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by Jason-Roo Tracer (aka Jessie Tracer/Electric Keet)
Jason-Roo Tracer (aka Jessie Tracer/Electric Keet) -- all rights reserved

At five after seven o'clock, on the snow-capped evening of the fifteenth of November, Steve gathered his courage and entered the popular Blind Pig Gin Mill. His eyes slowly adjusted, in transition from the frigid winter darkness to the warm, inviting interior of the bar, in which the lights gave an almost angelic aura to the varied people sitting about. All Steve could think about, however, was the demon that lived within most of them. They were infected with SCABS, and many of them were so altered by the disease that they wore vodors, necessary for speech when one's vocal chords have been taken or warped by --

"Hello," the deer stated flatly. Rather, his vodor had stated. A 2000? No, likely a 2500, and he'd not yet trained it for much inflection yet. Can't blame him, Steve thought. The 2500s are a pain in the tail.

Steve nodded, smiling a bit, hiding his disappointment in the device. "Hi there...."

The deer, standing at the table next to him, spoke again. "You appear to be looking for somebody to dock to --" He shook his head, and tried again. "To talk to." A featureless laugh. "I was waiting for a friend, who said he might not show, and he hasn't. Care to join me?" He had the slightest expression of recognition, but it faded quickly.

Steve paused, almost confused at the easy friendliness of this fellow. He must not know who I am, Steve thought. All the better... I really do need to talk. "Thanks, friend. The name's Sonjun Steven Armstrong. Call me Steve." Normally, this greeting would involve a handshake, but the deer had only hooves, and was using all four of them to stand on. Instead, Steve simply sat in the opposing chair.

"Jon Sleeper. Nice to meet you.... You seem vaguely familiar, as if I've seen you before. Been around here much?"

Steve shook his head... "Never, before. For too long, perhaps." Steve looked around the room, with a growing sense of remorse, but trying to show none. "Rather motley group here, eh?" A smile.

Jon's ears twitched. A smile? "Indeed! SCABS of every sort, here. Are you...?" Enough inflection to make it a question... best improvement in the 2500 series over the 2000s.

Steve checked his oddly-shaped watch, grinning. "Not for another five minutes yet," he joked, evoking a curious laugh from the deer.

"What should I expect?"

"Fire and brimstone," Steve chuckled. Might as well be, he thought. This will make the fifth cycle.

Jon nodded, and resumed the monotone of his vodor. "I know what you mean...." Another expression of partial recognition. "Are you certain I've not seen you before? Your name's familiar, too."

Steve wasn't sure he wanted to wipe away what secrecy he had, quite yet. There are many people here who'd like to have words with me, he thought. Rough words. Or perhaps, he was simply paranoid? "It's possible," he shrugged. "I've been around."

"I see," he nodded. "Well, what brings you here, sleeve --" Another frustrated shake of the head, another try. "Steve."

At this point, Steve looked concerned. "That's the 2500 model, right? Your vodor?" Jon simply nodded. "Those were plagued with a bad learning function. The older ones before it, they took forever to pick up on the nuances of one word over another, and then lost it all the first time a similar word was tried. The 2500, though, it overcompensated, it grabbed the pattern after the first repetition, and..." A dumfounded expression from the eyes of the deer. "And... uh... didn't make room for variance...."


"Say," Steve exclaimed, then then spoke softer, pulling a small box out of his briefcase. "I can upgrade the chipset for you... real quick. No charge."

"You... you are a vodor technician?" he sputtered.

"My friend, I am the architect," Steve chuckled, as he pulled a tiny, ice-clear oblong crystal from the box. It caught the diffused light of the room, and scattered it into six small discolored rainbows on the table top. The opaque blue end brandished the words Phonos BIOS 2.00 in burning white letters. "The hardware for the 2500 and the 3000 are the same, except for the main chipset, located right above the battery panel."

"That's not what the dealership said," Jon remarked with total innocence.

Steve froze. No, they didn't, he thought. They said that the 3000 had much better technology, more expensive parts, hence the huge price jump. The dealers didn't know better, that's what they were told by... me. It was really only a simple code upgrade, a five-dollar crysROM replacement. He shook his head slowly, and quietly whispered, "May I?" motioning to Jon's vodor.

Jon blinked, unsure as to whether to trust this remarkably odd and furtive person with a most expensive piece of equipment... his link to the rest of humanity. A necessity. The scent was there, however, of truth, and of sincerity. The man was trustworthy. Yet there was another scent. Pity? No, not so much as remorse...

