The Testament of Bernard Ramsey

The following is offered as testimony by one Bernard Ramsey, currently on trial for the murder of Jameson Walden and the disappearance of his son, Seth. Mr. Ramsey dictated the following to an officer of the courts on the twenty-seventh of January, nineteen-hundred-twelve.

My name is Bernard Ramsey, and I am not insane.

I know what I saw on the twenty-fourth of January, in the Year of Our Lord nineteen-hundred-twelve. I know the cause for the disappearance of both Seth Walden and his father. I beg of you, all who hear this, heed my warning and listen well.

I first made the acquaintence of Seth Walden in Nineteen-hundred-seven. His father was a banker of some regard in New York. His mother, I knew, had Indian blood within her. I can only assume that it was this connection to the savage that allowed for what I witnessed to occur, but I shall explain that presently. We met at university, attending the same biology lecture. At the time, I had been studying to be a physican. Walden had always been something of a misanthrope; he always appeared more interested in animals than in people, and I knew he disapproved of his father's profession. I had always assumed that he was studying at university to become a veterinarian; his apparent gift with animals made him, in my opnion, a natural choice for such a position.

Our relationship grew slowly; Seth was never much for building human acquaintances. I believe that his interest in me was always based in my fascination with the human form. I know that he considered most of our fellow students imbeciles, and made no hesitation about decrying them as such during our lectures. Needless to say, Seth was not well liked by either the professor or his classmates, but after one of his more lucid tirades against the ignobility of mankind I saught to discover the root of his general contempt for his fellow men.

After lecture one evening, I chanced to follow him some distance from the university. He spoke not a word to me, nor did he look at me until we were several hundred yards from the classroom. Then suddenly, he turned upon me with a frightful visage and demanded to know why I had the audacity to follow him! His totally unexpected demand drew the wind from my sails and I stammered for a moment, attempting to regain my wits. When finally I spoke, I could only come up with, "to try to understand what makes you hate the rest of our class so much, and Professor Carmichael besides."

He threw back his head and laughed; it was not a pleasant sound. "Hate? Hate implies focus. I care not one way or another about them. I despise them; they're human, and they have the gall to believe themselves above the rest of the animals."

By this statement, I was perplexed, and I remarked as such to him. His only answer was a bitter sigh and a shake of his head. He said two or three times that I could never understand, and asked me to take my leave of him. I agreed, not wishing to further distress Seth. My entire walk home, I pondered his statements. I could only assume that he meant he believed himself to be other than human, but that obviously made no sense to me.

This experience I repeated on several occasions over the span of the lecture series. Though the pattern to his answers varied, they all revolved around the theme of believing himself, or perhaps even being different from the rest of the students, including myself. I never truly understood why. Finally, after our final examinations, I stopped him early on our walk home and confronted him with this.

His response stands out in my mind, for it seemed at the time to have naught to do with my question. "Man is just one more animal upon this earth, Bernard. Yet you of European stock live as if you were somehow above the rest of creation. You don't understand what it means to be one with the world, in the way my mother's family does."

I was exceedingly puzzled by this. "But does it not say in the Bible that mankind was created to be shepherds over the animals? We are clearly of a different order of creation, are we not?"

Seth gave me a pained look. "Oh, please, Bernard," he said. "Are you as blind as poor Professor Carmichael? We are one with the land, and the animals. No better, no worse. Merely different. My father might agree with you, but my mother and her family has quite another explanation for our existence. One that entails a oneness with the land, not stewardship over it."

From here, the details of our conversation are lost to me, but I remember clearly that we stood there on that corner and talked for a great length of time. I learned much of his heritage that night. His father's family had long associated with so-called "robber barons" such as Andrew Carnegie. While I had always considered him to be a philanthropist, from Seth I heard a different side of the story, of a man used to exploiting the land on which he worked, acting against nature, not in accordance with it. I learned of Seth's growing dissatisfaction with his father's lifestyle and with mankind in general. His study of biology and zoology was an attempt to find some niche within modern life with which he could feel comfortable. An attempt, I should add, that ended with his suspension from university because of professorial complaints.

At this point, gentlemen, I wish to point out that I lost track of Seth Walden for close to five years. I knew that his mother had died of natural causes, and that he had gone to her family in disobedience of his father's wishes. I was never truly close to Seth Walden, though I dare say I knew him better than most humans ever will. Where he went in those five years, I can not say. I do not know, nor do I wish to know. I hope only that one day, I may forget what I witnessed the night of January the twenty-fourth.

During the next five years, I did observe with some degree of curiosity the goings-on of the Walden family. While I never heard anything of Seth himself, I know that his father rose to prominence in the New England banking community. Rumours of scandals involving conflicts with what the government had labelled Indian holdings circulated, but they either stopped or were silenced. Which, I cannot say, though I have my suspicions.

Then, a week ago, I received a telegraph from Seth Walden, requesting my presence at his home on a matter of utmost urgency. While I had begun my practice, I felt it important to answer his request. I believe that I was the closest thing he had to a friend within the wholly human community. Yes, gentlemen, that is what I said. If you would but let me finish, I hope that you too will understand the horror I witnessed.

When I arrived at Seth Walden's address, I must admit to some degree of apprehension. I knew not where he had been in the last five years. He greeted me at the door, and I was met with an odd odor, one that I thought I should know but could not place. He smiled at me and bade me enter, which I accepted. He offered me a small snifter of brandy which I also took, and we began to talk of minor pleasantries. I felt very odd, after five years to be talking so calmly with a man that, in our youth, had been so full of passion and life.

