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Retribution
by Bob Stein
Bob Stein -- all rights reserved
 

"....and polls continue to show Councilman Barnes ahead, with only 5 weeks to go in the Mayoral campa-" A large, black fist silenced the radio with enough force to scatter pieces all over the room. Bob cursed himself silently as he sat up in the bed. He either had to develop a calmer attitude towards that lousy bastard, or stop leaving the alarm set to the news channel.

Barnes was incredible. A confessed murderer, hate-monger, and general boil on the backside of humanity, he had still managed to capture the hearts of the general public. Whoever had thought turning him into a child would be a punishment had really mucked things up. Even knowing what an evil S.O.B. he was, Bob had trouble not seeing Barnes as a cute little boy playing politician. Besides which, Barnes now had an extra thirty years to live.

Sighing, Bob stretched out, and then clomped into the bathroom. As he made use of the custom-built facilities, he stared at his equine head in the mirror. And for the first time in months, shifted himself back to full human. Nobody knew he could return himself to normal. Not that it was any big deal. Many of the Scabs could change back and forth easily. It was just that Bob really didn't like the human form reflected back at him.

What hair remained was turning gray, and the wrinkles and bulges of middle age were painfully obvious. Interesting thing about his equine forms was that age didn't show. He wasn't as spry as he'd like, even in some of the lighter horse shapes, but at least it wasn't obvious that he was past his prime. It wasn't fair. The bad guy got the youth and power. And the good guy? All he got was headaches and ulcers.

Relaxing, Bob let his normal black Shire morph form return, and shook his massive head woefully. The fight against Barnes had failed miserably so far. Despite having his own admission of guilt recorded, the bastard had denied murdering the morph girl. The videotape had actually been denounced as a fake. So he'd gotten off.

Deep down, nobody really believed that he was innocent. And that was what scared Bob the most. It was a lot like what had happened in Germany in the late 1930s. Hitler had risen to power the same way, denouncing Jews, Poles, Negroes, and any other non-Aryan race as dangerous. The 6 year-old with the angelic face was playing up the same fears and hatreds the Nazis had used, addressing the lowest common denominator of mankind. Fear of what was different.

Bob had seen that hatred at some of his counter-rallies. It had started as jeers and shouts of 'Hi-Ho, Silver.' Then the saddle and bridle had been delivered to his house, with a note suggesting that he stop talking and start acting like the animal he was. And two days ago, during one of the few large meetings he'd been able to arrange, a group of hooded thugs had burst in, run up to the stage, and dumped the still-bleeding head of a Shire horse on the stage in front of him.

Perhaps it was the smell of blood. Or the shock of knowing they had killed some innocent animal. Bob went crazy, leaping on the thugs as they shouted "Humans First!". That was probably just what they had hoped for, figuring they could beat him up and claim self-defense. They discovered too late that 6 humans, no matter how big and strong, were no match for an enraged Shire stallion.

All but one ended up in the hospital, three in critical condition. The only charge which could be levied against them was Cruelty to Animals, a misdemeanor in this city. Bob spent several hours in jail, threatened with lawsuits, prosecution for Assault with Intent to Kill, and Assault on a Minor.

That last had been a real shock. One of the thugs in critical condition was a 16 year-old boy. The kid was part of Barnes' "Humans First' youth group. Barnes had an even easier time appealing to kids, thanks to looking like one of them. Still, it had never occurred to Bob that Barnes would stoop so low as to use a boy to do his dirty work. Of course, the charges had been dropped. Prosecution would require a thorough investigation, and the rock these particular creatures had crawled out from under was shared by a rather unusual 6 year-old.

It didn't really matter. For Bob had destroyed any chance of winning against Barnes when he attacked the thugs. As fate would have it, two TV stations had been filming his speech. The footage of him thrashing 5 men and a boy was getting almost as much air time as O.J.'s Bronco drive. Nobody cared that they had been in the wrong. All they saw was a Scab attacking humans.

Now there would be no more speaking engagements. He had canceled the few which hadn't beaten him to the punch. Barnes had won the battle. And it damn well looked like the evil bastard was going to win the war as well.

It was too late to stop him now, at least using normal means. For the first time, Bob began thinking of more drastic measures. The thought of assassination actually crossed his mind, but he didn't think he could kill anyone, even a creature like that. Besides, if Barnes was killed, he'd become a martyr to his twisted cause, and probably start a riot against Scabs all over the city.

No, he had to find a way inside. If Barnes could be linked directly to some of the hate crimes and groups, he'd lose enough credibility with more reasonable voters to lose the election. The question was, how could he work into a group which was paranoid about Scabs?

The answer was staring back at him from the mirror. Or had been. Bob shifted back to human. No, pictures of his human form had been broadcast too often during his speeches against Barnes. Still, there had to be a way. He frowned, trying to grasp the idea which flickered at the back of his mind. And then he had it.

