After Sly left the Harlem campsite, a silent vibration caught
Mal's attention; it was his palmtop. He got it out of its pocket,
looked for a moment, and smiled. "Well, well. Jesus loves us."
He looked at his fellow tribesmen. "Guess which squirrel thinks
DES cryptography is still secure?"
Michael was puzzled. "DES? Wasn't that algorithm broken simply ages ago?"
"Yep, the backdoors were independently confirmed two years back," Mal said with a chuckle. "Looks like nobody passed the word to Sly. And... I do believe I've got Sly's own agenda for tonight's tribal council meeting! Paid advertisements, introductions, more paid ads, coupla guys from Virtual Biotechnologies, passing out money --"
"We get money? Oooh!" Mary-Anne said, clapping her paws together. "That means there'll be someplace nice to spend it!"
Mal's eyes narrowed. "I don't think so. Where we'll go is a city, alright, but it's way the hell full of Mutopia." He read his screen with care. "Christ... If the challenge is to spend all night in there, no way in hell anybody's gonna leave the same as they came in!"
"That's wonderful!" Mary-Anne chirped. "Norman, you've already made such a good start, I'm sure you won't find it the least bit difficult to..."
"Shut up." Although Norman's eyes were completely hidden behind his dark glasses, the stony set of his face indicated a rigidly controlled degree of disapproval as he continued in a cold voice. "The point of the game, Miss Kitty, is to avoid losing one's humanity. Frankly, your feline qualities make you a liability to this tribe, since you start out with that much less humanity, hence will lose what remains that much more quickly."
"Norman, that's not quite fair, is it? I mean if one is to count by percentage of humanity, then I very likely have got a bit less of it left than she does, sir!"
"That may be true, sir, but you have useful skills and tools to offer."
Mary-Anne's eyes flashed a cold rage for an instant before she fought her temper back down. She forced herself to swallow, looked at the ground for a second, and then back at Norman, letting one glistening tear form in her eye. "I do so, Norman, I do!" Don't overdo it. "Can you see in the dark, can you?" With those eyes, I wonder -- but even if he can it won't save him. "Well I can! Can you move without making a sound, Mal? I can!" She started breathing heavily and letting her lips quiver. "Can you climb up trees or walls as well as I can Michael? I can! So I can help the tribe, Norman! I can! And you're a cruel and nasty man to say I can't!" And then she turned away and buried her face in Michael's lower chest.
Mal remained silent. How much of that's an act? Maybe all, he began to think. This kitty was a master -- she would have to be nullified and soon.
Norman looked like he wanted to continue the argument, but a gesture from Michael silenced him. "Please, let's not bicker this early on, shall we?" One for all and all for me -- but maybe I can leave Mary-Anne for the last. "Particularly not when the lady has a rather cogent point. Although her feline aspects are, shall we say, a liability from a certain point of view, it's also true that they offer certain improvements over the capabilities of the unmodified human body. Improvements that can assist her in avoiding any further loss of humanity. And, if tonight's challenge is as oversupplied with transformative traps as Mal says, then perhaps it would be better for us to select exactly which ones we wish to be affected by, as opposed to letting the cards be dealt out by blind fate. So tell us, Mal -- what are our options, if you please?" And which ones are you not telling us about?
I wonder how suspicious they really are about my information? A dash of complete honesty will set them up for later, thanks. "Hmmm... Looks like most of what's there is supposed to annoy or cripple you. There's a Broadway musical, you attend it and you get a songbird's throat -- forget about speech. There's pigeons, don't touch them or their birdshit unless you want random bird features. There's panhandlers, they put random rat features on people who notice 'em without donating. Lots of pushers, another 'p'-word, offering a wide range of Mutopia-laced drugs, and God only knows what they do to you. Hmm. That's interesting; they've got some art supplies, paper and charcoal, you draw something and you end up looking like your picture. I see... that batch of Mutopia apparently scans the brain and changes you to match whatever mental image you've got going."
Norman's ears pricked up visibly. "Is that a fact?" he asked.
So that's what interests our silent friend. Mal shrugged. "As near as I can tell, sure." Absorbed with what he was reading, the black man didn't see Norman's satisfied smile.
It does let you change your form to match your wishes! Norman thought.
Unfortunately, Norman found the notion so intriguing that he missed Mal's next few words: "I wouldn't try it, myself. It looks to me like there'd be heavy odds of some kinda feedback, and messing with your brain is bad news all the way around. But if somebody wants to risk it, just find a shop offering dirt-cheap drawing supplies."
"Cheap drawing supplies. Very well." And I'll be free of all this!
Now, why is he so interested in that? Michael wondered. More to ponder, but for now there were more questions for Mal: "So the paper and so on offer one potential avenue for controlling one's own transformation. Quite nice and useful indeed. And are there any others?"
"Hmmm... they got some street artists. Same basic deal, except this time it's not the artist who changes, it's the subject. Looks like these artists are immune to the Mutopia in the paper they hand you; you're not, so it zaps you on contact. But these guys do take requests, so you can design your own change. If you know what's going on, that is. If not, well, you get what they feel like giving you. And... damn. Visit the local zoo, you're in charge of what animals you see and pick up stuff from, but there's no way to control what you get from any one animal." Mal scanned his data some more, then laughed. "I was about to say there's nothing else you know what you'll get beforehand, but that's not true. There's one of the topless bars, real cute vixens, but it's strictly 'look, don't touch'. 'Cause if you do touch, you are a vixen, no matter what you were before." Mal read more, then burst out laughing. "What a scam! The bar's owner'll be happy to hire a new vixen, and he'll keep on making offers to help you do a better job, get more tips and all that. But what you're not supposed to know is that you'll drop a few IQ points with every offer you take. In other words, if you don't watch out, you turn yourself into a brain-dead bimbo!" Mal shook his head. "Me, I think I'll pass. Anybody else want to give it a shot?"
