Taking a break from scanning the moonscape for their pursuers, the cat morph looked down at the readouts on hir space suit wrist controls and scowled. Not as much air left as shi would like. Power reserves could be better, too. Shi took a moment to eject the magazine from her weapon and checked its view slot. Only a little over half of the ammunition left in it. Snapping it back into place and stepping further back into the shade of the overhang formed by an ancient rock fall in the crater cliff, shi turned to see the others huddled further back in the tiny cave. For their sake, shi put on a confident face, in case they could see into the darkened faceplate of hir helmet.
‘How the hell did I end up here,’ shi mused, as shi turned again and knelt to face the barren lunar landscape and resume hir search for the foes that were sure to appear soon. With little else to do for the moment, she thought back over the last few bizarre months of hir life.
Hermann Hoffmann, Ph.D. gazed though the double-layer armor-glass window and out across the bright lunar landscape. As landscapes went, it was a particularly good one, with an almost full Earth rising above the distant wall of the Copernicus crater and the sleek, trans-lunar shuttles adding a splash of color in the foreground. Even a particularly good lunar landscape was mostly gray, but in full sunlight, the lunar regolith looked almost like snow, and the colors of the ProDyne logo on the shuttles seemed to glow like neon signs.
Today was the first full-power, operational test of the system. The test. The end result of over six years of time, tears, sweat, and pray-and-try-again effort. His life measured out in fourteen-hour days and eighty-hour weeks. The strain of the past few months showed in the lines on his face, the gray spreading through his thinning, black hair and the gauntness of his tall frame. If it worked though, ‘When it works’, he corrected himself fiercely, it would all be worth it.
Dr. Hoffmann was a theoretical physicist specializing in teleporter design. For the past decade, he'd been working on breaking the range limitation of teleportation systems that restricted them to, at most, orbit to surface transportation. The inner workings of the transporter were difficult for even most physicists to understand, but something that even the most junior transporter operator had drummed into him, her or hir was that teleporting something twice the distance didn't take twice the power, it took four times the power. Transporting something four times as far took sixteen times the power, and so forth. What was feasible from low Earth orbit to the surface was completely impractical from the Moon to the Earth. But if they could make this work, teleporting people and freight between Earth and Mars would be completely feasible!
The breakthrough that Dr. Hoffmann's team was working on involved opening a small and very temporary warp portal to bridge the distance, then focusing the transporter data/energy stream through it. While sounding simple enough in concept, the engineering challenges were sufficiently great that theirs was the first team to even attempt it. Had they foreseen some of the barriers they would have to overcome, they might not have attempted it themselves. Yet here they were.
Tearing himself away from the view, he opened the airtight door between his office and the lab and walked into the airlock that connected them. ‘The price I pay for having a real window to the surface into my office’, he thought as he waited for the door to seal behind him and the door in front to unseal and open. ‘Still,’ he thought, ‘the view is worth the hassle of going through an airlock every time.’
The topic of hassles recalled the latest phone call from Jack Mendel, ProDyne district VP. Mendel opposed the project from the beginning and had been looking for an excuse to shut it down; demanding progress updates, complaining of minor cost overruns while minimizing the considerable progress they had made and making not-so-veiled threats to shut the project down if it wasn’t successful soon. Hopefully, today would be the day they shut him up.
The lab itself was of course windowless, with workstations and equipment racks forming a semi-circle around a high-capacity transporter stage. Overhead lighting spotlighted parts of the large room and individual lights illuminated the workstations. The room was cool, almost chilly and only the undertone hum of the power transformers and the whisper of the ventilation system could be heard as all personnel in the room concentrated on last-minute tasks at their stations. While carved out of the lunar rock of the crater wall, the pressure sealant, insulating layer and decorative fabric paneling created a room that could have just as easily been on Earth. The people at those workstations looked up as Dr. Hoffmann entered the room. FarReach, an attractive, brindle-furred chakat with a black tail and ears, got up from the taur pad in front of the master control station to greet him.
“All systems green and ready, Doc!” shi greeted him.
“I'm glad to hear it, Reacher, but surprised I am not,” he said with a slight but distinct German accent that reminded the lab staff of old recordings of Werner Von Braun. While his Terrangelo was normally flawless, when excited, he often mixed in German words and phrases. He examined the taur-form cat morph a moment, looking for signs of exhaustion. Tired people made mistakes, and mistakes in a high-energy plasma physics lab were to be avoided at all costs. “Have you slept at all in the past few days?”
“I've cat-napped when I needed it. Honestly Doc, I'm okay,” shi said as shi straightened hir back and took some of the droop out of hir tail. Most of the senior staff had one or more doctorates in various disciplines, but by unspoken agreement only Dr. Hoffmann was “Doc”.
Dr. Hoffmann groaned a bit at the bad pun, which was something else he'd come to expect from the otherwise serious, highly competent and hard-working chakat. He walked over to his station, and sat down in front of the displays that showed him a summary of everything from all the other stations. “As you say, but let's do this right,” he said then raised his voice to address the rest of the room. “I want a status from all of you.”
“Master control – green board” said the chakat, grinning toothily back at him.
“Transmission/materialization control – green board!” Maria DeGaulle, a slightly plump, pretty, redheaded woman who appeared to be in her late thirties replied in a pleasant French accent.
“Warp integration systems – all green!” replied Melissa MacLeod, a very feminine-looking herm cougar morph in hir early forties.
“Communications – green board. We're in contact with the Woomera, Christmas Island and Mercury, Nevada labs on primary and fallback circuits,” Linda Lapine, a petite, curvy, fawn-furred rabbit morph reported cheerfully.
The remaining control technicians reported in turn as ready and Dr. Hoffmann nodded in satisfaction. “Very well, let us begin.”
Reacher looked over at two techs standing off to the side of the transporter platform. “Time to put Waldo on the hot seat,” shi said. The techs picked up what appeared to be a crash dummy strapped into a chair and carried it onto one of the transmission discs on the stage. Some joker (everyone suspected Reacher) had painted an expression of comically pathetic panic on the dummy’s face.
“Telemetry's up; all of Waldo's sensors are functional and online,” Karl Blackpaw, a tall, strongly-built, brown and black furred wolf morph confirmed.
Melissa spoke again, “Woomera control confirms ready to receive.”
Dr. Hoffmann took a deep breath, let it out and spoke. “Open warp portal.”
“Opening warp portal,” Maria responded. “Portal open and nominal.”
“Energize transporter,” Dr. Hoffmann said, a tinge of excitement in his voice.
“Energizing,” Reacher replied, pressing a sequence of keys on hir control station.
With the sparkling shimmer characteristic of a teleport in progress, the heavily instrumented dummy and the chair it sat on disappeared.
Melissa listened intently to the voice in hir earbud, then her face broke out in a excited grin and shi turned in her seat to face Dr. Hoffmann and said excitedly. “They've got it! Waldo arrived intact and functional!”
The room broke into cheers and excited side conversations.
“Congratulations everyone,” Dr. Hoffmann said, holding his hands out in a ‘quiet down’ gesture, “we have successfully teleported a test package over a quarter million miles! Let us now see if we can get Waldo back here in one piece.”
As he watched his team prepare for the second phase of the test, he anticipated the phone call he was going to make to Jack Mendel and indulged in a little well-earned gloating.
“Dibs on the tail!”
“Screw you Matthews, you got it last time. Take the ears instead.”
“Hey Sarge, I get the ears this time. Matthews can pound sand.”
Pete Watanabi tried to ignore the squabbling as he knelt behind a small boulder and watched his sector through the slightly distorted view of the cheap optical sight of his weapon. Arguing over souvenirs in hostile territory was even stupider than stopping to take them in the first place, in his opinion. An opinion that Squad Leader Kevin Jones (‘Sarge’ to his squad) evidently didn’t share.
“Eric gets the tail this time, Ed gets the ears. The rest of you shut up,” Kevin growled as he emptied the dead vixentaur’s belt pouch on to the ground and sorted through it. “Nothing of interest here. Time to leave a calling card and go.” Matching actions to words, he took a card out of his jacket pocket and pinned it to the vixentaur’s corpse with its own small utility knife. Pete didn’t need to see the card to know what was on it: the ace of spades with a skull and crossbones superimposed over the spade on one side, and a rough map of the disputed territory of the Treaty Zone showing the border that the Human Liberation Army claimed on the other. Pete had been told that the area they were in was once called the Carson National Forest before the Gene Wars and the treaty that had ceded it to the foxtaur and wolftaur clans.
“Done. We’ve left our message – time to go go home.” His tone carried a satisfied note, and as he stood he carefully scanned the area, searching again for any possible witnesses. “Pete, you take point, Eric, you're Tail-end Charlie. Let's move out.”
‘Some message,’ Pete thought, disgusted with how the mission had turned out. Killing morphs was one thing, mutilating the bodies to take ears or tails was another. Sure, defending humanity and taking back the Earth from the jumped-up animals that were running the UNTWG was the right thing to do. In spite of everything, he still fervently believed that. The morphs had started it. First his parents were taken away from him, killed in a head-on collision by a drunken morph in a stolen PTV. Then his little sister’s face, killed almost five years ago by a morph in a convenience store robbery gone bad, flashed into his mind before he brought his attention back to the present.
It had taken the HLA Direct Action Team two days to stalk the foxtaur huntress and set up the ambush far away enough so that the sound of rifle fire wouldn’t reach the foxtaur village. Springing the ambush almost went off as planned, until Eric, the newest member of the team got impatient and took a shot before their quarry was fully in the ambush zone. Even wounded, the taur-form fox morph was still fast enough to keep ahead of them on its four legs for almost an hour before they finally caught up with it. Even then, they should have been able to get a clean kill, but Ed was too eager to be the one to finish it and risked too long a shot. The jumped-up half-animal was still struggling when the squad surrounded it, and Kevin and Eric took obvious enjoyment in taking their time finishing the job with their rifle butts.
Pete ground his teeth at the memory. ‘Damn it, if that were a deer, they would have put it down cleanly, not beat it to death.’ Taking back the Earth for the human race was a job that had to be done, but not even a jumped-up animal should be tortured like that. Unfortunately, Pete had been so lost in his own thoughts that he failed to keep a look of distaste off of his face.
“What’s the matter Watanabi? Feeling sorry for the gene-joke?” Sergeant Jones laughed derisively. “You gotta toughen up, man. This is war.”
Pete stood up, his assault rifle held at the low ready. He didn’t fully trust the rather crude, Kingdom of Sahara-made weapon, but nothing tying them to the Holy Christian Kingdom of North America could be carried on this mission.
“I do my job, Sarge. You sayin’ otherwise?” he growled. ‘Maybe I need to toughen up,’ he thought as he glared back at the squad leader, ‘but maybe you need to enjoy these parts of it less.’
Several days and dozens of test transports later, Dr. Hoffmann was finishing up an in-progress review meeting with his key personnel. The review was being held around the conference table in his office, a popular place with his staff to hold meetings due to the spectacular view of the lunar landscape. The lighting in the well-appointed room was bright, but couldn't compete with the brilliant light coming through the window.
“…so, other than a few minor glitches, the system seems to be performing according to theory and up to the design specs.”
Maria spoke up, “The glitches in the warp system seem minor in their effects, but it worries me that we can't nail down the cause.”
“And when we see the glitch, power consumption increases over three percent,” Karl chimed in. “I agree it doesn't appear to be serious, but I'll be happier when we determine what is causing it.”
“I agree with you both,” said Reacher. “We need to schedule a few more maximum power tests, to track down the glitch.”
“We're still essentially on schedule,” Dr. Hoffmann interjected, “so we have time to conduct a few more tests…” He paused in mid-sentence to look at Linda. The rabbit-morph was listening intently to her earbud with a look of horror on her face, then spoke to Dr. Hoffmann.
“It's the Christmas Island lab. There's been a big earthquake near Jakarta – a magnitude seven or eight! Satellite imagery shows a tsunami headed for the island and the first wave is estimated to be almost thirty meters high!”
He sat up straighter in his seat. “How much time do we have to evacuate?”
“They say that the wave will reach the island in less than half an hour,” Linda replied, horror making her voice harsh. “It's not just the lab staff,” Melissa interjected with a note of panic in hir voice, “Kate and Tonya are down there!” Kate was Melissa's nineteen-year-old daughter and Tonya was Maria's nine-year-old daughter. Across the table, Maria choked back a cry and went very pale.
“Mein Gott! Can we the lab evacuate in time?” asked Dr. Hoffmann.
Melissa passed the question on to the person on the other end, listened to the answer and said, “They say that there's only one flight-capable vehicle there, and it will only carry four. Ground vehicles won't get far enough inland in time to save them. They're requesting we try to use the experimental transporter to rescue them.”
Dr. Hoffmann was speechless for a moment, but when he did speak, the stress of the situation brought forth his accent sharply. “Ve have only limited live-animal testing done in the past two days. Ve were not for weeks going to transport people. Und ve have tested the mind-matrix circuits not.” Visions of the nightmare if they failed and the months of ethics hearings and liability reviews that he would be facing if he permitted the experimental and uncertified transporter to be used on sapient beings went through his mind, causing a shudder to go down his spine.
“They have nine people who won't fit into the shuttle who are willing to risk it. I would in their shoes,” Melissa argued. “Any chance is better than no chance at all.” Shi paused for a moment to listen. “Kathryn and Tonya are away from the center on a nature hike. We'll have to locate them and beam them up from wherever we find them.”
“We will do it,” Dr. Hoffmann decided. “My responsibility. I will not leave my people to die if to save them I have a chance.” He looked around the table, then stood up. “All right team, let us get started!”
As one, the team got up and dashed for their stations in the transporter lab.
The shimmer of the transporter faded away as the last of the Christmas Island lab staff appeared on the receiver disc. “That's the last of the staff from in the lab,” Maria said breathlessly. “Have you located Kathryn and Tonya?”
“Got 'em!” replied Karl, looking over at her with relief in his eyes. “Sending coordinates to you now.”
“Sehr gut! But be careful with this one,” said Dr. Hoffmann, “We are almost at the limit of available power for single-station teleportation.” Station to station teleportation was more efficient and therefore used less power. Having to use single-station teleportation was not something that the team intended to test extensively until much later in the program.
“Are you and Tonya ready to beam up?” Melissa queried Kathryn over the comm.
Her daughter's panicky voice came back over the workstation speakers. “Yes, we're ready! And hurry, we can see the wave coming now!”
“Lock on and energize!” commanded Dr. Hoffmann.
“Doc!” Maria looked up from her panel, worriedly, “That glitch is back! We could lose them!”
“Increasing power to one hundred ten percent of nominal… one hundred fifteen…”
“We've got power fluctuations in the warp generators too!” Linda shouted.
Before Dr. Hoffmann could say anything though, the normal shimmering sparkle of a transporter in operation started, and Kate and Tonya appeared on the transporter platform. The nine-year-old girl and teenage cougar-morph ran from the platform to their parents, talking over each other in their relief.
“Momma I was so scared…”
“Oh Mom, I didn't think we'd make it in time…”
The girl and cougar morph were quickly taken out of the room by a waiting member of the medical staff to be sure they were indeed unharmed by their experience.
Oblivious to the scene by the transporter stage, Karl was staring at the screen of his station in disbelief. “Doc! Reacher! We're not out of the woods yet! There are two more people down there!” He tapped a few keys trying to get more information out of his sensors. “There's too much interference to get much detail, but it looks like an adult and child.”
“Are you sure they are not just wild animals?” Dr. Hoffmann asked, moving quickly to look over the wolf-morph’s shoulder.
“The adult is a biped, so I doubt it,” Karl replied, “but where the hell did they come from? They weren't there two minutes ago.”
“The tsunami must be almost on top of them, you can't wait! Beam them up!” Melissa shouted, eyes wide in near panic. “Doc?!” Reacher asked desperately. Not waiting for a reply, Maria was already locking the system onto the two people Karl's instruments had detected.
The possible consequences of a mistake or failure flashed through Dr. Hoffman's mind again, but he couldn't just leave two people down there to their fate in that deadly, rushing wall of water.
“Lock on and energize. Jetzt! Schnell!”
“We have… no! We're losing them!”
“Power to maximum!”
“Increasing power to maximum. One hundred twenty three percent of nominal!”
“I hear you, Molly. You want to go walkies?”
“Silly question, isn't it? OK girl, come to daddy.”
Michael Thompson, “Mike” to his small circle of friends, “Colonel Thompson” to everyone else, knelt down and snapped the harness and leash on to Molly, his eight-year-old Sheltie. Despite being past middle age, the little dog was still so eager and bouncy that she was frequently mistaken for a collie pup. That was more than Mike would say for himself; approaching sixty, he wasn't what he'd describe as bouncy and eager any more. In fact, since the recent death of his wife, walking Molly was practically his only exercise. Or outing of any sort, for that matter, other than the occasional trip to the grocery store. Still, walking Molly was one of the few pleasures he still relished, and he followed her out the front door of his townhouse with anticipation.
Walking as briskly down the street as his limp and cane would let him, Molly tugged on the leash to hurry him on to the dog park. As they passed through a grove of trees that separated the park from the cluster of townhouses, he was startled to hear a roaring, rushing sound. Looking around, he let go of his cane as he saw a roiled wall of dark, dirty, water rushing at them, then they were surrounded by a shimmering light and everything went away.
Where the man and dog had stood only a second before, a rush of water shot out of nowhere, moving faster than the stream from the most powerful high pressure fire hose. For the fraction of a second that it existed, it spurted out of nowhere and splintered the first trees it hit, bowling over the trees beyond them and then became only a wave moving along between the trees and bushes, finally dissipating and soaking the ground. Later, investigators trying to piece together what had happened, would discount two of the four clues left to them. The man and dog disappearing in a flash of light was rejected as an optical illusion, and the plastic toy with a copyright date of 2311 that the water had dropped in the bushes was written off as a misprint by a Chinese toy company. The clues that they couldn't ignore but also couldn't explain were the salinity of the puddle of water that was slowly soaking into the ground, and the ocean-dwelling fish still weakly flopping in that shallow puddle.
Nor could anyone there account for the whereabouts of Mike Thomson and his dog Molly. All that was found of them was Mike's cane.
“We've got them!” Karl said triumphantly, “Bring them in Maria…”
“Power consumption spiking.” Reacher said, hir voice steady. Shi was one of those rare people who reacted to a crisis by getting calmer and more focused. “Power consumption one hundred and twenty-five percent of nominal maximum and climbing. One hundred-thirty percent, one-thirty-five…”
Linda broke in, “The warp glitch has returned and… Oh, hell! The field's collapsing!”
“Power fault on main memory system one and two. Backup memory system has gone offline as well.” Marie wailed, “No, dammit! I'm losing their patterns! Merde!”
“Power bus two is gone. Complete failure. Attempting to reroute…” Reacher said, still as calmly as if this was all a drill.
There was a burst of sparks from one of the memory systems along the wall of the chamber, followed by a cloud of gray-white smoke and the stench of ozone. One of the standby techs shouted “Fire!” and dashed for a wall-mounted fire extinguisher. As he sprayed its contents over the failed system, the primary operations team assessed the situation.
“Marie – restart the backup memory system and see if their patterns were there captured,” Dr. Hoffmann ordered. “Reacher, can you restore power to the systems on bus two?”
“Negative Doc. That bus just burned out. Literally.” Shi glanced in the direction of the still smoking systems across the room.
Dr. Hoffmann walked over to the chakat, put his hand on hir shoulder and said quietly, “What do we have? Can we re-materialize them here?” Reacher stared at him, momentarily at a loss for words.
Marie spoke up instead, the stress in her voice evident. “We have the plasma-energy and their mind-matrix. But their physical patterns are just… gone.” She looked up at her boss, tears in her eyes at the implications. Without the patterns, they couldn’t possibly be reintegrated.
“If we have that much, we cannot give up,” Dr. Hoffmann replied firmly, “the mind matrix is the essence of the individual.”
For a moment, the room went silent. No one wanted to just give up on the two people, but there seemed to be no way to save them. The seconds ticked by as one by one, people racked their brains for solutions and came to the same conclusion – there was no hope. Whoever they had desperately tried to rescue was effectively already dead. Just as Dr. Hoffmann was contemplating giving up and ordering the system powered down, he heard Reacher clear hir throat, as if shi wanted to say something but was hesitating to speak. He looked at the chakat, silently encouraging hir to speak.
“There may be a way,” Reacher started, looked away in doubt then looked back up at Dr. Hoffmann, “but it's, well, chancy at best.”
“We need to do something fast,” Dr. Hoffmann replied, “we cannot contain the plasma for longer than a few minutes, and the mind-matrix will start to degrade not long after that. What have you got, Reacher?”
“A distant cousin of mine was in a similar situation a few years ago. Shi lost the pattern buffer to a terrorist's bomb, but saved him by combining the plasma and mind-matrix with a pattern that was still in the buffer from a previous transport.”
“Did it work? Was the individual afterwards sane and functional?” Hope warred with skepticism in the Doctor's voice.
“It took some adjustment. The lost pattern was for a male human, the pattern in the buffer was my cousin's. Shi had some challenges in adapting to being a herm taur at first, but shi's fully recovered now. When I met hir, shi was happy to be alive and seemed to like being a chakat.”
Dr. Hoffmann hesitated, staring past Reacher. Was such a long shot worth trying? Or was any chance better than none at all? “Are the pattern buffers on bus one intact, and have they still viable patterns?” He looked questioningly over at Maria.
Maria studied her read-outs, then looked back at Dr. Hoffmann. “Yes, pattern buffers on bus one are on-line and in the green… they contain the patterns from Tonya and Kathryn.” She studied the information on her panel for a long moment, keying queries into the system and checking the results against the data on a second data display. “And yes, the patterns are still viable!”
“How do the masses compare?” asked Dr. Hoffmann, striding quickly over to her station to see the results for himself. “Is there enough plasma to construct their patterns?”
“Yes, just barely,” she replied, pointing at the relevant figures on the screen.
Dr. Hoffmann looked up at the chronometer on the wall and made a decision. ‘May as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb,’ he thought, ‘and no more time to discuss things, or we will lose either the plasma or the mind-matrix.’ “Reacher, finish the transport using the patterns in the buffer!”
Reacher worked at hir control panel for a few moments, then looked up at Dr. Hoffmann. “Ready.”
The shimmering light faded away but, everything… everything was wrong! So wrong! Mike's vision was blurred and the colors were somehow both brighter and muted, the sounds reaching him were loud, sharp and weirdly distorted. And the smells! It was like every odor that had ever existed had been concentrated and shoved deep up his nose! He heard himself try to scream, but the sound he made was more like the yowl a frightened cat might make.
In panic he started to run, but stumbled, and was caught by, by… What was that?! Even through the distortion he could see that the thing was taller than him, dressed in a blue shirt and shorts and covered in black fur. Impossibly, it seemed to have a wolf's head. It reached out towards him and he pushed it away in horror and as he turned to flee, he found a large, furry cat-thing wearing a white lab-coat blocking his path. Terrified, he tried to shout “Go away!” but only produced more angry-cat noises. Close by, he heard noises that sounded like a person trying to bark. Turning clumsily in that direction, he saw the blurred, distorted image of a young girl in hiking clothes, down on all fours. She was growling, teeth bared, at what looked impossibly like a five-foot-tall rabbit in a light blue jumpsuit.
He began to feel dizzy. He was hyperventilating, he knew, but he couldn't stop. The room started to spin and things began to go black. The last thing he was aware of was the cat-thing reaching out to catch him as he fell forward.
The figures appeared normal on the transporter stage, hidden at first by the shimmering light of the transporter, finally resolving into the familiar figures of Kate and Tonya. Then everything went insane.
The person whose mind-matrix was incorporated into Kate's body-pattern looked around in what appeared to be a drugged panic and began to stumble off the transporter stage. Karl jumped across the floor to catch hir but shi just screamed at him and pushed hirself out of his grasp. The person in Tonya's body-pattern had gotten down on all fours and was barking (barking?!) at Maria as she knelt in front of the girl and tried unsuccessfully to calm her down. Linda had called Security and Medical, whose responders were just entering the room when the Kathryn body-pattern person passed out and was caught by Reacher. Sergei from Security, a tall, blonde, human male who looked like a professional wrestler, distracted the Tonya-clone while Dr. Elbeth Redpaw, a Skunktaur on the Medical staff, got close enough to hypo-spray her with a strong sedative. Sergei wasn't fast enough to avoid getting bitten though, before the Tonya-person passed out from the injection.
Taking a deep breath after passing the Kathryn-clone over to Dr. Redpaw, Reacher made a face and said ironically, “That went well.”
Dr. Hoffmann looked around at the chaotic scene in his normally calm and orderly lab and sighed. “Ok people, let us get our guests to the infirmary, back up the system logs and save everything possible for analysis. I want to know what just happened here.”
Several hours later, a tired and frazzled Dr. Hoffmann borrowed Reacher’s conveniently close office to use the phone. Reacher, ever curious, turned hir ears towards the closed door. Hir sensitive chakat’s ears could just barely hear Dr. Hoffmann, but nothing of the other side of the conversation. “Dora, connect me to Jack Mendel’s office.”
“Jack? Hermann here. We have had some developments…”
“Oh, you have already heard? I thought you might have a tattletale or two here…”
“Yes. Yes of course I tried to save them, dummkopf! What would you have done, let them die?”
“Right! And how would have that looked better to the media? And unlike you, I have to look myself in the mirror every morning.”
Indeed? I thought that vampires did not a reflection cast.”
“Have me fired? Not likely. Have you read my contract? Can you read? Or do they use picture books in MBA school now?”
“Ja! Go ahead and call corporate headquarters! My report is already transmitted to them.”
On hearing the sound of the telephone handset being slammed down into its cradle, Reacher put hir ears forward and was carefully studying the console screen of hir control station when Dr. Hoffmann opened the office door and strolled out of the borrowed room as if he had just had a pleasant chat with a friend.
“Reacher, I need to go out and see a few people. You are in charge here while I am gone. Please have a rough summary of everyone’s results ready for tomorrow’s morning staff meeting.”
As Dr. Hoffmann closed the laboratory door behind him, the chakat stopped trying to hide hir concern and glanced over at Karl. The two exchanged a worried look and went back to work. This was going to get ugly.
Mike woke up feeling a bit off. Not sick really, but strange, an indefinable feeling of… wrongness, and all the odors overpowering his nose weren’t helping. How had his house gotten so awfully smelly? He thought absently that maybe he should change his maid service to weekly rather than every two weeks. His wife had been far the better housekeeper than he, and he’d let the place go a bit since her death.
What a dream he'd had last night! Must not be morning yet, as the room was still dark. He rolled from his side to his back and felt something odd under him. Like a rope, maybe. He grabbed the offending article and pulled…
“Yowww! Wrat ta hell?!” He sat up in surprise. The 'rope' was attached to his butt, and pulling it hurt! Mike’s movements had triggered a sensor and subdued lighting gradually lit up the room. He looked down at the furry 'rope' in his hands. His hands? He stared at them. They were furred! With claws instead of nails! And the 'rope' in his hand was a furry tail; a tail that was… was attached to him! His jaw dropped in shock at the idea. It was preposterous – he didn’t have a tail! He couldn’t have a tail! Only animals had tails.
Sitting up had caused him to take a deeper breath, and once again his nose was assaulted by a cacophony of smells, scents layered upon scents: strong and subtle, strange and familiar, but mostly the harsh scents of antiseptics and cleaning fluids, overlaying even less pleasant undertones of past injuries and illness. What the hell had people dumped in this room to smell so much?
A slight muzziness that he remembered from past hospital stays told him that he was still under the influence of a sedative. Feeling dizzy, Mike looked down where the hospital gown had gotten stretched over his chest and noticed the swellings it covered there. What the hell…?
Before he could start to examine further, a door slid open and a nurse walked in. “Good morning! Glad to see you're awake.” she said in the perky manner that all nurses seem to learn somewhere. He stared at her, mouth hanging open. The uniform was the expected nurse's scrubs in institutional green with a name tag that read “Colleen Barnett, R.N.” and the figure was attractively female, but the head was… canine?
“And how are we feeling?” she chirped brightly, turning away from him to set something down on a wheeled bed table and revealing a fluffy, collie-dog tail protruding from a slit in the back of her hospital pants. She turned back to him and noticed his stare.
“Are you OK, honey? You look like you've seen a ghost.” Her accent and wording was strange, but understandable.
“Er, w'at ar' oo?” he said, stunned by the impossible being in front of him and at the same time frustrated at his inability to talk clearly.
“I'm your nurse, silly,” the collie-dog-thing replied in her odd mostly-English speech. “Now are you feeling well enough to talk to us a bit?”
Mike stared at her as his thoughts whirled around in his head. He needed to figure out if he was going insane, or if the world had gone insane around him. Or, most likely, if this was all a very strange dream.
“Wan' t' sleep,” he told her, trying to buy some time alone to try to understand what was going on. Or preferably to wake up from this very, very weird dream.
“All right honey, but if you need help just call. The A.I. will let me know. Her name's Dora. I'll tell Doctor Hoffmann that you woke up but need to sleep a bit more.” Turning around, she walked to the door which opened for her. His last view of her was that incredibly fluffy tail, and then the door closed again.
Sleep was actually the last thing Mike was interested in just then. Looking around the room for the first time, it had the institutional look of a hospital room, complete with unidentified fixtures and screens displaying graphs and status read-outs. Except, the screens didn’t seem to be actually hardware, but just images floating in mid-air. Fumbling around, he found the latch for the hospital bed's guard rail and lowered it. He slid his legs off the bed and stood up holding onto the rail, swaying slightly. Where was his balance? Looking across the room, he saw a full-length mirror on the wall and carefully walked over to it. His body felt strange, his gait oddly unfamiliar and off-balance as he walked to the mirror.
What stared back at him was… most definitely not him. A large cat (a puma? cougar?) stood in the mirror, its bright emerald green eyes staring into his from under a sleep-mussed, honey blonde, head of hair that reached below its shoulders. He moved his hand to his face, and the creature in the mirror moved with him. It (no, she, judging by the modest swell of breasts under the gown) was wearing a pastel green, floral-print hospital gown that reached down to just above her knees. The legs and arms were covered in a short, tawny fur and the black tip of a tawny-furred tail almost brushed the floor. The four-toed feet looked vaguely human, except for the fur and the blunt claws at the tip of each somewhat oversized toe. He pulled off the gown, and stared in shock at the cat-person thing that stared back at him. No, definitely a cat-woman, judging from the small but shapely breasts and the lack of manly projections from the fur-covered crotch.
'What the hell is going on here?' he thought as he stared at the apparition in the mirror. The room started spinning and he sat down on the visitor chair with a thump, right on his tail.
“Arrrroww!” The pain caused him to cry out and gave him the energy to stand up again. Just then, the door opened and two people walked in. Well, a person and a… something.
The first person was reassuringly human. Tall and thin, almost gaunt, with thinning, black hair turning to gray, dressed in a casual shirt and slacks, he looked like a college professor. The other being, well…
'A centaur?' Mike thought, 'but starting with a cat instead of a horse. No, a centaur would have a human head and torso.' The torso seemed human, except for the fur, but the head was definitely feline. It (no, she, judging by the very womanly breasts) was wearing a dark blue shirt and a belt pouch as its only clothing. 'What is that and where am I? Am I going insane?'
“Wher' am ah? Wha' hav' ya done to me? An wha' is she? An' th' nurz dog? An', an'… wha' am I?” Mike demanded, then swayed and almost fell before reaching out to steady himself on a chair and recovering his balance.
The man and the cat-centaur-thing looked at each other for a moment. Then the man said carefully, “Let us take this a bit at a time. We can take turns asking each other questions and sort this out. Agreed?”
Mike nodded his assent. The cheerful nurse-dog-person returned and fussed over him as she half-led, half-carried him back into bed and helped him back into the hospital gown that he'd discarded. Mike found the experience of a tail pushing the silly gown open in back to be disconcerting. ‘A tail? My tail?!’
“Now you just stay in bed, hear me? If you need something, just tell Dora and she'll get me. Don't make me lock the sides up on this bed!” She gave him a very collie-dogish grin to take some of the sting out of her lecture.
“Ah'll be goot,” he replied, too overwhelmed to argue.
“Now first, you are in the company infirmary of ProDyne Corporation's Copernicus Crater lunar teleporter research labs,” Dr. Hoffmann said. “We teleported you here to save you from the tsunami that hit Christmas Island yesterday. If we had not beamed you up, you and your companion would most certainly be dead now.” A dozen questions went through Mike's mind as he listened. Not knowing which one to ask first kept him silent for a moment, then he said, “Wha' an I? Wha'r is Mo'y? Why em I lik' this?”
“When we beamed you up, there was a transporter failure. We could not recover your body patterns, so rather than simply let you die, we used patterns still in the buffer to combine with your mind matrix patterns. Your body is that of a McClaren's Cougar morph who had been beamed up just before you.” Dr. Hoffmann studied the cat-morph in the hospital bed carefully, trying to gauge hir reactions.
“Beam'd up? Min’ matix? Mor'f? Wai' a min't - Lun'r lab? No 'un lives on t' moon!”
The man looked thoughtful for a moment, then looked at the ceiling and said, “Dora, command override, Hoffmann, 23753, code kappa alpha. Gravity plate power off in this room for five seconds starting immediately.”
A pleasant feminine voice came from the ceiling, “Command override accepted. Gravity plates powering off now. Warning: Lunar gravity at one sixth G commencing.”
Suddenly, Mike felt himself get very light, much to the distress of his stomach. “Wha' da 'ell?!” Then as suddenly as it left, full gravity returned, pressing him back into the bed. “Thas' no' poss'bl!”
The cat-centaur-thing looked at Mike with suddenly widened eyes. “What year is it?”
Mike blinked back. “Is thi' a san'ty test? I'ss 2023, of cor's.”
The human standing next to the cat-centaur-thing shook his head. “I'm sorry, but no, it's not 2023. Today's date is June 20, 2338.”
The room spun and went black as Mike fainted again.
“You certainly have an effect on people, Doc,” Reacher said as shi watched Nurse Colleen fuss over the reviving cougar morph on the bed and inject hir with a sedative.
Dr. Hoffmann shook his head, too absorbed in thought to respond to the good-natured jibe. “2023. That could explain a lot.” He paused in thought again. “I am going to go back and review the logs and data records for the last few transports. Please stay and talk to our guest. Shi will no doubt have a lot of questions, and I would like you to learn as much as possible about hir origin and circumstances.”
“Do you really think shi's from 2023, Doc?”
“Let us go on that assumption. You have seen hir reaction to morphs; you all seem completely unknown to hir. Shi claims to have no knowledge of the Lunar settlements and was astounded by artificial gravity.”
“True. Well, you're the doc, Doc. Go on – I'll handle things here.” Shi grinned lopsidedly. “I have the feeling we're both in for a fascinating day.”
Dr. Hoffmann walked out of the room as the collie-morph nurse turned from her patient to Reacher, hands on hips and in full protective-nurse mode.
“Listen up Reacher. I heard what the Doc told you, but this poor fur isn't up to an interrogation. I've given hir a mild sedative, but I'm staying here to make sure you don't over-stress hir again. You hear me?”
Reacher put hir hands up in a gesture of humorous submission. “Gotcha, Colleen. I'll be good. Promise.” Shi made an “X” with her finger on hir rather impressive chest.
“OK, but I'm staying in here with you this time. You make hir pass out again and I'll kick your fuzzy butt out of here so fast that your tail will take a week to catch up with the rest of you.”
“Ooooh! How did you know that I like it rough?” shi teased.
“Chakats! Don't you ever think of anything but sex?” Colleen bantered back.
“What better to think about in the presence of such a beautiful lady? Was that an invitation?” The two morphs were old friends and enjoyed the verbal sparring and flirting.
“You should be so lucky, kittycat.” A noise from the direction of the bed caught her attention. “Anyhow, you're scaring our patient.”
Mike had recovered a bit and was openly staring at the two of them, the sedative making him feel a little drunk. “Ge' a room, you two,” he said and grinned weakly.
“Welcome back,” said Reacher, turning hir attention to the cougar morph on the bed. Colleen immediately started fussing over her patient, helping hir sit up and raising the head end of the bed and placing pillows behind hir back to support hir. “I think that some introductions are in order. The lovely lady with the gorgeous fur is Colleen Barnett, your nurse. I'm Chakat FarReach, child of Foxfur and Blizzard, and the head research engineer here at ProDyne Lunar R&D labs. Call me Reacher. And the human who just left is Dr. Herman Hoffmann, Director and chief scientist of ProDyne Lunar R&D laboratories. Now, who are you?”
“Mike Thompson, of Washington, D.C.. Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, retired,” Mike replied out of long habit. He found that he was getting used to his new teeth and tongue, and could talk almost normally if he spoke slowly and carefully.
Reacher kept hir face impassive. This was not the time to tell hir that most of the site of the former city of Washington was now radioactive-bottomed “Washington Bay”.
“Er… I don't know how to ask this politely, so I'll just come out with it. What are you? The both of you?” He was trying carefully not to say 'talking animal' but that was certainly what he was thinking.
Colleen spoke first. “Reacher and I are both morphs. We're the descendants of genetically-engineered people, designed for tasks that were dangerous or unpleasant enough that humans did not want to perform them.”
“Oh.” Mike thought this was likely to be a touchy subject, but had to know more. “Are you, um, clients… wards…”
Reacher answered, “Are we owned by humans? No, that was what the Gene Wars were about. We morphs are full citizens of the Federation, with all the same rights as humans.”
“The Gene Wars?” As both a former soldier and amateur historian, Mike's curiosity was aroused, in spite of the more pressing questions still unanswered.
“Not a pleasant subject,” replied the chakat, “and too long and complicated to summarize easily. Dora?”
“Yes, FarReach?” the voice of the facility A.I. came from the ceiling speakers.
“The patient in this room is designated Mike Thompson. Please send a link to relevant articles about the Gene Wars to the bedside PADD of Shir Thompson.”
“Designation accepted. Requested links sent to the bedside PADD of Shir Thompson.”
“There. You can read as much as you like about the Gene Wars at your leisure. Personally, I have trouble reading about the period. Literally billions of people, humans and morphs, died in a series of genocidal wars fought with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. In the aftermath, billions more died of disease and starvation.”
“You must hate us humans,” Mike said quietly.
Colleen answered for the chakat and herself. “No. Not at all. Oh, some morphs still harbor some mistrust of humans, and there are still some human morph-haters, but mostly we all live together fairly harmoniously. Remember, humans created our ancestors in the first place and we're all partially human, genetically.”
“And my species was created after the Gene Wars, so to me it's a terribly sad time in history, but not personal.” Reacher looked uncharacteristically serious as shi looked into Mike's eyes. “And besides,” shi hesitated but pushed on, “you do realize that technically, you're not a human anymore?”
Mike closed his eyes and took a deep breath and let it out to calm himself. “Whatever you gave me a few minutes ago must be good stuff. This morning I was a human man, and now I'm some sort of cat-woman. I should be freaking out and having screaming hysterics. Instead, I'm lying here calmly discussing my sex and species-change with a dog-woman and a cat-centaur.”
Seizing the opportunity to lighten the mood, Reacher grinned mischievously and looked at Colleen. “How come you never give me any of the good stuff?”
She looked back at hir serenely, “I thought you chakats were already high on life,” then stuck out her tongue at him. It was an impressively long tongue.
“Guilty as charged.” Shi returned her attention to Mike. “To get it all over with while you're taking things this calmly, in addition to becoming a herm cougar morph through a teleporter accident, you're three hundred years in your future.”
“Three hundred years in the future!?” Mike sat up straighter. While this certainly explained a lot, it also brought out even more questions. “Why did you do it? How did you do it? And what's a herm?”
“I forgot, you didn't have any herms in 2023. Let's tackle that one first. Herm is short for hermaphrodites. Like me. You've noticed my breasts, I saw you looking. It's ok, I enjoy the attention,” the chakat grinned. “I have all the girl parts to go along with them, as well. But I'm also male.” Shi raised a hind leg and rolled hir body to reveal hir sheathed penis. “See?”
Mike stared at the unexpected sight, somewhat embarrassed by the morph’s uninhibited display then said carefully, “So I'm still male?”
Colleen chimed in, “No, you're a herm. But that overgrown kittycat and hir lot insist that as herms, they have the best of both worlds.”
“We do!” Reacher said smugly.
“I think it actually makes me feel a bit better to know that I'm still at least partially male. Given a choice though, I'd rather go back home and be my old human, male self.” He looked at the pair hopefully. “Is there any chance you can do that?” Reacher frowned and shook hir head sympathetically. “I'm sorry to be the one who has to tell you, but we really don't think we can send you home or give you your old body back. You see, we were finishing an emergency evacuation when we…” Reacher explained in detail the events of the previous day and the virtual impossibility of returning hir to hir time and original body.
“So there's no way back to my real body? If you can turn me into, um, this, you should be able to change me back into a human.”
Reacher’s expression carried the bad news before hir words. “I'm sorry, but again, no. We lost your patterns when the primary pattern transfer buffer failed. We have nothing of your previous pattern to work with. Even if we did, we have no way to be sure we could successfully reverse the process. You could end up insane, or catatonic or dead.”
“I’d be willing to risk it.”
“You have no idea how close to dying you were. I'm amazed we managed to save you at all, and I flatly would not be willing to try it again in anything but a life and death emergency.”
“No way at all of reversing the process?” Mike went on, unwilling to give up on the possibility of getting his human body back.
“I'm sorry, but no, I'm afraid not.”
“But we're going to do everything we can to help you adapt to your body and your new life here,” Colleen added.
“Ok.” Mike paused to take a deep breath and try to calm down and start to try to resign himself to his new situation. “Thanks, I guess.” A thought occurred to him and he grinned wryly. “I'm glad at least people still speak something close to English; I was never very good at learning new languages.”
“Terranglo, actually,” Colleen said, “Based on late twenty-first century English but with the grammar and such cleaned up a bit. I was told in school that the widespread use of audio recordings in entertainment media has greatly slowed down the speed at which languages change. I expect you'll pick it up pretty quickly.”
Reacher looked at Mike intently, trying to use hir empathic talent to read Mike's emotional state. “You really are taking this very calmly, given the total disruption of your life.”
“I'm anything but calm, actually. But I'm not just a retired soldier, I'm a veteran of three combat tours; holding myself together under stress is what I was trained to do.” He looked down at his furry hands and went on thoughtfully, “And I think the sedative is probably helping.” He paused to compose himself again before going on. “My wife died a couple of years ago. My son and I were never close; I guess I was too much the military officer and too little a 'dad'. My step-daughter has her own family and life; I haven't heard much from her since her mother died. Since I retired, I've lost track of my friends from the Army. The only one who really cares about me is my dog, Molly.”
Mike stopped and looked worriedly at them. “What happened to Molly? Is she OK? Did you recover her?”
Reacher exchanged a startled look with Colleen. “The being with you when we teleported you from the surface was your dog?”
“I certainly hope so. She's a Sheltie, about eight years old. Fur color similar to yours, nurse. Is she OK?”
Colleen and FarReach looked at each other again, not knowing what to say and each wanting the other to start. Finally Reacher took the lead.
“Dora, signal Dr. Hoffmann and play him the last thirty seconds of this room's audio.”
“Executing,” the voice of the A.I. replied, paused, then continued a minute later, “Dr. Hoffmann acknowledges.”
“Thank you Dora. Now to answer your question Mike, we beamed her up at the same time we beamed you up.”
“That's great news! When can I see her?”
“It's not quite as simple as that.” Reacher paused. “We weren't able to receive her physical pattern either, so we materialized her mind matrix into the other pattern still resident in the buffer.”
“Is she still some breed of dog?” Mike looked at their suddenly sober faces. “A cat?”
Colleen said slowly, “Um not exactly… Molly is now a nine-year-old human girl.”
“Who evidentially still thinks she's a dog,” added Reacher.
Mike felt the room start to spin again as he started into the welcoming darkness again. Just before he passed out again Mike heard the collie-morph bark at the chakat, “Now look what you've done! What did I tell you I'd do…”
“What did I just tell you not to do?” Dr. Elbeth Redpaw said acerbically to Maria. As usual, hy was in female mode. “Much as she may resemble Tonya, she's not really your daughter. And she bites!” Hy rubbed the bandage on hys hand ruefully.
“I can't help it,” Maria replied, “she looks so much like Tonya that I feel that I have to help.”
“Doesn't act like her,” Karl muttered darkly.
“I heard that,” Maria shot back.
“Well it's true…”
“Quiet you two,” Elbeth said, “she's coming around. Let's not do anything to scare her this time.”
“Not that we did the first time,” the wolf-morph muttered under his breath.
“And I heard that, too,” the skunktaur said, keeping hys eyes on the small form in front of hym. “Let's focus people, she's coming around.”
The girl in the bed shifted slightly and her eyes opened a slit, then sprang open wide. She rolled to all fours, facing the people around her and again began to try to bark furiously.
“Not this again,” the wolf-morph grumbled, this time not bothering to keep his voice down.
“Shhhh… Calm down. We're here to help you,” Elbeth said to the girl on the bed as hy crouched down to get on her eye level while trying unsuccessfully to both keep hys voice quiet and reassuring, and at the same time to be heard over the girl's barking.
“Got that hypospray ready again?” Karl shouted over the barking as he readied himself to move quickly should the girl try to run, or worse – bite someone again.
Molly looked around, panicked beyond any time in her entire life. Her body felt very strange and didn't work right, nothing seemed to have any smells and she was surrounded by unfamiliar beings: a strange human, a huge dog standing on his hind legs and a totally wrong, four-footed, cat-dog-something thing. Worst of all, her pack-alpha-person wasn't there to help her! He'd always been there with her before when she needed him. She backed to the wall, growling her warning to the intruders: Approach me and get bitten!
“Don't upset her again,” Elbeth said in a quiet, calm voice, “I need to get a read on her.” Hy moved slowly towards the girl, talking gently to the girl. “It's OK, honey. I know things seem strange right now, but we're your friends.” Hy reached out to the girl, both with hys hand and hys psi talent.
Molly couldn't decide what the four-footed thing with black and white fur was, but whatever it was, it was strange and approaching her. She barked and snapped at its outstretched hand, almost managing to bite it again. It retreated and Molly felt a surge of triumph.
“It's OK, dear…” Elbeth started again, when the door to the room opened unexpectedly and Melissa walked in. Molly looked at the cat-thing, fully the size of a human, and her almost-barks turned into yelps of panic. She turned and tried to find a place to run or hide, and finding nothing, started trying to scrabble up the wall, knocking over the bedside table.
“She's going to hurt herself,” Marie yelled, “Do something!”
“Karl,” Elbeth ordered, “grab her!” and moved in with the hypospray.
Feeling the wolf-morph's hand grab her ankle, Molly turned and lunged to bite it. Karl yelped and jerked his hand back just in time to avoid the bite, and as he lost his balance, Molly saw her opportunity, dove under his grasp and scurried toward the door, upsetting the bedside tray and its contents onto the floor. Melissa dove into the gap between her and the door, blocking her escape and driving her into further panic. Molly turned faster than anyone could have believed possible and actually ran on all fours over the fallen wolf-morph and toward the smart-wall view screen that was currently showing an outdoor scene on Earth. Karl caught her ankle just before she could crash into the surface of the smart-wall and Elbeth touched the hypospray to her neck. Karl, Elbeth, Melissa and Marie all converged on the struggling girl until the sedative took hold and she went limp.
The smoothly modulated voice of the facility A.I. broke the exhausted silence. “Message from FarReach: Be cautious in approaching the girl beamed up from the base. The other person transported up from the surface is awake and has asserted that the consciousness transported into Tonya's pattern is that of hir pet dog.”
The four looked at each other in growing comprehension and dismay. They'd accidentally performed an unauthorized uplift on a non-sapient animal! Before anyone could break their stunned silence, the A.I. spoke again.
“Additional message from FarReach: Avoid exposing the girl to felinoids. Her former owner reports that she has a phobia about cats.”
“Now they frickin’ tell us,” Karl muttered darkly as he looked over at Elbeth.
“…ever since she was a puppy,” Mike went on. “She tried to play with the neighbor's cat just after I got her and was badly scratched. Only dog I've ever seen that runs from cats.” Mike had revived quickly and was filling Reacher and Colleen in on Molly.
“Hopefully, that won't be a problem for Elbeth and Karl,” Reacher said as the A.I.'s voice broke in.
“FarReach and Maria, please see Dr. Hoffmann in his office.”
“Sounds like the boss needs me. Gotta go,” FarReach said, getting up from the taur pad and walking to the door. Once the chakat was gone, leaving Mike and the nurse alone in the room, Mike decided to address another urgent issue.
“Speaking of 'gotta go', where is the bathroom?” Mike enquired.
“I'll get you a bedpan,” the collie-morph replied.
“Oh hell no! I wouldn't use one of those damn things when I was in the hospital for a bullet wound. I'm perfectly capable of getting up on my own two feet now and walking over to the bathroom.”
“You're not used to your new body yet,” the Collie-morph replied in her best nurse-to-patient voice.
“So how am I ever going to get used to it, if I never use it?”
The two glared at each other for a moment. Recognizing an immovable object when shi saw one, Mike decided to try a compromise.
“OK, how about this? You can help me walk over to the bathroom and stand just outside. I'll call if I have any trouble.”
Colleen had also recognized Mike as one of 'those patients' and went for the compromise. “OK, but if you get dizzy on the way, we go right back to the bed and you use the bedpan. And if you feel the least faint or ill while in there, you call me immediately. Deal?”
“Deal! Give me a hand then.” Mike sat up straight and swung hir legs over the edge. With the nurse steadying hir, shi slid off the bed and felt the claws of hir toes touch the floor. 'That'll take some getting used to,' Mike thought.
With Colleen steadying hir, they walked across the room to the bathroom door. Mike was acutely aware of hir tail swinging loosely behind hir, brushing hir legs. “How do you ever get used to your tail getting in the way of things?”