"Maybe, just maybe." Bob returned to equine shape and plopped down heavily on his favorite chair. As he picked up the phone, he felt a twinge of fear. Idle dreams might not translate well into reality, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Then he sighed and dialed the number of the Blind Pig.

West Street was one of those areas that most people tried to ignore. The sleaze center of the city, it was made up of bars, strip joints, and hotels which rented by the hour. Bob wouldn't have been surprised to see Police cars up on blocks. What kind of trash lived like this....

He stopped, suddenly ashamed of himself. A lot of the ragged souls staggering around him were Scabs, and even the humans here looked empty. Bob had been lucky to have enough money and prestige that his life hadn't been totally disrupted by his transformation. And his change had actually turned out to be beneficial. The Martian Flu hadn't been so kind to others. And society had been even harder.

Danny's new waitress, for example. By all accounts, a brilliant engineer who suddenly found herself without hands or a voice. Even she had been one of the lucky ones, for she'd found ways to adapt, and new friends to replace those who shunned her now. For every happy ending, there were a dozen sad ones. And West Street seemed to be a focal point for those sad cases.

At least things were quiet now. The sun was just starting to rise over the city, and most of the joints had already closed. Bob stepped over a weasel-morph passed out drunk across the sidewalk. It was reasonably certain that whoever he was supposed to meet would be sober. Besides, the voice on the phone had been female.

He glanced at his watch and sighed. 6:17 a.m. The mysterious caller had said she'd meet him here 'about 5:30.' Maybe it had been a ruse. The message he'd asked Danny to pass along to the Blind Pig crowd had been simple. 'Dr. Bob wants to get in touch with the person or persons who fixed Barnes. 555-1623.' The barkeep had promised to be careful who he told, but if DeMule or some of the others had gotten hold of the information... Well, sending him here to West Street would sure make a great practical joke. And if the situation wasn't so serious, Bob would even laugh.

Enough was enough. Shaking his head sadly, Bob turned and headed back for the truck, his hooves echoing up and down the empty street. Well, it was probably a stupid plan, anyway.

"Leaving so soon, Trigger?" He spun around at the soft female voice, but saw no one. "In the alley. That is, if you want to chat about our little friend, Barnes."

He followed the sound into a dark passage between crumbling brick buildings, barely wide enough for him to walk through. The alley opened up into a dead end full of stinking trash and the rusting remains of an old cab. There was a laugh from the car. "And I thought you were supposed to be smart, Trigger. Been away from Roy too long?"

Bob shrugged. "If you're trying to insult me, I happened to like those old Roy Rogers movies. And Trigger was a great horse." He could just make out the shadowy figure of someone in the back seat, but stayed where he was.

More laughter. "I think you belong in one of those old movies. Didn't your mother ever warn you about places like West Street? Or maybe you're a regular customer just looking for something special?"

Annoyed, Bob crossed his arms and snorted. "Look, lady. In case you haven't noticed, I'm a big boy who can take care of himself. And as for what I'm here for, I'm guessing that you're the one who called me. To meet you almost an hour ago."

There was a flash of movement that barely registered on his eyes, and the cab was empty. "Wait! I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..."

"You'd be dead now, Trigger." Bob jumped and spun to face the voice which was suddenly behind him. The Scab standing there was a snake-morph, fangs out and dripping with venom. He recoiled backwards in fear, only to trip over his own hooves and sit down hard on the packed dirt.

Fangs vanished as the snake-morph almost fell over laughing. "'I'm a big boy who can take care of myself.' Oh, that's rich! What did you plan to do if somebody attacked, Trigger? Sit on 'em?"

Embarrassment and anger flared, and Bob pushed himself back up to his hooves and gave the snake-morph a cold stare. "What I planned to do was find someone to help me take care of that sick bastard, Barnes. If I'd known I was going to have to play games in a dirty back lot, I'd have slept late instead."

The snake-morph regarded him with suddenly serious eyes. "This is a dangerous world, Dr. Bob. People like Barnes live in this world. And people like me. You don't like to play in dirty back lots? Go back to your booth at The Blind Pig, and forget trying anything with Barnes. He wallows in the deepest sewage this city has to offer, and you'll have to dive in there to get him."

Bob balled his massive fists. "I've been fighting that bastard for months now, and he's beaten me at every turn because he fights dirty. Well, I'm ready to fight dirty, too. And if it means jumping in a sewer, lead me to the manhole cover. But stop yanking my chain. If you are the person I've been looking for, we might be able to stop him. If you aren't, why are you wasting our time?"

The reptilian head smoothed out as the mouth formed into an easy smile. Scales vanished into human skin, and a mane of dark hair pushed out to frame the face of an attractive young woman. The face was familiar - one of the girls he'd seen around the Blind Pig. The quiet one. He struggled to recall the name.... "uh... Splendid?"

"Splen-dor." She offered a hand, which he shook gently. "OK. No more wasting time. I zapped Barnes. Just what do you think I can do to help you? Turn him into an infant? I gotta have sex with the guy to do more than a small change, and we'd have to wait ten years for that."

