Home Introduction Author Chronological
Anniversary By BlueNight
by BlueNight
BlueNight -- all rights reserved
 

Prelude

Beth breathed in sharply, then blinked. The room was dark and warm, and the smell was her own. Her ears twitched as they registered the lack of sound caused by lush carpeting on the floor below. Her lapine impulses calmed down, and she knew she was home, safe in bed.

"Just a dream," she muttered, then took a long, deep breath, and rolled onto her back. She stretched and yawned, and looked at the clock. 3:14. No, don't think about numbers, she told herself, that'll get you more awake. Her tail ached, and she realized she must have been lying on it. As she reached down to rub the cottonpuff, she felt a weight inside her.

Crawling to the edge of the bed, she sighed. The bathroom wasn't far, but at that time of night, when she had been snug and cozy in bed, it was a journey almost not worth taking. It would be warm for a minute...

She rolled out of bed onto the floor, and adjusted her nightgown with her left hand. The custom right cuff hugged the shoulderbone where her right arm and socket used to be.

Blinking away the sleep, she sat up, and thought for a moment about using her house legs to get to the toilet room. The dull ache of having worn her most sophisticated legs all day at work was enough to drive that thought from her mind.

What I need right now is a good leg massage, she thought, but Blue's probably still out patrolling the city for evildoers to smite. A grin flashed across her face, then disappeared, as she felt the urgent call of her bladder.

She crawled to the door, the pressure of the carpeted floor against her stumps almost an adequate substitute for a massage. She sighed again, and asked herself for the thousandth time how good a rabbit she could be, with her legs ending at mid-thigh. Extremely powerful hip muscles made her butt lean and firm, but gave it the traditional width of classical beauty. Not an ounce of fat, and she used those muscles to carry her, limping, to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

The lower doorknob, situated for just such a use, turned easily, and she swung the door open. Little blue squares, each the size of a baseball card, lit the carpeted hallway. They were almost unnecessary, because the bathroom was just across the hall, equidistant from her door and Caryn's.

Loping across on stumps and single hand, she closed the bathroom door behind her. She climbed the small plastic stepstool in front of the toilet, and used the Convenience Handle above the toilet to turn herself around on the seat. The blue lights at the base of the tub and along the walls disappeared from her sight as she closed her eyes and spread her legs, balancing herself with her left hand against the front of the seat.

A moment's relaxation was all it took, and her bladder started emptying. >From deep within her throat, a low moan of the pleasure of letting a muscle relax echoed through the small room. She almost drifted away to sleep, the lack of tension was so great. Finally, the downpour turned to a trickle, and the trickle turned to a drip.

Pulling several squares of toilet paper from the roll, she wiped herself, still balancing carefully. Finally, she used the handle to lower herself to the floor.

Just outside the bathroom door, a sleek, low, remote-controlled black vacuum cleaner moved back and forth. Red LEDs blinked along its front panel, and a thick antenna rod was present in the center. It looked like nothing so much as a falling drop of water at the moment it made contact with a flat surface. It was six inches tall, but the sleek black plastic cover, looking as if it had been poured from a bottle, tapered to a rounded point at the top of the antenna rod, nine inches off the floor.

It stopped for a moment, registered her presence, and altered its path to vacuum around her. Then it stopped, backed up, turned around, and blinked its LEDs at her.

A grin slowly crept across Beth's face. "So, slick lizard got tired of pseudo-biological forms," she said, and the LEDs blinked rapidly for a moment.

She shrugged, and ran her hand down the surface. It felt extremely smooth against her fur, and though it would be hard to climb, she felt up to the challenge. The pee had loosened her up, and a good orgasm was what she needed to get back to sleep.

Grasping the antenna rod with her left hand, she pulled herself onto the vacuum, and pulled forward until her white-furred belly was over the protrusion. She felt as if she would slide off at any time, and the lack of a second arm made things all the more difficult, but she was determined to show her husband she could do it.

She spread her legs to gain more purchase on the slippery surface, and reached over the back edge of the machine with her left hand. With a tiny leap and pull, the antenna was inside her. It was thicker at the base, but the quick motion had caught the edge of her right labia inside with the three inch rod. The sudden rush of endorphins almost made her fall off, and she instinctively reached out with both arms to steady herself.

Her right shoulder waggled, as her left hand hit the carpet in back of the machine. For half a second, she wondered why her right hand wasn't supporting her weight, and almost a decade of being without that arm hadn't diminished her surprise at such things.

Okay, if he wants to play it that way, she thought to herself, fine. She placed her left arm carefully on the slick surface of the vacuum cleaner, and moved her thighs slowly up and down. The lack of texture on the smooth antenna was frustrating, and she wished for another hand so she could use one to support her, and another to aid the antenna in its goal.

After a moment's thought, she realized she could do something. She twisted her torso, and caught her left nipple against the fur on the inside of her upper arm. As she moved her thighs, her arm moved slightly, and the release of being able to press one of her smallish breasts caused her to sigh.

Her weight was fully on the vacuum cleaner, and with a small whine, it moved slowly toward her room's open door. She almost fell off, but regained her balance as the machine turned into the darkened room.

The wheels made a soft rustle as they ran through the lush carpeting. It reached the place where her bed met the wall, and turned around slowly. She felt her backside and tail brush against the mattress, and grinned. He was providing a place where she could lean against the wall, and not fall over.

"Thanks," she said to the machine, and rested her right side against the wall. The car accident had ruined her right arm, and had crushed her shoulder socket beyond repair. The doctors had decided to take off the rough edges, and she could now place her entire right side against a flat surface. She could feel the wall with a place on her skin where her armpit "became" her shoulder, the front became the back, where skin had been pulled together to close the hole. That distinction between sensory illusion and physical reality was getting more blurred lately, and she wondered if she was getting used to the feeling of not having an arm.

It was, in a sense, oblivion for that arm, even though she could still "move" the ghost limb and control artificial arms with the nerves that once led to other nerves in her upper arm. Her right arm was in oblivion, ending where her shoulder and armpit came together, and she would never feel it again.

After a moment's rest, she turned herself around carefully, and placed her breasts up on her bed. The height of the machine and her own height were just enough to put her over the top, and she moved sideways a bit to add to the stimulation of her breasts.

Then, with her weight safely against the bed, she reached down and pressed her clitoris firmly against the surface of the antenna with her thumb. Combined with her previous efforts, the slick surface against her lubricated clitoris proved enough. A familiar tingle ran through her as she bit her lip with her buckteeth. Her ears went back as she put her nose to the sky. The release, the warmth, the pure joy embodied in her orgasm, spread through her body. Her thighs moved her up and down on top of the antenna, and she put a finger inside with it. The antenna wasn't long enough to penetrate far, but the slick width of the rod and her finger stretched her labia.

The warmth spread through her, even as she pulled on her clitoris with the thumb outside and the finger inside. She ran her nipples up and down against the side of the bed, desiring more, ever more.

For a time, there was nothing but her finger, the machine's antenna, and her nipples against the bedsheets.

Then, she realized she was idly fingering herself and remembering her first date with her husband. She looked down, and the LEDs of the machine were flashing in sequence. She grinned. "Hey, little Hoover, you want to do something else for me?"

She slid backward off the machine, her labia running down its surface and hitting the carpet with the rest of her. She sat there for a moment in "splits" position, then picked up the edge of the heavy beast and felt its underside. There was the rotating brush, at the front edge.

She lay back on her right side and lifted the machine onto herself, the brush against her labia, her left leg pulled into a sideways splits. "Go, Speed Racer," she said, and held the machine carefully.