Michael looked off into the middle distance, the clockwork in his head playing with the pieces. "Actually, it occurs to me that it might possibly be worthwhile to impose a vixen form on someone else. Could you kindly tell us what intrinsic physical restrictions they have, please, Mal?"
"Let's see, now... They top out at 5 feet tall, so you're probably losing size and mass. And you are losing a lot of physical strength. And they're pretty damned oversexed right from the start, which can really mess up a team's overall efficiency."
"Excellent! And the transformation automatically occurs on contact, does it? Well, in that case, it should work on someone who is thrown bodily into one of the bar's foxy ladies. Such as, perhaps, a person who is thrown bodily during the course of a bar fight -- which we can orchestrate. Now, how can we arrange for any of the competition to be present as guest of honor at such a donnybrook?"
"Perhaps one of us might enter early on, become a vixen, and leave the bar to lure in some unwary tribesmen?" Norman suggested, pointedly refusing to look in Mary-Anne's direction.
"That's not at all a bad idea, Norman! Whomever it is would of course not be recognized as a Harlem member, ergo the victims' suspicions would not be aroused. And... whoever is the bait to lure in our victims, he or she had best see an artist afterwards in order to re-acquire their own proper body again, hadn't they? Very well. Have we a volunteer to turn vixen for the evening, then? Anyone?"
This has possibilities - especially if I 'forget' to undo it, and then 'accidentally' touch the others once we return to camp. "I'll do it," said Mary-Anne in a small voice that was almost a pout. "I'll show you that I can help the tribe! After all, I'm used to being a girl, and you big strong men will be much better for the bar fight than I could ever hope to be." And I'm sure the bar owner will go to any possible lengths to hire whatever new girls he gets tonight, especially after I kiss him with my special lipstick on. A little hypnotic suggestion and he'll feed me anything he can pick up from them. Oh, and if any of those girls should happen to have been one of those 'big strong men', so much the better for me! But not Michael -- I want to play with him some more first.
"One more thing - how contagious are the vixens? If our noble volunteer cannot get herself undone before we triumphantly make our way back to our camp, how careful do we have to be?"
Curses! Mary-Anne thought. Then she gave an internal shrug -- it probably would have been too easy that way anyway.
Mal frowned on the inside. Very clever, my equine friend. I was hoping to sneak that one by you. "Let me just check... hmm. Strictly an on-duty deal, one of the perks of the job."
Which means that I can get closer to Mary-Anne if she'll let me. But do I want to? No -- the game is the thing -- remember the game! "Righto then! We've got our battle plan. Once we enter the city, our first task will be to find a topless bar wherein Mary-Anne may become a vixen. She'll then go out into the city to lure various competitors back into that bar; and whilst she is so occupied, we three others shall go off in search of a street artist to perform specific transformations upon -- oh, I'm sorry, so sorry. Yes, Norman?"
"I think it would be prudent to acquire some of the special art supplies. Perhaps this should be my first task, so that I can confirm how well the supplies work."
Michael thought for a moment. "Very well then. Our second stop, once past the bar, will be an art supplies shop, and then we can all get ourselves transformed suitably. After which we return to Mary-Anne's bar..."
You don't know how right you'll be, my big, beautiful horse, Mary-Anne thought.
"...where we engineer a bar fight... and why ever are you grinning like that, Mal?"
"Pushers. Plenty of 'em, it says here, offering a wide range of Mutopia-laced drugs. And a lot of 'em are willing to give away the first dose for free, amazingly enough. How much you want to bet that spiking drinks at random just might end up causing a fight?"
Michael smiled at this. "I should think the odds would be rather high! But let us just spike a few drinks, and quit doing it when the fight proper actually begins. We wouldn't want to have too many drug-induced madmen lurching about, after all -- an overabundance of chaos is distinctly worse than not having any. By the by, are there any drug pushers whose wares transform you before you ingest them?"
"You mean like the package itself is gimmicked? None that I can see."
"All righty then! Do you think you might be able to handle the actual distribution of the drugs, Mary-Anne?
"I don't know, but for you, Michael, I'll try my best," the cat said, rubbing up against him in a manner that would have seemed almost indecent in a less innocent-looking woman.
"Ah... yes, quite." Michael paused and rubbed his hands together, "Now then. Since we are going to change ourselves a bit, I think it would be appropriate beforehand to let the whole tribe know what we shall end up as. Thank you, my dear, that is, well, quite enough for now, please. Business first. Now, where was I? Ah -- I remember now. We already know about Mary-Anne, you'll be the newest vixen from whichever bar, yes? As for me, I intend to exchange the horsie bits for lion bits. While it's true that I shall be giving up a bit of speed, I think the silent motion and the rather excessive claws I shall request will prove to be an adequate replacement. And while I'm at it, I shall also acquire a lion's mane, to boot."
Mary-Anne was almost shocked, but let nothing of this show on her face as she leaned against the centaur's lower chest. Are you reading my mind, or are you just trying to please me? Could you actually be falling in love with me?! What fools these mortals be!
Oblivious, Michael continued, "What of your own portrait, Mal?"
"I'm going for tiger, but just little stuff. I'll take cat's eyes 'cause they look nifty and I'll be able to see in the dark; that black bit on the end of the nose, just to boost my sense of smell; retractile claws; the ears; and I guess I'll just see if pads on the feet are what makes for silent footsteps."
Michael nodded. "Very good. And yourself, Norman?"
The short man was visibly uncomfortable. "If I must... I will follow Mal's example. I suppose I will go for black panther; finish the eyes and ears, nothing more."
"Look, Norm, it's for a good cause -- us winning -- so suck it up like a man, willya?"
"Succinctly phrased, Mal, albeit I should prefer a somewhat less vulgar vocabulary. A small sacrifice now shall reap great benefits later on. Has anyone any additions to make to the plan?"
Mal was the only one to respond. "Yeah. If we do trigger a bar fight, things're gonna get pretty confused for a while there. What say we take that opportunity to grab loose valuables, money and jewelry and such, before we bug out?"