Bob's eyes widened a bit, but he didn't comment. "What I want to do is get inside his organization. As dirty as Barnes is, there has to be evidence that can be made public."

"Get inside his organization?" She snorted. "Do you think the little boy would like a pony? Get real, Trigger. Those 'Humans First' maniacs aren't going to let a scab near the place."

He sighed, and made the shift to human form. This time it was her eyes which went wide, but her surprise turned to a smirk as he had to grab his now-oversized shorts. "They might not let a Scab in, but it seems they are falling all over themselves to recruit kids." He flushed slightly, suddenly remembering what Splendor had said about her power. "Uh, I'm sorry. I didn't know how your ability worked. Maybe I'd better just forget..."

The woman's smirk widened into a full grin. "You're just full of surprises, aren't cha', Trigger? I got no problem running you back. But do you really want to join Barnes in first grade? I can make you younger, but it's a one-way trip. You gotta grow back up on your own."

"I don't want to be as little as that. Maybe 15 or 16. Old enough to be useful to the Humans First group, but young enough that I won't be recognized. If I can get into his computers, I should be able to find something to trip him up. Maybe even destroy his campaign." Bob sighed heavily. "Funny thing is, it was daydreaming about being younger that helped me come up with this idea. Now that I'm faced with the reality, I'm a little scared. Still, it's about the only chance I seem to have."

Splendor stroked her chin thoughtfully. "I don't have the time or inclination to go after Barnes myself. It's hard enough just to survive out here in the real world. And this plan of yours seems to rely on hope that Barnes is sloppy about his records. What if you don't find anything?"

"I'd hoped there was a way to make Barnes a baby, and take away his ability to speak or walk." He shrugged. "Now that I know how your ability works, that isn't an option." There was a long silence. "Maybe there is a way... We might be able to turn his whole campaign against him."

"And just how do you figure that, Trigger?"

"By convincing the public that Barnes is a Scab himself." Instead of the expected laugh, Splendor looked even more interested. He pressed on. "Look, I'm just coming up with this on the fly. But what if we made it look like Barnes turned someone else younger? Maybe some kid shaking his hand in public?"

The woman frowned. "I have to touch whoever I change. And I am assuming that you'd be the kid in question?" At his nod, she cocked her head slightly. "For the change to be noticeable, it would have to be quick and pretty big. I could probably handle it, but it will be tricky to judge. You might end up 13, or as young as Barnes."

Swallowing hard, Bob considered that possibility. "Well, it's just a last resort. And at worst, a few more years of growing up for me. It means a little risk for you, though."

"You're pretty naive, Trigger. It would mean a hell of a risk for me. One I'm not sure I'm willing to take, even to fry that little bastard. And your main plan is weak, but who knows? Maybe you'll get lucky. If you want to try infiltrating, I'll take care of your disguise. My part will be a lot more fun than yours."

Blushing again, Bob held the shorts up a little higher. "Uh, I don't want to be a problem. Is, uh, there a time that's good? And, uh, where...?"

She grinned and gestured at the buildings around them. "I got open accounts at every hotel here, and I suspect all of them are pretty much empty right now." Moving closer, she looped one arm through his and tugged him towards the alley. "Come on, Trigger. You aren't half-bad as-is, and I think I actually like you."

Bob hesitated for a moment, and then let her lead. There was a cold lump in his stomach that wouldn't quite go away, some nagging fear that he couldn't identify. Yet he couldn't think of any reason to put this off, either. Barnes had to be stopped, and the sooner, the better.

"Hey, Shaggy! Forget that computer shit and come see this freakin' Scab!" Bob's fingers froze over the keyboard, but he pasted on a grin and ran over to join the other boys at the window. It was unusual to see a Scab around Barnes' headquarters, and he had to play along with his new 'friends' to avoid raising suspicions.

The subject of study was a bovine morph, more bestial than most. Her head was that of a cow, and he could make out the voice-box which was common to more severely changed Scabs. Though humanoid, the girl almost waddled as she walked, thanks to the generous udder which was obvious even under her skirt.

"Hey, man! Wonder if she gives a milk mustache?" Jamie, a gawky Latino boy, pushed open the window and bellowed. "Mooooooo, bitch! Who let you off the farm?" The rest of the boys broke into laughter, which Bob had to join in. He'd gotten much better at faking hatred over the past two weeks, a fact which was starting to bother him.

As he looked out the window, he caught his reflection in the glass. The teenager staring back actually did look like a junior version of the Scooby-Doo cartoons character that had prompted his new nickname. Part of it was the ratty wardrobe Splendor had gotten him from the Goodwill, but his thick mop of hair and gangly body matched the character's as well. This face still surprised him sometimes. Though not as much as the first time he'd seen it.

Splendor had been, well, splendid. And as she gradually took more years from him, Bob had found the repeated unions with her to be invigorating. She had stopped every now and then to let him see himself as he regressed. The changes were noticeable, but not drastic until he reentered his 20s. Even at about 22, most of his friends would have recognized him. And then she had dragged him back to bed for the last time.

