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Otter and Lizard Tails
by BlueNight
BlueNight -- all rights reserved
 

Otter wake up. Good night last night, played lots.

Otter happy! Bright new day to play and swim!

Swim. swim. Water through fur.

Swimming, swimming. Ooh, fishy! Gottacatch!

Got it! Gonna eat it. Lie on back.

Big round glowy light feels good.

Feel warm. Good day. Otter feel very good.

Restful.

Noise! "Otter!"

Someone at lake. Dive, surface nose and ears only...

"Blah blah! Blah otter? Blah fishies!"

Fishies! Swim to shore warily... friend lizard!

"Blah blah! Blah blah fishies!"

Friend lizard throw fishy to otter. Ooh! Peanutbutter on fishy! Catch, swim out, eat.

"Otter, blah fishies!"

Friend lizard has more peanutbutter fishies. Friend lizard nice.

Done with fish, swim to shore.

Friend lizard scritchies ears.

Friend lizard holding fishy! Otter follow friend lizard to big burrow thing on black hard trail. Friend lizard has lots of fishies in burrow thing!

Friend lizard close otter in wellpadded goodsmelling plasticburrow in big burrow on black hard trail. Confused, but it's okay, friend lizard has more fishies. Friend lizard leave otter alone for small time. Otter lay down.

Friend lizard get in burrow. Loud noise! Burrow moving!!!

Friend lizard calming otter.

Burrow stopping!

Burrow moving.

Burrow stopping.

Burrow moving.

Burrow stopping.

Burrow moving.

Burrow stopping.

Burrow moving.

Burrow stopping in dark place. Cave?

Friend lizard open plasticburrow, lead otter to pond in cave. Friend lizard leave room, close door.

Where here? Here not otter lake! Here room with pond. Here is pond inside, with trees and bushes, and burrow! Sounds of birds, but no bird smells. Pond smell like cleanclean water. Jump in cleanclean water pond. Hard ground around pond, but tiny burrow already there in tree roots.

Cleanclean water good. Wash and think.

Friend lizard come back in, sit on stump next to water.

VOICE ARCHIVE v3163441.wav: "Hi Oren. I don't know if you understand a word I'm saying. You were easy to catch, but I've had to cover for you. I left a note on your burrow. It's a little vague, so it gives us breathing room to get you human-thinking."

Friend lizard babble, sigh. Poor friend lizard worried. Scritchies otter head.

v3163442.wav: "I'm going to try to undo your feral state. I hope we succeed, or I'll have to tell the authorities about you. So here's your laptop..."

Friend lizard has boxthing that smells like otter.

v3163443.wav: "... and we'll see if the treatment works."

Friend lizard open boxthing. Fishy! Flat fishy?!?

v3163444.wav: "Fishy, Oren. Touch the otter fish-chasing screensaver, and I'll come back with fishies."

Friend lizard babble babble.

Friend lizard leave.

Boxthing make fishy sound! Look.

Flat otter! Chasing fishies! Watching. No fishies in pool, fishies on boxthing, otter chasing fishies.

Watch otter chase fishies. Watch otter go to burrow. Watch otter sleep.

Touch fishy. Boxthing beep!

Friend lizard comes in with fishies! Dump fishies in pool. Dive in, catch fishy. Eat fishy. Friend lizard leave.

--- some hours later ---

"Oren?"

Was asleep in pool, all fishies eaten. Friend lizard come in, nice-smelling fuzzy lady come in too. Swim to shore.

Fuzzy lady scritch belly! Heaven! Purring scritchy heaven!

Nice fuzzy lady talking. She has pretty voice.

Friend lizard talking with fuzzy lady.

Friend lizard talking to me. "Oren?" Means me-otter. Vague bad feeling.

Need time. "Go way friend lizard" otter say with annoyance.

Friend lizard leaves. Alone with fuzzy lady.

Fuzzy lady gives more scritchies. "Oh sucha cute little otter Oren is."

Purring.

"Oh so cute and squirmy little Oren otter likes scritchies."

Purring.

"Oh poor little cute fuzzy Oren otter went feral, didn't tell anyone."

Bad words. Stop purring. "More scritchies!"

Fuzzy lady gives more scritchies.

Purring.

"Oh sucha cute fuzzy Oren, needs to think like human again."

Stop purring. "Notahuman! Otter!"

Fuzzy lady stop scritchies. (wah!) "Otter body, human brain."

"All otter! Not human! Humans bad!"

"Am I bad, Oren?"

Stop. Think. "Fuzzy lady not human too. Not otter, but still fuzzy."

"Fuzzy lady human mind. Fuzzy body, human mind."

Think. "Fuzzy lady not-bad human?"

"Yes, Oren! Not-bad human."

Think. "Friend lizard?"

"Friend lizard not-bad human too, Oren."

Think. "Scritchies."

Fuzzy lady scritches belly. Feel good. "Roll over, hon."

Fuzzy lady scritches and rubs back, feels goodgoodgood.

Fuzzy lady talking again. "Fuzzy lady not-bad human. Friend lizard not-bad human. Friend capewolf not-bad human. Friend bunny not-bad human."

Phil! "Phil???"

"Phil is at the Shelter, Oren. He doesn't know you're here."

Oh. No Phil now. Maybe later. "Viccy?"

"No Viccy, Oren. She's worried about you."

Scritchies. Purring.

"Not-bad humans miss Oren. Want to help Oren."

"Help Oren how?"

"Want to help Oren be not-bad human."

"Don't wannabe human again!"

"Okay, Oren. You don't have to be."

Scritchies. Purring.

Thought. "Can Oren have Fishy Nachos?"

Fuzzy lady laughs. "What are Fishy Nachos?"

"Fishy nachos are mashed-up fish on crackers, cheese melted all over. Yummy!"

Fuzzy lady thinks hard. "Well, if you were human thinking again, you could make them yourself."