I asked him what was so urgent, and he brushed aside the comment at first, but then finally said that he had found a way to solve his moral dilemmas involving his family but that he would need some assistence. I looked at him askance and inquired into the nature of this assistence. He looked at the clock, then out the window. He said that he presumed enough time had passed, and set his snifter on the mantel. Then he bade me follow him down into the cellar of his house. Curious and a little loosened from the strong brandy, I followed.

The cellar of his house was dark but lit with a few torches that provided enough illumination to see. What met my eyes horrified me, and yet I could not tear my eyes away from the scene. On the floor, spreadeagled, was the nude form of Jameson Walden, Seth's father. His hands and feet were tied and bound to stakes that had been driven into the ground. His eyes were wild, and when he saw me he began to shout, or at least to attempt to do so. He had been gagged and his mouth tied with thick rope, preventing all but the slightest of noises to escape. I turned to look for Seth, to ask what in God's name he intended to do, but of my host I saw no sign.

The next few moments, gentlemen, are hazy. I remember running down the stairs to attend to the elder Walden, and then a hand upon my shoulder throwing me back against the wall, much stronger than any man should have right to be. I looked up and saw Seth, also now quite nude, framed in the torchlight. He smiled.. oh, God, gentlemen, his smile was that of a feral animal, not of any sane man. In a voice quite unlike his own, he said that the time had come for him to sever his ties to the world of men and return to the land whence he came.

With that pronouncement, he turned to his father still on the ground and kicked him soundly in the ribs. I heard a soft crack and the old man's screams increased, though still quite muffled by the gag. I knew that if I did nothing, Seth would most likely kill his father. However, gentlemen, if you have ever seen a madman in the flesh, you would do little to impede his progress either. Time and again, I saw Seth's foot rise and fall into his father, shattering ribs and crushing the man's breastbone. I called on God several times to end this nightmare, but to no avail.

After a good dozen kicks, Seth knelt down next to his father, now crying and gasping for breath. I heard Seth chanting in some unknown tongue, one of the Indian dialects, I can only presume. He picked up a knife from beside the form of his father, and then with one swift stroke plunged it into the man's chest. Jameson's cries silenced as he went into shock. Blood fountained, coating the two men in blood. Seth seemed to bathe in this crimson font as he drew the knife down through his father's chest, his chanting never ceasing.

Seth finally set aside the now-bloody knife and reached into the man's chest. Placing his other hand onto the man's shoulder, I saw a quick jerking motion, heard a soft rip and then Seth held within his hands his father's still-beating heart. Finally stopping his chant, Seth raised the bloody tissue to his lips and began to eat, partaking of this demonic feast.

Here, gentlemen, no doubt you will begin to question my sanity. As if all that I have said to date were not enough, it at least is backed by your physical evidence. The knife, the mutilated corpse of Jameson Walden, all found in the cellar. What follows, however, can not be explained by any medical or forensic test.

As Seth Walden continued to feast upon his father's heart, ripped fresh from the dying man's chest, his features began to flow like melting wax. The colour of his skin changed from pink to a light grey. A thick white fur began to sprout, covering his entire body. I saw his face twist and distort in the torchlight, lengthening into an almost feline muzzle. The tips of his fingers stretched, claws growing forth from them to replace the nails that receded. The thing that was Seth Walden opened its... muzzle, I presume, and I saw a row of sharp, needle-like teeth, which it used to calmly finish devouring Jameson's heart. Throughout all of this, the beast made no sound, save soft mewling noises which I can only presume stem from the pain it must've felt in its transformation.

When this hellspawn finished with the heart, it turned and tore several large pieces of flesh from the still-warm corpse and ate with gusto. I stared at this... this thing of unbridled savagery as it ate the human flesh of its once-father. Then, sated, it turned to me with Seth Walden's eyes, and it smiled again.. Oh God, kind sirs! That smile... to look into the face of pure ferocity and unhindered savagery. Without warning, it let out a high-pitched keening wail that shook the house to its very foundations. Then, without further sound, it ran up the stairs and vanished from my sight.

There, gentlemen, is my testimony. I admit that I was found in the basement of Seth Walden's home, with the bound corpse of his father. But I did not kill him, nor do I know there whereabouts of his son. For my sake, gentlemen, and your own, I would suggest that you do not attempt to find him.


Beautiful World 01: Intervention

Johnathan answered the buzz of his doorbell on the third ring, glaring across the threshold. His normally unkempt mane of hair had been swept back into a semi-coherent tail, but the tie around his neck was still untied, the collar of his light blue dress shirt unbuttoned. His cheeks were clear of stubble, but a dark patch under his neck suggested that I had caught him in the middle of shaving.

"Adam, hi," he said, verbally making a show of forcing civility into his tone. His gaze was tight, unflinching. "I'm sorry; did I or did I not tell you that I had a date tonight?"

I sighed.
This is it, I thought. Make or break time. "That's why I'm here, actually."

A scowl crossed Johnathan's face as he turned away from the door. "You don't like Mitsuko," he said, half-accusingly, as he stepped back into the apartment. It wasn't an invitation, but he didn't slam the door in my face either. Maybe he wanted to have this out as much as I did. "You never did."

"It's not that I don't like her, Johnathan, it's—" My voice cut out as I stepped into the front room that served as both living and dining space in Johnathan's cramped studio. Outer space seemed to be the theme of the week. Last Saturday, the wallscreen opposite the entrance had been a bay window letting in the last rays of sunset across a distant beach was now a porthole to a starry sky, an orange sun rising over an alien planet filling the bottom-left corner of the viewport. The other holoframes dotting the walls all echoed the theme, the images flickering from vintage spacesuit cheesecake to drifting starfields to futuristic shots of silver cigar-shaped ships docked at spindly stations.