"An excellent question. I should exercise caution anywhere near the vicinity of a vixen, but I see no other negative factors, as long as it's done quickly and we leave before the police arrive to quell the disturbance. By all means, let us engage in petty larceny as opportunity arises. Hmmm... does Sly's itinerary specify how much time we must spend in the city?"
Mal loked over various items in his palmtop. "No... it doesn't. In fact, there's no mention of time at all." He looked up at the centaur. "Which kinda implies we'll have a few hours to kill before the rest of the tribes come home."
"An intriguing proposition. Do you think you can give us advance warning if a tribe comes upon us whilst we're messing about with their campsite?"
Mal shrugged. "Sure thing. The video feed will take care of that."
"Wonderful! Very well, we shall end the night's festivities by looting the campsites of any tribes we can manage to vixenize, and perhaps others if we've got the time for it. Is that it? Any opportunities we've missed?"
Mary-Anne quietly interjected, "Well, we know everything and nobody else does, so why don't we tell everyone else where to go?" A stupid idea, but it's all part of the act.
"So that we can direct them to dangerous places, after which they transform themselves out of contention for victory? That's not a bad notion, Mary-Anne, and I thank you for it. Yes, ah, please, no need to go that far, please..." I really need to concentrate, but I've never... ah...
"The notion ain't bad, but we can't do it the way she says," Mal stated. "Just shout out where all the Mutopia traps are, so that taking our advice zaps 'em 100% of the time? Then they know we have everything, and SurviFur Inc. starts poking around to find out how we found out about it! No, thanks. Subtle works a lot better. What we do is, we talk a lot of made-up crap about where to go and what to do. As long as most of it's bogus, we can even get away with slipping in a few real facts every once in a while. And it just so happens that if they do go where we're talking about, they gotta get there by going through spots with a lot of traps! That's how to exploit knowledge without letting on to outsiders what we really got."
"As you said earlier, my friend, I rather like the way you think. This should be something of a standing order, then; use disinformation tactics to mislead the opposition, encourage them to do things which place themselves into harm's way without either effort or action on our part. And, do you know, I think this first tribal council would be an excellent place to start doing that sort of thing?"
"Just be sure to wait until Sly hands us a map of the city. We don't want to let on what we got!" Or at least let on as little as possible to anybody, Mal laughed to himself.
"Excellent advice, from one whom (I am sure) has excellent reason for giving it. Very well, let that be our last addition to tonight's plan; we shouldn't ought to delay our arrival in tribal council any further. So let us now go without any further ado, shall we?"
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
Squirrels don't enjoy waiting, a rule that Sly was no exception
to. Waiting for Harlem to arrive, in this case. If Sly was any
judge of such things, that group of mixed personalities was a
time-bomb looking for a place to explode; but they'd make for
some brilliant television along the way, and that was what really
counted. The squirrel didn't let his annoyance show, however,
for that wouldn't be professional, and Sly was nothing if not
professional. He killed time by chatting with the other tribes.
There was a noise, four or five approaching people. Finally! Sly thought. After the straggler tribe took its assigned place in the bleacher benches with the help of a gofer (human assistant, not burrowing mammal), he tapped his velcroed-on mike and cupped his other hand around the tiny headset in his ear. "Testing... testing... final check... annnnd, we're rolling."
The squirrel smiled his ten-million-dollar smile to the camera. "Welcome, one and all, to SurviFur! For those of the home audience who are new viewers, I'd like to introduce you to the BioSphere, which our seven tribes will call home for the next few months. Inside this dome, they will find every habitat imaginable, from the wondrous Atlantic shores to the fabulous Atlantic City! I am their host and yours, Sly Squirrel, Tribal Master." Here he shifted his throat into overdrive. "And I'd like to acknowledge SurviFur's debt to USX, the steel company that cares; to I.M. Pei & Associates, world-class architects who design world-class buildings; the Linux Consortium for software support; and, last but not least, Hapthorne & Hapthorne, contracting engineers, for whom no job is too big to do or too small to do right."
With that latest advertisement out of the way, Sly returned to a normal voiceover as the view shifted to another camera, panning across the bleachers which held all of this season's contestants. "First off, I'd like to thank every one of our potential SurviFurs for participating in this game and risking their existence as a human being for the sake of five million dollars. Let's give them all a big round of applause!" Sly clapped heartily as the broadcast soundtrack echoed with canned applause, then faced the contestants.
"As all of our regular viewers know, the object of this game is to be the last..." he looked at the centaur and cat in one corner, "anthropomorphic creature... who is able to come to tribal council. That's right, we're looking for the 'last man standing', as we like to say here at SurviFur. And whoever that last man (or woman) is, all they need to do is bring some of their humanity on in to tribal council, and they win! Not only do they win the game -- but they also get the unprecedented cash prize of five... million... tax-paid... dollars!" He turned and looked at the camera. "All cash prizes paid out in interest-free monthly installments over a 10-year period. Financing by Rothschild of Luxembourg Ltd, with legal assistance from the wonderfully human lawyers of Philips, Moore, Lempio and Finley."
Sly leaned towards the unfeasibly large bonfire, which had no business burning in a deciduous forest, leaving just the right amount of time for the impact of his words to sink in fully. The cameras panned slowly across the bleachers, getting fine, clear images of the nearly 30 people who would compete this season. While a plurality of the group could be categorized as upper-middle-class WASP male humans, the benches nonetheless contained a statistically significant selection of other races, species, social classes, and gender.
"I bet you're all wondering how we plan to do this. For that, I am proud to introduce Phil McCoy and Jill Frasier, two of the geniuses behind the wonder drug Mutopia!" Two human-like rabbits walked into the firelight, their features showing an intense amount of nervousness and stress. They whispered amongst themselves as Sly introduced them and then Phil began to reach for his clicker.
"Before they begin," Sly put his hand out to stop them, "I would like to ask for a moment of silence to mourn over the untimely deaths of Carter Clover, Larry Willis, and Corey Jenkins. Without their immense efforts and ultimate sacrifice, Mutopia and this show would not be possible." Most bowed their heads respectfully, but a few of the contestants glared indignantly at the delay.
