Home Introduction Author Chronological
Homecoming
by Michael Bard
Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
 

Why I'd come here I honestly didn't know. I had to relocate, but I could have booked a flight anywhere. It wasn't until I'd looked at my ticket that I'd even realized I was returning to where that damned disease, SCABS, had remade me. Once I got here I decided that I might as well stay over the holidays, see what had changed. I booked a hotel room, got things sorted out, and ended up wandering through my old haunts. It'd give me some time to decide where I was going to settle next. A place to inhabit, but not a place to call home. I'd never had a place where I belonged, where I wanted to be. I'd never had a home...

Chewing some cud, I wandered aimlessly, my hooves crunching through the unshovelled snow beneath the pale yellow streetlights. Even though I could see, I felt blind, as any scents other than my own were muffled almost into nothingness in the softly falling snow. The flakes gave off a soft velvety wetness that enveloped almost everything else. It'd been a long time, nearly 14 years, since I'd last been around here. Too long. Too much time spent running and hiding; too much time spent learning and mastering the other side of the war for survival.

The street was different now, older, grungier, more rundown. So many dreams dead. They'd never rebuilt my building. It was just rubble, everything of value stripped. I remembered the St. Francis Shelter, though I'd made sure to avoid it since they might recognize me. Instead I'd wandered elsewhere, and ended up stopping in front of the West Street Shelter -- I remembered when it'd opened, just before I'd fled for my own safety. The West Street was rundown too, smelling of urine and fear and a bit of hope, but the fresh coat of paint did wonders. Burning over the door was a warm light which reminded me of my first sight of that other shelter 14 years ago...

I turned away and crunched down another street, my ears flicking to catch the soft sounds muffled by the big fluffy flakes settling down from the heavens above. At a corner I stopped and sighed, my breath misting in the cold as the snow swirled around my coat.

It was here that Jon and I had kissed. At the thought memories flashed through my mind -- his spiky sharp feline scent, the touch of his whiskers on my muzzle, the scratchy prickle of his fur pressing against mine, the almost overwhelming need to flee restrained only by his arms around me.

I thought I was over him. Over the feelings he'd awaken in me. Over the sudden warmth of the moment.

Kicking a hoof in the snow I wondered where he was now, what he was doing. How he was doing...

If he'd come back.

Maybe I should call him...

No! That was the past, this was now. He'd ended it.

An annoyed yip snuck its way out as I shook my muzzled head, feeling the collar of my coat drag against the fur of my long neck.

When I'd been with him, now those were the days! Fighting, violence, explosions... I snorted -- and people were apparently still talking about Counselor Barnes... as though he'd ever been a threat.

Stopping, I sniffed the still air as I balanced on one hoof and lifted the other, banging the snow off it with one hand. I should have worn boots but I'd never liked them. The comforting aroma of my own sweat surrounded me, and beneath it I could make out the faint scent of oil. I put my right hoof down and banged the snow off my left one.

It was so peaceful and quiet. Softly falling, the snow was so lovely one could almost forget--

Somebody screamed, though I didn't recognize it at first.

Swallowing the cud I stopped, still balanced on one hoof, my warm breath billowing in clouds around my muzzle, my ears spinning and twisting to cup the noise changing it suddenly from a faint nearly unrecognizable sound to a distinctly human scream.

Danger? WARN! FLEEfleefleeflee!

Even after all these years I still had to force my instincts down.

I softly put my hoof down, stopped and listened. If the scream was human then it was none of my business. Let them kill each other, it didn't matter to me. Unfortunately, the tone wasn't enough to allow me to determine. Turning, I crunched through the snow to get closer to see what was going on. There were no more screams, just sobs of pain and then male voices. My ears had led me to an alley lit by single flickering dim yellow, almost orange, bulb.

It was an all too typical scene revealed first by muted scents, then by the sounds of breathing and the sharp thud of flesh on flesh, and finally by sight. Two young males, likely human, were beating up a woman, also apparently human.

None of my business.

I stood there surrounded by the snow-muffled scents and the faded sounds. Stood in the shadowed darkness in the softly falling snow. Stood there just watching, running through the routes that would let me safely walk away without getting involved.

