|In this past October (2020) the Shifti Community lost Chris "Robotech Master" Meadows to an accident involving an SUV hitting his electric bike and leaving the scene. While we may never know the full story of this event, the administrators of Shifti will work to preserve his account and works here as he'd wish us to. Thank you all for being such excellent people.|
"This place is a dump."
The soldier nervously fingered his rifle as he looked out through the shimmering force fields that kept the swirling sand and dust of the endless desert outside the protective confines of the yellow sandstone cave.
“Well the Fairchild recruiter did say that we would get free travel to strange and exotic worlds,” replied the man’s female companion as she adjusted the environmental controls on her lightweight combat armor.
“Mine just said I’d get a couple extra grand in pay and a bunch of personal days. Nothing about getting called out to the armpit of reality over solstice. This sandstorm had been going non-stop since we got here and an air temperature of 70C is downright balmy compared to earlier. They’d better not expect me to go out there. That’s way more than my job’s worth.”
“Quit your griping Logan,” admonished a rather suave looking younger man, a single red bar painted on each of his shoulder guards. “You’ll do what you’re told or you’ll be out of here...and I don’t just mean out of a job,” he continued, gesturing to the bleak landscape beyond the barrier. “Sanchez, you’ve got an extra stripe so I expect you to act like it. This is serious business, not a social club. The fate of the corporation may depend on what you do today. You know, the entity that pays your salary and feeds your children”
“Yes lieutenant,” Logan grumbled.
“Keep a sharp lookout. This interference is making our sensors look like confetti so your first warning of an intruder could be visual,” the Lieutenant reminded as he turned back to look over the small operations center he had been placed in charge of.
The inside of the cave was the size of a small gymnasium, but after 4 days of human habitation with only limited environmental refresh the space was starting to smell more like a locker room. The interior was well lit with banks of high intensity white LEDs and at the far end opposite the mouth stood the 15 foot wide interdimensional portal that provided the small force with a lifeline to their homeworld. On one side of the cave a number of soldiers sat at workstations that monitored the banks of sensor processing units and communications links. On the other side of the cave were piled stacks of supplies and bunks for the 23 humans who had been enlisted for the effort. Most wore the long faces of people who just wanted to go home, however, despite the smell and the heat there were two persons who appeared to be having a good time.
“…and that’s why a werewolf who only changes for the three nights of the full moon is boring. All you can do is go to raves. Having a full time formshift capability is far superior,” the human argued as he set in a large overstuffed chair, his boyish head sticking up out of a metal mass of lupine themed powered armour, a web of lightning bolts airbrushed onto the surface.
“I do not agree Steven. With unrestricted shifting there would be no reason for the lycanthrope to change back and at that point they become a glorified anthro,” replied the furry head of a wolf that was afforded its own padded seat immediately adjacent to his body. “Being restricted to only 3 nights a month is more significant.”
“Well at least you two are having fun,” the Lieutenant smiled as he ambled up to the pair.
“Yes indeed Lieutenant Roth,” the wolf head replied. “Steven and I were just discussing the advantages and disadvantages of different flavors of lycanthropy. I was trying to explain how full time shift ability reduced the condition to that of a poor man’s shape shift enchantment.”
“No need to bother the Lieutenant with boring details Hector,” Steven scolded as he scraped some of the frost off his armor before wiping away some of his scraggly brown hair to deposit the cool moisture on his brow.
“I see you recharged your tri-phase.” Roth noted.
“I noticed it was a little hot outside,” Steven replied dryly. “Always good to be prepared.”
"Easier done when you're working for the Guardians," the Lieutenant laughed as he pulled up a chair next to Steve and Hector. "Everything in corporate security is seen as a cost instead of an investment."
"If there is one thing the Guardians are good at it's providing toys," Steve smiled as he reached over to scratch the AI wolf head between the ears.
"By the way I meant to ask,” said the Lieutenant, leaning in and lowering his voice, “what are you two doing here anyway? I mean normally when corporate identifies some new source for semiconductors we go in and clear out the natives, but that’s hardly the type of activity that would attract the attention of Guardians. Well, at least not the good kind of attention."
Steven looked up at the officer. “Are you asking why Lady Ethera is out there extracting the operative and you’re just on hand for the pickup?”
“Hey, don’t think I’m not grateful,” said Roth as he was reminded of the deadly environment outside, “but it just strikes me as a bit odd. I just don’t want to find myself staring down some sort of elder horror on what should be a bus run. “
"If there is some deep dark threat Lady Ethera didn't see fit to share it with me," Steven replied as he instinctively checked the charge on his gauss pistol. “I’m just tech support.”
Lieutenant Roth laughed. “You’re wearing some pretty fancy kit for a techie. Does Lady Ethera have you out rebooting wireless hubs under fire or something?”
“One of these days it wouldn’t surprise me,” Steven grumbled. “I’m all the help Ethera can afford.”
“Don't you mean 'we'?” chided Hector.
“Sorry...Hector and I are all the help Ethera can afford so we have to take a rather expansive view of our work roles. I like to tell myself that Ethera picked me because being from a low tech Earth made me resourceful instead of just a source of low cost immigrant labor."
"This job also provides for all sorts of unique experiences that are hard to replicate elsewhere," Hector observed.
"Hey, I know it's no consolation," the lieutenant said, "but I'd rather have 10 men here for the job rather than 100 that are here for a payday. Even time-and-a-half won't keep these people motivated for long under extreme conditions."
"I don't blame them," replied Steven as he nervously picked up Hector and laid him in his lap, proceeding casually play with the wolf's fuzzy ears. "Did you see the nanobot contamination levels out there? Since the wind shifted to blow out from the inhabited areas the sensor stopped giving numbers and just reads 'Crazy Bad'."
"Sounds like a job for tech support," the Lieutenant quipped. "Speaking of Ethera I should probably check in on her." Ross got up and walked over to the closest manned workstation. "Hey Miller, where's our favorite Neocorn at right now?"
"The transponder shows her about 56 kilometers out," said the soldier as he adjusted the display to show a wider radius. "Last message from 63 minutes ago indicated she had the package and was using local ground transport to reach the extraction point. Her ETA is…"
The soldier stopped mid-sentence as he stared at the display.
"What is it Specialist?"
"That's strange...her velocity has dropped to zero."
"Is Lady Ethera alright?" Steven asked as he moved up alongside the lieutenant, his eyes glued on the screen."
"I don't know Sir...the transponder only shows that..."
"Call her," Roth ordered as he got up and walked over to have a look at the sensor display himself.
"Call her on the Inter-D . I don't care if we're breaking radio silence. Anti-grav vehicles don't just stop."
As the soldier reached for the transmit button a light melodic voice came in loud and clear over the speakers.
"This is Runner calling Castlegate!"
"Castlegate answering," said Roth, patching his helmet's coms into the base's public address system.
"Castlegate'', the pickup wasn't as clean as first reported and I have been intercepted by the local authorities. The vehicle was disabled and I am now proceeding on foot to the extraction point. The package is in tow, enemy forces in hot pursuit."
"Runner...do you require any assistance?"
"Break down the tent Castlegate, there might not be much time available after my arrival," Ethera replied, now sounding more than a little fatigued. "I need to concentrate Castlegate...Runner out."
"Sir, Runner is moving again. Velocity 80kph," Miller stated.
"What's going on Steven?" Roth asked as he stared at the one solid target amongst the blob of sensor interference.
"It sounds like Lady Ethera is in her quad form with the operative on her back," Steven replied, his voice rising a bit with anxiety. "This isn't good lieutenant. She would never drop her human disguise unless she was in great danger."
Lieutenant Roth turned to the group of soldiers who were now hovering close behind. "Miller, try to see what you can do about all that damned interference. Sergeant, wake up the Colonel and get him here ASAP. Everybody else who isn't watching a screen start getting this place packed up. Overwatch, are can you guys hear me?"
"Loud and clear sir," came the reply over the local com.
"Prepare yourselves for action. Check our sensor feed for targeting."
"Sir!" Specialist Miller cried out as the blip representing Ethera vanished then reappeared several kilometers closer to the extraction point.
"Don't keep me in the dark Steven," Roth called out without bothering to look back.
"U-Unicorns have a natural ability to teleport themselves. It is often used to avoid capture," said Steven, trying to stay out of people's way.
"Why the hell doesn't she just teleport all the way here!" the Lieutenant growled in exasperation.
"The ability is of limited distance and frequency," answered Hector in a rather neutral tone of voice.
"Lieutenant, I've used the accumulated sensor data to construct a heat map of the enemy disposition," said Miller as red and orange blobs were superimposed on top of the real time returns. "Looks like mechanized forces sir, battalion strength."
"Fuck," Roth cursed as he looked at the display. "At least the storm is making it hard for them to track her. Look here, here and here," he continued, pointing at various blobs of color. "I recognize those tactics from my time in Fleet tracking cloaked ships. The chase units drive the quarry forward into the "net" formed by these other ones that are sprinting ahead. Probably something frontier forces have to do on a regular basis if they don't want to give fugitives an automatic escape."
"Well what should Ethera do? If we know the enemy's tactics..." Steven trailed off.
"Ethera is doing exactly what she should be doing," Roth answered. "Get through before the net closes."
"Steven please," Hector whined softly. "If you continue to rub my head like that you will wear off all the fur."
"Sorry buddy. I'm feeling just a wee bit out of my league here," Steven responded, setting the living helmet down on an adjacent table as he switched over to wringing his hands together, his eyes transfixed on Ethera's transponder blip.
Two workstations down a strong female voice called for the Lieutenant's attention.
"Sir we've got fast movers inbound! Altitude 5000 meters. Speed approaching Mach 1."
"Oh this just keeps getting better and better doesn't it," Roth proclaimed with a healthy dose of false bravado. "Overwatch, whatever is buzzing about over Runner's position. Would you please do me a favor and make them go away?"
"Roger that sir."
The assembled troops in the room grew silent as those who were able huddled around the sensor display as the two bright blips representing high speed atmospheric craft swooped in to intercept the Neocorn Guardian's current line of travel. Suddenly two intensely bright points of light emerged from about 1000 meters away from the center of the display and made a beeline for the two enemy craft, obliterating each in quick succession.
"I sure as hell hope I didn't just declare war on some alternate reality," Roth mumbled under his breath.
"Sir, Ethera just teleported again. She's 5 clicks out."
"How many times does that make?"
"Five by my count sir."
Lieutenant Roth looked back at Steven who shook his head in reply. "She's got to be running on fumes now Lieutenant."
"Sir, multiple enemy contacts closing fast on Lady Ethera's position!" the specialist cried as enemy vehicles emerged from the haze of interference. "Looks like she's running into the lead elements of the blocking force."
"Overwatch, engage enemy targets at will. We just need a little more time," Roth radioed over the com.
"Come on Ethera...run like the wind," Steven prayed as he clasped his hands together and closed his eyes. "I know you can do it."
Energy discharges lit up the screen as high yield shells fired from the light tank began to burst in close proximity to the enemy vehicles.
"She's 2 clicks out sir, but two enemy units have made it through the screen. They're almost on her!"
"Greeting Party to the door," Roth called out. "This one is going to be close!"
"I have two enemy powered armour in sight," boomed Ethera's voice over the speaker. "Attempting to..."
The Neocorn mare's voice was abruptly cut off by a sizzle of particle energy followed a blood curdling whinny and then the sound of multiple people hitting the ground hard. All activity in the cave instantly stopped as everyone looked up towards the speakers as a series of pained moans, both equine and human filled the air.
"Hold it right there," spoke an unknown female voice from somewhere in range of Ethera's hearing. "Now you're going to give me root access and shut yourself down immediately or I'm going to put the next shot right between your AAAAAAGGRRRRKKKKKK."
The cry of pain that accompanied the almost musical energy discharge was followed by the sound of a heavy metal object hitting the ground.
"If you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk," Ethera panted between clenched teeth.
"Yes! Way to give him a taste of the old horn of justice!" Steven shouted, breaking the silence back in the cave before looking around awkwardly.
The celebration didn't last long as more shots could be heard impacting in close proximity to Ethera who was able to respond with staccato bursts from her rapid fire Gauss rifle.
"Got you little fucker. Ugh! Why won't you die?!"
There was another burst of fire.
"Oh, now you want to run away eh? Ha, not so fast without your legs..."
The cave was treated to the sound of one more short.
"Runner...this is Castlegate. What is your status?"
There was no immediate reply, only the sound of hard breathing.
"I'm here Castlegate," the soft yet steely voice responded. "Both myself and the Package have taken multiple hits. Neither of us is mobile. All my energies are drained and I am low on ammunition."
"Understood Runner...will advise. Hang in there."
Lieutenant Roth took off his helmet and slammed it down on the table in front of him. "Fuck!"
"What's going on?!" said Steven as he ran up to the Lieutenant. "We can't just leave her out there to be captured! She's a Neo...the fucking animals here will take her apart!"
"What the hell do you want me to do about it?" Roth yelled back. "You think I like leaving someone behind?"
"Send the tank. We have enough weapons and people here for a rescue force," Steven pleaded.
"These mecha suits we're facing will rip a light tank to pieces and the rest of us along with it. At that point a hostile alien civilization will have Ethera and the portal and all our stuff. I'm sorry Steven, it's no go."
Suddenly the cave lit up with a bright blue light as the portal activated. A few seconds later a grizzly looking older gentleman with a Johnny Unitas haircut, well worn combat armour and a pulse plasma battle rifle marched into the operations center. Steven's brief hope that reinforcements were on the way were dashed when the portal quickly closed after discharging only a pair of smartly equipped aides. As the Colonel and his assistants exchanged salutes with Lieutenant Roth, Steven reached down and picked up Hector off the table.
"What in the Sam Hill is going on here?!" the Colonel glared. "This mission was sold to me as a piece of cake and now I hear we're fully engaged with superior enemy forces? Where's the target? Where's Lady Ethera?"
"Colonel Becker. I...I don't know what to tell you, "Lieutenant Roth stammered. "Lady Ethera was intercepted before she could reach the extraction point. We have the bulk of the enemy pinned down, but we have no capacity to mount a rescue operation. I was just in the process of explaining this to Ethera's representative."
Colonel Becker turned in the direction indicated by Lieutenant Roth only to find himself staring face to face with a six and a half foot tall anthro wolf as it twisted its bio-realistic headpiece into place. Before his eyes the youthful expression on the wolf's face morphed into one of grim determination as Steven mind synced with Hector's AI.
"Ethera's representative? What the hell are you? One of those half man, half wolf wannabes?"
"I don't want to be anything sir. With your permission I am going to go rescue Lady Ethera and complete the mission."
The Colonel turned towards Lieutenant Roth then back towards the wolf. "Seeing as how you're the only one dressed for the conditions, permission granted. We'll hold out as long as we can for you. Bring her back son."
"Lieutenant, I need all the M72s you have armed and ready to go," said the wolf as he went over and began to pull out a number of items from his pack and load them into a small shoulder sling bag.
"Logan, Sanchez. Peel all the LAWs and bring them this way."
"We only brought four sir," said Logan as he pulled the pin on the small disposable rocket launcher and extended it into the firing position.
"That will have to do," said the wolf as he tightened the strap on the sling bag, put on his helmet and goggles and walked towards the mouth of the cave.
"Overwatch is still firing up a storm so look out for blast effects," Lieutenant Roth yelled over. "We'll try to keep you informed of any hostiles trying to sneak up on you."
"Careful with these," said Sanchez as she helped fit the rockets' carrying straps around the wolf's thick shoulders, "all the safeties are off so sufficient pressure on the trigger will cause them to fire."
"Don't you need a rifle?" Roth asked as the wolf got into a runners' stance in front of the force lock that sealed off the cave.
"It will only slow me down. Oh, one more thing. You tell Ethera Shockwulf is coming."
As Shockwulf flew across the burning hot terrain the biologic mind within had entered a state of extreme focus. With the suit sealed against the harsh environment and Hector filtering out the incessant howl of the wind, all Steven was aware of was the crunch of his metal digitigrade paws hitting the sand and the mixed sensations of his biologic body's elevated heart rate and breathing.
Shockwulf had one goal, getting to Ethera as quickly as possible and each power assisted step brought the 'distance to target' number in his visual field closer to zero. As the sand changed over to rock Steven was dimly aware of Hector exchanging information with the controllers back at base. Popping up over a small rise in the terrain, a large red box appeared in the middle of Shockwulf vision, identifying the location of a hostile mech otherwise hidden by the blowing sand.
Closing the distance Steven was able to visualize the target using one of Shockwulf's augmented visual modes. It was a female soldier in powered armour with a size and animal theme similar his own. The metal lynx was not expecting an attack from behind asshe attempted to maneuver around Ethera, using the blowing sand and wind eroded rocks for cover. By the time she became aware of the threat Shockwulf had already depressed the trigger on the first rocket. At such a short range impact was nearly instantaneous and the mech's light armour and shielding offered little resistance to the advanced shaped charge warhead designed to cut through meters of[]RHA. Not bothering to take cover, the sprinting wolf soon found himself blown sideways by a blast of unexpected size.
//"Well that one was was rather ripe," Hector noted as Shockwulf rolled back onto his feet and discarded the empty launcher tube leaving Steven to wonder if his co-pilot was referring to the explosion or the droplets of blood and silver mech fluid that were solidifying on his metal shell.
Shockwulf knew he was now being hunted. The split second before the lynx was destoryed fact of his presence had been transmitted to other enemy units in the area and the sensor feed from base soon showed a number of blips converging on his position. Shock could feel targeting scanners trying to lock onto to him through the interference and a second later the area around him erupted in particle beam fire of ever increasing accuracy. Taking another rocket into his metal hand Shockwulf turned towards his attacker, closing the distance until a van-sized lion bounded out if the swirling dust. Shock immediately went into a feet first slide, firing the rocket from the reclined position and hitting the target just behind the left shoulder. The warhead detonated with a loud bang, a puff of black smoke and a shower of ineffective looking sparks.
The lion mech skidded to a stop, a look of dull surprise on its face. Shaking as if he had a mild case of the hiccups a cartoonish puff of white smoke escaped from the lion's nostrils a brief moment before a massive gout of flame erupted from its throat as the mech's high energy internal components[]cooked[]off in an unstoppable cascade. Without missing a beat Shockwulf was back on his feet and moving before the smoking pile of scrap had fallen to the ground.
//"Ethera, I am almost to your location. If you have any fog, pop it because I'm going to need some time to get you out."
//"You shouldn't have come Shock. No need to have all three of us wind up as prisoners."
Shockwulf knew enough to ignore the propensity of Unicorn nobility to diminish the abilities of commoners and pressed on as the distance counter ticked over into a length covered by a typical football pitch. Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light and Steven felt everything go all fuzzy as he flew through the air before landing hard on the leeward side of a small sand dune.
//"Steven, we have just sustained a significant hit from a particle beam. Reviewing my logs I believe it came from an enemy mech using adaptive camouflage."
//"Thanks for the update Captain Hindsight," Steven groaned as he struggling to orient himself on top of the unstable tan granules.
Looking down at himself Shockwulf saw that the left side of his upper torso was charred where the beam impact had shifted his phase change armour all the way from absorb to ablate with a few of the smaller segments having been completely blown off. His two remaining LAWs had been knocked off his shoulder although he quickly spotted one of them lying near his left foot.
//"Ugh fuck! The art!!" Steven cried as he saw the extent of the damage.
//"Something is coming!" Hector screamed into his mind as a shimmering bipedal mass appeared over the crest of the dune.
Time seemed to slow down as one of Shockwulf's thermal vision mode revealed a tiger theme power suit training her shoulder mounted particle cannon directly at his head. Just as the weapon was about to discharge the tiger lost her footing on the unstable dune sending the shot wide and giving Shockwulf just the opening he needed. Kicking the rocket up into his outstretched hand Shock fired from the hip, hitting the tigress in the mid-section and neatly dividing her in twain with an accompanying spray of smoke, sparks, blood and silver slime. Staggering to his feet Shockwulf's attention was soon brought back to the upper half of the tigress as she raised an arm mounted energy weapon and fired, knocking Shockwulf back on his heels as the shot impacted his abdomen.
"Bitch!" the wolf howled as he charged forward, stepping on the arm to send a follow-up blast in a safe direction.
"Fuck you!" the curse now equal parts anguish and rage as Shockwulf reached behind himself and unshackled his gauss pistol.
"Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!!!” Steven screamed as loud as his hardware would allow, syncopating each shout with a shot into the tiger's head until the pistol held open on the empty magazine.
Taking a moment to regard the sparking remains of the mech, Shockwulf became aware of a dull burning sensation emanating from his midsection. Rubbing his free hand where the pain was Shockwulf decided he didn't have time to deal with the sticky red substance that coated his fingers and staggered on towards Ethera. Managing little better than a quick jog he soon began to encounter a pungent grey smoke mixed in with the ambient dirt and sand. With visibility rapidly approaching zero due to the sensor fog, Shockwulf kept Ethera's transponder signal firmly in his crosshairs until he literally fell into the small wind-eroded depression where she had taken refuge.
"Don't shoot! It's me," the mech wolf cried as he as he found himself staring down the barrel of slick white polymer covered Gauss rifle.
"Always good to see a friendly face," said Ethera, still keeping a bit of her stiff upper lip, "but I assume you have a plan for getting us out of here. As you can see I'm in no condition to travel and my passenger has sustained multiple plasma wounds."
As Shock surveyed the situation he noted how Ethera's normally shiny palomino hide had been blasted dull by the sand and how every crevice between the white plates of her body armor and the black under-suit was packed with dust. Soon the reason for her immobility became apparent as as Shock saw how Ethera's left leg had been blown off at the knee leaving a few hanging wires and bits of torn synthmuscle. All around the depression was evidence of the glowing blue blood that flowed through the Neocorn mare's power system.
"Jesus you're a wreck," said Shockwulf as he reached over to feel the pulse of the semi-conscious human that Ethera had been leading to the extraction point.
"Have you looked in a mirror recently?" Ethera observed. "I stabilized the operative then I applied what healing magic I could, but I'm completely out of energy. If I were to try anything more it could be fatal," said Ethera, a hint of resignation creeping into her voice.
"That's not going to happen," stated the wolf, reaching into his bag and pulling out a large plastic bottle and tossing it to the unicorn. "Drink this."
Ethera glanced at the label then cracked it open. "I don't think you understand the limitations of magical energy drinks. Any spell I cast is still going to need something from me that I don't have to give."
"Just drink it and don't argue," Shockwulf snapped as he began pulling pins on additional canisters of sensor fog and tossing them about their position. "Where's the rest of your leg?"
"I don't know. I lost track of it when I was trying to take cover," Ethera winced as she tossed the empty bottle aside.
"I guess we'll just have to risk leaving it behind, not that these people seem to need help with their cybernetic technology," Shock replied as he pulled out his first aid kit and applied a spray seal to the burn on his side.
Suddenly the Unicorn's ears began to perk up. "I can hear at least 4 mech suits out there, possibly 6. They're getting in position to rush us."
"Alright, time to go. Get on your back."
Ethera blinked for a moment, but then did was Shock instructed, sliding over to lay flat on her backside. Shockwulf grabbed her charge and placed his body face down on the anthro Unicorn's chest. Finally Shock pulled off the articulated metal gauntlets that covered each of Steven's human hands and after cramming them into his bag he belly flopped down on top of Ethera and the deep cover operative.
"Take my hands!" Shock shouted. "You pull whatever energy you need directly from me!"
"But your injury..."
"Don't argue! Just do it!"
Taking Steven's hands in her own Ethera began to draw on the human's biologic energies to re-engage her her teleportation ability. Locking onto the image of the operations center pictured clearly in Shockwulf's mind, the Neocorn's horn began to glow until all three Federation agents vanished with a slight pop of inrushing air. Seconds later all that greeted the teeth, claws and particle weapons of the enemy mechs were two flavors of blood and the lingering scent of flowers hanging in the air.
Steven was barely conscious as he was yanked off of the top of the Neocorn sandwich and dragged over to a section of carpet placed over the hard rock floor of the cave. A moan escaped his human lips as the furry lupine head was disconnected from the metal body breaking the neuro-sync.
"Sit him up. Where's the damn medic?"
"He's treating the operative sir."
"Well get me a stimpack and a first aid kit," Lieutenant Roth ordered before bending down to look in Steven's face. "Hey, can you hear me?"
Steven nodded sleepily.
"Don't worry. We'll get you back on your feet in a second. Ethera and her charge are going to be fine. You got 'em back. Good job."
As Steven gradually awakened from the acute energy drain he found himself in the middle of a hive of frenetic activity as soldiers ran about throwing equipment into bins and dragging them through the shimmering portal.
"What's with the French fire drill?" he groaned.
"Those things didn't stop when you vanished. We've got an hours' worth of takedown to do in 10 minutes, the Lieutenant explained as he pressed the injector into Steven's neck. "That ought to wake you up so whenever you're ready your help would be appreciated."
Steven winced from the pain in his side as he reached up and firmly grasped Roth's hand. "Ooooaaahhh, damn that smarts."
"Don't be such a crybaby, it's just a plasma burn," Roth chuckled, giving Steven a pat on the back. "Alright, get yourself back together and make like a mule."
Steven nodded and ambled back over to the table where Hector was dutifully waiting for him. Picking up the wolf head that was still adorned with goggles and helmet he fit it down over his own and secured it in place to the neck of the mech suit.
//"Are you feeling ok Steven?" Hector's voice asked inside his own.
//"Yeah...see if you can't do something about the pain though. They need me to lift heavy objects."
Taking a deep breath inside the suit Steven made his way over to where Ethera was laying as she watched her charge carried to safety through the portal on a stretcher.
"I guess that's mission accomplished Lady Ethera," said Shockwulf as he knelt down to gently rub her mane. "You know if I keep saving you like this you'll need to give me a promotion to whatever the next level is up on the Guardian ladder."
//"Sidekick?" Hector offered privately.
"We can talk about it when you start putting yourself in a position that needs rescuing," Ethera replied in a somewhat inscrutable tone. "Thank you nevertheless. It is not often that I encounter humans that are so dependable."
"Sir! We have a problem!" Specialist Miller suddenly cried out, standing as other soldiers were already in the process of clearing away the workstations on either side of his.
"What is it Miller," the Lieutenant called back, dropping a portable fusion generator onto a hand truck.
"Something's wrong with Overwatch. They were on their way back when I got a call about them taking a hit, then there was some sort of commotion and now I can't seem to raise them."
"Shit! Castlegate to Overwatch," said the Lieutenant, keying his mic. "Castlegate calling Overwatch?"
Roth listened to a few seconds of garbled shouts and other ambient noise from inside the tank then cursed again, reaching for his plasma rifle and a demolition charge.
"Sergeant, you're in charge. If I can't get back I'll do my best to sanitize the operation."
Shockwulf heard the inflection in the Lieutenant's voice and recognized it as the one from someone who knew they were about to die.
Shockwulf's voice showed no such hesitation or regret. It was deep and confident, just the way Steven had always pictured it when he played the character in games.
"They're my men and my responsibility Steven and besides, have you looked at yourself recently?"
"The name's Shockwulf," he said, striding over next to the Lieutenant so that he wouldn't have to yell, "and I'm the best tool you've got. Your leadership is needed here and your rifle won't do much more than piss these things off. I'll get your men back and leave things nice and clean, you have my word."
"We can't wait for you. You have ten minutes….max."
"Understood," Shockwulf said flatly as he went to the last pile of weapons, equipping an MG42 and a tank of .50 caliber ammunition. "I'm taking the zip rounds and I don't want to see an extra charge on the bill."
"You know the assault drum on that 42 is going to last you all of about 2 seconds," Roth warned as he opened the inner part of the force lock.
"I don't like to fill up before the main course."
Bounding across the sand and rock Shockwulf didn't need a transponder signal to home in on his target as it was clearly marked by a rising pillar of black smoke. The intense sandstorm that had blanketed the extraction point for most of the last 4 days had chosen that exact moment to lift, robbing the Federation forces of both their cover and the advantage of their superior sensors. A little less than 750 meters from the cave the modernized M24 light tank that had been keeping the attacking mechs at bay, came into view. It had been attempting to withdraw when a lucky shot to the engine compartment rendered it immobile on slight gravel slope in front of a rock formation. As Shockwulf approached he quickly identified 3 of the 5 crewmembers lying on the ground in the lee of the burning track while the 4th was being roughly extracted from the co-driver's hatch by one of the small mech suits resembling a bobcat or lynx. Shockwulf raised the light machine gun to his shoulder and took careful aim.
"Here kitty kitty!"
Depressing the trigger the weapon assumed the role of a buzzsaw, sending a stream of 8mm projectiles towards the target at upwards of 6000 feet per second. A combination of the suit's strength, Hector's processing and the gun's inertial dampening allowed Shockwulf to keep his weapon on target despite the strong recoil force of the full power ammunition. The mech was awkwardly hunched over the hatch opening as bullets began to impact against her projected hard light armour. Attempts by the cat to disengage and seek cover were delayed as the previously uncooperative tanker latched onto the mech's leg, holding her in place as the high velocity projectiles chewed through the protective barrier and then proceeded to rip into her body leaving a riddled corpse as the gun ran dry.
"Are you guys ok?" Shockwolf yelled both vocally and over coms as he tossed the empty weapon aside and jumped up onto the tank, kicking the bloody mech suit to the ground.
"We've been better," the assistant driver panted as he made sure his breathing filter and goggles were in place. "Our tracks got hit and that thing was waiting for us when we started bailing out."
"Where's your commander?!"
"I'm right here," replied a shorter man wearing a form fitting padded suit as he clambered out of the turret cupola, clutching a short barreled carbine. "Looks like you're not the only one into the whole predatory look."
"You have seven minutes to get you and your crew back to the cave Sergeant. Don't dawdle unless you want to take up residence in an interrogation cell," Shockwulf stated, unstrapping the tank of ammo from his back.
The sergeant jumped down and glanced at his loader who was looking a tad unsteady on his feet.
"That thing hit my guys with some sort of stun weapon. Movement might be problematic."
"I've got you covered, just go...NOW!" Shockwulf barked as he jumped into the cupola and rotated the .50 caliber machine gun in the direction of the approaching sensor contacts.
The tank commander hesitated a moment then nodded. "You heard the wolf, all of you back to the cave, now!"
Shockwulf was aware of numerous air and ground targets converging on his location as Hector linked himself with the heavy machinegun's optics and stabilizer. Wedging the large box of ammo in between the gun and the armoured shield, Shockwulf jammed the end of the flexible ammunition guide into the weapon's feedway with a satisfying click, triggering the barrel's[]gauss[]coils to charge up. In his field of view Shockwulf could see all the approaching targets highlighted by red boxes along with his point of aim. One box was particularly large and somewhat unnecessary as a gleaming metal cheetah bounded out of the haze. Shockwulf yanked back on the charging handle pulling the first round out of the guide and positioning it in line with the breach. The cheetah fired an energy blast from a weapon mounted on its back, scorching the gun shield as Shockwulf pulled the handle back for a second time to strip a round from the belt and load it into the chamber. Time seemed to freeze as the metal cheetah's hind legs tucked back, propelling its strong mechanical body up into the air, razor sharp claws extended and ready to rip the life out of the hostile metal wolf.
Although ordinary in appearance, each lime green projectile was of a special type designed to cut through ordinary matter through non-energetic annihilation. Accelerated to near relativistic speeds through the combined action of a subatomic propellant and electromagnetic coils, the protective coating was quickly eroded allowing the armed projectiles to cut neat little holes in whatever they came in contact with until the exotic material was all used up causing the bullet to explosively fragment. Facing 13 of these extra special rounds per second, the pouncing cheetah was ripped into a hail or scrap metal that proceeded to bounce harmlessly off the tank.
There was no time for celebration, no time for witty remarks. As soon as one target was dispatched Shockwulf moved robotically to another, fending off attacks from both the air and ground. Still, despite the devastating effects of his weapon Shock was fighting a losing battle as the enemy divided his fire and pressed ever closer. Bright balls of pulsed plasma and sizzling particle beams began to light up the tank, sending sparks and chunks of burning metal in all directions. Soon the targets were so close that Shockwulf was no longer firing short bursts, instead holding the trigger down and directing the stream of bullets towards every flash of metal that appeared in his visual field.
"RRRAAAAHHHHHHHH!" Shockwulf roared as he decapitated another of the heavy lion mechs after a particularly well aimed shot took a chunk out of his helmet.
"YOU WANT SOME OF THIS?!"
"STOP FIRING! YOU ARE GOING TO DESTROY THE WEAPON!" Hector bellowed into Steven's mind.
The firing abruptly stopped, but only because the tank had run out of ammunition. Shockwulf was breathing hard, his paws welded to the spade grips of the gun as heat poured off the white hot barrel. Disoriented from the stress, Shock could only watch as holes suddenly began to appear in the andrium gun shield. The first was an object of curiosity. The second tore off the armour plate covering his left shoulder. The third impacted the right side of his abdomen, cutting through his body right below Steven's ribcage. The wolf let out a muffled groan, sliding back in the seat, the yellow eyes looking up as if the creature was unsure of where he was. Glancing down to the side Shock watched as a metal snow leopard circled around to line up a killing shot with his gauss rifle. With only one task left to perform, Shockwulf quietly started the timer on the demolition charge and dropped it down into the hull of the tank. Suddenly there was a sharp detonation and the mech was blown back on its paws as a light anti-tank grenade fired from long range exploded against its chest.
//"Let's go Rover!" the tank commander's voice rang out over the com as he followed up his first shot with rifle fire from about 100 meters away. "They aren't going to hold to portal open much longer!"
His determination renewed by the encouragement, Shockwulf blocked out the pain and weakness from his injury and grabbed the glowing barrel at its base. Quickly flipping up the release lever he pulled the glowing metal rod out of the receiver and crawled out of the gunner's seat. Fixated on shooting back at the lightly armed human, the snow leopard was oblivious to the powered wolf as it leapt off the tank and smacked him full force in the head with the white hot barrel. The combination of AI survival programming mixed with human adrenaline created an odd state of focused detachment as Shockwulf hit the mech again and again, breaking the gauss rifle in two and depleting large portions of the mech's projected armor. As the leopard entered a crouch to bring forth a small wrist mounted blaster, the wolf sensed his chance and grasping the glowing rod in both hands brought it down with all his strength at the point where the grenade had previously impacted. The blunt end of the barrel punched through the shielding, found a seam in the metal and sank up to Shock's wrists in the soft interior of the machine. The leopard let out an agonizing cry as the sick sound of boiling flesh was picked up by Shockwulf's sensitive ears.
Stepping over the lifeless mech as it collapsed, Shockwulf began to move back towards the cave, stumbling a bit on the uneven ground as Hector found himself having to take over an increasing amount of control.
//"I'm hurt bad man," Steven thought to Hector as he gasped for breath, one metal hand pressed against the most significant of his injuries.
//"I have deployed the on board first aid systems. Just focus on reaching the extraction point. The NeoCorns will be able to heal us upon our return."
//"I'm having trouble breathing and my vision is all weird."
//"You are going into shock. I cannot correct your internal visual perception, but I am assisting with your movement and collision detection."
Shockwulf had managed to break into somewhat halting jog as weapons fire in his general direction began to increase in intensity as a second wave of mech suits renewed the attack.
//"We're out of time," Steven gasped. "We're not going to make it."
//"You might not make it," said Hector, still calm and businesslike, "but together we'll get there. Besides you are confusing being out of time with being just in time."
Shockwulf stumbled in behind a yellow basalt outcropping that jutted out from the steep slope of the hill and fell to his knees in a draft of sand, struggling for breath. From somewhere back out on the gravel plain behind him he heads the unmistakable clink of metal crunching on rocks and pebbles. Radio frequency signals spiked as multiple mechs began to silently coordinate their attack.
//"Three...two...one..." Closing Shockwulf's eyes and mouth, Hector silently counted down, stopping on an anti-climactic note as nothing seemed to happen. "Um, one?"
The second time was the charm and the entire world flashed white as the demolition charge exploded with a force equaling multiple tons of TNT. A second later the shockwave rolled over Shockwulf's sheltered position with a deafening thunderclap, dispersing whatever enemies had been close by and whipping up a protective curtain of sand and dust.
//"Now's our chance!" Hector yelled.
//"I don't think I can get up," Steven thought weakly as his sense of reality began to spin about him.
Nevertheless the powered exo-wolf rose up onto its digitigrades feet and began to run as fast as he could back towards the safety of the cave and home.
//"Just hang in there Steven, we can make it!"
Steven didn't answer. His vision abruptly went from tunnel to black and he felt himself falling forward down to a ground that never seemed to come.
"He's coming out of it now m'Lady."
The disembodied voice was soft, yet distinctly male as Steven tried to make sense of his surroundings. He felt as if he was gently floating in a bath of warm fog. Attempts to open his eyes only resulted in an unintelligible blur of light and color and his skin felt as if it was suffering from a full body nerve pinch.
"Increase the rate to 5mL per second. That should neutralize the remainder of the sedative."
"E-Ethera?" Steven mumbled as he tried to raise a hand to rub his eyes.
"No no, Lady Windchaser is not here right now. I'm Doctor Magnolia Nightsky," answered the Neocorn in the sort of soothing light voice that was common to her people when speaking Human languages. "You're coming out of a medical stasis so don't try to move until the effects have worn off."
"W-where am I?"
"You're in the Orchid Longtail medical facility at the Guardian meadows. Just relax, everything is perfectly alright, you just had a bit of an extended nap."
The doctor nodded to her apprentice who turned and left the room.
"Extended"?" Steven asked between breaths.
"A little over four weeks," Doctor Nighsky replied as she made some slight gestures with her hand to update the file displayed in her visual field. "You're one very lucky Human. Had you turned up at almost any other medical facility your survival would have been doubtful given the extent of your injuries and low levels of bio-energy. I'll never understand why your species feels that strapping into a power suit gives you license to ignore the rules of biology."
A chill went through Steven as the declining levels of sedative allowed his mind to suddenly spin out of control as the lack of feeling in his body combined with the stated severity of his injuries pointed to a whole host of possible outcomes given the technical and magical skill of Neocorns. Steven's breathing became panicked as he started to squirm around on the bed.
"W-what did you do to me!? What did you turn me into?!"
The doctor stepped away from the bed, startled by Steven's sudden and bizarre reaction.
"Steven calm down!" her voice was firm yet soothing. "We didn't turn you into anything. I don't even know where you'd get such a preposterous idea in the first place. This isn't some two bit heal shop that turns you into an undead, although I can say with some certainty if you keep overextending yourself that's exactly what how you'll end up."
Steven's vision finally cleared enough that he could make out the distinctive outline of five dexterous fingers on a pink skinned human hand instead of a hoof or a paw or some fusion of the two. His breathing eased as he let his hand fall back down to the bed.
"I'm still me though right? I'm not like a robot or bio-synth now am I?"
The Neocorn mare gently engulfed Steven's hand with her own and looked down at him with bright blue eyes.
"We had to stabilize your brain with nanos, but aside from that you are a 100% biologic human. Don't worry, Ethera made us aware of your job working on low tech worlds and we made every effort to make sure not to interfere with that."
"Ok...so what's next?"
"Well once we reverse the effects of the stasis we'll just run some tests and try to get you out of here before lunch," Doctor Nighsky answered as she finished up making notes in Steven's file and gently placed his arm back down on the bed.
"That's it? I'm just ok as in get up and go home ok?"Steven asked.
"You're going to need a week or two of physical therapy, but there are special residence units for that. No point keeping you in a hospital bed if there's no good reason for you to be here," Magnolia replied as she flicked her ears about playfully.
Steven blinked as his vague recollection of the preceding events clashed with the apparent lack of consequences. "Thank you doctor. It feels good to be, um, not dead."
"Well you certainly came to the right place for that," said Magnolia as she leaned in and pressed her shiny pink nose to the side of Steven's neck. "I have other rounds to make, so I'll leave you alone with your friend."
The shimmering form of a holographic grey wolf suddenly materialized out of nothingness and leapt up onto the bed, circling a few times before laying down, his big yellow eyes transfixed on Steven.
"Hector!!" Steven cried as he tried sitting up to embrace the wolf only to be forced back down by an intense feeling of weakness. "Ooooh, what's wrong with me"
"You underwent some rather intense medical interventions. You were suffering from multiple organ failure and they had to replace most of your blood," Hector offered, not showing much distress over what had come before. "But now all is well."
"How the hell did I get back? I only remember...well…I guess I don't remember much of anything. There was a large explosion and then I woke up here."
"When you lost consciousness it was a simple task for me to pilot the Shockwulf suit back to the extraction point with you inside. Lieutenant Roth was nice enough to wait for our return and once through the portal Ethera made sure that we were taken to the Guardian medical facility on the Neo homeworld.” Hector replied, clearly pleased with himself.
"I also remember shooting at robot animals and I think I beat one to death with a light sabre," Steven blinked as he tried to recall the events of the mission. "All that can't be right can it?"
"Your recollection of the mission is roughly accurate, but I believe your confusion has arisen from my efforts to de-intensify the events to prevent psychological trauma."
"What?" said Steven, suddenly confused.
"Flashbacks and post traumatic stress commonly affect those that have had similar experiences," said Hector as his mouth opened wide in a canine yawn. "Psychological stabilization is one of my operational tasks."
"Um...thanks, I guess," Steven replied, feeling a bit uneasy. "Wait, what am I saying? Thank you Hector, I owe you my life. If it wasn't for you I would be dead right now."
"The mission was also a success."
"For God and Country...although I would have to check on which ones we were representing back there."
There was an extended moment of silence as Steven lay back in the bed, staring up at the skylight in the ceiling as the display wall charted his vital signs.
"You've been here the entire time haven't you?" Steven asked.
"I am your friend Steven, where else would I go?"
"Everything feels so normal, but I keep getting this nagging feeling that things aren't going to be the same."
"New experiences bring change Steven. It is inevitable."
Steven grunted as he slowly raised his knee up and down in the lower body workout device, sweat dripping down his forehead and soaking through his blue t-shirt. The gym was nearly empty that time of day with rows of computerized multi-purpose exercise equipment lined up in front of a long window looking out on an azure blue lake.
"Perhaps you should try lowering the resistance and increasing the reps," Hector offered.
"That might be a good idea," said Steven, allowing his leg to drop and picking up his water bottle while leaning over the display screen on the device. "Why does this have to be so sophisticated? I have to navigate through like 8 different graphs just to change the weight. It's like everyone here thinks they're Victor Drago. Where I grew up you just put a piece of iron on another piece of iron and it all worked fine."
"I suspect that all the equipment here is designed to collect and analyze telemetry from the Neo's synthetic musculature."
"Well aren't they special," Steven grumbled.
"Well I believe that one there meets your definition of "special"," Hector noted as a metallic copper mare wearing a minimal amount of workout attire strode into and room and started to set up on one of the treadmills.
"God, everybody on this planet is smokin," Steven whispered as he tried to not make his ogling not too obvious.
"With such control over their appearance why would anyone choose to be otherwise?" observed Hector.
"Enjoying the view boys?"
Steven jumped as he twisted around to see Ethera smiling down at him in the silver and copper patterned paint body created from the one she was originally born in. Her mane swayed slightly under the influence of a magical breeze while further down she was clothed in a not quite outrageous white two piece combination.
"Um," Steve stammered, turning beet red.
Ethera pointed first to her mobile equine ears and then her large brown eyes. "Prey species see all and hear all. Keep that in mind when you're working with Equines so you don't embarrass yourselves."
"Sorry," mumbled Steve noting of the copper Uni's ears was pointed in his direction.
"How is your other body Lady Ethera?" Hector asked. "Were they able to fix the damage?"
"The damage was mostly confined to the one leg so I was able to replace it from stock, but I appreciate your concern," she answered, giving the holographic wolf a little scratch on the head. "Anyway I have some good news and some less good news."
"I didn't do something wrong did I?" Steven asked as he worked his leg free of the exercise machine.
"No, of course not," Ethera stated as she sat down on a bench opposite in and leaned in a bit, "it's just that the firefight you two engaged in was of sufficient magnitude that people who tend to care about such things have made it their business to start poking around. I know it's easy to forget, but you're supposed to be Guardian technical staff, not combat support so I might face some sanctions if they determine I have been unnecessarily putting you and Hector in danger."
"If you need someone to blame Ethera blame me. I mean I'm the one who violated the policy by running in guns blazing and your superiors would be predisposed to assume I am just another human hothead on a power trip. After all you're the Guardian with the reputation to protect so it's no skin off my nose what people think of me."
Ethera's ears went back a bit as she looked into the human's eyes. "When I first hired you Steven I would have commended that idea for its originality, but after all you've done for me I cannot allow you to accept blame for what actually represents the more virtuous parts of your character. If the recent mission has taught me anything it is that I may have treated you unfairly in the past and I have since vowed to remedy that fact and make sure it never happens again."
"Ethera, you've never treated me poorly. This job is a dream come true and every day I make it my job to repay you for the opportunity."
"And therein lays the problem Steven. The wealth and power of Neos could fill a continent with those who would gladly sacrifice their lives just to be close to it. It is why all the rules exist."
"So what does this mean then?" asked Steven, growing alarmed, "I can tell by your body language that you're getting ready to drop something heavy on me."
Ethera looked up and tried to smile. "Well, I am finding myself in a rather unfortunate predicament. If you accept blame we would both be dishonored. If I accept full responsibility then you would likely find yourself deprived of the job which brings you so much fulfillment."
"I'll take the dishonor," Steven without hesitation.
Ethera brought her hand up and smacked the human upside the head.
"Haven't I taught you that a choice between two bad options indicates that one is not thinking hard enough?"
"You don't have to hit me!"
"No, I don't have to bite you," Ethera commented, her ears briefly flicking back. "Anyway, in this case my solution was to preempt any investigation by submitting you for induction into the Order of the Horn. By recognizing the extraordinary and heroic nature of your actions on the recent mission it will be infeasible to later cast your contributions to our partnership in a negative light."
"Wow, um...thanks. I don't know what to say," said Steven, honestly not knowing what to say.
"Unfortunately there has been a small complication. My superiors have graciously offered you an extended leave of absence at full pay to rest and recuperate. While I know that you are fit for service, your refusal would perk a number of ears and it would be hard for me to justify Hector's psychological stabilization and combat enhancements on a worker who was providing pure "technical assistance".
Steven just blinked as he tried to grasp the full meaning of Ethera's words.
"How long will this leave of absence need to last?"
"No less than a year, but if you should want some additional time I am sure I could arrange it. After all you have done for me I would say you deserve as much personal time as you need."
Steven exhaled audibly. "There's no reason I shouldn't be thrilled, but running safe houses for you on missions already comes with more than its fair share of "personal time". I'm just not sure what I would do with myself."
"Why don't you go see your family or use the time for self improvement? No offence young one, but you are alarmingly pale."
Steven sat quietly for a moment staring at the floor before turning back to the Neocorn.
"Thank you Ethera," he sighed. "Your concern really means a lot to me."
Ethera leaned over to nose the human's cheek before standing up. "With the evidence presented from Hector's record of the mission your award was fast tracked. I was told that they are planning the ceremony for Friday so try to find sometime nice to wear."
"What would you suggest?"
Ethera opened her mouth then paused for a moment. "That's a good point. Your typical "uniform" consisting of a Doctor Who t-shirt and jeans will not be acceptable for the occasion."
"Can I get some sort of Guardian outfit?" asked Steven, his face lighting up.
"Hmmm...actually I think I do have something you can use. I'll bring it by before the event."
"Thanks..." Steven replied suspiciously.
"One more thing," Ethera continued. "The details of the mission and Guardian involvement are still classified so you won't be able to talk about your award with any uncleared persons until that changes. I suspect that the ability to keep the situation under wraps was an important factor in why the more traditional Lords ultimately agreed to bestow the honor on a human."
"Hey, the best organizations to belong to are the ones that wouldn't have you as a member," Steven snarked.
"Don't worry, I am sure once the higher ups decide what they want to do with that strange world all the secrecy will get dropped," said Ethera as she turned to leave. "I look forward to seeing you again on Friday. Here is a little reward to tide you over until then."
Steven's eyes widened before rolling back as the Unicorn deposited an apple in his outstretched hand.
"Damit, why do I keep falling for that."
"Careful not to choke on it," Ethera whickered as she walked out of the gym, her long leonine tail swishing behind.
A regal looking Neocorn stallion with golden hide, a platinum mane and matching gold inlaid silver armor stood before a podium, addressing the assembled audience from a prepared text. Using a natural pause in the narrative to look around the room the stallion continued.
"Upon learning of the disabled tank, Technicians Cassatt and Hector refused medical evacuation and volunteered to rescue the crew, who were in danger of being overrun. Proceeding alone into hostile fire the two Technicians engaged and destroyed an enemy armor that was in direct contact with the vehicle before then instructing the crew to return to the extraction point, moving to provide covering fire with the vehicle's external machine gun. Facing relentless attacks by heavily armed mechanized forces, Technicians Cassatt and Hector used the machine gun to destroy no fewer than 7 additional armors before their ammunition was expended."
Steven stood uncomfortably on the slightly raised stage in the front of the auditorium dressed in the black leather boots, tight brown leather pants and blue riding tunic that Ethera had supplied to him. To his right was the clearly holographic projection of an anthropomorphic grey wolf that served as Hector's avatar. Steven was having trouble looking out into the audience due to the placement of the lights, but as far as he could tell the medium sized room had only a smattering of guests which included, Ethera, several other Neocorns, a small blue and white Neodragon, a human photographer and a pair of human military officers whose uniforms Steven did not recognize. As his memories of the entire event were still hazy, Steven found himself increasingly surprised as the golden stallion read through the citation.
"Despite suffering severe damage from their lengthy exposure to enemy fire, Technicians Cassatt and Hector armed demolition charges with a delay period that ensured no Federation technology would fall into enemy hands despite risking their ability to reach a minimum safe distance. Upon seeing an enemy armour firing at one of the tank crew, the two Technicians then exited the vehicle and, although weakened, unarmed and short on time, proceeded to engage and destroy the enemy armour through the use of an improvised weapon. After finding cover, Technicians Cassatt and Hector used the demolition blast to cover their retreat to the gateway and deny the enemy the opportunity to take them prisoner."
The golden stallion paused again, this time turning to give uncomfortable looking human standing next to him a gentle pat on the back before continuing on.
"For their extraordinary heroism, self-sacrifice and personal bravery involving conspicuous risk of life in the highest traditions of the Guardian Service, I, Herd Leader Alexander Goldmane, hereby induct Technicians Steven Cassatt and Hector AR1257 into the Order of the Horn."
The Herd Leader stepped out from behind the podium, his sheathed sword softly clinking against his armor. Walking over to face Steven he placed a silver medallion in the shape of a rearing unicorn around the human's neck. Steven smiled awkwardly, not exactly sure what was going on or what the proper protocol was, before eventually looking up at the statuesque stallion and shaking his hand. After a few quick photos the Herd Leader repeated the process with Hector then stood behind the pair for a group shot.
//"Thank you for saving Ethera's life," said Alex, using the opportunity to speak privately into Steven's mind. "She is a good friend of my father's and I don't care what the other Lords say, the Order is open to any person who embodies its values."
//"Thank you Lord Goldmane, but I still feel this is all somewhat unnecessary. I was just doing my job."
//"The correct form of address is "Herd Leader", but never you mind that," Alex wuffled. "In my years I have learned that having a job and doing your job are two different things. The Order exists to honor those who demonstrate leadership of the herd instead of passive obedience to the herd. For all your many virtues that is one area where humans tend to have the same difficulties as Equines,"
Posing for a few more photographs, Steven turned back to speak more with Alex only to discover that the Herd Leader was already being hustled off to another important meeting. As the room began to clear out Steven suddenly found himself standing eye to eye with the enigmatic metallic blue Neodragon with white highlights on back and wings.