Sad. "But Oren sad. If Oren human, Oren sad. If Oren otter, Oren really really happy. Somebody take lake, me really sad, then otter not Oren, just otter, really happy. No worries."

Scritchies.

"If me human, me got bills, lotsa chores, and gotta make money. Too much worry. Being otter is fun, and no bills."

"If you stay otter, other people besides fuzzy lady and lizard friend will have to take care of you. They'll take you away and you won't see the not-bad fuzzy humans from Blind Pig."

"But bills, money, too much human worry."

"Think, Oren. If you're human, you don't have to depend on others."

"But money is stupid human thing! Don't want to go into world of money!"

Fuzzy lady sadlooking. "Friend lizard help pay. He doesn't have to worry about money. You won't have to worry either."

Oren snapped aware. He stood up and looked at the fuzzy lady, the fellow SCABS victim. "BlueNight doesn't worry about money? With this place?!?"

She went weepy on him. "Oh Oren, I thought I'd never get you out of that trance!"

"Trance? Who are you, anyway?"

"I'm ChesnoAzul, everyone calls me Chesno for short. I'm BlueNight's buddy, and a professional psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst," she said, playfully pronouncing the psilent P's.

"Pleaseta meecha. I'm Oren Otter," he said, shaking her hand.

"I know, BlueNight told me all about you and the bar. It's really a shame, with you losing the lake and all. I guess that's why you went feral, or thought you did. My opinion is that you self-hypnotized yourself into thinking you'd gone feral. With the money block gone, you reverted to normal adult functioning. The hard part was getting you to talk and understand language again. Your intelligence is high, and it's well-known in the medical community that intelligent people are easier to hypnotize. Something like what happened with your purring."

Oren blushed thinking of the incident. "Snapped the trance. So what did you mean about BlueNight and money worries being gone? I mean, I thought he was just some twenty-something guy that came in every week or so for a chat of philisophical bent and a root-beer-and-coke-no-ice."

The fuzzy lady was about to speak, when BlueNight came in. "I'll field that one. Thank you so much, Chesno, you are invaluable, as always. Of course, I could have done what you did, you quack," he said, grinning.

"They say ninety percent of therapy is listening and making the right noises. It's the other ten percent that makes me a doctor. Besides, Oren needed a pretty face."

"Like this?" said BlueNight, and his head changed proportions. It swelled to a huge size of a head, his eyes literally became larger, his body shrunk to Oren's height, and assumed childlike proportions. The anime term superdeformed best describes it, for those in the know. He batted his eyelids playfully.

Chesno laughed. "That's not pretty, it's disgustingly cute. Now, should I get out, or shall we tour the estate together?"

Bluenight's head and body assumed their normal proportions, but he remained at Oren's eyelevel. He looked up at Chesno. "You know I can't resist being around you. It's some kind of addiction. I guess I just like having beautiful naked animal women around me at all times." They shared a bare- toothed growl-grin.

Oren raised his hand with one finger pointed. "Tour the estate, excuse me?"

"Yes, the estate," said BlueNight, "Just follow the yellow brick road."

With that, the dirt of the floor changed to a yellow brick pattern as if by magic, but the texture remained the same dirt-ish feel. "Follow the yellow brick road," came Munchkin voices from the walls, "Follow the yellow brick road. Follow, follow, follow...." The clip faded out. "And are you going to introduce me, sweetums?" said the room.

"My deepest apologies, Eliza." BlueNight turned to Oren, and continued. "She's the house computer, the most advanced personality software yet. The floor and walls are coated in an electro-active array display paint that allows her to show two-dimensional imagery. Very similar to my own chameleonic hide, but more controllable. Where I can turn patterns of colors, she can make detailed images, or a few other effects. Mirror, if you please?"

They had been walking slowly down the "road" toward the door, which was barely visible from the pond area. An oval patch on the wall next to the door turned silver, and Oren fixed his headfur. "Sweet."

BlueNight grinned. "That's just the beginning. C'mon, this is just the pool room. We also have a pool room, the dry kind played with cues."

They went into a hallway. Oren looked down. "Sorry about tracking water - hey!" he yelled, just noticing that he was dry.

"It's a chemical in the pond. Nontoxic, but you're dry and don't notice it only a few moments after you leave the vapor zone. We'd spend a fortune on towels alone, otherwise. Now, down that way is the bathroom, don't forget where it is. This is the computer room."

Inside the mentioned room, ten personal computers faced away from a large central column, which itself was blinking with green lights. A woman appeared on the column as the blinking lights dimmed. She was a virtual centauress.

Long, wild, red mane hair cascaded down the back of her head and the back of her perfect upper body. Just below her navel, a V-shaped line of hair delineated thin waist from wide shoulder-hips and the rest of her beautifully graceful horse body, which knelt down to Oren and BlueNight's level. She looked for all the world like she had stepped from the pages of a Jack Chalker novel into a cartoon universe projected onto the column.

"Eliza, Oren. Oren, Eliza. She cooks, cleans, and yells at me if I leave stuff where her housekeeping robots can't get to. She also keeps this room functioning. Goodness knows I try to get her the latest hardware, but she keeps whining."

Eliza stood up and glared menacingly at BlueNight. "And you keep denying me that Ultra-Super VideoBlaster card for Unreal Five And A Half."

BlueNight grinned. "You've got ten Voodoo4 Ultramax Phantoms. Now back in your bottle, Genie."

A pink hat and vest appeared, and framed by them, Oren knew that Eliza's top half was modelled after the cartoon Jeannie at the beginning of the old television series. "Yes, Master. Right away Master. Why won't you furnish this bottle, Master?" She turned around and sashayed away, turned her head, winked, and disappeared in a cloud of pink virtual smoke. The column returned to its normal state, blinking away.