Mal and Michael did not look directly at any of the ones who glared. Mary-Anne couldn't believe that anybody would be so stupid as to give up any post-contest opportunities with such a stupid display of annoyance.
Phil cleared his throat after a minute and began a well-rehearsed presentation on Mutopia. He kept the technical details to a minimum, instead emphasizing that the extreme potency of the stuff.
"Sly, Jill, and I are all examples of what Mutopia can do for you," Phil concluded. "But we've got something particularly... interesting... for the tribes."
Picking up from her partner, Jill said, "After finishing the original Mutopia, we felt that it could be better. With some experimentation, we found a variety of viral bodies to model our Mutopia after. The BioSphere is like any other corner of the world; the same viruses and bacteria infect this sphere as the real world. We've just given them a different mission."
Phil smiled evilly. "Every Transformation Trap has some sort of Mutopia virus. They come in every shape and size imaginable; if it can host a virus, it could be a Trap. Every Trap will do some sort of transformation, whether it be a gradual change or an instantaneous metamorphosis of extraordinary proportions. Some Mutopia mixes can even rewire your brain, which in turn changes the way you think."
"Thank you, Phil and Jill!" Sly stepped in, "Now for the rules. Conspiring against other tribes is just fine; if you want to launch a transformation war, have at it. Touch the host, you win a big can of transformation whupass, absolutely free!" Here Sly pulled out a small dart pistol. "Mess with me, and you literally will not be able to walk straight when I get done with you."
He put away the gun, and pulled out wads of money. "We won't leave you out in the cold, though. Every week each tribe receives 200 dollars to spend in our man-made environments." He handed a fifty to each contestant as he went by. "The money can also be spent at Med Centers, where a small percentage of your transformation can be removed at the rate of twenty dollars per one percent of humanity."
"Every week there will be a vote by the viewers," Sly winked at the camera, "to determine the favorite tribe. Winners will receive a small reward, and the losers will have to choose between a punishment or injecting one of their members with an exorbitant amount of Mutopia.
"Tonight you have a challenge." Sly stepped back. "A squirrel will lead you away from your camp to a large tunnel. Inside, a subway car will take you to Marvelous Manhattan. Go have a good time on us," Sly grinned. "Any questions?"
"Yes, I have one," Michael said. "I thank you kindly for the map of the BioSphere as a whole, Mr. Squirrel. What I should like to know is, have you any intent of providing us with a map of Manhattan?"
"No, you'll just have to find out for yourselves. Oh yes, one last thing: Be careful of the Transformation Traps." Sly smiled. "While you were sitting here, we activated all of them. Game on. Good luck, and be careful!"
With that, the tribes scattered to make their way back to their respective camps, with Harlem leaving last so that they could watch the rest go.
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
Harlem's trek back to base camp was uneventful, thanks in large
part to the native paranoia of all its members (plus an occasional
hint from Mal as needed). Once there, Michael spoke to Mal in
a whisper: "Have you managed to tap into the video feeds yet?
It would be rather nice if we could know what they're up to."
"Yes, but there are 70 cameras, so that's a hell of a lot of data," Mal whispered back. "Biggest problem is winnowing out the wheat from the chaff."
"Well, yes, I suppose I can see that. And have you, perchance, managed to filter out any kernels of wheat from the sea of chaff?"
"Maybe... and I am shocked." Mal shook his head sadly. "One of the Bronx boys put a listening device on a tree near their camp. You'd almost think they don't trust the rest of us. As for the other tribes, nothing solid yet. Maybe there's internal strife in Queens; then again, maybe they're putting on an act for the audience. I'll keep an eye on them, see if there's any openings we can exploit. Anyway, I've got some filters up and running now, it'll just take some time for them to do their job." Especially since my 'filters' are the camera crewmen I own. It would be a bad thing if any of them were caught doing my work on SurviFur's time... "On the plus side, I've got a complete listing of all the Mutopia traps in Manhattan."
"Very good! Do carry on, Mal," the centaur whispered. Then, in a normal voice, he spoke to his tribe collectively: "Alright -- as long as we must wait for the squirrel, we may as well use this time to map out our strategy for the evening. Just as an idea, what would you say to feeding dangerous information to the rest of the tribes?"
"But sir -- we don't have any information, dangerous or otherwise, to feed anyone else."
The centaur was pleased to see Norman catch on so quickly. "True enough, but that hardly matters, as long as we can get them to think otherwise, wouldn't you agree?"
Mal chuckled. "Damn straight. You'd be surprised what sort of crap people will believe if you just tell 'em with confidence."
"Quite so, quite so! Very well. Since consistency is a great virtue in such matters as this, let us weave a collective tale for the benefit of our competitors. Where do we wish them to go?"
"How about this?" Mal asked. "We're going to someplace modeled after Manhattan, and the real Manhattan has at least a couple of zoos in it. I think it's pretty good odds that this Manhattan has at least one zoo, which happens to be crammed full of -- aw, heck. Looks like our ride is here."
The squirrel which approached the Harlem campsite was perfectly ordinary in all respects, if one discounted its glow-in-the-dark blue fur. It scurried up between all four tribesmen, looked expectantly at each person in turn, and then scurried off in a different direction. All four Harlemites followed the rodent.
"Like I was saying, I think we want 'em to spend time in the zoo, if there is one. How about this? We make noise about there being some really spiffy prize hidden somewhere in the zoo, maybe around the sloth exhibit..."
The Machiavellian plotting continued until Harlem actually boarded the subway. Eight people were already present in the car.
"Hi there! My name's Mal, and we're the Harlem tribe."
One of the others stepped up to shake Mal's hand. "Richard. My tribe is Utopia; the others are Colby, Tina, and that nice lady over there is Sue." She waved.
"And who might you four be?" Mal asked the other quartet.