"Since nobody else seems to be waiting in line let me be the first to shake your hand," the dragon smiled. "Name's Hefvulon. I was here on other business and I saw the ceremony starting so I figured I'd crash it seeing as how there didn't seem to be too many people in the audience. Hope you don't mind."
"No...not at all. It's a classified award and since I don't know many people here at the Guardian HQ I wasn't surprised by the lack of turnout," said Steven, taking another look around the room. "Still, I don't know where everyone seems to be going in such a hurry."
"There's a reception next door. I'd suggest you skip it unless you've somehow developed the ability to digest grass, but they probably expect you to be there."
"Ha," Steven laughed as the AV staff came up onto the stage to break down the podium backdrop. "I'd doubt Ethera would even notice. When you're 12 to 18 inches shorter than everybody else you tend to be ignored."
"I believe that lady Ethera explained that Equines have a blind spot extending for several feet under their nose and that is the reason she fails to notice us," Hector offered.
"Blind spot you say," Hefvulon grinned mischievously as he scratched a claw under his chin. "That's veeeeeeery interesting. I'll have to remember that."
"Hector, you need to learn to not be so naive. Ethera was just making excuses," Steven replied to his partner. "Shame my Shockwulf suit is kinda down for the count. It was nice to be able to look all the neos in the eye."
Hefvulon smiled. "I know that feeling all too well given my own lack of verticality. Of course if people want to underestimate me because I'm short I won't bother to dissuade them."
"I know. It's just one of those things that make being Shockwulf enjoyable."
"Anyway," Hefvulon continued, "I just wanted to congratulate both of you for upending some of those Unicorns' rather smug assumptions about what non-magical super beings are capable of. I'd offer to buy you a drink, but I'm somewhat late for a meeting and besides, I think all the stuff they serve here is radioactive."
"Yeah, I'm beginning to see Ethera has some good reasons not to invite us to her home world more often," Steven sighed.
"You guys take care of yourself and I'll get back in touch sometime when I'm not running around with a full schedule," said Hef, giving both Steven and Hector a firm handshake before heading for the door.
Left alone on the stage Steven rolled his eyes and idly fingered his badge of courage.
"Come on Hector, I think it's time to go be under hoof."
Stuffing his clothes into his oversized navy blue duffle bag Steven couldn't help but appreciate some of the amenities that living in a fantasy land of robotic space unicorns included such as floor to ceiling[]electric[]glass walls, ceilings with sufficient clearance for horns and the ability to always be with in grazing distance of a garden. Still uncertain if he would be moving back into his parent's basement or into a trendy urban apartment, it was almost guaranteed not to be as nice as the rehabilitation center.
"Take some time off, you earned it," Steven grumbled to himself. "Yeah thanks. Work is my time off. Home is the chore."
Not feeling any reason to hurry with his packing, Steven was not particularly surprised by a knock at the door, but the unfamiliar male voice forced him to take notice.
"Excuse me...Mr. Cassatt? We were wondering if we might have a moment of your time."
Using his smart phone to give the door one way transparency Steven was surprised to see the two human military officers he remembered from the award ceremony standing out in the hall. He still couldn't identify their uniforms, but seeing as they had been granted access to both this facility and the Guardian HQ he could think of no reason not to let the two men in.
"May I help you?" Steven asked as the two men entered and removed their caps.
The pair of officers sharply contrasted with one being tall and lanky with a thin head and a black military haircut, and the other short and squat in the manner of a wrestler. The shorter man, distinguished by a large, but not at all unattractive bald patch, reached out and took hold of Steven's hand, pumping it up and down.
"Nice to finally meet you Steven. I'm Captain Keen, and this Lieutenant Commander Przewalski. We're from the UFAW Joint Special Forces Command Office of Talent Development."
"Your rather impressive performance on the recent mission was brought to our attention and we wanted to have a few words with you about an important opportunity," Przewalski continued.
"If you guys are recruiters let me save you some time because I'm really not interested," volunteered Steven as he tried to head off being put on the spot. "I enjoy my civilian job with the Guardians and I'm not really looking for a change."
"Whoa, slow down there," said Keen, patting Steven on the back. "No offence, but we're not here to recruit you."
"You...you aren't," said Steven, feeling the burn as his assumptions were thrown for a loop.
"No," Przewalski continued, "we're here to talk to you about Shockwulf."
Steven stared at the two men for several moments, not quite certain if he had heard them correctly.
"Shockwulf? You mean my...character?"
"This fellow, right here," said Keen as he handed over a tablet with a photo of the Shockwulf suit holding an assault rifle Steven had posted online.
Steven looked at the tablet then looked back up at the two officers, incomprehension written all over his face.
"Yeah...that's just me in the suit of powered armor the Guardians provided," said Steve, cocking an eyebrow. "I painted it up to look like a character I played online. Did something give you the impression that Shockwulf was a real person? If so then I'm sorry for the confusion."
"So what you're telling us is that this Shockwulf "character" in no way played any role in singlehandedly recovering six Federation assets in the face of overwhelming enemy opposition," Keen posed, "and if we were attacked right now you would grab a weapon and kick ass."
"No...that's not at all what I am saying," Steven replied, thrown off guard by the Captain's statement. "When I'm in Shock...I mean when I'm in the armour it enhances my abilities and I have Hector there to back me up."
"Ah I see," said Przewalski. "When you were in the suit you sort of let yourself be puppeted by your AI co-pilot."
"No!!" Steven shot back, his tone getting defensive. "Why do you keep twisting my words?!"
"We're just trying to understand the situation," said Keen, his voice calm and measured. "If you weren't responsible for saving those people and your AI wasn't responsible for saving those people then who was? The report states that the person in that photo was the one who saved the mission yet you claim he doesn't exist."
"He's a fictional character. Yes he "exists", but he exists as a fictional character. Fictional!" Steven stated with as much emphasis as he could. "I don't know how I can be anymore clear in that regard. I made him up."
Przewalski took the tablet back and tapped on the screen a few times.
"Steven, I've been over your personality profile and Guardian service record, Hector's too, and neither of them would predict your performance on the recent mission. Fictional or not this Shockwulf gets results and that's why we're talking to you."
Once again Steven could only stand there dumbstruck, unable to believe that he was having this conversation.
"Well without the suit I’m not sure I can help you. Would you like me to do the voice, because I’m pretty good at doing the vhoice," said Steven, deciding to play along. "I'm not a mind reader, but I have it on good authority that even if you offer to repair Shockwulf he is probably going to say he has other commitments and can't participate in whatever missions you had in mind."
"I told you we're not recruiters," chuckled Keen, "we're from the Talent Development Office. As spectacular as your performance as Shockwulf was there was plenty of room for improvement."
"I'm going to be a little more blunt," Przewalski chimed in. "As exceptional as your performance was you almost died out there and our customers are not interested in spending millions of credits to train new operators with such a limited shelf life."
"Well I'm glad you have my best interests at heart," Steven chided, "but I'm still not seeing what this has to do with anything. If you want Shockwulf I'm guy who plays him and not only am I susceptible to death, but I'm telling you I'm not interested."
"What if I told you we could defictionalize Shockwulf," said Keen. "He'd work for us, but you wouldn't need to play him."
There was another awkward pause as Steven stood facing the two officers with his mouth agape.
"Ok, now I know you're just fucking with me," Steven snapped as the last of his patience flew out the window. "Let me guess, you have some sort of magic device that can just reach into my head and pull things out of my imagination and into the real world."
Keen and Przewalski looked at each other.
"Oh god! You do have some sort of magic device that can just reach into my head and pull things out of my imagination and into the real world," cried Steven.
"No, no, no!" said Keen, waving his hands out in front of him. "Those constructs tend to suffer from critical existence failures in objective realities. What we want to do is upgrade Hector into Shockwulf."
"The whole point of our little dog and pony show was to make you understand that just because Shockwulf someone you made up, he nevertheless exists and has the potential to help people," Przewalski explained.
"Upgrade Hector...you mean my Hector?" blinked Steven, stunned by the thought. "Does he have any say in the matter?"
"Of course, we would need both of you to agree, but the reason we came to you first because Shockwulf is your character and it would be unfair to Hector if our offer had to be retracted," said Keen.
"If you were to both agree Hector would receive an expanded personality, a more advanced processor and...his own body," the Captain continued.
"The thing is that the person we are looking for is Shockwulf. Not you, not Hector, not some combination of you both in a powered suit," said Przewalski. "Shockwulf has the qualities that the Special Forces is looking for."
Steven didn't know if he should feel hurt or honored and as the two emotions fought it out the result was a general numbness.
"So why don't you just make yourselves a bunch of Shockwulfs on your assembly line and send me a royalty check."
Przewalski shook his head. "Not only is the construction of super soldiers illegal, it can lead to both unpredictable outcomes and a lack of desirable diversity. We need to recruit individuals with a proven track record that meets our customer's needs, or in the case of our office...develop them."
"So besides shiny new hardware what are you going to do to "develop" Hector into Shuckwulf? I'm not too inclined to just turn my friend over to the military industrial complex."
"I believe that Colonel Przewalski just made our position clear on the creation of super soldiers," Keen responded. "We believe that, thanks to your guidance, Hector already sees the Shockwulf character as a role model and has worked to become more like him. With some additional experiences and personality elements donated from your own psyche, the process can be made complete."
"Personality elements? Donated?!?"
"By providing Hector with some of your memories and psychological elements we would replicate the conditions of the AI-NI sync system that you employ every time you put on the armour, nothing more," Przewalski explained. "Without them Hector is simply too inexperienced to qualify for the position we have to offer."
"I'm sure you could ring us up in 5 or 10 years," Keen said, cutting right in, "but you don't know the future any more than we do. We might not need him, or he could be suffering from VR addiction. Are you sure Ethera is going to be able to provide for Hector's higher education...or treatment if he develops a psychological condition? I doubt you would be able to afford either let alone a physical body of the quality Hector deserves."
"Do you really want to see Hector having to work a second job piloting garbage scows or maintenance drones?" Przewalski added.
Steven turned away so that the two men wouldn't be able to see him fighting back the tears.
"Tell me then...besides losing my best friend and control of something that defines me, what do I get out of this."
"Considering your recent service we believe this offer is more than fair," said Keen, pressing the tablet back into Steven's hand.
Bringing it forward Steven carefully counted the zeros before turning around, no longer interested in trying to conceal his emotions.
"T-This is in Federation credits?"
"Of course," said Przewalski. "We wouldn't insult you with an offer in local currency."
Steven stared at the pad as he thought of all the high tech toys the unfavorable exchange rate had put indefinitely out of reach.
Steven hated himself for even considering selling out his friend for money, but he knew he had no choice. The two Federation officers had completely outmaneuvered him by making it a choice about Hector's future. Once he agreed he knew Hector would jump at the chance to get a good job and a physical body to call his own.
"I'll need to run it by Hector myself. Can you give me a little time to decide?"
"Take all the time you need," said Keen, "but not too much time."
"We'll be in touch," said Przewalski, nodding and replacing his cap.
Somewhere out in the hallway a heavily ladened cart rolled over the uneven floor sending vibrations into the mint green painted cinderblock walls of the plain rectangular room. The squat government issue building was tucked away in a corner of a military base left over from one cold war or another. The sun was rising lazily towards its zenith, flooding the inside of the room and its two occupants with its warm yellow glow.
“Well? How do I look?”
Steven paced back and forth, occasionally signaling for his friend to turn one way or another to examine the finer details in the full light of day.
“As far as I can tell you look exactly like the ref sheet. There's not a single detail that’s out of place and as far as the the coloring and artwork goes..it's spot on. Hell, it's fantastic. I don't think we could have asked for anything better.”
“Quantum Creature Workshop is highly rated. Granted it’s no AnthroTek, but then again I’m not a Neo...yet,” Shockwulf smiled.
“I don’t want to even think about how much this cost,” said Steven as he reached out and gently ran his fingers over the wolf’s soft fur.
"One hundred and twenty nine....thousand."
"Damit Hector! What did I say about not wanting to think about it? Now I'm not going to be able to take you into sketchy neighborhoods. Holy shit...129?" Steven trailed off.
“Who are you talking about," the wolf grinned.
Steven exhaled audibly. "Sorry...Shockwulf."
"That's my name..."
"Yeah yeah...that's your name."
Shockwulf turned away from the windows so that the light could shine directly on his broad backside. Unlike the old Shockwulf, the new Shockwulf was covered ear to paw in bio-synthetic fur patterned after a real life grey wolf. On top of the base color was drawn a web of light and dark lightning bolts providing the rather standard body with it's distinctive style. As tall as the old suit of powered armor, the fully cybernetic body had much improved proportions as it no longer had to accommodate a human wearer.
"The airbrushing is flawless," said Steve as he spread the fur to examine one of the electric lines.
"Dude, that's not airbrushing, its real fur...well, real synthetic fur. Either way, I can wash it and it grows back if anything happens."
Steven gave Shock a quizzical look. "How does it grow? You don't have a circulatory system to deliver nutrients."
"Special shampoo and the nanostructures in the pelt handle the rest. Like I said the talent development people spared no expense."
Burring his face in the wolf's back Steven inhaled deeply, taking in the rich scent.
"You know you have new car smell," he said, pulling back.
"Would you prefer wet dog?" Shockwulf laughed. "I call that a feature, not a bug."
"It's like," Steven paused as Shockwulf turned to face him. “It’s like my imagination just came to life.”
“Well seeing as I have some of your memories, not only does having a body feel amazing it also feels like the body I’ve always wanted.”
“I...I’m happy for you Hec...Shockwulf,” said Steven, quickly turning to look out the window.
“You don’t know how much this means for me,” Shockwulf replied as he embraced Steven from behind, his tail hanging low, wagging back and forth.
“I wish we could have more time together. If only my friends back home could see you their eyes would pop out.”
The wolf chuckled, letting his sharp white teeth show a bit. “Yeah, I remember the time you wore Shock 1.0 at that con. Damn, you had to beat people back with a stick.”
“I’m lucky somebody didn’t get hurt,” Steven sighed, “but I’m sure the novelty has worn off by now given the sheer diversity of species in the Federation.”
“If I recall correctly you thought Ethera could walk on water until you saw her get her horn stuck in a drop ceiling.”
Steven laughed uncomfortably. “You’re pretty quickly with my memories there. Just how much of me did they put in you?”
“Enh, Enough,” said Shock, trying to redirect the conversation away from that particular topic. “So, what did you want to do? I don’t have to ship out until 0900 tomorrow.”
“Did you ask?”
“Yeah...I...I was told that they don’t have any requirements for someone of your skill and ability set at this time, but they would keep you in mind. However even then they warned me that we probably wouldn’t be in a position to serve together.”
Steven was silent as he focused on some birds soaring through the window.
“Don’t sweat it. It’s probably for the best seeing as how I hardly fit the image of the warrior type.”
Shockwulf reached up and began to rub the human’s shoulders with his hands.
“Images can change man. You think those of us raised in VR ever care about what we look like?”
“Yeah, I do...Shockwulf,” replied Steven, winking over his shoulder. “Listen, don’t feel bad for me. I’m going to have it easy on my little sabbatical while you get to slog through muck and mire on some god forsaken rock trying to hunt down alien bugs. I’d go crazy in a week having to do something like that. The simple fact of your existence is so much more than I could have ever hoped to expect.”
“Thank you Brother.”
“Oh, I’m your brother now?” said Steven with a bit of mock surprise.
“Given our connection I don’t think either “friend” or “partner” quite fits the bill anymore.”
“Well if you’re the realization of my character doesn’t that technically make me your father?”
Shockwulf laughed, his mouth fully open this time. “I think we might need to consult a philosopher, but first would you want to go get something to eat? I have an intense craving to find out what meat tastes like in reality.”
“Yeah, just turned 11 o’clock so that mean’s its officially lunch time. Oh, if you’re going on you’d better put on some pants. Real reality requires clothes.”
“You humans and your rules,” Shock grumbled as he stepped into a pair of mesh shorts. “Fur should grant me an exemption.”
“Yeah, you’d think that but no,” said Steven as he held open the door. “Come on, I noticed a kabob place on my way over. I suspect chunks of meat will be just up your alley.”
A shimmering portal appeared in the middle of a small parking lot behind the Malmstrom Air Force Base motor pool just as the bright yellow morning sun was starting to peak out from behind the distant ridgeline. As a few enlisted workers on a smoke break looked over as a seven foot tall silver and copper hued Neocorn mare stepped out from the light followed a short time later by a relatively insignificant young human male dragging a pair of heavy duffle bags.
“I could have gotten those for you Steven,” Ethera smiled. “It’s the least I could do.”
“Correct as always my lady, but fortunately you have chosen to do quite a bit more for me over the last few days,” Steven laughed. “So it is the least I can do to carry my own shit the 20 feet from one side of the portal to the other.”
“Well just like I promised, here is your vehicle safe and sound. I called ahead and had the local mechanics here perform a complete top to bottom mechanical inspection to ensure that it is in proper working order.” Ethera placed her large yet dexterous shiny metallic hand on Steven’s shoulder. “I am not sure why you are insisting on physically driving yourself home, but nevertheless I will do my best to make sure that nothing happens to you along the way.”
The portal closed with a woosh and Steven put down both his bags to circle his decidedly low tech black Jeep to see if Ethera had gone any further and decided to gift him any anti-gravity lifters or fusion torch reaction jets.
“Is there a problem?” Ethera asked as she casually picked up the bulging duffle bags as if they were sacks of feathers and loaded them into the rear seating area.
“Just checking it out of habit I guess,” Steven admitted, suddenly stopping to stare at his Guardian as the morning sun began to reflect off her shiny metallic-polymer hide. “Do you mind if I get a quick picture of you m'Lady? You in that body with the sun just looks simply stunning.”
Tossing her head a bit in the equine version of a blush Ethera engaged the magic to make her light golden mane “blow” in the cool still morning air. “Go right ahead. You always manage to take the best photos of me.”
Pulling out a small compact camera from a pouch on his belt Steven lined up the shot and began to take both video and stills.
“I wish you’d come home with me Lady Ethera. My whole family would love to meet you again.”
Forgetting about the camera Ethera turned away towards the monolithic white painted walls of the newly activated solar system defence tracking center. “You know I cannot do that Steven. I promised them that I would keep your safe and it was a lie. At the time I did not consider them to be worth of my word so today I do not consider myself to be worthy of their hospitality.”
“I’m still here Ethera. There’s nothing wrong with me so that means you didn’t lie to them at all,” said Steven as he walked over and hesitantly reached out an arm to embrace the statuesque synthetic female unicorn. “Y-you’re making me feel like this is...the end.”
“If you mean the end of me using you, you are correct.”
“You gave me a job that made me want to get up in the morning. You gave my life purpose. You let me live out an impossible dream. I know why they say it’s unethical, but I have a counter argument. Fuck ‘em.”
Ethera let out a brief amused whicker as she leaned her head down and pressed her nose to the side of Steven’s neck. “This is not the end Steven Cassatt, Level 9 Civilian Guardian Service information support technician. I need some time to reevaluate the way I do business and then I will summon you back on the job. In the meanwhile enjoy the extended leave with your family. From what I know of them I am sure they have missed you very much.”
Steven increased his grip on Ethera’s midsection, saying the first thing that came into his mind.. “You’re my family too.”
"And therein lies the reason why we have certain guidelines. A less scrupulous supernatural might be tempted to use your devotion as a means to manipulate you,” Ethera explained, returning the hug. “Of course as you so eloquently put it sometimes guidelines need to be bent to serve the greater good. I am a Guardian and a Lord. There is not much that I cannot bend to suit my needs as long as a bit of care is taken in the process.”
Steven nodded and slowly let go, putting the camera away. "Have fun taking care of Rex."
Ethera pinned her ears back slightly as she was reminded of the former lycanthrope now patrolling the grounds of her country estate.
"That task alone made your service to me invaluable. I still have trouble seeing why you were so insistent about keeping that troublesome predator on."
“He's got a lot of potential and I don't want to have to catch the same criminals twice. Besides, someone needs to watch your back in my absence,” said Steven, mustering a smile.
“I will try my best, but if he keeps disrupting my meadow's ecosystem don't be surprised if he shows up on your doorstep.”
"I consider myself on notice m'Lady," Steven winked.
With one last embrace Lord and Vassal parted ways, although the Neocorn mare stay behind to watch over the black Jeep until it was out of sight.
“You know when we suggested that you don’t visit often enough we weren’t expecting you to move back in.”
The slightly overweight man wearing jeans and a Denver Broncos championship t-shirt had his long brown hair tied back in a ponytail and enough of a beard to give his round face a bit more length. Walking up behind Steven he patted the young man on the back, waiting patiently while Steven pulled his duffle bag from the back seat of the Jeep.
“I guess you can say I’m making up for those two Christmases I missed,” Steven grinned as he set his bag over his shoulder and began to walk towards the brown two story split level that blended in to the steep hillside that rose up 600 feet behind it. “Where’s mom?”
“She’s inside making lunch, but before you go in I wanted to ask you about something in your e-mail. You said you were injured at work and they gave you a year off with pay, but...you look ok to me,” said Steven’s father, his deliberate cadence having a bit of a western twang that had not passed on to his son.
“Yeah I know, pretty sweet deal isn’t it,” said Steven awkwardly. “I mean I’d love to keep working, but, like you said I’ve been at it almost non-stop for almost three years now so I figured I could use a break.”
“Do you mind telling me what happened? I mean your mother’s going to ask and she’s been pretty worried about you working off world and all with that robot. I just don’t want her to get too upset.”
Steven looked down as his father spoke, fidgeting a bit before swallowing and opening his mouth.
“You remember Hector right? The...the artificial intelligence I had in my suit.”
“Oh yeah, the one who liked wolves so much. Seemed like a pretty nice fellow.”
“Well we were out helping Lady Ethera...”
“That’s the um, robot Unicorn right?”
“Neocorn and yes. We were out and I got hit pretty hard by a flying piece of metal. Damn thing went right through us...sort of here,” Steven explained, pointing to his midsection. “but before you get all freaked out that’s what I wear him for and they got me right to the hospital and they fixed me right up. Didn’t even leave a scar. Lady Ethera was nice enough to arrange for me the time off sort of like, you know, workman’s comp.”
The father’s eyes went a bit wide as his son described the injury, but mirrored Steven’s calm demeanor and just nodded his head.
“Well thank the Lord you’re alright,” he responded. “This Federation, their medical technology is pretty top notch. When I got my new job first thing they did was send me down to the clinic and the doctor there injected me with this silver stuff. Damn if that didn’t clear me right out. The heart issues, the kidney problems, all gone. I was taking like $300 in meds a month before and now I’m down to aspirin for the back pain. Even lost weight too.”
“Wow, that’s really great Dad. How are you liking the new job?”
“Oh, well, you know. A job’s a job. Pretty much the same as the old one, but with better hours and more time with your mom and sisters. I feel a little guilty seeing as there are only about ten of us left since all the trucks started driving themselves, but I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I know better than to get in the way of progres, so I guess I just have to make the best of it.”
“Well you’re looking better,” Steven noted as he walked up to the front door and then into the house.
“Make sure you wipe your feet off,” a female voice called from somewhere in the back of the house, “I just moved the vac drone upstairs and I don’t want to bring it back down again.”
“Yes mother,” Steven called out in reply. “Hey dad, where do you want me to put my stuff?”
“Amanda took over your old room so we moved everything down to the basement along with the futon. I hope that’s not a problem.”
“Not at all. I wouldn’t expect you to keep my old room empty while Amanda and Jessie share.”
“Why don’t you just drop your bag here because I think your mother has lunch ready,” Steven’s father suggested before ducking into the downstairs bathroom to wash his hands.
Following the advice Steven walked into the kitchen where he found his mom spooning steaming red tomato sauce onto a number of torpedo shaped Italian sausage sandwiches. Standing about Steven’s height with shoulder length brown hair, his mother gave him a quick kiss on her way to the refrigerator to pull out a pitcher of orange juice.
“I guess the Unicorns are keeping you busy,” she said as she artfully juggled glasses and juice for three people. “I saw one of those, you know, metal ones down at the Home Depot in Missoula. I think they’re showing up here for the open space.”
“Everything here is crazy cheap compared to the more developed worlds, myself included,” Steven replied. “Thanks for lunch, although I’ve been jonesing for that Chinese place. Yeah yeah, I know you don’t like it, but its what I grew up with.”
“You should try the replimat they opened up on 93. The place was jam packed for months after they opened it, but I think the novelty has worn off a bit. Tried it myself with your father a few weeks ago. Not nearly as good as a freshly prepared meal, but compared to the processed junk that comes out of most chains its not half bad. What it lacks in diversity of taste it certainly makes up in variety and it’s popular with the local alien community in case you were looking for a place to meet some new friends.”
Placing a sandwich on a plate Steven walked over to the table that sat in front of the sliding glass door looking out over the back yard.
“It might be a good idea get in the habit of referring to them as non-humans since “alien” can be considered rude. That’s one of those things that will get you marked as a rube...trust me, I know.”
“I don’t want to be rude, but that sort of judgement is the sort of thing that gets the Earth Firsters up in a tizzy,” Steven’s mom said as she hung up her apron and called in his father.
“American’s have been treating other countries that way for years. One would think that having it done to us would prompt some self-reflection.”
“No, it just makes people go on TV and act all victimized,” she responded, turning to kiss her husband on the cheek as he walked into the room. “Lunch is ready, help yourself.”
“Ahhh, thank you Abby, you’re too good to me.”
“So where are Amanda and Jessie?” Steven asked between bites.
“Oh, off at the mall or somewhere like that. Let me tell you that gift you got them for Christmas sure took a load off my mind,” Steven’s father said as he eased himself into the chair opposite from steven at the kitchen table. “I wouldn’t trust Amanda to drive herself 5 feet, but that little pod car you got them just takes them everywhere without a fuss.”
“Sorry I couldn't get a better brand, but Korean was just about all I could afford.”
“No don’t you go appologizin’. You’ve done way more than your fair share for this family.”
“Did you find an AI to look after them? A self-driving car solves some problems, but creates others,” Steven observed.
“Nah, all the AI’s I know are truckers and I’ll be damned if I’ll let a trucker near my daughters, human or otherwise. Sides, they’re more interested in their electronics and virtual reality than getting into trouble. Speaking of, I put that extra VR rig down in the basement for you. The girls love theirs to death, but I just can’t see the point.”
“Thanks. I “borrowed” one of the computers from work since I figured my old one would probably catch fire trying to run the new software that's out there.”
“Careful you don’t get on when your sisters are using it. They do nothing but complain when we make the net “slow”,” injected Steven’s mother.
“Aww hell, they complain I’m making things slow even when I’m out back readin’ a book.”
“Steven, I wanted to ask you what you were looking to get out of moving back in here,” asked his mother, setting down her iced tea. “It’s good that you’re saving money, but I’m not going to pretend Lolo, Montana is anywhere near the list of most interesting cities.” She paused for a moment, taking another sip of tea. “I hope you don’t feel that you have some obligation to come back here. You’ve done more than enough for this family already and we’re all very proud of you.”
Steven smiled, bringing forth the line of reasoning that he had already worked hard to sell himself on after Shockwulf had been shipped off for training and active duty.
“Sure there are better places, but first, rents in those places are sky high and and finding a rental on short notice is nearly impossible. Second, I really don’t know anyone so it would probably just be a lot of wasted effort to get settled somewhere I am only going to stay for at most a year. Third, once I go back to work I don’t know when I’ll get another chance to come back here again so I figured I shouldn’t pass it up.”
“He’s just being a good son Abby,” Steven’s father remarked. “Nothing the matter with that. We’re glad to have you,” he finished, looking back at his son.
As Steven finished his meal his parents updated him on various pieces of local news and the goings on with the extended members of his family. While he had been physically away from his family Steven had never really been out of touch as information flowed as easily between realities as it had over the old single planet internet. It wasn’t long before mother, father and son had run out of things to say and one by one they excused themselves from the table to attend to the various tasks that had been occupying them before lunch.
“Make sure you don’t make a mess if you move anything around down there,” Steven’s father reminded his son as he carried a basket full of laundry down the wooden stairs. “You mother and I spent about 4 whole weekends getting everything all organized.”
“No problem and thanks again for letting me stay. I know the the thought of an older child coming back to live in the basement doesn’t have the most positive connotations.”
“Well unlike your Sisters you can take care of yourself ,” his father smiled. “Also it will be nice to have someone I can talk to about something other than cute boys or fashion.”
Steven nodded and began to go through his assembled baggage.
“I’ll be out back if you need anything,” said Steven’s father as he walked back up the stairs.
Steven clenched his fist in triumph as the blinking orange light on the gigabit network card to solid green with a resulting message on his computer desktop that he was now connected to the network.
“What did I tell you Hector, the IPv6 adapter needed an update specific to our universe. Hector...?”
Steven instinctually looked over to the second monitor where Hector’s lupine avatar normally hung out, but the black screen quickly brought back the knowledge that his friend and partner was no longer living in his computer.
“I guess that’s what the Internet is for?” Steven grumbled to himself as he pulled up an instant messaging application.
Pleasantly surprised by the apparent speed at which one of his old online friends had chosen to send him a message Steven quickly shot back a reply.
Shockwulf: What’s up?
HyperFox: Like I was saying, if you're going for Indian food I recommend something with lamb. It's not a typical meat and it really works well in that context. Are you still a spice wuss?
Steven blinked, baffled by the strange out of context message.
Shockwulf: Um, wrong window?
HyperFox: What do you mean? You asked me for advice about Indian food before you had to go afk.
Shockwulf: No I didn't. I've been driving all day and just got done lunch with my parents.
HyperFox: Well I was talking with someone on your account not more than 15 minutes ago.
Steven blinked for a second wondering if his account had been hacked before another popup window seemed to confirm it.
- You are now signed on from multiple locations.**
"What the fuck..."
Shockwulf: WTF, get off my account. >:o
Steven breathed a sigh of relief as he realized what happened.
Shockwulf: Ha ha, sorry man, this is the account I’ve had since High School. Get your own :-P
Shockwulf: Well this is awkward. I'm not sure if they told you, but this was included in the package.
Shockwulf: What do you mean? I didn't fucking sell my IM account to the Federation, just use of the character.
Shockwulf: You sold the character and anything relevant to his...to my identity. That means all your net accounts that you presented yourself as Shockwulf on. Didn’t you read the agreement?
Steven blinked again as he got a sinking feeling in his stomach.
Shockwulf: Well yeah I read it. Look, maybe I didn't read every tiny word, but basically I read it.
Shockwulf: That means you didn’t read it.
Shockwulf: Come on man, this isn't funny.
Shockwulf: I don't know what to tell you. I'm Shockwulf and I have a good chunk of your memories. It's not really fair for me to have to go and set up all sorts of Shockwulf2 accounts if the originals were supposedly included in the rights agreement. Now I could be wrong, but if you want I can go check with the talent development guys."
Steven clenched his hand around the mouse before making a conscious effort to calm himself down.
Shockwulf: This isn't fucking fair dude. You're supposed to be my friend, not my replacement.
Shockwulf: Yeah it's not fair, but since we can't exactly keep living a dual existence one of us is going to have to come away disappointed.
Shockwulf: How about I make you a deal. You give me your choice for a new username and I'll go around to everywhere you had an account and set everything up and get everything copied. I'm still an AI remember so it shouldn't take me too much time.
Shockwulf: I...I hadn't really thought of a new name...or character. Damn...
Shockwulf: How about Tekwulf?
Shockwulf: Tekwulf? I don't know. Seems kinda derivative.
Shockwulf: You're tech support, you're a wolf. It’s totally logical!
Shockwulf: Logical for you perhaps. :: sigh ::
Shockwulf: You still there?
Shockwulf: Still thinking.
Shockwulf: How about Lycos Cyberclaw?
Shockwulf: o.0 Why are you using the name of that awful search eng...oh! I get it!
Shockwulf: Use that then, but just please don't steal all my friends. You know I don't have many.
Shockwulf: Well how many do you think I have?
Shockwulf: Hey, can you paste me what he wrote? I didn't get it since you logged on.
Steven grumbled to himself and passed the previous parts of the conversation while waiting for Shockwulf’s reply.
Shockwulf: There, I got you the Lycos CyberClaw accounts on this and A-Chat. I used one of the passwords you normally use.
Shockwulf: Damit...something else I need to change. Alright, hold on a second.
Steven logged out of the Shockwulf account then logged back in under his new name.
LycosCyberClaw: Why do I suddenly feel like I’m being seated at the kids table while my friend gets to hobnob with the guests of honor?
There was a pause that indicated to Steven that Shockwulf was either reflecting on the situation or having a conversation with someone else.
Shockwulf: I’m sorry if I made you feel excluded, but I know you know what this experience is like for me. You’re my friend Steven and I will always have your back no matter what. It might take a few years, but we’ll work together again, I’ll make sure of it. Just hang in there and look for other opportunities. It’s not like you have to worry about a fixed lifespan or anything :-P
LycosCyberClaw: Opportunities? Come on, you know where I live and besides with Ethera on notice for hiring immigrant labor I don’t know if I’ll get my job back.
Shockwulf: Of course you will. Good technical support is hard to find. Listen, you spent the last three years hanging out with me in basements and windowless rooms all over the multiverse. Go reconnect with your other friends. I’m meeting new people and it feels refreshing.
LycosCyberClaw: You need to work on your tact a bit there Shock because that sounds like breakup lingo. You know, like “part of being together is spending time apart”.
Nevertheless, with Shockwulf's suggestion now firmly planted in his mind Steven popped open a web browser to check out some of his old haunts while he continued to chat with partial doppleganger.
LycosCyberClaw: So, how’s the real fur working out?
Shockwulf: Enh, being physical has its downsides. Check my blog. As you predicted my training course seems to really like the mud.
LycosCyberClaw: Um, Shock...is it just me or is the Internet broken?
Shockwulf: I think it’s just you.
LycosCyberClaw: That’s not what I mean. I’m looking through the usual sites and everything’s a ghost town. Fuzzy Art has only like 300 updates over the last week and the Werehouse forums are also pretty dead.
Shockwulf: I don’t know, let me ask Hyper.
As Steven continued to click around another IM window popped open.
HyperFox: Hi there. Shock was trying to explain your little problem. Sounds like a real mess.
LycosCyberClaw: You mean the “him being me” problem or the Internet being dead problem?
HyperFox: Both...well, mostly the former. Re: the Internet, it’s not dead, but just kind of moved.
LycosCyberClaw: Moved? Not sure that’s not the Internet works.
HyperFox: About 18 months ago the Provisional Authority hooked us up to the Federation wide network and introduced digital migration and ownership laws.
LycosCyberClaw: Digital migration?
HyperFox: Yup, all content hosts have to provide their users with a standard data migration interface. By law there has to be an automated process to help users take all their self-generated content like art, comments and private messages and to another provider. As soon as people weren’t locked in to local websites they all bailed to better ones.
LycosCyberClaw: So I can migrate my accounts over to whatever the new sites are and just pick up from there?
HyperFox: Yup, no more drama and unplanned outages, although you might need to check with Shock since he seems to think they are his accounts now, but I’ll let you two work that out on your own. What I do know is that because all the migration software uses various forms of AI it can just look at your friends lists and find those same people on any service you want to move to. It’s a real breeze.
HyperFox: BTW why am I having to explain all this, I thought you were an IT guy.
LycosCyberClaw: My job either has me working on stuff that’s magically high tech or I guess what you could call “Classic” tech on various alternate Earths. I guess I was just expecting my Earth to keep on puttering along.
HyperFox: FYI most of our circle are now on a site called Wild Life. It’s free and it has great VR support.
Steven looked over at the VR gear sitting in the cardboard box next to his desk.
LycosCyberClaw: So VR’s getting popular here? I mean I’ve used it, but I’ve tended to stay a keyboard and screen man myself what with Hector and all to help me out.
HyperFox: Yup, no more rubbing your fancy wolf suit in our faces :-P Everybody can be their character now.
LycosCyberClaw: Oh, I’m sure that’s not going to cause any problems. :: rolls eyes ::
HyperFox: Don’t judge man, this place is great. Wild Life even provides limited AI support to free accounts so no more having to spend hours searching for art or stories. Everything I’d want my little helper just gets. You can even make them an Avatar like Hector had.
LycosCyberClaw: Is there anything I should be worried about?
HyperFox: You just have to be careful where you create your character and art because Wild Life gets the rights to anything free account holders create using their tools. Don’t get me wrong, the tools are slick, but if you go in and visualize the next big summer blockbuster that money goes to Wild Life. Some people complain, but the general consensus is that they give you fair warning and free accounts are just that, free.
Steven leaned back in his chair and cracked his fingers as he stared at the text on the screen. He knew how fun it had been being able to think text messages to people and compose documents and diagrams in his visual field, but all of it had been in sync with Hector.
“How the hell did a job working with Neocorns make me end up feeling like such a Luddite?” he sighed while pondering his next move. “What the hell else am I going to do? I have to go where the people are.”
LycosCyberClaw: Hey, I’m going to log off and get my VR kit on. I guess I’ll see you in Wild Life.
Steven switched message windows to give Shockwulf a heads up.
Shockwulf: Hey, you need to get onto this VR provider called Wild Life.
Shockwulf: You there?
LycosCyberClaw: Oh yeah, sorry. Was just talking to Hyper about that. I’ve got VR gear here so I’ll be on WL ASAP.
"God I look ridiculous," Steven muttered to himself as he looked himself over in the antique floor mirror that stood in the corner of his basement living area.
Wearing nothing but a pair of shorts Steven reached down and pulled the stretchy black stockings up to the mid-point of his calf to smooth out the wrinkles. A similar pair of gloves ran up both of his arms to a point just below the shoulder and combined with the stockings provided the extent of the high definition tactile feedback included with the mid-range VR gear. Arranging the cables to avoid tangles Steven strapped the biofeedback monitor around his chest before picking up the ebony helmet and pushing it down onto his head until he felt it engage with the neural interface on the back of his neck.
"This was so much more dignified with the Shockwulf suit," he said walking back over to his computer desk trailing a long tail of wires.
Of course with his neural interface Steven didn't technically need anything more than the helmet to access the immersive virtual world of Wild Life, but after having ponied up for one of the premium accounts he was intent on testing out the full capabilities of the service. Sitting down he hooked up the cables to his computer, logged on with the client and dropped the helmet’s visor over his eyes. Steven felt a slight buzz as the neural interface activated, injecting electrical impulses directly into his brain. Designed for powered armour and vehicle piloting, the interface could not fully replace the signals from Steven’s own body thus necessitating the use of the externally worn VR equipment. Relaxing himself as best he could Steven felt his body go numb as he entered a state similar to lucid dreaming where conscious thought was blocked from causing physical action. There was a brief wave of disorientation as the interface began to sync up with Steven’s brain activity before the dark, quiet space of the helmet was replaced by birdsong and the Wild Life logo superimposed on a bright blue sky.
After clicking through a number of agreements and safety warnings Steven found himself standing in a bare white room with a display wall on one side populated by various simple instructions on activating the tutorial system. Looking down Steven saw his own human body clothed in a plain white t-short and blue jeans. Hesitantly he held out his hands, wiggling his fingers and gently touching them together before running his left hand along his right forearm.
“Feels real enough. Certainly better than Shock’s metal parts,” Steven noted as he took a closer look at his arm. “Hmm, looks like my default body image doesn’t come with freckles.”
Steve was startled as a message box filled his visual field.
“You seem to want to change your appearance. Would you like some help using the body editor?”
“Go away Clippy! Nobody likes you!” Steven snapped as he banished the image.
“Ha ha, sorry about that. Some of our tutorial prompts can be a little annoying to those with above average technical experience.”
Startled, Steven turned to find himself facing a somewhat lean human male wearing wire frame glasses, a black turtleneck and blue jeans.
“Hi, I’m Geoff, one of the AI customer facilitators here at Wild Life, and since it is your first visit I wanted to see if there was anything I could help you with.”
“Thank you Geoff, my name’s Steven although I guess you probably know just about everything about me.”
“I assure you it is only to enhance your user experience.”
“Well I am probably going to be needing a...um...sort of a different avatar,” said Steven, feeling his face heat up.
“You know this is Wild Life right?” Geoff chuckled. “Just sit back and let me take care of everything.”
Steven approved the request for Geoff to be able to alter his physical appearance as the friendly AI continued.
“Now do you have a ref-sheet or other artistic representations of your character? I don’t see any uploaded to your profile.”
“Um, that’s a bit complicated. I’m kinda between characters since I sold my last one to an AI friend I have.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear you’re missing your character, but I’m sure your friend appreciates his new avatar very much. Since it’s so easy for AI's to pattern match and detect derivative work, unique characters always stand out.”
“Well I might have to use something canned for myself until I can think up something new.”
“Well I certainly think we can do better than that," Geoff stated. "Your profile indicates an interest in wolves, is that accurate?”
Steven nodded in the affirmative.
“Well we have 53 million public domain wolf character models available,” said Geoff as the display wall filled itself with a slowly scrolling sea of small images. “The models are based on photos of real wolves that we then use to auto-generate an anthropomorphic avatar. At your subscription level you can reserve one of these references for your sole use in our virtual ecosystem or if you feel you aren’t ready to decide you can try out an appearance without reserving it.”
Steven stared at the wall, images occasionally expanding in size as they caught his attention.
“You can always use the editing tools to further customize your appearance, but if you would like to save time for an additional 50 credits you can select one of the custom character created by our in house AI staff or browse the marketplace for user created characters,” Geoff explained.
“I’m probably going to just go with something temporary right now,” Steven replied as he looked over what appeared to be a never ending stream of possibilities. “Um, has anyone ever talked to you about the[]paradox[]of[]choice?”
“Well that’s why I’m here instead of you just getting some sort of pre-recorded message. to narrow the selection down a bit do you have an idea of what your desired appearance would be?” Geoff asked.
Steven instantly thought of Shockwulf, but quickly moved to scrub the more distinctive details leaving behind a generic anthro grey wolf.
“Yeah, but it’s pretty basic,” he finally answered.
“All new ideas have to start somewhere. So now just project the image you have in your mind here in the virtual space.”
After fumbling around with the tutorial hints that appeared in his visual field Steven managed to project his idea of a non-Shockwulf lupine avatar almost instantly regretting it as the candidate avatar looked more like a cartoon than a realistic creature.
“You’re probably going to want to include a bit more detail unless that’s the style you were going for,” Geoff offered.
“I know, I know. I guess I’m just focusing on what I shouldn’t include instead of what I should,” Steven apologized.
“Perfectly understandable,” Geoff nodded. “Now that you have a basic reference you can focus on changing it and adding additional detail.”
Letting out a virtual sigh Steven went back to strenuous task of having to create with little inspiration. After a few minutes the plain grey fur was tinged with red shades of red, black and white and at least represented the type of creature that Steven wanted to be.
“Alright, I think we can work with that,” said Geoff as he waved his hand and the display wall began to populate itself with a far more targeted selection of photos. “These are the 103 real life references that best match your imagined avatar. If you want you can go with what you created or, if you’d like a bit more realism, use one of the references.”
Without saying anything Steven began to cull through the photos, rejecting some quickly, others after more consideration. It wasn’t long before Steven had narrowed the selection down to 15.
“Hmmm, yeah, I’m just starting to spin in circles here,” Steven said, rubbing his eyes. “Do you mind if I bookmark this bunch and just go with number...four, for now?”
“Of course,” said Geoff.
As Steven looked on the set of 2D photos on the display wall representing selection number four seemed to float and arrange themselves over an invisible 3D model. As that completed the flat surface took on increasing amounts of texture in successive waves until a photorealistic was standing in the middle of the room.
“Your avatar comes with the expanded set of instincts, gestures and movements...” Geoff remarked as the statuesque lupine suddenly came to life as if touched by the finger of god, “...all fully configurable of course.”
Next to the feral type wolf a second, bipedal figure began to take shape as powerful algorithms calculated the reference animal’s anthro form and rendered it in the virtual environment. As the grey hair and yellow eyes achieved their full resolution Steven couldn’t help but be excited about getting out of his drab old human body, even if it all was just a simulation. While the body that stood before him was still horribly unremarkable compared to all the[]special[]snowflakes that made up the user population of places like Wild Life, Steven wasn’t sure that it mattered given his near limitless ability for future customization.
“Damn, not bad for only 20 minutes of work,” said Steven as he walked forward and ran his hand over the standing wolf’s forehead and down over its ear.
“More like 10 minutes in Objective Time,” Geoff pointed out. “So, are you ready to get switched over?”
“Let’s do it.”
“You’re probably going to have to get used to the new bodies ways of moving. We can’t re-wire your physical brain so you have to develop the new muscle memory on your own.”
“I should be good,” said Steven as he gave the wolves one last look over, “I’ve piloted a wolf shaped powered armour.”
“Super...did it have a quad form too? Or a tail?”
Steven stopped in his tracks and looked down at the feral wolf standing at his feet, tongue lolled out and tail in low wag.
“I guess you got me there,” Steven admitted. “My package has some personal training for that included right?”
“Do you mind if I take that at a later time? I have someone to meet and I should be fine as the anthro.”
“That’s not a problem,” said Geoff, mentally firing off a message into Steven’s account with instructions about rescheduling. “So are you ready for your new avatar?”
As Steven considered Geoff’s words he felt strangely conflicted. At face value taking on a non-human form for the first time was a fairly significant life event, even after all the time he had spent as Shockwulf. On the other hand nothing would actually be changing, just a few bytes in a VR interface application that pointed to the memory location of the “body” object. Steven was even aware that in time he would probably give no more thought to changing bodies in Wild Life than he would deciding what clothes to put on after getting out of bed.
“Yeah, let’s do this.”
Geoff nodded and suddenly Steven felt himself experiencing the neural equivalent of hold music as his human avatar was put in storage and the wolf form resolved into place. Unlike a mind transfer there was no feeling of being disembodied or period of sensory deprivation as Steven’s real body, sitting in the chair back in his parent’s basement, was still there to provide a baseline sense of embodyment. Then as abruptly as his senses had gone grey they were back bringing feelings both alien and familiar.
“Is everything to your satisfaction Steven” Geoff asked as the anthro wolf opened and closed his mouth a few times, his tail jerking back and forth.
“Yeah, feels good to have a muzzle again and have a few more inches on me,” said Steven as he took a few steps on his new paws. “Woah, I’ve got wolf toes. Damn, that’s crazy.”
“Try not to be so conscious about your tail. It’s sort of there to do its own thing in concert with your thoughts and feelings. You’ll want to just put it out of your mind and let the gestural software do its job until you develop the requisite muscle memory,” Geoff pointed out.
Steven inhaled sharply as he ran one fuzzy hand up and along the soft thick fur that now covered his arms. After three years of wearing the armour he had begun to associate the limited tactile pass-through of the mech suit with its lupine shape and the sudden reversal of those expectations left Steven’s mind spinning.
“Woah woah, easy there,” said Geoff, rushing forward to keep the new wolf from tipping over. “You’re going to need to be careful about over stimulating yourself for a few days. Your brain doesn’t exactly know how to filter out the sensations from having fur.”
“Wow...yeah...this is going to take a little getting used to.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to take one of those training sessions now?” Geoff asked.
“No, I sort of have to go meet someone, but thanks for all your help. I’ll be in touch about creating a more customized avatar in the near future,” Steven smiled as he extended his hand to the AI’s human avatar.
“Do you know where you are going? Wild Life is a big place,” Geoff asked, shaking it.
“Yeah, they sent me an invite. Later!”
Mentally accepting the teleport invite Steven’s world was replaced by the hold music as his awareness was switched to the desired location.
“Hey there Newbie, can I help you with anything?”
Steven looked up from his study of the interplay between the virtual blades of grass and his virtual feet to acknowledge the green and black furred anthro wolf-fox hybrid that was staring down at him.
“Oh my God! Unokin!” Steven exclaimed as he leapt to his feet and embraced the surprised wolfox. “I can’t believe it’s really you! Well..., not really really you, but you know what I mean.”
“Um...have we met?” the man replied as he gingerly disengaged himself from Steven’s grasp and took a few steps back.
“Have we met?! Dude, it’s me...Shock...” Steven cut himself short then let out a sigh. “...the person formerly known as Shockwulf. I go by Lycos now.”
“If you’re using a secret character you need to give me a heads up before you start getting all in my personal space...or at least make your RL ident public,” Unokin responded.
“Ah...sorry about that,” said Steven, realizing his mistake as he mentally the privacy settings on his profile. “As you guessed I am new to Wild Life. This was the teleport address Shockwulf, the new Shockwulf, gave me. Have you seen him around?”
The wolfox cocked an eyebrow at Lycos. "I think I can help you find him Lycos-slash-Steven-slash-ex-Shockwulf although with new identity business you've probably going to touch off a bit of drama."
Steven chuckled. "So does everything. Again, sorry for the mixup, but Shock implied that he would let all my contacts know what happened.”
“No, don’t apologize,” said Unokin. “I found the e-mail in my Wild Life folder. Something about you selling your character and the Fed turning Hector into Shock right?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” Steven answered, feeling a bit strange as he acknowledged the events that had gotten him there.
“Come on, I’ll take you to see New Shock, he’s over by the pavilion,” Unokin replied as he put an arm around Steven’s shoulders and began to lead him through the virtual environment. “The old FA community purchased a virtual space about the size of Delaware. Even with our numbers, it’s going to take a while to fill it up so most of this place is still set to empty fields.”
“How the hell did you guys manage that? I know virtual space is cheap, but it’s not that cheap.”
“It was a combination of a crowdfunding campaign and users licensing their art through WL. All pretty reasonable considering we now have an entire Delaware to play with.”
“And you're worried about me causing drama,” Steven chuckled.
“”I’m not going to let some evil corporation use my art”,” said Unokin in a high pitched mocking voice. “”Blah blah blah”. Yeah...well enjoy hanging out on one of the public servers.”
Steven pointed his muzzle away from the neat clump of trees and buildings ahead of them to take in the relaxing beauty of the bright green landscape and brilliant blue sky dotted by a smattering of fluffy white clouds.
“Looks sort of like the great plains in those 19th century photos.”
“Yeah, the admins are being careful not to let everyone just go homesteading without some sort of basic plan in place. Again, some people complain, but it’s not like there’s any rush. Everybody says VR is the wave of the future.”
“Don’t we live in the future now?” Steven pointed out.
“Good point.” Unokin said as he moved his arm down Steven’s backside gently rubbing the soft fur. “You know Shock acts and talks just like you used to...in character that is. I just wanted to give you a heads up that things might get a little weird with both of your in close proximity to each other.”
“Thanks, but I think we’ll be alright,” said Steven as he stopped for a moment just outside the golden metalwork gate that provided passage through the hedge surrounding the Hawksbeak Towne Centre. “Shockwulf and I will always be a part of each other, but he was still just a character I played. It’s not like he was really me or anything. I’ll just act like myself...my real self.”
Unokin nodded, but stopped Steven short. “Unless you happen to be an actor there is always a fair amount of the creator in their character avatars. VR has a well known ability to bring that out.”
Steven nodded and took a moment to ponder his next words. “Shockwulf became his own person long ago and I’ve come to accept that. I don’t think I’ll have any trouble differentiating myself from him.”
Stepping inside the virtual community Steven immediately found himself standing in the stereotypical small town commonly portrayed in video games or motion pictures. The layout was highly walkable, as there was little need for vehicles since longer distance travel could be achieved through costless teleportation or a flying mechanic. As if to emphasize this fact, every so often another user avatar would pop into existence or make an expert landing, superhero style, from a great height.