As I stood my nose started classifying the scents I could pick up over that of the slightly polluted snow. Concentrated by the alley and proximity, I could make out the stiff sharp anger of the humans, the stinging roughness of blood, the sickly-sweet honey of alcohol.

And below that a hint of something... something slow that smelled of nature, of care, of something that takes time... I licked my nose and focused on the odour -- and then I had it!

Three-toed sloth.

Fuck.

I couldn't tell who the hint of sloth came from, but its existence changed everything. If it was from one of the muggers, then they had to be dealt with due to their threat to human/SCAB relations. If it was the victim, then she had to be saved regardless as she was one of us and not one of the humans.

Flee? my instincts asked.

I ignored them and instead let out a loud doglike bray, the threat call of a sable antelope. That's the form SCABS had stuck me with, in addition to making me incapable of human speech and robbing me of almost all my manual dexterity.

But that wouldn't save the muggers.

The scents changed, growing an overlay of surprise and pleasure. The two muggers stopped and looked up at me, their hot breaths clouding around their faces, the heat of their exertions melting the snow around them. I waited, my tail wiggling nervously under my coat and skirt, and my ears flicking around every which way to catch any other signs of danger.

"Well lookee here Rizzo!" one said.

"Another SCABbie for our amusement."

"Lookatit! Too scared to run..."

They both laughed harshly as their former victim sobbed in the softly falling snow.

Pushing my purse on its strap around behind my back, I took a slightly more stable stance. My nostrils quivered, my ears wiggled, and I could sense every movement of the air. As I had so many times before, I mentally thanked Jon for his hand to hand training that had allowed me to adapt my human SEAL unarmed combat techniques to this body. Then I waited.

The snow creaked as their booted feet pressed into it, their scents grew stronger. They approached, laughing, as I waited. In my mind I ran through various scenarios. I had choices. I could embarrass. I could disable. I could kill. The first was out of the question; what they'd done merited far more than hoofprints on their asses. Disabling could pose problems. First, it allowed the possibility of one not being taken out quickly which would increase my personal risk, and that of the sobbing woman. Second, it ensured that they'd be back on the streets in a handful of weeks.

My hands were one of my many gifts from SCABS, and right now were actually beneficial. Each had two fingers and two thumbs, each digit consisting of hard nail. Very tough, very deadly, and no fingerprints. That made things like what was going to happen far easier to cover up. Of course I had almost no manual dexterity in them, but I managed.

The men's scents were nearly overwhelming by the time they began circling me and that's when I moved. The first one, slightly bigger with orange hair, was taken out by a snap to his windpipe which shattered it. I noticed his shirt was the same colour as the blood that splattered it as he fell to the ground gurgling, unable to breathe. The other tried a punch and I leaned to the side so that he missed, though there was a thunk of metal and plastic as his fist slammed into my purse as it flopped against my ass.

Shit! If he'd broken my 'voder...

As he leaned back for another blow I slapped both my palms over his ears. He fell screaming, my ears trying to curl away from the loud and piercing sound. Then I stepped on his neck with one hoofed leg and crushed it bringing a sudden silence echoing down the alley. Crimson blood oozed out into the snow as his breath whistled through his throat. Not quite enough got through to keep him alive.

I stepped over the first one's corpse and made my way through the trampled snow to the victim and sniffed her.

She was the SCAB -- scent doesn't lie. It made me feel better -- I hated killing SCABS but I'd done so before and would do so again.

I gave her a reassuring yip, but that didn't help. I tried hugging her but she just flinched away. Fuck. Clouds blew from my nostrils and I just crouched there, ignoring the cold, trying to give her the time she needed. My ears swiveled like PAWS radar, making sure that nobody else snuck up on us.

Now what? I couldn't leave her here. The police or medical services wouldn't bother coming out on this new year's eve just to help a SCAB... Then the answer burst upon me and I snorted in amusement -- there was a place I could take her.

The Blind Pig Gin Mill.

Memories from 14 years ago flooded my mind. I remembered supplying the terrorists, watching them, watching the explosion and the violence. Watching Jon get shot...

Everything was so different then. The war had to be started while humanity could still win. Now it had to be delayed to ensure there were enough SCABS to win the war.

