|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian
Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims
-- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for
short. Unfortunately, when human beings change, it takes time
for their political institutions to catch up...
Go here for more information on the setting.
Seizing the Acorn
by Phil Geusz
©2002 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
"Lapine SCABS is not a condition to be ashamed of!" the speaker declared loudly from the special low-standing podium that had been brought into the hotel especially for our meetings. "This thing has to have happened to us for a reason, though perhaps we may not quite understand it. There must be something that we can learn from it, or some way that we can grow as a result of SCABS. We should revel in our condition, and be proud of who we are!"
I sighed very quietly and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. It was ironic, really, that I should find a seat designed especially for lapine and other smaller Scabs to be so much more uncomfortable than the far more common type of chair made for Norms. Even the tail-hole didn't help very much, the seat was so poorly designed. I sat very low to the ground, and the pebble-grain in the plastic kept snagging at my fur and pulling it whenever I moved. It was all a matter of what I was used to, I supposed, though the other rabbits and hares in the room with me seemed to be just as ill at ease with the special furniture that had been brought in for us as I was.
"Each and every one of us used to be Norms," the speaker continued, lisping slightly with every word. Most rabbits were very careful not to do that, I knew, but Paul seemed to consider his lisp, like his ears, to be some sort of badge of honor. "We were perfectly average people. But we were chosen by blind nature to become something else, to undergo a transformation so profound and so all-encompassing in its scope that its limits genuinely cannot be discerned. We have been offered the chance to grow into something new and different and very, very special! Why on Earth should we be ashamed of this?"
I sighed. What makes us more special than the rodents? I asked in the privacy of my own mind. Or more special than bovines or equines? Just because we were at a lapine Scab convention wasn't reason to become chauvinists, or at least I certainly didn't think so.
"You are probably asking yourselves why I think that we are so very special," the swamp-rabbit continued from the dais. "There are many, many varieties of Scabs in this poor world, and despite the terrible tragedies that have resulted, we should never forget that the human experience has been enriched beyond measure because of this disease. We define time differently than we once did due to SCABS, of course, and we also define life and death differently as well. So much has changed for us all!" He rocked his ears and lowered his head slightly in a submission gesture. "Well, as a matter of fact, I don't think that we're any more special than the chronomorphs or the inanimorphs or for that matter the cats or dogs or felines or reptiles or what-have-you." Paul raised his eyes and seemed to look directly into mine. "But at the same time it is we who have become lapines, not anyone else! It is we who have grown the ears and tails and given up meat. It is we who mostly live our lives in fear, whose minds are so touched by what we have become. And this is what makes us so very special! We are who we are! It is up to us; if we do not take pride in ourselves and celebrate our rabbithood, then who will? Can anyone do it for us? I think not!" He glared around the room, and this time it was reflexively my eyes that fell.
Paul smiled. "Welcome, each and every one of you, to the very first International Lapine Scab convention, sponsored by the LapiScab International Mailing List. Welcome, my brother and sister bunnies, to a weekend devoted to celebrating who we have become instead of trying to hide it under a basket. Welcome to a venue set up to accomodate your needs instead of those of the Norms, to an environment where it is safe for you to be who you really are. Welcome to a place where you can groom and snuggle in public without being stared at, and where you can travel about comfortably on four feet without feeling self-conscious." Paul spread his arms wide and smiled; he was still largely human in the upper body. "In a word, welcome!"
For just a moment there was silence in the auditorium, then all four-hundred and thirty-four of us lapines present for the Opening Ceremonies (out of five hundred and fifteen scheduled to attend) applauded politely, each of us in our own way. Some clapped their still fairly-human hands, some silently bowed their heads in lapine approval, while others stamped their feet rhythmically. Rather self-consciously, I joined in with the foot-stampers; my forepaws were much too soft and furry to effectively applaud with, and I felt far too animal-like when using totally lapine body language. Usually in a crowd of Norms I never stamped to show approval, no matter how badly my foot itched to slap itself against the ground. It felt good to give in to the urge for once, I had to admit. Damned good! Thumpthumpthump! my right hindfoot went almost of its own volition, part of a rumbling thunder of hindfeet stamping, stamping, stamping away. Perhaps coming here had been a good idea after all, I mused. I'd almost stayed home and worked instead. After all, that was what I did most weekends.
"Thank you!" Paul cried out as the sound slowly died away. "Thank you all so very much! Brother and Sister rabbits, bucks and does, lops and longears and hares! Your convention staff has worked long and hard to make this convention experience a very positive one for each and every one of you. This year's theme is 'The Joy of Rabbithood'; we've arranged for special food to be brought in and there are two public suites especially reserved for communal snuggling. We've got special interest group meetings dealing with everything from the spiritual implications of rabbithood to the situation with the Lapine Colonies, and our specially-reserved banquet room will be open twenty-four hours a day to accommodate all feeding schedules." He paused dramatically and spread both arms and ears wide. "So, let the convention begin!"
And it did, of course, with a roar of conversation. Practically everyone seemed to be sitting next to someone they knew and could not wait to talk to; I was seemingly the only one present who didn't know anybody. This was my own fault, of course; I'd been on the LapiScab List for several years but had never posted anything beyond the obligatory introductory message; my life was far too busy for social mailing lists, after all! The List was a terrific hubbub of activity, but somehow I'd just never joined in. So I simply sat alone for a moment, drinking in the almost overwhelming scent of rabbit in the air, and then I sighed and very carefully I levered myself up out of the poorly-designed seat.
"Those things suck, don't they?" a small brown lop said with a smile. "They were designed by Chester Addison, a Norm friend of Paul's who has designed a lot of Scab furniture. Most of it, I might add, has been far more successful. Paul wanted to rush the things right in here, so he ordered them right off of the drawing board. Personally, I think that he went a little overboard ordering so many."
I nodded and squinted at the lop's nametag, then discretely took a sniff to make sure that Scallion was indeed a male, as I rather suspected from his build. "Well," I observed. "They must be comfortable for someone. Maybe we're just not morphed right?"
"I doubt it," Scallion answered. "Most of us are pretty much shaped like you and I, though I'm a bit on the small side. The really extreme morphs are mostly penned up in the Colonies, you know. And that pebble-grain texturing!" He shuddered and pointed. "A very bad idea, that was. Just look!"
I followed his pointing finger and nodded. The seat that I'd just climbed out of was covered with white fur which up until very recently had been part of my coat. Even worse, all of the other chairs looked the same way. And it wasn't even shedding season!
"Well," Scallion said, "look on the bright side of things. We only put those chairs in this one room; the breakout rooms are all furnished for Norms. There weren't enough of these monstrosities to go around, thank Frith."
I nodded. "Good. I gather that you're on the staff?"
He tried to spread his ears proudly, but they only twitched a little; lops are sadly rather handicapped in terms of body language. "Yes, I am. I'm on the Owsla."
I nodded again and tried not to let my amusement show. By his name and choice of deity, Scallion had already identified himself as one of the "Downers", as they were called on the LapiScab list. "Downers" were lapiform Scabs who sought to find meaning and structure in their new lives by adopting as near-gospel Richard Adams' immortal novel Watership Down. Being a lapine Scab was a very hard thing, I knew from my own experience. On one level, I found it perfectly acceptable that someone who had become one should change their name to that of a delicious rabbit-edible plant and refer to food as "flay" and any number greater than five as "hrair". If it made their lives easier for them and offered them some sort of solace, then I was all in favor it. Still, however, it seemed like a terribly silly affectation to me. "I'm pleased to meet you, Scallion," I replied gravely, extending a forepaw.
"And I'm glad to meet you, Phil!" Scallion replied, ignoring my paw and leaping forward to hug me tight like a long-lost brother. "I guess that you haven't had time to check the room assignments yet, have you?"
"No," I answered, reflexively hugging back. "I just got here."
"I thought not," Scallion replied, looking up at me and smiling again without releasing me. "I'm going to be your roommate!"
"That's wonderful!" I declared reflexively, though inwardly I cringed a bit. The convention staff had decided early on that no one would be permitted to room alone due to space limitations. I'd almost decided not to attend because of that very fact; I had no close lapine friends to share lodgings with, after all, and wasn't particularly fond of the idea of rooming with a stranger.
Scallion hugged me even tighter then. "This whole convention is going to be great, Phil!" he answered, rubbing his nose up and down my neck in a friendly snuggle. "Just you wait and see! This whole convention is going to be fabulous!"
I rubbed back, of course, despite being more than a little bit self-conscious. Lapines are by nature driven to snuggle; it is simply the way that we are programmed to behave. And I, as a lapine of some years standing, had snuggled any times with many strange rabbits, some of them far less pleasant to get close to than my new friend Scallion. However, I still found myself looking around the big meeting room nervously as the lop and I embraced. Norms and even non-lapine Scabs tend to stare when we rabbits snuggle in public; it was almost a shock when I realized that, except for a tiny smattering of hotel employees, there wasn't a non-rabbit in sight.
Scallion didn't read my mind so much as correctly interpret my posture and scent. "It's all right, Phil," he said encouragingly. "There's no one here but just us bunny rabbits."
I rocked my ears in acknowledgement, and then released the smaller rabbit. "So," I asked him, changing the subject. "Have you been up to our room yet?"
"Oh, yes!" he replied enthusiastically. "It's set up just like the hotel staff promised. Come on up and check it out!"
I looked up at the clock consideringly. "I'm afraid that I don't have much time," I answered. "I'm here strictly for professional reasons, if you didn't already know it. I'm a SCABS counselor here in town, and I'm going to be busy trying to gain some new insights and maybe make some new connections."
Scallion nodded. "Yes, I've seen your web page, of course. You have a lot to be proud of, you know. But me, I'm just here for the sheer fun of it." He smiled again. "Well, if you're too busy to come upstairs, then I probably ought to get going too. The Owsla is going to meet at three, and then I've got to silflay." He waved. "Bye!"
"Bye!" I replied, wishing that my own face was built in such a way that I could smile back. Even though he was good bit smaller than me, Scallion was considerably more human than I was. He had good hands, and a much more expressive face. His scent was pure and clean, however, and his personality very pleasant and outgoing. I liked him too much to feel any sense of jealousy; he was going to make a good roommate, I decided, even though on the surface we seemed to have very little in common.
The front desk was located in a huge atrium/lobby, the Edelweiss Hotel being one of the largest and most luxurious meeting facilities in the country. Given that my hometown was also pretty much the SCAB capital of the world, it was no wonder that the convention planners had chosen to come here. I took a moment to confirm my reservation at the front desk and pick up my key card for Room 209; it came with a nice little lanyard that allowed me to hang it around my neck if needful. Then I turned around and simply enjoyed the view for a moment. While we lapines had indeed arranged to have large areas of the building closed off from public access for the weekend, the lobby of course had to remain open to normal traffic. Even here, however, wherever I looked there were rabbits, rabbits, rabbits! Some were quietly sitting in chairs reading newspapers and convention brochures, while others were gathered into little groups and chattering excitedly to each other. Every so often, two or sometimes even more of my fellow lapines would suddenly and spontaneously fall into each other's arms in a big hug, or else sometimes even drop to the floor and go rolling across it while locked into a friendly embrace. Over half the bunnies seemed to be moving around on all fours, though clearly this was unnecessary for most of them; as Scallion had pointed out, most rabbit Scabs more severely morphed than me were living in the Colonies these days. Meanwhile, the Norms were very obviously maintaining their distance from the convention-goers, traveling across the lobby along routes carefully calculated to avoid any truly close approaches and ostentatiously keeping their eyes to the front. Only the children pointed and stared, though they did so with expressions of wonderment on their faces. I noticed all of a sudden that most of the Norms were wearing Navy whites. "Miss," I asked, turning to the young lady behind the desk. "Why are there all of these men in uniform here?"
She smiled and looked down at me. "We're hosting two conventions this weekend," she explained. "Yours and one from the Navy. Something about an 'UNREP' conference. I don't know exactly what it's all about, but most of here think that it has something to do with the United Nations."
"No, Ma'am. It stands for 'UNderway REPlenishment'." The voice came from behind me; I turned around to see that an older man in a very ornate naval uniform had stepped up close behind me.
"Ah," I said. "Fleet logistics. Very interesting."
The man -- an admiral, I presumed -- smiled down at me. "Very good, Mr..."
"Phil," I replied, extending a forepaw. "Just call me Phil."
"Are you a Navy veteran, by chance?" he asked, bending over to shake with me. Unlike many Norms, he did not flinch from the very nonhuman appendage.
"No," I replied easily. "Just interested in history."
The officer nodded. "I see." Then he straightened back up. "Phil, I give you my personal word of honor that none of the Navy people here are going to cause your group any troubles. The US Navy is not a hate group."
"I never even supposed that there might be any trouble," I replied honestly. "I'm a big fan of the military, as a rule. I was just curious as to why you all were here, that's all."
The admiral grinned. "This is an odd combination to have staying all in one hotel on the same weekend, isn't it? There's a couple of weddings planned as well, plus the normal businessmen and tourists." He turned around and scanned the lobby, as I had done just moments earlier. "Kind of peaceful though, I think." He nodded, as if to himself. "We'll get along just fine, I'm sure." Then he formally extended his hand again. "Feel free to call on me if you feel the need, Phil. I'm Admiral Raymond Jorgenson, and I'm in charge of the UNREP group."
I reached out with my paw and we shook once more. "In truth, I'm just an attendee," I explained. "I'm not in charge of anything. You probably won't be hearing from me."
"Well, pass the word along then, if you'd be so kind." He grinned. "You have no idea how very nice it is to meet a civilian who knows what UNREP is, Phil. I do believe that you've just made my day." Then, whistling, he walked away.
"Phil, you're not just an attendee. And you know it." This time the voice came from off to my right; it was Paul, the convention chairman. "I wanted you to be on the Committee."
I rocked my ears half-heartedly; Paul had in fact invited me to help, several times. "I wouldn't have felt right, Paul," I replied. "I hardly know any other rabbits, even the ones right here in town with us. I've never been much of a part of this whole Lapinist movement that you're trying to get started. And besides, I really don't have time."
Paul nodded and spread his arms invitingly; I stepped over and hugged him, though not so closely as I had Scallion. After all, there were non-rabbits present. "I know, Phil," he replied. "Your work is very important indeed; I'd be the first to agree with that. I've been especially following your Colonies of Shame website. But still, why can't you have a little fun sometimes? Why don't you participate in the mailing list, and come to some of our Wednesday Snuggles? We've got a fair-sized membership, and a lot of the time we meet within walking distance of the Shelter."
I released Paul and looked down at the ground. "I've just got so much to do..." I began lamely.
He smiled, then reached over and clapped me on the shoulder. "Well, you're here now. And part of enjoying life as a bunny is living in the here and now, or so I've always thought. A big part, even." He paused, looking out over the rabbit-filled lobby. "Just look around you, Phil. Lapines everywhere you look, all of them happy and filled with peace and joy. Isn't it wonderful?"
I nodded. "Even the Admiral thought so."
"That's what my organization is all about, Phil," my friend said eagerly. "Instead of being ashamed of our condition, we need to affirm our rabbithood. We need to take joy in what we have become, instead of cowering in the back of a dark hutch somewhere. We need to get out in the world and live, instead of being so afraid all of the time. Yes, we have to take special precautions. Yes, we have more problems to worry about than the Norms do. But we still have wonderful lives to live, we still have the capacity to fill each and every day with sunshine and warm clover and pleasant scents! Why shouldn't we exult in our rabbithood, when we most manifestly have become rabbits in body and, to a degree, soul?"
I shook my head slowly, watching the Norms navigate the lobby with their unseeing eyes. "I'm not disagreeing with the sentiment, mind you," I replied slowly. "I mean, none of us asked for this and none of us could have prevented it. It just seems so... so impractical. In a world run by and for Norms, that is."
Paul grinned. "A baby's a fairly impractical thing too, you know." He reached out and scratched my left ear. "Give it a try, Phil, Loosen up a little. Have some fun. Try to be who you really are for just one weekend, instead of who the Norm world demands that you be. The cetaceans have had a support group like this going for years now. They're up to a convention a month, worldwide. It seems to work pretty well for them."
I twitched my ear away from his touch; it wasn't a personal rejection, but I felt uncomfortable being so intimate in a public place. "Thanks, Paul," I replied formally. "I'll try."
The swamp rabbit smiled again, then impishly reached out and tousled the fur on top of my head despite the way I'd just pulled away from him. He was quite attractive, really, with grayish fur and dark circles around his eyes. "I know that you will, Phil," he answered me. "I know that you will. In the meantime, though, I'm afraid that I've got to go. I'm scheduled to co-chair a panel discussion on forming new warrens in just a few minutes, and I've got to go help set up."
I nodded. "Of course." And then he was gone.
The lobby was still a very busy place when I strode out into it, keeping to the corners and avoiding the more open areas. Despite the imminent beginning of the convention panel schedule, there seemed to be more rabbits gathered out amidst the potted trees and fountains than there had been even just a couple of minutes before. There were dozens of us, in all shapes and sizes and varieties, from a few unfortunate full-morphs to one woman who, with a little plastic surgery on her lip and a few electrolysis sessions, could very probably have passed as a Norm. Most, however, were morphed to about the same degree that I was, or perhaps a little less; this was the most common manifestation of lapiform SCABS. Or, rather, it was the most common manifestation to be found outside the Colonies. There was even a doe with fur as snow-white as my own running around on all fours playing some sort of game. She had what looked to be an oversized plastic acorn in her mouth. Even as I watched her run with the thing, Scallion leapt out of nowhere and tackled her, knocking the acorn free. There was a mad scramble, and then a cottontail I didn't know emerged from the pileup with the acorn, hopping a mad pattern across the carpet and leaping the little park benches as if they weren't even there.
"I'm surprised that they permit such roughhousing in a place as nice as the Edelweiss," a sour-faced Norm woman said as she eased up beside me. "I thought that this was going to be a working convention."
"I'm a little surprised too, actually," I replied, watching the cottontail dart expertly through a crowd of sailors. "But if you look at the program, you'll see that this convention was intended to provide a little bit of both work and play."
"Hmph!" the Norm woman replied haughtily. Then she turned to face me. "You're the employment counselor that I've heard so much about, aren't you?"
"Maybe," I answered, extending my forepaw once more. I was doing an awful lot of handshaking today, I noted, as well as hugging. "My name is Phil."
"Yes," she replied with a sort of half-smile. "You're the one behind the Colonies of Shame website. You raise some very interesting points there, Mr... er..."
I rocked my ears and showed my incisors, the nearest I could come to a smile. "Just Phil, Ma'am. Everyone calls me Phil."
"Ah... Yes. Of course. Anyway, I'm Margaret Schliemann, of 'Mainstream the Scabs!' You've heard of us, haven't you?"
I nodded. "We're fellow travelers, really," I agreed companionably, although I also happened to know that MTS! had much higher overhead costs than, say, the West Street Shelter. MTS! seemed to think that the proper way to help Scabs get through life was to hold lots of thousand-dollar-a-plate dinners and use the proceeds to hire expensive lobbyists, not to go out on the street and get up, close, and personal with the supposed objects of their charity. Not that I had the right to sneer, of course. At least they were doing something. "Your organization does a lot of important work," I added politely.