“Why are some of the people moving so strangely?” Steven asked.
Unokin looked over. “Huh?”
“That girl there and that guy and that other guy. They’re moving like dumb robots,” Steven observed.
“Oh! Yeah, Wild Life is backwards compatible with older forms of user interface like smart phones and personal computers. In that case you’re basically playing a giant MMO, but it’s a better option than being shut out.”
“Is it just me or is everything in the future really user friendly and well designed?”
“More like trial and error. Since every alternate reality is a potential do-over, at the end of the day only the best ideas survive and get put into a step-by-step user guide,” Unokin noted.
Steven chuckled. “Good to see that someone is keeping up with the documentation.”
Walking towards a small park in the center of town, Steven and Unokin quickly found Shockwulf standing under the redwood pavilion making rather exaggerated gestures in the presence of about half a dozen human and non-human avatars.
“So these two guards come running around the corner and I just open up on them, BERRRRAAAAAAPPPP, and they just disintegrate along with the shed behind them.”
“I thought you said you were there for technical support,” a traditionally furred vixen asked.
“Technical support, technical fire support, basically the same general thing,” Shockwulf smiled.
“What sort of gun were you using?” asked a buff space marine, his face obscured behind type in Sci Fi combat armour.
“Upgraded MG36 with the 100 round magazine,” Shock answered as a fairly accurate virtual replica appeared in his hands. “Here, take a look for yourself.”
“Sweet” the marine replied as the other avatars remained focused on Shock with rapt attention. “I’ve wanted one of these, but it’s going to take me a few more hours of in game time to unlock it.”
“You know that’s not how I remember it,” said Steven, raising his voice enough to make sure that he could be heard over the general murmur of the group.
“Oh? Do tell!” said Shock, not missing a beat as he focused on his creator. “I always love seeing all the ways your meat mind can distort reality.” The large grey lightning themed wolf let his mouth hang open a bit in a form of silent laugh.
“I’m pretty sure that we just opened fire on the shed and the two guards hightailed it out of there.”
“Well why don’t we go to the video and see who’s right,” Shockwulf winked as a display window formed in midair.
As the assembled crowd looked on Shockwulf began to replay the uncompressed sensory feed he had saved from the previous engagement. Sure enough as the two guards rounded the corner of the building the weapon let lose a hail of bullets, knocking the two guards off their feet and turning part of the shed behind them into blood stained kindling.
“Ah, I guess I wasn’t completely right,” admitted Shockwulf, “I only took out half the shed.”
Expecting a laugh Shockwulf was greeted by uncomfortable silence as the various avatars averted their eyes or turned away entirely from the highly graphic and decidedly non-simulated depiction of violence. Only Steven’s yellow eyes remained locked on the frozen image, his right hand twitching slightly.
“I think I need a bio break,” said the space marine, the weapon vanishing from his hands as he turned to follow those who had already began to wander away.”
“I also have to go,” said the vixen as the remaining avatars agreed with her course of action leaving Shockwulf alone with Steven and Unokin.
“Guess I need to be careful about how real I make things,” mumbled the wolf in a tone that was more self reflective than snide as his tail sank between his legs.
“Don’t worry about it Shock, I’m sure they’ll forget...just like I did.”
Shockwolf looked up before lunging forward to embrace his former half in a fully enthusiastic lupine greeting.
“Ack! No licking!” Steven protested as he tried to fend off the slightly larger anthro. “That’s one of Hector’s things.”
“Shockwulf is an upgrade, not a wipe,” he continued, wrapping his arms tightly around Steven and lifting the avatar off its feet.
“Hey, no fair!” complained Unokin. “I want some hugs too!”
“I just saw you 15 minutes ago,” retorted Shockwulf as he muffled Steven’s complaints.
“Well I’m the one who found your friend after you gave him bad coordinates.”
“Oh all right,” proclaimed Shock unceremoniously dropping Steven to give the wolfox a comparatively modest hug. “So Steven, how are you feeling?”
“Ugh, entirely too generic,” Steven replied as he held out his arms to draw attention to his rather Plain Jane body.
“Couldn’t find something you liked?” asked Shock.
“No, I had the opposite problem,” Steven sighed. “There were simply too many choices. Hell, they aren’t even choices. I basically have free reign to create a brand new character and appearance, but I want it to be one that represents me. That’s not very easy to just sit down and do.”
“Well long term or short term we just have to get you into something a bit more...creative. A body like that just screams n00b,” Unokin offered.
“Well dolling it up with day glow colors just screams attention whore,” Steven fired back.
“Oh now I’m the attention whore?” You’re the one with the nice ass,” the wolfox stated while giving Steven’s rear end a firm grope.
“What the hell!” Steven coughed as he pulled away from Unokin’s roving hands.
“Oh, looks like you felt that didn’t you. Nice to see you sprung for the optional extras when buying your VR gear,” Unokin snarked.
“No! Ugh! Dude, that’s really inappropriate. This isn’t some sort of live action chat channel.”
Steven soon found both of his canine friends staring at him.
“Well, it kind of is,” said Shockwulf hesitantly.
“Yeah...what else did you think this was,” Unokin joined in. “Do you actually think people want to live out their fantasies typing into a text box?”
“This place let’s your imagination come to life. Did you think that people were just going to sit around acting prudish?” said Shockwulf, cocking an eyebrow.
“The Virtual World is for p0rn,” Unokin continued, “and games, and talking to people, but mostly p0rn. You know, Rule 34, Rule 35, Rules 265 through 272.”
Steven was glad his face was now covered in fur as otherwise he would be blushing furiously.
“It’s not called virtual fantasy because it’s still a form of reality. I don’t think...I mean...dammit, you’re making me feel like a loser.”
“It feels a little awkward at first, but you’ll get into it,” Unokin offered. “You just have to keep telling yourself that it’s not real and after a few days your inhibitions will just fade away.”
Shockwulf put his hand on the smaller anthros shoulder. “Alright Uno, I think you can cool it. He’s only being himself remember? I don’t think you’d be so “open minded” if some of your real life friends were here.”
Unokin deflated a bit and ran a hand through his short green hair. “I’m sorry, it was easy just to see you as Shock.”
“Don’t apologize, you’ll just make me feel worse for being a buzzkill,” said Steven as he managed a wolfy smile. “I’m sure that in a few weeks I’ll find some way to disassociate and be able to participate in all the crazy debauchery, but until them maybe you can just show me some of the mundane stuff.”
“You know when you put it that way you make this place sound really unhealthy,” Unokin remarked, narrowing his bright blue eyes.
“Oh it is,” Shockwulf quickly interjected. “You humans are so screwed. Of course the more of you upload into VR the more room for AI’s in the real world. So much cleaner than releasing that death plague,” Shockwulf mumbled, shifting his eyes back and forth.
“What was that?” asked Steven, one eyebrow cocked.
Steven raised a hand paw to indicate that he didn’t want to know. “Oooook...just going to move on then. Um, is there a bathroom around here?”
His two friends shared another knowing glance before both burst out laughing.
“I’m going to tell him,” said Shock.
“No don’t dude...everybody has to learn.”
“Learn what?” Steven asked. “Tell me!”
Shock turned towards Steven ignoring Unokin’s pleas. “Don’t...um...relieve yourself in VR. Some actions in VR can affect the real world and that’s one of them.”
“In addition to needing a change of undies you’ll mess up the “advanced” VR gear you have,” Unokin managed between giggles.
Steven glared. “I didn’t...My father bought the VR gear and it didn’t come with “advanced equipment”. Jesus, you dirty little fuck.”
Unokin could only laugh harder which prompted Steven to turn on his heels and begin to walk away.
“Alright, I’m going back to live in the real world for a little while. Hopefully by the time I get back you will have found some other internet rules to invoke,” Steven snapped as he activated the disconnection sequence. “Jesus, the more things change...”
The pads on Steven’s digitigrade foot-paws pressed comfortably into the thick carpet of light green moss that served to pave the trail. The path eventually led to the waterfall that was the centerpiece of the most recent community areas in Hawksbeak. To create the simulated woodland more than 30 volunteer artists had spent nearly a month the square mile of forest with all manner of plants, animals and terrain. Made of nothing more than bits and bytes the park didn’t have to worry about such mundane concerns as trail erosion, droughts or wildfires and provided its visitors with an ideal climate free of mud, ticks and brambles, day in, day out. Steven knew a lot of realism snobs that would poo poo such conveniences, but as far as he was concerned controlling nature in VR was no different than the millennia old quest to control it out in the real world. Letting out a sigh as he leaned up against a natural wood fence he looked out into the trees.
“Well hello there,” said Steven to himself as he spied a good sized doe as she stepped into view. “How are you this fine day? Did they give you any upgrades?”
Steven interrogated the doe’s properties and noted that it was still running CervidAI v6.23 despite the fact that v6.5 had been out for almost a month.
“Fucking hell, even in the future admins are lazy,” Steven scoffed. “They spend 14 hours a day living inside a computer and they can’t even be bothered to update the park.”
The doe’s ears darted about and it lifted a leg in response to Steven’s vocalizations. For a moment the anthro wolf contemplated changing the deer’s mode from “natural” to “friendly” or one of the hunting difficulties, but banished the window from his visual field as he felt interested in neither a fuzzy pet nor a chase. On a whim Steven checked his preference file for the park and noticed that the encounter generator was still set to deliver a deer every time he visited.
“Must have forgotten to change that after Shock got sick of hunting,” said Steven, punctuating his statement with another sigh. “Oh well, too late now.”
When Steven looked up after saving his preferences the deer had vanished, ostensibly to another part of the park, but more than likely it went back into the void to save on computing resources. The realism of the virtual animals at first made Steven a bit uneasy about swapping them in and out or hunting them as prey, but after Shockwulf managed to deconstruct their evasion tactics even on the unfair setting it became plain to Steven that there was no living spark emerging from the mass of AI code.
Moving another step down the path he became aware of the white noise generated by the waterfall as he entered the feature’s effect radius. That action in and of itself once again made Steven acutely aware of exactly what made the virtual world so ultimately unfulfilling. No matter how real the simulation, how advanced the algorithms, how random the encounters or how accurate the sensations the virtual world was still fundamentally limited in terms of processing cycles, data storage and bandwidth. Textures were random, but rarely surprising since all the possible permutations still fell within a fairly predictable range. Because most of the simulated landscape was generated dynamically there was a distinct lack of object permanence unless specific actions were taken to save changes in a data store.
Upon reaching the waterfall Seven sat down on an ornate bench made from a golden brown hardwood and featuring a number dragons and unicorns fighting each other "carved" across the back. Summoning a lap sized art tablet Steven began to manipulate the previously saved scene using a combination direct mental projection and a fine tipped stylus.
“If you can picture it, you can draw it,” said Steven, mocking the catch phrase as he fiddled with another section of the artwork he was creating for Shockwulf. “Well what if everything I picture in my mind comes out like a cartoon?”
Steven went back to work, the white noise from the water hitting the rocks allowing him to lose track of time before he was rudely interrupted by a large quadruped jumping up on his backside.
“Dammit Shock you scared the shit out of me!” Steven gasped as he felt his own racing heartbeat via the biofeedback system. “You know I came here could I could concentrate on your gift before you shipped out.”
“Oh! Can I see a work in progress?”
“No, I want it to be a surprise,” said Steven, quickly vanishing the tablet, “and thanks for giving me only three days notice. I really wanted this to not look like crap.”
“I’m sure it looks better than your usual attempts at drawing,” remarked Shock as he walked around to face Steven, tongue hanging out in a bit of a smile.
“So would paint splattered on a board by a chimp,” Steven growled. “So why are you here? I thought you were hanging out with your friends.”
“I was, but you’re my friend too. It’s not like I have to choose between the two and you shouldn’t have to choose either. You already know most of these people so I don’t see why you feel the need to sit out here in the pack by yourself.”
“Perhaps because I need to finish your gift so you can have it with you when you bail on me?” Steven answered.
“Hey, some of us have to work for a living,” said Shockwulf as he turned himself around and hit Steven in the face with his tail, “and where I work doesn’t have the best network connectivity. We’ll still chat, just like all those text only internet relationships you seem to prefer.”
Steven closed his eyes and exhaled. “You know there's a difference between my internet friends and my real friends. It’s going to be rough having you so far away.”
“What did I tell you? We have all the time in the world after my enlistment is up, but until then you’ll need some new people to hang out with which is why I was hoping you’d come by the pavilion. I’m doing a live art exchange with Arctic Owl.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to focus there...” Steven trailed off.
“You don’t need to if you are there to enjoy yourself and socialize.”
“How the hell did I end up taking social advice from you? Your skills were worse than mine!”
“I believe they copied over the skills you always envisioned Shockwulf having,” Shock replied.
“That’s doesn’t make any sense! I can’t give what I don’t have!” Steven exclaimed as he tried to wrap his mind account what Shock had suggested. “Imagining I’m all cool and awesome won’t generate those abilities.”
“Well I don’t know how the mind mash works, but I do know that you can’t just sit around all by yourself all day. Come on, teleport over to the pavilion.”
Steven sighed again as Shock stuck his tongue out. "You know you always have fun when you listen to me...”
"Fine fine, I'll be right there."
As Shockwulf's feral avatar vanished Steven found the location bookmark and triggered his own change of venue, appearing just a few feet shy of the pavilion after the WL operating system ran the deconfliction protocol. As before the about a dozen or so people milled about as a human girl sporting a few strategically placed patches of white feathers went about mentally manipulating a large art display in front of her. While still unfinished the scene depicted Shockwulf and Arctic Owl both dressed in sci fi armour hunkering down behind a stone rubble wall as a silver mecha-dragon swooped down to attack. Across from her Shock was just in the process of sitting down to create his half of the trade.
“Hey Arctic, wow, that looks pretty nice,” Steven offered, trying to break the ice.
“Thanks, although if I had more time I could probably make it better. I’m just using some inspiration from one of Shock’s most recent stories.”
“How long did it take you to figure out how to work the whole mind canvas thing?” Steven asked as Shockwulf pulled up his own and started at the blank space.
The girl shrugged. “Now long, maybe a day or so?”
Steven mentally clenched his fist as the Arctic Owl began to fill in the colors.
//”Shock?” Steven looked over at his friend who showed no outward indication of the direct mind-to-mind communication.
//”Can I get a little help from you? I can’t seem to think of any good ideas for my image. Everything I come up just seems sort of blah.”
//”As long as it looks good I doubt anyone will mind.”
//”Everything here looks good so I need to be creative, but all I’ve got are just our characters standing around on some background and I can’t just do another fight scene.”
Steven rolled his eyes before thinking back to his friend.
//”Alright, alright. How about a scene on a snow covered tundra. You and Arctic are hunting some caribou or something. I know some people don’t like that but fuck ‘em. You are on one side, arms spread looking epic. In one of your hands is a long blue metal staff and it’s clear that you are summoning lightning to come down and drive the prey away from your and towards Arctic who is hovering silently in the air. You’ll want to make it at night or at heavily overcast to give the proper feeling of your actions being a trap.”
There was a moment of inactivity as Shockwulf took the idea and began to mentally fill in all the necessary details before the avatar began to update the virtual canvas with the fully fleshed out scene in his mind.
//”Aw thank you so much. I...don’t know what happened there. I thought I was pretty good coming up with scene ideas.”
//”It’s always hard to do these things on demand and in front of a crowd. I’d totally freeze up and look like a derp if I tried it,” Steven acknowledged as he watched the scene he had just described appear in front of his friend. //”I see you’re making it just “arty” enough to avoid the uncanny valley issues.”
//”Actually I don’t want people to mistake it for a VR capture or real life photograph. That sort of stuff is considered lazy.”
//”Good point,” Steven acknowledged.
As Shockwulf got back to work Steven found himself farther and farther from the group’s attention and after finding a comfortable tree to sit under he was once again was occupied with his own artwork. Knowing that his friend was nearby doing the same thing seemed to help Steven’s technique. Both background scenery and foreground characters came into focus as he imagined himself once again as the heroic Shockwulf fighting the alien robots as dry lightning arced through the sky. Steven knew he was technically forbidden from discussing the exact details of his recent mission, but the scene was generic enough that nobody would have and reason to complain. By the time the virtual wolf looked back up from the art jam had finished and only a few avatars lingered on as Shockwulf gave out updated contact information.
“Good enough for government work,” Steven observed as he expanded the tablet to check the finer details. “Hey Shock, I got your...”
Steven was brought up short by the unmistakable sound of a weapon charging about three feet away from his right ear. A strange calm came over him as the unseen assailant spoke.
“Don’t move wolf. Someone seems to be a little out of their habitat.”
Using nothing more than auditory cues Steven brought up his left hand, knocking the muzzle of the weapon to the side while simultaneously swinging his legs around in a wide arc, knocking the attacker off his feet and onto his ass. Using his momentum to propel himself into a rising position Steven focused on the weapon, now pointing harmlessly into the air, and pulled it forcefully from the paws of a humanoid Bengal tiger who was wearing the gear given out in one of free-to-play shooter sims. Bringing the fictional weapon to his shoulder Steven’s subconscious took action, commanding his fingers to squeeze the trigger and fire the weapon into the tiger’s center of mass.
“Ahhh, dude! Stop!! Ack! That fucking stings. What the fuck!!” the tiger cried out as Steven expended the weapons supply of virtual ammunition.
In the awkward silence that followed Steven’s conscious mind reasserted control and he looked around to see all the nearby avatars staring at him. Dropping the weapon Steven tried to take a step, but stumbled, grabbing a hold of the tree to avoid falling down.
“Steven!” Shockwulf cried as he ran to his partner’s aid. “What the fuck happened?”
“I...he...weapon...” Steven gasped as he struggled to breathe. “I can’t...I don’t know...”
“Just try to relax and take deep breaths. Can you breathe?” Shockwulf asked.
Steven could only shake his head in the negative as he moved his extra points of contact from the tree to the lightning furred wolf.
“What do you mean breathe?” said Arctic Owl as she rushed up to Shockwulf’s side. “There isn’t any air here. I mean not real air. I think your friend needs to log out.”
“What the hell did you do!” Shockwulf snapped at the tiger who was picking himself up off the ground.
“I was just fooling around. We had been arguing earlier over felines vs canines and I was just going to be all “get off my lawn”.”
Shockwulf immediately turned back to Steven. “I think you’re having a panic attack. You need to log out.”
“Does anybody know how to get an admin?” asked the owl.
“There’s a web form you fill out and send,” declared the tiger, “I’ll get right on it.”
However before any e-mails could be sent Steven’s virtual avatar vanished as he managed to trigger the logout command, snapping him back to the reality of laying back in a chair with a blacked out helmet completely cutting off most light and sound. The vague yet intense feelings of uneasiness instantly became much more specific as Steven found his real body drenched in sweat, heart racing and gasping for air. Falling to the floor, he struggled to untangle himself from the wires and the constricting VR suit. At some level Steven was thinking clearly, but all his mental acuity was focused on the singular goal of getting out, out of the basement, out of the house, out of anywhere.
Managing to lift the visor Steven saw that he had an incoming call on his desktop computer. He knew that it was Shock calling and he knew the degree of concern that both his partner and the other Wild Lifers must have had, but his goal to escape the basement confines pushed all other considerations aside. Throwing the gloves and residual cables onto the shag carpet, Steven jammed his feet into a pair of old tennis shoes, entirely neglecting to strip off black skintight leggings. A few seconds later he was running up the stairs and out the back door. His first few steps carried him across the back lawn, as green and thick as those in VR, but once over the fence the terrain launched itself upward at a 45 degree angle, the grass scraggly and brown with the whole expanse only broken up by the occasional pine tree. Steven’s legs pumped as hard as they could, working to propel him against the force of gravity, but it wasn’t long before his progress slowed to an uneven walk, then slowed again as he was forced to his knees, breathing heavily. Gradually, Steven recovered his strength and grabbing a nearby stick for support, the young man struggled to his feet, putting one foot in front of the other with each step bringing him closer to the top.
Setting a goal to reach the top of the hill allowed Steven to drive away all the fear and panic that had consumed him. Step after step, the walking stick plunging again and again into the earth the crest of the hill grew ever closer until suddenly he was there. At that time of day the sun turned the distant Pend Oreille River into a shiny white line stretching across the valley. The view, combined with the effort Steven had invested in reaching it had succeeded in banishing his out of control thoughts.
“Fucking hell. Either this hill got higher or I...” Steven paused to catch his breath, his eyes drawn to his lily white arms and chest. “Damn, what the hell happened to me.”
Mentally Steven began to count up the weeks spent in hospital, the weeks in physical therapy and finally the weeks he had spent plugged into VR.
“Oh shit, that’s not good,” Steven remarked as he looked up at the bright noonday sun. “I’d better get back inside before I burn.”
Taking out his phone as he began to gingerly make his way down the grass covered slope Steven dialed Shock’s number, hoping he could head off the embarrassment of the emergency services showing up at his door.
“Hey Shock...it’s me.”
“Hey, are you ok? You scared the shit out of everyone here. Good thing I saw you run up the stairs otherwise I would have had to start making phone calls..”
“You saw me?”
“Webcam...I know all your passwords remember?”
Steven rolled his eyes. “Ugh...you know I’m going to have to change those.”
“Yeah I know, but it’s a good thing you decided to procrastinate,” Shockwulf chuckled. “So, what the hell happened?”
“I think it was a panic attack. I mean I’ve never had one before, but I’ve heard them described.”
“That was some pretty epic pwnage by the way. You sure made a good impression on the crowd,” said Shock. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the replay goes viral.”
“Thanks,” Steven replied dryly, still not quite sure exactly what had happened. “I guess I picked up a thing or two riding with you.”
“Well let’s hope you didn’t pick up any unwanted baggage. If you start feeling panicky again you might want to see someone about some psychological treatment, I’ll bet Ethera would be able to help you out or at least direct you to someone who can. Unicorns are quite skilled at fixing that sort of thing.” Shockwulf suggested.
“Well I’m feeling fine now, but yeah, it’s not good to let these sorts of problems fester.”
“You know I did what I could for you, but I it’s not like I could just purge all the experiences from your mind.”
“Dude, it’s not your fault. I know what I was getting into and if it wasn’t for you I’m sure I’d be having far more serious issues,” Steven noted.
“Are you going to log back in to Wild Life? I was hoping to say goodbye in person," Shockwulf asked.
“I think I need a little break from VR. I mean you’re basically the only reason I was there and since you’re shipping out in...what...”
“Yeah, 93 minutes, I should probably just say goodbye now. You don’t mind do you?”
“Nah, I understand,” Shockwulf answered. “Oh, by the way I looked at the scene you created. It was really good. I’m going to get it printed out as a poster for whatever East German style bunk room they assign me to.”
“I figured you’d like it. Just stay safe for me. New bodies don’t grow on trees.”
I’ll be in touch and make sure you give me a call next time you’re in a secure facility so I can give you the good stories instead of vague non-answers.”
“Oh, you might want to get out more. You’re looking a bit pale.”
Steven let out a sigh. “Yeah, I was thinking that I should get back into some of those "real life" activities I used to do before I got involved with you and Ethera. The University has a couple of gaming groups and there's that monthly bowling event I told you about. In fact a couple of the people from WL were bugging me about attending.”
“Splendid! It's always a good policy to have more than one friend."
"Especially since you took half my old ones," Steven grumbled.
Shockwulf let out a virtual laugh. "How? I'm not even in the same universe! Real friends are people you do real things with."
Steven smiled and stopped walking for a moment. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised when you know just the right things to say to me."
"I'm in your head!"
"That's a two way street Bud. Anyway, I'm sure you have to go so stay safe."
"Will do and talk to you later.”
Steven put his phone away and looked out across the valley as he had done countless times before throughout his childhood. The vast open spaces and big sky of the mountain west had always represented both freedom and isolation and for a time an AI companion had offered the hope of reconciling the two. Taking in a deep breath of mountain air Steven looked toward the speckled gray haze of civilization that stretched along the river and resumed his walk towards home.
"Black Jeep? Could it be?" shouted a rather thin human with shaggy blonde hair as he ran up, excitedly drumming his hands on the front of Steven's vehicle.
"Stop pounding on my hood Shy," Steven complained as he put his vehicle in park and shut off the engine. "Your claws are going to scratch the paint. God, why do you coyotes have to be so annoying?"
"Why do you wolves think you’re so much better?" Shy shot back, lifting a black metal band t-shirt to pull up his loose fitting jeans.
Grabbing his satchel Steven stepped out of the car. “Because we’re bigger and more intelligent and we work together as a group. Your kind steals kills and scavenges garbage.”
Shy glared back. “Those are stereotypes and you know it!”
Laughing, Steven walked up and awkwardly embraced his old friend. “Sorry I haven’t been around for awhile. I wasn’t really in a position to take time off from work.”
“Ah don’t worry about it. If I had your job I would have avoided this backwater as well.”
Steven winced as his friend used his human name in the first time in years.
“Oh, sorry about that,” Shy Coyote quickly apologized. “You told me about what happened with Shock so I didn’t know what else to call you.”
“I don’t know myself, but coming from you the name Steven just sounds...weird.”
“Well all your accounts say Lycos Cyberclaw, so why don’t we just go with that?” Shy pointed out.
“Might as well give it a try,” Steven replied without much enthusiasm as he looked around the parking lot for familiar vehicles. “So how many people still come to these events?”
“We’ve lost a lot of people to VR, but we’ve also attracted some of the newcomers so attendance is pretty stable. In fact, I’m debuting my new suit tonight.”
Steven’s eyes went wide. “You got a new suit? Wow, I didn't think those were still in demand. For the same amount of money you could probably buy one of the top Wild Life tiers for just as long as any costume would last. I can guarantee that it feels a lot nicer than walking around in stuffy fake fur and foam hours on end, even without springing for a neural interface.”
“Fuck that noise. Do you really think I’m going to give myself rickets just so I can try to compete with all the other basement denizens for the title of best bitmap?” Shy scoffed.
“Hey, you're preaching to the choir. I'm still working off my last bout of vitamin deficiency. So who did you get to build it for you?” Steven asked as they walked around to the back of Shy’s SUV. “Most of the artists transitioned to making WL avatars.”
“Built most of it myself,” Shy beamed as he lifted the tailgate and pulled out one of the plastic containers. “There’s a hacker space next to the University campus and they had most of the equipment I needed.”
Glancing into the container Steve did a double take as his eyes took in a jumble of metal and plastic instead of the traditional mass of brightly colored faux fur.
“What the hell’s all that supposed to be?” Steven asked.
“Shy 2.0. Let’s just say that your Shockwulf armour generated some waves within the local fandom. Put us on notice that we had to step up our game or get left behind.”
“You built a powered exosuit?” Steven exclaimed.
“Yeah, most of the parts are stock and anything that wasn’t I could fabricate with a machining station or replicator,” Shy explained as he pulled out the torso section. “I can lift 500 pounds and punch my way through a reinforced steel door.”
Briefly examining one of the leg frames for Steven turned back to his friend with a look of stunned disbelief. “H-how is this even possible? I mean how can you afford these things?!”
Shy responded with a look typically reserved for homeless persons spouting nonsense. “This technology is centuries old. Some guy makes the frame components in his garage, I got a gross of linear induction actuators off Alibaba and I found a refurbished propane fuel cell on eBay. Dude, the Federation eased the trade restrictions like two years ago. Where have you been?”
“I...um...” Steven stammered, trying to come up with a good answer. “I was working on low tech worlds. Guess the novelty just never had a chance to wear off for me.”
“You’re like that guy who bought a smart phone then can’t believe it when everyone else shows up with one,” Shy observed as he began to buckle the suit’s components over his clothes.
“What’s with the torso? It looks like you plan to play football in it or something,” Steven mentioned.
“The tutorials all say to mount the cooling and power packs on the back. To avoid the appearance of a hump I added some additional bulk to the front.”
Steven took a moment to examine the weighty torso assembly as he picked it up and helped Shy get into it.
“Did you use plasteel and carbon nanoweave or just stuff that looks like it?”
“Bullet proof, bomb proof and battering ram resistant,” Shy smiled back.
“Ok, now you’re starting to scare me. Are you cooking meth or something?”
“Let’s see,” said Shy, counting on his fingers, “one, everyone in this state has a gun. Two, the humans are mostly ignorant and three the non-humans that chose to move here mostly did so because we’re all “savages” with lax hunting laws. Mix in some alcohol and I’m going to want to be wearing something that can stop a .30-30 before I leave the house.”
“Hmmm, I would never have guessed that hunting the most dangerous game would be a problem at local parks, hotels and bowling alleys,” Steven replied in a somewhat dismissive tone as he went around helping to tighten the various straps that held the digitigrade exoframe tightly against his friend’s body. “Besides, why didn't you just keep the old white and blue color pattern? Nobody could possibly mistake you for an animal in that.”
“Yeah right, parks and cartoon colors are for children,” Shy chuckled, “Shy 2.0 is a grown-up's toy. I designed him to be able to handle 20 miles of hilly terrain a day without causing significant fatigue."
“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of, you know, hiking?” Steven asked.
“The purpose is to get out of being fucking human, Lycos,” Shy shot back. “Most people are just fine settling for VR with its canned textures and algorithmic sunsets, but for me all I had to do was spend a little time, money and effort and I was able to replicate everything those Wild Lifers have in real life. Hell, you’re the one who inspired me. As soon as I saw how happy you were as Shockwulf when you showed up two years ago I knew that I was going to do the same thing.”
“Well, I’m glad I was able to inspire you,” replied Steven, looking a bit uncomfortable.
“Speaking of, where is your Shock suit anyway? Don’t tell me they took that too.”
“No, they didn’t, but it kinda got damaged on the last mission. Seeing how banged up I got can imagine what the armour looked like. I do have the head in the car with me just in case I needed something for the group photo.”
“Good man, even used, Anthropelagy (tm) heads cost more than I make in a year. Don’t give ever give that up, even to the new Shockwulf,” said Shy as he unfolded the grey and brown padded body suit and began to work his way into it.
“Oh...thanks. I never really looked into how much that equipment cost because I didn’t want to get all worried about damaging it,” Steven admitted. “Do you think I should still wear it? Shock’s his own person now.”
“Well then consider it a form of cosplay. If you get yourself a new body with some different patterns trust me, nobody will know the difference. Listen, if you want a suit like I have I can help you make your own for just a couple thousand...credits that is,” Shy offered, turning around so Steven could help him get the faux fur material around the mechanical enhancements.
“Who did you get to make the head?”
“Since I couldn’t afford one of the major brands I just found some android girl who was big into crafting. We worked up the plans together and after I sent her all the materials it only took her a few days to learn all the techniques and then about a week to complete it.”
Steven picked up the surprisingly realistic anthro coyote head and felt the weight. “What’s it made out of?”
“We started with a military helmet then added on carbon fiber and foam to give it the final shape. The optical system uses VR goggles and has 30x zoom, 50 different filtering modes and both active and passive infrared night vision. The ears don’t move, but they do provide various auditory enhancements,” Shy stated with a fair degree of pride in his voice. “Back before the Fed tech arrived in stores dressing up like this was just a way to escape oneself. Now it’s a way to improve oneself.”
“You know if we were living in a comic book you would now have fulfilled most of the requirements to become a super villain,” Steven chided as he handed over the headpiece and went to pack up Shy’s car.
“Nah man, super hero all the way,” Shy corrected. “I am the Coyote of Justice, gnawing at ankles of poachers and illegal dumpers.”
“Whatever you are,’ just don’t break the pin setter with your super-strength bowling abilities.”
“Everybody’s a critic,” Shy grumbled as he turned towards the main entrance.
“I should have brought my species bingo card because I think a Knacknee just showed up,” Steven grumbled as a black furred female alien canid walked up the short flight of stairs leading to the bowling area to embrace a dirty white furred member of her kin. “There are now twice as many anthros here as humans. Did they used to be human or did they just misunderstand the target demographic for furry bowling?”
“Only one or two of the regulars are former humans, maybe a few more if you count the weres. If you’re wondering why they are here it’s because we were one of the few groups that didn’t try to shoot and skin them when they arrived in town,” Shy explained.
“That’s fine,” Steven stated, “but where’s everybody else? Alien wolves are great for the atmosphere, but I was hoping some of our friends might show up. This place was packed last time I was here, but now there’s like nobody.”
Shy gave an exaggerated shrug. “I guess most of the humans that used to attend are happy with Wild Life, but thanks to the non-humans we still have a fun time.”
“No offense, but I come to these events to socialize with people like myself, not to go squee over living plushies,” Steven muttered. “Do I have anything in common with these people?”
“Excuse me?” said Shy, tilting his head to express inquisitiveness.
“I’ve worked with Neocorns and other anthros for three years now. They’re just people like any other and...well...you know my comfort zone,” Steven continued, lowering his voice.
“Dude, relax. Just chill out and enjoy yourself. Nothing is different, we’re all friends here,” Shy reassured. “I just put an order in for a pizza and a bucket of beer. We’ll get a buzz going and then roll a few rounds.”
“Alright, I'll try,“ Steven exhaled.
“Oh good, he’s here,” said Shy, craning his neck to look past Steven in the direction of the snack bar.
“Hirrsh. He’s the burly cat dude with dreadlocks,” said Shy, gesturing in the direction of a[]Mrrshan wearing a distinctly non-traditional outfit composed of a black t-shirt and khaki shorts. “That’s not his real name, but it’s the best you’ll do unless you’ve developed the ability to purr.”
Shy stood up and waved his arms over his head. “Hey Hirrsh, over here!!”
“What are you doing?” Steven groaned, sinking down into his seat. “Mrrshans are really aggressive. They turn everything into a game of one upmanship. I don’t have the energy for that kind of crap right now.”
“What the hell did I just tell you about pre-judging people?” Shy snapped.
“People are alike all over,” Steven retorted.
“Greetings Shy Coyote,” the large tan felinoid announced, "let me be the first to compliment you on new appearance. It is a truly a work of art."
"Pretty functional too," Shy answered.
Hirrsh glanced over at Steven then looked back at Shy. "What's wrong with this guy. It looks like he's trying to turn himself invisible," Hirrsh remarked, his tone and cadence changing drastically.
"That's Steven, aka Lycos. I think you ran into him in Wild Life, he was Shock's friend. Apparently he's not a huge fan of Mrrshans. Thinks you’re too "aggressive"."
Steven turned beet red as Hirrsh sat down next to the human, delivering a friendly pat on the back with his fuzzy hand. "Relax, I'm not going to maul you. I grew up in Queens, not Frieas."
"You don't sound like you're from Queens," Steven pointed out.
"Well maybe not your Queens," Hirrsh replied, "but the important part is that I'm not like those jerks back on the homeworld or, gods forbid, a Kzin."
"I don't know if being from Queens will make Steven here any more comfortable," Shy laughed. "Anyway, Steven this is Hirrsh. You probably know him as that space marine dude in Hawksbeak."
"You're VR avatar is a human? asked Steven, looking surprised. "I guess the grass is always greener."
"More like the Star Force MMO refuses to support any other body types and switching back and forth kills my motor memory," Hirrsh explained.
"Oh? And you're sure the feeling of fur on skin has nothing to do with it?" said Shy sarcastically.
Hirrsh put his paws flat on the table and turned towards Steven speaking so all could plainly hear. "You hang out with this guy yet are worried about alien anthros being too aggressive?"
"He's a coyote. Being annoying pains in the rear is just what they do."
"Sweet! I didn't know it worked like that," the Mrrshan exclaimed with mock excitement. Be right back, I've got to go pee on stuff and leave some dead animals around."
"Dude, I'm just playing my character," Shy protested.
"No, you just like being a prick and you're using your character as a way to act in a way that you normally wouldn't," Hirrsh observed.
Shy moved to object, but after a stern gaze from Hirrsh’s blood red eyes he decided to let the issue. The awkward silence was only broken when a waitress showed up with a large cheese pizza and an ice cold bucket of Corona.
“Kinda says something when the best thin crust in Missoula is found at a bowling alley,” Hirrsh noted as he grabbed a slice and began to apply a healthy coating of parmesan cheese.
“Um Shy...your head?” said Steven, nodding in the direction of the faux coyote as he picked up a piece for himself.
“You’re head is still on. If you try to eat something with that you’re going to regret it,” Steven pointed out.
“Damn, with the direct vision and sound I completely forgot the head is just a...”
“Craft project?” Steven offered.
Shy stared at the piece of pizza in his hand-paw as the grease soaked into the previously light colored fake fur. “Aw fuck.”
“Yeah I meant to point that out. Bipeds need their hands and fingers to be relatively free of fur so they can use them for fine manipulation of objects,” said Hirrsh as he held up one of his own hands for comparison. "The design you went with leads to problems with such basic tasks as, you know, eating. You fail biology forever."
"It's just for fun," Shy protested as he fumbled with a bunch of napkins.
"You have over a kilowatt of power assist and level III ballistic protection, but no way to effectively do anything with it," replied Hirrsh. "I'd suggest refactoring your design."
Seeming to admit defeat Sky pulled off each of the furry hand-paws in turn before reaching up and gently removing the headpiece, setting everything aside on an extra chair. Blinking a few times to allow his eyes to adjust to the low level of ambient lighting Shy picked up the problematic piece of pizza and hovered the pointed end in front of his mouth.
"So what do you propose I do instead?" he asked.
"Well I would start with a nice pair of leather gloves and go from there,” Hirrsh suggested.
“I could also just get some land, strike oil and then cut a check to Further Engineering,” Shy remarked with a heavy layer of sarcasm as he cracked open one of the beers.
“What’s that about?” Steven asked.
“One of the regulars who goes by the name Wild Fire came into some money thanks to a mineral deposit on his land,” Hirrsh explained, “then dropped about 100 grand on one of FE’s higher end models. Think of your Shock head only full body. Tends to make some people a bit jealous,” he continued, glancing sideways at Shy, “but with how much he’s given back to the community I have no problem with the guy.”
“Further Engineering?” asked Steven, pondering the name. “I think Ethera bought a grid of micro-sats off them for one of the missions. I don’t remember them being terribly reliable.”
“Well duh, don’t buy satellites from a glorified fursuit maker,” said Sky between bites of pizza.
“They are a multi-billion credit defense contractor,” Steven corrected.
“No, Shy’s right,” said Hirrsh. “A couple of suit builders on one of the 1000-series Earths started upgrading their mundane designs with up to date Fed tech and over the decades one thing lead to another and now they are a multi-billion credit defense contractor. They make a lot of different products, but their specialty is still high quality anthro power suits in the same vein as Anthropelagy.”
Steven shook his head slightly, putting his open beer down on the table. “Yeah who needs a basic suit of powered armour when you can give it a biorealistic animal theme! It seems with all these Federation defense credits flying about I might be in the wrong business.”
“Minfultation,” said Shy briefly before swallowing what was in his mouth.
“Can you try that again?” Steven asked.
“They are for infiltration. If you’ve got a low tech alien race and a rubber forehead isn’t going to cut it, you need something a bit more advanced to move among them and keep tabs,” Shy explained.
“I would think the mighty Federation has enough diversity to just send a living agent instead of a human in a power suit,” Steven remarked, gesturing towards Hirrsh.
“Thanks for noticing that us non-human races look alike. In fact I was hanging out with a tiger the other day and it was crazy how everything matched up,” the Mrrshan hissed. “We even smelled the same.”
“Oh, and as much as me and my fellow anthros would love to go around playing all your talking animal roles we simply don’t have the face for it. Building a muzzle over a muzzle makes the resulting mashup look rather...cartoony.”
“That’s a good point,” Shy noted. “Humans are kinda the type O blood of the cosplay circuit.”
Comforted by the fact that humans did seem to have some advantages after all, Steven suddenly smiled and shook his head in bemusement. “Well I have to admit that bowling night has certainly gotten an upgrade. Before all we talked about was movies and TV shows, now it’s the ins and outs of cybernetic engineering and alien races. To the future!” Steven announced, holding the clear bottle of yellow liquid out in front of him.
“To the present,” Hirrsh corrected as the three clinked their bottles together.
“So how does the bowling work?” Steven asked after draining his beverage and opening another. “I assume we need to find a fourth, but I’m still not seeing anybody else I know.”
“We’ll get someone after the meeting is over,” said Sky, pulling out his phone to check some messages.
“What meeting?” Steven asked, as he noticed that the widely dispersed crowd of anthros and humans had begun to coalesce in the general vicinity of their table.
“Current business, it only takes about 15 minutes...30 tops,” Hirrsh added.
Not wanting to eat a third slice of pizza Steven took out his tablet and connected to the local wireless network as he waited for the meeting to begin. A sudden wave of nostalgia prompted to open up his Wild Life web portal and scan through some of the photos Shock had been nice enough to transfer over from his previous social media accounts.
“Hey Shy, remember that time you took on Blue Roo and Kit Coon? Heh, I think you won with a score of 98,” Steven chuckled. “I’m sure you could write an app for your little power suit that could improve that dramatically.”
The color abruptly drained from Shy’s face as Steven casually handed the table to the alien feline sitting to his left.
“So Hirrsh, what do you think of the low tech version of Shy Coyote?”
Glancing down at the small 7 inch screen Hirrsh’s eyes went wide as he cleared his throat. Steven noticed that Shy was trying to project disintegrating eye beams from across the table.
“Wow...yeah...that’s an interesting,” said Hirrsh, struggling to get out the words as his entire body exuded discomfort. “Didn’t know you saw us that way Shy.”
“What’s wrong?” Steven asked acting genuinely confused. “Is that the right picture? It’s just a photo, totally SFW.”
Hitting Steven with another “What the Fuck Dude” look, Shy swallowed hard and tried to muster a smile. “It was a different time back then. I mean what do you expect, we didn’t know any better.”
“Don’t worry, I don’t get offended over stuff like this, but you might want to tell your friend here not to flash those pics around this crowd,” Hirrsh replied.
“Yeah, I didn’t think I needed to tell my friend...” Shy paused to lower his voice, “...not to show me acting like a fucking racist.”
“Can someone please explain to me what is going on?” Steven pleaded.
“Well let’s see. Would you create a character for a story who is short, has a hook nose, wears a funny hat and fixates on making money?” Hirrsh asked, leaning in to be discrete.
“What about putting black makeup all over your face and then performing short skits filled with the vernacular of the urban poor?”
“Of course not.”
“Ok, then why would you put on an anthro costume with highly exaggerated facial features and then run around acting cartoonish?”
Steven suddenly found that he didn’t know how to answer.
“We’re real people, not stuffed toys,” Hirrsh explained. “I know things were a lot easier when you had your planet to yourself and the other species didn’t have feelings to hurt, but now you have to pay attention to such things. A number of the anthro species you’ll encounter were slaves at one point or another in their past so you need to be careful not to question their personhood.”
Steven sighed then responded after a brief pause. “I guess I didn’t think of it like that. I mean I never really interacted on a social level with non-humans aside from Ethera and Hector and they never really had a problem with anything I did.”
“Like I said before I don’t care, but some of the folks here are real hard noses when it comes to certain stereotypes. There’s even a few who consider anyone who may have indulged in the more exaggerated forms of artwork to be latent speciesists so it’s best to just leave the past in the past or in Wild Life. Also, if just being “that guy” isn’t enough of an incentive, just remember we come with claws,” Hirrsh concluded as he displayed his finger accessories alongside a non-threatening smile.
Taking his tablet back Steven looked around suddenly nervous that someone else may have caught wind of his little faux pas, but the ambient din of the bowling alley has shielded Hirrsh’s instructions from the generally superior hearing of the non-humans. A few minutes later the sound of a metallic object hitting against a beer bottle served to quiet down the group which had managed to grow to about 40 individuals. After waiting briefly for the stragglers to get back to the designated area and find their seats, a human female wearing in a natural fiber New-Age style dress stood up on one of the nearby chairs in order to be seen and heard, her voice light yet piercing like a songbird’s.
“Hello everyone. For those of you who don’t know my name is RedJay and I am serving as the facilitator for today’s meeting. First I wanted to thank everyone for attending Anthro Advocacy’s monthly bowling meet. I think I see a few new faces out there so if this happens to be your first time with us we have a sign in sheet going around where you can put your contact information for news and future events. Since we have a lot of people and I’m sure that most of you are looking to get a few games in I’ll try to keep things brief so we’ll forgo the usual newbie introductions.”
There was a general round of murmuring as some of the regulars expressed relief about not needing to suffer through an extended and general pointless introduction process.
“I wanted to begin with a few new action items. First Kayti has posted an alert about being refused service at Noodle Express because the owner claimed she was a health code violation. We are planning a protest for sometime next weekend and anyone who has undergone the non-violence and civil disobedience training is welcome to attend...especially anyone who is still shedding out their winter coat.”
The assembled crowd met her last statement with a rumble of approval.
“Second thanks to our court order that affirms that fur and feathers are both valid forms of clothing we will be conducting a little walkabout downtown two Sundays from tomorrow, which I believe is the 27th.”
As RedJay continued Steven looked around, once again finding himself in a strangely unfamiliar situation.
“Shy, what the heck is Anthro Advocacy?” Steven whispered over to his friend. “Why do they need announcements beyond the location of the DUI checkpoints?”
“It’s the support group for the local community of anthros, ferals and their human allies. When the usual crowd got too busy doing stuff in VR AA took it over. We’ve been getting more into direct action to send a message that non-human sentients deserve the same rights as humans,” Shy explained.
“That’s…necessary?” Steven asked. “I mean discrimination of all types is a big problem, but bowling night is just for fun. It isn’t supposed to have a political message.”
“You’re damn fucking right it's necessary,” Shy snarled, barely able to maintain his whisper. “Anthros and sentient ferals were getting shot...shot and nobody here was lifting a finger because the victim “looked like a deer” or were “coming right at ‘em”.”
Steven let the matter drop again as he wondered if there was anything he could do that wouldn’t result in a dressing down by one of the new regulars.
“And the “Veganism for Carnivores” workshop will be at Greypaws’s house this Wednesday at 6pm. Are there any other announcements?” RedJay asked, looking around the room.
“Yes Red, I have one.”
It took a second for Steven to realize that Shy had stood to address the meeting.
“I just wanted to let everyone who didn’t already know that Shy 2.0 is now operational and therefore I am now qualified to lead my own anti-poaching patrols. I’ve put up a tentative schedule on the website so anyone who can’t make it out on Wild Fire’s patrols you can come out on mine.”
The crowd responded with a round of encouraging comments and muted applause, allowing Shy to soak up the recognition for his efforts.
“Don’t worry,” an anthro mountain called out from across the room. “His suit might look a little amateur compared to mine, but I checked him out personally and he can both leap tall buildings and stop a wide variety of speeding bullets.”
“What about having more power than a locomotive?” one of the human taunted.
“Come on, I’m not a Neo,” Shy shot back playfully.
The crowd once again applauded as Shy sat back down looking quite pleased with himself.
“Thank you Shy,” said RedJay. “I urge everybody to sign up for as many shifts as they can. Sorry for the odd hours, but if our patrols were predictable then the poachers would be able to avoid them. Thanks to the recent grant from the Peterson Foundation we have more than enough cameras and com units to go around.”
“What’s an anti-poaching patrol?” Steven whispered as soon as his friend sat back down.
“Exactly what it says on the tin. What do you think one is?”
“Can you just give me some context?” Steven pressed. “Nothing here is the way I remember it.”
“I told you that a number of the locals liked to shoot at the funny new talking animals so AA patrols the local public lands trying to catch them in the act,” Shy answered. “We always have one member of the group in suit in case things get dicey.”
“Shy...getting shot at isn’t a game. Even if you’ve got a power suit going out as your character doesn’t mean the human you won’t get hurt.”
“Don’t worry I’ve gotten all the training. We don’t provoke anything, just take pictures and protect those that need it. We catch anyone in the act we go right to the Federation Marshalls or Dragon Knights.”
Steven was quiet for a moment as the implications of Shy’s comment sank in. “Y-you know what they do right?”
“Damn right I do. I mean I got the idea from your story about stopping that slaver ring. Only one way to stop bullies like that is to put ‘em up against the wall.”
Shy turned away to clap as the recipient of one award or another was announced and left Steven to once again wrestle with a mush of half formed memories casually edited for his protection.
“All I can tell you Shy is that you don’t want to start a fight unless you are prepared to finish it.”
“Yeah well the fight’s pretty much over. That one pair of Dragon Knights was more effective than 1000 hours of public service announcements.” Shy chuckled softly. “It was funny how quickly the local contingent of good ole boys scratched racial intimidation off their list of Saturday night activities once all their loudest blowhards started disappearing one by one.”
To avoid getting into an argument Steven forced himself to turn away and focus on his tablet while the meeting wrapped up. He had heard the same sentiments expressed countless times before because he was the one expressing them as he talked shop with Ethera and Hector in one safe house or another.
“And that was a six,” said Hirrsh looking up at the old CRT television with the scores displayed on it.
“I guess tonight just isn’t my night,” Steven grumped as he sat back down next to the Mrrshan while a human woman he vaguely knew from Wild Life got up to take her turn.
“I assume when you were here before you had Shockwulf to help you out,” Hirrsh remarked. “AI’s are pretty good with games involving physics and fine motor control.”
“I did better than this before I got the Shock suit,” replied Steven. “I think I’m just out of practice.”
“Well just from your body language I can tell you’re feeling tense and standoffish, maybe you should listen to Shy and just try to relax a little,” Hirrsh suggested.
Steven shied a bit more as the big feline called out his internal feelings of insecurity, but figured there was no use trying to brush things off. “I-I’m trying. It’s just the event has not turned out as I had anticipated.”
“Care to share?”
“Everything here has changed...and not in the “it’s different and now it sucks” sense, but everyone I looked forward to meeting here are going pale in VR and they have been replaced by a diverse group of aliens. It’s almost as if I woke up in some sort of strange alternate universe,” Steven explained, pausing as he considered that possibility. “Hmmm, now that I think about it maybe I should see if there was a one off error on my portal ticket.”
“While that’s always a consideration when living in a multi reality civilization," Hirrsh pointed out, "however, a more plausible explanation is that while you were away playing Guardian the world you knew ran out of ontological inertia when it encountered culture a thousand years its senior. You sort of remind me of those people in stasis tubes they are always thawing out on daytime TV.”
“Well, tell me what they do on TV and I’ll do the opposite.”
Hirrsh laughed as he shook his head. “You don’t have to do anything. When I first moved here the lack of traffic noise and light pollution freaked the shit out of me, but after six months I suffered insomnia every time I went back to the city.”
“Come on, I’m not some cultural retard.” Steven took a deep breath followed by another swig of beer. “I feel like there isn’t a place for me anymore. I know I never exactly hung out with the cool kids, hell I didn’t hang out much at all, but I still had my niche, people like Shy and...and Hector. Yeah, it wasn’t much of a life, but it was a life and now, with everybody checked into virtual reality for 12...18 hours a day...” Steven trailed off, shaking his head.
“You’re clearly an interesting person,” said Hirrsh, “so there has to be more to your life than online friends and real world game nights. What other things do you do?”
"Well I live up against the National Forest so I do the whole walking around in nature thing and I'm a tech nerd so I'm always crafting little devices in my basement," Steven replied as he tried to formulate what his "interests" really were. "I still go out to shoot and practice off road driving and various outdoors skills, but that's kind of work related."
"Well do you enjoy doing it?"
"Well of course, I mean who wouldn't?" Steven answered.
"Are you any good at it?"
"I'd like to think I'm better than average, but of course without Hector and my Shock suit those skills have sort of gone the same way as my bowling.”
“Hmmm...” Hirrsh nodded as he started at Steven for a moment. “That’s seems to be your go to excuse when you’re having difficulties. Did this Hector AI puppet you or something?”