“Hmmm? Oh, don't worry. Once you learn to control it, you'll be glad you have it,” she said with a knowing smile. “I honestly don't know how humans manage to balance on two legs without one. Are you sure I can't talk you into letting me help you? You don't want to get that tail wet, after all.”
“No, I'm here and I can manage.” Shi walked into the room and shut the door behind hir and looked at the door handle. 'No lock on the door, of course.' shi thought to hirself. Shi pulled up the hospital gown in front, looked for and found the slight bulge of hir sheathed penis. 'How do I do this?' Shi tried pushing on the base of the sheath without much success, then reached two fingers into the top of the sheath and pulled hir male member out with a wince of pain. 'That hurt! I hope that I can learn to get it out without having to do that.’ Looking at hir new ‘equipment’ shi thought, ‘Not very big, it it? I hope the gals here and now go for quality rather than quantity.’
Leaning forward a bit, shi pointed it down into the toilet bowl and concentrated on relaxing the right muscles to let the flow start. After a moment shi felt hir sphincter relax and…
“What the hell!” shi shouted as the stream started from somewhere unexpected and began to soak the fur on hir legs and splatter on to the floor.
Colleen had the door open a split second later as Mike tried to control the right muscles to stop the flow. “What are you doing!?” she said as she took in the sight of the shocked and humiliated Mike standing there in a puddle of liquid. Caught between her amusement at the former human's error and her annoyance at the mess it caused, she controlled both her face and voice. “I guess you need a lesson or two in how to be a herm,” she said a bit too sweetly. Let's get you into the shower and rinsed off and we'll try it again, shall we?” She looked up at the ceiling camera. “Dora, 'clean-up on aisle one’.”
“Understood,” the A.I. replied, “Cleaning robot on the way.” There almost seemed to be a hint of amusement in the mechanical voice.
After completing relief, cleaning and fur drying, Mike was back in bed, the insides of hir ears still blushing pink with embarrassment.
“Don't feel too badly. If you were a chakat, like Reacher, that would have worked. Their 'plumbing' is arranged that way.”
“So just what am I?”
“You're a McClaren's Cougar, like Melissa and Kathryn MacLeod. They're an early herm species that dates from before the Gene Wars. They used Kathryn's pattern to save your life.”
Mike sat there silently for a moment, hir head down. “Maybe they shouldn't have.”
She put her hand under Mike's chin and moved hir face up to look at her. “I don't ever want to hear that! You're here and you're alive against incredible odds. And you have a unique opportunity to see the future. How many people are given that chance?”
Mike stayed silent, trying to avoid her gaze, then mumbled, “I'm a human, damn it. I just want my body back.”
‘I've got to get hir thinking about something outside of hirself’, the nurse thought. “And Molly is going to need you now, more than ever. If you think you have a lot to get used to, just think of her.”
Mike met her gaze again, concern in hir eyes. “How is she?”
“Sleeping off a sedative. The message that she's easily upset by cats got there a few minutes too late.”
“Oh. I should go and…” shi paused for a moment, frustration evident on hir face. “Damn it, going to comfort her in this body will just make it worse, won't it?”
“For now, yes. But as soon as she can understand who you are, she's going to need you a lot. For now, try to get some sleep and let yourself start to recover.”
After almost three days of careful movement through the mountains, the HLA squad reached the pickup point. For once, the vehicles were waiting there to pick them up: a small tour bus and a garbage truck, carefully hidden under a dense stand of trees. With practiced ease, they exchanged their camouflage uniforms and weapons for hiking clothes, PADDs and cameras. Weapons, discarded clothes and anything else incriminating was bagged and buried under some particularly fragrant and disgusting refuse in the truck, which promptly drove off. The bus containing the squad, now to all appearances an innocent group of hikers, pulled out to take a different route back to the unit's base of operations. Now that they were safe, the squad relaxed into post-mission chatter.
“I’d better get all my stuff back from that damn truck,” Eric complained. “Last time, someone nicked my wolf ears.”
“Yeah,” Ed whined. “I worked hard for my trophies and I don't like some REMF taking them for himself.”
“Why the hell can't you just notch the stock of your rifle or something,” Pete put in, thinking about the neat row of notches carved into the stock of his own weapon. “What are you gonna do with that shit anyway? Make a necklace?”
“Anyone can cut a notch into a stock,” Eric shot back. “Trophies are proof.”
“It's proof all right,” Pete added, privately thinking that it was as stupid as it was disgusting. “If the Feds catch you with morph trophies, you're done. They'll throw you in jail, lose the key and weld the door shut. And you don't even want to think about what a wolftaur pack would do to you if they cautch you with them.” He wrinkled his nose at an unpleasant memory. “And they stink.”
“Lighten up, Watanabi,” Kevin weighed in. “They’re good for morale and help toughen up the new troops for what has to be done. Maybe you should take the tail from our next kill yourself; you sound like you could use some remedial toughening up yourself.”
“I do my job, Sarge! I've made my share of kills and more than most.” He looked over at Eric.
“We all do what we have to do to take the planet back for humanity, Pete, and it's seldom pretty.” His voice took on an almost fatherly tone. “I don't kick puppies for fun, or drown kittens for kicks, but if taking a bit of morph fur here and there helps some of the troops to deal with things, then let it be.”
Kevin’s PADD chimed for attention, and he paused to read the incoming message. “Listen up! The head shed must be happy with how we've been doing. We're being pulled out for special training and a mission.”
“Sounds like like we ‘volunteered’ again, Sarge,” Ed commented, rolling his eyes.
“You and I may not like the fucking brass but the brass sure likes fucking us,” Eric jibed.
‘Damn. What are we getting into this time?’ Pete wondered. ‘I've come a long way from Danville, Virginia trying to avenge Sarah and my parents.’
Mike was running for his life. Something was chasing him but he didn't dare pause to look over his shoulder to see how close it was. The corridor ended abruptly, no doors, no windows, no way out. Something he couldn't see grabbed him by his tail. His tail? He screamed and… woke up.
Throwing back the covers, Mike discovered that shi'd managed to get hir tail caught under hir, making it feel as if it was being pulled. Shi untangled hirself from the hospital robe, and threw it across the room, leaving hir naked except for hir fur. Feeling restless and upset both by hir dream and the reminder of hir new species, shi got up and walked to the bathroom. Dim lights around the edges of the floor automatically came on, allowing hir feline night vision to easily avoid obstacles in the still unfamiliar room. As shi entered the bathroom, the ceiling lights eased slowly on, allowing hir to see without blinding hir. The figure in the bathroom mirror unnerved hir for a moment. A cougar was standing on its hind legs, staring hir in the eye. An unprejudiced observer might have said that this animal was rather pretty. Its eyes were emerald green with vertical pupils. Its shoulder-length hair was disheveled but a lustrous shade of honey blonde, which complemented the tawny fur of its body. The fur covered its small but shapely breasts, except for the tips of nipples that just barely peeked out. A beautiful animal, really. But an animal, nevertheless.
‘That's me now,’ Mike thought. ‘An animal. Not human any more. Just an animal.’ The thought kept rolling around hir mind, crushing the other thoughts trying to contradict it. ‘Just another animal in this crazy zoo of a world.’ Shi screamed at the mirror and struck at the image, hir hand rebounding painfully from the sturdy and undamaged surface. “Nooooooo! I'm not an animal! That's not me! It can't be!”
Unable to face hir image, Mike collapsed to the floor and began to cry in great heaving sobs, feeling utterly lost and mourning like a lost soul for hir humanity. A moment later, Colleen entered the room and knelt down to gather Mike in her arms and rock hir gently. She'd been at her station when the A.I. determined that the nurse should see and hear what was happening in Mike's room, and immediately rushed to hir.
Colleen continued to hold and wordlessly comfort the cougar-morph in her arms until hir sobs faded away. She gently took Mike's muzzle in her hand and tilted hir face up to hers and looked hir in the eye.
“No, you're not an animal. You're still a person. Maybe not quite the same person you were, but a person. Look at me!” She held Mike’s eyes with her own. “Do you think that I'm just an animal?”
Colleen held Mike’s gaze for a moment, then shi looked away and shook hir head, hir shoulders slumping.
“Damn right! I'm not a human and I don't want to be one, but I'm as much a person as any of them. And so are you. You're not ‘just an animal’ unless you choose to be, and I can't believe the person you are would make that choice.”
Mike looked into her eyes for a long moment, then slowly nodded and allowed Colleen to help hir up and lead hir back to bed.
When she returned to her desk, Colleen made a call to Dr. Elbeth to discuss the evening’s events.
The next morning, Dr. Elbeth called Kate into hys office.
After inviting the young cougar morph to have a seat and offering hir a cup of coffee, hy came to the point. “Kathryn, Dr. Hoffmann and I would like to make a temporary change to your internship duties here. I know that you have been working with Dr. DeGaulle up until now, but we'd like to reassign you to helping Mike adjust to hir new body and environment.”
The cat-morph hesitated, then said, “But I'm in the middle of several projects in her department. And since Mike still identifies as a human, wouldn't shi rather have another human help hir?”
“Maria assures me that she can have other people pick up where you left off, but you're really the only one who can give Mike the help shi needs. Shi very much needs to have someone help hir adjust to hir new body,” Elbeth said to the young cougar morph, after pausing to take a sip of hir coffee. “Aand your mother has to help Dr. Hoffmann determine exactly what happened in that last transport. Since we used your body for the pattern, you're the expert on it. Can you handle it, Kathryn?”
“I'm game, I guess.” Shi frowned doubtfully. “But will shi listen to me? I was told shi is… um… was like sixty years old. Shi's going to think I'm just a smart-ass kid,” shi said. Then the insides of hir ears pinked in a blush at hir choice of words to the highly respected physician, but the skunktaur merely smiled gently at hir.
“I believe so. Shi's been pretty rational, considering everything shi's been through. But that reminds me, for the moment, you might want to be careful with pronouns. Mike still thinks of hirself as male and doesn't quite grasp the herm viewpoint yet. Worse, shi's managed to embarrass hirself pretty badly by not knowing hir own body.” Elbeth related Mike's earlier experience in the bathroom with Colleen.
“Oops!” shi giggled. “That would be embarrassing! Maybe shi'd feel better if I told hir about the time when I was little and did something like that after watching a human boy. But are you sure that I should leave my intern duties for the lab?”
Elbeth nodded firmly. “Dr. Hoffmann and Dr. DeGaulle both want to reassign you to helping Mike adjust to his new circumstances as your full time duties for the present, if you're willing.”
“OK, Dr. Elbeth, you've got it. I'll start by giving a “McClaren's Cougar 101” class to the newest member of my species first thing tomorrow morning.”
“This is an abomination!” The middle-aged, heavyset, gray-haired and bearded man in the dark suit looked up from the report on his desktop screen. A small, circular, gold lapel pin with an 'H' superimposed over a '1' in black enamel was the suit's only decoration. “Have you confirmed this?”
“We have only the initial report from our source, Mr. Thurston, but the source has always been reliable in the past,” replied the short, dark and wiry-looking man standing in front of the desk. Long-standing habits of operational security kept him from even referring to the gender of the source.
“How many humans died in the Gene Wars?” Thurston asked meditatively.
Kris Pike had worked with Richard Thurston for several years and was used to his boss’s conversational side tracks. “No one really knows, sir. Depending on the source you read, anywhere between eight and sixteen billion.”
“And the the percentage of humans versus morphs at the end of the wars?”
“The first census after the start of the Reconstruction showed the total population to be about eighty two percent human and eighteen percent morph. Unfortunately, the morph percentage was approximately three times higher than than it had been at the start of the Gene wars.”
“Correct. And those percentages today?”
“Well, sir,” Kris paused, trying to remember a figure he had only glanced at in a long report some weeks ago. “I believe the current figures are roughly seventy percent human and thirty percent morph.”
“Close enough,” the older man said, scowling. “The UNTWG doesn’t widely publish those figures ‘in the name of inter-species harmony’. But H1 has people on the inside that pass them on to us.” He paused for a moment, staring off into the distance at something only he could see. “The human birthrate is down to 1.8 to every two humans. The morph birthrate is harder to calculate exactly, but the best UNTWG estimate is over 3.1 to every two morphs. Based on these figures, Kris, our people calculate that humans will be a minority on their own planet by the end of this century. And how long after man is a minority on Earth before the morphs move to eliminate their enemy? By the end of the next century, humanity could be extinct on the very planet that gave birth to it.”
“Or at best, a persecuted minority, living at the sufferance of their morph masters,” Kris added grimly.
“Exactly. And now this! Those jumped-up beasts have come up with a way to pervert humans into monsters like themselves. They have to be stopped for the sake of the human race!” Kris nodded and waited for his boss to go on.
“To use this technology to warp a human into a half-animal gene-joke is bad enough, but this other, other… thing! To elevate a mere beast into the semblance of a human form!” He paused, words failing his outrage. His normally already pale complexion had darkened noticeably in his rage. “This obscenity, this insult to all humanity, must be wiped from existence!”
Kris again nodded agreement, but hesitated a moment before replying doubtfully. “I'm sure our contacts in the HLA will agree, sir, but neither we nor they have significant… ah… direct action assets here on Luna, and none within the ProDyne municipal pressure enclosure.”
“Nevertheless, Group Leader Pike, this abomination cannot be allowed to stand.”
“Of course not, sir, but while they may be impractical to reach while in their Copernicus Crater facility, it seems unlikely that they'll stay there forever. Also, more than three-quarters of ProDyne's facilities are in Tycho City or on Earth and it seems very likely that the results of this unholy experiment will be moved to one of them before long. We'll get our chance at them.”
The older man looked through Pike for a moment, deep in thought. “I'm sending a report of events here on Luna to headquarters, with recommendations for action. We have to act now, for the sake of future human generations.”
As the room lights went slowly from minimum dim to full bright, quiet birdsong began coming from the room's speakers. Mike woke up but kept hir eyes closed. Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe shi was still human and Molly would come bouncing in to tell hir it was time to pet her and feed her breakfast. Shi opened hir eyes and saw the fur on hir hand and arm and gave up that hope. Sitting up in bed, shi noticed something else different: for the first time in decades, nothing hurt. Hir left knee, injured by shrapnel during hir last combat tour was no longer stiff and sore from a night's disuse. Mike slid hir legs over the side of the bed and noticed that the stitch in hir right side from the bullet wound that had ended hir first combat tour was gone. When shi stood up, hir left ankle, broken in a rough landing on a practice parachute jump after airborne school, no longer pained hir as shi put weight on it. Hir cane hadn't made the transport with Mike, but shi realized without regret that shi no longer needed it.
One thing that hadn't changed was the need for an early morning pee, so Mike went into the small bathroom. Remembering hir experience from the previous day, shi removed and hung up hir hospital gown then sat down on the seat, being careful not to allow hir limp tail to fall into the water. How would shi ever get used to having a tail? Mike looked down uneasily at hir unclothed lower body. Hir unclothed, furry, feminine-looking, lower body. It was still hard to believe that it belonged to hir. On someone else, Mike would have found the legs to be graceful, even pretty. Even from this close, the opening to hir penis sheath was mostly hidden in hir fur, the slight bulge of the sheath itself was subtle enough to go unnoticed at first glance. Everyone might be trying to convince hir that shi retained some of hir maleness, but looking down between hir small, firm breasts at the smooth, furry space between hir legs, it was hard not to see hirself as emasculated. Un-manned. Female. Odd that hir change of sex seemed to bother hir as much or even more than hir change of species.
Shi looked down at hir feet – hir furry feet, each with only four, somewhat large, toes. While the feet were not ungraceful, Mike found the claws on them to be somewhat disturbing. Hir claws? Hir toes shouldn't have claws, especially claws that were painted a delicate, opalescent pink!
Shi concentrated on relaxing the right muscles and, when finished, Mike remembered that, unlike when shi was male, shi’d need toilet paper. Looking around for a toilet paper roll, shi saw two slots in the wall of the stall marked with unfamiliar icons. Putting hir hand up to one, it dispensed a wet towelette. Thinking about the challenge of keeping a furry body clean, shi decided that that made sense. The other one gave hir a square of what felt like a thin but strong felted cloth. That seemed convenient enough. Shi cleaned hirself and stood up. After a moment's pause, the toilet flushed itself and Mike washed hir hands and reached for the hospital gown. Still a bit clumsy with the hands of hir new body, shi dropped the gown. Shi bent over to retrieve the item of clothing cautiously, but the pain of bending over shi automatically expected didn't come. Shi experimentally bent hirself almost double, amazed at the flexibility shi now had. Shi straightened up quickly, and was pleased that the usual dizziness that caused was absent as well.
‘Hmmmm… Maybe I'm not human, but whatever I am now, I'm at least young and fit again,’ Mike thought to hirself. ‘I guess what I really want isn’t my old body back, but my twenty-year-old body back.’ Shi smiled wryly as shi donned the hospital gown, opened the door and walked over to the bed. Picking up the iPad-like device on the table next to the bed, shi settled back to read about this new world shi found hirself in. Mike’s PADD gave hir a direct connection to the Hypernet, which shi soon deduced was the interplanetary successor to the Internet. While the PADD defaulted to its internal flat-screen, when a Tri-D video was accessed, it automatically shifted into hologram mode. With its help, Mike began trying to catch up on three centuries of events.
Among the news items that caught hir eye was the interplanetary Olympics being held at Luna’s Tycho City, the only place on Luna with a large enough gravity-controlled sports complex to host an event of that size. Many of the competitions, like track and field events, swimming events, wrestling, Judo and archery were familiar. Others, like something called “Gravball”, were not. This didn’t surprise Mike, but the new divisions did. Most events were divided into “Men’s”, “Women’s” and “Morphs”, with only a few divided into “Male Humans”, “Female Humans”, “Male Morphs” and “Female Morphs”, or not divided at all. On reflection, that made sense to Mike. A human trying to wrestle a bear morph was hardly a fair competition and shi grinned at the thought of that same bear morph trying to compete with a human woman at figure skating.
Touching an innocent looking link, Mike discovered that the Hypernet was much like its internet predecessor: Porn. Everywhere! Apparently, the human race hadn’t changed that much in three centuries. Embarrassed but curious, Mike looked around to be sure no one could see what was on his screen and followed a few links. Two things had changed. The first was that zero gravity sex was apparently very popular in this century. That didn’t bother Mike – in fact, shi thought shi’d like to try it once shi found a girlfriend. The other thing was human-morph porn. Shocked and flustered, Mike closed the browser window and shut off the PADD. Putting the PADD down, Mike thought about what shi had just seen. The idea of human-morph sex was jarring enough in itself, but even worse was the way it had slapped Mike in the face with which side of that particular divide shi was now on.
Wanting to move on from these very uncomfortable thoughts, Mike picked up the PADD and went back to reading the history of the past three centuries.
A while later, Mike looked up as the door slid aside and hir newest visitor walked in. She looked familiar, but Mike had too little experience with furred people to be sure. She was a cat morph with a cougar's coloring and markings, wearing a short dress and carrying what looked like a pink and gray gym bag. A black and white furred taur with a large fluffy tail followed her wearing a white coat and what looked a little like an oddly shaped stethoscope around her neck. Mike recognized the fur pattern as that of a skunk.
“Hi!” the cat morph said brightly, “I'm your new twin sister. My name's Kathryn MacLeod, but my friends call me Kate.” Shi held out her hand.
So that's why she (‘No, shi is the herm pronoun’, Mike reminded hirself) looked familiar; Mike had seen that face before – in the mirror. Mike was beyond being shocked, so shi took Kate’s hand in the gentle way that shi had always shaken hands with women; the furry back of Kate's hand felt strange but not unpleasant. “Call me Mike, then. So I'm you?”
“Nope. You're still you, and I'm the one and only me.” Shi grinned at Mike. “And this is Doctor Elbeth. Hy and I are going to help you get used to the new you.”
“Hello, Mike. Nice to meet you.” Hy held out hys hand and Mike took it as well.
“He? No offense Doctor, but I would have taken you for a female.”
“No offense taken,” Elbeth said. “It's ‘hy’ not ‘he’ in my case. I'm a herm too, but of a different species. We're both male and female, but unlike you, we're only one sex at a time. But we're here to talk to you about your situation, not mine.”
Kate smiled at Mike. “Since you've got a copy of my body, the Doc here thought that I'd be the best qualified to check you out on it. So, I'm going to give you the short course on being a McClaren's Cougar.”
Elbeth broke in, “But first, now that I'm not tied up with our other guest, I'm going to give you a quick exam to see if you're as disgustingly healthy as Kate, here.” Hy touched a few controls on a screen set into the table next to the bed, then took the stethoscope-looking instrument and ran it over various parts of Mike's body, watching the view panel in the table. One thing that hadn't changed in 300 years: the device was still cold when it touched hir body.
“Yep. You're the sort of person who keeps us poor, hard-working doctors from getting rich – young, fit, and revoltingly healthy. Sh… He's all yours for now Kate.” Hy patted Mike on the shoulder in farewell, turned and walked out the door, leaving the two identical cat-morphs alone.
“So, it's just us girls now?” Mike said with a bitter tone in hir voice.
“Nope, not ‘just girls’. You're still as male as you ever were, but with lots more options! But what about the rest? You're a whole different species, and you're only concerned with gender?” Shi looked at Mike, hir ears cocked forward quizzically.
“When you put it that way, no, I guess not.” Hir ears lowered of their own accord and hir shoulders slumped, revealing hir depression at the thought. “I’d rather just be human again, but everyone tells me that that isn’t going to happen. So what do I need to know?”
“Let's start at the beginning. When we're just kittens, our parents tell us all about who we are and how our ancestors were created. I'm guessing you want to start with the short version?”
Mike nodded, more out of politeness to the young cougar than from real interest.
“OK, the short form it is.” Shi paused to take a breath, then started into hir rehearsed speech. “McClaren's Cougars are a genetically engineered species named for the leader of the genetic engineering team that created the first individuals. Our ancestors were the result of an experimental project for the Canadian military. The first of them were designed to be Scout and SpecOps soldiers that could be quickly bred and trained, without tapping Canada's limited population resources. They were considered to be a success and there were over three thousand Cougars in the Canadian Defense Forces at the beginning of Gene Wars. They mostly did not participate in Gene Wars, due to the favorable conditions for them in the Canadian military and their successful integration into it.”
“Yeah, I found that the Canadian army mostly had their heads screwed on right when we worked with them. More than we did, sometimes,” Mike admitted wryly.
“The majority of our ancestors survived most of the Gene War, just to be decimated toward the end by a virus tailored to felinoid morphs. To be fair, the Canadian government did everything it could care for the affected Cougars and to find a cure, but McClaren's Cougars were on the verge of extinction for decades. We probably would have gone extinct, if it weren't for the oversized battalion of our ancestors assigned to the joint US/Canadian Lunar Base just before the start of the Gene Wars. Fortunately, due to their quarantine protocols, the virus never spread to Luna.”
Shi paused for thought. “Dr. McClaren based us on the human genome with the addition of DNA from several animals, mostly feline. Dad says that, at the time, that was considered quite unethical. Geneticists were supposed to start with the basic genome of an animal and only add as much human genetic code as absolutely required to create war-beasts. According to his notes, he made us as similar to humans as he was permitted by taking advantage of the requirement to operate equipment and wear protective clothing designed for humans. We were almost designed without tails for that reason.” Shi looked thoughtful for a moment and her ears went down. “I'd really miss my tail!” The appendage in question lashed behind hir for a moment. “Anyhow, we were derived primarily from the human genotype and, as you can see, our head, body and limbs are all human proportioned, down to being plantigrade rather than digitigrade.”
“Plantigrade? Digitigrade?” Mike asked.
“We walk on the flat bottoms of our feet like humans, rather than up on our toes like most felinoids and canids. Look at Colleen if you want to see a good example of digitigrade feet.”
Mike thought about how Colleen's feet and legs looked, then looked at Kate's feet for a moment, then nodded for hir to go on.
“In designing us to facilitate childbearing, we ended up with a lot of typically human female features: pelvises wide enough to accommodate a biped’s birth canal, longer leg to body ratios and two breasts high on the chest rather than six or more on the belly. So, compared to a lot of morphs, we come up a little short in the boob department, since ours were designed to feed babies without getting in the way.”
“I can live without having big tits,” Mike said wryly.
“Hey, once you get used to them, you'll like having breasts!” Shi smiled knowingly. “But going on… While we ended up looking small, cute and feminine, we're designed as soldiers. Look at my hand.” Shi extended her index finger and extruded a scimitar-curved, centimeter-long claw. “These are both pointed and naturally sharp on their inner edge. A human friend back on Earth told me that they're like little carpet knives, whatever those are. Mom bugs me to dull them while we're living on Luna, because they make holes even in things as tough as the fabric of our pressure suits. I hate to do it, because they're useful and they’re a pain to dull. Instead of being made of what cat's claws or human nails are, they're more like tooth enamel but not as brittle.”
Mike held up hir hand but the claws remained hidden. “How do I do that?”
“You just, like, do it.” Shi took Mike's hand and pressed on hir finger pad, extruding the claw. “Don't worry, I'll help you get the hang of it. But moving on, we're designed to operate in Canadian winters, so we can actually work in freezing temperatures in just our fur if we have to.” Shi paused, recalling a memory of hir childhood, “Once on a dare when I was a kitten, I played in the snow with the other kids all afternoon in just my fur.” Shi grinned. “I still think Tommy dared me to do it just so he could see me naked. But we furred people are never really naked.”
“Um, I hadn't thought about it before,” Mike replied uncomfortably.
“Anyhow, while we average a bit smaller than humans, our muscles are stronger pound for pound, so we tend to be about half again as strong as a human our size. Dr. McClaren's notes mentioned taking some features from chimpanzee genes to do that. Our reflexes are a bit faster than human average and we have more endurance. We have exceptionally strong immune systems so we seldom get bacterial or viral diseases, with the exception of those tailored for feline morph species. We're not like chakats though, we have no special resistance to toxins.”
“Chakats? You mean like Reacher? They're immune to poisons?” Mike raised an eyebrow at hir but was unaware of hir ears folding back slightly in skepticism.
“Well, not immune, but pretty resistant to a lot of them. They were designed to be planetary explorers and colonizers, so they were meant to be able to pretty much eat anything that didn't eat them first.” Shi grinned, “And given a chakat's appetite, that's a really good thing. They eat at least twice as much as an average human. On the other hand, we McClarens average smaller than humans, so in spite of a higher metabolic rate, we only eat about as much as one. And we like to hunt for food, too. It makes us easier to supply in field operations.”
Mike nodded in understanding; shi'd occasionally supplemented hir rations in the field hirself. “Now to go on with the next part of McClaren’s Cougar 101, sit up and have a good look at your feet and toe-claws.”
Shi did so, throwing off the sheet covering hir. “That reminds me, how do I get some real clothes? I hate this silly hospital gown.”
Kate laughed. “Dr. Elbeth's right again – hy said you'd ask for clothes right away because you were human. It's ok, I brought some of my stuff for you to borrow until we can do some shopping. You can get dressed before we go on.” Shi unzipped the gym bag to reveal a stack of neatly folded clothing and started pulling things out. “I tend to like loose, short dresses because they're easy to put on and they tend to pull less on my fur. Dr. Elbeth says that you'll probably feel uncomfortable in something that feminine, so I just brought you a top and shorts. Just chuck that ugly gown and we'll get started.” Shi waited for Mike to start, but he just stood and looked at her.
“Um, aren't you going to turn around or leave the room?”
Shi stared at Mike for a moment. “You're kidding, right? I've been seeing that body in the mirror all my life. Besides, nudity just doesn't mean that much to us furred people. We're born with better clothing than humans can ever buy. But I'll take pity on you this time, just a little bit.” Shi walked to the door and touched the control panel to close it.
To hir surprise, Kate then pulled off hir dress and tossed it on a chair, leaving hir in just fur. “You thought I was pulling your tail, didn't you?” shi said with a grin. “We really don't feel naked in our fur. Maybe some morphs on Terra are more hung-up on clothes but most Loonies tend not to be body-shy. The early Lunar habitats didn't have room for much privacy, and their present day culture reflects that.” Shi grinned. “Now, off with it!”
Reluctantly, Mike complied and looked at Kate for a moment, partly to study how hir new body must look to everyone else, but also finding shi enjoyed the view. After getting out of bed and shyly shedding hir hated hospital gown, shi asked, “Where do we begin?”
“If I were in heat, I'd start with panties, but we don't have to worry about that today, so…”
“Heat?! You mean I'm going to…?” Mike broke in with a note of panic in hir voice.
“Um, yeah. We're on a fifty-six day heat and rut cycle.” Kate noticed Mike’s flattened ears and bottlebrush tail and realized that shi’d gotten off on the wrong foot and went on hurriedly, “But I just finished my heat cycle about a week ago, so you don't need to worry about that for weeks.”
The idea of going into heat worried Mike quite a bit, but shi remembered that shi was standing there naked except for fur and decided to concentrate on getting dressed for now.
“Here's a pair of shorts; the fastener seam goes up the back. See the hole for your tail? Watch me.” Shi picked up a pair of bright red shorts and stepped into them and pulled them up to hir waist. “First, run the strap over your tail and snap it so that your tail goes through the hole, like this. Then make sure your fur isn't in the seam and just press it together like this. Since female morphs need a tail opening but don't need a front opening, lots of pants and skirts made for morph fems work like this. Now you try it.”
Mike picked up a pair of chocolate-brown shorts and copied hir, fumbling a bit with hir own tail. “My hands are starting to work better, but I can't get this tail to do anything.”
“Dr. Elbeth says that hy knows someone who can help you learn how to control your new body better. Right now, let's finish getting you dressed.” Shi giggled, “Unless you want to show off your boobs to everyone when we leave the room. I'm pretty proud of them since I'm almost a full B-cup, but I still usually wear a top.”
“Um, good idea,” Mike said, flustered. Shi was still struggling with the idea of even having breasts; showing them off was inconceivable.
“Some herm and female morphs would wear a bra, but since our breasts were designed to be small, with extra connective tissue to keep them from bouncing around when we move, we don't really need one unless we want to keep our nipples from chafing under heavy clothing. Although sometimes a sexy bra and panty set can be fun to wear.”
Mike blushed at the thought, the insides of hir ears turning pink in embarrassment. “I think I can do without, thanks.”
Mike picked up a black and gold-colored, short sleeve top with a modestly cut “V” neck, put it on and sat back down on the bed. Kate selected a metallic-silver halter-top cut much more revealingly.
“There, you look great! Feeling better now?”
“What about shoes? I don't see any in the bag.”
“And you didn't see me wear any when I walked in either. OK, back to your next lesson in 'McClaren Cougar 101'. While we're plantigrade like humans, our feet were designed for toughness and speed over rough country.” Shi turned and held up her foot to Mike. “See? Four toes, with exposed claws for traction and tough paw-pads on our toes and the balls of our feet. When we run full-out, we run on our toes and footpads in an almost digitigrade manner for extra speed. Mom says that's why we have tails, to balance us when we run like that. Our footprints look sort of human when we walk and more like cat paw-prints when we run.”
“Oh. So, in short, we go barefoot.”
“Right. Except sometimes I wear high heels with a dress when I go out on a date.” Shi giggled again at Mike's stricken look. “No, I didn't bring a pair for you today; maybe next time…”
“Um, I think I'll pass on that, too.” The idea of wearing such feminine footwear made Mike distinctly uncomfortable. Besides, shi found that hir feet actually didn't need shoes of any sort. “But I do feel better wearing real clothes again. Thanks.”
“No problem, I've got lots of clothes to share and you're sort of my sister now.” Shi sat down on the bed, crossing hir legs tailor-fashion and turned to face Mike. “So, on with the lesson. You've already noticed that we're herms.”
Mike nodded, the inside of hir ears blushing pink again.
“There's nothing to be ashamed of. While herms are a minority, we're not rare or freaks or anything like that. Some single-sexers get uncomfortable around us, but most just relate to us as the sex we most resemble. Almost all of my non-herm friends relate to me as a female, except for Jeremy. He's a gay fox-morph and he likes my male side.” Kate grinned, “Being a herm does give you a lot of choices in dating partners. I prefer dating other herms, but I also date single-sex guys and girls.”
“I don't think I'm ready to date anyone just yet,” Mike mumbled, looking down at hir feet.
“Sorry, I really enjoy my social life, so it just sort of comes out when the subject comes up. Anyhow, I sort of went off the subject that I meant to get on.”
Mike looked back up at Kate and replied wryly, “That's OK, since I don't know anything about being a hermaphroditic cat-person, anything you tell me will be new.”
“Yeah.” Shi giggled. “I always thought I'd have years and years before I'd have to give my kittens the ‘facts of life’ speech, so I haven't practiced it. Bear with me and stop me when you have questions.”
“I will. I was always the spring-butt in my military classes.”
“Spring-butt?” Kate asked, puzzled.
“You know, the guy in class who always springs up out of his chair to ask the dumb question that everyone else is too embarrassed to ask. That's me. I always preferred to look dumb in class than to feel stupid out in the field when it mattered.”
“Oh, I see. That should make this easier. So, like I said earlier, we were designed starting from the human genome and adding in genes from various species, but mostly Canadian cougar genes to make us ideal scout and special operations soldiers. Fortunately, Dr. McClaren didn't want to design us as simple war-beasts. He believed that if we were designed to be persons, rather than just intelligent killer animals, that we'd not only be more successful as soldiers but that we'd also fit better into human society. He didn't want to create intelligent creatures that had to be kept in cages between wars.”
“You talk as if he told you what he was thinking.”
“In a way he did.” Kate looked a little sad. “Before he left to join the free morph forces and their human allies at Hoover Dam, he left copies all of his notes and journals behind. His last entry was that he was going to ‘stand with his children in their struggle’.” There was a little choke of emotion in Kate's voice on the word ‘children’.
Having just read about the beginnings of the Gene Wars that morning, Mike understood the reference. If Dr. McClaren had gone to be with the morphs at the battle of Hoover Dam, then he was just radioactive dust shortly afterward.
“Anyhow,” shi went on, “his journals survived the war and to this day, every McClaren's Cougar child studies them as a part of hir education on hir heritage. After reading and listening to him in his video journals, I almost feel that I know him personally.”
“So he thought of the species he created as his children?”
“Yes, but in a very real sense, we actually are his children.” Shi looked Mike directly in the eye and continued, “You see, the human genetic material he started with was his own.”
Mike looked at hir in silent surprise and Kate went on.
“Yes, in one of his early journal entries he says that if he was going to play god with a genome, the only one he had the right to play with was his own. While he was married and divorced twice, he never fathered any human children of his own, so we are his children. Spiritually and genetically. You may hear people say that we McClaren's Cougars are a bit… um… clannish. That's a big part of the reason; we are all related and tend to feel that we're one big family.”
“Doesn't it cause problems… um… breeding with everyone so closely-related genetically? Or do you try to have children with other cat morphs?”
“Well, no. We morphs tend to have pretty ‘clean’ genomes for obvious reasons. But you've hit on another reason that people tend to see us as clannish. We're not very fertile with other morphs, even the big cat species. Dr. McClaren was the first geneticist to solve the problems in creating a successful herm species, but the way he did it is different than most other herm species that were created later. We're almost always infertile with other herm species, although there have been a very few successful matings between us and humans.”
“Successful matings between…” Mike said, hir head spinning with the images Kate's revelation produced. The idea of mating a morph and a human brought up a moment of revulsion, automatically seeing it as bestiality. But then shi remembered with a small shiver that shi was on the other side of that fence now; shi was now the 'beast' rather than the human.
“Only a few,” Kate went on, not understanding the reason for Mike's discomfort. “While we tend to be humanophiles and sometimes take human lovers, marrying one almost always dooms the couple to childlessness, adoption, or sperm-donor insemination. Fortunately, Dr. McClaren did a very good job of eliminating genetic diseases from our genome, so we don't have the recessive gene booby-traps that many humans still suffer from.”
Mike was still struggling with the idea of sex and marriage between anthropomorphic animals and humans, and the uncomfortable awareness that shi was now one of the 'animals'.
“So, do you, um, date humans?”
“Sometimes,” Kate replied, still mystified by Mike's obvious discomfort with the subject. “Mostly I date other morphs for companionship and safe sex. But unless I'm in heat, I prefer to build relationships with other McClarens. I do want to find a life-mate and have kittens someday.”
“Unless you're in heat…?” Mike asked uncomfortably.
“Well, I'm not ready for motherhood yet, and when I'm in heat, it's soooo hard to turn down another McClaren who scents me and is interested. So the easiest thing to do is to scratch my female itches with friends who can't get me pregnant.” She grinned knowingly. “You'll find out.”
“I… I don't want to… think about that yet.”
“Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. In all honesty, I look forward to my heats. Sex during estrus is the best! Once you get used to being a herm, I'm sure you'll agree!”
Mike decided not to think about that just then. “But why did he make you herms? Males and females seem to work out well in nature,” Mike said, still uncomfortable with the subject.”
“Us, Mike. He made us herms. You're a McClaren's Cougar now, too.” Shi reached over and took Mike's hand. “We McClarens value family most of all, and considering the circumstances, I think that makes you my sister now.”
“Thanks,” Mike said and squeezed hir hand, genuinely touched by Kate's sincere acceptance.
“Anyhow, to answer your question, he made us herms because he wanted us to be survivors. We can reproduce twice as fast as single-sexers, and as long as there are two of us left anywhere, we can start to repopulate the species”. Shi grinned, “The rest of it is just a side benefit.”
“Yep. We get to enjoy the sexuality of both sexes. My sire says that we're lucky that we can both ‘pitch and catch in the game of love’. My birth mother usually swats hir on the tail when shi says that, though.”
Mike shook hir head in bemusement. The motion brought hir hair in front of his face again though, and shi brushed it over hir shoulder in irritation. “How do you stand having all this hair? And why would creatures designed for combat need hair anyway?”
“Because Dr. McClaren loved us,” shi replied with a grin. Mike looked at hir skeptically. “No, really,” Kate replied earnestly. “There's an entry in his journal where he says he justified human-like head hair to the design committee as additional protection for the skull, when really it was to make us look a little more human. The same reason he altered the musculature of our muzzles to give us more human facial expressions, unlike other war-beasts of his era. He was looking to the future, and his intent was to have us fit in to human society as more than just useful animals or efficient war-beasts. I'm glad he did; I think our hair is pretty.”
“But I don't want to be pretty and it gets in the way. Maybe I should get it cut short.”
“Oh, don't do that! If you change your mind, it takes so long to grow it out again. Here – let me put it into a braid while we're talking.” Shi moved behind Mike and producing a memory-plastic brush from a pocket, expanded it and began to brush out Mike's hair in preparation to braiding it. Having hir hair brushed out was an unexpectedly pleasant sensation, so Mike sat quietly to let hir proceed.
“That feels really good. I've never had hair long enough for someone to brush out before. This body seems more, well sensitive isn't the right word, but all my senses seem sharper.”
“You'll find that most of your senses are enhanced well beyond human averages. Our sense of smell is almost comparable to a dog or wolf, as is our sense of hearing. Our color vision is almost as good as the average human, our night vision is much better. Our sense of touch in our fingertips isn't as good as the average human, both because the skin there is thicker to make our hands less vulnerable to damage and because some of the nerves there control our claws instead. Still, we have a pretty good sense of touch, compared to most war-beast descended morphs.”
“The sense of smell is what I'm having the most trouble adapting to. I feel like I can smell a fly fart at a hundred paces. I can scent that someone's anxious or, well… I don't think I'll ever get used to it.”
Kate giggled as shi put down the brush and started braiding Mike's hair. “Humans have a small sense of smell to go along with their small noses. They're practically scent-blind. For you, it must be like being born blind and waking up one morning and being able to see.”
“Something like that,” Mike said uncomfortably, “All my life, I've lived with the custom of trying not to have a noticeable body odor and being put off when I could smell someone else's. Now I can not only smell anyone I'm near, I can even smell where they've been and what they've touched. And I think I can scent what sort of mood they're in as well. Can I ask you something, um, personal about Colleen?”
“About Colleen, your nurse? I suppose so, although I don't really know her all that well.”
“Does she, that is is she…” Mike paused, embarrassed, then blurted out, “Is she in heat?”
“Oh that. Yeah, of course she… Oh I see, you've never scented that before, have you? Don't be embarrassed, it's perfectly natural. You'll get used to it.”
“But that means that all of you morphs can scent what I'm feeling as well.”
Kate put hir hand on Mike's shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Shi wanted to remind Mike that it was ‘we morphs’, that shi was ‘one of us’ now, but Kate was afraid that pushing too hard was likely to just make things worse. Instead shi replied, “But we morphs have developed manners to help us deal with all the things we scent about each other. If you saw a human with a painful looking pimple on her nose, would you point it out to her, or would you ignore it and continue as if it weren't there?”
“Ignore it of course. She has to know it's there and it's impolite to embarrass her by drawing attention to it.”
“It's the same idea with the personal things we morphs can scent about each other and humans. Sure, I can scent that someone's just been to the loo, or that he's in rut, or she's in season. But it's just rude to show you notice it. It must be even harder for chakats.”
“Why chakats? Is their sense of smell that much better?”
“That's right, you wouldn't know about them yet. Chakats are empaths – they have a telempathic Talent that allows them to sense what other people are feeling. It goes way beyond just scenting someone's sweat and pheromones.” Shi paused for a moment. “There, your hair's done. What do you think?”
Kate had produced a small, flat cylinder from hir purse expanded it into a large hand mirror and handed it to Mike. Kate had done up hir hair in a long braid that was now draped over hir shoulder and down one breast. Shi was torn between admiring how attractive the cat in the mirror looked and hir discomfort at knowing that the very feminine looking cat in the mirror was hir. “That… that's much neater. Thanks.”
“I think you're ready for your debut. Let's go.” Shi took Mike’s hand and pulled hir toward the door.
“Go?” Mike was momentarily taken aback, uneasy at the idea of going out in public in hir hew form.
“Sure. You don't want to be stuck in here forever, do you? And Dr. Elbeth said you'd want to see something, and hy's been right so far. Come on!” Shi took Mike's hand and half-led, half-dragged hir to the door, which opened for them.
Colleen beckoned to them from the Nurse's station and they walked over to her. “You both look nice.” She looked from one to the other of them and said, “Which one of you is Mike and which is Kate?”
Kate giggled and Mike looked stricken.
“Never mind, I think I can guess.” She grinned at Mike, then said to Kate, “Have fun, but bring hir back in an hour, Kate. You hear me?”
Mike winced at the herm pronoun applied to hir, but stayed silent.
Kate cheekily made a mock-military salute. “Roger wilco, ma'm,” and led Mike by the hand out of the infirmary door and into a well-lit and attractively upholstered passageway. Its walls appeared to be covered in a soft, beige fabric while the floors were a firm, smooth yet non-skid substance several shades darker that felt comfortably warm to Mike’s foot-paws. The ceiling had a soft, diffuse glow that lit everything well without glare or shadow. Unlike the halls and corridors Mike was used to, this one seemed to have no sharp corners; walls met floor and ceiling in smooth curves. Side passages and small alcoves with upholstered benches appeared at irregular intervals, and the blankness of the walls was broken in places by smart-wall panels. The impression the passageway made was one of a comfortable hotel lobby that just happened to stretch for hundreds of meters.
Kate assumed the role of tour guide, pointing out items of interest as they went. “That side passage is the corridor to the local ‘tube station. We'll take it down to C-town for a shopping trip when they spring you from the infirmary.”
“Conradsville. Named after the mission commander of the Apollo 12 mission. The Apollo landing site is a few hundred kilometers south of it, but there are regular tours there, first down to Lansberg Crater City by ‘tube, then a forty-kilometer surface bus ride. They've domed over and preserved the landing site and have the lower stage of the lunar lander on display there. It's really impressive to see it, and the Surveyor 3 probe is on display only a few hundred meters from there.”
They walked on for a few moments while Mike bemusedly pondered the idea of an Apollo landing site as a tourist attraction, then Kate went on with her tour guide routine.
“That door leads to the hydroponics garden. The flower garden room is nice, but the food crop section is a bit yucky. You'll smell what I mean if you go in there.”
They turned a corner and Kate punched a code into the keypad next to a large door, which slid smoothly aside to allow them to enter. The corridor they entered through the door was quite different in appearance from the residential corridor they'd just left. The lights were dim, with individual lighting panels set every few meters in the white-painted ceiling, the air cooler, the sharply angular walls were light green colored aluminum without decorative smart-wall panels to break up the monotony of the long corridor. Even the floor felt different; a cool, hard, very utilitarian non-skid material covered its surface. The atmosphere in this corridor was one of industrial practicality.
Kate resumed hir tour guide role.
“The large green and yellow diagonally striped boxes on the wall hold emergency life pods. If we start to lose pressure, the box will pop open and give us access to a pod rated for two people for twenty four hours,” shi said, pointing. “The ones with a blue human or taur silhouette also hold emergency vacuum suits as well, although they only fit about half of the human or morph population. That's why there are more emergency pods.”
They went on down corridors and up lifts until Mike was hopelessly lost. Kate kept up hir tour-guide comments as they went along.
“These,” she said, pointing to a blue and white diagonally striped plate at about shoulder level, “are emergency comm stations. They connect wirelessly to the life pods or can be used independently. The bright blue-framed panels like this,” shi gestured at a ruggedized flat-panel showing a brightly colored status display, “show status on other important support subsystems, such as air pressure, temperature, and the status of the gravity plates.”
“Why bother with gravity plates? I'd think that one sixth gee would have advantages, and I imagine that the gravity plates must use a lot of power.”
“They do take power, but maintaining the gravitic field after it's established isn't all that power intensive. And our bodies were designed to work in a one gee environment. With only one sixth gravity, our muscles atrophy and our bones start to decalcify. Eventually, it would become irreversible, and we Luna residents could never go back and live on Earth. While there are drugs to help counteract both problems, not everyone's bodies tolerate them well, and we would still have to exercise daily in a full one-gravity environment to maintain fitness. Using gravity plates to maintain Terran-normal gravity has proven to be the best solution.”
“I should have thought of that;” Mike said thoughtfully, “even back in the twenty-first century, we'd noticed that extended exposure to microgravity caused problems for astronauts. Obviously, I have a lot to learn about the twenty-fourth century.”
“Reacher is going to arrange for you to get a full ‘welcome to Luna’ orientation on essential safety and emergency systems in the next few days. One of us will stay with you until you're checked out on them.”
“It's still hard to believe I'm really on the moon. That seems almost as impossible as waking up as a cat-person.”
“Yeah, in fact, that's why I brought you here,” shi said as they came to a massive looking door with a half-meter diameter access wheel that would have looked at home on a submarine. Large warning signs were posted on the door:
A manual twist-and-pull handle, covered by a hinged, clear plastic plate and diagonally striped in fluorescent orange and yellow was on the wall beside it. The sign over it said:
“We're allowed in there?” Mike asked skeptically.
“Yep. Cleared it with Dr. Hoffmann this morning. Besides, Dora wouldn't let us in if we weren't allowed.” Shi looked up at a small video camera mounted near the ceiling where it had a good view of the airlock door. “Right, Dora?”
“Affirmative,” the A.I.'s voice said from the video camera. “Access authorized for Kathryn MacLeod and Michael Thompson by Dr. Hoffmann at 0741 hours this morning. Are you prepared for entry?”
“Yep. Let's go!” The wheel in the door rotated, the door swung aside on its hinges with a soft whine of its motors, and the grinning cougar-morph pulled hir hesitant, formerly-human twin through it.
As shi stepped through the door, Mike's stomach lurched and shi felt for a moment like shi was falling. Then the falling sensation went away, but shi still seemed to feel as light as a feather. The heavy airlock door thudded closed behind them.
“No gravity plates on in here, so we're in Luna-normal gravity,” Kate said, once again in tour guide mode. “One sixth of Earth's, as I'm sure you know, so don't jump or make sudden movements until you get used to it. Don't try to step normally until you've practiced. Just slide your feet like you're walking on ice.” Shi gently took Mike by hir shoulders and turned hir around to hir left. “Here's what we wanted you to see.”
Mike was presented with a thick, double-layered window, almost seven meters long and two high. And through that window…
The compartment they were in was evidently high on the crater wall and facing inward. The far wall of the crater was brilliantly lit, its features crystal-clear with no atmosphere to obscure them. An almost full Earth hung above the horizon, a brilliant blue-white ball, much larger than the moon as seen from Earth. The plain formed by the crater surface was broken here and there by domed buildings, skeletal, industrial-looking structures, roads, brightly-colored ground vehicles, and even a sleek-looking spacecraft. They made sharp, black shadows, only slightly relieved by the reflected Earthlight. The central peaks of the impact basin were visible in the distance, with the far crater wall forming most of the horizon. Mike was speechless for a moment.
“That's Earth over the horizon,” Mike said in awe, when shi could speak again. “I'm actually on the moon. This is all real.”
“Yes it is,” Kate said quietly. “It gets to me too when I'm allowed in here.”
“It's beautiful. I've never seen anything to compare with it.”
They stood silently for a few minutes as Mike took it all in. Luna. The moon! All of hir boyhood dreams of becoming an astronaut, of piloting spacecraft, landing on the moon, exploring Mars, mining the asteroids, inspecting Jupiter’s famous ‘red spot’ from Ganymede, viewing Saturn’s rings through the faceplate of a spacesuit and walking through the nitrogen snow on Pluto came back to hir in a rush. So, maybe shi wouldn’t have chosen to leave Earth in this way, but shi was here now and maybe some of those childhood dreams could actually come true.
Mike took in a deep breath then forced hirself to turn away from the lunar vista and took Kate's hands in hirs. “Thanks, Kate. I think maybe I might like it here after all.”