"We like to think so," Margaret agreed, turning once more towards the lobby, where the acorn-tag game was still in full uproar. "I mean, look at them! We've kept them out of the Colonies. Or at least these particular victims, we have. But see how they refuse to accept mainstreaming? There's so much work left to be done." Just then the white doe that I'd noticed earlier darted out of a corner and toppled the acorn-bearing cottontail. They tumbled end-over-end together for a moment, then the acorn rolled free. Both bunnies scrambled for it, but it was the doe who took off like a rocket with it in her mouth. My, but she played rough!
"Well, this is a special occasion," I temporized. "It's not so very often that we rabbits get together in numbers like this. It's natural that some of us would want to play a little."
"Are they children, that they must carry on so?" the professional charity worker asked, looking me directly in the eye. "Are you a child, Phil? I mean, honestly! I work so very hard to --"
Just then, the fleet-footed doe darted directly towards us, accelerating with every leap and bound. Margaret choked off her sentence in midstream, and I went wide-eyed. Surely we were about to be run down! I braced my legs to try and push Margaret out of the way...
...just as the doe swerved hard to the right, her hindfeet skidding wildly as she nearly spun out on the slick linoleum floor. She fell, finally, after a long and hard struggle to remain in control, the jar of the impact knocking the acorn free. It wasn't a real acorn, I could see as it bounced and rolled across the hard surface and stopped directly at my feet. It was made of rubber, and was pocked with a thousand toothmarks from a hundred wild chases. A jackrabbit came skidding up, stopping just short of tackling me as he recognized that somehow a 'civilian' had gotten involved in the game. "Hello!" he said, breathing hard. "If you want to play, just grab it and run. There aren't any rules, you know."
"You really don't seem to need any rules," I observed. Gingerly I reached out and touched the acorn with a toeclaw. The jackrabbit was nearly exhausted, I observed, but his eyes were sparkling with merriment and he smelled of clean and healthy exercise. "I'm really sorry, but --"
There was a flash of white, and then the doe had snatched up the prize and was past me in a streak of pale motion, leaping incredibly high over a potted tree, then turning almost ninety degrees to the left within one hop of hitting the ground so as to avoid a whole pack of ecstatic pursuers. Her beautiful, superbly-executed high leap had seemed almost to have been done in slow motion; my mind replayed it several times as I stood and half-listened to Margaret while she complained bitterly about the damage that my fellow lapines were doing to her cause by not behaving with more decorum in public. "...and I'm going to have a word with the hotel management!" she complained. "The last thing the Cause needs is to have a Norm get hurt by this kind of tomfoolery!"
Absently I nodded, though the words seemed far away indeed. For just a moment the doe had seemed to hang suspended in mid air, legs and ears stretched just so. And her scent...
"Are you listening to me?" Margaret suddenly asked, bringing me back to reality.
"Yes, of course!" Desperately I replayed the conversation that I'd been ignoring inside my head. "I've been planning to attend your panel discussion on Scab social inequality ever since the moment that I saw it in the schedule," I answered. "Of course I'll be there."
"Excellent, Mr... Phil," the Norm replied, somewhat mollified. "Most excellent indeed! I'll be looking forward both to seeing you and to hearing what a person of your wide professional experience might have to contribute."
I'd not planned on getting stuck for so long in conversation while checking in; a quick glance at the clock told me that I was running late to my first panel discussion. I'd been looking forward to this one; it was called So You Woke Up As A Bunny Rabbit This Morning? and was billed as being a guide on how to help newly lapine SCABs adapt and accept their fate. This was as subject that I had more than a passing familiarity with, of course, and I hoped to learn even more from the other participants.
The lapine-only section of the hotel was not particularly crowded; most of us rabbits, I knew, could be found at any given time in tightly-packed groups. I rushed through the empty corridors just as fast as I could while balancing on two feet, fighting the temptation to drop to all fours to make better time. The room was all the way at the opposite end of the complex, of course, and by the time I got there the muscles in my calves and thighs were aching from the abuse; I was not designed to walk either quickly or for any distance on my hindlegs alone. It was all for nothing, however; when I arrived there was a little pink sign taped to the door. "Meeting canceled for lack of interest," it read. "Only one participant signed up. Sorry, Phil!"
I read the note twice, then sighed and tried to shake some life back into my hindlimbs. How could there be only one participant, I wondered, when there were so many professionals and other interested parties supposedly present? Sure, just about all of them except for me were Norms, but they had special permission to come into the lapine areas for meetings and conferences. How could it be that they would not come to talk about something so very important to the lives of everyone touched by SCABS? That very first day was crucial, I knew from long experience, absolutely crucial! Anyone who'd ever spent time with a victim would know that! Perhaps there had been another important meeting scheduled directly opposite this one, I reasoned, one that somehow I'd overlooked or had not caught my eye because my specialization was too narrow. Most probably that was the case, even. I nodded to myself as if in confirmation, then sighed again. I might as well look on the bright side, I thought as I turned away from the door. Now I had two whole hours to make constructive use of that I hadn't had just a few minutes before. I could go up to my room and settle in a little, then maybe catch up on my e-mail. I had several current clients whom I was particularly worried about; maybe I could drop notes to them reassuring them that I was actively pursuing some employment leads...
I was halfway down the corridor leading towards the elevators when the chorus began. The voices were all high-pitched and lapine-sounding, except for the inevitable smattering of voders amidst the natural voices. The lyrics and lilting, hopping tempo all by themselves, however, were quite enough to tell anyone who might be wondering that lapine SCABs, and only lapine SCABs, were doing the singing.
|I sing a song of morning dew
I sing a song of you
I sing a song of whiskers new
I sing a song of you
I sing a song of life's new turn
I sing a song of tail and ears
The music was coming from the largest meeting room, the one with the poorly-designed chairs. When I opened the back door, and squeezed inside, I could see that there were several hundred rabbits inside, even more than had come to the Opening Ceremony. Most of them were joining right in with the twenty-or-so bunny choir arrayed up front. There were no musical instruments of any kind in evidence, nor any mikes or amplifiers. It was just an old-fashioned sing-along.
|I sing a song of speed and grace
I sing a song of you
I sing a song of brand new face
I sing a song of you
I looked around the room; everyone, but everyone seemed to be singing! It was incredible; my fellow Scabs were celebrating a disfiguring and deadly disease, a syndrome that had cost them their jobs, their families, in many cases even their very identities. It was madness!
|I sing a song of drumming feet
I sing a song of you
I sing a song of you to greet
I sing a song of you
Everywhere the bunnies were singing and reading off of mimeographed lyric sheets and... smiling! It was incredible! Simply incredible! I spied Scallion then, all the way across the room sitting rabbit-style next to the white doe who had caught my eye earlier. He looked up and smiled widely at me, then nudged the doe and pointed me out. She followed the gesture and smiled prettily as well, and then Scallion patted the floor next to him in clear invitation.
I gulped, then shook my head rapidly. Suddenly, things were happening much, much too fast! With exaggerated motions I pointed at my wrist, where a Norm would have worn a watch. Scallion nodded, though he looked a bit disappointed, and the doe looked down at the ground as well. Then, just as the song was finishing up, I managed to duck out and make good my escape.
|I sing a song of brand new day
I sing a song of you
I sing a song of Scab's new way
I sing a song of you
Then at last the tempo slowed, as the song reached its end.
|Yes, I sing a song of hurt and fear
I sing a song of you
But joy and love dwell e'er near
I sing a song of you!
The crowd burst into a chorus of cheering and hindfoot-stamping as I gratefully backed out into the hallway and eased the door shut behind me. My head was spinning and I felt as if I was perceiving reality down a long, long tunnel. Paul had told me many times that he sought to help other rabbits find genuine happiness in who and what they had, through no fault of their own, become. And, in theory at least, I still agreed with him that this could be a good thing. But... but...
Singing the praises of SCABS?
Sighing, I leaned up against the door and laid my head down on my forelimbs. Then, after resting a moment, I looked up at the sign on the door to find out just exactly what sort of conference group it had been that I'd walked in on; I didn't recall seeing any group sings on the agenda.
"Welcome Warmup," the sign read in brightly-colored hand-drawn letters. "Sponsored by the Watership Downers".
Nothing else interrupted me on my way to the elevators; I pressed the big "2" with my nose, and then rode effortlessly up to the second floor. There were rabbits in the hallways up there too, of course; I had to sort of half-hop over a cluster of snugglers to get to my room, which was located almost all the way down at the far end of the hall. The key-card slid effortlessly into its slot, and then I was alone at last in my home-away-from-home.
Scallion had been there first, of course, and his things were laid out neatly on his own side of the room. My roommate had a suitcase identical to my own, which was no surprise given that I'd bought mine at one of the largest discount chains in the country. The rest of his gear was highly distinctive, however. Like me, Scallion was physically too small to wear normal adult clothing, and from what I could see he seemingly delighted in wearing altered boy's wear. He had hung up a wide selection of brightly colored shirts and shorts, many of them featuring cartoon-character logos, and then courteously pushed his stuff all to one end of the rod so as to leave me plenty of room as well.
I sighed and nosed open my own suitcase, which the hotel staff had most graciously left on the bed for me, then began to unpack rapidly. When I'd first become a lapine Scab, of course, I had been committed to the Colonies. This had led directly to me developing the habit of going naked, something that my naturally very thick and concealing fur had permitted me to continue doing even when I rejoined human society after my successful lawsuit. After all, neither the guards nor my fellow inmates had particularly cared whether I was clothed or not, and by the time I got out I was pretty much immune to the human modesty taboo. However, as I'd become more and more professional in my outlook and spent more and more time around individuals with "Dr." tacked onto the front of their names, I'd found myself feeling embarrassed by my lack of attire. Very reluctantly at first, I'd started wearing custom-tailored business jackets and then full suits, despite the terrible discomfort that they caused over my hyperthick fur. Almost immediately, I noticed that the Norms around me did indeed begin to take me much more seriously, though sometimes I still had to strip down in order to properly work a cage call. Still, though, the clothing itched terribly and was much, much too warm. On an impulse, I stepped over to the clothes rack and examined Scallion's things. I didn't own any clothing that I'd bought to suit my own tastes; instead I'd simply asked my tailor to do the best that he could to make me look professional. He'd chosen very light colors for me (which was of course necessary to help conceal the inevitable shedding of my white fur), but otherwise had created the most sober and conservative outfits possible considering the limitations of my playful-looking physique, and they had served me well. I was even considering having some businesslike custom leather footwear made up for me as well, no matter how ridiculously useless such an affectation would be when worn over the top of my nearly-impervious sole-fur. In fact, the only thing that was holding me up from placing the order was the fact that wearing business shoes would slow me down a great deal should I suddenly need to make a quick escape; if that problem were ever to be solved, then I would probably take the plunge.
Scallion's things, however, were clearly very expressive of who he was and how he saw himself, at least for this weekend. His shirts were printed up with the likenesses of Bugs and Fiver and Hazel and even General Woundwort, evil villain of Watership Down. He also had numerous t-shirts with whimsical pictures of other sorts of animals replicated on them, as well as a few athletic jerseys featuring professional sports teams and the numbers of favored players. It was easy to picture Scallion wearing any of these shirts, I reflected to myself; they were very much who he was. And yet down at the sing-along he had been wearing nothing at all, just as I had once so often done, despite his having considerably thinner fur than me in the strategically most important regions. Most of the bunnies there had been going naked, I suddenly realized. It was a bit odd that I had not even noticed the fact until now; though it was understandable enough. After all, the last time that I'd seen so many lapines gathered together in one place there had been barbed wire keeping us in; no one had worn much in the way of clothing in the Colonies.
Once I had my wardrobe unpacked, I got out my laptop and set it up on the roomy desk that the Edelweiss had so thoughtfully provided. Once again Scallion had set up his gear first, and once again he had very politely taken up no more than his half of the available facilities. His own laptop -- a considerably more expensive model than my own, I noted -- was plugged in and the battery recharge light was blinking steadily. He'd customized his computer extensively, I could see, decorating it with rabbit-themed stickers and even a bit of rather impressive engraving. "Scallion's Loptop", the fancy script read, right under an image of Scallion himself. The work wasn't quite of professional quality, I noted, but it was still pretty darned good. Far better than I could ever have managed, certainly, especially since I'd lost all of the digits on my hands. Even more, there was a big oily smudge right in the front-center of Scallion's computer, a smudge that I didn't have to sniff at in order to recognize as a scent-mark. It was a pretty fresh one at that, I noted; Scallion had probably reapplied it less than an hour before. My roommate had personalized his machine in both the human and lapine fashions, the analytical part of my mind noted. My own very austere and plain unit looked almost unloved in comparison when I set it down next to Scallion's to charge. I pressed my lips together for a time, looking down at the two closed notebook computers sitting side-by-side, then gave in to a very powerful and very basic lapine impulse. Rather sheepishly I raised my ears fully erect so as to make sure that no one was coming, and then I bent down and used my chin-gland to scent-mark my own laptop just as hard and just as completely as Scallion had marked his, and maybe even a little bit more. There! My precious possession will be safe now, the irrational rabbit inside of me whispered reassuringly. Scallion won't take it, not now that I've marked it like that. He wouldn't dare! Or if he does dare, he'll know for sure that he's in for one heck of a fight! I liked my laptop a lot, I realized suddenly. It had not only performed a lot of work for me, but had given me a lot of pleasure over the years as well. I hadn't treated it with anything like the respect it deserved; perhaps Scallion was onto something with his personalization fetish after all...
Next, I took a moment to call the Shelter and reassure myself that all was well there, then opened up my computer and checked my mail. None of my clients had written to check in with me; there were no pending emergencies of any kind for me to deal with. I sighed and wrote a quick check-in note to the manager of a grocery store that I had high hopes of using as sort of "halfway house" for Scabs trying to reenter the job market, then slowly accepted the fact that there wasn't really any more work for me to do just then. I'd planned this convention into my schedule weeks ahead of time, of course, and had labored both hard and diligently to make sure that I had enough time freed up to make the most of it. It was no wonder that there wasn't anything for me to do, really; if there had been, it would simply have been proof that I hadn't done enough to get ready. My next scheduled conference wasn't until eight that night, and it was still only a little after five; I'd planned to eat at seven, but there didn't seem to be very much else to do. Besides, I reasoned, there were supposed to be all sorts of delectable greens available down in the secondary dining room allocated to the exclusive use of us rabbits; the food was one of the few non-business features of the convention that I'd actively been looking forward to. Why not go down to eat early, I asked myself, and take my time at it? After all, there wasn't really anything else to do. Not anything important, at least.
Sure enough, the "Flayrah", as it had been officially dubbed for the duration of our convention, was the most heavenly-smelling place that I'd ever visited. Even the scent of a clean and pure river valley in the heart of Spring, lush and young and green, could not even begin to compare with the aroma that struck me the moment I entered the Flayrah. My registration fee had been quite a hefty one, what with all of the special arrangements that had proven necessary for an all-lapine con, and I had come very close to balking at writing a check in three digits over and above the rather expensive room rates. But this wonderful, wonderful scent! Suddenly I was salivating hard and my stomach was a knot of hunger and, I rather suspected, my pupils were dilating wide. I hadn't even been particularly hungry two minutes earlier, and now suddenly I was ravenous! Everything, no matter where I looked, was decorated in an appetizing green, with accents of carrot orange and eggplant purple and tomato red. Even the decorative plantings were all edible, I suddenly realized, and several of my companions in rabbithood, unable to wait any longer, were already nibbling away. I turned the last corner from the dining room into the buffet area...
...and was balked by a single thin-stretched cord which indicated that the kitchen wasn't open yet. My jaw dropped in outrage. "I thought this place was supposed to be open non-stop!" I protested angrily. "Damnit, I'm starved!"
"Us, too!" declared a rather pudgy-looking doe of a breed that I did not recognize. She was standing at the end of a line of perhaps half a dozen rabbits. "Then we looked a little closer at the con booklet. It will be open non-stop, starting at five-thirty."
I looked up at the wall-clock; there were ten endless minutes still to go. "Damn!" I murmured. "Ten minutes! It might as well be forever!"
"Our sentiments exactly," the doe agreed with a half-smile. "I smell rose-hips!"
"And spiced apples!" declared an older rabbit, leaning heavily on his cane. "I love spiced apples!"
"And I smell stuffed grape leaves!" I declared, joining into the spirit of the thing. "They're my absolute favorite!"
"Mine too!" a buck of about my own size and build replied from the front of the line. "Be especially nice to me and just maybe I'll leave you some!"
We all laughed together, and then a huge lop-eared and lightly-morphed rabbit wearing a chef's hat leaned out of the kitchen door. "I have fifty pounds of grape leaves cooking," he declared. "There's no shortage; they're my favorite, too!"
"Yay!" a doe cried out from about three places up. "Thanks for coming to cook for us, Mario!"
The big rabbit smiled and waved an oven-mitted hand in acknowledgement. "How could I possibly miss it?" he asked. "My wife and I are most pleased that we were invited. Hold on, folks! I'll try to open up a little early!"
The other rabbits beamed, and then Mario waved again and went back to work. "Who is he?" I asked the stout doe in front of me. "Is he somebody famous?"
She turned around and raised her eyebrows. "You've never heard of Mario Copelli?"
"No," I answered.
"Then you've never eaten flayrah," she declared, punching me lightly on the shoulder. "Mario was already a gifted amateur cook before the SCAB-thing happened, and now..." She rolled her eyes in ecstacy. "He lives near me in Tacoma; haven't you seen him swapping recipes with the rest of us on Paul's mailing list?"
I had in fact noted a few recipes sailing back and forth amidst the personal notes, but had never bothered to read them; after all, I mostly munched on kibble in order to save time. "I hadn't really paid much attention," I admitted. "Cooking isn't exactly my thing."
"Well," she answered merrily, "eating certainly seems to be!" Then she laughed, and so did the doe standing next to her, who seemed to be a close friend.
"Hey," the other female said. "Aren't you the famous Phil that I keep hearing about?" She sniffed the air delicately to fix my identity in her mind.
"I rather doubt that..." I said slowly.
"No, it's you all right!" the first doe replied firmly. "There aren't so many white-furs with blue eyes running around loose, after all. It's not a common mix at all. I saw your picture on the Colonies of Shame website. I've been in a Colony too, you know, and I'm damned grateful to you for everything you've done to help us all. You've said exactly what needs to be said, and done it far more effectively than I ever could."
"And I've heard about your counseling work, too!" the other doe replied, edging closer and stroking my cheek affectionately. "There's two or three rabbits here today in this building who owe you everything, you know. And a lot more on the List who couldn't make it."
A Norm can tell when a lapine-morph is blushing by closely examining the lining of the rabbit in question's ears. However, for a fellow lapine, the scent is a dead giveaway and is far easier to detect. "Now look what you've gone and done, Silk-ear!" the first doe said scoldingly. "You've embarrassed the poor dear!"
The pudgy one pulled back her hand. "Oh dear!" she said. "I'm so very sorry, Phil. I didn't mean..."
"It's all right," I said with a sigh. "It's just that... Well, finding people jobs and helping new Scabs get fresh starts is just my job. And the web page is nothing! Honestly, it's nothing!"
Silk-ear turned away, but the other doe did not. "You did a cage call on my best friend's husband," she said calmly. "He's a brown mouse, and he has two kids. When you climbed into that cage with him, he was totally feral. When you climbed out two weeks later, he was ready to be a father to his children again, and a husband to his wife. Do you know of any other therapists willing to give two weeks of their time like that, twenty-four hours a day?"