“Well not exactly, but he was still my co-pilot. He’d tell me which turns to make and help steady my hands. It’s pretty easy to look competent when you have an AI co-driving in the back seat.”
Hirrsh nodded again. “Listen, I might be able to help you out with some of the issues you’ve been having. Give me your contact info and we can work out a time.”
“I guess it would be pretty cool to get some shooting tips from a Mrrshan,” Steven smiled as he raised his bottle finished the last of the beer.
“I know!” said Hirrsh with fake enthusiasm. “What’s the point of defining racial characteristics if you can’t use them to help your friends? That reminds me, I’m involved in a rather nasty conflict that my proud warrior tradition is preventing me from resolving. Perhaps you could use your diplomatic skills to help me out.”
“Ok, you can stop being so sarcastic every time I say something politically incorrect. I worked for a Unicorn and that’s basically how she related to other species,” Steven tried to explain.
“Yeah well Unicorns are bunch of fucking over generalizing racists,” Hirrsh sneered. “As I see it better a bit of sarcasm now than a punch to the face later. Here’s another bit of free advice. No matter what your boss mare says never refer to various dark skinned races as “evil” cause it will get your ass kicked no matter how diplomatic you are.”
“Agreed, but I have to ask is “Diplomat” really how you see humans? What about technologists or pragmatic warriors.”
“Hey human, I ordered too much food for my buffet. Why don’t you come help me eat it?” said Hirrsh, breaking out into a strange yowling that Steven could only assume was laughter.
“Oh...you think that’s funny? Don’t make me go get a ball of string.”
Hirrsh yowled even harder as he leaned over to pat Steven on the back before finally managing to regain his composure. “Anyway, yes I do in fact have a local range membership so why don’t we set up a time and I can see if I can’t help your lack of AI assistance.”
“Ha, I knew it.”
Hirrsh noticed that the other two members of their group had not only finished bowling, but had wandered off to pick up some additional refreshment. Looking up at the display he made note of the scores on his tablet.
“130 isn’t that bad. I mean you still came in second.”
“Meh, like I said I used to do better, even without Hector.”
“Feel up for another round?”
Steven looked around and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not really feeling it tonight. Hey it was great talking with you Hirrsh and I’ll e-mail you about meeting up at the range.”
After clearing his trash from the table Steven began to head for the exit before he suddenly felt a furry handpaw grab onto his shoulder.
“Hey hey! Where are you going?!” Shy demanded, his headpiece back in place.
“I kinda only had one game in me so I was just on my way home. I thought you were still playing so I just sent you a text message.”
“Yeah, nice try sneaking out, but texts go straight to my HUD,” said Sky, giving a facial expression that probably would have involved a tongue sticking out had his head been so equipped.
“Well, how was your first time with the "modified" group?”
“Not great, I only scored a 350 and a 370 in my first two games, but I’m still getting the hang of basic movement.”
“Wait, that’s impossible. By definition 300 is the most that anyone can score.”
“Well to avoid a slew of 300 ties the rules we play with use score multipliers for various special conditions. I mean its either that or play candlepin,” Shy replied.
Steven chuckled awkwardly. “Yeah, that’s why I didn’t go over there. You guys are intimidating. Anyway, I really do need to be getting home.”
“That’s fine, but I wanted to see if I could count on you to attend my first patrol. The date’s still TBD, but if you let me know when you’re free I can schedule around that. Your combat experience would be very helpful and I think it would help attract some people who aren’t usually involved,” Shy noted.
Steven blinked, unsure of how to respond as a rock formed in his gut from being put on the spot. “Shy, I really don’t know. I’m here to recover from a traumatic event and the last thing I need is to be getting myself involved in a range war.”
“What did I tell you earlier? It’s all perfectly safe. There’s no range war, hell there’s barely any raised voices.”
“I know what you told me, but I also know what I know. If you want to benefit from my combat experience then show some restraint and don’t go around confronting cowboys with fucking guns and power suits,” Steven shot back, his voice developing an edge.
"What the hell Lycos, we're not the bad guys."
“Whomever is right or wrong is irrelevant. When people get mad they get stabby and the more it simmers the greater the likelihood for an explosion,” said Steven. "You think I need that kind of shit in my life right now?"
“You know I always had a lot of respect for you, but now I’m wondering if that would be better directed at your power suit. If you aren’t going to contribute to society you should just go back home and plug yourself into VR.
For a brief moment Shy could have easily suspected Steven of being a shapeshifter as his usual mind mannerisms melted away, replaced by a pool of cool rage. Showing no regard for Shy’s enormous advantage in strength Steven grabbed his friend by the muzzle, pulling it down so he could look the fake coyote right in the optics.
“The last time I was told a mission was going to be a cakewalk I ended up with multiple plasma burns and three holes blown straight through my torso,” Steven snarled. “Suit or no suit my ass was on the line every time I punched the clock so don’t you dare compare me to those pale skinned VR warriors.”
Shy said nothing, aware that he may have gone too far, but still piqued over his friend’s refusal to apologize. After a few awkward moments glaring at each other Steven let go of the coyote’s muzzle and walked out.
The sky was blue and the grass formed an unbroken green carpet for as far as the eye could see. Amongst this backdrop a solitary grey wolf flew along the terrain at top speed, launching himself at his human friend and partner and knocking the biped to the ground in an excited frenzy of playful licks and growls. The human enthusiastically took up the challenges, rolling and wrestling with the wolf on the cool turf, bits of grass and dirt sticking itself onto fur and hair alike. Finally the human managed to disengage himself from the wolf and sat upright, panting and out of breath.
“You and me my friend. We are together, now and forever.”
The wolf struggled to its feet and sat back on its haunches. “I appreciate the sentiment, but we’re really going to need you to be awake for this mission.”
Shockwulf drew himself inward and he turned his body to tuck his head more securely into the corner of the rather Spartan duracrete rush room. “Aw come on mom, just a few more minutes.”
A great chorus of laughter immediately went up throughout the room from beak and muzzle alike as a dozen or so odd Mrrshans and Gryphons paused their equipment checks to apply some good natured shame to the drowsy robot wolf.
The tall thin humanoid looking down at the wolf contrasted sharply with the anthros that surrounded him not only for his lack of fur and more human appearance, but also his dark complexion with grey skin, jet black hair and blood red eyes. The graceful curves and fluting on the Drow's full suit of midnight blue plate armour demonstrated a level of expense and craftsmanship that contrasted somewhat with the rough treatment the armour had been subjected to.
“Well I’ve been mistaken for many things over my long life, but I believe “mom” is a first. Would you not agree Weiss?”
The other non-furred biped in the room stepped forward, nodding in agreement. He was almost the complete opposite in appearance with a strong muscular build, bright white hair, sky blue eyes and a full suit of white scale armour. The only real similarity between the two was the apparent condition of their gear.
“I do indeed agree Schwartz,” Weiss hissed, “There is nothing at all “motherly” about you.”
Shockwulf’s eyes went wide as his consciousness was launched into full wakefulness. Stumbling to his feet his body engaged the synthetic muscles that tucked his tail in between his legs.
“Nice of you to join us Sergeant,” the drow admonished lightly. “I’m hoping your hourly rate pays for more than just pretty dream sequences,”
“No sir...it won’t happen again sir,” Shockwulf shouted as he launched himself up onto his feet, his full coverage powered armour making a series of metallic clanks as it came into contact with the bench and wall.
The human form white NeoDragon let out a rather off putting chuckle. “Relax Sergeant, he won’t bite.”
“You most certainly do bite and that’s what I’m a bit more worried about!”
Weiss turned to his partner and nodded. “I think he’s up to operating temperature.”
“Alright, let’s get underway,” Schwartz stated in an authoritative voice. “Does anyone have any questions about the briefing?”
There was an extended silence as the biologic soldiers all in various models of powered and non-powered armour all looked at each other nervously.
“Sir Knight, my men have read the briefing several times over, but perhaps you could bring their attention to those parts which you find most relevant?” Shockwulf suggested.
“Very well then,” said Schwartz. “The most important thing about today’s mission is absolutely no human attribution. Check your buddies head to toe for any exposed human language characters, especially Latin alphabet. When you go through that portal there is to be no human speech. Native tongues or inaudible communications only. There are humans in this reality and it is a primary mission goal that the Herosian do not associate with them the incursion.”
“The corollary is that you may feel free to mug your beautiful fangs and beaks for any surveillance nodes you happen to see,” said Weiss as his human head shifted into a horned NeoDragon shape. “This race is classified as aggressive and potentially dangerous so putting a bit of paranoia into them can only help the larger policy goals for this reality.”
“Sir,” said Shockwulf, wary of interrupting either of the two Dragon Knights. “The art on your shield might be in violation of the stated mission objectives.”
Weiss stopped, pulled the shield off his back and looked at the depiction of his dragon form being ridden by his partner superimposed on a black and white ying-yang with the words “High Contrast” curved underneath. Casually waving a glowing claw above the image the words faded away into the bare metal.
“Thank you Sergeant and if anybody else sees a problem speak up. You were all billed by your government as elite so just because we’re DK’s doesn’t give permission to stand there like idiots and put everything on us.”
“T minus two minutes,” the voice of the controller crackled over the intercom.
“Any other questions?” Schwartz asked, looking around the dimly lit room. “Now’s the time to ask them"
"I had one sir," said Shockwulf, raising his hand again. "Would you be able to elaborate on exactly what managed to get our personnel captured in the first place? I don't like making somebody else's mistake again."
"Let's just say that when you are posing as a member of an alien race it helps to get the smell right," Weiss said wryly. "Shapeshifting is exactly what it says on the tin."
"If there are no other questions then you may take charge of your men Sergeant,” said Schwartz.
“Alright, just like we did in training," Shockwulf reminded as soldiers stacked up in two even lines in front of the currently inactive portal aperture in the far end of the room. "Stay focused and just move to your assigned sector as soon as you exit the portal. Weiss and Schwartz will lead the way, but follow your assigned routes, don’t blindly follow them. If they want you to do something they’ll tell you.”
Each six person element lined up, weapons poised over the shoulder of the soldier ahead of them, gryphon combat mages filling the third position back with staffs clutched in their talons. Between them Shockwulf paced up and down mentally preparing for his role as the point man through the portal. After turning back for the third time he found himself nose to nose with the NeoDragon.
//”Relax, we chose you on the recommendation that you were cool under fire. Don’t work yourself up, we’ll be in and out.”
//”I’ve heard that before Sir...and I’ve also heard these guys aren’t big fans of robots.”
//”Why does that matter? Were you planning on getting yourself captured?” the NeoDragon smiled. //”Take them to school Shock. Show them the high cost of prejudice.”
“T minus 30 seconds,” droned the rather dispassionate voice.
Shockwulf carefully looked his squad over one final time as the Neodragon assumed the point on the right hand stack.
“Shockwulf,” Schwartz called back over his shoulder. “We need to seize the initiative so as soon as you are through the portal roll so you can clear our lines of fire and movement.”
As the portal began to initialize with bolts of energy arcing across the squarish aperture Shockwulf got himself set at the rear of the two stacks. Just before the big red LED clock reached zero a complex set of calculations in Shockwulf's AI sent him running forwards the still forming portal at top speed. A second before he hit the horizon a microprobe was fired through the gateway, sending back confirmation that the other end was where it should be.
Shockwulf passed through the shimmering barrier of energy and immediately tucked himself forward so that the instant he emerged from the other side he was already in the middle of a combat roll. The two Dragon Knights followed close behind, rapid fire gauss rifles unleashing their deadly load at any of the reptilian aliens that happened to be unfortunate enough to be in that part of the space station. Shockwulf’s total control over his body allowed him draw his two gauss pistols mid-roll so that they were immediately available for use as he popped back onto his feet. Ignoring several more immediate targets, the synthetic wolf delivered two well aimed shots, depriving the officer at the security station of his forearms.
“Alu! Alu! Alu!” Schwartz screamed as the mixed force of anthros spread out killing or stunning anything that moved.
As other troopers passed him Shockwulf proceeded to shoot out all the visible security scanners before jumping over the divider into security station. Although strong and fit, the Herosian security officer was unprepared for the loss of both his hands and sat wide-eyed in the chair, dazed from the loss of blood. A quick jolt from Shockwulf’s grasp was all that was needed to render him fully unconscious. Verifying that the officers ID token was still plugged in and the workstation session was still active, Shockwulf engaged the translation matrix he had previously loaded into his AI and went to work on the keyboard, disabling as much of the station’s security mechanisms as he could.
//”What’s your status Shockwulf,” rang out Weiss’ voice in his head through one mechanism or another.
//”I’m unlocking all the doors that I can including the one to the lab, I’m setting the security sensors to replay old streams and I’m disabling all the automated weapons systems. I have to assume the security guy’s access implant has some sort of liveness detection so I don’t know how much time I’ll have.”
//”Well Mister Tech Support, stop playing video games do your thing.”
Shockwulf exhaled and pulled out his tactical interface connector that would allow him to access the information system far more intimately than what the standard interface would allow. Plugging one end into his neck and the other into a port on the workstation, the nannos formed the required electrical connections and a special purpose processor worked to decode the ambient protocols.
//”I’m in, at least partly. No promises though.”
//”Just fuck things up so that they can’t lock the doors again!”
Shockwulf diverted all of his processing resources to the task of sabotaging the alien network, looking for patterns by taste, touch, sight and smell, in addition to what could be dumped directly into his general purpose systems. While computer systems themselves could show incredible amounts of diversity, reflecting the technical legacy and psychological makeup of the races that created them, information theory and mathematics were generally consistent and as such availability often ranked a distant third in importance behind system confidentiality and integrity. It didn’t take long for him to literally sniff out the bottlenecks and then and then cram them full of fake and malformed data. As the station network ground to a halt Shockwulf took a perverse pleasure in the thought of an alien reptile pounding futilely at his keyboard while invaders had free reign to do as they pleased. The only opposition was from a few non-sentient intrusion detection systems which he was able to quickly send off on wild goose chases that had the added benefit of locking out most of the legitimate system administrators.
//”IT mission accomplished, I’m disconnecting,” Shockwolf broadcasted as he pulled out the tactical interface and hooked his sensory processors up to the appropriate data feeds.
//”This is Element 2, we’re in the lab, commencing material recovery.”
//”Element 1 reporting. We’re in the interrogation unit. Eyes on the assets, but we have a mechanically locked door in the way.”
//”We’re well ahead of schedule Element 1, deploy countermeasures. I am taking up a defensive position at the extraction point,” Shockwulf radioed back as he jumped back out of the security station and proceeded back to the open hallway junction where the portal had first been opened. //”Report corporal.”
“Two dead and three stunned in this area,” the hawk-leopard Gryphon chirped in her native tongue. “Specialist Aryin secured the ones that are still alive.”
//”Specialist, I’ve got corporal Lyree’s rear. Flash weld the doors marked 4, 6 and 7 on your diagram.”
The more traditional male eagle-lion Gryph nodded in acknowledgement and pulled out a small bundle of bright red flash welding sticks from his pack as he ran to one of the doors that lead to the rest of the station. The corporal quizzically regarded the armoured wolf with her piercing eyes.
//”The doors are only being held shut by software controlled locks. It is prudent to assume that base security forces will have access to manual overrides,” Shockwulf explained.
Shockwulf immediately fell back on his small unit leader training, double checking the dead and stunned enemy personnel while monitoring the status of the mission element teams over the comlink and tracking how their progress compared with the planned schedule. It was on his second circuit of the extraction point that Shockwulf’s threat analysis system began to ping his conscious mind . A simple thought brought up the output of the background processes that ran over his sensory data analyzing it for anomalies that his real time processing may have missed. On this occasion the anomaly was audio in nature, roughly correlating to the movement movement of an armed biped within a confined space.
Immediately looking up, Shockwulf confirmed the presence of a large ventilation grille directly above him. Allowing his pistol to drop from his hand, the great synthetic wolf jumped upwards curling his fingers between the metal mesh and drawing himself upwards in the style of a pullup. All at once Shockwulf dropped back down, his 400 pound weight ripping the grille from its frame which in turn caused a surprised Herosian to spill out from the opening and fall into a heap on the floor, tangled up with Shockwulf and the vent.
Struggling to get free of each other, the brutish reptillian was quick to his feet, but Shockwulf was faster, knocking the alien’s outstretched weapon arm upward to send its laser blast harmlessly into the ceiling.. Before the soldier could recover Shockwulf grabbed his wrist and squeezed until he heard the bones break. Ignoring the alien's anguished cries and ineffective blows, Shockwulf made one more calculation, withdrawing his knife with his free hand and then commanding his arm to move in a graceful arc intending to plunge the blade into the Herosian's skull. Scarcely more than 20 milliseconds before passing the point of no return the warrior wolf brought the blade to a halt, his synthetic yellow eyes observing the young creature that had soiled himself in fear. Turning the blade sideways Shockwulf delivered a swift punch between the eyes before placing the knife hand on the alien’s shoulder and finishing the job with a quick incapacitating electric shock.
From Corporal Lyree’s point of view the entire altercation had seemed like a blur of movement, scarcely lasting 5 seconds from beginning to end. Lowering her weapon she quickly assessed the condition of the unconscious soldier and the slightly disheveled wolf.
“Are you ok sergeant?”
//“I’m fine, but our location may not be as secure as I had assumed. Vents and service corridors were not part of my infrastructure attack plan.” Shock growled, retrieving his sidearm and shouldering his carbine as footfalls from the returning assault elements began to echo through the corridors.
//”Excuse me kind wolf,” Schwartz’s rather lyrical voice called out over the com channel. //”We have conducted a thorough review of the premises and unfortunately this space station is not going to meet our needs. Would you be so kind as to hail us a taxi as we have other pressing engagements.”
//”Right away sir,” smiled Shockwulf, sending the portal request back across the boundaries between realities. //”Lyree, Aryin, stand clear! Time to open the drain!”
Flashes of energy began to appear in the middle of the open area as the portal was established from the reality they had previously come from. After a few seconds a glowing surface about the rough shape of an old cathode ray tube screen had stabilized just as both teams of operators came into view. Fully aware of his responsibilities, Shockwulf kept careful count of his men as they barreled down the hallway and disappeared into the relative safety of the portal’s effect horizon. Bringing up the rear and jogging at a much more relaxed pace the contrasting Dragon Knights stopped in front of Shockwulf.
//“Is everybody accounted for Sergeant?” the anthro white Neodragon asked.
//”Yes sir, plus the two assets.”
//”Well then, time to go home,” stated the drow.
//”First in last out,” the synthetic anthro wolf replied, waving the two ancient warriors towards the glowing portal.
//”Very well then,” the drow nodded as he and his partner leapt through without protest.
Turning away from the portal Shockwulf made one last visual sweep of the area looking for anything that might have been missed. As he backed towards the glowing surface there was a bit of a commotion as another of the reptilians dropped out of the vent and landed awkwardly on the floor. This one was older and clearly of higher rank than the young soldier Shockwulf had previously punched out, but in the leap from the vent the Herosian had lost control of his weapon and quickly found himself staring down the barrel of Shockwulf's carbine. The two regarded each other for a moment before the synthetic wolf, his white teeth on full display in a lupine grin, took one hand off his weapon and delivered an informal salute before disappearing into the portal.
- * * *
“Ah, glad you could make it Shockwulf,” said Weiss as he eyed the mission report on a tablet. “Please, have a seat.”
Shock had removed most of his armour, but was still wearing the tight fitting black nanoweave suit that provided both ballistic protection and a network of small tubes to transport cooling fluid to and from an external heat exchanger. After a quick glance around the small lounge the Dragon Knight partners were using as an office Shockwulf crossed his arms and cocked an eyebrow.
“If you don’t mind sir I prefer to stand, keeps the meetings shorter. Oh also I don’t see any chairs.”
“Alright Weiss, you can stop testing him,” quipped the drow to the now human form, yet still armoured white dragon.
“Awww, but it’s so fun.”
“What do you mean “testing me”? Does that mean you’re trying to see when I’m put in a room with no chairs if I’ll pee in the corner or something?” Shockwulf asked, looking confused.
“Minus one point for improper reference,” said Weiss dispassionately.
“Plus one point for being funny and exhibiting more naturalistic humor,” Schwartz countered.
“I know you two are probably cracking each other up, but this is freaking me out,” Shock complained. “Can you please just tell me what the fuck is going on?”
“Relax, there's no need to freak out,” said Schwartz.
“Certain individuals have become aware of your somewhat uncommon mix of technical and combat skill,” Weiss continued. "Not many people are able to put points in both of those categories."
“Points? Oh...yes...because I’m a “character”,” Shock said flatly, as his level of amusement dropped further.
“Yes, you are and an impressive one at that,” said Schwartz. “You’ve been out of training for two months and you’re already leading missions. It’s almost like you’re a natural...”
“Or had some prior experience,” Weiss added.
“I really can’t comment on...”
The dragon tapped the side of his nose prompting the synthetic wolf to relax.
“You’re a hot commodity Hector Cassatt, aka Shockwulf,” said the drow. “The folks who recruited you thought they could keep you under wraps, but robo-wolves with custom fur patterns tend to stand out.”
“A certain Colonel Serena Hanford asked us to evaluate you for a position at the Synthetic Lifeform Intelligence and Response Team,” said Weiss. “If she had shown interest directly you probably would have found yourself shipped off to some god forsaken part of the multiverse where Tactical Threat Assessment could more effectivly 'hide' you."
“Come on, don’t knock TTA. They’ve been really good to me.”
“Don’t you have any negative character traits?” Schwartz snarked as he leaned back against the wall. “I was totally expecting you to dump the minor leagues in a heartbeat.”
“TTA did build him,” Weiss pointed out.
“Or it’s because I’m synthetic and I don’t see any need to rush,” replied Shock with a shrug. “Although just because I’m not going to bad mouth TTA doesn’t mean I wouldn’t move to SLIRT in a nanosecond.”
“We figured,” said Schwartz. “As of this very moment Colonel Hanford is cashing in quite a few favors to have you transferred to her command. Congratulations.”
“Thanks? I mean all I did was my job.”
“You hacked an enemy computer system with only basic prior information and turned what could have been a very expensive slog into a 5 minute pick up run,” Weiss pointed out, “and then when you were surprised by an enemy soldier you took him out...non-lethally.”
“That’s kind of important to the Colonel. She wants to make sure those working under her represent the ideals of synthetic life and aren’t just a bunch of dime-a-dozen killbots that,” said Schwartz as he pulled out a strange purple fruit and began to peel it.
“So what do I now?” Shock asked.
“Just hang tight. In a few weeks your CO is going to show up with a transfer order looking really grumpy,” Weiss chuckled.
"Thank you, it was a privilege to be able to participate in a mission with a pair of Dragon Knights. Did you have any feedback on ways I could improve?"
Weiss glanced at his table and swiped at it a few times with his finger. "Yeah, when you began your cyber op you completely vanished from coms for almost 2 minutes."
"I needed to devote all of my resources to the task. It was designated as a top priority."
"Correct, but you were also the NCO in charge," Schwartz pointed out. "If someone isn't coordinating the mission it can fall apart in a second. There's always an element of judgement in good leadership. You can't just blindly follow the plan. Next time don't be afraid to delegate if you're going to be fully occupied with another task."
Shockwulf nodded. "Anything else?"
"I know they weren't in the intelligence briefing, but you could have anticipated the environmental ducts and Jefferies tubes," said Weiss. "Again, you need to think beyond the intelligence reports."
"Of course normally you'd have an officer on hand to help with those types of planning details, but we wanted to see how you'd perform on your own," said Schwartz as he ate a segment of the fruit. “We’ll send you the complete report to your classified message account.”
“Thank you Sirs,” replied Shock, giving a bit of a half-nod, half-bow as he turned to leave the room.
“Who knows, maybe one day we’ll get to work together again,” Weiss called after him as Shockwulf shut the door.
"I know, everybody there was some kind of activist," Steven yelled towards the phone affixed to the center dashboard, trying to elevate his voice over the sound of the road noise that leaked through the rather loose fitting exterior of his Jeep. "It was really off putting. I'm not sure I'll go back next time."
"That really sucks man. Those bowling nights were really fun." replied Shockwulf, his voice piped through the vehicle's sound system.
"Oh really? I don't remember you ever going. Bowling requires a body and I am not sure you had even been compiled yet."
"Well I remember what you remember, so there," Shockwulf prodded. "Any idea about what you are going to do for fun now? Everyone needs a place they can just kick back, relax and get drunk. Of course I had to find that out on my own since you never took me places.+
"You were a glorified computer. What did you want me to do...pour glow into the case? Besides, I think you were under age."
"Excuses, excuses. Seriously though, what are your plans?"
"I realized that thinking of my time off as a vacation was probably getting me into trouble. People can't just hang out doing nothing for months on end so I am going up to the wildlife rescue to get back into volunteering. I sort of forgot how fun that place was back before the Federation showed up. I assume you also remember how cathartic working with the wolves was."
"I do indeed, but how about instead of spending all your time in the enclosure you try chatting up that cute woman who owns the place?"
"Becky? She's 10 years older than I am."
"What the fuck does that matter now. Humans are as old as they want to be thanks to all the tiny robots you fleshlings run through your bodies."
"For all your changes it never amazes me when the old Hector shines through," Steven chuckled. "Anyway I'll keep that in mind. I have to go now, I'm almost there."
Maneuvering his black Jeep around one last corner, Steven veered sharply across the road and skidded to a stop in the gravel parking lot of the Blue Mountain Wildlife Rescue center, throwing up a small cloud of blue-gray dust. Undoing his seatbelt and stepping out from the open space where a door was sometimes mounted, Steven began getting that Twilight Zone feeling in his stomach again as he was greeted by an uncharacteristic sound of silence. Counting two cars in the lot Steven found some reassurance that the non-profit where he had spent hundreds of hours volunteering had not closed completely, but the level of activity was far less than he was used to.
“Looks like the Federation strikes again,” he grumbled. “Nannos would certainly make wildlife rehabilitation fun and easy. No messy cages, or rehab, or poop. Hope they still need me for something.”
Walking around to the front of the white low slung building Steven mounted a pair of wooden porch steps when his hand suddenly froze, touching the front doorknob.
“Blue Mountain Wildlife Rescue and Feral Services,” he said out loud to himself, making note of the new name. “What on Earth are "Feral Services"?”
A small set of jingle bells rang out as he opened the door and stepped inside, a strong scent of fresh wood shavings flooding his nostrils. A few seconds later the sound of approaching footfalls paid off when the owner of the wildlife rescue appeared in the doorway to the examination room.
“May I help you?”
“Heya Becky, have any shifts for me to fill?” Steven announced, a huge smile on his face.
“Steven! Where the hell have you been? It’s been what...three years?” the short, curvy woman exclaimed, running forward to administer a heartfelt hug.
“You don’t know how much I’ve missed this place. My work gave me a paid year off and I figured I should spend it doing something I enjoy,” explained Steven, returning the hug.
Rebecca stepped back, pulling the red bandana off her head and shaking her light brown hair loose. “There’s been a lot of changes since you were here last. It’s all been great for the animals, but sort of tough for the volunteers, myself included.”
“Let me guess, a quick shot of the silver stuff and everything’s all healed. I kinda figured that when I didn’t see any cars in the lot, but I’m sure there are still other things you need help with. You know I certainly wouldn’t mind spending more time with the pack,” Steven winked.
Susan bit her lip and exhaled. “There is no more pack Steven. They’re all gone.”
Steven blinked as he felt himself go numb all over. “Who the fuck took them? Don’t tell me some asshole rancher came around with poisoned meat because I’ll fucking...”
“It wasn’t a rancher, in fact we don’t really know who it was,” said Rebecca as she walked over to a metal cabinet and pulled out a blue plastic container. “Any one pf about half a dozen militant environmental groups could have been responsible. They came from off world. We didn’t even know it was a thing we had to look out for.”
Steven shook his head in disbelief as Rebecca pulled the lid off the container.
“Do these people not read books? Captive wolves can’t be released back into the wild, they’ll starve.” Steven began to fidget as the wheels turned in his head. “Listen, I know where I can find some weres. It’s not a perfect solution, but they can “communicate” with mundane wolves so we should be able to track down any of the ones that don’t return. How long ago did this happen?”
Without saying a word Rebecca showed Steven the contents of the container. “Steven...the environmentalists didn’t just let them out of the enclosure.”
Steven reached in and gingerly picked up one of the mini-flashlight sized metal nano-injectors for closer examination. “You’re not saying they turned them into robots or something, are you?”
“They are called “uplift” nannos, or something like that,” Rebecca explained. “The environmentalists snuck in here and made all the wolves smart...like as smart as you or I. We called all the various authorities and they said there was nothing they could do except see to it that the wolves got some basic training on how to be...people.”
“And they all just...left?” Steven asked, trying to wrap his head around what had happened.
“Pretty much,” Rebecca answered. “We trained them as best we could, but after a couple months the pack just wandered away one night. Every so often a few of them show up to get some food or medical treatment, but this time of year there’s more than enough prey to keep them well fed. We now get government money to provide uplifted animals with social services. That's why we changed the name. We're still doing important work, but it’s not like the old days when all we needed to do was just head out into the enclosure for wolf kisses.”
“Why the fuck would those assholes do something like that?” Steven spat. “Do they not get the whole point behind a wolf sanctuary?!”
“It wasn’t just us. They’ve converted most of the wild ones too. When you make a wolf into a person then it gets rights and people with rights can’t be legally hunted or trapped or poisoned. The whole region was declared a no hunt zone for wolves because there are so few regular ones left.” Rebecca sighed. “The groups say this is the easiest way to protect threatened species, but if you ask me they wiped out what made the naturally evolved wolves special.”
“What about their pups?”
“Wolves are people now, now and forever unless the ranchers find some nannos of their own to change the gamete DNA back,” Rebecca said softly.
“The ranchers must have gone absolutely apoplectic over this.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Of course they were shooting the wolves on sight to begin with so it wasn’t like their behavior changed much. If anything, the only real change is that the wolves got better at avoiding the ranchers and their traps so things have falled into an uneasy stalemate.”
“So that explains why Anthro Advocacy is so up in arms,” Steven mused.
“Don’t get me started on Anthro Advocacy,” Rebecca spat. “I don’t condone murder, but their confrontational tactics have done nothing but inflame things. Since the wolves now know not to fuck with humans or their livestock the Ranchers would have no reason to stay angry, but apparently AA's complaints hit the right set of ears and the Federation sent in some heavies to apply some summary justice to the problem. The shootings certainly went way down, but the process created a lot of anger.”
“Rebecca, murder is murder. You can’t just shrug it off as a cost of species integration. Persecution like that just doesn’t go away even among humans. Anthro Advocacy is just standing up for what is right.”
“They are self-righteous instigators that care more about getting offended than solving problems,” replied Rebecca, channeling all manner of irritation. “We were showing the ranchers that they didn’t have to fear wolves any more. Some were even going to try giving them jobs, but now uplifts are seen as agents of the big bad government with a special status that places their rights above the rights of "natives". Yeah nobody is dumb enough to shoot a wolf and wear the pelt around town anymore, but while AA gets to feel accomplished I get my shit vandalized as a “wolf lover”.”
“Listen, if you need me to...”
“Thank you, but it’s not necessary,” Rebecca quickly interjected. “Let’s just say there is rather wealthy benefactor who owns a property up the road and he was nice enough to have his security people keep an eye out as well as a healthy grant to support our new mission.”
“Ooo, you have a secret billionaire? Who is it?”
“I’m really not at liberty to divulge that information. No offence, but I gave my word and I don’t want to jeopardize his continued support,” Rebecca explained as she lead Steven into the exam room. “Still, with your contacts I’m sure you could find out pretty easily.”
“Say no more, nosing around is something I like to avoid when on vacation,” Steven chuckled. “What do you do with all the money now that you don’t have as many animals?”
“Aside from medical supplies the bulk of it goes to bringing in mages so we can give the uplifts the ability to thought speak or even shapeshift to an anthro form. You know the whole teach a man to fish thing, right? It’s hard to get a job if you can’t speak human or lack opposable thumbs. We've been trying to get this ability out to all the alphas in the local packs first.”
“So do you think you could still use my help?” Steven asked with a hopeful smile. “I can always lift heavy objects or track down a radio collar on foot.”
“Where we need volunteers is for the uplift training and outreach. Demand for that is highly variable so we have a distribution list and just bring people in as needed,” Rebecca explained. “Since you mentioned it we have been looking for someone to teach a technology literacy course. Do you think you would be interested?”
Steven thought for a moment picturing himself trying to teach things to a room full of feral wolves. “Just so we’re clear I’d be teaching wolves how to, like, use the internet?”
“Correct,” Rebecca smiled. “Sure beats cleaning cages eh?”
“Yarg, that was pretty nasty,” said Steven, making a face. “Are any of the resident animals left?”
“We’ve got the cats, a new German Sheppard named Lisa, a room full of smaller critters and the non-releasable raptors.”
Steven brightened a bit at the mention of the large birds of prey kept on hand for educational purposes.
“It’s Rocky Redtail still alive?”
“Yes Rocky is still alive,” Rebecca groaned, rolling her eyes a bit. “You won’t believe how many people want us to get him uplifted.”
“He has toured every school in the region for the past 20 years,” Steven noted. "Probably a good deal of nostalgia attached to him."
“Hell, I’d do it if I had the money.”
Steven stopped and eyed Rebecca for any sign of sarcasm.
“Weren’t you just explaining to me how much of a cluster fuck uplifting is?”
“I know, but...watching a being that you have always had to project intelligence onto suddenly start demonstrating it on their own...it’s just magical,” said Rebecca, her voice showing a pang of regret. “Of course that’s also the problem. A hawk’s brain is too small for the nano treatment which means we’d have to use magic and that costs a lot more money, money that is better spent on our other clients.”
“It would be pretty sweet if he could just talk to the kids himself,” said Steven as he considered the idea.
“Enh, the sooner they talk the sooner they talk back,” Rebecca sighed, shaking her head. “You’ll understand once you’re a parent.”
Steven exhaled once and shifted around a bit. “Don’t worry...I know what you mean.”
“Hey, I know the place looks empty, but would you want to meet one of our clients?” Rebecca offered in an attempt to change the subject.
“Sure...and what exactly do you mean by "client"?”
Rebecca led Steven into the room which had previously been used to house injured raptors. Since his last visit the cages had all been removed and a thick shag carpet installed. A thin screen monitor covered the far wall, while smaller monitors, mounted about two feet off the ground lined the sides of the room. In the middle of it all a solitary black furred wolf sat, looking up intently at the large display as he interacted with the computer driving it via a flat keyboard and touchpad combination that was optimized for lupine anatomy.
“Hello Coy, how is everything going?”
//“So far so good Miss Becky,” said the wolf, speaking directly into the two humans’ minds while its great pink tongue hung out in the form of a smile. //“I sent off applications for six additional positions.”
“That’s wonderful. Here, I wanted to introduce you to Steven, one of our former volunteers. He used to work with the wolf pack we kept in the enclosure.”
//”Pleased to meet you two-leg Steven,” replied the wolf, raising its paw as if to “shake”.
“Um, do I...” asked Steven, turning to Rebecca.
“Go right ahead, he’s the one offering you his paw.”
Steven took the wolf’s paw in his hand, marveling how the canine appendage almost entirely covered his own. “Yeah, that’s a lot more impressive than when a Golden Retriever does it.”
//”Yes, funny how your attempts at genetic engineering created an inferior species,” commented Coy before pulling his paw back. //”Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Just seeing how I can get involved,” Steven said, kneeling down to scratch the wolf between the ears. “So what are you working on today?”
//“After Miss Becky helped me with my ray-zu-may I have been applying for jobs.”
Steven couldn’t help but let out a chuckle as he interpolated Coy’s words as a joke. “What would you put on a résumé…you’re a wolf.”
“Let’s see, five years of wildlife management, food preparation and childcare with advanced skills in the areas of hunting and outdoor survival to name a few,” Rebecca answered, clearly familiar with the question. “Why I don’t necessarily condone the circumstances of their creation, Lupine Americans have just as much to contribute as the rest of us.”
Thinking about things for a moment, Steven lowered himself into the wolf’s line of sight. “Alright Coy, pretend you are in a job interview and answer this question. Seeing that you have been employed for the last five years, why did you leave your old job with the pack.”
Coy was silent for a moment as Rebecca had never practiced this particular question with him, but soon came up with an answer. “Let me just say that my former pack did not properly value the services I was providing to them and so I left to seek employment elsewhere.”
Steven dug his fingernails deep into the thick fur surrounding Coy’s neck, scratching an itch he knew wolves could not reach on their own. “Good answer, I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
//”Ooooo...I see you’ve worked with wolves before,” Coy responded, closing his eyes.
“Is Coy the only wolf here? The room looks like its set up for more.”
“As one might expect they tend to come in packs,” Rebecca replied.” More often than not it’s the wild ones as captive uplifts were able to get significantly better training before they set out on their own.”
“I guess when the alpha learns about bacon it’s time to get the pack some jobs,” Steven snickered.
Rebecca grew quiet as her pleasant expression turned ashen leaving Steven to wonder if he had said something insulting again.
“Actually, it’s usually after the first time one of them dies,” Rebecca stated, turning her head to look out the window. “Death isn’t something wild animals really understand so when it happens...they come to us. Sometimes they think we can fix it. It’s...it’s heartbreaking.”
//”We understood death perfectly well Miss Becky,” Coy explained as he pulled away from Steven. //”Even in the time before the loss of a packmate would cause much sorrow and mourning, but as the sun rose and set we would still need to survive. Now,” Coy paused for a second to gather himself. //“Now that we have the thoughts to reflect our pain and words to express them death and hardship are always with us.”
Rebecca continued casually wiped away a tear and knelt down next to Coy to soothe her fingers in the wolf’s warm pelt “But that’s why they come here. They want to create a better life for themselves and we help them do it.”
//”Yes you do...”
A racket back in the office suddenly got Rebecca’s attention, prompting her to leap up and head for the door. “I’ll be right back. I think hear the office phone ringing.”
Alone with the wolf Steven idly played with the great fluffy tail as it slowly twitched back and forth.
“Coy, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
//”Like a job interview one?”
”No...more like a personal question.”
//”Go right ahead, questions are fun!”
“Is all this worth it?”
Coy stood there and blinked a few times. //”Is all what worth it?”
“All of this!” Steven gestured with his hands. “Having to get a job and deal with your pack and, um, know that you might die. I used to think the idea of talking animals was the coolest thing ever, but when I come in and see you all alone having to fill out a résumé and get a job it makes me feel bad for you. Weren’t things just easier in, you know, the before time?”
Steven was a bit taken aback when the wolf rolled his big yellow eyes. //“You ask me, a simple wolf, to give you the answer to humanity’s oldest question? Well you are lucky that the answer is so simple! Yes! Yes it is worth it! For every moment of fear and sadness there is another of joy and anticipation. To be able to achieve my full potential is something I would not give up in a thousand moons!”
//”Why did your first-kin defy their creator and eat of the fruit that gave them full awareness? The before time is only a prison that projects the illusion of paradise.”
Steven wasn’t sure what he had expected the wolf to say, but the answer had only increased the feelings of doubt and emptiness inside of him. Looking back up he was startled to find that Coy had circled around him before pressing his tooth filled muzzle right up close to Steven’s face.
//”Of course the question you meant to ask is not if I think the uplift was worth it, but if you think the uplift was worth it.”
“I don’t see why that is something I would be...”
Steven found himself cut off as Coy used his nose to redirect the human’s attention to a faded computer printout pinned to a bulletin board advertising the 5th annual Blue Mountain BBQ Fundraiser. On it was a picture of a slightly younger yet unmistakable Steven being mobbed by a pair of exceedingly happy grey wolves.
//”If you take your fingers and push them deep into the fur where a wolf cannot scratch you will have a friend for life, but if you follow that up with a conversation the resulting relationship may be much more fulfilling.” Coy gave a little shrug. //”Choose your friends how you will.”
After a brief moment of Zen, Rebecca returned from taking the call in the office, excitement written large across her face.
“Good news Coy! That was the University of Montana daycare center. They saw your application and think you will be a perfect fit for the position!”
The black wolf bared his teeth in a canine grin, his tail wagging powerfully back and forth as he dashed over to get a hug from Rebecca.
//“I am happy!”
“I knew you’d find a job,” Rebecca said as she wrapped her arms around the thick furry neck. “They’ll need you for an interview later this afternoon, but I can give you a ride.”
“Congratulations Coy,” offered Steven before a light went on somewhere in his head. “Wait, did you say daycare center? What kind of daycare center hires a wolf to watch after little children!?”
“Shuush,” Rebecca admonished, “anthros and talking animals are in high demand for child care and early education. The kids go crazy for them.”
//”I find human offspring to be most enjoyable,” Coy volunteered.
“Um, you might not want to say it exactly like that in the interview there Coy,” Steven suggested.
//”The only predators your parents care about is the sexual kind,” Coy snarked. //“Nom, nom, nom.”
“Coy, why don’t you go take a bath so you can be nice and fresh smelling for the interview. I think the body dryer should be working,’ said Rebecca as she got back up to her feet.
//”Yes yes, a bath will be good for everybody,” said Coy before turning back to Steven. //”It was nice to meet you Steven. Perhaps I will see you around town.”
“Thanks for the advice and let me know if you ever need a ride or a place to stay or something.”
The wolf silently acknowledged Steven’s offer before padding quietly out of the room.
“If you’re the only one here I could take Coy to his job interview,” Steven immediately offered as he followed Rebecca back into the front office.
“Thanks, but I am going to need to go with him,” Rebecca replied. “It’s sort of a social worker thing. I know what difficulties he might have and how to deal with a variety of the more common situations. I’m sure Coy will be fine, but I really shouldn’t risk it with someone who might be unprepared. I appreciate the offer though.”
“I totally understand,” said Steven. “I’ve had to use that same rationale to disappoint folks on many different occasions.”
“What I could use however is someone to stay here and keep a watch over the animals while I’m gone. You remember how that all works right?”
“Yeah yeah...I remember the procedures.”
“And no feeding the squirrels to the raptors. We need them for the outreach program.”
“That squirrel ran up stairs all on its own!”
Rebecca laughed and gave Steven a friendly pat on the back. “Good to see you again, now I’m going to go make sure Coy gets all the funk out of his fur.”
Left all alone in the building Steven wandered through an open door and stepped down a lever to a room filled with glass terrariums, each with a heat lamp above it. Pulling up a chair Steven shook his tablet out of hibernation and went about checking his e-mail. Glancing off to the side he met the gaze of a diamond backed rattlesnake as it observed him with black pupil-less eyes.
“Yeah, what’s your story?” Steven snapped as some of his growing frustration bubbled to the surface. “Let me guess, you’re some sort of dragon cursed to the form of a snake. No? What about a space alien? Naga hatchling? Well, whatever you are I’m sure there’s something I can do for you. You need a job? Why don’t we go protest something or...or hang out in VR until we lose all our pigment?”
The snake sniffed the air with its tongue a few times before turning its head away to contemplate being a snake.
“Yeah, I thought not. You’ve clearly got better things to do.”
Steven gingerly backed his Jeep into the parking space and then slowly opened the small door, being very careful not to ding the significantly more expensive vehicle he had parked next to. Before his feet had even touched the ground, Steven’s ears were assaulted by the sharp crack of smokeless munitions prompting him to reach for a pair of bright red earmuff style hearing protectors. Exiting the Jeep Steven walked around to the rear and lowered the tailgate in order to pull out the four foot long hard shell carrying case that was tucked inside. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a six foot tall alien feline dressed only in cargo shorts and sandals making his way across the grass from the firing line.
“--- --- ---- --- ---- ok?”
“What?!” Steven shouted back as he turned to see Hirrsh waving at him.
“Did you find the place ok?”
“Oh, yeah, no problem. I mean it was a little odd having to drive past everything before hitting the entrance, but you mentioned that in your directions. By the way, what’s with all the nice cars?” Steven asked looking down the line of parked vehicles. “I thought fuel cells and plasma engines are a liberal conspiracy.”
Hirrsh laughed. “All us alterbaggers aren’t just here to make the wolves smart and raise the price of coffee downtown. This place is literally the Wild West. For billions of people raised in Class IV or V nanny states, Class III Big Sky Country represents the perfect mix of convenience and freedom. In one afternoon I can roll out to the range and vaporize a car with a plasma cannon then drive downtown and eat an organic grass fed steak the size of a boogie board.”
“That sounds great, but if you’re using Montana as directed why are all the locals getting so pissed off?” said Steven, laughing slightly to himself.
“Cause our credits go a lot farther than your dollars,” replied Hirsh matter-of-factly, “and of course nobody likes change, no matter how trivial. For example when I got here people could just drive their trucks up to the line, get out and shoot. Now because there are more members they had to build a parking lot and force people to walk. I understand that the original residents liked having this place to themselves, but what am I going to do? Live on some bland core world just because they called “dibs” after forcing the original inhabitants onto reservations? What’s good for the Queen is good for the Tom.”
“Well enjoy it while it lasts. All it takes is a rash of mass school shootings and they’ll make our Earth just as lame as the core worlds,” Steven snarked.
“Ha, don’t bet on it. School shootings haven’t been a problem since they put cyborgs in schools.”
“Robots in schools.”
“Mages in schools.”
Steven sighed and rolled his eyes. “And when the mages start casting death magic?”
“Guns in schools.”
“Ok, now I know you’re just trolling me.”
Hirrsh broke out in a feline laugh. “Yeah, you got me, but that's because in the core worlds physical schools just don’t exist anymore. Everybody just telepresences in from home...or is an AI or NI mind being raised in VR.”
Steven was silent for a moment. “Compared to the laternative I think I actually prefer the school shootings.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve clearly never had to change a diaper. So what’s in the case?”
“Network diagnostic tool,” said Steven as he opened up the case.
“That looks like a G36 Advanced assault rifle,” Hirrsh whistled as he picked up the weapon, feeling its weight.
“Yup, fully stabilized with semi, auto and N-shot burst. I attached a lead computing reflex sight with a wireless link to transmit a real time image of what the rifle is pointed at to Ethera or Hector…I mean Shockwulf.
“I guess you weren’t kidding when you said you were working under the table,” Hirrsh remarked. “Network diagnostic tools indeed. So what’s in the other box?”
“Armour piercing connectors or tracer?” Hirrsh smiled as he opened up the box only to reveal a plethora of small plastic rectangles. “Oh, you were being serious.”
“The ammo is in the under floor storage bin. Here, let me clean up the mess you made and get it out.”
“No no, we won’t actually be needing that today," said Hirrsh, putting his hands on his hips. "If you want to learn if you are the puppet or the puppet master we’re going to need a weapon that can’t practically fire itself. Here, follow me. I’ve got everything already set up.”
Displaying a puzzled expression, Steven locked everything back up in his rear cargo space and followed Hirrsh across the grass to the firing line. Sitting out on a shooting bench was a rifle that oozed authenticity with dark brown wood in place of plastic and none of the proof marks indicating it had been uprated for the advanced Federation propellants.
“Wow...that’s an M1,” Steven observed, picking up one of the clips holding a cluster of 8 .30-06 cartridges. “Damn, these rounds are fucking monsters. I could fit one of the bullets from my G36 completely inside one of the cases! Wait, you’re not suggesting that I shoot these are you?”
“Why not? An unfamiliar weapon will force you to demonstrate more of your skills along with more of your weaknesses.”
“This ammunition looks expensive.”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to pay me back. Now, let’s start you off at 50 yards from the seated position. Get yourself set up and I’ll show you how to load it.”
Steven took a deep breath as he sat down to the left hand side of the shooting table. Picking up the rifle for the first time he felt its significantly greater mass compared to his usual tools of destruction and their space age materials.
“Where do I adjust the inertial dampener?”
“It’s called a spring and you don’t because it doesn’t.”
“Hirrsh...I don’t think I can handle something this powerful. It’s going to kick me into next week.”
“First, no it won’t and second you told me you had been working out so no it really won’t. How much “tech support” experience do you have? Three years? You have absolutely no reason to be scared of this.”
“I...I’ve never really fired anything that presented a challenge. Not as myself at least.”
“For everything there is a first time. Now pick up the clip, put it above the magazine then place the palm of your hand flat in front of the operating handle and press down with your thumb.”
Steven attempted to follow Hirrsh’s instructions and after several tries he yelped in surprise as the bolt flew forward loading the gun.
“What the fuck. That thing nearly ate my finger!”
“Yeah, the trick is to not be scared of it. Alright, do whatever it is you do and I’ll tell you when to do something different.”
Hirrsh tapped some commands into his tablet and 50 yards down the range a holographic target appeared. At first Hirrsh said nothing as Steven took his first shots, quickly discovering that the classic technology rifle was nothing he could not handle. Two clips later Hirrsh began to give Steven more feedback, first after each round of 8 shots and then after every shot. Throughout it all the Mrrshan’s tone was flat and his comments neutral. Finally, with Steven’s shoulder beginning to ache Hirrsh patted him on the back and got up from his seat.
“Alright, that’s good for now.”
“What’s up with all the Zen? Ancient feline secret?”
“I’m trying to collect data without influencing the experiment. By varying the amount of feedback I could better track a number of psychological issues that could affect your performance.”
“Did you detect any?” Steven asked.
“Oh...well, how did I do?”
“I’ve seen worse, but you should have done a lot better based on your experience.”
“AI auto-aim is not fucking experience,” Steven spat, abruptly pushing himself up from the table. “You know it won’t crush me to have people just come out and say I’m a button masher. Technology increases human performance...it’s why we fucking invent things.”
“Your problem Steven is that you are fixated on your limitations instead of your abilities. The first step towards failure is expecting to lose.”
"What do you expect me to do?" Steven snapped back. "When I was Shockwulf everything just worked. Now I'm all wobbly."
"Ninety percent of shooting is half mental," said Hirrsh, pulling out another wise sound bite. "Since I'm not asking you to do something impossible like lift a bus we need to find a way to get you into the right mindset. My people have some ancient meditation techniques that might help if you are willing to try."
“This isn’t the most relaxing environment,” Steven noted over the sound of nearby gunshots.
“Double up with a pair of earplugs and you should be fine. I’m going to go clear a space under that tree. You can meet me over there when you’re ready.”
Steven grumbled, but grudgingly followed the Mrrshan into the shade of a tree standing by the edge of the parking lot. As he inserted some bright orange foam earplugs under his red muffs, Steven watched as Hirrsh cleared away twigs and leaves from a patch of sandy soil and sat down with his legs folded and crossed.
“When you are ready just take off your shirt and sit in my lap.”
Steven’s eyes immediately went as wide as saucers. “Um, I don’t think I know you that well, and even if I did there are a whole bunch of people right behind me.”
“Do you want to get better or do you want to keep feeling sorry for yourself?”
Pulling off his shirt Steven’s exposed torso exhibited a physique that while falling short of what could normally be considered “ripped” still showed an above average level of fitness of the kind born from activity instead of workouts.
“The only thing I want to do is get better,” Steven said through clenched teeth as he sat turned and quickly sat down on the alien feline’s lap while making an effort to minimize any skin to fur contact.
“Kitty hug!” Hirrsh threw himself around Steven’s upper body, feeling the human abruptly tense up and then relax as the soft fur began to reduce the human’s stress levels. “Shhhh, just relax and follow my instructions as best you can,” he spoke into Steven’s covered ears. “Close your eyes and raise your arms straight out.”
