©2005 Fish -- all rights reserved
Don't get me wrong. It doesn't always rain in Seattle. Just because it happened to be doing so now, and doing so with a vengeance, is no reason to believe all of those silly stories by Mark Twain. "The nicest winter I ever spent was a summer in Seattle," he said. He may have been speaking in jest, but even an early September rain wasn't going to make the six of us cancel our vacation plans.
Where we were going, rain certainly wasn't going to bother us.
This didn't stop Doug from complaining loudly about our local weather at every opportunity, I suspect mostly because he knew it irked me. I responded with my own half-hearted jabs about San Francisco, but the weather there was nothing but monotonous, and that left only politics and earthquakes.
Well, Brian's politics were about as far from mine as you could get (and, I suspect, from Doug's as well), and I had no intention of stirring up anyone's political sentiments. And there had recently been another minor temblor along the Hayward fault, so earthquake remarks were still a little touchy.
So I settled for accepting Doug's comments on our weather with good humor and tried to keep my eyes open for the exit to the Tiger Mountain Preserve, while Jon sat in the passenger seat and watched the scenery, as if fascinated by the rain.
Highway 18 alternated between steep two-lane inclines and long one-lane descents as it weaved across the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. The local sights consisted of tall corridors of evergreens and tractor-trailers struggling up punishing grades in the slow lane. At the crest of each hill we saw little more than endless forested hills stretching off to the blue-distant slopes of Mount Rainier. About the most excitement along the drive was a semi we watched lose brake pressure on the downslope and careen to a controlled stop up a gravelled emergency deceleration lane. Conversation had stalled as each of us watched the trees roll by.
"It'll make the scents a little harder to pick out," Brian noted reflectively, breaking the silence.
"Only some of them," Jon said. "Moist air makes new scents more distinct."
"And washes out the old ones."
We watched the landscape crawl by. Rain ran down the steep road toward us in rippling rivers.
"Isn't this where they filmed Northern Exposure?" asked Doug, suddenly.
"Sort of," I said, not turning around. "We're close, but going in the wrong direction. It's back that way." I took a hand off the wheel and jerked my thumb behind me. Out of habit I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a little red Hyundai was still tailgating. I flicked the rear windshield wiper button in annoyance.
"Do you think Lance and Bryan will be able to find this place tomorrow?" Jon asked. "We're pretty remote already, and we aren't even there yet."
"It's not hard to get here," Brian answered. "East on I-90, south on 18. There will be a big sign in just a few miles. They can't miss it."
"What do you think they'll pick for their suits?" I asked. The Hyundai seemed anxious to pass, so I pulled into the slower uphill lane behind a steaming asphalt truck.
Doug gave a short laugh. "Knowing them? There's no telling. Although Lance did say that the preserve in Little Rock doesn't have moose suits, so he might do that."
I laughed. "You mean he doesn't already own one himself?"
The Hyundai pulled past us, spraying up a roostertail of rainwater. It was full of young women. The two in front were singing exuberantly to the radio.
"What are you going to pick, Corey?" Jon wanted to know.
"I was going to go with a bird suit. Maybe a golden eagle, those aren't too small." I flicked the rear wiper again. "But with this rain, I'd better think of something else."
"The rain won't bother me," Brian said. "I'm going with raccoon."
"That figures," Doug muttered. He sounded as if he were grinning.
"You've probably memorized all of the raccoon suits by now," I said, smiling myself.
"Pretty much," Brian agreed. "All of the male ones."
"You've probably memorized the entire preserve," Doug went on.
"No way," I said. "It's a couple hundred acres. It's huge."
"The one outside of Modesto is eleven hundred acres," Doug told us, "but it's almost all scrub."
"They're trying to expand this one, actually," I said, "but along one end of the preserve, there's an old railroad right-of-way that the railroad company won't give up. And on the other two sides, there's incorporated county land and some old mining stake."
"You're sure they have whitetail suits?" Jon asked.
"I know I've seen deer suits, but I couldn't swear to the exact kind," I assured him.
"I'll take a muley if I have to," he said, more to himself than to the rest of us, "but I'd prefer a whitetail."
"Look, I think that's the sign," Doug said, pointing from the back seat. "Holy shit, is that the road?"
"Don't worry," I chuckled, patting the dash of my Toyota Tercel. "I've got four-wheel drive."
"We won't need it," Brian said reassuringly. Although with the mud you got with heavy rains like these, perhaps it was better to be on the safe side.
The road into the preserve wasn't too bad, although it was far from smooth. Deep puddles of muddy water alternated the center line, making our progress slow and bumpy. Rain did not penetrate the thick evergreen canopy above us, except in fat droplets that dropped onto the windshield with a thick splat.
A sizeable wooden fence with a massive gate announced the entrance to the Tiger Mountain Preserve, and beyond it the road was lined with wooden beams, almost as a boardwalk. To either side of the road were tall cedar fences that kept the vehicular traffic separate from any wandering animals -- real, or suited humans -- that might stray into the roadway.
Through the fence, a muledeer buck peered carefully at us as we rattled along the boardwalk while his doe grazed nearby.
The main building of the preserve was a pine-log construction, built to oversee a barn-like set of crude doors, and all was slathered in creosote. I felt myself making a face in anticipation of the nasty, overpowering scent I would soon be detecting in animal form. All sides of the parking lot were similarly walled off from the preserve grounds, more to protect the animals from the cars than vice-versa. Somewhat to my surprise, the red Hyundai that had passed us on the highway was parked quite close to the front of the lot, splattered with mud. I doubted my own car looked much cleaner.
"Pretty crowded," Doug observed, looking at all the cars in the lot.
"Not bad for a rainy weekend," I said with a nod. "Probably mostly idiots like us who don't mind playing in the rain."
We piled out of the car, pulling on our coats to keep out the damp. From the sound of it, the girls from the Hyundai were debating their choice of suits somewhere beyond the wooden gate.
I stretched my legs. "There, that wasn't so bad. We'd have made it in an hour if it hadn't been for the construction."
"Let's get going, then," Jon said, eyeing the pine building and fingering his camera.
Inside the cabin there was a Dry-Erase board upon which was listed a few score of suits. Going across the top were ticked off the hours of the day, and horizontal lines indicated which suits were occupied, by whom, for how long. Each listed suit was also accompanied by a Polaroid.
"Dibs on the raccoon," Brian said softly, smiling.
"All of the whitetails are taken," Jon said with dismay, looking the board over.
"You could always be a coyote," Doug said with artificially enthusiastic encouragement. "Come on, go coyote, you know you want to."
"They don't have coyotes here," I said. "I asked."
"No coyotes?" His eyes flashed with mock indignation. "That's it, I'm going home."
"That buck, there, that just got taken," Jon said. He sounded nettled. "It's marked for five minutes ago. Those girls must have taken it just before we got here."
"There's a deer right there," I told Jon, indicating the line on the board.
"That's a muledeer doe," he said, and frowned. "That's the only deer left?"
"I guess I'll take a cougar," Doug decided. "I get enough of coyote at home, anyway."
All of the available bird forms were crossed out, with the legend, "Not Available Due To Weather," except the Canada geese. I perused the remaining non-avian forms and saw two that looked interesting. "I'm not sure," I thought aloud. "Wolf, or beaver?"
"Beaver?" Jon asked, amused.
"Sure," I said. "I've been working on this dam, and I guess some of the others have been, too. It's really warm. And last time I was here I almost chewed enough chips to line the inside of the..." I looked around, feigning embarrassment and rolling my eyes. "It doesn't sound half so stupid when you've got paws."
We rang the bell and waited for the attendant to arrive. It turned out to be a woman in her thirties with the drawn, lined face of the chronic smoker. We could all smell cigarette smoke wafting in the door after her. She was dressed after the manner of a park ranger, though the Tiger Mountain Preserve was a privately owned enterprise. Over her breast pocket was a scratched silver metal name badge that read 'Alice'.
"Have you decided what you're going to do?" she asked us in a raspy, unattractive voice.
"Raccoon," Brian said promptly.
"Step on the scale."