Pete looked around the room as he took a seat near the back. The auditorium was smaller but nicer than the one in his high school back home. Two large holoscreens flanked a dark blue curtain drawn across the back of a stage that was somewhat large for the size of the room, with echo-damping panels studding the walls and ceiling. A podium was at the front of the stage, just to the right of the left-hand holoscreen.
When they had first arrived, they had filled almost all of the seats but, after two long days of medical exams, psych exams and written tests, maybe a third of them remained. Pete honestly didn’t know whether to feel proud that four of the seven members of his squad had made it through to this point, or to be disappointed that he hadn’t got rid of one or two more of them. ‘You don't get to choose your squad-mates any more than you get to choose your family,’ he thought sourly. ‘All part of the glory of being a freedom fighter, I suppose.’
Before he could follow that thought any further down its unpleasant trail, a tall, fit-looking man with a few streaks of gray in his hair stepped up to the podium. He was wearing the same plain, green coverall as everyone in the audience, with the addition of two silver General’s stars on his right lapel and a silver “HLA” insignia on the left. Some men would have to call for attention or tap on the microphone to quiet the room. This man simply strode to the center of the stage and turned his gaze over the room and it fell silent.
“Good morning gentlemen. And ladies.” He looked over at where the few women in the group had staked out a corner of the room. “You are the thirty-two percent who passed our initial screening. You probably think that the initial testing you have passed was thorough, and it was. But now you start your mission training, which I guarantee will be even more thorough, hard and dangerous.” He paused to look around the room, and Pete had the unnerving feeling that he had not only looked directly at him, but into him.
“Up until this point, you could withdraw and be sent back to your home unit, as your comrades were who didn’t pass the entrance tests. Until the start of this briefing, anyone who feels he needs to leave, may return to his unit without prejudice or dishonor.” He paused for a moment. “After this briefing, you are committed. Anyone who isn’t dedicated to following through to the end is invited to leave now.”
Unsurprisingly, no one left. Even those who had doubts wouldn’t want to look like cowards in front of this man.
“Excellent.” He gestured to someone off stage and the curtains slid aside revealing a spacesuit, a table holding an EVA pack, and an assortment of unfamiliar weapons and equipment. At the end of your training, you will be the first company of space-capable soldiers in the Human Liberation Army.”
Pete leaned forward in his seat, as a murmur of surprise and excitement went around the auditorium.
“Free Humanity has been forced to fight a rear-guard, defensive war, limited to the surface of the planet. Until now.” He paused to look over the men and women in the room. “As long as the morph forces and their human accomplices continue to control the space around Earth, Humanity will remain under their thumb. We must take back the high ground! Our battle cry must no longer be limited to ‘Earth for Humanity’. We must aim higher. The entire Solar system is Humanity’s home and we will retake it and secure it for Humanity.”
A cheer broke out around the room, with people standing up and applauding. To Pete’s surprise, he found that he was one of them.
After a moment, the General motioned for silence and the hall quieted down and people settled back into their seats. A number of people wearing the same plain, green coverall joined him on the stage. “These are your instructors for the next stage of your training. Captain Chakravarthi will divide you into sections for instruction. Captain?”
A dapper-looking man of East Asian descent strode to the front of the stage. “The following recruits report to Sergeant Chavez in the back of the auditorium.” He pointed to a small, dark man wearing three stripes on his sleeve and began reading off of a list. “Adams, Frederick, Davis, Daniels…”
As Pete listened for his name, he looked hungrily at the items revealed on the stage, his hands almost itching to pick them up and start to use them.
“Now that we are all here, let us get started.” Dr. Hoffmann looked around the conference table. “As I see it, we have three major concerns. The first is to determine exactly what happened with our transporter system two days ago. The second is to confirm what we learned about the girl “Molly” and determine what we should do in regards to her. The third is to do the same for Michael Thompson. Once we do that, we can decide how best to go on with the project.”
Reacher spoke up first. “There's no real doubt about the girl. In trying to save lives in an emergency, we've accidentally done an unauthorized uplift of a non-sapient animal. While that's not actually illegal under current Lunar Republic law, it certainly will viewed by some as highly unethical.”
“The reason it's not illegal is that the technology to do it was lost in the Gene Wars. No one in Luna thought to make it illegal afterwards,” Dr. Elbeth replied. “Our ethical position is very shaky, even if we haven't technically broken any laws.”
“With respect, I don't agree Doctor,” Melissa replied. “We were acting under emergency conditions, trying to save lives, and encountered a completely unexpected problem. That puts us more in the position of an ambulance driver in an air-car accident, rather than an unethical researcher.”
“Lots of people get sued in situations like that,” Karl commented darkly.
“Who is going to sue us?” interjected Linda. Before Karl could go on, the petite rabbit-morph continued, “Mike is beginning to adjust to hir new body and Kate says shi's actually beginning to warm to the idea of ‘being in the future’. I don't think that Molly will sue us, once she understands enough about her new life to be able to talk to us. Mike may have been her owner as a dog, but shi has no legal claim on Molly now that she's human. And it's not like we can change her back into a dog again. And even if we could, that would just bring us into yet another ethical dilemma.”
“Even if it's not a legal problem, it's still a potential public-relations nightmare for the company,” Karl replied.
“I'm far more worried about my patient's welfare than the company's PR issues,” Dr. Elbeth shot back. “Mike may be starting to accept hir situation, but Molly is still anxious whenever anyone enters her room and she goes into a panic when she sees most morphs.”
“I am placing her welfare entirely in your hands, Elbeth,” Dr. Hoffmann said. “Please let me know if you need additional resources. I gather that Michael is adapting well for someone jumped three-hundred years into the future, though.”
Linda and Reacher looked at each other uncomfortably for a moment, then Reacher answered for the two of them. “Shi's adapting surprisingly well for someone unexpectedly pulled three centuries into the future. However, I don't think we're three-hundred years into hir future.”
Dr. Hoffmann stared at hir for a moment. “Explain please.”
“Linda and I have been talking at length with hir about the late 20th and early 21st century, and have stumbled over some… ah… anomalies.”Linda took over. “After Kate took hir to the observation deck of airlock three, shi spent a lot of time talking to us about hir childhood memories of the lunar landings. It turns out that shi was fascinated by the space program as a child and wanted to be an astronaut. When shi referred to being proud as an American that the Apollo 11 landing took place just ahead of the first Soviet lunar landing, it got my attention.”
“I can certainly see why. If I remember from my Lunar Republic history correctly, the Soviet's initial lunar project faltered, and they did not actually succeed until sometime in the mid-1970s.”
“Yes, doctor. When I asked Mike about it, shi went into extensive detail about the Soviet N1 spacecraft and its Soyuz LK lunar lander. Also, shi had no knowledge of the assassination of the American president Kennedy in 1962. Shi remembers Kennedy successfully winning a second term.”
“Shi must be wrong,” Karl interjected. “Shi's misremembering the events.”
“No, I don't think so,” the rabbit morph replied. “Shi's very certain of her facts and quite consistent in her recounting of events.”
“Actually, that might explain some of the readings that I've been trying to analyze,” added Maria thoughtfully. “You must have seen some anomalies on your station as well, Melissa.”
“That's one of the reasons I'm so inclined to believe our apparent time-traveler,” shi replied. “All that energy had to go somewhere and I can't account for it in this universe.”
“The question is, how do we prevent it from happening again?” said Dr. Hoffmann. “I hardly think the board of directors will be interested in providing free rides to random inter-dimensional time travelers.”
“And don't forget the problem of how to best take care of our formerly canine human,” added Reacher.
The voice of the A.I. spoke softly, “Dr. Hoffmann: FarReach and Dr. Elbeth are here to see you with a visitor.”
“Send them in, Dora.” He rose to greet the three as his office door slid aside. “Please come in and make yourselves comfortable,” he said as he walked around his desk to greet his visitors.
“Dr. Hoffmann, I'd like you to meet Dr. Kalan of House Redpaw.” Elbeth stood aside to allow the other Skunktaur to walk past hym and hug Dr. Hoffmann in a chakat-style greeting. Dr. Hoffmann returned the hug easily, having worked with chakats and skunktaur chakat-kin for decades.
“It is very good of you to come on such short notice, Dr. Kalan. Please, have a seat.” He gestured at the taur pads on the floor and took a chair to the side of his desk for himself.
“Not at all, Dr. Hoffmann, I wouldn't have missed a unique opportunity like this. As I understand it, the people I'll be working to help are the victims of a transporter accident.” The elder skunktaur spoke in a pleasant, tenor voice with a distinct and dignified Chakonan accent.
“Yes, but as I am sure Elbeth has told you, it is not quite that simple. While the former human, Mike, is beginning to adjust to hir new form, our other guest is not faring as well.”
“The human girl that was formerly Mike's animal companion. Yes, that is a difficult issue,” the skunktaur replied gravely.
“I do not regret saving their lives, Dr. Kalan. The telemetry logs show that both would have almost certainly have been killed by the piece of the tsunami that the trans-warp field brought through before it collapsed. However, I will say that we did not know that the rescue would result in the uplift of a non-sapient animal. Given what we knew at that moment, and the limited choices open to us, I do not know what we could have done differently.”
“Yes, Dr. Hoffmann, I see your point. You have acted ethically and with care at every step, and yet you arrived at a result that many of your peers would describe as unethical.” Hy shook hys head soberly. “A dilemma indeed.”
Dr. Hoffmann looked intently at the skunktaur, “Are you willing to get involved in this dilemma to help the individuals caught in it?”
“You would want me to use my experience with transporter-accident patients, to work with both the former human who is now a cougar-morph and the former non-sapient canine who is now a human girl?” For the first time since entering the room, Dr. Kalan showed emotion by breaking into a broad grin. “I wouldn't miss it for the world.”
Mike looked up from reading hir PADD when the door to hir infirmary room opened. Shi'd been told to expect the skunktaur therapists by Kate and also reminded by Dora's voice five minutes prior to their arrival, but was still uneasy at the prospect of what was about to happen. Hir former life in the Army had often included precious little physical privacy, but hir thoughts were always hir own and open to no one else. Now, incredible as it sounded, these creatures were going to enter and poke around in hir mind. For ‘hir own good’ of course – just like hir new body. If Mike could think of some way to get back to something like hir former, normal life, shi'd never even consider letting the ‘shrinks’ anywhere near hir head. The fact that shi couldn't, and that in hir more honest moments shi realized that they actually were trying to help hir made Mike force hirself to cooperate with them. But shi still couldn't escape the feeling of dread at the coming invasion of hir inner self.
Of all the advancements in science and technology shi’d seen since finding hirself in the twenty-fourth century, the psionic sciences, or ‘Talents’ as they were called, were the most surprising. Mike had always been more than skeptical of things like ESP, mind-reading, and the like. In the here and now though, these things were not only provably real, they formed the basis for an entire branch of medical therapy. Fortunately from Mike’s point of view, these ‘Talents’ were quite rare and tended to appear mostly in a very few morph species, such as the skunktaurs that shi was about to meet.
The two skunktaurs in question, both wearing white physician's coats over their upper torsos stopped just outside the open door with Kate standing just behind them. Dr. Kalen was in male phase and Dr. Elbeth was still in female phase.
“May we come in?” Elbeth asked politely.
“This is a hospital, isn't it? I would have thought you could just walk in when you wanted.” Mike couldn't quite keep out the edge of resentment in hir voice.
“Mike!” Kate said in a warning voice.
“In an emergency, quite true,” Elbeth replied patiently, “but this is something quite different. We're here to help you, but because of the intensely personal nature of the help we're offering, it's important that you understand that you are in control. We are bound by our code of ethics to respect your privacy and your boundaries. So, may we come in?”
Mike felt hir ears blush, showing hir embarrassment. “I'm sorry. This all has me on edge. Yes, please come in.” Shi got off the bed and walked across the room to greet them.
Elbeth shook Mike's hand human-style and introduced hys companion. “This is Dr. Kalan of House Redpaw. Hy's a therapist specializing in assisting people who have been severely injured regain use of their bodies. An associate in hy's medical practice had some experience in a case somewhat similar to yours and hy thinks we can get you full use of your body in just a session or two, with Kate's help.”
“Kate’s been a lot of help to me so far, but I don't actually understand what she'll be doing here.”
Kalen also extended hys hand for a human-style handshake and Mike shook hands with both of them with only a slight twinge of nervousness. Shi still wasn't comfortable with the idea of someone entering hir head, even for much needed therapy, but Kate's participation in the process helped to put hir at ease.
“Kate’s transporter pattern was used as the host body for your mind-matrix when your body’s transporter body pattern was lost. That means that while all of the lower level functions like breathing, heartbeat and such were automatically correct, your conscious mind doesn’t know where to find all the connections, so to speak, to control the voluntary movements of some of your new body. Some, like hand and eye motions, were similar enough to allow you to control them almost immediately, if somewhat imperfectly. Others, like the tail you did not have as a human, were utterly alien to your mind and could take months of intensive conventional physical therapy to allow you to control them.”
“I've been in the ‘body-and-fender shop’ a few times before, so I can believe that. But how does having Kate help?”
“Kate obviously already has full control of hir body’s voluntary movements. What we propose to do is put your brain in contact with hirs as shi demonstrates the motions you need to learn. Rather than the hit or miss, ‘curse and try again’ methods of conventional physical therapy, the matching neural pathways that Kate uses can be directly stimulated in your brain. This allows us to make the equivalent of months of progress in just hours.”
The explanation put Mike at ease, a bit. There seemed to be less of ‘mind-reading’ and more of medical therapy than shi’d expected. And while shi hated feeling like a cripple, shi also remembered the grueling months of painful physical therapy from previous injuries.
“Before we go any further, Doctor, I want your opinion. Is there any way to return me to my old body?”
“While that is somewhat out of my field of expertise, I can state that from what I've read of your case, I know of no way to return you to your human body. I'm sorry.”
Mike looked away in disappointment. Shi thought shi knew the answer before shi asked the question, but shi couldn’t help asking.
“We have an additional concern, that we can do little about, but ethics require be brought to your attention,” Kalen added.
Mike gestured at the skunktaur to go on, not trusting hir voice to inquire about yet another problem caused by the unwanted transformation.
“While your personality and memories were transferred intact, they were imposed on a brain and body that are not human. The software doesn’t match the hardware, if you follow the analogy.”
Mike was silent for another moment, staring down at hir still unfamiliar body. “That makes sense, I guess, but what does it mean? What’s going to happen?”
“To be honest, we don't know for certain how well you will adjust to your new body. The previous human caught in this situation eventually adjusted to becoming a morph, and is successfully carrying on with hir life.”
“‘Hir? So she, er, shi's a cougar-morph like me?”
“No, shi's now a chakat. Given the differences between a chakat and a McClaren’s Cougar, it's hard to make a perfect extrapolation. A McClaren’s Cougar is much more similar to a human than is a chakat, so in theory, your adaptation to this body should be that much easier.” Kalen hesitated.
“I take it that there's more?”
“Yes,” Kalen looked Mike directly in hir eyes. “It's good news in a way. Over time, your personality will adjust to your new body. You're going to experience new feelings, new needs and urges. It's vitally important that you open yourself to these changes, in order to maintain your sanity.”
Mike looked down at the floor for a moment, then said quietly, “So, what you're saying is that, eventually, I'll no longer be me.”
“No.” Hy reached out and placed a hand on Mike’s shoulder. “You survived the stresses of puberty, didn't you? This is a very similar situation. You will always remain yourself, but you have to be prepared to experience changes, even be ready to embrace them. If you don't…” Hy paused again, trying to get back on the track hy felt was best for hys patient. “I honestly think you'll find most of the changes tolerable, some even enjoyable. I'm sure by now that you’ve found being young and healthy a welcome change from the physical problems you described to Reacher and Colleen.”
Mike looked up at Kalen again frowning, but squared hir shoulders and nodded.
“OK then, how do we start?”
“First, the administrative paperwork, of course,” he replied with a wry grin. Hy held out a PADD to Mike and continued. “Read the agreement, state aloud that you agree to the therapy proposed, and put your thumbprint on the blinking oval space. Dora will record our witness to your assent and we can continue.”
Mike read over the surprisingly short and simple statement of treatment and remarked, “I wish things were that straightforward where I came from. This would have been an hour's worth of paperwork and hassle back there.” Then shi said “I understand and agree to the therapy proposed here,” and touched hir thumb to the screen of the PADD.
“Good. Let us begin. If you'll stand to my right and take my right hand and Kate will stand on my left and take my left hand…” Mike and Kate did as they were asked. “Now Elbeth, please close the door and take Mike and Kate's free hands so you can sense what we're doing. Mike, you seem to be managing your arms and legs rather well, so let's start with your tail. Now relax and try not to fight me. Kate, raise your tail and move it to your left.” “Like this?” shi said as hir tail moved up and left.
“That's good,” hy said as Mike's tail moved to mimic Kate's.
“That… that feels weird,” Mike said wonderingly.
“Relax and concentrate, Mike. Now Kate, wave your tail left, then right. That's good. Now up as far as up you can, then down completely. Good.” Mike's tail followed Kate's motions as if it were tied to it.
“Now you try it, Mike. I'll only help a bit where you get stuck.”
Mike concentrated on moving hir tail to the right and was rewarded with a small twitch, then a small move a few inches to the right.
“Good! Now again, but to the left…”
A few hours later, Mike was sitting on hir bed practicing extending and withdrawing hir claws one finger at a time. The tip of hir tail was twitching in a most feline manner but under hir complete control. Kate was sprawled limply in a chair facing the bed. Elbeth had led an exhausted Kalen off to another room for a well-deserved rest.
“Feeling better?” Kate asked.
“Yeah. It's good to feel in control of my body again. I'm especially glad to get control of my tail. You may find it handy for balance, but it was mostly getting caught in doors and in the way when I had to pee.”
Kate giggled. “I'll always treasure the look on your face when Kalen showed you how to extend your penis from its sheath.”
Mike felt the insides of hir ears blush. “I'm still not as easy in just my fur as you all are, and when I felt it push out in full view of everyone…”
“It's OK, Mike. We're all herms here. And you really do need to be able to control your penis to clean it, at the very least.”
“I suppose so. Still, I haven't felt so embarrassed since my first Army physical.”
Kate raised hir eyebrows and flicked hir ears, urging Mike to continue.
“There I was, only eighteen years old, away from home and on my own for the first time, standing in line, stark naked, with a hundred other guys, while fully dressed doctors and nurses wandered in and out of the room.” Mike felt hir ears lower as shi recalled the event. “I just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide forever.”
Kate giggled again. “I would have paid to see that!”
“You would!” Mike grinned ruefully at hir.
“That does bring up a few more things to cover in your ‘McClaren's Cougar 101’ class.”
“Might as well. I think I've pegged the embarrassment meter for the day. I don't think it can get much worse.”
“Yes it can: herm hygiene, McClaren Cougar style,” Kate said with a very feline grin.
“You start, I'm going to hide under the bed and put my fingers in my ears for a while until you finish.”
“Come on – you don't want to find out by getting an infection or something do you?”
Mike sighed in resignation, “OK, Kate, fire away.”
“As a human, you probably showered every day, right? I know my human friends do.” Mike nodded. “The next time you shower, I'll show you the best way for us furred people to get clean. It's different from the way humans do it.”
“Um, you've showered with a human?”
Shi giggled. “Yup. We lived in a mixed neighborhood on Earth for a year and I've dated a few humans since then. Humans are cute when they're naked. All that bare skin with patches of hair in the oddest places…” Hir eyes held a faraway look for a moment, then she continued. “Anyhow, we'll go over care of your hand claws, foot claws and ears and such when you take your next shower. Not for a day or so though, we furred persons really shouldn't shower more often. It's not good for our pelts; it dries them out, plus it takes a lot of time to wash and dry all the fur on your body. But that means that we have to pay attention to spot cleaning and brushing our fur between showers. Now that you are able to extend your penis by yourself, you should wash it at least every day or two with soap and water. Your vagina is more self-cleaning, and usually doesn't need much attention that way. Dr. McClaren's notes say that he routed the urethra through the vulva rather than the penis so that it would rinse it naturally, as it does in human females. Mom says that when our ancestors were deployed to the field, they were trained to lick their penis clean if there were no other washing facilities.”
Mike made a face. “Sounds pretty disgusting,” She said, although shi realized with a certain amount of wonder that hir new body was flexible enough to manage it if shi had to.
“Depends. Haven't you ever had oral sex with a lover? It's really not that different. Actually, Momma Terri says that a lot of McClaren soldiers helped each other that way. Shi said that it was probably good for morale. Momma Melissa whacked hir for saying that, too.” Shi grinned.
“I think I'll stick with soap and water for now, thanks.”
“Oh, and try not to get too much soap up in your vagina, it can screw with the pH level and encourage yeast infections. Trust me, you don't want one of those. Ask any herm or female if you don't believe me.”
“I believe you. My wife complained enough about yeast infections for me to get the idea.” Shi grinned, “Momma Terri, Momma Melissa. It sounds like they’re in some sort of religious order.”
“Momma Terri in a religious order? Like a Nun?” Shi giggled, “Hardly! Momma Terri is my sire and not exactly religious leader material. Shi'd get a real laugh out of the idea, though. I think that Father Campbell would too.”
“Our parish priest. Most McClarens belong to the Stellar Reformation Catholic church, at least here on Luna.”
“Stellar Reformation…” Shi hesitated, not wanting to get sidetracked into a discussion on religion just yet. “Never mind, we can talk about that later. So McClarens call their dads 'Mom'?”
“Sure. It makes sense for herms like us, when you think about it. Young herm children tend to see their parents as just parents, not as ‘Sire’ and ‘Dam’. And when we need to get the attention of a particular parent, we can just add the name: Momma Terri or Momma Melissa. Melissa MacLeod is my birth mother, which is why I have hir surname.”
“And is your sire named MacLeod as well?”
“No, not even most human females always take their husband's surname. My sire is my sister Susan's birth mother, so shi's Susan MacKinnon. Chrissy's birth mother is Momma Melissa, so shi's Chrissy MacLeod. But when you refer to all of us, we're the MacKinnon-MacLeod family.”
“Ok. I can see I have a lot to get used to about herms.”
“It's easy once you get used to it.”
Mike shot hir a skeptical look and shi grinned back.
“Next thing about us herms; having met Chakats and Skunktaurs, you know that all herm species are not created equal.”
“Actually, no. I mean, I know that they're all both male and female. Have I missed something?”
“A lot, actually. Skunktaurs are herms, but they are either male or female at any given time. They switch between the sexes at will, but are always either one or the other. Chakats actually are both male and female at the same time. They go through a twenty-four day heat/rut cycle, but they can have male or female sex at anytime in that cycle. We McClarens are a bit different than either of them. We were the first fully successful herm species, and so we're the pioneers. Do you know how to identify a pioneer?”
Mike shook hir head, silently encouraging Kate to go on.
Shi grinned, “They're the ones with the arrows in their backs,” shi said as Mike groaned. “You walked into that one. Seriously, I think we turned out pretty good, even if we were the first, but we're different from either Chakats or Skunktaurs. First, while we're always both male and female, we're sort of sexually bipolar. When we're in our heat, we don't easily get erections, we don't produce sperm, nor are we usually much interested in having sex as a male. When we're in rut, we aren't very receptive as females. Our vaginas don't lubricate much and we don't usually like to be mounted then. We're on a long heat/rut cycle, because our bodies need the time to go through the changes from female phase to male phase and back again. When I said that my boobs are almost a full ‘B’ cup, I was talking about when I'm in heat. The rest of the time, I'm only a bit over an ‘A cup.”
“I'm still okay with that,” Mike replied.
“And I still think you'll like having tits, once you're used to it.” Shi sat up straighter and thrust hir chest out a bit to emphasize the body parts in question. “Anyhow, on with the lecture. Between heat and rut, we're pretty flexible – we can ‘pitch or catch’ as my Dad says, pretty much according to our mood,” Shi grinned again. “As I said, I like my social life. Another difference between us and chakats: they have both a penis and a clitoris. Our penis is actually a much modified clitoris. Using the techniques of the time, it was the best approach that Dr. McClaren could achieve. But while we don't have a clitoris, we do have a small nerve nexus located about where a clitoris would be in a human female. Momma Terri says that that little clit-spot is proof that Dr. McClaren loved us and wanted us to be happy.”
“And then Melissa whacks hir, right?”
“Nope. Shi usually just jerks Momma Terri’s tail, but sometimes shi tells hir to prove it and uses it to pull hir into their bedroom.”
“I'm beginning to think you guys have a lot in common with chakats, judging by your parents and Reacher.”
“Maybe, but it's ‘us guys’. You're one of us now, remember?”
“It's still hard to accept sometimes. A lot of the time, actually.”
“You need to work hard at accepting that. Remember that I told you that we're on a fifty-six day heat/rut cycle?”
“Actually, I've been trying not to think about it,” shi said as hir ears drooped and hir tail went limp.
“Better start thinking about it. We're going into our male peak in less than three weeks. We're not all on as regular a cycle as chakats, but my cycles tend to be pretty regular, so yours should be too.”
“So I'll be interested in girls. That's nothing new.”
“That's what I thought too, but Dr. Elbeth pointed out some things that I hadn't thought of and that you need to be ready for.”
“Like you'll really be interested in girls. Obsessed with them for at least the first few days. This will be your First Rut, and the First is always hardest, emotionally. It's actually not as extreme as a First Heat, but you haven't had the years of social and cultural preparation for it that McClaren teenagers normally have. You might find it a bit rough the first time. Also, this is hard-wired into us. Your attractions are going to key off of scent as well as sight, and both are originating in your brain's wetware, not the memories and experiences of your old body.”
“I'm still not sure I see the problem. I remember being a horny teenage male. It can't be much worse than that.”
“You still aren't getting it.” Shi got up, reached out to take Mike’s hands and looked hir in the eye. “Reacher and Elbeth say that you're starting to see us morphs as people, but that you still can't completely stop thinking of morphs as animals, too. They say that, well, because of that you haven't accepted being one of us. Not deep down in your soul. But in a few weeks, you're going to be forced to. You're going to see female morphs as totally sexy and desirable, and you'll be almost unable to resist another McClaren's Cougar in hir female peak.”
Mike looked at Kate in growing comprehension as shi continued.
“If you haven't accepted us as people, deep down where it matters, and if you haven't accepted that you're one of us now… Well, you're going to feel like you're forced by your body and instincts into a sort of involuntary bestiality, and you're going to hate both yourself and your unlucky partner afterwards.”
Molly lay on the bed, watching the door. She'd long since used her teeth to get rid of the hated coverings that someone had put on her. Coverings always pulled on her fur and constricted her movements. Except… where was her fur?
Things were very, very wrong. Her legs didn't work right – especially her front legs, she couldn't smell things right, her fur was missing everywhere but her head, and her tail had disappeared completely! And where was her Alpha? He'd never left her alone when she needed him before. Oh, he sometimes left her with other humans that she knew and trusted, but he always came back before long.
What were the things that had caught her and put her here? The dog-thing was big, much bigger than any other dog she'd seen. And the cat-thing? She'd never seen a cat that size before and it looked somehow wrong as well as being too big. The rabbit thing was big too, but she thought that it would still be much fun to chase.
There were other bits of memories though, that she found unfamiliar and disturbing. Memories of walking on her hind legs and of strange yet familiar humans. Other memories of grasping things in furless front paws and using mouth noises like humans. All fuzzy, confusing and disturbing.
Had she been aware of it, Molly's thoughts were clearer and deeper than they had ever been in her old body. While the transporter had only used as much of her brain as needed to imprint the mind matrix, her mind had already begun to expand past those borders.
A faint hiss of escaping gas caught her attention briefly, but then she relaxed as the sedative gas took effect and she passed back into a peaceful sleep.
Dr. Kalan, Dr. Elbeth, Nurse Colleen, Dr. Hoffmann, Maria and Tonya DeGaulle, and Mike had all gathered at the nurse's station outside Molly's room. At first, Maria had been hesitant to allow Tonya to participate in the therapy session, but after Mike’s session had been so successful, she relented in order to give the girl who looked so much like her own daughter a chance at a normal life.
“We've sedated her in preparation for today's attempt in view of her last, um, incident. How would you like to proceed Doctor Kalan?”
“Please, Nurse, just call me Kalen. I like to be informal with my colleagues.”
“I'm Colleen, then, Kalen.” The Collie-morph met and returned Kalen's chakat-style hug warmly. Kalen then stepped back and continued.
“I'd like only you, me, and Elbeth to be in the room when we start. We'll bring Tonya once we're sure Molly is ready. I'll begin by making telepathic contact with the patient while she's unconscious, then have you slowly bring her back to consciousness. That way, we won't have to have her physically restrained.”
“I understand Kalen, but what if she becomes violent again?”
“Between the contact that Elbeth and I will be able to make with her and the sedative, I don't see that as at all likely. However, if it becomes necessary to restrain her to prevent harm, hy and I each outweigh her by at least a factor of five and are much stronger. My main concern is to avoid any stimulus which would trigger violent behavior.”
“What if she smells me?” Mike interjected, “She's very nervous around cats of any sort.”
Kalen smiled at hir. “She has a human nose now; I doubt she'll be able to smell any of us. You must be starting to get used to your new body if you're thinking so naturally in terms of scent.”
Mike started to speak but thought better of it. Maybe shi was starting to adapt, a little. Or was shi just still thinking of Molly as a dog?
Elbeth spoke up, “Ready when you are, Kalen.”
Kalen looked at Colleen who confirmed, “The room is ready.”
“Let us proceed,” hy said, and led them into Molly's room.
Molly was curled up on the bed in much the same pose that a sleeping dog might take. Her clothes, much the worse for Molly having removed them mostly with her teeth, were scattered across the bed. The room was noticeably warmer than the hall.
“I turned up the temperature in the room because she won't keep her clothes on and doesn't want to stay under the blanket,” explained Colleen apologetically. “She was shivering after she managed to wriggle out of her pajamas and settled down. I don't think she's made the connection between wearing clothes and staying warm.”
“It's ok Colleen, we'll manage.” Hy went to the right side of the bed and gently laid hys hand on Molly's head. “Are you ready Elbeth?”
The other skunktaur nodded and went around to the left side of the bed and laid hys hand next to Kalen's on Molly's head, then looked at Colleen.
“I'll make telepathic contact with the patient and communicate directly with Elbeth. Hy'll pass on any of my instructions or requirements to you verbally.”
“I understand, Kalen.”
“Then let us begin.” Both skunktaurs closed their eyes and their faces assumed an expression of extreme concentration.
Molly stirred slightly then seemed to relax even more. She became aware of the two other presences in her mind, but somehow they felt safe and calming to her. As they began to communicate to her, she felt herself become more aware of the other memories, more comfortable with them being a part of her. Molly felt herself seem to grow and expand as the other presences guided her through those strange but tantalizing memories.
After about twenty minutes of silent concentration, Elbeth broke the silence.
“Molly has adapted surprisingly well to her new self. In fact, she had already begun assimilating some of the residual memories left over in her brain. Please bring in Tonya so that we can proceed to the next step.”
Colleen, stepped out of the room and quickly returned with the girl who looked at her ‘twin’ lying on the hospital bed. “Wow – that's spooky! It's like ‘what am I doing over there, when I'm standing right here?’ But why is she naked?”
Colleen answered quietly, not wanting to distract the two skunktaur therapists. “She still thinks she's a dog, and you know how they hate wearing anything.”
“Oh yeah,” the girl whispered back. “My cousin back on Earth has a cute little chihuahua that she likes to dress up. If Karen doesn't watch her, Muffin chews off anything that she puts on her.”
Elbeth spoke quietly again. “Tonya, please come here and take both my and Kalen's hands.”
Tonya did as she was asked then looked up into the skunktaur's face. “Ready, Elbeth.” Hy closed hys eyes and a look of intense concentration came over hys face.
Molly became aware of yet another presence, one that was both strange yet somehow familiar. With that awareness came a growing feeling of comfort and connection with her changed body. She began to understand the unfamiliar memories of standing and walking on only her hind legs, and of using her forepaws to hold and move things. The memories of hearing and making mouth noises began to clarify and she began to understand ‘words’ in a way that her canine experiences only hinted at. A whole new world was opening up to her.
A long time later, Tonya knew from her contact with the skunktaurs that they were finished with her, and so she released their hands and opened her eyes. “That was… awesome.” She walked over to Colleen who gave her a fond hug.
“You did wonderfully, Tonya,” the collie-morph said quietly. “Now let's leave them alone to finish up.” She led Tonya to the door and let her out, silently shutting it behind the girl then turning to wait for further instructions from the two therapists. All four were silent for another half hour or so, when Kalen opened hys eyes and spoke for the first time since beginning the session.
“I think that's all we can accomplish today,” hy said quietly. Hys head was soaked in sweat, that being the only place that either Skunktaurs or Chakats could perspire. Elbeth's head was similarly sweat-soaked, plastering their hair down to their skulls and giving them a rather unkempt and exhausted look. Hy continued, “Molly will probably wake up in just a few minutes and will probably be able to understand much of what is said to her and even reply verbally to some extent. We were able to guide her to connect her personality, her ‘self’ if you prefer, to reach and assimilate much of Tonya's memories and abilities contained in her brain. I think you will be amazed by how much Molly has been able to take into her new self and make use of.”
As the exhausted Kalen fell silent, Elbeth continued for both of them. “For now, we must rest and recover before continuing tomorrow. We will withdraw now for food and sleep. Please have someone with Molly at all times until we return tomorrow. We expect that she will quickly come to trust all species of morphs, but might feel more comfortable with humans or canid-morphs for the present. Also, she seemed to find Linda interesting.” Hy smiled at the memory of Molly's thoughts about wanting to chase the rabbit-morph.
As Kalen and Elbeth left the room, Dr. Hoffmann took charge. “Colleen, I would like you or Maria to stay with Molly until she wakes up. Dora, please ask Linda to be ready to relieve Colleen and Maria as necessary.”
“Yes Doctor,” the A.I.'s voice said after a short pause. “Linda said she would be ready to relieve Colleen or Maria as soon as they need her.”
“Where is Linda now?”
“Linda Lapine is currently entering Mike Thompson's room,” replied the A.I..
Mike was sitting on one to the guest chairs in hir infirmary room reading more about the history of the Gene Wars when shi heard the A.I.'s voice from the ceiling speakers.
“Shir Thompson, Linda Lapine would like to come in and talk to you.”
“Okay, Dora.” Mike put down the PADD as the door opened and the rabbit morph walked in.
“Hi Mike! I thought you'd like to know that Elbeth and Dr. Kalen have finished today's session with Molly and they've made real progress with her.”
As she turned around to move the other chair into a comfortable position, Mike couldn't help noticing the way her jumpsuit showed off her rather curvy figure, and shi found the small white and brown rabbit's tail protruding from it rather cute. Her ears didn’t stick up like a cartoon bunny, instead they lay down along her head and neck like a domestic rabbit's, complemented by her mane of light brown hair. However, Mike found even hir mild attraction to the rabbit morph a little disturbing, especially after hir recent talk with Kate about cross species relationships.
“When do they think I can see her?”
“Kalen thinks you might be able to give it a try after they all recover from tomorrow's session. Hy wants to be sure that they've firmly associated your new form with your old identity in her mind before they introduce the new you to her.”
“The new me…” Mike paused, struck by a new thought. “As much as I've changed, she's changed a lot more. She's not my dog anymore. She's as human now as I am. Or was.”
“Don't start that again, mister.” The rabbit morph poked a finger into Mike’s chest. “You're no longer a Homo Sapiens, but you're still a person, still equal to any human and with all the rights of any other person.”
“Sorry, but it is hard to get used to.” Unconsciously, hir tail began to lash nervously behind hir. “But that's not what I was talking about. I don't think I can tell you how much she's meant to me since the death of my wife. She wasn’t just a pet, she’s family. Almost a daughter. But she's not my dog any more. Do I have any legal claim to her, or will she be taken off for adoption somewhere? Will she even want to stay with me, for that matter? Or will she not be able to see through what I am now to the man who raised her from a puppy? Or will she recognize me but find me an embarrassing reminder of when she was just an animal?”
Mike paused to blink the tears from hir eyes, surprising hirself. Shi'd never been one to cry over anything as a man. “She's my only link to my old life and I can't bear the thought of losing her. But we can't go back to what we were to each other before… Is there any real way we can be together again?”
The rabbit morph went to Mike and took one of hir hands in both of hers. “You're a good person, Mike. I'm sure that once she’s learned to cope with her new life, she'll want to be with you in whatever way the two of you can manage.”
Molly woke to the sound of quiet, human voices. She could feel that someone had put the covering things on her again, but somehow they didn't seem as annoying now. As her eyes opened she saw a big dog-thing wearing human-coverings and a human female who looked familiar.
“…and then Tonya said, ‘If she used to be a dog, why can't we just take her home with us like a puppy?’ ”
The dog-thing laughed, “Kids, eh? They do have a direct view of things.”
Molly sat up with a jolt – she understood them! For her whole life she'd tried to understand the mouth-noises that humans made to her and to each other, but had only puzzled out a few. But now…! She started to bark her greeting-challenge, but instead a different set of sounds came to mind and she opened her mouth and what came out was: “Who ar' yoo?”
The human and the dog-thing turned immediately toward her and they spoke at the same time.
“Molly?” the dog-thing said.
“Tonya?” the human spoke at the same time, seeming rather startled.
Molly decided to pay attention to the dog-thing who had said her name. That was one of the few human mouth noises she had been absolutely sure of.
“Who ar' yoo? Wher' is da-ee?”
“Molly, I'm Colleen. I'm here to take care of you.” She pointed at the human. “This is Maria. What is 'da-ee'?”
Molly was puzzled. She sat on her haunches and cocked her head to the side as she often used to when she was trying to figure things out, but it wasn't a comfortable position for her now.
“Da-ee? Daddy, maybe?” said the human. “Oh wait, I think she must mean Mike.”
That was one of the sounds other humans made to her alpha, and she'd been pretty sure that that was his sound-name. “Yes. Mike. My… my… person,” she said haltingly, then stopped in amazement. She was making human mouth noises! And they understood her!
“Mike is OK. Sh… he’s here… um… he's near here. We'll get him for you soon,” the dog thing said. She thought that she remembered that the mouth noise for her was Colleen.
“Colle'n, bring Mike-daddy to me?” she said hopefully. She knew better than to automatically trust strange dogs, but somehow, this one seemed good.
Colleen and Maria looked at each other. The little girl who used to be a dog managed to still make puppy-dog eyes as she looked at them hopefully. Maria looked a question at Colleen who gave her head a small shake. “Dora, tell Doctors Hoffmann, Elbeth and Kalan that Molly is awake and speaking with us. She wants to see Mike, but I think that Elbeth and Kalan should help with the introduction.”
“Doctors Hoffmann, Elbeth and Kalan have been informed,” the A.I. said from the ceiling speakers. “Elbeth and Kalan confirm that they're on the way. Shall I inform Mike as well?”
“Yes, but tell him to wait outside the room until Elbeth and Kalan ask him to come in.”
“Acknowledged,” the A.I. said. “Mike is on the way as well.”
“Mike?!” Molly half barked, half shouted.
“Not yet,” Colleen reassured her. “Not yet but soon.”
“Treat?” Molly said hopefully. Mike had often given her a treat when he told her to wait and she was feeling very hungry.
“You must be hungry. We haven't been able to get you to eat anything since you came here. Hmmm.” She reached in her pocket and produced a small packet of chocolate-chip cookies. “I was saving these for my break, but this seems like a good cause.” She opened the packet and pulled out a small cookie.
Molly leaned forward and opened her mouth expectantly, waiting for the treat to be given. She was in the “Sit” position, just like she was supposed to be for a treat. Why wasn't Colleen-dog giving it to her?
“Oops. No, not like that Molly. Hold out your hand.”
‘Hand?’ Molly thought. Then it came to her: ‘forepaw’. She stretched out her hand and Colleen put the cookie into it, but the cookie fell from Molly's loose grip on to the floor. Molly whined in frustration and started to move to the floor after it.
Marie held her back. “Non, mon petit,” reverting to her native language in her distraction.
Meanwhile, Colleen had gotten another cookie and was putting it into Molly's hand and using her other hand to close the girl's fingers around it. “Now try,” she encouraged.
Molly had watched humans do this before, many times. She could do it! She moved the treat carefully to her mouth, then jammed the whole thing in and began to chew noisily. A look of bliss came over her face, and she quickly swallowed the half-chewed cookie and choked a little. She looked at Colleen again hopefully.
“I can see we're going to have to work on your table manners. You're going to choke if you keep trying to swallow a whole chocolate-chip cookie without even chewing it.” She broke another cookie in half and handed one piece to Molly, who was able to grasp it for herself this time.
“Now chew it up before you swallow it this time,” Colleen told the girl, who crammed the cookie piece in her mouth and chewed enthusiastically.
“I would guess that she never tasted chocolate before. Quite a welcome to humanity,” she grinned, then looked thoughtful. “What were you doing with chocolate-chip cookies? I thought those were harmful to canids.”
“Natural canids, yes. Canid morphs like me, not usually; enough human in our genome to give us a more forgiving digestive tract, I think. And a good thing, too. Sometimes, a girl needs her chocolate.”
“Absolutement, mon ami!”
“More?” Molly broke in, hopefully.
Colleen was saved from having to try to explain to her that too much chocolate-chip cookie wasn't good for her by the entrance of Kalen and Elbeth. Molly looked over at the two black and white-furred, dog-cat-somethings and felt an immediate surge of affection toward them. She couldn't remember exactly what they had done with her yesterday, but she knew that they had something to do with her new understanding of herself and her surroundings today. She jumped off the bed between Colleen and Maria and ran on all fours toward the skunktaurs. Reaching them, she started to jump up to lick their faces, when they moved apart and embraced her in a three-way hug.
“We're glad to see you too, Molly, but you're human now. Remember what we taught you yesterday? Walk on your hind legs, not all fours. Humans hug, instead of licking faces or sniffing tails,” Kalen said with a smile. The two skunktaurs reinforced and softened the reminder with another hug.
“Now we have more to show you today,” Elbeth said still embracing the girl. Kalen and Elbeth began to lead the girl over to the center of the room when Mike entered the room.
“I heard that Molly was awake and talking. Is that…”
Shi was cut off by Molly's shrill, little-girl scream.
“Cat! Cat!! No, no NO!” Molly struggled in the skunktaur's arms as they fought to to calm the former dog. Colleen intercepted Mike and dragged the startled former human out the door.
“Mike get out of here now!”
Mike allowed hirself to be marched out by Colleen in her best ‘no-nonsense nurse’ mode, protesting as shi went. “But I thought they got Molly fixed up…”
Colleen closed the door behind her and stood muzzle to muzzle with Mike. She took a breath, preparing to chew hir out for hir thoughtlessness, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Reacher had come up soundlessly behind her, having felt the strong and conflicting emotions filling the room.
“It's ok, Colleen; Mike didn't mean to scare her.”
The Collie morph looked stubborn for a moment, then visibly thought better of it. “Sure, Reacher. I have to go back in to help Kalen and Elbeth, anyhow. Mike… well, I think I understand.” She turned toward the door as Reacher put hir hand on Mike's shoulder.
“Walk with me, Mike.” Unsure of hirself after the scene shi'd unwittingly caused, Mike followed hir down the corridor. Reacher put hir arm around Mike’s shoulders as shi guided hir out into the corridor and to hir surprise, Mike found the touch reassuring, even though shi'd always been uncomfortable with casual touch as a human.
“Molly means a lot to you, doesn't she?” Reacher asked quietly.
“She's been with me for more than eight years now; my only real companion since my wife died. I honestly don't know what I'd have done without her, but now…”
“Now she's not your dog anymore.”
“No. No she isn’t.” Shi paused, embarrassed to admit hir feelings but at the same time needing to talk to someone. “But she's my only link to my former life and she doesn't even know me.”
“I'd point out that you've already made friends here, but I know it isn't the same yet.”
“No, no it isn't. Not yet anyway. I'm a stranger in a strange land here, and I very much need Molly to remember me and be with me.”
Reacher was quiet for a long moment, then went on, “It can't be the same relationship, you know. She's her own person now, not just an animal companion.”
“I know.” Mike stopped to face Reacher and smiled sadly. “To tell the truth, I've never thought of her as just an animal. She's got too much personality for that. To me, she's always been a person. My wife used to tease me about it, claiming that Molly was really my short, furry daughter.”
“And now you're the furry one.” Seeing the tears welling up in Mike’s eyes, Reacher moved to embrace Mike. “It's all a lot to adjust to, isn't it?”
Mike nodded as shi found himself relaxing into Reacher's embrace and buried hir face in Reacher's fur. They stayed like that for a moment, Reacher comforting Mike, then Mike stepped back looking embarrassed.
“Sorry – I usually have myself under better control than that,” shi said, wiping the tears from hir eyes.
“Don't be so hard on yourself. Considering all you've been through, I think you're doing amazingly well.” Shi gave Mike another hug. “They're probably going to be hours working with Molly; why don't you come down to my office where we can sit down and be comfortable? I've been looking for a chance to talk to you for a while.” Shi took Mike's arm and pulled hir along the hall.
“Talk to me about what?”
“Oh, life, the universe, and everything.”
“People still actually remember the ‘Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy’?”
Reacher grinned back at hir. “Want to hear some Vogon poetry?”
Mike winced, then gave hir a questioning look. “No seriously, what did you want to talk about?”
Shi led Mike into a comfortable, if cluttered, office and motioned Mike into a chair as shi claimed a nearby taur cushion and sat on hir haunches.
“Everything!” Shi grinned. “What was it like to live in the 21st century? What was life like before morphs and the Gene Wars? What's it like to change species? What was it like to be a single-sexer? Who do you think will win the grav-ball tournament this season?”
Reacher's unquenchable, upbeat mood was hard to entirely resist. Mike relaxed back into hir chair. “Okay, but first you'll have to explain to me what grav-ball is.”
Mike was curled up, nose to tail, drowsing in the sunlight streaming through the window. Hearing footsteps, he looked up to see Molly as a human standing above him.
“There you are, you bad kitty!” She reached down to pick him up and held him like a doll in her hands. He was the size of a house cat, while Molly was a good-sized human girl. Almost worse was the realization that while Molly was fully dressed in lavender overalls and a pink blouse, he was wearing nothing but his fur.
“You peed on the carpet again! Mom's going to throw you out for sure now,” she said, shaking him for emphasis.
He tried to speak, to protest his innocence, but only a cat's mewling came out.
“Where is he?!” an unpleasantly familiar voice came from behind him. Looking around, he saw Sylvia, his ex-wife towering over both of them. “I told you that if you sprayed in this house again, it's straight to the Vet for you.” She grabbed him out of Molly's hands and held him by his tail. “Stupid animal – you're getting your balls snipped today.”
The pain from being held by his tail got worse and then… Mike woke up.
Mike struggled for a moment to free hir tail from the twist of bedding that had caught it and then sat up, breathing heavily, hir pulse rapid. The room lights started gently coming up and shi looked around. Shi was in the same infirmary room shi'd been staying in since hir arrival.
‘It was just a nightmare’, Mike told hirself. ‘I'm not an animal! I'm not Sylvia's house cat!’ Shi swung hir legs around and planted hir feet on the floor, sitting there for a moment to gather hir composure. Shi squirmed around to straighten the sleep shirt that was twisted around hir torso, so it didn't pull so much on hir pelt. Colleen had advised hir that most morphs slept in just their fur and didn't bother with sheets and blankets. Mike had wanted to continue to sleep as shi had when human, wearing night-clothes, under bedcovers and with the room temperature turned down. Maybe shi'd have to reconsider that, given how unpleasant it was to wake up with hir tail tangled in the bedding.
Now that shi was sitting up though, Mike felt sick and dizzy. Hungover, in fact. Something was hammering in the back of hir skull and hir mouth tasted like the floor of a freight elevator. Shi thought back to the previous night. After going to Reacher's office to talk with hir while Kalen and Elbeth were working with Molly, they decided to go to the facility canteen for some refreshments. After a light snack, Reacher ordered a glass of a Luna-vintage wine. Intrigued, Mike had the same. Unfortunately, Mike didn't take hir new size into account when judging hir limits and didn't know about Luna-vintage wines. Too late shi discovered that Lunar wines are to Terran wines as Australian beer is to American beer: much stronger. Shi vaguely remembered a chagrinned Reacher helping a very tipsy Mike back to hir room and into a sleep shirt Kate had left there with a stack of other clothing.
Looking down at the sleep shirt in the now full-on lights, Mike saw that it was a bright yellow with a familiar logo in pink, white and blue. Shi groaned, “Of all the things to survive three hundred years, why did it have to be ‘Hello Kitty’?!”
“Good morning!” a cheerful voice said from the opening door. Colleen walked in with the sadistically cheerful demeanor that the sober often have for the hung-over. “And how are we this fine morning?”
Mike looked blearily up at her from where shi sat on the bed. “Is there no mercy in this world? I'm dying here. Your overgrown Cheshire cat introduced me to Lunar wine last night.”
“You didn't try to keep up with a chakat, did you? Hasn't anyone told you about them?” Mike shook hir head, then winced in pain. “They usually can't even get drunk. Their metabolism protects them unless they really overdo it.”
“Mine doesn't,” Mike groaned and looked up at her, an utterly wretched expression on hir face. “Can you put me out of my misery?”
“As a matter of fact, I can,” the nurse said primly and set the tray she was carrying down on his bed table. Mike saw it held a large glass of orange juice and two small, pink pills. “These are ‘Morning-Afterz’. Best hangover cure on the market, but be sure to drink all of the juice with them.”
Mike downed the pills and started on the orange juice, while Colleen watched to be sure shi drank the entire glass.
“Just rest and you should feel better in just a few minutes. Call me when you feel up to breakfast.” She picked up the tray and paused a moment to look at her patient. “Cute nightie!”