I yipped at the woman. This was getting ridiculous! Wrapping my arms around her I pulled her into me, hugging. Her coat was torn, blood dribbled down her human face. I could feel her wince as I ran an arm down her back, feeling the roughness of bruises through the skin through the lower portion of my arm. Pointing towards the exit of the ally, I shook my muzzled head forcefully in that direction.

She was oblivious.

Fuck...

It was tough, but I managed to push her up to her feet and drag her along. She started walking, a staggering half walk, otherwise I probably couldn't have gotten her out of the alley. I could feel her limp muscles, her bones and the skin which hung off them. Never did a day of exercise in her life. None of that mattered though, all that did was that she was a SCAB. I dragged her for a long while before we reached the Pig, led by my ears as they focused on the faint sounds escaping from within.

"10...9...8..."

It was that late? Who knew?

"7...6...5..."

The snow here was packed and made a different sound, a creak instead of a crunch. The scents grew richer, even as the soft flakes became more and more numerous.

"4...3...2..."

I could smell animals, all kinds of animals--

The acidic stench of predators, of wolves, of cats, swept over me and I almost dropped the woman.

DANGER! Dangerdangerdanger! FLEE! Fleefleeflee...

"1...0!"

I stopped, unable to move, my body quivering with the desperate need to just run away but I forced it down. I was not an animal! I was a thinking being and I would not, would never, be driven by my instincts.

A cacophony of voices burst out into the snow, some loud, some quiet, some high-pitched, some low pitched, all joyous. "HAPPY NEW YEAR!"

Happy... It must be nice to have the possibility of one.

A piano started up and my ears twitched around to better cup the sound as voices sang together:

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and never brought to mind?"

It'd be nice if the woman I was dragging around could actually walk on her own, rather than just leaning against me shuffling her feet. Together we creaked through the snow, approaching the door and the wall of scents that made my heart beat faster and my tail whip beneath my coat and skirt in agitation and terror.

"Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?"

This would have been a lot easier if Jon had been here to help. I reached the door and smelled an intermingling of scents on the latch and looked at it. I snorted -- at least something good was happening tonight -- it'd been designed to be easy to manipulate. I hated round door knobs. There was a product called HoofGrip designed to be sprayed on the bottom of walking hooves. Worked great -- didn't help a damn to open a doorknob if I sprayed it on my fingers.

"For auld lang syne, my dear,

for auld lang syne,"

We were at the door and she was just leaning against me doing nothing. Nothing! Useless. Utterly useless. Fuck. I stopped, needing to catch my breath. Nobody inside the bar had noticed, but then why should they? Fourteen years ago this night nobody in the shelter had noticed until I'd staggered through the door half dead.

"We'll take a cup of kindness yet,"

Gulping for breath, my exhalations misting around me in dense clouds, I fumbled at the latch, pushed it open, and staggered in, my wet hooves squeaking on the worn rubber mat just inside. Silence swept out from around me, and the rich scents exploded over me as their heads turned to look at me.

A few scattered voices called out the last line before stuttering to a halt. "for days of auld lang syne..."

If I hadn't had 14 years of practice I would have asked for help, forgetting I couldn't speak. Instead I let out a medium pitched yip and let its tone rise in a question.

The bartender, a big bull morph of some kind, clattered beside me and lifted the woman's weight off my shoulder. I let out a faint yip in relief and stood a bit straighter, and then sat down as a stool bumped into my legs. Long practice made sure I pulled my tail out of the way and I smiled to show my thanks although I couldn't smell or hear anybody who could have placed the stool.

People crowded around me and my ears flicked wildly as all kinds of odours drenched me.

Flee? Where? Warn? Who? FLEE! Fleefleefleeflee!

Swallowing dryly I forced my instincts down and concentrated on the voices.

"Who are you?" "What happened?" "Are you all right?"

My ears moved wildly and the voices blurred and faded in and out. My breath panted in and out, my muscles tensing, needing to do something, anything...

"WHO is...Antelope I Thin...Get HER...ROOM!"

At that point they started moving back and I forced myself under some sort of control. I needed to talk and once again mentally cursed my utter inability to make any sound other than dog-like yips. Of course I knew some sign language, but with the limited dexterity of my hands my vocabulary was limited. There was a more specialized variant for more extreme SCABs but I didn't know if anybody here knew it. I could try writing, but the damned hoofhands made my script as indecipherable as any attempt to use them to try and perform normal sign language.