BlueNight grinned and followed the brick road to the door. "Ooh, I just love good animation." He grinned. Oren and Chesno followed him into the hall.

"Upstairs are five bedrooms, another bathroom, and a gorgeous skylight the length of the hallway. You should see it at night, when the moon is full, or when it rains. Come to think of it, the moon is full tonight. If you remember, and if we're still here, remind me. Anyway, over here is the family room and the family."

The yellow brick road followed the hallway to where it opened into a large, indirectly sunlit room. Two nude women of various SCABS affectednesses stood up from luxuriant couches as the two males walked toward them. "I'm not gadget," remarked the blond mouse-morph, and Oren had to say, "Excuse me?"

"That's my name. NotGadget Hackwrench. My name here, anyway. Don't expect me to react like Gadget from Rescue Rangers would. I've got a degree in mechanical engineering, but I don't say 'golly'. Unless the mean little lizard makes me."

"She implemented the chroma-photonic wall-array display paint. She also designed those prosthetic limbs," said BlueNight.

Oren did a double-take. If BlueNight hadn't pointed them out, he wouldn't have even noticed the tiny lines circling her thighs halfway down.

"You're an amputee?" said Oren, not realizing how completely obvious the answer was.

The five-foot pixie sighed. She was soft-looking, a perfect woman-child, and her nose was the cutest pink, but her expression was harsh on that almost-human almost-mouse snout. She answered, "Only when my legs are recharging. You didn't mention that I was a SCAB."

Oren thought frantically. "I guess I..."

She went from cross to grinning as BlueNight pinched the tip of her tail. "Well, it's hard to miss, considering I used to be a man."

Now Oren was fumbling words. "I, abuu, er, ba, um." He shut up and noticed the complete lack of hair, except on her head. He blushed under his fur, and tried to ignore the soft skin's quiet hairless gleam. He focused instead on her whiskerless snout and huge translucent ears.

"Tractor accident at age eight. I was an only child. My father wanted me to get off my lazy butt and out of his house the day I turned eighteen, and I had to pay him back for the wheelchair. Anyway, I was gender dysphoric too. I always figured I would get surgery, but this happened the day before I was to start treatment."

She shrugged. "I always felt like a woman trapped in the wrong body, but this mouse thing completely threw me. It took me six months to learn that my snout is as beautiful to the right people as a human face would have been, and my stumps as beautiful to this mean little lizard-man here as the rest of my perfect little body." She squeezed BlueNight against her. "He spanks me!"

"Only when you've been naughty, pixie-dust." He turned to introduce the other woman when Oren asked, "How old are you, anyway?"

BlueNight thought for a moment, then said, "Whatever the difference is between now and September 13, 1978. Eliza can tell you. Anyway, this buxom bunny is Lola Rabbot. She was always a woman, but she's been a SCAB and an amputee since she drove off the road screaming about her ears growing."

Her voice had more than a hint of a Southern accent, but it was soft, right between sexy and irritating "Pleased to meet yah, sugah-otter. Ah hope ya don't mind the arm and legs, but if ya do, tell me. Mah little honey-lizard likes 'em metal, and to tell ya the truth, Ah sorta do too, but Ah've got a plastic fake-fur-covered set."

The speaker was as much a beauty in her own tall-short, furry, cyborg way as NotGadget was in her hairless, short, mostly-human way. Her body was covered with orange fur, a surprising hue for a rabbit. Her left arm was her own, but the right one was robotic, and included an enclosed ball-joint shoulder. It looked as if, when detached, there would be no arm there at all, just a socket that could be moved up and down with a shrug, or backward and forward with a shoulder motion.

Her legs moved as part of her, and ensheathed her thighs up to the hips. They made her seem taller than her artifically produced five-and-a-half foot height, as her body was the short type. Oren realized she would have been NotGadget's height with her organic legs. He was impressed, but moreso with her well-articulated robotic hand, which shook his paw with a strong gentleness. If you've shaken hands with someone with a strong gentleness, you'll know what I'm talking about.

BlueNight asked, "Shall we sit?" They nodded, and took their choices of three large puffy couches of different colors and materials. Oren sat on the big green sofa with Chesno. He looked at her.

She was taller than the rest, around BlueNight's usual height at the bar. She looked carnivorous, but Oren couldn't tell what species she was. Finally, she noticed his stare, and said, "Oh, I'm part fox and part bear. And part cougar, and part dragon, but not at the moment."

BlueNight said, "She's the lizard queen. We still don't know how she manages to be two completely different animals at the same time as she's partially human, and able to be any one or two she chooses out of four, but we think it has something to do with a lab accident. And when she says dragon, she means a kind of lithe, smooth dinosaur that looks exactly like a graceful, wingless, bipedal dragoness statuette she had as a child."

Oren digested this information, then said, "Looks like I guessed right."


For this statement to make sense, the story must rewind to the night Oren went feral. The NormBash was well underway, and Oren, BlueNight, and Phil were discussing a short story Oren had written.

"Of course he'd be able to tell that the story he had written wasn't coming true. He'd know as a writer of metafiction that the author of his story was using his story as an example of metafiction. He's one of the standard characters in sci-fi, The Author," said Oren.

BlueNight said, "I remember a story where the characters used the archetype descriptions to prove that they were in a story. Of course, since it was a story, the author just wanted to point out how smart he was, but he did make a couple of good points. There are multiple character paradigms."

Phil grinned. "Paradigms, Blue?"

BlueNight said, "A paradigm is just a way of doing or thinking something. For example, the story I mentioned had a logical character, an emotional character, a logical-emotional character, and a character, the Exister, to which everything happened because he wasn't particularly emotional or logical. The Heinleinian paradigm includes the Old Man, the Hero, the Girl, the Woman, the Authority Figures, et cetera."

