by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
He stared at the webpage.
The prizes were huge. Unbelievably huge.
Edward loved costuming. And he was good at it, damn good.
Too bad he wasn't really good at anything else.
Sighing, he leaned back and looked around the tiny room he had of his own. Walls crowded with reference books on anatomy and molding techniques. Costumes hanging along the wall.
Instinctively he checked the time -- another half an hour before he had to leave to flip burgers.
If only he could get a break!
Unable to stop himself, he turned back to the web page and continued reading. What he could do with that first prize! He knew he was good enough, it was just a question of money.
Always a question of money.
He was so tired of counting every penny. Always.
A small part of his mind pointed out to him that winning the prize was not a guarantee, and even if he did win, he'd still be stuck in a dead end job, just making ends meet, scrounging and saving to pursue his dream.
And then he saw some of the guests.
It was like every big name in Hollywood FX was going to be there.
He could meet them. He could show them.
He could live his dream!
Edward leaned back and looked up at the dirty gray ceiling. It couldn't be any of his existing costumes. To get acceptance in the furry community he'd designed them towards the expected norm of that subgroup. Oh, he wasn't a furry, not even close, but pretending gave him a reason to costume.
It had to be something different. Something so completely different that everybody would notice it and remember. Something perfect.
His mind wandered to a discussion he and his roleplay group had last summer about the ugliest costume possible. Edward couldn't remember what had started it. He'd been the first to put on a condition that it had to be a realistic costume -- ugliness couldn't just be added for the sake of making something ugly. It had to be innate.
They'd come up with a fish. Big round staring eyes, wide bulbous mouth, slimy scales--
And then the conversation had moved on to something else.
Edward closed his eyes and ran through what he could recall about the costumes he'd seen and researched. Furries tended to do fuzzy animals by and large. He'd never seen them do a fish. Hollywood hadn't done any, lots of mermaids, but-- There was the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but that was more an aquatic man, an amphibian, than a real fish. And he remembered seeing some really bad movie from the '70s with a rubber suit that had looked better, except for the SCUBA exhaust bubbles blasting out through the gills. After a second, he remembered the title: Destination: Inner Space.
So a fish would be unique. The question was how? It couldn't be a manfish -- the Creature had already covered that territory, and ripping off an old idea was not the way to get noticed.
Twenty minutes before he had to leave.
He needed an idea. Pulling out the first index CD and slipping it into the drive, he started a keyword search for 'fish'. He had reams of art from the internet. Not because he was interested in the art, but for costume ideas. The search only brought up a few thousand thumbnails, which was a good sign of the uniqueness of his idea. He started browsing through them looking for inspiration. Almost three quarters were mermaids, and most of the rest were variations on menfish. Nothing there. A couple were caricatures of fish, which suggested he was going to have to go pure fish. Some of the lionfish derived mermaids appealed to him, but he didn't want to do a merman, or a mermaid for that matter.
How the hell was he going to do the costume?
Drive around in a wheelchair?
That was just stupid! There had to be a better way!
Fish were oriented horizontally, not vertically like humans. That was the problem.
Some kind of seahorse variant? But what about the legs?
It didn't take long for Edward to get a basic concept in his mind, golden and gleaming yellow, big eyes, lots of fins. But he couldn't get over the mobility aspect.
As with any other search, some images came up that seemingly had nothing to do with the search word. He came across one that was some kind of weird bird with long thin legs walking in an alien landscape.
And then the epiphany hit him!
He had to run to make it to work in time.
Edward had six months. Not a lot of time, but he knew what he was doing. Once he had the concept it was surprisingly quick. The legs were first as he needed practice in them. Liquid latex and castable foam rubber were the main expenses, and he needed a lot of each. He funded it by selling off all his other costumes. This one would make him. It would put him in the eye of the FX companies. It would get him out of his dead end job. Sketches flowed from his fingers. Long nights were spent chatting with his few friends, Angela, one or two others, in person and online, working out a background. A rationale.
It came together. Slowly, bit by bit, piece by piece. It came together as he envisioned it.
And it consumed him. It became his life. His goal. All else was secondary. He quit his job two months before Xanadu because he needed the time. He begged and borrowed and scraped what he could to live as he worked. He would finish the costume, and he would go to Xanadu, no matter the cost. As his face grew haggard, his eyes dark, his frame thin, he worked harder and harder.
He got it to a wearable form two weeks before the deadline.
With the last of his savings, he bought a ticket to Xanadu, and a one way train ticket to get there. He couldn't afford to travel by air, and he did have the big box to carry. When he got there, well, he'd better get an advance on a real job. If he didn't, well, he didn't know what he'd do.
And he didn't care.
A small part, a tiny part, was worried about what if there were no job offers, but he thrust that part aside.
He knew there would be. He knew he would be a success, would finally have money, real wealth!
He was nervous the entire trip. Every stop he pestered the attendant and was able to check on the huge trunk in with the larger baggage. It was always fine, but the reassurance he felt was only momentary. That night he slept only fitfully, and spent the last morning of travel in a daze. The train finally arrived in Orlando and he quaffed some coffee to wake up, and then paced back and forth waiting until he could get his trunk. It was heavy, but not excessively so. Once he got it, he hired a cab and made his way to the hotel attached to the Orlando Convention Centre. He didn't have any trouble with his registration, and he lugged the trunk himself, letting a porter only carry his small suitcase.
The room was small, but it was large enough for his needs. After the long trip he showered, and then shaved his body again. His entire body. The costume fit tight, especially the head, and even hairs could distort the appearance. When that was done, his skin red and tingling, he napped through the afternoon. In the evening he got a cheap bite to eat. A few people stared at his baldness, but he was too nervous, too eager, to notice. Then he wandered around, making sure he knew where everything was. He'd gone all out to give himself the best vision possible inside the mask, but it wasn't perfect, and he wanted every advantage tomorrow, and through the whole convention.
Before he went to bed he pulled out the costume components, checked everything, put them where he'd need them to put on, and started charging the battery.
And then he slept, fitfully, eager and nervous, knowing that tomorrow he'd fulfill his dream.
Today was the day. Edward was up long before the alarm, and took a long hot shower, shaved himself again, and scrubbed and cleaned until his skin tingled red. Nothing could go wrong. Nothing!
