany was making history—just like Nichelle Nichols had as Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. She was actually appearing on TV as a Changed—though her fellow actors and most of the production crew still saw her human ghost-image.
Not that this was an entirely new thing; most actors were used to the idea of human actors standing in for CGI characters. What was new was that, in this case, the "CGI" was done "in-camera". The shoot crew had somehow managed to borrow a very special polarized camera lens that, like the Secret Service sunglasses Judith had used, was able to see her as she really was. Just how special was emphasized by the way it was watched over at all times by three plainclothes security detectives, who kept getting in the way of the production crew. When not in use, it went into a special locked strongbox.
The story was presented in a pretty clever way, Tiffany thought. (As if they require your approval, you silly actress, she reminded herself.) They used the special lens so that she showed up as her tigress self to viewers, but she still looked human to all the other characters in the soap. They'd emphasized this by doing some superimposes and intercut shots from other characters' perspectives, showing them talking to a human stand-in. (The stand-in didn't even look much like Tiffany's real ghost—but since Tiffany's real ghost wouldn't ever appear on screen, she supposed that was all right.) That it was natural for the other actors to talk to her neck (since that was where the face they could see was) only made it feel more authentic.
The plot was drawn from the accounts of Changed who had gone public with their stories—dramatizing how they had to hide their differences, their uncertainty over whether and how to tell their families about the "new them". Sometimes it was played for laughs, other times for pathos. Tiffany's favorite scene so far had been the one where she had saved Joey Buchanan from being mugged. It had been tricky to film—even clipped, her claws could still be dangerous—but working with the bags of fake blood had been fun, and the bit where Joey started to figure out there was something not quite normal about "Felice Hunter" was the kind of scene every actor dreams of.
And Nathan Fillion had been a joy to work with, too—not at all the egotistical lout from the Dr. Horrible musical commentary track. He was fascinated by her furry self, and was trying to find a way to see her "real" self without needing to watch monitor playback. She wondered if he was working up his nerve to ask her out.
The hallway outside Tiffany's apartment was dim, but that was all right with Tiffany's tiger eyes. As she made her way toward the door and fumbled in her trenchcoat pocket for her keys, her nose wrinkled and she frowned. She knew the scents of all the neighbors on her floor. But there was a scent of someone else here…someone recent. Did she have a stalker or something?
Tiffany was just starting to reach for the cellphone in her pocket when the first tranquilizer dart hit her.
A pounding headache. That was the first thing Tiffany felt. It was all she felt. It was all she was. Then gradually other sensations began to separate themselves out. She had a body. That ached, too.
And she had a stomach, and everything inside of it wanted badly to come out. Tiffany rolled over on her side, gagged, retched, and vomited onto the floor.
"There, there. It's all right. Just take it easy," a calm female voice said next to her, soothingly. "The tranquilizers take us all that way, when they wear off."
Tiffany jerked her head upright, ears twitching. "What—who—?" she sputtered. "Gack." She spat, trying to get the taste of her own bile out of her mouth. She sneezed at the acrid odor of it. Why did puke never smell this bad before I Changed?
"Here." A pair of white-furred hands brought a metal cup into Tiffany's field of vision. It was full of water. Tiffany took it gratefully, rinsed, and spat. Then she turned to face the person who'd given it to her. It was a snow leopardess Changed, kneeling by the makeshift cot where Tiffany was lying. She had deep ice-blue eyes, long silvery hair, and fluffy grey-and-white fur. She was also completely naked—and so, Tiffany realized a moment later, was she.
"What the hell's going on?" Tiffany growled.
"I'm Lee," the leopardess said. "Or at least I was. Probably Leela now, or something like it. Welcome to our own private little corner of hell."
Tiffany tried to sit up. Her stomach lurched, and she quickly lay back down again. "What…little corner of hell would that be?" she asked weakly.
"It's like this," Lee said. "There are some people out there who are richer than God. And the more money they have, the more they think they can get away with. If they're really rich—"
Tiffany groaned. "What are you trying to say?"
Lee sighed. "If they're really rich, they can get away with it. And that kind of person has gotten his grubby hands on us."
Tiffany propped herself up on one elbow. "What?"
"Seriously. He considers himself a 'collector.'" Lee grimaced. "A 'collector' of Changed."
Tiffany stared. "What?!"
"His name is Hugh Melton. He looks for Changed he likes, and then…collects us. There's about a dozen of us right now—you'll meet the others later. He keeps us in this…sort of walled enclosure. It's like a zoo. Or a prison."
"And…no clothing either, right?" Tiffany asked dryly.
"I think he thinks of us as being more animals than people," Lee sighed. Tiffany could smell her annoyance. "Wants to see us in our 'natural state.' And while I don't mind no clothes over fur in this hot weather, well, it's still a little embarrassing."
"But how does he even see us?" Tiffany asked. "If he's not Changed himself, he shouldn't—"
"Somehow he finagled himself a pair of those spook glasses, the ones that let you see through the Veil." Lee shrugged. "We often see him up in an observation platform, watching us with binoculars. He got some of us from the Bubbles; others, well…maybe he has some Changed on his staff to help him pick us out. Or just more guys with glasses."
"But…what does he want?"
Lee shrugged. "To watch us, apparently. To 'own' us. Like animals in a zoo. It's hard to say beyond that, because he doesn't ever really talk to us."
Tiffany sat up again, more successfully this time. She looked around. They seemed to be in a small artificial cave, molded out of cement rather than limestone. There was a faint acrid odor that Tiffany couldn't place; otherwise it smelled like Lee, two or three unfamiliar scents whose owners Tiffany assumed she would meet soon. There was a doorway out into the light not far away. The place reminded her of the constructed caves in animal enclosures at the zoo, for times when the animals wanted some privacy.
"And you put up with this?" Tiffany asked. "Why don't you just stay in here all the time so he can't see you?"
Lee sighed. "Well, two reasons. First of all, if we don't put out, he doesn't feed us. And even if we decide to go without food, there are vents in here where he can spray some kind of mace or tear gas in. And if you thought that stuff was bad with a human nose…"
Tiffany shuddered. "I can imagine. But…what about escaping? We're not dumb animals; surely we could figure a way out. Maybe stand on each other's shoulders or something to reach the top of the walls?"
Lee's head drooped. "It doesn't work. We tried it. We've just about all tried it. There are guards, they have trank rifles—and submachine guns. So far, they've only used the tranquilizers…but there's always a first time."
"So…what do you do then?"
Lee shrugged. "We try to keep some of us out there for him to watch at all times. Beyond that…there's nothing we can do except hope Melton's reach eventually exceeds his grasp and someone figures out what's going on."
Tiffany frowned. "If I'm not back on the set next week, it's going to cause a commotion."
"Which set?" Lee asked.
"One Life to Live. The soap opera," Tiffany said. "I've got a starring role in it. If I don't show up…surely they'll know something's up, right?"
Lee's jaw dropped. "You're on One Life to Live? Wow…I used to watch that all the time before they put me in here! What's it like? What's happened in the last few months? Who's dead and who's sleeping with who?"