Oren said, "And too many Heros spoil the shared setting soup. You've got to have more of the others, or the avatars just play wish-fulfillment all day." He thought for a moment. "What if the author of one avatar made his character an archetype he didn't really fit? Like making Blue the Old Man when he's clearly yet another Hero, or perhaps a Non-Player Character."

BlueNight said, "Me? I'm just twentyish. How would I be the Old Man?"

Oren replied, "The Old Man doesn't have to be old. He's the guy whose purpose is to make the story happen. Has the wealth. Has a bevvy of women. Lazarus Long, or that guy in 'Stranger in a Strange Land'. You're always saying he's got Asperger's like you."

BlueNight thought. "No, the Mars-raised human's misunderstandings of Earth and human culture are similar to some symptoms. I'd say I'm more like him than the Old Man, who also happens to be an Author archetype."

Phil said, "Jubal Harshaw. His bevvy was there to take down stories. He'd yell, 'Front!' and one would be there, ready to type up whatever he said."

Oren grinned, and said in his worst Russian accent, "Bevvy of byootivul vimen. All furries. Got sqvirrel voman." He grinned. "And moose too, right, dahlink?"

BlueNight was about to reply, when Wanderer stuck his head into the group. "Behold, methinks I spy the final Lupine Boy approaching." He walked away, cape swinging merrily. They followed toward the door to see the late arrival's surprised expression, and to be part of the cause. The conversation didn't resume.


BlueNight grinned. "I guess this qualifies as a bevvy. Three mostly-flesh, one virtual, and a couple more heading research in the various labs. We're working towards a cure, but like all the rest, we've come up empty, time after time. The MFV seems to be just another virus, but when you really study it, you realize it's completely bizzare."

Chesno spoke up. "I was working at the Shropfield-on-Shirehouse lab with Hedonism when I was exposed to a mutant form. Now, instead of just being a bear, I can be any one or two out of the four forms I have access to. My favorite is fox-bear, but I've been leaning toward cougar-fox for the last couple of weeks. I took the last name Azul when I hooked up with Blue here. I just wish we could find a cure for morph-lock and give NotGadget her long-lost humanity."

Oren caught the name. "You call him BlueNight too?"

NotGadget spoke up. "Sure. In fact, he says he guided the conversation toward that nickname choice at the Pig. It's like a game for him. He got the handle BlueNight when he was playing a computer game, and it just stuck."

Eliza clip-clopped into the room along one wall, and leapt across the ceiling to land on the couch, which was apparently coated with the color-changing stuff as well. She would definitely benefit from 3-d display technology, if it was ever perfected in clear-air settings, Oren thought, the sci-fi author mind starting to turn. In fact, if people were willing to wear red-blue 3D glasses...

"Novell Netware seven-point-oh's NetWars, a space combat game. One of the first three-dee first-person-perspective deathmatch games. Another player chose the handle BlueKnight, and Luke didn't have a favorite handle yet. Interesting that he mimics another person to get his name, what with the powers of shapeshifting he now has."

BlueNight seemed startled, as he had been thinking of something else. "Wha? Oh, yes. I can shift proportions and change colors. Pretty much the only thing I can't do is grow hair or ears, and I can look human if I've got a good wig and set of ears."

Oren thought this over. "Why the deceptions at the Pig over your age and lifestyle? We thought you lived in an apartment, and didn't have much control over your shapeshifting."

BlueNight's face seemed to harden. "I've got secrets to protect." His face held for a moment, then softened to a grin. "Secrets no sane man must know."

Oren laughed.

BlueNight said, "And now you know why I never partake of alcohol. Too many secrets."

Oren turned around in his seat. "Say, who's that?"

BlueNight looked. "Who? I don't see anyone?"

Oren shook his head. "Looked like DarkWolf, but he zipped away before I could see his face. Hard to miss a figure like that."

BlueNight said, "Yes, that was him. Mysterious shadow figure, possibly government, ours or theirs, possibly private sector, or possibly on his own, nobody knows. Good at pool, too."

Oren looked startled. "You'll admit to an association with him?"

BlueNight grinned, as did the ladies. "Of course not. Are you sure that was him at all? It might have been my mute butler, Ingmar, and I lie so well that you believed me. If I had denied his identity, you would have convinced yourself, no matter how vigorously I would have denied it. Now there's a seed of doubt, and I can safely say it wasn't him. You'll believe me, I hope, because it really wasn't Darkwolf."

Oren said, "So it wasn't him?"

BlueNight and his face did a quick but recognizable imitation of a bald earless Mel Brooks, and said in a Yiddish accent, "Who's to know?" (shrug)

Oren was caught off-guard, then recovered. "So, how many millions do you have, and how in the world did you come by them?"

BlueNight turned toward where the fine-lined and well-animated image of the reclining centauress draped lazily over the maroon couch. Eliza started counting on her fingers, a cute visual gag. "Seven hundred fifty-five million, one hundred and seventy-nine thousand, one hundred and thirty-eight dollars, and sixty-nine cents." She shot Oren a wicked grin. "He ALWAYS has 'and sixty-nine cents.' It's his thing."

Oren thought a moment. "Real estate? Stocks and bonds?"

BlueNight shook his head. "Knives."

Oren's face grew puzzled. BlueNight explained, "I sell Cutco, the finest cutlery in the world. I use it too. I love it. If you give me the names and numbers of five married, working couples, I'll give you five sets of friends who'll thank you for giving out their names and numbers. Actually, I invested the comission money wisely. An up-and-coming pharmaceuticals company that happened to have a cure for baldness that didn't involve lessening of sexual potential in men."

Oren exclaimed, "Falicule?"

BlueNight nodded. "I also had a stake in the company that brought out that first home-use non-invasive breast cancer detection test. So now I use my money to help others. I still sell knives, because they're just so gosh- darn good, and it's so gosh-darn fun, but much of my week is spent making sure my empire won't crumble."