After a vigorous drying, he pulled out the small bits of makeup he needed, and painted his eyelids and around his eyes, a brilliant red. Then he slipped in the near-black contacts that he needed to complete the costume illusion. Blinking, he resisted the urge to itch as the contacts settled against his eyeball.
That done, he walked out into the room and prepared to assume the gateway to his dreams.
Assume an aquatic species, a fish, evolves intelligence. It has hands, but otherwise has fins and teeth and a mouth. It can swim. It can manipulate its environment.
But it can't discover fire.
Some crude forging would be possible at volcanic vents, but nothing more. There's no way to isolate materials from the liquid medium, no way to experiment, no way to develop the tools of a technological civilization.
So what can such a race do?
They can breed life. Humanity bred horses for millennia. They can breed whatever they want. They know about land, they know that a significant proportion of their planet is beyond the water. They don't need it at first. They can see it for short periods, but can never visit it except in dying. They can't build tools.
Instead, they breed tools.
One species is bred over thousands of generations to act as a symbiote protecting the sophant's eyes from particles, from the heat of the magma vents, and then from air. An algae is bred to repair damaged skin, and later to protect it from corrosives, from heat, and then from air. Lungfish, fish that can breathe both water and air, exist. They're bred to preserve the gills of the water breathers. Like leeches, they gently clamp themselves to the sophant's gills, sucking the blood, but also returning oxygen rich plasma. At first the goal is just a filter against pollutants, but the lungs are there, and there is nothing much different from the lungfish breathing air and feeding it through the blood link to the soophant. The final step is a device to get around. Something fast, they don't, they can't, just drag themselves. Their scales would get damaged, the algae coating scraped off. First the creatures are packbeasts, fish designed to carry heavy loads. The loads become too heavy for them and they're bred so that their limbs become longer, stiffer. Become legs. Their size increases till they're comparable to the sophant. They grow with a cradle, a saddle. The lungfish symbiotes work with them too.
And, after thousands of generations, thousands of years of controlled breeding, the first fish walks on land and learns.
The leg prosthesis was the key to making the entire costume work. First he'd tried just human legs, but they were too identifiable, they destroyed the illusion. He had contacts that had worked on digitigrade prosthetics, and he looked at them, but they had the same problem: too recognizable. What he'd finally settled on was a kind of wide fin, with two heavy lobes at the front and back, and a thin veined film joining them. It took a lot of sketches, and discussions with contacts, but he'd finally found a solution. The legs took the longest, and required the most testing, but they were the key, and he hadn't begrudged the time. Edward had even been able to work on the rest while the leg design was still up in the air.
After again checking that nothing had been damaged in transit, he stood and carefully pulled up a set or tight rubber pants around his waist, which included a cup for his crotch. He was going to wear this all day, and he would have to drink a lot of water -- and it had to go somewhere. Stretching, and taking a number of exaggerated steps, he made sure nothing pinched or pulled.
He walked over and grabbed the back of the costume, fairly light now, and carried it into the washroom. A hose coiled inside came out and secured to the intake valve for the water tank that would lie on his back all day. The costume was damnably hot, and he needed to drink lots of water. Turning on the tap and letting it run until it was nice and cold, he let the water run into the tank until it was full. The cap included a thin hose that went down to the bottom and coiled around, and that also went to his mouth so that he could suck water all day. It was kind of ironic, him needing to suck on water to prevent dehydration, but it was right.
The legs were a complete unit, and the bulkiest and heaviest assembly. He carefully stretched the legs out to their most stable position. Taking the fully charged battery, he slipped it into its compartment between the legs. Next, he pulled out the foam enwrapped CO2 tank and hooked the leads to the control system. He made sure that none of the hoses had any kinks, and then he settled and strapped the tank to the legs above the battery. The shorter two hoses he connected to the lung fish that were on either side of the head of the walker, the other two were for later. Pulling out a flat u-shaped bladder, he blew it up momentarily to make sure all was good, and then opened the relief valve and pressed down so the air blurbed out. He set it into its u-shaped compartment around the large CO2 tank and snugged straps loosely around it. Below, where his actual human stomach would be, was the head of the walker symbiote. It was a large flat bony head covered in glistening green scales with big bulbous mouth and tiny bulging lifeless eyes. Two balloon-like lungfish were on either side of its head, clinging to the gills (though they were physically attached). Running a quick test of the timer, he watched as the lungfish on either side of the legs inflated like blowfish, and then vented their air in a long glurp through their rubbery lips beneath their tiny beady eyes. The lungfish were a dark, dark red, with blue and purple blood vessels on their sacks that bulged and then collapsed. Satisfied, he turned the system off to save gas.
The fish tail was bulky and heavy, being filled with a thick gell. Electrical connections plugged into leads which fed servos that caused the tail fin to stretch out to its full height. He would've liked to have had some way for the tail to move left and right slightly, but he hadn't been able to find a servo small and strong enough move its bulk. He connected the heavy padded straps over his shoulders and around his waist so that the tail hung down behind his legs. It was a heavy wobbly mass that pulled at his shoulders and dragged at his waist, but was a necessary counterweight so that he could balance on the legs. The tail itself was a dark orange, with yellow highlights that lightened to a whitish yellow at the tailfin. The tailfin was a fine translucent film of light red with heavy red spines supporting it. It was vertical, like a fish's, and glittered with the heavy gloss coat on it.
Areas of the orange-yellow scales were blotched with a mottled blue-green, the algae that protected the scales from the harsh air. In fact the entire costume was blotched like that, the leg symbiote, the body each of the lung fish, and all over the body of the actual sophant fish. The patterns had been carefully airbrushed, a fine layer of dark dull colour over the glistening scales underneath. The patches were intentionally dull, an odd counterpoint to the glossy colour they partially covered.
Standing with the heavy weight was awkward, like a fish out of its element. Hurriedly he moved on to the next stage.
He picked up the back piece, heavy now that it was filled, and lifted it up and over his shoulders, the sponge rubber soft and cold and heavy. The two large back fins were stiff, and he would have liked to have made them larger than their already impressive size, but then there was no way he could have transported the costume. Like the tail fin, and the various other small fins placed strategically over the costume, the fins were light red with heavy red spines supporting the webbing. Padded straps secured over his chest, and long pieces of sponge rubber hung down along his sides. He carefully arranged the small velcro joints where the back piece extended over the tail to create a near seamless join.