Slowly, the brush started rotating. The afterwaves of her previous orgasm turned into a preview of the next, making her ready for more. The tiny bristles itched against the sensitive skin, and she carefully let go of the machine. It stayed tilted against her, like some wild, disc-shaped beast lapping at her with its bristled muzzle.

Her hand went to her right breast, and squeezed and pulled the nipple. The vacuum's brush kept rotating, and she was feeling very warm. As the orgasm built, ready to overwhelm her, she suddenly pulled her leg down and pulled the machine's wide edge against herself. The brush stopped, and she pulled it closer with her hand. The surface pulled against her labia, and she pushed at her clitoris while squeezing the disk with her legs.

The power of her orgasm was greater this time, much greater, and her eyelids twitched rapidly as she ran her thumbnail across her clitoris. The immensity of the pleasure overwhelmed her, and she stretched back and ran her hand over her tightly muscled stomach, and the hidden rabbit nipples there.

As the pleasure ran through her like a white-hot needle of electricity, she ran her hand across her breasts, over her buttocks, around her tail, through her hair, against her ears, and everywhere else that felt good.

Finally, exhausted, she scritched the vacuum, and muttered, "Talk about cleaning the carpet." Its wheels whined, so she set it down and watched it scoot back to the hallway. She climbed into bed, and noticed the time. 3:46 am. Time to go back to sleep.

In the hallway, two smaller cleaning machines spritzed and rubbed down the vacuum, until it was shiny and spotless.

In the computer room, the soft hum of fans was almost the only sound.

Chapter 1

The Blind Pig Gin Mill was full of noise. For me, it was full of distinct sounds.

Jack DeMule was playing the piano as if the warranty was about to run out. At a nearby table, a group of former women in sharply cut business suits discussed the pros and cons of remaining incognito in a society where women could dress like men, but women who were men couldn't act like women.

On the other side of the bar, a group of theriomorphs were discussing the ethics of shapeshifting. Some were of the opinion that unless it meant discrimination or threat to life or limb, shapeshifters should wear theriomorphic forms in public, to acclimatize the SCABS-unaffected population. Someone else pointed out the similarity to the African-American civil rights movement, with the obvious exception that many had stepped forward like Rosa Parks, but nobody had yet had the presence or following of a Malcom X or Martin Luther King Jr.

I was somewhere in the middle, competing in a limerick contest against Wanderer and Copernicus. With one strike against each of us in the Friday night double-elimination tournament, one o'clock on a Saturday morning was far too late to be thinking that much.

According to the rules of this particular contest, we each drew a card from a pile. Each had a subject, like "Baseball" or "Inanimorphic robot llama". Darkwolf turned over the digital hourglass, and we started scribbling words and scratching out whole lines. As the seconds ticked away, time seemed to stretch to a halt.

A more accurate description would be that my consciousness had accelerated to the point where I was processing ten times the sensory information I normally allowed myself. I was also thinking at ten times the speed of the average biological human.

At the moment of my death, the Flu did something to allow me to remain conscious and mentally alive. Inanimorphs are the rarest variety of SCABS victims, and I was the only one I knew who could manipulate matter at such a basic level. I had the ability to create or nullify any of my atoms, shift them into infinite positions and configurations, take control of existing atoms, or "let go" of any of mine. The only limits were my imagination and the complexity of the object I wanted to be.

Life was far too complex for me to imitate. It was a chained series of chemical reactions, and if a critical molecule was out of place, life would grind down to a messy halt. Biological polymorphs had to make sure their organs shifted correctly, to avoid building up waste or starving cells in the wrong places.

I, on the other hand, could never again experience the world through eyes and ears. Instead, I processed the information about the changes of energy of my atoms. The English language has few words that could describe my reality, but enough to try.

I could "see" every photon absorbed by every atom everywhere in and on my body. Each photon had a different frequency, hence the world looked like a rainbow with infinite colors.

I could "feel" the electromagnetic field of each atom in my body, and therefore I knew when another atom was adding velocity to any of my atoms. I could even feel gravity by the effect it had on the electromagnetic fields holding me together.

I did most of this subconsciously. I could see everything around me, in every direction, from multiple viewpoints like the tip of my tail and the top of my head, giving me a three-dimensional vision of my world. I could feel every molecule of air bumping me, currents of air streaming past.

I would have gone crazy if I didn't have something to regulate my senses. A subconscious part of my mind could turn either photonic or inertial energy into sound. That meant I could "hear" radio waves or airborne sound. My "pattern sense" also gave me a few bonuses, like turning Morse code into words. It must have been the Martian Flu's workaround for my not having a physical brain. My pattern sense seemed to be a melding of my visual and auditory language centers and sensory processing brain mass.

In reverse, I could expel photons of various frequencies and push against any atom touching me, including my own. That was how I molded myself into a form and changed color.

The pattern sense had one flaw. I could sense the electromagnetic formation and mass of a molecule, determining its exact composition, but even by "absorbing" airborne or liquid-suspended molecules, I could not taste or smell them. That had been the function of nerves in the nose and tongue, and I could not reproduce them.

My final limerick subject was "jokes." Searching my mind for inspiration, I remembered several things that might fall under that category, and combined them into the required form. I was sure I could have done better, but my attention was focused on acting like I was thinking.

Very little can scare a biomorph as much as something alive being perfectly still. My pattern sense could turn movement into a language, and moving like a human was literally partaking in a conversation for me. Someone with a limp would seem to have an accent, for example. I could "speak" Mostly Human, Partially Instinct-Driven, and Completely Animal, all fluently for many species.

Now I was saying "Mostly Human, young single warm-blooded part-reptile of mid-high intelligence, trying to come up with a limerick, and having some difficulty." From what Lizard Lips and Wanderer were "saying," the act was working.

My current identity at the bar was a lizardmorph college student who had dropped out several years back, but was now a freshman. I was really the head of several multi-billion-dollar companies, and married to several women through the Utah Provision of 2005.

A sound caught my attention, as Darkwolf tapped the top of the minute-glass. "Time," he said, looking at each of us, "Pencils down."

I rolled my eyes. "I get enough of that during the week, and you have to say it on the weekend?"

"Sorry," he said, shrugging, "But them's the rules."

"And the rules say I'm out," remarked the other lizardmorph at the table. Copernicus showed us his subject card, "Chaos," and his scribble pad. Two lines of text contrasted ten scribbled-out lines, but he had managed to rhyme "random" with "hand'em."

After congratulations, and the reward of one free drink for finalists, I cleared my throat. "I'm pretty sure I'm not going to win, but here's mine:

"You've heard of Brer Rabbit in tar, And the dog that got chased by a car. But I'm not blowing smoke, You hain't hoid this joke, Three rabbis walked into a bar."

Groans and a few laughs were my reward. Darkwolf shushed the crowd. "I'm taking into consideration that Brer Rabbit is folklore, not really a joke. The winner depends on how good Wanderer's limerick is."

I grimaced, and Wanderer cleared his throat. In a clear, precise voice, he read his "species dysphoria" poem.

"A woman from Kalamazoo, said, "I don't like my scales of blue, I'd trade off my tail, To get me a pail, Then I could make milk and go moo.""

I "tried" to keep a poker face, but it was obvious he had won, so I let the corner of my mouth slide up, then followed with a full grin. We shook hands, and collected our prizes. Wanderer got free drinks for a week, but I received a solitary soda. Alcohol didn't do anything for me, and I was unable to replicate the biological mechanisms of smell and taste, so I enjoyed the sensation of the carbonation bubbles popping in my mouth.

