by Bill Keiffer

-= rat =-

  Jared grabbed Crystal and found he had just enough strength to lift the overly excited dog a foot off the ground. The Cairn terrier's seemingly impossible growth spurt was simply an illusion produced by a larger, more worrisome occurrence. Jared was shrinking and neither prayer nor simple force of will appeared to have any impact.
  His arms had grown much shorter than the rest of him, even as his hips had grown wider. He felt clumsy and uncomfortable as he changed, but he seemed free of any true pain. He was sure he was hurting Crystal, though as he half carried her, half dragged her across his apartment.
  She was an old dog and already, his change thus far seemed to be putting a greater stress on her than on him. As much as he loved her, he didn't want her to share the same room with him once his unexpected transformation was complete.
  He was becoming a rat and he had no wish to test the bonds of their friendship once he became the very creature her genetic template had been geared to hunt. With several huffed, but sincere apologies, he managed to get Crystal into the bedroom and closed the door with a reassuring slam.
  It seemed odd to be so sure, so certain one was become something other than human. Yet, staring at his distorted reflection as he caught his breath, he couldn't bring himself to deny what was happening to him. He had wispy brown fur and his ears had moved to the top of his head. His eyes were solid black marbles and the bridge of his nose hadn't gotten any smaller, although the rest of his face had. He didn't need his glasses any longer, nor would they have fit on his shifting and diminishing features had he worn them, but he clutched at them all the same and held them over the reflection, as if to see himself better.
  He stood as straight and tall as possible and silently promised the Almighty that he was ready for whatever He had in mind. He stared at his reflection on the door knob for another full minute before he felt centered enough to call his wife, Kimberly.
  Naked, because he had given up tripping over pants that refused to transform with him, Jared picked up the phone and dialed the number for Pizza Hut. He punched the buttons from memory, but he wanted the simple reassurance that his mind was still his and fully functional. Silently, he ran the numerals of the phone number through a few simple algebraic equations, and then compared his answers on a pocket calculator. The math came to him as easily as ever and he felt relieved, for the moment.
  As the other line rang, he spoke the resultant figures aloud. His voice squeaked, but the words were still intelligible. At least to his ears. Oh Lord, please let me at least retain speech long enough to tell Kimberly that I love her. That I will always love her. And, please Lord... don't make a liar out of me.
  On the third ring, one of his wife's employees professionally, if woodenly, answered the phone with today's pizza special. "Is Kimberly there?" he squeaked as the phone suddenly seemed to grow 5% heavier, interrupting the sales pitch.
  "Wha?" the voice on the other end, as if Jared had snapped her out of a deep trance. And she wasn't overly happy about it, either.
  "Your manager," Jared growled, his anxiety making his voice even more shrill than he intended. To his own ears he sounded like a screaming woman from some black and white slapstick comedy. "Kimberly Gilele Egan! It's a family emergency! I need to speak to Kimberly right now!" Crystal began to howl then and Jared actually felt a shiver of fear. His own dog... Jared heard a palm clasp over the receiver at the other end and he tried once again to center himself. They had only really been married for such a short time, Kimberly and Jared, but he had shared more things with her than any other woman he had ever known, including his love of transformational stories and his minor celebrity of his cyber-alter-ego. Still, none of that prepared him for actually transforming into a rat. What was he to tell her? "Hello? Kimberly, you have to come home right away. I've turned into a rat. And, oh, by the way, can you bring home a pizza with extra cheese?"
  Oh, no! He was supposed to pick her up from work! Then he stopped that train of thought. It was almost five. The Lord will provide, he told himself firmly. She could have one of the delivery boys drive her here if it came to that., but he had to talk to her before it was too late. If she waited for a cab, he doubted there'd be anything left of him at all.
  The hand came off the other end and the vapid girl drawled, "She's busy right now. She wants to know if it's important."
  Jared dropped the phone as suddenly his legs twisted out from under him and he was three inches shorter. Claws grew from the edges of his toes and the sight nearly paralyzed him. With an effort he reached for the phone and held the mouth piece in both of his furry hands and spoke as firmly and as clearly as possible.
  "Yes," the rat man said, knowing the girl had forgotten or misunderstood what he had said only seconds ago. "It. Is. Very. Important."

-= angels =-

  Charlie Russel had a splitting headache.