Edward felt awkward, heavy and slow. His back wobbled, his tail wobbled, and his chest was naked and exposed. All over he trembled with anticipation.
His next step was to crawl on the cradle that made up the legs. The legs creaked and settled a little, but he was used to that. A soft sponge pad surrounded the CO2 tank and supplied a comfortable place to sit, along with a safe space for his privates. The waste hose slipped into a lead that lead into the rubber bladder. Slowly and carefully he pushed each foot into the snug fitting foam rubber, and then he strapped into the appropriate knee and leg braces, with their metal supports that made sure he couldn't twist an ankle or knee. Each side of the walker symbiote had two legs, one extended off of his knee, the other off his foot. There were heavy strands of surgical tubing to serve as muscles. The front leg was the stiffest as it supported most of his weight when standing. To make it work, he had had to incorporate his arms and hands into the motion, and that had been hidden as the command interface between the rider and the walker symbiote. The hind leg stretched off his foot and was there primarily for balance. It could be pointed backward or forward by moving his foot at its ankle. Each leg ended in a hard cast rubber pad surrounded by fine cilia that rubbed the ground, glistening and shiny, and that hid the actual interior. The inside of each costume foot was hollow, so that it sucked just enough to be heard, and each leg was covered in sponge rubber, painted a dark green with careful highlighting in yellow to bring out the ribs of the fin that stretched between the front and hind pair. He carefully plugged in the electronics the linked the controls in his foot movements to the servos spread high the tail fin.
Edward was short of breath, each suck of air short and desperate as anticipation flowed through him. This would be his day; this would be his convention. His life would be made this day, with this costume. He'd never have to count pennies again.
Carefully stretching and wiggling, he secured the sides of soft sponge rubber that hung down from the back piece to the legs, carefully and artfully creating the illusion that a large orange-yellow fish was laying on top of a highly distorted dark green and yellow walker symbiote.
Slowly he walked around, again getting used to the careful steps, the rocking movement, the swaying back and forth of the tail. He made sure that everything was connected properly. His hands were wrapped around the rubber-coated control interfaces of the legs, more properly handles, and he leaned back and to one side, lifting a front leg up and stretching it forward before lowering it to the ground. A hind leg was moved by the reverse motion, leaning forward and to the opposite side, bending his knee to lift his lower leg, and then pressing his foot down and forward to move the costume leg foreword until it thwulupped against the carpet. The interface on the legs was a bit loose, but that was because he hadn't put the gloves on his hands yet.
Stopping before a mirror he, arced his left foot to his left, and his right foot to his right, and watched the costume's tailfin stretch out to its full extension. Relaxing, he watched the tail contract to its normal size. There was a slight movement in the sides of the walker symbiote, but that couldn't be helped.
Reverentially, and thankfully, he scratched the chin of the flaccid head of the walker symbiote, thanking it for carrying him.
Reaching back, he felt around and found the water tube and strapped it around his head with its tip in his mouth. It wouldn't do for it to fall out. Then he sucked on a little water and let the coolness slide down into his stomach. He wanted more, but it had to last. The air felt dry and cold; he shivered in the foam rubber even though he could feel the first beads of sweating oozing along his back, between his flesh and his dream.
Slowly he walked over to the dresser on which he'd put the rest of the costume last night. The biggest piece was the chest, a large bulk of foam rubber that was light, and massive. It hid his human shape and gave him a large rounded belly, pale white on the bottom, shading to the yellow orange of the scales on his sides. Securing it to the straps on his human chest, he left a slight gap between his pale skin and the comforting and protective foam rubber for air circulation. A fan in the head ran air down the gap and out between the legs to help cool his body. He carefully connected the tiny velcro pieces of the back that hung over to the sides of the chest so that it blended as seamlessly as he could. Up to a foot away a faint join line could be seen, but that also divided the scales along his side with the finer scales of the belly. Four fins stretched out from the belly, lower than on a terrestrial fish. He could have servoed them, but had no way to control the servos, and hadn't had time to create and program a CPU.
He grinned, and sucked some more water. Most of his body was enclosed by the warm foam sponge, holding him, sealing his frail humanness from the world. Hiding his commonness inside the dream. He sucked a bit more water.
The costume was far more comfortable than it looked. Although his knees were bent, his waist was straight, even though it looked like he was leaning almost forty degrees forward. That angle was because of the way he sat on the legs, and was the key to long term comfort wearing the suit. As an added bonus, it hid the human in him even more. The back piece blended in with the thick tail at an angle almost parallel to the floor. The fish was laying on the walker symbiote; he was kneeling on it, but leaning forward.
The head of the walker symbiote connected to a clasp in his lower chest, hanging down and over the belly of the sophant fish, again leave a tiny gap. Looking down at the tiny glistening eyes, he ran his finger along the shiny dark sponge rubber and admired the fine airbrushing he'd performed for the final colour shading.
For a moment he admired his head, the most detailed piece of the costume. Picking it up, he looked at it and grinned. Then he grabbed the little perfume bottle that contained the fish-vinegar scent and dabbed a bit on the gills of the head around the lungfish. It all had to be perfect. He put it down again, and turned it so it was facing him. So that he could admire it.
The head was a big massive orange-yellow scaled monstrosity of thick scales, and massive gill slits that were soft to the touch. They didn't move, but that was because each was the nest of another airfish, the same as those on the walker symbiote. The other two tubes from the air system connected to them. Its face was massive and bulbous, completely and utterly inhuman. Almost like that of a frog, except for a large sword-like beak the stretched nearly a foot in front. The beak was not rubber, but hollow plastic, polished with jagged teeth along its lower surface, and smooth glistening yellow-silver along its top. To either side of that were the large googly eyes, each almost six inches in diameter. These weren't the eyes of the sophant, but two more symbiotes, thin flatfish that covered the sophant's eyes and enabled clear sight in air. The flatfish didn't have their own lungfish, but were embedded around the eyes, spiny fins dug into the sophant's flesh. Tiny bits of blood glistened on the scales, thick and drying from the wounds as the flatfish fed off his blood. There was no single fin along the head like so many movie monsters, but two fins stretched out to the side, each just above the gills, almost like deer ears, but long and tipped in glistening barbs. The scales over the head were so fine that you thought they were flesh unless you looked closely. The mouth was thick and rubbery, like that of a catfish, and thick fleshy tentacles curved backward from it, thin and flimsy, yet stiff enough so that they bobbed as he moved, but stayed upright and at attention when he stood still.