The only static image in the room dominated the wall to the right, opposite the entrance to the tiny kitchenette. In it, an anthropomorphic raccoon in a jade-green teddy stretched luxuriously against a sea of darker forest velvet. Her tail curled over her legs and she gazed upwards towards the frame with a warm smile. Yellow and white camelia petals dotted the image, clinging to both background and subject. It looked as though someone had tossed a handful of flowers into the scene, and then captured her just in the moment before she began to laugh.

I turned towards the short hallway that led towards the bathroom. "It's that... how can I even say this?" Frustration mounted in my voice, and I blurted out, "She's not

The snap of an electric razor coming to life punctuated my statement, followed by the drone of it doing its work, the only sound in the apartment. An eon of uncomfortable moments later, it snapped off again, leaving the whole room silent. Finally, into the empty air, Johnathan said levelly, "You've met her."

"You know... you know that's not what I meant," I called down the hallway towards him. "She's not... I mean... she's...." I was at a loss for words. Nothing seemed like the right thing to say; I'd blown my entire argument in the opening statement.

Johnathan stepped out of the bathroom, back up the hallway, fingers at his neck, buttoning his shirt. "She's a digital sentience inside one of Tadashiissei's systems." For his inflection, he might have been talking about the weather forecast. He grunted, lifting his head to fasten the top button on his collar. "Your point?"

"I... my point is...." I fumbled for words, backing up towards the entrance as he continued his advance back towards the living room, trying to make eye-contact with him. "Johnathan, what kind of relationship do you really think you can have with her?"

He grinned, a genuine smile just shy of laughing, eerily reminiscent of the raccoon's in the picture. "I'm about to go on a date with her, aren't I?"

"No, that's not...." I shook my head. "I mean, what kind of life can you have?" I was trying to be nice, trying to bite my tongue, to be reasonable. There had to be words to express what I was thinking, and I fumbled for them desperately, trying to say something that would make sense to him. "You can't go every week plugging yourself into their network. You can't afford it. It was fun once in a while, but you can't keep this up forever, can you?"

His grin widened. "I don't have to."

As he spoke, his eyes widened, and I saw within them a glimmer that made me pull away as he brushed past me into the living room, gazing out the porthole while he tied his tie. "What do you mean?" I asked his back. "I mean...." I froze as realization dawned. "You can't be serious."

He turned around, smoothing out his Windsor knot, his expression thick with false innocence. "Serious about what?"

"You... you're..." I didn't want to say it; that might have made it real. "You're going in there. Permanently."

"The industry term is 'upload,'" Johnathan replied, unnecessarily. "And yes, I am."
I stared, incredulous. For a moment, my eyes slid past Johnathan to the viewport, and I felt for a moment as if I would simply fall past him and out into empty space beyond. "How're you going to afford it?"

Johnathan's expression toned down to a serene smile, and he picked up a remote off of the short table in front of his sofa. Turning towards the picture over the mantel, he thumbed a button and Mitsuko's portrait flickered out, to be replaced with a pair of raccoons in the same setting, their arms and tails entwined. Mitsuko still wore the same teddy as before, while the other, a male, bore only a pair of what looked like pajama pants made of the same near-translucent fabric. My eyes widened in recognition; it was the avatar Johnathan had worn the last time I had gone with him into Tadashiissei's servers.

The frame beeped again, and the scene changed, this time to a shuttle landing bay, where Johnathan-the-raccoon and Mitsuko wore immaculate orange mechanic's uniforms, toolbelts at their waists and hats in their paws. Another beep, and Johnathan stood at the doorway leading to a shuttle in a silvery steward's uniform, a translucent green bubble helmet tucked under one arm, while Mitsuko stood opposite him in a classic
uchuufuku, reading flight plans from a palmtop computer. Another beep, and Johnathan was motioning out the window of the shuttle towards some kind of space platform.

"Tadashiissei's offered me a job in their design department," he said as a flood of similar images flickered past. "Their first space expansion is due in three years, and I'm going to be part of the lead team. I'll even have a job in-world as chief steward on the station, and Mitsuko's thinking about applying with the hospitality staff." With a final beep, the screen snapped back to the original image, of Mitsuko gazing up at the camera, dotted in chrysanthemum petals, just about to giggle.

"You're serious," I said, turning away from Mitsuko's picture, back towards the person I thought I had known as my best friend. "You're really serious," I repeated, unable to make eye contact. My gaze slipped up to the picture of his girlfriend, to the alien world behind him, to the remote that he'd been wielding moments before. "You're really going to stick yourself inside the computer for good."

Johnathan chuckled. "Yes, I am." He stopped, and his face became the mask of earnestness. "Adam, I know I can't explain this to you, but I'm happy. It doesn't matter to me that it's all inside a computer. It doesn't matter to me that she's made of ones and zeroes instead of flesh and bone. What matters is that I love her, and that she loves me, and that we have a chance to be together, that I have I chance to be doing what I want to do, with someone I care about. I'm happy, damnit, and I don't understand why you and the guys can't just be happy for me."

"But... but it's not
real," I protested. "None of it is! It's all just a game!"
"What is real?" Johnathan asked as he shook his head. "We could all be brains in jars, for all you can really prove about the world. You don't know for sure that you're not a simulation already. Science can only answer so far up the chain of metaphysics before it has to throw up its hands in disgust. You can't conclusively prove that we didn't all come into existence five minutes ago, that this isn't some grand simulacrum being run by a cosmic computer preloaded with this configuration, our argument included. So what's wrong with going down a level, instead of up one? Why should Tadashiissei's worlds be considered any less real, just because we know where they came from?"