The transfer suits were marvelous, and simulated the biology of other creatures with stunning realism, but they had one serious limitation. The target creature could not be less than sixty percent of your weight and mass. This was easily solved with the invention of the smallsuit, a miniaturized human form of lesser mass worn underneath. An additional smaller suit could be worn over that, and so bring a human's mass down to a reasonable level to use suits of animals such as cats, rabbits, and similarly-sized creatures. Brian, at his weight, would need to wear four consecutive smallsuits until he could fit into his raccoon costume.
To wear that many smallsuits at once wasn't particularly comfortable. Some people complained of excess warmth, or dizzy spells. Others reported feeling a certain stiffness in hot weather. Raccoon aficionados like Brian, of course, claimed it was all worth it. It did put a lower end on the scale, since nobody could wear more than five smallsuits for very long without getting attacks of extreme claustrophobia.
Just don't ask me how it displaces your body mass, or where it goes to. I learned it in high school physics but still the explanation doesn't make a lick of sense.
Jon would require no smallsuit at all for his doe costume, but he would need someone's help getting into it. Once he put his arms into the sleeves of the costume, his hands became hooves, and it became that much more difficult to pull the rest of it on. And slipping his feet into the leggings, well, that made it much harder to stand up straight. Deer were never made to stand in that way.
It was fortunate that you could wear transfer suits in layers, too, because I had one that I wore almost continuously. It was very similar to my regular physique, but it, unlike my natural-born body, didn't have end-stage renal disease. The human male suit I wore was on loan from the University of Washington, something to prevent my condition from worsening while I awaited transplant. Fortunately, they allowed me to keep my old face.
Suits had been used in that way since the Sixties, when the medical applications were first explored by the physicians at Johns Hopkins. A decade later, surgical techniques were perfected on suit-wearing humans. Oddly, the suits somehow were made to precisely replicate the biology of what they appeared to be; performing surgery on the suit did nothing to affect the body of the human wearing it -- unless something went hideously wrong, and the wearer died on the table. A terminal episode, in medical lingo. If the suit died, and its biology failed, so did its wearer's.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Ask my high school physics teacher.
The first suits, so I understand, were used by the military in World War Two. Nobody seemed to know the exact missions on which they were deployed, but one suspects them to be extremely valuable in spy work. Later, of course, the technology was co-opted by Animal Preserves, like Tiger Mountain, and by the Screen Actors' Guild. The last great no-suit actors, like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, were crowded out by talented and unattractive newcomers who could afford (or be provided with) the best in artificial bodies.
John Wayne had the last laugh. A variety of actors now play The Duke, wearing transfer suits designed to look just like him. Movies continue to be cranked out depicting that legendary facade, and the Wayne estate rakes in formidable royalties.
Alice rummaged in the back room for a few minutes and returned with four smallsuits piled over one arm and a raccoon suit in the other. I smiled faintly to myself. It seemed strange that someone of Brian's size would be able to fit himself into that tiny little body.
Brian kicked off his shoes and pulled the smallsuit on right over his clothes.
There's a weird subgroup out there of suiters who insist that the only way to properly put on an animal is to strip naked. That's just ridiculous. Once you put on a suit, any suit, that becomes your new body. You aren't even aware of your old body, except once in a while you feel these odd twinges of instinct from a form that you aren't wearing any longer. It wouldn't matter if you were wearing ten pairs of long underwear and a leather trenchcoat. When you put on a new body, you were, for all intents and purposes, naked.
But I should clarify something, here: the typical smallsuit had clothing built-in. You couldn't remove it. Brian now stood before us, looking for all the world like a sixteen-year-old version of himself. One hundred forty pounds, at the outside. He was wearing a nondescript beige jumpsuit labeled "Weight Allow 190-235" across the right shoulder and "Net Max 150" on the left.
Alice weighed him again, grunted, and handed him the next-smaller suit.
In just a few minutes, Brian was about three feet tall. Strangely, he didn't appear distorted or dwarfish; nor did he appear to be a child. He was simply a smaller human being, thirty-six inches in height or less. He accepted the raccoon suit from Alice and slipped his feet into the leggings, and flexed his little black toes experimentally. So far so good. Then he pulled on one sleeve at a time, and his dextrous fingers were quite adept at pulling the suit into position.
Last the head. He pulled it over his own like a hood and it sealed itself under the jaw.
"Everything a go, Brian?" I asked him.
He dropped to all fours, eyes bright, tail twitching. Of course he didn't answer me, but he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
"We'll see you outside," I said with a grin. "Although I doubt you'll be hanging around much with Doug."
"Aw, why not?" Doug asked. "Cougars love raccoons!"
Brian simply chirruped at him, and scuttled out the door.
Renting a transfer suit was about as expensive as going to a football game. You got about four hours in the suit, for maybe twenty bucks. Most of the rental suits could be pre-programmed to wear off in a given amount of time. Like theater owners, the operators of preserves wanted to get as many people into a suit as possible over the course of a day. If you bought your own suit, it could run indefinitely in theory, running off of your own caloric energy, but could only be set to a maximum sixty hour duration, with ten hours refresh time -- for the user, not the suit. You ate a lot more, but the suit burned it off quickly. It was said that the military had timerless ones that ran as long as needed.
"Looks like an old building," Doug commented while Alice took down his weight.
"It was built around 1950," she told us as she ducked into the back room again. When she returned, she had another armful of suits. "There was a fire around 1975 or so, so there's been some remodeling due to smoke damage. But it's still the original design. Here," she said abruptly, as if tired of repeating her factoids about the building and thrusting the suits into Doug's arms. "You don't need a smallsuit. Pick out which cougar you want."
While Doug looked the suits over, Jon asked with some resignation for the doe that remained. Alice gave him an arch look, but said nothing.
Getting Jon into his doe suit was the usual challenge, but in a few minutes we had him standing on four spindly legs, looking around the room somewhat nervously. His -- her? -- nostrils flared and in her eyes was an uneasy look.
"They're long gone," Alice said to Jon. The comment made no sense to me, but the explanation wasn't long in coming. "You're probably smelling that last group that was in here. Wolf, one of them. Don't worry, I made sure the wolf got fed before she went out."
She took the unselected suits from Doug and disappeared through the door again. I glanced at Doug, abruptly remembering something. "I don't think it's the wolf. Jon's probably smelling the one who chose the buck. If I had to pick a doe, and smelled a buck in the area, I'd be nervous, too."
Alice was similarly brusque in handling my request for beaver, but I'd been here several times before and was accustomed to her attitude. What surprised me was her appearance, so obviously degenerating from what might once have been attractive. Smoking had taken its toll on her features. Why wasn't she suiting as a more attractive woman? Or was this her suit, and if so, why?
Getting into the cougar suit was an adventure, too, but fortunately the cat's spine was flexible enough that Doug could remain standing on his hind paws while he struggled with the rest of the suit. For this reason, the cougar suit was split up the front, not the back. I held him up by the shoulders while he wrestled his arms into the sleeves.
He flexed his front claws, frowning. "I think I've got two fingers in one. It's hard to tell."
That was the other problem about wearing suits. It was sometimes difficult to tell if you got the right appendages in the right slots, because as soon as your arm went into the sleeve, you stopped being able to feel it entirely.
Doug tried again and got his fingers in the right places. Getting control of his tail took a little bit of concentration, but once you get used to thinking about an extension of your tailbone, it becomes almost second nature. Unless, of course, you're a bird. Have you ever tried to learn to steer with your butt?
He pulled on the head-hood and dropped to all fours, tail twitching expectantly. Alice gave him the old hairy eyeball. "Come with me," she commanded. "We'll get you fed up before you go out into the wild."
This was typical. You wanted your carnivores to be allowed to gorge before they were put in a preserve with humans suited as potential prey. Either that, or the carnivores had a separate compound, depending on how the place was run. Despite the instinctive hunting reaction Doug might have, he wouldn't lose his humanity enough in four hours to forget that the others in here just might be human.
But you didn't want to stay animal for too long. It became very hard to remember, after a time, that you were still human. Or that your prey might be, too.