"We're Brooklyn," said a balding man who actually did have a Brooklyn accent. "I'm Joe, and the rest'a my crew here, they's Harry, Skeets, and Jack. So, ah, you guys think you got a chance?"
At that Michael leapt in, "I daresay our chances are as good as any, and perhaps better than some. If you have any reason to believe otherwise, I'd be curious to know why you think so."
"Well, nothin' personal, but you an' the cat, you already got two strikes against you, ya know what I mean? The shrimp don't look like nothin' special, and since the only fully human type you got is Mr. African-American there, I'd say you guys is pretty well fucked, right from the start." Belatedly, Joe looked at Mal. "Hey, I'm jus' tellin' it like I sees it. No offense meant, right?"
Mal's smile never faltered. "And none taken; I just consider the source."
"An' what's that suppos' ta mean?"
"Show me a guy who judges other people by their skin color, and I'll show you a clueless, pig-ignorant, sister-raping moron."
Joe's face reddened, but he didn't say anything. Mal continued: "Just telling it like I see it. No offense, right?"
"Yeeeaaaah... No offense." Oddly enough, Joe's expression suggested he'd taken quite a bit of offense.
The conversation died then. The remainder of the subway ride was peaceful only in that no openly hostile activity occurred; all of the riders were more than happy to go their separate ways. Once the other tribes were out of earshot, Michael asked, "Do you really think that was necessary, Mal?"
"Baiting that fucker? Maybe not, but it sure made me feel better. And angry people make stupid mistakes, so if he's as pissed-off as he looked, he's gonna be an easy target." Mal smiled at Mary-Anne, then signaled for a huddle. With all four Harlemites close at hand, Mal whispered, "What do you say we introduce Brooklyn to the wonderful world of vixens?"
Mary-Ann tried to keep her true self hidden, but a little still got out: "'Two strikes against you' -- hmph! I think that would be a very good thing, Mal. I will be more than happy to help teach those poor, ignorant people what furry life is all about."
Interesting, Mal thought. Could Miss Kitty have been Black in a previous life -- or is she just one of those furry screwballs?
"One victim is just as good as another," Michael whispered. "But do exercise caution, won't you, Mary-Anne? I rather got the impression that Brooklyn's tribesmen are the sort of people that give you Americans a bad name, to be perfectly frank."
"Got that right," Mal agreed. "Okay; let's get going. If past SurviFur seasons are any indication, there's no traps in the subway stations, so I think I'll check the phone directories and see where the nearest topless joint and art store are."
"Excuse me, but that's something I'm puzzled by. Since SurviFur manifestly has been on the air for the past few years, why are they making such a fuss about it being the first season?"
"It's the first season under the current management," Norman whispered. "As I understand it, the old managerial regime sold out to a consortium led by the surviving Virtual Biotechnology employees."
"Ah. Thank you, Norman."
"Of course, sir."
"As for you, Mal, do carry on, please."
"I'm on it." So saying, he left the group, returning within two minutes. "Okay," he whispered, "we got a live one. The place is called Furrtive Moments, it's 10 blocks north and a little west of here, and I've plotted a course that's free of Mutopia as far as I can tell. Be careful anyway; for all I know, they might have some surprises that ain't on the network."
Fortunately there weren't any Mutopia traps on the route they took.
Furrtive Moments proved to be a sleazy establishment in a run-down, odoriferous neighborhood, with duct tape holding some windows together and illegible grafitti on the walls and in the pockmarked parking lot. And the roomy interior wasn't much better; the aroma of urine outside was replaced by smoke from incense and cigarettes inside, but that was all.
All of the bar's waiters and service personnel were generously-endowed vixens. There was a stage on which several of them gyrated rhythmically to a dated sound track, and a number of others giving command performances to individual patrons.
"This must be the place," Mal said, the ambient noise rendering him inaudible to anyone more than 3 feet away from him. Mary-Anne scanned the room, her eyes carefully evaluating all its occupants and their positions although her expression showed only fear and nervousness.
"Indeed it must," Michael agreed. "Mary-Anne, do you think you could find a suitable vixen to brush up against?"
"I, I, think so. Yes, I can. For the tribe." She swallowed nervously and then put a false bravado into her voice, "Yes I can you silly boy!" she cooed, and leapt up to give him another kiss. "Of course I can!" she continued, seemingly oblivious to the centaur's minor discomfort, and then she strode out into the room, looking at everything as if she was a tourist fresh off the bus from East Nowhere, Nebraska. Then she backed into one of the dancers...
Mary-Anne was dazed for a moment, and then a wave of change passed through her entire body. Her long white fur gave way to short red-brown fur; her stubby muzzle pushed out into an elongated fox's snout; her tail floofed out into a bushy vulpine appendage; and her claws extended and stayed that way. It was over within a less than a minute; not long after, a human male in an ill-fitting suit escorted her off somewhere backstage.
"There but for the grace of God go I..." Mal said sardonically.
"Ah, yes. Now let's get on with our own business, shall we?" With that, the three male Harlemites left the bar.
In a backstage office, Mary-Anne was being subjected to a sales pitch that she found extremely interesting, but couldn't really afford to say "yes" to. "...You get medical insurance. You want any body modifications that'll improve your popularity here, we cover the cost for you. Overtime is strictly voluntary; you don't want it, we don't even ask. Whaddaya say, Mary-Anne?"
"Well... first I want to freshen my makeup, okay? I really wasn't expecting to have brown fur!"
The manager laughed. "Sure thing. You maybe want some privacy?"
"Oh, no!" she squealed happily and then continued, "I don't mind people looking at me!", apparently oblivious to the predatory gleam that appeared in the human's face when she said that. She quickly redid her face, including a very special lipstick, after which she gave the manager a long, slow, sensual kiss that left him speechless. "Do you like what you see, mister?"
"Oh... yes... I... do..."
"And you'd like to have me on your payroll, wouldn't you?"
"Yes... I... would..."
Mary-Anne frowned. At this rate, it would take forever to do what she wanted. "I think you're in danger of straining your voice. You'd better stick to one-syllable answers; is that okay with you?"