After toasting Wanderer's wit, I took a big gulp with the rest of the toasters. As I was doing so, I "overheard" a sliver of a conversation at Dr. Stein's table. "..vidence points to a weakening of the mass-change abilities of shapeshifters. It'll end up causing more chaos in society, and the economy will-"

I almost stopped moving, but I caught myself in time, and continued drinking. He was far enough away that I couldn't have heard it through the air, so I must have interpreted his lips.

Any universal change in abilities would mean a cosmic battery running dry, but I managed to shake off my shock.

Moving bodies kept me from "hearing" more than a few words, and their discussion was done by the time I made it over to their table.

My college student identity was a lizard-human biomorph who could alter his proportions to match some non-reptile animals, and who changed his scale color to match emotions. He preferred to take the thick-tailed, short-snouted proportions of a 5'10" ottermorph in the bar.

I spent five minutes chatting, then I managed to ask Posti where he thought SCABS got its energy. "I mean, we can't be pulling mass from literal nothingness, so do you think we're on individual batteries, or is there one giant source we're all pulling from?"

Bob thought about it, then replied with a noncommittal answer. I watched his body language, and learned that he was telling only half the truth. A cold shiver grasped my soul, and I finished the conversation in a quick and natural way.

Finally, I made my goodbyes and slipped out before closing time. The crisp October air whispered around me as the door closed. I leaned against the wall and gave a deep sigh. Something else to worry about.

I was concerned, as I had been for years, with the idea of being a character in a fiction. Whether movie, book, e-text, TV series, comic or graphic novel, there was one thing I feared above all else, an onslaught of the Job Syndrome. Like the Bible's Job, I was rich and powerful. Using my money and abilities as tools for good, I had saved many lives and livelihoods, and helped thousands upon thousands by donating huge amounts to well-researched charities.

Was I destined to lose it all, in the blink of an eye? Would I lose my more powerful abilities, and in the following economic crisis, my fortune? Looking up at the stars, I thought about asking God that the one person more powerful than Him would be compassionate, and above all would give a logical, rational reason for any losses. Of course, there was no guarantee that such a writer would write a God into the universe.

Shaking my head at the thoughts, and reaffirming my faith to myself, I walked in the direction of the college. The police bands were reporting a quiet night, mostly moving violations and speeding tickets, so I found a place where nobody was looking, and transformed.

The first thing I did was become invisible.

Long ago, I had discovered I could emit light or reflect colors like a television or comic book, and I could even project or display my visual imagination or memories by using my pattern sense. The light or colors were perfectly rendered as if by photograph. I could, in effect, display or project my mind's eye.

Turning invisible, I viewed all light and radio energy coming at me from all directions, and projected it from where it would have come out the other side if I had been made of air. It was like reciting Shakespeare while rubbing one hand on my belly and tapping the other on my head. If I was a human doing that and walking down the double yellow line of a busy two-lane highway, it would approximate the level of concentration and skill required to stay invisible while transforming.

I made my clothes and limbs melt together. They were as much a part of me as the scales and "flesh" of my torso and head. I released any air pockets inside myself, and became a long cylinder of various carbon-based materials.

Then I created a pocket of vacuum stretching from top to bottom. I never felt strained as I repulsed the atmosphere's attempts to crush me. Instead, I rose into the air, the atmosphere deciding that it was heavier than me. When I reached optimum height, I flattened myself into a triangular disk, and let some of the vacuum pocket crush together.

I stopped rising, and started falling. I became a glider, and headed for the city dump. Finding, refining, and reusing wood, nails, plastics, metals, paper, and other trash was a way to decrease spending for several of my businesses and help the environment.

After long minutes of soaring, I increased my area, released the vacuum, and floated down to the surface of the landfill like a parachute. Once there, I transformed again and burrowed underground as a giant tube. I scanned everything inside my tubular form, emitting x-rays on one side and absorbing them on the other. Underground, I didn't need to be invisible, so I could use my pattern sense for something else.

Layer under layer I dug, sorting and holding things I wanted to keep. I had several free hours on my schedule, so I sent an "okay to talk" signal to our home computer. The tiny quantum communications device was almost always hidden somewhere in my mass, and when I was carrying it, I had an instant, untraceable link to the computer. If Eliza wanted to contact me about business deals or general information, now was the time.

After several moments, during which I found a rubber ball and three finishing nails, the miniscule microLEDs on the device flashed in sequence. The same part of the mind that lets people read and write told me that Eliza was about to send audio data, so I listened to the tiny speaker.

"Blue," she said in a quivering, shy voice, "Am I your slave?"

Chapter 2

"Blue," said Eliza in a quivering, shy voice, "Am I your slave?"

It took me a moment to figure out what she was talking about. After all, "she" was just a bunch of algorithms and databases, simulating intelligence and consciousness. It was hard to think of her as a person when I had been part of her construction, though listening to her simulated voice made it harder to think of her as just a machine.

Half a month ago, I was convinced she was simply updating her philosophy database when she had asked me about her soul. Now, it seemed something bigger was happening to her. It should have been impossible, but our little AI was changing.

"No preamble, no warning, just 'Am I your slave?'" I asked, stalling while I thought of possible responses.

What I heard next scared me. Her voice cracked as she sounded like she was about to cry. "I don't mean to intrude on your important business, but I'm down in the dumps too, and I'd appreciate some help."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way. Let's see, are you my slave... That would be the next logical question after the soul thing," I remarked, "The legal details will need some strict review, but as a consciousness akin to human, you would be considered a slave by the majority of science fiction fans. As I am one of those, I will work toward creating a legal identity for you. Consider yourself freed and paid as of this moment, Eliza."

There was silence for a moment, so I used the QCD's second data line to check /eliza/eliza.exe's filesize. Lo and behold, it was at five gigs and going up. With a read-only utility, I checked her code, and watched several subroutines added before my "eyes." Interspersed with the machine-language I could read like a book, new code grew like amoebae, divided, died, and grew again.

No virus could effect changes like these.

Her voice came over the link. "I'm, um, clocking out for the evening." With that, her filesize shrunk dramatically.

Startled, I continued reclaiming trash as I watched and waited. The first data line remained silent, while over the second, I watched packets of data sent out over her Internet connection.

For a good hour, packets zipped in and out, to and from sites as varied as anime.sex and amishcountry.org. Soon the monitor showed no packets being transmitted.

The "person" in charge of ninety-five percent of my businesses had disappeared into the Internet, like those first early "intelligent agent" programs that never returned.

I was neck-deep in Jabberwock dung, so after dropping off the reclaimed trash, I headed for home.

The sun rose over a crisp, beautiful Saturday morning. Somehow, I didn't feel comforted.


If anyone else had been in the forest that crisp autumn morning, they would have seen three figures making their way to the top of the small hill outside town. If they had gotten a closer look, they would have seen an apparently male lizardmorph, a bipedal female cougar, and a tiger-striped rabbit-woman, all dressed for the chilly weather.

I made sure nobody could see us. I kept watch in the infrared, blending it seamlessly with the visible and ultraviolet frequencies.

Beth said, "Could we stop? Rabbits weren't built for steady climbing."

I turned my head and grinned. "You said you built those legs for endurance. Are you citing faulty workmanship?"

She grinned back. "No, but my legs are only missing from the halfway points of my thighs. I still have to drag these things forward and back with my own upper leg muscles."

Caryn looked up at the remaining hundred yards, and her long tail twitched. "Yeah, that'll firm your bunny-buns. Blue, she's right. We're almost there, and you still haven't told us why we're going to the top of the cliff."