  At two, the actuary had been hit with the worst headache of his life and he knew he was going to die. And, if he was going to die, he was going to do it at home, with his girls. So, he hauled his 343-pound ass out of the chair at 2:30 and, as gingerly as possible for a man of his size, excused himself and waddled home. It was not a long walk to his apartment, although each step was like a jack hammer against his poor abused brain.
  Lumbering up the stairs, brought choking sobs until he was sure he could go no further. He'd never been this sick before, and he became surer still that his death was upon him. The idea actually brought relief to his tired, tortured soul, but he did not want to die alone. He had the girls to think of, his three precious dark angels that were the only things that had made the last ten years worth living.
  At 3:45 he turned the key to his apartment and staggered into a bibliophile's nightmare or heaven, depending on how you looked at it. There was no television in the living room, just a computer on a desk afloat a sea of books of every imaginable kind, and a recliner that was stuck in a permanent recline. Three large black velvet paintings decorated the walls, which were otherwise bare.
  Charlie Russel navigated the maze of books, toppling over a pile of '80s-vintage books on the Soviet Union and the cold war. He didn't care. Another novel that he'd never write, but perhaps one that another would finish for him. His will had left specific instructions on the happy chance he never made it to 30.
  "Hello, girls," he said to the paintings, and felt his heart suddenly begin to beat three times faster. "I'm afraid... auh... I'm not going to be buying it in the line... ugh... the line of duty, like we planned." The girls looked down on him quietly, their beauty unmarred by his ugly life and his ugly death.
  The girls were his Dark Angels, tall black triplets with style and grace. He had had them especially commissioned right after college, with the idea that their pictures would grace the books he had half written, once he found the right publisher.
  Sweet Foxy Brown might have been their mother, for except for their bone-straight hair, they could have slinked out of a blaxploitation flick from the '70s. They were all tall, black and lean.
  In a nod to the '80s, Charlie had given them metallic tinted hair. Penny had copper hair, short and sassy, her thick brown eyes and copper lips always ready to offer love to the right man, even when he turned out to be in the employ of Doctor Chaos. Rose had shoulder-length scarlet hair that matched her Puerto Rico hustler red lips, and she was as fiery as her hair and lips suggested. Monroe had white-silver hair down to her sweet, plump ass; she was Charlie's favourite. Monroe came across like an ice princess. She was the most cerebral sister and her passions were harder to perceive, but she knew a passion even greater than her two sisters combined. It was Monroe's secret shame to be in love with the one man she could never have: their Governmental liaison, Russell "Chuck" Charlemagne, the Lion of Army Intelligence.
  Then the '80s became the '90s. Then the '90s became the past, and Charlie found himself working so hard to update their stories. Conrad Khaos became Doctor Chaos and there was always something else he had to fix. The sex-ray, the nympho-ray. The transmutation ray. With every passing year, there seemed to be so much more to say about men and woman and those in-between. The girls required total commitment. Their world had to be perfect in every way. If he could just make their world perfect, he knew the veil would fall away and he could step into the life of "Chuck" Charlemagne, who was as cut and lean as he was smart.
  He cried then, in his pain and misery. He had failed them! No one had ever read their adventures and, if his will was not found, no one ever would! His poor girls!
  His brother, Leo, was right. He was a failure! Leo had been the only other one besides the artist to see the girls. His brother had laughed so hard, so cruelly at the black velvet triptych. "My god, you actually posed them like Charlie's Angels!"
  Charlie hadn't seen the humor and he ended up throwing his hyena brute of a brother out that night. It wasn't like Charlie's Angels at all! His girls were different: an original creation of his hidden genius and frustrated passions. No one else could have thought up half the things he had thought of.
  Or so he'd believed.
  Bill Hart was a name he began to see more and more of over the years on the Internet. Charlie was both disturbed and excited to discover the series of stories all loosely called, "Spells'R'Us". The Shop Keeper could very well have been an agent of Doctor Chaos! Why, they even referred to the Home Office every now and then.
  Charlie's vision doubled and he fell on top of a stack of books, interrupting his train of thoughts. Corners and hard lines pressed into his back, as he tried to control his fat, clumsy arms. His body continued to betray him as he tried to right himself. His mind swam with the unfairness of it all as he gave up and simply decided to crawl for the bed room.
  Pile after pile of books fell before him, but he paid them no mind. Once the smell of his rotting corpse alerted his neighbors that someone had indeed lived here, the CSI team would come and look and examine the scene of the struggle, concluding that Charlie Russel hadn't just given up and died. That he went down fighting.
