I wrote this story a couple years back...as the tag says, it involves furries, but age regression and gender-change transformations are major themes. Be warned, it contains some language and violence.
The name’s Keith Thompson. Well, at least formerly so—a lot of things changed after the Operation Shining Tempest incident, and my name wasn’t the only one.
I was a member of a special operations unit in the Interstellar Marine Corps. The military had been fully privatized after the Great Revolution of 2051, and had become a sort of mercenary army. The only loyalty we had was to the highest bidder.
A few years before I had enlisted in the Corps, the entire scientific community of Earth was abuzz about a wormhole that had just opened up in our solar system, and they sent in a high-tech probe to see if it led anywhere. It did, and somehow the probe survived to send back amazing photos of another solar system. But what thrilled them the most was that there was a planet in there that had intelligent life residing on it. Promptly, the planet was named Morpheus after the Greek god of dreams. A lot of people planned extravagant ways to make first contact with them, but none of them were ever carried out.
The dominant corporation of the time, Neocorp, however, had a different agenda. They sent in more probes to get a closer look at the planet’s population. What they found out was another shocker for the guys in labcoats: Apparently, the population was a familiar but diverse mix of species that were once thought to be Earth-exclusive, (wolves, cats, bears, et cetera) only with one major difference: They also looked like us, too. They seemed partially animal and partially human, maybe leaning a bit more to the "human" side. Someone eventually nicknamed them "furries," and it became something of a pejorative Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 term for them. Not all humans saw these beings as soon-to-be friends.
While the biologists pulled their hair out trying to figure out how such a race could exist, Neocorp decided to not give a crap about the mystery and worked out their own plan, which included hiring us.
I was still quite new to the Marines at the time, and I was overjoyed when I realized that our platoon would be going into space as part of our very first assignment. No one else was informed about the mission, and we were instructed to refrain from any mention of our upcoming journey to anyone who wasn’t authorized. Looking back, I guess that I should have realized that something was wrong at that point, but I was only 18 years old. Nothing could have gotten me to question our trip to the stars.
So, on May 21st, 2149, we departed from Earth, headed for the wormhole in a Neocorp shuttle, the Argo. I noticed that our equipment seemed a bit bizarre: We were each issued a Vector CR900 autocarbine, each unit’s magazine fully loaded with tranquilizer rounds. We were also given a Bofors MK.V Antimatter Projector, a special gun infamous for its ability to instantly disintegrate targets without leaving any trace. Our battle armor suits and guns were all fitted with cloaking plates.
Clearly, Neocorp had stealth in mind for the mission. And they weren’t interested in giving the furries warm hugs and greeting cards, either.
Eventually, when we were only a few thousand kilometers from the wormhole, our sergeant stood up to fill us in on the details of the assignment.
Neocorp wanted us to raid a certain science facility on Morpheus that they had been watching for years. Evidently, they had some stuff that Neocorp wanted to get their hands on, and fast. The plan was for us to drop in from a height of about 7,000 feet and raid the facility in search of a prototype "electron manipulation drive." (Hey, I don’t have a clue, either.) We were to avoid causing any Morphesian casualties unless it was absolutely necessary, in which case we were informed to use the antimatter projectors.
The mission went surprisingly well, even though many of us felt guilty about making first contact with an alien race by effectively plundering them. We struck so fast, the furries never knew that they were under attack—until it was far too late. Still, the encounter did do one thing for us, which was that we truly started our transformation from naive, idealistic young men and women into hardened soldiers.
The Neocorp execs were very pleased with the success of the mission, but not entirely satisfied: They sent us on more and more assignments, all to steal Morphesian technology. It went on like that until 2151, when we were temporarily deployed on Earth to suppress some uprisings against Neocorp. Then, 3 months later, we were sent out to Morpheus yet again. But this time, I knew that something was different: The execs were more excited than ever, constantly claiming that the furries had "discovered the secret to immortality." As it turned out, the "secret to immortality" was a biologically engineered virus that they had created, the basic concept being that it would travel through a patient’s body, restructuring its cellular composition until their cells were all rejuvenated. It didn’t take a genius to know that Neocorp didn’t just see a potential cure for death in that virus; they saw profit, and one helluva big one.
That was why they offered us an unusually large payment if we were to bring back several viruses for them to put into mass production. We had become experts at "stealing candy from the baby," as we had come to call it, and we all assured ourselves that the mission would be a piece of cake. Yet, I had a strange feeling on the way to Morpheus that something would be different about the mission, codenamed Operation Shining Tempest.