Mike felt hir ears blush, as Colleen grinned at hir and left with the tray and empty glass. Wanting to distract hirself, Mike got dressed in the shorts and top that Kate had lent hir then picked up hir PADD and resumed reading the article shi'd started the previous day. By the time hir breakfast tray wheeled itself in, shi was actually able to face the thought of food again.
After breakfast, Mike looked up from the PADD in hir lap to see Kate and Linda entering the room.
“Ready for a shopping trip?” the rabbit morph asked brightly.
“Shopping? You've got to be kidding.”
“Nope,” Kate said brightly. “You can't go on borrowing my clothes forever. Even if I had enough clothes for the two of us, you need to find your own style.”
“My own style?” Mike said uncomfortably.
“Yes, style,” interjected Linda, “It's not a dirty word.”
“Right…” Mike said doubtfully. “Even if I wanted to become a furry fashion plate, how would I pay for a new wardrobe?”
“With this,” the rabbit-morph replied with a grin and handed Mike two plastic cards, one about the size of a credit card, the other somewhat bigger. “Congratulations, you've just become ProDyne's newest employee.” She tapped the larger of the two cards. “This is your ProDyne facility access card. Clip it to your clothes; it will get you into any area in the facility you are authorized to visit. This,” she tapped the smaller card, “is your employee bank card. To use it, press your thumb on its sensor pad as you touch the card to the vender’s terminal.”
Mike looked at the small plastic rectangle in hir hand. A hologram of hir new face smiled out at hir. “When did you take this? I don't remember posing for a photo.”
“You didn’t. That's a holo they took of me when I started the engineering student intern program here,” Kate replied. “Since we're twins now, does it matter?”
“Um, I guess not,” Mike replied doubtfully. The smiling feline in the hologram was wearing a very feminine scoop-neck top and delicate woman's necklace. Then shi noticed the name on the card. “Mikki MacLeod?! What th—”
“Calm down, Mike. You need to keep a low profile for a while until we get some details sorted out. It isn't every day that we materialize someone from another century into the lab.” Linda gave him a serious look, “If someone showed up back in 2023 with no background and no proof of identity, how simple would it have been to get him into the system?”
“Oh. I guess I can see that.” Shi paused. “But why the girl's name?”
“The simplest way to give you a temporary identity is to make you appear to be Kate's twin sister,” Linda explained, “and a male name would be conspicuous in a McClaren's cougar family and Mikki is close to your actual name. The other choice we thought of was Michelle, but Dr. Elbeth thought you’d find that too feminine.”
Mike was momentarily left without a reply and Kate took advantage of the opening.
“Now, let's go shopping!” Kate took one arm, Linda took another and pulled hir out of the room.
Four hours later, the three of them were walking through a large, open, multilevel shopping mall that reminded Mike of one of the indoor malls shi’d seen back home. Built around a central atrium, the five shopping levels were crisscrossed with walkways and decorative banners. Vine covered trellises started at seemingly random places and went up part or all the way to the brightly lit ceiling, and potted plants and miniature flower gardens were scattered about the various levels. Children of various species played in the fountain pools on the ground floor, while their parents sat and watched them from the patios of several nearby cafés. Mike was especially impressed by the ‘bounce tubes’ that took advantage of the low lunar gravity and allowed the more daring shoppers to jump down between levels by clever adjustment of the artificial gravity fields within them. While the 'tube station had been similar to many subways shi’d seen in the twenty-first century (albeit cleaner), shi had to admit that the shopping mall was the most impressive and most comfortable shi'd ever visited. The increased comfort was no doubt in part because the gravity fields were dialed down to two-thirds Earth normal, to ease the strain on shopper's feet and legs.
Mike was carrying several bags containing the beginnings of a wardrobe, although one that Kate had declared to be “Booooring!”. Shi'd even bought a minimum of embarrassingly female undergarments that Kate and Linda insisted that shi'd need, although shi'd used Kate's knowledge of their sizes to just buy the items without trying them on. Shi'd drawn the line at skirts and dresses, even though Kate and Linda had both recommended them as more comfortable for fur-bearing fems.
Mike was ready to call it a day, or at least stop for a well-deserved lunch, but first shi needed to answer a more pressing call.
“Where's the men's, um women's, um… the herm's room?”
“The toilets? See the sign over there?” Linda pointed to a blue and white sign with the capital letters “WC” with small male and female outline figures that would have been quite at home on a 21st century restroom sign.
“Do you need help?” Kate offered.
“No thanks. I think I can manage,” Mike said with as much dignity as shi could manage. Shi hoped that hir little incident in the hospital bathroom wasn't public knowledge, but ruefully rather doubted it.
“I think I need to freshen up as well,” Linda chimed in.
“Might as well make it unanimous,” Kate said cheerily and headed toward the sign.
Mike followed reluctantly. ‘Why do females have to go to the john in groups?’ shi thought. ‘And herms too, apparently. I really didn't want company just to take a piss.’
When they passed through the door, Mike saw that there were two doors, one with the familiar trousered male and skirted female outlines for a unisex restroom, and one with a four-legged outline of a taur done in the same style. Both had an “Unoccupied” sign glowing on the door.
“Are all the toilets unisex now?” Mike asked.
Kate looked at him in surprise. “Most of them, yes. What were you expecting?”
Linda chimed in, “You haven't spent all that much time in any mostly-human areas on Terra, have you Kate?”
The cougar-morph shook her head. “No, the neighborhoods I grew up in were mostly pretty mixed, species-wise. Why?”
“On Terra, the older places that are mostly human usually have separate WCs for males and females, and often no special facilities at all for taurs. Herms tended to use the one they could most easily pass for. You'd get funny looks if you didn't use the woman's room there, Kate.”
“I guess it would get complicated to try to have a separate facility for every gender and form,” said Mike thoughtfully.
“Wow. You'd need a biped male, biped female, taur male and taur female. And then a herm biped and herm taur-form, if you were really hung up on separation by gender and form. Six toilets, no waiting!” shi giggled.
“No, there'd be a line at the woman's room no matter what,” Linda said with a resigned sigh. “You go ahead and use the biped's room, Mike. I'll use the taur room. I've done it often enough on Terra when the women's room line was too long.”
Feeling more embarrassed than shi thought was reasonable, Mike retreated into the room marked with the trousered male and skirted female outlines. The door slid aside to admit hir and then quickly closed behind hir, sealing the room off in case of a pressure drop, like almost all doors on Luna. The small, softly-lit room had a mirror over a sink, an odd-looking hand drier, a urinal and a stall with a toilet. Nothing that looked too different from a 21st century public restroom, except that it looked and smelled much cleaner.
‘Let's get this over with,’ Mike thought and passed by the urinal with a regretful sense of loss. Shi closed the stall door behind hir and watched the seat lower itself down into position. Reaching behind hirself, shi unfastened the tail loop of hir shorts and ran hir finger down the seam beneath to open it. Next, shi hooked hir thumbs under the plain white briefs and pushed them down with the shorts. Kate had told Mike that shi would need underwear if shi was going to try on pants. Shi'd opted to try the style of disposable female underpants (due to hir small ‘package’ size and urinary location, the usual male and herm styles didn’t work very well for hir) that ran the elastic band under the tail, rather than having a hole for it. Shi'd decided that was a mistake within a half hour of getting dressed for the shopping trip. They were quick and easy to get on or off, but shi didn't have wide enough hips to keep them from creeping down as shi walked around.
Moving hir tail carefully out to the side, shi sat down. Mike looked for the familiar toilet paper roll and saw instead the same two slots in the wall of the stall that shi had found in the infirmary bathroom, marked with the same unfamiliar icons. Having discovered how much harder it was to keep certain parts of a furry body clean, shi was grateful for the newer hygiene items.
Finished, shi took a moment to shed the uncomfortable underpants, stood up and put hir shorts back on. Not having to put on or take off shoes was proving to be a welcome time-saver. Since shi was finished trying on clothes for the day, the rejected item of underwear went into the disposal bin inset into the wall of the stall.
When shi opened the stall door, the seat went up and the toilet flushed itself. After shi walked out, a small cleaning robot rolled out from behind a sliding panel and started to inspect and tidy up the stall. That was another big improvement from public restrooms in the twenty-first century.
Mike walked over to the sink and put hir hands under the tap. A dab of warm soap foam dropped on to hir hands and the tap began to dispense warm water. Mike began to wash hir hands, remembering to first be sure hir claws were fully retracted. As Mike washed hir hands, shi looked in the mirror. That cougar looked out of the mirror at hir again. Shi looked at the hands shi was washing. Except for the fur, they looked mostly human. When shi wasn't thinking about it, shi still felt human except when hir tail got in the way of things.
Just then, Kate walked through the door. “A chakat needed the taur room before Linda. You didn't lock the door, so I guessed you don't mind sharing.” Shi went into the stall and its door closed behind hir. Uncomfortable with sharing a WC with Kate, Mike said nothing as shi finished rinsing hir hands then ran them through the drier. To hir surprise, unlike its twenty-first century counterparts, it was almost silent.
Mike looked over at the mirror to see that cougar-morph still there. Would shi ever get used to seeing hir there? In spite of the plain, unisex clothing, she (no, shi, Mike again reminded himself) looked feminine and rather pretty. A second cougar morph appeared in the mirror, with an identical face but wearing a black and beige dress. Shi started washing hir hands in the sink next to Mike.
“You got a nice start on a basic wardrobe today, but it's all pretty masculine. You really should think about getting a few things to suit your feminine side.”
“Um, it's still hard for me to accept that I even have a feminine side. I'd feel ridiculous in a dress.”
“Accept it babe, you've got one. And not only is it fun to be girly sometimes, but you'll have to deal with it during that time of the month.”
“That time of the month? But I thought it was a fifty-six day cycle.” Mike tried unsuccessfully to push back unpleasant memories of his wife and daughter's complaints during their ‘time of the month’.
Kate finished washing hir hands and went to the hand drier. “Oh it is, but that's what we often call our heats. I think we adopted the term from our human sisters' way of referring to their menstrual periods, and they understand when we say it that way.” Shi shuddered, “At least we don't have to put up with bleeding five days a month. Being wet and horny for several days can be awkward enough sometimes. I don't envy human females in the least.”
“Having lived with some of those human females, I don't either.”
Kate checked hir reflection in the mirror, brushed a few patches of fur, and fussed with hir hair. Shi looked thoughtful for a moment then giggled. “But your heat can be fun too, if you find the right person to be with then. Let's go. Linda's probably waiting for us,” shi said and turned to the door which opened for hir. Outside, the rabbit-morph was waiting as predicted.
“If we hurry, we might catch the 12:25 'tube back to the facility. Otherwise, we might as well have lunch and head over to the 'tube station to catch the 14:05,” Linda said.
“Lunch, definitely,” replied Kate. “How about the ‘Cat's Cradle’?”
“No way. The last time you dragged me there, their salad bar was awful and I thought I was going to end up on the menu, instead of ordering from it. How about ‘Green's Garden’?”
“If you drag me to one more vegetarian joint, you will be on the menu,” Kate replied darkly.
Mike thought shi was joking. Mostly. Then shi saw the two break into grins. This was apparently an on-going tug of war that they both enjoyed. Shi decided to enter the fray.
“How about Chinese food? Or maybe Thai? Cashew chicken sounds good right now,” Mike suggested.
“Drunken noodles for me!” replied the rabbit morph, “You're outvoted kitty-cat,” she said to Kate with a grin.
“OK – if they have salmon steak on the menu today. Otherwise I'll have Welsh rabbit.”
“You mean Welsh rarebit,” replied Linda.
“Wanna bet?” Kate shot back with a toothy grin.
“I should have guessed that Bugs Bunny would survive into the twenty-fourth century,” Mike groaned.
A half hour later, the three were seated in the “Bangkok Bowl”, digging into their meals. In spite of the herbivore vs. carnivore teasing between the two, Linda had ordered shrimp with her drunken noodles and Kate had ordered a green salad with hir grilled salmon.
“Everything smells good,” Mike said around a mouthful of cashew chicken, “but nothing tastes quite the same. For that matter, I thought cats were pure carnivores. Why does the rice still taste good? Will it cause me trouble later? And Linda's having shrimp. I didn't think seafood was on a rabbit's diet.”
“As morphs go, both our species are fairly close to human norms,” Linda replied around a mouthful of shrimp and noodles. “Rabbits were one of the early morph species and we have a lot of human in our genome. I'm plantigrade like you and Kate, for example, and my teeth and bone structure are a lot more human than rabbit. And I enjoy being an omnivore, especially when it comes to spicy shrimp!”
Kate swallowed a large mouthful of salmon and picked up the subject. “And remember that our species was originally designed to be soldiers. We might not have the genetically enhanced resistance to poisons that chakats have, but we can eat almost anything resembling food, in a pinch. Although some of the so-called food in my school cafeteria really put that to the test.” Shi grimaced at the memory.
“Remember that I'm a former soldier – I'm used to eating anything that doesn't eat me first,” Mike returned with a toothy grin.
“You're going to make a fine McClaren's Cougar then,” Kate replied.
“And I think this poor, scared rabbit is ordering seconds for the both of you, so I don't get eaten as a snack on the 'tube home,” Linda rejoined mock-fearfully.
“Not to worry; rabbit is to be played with and savored before eating, not gobbled down as a quick snack,” Kate teased with a mock-lecherous grin.
“Now you're sounding like Reacher,” Linda replied with a playfully sexy grin, “Maybe you're really a two-legged Chakat.”
Mike listened to the playful banter with amusement and an awareness of feelings within himself that shi had feared shi'd outgrown years before this strange journey. Somehow, in just a few days, shi'd started to accept these morphs as people and as friends. Shi mused that seeing them as people, rather than some form of trained animals, was speeding hir acceptance of hirself as still a person, even if no longer human. Shi also realized with a shock, and a little uneasiness, that shi was viewing them as sexually attractive people. As shi looked at Linda, Mike was feeling a familiar hardening that was beginning to tent out hir pants a bit. What wasn’t familiar was the feeling of wetness in hir crotch. This completely flustered Mike and shi felt a blush spread through hir ears.
“I think we're embarrassing Mike,” Kate said with a grin, “Shall we get a room?”
“Sometimes, you're really just a dirty old tomcat, Kate.”
In response, Kate leered and winked at Linda then licked hir lips suggestively.
“Herms!” She rolled her eyes in feigned exasperation. “You're just as bad as males sometimes,” Linda said with amusement in her voice. “Let's finish lunch before it gets cold and get back to the Center.”
When the trio arrived back at the ProDyne facility, Dr. Hoffmann, Reacher and Karl were waiting for them in the reception room.
“You are looking well, Mike. How would you like to move out of the infirmary to one of our facility guest rooms? I am sure you would prefer something more private with less medical equipment cluttering up your space, and we have a very limited number of infirmary rooms.”
“Actually, that would be great, Doctor Hoffmann. I'll miss Colleen and Dora, though.”
Reacher chuckled, “I'm sure you'll see more of Colleen from time to time – she mother-hens us all. And Dora isn't the infirmary A.I., she's the facility A.I., so she'll be in your new room as much as she was your old room.”
“That's good to hear.”
“Then it is settled; you may move into your new quarters this afternoon and free up that infirmary room. Dora and Kate can show you the way. And I have some good news for you.”
Mike gave Dr. Hoffmann a questioning look.
“Not long after you, ah, arrived here, I called ProDyne’s legal department. We certainly cannot send you back where you came from and we cannot hide you forever, so I dropped the question of your legal status directly into their laps.” He grinned wryly, “For what else is a legal department? In short, they were able to persuade Lunar Immigration to start the process to grant you legal resident status.”
“Congratulations ‘Mikki’,” Reacher grinned. “You're almost legal.”
“And I've got something for you.” Karl tossed a heavy pair of gloves to Mike with a toothy grin. “Catch!”
Mike snagged them out of the air, discovering reflexes that put hir old body to shame. The bulky and somewhat stiff white gloves were made out of a thick nylon-like material with rubbery caps over the finger tips and metal fittings at the wrists. “Gloves? What are these for?”
Karl handed hir a couple of meters of 8mm Kevlar-3 line while Linda and Kate smirked knowingly at Mike. “Practice tying knots in this while wearing those. When you can manage a bow knot in under ten seconds come and see me. When you're resting your hands, read the file I sent to your PADD titled Vacuum Gear and Pressure Suit Operations and Maintenance.”
Mike looked at Karl questioningly, then noticed the way Kate and Linda grinned at hir. The two looked back at hir and chorused, “Pressure suit qualification time!”
Reacher went on with a grin, “Vacation time is over, lazybones. Time to start your training.”
Linda looked at Mike, amusement and sympathy on her face. “You poor, poor fur. You're in the clutches of ‘Karl the Terrible’ now.”
“Elbeth and Dr. Hoffmann think that you're ready to start your Lunar orientation,” Reacher said, trying to regain control of the conversation. “Dora is going to give you the interior safety and emergency procedures classes and tests, then as soon as you pass both the pressure suit procedures written test and the suit glove manual dexterity test to Karl's satisfaction, we'll take you out to the surface for your qualification EVA.”
Mike turned the heavy gauntlets over in hir hand. “Spacesuit gloves…” shi said wonderingly.
“Nope. ‘pressure suit’ gloves.” Karl corrected, “ ‘Spacesuit’ is what the tourists call them. Take them back to your room and Dora will start your safety and emergency procedures class.”
“So, why am I a ‘poor, poor fur’?”
“You'll see,” Kate said with a knowing grin.
“Come in, Group Leader Pike. I assume you have additional information for me on our new gene-joke and its abomination?” The heavy set man’s disgust darkened his face as he looked at the smaller man standing in front of him.
“A little. Our contact in the ProDyne Copernicus facility isn’t assigned duties that would put that person in direct contact with our targets. Apparently, the ex-human has decided to adapt to being a gene-joke animal, rather than honorably committing suicide or at least demanding to be returned to a human body.”
Thurston made a note on his desktop PADD. “In that case, no mercy is justified there.”
“Is it ever?”
The H1 leader looked thoughtful before replying. “It isn’t a matter of not wanting to be merciful or not. Mercy, or cruelty for that matter, is irrelevant. This is about survival; the survival of the human race.”
Pike thought about that for a moment before replying. “I suppose that's true enough, but I find it easier to feel mercy for animals, especially dogs, cats and the like, than morphs. At least they’re as nature made them, not leftover biological weapons from a war humanity came too close to losing.”
Thoughts of the Gene Wars and its aftermath caused both men to be silent for a moment before Thurston went on.
“And the uplifted animal?”
“The uplifted animal is still confined to the research facility, but the former human is cleared to roam outside at will. In fact, it's expected to take its pressure suit qualification sometime in the near future.”
“Any chance of arranging an accident there?”
“Very little, unfortunately. The roster for the qualification currently consists entirely of morphs, and our contact is at least eight months from needing a suit re-qualification.”
“Unfortunate. Still, see what you can do to arrange an accident for our ex-human traitor if the opportunity arises. And some of its new friends too, if possible.” Seeing Pike’s expression, Thurston continued, “I know, I know, there's probably no way to arrange a convenient accident on such short notice.” He chuckled grimly. “But you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take.”
Hir new room in company transient quarters was smaller than the hospital room, but without all the various items of medical equipment and paraphernalia, Mike found that shi actually had a little more space. The room was about three meters by four meters with a two and a half meter high ceiling (not counting the small but efficiently laid-out bathroom), which provided the same even, diffuse lighting as the hospital room. The small room was kept from feeling claustrophobically small by two walls with ‘intelligent’ surfaces that could be programmed to show convincingly realistic, three dimensional scenes from an amazing variety of places both on the Earth and on other planets. At present, shi had the walls showing a pleasant forest scene from somewhere Mike thought might be somewhere in Europe – Bavaria maybe, or perhaps Switzerland, judging by the mountains on the horizon.
Another feature that made the room seem more spacious was the ability of the furniture to retract into the other two walls or floor. Currently, the 'Bedroom' furnishings were folded into the wall and shi had the apartment in ‘Living Room mode’, with a chair and small couch unfolded from the floor. Shi hadn't yet tried ‘Dining Room mode’ yet, but understood that the room would reconfigure into a very basic kitchenette with dining table when shi did. The floor was soft and very nonskid, not quite fuzzy and very comfortable on hir bare feet. Shi couldn't see any seams at the spot where shi knew the dining table was retracted, and the floor changed colors and patterns to complement whatever was shown on the smart walls.
In the end though, the apartment felt somehow sterile and impersonal, in spite of its high-tech comforts.
Sitting on the couch of hir new room, Mike tried to put on one of the pressure suit gauntlets and found that shi'd gotten the fur on the back of a finger caught in one of the glove's finger joints. Shi started pulling hir hand out and discovered that it was pulling out a clump of fur. With a yelp of pain, Mike pushed hir hand back into the glove a bit then began to pull hir hand out again, this time discovering shi'd caught a claw in the glove's lining. Looking at hir left hand, Mike realized that all hir claws had extended when hir fur had been pulled, so shi took a deep breath and consciously relaxed hir fingers and felt hir claws retract. With hir hand relaxed, shi straightened the fingers of the glove with hir left hand and pulled hir right hand out of the gauntlet. Unnoticed, hir ears had folded back and hir tail tip started twitching in irritation.
Mike heard a sound from the ceiling, almost like a person clearing their throat to get someone's attention. Shi felt hir ears swivel to better catch the sound, a sensation shi hadn't yet gotten used to.
“Dora, is that you?” shi asked the otherwise empty room.
“Yes, Mike. FarReach informed me that you would be starting pressure suit training today. I have loaded the standard pressure suit training modules on your PADD and will be listening to answer any questions that you may have. May I make a suggestion?”
“Um, yes. Please do,” Mike replied. Shi tried to decide where to look when talking to the A.I.. Looking up at the ceiling speakers just didn't seem right somehow. Looking around, shi found the small video camera in the upper corner of the smart walls and decided to look at it when talking to the A.I.. The camera wasn’t hard to find, since video cameras were required by Lunar Republic law to be easily visible.
“Most pressure suit users wear a thin glove under the pressure suit gauntlet to aid in donning and removing the gauntlet, and to prevent chafing the skin or pulling fur. The middle left hand drawer of the supply cabinet to your right has disposable gloves that will adequately serve the purpose.”
“Ok. Thanks.” Walking over to the drawer, Mike discovered a box marked “Disposable gloves, Furred User, Small” and tried them on. To hir surprise, they went on easily. Mike returned to the table where shi had left the gauntlets and this time the gauntlet slipped over hir right hand without pulling hir fur. Shi opened and closed hir hands and stretched hir fingers to test the movements of the gloved versus the ungloved hand. Hir claws promptly broke through the thin, disposable gloves and caught on the inside of the gauntlet. Mike surprised hirself by by uttering a very feline growl, then swore softly under hir breath. Pulling hir hand out of the gauntlet, shi saw that all four finger claws had broken through the gloves. Curiously, hir thumb claw hadn't quite managed to break through the tough polymer of the glove.
“My apologies,” the A.I.'s voice said “I should have anticipated that. Kate has made an appointment to have hir claws blunted in preparation for hir pressure suit recertification. Shall I book an appointment for you? The “Fine Feline” salon has another opening at the same time as Kate's appointment.”
Mike looked at the ruin of the exam gloves for a moment and thought grim thoughts about holes in pressure suits. “Ah, yes, please.” Shi then removed the ruined gloves and gauntlet and started over. This time shi managed to get the gloves and gauntlets on with somewhat less damage to the gloves. Feeling a bit more confident, shi picked up the length of line and tried to tie a knot in it. Shi promptly dropped the line on to the floor. Bending over to pick up the line, shi felt hir tail strike something and heard the empty water cup shi’d left on the table fall to the floor with a clatter of plastic. Standing up with the length of Kevlar line in hir gloved hands, shi decided to ignore the fallen cup and concentrate on tying the required knot. As shi struggled with the stiff gloves and slippery Kevlar line, Mike thought shi heard a quiet snicker from the room's speakers.
“Dora? Is that you?”
“Yes Mike. I'm watching.”
“No, I meant was that you laughing?”
“Yes, that was me. You did look funny, Mike.”
Mike felt hir ears blush and lower in embarrassment, then shi thought for a moment.
“Dora, you really are an A.I., aren't you? Not a human watching me remotely?”
“Yes, that is correct. I am a Class IV A.I., and the master control A.I. for this facility.”
“I… um. I'm going to have to show my 21st century ignorance here, but are you a… well, a sapient being?”
“Are you?” Mike thought he detected a note of irritation in Dora's voice.
“Um… You are a computer, right?”
“I can pass a level four Turing test,” the voice said primly, “I've interacted with humans that cannot do that.”
“I'm sorry Dora. I didn't want to offend you, I just want to understand. Remember, I'm three hundred years behind the power curve.”
“No offense taken Mike, but there are humans and morphs that still do not recognize cybernetic intelligences as sapient beings.”
“Does every place have a self-aware A.I. running it now?”
“Oh, no. Very few places can afford the computing power and expense of maintaining a true A.I.. Most businesses and apartments use a non-sapient, albeit sophisticated, expert system. There are only eleven A.I.s like me in all of Luna.”
Mike laughed softly. “And to be honest, I thought at first that Colleen was pulling my leg, and you were a human watching me on a monitor somewhere. It seems impossible that you're anything but a person.”
“I think we are going to get along just fine, Mike.” The A.I.'s voice seemed to hold a note of approval. “Are you ready to start your surface qualification training classes?”
Several days later, Mike was lounging in the facility cafeteria, lingering over lunch and reading hir PADD when shi noticed that Reacher had managed to silently walk up beside hir and was reading over hir shoulder.
“ ‘Pressure Suit Operations in Lunar Surface Conditions.’ A little light reading Mike?”
“Well, if I'm really on the moon, I want to get out and actually see it for myself. I always wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, so how could I resist a chance to walk out on the surface?”
“A lot of people think that they can manage a P-suit without all that reading,” Reacher said, looking at Mike carefully.
“And I'll bet some of those people discover what it feels like to breathe vacuum. I didn't survive all those years in the Army by stupidly blundering into hazardous situations unprepared.”
The chakat smiled grimly, “A few of them have, but I noticed you passed your written test with a score of 97%. Want to put that knowledge to a practical test? A few of us have to do our annual pressure suit recertification and I think this would be a great opportunity for you to take the practical portion of your certification test.”
Mike stood up eagerly. “You're on! Where and when do I show up?”
“Easy, Mike,” Reacher said, smiling at Mike's enthusiasm. “We can't just run out on the surface on a whim. Karl's a certified P-suit instructor and he's scheduled the crater rim airlock for tomorrow morning at 0800. If you're really ready, Kate will lead you there.” Shi turned to leave. “Tail high!”
Mike started to look around, “It is? I thought I had it under better control now.”
“Oh it is, it is.” Reacher unsuccessfully tried to hide a grin, “That's a chakat expression that hasn’t caught on here in Luna. It means something like ‘be happy’ or ‘have a nice day’ or ‘aloha’ or maybe all of them combined.”
“Ok, got it. That reminds me, I was reading that chakats were fairly common on Earth, but I haven’t seen many of you here. Why’s that?”
“That's simple. Chakats were created after the Gene Wars, during the reconstruction. We were badly needed on Earth to help to help with recovery efforts. During that time, some Loonies came to Terra to assist, but there was little reason for chakats to go to Luna. In the past century though, Luna has actively recruited chakats to immigrate – which is how I came to be here.”
“I'm glad they did, Reacher. You’ve helped me a lot in getting used to this crazy place and, well, everything else.”
“Glad to, Mike. See you tomorrow at the certification test.”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. And Reacher? Tail high!”
The next morning, Mike woke to recorded birdsong and Dora's voice saying, “Rise and shine, Mike. Pressure suit qualification in ninety minutes.”
Mike sat up enthusiastically. The idea of walking on the surface of the moon had been a dream since shi was a kid and today shi'd actually have a chance to do it! Shi uncurled from hir head to tail sleeping position, threw off the covers and practically jumped out of bed, then took a long, luxurious stretch. Having finally accepted that nightclothes and fur could be an uncomfortable mix, shi was just in hir fur. Looking down at hirself, Mike noticed that shi had needed a good grooming. ‘Bad enough to wake up with bed head, now I wake up with bed pelt.’ Shi walked into the small bathroom to take care of business. When shi stood up and looked into the mirror another thought occurred to hir. ‘Don't need to shave ever again. I won't miss my razor.’ Examining the shoulder length hair which was considerably mussed from sleep, shi thought,‘On the other hand, brushing out this mop takes twice as long as shaving used to. I really think I should get it cut short.’ Moving quickly, shi quickly brushed out hir hair then wrapped it into a bun that would keep it out of the way in a pressure suit helmet, as Kate had taught hir. The face looking out of the mirror at hir still appeared too feline, feminine and cute to be hirs. After a quick brushing of hir fur and throwing on shorts and a top, Mike was just starting for the door when Dora announced “Kathryn MacLeod is here. Shall I let hir in?”
“Yes please, Dora.” and the door opened to admit Kate.
“Ready for breakfast and a little stroll outside?” shi said with an infectious grin.
“Absolutely! Lead on.”
A bit more than an hour later, Kate delivered Mike to the observation deck that they had visited on their first outing. Hir stomach made the same uneasy lurch as shi passed from the one Gee gravity field of the corridor to the Luna normal 1/6th Gee of the observation and dressing room. Mike was pleased that not only was Karl there but Reacher and Linda as well. The others must have just arrived themselves as they were still opening lockers and pulling out vacuum suit gear. The chakat greeted Mike cheerily, “Ready for that little walk, Mike?”
“Wouldn't miss it, Reacher! This is a childhood dream of mine – to actually walk on the surface of the Moon.”
“Great! Your suit is in the locker marked with your name.”
Mike looked to where shi was pointing and saw that the smart-paper panel on one of the lockers was indeed displaying “Mikki MacLeod”. Sighing to hirself over the name, shi went to the locker . “I'm surprised that pressure suits are available ‘off the rack’ now. Astronauts back home had to have their suits custom built for them.”
“That hasn’t changed much,” Reacher replied. “Even today, good pressure suits have to be carefully custom-fitted to the wearer.”
“But I haven’t had a suit fitted to me,” Mike said uneasily.
“No need,” Kate said with a grin. “Twins, remember? They just duplicated my suit from my latest fitting records. Watch out for the left sleeve cuff: it always catches my fur.”
“There are emergency suits that are adjustable enough for most people to wear,” Karl said meditatively. “I wouldn’t want to have to wear one for very long, or go very far in one.”
Mike turned back to the locker and placed hir thumb on the lock panel. The locker opened to reveal a white and orange pressure suit, overboots and helmet, a one-piece coverall meant for wear under a P-suit, a new box of undergloves, an unopened box of disposable socks for wear under pressure-suit boots and another box that shi definitely didn't want to think about. Shi looked in the mirror attached to the inside of the locker door and saw that everyone around hir was stripping out of their clothes. Remembering Kate's assertion that morphs didn't have the same sort of body-shyness as humans, Mike decided to try to just go along. ‘When in Rome, shoot Roman candles’, shi wryly thought to hirself, and stripped off hir shirt and shorts.
The room was colder than shi remembered from hir previous visit. As shi stood there in just hir fur, Mike realized that part of hir was colder than the rest. For a morph, the phrase ‘freezing your tail off’ took on a whole new meaning. Hir nipples decided to react predictably to the cold as well, poking out from hir fur.
Even surrounded by the other morphs wearing only their fur, Mike felt naked. To hir consternation, Mike realized that shi was most shy not about being seen by Linda (the only female in the room), or Reacher and Kate (the other herms), but by being seen by Karl, the only male in the room. With that thought hir tail, which had become an unconscious barometer of hir mood, went from its usual neutral position to down between hir legs.
Being in a room with four other unclothed morphs was a new experience; Mike found shi couldn't help surreptitiously looking at them. Reacher's exotic taur-form caught and held Mike's eye first. In spite of the quadruped form being the most ‘animal’ to hir human aesthetics, it was also undeniably sleek, graceful, and yes, sexy. The fact that shi had the biggest breasts of anyone in the room didn't hurt that assessment at all. Linda's rabbit-morph form was probably the most human-like of them all, and she had the sort of hourglass figure that could have gotten her a career as a professional model. Her sleek coat of fawn colored fur with white markings made Mike want to reach out and stroke it to see if it felt as soft and luxurious as it looked, and the little upraised cottontail shi saw as Linda turned to reach into her locker was appealingly cute. Shi'd seen Kate unclothed before and hir own matching form in the mirror often enough for it to be familiar, but watching hir move brought home again the feline, feminine poise in Kate’s form. ‘Do I really look like that?’ Mike wondered. ‘I don't think I'll ever wear this body with that sort of unconscious grace.’
To hir surprise, Mike found hir eyes roaming over Karl's body with just as much interest. The wolf-morph was bent over slightly, busy fumbling with something in his locker. Mike found hir eyes drawn to the broad shoulders and lean, hard muscled back covered in soft, black-brown fur. Hir eyes continued down to Karl's slim but powerful buttocks and the shaggy wolf's tail that graced them. His thighs and legs bulged powerfully, showing evidence of many hours spent in the gym, and…
Mike closed hir eyes and shook hir head to clear it. Why was shi looking at another guy like this? Shi wasn't gay! Even if shi was stuck with some girl parts, shi was still a man – a straight man damn it!
Firmly suppressing the urge to cover hir breasts with hir hands to hide them from Karl, (‘Where did that reaction come from?’ Mike thought to hirself), shi took the coverall from its hook in the locker and started to put it on.
“Forgetting something?” Kate's voice came from behind hir. Turning to the sound of hir voice, Mike saw Kate holding out the garment that shi was trying to ignore. Shi felt a blush pink the insides of hir ears. “I went before I came here, so I really don't think it's necessary…”
“Oh yes it is,” Kate said firmly. “If this were the C-town municipal surface access facility, they would have already flunked you for forgetting the waste containment garment. Now put it on.” Shi followed hir words by stepping into the diaper-like panty and fastening the tab over hir tail.
Sighing, Mike gave in, reached into hir locker and opened the box shi had previously tried to ignore. The label on the box proclaimed the contents to be “Waste Containment Garment, Female, w/Tail Opening, Size: Small. Three each”. WCG. Also known as ‘The Diaper’. Mike stepped into the panty and pulled it up, then reached behind hir for the tail strap.
“Really, I don't understand what the problem is,” Linda said from beside hir. Mike looked over at the rabbit-morph, to see her standing there dressed only in the same style of absorbent panty. Mike again observed appreciatively but silently that none of the rabbit morph's generous curves were from padding.
“I mean, your 21st century astronauts wore something similar and it's actually less fuss than what Karl and Reacher use. Seeing that, I'm glad I'm ‘sitter’ rather than a ‘pointer’.” She glanced over at the two morphs in question and Mike followed her gaze. The two of them were still in the process of carefully rolling a condom-like device over their extended penises. The device had a short tube designed to connect to the pressure suit's waste elimination system.
“It's just that it's a… a…”
“A diaper. Yep.” Kate snickered at hir. “And you'll be glad of it if you end up having to pee while we're out on the surface.”
“Be glad you're not in the Surface Defense Forces,” Linda added with an evil grin, “If you're a ‘sitter’ rather than a ‘pointer’ there, you'd have to insert a catheter set that connects to your suit's waste disposal system. Diapers aren't enough for someone who's out on the surface for fifteen or twenty hours at a time. One of my human friends is a Sergeant with the SDF and she had to be out on the surface for almost thirty hours when she was having her period and…”
“OK, enough teasing,” Reacher's voice came from the other side of the room. “We're here for suit qualifications, not to see who can be the first to embarrass Mike into hiding in hir locker.” In spite of the stern words, Reacher's voice held a note of amusement. Apparently, hazing the new guy was as hallowed a custom in the 24th century as it was in the 21st.
Looking over at the chakat, Mike saw that Reacher had finished putting on the male urine disposal sheath and was pulling on the lower torso portion of hir pressure suit. Reacher reached inside the p-suit and made the sanitary connections, then sealed the back seam, leaving hir upper torso still clad only in the undersuit coverall. The coverall had contracted to a skin-tight fit that emphasized Reacher's ample breasts attractively.
Realizing that shi was allowing distractions to slow hir progress, Mike hurriedly put on hir socks and undersuit coverall, stopped to pull hir tail out through the hole for it and started to press the collar tab to trigger the suit to contract onto hir. As usual, forgetting hir tail was what tripped Mike up. Sighing again in exasperation, shi unsealed the coverall and pulled it down enough to allow hir to unfasten the WCG's tail strap and reach hir tail. Hir tail again; shi sighed. Once again, Mike found hirself wishing to still be human.
Quickly pulling the undersuit tail covering on, shi closed the tail strap of the WCG, threaded hir tail through the opening in hir coverall, sealed the tail seam and then pulled the coverall back up over hirself and sealed the front seam. Finally pressing the collar tab, shi felt the coverall contract to make a second-skin fit over hir entire body. Now for the actual pressure suit.
Mike reached into back of hir locker and lifted out the pressure suit. The outer layer was a white, tightly-woven synthetic over a tough, polymer lining, with bright orange markings, numerous pockets in strategic places, polymer/metal collar fittings at ankles, wrists, neck and tail and attachment fittings for the EVA pack. The ProDyne logo was large and proud on the right shoulder with “ProDyne Copernicus Labs” over the left breast pocket and “MacLeod, M” over the right breast pocket. Opening the front seal, shi started wriggling into the suit. So far, all that time practicing putting on hir suit in Virtual Reality was paying off.
Glancing around to see how shi was keeping up with the others, Mike saw Karl was already suited up except for helmet and was helping Reacher with the seal that attached the upper torso portion of the suit to the lower torso part. Mike noticed that Karl’s suit was a mottled gray and dull brown, rather than the brilliant white and orange of the others. Linda was also finished with her suit and was helping Kate with the suit fitting of the tail attachment. “How did you and Karl get suited up so fast?” Mike asked Linda in surprise as shi pulled on hir boots and sealed them to the suit's ankle grommets. It actually felt strange to be wearing something on hir feet again.
“Well, Karl has had lots more practice than the rest of us, and since I can wear a p-suit made for a human female, I don't have to fiddle around with the tail fittings. I just tuck my tail down and get dressed. Another advantage for small, cute tails,” she grinned at Mike.
“I've always thought you have a cute tail, Linda,” Reacher said with a grin and Karl laughed in agreement. Mike found hirself silently agreeing: Linda did indeed have a cute ‘tail’. ‘I guess In the here and now, a “cute tail” could have a whole new meaning,’ shi thought, then shi sternly reminded hirself to keep hir mind on the business at hand.
“Okay, small, cute-tailed one, can you give me a hand with my tail fitting when you're done with Kate?”
“Will do! Just give me another second here.” The rabbit morph clicked the fitting closed and stepped over to Mike. “The pressure suit tail was one of the hardest parts of the suit to engineer,” Karl said, in his instructor mode. “A plain extension to the suit would have stuck straight out when it inflated in vacuum, without any flex whatsoever.”
“That would have been awkward,” Mike said, remembering hir recent struggles to keep hir tail from getting in the way of things.
“Until they engineered a practical constant-volume bellows system that worked without being too bulky, morphs had to either tuck their tails between their legs and up their bellies or run them down one of the suit legs. It had to be horribly uncomfortable.” Karl grimaced at the thought. “You’d still have to do that in one of those awful emergency suits.”
“Not to mention it would throw off your balance,” Kate added.
“Did I mention the advantages of small, cute tails?” Linda interjected smugly.
“Only every time we go out on the surface,” Reacher replied. “But try this with a little bunny tail.” Shi picked up hir helmet with hir prehensile tail then transferred it to hir hands and put it on.
“Show-off!” Linda said with a good-natured chuckle. “I do feel sorry for humans though, it must be awful to have no tail at all.” Mike found hirself bemused at Linda's comment – had she forgotten that Mike had been human? Was she trying to encourage hir to see the advantages of hir new form? Or was it just a sign of how much she had accepted hir as the cougar-morph that shi was now?
As she spoke, Linda picked up a set of wireless audio ear buds and inserted them into her ear canals. She then used a close-fitting, black and white cloth cap to fold her ears down so that they didn't get in the way or block her vision. It reminded Mike of photos he'd seen of the Apollo and Soyuz astronauts when he was growing up. “Pressure suit helmets were not made with rabbit-morphs in mind,” she said resignedly.
Mike couldn't help thinking that even with the cap holding her ears down, she still looked cute. Linda then pulled her helmet on over the cap, sealed it to her suit collar and moved over to help Mike. The visor of Linda’s helmet was still in the up position, so she could still talk to them without turning on her suit intercom. She slid the tail of Mike's pressure suit up hir tail until its fitting mated with the suit's fitting and twisted it until it sealed with an audible click. Mike moved hir tail around to be sure that the suit tail was fitting correctly and didn't kink or bind with the under-layer. ‘Now there's something I never imagined when I was a kid daydreaming about wearing a spacesuit,’ shi thought. Pulling the blood-oxygen/temperature/pulse sensor from its stowage recess in the suit collar, Mike clipped it to hir ear where one side of the pickup could be in contact with relatively bare skin, adjusting the thin cable so that it was out of the way.
Kate had hir own helmet on, also with the face shield open, and had Mike's helmet in hir hands. Mike took it from hir and donned it, then sealed the suit collar to it. As Mike went over to pick up an EVA pack from the rack, shi found hirself thinking about the interplay between the morphs. They were different genders, different species and different body forms, but they all seemed so at ease with their differences, and so supportive of each other. Shi'd still rather be human again, but was it really going to be so bad to be one of these people? But try as shi might to feel like one of them, Mike still felt apart from them; a human in a fur suit, unable to find the zipper and get out of it.
Mike picked up an EVA pack and saw that it was marked “Blackpaw, K” and carried it over to Karl. Shi grinned at the big wolf morph, “Trust the new guy to put it on you?”
Karl grinned back and turned around, “Sure. Just remember that if you get it wrong, you'll be the one who has to carry me back to the airlock.”
“No problem, big guy – one sixth gravity,” Mike said as shi attached the pack to its anchor points on the suit and started to make the air and power connections. “I can probably throw you back here in Luna-normal gravity.” Shi paused for a moment. “This reminds me of getting ready for the first jump in Airborne School. Same sort of jokes, same butterflies in the stomach.”
“You jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, on purpose?” Karl said, “Now I know you're nuts.”
“Looking back on it now, I can't disagree with you on that,” Mike said. “Never jumped again after my first assignment to an Airborne battalion though. All my assignments after that were to straight-leg units.”
“ ‘Straight-leg’ units?” Reacher asked.
“Non-airborne units. I decided pretty quickly that riding in armored vehicles made more sense than jumping out of airplanes.”
“See, my sister isn't crazy after all,” Kate said with a grin, “or no more than normal for a McClaren.”
“That's not saying much,” Karl shot back. Kate stuck out hir tongue at him with good humor.
While this was going on, Linda had installed the EVA pack on Mike's suit and everyone was standing in front of the door to the surface airlock, visors open and gloves in hand.
Karl raised his voice and Mike saw that he was reading a checklist from a plas-paper notebook. That low-tech method puzzled Mike for a moment, until shi grasped the reason: printed checklists couldn’t run out of power, or be scrambled by radiation or EMP.
“Circle up, people. Everyone check the EVA pack of the person in front of them. Number one: Primary oxygen fitting secure. Number two: Primary helium fitting secure. Number three: CO2 return…” As Karl read off items from the checklist, Mike checked Linda's pack as Reacher checked hirs.
“Now pair up and check front seals and fittings. Reacher, check me and Kate.” Karl read off the next items on the checklist as Mike and Linda checked each other's suits, but found no issues.
“Gloves on.” Mike pulled on hir under-gloves then pulled the heavy gauntlets on over them. Both wrist gaskets sealed with a reassuring click. The hours shi’d spent in glove and VR training were still paying off.
“Internal suit power on. Intercoms on and visors down,” Karl continued. Mike complied, the butterflies in hir stomach were really starting to make themselves known now. With the visor down, outside sounds were muffled, and a faint hissing started when shi powered up the air system. Mike was immediately immersed by the interior smells of the suit, uneasily noticing that shi was cut off from exterior scents. ‘I hadn’t realized how much I was beginning to depend on scent,’ shi thought.
“Everyone give me a thumbs up if you can hear me,” Karl continued, the helium in his suit's air mix giving his voice a somewhat squeaky quality. Everyone gave a thumbs-up but Kate, who started tapping on suit control panel mounted on her left arm, near the wrist. A moment later, Mike heard hir voice over hir helmet speakers: “Sorry, the suit radio was set to the wrong frequency band.”
“No problem; since it isn't a physical fault you can continue,” Karl replied. “Everyone reply by numbers, I'm 'one'.”
“Two,” Reacher replied.
“Three,” Linda continued.
“Four,” Kate's voice said.
As the newest one in the group, Mike's number came last, “Five”. Shi was amused to hear the same helium-squeaky tone in everyone’s voice, including hir own.
“Final check. Everyone increase suit pressure to two atmospheres.”
Mike tapped the controls on hir suit's arm panel to increase pressure to two atmospheres. Shi felt the suit stiffen around hir and felt hir ears ‘pop’ as shi watched the wrist control readouts. Everyone was quiet as they listened for the hiss of escaping air that would indicate a suit leak. Mike knew that two atmospheres gave a relative pressure of one atmosphere, which was more than twice what they would maintain outside. As little as seven PSI of pressure was more than enough to ensure that their lungs could force enough oxygen into their bloodstream from the oxygen-helium mix they used, while making the suit more flexible. Helium was cheap on Luna, a by-product of Helium-3 mining, and much safer than nitrogen which could form bubbles in the bloodstream if the pressure dropped suddenly.
After two minutes, Karl said “Everyone still showing green? Give me a thumbs-up.” Everyone replied with a raised thumb. “Good. Reduce pressure to point seven five atmospheres. Give me a thumbs-up when your pressure is there.”
A few moments and another ear ‘pop’ moments later, Reacher looked around at the others. “All steady at initial operating pressure? Good. Opening inner airlock door.” He tapped keys on the door control panel. The light over the airlock door was green, indicating normal inside pressure, but turned amber as the door unsealed and swung inward. “OK people, everyone into the airlock.”
Mike stepped into the airlock and looked around at the fittings of the small, white-painted room. It reminded hir of the photos shi’d seen of the interior of the Skylab or the International Space Station. Conduit ran to various plastic and metal boxes and tanks that were clamped to the walls and white nylon pads cushioned any sharp edges. For the first time since waking up on Luna, shi saw some actual dirt on the floor. Lunar soil. Looking up, Mike noticed the light over the airlock door to the outside. It was red, indicating death pressure beyond it. Hard vacuum. The butterflies in Mike's stomach had formed a conga line and were picking up the pace. ‘Yep, just like airborne school.’ Mike thought, ‘Screw up here and die very messily. Do everything right and live. Probably.’ The P-suit qualification course included 3D color images of the results of several particularly gruesome accidents in zero pressure, and for the same reason as did the driver’s-ed course Mike had taken in high school. Several of those images flitted through Mike’s mind, unbidden. The instructor’s words in hir first recorded lecture came back to hir, “Remember, Luna wants to kill you and has a thousand ways to do it.” Shi heard the inner airlock door shut and seal behind hir. Excitement and nervousness caused the butterflies in hir stomach to further speed up their dance.
“Evacuating airlock. Pressure at one atmosphere and falling.” Mike felt hir suit seem to inflate a bit as the pressure fell. Reacher's voice continued. “Seventy-five percent. Fifty percent. Twenty-five percent. Ten percent. Zero pressure. Everyone reduce suit pressure to one-half atmosphere now.” There was a pause as everyone adjusted their suit pressure control, then Karl's voice came over the intercom again, “Is everyone still a ‘go’? Everyone reply by numbers. One, go.”
“Two, go,” Reacher replied.
“Three, go,” Linda continued.
“Four, go,” Kate's voice said.
Mike hesitated a heartbeat, the faint hiss of the suit air system in hir ears, then committed hirself. “Five, go.”
“Opening outer airlock door.” Karl touched the door controls and stood aside as the door swung inward. Raw, eye-wateringly bright sunlight streamed into the compartment. The wolf-morph picked up a backpack-sized bundle of air tanks and packages then turned to the others.
“And stepping out… Mike, stay close to Reacher and me while we're out here.”
“I'm right with you Karl,” Mike said as shi stepped out of the door and on to the small metal grate platform just outside the airlock. The dazzling, unfiltered sunlight half-blinded hir for a moment until hir visor polarizers cut the intensity down to something hir eyes could handle. Mike heard hir suit's air circulation system speed up as it worked to compensate for the sun's heat.
As hir eyes adjusted, Mike looked out over the moonscape. They were on the crater rim, in a saddle between two ridges. The saddle formed a sort of barren mountain meadow, with the vista of the crater floor to hir left and the lunar plane outside the crater to hir right. The terrain seemed to be entirely in either shades of brightly lit light gray with slight tinges of brown, or in impenetrable black shadow. The only real color seemed to be the artifacts brought there, like the bright yellow open runabout parked a short way down the nearby unpaved road, or the orange markings of their pressure suits. The lunar soil had a number of paths made by people walking to various places off the vehicle road that ran past the airlock entry platform. Since there was no wind or rain on Luna, a footprint was a more-or-less permanent mark on the surface. Dora had confirmed to hir that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s footprints were still there and plainly visible and shi remembered with a mental chuckle hir 20th century girlfriend’s indignation at the idea of the astronauts getting footprints on the ‘pristine moon’.
The Earth hung in the same place in the sky over the far crater rim as when Mike saw it on hir first excursion with Kate. Since the moon rotated to always present the same side to Earth as it orbited, the Earth always hung in the same place in the sky, but it was only half full now with the lights of major cities showing up like golden jewels on the dark side of the planet. Turning hir back to the sun, Mike was able to see a whole new universe of stars above hir; hard pinpoints of light, without atmosphere to obscure them or give them the twinkling they displayed on Earth. Mike felt shi could just take in the vista around hir for hours, but realized that once again shi was falling behind the others.