"Neither do I. And don't give me any guff about your not being licensed for that sort of practice. Lots of things have changed since the Flu hit, and whatever works, works. To hell with the formalities!" We stared at each other for a very long time, and then, finally she lowered her eyes. "But look at me!" she continued. "Here you are, probably come to enjoy the snuggling and the good food and the sing-alongs among your peers just like we have, and here I am practically forcing you to talk shop. I'm sorry, Phil! Honestly I am! We'll leave you in peace now, we promise!" Then she stroked my cheek again, and deliberately turned towards the still-closed buffet.
Before I could recover, there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and there was an old friend looking down at me. It was Donnie Melbourne, a sometimes client. "Phil!" the huge lapine-morph cried out, throwing his arms around me and nearly knocking me off of my feet. "I was so hoping that you'd be here!"
I hugged back, of course, though not nearly so tight. He was much stronger than I was, and besides -- too much was happening much too quickly! "Donnie!" I responded. "How are things?"
"Great!" he answered, squeezing me again in the lapine fashion, then rubbing his face up against mine. Don was a lot lighter morphed than I was; like Angelo back in the kitchen, he was mostly human from the neck down. In fact, I would have been surprised to see him hugging and snuggling like the rest of us far more heavily altered rabbits, had I not once examined his brain scans in my professional role. He'd been only eighteen when SCABS struck, and both his personality and intellect had been very heavily damaged by the Flu. "The bus comes at a better time now, Phil! I'm never late to work anymore!"
I rocked my ears pleasantly; Donnie was a good kid and he tried very, very hard to please. He was the sort of client that I'd literally do anything to help. "I don't think that Mr. Sorenson minded very much when you were late, Don. He says that you're a very good worker, and he knew that it wasn't your fault that sometimes the bus wasn't on time." In point of fact, Mr. Sorenson was a candidate for sainthood in my book. Sure, Donnie did a good job for him. Many other Scabs that I had sent his way had not, however, sometimes through no fault of their own but more often through sheer laziness. Yet he'd tried his very best for them all. Lumberyard work was very demanding physically, especially in the heat of midsummer. Donnie had been the very first rabbit I'd found strong enough in the upper body to be able to perform the needful tasks. Daniel Sorenson was very happy with him, and his support at a key court hearing, along with that of a very determined and dedicated mother and father, had kept Donnie out of the Colonies, albeit just barely.
"Mom says that you are a very good rabbit," Donnie said in his loud, penetrating voice, and suddenly I was blushing again. "I think so too. I like you, Phil."
"I like you too, Donnie," I assured my client, returning the too-tight embrace as best I could. I was very, very embarrassed, but you could not in fairness expect someone like Donnie to understand that. "I think that just about everyone likes you, in fact. Have you been doing a lot of snuggling here?"
"Uh-huh!" he replied brightly. "I've snuggled with Papaya, and with Huckleberry, and with Delores, and with Paulie. I like Paulie! He smells kind of funny."
I nodded. "That's because he's a swamp rabbit," I explained. "It's not his fault. Probably the rest of us smell a little funny to him."
"You surely do!" Paul agreed, stepping up out of the dining room. Donnie's ears soared skywards in joyous recognition, and then instantly he released me and lifted Paulie literally off of his feet in a hug even tighter then the one I'd just received.
"Paulie!" Donnie cried out in delight. "Paulie, you're so much fun to snuggle with!"
Paul winked at me as I brushed my suit back into some semblance of order; clearly the convention chairman had quite deliberately taken Donnie off of my hands. His little local warren had done a lot for Donnie, I knew. It had provided key social support on a day-to-day basis, the kind of support that that I simply could not offer with my overloaded casebook. "Doesn't the food smell so very good?" he asked our overmuscled companion.
"Oh, yes!" Donnie replied, releasing Paul and turning towards the buffet. He was just in time; Mario was stepping out of the kitchen with his Norm wife Bethany walking right alongside of him. Together they strode up to the little ropelike barrier and unhooked it.
"Dinner is served!" the chef called out, while his wife produced the traditional triangle and striker from a large apron pocket and jangled away noisily. Suddenly the line surged forward, and it was eating-time at long, long last!
The line moved forward with a will, and I felt myself not only just being carried along but doing my own part to hurry things up. I was literally drooling as I walked over to the place where the food service itself actually started.
Normally I don't eat at cafeterias because of my forepaw problem; it's very difficult to carry a loaded tray more than a step or two without fingers or thumbs. This time, however, someone had thought ahead. There were three types of trays available; the conventional type for most of us, wheeled pushcarts with flat tops for people handicapped in the same manner that I was, and little miniature wheeled carts for full-morph bunnies, or those near to it. There was even a "help" button set up for anyone who perhaps might not be able to deal with any of the three available designs. Normally I would probably have tried to make do with a conventional tray out of sheer stubborn pride, but the idea of limiting my food-load to something light enough to handle with my forepaws was absolutely out of the question in a place that smelled this good! I grabbed myself the closest wheeled tray, and then like an aggressive shopper on Half-Price Saturday began making my way up and down the buffets.
Mario was a indeed an inspired genius, I could tell right off. Most people, when preparing menus for bunnies, assume that we prefer our food raw. Presumably, they think this because normal bunnies eat so much of their food unprepared in any way. This is not necessarily by choice, however. Rabbits consume their meals raw simply because they are unable to cook, not because it tastes better to them that way. Mario clearly understood this, offering sautéed beans, stewed cabbage, and various combinations of wokked and olive oil-fried peppers and beets. He used lots of spices, again working against the stereotype; I smelled cayenne pepper on his snap-beans and saffron on the peas. Even more, he'd gone several steps "outside the box" of human culinary thinking; not only did Mario offer thornless rose stems as an entrée, for example, but he seasoned them with a sprinkling of dried thistle-bloom, something that a human-normal digestive tract would reject utterly. I loaded up on these, as well as on the promised grape leaves.
"My husband told you that there would be plenty of those," the chef's wife said with a grin as I heaped my plates higher and higher.
I rocked my ears at her. "Thank you so very much!" I answered as I nibbled at one of the treats right on the spot. I'd waited long enough in line; there was no point in torturing myself any further while I found a seat, or at least not any point that I could see just then. "Ma'am, I don't even know your name."
"Jennifer Copelli, at your service," she answered, still grinning. "Though most people around here call me No-Fur. I've kinda been adopted."
I nodded, wishing that I could return her pleasant smile. "I'm not at all surprised," I answered, gesturing with my half grape-leaf stuffed with raw rhubarb-leaf and artichoke petals. "Considering that you can cook like this. You're a relative by marriage, in my book."
Jennifer blushed. "Oh, it's Mario's recipe, of course. We always loved to cook together, even before the Flu. Now he seems to have a more receptive audience than ever."
"Certainly a more specialized one, at least," I agreed. Then I gulped down the remaining half of my stuffed leaf and reached for another to fill the empty spot on my plate; there was no point in making a second trip any sooner than was necessary, after all! "You know, it takes a very special kind of person to put so much work into cooking stuff that you can't even eat yourself. We all owe you quite a bit. Thank you."
She turned tomato-red and looked down. "Thank you, Phil," she replied demurely. "Seriously, when Mario first began to change, our marriage was already in trouble. We were drifting apart, what with the kids all grown up and everything. We just didn't seem to have very much in common any more." Jennifer paused and looked thoughtful. "And then something sort of strange happened. Suddenly we began to look at what we already had instead of what we thought that we needed to have, and talked a lot about what was really important and what wasn't. Nowadays, our house is crowded with visiting friends and our kitchen is always busy. We're going to grow old together, Mario and I, cooking side-by-side and breaking all sorts of new ground for a brand-new kind of appetite. What could possibly be better than that?"
Again, I wished that I could smile. "What indeed?" I answered aloud instead. "I hope that you two find much happiness."
"We will," she answered confidently. "We will."
And then it was time to move on, as I was blocking the line. I rolled my heavily-laden pushcart right past the vacant cashier's station -- eating at the Flayrah was covered in the registration fee -- and out into the dining area. Already little knots of bunnies were forming here and there as groups of friends settled in to eat together, but I didn't have any trouble at all finding myself a nice private little table out all by itself. I was just wheeling my meal towards my selection when Paul spoke up behind me. "Phil!" he asked. "Where are you going?"
I stopped dead and the con host walked up beside me, carrying his normal-type tray easily in his well-formed hands. "Aren't you going to eat with me tonight?"
I pressed my lips together for just a fraction of a second, then nodded. I'd eaten dinner with Paul many times over the past year or so; on each occasion we had met to discuss a local rabbit in need of some sort of help that one or the other of us was in a position to provide. Perhaps Paul had a new case that he needed to talk about? If so, I was all ears. "Sure!" I agreed. "It'll be nice!"
Paul guided us to a large table much closer to the center of things than I would have chosen on my own. He set his tray down, then waited patiently while I laboriously unloaded one overburdened plate at a time from my wheeled unit. "Go ahead and eat," I urged him while I was still settling in. "Get it while it's hot!"
"I can wait," he replied politely. Then, finally, I sat down across from the swamp rabbit and we both commenced to shoveling in earnest.
An herbivore has to take in a much higher of volume of food than a carnivore in order to obtain an equal level of chemical energy. Thus, I spent a considerably larger percentage of my time eating than I had when still human. "Perhaps it's a blessing after all," I murmured between bites of honey-glazed garlic greens.
"What?" Paul asked me from across the table. "What's a blessing?"
I sighed; the food had been so very good that I'd literally forgotten for a moment that I was not alone. Never try to murmur around even a slightly-morphed lapine Scab; it's utterly hopeless. "Maybe it's a blessing that we have to spend so much time eating," I explained, gesturing at our half-empty plates. "Or at least it's a blessing when the food is as good as this stuff!"
Paul raised his eyebrows. "It's flayrah indeed," he agreed. He picked up a baby carrot and dipped it in something that looked a lot like guacamole, then nibbled delicately before continuing. "Phil," he said slowly once he had swallowed. "Correct me if I'm wrong. But isn't that the very first good thing that I've ever heard you say about being a rabbit Scab?"
I cocked my head in consideration before answering. "Probably," I agreed after a time. "I'm no fan of SCABS, you know. I can't be, in my line of work."
"Of course," Paul agreed easily. "You see all of the very worst cases, day after day after day. And given the chance, even I would be all for going back in time and blowing up that damned Beagle probe while the thing was still a million miles away from Earth. Anyone would; the suffering unleashed by it has been incredible." He paused then, looking at me intently. "Still, though. Don't you have anything else good to say about your new life, Phil? Anything at all?"
I sighed and thought for a moment. "I'm glad that it's not a lot worse. I've been terribly lucky, most ways. Some of the things I've seen..." I shuddered.
"Are you glad to be a counselor?" Paul asked. "Would you rather still be working out at Universal Motors?"
"Yes," I admitted reluctantly. "I'll acknowledge that SCABS has motivated me to achieve things that I was too lazy to do as a Norm. Or perhaps I was just psychologically unfit. I have changed, you know."
"All of us have," Paul agreed. "All of us. Even the Norms."
"Even the Norms," I agreed. "They've had their minds opened to new possibilities. Or at least some of them have, anyway."
Paul nodded, then nibbled at a heavily-salted bean-pod, while I tore into another grape leaf. "So, everything's changed since SCABS. Especially for people like you and me."
Paul pursed his lips. "Then... What's so very wrong with enjoying yourself a little, Phil? What's so sinful about the idea of having a little fun as a rabbit?"
I shrugged. "There's nothing sinful about it -- nothing at all. If people were doing this sort of thing to themselves on purpose, then just maybe there might be something wrong with it. Or maybe not, mind you. I'm not saying for sure that it would be wrong; I'm very much a libertarian about some things. People need to be free to make their own choices, or what the heck is life for?" I reached down and picked up a lemon-flavored broccoli spear, something that I'd greatly enjoyed even when human and had not tasted in years. "I don't see anything at all wrong with your group, when I look at it intellectually and from a detached viewpoint. Even the Downers are all right with me; you might just as well idealize one book as another, from where I stand. It's just..." I sighed. "It feels so very wrong to celebrate the effects of such a horrid, disgusting disease!" I paused, considering my words. "You've never heard me criticize your group out loud, have you?"
"No," Paul admitted.
"And I've even turned to you for help more than once. Like with Donnie. Heaven knows that you've done a lot more for him than I ever could have." I sighed again. "But still..."
Paul grimaced and ate silently for a while. Behind him, I watched as a full-morph jackrabbit came hopping urgently our way, only to be intercepted by a honey-colored doe wearing an Owsla badge around her neck. She pointed urgently at Paul and I, then shook her head. Head down, the jack leapt away looking for someone else. So that was how it was! I knew that Paul must be a very busy person as Con chair; now I knew that he was giving me very special treatment indeed. But why?
"Phil," Paul said after finishing up his food. "I've been watching you for months. A lot of us have, probably more than you know."
I nodded. "Quite a few people seem to know me," I agreed.
"That's not my doing. Your web page and your counseling work speak for themselves. And you've been interviewed many times, mostly about the Colonies."
"Not all that many times," I objected.
"More than any other rabbit I know. Especially, more times than any other Colony veteran. Twice in major national media, even."
I sighed. "Paul, I'm doing all that I can to reform the Colonies in what little spare time I have. You know that! I don't know what more you want me to do, but..."
"No!" Paul objected. "No, Phil! That's not it at all! What I want --"
"Excuse us!" a Norm voice interrupted. "We heard you two mention the Colonies. Mind if we join you?"
I looked up, concealing my annoyance as best I could. There was a little crowd of Norms standing around us, Margaret Schliemann among them, carrying trays heaped with salad and wearing hopeful expressions on their faces. Paul sighed aloud, though well below the threshold of human hearing, and looked his question at me. I responded with a posture change implying submission. Rather resignedly the con host waved our new guests to their seats. "Of course!" he answered with studied cheerfulness. "You are our welcome guests!"
"Thank you so very much!" Margaret replied for them all. Then, amidst the clattering of cutlery, they settled in at our table.
"We've been dying to talk to both of you!" a young, earnest-looking man said from the end of the table. "You've done so much for your kind!"
I pressed my lips together. Did he mean that Paul and I had helped our fellow rabbits, fellow Scabs, or fellow human beings? Before I could think of a polite way to frame my question, Margaret interrupted. "You two are just the absolute picture of lapiform SCABS!" she gushed. "You're so cute and personable sitting there together like that! I need to get you out to Hollywood: What a fundraiser we could hold!"
Paul looked at me and cleared his throat; I lowered my head slightly. "It wouldn't be all that easy to arrange, Mrs. Schliemann," he explained patiently. "Phil has a very heavy caseload, and I'm a major computer system manager. I'm on call most of the time."
"But surely for something so important?" Margaret replied, her eyes sparkling. "Henry Coutier might show up, or Pamela Cartwright. Why, we might even be able to arrange an appearance with Senator Fulton! She loves to be seen with Scabs!"
"I'm sure that she does," Paul agreed with an insincere smile. "Perhaps we can do it some time."
Then one of the Norms turned to me. "I'm Doctor Wayne Goldmann," he said without a smile. "I specialize in lapiform SCABS."
"Really?" I answered. I knew of Goldmann's research, of course. He worked for the Colonies, and often testified on behalf of the government at competency hearings. "I didn't know that there was such an officially recognized specialty."
The doctor sighed and closed his eyes. "I'm not your enemy, just because you're a lapine!" he said, probably for the thousandth time in his career. "I'm simply here to observe and to learn what I can about successfully adapted rabbits such as yourself and Mr. Lester, here. I want to help victims like you two. There's no need to be hostile!"
"Really?" I asked. Paul had made certain that all of us attendees knew that people like Goldmann might come; early on in the planning process the decision had been made to exclude no one who might have a legitimate interest in things rabbity. Therefore, I was not completely taken by surprise. "Tell me, then, Doctor. Why was it that your book was quoted verbatim not only at my second competency hearing, the one where I was freed, but also at my first one?" I paused for effect. "The one where I was committed to a Colony for life?"
Goldmann pressed his lips together. "That wasn't my fault!" he answered haughtily. "Anyone's work can be misinterpreted!"
I shook my head slightly and looked away, effectively excluding the psychologist from my universe. It was a very lapine thing for me to do, and the intent was not lost upon the Doctor. I'd rather hoped that it wouldn't be, him being such an expert and all of that. "Damn!" I heard him mutter below his breath in frustration.
There was a long silence at the table, then Margaret plunged right in where angels feared to tread. "This is Pamela Davis," she said brightly, introducing the third Norm of the quartet. "She works with the SCABS Alliance. And this," she said with a nod towards the last of our guests, the young man who'd spoken up earlier, "is Noah Cantor. He's with Congressman Carmike's office!"
I nodded politely to the Norms, carefully continuing to ignore Goldmann. The SCABS Alliance, I knew, was a legitimate charitable organization, not at all like Schliemann's publicity-oriented Mainstream the Scabs!. That one was almost a sham charity, a group that spent many dollars on hype and entertainment expenses for every dime that went to help real people. Before the weekend was over, in fact, I was willing to bet that Margaret would be wanting my name and picture on something or other as endorsement. Pamela, however, was a whole different kettle of fish. Her outfit paid a small part of the costs of running the West Street Shelter itself, as well as bankrolling many, many, many other highly worthwhile activities. "It's a genuine pleasure to meet you," I said to Pamela, displaying my incisors as best I could. "Thank you for your help." Then I turned to the Congressman's aide and nodded. I didn't know Congressman Carmike from Adam, so I gave his representative the benefit of the doubt. "Hello!" I greeted him in what I hoped was a friendly way.
"Pleased to meet you," Noah replied. "I've read your web page, sir. It is very well done. We're all looking forward to the big panel discussion on the Colonies tomorrow evening," the aide explained, turning to Paul. "Dr. Goldmann also wants to attend some of your social functions in order to observe, but I'm here pretty much for that panel and for that panel alone."
I pressed my lips together. Paul had specifically asked me to sit in on that particular discussion; he'd even asked me to chair it. However, I'd turned him down. "I'm rather looking forward to that one myself," Paul replied pleasantly. "And of course Dr. Goldmann is welcome in all the public areas."
"I really wanted to get into some of the Downers' meetings," Goldmann interjected. "There was a sing-along earlier --"
"I'm afraid that the Downers' affairs are entirely their own," Paul interrupted primly. "You'll need to go see Hayseed-Rah about getting into places like that." Then the host of the convention turned to me. "I really do wish that you would come to the Colony discussion, Phil."
I gulped; Paul knew darned well that I was planning to attend. What he was really doing was asking me one last time to take a leadership role. I looked over at Goldmann, who was seemingly not at all happy about having his field observations interfered with by some of the specimens. "I'll take one of those special seats that you were talking about," I answered after the barest of hesitations. "Just make sure that I'm close to the door."
Paul smiled, some of the tension visibly easing from his shoulders. Clearly he understood that I'd just agreed to serve on the panel. "Excellent!" he answered, impulsively reaching out to stroke my ear, then guiltily pulling his arm back under the pitiless gaze of Dr. Goldmann. Paul had attended a commitment hearing too, after all; just about all of us lapines had. "Most excellent indeed! And yes, I'll make sure that your special seat is the one nearest to the door! It's the least that I can do."
"Nearest to the door?" asked Margaret Schlieman.
"Special seat?" asked Noah Cantor.
"I've really got to be going," Paul said with an apologetic half-smile. "No peace for the wicked, you know. I never imagined that chairing a con would turn out to be so much work!" And with that, the marsh hare picked up his tray and beat a strategic retreat.