Tiffany waved off Lee's questions with an irritated gesture. "Well, I won't be if I don't get out of here," she growled. "I hope they don't recast me or something."
"I wonder if this is the time Melton's reach has exceeded his grasp," Lee mused. "I wouldn't think ABC would be content to let their newest star just up and vanish."
"I sure hope not." Tiffany got to her feet. "All right, now what?"
"Let's go introduce you to the rest of the crew." Lee led the way to the mouth of the cave.
Tiffany followed, blinking as her eyes adapted to the sunlight, then stopped. "Wait a minute. I can't go out there. I'm totally naked!"
Lee sighed. "Yes, you are. We all are. Melton likes to see us 'in our natural state.'"
Tiffany rolled her eyes. "We're people. Our 'natural state' is to have clothes on!"
"That's not what Hugh Melton, Peepshow Zoologist thinks." Lee grimaced. "I don't like knowing he can ogle us at his discretion either, but what's the alternative? A snoot full of tear gas, that's what. At least it's not as if we're totally nude. We've got fur, after all."
"But wait a minute. If there are armed guards on all the walls…surely they're not Changed," Tiffany said, as a thought that had been nagging at her finally made itself clear. "So they'll be seeing our nude human ghosts!"
Lee gave a short, barking laugh. "That's apparently considered one of the 'perks,'" she said wryly.
Tiffany growled. "What kind of low-life would work for someone like that?"
"An undersexed, overpaid low-life," Lee said, her fluffy tail swishing in annoyance. "Sadly, vamping them to get out doesn't work either—we tried that too. There are always at least three or four of them on duty and they keep an eye on each other."
Tiffany stared at her. "How long have you been here?"
"About six months," Lee admitted, looking down. "They grabbed me out of my auto repair shop." She sighed. "They've probably foreclosed on the place by now. Probably for the best. Was hard enough running the place as a man, let alone now I've got fur and boobs."
"I am not going out there without clothes on," Tiffany growled.
Then she became aware that the faint acrid odor was intensifying, and glanced back to see a white mist starting to pour into the cave behind her.
Lee sighed. "I was afraid of that. Well, stay in here or not; your choice." She slipped over the lip of the cave mouth and dropped away.
Tiffany growled again, then sneezed, and her eyes started to water. She sighed, then followed Lee.
After Tiffany's eyes adjusted to the sunlight, she looked around to see what her new prison looked like. In fact, it was very much like a "big cats" enclosure at a zoo. One side of the enclosure was a concrete-surfaced "mountain" with caves in it such as the one she had just come out of. Below it was a sort of stream, with a bridge across it, and more concrete space on the other side. Both sides of the stream were strewn with large imitation rock shelves at various levels, to provide good places for sunbathing. Some of these were in use.
The dozen Changed Lee had mentioned were all in evidence, standing, sitting, or lying around in various postures. Some felines were sunbathing on the rocks. A skunk and a squirrel were playing a checkers on a game board scratched into the concrete, their bushy tails making them look like a set of mismatched bookends. A few others were lounging in shade or standing around talking.
Lee was waiting for Tiffany at the base of the "mountain". "Glad you could join us."
Tiffany covered her breasts with her arm and glowered. "It's totally under protest, you know."
Lee nodded. "Yeah, I know. Sorry. But then, I'm sorry about the whole damned situation."
Tiffany looked up. The enclosure was surrounded by vertical walls that went about twenty feet up. Above them was a booth with glass windows, in which a figure could been seen looking down on them. A railing went all the way around the wall of the enclosure, and a number of guards could be seen standing around it in various positions. There were also closed-circuit cameras mounted under the railing. "Great," Tiffany said. "Just fricking great."
"Come on, I'll introduce you to the others." Lee grabbed Tiffany's arm and led the way over to the nearest rock, where an impressive lion Changed was lying on his back with his arms behind his head, mane spread out around it like a halo. His strong, musky scent surrounded him like another halo. He was, in fact, very impressive, Tiffany had to admit—then jerked her eyes away from there and tried to concentrate on the lion's face instead. This is undignified!
Lee grinned. "Leo, Tiffany. Tiffany, Leo."
The lion opened his eyes, shading them against the sun as he looked from Lee to Tiffany. "Charmed," he purred.
Despite her dire situation, Tiffany could not quite suppress a giggle. "'Leo'? Isn't that a bit…clichéd?"
The lion rolled his eyes. "It happens to be my name. Well, all right, it's actually 'Leon' but if this isn't an excuse to drop the 'n' then what is?"
"For a king of the beasts, you seem to be pretty complacent," Tiffany said. "Why aren't you trying to figure out a way out of here?"
Leo sighed, closing his eyes. "There's no way out. We all tried it. We all got shot down. There's no point in trying anymore."
Tiffany glanced at Lee. "Are they all this positive?"
"Most of them, I'm afraid," Lee said. On the next rock was what appeared to be a Cheshire housecat Changed, also lying on his back and sunning himself. Apart from his natural scent, he smelled very faintly of…suntan lotion? "Hey, Dan."
"Like whoa!" the cat said, looking up. "Could you, like, move a scootch to the, like, left, babe? You're, like, heinously blocking my rays."
Lee rolled her eyes. "For the last time, Dan, you're not going to get a tan. You've got fur now. Seriously, give it up."
"Like, how do you know? Mebbe you, like, just haven't tried hard enough."
"And why aren't you trying to get out of here?" Tiffany asked. "I'd think you'd want to get back to the sand and surf."
Dan waved a handpaw. "Like, I tried, babe. But, like, there's no way. Totally gnarly security here. Total bummer every time I, like, tried. So, like, why put myself out? Like, sooner or later, someone will totally find out about this place and, like, bust us out. Until then it's just a, like, enforced nudist colony. I don't, like, even have to wear trunks to block the, like, tan-rays from my—"
"I get the idea," Tiffany said.
"But you can't tan!" Lee sputtered. "Why do you keep insisting…ARGH. I just can't talk to you!" She stalked off toward the next furre. Dan grinned, winked at Tiffany, and closed his eyes again. Tiffany stepped around him to follow Lee to the next sunbathing cat Changed.
This was a black panthress—or melanistic jaguar, to be more accurate—colored dark grey with blacker rosettes. With the fur and her voluptuous figure, she made a very striking image as she lay on her back on the rock. "Hello, Consuela," Lee said. "Looks like we she-cats are a trio now."
The jaguar-woman lazily opened an eye. "Hola. Que tal?"
Lee rolled her eyes and made a face-slapping motion in the air. "English, please?"
"Oh, you want English. Of course," the jaguar said. Her accent was Hispanic, but Tiffany didn't know enough to tell whether it was from Mexico or somewhere in Central or South America. The she was a jaguar argued slightly for the latter. "I am Maria Luisa Consuela Cazador y de la Selva. It is good to meet you."
"Tiffany Tanner," Tiffany said, slightly overwhelmed. "So why aren't you trying to escape?"
The jaguar closed the eye again. "I am waiting for the right time. That is what a hunter does. When that time comes…I will be gone like a ghost."