Now that her victim was almost in a trance, Mary-Anne removed her watch and held it before his face and twisted it. Back and forth, forth and back. It was unfortunate that hypnotism couldn't do what was shown in popular fiction, but it certainly aided her drugs and the victim's suggestibility.
Soon, Mary-Anne was well on her way to the most favorable contract ever given to any Furrtive Moments vixen, luxuriating in this rare chance to let her real self loose.
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
Meanwhile, Harlem's male contingent were traveling towards Herb
Trimpe & Sons, an art supplies shop that just happened to be having
a 75% Off sale (and, not coincidentally, was listed in Mal's files
as containing a goodly pile of Mutopia). Although it wasn't that
far as the crow flew, they didn't take the most direct route.
Instead they made sure to behave like stereotypical tourists,
wandering randomly through the big city, and if it so happened
that they didn't trigger any Mutopia traps along the way, well,
that was just the result of blind chance, wasn't it?
By design, they did encounter some drug pushers along the way. Mal, the one fully human member of the trio, handled negotiations. Before they were halfway to their destination, Michael declared that they'd gotten more than enough Mutopia-laced drugs to serve their purposes.
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
Back in Furrtive Moments, Mary-Anne considered her handiwork,
and pronounced it good. She would get $1,000 per week even if
she never set foot anywhere near the place again (and the cash
would accumulate until she did appear); a $200/day bonus for each
day she did show up; $350/day for every day on which she elected
to dance for the customers at all; a further $250/day bonus for
each day on which she performed lap dances or any other "private"
performance; a $100 "finder's fee" for every new vixen she brought
into the business; and any bodily improvements she acquired through
Furrtive Moments would not include any brain-deadening side-effects.
Now to make life much more interesting for my intended victims, she thought. "Mister Darren, there's something I should tell you about some of the new foxes I'll be converting..."
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
Herb Trimpe & Sons was a well-kept storefront in a gracefully-aging
neighborhood. The men went in, and were quickly lost amidst the
store's unfamiliar offerings. Such brand names as Koh-I-Noor,
Speedball, Hammermill, and Winsor-Newton were completely beyond
"May I help you gentlemen?" a sales clerk asked. His nametag read ALFRED.
Norman responded, "Yes, you may, Alfred. I'd like to get into art as a hobby, but I'm on a tight budget. What can you do for me?"
Alfred smiled warmly. "I think I know just what you need, sir. If you'll follow me, please?"
It didn't take long for Norman to become the proud owner of a full ream of drawing paper, a set of graduated charcoal sticks, 8 ounces of black ink, and a fountain pen, all of them at three-fourths off normal retail price. While he was so occupied, his comrades changed their fifties for tens.
Once they were outside the store Michael said, "Well, then, Norman. Now that you've got what you came for, Mal and I should follow your example. Where are the other tribesmen, Mal, if you please?"
"Gimme a few seconds, I gotta check something," he said, outwardly focused on his palmtop. Hmm, nothing of interest there -- there -- there -- or there. And Miss Kitty's got all four Brooklynites in tow; sweet. "Okay. Video feed says they're all far away from here, looks like we're not gonna see any of 'em for a half-hour, minimum."
"And none of them have left any amusing residues in this area?"
"Set up any traps, you mean? Not here nor anywhere in Manhattan, as best I can tell."
"Quite excellent! We shall split up to get our portraits taken simultaneously then, and when it's done we shall make rendezvous here, with you, Norman... Ah, you're going to take your own portrait, then?"
"Yes, sir. It struck me as the most efficient means to confirm Mal's theory regarding the Mutopia in these supplies."
Michael nodded. And rather the most foolhardy as well. "Very good. Carry on then!"
Each of the Harlem tribesmen found an artist; as well each of them found that SurviFur competitors had certain privileges which the BioSphere's permanent residents did not. Far from complaining about it, the people lined up for portraits went out of their way to grant the tribesmen license to go to the front of the line. Thus it was mere minutes before their portraits were complete.
While the changes imposed on them by the portraits didn't render them entirely unrecognizeable, it was nevertheless helpful that Michael had insisted on them telling each other what they would look like afterwards. Mal's artist had gone beyond his specifications. In addition to the eyes, ears, nose, pads and claws he'd asked for, he also had a pronounced muzzle; tiger-striped fur covering every inch of his scalp, much of his face, his arms from hands to elbows, and his legs from just above the ankles on down; a sizeable lump at the base of his spine; and elongated feet. He carried his shoes in one hand, since he could no longer wear them, and his heels kept trying to twitch up off the ground. Fortunately, Michael had no unauthorized additions -- he was a liontaur, and the six-inch claws on his four legs were metallic-looking daggers.
By the time they got back to Norman, his drawing no longer portrayed a human being. The figure's head was that of a panther; there were dark patches all over it; and its hands had only three fingers apiece. And the figure was a completely accurate portrayal of Norman's current appearance. As they watched, Norman rubbed another dark patch onto his self-portrait, rumbling with contentment as fur sprouted on the corresponding part of his body. He'd somehow managed to grow up to over five feet in height.
"I see," Michael observed slowly. "You did warn that this particular kind of Mutopia just might affect one's brain, hence one's mind and judgement, didn't you?"
"Yep. And now it looks like we know how it messes with the brain." Norman was oblivious to their conversation as Mal continued, "You think we should stop him?"
"Heavens, no! Do you want to risk being changed like that as well? I certainly don't. Besides, I want to see just how far he'll go before he snaps out of it. He bought a bloody ream of the stuff, after all, and I'd rather like to see what the effects are so I can better gauge its utility as a weapon."
While they'd talked, Norman had finished rubbing fur-patches onto his portrait so that there was no bare skin anywhere on it. He'd long since stripped naked above the waist, and was now removing what was below it, leaving his fanny-pack as the sole article of clothing he still wore. As with the self-portrait, no bare skin was visible anywhere. He added one more feature, a two-foot-long tail that grew out as he sketched it in, before pronouncing the portrait complete.