The darkened visors of the pressure suit helmets hid the faces inside, but it was surprisingly easy to distinguish who was who. Reacher was the easiest; even though the bulky pressure suits tended to make most people look somewhat alike, the four-footed chakat was easily distinguished from all the bipeds. Additionally, Reacher's EVA pack was on hir lower torso, where shi could reach it if necessary, further distinguishing hir appearance from the other morphs. Linda's tailless suit was also easy to recognize from the back, and distinguished her from Kate. Karl was the taller of the other two suits, and the only military surface operations suit in the group. Rather than white with orange, Karl’s suit was the digital-patterned gray and brown of the lunar soil and had additional fittings and sensors, and what looked like armor plates in critical areas. Rather than the ProDyne logo, Karl’s suit bore the title Lunar Republic Defense Force and the three chevrons and two rockers of a Senior Sergeant. Mike recalled that shi’d been told that Karl was in the Defense Force Reserves, as shi moved to follow him.
Mike stepped off the low metal platform and felt hir boots crunch a little into the lunar regolith. While hir weight was now only a sixth of what it had been inside, hir mass and momentum were of course the same. The EVA pack brought hir center of gravity higher than usual, and combined with the relatively stiff pressure suit, Mike felt awkward and off-balance. Knowing intellectually that her inertia and momentum were unchanged didn’t help hir reflexes. Shi found that shi had to concentrate on leaning into even gentle turns and leaning backward while trying to stop.
Moving carefully, shi followed Reacher and the group over to a boulder. Karl had set something on the ground in the sunlight and another, identical item near it but in the shadow of the boulder.
Karl turned to face Mike. “See the two thermometers I put on the ground there? Please go over and give me their readings.”
Mike walked over to the instruments and awkwardly knelt next to them, struggling to read the first in the harsh sunlight. “This one reads 106° C,” shi whistled softly, “That's over the boiling point of water.” Mike leaned over to peer at the shaded thermometer. “This one reads -152° C. That's cold enough to freeze carbon dioxide.” Shi picked up both thermometers and stood up carefully. “I get your point Karl. They were only a meter apart but were over 250 degrees different.”
“Exactly. And while in the heat of the sun, your suit exhausts your used air for cooling. In the cold shade, it uses power to keep you warm. Both will limit your time to safely remain outside. You have to watch both air and power levels frequently to be sure you have enough to get back to the airlock, with a safety margin. How much time do you have out here, with a thirty minute safety margin?”
Tapping the controls on hir suit's wrist PADD Mike read the screen and replied “Um… 310 minutes air remaining and 281 minutes power remaining. So, 251 minutes time with a thirty minute reserve.”
“Right. Air is of limited use to you without suit power to keep you warm. Now, move out of the shade and stand over in the sun and do the same calculation.”
Mike complied and a moment later said “Now I have 227 minutes of air and 365 minutes of power. So call it 197 minutes plus safety margin.”
“Right. You just lost fifty four minutes of suit time just by moving two meters since power is useless without air. Remember that your safe time on the surface will change with conditions. Temperature and exertion will dynamically affect your available time, so check it frequently. Got it?”
“Now, test one: Your partner, Kate, has forgotten to watch hir readouts and is down to ten minutes of air. Task: cross-connect your air supply with hirs. Condition: both suits have power, neither suit is leaking and your suit has 310 minutes of air for one person in current conditions. Standard: Successfully cross-connect the air systems of both suits within ninety seconds without loss of more than two minutes worth of air. Ready?”
“Um Karl, a question?”
“For the test scenario, are we close enough to an airlock or pressurized vehicle for both of us to make it there after I cross-connect?”
“For the purposes of the test, yes, although you would normally be expected to cross-connect anyhow, on the assumption that an emergency team would reach you before your air ran out.”
“Right. Never leave a fallen comrade.” Mike said the last part quietly to hirself, but it carried over the suit radio.
Mike couldn't see into Karl's darkened visor, but shi could feel the wolf-morph's eyes on him. “That's right, you were military in your former life. Good background for surface operations.” Mike thought shi heard a touch of approval in Karl's voice. Then the wolf-morph continued in a more formal tone. “I would have had to deduct points if you hadn't asked, though. Ok. Test starting in three, two, one, now.”
Mike moved over to Kate and began making the connections to share hir suit's air with the other cougar morph.
For the next two hours, Karl ran Mike and the others through an exhaustive list of routine and emergency procedures, like air tank and power cell changes, suit leak patches and cross-connecting air, power and communications for rescue operations, all to task, condition and standard. Karl or Reacher would comment occasionally on Mike's technique or pointing out alternative ways to meet the standard of the test under varying conditions. Reacher, Linda and Kate were sometimes Mike's partner for the test and sometimes they were themselves being tested. Finally, Karl reached the end of his checklist.
“I think we're done here. First the good news: everyone passed. Mike, congratulations on an excellent first EVA. You scored a 94 percent with no disqualifiers. Reacher, you turned in your usual outstanding performance with a 98 percent and no disqualifiers. Linda and Kate… well, you both exceeded the minimums and committed no disqualifiers, but I know you can do better. I know it's hard to get out here often enough to keep your proficiency at a high level, but you need to make time for more practice.”
Both morphs mumbled apologetic affirmatives. Mike reflected that both were probably glad of the darkened face shields that hid the embarrassment on their faces.
“Now, does everyone have at least two hours’ worth of air and power with a thirty minute reserve? Give me a thumbs-up if so.” The other four all gave Karl a thumbs-up, which wasn't surprising as Karl had had everyone change air tanks and power packs as part of the tests. “Good. Now let's stretch our legs and have a little fun!” He turned toward the gentle slope away from the inside of the crater and started walking toward a smaller crater, perhaps seventy meters across, a few hundred meters away.
Karl continued to talk as he let the group toward the crater, “I found something a few days ago that I've only seen once before and wanted to show you all.” He turned off onto one of the smaller paths that curved between a low ridge and the crater. Mike followed eagerly; now that the certification test was over, shi was free to just enjoy walking on the surface of the moon. Most of the way to the crater, Karl stopped and held up his hand for the others to do so as well. Looking in front of where the group was standing, Mike saw that the path had been erased by a new crater more than a meter across and about thirty centimeters deep. “I've seen small craters before that I thought were new, but I couldn't be sure. A small crater hundreds of years old looks a lot like a brand new crater here on Luna's surface. But since this one blotted out part of a path that I know was untouched just a week ago, we can be sure that this is an example of what they mean by Luna's ‘dynamic surface’.”
“You're just trying to scare us into grumbling less about your emergency drills,” Kate said, unsuccessfully trying to hide an edge of nervousness in hir voice.
“Sure I am. But I didn't put this crater here.”
“Well, it sure impressed me,” Linda added. “OK, I promise I won't grumble the next time you stage a surprise pressure breach drill. Or not much.”
“Hey, I swear I didn't know you were showering when I started the last one.”
“I'll never complain about seeing Linda running out into the corridor wearing nothing but wet fur,” Reacher said with an obvious grin in hir voice.
“Lecher!” Linda replied mock-seriously. “I think you bribed Karl to start the drill when you knew I was showering.” The amusement in her voice was obvious.
Mike momentarily found hirself imagining Linda naked, with her fur wet and slicked down to her body. As shi felt hir body reacting predictably to the image shi told hirself firmly to keep hir mind on business. A pressure suit on the airless surface of the moon was hardly a comfortable place for that sort of fantasy.
Walking past Luna's newest miniature crater, the group was soon out on the gently sloping lunar plain. The dusty field in front of them was obviously often used for these excursions, as it showed footprints from the boots of various species trampling over every square meter. Lighting and lack of anything familiar to give it scale made it hard to estimate the size of the field, but it seemed to be flat and free of large rocks for hundreds of meters in any direction.
“Free time?” Linda asked.
“Free time,” Karl replied.
Linda bounded off in a series of amazing jumps in the low lunar gravity. “Wheeee!” She sounded kid like a on a playground.
“Rabbits…” Karl muttered.
“I heard that,” Linda shot back merrily, followed by a loud raspberry.
“This is a great place to practice running and jumping in a p-suit,” Reacher said. “It's flat for almost a kilometer and we've graded and sifted the surface to remove the larger rocks. Even falling flat on your face shouldn't endanger your suit or face shield. Have fun!”
Mike walked out into the field, aware of the soft crunch of hir boots into the dust-dry, powdery lunar soil over the soft hiss of hir air system. Crouching a little, Mike jumped hard, trying for distance. Jumping in Lunar gravity was difficult to get used to. While gravity was greatly reduced, inertia and momentum remained the same. Hir jump took Mike almost four meters but shi landed off balance and found hirself on hir hands and knees. Standing up and brushing dust off of hir suit, shi saw a p-suit standing beside hir, with the face shield opaque in the sunlight. Mike recognized Karl from the color of his suit without needing to read the “Blackpaw, K” nametape.
“Not bad for a first try Mike, but you landed with your knees locked. Relax and try it again, but remember that the EVA pack makes you a little top-heavy.”
Gathering hirself for another try, Mike jumped again. Shi didn't go quite as far this time but managed to stay upright this time. “How's that Coach?”
“Doing better. Give me another three or four jumps in a row like that and next time out I'll let you try a thruster pack. That will give you some real distance! Watch this.” With that, Karl jumped and cut in his suit thrusters. With the added boost, he went over thirty meters and used the thrusters to land softly on his feet. “Now try to make it to me in four jumps.”
Grinning, Mike jumped toward the wolf-morph. This was the sort of thing that shi imagined doing as a space-flight obsessed kid!
It seemed that all good things must come to an end, so about an hour later, Karl called for everyone to meet him at the edge of the practice field to go back to the airlock. On the way back, the group walked to the rim of the larger crater. Mike noticed a trampled area at the bottom rim of the crater, with several paths leading to it. Following Karl along a rough path down the slope, they walked into the trampled area and Mike saw a metal cross in its center, as if it marked a grave. The plaque below the cross read: “Johann Schmidt - 17 June 2318”.
Mike looked over at Karl and Reacher. “Pressure suit accident?”
“Yes, and a tragically preventable one. From the tracks it seems clear that he lost his footing coming down the slope and tore his suit. Not all that bad a tear, but it was in a place he couldn't reach.” Karl paused a moment and then went on, “If he'd had someone with him, they could have put a standard ten centimeter patch on it and walked back without a problem.”
“He was alone?” Mike felt shi had to ask the obvious.
“Yes. He was experienced, qualified and confident, and was going out on the surface for ‘just a few minutes’ to adjust a remote sensor antenna. No one missed him for a couple of hours. Never, never, never go out on the surface alone.”
Karl turned to walk back up the trail out of the crater and back towards the airlock. The group followed him in silence.
By the time the group reached the airlock entrance, the somber mood caused by the memorial had passed and been replaced with a feeling of accomplishment. As soon as the inner airlock door had closed behind them, suit helmets started coming off and cheerful voices filled the locker room.
Sniffing the air of the room, Mike said “So that's what the moon smells like: that burnt match smell. I remember reading about the Apollo 11 crew describing it.”
“And it's all over your p-suit now. Put in the electrostatic cleaner over there so the system can start scrubbing Luna out of your suit,” Karl replied. “Lunar dust doesn’t have the winds and wet/dry cycle that smooths out Terran rock fragments into rounded sand particles, so it's about the most abrasive stuff around. If it gets into your suit's seals, well, you’d better hope you're near an airlock.”
“And after that we celebrate Mike's P-suit certification,” Reacher said with a knowing grin as shi lifted Mike's EVA pack from hir back. “We need to introduce hir to Rakshani brandy.”
Unsealing the front of hir pressure suit, Mike stepped out of it and carefully laid it out in the coffin-like receptacle that Karl had opened for hir then started skinning out of hir under-suit coverall. Kate held the carryall shi found in the bottom of hir locker open for hir and shi folded it up to stow and be cleaned at home. Kate removed and stowed hir coverall in the same carry-all then removed and disposed of the waste containment garment, tossing it in a nearby trash bin. Suppressing hir residual body shyness, Mike followed suit, pulling off the “diaper” with relief. Shi held it up to Kate, “Still dry.”
“So was mine this time. But just wait until you have to be outside for a five-hour trek to reset a laser relay. Then you'll be glad you're wearing it.”
Mike heard Reacher muttering disgustedly from the corner where shi was wriggling out of the lower torso of hir pressure suit. Although shi still usually tried to ignore hir new sense of smell, Mike detected a characteristic odor. Had someone…
“It doesn't take some of us that long,” Linda said, throwing her used “containment garment” into the waste bin with an embarrassed grin. “I have a typical case of female T.B..”
“T.B.?” Mike gave the nude rabbit morph a quizzical look.
“Tiny Bladder. If I'm out more than an hour or so, I just can't seem to be able to hold it until I come back inside.” She turned and stepped into the locker room's small shower to freshen up.
“Don't take too long, I need a shower too,” Reacher called to her as shi tossed hir undersuit coverall into a laundry bin. “The damn sheath tube leaked again.”
“I'm just going to do a quick rinse-off and be right out.”
“It really is harder for taurs,” Karl said sympathetically. Mike noticed that Karl had already hung up his suit and helmet and was sealing the seam of his work coverall. “It's harder to reach that part of a taur suit, and they have to do the connections by touch.”
“All part of the glamour of EVA work,” Reacher said with a wry grin.
“Speaking of glamor, hurry up and get dressed so we can go and celebrate Mike's certification. The new Loonie buys the first round!” Karl gave Mike a very wolfish grin.
Mike opened hir locker and checked hir belt pouch to be sure shi had hir ProDyne ID and credit card, and a packet of 'Morning-Afterz' hangover cure pills. Having heard about the custom of ‘wetting-down’ a new pressure-suit certification, shi knew that shi'd seriously need both before the night was over. Shi took hir shorts off of their hook but, before shi could put them on, shi was distracted by the sight of Linda in only her fur stepping out of the shower/fur drier cubicle and moving aside for an equally nude Reacher who closed the cubicle door and started the shower. She bounced over to Mike and gave hir a hug and then lick-kissed Mike on hir cheek. “You did great out there – I knew you would. Congratulations!”
Mike hugged her back, enjoying the feel of the pretty rabbit-morph against hir. As Linda loosened her hold on hir, Kate took her place and gave Mike a congratulatory hug. Mike felt a tap on his shoulder. Looking around shi had just enough time to see that it was Karl, before the big wolf-morph picked hir up to hug hir. To Mike's surprise, shi felt hirself relax into it, hir arms going around Karl and dropping the forgotten shorts to the floor. The hard muscle under the soft fur felt good under hir hands, and shi felt small and safe in the embrace. It wasn't until Karl set hir down that Mike realized that shi'd just enjoyed being hugged by the big, male wolf and stiffened for a moment in shock. ‘It's just the excitement of the moment’, Mike thought to hirself, ‘I'm not into other guys.’
“Congratulations! I can't remember ever seeing a better first EVA.”
Mike grinned at the compliment, eager to put aside the momentary confusion of hir feelings. “Thanks Karl, I had some great teachers.”
“You certainly did,” Dora's voice came from the ceiling speakers.
“Especially you, Dora.” Mike smiled at Dora's video pickup in the corner of the room.
A few moments later, Reacher bounded out of the cubicle and over to Mike and embraced hir in a chakat-style hug. “My turn to congratulate you,” shi said. Mike found that shi greatly enjoyed the enthusiastic hug from the buxom chakat, in spite of hir ambivalent feelings from the sensation of hir breasts pressed against Reacher’s. Shi was certainly glad shi'd gotten hir shorts on before the chakat's hug-pounce, as a part of hir was being very male in its response. In that moment, Mike found this somewhat disturbing. In spite of hir own furry body, Mike still felt human inside and the attractions shi was starting to feel for some of the other morphs seemed… wrong. But then, wouldn’t being attracted to a human be wrong now, too? Thinking about it was confusing as it was disturbing.
“Let me get my blouse and let's go and wet down your EVA certification,” the chakat gave Mike another quick squeeze and bounded over to hir locker. Mike pulled on hir shirt and the group left the locker room with Reacher still fastening hir top as they walked.
“Is it actually such a big deal to get your surface qualification?”, Mike asked as they walked. “Doesn’t everyone do it?”
Karl laughed cynically, “You're kidding, right?”
“Less than a tenth of Lunar citizens ever finish surface qualifications,” Reacher added.
“And less than a quarter of the ones who do qualify stay current, unfortunately,” Karl finished.
Mike was speechless for a moment. “But why? How could someone not want to be surface qualified?”
“Surface operations are dangerous, Mike,” Reacher said, “People die out there. Unless their job requires it, most people never seriously consider it.”
“For most Loonies, it's like an extreme sport would be for Terrans, like mountain-climbing or skydiving,” Linda said. “Cool but dangerous.”
“And expensive,” Kate added. “A basic p-suit costs about five thousand credits. An industrial grade suit like the ones ProDyne issues us is about twelve thousand, military grade suits can cost well over twenty thousand. If ProDyne didn’t supply its employees the suits, I’d never have been able to afford it.”
“And speaking of money, we need to get to the pub, so that Mike can buy us all a round of drinks to wet down hir new certification,” Karl said with another grin.
In the front of the room, the instructor droned on, turning what should have been a fascinating subject into a desert dry lecture. Pete forced himself to sit up and at least look like he was paying attention, although a surreptitious glance around the room showed more people losing that battle than winning it.
“…now remember that the General Astronautics model 152A2-M pressure suit is designed to be adjustable to fit almost eighty percent of adult human males. Women falling into the general height and weight measurements of that span may also use the model 152A2-M pressure suit, although they cannot use the suit's built in relief device. Women in general should be sure to draw a General Astronautics model 152A2-F pressure suit, which will fit approximately seventy five percent of adult human females. Male personnel that are smaller than the design parameters for the model 152A2-M pressure suit but fall into the general height and weight measurements of the appropriate span may also use the model 152A2-F, but be advised that this suit does not have a built in relief device, relying instead on a separate waste containment garment. Men and women who fall outside of the dimensional parameters of both the General Astronautics model 152A2-M and model 152-F pressure suits must be custom fitted or…”
Pete felt his eyes start to close again and struggled to sit up and try to listen to the mind-numbing lesson. Next to him, Eric had lost the battle to stay conscious and was quietly snoring while somehow managing to stay upright in his seat. ‘How in the world can that geek manage to make something as interesting as a spacesuit this boring?’ Pete thought to himself, then forced himself to try again to listen to the class.
“…will now show a short video on the correct way to don and adjust the model 152A2-M and 152A2-F pressure suits. After the video, you will each have a turn putting on and adjusting the suit. Tomorrow, you will learn how to inspect, connect and wear the General Astronautics model 37A3 EVA pack. The model 37A3 EVA pack is designed for both orbital and surface operations and will interface with not only the model 152A2 family, but…”
Pete found himself tuning out the droning, monotone voice again. The lights dimmed for the video presentation. Another surreptitious glance around showed that another member of his team, Ed this time, was falling asleep. Kevin, alerted by his glance, elbowed Ed awake, then poked Eric as well.
It was a futile effort. When the lights came back up after the video on wearing the space suit, Pete saw that all three had fallen asleep. An incredibly loud voice from the back of the room startled everyone awake. “ON YOUR FEET! STAND TO ATTENTION!”
During the video, the original, geeky instructor had left, and in his place was Sergeant Chavez. “Have a nice nap, boys and girls?” he growled, looking around the room at the now very wakeful and apprehensive class. His voice dropped to an almost silky tone. “That's good, because you're gonna need to be awake and alert to apply what you should have learned from the video you just slept through.” His voice dropped a full octave in pitch and rose back to a shout in volume. “NOW LINE UP AND FOLLOW ME!”
Sergeant Chavez led the somewhat shaken class down the hall to a large room with a large and deep swimming pool. The pool was unusual in having both a ramp and a set of stairs making up two sides of it, and a light duty crane affixed to the ceiling and trailing four hose and cable sets. Along another side of the pool were four tables, each supporting several of the now familiar General Astronautics model 152A2 pressure suits. An instructor in a dark green HLA uniform stood beside each table. Pete noticed that the instructor by the fourth table was a woman, unlike most of the instructors he’d seen so far.
“Male personnel will line up behind one of the first three tables with the 152A2-M pressure suits. Female personnel will line up behind the last table with the 152A2-F pressure suits. The first person in each line will don the suit from the table as shown the video you just slept through, then the assistant instructor will connect an air hose and cable to the suit for you. You will then walk over to the ramp and walk into the pool to test whether you donned the suit correctly. If you did not, we will see the bubbles as air leaks from your suit.” He paused to glare at us for a moment. “Assuming you do not drown of your own stupidity, you will then walk out of the pool and back to the table you got the suit from. You will then remove the suit, the assistant instructor will tell you where and how you screwed up and you will remove the suit and give it to the next person in line. NOW MOVE!”
Lining up took a few minutes, as the class was not yet used to working as a group. Pete watched as the guys on either side of him tried to don the pressure suits, assisted by acerbic comments from the assistant instructors. It was obvious that neither of them had managed to stay awake through the instruction video. Pete tried not to look over at the next table down where one of the women was trying to put on her pressure suit. While they were designed to accommodate the olive drab jumpsuits that was the uniform of HLA space force recruits, the amount of twisting and tugging the woman had to do to get the suit adjusted over it caught his eye.
Watching the first four enter the pool, Pete struggled not to laugh. Streams of bubbles poured from every joint and fitting as the students waded into the pool. None were able to submerge their helmets before their suits filled with water and the embarrassed students were ordered out of the pool and back to the tables.
When it was Pete’s turn, he was sure that between having actually watched the video and the errors of the other students, he would succeed where the others had failed. After putting on the suit and finishing the adjustments, the assistant instructor attached the air hose to his suit, then he and the three students walked to the pool ramp. When the other three students had to drop out for leaks before getting to chest height in the water, Pete was feeling more than a little smug. Staying awake through the class had paid off. A few steps more and he was in the water up over his helmet. The smug feeling rapidly left him though, as he felt the water leaking in through his neck seal and began to rapidly rise up to nose level.
A few moments later, he was crawling up the ramp out of the pool, his open visor allowing the water to stream out of his helmet as he choked and sputtered to get the water out of his nose and mouth. The fact that the others had done worse was small consolation, but having come this close on the first try only reinforced his determination to succeed.
Mike woke up the morning after hir certification with less than the killer hangover that shi had feared after the night's celebration. Even with the hangover cure shi'd taken before going to bed though, shi didn't feel much like breakfast. Rakshani brandy had to have something more than just an insane percentage of alcohol to have that much effect on hir. “Never, never again,” shi mumbled to hirself, while knowing that, eventually, shi probably would.
Shi walked over to the door to hir miniature bathroom, took another ‘Morning Afterz’ with two full glasses of water, and started the shower, letting the hot water soothe hir and wash away some of the queasiness. Feeling a little better, shi touched the control that stopped the shower and looked over at the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. Hir reflection stared back at hir, its wet fur slicked down to its skin making it look sleek and sexy. ‘No, shi looks sleek and sexy,’ Mike thought. ‘I suppose have to get used to thinking of myself as a herm eventually.’ Unfortunately, shi still couldn’t shake the feeling that this furry body wasn’t hirs, that shi was the victim of some sort of practical joke – like a cosmic fraternity hazing.
Shi pressed a spot on the wall control and the fur drier played its warm air jets over hir. Mike was impatient to get dressed and on with the day, but had learned the hard way that the under-layer of hir pelt stayed damp for a long time if shi skimped on drying off here. Not pleasant at all. Mike thought wryly that shi finally understood why Molly had always resisted baths.
Molly! That's what shi was going to finally get to do today. Elbeth and Kalen had finally decided that Molly was sufficiently accustomed to being human and in control of her fear of cats that she was ready to meet hir. Mike found shi was both excited and nervous about seeing the human girl that had once been hir pet dog. Dogs may love you uncritically, but that was definitely not a human trait. What if Molly didn't want to be reminded of her animal origins, now that she was human? And could she look past Mike’s new feline form to see the human who raised her from a puppy?
Almost worse was hir own uncertainty over just how to relate to the new Molly. Mike could hardly pat her on the head, call her a good girl and have her sit up to take a treat from hir hand. And now that she was human and Mike wasn't, would Molly want to associate with the morph shi'd become?
Dora's voice interrupted hir musings and announced “Chakat FarReach is at the door. Shall I let hir in?”
“Tell hir to wait just a moment while I get dressed,” Mike replied as shi threw on hir usual shorts and top, walked to the door and opened it.
“Awww. I'm too late – Dora said you were still dressing,” the irrepressible chakat said with a wink and a grin.
“Hey, you had your chance to see it all when I took off my p-suit yesterday, and you were too busy fumbling with your relief tube,” Mike teased back.
“Oh well, I'll just have to try again at next year's pressure suit re-quals.” Reacher grinned then hir voice turned serious. “Are you ready for this, Mike? Molly is still finding herself and hasn't learned much in the way of human manners or tact. She can be a bit, um, scratchy sometimes.”
“Ready? I don't know.” Shi paused a moment as shi looked down and hir tail drooped. “I want to see Molly again, but I don't know how to relate to her now. I can't exactly throw a stick for her to fetch now, or give her treats to sit up or roll over.”
“No, she's her own person now, not a companion animal. You're going to have to build a whole new relationship with her.”
“I know. That's what scares me, Reacher. I think I need her as a link to my old life a lot more than she needs me in her new one.”
Reacher put hir arm around Mike’s shoulders and led hir to the door. “Let's go and see, shall we?”
“Are you ready to meet Mike, Molly?”
“Mike? Daddy?” Molly looked up at Colleen hopefully.
“Yes. You remember. Mike came in to see you a few days ago. Mike looks a little different than shi did before you came here.”
“Oh. The cat-woman person. That's not my Mike.” Molly looked away in disinterest; if she still had a tail, it would have gone down.
“Shi's still your Mike, Molly. Shi just looks different now, like you do,” Maria said as she finished putting Molly's hair into a ponytail. “There, now you're ready for company.”
Molly studied herself in the mirror for a moment. The realization that the silent and scentless ‘other’ in the mirror was herself was one of the revelations that came from her sessions with Kalen and Elbeth. “I miss my fur. Clothes are hard.”
“Don't you like your dress? You look very pretty in it.”
“The dress is nice, but fur is easier. And I miss my tail! Everyone has a tail but me – it's not fair!”
Colleen put her hands on Molly's shoulders and looked her in the eye. The last thing the nurse wanted was another meltdown right before this meeting with Mike. “Molly, you know that's not true. Maria and Tonya don't have tails and neither does Dr. Hoffmann. None of the humans do.”
“I know. But I still miss it. And my fur. And there are so many rules and things to remember! Why can't I be a dog again? Or a morph like you?” Her eyes started to tear up and she began to cry.
The collie-morph pulled the distressed little girl into a motherly hug. “We can't change you again, Molly. We talked about this before, remember? Making you a human was an accident and we can't just undo it.”
The girl sobbed quietly into Colleen's shoulder for another moment, then her voice came out muffled by Colleen's blouse and fur. “Don't want to be human! Want to be me again!”
Colleen held the distraught girl, stroking her hair and rocking her gently. “Molly, you know that's not so. You were just telling me at breakfast about how you liked your hands, and being able to talk, and being able to open doors yourself. I thought you'd decided you liked being human.”
Molly pulled away from the nurse enough to look up at her. “But it's so hard! So many things to do and remember. And they don't make sense! Why do I have to wear clothes when I don't need them? Why do I have to use metal things to pick up food instead of just using my hands?” She sniffled and wiped her nose with the tissue Colleen handed her. “And why do I need to wipe my nose when it's wet? My nose was always wet when I was a dog and no one ever made me wipe it. And why do I have to use these tissue things when I could use the sleeve of the clothes you make me wear?”
“As a wet-nose person myself, I can understand that.” She touched her canine nose to Molly's cheek and the girl smiled a little. “But you'll get used to the rest of it soon – it's really not that bad.”
“Why couldn't they have made me a morph too? Then I could have hands and talk but still have fur and a tail.”
Colleen hugged the girl again. She knew Molly knew the answer, but just wanted to vent her frustrations. The collie morph decided to turn Molly's question around. “What if they did and you'd ended up as a cat-morph? Would you have liked that better?”
“Ewwwww! Me, be a cat? Yuck, no!”
“Then just be glad they made you a human girl and Mike a cat-morph. It could have been the other way around, you know.”
Molly's eyes got very round as she thought about that. “I… I never thought about that. I guess I'd rather be the human.”
‘I wonder if it wouldn't have actually have been better the other way,’ Colleen thought. ‘Oh well, we couldn't have known and it's too late now.’ Forcing her attention to matters that she could influence, she said, “Now Mike will be here in just a few minutes. Remember that even though Mike's a cat-morph now, shi's still Mike inside and shi won't hurt you. Shi misses you and wants to be friends. Can you do that?”
“I guess,” she replied, but her face held the expression of a stubborn child reluctantly giving in to the inevitable – just barely.
A few moments later, Dora's voice came from the ceiling speakers, “Michael Thompson is here, Colleen. Shall I let hir in?”
Colleen looked at Molly, “Ready to meet Mike?”
“I guess so,” she replied without enthusiasm, and the door slid open.
Mike walked into the room to see Molly immediately stiffen and move closer to the Collie morph. “Molly?” Mike said, as the girl moved to put most of Colleen's body between her and him.
“Molly, there's no need to be shy. Remember what we were just talking about? This is your Mike, shi just looks a little different now, just like you do.”
“Doesn't look like Mike, doesn't sound like Mike. And I can't smell anyone anymore!” The girl stayed close to Colleen, looking wary and ready to run. “And shi's a cat!”
“Reacher's a cat, and you aren't afraid of hir.”
“Reacher's different.” Molly's expression went from fear and resentment to one of puzzlement. “I don't know why shi's different, shi just feels okay. But that's a cat, not my Mike!”
Mike looked around the room, “Where are Elbeth and Dr. Kalan? I thought they were going to help with our introduction.”
“Sorry Mike. They both got called away on emergencies. Dr. Kalan had to take the shuttle back to Melbourne and can't be back for at least a few days. Elbeth should be available again tomorrow, though.”
Mike looked at the upset little girl and sighed in disappointment. Shi wanted to reach out and take Molly in hir arms and comfort her so bad that hir heart ached. Looking at the frightened and resentful look on the girl’s face though, shi knew that pressing the issue would only make things worse.
“Why don't we try this another time when Kalen or Elsbeth are available, Colleen.” Shi knelt down to be at eye level with Molly. “I know I seem different Molly, but I'm still your Mike and I still love you.”
“You're not my Mike! You're a cat and I don't wanna be with you!”
Turning around to walk out of the room, shi wondered if shi was still indeed Mike, or if shi'd just lied to Molly. Who was Mike? Was shi ‘Mike the former human’ or was shi in fact ‘Mikki the cougar morph’ now? Ears down and tail limp, Mike walked out of Molly's room and down the corridor with no particular destination in mind.
Molly’s rejection of hir hit Mike harder than shi’d expected. Not wanting to go back to hir sterile, empty room, Mike aimlessly wandered the corridors a while before leaving the ProDyne warren and found hirself in the large, brightly lit and pleasant food court of the 'tube station. The food court was crowded and very noisy since it was almost noon and Mike had passed on breakfast that morning, so shi decided to have lunch. After joining the queue for one of the hamburger vendors, ‘Of course MacDonald’s is still in business,’ shi thought with very mixed feelings, before a woman rudely pushed in line front of hir.
“Excuse me, but I was in line here,” Mike said in a carefully polite but firm tone.
“Wait your turn, cat,” the woman snapped back in an unfamiliar accent while giving Mike a condescending stare. “Back home, you’d know your place.”
‘Great. Everyone sees me as a morph, except me. I feel like I'm a human stuck in a freakishly well-fitting cat costume.’ Mike looked her over again. Now that he was paying attention, her clothing, shoes and carry-all bag clearly marked her as having just arrived from Terra. Mike didn’t particularly want a confrontation, but shi hated to allow this woman to get away with such rudeness. “So, does everyone just push in line back on Earth?”
She glared at Mike. “You just mind your manners, animal,” she hissed and turned her back on Mike.
Incensed at the woman’s attitude and actions, Mike tried to fight down hir growing rage, suppressing the urge to let out a feline growl at her, but was chagrinned to realize that shi had also unconsciously extended hir claws in response. ‘Maybe she’s right. Maybe I am just an animal.’
“Never mind, bitch – I think I just lost my appetite,” Mike spat and stalked off to the other end of the tube station, ignoring both the woman’s response and the stares of the bystanders who witnessed the confrontation. Unfortunately, Mike didn’t realize that virtually all of the disapproving looks were directed at the ill-mannered and racist human woman. Catching the next 'tube to downtown Conradsville, Mike found a seat away from the other passengers, so shi didn’t have to deal with anyone for a while. As the tube capsule started to move, Mike surreptitiously examined the other passengers. Mostly humans, with a sprinkling of furs, all scrupulously ignoring each other as seemed to be the custom in all mass transit systems Mike had ever ridden. ‘How many of the humans here feel the same as the woman in the food court?’ shi wondered. ‘Molly’s a human now and I'm not, damn it. Should I just leave her to her own kind?’
When the capsule stopped at the Conradsville station, Mike decided that no matter how depressed shi felt, shi had to eat. Walking to the shopping mall shi had visited with Linda and Kate, Mike looked around for a restaurant that appealed to hir. Noticing a sign outside one place that identified it as the ‘Cat’s Cradle’ Mike remembered Kate recommending it on their last trip.
‘What the hell,’ Mike thought as shi watched several happy-looking furs walking out of the door, ‘at least they won't hate me for being a morph,’ and walked into the place. A pretty, white-furred, cat morph in a black, pants-suit greeted Mike as shi entered.
“Table for one, or are you expecting someone?”
Mike looked around the room. The decor was pleasant, done in a late 20th century American theme, and was mostly full. Taking the crowd as a sign that the food was good here, Mike replied, “I'm by myself today, so a table for one is fine.”
Leading Mike to a small table near the bar, she said “Your waitress will be with you in just a moment, Shir,” and returned to her place near the door. Another cat-morph, this one calico-furred and in a short, waitress’ dress walked up to Mike’s table.
“Hi! I'm Sally and I'll be your waitress today.” She handed Mike a menu and said “Can I bring you something to drink while you're deciding? We have Guiness and Foster’s on tap as well as a selection of Terran and Lunar wine and beers.”
As Mike had expected from Linda’s comments on their previous trip, the menu was heavily carnivorous in its offerings. That suited Mike’s mood just fine, so shi ordered a large steak (“100% real, vat-grown beef. We never serve flavored tofu, textured yeast or synthetics,” according to the description on the menu.) Vegetables were available as side dishes, but the selection was small compared with the various meat choices. No wonder Kate liked the place and Linda didn’t. Mike added a baked potato and steamed broccoli to the steak as shi’d discovered that eating corn on the cob with feline dentition had proved to be far too messy to do in public, and sipped at hir beer as shi waited on dinner.
The steak was rare, tender, and very tasty, and the first Guiness was followed by a Heineken, and then a local micro-brew. Having finished hir steak and feeling somewhat better about life, Mike carried hir half-empty glass up to the bar where shi could see the video screen better and be closer to a very pretty, green-eyed cat morph with a Siamese-cat fur pattern and wearing a form fitting burgundy jumpsuit. ‘Since I'm having no luck with humans, maybe I should try socializing more with ‘my own kind’. At least she won't hate me for being a morph.’
“Mind if I sit here?” Mike asked her.
“No problem. You must be a Lightnings fan, too,” she said as her eyes went back to the grav-ball game on the video screen. Mike hadn’t paid much attention to the events on the screen, but had been impressed by how good 3D video had become.
“Just started following them,” Mike said. The truth was that Mike still hadn’t actually watched enough grav-ball yet to have identified with a team yet, but had watched one of the Lightning’s games with Reacher in the ProDyne facility recreation room. Still, the game was intense and fast paced and Mike found hirself caught up in the action. Mike bought a round for hirself and the cat-morph, whose name turned out to be Kirsten, and she bought them both another round when that was gone.
When the game finished, Mike listened to Kirsten talk to hir about her job as a Terra-Luna shuttle crewman. Fortunately, Mike didn’t have to deflect many questions about hir job, having told Kirsten that shi worked for ProDyne on a confidential project.
It was getting late when a slightly drunk Mike decided that shi would like to take hir new friendship with Kirsten a little further.
“If you're not due back on duty tomorrow, would you like to come back to my place for a while? It's small but nice, and I…”
Kirsten put her hand on Mike’s. “Mike, I… I'm sorry, I didn’t realize you felt that way about me. You're nice, but… I don't date herms.”
Mike’s good mood suddenly died, and shi felt stupid. ‘How could I have misread her feelings as badly as I just did,’ shi thought. ‘Guess I don't fit in here, either.’ Not wanting to look as foolish as shi felt, Mike pretended not to be hurt. “It's okay, Kirsten. No hard feelings. It's been a fun evening and maybe we'll bump into each other again sometime.” Mike put on the best smile shi could manage and went up to the front to pay hir tab and leave without looking back.
‘I've been turned down by women before, but this is the first time it's made me feel like some sort of pervert.’ Mike thought. ‘If I have to be a morph, why couldn’t I at least be a guy morph? I'll bet she wouldn’t have turned Karl down.’Somehow, the joy and excitement that shi’d had on hir moonwalk just threw the rest of hir existence into stark contrast. Shi couldn’t stay up and play on the surface, and there was nowhere that shi belonged down here. Seeing a sign for a wine shop, Mike went in and bought a few bottles of the Lunar wine that Reacher had introduced hir to and took the ‘tube back to hir apartment. Shi hadn’t quite finished the first bottle, when shi passed out on hir couch.
Waking up the next morning, the first thing Mike realized from hir throbbing headache and roiling stomach was that shi hadn’t taken a Morning-Afterz the night before. Unfortunately, a quick check of hir medicine cabinet showed that shi was out of the hangover remedy, altogether.
“Damn,” shi muttered disgustedly, “Guess it’ll have to be a ‘hair of the dog’ instead,” and poured hirself a glass of wine. That, along with a couple of aspirins, seemed to help a little, so shi followed it with another glass. Hir head eventually stopped pounding, but the depression shi had fallen into the previous night remained. Maybe another glass or two would help with that…
Mike stayed in hir apartment the rest of the day. The next morning found hir still there, with no more wine and still no Morning-Afterz pills. A quick trip out and shi was restocked on both, having been careful to speak to no one during hir shopping. The rest of the day was spent in hir apartment again. If shi didn’t talk to anyone, no one could hurt hir. At least, this being a weekend, no one had noticed hir absence and came to bother hir.
Waking up after noon the next day was a supremely unpleasant experience. Hir head throbbed, hir mouth tasted like a locker room floor and shi managed to be both hungry and nauseated by the thought of food at the same time. After shi changed out of the rather smelly clothes shi had worn and slept in for the past two days, shi showered and made hirself look more or less presentable and walked out of the residential area to the food court. A light lunch and a couple of pitchers of beer later, Mike left the restaurant and went looking for a bar. Having found one and taken a private table, shi sat for several hours, drinking and watching humans and morphs as they met and talked. Some found company and left in pairs, some in groups.
‘All but me,’ shi mused bitterly. ‘Everyone has someone 'cept for a freak like me.” Shi finished off hir beer. ‘Time for 'nother round.’ When shi touched the table’s order screen though, it refused to allow hir to have another drink. “What’s the hell the matter with you!” shi shouted as shi continued to jab at the screen. Shi had just started pounding on the device when shi felt a tap on hir shoulder. Shi turned in hir seat to see a large, brown bear morph in a black leather vest and blue jeans looking down at hir.
“I'm sorry Shir, but you’ve had your limit and we can't serve you any more tonight. You're going to have to leave now.”
Mike was drunk enough to want to argue, even drunk enough to start a fight, so shi started to stand up, then realized that shi was already standing up. The bear morph really was that huge. Realizing that the bouncer could absolutely back up the bar’s refusal to sell hir another round, shi touched hir card to the payment terminal on the table and turned around, swaying for a minute. Making hir uncertain way out the door, shi swayed down the corridor.
The next bar let hir have one drink before more or less politely, showing hir the door. The restaurant next door to that was catering to a higher class clientele, and steered hir out before shi could finish hir order. “Go home and sleep it off, kitty. And we have a dress code here, coat and tie for the gents, and appropriate feminine attire for ladies like you.”
“I'm no lady!” Mike sputtered indignantly.
Looking down his nose at Mike, the tall, human maitre’d replied frostily, “I'm forced to agree with you on that matter, Miss,” and almost closed the door on hir muzzle.
Wandering down the corridor, through a side passage and out of the higher-end neighborhood into a seedier warren, shi wandered into a pub whose sign proclaimed it “The Crash Landing”, Mike discovered that shi’d blundered into a decidedly down-scale spacer’s bar. The room was dark, and the air heavy with cheap tobacco smoke with undertones of other, less legal, substances. Hir nose, more than hir eyes, told hir that the occupants of the room were all human, with no furs or aliens in sight. A large table near the door was taken up by a group of spacers in more or less identical, not very clean, shipsuits. One of them, a large, overweight man with white-blond hair and a spacer’s tan looked up blearily from his drink and squinted at Mike.
“Aw shit! Someone let an animal in here. Can't a man have a drink in peace with't the place turnin' in'ta zoo!”
If Mike had been able to recognize a western HCKNA accent, shi might have backed right out of the place, or at least been more cautious. That not being the case, shi growled back, “I've as much right t' be in here as you, asshole! Whatcha gonna do about it?”
The man lurched to his feet, “I'm gonna teach you to respec'k your betters, animal! Thass what!”
“My betters? You an' what army? Fuck you!”
Even as drunk as shi was, seeing the rest of the spacers at the table get up to face hir, Mike began to realize that shi had screwed up by the numbers and was in danger of getting beaten to a pulp. Shi turned hir head at a sound behind hir and saw that another crew woman had shut the exit behind hir. ‘This is gonna to be bad…’ Mike thought as shi went into a semblance of a fighting crouch and felt hir claws extend fully.
A sharp “crack” followed by a prolonged high-voltage crackling sound came from the direction of the bar and Mike’s nose picked up the acrid scent of ozone.
“Now everyone just STAND DOWN!” came a rumbling male voice from the same direction as the electrical discharge noises. Turning hir head, Mike saw that the bartender, a bald, heavyset man with a bushy, salt and pepper beard was holding an unfamiliar weapon which was producing a bright blue-white electric arc between its twin emitter rods. “The first fucker who throws a punch is gonna wake up in the middle of next week!”
“Aw hell, Hank, the furry shit's askin' for it!” the first spacer whined.
“I don't give a damn! The cops told me last time you got rowdy and busted heads, that if one more fur gets carried outta here on a stretcher, he's gonna make damn sure I lose my liquor license. Now KNOCK IT OFF!”
He turned his attention to Mike. “An' YOU! What the fuck are you tryin' to start in here, furball? Equal rights or not, this is MY bar. I serve who I damn well please, and you don't come in here lookin' for trouble with MY customers. Now get your stinkin' furry tail outta my bar.”
Mike opened hir mouth to object, but before shi could make a sound, the bartender gestured with the heavy stun-gun. “Get out NOW! Or I'll shock you into next week and toss your fuzzy ass out myself!”
As Mike crept past the crew woman who had reopened the door, she hissed, “Furry freak!” and spit on hir.
As the door slammed shut behind hir, Mike looked dejectedly up and down the dim corridor. Most of the signs had gone dark and the doors closed. Shi wasn’t too sure about where shi was, and had no idea where shi wanted to go. Wandering the corridor in search of a familiar landmark, Mike mused sourly on the day’s events. ‘What the fuck am I now, anyhow? Where do I belong? Do I belong anywhere? Humans hate me 'cause I'm a morph – just a damn furball. Morph ladies think I'm a pervert because I'm a herm. Hell, I don't want to have tits and a pussy, and I sure as hell don't want a guy morph trying to get in my pants! Hell, even my dog hates me, now that she’s a human and I'm a cat! I want to go home! I want to go home and be a human, be a man again, but that life is three hundred years away in another fuckin' universe! There's no place for me here, no one for me here.’ Shi heard hirself scream in hir anguish, but stopped immediately, appalled at the feline, animal sound of it. Standing in the middle of the darkened corridor, shi fell to hir knees and screamed, “I want out!” Looking again around hir dark, dismal surroundings shi sobbed quietly, “I want out.”
Trying to regain control of hirself, she stumbled to hir feet and wandered aimlessly down the dim, deserted corridors, turning almost at random where the halls met as she shuffled forward, tail hanging limply behind hir.
Eventually, shi ended up at a large, steel door that looked like it belonged on a submarine. As shi stood there, shi wasn’t sure if shi had intended to end up at the airlock, or if shi had just wandered there by chance. Peering blearily ahead of hir, shi saw the now familiar massive looking door and access wheel with the large warning signs. Next to it was the manual pull-and-twist handle with its fluorescent orange and yellow striped cover and the sign: “Danger! Airlock manual override. Alarm will sound.”
Shi stared at it for a long moment. All shi had to do was lift the cover and pull the handle. Then shi could just walk into the ready room and stare out the windows at the surface of the moon again. Or shi could open the airlock door at the other end of the room and walk out on to the surface for the last time. Not a great way to end it all, but relatively quick. Still not certain which shi might do hir hand started to reach for the brightly colored safety cover.
“Mike? What are you doing?” Dora’s voice came from the speaker next to the camera by the door.
Shi paused, hir hand frozen half way to the cover. What did shi want to do? But what right did a machine have to stop hir, regardless of what shi intended? “I'm thinkin' of having 'nother look at the surface,” shi said, hir voice slurred.
“Mike, you are not in a safe condition to put on a pressure suit and go out to the surface.”
“Maybe I won' need a suit,” shi mumbled, not sure if shi was talking to the A.I. or hirself.
Just as shi started to reach out for the cover of the manual override again, a very out-of-breath chakat bounded up and came to a stop next to hir.
“Mike!” Shi paused to take a breath and went on, “Dora said you had gotten a bit lost and might try to go through the wrong door.” Shi took a couple more breaths and went on, “C’mon guy, time to head back home. You can stay at my place tonight. My mate’s been wanting to meet you anyway,” and took Mike by hir arm.
Mike tried weakly to fend hir off. “I'm okay. Dora shouldn’a called ya.”
“Yes, she should have. And you should have come to me or Elbeth instead of… of coming here.” Shi put hir arm under Mike’s and around hir back, supporting hir as shi turned hir around. Shi started to half lead, half carry Mike down the corridor then stopped and looked back at Dora’s camera.
“Dora? Nothing reportable happened here; Mike just got lost, OK? Nothing needs to be logged. Do you want a command override code?”
For the first time in Reacher’s memory, the A.I. hesitated before answering, then replied, “No, Reacher. I understand. Nothing happened here that needs to be reported.”
A movement next to hir stirred Mike awake. As she started to lift hir head, it felt like it had swollen to the size of a basketball and was splitting down the middle. As if that wasn’t bad enough, hir mouth felt sticky and tasted like the exit chute of a trash dumpster. Trying to open hir eyes, shi discovered that they seemed almost glued shut. Shi hadn’t been this hungover since the party after their tank crew won the gunnery competition at Grafenwöhr. Shi lay quietly for a moment. Hopefully. Maybe that party was actually last night and the rest was just an alcohol-poisoning induced nightmare.
Managing to get hir left eye open ruined that hopeful thought. There was a body lying next to hir. A very large, brindle-furred, feline body. Rolling over, shi found that shi was pressed up against the rump of a tan-furred, feline body with a darker brown tail. That body stirred and a sandy-haired, feline head swam into Mike’s vision.
“Good morning.” Shi yawned widely, showing an impressive array of very large, sharp teeth, then grinned. “I don't think we've been properly introduced. Call me Moonbeam. For my sins, I'm mated to that furry lump on the other side of the bed.” Shi rolled over to face Mike, propped hir elbows on the sleeping pad and rested hir chin on hir interlaced fingers. As both chakats were wearing only their fur, this incidentally gave Mike a great view of hir uncovered, furry breasts, which Mike was far too ill to appreciate. “So, did you two have fun last night? I want all the juicy details.”
“I… I'm Mike. Mike Thompson. Um, we didn’t… I'm not… I mean…”
“Please excuse my mate; shi's a bit of a tease.” Reacher gave hir mate a mock-stern look. “Mike’s still getting the hang of being both a morph and a herm, so don't pull hir tail too hard, dear one.” The brindle-furred chakat stretched her upper torso over Mike to give hir mate a lick-kiss and caress. “Mike, this is my denmate Moonbeam, Child of Dusty and Grayback. I filled Moonbeam in on your circumstances, when I brought you home to sleep it off.”
“Nice to meet you, Mike.” To Mike’s surprise, rather than offering to shake hands, shi pulled him into a chakat-style hug, which caused the already flustered former-human to realize that shi was as bereft of clothing as the two taurs.
“Where are my pants?”
“In the laundry, Mike. Your clothes were pretty whiff when I got you here, so they went right into the wash before we showered you off.”
“Showered me…” Mike’s voice trailed off.
“You wouldn’t have wanted to go to bed like you were, trust me.” Hir muzzle wrinkled at the memory.
“But shi's all clean and fluffy this morning,” Moonbeam cooed. “We could just all cuddle here for a while and be late for work,” shi said, then smiled at Mike and fluttered her eyelashes.
Mike’s jaw dropped open and shi started to inch away as the tan-furred chakat grinned and licked hir lips.
“Moonbeam,” Reacher said warningly, “What did I say about pulling hir tail?”
“You're no fun! How often do I get a chance to tease somebody like this?”
“I think what Mike needs this morning is a couple of ‘Morning-Afterz’ and a big glass of orange juice,” Reacher went on sternly.
