by Bill Keiffer
part 2

-= the ride =-

  The clock in the lobby was stuck for a short while at 1:15. The janitor who fixed it, was the only person to take note of the situation. While the clock was repaired before any one could use it as an excuse for getting back from lunch late, the wrong time was noted by Helen Brewer and that, in an odd, roundabout way, affected history.
  Helen was getting a late start on lunch and she was surprised to see it was only 1:15. It sure felt like more than fifteen minutes past her scheduled lunch break. She was annoyed and flustered, her abs twitching sadistically. PMS, of course, meant that her husband, Jason, would be devastated to learn she was not pregnant yet. She wasn't too thrilled over this news either; despite her protestations to the contrary, she was beginning to hear her own biological clock ticking.
  It was a rather disturbing sensation.
  Little Blue had just come back from lunch, but the churning in his stomach that started at a few minutes past two, was enough to send him packing. He bid his manager adieu, invoked the name of the HR director, and made a bee-line for the elevator.
  Little Blue was neither little nor blue. In point of fact, no one called or thought of him as Little Blue, except Little Blue and his online Mommy. He loved his Mommy very much and she was the only thing that kept him sane. He knew when he finally met his Mommy in real life, he was going to crawl into a little ball on her lap and cry for hours.
  In the elevator, he nodded to Helen without really seeing her. She nodded to him without really seeing him. The old decrepit elevator closed its doors and these two people had a series of remarkably similar thoughts before all hell broke loose.
  Helen thought she'd make a great mother. Little Blue thought Helen would be a good Mommy.
  Helen pictured herself breast-feeding her future child. Little Blue pictured himself suckling from a giant version of Helen.
  At a sudden, angry tug of her abdomen muscles, Helen worried that her pad might not be absorbent enough. She wondered miserably if she had extra pads in her desk, otherwise something very embarrassing might happen. A sudden, tight pressure on his bladder alerted Little Blue to the very real possibility that his adult diaper might not be up to the job. Hopefully, he'd make it to his car before anything embarrassing happened.
  Then the dam burst and Little Blue felt as if his whole body was being juiced for pee-pee by some angry god. He screamed and his bowels screamed huge writhing bolts of white electric energy. The elevator stopped and rocked violently between floors and Helen was thrown against the back wall as Little Blue continued to scream and wail.
  Helen's mind turned away and recalled the time she'd gotten too close to fireworks as a child. That was a more bearable horror then watching Little Blue's ugly adult body burn away into nothingness.
  The smoldering clothes of Little Blue fell into a pile on the floor between Helen's legs.
  The building was old. Broken elevators were nothing new, but they were a fresh dotcom, a new start-up and sacrifices had to be made. It was a very exciting place to be, it was the cutting edge, and clunky, undependable elevators from just about the turn of the century were a part of the charm of working for this company.
  Eventually, something in the elevator worked itself free and the elevator went to the basement and opened its doors smoothly, as if the ride had been perfectly normal. Helen's foot slid forward. The doors tried to close repeatedly over the next ten minutes, but the foot mocked their efforts.
  When the other janitor, the one who hadn't fixed the clock, found Helen lying there in her charred clothing he immediately called 911. The scene spoke of rape to him and it frightened him, as the only black man in the building, he was certain he was going to blamed for something horrible one of these days. This... looked pretty horrible.
  He checked her pulse and tried not to touch anything. She was exposed, her thighs a bright red, as if burned by whatever had done this. He wanted to cover her, but he knew the importance of preserving the crime scene. Instead, he committed everything to memory, the blood between her legs, the torn and burned panties, and every piece of litter in the elevator that might be a clue.
  Only then did he very carefully use his key to turn off the elevator and keep the doors from closing. To his immense relief, he left no finger prints on the crime scene.
  Little Blue knew nothing of this. He only knew his Mommy had finally come for him and he yawned his tiny little mouth in the fluid of his Mommy's womb and concentrated on getting his tiny little hand to his tiny little mouth to suck on his tiny little thumb. It had been a very hard day and he was exhausted. "I love you, Mommy," he silently told his warm, moist universe and dreamed of the love he knew she felt for him and him alone.

