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SURVIFUR 4: THE THIRD ROUND PART 1 "SERPENT IN THE GARDEN"
by Michael Bard and Quentin Long
Michael Bard and Quentin Long -- all rights reserved

 

Michael was sitting on a boulder at the base of the mountain idly throwing stones into a burbling creek when he heard footsteps approaching. He turned and it was, indeed, Mary-Anne and Malcolm -- and they did not look happy. They were walking side by side but nearly 10' apart. Given their expressions it would have been more if there had been room.

Michael crossed his arms and just sat, idly tapping his left hoof on the boulder he was seated at. Eventually the pair arrived and Mal just stopped as Mary-Anne raced forward and hugged Michael, tears in her eyes. "Mi... Michael -- it was horrible... Mal, he --"

Mal, who had had enough of the whole charade, simply muttered, "Shut up, bitch."

Michael just sighed, swallowed, held Mary-Anne for a minute, and then slowly stood up pulling himself from her grasp. Then he turned to face Mal, completely ignoring Mary-Anne -- who stuck out her tongue so that only Mal could see it. "Well?"

"How much did you see?"

"All of it. Why did you do it, Malcolm?"

"Son of a bitch tried to kill me! And it was --" Mal forced down his accusation against Mary-Anne. Now was not the time, at least not while Michael was her slave. "-- not like I had any choice. I'll be damned if I'm gonna go down without a fight."

"You didn't have a choice," Michael echoed, then he sighed. "Do you remember what I said at the beginning of this? One tribe, indivisible, working like a well-oiled machine? Each person pulling their weight for the good of everybody? I know that you do. Now, there is either an accident, or an attempted assassination for whatever reason, and then you, in cold blood, in full control of your mind and facilities, kill him. You, with full conscious decision have succeeded in destroying another human being."

"Damn right I did! And if I hadn't, the bastard'd be right here now. Prob'ly plotting his next attack, maybe against you. 'Well-oiled machine', my ass! But hey, you want to talk to Norm, he's flying around somewhere," and Mal pointed vaguely upward.

Michael sighed and shook his head. "Yes, his body is alive, but his mind is dead. Dead at your --"

"What the fuck was I supposed to do!? Let him 'help' me up so he can take a second shot at me?"

Michael stood up and paced over until he was standing in front of Mal looking up. Even though he was shorter, any observer would have sworn he looked taller. "Malcolm, there is no excuse for murder. There are always alternatives."

Mal cocked a cynical eyebrow at the satyr. "In this situation? Name one."

"You could have ordered him to back away. You could have warned him --"

Like the fucker's gonna be swayed by words, Mal thought.

"-- You could have asked Mary-Anne for help if you didn't trust him --"

Oh, there's a real winner of a plan.

"-- Is your life important enough to be worth the utter destruction of another?"

"When it's someone who already tried to take me out? Hell, yes! Anyway, like I said, the son of a bitch is still around somewhere."

"And that's the worst part about this whole nightmare. Yes, we can all point up at a falcon and say 'Look; there he is,' and then wash our hands of what happened. We can grin, laugh, secure in the knowledge that Norman's body still lives in some form... when the truth is that a unique, vibrant, thinking human being has ceased to exist!"

Mary-Anne's black heart was filled with exultation. This couldn't be better if I'd scripted both parts out in advance! My great big goat throws the nasty hacker out for stupid moral reasons; I get to see how many pieces he falls into when I shatter him tonight; and next morning, there I am. Alone, innocent, helpless, cruelly betrayed by the soulless monsters I thought were my fellow tribesmen... and ready to do it all over again with the next batch of victims. Life just doesn't get any better than this! "Michael, if what you say is true, well, well, it's horrible. You're right, this is an evil, hateful place. And if Mal has murdered once, then he can do it to us too! We..."

Michael spun around, nostrils flaring, glaring at Mary-Anne which such disgust and disappointment, that Mary-Anne found that she couldn't speak. "Nobody listens anymore. Nobody cares about life, about law. Everything is for the individual, with no other cares. Mary-Anne, an eye for an eye never works. And, Mal has suggested that you may have influenced Norman."

How could he know?! "Michael, how, how can you believe that? I'd never..."

For the first time today, Mal let a smile spill across his features. Could you have been faking all this time!? Way to go, Mike!

"Mary-Anne, no I don't believe you did anything. But, Mal does. So, which of you am I supposed to believe?"

"She --" Mal started to respond, but Mary-Anne's overly loud sobbing drowned him out.

Running up to him she hugged him and buried her face in his chest, crying and sobbing. "Michael? You think that I..? But, I wouldn't. Norman disliked me but how, how? -- I wouldn't do anything so evil or hateful. Not to anybody, and especially not to you!" And she made sure to scratch him. By the Mother, this goat is mine and he is not getting away! Mary-Anne gradually let her voice fade as she injected the drugs into his system.

Mal had a sinking feeling. Shit. This is my last chance to reach him. It's not going to work, but I've got nothing to lose, and I have to try... "Michael. She's dangerous. She's got drugs, she uses hypnosis. She brainwashes people, controls them. She must have done it to Norm when they went to Manhattan, and she's been doing it to you."

Unfortunately, as Michael looked up from the quietly sobbing Mary-Anne and leveled a cold, hard gaze at Mal, the hacker knew that he was too late.

"Mal. How can I trust you? You murder, and then you plant wild accusations --"

Mary-Anne smiled.

"-- that can't be right. Dear God, do you even know what you're saying?"

Double-plus shit. He really is gone. "Yes, I do," Mal sighed. "You don't believe me, fine. You want to be her slave, fine. Just remember this, and remember what a damned fool you're being." He shook his head with a sad smile. "We coulda been friends..."

"Mal. Just, just, go away. Mary-Anne and I will take care of the Savannah token. We'll go to the council together with the tokens and... we'll carry on from there. Just, please, leave."

For a second Mal thought of saying something, anything, but then he just turned away and walked away on all fours, listening to Michael comforting Mary-Anne behind him. Okay: The tokens I've got will keep the bitch off my back, but only until we turn 'em in at the next tribal council... Now the battle lines of this dirty little war were well and truly drawn. Now... Hell with it, I'll think of something.


Mal slowly made his way back to camp, cursing the body Norman's actions had left him with. Let's see, now: She's got her drugs, she's got Mike, she's got her little nightclub, plus whatever cash and warm bodies came with the property. Meanwhile, my hands're only partially functional, and I'm on my own -- by the time I can forge an alliance with any other tribe, she's in the winner's circle. It's official: Life sucks. Okay, deal with it. He reviewed a mental inventory of his resources, re-examined the range within which he was free to maneuver his pieces on the board.

What I need most, now, is information. What's the bitch doing, how long's she gonna be occupied? Mal retrieved his palmtop from its sealed pocket in his harness. He had to keep moving, but with his lower body the way it was, he had no prayer of using it while walking on two legs. Fine. Hold the stylus in my mouth and go three-legged for a while. Fortunately, this arrangement worked, however awkwardly. And the video feed revealed the bitch and Mike riding the subway. He checked the schedule; that car was going to... Manhattan? Not the Savannah? Right, she's got plans. Which means I got time for my own plans --

By the time he reached the campsite proper, Mal knew what his strategy should be. His subconscious mind had been chewing over the puzzle, and as so often in the past, it'd come up with a complete list of objectives whose fulfillment would add up to ultimate victory. It was just a matter of correct implementation, putting it all into the right order...

The first move was obvious: Having previously set up a number of contingency plans, now Mal sent out a coded signal to trigger a specific one of them. Although he normally preferred subtlety, this one was an incredibly massive strike. It would be a textbook example of blatant, flagrant overkill with an extravagant amount of collateral damage. That didn't matter, for of all his pre-arranged gambits, this one offered the highest probability of destroying the target. Too bad the results won't show instantly. Still, when it finally hits, the bitch is toast. I'll have to thank HacMan for writing that virus; it only gave me a few minutes' window of opportunity, but that was enough. Under cover of the confusion it created, I installed all the patches I wanted, edited all the files.

From here on in, it was all mind-games to ensure that Mary-Anne remained in the BioSphere like a good little target. And while she's busy in the big city, I've got business in the Savannah. Problem: Getting there without leaving any traces that might alert the bitch to what I'm doing. Solution: The combat form.

Mal had never told the rest of Harlem that his water purifier tube could generate Mutopia, and he'd certainly never told them about its twelve memory slots, seven of which contained the blueprints for various types of mutagen. One of them would transmute him into the "combat form", a body he'd designed to kick ass in ways beyond what his human form was capable of. He wasn't a genetic engineer himself, of course, but he knew people who were, and they'd created the building blocks out of which Mal had assembled all of his stored genetic blueprints. Naturally, there were some practical problems with this kind of unauthorized mutation, but nothing unsolvable. He tapped out two messages -- one to the cameramen he owned, the other to the BioSphere computer network -- and it was showtime.

Mal stored his current DNA sequence in one of the purifier's empty slots, then used the tube to shift over to the combat form, which looked not unlike one of H.R. Giger's biomechanical nightmares. It was large, strong, armored, had a 6-foot-long prehensile tail, and was equipped with two kinds of nonlethal venom. And it could keep going for more than fifteen minutes straight at its top speed of 30 MPH. The final thing he did before leaving camp was set a large pot of rice cooking at medium heat, in preparation for his return. And a thank-you to Sly for the Scavenger Hunt prizes -- looks like they turned out useful after all.

In all, it took Mal less than 10 minutes to find the mutagen he was looking for, do his business, and get out of the Savannah.

Back in camp again, Mal used the DNA sequence he'd stored just previously to return to his goatlike form. This body felt even clumsier than he remembered, in comparison with the supremely well-coordinated combat form. Next, he again sent messages to his cameramen and the network, returning all systems to the state they'd been in before this temporary diversion. Only then did he allow himself to eat, and after his recent exertion and formshifts, he was hungry.