Setting the legs to their most stable positions, he reverentially lifted up the headpiece, bit down on his waterhose, and carefully slipped himself into it. It fit tight -- the main reason he had to shave was for the head. It had to so that he could see. The actual sophant fish eyes matched where his were, and the contacts made his eyes look like the glowing black pupils of the fish. It wasn't perfect, but the lens of the flatfish that lay over the eyes allowed the illusion to work.
The world vanished into darkness, scent disappeared except for the comfort of the sponge rubber, and the friendly odour of fish and vinegar. All around he was held, comforted, hugged, protected from the harshness of a world that hadn't appreciated his talents, but would by the end of the weekend. Light burst upon his eyes as the thin latex snugged to his face in the right position. He looked at himself in the mirror, protected, safe, all done except for the pale alien arms.
Carefully, he adjusted the mask. His ears fit into indentations on either side, and the mask was more than sung enough to ensure that it wouldn't move unless somebody yanked hard at it. The inside of the head was cast from a lifemask of his head, and fit snugly and perfectly. His chin fit into the appropriate depression, and rods in the sponge rubber of the head allowed the mouth to open and close as he spoke. He had to make exaggerated movements with his mouth to move the mask's lips, but it worked. To make the head work, he had to lean his head back at his neck as far as he could, but he hoped that the soft sponge rubber would provide enough support to allow him to maintain that position easily. Carefully, he finished molding the neck of the thick headpiece into the body components.
Opening his mouth a bit, he breathed cool air, and also sucked on the water which slid comfortingly down his throat. He was calm no, happy, protected. Warm and cozy except for his arms and hands.
He plugged in the airleads to the airfish on either side of the head's gills, and the power leads on to the fan in the chin that sucked air through the mouth and wide thin nostrils, and down along his chest.
Leaning forward a bit, he pressed his fingers into the soft rubber around the handles on the front legs and switched on the fan, groaning in relief as the cool air whoosed down along his chest. He took another few sips of water.
Immediately he felt better.
One last step.
He picked up the two gloves that stretched from his hand up to his shoulders. They were thick at their ends, tapering to almost nothing at his hands. A long red fin stretched along the bottom, starting against the sponge rubber, and extending out to nine inches long at the wrist. The hands were painted white on the palm, golden yellow on the exterior, and a fine webbing passed between the fingers. The fingers themselves had hard rubber extensions, three inches long, to make his fingers seem long and thin and inhuman. Those were why he'd left the gloves till last. They were awkward at fine manipulation, but almost all of that was done.
He slipped the right one on first, and then the left, sliding each slowly up his arm, pressing and tugging to make sure there were no folds. There was some fiddling near his shoulders to get them to fit under the sleeves of the back piece and chest piece, but his precise knowledge of the costume enabled him to achieve it.
A last check in the mirror, and then he leaned forward and switched on all the systems. Each lungfish ran in a roughly two minute cycle, ninety seconds to slowly inflate, and thirty seconds to exhaust the expended air. It was different in each one so that they were almost never in sync. He stretched his legs and watched his tailfin fan out. Looking at the mirror, he gave himself a last once over, his vision tinted a slight red from the flatfish covering his eyes.
Holy fuck he looked good! He'd never actually worn the whole thing before, just individual components to make sure it all worked. He'd walked in the legs a lot for practice, but the entirety, it was-- magnificent!
He was warm and safe, ready to face the world behind a complex mask in complete anonymity. Ready to play, ready to create the life that he wanted.
He slowly spoke in the voice he'd practiced: "Huuuuman. I coooome, 'rade. Gif's for oceoooon spoooooce." The voice was deep, with guttural sounds replacing each 't', and vowels stretched a bit too long. It sounded eerie and inhuman. It sounded perfect.
It was perfect! Absolutely perfect! He looked perfect! Ugly and glaring and alien, and yet alive.
Gripping the front legs, slowly rocking back and forth, he walked over to the counter by the door and hung his con pass, complete with a picture of the sophant fish head, his ID encased in an opaque rubber case so that his photo wouldn't spoil the illusion, and the card that unlocked his room, all around his neck. After a moment of thought hung a small pouch around his neck that contained business cards, for when he needed them.
Slowly, at about half the speed a human could make at a brisk walk, he left his room to discuss trade deals, and to show off to the important people who would make his dream.
And to win first prize.
That night Edward let the door close behind him and slowly, shaking a little, moved into the centre of the room and began peeling the costume off of him.
His neck and shoulders ached with stabs of pain, there might be blisters forming on his leg, his entire body was sticky with sweat, but he didn't care!
It had been gorgeous! Amazing! Everything he'd dreamed!
A dealer who was selling little costume head pieces had paid him $40 for standing by his stall for an hour to attract customers. And the pictures! He'd lost track after the first fifty.
He could have spent the entire day signing autographs if he'd wanted! He had no clue how many room parties he'd been invited to. He almost couldn't make it to the stage setup with the judges for the official costume judging.
He'd even encountered some of his online friends there, and they figured it was him inside, but he'd never left character -- except to discuss things with the Big Names. He'd confirm it to them after the awards tomorrow.
And yes, some of the Big Names had approached him. He'd given them cards and they said they'd stay in touch.
He was in! Finally he'd made it.
Climbing off of the legs, he unbelted the back piece and let it sag to the floor, luxuriating in the deliciously cool air pouring down his skin. The heat had been bad, but he'd managed to survive. No way he could have spent the afternoon outside though. Thank God for air conditioning!
Edward showered off the stink, cleaned the costume, and collapsed. His stomach growled and he ordered a big thick crust pizza from room service. Tonight he'd splurge! The CO2 tank was just over half pressure so he'd wander around a bit in his human body in the morning, come back mid-afternoon and costume up, and be ready for the awards.
He could taste the prizes already.
This was going to make him famous!
Edward got dressed just before room service came. Wolfing down the pizza he looked at his creation and grinned, the smile filling his face with warmth.
This was great, so great!
He finally staggered to bed early as the fatigue of his long journey, of his sleepless nights, overwhelmed him. Dreams of what his future would be like, of the costumes he'd create, of the money he'd earn, filled his mind.
The next morning he went down without costume. Edward felt cold and naked, he put on a sweater he'd brought and it helped a bit.