Hirrsh helped lift up Steven’s arm’s, before beginning to run his hands and fingers along the humans exposed skin, a deep purr flowing out of the big cat’s chest and into the human’s body. Most of the time the touch was light, just enough to create a tingling sensation, but occasionally Hirrsh would use his entire palm or fist to change the touch into more of a massage. With the basic initiated Hirrsh began to whisper things to Steven, the hearing protection muffling the sound enough that he could get the jist of what was being said without having any specific words to focus on. As the large Mrrshan continued some of the other range patrons began to look over, others began to stare while an adventurous few actually approached.
“Watcha two doing there?” asked a rather grizzled looking older man with a long grey beard and a faded red baseball cap.
“Relaxation exercise,” explained Hirrsh without a hint of self consciousness. “My friend here picked up some stress from his time in the service and he’s been having trouble with his aim.”
“How does it work?”
“I use the touch to channel his energies and quiet unwanted thoughts,” said Hirrsh as he reached his hand back in front of Steven’s face to make sure his eyes were closed. “It helps that felinoids have a pronounced calming effect on many different species.”
“Sounds like that therapeutic riding my son did after he came home from Syria,” said the man, nodding softly, “perhaps if I brought him by you could do your thing on him as well?”
“Sure...that sounds...great,” replied Hirrsh, forcing a smile.
The meditation session went on for about another five minutes, which happened to be long enough for any of the other lingering onlookers to drift away. Placing his hands under Steven’s armpits, Hirrsh gently helped the human his feet, checking occasionally to make sure that his eyes were still shut. After helping Steven get his shirt back on Hirrsh placed his striped prehensile tail into the human's bare hands.
"Alright, just keep your eyes closed and follow my tail," Hirrsh instructed, walking slowly back toward the firing line.
When the pair finally reached their destination, Hirrsh sat Steven down on the shooting bench behind the the rifle.
“Alright, you can open your eyes now. Just relax and take it slow.”
Steven nodded and took a few seconds to get into position with Hirrsh providing a few additional pointers. Unlike before Steven felt his heart beating at a calm and steady pace, his breath going in and out, the sights of the rifle steady on the target. Sitting up to reload the gun Steven quickly reset his position and began to fire off the full power rounds in five second intervals. When the clip popped out of the gun and clanged on the table Steven quickly loaded another and fired a second series of 8 shots, lingering on the target after the bolt had held open.
“So, how do you think you did?” Hirrsh asked.
“Well, unless...” said Steven abruptly stopping himself. “No “unless”, I did better.”
Without further comment Hirrsh turned his tablet so that Steven could see the grouping of 16 shots all within a 2 inch square centered on the 10 ring.
“I’d say that was probably the best you could do without large amounts of practice or AI auto aim.”
“I guess your meditation techniques have benefits besides just feeling nice. Do Mrrshan gunners do things like that before going into combat?”
Hirrsh scoffed. “Ha that stuff was all bullshit. I was making it up as I went! There’s no ancient Mrrshan secret, just basic psychology. You were stressed about failure, you expected failure and every time you made a little mistake it just confirmed in your mind you were a failure. All I did was try to calm you down and distract you so you wouldn’t psych yourself out. Also I figured that if I could make you take your shirt off and get an erotic furry massage in public it would burn out all your self-consciousness and get you to just go with the flow. Well, that or trigger catastrophic trust issues resulting in a lifetime of depression.”
“So everything you did with me there you were just pulling out of your ass?”
“It’s not like I haven’t given back rubs or meditated before, but yeah, pretty much.”
“Didn’t you just agree to provide some real therapy to a war vet?”
“Oh...yeah...I might need to do something about that...” answered Hirrsh, his tail twitching uncomfortably.
“Yeah you’d better,” said Steven, looking a bit concerned. “Anyway I wanted to thank you for taking the time to help me out. I don’t know if it will stick, but I honestly didn’t think I would ever be able to shoot that well without Hector.”
“It was my pleasure. Not many of my friends are interested in weapons or shooting...except Shy and there’s only so much of him that I can take.”
“So, care to show me what you can do?” asked Steven, gesturing to the rifle still on the shooting table.
“I could, but you won’t be impressed. Gunners aren’t the same as marksmen. My species’ muscles are evolved for speed and power so it is not the most natural action to try and aim at a fixed target,” Hirrsh admitted, “but I can do this.”
Picking up the rifle the felinoid loaded a single round and after taking a few moments to scan the big blue sky he raised the weapon to his shoulder and swung the barrel in a graceful arc from right to left as he tracked some aerial target. As soon as Hirrsh fired Steven moved forward to look up and caught a rather startled vulture flapping vigorously away as one of its finger-like flight feathers drifted lazily towards the ground.
“Thank you, I’m here all week.”
Some of the other shooters looked tempted to say something about the gross violation of range safety policy, but thought better of it after noting the similarity between Hirrsh’s furry striped arms and tree trunks.
“I can see why you’re not a huge fan of technical aids,” Steven remarked as Hirrsh began to put the gear away. “They’ve probably stolen a lot of your people’s thunder.”
“I guess my bias is a tad self serving,” the big cat grinned.
“So what are we going to do now? I’m not sure another lap dance is going to give me the ability to shoot the tail feathers off birds in flight.”
“Hmmm, well if you have a bit more time I think I have something that might interest you.”
“So how much did this all cost?!” Steven shouted over a sudden barrage of gunfire.
“Half million!” a younger human in a bright orange jacket with the words "Range Safety Officer" emblazoned on it in black yelled back.
“Credits or dollars?”
“Credits! Had to do something to get the membership levels back up. Newcomers aren’t much for just sitting at a bench shooting paper all day.”
Steven watched through the transparent energy shield as Hirrsh tried to bring his G3 battle rifle to bear on the holographic soldiers engaging him with Russian carbines about 100 yards away at the far side of the arena. Every so often a ripple of energy would appear on the shield as they were impacted by bullet sized balls of force field being “fired” from the simulated weapons.
“Your friend’s in trouble there,” the safety officer noted, “This sort of match always fools the marksman types who think they can just sit back and pick off the enemy at long range. The holos aren’t stupid. They stay behind cover and keep you suppressed so you can’t get off a shot then move in for the kill when their numbers build up sufficiently. The whole attraction of this setup is realism.”
“You have an AI working the opponents?”
The man chucked. “Oh goodness no. We need the sessions to be consistent and a person AI would get too good after months and months playing. While realism is important, few people will pay good money for a game they can’t win.”
“Heh, look at his tail. It’s all poofed up,” Steven pointed out as he tracked his new friend's progress.
“Yeeeup. Hirrsh likes to say he’s an alien, but some of the boys back at the clubhouse think he’s just a big old kitty cat trying to make himself seem more important.”
“Convergent evolution,” said Steven, elevating his voice again over the sound of gunfire.
“Hirrsh looks like a cat not because he’s a cat, but because those features are useful for predators no matter what planet they’re from. Besides, who do you think humans are more likely to be friends with...space dogs and cats or space cockroaches?”
A sudden yowl rang out as Hirrsh dropped behind his concealment clutching his right shoulder with his left hand, writhing about in pain, his rifle laying uselessly to one side.
“Argh! Dammit this HURTS!”
“It’s called getting shot Hirrsh, of course it hurts,” Steven yelled back as several holographic soldiers began to rush out from their defensive positions.
“You going to surrender or do you think you can try to handle that beast one handed?”
“Shut up Gary. Mrrshans don’t surrender!”
“Mrrshans surrender all the time. You’re cats, not Klingons,” Steven remarked.
“Ugh fine, turn it off. I surrender.”
The holograms and a most of the terrain and cover features in the playing area vanished as Hirrsh slowly got to his feet and hobbled out into the viewing area where the others who had paid for the action shooting event were queued up.
“I’d like to protest,” said Hirrsh, “that scenario was not an accurate assessment of my abilities.”
“Aww really?” mocked Garry. “Well too bad, I guess the scenario wasn’t trying to test your abilities then. Perhaps next month’s tournament will suit you better.”
Some of the people standing nearby had a good laugh while Steven adjusted his hearing protection before putting on one of the full face-mask helmets that would protect him from being knocked unconscious in the likely event he was shot in the head with one of the stun rounds.
“I can’t believe you talked me into doing this.”
“My free guest session pass was going to expire. You wouldn’t want that to go to waste would you?” Hirrsh pointed out.
“You’re still making me pay for half so I’m sensing an ulterior motive here. You know my day job pays me to do this sort of stuff…and there the ammo is free.”
“Stop complaining, you are supposed to be on vacation you know,” replied Hirrsh, sticking out his tongue. “Besides, you keep saying you did all this Guardian stuff, so it would be cool to see it.”
“Well I’ll let you know when I put the band back together for a reunion tour, but until then I’m just the guy at the helpdesk.”
“So you’re going to stick with the M1?” asked Gary as he entered in the parameters to start the scenario.
“Yeah, I’m kind of curious how I perform with it seeing how I’ve never really used a 'real' gun before,” said Steve laughing a bit uncomfortably as he pulled open the action and admired the union of steel and dark stained wood. “I really have to give the greatest generation a lot more credit.”
The holographic veneer reactivated in the arena adding bit more atmosphere to the drab arrangement of Jersey barriers, bounders and movable cinderblock walls. Taking his cue Steven loaded his rifle and made sure that plenty of additional clips were ready for use.
“Alright,” said Gary as he got his tablet ready to start the scenario, “you’re starting with three enemy soldiers and one additional soldier will spawn every 60 seconds. Clock stops when you kill all the soldiers and reach the far end...provided you get that far.”
Steven nodded and turned to face the entryway as he tried to ignore the strange twitch that had developed in his left hand.
With a sharp beep the timer started and Steven ran into the arena as three masked human soldiers appeared at the far end. Having been able to observe several other runs preceding his own, Steven dropped down behind the first wall and on his third aimed shot managed a fatal hit on one of his opponents before they could get set behind cover of their own. Loading and then firing his rifle to suppress the remaining two soldiers Steven found the weight, size and recoil of the vintage weapon to be unwieldy at best. Dashing between cover, the highly realistic crack of a holo-bullet nearly caused him to faceplant in the sand, but he managed to recover, scrambling to safely on hands and knees.
“Fuck...fuck fuck fuck.”
Steven knew it was all fake, an elaborate game for urban thrill seekers and rural militiamen alike, but pressing his back to the concrete wall the racing heartbeat and uncontrollable quivering in his left leg indicated that his rational mind was not likely to carry the day. Naturally evolved sapient minds had a fairly well defined playbook for such situations that was designed to preserve the life and well being of the individual. Retreating from danger, seeking safety or simply freezing in an attempt to avoid detection were some of the more popular instincts. Armed forces of all kinds had long tried to replace these natural tendencies with the instinct to follow orders or training. As Steven lay crouched behind cover, his muddled thoughts began to focus not on the increasingly frequent sounds of death as they whizzed by, but on his objective and what he needed to do to achieve it.
It took a bit of a mental push to force himself to raise his head and aim his rifle at the enemy, but once Steven was looking through the aperture he found himself enveloped by a calm sense of detachment, squeezing off four well aimed rounds that sent the two soft AI opponents scrambling. Steven had scarcely identified his next position when his legs began to move to take him there. Observe, orient, decide, act, the steps were occurring so quickly that from the point of view of Hirrsh and the other spectators he might as well have been just another holo soldier following a bunch of scripted actions. It wasn’t long before the erstwhile Guardian had covered 50 of the 100 yards to his goal, but as his velocity was not causing any time dilation effects the simulation clock dutifully reached the one minute mark and a new enemy spawned.
The extra man was a significant advantage allowing one of the holo soldiers to advance while the other two kept Steven pinned down. After twisting his head around in search of a solution for about 15 seconds, Steven set his rifle aside and calmly went about removing his helmet, placing it over one of his shoes facing toward the enemy. Then, readying his rifle once again he laid back and raised his leg until the crown of the black helmet was just cresting the top of the Jersey barrier, giving the holo soldiers a tempting target to shoot at.
As their fire shifted Steven suddenly dropped his legs and pushed himself backwards on the dirt past the edge of the concrete where he now had a clear shot. Plugging one of the soldiers with a center of mass shot and driving another down into cover, Steven rolled to the side and then scrambled on his hands and feet across the open space to slide safely behind a haphazard pile of tan boulders. With shots now coming from two slightly different directions he found himself in a better position to judge when the closer of the two opponents needed to reload. Ejecting the partly fired clip from his own weapon Steven slammed in a fresh one before tossing the leftover rounds and clip towards the back wall of the arena to create a distraction.
Steven didn't have time to carefully weigh the merits of clambering directly over the rocks versus taking more time to stay in cover crawling around them. The stress of many similar situations in the past had made the decision to take the greater risk almost instinctual. As he crested the rock pile he saw the first soldier working furiously to push a fresh clip of bullets into his rifle, while the second actively fired towards the distraction. Steven wasted no time in dispatching the first target with series of three shots before leaping the rubble stone wall that separated him and his objective.
The second soldier was just turning back around to engage Steven as the clocked ticked over and a new soldier appeared in the base area. Unable to take proper aim with the battle rifle Steven slammed his shoulder into the surprise enemy, knocking him over before delivering two shots into the torso of the last remaining enemy. Turning to hold the newly spawned soldier at gunpoint Steven felt a wave of relief sweep over him as the seven segment display of the scenario clock stopped running and turned green.
"And it looks like we have our first winner ladies and gentlemen. Steven Cassatt with a time of two minutes and four seconds," the Gary announced, backed up light sprinkling of applause.
Steven didn't move, his gaze locked along the top of the rife as all the holographic projections vanished. Unable to be roused by repeated calls over the PA system, Hirrsh had to eventually go in to retrieve him.
“Hey, you ok there?” the Mrrshan asked as he gingerly walked up behind his human friend. “They need you to make your weapon safe so they can get the next group of people in here.”
Steven made no reply except for the sound of his breathing.
“You don’t have any stress disorders do you? I mean there’s a reason they ask about it on the form.”
“Just...tired,” Steven managed to say as he fumbled with the rifle to clear the live round from the chamber then unload the magazine. “I just needed a few moments to calm down. That was...intense.”
“The course was designed for more modern rifles. That you were able to complete it with that old clunker is nothing short of incredible. I guess there’s a reason that Guardian ID gets you out of traffic tickets.”
“I’m just...tech support,” Steven panted as he turned and pushed the rifle into Hirrsh’s arms.
“I play a lot of video games,” Steven offered, bending over and bracing himself on his knees. “This is all just a video game, only with more hearing loss. I mean Jesus, look how out of shape I am. I’m so fucking winded I can barely stand.”
“Did you see yourself?! You were moving like a synth!”
“Synths don’t feel nauseous after moderate physical activity.”
Grabbing a hold of Hirrsh’s arm for support, Steven started to hobble in the direction of the entrance.
“I’m slow, weak and out of shape.”
“Compared to whom?” Hirrsh demanded. “Shockwulf?”
“Compared to what I should be capable of. I’m kinda getting sick of just being what I’ve always been,” Steven replied, still clearly out of breath.
“You mean human?”
“No, I mean a lot of things.”
Stepping out of the subway entrance Steven found himself lost in a sea of novelty as he looked up and down Market Street in the heart San Francisco. Before signing on with the Guardian Service, Steven had taken two trips to the City by the Bay in order to attend academic conferences and like almost everyone else who had a chance to spend some time there he instantly saw the appeal of its hip urban culture. However, unlike many of his friends he was wary of the high rents and inevitability of having everything he owned wiped out by an earthquake and so set his sights away from Silicon Valley.
“What the fuck...”
Standing there wide eyes Steven instinctively started to match what he was seeing with what was in his memory. The buildings were the same, the streets were the same, the cable cars still clanked along, ringing their bells and the electric busses still whirred up and down the street, but everything else was so radically different Steven could have been convinced that BART installed interdimensional gateways in the Transbay Tube and whisked him to an alternate Earth. The streets were full of silent zero pollution vehicles while high above flyers of all types buzzed about as if every one of them was late for an important meeting. Around him walked the most eclectic mix of individuals he had ever seen in one place. As one might expect there were tourists from half a dozen different alien races standing in line for the cable car, but in terms of locals passing by on foot or autonomous vehicles there was nairy a human to be found.
Of course while the majority were still technically human, Steven could not locate a single ordinary human like himself that didn't have a camera out or a convention badge around their neck. At the least extreme end of the scale where were were synthetic or bio-sculpted faux human designed to eliminate any unwanted imperfection. From there the variability exploded with Technicolor skin tones, glowing hair and eyes, extra appendages including wings and tails. Steven had always assumed that the wide variety of anthros and aliens populating his mountain west college town was the gold standard of cosmopolitan modernity, but San Francisco made him realize that a backwater with a few furry aliens was still a backwater.
“Are you ok?"
The soft helpful voice broke Steven out of his trance as he turned to see a copper colored Neocorn stallion smiling at him. Standing off to one side were the Neo’s two friends, a muscle bound male android clad entirely in living chrome and a curvy female android who had decided on an all black living latex look.
"You look like you're lost.”
“Um, yeah...sorry. Just my first time here in a while. Very colorful,” bumbled Steven, noticing the Unicorn was wearing very high end dragon leather boots and bracers.
“Why thank you.”
“You don’t happen to know where Gwynedd and Harboth’s is do you? I can’t seem to get the map to load,” Steven replied, swiping at his tablet.
“The magic store? That’s about 2 and a half blocks west then you cross the street onto McAllister. What’s your cyber ID, I’ll send you a link.”
It took Steven a moment to realize what the unicorn was talking about, but by then his two friends had already begun to roll their eyes.
“I...I don’t have an implant. My brain’s all bio.”
“Well you’re not going to get any maps on that old thing,” the Uni remarked, pointing at Steven’s tablet. “The whole region switched to 802.11q six months ago. Wi Fi was pitifully slow and they needed the spectrum for inter-drone communications.”
“Why do you talk with these people, we’re going to be late,” complained the silver android. “The city has info-bots for a reason.”
The unicorn gave Steven a rather pitiful an “I’m sorry” look.
“I do really need to go. Like he said there should be info bots around if you need one.”
“Yeah...thanks, but I can follow basic directions” Steven replied, already walking in the other direction.
As he walked the few blocks down Market the transformation of the city was on display. What had been a rather rundown section with empty storefronts, wig stores and seedy adult entertainment parlour was now completely filled with luxury apartments, cybernetics shops and upscale adult entertainment saloons. All about him small drones buzzed or wheeled about cleaning up bits of trash or polishing the granite sidewalks. The streets were perfect, not a pothole or Conestoga rut in sight. The vintage streetcars still rolled past with signs indicating that public transit was now free, packed with ultra modern hipsters and technorati who could all clearly have afforded to pay. Nowhere in sight were the legions of homeless that had previously populated the area begging the question about the nature of the rug they had been swept under.
The run in with the unicorn and his friends had left Steven feeling vulnerable and paranoid. His pop culture sci-fi t-shirt and jeans, once the all purpose camouflage he used to avoid being judged too harshly, now woefully unequipped for the task. He began to think of the cyber enhanced citizenry, capturing his rather dumpy appearance with their eyes, mashing it up and making snarky social media posts before he could walk another five feet.
“What is up with this place? It’s like Second Life has been merged with real life,” Steven muttered in disbelief as he tried to comprehend all the new ways the privileged were finding to spend their wealth.
His observation was confirmed when he passed what at first glance appeared to be a Google branded retail store, but was in fact synthetic body changing location for the information giant's employees and their families. Steven couldn’t help but stand and watch as a steady clip of exotic creatures and super-humans entered the glass fronted facility and emerged a few minutes later as something else, provided they weren’t just beaming their mind elsewhere in the Bay Area.
Steven looked up to see a stunning tiger striped eagle type NeoGryphon standing next to him.
“Everybody is trying to rip off Neos these days with shiny skin and biologic inspired design, but they just lack the spiritual component,” the gryph lamented, shaking its yellow beak back and forth. “You’ve chosen well to stay biologic. It’s such a bold statement against all this bad soul eating consumerism.”
“Thanks. Nice to see that someone here doesn’t think I’m ruining the aesthetic.” Steven chuckled.
“Yeah, it’s just so crass when people who lack the proper substance of a Neo try to make do with a cheap knockoff. Hewmans would do better if they were able to accept the fact that they can't always be at the top of the heap.”
Steven clenched his fists as the backhanded nature of the compliment became apparent. “Tell me then Sir Gryphon if you find the people here so distasteful, why do you live here?”
“Because it’s San Francisco!” replied the Gryph, cocking his eye ridge as if Steven were an ignorant rube. “You can't find a rich culture like this in other places.”
“The culture created by crass phonies with mythic envy...”
The Gryphon stared down at him, blinking a few times.
“Thank you for the insight, I’ll be going now,” Steven said in a flat tone of voice.
It was only another half block for Steven to finally reach the former bank building that now housed his Earth’s only Gwynedd and Harboth’s location. The chain had struck it big bringing magic and enchantments to worlds where such supernatural effects were not in general use. While there wasn’t much from stopping people from flagging down a wandering mage and paying them a few credits to cast a spell, anything more complicated than levitation or throwing balls of fire was almost certain to result in unwanted side effects and uneven duration. G&H’s focus on quality and idiot-proof product design turned magical effects in so called "scientific" realities from a hit or miss affair to something that could be relied upon. Unfortunately there was no way to alter magic’s fundamental nature as an artisan good, resistant to mass production. The limited supply of qualified mages and mystical energies meant that magic was only accessible to the sorts of people who could afford to make San Francisco a home.
Entering through a double set of thick bronze doors Steven was presented with an ornate interior of marble, wrought iron, bronze, and mahogany outfitted during the early half of the 20th century. What had been teller windows now held magical consultants, grouped by spell category, who would work to match a customer with one of the staff mages or help them choose an off the shelf artifact or enchantment. In the middle of the former bank lobby a smattering of tourists had congregated around display cases containing some of the more valuable “showpiece” artifacts, a few of which were displaying effects or the spirit of soul that had been trapped inside. Most of the light filling the large interior was natural, but high above the previously electric fixtures had been converted to produce a bright yellow magical fire to fill in the shadows. Looking for the window devoted to shape shifting or transformations, Steven had barely made it 5 feet before he was intercepted by one of the roving sales staff.
"Welcome to Gwynedd and Harboth’s. Is there anything I can help you with?"
Steven had been expecting someone with robes or fantasy garb of the type he had met while active with the Guardians, but the black haired woman who approached him was wearing a grey no nonsense business suit, her eyes scanning over his shirt through thick rimmed glasses.
"If you are here for the One True Ring, you're in luck as the crowds are pretty small right now."
"Actually I'm...wait what?! You mean like a reproduction?"
"G&H prides itself on its authenticity. In this case we found a reality that closely matched the stories and then commissioned one of their dark deities to create the ring to the proper specifications."
"Um, isn't that kind of fucked up?" Steven pointed out.
"It's a collectable, not something one would actually wear," the woman replied, using her body to direct Steven towards the racks of magical G&H branded tchotchkes. "So, what can I get for you?"
“Well I was looking to purchase a transformation?”
“A...transformation? Hmmm, well we’re not the sort of magic store that dabbles in those sorts of amusements. All of the enchantments we sell are of the high quality long duration type. Have you considered using virtual reality or a nano shop?”
Steven gave the woman a puzzled look, confused as to why she didn’t seem to want his business. “A long duration spell is exactly what I am looking for and from what I read this is the only place on the planet where I can purchase the one.”
The woman was silent for a moment before she tried to figure out how to handle the somewhat atypical customer. “Well then, why don’t you come with me.”
Leading Steven past a number windows where idle sales-mages were busying themselves with mundane tasks the woman eventually located one of the younger sales associates at a back table, repackaging a selection of soul gems that had been browsed by a previous customer.
“Stacy, this...individual...is interested in changing his appearance. Could you please help him?”
Looking Steven up and down the enthusiasm went out of the girl’s face like air escaping from a balloon as she quickly assessed her prospects for a sales commission.
“Yes, certainly ma’am,” she replied before turning to Steven. “What exactly were you looking for?”
As he was left alone with the Stacy, Steven began to fidget as if he were suddenly being lit up by a spotlight. “Well, I was looking to become a wolf. But, you know, not like a werewolf, but like a real wolf, um, but yeah, not an animal I’d have my mind and an anthro form too.”
The girl nodded, pretending to follow his rambling stream of thoughts.
“H-here, I, I drew up some specifications and commissioned some concept art,” Steven continued, shoving a small bunch papers at the girl.
Stacy gingerly took the documents and began to scan through them, eventually looking back at Steven. “A custom body with all the features you have listed is going to be rather… expensive.”
“I have money,” Steven said flatly.
The sales girl sighed and began to tap her finger rapidly on a tablet as she worked her way through Steven’s exhaustive list of requirements.
"Let's see here...rapid recharge cycle, 45,000 credits...full healing on shift, 40,000 credits, for armour and weapons you would need about 10 cubic feet of cross-dimensional hammerspace at 5000 credits per square foot, 50,000 credits...the fur pattern will require custom design work with a senior mage, 1000 credits an hour with an 8 hour minimum..."
Stacy trailed off as she translated the remainder of Steven's character sheet into credits while Steven stood there looking increasingly uncomfortable. Finally she turned the device around so that steven could read the display.
“Now this just a preliminary estimate...”
Steven swallowed hard to feed the growing knot in his stomach as he took the tablet without comment and slowly scrolled the screen down to look at the full list of charges.
“W-while t-this is certainly an...an option, two hundred and twenty thousand credits, might be a bit...more than I was looking to spend.”
Her assumptions confirmed Stacy took the tablet back. “We are affiliated with a brand of more, “consumer” oriented stores. Perhaps something from the Spells R Us product line might suit your needs.”
“Gah! Not on your life!” Steven blurted out as a wave of dread passed over him. “I...I mean...perhaps there is something between those two...extremes.”
“Well of course, but how wedded are you to your...specifications?” Stacy asked.
“I’m can be, flexible.”
“Well, if you are willing to be “flexible” on your appearance I believe we have some more, affordable options in back.”
Steven exhaled and nodded. “If that’s what you have.”
Stacy beckoned at Steven with her finger as disabled the ward that protected the entrance into the enchanted item storage stacks. “Please follow me and be mindful you do not touch anything. I’d hate to have to carry you out of here unconscious.”
Clutching his hand together in front of him Steven followed Stacy into the back of the store where rows and rows of of magically and physically locked cases held tens of millions of credits worth of enchanted objects and magical artifacts. The whole area looked cluttered and haphazard, but Steven subtly suspected that it was arranged that way to meet people's expectations of what a magic store should look like.
“+2 long sword…” Steven observed as he passed one of the taller cases. “Plus two to what?”
“+2 is the brand name. That particular sword is not affected by mundane armour or energy shields.”
They continued walking until they reached one of the outer isles which was lit up from sunlight streaming in through the heavily barred window. Along the one remaining side were rows of what looked like map cases stacked floor to ceiling. A number of clipboards hung on the facing wall holding fat sheafs of rather worn papers.
“These transformation bracelets were made to specification on a Class II magical world. The quality is impeccable, but the spells cannot be customized. You have to take what you get, but the cost is much more, modest.”
Stacy selected the clipboard with “wolf” on the cover sheet and began to flip through it, occasionally pausing to fold over one of the corners to mark a specific item. After a few minutes she handed the slate of files over to Steven with one particular item sheet visible on top.
“This one looks like it most closely meets your requirements. The image is what you will look like in your feral form. For the hybrid state you’ll need to use your imagination.”
Steven ran his finger down the handwritten list of features then lingered over the attached image. “There’s not much hammerspace.”
“For the price that amount is actually quite generous.”
“I need some sort of shapeshift healing. That’s...important.”
Sighing again Stacy took the clipboard and thumbed through the pages until she reached one of the ones she had bookmarked then handed it back to Steven.
“For an extra 7000 credits that one allows for gradual healing of the alternate forms while they are in the aether.”
Steven reviewed the sheet again and nodded. “And what would the total cost of this be?”
“Sixty two thousand credits...tax included.”
“You should be aware that due to the nature of the spell all sales are final and we cannot provide financing or accept a credit card,” Stacy noted, waiting for Steven’s facade to collapse.
“I have money.”
Stacy didn’t say anything as she pulled out a key ring and pressed it into the lock on one of the map drawers. There was a slight yellow glow as the protective wards deactivated allowing her to slide it out. Looking inside Steven could see rows of silver bracelets, each one featuring an intricate celtic knot design created from copper, gold and a blue metal it was unfamiliar with.
“Number 147 was the one you wanted correct?”
Steven looked back down at the information sheet and nodded as it confirmed the number that was written at the top. Gently removing the bracelet Stacy used a rather odd pen to affix her signature to what appeared to be a sign-out sheet that lay in its place before closing the drawer up again and locking it.
“How does it work?” Steven asked.
“You place the bracelet on your arm. It then burns itself into a tattoo and then you can shapeshift. Gwynedd and Harboth products are simple and easy to use.”
“What if my arm gets cut off?”
“Don’t get your arm cut off.”
Steven stared at Stacy for a few moments, unsure how exactly to respond.
“If you are still interested in purchasing the bracelet please follow me back to the main hall and we can finish this up.”
Steven dutifully followed as Stacy walked past, choosing not to bother her with any additional questions. As he maneuvered down the narrow aisles, Steven’s eyes caught the glint of the silver bracelet in the salesgirl’s hand. A tingle began to flow through his body as his mind began to anticipate the act of changing forms for real. As he thought of what was to come Steven began to walk straighter, gaining several inches in height. The deference he had been affording both Stacy and the esteemed retail establishment began to morph into contempt. He let go of his hands, letting his arms drop to his sides as his anxiety about bumping into stuff faded. Upon reaching the hall Steven slid into one of the ornate wooden chairs, eyes focused on Stacy as she verified the functionality of the bracelet using a number of glowing rocks and wands. After a few minutes she entered the results in here tablet and looked back up at Steven, blinking as she caught his powerful gaze.
“Have you ever been a wolf before?” she asked skeptically.
Stacy cocked an eyebrow returning to her sales script. “We can bring in one of our Mages to give you a temporary transformation just so you can be certain of your choice.”
“I’ve made up my mind.”
“Well, if you have any problems with your item your satisfaction is fully guaranteed, but please be aware that we reserve the right to gauge your level of satisfaction. What method of payment will you be using with us today?”
“Do you take mobile cash transfers or do I need to go out and change my credits into gold?” Steven snarked, no longer content to hide his irritation.
“Of course. Is your device 'LycosCC'?”
“That’s the one,” Steven replied as he pulled out his tablet.
“Well, 'Lycos', I’m going to need to see some ID before I can proceed with the sale.”
Without saying a word Steven reached down into one of the front pockets on his jeans, fished out a small black booklet and slid it across the table to Stacy. Shooting Steven a nasty look she reached down, picked up the credentials then went white as a sheet. Carefully she reached down and with a quivering hand placed a rather plain looking river stone on top of the ID.
“Will that be sufficient?” Steven queried as the stone detected no hint of residual subterfuge and turned green. “Perhaps you’d like to make a copy...just in case.”
“N-no, that is more than sufficient. I am sending the transfer request now Mr Cassatt.”
Steven lifted up his tablet as a dialogue appeared asking him to input his PIN and authorize the cash transfer. Not taking his eyes of Stacy he tapped in the required code and places his device back on the table.
“Like I said, I have money.”
“Let me get you a box and an English translation of the instruction manual,” Stacy said, still wanting nothing more than to be done with her customer, albeit for an entirely different reason than before.
“You do that now.”
As the girl disappeared behind the granite clad partition that used to separate the customers from the tellers Steven casually began to remove his shoes and socks before standing and stripping off his shirt and jeans, revealing an underlayer of form fitting bicycle pants and a tight white undershirt.
“If you have any problems with your new ability I included the number of our 24/7 support...GAH!” Stacy shrieked, the small ebony box falling from her hands as she was startled by the half naked Steven. “Mr. Cassatt?!”
“Thank you for the box, but if you don’t mind I think I’ll wear my purchase out.”
Seven reached across the table and picked up the bracelet, taking a moment to examine the intricate pattern and feel the energies flowing within it. Then, without a hint of hesitation he slid it up his right forearm until it set firmly in place just below the elbow. A predatory smile on his face, Steven leaned forward, his palms flat on the tabletop supporting part of his weight as the bracelet began to glow.
“Mr. Cassatt, you can’t just…!”
Steven gritted his teeth as the glow turned into a blinding white light and a searing pain similar to that caused by a red hot branding iron shot up his arm. The pain was such that he probably would have passed out if not for his growing anger at the way he had been treated. As the pain and glow faded together Steven was left panting, clinging to the tabletop as his legs wobbled beneath him. The stunned silence was soon interrupted by the ominous sound of high heels walking purposefully on stone.
“Stacy! What on Earth in going on here!” snarled the head saleswoman, her tone oozing barely suppressed rage.
“Miss Beatrix, the customer insisted on putting on one of the shapeshift bracelets while I was away getting a box.”
Still left weak from the pain Steven reached up and gently touched the finely interleaved metallic lines that had transferred themselves into his skin.
“The bracelets are supposed to be used with a pain nullifier. This is Gwynedd and Harboth’s, not some back alley spell joint. What are the other customers going to think when your client starts yelling out like a stuck pig!?”
“I never had the opportunity…”
“Miss Beatrix,” Steven suddenly injected, clearing his throat although still a bit out of breath. “All I the information I was given by your associate was that one simply needed to put the bracelet on because “Gwynedd and Harboth products are simple and easy to use”.”
“Is this true Stacy?”
“I did not have the opportunity to explain the proper use of the item.”
“Then open the box,” Steven interrupted again.
“What?” said Beatrix.
“If Stacy was going to send me home with the purchase she would have surely placed the pain nullifier in the box, or at least on her person,” Steven replied, slowly getting himself back on his feet.
The head saleswoman looked back at the junior associate who seemed to wilt a bit as she made no move to retrieve the box or pull forth an item from her pocket.
“I am very sorry Mr. Cassatt,” said Beatrix as she launched into her customer service spiel. “Due to this misunderstanding perhaps I can offer you 10% off your next…”
Beatrix was stopped mid-sentence as Steven’s body began to grow and expand, his pink skin, shorts and shirt all fading away into a thick pelt of grey fur. The predatory smile returned to his face all while it pushed forward into a lupine muzzle filled with sharp white teeth. His eyes turned from their brown and white human style into twin yellow orbs focused now on the more senior associate. As a hairless rat tail sprouted from his rear Steven crossed his arms across his chest as his musculature bulked up, increasing his strength significantly while his overall height increased another six inches due to his lower legs reshaping into a digitigrade stance. As the transformation finished up with bushy fur covering up his newly grown tail, Steven uncrossed his arms and wiggled his long fingers.
“Well that was smooth,” Steven observed, the edge dropping from his voice.
“I am glad you are happy with your purchase,” Beatrix replied. “Would you still like your box?”
“Yes...and I’d also like some clothes.”
“Clothes?” asked Beatrix.
“Yes, this body needs a basic wardrobe and accessories and in light of the generally poor treatment I have received at the hands of both you and Stacy there the least you could do is throw in such a wardrobe at no extra cost.”
“If you wish to register a customer service complaint I can provide you with a com number,” Beatrix responded in a way that conveyed a message of “don’t press your luck”.
“If I was going to register a complaint the first person I would call is my superior, Lady Ethera Windchaser, Neocorn, Guardian and Boss Mare of Manhattan and the Royal Island on Earth 4477. If I’m not mistaken I believe G&H just opened a location there.”
Beatrix looked back to Stacy who nodded slightly, confirming Steven's claim.
“Would suck if your brand were to suffer from some bad word of mouth.”
“We don’t sell clothing and accessories here,” said Beatrix, “only magical items.”
“It’s a big city, I suggest that you find some place that does,” Steven shot back, the sharp edge restored to his voice.
“Stacy, do as he says. Use the corporate account,” Beatrix ordered without bothering to turn around.
Steven and Beatrix stared at each other as Stacy silently walked past them heading for the door.
“I hope you will accept my sincerest apologies Mr. Cassatt. Here at Gwynedd and Harboth's we seek to give every customer the best possible experience.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“While we wait why don’t you join me in the lounge. I would be delighted to give you a personal tour of some of our more unique objects that we do not typically display for tourists,” Beatrix suggested, leading Steven back into the main lobby. “I’ll see to it that your other outfit is properly bagged.”
“Thank you very much. I’m sure this this was all just an oversight.”
“Indeed,” said Beatrix as she ushered the six and a half foot tall naked anthro wolf into a brightly lit side room appointed with overstuffed chairs and tapestries depicting epic battle scenes from some world or another. “Would you be interested in a bottle of Elven wine? We keep a few prime vintages on hand for special occasions.”
“Well, if you are offering…”
Beatrix unlocked one of the glass faced cabinets that lined the walls and pulled out one of the cheaper expensive bottles.
“Impressive, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bottle of 500 year Scotch before,” Steven observed, taking full advantage of his improved sense of vision. “Would you mind if I had a glass of that as well?”
“Of course, anything for such a valued customer,” Beatrix answered through clenched teeth.
Handing the bottle of wine back to the wolf, Beatrix placed two enchanted whiskey stones into a crystal tumbler before she gingerly lifted the bottle of amber liquid out of its padded holder. Steven briefly looked at the wine then walked over to one of the chairs to sit down.
“Please give my compliments to whatever mages created this shapeshift enchantment. It is absolutely sublime.”
“I’ll see what I can do Mr. Cassatt,” said Beatrix, returning with a pair of partly filled glasses, handing one with a straw inserted to the wolf.
Steven gave her a wolfy grin as she sat down across from him. “Cheers.”
Steven gently eased his Jeep into Blue Mountain Animal Rescue’s gravel parking lot, forgoing his usual flourish of skidding to a dusty stop. After quietly parking his Jeep in the small space behind the outdoor freezer he extracted his 6 foot 4 inch frame out of the compact SUV, the soles of his digitigrade boots protecting his paw pads from the grey expanse of jagged pebbles. Steven would be the first to admit that he was trolling for reactions and in furtherance of that goal he had made a point not to tell anyone except his family of his most recent purchase. The rescue’s back door was usually left open for those looking to use the dumpster and provided a perfect opportunity to catch Rebecca and the others completely by surprise. Walking on padded tiptoes, the anthro wolf quickly reached the door, slowly turned the knob and pulled it open to reveal an anthro doe of similar size and stature.
The female Anikawi’s white tail shot up as she dropped her load of plastic buckets and ducked into a nearby hallway, letting out a strange bark of alarm. Unsure of what had happened Steven’s sensitive ears quickly caught the sound of heavy footfalls a few seconds before Rebecca appeared out from around a corner, her hand on a pistol holstered on her hip.
“Woah woah!” Steven yelled, throwing up his hands as he mentally triggered his shapeshift ability and began to shrink back down into his normal human body. “It’s me, Steven. Why is everybody here on edge?”
Rebecca shook her head back and forth as she tried to calm down. “While you were away there were some attacks. Mostly vandalism, but a few shootings at places non-humans tend to gather. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt, but it seems that sentiments are starting to boil over into an old fashioned range war.”
“I’m sorry I startled you Naddie,” Steven spoke as he saw her black cervine nose poking out from behind a door jam. “I was just a bit eager to show off my new upgrades.”
“There is no need to apologize Steven,” said the humanoid deer as she stepped out into full view. “For a moment I simply mistook you for a Fenris. Back on my homeworld the humans used them as overseers. It was never good news when a Fenris showed up at your door.”
“Well I can stay human if it bothers you.”
“No, no. You simply startled me. I work with wolves so your new form should not cause me any additional discomfort now that I know who you are,” said the doe, flashing Steven a warm smile.
“You heard her Steven, let’s see it,” Rebecca smiled.
“There’s a recharge time, but I think I can oblige,” Steven smiled closing his eyes and calling forth his alternate self.
Rebecca put her hands on her hips while she watched the average looking human in tight fitting clothing standing before her change into a strapping young anthro wolf. The corners of her lips turning up in a slight smirk as her eyes scanned Steven’s body up and down.
“Well well, either you have some very talented friends or you’re selling meth,” Rebecca stated, observing the quality of the change spell and the resulting body.
“I was able to save up more than a few credits from my job with the Guardians,” Steven explained.
“From what I can see it was money well spent. You’re quite the sizzling piece of beef,” she remarked as she walked forward to give Steven a firm slap on his firm furry ass.
“Gah! Becky!” Steven’s ears and tail went a bit submissive as he backed up towards the door he had previously entered.
“I’ve never seen a Fenris act so bashful,” Naddie noted, directing her comment at Rebecca. “It’s kinda cute.”
The cool thinking that enabled Steven to deal with combat threats and rude salespersons alike had seemingly evaporated as he was maneuvered into an unfamiliar social situation by two close female friends. Feeling a hand on his shoulder he let escape a soft whimper before the fingers curled into his thick fur and dug down deep to scratch his skin.
“Oooo, somebody uses conditioner. Normally when I do this I have to pick out all kinds of burrs and twigs,” Rebecca observed.
Steven felt his leg start to quiver as the head of the wolf sanctuary used her years of experience to bend him to her will. Naddie’s blunt and symmetric four fingered hands were not as effective at scratching through fur, but she nevertheless moved around the other side to massage Steven’s neck and shoulder.
“C-come on you two. This was supposed to make me strong and confident, not some sort of...stuffed animal,” Steven remarked, trying to laugh off the paralyzing feeling of awkwardness.
Rebecca broke out laughing before giving Steven a full on hug followed by an additional scritch between his ears. “I know, but you’ll have to forgive me for having to try out some of my techniques on you. I just couldn’t resist.”
As the human woman stepped back Naddie gave Steven a little wink before bending over to retrieve the plastic buckets, wiggling her short white tail that stuck out above her tight blue jean shorts. Steven cleared his throat and turned his attention to Rebecca.
“I hope you didn’t get hit with any more vandalism.”
“Our benefactor has been in town lately which means extra security, but I don’t think he’s planning to stick around with the current level of unrest. Your coyote friend is actually in back briefing some of the uplifts on personal safety tips.”
“What?!” barked Steven, his ears going back. “Dammit, the last thing we need is him recruiting an army of wolves.”
Before Rebecca could stop him Steven strode out in the direction of the uplift education room.
“And because the humans can see your heat it is safer to travel in the light time instead of…”
Interrupted mid-sentence Shy looked up from his laptop as an unfamiliar anthro burst through the door behind the group of 10 wolves and one mountain lion. Finding himself staring down 10 pairs of lupine eyes Steven’s aggressive posture relaxed as he looked at the faux coyote’s exposed human head.
“Hey, um, Shy. Do you mind if I talked with you for a second offline?”
“Do I know you?”
“It’s Steven,” Rebecca announced as she pushed past the anthro and into the learning center, “apparently he went body shopping.”
Shy’s eyes lit up like a pair of headlights and his stuffed tail appeared to wag of its own volition. “Damn…you look…”
By this time the uplifted wolves had gotten to their feet and were taking turns sniffing Steven’s strange half-human scent. The mountain lion glanced up briefly before opening its mouth wide in a feline yawn and laying back down on the carpet.
“I was just interested in what you were teaching the uplifts. Don’t want to give them any contradictory information.”
“Oh, well, just the basics of where to go, where not to go, when to travel, how to avoid trouble, etc. Sort of like the Take Back the Night sessions they have at the University,” Shy explained. “Oh, which reminds me we’re repurposing Take Back the Night to protest those fucks that shot up the bowling alley. It will be next Tuesday at 9pm.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to check my calendar,” Steven mumbled.
“Anyway, was there anything you wanted to tell the class? I was just answering some followup questions.”
Steven blinked and cleared his throat “Actually...if you don’t mind.”
“Go right ahead,” said Shy moving to the side as to give Steven the floor.
The anthro wolf slowly walked forward then cleared his throat as it turned to face the assembled uplifts.
“Hi, some of you might know me as Steven, but as you can see I have taken the shape of your two-legged kin as well as the name Lycos to go with it. I…” Steven paused as he considered his words, “I can’t apologize for the actions of my species. For millennia we have killed your kind and taken your habitat. The only difference is that now you are in a position to appreciate the true scope of what has happened. Many of you are probably angry or bitter, but you have to give things a chance to get better. Not all humans are bad...in fact most are pretty good. I doubt there is a wolf here that would have ever tolerated a rival pack encroaching on your own territory. We humans aren’t much different. We are liable to attack what we don’t understand or feel is a threat. Just keep yourself safe, resist the urge for revenge and just understand that people like myself, Shy and Rebecca are all working to make things better.”
The assembled wolves looked at each other while Shy, clutching his military spec coyote head in his hands, glared up at his compatriot.
“Well said Steven,” said Rebecca, breaking the silence from the back of the room. “The purpose of those that gave you all minds was not to prolong the cycle of violence, but end it.”
//”Humans aren’t so bad...once you know how to manipulate them,” the mountain lion offered, getting to his feet and wandering over to Rebecca,
“Is that a fact.” Rebecca answered, kneeling down to give the large predator a loving hug.
//”All evidence points to yes,” replied the cat, pressing his face against the human to scent mark her as his own.
“Anyway, it was nice talking to you all, but I actually was just stopping by on my way out into the wilderness,” said Steven as he gave a slight wave to the assembled wolves, moving towards the exit. “Hey Becky, could I get your help with something?”
“Sure, what do you need?” she asked, disengaging from the big cat and following him back into one of the examination rooms.
“I wanted to try and find the Blue Mountain pack. I think you told me once you knew where they were.”
“I know their approximate territory, but its nearly 100 miles from here in the middle of a National wilderness. The roads don’t go there so unless you bought yourself a bush plane I don’t see how…”
“I have a quad form. I plan to take sort of a back to nature vacation to get a better handle on what it means to live like...to be a wolf. I mean I know I’ll never be able to experience what it’s like to be a real wolf, but crossing the mountains on four feet is something I just feel I need to do.”
Rebecca was quiet for a moment then took a deep breath. “I know this is one argument I am not going to win, but I have to ask you to be careful. Crossing 100 miles of wilderness as a human is stupid.”
“But people still do it and someone should go out and see how the pack is doing. It might as well be me.”
Rebecca stared back at Steven, the worry in her expression making words unnecessary.
“I’ll have my phone with me and my shapeshifting can heal me if I get hurt. I came here so I could work out a route plan and check in times. Just work with me, I’m being entirely responsible.”
“Ok,” Rebecca nodded, “I’ll show you where they are, but if you get into any trouble you either turn back or call for help. You shouldn’t run into any ranchers or poachers out there but with all the crap going down you probably could have picked a better time.”
“That makes it all the more important that I warn our pack of the danger.”
Rebecca led Steven into the office where she proceeded to thumb through a small cabinet full of rolled up USGS topographic maps. Finding the one she needed she rolled it open on her desk exposing an attached transparency with a dashed red grease pencil line demarcating the pack’s territory.
“This information may be out of date. Akula stopped giving me territory updates several months ago.”
“It’s a start. I’m sure they’ll find me before I find them.”
“And then what? They don’t know you like this. Hell I didn’t know you until you changed into your normal shape.”
“And I’ll shift for them as well. I got along with everyone in the pack.”
“Their memories of the before time is hazy Steven.”
“I’m their friend. That is forever.”
“You’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”
“I have to believe in something.” Steven exhaled. “Let me get this into my phone and chart out a route. I’ll call in at sunrise and sunset.”
“You can try sunrise, but I can’t guarantee that anyone will be here to answer,” Rebecca chuckled. “Listen, I have to go prepare lunch for our guests so just check in with me before you head out.”
Steven could only nod as he became fully engrossed in the search for his old friends.
"I wanted to apologize for the way I acted earlier Steven," said Naddie as she laid one of her strong two-thumbed, two-fingered hands on the anthro wolf's broad shoulder. "It was rude and disrespectful."
"Please Naddie, if anyone needs to apologize it is me for surpri...."
"Steven, you are trying to accept the blame for my own prejudice. The Fenris were not killers, they were raised and conditioned to act as such. Their reward for being tools of the humans has been decades of mistrust and discrimination."
"So the moral of the story is blame humans," Steven chucked as he turned to embrace the female Anikawi. "I forgive you, but it was probably a bad idea to run around trying to surprise people what with all that's going on."
Although the structure of Dr. Natta-Akon's mouth gave her what most humans would call a permanent smile, Steven could tell that it was the real thing as she playfully pressed her own wet black nose to his.
"Woah, not used to seeing you eye to eye like this," Steven continued. "Normally I have to look up."
"Well I am happy to see you no matter what your appearance," the doe replied. "However I did not come out here just to apologize. You have been in the enclosure for an hour, yet I was not aware that there was any work that needed to be performed here."
"I was planning a trip to go see the pack and...well I guess I just got a little nostalgic when I went into the habitat."
"These wolves...they mean a great deal to you don't they."
Steven nodded, aware there was little he could hide from the genetically engineered being's empathic nature. "I guess I always got along with them better than my human friends."
"Animals are simple creatures. The social dynamics of most sapient species are far harder to master."
"And now my wolf friends are people, just like everyone else," Steven sighed, pondering Rebecca's earlier observation.
"People who are having to master a new set of complex social dynamics, just like yourself," Naddie winked.
The wolf nodded. "It's just if this doesn't work..."
"It is not the wilderness's fault if you fail to find yourself within it."
Steven smiled, his eyes closing in a bit of a pseudo-chuckle. "Touche."
Naddie reached up and gently ran her hand down the back of Steven's head and neck.
"When you meet you pack can let them know I need some additional participants for my study on the predatory behavior in post-uplift carnivores."
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
Steven turned away from the trailhead to see Shy, fully costumed, standing behind him.
“I’m finding my pack. You wouldn’t know them. They left after the uplift.”
“We need you here, even more so with your new body. Everybody’s looking to me to stand up to the fundies and I need help.”
"The spell turns me into an anthro, not a god. I still don't react well to bullets. If you really need me I’ll be back in a week.”
“For all you know everything could be over in a week! I need your help now,” Shy pleaded.
“Maybe you and all your friends need to fucking de-escalate!” Steven snapped.
“If we don’t stand up for ourselves right now I’ll be licking the boots of these cavemen for god knows how long. Nobody backed down with racism...nobody backed down with homosexality and we won’t back down on the issues of species or body preference. We’re in the right Lycos. If we push hard we can get everything those other groups got, but faster!”
“I won’t argue with you, but you’re mistaking speed for quality. You want to win at the cost of people’s lives? To win by holding your enemies at the point of a gun? Hell, I don't even think you know what winning actually means. You can't force someone to accept you or be your friend!" Steven's yellow eyes were wild, bits of saliva flying from his long mouth as he spoke. "You heard my position earlier. Take the week off.”
"Those decisions have already been made. The only question now is if you support your community or abandon it."
"My community? Are you serious? My "community" consists of people developing scurvy while plugged into VR. Your community consists of those who get butthurt every time someone asks them not to shed," Steven sneered.
“You might not realize it Lycos, but this is your fight too and you’re choosing to let others fight it for you,” Shy shouted as the wolf turned away.
“That’s where you’re wrong Shy. This was never my fight and I won’t have you pull me into it.”
Anyone with a ruggedized digital camera could tell you that the secret to an exciting video was speed and a low point of view. The lower one’s perspective the faster objects on the ground appeared to rush by which in turn increased one sensation of velocity. Steven may have been nothing more than a stock organic life form, but as he flew along the narrow game track, his palm sized pads throwing up rocks and twigs behind him, the human mind inside the wolf body felt like he had been loaded into a race car turned loose on one of the world’s most demanding rally circuits. It didn’t take long for Steven to click into the most efficient cadence for long distance running, although it was hard to resist the occasional sprint even if it did leave him overheated and panting for breath for a while afterward.