Eliza pointed out, "Golem Pharm., 51%. News.com, 51%. Fifteen-Fifty Inc., 51%. Faux Paws, 55.3%."

Oren whistled. "Impressive. Of course, you spin it back out to charities, right?"

BlueNight's grin returned to his face. "But of course. Without donations through dummy donors, the West Street Shelter would be shut down, as well as Albuquerque's Joy Junction. Let's not forget major scholarships at several universities, including Hayden Heach, and my alma mater, New Mexico Tech. But enough of money, I think you have something else on your mind."

Oren nodded. "I was thinking about characters and metafiction. When I saw this place, I knew something was up. What is it?"

BlueNight's face assumed a more serious aspect. "I personally believe that we are nothing more than characters in a story, or possibly a set of stories in the same shared setting, probably on an Internet mailing list."

Oren's eyes seemed to bulge out of his head. "You really and honestly do?"

BlueNight nodded. "First major clue, we're still here. By all the clues as to time and date of the second coming, we should have been raptured by now. God clearly exists, as I have a first-hand account of being touched by the Holy Spirit, in what is commonly called a 'religious experience'. Of course, many others have had similar experiences, but with Bast, or Zeus, or whatever they believe in, which means it's based on a similar universe with many beliefs, none of which have been scientifically proven."

Oren thought for a moment. "Go on."

"Second major clue," said the lizard calmy, "We hang out in a fictional Ideal Bar. No crashers, no drunks, and everyone knows your name. Have you read the Callahan's series by Spider Robinson? It outlines the Ideal Bar as one with good lighting, good people, good beer, and a really good bartender. People meet, discuss things, then disappear to their own lives elsewhere. In fact, in an anthology of short sci-fi bar stories, the setting for one story IS the Ideal Bar, and I knew I had found it when I found the Blind Pig."

Oren exclaimed melodramatically, "Amazing."

"It is, actually, and it means that most of the people participating in the shared setting are men, which leads to the deduction that it's Internet based, probably set before the Flu was spread. The Internet, as you know, is a place where most of the users are men, and so are most of the women."

BlueNight grinned widely. He loved saying that. It took most people two seconds to realize what had just been said. He continued.

"Third major clue, I got to where I am by my own hard work and tough choices, everything I do a function of my own free will, yet retelling it, it sounds like the background of a grand wish-fulfillment character. I've got money and power, and a bevvy of nude women who let me attend their every need. Truth isn't stranger than fiction, it IS fiction."

Oren was staring at his paw, turning it, flexing it, staring. "So anything we do would be part of the story," he said, deep in thought.

BlueNight observed his guest's actions and nodded. "You could write, 'he stared at his paw, examining the fur, and wondering how such a level of detail could simply be written down,' or you could write, 'he observed his world carefully from that day, watching for any inconsistancies, for things not belonging to his universe, trying to catch the writer or writers in mistakes,' it really doesn't matter. If the rules say you can't notice that you're metafictional, even the most glaring inconsistancy would be shrugged off, and detail can be written without writing the details."

A chicken flew headlong into a picture window. BlueNight reminded himself to put something up there, probably a RaptorShadow (tm) stickum, to keep birds from doing that. Who knows how many avimorph lives he would save, as well as the wildlife?

Oren pulled his brain from a pit of recursive thoughts. "My brain feels fried, BN. Let's talk about this nifty Heinleinian household you've got here. Is it a group marriage, or a corporation, or just bunches of people living in sin?"

BlueNight leaned forward. "I object to the use of the word sin. There are definite reasons for our unmarried state and profit-sharing group. Think about it. What are the reasons for marriage?"

Oren thought. "Sex, money, love, togetherness." He couldn't think of another at that moment.

Chesno grinned and scritched Oren behind the ears. "Oh, I'm glad you listed sex as number one. It's the main reason, of course. Financial reasons are a good thing too."

NotGadget spoke up. "Love conquers all. Remember, Christ taught love of all, and the official churches have intolerance for those that oppose their views of the world. What better way to get love than a group of believers who have no official church affiliation? The Bible says, where two or three are gathered in His name, there He is. I bet I misquoted that, but you get the idea. Love spread between several isn't spread thin, it's multiplied."

Lola Rabbot spoke up. "Loneliness is a thing Ah was familiar with. When Ah woke up in that hospital room missing three limbs, Ah was almost suicidal. Ah had lost my parents only a month before in a plane crash, amazingly coincidental as that may sound. Then the doctah referred me to a suhtain prosthetics firm, and here Ah am. Togethahness." Her Southern accent started to sound fake, and Oren wondered if there was some reason for the ploy.

BlueNight spoke up. "Good bit of luck, really, I had only sent ads for prosthetics modelling and fittings to various hospitals two weeks before. Caught myself a bevvy, as you might say."

Oren asked, "Amputees?"

BlueNight nodded. "You'd be amazed the kind of torture racks hospitals still put on these poor, innocent women who had no prior prosthetics experience. It's a thing I dislike, a bad prosthesis. Squishes the stump into horrible misshapen lumps. I don't know of a single other kink that can turn into a profitable business like Faux Paws did."

Oren nodded, looking at BlueNight as if he had suddenly grown a second head.

BlueNight sighed. "If you happen to go to the pool room when NotGadget or Lola are swimming, stay a while. You might learn a few things about mobility and beauty. They're quite fascinating to watch."

Oren nodded, and sighed. "So, you believe you're not living in sin."

BlueNight nodded. "The sin of wanting money, power, or women is in the negative aspect of the want. Think about all the negatives. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, because coveting means "I wish I had her, and he didn't." Thou shalt not steal, because stealing is taking the property of another person, leaving the poor sap sad at his loss. The love of money is the root of all evil, but money itself is a tool that can be used for good or evil."

Lola spoke up, "Do you desire to hurt others unnecessarily? Of course not. A bad lie would hurt other people. A simple untruth might be a necessity to keep secrets safe in an unsafe and sinful world."