"Pardon my skepticism, but I sure hope you call the cops when you get out," Lee said.
Consuela smiled. "Because you asked, then I will."
Lee looked suspiciously at Consuela for signs of sarcasm, but the jaguar's tranquil expression revealed nothing. She snorted. "Good. Thanks for that."
"How will you know when it's the right time?" Tiffany asked.
"I am a hunter. I will follow my instincts."
"Anything I can do to help?"
Consuela opened one eye again. "I will let you know."
"That does it for the cats," Lee said. "Let's go meet the others." She led the way toward the bridge, then paused before stepping onto it.
"What is it?" Tiffany asked.
"See the middle part of that bridge?" Lee pointed at a section of the bridge that had a couple of thin, barely noticeable lines segmenting it from the rest. "Don't step on it. Just jump on over."
Tiffany peered at the bridge. "Why?"
"Remember that James Bond movie where the villain liked to feed people to the piranhas by collapsing the bridge underneath them? It's like that, but without the piranhas. Melton has the sense of humor of a retarded five year old." Lee rolled her eyes. "Come on."
"So what's the deal with them?" Tiffany jerked her thumb back at the sunbathing cats. "It's like they've all given up—well, except for Consuela."
"We kinda have." Lee shrugged. "Have you heard of 'Stockholm Syndrome'?"
"That's not when a nuclear reactor melts down, is it?"
Lee chuckled. "No, you're thinking of China Syndrome. Stockholm is this thing where people who've been kidnapped or imprisoned gradually get to tolerating, maybe even enjoying their imprisonment, and thinking their captors are generally cool people." She paused at the edge of the hinged piece, gathered herself, and sprang over it. Tiffany did the same, not having any problems clearing it.
"So you're saying that's what they've got?" Tiffany asked.
"Oh, no doubt. We've all 'got it', given the right provocation. It's a coping mechanism."
"Not me," Tiffany growled.
Lee shrugged, her scent clearly indicating disbelief. "That's what I said, when they first dumped me in here. I got tired of spending half my time nauseous from the tranquilizers. If you think you can bust out, more power to you, but don't expect much help unless you can arrange for a bag full of automatic weapons to be dropped over the wall."
Tiffany growled, but didn't reply.
The furres nearest to the bridge were the checkers-playing squirrel and skunk. "Tiffany, this is Carl," Lee gestured to the skunk, "and Amy," to the squirrel.
"Not that Amy," Amy said. "Everyone always asks me that." There was a certain resemblance to the cartoon character, in that this Amy did have blonde hair, but that was the extent of it.
"I'm just glad I'm not a 'Sabrina,' or things would really be confusing," Carl said. He and Amy chuckled at the shared joke.
"Nice to meet you," Tiffany said, trying not to wrinkle her nose. A skunk's natural odor was intense, even when he hadn't sprayed recently. "So why haven't you-all busted out? I'd think a squirrel would be fast enough to slip by the guards, and skunks have built-in tear gas."
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Amy grumbled. "But there's a certain tradeoff between speed and agility and size. I'm not quite as fast or agile as my tiny cousins. They have less weight to shove around."
"And I can't get close enough to the guards to use my 'built-in tear gas' without getting a dart for my troubles." Carl rolled his eyes.
"I don't really like it in here," Amy said. "Not enough trees. But what can you do?"
"Yeah," Tiffany said. "What can you do. Well, it's nice meeting you."
"Same," Carl said. "I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of each other in days to come."
Tiffany snorted. "Yeah, ya think?"
Lee walked on, and Tiffany followed. Their next targets were a grey wolf and a red fox standing and talking. "Tiffany, meet Trixie and Jack."
"Hello, Tiffany," Jack, the wolf, said.
"Hi," said Trixie, swishing her tail.
"Hello." Tiffany nodded. "So who's up for busting out of here?" she asked, without much hope.
Jack chuckled. "I see you've been talking to the others. Believe it or not, not all of us feel that way."
Trixie nodded. "Escape from a place like this isn't a question of brute force. It's a question of outsmarting them."
"Great. So what's the plan?" Tiffany asked.
Jack and Trixie looked at each other. "We're…still working on that," Jack admitted.
"You don't have a clue, huh?" Tiffany said.
"We've got…some ideas," Trixie said uncomfortably. "But it's largely a matter of waiting for an opportunity. And we just haven't had an opportunity yet."
"Yeah." Tiffany nodded. "Well, let me know if one comes up. I'll be happy to help."
Jack nodded. "We'll do that."
Lee walked on, and Tiffany followed. "If it helps them to pretend they're planning a break-out instead of just accepting their situation, more power to them," Lee said. "I wouldn't count on them for much help in a real break-out attempt, though."
"That's about what I figured," Tiffany grumbled.
"And here's the last two inmates." Lee nodded to a pair of bighorn sheep sitting in the shade of a tree. From their horns, one was male. The other was female and very pregnant. "Tim, Clarisse, this is Tiffany, our newest companion."
"Hi," Clarisse said. "I'd get up, but, well…"
"How did that happen?" Tiffany asked.
"The usual way." Tim shrugged. "It's not as if there's much else to do in here. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the other girls are the same way, just not far enough along to show it yet."
Lee glowered. "I'm certainly not!"
"Present company excepted, of course," Tim added.
Tiffany stared. "They know about your condition, right? Up there?" She nodded toward the observation booth.
"It's kind of obvious, don't you think?" Tim asked.
"And they haven't brought in any doctors to have a look at you?"
Clarisse snorted. "Not even a veterinarian. It's not as if they could count on someone who took the Hippocratic Oath to disregard this little set-up. Jack over there is a paramedic, and he does the best he can, but…"
Tiffany growled. "We have got to break out of this place."
"There's nothing we'd like more," Tim said. "But based on how everyone else is acting, it doesn't look very likely, does it?"
Tiffany sighed. "Well, we'll just see about that. Now how—"
They were interrupted by a bell ringing. Lee glanced up. "Oh, it's dinner time." She glanced at Tiffany. "You're gonna love this." Tiffany didn't need to smell the sarcasm rolling off of Lee to have dark premonitions about what was coming next.
Lee led the way back to where the other cats plus Jack and Trixie were gathering along one wall. Amy and Carl left their game and made their way to a wall near where Tim and Clarisse were resting.
"What now?" Tiffany asked as the cat-Changed formed into a line.
"Feeding time at the zoo." Lee pointed to a metal panel in the wall that was sliding open. "All automated, of course." A tray slid out, with a platter of steaming steaks on it. One by one, the carnivores stepped up and grabbed a steak in their bare hands. At the other end of the enclosure, the herbivorous Changed were being served fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Tiffany stared. "We don't get plates or silverware or anything? This is barbaric!" She only realized she'd been shouting when several of the other furres turned to look at her. She sighed.
"He gets off on treating us like animals, what do you expect? Just be glad someone got him to start cooking the steaks," Lee said darkly, grabbing hers. "So, you gonna leave yours and try starving yourself? Some of us tried a hunger strike when we got here. Didn't work."
Tiffany thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. "I hate giving him the satisfaction…but I've got to keep my strength up if I'm going to escape."