Even in the wilderness areas that were mostly untouched by development and resource exploitation,the semi-arid conditions of the mountain west limited trees and other vegetation that hindered rapid movement. However the decreased ground clearance of Steven's feral form did have a number of drawbacks when he encountered tall grass and other small obstacles that a longer legged creature might hardly notice. Optimizing for speed, Steven stuck to whatever open paths he could find, although he tended to shun the off-road vehicle tracks as hard packed surfaces were hard on his paws. No matter the route the miles seemed to just melt away without the slightest hint of fatigue.
Looking for an “authentic” experience Steven had brought nothing with him beyond what could be stored in the pocket dimension created by the formshift enchantment and while he could have pushed straight through to the Blue Ridge pack’s territory it seemed more prudent to slow his pace and make the journey part of the destination. Cheating slightly by filling up with a full meal before he left, Steven still found himself frequently needing to track down water as even in the cool fall weather, the act of panting caused significant loss of fluids. While in the midst of scouting a dry stream bed for a source of liquid, he suddenly found himself looking up at a tall lanky human in a green t-shirt and cargo shorts filling a bottle of water from a small pool.
Instantly reminded of the Anikawi’s reaction, Steven’s first instinct was to immediately shift human and head off any possible armed confrontation. However his large yellow eyes were quick to zero in on the man’s substantial backpack and Steven quickly found himself being overtaken by an odd form of playfulness he had not known in years. Sitting back on his haunches Steven began to stare at the hiker, letting his tongue hang out as allowed his body to shed heat. To the backpacker's credit he began to back slowly away, making himself look large and non-injured in an attempt to intimidate the perceived instinctual predator before him.
“Go! Go on! Get out of here!” the young man yelled, picking up a stick perhaps to throw in Steven’s direction.
Shaking himself a bit Steven ignored the man’s commands and made his best effort to roll his eyes and stick out his tongue. The man stopped, seemingly confused as the gears turned in his head.
“You’re not one of those smart wolves, are you?”
Steven performed an exaggerated nod before getting back onto all fours, shaking off and dirt and walking towards the pond, pushing the hiker back with his presence.
“Well I’ll be…” the man trailed off as he watched Steven lap up the cool clear water. “Do you have a name?”
Steven looked up at the human and gave a bit of a shrug.
“Well mine’s John. It’s nice to meet you.”
Taking a bold step forward John extended his hand towards the wolf. Steven for his part could do anything he pleased. He was neither bound by wolf instincts nor some alien wolf mind that commanded his actions. Still, he was nothing if not an expert at playing roles and this particular wolf was not about to cheapen his species by shaking hands like a dog. Steven regarded the hand and gave a solemn looking nod, making the further choice to remain silent.
“Um, ok. So what are you doing out here?”
Steven glanced over to the water then back at the man.
John chuckled softly. “Alright, I guess that was a stupid question.”
Steven nodded again which prompted more laughter from John.
“I’m from Maine. Been hiking the continental divide up from the Mexican border to Glacier Park...not that you know what any of those things are.”
Steven slowly moved his gaze first north, then south, then back at the man.
“Oh, well maybe you do. Um, is your pack around here at all?”
Steven made no movement, not wanting to give away any information as to the disposition of any “friends”.
“Well if they are you should probably tell them not to approach any humans. I stopped in a town a few days ago and several people were trying to sell me firearms for protection against folks like you. Um, you know, like the thunder sticks?” John used the stick to pantomime the firing of a rifle. “They got signs all over the trailheads warning people about dangerous all the smart animals are as well. Of course I don’t believe any of that shit, but there are a lot of people who might.”
Steven unintentionally allowed his stoic stance to soften as he let out a breath of air and looked off into the tree line. A sudden movement off to the side caught his attention and he turned back to see John reaching out as if to touch him. There was a brief awkward moment between wolf and man before Steven lay down on his side, inviting the man to continue. As the long and dexterous human fingers pushed through his thick pelt and down to the skin below Steven instantly knew why the wolves at the sanctuary had valued his scritches so highly. Squirming about on the ground Steven felt more than a little disingenuous as he doubted the good natured human would have been as willing to indulge his itchy hide if he had known the wolf before him was actually a fellow ape in disguise.
After a while John got back up his feet and wandered over to his backpack. Dropping in a purification tablet into his water he took out an energy bar. Getting up on all four of his feet, Steven surprised himself a bit, but automatically shaking off the accumulated dust. Padding over to the human he looked longingly at the pale yellow mass of compressed grains and sugar.
“Ah come on little buddy. This isn’t wolf food.”
Steven let out a cute whimper and did his best impression of the puppy dog eyes.
“Ugh, now I see why all those ranchers are so threatened by you,” John mumbled as he broke the bar in half and offered the un-nibbled end to the friendly wolf.
An instant later the remains of the energy bar were being safely converted into wolf fuel and Steven placed his head up against the human’s bare leg.
“You doing anything? I could sure use a companion on my trip. Gets a little lonely out here under the big sky,” John said, reaching down to scratch the wolf’s neck ruff one last time.
The offer was sorely tempting, but Steven had more important places to be. Looking down at the ground he gently shook his head.
The man sighed. “Well sorry to hear that. I’ve got to get going if I want to make my milage for the day. Stay safe and tell your pack mates not to eat me. Who knows, maybe we’ll meet again sometime when I try the same hike in reverse.”
//”That sounds great!” Steven exclaimed directly into the man’s mind, unable to resist the urge to break character any longer.
The stub of a half eaten energy bar made a soft thump as it hit the sand. Standing there with his mouth agape, the human was now the one unable to speak.
//”Just send me an e-mail," Steven projected as he snapped up the other half of the energy bar. //"It’s, Lycos Cyberclaw at…”
While dashing through the woods on all fours had been a thrilling experience, sleeping out amongst the trees in nothing more than a fur coat turned out to be deeply unnerving. Steven was no newbie when it came to camping ,as having a national forest in one’s backyard practically invited the sort of father son bonding that involved a tent. However as flimsy as tents were, their polymer walls provided an important psychological shield that blocked out the myriad unknown threats that lurked in the darkness. With no pack around him for protection every gust of wind, every rustling leaf, every cracking branch represented a potential predator that had caught a hold of Steven’s meaty scent. Even curled beneath the dense branches of an evergreen, his face hidden under his tail, Steven could not shut out the world around him as he was periodically snapped back to alertness throughout the night.
Ultimately, the dull red glow of morning provided Steven with a good excuse to abandon his fitful attempts at sleep and get back on the trail. With only 30 miles remaining until he was in the supposed heart of his pack’s territory Steven bristled with excitement as he estimated his time of arrival around noon. Soon all thoughts of the night were lost as the new wolf ran farther and farther away from civilization. As the hours passed even the stunning vistas and epic scenery no longer held and interest for Steven, his only thought revolving around reaching his destination and, once there, actually locating his his old friends.
It was just after the sun had started its retreat back towards the horizon that Steven’s nose caught the tantalizing smell of blood and meat indicating a fresh kill. Taking a few moments to ensure that he was using his nose property, the man-shaped wolf quickly homed in on an elk carcass, picked clean of the choice meat, but still containing enough to fill his belly if invested the time required for proper disassembly. All around him was the scent of wolf as well as track confirming the identification. Steven tried his best to identify specific individuals, but his new nose gave him no sudden insight on the scents of wolves he had previously encountered as a human.
As he stood there debating if eating from the unattended kill would represent a breach of etiquette Steven heard the unmistakable sounds of footfalls behind him and turned to see four wolves, spread out in a shallow semicircle. Two were juveniles that Steven did not recognize, but the older pair were unmistakable members of the Blue Ridge pack.
//”Looking for a free meal there stranger?”
The largest wolf spoke first. His blotchy black and grey coat identified him as Conan, a male of middling status that Steven had never had much interaction with. Beside him stood a smaller mostly white furred male whose low status and coat coloration had earned him the name Snowflake. Piped directly into his mind the haughty tone stood in direct opposition to the attitude Steven had come to expect from wolves.
//”Conan! It’s me...”
//”How do you know my name!” the wolf snapped, pinning his ears back as the other three began to circle around Steven. //You think because you know my name we will give you food? If you’re looking for a handout go to the humans.”
//”Yeah, go to the humans!” Snowflake chimed in.
//”I wasn’t looking for food,” Steven lied, “I was looking for the Blue Ridge pack.”
//”Well, we found you” Conan replied ominously, taking a step toward Steven.
Steven’s playful body language melted away as he became aware of the four apex predators staring at him like a prey animal. To his horror he suddenly realized that he didn’t have anything ready to say as he had not previously considered the situation he now found himself in.
//”My name’s Lycos, you might remember me from...” Steven’s eyes darted between each of the four wolves. “Come on...you don’t have to do this,” he pleaded, trying to look submissive.
//“Oh, I think we do,” said Conan, his mind’s voice dripping with cruelty. “Our territory was clearly marked.”
Steven surged forward, cutting directly between Conan and Snowflake, causing the two other wolves to crash into each other as they turned in pursuit. His surprise maneuver has earned Steven a somewhat comfortable lead, but as the pack’s howls rolled across the landscape he knew that fleeing on foot was not likely to prove a winning strategy. While Steven was no stranger to being shot at, the act of being hunted introduced him to an entirely new kind of terror. As Steven’s mind and body raced along together, he felt the calm detachment he had always known in the guise of Shockwulf beginning to break due to the expectation of death just seconds behind.
The sounds of additional howling somewhere off to his right front quarter announced the arrival of additional pack members, most likely on an intercept course to cut off his escape. Bursting out from a tree line and into an alpine meadow Steven caught sight of the rest of the pack, charging at top speed from a high elevation. Tendrils of fatigue were starting to wind their way up Steven’s legs and into his core as the effort of sprinting began to catch up with him. As the adrenaline began to wear off Steven found himself able to think a bit more clearly, focusing less on his next footstep and more on a strategy to survive. Dashing for the relative safety of the trees on the opposite end of the field Steven increased his speed, burning up the last of his reserves in order to buy himself a few precious seconds to put his plan in action. Ahead was a fallen pine lying at a fifteen degree angle up against a small rocky outcropping, its trunk dotted with dead branches. Steven aimed for it and triggered the change as soon as his claws dug into the bark.
It was a bit of a scramble as the furiously sprinting wolf worked frantically to slow himself and avoid falling off his refuge. Managing to stop about halfway along the log he turned to face his pursuers, his furry forepaws growing longer and more dexterous. Grasping one of the branches for stability Steven pulled himself into a roughly upright position, allowing the mechanics of the transformation to raise him the rest of the way into a bipedal stance. Aware that he had no chance in a feeding frenzy, Steven’s use of the tree presented a natural bottleneck that would force the pack to attack him one at a time, but much to his surprise the last ditch strategy appeared to be unnecessary as Conan slid to a stop at the base of the tree. Still anticipating a fight Steven’s free hand searched for something he could use to defend himself with.
“Don’t come any closer! I don’t want to hurt you!” Steven growled, his voice distorted somewhat as his canine muzzle pulled back into his face.
Convinced he was about to be savaged by a pack of wolves, or worse, forced to injure one of the same, what transpired next caught Steven completely off guard. As clothes and soft pink skin began to replace the shaggy grey and brown fur, the sadistic look in Conan’s eyes was replaced by one of utter terror. Before his compatriots had fully caught up, the male wolf was already running in the opposite direction, tail tucked between his legs. The others quickly turned and followed suit, some falling over each other in the mad scramble to get away. Steven felt himself at a loss for words as all who had been in pursuit melted away into the opposing treeline until only a lone wolf remained.
This particular wolf who had hung at the back of the pack was now left alone, staring at him. At that distance Steven could not positively identify who it was except that the individual was most likely male and was covered in a traditional grey and brown pelt. The creature began to walk forward, appearing to grow as he welt until it reached a point that Steven could be sure that his eyes were not playing tricks on him and that the wolf was actually assuming a human-like shape. The transformation was not a pretty affair as whatever lowest bid enchantment turned and twisted the animal’s body into a bipedal stance, his face and muzzle expanding to accommodate human speech and expressions. Its arms lagged behind the rest of the body at first before shooting out to a proportional length, the previously limited paws fanning out into fully dexterous digits.
“Please...I no hurt...no hurt!” the wolf stammered in high pitched broken English, its arms spread outwards in what Steven assumed was its take on a non-threatening posture.
Maintaining eye contact, Steven soon realized that the anthro’s hunched over posture was not an artifact of the spell, but a further attempt to appear submissive and non threatening.
“They...they not know you human!” the wolf barked out. “You look like wolf. Outsider wolf. We chase outsiders from our territory.”
Making his way slowly back down the trunk of the tree Steven reached behind him and pulled out the thin fold of holographic plastic that contained his credentials as he cautiously approached the anthro. “My name is Steven Cassatt, I’m with the Guardian Service. I don’t appreciate being …”
"OoowooOOOOOooooOOOO!" the wolf cried out in despair, dropping to his knees and wrapping his arms around Steven’s legs. “By the Moon please don’t hurt my pack. Please don’t hurt. I beg. I beg!!”
The actions of the wolf left Steven dumbfounded. As he tried to pull himself away from the creature’s strong grasp, it looked up, allowing Steven to gaze deeply into the tearful blue eyes.
The wolf grew silent, staring up at Steven. “My name...how...?!”
“Nooo...NO!” growled Steven, his disbelief rapidly turning to rage as he beheld the prostrate alpha before him. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Get up! You get up RIGHT NOW!”
Bending down Steven forcibly grabbed the wolf under the arms and hauled him up into a standing position.
“How dare you disgrace your pack by kissing the boots of a human,” the words emerging from Steven’s mouth sounding more like a canine snarl than human speech. “What happened to you?! You’re supposed to be the alpha!”
Akula was caught off guard by the human’s sudden diatribe. “I am alpha! I ask humans to not hurt...Gah!”
The wolf shrank back as Steven smacked him upside the head and ear.
“Then why do you submit?!”
Steven smacked him again.
“Are you begging me or are you telling me?” Steven snapped.
As Steven prepared to hit him again, Akula let out a sort of bark and charged Steven, mouth wide open, ready to bite. Expecting some sort of response Steven stepped deftly to the side and using Akula’s momentum against him, sent the wolf sprawling with a well timed trip. Quickly rolling onto his backside Akula glared up at the human that was looking down upon him.
“Better,” said Steven, extending a hand to the wolf as he lay on a soft bed of brown pine needles and leaves. “Come on, get up. Take my hand.”
Akula reluctantly held out his hand and after establishing a grip about each other’s wrists Steven strained to pull the over six foot tall anthro back onto his backwards shaped paws.
“Why you do that?!” the wolf asked.
“Because I’m your friend, Akula,” Steven said simply, holding out his hand with the palm turned upwards.
Hesitantly the alpha edged forward, pressing his wet black nose close to Steven’s human skin. Taking in the scent Akula’s tail began to wag as he continued to sniff up closer towards Steven’s body. Suddenly everything clicked as the wolf matched the human standing before him with the vague scent memories from the before time.
“Friend!!” Akula shouted, charging Steven once again poised this time to deliver hugs and licks instead of bites.
“Ack! Careful! I’m not as big as you are!”
“I remember! You friend…”
“You can call me Steven now...or Lycos. Probably doesn’t really matter which,” replied Steven, trying to keep hair and wolf slobber from getting into his mouth. “Alright, alright, time to back off. I’ll scratch you later.”
Akula nodded vigorously as he disengaged and took a step back, looking Steven up and down, his eyes drawn to the strange shininess around the human’s upper right arm.
“What the hell was that all about Akula? Conan tried to kill me back there!”
“No kill! You friend!” Akula insisted.
“No...I don’t mean...ugh! Just mind speak to me. English doesn’t appear to be your first language.
Akula blinked for a second and then appeared to relax as a rich baritone filled Steven’s mind. //“Some humans become angry when we talk to them this way.”
“Well I certainly won’t. Can you understand me? This cheap ass enchantment doesn’t let me mind-talk in human form.”
//“I can understand you well enough. It is good for me to practice.”
“Good, then why don’t you explain yourself.”
//“What is to explain? You come to us as outsider. Steal our food. Mate with our women. The Blue Ridge pack defends its territory.”
“Conan tried to murder me Akula. He didn’t let me explain I was a friend. Do you know what would have happened to you all if I hadn’t gotten away?”
//”Yes! More humans would have come for revenge. That’s why I begged you not to be angry!”
“Well it’s your fault for allowing Conan to act that way. You’re the alpha, he’s endangering the pack and that makes it your responsibility,” Steven admonished, his tone developing an edge as the surprise of the reunion began to wear off. “Wolves don’t murder.”
The anthro wolf blinked as he tried to wrap his mind around the meaning behind Steven’s words.
//“We eat meat...we hunt our food...”
“Prey doesn’t talk.” Steven’s eyes were like twin energy cutting into the alpha.
//”You were a wolf, an outsider! It’s our territory Steven!”
“Don’t you see it doesn’t matter? Wolf, human, talking deer...you can’t just kill them if they wander into your territory! There are rules Akula. Even all the way out here.” Steven turned away and shook his head, unsure if he needed to yell or cry. “I expected better from you Akula. In the before time you always made sure the others wouldn’t bother the visitors in the enclosure. Wolves don’t murder Akula. Wolves aren’t cruel. You know that.”
//“But the other packs...”
“YOU AREN’T THE OTHER PACKS!” Steven screamed at the top of his lungs. “You’re the Blue Ridge pack and we taught you better than that! So, why don’t you explain to me why you’re allowing this sort of shit to happen? Why do you allow a sadist to boss around Snowflake and juveniles?!”
Akula began to look panicked as he took a step back. //“I...I try, but...”
“But what Akula? You’re the alpha! It’s your job to lead the pack. Why aren’t you doing it?”
//“It’s hard Steven! It’s hard! I-I try my best, but they don’t listen to me anymore. In the before time I led and they followed, but now they just want to have fun, killing prey and finding...talking prey.”
“Oh sweet Jesus.”
//”I don’t know what to do!”
Steven has to visibly take time to calm himself down, carefully choosing his words for Akula’s consumption.
“The pack will follow if you earn their respect, if you offer them leadership and a path to a better future. Didn’t Rebecca teach you anything? You were given a two legged form so you could help your pack, but instead I find you out here sitting back while they act like bullies and then cleaning up their mess by groveling like some damned omega.” Steven spit the last word as he turned away from his friend. “You should be ashamed.”
//”Steven, I do not appreciate…”
Steven clenched both of his fists hard. “I don’t think I can deal with you right now Akula. I need some time alone to think. Of all the things I thought could go wrong this is much worse...you’re acting like dogs.”
The anthro-shape human turned to see the pack alpha standing taller looking much less submissive. His lips were pulled back slightly exposing his sharp white teeth.
//”I know I have many failings as a leader, but what gives you the right to come out here and tell me what to do!”
“I don’t want to see our pack end up…”
//”Our pack? OUR pack? You keep acting like you are a member of my pack hewman, but let me make it absolutely clear that you are most definitely not.”
“I didn’t mean…”
//”Oh yes you did. You think that because you scratched our itches and gave us food we would make you a member of the pack?”
Steven felt his own hackles rise as a wave of anger swept over him. Stepping forward he went nose to nose with Akula, a low growl forming in his throat.
”What is the name of your pack Akula?”
The alpha’s aggressive stand was suddenly snapped as the full meaning of the question sank into him.
“Don’t make something up. What...is...the name...of...your pack.”
Akula hesitated a good while before answering.
“Where do you go when your pack is sick or hungry?”
//”Blue Ridge!” the angry force of Akula’s thoughts causing Steven’s mind to ring.
“You can do what you want with your own pack Akula, but not in the name of the rescue. You want to survive out here by your own rules, go right ahead, but just be aware of what it will cost you.”
Akula’s resolve was starting to seriously waver as he felt himself once again losing a test of leadership. //”Why did you come out here human. We didn’t ask…”
“Because I care. I care about every one of you Akula...even Conan. I don’t want you to get hurt or shot or to gives wolves everywhere a bad name.” Steven took a step back to deescalate the situation. “Were you lying earlier when you called me your friend Akula?”
//”No...I was not.”
“Then you must remember what I told you in the before time. How one day I would buy a house high on the mountain and each morning I would go out on my porch and there I would see you, living free in the wild. I’d look at you and you’d look at me and we would both nod in acknowledgement.”
//”That was a silly human dream. We were never going to leave the enclosure.”
“Yet here you are...and I’ll be damned if I’m going to have my mountain home vandalized by some four legged version of a human. Yeah, you heard me. Right here, right now I’m more wolf than your entire “pack” put together.”
Once again Akula made a haphazard lunge toward Steven and much like before ended up flat on his back looking up at a human offering him a helping hand.
“What are we doing Akula? I’m not here to fight you. I don't want to fight you.”
//”Just go! Haven’t you humiliated me enough?.”
“The true alpha knows when to ask for help. Come on, take my hand. Perhaps we can try this again.”
Akula lay there for a while glaring before abruptly kicking his legs out, jumping himself up into a standing position. Brushing off the leaves from his fur the he turned to face Steven.
//“Yes, an alpha should know when to ask for help...and when to try things for himself.”
Winded from the intense exchange Steven only managed a slight nod as he began to walk away. “I’ll be around for a little while if you need me. I am sorry if I embarrassed you. It wasn't my intention.”
//“Wait,” said Akula, shoving his arm in front of the smaller human, “whatever you call yourself I will continue to call you friend. Take my hand in the way that humans do so that we will meet again soon.”
“You mean shake your hand?” Steven asked, taking Akula’s hand in his own. “Humans do this so they can show that they are each unarmed. It is like when a wolf exposes his belly.”
//’Oh, that is quite a sensible thing indeed,” the alpha replied giving Steven a firm yet unpracticed shake.
As they prepared to separate Steven suddenly pulled Akula in close. “Listen, this whole mess is not your fault. You grew up in a cage being fed road kill three days a week. Leading a pack like that is about as realistic as student government, but you cannot forget that you’re the alpha for a reason Akula. Nature isn’t perfect judge of character, but it’s a lot better than nothing. You have the skills to lead the pack, but you just have to learn how to use them.”
The alpha wolf was silent, only able to manage a small nod as Steven let go of his hand and walked away into the forest. Turning back he saw 11 pairs of eyes staring intently down at him from the top of a nearby rise.
“Son of a bitch!” Steven exclaimed, pulling his hands back from the fire as the pungent smell of burnt hair filled his nostrils. “Ugh, this is not working well.”
Turning his hands over in the bluish light from the LED pen lamp Steven identified a freshly singed patch of hair, the individual ends melted down into hard balls reminiscent of fiddlehead ferns.
“So it appears that fur and fire do not mix. Who knew,” the inexperienced anthro chuckled sarcastically as he began to thread the cleaned carcass of a rabbit onto a spit for roasting.
Steven had originally planned to eat and hunt with the pack in as close to a traditional manner as was possible, but after the events of the preceding afternoon he saw little point in continuing with the full fantasy camp experience. Catching a live rabbit had taken most of the afternoon and the sun had set by the time he had managed to get his fire going and properly prepare his meal. Doubtful that his former pack would try anything now that they knew who he was, Steven still kept an eye out in case Conan got some ideas of his own. As the meat cooked a chorus of howls rolled across the landscape causing Steven’s ear’s to perk up. Tempted for a moment to reply, the erstwhile wolf quickly thought better of it.
“Yeah, gibberish howls are a real great way to endear myself,” Steven mumbled as he carefully picked up the spit. “I just wanted friends and not end up taking on fucking project. I could deal with them just not liking me, at least eventually, but,” Steven let out a sigh, “this sort of behavior needs to be stopped.”
Picking the bones clean in silence, Steven watched the fire burn down. As the ambient light level decreased more and more of the night sky became visible from the outcropping where he had made his rudimentary camp. Leaning back against a rock the tall wolf allowed the sounds of the wind and the trees to descend over him like a blanket. Before him the black outlines of the hills across the valley stood in sharp contrast to the glow of the Milky Way. Closing his eyes in another mostly futile effort to get to sleep, they immediately sprang open when Steven caught the distinct sound of a creature approaching through the leaves behind him. The sound was joined by others, moving slowly, but not making any great effort to conceal their presence. In the shadows Steven’s superb night vision was still only able to catch brief glimpses of the pack as they spread out in the leafy undergrowth behind the exposed rock formation. His heart racing, half expecting some sort of attack, Steven was relieved as the sounds grew more intermittent and then stopped entirely.
A properly rational individual would have spent time trying to figure out what was going on, perhaps even going as far to get up and attempt to mind-speak to the pack. However all Steven felt was the extreme fatigue from two days of hard exertion and minimal rest. He closed his big yellow eyes and soon fell fast asleep.
Shockwulf was walking with a purpose. The robowolf's footfalls on the shiny tile were as regular as clockwork as he ate up the distance between himself and the oak paneled door at the extreme end of the hallway. It was his first day at his new job and no sooner had he tagged the access control reader then he had been presented with an electronic summons from his commanding officer for a face to face meeting in her office. Dressed in black leather digitigrade boots, a form fitting FlaK jacket and the loose breathable pants typically worn by furred species, Shock silently hoped that his new boss was more interested in punctuality than uniform standards as he wasted no time with formalities and pushed open the door.
Shockwulf froze as a silver metal sculpture of a man barred his path, one hand held slightly outward as if it were about to turn into some sort of weapon. Strange extensions that combining the features of dreadlocks and rattlesnakes fell backwards from the man’s head as he glared at the interloper with glowing purple eyes.
“Staff Sergeant Cassatt!” the authoritative alien android barked. “This office holds Sensitive Compartmented Information. If in the future you do not wish to be vaporized I suggest you register with the base’s location tracking system...or knock before entering.”
“Yes Sergeant Major!” Shockwulf replied without hesitation, making a note not to make the same mistake twice.
“Very good Cassatt you may enter, the Colonel is expecting you.”
Tucking his hat under his arm Shockwulf opened the interior door to find a conventionally attractive human female sitting behind a desk manipulating a series of documents on the touch screen surface. Her black form fitting nanoweave garment did little to hide the firm athletic shape of her cybernetic body, thick dark blonde hair complementing her predatory good looks.
“You wanted to see me Colonel Hanford, sir?”
“Yes Hector, please, sit down.”
Shockwulf hesitated a moment before sitting down in one of several reinforced chairs that faced the Colonel’s solid front desk.
“That bothered you didn’t it,” Serena asked, reaching for a cup of tea without needing to look up.
“No need to remind me I’m an elder Sergeant.”
“I’m sorry sir,” said Shockwulf, looking a bit confused. “Can you please explain your question?”
“When I called you Hector you twitched a bit. I could tell that bothered you.”
“I...I usually go by Shockwulf. It’s an official alternate name. It should say so in my record...sir.”
Even seated the synthetic wolf still towered over the average size human-form female, but her line of questioning had prompted him to shrink down in his chair.
“Oh, it does say so,” Serena replied, brushing away the documents had been reviewing and bringing up Shockwulf service record, “but I noticed that you changed your name from Hector Teledyne-1257 just before you entered the service.”
“I was given a personality upgrade,” Shockwulf answered, wringing his hat in his hands. “I felt the old name was a little, demeaning.”
“Relax Shockwulf, this isn’t some sort of evaluation,” the Colonel responded in her most soothing tone of voice. “I was just hoping you could help me solve a bit of a mystery.”
“A mystery?” Shockwulf asked, his tail wagging slightly between the bars of the open chair back.
“It says here that you were awarded the Order of the Horn for Valor in your previous job with the Neocorn Guardian Service.” Serena paused to sit up in her chair and look serious. “That’s not an achievement one sees often and for an AI wolf to be the recipient is almost, no scratch that, is unheard of.”
“I was only doing my job Colonel.”
“By job you mean “tech support”?”
“Lady Ethera took a somewhat expansive view of my responsibilities, Colonel.”
“Well you’re lucky I found you. Those little fucks in Spec Ops tried to hide that little nugget by sticking it down in the notes section of your record but I’ve been onto their tricks for some time now. They find the fact that my organization gets certain priorities in staff selection...inconvenient.”
“Well I thank you very much for the opportunity Colonel. Working for SLIRT is any AI’s dream job.”
“Ha!” Serena exclaimed, with a bit of a bemused look. “I don’t shit so there’s no use trying to get a brown nose.”
“Yes sir, sorry sir.”
“Anyway, there remains the matter of the mystery that I think you could help me solve.”
“Well I will certainly try my best sir.”
“Because your record was somewhat, incomplete, I had to go into Uninet to pull the original citation,” Serena continued, “and when I got back the search results I figured there had been some mistake because it was for a one Steven Cassatt. However upon further review it appears that two awards were given out. My question to you Shockwulf, aka Hector Cassatt, aka Hector TDY 1257, who is this Steven person and why don’t I know his name?”
“Steven? He is...my partner.”
“Like a meat puppet?” Serena asked skeptically.
“No! Nothing like that. I mean before I was me, he was me,” Shockwulf tried to explain. “Shockwulf was technically his character. We played Shockwulf on missions and after the award those special forces guys were so impressed they wanted to create Shockwulf for real by modifying my original personality with parts of Steven’s.”
Serena found herself staring at the robotic wolf trying to come to terms with what he had just said. After a few awkward moments Serena just threw up her hands.
“Damn, and I thought I had it figured out too. Grab yourself a candy from the jar, it’s not every day someone gets the better of me.”
“What were you thinking...sir?”
“Just that you were an AI co-pilot and the Guardians were holding back another promising individual I could use to fill one of my billets. Instead I find that you are a...character...somehow brought to life by mashing up an AI and parts of a human mind.”
Serena casually opened up one of the side drawers on her desk, removed a small silver flask, brought it to her lips and took a lengthy sip.
“Yeah, that’s a new one and I’ve seen more than my fair share of crazy shit,” Serena remarked as she propped her head up on one hand as she looked down at the table. “So if they can’t find people with the skills they need and they can’t buildpeople with the skills they need, they just steal people’s role play characters. Unbelievable.”
“To be fair Colonel, Steven and Hector put a lot of work into me and I would like to think my performance speaks to that end.”
“You don't see me trying to dispute that Shockwulf. And to think I considered our society’s retreat into fantasy was a bad thing. Look at all the untapped potential!” Serena snarked before suddenly realizing that her sarcasm might be somewhat premature. “I’m sorry Shockwulf, that was uncalled for.”
“No need to apologize sir. I realize I’m pretty cutting edge.”
“Well as cutting edge as you are I would still like to talk to your partner, friend, other half, whatever you like to call the source of your human bits,” said Serena.
“I should be able to answer almost any question you have seeing as I possess many of Steven’s memories,” Shockwulf said as a matter of fact. “It’s why I took on his last name.”
“Ok, again that’s horrible, but I don’t want to meet Steven to ask him some factual questions. I want to meet the person who originally created the Shockwulf character that you embody.”
“Oh,” Shockwulf stated as he struggled to understand the distinction.
Serena gradually stood up and wandered over to the window, looking out over the bay.
“You give an army a soldier and they can fill an empty bunk. You give an army a person who can create soldiers...and that army can do anything. If you don’t think it would be creepy I’d like to get you two back together, if only in the same general organization. ”
“I’d love to have Steven working for SLIRT,” the wolf responded without hesitation, his tail wagging vigorously behind him.
“Well I am going to need your help because I couldn’t find your friend’s records anywhere in the system. Whomever has him has got him buried pretty deep.”
“I don’t understand Colonel. Nobody has Steven. He was put on administrative leave to cover up the fact he was working field ops in a technical support role.”
“What are you talking about Shock? Steven got picked up by those sleazy talent development guys.”
“They just paid him for the rights to the character. Said they weren’t really looking to hire “mundane” humans.”
“Fools!” Serena swore, spinning around the face the surprised wolf. “God damned myopic fools! Talent development my ass. Those idiots wouldn’t know talent if it was burrowing into their ear canal.”
“I can send you his contact info Colonel. Steven is not really doing anything at the moment so I’m sure he’d be able to meet with you.”
“Thanks,” Serena muttered, placing the call as she grabbed her black tactical vest and sidearm that were hanging on a nearby coat stand.
“Do you want me to come with you sir?” Shockwulf asked, trying to be helpful.
“I’m going to need to leave you behind. I’m not sure Steven would be able to give me honest answers with you hanging around,” she answered, moving around behind the sitting wolf, “but thank you for the offer Sergeant. I’ll message one of the other officers about seeing you get your equipment and duty assignments.”
“Thank you Colonel,” replied Shockwulf, attempting to stand.
“Just hold it right there wolfie,” said Serena as she took hold of Shockwulf’s shoulders pressed him back into his chair. “I just wanted to try one more test.”
The great robot wolf went into a bit of a trance as gynoid dug her powerful fingers deep into his mane, scratching when she reached his polymer hide.
“Yeah, deep down you’re still just a big old mellow companion AI, aren’t you now? Do you mind if I continue for a little while? I feel about ready to punch somebody and that's probably not a good way for an AI to go out in public.”
Shockwulf looked up at Serena with his big yellow eyes, a slight whimper escaping from his muzzle as he indicated for her to proceed.
“Ah yessss,” Serena almost purred as she focused on the sensation of the soft fur running between her fingers. “Stress? What stress.”
Shockwulf sat there looking a bit sheepish as his leg and tail behaved in a manner one might expect of any canine getting a combined back scratch and massage. “C-colonel?”
Grinning from ear to ear the elder Gynoid pulled her hands free and wrapped up by giving Shockwulf a playful rub between the ears. “Sorry, but I desperately needed something warm and fuzzy to give me some warm and fuzzies. You know, the emotional burdens of being an Elder and all. Don’t worry, your base coding can stay just between you and me.”
“Understood, but can you tell Steven I said hi.”
“I’d let you do that right now if he’d fucking pick up his phone.”
“Shit! If I miss the check in Rebecca is going to kill me!” Steven growled as he waved his phone around in a futile effort to get a signal. “This was working yesterday. The screen’s on, but I don’t have any fucking signal. Not even satellite. Dammit, if she calls search and rescue it’s going to be a shit show all because my phone decided to break.”
As the first light of the morning sun began to appear on the opposite side of the valley Steven gave up the futile fight with his smart phone and put it away in one of the conformal pockets he used to store the various pieces of human kit that made his trip more bearable. His stomach rumbled as the single rabbit from the night before had not done much to slake his hunger.
“Maybe if I hike to the top of the ridgeline,” Steven wondered aloud as he looked back at the upward slope behind him. “Hmmm, wonder what happened to the pack. Bet I get called lazy for not getting up at 4am to chase down an elk.”
Suddenly from out of the blue a sharp thunderclap rolled across the slumbering landscape, its sound trailing off in a similar fashion to a supersonic aircraft passing nearby, but scanning the sky from horizon to horizon Steven could find no source of the sound, either natural or manmade.
“Could have been positive lightning.” Steven guessed, moving around the outcropping in an attempt to get a better view, but still seeing nothing. “Oh well, so much for…”
The next sound that reached Steven’s human ears consisted of an alarming low frequency hum reminiscent of an electrical transformer suffering from a major internal fault. Gradually creeping into his awareness, the sound grew louder and louder until Steven was almost knocked over as small orbital shuttle trailing a long thick trail of black smoke burst out from behind the veil of the ridgeline just several hundred feet above the spot where he was standing. Clearly searching for a suitable landing site amongst the impassable wilderness the craft turned back over the ridge and vanished from sight. Second later the muffled sound of metal grinding on rock echoed through the valley.
That's not good...” said Steven as he quickly verified that his phone was still not getting any service and that all his other gear was in its proper place. “Shit, shit shit. You’ve got to go. You’ve got to get there. Got everything? Got everything? Good!”
Rushing into the forest Steven found a flat area and triggered the spell that would cram him into the shape of a wolf. He was tempted to try it on the run, but the risk of injuring himself was not worth the few seconds the stunt would save. Thirty seconds later he was on the move again, running at top speed over rocks and through the trees towards his best estimate of the crash site's location. Finding a well worn game trail Steven increased his speed, but as he ran on he became aware of footfalls that were not his own.
Steven swerved out of the way just in time to avoid colliding with a light grey wolf as it burst out from a thicket of sagebrush. Snowing himself to a safe stop Steven turned to see the entire Blue Ridge pack standing before him, seven adults from the sanctuary and four additional juveniles that were at least a year old. The splotchy black Conan along with the nearly white Snowflake fidgeted uneasily at the back of the pack. One of the larger males with bright blue eyes stepped forward and acknowledged the interloper.
//”We saw one of your skyships crash in the area of the long field. If I am not mistaken it is the duty of a wolf pack to render assistance to those in peril,” Akula proclaimed with full confidence.
//"Wolf packs and all other good persons," Steven added. //"This long field...have you seen skyships land there before?”
//“Only light aircraft,” said another member of the pack whose white tipped tail identified him as a wolf named Luke. //”It’s very rocky and right up against the river.”
//“Akula, my phone is broken so I cannot call for help.”
//”Did the magic run out?”
Steven couldn’t help but grin a little. //”Yes, but not in the way you mean. Someone will need to go for help. Who are you two fastest runners?
//”That would be Lola and Mars,” Akula answered, looking back at each in turn.
//”How quickly can they get to the nearest human den?”
Akula turned to face two other wolves leaving the group in silence as he conducted a private conversation before looking back at Steven. //”They say the nearest home is quite a distance away. It might take them until the sun is about to set to reach it.”
Steven let out a muffled snort as he tried to curse with his canine muzzle. //”Do they know where they would be going?”
//”They said they can get there Steven and I trust their judgment,” Akula stated.
//”Alright. Lola, Mars, you stay here and rest. We will send another back with a message to give to the humans. Remember the buddy system. You two don’t split up. If one of you gets hurt the other can keep going and get help,” Steven instructed.
//”We understand friend Steven,” replied Lola.
//“You can depend upon our paws,” said Mars.
//”Swift travels,” Akula thought openly to the two. //”Steven, I will lead you to the long field along with the rest of the back.”
//”Thank you Akula.”
Falling in line behind the alpha, Steven joined the pack as it took off at top speed towards the backcountry landing strip that represented the shuttle’s logical choice for a crash landing. Steven found it a little disconcerting running at full speed with his nose just a few feet from someone else’s rear end, but the immediacy of the situation helped him to ignore it.
//Akula, what did you say to them?” asked Steven.
//”The pack, they seem to be willing to follow you and someone knocked Conan off his high horse.”
//”Well when they learned that Conan almost killed their food friend from the before time, they were suddenly a lot more receptive to what I had to say. Thank you for encouraging me to say it.”
The alpha’s keen sense of direction began to lead the pack down towards the valley floor, gravity helping the pack’s swift progress. As they neared the river that snaked its way between the two hills a cloud of dust and smoke was gently settling back towards the valley floor.
//”I believe we have located the lost skyship,” Akula casually observed.
//”Nobody goes near the ship unless I say so,” Steven mentally announced with as much strength as he could muster. //"These sorts of things can be dangerous."
As the packed poured out of the forest and onto the wide open expanse of white sand that made up the mostly dry river bed the extent of the crash was quickly apparent. Cutting off a small bulge in the path of the river, the airstrip was about 1000 feet long and 100 feet wide, but the dirt track that had been improved for landing was scarcely wider than a typical driveway. Starting at a point about a third of the way along its length, a deep gash was cut into the soil, fragments of hull plating and gravity coils strewn about, intermingled with rocks and chunks of sod. The skid mark cut a shallow path diagonally across the width of the airstrip ending where the land gave way to a cluster of large boulders that had exposed over the years by the seasonal floods. It was against one of these rocks that the Winnebago sized orbital shuttle had come to rest.
//”Akula, I am going to need your hands,” said Steven as he triggered the shift spell to change him back to his full human form.
The juveniles looked on in wonder as two of their kin rose up onto two legs, the newcomer going further, losing his pelt and turning various shades of pink and not pink like the humans their parents had always warned them about.
“Akula, tell the pack to stay here on this side of the river. I’m going to go across get a closer look.”
The long hot summer had shrunk the strong current to a bubbling trickle no more than a foot deep in the middle. Crossing the water and venturing up the far bank Steven pulled out his phone. Activating the optical sensor he zoomed in all the way along the full length of the airstrip to remotely inspect the smoking wreckage for any obvious risks to health and safety. The shiny black shuttle was a luxury model designed to accommodate one or two pilots and 4 to 6 passengers. Relying on gravity based lift and drive systems, the outer design resembled that of a streamlined multipurpose van with little in the way of aerodynamics. The initial impact and 500 foot skid had ripped off most of the flight hardware mounted under the body and the whole mess has come to rest in a 15 degree downward angle pointed towards the river.
//”What do you see?” asked Akula.
“Well, it’s not on fire, but I don’t see anybody trying to get out,” Steven replied as he began to shift back into his anthro form. “Send the pack along the river to that tall tree there. I’m going to go straight in. We can’t waste time in getting to the survivors.”
Akula gave direction to the pack while Steven took off running, following the trail of debris to the wreck of the crashed shuttle. While fire was always a danger for complex vehicles with many hot parts, most space faring technology made little in the use of flammable fuels. While a cloud of coolant and reaction matter boiled out of the engine compartment any fuels that remained on board posed little danger as they as they were either inert or able to be neutralized in the event of containment loss. Covering the length of the runaway in about a minute, Steven stopped himself short to the vehicle as a number of high pitched alarms became audible.
//”What are those noises?! They do not agree with my ears!” exclaimed Akula, wincing slightly.
“Probably some fasten seatbelt alarm,” Steven dismissed. “Stay back, I am going to blow the door.”
Out of habit Steven moved as quickly as he could to cross the remaining hundred or so feet of rocks and debris separating him from the downed shuttle. Moving around to look in the cockpit Steven quickly realized that the vehicle’s strange shape was the result of the sloped front cockpit area having been squashed flat into the center section by the impact with a boulder. Quickly following the bright yellow arrow labeled “rescue” the anthro wolf lifted a small panel and yanked hard on the T-handle inside resulting in the large sliding-type side door rocketing off the shuttle with a loud explosive thud. Inside amongst various pieces of the cabin interior, Steven identified a man dressed in a smart black business suit slumped forward against the straps of a 4-point restraint.
“Sir? Can you hear me?”
The man was breathing slowly, but gave no other signs of response. Reaching for the harness release Steven took a step inside and then instantly froze.
“Akula! Stay back! It’s the...”
//“It’s the what?” the wolf asked, standing just a few feet away.
“It’s the fucking radiation alarm! Come on, we need to get this guy out of here,” Steven yelled, moving to take the man’s weight off the straps.
//”What about the humans in front?” Akula asked, following Steven’s lead.
“They’re dead. The cockpit turned into a crumple zone when the craft hit the rock.”
Steven popped the release and the man fell forward onto Akula’s shoulder.
“Get him to the pack and then lead them all as far away as you can!”
Not bothering to look back Steven began to frantically search the cabin area for items he could use, well aware that every second he stayed a swarm of tiny Greek letters continued to fly through his body. The first aid kit was within easy reach and popping open one of the overhead compartments yielded a yellow plastic container of survival gear. Not wanting to press his luck any further Steven retreated from the disheveled cabin, but just as he turned towards Akula something strange caught his attention. Stopping in mid-stride Steven directed his gaze to the rear of the ship where, in addition to the dents and scraps one might associate with a crash landing, was a pattern of blackened holes in the hull plating that looked like something a toddler might create by filling their mouth with paint and spitting it at the canvas.
“Fuck me...AKULA!” Steven screamed, breaking into a spring. “We have to get out of here right now!”
Not bothering to ask why the lanky alpha wolf broke into a run, the unconscious human bouncing up and down on his shoulder.
“The river! Use that rock and jump into the running water!”
//”But the rocks are slippery. I cannot make good time...”
“The skyship was shot down,” Steven yelled as he leapt into the refreshingly cool water that was meandering past the crash site.
//“I-I don’t understand what you are saying,” the wolf replied, nevertheless following Steven.
“It was hunted, like prey and now whatever hunted it will probably want to visit the kill.”
//”There are things that eat skyships?!” exclaimed Akula, his eyes going as wide as saucers.
“No...but there are people who would want to kill those that ride in them,” Steven explained. “We’re using the river to hide our tracks. We have to get back under the trees as quickly as possible.”
Steven and Akula found the pack where they had been instructed to wait, but the other 8 wolves were agitated by their leader’s alarmed and somewhat fearful body language. Without needing any additional instruction the ferals fell in around the two anthros as they began to make their way up the steep slope of the hillside and into the protective shade of the trees and brush. Despite his superior natural strength and endurance, the burden of having to carry an adult human uphill soon left Akula near the point of collapse.
//”Akula! What is going on here!” demanded Marin.
//”Someone was apparently hunting this human,” Akula panted, laying the man onto his backside. //”Friend Steven said it would not be wise to stay.”
//”Who is this person that he would be hunted?” Luke asked. //”He doesn’t look like any of the human’s I’ve seen.”
Steven bent down and after ascertaining that the man’s vital signs were stable, he began to go through his pockets, eventually locating a wallet.
“This says his name is Warren Peterson. Warren Peterson...that name...I know that name.” Steven’s eyes suddenly lit up as if someone had flicked on a switch. “This is the owner of NuGen Technologies. He’s like a billionaire.”
The wolves stare at Steven, again not familiar with all of his terminology.
“Um, like rich, wealthy, lots of territory with nice fat juicy elk.”
//”We get it,” sneered Conan, still a bit testy.
//”Does someone wish to take over this man’s pack?”
“I’m sure many people would, but that’s not the way things work with humans. A more likely reason is that a lot of people just plain don’t like him. You see before the newcomers came openly, they came in secret and gave people like Warren Peterson access to advanced technology to help lift our world up, sort of like how those people raised you all up and others felt that very wasn’t fair.”
//”You humans are silly. I like being able to talk,” Snowflake commented.
“Yes, but what if the price was a new alpha that you were forced to follow?”
Suddenly Marin yelped in surprise as she moved into a position to better view the man’s face. //”I know this human as well! I saw him at the sanctuary speaking to Food Provider Rebecca.”
“The secret benefactor!” exclaimed Steven, snapping his fingers as best he could. “This all makes sense now!”
//”Excuse me?” said Akula.
“Rebecca told me that a wealthy person was giving money to the rescue and other environmental and non-human rights groups, but she wouldn’t tell me who it was. This must be the person!”
//”Then we all know who is behind hunting him!” Conan growled.
Steven wanted to give the usual response about waiting for all the facts, but he knew that the undisciplined young wolf was probably correct in his assessment. “And every time you mess with a human Conan, what message do you think that sends? No matter what happens this isn’t an excuse for revenge.”
//”What do you propose we do Steven?” Akula asked, still breathing heavily from his previous effort.
“I’m going to stabilize him here and then try to find some place to hide. You are going to go for help and get as far away from here as possible.”
//”You need our help Steven. The hunters brought down a skyship. You will not be able to escape them for long,” Akula noted.
“They know every wolf in this area is smart. If they see you they will not hesitate to kill you. I cannot ask you to risk your lives for this man, no matter how wealthy he is.”
//”He is a friend to wolves,” said Marin with some emphasis, “he is our guest.”
//”If there are man-hunters in our territory Friend Steven,” Akula followed, “they are not welcome.”
“Akula, please. You don’t understand how danger...”
Staring at his friend for a moment Steven then closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his composure appearing to stiffen as he tapped into something deep inside. Without saying a word he knelt down and popped open the lid of the survival pack, pulling out a small folding saw.
“Akula, you’ve got hands. Take this and cut me two wooden poles about as tall as you are and as wide as your wrist. Mirin, what are the names of the two young ones?”
//”Brownfoot and Yellow Fang.”
“Tell them to run back to Lola and Mars with the message “Shuttle shot down by armed men at the Stripe Canyon airstrip, 1 survivor. Communications jammed. Send help.”
The female wolf mentally repeated the message back to Steven before she trotted over to the two juveniles who were waiting by the side of the clearing. As Marin went about drilling the message into the two young wolves before sending them on their way, Steven broke into the first aid kit and began to fumble through a number of bright red and white packages with plain black labeling. Noting such items as antiviral nannos and plasma burn foam he couldn’t help but wonder what such thoughtful amenities added to the final price of the shuttle. Finally locating the kit’s answer for radiation exposure, Steven unwrapped a rather stout auto-injector and, following the instructions, placed it under the billionaire’s armpit.
//”Will that wake him up?” Luke inquired. //”Animals at the rescue would wake up when they had the silver liquid put into them.”
//”No, this is a different kind of sickness, but it will hopefully keep him from dying before we can get proper help,” Steven answered as he triggered the injector.
//“What else are you planning?” Akula asked as he sawed furiously at one of the lower limbs on a nearby pine tree.
“We need to find a way to move Peterson out of the area and hide him. One of us trying to carry him on their own will slow us down too much so we need to construct a makeshift stretcher. After Peterson is hidden we need to locate and track anyone who might be hunting him,” Steven continued, making sure to address the entire pack as he stood back up. “You all are small, fast, well camouflaged and most importantly of all you know the terrain. If we can find the hunters before they find us we will have the advantage and can lead them away from the hiding spot. The only thing we are missing is a reliable form of long range communication so the pack can coordinate its actions.”
Looking around to make sure the wolves were following Steven saw 10 pairs of very confused eyes.
//”Um, excuse me Friend Human Steven,” Snowflake ventured a bit hesitantly, //”but you know we can say the words like “Awooooooo” and it can be heard for very very far.”
Steven buried his muzzle in his large fuzzy hands and let out a defeated sigh. “Well I guess I had your respect for most of a paragraph there.”
//”We all learn from each other.” Akula said quickly. //”Snowflake, thank you for that reminder. If anybody has something important to say you must let it be heard.”
Steven reached out and gave the omega a well deserved scratch behind the ears. “I cannot yet speak true wolf so I will stay with Akula to translate. At the appropriate time we will split into pairs and form a screen in the direction the hunters are likely to approach from. There is no difference between this and stalking any other kind of prey, only in this situation you must not attack or reveal yourselves.”
Steven didn’t hear any objections as Akula brought back two cut poles.
//“We will use the spread paw formation, in pairs as Steven suggested,” said the alpha, picking up right where the human left off. //”When we are moving our guest, stay within sight distance to keep together without howls. Once he is hidden we will move out to ear distance. If you spot any intruders howl out to summon Steven and myself. Elvis, you take Snowflake, Hidalgo, you’re with Smoke, Luke and Conan meet up with the juveniles and pair up with one each. Marin, can you hang back and make sure everyone is working effectively.”
The alpha female nodded as Steven began to assemble the stretcher from the two pine branches and materials he had found in the survival kit including carbon nanotube rope and plastic sheeting.
“This will still be a bit awkward to carry, but with two of us...”
//”I hear something!” Luke thought-yelled, his ears showing alarm.
//”Yes, a buzzing,” confirmed Smoke, her plain grey guard hairs beginning to rise up.
//”Everybody down!” Steven yelled, tackling Akula on top the survival gear to cover up the bright colors.
Well out in the center of the valley a small hovering disc about the size of a trash can lid flew along the river, making a beeline for the trickle of smoke from the crashed skyship. Steven could feel his heart racing along with Akula’s as 10 pairs of eyes watched the object for any movement towards their position. It took a full minute after the drone disappeared from view for anyone to feel comfortable enough to start moving again.
“If any of you had any lingering doubts,” Steven offered, looking around the group of tense wolves as they slowly picked themselves out of whatever concealment they had chosen. “Alright, we have a plan to hunt the hunters, but we still don’t have someplace safe to move Mr. Peterson. Are there any nearby caves or similarly inaccessible areas?”
//“Well there is one...”
//”Shut up Snowflake!” Conan growled, physically snapping at the subordinate.
Strangely neither Akula or Marin made any effort to reign in the aggressive packmate.
“Akula...if there’s a cave nearby...” Steven trailed off as he saw other members of the pack began to exhibit a completely different kind of fear.
//”Just bury him in leaves,” Conan snapped, //”it’s not like hewman hunters can smell their prey.”