The Norms swung their eyes back towards me, so I vamped. "Yes, when I'm in a stressful situation I prefer to be near a door," I said honestly. "And Paul has seen to it that we have some special lapine chairs here at the con. They're in the main meeting room, if you haven't seen them."
Three of the four Norms pulled out their notepads; only Dr. Goldmann did not do so. "Do you need a lot of special furniture?" Pamela Davis asked. "In your work, I mean. I'm especially curious about that."
I gulped, picturing millions of carbon copies of the horrid design that we convention attendees had all just been subjected to rolling at record speed out of factories located all around the world, just because I'd told a little white lie. "We all tend to our have favorite pieces of furniture," I finally said, "Much like many of you Norms have your own favorite chairs. In fact, I had one myself until I contracted SCABS."
Goldmann nodded. "Does yours have a distinctive scent?"
I sighed and shook my head. "Actually, I don't have a favorite chair anymore. I've not found anything that's really comfortable for me, including the special seats we just mentioned. I do have a favorite bar-booth, but that's simply because it just happens to be located in the quietest spot in my favorite bar. All things being equal, I prefer to sit like an animal. That's not acceptable in polite society, however."
"Why not?" the psychologist, asked from behind his thick horn-rimmed glasses. "Why should you not sit in whatever manner is most comfortable for you?"
"Yes," Margaret asked, her interest piqued. "Why should you not be comfortable, for heaven's sake?"
I sighed and looked down. "On the face of it, that's a good question. However, Dr. Goldmann, of all people I'm surprised to hear it coming from you."
The doctor smiled thinly. "Forgive me; I just wanted to see if you'd actually read my work."
"Oh, I have," I assured him. "In particular, I've read SCABS and the Universe and You." Then I turned to the others. "Dr. Goldmann believes that if society is to remain coherent in the post-Flu era, we have to maintain a sort of Norm-based monoculture. He believes that Scabs like me need to find ways to conform to social norms, for the good of us all."
"As you do so remarkably well," he pointed out. "Phil, I was not personally present at your commitment hearings where my work was quoted, and probably quoted out of context at that. I would never have testified against you; anyone can see that you don't belong in a Colony." He paused. "In fact, I rather think that many of the inmates could be released, given proper support and supervision. Such as what you and Paul have done with Donnie Melbourne, for example. I came into contact with his mother during some research work, and quite frankly the resulting correspondence is the reason why I'm here tonight."
"Me too," agreed Noah. "Congressman Carmike has taken an interest in Donnie's case as well, via the good offices of Dr. Goldmann." He paused. "Not everyone in government thinks that the Colonies are necessarily a good thing, you must of course realize."
I looked from face to face, then turned back to Goldmann. "You're here to help with mainstreaming?" I asked him. "How can you be, when you support full Norm socialization levels for all Scabs?"
Goldmann sighed. "In my earliest works I supported just exactly that," he admitted. "If a lapine could not be almost fully assimilated into Norm culture, then I thought that he or she truly would be better off among their own kind. And many in fact are, mind you; I definitely believe that the Colonies have their place. You've spent more time in one than I have; surely you know that many of the victims there could never survive in free society. They'd be predated, or worse."
"But now your opinion has changed?" I asked, staring directly into his eyes.
"In a sense. When I was first writing so many years back, no one dreamed that SCABS was going to be here to stay. Everyone thought that the epidemic would run its course, and that there would be just so many victims to care for. Surely, everyone thought, an antidote or at least some other sort of palliative would be developed. Circumstances have changed, however, and therefore so has my viewpoint. Or at least it has to a degree." He sighed. "Frankly, I wish that people would quote my later work more often, and leave Universe alone. The logic, I truly believe, is still valid; we simply must find a way to maintain a single-species consensual viewpoint, or else all that we have worked so many millennia for will be lost in a chaotic jumble of conflicting perceived realities. However, it is also now clear that we are going to have to be much more flexible than I at first imagined. We're in this for the long haul now, not just trying to bind a wound and stop the hemorrhaging. Scabs need to find ways to fit in, yes. However, we also need to find ways to accommodate them more effectively into the mainstream of normality."
I nodded, having lived through those terrible first days myself. "Everything was being done in a hurry back then," I agreed. "Even I freely admit that the Colonies were the best that could be done on the spur of the moment, given the scope of the problem and the terrible level of urgency." I paused and looked at Congressman Carmike's aide. "Nor do I disagree that, unfortunately, some of my brother and sister lapine SCABs do in fact need to be institutionalized. You'll find me quoted on that many times in court records." I turned back to Dr. Goldmann. "I've testified at competency hearings myself, sir. On both sides."
"I know," he replied. "It is part of what gives you so much credibility."
I blinked. "Credibility? With who?"
This time it was Margaret who spoke up. "Phil, not a lot of rabbits have successfully adapted. SCABS is generally not kind to lapines."
I nodded. "Of course."
"You, however, have done so despite your questionable legal status." She looked over at Noah and raised her eyebrows questioningly.
The young man nodded, and then took his turn. "Sir, Congressman Carmike has read your web page, and your life story. He was particularly shocked to learn that you have a legal guardian who must in theory at least approve all of your major decisions. Nor does he approve of the leash law. He finds it... degrading."
Goldmann spoke up next. "I'm willing to provide a professional evaluation of your condition, if you are willing, and to make the recommendation that your full legal rights as a private citizen be restored if I feel that this is merited." He paused and smiled. "From what I've seen so far, I don't anticipate any difficulties at all. And despite the fact that the profession of psychology does not, in fact, recognize the study of lapiform SCABS as a specialty, I'll defy any Colony shrink anywhere to match my credentials."
"And Congressman Carmike will stand up for you as well, sir." Noah added. "Most likely, your local Congressman will take an interest too, if needful. They are of the same party, and have worked together many times on matters of mutual interest."
By now, my jaw was on the floor. "I... Why..."
"Because it's the right thing to do," Pamela replied grimly. "First and foremost, because it's the right thing to do."
"And?" I asked, still confused.
"And," Noah replied, for the first time looking angry. "And, because a small group of Congressmen is determined to bring the Department of Health and Human Services under control at long, long last."
I looked down at the table and sighed. HHS was a perpetual political football in Washington these days; even before the Flu it had been by far the largest single Federal agency, and perhaps the one least accountable to anyone. When the Flu had hit, it had turned into a lumbering, bloated behemoth of an agency, swollen beyond all measure. Recently, Congress had investigated HHS and discovered that no two officials could even quote the same budget numbers, not within several tens of billions of dollars. In fact, come to think of it, Congressman Carmike had served on that investigation. Suddenly a little light went on in my head.
"You want to use me," I said slowly. "All of you. Together."
"No, Phil," Dr. Goldmann replied. "We want you to help us. We want you to help us help others. That is a very, very different thing."
I pressed my lips together, still examining the tabletop. Suddenly the huge meal that I'd just consumed hung very heavy in my belly; instead of being pleasantly full, I now felt uncomfortably overstuffed. "I'm very much a rabbit, you know," I said in a near whisper. "I'm sort of afraid of publicity. I've always avoided it, where I could."
"Hollywood dinners aren't so bad," Margaret answered me sympathetically. "And they're a very important part of the picture as well, though I know that a lot of folks look down on me over them. People care what movie stars and celebrities think, even though perhaps they shouldn't." The charity worker half-smiled. "I was serious, Phil. I want you to come out and let some folks meet you. I want them to meet an actual Colony veteran, someone who was actually committed. Then they will be able to see the injustice of it all with their own eyes."
Suddenly I realized just how carefully coordinated this whole dinner had been; how premeditated this whole affair had been, for that matter. First Paul had made his contacts, then he had nailed me down at an empty dinner table, having previously arranged to have the Norms meet me here. Then in the very epitome of the lapine behavior that he so gloried in, he had made his exit just as soon as it became clear that there was going to be a conflict. I owed Paul a big one, that was for sure!
Then I thought things through a little more carefully. Sitting here before me was the nucleus of a potentially enormously powerful political machine; I'd done enough politicking of my own to recognize the components when I saw them. Margaret was there for her publicity contacts, Dr. Goldmann for his unimpeachable and well-known professional credentials, Pamela for her connections to the various respectable charitable organizations, and of course Noah as the representative of Congressman Carmike, who would be pulling the strings and who would politically be the primary beneficiary. Paul was no politician, I knew. He probably would not recognize the coalition sitting before me for what it was; he simply didn't have the experience. Therefore, most likely he had been manipulated as well. "Tell me," I eventually asked Noah. "Does your boss perhaps want to become a Senator?"
I watched Noah's face carefully indeed as he smiled widely, and discreetly sniffed at the air. But he surprised me by being truthful and open, so far as I could tell. "What Congressman doesn't?" he answered, nodding slightly at me in approval. He was a politician too, of course, and he was acknowledging that I'd seen the ultimate truth of the situation as well. Then his smile faded. "Seriously, Phil. We're offering you a chance to do something good here, something good not for what some folks disparagingly refer to as 'your own kind', but rather for fellow human beings who are suffering terribly at the hands of a government agency run amok. We've read up on you, and have looked a little bit into your background; we'd be fools if we hadn't done our homework. We are fully aware of the limitations of your condition, and of the demands of your work. I can promise that your physical and psychological limitations will be dealt with in a dignified and honorable manner, but I can't make the same promise about your work." He paused. "I want to be up-front about this, Phil. You're a workaholic, and the help that we seek from you is going to soak up a lot of hours. No one wants to see your career hurt or the people that you help go without your services, but facts are facts and there are only so many hours in the day. For a period of several years, at least, you're going to have to cut back your hours at the Shelter."
"If I decide to take you up on this," I pointed out. "If I decide to sue for a third competency hearing. If I decide to go attend a bunch of dinners with not-very-bright guests who have far too much money and far too many even more mindless fans for their own good. If I decide that advancing Congressman Carmike's career is worth my time and effort. If I don't just decide to stay close to home and hunker down like a good little bunny rabbit and just try to weather things out until something finally come and eats me."
The faces of all four of my dinner companions went expressionless. "Has being a rabbit hurt you so badly, Phil?" Dr. Goldmann eventually asked. "Has it torn your soul so deeply?"
I sighed and closed my eyes. "I want to believe that you people truly wish to help us." I turned to Noah. "I truly believe that you, at least, have been completely frank with me about everything. But..."
"It is a rabbit thing, isn't it?" Margaret said, displaying far more insight and compassion than I would have given her credit for.
I turned to Dr. Goldmann, who was looking particularly glum. "I sleep with rabbits," I told him. "Real ones. Every night. I can't get any rest without their company, in fact. Tonight, I plan on finding a snuggle-group and sleeping with them instead. I simply can't get to sleep without the scent and feel of other rabbits close at hand to reassure me. I sit near the door at large meetings because I continually live in fear of predation; I'm rather obsessive about it, in fact. That's gotten worse than ever, since a near-feral Scab tiger tried to kill me. I can't drive a car because I'm far too twitchy for it to be safe, and under severe emotional pressure I sometimes can't speak in full sentences. Fear regresses me all the way to a feral state; if I were of a species that was even slightly dangerous by nature, even I would be forced to agree that I needed to be locked up for the safety of everyone around me. As things are, well..." I licked my lips and said the hard, hard words. "Dr. Goldmann, I've never had any intention whatsoever of either appealing or in any way revisiting my last competency ruling. I've had absolutely no intention whatsoever of questioning it in any way." I looked down at the table again. "Because deep down inside myself, I agree with the judge's ruling."
And with those damning words ringing in my ears and a huge lump in my throat, I let the rabbit in me reign supreme for a time and speedily fled the scene of conflict.
I didn't run very far, of course. It's downright undignified to go hopping around a hotel on all fours while wearing a business suit, with coattails flapping and shirttail untucked. Besides, the intense aroma of rabbit all around me helped to settle my nerves down much more quickly than would ordinarily have been the case. I ducked into a Men's room, noted approvingly the public disposable litterboxes lined up en masse up against one wall, then ducked into a Norm-type stall to smooth my attire back into some semblance of order. I felt a lot better once that was taken care of, though of course I understood intellectually that my major problems were not any closer at all to being resolved. Noah and Margaret and the others were physically a good long distance away, however, probably still staring open-mouthed at each other across the remnants of my so-wonderful dinner. Well, they'd wanted to meet a rabbit, hadn't they? I'd showed them one, sure enough!
There were meeting schedules hanging all over the corridors, of course, all of them written in ridiculously large print and placed very near to the ground. Many of us attendees, after all, could not carry copies with them easily; I personally fell into that category. Others of us lacked human-style foveas in their retinas, while some of us weighed only a few pounds and were not more than a foot or so tall. In fact, to read the nearest posting I had to drop to all fours myself, something that I did very carefully so as to avoid mussing my suit again. I'd planned to attend a meeting on the many problems inherent in raising young children as a lapine, but I knew that if I attended I'd run into Dr. Goldmann for certain. I felt my haunches tighten at the prospect; eventually, I knew, I'd have to face my dinner companions once again. Thankfully, however, it didn't need to be right at that very minute. I had plenty of research as well as some deep and serious thinking to do before the time would be right for that.
Unfortunately, there wasn't very much of interest to me on the agenda besides the parenting seminar. The local Dandelion Warren of the Watership Downers were holding a Naming Ceremony for someone who was going to be called Milkweed, and Chef Mario was holding a Flayrah demonstration in the kitchen for anyone interested, assisted by his wife. Neither one looked particularly appealing; I wasn't a Downer, I wasn't a cook, and I was so overstuffed that even free samples didn't sound very appealing. Sighing, I stood back up on my hindlegs and massaged my sore back.
"Hello!" an unfamiliar voice said from behind me. "I believe that we have a mutual friend."
I turned around; it was the white doe that I'd seen playing "acorn" earlier. "Hi," I replied, showing my incisors a little and extending a forepaw. "I'm Phil. Scallion is my roommate."
She smiled and took my paw in a hand that might well have been human, had it not been furry and pink-clawed. Her fingers were exceptionally long and delicate-looking, something very unusual in a lapine Scab. "I'm Phlox," she answered. "I'm a physical therapist."
"I'm a vocational counselor," I replied. Her hand was very warm and soft, I noted.
Phlox smiled, displaying a pleasant set of dimples. "I know. In fact, I think that everyone knows! I'm so honored to meet the author of Colonies of Shame!"
I blushed under my fur, and pulled my paw back. "It's really nothing," I said. "Just something that I felt obligated to do." Her eyes were pink, I noted. Phlox was an albino.
"Maybe," the doe replied easily, "but no one else did it." She smiled again. "I was very nearly committed myself. Only my fifteen minutes of fame saved me."
I raised my ears inquiringly.
"I was on the Olympic Team once, many moons ago," Phlox explained. "As a gymnast. I never even came close to winning any medals, but a lot of my good friends did. We stayed in touch over the years, and they came out for me when the SCABS-thing happened. The Colony man decided that he was about to get a little more media exposure over my commitment than he was really ready for. So he dropped his case."
I nodded; the story seemed likely enough, and it explained Phlox's phenomenal grace in movement. "Were you a therapist before the Flu?"
Her eyes brightened. "All of us gymnasts are expert physical therapists," the doe replied easily. "We sort of pick up the trade through having our own injuries treated. Though I only went through formal schooling afterwards. Now I specialize in SCABS cases, especially lapines."
"Really?" I asked.
"Really!" she answered. "I work out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. You'd be amazed at how much professional demand there is for someone like me, even in a place as out in the middle of nowhere as that. I grew up there, and still live with my parents. "
I nodded understandingly; very few lapiform Scabs chose to live alone. "I can see where there would be, from my own experience. I get a lot of clients with restricted mobility and the like. Even a little extra strength can help, say, a full-morph groundhog quite a bit."
"Right!" she agreed. "In fact, I spend a lot of time helping other bunnies develop their upper-body strength; we're not well-designed for that, you know. But it's so important in a world designed for and by Norms."
"True," I agreed.
"I'm holding a seminar in just a few minutes," Phlox said, looking downwards. "It's called 'The Healthy Bunny's Body'."
I nodded again; I'd seen it on the agenda, though frankly I hadn't even considered it. Until just then, of course. "Yes," I replied.
"Well," Phlox said, clawing at the carpet idly with a single hindclaw. "Probably you've got other plans..."
I tilted my head to one side, considered, and then made my decision. "Actually, no. I don't have any other plans at all."
Her eyes brightened again, and my nostrils twitched as they picked up on Phlox's excitement. "Really?"
"Really!" I agreed. "Come on! The meeting room is almost all the way across the hotel. You don't want to be late to your own seminar!"
We made it with barely a moment to spare; already seven other rabbits were occupying various seats and two full-morphs were curled up on the speaker's table. They vacated quickly when Phlox arrived, making the (for them) very long hop down to the floor appear fluid and elegant. They must be physical fitness fanatics, I realized suddenly. Probably all of the attendees were, save me.
"All right," Phlox called out, all business. "We're each going to need a piece of floor for ourselves, so let's push all of these chairs out of our way. And," she said, looking directly at me, "we're going to have to strip down to just the basics."
I nodded, having already figured this out from my fellow attendees' lack of attire. "I'll take care of it right now."
It was only the work of a minute to strip down; I was wearing neither shoes nor socks nor underclothing, after all, and my mouth was long since well-educated in the intricacies of buttons. By the time that the chairs had been stacked in a convenient corner, I was as naked as the day I was born. Well, save for my heavy fur, of course. I always wore that, nowadays. Carefully I folded my suit and laid it in a corner.
"Good," Phlox said, looking over the available floor space. "We have plenty of room now." Then she examined us, one by one. "All right, fellow bunnies. My name is Phlox, and I used to be an Olympic-caliber athlete until SCABS kind of shut that sort of thing down for me. I tried out for the long-jump team, but they wouldn't even let me try out. I can't quite understand why, but that's just how things are, I guess."
We all smiled politely, as we were clearly expected to.
"Anyway, once the rabbit-thing happened to me and I passed my competency hearing, I decided that I wasn't going to just fritter away everything I'd learned in training. So I went to school to become a physical therapist, fully qualified to work on Norms. That's still how I make my living, in fact. However, over time I came to realize that there is a gaping void in the medical field now; there are no other physical therapists anywhere specializing in treating Scabs like us that I know of, and I'm fairly sure that if there was another one out there specializing in lapine anatomy and injuries in their spare time like I am, I would know about them. Or someone here probably would.
"Anyway, I'm pretty much working alone in the field, so far as I know, and I need for all of you to understand that much of what I'm going to tell you about today is the result of my own personal experiences, not any systematically approved and certified therapeutic methodology."
"Get on with it, Phlox," said a surprisingly deep voder-voice. It came from one of the two bunnies who had been snuggling atop the desk when we came in. "No one here is going to sue you."
Phlox smiled, and for the first time I appreciated just how very well-balanced and refined her features were. "Good, because I don't have any money anyway; it all seems to go for equipment. Then, if we're ready to begin?"
"Ready when you are!" the other full-morph replied through his voder. His voice seemed very deep as well. Or perhaps I had just been listening to too many rabbits talking through their high-pitched natural vocal apparatus of late?
"Good. First of all, I'd like to separate you into three groups based on degree of morphing." She put the pair of full-morphs in one corner, the half-and-half cases like me into a second corner, and the single barely-altered human into a third. She seemed to have no lapine features whatsoever except for her ears. It was to this last woman whom Phlox spoke first. "Frankly, there is very little that I can offer you which you cannot get from resources intended for Norms. Most of what I have to share here won't be at all appropriate to your case."
The woman nodded. "I understand. But I love to exercise and stay in shape, and I'm very curious. Can I stick around?"