I had to put on a few smallsuits to fit into a beaver costume. It didn't matter that I was already wearing a Corey suit; just like a normal body, it was displaced in favor of whatever I was wearing over the top.
Alice wasn't particularly improved by the addition of animal-sharp senses, and now I realized what it was that had made Jon so nervous: the smell of cigarette smoke and black, wet lung that was clinging to Alice and her clothing. It gave me the willies. My instincts were telling me that this was a walking forest fire, and the best reaction was to run, fast, go to ground. I knew better -- it was only the Marlboro Woman, after all -- but I had to actively quash the reactions I felt.
I was all too grateful to get out of the cabin.
A highway of scents led in seemingly all directions from the cabin door, and I was adept enough to recognize most of them. Two deer had left some time ago, and followed closely by the recent trail of a doe that was certainly Jon. Interesting. He meant to catch up to them. Doug hadn't yet emerged from his feast, but I could clearly detect the musky tang of bloody meat. This, too, made me exceptionally nervous.
Brian had wandered off in the direction of the river, toward the clear brisk blue smell of fresh water. I noted the direction with blurry eyes. The habits of being a sight-oriented human were hard to throw.
Another trail ended abruptly right outside the door, some kind of bird. It might have been a Canada goose. Obviously its wearer had taken wing quickly, though in which direction it was hard to tell. And there were a few others, leading off in their various directions. Recent smells were... well, moistly distinct. Anything older than a few hours, in this rain, became wavery and ambiguous. Yesterday's scents were gone almost completely.
I waddled off toward the river.
My dam was nearly as I had left it, and I spent an hour or two scuttling around the inside, pushing bits of wood around to make the den area more comfortable. I wasn't going to spend the winter here, in truth, but the beaver's building instincts coincided well with my own, and it was entertaining -- in a mindlessly repetitious way -- to perfect the dam's finer points.
After a while I began to realize that I would need a few short limbs to wedge into a sagging corner and prop up the ceiling, so I slipped back into the water and made for the shore.
Sitting on the shore of the brackish water was a thick-bodied raccoon, tagged on the ear to indicate he was a suited human. I couldn't smell him well yet, since I had closed my nostrils for swimming, but in a moment I was sure it was Brian. I stood up on my hind feet and waved my front paws awkwardly.
He returned the gesture.
Brian and I had been here many times, and he knew where my beaver dam was located. I didn't know if he had been inside it, but I doubted he could fit in through the underwater entrance as he was. And even if he could, I decided, I didn't want the inside of my den smelling like wet 'coon.
Doug visited the beaver dam a little later on, but Jon was apparently caught up with the buck and doe he had met. We were also visited by a largish rabbit, who seemed interested in investigating the recent changes on the river.
All too soon, however, our allotted time was up. Rental suits were set to a timer that automatically disabled the suit's effects when the time ran out. The good part was that you could sense when the timer was down under ten minutes, which gave you enough time to return to the cabin without feeling like an idiot in a baggy costume.
The others were already out of costume by the time I made it back to the cabin. Pleasantly, the rain had lessened, although it seemed to have dropped a few degrees. Doug was stretching his arms, rolling them at the shoulder, and lolling his head on his neck. I knew I had some time adjusting to walking on two feet again, myself, with no tail to balance myself.
Jon, meanwhile, was talking to two of the girls from the Hyundai -- about deer, naturally. I assumed from that that they were the buck and doe whom he had followed. One of the girls, a blonde, wore a red windbreaker that looked, and faintly smelled, soaking wet. Her friend was a quiet brunette obviously a little self-conscious in a pea-green sweater. She continued plucking at its hem, straightening the fabric against her body.
"Well, it was nice to meet you, Jon," the blonde chirped, putting a hand on his arm. "My friends are probably waiting for us. We're going to go try to find a place close by to go eat. Do you know of any place?"
"Sorry, no," he said, shaking his head. "Doug and I came up from California. I don't know where anything is. You might ask Brian or Corey, though."
"California, really?" she asked brightly. "What part?"
"Carlsbad. It's near San Diego."
"Oh, near Oceanside," the blonde said promptly. "Sure, my sister lives there. Carlsbad is where they have those Legos, right?"
Jon nodded, a bit startled, but not displeased. "Yes."
"She moved down there to go to Cal State." She giggled. "We wanted her to go to UCLA."
"Moved down?" he asked, picking up the same preposition I had noticed. "You live up here, do you?"
"No," she said. "Steph and I live in Las Vegas. But Alex and, uh, Michelle are going to move up here with Ellen. They live in Eugene, but they're applying to the University of Washington for next fall."
The brunette uncrossed her arms and tugged at her sweater again. "We have to go," she reminded her friend.
"Okay," smiled the blonde, looking Jon over again. "You made a pretty doe."
Jon looked at the ground, obviously trying to suppress a blush. "Thanks."
She gave a musical laugh and led her shy friend into the parking lot.
Brian was eyeing Jon speculatively. "Las Vegas isn't that far from Carlsbad," he hinted with a faint smile.
"And she's got a sister," Doug said seriously. I found it strange, but four hours as a predator had seemed to blunt his humorous mood. I thought I might ask, to be sure it wasn't just me, but thought better of it.
"Oh, come on," Jon protested. "It's not like I asked for her phone number."
"You could have," I said. "What was her name, anyway?"
He put his hands in his pockets. "Dinah. And her friend is Stephanie."
I pulled out my car keys. "Let's get going. They had the right idea, anyway. Let's get something to eat."
We waited until Doug, already beginning to recover his levity, was finished writing something silly in the guestbook, and went out to the parking lot. The girls were gathered around the open doors of the Hyundai. Two of them glanced in our direction as we passed them on the way back to my car.
"Hey, Jon," called the blonde, Dinah, with a glint in her eye. "Ellen says there's an old-fashioned burger place down in Cedar Falls. Up in Cedar Falls." Her finger wavered uncertainly as she tried to point northeast to the main freeway. "You guys want to meet there and have lunch with us?"
Jon turned to us questioningly. "Do you know where that is?"
I nodded. "Sure. Why not?"
"Okay." Doug smiled, probably at a comment he'd save to spring on Jon once the girls were out of earshot.
"Sure," Jon called over. "We'll meet you there."
Dinah's smile became sheepish. "Can we follow you? We know it's there but we don't exactly know where it is."
"That's all right," I said with a wry grin. "Just don't tailgate like last time."
One of the girls jabbed the other in the shoulder, who protested playfully. They piled into the Hyundai, and once again, the sound of the radio thumping through the trunk of the car filled the forest.
"Let's go," I said. "As a beaver, the rain is okay, but this is ridiculous."
The restaurant in question was a small, squarish building with a flat roof, built of cinderblock bricks and painted a now-dirty, sickly white. "Tom's Big Burger", advertised the sign, yet as we discovered inside, it was run by a burly man in cook's whites who looked like Billy Brooklyn yet nonetheless spoke with a thick Vietnamese accent. The menu contained such items as pot stickers, teriyaki chicken, and humbao, a potpourri of all-American favorites. But there was no mistaking the delicious wafting scent of frying burgers on the grill, and the sweet tangy scent of bacon and special sauce that permeated the interior.
All the tables were Formica-topped constructions with rounded aluminum legs and aluminum railing around the edge, straight out of a 1960s diner and probably held together from the underside by four decades of gum. On the wide sill of the front windows were several plastic plants, a circle of blue paint intended to resemble a goldfish pond, and several ceramic frogs being blessed by a plaster Jesus with an American flag taped to one hand.
Doug rolled his eyes at the mishmash of decorative ideas, but there was nothing he could have said to make the scenery more amusing, and we all knew it.
"Don't worry," I told the guys under my breath after we'd ordered. "The food is good. He must have majored in Yummy Burgers."
"Maybe interior decoration was only his minor," Brian muttered.
The girls had all retreated to the bathroom as soon as they'd arrived, and filed in the door toward the counter, examining the menu, while we set about putting two tables side to side to make one large table for all of us. Good God, they looked flimsy, but they were heavy as hell. Must have been the gum.
