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Changes of Self
by Kim Liu
Kim Liu -- all rights reserved

"Blast it!" Spots swore as walked into the Zoo'm'in Being's warehouse, her right arm in a sling and awkwardly pushing her now somewhat battered bicycle with her left arm. The female cheetah morph also matched the somewhat battered condition of her bike.

"Spots! What happened?" Carrie asked, her head frill going up in alarm.

"A kid ran in front of me while I was biking on the bike trail in the hills. I swerved to miss him and ran into a tree. Doctor said I sprained my shoulder." Spots maneuvered her bike into the bike rack and sighed. "Damnit. We have that meeting with De Roy Ltd. Inc. tomorrow, too. We'll have to send some one else."

"Someone else? Goodness! Let me look at that!" Carrie grabbed Spots' uninjured shoulder and steered her into a beanbag chair in the commons area of the warehouse before Spots could protest. "I thought you said you hurt your shoulder, not your noggin, dear. Just who do you think can go? One of the big boys?" Carrie asked, referring to the ZB's heavy mover trio. "Ito doesn't like the daylight, Zach is out of town, and CB is working that day. Webmaster or Frank? Get serious, girl. Don't even look at me - I've got my own meeting to get to then."

Spots batted Carrie's green-brown scaled hands away from her messed up hair. "I can hardly go in a sling - what kind of image would that show?" she asked, sprawling moodily in the beanbag and looking at the dirt and scuff marks on her neo-spandex biking outfit. "That we manage to get ourselves injured? We're unsafe?"

"Oh, hush! Accidents happen, and we've got a good record, a recorded record of accomplished jobs, thanks to you and Webster. We got the endorsements, the letters - jeez, you even wrote a proposal. What makes you think we won't get the job?" Carrie chided her friend. "You've done a lot of work on this, don't stop now!"

Spots sighed a little, then managed a half-smile. "I suppose you're right. It's a lunch meeting, after all. Webmaster could hardly go." Golden furred eyelids closed over tired blue eyes. "I just spent my free cash on the doctor's visit, though." For those transformed by the virus, getting health insurance was a non-trivial matter, and the ZBs had yet to find a provider that would touch them. "I was going to pick up a new shirt tomorrow, and see if I could find some new shoes for the the meeting." She reached up and tried to straighten up her now unruly golden hair with her left hand, her hair now a couple of inches beyond her normal short length. "And I can't cut my hair with my left hand."

"If you can call that cutting and not a massacre," Carrie drawled, flopping into another bean bag chair near by. "You could get it cut by someone who can see what they're doing, Spots."

"Thanks alot, Carrie, just what I needed to hear." Spots went back to looking morose. "I suppose I can manage to pay for a cut at Larry's, where everyone else goes."

"Goodness - Larry's barber shop does a worse job than you do. They should send those boys back to cutting lawns." Carrie ignored the look Spots was sending her way and ruffled her head fringe. "Mmm-hmmm. I know a better place than that. Let's get you cleaned up, Spots, then we're going to the mall."

A somewhat aged looking gold station wagon came to a stop in the alley between the Zoo'm'in Being's building and the bike shop next door. "Goodness!" Carrie exclaimed, wincing at the screech. "Did one of you teach the other to drive? You both must go through tires like candy."

"Oh, hush! I wasn't the one who called him!" Spots grumbled as she walked out dressed in a plain shirt and slacks, her arm still in the sling. A quick shower had helped her mood, leaving her hair still slightly damp.

"Spots? What happened?" Kim asked, unlocking the doors for her and Carrie. Carrie slid into the back seat, or seats, rather, needing more space for her reptilian tail. Spots took the front seat and awkwardly fastened her seat belt with one hand.

"I ran into a tree," Spots answered shortly. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Mmmm. I see." Kim looked backwards as he backed out of the alley. "Hello, Carrie. How are you?"

"Just peachy. Haven't seen you around much - usually you and Webster get together more often." Carrie gripped the nearest door and flinched as the station wagon swung out into the street backwards, then lurched into forward gear.