"That's the spirit," Lee said.
Tiffany took the last steak from the platter, and it retracted back into the wall. The door slammed shut. Tiffany peered after it, thoughtfully.
"Wouldn't work," Lee told her. "It's much too small in there, and there are cameras."
"Just a thought." Tiffany sat down against the wall near the others to eat. Grudgingly, she had to admit that it was actually a pretty decent steak, if it weren't for having to eat it with her hands.
"So," Tiffany said, swallowing the last bite, "what do you do for entertainment around here?"
Lee just stared at her.
The sun had gone down, and the stars were out overhead. Most of the furres had retired to their caves for the night, in case it rained Tiffany supposed. Lee had tried to get her to come to the cave that she, Trixie, and Amy had claimed, but Tiffany had shaken her head. Lee just rolled her eyes and sighed. "When they hit you with a dart, try to curl up into a ball, and maybe you'll land without spraining anything."
"Thanks for the advice," Tiffany said dryly.
Tiffany had spent the afternoon yelling and screaming up at the observation room, the guards on patrol, anyone who would listen. Nobody did, and all happened was that she wound up hoarse. The other furres mostly left her alone—waiting for her to get it out of her system, she supposed—but she wasn't sure she liked the looks Leo-nee-Leon was casting her way.
Well, it looked like this was the time. Her light-sensitive eyes showed nobody in the observation platform, and her swivelling ears told her the guards were all on the other side of the rim. Tiffany flexed her claws, and began to climb. The concrete was rough under her fingerpads. There were a number of gouges in the faux-rock wall, from where the other cats and perhaps squirrel had tried this in the past. And they all seemed to believe she was wasting her time. But on the other hand, they weren't tigers.
Tiffany dragged herself further and further up the wall. The catwalk around the enclosure was only about twenty feet away now. Heh. Catwalk. She'd show them catwalk.
Then a dart appeared in her arm as she reached up to take the next handhold. She stared at it stupidly for a moment, then the pain came—then everything went dark as she started to fall.
Lee leaned over the bed. "Feeling better yet?"
In response, Tiffany tilted her head over and vomited into the conveniently-placed bucket. Lee shook her head. "This is the sixth day in a row. Your back is one big bruise, and Jack says you're showing symptoms of tranquilizer overdose."
"I'm building up a tolerance," Tiffany mumbled through swollen lips. (She'd scraped her muzzle across the sandpaper-like rock as she'd started to fall this time.) "Next time I make it to the catwalk for sure."
"How long are you going to keep this up?" Lee asked.
"'Til I get out," Tiffany said. She stared up at the ceiling of the artificial cave. God, she was starting to hate that ceiling.
"You're persistent, I have to give you that. Most of us were smart enough to stop at four." Lee sighed. "Jack wants me to tie you to your bed for your own safety. But I'm sure the bastards watching on the hidden cameras would enjoy that too much."
Tiffany blinked. "Hidden cameras? Where?"
Lee shrugged. "If I knew, they wouldn't be 'hidden,' would they?"
Tiffany snorted. "C'mon, help me get up."
"Will you can it with the slow suicide attempts?"
Tiffany shook her head. "It's every prisoner's duty to escape."
Lee stomped her foot, tail swishing angrily. "You're not in the frigging army! You don't have a 'duty.'"
"Duty to myself," Tiffany mumbled. "To my costars. To all the rest of the Changed. Things like this can't be allowed to go on, dammit! They just can't."
Lee turned and paced the length of the cave. Tiffany couldn't turn her head, but her right ear flicked back to follow the snow leopard's progress.
"Well, I've got news for you, sister," Lee growled, turning and walking back. "Until your back and your face heal up, you're not going anywhere. You're staying right here if we have to sit on you—and the hidden cameras would really love that." Tiffany tried to sit up, and Lee easily pushed her back down. "We're not kidding here. You can go back to trying to kill yourself when you feel better."
Tiffany struggled feebly against the hand, then sighed and gave in. "All right, fine. But this doesn't mean I'm giving up."
"Of course it doesn't." Lee considered a moment. "But I may have something to make your convalescence easier. We don't generally show people until they've started to bow to the inevitable, but…who knows when that will be for you."
Tiffany blinked, and half-sat up, curiously, as Lee rummaged under some rubble at the back of the cave. "You asked us what we did for entertainment. Well…" She came back with a couple of books in her hands. "…this is about it. Well, apart from the 'obvious,' but you're not going to be in any shape for Leo to have his way with you for at least a few days."
"Is he…likely to try?" Tiffany asked, reflecting again on the looks he'd been sending.
Lee snorted. "Girl, that man takes the title 'king of beasts' as some kind of personal instruction. He's been after every femme in here at least once. He even had a go at Clarisse, until Tim threatened to butt him over the wall next time he tried it."
"My response was a little more…pointed." Lee held out a hand in front of her face as if examining her nails, displaying the wicked claws to full effect. "I suggested that if he wanted to retain the ability to enjoy himself thusly, he do so with somebody else."
Tiffany chuckled weakly. "Ouch."
"Of course, could be that you like that type," Lee said.
Tiffany laughed. "Oh, please. I work with Nathan Fillion. Leo doesn't even know how to start."
Lee's eyes widened. "You…with Nathan Fillion?" she squealed, leaning closer.
Tiffany glanced at her. "Didn't I mention? I'm in One Life to Live." She stared at the ceiling.
"But…Joey Buchanan! Captain Tightpants! He's such a hunk! You've gotta tell me everything!"
Tiffany swore she could see the stars in Lee's eyes. It was really weird how her mood could totally change like that, considering how sarcastic and down-to-earth she was in other respects. "Um…are you sure you used to be a guy?"
Lee shrugged. "I can't explain it. When I was a man, I was all about Penelope Cruz. Now it's handsome men that turn me on. I blame hormones."
Tiffany rummaged for some thread of normality. "Er…anyway, the books?"
"Oh, right." Lee held them up. "These show up from time to time, in the caves. We don't know who puts them there. We think it's a sympathetic guard."
Tiffany looked, then stared at the books. One was a dog-eared copy of The Island of Doctor Moreau. The other was Forests of the Night by S. Andrew Swann. It featured cover art of an anthropomorphic tiger holding a submachine gun, with a futuristic cityscape in the background. "Is someone…making fun of us?" Tiffany wondered.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you? One of the guards making a joke at the expense of the poor helpless caged animals? It's what I thought, anyway." Lee shrugged again. "But when I talked about it with the others, they reminded me that the guards just see our ghosts."
"Oh, yeah," Tiffany said.
"Which kinda makes you wonder about the kind of person who would take a job guarding a private prison camp full of naked men and women," Lee went on, "but anyway…why would one of them sneak this kind of book in here?"
Tiffany blinked. "So you think…one of them is sending a message? 'Peekaboo, I see the real you'?"
"Yeah. Nothing that could be personally traced back to him…but a message to buck up, someone out there knows what we really are and has reasons for not wanting anyone else to know he knows." She paused. "Of course, it could also be Melton himself playing mind games with us, but I don't think so. His style is more slapstick, like with that bridge and the gas. I honestly think he'd spray us with seltzer bottles if he thought it was safe to stand close enough."