“Akula, what aren’t you telling me here?”
//”As the one responsible for the welfare of the pack I do not believe I can...”
”A friend is trustworthy.”
Akula let out a slight whimper then stiffened himself. //“Follow me.”
It took the better part of an hour to manhandle the comatose human up and over one ridgeline and along part of another. The two anthros were near collapse as they dropped their burden in front of a small crack in a rock face at the back end of some un-named ravine. The site was defensible, if worse came to worse, but most importantly it was secluded and well shielded by tall trees that had grown up in the water of a small stream flowing down the mountain. Looking back Steven noticed that Conan had joined Marin in accompanying himself and Akula on the narrow track that lead to the cave entrance. After stopping to check that Peterson was in no immediate distress, Akula walked to the opening and folded his arms as he turned to face the outsider.
//“I make no excuses for what is inside,” he said, indicating through body language that Steven was to proceed inside on his own.
A bit perturbed about the pack’s strange behavior when there were seemingly more pressing matters at hand, Steven pushed past the alpha and squeezed his larger than average body through the narrow opening. As his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior his first thought was that some backwoods type had been using the cave for a shelter as there appeared to be trash and clothing strewn about. Then Steven saw the human skull with bits of brown hair still clinging to it in places.
“Oh fuck me…”
Bones and bone fragments were scattered about the cave as the body had clearly been torn apart by animals. Poking at what had once been an arm with his digitigrade foot, Steven’s voice turned stern and commanding.
“Akula! Get in here! Now!”
//“I told you I make no excuses,” the alpha asserted.
“What the hell happened,” Steven glared.
//“He was hunting wolves,” said Conan, appearing behind Akula.
//“I believe in this context the appropriate term is “murdering” wolves,” Akula pointed out.
//“He fell,” Conan said flatly.
“Then how did he wind up in the cave?” Steven observed.
//“Lucky bounce I guess,” Conan responded in the flippant tone that pressed Steven’s anger buttons.
“Listen, we have more important things to deal with right now, but you cannot do this sort of shit anymore.”
//”He was threatening the pack. What would you suggest we do?”
“You can defend yourselves, but remember how I said there are rules Akula? You can’t just eat the remains!”
For a moment Akula looked ready to punch his friend, but his body relaxed as he suddenly saw the situation from the human’s point of view.
//“We didn’t Friend Steven, but we felt no obligation to protect the remains from others who might have lacked the compunction against such behavior.”
“Doesn’t matter Akula. Do you think anybody would believe you? You’d be that vigilante pack killing and eating humans in a national forest. What do you think would happen then?”
//”Why do you think we were hesitant to show even you?” Akula pointed out.
“And what happens when “Jim plus Marry” show up and finds the remains by accident?” Steven shot back, pointing to some graffiti on the wall of the cave. “Are you going to listen to Conan and have them suffer “falls” as well?”
//”I believe you have made your point,” Akula snorted. //”Perhaps you could offer some more...constructive...criticism.”
“If you want people to respect the system then you have to respect it as well,” Steven explained. “If hunters shoot at you call a ranger or the police. If you have to defend yourselves there is going to need to be an investigation. If you don’t feel you can trust the local authorities just call me and I’ll find you some authorities you can trust.”
Akula looked first to his equally confidant mate and then to the rather nervous Conan.
//”I will do as you say Friend Steven. This circumstance had not been good for the pack and I am loathe to have it repeated. Despite your many shortcomings humans are predators, not prey, and predators should avoid hunting other predators.”
Thankful to have so easily gotten the point across to key members of the pack Steven decided not to follow up on the thought-speech’s troubling conflation of predatory behavior, sentience and personal value.
“Well if the so called “animals” are capable of being reasonable,” Steven began as he gave each of the three packmates a reinforcing hug, “then it should be no problem for the more “civilized” species to reach the same conclusion.”
//”That’ll be the moon,” Marin commented softly.
//”Speaking of the more “civilized” species, the hunter left behind his tools,” said Conan, trotting across the cave to where a backpack had been laid on top of some other items, //“including a kill stick.”
Steven’s ears instantly perked up and he was across the cave in a second. Lifting the backpack to one side the animal-shaped human could not suppress a carnivore grin as his brain registered the outline of a rifle. Picking the weapon up off the cave floor and dusting it off, Steven found himself holding a good quality Russian manufacture SKS self loading military carbine. There were a few spots of rust on the barrel and receiver, but the generally dry climate had prevented any real damage. Popping the bottom off the internal magazine, Steven let the steel cased rounds, each a bit smaller than a Double-A battery, tumble out into his wolfish hand before pulling back on the bolt handle to eject the final round from the chamber.
“Well this should definitely improve the odds in our favor,” Steven smiled as he performed a quick functions check on the rifle. “Why are you guys standing all the way over there? I just showed you that it is unloaded.”
//”Because it kills us,” replied Akula flatly.
“Yeah, well it kills humans too. It’s not magic,” Steven explained as he set the gun aside to avoid making his compatriots anxious. “I guess I’m just used to it in the way you are used to taking prey by the neck and biting down until they die. Let’s see what else is here.”
//”We left his belongings alone lest someone found us with them,” Akula explained as Steven pulled out a variety of basic outdoors supplies and non-perishable food bars.
“For creatures who were uplifted less than two years ago you certainly are clever.”
//”We were always clever Friend Steven. The only difference is that now we have more...agency.”
“Well now let’s put it to good use,” said Steven as he opened up the pack’s front compartment and pulled out a small black box with crude graphic of a wolf’s head on top. “Wolf Performance Ammunition...hmmm, think it’s a sign?”
//”A sign?” Conan asked, cocking an eye-ridge.
“Forget about it, I’m not going to teach you the concept of superstition,” Steven chuckled. “Come on, let’s get our guest comfortable in here and let the hunt begin.”
Concealed under the low branches of a hardy mountain evergreen, Steven watched Akula as he lined up his blue eyes with the sights mounted on the wood and steel rifle, pausing every so often to assist the alpha by carefully adjusting various elements of the his body position.
“You want to feel the stock tight in your shoulder,” Steven explained as he repositioned the butt plate a bit closer in toward Akula’s torso. “I know the rifle is small for you, but the trick is to make it an extension of your body. If it is part of you then the bullets will hit what you intend them to.”
The alpha flicked his ears in acknowledgement, sighting at a tree some distance away.
“I wish we could shoot live rounds, but for now you’ll just have to learn the mechanics,” Steven explained. “When you feel you have the sights pointed at the tree just squeeze the trigger until it clicks. If your aim goes off as you do so, stop, reset, then try again.”
Steven watched intently as Akula went about slowly pulling the trigger, feeling the interplay of slack and friction in the mechanism that he would need to be familiar with for accurate shooting at a distance. After a few hesitant starts Akula pulled the trigger and the hammer gave off a satisfying metallic chunk. Acting as he had been taught the wolf lowered the barrel and hauled back on the bolt handle to eject the non-existent “dud” round and prepare to reload.
//”Did I do ok?” Akula asked, looking to Steven for positive reinforcement.
“You did great. Now, why don’t we put some real bullets into it just so you know how that works first hand?”
//”I believe that your demonstration earlier was more than sufficient,” Akula offered, his body language expressing apprehension.
“See one, do one, teach one...well, at least the first two for now,” said Steven. “If I am disabled this rifle might save your life.”
Reaching into his pack, Steven pulled out a metal strip holding 10 cartridges by the groove around the base and handed it to his partner.
“Remember to check that the safety is on and then keep your thumb pressed right up against the metal strip as you push down.”
Akula nodded hesitantly as he took the ammunition and then made an obvious check of the safety mechanism. Placing the end of the strip into a slot milled into the bolt, the uplifted wolf placed his thumb on the topmost round and pressed down, filling the internal magazine in short order. As the last bullet tucked in under the feed lips the mechanism gave off a satisfying ping prompting Akula to pull out the empty strip and haul back on the charging handle which in turn flew forward to load the weapon.
“Well done. Now, dump the magazine and unload the rifle.”
Akula did as instructed, finishing off by checking that the chamber was empty with a claw tip before handing the rifle, muzzle pointed upwards, back to Steven.
“Alright, you pick up the bullets and reload the clip while I take a quick look around to make sure nobody has been trying to sneak by us while we’ve been doing our male bonding,” Steven chuckled.
//“It appears that our two species have rather different ideas of what constitutes “male bonding”,” Akula observed as he knelt down to put the ammunition back into a clip.
“Did you really want to set me up for a butt smelling joke?”
//”Do you want to see how I can make you submit?” Akula countered, only half joking.
Peeking his head out from between the curtain of dense pine needles Steven scanned the opposing hillside for any signs of movement.
“Is your nose picking up anything interesting Akula?”
//”Nothing out of the ordinary apart from the kill stick. Do you think they are still coming?”
“That drone will see the door blown off the shuttle and the empty cabin. The killers wouldn’t have sent it had they not intended to finish their job.”
/””Perhaps we missed them?”
Ducking his head back into cover Steven pulled out his computing device and displayed a map of the area on the small screen. Overlaid on the topographic information were a series of colored boxes spread out in an arc around the hidden cave, each representing a patrol area by one of the pairs of feral wolves.
“As long as the pack is doing its job the hunters will have to cross through one of the patrol zones. If your kin are as good at finding prey as you say they are...”
//”I can assure you of that my friend,” Akula replied before Steven could finish his thought.
“I do not doubt your word Akula, but that means all we can do is wait,” Steven said, letting out a slight sigh as he went about fiddling with the map view. “When I used to do this sort of thing with Ethera we could track the entire team’s location in real time. It was just like playing a video game the way she could just select one of the dots and send it orders to move somewhere. Felt sort of comforting to be in control like that.”
//”I will agree with you that this is not a comfortable situation,” Akula remarked.
“The worst part is how stupid this all is,” Steven spat as he shoved his phone back into his bag. “If I wanted to maintain this same perimeter with human beings I’d need two or three times as many. Wolves have a particular set of very valuable skills and abilities. Hell! There would be enough jobs for ten times the local wolf population if the fucking locals would just get off their high horses about being “god’s chosen species” or whatever bullshit they use to justify their prejudice.”
//”Accepting change takes time Friend Steven, for wolves and humans alike.”
“Yeah, but what’s going ease the process...learning that co-existence has benefits on one’s own or being told it does at the point of a gun? When someone is confused and scared you don’t fucking poke them until they explode. Fuck Shy, fuck Anthro Advocacy, fuck the whole right wing conspiracy industrial complex!”
Making an effort to calm himself Steven ran his hands through the soft fur on his head, lingering to let his fingertips trace out his upright canine ears.
“When I go out and see the all the pure evil that lives out there in the multiverse all this petty bullshit just makes me want to throw up. We’re all on the same team Akula and if we as free people cannot understand that we're going to get fucked.”
Steven wasn't sure Akula was listening or, if he was, could even fathom the complexities of the world that both of them now inhabited. He watched as the other anthro silently paced back and forth under the shade of the tree, pausing only to pull out a pair of binoculars recovered from the dead poacher to get a closer look at some of the more distance slopes and ridgelines.
//"We are working together right now Friend Steven, are we not?" Akula thought calmly. //"Success in our current predicament would howl far louder than those which incur your anger."
Steven took a deep breath and nodded as he turned to check the gear one more time. "Thank you Akula. I think I had that building up inside me for a while now. It makes a big difference not being alone out here. I...I had a friend like you once and he always made me feel better when I was sitting around waiting for stuff to happen."
//"Every wolf needs his pack Friend Steven," Akula replied in a fashion that seemed designed to sound wise. //"Except of course for lone wolves, but they are creepy and weird."
Steven burst out laughing as the wolf’s honesty hit him right in the funny bone. “God, you are something special. It’s going to suck after you’ve been around for a couple decades and just start talking like everyone else.”
The alpha showed mock offence as he put the binoculars back into his messenger bag, but quickly shrugged off the comment with a look of resignation. //”Do not think that I am not aware that our future lies in the human world. For so long we craved life outside the enclosure, but at some point we will be satisfied and there will no longer be a reason to stay. Still, while we may wear your clothes and eat your food, those of us that lived as a pack in the wild, either now it in the before time, will carry that specialness always.”
Steven couldn’t help but just regard the great pack leader as he stood there, finally imbued with the intelligence and dexterity of man. In the before time Steven could never be sure that Akula saw him as anything more than a scratch and a meal ticket, but the last two days had left no doubt in his mind that their connection was real. Steven’s arms twitched as he began to work himself up to giving his friend a cathartic male on male hug.
//”Steven! Hidalgo howls!”
From some great distance the mournful note of a single wolf’s voice was joined by another as Smoke let loose her voice. The pitch and tone intertwined to create an audio picture that to the human conveyed only beauty, but in the ears of the alpha represented words.
//”Two hunters...wearing metal...moving quickly...” Akula paused, waiting for the howls to continue on for a bit, “…on the clear path with the yellow dirt that rises upward past the three trees below the great rock.”
“I don’t have the context to understand where that is,” said Steven as he pulled out his phone and zeroed in on the pair’s patrol area that had been overlaid with a yellow tint. “Can you show me?”
Akula nodded and began to work the touch screen interface, zooming in on the side of a ridge where a narrow dirt trail could be seen snaking perpendicular to the slope in the general direction of the crash site.
“They aren’t coming up the river valley so that has to tell us something about where their transportation might be.”
//”Oh? What is that?”
“Damned if I know, but I’m sure it tells us something,” said Steven, taking a deep breath. “Alright Akula, time to redeploy the pack. We want to create a moving circle around the killers so that they can’t escape. Keep Elvis and Snowflake out ahead of them and fold in the others like this with Hidalgo and Smoke bringing up the rear.”
Zooming out slightly on his mobile device, Steven drew a series of arrows from the existing patrol zones to where they would need to be in order to encircle the intruders and then handed it to his partner.
“Alright Akula, code it out.”
The wolf nodded and cleared his throat, but stopped short of howling.
//”Where do we go?”
“We get to that trail and set up and ambush. Make sure you keep the other members of the pack back and out of sight. Wearing “metal” means attacking it is not a job for tooth and claw.”
//”This will take some time to howl,” Akula noted as he studied the map for features the pack would be able to reference.
“Give me your bag. I will go ahead and you can catch up with me,” Steven ordered as he put on the backpack and then slung the rifle over his shoulder.
//“May the wind carry you,” Akula projected as he handed his burden to Steven.
"To be honest I'd be more interested in a little fog," Steven grumbled before he took off running.
Struggling to bring his breathing and heart rate down Steven raised the binoculars above his muzzle and for the fight time laid eyes on the two heavily armed mercenaries that were making a beeline for the crash site along a rough cut forest service fire trail. In order to keep the traveling circle from fragmenting Akula had informed the rest of the pack to check in periodically and each new round of howls caused the intruders to stop and nervously sweep the area with their weapon-integrated optics. Both men were encased from neck to toe in articulated powered combat armour that Steven estimated to be armor level Type IV or V, which would render his rifle useless unless a round happened to seek out one of the more vulnerable flexible joint areas. Compared to similar equipment worn by Guardians or even moderately funded corporations, the mercenary’s armour was outmoded with sizable gaps in coverage and terrain specific camouflage appearing as if it had been hastily applied from a spray can. Nevertheless the technology was sufficient to prove more than a match for the small arms typically available on Steven’s home world.
//”I am coming up behind you. Do not be alarmed,” Akula’s thoughts rang out in Steven’s head.
Turning, Steven found himself having to direct his gaze downward as the feral form wolf walked silently towards him in defilade behind the clump of trees where Steven had taken up his position.
//“I see you found an excuse to get yourself back on four feet,” Steven remarked, switching to though-speech to avoid accidently betraying his position.
//”You wished me to move quickly,” Akula stated. “Grasping limbs would contribute nothing towards that goal.”
//”Well from the looks of these guys you might want to invest in some power assist because they are just tearing it up on the trail. We’re going to need to move in a second if we want to stay ahead of them.”
//”Can’t you just use your kill stick from here?”
//”The metal they wear would make the bullets little better than claws,” said Steven as he held out the binoculars for Akula to peer through, //”but look, they have exposed their faces to make it easier to breathe. I couldn’t hit them at this distance, but if they came closer...”
//“Then they could shoot use with their kill sticks.”
//True, and theirs kill better.”
Steven moved the binoculars to his own eyes as the men again paused in vain to search out the source of the incessant howling before pulling out his phone to check the approximate disposition of his forces.
//“Akula, I need the two killers to act foolishly in their quest for prey. Tell Luke to move towards us along the ridge and get the killers to follow him. I will be waiting with the rifle back behind us where the trail curves around a rock and then dips up and down before another set of rocks. Also tell him that as soon as he gets the killers’ attention he must...”
//”Luke will not be successful,” Akula thought back, cutting Steven off abruptly. //”I will go.”
The cool detachment of commanding others from afar was ripped away as Steven’s new friend got up on all fours and began to look intently for a safe path up the slope towards the top of the ridge.
//”Akula...the pack needs you now more than ever. You have to let someone...”
//”I told you there are some things the alpha must do on his own,” he snarled, baring his teeth in a surprising show of aggression. //”You be where you need to be. I will deliver the prey!”
”Then go,” Steven whispered as he gave the wolf a firm smack on the rear, launching the animal upwards through the trees and scrub away from the trail.
Not wasting any time for irrevelent self-reflection, Steven turned and ran towards the ambush point. As he went the intensity and frequency of howls increased to the point where they gained a sort of physical presence akin to fog, shrouding the valley in a cloak of inevitability. In his previous effort to get ahead of the mercenary party Steven had been on the lookout for any piece of terrain that could offer a tactical advantage and a blind curve covered by a mass of large rocks had caught his attention. Bounding over the half dozen bounders that jutted out of the side of the steep upward slope, Steven dropped his gear and again focused on calming himself as he made his weapon ready. While the thick tree cover over this patch of the hillside prevented any direct observation, the startled cry of a human voice indicated that Akula had made contact.
While the uplift nannos changed the Blue Ridge wolves into fully sapient beings with language, reason and a sense of the future, no matter how clever each of these individuals were, hunting game large enough to provide adequate sustenance required the efforts of a coordinated team. Although Akula had spent the before time locked in a pen feasting on road kill, the role of alpha was evolutionarily designed to exhibit those traits most necessary for pack survival and once in the wild he was a fast learner, developing tactics and strategies to efficiently hunt prey and keep the bellies of the Blue Mountain wolves nice and full. With his territory invaded and his pack threatened Akula did not think twice about shouldering more than his fair share of the responsibility.
Running along the uneven slope away from any established trail Akula exhibited his semi-instinctual ability to keep himself concealed from his quarry. Stalking prey of such limited olfactory capability almost made his task enjoyable compared to a normal hunt where the wind direction was a constant bother. Still, the danger from the intruder’s powerful weapons kept the alpha alert and on edge. Passing through an invisible cloud of human stink, Akula skidded to a stop and sighted the two mercenaries moving rapidly in his direction about 50 yards away behind a thin veil of trees. The one in front was taller and had a narrow face with a perpetual five o’clock shadow. The second, while shorter, was well built and had a rural All American look about him. From his elevated position the Blue Ridge alpha raised his muzzle and let loose a howl informing the pack of his intentions just as the mercenaries came into full view.
“I see it!” the man in the lead shouted with an eastern European accent, raising up his weapon. “I get you now cocksucker...”
“Stop! What are you doing?” the second yelled, grabbing the first’s bulky grey polymer rifle and pushing the muzzle to the side. “It’s just a fucking wolf, leave it alone and keep moving. They can’t hurt us.”
“Fool! The wolves here are intelligent! That one was looking right at me,” the taller one growled, pointing his rifle back on target only to find that the wolf had vanished. “Fucker!”
“There! That tree just moved!”
“Oh, you not get away from me!” the leading mercenary snarled, leaping into a full on sprint with each stride carrying him a good twelve feet further along the trail.
The shorter man was about to join the chase when another howl drew his attention up the hill to his right where he quickly spotted a second wolf with a white tipped tail. Aiming and firing his weapon in one fluid movement, a bright blue ball of plasma encapsulating a small amount of antiprotons was soon on its way to deal with the threat. Detonating in a bright flash that sent a shockwave runbling through the valley, the shot sent dirt, rock and bits of dead wood high into the air. Dropping his face mask to see through the cloud of dust the second mercenary was enraged to detect a heat signature moving away from the area.
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding…”
Momentarily quieted by the explosion the howls suddenly returned with renewed intensity as the natural acoustics provided by the geography served to both increase the apparent number of howling individuals and further obscure their location. Trying to point his weapon at every blip indicated by his audio tracking system, the mercenary soon found himself spinning around like a broken sentry gun. Well past the “something’s wrong” stage, the man began to feel something creeping into his mind that he would have never thought possible on such a primitive world...fear.
Steven pushed his rifle through the small opening where two yellow rocks in the pile had come to rest against each other. The feature provided a natural rifle loop that in his estimation would provide at least a modicum of cover from whatever return fire would be directed his way. Despite the thunderous explosion Steven’s breathing and heart rate remained steady as an odd feeling of confidence rose within him rooted in some notion that he had done this sort of thing before. Taking aim at the point where anyone following the rough track would first come into view he flipped off the safety catch and placed his black, leathery fingertip inside trigger guard. Even without Hector to steady his nerves and center him on the target Steven felt like the unfamiliar rifle was part of him, an extension of his body that stretched outward along the path. He flinched slightly as Akula's barely intelligible voice buzzed into his mind, close to the limit of the effect's range. Steven’s finger took up the slack in the rather unrefined trigger mechanism, pausing just microns from the point where the hammer would drop. Above him came the sound of something moving quickly through the brush, ahead of him came the sound of heavy metallic footfalls.
All at once the man was there, his body language oozing hate and cruelty, skidding to a stop as he rounded the bend in the trail. Allowing the situation to develop organically, Steven held his fire as the exposed face of the mercenary grew still, focusing on something just to the side of where the barely concealed muzzle of Steven's rifle protruded from the rocks. The instant the target settled in his sights, Stevenexecuted the first in a list of carefully chosen actions that he had queued up over the preceding minutes. The mercenary’s neck exploded in red chunks as three shots rang out in quick succession. His spine damaged, the man's heavily armoured body dropped to the ground like a lead weight, ending up in a sitting position propped up by a small tree.
Without a second’s hesitation Steven was up on his paws, rapidly covering the distance to where his prey lay twitching. Blood bubbled from the mercenary's neck and lips, his labored breaths generating a sick, gurgling sound as his lungs filled with fluid. The eyes however were alive and full of rage as the augmented brain driving the meat body had little need of oxygen to function. Tossing the SKS over his shoulder Steven grabbed the bulky anti-proton blaster and threw it as far as he could into the woods, well aware that such advanced weaponry could not only be keyed to a specific user, but also set to incapacitate anyone else who tried. Ignoring the copious amount of blood Steven next wrapped his fingers around the man’s neck, disconnecting the helmet and sending it to join the rifle.
//”The killer’s partner is on his way. You do not have much time,” Akula’s measured thoughts sounded in Steven’s head.
Steven gave no response as his eyes scanned the twitching body for anything else that could be of tactical value, quickly settling on a stout carbon weave belt supporting a conventional sidearm, a hunting knife and extra ammunition. Unbuckling the release Steven pulled the belt free, using the same motion to turn his body and send him back towards the relative safety of his firing position. As he ran he caught a brief glimpse of Akula, watching over the situation from a vantage point on top of the rock pile a second before the alpha wolf turned and vanished into the trees. Steven had one focus, cover, since at this point being spotted was tantamount to death. The sound of metal on stone and snapping brush began to register in Steven’s ears as he launched himself onto the rocks, managing to scramble over and out of sight just as the second mercenary appeared.
“Lech!” the American mercenary cried in stunned disbelief as he looked down at his fallen comrade from behind the safety of a red tinted armored face plate.
Making a cursory sweep of the area for threats, the trembling man dropped to one knee allowing his weapon to hang limply from its strap as he reached back to his pack for a first aid kit.
“I got you...don’t worry...I’ll get you back on your feet.”
Some distance away a pair of yellow eyes lined up two small pieces of steel creating a straight line that extended out to a point on Lech’s forehead. The trigger was pulled, a cartridge ignited and a 120 grain lead and copper projectile was sent speeding toward the target. As the second mercenary reached out a helping hand, the back of his friend’s head exploded in a shower of black bio polymer and red skull fragments.
“No!” the gore splattered man screamed as he instinctively scrambled away from the slumped carcass of his partner, his eyes wide with terror. “NO!!”
Stumbling to his feet like a prizefighter who had just been knocked to the mat, the remaining mercenary lifted his blaster first firing a round or two into the air before managing to concentrate the remainder of his fire in the direction the fatal gunshot. All at once everything around Steven was exploding as miniature matter-antimatter reactions hewed great hunks out of the rock pile that had presented such an impervious facade just moments before. Pinning his ears flat to block out each successive concussion, Steven pressed himself to the rocks, appearing to hide under his backpack as a helpless whimper escaped his extended lupine lips.
“I’ll kill you, you bastard! I’ll KILL YOU! YOU HEAR ME?!” the shorter mercenary screamed.
The quiet mountain west hillside was now a seething cauldron of swirling dust, chunks of yellow rock blasted high into the air now returning to earth with lethal velocity. His eyes tight shut and his arms trying to shield his head, Steven felt paralyzed by the sudden and unexpected onslaught.
//”Run! Run to me! Straight ahead...run NOW!”
The voice in Steven’s head was reassuring and authoritative. It was the kick that the human mind needed to re-engage its gears and overcome the gap in its well laid plan. Rolling over to get his legs under him, Steven collected the gear, dug in his claws and began to propel his anthro body in the direction the voice commanded with an awkward four legged scramble. Crashing through the brush with dirt and debris raining all around, Steven managed to make it around another dip in the terrain where Akula stood waiting, the loyalty to his friend just barely overriding his instinctual desire to flee.
//”Akula, we need a way out of here!” Steven mentally screamed as a nearby pile tree exploded into a shower of splinters.
Steven had been generally aware that the Blue Ridge wolves had an advantage repelling invaders on their own territory, but he had yet to personally experience the full extent of the advantage until he was running for his life behind the tail of the alpha. Breaking out from the patch of forest, Steven was alarmed to find an open space devoid of cover until Akula vanished into an erosion channel that completely hid them from view. Although the air was no longer filled with explosions, the wolf kept on going, twisting and turning, moving through trees and tall grass, scrambling over rocks and along gullies until finally Akula stopped, only slightly less exhausted from the effort than his two legged companion.
//"I believe...we are well clear of the danger."
"OOooouuugh," Steven wheezed as he collapsed on the ground near the feral wolf. //"I think the adrenaline just wore off. Come on Akula, you gotta get up and help me carry some of this shit cause I am just dead."
//"Every time...I get hands...I am expected....to carry things," Akula panted , the exertion of the extended sprint apparent even in his thought speech.
"Biped’s burden," Steven replied, reaching out to scratch the wolf between the ears as they, along with the rest of his furry companion, began to grow in size. "Thanks for pulling me out of there. I just...froze up..."
Rising up onto his digitigrade hind legs, Akula braced himself against a tree until the shift was complete. After a quick function's check Akula picked up the messenger bag filled with his share of the survival gear.
"Here...before you put that on you should see if this fits," said Steven, thrusting the black leather gun belt in Akula's direction. "It's only fitting for a pack leader to have his own sidearm."
Akula looked at the folded belt being offered to him then back up at Steven, an intense look of unease in his eyes.
//"I do not think that I am comfortable..."
"Akula, this shit weighs like ten pounds and like it not you have a set of hands so that means you get a weapon. I'll show you how to use it, just like the rifle."
//"I watched you use the kill stick friend Steven. I watched you let that man suffer just so you could kill him later in front of the other one."
//”You told me yourself that wolves are not cruel, yet when you used a human weapon you became cruel. Therefore I do not want a human weapon.”
Combined with his acute fatigue from the long run the thought of having to disillusion his friend and companion made Steven physically ill, prompting him to close his eyes and take a few deep breaths until the feeling passed.
“Everything I did back there I did for a reason. The second killer could have healed the first after I left and if I killed him immediately metal suits like that can be rigged to explode. Also,” Steven paused for another breath, “also by killing him in the way that I did I made his partner fearful and angry. He will now be more likely to make mistakes, furthering our advantage.”
Akula just proceeded to stare at Steven, his eyes speaking louder than words.
“What I did, I did as a human. I don’t have to be proud of my actions as long as they get results. The time for judgment can come after everybody is safe,” Steven continued as he met Akula’s gaze with equal force, unwilling to back down. “A wise man once said that in order to do good one might have to engage in evil. Therefore…I must ask you, Akula, to take the gun and stand ready to defend those that can’t defend themselves.”
Akula averted his eyes away from Steven, whimpering slightly and reaching out to pull the bundle of leather and steel away from his friend’s hands. The alpha then stood there quietly as Steven helped him to fit the belt around his bare furry waist.
“You look good,” Steven remarked as he stepped back to look Akula over, “very professional.”
//"Thank you," said Akula as he slowly ran his fingers over the black leather until it reached the holster, //"I think I feel what you call 'professional' as well, although I think this belt would work better with pants."
"A lot of canids wear a type of shorts. They come with a tail hole and I think they are shift capable. If you want I can pick you up a..."
Steven was cut off by the sound of distant howling. Akula's ears perked up as he mentally translated the message, his tail beginning to wag as it continued on.
//"The remaining intruder is following his own tracks! We have won!"
"We have won the battle, but the war goes on," Steven stated as he pulled out his phone. "Akula, we need to keep him under surveillance. Order the pack to maintain the circle and the howling, but they are to stay out of sight at all costs."
//"Understood. When the pack reaches the edge of our territory I will have them..."
"We will need to maintain contact for as long as it takes to eliminate the threat. An elk will soon forget which pack pursued it...humans will remember and will return."
//"We cannot leave the territory and our guest undefended."
"Agreed, when the time comes we will choose a smaller group to pursue the intruder while the rest stay behind," said Steven, reorganizing his backpack and rile. "Come on, if the killer is retreating we'll need to move quickly if we want to keep up."
//"Do you hear that Steven?"
“Does it look like I have pathetic human ears?” Steven snarked as he directed his attention where Akula was indicating.
//”I believe it is the flying thing. The one from before.”
"Yup. I was expecting our little drone friend to return.”
//”There’s a tree over there we can hide under.”
“Not this time. I want our prey to know exactly where we are,” Steven growled as he walked further out into a small clearing, pulling the rifle from his shoulder and chambering a round. “He’s going to see me and he won’t be able to resist having a closer look at the man who killed his friend.”
A few seconds later the saucer shaped surveillance drone buzzed over the clearing, banking into a graceful curve and dropping altitude to get closer to the pair of bipedal wolves. Holding his rifle low Steven’s predatory eyes tracked the small craft until he suddenly raised the rifle to his shoulder and opened fire. The mini-UAV immediately broke into evasive maneuvers, but it was too late as a bullet ripped a hole through several vital components, sending the small machine tumbling to the ground.
“How...” Akula remarked, forgetting himself using his real voice.
“Little trick I learned from a feline. Only cost me about a $1000 worth of ammunition to master.”
//”I seriously hope that you have not given the long cats the power to speak and reason as well!” Akula said with some alarm. //”They are manipulative and creepy!”
“You call every animal that doesn’t live in a pack ‘creepy’ Akula and no, they learned to adapt to human civilization without needing an uplift.”
//”I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that Friend Steven.”
After playfully sticking his tongue out at Akula, Steven began to run downhill in the direction of the mercenary’s last reported location with his friend following closely behind. They were leaving the rougher terrain of hills and valleys and moving into a relatively flat expanse alongside the river where an ancient lake had once deposited sediment. Years ago the area had hosted one of the countless small family ranches that permeated the old west , but now it was just a large expanse of grass and scrub a couple of miles long.
//”Hidalgo and Smoke are located at the site of the old human home. They say the intruder is traveling just inside the trees at the edge of the wide-open, however our territory ends just beyond,” Akula spoke as he ran slightly behind Steven as the pair began to also circle around the bottomland to avoid exposing themselves.
“Why did you end your territory here? The park service isn’t aware of any other packs in the area,” Steven asked.
//“Our territory is that which we can mark and patrol. Beyond this wide-open the hills become much steeper.”
Steven suddenly raised his hand, signaling Akula to stop as he pulled out his computing device.
“We’re thinking about this wrong. Hidalgo and Smoke are the only ones tracking out ahead of the Merc and if the terrain becomes less passable he might not only be able to get away, but could also set up an ambush if there are bottlenecks.”
//"We will not be able to catch him ourselves. I am beginning to tire and there is little chance any of the pack could drive him back towards us like less capable prey," Akula added.
"We need to figure out where he is going and attack that location. This chase is getting us nowhere."
//"There is little I can add in that regard Steven."
"If someone is running away they are either running to help or running to escape. Would Hidalgo or Smoke have noticed the presence of a vehicle at the old ranch? Such vehicles may not be visible."
//"We can see with our noses. Had the intruders been at the old ranch Hidalgo and Smoke would have smelled it."
Zooming out on his device Steven switched to the map view. "I don't see any roads or vehicle trails in the target's direction of travel. No way these people came here on foot so they either have some sort of portal device or they have a skyship stashed somewhere. Seeing as there is nothing we can do to stop this guy from reaching a portal our best course of action must be to assume he is running to a ship."
//"If the intruder reaches his skyship he will surely use it to try to kill us."
"Fuck, this is going to kill my battery life," Steven grumbled as he activated his phone's full AI processing capability. "Little Hector, identify all likely spacecraft landing zones, 100 through 220 degrees compass, 5 mile radius."
Steven could feel his phone getting noticeably hot as it processed his voice command and then began to churn through the locally stored topographic information. One by one yellow pins appeared on the map in an arc ahead of their current position. As the process finished Steven adjusted the zoom and the layer display before handing his device to Akula.
“Look at the indicated locations and the intruder’s path of escape. Do any of them seem likely as a place for him to hide a skyship?”
The anthro stared awkwardly at the screen, holding the device gingerly in one hand as he swiped the view around with his opposite forefinger.
//”Many of these places I have never been to.”
“Because they are hard to reach from here correct? That means you can focus on the places you have been. The intruder is on foot just like we are so hopefully the same conditions will apply.”
Akula continued to poke about on the phones touch screen as Steven looked on, well aware that with each passing second the mercenary was getting further and further away. Suddenly the alpha began to wag vigorously as he repeatedly tapped a claw down hard on the screen.
//”There! He is going there!”
“How do you know?” Steven asked, quickly pulling his phone away, and inspecting the satellite image.
//”We call it the Quiet Grass. We go there to drink water that comes from the ground. There is only one way in, a large open area in the middle and rocks all around go so high they block the sun.”
Zooming in Steven identified a small stream running from the isolated depression as it ran through a twisting cut in the ridgeline on its way down to the larger river by the abandoned ranch.
“It looks like the intruder is going to take the route along the stream here. Is there a way to go directly over the top of the ridgeline? We could get to the clearing ahead of man and set a trap.”
//”Yes, it is possible but the ground is steep and rocky. Marin and I always lead the pack along the stream.”
“It looks like,” Steven paused a second to check the color code of which wolf pair were patrolling the area, “Conan and Yellow Fang are on top of the ridge already. Tell them to meet us there and have Hidalgo and Smoke shadow the intruder from behind along the stream.”
Akula gave Steven a worried look as he mentally parsed Steven’s instructions.
“I know, but sometimes you go to fight with the soldiers you have, not the soldiers you want.”
As had been the case several times over the course of his journey, a several hundred foot tall ridgeline separated Steven from where he needed to be. While scrambling up the near vertical slope and loose rock scrabble on the near side was both difficult and exhausting, getting back down the other side proved to be far more of a challenge. Neither Steven nor Akula were the most sure footed in their anthro forms, which combined with the weight and placement of their gear, caused more than a few close calls as the pair worked to avoid having their potential energy abruptly transformed into kinetic. Eventually they entered into the late day shade of the bowl where Steven quickly identified the large clearing that appeared to be the remains of a silted in beaver pond.
“I hope we’re not too late,” Steven remarked as he jumped down off the last rock and into a patch of tall mountain grass immediately before another thunderclap from an anti-proton detonation rolled across the landscape.
//”That came from some distance away. I believe that Smoke and Hidalgo are succeeding in their efforts to distract the intruder.”
“We still don’t have much time. He’s going to give up in a moment and just make a run for his ship. With that power suit he could probably outpace anyone in the pack if he went all out.”
//”I smell Conan and Yellow Fang,” Akula observed, pausing for a moment to kneel down.
“Good, we’re almost there,” said Steven.
The trees were thicker in both the secluded valley and the backside of the ridgeline. The northern exposure had prevented some of the grass and shrubs from turning completely brown after the long dry summer, which made the pushing through them a bit easier on the fur. After a few hundred yards the vegetation began to thin out and the open clearing could be observed.
//”I do not see any skyships,” Akula dryly pointed out.
”Just you wait,” Steven replied, switching to mind speech in order to call ahead to the other pair of wolves. //”Conan! Yellow Fang! Come out and greet us!”
A moment later, Conan emerged from the opposite side of the clearing with the noticeably smaller juvenile standing slightly behind. The body language of the pair was indicating that both were highly nervous and on edge. Steven stepped forward, intent on reassuring the two wolves by meeting them half way.
//”Conan, do you have anything to report?”
//”The Quiet Grass now stinks of humans,” Conan growled with a subtext that consisted of more flight than fight.
//”Well, I think we’re in the right place. There’s just the matter of the ship...” said Steven as he scanned his eyes across the seemingly empty expanse of tall grass and short trees that took up about the same size as a large city block. “The trick is to see what wants not to be seen.”
Bending over to pick up a damp ball of mud, Steven hauled his arm back and let loose, flinging the ball in a graceful arc before it came to an abrupt splat in mid air. Akula and the two other wolves looked at Steven in awe as the part time human stood there looking pleased with himself.
//”How...” Akula began.
//”The skyship is cloaked, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still see the damaged it caused when it landed. Look,” Steven continued, pointing to various locations around the levitating splotch of mud,” there, there and there. Those leaves were bent back when the ship landed.”
The wolves stared into the clearing for a few moments before the young wolf spoke up.
“If our prey were able to become invisible like that...”
//“Please don’tgive anyone any ideas,” Steven groaned. //“At this rate I wouldn’t put it past some idealistic group of hippies attempting that as a way to eliminate predation.”
//”So now we wait?” Akula asked, his hand going to the automatic pistol on his hip.
//”No, we prepare. Even with two boomsticks, if we open fire at any distance we will be unlikely to disable our prey before he kills us both with his thunder gun.”
//”You know making up names will never help us use the right ones,” whined Conan.
//Conan!” Akula snapped as Steven started running towards the edge of the Quiet Grass where the enemy would soon appear.
//”Follow me...we have no time left to waste!”
The clearing between the two ridgelines was shaped roughly like a tennis racket with a small stream running from a body of water in the bulbous end towards an outlet at the throat. When the water level in the depression had been higher, the outfall had been split between two channels with a mound of rock between them. Since that time the stream had cut itself deeply into the right hand route leaving the left to serve as a convenient entrance into the clearing for wolves and humans alike. From the point where the stream left the depression it ran down the middle of a steep ravine choked with rocks and trees until it eventually met the larger river. Somewhere behind the veil of trees Hidalgo and Smoke were playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the mercenary, buying Steven precious time to enact his plan.
//”If the guns can’t hurt this metal man what are we going to do?” Conan pestered as he ran behind Steven’s heels.
//”We need to use trickery and be bold. Remember we have the advantage. He is scared. He is angry. However if he is allowed to reach that ship then everything will change. He will kill us and kill the pack even if that means leveling the entire forest.”
Reaching the choke point Steven stopped and surveyed his surroundings, his brain methodically cataloguing every resource available to him. Rocks could deliver blunt force trauma, but were impractical to launch with the tools at hand. A pitfall type trap would surely catch the man unaware, but there was neither time nor tools to construct one. Then Steven remembered to look up and a second later he was digging through his backpack.
//”The tree, that’s what we’ll use.” Steven stated as he handed the hand ax to Akula.
//”The dead one?” the wolf asked, pointing to a 50 foot tall pine tree devoid of needles and looking like the dictionary definition of fire hazard.
//”Yes! Start chopping so that it falls across the pathway. I’ll help you push.”
//”A tree won’t stop that metal man for long,” Yellow Fang pointed out.
//”It will stop him for long enough. Fang, can you go down the trail far enough that you can give us some warning when the intruder approaches? You cannot howl so make sure you have enough time to run back.”
The young wolf acknowledged the order silently and took off into the forest with some trepidation. Meanwhile rotten bits of wood were flying everywhere as Akula put everything he had into chopping down the tree.
//”You need to tell me the rest of your plan,” Akula mentally panted as Conan watched the two anthros working together.
//”It’s a light version of something we call the Kansas City Shuffle. We use this tree to create what looks like an ambush. The prey will notice and act accordingly, but he will be wrong about what the trap actually is.”
//”What is the real trap then?” Akula asked as the tree began to creak.
//”Look how low the trail is here as it leaves the Quiet Grass. When the man reacts to the bait trap you and I will leap on him from the side and above. Up close I can shoot him between his metal if you can take him to the ground,” Steven explained, pushing harder on the 18 inch thick trunk as the ax blade bit further and further into the heartwood.
//”I am alpha of the Blue Ridge pack. Two legs or four I can take down prey,” Akula snarled.
With a sharp crack the remainder of the trunk gave way sending the remains of the dead crashing down across the pathway, creating a palisade of sharp grey branches.
//”Perfect,” Steven grinned, //but this is only half the trick. Someone will need to bait the trap or the killer will never believe it.”
//”Bait?” Akula asked, suddenly looking worried.
Steven took a deep breath. //”When the hunter focuses on his prey he is[]blind[]to[]being[]hunted[]himself. Someone must stay there, behind that tangle of roots just behind the where the log fell. It will look like an ambush and the man will open fire. That is when he can be taken down.”
//"What if you assessment is wrong?" Akula pointed out. //"Humans are notoriously unpredictable."
//"All I know is that if I were in his position I'd be having a tough time keeping my emotions in check. Still, we'll just need to be ready to think on our feet."
//”S-steven?" said Conan, his mental voice small and frightened. //"I-I know what you're going to ask and I...I’ll do it."
Akula looked ready to say something, but Steven silenced him with a glance before kneeling down to look the feral wolf in the eyes. //"You must not run Conan, even if the killer starts shooting his weapon at you. It will be loud and the explosions will send out hot bits, but if you run he will not only kill you, but move so that we cannot take him down.”
Conan nodded hesitantly as several more rumbles of proton-anti-proton detonations echoed through the valley.
//”You have to trust us Conan. We’re still a pack, so even if you are by yourself you are not alone. Now,” said Steven, getting back onto his feet and pointing to where the log and the terrain combined to create a small pocket of cover, //“you stay right here. You will be safe if you stay right there.”
Trembling, Conan got into position, looking back at the two anthros for confirmation that he was doing it right.
//”That’s good, just stay down and listen for our commands. Come on Akula, we need to get into position.”
Moving swiftly up into the forest to the left hand side of the trail, Steven and Akula looked for a hiding place that would give them an obstruction free lane from which they could spring their ambush. The combination of dense evergreen vegetation and exposed rocks made the hiding part easy, but was providing hostile to the notion of a running start.
//”If you disturb the area too much the prey will become aware of our presence,” Akula scolded as Steven tossed aside a rather large fallen tree branch. //”The cover here is already thin.”
//”The armour lets the mercenary see heat. We’ll need to stay behind these rocks here until he starts firing. The run up will give us greater speed, but snapping wood might cost us the element of surprise.”
//”I hope your little half-truth about Conan being ok if he stays put will not be exposed as such,” Akula projected, lowering the strength of his mental voice such that only Steven could receive the message.
//”I am the one who will be responsible if anything goes wrong,” Steven replied as he unfolded the blade type bayonet and fitted it to the muzzle of his rifle with an unsteady hand.
//”Are you ok?”
//”No. Fixing bayonets is a universal signal for ‘bad idea’.”
Akula smiled and patted Steven on the back. //”Just remember that every time I want a proper meal I have to jump onto a 1200 pound wild beast with spikes growing out of its head and bite down on its neck until it stops moving. This prey might be covered in metal, but at least he lacks the pointy bits!”
The two friends’ quiet moment was suddenly interrupted by the sound of paws on gravel and Yellow Fang’s excited cries in thought speech as he ran up and around the ambush site, quickly locating the two alphas by scent.
//”The man...the metal man is only a little bit behind me!”
//”Thank you Yellow Fang,” Steven nodded, “now go back a safe distance and watch Conan’s back. If he gets in trouble call out and get him to safety.”
The young wolf nodded and took off back towards the clearing while just a few seconds later the unmistakable sound of clanking metal reached the sensitive ears of the two anthros as they lay in wait. Fully encased in his armoured shell, the mercenary had been left to stew in his own fear and paranoia as he desperately tried to reach his ship. With his sensory augmentations turned all the way up, every slight movement or sound was perceived by the man’s adrenaline soaked brain as a potential threat and as such he was constantly maneuvering his weapon which in turn slowed his progress along the barely passable trail. Once again a pair of mournful howls of engulfed the man, prompting to stop dead and spin around in a futile attempt to catch his pursuers in his weapon’s sights.
Like the rainbow at the end of a storm, the bright glow signifying a large clearing caught the mercenary’s attention, buoying his spirits. The proximity to his ship breathed new life into his legs, which by this point were aching badly despite the suit’s power assist. Bounding over logs and boulders the suited assassin suddenly stopped himself short as a curtain of dead pine boughs stretched across the pathway some twenty-five feet in front of him. In an instant his weapon was once again at his shoulder, sweeping from side to side in anticipation of an attack.
//”Conan...” Steven projected in the direction of his scared subordinate, “growl...like you mean it!”
A second later a rather half-hearted, yet sufficiently mean sounding lupine growl wafted up from behind the impromptu barricade. Its location was instantly triangulated by the power suit’s sensory systems displaying a small white box on the mercenary’s heads up display.
“Think you could fool me again you furry freak?!”
The mercenary didn’t think twice about pulling the trigger, first at the white box in his HUD and then several more times along the length of the tree converting the mass of wood into sawdust and flying splinters. As bits and pieces of the former tree crashed down around them Steven saw Akula’s legs tense up and with a quick flick of his tail he was off, digging in his claws and launching himself towards the edge of the depressed trail. The mercenary was already starting to move forward into the swirl of dust as a six foot tall image of death leaped out from behind and drove its full weight down upon him. Catching his prey by surprise Akula’s 250 pound weight drove the augmented human down to the ground, pinning his weapon under his upper chest. Now evenly matched, the two began to struggle, the wolf trying to wrap up the human’s arms, the human trying everything he could to break free. There was no time for reasoned dialogue or even uttered curses, both creatures letting out primal cries as each fought for their lives.
It only took seconds for the prey’s high tech shell to gain him the upper hand, first managing to get one hand free and next positioning it to roll himself over and grind the vicious canid onto the rocks below. Then from out of the dust came another inhuman monster. Like the first it leapt onto the struggling mercenary’s backside, pinning its prey firmly to the ground, but this creature was armed with more than tooth and claw. Mustering as much force as his new body could generate, Steven drove the bayonet blade through one of the soft flexible joints in the armor and deep into the man’s right shoulder. With the muzzle properly aligned and sitting at point blank range Steven pulled the trigger and sent a high velocity round to rip apart the soft flesh and bone that lay under the hard metal.
The man howled in pain as his vision went temporarily white. Even with one arm now useless he continued to fight using all the strength available to him. Pulling out the bloody blade, Steven wasted no time plunging it down into the left hand shoulder, waiting slightly for the man to scream out before pulling the trigger again. About to pass out from the pain, the mercenary’s violent movements faded away allowing Steven to pull out his bayonet blade again and yank the anti-proton rifle from under the man’s body, before throwing it far into the woods.
“You can let go now Akula,” Steven panted, “I’ve got him disarmed.”
Slowing letting go of the intruder’s waist, Akula looked up at Steven with his bright blue eyes. //”Is it over?”
Steven kicked the body over onto its back prompting more howls of pain. “This is over, but I doubt we’ll know how much else is over for some time. Alright, let’s see who this asshole is.”
Steven knelt down and methodically worked the mercenary’s helmet free revealing a face that was seething with rage.
“You fucking animals...”
“Yeah, yeah, why don’t you tell me your name?”
“Fuck you! You killed my friend. You fucking shot him in the face you soulless monster!”
Steven stood there completely gobsmacked by the mercenary’s almost complete lack of self-awareness.
“Why don’t you just get it over with you fucking animal! You’d better kill me now because I swear to God that I will spend the rest of my days making sure you pay for what you did to Lech. You and your mongrel pack.”
Straddling the mercenary’s torso Steven reached down and hauled the man up into a sitting position where he could press his black canine nose right up into the human’s face.
“Before you go off plotting your revenge,” Steven hissed, making sure to keep his lips pulled back to show off his sharp white teeth, “I want to make sure that you know exactly where to lay the blame.”
Slowly the thick grey fur on Steven's body began to recede, his long muzzle drawing back into his face as his tall muscular frame began to shrink down into a more traditionally human shape. Dropping the hired gun down onto his backside as some of the strength left his arms, Steven maintained his menacing posture as form fitting clothing appeared to replace the fur.
"The only animals here are you...and me."
Taking his rifle firmly in both hands, Steven immobilized mercenary's left thigh with his boot and pointed the tip of his bayonet at one of the soft flexible joints on the man's hip.
"Go to hell..."
Before Steven could thrust the blade home, a furry hand clamped onto his wrist and pulled the muzzle of the rifle in a safe direction.
"Wolves are not cruel," Akula spoke, his voice strong and purposeful, his bright blue eyes piercing the human's very soul.
Steven only offered token resistance before averting his gaze and handing the rifle to the Blue Ridge alpha.
Exhaling, Steven handed the rifle to Akula, his hand still trembling. "Cover him, I'm going to check on Conan."
//"He is injured. I do not wish him to die so that he may face justice in accordance with the rules."
"He'll be fine. Might need some new arms, but no reason those can't be grown at taxpayer expense."
The dust from the weapons fire was finally beginning to settle as Steven walked back through the remains of the barricade, kicking aside a few chunks of smoking wood as he went. Suddenly his heart sank as he saw what appeared to be the limp form of Conan lying on the soft grass some distance from where he had been hiding. Breaking into a run Steven quickly made it to the wolf’s side, joining Yellow Fang who was already on the scene.
//“Conan’s fine, but he said he was having trouble hearing then kind of stopped talking to me.”
Unable to thought-speak Steven reached out a hand and began to slowly stroke the wolf along his backside, taking note of the large areas of singed fur and several small patches of blood. “I don’t see any major injuries, but he’s shaking like a leaf. Fang, can you stay with him? I need to deal with the guy who did this.”
//”Sure. W-what do you want me to do?”
“Just be there. Let him know that it’s over and he’ll be ok,” Steven sighed as he tried the comfort the wolf with a neck scratch before getting up to run back to Akula and the mercenary.
“He’s fine, just a little shell shocked. I think one of the blasts tossed him back a bit. When help arrives I’ll make sure he gets checked out by the medics,” Steven replied, meeting the man’s glare with one of equal intensity.
Bending down Steven began to go through the gear attached to the mercenary’s armor. Like the first the man was wearing a traditional style gun belt carrying a pistol, knife, plastic restraint devices and extra ammunition. The other cargo pouches yielded ration bars, an electronic cigarette, a flask of liquor and two sleek, black personal electronic devices, one of which resembled the one Steven himself was carrying.