They finished at the counter and came over to our impromptu banquet table. "Here, I'll set next to Jon," announced Dinah, running a small hand across the back of his shoulders and taking the chair beside him. She gave Doug a mere glance. "You can sit on the other side of me."
I ended up sitting next to a girl with strawberry blonde hair named Ellen, who had a pale complexion and greenish-blue eyes. She was wearing a cardigan-style sweater of charcoal over a snug wine-colored turtleneck. She kept watching me throughout the course of our meal, or so I felt, but I could never quite catch her at it.
We learned a little bit more about Dinah, the blonde. She was anxious to leave Las Vegas in favor of more fertile territory, but hadn't made up her mind where to go. Sunny weather agreed with her, but she had no intention of remaining in Sin City where the only occupations were either for the casino -- or were to horrible to contemplate. You could even find video slot machines in the supermarkets, she said. It was too much.
"I don't think I could stand being a dealer," she told us. "It'd be really hard to sit there and watch people lose their life savings, you know? I'd be tempted to help people, and they kick you out for stuff like that. You're not even allowed to take tips from people who are doing well."
Her friend, Stephanie, objected to the city of Las Vegas on the grounds that it was too sleazy, too bright, and too noisy. She didn't say it in so many words, but it seemed to me that she would have preferred a nice, quiet country existence somewhere, but had had the poor fortune to be born in a vice-king's paradise. Not that Stephanie was brave enough to speak much; the sight of four strangers across the table from her must have been a little intimidating for someone with her sensibilities.
At least, sitting down, she had stopped tugging at the hem of her sweater out of nervousness. Now she was pulling at her bangs, and brushing imaginary stray hairs behind her ears, which was almost worse.
Xandra was another matter. "Xandra, like Sandra, with an X," she told us. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind, and there was something a little, well, disconcerting about the very familiar and direct way she looked at me, almost as if issuing a challenge. If not for her feminine appearance, I'd have suspected her place in the quintet of ladies to be the lover of another.
So she played a male wolf, I said, giving myself the benefit of an inward shrug, watching out of the corner of my eye as she boldly declared her desire to, as she put it, "get the hell out of Eugene." Playing a male wolf didn't make you a lesbian, if you were a woman. Neither did the fact that she could swear like a sailor. Or the New-Agey habit of re-spelling your name with non-standard letters. Xandra was short for Alexandra. She just a forceful personality.
I think I would have been a lot more comfortable around Xandra if she had looked like a lesbian. As it was, she was a rather attractive young woman, dark-haired, with wide-set gray eyes, an understated chin, and a soft complexion. Her shapely figure was not exactly hidden by a snug pink Izod short through which I could clearly see the lines of her bra.
More than anything, I guess what made me not wonder about her was the way she didn't even seem to notice that she was making all of us guys uncomfortable with the strength of her personality. She didn't delight or revel in it. Xandra just didn't seem to be aware of it at all.
Now that I thought about it, she was one of the ones in the front seat who had been singing exuberantly to the radio.
The other singer had been Michelle, a vibrantly pretty girl with ash-blonde hair and a quick smile. She wore a slightly baggy sweater from the University of Oregon that couldn't quite disguise that she had the rail-thin body of a dancer. From her mannerisms and slang I suspected early on that she might once have been in the theatrical arts, and confirmation wasn't long in coming.
"I really want to be in theatre," she said, "but the whole idea of schlepping my stuff to L.A. is just such a headache. Seattle isn't big time, I know, but there are a lot of opportunities in radio, and the Seattle Rep is good enough for me. They put up a good version of Cider House Rules. And even then, I could maybe try out with a band and sing, right?"
Her brand of chirpy optimism flitted from one topic about herself to another as her female companions watched her in bemusement. Michelle seemed to be in her own little world. If the entire table wouldn't listen to her, she was content to chatter away at the few people trapped within her immediate radius, Doug and Brian being two of those.
I learned quickly not to make eye contact or feign interest, or Michelle's volume would suddenly go up a few notches, and draw various looks of exasperation, resignation, or apology from her friends.
However, the most interesting of the five was Ellen, who seemed determined not to say anything on her own behalf. We learned that she lived in Seattle in her own apartment, and that Xandra and Michelle were planning to move up here with her. She had a position with a Web consulting firm (she wouldn't tell us which one) and three cats. Apart from that, she seemed as if uncertain how to talk about herself without committing herself one way or another, to her own friends, or to us. She ate her chicken sandwich quietly and let her friends fill in the silent spaces of the conversation.
"So you live in Seattle, too?" Michelle asked, turning to me. "I hear that there's a theatre festival every spring." I could hear the spelling in her mind, the British 're' at the end of theater. It rang out somehow in her voice. "Do they really have a hundred plays going on all over the city?"
"Parts of the city," I conceded. Michelle was opposite me at the table and her interest in my answers monopolized the conversation. Everyone else ceased to compete for volume and listened to the two of us, which was a little embarrassing. "Mainly in the U-District, Belltown, and Capitol Hill."
"Have you ever seen them?"
"Most of them aren't professional shows," I warned her. "Mostly unpaid amateurs with a few black boxes as set pieces, everybody wearing black sweats for costumes. Mostly they're self-directed, self-written. Big huge steaming piles of theater at cut rates. Plus thirty different half-assed cuttings of Lear." I imitated the overblown British accent that had 'Shakespeare' stamped on it in 24-point Moron font. "I am acting! Blow, wind, blow! And crrrack thy cheeks! Except for my show, that is," I added with a grin, dropping the melodramatic accent.
"Oh? What's your show?"
"I composed a musical," I explained. "I didn't write the libretto, though. I was just the resident musical hack." Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that Ellen was watching me again. This time I could actually see her doing it, too, in the silvery side of a napkin dispenser.
"Can we go see it?" Michelle leaned forward on the table, crossing her arms in front of her and getting special sauce on her sleeve.
I shook my head. "It went up and down in about a week. That's how long the Fringe Festival is. We opened March twelfth of last year."
"Wow, how do you remember that?" It was Dinah this time.
"Because that's the day I went in with kidney failure, and I got this beautiful suit."
I explained about the Corey suit, the one I wore full-time to keep me healthy while I awaited more permanent solutions. They seemed most interested when I explained that the University had asked me for my preferences when supplying me with my medically-dispensed permanent transfer suit.
"You mean they asked if you wanted to have a girl suit?" Stephanie had the nerve to giggle, watching me with bright eyes.
"Yes, I could have asked for it if I'd wanted it. It's just a body, it doesn't make a lot of difference. But I didn't want to have to buy a whole new wardrobe, so I stuck with something close to my old body. Except my old body isn't this healthy."
"I never would have done it, either," Xandra declared. "No way. That would be just too weird to do all the time."
Dinah gave her a look of sparkling innocence. "Don't tell me you've never wondered what it would be like to be a boy, Xandra," she said. "You know you have, admit it."
Xandra opened her mouth to answer, and for the first time since we'd met her, she seemed at a loss for something to say. She stammered feebly, "Well, yeah, being a boy might not be that bad. I might have to try it sometime."
"Does your brother come down here, too?" Michelle asked suddenly, reverting to the prior conversation with the doggedness of the not-bright mind. "How old is he? Is he good-looking?"
I chuckled. At least her question defused the awkward challenge between Dinah and Xandra. "He hates wearing transfer suits in his spare time. He's in them all day as it is."
"You know the dog on Frasier? That's him."
That suitably killed Michelle's enthusiasm for talking about her own accomplishments and allowed Jon to have some more quiet conversation with Dinah, while Dr. Brian Cohen tried to avoid getting too in-depth with Michelle and Stephanie about his optometry practice. He just wasn't the sort to talk about himself much, but he was wise enough to realize it was either that, or listen to Michelle talk about herself. Or about her favorite form, geese. That was worse. Michelle could have written the book on geese.
Doug and I sat hunched over, talking softly to one another across the table, trying to engage Ellen in a three-way conversation, but she wasn't biting. Xandra watched Jon and Dinah with something like satisfaction mixed with jealousy flickering across her features, which puzzled me until I remembered they'd mentioned something about being sisters.