"Don't give him ideas," Tiffany muttered.
Lee snorted. "Anyway, I think it's a guard being furtive."
"So why doesn't he pass us something useful, like a cell phone?" Tiffany growled.
"Dunno. Too risky? Maybe someday we'll get a chance to ask him. For now…well, at least the books give us something to read. Maybe they'll help you pass the time while you heal up."
Tiffany groaned and sank back onto the bed. "I just want out of here!"
"Yeah, we all do," Lee said.
"You've got a funny way of showing it."
"Well, we just don't want it enough to put out the effort anymore, I guess. 'It would be nice, but…' I don't know what it will take to change that. 'Saint Crispin's Day' speeches have been tried already. They don't work."
"I'm going to get out of here. Somehow," Tiffany growled.
"Great." Lee nodded. "Maybe if you believe it hard enough, it'll come true. It didn't for any of us, but there's always a first time."
Tiffany sighed, and closed her eyes. "Thank you for your support," she muttered.
Lee smirked. "Hey. That's why I'm here."
Over the days that followed, Tiffany read the books Lee had lent her, and a couple more that other furres brought by. ("Oh, Doctor Doolittle. Cute.") Most of the others dropped by to visit. Even Leo stuck his head in, though Lee adamantly refused to let him further than the entrance.
It was a cliché, Tiffany knew, but she couldn't help thinking that Amy proved to be the chatterbox of the group. By the end of her first visit, Tiffany knew as much about the social dynamics of the group of furres as if she had been the first one captured. Mostly it amounted to who Leo was sleeping with (which turned out to be "everyone female who would let him." "Even me, once—but only when I was positive I wasn't in estrus!" Amy gleefully confessed. Tiffany and Lee looked at each other and rolled eyes simultaneously). Apparently Amy thought Consuela believed she was the only one Leo truly cared about, and Amy felt sorry for her because Leo was a natural-born philanderer.
"Poor thing," Lee said after Amy had left. "She's a natural-born gossip, but in a crowd this small what can she do? I think she really lives for every time a newbie gets taken, because then she can dish the dirt to someone who doesn't already know all of it."
"She's like a force of nature," Tiffany said. "But at least she's easy to talk to. All I had to do was listen."
Finally Tiffany's bruises had healed to the point where she was able to hobble down, jump across the hinged section of the bridge, and join the others. They welcomed her into their number, though she soon tired of the smoky looks she was getting from Leo on one side and the warning looks from Jack whenever she looked up at the rim of the enclosure on the other.
Tiffany ignored Leo, and rolled her eyes at Jack. "All right, all right, I'll give it a few more days. But I'm not giving up."
The grey wolf waved his handpaws placatingly. "Didn't ask you to. But I'm just a paramedic. I don't even have any tools. I'd hate to have to deal with a broken bone in here."
"All the more reason to get out of here, then," Tiffany growled. "How about it? Got a plan yet?"
"Still…working on it," Jack said weakly.
"Yeah, so I figured."
The looks weren't the only thing that grated; her fellow prisoners' cheerful conversations and acceptance of their confinement got on her nerves more and more the more she was around them. They didn't look up; they didn't even talk about the fact they were imprisoned, or how the outside world was getting along, unless she brought it up—and if she did, they looked annoyed at her for mentioning it.
It was as if, by not talking about it, they could just make it all go away—and they were trying to get her to do it, too, drawing her into their conversations about practically nothing at all. Trying to indoctrinate her. "One of us. One of us."
Finally Tiffany'd had the far side of enough of it. She stalked off back toward the caves, muttering, "Damned lotus-eaters" under her breath. It didn't help her temper that she was so irritated she forgot all about the trick bridge until it gave way beneath her, dunking her in the stream. Growling her displeasure, she shook herself off and stalked back up to the empty cave she shared with Lee. She wished there was a door, just so she could slam it. "God I hate the smell of wet cat, especially when it's me."
As she sat at the back of the cave and dripped and seethed, a pile of towels hit the floor next to her. She looked up. "Huh?"
"Use those. Hurry, though. I'll have to take them away with me, can't leave evidence." The voice was male and fairly young. A figure was peering down at her through an open hatch in the ceiling. She couldn't make out his features, as he was backlit by the overhead lights behind him.
Not wanting to look a gift towel in the mouth, Tiffany picked one up and began rubbing herself off, moving on to the next one as it got waterlogged. "I take it you would be 'Casper the Friendly Guard,' huh? The one who keeps leaving all these books for us?"
"Yeah, that's me. Sorry I can't do more. I'm not in a really good situation right now."
Tiffany snorted. "You're not? Try being me."
"I know, I know, I'm sorry. You have every right to hate me. I hate me sometimes." Tiffany looked up. "All right, most of the time. But I'm risking my neck just to do this much at all. I've looped the camera and mics back here, but I don't know when someone will next check the guard station so I don't have much time before I have to get back and undo it."
"So, what's your game?" Tiffany asked. "Why the mystery gifts?"
The guard shrugged. "Keep morale up? Give you something to take your mind off things? Dunno. I just thought I needed to do something. Even if it wasn't much."
"Why haven't you contacted any of them directly?"
The figure shook his head. "You said it yourself. 'Any of them.' You've spent time with that bunch. It's not their fault for being how they are, but…I don't have a lot of faith that any one of them wouldn't turn right around and turn me in. I've read up on Stockholm Syndrome."
"But I'm pretty clearly a different case, huh?" Tiffany said.
"Yeah. Been waiting for a time I could talk to you alone. This was the first chance I got."
"So what's the deal, 'Casper'? If you're so torn up about this, why don't you call the cops? Send in an anonymous tip if you're so worried about being found out."
The guard sighed. "It's not that simple. Melton has other enclosures where he keeps real animals. Hunting cats and stuff. And he has connections with area law enforcement all the way up to the FBI. I've been briefed on the contingency plans. If there's a raid, Melton will learn about it at least an hour ahead of time. That's plenty of time to move you all into a hidden bunker, and put some cats in here instead."
"All right, fine. So how about you just wait 'til sometime there aren't many guards around, and throw down a rope ladder and let us all out of here?"
The figure shook his head. "It wouldn't work. There are twenty of them. They have tranquilizers, tazers—and automatic weapons to use in a last resort. If you actually made it to the catwalk on one of your climbs…well, I don't think they'd shoot you with bullets. After all, they all see you as a naked woman. But on the other hand, for a naked woman to climb up a sheer wall with just her fingernails…I don't know what they'll think."
Tiffany growled, her claws shredding the towel she was using. "So, what, you're telling me to give it up, too?"
"Only for a little while!" the figure said hastily. "Look, you and I both know this is not exactly a stable situation here. Sooner or later, more and more people are going to end up Changing, including some of the guards themselves. They don't watch too much TV, don't have much of an imagination…they don't know anything about the Changed. And Melton? He has the usual 'it-can't-happen-to-me-I'm-rich' thing going on. But—"
"But you do know about us," Tiffany mused. "How does that work?"