"Of course," Phlox replied, smiling again. Then she turned to the rest of us. "As you know, the lapine body is far more divergent from the human norm than it appears to be on the surface. Human musculature is based around that of a plains walker just barely begun to evolve from a brachiator, while we lapines are leapers who depend utterly upon speed, maneuverability and stealth for survival in the wild. While a normal human's strength is at least somewhat evenly divided between his top and bottom halves, we are literally designed around our hindlegs. Indeed, Frith has 'blessed our bottom,' just as the story says."
I cocked my head to one side. Phlox was a Downer? Her name fit the pattern, sure enough, though it seemed rather out of character. After all, Phlox was clearly quite intelligent!
"If we were all full-morph rabbits, keeping fit would be simple enough," Phlox continued, nodding at her pair of completely changed victims. "When you're a full-morph bunny, there is little point in trying to build upper body strength, nor are there so many skeletal problems to worry about. Play 'acorn'," she encouraged the pair of cottontails, "and just give your body what it wants when you feel like going out darting through the hedgerows. The more you run, the faster you will get. And we all know that being fast is one of the most important things in the world."
We all nodded soberly at that, even the rabbit-eared Norm. The need for quickness and agility was an axiom beyond question among lapines, a simple fact of life that was hard-wired so deeply into our brains that virtually every rabbit Scab, no matter how lightly morphed, accepted it as an article of faith. Indeed, to not accept that speed was vital was probably an indicator of severe mental disturbance.
Then Phlox turned to the rest of us. "It is your group that has the most severe physical problems," she explained, "And it is your group that I'm really here to try and help." She paused and looked us over very carefully. "I see we have one digitigrade and four plantigrades," our group-leader said. "That's about the usual percentage. Do any of you have serious problems with bipedal walking?"
The digitigrade buck, a brown hare, raised his hand rather timidly. "I do," he said in a very quiet voice. "My name is Dan. I fall down a lot."
"I imagine so," Phlox replied with a sigh. "I'm a plantigrade myself, of course, so I can't know exactly what it feels like. But walking on your toes like that looks terribly unstable and top-heavy. It moves your center of gravity up far too high, like a Norm on stilts."
The hare nodded miserably. "That's exactly how it feels," he answered. "I've fallen and broken my arm three times now; my left twice and my right once."
Phlox winced. "Ouch! And what I'm going to say next is going to hurt even more, I'm afraid."
Dan lowered his eyes. "I should go around on all fours," he whispered. "I know. My doctor told me that after I broke my arm the second time."
Phlox looked down, and then we all did. "I'm afraid so," she answered after a moment of silence. "Come over here, and I'll show you why."
The hare took a bipedal step towards Phlox, then rather guiltily dropped and came the rest of the way quadrupedally. "Please stay down," the white doe said. "I want to feel around your lower back and hips. All right?"
"Sure," the buck answered, sounding depressed. "Whatever."
Carefully Phlox probed around, then poked her finger deep into a soft spot.
"Ow!" Dan cried out. "That hurt!"
"Your hip sockets are badly inflamed, Dan. And your back..." Phlox drew a line down Dan's spine with a long, pink claw. "It's deforming under the stress of holding you erect all of the time. Your spine isn't designed for that kind of load any more, Dan; it's intended to work as a powerful horizontal spring. You're developing the beginnings of a moderately severe case of scoliosis, and if you keep this up you're going to have arthritis long before your proper time." She paused and looked into her patient's eyes. "Dan, I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, but if you continue to walk bipedally so much of the time you are going to end up being crippled far worse than you are now. You're hurting yourself, and hurting yourself badly."
"I'm already aging like a real bunny," Dan whispered. "I'll be old before I know it."
Phlox looked down at the floor, then impulsively hugged Dan. We all joined in, of course, and for a few moments we huddled together in a tight little mass. The small brown hare was living our worst nightmare. No one wanted to age like a lapine. No one!
Finally Phlox broke the embrace. "I can't help you with your aging problem, Dan," she said eventually. "Nobody can. But I can tell you this much. The years that you do have left to you will be much better and happier for you if you accept who and what you have become, and quit trying to totter around like a Norm just because that's what they expect you to do."
Dan nodded, still looking as if he were about to cry.
"Your back muscles are terribly strained and swollen; they can't be making life any picnic for you." She paused. "How about this, Dan? You're here surrounded by rabbits this weekend, aren't you? There are only a very few Norms about, and we rabbits honestly don't care if you're on four legs or two. We understand."
Dan nodded. "Yes, I can see that you really do."
Phlox smiled. "So, how about if you spend the rest of the weekend on all fours and see how it goes for you? At the very least, it will give your back a chance to heal itself up a little bit. And..." She grinned. "You might just find that you like it."
Dan twisted his lips in revulsion. "I doubt that!"
Phlox's smile didn't waver. "We Downers are holding a big dance tomorrow night called 'The Hop'. All of the dances are designed for rabbits, and some of them have to be done on four feet. Why don't you come?"
I knew exactly what Phlox was trying to do, and I approved heartily. "Why not?" I asked. "Dan, there's not a lot of future in hurting yourself. It's tough enough to be a rabbit; why not make it as easy on yourself as you can?"
"I..." Dan's lips worked some more, then tears formed in his eyes. "I... My mother hates it when I go around on all fours!" he exclaimed in a wail. "She says that it's degrading!"
I looked Dan over more carefully; I'd pegged him as middle-aged at first, but now realized that his lapine aging problem had thrown me far off of the true scent. Dan was in fact clearly very young indeed. "Do you by chance live here in the City?" I asked.
"No. I'm about fifty miles out."
I sighed. Fifty miles! Who could I impose upon to drive me that far? Then I sighed a second time; clearly I would have to find somebody. "I'd like to come and visit your mother," I said. "Traveling on all fours is not 'degrading' when it's a medical necessity."
"Or even just when it's fun!" Phlox pointed out, and I nodded in support.
"In the meantime," I suggested, "why not take this doe's good advice? She clearly knows what she's talking about." I paused. "And your back really does hurt you, doesn't it?"
Dan looked away. "Every day," he whispered. "Terribly. All of the time." He paused, then nodded and placed his forepaws firmly on the ground. "All right. I'll try it for the rest of the weekend."
"Good!" Phlox cried out with a little leap of joy. Then she dropped to all fours herself and hugged Dan hard. "And you're coming to our dance?"
"Well... I guess so."
"Great!" the white doe cried out, leaping even higher. "Just great! I'll see you there!"
"And I will be by to see your mother," I said. "Just get me your address and phone number sometime this weekend. I'll try and explain."
Dave nodded. "Thank you, sir."
"You're most welcome," I replied, stretching and popping my back to relieve the stress of dealing with what by any other name was now another client on my caseload.
Then Phlox was looking at me. "So, Phil," she asked, flowing gracefully to her feet. "Tell me something. Does your back hurt?"
I froze in mid-stretch, eyes wide.
"Bend over," Phlox directed. "Put some weight on your forepaws."
"No talking for just a moment," Phlox directed. "Please."
I started to reply again, then dropped down into the posture requested and waited while Phlox's long fingers massaged and probed. "Hmm," she said after a very long time. "This is very, very strange. You should have problems even worse than Dan does, judging by your physique. But I can't detect even a trace of scarring."
"I know," I replied patiently. "That's what I was trying to tell you. I'm a type four chronomorph as well as a lapiform. I'm on about a seven-hour cycle right now, though it varies a bit from time to time."
There was a moment of awed silence in the room. For all that SCABS has done to the world, and for all the ways that the human genome has been twisted and corrupted and altered by SCABS, people had rather quickly come to accept gender-morphism and species-morphism and even juvenile-morphism as just another part of life. But even mention chronomorphism or even worse, inanimorphism to those who do not share the trait, and people sort of wig out. "I can't help it," I pointed out. "It's just what I am. And the cycle is long enough that it probably won't even do me any real good. I'll get run over by a bus, or fall off a cliff, or maybe even be predated."
Phlox had instinctively pulled away when I'd dropped my little bomb; now she started examining my joints again. "How utterly marvelous for you, Phil!" she said with seeming genuine happiness for me. "Every seven hours, your body rebuilds itself just like it was before!"
I sighed and nodded. "So I couldn't do any long term damage to my joints if I tried. Nor will exercise do me any good." I looked up at Phlox. "I came here mostly out of curiosity. I enjoy learning about things."
"I see," the physical therapist replied, her fingers still probing deep. "But you still haven't answered my question. You're more fully morphed than Dan, though you're plantigrade and that helps a little. And I've seen you around; you're always walking bipedally." She smiled in victory. "It doesn't take seven hours to overstrain a muscle, Phil. So, does your back hurt you? How about your hips and thighs?"
I closed my eyes and sighed. There was absolutely no point in even trying to lie. "All day. Every day."
"Now, like you said, it's honestly impossible for you to do yourself any long-term damage by walking bipedally, unless you overbalanced on the edge of a cliff or something like that. That would kill you, right?"
"Right," I agreed wearily. "Anything deadly in less than seven hours is just as bad for me as it is for you." Being a type four chronomorph was kind of useless, really. Until of course I thought about poor Dan and his premature aging condition, or Norm friends who had cancer. Then I felt lucky indeed.
"But you can hurt," Phlox pointed out, her probing fingers now massaging some of my most-insulted muscles. "So why do you spend so much time on two legs?"
"I'm a professional person," I replied. "Or at least I'm the next best thing to one. I need to be seen as an equal by the Norms, who still dominate everything and probably always will. Otherwise, they won't listen to me."
"Hmm," Phlox replied thoughtfully, her fingers working their way closer to the base of my spine. They felt good, I suddenly realized, very good indeed. "But again, you're among us rabbits this weekend. Why are you hurting yourself?"
I thought for a moment. "Those Norms that are here are very important people," I pointed out.
"I don't think that's it," Phlox replied, smelling a bit disappointed. "Though it's not my place to say any more on the subject. You're not permanently injuring yourself, or at least you're not permanently injuring your body. The mind and the spirit aren't my concern; those are best left for very important people like counselors to deal with. I just do bodies." She sounded somewhat hurt, though I couldn't for the life of me understand why. "Now there's something else about you that I've noticed, Phil." She short-hopped around to look into my face, leaving us both still on all fours. "Smile for me, please."
"I can't," I replied honestly. "I've never been able to, ever since SCABS. Sorry!"
Phlox nodded soberly. "It's not uncommon among us furry-types." She continued to examine me carefully, then rose up onto her haunches. "I want to manually examine your face, if I can. Please hold very still, so I don't accidentally claw you in the eye."
I did as requested, closing my eyes entirely as Phlox manipulated and pulled and twisted at my cheeks and face. Then I felt her lean away, and I blinked at her. "I'd like to try something on you, if you don't mind. It may feel a bit uncomfortable."
I shrugged as best I could with so much of my weight on my forepaws. "Sure," I agreed.
Phlox hopped off and dug into one of her bags, pulling out a little black box. She plugged a pair of what looked for all of the world like electrical testing leads into it, then hopped around to my head again. "All right," she explained both to me and to those looking on. "This is a 'TENS' unit, which is short for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. I've examined Phil's face, and I suspect that SCABS has left him with considerably more human structure than he is aware of. I mean this quite literally when I say that he isn't aware of this structure. When Phil was changed, if my theory is correct, some of the neural pathways to his facial muscles were lost to him. If this is so, then these pathways can be retaught." She paused and gently pressed the two leads home through my facial fur to the bare skin below; they tickled, but I held still. "Are you ready?" she asked. "This is going to feel very strange."
"Yes," I replied soberly. "I'm ready."
She laid a reassuring hand between my ears, then removed it and used it to turn on her TENS unit. There was a sort of buzzing sensation in my cheek, and I felt one corner of my mouth pulled up. Then the buzzing went away and my face went back to normal.
"Oh, my!" Dan said excitedly.
"That was very nice!" agreed one of the full-morph bunnies. "Very nice indeed!"
Phlox's ears straightened up. "Yes," she agreed. Then she produced another TENS box and two more leads. "The facial muscles haven't even degenerated from lack of use; Phil's chronomorphism has seen to that." She carefully set up the leads on the second box, then placed the probes carefully. "Can you hold these right here?" she asked Dan.
"Certainly," he replied, taking them in his well-formed hands.
"Just hold them and wait," Phlox instructed. Then she turned to the full-morphs. "Can you two guys help out too?"
"What do you need?" the larger asked.
Phlox grabbed a mirror out of her bag and set it on the ground. "Blink when you can see yourself, Phil." She moved the looking glass around slowly, and I blinked at just the right time. "Hold it there," she exclaimed. "Phil needs to see this, more than any of us." Then she picked up her probes again, placed them on exactly the same two points where they'd been before, and turned to me. "Phil, most TENS patients with conditions like yours can hold their muscles in place for about five seconds after the voltage has been removed. With treatment that period grows longer and longer, but almost everyone can make five seconds even at the very first." She paused and laid her hand on my head again. "When you feel the current fade away, try to hold it and look into the mirror."
I blinked in acknowledgement, as speaking would have moved the probes. Then Phlox hit a switch, and the buzzing began again, this time on both sides of my face. The sensation wasn't unpleasant at all, I noted. The muscles in my face were pulling it well out of its normal shape, but not in a bad way. It was almost a relief to have it move, I realized, almost a kind of release of some kind. Like hopping through a pleasant park after a too-long day at the Shelter. Then the buzzing cut itself off abruptly and I concentrated just as hard as I could on holding everything in place, just as Phlox had instructed me to. Dan and Phlox pulled their forepaws out of the way, exposing my lower face...
...and for just a second or two, a very rabbity and very happy-looking me absolutely beamed out of Phlox's little looking glass before the muscles failed and I was once more my mundane, workaday, businesslike and unsmiling self.
"That was a very nice smile, Phil," observed Phlox.
"Yes," agreed Dan. "It sure was."
I sat in silence for a moment, the image of my own transformed face dancing in my head. "I... I... Thank you very, very much, Phlox."
She reached and laid a hand on my shoulder. "You have a very nice smile, Phil," she began. "I've been wanting to try this ever since --"
And then, quite suddenly, the room went dark!
"Damn!" observed one of the full-morphs.
"Must be a power failure of some kind," I agreed. In a room full of some types of Scabs or even Norms, I might have been tempted to add something reassuring and calming. Lapines, however, are notably unafraid of the dark, being evolved to spend much of their time in burrows. Even Scabs like me, whose eyes are almost entirely human-normal, tend not to panic when the lights go out. It's just a little inconvenient, is all.
"I've got a flashlight in my kit," Phlox observed. I listened to her cautiously short-hop across the floor, then dig around in her equipment. Eventually the promised light was switched on, and we could see again.
"We're all right in here," Dan observed. "Maybe we should go out in the hall and see if everything is okay there, too."
"Good idea," I agreed. Phlox nodded and hopped to the door, then reached up and turned the knob. There were lots of rabbit-Scabs hopping excitedly up and down the hallway, but there were no signs of major disorder. In fact, the emergency lights had kicked in, and the hall was much better lit than had been our small meeting room. Most likely this was why everyone was congregating out there, I realized. Everyone's rooms must have gone dark!
"Come on," I suggested. "Let's go and find out what's wrong."
No one seemed to know anything, however, though Phlox and I ran up and down the hall several times and even went up and down a floor to see if there was any news to be had there. Everything seemed orderly enough, and Scabs and Norms alike appeared to be taking things in stride. Down in the lobby rabbits and sailors were sitting around in little groups and chatting animatedly, while at the desk the clerks honestly didn't know any more than we did. In fact, they finally found out what was wrong from the same source as Phlox and I did.
"A major transformer blew up," I overheard Paul explaining over and over again as he made his way in our direction. "I've been in contact with the maintenance staff. It's no big deal -- our power will be restored in a few hours. Nothing is lit up for blocks around us. There's a few Navy guys stuck on an elevator, but no rabbits. Everything is just fine; there's no need to worry."
I cocked my head to one side; if it was going to take that long to get things going again, then it was a big deal. The whole Con schedule would be shot! "Hey, Paul!" I called out. "What about the meetings?"
He looked over at me, eyes wide. "I have no idea as of yet, Phil." Clearly, he was too overloaded just getting the word out to be able to think that far ahead.
Then Phlox spoke up. "The Naming ceremony is probably almost over by now, and we usually have lots and lots of candles and such at those. It was being held in the main room, the one that's big enough for everyone. How about we all meet there and wait it out together?"
Paul considered. "I'm tempted, to be quite honest with you." He looked at me; where the rest of his staff was at I had no idea, nor apparently did he. "Can you two do me a favor? Head down to the big room and check in with Hayseed-Rah. If he will let us in, I think that I would like to move us down there. I can put together a sing-along or something. We won't have any power until midnight at the earliest; tonight's schedule is totally shot."
"Where's all of your help?" Phlox demanded. "I mean sure, we'll give you a hand. But where's your Owsla?"
Paul looked at the carpet. "All at the Naming Ceremony. I shouldn't have let everyone go at once, but they all wanted to be there so badly..."
Phlox nodded. "Right. The Dandelion Warren is mostly made up of locals, same as your Owsla. And they won't unseal the door until they are quite finished, unless we interrupt them. What a rotten stroke of luck!" The doe turned to me. "Well, it may be bad manners, but I'll knock if I have to. Ready, Phil?"
"Ready!" I agreed. Then we dropped to all fours and hopped across the hotel.
Moving quickly in the dark is not nearly so easy as it sounds, even for a rabbit; if you stay close to a wall and follow it with your whiskers, then you are certain to encounter a chair or some such, usually most unexpectedly. Alternatively, if you run down the centers of the hallways, it's very easy to lose your bearings. This is especially true in a grand old hotel like the Edelweiss, built back in the days when wide, sweeping expanses were seen as signs of elegance. Fortunately the emergency lighting was working well, and I had little trouble following Phlox as she darted and weaved her way through the warren-like building. When we finally got there the big doors were still closed, though a hotel employee was standing outside and looking worried.
"Sir?" she said, looking confused as her eyes shifted from Phlox to me and back again. It's honestly not possible for a Norm to easily distinguish the sex of a heavily-morphed lapine in the absence of other clues, such as the business suit that I suddenly realized I had abandoned back in Phlox's meeting room. "Ma'am? I mean..."
"It's quite all right," my companion replied with a smile. "I'm Phlox, and I'm a Downer myself. You need to get a headcount, I presume?"
The employee looked massively relieved, though she still didn't know Phlox's gender. "Yes! We're opening up all the individual rooms, of course, but most of your folks are probably inside there. And we were instructed that this was a very, very private affair..."
Phlox nodded. "It is, and thank you for respecting our privacy. But an emergency like this is more important." The doe hopped over to the door and thump-thump-thumped it with a hindleg; this was a sound that no Norm could easily imitate. The lock clicked, and then a gray lapine head emerged. Accompanying it was the sound of much laughing and roughhousing. "What?" she asked, glaring at the Norm. Then she saw Phlox and I standing with her and turned to us. "Is something wrong?"
"The power is out," Phlox explained. "You probably didn't notice because of the Ceremony." She paused. "I'm Phlox, by the way. Of Sunflower Warren."
The doe smiled and hugged Phlox like a long-lost sister. "Very pleased to meet you! I'm Cornflower!" Then she turned expectantly to me. "Are you in Sunflower Warren too?"
I looked down. "No," I answered slowly. "I'm afraid that I'm not a Downer. My name is Phil."
Cornflower smiled and hugged me anyway, then turned to the Norm. "I guess that you need to come inside?"