Calmer now I opened my purse carefully -- with my piss poor dexterity it was 'carefully' or not at all -- and pulled out the 'voder and looked at it. The case was cracked but nothing inside seemed to be loose -- I'd gotten the toughest most indestructible one I could find. Hope flared in me... Could it be okay?

A fuzzy hot scent shoved to the forefront and I looked up as a wolf pushed his way through the crowd and stopped in front of me, keeping his mouth politely closed.

Danger! Danger! Flee! FLEEFLEEFLEEFLEE!

My legs were stiff with suppressed tension, need, but I forced myself to look up and smile. He handed me a soft cool velvety scent, a glass with one of those patented holdable by anybody SCAB handles, filled with cool water. Thankful, I nodded and took it and gulped it down, sucking at the water to make sure I didn't spill any. Finished, I looked up and fumbled the voder's control lever into my hand and pressed in the code for one of the standard phrases.

::Thank you.::

The voice had always reminded me of the voice of the computer from the pre-SCABS movie Wargames.

Looking at Wanderer I smiled my thanks as I handed the mug back and saw him, visually, for the first time.

Was that a cape he was wearing?!

"Fairest damosel, 'twould seem that ye have had a night of unexpected activity."

I stared at him, my mind trying to puzzle out his words, my instincts momentarily as stunned as I was. Could his accent really be that thick?

His scent changed subtly, lightening up to an amber glow. Amusement.

I nodded.

"I hight Wanderer, and I am at thy service, as are all of us, I'm sure."

The rich scent of another lupine wafted towards me, more wolflike than Wanderer, without the overtones, but with the same humorous depths. I watched as this wolf turned his head and leaned at me, his grin almost a leer. "By the way, Mrs. Swindell is fine -- just bruises and all." He let out an amused yip at some inside joke, "Not that she'll EVER be--"

From somewhere else I dimly heard somebody shout and my ears swiveled to focus as a female voice screamed out "Y' bass'rds, I wanna die!!!"

What the hell?!

Somebody shouted out "Hey! What--"

Friend? my instincts asked.

The familiar scent of the woman I'd rescued, whom I assumed was Mrs. Swindell, burst upon me. Because of my instincts I relaxed for a fraction of a second. Relaxed, that is, until my nose was slapped with the scent of her anger and her hatred. She thrust Wanderer aside, his scent changing to fear as he let out a loud bark of shock and thudded to the floor. I could smell the murder in her soul. There was just enough time to bound off the stool and onto my hooves before she threw herself upon me, sending us both to the floor. My 'voder went flying and my distinctively swept-back horns rattled against the hardwood floor preventing a possible concussion.

"Ev'ybodyl hates me!" she screamed as I rolled, pulling my ears tight against my skull cocooned safely under my horns. I kept us rolling and when she was on the bottom I flung myself away and bounded up onto my hooves, staring at her. Dimly I could sense the scents, the essence, of others around me, my ears heard hints of movement and voices, but my attention was fixed on her.

She was crying as she screamed. "Nobuddy wanna help me! Nobuddy cares! Nobuddy le's me do anythin'!"

I panted for breath and licked my nostrils to focus my nose on her. There was still the slow dry hint of sloth, but it paled under tidal waves of crimson anger and dark spiky hatred and sharp green blinding envy.

I let out a loud bark of warning, not that I expected her to understand, before she screeched and leapt on me. It would have been nice to say something, but that ability was long gone.

"Y' won't even lemme die!" she wailed and ran at me.

I could see others reaching for her but there wasn't time. Various killing blows flashed through my mind but I rejected them. She was a SCAB. She was not threatening human/SCAB relations and hence did not have to die. Taking a step backwards I heard something snap and crunch underhoof; I staggered for just a moment, then I spun, grabbing her just below her right shoulder, my vise-like hands cruelly pinching into her thin starved flesh. I could hear her gasping breaths, her heart beating like a wild thing, I could smell the course saltiness of the sweat on her palm.

And the sharp burning crimson of her anger overwhelmed it all.

As we spun I wrenched at her arm, pulling it out of her shoulder and snapping the upper arm bone. I yanked down and she flailed for balance as she smashed through a chair and slammed onto the floor, the impact knocking the air out of her lungs. Letting her weight pull me down I ended up kneeling on her spine, wrenching her snapped arm and pressing it against her back. It had been a clean break, and the bone had stayed inside her flesh as I'd wanted it to.