"My little sister Changed last year, before I answered Melton's ad. She's a German Shepherd. We were always pretty close." The figure glanced to the left and right, as if worried someone might be coming. "Look. I'll be honest, I took the job knowing there was probably something fishy about it—maybe a smuggling racket or organized crime—but I needed the money and he paid well. But I didn't sign on for this. I've been trying to keep my head down while I figured out what to do. Whatever I do, I can't let it point to me. If it doesn't work, and they find out about my sister…I couldn't stand to have her end up in here too."
"So let me guess, you don't have a plan either." Tiffany finished with the last towel. "I should introduce you to Jack, you'd have lots to talk about." She wadded up all the wet towels into a ball and hurled them up at the guard, hitting him in the face. He wobbled back from the edge and fell over.
"Yeah, I probably deserved that," the guard said. "Look. Just give me a few days. Maybe something will happen."
"Give me a cell phone. I'll make something happen," Tiffany growled. "Doesn't have to be one they can trace to you. Go to Wal-Mart. Pay cash for a pre-paid phone. I'll do the rest."
"I'll…think about it. Maybe, if there's nothing else I can do…nngh. Gotta go. Listen, don't talk about me, OK? Not when the mics are on and they can hear."
Tiffany frowned. "I don't know—"
"For my sister? Please? I don't care if I get in trouble, but she didn't do anything to anyone…she doesn't deserve Melton catching her."
"Well, we didn't do anything to anyone either," Tiffany growled. "But all right. I'll keep your secret. For a few days, anyway."
"Thanks." The hatch closed, shutting out the light, and the guard was gone.
Tiffany sighed. "Why does everything have to get so complicated?"
For the next few days, Tiffany lay low—sunning herself on a rock away from most of the others, or relaxing in the cave (when some joker didn't think it was fun to release the tear gas, anyway). She kept to herself about the visit from the guard, knowing the microphones would be able to hear her every word.
One day, she found herself sharing the same rock as Consuela. She hadn't had much chance to speak to the jaguar-woman since the first day; Consuela had largely held herself apart from the others. "So tell me more about this 'right time' you're waiting for," Tiffany said, to open the conversation.
For a long time, Consuela did not speak, and Tiffany wondered if she was asleep. Then the jaguar spoke up. "I do not know if I can explain it. I do not think I have the English. I just…feel it in my bones that a time will come. Things will just…line up, and it will be easy to go. Until then…as well to throw yourself against a stone wall."
Tiffany chuckled. "I think I might just see your point there. But when do you think this time will be?"
Consuela shook her head. "I do not know. Not exactly. But…soon, I think. Yes…soon."
"Well, let me know," Tiffany said. "Maybe two could make it easier."
Consuela smiled. "You have, at least, shown your courage. Yes. Yes, I will tell you."
"Good." There didn't seem to be much of anything to say after that, and they spent the rest of the afternoon dozing together on the rock in the hot sun.
After a few days, the last of Tiffany's bruises healed up. Her health was no longer an excuse to delay another climb back up the rock wall. She might actually make it this time. Only…the words of the "secret Santa" guard kept coming back to her. What if she did make it to the catwalk, only to be filled with lead by a panicky guard who now saw her as a greater threat?
So, feeling like a traitor to herself, Tiffany stayed in the cave that night. And the next. She was beginning to wonder whether this was the same sort of thought process that had ensnared all of the others: escaping was dangerous and too hard; better just to accept it and spend all your time dozing in the sun. "By God, Consuela's 'time' better come soon," Tiffany groaned. "Or I'm going to turn into a lotus-eater just like the rest of them."
The others seemed to sense her changing perspective, and started acting a good deal friendlier to her—until her snarling drove them off. Leo, especially, got a good view of her teeth and claws as she explained to him in no uncertain terms that if he came anywhere near her, Lee's threat would look like a day at a health spa by comparison.
There were a few she didn't mind hanging out with. Lee, of course, and Consuela. Dan didn't say or do much of anything except to continue his nonsensical obsession with "tanning" (that Tiffany had grown convinced was just a put-on to annoy Lee, whom he secretly liked). And Tim and Clarisse did not entirely share the "lotus-eaters'" perspective on captivity, either. (Clarisse's ever-progressing pregnancy was probably the major factor in that.) Even so, too much company was getting harder and harder to take.
Then one afternoon it all came to a head. Tiffany woke on her rock to a lot of worried shouting. She opened her eyes and looked across the water. Clarisse lay under her tree, and Jack was kneeling by her side. Tim stood out in the open, yelling up at the observation platform. Everyone else was off to one side, giving them all some space.
Tiffany made her way to the bridge, vaulting the hinged section with an ease born of habit. "What's going on?" she asked Lee.
Lee looked down, not meeting Tiffany's look. "Clarisse thinks her contractions are starting. Jack's doing what he can. Tim is trying to shame Melton into calling a doctor or something, but I don't think it's gonna work—near as we can tell, Melton hasn't even been in the observation deck for the last few days, and of course the guards are hardened creeps who don't give a damn."
"So come on, then!" Tiffany pointed at the catwalk. "While they're distracted by all the racket Tim is making. The both of us together—maybe we could get Dan and Consuela, too, and Amy should be a good climber—they can't shoot all of us! This is an emergency!"
Lee hung her head, her fluffy tail drooping to the ground. "Don't you see? I…I can't. I just can't."
Tiffany's rage and frustration boiled over. "I see all right. You're a coward. They're all cowards here, except maybe Consuela." She turned to Consuela, who had been watching from nearby. "What about you? Are you with me?"
Consuela frowned, tilted her head a moment, then shook it. "No. It is not time yet. It is…close. Very close. But…I need a sign."
Tiffany growled. "I'll give you your damned sign." She turned to started toward the slope with the caves, to climb once more for the catwalk. This time she was sure she could make it. She had to—for Clarisse's sake.
But as she looked up, she saw them there, standing along the rim. Five guards with rifles, all standing there and looking directly at her. Their attention was on her now. No distraction would be enough.
And that did it. Tiffany's rage burned white-hot. Her blood pounded in her ears, washed her vision a shade of red. And then—
When she would look back on it later, Tiffany would never be able to say quite clearly what she had thought, what she had done, or even what it had felt like. But suddenly the air was…different around her. She felt every follicle of her fur stand individually on end; her long, brown hair was stirred by a gust of wind that touched no one else in the area.
And then she felt—strangely free. Not from the confinment of Melton's pen, but from, and within, her own skin. It was as if she'd been wrapped up in cotton wool all her life, and someone had just pulled it away. Tiffany crossed her arms over her chest again; she was suddenly conscious of her own nudity in a way that had faded soon after her arrival here.
She looked up to see Lee staring at her, and Consuela leaning forward with an intense expression on her face. "What? What're you looking at?"
Lee reached out to touch her, but stopped several inches short. "It can't be—but—" She looked up at the guards, who were starting to point and gesture. "Oh, hell. Get out of there." She grabbed Tiffany's hand and yanked her several steps to the right. Tiffany shivered as she felt the clingy cotton-wool sensation return.