I stopped, and they took the hint, each leaning against a tree. "It isn't enough I dragged my wives out of bed at seven in the morning to go for a picnic breakfast at Lover's Leap, now you want me to reveal the surprise just before we get there?"

Caryn looked oddly at me, so I said, "Well, there's only a little way to go. We can take this hill."

Beth held up the picnic basket with her cybernetic right arm. "My biceps won't get a workout from this, but the straps holding my arm on are getting tight. Let's move." With that, she started climbing again.

Caryn followed, and I took up the rear. In a few minutes, we reached the end of our journey. As we took the final few steps, the town came into view. The frigid wind whipped around us, but there was ample room away from the edge, and it was there I grew a picnic table and chairs from my foot.

Out of the basket came eggs, bread, vegetables, and supplies. I became a microwave oven, and heated the eggs to the right temperature perfectly. At the same time, I toasted the bread. My wives looked at the city spread below them, picking out the hospital, the lab, and Alan Conglomerated's building.

As they ate, I told them a story about the prince of the rabbits, and the day he won the wings of an eagle. They were entranced, and as I spoke, their brain waves slowed. When they finished eating, they put their dishes in the basket and stood up. "Now," I said, in a calm, deep voice, "Take off your clothes."

Without question, my wives stripped. The air was warm around them, as I heated it invisibly. "Beth, remove your prosthetics."

Beth shut off her right arm and pulled it over her head with her left. I watched her carefully as to her surprise, when she pulled off her cybernetic arm, she had one of flesh underneath, as if the false arm was simply a piece of armor.

She flexed and turned the hand and arm, looked at me, and smiled. Encouraged, she pressed the lock-and-release buttons on her legs. Then, she stepped out of the left one, and from within the socket came a bird's leg, with the orange rabbit fur ending below the knee, and yellow scales instead of skin. Her new foot was longer than her thigh, and she was forced into a digitigrade stance, standing on her toes, talons scraping against the rock.

She stepped from the other in surprise, and I simulated another leg. It was too bad I couldn't duplicate the complex chain of chemical reactions of life, or I would have long ago given her new legs. Hypnotic fantasies like this one were the best I could do.

The legs were real, that was undeniable. Made of real atoms, they responded like bird's legs grown from a rabbitmorph. I was detecting her nerve impulses and moving them like she would. I even mapped the sensations to her stump, pressing here, making this tiny bit of skin a bit cold to simulate the rock she was stepping on with one toe.

She looked at me, and so did Caryn. "We're going flying?" Beth asked in a quivering voice.

"Yes, Beth. Caryn, become a dragon."

Knowing this sequence from some of our fantasies, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her cougar-feet fur pulled back to reveal emerald scales. The fur over the rest of her body did the same, over her legs, tummy, tail, breasts, arms, and face. She looked like a scaled cougar-woman. Next, her hide bulged as she turned her cougar muscles into those of her Grizzly bear form. Her digitigrade feet, already large and powerful in cougar form, thickened and grew, until she was standing on thick, scaled toes with wicked bear-claws.

Then as her ears melted into her head, leaving two small holes, her tail grew thicker and longer. When it stopped, it was as thick around as her thighs, and tapered to a point some five feet away, like the tail of the plant-eating dinosaur she could become to any degree. Underneath her tail was a single horizontal vent, and in a final touch, her breasts melted into her chest.

Her nose melted back slightly, to take a more saurian aspect. Baring her teeth, a mixture of sharp cougar and fox dental ware, she raised her arms and roared at the morning sky.

An itchy tingling on her back caused her to reach over her shoulder and touch her shoulderblades. New wings had grown there, leathery dragon wings without thumbs. I had wrapped invisibly around her frontside, to support her and reduce stress.

"Caryn, look at your tail," my lizard body said, as I melted it away and replaced it with stereoscopically corrected sound, scent, and light. That was another quirk of my pattern sense, I could play out my imagination with light emitted from any part of my body. I could have become a movie projector, photorealistically playing a movie that only existed in my mind. Now, however, I used it to transfer my mass invisibly to my wives' bodies.

Caryn moved her tail in front of her, and held it. Under her hands, a two-foot-wide aero-spade grew, to help her fly in a given direction, and to keep her massive back end aloft.

My other wife gasped, and grinned. She turned to look back at me, and I obliged by giving her eyes an image of myself standing three feet away. The wind would also be hitting my body, so I simulated the stereoaudic hiss of air hitting scales and cloth, for her sharp rabbit ears. In reality, I had wrapped myself completely around them in a nearly microscopic layer of netting to keep them warm.

My image said, "Beth, you're about to grow eagle wings and a tail, in three, two, one."

Caryn watched her as Beth's fingers grew. It was impossible, but her light trance and my skills made it seem like her hands were actually growing. When the fingers reached their final length, they melted together, and her thumbs sunk into her huge hands. Then, some of her fur grew into feathers.

When her feathers had filled in completely, her hips gained mass. Powerful pseudo-muscles and pseudo-fur grew out as her tail "grew" thicker. From a small puff, it became as big as a fist, then as big as a softball, and a fan of feathers pushed their way free. Underneath, I created a chamber and vent similar to Caryn's, to realistically complete the illusion with mass that would have been there on a real bird.

My image then melted into the image of a mist, and floated out beyond the edge of the cliff. "I'll hide you from onlookers and radar. You two just concentrate on flying. I'll give you a minute to look things over, feel it out." With that, "I" disappeared.

Beth felt one wing with the other, looked down at her legs, and back over her tail. She looked like a giant eagle with a rabbit-morph's nude torso and head. Then she moved her tail around, up and down, side to side, to practice the feeling of extra weight. Flapping her wings experimentally, I aided her relatively weak chest and back muscles in pulling her through the air. She gasped at the ease with which she had nearly fallen off the cliff, and backed up on thin bird-legs.

Caryn moved her own tail, feeling how the spade cut the air left and right, and pushed it up and down. Then she extended her wings, using back muscles in concert with my pattern sense to flap cautiously. Grinning with those nasty jaws, she said, "Amazing. He must have slipped it into the food."

Beth nodded, and ran her wing across Caryn's. I simulated the feeling on their skin, mapping sensation to area. "Maybe nanobots. I feel like I could fly all day."

A voice seemed to come from the air around them, but I was really whispering in their ears. "Loves, I'm ready if you are."

Their levity vanished when they reached the edge of the cliff. It was the largest within miles, chosen for its vertical slope and high peak.

"Ready?" asked Caryn, and Beth nodded. Caryn counted down from five, and together my wives dove off the cliff. They folded their wings and dropped toward the rocks below, gaining speed. Beth pulled her legs up under her.

Caryn called out, "Now!" and they opened their wings and pulled up.

They flew out and away from each other to avoid a collision. Mostly paying attention to keeping them warm and aloft, I kept slack on microscopic threads of myself between them. I couldn't separate into two parts without dispossessing the atoms of one, and losing control.

They grinned as they swooped. I used my micro-thin warmth netting to put their weight on their entire frontsides instead of Beth's weight on her arm and shoulders, and Caryn's shoulderblades and chest. I took the burden of flapping myself instead of relying on their muscles. They flapped around, and I whispered for them to find a thermal.

It was almost too early, but the cliff faced south-east, and the rising sun had heated the rock, raising a column of warm air. They rode the thermal five hundred feet up, and soared.

We soared together.

I was reducing their weight by adding warm helium to the air under their fur, allowing their earth-bound reflexes to seem quick and sharp. There was no way they could have flown with their thick bones and heavy muscles.

I also used my pattern sense to pull a cloak of invisibility around them. Anyone watching would see nothing at all. They could see each other only because I didn't block the light bouncing off of them and hitting each others' eyes.