-= flat cat =-

  Jeff coloured in the anthropomorphic fox he was working on with what he hoped was the right shade of blue when he let out the world's largest belch. It was a rather impressive example of gas release and he wished he had had some warning to tape it. He knew some furs online who would love to hear Airborne letting loose some gas.
  Five minutes later, after letting loose two more equally long, and somehow grosser, explosions, Jeff went to his computer, leaving his sketch pad and CNN on in the living room ducked into the computer room and recorded his next few belches. He was feeling a bit bloated, but otherwise he felt ok.
  Had he stayed in the living room a bit longer, he might have worried more. CNN broke the news of a bear running wild in Cupertino, CA and then helicopter images of a giant centaur-skunk thing racing a bus along a California Interstate. Friends tried to IM him, to share with him rumors of Furry critters finally walking the Earth, but Jeff had completely turned off the program, as his alter-ego had over two dozen commissions to complete before the convention. Instead, Jeff belched until he was light headed and his throat roar.
  He chuckled, wondering what his co-workers would think of him, if they had seen him belching away like an idiot. Jeff enjoyed his quiet reputation immensely and he got a chuckle passing as a mundane.
  Well, not Jeff, exactly: Airborne got a laugh out of it. Jeff was just a support system for Airborne and had no feelings or opinions of his own. Jeff Bakke just existed until the universe was ready to behave properly. Airborne knew these were not normal beliefs, so he hid himself deep within Jeff, waiting. Waiting and laughing at the world while Airborne and his mates designed the future to suit their needs.
  Airborne almost fell on his face, as he got out of the computer chair. His legs felt all rubbery so maybe it was time to lay down for awhile. It was 4:00 and he was not sure when he had eaten last. A grilled cheese sandwich around noon that had tasted like plastic (not that that was a bad thing), if he recalled correctly. Odd, that that had given him so much gas, he thought as he reclined on the couch.
  He felt all hollow inside. Not hungry. Just empty.
  I better not be coming down with the flu while I'm on vacation, he thought. Further Confusion was in just a few days and he was looking forward to meeting many of his various friends. He was an artist and putting faces to names were really important to him. Like Richard Reid, who was rightfully expecting a commissioned portrait of his character, Katra, at the con. A portrait Jeff had not started to even sketch yet.
  It was kind of gray and overcast outside and the TV featured an apparently computer-generated lizard man talking to an interviewer. Neither interested Jeff very much, although he was annoyed the cats had stepped on the remote and changed the channel again. The remote was their new toy, apparently. He suspected his brother had stopped by and dipped the remote in cat nip while he'd been at work. He turned off the television and snoozed until his cat sat on his chest.
  Jeff got up, the silliness of being Airborne forgotten as his knees shook like limp rubber bands under him. He stripped to take a shower, but decided that he didn't want to pass out in the shower. Food. Fuel. He should eat something instead. He'd no doubt feel better with something inside of him.
  He sucked up some aerosol cheese in a can and was suddenly inspired by an image of Airborne confusing fix-a-flat for the can o'cheese. That made him feel better, until he remembered the dozens of commissions he had promised people. He wasn't going to be able to enjoy the con if he spent all weekend hiding in his room, trying to finish sketches.
  He flopped back on the couch and he sighed.
  He didn't stop sighing for ten minutes. To his horror, he could not stop. The air continued to leak out of him at a steady, unbelievable rate and he was helpless to stop it. His skin turned purple and black stripes appeared. He tried to yell for help, but all he could manage were a few strained stage whispers until finally the room spun too many times and he passed out.
  His body continued to ignore the laws of physics as it hollowed out, bones vanished, and eyes became flat, almost blind things that stared cartoon-like up at the ceiling. At this point his mouth sealed up and the air continued to leak out of what was once his penis and was now some sort of organic valve.
  Then with almost all the air out of the hollow chambers of his body, muscles lining the skin bag that was now his body began to pull themselves together. Airborne's body was cold and like a giant scrotum, it began to contract in on itself to conserve its heat. This also served to squeeze out the last of the fetid air from within the living balloon.
  Airborne folded into a nice neat rectangle, his purple and black body looking like a wrinkled leather bundle almost exactly one foot wide by two feet long. In fact, this varied from his FurryMuck form only in thickness. The virtual Airborne was less than three inches thick when dormant, but the virtual Airborne was made of vinyl latex. The real Airborne had to be made up out of flesh and blood. Six and a half inches thick was the best the power could do and still leave Airborne alive.
  Of course, Airborne could hardly be expected to survive forever, folded up and hibernating, but forever had not been in the specs. Time and consequence were irrelevant to the power. The power simply was.
  And then was no more.
  Predictably, one of Jeff's cats decided he'd make a good bed and went to sleep on his flattened and warm master. To the cat's delight, his master did not dislodge him. A slow and shallow heartbeat soon lulled the cat to a light sleep.