NotGadget piped up. "Without greed, business is a game. Without desire to hurt, and by hurt I mean keep the person all to yourself, lust is just admiring beauty in a sexual manner. Without rebellion, same-sex love is as good a thing for planetary population as a hetero couple not producing babies."

Oren said, "So who's what persuasion here?"

BlueNight shrugged. "They're bi, but I'm only attracted to women. The only way I would ever have sex with a man is to become a woman, and I'd have to have a gendermorph change me. I don't have the power myself. Call me old-fashioned, but my upbringing is still strong. I shoot straight, even though these ladies are all over the map. I bet you'd have been satisfied with a simple, 'they're bi, I'm straight' answer, from the uncomfortable look on your face. There's that darn Asperger's again."

Chesno sighed dramatically. "And more's the pity, BN. I know a couple of guys I'd like to have shared with you."

NotGadget giggled. "And I wouldn't mind being a man again if I could have your pseudo-hermaphroditic anatomy to play with."

Lola spoke up. "And Ah would just squeal with delight if Ah could play dress-up with you, if you would just let NG gendermorph yah."

BlueNight grinned. "Okay, silly ladies, enough of that subject, or you'll get a spanking. We'd better get down to business."

A small robot rolled onto the room and stopped in front of Oren. It set the plate on the table between the couches, closest to the guest of honor. "Fishy nachos!" said Oren, and started to devour the plateful, one by one, slowly, so as not to be rude. Chesno joined in.

"That smells good," said BlueNight to Eliza, "Do you have more in that kitchen of yours?"

Eliza snapped her fingers, and another robot set a plate in front of the master of the house. He ate one, and said, "Delicious. Oren, I'll pay all your expenses for a year if you turn down my offer. I offer you a job at my publishing house, or one of our retail book outlets, or a direct download fiction website, plus a permanent offer to sell whatever you write, as long as it's not crap, which I expect it won't be."

Chesno had to give Oren the Heimlich manoeuvre. A robot cleaned the carpet silently and unobtrusively at Eliza's command. "Publishing house?" he asked, when he had his breath back.

Eliza said, "Oops, forgot to mention, TLQ Booksellers, 85%. I believe you have sold some items through them before?"

Oren nodded wordlessly. Then he leapt up, punched the sky, and whooped at the same time.

BlueNight grinned. "I've been reading since age three, and I grew up in a house with a wall full of Heinlein and Asimov. I figure one day, "Hey, the publishing industry's going down the toilet," so I buy an aging firm, rename it, and voila, sci-fi to my heart's content. I've got real sci-fi fans doing the bulk of editing, and we release four paperback-thickness short story anthologies a year. People have subscriptions, and they get lots of stories and well-targeted ads. The variety is wide, from historic metafiction to modern fantasies, to future tales of galactic federations with major flaws. The back inside cover is always ads for collections, like bar stories, or dragon stories, or newspaper stories, or whatever the issue's stories were about."

Oren thought a moment. "I don't know if I should. What if I steal someone's ideas without knowing it? What if I lose contact with my muse?"

BlueNight shrugged. "Anywhere in my corporate empire. Eliza can provide a list of all the jobs now open anywhere in the infrastructure. If there aren't any that you feel would allow enough time for your writing, you can make one up."

Oren sighed. "How long do I have to make a decision?"

BlueNight said, "As long as it takes you. It's a steadier paycheck, and the Internet is eating publishers and bookstore chains, has been since the Copyright Reform and Online Publishing Act of 2003."

Eliza sat upright. "Telephone. Bronski on apartment line."

BlueNight stood up and went to an alcove. Oren thought it over, and was so deep in thought, he didn't notice Chesno scritching behind his right ear. BlueNight called, "Oren!"

Oren stood up, bumping her hand away. "Yeah?"

BlueNight held up the headset with his hand over the reciever. "Telephone. Bronski wants to know if you're alright." Oren started walking toward the phone and lizard. "What I've told him so far is that you had a meeting with the head of a publishing house, and that you've come over to my place to celebrate a five-book deal, which you have even if you don't take another job with me."

Oren thought a moment, and took the phone. "Hi, Ken? It's Oren. Listen, I went feral because I was evicted. BlueNight got me in a pet carrier in his van, wrote a note and forged my signature, brought me to his palatial mansion, had his psychoanalyst and live-in lover break my feral trance, revealed his multi-millionaire status, then offered me a job. What can I charge him with?"

Chesno, NotGadget, Eliza, and Lola all dropped their jaws and stared. BlueNight went completely white, and his jaw dropped halfway to the floor in a facial gesture of comic proportions.

Oren listened. "Uh huh. Uh huh. Wow, that would be one tough rap to beat. Fifteen years minimum if convicted of all of them? You don't say. Well, I don't think I'll file any charges today, Ken. Oh, you too. Well, thanks. Seeya Thursday. Okay. Okay. Say hi to Victoria for me. Bye." He hung up the phone.

BlueNight was frozen, jaw still literally halfway to the floor, still completely white.

Oren said, "At least I didn't mention the group pseudo-marriage. I think I'll take a look at that list of jobs now, Eliza." He walked over to the couch, and Chesno handed him a radio-controlled touchscreen dumb terminal.

BlueNight finally recovered, pulled his jaw back up to where it belonged, and assumed his normal hues. "Why did you do that?"

Oren looked at him. "Tell a policeman the truth, you mean? It's a little complicated." He set down the RCTSDT.

"You see, I don't believe we're in a fictional universe. We may be, but I don't see things the way you do. I don't see a bunch of Hero-Avatars and Non-Player Characters, I see real people, and they matter to me. The way you were talking, you expected me to be your puppet, for the small price of my loyalty and my soul."

"Oren, I..."