"Yah. Well." Despite not actually driving at a high velocity, the wagon felt to be going faster than it was from the weaving and failing to slow down much for turns. "I have been occupied working on a report with Red, about the SCABS virus."

"You're not a biologist, are you?" Spots asked, maintaining more calm than Carrie was as the station wagon braked, lurched into the right hand lane, accelerated around another car, and lurched back into the left lane.

"Mmmm. No, but I do gather a lot of information, as does Webmaster." He was silent for a moment. "The results and projections are interesting, to say the least. Given that no cure for SCABS is found, the current rate of mutation and new infection, in, oh, two centuries, there might not be that many normals left, given some assumptions."

"What?!" Carrie exclaimed.

"It partially depends on the birth rate, SCABS verses normals. The signs are that some SCABS are reproducing true to their current forms, which will create a new, competing population segment. As Zoo'm'in Beings itself proves, in some areas, the SCAB population may prove more capable than the norm population, and thus prosper. With the additional decrease in the norm population from virus outbreaks making an additional increase to the SCAB population, and the current SCAB population growing, yes, two centuries is a possible time frame for normals to be the minority.

"Another part is based on the idea that the major governments are not going to be able to keep up with the changes a growing SCAB population will place on them and breakdown, yielding a more anarchistic state. Some projections put that possibility within two decades.

"This is based on the assumption that basic government services will be unable to function due to the beauracracy being unable to keep up with the sudden increased complexity caused by the more complex population. Verifying identities is already becoming a problem, strange abilities like what was done to Barnes, and the presence of stronger polymorphs complicate the situation. Regulations and laws that were made with the assumption of certain, presumed, unchangeable attributes about people no longer function. The health industry, just as an example, is reeling. It now has to deal with taking aspects of animal medicine into a more serious realm of accountability for SCAB patients. Can you imagine Congress trying to pass a regulatory bill for the new face of the health industry that will have to deal with a thousand different species?

"The census department is already trying to create a new form to measure demographics of the new population groups. I hear it's reached twenty pages on just physical description and is growing still...

"Given that the government will be unable to adapt to the rapidly changing, if I may use the term, populace, either the government is going to break down... or it's going to have to change radically, as radically as most SCABS, and shed perhaps as much as four fifths of its laws and regulations, if not more, moving towards more local autonomy and flexibility - in other words, a reduction of power and prestige for the ones on top.

"Which seems about as unlikely as the SCABS virus mysteriously going away on its own, but one can hope."

"Anyways, here's the mall. Just page me on my beeper when you want to be picked up. And will you two stop leaving claw marks in the upholstery?"

Carrie almost exploded from the back seat onto the sidewalk. "Maybe after you learn to drive, dearie," she muttered, stretching out her serpentine tail and watching the station wagon drive off. "Not sure what bothered me more - the driving or the talk."

A few hours later, Spots fumed quietly as they returned to the ZB's building.

"Oh, stop it, Spots!" Carrie chided her as they walked in. "A little curl and bounce to your hair does wonders."

"But the polish - the outfit!" Spots sputtered.

"Well, I thought you were right about sticking with the clear polish - your nails aren't quite claws, but they aren't quite nails anymore, either, girl," Carrie said cheerfully as she carried in the bag with all the purchases. "They'll go well with the business outfit we snagged - at half price, too!" Carrie laughed to herself. "It's been just ages since I had so much fun."

Stan looked up from where he was watching television on the lounge area. He opened his mouth to say something, then caught Spots' eyes. Spots looked back at him, head slightly lowered, ears flat. Stan opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, then decided it was safer to go back to watching TV. He waited until the two ladies had disappeared back to their room, then pressed the intercom button.

"Webster, wot's up wit' Spots? Aye mean ahther 'an her arm." Stan asked, trying to keep his voice down, which was a hard task.

There was a pause as Webmaster typed in his response into his voder. "How should I know? Probably nervous about the meeting tomorrow."

"Wimmin," Stan sighed.

"You might say that."

Spots looked at herself in the mirror the next day. Dressed in the tan business jacket, skirt, the white shirt, and the gold rose bolo tie, she had to admit that she looked... different. At first, her image had been a little rumpled looking, not quite right fitting, then Carrie had helped her make some adjustments - a tuck here, a fix there, and like magic the outfit suddenly seemed to fit. The person looking out of the mirror wasn't ... wasn't a Spots she recognized.