His words gnawed at my heart. I wanted to answer him, to deny him, but I knew that even if I could prove my point, it wouldn't matter. "She doesn't love you, Johnathan," I snapped. "She can't. She's programmed to respond to stimulus, not to feel. She's an AI, not a person." I was lashing out now, but I didn't care.

Johnathan's expression darkened. "The polite term is 'digital sentience,' Adam, and now you're just being rude. You and I, we're just programmed to respond to stimulus, too, only our programs run on organic lubricants and glands, instead of silicone wafers. What's the difference? Her code's as complex as mine, and she's as blind to her underpinnings as I am to mine. She has thoughts and emotions and hopes and dreams as much as I do. The only difference is that in her world, age is a myth, scarcity is only limited by processing power, and anything literally is possible, if you're willing to work for it. Damnit, Adam, who
wouldn't jump at a chance to live forever in a world like that?"

I turned away, back towards the door. "I can't explain it any more than I already have," I mumbled, eager now to make my escape. "You just don't get it. I'm about to lose my best friend, and all you can do is play messiah."

"No, Adam," he replied sadly as I retreated out the door, "it's you who doesn't get it. I'll be in paradise in six months, and you'll still be here, wondering where your world went. Good-bye, Adam. I can't spare you any more time, or I'll be late, and reservations at Junsei-en aren't easy to replace."

I turned around to answer, but the door was closing, Johnathan already gone behind it. The last thing I saw before it snapped closed was a rocketship blasting off from the surface of the alien world in his holoscreen, heading for the station.



I know that, to every appearance, I killed Michelle Andrews in cold blood. My fingerprints are on her purse, my dandruff on her dress. Forty people witnessed me whispering to her in the middle of a crowded restaurant not fifteen minutes before she dropped dead of a heart attack. She was registered as a Passive-2, vulnerable to any assault from someone above an Active-3, which I surpass easily. My dinner companions described my mood later to you as "brooding, nervous and cold". The police found me with blood dripping from both ears in the men's room of the restaurant, vomiting up my chicken cordon bleu and the better part of the lining of my small intestine. None of these statements are lies, nor are they the complete truth. Jurors, Monitors, Judge Sallenger, let this be, in my own words, my chance to defend myself.

Before I can discuss the killing of Michelle Andrews, I must first mention the person of Lyle Ashley Lyonson. I never met this individual face to face, and for this fact, I must say I am horribly glad. Lyonson was a killer of rare breeding, not only Active, of some rating I can't say I even begin to know, but a man of selective tastes. His victims were Active females, typically going through puberty, the newer to their power the better. He preferred to hunt his game before it could run away or fight back.

Lyonson was the cohort of a man named Trevor Thomas, a powerful if uninspired P-4 whose primary amusement seemed to be the vicarious enjoyment of the suffering of others, and Lyonson kept him well supplied in exchange for various services including getaway driver, sexual partner and confidant. Trevor Thomas was sentenced to twenty years in prison six and a half years ago, but I will now contend that the man actually sent to prison was Lyonson, at least briefly.

I know, everyone, that my tale sounds tangled and confused. I promise you that, by the end, all will become explained. The Monitor has not yet detected instability, nor deception, have you? Granting, of course, that were I rated high enough, I could simply change your opinions on the matter, but I digress. May I continue?

The true start to this twisted road is seven years prior, when my youngest sister Hazel died. She was twelve at the time, a late bloomer. I must apologize now to the members of the jury and the audience who are not at least P-1; this I trust will either be explained or has already been covered in some part in preparation for this trial. Hazel's death rattle was more than enough to disturb the better part of the household, driving my mother into a maze in her own mind from which I doubt she will ever emerge, and leaving burned in my mind both a distinctive aura of mocking glee and the image of a man's face.

My sister's death was labelled a homicide, and images gleaned from my mother's mind, matched to the description I gave to the police during the investigation, pointed the finger at Lyonson. Prior to my sister, he had chosen his victims with more caution, or else Lyonson had been lucky, selecting targets in families comprised mostly of P-0s, unable to send or receive any sort of mental link. His poor luck, perhaps.

Lyle Ashley Lyonson was recorded dead six months later, shot in the head by his once partner-in-crime, Trevor Thomas, likely for the reward money. This fact I cannot dispute. His body was cremated, the ashes scattered as per his will, for whatever the last words of a dead killer are worth. Does anyone else find it strange that Lyonson, a highly-rated Active, could not prevent his own death at the hands of a mid-ranked Passive? Lyonson was presumed asleep at the time of the shooting, but his body posture was rigid, his fingers gripped tightly to the arm of the couch in which he'd been "sleeping". However ludicrous it may sound, from the coroner's report, and what little I've been able to determine myself that Lyle Lyonson was, at the time of his own recorded death, fully aware of Thomas's actions and a willing participant in them.

For his part in Lyonson's crimes, Thomas was sent to the Masterson Institute of North Dakota to serve out his sentence. Masterson is, of course, a high-security prison with an impeccable track record, and Thomas is reportedly still there today. However, one of the people not still there is Michael Brewer, a nineteen-year-old P-3, arrested for assault and armed robbery. He was eight years into a ten-year prison sentence when Thomas would have arrived, and as both participants of violent crimes they would have been in the same wing of the Institute. Brewer's performance within the institute, questionable for most of his stay, improved remarkably as the last year of his sentence approached, and he was considered reformed by his release date, while Thomas slipped into docility, following orders but showing little initiative.