I was explaining about the laws regarding medical dispensation of untimed transfer suits to Doug, while Ellen eerily watched me only when I wasn't looking, when I heard Dinah's voice: "Really? You like horses, too?"
Jon seemed to realize that everyone was now looking his way, and his ears went slightly red. "I'd rather be a deer, but horses are right up there."
"Have you ever ranched?" Dinah's face was on the edge of breaking into an eager smile.
Maybe I should explain ranching. It isn't what you think. (Or maybe it is, if you have that turn of mind.) A few businesses have sprung up in nearly every semi-rural community that invite city dwellers out into a ranch-like setting to play at pretend cowboy. These have been common for at least a century, since urbanization made us lose touch with nature and her many wonders. People longed for a simpler life, and apparently paying to be a cowboy temp was just the thing. For no reason clear to me, these were called dude ranches.
After the invention of the transfer suit, of course, someone got the bright idea that not only should the cowboys be pretend cowboys, but perhaps so should the horses. Overnight a sub-industry took hold. Now it was possible to visit a ranch for a weekend and enjoy fresh country-style meals, rubdowns and massages, and long rides in the countryside -- whether you wished to be horse or rider.
"I went to one over in Cleveland National Forest with a friend," Jon was saying, "but we didn't book ahead and there weren't any spare handlers. I want to go to one, though."
"What about you guys?" Dinah asked the rest of us. "Want to go to a rider ranch tomorrow? It'll be fun!"
"Ride around in the rain?" Michelle asked with some distaste.
"The rain didn't bother you today," Brian pointed out.
"I was a goose today," Michelle said. "Geese have these special feathers that insulate while they keep the --"
I interrupted loudly. "I don't think the weather said that it's going to rain tomorrow," I said. "It might be a little wet on the ground, but it's not going to pour like it did today."
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Doug asked. "Bryan and Lance get here tomorrow."
"Brian?" Stephanie asked, perplexed, looking to her left at Dr. Cohen.
"Not that Brian, the other Bryan," Doug explained. "Another Bryan, from Canada. He's still our friend, though," he added.
"It's no good teasing him about Canada, he's not here yet," Jon observed.
"Relax, it's easy," I told the girls. "Brian's a real doctor, he wants to help people see the world. Bryan's a mad doctor, he just wants people to help him take it over. Once you've met them, you'll never get them confused."
This drew a laugh from Doug and Jon, who knew both of them. Brian himself simply smiled benevolently. "I can find them online tonight and see what they think about a change in plans," he offered. "Or call if I can't reach them on the Internet. I don't think they'll mind, but they might be upset if they rented a car and came all the way out here and found out we weren't here to meet them."
"Tell them we'll pick them up at the airport, then," I suggested. "There's a rider ranch down south of Kent, that's close to the airport. We'll just pick them up on the way there."
"So you guys know each other from the Internet, huh?" asked Dinah, looking us over as if reappraising us all.
Jon nodded. "We all belong to an email group called TSA."
"Transfer Suit Admirers," Doug supplied helpfully.
"It was started by a guy in Austria named Thomas. He's got this great collection of suits. They aren't regulated over there the same way they are over here, so you're allowed to own as many as you want. Horses are his favorite, too," Jon added.
"What do you do? You can't wear suits at each other over the computer." Michelle giggled at her own copious wit.
Brian shrugged. "At first, the list was just to compare various suits, discuss animal behaviors and habitats. Tell the others of our experiences with certain brands, talk about new developments in the technology. Then a few people began writing short stories based on their adventures in various animal and human suits. It's your typical fan group."
"Some people insist on writing bad poetry," I put in. "You never know what you're going to get."
Xandra, however, had locked on to another part of the conversation. "Human suits? Why would you want to wear human suits?"
"Gender suits," Doug clarified. "And some people like wearing suits of small children. You know. Different human shapes other than your normal one."
This seemed to satisfy Xandra's curiosity, and more than enough. "Ah," she said, putting on a disinterested look. "Okay."
Michelle's expression was one of bright-eyed enthusiasm. "Do you guys do that? Or do you just do animals?"
I had, of course, in sampling various untimed suits at the University of Washington. Jon had also tried it once. Brian hadn't, not that I'd expected him to; he'd moved into the Seattle area and I'd had many opportunities to talk with him face to face. I knew which direction his tastes lay. But neither had Doug, which surprised me. He must have been too busy playing around with the coyotes in Modesto, I grinned to myself.
Michelle clapped her hands together, smiling radiantly. "That's what we should do! We could all go out tonight in gender suits and go dancing!"
Brian's look of distaste was not lost on me, and as he was sitting beside Xandra, I could hardly have missed hers, either. "If you want to," Dr. Cohen began slowly, "you go ahead. I'm going to try to contact Lance and Bryan tonight anyway, you go on without me."
"Ditto that," Xandra said emphatically.
Stephanie looked down at her hands, which had resumed plucking at her pea-green sweater. "I don't really think I would be very good at being a guy," she said hesitantly in a soft voice. She appeared grateful that her bangs had flopped over to cover her blushing features. "I think I'll just stay at the motel. Or maybe Alex and I could get a movie or something..."
The rest of us didn't seem to object too strenuously to the idea, so I asked the girls, "Is that the plan, then? Go out tonight -- not too late, I have a long way to drive home -- and get back together tomorrow, after we pick up Bryan and Lance? That sounds good to me."
Dinah and Michelle nodded together. "How do we get hold of you, then?" I asked. "Do you have the number for your motel room?"
Michelle looked embarrassed. "I have it written down at the hotel room, does that count?"
"You can have my number at the apartment," said a voice beside me, and I turned in surprise to recognize it as Ellen, who had finally spoken. She didn't sound frightened or shy; her tone was amazingly decisive and still pleasant. It was as if she had finally made up her mind to speak, and had gone forth with confidence. "You call me, and I'll call them. I have their number at my house."
After that, I drove Brian back to his apartment in Bothell, where he promised to get in contact with our final two visitors and inform them we would be waiting at the gates to pick them up. Doug, Jon and I didn't own our own gender suits, but there was a place I knew of on Capitol Hill in Seattle that was a popular place to rent them. If not there -- it was a rather late hour by this time, after all, to simply walk in off the street and hope for a good selection -- then there was another place, less frequented, just off of Mercer near the west shores of Lake Union.
Gender-suiting was one thing in the privacy of your own home, or in my case, in a white sterile examination room, but another thing entirely when you planned to go out for a night on the town. None of us felt entirely at ease walking back out into a damp Seattle evening wearing the bodies we had selected.
Doug complained that her back felt permanently arched to show off her chest, while we told her bemusedly that it was probably her own fault, which, of course, she denied. Jon didn't like the way her feet were too close together, as it made her feel unbalanced, especially in low heels. I wasn't particularly happy about having long hair. It's very distracting if you've never had it before, and it isn't as light as it looks.
None of us was particularly inclined to try any alcohol while suited this way.
As it happened, we ran into the three girls outside the suit rental place, and they insisted upon giving us feminine hugs in our new bodies before going inside to order their new forms. It felt strange and awkward to hug -- well, let's face it, another woman. Breast to breast. Very odd. Your eyes tell you it's a familiar situation, but your body reminds you, hoo-boy, you've never done it like this before.
We ended up spending the evening with them at the Seattle Fun Fair, a year-round carnival of rides, arcades, and midway games sprawled at the foot of the Space Needle. It wasn't terribly long before the instincts of the suits kicked in, and all of us had forgotten that we weren't the proper gender. We simply enjoyed the thrill of the rides.
My favorite was the Lazer Tag booth, even though the designers hadn't exactly made the target vests with women in mind.
At around ten o'clock the rides began their final rounds, and the six of us decided we'd better call it a night. We had lots of plans for the following day, after all. And Bryan and Lance would be here in the morning, as well.
"Good night, you guys," Dinah said, dispensing strong-armed hugs in his male-suited form. "Call Ellen in the morning and let us know when your friends get in."