  "A sad death to a sad life."
  Charlie could almost hear Rose picking over the crime scene of his apartment with her acid wit.
  Her sister, Penny, would sadly agree, saying, "The poor man was barely alive his whole life. I'm not really sure you could call this murder." It was so sad, but true. The only good things in his life were frozen in ink, paint, and the magnetic suspension of an electronic medium two steps shy of being magic.
  He mourned his own life with hot tears as he crawled into bed, a feat of engineering that no one living would ever appreciate. He took the sketchbook from other side of the bed and cried his tears on the crude drawings within. He was functionally blind now, but he did not need to see them. He knew each drawing by heart. His girls kissing villains. Heroes. Each other. Clothes on. Clothes off. Flesh intertwining and slick with desire. Moist chocolate skin writhing in agonies and ecstasies that Charles' mind could not release until he had put clumsy pen to paper.
  He began stroking himself, feeling as if the girls were with him as he always imagined them to be. Stroking, hugging, kissing, licking, writhing...
  ...loving him...
  Then he felt their gentle hands upon him; he could feel their love radiating to him. As he passed from this life, he suddenly realized that he could pass into the realm of fiction on his way to the afterlife. What was heaven and hell, after all, if not fictional? He reached out for them and took them into his arms, even as he heard Monroe chiding her lovely and sexy sisters.
  "It's up to us to carry on for him now, girls." At the sound of her voice, Charlie felt his seed burst from his loins for the last time in his short and boring life. Only this time, there was something soft and warm to catch it, something more alive than he ever was.
  "Thank you for not letting me die a virgin," he said softly and then faded into nothingness.
  Rose stretched with feline grace and wonder what she was doing in the safe house. She had trouble recalling what she had been doing the night before but she felt incredibly sated. That meant she must have had sex in the last five hours. Someday, she was going to pay Dr. Pavel Chaoski for subjecting her to the Nympho ray. If her sisters hadn't been so open minded and accommodating, the drives and passions the evil man had created within her might very well have driven her to betray her country.
  Penny walked out of the bathroom clad only in a white, sweat stained arrow shirt that would have made a better tent than shirt. Her copper hair was a bit unkempt, and she didn't waste a good morning to her sister to complain about their missing make-up case. Then she smiled and kissed Rose full on the lips, in a long, slow passionate kiss that wasn't exactly sisterly, but wasn't exactly so wanton as to stir her sister's condition beyond control. "What's the matter, sweetie? You're looking at me like you've never seen me before."
  Rose had to blink. "I don't know... it's like I wasn't expecting you to be here or something."
  "Silly, Rose, You know we can't leave you alone," Penny said, "Not since Doctor Chaos kidnapped you and Vice President Howard Stern to his secret island base off the coast of Florida and committed all those unspeakable acts on the both of you. It's a shame you haven't adjusted as well as How... I mean, Helen Stern, but you were a horny girl to start with and that just made it so much worse for you."
  Rose was about to admit how much she was looking forward to meeting Dr. Cipher to discuss her condition when she caught herself. "Why are you telling me all this?" she asked sharply, "I was there, you know."
  The thought seemed to startle her sister. However, before she could formulate an answer, Monroe's voice brought them both up short. "Girls! Come quick! Look at this!"
  If Monroe was raising her voice, there must be something wrong! They raced to the kitchen, nearly spilling over each other on the sea of books in the living room. They didn't ask what she wanted, because she was pointing at the television.
  MTV News. Kurt Loder. A talking horse creature in a black cape and red t-shirt.
  "The Aquines?" Penny gasped and Rose shuddered, recalling her seduction of the alien captain and his thick alien presence probing her from within. She had thought no normal man would ever satisfy after that, but Chuck had shown her there was more to men than length and girth... and then Dr. Chaoski had ruined it all! Damn him.
  "No," Monroe said and hit the mute button even as Rose realized an Aquine had a more bestial appearance than the creature speaking to the newsman. "Earlier today, a handful of people mysterious transformed into creatures from science fiction and fantasy. Already, there's a lizard man, a horse man, a centaur, a giant skunk-thing and more coming out of the wood work, no doubt. There's no rhyme or reason to it, which points to the only man ever to escape us."
  "Dr. Chaos!" they said at the same time.