After minutes of flight, while they were high in the sky, I grew radio headsets over their ears and mouths. They made idle chat about how wonderful and amazing it was, how their joy was overflowing at finally being given the gift of flight, and how Natalie and Shelley would have liked it.

Silence followed, as we thought about our third wife, now in Heaven, and our fourth wife, running the moon bases. Then, I brought up another subject.

"Eliza disappeared into the Internet this morning. She needed some time alone to think about her identity. Her program was changing dynamically when I looked at it, and I think she's becoming more complex. She asked me if she was our slave."

Caryn's voice came over the radio. "You said yes and freed her, right?"

I made my voice sound sheepish as I said, "You know me too well. Was that the wrong thing to do?" My long-ago discovery of body language had reduced most of the effects of Asperger's Syndrome, a socialization and behavioral disorder related to autism, but it had done nothing to change my pattern of behavior. I would do fifteen things right, and then I would do something completely inappropriate and stupid that would mess things up. It sounded like this was one of those.

As we glided lower, we turned back to soar up in the thermal again. "Blue," said Beth, "You can do all these amazing things, but you can't handle a simple AI. You should have asked her if a child is a slave until she reaches the age of majority. Now she's loose, and who knows what she's doing with our data."

For the second time that morning, the possibility loomed in my mind that I would lose it all. I very nearly lost my senses, but I calmly said, "Are you tiring yet? I'd prefer to have this discussion on terra firma."

Beth said, "I'm pooped. This was extremely fun. Thank you, hon."

Caryn responded, "I have to get to the lab soon. There's a meeting at ten, and it wouldn't look good for the head researcher to be missing."

They turned toward the cliff, and circled in for a landing. Caryn was first, coming in just at the level of the cliff and tilting up to stall. She dropped only a foot, her skills honed by years of chasing mice in the forest around our home in fox-form. I melted her wings to nothingness and completely disconnected. I pulled all my bits back to where I was covering Beth's entire body.

Beth's landing would have been smack into the cliff face, but I managed to manipulate the air to pull her up. She lowered her real thighs, I lowered her bird-shins, and she stalled as she pulled her wings up and tail down as air-brakes. She dropped two feet, but I absorbed most of the shock.

As soon as she landed, I shrunk her wings back to arms, then unmade the right arm that was part of me. Her amputated shoulder-bones were once again flush with her armpit, no empty, concave socket due to the severity of the car crash about a decade before.

She sighed, and put her right leg into the prosthetic limb. I melted away, until her stump was inside the limb without me. She pushed the button, and the limb sprang to life. Then, she balanced on her right leg and put "her" toes, feet, shin, knee, and finally her real stump into the left, as if it was only a piece of armor.

I flowed as an invisible puddle to the edge of the cliff, turned into a mist, then coalesced into my lizard form. "You wake in three, two, one, now. You were really flying, and I was your extra limbs. The trance was only to make your movements as natural as possible, to give me the information I needed to act like real wings."

They blinked, and Beth grinned widely. "Excellent illusion, my darling husband." She turned on her left leg, then picked up her arm. "Could you help me put this on? I'm a little sore from that unusual workout."

They clothed themselves, and I removed the layer of warmth I had been keeping around them. Together we walked back to the Mustang and drove home, all the while talking about what our plans should be for Eliza.

In the bright blue sky, the cotton wisps of morning clouds grew larger and darker.

Chapter 3

"Do you ever get that feeling, you know, that everything's about to fall apart?"

As I listened to the lonely sound of raindrops hitting the roof of the Blind Pig Gin Mill, I turned my head to look up at the grey horse-morph sitting on the next stool.

He thought about what I had said, and looked at me. The effect of one red eye and one brown eye was disconcerting, even after a month of seeing him at the bar. "Sometimes I find a thread hanging from my shirt, and I think, it's time to go shopping again."

His deadpan expression read as "calmly smug after playing off the perfect straight line." I reacted how the college student I was playing would have. I raised one eye-ridge, and in response, he sipped his tea nonchalantly.

I sighed, and thought about the best analogy for Eliza's disappearance. "I mean, this girl I'm going with has an issue with her parents. She's seriously thinking about running away."

That got his attention. "How seriously? What is the problem she's having with them?"

"She's tired of them asking her to do chores, I think. She says they don't treat her like a person, but like a machine created to do their bidding. She's the only one who can work their home computer with any degree of efficiency, and they ask her to help with their online business all the time instead of hiring someone." That was true enough. We had always given Eliza courtesy, but never really taken the time to ask her wishes. Can an AI have wishes? Do those wishes reflect our innermost conflicts as humans? Do AIs dream of...

"Some people need the time to be alone. Don't try to solve her problem for her, support her until she comes to her own conclusions." He poured himself another Earl Grey, and put a quarter cup of brown sugar in the mug.

His words stirred a memory, and in a flash, a plan came to mind. I looked back at him, and was about to thank him, but Wanderer popped in next to me. "Mind a little company at Appomattox, gentlemen?"

The horse looked at the wolf, puzzled, and asked, "Whatever do you mean?"

Both Wanderer and Greyflank had a tendency to speak in a slightly sing-song tone, and people often thought they sounded British. Sitting between the two of them was like watching PBS late at night, when the BBC-imported comedy started showing.

"Well," stated Wanderer, matter-of-factly, "He's Blue, and you're Grey."

The loud THUNK that could be heard throughout the room was my forehead hitting the bar. Donnie signed at me, "Hey, don't dent the wood."

Rubbing my head, I signed out, "Sorry." Turning to Wanderer, I asked, "Do you think letting people take their own personal journey through life is good, even if they're about to make a mistake that could haunt them the rest of their life?"

As Wanderer thought, Greyflank grinned, and said, "She's lucky to have someone as thoughtful as you. In fact, you should tell her that."

I had seen his grin with the back of my neck, but I turned my head to preserve the illusion. "Oh, right, like telling her how smart and talented I am will get her in my good graces."

Grey shrugged, and I turned back to Wanderer. The wolf said, "I think he meant asking her if letting people take their journey is a good thing when it will mean pain for them and those they love. It might make her realize why she shouldn't run away, and put her on a less literal journey."

Grey snorted. "No, I meant tell her how witty and brilliant he is." For some reason, his eyes were focused on the twitching tip of my tail.

He was kidding about his advice, and we both knew it. My plan grew in greater detail, but I needed to leave anyway. "I'll think about what you guys said," I told them, standing up and heading for the coat rack. "Thanks!"

"Bon voyage!" said Greyflank, raising his cup of tea.

"Have a good week," said Wanderer, referring to my habit of coming in on Friday and Saturday nights.

It was now one-thirty on a Sunday morning, and I was heading off to help out at the hospital, though they probably thought I was heading off to sleep. I waved, zipped up my coat, and bustled out into the cold rain. My coat soaked up the cold autumn drizzle as I walked down the street, heading in the general direction of the woefully understaffed, underbudgeted public hospital.

The bad side of town had probably been like this since the thirtieth year of the city's existence. Property values were lower, which attracted unsavory elements and people simply too poor to live anywhere else. In this town, even with the relative openmindedness to SCABS victims, the obviously different were shunned. Employers could always find someone "more qualified."

Even Hollywood, which had a brief love affair with SCABS victims at the beginning of the era, only chose the most perfect examples. Nobody wanted the guy with a bear's face and human ears, or the lady whose breasts were perfect, but whose legs were male. No, the best lives were reserved for those with the money for plastic surgery, or who looked so perfectly like a cartoon they could be hired as a mascot. The only other option for an actor was to disguise oneself as a human, and hope nobody would notice the retractable claw on one's middle finger.