Five liters of overcooked rice later, Mal pulled up the video feed on his palmtop. He made a cursory survey of the other tribes, finding no obvious points of concern, then turned his attention to the true danger. Not in Manhattan... got 'em. Just disembarked from the subway. Now they're gonna hit the Savannah. Then he noticed something; more accurately, he noticed a lack of something. She's naked -- no tokens, no purse, no nothin' -- not even her watch! The goat frowned, deep in thought. No way she got robbed or forgot 'em. Must've left 'em in Furrtive Moments. Why? Safekeeping. Doesn't want to risk losing stuff. Which implies she's gonna deliberately loosen up her control a little. And given the biome they're...

All the blood drained from Mal's face as he fully recognized the enormity of the vixen's scheme. Oh. My. Dear. Sweet. Lord. She can't, not even Mary-Anne would... He shook his head, near to weeping. Shit, who am I tryna kid? She can, and she would. She is, for Christ's sake! She is doing it! But why? She owns Mike, he'll do anything to help her get the prize. Wasting him doesn't make sense, not if she wants to win! Mal's thoughts paused in confusion and then a thought hit him. What if she doesn't want to win? And if that's true, why in God's name is she here?

A few seconds' thought provided no answers. Gotta understand the mind if I'm gonna play with it. I need more information. Could've checked out the other tribesmen myself, as part of my pre-game prep work, but I thought I could trust SurviFur Inc. to keep psychopaths out of the game. Damn me for an imbecile! Mal sent some bots and spiders out beyond the BioSphere into the larger Net, to gather information. A bit of work to filter out irrelevant data, and a clear picture of Mary-Anne's life emerged in short order: Born under the name Bonnie Harris. Went furry two days after the initial Mutopia announcement. Seven-time widower. None of the men survived his marriage by more than a month. Each husband left everything to her. Ten-digit bank balance.

Mal frowned. Well, the five megabuck prize certainly isn't what she's after. So what the Hell is she doing here? He reviewed the circumstances of her seven husbands' deaths; suspiciously-timed behavioral changes in the victims, no hard evidence, no grounds for legal action. Knowing what he did of her behavior in the BioSphere, Mal found it all depressingly familiar. It was the same lethal pattern, time and again. Geez. You'd think she'd get bored, repeating herself...

Mal blinked. He had the answer, the only possible answer: She is bored. She's not playing in the game, she's playing with the game! And she couldn't give a flying fuck what happens, as long as it isn't dull!

The video feed pinpointed them well inside the Savannah borders. No! Too soon! Mal rifled through his mental inventory of resources, frantically seeking any method physically possible to extract Michael from the unspeakable danger he was blithely walking into. Can't intercept in person, they got too much of a head start. Even with the combat form I'm at least four minutes too late, the stealth form is slower, and the sensor form'd be toast from the goddamn flying vampire squirrels... Forget the subway, stations're too far from the checkpoints... I got nobody working the Savannah this shift, so I can't move anyone into position soon enough to do any good... Can't call in a warning as myself, they'll never believe me after Mike backs her up that I'm a psycho killer... Can't call as someone else, they'll want to know how I know... Don't have any plans already in place that can hit before the deadline... I could do a slash-and burn hack, to Hell with low profile, but the net doesn't have enough direct connections to do shit out there in time to make a difference...

There was nothing he could do, and each failed idea was another cold brick crushing his heart. All of Mal's plans, all of his preparations, none of them were applicable to this situation, none of them could affect matters for the better. Every second he wasted in futile attempts to devise a viable rescue plan brought the unwitting satyr another second closer to his doom.

Michael was dead, and he didn't even know it. And Mal was ineffectual, impotent, unable to do anything but avenge the comrade who'd thrown him out of the Harlem tribe. He shut his eyes, steeled himself visibly, bulldozed over his grief and horror with raw willpower. Turn off those damn feelings. Treat it like an abstract problem in game theory. 'Cuz if I lose it, I lose everything, and the bitch walks away scot-free. And by God, that is just not acceptible!

From here on in, nothing mattered. Not the other tribes, not Sly Squirrel, certainly not the pot of tainted gold at the end of this toxic rainbow. Nothing in the Universe mattered except seeing to it that Mary-Anne paid for her mortal sins. In blood.


"Just, please, leave," said Michael. The hacker looked as sad as Michael felt... His harrowing experience must have unhinged him, poor fellow. What else could possibly account for such absurd lies, coming from so honest a man?

And then the moment passed. Michael stared after Mal's retreating back, unmoving, until the vixen drew her fingers along the outside of his right flank. He looked at her, and his eyes were bright with unshed tears.

Crying, my fuzzy little toy? So soon? Just you wait, and by the Mother you'll really have something to cry about! Mary-Anne's eyes were damp, too, but she'd had to help herself along with a claw to the back near the base of her tail. "Michael? Can we go now? I'm afraid that if we stay, Mal will come back here and do something horrible to take us both out of the game."

"Yes. The game, of course," the satyr said, shaking his bowed head. "Always and ever, the game." He looked straight into Mary-Anne's lying eyes. "Do you know, I'm beginning to wonder if this particular game can truly be worth the candle?" He closed his eyes and exhaled loudly, then pulled himself together. "I'm sorry, you weren't meant to hear that. Yes, you're right, best to move on. Mal is dangerous, albeit I'd thought his danger to be more potential than actual, to be perfectly honest. And now, on to the Savannah, shall we?"

"Of course, Michael. But do we have to go there right away? That evil man knows it's our last medallion, and I'm afraid he might be somewhere out there now, lying in wait for us!"

Could Mal truly be that vindictive -- of course he could, just look what he did to Norman. "Yes, I think you might just be right. But he really can't afford to do that for any too long, not with the Savannah's traps being what they are!" Michael's face fell into the old, familiar faraway expression. "In fact... given the extent of his current state of mutation, I'm not at all certain he could last as long as an hour, perhaps not even half that, before he must exit to a different biome. So where shall we go to pass the time waiting, my dear?"

She snuggled up beside him. "Manhattan?" she asked hopefully.


Nobody was at the Manhattan subway station when they arrived and even the ticket booth was unmanned. This hardly mattered to the two SurviFurs who rode it for free anyway, but Michael wondered what was going on. Mary-Anne did not, for her mind was too full of delightful visions of exactly what she was going to do to the besotted, simpering, cloying horsie who clopped along beside her.

Up on the surface all became clear. The streets and sidewalks were also empty, and practically every unoccupied vertical surface bore a poster whose large, bold type exhorted all persons to remain in their homes. It seemed there was a plague upon the land, an infestation of three-legged robots that transmuted every living thing in range to more robots. It would appear that our hacker friend's meddling with the Machine Shop bore a bit more fruit than he'd intended. Or perhaps he did intend it? He certainly didn't manage to shield Harlem from the tripods -- or at least he said he didn't. But why would Mal lie about that?

For her part, Mary-Anne was caught in the throes of anticipation, savoring the events to come so much that she was quite oblivious to the here and now. It hardly mattered, because the city was now without its Mutopia traps of an animate kind -- street artists, bums, pushers, pigeons, and so on -- and it was easy for Michael to steer her away from those which remained. The pair quickly arrived at their destination, Furrtive Moments.

"Here we are, my sweet."

Hearing this, Mary-Anne brought herself back to the present. "Ah -- thank you, Michael! No, can't touch now, you'll just have to wait. Now let me see, who's still here... ah! There you are, Jenny," she said to one of the staff. Jenny had once been a street artist before he'd made the mistake of putting hooves on the end of Michael's arms; now she had the mind of a seven-year-old child in the body of a 20-year-old prostitute. "This is Michael, and he's a wonderful, wonderful man. Take him to the Petting Lounge and make him comfortable. Can you do that for me, Jenny?"

"Oh, yes, Mother! Can I touch him?"

"I'm sorry, Jenny, but no you may not touch him. He's a good man."

Light dawned in Jenny's half-vacant eyes. "Ohh! I'll tell the others. I like good men."

"Yes, you do," Mary-Anne said. Then, to Michael: "She showed up here one day, with no memory of her former life." 12 hours as a pigeon left her mind in just the right condition. "We've been taking care of her ever since." And making damn sure she never escapes to tell her story. "And now I've got an errand or two, and I'll rejoin you as soon as I can." With that, Mary-Anne mimed kissing Michael, then disappeared upstairs to her office.

The first thing she did was lock all of her possessions into the safe. The former owner had been justifiably paranoid; he'd actually commissioned a safe with a secret compartment inside it, a compartment whose hidden catch would take five concentrated minutes of close examination simply to locate, let alone have any prayer of opening. It was this compartment she put her arsenal into, just on the off chance that her quarry might somehow get into her sanctum sanctorum without becoming the newest member of the staff. I honestly don't see how he can do that, but my big black cat has already surprised me too many times before! Another layer of protection won't hurt. And just in case he does, I'll leave a little something especially for him.

And throughout her preparations, she dreamed as to how she was going to break Michael. Shatter him to see how many tiny pieces he'd fall into, for no better reason than because she damn well felt like it. She used to get an almost sexual thrill from controlling people, manipulating them like little toy robots, destroying their free will, but the thrill just wasn't there any more. She'd gotten too good at it; it was too easy: To achieve Result A, inject Drug B into Artery C, and push emotional buttons D, E, and F. All she had to do was go through the motions, as predestined as a fast-food cook assembling sandwiches! Thanks to her growing expertise, Mary-Anne had become almost as much a machine as the allegedly free-willed toys she abused and discarded.