Michael Brewer was not a rich man, and his family had not taken kindly to his ranking and disowned him, a fact that likely led to his arrest in some roundabout fashion. Hoewver, he was not without friends when he left. A support group for low-ranked Passives had formed at Arcadia Univeristy not two years ago, and eighteen-year-old Michelle Andrewsand now we begin to close the circlewas in her freshman year at Arcadia, one grade below mine. Several people at the college found Brewer, working on the campus maintenence staff, and Andrews talking together often, and Andrews' diaries describe Brewer as "charming, kind of cute and incredibly understanding".

Lyonson was, probably at first, an Active well surpassing not only my own unnatural abilities but those of the scale itself. However, recently transferring into a new host had taxed his reserves. For those of you who have not followed this tale, let me now spell it out in full: I contend that Lyonson survived his own death in the mind of Trevor Thomas, later projecting himself into first Brewer and then Andrews, looking for a safe mind unconnected to his former life in which he could recover his strength and again continue his hobby of ripping the budding minds of young Actives from their skulls as they first took notice of the minds around them. I knew Andrews from the social club at Arcadia University, and that night at the restaurant she had about her the same aura I remembered from seven years ago. I pushed into her mind while she was in the bathroom, and I saw Lyonson's eyes smirking back at himself in the women's room. It was at that point that I went to the restrooms, grabbed her shoulder as she exited, forced myself as deeply into her mind as I could and proceeded to scatter every neural pathway I could find before staggering into the men's room and collapsing in a stall, leaving her corpse in front of the door.

The Monitor has not stopped me, and so at the very least I must believe what I've told you, even if it isn't true. Did I kill Andrews? If you mean did I stop her life-process, then yes. If you mean was it Andrews in control of the body I killed, then no, the person whose life I ended died seven years ago.


I hate conventions.

If you've ever gone to one, you'll understand exactly what I mean. I'm not real to them. I don't exist. Well, I do, and that's why I'm there. They all want to see me, touch me, assure themselves that I'm some physical thing, but that's the point at which my interest for them fades. I'm not a person in their eyes. I'm a fantasy made flesh. I'm a celebrity, of a sort, and that's what they want. They want the embodiment of their dreams.

I knew my arrival at the hotel would be noticed and propogated to the crowd milling in the dealers' room, the video room, and the rest of the fan-infested areas, so I didn't bother dropping into them. I'd have been crushed in the wave of well-wishers that wanted a lock of fur or something if I had, anyway. When I signed my name at the desk, I waved over the clerk and spelt out, in rapid ASL, if he could please do me the "courtesy" of informing someone in charge of scheduling that I had arrived and was in room 319, but that I wanted to lie down for a while? He nodded and said he would, and I slung my duffel over my shoulder and made my way up to the room, key gripped tightly between my fingers.

Three-nineteen was an executive suite, as befitting my status as the guest of honor for the umpteenth year running. My presence alone generated who-only-knew how much revenue for the convention and the hotel itself. At just under three thousand of us world-wide, we were still pressworthy, though the news media had grown bored with us after a few years of living in the limelight. They'd probably want to do a ten-year reunion in the near future. I wondered sardonically if they'd want Albert in the group photo, humping someone's leg wearing a straitjacket.

The bed was king-sized, made with a thick comforter and soft pillows, a small piece of chocolate resting on the pillow. I snickered and threw it in the trash; telling them that it was poisonous would have them scuttling about in a frenzy of apology and asskissing, but they meant it in the best of intentions. The road to hell, I thought.

I lay back on the bed, duffel tossed across the clothing rack, and closed my eyes, ticking off the seconds internally, waiting for the inevitable. It didn't take long. Four minutes, twenty-two seconds after starting the count, I heard the telltale rap of knuckles against my door. I rose and padded to the hall, tail flicking, peeking out the security port. Male, human, probably early twenties. Glasses, short-cropped spiky dark hair, a wisp of stubble on his chin and cheeks. I sniffed, but the only thing I smelled was a hint of soap and fresh sweat from the California heat, a pleasant shock to my nose. I stood upright and, tail held high, unfastened the chain on the door and pulled it open, cocking my head to one side in the universal gesture of inquiry.

"Hey." He was wearing a black shirt with a stylized wolf's head on the shoulder and a pair of khaki bermuda shorts, with sandals over his socks, all of it apparently freshly laundered according to my nose. His voice was low, but still shaking a bit. I could hear his heartrate jump when I opened the door, and the scent of his sweat changed, taking on a metallic tinge. Nervous, I knew, and I fought back the urge to sigh openly.

Instead, I waved him into the room, trying to smile charmingly and then turning and walking back to the bed, my tail flicking back and forth behind me, reaching behind me to crook my finger at him. When I looked at the door from my perch on the bed, though, he was still standing in the doorway with a puzzled look on his face, his nervousness gone to confusion.

I cocked my head to one side and smiled, tilting my head forward to give him the big brown eyes; I knew they loved that. Why're you still over there? I signed rapidly, still in ASL, ears and tail raised.

He raised his arms, and it actually took me a moment to realize he was signing back, in clumsy furlan, I want talk?

Since he started it, I switched to furlan myself; it was a lot easier than American with three fingers. I could do it with two, if I were hoofed; it'd been designed for use among furries, after all. Of course you do. You could talk from here just as easily, right? I patted the bed for emphasis. I could already feel my insides churning and tried to force it back into its box. Four hours and already I was feeling nervous and edgy. Another and I'd be crawling the walls.