Except for her sobbing there was nothing but silence, and then the sharp tinkle of a glass smashing on the floor.

My ears swiveled as a massive weight stopped, looming over me, and I scented calm and understanding mingled with cold and hard. I saw the massive bull's head of the bartender in my side vision.

Friend? my instincts asked

So simple were my instincts sometimes. Herbivore, friend; carnivore, enemy. I'd learned the hard way years ago not to listen to them, but they still influenced me.

He looked at me and I looked at him, neither of us ready to flinch, though I was ready to dive away to avoid a blow. Then I knew what he wanted. Letting go of Mrs. Swindell's arm, I bounded up to my hooves and nodded at him as my coat bounced around me. I watched him pick her up as though she were a feather and roughly jerk her away.

All around me, each person's odour was filled with overtones of spiked anger, sour bits of envy and the fuzzy warmth of amazement.

I wasn't even out of breath.

Ignoring it all I wondered where was my 'voder? I just wanted to take it and leave. I didn't belong here. My life was too different from theirs. They were normal, I was an assassin. Even the carnivores here were amateurs compared to me. There was blood on my hooves, but I regretted none of it.

I'd killed a lot of people, and every one I had killed had to die.

I saw my 'voder against the leg of the stool I'd been sitting on. The stool hadn't been there before, had it? Stepping forward I let my warm personal scent that had soaked into the plastic case over the years soak into me and calm me. I kneeled down to pick it up and that's when I saw it.

Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck!!!

I remembered stepping on something. I remembered the harsh snap of plastic and the crunch of circuit boards.

Before me I saw the broken case. The shattered pieces of electronics.

I'd stepped on my own 'voder.

That was the last straw, the perfect cap to an absolutely perfect day. I just kneeled there, staring at it. Tears filled my eyes even though I tried to blink them back. My ears whipped all over the place, I slammed a hoof-hand against the floor in frustration as my hormones over spilled my control.

This had never happened when I'd been a man. Why the fuck did it happen now that I was a woman?!

Clenching my hoof-hands into fists, I wished could feel my nails dig into my palm. Wished I could feel some pain. I squeezed my eyes as tight as I could as tears oozed down the side of my muzzle. Real sable antelopes couldn't cry -- why the fuck had SCABS left me able to?!

My ears flipped around and I heard hooves on wood. Probably the bartender getting ready to kick me out. I felt a stiff hand resting on my shoulder.

Friend? Friend! Herd! Herdherdherdherd!

My instincts hadn't screamed at it, and the scent was calming. It was unfamiliar, of sweet grass and controlled fear and companionship. A hint of something I recognized as HoofGrip(tm) on his hooves. Turning my head I opened my eyes and blurrily saw what it was out of one of them.

It was a deer. Standing upright, partially morphic in form, rusty-red furred with white around the eyes, throat, and chin, wearing a vest. It looked like he'd just shed his antlers and a fancy 'voder hung around his neck. I could smell a harsh earthy worry -- his continuous fear, could smell the sourness of a bit of beer on his lips. But I didn't smell any anger.

I yipped and relaxed.

He reached out with a far more dexterous hoof hand than mine and helped me up as I just drank in his scent, concentrating on it, letting it fill me with calm.

"We're all friends here," he said.

I flicked an ear and smiled and nodded my thanks, but I could tell he was reading me from my scent just as I was reading him. Something was odd though -- I couldn't smell it before but there was a hint of vibrant desperate sadness buried deep in his scent. Sniffling, I blinked the tears out of my red eyes trying to focus.

Sometimes I hated this body. Hated this rollercoaster of emotions. It always seemed to happen when my defenses were lowest, were at their weakest. I was panting for breath, desperately needing to flee but refusing. My instincts were a screech in my mind but I pushed them back. I would never let them control me. NEVER!

The deer spoke again. "My name's Jon."

Jon? Why was that name so common around here? From scent alone I knew it wasn't the Jon I remembered. His scent mapped itself into my memory and I'd always know it. But it wasn't my Jon. Well, at least the distinctiveness of his scent would keep me from getting the two mixed up.