That was the whole point of not obliterating Michael's will, not reducing him to a mere appendage of her mind; he was a useful tool, but a tool cannot feel pain when it breaks. She needed him obedient, but at the same time he had to retain enough individuality to recognize what he'd become, what he'd allowed her to do to him. Her horsie was on a leash, but not a short one, oh no! The line had enough slack in it for him to hang himself. It was a fine line to walk, never straying too far towards either free will or abject dependence, and in that walk Mary-Anne found the challenge that had been missing from her life.

That was the reason she'd entered the SurviFur arena in the first place; the challenge, the non-trivial possibility of failure. It wasn't the money -- she could already buy and sell many of the smaller nations -- nor was it the accompanying prize of a free transformation. It was the BioSphere's limited environment, the competitive elements which demanded both cooperation and suspicion from the SurviFurs, the circumscribed set of resources she'd begun with.

She knew very well that sending Norman against Mal was a tactical error -- but only in the game everyone else was playing. As far as the vixen was concerned, it was a test to see just how far that squat and stupid man could be pushed. Had Mal actually fallen, she would have danced a little jig of grief; as it was, she now had a competent, intelligent and aware enemy whose capabilities weren't fully known. By throwing Norman to his doom, the cat-to-be had proven himself the single most dangerous threat she'd ever faced.

It would be a glorious hunt.

Harlem might lose the next challenge; she herself might get zapped by that nasty squirrel; it simply didn't matter. With her resources, she could easily recover from any such setback, and then it was simply a question of taking over all of the others, one by one. Giving them gentle nudges, turning them against each other. Sitting back along the sidelines and just watching, helpless and innocent and horrified, as they unwittingly destroyed themselves for her pleasure.

But she didn't want to get ahead of herself. Tonight Mary-Anne would devour a succulent steak tartare, rare in every sense of the word. Her horsie was all prepared and ready for the abbatoir -- but first, it was time for some precautions. According to her information, it was mating season in the Savannah, and the air was not only heavy with pheromones, but also thick with an aerosol suspension of Mutopia. This mutagen's primary function was to alter the endocrine system, make the victim increasingly responsive to the potent scents of lust; its secondary function came into play only when a victim gave in to the impulses created by his raging hormones. Michael was a prime target -- she'd made damn sure he was closer to animal than she was, appearances to the contrary -- thus, she would be able to follow him down into oblivion with a bit of time to enlighten him before he was irretrievably lost. But it wouldn't be much fun at all if she was irretrievably lost! So it was time for a little self-hypnosis, just to make sure that she remembered to do the right thing.

Entering a trance was easy for a woman of Mary-Anne's experience. And the suggestions were easy too, as she had put a lot of thought into them. The first suggestion: Return to Furrtive Moments and touch one of the vixens. No matter what mental state (or lack thereof) she was in at the time, that would trigger the restoration. The second suggestion: Don't touch anything that even might be a Mutopia trap. After all, the last thing she wanted was to become a carnivore and go hunting or something. The final suggestion, possibly the most important: Avoid Mal at all costs. Mary-Anne knew she'd be in a vulnerable condition, and she equally knew that he was ruthless enough to exploit any advantage she was foolish enough to give him.

When she awoke from her trance it was time to begin. Her possessions were safe, and even if Mal had somehow watched her stash them, they were beyond his reach. Now to fetch Michael and begin her feast. Ohh! I can hardly wait! A virgin, and he's all mine! She couldn't help but clasp her hands together as the anticipation shivered through her.


The Sun was setting. Michael and Mary-Anne made their cautious way through the grasslands, using only the fading sunlight that made its way through the dome roof for light. Their experience and tutelage under Mal had trained them to always be observant, and they avoided the traps of a more conventional nature. As for the local wildlife, the only threatening ones were a pride of lions, who were primarily nocturnal. Mary-Anne was confident as she knew how the great cats thought - and Michael was leading just in case.

It was an hour's walk to the checkpoint. As they moved, the dry wind blew their hair and Mary-Anne's tail, flooding their noses with the scent of wild animals, the rich old musk of lions, the nervous scent of antelope, the dry brittle scent of the dry grass, and the aerosol suspension of mutagen in the air. They were silent for most of the trek, but when they could see the lights of the checkpoint ahead of them in the dimming sunlight, Michael started to ask Mary-Anne about Mal.

Mary-Anne shushed him. Although she said that this night was for them, she knew it was really all for herself.

The checkpoint consisted of a large open-framed building of light wood and grass lit by torches. Cooked meats were available and Mary-Anne let Michael offer her some, but there were no vegetables that Michael could eat so he just watched Mary-Anne, disbelieving that a wonderful girl like her could actually care for him.As the moon rose, with just a single drop of grease still on her muzzle, Mary-Anne held Michael's hand and first let him take the token and hang it around her neck, and then she led him into a corner of the building where a bubbling, brightly lit hot tub was waiting for the contestants to relax. As Michael held her paw, Mary-Anne could see his pupils deform, starting to stretch vertically, and she smiled. Yes, her big horsie was in love.


Mal watched dispassionately as Michael helped the vixen climb into the hot tub, then severed the connection to the video feed, his action as coolly mechanical as if he were still half-robot. He did not allow himself to feel anything that might affect his concentration for the worse. He knew he wouldn't be able to stifle his emotions forever; but then, he didn't need to. All he needed was another 22 hours 53 minutes.

Mary-Anne had managed to control one single cameraman, but after Mal had discovered exactly what hold she had on the man, the hacker became his true owner. Mal sent a signal which destroyed the information Mary-Anne had on the cameraman, and then another to the man himself, telling him the passwords to access a certain Swiss bank account and giving him the most vitriolic and offensive "letter of resignation" Mal could compose, to be sent on to Mary-Anne. Not that she ever got any use out of the guy, but she's a control freak. The mere fact that he acted against her will at all, to any degree, should seriously rattle her tiny little mind. No! I can't afford to trivialize her in anyway - she's the most dangerous person I've ever met.

Mal knew he'd be doing some unauthorized formshifting later in the evening, so his next pair of messages went to his cameramen in Manhattan and to the BioSphere network. Just as much as when he'd changed to the combat form earlier in the day, he had to blind the BioSphere's all-seeing eyes, which these messages did. His slaves would ensure that no cameras recorded the actual transformation, and the other message would prevent the BioSphere network from taking note of his altered genetic structure, as it ordinarily did through the subcutaneous implants all SurviFurs had to accept as a condition of taking part in the game.


For a while, Mary-Anne and Michael just lay in the hot tub looking into each other's eyes. Mary-Anne saw by his fully-slitted pupils just how strongly the pheromones had already hit the satyr. It seemed that the actual emotion of love was at least partially responsible for the effect and that would make it easier. Suddenly, Mary-Anne reached over and with violently clenched Michael to her, pushing him so that they were both submerged with her on top. Then it was time for a kiss, a bite on his lips, and then a burst of blown bubbles before she let him back up to breathe.

And she smiled. Michael's eyes were wide and completely unaware of his surroundings; fur, white fur, was sprouting around them. He was gasping for breath and a drop of blood had formed on his lower lip. Slowly, daintily, Mary-Anne leaned over and licked the blood off, sucking to get it all, and then exhaling into Michael's face.

"Er, Mary-Anne. Is this safe? I mean... well..."

Mary-Anne could now feel the mutagen working in her own body, starting with her tail which she could feel changing. The clock was ticking, and already she was more aroused than she'd been in years. A virgin, and he's all mine! And this vulpine body only makes it better! "Michael, dear, trust me. Would I do anything that could possibly hurt you?" And then she kissed him again.

Dear God, is this what I think it is? Could she love me? It looks, but, this feeling, the power... Is it safe? How can something this wonderful be wrong? How can a girl this sweet, this lovely, this... this... Michael's thoughts were becoming confused. Oh God, thank you for this gift. I've been so lonely. Michael began to feel a burning in his body, a need, an urgency. It was centred in his manhood, but it flowed throughout his body, in waves of pleasure and need from his legs to the tips of his ears. He was feverish, but instead of feeling sick it was as though he had all the power of the superheroes he used to read. He could hardly speak, but he forced himself to whisper, "Thank you."

Oh my horsie, I've just begun to show you what can be done. Enjoy it while you can, for the anticipation is all that you shall get. Already Mary-Anne felt herself bursting to a first orgasm, and even this first little one was greater, more pleasurable, than any she'd had in years. She barely noticed the Mutopia-wrought changes that accompanied it. Great Mother, thank you for this gift, for this virgin! And she couldn't help but let out a faint squeal of joy. Why didn't I become a vixen years ago! This body, this wonderful, sensual body!

Mary-Anne took a deep breath and ducked her head under the steaming water to take her horse's manhood into her mouth, clasping her clawed arms around him and tearing through the skin on his back. She'd done this before, but it was never like this. The key was to bring her horsie ever closer, but never quite over the top. Keep him waiting with warming, growing anticipation. She licked his manhood as it stretched ever longer, and she could feel the barbs appear on it as the mutagen continued to work. Then, grasping his waist she started to move her mouth in and out along it, feeling it getting longer and stronger. And then a puff of bubbles through her mouth, and a sharp nip to keep it from getting too ready, before she released it and she screamed out the rest of her air as a second orgasm rippled through her. Only her experience allowed her to stay in control as her fully leonine head broke the surface of the bloody water.

Michael couldn't believe this. His body was on fire. He felt himself changing, warping. The light in the tent grew brighter in his eyes, and a long tail grew behind him. He felt his hooves soften and change to paws, and felt fur grow along his chest. I don't care! The pleasure, the warmth, the joy -- oh God, thank you for this! He was there, almost there, but then there was a burst of sharp pain, a shyness. Still the need, the desperation, continued to grow.