I submitted to being embraced by the three 'girls', which didn't seem nearly as odd this time around as it had when we'd first encountered one another outside of Zoot's Suits. Of course, they were all men this time, but still.
"Do we go turn these back in now?" Jon asked, indicating her body as we walked back to the G Lot where I'd parked my Toyota.
"They won't be open," Doug said. "And we've rented them until Sunday night at ten. Why not meet Lance tomorrow like this?"
Jon simply gave Doug a steady look, though it was difficult to say whether she was giving it serious thought or preparing a retort.
"There's another advantage to keeping them until Sunday," I pointed out as we arrived together at the car. "Tomorrow we do the rider ranch, that's fine. But let's say Sunday we go back to Tiger Mountain. You're a lot smaller in these bodies, and we could do small animals without having to use smallsuits. A lot of guys do it this way. It's less uncomfortable, from what I hear. The way you are now you could probably fit into a coyote without a smallsuit!"
Jon smiled at the thought. "And with the smallsuit?"
I grinned back over the roof of the Tercel. "Sky's the limit."
"Okay," she decided. "As long as we don't have to return them, let's keep them, in case they come in handy on Sunday. Besides," she added, "just once I want to go to bed and wake up like this. Just to see what it's like."
"I don't have a problem with that," I said, and unlocked the door.
Bryan's flight was the first to arrive the following morning, an early arrival at the United gate. We watched the passengers disembark from the gate into a foyer where they removed their smallsuits. The suits reduced the effective size and mass of the plane's human cargo, permitting greater numbers to be ferried on each flight at the same fuel cost.
It was an extra step for boarding and exiting, but no more of a hassle than finding your luggage. Besides, nosuit flights cost double because you could take a normal-sized carry-on bag.
Jon had opted not to wear his gender suit to the airport. Being out in public in one had unnerved him considerably the night before, and no matter how comfortable you got while wearing it, sometimes it was never comfortable to contemplate actually doing it beforehand. Doug and I were still wearing ours. I hadn't taken mine off since the night before, and Doug hadn't either, I suspected. I doubted that once I took it off if I'd be able to get up the nerve to put it back on. Honestly, it had almost late in getting to the airport, because --
I'd better not get into it too deeply. But I did have to take a shower in it, after all, didn't I?
We waved to him from the balcony above and headed for the throng at the head of the escalators. Bryan collected his shoulder satchel and stepped up the stairs toward us.
"Hey, Bryan," Jon said with a brief wave.
"Hi," he said cheerfully. "Which one's mine?"
I blinked. I'm sure Doug and Jon were equally perplexed.
Dr. Cohen chuckled. "We drew straws. You get the ugly one."
It was then that I realized Bryan was talking about us. Doug and me. "We aren't the girls Brian told you about," I said as indignantly as I could while trying not to smile. "That's Doug and I'm Corey."
"Oh?" he asked, feigning surprise, peering at me. "No wonder there aren't five of you."
It occurred to me belatedly that not even Bryan would have been so bold as to ask "which one's mine?" had he suspected Doug and me to be strangers. I just gave him an exaggerated, defeated sigh and a tired smile.
"Now we look for baggage claim," Brian said, turning around to look at the directionals in the ceiling.
"This way," Bryan said alertly, nodding down the hallway. "Just follow the signs."
"And the crowd," Jon noted.
Bryan deserves a little description at this point, I suppose. He's not physically impressive, being somewhat slight of build with limp brown hair, a high forehead, and a prominent nose. But looking at him, you got the idea that he was about three steps ahead of you in the conversation and waiting sadly for you to catch up. I found him to be quite glib, however, and more than ready to leap into nearly any topic of discussion.
We had to wait for Lance in a part of Sea-Tac airport I had never seen before, where UPS and Federal Express had cargo planes idling after freight delivery. Lance worked with Fed Ex in Memphis and was able to request space on board the company's planes to fly around the country. It was called 'jumpseating', he said, and he was quite casual about it, so I didn't inquire too closely.
The process became more apparent as we watched him from a distance debarking directly to the tarmac, a carry-on slung over one shoulder with a video camera bag, and lugging a suitcase in the other. He shot us a grin that was somehow both roguish and shy as the wind slicing down from the Duwamish river valley whipped through his short black hair.
"You're looking a little pale, Lance," Bryan called loudly over the roar of a departing Alaska Airliner. "Did you spend all summer inside?"
"Spent all summer in my new 'roo suit," he said, his grin widening.
"I thought you were walking a little funny," Doug quipped.
Lance couldn't quite rival the suit collection owned by Thomas, but his was certainly the best of anyone I'd met. If you had a question about a variety of suit, and it was after bedtime in Europe, you asked Lance.
"Why the camera?" I asked. We were heading off the tarmac now, toward the parking garage. Sea-Tac was an unattractive pile of geometry, as architecture went, and the garages were no different: two ascending spirals flanking six floors of blank concrete. At least the landscaping was tolerably attractive.
"I thought I'd get some video of the ranch," he said. "Weather permitting."
"Don't worry, it should be nice today. As nice as it gets in Seattle at this time of year." The sky overhead was blanketed with a uniform layer of gray, but didn't appear threatening, at least to me. "You might not get good light, but you won't get wet."
A few minutes passed, and as their conversation faded, I noticed that I was getting a little farther ahead of the others, and stopped to look. Lance was busily fishing something out of his bag, then presented a magazine to Bryan. "There's a good article in here on 'taurs, if you want. I read it on the flight."
Bryan gave a short laugh. "I probably wrote half of it."
"Oh?" Dr. Cohen gave him an interested look. "I thought you were working on insectoids."
"The primary difficulties in each aren't all that different," Bryan explained. "There are some interesting parallels. For example, if you put on a 'taur suit, how many limbs do you have? Six. Two more than you do now. Getting accustomed to even a basic centaur takes several consecutive days of what amounts to physical therapy."
"I've heard that," Lance nodded.
We arrived at the elevator and stood around the dull aluminum-finished doors. These were probably the slowest elevators in the entire world, but we had plenty to talk about.
"Now with the insectoid suits, you have the same problems writ large, plus a few others. Three times as many extra limbs, exoskeletal muscular attachment, multi-faceted compound vision, faster-firing nervous system, complete rearrangement of sensory perception, not to mention that even common houseflies have separate organs for sensing variances in air pressure, which is something humans lack completely." Bryan ticked off his list quickly. Obviously he spent a lot of time with these very problems.
"We've made some progress with the extra limbs," he went on. "The acclimation time is down to a week for every extra pair. Centipedes are still out of the question," he added with a wry grin. "The difficult part is still the firing of the nervous system. Bumblebees can fly, but the trouble is their wings flap fifty times faster than their nervous system can communicate the signal. Basically, it's twanging the wing muscle like a rubber band. Getting a human brain to fire those wings hasn't been easy."
The elevators finally creaked to a halt in front of us. We piled on board next to an elderly couple. The old man had a blue rain hat, and his wife had a child's raincoat over one arm. Going to meet someone, I decided, or just left someone behind.
"Insects?" a woman asked. I turned in mild surprise -- oh. It was just Doug. "How can you possibly fit into one of those suits?"
"Not insects, insectoids," I said, pressing the button for the fourth floor.
"Human-sized insects," Bryan explained. "Although the best we've done so far are insects about the size of a cocker spaniel."
"Plenty big enough for me," Doug said, her blue eyes wide.
"And you probably test them all out yourself?" Jon asked.
"Once in a while. Mostly, we pay student volunteers."
The elevator ground to a shuddering stop, and after a nerve-wracking pause, the doors rumbled open on three. The elderly couple shuffled out of the cabin, and the old woman turned toward us, very deliberately, and said in a petulant, querulous voice, "Those suits are bad for you, kids. God will smite you dead if you keep wearing them."
There were people like this everywhere, and I had a ready response. It was hard enough to tolerate narrow-mindedness, but arrogant holier-than-thou was too much. "God would already have smited me dead if I hadn't worn this suit," I said waspishly. "I have kidney failure, ma'am. Thanks for being so understanding." I jabbed at the Close Door button while she looked horrified and indecisively empathetic at the same time, trying to come up with a suitable response.