I let him lead me back to the stool and he helped me sit down -- I could have sworn it hadn't been there before.

Jon just stood there holding my hand and I wished I could thank him. Just his being there was doing wonders for my sanity. The fight, if you could call it that, hadn't been an issue -- Mrs. Swindell never had a chance. It was my emotions afterward. Somebody must have handed him that mug I used before because he held it up to my muzzle and I sucked the cold water feeling it slide down my throat and into the first of my stomachs. When it was done I unswallowed some cud and started chewing and I could smell his bouncy rubbery amusement. He must have the same problem.

Friend.

Now, where was my 'voder, I should thank him...oh... Right. I felt my eyes tearing. I'd better just go, but I wanted it first. Maybe I could get it fixed. I looked at the base of the stool but it wasn't there. What?! I spun my head around frantically, trying to catch my scent, trying to see where it'd gotten to. Had somebody taken it? I caught a whiff of myself and struggled to focus my eyes until I saw a caped wolf.

Predator! Fleefleeflee!

Wanderer was leaning over the table in front of a disgruntled cheetah with a many pocketed vest.

My ears cupped the sounds and Wanderer's voice sharpened into clarity "...here, my good fellow. You've spent these past several minutes examining those broken bits of technological cleverness with your eyes. Whatsoever can ye be waiting for, if I might make so bold as to inquire?"

The cheetah blurred and vanished with a faint whoosh of air movement, too faint for most here to have picked up. So fast -- how could he possibly -- oh God, he wasn't an inanimorph, was he? I hated inanimorphs. They were the third party in this evolutionary conflict, and nobody knew which way the damned zombies would leap. They terrified me, and most everybody else I knew. My breathing quickened, but this new Jon's scent kept my instincts happy.

And then another slight whoosh of air -- the cheetah blurred into place beside me -- and the sharp cold-death-raw-meat stench of carnivore fell upon me, tinted with an odd spike of fear and the sharp cleverness of feline.

Danger! DANGER! Warn herd! Flee! Fleefleefleeflee!!

Outwardly calm I looked up. I knew I wasn't fooling the deer and his scent screamed his urge to flee too.

"Let me know when it hurts," the undead cat said. His voice was hard, flat, utterly without resonance. It didn't sound human. It barely sounded organic. Before I could react, his hands were examining mine, gently forcing my enhoofed fingers through what range of motion they had. Refusing to flinch I looked at him, shoving the screaming fear of my instincts aside, yipping at the appropriate points of momentary pain as he tried to move a digit too far. My ears flicked wildly as I swallowed my cud in preparation to flee.

The ordeal was quickly ended. "Shit," the zombie said. "I was afraid of that."

Huh?

And then he was gone leaving only a hint of his scent. Vanished. Teleported?

Wanderer was kind enough to explain: "I pray thee forgive mine presumption, but I felt 'twere best that thine vocal device be restored most swiftly. Did I err?"

I blinked at the caped wolf.

"Fair maiden of mystery, please accept mine humble apologies on behalf of thine technological saviour-to-be. I fear he's not known for his manners of societal politeness."

I just shrugged. I had questions, but no way to ask them. It was so frustrating, but my disabilities had taught me patience. And yet I was terrified. A potential inanimorph sent shivers down my spine that my instincts never did.

My scent must have revealed something as Wanderer responded to my unvoiced question. "Fear not for friend Jubatus is a firm believer in the Golden Rule; it's just most sad that he thinks he should be treated that way." The wolf snickered, a melodious almost mournful sound that vibrated through his throat. "Oft-annoying though our cheetah be, it is most unseemly that he should scare you -- really, he's just a softie at heart."

I could feel Jon's hoofhand on my shoulder moving nervously, and his scent was becoming more and more tinged with the soft darkness of worry. If he was worried about the cheetah...

I jumped when the zombie cheetah returned in yet another blur. Wanderer's scent didn't react; apparently he was long since accustomed to the feline's antics. Jon's on the other hand spiked with nervousness, but not outright fear.

"Done," the zombie cat said in that... voice... of his.

"I thank ye, kind Juabtus. Once again thy technical prowess hath shocked and awed me. I am most appreciative, and I'm ever so certain that our dangerous Samaritan shall be too."