  Monroe nodded. "Exactly, now let's find our clothes and bring that sucker to justice, for once and for all!"

-= walk a mile =-

  At 2:20, Roy's pants betrayed him and made him nearly moon his manager. It was a happy surprise and Roy tightened his belt with a smile. About time all that gym work finally kicked in, he thought to himself. Bob Keever, the manager, looked at him oddly, walking his eyes across Roy's forehead.
   "I must be working you too hard," Bob quipped. "You're going a bit gray."
  Roy smiled lopsidedly and shrugged. "Not like I'm going to have it for much longer," he mentioned wryly. "But I will be glad when Jeff gets back from vacation."
  "Me, too. My daughter has been bugging me about getting them together and she's just not taking no for an answer."
  Good luck, Roy thought with a smirk. Out loud, he used a gentle smile, "She's cute but she's not exactly his type."
  Bob sighed. "What exactly is his type?"
  Roy was very tempted to spill everything right then and there, but he liked having the secret all to himself. Besides, who would believe him? Then the perfect answer came to him. "Airheads," he said with a shit-eating grin.
  Then with a bit more small talk that told Roy that bit of info was more of what he had wanted and not the TBS reports that Rob had supposedly called him into the office for. As Roy turned to leave, Bob called after him. "Expecting a flood?"
  Roy looked at his good natured, smiling superior and then followed his gaze to his own fat ankles. The cuffs were a good two inches off the ground. He must have pulled his pants up too high when he had to readjust the belt. With a sighing chuckle that wasn't exactly forced, Roy tugged his pants legs back in place and strode towards his office.
  As he passed Jeff's empty cubicle, his pants betrayed him again and he nearly took a header on his low-no pile carpeted floor. Papers spilled forward as he decided his hands needed to catch at the floor before the floor caught him. Luckily, with Jeff on vacation, there was no one to see his literal faux pas.
  He tightened his belt yet again and then sat down in Jeff's chair with a grunt. He stared at the blank computer screen. He looked at the barren desk, a workstation that gave no clue to his office mate's true self. Roy knew that if he turned on the computer, the pre-installed company logo desktop would appear on the screen until the preset Company approved screen saver would take over the screen.
  And Roy sat there, considering doing just that very thing: turning Jeff's computer on.
  It wasn't like Roy Keller was in love with Jeff Bakke.
  Roy was as straight as an I-beam. Nobody was really sure about Jeff, except Roy, who knew that Jeff wasn't exactly gay or straight. Jeff never dated because the kind of person he was attracted to did not exist in this reality. It made people talk, Jeff's not dating and all, so when Roy had too many beers in him and Jeff had a few too many also, and the co-workers were reaching for something else to talk about...
  ...Roy asked.
  And, Jeff answered.
  It was hard to tell which one was more surprised to hear the words coming out of their mouths.
  Roy had always been a little jealous of Jeff, truth be told. Jeff was younger, had a full head of hair, and ate anything he wanted to. Jogging around the block was the only exercise Jeff admitted to while Roy had to contend with a swelling pot belly that ignored the three hours every other day in the gym. When they had to both take a course in Java scripting for their next project, Roy watched in awe as Jeff seemingly sucked all the information out of the instructors head from the back of the room.
  Of course, Jeff was so personable and friendly, that jealousy seemed so petty and silly. Roy had long ago accepted that he was just about average in all respects, maybe a little above average in some areas, but overall he was average. If Jeff was superior, then there was little Roy could do about it, except be thankful Jeff wasn't the type to be rubbing his nose in it every time the programmer turned around. After all, Jeff would probably be his boss sooner or later.
  So, Roy did everything he could do not to think about Jeff.
  The image of Jeff's lips moving, his deep blue eyes piercing Roy's alcohol fogged brain, was burned into Roy'd brain, as was the feeling of mental circuit breakers blowing telling him he could not have possibly heard what he thought he had said. Jeff never said non-sensical things, so Roy sputtered as he tried to reorganize the words he heard into something that made sense. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't make them say "I'm Gay", "I'm straight", "I like girls", "I like boys". So, at the slightly amused, slightly hurt look on Jeff's face he had to admit he wasn't sure if he heard Jeff right.
  So, Jeff repeated himself. Louder, clearer, and without mistake. "I'm into inflatable animals."
  Which was exactly what Roy had thought he had said.