Seeing the con through his normal eyes, without the crowd of admirers, was a different experience. Edward spent the morning nervously eyeing the competition, and was generally not impressed. He had nothing against them -- every hobby had its amateurs, its professionals, and its fanatics. He believed he was a professional, though a small voice whispered that he was really a fanatic. Ignoring the wannabes who'd bought press on noses or press on ears, and even that one demented older man who'd bought the little girl's unicorn horn and ears, most of the others could be classified into three groups.
The newbies who were just starting out. Most of their stuff was store bought, some had makeup painted on their faces, a few even just wore skintight leotards patterned appropriately and painted their faces. That might have worked too if they hadn't desperately needed a diet. Edward wasn't perfect either, but his meager diet over the last few months whilst he'd worked feverishly, and the physical effort and overheating involved in being The Fish, had helped significantly.
The furries, and/or mascotters. These were people who wore the typical pajama suit with the big oversized round head. Some were better, some were worse, but they all looked like generic mascot costumes designed to be worn by almost anybody. One that stood out was a bear, but not because of the costume, but because of the performance. That person was really into the part, and that deserved its own prize. Another costume pair he just shook his head at -- Robin Hood and Maid Marian, except that Robin was a robin, and Marian was a mare-- Nice costumes, but not in his class.
And then there were the elites. Some he knew as friends and contacts, some he recognized from furry cons, others he knew only by reputation. These were the ones who prided themselves on accuracy. The ones who wore the hoofboots and stilts, the eye contacts, the electronics, the servos. The ones who wanted to do it right. One that caught his eye was a woman leading around a massive anthropomorphic horse that towered above her. She'd gone with padding and hoof boots, high heeled boots with the heel removed, for the digitigrade look, and it was nearly perfectly done. Another one that caught his eye was an amazing set of armour. The sound of metal on metal had drawn his attention and he looked on in admiration at the metal amazingly crafted in fine patterns and scrollwork, and the shield-- Another one that drew his eye was a very simple costume -- some version of The Flash, but he could see no flaw in it. From the looks he sneaked he thought there might be padding in the legs, but there was no need for it-- and yet, it looked just a teeny bit off. Well, he'd find out after the awards.
And then there were also a few costumes he couldn't place, like that guy in what looked to be a modified NASA spacesuit in a wheelchair. To his eye it looked like an actual spacesuit, and the guy was hamming it up as an alien who couldn't breathe oxygen. There was another guy who'd done himself up as Dr. Benton Quest, of Johnny Quest fame. And then there were all the bloody Pokemon and the most recent knock off Gamimon-- He prayed they'd all be dead in a year or two. And, of course, all the Star Trek and Babylon Five human and alien costumes--
People really needed to have some originality.
At one point he ran into Angela holding a not bad set of white angel wings he'd seen earlier at a dealer. She'd told him that she was going to unveil her anthro pegasus fursuit at Xanadu.
"Ummm... A...angela, is that you?"
"Hey Edward! You got it done eh?"
He blushed. "Well--"
"Oh come on! Everybody's talking about that amazing fish costume somebody was wearing around yesterday. I know you were working on it and I can't wait to see it!" She brushed her long black hair back from her eyes and looked at him intently.
Edward swallowed. "Umm--"
She laughed. "Keep your secrets then Edward." She patted him on his cheek. "I like the bald look by the way."
Edward sucked at the non-existent water tube, his throat and chest dry. He felt like he was choking. "I-- I see you got-- got some wings--"
"Oh, these?" She held them up. "I know they're horrible, but they're better then nothing. I'll use them today, but I'm hoping to find something better. Or at least a better way of dealing with the problem. You'll keep an eye open for me?"
"By the way Edward, I've heard that Charles Lind is around here somewhere. He's been bragging about his costume for months and if it isn't done I'm going to toss some pointed comments his way. You can give him some fish thoughts too."
Fuck! Charles Lind?! Edward knew that he was just as fanatical as himself, and had the added benefit of being rich. Fortunately he just wasn't as good as Edward.
"W--Well thanks for-- for-- umm-- letting me know." Edward licked his dry lips.
"I'll see you around Edward -- I'm not going to be down till later. Not entering, just want to unpack and relax. Want to watch the awards though. Good luck!" And with that she was gone, pushing her way through the crowd like an amazon.
Edward just watched her go, hugging his chest and shivering a bit. Checking his watch, he saw that it was almost eleven and decided to get some breakfast, and then go up and put The Fish back on. When he came back down he'd have to look Angela up and get her reaction!
Ordering a salad and a burger, he mumbled his thanks, and sat down at an empty table. Beside him were a bunch of people dressed up as wizards and other adventurers, including one who laughingly called herself Elisandra Melisande Blueleaf the Eighth. Edward just shook his head and hurried off. He felt so naked!
Once back in his room he hurriedly showered, and then shaved again, his body all a tingle to suit up again. To be the centre of attention and not just another con goer. Putting the costume on went faster, and he had to force himself to slow down and double check everything. He quickly warmed up, and felt much better, more confident, safe. By one that afternoon The Fish was once again ready to go out and mingle. On the official registration documents he had called himself It'larus 'lec' Punc'a'us, Ambassador Extraodinaire, but that was quite a mouthful, even though he'd practiced it.
It didn't take him long to get down to the Dinner Hall where the presentations were going to be. The first ones were the more minor awards, but he wanted to see them all. He'd be shocked if he didn't get some of the technical ones, and he knew that at least one of the big prizes was going to be his.
He'd just finished slowly describing the edibility of Spoo with respect to Earthlings, and had started going through made up safety features of the provided breeding facilities to prevent contamination of Earth's biosphere, when the crowd hushed. Slowly he moved around to the right. He could turn his head, but the movement was limited and it was easier to move his entire body. There was Eric Winters, the millionaire who'd sponsored all the prizes for the costumes.
Eric Winters was dressed in a tasteful and conservative black turtleneck and black pants, and was wearing an ancient North American wooden head mask, decorated as a raven. From the distance Edward couldn't tell if it was real or not, but he suspected real. He wondered how Eric had gotten around the various artifact laws. Leading Eric was a smaller man, dressed as a gray-striped tabby in the style of Lloyd Webber's musical. He just wore the costume though, he wasn't being the costume. In other words, though it was a very nice costume and makeup job, obviously costing a lot, it was worn just as another set of clothes.