"Don't interrupt me, Luke. You said business was a game. Well, business is how people eat. We were talking about Heinleinian characters. Well, you may be the Old Man with a Bevvy, but you're also a Villian. You heard what I told Bronski. In the simplest terms, you lured a mentally disturbed SCABS victim from his home, subjected him to medical treatment without notifying family members, and offered him a job he couldn't really refuse. You forged a note designed to throw the police off your trail. You forged my name, and either gained access to Rover or simply used his printer to print that note. I'm guessing there was something in the fish in the fake pond that helped me get out of the trance."

BlueNight was about to explain when Oren stepped in front of him and stared him right in the eyes. "You even bought the lake."

BlueNight nearly went into shock. "What?"

Oren grinned. "The whole thing was leading up to the moment when you give me the deed, as proof of your ownership of my loyalty. You were obviously also going to ask me to sign some sort of secrecy contract."

BlueNight sat down, and NotGadget started rubbing his back. "I... I..."

Oren sat down next to ChesnoAzul. "This stuff is easy, once I realized you genuinely believed you were in a story. Well, this is how the real world works, Mister Blue Nighty-Night. I'm going to tell Bronski everything, and Phil, and Victoria. Now that Ken knows where I am, if I disappear or even drop out of sight again, you're the number one suspect."

BlueNight looked like he was going to say something, then sighed, walked over to Oren's couch, and handed him a piece of paper. "This is the book contract, insanely good, with a number of books to be decided solely by you. Ask for anything else, you have it."

Oren looked BlueNight straight in the eyes. "I want you to go to the Pig with me, bring your lady friends, make introductions, and tell everyone there the truth. Tell Phil and Splendor about the donations to the Shelter. Tell us exactly what your morphing capabilities are, your real age, and anything else you consider relevant to the Blind Pig's patrons."

"Why?"

"Your ends don't justify your means."

"How dare you, Oren Author, how dare you tell me that. How many unimportant characters have you killed off in your books? How unfairly have you treated the rest of the people of your universes, just to get a point across? How many Heros have had questionable and selfish motives at best? Can you honestly tell me right now that you have never used the most despicable of means for the most righteous of ends?"

"We're not in a story, you lunatic!!!"

"Are too!"

"Are not!"

"Are too!"

"I'm not going to play this game, BlueNight! You're so well-versed on metafiction and science fiction, tell me this, name one story where the villian triumphs without being beaten in the end, or having his victory be hollow?"

"I'm not the villian, Oren, I'm the Hero-King Robin-Hood Bevvy type. If you don't trust me to have the world's best interests at heart, then tell the world. I'll be torn from my place. My empire will fall. And down will come baby, Shelter and all."

"What about the lapine colonies? I've seen the news footage."

"They're horrible places, and I'm working on it. Team Rabbit has a huge budget and four hundred people, excluding the lobbyists. I hate those places. I worked in one, you know. I didn't lie about that. I didn't lie about transforming in a puddle of rabbit blood into a scaled creature, to shield myself from the horrible outside world. Only it's not outside, it's inside every one of us, and if we don't all have pure motives, we're all toast."

"What about God? Have you abandoned Him?"

BlueNight winced as if struck. "Of course not, Oren. I love Jesus and He loves me. I know because of a personal religious experience before the world ever heard of the Martian Flu. I know that I must do my best to spread His Word, as I'm doing through dummy donors with the Gideons and in other countries through organizations like Brother Andrew's Open Doors."

He took a deep breath. "I know that I must do my best to be sinless, to be like Jesus, to love all and hate only their actions. I know that I must keep a constant prayer in my heart, to never waver in faith in the God that most likely the majority of the authors believe in. My own author gives me that same strong faith. I know that when I die, I'll go to Heaven, because I have Jesus in my heart."

Silence.

"Were the fish drugged?" asked Oren.

"It was a chemical compound found naturally in grapes and apples. It speeds up the brain. Fortunately for us, it gave you access to human language."

"What about the lake?"

"I have nothing to do with that. We've found out who bought it. The son of a bastard donkey wants to build a resort."

"A resort?!?"

BlueNight sighed. "We were waiting for you to come around. Now that you're around, you can be the plaintiff if he doesn't want to settle out of court. The legal team has everything prepared for a long and costly battle. The fortunate thing is, we have the EPA on our side, but the unfortunate thing is, he's got a better law firm. We can have him on the phone in two shakes of a rabbit's tail, if you want. I'm guessing you'll be barred from using your burrow, so you have your choice of the pool-pond, a bedroom, or both, until we get this thing settled."

Oren said, "Hold on. Why are you suddenly on my side now?"

BlueNight said, "That call from Bronski was a test. I needed to know where your loyalties lie. They lie with the truth. I'm on the side of the forest, the river, and the critters that need them. I'm at the top of the pyramid, so I can be a steward of the land as God intended us all to be."

He continued, "The pyramid of humanity gets huge at the bottom, where everyone is working to keep everyone else alive, well, and spending. Nobody at the bottom can really make a difference, because by definition, those at the bottom don't have the power, money, or celebrity to make their voices heard, except in elections, and too many of them don't even do that."

Oren said, "What about authors?"

"Entertainment providers. They help keep the bottom going, and sometimes help others rise in the pyramid. They can rise in the pyramid with celebrity, using it to make change. Me, on the other hand, I have to keep my status guarded. Without secrecy, others just below me in the pyramid would have too many opportunities to toss me down the side, back to the bottom."

Oren thought. "So you did all that just to test my loyalties?"

BlueNight shook his head. "No, we did all that to get you back to human reasoning. It's a shame when people go feral, Oren. The longer they're in the wild, ruled by instincts, the harder it is to bring them back. I consider you a friend, and a drinking buddy, and I was genuinely concerned for your mental health. I sincerely hope you believe me on that one, Oren."

"But why bring me to your place?"