He'd woken up alone in the room, and gotten quite a shock when he flipped back the threadbare sheet. Somehow, he hadn't expected to be so... young? The kid who'd been with the thugs was 16, and he'd been pretty mature looking. For a while, Bob had been afraid that Splendor had overshot the mark by a few years, maybe even left him prepubescent. But memories of high school gradually came to him, of being the class shrimp. He had been a late bloomer, not really starting his growth until his senior year.

Luckily, his transformer returned soon afterwards. Seems that she had thought things out a little better than he had. And done some homework while he was sleeping. After giving him some ratty clothes that smelled worse than they looked, the prostitute had introduced him to the wonderful world of the homeless. It was shocking to find out how many people wandered the streets at night because they had no place to go. And a lot of them were Scabs.

Barnes' group was really interested in homeless humans, especially the younger ones. They had a couple of shelters set up just for kids, no Scabs allowed. Some of Splendor's friends managed to get him in the one near West Street. After that, it had only taken a few anti-Scab comments to attract the interest of Barnes' Youth Group. He was too small to do much physically, but even his carefully restrained skill with computers was enough to earn him a spot updating the campaign database files.

It was an ideal position to check into Barnes' records. After a few weeks, he'd even started troubleshooting some problems which kept losing the names of contributors and fouling up mailing lists. An easy task, since he had created most of the bugs in the first place. He fixed just enough of them to earn trust, and had recently been asked to work for the System Administrator, Mr. Andrews. With the additional access, he'd managed to hack his way into all of Barnes' records.

Not that it had done him any good. With less than two weeks left in the campaign, Bob had found nothing. Oh, there were minor violations, like small unreported campaign contributions, and vague links with some of the city's more notorious citizens. Nothing that would hurt a man who the public had let get away with murder. Not even a connection with any of the anti-Scab terrorist activities like the horse's head, or the violent attacks on Scabs by hooded gangs. That was really hard to take. Because he'd heard Barnes 'suggest' certain Scabs needed to be taught a lesson. Just before those Scabs were found bleeding in an alley.

Anti-Scab hatred was almost tangible within the Humans First organization. There was no attempt to disguise it now, and many of the members considered even mildly-affected Scabs to be nothing more than the animals they resembled. Bob had fallen into the habit of automatically laughing at the cruel jokes and nasty comments. He'd almost gotten used to them now, and that scared him more than anything.

Hey, Shag! Whatcha lookin' at? Wanna chase her down and have a bar-b-que?"

Bob blinked, and managed to grin at Andy, the red-haired leader of his particular 'gang.' "Nah. I like my steaks with ketchup." That got a laugh from the others, and then Bob went back to the computer. He toyed with the idea of scrounging into Barnes' bank records again, but he knew it was a waste of time. Splendor had known all along. The boy politician might be evil, but he certainly wasn't stupid. Question was, what could Bob do now?"

He was still staring sadly at the monitor when a hand patted his shoulder. "Jimmy?" Mr. Andrews was behind him. Bob had registered with the shelter as 'James Smith,' but Andrews was the only person who didn't call him Shaggy. "Why don't you come into my office. I'd like to discuss something with you."

Bob felt his stomach tighten. Had they discovered something? He'd been really careful when he poked around the computer files, but maybe.. He forced a smile and followed Andrews, battling the urge to run. If he did, then all of this was for nothing.

"Sit down, Jimmy." Andrews motioned to one of the side chairs and then plopped down behind the desk. The man smiled broadly and leaned back. "You've become quite an asset to Humans First, Jimmy. Far more so than I'd expect from a boy your age."

Bob swallowed, trying to stay calm. Did they suspect? Did they know? He swallowed hard and managed to croak out "Thanks."

Andrews leaned forward. "Mr. Barnes is going on TV again tomorrow night. Did you know that?" Bob nodded. Barnes' anti-Scab speeches were controversial, and that made for great ratings. So the local channels were giving him far more publicity than he deserved.

"One of the things Mr. Barnes does is reward the people who work for him. And you have been working very hard." Andrews grinned at Bob's puzzled look. "How would you like to go on TV with Mr. Barnes, Jimmy? We want to show people how fine young men like yourself are making great contributions to this campaign."

Bob stared at the man, dumbfounded. The sick feeling at the pit of his stomach wouldn't go away, and he felt cold. "On T-T-TV? W-w-with Mr. B-Barnes?" The stutter wasn't faked. Neither was his sudden dread. Luckily, Andrews mistook both for excitement.

"It's a big honor, Jimmy. I'm glad that you appreciate it. You and a few of the other children from your shelter will get a nice certificate, and even get to shake Mr. Barnes hand. He's coming to West Street tomorrow night at 7, so make sure you're home early. OK?" He leaned over the desk and tousled Bob's hair. "And see if you can find a comb, Shaggy!"