We left her stammering on three, like a fish gasping for air. Her husband merely had a look of sadness. It was only after a moment of silence that I remembered I was still in my Asian girl suit.
"I hate people like that," Jon said quietly. The elevator resumed its creaky climb.
Nothing more was said. The old woman was probably from the Sixth Day Advocates, a fundamental right-wing assembly of speciesist nuts who believed that a perfect God could never have made the mistake of making people who wanted to be anything but human. We all thought that wanting to more nothing more than human was the mistake. People who wanted to be stuck with crappy human senses all hours of the day lacked ambition. And there were a number of others sympathetic to suit-wearing fans like us, but not so many that you could count them on the street.
Suits were still fairly uncommon. One estimate put it at fifteen percent of the U.S. population used a suit for non-medical reasons more than once a month. Another estimate five percent, another twenty-five. Some gender-suit wearers found themselves unable to admit their true selves in states like Alabama and Arizona, where it was illegal without a prescription. And places in Canada forbade the use of anthropomorphic suits.
The elevator opened its doors at four. A young couple with a double-stroller waited wearily outside. The wife's face was lined and drawn, grateful her twins were asleep and quiet under yellow ducky blankets. Beside her, her husband was piled down with far too much luggage.
We crept out of the elevator past the sleeping children and began the hunt for Brian's and my cars.
"Smote," said Jon with a faint smile as I unlocked his door.
"Smote, not smited," he said, and got inside.
"I'll try to remember that next time," I chuckled, and unlocked the hatchback for Bryan's luggage.
The rider ranch in Kent had once been the core of a tiny farming community before the economy had been swallowed up by sea trade in the early part of the twentieth century. Now all that was left was a pair of oddly mismatched farmhouses perched at either end of the sprawling acreage, and a quaint church building that had been converted into a barn since before the Depression. Most of their lands were once tilled farmland, but had reverted to tall grasses, pastures, and more than a few thick copses of young trees.
That much, at least, was distantly visible from the freeway as we overlooked the property coming down Interstate 5. Finding our way along the winding country roads to the ranch itself was a little more difficult; the signs that denoted the way to the Broken Heath Ranch were few and far between, and just before each one, we wondered if we'd lost the track.
We also speculated about the name, Broken Heath, and what it might mean. Ranches, I had always thought, were named after the type of brand used by the cattlemen, like Circle R or Double J.
I mentioned this to Bryan and Jon.
"Maybe their lands were divided by some geographical feature," he said. "Like a river. Or maybe they didn't brand their livestock. That's usually to identify them during cattle drives."
"I hope if they do, their suits are already branded," Jon said, wincing.
I thought about it.
"If they do brand their livestock," I said, thinking of the converted church-barn, "they could probably call themselves the Bar Nun."
Jon had to hit me because Bryan was groaning too badly.
We found the gate to the Broken Heath was sprinkled with a handful of dedicated protesters, probably more stubborn idiots from the Sixth Day Advocates. Signs were being waved on the order of "God Does Not Make Mistakes" and "Treasure Your Body" and "Honor Your Parents, Stay Human". What nonsense. All that was missing was the freak with the rainbow-colored wig and the placard reading "John 3:16."
They blockaded the drive and knocked on our windows with disapproving smiles, evidently wanting us to take some of their Xeroxed pamphlets. They looked as if they wouldn't let us in unless we took enough of them for each of us. One gritty-faced woman was grimly tucking them under my windshield wipers. Behind us, Brian's car was getting the same treatment.
As one, the protesters backed away from the hood of the Toyota, and we saw the reason why: two impressive figures were advancing through the gates. Both were far more than human height, spectacular in upper-body build, and had equine dimensions of equal magnificence. One was a burly-seeming man with a bushy red beard wearing a green flannel shirt flecked with sawdust. His companion was a woman only slightly shorter, with a straining suede vest, red neck scarf, and a cowboy hat.
Centaurs. Both carrying shotguns.
"-- private property," we heard the man say. "And unless you want to test the decision of Dreysdale v. Circle X, you'd better get your ass out of my driveway and stop harassing my customers."
One protester muttered something we couldn't quite make out.
"Oh, no?" the red-bearded giant asked with a slow smile. "Step right up, you're welcome to try me. Any time. In fact, you know what time it is now?" He raised the shotgun to hip level, aiming both barrels into the crowd. "Right now it's ten to thirty-thirty."
The crowd dispersed reluctantly, shouting slogans at us as they left.
I rolled down my window as the centaur knelt down beside the car. "Don't worry about them, we don't let their kind in here," he said gruffly. "Go ahead and pull in. You'll want to park on the left, the right side of the parking lot's pretty muddy."
In the lot was a familiar red Hyundai.
"Hi, you guys," called Dinah cheerfully from the wide front porch of the farmhouse. "What took you so long?"
"This place is hard to find from the freeway," I explained lamely.
"Where's Michelle?" asked Doug, seeing only four girls on the porch.
Dinah made a face. "She's at an audition. Besides, she's not really into horses."
"That's okay," Brian said. "That just makes the numbers even. Five horses, five riders."
"So these are your friends?" she asked, looking at Bryan and Lance. "Which one's the mad scientist?"
Bryan gave us a sidelong look of mock suspicion that made Dinah laugh.
The red-bearded centaur interrupted us politely. "If you're ready, pair up and come inside. We'll settle the bill first, and then we'll head out to the barn and get you suited up." He gave a disapproving look to the skirt Doug's body was wearing. "You'll want to borrow some riding pants, I think." He rapped on the rain gutter with one thick-knuckled hand and bawled, "Ginny! Get out here and take these customers' money so they can get to riding!"
He turned, showing off his impressive russet equine flanks. "I'll meet you in the barn. I'm Troy. The other is my wife, Angie." Without a further word of introduction, he trotted off in the direction of the barn.
"Interesting," Xandra said, watching the centaur depart, though whether she was referring to his personality or his suit, I couldn't tell.
I slapped my head, and remembered to introduce Lance and Bryan to the girls. We chatted idly for a few minutes, and eventually broke into pairs. I ended up with Ellen, the girl who was staring at me in the burger joint the day before. She turned out to be a great deal more talkative one-on-one than in a crowd. I supposed that was only natural, that was how I usually was myself.
"You girls sure got here pretty quickly," I said by way of starting a conversation.
She smiled. "That wasn't my fault," she said. "I wanted to sleep in."
"Michelle answered the phone," I nodded. "She wanted to talk. She didn't want to have to go wake you up. I think she was hoping you'd wake up on your own."
"She can be a little wishy-washy at times," Ellen answered carefully. "Like today, she couldn't decide if she wanted to try out for Rosalind or -- or --" She came to a sudden halt. I got the impression she had been trying to change the subject, but hadn't picked a particularly good alternative.
"Or Orlando?" I prompted. "I guess she could wear a boysuit and try out for the male lead. Nothing wrong with that."
She seemed relax a little in relief. "Something like that. Michelle can be a little weird at times, you'll see."
We went inside to pay for our time at the ranch. It's more expensive than visiting a preserve, but nowhere near as costly as buying your own horse suit. You might expect to may anywhere from six to ten thousand dollars for a suit of good quality animal replication -- not something you impulse-buy at the register with Fruit Stripe gum.
Yeah, I know. The bargain-basement ones were only a thousand. But the timers on those are tricky to set and not particularly reliable.
"So, what did Michelle talk about?" Ellen asked, trying to sound casual. "Me, probably."
"No, she managed to squeeze in several minutes of talking about herself," I said with a laugh. "Fortunately we avoided the subject of geese altogether."
"I don't know what she told you about me," Ellen said doggedly, "but I guarantee you she doesn't know me that well. Whatever she told you, she doesn't know the whole truth."
"She didn't say anything about you," I promised her. "Except that you were still asleep."
Again she seemed relieved. "Good." She looked toward the barn, where the others were already ducking inside. "We'd better get going, or we'll be late."
As we picked our way between patches of mud toward the whitewashed doors of the barn, she asked, "So how come you came as a girl again today?"