"What the—ohhh!" Tiffany's eyes widened as she put two and two together. "Is that what it feels like to—"
"—to pass out of a Bubble. Yes." Lee frowned. "I was living in the Chicago Bubble before they took me." She shook her head. "Congratulations, Tiff. Seems like that temper of yours is good for something after all. You just tore a hole right through the Veil."
Tiffany looked doubtfully at the space where she had just been standing. It didn't look any different from here. She reached a hand forward tentatively—and Lee slapped it down. "Stop that! We really don't need to draw the guards' attention right now."
"But maybe if they see what we really are—" Tiffany began.
"Girl, you're not thinking clearly," Lee said. "Do these people look like the kind with a lot of imagination? What do you think that kind of person's first reaction is when faced with something strange?"
Tiffany thought for a moment, then got it. "Ohhhh."
"Right." Lee nodded. "People hate and fear what they don't understand. So please do not give the nice men with the bad attitudes and automatic weapons an excuse to go big-game hunting." She shook her head. "Have to tell the others to stay out of it, too, I guess."
"Got some bad news for you, though," Tiffany said. "Before you slapped my hand, I felt it—a good foot beyond where it was before. The hole is growing. Sooner or later, it'll be as big as this entire enclosure."
Their conversation was interrupted by a loud bleat of pain from Clarisse. Tiffany and Lee looked at her, then at each other. "Right, that's what Bubbles do," Lee said slowly. She sighed. "Damn it to hell, we're running out of time on multiple fronts here."
"It is almost time," Consuela said. Tiffany and Lee jumped; they'd forgotten she was still standing right next to them. Her eyes glinted. "Tonight, in the dark. Once the hole has widened."
"You think that's a good idea?" Lee asked. "If they can see us for what we really are…"
"Fur will be darker than white flesh for the climb," Consuela said. "Especially mine. And when we are up there, they will be more…scared by man-cats than by naked women."
Tiffany turned to Lee. "Can we count on you?"
"I don't know, I—" Lee began.
"You said it yourself. We're running out of time." Tiffany waved a hand in the direction of the Bubble, and flinched as she felt her fingertips brush its border. "Stay out of the hole as much as you want today, by tomorrow morning all those guards are going to see is a whole enclosure full of furries. And what's going to stop them from 'big-game hunting' then? It's now or never."
Lee sighed. "All right. I'll…at least bring it up with the others. Have to tell them to stay out of the hole, anyway."
"I just hope we have enough time before Clarisse goes all the way into labor," Tiffany said.
"We will hope for the best," Consuela said. "It is all we can do, now."
They met in Lee and Tiffany's cave at sunset: Tiffany, Consuela, Lee, Dan, Amy, and—to Tiffany's private astonishment—Leo. Trixie and Carl had expressed interest in joining in, but weren't really good at climbing. Jack and Tim were staying with Clarisse but sent their moral support.
As expected, the hole had gradually widened over the course of the day. The furres had tracked its progress over time in the course of walking back and forth, putting bits of pebble or branch in random spots to mark how far it had grown. By sunset, the entire interior of the enclosure had been covered, including the tree where Clarisse was lying. But the branches at least offered some coverage from overhead, and it was dim enough by that point that the guards might not notice anything too strange.
"You all understand the plan?"
"Like, yah," Dan said. "We, like, wait for, like, full dark, and then, like, climb like, like, the climbers we are."
"The scarier ones go first," Amy said, "which leaves me, Dan, and Lee to bring up the rear."
"Oh, so I'm not scary, huh?" Lee grumbled. "Just because I'm fluffy? This is fluff discrimination, that's what this is."
"You scared me, Lee," Leo said.
Everyone except Lee chuckled. Lee just snorted. "Gee, thanks."
"Lee, seriously, you're one of the brightest-colored of us," Tiffany pointed out. "We'd rather take care of at least some of the opposition—and draw the fire of the rest—before you risk yourself."
"Hmph. Well, I guess when you put it that way…"
Consuela paced from the front of the cave to the back. Her job was to estimate the current bubble radius and rate of expansion. "Soon. Very soon," she reported. "It is almost all the way to the back of the cave now."
Then Consuela looked up as a light shone down above her. "You guys are taking a pretty big chance, you know," the voice said.
Consuela crouched and hissed, peering at the silhouette above her. "Hey! Hey, wait," Tiffany said, shoving past Leo to get back there. "It's all right. This one is a friend. Sort of."
"I think I was able to loop the recording in time—nobody would have heard you."
Tiffany facepalmed. "Hell, I didn't even think about that. Thanks. We owe you."
"So what are you planning exactly?" the guard asked.
"You know what's going on down there, right?" Tiffany jerked her thumb at the cave mouth. "We seriously need a doctor in here, or better yet, to get them to a hospital."
"I know. I know. And I also heard some of the guys talking about what they thought they saw earlier." The silhouette tilted his head. "My God, they did see you, didn't they? I can see you clearly now myself."
"More than I can say for you," Consuela spat.
"We're out of time and options, 'Casper,'" Tiffany said. "You help us out now, or we're going to go over the top anyway and whatever happens happens. Otherwise, when the sun comes up tomorrow, they're all going to see us, and won't that be pretty?"
The guard sighed. "You're right. There's no other way." He straightened up. "Well. Even if I had to be forced into it, I have to admit it feels good to do the right thing at last." He kicked something, and a rope ladder fell over the side of the hatch.
Consuela looked dubiously at Tiffany. "You think we can trust him?"
"Given the choice between this and exposing ourselves to fire climbing the walls…I'll take this," Tiffany said. "Same plan, different exit. Scary ones first. Let's move, people!"
As the closest, Consuela climbed up first, followed by Tiffany and then Leo. They found themselves in a cramped utility tunnel that led back away from the "mountain". The three of them, plus the guard (now revealed to be in his twenties, blonde, clean-shaven, reasonably handsome), moved further up the tunnel to let the others in.
The guard started to reach down toward the submachine gun clipped to his belt, then stopped at a growl from Leo. "Um. Listen. You might want to go ahead and take my weapons. You could probably use them yourselves."
Tiffany considered. "Are you willing to help us against the other guards, up to and including firing on them if necessary?"
The guard swallowed, then nodded. "In for a penny, in for a pound. And I've got my sister to think of."
"His sister?" Leo asked.
"She's a Changed, too," Tiffany explained.
"Is she cute?"
"Don't make me hurt you, Leo," Lee said.
"Then I think we'll just have to trust you," Tiffany said. "Anyway, I doubt any of us knows how to use those guns you're packing."
The guard nodded. "There are twenty of them in all. Three shifts of seven each, so there's six other guards on duty right now. The rest have barracks nearby."
"Okay. How good a shot are you with that?" Tiffany asked, gesturing at the tranquilizer rifle leaned up against a wall. "You think you could get a good shot in at the guards out on the catwalks before they notice you?"
The guard looked thoughtful. "Hmm. I might get one—maybe two at most, before the others see."
"And if you could get the other guards to chase you, maybe run in somewhere we could get in behind them?" Lee asked.