The zombie cheetah, Jubatus, ignored Wanderer and pulled a 'voder out from one of his vest's many pockets. "Here you go," he said, holding the device out towards me. "The memory was fried so I programmed in the full Berlitz phrase library. Best I could do."

I looked at the 'voder he was holding and knew it wasn't mine. The scent was entirely wrong. And yet it looked right. It smelled of plastic and newness and feline. Had he gotten me an entirely new one? Could it be a trap from that feline appearing inanimorph? Something subtle to take me out? Did he know? Yet I needed it... He could be just a SCAB helping a fellow SCAB -- we had to stay together against the norms that vastly outnumbered us. Inanimorphs had never threatened me... Of course, if the powerful ones did want me dead I'd simply be dead. And I needed that 'voder. Without it I was little better than a trained animal.

I grasped the 'voder gingerly, clamping one hand's fingers against it in a secure grip, and he put the lever control in my other hand. The control smelled right. It was mine. Had he put the 'voder in a new case? But how?

Behind me my tail felt like it was a blur as did my ears.

"Manual's not finished printing yet. I'll leave it on the table beside you when it's done."

I fumbled a bit at the control and a harsh buzz, which my ears curled away from, came from the voder. Fuck! I thought I'd disabled all the error warnings years ago. They were far more of a pain than a help.

The zombie cheetah must have noticed my discomfort. "Page 57," he said. "Disable the audio feedback with five short, five long. Let me know if you have any more problems." Then he was gone.

I pressed in the code and then tried an intentional error and got no audio warning. Thank God.

I'd have to get the manual later -- I'd better leave now before they kicked me out. Tapping the 'voder experimentally, I confirmed that this one understood Morse code too. I pressed in a word and ended with the speak directive.

::WHO::

I pointed over to where the cheetah was back at his table as I hung the 'voder on its strap over my shoulder. I needed a way to contact him later for the manual and I had to make sure I had the right person.

Wanderer finished dusting himself off. "That one? Jubatus? His is a style both distempered and ill mannered, 'tis true. But if the solid substance of comradeship is what thee seek, thine search need go no further than Jube."

Madwomen. They were all madwomen! Trusting an inanimorph?! I needed the zombie right now, but once I got the instructions I'd be gone.

::HOW REACH::

"He be found here more evenings than otherwise. For the near time only, then he's off to lead us in sweet song."

I wanted to glare at the wolf, but his tongue was so firmly in his cheek, he was keeping his fangs hidden and he was taking care to always stand a reasonable distance away, that I just couldn't get angry at him.

::EMAIL PHONE MUST LEAVE::

"'Tis easiest if thou cometh tomorrow..."

Didn't he know what the zombie was?! I snorted in exasperation.

"Don't--" Jon interrupted.

::SORRY SHOULDN'T HAVE COME LEAVE BEFORE DO MORE DAMAGE::

I felt Jon's hoof-hand touch my shoulder and Wanderer just stared at me.

"Dearest maiden," Wanderer said, waving his hands around, "There are none here would fault you for what you did. Mrs. Swindell," I could scent his disdain, "is rather more leech than sloth and when came the day she could leech no more, she wandered the streets in sad darkness and isolation. Whatever blame may be laid is hers alone, not yours."

But... I pointed at the wreckage of the chair, over at the horsemorph bandaging Swindell's unconscious form...

I heard Jon's voice behind me. It was strained, I could smell the spiky tension in his scent and his voice. "Could you sthay for a few weeks... Pleathe...?" And then the desperate engulfing gooey stench of his need hit me.

Why did he need me...?

Wanderer continued, "We are all friends here. It'd probably make things easier if we knew your name--"

Jon grabbed my shoulder and spun me around, almost yanking me off the stool. His scent glittered with desperation, glowed with love. His eyes glittered and I could see him straining at something, panting for breath.

"Shee neeth you! Staaa..."

Pain swept out through his scent and his body groaned as limbs warped and his physiognomy changed. His clothing split along the seams; not unusual if that sound of tearing velcro mean anything.

And then there was a deer -- a quadrupedal full-morph with nothing of the human in its appearance deer -- standing there.

I could see the 'voder hanging from his neck. Jon looked at me and pressed the soft velvety fur of his chin against my shoulder.

"Alas, Jon Sleeper is deerly sorry; his curse is to only remain in his clever morphic form for too short a time."