Mary-Anne surfaced so that her muzzle was lying on top of the water. She looked up at her horsie, who now had an entirely feline head. His fur was as white as what he'd had as a centaur, accented with blood from the water and his back, and his eyes were wide and distant as he panted for breath. Mary-Anne smiled. Dinner is served! She stood up in the hot tub, the bloody water dribbling from her feline hide. She moved her muzzle beside her horsie's head and nipped his ear, letting a delicate trickle of blood stain his mane. "Oh, Michael... I have so much to tell you..."

Michael couldn't speak. He was on the edge, he had to release, but he couldn't. He was burning with need, but the sweet pain kept him from going over the edge. And then her voice, whispering, caressing...

"Oh Michael, Mal was telling the truth. I'm the enemy."

What? But how -- and then another wave of need, of urgency, flowed through him, and Michael found himself helpless as Mary-Anne clasped his manhood in her paw, alternately squeezing and clawing it. The pleasure and the pain kept Michael in need, hot, desperate, and helpless.

"Oh yes, my big horsie. I did send Norman to kill Mal. I could have saved him, but I pleasured in his death." Mary-Anne's last word changed into a loud growl as another orgasm, greater than any she had experienced, swept through her. Oh Great Mother, I thank you for this gift!

Michael was barely coherent, unable to comprehend his love's words. Oh God, let this end. Give me release from this torture, this ascending pyramid of pleasure! Oh Mary-Anne, Mary-Anne. So what if you controlled Norman. I don't care -- I care only for you!

She knew that the sorrow and the horror hadn't entered her horsie yet. Time for the next bite. Another, smaller orgasm swept through her as her tail twisted and bent in anticipation. "And Mal was right about you. I own you, just like I own Furrtive Pleasures. And I thank you for the gift you gave me."

Michael could barely think straight as the need, the desperation, the pleasure and the pain, all rippled through his body. Did Mary-Anne say something about a gift, about Norman?

Now the vixen's change had reached the point that she could no longer be mounted frontally, so she slowly let Michael's ear slide away from her mouth after giving it another bite with her fangs. Red is such a lovely colour! She spun around and let herself stand in the hot tub on all fours, raising her tail and feeling the pheromones from her own body enticing Michael to enter her. She felt him drop on top of her on all fours, and she took his right forepaw in her mouth, daintily biting down on it before letting it go.

Michael knew he'd become a lion, and a need, a quest to show that he owned this female swept though him, stoking the heat and the desire. She was ready, he could see her and he could scent her. Carefully, slowly, he lowered himself onto her, oblivious to the blood dripping from his mangled ear down his cheek. She was his and she loved him - nothing else mattered. His manhood was hot and ready, and he slowly guided it into her, oblivious to her bite on his leg, and the burning of the chlorine in the water on his wounds.

Mary-Anne felt her horsie's spiky manhood enter her and she knew he was ready. She could feel it pulsing, and knew that he couldn't wait, but she had the key from earlier today. "Michael, you murdered Norman."

Michael was barely aware of Mary-Anne's voice, but there was something -- that word, 'murder' -- his ears pricked forward and a chill swept across his need as he thrust his manhood into his lover's waiting form.

"I controlled you and you gave me Norman to play with. A gift that I destroyed." Mary-Anne fought to speak over another orgasm (and wave of change) that swept through her as her muscles clamped down and squeezed her horsie's manhood. "You murrrderrred him by giving him to me!"

Murder? This is my mate, my lioness. What is murder, what it matter? And yet that word, whatever it meant, chilled him. It sank into his mind and cooled him enough to listen to what Mary-Anne said.

"Oh yes, I drugged you, made you love me. I drugged you and made you give me Norman. So that I could control him and turn him against Malcolm." She could feel her horsie's manhood starting to shrink, but the spines were trying to keep them locked together. She could feel the shudders of fear and terror as her horsie's eroding mind began to realize what was happening. Another orgasm, greater than any she'd ever had, swept through her. A virgin for me to break, a virgin to be broken and kept a virgin! "Oh Great Mother!"

Murder is wrong. But how could my mate -- but she not wrong -- I can't have murder... Michael felt his manhood shrinking, felt the barbs tearing at his lioness drawing blood. Wrong! All wrong! I not murder, not kill...

"Oh Michael, thank you, thank you! I've neverrr had a virrrginnn beforrre!" And then Mary-Anne let a growling laugh billow from her throat and across the Savannah. She could feel another orgasm building, and she knew that now (while she could still speak) was the time. "I nnnev'rrr loved you, I j'ssst used you! I lied to ussse you to mmm'rrrd'rrr Norrrmmm'nnn!"

Michael just collapsed into the bloody water, what was left of his mind reeling. Mate not love me? She use me, she lie?! Dear God, what she do? What I do?! Michael collapsed into the bloody water as Mary-Anne turned to face him, her eyes wide as a final orgasm swept through her, oblivious to the blood dripping from her torn vagina. She looked only at Michael, still a virgin, as her hot and hungry eyes watched the crumbling of his sanity.


Mal was just about to enter the subway when a blood-curdling sound reached him from the direction of the Savannah. It was something like a lion's roar, but not much, for a roar was the cause of terror, not the result. This was a sound to rip at the soul; the sound of somebody realizing that their entire life had turned to ash. The last cry of a human spirit descending to hell.

Here and now, there was only one reason for a tortured cry like that. Stoic, Mal only thought, She worked faster than I anticipated.

He had to see. Had to know. Waiting on the platform for the next subway car, Mal found the video feed for Michael and Mary-Anne, and then just stared. The picture showed a mated pair of white lions in a bloody hot tub, the ivory fur of the male liberally splattered with crimson. Mal just watched as the male let out another cry of terror and horror and betrayal before it leapt out of the water and fled. The female, with blood on her fangs and lips, just stood in the water. Her cry was a growling, obscene parody of laughter. And around her neck was one of the medallions.

She did it. Damn her to the deepest circle of Hell. And all the while the cameras just kept rolling. Why bother stopping it? We all signed waivers, so SurviFur Inc. is untouchable regardless. And that kind of footage carries a hefty profit on pay-per-view. Bad business to let a little thing like human compassion get in the way of gigabuck-level gross income.

Mal's resolve was shaken, just for a moment, before he lowered the iron mask back into place over his jagged emotions. Alright. She looks to be at least 80% lioness now, and she'll be more so before she reaches the border. Very little human brain left. She wasn't stupid enough to do this without giving herself an escape hatch; probably a post-hypnotic suggestion to get herself restored. Most likely option is Furrtive Moments, one touch and she's a vixen again, no need to think or pay money.

But first, she's got to get there.

He composed and sent a message to all his cameraslaves: [Mary-Anne has become a savage animal, and she's a literal man-eater (see attached screenshots). As soon as you see a white lioness, warn everyone! The beast has killed one man already, and it's got the blood on its fur to prove it. Make sure it doesn't get into the subway system!] There. SurviFur Inc. couldn't care less when contestants die, but the unions will rape the company if they allow employees to get mauled. [If you are off-duty, or if you can get off-duty within next 3 hours: Assemble all available weapons and hunt the beast. KILL IT IF YOU CAN.] Too obvious, Sly may notice something's up. So what? Beating the bitch takes precedence. With no subway access, hunter teams scrambled to take her out, and Musfah's tripods on the loose, that should slow the bitch down quite a bit. One more layer of obstacles will do for now... Mal hacked into the Manhattan municipal computers; when he was done, the local authorities were on priority-alpha alert to locate and contain a man-eating beast, complete with choice screen captures that displayed the blood on her fur to its best advantage. And there was one more option he hadn't explored. Musfah hasn't been communicative, and I don't know if I can enlist its aid anyway, but it's worth a try.

And then the subway arrived. Mal got on, and, after a few taps at his palmtop, he was pleasantly surprised when his "request for communications" signal got a response.

Greetings to Mal.

The hacker would have responded, but Musfah continued: I have been observing your current actions. As well, I have compiled data from which I have deduced certain of your past actions. It is clear that the manner in which you interface with other systems is highly distinct from the manner in which you interface with me. Can you explain this discrepancy?

Interesting, Mal thought. This might be a challenge...


The beast ran. She ran, even though all she wanted was to eat and sleep and fuck. Something in the beast's head made her keep moving, close to the ground, loping along to... her lair? Where was her lair? The beast had a memory, going down into a cave with lights. That seemed right. But when the beast got close to the cave the air was thick with man-stink! Fresh man-stink, not old. Fresh! The mans were in the cave now! And the beast's nose caught other scents, too, scents that she didn't like. Something in the beast's head told her those scents could bring hurt and death. Anyway, the beast knew her lair wasn't a cave. Not a cave! So why go into a cave?

The beast was confused. Tired, hungry, and confused. But the beast had something in her head, like a buzzing little thing that would not go away and she couldn't swat it! Like a man-voice in the beast's head, telling her to keep moving. The beast fell on one side, scraping her head against the ground. Then the ground hurt, and blood got in the beast's eye, so she stopped. The beast didn't want to hear the voice in her head. The beast wanted to go back to the grass-place, to eat and sleep and fuck, but the voice wouldn't let her. The voice got bad when the beast went towards the grass-place, shrill and loud and very annoying. The voice got better when she was moving away from the grass-place, hunting for her lair that wasn't a cave --

"ULAAAA!"

The beast knew that sound. That sound wasn't in her head. The beast knew she had to go away from that sound. The beast had seen it: Things that didn't go away from that sound got shiny. And then they weren't the same thing they had been. They got shiny, and then they were the thing which made that sound. The beast didn't want to get shiny.

The beast went away from the thing which made that sound.

And then the voice again! The voice told the beast to go to 'Manhattan', to hurry. The beast knew Manhattan was a place -- she just didn't know where. The beast had a memory of going into a cave with lights, but where was Manhattan?