"Hmm, that sounds like a plan," Tiffany said.
"Works for me," Leo agreed.
The guard nodded. "That might work. I just hope they don't call out the barracks."
"If they only see you, they shouldn't feel threatened enough to do that," Amy said.
"But you're going to be the one taking the big risk here," Tiffany said. "You sure you're up for it?"
The guard smiled weakly. "I just don't want anyone else to get hurt. Whatever I can do to shut this operation down—I owe it to you guys for all the time I didn't."
"Great. Then let's get set up. We don't have all night."
The guard nodded. "I know just the place." He turned and started to move up the tunnel, but Tiffany stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
"You never did tell me your name."
"Oh." The guard paused. "James. James Case."
Tiffany smiled. "Tiffany Tanner. Pleased to meet you."
James blinked. "Tiffany Tan—wait. You're that Tiffany? From One Life to Live?"
It was Tiffany's turn to blink. "You've heard of me?"
"My sister is big into the soaps." He smiled wryly. "Well, now, that tears it. She'd never forgive me if I let anything happen to you."
"I'll be happy to give her my autograph—hell, I'll visit her personally and tell her what a great brother you are if we get out of this safely."
James smiled weakly. "I might hold you to that."
"I hate to break up this touching mutual admiration society, but can we get on with this, please?" Lee griped.
"All right, all right, keep your pants on," Tiffany muttered.
"I'm not wearing any pants!"
"Darn, I'm too late," Tiffany said. The group chuckle broke the tension, and they moved off down the tunnel with a sense of purpose.
"Everybody ready?" James stood at the doorway to the alcove that abutted onto the catwalk. It was used as some kind of storeroom, with stacks of crates that made great hiding places for the six furres. It smelled dusty, and Tiffany hoped they could keep from sneezing long enough for the guards to move past them.
"We're ready," Tiffany said, ducking back behind the crates. "Good luck."
"Thanks." James swallowed and eased the door open a crack. He lifted the rifle to his shoulder, aimed, and fired. CRACK! He quickly worked the bolt, slotted another dart in, raised the rifle again, and fired one more time. "Hell, they've made me." He tossed the rifle aside and ran to the far end of the room, opening the door there and getting ready to flee.
That had been Tiffany's idea. Rather than ducking behind some crates, James needed to be visible when the guards came running in—so they would start to run after him and the furres could get in behind them.
Tiffany heard the footsteps ringing on the metal catwalk outside, getting closer and closer. She took a deep breath, trying to listen around her heartbeat pounding in her ears. This was it. Make or break time.
The door slammed open. "Case! Case, what the hell are you—" an angry voice bellowed. Then the door at Case's end of the room slammed shut, and Tiffany heard the footsteps of the guards moving to follow.
"Now!" Tiffany sprang out, followed by the others. The four guards spun around, instinctively going for their sidearms—then froze at the five snarling feline faces (and one angry squirrel face) before them. Leo roared like the MGM logo, and they shrank back.
"Wha-what the hell are you?" the lead guard stammered. Tiffany's nose wrinkled at the ammonia stink that told her at least one of the guards had just soiled his pants.
"We are the people you've been holding prisoner," Tiffany said, baring her teeth. "In particular, I'm the one you shot down six times in a row a few days ago. We're not very happy right now. Drop. Your. Guns."
Three of the guards complied. One of them still had enough steel to try to grab for a pistol—but before Tiffany could even react, Consuela lashed out. The gun clattered to the floor, and the guard clutched at his slashed and bleeding hand.
And then, it was all over but the cleanup. James opened the doors to the enclosure at ground level to let the rest of the prisoners out, and to let the paramedics in from the ambulance Tiffany called as soon as the first six guards were secure. The police moved in to take care of the barracks where the other guards were quartered.
Before the police had arrived, Tiffany and the others—armed with weapons confiscated from the guards—had entered Melton's mansion proper to seek out the man who had held them all prisoner for so long. None of them had quite expected what awaited them when they finally found their way to his bedroom.
But that had been four months ago. A lot had happened since then.
When the news story had broken, the so-called "Melton Eleven" had been a nine-day wonder in the newly-Changed-conscious world. They had appeared on news broadcasts and talk shows, for a long time it was hard to turn on the TV or pick up a paper and not see one of them. Just days after returning to New York, Tiffany had heard that Amy had already signed a six-figure deal for a tell-all book.
Tiffany had been welcomed back to One Life to Live with open arms, and the writers had hastened to incorporate a fictionalized version of the kidnapping into the soap opera's plot. Lee, Amy, and Trixie even made a guest appearance as other kidnap victims. The soap's ratings had never been higher.
Hugh Melton himself had never been found, and most people assumed he had fled the country rather than face criminal charges. In his absence, the Eleven had banded together to hire a lawyer and sue Melton's estate for kidnapping, false imprisonment, and a host of other crimes against them. TV networks fought tooth and nail (and sometimes fang and claw) for the right to cover the hearing, until the judge finally sealed the courtroom in exasperation.
It appeared that Melton had recently gone through one of the out-of-phase changes that had been happening so often lately; existing photographs and documentation of him now showed an attractive woman named "Helena Melton". The estate's lawyer tried to use this as a basis to argue mistaken identity, but the Eleven brought in expert witnesses to explain how the "Reality Distortion Field" redacted evidence of the lives of the gender-Changed.
The Eleven won, of course, and demanded ownership of the mansion and grounds where they had been imprisoned in lieu of part of the monetary award. They announced plans to use the rest of the award to convert it into a resort for Changed and their families.
Tiffany supposed it made sense, what with the Bubble being there and all—and many of them had gotten so used to living there in the time they'd been imprisoned that it felt like a "safe" retreat for them now.
But since she had only been held there for a matter of days, Tiffany didn't feel the same sort of attachment to the place—or, for that matter, to the rest of the Eleven—that the others did. She had signed over her portion of the settlement to be split equally among the other ten. They promised her a lifetime membership in the resort in return, but Tiffany frankly didn't care if she never saw the place again.
She also didn't want to think about how, hidden away somewhere in that soon-to-be-open resort, was a small animal habitat with a single occupant: a pretty little Changed cougress who might never be let free again if the Eleven had anything to say about it.
But at least the cougar-woman wouldn't be lonely. Tiffany had heard from Lee that she had a frequent visitor—a certain leonine Changed with a hefty libido. Tiffany wasn't sure exactly how she felt about that (other than to have severe doubts about Leo's taste in women) but she supposed it could be seen as a sort of poetic justice.
And speaking of justice… "Knock knock," came a familiar male voice at the door of Tiffany's dressing room. "Time for our big scene."
"Be right there, Nathan." Today was going to be another first for Tiffany: her character's first steamy love scene with Joey Buchanan. She knew, of course, that there was nothing less erotic than the process of filming such a scene—but it was going to be a great challenge to her acting skills, would look good on the screen, and would make Lee so jealous…so what was not to like?
Smiling like the cat-Changed who swallowed the canary, Tiffany left the dressing room for her date with destiny.
|Melton's Eleven||Succeeded by:|