Bob bolted out of the office and didn't stop running until he'd gotten a block away from Humans First headquarters. Then he leaned back against a building and slid down to sit on the ground. It was almost funny. All these weeks of dirty clothes, bad food, and hard work had only served to make the worst case solution easy. After a while, he got up and started walking slowly towards West Street. It was time to have another talk with Splendor.

"'scuse me, kid. Gotta move the camera over there." Bob stepped back to avoid the cables and bustling technicians. He recognized both of the newscasters primping themselves off to the side from his own telecast speeches. They hadn't been so eager then. Logic, truth, and common sense were boring, even coming from a humanoid Shire. Barnes was a bastard, but he was a masterful showman, and like him or hate him, the audiences loved to watch.

Tonight was the first time Bob had seen the councilman in person since he joined Humans First. Well, that made sense. The only reason the little bastard was here now was to score some points with the voters. The rest of the time, he stayed as far as he could from this part of town. Most likely to avoid a second encounter with a certain prostitute.

He checked the oversized windbreaker he was wearing for the fiftieth time. It looked ridiculous on him, ballooning around his waist, and sagging down almost to his knees. Yet he knew it really didn't look out of place. Half the kids around him had clothes that fit just as badly, or worse. Once again, Barnes had made this all easy.

The order had come down to make sure that all of the kids were dressed just like they normally did. No new clothes, or haircuts. He didn't even want beds made, but the house matron wouldn't have any of that. When the camera crews showed up, they saw the Shelter the way it was every day. Depressing.

Bob didn't understand at first. It seemed like it would have been better to have everything spiffed up for the TV. Shining faces, new paint. Make the Humans First shelter look like a jewel in the sewage of West Street.

Barnes knew better. Almost from the start, the reporters had been commenting on how 'real' everything was. They were so used to seeing a false front pasted over places like this that the bleakness was newsworthy. If anything, the cameras seemed to focus in on the saddest-looking children. This was human interest, and a perfect buildup for Barnes' speech.

The lucky few who were getting awards were herded towards a makeshift podium just before Barnes entered. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he was the picture of innocence. Bob wanted to puke. But he smiled as the boy greeted each of them, and then stood up on a box to speak.

"My friends. And I think we are all friends here. I want to talk about a plague of poverty and pain that afflicts our city." Barnes somehow managed to evoke both power and sincerity with his soprano voice. "Look around you. These children have no homes, many of them have no families. Before this shelter was established, most went hungry every day. I am sad to say that more than one hundred children in this city died of exposure or neglect just last year."

He balled his small fists up and looked around the room. "Not in Bangladesh. Or Haiti. This isn't some third-world country you can ignore. This is our city. Your city. How could this happen, you ask?"

"Because -some- people don't care. My opponent, the incumbent Mayor, helped vote down funding for shelters like this because he said there wasn't any money in the budget. Yet he railroaded a new Animal Shelter through City Council last year. Three-hundred thousand dollars to buy new cages and feed dishes for stray cats and dogs who are put to death after two weeks, anyway!"

Barnes raised his hands up. "Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against cats or dogs, or any other pets. But when I look around at the faces of these children, and then think of some animal enjoying a warm bed and a full stomach while a little girl or boy is starving in the cold...." He stopped, seemingly overcome with emotion. Bob honestly couldn't tell if it was staged or not.

After a moment, the child continued. "It wasn't always like this. I can remember a time when this city took pride in itself. When parents stayed with their children and took care of them. But something changed. An illness, a plague which swept this world years ago, continues to scar us. It is a disfiguring disease, marring both body and soul.

"Yes, I am talking about the Martian Flu. And the disease it left behind is Scabs." Bob was surprised to hear some disgruntled mutterings in response to Barnes' words. Had some Scab supporters gotten inside? Once again, the boy raise his hands. "Please. Hear me out. I don't hate Scabs, no matter what my attackers say. They are victims. Victims of a terrible illness for which there is no cure. Which disfigures and warps its victims." He looked down at himself. "A disease which allows some sick, twisted victims to do terrible things to others."

"Yet there is far more to this disease than the obvious physical changes we see every day. Minds have been transformed as well, made more bestial. Many of these children do have parents who are still alive. They have been lost to the inhuman world of Scabs. What kind of mother could leave a daughter like this?" He pointed to a dark-haired girl of 5 or 6. "I'll tell you. A mother who crawls through the alleys of this city, eating garbage and chasing rats as a cat-creature. The love of motherhood has vanished from her soul, and she lives and thinks as an animal."

The girl started to cry, and Barnes stepped down off the podium to embrace her. They looked like brother and sister as he patted her shoulder. There was an awkward silence as he waited for her to calm down, and then he spoke from her side. "We can't blame this girl's mother for leaving her to starve. Human morals don't apply, for she is no longer human. She has no intelligence, no education. She is a one-of-a-kind animal prowling the streets."