"Nah, I’m just nervous, that’s all," I reassured myself as our dropship finished entering Morpheus’ atmosphere. I looked around at my fellow marines.
Sergeant Gray chewed thoughtfully on a cheap cigar (as usual) while he cleaned out the firing mechanism of a Vector carbine. Murphy, a small, timid-looking youth chatted with Bridge, a rather unremarkable marine whom had established a casual friendship with him. PFC Sanchez, a woman with more machismo than most men, was calmly examining her antimatter projector. She was something of a tomboy, but no one ever dared to make fun of her for that, at least after an incident when she flung a sarcastic private across a room with only one hand. Two others, Corporal Hall and Private Bradley sat silently, awaiting the moment of truth.
A few minutes passed by before an alarm went off. "Drop zone will be in range in T-minus 90 seconds," A computer voice announced. "All personnel, prepare for deployment."
I quickly got to my feet and strapped on my armor and electronics. Then I picked up my weapons and lined up on the left side of the room, right by the jump door.
"T-minus 20 seconds.” Murphy was the last marine to finish donning his equipment; he always took extra time adjusting the battle armor for his size. He filed into his proper line just as the computer began counting down, "10…9…8…7…6…5…4…3…2…1…Deploy now."
"Happy landings, dirtbags," Sergeant Gray called out as we began jumping out of the doors. "Don’t get yourselves pancaked."
I suppressed an urge to shudder at the thought as I leaped out of the dropship.
After free-falling for a few moments, we pulled the ripcords on our parachutes and glided down to the ground, where we immediately detached and carefully hid the parachutes. As stealthy and efficient as ninjas, we activated our cloaking plates and armed our weaponry. We also turned on our infrared goggles, so we’d be able to see each other’s heat signatures.
In the distance, we could see our target destination, the medical research facility Neocorp had been going nuts about. It was a massive dome-like structure with a ring of small towers surrounding it. I was perplexed as to how we would be able to find the virus in such an enormous building, but I also knew that we were Interstellar Marines. We had never failed, and this mission would be no exception.
It took us a few minutes to reach the building, and it was extremely nerve-racking to see Morphesians passing us by from only about 3 feet away, blissfully ignorant of our presence, thanks to our cloaking technology. We were certain to not rely too heavily on it, though, and took advantage of every possible nook, cranny, and shadow in case something malfunctioned.
We crept through the door, and I barely avoided gasping when I saw the facility’s interior. Another slightly smaller dome rested in the center of the building, and numerous catwalks and bridges connected from it to the outer shell of the structure. There were thousands of Morphesians walking on our level and the catwalks, and I imagined that there were probably even thousands more inside of the smaller dome.
Our corporal decided to investigate the smaller dome area first. He silently motioned for us to follow him, and we did as we were ordered.
The smaller dome was not hollow, like its larger counterpart. Instead, it contained a large network of halls and laboratories, and one of them surely contained the immortality virus. Suddenly, the corporal started stalking one unfortunate zebra who seemed to be a scientist. I seriously wondered about what the corporal had in mind, but nonetheless, I didn’t intervene.
I got my answer once we reached a fairly deserted corridor. Corporal Hall suddenly grabbed the zebra by his elongated neck and pressed him against the wall before he even had time to cry out. I knew that my duty, at that moment, was to ensure that no one saw what was going on. The other marines realized that as well, and we all trained our rifles on every possible entrance into the corridor.
The corporal hissed something in a different language, which our automatic translation computers interpreted as, "Where’s the virus?!"
The zebra stuttered, understandably horrified by the fact that he was being held up by an invisible phantom. "I-I…I don’t know what you’re talking about. We’re developing hundreds of viruses."
The corporal growled. "Don’t play dumb! The virus that can regenerate organisms, where is it?!"
Uhh..do you want me to lead you to it?"
"Yes. And no tricks—we’re armed, and we won’t be pleased if you try to do something stupid. Understand?"
He finally released the zebra, and he clumsily fell to the floor. He quickly got up though, and tried to look as calm as possible as he lead us through a series of halls and elevators. He wasn’t a particularly good actor; other Morphesians were constantly stopping him and asking him if something was wrong.
Somehow, though, after about 5 minutes of this dizzying pattern of walking, turning, and waiting, we had reached what apparently was the lab we had been looking for. But two rhinoceros guards were posted at the door, and I noticed something about them that made my stomach churn.