She remembered seeing herself as starving and dirty, on the run, many years ago, dressed in rags and cast offs. Then as the progressing, half-starving bicycle messenger dressed in the neo-spandex outfits they wore. It had taken her a while to adjust to the change in her appearance. In a way, it had been an acceptance of what she had become. Now, looking in the mirror, she saw...

An attractive looking cheetah femme, dressed professionally, like an accountant or business woman, hair in order, well groomed, and... mature.

Am I that old now? Spots wondered to herself. Maybe nearing thirty, yes, but... old? She looked closer in the mirror, beyond the fur, thinking back over the years. Is this me? she asked herself. This isn't Spots... this is... Ms. Speedy. She winced. Oh god. I never thought I'd live so long that that name would haunt me so much. Spots looked up at her blue eyes in the mirror. I never thought I'd live to be ... be ... - She tried to find the word for what she saw,

"Cab's here, Spots." Carrie's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Let's get this sling on and the show on the road, or you're going to be late!"

"I'd have been ready half an hour ago if hadn't been arguing over how I walk," Spots pointed out.

"Get with the program, girl. You may be female, but you ain't feminine. You walk like a guy, and you send mixed signals all over. I'm not saying you should do a sassy and sway, but you need a little more grace and style to put folks at ease."

"Oh, wonderful," Spots muttered, with mixed emotions. "What makes you so expert?"

"Grew up watching mama tailor clothes and daddy fix shoes, dearie. Seen how folks dress and walk. Now let's get your tail out of here!"

"How did it go?" Webmaster's synthesized voice came back over the telephone in the restaurant lobby.

"Long," Spots sighed, trying not to jostle her injured arm. "That was a three hour lunch!"

"Did we get it?!"

"No one told me that De Roy's representative was a strict vegetarian - I think I almost made him ill when I -"

"DID WE GET IT?" the voder buzzed at her electronically.

Spots rolled her eyes. "One year, one run between here and the next city once a week, $500 per run... plus an open contract for any of their other needs in the city."

"How did you manage that last part?" Webmaster managed to make his synthesized voice sound surprised. "I thought some one else had that sewn up."

"I honestly don't know," Spots answered tiredly. It had been a long, tense three hours, seeming more like an eternity. De Roy made millions quarterly, and she had been there trying to sell the services of a motley crew of SCABS to them, convincing them that Zoo'm'in Beings could fulfill their needs better than a more expensive service. And damn it, we can! Spots thought to herself.

"I guess I will validate Carrie's expense report," Webmaster said, distracting her.

"Her what!? Since when do we have expense reports?"

"Since she charged your shopping trip of yesterday to the business."

"She what?!"

Webmaster played canned laughter over the phone. "Well spent if you asked me - you looked great. See you when you get back." The arachnid hung up before she could reply.

"An expense report?" Spots muttered, hanging up the phone. "An expense report!" She looked at herself and gritted her teeth, then forced herself, slowly, to calm down. "I suppose... I suppose..." With a sigh, she rubbed her forehead. Carrie had probably made the difference today, Spots acknowledged to herself. Appearances did matter, after all, and her appearance was vastly better than what she would have done.

"I should probably give her a bonus," Spots muttered to herself jokingly, then hesitated, realizing that that was not unfitting. Expense reports, bonuses, regular income and contracts... this was different from when the Zoo'm'in Beings were just her, Frank, and Webmaster. It had grown, too.

A half-familiar voice interrupted her thoughts. "I almost didn't recognize you."

Spots tried not to jump as she turned around. "Miss Wallace?" she asked, blinking.

Miss Wallace, Jr., managed a slight smile, wearing a outfit similar to Spots', but of a higher cost. "Miss Speedy," she replied, tilting her head slightly. "I was not sure it was you. What happened?" the lawyer asked, indicating the sling.

Spots winced. "An accident. Just a sprain."

"You seem to be doing well," Wallace added, taking in Spots' current outfit with the statement. "I remember how things were when we were first introduced, which reminds me - I have been meaning to talk to you."