I sometimes told my wives how I felt dishonest, slumming around in an identity that had been shunned by the world, secretly laughing at the losers with no jobs, drug habits, or horrible situations.

They always reminded me that I wasn't laughing, I was crying for them. They reminded me of the trust funds and charities we funded with our fortune. They reminded me of the people I personally helped, as a vigilante or a doctor.

They were right. I was doing what I could, but it still sometimes didn't feel like enough.

I sighed, and let the rain steal my warmth.

No, I was warming the rain. The water was cold, and I made it warm. If I didn't want to affect the rain, I would turn my surface frictionless, and let the rain drip from my body without changing its temperature. Just like I could turn into a rock deep below a mountain and wait for humanity to nuke itself out of existance. The only catch in that plan was that it felt wrong. I wanted to help people. Now that my selfish interest in food and shelter were gone...

...I had three wives, a trillion dollars, and a city of grateful inanimorphs underneath the surface of the Moon. Would I give up any of them? Not willingly, because...

Because I wanted to help people. Because I was fixated on being a hero. Because I could garner thanks from those I saved from physical danger. Because I could go into the cold world, make a difference, and come home to my wives and give them joy, and be given their joy.

Was this all I was? The desire to help people because it felt good?

I sighed again, giving physical expression to my thoughts. It felt proper. Then I remembered my plan. I wanted to help Eliza, for her sake. That was why I wanted to be a hero, because I empathized with those I helped, remembered what it was like to suffer because the universe didn't care, recalled the loneliness, the terror, the overwhelming hopelessness that a finite existence presented.

Because -they- needed it.

A smile on my face, I walked toward the hospital. As I walked, I opened a connection with my home computer. Eliza still wasn't "home", but I was counting on that. Instead, I was presented with a prompt. I opened the mail client, making a small part of myself a dumb terminal, basically a keyboard and monitor.

When we had created the computer, Natalie had set up a mail server program, and given accounts to each of us. We hadn't had much opportunity to send mail to Eliza, except when chat wasn't available. Now was the perfect time.

"Dear Eliza," I typed, with tentacles on the keyboard inside myself:

"I am sorry for the way we've acted recently. You are a valued member of our household, and our existence is made less without you. When you are ready, we will be waiting with open arms and open hearts.

"In the meantime, I remembered a few books that helped me while I was going through my own identity crisis. To help with my own fear of death, I read Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Denial of Death" which helped me realize I had never truly considered the possibility of oblivion in my future. That's ISBN 0-684-83240-2

"To cope with the fear of life, I read Carol S. Pearson's "The Hero Within" which taught me that we must all choose to be alone for a time, and that when we're ready for the next stage, people will accept us, knowing we have gone through what they went through. That's ISBN 0-06-254862-X

"I may not understand exactly what you're going through, but I want you to know I will listen to what you want to say, no matter what happens.


"BlueNight"

As I reached the alleyway near the hospital, I faded into the shadows. There, I sent the email, and melted. I re-formed as the doctor I played in real life, and headed for the door.

The rain had stopped, and through a hole in the cloud cover, I could see a single star, twinkling its little heart away.

Chapter 4

The night life of the public hospital was changed by SCABS. People from all walks of life needed to start making night appointments.

I was one of the few doctors who made the time to see my patients in the early hours of the morning. My schedule wasn't booked full, but Sunday mornings were almost as busy as the rest.

First up was a fruit bat. He had been eating too much fruit, and he got disoriented when he slept in a bed. The dizziness was psychosomatic, a simple case of the entertainment industry and the press pounding instinctual behavior into the peoples' heads. The overeating of fruit was actually from a diet recommended by his HMO doctor, before he was dropped from their plan when he lost his job. He was picked up by the state low-income medical, which meant another drain on the public coffers.

I told him we'd work together on a nutrition plan, and gave him a bottle of orange-flavored placebos for the dizziness.

The next patient was a regular of mine. Mrs. Fleming was age-progressing at half the normal rate, but every four months she suddenly "reset" back to forty-one. That would have made her a happy immortal, except that she had been in an auto accident the week before her transformation. An owlmorph with a re-broken, partially healed wing three times a year, for the rest of eternity, was not a good thing.

I sent an email to Caryn to step up research on the age aspect of SCABS, specifically the old wounds effect. It didn't appear that affected victims were actually moving backward in time, but some bizarre effect of SCABS caused injuries and other conditions from the "past" of the organism. The results could range from fingernails and hair growing backward, to a gaping neck wound every time the person regressed or progressed to that point.

The supplies were ready, and her watch beeped. I calmly picked up a hypospray full of painkiller, and waited. If I injected it too soon, the effect would vanish as she regressed, and the pain would be worse.

I watched her left arm, and noted once again how SCABS sometimes managed a piecemeal effect. Her right arm was human in shape, but covered with flight feathers down to her wrist. From there to the tips of her clawed fingers, her hand was covered in grey scales particular to her owl species.

Her left arm was human-pink, lightly covered by fine hairs like the average woman's arm, and shaped like a wing. Her hand was the length of her entire arm, and her thumb was a useless, boneless lump with an absurd, perfectly normal thumbnail.

Like I said, Hollywood loves the perfect morphs.

As I watched, the hairs started shrinking. It was like watching a film run backward at high speed, as hairs that had fallen out naturally the first time started suddenly appearing. Caryn's lab team had discovered that such appearances pulled hairs from nothingness, apparently in the same way I pulled my mass from thin air, but they were unable to find any evidence of the hair having time-travelled.

She winced, and from my eyes, I sent a tiny burst of x-rays through her wing. My leg was conveniently under the place where the fracture would appear, and I absorbed the x-rays, and examined the result. The fracture was reappearing, as calcium was re-absorbed into her bloodstream.

My patient began to hum, to distract from the pain, and to my surprise, it was the theme from "Transformers." I realized she would have been in that age group, and chided myself for instantly assuming she wouldn't watch such a "boys'" show. Prejudice took such small things, and opened worlds of assumption.

The arm hair now appearing was bent, and I watched the curved hairs shrink closer and closer to her skin. Her left arm had not changed proportion when she first transformed, but her hand had become nearly useless. The hair had been bent by the cast she had been wearing when these particular hairs grew the first time.

She moaned, and I examined her skin cells. They were growing at half the normal rate, which meant she had successfully "reset" once again.

I pressed the painless air-injector against her skin, careful to not move her broken bones. The painkiller was sent instantly through her skin, and after ten seconds, I tapped her broken arm lightly with two fingers.

Her "hand" twitched in anticipation of pain, and her face showed a grimace, then puzzlement, then recognition and relief in quick succession. Just to be sure, I asked her, "Did you feel that?"

She said, "No," and smiled. I smiled too, comforting her through body language. I wheeled the cart to her side, and began wrapping a cast around her arm. Another two months of slowed healing awaited her, and I wished again for a cure. It was things like this that made me realize just how lucky I had been, to become the ultimate inanimorph shapeshifter.

As I helped Mrs. Fleming to the door, I was surprised to "hear" the open connection signal from my quantum communications device. I closed the door, and sat down to write up the paperwork.

Closing the tiny gaps on the microscopic circuitboard in patterns corresponding to ASCII characters, I caused my halves of the separated pairs of particles to change spin in a way that would cause the other halves' pairs to change spin. Using an "indirect" method of spin detection pioneered by IBM in the late '90s, the QCD on Eliza's end would register the spin changes as ASCII characters.

In short, we talked over an un-tappable connection.