The young clerk nodded. "I'm very sorry to interrupt. Honestly I am!"
"Don't be," Cornflower replied easily. "It's an emergency. We understand. Just wait here a minute, and I'll be right back." Then she vanished, closing the doors behind her. For a few moments all that we heard was more playing and laughing, then a loud hindfoot stamp sounded out loud and clear over the hubbub. Even outside the room, Phlox and I both raised our ears reflexively.
"All right!" a loud lapine-male voice declared into the sudden silence. "All right! We have an emergency, brothers and sisters! The power is out in the hotel, and our Ceremony simply must be interrupted."
"Aww!" cried out a chorus of voices; one of them just might have been Scallion's.
"Come now!" the voice -- clearly that of the Alpha -- declared. "Let's not be selfish! Our brothers and sisters need this room, and we must be counted so that the staff can make certain that no one is missing. Paw-Paw, take care of Milkweed. Thistle, get everyone lined up against the wall so that the nice Norm lady waiting outside can get on with her job."
There was even more of a hubbub, and then a few seconds later the heavy doors swung wide open. On the other side of the entraceway stood easily the largest heavily-morphed lapine Scab that I'd ever seen; he was every bit as heavily altered as I was, yet stood a full five feet tall despite his lop ears. Suddenly I felt very small, something that I thought I had long since gotten over. "Come on in," the huge rabbit ordered, and I recognized immediately from the authority in the voice that this was indeed Dandelion Warren's Alpha. "Welcome!" Almost instinctively, Phlox and the clerk and I all obeyed.
The meeting room had been so transformed by the Downers that I blinked in confusion when I looked around me. It was no wonder that nobody had noticed the lack of power; there were heavy drapes hanging from every surface to make the room appear less squared-off and more as if it been dug out of the soil, and all of the lights had been draped-over as well. Even the emergency lights had been used for draping, I observed; as I watched a rabbit leapt up and tore the covering off of one of them; it was indeed working properly under its drape. "Phlox?" Hayseed asked. "Why don't you let Paul know that we're going to have the room ready for him in just a few minutes?"
"Right," she agreed, leaping off gracefully. With messengers like her, it was no wonder that the convention staff had eschewed carrying radios!
Then Hayseed turned to me. "Phil," he said. "It's an honor meeting you at long last. I've heard so much about your work, and your web page is fantastic!"
I looked down at the ground; Hayseed might not have been my personal Alpha, nor was he in any way pushy or impolite. But he was big and powerful and very, very dominant; I certainly had no desire to end up opposing him in anything. Hayseed took me in his arms then, and I felt totally engulfed by the huge, powerful limbs. "I've wanted so very much for you to come to one of our meetings," he said as we squeezed each other and sniffed politely.
I let Hayseed go. "I'm not opposed to your organization," I explained as politely as I possibly could. "But it seems a bit..."
"Silly?" Hayseed asked with a grin.
I cocked my head to one side consideringly, then nodded. "Silly," I agreed. "No offense meant."
"None taken," Hayseed replied reassuringly, clapping his forepaw on my shoulder. He had very long honey-colored fur, and it was not until then that I realized he had exactly the same kind of thumbless forepaw structure that I had to contend with. My heart warmed to him a little.
"We seem to be pretty much morphed the same way," I observed. "Except that you are so much bigger."
Hayseed laughed aloud. "Indeed. It's just my luck! I was a very small man, but I got lucky enough to be crossed with Flemish Giant stock. I'm actually taller than I once was. It makes the rest of the package a lot easier to take."
I felt my cheeks twitch a little, and realized that I had just tried to smile. I liked Hayseed, I suddenly decided. It took a lot more than size and strength to make a good Alpha, and he seemed to fit the bill well. "I've been spending a lot of time with your membership here, and I've got to admit that they seem to know how to have fun."
Hayseed nodded soberly. "That's what we're all about, in the end. I mean... You and I and all the rest of us here have been handed a pretty sour deal in life. Why shouldn't we try to make lemonade out of it, for Heaven's sake? Why shouldn't we stretch our new bodies in the ways that they are now designed to, and play 'acorn' together in the sun? Why shouldn't we gather and snuggle and sniff at each other, if that's what we've been made to want to do? What's the point of living the rest of our lives in denial and beating our breasts over the mundane, normal, workaday lives we might have had?" He paused and smiled again. "Hell, my life is better now! And I'd bet that a lot of my rabbits would agree!"
I nodded. My own life was probably better, I had to admit; as I'd said earlier in the day, SCABS had pushed me into achieving much that I otherwise would not have. But still... "The mysticism angle bothers me a little," I commented. "I am an agnostic; a rather dedicated one, even."
Hayseed blinked, then smiled again. "We have many agnostic members," he said. "Most of us invoke Frith's name more for color than anything else. Others do find a lot of solace and meaning in the lapine religion, however, and who would deny this comfort to them if that is where they find whatever it is that they seek? Adams' fictional religion was rather heavily based in generic Judeo-Christian monotheism, after all. It's worked for an awful lot of people over the centuries. If you look broadly enough, you'll see that this is just another variation on the same basic theme." The big lapine cocked his head oddly. "We do have some rituals that we keep hidden away from the uninitiated, that much I'll acknowledge. But these practices are more like those of a Masonic Lodge than, say, a church. They are intended to produce a sense of family and continuity across our whole movement. We are too new to have real traditions. Someday, however, we firmly hope to have a rich body of them." Then Hayseed cocked his head and looked at me appraisingly. "Besides, Phil," he pointed out, "meaning is wherever you find it. Of all the rabbits in the world, I figured that you would realize that."
I felt my cheeks twitch again; there was no doubt whatsoever that Phlox was right about my having the necessary musculature for facial expressions, at least to a limited degree. For the first time, I really began to hope in my heart that perhaps a little physical therapy might prove fruitful. "True enough," I agreed. "Meaning is where you find it, or at least I've always thought so. But still..."
Hayseed gestured expansively at the kerosene lanterns and candles and extensive wall-hangings that were the trappings of his little group. "I know. To someone like you, all of this looks very silly."
I sighed. "Yes, Hayseed. I hate to say it, but it does."
The big lop grinned. "Fair enough. I appreciate honesty in rabbits and Norms alike. You're always welcome, Phil. Always! But I won't press."
Just then Mario came hopping in, his ear-holed chef's hat knocked awry. "Where's Hayseed-Rah?" he called out despairingly. "Hayseed!"
"Excuse me," the Alpha said, patting me on the shoulder one last time. "I'm being paged." He dropped to all fours and loped across the room, looking for all the world more like an overweight Great Dane than anything else. Lacking anything else to do, I tagged along.
"It's a disaster!" Mario cried out when Hayseed stood up alongside him. "A complete disaster!"
"What's a disaster, Mario?" the Alpha asked, throwing a comforting arm around the cook. "What's wrong?"
"The kitchens!" Mario wailed. "Flayrah! The steam tables won't work without power! The stoves won't cook! The ovens are all shut down!"
"Oh, no!" I interjected, remembering how very wonderful the kitchen had smelled. Truly this was a major disaster! Several other rabbits dropped what they were doing and hopped over as well, their ears held high in worried concern.
"That's awful!" Hayseed declared. "Is there anything that we can do to help?"
Mario sighed and shook his head. "I can't possibly keep the cafeteria open all night," he said slowly. "That's a dead loss. And the food we have now..."
"...will have to be eaten before it goes bad," Hayseed declared, understanding dawning. "Mario, all of us rabbits are meeting here. How about I send some bunnies down to carry whatever you've got on hand up here to share out? We ought to all get one more good meal out of it, at least."
"Probably," Mario agreed. He thought about it a moment, then nodded. "Send about twenty helpers," he said decisively. "Any more would get in the way. All of them need to have good hands and be able to carry things; the elevators are down too."
"Of course," Hayseed replied thoughtfully. Then he spy-hopped twice, until he got a bearing on the particular rabbit that he was looking for. "Scallion!" he called out once he had established the proper direction. "Scallion! Rap-Scallion!"
Suddenly there was a brown streak across the meeting room, and the little lop was standing next to us. "What, Hayseed-Rah?"
"Go draft twenty bunnies with good hands. Mario's moving all the flayrah up here because the kitchen is shut down. Help him, please."
Much to my surprise, Scallion literally saluted his Alpha. "Aye-aye, Sir!" he replied. Then he smiled at me. "Hi, Phil!" And then he was gone.
Hayseed grinned at Mario. "He's very efficient. You'll have your help before you know it." Then he turned back to me. "You can't help carry food, but you can organize getting the tables ready up here. You're not Owsla, but people know you. Will you help out?"
"Of course," I answered, feeling much better. I always felt very bad when unable to help out with things because of my forepaws. Suddenly my opinion of Hayseed rose even higher; probably he had selected me for this very reason, his own forepaws lending him considerable insight.
"If anyone gives you any guff, just explain that I've deputized you for the duration," Hayseed said. Then he smiled one last time. "Not that I expect anyone to question you; everyone knows about you. Thanks, Phil!"
"Thank you!" I replied to his receding back. Then I looked around me and sized up the task at hand. There was a lot of food down at the Flayrah, I knew, and not nearly enough tables at hand to place it on. Nor would there be very much time to get ready. I pressed my lips together, then surveyed the room to establish exactly what resources I had to work with. "Hey!" I cried out to a passing full-morph doe. "Hayseed has asked me to help out with something. Can you go find me some tables? I reckon that I'll need about two dozen the size of that one over there." I pointed, indicating a standard hotel unit. "We're going to need them in ten minutes or less. Flayrah is moving up here because the power is out!"
The doe blinked, then nodded. "Sure, Phil. Where should I meet you back at?"
I pointed to the front of the room. That was where the food was going, I decided. "Right up there."
"Gotcha." Then the bunny was gone even more quickly than Scallion had vanished.
It felt very good to be useful, I decided over the next several minutes, and even better to be an important part of things. Very carefully selecting bunnies that appeared physically able to perform the needful tasks, I had my helpers clear an area of the useless custom-made chairs and then set up what tables were available. Silk-ear and her friend, the does that I had met earlier while waiting for the Flayrah to open, suggested that we leave the table-legs folded so that the full-morphs could get to the food, and then they converted the wall-hangings into tablecloths. I pointed and waved and drafted more and more help as bunnies all over the hotel got the word and drifted in, even as the first tureens of hot food began to arrive under Scallion's direction. Almost immediately the tables began to overflow, and I was just beginning to worry when the full-morph appeared at my feet. "They're coming," she said.
"What?" I asked, admittedly a little snappishly. "Where are the tables? I'll have to send help to go and get them!" Not that I had any help to spare, of course; rabbits physically able to move furniture were few and far between. I couldn't do it myself, for that matter.
The full-morph just sat there expressionlessly, and then I saw the end of a table poking its cautious way through the door. The rest of it soon followed, supported by a US Navy seaman in dress whites. "Scallion asked them to help us," the doe explained. "He said to tell you that he didn't think we had enough strong rabbits to go around. The tables we needed were down in the lobby, and so were the sailors." She flicked an ear expressively.
I closed my eyes in relief, then dropped to all fours to hug the full-morph tightly by way of apology. She ground her teeth in pleasure, and I knew that my apology was accepted. Unfortunately, there was not time for a full-blown snuggle, and the doe was polite when I released her and resumed directing traffic. "Over there!" I cried out to the towering seaman -- he must have been all of six feet tall! "Form a line with the others, if you would. And thank you!"
The sailor smiled and nodded. "Glad to help out." He sniffed at the air. "Hey, this stuff smells great!"
I rocked my ears, then made a decision. "That light-brown bunny over there is named Hayseed," I explained, pointing with a forepaw. "He's in charge here. Tell him that I said I thought that it might be a good idea to let the helpers have a snack too. Some of this is stuff that you shouldn't eat, but I bet you'd like most of it."
The Norm sniffed again, then he smiled and got the same sort of distant look in his eyes that I'd seen on so many of the rabbits downstairs at the Flayrah itself. "Yeah, I think that I will. Thanks!"
Then Silk-ear and her helpers were at it again, shuffling plates and draping cloths as the sailors carried in the tables one by one, the food piling up higher and higher. Mario had cooked far ahead, it was clear, so as to have enough stock to keep the cafeteria open around the clock. After a while I had nineteen tables set up, and the flayrah was still coming!
"Where do you want this, Phil?" asked two sailors pushing in a piano. Where they'd gotten the thing I had absolutely no idea, though I rather suspected that Scallion had somehow had a hand in it. Heavens, I didn't even know if anyone knew how to play the thing!
"Over against that wall," I directed. Did everyone in the world know my name?
Eventually the chaos slowed, then died away entirely as all of the food was finally transferred. The room was filled to the brim with a mixture of bunnies and sailors; I noticed Admiral Jorgenson and Hayseed chatting away animatedly off in a corner, and I dashed over to join them.
"Hello, Phil," Hayseed said as I came leaping up. "Good work getting everything set up! I knew that you could do it!" He smiled at me, then turned to the Admiral. "Sir, this is --"
"-- Phil," the Admiral interjected, reaching down politely to shake my paw. "We've already met."
Hayseed smiled and turned to me. "Does everyone in the world know you?" he asked theatrically. I tried to stammer out a reply, but Hayseed spoke first. "The hotel management asked us to accommodate the Navy for a little while; this is the only room of any size with light, and the power will be out for at least another two hours or so, maybe even longer. Besides, we have food here, and every restaurant within several miles is shut down."
I nodded. "Of course. Can everyone fit?"
"Most likely not," Hayseed acknowledged. "But we can try. Phil, thanks again. Sit down and relax; we're going to do some singing in a few minutes. The Admiral and I are trying to decide on some songs that both groups will know."
I nodded. "You're very welcome," I answered. Then I turned around and hopped away; clearly the Alpha was too busy for small talk.
It was probably inevitable that I ended up sitting rabbit-style near the grape leaves, and probably equally inevitable that my stomach began to rumble once more. I wasn't really hungry, or at least my mind thought not. Yet the smell was so very, very appealing...
Presently, before I could talk myself out of it I found myself placing four stuffed leaves on a paper plate and finding a quiet little corner of my own behind the abandoned speaker's rostrum. A jackrabbit was experimenting with a few piano chords while a WAVE stood by to take her turn. Everyone from both groups seemed to be smiling and laughing and getting along just fine together, and I found myself feeling unaccountably warm and happy inside. I'd contributed to the success of the event; that was part of it, of course. And another part was simple satisfaction at seeing two totally diverse parts of humanity cooperating so very seamlessly and amicably. But there was something more contributing to my overwhelming sense of peace of mind, and I knew it. I just wasn't quite sure exactly what it was.
I shrugged then, and sniffed at my grape leaves. Paul's opinions about us rabbits getting together and being ourselves had considerable merit to them, I could see now, as did Hayseed's. I'd enjoyed myself immensely during some parts of the convention, and had learned things about myself that I'd otherwise never have known. I'd grown more than a little, and made many new friends. Especially Phlox, I realized with a little shudder. Especially Phlox...
I was just about to bite into a grape leaf when a rather bitter smell penetrated its way into my awareness. It wasn't an unpleasant odor, not at all. Rather, it was bitter in the sense that many spices are bitter. I sniffed around a bit, then located the source of the smell up under the podium. It came from a plateful of greenery, greenery of a sort that I did not recognize at all. Apparently it had gotten mislaid in the great Flayrah shuffle, which was understandable enough. Carefully, using both my mouth and my clumsy forepaws, I lifted the dish and set it down on the floor. This was no ordinary platter, I suddenly realized; it was clearly a hand-made piece, enameled in brilliant colors with icons representing the sun shining on a field filled with dandelions and laughing rabbits at play. I sniffed at the green stuff again; the aroma rather fascinated me. So I pulled out a few leaves, tucked them in the side of a stuffed grape leaf, and ate them. The taste was odd, yet somehow very satisfying and compelling. Carefully I added more leaves to the rest of my little snack, then ate slowly, savoring every single bite. The music began as I munched on my third leaf, and by the time that I was on my fourth the lights had dimmed and everyone was singing. The sound was so beautiful that I wanted to cry; my heart was singing right along with every note of The Green, Green Grass of Home. I had to go be with someone, I suddenly realized; the night was simply far too special for me to spend it alone. I stood up to go find someone, then fell laughing to all fours when the floor bucked and swooped under my feet; seemingly it too understood that I needed to act more like a rabbit! "Aw, floor!" I declared aloud. "I didn't know that you cared!"
Then I was out hopping among my fellow lapines and the sailors, lurching about and hugging everyone within reach. Soon I found Phlox and curled up against her, even though she pulled away in surprise at first. "Phil!" she whispered to me. "Phil! Are you all right?"
"I've never been better!" I declared honestly. "Not ever in my whole life!" Phlox was beautiful, I suddenly realized, beautiful and intelligent and pure and eminently, eminently desirable. "Would you like to get married?" I asked her.
"Phil!" she hissed angrily. Then the doe leaned over and sniffed my breath. "Oh my God!"
"Frith!" I exclaimed gleefully. "You're supposed to be thanking Frith, aren't you? I'm not supposed to thank anyone, though. I'm an ungrateful bastard, I am." The music was still going on, so I decided to sing along. "I sing a song of you!" I declared, even though the choir was still working on Grass.
"Phil!" Phlox cried out again, this time more worriedly. "Did you eat some strange greens?"
"Yeah!" I answered easily, nuzzling her in a very familiar way. "I sure did! They were under the dais; someone must have put them there by accident when the Flayrah relocated up here. Boy, were they good! Do you want some?"
"That was for the Naming ceremony!" she whispered urgently. "It was locoweed!" She pushed my probing nose away from her neck. "How much did you eat, exactly?"
"Oh, a quarter platter. A quarter-pounder." I giggled. "Whatever."
"Oh my God!" she said again, pulling away. "Oh my God!"
"Frith!" I complained. "How many times do I have to tell you, Phlox! For you, it's Frith!"
"Come with me, Phil," she ordered, rising to her haunches. "Right now!"
"All right," I agreed, wearily complying even though I didn't understand her sense of urgency at all. There was no hurry, no hurry about anything at all. And sure enough all of Phlox's attempts at haste came to nothing. We walked around for hours, everyone staring and staring at us. I stopped to hug lots of people, some of whom I actually knew. Phlox, however, kept me moving. Eventually I found myself facing Hayseed once more. "Hey, Hay! Rah!" I declared. Somehow it seemed like a terribly funny thing to say; I collapsed into laughter.
Phlox and Hay whispered urgently to each other for a while, then they carried me somewhere behind the rostrum. I tried to help, but my feet kept hanging up on things. Big feet I had now! Big, big bunny feet! I raised them up to show Phlox several times, but she didn't seem to understand at all, even though they were just like hers. Then they laid me down on a nice soft mattress.
"It's not enough to really hurt him," Phlox judged. "But I've never seen anyone eat so much!"
"Nor I," Hayseed agreed. "Well, he's initiated, whether he joins us or not. I won't make him go through it again."
"'nitiated!" I agreed happily. "I'm 'nitiated! Whee!"
Hayseed looked down at me and smiled. "Yes, you certainly are, Phil. Very initiated indeed!"
"No," Phlox corrected. "He needs a Name before he's initiated."
"Not unless he joins us," Hayseed ruled. "To get a Name, he must willingly join up. This isn't going to be a standard case, not under these circumstances. It can't be!"
"Fair enough," she agreed deferentially. "Initiated, but unnamed." There was a long pause, then she spoke up again. "Do you think he'll go Fiver?"