-= hope =-

  Denny Muren was perhaps one of the unluckiest gay men in Manhattan. He knew that was just the depression talking, really, but it sure felt true. Lots of things had really worked out well for him in the beginning. Right after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 1994, Denny was picked up by MTV news as a production assistant and now he was one of four rotating Key Grips. While it was a far cry from the set designer he had once hoped to be, he found the job of planning and coordinating sets, location shoots, equipment, and his seven (on the average) man crew of grips to be very rewarding. He wasn't sure if he'd give up the 12-hour days and stale doughnuts for all the glory and money of set designer.
  Of course, those same 12-hour days were killing him. Twice already this week he'd almost failed to take his AZT cocktail on time. The anti-depressants had killed his sex drive -- not that there was anyone waiting for him at home any more -- and his concentration was shot. Soon, the mistakes would begin to pile up and his grips would not be able to cover for him. Worrying about it just made it worse, but Denny could not help himself.
  Lesions could be covered by pancake, but mistakes were harder to hide and video did not lie.
  Things went crazy around six the day Reality started openly changing the rules. Right below the studio were they were setting up for the Tom Green show, perhaps the oddest man in the world Denny was ever going to meet, stopped traffic and announced he'd been car jacked by something not human.
  The thing was, the man was not human himself. Standing in a black, sleeveless cloak and a red Def-Tones t-shirt, supple lips and flexing nostrils of an equine shouting orders to the stunned police men, the creature seemed too surrealistic to take seriously apparently. It wasn't until the horse-faced man was thrown into the building by an unseen force, that the off-duty policemen hired by MTV to handle crowd control went into action.
  Everyone with a camera and a microphone, staff and independent, rushed down to get a shot of the creature, real or not, costume or not. When news happened on your doorstep, you didn't waste a chance to be first. No one wanted to be scooped in front of their own building. Only Jerry Willoughby had the foresight to grab a steady-cam operator and a well dressed intern and cut through the basement to a little-used service entrance. The wires had been churning out story after story of incredible sightings all day, but New Yorkers were much more jaded than the rest of the country. If it didn't happen in Manhattan, it was kind of hard to believe it was happening at all.
  The trio had popped out just inches away from the weird, black man. Later, Lance Strunk, the cam operator, said it was like being in Nam and coming up out of the bush to find yourself face to face with Charlie. Not that Lance was old enough to have been in the Vietnam war, but everyone who met the horse-man calling himself Grey understood completely.
  He looked like a horse from the neck up, but the key word was like. The nose and the teeth seemed dead on, but the muzzle was shorter than any real horse's. With the exception of his short, kinky mohawk and his eye lashes, he was totally hairless. The solid black eyes were mostly forward mounted, not much bigger than a normal set of eyes, and when the light hit them just right, a rather creepy shade of red floated in the middle of each eye as if something smoldered deep inside it.
  His name was Grey Van Maulkin (the Official Mutant of the Garden State, as he quipped to Jerry). Denny got a good look at him as the key grip frantically tried to set up the gobos in such a way that the red in Grey's eyes either vanished altogether or was in both eyes at the same time. Grey compounded the problem by looking about the studio, as if waiting for something to jump out at him.
  Perhaps they were. Fox was reporting the lizard man they had an exclusive interview with had been taken into custody by the FBI on a trumped up charge.
  Grey claimed to be as human as any of them and an American, to boot, despite his lilting, hard to place accent. His deep voice vibrated with a unique nasal timbre thanks to the sinus cavity of his muzzle and Jerry thought he sounded a bit like James Earl Jones doing a Mr. Ed impersonation. Only two of the grips had agreed to be in the same room as Grey and his voice seemed to calm and comfort them as easily as his appearance had disturbed the rest of his crew.
  "What if he's contagious?" more than one person had asked.
  What if? What if? If the transfiguration was contagious, then Jerry would be the first to know. Jerry had actually touched the very civil monster, as had a cop who instinctively rushed to the aid of the fallen horse-man. And, what about those of use with abnormal immune systems? What would happen to someone like that?
  Instead of stepping back, Denny had stepped forward and pushed his sleeves up.
  What if he became a horse? He'd never heard of a horse coming down with AIDS. He very much doubted any one had.
  What if? What if? Would it really be that bad?
  Kurt Loder came in and shook Grey's hands, although he did so wearing a set of rubber medical gloves. They showed a clip of Grey holding up a series of handwritten notes. "Find the subscribers." "Save Them." "Protect the Herd."