As the two walked up onto the stage -- he hoped he wouldn't have to climb the stairs -- oh good, there was a ramp, his left lung fish blurped out its air and a titter bounced through the crowd. Edward just shrugged. No way was he going to be embarrassed now. Eric Winters just waved, so Edward knew there was no hard feelings. Thank God for that! The last thing Edward needed now was for something like that to annoy the prime judge and knock him out of the running. Even though the judging was already complete, he still worried.
"Eric Winters, everyone!" cheerfully announced a woman in a dress that appeared to be made out of cloth leaves. In one hand was a clipboard, and Edward would have sworn she'd winked at him. He had it, he had the big prize! Edward would have danced if he could, instead he lightly clapped with the others.
The clapping and cheering wavered as Eric Winters stumbled a bit on stage, and then the room seemed to ripple. Edward felt sick, bile rose in his stomach and he struggled to keep it down -- if he vomited he could actually drown. He tried to sip some water, but the tube melted away from his lips. Urine dribbled out and into the tank in shock. He would have fallen over if the leg symbiote would have let him, instead he just stood there, head sagging as much as the costume would allow--
Somewhere a sentient mammal screamed. It'larus moved his head a little to clear it, and cursed the continual itching in his gills. He hated the gillfish, but they were more convenient then getting airbreathers to come into the water. Pressing the nerve clusters on the legfish, he made it step backward. He couldn't help but flare his gills outward in panic, and that just made them itch more as the dry ear touched them.
He wanted to be back home, back in the water, where he wasn't always short of oxygen, where he wasn't limited to two dimensions.
Back in the water? No, wait. He gulped some air, and felt it scratch out through his gills. He wanted water, needed water, where was the tube?
What tube? There never was a tube.
The walker symbiote moved it's head slightly and croaked nervously. He released one of its nerve clusters and scratched it under its gills until he felt it relax, clicking a couple of times in happiness.
How could it click? He hadn't put any electronics into it.
He didn't feel hot, just dry.
Looking around, he watched a large group of gleaming white Storm Troopers march by in step. He'd seen them before, but their costumes looked better now. Real. He looked around at all the various things, at what had once been costumes.
Now they were all perfect.
He watched the cat that had been with Eric Winters run through the panicked crowd, and looking up he could have sworn he saw a raven, a big one, flapping near the ceiling.
Just in front of him he could see a purple dinosaur trying frantically to pull of its head, and failing.
He tried moving his legs, and felt his tail wiggle.
But his legs? He should feel the tank. He should--
"Ambassador Punc'a'us, I need you to come this way for your safety. The security of this conference has been compromised."
He looked up, as the walker symbiote clicked nervously, and focused on the slightly blurred image of a human dressed in a black suit wearing dark sunglasses. Amabassador? His name was-- was-- this was a costume! Punc'a'us-- Punc'a'us had been the name he'd-- he'd made up?
In the distance somebody screamed, and he could hear the sound of blasters from Star Wars-- Getting out of here was a priority. He could get back to his room, walk down the ramp into the nice tank of salt water-- But there was no tank!
Something huge and inhuman roared in another room.
He needed time to think. So he answered, "I wiill foollowww."
The human turned, and It'larus reached down to the nerve clusters on the walker symbiote and quickly walked after, moving faster than before. He swung his tail back and forth nervously, feeling the dry cool air brushing against it.
He followed the human into an elevator, crowded as he took up most of the space. The battle cry of an enraged Klingon about to attack a Narn faded as the doors thunked shut. Tinny elevator music began to play. Gently he scratched under the mouth of the walker symbiote as he moved his tail aside to keep from pressing it against the side of a Vulcan. Her star fleet uniform material had felt course and painful when the fan of his tail had brushed against it, and it had itched like nothing else. Opening and closing his mouth, he gulped, but all he got was dry air. Weren't they supposed to keep the air humid?
Of course not! This was a costume, not a diplomatic conference. He remembered putting the costume on-- And he remembered swimming onto the walker symbiote in his tank and climbing out into the dry air to attend this days meetings--
It didn't make sense!
But then did anything else? Imperial Storm Troopers couldn't be real. And yet he had heard their weapons fire. Just a recording? But the costumes-- the raven against the ceiling-- the people around him-- Nothing looked like costumes anymore.
And if he was just wearing a costume, why couldn't he remember his name?
The doors opened and they all shuffled out, It'larus going last as he was the largest, by far. They went down a carpeted hallway and into a meeting room, the door guarded by two more of the humans in suits and glasses. The table had been pushed against the wall and the chairs had been stacked to make lots of room. He really needed to scratch but knew from bitter experience that that just made it worse.
What bitter experience? This was a costume!
The walker symbiote pressed its head up against his belly and he reached down and scratched it to try and provide some reassurance. One of the lungfish blurped out waste CO2 and he felt better knowing that they were working. He'd drown if they stopped.
No he wouldn't! This was a costume! He felt around the edge of the head with his hands and found no seam, no catch. His long fingers moved easily, gracefully, without the awkwardness he remembered.
What awkwardness? He'd been known for his manual dexterity--
The awkwardness of the costume.
If it's a costume, then take it off.
He tried reaching into the gills to yank the head off that way, but just touching them caused piercing flashes of pain and he yanked his hands back.
Against one wall was one of those water coolers, with the water contained in a large plastic bottle inverted on top. Without even thinking, he pressed his fingers into the walker symbiote's nerve clusters and hurried over to the cooler. He grabbed the bottle, his pelvic fins brushing along the head of the walker symbiote so that it kneeled slightly and braced. The bottle wasn't too heavy, far lighter than he remembered from when he'd put a full bottle on, and water glurbed out onto the floor before he could wrap his lips around the nozzle and start sucking big swallows of cold water down his parched throat. Oblivious to the water soaking into the carpet, he drank and drank, excess sliding through his gills and down along his scales to drip drip off. Half the bottle gone, he removed it, his mouth tentacles dextrously catching the last drips of water from his lips and pushing them into his mouth. Lowering the bottle, he let the walker symbiote drink it's fill, more water gurgling around its lips onto the floor, but it couldn't be helped. When it was done, he lifted up the almost empty container and poured the rest over his back, the cold water coiling down amongst his scales and fins, relieving the tortuous itch.
He finished the last half swallow himself and put the empty bottle back onto the cooler.