“Oh hell, yes! Please!”
“Shi tried to give them to you last night, dear, but you couldn’t keep anything down.” Moonbeam wrinkled hir muzzle and gave Mike a worried look, “I hope you don't often get that drunk.”
Reacher raised her lower torso on hir front legs and gave her upper torso and arms a stretch, then up on all fours, shi stretched hir front legs out in front of hir until her lower torso was on the sleeping pad and stretched out even further, reminding Mike of how Molly used to stretch sometimes.
Standing up to all fours, shi announced, “To the kitchen, then. Moonbeam, if you'll get Mike hir ‘Morning-Afterz’ and juice, I'll start making breakfast.” Shi reached down and pulled Mike to hir feet. Mike instinctively looked for something to cover hirself.
“My pants, Reacher! Where did you put them?”
Reacher continued to pull Mike into the kitchen and Moonbeam stifled a laugh.
“Fur, Mike. You're covered in fur.” Shi stroked hir hand along the soft pelt of Mike’s arm and went on. “Relax and don't worry about clothes until we have to leave our apartment. Bacon and eggs enough, Mike, or should I make hash browns as well? Fried tomatoes, maybe?” shi added as shi reached for a skillet.
“There's a chair folded up in the pantry for you biped types,” Moonbeam added. Pull it out and set it next to the table.”
“Oook. I can't even think about food right now. Just the ‘Morning-Afterz’ and some juice to choke them down with, please.” Shi unfolded the chair, set it next to the small kitchen table and collapsed into it, and looked around hir. The small, but neat and well-equipped kitchen could almost have come right out of an average 21st century American middle-class house, except for the small section of smart-wall, that was showing a view of a forested valley with the sun just coming up on the horizon.
A tall glass of orange liquid was placed in front of hir, quickly joined by two small pink pills. Mike quickly swallowed the pills, followed by the entire glass of juice.
“Thanks, Moonbeam, I really needed that.” A thought struck hir, “I'm surprised you had these on hand. Colleen said you chakats weren’t affected much by alcohol.”
The tan chakat laughed. “We aren’t, but surely you don't think you're the first stray that Reacher’s brought home after a few too many?”
The hangover remedy was already taking effect as the smells of frying eggs and bacon began to fill the room, and Mike decided that breakfast might be a good idea after all.
After breakfast, Mike returned to the bedroom to find hir clothes placed on the sleeping pad, freshly laundered and neatly folded with hir wallet placed on top and exactly in the center. Mike reflected a moment on how, in hir former life, shi and hir late wife would have loved the luxury of housekeeping 'bots. Quickly donning the freshened clothes, Mike was joined by Reacher and Moonbeam, who pulled on business-casual tops and belts. Putting hir PADD and wallet into hir belt pouch, Reacher gave hir mate a quick hug and lick-kiss.
“You go on to work love, I need a moment with our guest.”
“Sure thing, Reach! See ya tonight,” and returned the hug and lick-kiss with interest.
When shi heard the door close behind hir mate, Reacher took the other morph gently by the shoulders.
“Are you going to be okay today, Mike?”
“I… think so. Yeah.” Shi looked down at hir feet for a moment, then back up into Reacher’s face. “You're a good friend, Reacher. I, well, I don't know what I would have done last night, but I'm glad you were there, just in case… You know…”
The chakat continued to hold Mike’s eyes. “Mike? Promise me that you'll stop in and have a talk with Elbeth today. You don't have to say anything about last night, but let hym know that you're going through a rough patch just now.”
Mike’s ears drooped, “I've always felt uncomfortable talking to shrinks.”
“Hy can help. I know,” shi said in a voice that carried the echoes of past pains.
Mike raised hir eyebrows and cocked hir ears forward, asking a silent question.
“Six years ago, I lost my lifemate in a shuttle accident. It hit me very hard. Brightmane was special. I still miss hir very much, even now that I have Moonbeam. Elbeth pulled me through some hard times.” She was silent for a moment, then went on, “If you don't want to talk to a shrink, why not have a chat with Father Campbell?”
“Father Campbell? Is he a human priest?” Reacher shook hir head. “A chakat?”
“Shi's a 'Cougar, like you, and a Stellar Reformation Catholic priest. Most McClarens here in Luna are Stellar Catholics, and shi was a chaplain in the Lunar Defense Force before accepting the local parish. I think you two may have a lot to talk about.”
After that first, miserable day training on pressure suits, Pete had begun to doubt the ability of any of them to make the difficult, finicky things to work. After a few, strenuous, tedious and occasionally terrifying days at it, though, he and most of the class finally seemed to be getting the hang of it. No one had actually drowned, although a few appeared to have come close, and the instructors seemed to take considerable pains to point out that all of them would have already died of their mistakes had they been practicing in vacuum rather than water.
Currently, Pete was using power tools to practice replacing a part on a section of an obsolete orbital shuttle that had been put into the pool for training. Working in a spacesuit under water wasn’t a perfect simulation of weightlessness, but it was the best they had. Thinking about that made him recall a conversation with Sergeant Chavaz the previous day. Not having the resources of a government, as most space programs had, the HLA was trying to make do on a shoestring budget. The pressure suits they were training on were a case in point.
Having just finished a particularly tiring section of training, Pete and a few of the other trainees were taking a break with Sergeant Chavaz. As it sometimes did, the break turned into an impromptu bull session. It started with a question from Ed.
“I thought that space suits were all custom-made for the person wearin' 'em. Guess that the HLA got us something fancy.”
Sergeant Chavaz, started to say something, then visibly changed his mind and started again. “The best suits, the kinds used by Star Corps and Star Fleet are all custom-made. Those suits are expensive and even if we had the budget for them, ordering them would take time we don't have and would draw unwanted attention to what we're doing here.”
Pete spoke up, “So what do we have, Sarge?”
“The General Astronautics suits were made for light duty and emergency use on starships and space stations. They’re adjustable so that they can be fitted to almost any crew-person who damages his suit or transfers in without one. With the right EVA pack and a protective over-garment it’ll be ok for a few hours in space, or on a place like the moon or Ceres.”
“What do you mean by ‘a few hours’ Sarge?”
“What part of ‘light duty and emergency use’ didn’t you understand, Watanabi? You think we're Star Fleet, with twenty-five thousand credits to spend on each of your suits? We're not sending you all off to explore the surface of Titan or Io for a month. These suits are good enough for a short mission in space or on an airless moon, and that's all you're gonna need.”
He glanced around at the looks on their faces. “What? Ya think these suits aren’t good enough for you? Ya need a fancy, custom-made, expensive space suit to protect your precious, delicate hide before you're willing to go out and do your duty to humanity?”
Seeming to sense their unspoken answer to that, he gave them a disgusted look and got to his feet. “Break’s over. Back to work.”
As Pete struggled in the pool’s simulated zero gravity to tighten down the screws that held an access cover in place without turning his entire body instead of the screw, he pondered the question of the suits and how much the HLA thought it was worth to spend to protect his life. Maybe it made sense, from the point of view of the people running the show. After all, the more they spent per person, the fewer people they could afford to train and equip. And he wanted lots of other people backing him up when he had to fight the morphs. Still, it was his very own precious, delicate hide…
Reacher was gentle but firm in hir insistence in walking Mike to the chapel on hir way to work. Mike realized that they’d reached their destination when shi saw a façade carved out of the lunar rock in the shape of a traditional cathedral’s arched entrance. Ringing the sides of the arch were elaborate carvings of saints and biblical scenes, reminding Mike of the detailed carvings shi’d seen in European churches. ‘And why not,’ shi mused, ‘In this century, robot laser drills can turn out amazingly detailed work in less time now than it takes to draw them.’
As they approached, one of the double-doors swung open. A glance at the edges told Mike this was no iron-bound oak door, but yet another airlock door with a convincing veneer. Behind the door, a 'Cougar with considerable gray in hir muzzle and a short mane of iron-gray hair strode out to greet them. As shi was dressed in dark gray slacks and black shirt sporting a clerical collar, Mike guessed that this must be the local priest.
“Reacher! Good to see you again!” shi said warmly as shi embraced the chakat. “And this must be Mike.” Shi turned to take Mike’s hand in a firm handshake. “I have to admit that I've been quite looking forward to sitting down with you and having a nice long chat ever since Melissa told me about you.”
Reacher broke in smoothly, “Father Campbell, I’d love to join in that chat, but I'm already late for work. If you'll excuse me?”
“Certainly, Reacher. And would I perhaps be seeing you here this Sunday?” the 'Cougar inquired, in that gently insistent way that all clerics seem to learn before leaving divinity school.
“Perhaps, Father, perhaps. You still haven’t given up on luring me into your church, have you?”
“Never, daughter, never. We're all God’s children, but you chakats are just a little bit special. I'm sure Shi will lead you to the light eventually.” Shi grinned at the chakat unashamedly. Mike sensed that this was a long running and friendly banter between them. Reacher gave the 'Cougar a quick hug then bounded off down the corridor.
Mike couldn’t help making an opening jab. “So God is a ‘Shi’?”
“I think God is a Shi, a Him, a Her, a Hy, or whatever God wants to be.” Shi smiled warmly, hir ears pointed forward in interest. “And what do you think God is?”
Mike hesitated. The cleric wasn’t taking offense, but was instead picking up the topic and fielding it with interest. That reminded Mike of a Jesuit shi’d known in hir former life.
“OK, you got me. I don't know what sex God might be, if God even exists. I was just being a smart-ass.” Shi hesitated, unsure if shi wanted to continue on inside or just retreat back to hir apartment.
Father Campbell took advantage of the hesitation to take Mike by the arm and gently lead hir through the door. “I suspect that God must love smart asses, or Shi wouldn’t have made so many of them.” Shi motioned the other 'Cougar to come inside. “I have a pot of tea brewing, or I make a mean cappuccino, if you prefer.”
“Er, tea is fine, I guess,” Mike said as shi was guided first through the nave and then through a door leading into a small but pleasant and comfortable-looking office. After Father Campbell settled Mike into a seat, shi took a chair across from hir. Before Mike had time to comment on the room, a fox-morph carried in a tray containing a teapot, teacups and a small plate of digestive biscuits and tea cookies. Her fur was a mostly red with flecks of gray in her muzzle and a long pony tail of red hair streaked with gray, and she was wearing a black, knee-length dress with a clerical collar. The pleasant scent of aromatic tea and fresh pastries filled the room, making it seem more like a home than an office.
“I was going to take care of that myself in a moment, but thank you, dear one,” Father Campbell looked up from hir seat to the fox-morph who touched noses with hir lovingly and stood next to hir chair, resting her hand on the 'Cougar’s shoulder. “I don't believe you’ve met my lifemate, Mother Karen. Karen, this of course is Mike Thompson. Shi and I were just about to have a bit of a chat.”
“Yes, and these things usually start off better with some pleasant refreshments, as you well know,” she replied cheerily in a pleasant, English accent.
“And you wanted to meet our visitor before rushing off to make your rounds at the hospital.”
Mike couldn’t help blurting out, “Your lifemate? But…”
The other 'Cougar smiled gently at Mike then up at Karen. “But we're different species, yes.”
“And a mixed marriage between a single-sexer and a herm,” Karen added with a fond smile.
“It's been a blessing in a number of ways,” the priest continued. “The Church encourages its priests to marry, for some very good and practical reasons, but the concerns and stresses of raising children can distract a priest from the needs of hir congregation. In our case,” shi reached up and stroked the hand on hir shoulder, “our congregation is our focus, and in effect, our children.”
“Since you're a herm, why aren’t you ‘Mother Campbell’?”
“Tradition, of course,” the older 'Cougar replied with a cheerful smile. “The Stellar Reformation Catholic church takes many of its traditions from the Roman Catholic church. When the first 'Cougars were ordained, priests were still all males, so they were given the title ‘Father’, even though a few of them were already mothers.” Shi smiled gently and went on, “And surely you’ve noticed by now that ‘Father’ is as apt a title for us McClarens as ‘Mother’.”
Karen extracted her hand and gave her mate a quick kiss on hir head. “Must run now dear. Mike, it's been a pleasure meeting you.”
Mike rose to offer hir hand to the fox-morph, who instead pulled hir into a hug.
“It's been nice meeting you, Mike. Might we perhaps see you here again this Sunday?”
“Now don't you scare hir off, my love,” the priest said with a chuckle, “I was just getting hir calmed down.”
“I'll just leave you to it then, shall I?” With a warm smile for them both, she picked up a rather large, embroidered shoulder bag from a small end table carved out of Lunar rock, and walked purposefully out the door.
Father Campbell picked up the conversation from where it had been interrupted.
“So, I imagine you're rather tired of people asking you what it was like to be human, what it's like to be a morph, what it's like to be a herm, and so forth.”
Mike sat up in hir seat. This was an unexpected turn in the conversation.
“Actually… I guess I am. After all the changes and surprises over the last weeks, some… well… normalcy would be welcome. I'm not sure what I think of what I've become. And well… I'm not sure I like it.” Mike fell silent, hir ears down, having already said more than shi’d intended.
“Normalcy is something that every sapient wants, at least until they’ve had it for a while.” Hir eyes twinkled in humor, then went on in a more serious tone. “Tell me, Mike, what was your profession in your old life?”
“Reacher didn’t tell you?”
“Melissa has told me a bit about how you came to be here and Reacher confided in me that you’ve found some challenges in being here, but shi respects a person’s privacy. Assume I know nothing, other than you arrived in the ‘here and now’ in an unfamiliar body.”
“Well…” Mike paused. Should shi trust Father Campbell, a stranger and priest in an unfamiliar denomination? In hir former life, Mike had had mixed experiences with clerics, but Mike the soldier had better experiences with military chaplains than with civilian preachers. “Reacher said you’d been a chaplain before you accepted this parish.”
“Indeed I was. Twenty years as a chaplain in the LDF. I started off in the Orbital Guard, but I transferred to the Ground Forces to better minister to my fellow McClarens there.” Shi smiled at a memory. “I was fully qualified as a shuttle pilot, a battlemech driver and as a Surface Trooper. It was a good career, for a young ‘'Cougar, but I think I prefer a less exhausting flock these days.”
Mike laughed. “My favorite chaplain was an Airborne Ranger. I used to love it when a recruit asked for permission to see the chaplain. If the kid had real problems, Chaplain Smith was a sympathetic ear. But if he just wanted to whine to get his nose wiped and his head patted, Captain Smith would give him a chewing-out that would put a drill sergeant to shame.”
Father Campbell grinned, hir ears pricking up in amusement. “I think he and I would have gotten along. So you were a soldier, before?”
“Yeah, first Airborne Infantry, then Armor. Not like your armored battlemechs here, but tracked tanks.”
“I've seen pictures of tanks. Reacher said early twenty-first century?”
“Yes,” Mike replied, then looked over at the morph, pausing to study hir. A tawny fur-covered face with the chocolate and white markings of a cougar with yellow eyes and a predator’s vertically slitted pupils. Pointed, furry cat ears emerging from a human head of hair and a short but feline muzzle with the tips of the upper canine teeth protruding below the black-skinned lips as the creature gently smiled at hir. A handsome face, even dignified, but animal. Like shi had become. Not human, but animal.
Mike closed hir eyes and tried to focus on the conversation they’d just been having. A moment ago, this morph had been a fellow veteran, a colleague. Now shi was seeing hir as an ‘other’, an animal. And by the same logic, shi was an animal, hirself?
“Mike? Are you all right? You seem distressed.”
“Sorry. I was… lost in thought for a moment. Yes, I was walking my dog three centuries ago, then suddenly I was here and… and like… like this.” Shi looked down at hir furred hands, noticing the claws half extended.
“A furred person.”
“Yes.” Shi looked away, past the priest to the wall behind hir.
“Yes.” Shi looked down at hir hands. Hir furred hands with the claws still half exposed.
“No! I'm not… I mean I don't… I…” Shi realized that shi’d started to hyperventilate and fought to control hir breathing. Shi got control again then sighed. “Yes. An animal.” Mike looked up at the other morph, expecting to see condemnation, or at least disapproval. Instead shi saw… compassion? Understanding?
“Mike, I'm not going to sit here and try to tell you that, at least in some ways, you aren’t an animal. Even today, some humans still think of us as just jumped-up beasts with delusions of equality. But in a sense, we're all animals: humans, morphs and aliens. And it's not uncommon for a morph to come to me with doubts about hir personhood after having a feral episode.”
“Yes. Under enough stress we morphs can find our behavior reverting to something out of the animal side of our genetic makeup, particularly those of us originally designed to be combat breeds.”
Mike felt hir ears fold down and hir tail begin to lash. This seemed to be exactly what shi didn’t want to hear.
“But humans have their dark side, their ‘beast within’, too. If you saw combat, surely you saw the ‘killer ape’ side of homo sapiens’?”
“I… Yes. Yes, I did.” As shi looked down at hir clawed hands, a number of ugly memories of what shi’d seen in war came back to hir, unbidden and unwanted. Torn and burnt bodies of noncombatants, murdered women and children flashed through his mind, smoking rubble that had once been homes, ‘allies’ who would turn on you, or suddenly gun down helpless prisoners… Shi shook her head violently, trying to block out the memories and looked back at the priest.
“So Mike, what separates humans from animals? Is it fur?” Shi stroked the fur on hir own arm. “Or perhaps claws?” shi continued as shi held up hir right hand and extended its claws.
Mike looked down at hir own claws, willing them to retract.
“Or is it what we do? What we think and believe?” Father Campbell looked thoughtful for a moment, then went on. “When you close your eyes and think about yourself, are you a man or a beast?”
“A man, er… Well, that's another problem.”
The priest smiled in gentle sympathy. “It is indeed. Not one that usually bothers us herms, but we'll come back to that. Do you feel like a beast inside? Are you driven by hunger, rut and aggression?”
Mike shook hir head, not trusting hir voice just then.
“I thought not. Let's look at it another way. Must a being be a human to be a person? Are the Caitians, Voxxans or Rakshani animals, just because they’re aliens rather than humans?”
Mike’s ears came back up as as shi contemplated this. Those alien races weren’t animals just because they weren’t human, were they?
The elder 'Cougar closed hir eyes in thought then opened them and caught Mike’s eyes again. “Just recalling my twentieth and twenty-first century history. Who is the better person, Reacher or Adolph Hitler? Your nurse Colleen or Mao Zedong?”
“Not a fair comparison. Anyone would be better than those monsters.”
“Even us animals?” Shi met Mike’s stare with a raised eyebrow. “Come on, give me an answer: who’s the better person, your ‘twin sister’ Kate or Joseph Stalin?”
“I get it! I get it!” Mike realized that shi’d started to get up off hir seat and settled back down into it.
“Well then, were you a good person when you were human?”
“I wanted to think so. I wasn’t sure for a while after my first combat tour.”
“You killed people? Other soldiers?”
“Soldiers, yes. Well, insurgents and terrorists.”
“Civilians? Women and children? Anyone who wandered into your gunsights?”
“No!” Shi balled hir hands tightly to hide the claws that had extended again.
“I didn’t think so. Would you do it now? Could you kill innocent civilians? Or children?”
“Of course not!” Again, Mike felt hir ears flatten to hir skull and hir tail begin to lash back and forth.
“So, how are you different than you were before you got that rather attractive fur coat?”
“I, well… I…” Hir ears drooped and hir tail went limp. “Do I have a soul? If I had one when I was human, do I still have it? Or am I just an animal who can talk and think?”
“Perhaps being able to think and talk is proof of having a soul.”
“Or not.” Mike shot back. “What about A.I.s?”
Father Campbell’s head went back as shi had a hearty laugh. “Oh we are going to have some great discussions in the future! But that's a topic for another day; the question was do you have a soul. Did you believe you had one, back when you were human?”
“I was a lapsed Catholic back then. I didn’t know. I wasn’t willing to go as far as calling myself an agnostic, but I didn’t have much faith either. But with what’s happened, well, it's all come up and hit me in the face.”
“But what is a soul? Is it what makes you, you? And if you're still you, don't you still have that soul? Aren’t you still yourself inside, even with that fur coat?”
Mike hesitated then raised hir eyes to look into the other ‘Cougar’s face, “I suppose you have a point. But I feel so… so alone here. Humans, well many humans, see me as an animal. Other morphs, some of them, see me as a freak because I'm a herm. Not even my dog likes me anymore now that she’s human.”
“That would be Molly. Melissa’s told me a bit about her, too. That may take a while; she’s facing far greater challenges than you, Mike. Give her time.” Shi reached out and took Mike’s hand. “But you have friends. Melissa, Reacher, Colleen, Kate, just to name some I know. And now me, I hope. I'm here for you, whenever you need someone to talk to.” Shi looked Mike in the eyes, “Anytime, Mike. Just ask Dora to connect me if you need someone and she will…”
A chime sounded and a synthesized voice came from the ceiling. “Father Campbell, there is a call for you. Sherri MacAlpin has been hospitalized and hir mate Shannon MacNeill has requested your presence.”
“Tell Shannon that I'll be there as soon as possible, and please alert Karen to detour to hir ward and see what’s happened.” Shi looked troubled. “That's the fourth parishioner to be hospitalized in a week,” shi said, mostly to hirself. “Two others were in freak accidents and one was actually assaulted by a human shi’d never even met before!” Shaking hirself, Father Campbell stood up and Mike stood as well.
“I'm sorry our chat has to be cut short Mike, but Shannon wouldn’t be asking me to rush over to the hospital if it was something minor with Sherri.” Hir tail lashed for a moment, reflecting hir worry, then shi calmed hirself and hir tail relaxed. “I want to continue our discussion Mike, if you're willing. I won't even nag you about attending Church on Sunday. This time.” Shi flashed Mike a playful grin. “How about lunch here tomorrow? Karen says that I make a terrific salmon salad.”
Mike hesitated for a long moment and then shrugged. “I'll be there, Father.” Shi flashed the cleric a rueful grin of hir own, “Who’d believe that I used to be a ‘grunt’ if I passed up a free meal?”
When Father Campbell arrived in the hospital ward, shi found hir mate comforting a weeping and distraught young 'Cougar. Mother Campbell looked up and shook her head sadly. Obviously, hir mate Sherri hadn’t survived hir injuries.
Shi was about to go to Shannon to try to add what comfort shi could when he heard someone clear his throat behind her. Turning, shi saw a somewhat portly, average looking human man, of medium height with graying hair and wearing a cheap suit, standing against the wall on the other side of the open door. He produced a wallet and opened it to display a badge and holo-ID.
“Sorry to intrude. I'm Special Agent Brown, LIS. You must be Father Campbell?”
“I am. And why would the LIS be involved? Isn’t this the Conradsville PD’s territory?”
“Yes. And no. Walk with me Father.” With that, he turned and walked down the corridor, turning into an empty waiting room, with Father Campbell following behind.
When the LIS agent turned to face hir, the 'Cougar asked gently, “Are you going to read me my rights now, Agent Brown?”
“Call me Mitch. No, I'm not going to read you your rights because you're not under investigation. In fact, I'm hoping you can help me.”
“Unless you want me to bless you or offer you the confessional, I'm not sure what I can do I help you, Mitch.”
The human grinned wryly. “You haven’t nearly the time to hear all of my sins, Father.” Then his expression turned grim. “Have you noticed any increase in accidents or crimes against your parishioners in the past month or so?”
“As it happens, yes. I was just remarking to a young McClaren not an hour ago that this is the fourth parishioner to be hospitalized recently. Two experienced, ah… unusual accidents, and one was apparently mugged. And now poor Sherri. Can you tell me what happened to hir?”
Mitch looked at the morph priest for a long moment, then seemed to come to a decision. “I understand that you used to be an officer in the LDF?”
Father Campbell nodded. “A Captain in the Chaplain Corps, but yes. Twenty years as a chaplain in the LDF. Why?”
“This is all off the record, but you probably should know. A witness reported that Shir MacAlpin was attacked by a human in one of the service corridors while investigating a hypernet outage. Whoever made the attack was a professional, judging from the ferocity of the attack and the type of wounds inflicted. The first strike was a slash that severed the carotid artery, with a follow-up strike just under the sternum, directly up into the heart. Not with a vibroblade or a force knife that could be detected by a scan, but a surgically-sharp, pointed and double edged, carbon steel blade, about twelve centimeters long, with a black finish, according to the Medical Examiner.”
“I see. Like a Sykes-Fairborne dagger.” Shi paused a moment, a look of alarmed understanding passing over hir face. That style of knife, although centuries old, remained a mainstay in the special-operations units of many militaries, because it was effective yet low profile. “Yes, I do see. So you believe that this wasn’t a simple mugging or robbery gone bad.”
Mitch went on smoothly, wanting to alert the priest and get his cooperation, but wasn’t willing to confide in a civilian about his real suspicions. “I'm afraid not, and if we do have some sort of maniac attacking morphs, we need to find him and stop him as quickly as possible. The last thing this city needs is a ‘Jack the Ripper’ wannabe with a grudge against morphs. So not only do I need your help, I need you to talk to your parishioners and ask if they have any information on the person or persons who are targeting morphs in this town.”
“Reacher, have you seen Mike lately?”
“As a matter of fact I have, Kate,” Reacher replied, not meeting hir eyes “Why?”
“I don't think shi's coping very well since hir meeting with Molly went so badly. Shi's had some unpleasant experiences with both furs and humans and I think shi's started spending all hir time alone in hir room.”
“Any idea what sort of unpleasant experiences?”
“Some. When I finally found hir today and tried to catch up with what shi's been up to, I got Mike to tell me about a couple; a morph-hating human and a fur fem who was turned off by herms, but shi wouldn’t talk about the rest.” Reacher felt the concern coming off of the young 'Cougar in waves. “Shi hasn’t been doing well here lately. Frankly, I'm really worried about hir.”
“Shi told me about some of it the other night, after… Well, that doesn’t matter.” The usually upbeat chakat frowned. “I should have expected this,” Reacher said slowly. “You McClarens are almost as social as we chakats. Mike was a solitary type as a human and isn’t dealing well with hir need for closer, social contact. You have your family, but Mike only had Molly and she’s too busy dealing with her changes to reach out to Mike.”
“Family… Yeah! Reacher, you're a genius!” Kate suddenly kissed the startled chakat on hir cheek and bounded off.
Reacher watched hir dash out with a bemused expression. ‘Sometimes, I think that cat’s really half rabbit. I wonder what shi's off to do?’
Late morning, a couple of days later, Dora's voice from the ceiling speakers interrupted Mike's reading. “You have visitors, Mike. Melissa MacLeod, Kathryn MacLeod and Terri MacKinnon.”
Mike started to tell Dora that shi wasn’t feeling in the mood for visitors, but shi didn’t want to be unnecessarily rude to Kate and Melissa; plus boredom and curiosity outweighed hir antisocial mode. Shi was glad that shi hadn’t had a drink since shi woke up between Reacher and hir mate the morning after hir misadventure at the airlock. A dose of Quik-Sober could have straightened hir out in a few minutes, but covering-up is futile when other morphs could easily scent the alcohol.
Mike still wasn’t sure how shi felt about waking up in bed between Reacher and hir sleeping mate that morning. At least Reacher had acted like nothing out of the ordinary had happened as they all had breakfast together and shi hadn’t told Moonbeam where shi was taking Mike when they left. Having come closer to doing something truly stupid than shi wanted to admit, Mike had been content to go with Reacher’s rather vague explanation to hir mate about Mike having a bit too much to drink in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Shi hadn’t fully confided the events of that night to Father Campbell when shi returned yesterday to continue their talk, either. This wasn’t the time to mull that over, though. “Please let them in, Dora.” The door to hir quarters slid open to admit the three cougar morphs.
“Mike, we want to introduce you to my sire, Terri MacKinnon. Momma Terri, this is Mike – our guest from the 21st century.”
“Good to meet you,” Mike recited the polite greeting and extended hir hand to the cougar morph. Terri MacKinnon was a bit shorter than hir mate, about 162 centimeters, (or 5’4” as Mike thought of it), with a fit, slender build but more generous bust, tan fur with black markings in the typical cougar pattern and with a brown tail tip. Shi was wearing the gray and black utility uniform of an officer in the Lunar Republic Ground Defense Force and her collar insignia showed hir rank as a lieutenant colonel. Shi was also visibly quite pregnant.
“Please, have a seat,” Mike motioned them to the small couch of what shi thought of as the living room end of hir small efficiency apartment, thankful that shi had made hir bed and retracted it into its recess on the far wall. Shi then took hir desk chair and turned it around to face hir guests.
“Should I call you Colonel or Shir MacKinnon?” shi inquired, trying to make polite, if less than enthusiastic conversation.
“That's one of the things we've come to see you about, actually.” Shi gave Mike an intense, searching look, then went on. “Given your current circumstances, I think you should just call me Mom.”
Mike stared at hir for a moment, quite lost. “Um, call you ‘Mom’?”
“Melissa and Kate have told me all about you, of course. Who you were, how you came to be here, and of course, how you're adjusting to your new circumstances. It's quite an amazing story.”
“Yes, especially to me. I still expect to wake up and find it's all a weird dream.”
“Whatever you were and wherever you came from, you're clearly Kathryn's sister now,” Melissa continued for hir mate with a warm smile, “and that makes you our daughter. We'd like you to come live with us.”
“Live with you?” Mike parroted, feeling surprised and overwhelmed. Shi'd never anticipated anything like this from anyone here, even as concerned for hir as Kate and Reacher had seemed recently.
“Yes. Live with us,” Kate interjected as shi reached out and took Mike’s hand. “I told you before; you're my sister now. You're family, Mike. You should be living with your family, not in these sterile, lonely company transient quarters.” Shi stepped over to Mike and hugged hir, followed by Melissa, then Terri.
Mike felt a stirring inside hir, finally recognizing for the first time an emotional pull shi’d never experienced before as a human. Shi looked at Terri's face – friendly, concerned, yet something else, and said, “You've never even met me before today, and you want to take me into your home?”
“Yes.” Hir voice took on a formal tone. “Now that I have seen you, heard you and scented you, I recognize and claim you as our daughter and sister – one of our own kind, and family.” shi said, in the manner of reciting a formal declaration.
Melissa chimed in, “And we think it would be best for us all, for you to come and live with us, daughter.”
Mike was speechless, hir thoughts a whirl. Shi'd not had much of a family life over the past decade and was surprised by how much shi was discovering now that shi actually wanted one. In hir previous life, the old Mike would have far rather preferred to have hir own apartment than to move in with a family shi hardly knew. Now, Mike was surprised by just how much shi found shi wanted to be a part of a family. No, not a family, this family. But as much as Mike found that shi desperately wanted what was being offered to hir, shi had always been cautious of things that seemed too good to be true.
“Are you sure about this? I'm just a recycled old human that you’ve never met before and even Kate and Melissa haven't known me very long.”
“It doesn't take long to see that you're my daughter's sister and therefore my daughter too.” Shi smiled, “Come and try living with us for a while. If it doesn't suit you, you can always move back here.”
Kate moved to take hir hand again. “Please come. I want my twin sister to live with me.”
“We really do want you to join us,” Melissa said as she moved up to take Mike's other hand. “I want all of my daughters with me.”
“I… Yes, I… I’d like that very much,” Mike heard hirself say, then felt tears come to hir eyes. ‘I really do want this,’ shi realized to her astonishment, ‘I just hope I'm doing the right thing.’
With Kate’s help, packing up Mike’s few belongings took only a few minutes and, with a few words to Dora to close up and turn the apartment back over to ProDyne, the four 'Cougars were on their way.
Kate and hir parents also lived in the ProDyne pressure enclave, so it didn’t take long for the four of them to arrive home. The door’s biometric sensors recognized the family (although it did have a momentary hiccup on sensing two ‘Kates’) and opened to allow the four morphs in. Mike had just stepped out of the airlock/foyer and started to look around at the pleasant and comfortable living room when two small pumas pounced at them from behind a sofa. Mike felt an instinctive panic sweep over hir for a moment at the rush of the dangerous predatory cats, before reason returned. Those weren’t hungry animals; they were, shi saw as they stopped and stood in front of hir… little girls?
“Hi!” the older one said.
“Momma Melissa, is shi really our new sister?” the smaller of the two asked. Then, suddenly shy, shi stood a bit behind hir older sister.
Yes, this is hir,’ Melissa said with a fond smile. “As if you couldn’t tell by just scenting hir. How many new twins does Kate have? Come and greet your new sister.”
Both 'Cougar kittens approached Mike, the larger one boldly curious, the smaller one shyly. “Mikki, I'm Susan and this is Chrissy.” Mike decided to hold off on asking about why they were calling hir Micky for later and get acquainted with them instead.
As a father, Mike had had experience with small children, so shi got down on one knee so shi could be eye level with the shy kitten. “Hi Susan. Hi Chrissy. It's good to meet my new sisters.” Shi held out hir hand and Susan immediately brushed past the proffered handshake and gave Mike a hug. Chrissy, deciding shi didn’t want to be left out, immediately stepped over to Mike and was included in the hug. After a few moments, Mike let them go so shi could have a good look at the two of them.
Susan was the older of the two, at about ten or twelve years old. Shi had Melissa’s fur coloring, including the black tail tip, but with blonde hair in a ponytail and big green eyes. Chrissy’s fur pattern was more like Terri’s but with dark brown hair done up in braids with an unmarked tail tip and the same cute green eyes. They were both adorable! The reason that Mike could get such a good look at their fur pattern though, was that their fur was all they were wearing. Mike remembered being told that furred people didn’t feel the need to wear unnecessary clothes when away from humans. Now that shi was getting used to it, Mike began to agree that their fur was more than adequate clothing for the occasion.
Terri spoke up, “Kits, remember what we decided. Kate and Mikki will move into the guest room and you two will stay in the room you’ve been in. Make sure you haven’t left any of your stuff in there and give Mikki a chance to settle in. Susan, have you finished your homework?”
“Yes, Mom. What’s for dinner?”
Melissa touched the small screen by the kitchen portal and looked at the results. “Tonight’s menu is vat -grown turkey breast with gravy and rice pilaf, and green beans. I'm glad we decided to switch our subscription to this restaurant.”
“Me too,” her spouse growled., “One more synthetic meatloaf dinner from the last one and I would have gone to their kitchen and eaten the cook instead.”
While the kittens went to wash up for dinner and the other adults bustled around in the kitchen/dining room, Mike had a look around the living room. The floor appeared to be a thick mat of real, living grass growing to about four centimeters high, rather than a carpet or the synthetic surface in hir former apartment. This nicely complemented the blue sky with white clouds ceiling hologram and two smart walls showing a peaceful, forest scene. Combined with the size of the room, which Mike estimated to be at least seven by ten meters, this made it feel pleasantly spacious.
While part of the third wall was taken up with doors to other parts of the apartment, family photos and artwork, the half adjoining the fourth wall and the entire fourth wall was cut directly into the bare Lunar rock and left rough-hewn, with nooks and shelves for the numerous heirlooms, artifacts, trophies and souvenirs displayed there. The left half of the fourth wall was graced by a stone mantle and fireplace, which combined with the furniture to form a cozy nook, where a cheerful fire blazed on the hearth. While Mike knew that the fireplace had to be a hologram, the effect was completely convincing, right down to the cheerful crackling sounds and slight aroma of wood smoke. Mike would later discover that the fireplace was also part of the room’s 3D video screen.
Over the fireplace, where some homes might have a decorative musket or antique shotgun, there was what appeared to be a worn-looking but obviously well-preserved 21st century battle carbine. Mike made a mental note to ask Terri about it later.
“Come on, Mikki,” Kate said, taking Mike by hir hand, “let me show you our room.”
While not as big as the living room, their bedroom was almost the size of Mike’s previous apartment. One of the walls was a smart wall showing a sunny meadow scene and the floor was a soft, springy carpet that resembled close-cropped grass. There was no bed furniture in the room, but a pastel blue pad about the size of a queen-size mattress adjoined the center of one of the walls. On the opposite wall there were two small dressers, one appearing to be brand new, and one vanity with a large mirror. A few posters for holo stars, sports teams and music bands took up some of the wall space with a few shelves that held old dolls and plush animals (Mike found it hard to tell which was which) and a few photos. Mike noticed one of a pre-teen Kate in a tutu which also had a worn pair of pink ballet slippers hanging below it.
“Well Mikki, this is our room. What do you think?”
Mike looked around for another moment. “I like it. A little more feminine than I'm used to, but nice.”
Terri stuck hir head into the room. “Mikki, we need to take care of a little administrative detail. Kate, you should come along too.”
“Just drop your bag on the bed,” Kate said. “We'll unpack later.”
Terri led them into their office/study where Melissa was waiting for them with Susan and Chrissy. The hypernet terminal was already active and logged into an official looking Lunar Republic registration page.
“Mikki, by our customs, you’ve been our daughter from the moment you accepted our recognition of you. However, Lunar Republic laws require another step for the adoption to be official.” Shi placed hir hand on the sensor pad and stated, “I, Melissa MacLeod, claim Mikki MacLeod as my daughter of record.” Shi then stepped aside to let hir mate place hir hand on the sensor plate.
“I, Terri MacKinnon, claim Mikki MacLeod as my daughter of record.” Shi then turned to Mike and said, “As the final step in the legal process, please put your hand on the sensor pad and say: I, Mikki MacLeod, accept Melissa MacLeod and Terri MacKinnon as my parents of record.”
Mike stepped over to the terminal, feeling butterflies in hir stomach for only the second time in years. ‘Do I really want to do this?’ shi thought. Becoming the teenage daughter to a couple of anthropomorphic cougars seemed crazy on the face of it. But there was also something very attractive to the idea. To the thought of belonging again.
Shoving hir doubts aside, Shi stepped up to the terminal and hesitantly placed hir hand on the sensor plate. Clearing hir throat, shi recited: “I, Mikki MacLeod, accept Melissa MacLeod and Terri MacKinnon as my parents of record.”
A slightly mechanical voice replied from the terminal. “Adoption application accepted and registered. Mikki MacLeod is registered as the daughter of Melissa MacLeod and Terri MacKinnon in accordance with the recognized customs of the McClaren Cougar clans.”
Terri and Melissa both enfolded Mike in a group hug, joined by Kate, Susan and Chrissy. Melissa and Terri looked at their new daughter and said together, “Welcome to the family, Mikki!”
Mike found hirself too choked up with emotion to reply at once. Practical as always, Terri spoke up. “Kittens, dinner time. Mikki, you can unpack after we've eaten.”
Dinner was the first family meal Mike had eaten in years. Shi had almost forgotten how nice it was to have a quiet (for certain values of ‘quiet’) meal with just immediate family. The kittens were obviously excited to have a new sister at the table and were competing for Mike’s attention in the conversation. Terri was taking the opportunity to get Mike to talk about hirself so that shi could quickly get to know Mike better. Melissa and Kate were carrying on a side conversation about what was going on at ProDyne in Kate’s absence. All noisy and chaotic and cheerful.
At the end of the meal, everyone dumped their dishes and plates into the recycling hatch, where Mike was told edibles were separated from plastics and materials were routed for compost, cleaning or remolding as appropriate. The family retired to the living room, where Terri and Melissa claimed the couch and in turn had their laps claimed by Susan and Chrissy. Kate pulled Mike over to the large overstuffed chair, which turned out to be big enough for two cougar morphs, if they were sufficiently friendly.
The younger kittens were asked about their classes and questioned, drilled or corrected as necessary about their lessons. Kate and the kittens asked their parents for details about their day at work and were apparently genuinely interested in the answers. Terri asked Mike to tell them about hir recent pressure-suit and surface qualification. Afterwards, it was Kate’s turn to choose the video to see that night, so the family watched a documentary on efforts to repopulate extinct species from DNA recovered from museum specimens. This elicited the whispered comment from Chrissy: “Be glad it's not Momma Terri’s turn to choose, or it would be another army movie.” Mike found the segment on the return of the Dodo to be particularly amusing, as the resurrected Dodos turned out to be endearingly awkward little clowns.
It all seemed to Mike to be a little too much like a 1950’s sitcom family to be true, but shi sensed no falseness or awkwardness from the family members. This family was actually this warm and close-knit, and Mike was struck again by hir surprise in how very much shi wanted these people to be hir family.
When the video ended, Terri sat up from the couch where shi had been cuddling hir mate and child. “Time for bed, kits. Brush your teeth and we'll be in to kiss you goodnight in ten minutes. Mikki and Kate, you can of course stay up as long as you like, but please keep the party down to a dull roar. I've got to be up at 0530 to get in for an early formation and inspection.”
Susan and Chrissy groaned and trudged off to the bathroom, while Kate bounced over to hir sire to give hir a hug and lick-kiss.
“ 'Night Momma Terri! Hope everything goes well tomorrow. And thanks!” Shi hugged Terri again and then turned to hug her birth mother. “Goodnight Mom. You two are the best! Sleep well.”
Mike hesitated for a moment. While shi almost desperately wanted to fit into this family, shi had never been the ‘huggy’ sort. Fortunately, Melissa seemed to anticipate Mike’s indecision and took the initiative to wrap her new daughter in a warm hug.
“Good night Mikki, and welcome to the family.”
Terri stepped up to Mike next and embraced hir. “It's good to have you with us, daughter. Sleep well.”
Mike’s eyes began to tear up with emotion again. Shi hadn’t realized how much shi had wanted and needed this family until shi became a part of it.
Kate took Mike’s hand and pulled hir toward their bedroom. “C’mon sis, time to unwind and get some shut-eye. We need to go into ProDyne tomorrow morning, too.”
Once in the bedroom, Mike turned to Kate. “The adoption was your idea, wasn't it?”
“Sort of. Something Reacher said gave me the idea, actually.”
“Thanks.” Shi paused shyly. “I… I hadn't realized how much I needed this. I like your family, Kate.”
“Our family, Mikki. It's official now.”
“OK. I like our family, then. But, why Mikki? Mike has been good enough since I arrived here.”
“True, but since your arrival here was so, um, unusual, everyone thought that we should do everything to help you fit into McClaren society and customs. And the McClaren naming custom is for feminine or androgynous first names. Anyhow, I'll bet you were called Mickey until you were at least twelve years old.”
“Ten, except for my grandmother who called me Mickey until the day she died.” Shi paused again at the memory of hir long dead but much beloved Grandma. Being called Mickey by her had always just seemed right. “Ok, you win. Mikki it is, at least for now. Next question; you… um… we have two sisters with Terri pregnant with another. I thought that Lunar Republic law limited us to one child each.”
“ Mom, Mikki. Call hir Mom or Momma Terri. And it's also Mom, or Momma Melissa. They’re your parents now; relax and enjoy it,” shi said with a playful grin. “Anyhow, while everyone has the constitutional right to have one child, you can apply to the Population, Genetics and Resources Commission to have additional children. The fact that our Moms are licensed to have six children together is a big compliment to them. The Commission thinks that they’re good stock.”
“It's weird to think that I now have parents that are younger than I was. But I’d have to agree that your, er, our parents seem very good stock indeed.”
“Most McClarens manage to qualify to have more than the constitutionally guaranteed one child each. Our species is still very small compared with most morphs, so we need to do more than just make our replacements. I want to qualify to birth at least three, maybe four kittens myself. How about you?” Kate said with another, teasing grin.
“Kittens? Birth?” Mike was speechless for a moment. “I, um… I guess I haven't thought about fathering children in a few decades, and the whole idea of being a mother is just too new to think about.”
Kate giggled. “Don't worry about it, I know you're still learning to be a herm. You've got lots of time to get used to the idea of having kittens yourself, and when you find a mate, shi might want to have the first kitten or two hirself. It's just fun to see you with that ‘deer in the headlights’ look.”
Mike responded by throwing a pillow at Kate, which shi caught easily.
“So, sis, what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” Kate said with a grin.
“Well, I hear ProDyne needs a competent intern in their transporter lab,” shi said, then ducked to avoid the pillow that Kate chucked back at hir. “Seriously, that's the question I've been asking myself…”
Later that evening, Kate was sitting beside Mikki (aka Mike), brushing hir fur as Mikki laid belly-down in just hir fur on the sleeping mat in what was now their room in the MacKinnon-MacLeod family home. Susan and Chrissy were currently sound asleep and curled up with each other on the sleeping mat in what had been the kid's bedroom, exhausted after the excitement of meeting a new big sister. The ‘twins’ had looked in on them a bit earlier, and Mike had been struck by how much the two kits had looked like a pair of domestic kittens napping, in the sort of boneless furpile that only kittens are capable of.
Mike was reflecting that having hir fur brushed was possibly the most pleasurable thing shi’d felt since hir change. ‘Now I understand why Molly liked it so much.’ Thinking of Molly caused Mike to feel a bit wistful for hir dog as she was before, but shi decided to focus instead on how good it felt to have Kate brush hir pelt as shi lay there. ‘It probably helps that Kate would know exactly what feels best to this body,’ shi thought and surprised hirself by starting to purr.
Finishing up with Mike’s tail, Kate said, “There, you're done. Switch places with me and do my fur now.” Shi stripped off the shorts shi’d been wearing and took Mike’s place, belly-down on the sleeping pad.
Mike sat up and took the brush from hir as Kate stretched out on the sleeping pad. As shi started on Kate’s back shi said, “It was awfully nice of your parents to take me in, but it's going to be strange pretending to be a teenager living in my parents’ home again.”
“Don't worry, they don't keep me on a short leash so I'm sure they won't try to treat you like a kid. Of course, it is an opportunity to pick up what you need to know to fit in to the McClaren society and Lunar society as a whole.”
“Did they really adopt me today? It seemed, I don't know… very fast and informal.” Shi pulled a handful of shed fur from the brush and deposited it in the bin next to the bed.
“If you were another species, there might be a more lengthy and complex process,” Kate replied, “but we take care of our own. I guess it dates back to the Gene Wars, when there were so many orphaned McClaren kits and widowed McClaren parents. They tended to band into family units pretty quickly to care for each other and keep our species from going extinct. Oh, our Moms had to take care of some other formalities to make today’s adoption completely legal, but they spent a lot of yesterday doing that.”
“It's going to be strange being called Mikki rather than Mike.”
“You have to start using herm pronouns too, Shir MacLeod.”
“That's going to be almost as weird. I've been he and him all my life. Shi and hir just don't sound right.”
“Ya gotta get used to it, sis,” Kate said with a grin. “Everyone you meet will be calling you shi and hir because that's what you are. Honestly, now that you've had some time to get used to it, is it really all that bad?”
“I guess not, so far, but it still sounds weird to me.” Mike picked some more loose fur from the brush and resumed brushing Kate’s back. “Your… er… our family, Reacher, everyone at ProDyne actually, has been nice to me and are doing everything to help me adjust to, to this.” Shi stopped brushing Kate for a moment to gesture at hir body. “But I still feel human inside and in spite of it all, I…” shi paused, reluctant to say something that might offend hir newly adopted sister, but decided not to end hir first day as Kate’s ‘sister’ with a lie. “I still wish that I could be human again.” Shi resumed brushing Kate’s fur. “And I don't know how long it'll take me to learn to respond to Mikki. It makes me want to turn around to see the girl standing behind me.”
“I'll just have to help you get used to it, Mikki,” Kate replied with an impish grin in hir voice.
“Thanks. I think. And I just thought about it: there's only one sleeping pad in here. Who gets the floor?”
Kate looked at Mike in surprise. “Neither, silly. We share the sleeping pad, of course. Guess I left something out in your McClaren 101 course. While a lot of our genes come from cougars, Dr. McClaren used some African lion genes to help us be social creatures. Where most cats are solitary, we're group creatures and don't like sleeping alone. I've slept with my parents or my sisters all my life.”
“I don't know, I haven't slept with anyone since my wife died.”
“Where did Molly sleep?”
“On the bed with me, of course…”
“Exactly. And did you sleep better or worse when she was with you?”
Mike started to reply, then paused a moment, “Point made. I surrender.”
“It's a smart cat who knows when shi's beaten. I'm tired – let's turn in.” With that, Kate rolled on to her side and curled up into a very feline ball on the sleeping mat.
‘Just pretend shi's a big house cat’, Mike thought as shi lookedg down at Kate. ‘I really haven't been sleeping all that well. Maybe this is what I needed.’ Curling up next to Kate, back to back, Mike said, “Lights out!” to the apartment A.I. and closed hir eyes. While the lights dimmed, the sleeping pad automatically adjusted the grav plates down to one third Earth normal, which made the thin pad a more comfortable bed than any mattress on Earth. Between the low-grav softness of the sleeping pad and the warm comfort of the furry body next to hir, Mikki drifted off to a deep sleep in minutes.
Pete felt silly, partly dangling from a steel cable as he practiced moving over the sandy surface of the training room. Fully suited up in his pressure suit and helmet, EVA pack and the combat harness holding his ammunition and other ordinance, and carrying his weapon, he weighed almost twice what he normally did. The cable took up the necessary five sixths of his total weight to simulate Lunar gravity. Admittedly, this did help him begin to learn the difference between weight and mass in his reflexes, but only awkwardly and imperfectly. Most of the time he felt like a clumsy marionette rather than the space soldier that the HLA was trying to train. Since grav plates could reduce gravity as well as increase it, he had wondered why they didn’t simply put enough of them under the floor of the training area and give them the real experience. Fortunately, he’d been smart enough not to ask Sergeant Chavez that question. Eric however, hadn’t been.
“Walker, this training room is almost a hundred meters on a side. Do you have any idea how much power would be required to produce a gravity field that big and that strong? Of course you don't.” He looked at Eric like he was something that just crawled out from under a rock. “And do you have any idea just how obvious a field like that would be? Why don't we just shoot up flares on the surface and put out a big holo-sign that says ‘Hidden training facility here’?”
His basilisk gaze worked its way around the room, challenging anyone else to doubt his words. “Anyone else here think that our reduced gravity simulation training isn’t good enough for them?” No one in the room was willing to breathe, let alone voice objections to the tough little sergeant. “Didn’t think so. Walker – two hours extra duty tonight. The rest of you finish hooking up and we'll get started.”