He shrugged, a gesture that meant the same in every language, and walked over to the bed. As he sat down, I scooted over and rested my paw on his knee. He stiffened and jerked back. "Hey!" he said aloud, returning to

I withdrew the paw and inclined my head backwards, baring my throat for a moment, the furlan shortcut apology. A show, I guessed. Some of them just want to see me, but don't want to be involved. Probably he's got a mate already and doesn't want to feel like he's cheating on zim. "What did you want to discuss?" my paws asked as he settled back onto the bed.

Want meet Todd Messner, he replied in his awkward gestures; he probably only barely knew it, but it was endearing so I didn't say anything. Want talk court case, most of all.

Just talk? My paws fluttered a bit, then rested on the bed as I leaned over them, gazing into his eyes, hoping he would just hurry up and let me know what he wanted so we could get around all the foreplay.

He looked surprised again. What else?

Hard to get. I sighed internally but had gotten too good at the game to let it show. Oh, you know... a little of this... a little of that... I traced one claw around on the bed, my tail slowly swaying behind me, still studying his eyes while the fingers on my other paw spelled rapidly what I wanted to say. All you have to do is ask.

At that, he looked genuinely startled. "Say what?" He had slipped back into English.

Oh, don't be so coy. I signed, perhaps a bit testily, my fingers jerking. I know why you're here; it's not like it's any real secret....

"You sick fuck, is that all you're here for?" His words shocked me into dead rigidity, even as he rose off the bed and stormed towards the hall. "Christ, there're some sick people here and you're one of'em!" The door slid open on silent hinges and caught itself after he slammed it, whispering shut with a hiss of escaping air.

The insistent demand of my loins eventually broke through the numbed shock of my unnamed guest's departure and I ripped off my clothes, grabbing for myself. Fortunately, someone else was along presently who was more than willing to help me satisfy my needs. We danced between the sheets, then, each of us using the other for our own benefit, a beneficial exchange to all involved.

I made the rounds of the dealer's room at 18h00 as I was scheduled in my appearance contract, and afterwards I served as a model for several local artists, the pictures from which would be sold to help pay for the con itself, the artwork to be signed by both artist and myself. The whole time, though, my mind kept hauling itself back to his outburst. His outburst. I didn't even know his name.

Why did it bother me so much? I found holding the pose difficult, even though I was supposed to be relaxed. In truth, I was tense, irritated over what should've been a passing issue. I was here because I needed it and they wanted it. It's not my fault he misunderstood that. I tried telling myself that, but I couldn't make the words ring true, even in my own head. By the end of the session, my paws were sweaty and I was fighting not to pant, even as my body was telling me it was time for another fix. The suggestion of a nude modelling session with one of the artists, and some quick research into vulpine anatomy solved that problem, but it left me with an even bigger nagging doubt.

I couldn't to sleep a wink, just tossing and turning in bed. The sheets seemed starched to cardboard and the comforter irritated my fur. Curling up on the carpet was worse. In the end I gave up and went roaming the hallways, not really sure what I hoped to find but knowing it wasn't in my hotel room. A few people asked me if I was alright, that I was up really late, but for the most part they were just so glad to see me and have my attention for fifteen seconds that a plastic smile and a few pat gestures got me past the need to interact.

I found him sitting in the all-night restaurant attached to the hotel around two in the morning. He wasn't with anyone, just sitting alone, watching the news on the television over the counter, sipping coffee and picking his way through a plate of eggs and ham. He looked up as I entered and rose but I held out a paw to him, looking at him, trying to give him the big eyes without overdoing it.

He stood out of his chair and dug in his pocket for a moment, then sighed and dropped back into it heavily, looking back down at his plate. Ignoring the obvious turn of heads, I walked over and pulled out another chair at his table. When my tail was through the back and I was almost comfortable, he said, "First you think I want to fuck you and now you think I want to talk to you," punctuating his words with a jab at his plate. 

I froze again and some part of my mind rose up in indignation at being addressed like that. I stuffed that part of my mind back down and bared my throat to him, holding my head back, my eyes looking up at the ceiling.

He shook his head and looked down at his plate. "Stop it already, you look like somebody just kicked you."

I lowered my muzzle to gaze at him, and I lifted my paws to start talking, but suddenly I had no idea what to say. I sat there, waiting for the words to come to me. You wanted to talk about—

"Hey, hey, slow down," He snapped, then sighed. "I'm sorry, your paws are shaking and my furlan's not that good."

I sighed and nodded once, another universal motion, then pulled out a palmtop and scribbled on it for a moment, passing it to him to read. WOULD THIS WORK BETTER?

"Yeah, sorry." He nodded. "About earlier, too. I... I lost my cool back there."

I shook my head, writing fast. THE FAULT WAS MINE. Seeing the words on the screen, I had to admit their reality. I THOUGHT THAT WAS WHY YOU WERE THERE.

"Shit," was his only reply for several seconds. "You must get hit on a lot here."


He read the screen, then looked up at me. "I wanted to talk about the court case. I was a poli-sci major in college, wanted to be a lawyer but didn't pass the pre-law exams. I'm doing grad work right now, and I thought your court case would be a great basis for a thesis. I tried to email you but all I had was your public address."


He shrugged, picking at his congealing eggs with his fork. A waitress came by and filled his coffee, then asked if I wanted something to eat. I looked up at her and shook my head; either she was oblivious to who I was, or she didn't care. Either way, I was grateful. She wandered off and he continued. "I didn't figure you read that address; it was the one on your site, so I thought it probably just dumped to some lawyer or secretary for scrutiny, so I didn't bother. I knew you worked the con circuit." He smirked darkly. "I didn't know you worked the con circuit. I was... I dunno. I had this vision of a statesman, of a young revolutionary fighting for freedom. I wasn't expecting a gigolo." He spit the words, mocking us both.