Hayseed smiled again. "Having met him, it wouldn't surprise me a bit." Then he reached down and laid his paw on my forehead. "Phil?"
"I'm Phil!" I declared brightly. "I'm still Phil! Just Phil too!"
"Lay down here and rest for a while, Phil. We'll take care of everything for you. All right?"
"All right!" I agreed happily. It was ever so nice to have another rabbit around that you could count on to stand guard while you slept. "All right! I sing a song of you!"
"And I of you, Phil" Phlox replied soberly. "And I of you. May you discover your inner truth at long last, despite yourself." Then the door swung shut, and they left me lying in silence.
If you had to be something, I decided as I lay on my side in the little alcove, there were worse things to be than a nice snuggle-bunny all wrapped up in soft, soft fur, with tightly coiled springs for hindlimbs and a full, hard belly. I rolled over and over in my nice safe place, simply luxuriating in my strong, comfortable, supple body. I stretched from eartips to toes, then did it again just for the sheer pleasure of it. I never really noticed my body very much in the day to day ordinary run of life, and when I did it was usually just to be frustrated with it. It was too bad there was no one around for me to hug!
I settled the issue by hugging myself, of course. "I sing a song of you!" I cried aloud. "I sing a song of you!" But no one answered, and pretty soon I just sort of laid still and luxuriated in the slow undulations of the floor and the wonderful scents seeping in from the flayrah in the next room. The music started up again after a while, and I thump-thump-thumped my hindleg in time to the beat, though there wasn't anything within reach for me to slap it up against. "I sing a song of you!" I cried out once more. "I sing a song of you!" Then the music sort of faded away and the floor became softer and steadier. And the lights finally came back on!
That was what really startled me back into awareness, of course; not only were the lights suddenly on, but they were really, really bright ones! I hopped to my feet and tried to open my eyes, but that didn't work out well at all. There apparently wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the sun was blindingly brilliant. I blinked helplessly until my eyes began to adjust.
"Hello, Phil!" a rabbity voice called out. "Care for a game?"
I turned around; a full-morph wild hare was sitting patiently in the little clearing with me, right on the banks of the cold clear stream that babbled away right alongside us to the so-distant melody of Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal. I was full-morph too, I suddenly realized as I tried to stand up and failed. I was an ordinary white bunny now, not a Scab! Somehow, the idea didn't bother me at all. And, best of all, at the wild hare's feet sat an acorn! Suddenly I was desperate to try my luck at the game; it had looked like such fun before, but I'd been much too proud to join in. Silly Phil!
I cocked an ear in polite greeting. "How do you know my name?" I asked the bunny. "Have we ever met? I don't recall your scent." Which I would have under any ordinary circumstances, of course. The hare's scent was that of the purest, cleanest rabbit I'd ever met.
"No, we haven't ever met, though I've long sought the pleasure. Let's just say that I've seen your web page."
I laughed and laughed and laughed, so hard that I fell over and rolled around kicking in the carpet of soft fallen leaves. "Everyone's read my web page!" I complained. "Everyone!"
"Yes," the hare replied very seriously. "Everyone has. It is a very good page." Then he picked up the acorn between his forepaws. "Come on, Phil. I have much to tell you, and not much time to do it in." Then he clomped the acorn between his jaws and took off like a rocket!
Instantly I rolled to my feet and followed, of course. The hare led me on a crazy chase as I dodged and cut corners and tried to guess where he'd head next. He was so very fast, fast, fast! I'd never imagined that a rabbit could be so quick, though I surprised myself by keeping up and sometimes even closing the distance a little. In no time at all we had traveled far from the little creek, which was now playing I've Been Working on the Railroad. Suddenly the hare ducked violently to the right, and out of nowhere a white doe tackled him very brutally indeed. The acorn rolled free...
...and I found myself looking directly down at it as I skidded to a stop, mouth agape.
"You follow well, Phil!" the first hare cried out. "But can you lead?"
I just stood mute, suddenly unsure of exactly what was going on.
Then the doe spoke up. "When the acorn lands at your feet, Phil, you're supposed to grab it and run with it. Who knows when the chance may come your way again?"
I looked from one rabbit to the other; suddenly they both looked very familiar indeed. I was as high as a kite, I realized consciously for the first time, and nothing was supposed to be making any sense. Yet, somehow, everything clearly did. I was just too far gone to understand quite how. "You're Phlox!" I said to the white doe. "How did you get inside my head?"
"You let me in," she replied easily. "It took you long enough!"
I nodded slowly. It made sense, or at least hallucination-sense. "All right, Phlox," I agreed companionably. "Glad to have you in here with me." Then I turned to the wild hare. "Who are you, sir?"
Four electrodes stimulated the hare's cheeks, and he smiled in an eerily human fashion. "You have to figure that out for yourself."
I nodded; that seemed fair enough too. The acorn was still laying right in front of my forepaws; with a sudden motion I dropped my head and snatched it up, then ran like the wind.
There were plenty of hedgerows wherever this place was, thick wonderful hedges that I ducked and dodged and weaved through like the wild thing that I suddenly was, the exhilaration of the chase coursing through me like one electric shock after another. I ducked and weaved, my whole reality shrinking to the hard little token in my mouth, a few square yards of space around me, and my two good friends who gleefully stalked me through the underbrush. And, of course, a distant creek that now sang My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.
I darted and faked with every bit as much skill as the wild hare had shown, this being both of our birthrights. My route covered new ground and then doubled back over and over again until I was almost nipping at one of my pursuers' tails. Then, quite suddenly, I ran out of room to run! A closely-woven fence appeared out of nowhere, right in front of me! I skidded to a halt, the acorn popping free from my mouth and rolling unchecked through the fence and into the enclosure beyond. The wild hare and Phlox each also came skidding to a halt, one on either side of me. All of us were panting hard, and for a moment we simply sat and breathed in the good fresh air and rested a little. Then I spoke up. "I..." I said between inhalations. We rabbits have very small lungs, especially full-morph rabbits like the one that I now was. You can't really say very much in any single breath when you're breathing really hard and you're a rabbit. "I... Sorry... Lost... Acorn."
The wild hare placed a reassuring paw on my back. "It's all right," he replied, already recovered from the chase. "You did very well! Very well indeed! Let's just sit here and rest for a minute."
That seemed like a very good idea. There were birds singing somewhere nearby, and the stream was playing Anchors Aweigh now, one of my favorites. There was heavy cover all around; if I didn't know better, I would have guessed that I was in some kind of rabbit paradise. And my companions were very pleasant to be with as well. I reached over and rubbed up against Phlox, then the stranger too. Phlox was remarkably soft and fragrant. But so was the new guy, I noticed, though in a very different sort of way.
Eventually a rabbit-morph came hopping along on the other side of the fence, and I winced in reflected pain. She was clearly an example of the worst that SCABS can do to a human being, or nearly the worst. Her fully lapine limbs were connected to a fully human torso; the poor creature could clearly neither hop nor walk upright. Instead, she painfully dragged herself along the ground with her ill-conceived musculature, rubbing dirt into her filthy, unkempt fur. Her jaw was not articulated properly, and as a result she drooled constantly. Muddy streaks ran down her chest.
"Look at her eyes," the wild hare directed me. "Look at her eyes!"
I was compelled to do so, even though I didn't want to. The doe-woman's eyes were large and liquid and brown and filled with terrible, terrible pain...
...and they were empty as well, totally dead and empty. Clearly, no human spirit was at home. Nor any rabbit spirit, either.
Then another rabbit came out and joined the doe, this one even more of a nightmare than the first. The poor thing was full-morph, save for a fully human, full-sized head. He forced his tiny body to push the grossly oversized head along on a little wheeled cart, though it laid there totally inert, a dead weight far beyond his lapine body's capacity to manipulate. His eyes were mad, too. But there was definitely somebody at home behind these particular eyes, someone who had once been a normal healthy human but whose mind had become twisted and warped and filled with incoherent rage because of the thing that he had become, whose continually blood-starved brain had broken and shattered and fractured into a thousand incoherent hating fragments of what might have once been a father or a son or a beloved brother. He saw me, running free on the other side of the fence, and the eyes lit up in malevolently hateful recognition of who and what I was. The lips worked; I could read there that he was cursing me to the darkest depths of hell, though no audible words emerged. Clearly, his tiny lungs could not produce enough wind to operate the massive vocal cords.
"No," I said. "Please, get me out of here. I've seen all of this before; I see it every day. This is too much to ask of me! Not here, in this beautiful place! Not now!"
Once more the wild hare placed a steadying paw on my back. "I know, Phil. You do face this every day, and Frith knows that you pay a terrible price. Even more, you work hard against the pain and the suffering, despite the fact that your tools are imperfect and your soul is filled with hurt. If you must leave, then you may leave and I will think no less of you. You will still rate high in my heart."
I closed my eyes, but held my ground. "They hurt so badly," I whispered.
"Yes," the hare nodded. "The natural order of things is not what it once was. There has always been pain and suffering in the world, but nothing like this. Nothing!" The hare sighed. "They cannot carry the acorn, like normal, healthy rabbits. They cannot thrive and live and play in the sun."
I opened my eyes again. Sure enough, the acorn that I had lost lay directly between the two monstrosities, but neither of them had even noticed it.
"You can follow well enough," Phlox whispered in my ear. "But can you lead? Can you stand out in front and speak for others who cannot speak for themselves? Can you stand firm and accept the notoriety and the personal pain that will inevitably accompany it? Can you find it within yourself to stand at the center of a whirlwind and remain unmoved, fixed in your goals and heart still pure despite the filth and the politics and the temptation that swirls eternally around you?"
I sat unmoving as the human head continued to impotently curse me. "You can turn around and leave, Phil," the hare whispered in my other ear. "You can turn around and leave and no one will think the less of you. Or..."
"Or?" I asked, my throat very dry.
"Or you can pick up that damned acorn and carry it," the hare responded soberly. "However, know this beyond any doubt. Once you take it up into your mouth, you can never, ever put it back down. For that is the way of things."
I gulped. "Please," I begged. My hindlegs trembled; I wanted terribly to run away. But somehow, in a very unrabbitlike way, I could not. "Don't make me face this decision. I never sought it out!"
The hare shook his head slowly. "You must face it," he replied. "Only you can know the truth that lies within your soul." He looked at me very penetratingly. "Only one rabbit can carry any given acorn, though others can share the burden."
"I can help," Phlox offered. "We all will help. We will stand behind you and love you and give you a safe place to run away to on weekends. We will give unstintingly of ourselves and of our hearts. Surely you know this to be true!"
I did, of course. I rubbed my muzzle up against Phlox's in acknowledgement of the trueness of her heart, and she replied in kind. Then the hare spoke again. "There is one more thing that you must know before you decide, Phil. One last very, very important thing."
I turned back to face the stranger. "What's that?" I asked.
"You must understand who and what you are, or you are doomed to fail."
I waited expectantly, but the hare said no more. "And to know who and what I am," I answered slowly, "I must first of all know who you are, and who Phlox is."
The hare nodded proudly.
"Phlox is the Lapine Movement, of course," I replied thoughtfully. "She is all the wonderful rabbits that I have met this weekend, though most of all herself."
She smiled, curtseyed in an odd quadrupedal fashion possible only in a dream, and then vanished.
"Very good!" the hare replied, his bright eyes dancing. "And who am I?"
"You just might be El-ahrairah," I mused.
His ears twitched, and I noticed that they were glowing of starlight, just a tiny little bit. "I could be," he allowed.
"Or you could be simply my image of who he is," I continued. "Or who he ought to be, rather. My vision of the idealized rabbit. In either case, you don't really exist."
The hare shrugged. "Probably not. I try not to let it worry me, though. I've got enough other problems on my mind." Then he smiled again, this time without the help of electrodes. The Prince was a very handsome hare indeed, I thought. He hopped over and one last time, we hugged.
"In the book you were much simpler," I pointed out. "Sweeter natured, too."
The hare's grin grew even wider. "That's because Richard Adams is a nicer guy than you are. His mind is much purer than yours." Then he grew serious again. "There is the acorn, Harebell. It lies out in the open, right in front of you. Pick it up or not, as you choose. It is no sin to refuse to lead, especially among us rabbits. Know always that I am very, very proud of you either way."
And then suddenly I was hugging air. There were no other living creatures anywhere around, save for the two monstrous Scabs on the other side of the fence. Then, even as I watched, they faded away too, along with the fence and the clearing and everything else...
...except the acorn, of course. Leaving me standing there utterly alone, face to face with a terrible decision that I did not at all wish to make.
Then everything was gone except a passingly familiar voice. "...Scott's Plebe year. I never thought that he'd amount to anything!"
Then Scallion spoke up. "He was a real loser, wasn't he? Remember the time that he literally forgot about Morning Assembly?"
The other voice laughed, and I heard a Norm knee being slapped. "I can't believe he's in line for CNO!" Then both voices were laughing together, and I realized that my mouth was terribly dry.
"Ugh!" I moaned weakly. I felt terribly weak, and the light hurt my eyes even through the closed lids. "Ugggggh!"
"Oh-oh," the deep voice said. "Looks like it's time for me to head out."
"Probably," Scallion agreed. "It's been really good to see you again, Bob."
"The same, shipmate." The voice paused, and then a distant part of my mind recognized it at long last. It was that of the UNREP Admiral. "Sir, he said slowly. "I've never told you how very sorry I am that..."
"Stow that!" Scallion replied in a high-pitched parody of what might once have been a rather impressive quarterdeck drawl. "I'm still enjoying this tired old world to the hilt, and I'm collecting my pension on top of my consulting fees. Don't feel sorry for me; I'm having the time of my life!"
The Admiral sighed, and I could almost see him looking around the room in wonder. "It's just... Well, this is very much 'you', now that I've seen it. It's just not the 'you' that was once my sea daddy."
"Oh yes it is," Scallion contradicted him. "It's very much me, or at least the new me. Now get out of here; I think that Phil's gonna wake up soon and I don't want any of the other rabbits to know."
"Right," the Admiral agreed. "He seemed like a nice enough guy; I sure hope that he gets over his food poisoning! Tell him that I said so, won't you?"
"Of course," my roommate agreed. Then there was a long pause, as if Scallion had invited the Admiral to hug him, and it had then taken the uniformed man a moment to work up the nerve to do so. "Goodbye!" my fellow lapine said at last.
"Good-bye, sir," the Norm replied gruffly, his voice clearly about to break. "And Godspeed in your new life... Scallion."
I rolled over and groaned again, the words only half-registering. Scallion was a Naval officer? A high-ranking Naval officer, even? Or he had once been; clearly he could not be one any longer. Some of the career restrictions upon us Scabs made perfect sense, even we admitted.
"Ooooh!" I moaned once more, and instantly the small brown bunny was by my side.
"Take it easy, Phil," he urged me, hopping over and standing close up beside me. "You've had a very intense evening."
"Water," I managed to gasp. "Please, could I have a drink of water?"
"Sure!" Scallion replied with a smile. He leapt off to get one for me, and while he was gone I rolled carefully across the bed, arching my back out of long habit so as to avoid injuring my tail. Then I sat up on the edge of the bed. I was still there hanging my head when my room-mate returned with a tall glass of wet stuff. "Here!" he said, holding it to my lips. "Drink all that you want; it's good for you!"
My body agreed; I felt as if I'd just spent weeks in the Sahara. I let Scallion hold the glass for me, my paw-cup still being packed away, and drank down the entire twenty-or-so ounces of fluid in about three gulps. Not bad for a hundred-pound person, I thought!
"I'll get you some more!" the lop said, hurrying off again to the suite's bathroom. I felt a little better with the water in my system, and began to take an interest in my surroundings. At some point I'd been returned to my room, I could see, and the hotel's power had been restored. Just then the main door opened, and Phlox came bustling in.
"Phil!" she declared, sitting down next to me and snuggling up close in sympathy. "Oh, Phil! I'm so glad that you're feeling better!"
I raised my head and looked at her through my bleary, red eyes. "I don't think he's exactly feeling better," Scallion pointed out as he bustled up with my second drink. "He seemed terribly, terribly happy a little earlier."
"Not anymore, though," I agreed. "Blech!" Then I drank the water, and nodded my thanks to Scallion for once more holding the glass.
"Do you have a paw-cup?" Phlox asked politely. "Can I get it for you?"
"Yes," I replied. "But it's buried deep and I think I've had enough to drink for now anyway." She nodded, and we all sat around awkwardly for a moment. Then I decided that there was something that I simply had to put to bed right away. "Phlox," I said. "I'm afraid that I made a bit of a fool of myself --"
"No!" she interrupted forcefully, holding up hand in negation. "Phil, if anyone owes anyone an apology, it's us Downers to you for not taking better care of our ceremonial materials."
I shook my head and sighed; the water was really helping, I noted. Even a few moments before, head-shaking would have been strictly out of the question. "We rabbits tend not to be careful enough about what we eat," I replied. "After you get in the habit of sampling the shrubbery wherever you go..."
Both of my friends nodded in sympathy, understanding entirely. "It was an accident," Scallion said. "An honest, simple mistake. Let's leave it at that."
"Just one of those things," I agreed, looking at Phlox. "Though I am very sorry."
She smiled and crossed her long legs. "You have nothing to be sorry for, honestly."
I nodded and rocked my ears, then looked around for a clock. "My heavens!" I declared, once the little green numbers finally came into focus. "It's three-thirty in the morning! I can't believe that you guys sat up all night with me."
"It's the rules," Scallion replied soberly. "A lot of rabbits talk while being inititated. Some of them say things that some of us consider to be very important. We call that 'going Fiver'. I'm sure that you understand the allusion."
I closed my eyes again and sighed. "Yes, I do."
"And you talked," Phlox said, reaching out and touching my shoulder very delicately. "You talked a lot."
"And even more, you didn't just talk. You said a lot," Scallion agreed, his eyes growing wider. "You're a mystic rabbit, Phil."
I pressed my lips together. How could I say this without hurting the feelings of two people whom I truly cared about? "Nothing really happened," I finally whispered. "Nothing at all. I don't know exactly what I said, but everything that I experienced came straight out of my own mind. It was all interspersed with stuff that had just happened to me, for example. And while I did imagine being around certain people," I nodded at Phlox, "they certainly weren't really there. They were just my own personal symbols, drawn from my own memories and the like."
Scallion didn't look away from the window. "El-ahrairah came to see you," he said slowly.
"My own personal image of him manifested itself to me," I explained, shaking my head. "He didn't tell me anything that I didn't already know. And Phlox was there too, you know! Or my image of her, rather." I turned to the doe. "Are you claiming to have been inside my head?"
"No," she answered. "Of course not. Though I'm deeply honored that the Prince chose my image to help school you."
I closed my eyes and hung my head again. Why, why, why of all the dreams that I'd ever had did I have to talk so much during this one?
Then someone scratched at the door, clearly a fully-pawed morph like me that was physically unable to knock. I looked at Scallion; it was his room too, after all.
"Come in!" he said.
The door swung open, revealing Paul and Hayseed-Rah standing side-by-side. Both looked very tired and haggard, but their faces lit up when they saw me sitting on the side of my bed. "Phil!" Paul cried out, the relief evident in his voice. "I've been so worried!"
"He knows everything," Phlox whispered into my ear. "He's a Downer too, though not a very active one."
Carefully I climbed to my hindfeet, only to nearly be upended by Paul when he slammed up against my chest and wrapped his arms around me. "Phil! I'm so glad that everything went so well for you!"