Dismissing the memory, Pete attempted another jump over a simulated crevasse. This time, he managed to clear the obstacle and landed on his feet. Still, he wondered if the moving cable system that helped simulate Lunar gravity wasn’t what helped him stay upright, rather than his own reflexes and sense of balance.
“I came as soon as I got your message, sir,” Kris Pike said as he stopped in front of the desk of the Chief of H1 operations on Luna. The heavyset, older man waved Pike into the visitor’s chair next to him.
“I've just returned from a meeting with a representative of the Humans First Central Committee, Mr. Pike. They’re not happy with our proposed solution to the problem of the former human traitor and its uplifted animal.”
“In what way, sir?”
“They believe that we are treating this affair far too lightly,” Thurston replied with a grimace. “They want to make an example of not only the traitorous human and the uplifted animal, but ProDyne and Conradsville as well. Luna must be taught that supporting or tolerating crimes against humanity like this comes with a heavy price.”
“That could be a tall order for one Special Action team, sir. Especially if they still want the targets taken alive for a public example.”
“I concur. Your job is to get the HLA SS to provide another team to assist. And I want you to procure a large enough shuttle to get the targets and the teams off Luna afterwards.”
“Moving another whole team up here will make it nearly impossible to meet the operations schedule. And obtaining the additional equipment…”
“The Committee was quite definite on this issue, Pike, which in turn leaves us little choice. I don't much care how you do it, but your job is to make it happen!”
“Yes sir,” the deputy chief of H1 operations on Luna replied, looking unhappy. “We'll do everything we can to make it work.”
“Good. Then I'll let you go to make a start on it,” his senior said in dismissal.
Mike woke to the soft birdsong of the room's alarm clock. Shi was curled up against a furry body about hir size, with hir arm around it. Kate, of course, Mike realized, as to hir chagrin, hir hand was cupping a furry breast. Hir face was mostly in Kate’s hair and all shi could see was that and one furry, pointed ear. But what was cuddled up to hir back? Mike raised hir head and turned it to see that two furry bodies were snuggled up to hir, one small and the other smaller. Susan and Chrissy, of course – Mike was in the center of a sisterly fur-pile. The two kittens must have missed having Kate with them and snuck into Kate and Mike’s room sometime during the night. Embarrassed at finding hirself holding the other 'Cougar like shi used to cuddle hir late wife, Mike carefully moved hir hand off of Kate’s breast, trying not to wake hir.
“Mmmmm.” Kate yawned, “I wanna sleep a while more.”
“Noooo!” Chrissy climbed over Mike to bounce on Kate. “I want breakfast!”
“So get it yourself, squirt,” Kate said and pulled a pillow over hir head.
“Momma Terri says I can't get the milk out of the 'fridge by myself, so you hafta do it for me.”
“That's cause you dropped a two liter jug and got it all over the floor the last time you tried,” Susan said from behind Mike. “I want breakfast too, so I'll get it for hir.” She got up and pulled on a pastel blue day robe as Chrissy dashed for the door in just hir fur. Hir tail was just disappearing around the door as Susan called out to hir, “Mom says you're supposed to put on your robe to go to breakfast.”
“Don't wanna!” Chrissy's voice came back from the hall.
“Kittens!” Susan said, as she stalked out the door with all the superior dignity of a pre-teen regarding a mere child.
“Drat! Now I'm too awake to go back to sleep. Welcome to the MacKinnon-MacLeod madhouse.” Shi gave Mike a sleepy grin, sat up and stretched.
Mikki lay on hir back, enjoying the view. ‘Shi's such a beautiful creature. Do I really look like that?’
Finishing hir stretch, Kate picked out a floral patterned housedress from the closet and pulled it on over hir head.
“I thought that morphs didn't bother much with clothing in private?”
“Actually we don't, but most young furs don't want to wear any clothing at all, which can cause some friction with humans. So we have to teach our kits to get used to clothing. Our Moms decided that breakfast will be our clothing-mandatory meal, because otherwise Chrissy used to streak out to see her friends in just her fur afterwards.”
“Actually, breakfast sounds good.” Mike got up and stretched, then bent over and touched hir palms to the floor. It felt so good to be young and flexible again! The T-shirt and shorts that Mike had worn the previous day were already in the laundry hamper, so Mike reluctantly pulled on the uncomfortably feminine ‘Hello Kitty’ nightshirt and followed Kate out, to be met by Susan pulling a chastened Chrissy into their bedroom.
“Told ya, squirt. Momma Melissa’s not gonna let you come to breakfast in just your fur anymore.”
“I'm not a squirt! I'm six now and going to school and everything.” Ears back and tail lashing back and forth, the kitten punctuated hir statement by sticking out hir tongue at Susan.
“You're a squirt as long as you don't listen to our Moms and don't put your robe on to go to breakfast,” shi shot back.
Mike reflected that Susan was taking strongly after hir birth mother and wondered if shi would follow Terri into the military. Then, distracted by the aroma of ham, eggs and hash browns, Mike followed Kate into the kitchen for hir first breakfast with hir new family.
In another part of the same housing complex, another family was having a different morning discussion.
“I don't understand. If she used to be a dog and she doesn’t have any parents here, why can't we adopt her?” Tonya looked up at her mother stubbornly from her breakfast, returning to the subject yet again. “It's not fair for her to have to stay in the hospital forever when she’s not even sick.”
Maria opened her mouth to repeat her explanation of why they couldn’t just take Molly home like a stray puppy, then stopped. ‘Why couldn’t we? The poor girl had to stay somewhere, and many of the arguments Kate had made for taking Mike home certainly applied to Molly as well. And admit it Maria, you really want to have the girl with you and Tonya.’
“Maybe you're right, mon petit. I'll have a talk with Dr. Hoffmann today. Now finish your breakfast, and go before you're late for school.”
“Actually, that might not be a bad idea,” Dr. Hoffmann replied thoughtfully to Maria as he leaned back in his office chair. “Dr. Elbeth and I were discussing what would be the best path forward for Molly just yesterday and having a trusted staff family foster her seemed one of the best alternatives. I know Reacher is on board with the idea as well.”
“I think that Molly will rapidly integrate much of Tonya’s residual memories if exposed to a familiar environment,” Dr. Elbeth continued. “Familiar to Tonya, I mean.”
Reacher turned away from gazing meditatively at the view of the lunar landscape outside Dr. Hoffmann’s window and spoke up, “The question that concerns me is that if Molly integrates that much of Tonya’s memories, will she remain herself, of simply be an imperfect echo of Tonya?”
“That was Dr. Kalan’s concern as well; we discussed the matter at length during our consultations. Our belief is that Molly will eventually integrate much of Tonya’s memories, with or without help. Our fear is that, unassisted, the dual sets of memories will make Molly unstable, perhaps even completely insane, believing that she is Tonya.” Hy toyed with the PADD in hys hands to review hys notes for a moment, then went on. “We believe that the best approach would be to have Molly live with Tonya and Maria while I continue therapy sessions with her. This way, her relationship with Tonya will aid in Molly integrating her memories while reminding her that she is not Tonya. If Maria had not offered to take Molly in to her home, we were going to propose it ourselves.”
“That still leaves the question of how to reintroduce Molly to Mike,” Reacher said. “I believe that shi would have a positive effect on Molly in the long run and I'm sure that it would do a lot to help Mike adjust.”
“Perhaps it would be best if we waited on that reintroduction until Dr. Kalan can return to Luna,” Elbeth replied. “Kalan and I together have a much better chance of making the meeting a success and both Molly and Mike have much to occupy them until then.”
“Sounds sensible,” Dr. Hoffmann concluded. “We'll make arrangements for Molly to go home with Maria today, and I'll adjust Colleen’s schedule to allow her to continue tutoring Molly.”
Richard Thurston looked up from his desk on hearing the tapping on his door. “Come in and sit down, Kris.”
The Deputy chief of H1 operations on Luna chose his usual chair near the sideboard but did not presume to serve himself from the coffee carafe there.
“And I hope you have come to tell me that you have a plan to penetrate the ProDyne facility.”
“That is the other reason I came here today, sir. I believe that one of the reasons that our contact in ProDyne isn’t as effective as we might like is that their motivation is merely financial. That agent is unaware of their actual employer and thinks that the info is being bought by Lockheed-Boeing. I have an agent applying for a position there who is motivated by belief rather than credits. That won't be adequate for any serious ‘wet work’; those damned chakats would sense our people’s hostility and intent. Still, it will significantly increase our intelligence capabilities there.”
“A good move but not enough, Pike.”
“I have some good news for you then, sir. HLA Headquarters has decided that ‘this obscene affront to humanity cannot stand’. Their exact words. To start, they’re detailing a Special Services strike team to capture or liquidate the targets and end this problem, once and for all.”
“An entire strike team? Twelve operatives? Won't that attract attention?”
“Not divided into four shuttle flights spread out over a week. Their special equipment will be arriving separately by freight shuttle in a shipment of mining equipment. Nothing to attract undue attention. The SS scout team will be arriving in about a week; the full strike team will follow over the next month.”
“Excellent. I'm happy to hear that the Human Liberation Army is going to give this the priority it deserves.”
Pike smiled coldly, “And I look forward working with them, sir.”
“Guess what, Molly,” Colleen said cheerfully. “You're going home with Maria today. She wants you to live with her and Tonya for a while. You can be like twin sisters.”
Molly’s face brightened. “Yes! I’d like that!” Then her expression changed to one of concern. “But I don't want to leave you. Can you come with me?”
Colleen’s jaw dropped slightly in a canine smile. “Afraid not, little one.” Seeing Molly’s face fall, she went on. “But I'm still going to be teaching you, so I'll be seeing you for several hours every day. And Tonya will be with you every day after school.”
“Won't I be going to school with Tonya? You said I'm a human now and Tonya told me that human girls have to go to school.”
“They do,” Maria said as she walked through the door followed by Tonya, “but you will need a little more time with Colleen to catch up before you can join them, ma petite.”
“Maria!” Molly jumped off of the bed and ran to her, hugging her and trying to lick her face.
“No, no, ma petite,” Maria said with a touch of amusement in her voice, “how do humans greet each other?”
If Molly still had a tail, it would be down. “I forgot. Sorry.”
“It's ok Molly,” Tonya interjected, “it's not like you tried to sniff her butt or anything.”
“Tonya! Is that a nice thing to say?”
“But Mom, that's what dogs do! I saw it on a nature show. Isn’t that so, Ms. Colleen?”
The Collie-morph hesitated for a moment, seemingly torn between offense and amusement. Amusement won. “Do you think I’d know firsthand? Dogs sniff each other’s behinds, but not we morphs. The fur would get up my nose,” she teased.
Now it was Tonya’s turn to look abashed. “No! I meant… I just thought… You saw that show too, didn’t you?”
“No, but I know they do. My family had pet dogs when I was a pup. It's okay, Tonya – I was just teasing you.”
Molly listened to the exchange with puzzlement and growing embarrassment, remembering closely scenting other dogs in the normal canine greeting. Was that wrong? Did her new friends like her less for it? Did they scorn her for still wanting to give them dog-style lick-kisses? For the first time, Molly felt the beginnings of shame for her origins. Being human was hard – would she ever master it? And even if she did, would other humans ever fully accept her as one of them?
It took only a couple of minutes to pack the few bits of clothes that Molly had acquired and, once it was finished, she found herself fearful at leaving what she had come to regard as her den. “Are you sure you can't come with me,” she pleaded.
“You'll be back here tomorrow for me to give you your lessons,” Colleen replied gently. “I think Marie and Tonya can take good care of you until then.” She hugged the girl and kissed the top of her head. “Be good for Maria.”
“Come my little ones,” Maria said cheerfully. “We need to buy a few things for Molly before we go home.” Tonya took Molly’s hand and eagerly tugged her out the door.
The shopping mall was an entirely new experience for Molly. In her former life, she had never ridden in anything but Mike’s car and never been allowed into a shopping mall. The 'tube was just noisy and crowded and reminded her a little of riding in a car, but this! Molly stood in the entranceway, blocking traffic. She was riveted to the spot, looking, listening and trying vainly to scent her surroundings. Molly had accepted superior human color vision as a fair trade for inferior human hearing but still deeply missed her canine sense of smell. Fortunately, both Maria and Tonya had one of her hands and pulled her out of the flow of traffic.
“What were you going to buy for Molly, Mother?”
“For today, I think just underwear and the like. You have more than enough other clothing to share with your sister for a few days, and I have to get home to my desk and finish up some work.”
“Do we havta come with you for that? I'll bet Molly would like to go play in the fountain pool.”
That distracted Molly from gawking around at the multi-level shopping mall and the hundreds of humans and morphs busily moving about.
“Yes, I like swimming! Please!” Molly said and managed a very credible puppy-dog-eyes look up at Maria.
Maria laughed. “Yes, girls, but stay in the fountain outside Walmart-Dimmeys, so I know where to find you.”
Tonya gave her mother a hug and dragged Molly off to the fountain and its wading pool that was already partly filled with splashing and laughing children of all species. Molly loved the water as a dog and eagerly splashed into the knee-high water.
“Wait! Molly you can't go in with your clothes on.” Tonya was removing her shirt and stowing it in a low wall of cubbyholes that lined one side of the pool.
Sheepishly, Molly ran back to the wall, picked an empty space and practically tore her clothes off and ran to the pool.
“Molly! Not all of them! You need to leave your underpants on.”
Molly looked around, embarrassed once again by her unfamiliarity with basic human customs. Sure enough, while most morph children wore only fur, all the humans were wearing at least underpants with a few even having actual bathing suits. Blushing brightly, the girl turned back to retrieve the required garment.
As she was leaving the pool, a human girl in a bathing suit looked scornfully at her. “Where’s your swim suit? Only animals like them go naked in the pool.” She pointed at a group of morph children playing in the fountain.
Tonya stalked up to stand beside Molly. “You leave my sister alone.”
“You're not much better,” the girl sneered. “Wearing just your panties in public. Isn’t anyone here civilized? Back home, the police would arrest you all for this.”
“Then you must live in a really awful place!”
“Louisiana isn’t an awful place! At least there we wouldn’t have to share a pool with those animals.”
“Some of those animals are my friends!” Tonya shot back, hotly.
“I'm not surprised, since your sister acts like them!” the other girl huffed back, hands on hips.
Molly didn’t fully understand the cause of the argument with the other girl, but recognized her behavior as a dominance challenge. She had never backed down from one when she was a dog and saw no reason to start now. Tensing her body to spring, she bared her teeth and began to growl.
Tonya’s retort died in her throat as she she realized that Molly was about to attack the other girl, she grabbed Molly’s arm.
“See, she’s just like those gene-joke animals!” the strange girl asserted triumphantly.
Stung and embarrassed by the accusation, Tonya was about to make a heated retort when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and hear her mother’s voice.
“What’s going on here, girls?”
All three girls began to shout at once.
“She started it!”
“They’re acting like animals…”
“She’s being mean and…”
“QUIET! Now one at a time. Tonya, what’s going on…”
“What are you doing with my daughter!” an angry voice interjected. A tall, rather fat, over-dressed woman with a most un-Loonie tan stood behind them all with her arms crossed over her breasts.
“I'm not doing anything to your daughter,” Maria replied evenly, but with a hint of warning in her voice. “Why is she picking on my daughters?”
“I would think that would be obvious to any civilized person,” the woman said coldly. “Not only is one in just her underwear, the other one is as completely naked as those animals my daughter is forced to share the pool with. Back home the lot of you would be arrested for indecency at the very least!”
“This isn’t your home, and fortunately we are more civilized than wherever you call home. Those animals, as you call them, are people and Lunar citizens with the same rights as the rest of us.” She glared at the other woman, “Maybe you should have stayed in the HCKNA where you obviously came from.”
The other woman sniffed disdainfully. “Maybe I should have. Luna is obviously no place for moral, civilized human beings.” She held out her hand to her daughter. “Maribelle, we're going back to the hotel to wash the smell of this refuse off of us.” The two of them turned their backs to Maria and her girls and stalked off.
“Well! A good thing I came back to ask you what colors you like, Molly. I'm sorry you met such rude people your first time out, ma petite.” She sighed, “Some of the tourists we get from Earth bring their prejudices along with them.”
Tonya had hung her head after looking looking up fearfully, like a dog expecting a scolding from its master. She looked up at Maria with tears in her eyes. “Is it bad to be an animal?”
“Oh, Molly!” Maria enfolded the girl in a hug. “Don't pay attention to them. Some people from Earth just have stupid attitudes about morphs.”
Molly looked down and sniffled as her tears returned. “Not morphs. They keep saying animals, like I was when I was a dog. I thought humans liked dogs.”
Maria gently put her hand under the upset girl’s chin and lifted Molly’s face to look into hers. “Molly, we love you, whatever you used to be.” Molly hugged Maria tightly and buried her face in the woman’s chest for comfort.
Wanting to distract Molly from her unpleasant experience, Tonya touched Molly on the shoulder. “Here put these on and lets go into the fountain and play with those kids.” She held out Molly’s panties and gestured to a group of morph and human children running in and out of the pool’s central fountain.
“Yes, Molly, they look like a nice group. Why don't you go play with them while I finish shopping?” She paused, remembering the reason she'd returned. “And what are your favorite colors?”
Molly hesitated. Now that the awful girl and her mother were gone, the fountain and the other children playing in it once again looked enticing. As she pulled on her underpants she said, “I don't know. I see so many more colors now that I can't choose. Get one of each!”
“I will,” she chuckled indulgently. “Now go and have fun!”
The girls ran off into the pool to join the other kids splashing around. Molly had so much fun there that afterwards, she decided even the feline morph kids were pretty nice.
Dinner that evening was another learning experience for Molly. As a dog, she had had her own food bowl in a corner of Mike’s kitchen. In the ProDyne infirmary, she had her own food tray, where Connie and Maria had taught her to use plates, cups and utensils. None of this had prepared her for a dinner table, where serving dishes were shared but individual plates held food for only one person. After a few awkward incidents though, the girl began to grasp the concept, much to the relief of her foster mother and sister.
Afterwards, once the dishes were recycled, Maria announced an early bedtime.
“Tonya has to go back to school tomorrow and you'll be coming to work with me so Connie can continue your lessons. Besides,” she said with an indulgent smile, “I remember being your age myself. I know the two of you are going to are going to keep each other up talking for hours your first night together.”
Despite Tonya’s protestations, the girls were soon rushed through face washing and tooth brushing and Molly was given one of the new nighties that Maria had bought that afternoon. After programming the girl’s bedroom to extrude an additional bed and adding a pad, blanket and pillow, Maria kissed both children goodnight and turned down the room lights and gravity. And while the girls did indeed stay up for a while talking, the excitement of the day had tired them out, and they soon fell asleep.
“Mr. Thurston, the uplifted animal has been spotted out of the ProDyne facility. One of our people’s wife and daughter had an encounter with them.”
The older man looked up irritably. “And I hope you have come to tell me that you have taken steps to end its blight on the rest of humanity.”
“Regrettably, no sir. We had no warning from any our contacts, even the one inside ProDyne. It was sheer chance that one of our agent’s wife noticed and reported them to us. Our contact is only one person working one shift there. We need to get more of our people inside if we're to have complete and timely intelligence from inside. However, our contact inside ProDyne was able to learn that the other target has moved out of the hospital but is still living in the ProDyne private pressure facility.”
“I want you to keep trying to get a reliable, committed agent into ProDyne. It's essential we keep track of both of them. I had a back-channel message that an HLA direct action team trained for Lunar operations will be infiltrated here within two months. Perhaps earlier.”
“Atten-HUT!” The room was filled with the sounds of chairs scraping the floor, people hurriedly standing up, putting down various items and bringing their booted feet together, then silence disturbed only by the footsteps of a man walking to the front of the conference room.
“As you were! Take seats,” the General ordered, then stood in front of the viewscreen, immediately dominating the room.
Kevin, Pete, and the rest of his team reclaimed their seats and waited attentively as did everyone else there. While they might be jaded enough to court showing disrespect to some of their instructors, it seemed inconceivable to do so to the General.
“Congratulations, gentlemen and ladies,” he nodded to the women of the team. “As the highest-scoring members in our first training class, you have been chosen to graduate early and take on our first operational mission.” He paused just long enough to look every one of them in the eye.
Being the veteran that he was, Pete realized that graduating early for a mission was going to be an uncomfortable honor and likely an exceptionally dangerous one. Surreptitiously looking at the other members of his old team, he was sure the others had the same feeling. The remainder of the new team, also being veterans, had the same look, except for Lieutenant O’Connor, the designated Leader of Pete’s special action team. O’Connor had the zealously eager look of the True Believer. Or, at the very least, the newly-minted and overly enthusiastic, junior officer. After a few years of missions under his belt, Pete had come to hate that look. Officers looking for medals were the quickest way for the grunts to end up with a bad case of dead.
“While it's been kept out of the news, an atrocity against all humanity has been committed in the Lunar Republic. A laboratory there has not only started turning humans into soulless morphs, but they have twisted a mere animal into the semblance of a human!” He paused for a moment to let the news fully sink in to his audience. “Our H1 comrades on Luna have uncovered this abomination, and have called upon us to aid them to rectify this insult to the human race. Lieutenant O’Connor!”
The eager junior officer jumped to his feet and came to attention. “Yes Sir!”
“Your teams will be infiltrated into the city-warren of Conradsville in the Lunar Republic and link up with the SS advance team that will be already in place there. Once you are all there and have received your equipment and weapons, you will proceed to capture or kill the formerly-human morph and the uplifted animal. If feasible, you will bring them back alive for interrogation and appropriate public execution to discourage others from following their example. Further, you will cause sufficient collateral damage to Conradsville and the ProDyne facilities to serve as an object lesson to the entire Solar system. They must get the message that humanity will not tolerate a repeat of the sort of mistakes that brought about the Gene Wars.”
“Excellent. You will receive an updated briefing once you arrive on the moon, but here is the operational plan to date.” The General gestured towards the holoscreen and a map of the Copernicus crater appeared, showing Conradsville and its spaceport, airlocks and other points of tactical interest.
“On the west side of the crater, at about 9 o'clock, you can see the main airlock to the ProDyne labs…”
As shi helped clear away the remains of breakfast, Mike asked, “So what’s on the schedule for today?”
“We're going to be busy. We're going to start here by resuming your McClaren’s Cougar 101 course,” Kate said with a teasing grin. “Then, this afternoon we're going over the ProDyne offices for you to talk to Reacher about your future. I think shi's gonna give you the ‘what do you wanna be when you grow up, kitten?’ talk.”
Mike made a face. “Does that include a ‘birds and bees’ lecture?”
“Nope, that you get from me as part of ‘McClaren’s 101’. Did you know that when you're embarrassed, the insides of your ears blush pink?”
“What? How do you know that?”
“ 'Cause mine do, of course. Come on, let's go back to our room and get started. You're going to meet your maker today,” shi said with a grin.
Once Kate and Mike walked into their bedroom, Kate used hir PADD to activate part of the smart wall to act as a viewing screen. “I want to start by introducing you to our designer, ancestor and father, Dr. John Christopher McClaren. ‘JC’ to his friends. This is the recording he made to introduce the rest of his video journals.” Shi touched the PADD and a video recording began to play. A slender man in his early 60s with graying brown hair and pale blue eyes began to speak.
“As you probably know, I'm John C. McClaren, the genetic engineer who designed the genome for the felinoid anthropomorphic species that has come to be known as the McClaren’s Cougar. If you're watching this, most likely you're one of that species, and to you I say: Greetings beloved daughter. I've selected the recordings you are about to watch from my private journal as the most important to understanding not just what you are, but why…”
Over the next few hours, Mike watched the recordings of Dr. McClaren's journal entries, outlining his design decisions:
“My intent from the beginning was not to bring just another war-beast into the world, but to create a companion race for mankind who could stand beside us in peacetime as well as war. Your mothers and sisters have fulfilled this dream beyond my greatest expectations…”
“As irregular is it may be, I started the genetic design based on my DNA, adding to or changing it as necessary to produce the characteristics required, rather than starting with an animal’s DNA and adding just enough human genes as needed. I did this, not because I considered myself to be such a superior being, but because I felt that if I were going to play god with a genome to produce a sapient species, the only one I had the right to play god with was my own. While I received considerable criticism for my decision, I firmly believe it was the correct one. I used to regret never having children in either of my marriages, but my morph daughters have more than made up for that. I have a bigger family now than I ever imagined…”
Highlighting his joy at holding his first kittens:
“Since the mountain lion we used as a surrogate mother has rejected the kittens after birth, we have been hand feeding them around the clock. This morning the one I was feeding opened her eyes and looked up at me. After a moment of gazing into each other’s eyes, she began to purr and she fell asleep on my chest. I couldn’t bear to disturb her, so I just held her there until she woke up again…”
His trials and triumphs in raising a pack of adolescent morphs:
“They’ve been good kids as a rule; smart, inventive, playful, usually obedient and eager to please. But they’re going through puberty now, and as hermaphrodites, they’re experiencing both male and female puberty at the same time. I've watched them go from sweet child to angry rebel boy to angsty teen girl in one two minute conversation. Maybe if I’d had children in one of my marriages I’d know how to handle these mood swings. And worse, they’re discovering sex and I have no realistic way to control that. It's not as if I can segregate them into boys and girls dormitories. Any time any two of them are together, there's the possibility of sex, and of course the pregnancies that they’re too young to be ready for. I'm going to have to give them the ‘birds and the bees’ talk soon and probably arrange for some form of birth control. I wish the English language had pronouns for hermaphrodites. When they were kittens, I got into the habit of thinking of them as female and referring to them that way. Now that they’re growing up, their personalities show their male side as clearly as their female side and I don't feel completely right about calling them ‘she’ or ‘her’. And I absolutely refuse to refer to my kittens as ‘it’…”
His joy at seeing his children become adults:
“Two of my oldest, Sarah and Dana, came to me a few weeks ago to ask how they can get married. Since I designed them to mature faster than humans, as required in the committee’s design specifications, they would be too young for this by human standards. Still, they aren’t human and maturing early enough to be quickly bred and trained as soldiers also means that they mature early for other, more pleasant things. Today we had their marriage ceremony, the first of my kits to do so, but I suspect that the rest will soon follow. Since most human marriage customs assume male and female partners, we had to improvise on some things…”
And his feelings on becoming a ‘grandfather’:
“Dana gave birth last night to our first second-generation kitten, Joanna. Sarah and Dana said they named her after me. We have twenty-six other kittens in the crèche right now, all born to mountain lion or Canadian cougar host-mothers, but this kitten is special. It's hard to describe what I felt when holding that small, fuzzy, mewling kitten, its eyes still closed tight against the outside world. My children are having children of their own; I'm a grandfather…”
His entry comparing his cougar-morphs with the competing timber-wolf morphs created in the same experimental facility took on a different tone. The wolf-morphs were designed by a competing team to be super-soldiers, but without the human-social concerns Dr. McClaren had for his cougar morphs. The following entry was more disturbing as Dr. McClaren clearly showed his distress when the timber-wolf morphs are determined to be a failure and are destroyed as too aggressive and too hard to discipline and control.
“It was very hard to watch the euthanizing of the timber-wolf morphs, in spite of their vicious behavior over the past two years. After the mauling death of Dr. Andrews and two of his assistants though, the Director decided that he had no choice. While this means that my cougar morphs are now the clear and only choice for the completion of the project, it was a tragic loss for us all.”
“My decision to make my cougar-morphs people first and soldiers second has been vindicated, but I take no joy in ‘winning’ the competition. Jack Andrews was a good friend and I will miss him…”
His concern for the future of his children:
“My first generation of cougars has passed their basic and advanced military training as of yesterday, and will be integrated into the Fourth Infantry Division as independent scout platoons in their Recon Battalion. I'm deeply proud of them and their accomplishments in training. Their training officers I spoke with had nothing but praise for them. I find that my only regret in creating my cougars is that they are to be soldiers, and inevitably will be put in harm’s way should war come to our country. Perhaps even worse are the implications of the growing tensions between humans and morphs throughout the world. Certainly, while my daughters are accepted well enough by their human military comrades, many other people have come to hate and fear morphs, even here in Canada. And while my daughters seem to have no resentment of their position as soldiers in human society; many, perhaps most other morphs resent their status as property. I fear this cannot end well. The history of chattel slavery in our neighbor to the south was filled with blood, pain and hate, and ended with the deaths of many thousands, followed by more than a century of prejudice and mistrust on both sides. Will my daughters be called upon to fight and kill other morphs who merely want the freedoms that humans take for granted? And will they, if ordered to do so?”
Late in the afternoon, they watched the final entry in the journals: a farewell recorded by Dr. McClaren just before he went to Hoover Dam in the early days of the Gene War.
“This may well be my final entry in this journal. Events of the past months show that the conflict is spiraling out of control. When I finish recording this, I will add it to the rest of my of my journal and upload it to my daughters in the Cougar units in Moose Jaw, Gander Lake and Tycho bases, with the original copy in my safe here at the facility. My hope is fading that reason may still prevail and that this war might be avoided. I'm going to join the morph forces gathering at Hoover Dam. If war does come, I choose to stand with my children and their morph cousins.
God bless you all.”
As the image faded out, Mike found hirself wiping tears from hir eyes and looked over to Kate. “I understand now. I wish I could have met him; I feel like I've gained and then lost a second father in one afternoon.”
“You have Mike. He’s a father to all of us.”
“Call me Mikki. It's a good name for a McClaren’s Cougar.”
As he occasionally did to his boss’s irritation, Group Leader Pike entered the office so quietly that Thurston didn’t notice him until he spoke.
“The first three members of the SS strike team advance party have arrived. One of them is the team leader.”
“Nice to get some good news for a change. Any issues I should know about?” Thurston, of course, hadn’t asked to meet the strike team. His position in the legal and public arm of the ‘Humans First’ movement precluded any contact with the underground and highly illegal ‘Human Liberation Army’ forces, especially the infamous ‘Special Services’ units.
“None as yet. They’ve rented rooms in a transient hotel near the spaceport. There are enough comings and goings there to mask the team’s presence there for a few weeks.”
“Excellent. Keep me informed of their progress.”
Reacher looked at the two cougar morphs in front of her, one in a dress and the other in shorts and a T-shirt. Shi smiled and addressed the one in shorts and a T-shirt, “So Mike, what do you want to do when you grow up?”
“It's Mikki now, Reacher, and I don't know yet.”
Reacher looked at Mikki for a long moment, “I'm glad to hear it Mikki,” and enfolded hir in a hug. Then releasing hir, the chakat stepped back and sat on hir haunches. “But what do you want to do with your new life? You're going to have to learn new skills and earn new credentials, since you obviously can't use your old ones here and now. ProDyne systems is willing to take you on as an intern and pay your tuition for a degree if you like. If you want to live on Terra, we're willing to pay your way there and provide tuition subsidy and a living stipend there.”
Mikki didn’t have to think long before answering; shi had been thinking about just that question ever since shi admitted to hirself that this was reality and not some sort of weird dream.
“Could I talk with Karl? I understand that he’s in the Lunar Defense Forces.”
“No problem.” Shi looked up at the camera visible in the corner of the room. “Dora, where’s Karl now?”
Dora’s voice responded from the ceiling, “High-energy physics Lab C. I'll direct Mikki there.”
“You could have just asked Colonel MacKinnon at home, you know. Shi's way senior to me and a full-time member.” The big wolf morph leaned back against the workbench, careful not to disturb the equipment cluttered behind him and regarded Mikki speculatively, “I'm just a reserve Senior Sergeant, you know.”
“It's not that I don't trust hir.” Shi looked him in the eye earnestly, “Hell, I know I can trust Terri, Kate and Melissa with my life. It's just that, well, shi's a fairly senior officer and they have a different take on things than the NCOs. In my past career, I always found that the Sergeants at company level had the best grunt’s-eye view idea of what was really going on.”
“So you want to talk with one of us grunts before you bring it up with your new Mom, eh?” The big wolf-morph grinned. “You really were a veteran back home, weren’t you?”
“Twenty-one years and three combat tours, before I was medically retired.”
“Thought so; you’ve got that odd mix of adrenaline-junkie eagerness and I've-been-burned-before caution that I've seen in other vets. You know that you can't even apply to join until we get your legal status sorted out.”
Shi nodded, “Yeah, Mike Thompson doesn’t exist and Mikki MacLeod is sort of a semi-fictitious person right now. Reacher says Dr. Hoffman is working on getting me legal resident status with the Lunar Republic. The good news there is that just my adoption by Melissa and Terri is probably enough to do it.”
“The Doc probably could have managed it eventually anyhow. What he can't do is get you granted Lunar citizenship.”
“I know, I've been reading up on this place. But a hitch in the Lunar Defense Forces would be the fastest way to earn my citizenship, as I understand it.”
“Clever kitty. So, what do you want to know about our little army?”
“Everything, wolf boy.” Shi grinned at having finally come up with a retort to Karl calling hir ‘kitty’. “Tell it to me like I was one of your junior NCOs.”
Over the next hour or so, the two traded war stories and got to know each other better. Mike told Karl about being a soldier in the 21st century and Karl shared his experiences in the Lunar Defense Forces, and then those of growing up in a morph ghetto in the HCKNA.
“Holy Christian Kingdom of North America, my ass. Two out of four ain't bad, I guess. It's a Kingdom and it's in North America, but it sure as hell isn't holy and no one outside of the HCKNA would ever call it Christian.”
“I thought that morphs were guaranteed equal rights under UNTWG law.”
“Certainly we are, and the Kingdom is very good at keeping us down without ever quite crossing the line in their written laws. But if you ever decide to visit there, I have one bit of advice: Don't.” He grimaced. “Lots of unwritten laws that apply to us morphs, to keep us in our place. Segregated morph housing, jobs reserved for humans only, morph sections in the back of public transit, separate public toilets; all unofficial but very real. Some places, they even make 'taurs cover up their lower torso or get arrested for public indecency! Did you know that Humans First is a major political party there? Or that most of the Human Liberation Army’s SS is recruited from there?”
“SS? I thought that was something from Nazi Germany.”
“It stands for Special Services; their SpecOps and dirty tricks branch. I think they chose the name because they like the association with the old Nazi SS units. Ironic, because Germany is one of the most civilized and tolerant places in United Europe today.”
“Much the same where I came from. I loved my deployments to Germany – nice people, beautiful scenery, great beer.”
“Speaking of beer, it's about quitting time here. Join me for a couple, Mikki? There a pretty good watering hole not far outside the facility.”
“Sounds good. What’s it called?”
“The Watering Hole, as it happens. C’mon, I'll buy the first round.”
Just outside Prodyne facility pressure there was a small commercial area, a dome in the lunar rock over a hundred meters in diameter and almost thirty meters high at the center, formed from a naturally occurring bubble in an ancient lava flow. A mid-day skyscape was projected onto the dome, with white, fluffy clouds drifting across it. A number of bars, restaurants and small shops lined the circumference of the dome with a number of small stalls and kiosks in the center. Karl led Mikki to an entrance partly hidden by a stand of potted bamboo and shrubbery with a holographic sign over the door proclaiming it to be ‘The Watering Hole’.
Once inside, The Watering Hole turned out to be a bar and restaurant with a faux-jungle motif, catering to the predator-derived morph crowd. The two took a small booth, partly screened from the rest of the room by a potted stand of elephant grass. After ordering a pitcher of Heinekens, the two resumed their discussion.
“So, what do you want to do until your legal status is completely settled? You don't strike me as the sort to just sit on your thumbs waiting. Want to go for some advanced surface certifications? Those would be useful if you do decide to go for the Defense Forces later.”
Mikki took another sip of hir beer. “I think I’d like that. Who would I have to see?”
“You're looking at him, kitty. I'm the Surface Ops Training NCO for the 64th Surface Warfare Battalion, Ground Defense Forces Reserve. Senior Sergeant Blackpaw, at your service.”
“But I'm not in the Ground Defense Forces. Isn’t that a problem?”
“Nope. Part of my section’s mission is surface training and certification for civilians. Good practice for us while increasing the public’s ability to respond to a moonquake or meteor strike. Frankly, we're at least as oriented to natural disaster response as we are to military defense.”
“Are moonquakes a major danger?”
“Usually not. Moonquakes tend to be weaker and less common than Earthquakes, although they can last a much longer time than terrestrial earthquakes because there are no oceans to help damp them out. But it doesn’t take much of a crack to let the air out of a place.”
“I can imagine. You’ve sold me – sign me up for advanced surface certifications. And another pitcher of Heinekens.”
“OK, but let's order a plate of barbecue chicken wings to go with it. I'll check the Battalion training schedule tomorrow and send you an invitation through Dora.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Now, from what I've read, along with the Ground Forces, Luna has a significant orbital space force, not hyperspace capable and not associated with Star Fleet. What gives there?”
“You know that, because after the Lunar colonies pretty much stayed out of the Gene Wars, the Lunar Republic declined to become a member of the UNTWG when it formed after the war?”
“Yeah. After watching what happened on back on Earth, I can't say I blame them for not just jumping back into Earth’s political affairs. Neutrality worked pretty well for them, so why change.”
“Exactly. And while the Lunar Republic has always had excellent relations with the UNTWG, like England and the United States before the Gene Wars, the Republic’s Founders took an old New England saying to heart: ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ The Republic wanted to be sure it could never, never be dragged into Earth’s wars. Never. Our treaty with them is one of mutual defense against outside aggression, but specifically forbids us to intervene in UNTWG internal affairs, and vice versa.”
“So, Luna wants to be sort of like Switzerland on old Earth, before the Gene Wars?”
“Exactly. That's why they chose the porcupine to be on the Seal of the Republic, rather than the eagle or bear or some other fierce predator. Luna’s not impossible to conquer, just very much not worth the pain to do it. We have strong defensive space forces, combined with a small but well-trained regular army and a large militia-style reserve force. An invader would quickly find that trying to fight through the Lunar tunnels and warrens would make the battle of Stalingrad look like a walk in the park on a spring day.”
“I would have thought that a handful of burrowing fusion bombs would come close to wiping out the Lunar settlements” Mikki said doubtfully.
“It's harder to do that than you think, Mikki. Our Orbital Guard and ground based ABM systems are very good at interception, and even if someone could get enough bombs through, what would it get them but some useless glowing craters? That costs them lots in ordinance, spacecraft and flight personnel, but gives them exactly nothing for their efforts. If they just want rocks and vacuum, there's plenty out in the asteroid belt that the Belter Confederation hasn’t yet claimed. Hell, the Belters have barely begun to tame Ceres; plenty of room left in the belt. No, if someone wanted Luna, it would most likely be for the people, industry and infrastructure that we've built up over the past few centuries.”
“Ok, so if someone out there had bad intentions, they’d need to have a good ground game.”
“Yeah, and we’d be the team with the home field advantage. We're the only army in known space who is actually trained and equipped primarily for suburban and surface operations in hard vacuum.”
“How does that affect your equipment, apart from the pressure suits and such?”
“One example you might find interesting is that we're just about the only major military that still issues projectile weapons to our front-line troops.”
“I thought everyone had switched to phasers and plasma cannon and the like.”
“All but us. It turns out that the rifle is an almost ideal weapon for Lunar conditions.”
Mikki gestured for Karl to continue.
“No air to slow the bullet and little gravity to pull the bullet to the ground. It's easier to hit your target without having to remember to compensate much for range and the bullet still has all the kinetic energy it started out with when it does. There's no electromagnetic signature to give you away to EM sensors and no air to carry sound to alert someone if you do miss. Cooling is an issue, of course, but the SDF weapons are designed and built for Lunar conditions and can take it.”
“But wouldn’t beam weapons still have range and power advantages?”
“To some extent, which is why our people carry a mix of beam, plasma and projectile weapons.”
“But wouldn’t that cause logistic problems when…”
After much more talk, another pitcher of Heinekens, then a pub dinner and couple more pitchers of beer, the two decided to call it a night.
Karl got up first, which was a good thing, since when Mikki tried it, shi stumbled and would have fallen if Karl hadn’t caught hir. Shi leaned against the big wolf-morph for a minute to regain hir balance.
“Whoa! Feels like we're havin’ a moonquake.” Shi giggled. “Good thin' I brought an' emergency wolfy.”
Karl steadied the smaller cougar-morph for a moment. “You okay, Mikki?”
“Yeah, just had a bit more than I shoulda. Still not used to bein' so small, an' I forget 'n drink as much as I use'ta before.”
“Good thing we're not far from home. C’mon kitten, let's go.” Karl said and put his arm around hir to steady the swaying cougar morph.
Mikki leaned into the bigger morph, enjoying the feeling of security it brought hir. Shi put hir arm around Karl’s waist and found hirself noticing the firm, taut muscle underneath his shirt.
“You're really in shape, Karl.” MIkki said as shi leaned hir slightly spinning head against him and stumbled slightly as they went out the door into the mini-mall outside. As was the practice in most of Luna, the mall had turned down the lighting to match the time (since no one actually lived on the surface, all of Luna was on Greenwich time) and the simulated sky now showed stars against a black sky background.
Unseen by both morphs, two men watched from just inside the darkened entrance of a shop closed for the night. “That's the one,” the shorter of the two said to the other. He drew a double-edged, blackened blade from inside his left sleeve and the other man did likewise. “The cat is the primary target, but make sure the mutt doesn’t live to be a witness.”
Just as the two started to move out of the shadows, the door of The Watering Hole swung open again to disgorge a crowd of morphs, chattering gaily about the results of the grav-ball game that had just ended. Seeing that their chance to quietly kill their target without witnesses had been spoiled, the commander of the SS direct action scout team decided to wait for a better opportunity.
“Another time, Sean, another time,” he whispered. “This was just going to be a recon anyhow, until we saw the opportunity. There will be plenty of others.” The other man nodded as he put his Sykes-Fairborne dagger back into its sleeve sheath. Then both men sauntered casually out of the doorway and headed toward the corridor to their hotel.
Karl brought Mikki to the door of the MacKinnon-MacLeod apartment. “This is your stop, kitty-cat. Be sure to take a ‘Morning-Afterz’ before going to bed.”
Mikki looked up at the wolf-morph. “Thanks Karl. You're <hiccup> a good friend.” Then to Mikki’s own surprise shi hugged Karl, but stopped hirself before giving in to the unexpected urge to give him a kiss on the cheek.
Hir ears blushing brightly, shi put hir palm on the door’s ID pad and stumbled through, leaving the startled wolf-morph standing there, speechless but not displeased.
Mikki woke up with a furry body snuggled up to hir back and an arm around hir, plus a small furry body snuggled up to hir chest and another draped over hir hips. Opening up one eye, shi realized that shi was in hir bedroom, at the center of a fur-pile of hir new sisters. That had become a normal part of waking up, but something about hirself felt different, tense, excited, eager. Part of it was an unusually stiff and sensitive morning erection, but it was something more than that common occurrence. Something inside hir was making hir feel restless, too restless to just lie there.
As shi stirred the kitten draped over hir hips sat up and stretched.
“I'm hungry! Mikki, will you help me get breakfast?”
Behind her, Kate’s voice replied, “Give us a few minutes, Chrissy; you won't starve in the time it takes for us to take a stretch and get dressed.”
Susan sat up and reached for hir nightshirt. “I'll help hir, Kate. I'm feeling hungry too. Put on your robe, Chrissy.”
“Do I havta? Our Moms probably aren’t even up yet.”
“Wanna get grounded again? You heard what they said the last time…” And the two kittens padded off to the kitchen pulling on their robes as they went.
“You got in late last night, sis. Have a good time?” Kate grinned knowingly at Mikki.
“Karl and I were talking about careers, swapping war stories and I had way too much to drink, so he walked me home…” Shi stopped and the insides of hir ears reddened in a deep blush.
“And? You can't stop now!”
“I… When we… Um. Kate I was so drunk that I… I almost kissed him!”
“Almost?! Why didn’t you? He’s cute! I’d go out with him in a heartbeat, but he thinks I'm just a kid.”
“But…” Shi stopped and blushed again.
“Or is it that your male side is too strong right now? We are going into rut now. You know you'll need to find a special someone to help you out with this. I sure can't,” shi teased. “We’d spend all night just arguing about who gets mounted.”
This left Mikki speechless in embarrassment. Just when shi thought shi was adapting to hir new self, hir body rubbed Mikki’s nose in how much shi still had yet to cope with. Fortunately, a clatter and crash came from the kitchen, followed by the sounds of two squabbling kits. ‘Saved by the bell,’ thought Mikki as shi pulled on hir ‘Hello Kitty’ night shirt and said “Sounds like we’d better get in there fast.”
As it turned out, the sounds from the kitchen had brought Melissa and Terri in to determine what was going on, and had the spill clean-up under control. Noticing the twins’ arrival, Terri said, “Any special plans for today, Mikki?”
“Nothing yet. Karl invited me to start training in advanced surface survival with his Reserve unit, but I don't have a schedule yet. Why?”
“As Kate probably already told you, it's customary for a McClaren to study one of the martial arts. Most of us opt for Savate et Griffe, since it was invented by McClarens to suit our physical attributes. Although there are a few oddballs who study other less useful forms, like fencing.” Shi looked meaningfully at Melissa.
“Hey, if you’d met the hunky tiger-morph who taught me fencing, you’d understand,” Melissa said with a grin of fond remembrance.
“Anyhow,” Terri continued, “if you're not doing anything important today, I thought you might like to come with me to the salle and see if Savate et Griffe might suit you. Kate, you could use the practice too.”
“That sounds good, but don't you have to report in to duty today?”
“Actually, no,” shi said with a happy grin. “As of this morning, I've started my maternity leave. I thought I’d spend a week or so getting to know my new daughter before the next one arrives. So Kate, gather up your sparring gear and bring extras for Mikki.”
“Great,” interjected Melissa from behind hir. “Since you're a cat of leisure today, you can get the kits to school today and I can get to work on time for once,” shi said cheerfully to hir mate.
Their departure was interrupted by the house A.I. “Mikki MacLeod, you have a message from Senior Sergeant Karl Blackpaw. Please be at the Prodyne Crater Rim airlock at 0900 tomorrow.”
Mikki felt the butterflies in hir stomach again at the news. As excited as shi was to walk on the surface of the Moon again, shi also remembered the dangers all too well.
After escorting Chrissy and Susan to school, Terri, Mikki and Kate arrived at the MacDuff Savate et Griffe salle. To Mikki's surprise, Linda Lapine was waiting there for them.
“Good morning Colonel MacKinnon. Hi Mikki! Hi Kate!”
“Not that I'm not happy to see you, Linda,” Mikki replied, “but I thought this was just a 'Cougar martial art. And isn't it a work day?”
“No and yes,” the rabbit morph replied cheerfully. “It turns out that Savate et Griffe works pretty well for anyone whose lower body strength is their primary physical asset, like us rabbit-derived morphs. You'll even see human women here sometimes. Right, Colonel?”
“Absolutely, although a good set of claws helps.”
“And I'm on flex time, so I'll just come in to work an hour early for a couple of days to make up the time. Doc Hoffmann is a good boss to work for. C'mon, let's get changed and then Master MacDuff can give you the orientation briefing.”
Ten minutes later, they all were wearing tight fitting but flexible one-piece suits that Mikki was told was extremely resistant to cuts and contained a sensor net for scoring. They all held glove-like, foot and hand claw guards, mouth guards and a sort of fencer's helmet designed to protect their eyes and ears.
The salle reminded Mikki of any one of a dozen Judo and Karate dojos shi’d studied at over the years. The room was brightly lit, with one of the walls mirrored, to allow students to observe their own technique as they practiced. Where other dojos Mikki had frequented in the past had been decorated with the flags of the countries of origin of the martial arts being taught there, these walls were decorated with the flag of the Lunar Republic and a flag that shi had just recently learned represented the combined McClaren clans. Flanking them on either side were the twelve banners of the individual McClaren clans. The floor was non-skid and firm yet springy, to allow the students to fall or be thrown without serious danger of injury. Several large and small punching bags hung from the ceiling in the corners.
An older McClaren, about Terri's height but with fur a shade darker and almost black head hair with a little gray entered the salle and introduced hirself as Master MacDuff, the school owner and chief instructor. After introductions all around, shi started what was obviously an often-given orientation speech.
“The McClaren style of unarmed combat, “Savate et Griffe” or “Foot and Claw” in old French, was adapted from the martial art “Savate” or “La Savate Défense” to take advantage of the McClaren Cougar's physiology. McClarens have very strong legs that are long for their body size, so the martial arts that emphasize kicking techniques are well suited to us.”
“However, most kickboxing martial arts also teach fist strikes which are quite unsuited to the clawed hands of a cougar-morph. A hard punch with a closed fist tends to drive the striker's claws painfully into hir own palm.”“The oldest schools of Savate teach kickboxing techniques and hand slaps to deflect an opponent's punches. More modern forms of Savate also teach some stick and knife techniques that are very useful. The early McClarens combined those techniques with techniques borrowed from other martial arts such as Aikido, Tae Kwan Do and Krav Maga and the use of their formidable hand claws to produce the “Savate et Griffe” form almost universally used by McClarens today.”
“The special protective gloves and shoes you're holding are worn to both protect the participants and to contain the claw-markers that allow claw-strikes to be scored. Your mouth and groin guards are also required, both for protection and to prevent the use of any fang attacks. While we McClarens will admit privately, among themselves, that our teeth are formidable weapons that we could use in a last resort, we do not practice biting techniques that could tend to cause us to be viewed as savage animals.”
Mikki listened carefully. Shi hadn’t thought about it, but a different body would logically dictate a different fighting technique. Shi'd studied both Judo and Korean-style karate in hir past life, and this sounded interesting as well as suited to hir new body.
“How do I begin, Master MacDuff?” Mikki asked.