  In the year since the revelation, Roy continued to do everything to avoid thinking about Jeff. Only it didn't work. It was a bit like discovering a man about to enter the priesthood was hung like a horse. It seemed like such a waste. Why would anyone choose to ignore all the woman all but begging to be with you? Compared to loving only blow-up dolls, even homosexuality seemed preferable.
  Within a few weeks, researching Jeff's kink on the web became Roy's hobby. He found lots of information but none of it really got to the meat and potatoes of it. Why? Why would someone like Jeff turn his back on humanity and consign themselves to living a lonely life?
  Roy was horribly lonely, too, but not because of any perversions. He had his fun, made his choices, and some of them had simply not been the best choices for him. As much as he kept to himself, there was still the chance he'd meet the woman of his dreams some day. He was only 30, after all.
  But, Jeff... the woman of his dreams would never walk -- or float, as the case may be -- through his door. No one was ever going to be good enough for him. And Roy had to watch the office girls pitch and strike out every day, knowing that if they turned to him, it would only be to fish for more information on his office mate. If only he could grab Jeff and swap their minds... people expected a tubby, balding programmer to have a pathetic kink like that. People would look at the tubby, balding, middle aged guy and say, "Well, it's not like he could get anyone, anyway..."
  It was such a waste. If only... Jeff would be no sadder or happier in Roy's uninspiring body, while Roy would be delirious to wake up tall, blonde, lean, and just a few sit-ups away from having six-pack abs.
  So, of course, Roy tried not to think about Jeff even as he typed "Inflatable animals" into google.com. Such a waste...
  Roy's big break came when Jeff's ISP email server threw a three day hissy fit. Slightly reluctant, Jeff gave Roy a hotmail email address he used sometimes to send some testing results to over the weekend. That slight reluctance was a clue that Roy latched onto and -- once he had convinced himself he didn't really care, that he was just curious -- he typed it into the search engine and then hit SEARCH.
  72 hits came back. None of which seemed at first to do with Jeff. But they did have a lot to do with inflatable anthropomorphic critters all drawn by an artist going by the name of Airborne.
  For the next month, Roy shadowed Jeff's cyber life, poking his head in the same chat rooms, message boards, and IRC channels that Airborne frequented. At one point, he even chatted with Airborne, mockingly teasing him by alternately coming on to him and then chasing him with a pin. Airborne ate it up and got off on it as the man behind the inflatable cat artist sat on the other side of the room from Roy, who got a cruel thrill out of tormenting the younger man.
  He didn't sleep that night, disturbed pangs of guilt keeping his mind from settling. After that, he avoided the chat rooms that Airborne frequented. Out of curiosity, more than anything else, Roy signed up for several mailing lists that Airborne recommended... wondering if Jeff was actually active or just a lurker on the lists.
  What the hell, he had nothing better to do.
  After three short weeks, Roy was beginning to think Airborne was every bit the cipher to his cyber friends that Jeff was to his co-workers. Airborne posted only rarely, and even then it was usually just to announce how his backlog of art commissions were doing. Still, he felt thrilled to know Jeff the way no one else in the company did.
  In point of fact, Jeff had let it 'slip' that he'd be spending the week in Boston. Roy knew that to be a lie because Airborne said he'd be taking a week off from to get ready for some kind of convention that weekend. Roy had seen Airborne's surrealistic artwork featuring living and non-living animals made out of latex and it was mind-bogglingly good.
  Why did everything Jeff did have to be so good? Roy knew that if he had Jeff's talents, he'd leave Maryland so far, so quick behind him... He just didn't get this attraction to inflatable animals. In fact, he doubted highly the attraction of latex was as overpowering to any of the people on the mailing lists seemed to think it was. All it took was a little understanding of the human psyche to see the real attraction to this online cult of balloon animals was the distance it kept the real world at.
  The world was never going to undergo such a fundamental change that would allow creatures like these to walk the earth. As much as they all expressed the desire for the world to change to their image of the way things ought to be, he knew they did not truly want this either. If they did want to change the world, they'd have to be willing to deal with the real world.
  He just didn't understand why someone like Jeff, someone who had looks, talents, and smarts, would decide to be a loser like that. And, yes, it did hurt a little, knowing people looked at Jeff and instantly liked him. Instantly trusted and depended on Jeff not to fail them.