"It is logical that an icthian derived sophant would require the consumption of unusually large quantities of water," the Vulcan commented in the silence.
Able to think again, and uncaring what anybody else thought at that instant, he grasped the ID that hung around his neck and pulled it out of its protective sleeve. It showed a pale human, thin and scrawny. There was no sense of familiarity but he read the name: Edward W. Kazelton.
It sounded like the name of a stranger.
The only sound was that of water dripping off of It'larus onto the comfortingly wet carpet that the walker symbiote was happily standing on.
Time passed slowly and It'lar-- Edward stood in the damp corner by himself. The only excitement was when the humans brought in another alien, something in a mechanical support unit. It looked like an elongated yellow-red cone, smooth, with some kind of soft wheels on the bottom. The top third was transparent and reddish-purple tentacles and eyes could be seen inside the liquid. When it rolled over and asked him if he had liquid hydrogen, Edward burst out with a harsh croaking laughter. Then it left.
The waiting time was probably a good thing. It gave Edward time to organize himself, to come to grips with the fact that he was no longer in a costume. Likewise everybody else in the room. He heard whispers of dragons and minotaurs, and even a medusa that had turned people into stone before petrifying itself.
He could remember his old life, even though most of it just blurred together as identical days over a hot oven with people screaming orders. There was no romance, no style. Just drab sameness. The memories were like remembering a bad movie that he'd watched once. They didn't seem real. At least they were clearer than his other memories. Of riding his first walker symbiote, travelling to Earth, trade discussions. They seemed so real but he knew they had to be fake.
He tried talking to some of the others, but conversations tended to be short and clipped. Everybody gave him a wide berth and he guessed he couldn't blame them. One of his costume goals was to be as ugly as possible, yet realistic.
Why couldn't he have just kept his fox costume and worn it?
There were some of the so-called furries here, and they were having the time of their lives. To most of them this was like a dream come true, and he expected that some of the foxes were just itching to go somewhere private to 'try things out'. That just disgusted him.
An hour or so later, the hotel staff came in with hot and cold edibles. Mostly cold. He wouldn't even have noticed, except the walker symbiote started walking towards them as soon as they entered the room. He couldn't smell a thing, and wondered what had attracted the walker symbiote. Gulping some air that scraped out past his gills, he thought that maybe he might be smelling something.
His stomach grumbled as he leaned down and guided the walker symbiote over to the food. The others gave him a wide space, but he didn't care anymore. It seemed that the cold vegetables didn't excite him at all, but there were shrimp with dip and he gulped the shrimp down raw, sharing some of it with the walker symbiote. The rest he just left alone.
Then he guided the walker symbiote back to their wet corner and parked there and sobbed. Or tried to -- he couldn't blink, and he couldn't create tears.
Some hours later he managed to get the humans to bring in another water cooler and again he drank it, and soaked himself. It helped, but he could tell that it was only a stop gap solution. He needed water now, lots of water. Even though it didn't really matter, as he was screwed. He was only going through the motions so that he could think, maybe find some way out.
He had no money. He had no income. He had no way of getting either. And he couldn't live in the air anymore. Not for a long time.
The only other moment of excitement was when the Vulcan who'd commented on him had asked if she could scan him. He just shrugged, he didn't care anymore. Hell, he wasn't even sure what scanning him meant. What seemed to happen was that she held something up and it beeped and whirred.
All she said was, "Fascinating."
It was after dark before there was more excitement. There was some discussion at the door, raised voices he couldn't make out -- his hearing sucked -- and then a number of armed SWAT members and men in suits without glasses came in. Turned out they were government agents seeing what was going on up here, and trying to bring some organization. It turns out that they'd been chasing some big white anthropomorphic rabbit, but he'd gotten away.
It took the government another couple of hours to sort things out. Most of the normal aliens were processed quickly, information recorded, and escorted to their hotel rooms -- if they remembered -- or to empty rooms. He was left to last. One of the men approached him, the Vulcan who had scanned him accompanying.
"What the hell are you? And gah you stink."
The Vulcan started saying something, but then stopped.
If Edward still had lungs he would have sighed.
"You can talk, can't you?"
Edward thought about nodding, but then decided they probably wouldn't even notice. So he answered. "Yeeeesss."
He turned away. "Do you remember who you are."
Edward held up his ID. "Edwaaard Kaazeeelll'ooon."
"Thank God for small favours." He pulled out a radio and spoke into it, "What room is registered to Edward W. Kazelton? I've got something here with his ID. See if you can find anybody who knows him and can confirm his costume."
"Excuse me Mr. Greenberg," the Vulcan stated. "I scanned Mr. Kazelton earlier today. He is currently surviving outside of water due to a number of symbiotes, but it's not a perfect system. Logically extending the metabolic decay recorded during my scans, he needs to get immersed in an aquatic environment of, based on my readings, between 3.005% and 3.5678% salt, with other impurities not over .01% and at least .5ml/L O2. Dihydrogen monoxide temperature should not be below 10 degrees centigrade and not above 20 degrees."
Greenburg sighed. "In other words, Ms. Foster, this thing needs to be in a water tank."
"Crudely stated, but correct in essence Mr. Greenburg."
He pulled out his radio, "Forget the hotel room. Mr. Kazelton needs to be transported to-- does Seaworld have anything? Get somebody to call and patch them through -- I'll let them talk to Ms. Foster-- yea, the one I deputized-- Don't give me that! At least she can tell me what some of these freaks need! Just get on it!" He glared at me and then turned to the Vulcan. "You'd better be right about this one, or it's you who'll be filling in the paperwork."
"Mr. Greenburg, anything I state is factually correct. It would not be logical to state otherwise."
Greenburg just sighed.
It wasn't until close to midnight when some uniformed men from Seaworld came with a stretcher. Edward was sort of conscious -- the itching had come back, and repeated soakings only helped a little. He was short of breath and kept gulping air through his gills no matter how much it hurt. The walker symbiote was better off, but even it was unsteady on its feet. Under the Vulcan's crisp direction Edward walked the symbiote over and was pushed and pulled into the cool wet stretcher. It bent some of his fins painfully as the holes weren't in the right position, but the damp cloth over his tail was glorious.
"Briinnnnggg-- waaalker---" he managed to croak out.
They looked at him, looked at what he'd been sitting on, and started carrying him off. Edward tried complaining, but he could hear the schlurp of it following. At last that was fine.