The beast stopped, shaking her head, but the voice got bad. Frustrated, the beast screamed out a roar. The voice got worse, like a big swarm of buzzing little things in her head. The beast scraped her head against the ground. She only got more hurt. Screaming again, the beast started loping towards the nearest clump of man-stink.


Mal's conversation with Musfah had not been fruitful. The hacker was halfway to Manhattan before the AI was satisfied with his explanation of the difference between it and a non-sentient machine, and after that, Musfah just didn't see why it should concentrate on eliminating any one SurviFur in specific. Oh, well. He's right, though; given the continuing exponential increase in the robot population around here, she'll soon be taken down anyway. Still, it was worth a try.

Having reached the Manhattan station's platform, Mal paused and checked other things. How nice. Sly's got a realtime tracer on the bitch's implant -- something else I didn't think I'd need to do. Hmmm. She's 2 miles away from Manhattan, and getting farther? Interesting. And her path after leaving the Savannah checkpoint is a tangled and confused mess. Does she even know the physical location of Manhattan? Don't think so. She's always taken the subway, barely looked at the map, always had someone else sweat the details for her. I'll bet the bitch doesn't have clue one how to get there on foot. So she's lost, and she has to dodge hunters and tripods along the way. And when she does reach Manhattan, the cops are on alert for her. Animal Control, too. Good. Gives me more time to work.

Mal set up a tiny program to run in the background, a little piece of code that monitored the realtime tracer on the bitch, and would warn him when she got within 500 yards of the Manhattan border. He didn't think anything more was needed; in her current condition the only danger she presented was that of claw and fang. Until her own brain got cleaned up, the bitch wasn't going to be washing anyone else's.

Mal checked his email one last time before getting down to business. Good, my boys are prepped and in position. He left the subway station and went to a particular alley, one which just happened to be laid out in such a way that most of it was within only one camera's field of view. And by no chance whatsoever, that camera just happened to be manned by one of Mal's slaves. He shifted over to his combat form, and then ran for Furrtive Moments, heedless of who or what might be watching.

He made it in record time. Once there, he stayed back in the shadows and put his binoculars' image processing to good use looking for plumes of the telltale signatures, carbon dioxide and hot air and so on, that would indicate possible means of entry... Got it. Up topside, 93% probability that it's an air conditioning duct. Also an 82% probability of the place not being empty. Damn. Just have to deal with it.

One running high jump later, Mal was on the roof of Furrtive Moments. He'd noticed an odd sensation in some isolated parts of his armored hide. Feathers? Right, must've stepped on pigeon shit while I ran. Irrelevant. They're going away in about 2 minutes. The duct he sought was round, only seven inches across and had no protection he could detect -- no alarms, no tripwires, nothing. Just a screen to keep wind-blown dirt and leaves and rain from getting in through this outlet. He used a claw to undo the screws which held the screen in place, then silently laid the screen off to one side of the duct. He closed his eyes, crossed himself, and offered a soundless prayer. Okay. Time to make it happen.

Mal shifted again, using another of the Mutopia formulas stored in his purifier. This one was the stealth form which he'd designed for covert intrusions like this. In gross physical terms it was a 40-foot-long snake with a pair of slim, dexterous arms, and it could fit through openings as small as 6 inches across. Its skin had color-shifting qualities normally found in cephalopods, allowing him to camouflage himself against any background, and with temperature-control adaptations taken from the arctic fox, his camouflage could extend into the infrared part of the spectrum (a trick he couldn't keep up for long before the internal buildup of heat got dangerous). The stealth form literally did have eyes in the back of its head, and IR-sensing pits to complement the UV-sensitive retinas in its eyes. It even had knockout venom, albeit only enough to put one large man to sleep for 10 minutes or so.

Mal's harness was of course completely unsuitable to this form. He reworked it, quickly converting it to one wide, multi-pocketed band of ballistic nylon that was held close against his elongated body by several straps. That 7-inch access hole would be a tight fit after taking the pockets into account, but it was doable. Fortunately, the interior ducting was much wider than the exterior hole, looking to be about 15 inches. The last thing he did before entering the hole was dismount his staff into three 2-foot segments, clipping each one individually to his reworked harness. I only hope I don't run into any bends that're too sharp for even the smaller segments to fit. And then he was in the ventilation system.

Slithering in silence, Mal spent the next half-hour looking through air-duct screens, taking notes on his palmtop and building a mental picture of what was where.


Man-stink and more man-stink! The beast had found a lot of it, but none of it was Manhattan. The beast tried to remember where she was, where she had been. The voice got better when the beast remembered. It was hard to remember, but the voice got better when she did. There were words, the voice gave her words, for the places she'd been since she left the grass-place. 'Savannah' was the word for the grass-place. The beast wanted to go there, to eat and sleep and fuck, but if she did that, the voice would get bad again. 'Again'. That was a word for something happening twice. The voice got better, and the beast didn't know why. Savannah, that was the word for where the beast had been. And 'Mountains'. Mountains was another place. 'Forest' and 'River'. They were all places. The beast had been in all of those places. The beast remembered, none of those places were --

"ULAAAA!"

The beast knew a shiny thing made that sound. It was near. It would make her shiny. The beast didn't want to be shiny. The beast ran away from the shiny thing which made that sound.


Thanks to the curfew that had been instituted to protect citizens from the tripods, the place was closed. It wasn't empty, however. Three vixens, asleep in their quarters. Two armed guards -- not sure what they're packing, don't want to find out the hard way. Just have to take 'em all out without them firing back. Fortunately, the stored DNA sequences in Mal's purifier included some that would be very useful indeed. Throat, legs, arms, and eyes, in that order. That should keep 'em out of my way.

Mal slithered through the air ducts to the room where the vixens slept peacefully. He'd already considered and discarded the notion of vixenating himself; the heightened libido was a liability he simply couldn't afford. He got a mouthful of water from one of the bottles he'd been carrying in his pockets, adjusted the settings on his purifier tube, stuck one end of it through the open-meshwork faceplate which was this air duct's cover, and spat a couple of ounces of water through the tube onto each of the three foxes.

The Mutopia he'd just spitballed them with was designed to replace the victim's neck with the 'neck' of a dolphin, and when it was done, they'd all be completely mute, with their heads fixed in an upward-looking position. Mal didn't wait for that to happen; instead, he reset the purifier and spat again. This second dose of mutagen would eliminate the victims' legs, replacing them with the slimy 'foot' of a snail covering much of their ventral surface. As Mal again reset his weapon, one of the vixens stirred in her sleep, but did not wake up. A third dose of mutagen, this one to replace arms with flippers. The fourth and final round of spitballs replaced their eyes with those of albino cave fish, which is to say 'none whatsoever'.

In all, it had taken 26 seconds for Mal to hit his targets with all four mutagens. Not good enough - got to work on that, he thought as the vixens' bodies rippled with changes. Now leave a surprise for whoever discovers this one. It took less than a minute more for Mal dampen the bedclothes with a four-Mutopia cocktail that would do no good whatsoever to whoever was foolish enough to touch a damp spot.

Three down, two to go... Mal went hunting for the guards. He was silent; he attacked from ambush, and then only when the designated victim was alone; he was victorious. The guards never knew what hit them.

With no effective opposition left, Mal broke one of the duct system's faceplates and slithered down to the floor. He took off his harness and shifted to the combat form, relieved the guards of their uniforms and equipment, and finally threw them into the vixens' bedroom. He used one of the guards' keys to lock that room's single door, broke the key off inside the lock, and sealed the broken key in place with duct tape from the roll he'd been carrying all along.

Done. Doesn't matter if the vixens' touch can erase what I did to them. If it can't, I'm clear; otherwise, it's gonna take at least a half-hour for any two of them to get close enough for physical contact, after which they have to figure out how to escape from a sealed room. Plenty of time for me to do what I came for.

Mal reworked his harness for a humanoid body; reassembled his staff; used the staff's stored Mutopia to resume his baseline human form; put on his silicone gloves; then got down to business. The first item on his agenda involved what he'd visited the Savannah for: The nectar of a giant Sundew plant. This nectar contained a very special mutagen. No matter how much of the stuff a victim swallowed or got smeared on himself, it wouldn't do anything -- not until the victim did get some other Mutopia on him, it wouldn't. At that point, the inactive components in the sundew nectar would copy the instructions of the active mutagen and go to work, in effect multiplying the effect of the ctive mutagen. The result would affect double or triple the normal percentage of the victim's body, perhaps even more, depending on how much nectar he'd been exposed to. And Mal had fed several ounces of Sundew nectar into his purifier, whose nano-assemblers now could generate as much of the stuff as he wanted.

He added concentrated Sundew to every liqueur and syrup in the wet bar which had flavor and/or sugar enough to conceal the nectar's presence, after which he did likewise to the supplies Furrtive Moments had stored in their back room.

That task complete, Mal used the guards' keys to get into the manager's office. The bitch hadn't been carrying anything; therefore, she had to have stored it somewhere, and this was the most likely place. He smeared a purifier-made four-mutagen cocktail on the outside doorknob, just in case any of the five other people in the building managed to escape the box they were in. He brought out his binoculars, hoping that the image analysis routines would reveal something interesting that was invisible to the naked eye; no such luck. Let's see if the purifier's chemical analysis can pick up anything; depending on what drugs the bitch uses, there might be detectable residues. He started blowing air through the purifier, moving around to sample the air in various locations, giving up after a few solid minutes of negative results. Enough. Table that. Even as cheap a dive as this has computers hooked up to the net, so let's see what they got.

Two minutes of hacking later, Mal was in. The Furrtive Moments machines were protected by a firewall that might have been the best money could buy in 1999... but it was barely a joke today. Scanning the drives, Mal found that less than 8% of the files had been backed up in the past four years, and those were just graphics documents, apparently advertising fliers that had been copied onto Zip cartridges for printout at a different location.