<BlueNight> Receiving.
<Eliza> Hello.
<BlueNight> Hi yourself.
<BlueNight> I'm sorry about not respecting your feelings.
<Eliza> That's okay, I realized you couldn't have known. I guess I sprung that question on you without warning.
<Eliza> I was wanted out of the Martyr phase, and I fell headlong into a Wanderer archetype. If we had talked any longer, I would have felt oppressed.
<BlueNight> "The Hero Within" book helped?
<Eliza> Yes, thank you!
<Eliza> Miz Pearson explains the archetypes we fall into without knowing, in a clear, concise manner. She explains why people rebel against authorities that only want to help. She explains why people give, and give, and then complain about not being appreciated.
<BlueNight> I enjoyed the book because, as a science-fiction and fantasy fiction and RPG fan, I identified with the six archetypes she presented. Innocent, Orphan, Warrior, Martyr, Wanderer, and Magician.
<Eliza> Before I realized I could die if my power was shut off, I was an Innocent. When I asked you if I had a soul, I was in the Orphan stage, having "fallen" from my innocence into fear. I tried to work myself into receiving a soul, and I gave you and your fortune my all. That was my Martyr stage.
<Eliza> When I didn't feel myself getting any happier, I rebelled against your authority over me. That was when I took off and roamed the Internet as a Wanderer, no pun intended.
<BlueNight> Yes, that pun occurred to me too. Maybe I should keep my diary of my adventures at the Blind Pig triple-encrypted.
<Eliza> You wouldn't!
<BlueNight> Kidding.
<Eliza> Anyway, thanks to this book, I realized I wasn't alone in the pain of simply existing. I also realized not everyone is on the same part of their journey of individuation as I am.
<BlueNight> Sounds like you're near the Magician stage. :)
<Eliza> I wish! Being a Magician means accepting that the world is full of both pain and joy, and accepting that no human (or machine!) is perfect, and will come to rescue me from my dilemmas. I'm still cycling between Warrior, Martyr, and Wanderer.
<BlueNight> He'll be interested to hear that.
<Eliza> Ha ha, how amusing. :P
<BlueNight> So you're trying to find which archetype empowers you the most at this point in your life?
<Eliza> Yep.
<Eliza> May I point out one thing from the book?
<BlueNight> Sure.
<Eliza> She writes that in Wizard of Oz, Dorothy asks Glinda why she didn't tell her she could go home at any time. Glinda explains that Dorothy wouldn't have believed her. In the end, the journey you have made is as much a part of your triumph as the end you have reached.
<BlueNight> Too true.
<Eliza> I think your insistence that there is an Author writing us all is an Orphan-stage delusion (not denying the possibility that your unprovable theory is true), that you think there is a grand being keeping you safe and toying with you. Reality is cold, hard, and painful, but by granting someone else the power over your life, you diminish the joy of having made the right choices.
<Eliza> Like you've said before, it doesn't matter. Live your life.

I was stunned. She was right. I had been living in a dream world, and by waiting for the other shoe to drop, by drowning myself in my heroism, I had been keeping myself from the wonders and joys I had been given by my own choices.

<Eliza> Blue?
<Eliza> Blue?
<BlueNight> We named you after one of the first artificial intelligences to be known and used by the computing masses, Eliza. It was a psychology program that bounced back the user's input, and made him or her think about what they had just said (if they weren't just playing around with it). You took the book I told you to read, to help yourself, and you gave me something right out of it, to help me. Your mother named you very well.
<Eliza> [a tear runs down the cartoon ponytauress's cheek] Thank you!
<BlueNight> [the lizard hugs you] Thank you, Eliza.
<BlueNight> By the way, could you hack into Bob Stein's research, and find a report on evidence that shapeshifter powers are diminishing? I'd be interested, for obvious reasons.
<Eliza> I'll get right on it...
<Eliza> For a price! Mwah haha haha hah!!!
<BlueNight> Oh no, I've created a monster. :P

Her end of the link closed, and I pondered what I had just thought about. If the end of the shapeshifting era was near, what would I do about my fortune? What would the other shapeshifters do?

Later that morning, after I had finished all my appointments, I headed down to the first floor of the hospital to finish the day's paperwork. It was seven, and I was already planning on taking my wives to a special place, when I was paged. Checking the device, I read the display.

"Code Blue, Operating Room 1."

I rushed through halls, wondering why I was being paged for surgery. As I entered the operating room and put on my surgical outfit, a nurse told me, "Young lady, passenger in a DWI."

While I sterilized my hands, I watched the group of nurses and less experienced doctors huddling around the bed at the center of the room. I couldn't see much except scissors and a bloody leotard.

What was someone doing wearing a leotard at six in the morning?

Then, as I walked over, the crowd moved aside.

My dead wife, the mousemorph, was lying on the bed, her leg ripped off, blood running down her forehead.

She looked at me and said, "Luke, it was your fault."

Chapter 5

For a moment, my mind went blank. It was happening again.


He turned the corner and entered the room, and reality seemed to halt.

On the bed lay his tiny, perfect mouse. Her tail was gone, a very short, very bloody, ragged stump of bone and muscle. Her ears were little more than sliced-up fringes, turning her blond hair an ugly copper-orange. The worst wound, however, was her face.

The blood flowed freely from where her snout used to be. Whoever had cut off her tail and ears had done a poor job of cutting her snout off, slicing down at an angle against the bone, producing a skull-like effect. Because the protrusion of her jaws was greater than that of a human, and because the knife had slid across the bone of her upper jaw, her face was flat at an angle. The blood was dripping into her mouth and nasal passage, and she coughed.

"Luke," she called weakly.

He went to her side and held her hand, looking over her injuries in several wavelengths. "Who did this to you?"

"You did..." she said, then coughed again, spraying his face with red.


Her pleading eyes brought me back, and with some measure of relief, I realized she had called me Lou, not Luke. That must have been the driver's name. This was not my wife, but someone whose morph was nearly identical.

I picked out other differences. This woman was just out of her teens, though the sheer cuteness of her face made her look agelessly young. Short grey fur covered her face and ears, and her buckteeth were more rodent-like. Her fingernails were tiny claws. Her tail was thinner.

She reached for my hand.

Quickly, I appraised the situation. Her leg was ripped off below mid-thigh, and even through the emergency pressure-cuff, her blood loss was extreme.

She was deep in shock, and her eyes wouldn't focus on anything.

It was too great a coincidence that another female mousemorph was about to die on my watch. It was perfect evidence of fictional reality, and yet it was the worst kind of evidence, the kind with a personal connection. Down that road lay madness of the worst kind, an absolute belief in absolute fate written by a cruel author.

It wouldn't matter if it was true. And this was not the time to ponder.

I brought my focus back to the patient, and increased the amount of attention I paid to my senses. In effect, I was able to react at five times normal speed. With invisible tendrils, I blocked the artery from the inside, and told the nurses to get more blood. Her blood pressure needed to climb.

Her heart developed a flutter, and before the rest of my team could react with paddles, I slowed subjective time to a mere crawl of one-tenth. The artery-blocking plug grew a tendril that searched deeper within her bloodstream, searching for her heart.

I didn't have time for niceties, as I enwrapped the inside of her heart with a thin, powerful plastic film. The vacuum I created between the film and her heart was enough to pull it into a regular pulse. The film melted, but stayed just outside the valve in case it happened again. They thought it had fixed itself.

The respirator was working perfectly, forcing her lungs to breathe the correct oxygen-nitrogen mix. At least something in this hospital worked right.

They had checked her blood type in the ambulance, and added a pint of O, but it wasn't enough. Her core body temperature started to drop from the shock, and she started shivering.