"Soooooooook iiii'--" Edward managed to gasp out before fainting.
The next thing Edward knew, he was immersed in cool clear glorious water. It felt like silk, the itching was gone, and he felt more alive than he'd felt since putting on the costume.
The stupid costume.
Looking around, gulping water over his gills, he watched the walker symbiote happily gliding through the water, its legs spread out to its sides so that it looked more like a ray than a fish. Looking around he spotted the lungfish and they seemed all right. The eyefish seemed to be in amongst the weeds.
Edward was alive. Wonderful. Great.
The bottom was sandy, and he could see some kind of cloth hanging over the other side of the large glass wall. There didn't seem to be any thing else in the tank, other than those symbiotes he'd made, so they must have chased them all out. There was some plant life, long strands of leafy things, and big sculpted clumps of rock.
Edward really didn't care.
Some time later a bunch of small fish were dumped into the tank, and the walker symbiote dashed after them, gulping them down one by one. Edward just lay on the bottom. He didn't want to eat. His life was over.
The walker came over to him and rubbed itself along his side, tried playing with him, but Edward didn't care. It tried harder, but he just ignored it. Finally it dashed off. Divers came in, their breathing and exhaust bubbles loud and harsh in his ears, and they tried to get him to eat, but he just ignored them.
He had nothing to live for.
All Edward wanted to do was sleep, to die, but he couldn't do either. There was nothing sharp in the tank, the rocks were all rounded and worn. He couldn't sleep, and never seemed tired. What it seemed that he did was to go into a kind of daze where the world was a soft dream, events happening but not having much of an impact. Only something unusual, like the divers, would draw his attention. Then he just ignored them. Sometimes they were able to sneak up on him, and sneak a fish in this mouth, which he instinctively swallowed. Then he'd wake up and swim off, easily staying ahead of them.
Time passed, and Edward just drifted there, getting thinner, his scales becoming dull and ragged. Divers came and took blood samples, and once they pushed him up near the surface where he could see the blurred form of the Vulcan scanning him again, but he didn't react, didn't speak, didn't do anything.
"Mr. Kazelton, my name is Dr. Sands."
Edward rose out of his dream state and looked. There was a diver floating in front of him, but this time there were just tiny little bubbles.
"We know you're healthy, and Dr. Foster states that your brain is undamaged. You need to eat."
Edward didn't react, he didn't even bother swimming away.
The walker symbiote glided over and around the two of them, but Edward didn't even notice.
"Mr. Kazelton, I've been put in charge of an organization to monitor and help the victims of the Xanadu Effect. So far nobody has died while I've been in charge, and I'm not about to let you be the first. You have to eat."
Edward just looked at him with an unblinking stare. Not that he could blink. The eye symbiotes were around somewhere, probably eating the plants with the lungfish.
The doctor sighed, his voice harsh and hollow as a few bubbles exhausted themselves into the water behind him. "Mr. Kazelton, you will eat. You will eat if I have to put fish in your mouth myself. I know you've eaten a bit that way -- you seemed to swallow it automatically. I don't want to have somebody do this, but I will if you force me to."
"Juuuus' gooooo 'waaaay."
"That is not an option Mr. Kazelton." The doctor cocked his head and settled to the bottom beside Edward. "What's wrong? You think you got the worst deal out of Xanadu? Would you rather be cursed to be Barney the Dinosaur for the rest of your life? Or how about a mayfly that died of old age within a week of the event."
"I'mmmm uuuugly-- aaannddd woooothleesss--"
"You? Ugly? Did you know that somebody came dressed up as a member of Lovecraft's Great Race. Now that's ugly!"
"Juuuusss' leeaavveee meeee allloooneee---"
"That Mr. Kazelton is not an option. You need to decide. The government isn't going to pay for you to live here forever. Not if you just lay there. You have two choices."
Edward just snorted.
"You can let Seaworld show you as an exhibit. Swim around, do things, and let people stare at you all day. Or, you can join Project X -- it's the organization I run -- and do something for your government instead of just leeching off it."
"'iirreeed ooooofff coouunn'ing peeennieesss--"
"Then work with me and do something. You won't have to count pennies."
"Whaaass iii' paaayyy?"
"All I can offer you is room and board -- food, water. But you'll be alive."
"Mr. Kazelton, I won't force you, but you have to do something. If you don't decide then your exhibit will be opened. And if you continue not to eat they'll just move you to a smaller holding tank and let you die. If that's what you want. Die alone, forgotten, ignored. Think about it!"
And with that Dr. Sands swam off.
More time passed. Edward didn't care. He just ignored his surroundings. And he just ignored the divers, even when they fed him and he swallowed. He was too tired to fight them anymore.
Another diver came, alone. That was odd -- other than Dr. Sands, they'd all come in pairs. Some safety rule if Edward remembered right. This one carried nothing, and didn't speak at first. Instead it just swam around him, bubbles gurgling out as it exhaled.
Finally it stopped in front of him. "Mr. Edward W. Kazelton?"
This one was different enough that Edward decided at least to answer. "Yeeesssss--"
"It seems that you are everything my sources described."
Edward just gulped water.
"They tell me that you're not eating. And that the only offers you have don't involve any kind of payment. Is this correct?"
"There is a unique job you can fulfill. You can perform it much safer and more efficiently than humans can. Mr Kazelton, how would you like to be rich?"
For the first time in over a week Edward fully woke up. Rich? No pennies to count? "Hooowwww?" It was impossible, and yet-- If it was possible-- "'eeeellll meeeeee."
"Here's what I have in mind--"
Edward floated in his nice clean pool and checked his bank balance printed on waterproof laminated paper. Even with his expenses, he'd be a millionaire soon.
Who'd have thought that working on submerged oil wellheads could be so lucrative? Of course, he could charge more because the daily cost of supporting him mounted to a loose suit and pumping warm clean water down so that he wouldn't have to worry about getting oil on his gills. And the work had its challenges.
Gurgly sighing through his gills, Edward looked around at the empty tank that was home. The nice big lonely tank. It was clean, well lit, lots of plants to keep the water oxygenated. Lots of small colourful fish around to eat. There were only two lungfish left, the others had died, along with the walker, and nobody was sure why. He'd sold them to Dr. Sands for examination for the money.
Yes, he had lots of money. He was respected in his profession. He had a home.
He had everything he'd dreamed of--
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