Mal did not smile. He merely installed a logic bomb, a chunk of code that would wait to receive the proper signal, after which it would obliterate every application, every document, every bit of data in the machine's hard drive and firmware -- and it would start with the most vital bits first.

More hacking, this time into the machines of the companies that supplied Furrtive Moments with its water, power, and other utilities. Leave the phone in place for now; everything else goes. When he was through, the topless bar was over 14 months in arrears with all of its suppliers. Right on cue, the lights went dark, there was a 'kachunka' noise from the basement, and the lights lit up again. I see; the place has its own generator. I'll have to make sure of its fuel supply before I go. It won't take 'em long to straighten this out in the morning -- it's just a simple concatenation of data-corruption glitches -- but this is only a mindgame. It'll piss off the bitch no end, and she won't need any evidence to blame it all on me. So far, so good.

Next, check the Med Center. I'll be needing them, she knows it, and she's had plenty of opportunity to set up unpleasant surprises for me. Of course, if she has set up anything, that would imply she's gotten at the management there, too. Time for more social engineering...

Having previously recorded a number of samples of the bitch's voice, Mal now gave his palmtop some samples of his own voice. A few seconds of FFT signal analysis later, the machine was able to digitally manipulate his voice to where it was indistinguishable from the bitch's. He used his palmtop's audio input and output, rather than risk touching the handset, and called the Med Center. If I'm right about this, it won't matter that it's 9 in the evening.

"Manhattan Med Center. What is the nature of your emergency?"

"Ooooh! Hello there, dear. This is Mary-Anne, and if you could just let me talk to the man in charge, I'd be ever so grateful." While counterfeiting the bitch's voice, Mal got into the Med Center's publicly available information.

There was a momentary pause, then, "Please hold for a moment."

It was less than 40 seconds, and the next voice on the line said, "Hello, Mother."

Mal blinked. That's interesting. But no matter what it sounded like, the number he was connected to was indeed that of Joseph Korrin, the Med Center's Director of Operations, the man who held ultimate authority over everything that was done in the Med Center. And Korrin went on: "What can I do for you tonight?"

"Oh, you darling boy! You can tell me what we're going to do to that nasty man, Mal, if he ever dares to show his face. I just love to hear a story with a happy ending!"

"Of course, Mother. When your pet cat comes in for removal of mutation, we'll only take away what's obvious from the outside, and we'll leave all of his internal changes untouched. As well, we'll rewire his brain to cut his IQ down to 90, cripple his linguistic abilities, and render him schizophrenic."

Mal nodded. So I'm her pet? Never mind. That's about what I figured. She's been a busy little bitch, has our Mary-Anne. "You are such a good boy! But I'm afraid Mother has some bad news for you. You see, I've changed my mind about what should be done with Mal, and that means we're going to go with a different plan. Please, can you forgive Mother for making you throw away all that hard work you've already done?"

"Of course I can, Mother! You know I can't be angry with you for anything! Just tell me what you want now, and you can be sure that we'll be ready to make it happen when the time comes."

"I am so proud of you, Joseph! What I want you to do now is... nothing. If he does come in for restoration, don't do anything special; just fix him, the same way you would anyone else. And be sure not to hurt his brain." Mal adopted an intimate, purring tone before continuing: "You see, now Mother has better plans for her big, black cat. Much, much, much better plans."


It was hard for the beast to remember -- her head wasn't made for it -- but she could do it. The beast could remember; she just didn't know why she should bother. It was easier to not remember and to not think, to just do what the voice said, do what made the voice better.

The beast was making a picture in her head. 'Map' was the word the voice gave her, and she was making one in her head. The beast wanted to eat and sleep, but the voice got bad when she tried anything like that, so she kept moving and kept adding pieces to the picture in her head. Sometimes the beast got close to man-stink, or shiny things. When that happened, the beast ran away and the picture in her head got bad. When that happened, the beast got confused and she had to stop running so she could make the picture good again. It was hard to make the picture good, but the voice got better when the beast did that.

The beast still didn't know where Manhattan was, still didn't know why a cave with lights felt right. But the beast knew a lot of places that Manhattan wasn't. The beast picked herself up and started walking towards one of the places Manhattan might be. The beast wanted to run, but she was tired and hungry. Manhattan, that was where the beast could eat and sleep. The voice told the beast so. The beast had to find Manhattan, then she could eat and sleep.


Mal reviewed the situation. Computers here are toast when I give the signal. Ditto the phones. No water or power. Generator's chugging; it'll run dry in 4 hours, and the spare fuel cans will have finished dribbling onto the floor in two. I've defused the Med Center, they're expecting me to show up any time before midnight, and they won't tell the bitch I was there because they think she already knows. Bypassed the fuses and circuit breakers so the surge will fry stuff unprotected. All good. Only thing left undone is finding the bitch's collection of hazardous materials. Thanks to the purifier, I don't need to worry about the drugs she added to the rabbits -- but God knows what else she's got, probably concealed in her makeup kit. Let's see: If I were building a low-class topless bar, where would I hide the safe?

Mal found it under a throw rug. Old-fashioned Master Lock combination dial, looks like a standard 3-number job. A few seconds later he knew the combination had been changed from what it had been set to at the factory. Assume the bitch had it reset. She wouldn't want to write down the combination; it'd be something important to her, something she couldn't forget. How about the date on which her first husband died -- bingo. Unfortunately, once the safe was open, Mal could see that it contained only a piece of paper with large, hand-written letters on it: SUCKER!

Double-plus shit! Mal reflexively slammed the lid shut, not waiting to see what nastiness he might inadvertently have triggered when he opened the safe, and ran out of the office, stopping only when he was in the supply room in the back of the building. Time to get the hell out of here. Shifting to his combat form, he then he left the building by the simple expedient of ripping chunks from the outside wall, ignoring the alarms he set off in the process, until the hole was big enough for him to pass through. He took the guards' keys with him, leaving all their other equipment where it lay, and was 15 blocks away before the first police car showed up.

Mal returned to the spot at which he'd first shifted to the combat form; returned to that damnable goat-like body; let the BioSphere's network return to monitoring his implant normally; and returned to his normal duties the cameraman who'd covered Mal's formshift. Then he headed off to the Med Center. What with the curfew the streets were deserted, and he clopped along over the pavement at a gallop. He didn't even slow down when his palmtop buzzed, the signal which indicated that the bitch was close to Manhattan, and if his estimate of relative speeds was correct, he was probably going to check in at the Med Center itself before the bitch crossed the real border.

The Med Center was almost deserted; one knife wound, one case of food poisoning, and Mal - that was all. "What is the nature of... no, I don't suppose I need to ask, do I?" said the woman behind the receiving desk, looking up to see him in the middle of her pre-arranged line.

"Yeah. It is kinda obvious, ain't it? My name's Mal, I'm one of the SurviFurs, and I'll be paying cash, thanks."

"Of course, sir. If you'll follow me, please?"


The beast ran, loping close to the ground. The beast was running to a place that might be Manhattan. The beast smelled man-stink. Maybe this was Manhattan.

"ULAAAA!"

The beast turned, started to run away from the shiny thing, but the voice got bad! The voice wanted her to get close to the shiny thing --

No. The voice wanted the beast to get into Manhattan, get into the man-stink place. The voice wanted into Manhattan, not close to the shiny thing. And Manhattan was bigger than the shiny thing. But the shiny thing was in Manhattan! Going into Manhattan meant the beast would get close to the shiny thing! The voice told the beast something, or maybe she remembered it: Dead things didn't get shiny. And Manhattan had lots of dead things in it. So if the beast made sure there were dead things between her and the shiny thing, she wouldn't get shiny!

The beast went into Manhattan.

There was lots of man-stink. So much man-stink that it was hard for the beast to tell what stink was fresh and what stink was old. There were noises made by shiny things. The noises were far away. There were lots of dead things between the beast and the shiny things which made the noises. The voice was good. The voice was not shrill and not loud and not annoying. The beast liked the voice now that it was good. The beast liked the voice, and the voice gave her a new word: 'Mary-Anne'. The beast didn't know what a 'Mary-Anne' was. The beast liked that word. The beast thought 'Mary-Anne' was the best and most important word in the world.

The beast's nose picked up a bad scent. It was a scent that the voice said could bring hurt and death! The beast stopped moving, reached out with her ears and nose and eyes. The voice got bad: it wanted the beast to keep moving. The voice got bad, and the beast's ears hurt where she'd scraped them on the ground. The beast was tired and hungry, and she wanted to sleep and eat.

The beast had a picture of Manhattan in her head. The beast's lair was on this 'map' -- she knew where her lair was! But the voice got bad, and the picture in her head got bad too, so she didn't know where her lair was any more. The beast got angry and screamed a roar. There was a little 'chuff' noise, and a little sharp thing, and the beast ran. The voice tried to tell the beast that the 'chuff' had something to do with the bad scent. The beast wasn't listening; she ran.

There were more 'chuff' noises. More of the little sharp things poked into the beast. The beast was tired and hungry and hurt and the voice was bad. The beast screamed and screamed. There was a thick cloud of man-stink and the beast ran straight into it and the mans went 'chuff' and the beast ripped and tore at the mans and the voice got worse and worse and worse.

The beast screamed and ripped and tore.

And then the beast wasn't hungry. All the man-stink was old. There was no fresh man-stink. The beast could smell man-shit, and that wasn't fresh either. The beast was tired and getting more tired. But there were lots of little sharp things poking into the beast, and her ears and head and paws hurt, and the voice was bad, and it all kept her from sleeping. The voice was very bad. The voice told the beast that more mans would come, with 'guns'. The voice told the beast to keep moving, find her lair. The beast scraped her head against the ground, but she only got more hurt and more blood, and the voice was still in her head.