I passed him the pad and waited for him to read, trying not to look hopeful. I couldn't believe what I was doing, and yet his words had so badly burned me that I found myself wanting to unburden. It seemed almost religious, confessing my sins to a stranger.

He looked up from the PDA and shrugged, passing it back to me. "Whatever."

PLEASE. FINISH YOUR BREAKFAST; THIS WILL TAKE SOME TIME. I held out the screen so he could see it, waited for his nod, and than began writing, scrawling the loops and whorls of the palmtop's native recognition software.



I paused, tapping the pen against the side of the case. WE LEFT MESSNER WHEN WE REALIZED WE HAD THE FREEDOM TO DO SO, AND WE TRIED EVERYTHING WE COULD TO CURE OURSELVES. DRUGS, MEDITATION, COUNSELLING, EVEN SURGERY. NOTHING WORKS. ALBERT, ANOTHER MEMBER OF BATCH ONE, CASTRATED HIMSELF HOPING IT WOULD GO AWAY WITHOUT THE STIMULUS. HE'S IN THE CLARK INSTITUTE NOW. I closed my eyes, remembering. Albert had been even more harder hit than I had; his eyes looked haunted when he wasn't in the throes of passion, and his days had been spent masturbating or looking for partners when he wasn't eating or sleeping. In the end, he'd taken a knife to himself and called 911. They fixed his body, but they could never fix his mind. The last time I went to visit him in the ward, there was nothing left of him, just a crazed wolfman grinding himself against the wall, the floor, anything that moved. They'd declawed him after the second time he'd tried to kill himself. They would've been more humane if they'd shot him.


I hesitated a moment, chewing on the back of the stylus, then finished the thoughts, explaining the rest. I HAVE TO HAVE SEX ABOUT FOUR TIMES A DAY OR I SUFFER. My ears grew hot as I wrote, holding the equipment with slick paws. THE FANDOM PROVIDES THAT. THEY DON'T WANT ME; THEY WANT MY BODY. I NEED THE CONTACT. I HATE IT BUT IT'S BETTER THAN NOTHING. YOU'D THINK I'D GET TIRED OF THE SEX. I DON'T, AND THAT'S THE WORST PART OF ALL.

I put the stylus away into the palmtop and passed it over, drumming my claws against the tabletop, listening to the soft rhythmic clicks while he read my impromptu essay. "Jesus," he muttered, looking up at me. "Is this for real?"

I nodded and he continued reading. "So that's why you thought... shit."

I nodded again, my ears perking a bit. At least he understood.

"Jesus," he repeated, shaking his head. "Why not just fuck each other? If you all need it that badly...?"

I sighed and nodded. WE TRIED, I wrote slowly, trying to ignore the pain in my paw from too much writing. IT FELT LIKE INCEST TO ME, OR LIKE I WAS AN INVALID, UNABLE TO GO ANYWHERE. SOME OF US DID THAT, ACTUALLY. I TRIED, BUT I COULDN'T. I WISH I HAD. I set down the pad and passed it across to him, massaging one paw with the other.

He winced. "Ouch. I'm sorry, man. I didn't know."

It's alright, I signed slowly, not wanting to write any more. You didn't know. And... I'm sorry too. I'm so used to

He held out his hand. "No, I read it. I understand." He stood up, dropping his fork. "C'mere." And he held out his arms to me.

In all the encounters I'd had, male and female alike, I'd been asked to hug people before, but it never felt like this. I had always been the object of affection, literally. I was the receptacle for someone else's fantasies. This time, his arms carried not desire, not lust, not even envy or childlike innocence, but genuine tenderness and concern. I sunk gratefully into his arms, resting my cheek on his shoulder. My cock stirred, briefly, then subsided.

An eternity of moments later, I stepped back and smiled. Thank you, I flashed with my fingers.

"Thank you," he returned the gesture. "You gave me my thesis topic." The corner of his mouth turned up in a smirk.

At that, I laughed, a short repetitive bark that did turn heads at the counter. Is there anything else I can offer you? I signed. Oh! I grabbed a napkin, dug a pen from my pocket and wrote my email address on it. "The real one," I wrote below, and passed it to him.

He snickered; it was the same as the one he had. "Thanks again. Nah, I should sleep. Alone." He dug some bills out of his pocket and dumped them on the table, then waved. "I'll see you, Todd." He smiled and waved to the counterclerks on his way out of the restaurant.

As I stood there, it occured to me that I still didn't know his name. I wondered if I would see him again around my schedule.

Maybe at the next convention.


Naka pushed back the leather flap guarding the entrance her hut in hopes of greeting the sun, but only snow and the faintly acrid scent of long-dead fires met her in return. She lowered her eyes to the ground and shook her head; she knew, even without asking the winds or the trees, that the hunts had gone badly; there was no food to be found, not with such a heavy winter sitting over the land.

Her feet fell woodenly against the ground, leaving holes in the drifts as she crossed the clearing to the elders' cabin. Light flurries swirled around her, leaving a dusting of white in her near-black hair, giving her the grizzled look of one twice her age. More crystals clung to her furs as a wind whipped between the trees, becoming lost and wandering haphazardly between the trees and low houses that the tribe called home. Her hand fell three times against the heavy wooden doorjamb, but her fingers felt nothing, still stiff and numb from cold.

With a rough scrape, the tanned hide slid aside from the entrance, revealing Telikai's leathered face. His eyes matched the clouds, grey and brooding, as if at any minute hail and sleet could fall from them and run in rivers down the channels of his aged face. At the sight of his Speaker, though, they lit up like pools reflecting the sun for a brief moment.