"You have?" Spots' tail twitched nervously.

"Yes." Wallace looked towards the restaurant doors for a moment. "Are you headed back towards your building?"

The cheetah blinked. "Yes."

"Would you like a ride?"

"... I would be grateful," Spots managed, trying to get her thoughts under control. What was going on now?

"Excellent. Please, after you."

Outside, a white limousine was waiting, the one Spots had only seen on the rare times Wallace Senior had been around. She had never seen Wallace Jr. use anything but her white sedan. For a moment Spots was worried that she was going to talk to Wallace Senior, but nothing had been said about that personage. The driver seemed completely unperturbed as the cheetah morph, trying not to jiggle her sling, entered the limousine with Miss Wallace, nor did he ask for directions when Miss Wallace directed him to the Zoo'm'in Beings' building.

This day is going too fast, Spots thought, trying not to fidget and forgetting how slow the lunch had seemed. Her tail tip twitched a little despite her control.

"You seem to be doing well," the lawyer said suddenly, taking a seat opposite Spots as the limousine started.

"Business is good," Spots said slowly, still feeling uncertain of the situation. "We're getting people asking if they can work for us now, and we just received our first regular contract."

Wallace nodded, then looked out the window of the car. "You must be thinking about growth."

"Err, yes," Spots admitted. "We're thinking about renting some space in one of the neighboring cities to support our between city runs a bit better, Miss Wallace."

The lawyer turned back to look at Spots. "Please, call me Eliza. That is part of the reason why I was needing to talk to you, Miss Speedy."

"Spots, please, if you want," Spots answered, somewhat automatically, still confused about the situation.

Eliza nodded. "I'm afraid, Spots, that Wallace and Wallace will no longer be able to handle your contract issues."

Spots blinked, then blinked again. "I see," she managed, mind racing. "Was... was it something we did?"

"Not at all!" Eliza shook her head vigorously. "Not at all. In fact, Spots, you are one of my favorite clients. No, part of the reason why is because Wallace and Wallace is now just Wallace. My mother passed away in her sleep two weeks ago."

"Oh." Spots tried to get her thoughts back together. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right. It wasn't unexpected." Eliza smiled, slightly sad. "It was peaceful enough. In any case, I was going to suggest that you find a general business lawyer soon - you are growing enough that you need more than our specialized area of knowledge. I'll ask among some of the other law firms we have worked with to find someone who can handle your needs. I'll make sure Zoo'm'in Beings receives the best of service."

"Thank you, Eliza, that's very generous," Spots managed, trying to keep up.

"The other part of the reason is that I will be out of the country for the next year," Eliza continued, seemingly unaware of Spots' discomfort. "All the current work will be handled by my associates and no new work is going to be accepted.

"I'm going on a one year sabbatical to Antarctica to study the wildlife and the effect of the depletion of the ozone layer there," she continued, ignoring the stunned expression opposite her. "It's something I always wanted to do." Eliza smiled again. "In a way, I've been envious of you, Spots."

"You have? Why?"

"Because... you've made your own way. My family has been running the law firm for generations. I was almost born into law, going to law school was not an option, my mother paid my way through law school, and afterwards I joined the family business. I was her hope to carry on the firm - I had an older brother, but he died from the SCABS virus, long ago," Eliza added softly. "That is why my mother ... didn't like SCABS, because they survived." She shook herself. "I've never had the chance to 'do it my way', to be challenged. In law school, I received the best of tutors and teachers, everything mother could arrange. After I joined the law firm, mother's reputation extended cover me - I didn't have to earn respect, it was a given.

"You, Spots - you've started with nothing and built up a business! You're respected in your community, respected by your customers, respected by the people who work with you whether they like you or not... you've accomplished something, Zoo'm'in Beings." Eliza sat back and shook her head slightly. "I know Webmaster is one of the co-owners, but you're the one with the drive. I've watched your growth - I will not be surprised if when I return in a year, you have branch offices in more than one city," Eliza predicted, her voice sounding almost wistful. "You're building something you can show to your children and say 'I did this'.