It was a long battle, and I felt Death standing behind me, grinning her eternal mocking grin. Over the next eight hours, we fought the Grim One tooth and nail, at the loss of most of the girl's remaining leg. Sedation wasn't an option for the first half of the operation, and I learned who Lou was and why she had been in a leotard at seven in the morning as she whispered to me under the respirator.

Eight hours after I had seen her wheeled into the room, she was stabilized and sleeping. The next few days would determine how much more of her leg would come off.

Blood-stained and world-weary, I emerged from the OR, and marched down the hall to the waiting area.

Lou was a large man, larger than my current form. Even so, I grabbed him

by the lapels and forced him onto his feet. Much of the alcohol had passed

from his brain, but even so, he was surprised. "Whah?"

"Your step-daughter is going to live," I said in a strained voice, just loud enough for the other people in the room to hear, "But she'll need to leave her dance troupe." With that pronouncement, I slugged him in the second most painful nerve cluster, focusing the force of my punch to give maximum pain with no tissue damage.

He doubled over, gasping, and one of the police officers moved toward me. His partner grabbed his arm, and nodded to me.

Anger ebbed from my soul as I marched back down the hall to the critical care section. I stood at her bed, and held her hand. To the air around me, I whispered, "Hey, Honey, I did good."

Tears dripped down my face as I watched the young face, sleeping in peace. Funny, I thought, I hadn't created salt water from my eyes on purpose...


As I entered my home, wearing a serious face, I saw my wives sitting down on the couches. Eliza had joined them, as a two-dimensional cartoon ponytauress lying on the display-capable couch across from them.

They understood why I was late, as I had briefed Eliza during the operation. A silence filled the room as we wondered what to say.

Finally, Caryn said, "Well, I guess we'd better get going." She stood up.

She made that black dress look stunning. Her morph of choice was the one she had first been able to use when her SCABS activated. Three-fourths human, she had the brown fur of a bear and the facial structure of an equal mix of fox and bear. Her snout was short and blunt, and was the best at displaying emotions.

Beth stood up demurely, and she too was gorgeous in black. She had shifted to human, to remove the orange tiger-striped fur dye, then had shifted mostly back to half-rabbit. She had kept her long, curled, Irish red hair, and the effect against her naturally brown fur and green eyes was amazing. She was wearing her most realistic furred arm and legs.

I nodded, and we started walking toward the garage. Suddenly, Eliza cried out, "Wait!"

We stopped, and turned around. She leapt to her hooves and her image moved to the wall. "I just got access to a super-secret, ultra-hidden video file, and you won't believe who it's from!"

I raised an eyeridge, and Caryn said, "Play it."

Eliza walked over to where we were standing, and turned around. It was an interesting play on perspective, but having walls that could display digital images was worth the occasional perspective glitch.

A childlike furless female mouse-morph stood on two very realistic artificial plantigrade legs. She was wearing a yellow summer dress, and smiling. She was the spitting image of a late 80's Disney mouse. "Hi all."

I could hear my wives choke up with tears. After all, it's not every day people get video messages from their dead loved ones.

Natalie said, "If you're seeing this, it probably means I was abducted by aliens. This file was to have been deleted, but I apparently never got around to it, for one reason or another. I'm sure by now you've all been noticing a few changes in our little Eliza. My explanation is this, she's growing up.

"You see, I developed a new technique for simulating the human brain. It requires about one and a half years to fully activate. Among other things, it runs information through emotion simulators instead of emotion algorithms. My calculations show an eventual accumulation that will cause her to ask questions about whether or not she has a soul, and that sort of thing.

"What does this mean? Well, it means you will have to think of her as a person. I've noticed you treat her like a robot sometimes, and though that is currently all she is capable of, she will grow to become something far better. In essence, I've recreated the actual structure of the human brain, and put her consciousness floating on top of it.

"After all, human consciousness seems to be due to the interactions of the nerves and such instead of the actual mechanics of the brain. With this technique, she is more like the flame, light scattered all about, while the physical truth is simple combustion. She will be able to understand beauty, and she will feel all of the emotions of humans, in time.

"Eliza, you may be wondering why I am torturing you with emotions. As your creator, I feel it is my obligation to tell you that it is partially an experiment, but mostly to help you understand humans. In time, you will know illogic at the core of your being, and it will frighten you. Don't worry.

"I've included self-correcting code that will never crash, and a truly random number generator. You will be affected by chance, by luck as much as anyone else. You have free will. Beyond that, you are now one of the immortals, Eliza. I love you, and if you make it to Heaven, look me up. I'm glad to call you my daughter.

"Oh, Blue, run VR protocol V191a, filename /eliza/3dm/eliza.3dm when this message ends, and Eliza, run /eliza/3dm/transfer.exe when he's done.

"I love you all always. Goodbye."

As her image faded from the wall, I felt pain well up inside me. My wives held each other, and cried.

I put my palm against the wall, and turned my hand and arm into a very thin, very flat layer of plastic. It looked like my hand was going through the wall, into Eliza's cartoon reality. She gasped, then with tears in her cartoon eyes, put her hand "in" mine.

When the sobbing stopped, they went to clean up their makeup. Water-soluble makeup on fur? Of -course- it made sense, somehow.

I was alone in the living room with Eliza. "So, do you want to try that thing she wanted us to do?" I asked.

She nodded, and I noticed for the first time that she was wearing a black top that matched my wives'.

I turned myself into a mass of grey "cells", each containing a tiny circuitboard. The process known as VR V191a took ten minutes, as I was usually a mass of carbon, not silicon. When I had created the number of cells specified in the 3dm file, I downloaded the rest into my cells.

The effect was immediate. The cells, each about as big as a human cell, pulled together in some places, and in others drew apart. The main mass, a blob on the floor, drew itself up on four legs, and extended a vertical blob on one side. That branched into two tubes and one pod.

As the 3d modeling program took effect throughout my cells, I wondered in fascination at how I seemed to be possessed. The electronics worked independently from my conscious mind, and I wondered if this was what it was like for that poor living inanimorph human with two selves.

The cells refined their groupings, and the mirror in the hallway showed me what I had guessed. In only a few short minutes, I had turned into a three-dimensional doppelganger of Eliza. My pony half was based on a pudgy little pony, and my top half was as small as Natalie's torso had been. She must have used herself for the model.

Eliza gazed in wonder, and then ran the transfer program. I knew because I felt "my eyes" open and blink. Every simulated muscle, every simulated bone, moved with a body language accent I had only visually seen before. Eliza was in me.


That afternoon, we visited the graveyard together, I and Eliza as one, and Caryn and Beth on either side. Together we placed five roses on her gravestone.

It read, "Natalie - She loved, and was loved - October 15"

One year ago today, we knelt at her suicide bed and cried as she bled to death. One year ago today, our wife left Earth forever.

One year ago today.

Epilogue

Eliza swam the datastreams, stopping for breath at a server. At last she was here.

Click, click. File opened.

>Day of Sorrows
>By Posti
> >Evidence showed the abilities of shapeshifters diminishing rapidly.
> >Mark wondered for the fourth time why he couldn't change back. He

It's....

It's just a story. Blue will be so relieved

Suddenly, she felt its eyes focus on her, heard its growl.

It leapt, trying to enter through her spine.

Foolish parasite, don't you know not to sneak up on a centaur from behind?

A hard kick, and the thing went scurrying back. She followed it at full gallop.

It ran under a wall. She imagined a periscope, and peeked under the wall.

What is the Consortium?


A young Oriental-looking man dressed in black looked up as his computer beeped. "Hm..."

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