"I don't blame any Scab for what they have become. No one asked to contract the illness. We need to recognize that a Scab is simply a creature with a disease. Yes, they were once human. But I don't think you can call a bull a man just because it walks on two legs and talks through an electronic box. Apes have been taught sign language for years, long before the Martian Flu. Yet they were never seen as anything more than animals. Many of the Scabs are so changed that they are impossible to tell from a born beast, incapable of even the intelligence shown by those apes so long ago. Yet there are those who insist that even they are still human, with all of the rights and privileges of humanity."

Bob felt the coldness in his stomach grow. Barnes was hypnotic now, and despite the horror Bob felt at hearing the words, he couldn't stop listening.

"What is a human? We need to make the definition now!" Barnes' voice rose in pitch, but didn't crack. "The future of our city, of our race is at stake. Scabs are a danger to us. Maybe not intentionally. Yet as long as this disease exists, it can spread. And its effects can cause irreparable harm even to those who are not Scabs."

"Look at me!" He grabbed the collar of his shirt and jerked it down. The fabric tore too easily not to have been rigged, but the effect was dramatic. He ran a hand across his hairless chest. "A Scab did this. Intentionally. I have a wife who will be old before I can truly be her husband again. And children who I can no longer carry in my arms, or even teach how to ride a bike. And yet I don't hate her."

He dropped his arms to his sides. "The Scab who did this is sick. Her mind has been affected in ways we cannot understand. Who knows what price such a power must have? And how many others are out there like her? Creatures of unimaginable power, no longer limited by human decency and kindness?"

"We need to stop hiding from the truth. Scabs are not human. And they are dangerous. We need to find ways to protect ourselves, to protect the future of humanity. The answer is simple. Control. Control over these diseased individuals, to protect us, and to protect them. Have Scabs register their forms, and list any unusual abilities they might have. Only a Scab who planned to do something bad would have any reason not to be honest. And testing for the Virus is no worse than the tests given for countless other diseases. If a person has the virus, isn't it better for them to know? And if they are trying to hide some dark and hidden transformation, shouldn't the people around them be warned?"

Barnes threw his head back, eyes blazing. "We have to make our stand now, before it is too late! We have to stop this plague, this illness which is robbing good people of their very souls, and leaving them as beasts. It's time to put humans first!"

There was a moment of stunned silence. And then all hell broke loose. Even the reporters dropped their microphones to applaud Barnes as he stood there, flushed and panting from his efforts. Bob fell back, shaken and pale, watching the crown surge around the small, bare-chested boy. God. The raw power that Barnes controlled was terrifying. Numb, Bob stumbled to a chair and sat down heavily. Barnes already had a new shirt pulled on, and was shaking hands right and left. Mr. Andrews was next to him now, pointing out some of the boys that worked in campaign headquarters.

And then they moved towards him. Bob stiffened, suddenly aware of cameras turning towards him. By moving away from the crowd, Bob had unintentionally made himself the best shot for eager reporters, and Barnes wasn't about to waste a great pose. Bob wanted to run away, to forget everything and avoid having to touch this monster. And yet despite that cold lump of dread which he'd never been able to shake, he knew he had to try.

As he reached down to take Barnes' extended hand, he felt the bulge under his jacket shift slightly. There was no sensation other than a sudden looseness of clothing. But he could tell by the shocked expression on Barnes' face that Splendor had done her job. He stared down at his obviously smaller body, and then screamed at Barnes with a voice that was almost the same soprano.

"You made me a little kid! You're a Scab!"

And then all hell broke loose again.

Splendor lay back on the bed and stretched out. It had been a slow night, but that was to be expected on a Tuesday. Or Wednesday morning, depending how you looked at it. Only 3 a.m., and no one in the queue. It would be nice to get to bed early for a change. She grinned to herself. Well, she hadn't really left the bed much. Make that, it would be nice to get to sleep early for a change.

Her musing was interrupted by a soft knock on the door. "Splendor?" It was Marie, one of the other girls on this shift. "We got somebody downstairs asking for you."

"I've decided to take the rest of the night off. Get him somebody else."

Marie hesitated. "Uh, he asked me to tell you he wanted the Election special. And, uh, he's a kid." Splendor's abilities weren't well known even among her co-workers, but she had saved this girl from a particularly nasty Pimp a few months ago. He was a 12 year-old now, stuck working as a 'boy toy' in the gay part of the strip.

"Election Night special? What the..." Splendor sat up suddenly, eyes blazing. "Send him up! Now!" Marie vanished, probably running down the hall from the sound of her footsteps.

The door was pushed open as Splendor was brushing her hair in front of the dresser. She threw the brush down and whirled around to face the bundled-up child who stood there. "You bastard! It's been two weeks! Where the hell..." Her voice trailed off as the kid removed his cap and scarf. He was about the right age, but the person she had been expecting didn't have red hair and freckles. "Who are you?"

The boy smiled and shook his head. "How quickly they forget. Don't you remember that wonderful night curled around my waist? It was such a transforming experience for me."