"To tell you about the situation with the lake. To help prepare you, as the main inhabitant, for the court battle. To provide you with a safer and nicer environment to be brought back to, and to live at until the whole thing is over and through. The battle of instincts can be hard, but they can be overcome. Chesno here eats plants, which makes her smell better. If she had smelled like red meat, you would have been scared of her, even though you yourself are a carnivore. Besides, you technically didn't go against your will. I called to you, asked you if you wanted a fish, asked you if you wanted to come over to my place, in plain English. You made otter noises and acted like an animal, but you might just have been playing a game. Otters are famous for playing around."

Oren nodded. "All that time, I was identifying you as 'friend lizard'. I guess the worst moment was when the van started moving."

"So you trust me?"

Oren grinned. "Not as far as I could chuck you, Woody. But I don't have the resources to fight that developer guy, and you do, plus you own the company that holds my current book contract, and therefore my livelihood. I guess that makes us teammates. One thing really bothers me, though. What will happen with Bronski? I told him everything without understanding your sweet-talking motives."

BlueNight also grinned. "Ingmar!"

The huge lupine peeked out from where he had been listening. "How's it hanging, Otter?" asked Darkwolf, in a voice 'impeccably' indistinguishable from the ostrich detective's.

"By a thread, DW. Glad to know you're on our side."

Darkwolf grinned, tongue lolling out of one side of his mouth for just a moment. "I'm not actually on your side, Oren, just conveniently parallel, for the time being. It's time to get your story straight, the real Bronski is at the site of your disappearance. Phil was coming by your place, and discovered that you weren't anywhere along the stretch of river you like to call a lake. He knew the note didn't have your scent, but he couldn't identify it as Blue's, either."

Oren thought for a moment. "Well, without revealing anything major, I could say I met with an executive from TLQ Publishing. He picked me up, but had to rush to a meeting, so I called BlueNight and had him drop me off. I'm guessing you're going to drop me off and not tall, dark, and ugly here?"

Darkwolf grinned, showing a bit of tooth. BlueNight nodded, also grinning. "Yep. You're not going to reveal my status, are you?"

Oren said, "Well, I think Phil and Splendor have a need to know where the Shelter's major donor funding is coming from. I'll let you handle that on your own time, though I hope you tell them soon."

"Thank you so much, Oren. I really appreciate it."

"It's just about the least I could do in exchange for possibly getting my home back, and having a place to stay, and write, while the whole mess is figured out."

BlueNight stood up, and everyone else followed suit. Oren went around the room, kissing hands. He declined to kiss Darkwolf's, but he did kiss the wall where Eliza's hand was displayed outstretched. As he left the living room for the garage with BlueNight, he heard voices saying, "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?" "Not I, said the rabbit with the taser finger." "Not I, said the mouse with genderbending powers." "Not I, said the centauress in the wall." "Not I, said the Kodiak-cougar."


The trip back was uneventful, so BlueNight and Oren continued their conversation about metafiction. "You really, one-hundred-percent believe that we exist only in the minds of beings from another universe?"

"I know it seems like we're real, but think about it. No Wormwood meteorite, no AntiChrist, the same wars and rumors of wars that have gone on for ages, and conveniently passing by the year 2000 without incident."

"What about the Flu? It's a plague from a rock from the sky."

"If that were one of the signs, we'd have had a false Messiah by now."

"What about Barnes and his ilk?"

"Not global enough, and clearly evil. The guy would have to be good, would be worshipped for three years before he did an abomination. Besides, the temple mount at Jerusalem is still covered by the Dome of the Rock mosque. Sister Dawe, the age-regressed pastor of my lifelong church in Albuquerque, has stated again and again that the temple must be built on the temple mount before Jesus' return."

"What if that's the abomination? His destroying the mosque, making it obvious to the Muslims that he isn't the real Messiah."

BlueNight shrugged. "That kind of guesswork has gone on for ages. It's not going to happen, at least, not until the main plotline of the Flu is solved."

Oren said, "So what finally convinced you? I mean, there had to be some event that told you we were in a story, and not in the real life our authors want us to think we're in."

BlueNight thought. "I guess it was the first time I really examined my life. Dishwasher until the Flu hit. Working at a lapine colony until I ratted out the losers who also worked there. Waking up in my own shed skin, surrounded by rabbit corpses. Going back to school, using my lizard instincts to block some of the effects of Asperger's, making a ton in commission money in the knife biz and investing it in just the right stocks. It reads like some badly-written story."

Oren pressed, "But there was SOMETHING, some detail that you caught, some tiny thing that nagged at your mind. Some life-altering moment."

BlueNight stared at the road for a long time. Finally, he said, "I think I know the exact moment. It was a dark but clear night. I was lying in bed, reading a book, when this chill came over me. I had that feeling that someone was watching me, and I started narrating everything. 'He felt a chill come over him. He had the feeling that someone was watching him. Silence, and then, from far away, the sound of a train horn, lonely and high. His eyes started to water as the creepiness didn't fade, but grew stronger. He looked back down at his book, an anthology of metafiction, each story questioning reality, each author wondering about the nature of reality in their own ways. It was the ultimate metafictional moment, and it was then that he knew.' I turned the page, and my narration was there, a young man narrating to himself as he read an anthology on his bed, as the creepiness grew. It wasn't just a similar situation, but the exact wording I had used. I dropped the book to the bed. I also knew that I would have to read it, and when I did, I saw that the character also turned the page, saw the exact wording, also dropped the book, and also knew that when he picked up the book to continure reading, that he would see a recursive... metafictional... story." He whispered the last three words, and a broad grin split his face.

Oren grinned. "That didn't really happen, did it?"

"No, but it sure was fun to say. The rules of the universe would probably implicitly exclude such revelations, just to keep suspense of disbelief mostly intact. Well, I think this is your stop."

Oren nodded. "What gave it away, the squad cars along the road?"

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