"Hail, Naka, Speaker of the Wild," he said in his rough-hewn voice, nodding to her, breaking eye contact as a sign of respect; to gaze into another's eyes while bowing a greeting would be to show distrust. He could not afford not to listen to her words, and she knew it.

"Hail Telikai, Speaker of Men," she replied, matching his motions gracefully. "The hunts have not gone well." Hers was a statement, not a question.

Telikai, leader of the tribe in matters physical, blinked. Her words broke ritual, in a surprising way. He would have offered her a place at his hutfire, supplies from his stores, but she had bypassed the formal ways and gone to the meat of the matter quickly. He fumbled for a few moments, then shook his head. "No, they have not." His head quirked sideways, one eye narrowed. "How had you heard? The men have said nothing to the others yet."

Naka smiled. "I have not been Speaker without learning to listen as well; the snows have come early, and strong. The deer have all but silenced. The wolves cry at night. Even the squirrels call out to the trees, begging for food, and the trees have entered their sleep and are dreaming of Father Sun, heeding no-one's call. I know."

The Speaker of Men grimaced, then sighed. "You are right, of course. Three parties have gone into the forest in search of game. Two deer have been trapped, their spirits thanked, their bones returned to the earth, and a rabbit as well, but this will not feed enough, or for long."

The Speaker of the Wild nodded in response. "How are your stores, Telikai?"

The gnarled man turned his back and lowered his gaze. "Three days. Perhaps four. Then...."

The pair left the thought unfinished; they knew what came next. Naka shook her head. "As I thought, then."

Both stood then, silent for a time, each lost in thought. Telikai broke the silence first. "You have made all the requests you could?"

Naka turned away from the older man, looking back across the clearing. When she spoke, her voice carried an odd low rumble to it. "No, there is one last request to be made."

"One last?" Telikai sounded indignant. "How long had you intented to—"

The Speaker of the Wild turned then, her eyes carrying a gleam that Telikai had never seen before, a hint of something feral, wide, brown and cold, like amber. "I waited until the time was right, Telikai; I know my duties, as you know yours." She faced the clearing once more, looking about the various huts and houses. "Tonight, you will feast. Tomorrow, you will know your tasks. Have Yani brought to my hut; she will understand." With that, she left, leaving Telikai to stand with his hut open to the winds, staring after her in surprise.

Naka's preparations went quickly, far more so than she had thought they would. Though she had rehearsed the rite more times than a tree has leaves, she had never performed it, nor, after today, would she again, if all went as it should. Relighting the fire in her hut took longer than she wanted, but once started, the bundles of leaves and hair that she wound burst alight, filling her longhouse with pungent smoke. Painstakingly, she held each limb in the air over the fire as if bathing in the smoke, washing in the heat, all the while reciting the litany of her life and her role as Speaker of the Wild, translator for human ears of the voices they could not understand. Then, when she finished, she snuffed the flame with a fur pulled from her bed, which she then wrapped around herself while still warm.

Once outside, the air seemed warm to her, though she knew it was all part of her ritual, and yet a part of her mind was enthralled. The ground was pleasantly cool, a far cry from the icy trudge it had been before. Her steps carried her quickly beyond the domain of humans, into the forests themselves. The trees, sleeping and dreaming of green and of warm and of sun, seemed eerily quiet to her ears, and her nose caught naught but ice and snow and her own scent. A distant corner of her mind worried that her ritual had been in vain, but she told herself with quiet determination that her call would take time.

Her senses drifted then, mind losing itself easily to the eternal now as was her wont when isolated from the world of people. How long she walked, breathing and sensing and living in the world of spirits without knowledge of when or where or why, was immaterial. Time was meaningless. The trees were here, the sky was here, the earth was here. All else was distant, unimportant. Her summons was answered; the scent of bear approached.

She was tall, her fur more white and grey than brown or black, her eyes clouded. She smelled barren; no cubs had come from her in several years, a fact she did not enjoy but could not regret; she knew her place in the web of existence, and not to be called upon to fulfill her duty was disappointing, but she had birthed cubs in the past and came knowing that her time was nigh.

Naka knelt, bowing her head and kissing the earth before the sow, prostrating herself and venerating the lifegiver. The shebear nodded her response, and the Speaker of the Wild lifted her gaze to meet the other's. The exchange from there was brief, Naka apologizing for her presumption, pleading the life of her village, and offering the standard trade. The old one reared onto her hinds, seemingly in defiance, then dropped to the ground again and nodded; it had been a long and hard life for her as well, though a rewarding one.

The rock came to Naka's hands even as the shebear lay against the earth, and a single blow was enough to dim the light in her eyes. A second split her skull, her still-warm brains a tasty treat for the Speaker of the Wild. Then Naka lay atop the sow, placing her arms and legs along those of the cooling body. She felt the heat from the lifegiver seeping into her bones, washing through her.

Soon she felt too hot even as new snow began to fall and a wind picked up in the air. She tossed aside her furs, layer by layer until she stood naked over the prone form of her mother-sister. Her mind swam in heat, sweating as fur began to pierce through her skin in a grey-brown coat, fingers growing fat and stubby, claws ripping through their tips. Her face distended, body swelling as she became one with those whose voices she had represented. Almost as an afterthought, the short stubby tail popped itself into place, and Naka shook, rearing onto her own hinds and roaring out her acceptance of the gift, even as she knew Yani would be finding herself with child in a few days.

Finding game enough to feed the village would take time, but she would have far more success than any of the others could, and tonight, at least, her village would feast on the body of the lifegiver. They would sing her praises, as they sang Naka's. Then, when every last one had had their fill, they would take her bones and, as they would with any sacred elder, they would return her to the earth.