“Put on the rest of your protective gear and stand facing Linda. Terri, you and Kate please go to the other side of the salle and practice the katas we went over last week.” Shi waited until everyone had complied then went on. “Mikki, I will name a Savate move and Linda will demonstrate. You will then imitate it and I will correct and critique you. Ready?”
Mikki and Linda both replied “Ready” and Master MacDuff went on, “Bow to each other. Good. First a simple fouette median, or round-kick. Begin!”
Linda went through the basic move with speed, precision and grace. Mikki couldn’t help noticing that the movement looked good on her fit, shapely body. Mikki copied the move, hoping shi looked as good.
“Not bad,” Master MacDuff said. “You’ve studied Tae Kwan Do, yes?” At Mikki’s nod shi continued, “Yes, I thought so. Its round kick is similar to the fouette median, but not quite the same. Now watch me and see if you can tell the difference…”
The lesson went on for most of an hour, leaving Mikki tired and out of breath. Linda looked as if she was doing a little better, but Master MacDuff still looked as fresh and unruffled as when they started.
As they changed back into street clothes, Terri asked, “Well Mikki? Do you think you might want to study Savate et Griffe as your martial arts form?”
“I think so. It seems to suit me and I'll have all of you to practice with.” Mikki glanced over at Linda who was just pulling her top on over her head, being careful of her ears but giving Mikki a good look at her shapely and furry breasts.
Casually pulling her top into place, Linda said, “I'm glad to hear it, Mikki. You did really well today; I think your previous martial arts experience will help you a lot in Savate. Why don't you join me for dinner Friday night and you can tell me a bit more about the other forms you’ve studied and we can compare notes.”
Startled, Mikki hesitated a moment, then got hir mouth into gear. “Um, yeah, I’d like that. What time…”
“I'll be by your place at seven on Friday then! Gotta get back to work now or I'll be late.” The rabbit morph gave Mikki a quick lick-kiss on the cheek and dashed off.
Kate watched the departing Linda for a moment then said, “You're one lucky cat, Mikki. She’s pretty fussy about who she dates.”
“Am I coming between you and her?” Mikki asked, suddenly afraid that shi’d upset hir new sister.
“Oh no! Nothing like that! I love Linda as a friend, but we aren’t dating or anything. She’s a bit older than the people I usually date and I'm a bit too feminine for her tastes. She’s OK with herms, but likes them a bit more masculine than someone like me. If I were going to be jealous of you with anyone, it would be Karl.”
Terri chuckled, “Sometimes I'm very glad to be a married, settled, boring, old cat. You kits are welcome to the dating angst and anxiety.” Shi picked up hir gym bag and looked back at the twins. “Ready for an early lunch? I know I worked up an appetite, especially since I'm eating for two.”“Absolutely Mom! How about the Cat's Cradle?”
“If that's okay with Mikki as well?” Shi looked over at MIkki who nodded hir agreement, and the three trooped off for lunch.
Sean kept watch down the utility corridor as Jean-Luc opened the service access panel. Bypassing the security lock with practiced ease, he studied the panel it revealed and proceeded to connect a data cable to it, then to a military-grade PADD he took from a thigh pocket. Bringing up a virtual keyboard, he entered a series of commands, then uploaded a program and a series of data files into the system. Finally, he unplugged the data cable from his PADD and plugged it into a small cylinder he produced from another pocket, and then a few moments later fitted it carefully into a socket between two logic modules.
Jean-Luc looked over at Sean. “It's finished. I just need a minute to replace the maintenance seal so that the panel looks unopened, then we're done here.”
Sean waited until he heard Jean-Luc close the panel then started to walk slowly down the corridor. They left the utility corridor three minutes apart and took different routes back to their safe-house. This was the third of six surprises they had to install to be ready for the direct action they had planned for them and the HLA to carry out.
A couple of hours later, Mikki was stepping through the hatch to the observation deck of the surface airlock where shi had completed hir pressure suit qualification. Karl was already there and dressed in his SDF pressure suit, sans gloves, helmet and backpack. With him were three humans, a male fox morph and a chakat, all in various states of undress or wearing parts of their surface gear.
“Sorry to be late, Karl. There was a problem in one of the corridors and they were routing everyone around to a side tunnel. What have I missed?”
“Why were they rerouting people?” Karl queried, professional interested piqued.
“No idea, the emergency team didn’t answer any questions, just pointed where they wanted us to go. Why?”
“I'll have to look into that later. Must not have been too serious, or there would have been a general announcement. Start getting into your suit and I'll begin the briefing.”
Mikki opened hir locker and started to undress, hanging hir shirt on a hook inside the locker door, then noticed a couple of the humans, a pale-skinned man in in his mid-twenties and a short, blonde, very curvy human woman in her early thirties, looking at hir. ‘I'm not going to be body-shy here,’ shi thought. ‘This is a surface airlock prep room and I'm covered in fur, dammit!’ Resisting the sudden, unexpectedly feminine urge to hold hir arm over hir breasts, shi unfastened hir shorts, removed and stowed them and reached for the WCG box and hurriedly pulled it on and fastened the tab to close the tail hole. Pulling the undersuit coverall out of the locker, shi tugged it on and fastened its seams, then added the insulated socks. Glancing over at the watching man, he quickly looked away, but did a slight bulge in the crotch of his coverall testify to his interest in hir? Or was shi getting overly wary of males? The woman though, was pointedly ignoring hir.
Realizing shi had let hirself get flustered by the man’s attention, shi unfastened the coverall and added the tail covering, then squeezed the tab to contract the garment and reached for hir pressure suit.
The white and orange suit, with its ProDyne logos and “MacLeod, M” over the right breast pocket had been cleaned since its last use and was once again pristine and new-looking. Shi unsealed the front and began wiggling into the stiff and heavy suit, when the man who had been watching hir spoke up.
“Can I give you a hand with that, Ms. MacLeod?”
Mikki hesitated, caught between hir annoyance at the man’s voyeurism and the added safety of having someone check hir suit. Safety won. Glancing at the nametape on his ProDyne marked suit, she replied, “Yes, thank you, Mr. Buckley. If you could just hold the suit up by the collar while I work the front seal, that would be good.”
“Call me, Joe. My apologies for staring. You are just about the prettiest morph I've ever seen and I forgot my manners for a moment.”
Mikki mulled that over for a few seconds as shi sat to pull on and seal hir boots. Shi felt a bit hypocritical as shi remembered enjoying the view of hir undressed companions as they donned or removed their suits in this very room not long ago. On the other hand, shi was very ambivalent about being found ‘pretty’ by a man, especially now that shi was in male phase. ‘Oh well, he didn’t mean any harm by it. Take it as a compliment and move on. That's what you did when you were approached by gay men back home. Only he isn’t gay and you aren’t just a man anymore.’
“Thanks. I'm Mikki.” Shi stood up, “Could you help me with this tail cover?” Shi handed the cover and fitting to him and turned around, and found hirself facing the other two humans, a tall, middle-aged black man and the short, curvy blonde woman. It struck Mikki then that while shi and the woman had been undressed at the same time, Joe had chosen to watch hir, rather than the human woman. ‘I wonder if he’s one of those humans who are into morphs that way?’ Then another thought struck hir, ‘I wonder if he realizes I'm a herm. Or is that why he was interested?’ Shi suppressed a wry grin. ‘And I thought sex was complicated back home!’
Just a few minutes later, the group was suited up with their helmet faceplates open so that they could still talk without use of suit radios. Mikki was checking the fittings and connections on Joe’s EVA pack. Karl was giving them their final briefing as they worked.
“I've broken you up into two-person teams. Each team has a two-person inflatable shelter to set up and test. While it looks small now, when it's inflated, it will hold both team members safely. Yes, even the two of you.” Karl looked at the chakat and fox morph who had been examining the orange nylon package containing their deflated shelter. “I've seen two 'taurs successfully share one of these shelters.” He paused for effect, “Of course, they were a mated pair of chakats,” and then grinned. “Afterwards.”
The group laughed at Karl’s jest, except for the fox morph who eyed his chakat partner apprehensively. The chakat grinned and licked hir lips suggestively, going along with the joke.
“OK, enough fooling around. Faceplates closed everyone and into the airlock for final checks and then outside into vacuum and solar radiation.” The wolf morph closed his faceplate and led the way into the chamber. Mikki found the butterflies in hir stomach had returned, but tried to ignore them as shi followed Karl with Joe close behind.
After leaving the airlock and taking a half-hour hike, Karl stopped the group next to the crater wall. “Always set up your shelter in the shade. They’re well insulated from the cold, but the sun will heat them up rapidly. If you have absolutely no shade available, you will need to rig an awning over the shelter to shade it from the sun. Never, never set up your shelter in direct sunlight. Carol, what do you think would happen if you did set up in direct sunlight?”
The woman hesitated a moment, then replied, “The shelter would overheat.”
“We would waste air cooling the tent?”
“The tent won't stop all the solar radiation?”
“Right. Bottom line is that you'll die. It’ll be a race between heat stroke and oxygen depletion, but you won't be around to cheer the winner.” He paused to look around at the teams. “George and Greysocks, I want your team to set up in the shade next to the crater wall. Carol and Lee, set up under that overhang there, and Mikki and Joe, set up out here and rig an awning over your shelter to shade it. Any questions?”
Joe turned to allow Mikki to remove the shelter bag from his EVA pack, then they reversed to allow him to remove the red and white emergency kit from hirs. Together they assembled an awning from the lightweight poles and reflective tarp in the emergency kit, then unpacked and erected the shelter under it by inflating its support tubes from the attached mini-airtank. The shelter was a white Kevlar-3 hemisphere about two meters in diameter, with an inflated circular tube forming a base. From that skinny, donut shaped base, inflated tubes extended from four equidistant points to join again at the top of the shelter. A circular door-flap, a meter in diameter took up the lower half of one side.
Joe gestured toward the completed shelter, “Ladies first.”
Mikki choked back an ‘I'm no lady’ reply and unsealed the door flap and crawled in. Joe followed and sealed the door behind him, then turned awkwardly in the cramped space to allow Mikki to release air from his EVA pack to fill the little room. When their suit sensors both agreed that the pressure was high enough, Mikki cautiously opened hir helmet visor, once again scenting the ‘burnt match’ smell of the lunar regolith. After two minutes with no ill effects to Mikki, Joe did the same.
Joe keyed his helmet mike and transmitted, “Team three, task completed and ready for inspection.”
Karl’s voice came back over the helmet speaker, “Roger team three. I'm outside your shelter inspecting it right now; send me your environmental readings.” A few minutes pause and then, “Very good, you get a ‘Pass’ for this exercise. Take a break for ten minutes while I finish up with the other two teams and then I'll give you all a chance to look at the other team’s set-up. After that, we'll all pack up and return to base.”
Joe stretched out on his side facing Mikki, who did the same. “A break sounds good. Even in one sixth gee, there's a lot of mass to haul around.”
“Yeah. Mass and momentum don't go away, and it wears ya out,” Mikki replied.
The two lay still in companionable silence for a few minutes, enjoying the brief rest.
“You know,” Mikki said, “in a way, this reminds me of Boy Scout camp.”
“Boy Scout camp? But you're not…”
Mikki groaned inwardly, sticking to a cover story wasn’t something shi had been trained for. “Long story for another time, Joe. I don't remember seeing you before; what do you do at ProDyne?”
“New hire. I'm an electromech tech, just recently up from Earth, like Carol Bennett. We're both taking this class as part of of ProDyne’s Lunar orientation for new employees. And you?”
“I'm a student intern in the transporter labs,” Mikki replied, hoping shi hadn’t again said too much.
“Oh,” his voice held a hint of disappointment, “I'm mostly working on the surface vehicles and such. Still, maybe we'll run into each other again in the cafeteria or rec hall,” he continued hopefully.
Mikki looked for a way to let him down gently, as shi’d hated it when a woman shi’d been interested in rejected hir rudely when shi’d been a man. “Maybe; they keep me pretty busy in the labs…”
Just then, Karl’s voice came over their helmet speakers. “Time to come out and go check out each other’s set-ups, boys and girls and herms. Be sure to double check your suit and helmet seals before you depressurize your shelters.”
Packing up and readying to leave took much less time that setting up, and the hike back to the airlock seemed to pass more quickly than the trek out. In what seemed like a very short time, Mikki was standing in the locker room, helmet in hand, looking for an excuse to wait until Joe was in the shower before taking hir suit off. As usual, Karl was faster with his kit than the others, had finished hanging up the last of it and was wearing only his fur. Seeing Mikki’s hesitation, he walked over to hir.
“Need a hand, kitty-cat?”
“Um, yes please.” For some reason, shi felt more comfortable with Karl helping hir undress than the male human. In a few minutes, shi was also standing in only hir fur, feeling a bit dwarfed by the big wolf morph. Like last time, shi couldn’t help noticing how fit and well-muscled Karl was under his fur, but without the moment of attraction shi felt before. ‘Yeah, I'm still a straight guy,’ shi thought, conveniently ignoring the fact that shi was in the peak of hir male phase, and turned to get hir shorts and top out of hir locker. Unfortunately, shi was facing the wrong way to see the hostile glare that Carol had given hir and Karl.
At ten minutes before seven Friday evening, Mikki was already nervously pacing the floor. ‘Do I look okay like this?’ shi thought. ‘Maybe I should have borrowed something dressier from Kate? No, that might make me look more feminine and Kate says that Linda isn’t attracted to herms that are too feminine.’ Mikki was wearing forest green slacks and a black, long-sleeve silk top with the top two buttons open to show the gold necklace that Kate had insisted on lending hir to wear with the outfit. Hir hair was pulled back into a simple pony-tail, gathered low at the back of the neck, in the male fashion of the 21st century.
Kate had fussed over hir, as shi helped Mikki get ready for the evening. Mikki had enjoyed having Kate brush out hir hair and fur, but was a bit less enthusiastic about Kate’s help in choosing clothes for hir date.
“Don't worry, I won't try to put you into a mini-skirt and high heels, but you don't want to be dressed for an Iowa tractor-pull either,” Kate had said as she looked through both cats’ closets. Mikki was discovering that it was hard to not look feminine in hir new body, but in the end, was mostly pleased with the results which struck a balance between too feminine and butch. Kate had pronounced hir to be looking ‘good enough to eat’ and was waiting just out sight in the living room to witness the results of her handiwork.
When the house A.I. announced that Linda had arrived, Mikki made sure that shi was the first to the door to greet her. Not that it did any good; the entire MacKinnon-MacLeod family was in the foyer almost before Linda had stepped through the door. She looked around at the assembled clan and grinned wryly. “This is your doing, Kate. I'll get you for this.”
Kate tried unsuccessfully to look innocent. “I have no idea what you might be talking about, Linda. We're just seeing my little sister off on hir first date.”
Mikki shot hir a look of mingled amusement and irritation. ‘Well, I wanted a family so I shouldn’t complain when I get the full package,’ shi thought. “Little sister indeed. You'll get yours later, kitten.”
“So will you, I hope,” Kate grinned back at hir.
Linda was the one who looked good enough to eat in MIkki’s opinion, standing just inside the door in a very form-fitting, black and fawn silk, spaghetti strap, mini-dress that emphasized the petite rabbit morph’s curvy figure.
“Hi, Melissa! Hi, Terri! Do I have to have hir home by ten?” Linda said with an amused grin.
“I think our eldest daughter can use her own judgement about that,” Melissa said. “Have fun and try to be in to work on time tomorrow, Linda.” Shi moved over to give Mikki a hug, followed by one from Terri.
After goodbyes were finished all around, the two morphs walked down the corridor together, resuming their conversation from Master MacDuff’s salle.
“We never did decide where to go for dinner, Linda. Did you have a place in mind?”
“Do you like sushi? I made reservations at a great Japanese place for seven thirty, but I can cancel them if you don't like it.”
“No, I love sushi. Let's go!”
The ‘great Japanese place’ turned out to be a small, family-owned restaurant inside of the ProDyne private pressure facility, so they didn’t have far to walk. Still, by the time they arrived at the Tokyo Pagoda, still talking about their experiences as martial arts students, Mikki and Linda found they were holding hands. By the time the miso soup was history and the sushi and sashimi mostly gone, the two had already gotten past the first-date awkwardness, helped by a number of thimble sized chokos of hot sake.
“…so you left Star Corps to join Dr. Hoffmann’s team at ProDyne? That would be like leaving NASA to join SpaceX where I came from. Pretty gutsy move for someone in your field, isn’t it?”
“Not as much as you might think. I’d been following Dr. Hoffmann’s work since I was a grad student and I believed he could succeed where others had fallen flat. And with that sort of experience under my belt, I bet I’d have my choice of jobs after that. Maybe even Star Fleet.”
“Star Fleet, eh? Makes my thoughts of joining the Lunar Defense Force sound pretty mundane.”
“Not at all. Luna is a pretty nice place and the LDF does a lot to keep it that way. Besides, if you do an enlistment with them and qualify for officer training, they'll pay for university. I know you have a degree ‘back home’, but you're probably going to have to do it all over again, just like you actually were a nineteen-year-old.”
“Actually, ProDyne is already offering me the college scholarship. That's not it; I want to really belong somewhere and the United States I grew up in doesn’t exist any more. The Lunar Republic seems like a good place to make a new start.”
“Being nineteen and cute is already a new start, too, Mikki. You have a whole new life ahead of you to try something new if you like. Have you thought about applying to Star Corps?”
It seemed like no time at all to the pair before the food was eaten, the sake was gone and they noticed that the serving staff was starting to close the restaurant for the night.
“Want to come back to my place for a while? I have a nice bottle of good vintage Australian wine? Or are you a California wine snob?” she teased with a grin.
“Australian sounds good. I had a few Aussie favorites back home, especially as the Californians started to get as snooty about their wines as the French. But they’re so expensive here.”
“Everything imported from Earth is. That's one of the reasons that Lunar vintages are so popular here. Well, that and the high alcohol content.”
“And that's the reason I've sworn off of Lunar wines until I get a better handle on this body’s capacity. Getting carried home is undignified,” Mikki finished with a grin.
“Oh, I don't know about that,” Linda grinned back. “It can be kinda fun, depending on who’s carrying you home.”
On Mikki’s insistence, shi paid the restaurant tab and the two walked out, arm in arm.
Linda’s apartment was bigger than Mikki’s previous room in ProDyne’s transient quarters but smaller than hir new family home. Snug, comfortable and feminine seemed to sum it it up and Mikki decided that it suited Linda very well.
At Linda’s suggestion, Mikki opened the wine while she got out a small selection of cheeses and crackers. In short order the glasses and tray were on the coffee table in front of the couch and the two resumed their conversations about jobs, career ideas, Earth in the 21st century and life in the 24th. Finally, Linda leaned closer to Mikki and put her hand on Mikki’s knee.
“I've been dying to ask, but I didn’t think I knew you well enough before. You seem to be adjusting very well to being a morph; so, what was it like to be human? Do you miss it? How are you coping with being a herm?”
“Lots of questions there – are you sure there's no feline in your ancestry?” Mikki teased.
“Nope – just female. That's enough curiosity for anyone.” She grinned at Mikki in an almost feline manner. “So?”
“Well, it was a lot less fuzzy…”
Linda picked up a couch cushion and cocked her arm as if to throw it.
“OK, OK! Seriously, at first, I wasn’t sure that you all had done me any favor in saving me the way you did. But the longer I've had to get used to it, the more I've started to like it. Just being young and fit again is better than I can express.” Shi looked thoughtful, “But it is hard getting used to looking up at most people – as a man, I was taller than almost everyone I knew.”
“But I thought that you were you were upset because you felt you’d turned into an animal. How do you feel about being a furred person now?”
“I guess that's exactly how I think about it now. You're… I'm… we are furred persons. And I guess I'm finding it ironic that my dog, my former animal companion, is now a human. It makes me realize that we're not that different. Morphs and humans I mean.”
“I certainly think so. Still, waking up with fur and a tail had to be a shock for a former bare-skinned, tailless human. And what about your other change? Have you gotten used to being a herm?”
Mikki paused to think for a moment, then said, “To my surprise, I like my tail. It helps me balance and makes me feel faster and more agile. And being furred is nice, except when I get wet. It protects my skin from minor scratches and abrasions. And I decided it was better than bare skin the first time Kate brushed out my fur. That was the day I learned to purr.” Mikki smiled at the pleasant memory.
“And the other?”
“Being a herm? Jury’s still out on that. Mostly, I still feel male.”
“You smell very male right now, too. I like it,” Linda said huskily and leaned closer to Mikki in invitation. A scent of musky perfume reached Mikki’s nose, with an even muskier undertone. Hir brain finally connected the dots: Linda was in heat.
Mikki put hir arm around the petite rabbit morph and gently pulled her into a kiss. Linda immediately kissed back, which went on for a pleasant length of time. Kissing with a muzzle was a new experience for Mikki, as was being kissed by someone with a muzzle, but shi found shi enjoyed the learning experience. Stroking a lover's furry breasts was strange at first, but shi quickly found hirself reveling in the sensuousness of it. Soon, Mikki’s hand moved from caressing Linda’s generous breasts, down toward even more intimate delights. Linda’s hands hadn’t been idle either; Mikki’s shirt was off and hir pants were unfastened and Linda was slowly stroking Mikki’s erection.
Linda stood up and touched the thin straps of her dress, which parted to allow the silk sheath to slide down her curves and puddle at her feet, leaving her in just her fur. “And I feel very female.” She held out her hand to Mikki who stood up and took it in hirs. Shedding hir remaining clothing, Mikki pulled Linda into a deep, intense kiss. The feel of Linda’s large, soft breasts pressing against hir own smaller ones was at once strange and erotic. After a few delicious minutes, the two walked hand in hand into the bedroom.
A long, (and yet too short), wonderful time later, Mikki and Linda lay entwined in each other’s arms. Linda was the first to break the intimate silence.
“Mmmmm… You're a wonderful lover.”
“So are you.” Mikki hesitated; as a man, shi’d never been good at pillow talk, but now it somehow seemed more important. “You know I was attracted to you almost from the first time I saw you. Even before I lost some of my human prejudices.”
“A girl can tell,” she held Mikki closer for a moment. “But it's always nice to hear it.” She gave Mikki a lick-kiss on hir muzzle. Experimentally, Mikki tried giving her a lick-kiss on the fur of her cheek. The sensation of running hir rough tongue over the rabbit morph’s fur was strange, but somehow felt instinctually right. “You have a figure to die for, and all that soft, sleek fur just made it sexier. I had to keep myself from just staring at you in the locker room when we did our surface qualification.”
She grinned back at the ‘Cougar. “I wouldn’t have minded – I'm used to it. Want to know how I worked my way through grad school?”
“Um, Paid internship?”
“You're being nice, but no,” she smiled, showing dimples under her fur.
“Cocktail waitress at an upscale bar?” Mikki guessed.
“I give up – remember, I'm new to this century.”
“Fur modeling,” she said and waited with an expectant look on her face.
“You modeled furs? Like mink coats or something?”
She laughed cheerfully, almost a giggle. “No silly, modeling in just my fur. You know, for the ‘Fur’ magazines.”
Remembering some of the things shi’d seen on the 'net when shi first got a PADD back in the ProDyne infirmary, Mikki understood and felt a blush color hir ears. “You mean…”
“Yep – You're looking at Buxom Bunnies’ Miss July of 2322,” and grinned as she batted her eyelashes in a parody of seductiveness.
“Nope. That photo shoot alone paid for almost two semesters of grad school.” She stretched out on the bed in a classic, girly-mag pose with her arms holding up her upper body while cradling her breasts, her derriere slightly raised, tail up and one leg bent up at the knee. “The studio gave me a stack of prints of me in this centerfold pose as promotional materials after the July issue was published. I gave Karl an autographed print last year as a gag birthday gift.”
Mikki’s eyes rose high enough to disappear under hir hair. “You didn’t!”
“I most certainly did.”
“So, how did he react?”
“Not as well as I might have wanted. He liked it, but he didn’t pick up on the hint and take me out on a date. I thought it might just be typical guy’s cluelessness, but later on I found out that he’s just not much into ‘prey’ derived morphs.”
“Really?” Shi started to ask what sort Karl was into but stopped hirself just in time. On top of it not seeming like a topic shi should be pursuing right after making love to Linda, shi wasn’t sure shi wanted to know.
“Yeah, he’s more into canids and felines.” She grinned, “I'll bet that if I’d given him the pictorial I did with my college roommate Sandy, he’d have sat up and howled.”
“Who’s Sandy and why would he have gone all wolfy over her?”
“Sandy is an arctic fox morph, right down that overgrown dog’s alley. To get up the credits for our first year of grad school, we did a photo shoot together.”
“Now I know you're putting me on. You, in a girl on girl gig? Even if it were just posing, it's hard to imagine you doing it.”
She grinned slyly, “You know me that well, but it wasn’t that sort of thing, really. We just let the photographer take pictures of us as we were brushing out each other’s fur, like we did most nights before going to bed. Pretty innocent, really.”
“I don't get it. Morphs don't usually seem to get much of a thrill from seeing other morphs in their fur.”
“We morphs, Mikki. Remember?”
“Okay – we morphs don't seem to get much of a thrill from just seeing other morphs in only their fur. So who buys these ‘Fur mags’?”
“Humans, mostly. The producer I worked with said that some of their readership was morphs, but by far most of their audience was humans.”
“Sure. Remember that while most of our species were designed as soldiers or servants, a few were explicitly designed as sex slaves. Apparently, some humans have always found us furs attractive.”
“Oh. I guess that makes sense. We had furries back where I came from.”
Shi hesitated, reluctant to try to explain something shi had no firsthand experience with. “Um, people who wanted to be morphs, before there were morphs. Too complicated to explain.” Shi decided to move the conversation back to the previous subject. “So humans mostly buy these photos?”
“By a large margin, yes. And do you know where a lot of them end up?”
Mikki raised an eyebrow. “No, where?”
“The morph-hating HCKNA!” She laughed bitterly. “Those hypocrites!”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“No, really. Over lunch, not long after I joined the project, I mentioned how I’d financed some of my grad school tuition to Karl. He was the one who told me about the quote ‘illegal furry porn’ unquote that the kingdom’s morals police were always trying to stamp out. He says that because it's both illegal and in demand that the going price is usually more than ten times the cover price. That's what gave me the idea of giving him one of my promotional center fold prints as a gag gift.”
“So, you gave him a photo of you showing off your cute little tail.”
“It is a cute tail, isn’t it?” She rolled a bit and elevated her posterior to show it off. Mikki reached over to stroke it, and Linda moved to return the favor.
“Mmmmm… I hadn’t realized before that my tail was an erogenous zone before,” shi purred. “I hope yours feels as good.”
“Silly kitty! Of course tails are erogenous zones. Shall I show you another?” Her hand went under Mikki’s tail to gently trace hir feminine opening.
Unfamiliar feelings washed over Mikki, pleasurable but strange enough to also be uncomfortable. “Ummm… I don't think I'm ready for that yet.” Shi shifted around so that Linda’s hand was again on hir more masculine areas.
“Oops. Sorry, I forgot that you're in male phase,” misunderstanding the source of Mikki’s discomfort. She began stroking Mikki on hir male parts.
“Nothing to be sorry about, I'm just still getting used to the whole herm thing. And I'm glad you're bisexual enough to want me.” Shi reached over to caress Linda’s exposed and generous breasts.
She grinned, “Oh I'm not bi, or at least not the way I think you mean. I'm attracted to males and herms, not other females. I like my lovers to have a penis.” She gave the mentioned organ a gentle squeeze and continued to stroke it. “Actually, I like herms a lot. All the beauty and gentleness of fems, but with a nice, hard dick.”
“Keep that up and we'll…” shi hesitated.
“Yes? Go on.”
“Promise you won't be offended?” She nodded assent. “I was going to say that if you keep that up, we'll be ‘fucking like bunnies’ in another minute.”
In reply, the rabbit morph gave hir an almost feral grin as she rolled on top of Mikki and straddled hir. “Fucking like bunnies, huh? Oh kittycat, you have no idea!”
Mikki woke to classical music, rather than the birdsong shi had gotten used to. Bach? Beethoven? Dubussy? Shi never had had much of a command of the classics; all shi was sure of was that it wasn’t jazz or rock. However, the presence of a small, very female rabbit-morph in hir arms drove musical history out of Mikki’s mind.
“Good morning, Linda.”
“Oh honey,” she replied with a quiet groan. “It can't be morning already.” She rolled over and snuggled into Mikki’s chest.“'Fraid so. What time did you tell your A.I. to wake you?”
Her reply was muffled, as it came from between Mikki’s breasts and through hir fur. “I usually get up 'round 5:30 to exercise and have breakfast, but I think we took care of the exercise last night.” She turned her head to get her short muzzle into the open air. “Jeeves, snooze alarm thirty minutes.”
“As you wish, madam,” came a cultured, English-butler voice from the ceiling speakers.
“Now where was I?” She burrowed her head back into Mikki’s chest and almost immediately started a series of soft, feminine snores.
Rather than trying to go back to sleep, Mikki just held the petite bunny-woman in hir arms and enjoyed the view of her curvy back and legs. ‘It's been too long since I last woke up with a lover,’ shi thought. ‘Even if she is just a bit fuzzier than the others…’
Mikki still hadn’t managed to get the ‘cat who ate the canary’ grin off of hir face when shi put hir hand on the identity plate to enter hir family’s home. As the door slid open, shi was confronted with hir ‘twin’ sitting in the foyer eating from a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs and toast. Kate smirked at hir twin. “Have a good time, sister mine?”
“None of your business, nosy kitty,” Mikki replied with a grin. “A gentleman never tells.”
“But you're not a man anymore, gentle or not. C'mon Sis, give!”
Mikki just looked smug, “I think I'm more of a man than ever. But you'll have to ask Linda for details. What’s on the schedule for today?”
“Not fair!” Kate said and added a Bronx cheer. “Oh well, Linda’s a good friend. She'll dish the dirt.”
“No doubt. But I'll bet you already have a date for tonight, since if I'm in male phase, so are you.”
“True.” She looked both dreamy and eager for a moment. “Anyhow, didn’t you have something set up with Karl about advanced Surface Qualifications today? And I think Momma Terri wants you to go to the Salle with hir this morning after breakfast.”
“Breakfast! That sounds heavenly – I'm famished! I could eat a horse, raw!” Shi brushed past Kate into the hallway, snatching a strip of bacon from hir plate as shi passed.
“Like I have to ask Linda to know what happened last night,” Kate said to hirself with a smirk, and stood up to follow hir twin into the kitchen.
After breakfast, (where both Moms carefully steered conversation to not embarrass their newest daughter, while Kate intentionally steered the conversation in that direction and Sarah and Melissa were innocently oblivious), Terri, Kate and Mikki stood in the living room making sure they had all the clothing and kit they needed for a workout at the salle. Noticing the carbine over the mantelpiece again, Mikki brought the subject up to Terri.
“Our rifle? An old family heirloom; it belonged to the first of our clan to be stationed here on Luna. As the most direct descendent, it's my honor to keep it in trust for the clan.”
“It looks a lot like a Canadian C8, but with some upgrades?”
“Not too far off the mark, Mikki. It's a C9 Mark IV. A direct development of the C8, after Colt’s patents expired, for Canada’s space-capable units. A good effort, but not terribly successful in practice.”
“What went wrong? The C8 was a good weapon, better than our M4 in some ways.”
“Lunar conditions were much harsher than the designers realized. Oh yes, they had the environmental specs, but no one who hasn’t lived on Luna really understands them.”
“Problems with extremes of heat and cold?”
“That and much more. Materials act oddly when heated and chilled quickly, which is common here on Luna. Lubricating oil either evaporates or turns to glue in Lunar cold. And while there is no wind to stir up dust, there's plenty of fine, abrasive dust on the surface to splash on a weapon, or to drop it in. Metal rifle barrels chilled in Lunar night temperatures can sometimes fail catastrophically when suddenly heated by firing. But the worst thing turned out to be vacuum.”
“Well, the problem of moving back and forth between vacuum and breathable air pressure. And firing in zero pressure atmosphere caused more carbon fouling to condense onto moving parts. Also, any residual liquids trapped in materials boils away in vacuum. Very bad for some plastics. And what happens when you take rifle cartridges outside into Lunar conditions?”
Mikki soundlessly urged Terri to continue.
“They contain both propellant powder and residual air, and they leak, some of them. At different rates, some right away, some slowly and some not at all. The ones that don't leak sometimes have weak spots in the casing and bulge, just a little. Just enough to jam the in the weapon’s chamber or magazine. The ones that leak out all of their air, function well enough while in vacuum, but when you bring them back into normal air pressure, they sometimes crumple under the return of atmospheric pressure and jam the weapon’s feed mechanism. The projectile weapons we issue for vacuum use in the LDF today use rocket ammunition with molded solid fuel and plasma ignition to avoid these problems.”
“So the rifles were useless?”
“Oh, our ancestors were smart enough to find workarounds. One was to leave a crate of ammunition in vacuum but out of direct sunlight for a few hours. They then brought them back inside, waited a bit and sorted through and discarded the damaged cartridges, then stored the rest in vacuum-sealed containers inside, where the temperature didn’t vary much. Can't store them outside in the Lunar cold, the primers won't fire at those temperatures.”
“Maybe the desert wasn’t such a bad place to soldier, after all. We mostly just worried about the dust and heat.”
Kate interjected, “And unless you two old war-horses stop talking shop, we're going to be late to the salle, and Master MacDuff will have us all running laps and doing push-ups for the first fifteen minutes of class.”
Terri eyed hir daughter for a moment. “Not that you couldn’t use it, Kate,” shi teased. “I think you're getting to be a pudgy kitty.”
Kate sputtered, “Pudgy kitty! Ooooh… Mom! You're gonna get it when we spar today!”
Terri smiled serenely, “Think again daughter. I'm on maternity leave, so nothing but exercises and katas for me until after I deliver this baby. You'll be sparring Mikki and Master MacDuff today.”
Mikki couldn’t resist joining in. “Look at the bright side Kate, people will finally be able to tell us apart. I'll be the skinny one…”
“Oh, you are sooo gonna get it in sparring class today, sister dear.”
An average looking man, medium height but somewhat portly, with graying hair walked right into the office of the Chief of the Conradsville office of the Lunar Investigative Service and sat down in the visitor’s chair by the desk without announcement or invitation. The tall, very pale, balding man sitting at that desk, Theodore Dundee, looked through the hologram his datapad was projecting and gave his visitor an irritated look.
“If you'll look at my door, there's a place right next to it that's just perfect for knocking. You might try it from time to time.”
“Time is what we just might not have, Ted. I ran into another one.”
“Another suspicious HCKNA'er in C'ville?” He rolled his eyes theatrically. “Come on, Mitch. If the HLA or even H1 protestors were going to strike Luna, they’d strike at the capital in Tycho, or the Helium 3 processing facility in Kepler City, or Aristarchus Orbital Guard ground base or any of a dozen other places. Why would they hit here?”
“I wish I knew. But we seldom get visitors from HCKNA here. Most of the tourists from that benighted region go to Armstrong City in Mare Tranquillitatis to visit the Apollo 11 landing site. I doubt most of them even know about the other landing sites. And yet, we've gotten eight ‘tourists’ from HCKNA in the last month that I know about. And weirdest of all, none of them have visited the Apollo landing site. Tourists?” He returned the eye roll with interest. “I don't think so.”
“Where are you getting all this, anyway? Even tourists get the protections of the Third Article!”
“Relax, chief. I haven’t violated anyone’s constitutional rights, especially the right to privacy. I just consulted some publicly available sources and did some data-mining.”
“You're walking a fine line there, Mitch. Even aggregating public data sources can be construed as a Third Article violation if you carry it too far.”
“My toes are on this side of the line. But you're avoiding the issue. My gut tells me we have a problem here.”
“Then take an antacid or a couple of aspirins or something, and tell your gut to be quiet. Your assignment is to investigate suspected Thorium smuggling through Conradsville, not to harass tourists. Now get out there and do your job, Special Agent Brown!”
The two men glared at each other for a moment. “Ok, Director Dundee. But what I do on my own time is my own business. That's protected by the Third Article, too.”
In spite of (or perhaps, in part, because of) the bantering between the three morphs, the class that went well, on the whole. On the other hand, Mikki found that shi was increasingly distracted by hir burgeoning attraction to the other members of the class. All five of the other McClarens in the class (even including Master MacDuff) were looking very attractive to hir today, as were the two female rabbit morphs in the class. Only the lone male in the class, a leopard morph was not attracting Mikki, to hir relief. This unexpected strong sexual attraction to every herm and female in the room was very distracting to Mikki and hir martial arts skills suffered as a result. After Mikki’s third decisive sparring defeat, Master MacDuff took hir aside for a private word.
“Mikki, you can't let being in rut break your concentration so badly. You can't count on being in the middle of your cycle when trouble finds you.”
‘So that's what’s the matter with me today,’ Mikki thought. ‘I haven’t been this stupidly horny since I was a teenager.’ Shi felt a hand on hir shoulder, and saw Terri standing behind hir.
“It's hir First Rut,” Terri said as shi gently squeezed Mikki’s shoulder to comfort hir new daughter. “Shi’ll do better once shi's gone through a few cycles and gotten used to it.”
“It's hard to remember sometimes that shi's not Kate’s natural twin,” MacDuff replied with a smile. “No worries then, I'm sure shi will learn to cope with it in short order. Let's try it again.”
Mikki went beck to the salle and bowed to her new opponent, a leopard morph by the name of Craig Allen. On Master MacDuff’s signal, they resumed. After a few feints and a couple of blocked kicks, Mikki found hirself grappling with the larger leopard morph in a position that gave hir a perfect chance to use hir fangs on his neck, if it were a legal move. Unfortunately, that moment of distraction gave the leopard morph the opportunity to take hir down with a foot sweep. Mikki landed painfully on hir tail, and Master MacDuff called out, “Arrêt! Point and match to Allen.”
Mikki and Allen got up and bowed to each other, then left the salle. Smarting from hir undignified defeat and rubbing hir smarting tail, Mikki turned to Master MacDuff.
“Master MacDuff, why are fang attacks forbidden in Savate et Griffe? We wear mouth-guards that would prevent accidental injuries, and in a life or death fight, I don't think most morphs would hold back from using their teeth.”
The older Cougar morph sighed and shook hir head. “No, most morphs probably wouldn’t, and that's exactly why fang attacks are not permitted.”
Mikki looked at hir quizzically, waiting for hir to go on.
“As morphs, we face a conundrum in studying the martial arts. Savate, Judo, Karate, Krav Maga all benefit us through exercise and self-discipline. But the other side of the coin is that it also exposes the darker side of morph psychology. Many species, including our own, were designed for combat. There is a feral side to us, a dangerous beast chained by reason and culture but still there, deep down inside us. To be accepted by humans as equals, as people, we have to keep that feral beast inside us under control at all times. Fang attacks are far too likely to loose the feral beast inside us. Understand?”
Mikki nodded gravely. Having mostly won hir struggle to see hirself as a person in spite of hir transformation, shi didn’t want to slide back into self-doubts.
Shi looked up at the clock and went on to speak to the entire room. “Five minutes left. Five laps and thirty push-ups and then class is dismissed.” Shi looked at Terri’s very pregnant belly and went on is a softer voice, “Except for our expectant mother, of course.”
A little later in the locker room, Mikki was just pulling on hir shirt as Linda walked over to hir from the showers, wearing just her fur. “Want to come over to my place again tonight?” the rabbit morph said with a sly grin. “You bring the wine this time.”
“My pleasure, pretty lady. Seven o’clock good for you?” She smiled and nodded, then turned and sauntered toward her locker, the sway of her shapely hips moving her tail seductively. Mikki felt glad shi was dressed, so that hir very male reaction to the rabbit fem was hidden from direct view.
Feeling a hand on hir shoulder, Mikki turned to see Terri standing there. “She’s very pretty, isn’t she?” shi said softly.
Mikki’s ears blushed and folded down in embarrassment and shi suddenly felt about fourteen and having to confess hir first crush on a girl. Shi nodded, momentarily tongue-tied.
Terri went on quietly, “Linda’s a nice girl, very smart and a good friend to both Kate and Melissa; I like her very much. And it's good to have a friend to help you through those times of the month, without any danger of unwanted pregnancies. When I was Kate’s age, I had a chakat companion…” Hir eyes took on a faraway look in fond memory. “But I'm straying off topic. You need to meet some other McClarens your own age, get to know them socially. You may not believe it now, but you'll probably want kittens of your own someday. They’re worth it,” shi finished with a fond look at Kate.
That cougar morph noticed hir mom looking at her and picked up her gym bag and joined the other two. “Ready to go Mom? I've worked up an appetite and I vote for an early lunch.”
“I'm the one eating for two and you're the one complaining shi's hungry.”
“Have a heart Mom, I'm a growing kit!”
Mikki chimed in, “Actually, that sounds good to me, too, and the food court is just around the corner. An early lunch would give me more time to get to my next Surface Survival class.”
“OK, OK, I give in. How was that ‘Tokyo Pagoda’ place you tried last night? I've got a craving for Japanese food…”
Richard Thurston’s intercom buzzed. “Group Leader Pike to see you, sir.”
“Ask him to come in, please.”
A few moments later, Kris Pike was seated across from Thurston’s desk and making his report. “…so the test run went as planned. The SS team was able to enter the control system, shut off access to the target corridors and take over the environmental controls as necessary.”
“Were the taps detected?”
“No, our person on the inside reports that the utilities techs think it was a software glitch.”
“Satisfactory.” He smiled grimly. “Very satisfactory. What is their next step?”
“Other than continued surveillance of the targets and the ProDyne facilities, there isn’t much they can do until the rest of their personnel and equipment arrives. But as you know, we have an operative on the inside at ProDyne now. It's taking a bit longer to get the proper cover stories and IDs together than we expected and there is a minor hitch in the equipment shipment.”
“Minor hitch?” The older man fixed the younger with a raised eyebrow and cold stare.
“Yes sir. Other, um, events we've staged elsewhere in the past year have caused the Lunar Customs people to be more thorough in their cargo inspections. In particular, they’re scanning everything coming into Luna for the energy signatures of powered weapons. We had to scrap the idea of supplying the Direct Action team with phasers or railguns. Our suppliers back in the Kingdom have come up with workable alternative weapons, and they promised expedited delivery which will get them in our hands before the last of the team members arrive.”
“Unfortunate, but acceptable. What is the status of the targets?”
“Still not much opportunity. The uplifted animal is unready to be out in the general population, and so is constantly in the ProDyne facility. The formerly human animal is out of the facility more often, but usually in the company of multiple SDF personnel.”
“About what we expected, for now. Keep me apprised of their status and the progress of the direct action teams arrivals.”
“Bless me Father for I have sinned. It's been, um… about three hundred years since my last confession.”
There was a long silence on the other side of the ornate screen that separated the two sides of the confessional before a response came. “Now there's something I've never heard in my confessional before, so I'm going to do something I've never done before. Mikki? I know it has to be you. I'll be happy to hear your confession, but perhaps we should talk a bit first.”
“Aren’t you supposed to pretend you don't know who I am? Father Joseph always did when I was a teenager.”
Father Campbell laughed quietly. “I suppose I usually do the same thing. It is after all, one of the tricks of the trade. This time though, I think that rather than just assigning you a few ‘Hail Marys’, ‘Our Fathers’, and a penance, we should have a talk first.”
The priest heard a sigh from the other side of the gridwork. “Father Joseph never let me off easy either. Do we talk here, or…”
“Oh, I think my office would be much more comfortable. Come with me and I'll make some tea for us and I think there are even a few of my mate’s shortbread cookies left to go with it.” Shi smiled impishly, even though Mikki couldn’t see hir. “We'll discuss penance afterwards. After all, I think you’ve just set an all-time record for a lapsed Catholic.”
After moving to the pastoral office and the promised refreshments were served, the conversation wandered around a bit, until Mikki moved the topic to the one that had been bothering hir.
“… so after I got home and started to think about it, I didn’t know how to feel about what I’d done with her. I mean, well, she’s a good friend and physically it was, um, nice.” Shi hesitated, a blush showing in hir ears as they folded back in embarrassment. “But… she was my first since my wife died, and I don't know how to feel about it.”
“I’d wondered what would bring you to the confessional, rather than just bringing it up at one of our little chats. So, what bothers you, Mikki? That you and her had sex outside of the sacrament of marriage?”
“Well, yes, I suppose.” The insides of hir ears reddened and folded down in a feline blush. “I sense some ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’ in my future.”
“You knew the risk you were taking when you came here for confession Mikki,” the priest teased gently.
Mikki laughed, then hir face took on a slightly defiant expression. “But even before I was pulled over into this, um, place, I was a widower. Is it still adultery if neither she nor I are married?”
“Do I detect a barracks lawyer here?” shi replied, lifting an eyebrow. “Or are you hoping that the Church has changed its stance on premarital sex?”
“If I were that much of an optimist, I’d be at the roulette table in one of the Tycho City casinos.” Shi shook hir head ruefully. “I foresee lots of penance in my future.”
“Suffering is good for the soul, my daughter,” shi said playfully, then frowned. “But while sex outside of the sacrament of marriage is no longer considered a mortal sin, marriage is encouraged and adultery is as serious to the Church now as it ever was.”
“So, why the change?”
“One of the reasons for the Stellar Reformation was discovering that there were other races out there in the galaxy, intelligent life forms who were obviously made by God as much as humans were, and many of them believed in a deity, a soul and an afterlife. And that forced the Church to reexamine its doctrine that morphs were mere intelligent animals, as lacking in an immortal soul as a dog or cat. That's still doctrine in the official state church of the HCKNA that claims to be the ‘real’ Christian church, by the way.” Shi bared hir canines in anger for a moment.
Mikki started to interject something into the conversation, but the priest shook hir head in both sadness and restrained anger and went on. “Things like sexual mores and customs vary widely among alien races and morph species, resulting from their differing biologies. To have one strict and narrow definition of sexual morality for all those different species would be impossible, and ludicrous for the Church to even attempt. For better or worse, to a certain extent, biology is destiny. Still, the Church does very strongly encourage its members to look for a life partner, or partners in the case of some species, and then confine sex to within a marriage or committed mating, for both moral and practical reasons.”
Mikki pondered that for a few minutes. “I guess that makes sense.” Shi paused, and both hir ears and tail went down. “What about matings between different species?” Shi smiled wryly, “I think I remember something about a command to be fruitful and multiply.”
The priest shook hir head in mock sadness. “Now you're just baiting me, Mikki. You know that Mother Campbell and I are married and that being of different morph species we cannot have children of our bodies. And as you know, we see this as a good thing, allowing us to regard our parishioners as our children and extended family.”
“I…”, Mikki looked down at hir hands, then back up into the priest’s eyes. “In a way I see inter-species infertility as possibly a good thing for me. I'm not sure I'm ready to be a father again as things stand now, and I… I like my new species, but I don't know if I'll ever be ready to be a mother. That probably wouldn’t be a good thing in a herm relationship.”
“All relationships require compromise, Mikki. You may well find another 'Cougar who doesn’t want children, or one who prefers to do all the child-bearing in the family.” Shi smiled gently, “Or after helping a mate through a pregnancy and holding your child for the first time, you may change your mind and decide to give motherhood a try.”
Mikki stared down into her mug of tea, “With all the impossible things that have happened to me, I suppose I shouldn’t dismiss that one as impossible. Even if I can't imagine it now.”
“If I recall correctly, you have a birth in your own family due any day now. Your mother Terri is going to bring a new baby sister into the world soon. Maybe that will give you a new perspective on motherhood.”
“I'm not sure how much difference that would make. I've been to the birth of one of my children back… back where I came from.”
The preist put a hand on Mikki’s forearm, “I believe that witnessing a birth as a male isn’t the same thing. It's a different experience when you know that you are capable of the same miracle.” A look of fond remembrance came over the other 'Cougar’s face.
“But, I thought that you and your mate didn’t have children.”
“I wasn’t always a priest, Mikki. Both Mother Karen and I had lives before we took our vows. But we're here to talk about you, not me.”
Mikki opened hir mouth to reply, shut it and nodded soberly. “But that's not what actually bothering me.” Shi gave the priest a haunted look. “I've started to believe again that I have a soul, but… Do I have a human soul, and if I do, does that make it wrong for me to be with a morph? But I have a morph body now, so wouldn’t that make it wrong for me to take a human lover?”
“I see. Your first time taking a partner as a morph has truly made you think about your new self and your place in God’s plan, hasn’t it?” Shi smiled gently, “It sounds as if you’ve truly had a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment.”
Mikki nodded hir head silently.
“First, Church doctrine says, and I deeply believe, that a soul is a soul, without gender or species, and that God cares for them all equally. You have the same soul you’ve always had, just differently packaged.” Shi looked at Mikki, who just nodded for hir to go on.
“Second, the Church long ago recognized the error in the doctrine that marriage and sex were only for procreation. Otherwise an otherwise normal marriage that didn’t produce children would be somehow sinful, as would a marriage for companionship between two people beyond their childbearing years. With me so far?”
“I get it. And so would a marriage where the man or woman had been injured and became infertile.”
“Exactly. And to muddy the waters even further, we McClarens are more closely related to humans genetically, than we are to many, if not most other morph species. So, does that mean it would be less of a sin to take a human mate than a morph less related to us?”
Mikki eyes the priest with wry suspicion. “Are you a Jesuit, Father? I knew one in my former life who loved to tie me up in logical knots like this.”
Shi laughed. “No daughter, but I've had much the same experience, crossing logical swords in debate with Jesuits. Good fun if one has time and is in the mood for it.” Rising to hir feet, shi went on, “But for now, shall we go back to the confessional? I believe you have three centuries of sins to unload.” And as the other morph got up to join hir, shi added, “And you can be sure that part of your penance will be to attend Mass this Sunday.”
Story copyright © 2022 W. E. Miller.
Chakats and the Chakat Universe are the creations of Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2022 Kat Miller.
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