"Very good." His voice was now an inhumanly deep, nearly bone-shaking basso rumble. "There you both are; see how well it works? I'm exactly what I wanted to be!"
The tiger and liontaur looked at each other for a moment. Michael was the first to speak: "And precisely when is it, please, that you decided not to stop with the eyes and ears?"
Norman shrugged happily. "Yeah, that's what I thought before, but I changed my mind. I decided... I thought..." Finally he started frowning. "But I wouldn't... oh my God! What have I done?!" He buried his head in his three-fingered hands.
And Michael continued, "You've made yourself a significantly more efficacious member of the Harlem tribe, sir. That is what you've done."
Abruptly, Norman's head jerked up like a turret, first glaring at Michael, and then aiming a cold and hostile glare at Mal, the culprit who had not provided all the information. "You! Why didn't you tell me --"
"Because I didn't know, and you weren't listening," Mal said, cutting off Norman's tirade a-borning. "Yeah, I said the art stuff could change you to order; but I also said I didn't trust the stuff, and it probably messed with your brain. And, guess what? It turns out the stuff does mess with your brain. You want to blame someone, go blame yourself for only hearing what you wanted to hear. Homey don't play that game." So saying, Mal let the anger fall from his face and went on in a normal tone, "Anyway, Lion-O here is right. No matter what happened or whose fault it is, you still got all your tools and skills . It's just that now, you've also got some physical abilities you didn't used to. You saying this is a problem?"
"You're... It's... you're right, I should have listened." He growled angrily. "My fault. I apologize. I should not have allowed my personal concerns to distract me."
"So you don't wanna be furry," Mal said with a shrug. "I wasn't exactly planning on it myself, but it made sense. And if we win, the fur's gone, right?" For one of us, anyway.
"Yes. I must keep my eyes on the ultimate prize; anything between now and then is, at worst, a temporary inconvenience."
"That's the proper spirit, Norman!" the centaur said. "Now let's go back to Furrtive Moments, shall we? I believe there's a brawl waiting for us to spark it off."
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
Pausing only to allow Norman to collect and pack away his things,
the trio moved out. They took a different route, but still one
that was lacking in Mutopia, or so they thought. While Michael's
top speed had indeed been reduced, Norman and Mal found they could
move more quickly than before, and thus the group as a whole was
faster now than they had been earlier.
Unfortunately they all recognized the problem when a beggar suddenly thrust himself in front of them. "Spare change, mister?"
Michael was the first to react; he grabbed a $10 bill and threw it forward whilst grabbing Norman and preparing to run. Mal panicked, took a step, and felt his vestigial tail stretch and thin. Then he fumbled for a bill and tossed it, after which he bounded after the others.
SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur SurviFur
They didn't stop running until they were almost at their destination
and the few more steps were just enough to allow them to catch
their breath. Mary-Anne was waiting for them at the door.
"Hello, gentlemen! Welcome to Furrtive Moments! We're here for your pleasure. Our golden rule is 'look but don't touch' so keep that in mind so that everyone can have a much more pleasant experience." Her voice had acquired a subtly different timbre, but was quite recognizable anyway. "You're so handsome, Michael! I bet you did it just for me."
"Shh -- you've forgotten us!"
Mary-Anne didn't miss the blush that was almost hidden beneath Michael's new fur. It was such fun to play the naive innocent some times. "May I show you to a table or booth?"
"Yeah," Mal said before anyone else could. "I'd kinda like to get an overview of the whole room. You got something in a corner or along a wall?"
"I think we do, sir. If you'll just wait here a moment?" My parlour waits to entertain you gentlemen. So saying, the former cat went off to the left. Not long after, a human male in an ill-fitting suit came out from backstage, and Mary-Anne returned to her comrades.
"You're in luck, gentlemen. A corner booth just opened up. Walk this way, please?" As Harlem walked to the corner, the man in the suit escorted two dazed vixens back somewhere behind the stage.
"Well. What do you recommend, please?" Michael said, keeping up the appearance of being a normal customer.
Mary-Anne pitched her voice low: "Don't eat or drink here. The food is awful, and they put all sorts of nasty stuff in the liquor."
"That so? Well, in that case nobody will ever notice a little more nasty stuff," Mal said, matching Mary-Anne's inconspicuous tones as he extracted from his pockets the free samples he'd collected earlier. He slid them over to Mary-Anne, being careful not to come anywhere near touching her.
She fumbled, expertly making sure that only the three at the table could see the fumble, and then finally made the small containers vanish. In a normal voice, she continued, "Of course, sirs. Just take your time, and I'll be with you when you're ready to order." Then she walked away.
"There goes a woman who really enjoys her work," Mal said.
Michael turned a cold gaze on Mal, "No, she does what she has to. I only wish she didn't have to lower herself in this fashion. Her innocence will be protected." The liontaur smiled and let his teeth show, and then turned and looked wistfully in Mary-Anne's general direction for a moment, before finally blinking and turning back to his comrades. "Tell me, Mal. Have our little fish taken the bait?"
"See for yourself," the tiger said, pointing at a table near the stage. All four Brooklynites were there, and all of them appeared to be somewhat intoxicated.
"Most excellent indeed! How very lucky of Mary-Anne, to have placed them so close to the epicenter, as it were."
Mal disagreed. Lucky, my ass. I'll bet she plans everything, no luck need apply. For your sake I hope that's an act you're putting on, Mike, but I doubt it. You haven't got Clue One about what she's doing to you, do you? Poor bastard. "They'll never know what hit them, even if they were sober." Mal's tones carried great satisfaction, displaying no hint of the growing worry within. It seems that Mary-Anne had already sunk her claws into the centaur in more ways then one. Mentally shaking his head, Mal looked down at his palmtop which displayed the video feed from the camera that was discreetly filming the Brooklyn tribe.
It wasn't more than half an hour before the first signs of trouble appeared: first rowdy behavior, then feathers and scales sprouting on the rowdiest of the troublemakers.