“Hey, this phone,” said Steven, glancing u from the screen locked device. “How do I unlock it?”
The mercenary scoffed and shook his head prompting Steven to shrug slightly and dig down into his other pocket for his identification card.
“Alright, if that’s the way you feel. Here, why don’t you read this?”
At first the mercenary made a show of averting his gaze, but soon curiosity got the better of him. Reading the card the man's eyes went as wide as dinner plates the instant his brain decoded the meaning of the letters.
“Yeah, it says Guardian Service,” Steven sneered. “While I know there’s not much I can do to make you talk, I am confident that my boss, Lady Ethera Windchaser, will be able to employ some much more...persuasive, techniques.”
Steven was quiet for a moment, watching the man as he grappled with the realization of just how much trouble he was in.
"Now, you're going to tell me the unlock code or I swear to god Lady Ethera will pull your soul out of your body, extract all of the information she needs and then leave you to watch the world go by for the rest of eternity from the comfort of an inanimate figurine!"
"Great, now if you don't mind I'll just hold this close to your head while I type in your code. Feel free to stop me if it's going to set off a booby trap."
"Are you fucking crazy! Who do you think I am?!" the man exclaimed, genuinely confused by Steven's behavior. "I just needed a few extra credits. They said it would be easy. C-class three politics."
"Thank you...Kurt," said Steven, reading the man's name off the screen as the device came to life, "for sharing your thoughts on the relative value of my Earth. Since you have been so, forthcoming, I guess there is no need to involve my, superiors, but I am sure that Mr. Peterson has friends far more powerful than a simple Neocorn Guardian. "
Kurt's lower lip began to tremble.
"Oh yes. Mr. Peterson is very much alive and well."
"I-I have information. I'll tell you everything I know!"
"I don't think that was ever in doubt...Kurt."
Standing back up Steven began to browse through the device to see if it had any information that might be tactically relevant. "Ah, I see you have bars. Pretty clever using cryptographic jamming. I hope you won't mind if I make a call on your phone."
Tapping to open one of the recent documents, the snarky smile suddenly drained off of Steven's face. “Fucking hell…”
//”What is wrong my friend?”
Steven could only hold the device out for Akula to take into his hands.
//”Who is Jason Landry?”
“That’s Shy Coyote and all his personal information,” Steven snorted, making a fist and pounding it into his other hand. “I told him...I toldhim this was going to blow up in his face, but he fucking didn’t listen. It is just pure luck that these fucks went after Peterson first and I was able to stop them. I swear when I get back I am going to explain a few things to…”
Steven suddenly noticed that Akula was no longer paying attention and was instead focused on the screen, a menacing growl bubbling up from deep within his throat.
“Hey, hey, tell me what’s wrong.”
Steven had never seen a look of murderous rage from a wolf before, but the one Akula presented made the human’s blood run cold. Thrusting the electronic device back into Steven’s grasp the alpha turned his attention to the helpless prisoner who was staring aimlessly off into the forest. Glancing down Steven saw that Akula had scrolled to the next page which had a photo of Rebecca and the Blue Mountain rescue.
“You hunt Rebecca?” Akula roared, the idea that the individual before him had dared to consider his caregiver prey evidently crossing a line. “You attack my home?!”
“H-hey, I-I just did what I was paid to…”
Akula fumbled with the rifle, discharging a round in the process, the bullet shattering the ground just inches from Kurt’s head.
“Ahhhhh! Stop! Please!” the man cried, trying to push himself away with his legs.
“Akula! NO! We need him!” Steven bellowed, swooping in from behind to pull the enraged canine away. “He’s the only way to punish those responsible!”
“Rebecca….my home….the pack…” Akula panted, the fire gradually facing from his eyes.
“Tell me when I can let you go,” Steven spoke into the wolf’s large ears. “Can I let you go now?”
Akula didn’t respond, the anger still seething within him, but slowly Steven watched the hairs on the alpha’s neck gradually relax and after a few minutes he unilaterally released the large man-shaped wolf. Still breathing heavily Akula turned to face the human, holding the rifle out before him.
Steven nodded and took hold of the weapon, briefly checking back to make sure the prisoner hadn’t tried to use the distraction to his advantage.
“What about the pistol? Do you want to give me that as well?”
“No,” came the reply, the alpha shaking his head. “I keep. Protect my pack.”
Steven sighed, but nodded,acknowledging the cost of his victory.
The evening twilight was spilling over the high walls of the small, isolated valley as a sizable number of police and government agents milled about drinking coffee and taking photographs of the now de-cloaked space vessel that sat, insect-like, in the middle of the grassy clearing. High in the sky a mix of helicopters and jumpcraft buzzed about, some waiting for a place to land, others looking to justify their particular organization’s budget of flight hours. A few of the investigators were interviewing various members of the Blue Ridge pack who had arrived, pair by pair, at the Quiet Grass in the hour after Steven had managed to call out and summon help. Somewhere in the distance, an equally inefficient group of emergency personnel had accumulated around the crash site of his orbital shuttle.
Out of view at the far end of the clearing Steven, in his human shape, sat silently on a fallen tree, a lightweight blanket supplementing his form fitting attire. Every so often he would look up to make sure that none of the detectives were giving were giving the wolves a hard time, but given his rather liberal display of Guardian credentials there had been no problems. Sitting there, Steven had pushed the day’s events out of his mind, choosing instead to focus on such mundane topics as getting a ride home, confronting Shy, protecting the rescue and making sure that someone went after the responsible parties. Wrapped up in these and other concerns Steven didn’t notice the approach of a strangely beautiful, light haired woman wearing black jeans and a zipped up brown leather jacket.
“Steven Cassatt?” she asked, trying to sound friendly.
“I’ve already given my statement to a couple of the other investigators. It’s probably easiest if you just reviewed the recording because honestly I’m just not feeling up to going through everything again,” he replied, barely bothering to look up at who he assumed was a plain clothed investigator.
“Oh, no, I’m not here to take another statement. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Are you sure? I can see your hand is shaking a bit,” she observed.
Steven quickly covered one hand with the other, then moved hide both under the blanket. “It’ll pass. I’m still a bit amped up from the adrenaline.”
“You might want to take some of these,” the woman continued, pulling out a small white plastic pill bottle and offering it to Steven. “You’ve given your statement and I don’t really think there’s going to be that much of an investigation. I’ve been through this sort of thing before and they help a lot if you take them right after?”
“Are you some sort of psychologist?” Steven asked as he took the bottle.
“Just standard procedure,” the woman smiled.
Steven looked down at the label then pushed the pills back at the woman. “I’m not taking[]Repressitol.”
“That’s not what that’s called...”
“I know what it is, I’ve used it before and I’m not using it ever again. I’m done with that shit.”
The woman shrugged, sitting down next to Steven despite his unwelcoming body language.
“Suit yourself, but I’ve always found it to be a good way to relieve stress,” she replied, opening the bottle and shaking a few shiny squares of gum into her palm before popping them into her mouth.
Steven stared at the woman, quickly getting the drift that something was amiss.
“What...” she continued, “You thought I was offering you a powerful drug designed to inhibit long term memory formation?”
Steven shot the woman a quizzical glance. “Is this some sort of test?”
"Of course it’s a test and before I forget Shockwulf says hi."
Steven's eyes went wide as the woman's three words both threw him for a loop.
"Wait, you know Shockwulf?"
Serena shrugged. "You could say I'm his boss."
"His boss...? Oh! You’re that special forces android chick he had the interview with!” Steven exclaimed as he tried to remember past the events of the previous day. “Wow, I guess he got the job.”
“He did indeed and my name is Coronel Serena Hanford although being ‘that android chick’ is rather flattering seeing as how I am one of a trillion or so. Always nice to know one’s made an impression,” Serena smiled.
“I guess he must be busy with something really important seeing as he got you to come out and check on me,” Steven surmised. “I feel bad that you had to do that, but I really appreciate the effort. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised old Shock wanted to make sure I was holding up alright. He’s always been a bit protective.”
“Seeing as how they pumped him so full of your memories and personality traits would you expect anything different?”
Steven laughed. “No, I guess I wouldn’t. Still, I’d like to know how you found out about this mess so quickly. Not that I'm surprised," he quickly added, "I'm just interested in how exactly you folks managed it. My guess is that you have banks of helper AIs looking for any information that could adversely impact the performance of your soldiers. Am I right?”
“Yes, because we would totally do that,” Serena snarked, snorting slightly in bemusement. “Actually I was already in town looking for you when just about every law enforcement vehicle in the region started blasting down Route 12.”
“Looking for me? Why would you need me for anything? If it’s about Shock, those talent development guys said they had all the personally traits they needed.”
“I don’t need to harvest any more of you Steven. I wanted to meet the person who saved a Neocorn Guardian and a tank crew in the face of a superior enemy force.”
Steven suddenly went quiet, choosing to stare down at his feet as the excitement of hearing about Shock drained away from his face. “I suspect you are going to be disappointed. Shockwulf is the warrior. I was just along for the ride.”
“You were inducted into the Order of the Horn, you and Hector.”
“The Order of the Horn is crap,” Steven spat dismissively. “I looked it up online. It’s like a frickin participation award for rock stars and artists. Don’t get me wrong, it means the world to me that Ethera fought so hard so I could get it, but in all practicality the title and a credit wouldn’t buy me a cup of coffee...provided I was actually able to show it to people.”
Serena reached out and put her arm around the young man’s shoulders as she sensed Steven’s lingering resentment towards the Guardian service and the Unicorn nobility that were in charge of it.
“You know they are all different, right?”
“The Order of the Horn, the awards, they are all different depending on what you did,” Serena explained. “Did you ever take yours out of the box and look at the reverse side?”
“Sure, it was some unicorn stallion with a sword and a helmet. It was pretty cool, but like I said I can’t show it...”
“Like this?” Serena asked, pulling out a tablet with a Wikipedia page displayed on it.
Steven blinked and took hold of the tablet to get a better look. “Yeah, that’s the one.”
“Why don’t you read the caption.”
Not having the energy to protest Steven began to read the neutrally worded blurb aloud.
“The Order of the Horn for Valor is awarded for extreme acts of heroism in the face of the enemy. This division of the Order has only been awarded 14 times in the 600 years since the end of the Great Dragon War, with the most recent being made to two undisclosed re...recipients on the 87th day of Spring, 1247.”
Serena looked on as Steven stared down at the tablet in silence.
“D-Don’t you see? I didn’t fucking do anything.”
“Most people feel the exact same way. You have to...”
“No! This isn’t some, ‘oh, I was only doing my job’ bullshit. I literally didn’t do anything! Shockwulf saved Ethera...Shockwulf saved the tank crew. I was just meat filling out the suit. If anyone should know that it’s you Coronel because after all you hired him,” Steven snapped, his voice filled with a mix of anger, shame and regret. “All I did was almost die. I only got the damn award because I was weak.”
Steven’s admission left Serena dumbfounded, unsure if she should attempt to intervene herself or attempt to get the human some psychological treatment. Ultimately Serena figured that an overreaction would cause more harm than good and she should continue.
“You know, maybe...maybe, you might have a point if we were having this conversation over eggs and bacon in some diner, but don’t you know where you are? You just took down two mercenaries and saved the life of a very important person.”
“I was in the right place at the right time. I had every advantage and a whole pack of uplifted wolves to help me,” Steven protested. “If you’re trying to explain how basic competency is such an uncommon trait in the federation then we’re pretty much all fucked.”
“You’re claiming all that was just basic competency…really?” Serena remarked with an incredulous tone. “Let’s see, you rescued a man from a crashed shuttle and treated him for acute radiation poisoning. You correctly identified that it was an assassination attempt as well as the nature of the attempt. You organized a pack of feral uplifted wolves into guerilla fighting force, then used them to hunt down a superior enemy and then succeeded in killing or capturing two heavily armed and armoured soldiers using nothing more than a piece of shit Russian rifle that you found in a cave. Oh, yeah, and you accomplished all that without losing any of your forces. Basic competency my ass. I don’t know how Ethera found you, but you have a gift and that’s why those fucktards in Talent Development were so hot to steal it and put it into a nice easy to use package.”
Steven stared at Serena, trying to square what she said with what he felt from his own experiences. “I’m not lying when I say that Shockwulf did all that stuff that happened before, but, you know, Shockwulf was my character and with Hector’s help I got to play him. It didn’t feel like me at all, it felt like somebody else.”
“What do you think the Repressitol does?” Serena pointed out. “It’s not a ‘get out of PTSD free’ card. It disassociates you from your actions to the point where you didn’t feel that you did them. Hector clearly augmented your own abilities, but almost everything you chose to do was you.”
Steven sniffled a bit and tried to try his eyes with the blanket. “Hector and I worked as one. That’s why they made Shockwulf using Hector and bits of me. Even if I did learn a thing or two working for Ethera, Shockwulf is still the one you want. He’s just like me only better in every way.”
Serena sighed and tapped a few additional icons on her tablet. “I know exactly where you are coming from Steven. It's hard not to grow up as part of a race where personalities can be tweaked, memories altered and skills side loaded without occasionally questioning one's identity. Hell, the issue of humans syncing with AI's has long been a thorny one, especially when it comes to war crimes."
"Gestalt beings are considered their own person, at least in a lot of the cases that I found online," Steven offered before looking up at Serena. "Don't ask, I just thought it might be a useful thing to know."
"Well, I have some information that might obviate the need to call in either a lawyer or a philosopher. I was originally hoping not to have to show you this, but I think it is important for you to be fully aware of your relationship with the Shockwulf character."
“Let me guess, he's my father?"
“Just read the damn thing already,” Serena snapped, passing the device over.
Steven read down the page a little then looked up at the synthetic woman. “I don’t get it, this looks like a pet adoption agreement.”
“Friends4Life virtual companion, model...male wolf, name…Hec...” Steven abruptly stopped and stared at the tablet. "She...she just bought him? W-what the fuck is this?"
"It's a guardianship agreement, it's sort of like adopting a child, only you're adopting a fully sapient AI. As with any adoption, yes, there are fees involved."
Steven felt numb all over as his eyes scrolled down the document. "Ethera told me he was a combat support AI. All this document says is that he has 14 Human Equivalent Years of basic education and likes to play video games."
"I assume that means shooter type games. Adopting Hector would have involved interviews and such not captured on the paperwork."
“Oh Ethera, what did you do?” Steven replied, dropping his head into his hands.
“She purchased an immature companion AI to save money then turned him into an aim bot for your Shockwulf character.”
“Don’t you dare judge her,” Steven’s suddenly shot back, pointing a finger at the Coronel. “All she ever wanted to do was help people and the higher-ups gave her shit for resources. I mean...that's why she hired me. I was all the help she could afford.”
“Relax Steven, this isn’t an investigation,” said Serena calmly. “I’m simply trying to show you that Shockwulf was your character. He was the person that, deep down, you wanted to be. Hector may have helped you shoot straighter and move faster, but, for the most part, he wasn't the one controlling your actions or making the decisions. Simply looking at the things you are able to accomplish, even without the power suit, speaks to that fact."
Steven took a few moments to consider Serena's words, but the best he could manage was a shrug. "I appreciate the compliment, but that still doesn't change the fact that Shockwulf and I are now separate people. I have skills. He has the same skills. The only difference is he's a lot more durable."
"That's where you're wrong Mister Cassatt. You and Shockwulf may be similar, but you are not the same. At his core Shockwulf is still Hector and while he was intended to behave like your character he was also engineered to be a soldier that met the tactical needs of the Talent Development Office. As the head of SLIRT I am not used to making do with, and please excuse the term, knockoffs so I have come looking for the genuine article."
“Well I'm still not sure what you are looking for, but here I am.”
“I recently awarded a contract to one of the better Stamford Universities to set up an officer candidate school for what I am calling Technical Control in the Special Forces Command,” Serena explained. “Turns out the money was the easy part since now I am having to run around trying to recruit qualified candidates and naturally I’m looking for the best and the brightest. The best brains, the best judgment, the greatest capacity to lead. If what I’ve seen so far both from Shockwulf and from yourself is any indication of your ultimate potential then I’m eager to bring you on board my team.”
Steven blinked, completely unprepared for what amounted to a job offer.
“I...I don't know what to say to that. To begin with I suppose you’d want me to get upgraded since I'm not exactly equipped to go head to head with cybernetic space monsters.”
“You can if you want, but to be honest you are more valuable to me unaltered. My organization is absolutely full of synthetics of all types and constructions, but I have very few organic beings and diversity matters for more than just annual reports.”
“Score one for affirmative action,” Steven commented dryly. “So what is this going to do to my position with the Guardians? As much as I appreciate the honor of going through your officer school, working with Ethera is quite fulfilling. Although that assumes both Ethera and I will still have jobs to go back to.”
“Do I have to rattle off the 23 ways I could rig your assignment so that you can maintain both positions or can you just trust that whatever your desired work-work-life balance we’ll find a way to accommodate you...barring some sort of major alien invasion of course.”
“Yes, of course,” Steven nodded. “I’ll still need some time to think about it, but I want to make sure that the wolves here and all my friends are safe. As you may have noticed there is a full blown range war going on and nobody seems willing to step in and stop it.”
“Well, I can look into it, but I doubt I’ll need to. You see...when you save the life of a billionaire, it tends to fix a lot of problems,” Serena winked, getting to her feet.
“Yeah, well, I’ll believe that when I see it,” said Steven. ‘Now if you don’t mind me it looks like Akula is getting in a bit over his head with that news crew.”
"Don't stay too long. I have reservations for you and your family at one of the nicer steak places in town, on SLIRT of course. I'll be picking you up promptly at 8. The cops here have instructions to ensure that you are not late."
"Yes sir Colonel."
One Year later
Steven set his drink down on the small table as he sat back, watching the golden sunset as the smell of fresh lumber wafted up from the porch that wrapped around his two story mountain cabin. The open expanse in front of the new house was still looking a bit raw as the chipped up vegetation slowly melted back into the earth, gradually filling in the ruts left behind by the construction equipment. Despite the uneven footing Elvis, Mars and Hidalgo were engaged in a vigorous game of frisbee as they learned to master their new anthro bodies. Steven was content to simply enjoy what remained of the day when the sound of all terrain vehicles became apparent to his human ears. Looking down the long sloping gravel driveway, Steven saw two vehicles fast approaching and as the ATV's slowed to a stop he nodded in acknowledgement to the lead rider.
"I said I would be home by sunset," Akula smiled as he adjusted his gun belt.
"We got dinner to!" Shy exclaimed, taking off his coyote head and placing it on the seat of the ATV. "Call came in about a vehicle vs elk collision. Marin is bringing it back in the pickup."
The quiet mood slipping away Steven let out a bit of a sigh as he drained his beverage and stood up to stretch. "That's going to be several hundred pounds of meat there. Akula, do you want me to freeze the leftovers or smoke them."
"Freeze please, I have not yet tired of steaks"
"You haven't tired of coming to my house almost every night for dinner."
"Oh, it’s your house now?” Akula smiled as he walked up the newly stained front steps. "I believe the gift split ownership evenly between you and the pack."
“Yeah, well, better than being one of those people who wind up being tenants of a group of cats,” Steven smiled as he emptied the glass in front of him.
"I'm going to go put the rifle away, do either of you two want another drink?" Shy asked as he followed Akula up the stairs.
"Yeah, hit me up with another gin and tonic and change out of that damned fursuit, you're starting to smell a bit ripe," Steven remarked.
"I didn't hear Akula complaining."
The tall alpha slowly pulled the chain lanyard holding his gold Forest Service Ranger badge over his head and placed it on the table. "That's because I have learned to stay upwind of you."
"Touché," Shy mumbled as he slinked into the house.
Flashing a toothy lupine smile Akula sat down by the small porch table, gesturing for Steven to join him. "When do you have to leave again?"
"I've got another two weeks here. Just enough time to finish up all that crap I have to do in the basement and finish building the woodshed."
Getting comfortable in the chair Akula looked off toward the setting sun. “Several of the pack have debated the merits of a simplier lifestyle versus the sorts of responsibilities you and I have taken on. With how much attention they still need to fully acclimate to society I was wondering if it might not be better for everybody if you took some additional time off.”
“Opportunities don’t last forever Akula. A little pain now will let me have more flexibility in the future. Besides, you and Marin are doing a fine job without me, especially with the way you’ve been teaching Shy and Rex a thing or two.”
“I cannot understand why a superior being would willingly associate himself with the coyote,” Akula snarled. “Those creatures are beyond contempt, rejects from when the Creator first made us.”
“Last I checked, coyotes were thriving in human modified ecosystems while wolves...not so much,” Steven smirked.
“It is only because they cheat!”
“Still, thank you for allowing him to hang out here and taking him on patrol with you. Shy’s got a lot of enthusiasm that just needs to be properly directed.”
“So I noticed.”
Suddenly Conan burst out of the front door and onto the porch, his ears perked up and his tail wagging excitedly.
//”Steven! Akula! Come quick! You have to see the news!”
“What about?” Steven inquired.
“Just come! Hurry!!”
Not wanting to miss whatever was on both alphas shot up from the table and followed the smaller anthro wolf into the large first floor common area with a large view wall for movies and other media that several members of the pack had gathered around. On it one of the local Missoula reporters was speaking into her microphone at what appeared to be some sort of press conference.
“...and here is what Thomas Croft, former head of the rancher’s association, had to say.”
The camera cut to an older looking white man wearing a tan Stetson cowboy hat and a blue denim button down shirt with a bolo tie.
“It’s important for a man to admit when he’s wrong and today I don’t take any shame in saying that the uplift wolves are proud members of our community and should be treated just like any other hard working American. Right now, I’m just happy to be back with my family, but rest assured that things are going to change around here.”
“The camera cut back to the reporter who waited a moment for her cue.
“What exactly those changes will be remains to be seen, but the Rancher’s Association issued a statement that they would be holding an executive board meeting in light of the recent developments sometime later this week. So our story again, Thomas Croft and the other seven “disappeared” ranchers were returned by Federal authorities today. Live from downtown Missoula I’m Jacquelien Quynh for Channel 8 news.”
“Conan, what happened? We missed the first part.” said Steven.
//”The Dragon Knights brought back the missing ranchers everyone had thought they killed.”
“O...k, what did they do to them? That dickhead Croft seems to have made rather dramatic progress on the matter of accepting uplifts as real people instead of dangerous threats.”
//“They made them wolves and sent them to packs in the North Country!” Conan exclaimed, his tail still wagging. //”Now they don’t want to kill us!”
“HA! I knew those guys didn’t just take them out into the hills,” Steven replied, grinning from ear to ear. “Best way to beat someone’s prejudice into a pulp is to just transform for a while until they learn their lesson. I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s going to be a lot of jobs opening up soon in the local ranching industry.”
“If I get pay to bite kill fake wolves I will be most happy,” said Smoke in broken English, also wagging.
“Shy...” Steven addressed his friend as the de-suited coyote walked back into the room with the drinks, “you see what I meant about just giving things a little time?”
“Yeah, I’m sorry for not waiting for a bunch of outsiders to swoop in and solve the problem with magic,” Shy shot back sarcastically, handing Steven his gin and tonic.
“Shy, most of the people in this room can shapeshift. Fixing a problem with magic is simply a matter of knowing who to call. Dragon Knights are professionals. You should have let them go about doing their jobs.”
“I’m not going to have this argument again with you, alright? Now excuse me because apparently I have to go take a shower,” said Shy as he slinked upstairs.
“What did I tell you about coyotes,” Akula mumbled as Steven knelt down to give Rex a hug. //“You realize that your ex-were wolf has been hanging out with Conan. I am not sure those two are going to be good for eachother.”
//If you are asking if they are engaging in some sort of criminal conspiracy I doubt it. I think Conan learned his lesson and Rex hasn’t been much for talking after Ethera removed his lycanthropy. Besides, Conan could use a friend. Looking after Rex might teach him some responsibility.”
//”I’ll still want to discuss it with him,” Akula thought back at Steven.
“Speaking of Conan, what’s up?” Steven asked the other wolf, who was standing by, waiting for permission to speak.
“Colonel Hanford is calling, she wanted to speak with you about a matter of some importance.”
“Did she now?” said Steven, searching his pockets for his phone before he saw it was in Conan’s outstretched hand. “Thank you Conan... Hello?”
The other two anthros looked on as Steven turned a bit to the side and tried to not speak in too loud a voice.
“No, I’ve got a big dinner coming up...when do you want me? ... Oh? … Yeah, I could swing tomorrow morning. ... Alright, see you there.”
“Called back already?” Akula asked, looking slightly crestfallen.
“Only for a day or two,” Steven shrugged. “When my dotted line boss says jump I say ‘let me eat dinner first’. I’ll be rolling out tomorrow morning unless your cooking puts me in a meat coma.”
“We will try our best,” Akula chuckled, patting his friend on his back.
"Of course my friend, you always do."
Lycos Cyberclaw stood against the concrete wall next to the coffee table desperately trying to make himself invisible despite the notable handicap of being equipped with neither adaptive camouflage nor a cloaking device. Clutching a foam coffee cup in one hand, small ripples in the surface of the brown liquid betrayed the wild fluttering of the butterflies in the young officer candidate's stomach. The larger mission ready room was filled with unfamiliar faces, seasoned veterans of one type or another, oozing professionalism from every pore as they confidently went about their duties. Lycos on the other hand fidgeted uncomfortably in his freshly issued black toned combat gear consisting of trunk and shoulder body armour wrapped around black tactical gear that in turn covered a form fitting nanofibre environmental suit.
"Hello there son, are you supposed to be changing colors?" a large Japanese style cyborg asked, hunching over and focusing its beady optics on Lycos' unmodified body body. "Because if you aren't you might want to go back into the locker room and lie down."
"N-no sir, I'm fine...I mean no Sergeant...I mean no...sir? I...I..."
"Smash, are you freaking out my new Officer Candidate?" Serena's familiar voice registering with Lycos' ears over the general din of the room.
"No sir Colonel, he was just looking a little...under the weather."
"So would you if I peeled you out of that metal shell of yours. Why don't you go remind your troopers that this society is almost entirely paperless. That means don't bother rifling through pockets for documents. Look for E-readers and tablets only."
"Yes sir," replied the cyborg, saluting smartly and walking back to his unit.
Lycos immediately moved to salute Serena as well, but the female android grabbed the human's wrist with rattlesnake-like reflexes before he could raise his arm above his neck.
"Stop," Serena hissed under her breath, freezing Lycos with an icy glare. "You are in a room full of synths that record everything they see. If you salute me with your cup of coffee you'll be stuck trying to live it down for a decade."
Lycos turned beet red as he slowly lowered his hand back down and took a sip. "T-thanks. That would have been bad."
"Just relax Cassatt. You're here to observe, nothing more," Serena reassured. "Given that we're going back to that same planet where you rescued Ethera I thought it was important that you saw the downstream outcome of your actions."
"I appreciate the opportunity. This certainly beats a training simulation."
"What do you have going on around your back there?" Serena asked, indicating her desire for Lycos to turn around with her finger.
"Well, I kinda thought it would be cool to dual wield MP7's, you know, because with the inertial dampener and all they have almost no recoil. So I knew this artist who is good with leather and harnesses and such and I had him rig up the dual back scabbards using material that will expand and contract to suit my various forms."
"I see someone's been working on his new character," Serena grinned. "If you were anybody else I would probably helping you get back in touch with reality using the front of my steel toes, but given your track record I'm going to give you some leeway."
"You know it's customary for an officer to purchase his or her own sidearms?," Serena mentioned as she checked the fit of the harness and that the safeties were engaged on the two personal defence weapons.
"I...um..." Lycos stammered, swallowing hard. "You told me to get whatever I needed for the mission from the armoury. I figured I could try and see how my concept worked in, you know, real life."
"Well, if it works," Serena gently turned the young man to face her again, "consider them a gift...available to you upon successful receipt of your commission, of course."
Lycos blinked, his mind crashing for a moment as it tried to assimilate the fact that the two highly expensive firearms were simply his for the taking.
"Oooo, now what do we have here?" said Serena, bending down to unclip a small 4x6 inch laminated card from the cadet's pack. "'Lycos Cyberclaw'...is that your new name now?"
"Everybody else here as a cool nickname," Lycos mumbled his breath as he desperately hoped that Serena wasn't just setting him up for some sort hazing ritual.
"I'd say that nicknames are earned, but then I'd owe you change," Serena acknowledged as she inspected the character badge. "What's with all the circuit lines in the fur?"
"Well, its because I'm in technical support and I thought if I had that done up on armour or something it would provide good camouflage inside a datacenter or other technical area."
"Cool yet practical, albeit a little specific...Still, I like it," Serena responded, handing the card back to Lycos. "Just don't let this go to your head. Cosplay isn't a means to achieve greatness, simply a side effect of those that already possess it."
"Well if I care for what is outside, what is inside cares for me."
“That’s what I like about you “Lycos”, you’re quick,” Serena chucked as she gave the cadet a fist bump. “Now come on, you’re going to make me late to my own party.”
“Um, nobody has told me what to do...”
“Just stay close to me. This whole thing is sort of like ‘take your child to work day’ only I trust you not to do anything too stupid,” the Colonel explained as she turned and began to walk towards the heavy blue blast doors that lead to the portal room.
“Are we going to steal more tech for some chip maker again?” Lycos, grabbing his bag and running up catch up with the commander. “I haven’t been able to get a full briefing because people keep giving me the run around citing need to know.”
“They’ll have to replace my personality before I’d let SLIRT get turned into a corporate errand boy,” Serena snapped, reacting to the thought. “No, we’re returning to planet Z4905 because Ethera brought back information regarding a potential threat to Federation security. Whatever nannotech they use there has the unfortunate side effect of permanently fusing pilots with their mech suits.”
“Well that’s not an uncommon problem with full sensory pass through, especially when one throws medical nannos into the mix,” Lycos answered, drawing on what he had learned in some of his recent classes.
Serena shook her head. “This goes waybeyond cybernetic conjoinment. The nannos end up infusing the pilot’s entire body, changing them into a strange techno-biologic hybrid and partly merging their mind with any AI assist systems. From the reports we’ve recovered these beings have been attributed with all manner of fantastic powers including telekinesis, regeneration, flight and invisibility. We’ve sent in operatives, but all they can track down are rumors.”
“Incidents where people get integrated with their mech suits can be pretty disturbing. I wouldn’t be surprised if we are just dealing with some overactive imaginations,” said Lycos as he turned away from the bright light from the portal as he entered the room behind Serena.
“Well we’re going to find out soon enough. We’ve tracked some of the affected individuals to a complex of wind caves in the middle of that desert you were stomping around in. Our plan is to capture a specimen and bring it back for study. Once we know what we’re dealing with the higher-ups will be able to make the call if we go in with medical aid...or battleships.”
“I see...” said Lycos, stepping through the portal’s effect horizon to emerge an instant later in a dimly lit sandstone cave full of soldiers and equipment.
“I know you like your job with the Guardians Lycos, but just remember that there are billions of humans in this reality and if we don’t do our job right they could all be wiped out...or worse,” Serena pointed out. “Remember, the missions SLIRT is tasked with tend to have a little more consequence than stopping polluters.”
“Hey! Just because Guardians are unicorns that doesn’t make them Captain Planet,” Lycos protested. “Besides, that’s a bit hypocritical coming from someone whose race cleansed an entire galaxy for not recycling.”
“Oh! Twice in five minutes! I see I have to watch out for you,” the Colonel smirked. “Still, cadet, be careful to whom you deploy your sharp tongue against. A lot of people won’t take it as well as I do. Anyway, I am going to step out of the way before you get pounced.”
Lycos didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate the implications of Serena’s words before he found himself wrapped up in a pair of cold metal arms that swept him off his feet while a rubbery wet tongue licked at his face. Sputtering for breath as he attempted to ward off the enthusiastic licks from the armored wolf, Lycos felt his face flush as a number of surrounding troopers laughed or otherwise indicated bemusement.
“Ack...alright, alright, it’s good...it’s good to see you too Shock,” Lycos panted as he gave up trying to resist. “Can you put me down now?”
“Of course!” exclaimed the wolf, unceremoniously dropping Lycos back onto his boots. “Colonel Hanford suggested that I take the opportunity to embarrass you now before I need to salute you.”
“Gee, thanks,” Lycos said dryly.
“Hey! Everyone!” Shockwulf announced his end of the room. “For all of you who think I’m annoying or...’immature’, you can blame this guy. All the positive stuff...that’s all me.”
The dozen or so SLIRT members, each with varying degree of cybernetic content, took turns expressing the sorts of sarcastic remarks that one might expect from a close-knit military unit. However, none could hide a genuine degree of respect for the unaugmented human who had been the creative force behind the warrior Shockwulf.
“Hey Colonel,” asked a rather lanky full body cyborg with a human face and long platinum hair, “you sure there wasn’t a transporter accident because these two look like a pair off brand Neo splits.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me Lance. The human’s CO is rather adept at pinching pennies.”
“So,” Lycos spoke up, trying to sound like one of the squad, “do you need me for anything or am I just here for some elaborate hazing ritual.”
“If the Officer Candidate feels that observing the mission as it unfolds from here at base camp while carrying out an endless series of small meaningless tasks is a hazing ritual...then you are here for a hazing ritual,” Serena smirked as the rest of the squad followed suit.
Shockwulf shrugged. “Sorry Lycos, doesn’t look like we’re going to be covering each other’s hide quite yet, but everyone has to crawl before they can walk.”
“I seem to recall that you just loaded in a new movement driver when you got all your upgrades,” Lycos noted.
“I stand by my analogy.”
“Alright people, this isn’t a family reunion,” Serena scolded. “The Terran Sisterhood was kind enough to lend me one of their best platoons and you clowns are making SLIRT look like a bunch of undisciplined fuckabouts.”
Lycos looked over at the twenty or so female androids who were busy readying their weapons and equipment in the other half of the cavern before Shockwulf caught his attention with a firm pat on the back.
“Colonel said I can take some leave after this mission to hang out with you and the Blue Ridge pack so you just keep an eye for anything that might cause me trouble and I’ll pick up a case of beer.”
“Go get ‘em Shock. I’ll be waiting for you when you get back,” said Lycos, finishing his words with a first bump.
Cadet Cassatt crossed his arms and looked on as the living embodiment of his imagination grabbed his helmet and battle rifle to rejoin the rest of the SLIRT detachment who were in the process of forming up with the numerically superior force of synthetic female warriors uniformly dressed in light combat armour with adaptive camouflage. Realizing that he was not currently engaged in a productive activity, Lycos wandered over to the twenty foot long cargo container that served as a command post.
“Is there anything you’d like me to do?”
“Yeah...” said Serena as she stood over a display table with the officer commanding the female androids, “as soon as the capture teams head out go around the cavern with a hand scanner and look for anything anyone may have dropped. I don’t want an errant piece of trash providing any hostile force with valuable intelligence about who we are or where we came from. I’d give you one of the drones to use, but all the ones I have are protecting the approaches to the cavern.”
“Yes sir, that’s why I’m here.”
“Seeing as how you already know how to pick up litter, I am sure the Lieutenant, won’t mind also explaining what the plan is,” Serena continued, looking at her similarly synthetic counterpart.
“My pleasure Colonel,” the Lieutenant answered, switching the display up onto the end wall. “Prior surveillance has detected construction work taking place in the large caverns labeled ‘1’ and ‘2’. Each of my squads will proceed with four SLIRT troopers to an assigned cavern and proceed to capture any nano hybrids they encounter. Your friend, Shockwulf, will be with Beta squad following the route marked with a blue line to cavern two.”
“How do you guys pipe everyone’s visual feed back with all the rock?” Lycos asked.
“Disposablepicocells connected into a mesh network,” said Serena, holding up a small disc. “They leave a trail of breadcrumbs and we get to sit back and enjoy the ride. Still, you must resist the urge to micromanage your forces.”
“Our soldiers can see everything we can so we must trust them to handle the tactical situation while providing strategic guidance,” the Lieutenant continued.
“Perfect information tricks are best left to be performed by multi-threaded AIs with drones they can puppet around. Leading individuals takes a bit more finesse,” Serena added.
Lycos nodded, grabbing a hand scanner and an all purpose bag as two groups of little red dots began to make their way out of the cavern they had started in. Not bothering to excuse himself Lycos quickly got to work, taking care to note the location of the various defensive positions in case they happened to become relevant. Cut off from even a periodic stream of updates, Lycos’ body tingled all over as he fought the urge to find a way to get more involved in the fight. His heart was still pounding as he approached the crew served weapon that covered the tunnel his best friend had vanished down about fifteen minutes previously.
“Did you hear that?” Lycos asked as the sound of distant thunder bubbled back through the inky black orifice that art up the artificial light in the base area.
“Of course,” remarked a bio-tech saurian as he reached for a rocket launcher.
“Squad 2 has made contact with enemy forces,” a Sister Corporal offered as she readied her tripod mounted heavy barrel plasma cannon.
For an instant Lycos considered running back to the command post, but quickly realized that he would probably be more of a hindrance than a help. However, the intensifying sounds of the firefight gave him a strong feeling that he could probably be doing something more useful than cleaning up the base area.
“Corporal, can you ask one of the officers what they want me to...”
With a series bright flashes, the line of picocells affixed to the tunnel walls detonated in a line moving away from the base area.
“Holy shit what was that!” Lycos exclaimed.
“Enemy forces were attempting to hack back along our communications link,” answered the Corporal.
“They can do that? Who the hell set up your security?”
“We know what we’re doing!” the Sister snapped, her hostility an attempt to mask her own growing concern.
A swirl of air hit Lycos as Lance came seemingly out of nowhere at top speed to jump the barricade before vanishing into the tunnel. Behind him a thin line of flexible fiber optic cable unspooled from a container on his back. Quickly shouldering his rocket launcher the Cycron gave Lycos a quick wave goodbye as he mentally acknowledged a command to follow his fellow SLIRT trooper.
“Well I can’t say this doesn’t look familiar,” Lycos grumbled as he retreated back towards the inactive portal anchor. “Every mission is nice and easy until someone yells ‘Run!’”
Acting on his own initiative the young cadet began to close up open cargo boxes and arrange them to facilitate easy placement onto the transport sleds, occasionally pausing to help one of the headquarters staff pull out heavy support weapons to defend the beachhead.
“Hey Cassatt,” Serena’s voice emerged from the communicator on his shoulder, “stop moving heavy objects and get your meat into the command box.”
“Um…right away sir.”
Jogging briskly across the soft sand that covered the floor of the cavern, Lycos ran behind the corrugated metal container and popped his head in through the security curtain at the far end. Inside the Serena stood with the Lieutenant their eyes transfixed on the bank of visual feeds from the two squads. The first group of feeds showed a group of soldiers in retreat, moving quickly down one of irregularly shaped caverns. The other group was completely dark except for a single point of view moving by itself down a very narrow passage.
“What happened?! Everyone outside is freaking out.”
“We made contact with an enemy force and one by one Sisters started going off line,” stated Serena.
“I was specifically informed that this world did not contain any magic users,” the Lieutenant snarled.
“It’s not magic,” Serena replied in a forcibly calm tone. “These synths appear to have some innate ability to exploit security flaws in the vast sea of software running in our bodies, minds and technology. If we shut down the wireless data links it should buy is enough time to get everybody out.”
“That’s easier said than done,” the Lieutenant snorted.
“Hey, what’s going on with Shock? Why is he so far away from everybody else,” Lycos asked, pointing to a green dot moving down one of the passengers that had not been part of the initial plan.
“Shock got cut off laying down cover fire and had to retreat into a different tunnel. Luckily he has an interdimensional com link so he told us he is returning to base via tunnels G and J,” Serena explained. “I want you to go to the entrance to tunnel J and make sure he doesn’t get shot by the sentries there.”
“I’m on it.”
Suddenly on Shockwulf’s feed there a flash of color as the armoured canine ran headlong into a smaller anthromorph, sending both creatures tumbling head over heels. Shockwulf’s PoV soon stabilized and in an instant he had his weapon pointed at what appeared to be a Fox covered with silvery cybernetic implants.
“TURN AROUND AND RUN OR I WILL OPEN FIRE!!” Shockwulf bellowed, the sound shaking the workstation desk even through the speakers.
“Well that’s certainly rude,” spoke the creature in a rather blasé tone.
Shockwulf was quick to make good on his threat, but as his pulse rifle unleashed its deadly stream, he quickly found that something was affecting his ability aim properly. Although the targeting crosshairs were locked on the Fox, the rounds exploded harmlessly on the sandstone walls of the cavern. Howling in frustration Shockwulf’s rifle abruptly moved upwards, shooting harmlessly into the ceiling until his ammunition was exhausted. Then like a yard sign in a stiff breeze the metal suited wolf toppled backwards, landing against the side of the cave.
“I’LL KILL YOU!!”
“Sure you will,” spoke the fox-thing as his techno-biologic paws stepped into Shockwulf’s line of sight a second before the feed was lost.
“We have to get him!” Lycos blurted out immediately.
“Ten of my Sisters are laying disabled at the end of tunnel B,” said the Lieutenant without hesitation or emotion. “Squad 1 is on its way to rescue them and I have nobody here at the base I can spare.”
“I’ll go! I...I’m not doing anything important and I can’t get hacked.”
Serena eyed the young cadet for a moment, a look of concern spreading across her face before she sighed and shook it away. “I won’t insult you by saying this is something you don’t have to do.”
“Bring him back Lycos.”
Lycos ran back out through the curtain, mentally reaching out to the magical enchantment embodied on his upper arm. He had never tried shifting this amount of gear since his upgrade, but all other considerations were secondary as his combat armour and various related kit began to vanish into his body, replaced by thick grey fur. The transition to quadrupedal locomotion was almost seamless, fully justifying the amount of time Lycos had spent practicing the maneuver. As the shift completed a sleek set of high tech hammerspace goggles formed around his yellow eyes and he felt the new holsters performing as intended in holding the twin submachine guns firmly against his back.
Flying over the barricade, the grey wolf’s paws kicked up the soft footing as the he dashed through the tunnel at top speed. In the pitch blackness the active infrared night vision in the goggles was just barely enough to keep him from crashing into the twisting walls, but the thought that every second of delay could mean the difference in rescuing Shock a pushed Lycos to move as fast as he could. Soon the darkness ahead began to show faint traces of artificial light and Lycos' sensitive wolf ears started to pick up sounds from a rather antagonistic conversation. Rounding a slight bend in the tunnel, the charging wolf threw the shapeshift enchantment into reverse as his eyes locked onto the cybernetic fox who was in the process of pulling off Shockwulf’s helmet. Completely unaware of the deadly predator's silent approach, the strange creature only had an instant of warning when he caught sight of a pair of glowing red eyes bobbing up and down in the darkness.
With quadrupedal locomotion becoming more difficult by the step the wolf pressed back and leapt to the attack with all the force he could muster. Of course Lycos knew better than to engage a synthetic of unknown capabilities with tooth and claw, instead the well rehearsed move was designed to eliminate the vulnerable time between paws and hands. Flying through the air the change accelerated, the partly shifted feral wolf straightening out and growing larger, his four limbs becoming adapted to grasping and walking upright. Silhouetted by the glow of Shockwulf's fallen flashlight, as the graceful leap returned Lycos to earth, he pulled into a tuck, rolled forward once and popped up onto fully capable digitigrade legs. The nanno being could only stand there looking dumbfounded as the fully biologic anthro wolf reached behind himself and pulled forth a submachine gun in each hand with a single fluid movement.
The stroboscopic flashes from the two MP7s made the tight confines of the tunnel take on the appearance of a dance party, only much louder as hyper velocity slugs slammed into the fox, pushing him back on his heels. For a moment the bullets seemed to have little effect as they splattered against the being's projected hard light armour, but with a 40 round magazine in each gun the shield of hardened nucleons was quickly worn away. The fox screamed in pain and staggered further back as rounds slammed into his body, large drops of silvery blood flying against the smooth sandstone walls. A second later both guns clicked dry leaving a wide eyed wolf to watch in stunned silence as the nano hybrid took a final step back into the shadows and fell to the ground twitching.
"Steven!" the immobilized Shockwulf yelled, his voice a mix of worry and relief.
With both his ears ringing and his whole body shaking from the adrenaline, Lycos immediately dropped the empty magazines from both guns and began to fumble around for fresh ones, quickly realizing the limitations of holding a weapon in each hand.
"EMP! EMP!" Shockwulf shouted, twisting head in the direction of the wounded synthetic
"I...I..." Lycos stammered as looked down at his grey furred body, completely naked except for a pair of tight fitting black shorts. "I didn't put any gear on this form!"
"On my belt!"
Thrusting the MP7's back into their holsters Lycos ran to his partner, kneeling down to grab a hold of the soup can sized electromagnetic pulse grenade.
"Woah, woah, take a deep breath there," said Shockwulf as he watched the young cadet fumble with the grenade's fuse. "Don't fuck that up. I don't react well to high intensity magnetic fields."
"I got it....I got it!" Lycos exclaimed as he activated the time delay with a twisting motion and threw the grenade at the the nano being as it lay moaning about 50 feet away.
"What did I just tell you!!" screamed Shockwulf, his eyes going wide.
Yanking open one of the Velcro pouches on Shockwulf's tactical vest, Lycos shook out the body sized Faraday bag and threw both it and his own body on top of of the immobilized wolf just seconds before the EMP detonated with the intensity of a flash-bang. Letting out a grunt, Lycos rolled off his friend and lay staring up at the roof of the cave waiting for the ringing in his ears to die down.
“You fool! Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to use one of those things?” Shockwulf snapped.
“No, but just because I’m not qualified doesn’t mean I’m going to leave you here for scrap,” Lycos remarked as he pulled the metalized duffle bag off of the armoured wolf. “Now tell me what that thing did to you.”
“There was a fucking security flaw in my suit’s data link. I could feel him start to fuzz it, but before I could do anything to lock him out my whole body shut down. I was able to isolate my AI, but it’s not much use being a talking head.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend quitting your day job either,” quipped Lycos as furry anthro body began to melt back into its original human shape complete with all the combat gear.
“So I get disabled and Colonel Hanford only sends one cadet to rescue me?”
“Well[]there[]was[]only[]one[]nano-morph,” said Lycos, pulling out some tools from a small black pouch on his belt. “Besides, the Colonel has larger problems going on at the moment and I happened to be available.”
Kneeling over his partner, Lycos began to detach the heavy metal plates on the front of Shockwulf’s powered armour. “Now I don’t have the time or equipment to attempt to clean out all the malicious code that little shit dumped into your body. However a qualified IT professional always knows to be prepared and I brought a couple spare processing modules for the mech suits you SLIRT guys were strutting around in. Even if we consider your body completely hacked, the suit should be able to provide you with a basic level of mobility.”
Straining a bit, Lycos lifted the metal plate free to expose the active components and quickly released the card deck sized computing module. Shockwulf watched as he marked the corrupt unit with a marker and carefully inserted the replacement into the waiting socket.
"Nothing like a little tender loving care from 'qualified professional'," the wolf smiled as he felt his armour reboot.
"I aim to please," Lycos replied. "Now, connect to the armour and wiggle your fingers around, cause I'm not closing you up until I know you're working properly."
Shockwulf blinked for a moment before raising a hand and giving Lycos a thumbs up. "How many thumbs am I holding up?"
"Enough to put your own armour back together," Lycos snarked as he got to his feet and went about reloading his weapons.
Sitting up Shockwulf tested the range of motion of his hands and arms before picking up the heavy chest plate and carefully latching it in place. "I feel all weak...like a human."
"Oh? Having flashbacks from when you used to puppet me around?"
"What can I say, I was young and naive thinking such, limited, bodies were acceptable.."
"Ha, ha. Come on, pick up your helmet and let's bag and tag this sucker," said Lycos, shining his light over at the still twitching body of the synthetic fox.
"Assuming your super spicy EMP didn't just fry it."
"Better safe than sorry."
Unzipping the Faraday bag, Lycos laid it down next to the nano being and waited for Shockwulf to robotically shuffle over and help lift it inside.
"Stop playing it up man. You aren't that hobbled."
"I have to train the drivers. Just grab the legs and match my pace. I don't mean to be brusque, but I really don't want to get stuck here...again."
Lycos zipped up the bag, grabbed the strap near the feet and lifted up his end of their quarry as the pair began to shuffle back down the tunnel in the direction of the base.
“It’s not too heavy for you, is it?” Shockwulf asked.
“Nah, I work out,” Lycos puffed. “So...I think I’d rate this mission a success.”
Shockwulf laughed. “I’d hate to see what your concept of a failure looks like!”
“Well you’re up and moving and we captured one of the target synthetics. Granted certain elements of our execution could use improvement, but I think this shows that our prior partnership is worth reviving.”
“Oh? I thought I was the partnership,” said Shockwulf, sticking out his tongue.
“I did too, but here we are and you can’t argue with the results,” Lycos said haltingly between breaths. “I’m thinking it might be a good idea to make the most of our, “special relationship”, provided you’re not too cool to hang out with your old player.”
“Well, it would be a tad out of character for Shuckwulf to hang out with basement dwelling losers...” the robotic warrior answered. “Fortunately I don’t really see that being an issue anymore.”
“Yeah, my room is on the second floor.”
Shockwulf let out an amused snort, stumbling and nearly dropping the bag. “Damn, I forgot how much I crack myself up.”
“Don’t sweat it. I’ll just retcon some new character traits so it’s not a problem.”
Shockwulf laughed again and shook his head. “Yeah, this won’t cause any problems.”
“I’m not too worried. You tend to bring out the best in me.”
“Let’s try to keep that figurative this time, Lycos Cyberclaw. Three’s a crowd.”
“Hey, I’ve got a gift and the Federation needs soldiers.”
Suddenly a nearby part of the tunnel wall exploded in conjunction with a bright flash of light and a sizzling sound of high energy plasma causing both Shockwulf and Lycos to drop their load and scurry for cover.
“If you two would be so kind to stop your inane banter and identify yourselves I would very much appreciate it,” announced a comely Sister in red and black patterned armor from the barricade about 50 yards away. “Some of us have been waiting to get the fuck out of here!”
“Um...ugh...Gerbil Cupcake,” said Lycos, providing the non-duress password.
“Well pick up your shit and get moving!” the sentry called back.
“I would appreciate not having to test out the strength of my ontological inertia,” Shockwulf hissed. “So if you do start working for SLIRT can you please try to be at least a little more careful?”
Lycos didn’t respond as he got back up on his feet and lifted up the body bag with a second wind. Tipping his helmet slightly as he passed by the perimeter defenders, Lycos lead Shock through the rapidly evacuating base camp towards Colonel Hanford who was standing stoically with arms crossed watching men and material flowing back through the glowing portal to safety.
“Cadet Cassatt reporting as ordered sir. Mission accomplished,” Lycos said simply, saluting the Colonel.
Serena returned the salute and kneeled down, unzipping the Faraday bag a few inches then quickly closing it back up. Rising to her feet the SLIRT commander cracked a slight smile.
“Looks like I get to keep my job after all,” she remarked, signaling two other troopers to take charge of the alien synth. “Thank you Cadet, I knew I could count on you. Take the sergeant back through the portal and get him into quarantine. After that I am sure that one of the other non-coms can introduce you to the joys of filling out an after action report.”
“Right away Colonel,” Lycos replied, before looking over at his friend. “Come on Shock, you heard the lady.”
“Yes sir,” said Shockwulf, his bright white showing in a broad lupine grin as he saluted and walked toward the glowing circle of energy.
Falling in behind the robot wolf Lycos suddenly stopped and turned back towards Serena.
“Colonel, if you don’t mind I’m just going to go back and mark the ticket as resolved. Next time you run into any additional problems, just call tech support. They’ll send me right down.”