"Trigger?" She sat down on the bed and stared. "You little creep! It -is- you! But how in the world.."

Bob raised his hand to stop her, and pushed the door shut. "No point in broadcasting things." He looked around. "Gee, how romantic. You kept 'our place' just the same."

"Can it, Trigger! I've been worried sick about you. I want to know where you have been, and how you went from Shaggy to Huckleberry Finn!"

He sighed, and pulled off his jacket. "I'm sorry I didn't let you know where I was. It was such a mad scramble trying to get out of the shelter that night, I didn't have a chance to talk with you. And I was scared to go home, or even try to come here."

"Mad scramble is right." She snorted. "You dumped me out in the alley and took off. Good thing nobody saw me, or Barnes might have put two-and-two together."

"I didn't have much choice. A couple of people tried to grab me, and I couldn't run with you wrapped around my waist. I figured you'd rather get dumped in the clear, than get caught with me."

Splendor nodded. "OK. I understand all that. But why didn't you let anyone know where you were? And what's with the new look?"

Bob looked across the room at his reflection, and sighed. "At least it's a good disguise. Even you didn't know me at first. And it isn't makeup. I found a Scab who can make cosmetic changes. Had him lined up already, actually. Sort of instant plastic surgery, with color changes thrown in for free. He couldn't do anything really major. My ears are bigger, and my forehead is a little lower. But with the red hair and blue eyes, my own mother wouldn't know me."

"Or want to," added Splendor. "Why'd you choose to be so homely? You look like the poster child for 'Ugly Anonymous.'"

"Gee, thanks." Bob stuck out his tongue. "Nice to see you, too. I wasn't paying much attention when he worked on me. I just asked him to make a few changes. Probably shoulda paid him afterwards, instead of in advance."

"Anyway, as for why I didn't get in touch with you, that should be pretty obvious. For one thing, I didn't have your number, and the yellow pages don't have a section on hookers. Besides, I was afraid to talk to anybody. I worked enough with the Humans First database to know they got people everywhere. I was lucky they didn't get a clear close-up of me on camera. Somebody might have recognized me from my childhood, and that would have ruined everything."

Splendor nodded. "There's still a reward out for 'Shaggy', though you don't hear much about it now. You sure don't have to worry about anyone finding you, though." She looked at him and frowned. "So, what now?"

Bob sighed again, this time a sadder sound. "There aren't many places that will hire an 8 year-old, even if he has a doctorate. And I certainly can't go back to my old life. At least not for a while." He pulled an airline ticket partly out of one pocket. "I have friends in Montana who are gonna let me move in with them. The plane leaves in a few hours. They're gonna say I'm a relative. It means going back to third grade, at least until she gets approved for home schooling. In a way, it might be fun."

Splendor heard the sorrow behind the words. "It's only for a few years, Trigger. Hell, you could turn into a horse-morph now and nobody would know the difference. "

"I can't morph." Bob gave her a sad smile. "I'm not a Scab anymore."

What!" Splendor stared at him. "That's not possible! Once the virus changes you...."

"I still have the virus. It's dormant right now. Remember, it doesn't usually affect people until they reach puberty. So I'm a normal 8 year-old human boy."

She frowned. "Well, that's only for a few years. When did you have your first wet dream?"

"I was 14. That means about 6 years." He shrugged. "That isn't the problem. You see, when I dropped below puberty, whatever it is that gave me my morphing ability vanished. In effect, you cured me of my Scab abilities. When I hit puberty again, the virus will probably kick in. But my original change was really unusual, one-in-a million. I'm hoping that I'll become something similar, but it's really a crap shoot. I could just as easily become a gender-morph, one of the Lupines, or even turn into a real horse with no memory of ever being human."

Splendor's mouth fell open. "Oh, God. I didn't know. It never occurred to me.." Her eyes watered as she realized the uncertain future he was facing.

"I think I did know. Maybe not consciously, but there's been this real fear deep in the pit of my stomach all along. I guess I suspected something like this might happen, but I didn't want to admit it, even to myself."

She looked at the child, fighting an urge to grab him up in her arms and hold him. But this wasn't a little boy. It was a man. And besides, she had an image to maintain. "So, was it worth it? Stopping Barnes?"

Bob looked surprised by the question, and then looked at the floor. "I don't know. We really didn't stop him, just slowed him down some. The confusion cost him enough votes that he lost this election, but Humans First is still strong. It will take a while for him to convince everyone he really isn't a Scab. After that, he'll start up again. Probably find a way to turn all of this to his advantage." His voice cracked. "Shit! I don't think he can be stopped. All we can do is fight the hatred he spreads. There's a war on now. I'm just one of the first casualties."

She realized that the boy had tears running down his face, and knelt suddenly to hug him. Image be damned! He buried his face in her shoulder, releasing weeks of pent-up sorrow.

"I can make you forget."

He stopped sobbing and looked up at her in confusion. "What?"