Jon nodded silently, and Steve carefully unhooked the vodor and placed it on the table. One hand unlatched the battery cover, while the other went for the small screwdriver in his pocket. Quickly, expertly, off with the casing for the crystalline memory.... "I wish I had more than one chip with me," he apologized, "I'm sure there are others who got cheated on the 2500." Just as he removed the cover, his odd wristwatch started beeping angrily. "Hold on a second," he stammered, moving his hands away from the unit.

He counted softly, "Four, three..." He tugged at the back of his trousers, and Jon heard three snaps... unfastening a tail-hole? Steve slipped off his shoes. "Two, one, and --"

Suddenly, almost explosively, Steve became a humanoid arctic fox. He whurfed, and gripped the table tightly, eyes wide open in a macabre stare... "Don't worry," he growled, "Just an endorphin rush. Happens every time. Almost enjoyable..." After a half-minute, he'd released his firm hold on the table, and looked at his white paws, sighing... and then he resumed replacing the chip.

Jon had a most fascinating look of surprise. Most of the present patrons of the bar did, but they quietly went back to their own business, as if nothing too significant had occurred.

Steve snapped the battery cover back on, and replaced the vodor around Jon's neck. "Okay, I think you'll find that a bit easier to work with... a bit sensitive, don't try too hard at inflection, it'll pick up on it easily enough."

"How long have you been...?" Jon backpedaled a bit, startled by the newfound clarity and expression in his 'second voice'. Almost worth the king's ransom it would have cost him....

Steve put the old crysROM in the case, and nodded slowly. "Since July. Every month, it's the same.... twenty-four hours of being human, then I revert to this, my hybrid form... then in two weeks, I go through twenty-four hours of being a true arctic fox. No resemblance to a human at all. No voice."

Jon seemed too interested and curious to interrupt, so Steve continued speaking in a slightly gruff, but very similar voice. "When I contracted the Flu in early July, and changed for the first time over a week later, I cursed everything in my life. I tried to change back, and couldn't. I tried to blame somebody, but I couldn't. I wanted to blame the other SCABS, but I knew it wasn't their fault either.

"I finally deluded myself to believing that it was but a minor setback, and that I should continue business as usual. After all, I could still talk human, I could still walk human -- after a lot of practice, that is. Except for being a fox, I was still pretty damned human, nothing was different. But the workplace was different. In the office, I was no longer 'one of us,' but 'one of them,' and they were afraid I'd lose my edge. I, however, was determined to remain the savvy businessman, out to make the almighty dollar!" He emphasized that last word, as if it were the keystone of an incantation, the name of a deity called upon in awe.

A quick glance to the deer, who sat entranced by the tale, and then Steve stared back down, to his paws. "But fifteen days later, when I shifted into an entirely non-human form, and had to strap on one of the vodors I myself developed, I realized just what I'd been doing all along.... I'd been exploiting a minority that I was now one of the most desperate members of. I had no voice! That's what the business is all about, selling voices to people who don't have them anymore, making out like bandits because you know they can't live without your marvelous device." He was very emotional at this point, sounding as if he might break into tears at any moment... "That's why my name is familiar, friend. I was the head of Phonos Speech Devices, Incorporated! I was the low bastard in the high place!"

The fox, who had only a moment ago been a human, sat motionless, eyes transfixed on his paws. The deer, who had been motionless in utter shock, spoke with emotion that, for once, his vodor could convey flawlessly. "Is that why you did this for me? Is that why you're here today?"

Steve muttered, "That, and so much more. I was the one to encourage skyrocketed prices for inexpensive technology. I was the one who produced three exponentially costly models of vodors, when they had actually declined in production costs through the years. I was the one who told the design team to make a new case for an old unit, so we could sell it as the brand-new, hot-technology 3000 series, instead of just selling the dirt-cheap crysROM upgrade. I exploited the voiceless SCABS.

"Now, I'm still working there, but as the chief programmer, hidden away in the banks of computers, with a representative to go to staff meetings for me. I get to endure the tortuous life of the people I was so willing to use, before.... Every month, for one day, I am forced to wear one of the vodors I previously saw as little more than money in my pockets." He pointed to the wristwatch, which was now recognizable as a vodor on an elastic band. "The least I can do is give out the occasional free upgrade, behind the backs of the corporation, because I know just how rotten it all is, the whole scheme, and with the new guy in charge...." He stopped, drained of his self-anger.

Jon nodded. "I see..." is all he could say.

Both of the men remained speechless for some time.

At another table, where a handful of wolves had collected, there came the strains of an old drinking song, the words obscure, and unknown to both Jon and Steve. The lyric didn't matter, however, so much as the fact that two of the wolves were singing with the help of outdated vodors.

Steve waved discreetly to the waitress, hoping he could order a thick German stout. It was going to be a long evening, he had a great many voices to listen to.

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