Then Hayseed wanted a hug too, and I felt myself dwarfed once more by his huge physique. "Phil!" he said. "I knew that you'd go Fiver, given the chance. I just knew it!"
I felt myself go stiff in mid-hug. "Look, Hayseed..."
He stood up and raised both forepaws, palms facing out. "I know, Phil. I know. This is all a bunch of superstitious pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo. It's not even original." He paused. "But it means a lot to us, honestly it does. Would it hurt you any to humor us, to tell us what you experienced in as much detail as you possibly can? While the images are still fresh and powerful?"
I sighed and shook my head. This was one heck of a spot for a dedicated agnostic to find himself in, now wasn't it? But all four of my visitors had become very close friends in the last few hours, and in the end I decided that talking about a dream couldn't possibly do me any harm, so long as I didn't fall into the trap of speaking as if I believed any of it. So I told the story to a rapt audience.
"Wow!" Hayseed said when I was finished. "Wow!"
Paul was a little more skeptical. "I think that Phil is right, really. I've never been too much into --"
"Wow!" Scallion cried out, leaping upwards in joy, then high-hopping in place so vigorously that I feared he might strike the ceiling and break his neck. "WowWowWow!"
"Oh, Phil!" Phlox said, her big pink eyes going soft. Suddenly the objections that I had been about to voice sort of died in my throat as she cuddled up close to me.
"But..." I finally managed to stammer out. "But..."
"Hush, now!" Phlox said, drawing a line across my lips with her long pink foreclaw. "I know that you don't believe, and it's all right that you don't believe. The time just isn't right yet."
Then Hayseed spoke up. "You don't have to believe to be a member of my warren, Phil. I've told you that before." He paused, and looked into my eyes. "We want you very badly, you know. Now more than ever. You belong with us."
"I've joined," Paul pointed out. "Just for the socializing, of course. If you're going to be a lapine Scab anyway, Phil, why not have a little fun with it where and when you can? Why let the Norms decide what is right for you, when your new form has very different demands and drives than the old?"
"Why not help us shape our new world?" Scallion asked.
"Why be a hlessi forever and ever?" Phlox asked as she gently stroked my backfur. "Why be alone, when you don't have to be?"
And why leave a perfectly good acorn sitting at my feet, I asked myself. Who knew when I might get another chance to run with it? And when was the last time that I'd such a wonderful weekend? Never, I had to admit. "All right," I agreed calmly. "I'm in."
"Yay!" cried Scallion, hopping higher than ever.
"Thank you," Hayseed said, his eyes closed and his head slightly bowed.
"You won't regret it!" Paul said, pounding my back.
"A Name!" Phlox cried out. "We need a Name!"
"No," I answered. "I need to keep my own name for professional reasons. Really, I do."
"A Name is required," Hayseed said sternly. "Newcomer, I forgive you your speech as you have not been properly instructed; this whole procedure is highly irregular and I'll probably spend the rest of my life trying to justify it. But from this moment until you are Named, be silent! Your opinions are irrelevant to the Name that you shall henceforth bear."
I opened my mouth, then shut it timidly. My, but Hayseed could be quite a powerful Alpha when he chose to be! I hung my head in shame.
"Don't worry!" Scallion said cheerfully. "You can keep a Norm name for your Norm life if you want to. Paul here did, for example. But I didn't, and Phlox didn't, and I hope that you don't. I'm Scallion, Scallion, Scallion now, and it's far, far better this way!"
I nodded, hoping that it wasn't a breach. And apparently it wasn't, for no one complained. Scallion had a point, I had to admit. Given who I now knew he'd once been, and how much of his ego and identity must have been tied up in his successful military career, it probably had been easier for him to change his name legally and have an end to it. For just a moment I wondered what it would be like to stand before a judge and change my own name, to be forever after known by a sound that affirmed my rabbithood above all else... The idea felt remarkably liberating, though certainly impractical.
"His name must be a mystical one," Phlox pointed out. "He's a mystic, not Owsla or anything like that."
Hayseed nodded. "I agree. Are there any suggestions?"
"We've never named a Fiver," Paul pointed out.
"Nor will we," Hayseed countered firmly. "Not during my reign, Hawthorn."
So Paul's Downer name was Hawthorn? How very, very... fitting.
"Mysticals are hard!" Scallion complained. "How about a drug-plant?"
"Could be," Hayseed allowed, scrutinizing me from eartips to soles. "But his was a very, very special Initiation, I'll grant that. There has to be more to this one's Name than just an ordinary drug-plant."
"Hmm," Paul said. "His fur is very white..."
"But his eyes are blue!" Phlox declared. "Very few rabbits have blue eyes. It's very striking and handsome."
Hayseed nodded. "All right, a plant that has something blue to it. But it must also be a very special one indeed. Nothing less will do, here."
"A blue flower?" Paul asked. "Flower names are usually for does."
"Not always," Scallion countered. "A lot of bucks have names that could refer to either the flower or the plant. Like Mint, from Redclover Warren!"
"True," Hayseed agreed amiably. "All right, I'll consider a flower, though it can't sound effeminate."
I sighed in relief under my breath; like most heavily-morphed bunnies, I already had plenty enough trouble with Norms over my proper gender, thank you very much.
"How about something that the old-time witches used to use a lot?" Phlox suggested. "Like Belladonna."
"Belladonna," Hayseed said thoughtfully, looking me over once more. Then he shook his head. "Nope, sounds like a doe. Sorry."
"True," Phlox agreed. "It does, now that I think about it."
"Hey!" Paul/Hawthorn said, his eyes lighting up. Then he looked at me, and laughed. "It's perfect! Perfect!"
"What?" demanded Hayseed. "What's perfect?"
He turned to face his Alpha. "You wanted a blue flower, one that was used by witches and which was somehow very special. Well, I've got one that's very special indeed!"
"And it is?" the Alpha demanded.
"Harebell," Paul said proudly. "The plant that witches used to use --"
"-- to transform themselves into hares!" Scallion cried out, all excited again.
"And the color!" Phlox agreed, looking into my eyes. "The color of the blossom is just exactly right. You'd think that he was named Harebell for that alone, if you didn't know the real story!"
"Harebell," Hayseed said slowly, testing the flavor of the new name. "Harebell." He paused thoughtfully. "It does sound just a bit effeminate, you know. But he can go by Hare, if he likes, or perhaps Harry. And even 'Harebell' isn't all that bad." My new alpha nodded his head decisively. "The other factors are just too strong for me to turn 'Harebell' down. It works too well in too many ways." The Alpha smiled, then turned to me. "Hlessi, from now on you are part of Dandelion Warren. You need wander alone no more, and your name shall forever be 'Harebell'."
"Repeat the name and bow your head," Phlox whispered in my ear.
"Harebell," I said aloud, bowing as requested.
"Harebell," agreed Hayseed-Rah as he placed both forepaws between my ears and pressed downwards ever so slightly, accepting me as his underling. Inside of me a dam broke somewhere, as my heart realized that this was indeed how I should have been living all along, ever since my big change. "You are Harebell, and you are well and truly beloved to us all. Welcome, Harebell!"
Then the pressure on my head was gone, and I was Harebell. The others mobbed me, snuggling tight from all directions as we formed a single mass of squirming, happy, healthy rabbithood right in the middle of the floor. Harebell, I thought to myself over and over again as I cuddled and stroked and pressed up tight against my warren-mates. Harebell! I was Harebell, and I had made my decision to pick up the acorn, and whoever or whatever the gray hare with the starlit ears in my dream had been, he was certainly right about at least one thing. I could never, ever go back, not from where I was now. I was Harebell, was I! Somehow, I felt very happy indeed every time I ran the syllables through my mind. Harebell! And I'd never quite be who I'd once been ever again.
But there was just one niggling little thing that pestered me at the back of my mind, one little detail that felt as if it ought to be very important but of course could not possibly be. I was after all no expert on plants, nor for that matter on witchcraft. Yet I was quite certain that sometime in the last few days at most I had heard my new name spoken aloud by someone. But where could I possibly have overheard it? Somehow I couldn't quite place the time or location, though it felt as if it should have been right on the tip of my tongue.
Eventually I shrugged it off, of course. After all, it was probably just a case of deja-vu.
Scallion and I worked side-by-side at our laptops until well past dawn, once the snuggle session ended and Hawthorn and Hayseed and Phlox had finally gone off to bed. I wasn't exactly feeling very chipper myself, but Scallion seemed to be eternally full of energy and the work did need to be done before the big conference, of course. My roommate proved to be very bright and able, and once I'd explained about Congressman Carmike and how he wanted so badly to stick it to the Department of Health and Human Services, the little brown lop grew more energized than ever.
"What a chance, Hare!" he declared, clapping me roguishly on the shoulder. "What a wonderful chance we have!"
I pressed my lips together skeptically. "Maybe," I allowed. "And maybe not. What do you know of Carmike?"
"Almost nothing," he replied. "He's a liberal, which rather prejudices me against him from the get-go, and he's not a big supporter of defense spending. Other than that, I don't know much about him."
"I'm the about the same," I replied. "Except that I didn't know about the defense spending part. Or the Liberal part. Shall we do a little digging together?"
"I love digging!" Scallion declared. "You ought to see my burrows back home!"
I nodded soberly, not certain if he was serious or not. Three hours later, I was absolutely convinced that the little dynamo must indeed have indeed excavated a full-scale warren in the sandy soil of his Eastern Shore home; the sun was fully risen and Scallion hadn't slowed down a bit. "Look at his record on social spending," he said with disapproval. "I mean, just look at it! This guy never met an outstretched hand that he didn't like."
"Right," I agreed; Scallion and I had tacitly established long since that we were of the same political ilk. "But he has come out against the way the Lapine Colonies are run, and he has kept his nose clean."
Scallion nodded reluctantly. "It's just that I hate to help out a tax-and-spend type, even one whose heart seems to be in the right place."
"Me too," I agreed. "Me three, even. But at least this guy seems to want accountability with the money. At least he wants the people in charge to answer for their actions. At least he wants to help."
Scallion sighed and looked out the window; it was a bright, sunny morning. "They tried to confiscate my pension and put me in a Colony," he mused. "Just like they did you. They tried to take away every penny I had and make me a pauper totally dependant upon government charity. Don't expect me to ever believe that the government wants to help me!"
I swung an arm around Scallion and hugged him. It was simply amazing how quickly we had hit it off! Perhaps a tiny bit of pressure on my head had thrown a pre-programmed switch in my brain that I had not even realized was there? Not that it mattered, really. If rabbits were wired that way, and if I was now in that respect at least a rabbit, then what was the point of fighting it? There was a word for creatures who tried to deny their own basic drives and hard-wiring, and that word was 'miserable'. "I know," I reassured him. "I know. We've both been through that. But you know what?"
"What?" Scallion asked.
"SCABS is much too big a problem for anyone but the government to handle, in the end. In fact, it still may yet prove to be too big even for them." I thought about Dr. Goldmann's musings on the potential social consequences of a breakdown of society's mutual shared sense of reality, and shuddered inwardly. "There are going to be victims who have nowhere else to turn. Agreed?"
Reluctantly, Scallion nodded. "For now at least, yes. Maybe someday private charity will be able to step in."
"And maybe not," I countered. "There's nothing in the universe so permanent as a temporary government agency. Surely you know that."
He smiled. "Of course."
"So the Colonies are here to stay," I mused. "Let's focus on what we find so offensive about them, rather then trying to eliminate them entirely. That's probably not only futile but, in the here and now at least, impractical. All right?"
After a long while, Scallion nodded. "Us rabbits need to run them," he said at last. "That's the first thing. Norms just don't understand us, even though many try. We Scabs are not who we once were, not at all. I'm not ashamed of it, but I know for sure that I'm not who I used to be."
"Neither am I," I answered, looking him in the eye. "I'm not even who I was yesterday anymore, for that matter." Scallion and I shared a grin, knowing that I spoke truth. Then I changed the subject back to the matter at hand. "They need to lose their power to confiscate the assets of victims to supplement their budget," I said.
"The inmates need a voice in decision-making," Scallion suggested, beginning to type up our list with the wonderful, dexterous fingers that I so missed. "They need to be able to get the bad guards fired."
I nodded and shuddered, remembering a couple of the real sadists that I had encountered during my own Colony days. There were not nearly enough medical professionals to go around since the Beagle had brought its little gift home to Earth, and the Colonies had been forced for much too long to make do with jail-sweepings for staff. "It's all about power," I noted as Scallion reformatted our notes and began setting them up as nice little bullets on his word processor. "The Agency wants to take away all of our power, and we haven't fought it. We rabbits aren't exactly noted for assertiveness, after all. Maybe that's our biggest problem, ultimately."
Scallion nodded without looking up. "That's what you're for, Harebell," he said. "I've known it since the moment I met you. You're going to be the one who finally stands up." He stopped typing and looked at me. "It's going to be terribly hard on you," he said. "The Norms can't understand how very hard it will be, but we rabbits can."
I looked down at the tabletop. "It's late," I said, not lifting my head. "Or it's early, rather. I think that I'm about as ready for the meeting as I'm ever going to be." Then I looked my new friend in the eye and asked a question that would have had a very different meaning had it been asked by one Norm of another. "Do you want to use the beds, or would you prefer to share the sleeping cage?"
Scallion smiled, then turned towards the special sleeping arrangements that the Edelweiss had provided for each and every room. The wire enclosure was very much like the place where I slept with Shortcake and General Patton back home, though a tiny bit larger. "We're warren-mates now, Harebell," Scallion pointed out. "Why did you even ask?"
Dr. Goldmann and the rest were waiting to pounce upon me just outside of the meeting room, of course. Scallion and I had slept in until almost the last possible minute, and I was still grooming a few odd licks of fur back into place as the elevator doors opened and I hopped out into the lobby. "Phil!" Goldmann greeted me with a relieved grin. "We were growing a little concerned."
"I'm very sorry," I replied. "Last night I holed up with the Downers during the blackout, and I'm afraid that I ate something which didn't agree with me."
"Ah!" Noah answered for the rest, looking genuinely relieved. "We were out trying to find a bite of, ah, somewhat more normal fare when the lights went out. The police wouldn't let us back into the blacked-out area in until almost two." He paused and looked at me intently. "There was a certain very important matter that we had hoped to discuss further with you."
I nodded and felt my cheeks twitch a little; before the day was out, I resolved, I was going to try and find Phlox and arrange another electrode session. It might have been something to do with my chronomorphism, but I felt that just a few more jolts might be enough to cure the longstanding problem that I'd not even known I had. "I know," I replied, looking down at the carpet. "I sort of ran out on you last time..."
Goldmann smiled. "You're a rabbit, Phil. You're supposed to run away from problems, at least at first. We understand."
I raised my eyes, and my cheeks went twitch-twitch-twitch harder than ever. "Yes," I said. "I certainly am a rabbit. If I've accomplished nothing else this weekend, I've certainly established that much beyond the shadow of a doubt."
Scallion sat down on his haunches and cocked his head at me, looking as proud as if he'd invented me. "You hadn't noticed before?" he asked teasingly.
My cheeks twitched some more, and I turned back to Goldmann and Noah and the two ladies. "I'll tell you the absolute truth," I said. "I'm not so very certain that I have all that much in common with you. I'm politically a Libertarian by nature, and I've got a chip on my shoulder the size of Manhattan over what the Colonies have done to me and many of those I love. I have to wonder if I'm really the rabbit that you want."
Goldmann frowned and inhaled, but Noah spoke up before the doctor could. "My boss can deal with a Libertarian," he said quickly. "His daughter is a Libertarian, and he recognizes that Libertarians believe in freedom and open minds too, just like he does. We have many mutual enemies, Phil, and many friends in common. Just not all of them."
"And you don't need to agree on everything," Pamela pointed out. "You're working together to improve the Colonies and help others. Just don't worry about the other issues. Well, worry about them, sure. But put them aside, for now."
I nodded; I'd been in politics long enough myself to understand that. I'd just wanted my potential allies to receive fair warning. If I worked with them, it would not be under false pretenses. "Fair enough," I agreed. Then I reached over and pushed Scallion hard, right in the middle of his back. He half-fell forward, then opened his mouth to speak. Before he could do so, however, I was already introducing him. "This is Scallion," I explained. "He's a very old friend of mine, and we've had many long talks about what needs to change in the Colonies. If I decide to work with you folks, he'll probably get caught up in things as well. He suggested that we meet down at the Flayrah again later this evening, and discuss where we think the Colonies ought to be headed. For example, he has some very interesting ideas about power-sharing with the inmates. Scallion has quite a bit of practical leadership experience and a very remarkable background of public service, though he's sort of shy about speaking of it nowadays. I think that he might have quite a bit to contribute in many areas, and I've got several other rabbits in mind to help out as well." Scallion would end up running a Colony eventually, if I had my way. Maybe even eventually all of the Colonies. He just didn't know it yet.
Goldmann turned his head away as Scallion glared at me angrily. The Doctor, at least, was rabbit expert enough to understand exactly what I had just done, and he was trying very hard not to laugh. "Phil," Noah said eagerly, "the biggest problem that we've had all along is finding rabbits willing to stand up and be counted and help us gain public support. You people are so afraid of publicity!"
"Publicity is the opposite of hiding," I pointed out as if to a child. "Publicity is a bad thing!" Wasn't this obvious to everyone? "And I'm not a person, and haven't been for years. For better or for worse, I'll never be one again."
Noah's face went blank. "I... see."
Goldmann smiled, and so did the ladies. "I think that everything is going to work out just fine," he said, reaching down to stroke my cheek. It was a carefully calculated pseudo-lapine gesture, of course, not the kind of spontaneous and honest touching that might take place naturally between me and another of my own kind. It was well-intentioned, however, and a genuine effort to breach a gap that was of course in the end unbreachable. I reacted to the cheek-stroking by rubbing up against Goldmann's hand, and then by hugging him just exactly as I would another Scab-bunny. He didn't seem at all uncomfortable with my embrace, though the other three unconsciously took small steps away from us. I shrugged to myself. Their hearts were in the right place too, I knew. In time they would learn to accept a lapine hug for what it truly was, rather than what their Norm minds were programmed to see it as. After all, Scallion and I had all of the time in the world to educate them in the ways of the warren.
And as Goldmann and I stood hugging outside the big conference room, where everyone from Humans Firsters to animal rights activists sat impatiently waiting under the cameras for the fireworks to start, an oversized plastic acorn suddenly came rolling up between my feet. There was a flash of white fur, and then Phlox squatted on all fours before me, eagerly waiting to see whether I would accept the invitation to play or not.
"Hi, Phlox," I greeted her. "Is anyone coming with you to 'The Hop' tonight?"
"No, Harebell," she replied innocently, shaking her head.
"May I have the honor?" I asked.
She lowered her eyes. "If you'd like."
My cheeks twitched a little. "Very much," I said. "Very, very much indeed. Meet at your room at nine or so?"
Phlox nodded slightly, and I watched as the linings of her ears flushed a dark red.
"Great!" I replied eagerly. "Just great!"
"Who's Harebell?" Goldmann asked somewhere off in the distance, but I ignored him. Somehow the moment seemed to stretch out into forever and well beyond.
Then, because I was after all a rabbit and because you never know when the chance will come your way again, I snatched up the acorn and led Phlox and Scallion and perhaps half a dozen others on a merry chase indeed, while the Norms simply stood and shook their heads and for the thousandth time came to the conclusion that try though they might, they would never, ever truly understand us lapines after all.