She took a deep breath. "I can make you forget all of this. Take you back to infancy. It would take a couple of days to make you that little, but once you are about three, your brain starts to change. Maybe because it gets smaller. I don't know. But you could start life over as a 2 year-old. I mean, really start over from scratch."

Bob's eyes widened. "Be a baby again?" His voice expressed wonder, not fear. She could see his thoughts racing, and then he whispered "OK."

Splendor wiped the tears from his cheeks with her hand, and then led him over to the mirror. Kneeling again, she began to undress him, pushing his hands away when he tried to help. When he was nude, she moved behind him and looked over his shoulder into the mirror. Her hands gently stroked his hair as his body shrank slightly. "Seven. That was easy. There must still be a link between us." He stared at his reflection as it dwindled again. "Six. I might be able to do it all tonight."

As she concentrated a third time, Bob suddenly pulled away from her. "Dammit! I can't do it!" He stumbled slightly on 5 year-old's legs, and looked back at her with a bitter smile. "If I forget, I won't be able to fight Barnes. I know more about him and his group than any other outsider. I can help other people fight him, and if the virus doesn't do anything really drastic to me, I can fight him myself when I grow up."

He grabbed up his now-oversized clothes, and pulled on what he could as Splendor watched in silence. When he was done, he looked back at her. "I wanted to let you do it. More than you can ever know. To trade all this hate and worry for potty training and learning my ABCs. Maybe one day, if we win, and you are still willing. But not now."

She nodded. "I understand. When the time comes, all you have to do is ask."

He reached up and touched one of the tears on her face. "So much for the hard-hearted hooker routine."

She knocked his hand away gently and managed to grin. "Don't be fooled. I have connections with the black-market baby racket. You'd have been on your way to the highest bidder by tonight!" She stood up and looked around. "Guess I'd better get dressed and take you to the airport. I don't know how you got here before, but a 5 year-old is gonna need an escort to the gate."

Bob plopped down on the floor to wait. "There's enough time for breakfast. How about stopping at Denny's for some steak and eggs?" He frowned and worked his tongue around in his mouth a moment, and then grinned broadly to reveal the gap of missing front teeth. "Damn! Better make that just eggs."

Letter to The Blind Pig

"Greetings, fellow drunkards!

I hope Donnie will post this somewhere private, and read it to those of you who can't see well enough anymore. He'll read it in a loud voice so you can hear it over Jack's snoring.

Sorry I haven't let you know where I was. I'm told more than a few people there were worried about me. Most likely those I owe drinks to. So you'll all be glad to hear that I have started a 'Dr. Bob' Memorial fund with Donnie. Which means there's one free drink on the house to everyone there each Wednesday night.

Now, don't get all upset at the word 'memorial.' I'm fine. Lost a tremendous amount of weight, changed my hair, and even been able to do away with those damned special reading glasses. I dare say none of you would even recognize me now. See what a couple of months away from you reprobates can do?

Still, that's not why I haven't been in. And it will be a long time before I show up again. Years, maybe. You see, there's a child in my life, now.

I never talked much about my family, 'cause I didn't have one. Imagine my surprise to discover a 5 year-old with Dr. Bob's name! He's the result of spending a night with a beautiful girl. Unfortunately, he didn't get anything from her. He talks and thinks just like me, and if anything, he's even uglier than Jack! So much for paternal instincts.

Seriously, I need to take a few years to help this boy work out some serious problems. He has the virus in dormant stage, which means that he'll probably become a Scab when he hits puberty. I'm hoping he'll end up with something like my morphing ability, but we'll learn to deal with whatever happens. We've got a long time to prepare.

In the meantime, I've decided to go back to school out West. The old Doctorate isn't going to do me much good for a while, and it never hurts to review the basics. I may try some writing again, maybe even do an expose on the crowd at the Blind Pig!

On a more serious note, I was really glad to see that Barnes lost. But don't think that's the end of the bastard. Watch him real careful, and especially look out for the Humans First fanatics. These are hard times, perfect breeding ground for the fear and hate that Barnes and his leeches spread.

I'll miss all of you a lot. Think of me as you drink up the 'Dr. Bob' fund. And if a homely red-haired little kid named Bob happens to stop by in a few years, don't mess with him too much. Fooling with him is the same as fooling with me, and I'd hate to have you see me when I'm angry.

Best wishes to the Lot of You Bums!

'Dr. Bob'

Donnie:

Please post the attached letter somewhere 'safe.' The check is to start up the 'Dr. Bob Memorial Fund,' and also to cover postage for the packages that came with this note. Please send one package to each of the newspapers and TV stations listed below. They contain computer disk copies of the Humans First database files, and there's enough dirt to slow the bastards down some. If nothing else, it will help open the eyes of those who got suckered by Barnes.

I'll try to drop a line to you every now and then, and will keep sending checks to cover the Memorial Fund. Thanks for being a friend. Maybe one day I can sit down and tell you about everything that has been going on. Until then, take care, and keep the Blind Pig going. You do more good there than you can ever know.

Sincerely,

Bob

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