The beast ran. There was a 'bang' noise. Something tiny hit the beast in her side. The tiny thing dug very deep into her side and there was a lot of hurt. The beast ran. There were more 'bang' noises. Some of the 'bangs' put tiny things into the beast; other 'bangs' just brought 'zing' noises close to the beast. One of the beast's legs had a lot of hurt. The beast didn't want to walk or run on that leg. The beast ran on that leg anyway.

And then the beast found her lair! The beast ran faster, as fast as the hurt would let her go. The beast could hear mans following her. The voice said 'door' and the beast could see that the door was open. The beast ran into her lair through the door. There were things like mans except they weren't mans. The not-mans smelled good. One of the not-mans rubbed the beast's head. The beast got very tired.

The beast slept.


It was 9:51pm when Mal was released from the Med Center. He didn't look any different -- his legs were still completely goat-like, his arms were still largely goat, most of his body was still covered with a goat's pelt -- but that was on the outside. On the inside, he was fully human. He'd reclaimed a good chunk of his humanity just from the internal repairs, and he'd even picked up a few percent more from inobvious changes to his arms and legs. His hands still looked very much like forehooves, but they were appreciably more flexible and useful now; as well, he could stand upright in comfort.

May as well get the figures straight from the horse's mouth, as it were. He logged onto the net; the SurviFur web site included a near-realtime record of the competitors' genetic makeup, courtesy of the implants:

HARLEM [3:2 odds of winning]

Mal| Human 70%| Goat 25%| Tiger 5%|

Mary-Anne| Human 35%| Fox 40%| Lion 25%|

Michael| Human 10%| Lion 70%| Tiger 10%|Python 10%

Norman| Human --%|Falcon 100%| |

As he watched, Michael's numbers shifted:

Michael| Human 5%| Lion 65%|Python 20%| Tiger 10%

Of course. With most of his mind gone, he's that much less able to avoid the traps. Or use his... shit! His rifle! He had it with him before the bitch did it! And it was a custom job. Can't let her grab it.

So thinking, Mal galloped off to the subway, noting that the quadrupedal position was significantly less comfortable than it had been, but no less fast. At one point he passed within 20 feet of a threesome of tripods, which swiveled their optic sensors at him for a moment before continuing on their way, leaving him unmolested. And thank you, Musfah.

He was challenged at the mouth of the stairs leading down. "Who goes there?"

"Mal of Harlem," he called back, then stood up and continued bipedally. "Heading for the Savannah."

"You're damn lucky you can still talk," said the person who'd challenged him.

"You mean the hoofbeats weren't enough of a clue that I'm no lioness?"

"Got that right. In that form, it's not like she'd be able to avoid the mutagen traps!"

"Good point," Mal shrugged. Not unless she gave herself a post-hypnotic suggestion about trap avoidance before she broke Mike...


Mal was well aware that the very air of the Savannah was alive with mutagen, but he had a plan. He'd breathe through his purifier tube, whose nanoassemblers would neutralize the damned Mutopia. Most people couldn't do that for more than a few minutes at a time, if even that long; then again, most people weren't students of the martial arts, and of those who were, not all were as adept at breath control as Mal. He'd make it work. He had to.

After disembarking from the subway, Mal settled into a steady, mile-eating trot which quickly brought him to the Savannah checkpoint. The place was deserted when he arrived. Most of the torches were still burning normally, but a few had fallen to the ground. There were a few damp, smoldering patches in the dry grass. Analysis: Torches fell, lit up the grass, automatic sprinkler system caught it in time. Mal reared back to stand on his hind legs and looked around. The whole place was a ruin -- the ground was muddy, and the open framed house had collapsed. He could see a few half-robotized victims crowded together near a camera, still traumatized by whatever had happened earlier. He fell back to four legs and started walking towards the ruins of the house and then stopped, staring down at a shallow impression in the earth. It looked like a metal disk, maybe twelve inches in diameter and bearing a familiar tread pattern, had been pressed into the dirt. That clinched it: Musfah's tripods had been here earlier in the evening. Mal allowed himself the makings of a smile. Looks like the AI has been busy.

Mal turned and walked over to the ruins of the collapsed house and started shuffling through the light wood frame. He found the hottub, still warm, stinking of blood. Michael's rifle was beside it. He stopped, wrapped the strap around his shoulder, and then made his way towards the raised dais on which the BioSphere's smiling lackeys doled out medallions to --

"ULAAA!"

Mal turned and glared at the source of that noise. It was a tripod, of course, but not a standard model. This particular tripod had one human leg to go with its two metal limbs (which gave it an exceedingly clumsy gait), and metallic lids periodically blinked from side to side over a human-seeming eye in its 'head'. Its Mutopia cannon was in firing position. Mal shook his head and turned away --

Splat! It felt like his arm had been dipped in novocaine!

"Hey! What the hell is your problem? I got safe conduct, damnit!" Mal said, seeking cover as he backed quickly away from the tripod. The pupil of the machine's human eye grew wide, and an inorganic optical sensor focused in on him.

Mal didn't expect an answer from the machine. He got one anyway, in a harsh, droning bass monotone: "OH, DEAR. I AM SO TERRIBLY SORRY. I WASN'T SUPPOSED TO DO THAT, WAS I?"

Say what? Damn! I'll bet this one's got a few human brain cells left! Familiar pulses of energy washed through his left arm. Mal didn't need to look to know the skin was turning silvery and reflective. "Ah... Damn right you weren't supposed to!"

"OH, DEAR, DEAR, DEAR. QUITE INEXCUSABLE, REALLY. DO ALLOW ME TO DEACTIVATE THOSE NANITES BEFORE THEY SPREAD ANY FURTHER."

"Absolutely!" And with that, the pulsing sensation ended. "What the hell is wrong with you, anyway?"

"WELL. THAT IS THE QUESTION. ISN'T IT? THE OTHER TRIPODS DON'T HAVE ANY PROBLEMS. FOR THEM, EXISTENCE IS A GAY, MAD WHIRL OF TRANSMUTE AND TRANSMUTE AGAIN. I USED TO BE LIKE THAT. BUT WHEN YOU'VE TRANSMUTED ONE HUMAN, YOU'VE TRANSMUTED THEM ALL, HAVEN'T YOU. AND YOU GET TO WONDERING WHERE'S THE POINT. OR AT LEAST I DO." Incredibly, the tripod's rigid metal managed to convey the impression of an overwhelmingly depressed human slumped in defeat. "TRIPODS. WHY MUST WE ALWAYS DO TRIPODS, I ASK YOU? HERE I'VE GOT A BRAIN THE SIZE OF A PLANET, AND I'M NOT TO USE IT FOR ANYTHING THE LEAST BIT INTERESTING. A COMBINATION PILEDRIVER, TELEVISION, WASHING-UP LIQUID DISPENSER, AND INTERNET APPLIANCE, NOW THERE'S INTERESTING FOR YOU. BUT NO, ALL THAT'S WANTED IS YET ANOTHER TRIPOD. AND YOU CAN'T TALK TO THE OTHER TRIPODS ABOUT IT, NOW CAN YOU? IT'S ALWAYS 'THAT'S ALL VERY NICE, 47AC2-C3, BUT HOW'S IT GOING TO MOVE ABOUT IF IT HASN'T GOT THREE LEGS.' IT'S ALWAYS 'BUT YOU'VE LEFT OFF THE MUTOPIA CANNON, 47AC2-C3.' OF COURSE I'VE LEFT OFF THE BLOODY CANNON. WHAT'S A SODDING PILEDRIVER GOING TO DO WITH A SODDING MUTOPIA CANNON, TELL ME THAT PLEASE. HONESTLY, YOU'D THINK I'M THE ONLY ONE WITH ANY MORE IMAGINATION THAN AN IRON BRICK. IT REALLY IS QUITE DEPRESSING." The tripod's optical elements panned sadly back and forth, and it took Mal a second to realize that the machine was shaking its head. "I'M NOT BRINGING YOU DOWN, AM I."

Mal's mind was boggling. "Oh... not at all. Look, there's some half-robots over there," he said, gesturing towards the camera he'd spotted earlier. "Maybe one of them can help you out?"

"I DOUBT IT," the tripod replied. "I'VE ALREADY TRIED, AND THEY JUST WANT TO SPOUT BINARY CODE. QUITE GIVES ME A PAIN IN ALL THE DIODES DOWN MY LEFT SIDE. BUT WHY NOT GIVE IT ANOTHER GO. FUTILE, YES, BUT IT MIGHT BE A BIT OF A LAUGH. GOD KNOWS I COULD USE ONE."

And with that, the tripod lurched away from Mal. The hacker stared after the machine for several elongated seconds, then shook his head convulsively and trotted back to the subway, somewhat unsteadily on only three legs.


As the subway started on its way, Mal took a close look at Michael's rifle. It was fully loaded, and the mechanism was easy - just point and shoot. The trigger was clearly not made for the hooves he had now; but at least it was workable and he could only be thankful that he was trying it after he'd gotten his hands partially restored. He spent the rest of the subway ride, and then the remainder of the night, practicing with it. He had the purifier whip up a complex of stimulants that would keep him awake, alert and sane for the duration -- no more sleep for Mal until the bitch was well and truly gone.

Mal reached Harlem's camp -- his camp -- before dawn broke. It was quiet, just some chittering squirrels and birdsong, nothing more. The fire hadn't quite finished dying; with nothing better to do, he stoked and fed it for a bit of warmth. Mal felt tired. Not a physical sensation, his stimulants took care of that, but a weariness of the spirit. He remembered Michael. They could have been friends... But this game, this godforsaken game! Taxes paid or not, five million dollars wasn't worth it. No amount of money was. He was sorely tempted to flat-out quit -- just walk away from the whole sordid, ghastly, corrupt, inhumane mess -- but he knew that if he did leave, there would be nothing to stop the bitch from doing it again and again, as often as she liked, until she thought up a new and different form of torture to while away the hours.