I heard a couple of snorts and muffled laughs around Wanderer.

Could I stay?

I looked around. There was a crowd but I didn't scent any hatred. Some fear, but mostly curiosity and friendship.

I didn't belong here! What if somebody remembered me from 14 years ago? And yet...

I looked into Jon's eyes, not my Jon but another SCAB in desperate need. He thought I could help him.

How could I refuse?

I could run if I had to... if my enemies found me. Even though it'd been fourteen years I knew that they'd never give up.

I couldn't refuse such need in a SCAB.

I smiled and pressed letters into my 'voder.

::IF FIND PLACE STAY AWHILE::

Jon's happiness blossomed into his scent.

Wanderer cleared his throat. "And bella donna, though certes I would be more than pleased to so name you evermore, I'm sure that all our companions in cheer," he motioned around, "would prefer a more personalized name with which to address thy fair form."

Snorting, I let out an amused yip. What name should I use here? Which was safe? Would anybody remember me from those events 14 years ago? I remembered the first name I'd used post-SCABS -- 'Sable'. Definitely wouldn't do to use that one. I snorted in amusement. Well, I had my next identity prepared, and I could use it here as well as anywhere else.

::ISOLA GARRETT::

Wanderer's voice boomed out, "Let us all rise and welcome the fair Isola amongst our festive group. She is brave beyond reckoning, but let us welcome a no-longer lost soul!"

How had he known?! And why did I agree with him?

And the entire bar, seemingly, shouted out "To Isola!"

Jon's joy blossomed wider through his scent and I couldn't help but smile. I started pressing in what I wanted to say, and ended up with the number once I'd worked out what I wanted to ask.

::ASK QUESTIONS THREE::

Wanderer raised an eyebrow. "'Ere the other side ye see?"

Now what was he talking about? Oh well. I pressed in the letters and pressed the speak command. The first one was something that had been bothering me, and my instincts, as the bar patrons were biased in the opposite species direction than one might expect. I just wanted it to generate a laugh and some companionship -- a variation of a skill I'd used before. The other two were obvious questions.

::WHY SO MANY CARNIVORES::

Wanderer leaned over and looked at me, his face suddenly deadly serious. "Canst not guess, milady? The answer, I hazard, is so simple and obvious that thou'lt kick thyself for missing it ere now."

I scented an air of expectation as I looked at him.

"Our bountiful host, the delightful Donnie is seeking to beef up his culinary arts."

I just stared at him for a second, my ears focused on him, my nostrils quivering at his scent, before the entire bar groaned. All I could do was shake my head.

Behind me I heard a modulated, almost human voice coming from the 'voder around Jon's neck and turned. There was a scent of a wolf hanging around him, one of Wanderer's pack, and I saw that his 'voder had been moved on his neck so that it sat directly over where his vocal cords were. I'd heard about those -- they monitored nerve signals to the vocal cords and converted them to speech. I'd tried that kind of device, but I couldn't even send speech commands to my vocal cords anymore.

::ISOLA. I KNOW OF A PLACE YOU CAN STAY. YOU CAN MAKE IT YOUR HOME. WE CAN TALK LATER:: Jon's 'voder said.

I smiled and nodded. The 'voder voice was odd. It wasn't like the zombie's voice... It was mechanical, definitely, but there was a bit of personality behind it that changed the timbre of the output into something warm and friendly.

"As for thy other questions," said Wanderer, "methinks the answers might well be 'to find a home' and '11metres per second'." And then he winked at me.

Everybody laughed as I just stared and shook my head having no clue as to what was going on. I started pressing out the other questions on the 'voder -- at least its control was mine.

::WANT BEER SOMEONE TAKE COAT THANKS::

I stood up as a carnivore of some kind, only smelling faintly of wolf this time, took my coat and I smiled in thanks ignoring the panicked screaming of my instincts. Wiggling a bit to settle my blouse and skirt, I felt much cooler, much more comfortable, though the bar was still hot from all the people there. The bull appeared beside me with a big mug of beer in that special cup and I gingerly took it from him and raised it up as I pressed letters into my voder.

::TO THE NEW YEAR::

Glasses clinked and people cheered. The piano started playing and I sucked at my beer.

Could it be?

I looked around.

Could I be home...?

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