"You've made yourself a successful business lady, Spots."

"Thank you, Eliza," Spots managed. "I... I don't know what to say." Her mind was reeling, but fortunately the limousine was pulling to a stop outside the building. She wasn't sure she could take much more talk like this. "Good luck on your trip, Eliza."

Eliza Wallace smiled again. "Thank you, Spots. Good luck with your business."

Spots watched the limousine drive off. Her arm ached in the sling. It had been a long, tense day, and she wanted a hot soak. Too many things had happened. Shaking her head, she walked back up the alley between the bike store and the warehouse, turning to enter.

"SURPRISE!" people shouted (or had their voders turned up.) Streamers flew. People clapped. "Congratulations, Spots!" someone shouted. A small crowd of the ZBs and some of their friends and family were assembled, obviously to celebrate the contract with De Roy. There was food and music and a general festive air.

"Hey!" Spots forced on a positive, bright expression. "You guys didn't have to do this!" I want a shower, not a party, she thought darkly, then put the thought behind her and went to help people celebrate.

Much, much, much later, Spots closed the door to her room and sagged against it. "Oh.... my feet are killing me." She kicked off the new shoes Carrie had recommended she buy, but weren't as comfortable as her biking shoes. Carrie was still carrying on in the lounge area of the warehouse - she could party all night. Spots forced her eyes open again and looked around the room. "Change, and then sleep," she muttered, drawing herself up. Taking off the sling caused much wincing, but her arm felt better than it had before, at least. She tried to brush what fur she had shed out of her clothing as much as she could with one hand, then gave up and hung up the business jacket, skirt, and shirt. "I'll get them dry cleaned," she muttered.

Business expense, a part of her thought.

"Bah!" Spots sat down slowly on her bed, rubbing her injured shoulder, and let her head slump back against the wall. The past two days played through her mind. "A successful business lady," she murmured to the ceiling. "Successful. Business. Lady. Successful business lady. Business Lady. Successful Business. Successful Lady?" Memories trickled through her mind like sand as she thought of all the past years and events. "Is this what I am now?" she asked herself, half amazed still. A glance at herself told her she wasn't the starving homeless cheetah she had once been, and nor was she as she had been born. Recollections of getting the first bike came back, of helping at the SCAB shelter, of bringing Ito and CB on board with the ZBs, all the things that had happened. Eliza's surprising words ran through her head again.

Haltingly, she let herself remember her life before being Spots - it was not something she let herself do often anymore. Her father had been an architect, like his father before him, and Spots - Scott had been expected to follow in his footsteps. Grades had been good, everything had been on track; it was quite likely that Scott would have followed that course. She built up an image in her head of where that path would have gone, if the virus hadn't struck her, and she compared it to where she was today. She thought about how her old friends and family had turned out to be in the face of her changes, and compared them to the people she knew today; she compared herself as she had been to who she had become.

"If I could do it all over again, is this the path I'd choose now?" she asked the ceiling, bemused and incredulous. "Am I a better person? I've made a difference, but is this what I want? To be a ... successful business lady?" She stretched out her hands in front of her, ignoring the pain in her shoulder, and looked at the black spotted golden fur on them. "Successful... yes, I guess I am. No, I know I am. Eliza's right, I've accomplished something. I've survived - I've prospered and grown. I've worked hard for Zoo'm'in Beings, helped it work, made people believe in it and made it come true. Damn it, I have succeeded in something.

"I guess I am a better person, too," she mused. "If I could do it all over again... I guess I wouldn't do it any differently," Spots whispered. She closed her eyes and let her head slump forward. "I must be crazy. Or maybe Miss Wallace is... taking a year off to go to Antarctica, leaving behind limousines and money and comfort... to prove something to herself.

"Maybe we're both crazy, because I understand her. I might not have before." Spots stood up, and looked at herself in the mirror as she flipped off the light switch, seeing the blue-eyed female cheetah morph look back, tired, amused, and accomplished. Laying back down on her bed, she tried to position herself as much as possible to comfort her injured shoulder. "What a change," she murmured, looking up at the darkened ceiling, then let her eyes close slowly. "And I did this, myself."

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