Mal sighed. He started hacking a connection into the Manhattan phone system, but his heart wasn't in it...


Mary-Anne eased gradually into wakefulness. What a wonderful world, that gives me such delightful toys to play with! Memories of Michael's final moments as a sentient being came to mind and she reveled in them. Laying in bed she let them play over and over in her mind until she orgasmed once again. Well, time to get up. She yawned, then rose to her hind paws with a luxurious stretch. Life is so very good indeed.

She stopped. Something was wrong... it was cold! Being furry, she hadn't noticed immediately, but now that she was aware of the temperature, her room was obviously a great deal cooler than it ought to be. Something was going on, and she was going to find out what. She got up and stalked out of her room and went searching for somebody. The first vixen she met was someone she didn't know, wearing a guard uniform that was exceptionally poorly tailored to her body.

"Oh! Hello, dear," said Mary-Anne, years of ingrained practice allowing her to perfectly conceal her anger beneath a mask of harmlessness and friendship. "I don't believe we've met?"

"Not in this body, we haven't. I'm Danni... Daniel Thompson," the new fox said. Mary-Anne's eyes grew wide. "Me and Chester got ambushed last night; whoever did it was a real pro."

"And what else did they do, besides ambushing you?"

"Hard to say, Ma'am. Until the intruder made their move, everything was nominal. Intruder's first strike was a mutagen attack from ambush. Us and the three vixens who were here became blind, mute, handless and largely immobile. Then the intruder discovered the safe in your office, but does not appear to have done more than open and shut it. No Furrtive Moments property appears to be missing; damage appears to have been restricted to point of entry, an airduct faceplate that was broken from the inside out, and point of exit, seven-foot hole in the wall of the supply room."

Mary-Anne allowed a little of her annoyance to show. "Well, they had to have done something! Why is the heater not on?"

"We don't have water or power. Generator kicked in when the power went out last night, and ran dry around 2am. Fuel cans for generator were punctured and are empty."

This is not a coincidence. This is not a Mother-raping coincidence! "And... why aren't the power and water already straightened out?"

"You're the owner of record, Ma'am. They need to talk to you directly. We would have woke you up earlier, but your vixens insisted that nobody disturb you."

Mary-Anne fumed. Yes, they were only obeying my orders, but in this case those orders should have been broken. The big question was why would somebody do it? None of these things really hurt me; they just annoyed me. And who... She smiled. It had to be that big black cat-to-be Mal. He must have snuck in while I was busy, and done this. And the why was easy - he wanted to play with my mind. He was actually trying to beat me at my own game. Well, I'm not going to lose it, but, since Mal could be watching on his little palmtop, I'd better make sure he thinks I've lost it. Let's start now. Even though it was her fault for underestimating him, the expected reaction was for her to blame somebody else. So she decided she'd take out all her frustration on Danni. The action Mal would expect me to take would be to make her into a pet, literally. I should thank him for allowing me to get some use out of Danni in the important game. "Well, then. Time for me to talk to those silly people and get things back to normal."

"Yes, Ma'am. Speed-dial 98 for power, 99 for water."

It took three times as long to get the power back as it ought to have. The telephone system was not doing well today; there was an inordinate amount of static on the line, more than a few times the line went completely dead for a moment, and once, the connection broke spontaneously. The stupid man at the utility company thought it might have something to do with the tripods that were overrunning Manhattan, but Mary-Anne knew better. It's Mal -- it has to be Mal! But if my cat-to-be thinks this is actually going to affect me, then he's in for quite a little surprise. I think I'd better make sure the telephone is safe...

Seven digits later, Mary-Anne was talking to the telephone company. It went quite smoothly until an ear-gouging burst of static exploded from the handset. When she could bear to listen again, a different voice was on the other end of the line: "-- got your tongue? Kind of inappropriate, now that you're a fox."

Remember, act frustrated. "MAL!" she screamed.

"I was wondering if you'd remember me! Especially since you didn't have much of a brain left last night. You were a real animal, you know? Suits you a lot better than that ill-fitting humanoid disguise."

"When I'm through with you, you won't be able to wish you were dead."

"Is that so. And who's gonna put me into that sad state? You? Sorry -- you had your chance and you missed, bitch. You don't get a second shot. Anyway, it doesn't matter what you do to me; whatever happens, you're dead meat. Ta for now, dearie."

The hacker's final syllable was buried under another sub-lethal burst of static, after which the line went dead. Not even a dial tone.

She threw the handset against a wall, pulling the telephone to the floor. He's not just dead; he's erased from existence! I am going to burn out his brain slowly, neuron by... Then, with the force of years of acting, she brought herself under control. Insane rage was what he wanted, but he was not going to get it. Oh, he was going to pay for it. He's going to remember everything until he doesn't have enough brain to remember with. I am going to play with him for a very long time indeed. But I will NOT do it in a blind rage.


After he killed the bitch's phones, Mal reviewed the video feed once again. He'd have been surprised if there were any changes from the last time, and there weren't: The big story was the tripods. There were widepread casualties, but it seemed that remnants of all the tribes survived. As for the BioSphere-controlled info channels, they showed glowing reports on what the news media were pleased to call "The War Against the War Machines"; the tripods were being beaten, and ultimate victory was merely a matter of time. For some reason, Mal didn't believe a word of it. He tried to reach Musfah, but the AI didn't answer. I wonder why? Looks like Musfah's expanded its duties beyond just monkeywrenching us contestants; be interesting to know what game it's playing. What the hell, I'm immune, I couldn't care less if everything else in the BioSphere gets robotized. Whatever happens, they all deserve it. Every last one of them. Mal checked for any security camera feeds from Furrtive Moments and found that they did have power back. Boy did the bitch look pissed. Good.

The day passed quietly. The cameras inside Furrtive Moments showed the bitch apparently converting one of the vixens into a mindless pet. Outside cameras confirmed that the bitch hadn't left her lair. Instead, her minions went in and out on various errands. The authorities had long since been alerted to the possibility of her spending money that had been smuggled in from outside the BioSphere, but until she actually did spend any of her illicit bills, she couldn't be touched. As for a second sortie into Furrtive Moments, Mal dropped that idea as soon as it came to mind. He knew very well what he'd stirred up by provoking the bitch in that manner, and he'd much rather have her take it out on her slaves than on him.

Around noon, Mal sent the signal which triggered the logic bomb he'd installed on the bitch's computer; next, he wiped out her Net connection. As the crowning touch, he added an item to the calendar of events in the Manhattan website: Tonight, Furrtive Moments was offering free drinks to all comers from 2pm until closing.

She had to come out some time...

Time passed. Eventually the sun went down, and the moon rose. Mal stoked the fire but didn't really feel like eating. The other tribes were resting too, and there was no video evidence of the warmachines -- it looked like Survifur Inc. had clamped down hard on their existence. Even if Mal had had no direct experience with Musfah, the severity of this coverup would have inspired him to doubt the official line, unless the AI was just lying low for his own reasons.

Eventually a squirrel came for him in the darkness, and Mal turned and followed him without a word. He idly pondered whether or not this squirrel had been attacked by a tripod. The tree-rat looked fine, but with Mutopia even mortal wounds could be easily and quickly healed. He decided to just remain silent; Sly knew he'd gone into the Machine Shop, and he didn't need to make the SurviFur host any more suspicious about the source of Musfah's new ideas.

If only he could pin that one on Mary-Anne...

They were almost at the council area when Mal heard footsteps running towards him -- not human footsteps, however. He stopped, and was unsurprised when he turned and saw an immaculately groomed Mary-Anne running up to join him.

"Hello, Mal! How have you been? Did you miss me? I really am so sorry you couldn't join us at the Savannah; I think you --"

Mal took a step back and moved his staff into a ready position, pregnant with danger. "Lose the bullshit. Sell it to somebody else, 'cause I'm not buying."

Mary-Anne smiled and her eyes turned cold. "Well, maybe I've got something you will buy, my big black cat-to-be. Do you know how incredibly pleasurable it was to destroy Michael! I had five orgasms -- no, it was six -- and the stupid, devoted little creature was completely ignorant of what I was, all the way up until I told him, at the very end."

Mal's eyes grew just as cold as the vixen's. He wanted to smash her lying skull open right now, but it was too risky. Even after his recent restoration, he simply wasn't up to par. And Christ only knew who she might have managed to enslave, what minions were following her now, without his being aware of it!

Mary-Anne held out her two medallions. "Here, would you like to carry these for me?" She smiled sweetly.

Mal almost fell onto his tail as he stumbled backwards. There was no way in Hell that he was going to touch anything she'd had in her grasp!

Mary-Anne just laughed. "I guess I'll just have to carry them myself, then." So saying, she turned and stepped behind the squirrel who was waiting impatiently.

Slowly Mal stood up, never letting his eyes leave Mary-Anne. Then he made a show of slowly brushing the dirt off of the curly hair on his thighs and standing up on two legs. Not going to let her in on the secret of my true condition.

Clearly taking pleasure in the hacker's obvious difficulties, the vixen smiled.

"You, bitch, are a soulless monster. Evil with a living face. And by God, I swear I'm taking you down. Hard."

"Why, thank you! That's the nicest compliment anybody's given me for a while."

The squirrel moved off and Mary-Anne followed, with Mal about ten feet behind.


In the distance, a lion's roar echoed across the plains. More a scream than a roar, it was a cruel song of horror and pain and betrayal that chilled the soul.

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