  It hurt knowing no one would ever look at him, Roy Keller -- who was only slightly less smart than Jeff but every bit as dependable -- and instantly like him. Even after knowing Roy for years, most of his friends had trouble truly trusting him.
  And, now, before him was Jeff's computer. No doubt it was as clean and neutral as the cubicle itself, but there would be fingerprints. Emails. Internet history. An Internet browser cache full of images, all of which would help paint the picture of the true Jeff Bakke in even greater detail.
  With less guilt than he expected to feel, Roy turned on the computer. The password screen appeared before him and Roy typed in the preset company default password, which would be jbake, no caps.
  It didn't work, and for some reason, that made him smile. He bent himself to the task. There was software he could use, he knew, but it was almost like he felt a need to prove himself suddenly. To prove he knew Jeff better than anyone. If only he was better at something than Jeff, that would make everything better, but to know Jeff better even Jeff knew himself would be the ultimate trump!
  Airborne didn't work, but Airborne described himself as a latex tiger and Roy was sure that was the key. He began to enter words like latex_kitty, rubbercat, flying-tiger, and each wall he hit only made him that much surer that the mother lode of dirt was on the PC. After all, Roy knew from experience that Jeff used mIRC from work. There would be something, some Rosetta Stone that Roy could use to unravel the mystery of what made Jeff what he was.
  That's the one! The computer opened on him and he kicked off his shoes, suddenly too tight on his feet. He didn't think much about it. His blood pressure was high enough that any stress made his feet hurt. The company issued desktop blinked and a dozen tiny icons spilled onto the screen. "Jackpot," Roy said and suddenly felt the guilt he expected an hour earlier.
  To compound things further, Rita from accounting chose that moment to walk in. The cubicle walls were more of a chest high fence than a wall, really. With a grace that surprised him, Roy quickly opened a document in word as the tall and rather sexy woman poked her head -- and rather large breasts -- over the cubicle. "Hiya, Jeff," she said playfully. "I thought you were on vacation.
  This was more attention than any woman had paid Roy since High School and he didn't know what to do, exactly. "I, um, needed a file on this computer and I couldn't access it from mine."
  She smiled at him with her eyes and made a little moue with her lips. "Not work related stuff, I hope."
  Roy smiled and tried not to let his confusion show. He could tell she wanted something, but he was at a loss as to what. "Well, yeah, of course," he said trying not to sound suspicious.
  Her eyes looked down for a second and his eyes naturally followed, locking on the twin balloon like orbs floating over the edge of the wall. They were perfect. Perfectly round, and they looked overly inflated, almost ready to burst. He felt a stirring in his loins as he felt his fingers wanting to reach for them, to make them squeak as he rubbed them together.
  Then the image burst in his mind as she spoke once more. "What happened to Boston?" she asked, with a tilt of her head.
  "I didn't go," he said, confused at his own reaction as well as the undeniable fact that Rita was flirting with him. With him, Roy Keller! He would never have believed it possible. Women like Rita simply did not flirt with guys like him...
  "Oh," she said and adjusted her chest so that he could get a better view of those wonderfully perfect balloons of hers. "That's too bad." She had obviously noticed him noticing them and little red flags went up in his head because she didn't seem to mind at all, but he ignored them.
  Roy swallowed and tore his eyes away from goodies floating just out of reach. He met her eyes and knew he was going to get hurt. Woman like Rita never threw themselves at guys like Roy, but then Roy remembered his own thoughts about people like Jeff, how they avoided what reality offered in order to pursue an impossible, but perfect and risk-free, world of dreams.
  He could handle a little hurt. He wasn't some fragile, inflatable sack of air, vulnerable to sharp edges and pin pricks. He was made of sterner stuff than that. He was smart, talented, and not hard to look at at all. Who was he to question what brought two people together. He ran his hand through his thick blonde hair and gave Rita a gentle smile. "It's not so bad," he said casually. She smiled as his blue eyes met her green eyes and sudden inspiration struck. "Not if I can find a pretty lady to share a drink with, that is."
  Roy had made a few women shudder over the years, but he'd never seen one shudder with delight before. He thought that was something that only happened in books. The look in her eyes was pure, unexpected happiness. She agreed and they left together, chatting as they strolled towards a nearby hotel that served a variety of wonderful daiquiris.
  While Roy's shoes were a bit tight on his feet, the new Jeff Bakke walked on air the whole way there. Things went well, until he went into the lounge's restroom.

-= 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 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.