"Doug and I decided to meet them at the airport this way," I said with a laugh, once again conscious of my long black hair. "We just haven't had time to change since then."
"How do you like being a girl?"
"It's not that bad," I said. "I've never been one for this long at a stretch, though. You get used to it surprisingly fast -- once you get up the nerve to do it at all."
"Ever think about trading in for a girl suit all the time?"
I thought about it. "Every once in a while. Maybe I'd switch back and forth every week or so. It gets awfully expensive in clothes, though."
Ellen laughed. "I'll bet. It's too bad you wouldn't stay a girl, though. You're pretty cute this way."
She slipped her hand in mine, and I was a bit startled to discover that her hand was the larger one.
"Don't let this happen to you," Troy said, gesturing with a huge meaty hand at a forlorn-looking gelding chewing hay in its stall. "When it's time to change out of your suit, don't decide to be funny and gallop off and hide from us. You acclimate quickly in big animal suits, if you've never done it before. You stay in one of these too long and it'll be hard to walk when you get out. Too much longer and you'll want to eat hay. You'll want to come right back when we blow the airhorn. This one here ran off into the gully instead and we didn't find him for a day and a half. After he'd already rented the suit for two weeks straight."
He eyed us all warningly. "Don't let it happen to you."
We suited up with me as the horse first. Troy automatically selected a mare suit for me, and it wasn't until I was encased in hooves and hide that I even noticed. Ah, well, not that it would make a tremendous difference for the next several hours.
The saddle wasn't particularly comfortable when it was cinched around my barrel, but Ellen was a competent rider and not particularly heavy. The only thing that worried me was the bridle.
Instead, Troy used what he called a hackamore, which laced around my head and directed me with pressure on the bridge of my long nose. I didn't like all the leather straps, but it was better than having a bit in my mouth.
We rode around the corral, slowly, while I became accustomed to being directed by Ellen's nudges and tugs. I found that I could detect shifts in her balance that gave me clues to her intent. There was a dull ache in one forehoof, which Troy noticed in my stride and attended to by cleaning out a clump of sawdust and mud.
Our riding pace was leisurely at first, moving out across the pastures toward a thick line of trees. The leaves in among the underbrush were soaked with rain and dew, and brushing up against them was refreshingly cool.
"Stop that," Ellen chuckled, nudging me back into the center of the trail. "You're getting my pants all wet."
The line of trees followed a gully with a gurgling, muddy stream in its depths. Along its edge the trail was marked with stakes, a stringed barrier, and bright gray ribbons. Strange, I thought. You'd have thought they'd have used pink.
I came to realize that they probably were pink, but it was my eyesight that was different.
Never had I used the suit of a large herbivore, so the hardest part to get accustomed to was the lack of depth perception. Binocular vision was particularly strange; I could see to both sides, and it was easier to turn my head to look than roll my eyes. (Trying to roll my eyes was a sure way to get a headache, I found out quickly.)
Ellen talked with me almost constantly, speaking reassuringly that I was doing well. When not treating me like a horse, however, she talked somewhat reluctantly about herself, and her job. She seemed particularly pleased with her cats. And she loved the weather up here in the Pacific Northwest; it had character. She had once lived in Nebraska, and missed the thunderstorms, but could do without the tornadoes.
The subject she came back to most frequently was my medical suit, and how it was a shame that I decided I should stay a boy. She was driving at something, but so far, it wasn't clear what.
We traded off in the mid-afternoon. Ellen galloped me back to the barn, and walked me in the corral to let me cool off. Then Angie the centaur helped us trade.
"Now you get to be the horse," I told her after climbing out of the costume.
Ellen grinned at me. "Sounds like fun!"
"It is," I said, "but I'm going to get out of this girl suit --" I made as if to unseal the suit at the jaw.
"No," she begged. "Stay in that body. Please?"
I relented and assisted her into her mare suit. "Oh, very well," I said with a rueful smile. "Just this once."
Angie began to saddle her.
"I know what you're thinking," said a voice close by. Xandra was standing there, holding Doug's halter, watching me with a flat expression. "But don't let it fool you. Don't let it go to your head, she's just playing with you."
"What?" I asked, surprised.
"She's just flirting with you," Xandra went on implacably. Ellen, beside me, was restless now, and tossed her head angrily at the young woman.
"What do you mean?"
Xandra looked disgusted. "You aren't really a girl, right?" When I nodded she looked at Ellen the mare. "Well, neither is she. She's just a boy wearing a girlsuit."
I gave Ellen's deep soulful eyes a look of shock. "Really?"
Ellen shook off Angie's attention and darted out into the corral.
I followed her unsteadily on only two feet. The horse suit's four-footed instincts were interfering badly with my coordination. Ellen was racing around the corral, looking for an open gate. There were none.
She pawed at the muddy ground, looking wildly from fence to fence. Judging if she could leap them.
"Ellen, wait," I said. It might not have been her name, but I didn't know what her real one might have been.
She turned to watch me warily.
"We have to talk."
Angie drew near, and Ellen shivered, but didn't run. The centaur unsealed the suit and helped Ellen out of it.
Ellen and I retreated to the fence of the corral together. Xandra followed at a discreet distance with Brian and Lance.
"I know, I should have told you," Ellen said to me in a voice of deepest regret. "But you were so nice to me. It was hard to disappoint you. Yes, Xandra's right, I'm wearing a girl suit, like she is."
I looked at Xandra for confirmation, and she nodded. "I'm really Alexander. And Michelle is really Michael. Stephanie and Dinah are for real, though."
Ellen nodded, beginning to sniffle, but didn't say anything.
"I'm sorry, but I had to say something," Xandra went on. "I could understand why she was doing it, but I knew it wasn't going to work out."
"It's better that I know the truth, anyway," I agreed. It was not easy to admit.
Ellen was reaching up to her jaw, and her eyes turned up toward mine, red with tears but firm with sudden decision. "But I have to show you something."
"You don't have to," I said hurriedly. "I believe you're really a boy."
But she continued to remove her girl suit, stepping out of it and tossing it over the pine-log railing.
Xandra watched, unsurprised. "Corey, meet Alan," she said flatly.
Alan was a tall young man with blonde hair and freckles, rather solidly built. He wore simple blue jeans and a dark green Van Heusen.
I nodded uncomfortably at Alan, all the more aware that I was in a very weakly muscled female form at the moment.
"Wait," he said.
And reached under his jaw again.
This time the Alan suit peeled away to reveal an attractive young woman with wild black hair and wide-set brown eyes. Her features and complexion were slightly Mediterranean. The Alan suit joined the Ellen suit on the wooden railing.
"I'm not Alan at all, actually," said the woman before me. "I never really was."
The squishing noise was that of Alexandra's jaw hitting the mud.
"I met Alex and Michael while I was in this suit," she explained. "We were up at the University, going over the bulletin boards and registering for class. I was posting that I was looking for roommates, and they were looking for a place to stay. It all worked out really nicely."
"What were you doing in a boy suit at all?" Xandra asked.
"My doctor suggested I should try it," she answered simply. "He gave me a prescription for a two-month stint as a boy to help me with -- well, it was part of my therapy." She didn't elaborate. "I hated it at first, but I really don't mind it now. I thought maybe I could meet someone --" She waved it off with a hand. "Doesn't matter now. But I thought you should know. You'd have found out sooner or later anyway."
"You'd have let us move in?" Xandra asked, awed. "Like this?"
"Sure," the young woman shrugged. "Why not?"
Xandra stammered a non-reply.
I looked at the two suits hanging over the rail. "So, are we going to go riding or not?" asked with a grin.
She smiled shyly. "If I haven't scared you away."
"Not at all," I said. "By the way, is Ellen your real name? It's certainly not Alan."
"It's Helen," she said, dropping her gaze.
"Meaning 'beautiful'," I said softly. "Come on, let's put Ellen and Alan away and go for a ride."
We walked, hand in hand, back toward the barn. Xandra trailed behind, stunned beyond speech. Brian's look was faintly congratulatory.
The one thing I've learned, if I've learned anything, is that to date in the age of transfer suits, you've got to stay flexible.