  Kurt asked about the subscribers and the herd Grey had been referring to. Grey explained about the TSA and its mailing list, and how this form was the perfect form for him, an expression of his true self really, the physical icon of his soul. All this Denny only half heard. His minds was on much more practical matters, like keeping the cables clear and tangle free and what if? What if? What if there really was a list one could just sign up for to get the perfect body? And what did the invisible man have to do with this? Jerry and Grey had gotten Kurt to agree not to ask about the invisible man so as not to cause a panic.
  How strong did one have to be to throw a 275 pound man in a 15 foot high arc and into the side of a building? Was invisibility even possible? A part of Denny wanted Kurt to call Grey a liar, but how could he when the horse man sat there, letting a camera man film the very organic inside of his mouth to prove it was no mask?
  Sherlock Holmes would go crazy. In a world where the impossible could not be ruled out, how was one to make sense out of anything?
  "It's a matter of faith, really," Grey said to Kurt. "If nothing else, I am a hand-picked agent of change."
  "Do you think that you were chosen by God?"
  "What makes you think there's only one God, anymore?" Then he smiled, or Denny thought he might be smiling. It was hard to tell, only the eyes seemed really expressive. "I don't care if you call it God, Yahwah, or the Fickle Finger of Fate; the real Millennium starts today. Things have changed, people have changed, but I still have my faith in humanity. Bluenight was worried we'd be declared non-human and then they arrested him. Read him his rights and hauled them away, and that should settle his concerns... the United States does not arrest animals. No declaration was needed."
  Kurt laughed at that, but it was a very polite laugh. They talked some more, but Denny was too busy doing the work of three men to really listen. He would joke later that it was three union men, so it wasn't that bad, but it was very hectic and at one point he slipped and hurt himself.
  And he bled.
  He tried not to panic; it was only a trickle of blood, but he was contagious. He was HIV positive and if it the doctor hadn't declared him as having full-blown AIDS yet, it was only because he was avoiding the doctors.
  The interview was over and Denny was using gaffer's tape to bandage his hand when suddenly he smelled a strong cologne of sandalwood, lemon grass, and a spicy musk he couldn't place. He turned to discover Grey standing over him, his nostrils flaring.
  "I don't like blood play," the horse man said as Jerry ran over to his side.
  "What?" Denny asked, startled and taking a step back. Then his eyes fell on Jerry and he suffered another shock. Jerry was not shorter than he was. Jerry wore concealing make-up, too, for his face had been breaking out constantly, supposedly with pimples, although Denny strongly suspected the contracted producer was gay, too, or at least bisexual.
  Jerry was shorter by an inch and his face positively glowed with youthful energy. Like many people at MTV, Jerry was younger than most in his position at other companies. Unless you looked closely at him, Jerry Willoughby looked about 16 or 17 instead of being twice that old.
  But Denny was looking closely and all he saw was a teenager looking back. He dropped the gaffer tape and Grey picked up his taped hand. "Jerry and I would like to ask you to volunteer for an experiment."
  Denny tried to think quickly. It was experimentation that had exposed him to AIDS. Just once. Just once and that's all it took. He wasn't sure if he was ready to experiment with a horse man and a little self-absorbed prick that looked fresh out of high school. "What?" he asked, unable to form more of a sentence than that.
  Grey and Jerry seemed to understand. "Do you have email?" Jerry asked, to which Denny could only nod. Barry had left the HP tower behind.
  "I'm still changing," Grey said as the wad of cloth dissolved beneath his fingers. Then the blood fell away like so much dust. Denny pulled his hand back and stared at the tear. The bleeding had stopped, but it was still red and ugly, an open wound. The plastic coated tape fell away, too, the glue having mysteriously vanished. "Sooner or later, I'll stop. Sooner or later, the Feds will shut off Dragon's server, or it will crash. Probably sooner. For all I know, Dragon may accidentally step on it. I have no idea how big he'll be." Then he leaned forward and pulled at Denny's arm and tried to lick the wound.
  "Don't! I'm HIV positive!" There. He said and his words echoed heavily about the room, drawing the walls closer to him.
  "We know, Denny, we've known for awhile." Jerry smiled and he inhaled deeply and two small mounds of flesh pushed against the producer's black, unisex T-shirt. "That's why we're asking you to subscribe to the list."
  "You can be what you've always dreamed of being, disease free." Grey spread his large spidery hands and indicated the laptop a PA just ran and gave Jerry. "I don't know what will happen when the server goes down... and it will... but what if... what if this was your chance to get rid of AIDS? What if this was your chance to spread your wings and really fly?"
  What if? What if? What if?
  Jerry brought the Internet up and Grey typed in the URL. The site was amazingly slow due to the large number of hits it was getting, but eventually Denny found himself looking at the stark white form of the TSA-Talk info page. He entered his email and then he picked a password...
  ...and he hit SUBSCRIBE.

part 2