"They're playing our song," Mal observed, with a grin. "Shall we dance?"
"No, I think it best that we wait a bit longer, my friend. Let the band strike a more up-tempo tune, as it were."
Michael's wish was soon granted. The first punch was thrown by someone with a perfectly-formed feathered crest on his head; his immediate squeal of pain told the crowd he hadn't realized that fists work better when the curled-up fingers aren't equipped with sharp talons. Then things got more interesting.
"Alright. Let me take point, I've got a little experience with this thing," Mal said, indicating his staff.
So it was that the Mal the tiger carved a path through the melee, using his staff to shove people aside where possible and knock them unconscious where necessary, followed by the liontaur and the panther. The collective impression made by all three cat-things together, one with a dangerously whirling staff, was enough to dissuade all but the most irrational from even thinking about attacking them. Those few foolhardy enough to try it anyway soon learned just how big a mistake that was. Even so, it took longer than Mal liked to reach the Brooklyn tribe, as both Michael and Norman insisted on picking the pockets of any unconscious bodies within arm's reach.
"Remember," said Mal, "the vixens're hiding up on stage. We gotta throw our targets up there to meet them."
"Can do," Norman rumbled in his new basso profundo voice. Michael said nothing; he was busy giving a horse-style kick to an annoying drunk.
The Brooklynites, focused purely upon the people they were beating up, didn't even notice their rival tribe approaching. That'll never do, Mal thought, and then called out, "Hey, Joe! Is that a pencil in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?"
Joe did a double-take, torn between Mal's insult and the person before him who was doing his level best to break Joe's face. One low and powerful kick later, Joe could give his full attention to Mal whom he was able to recognize close up: "So you are a fuckin' animal!"
An unpleasant smile on his face, Mal slipped into a ready stance, with his staff behind his back, right hand holding the top end over his right shoulder, left arm crossing his torso to hold the bottom end. "Bring it on. Or admit you ain't man enough to take me."
It was no contest. As Joe charged, Mal's left hand shot forward cramming the bottom end of the staff painfully into Joe's diaphragm. In the next split-second, Mal brought his left hand up, swinging the free end of his staff in a competent uppercut that drove all consciousness from Joe's body. The tiger reached forward to grab Joe before he fell to the ground, crouched back a bit, then shot-putted Joe onto the stage where he slid underneath the curtain.
While Mal was thus occupied, his comrades were not idle. Norman's transformation had worked wonders for his musculature; even open-handed (to avoid shredding his paws, as he might do with a fist), his strikes carried enough force to stun most humans. And he was fortunate enough to have two Brooklynites side by side, the better to clap their heads together... The final Brooklynite was lucky enough to learn why it wasn't a good idea to be on the receiving end of a liontaur's pounce.
Unconscious and bleeding from the head, or merely scared insensible, the remaining Brooklynites quickly followed their comrade up onto the stage. Then it was simply a matter of clearing a path back to their corner booth, as they'd seen Mary-Anne peek out from behind the curtain to point to it. Going back was much easier than going in, because this time there were fewer active people, and most were now willing to stay the hell out of Harlem's way.
Mary-Anne met them there; she'd started over at about the same time, but had to go around the brawl rather than straight through it. "I want to go now," she said. "The police are coming."
"Which means we'd best be going, then," Michael said, but then he sighed. "My only regret is that we neglected to take custody of the Brooklynites' valuables..."
The vixen swallowed and almost sobbed, "I'm sorry, I forgot!" Not really, but I don't see any need to share my wealth.
Michael started to reach out to comfort her but then forced himself to stop.
"Don't worry," Mary-Anne whispered, "as soon as we're out the door, I'm off-duty and safe."
"Let's go," Norman hissed.
Harlem was about halfway to the subway station when they saw the first police car drive by. "Good timing," Mal said. The trek was otherwise without incident, for they were following the same route that had taken them from the station to Furrtive Moments originally.
The station had a ticket booth, but the person manning that booth refused to take any money. "It's on the house for SurviFur contestants," he said. "Where to?"
"We'd like to visit the Brooklyn campsite, if you please," Michael replied. "Can you get us there?"
"Sure thing. It's open access tonight. Be another train along in 3 minutes, take you directly there."
"Thank you very much, sir."
Once seated and waiting for the train (trying to ignore the sexy vixen pressed tight against his side apparently shivering with repressed fear and tension and sobbing quietly) the liontaur whispered to Mal, "Do you suppose your filters have found anything interesting with regards to Brooklyn yet?"
"Nope. They didn't do anything interesting. No bugs, no hidden caches, no traps, nothing!"
"And I take it the same may be said of the items they brought in with them -- nothing interesting there, either?"
"You got it. A little food and water, some matches, a couple hatchets, nothing big."
The liontaur looked into the middle distance for a moment as his clockwork mind went to work. "I see. Very well then; we shall rob their campsite anyway. After all, we have traditions to start up. Do you think you could print up some notes to leave there, incriminating the Bronx for this theft?"
"The guys with the bug? How about Queens instead? If they really are having problems with each other..."
"Hmmm, I think I see what you're driving at. Each one will know he had nothing to do with it, yet at the same time he can't help but wonder why his comrades didn't take him along with them on that raid. Yes, I think that should fan the fires of dissension nicely, Mal, even if there weren't any to begin with. Thank you very kindly."
Then Michael turned and comforted the sobbing vixen, repeating again and again that she had only done what she had to, and he still loved her. She let herself appear to regain some calm by the time the train stopped, but remained quiet as Harlem snuck into the Brooklyn camp and took everything of use that wasn't nailed down. Mal scattered around the place some apparently-handwritten notes that read "QUEENS RULEZ" and the like, and by then the remaining tribes were beginning to return to their camps, so it was time to call it a night.
And of all of Harlem, the happiest of all, beneath her outward fear and sadness, was little Mary-Anne. Michael was now hers, and her bank balance in Manhattan was well into five digits.