They were wearing infrared goggles.
They reacted almost simultaneously and surprisingly calmly: They both quickly shouldered some strange large-bore weapons. We reacted as well and aimed our carbines.
Time seemed to stand still as the zebra comprehended what was happening and dodged out of the way just before the exchange.
"Weapons free!" The corporal grunted.
The rhinoceroses had the first strike. The one standing to the left fired his weapon, and the projectile found its mark. Murphy was struck by it, and we were surprised to see that it entangled him completely in some kind of net.
For reasons unknown, they wanted us alive.
We returned fire. I scored a hit on the first rhinoceroses’ left shoulder, and he went down instantly from the tranq dart. The other guard, however, managed to evade our fire and let loose another net-projectile. This time the net struck two marines, Sanchez and Corporal Hall. The two were knocked off their feet by the impact of the projectile and trussed up in a jumbled tangle of wire and cables.
There were now only three marines left, including myself. Bridge fired a single shot into the guard, bringing the bizarre non-lethal firefight to an end. But just before he completely lost consciousness, the rhino punched in a single button on a device that resembled a mobile phone. Immediately, an alarm echoed through the hallways.
Things were beginning to look ugly.
"You go get the viruses. I’ll try to free the others," commanded Bridge.
"Private Bradley," he said, glancing at the other soldier. "Watch for more guards while I try to do this."
I ran up to the door, opened it, and came into the lab, careful about my surroundings. I looked around the room, and my eyes rested on a refrigeration unit in the corner. I could tell that it was important; it was surrounded by security cameras, and it had a keypad-lock attached to its lid.
"Damn," I thought. Some of the other squad members had been given plasma torches for cutting locks like the one that confronted me, but no one had equipped me with one. I decided to go quickly go back to the other marines and get one, but I froze when I looked out the window into the hall. The marines had been surrounded by guards and stripped of their weapons and their cloaking plates. My heart raced as I frantically searched around the room for something of use. In my frenzy, though, I bumped solidly into a desk, and my cloaking plates deactivated from the impact.
"Aaah! Please…don’t kill me," a translated, but still puny-sounding voice begged.
I looked around for the source of the voice, and saw a scrawny red fox wearing large round glasses, apparently another scientist.
I had an idea.
"Perhaps I won’t, if you do two things: first, tell me what’s in that container." I demanded, and my voice was translated to his language.
"It’s our new rejuvenation virus…please, just don’t hurt me! I mean you no harm."
"Good. Now, unlock the container."
He hesitated, but got up and typed in the code on the keypad. Sure enough, and with a pneumatic hiss, the lid came off of the refrigeration unit. A small rack of vials filled with clear fluid slowly rose out of the container.
"Thank you, I’ll just take those." I said, reaching out for the vials.
The fox swatted my hand away from them. I was just about to vaporize him, but he explained just in time.
"You can’t just take the vials like that! They have to continue to be refrigerated, otherwise the viruses will die. Here, I’ll quickly get the device we use for transporting them."
I had my antimatter projector trained on him while he retrieved a thermos-like object.
"Here, put them in this insulated container, and gently."
I snatched the object out of his paws. "I’ll do this myself."
I carefully put 6 vials in futuristic thermos, and sealed its lid on tightly. The fox hastily closed the larger container, which still had plenty of samples left.
The fox looked at me pleadingly. "Please…can you let me go, now?"
Suddenly an unfamiliar voice called out; "Human! We know that you’re in there. Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up."
"No," I said flatly to the fox, hoisting my antimatter gun to his head level and attaching the virus container to my belt.
I seized the fox, and dragged him with me to the door.
I kicked the door open, revealing a frightfully large amount of guards. The other marines weren’t in sight.
"What did you do with the others!?" I asked angrily.
"They have been detained. But we can assure you that they will be treated fairly and-…"
"Release them, goddammit!" I shouted. "Or I’ll kill this scientist!"
There was a brief, grim pause as their negotiator stared at me. "Very well. Do you have any other demands?"
"Allow me to leave this facility without any disturbances. I want everyone within a 2-mile radius of this place cleared out, and absolutely everyone! This entire facility has got to be cleared out within 30 minutes. Then, within at least 3 hours, I demand that you bring my squad mates to the facility, all unharmed."
"But…" The negotiator tried to interject.
"I gave you my demands. If you want this guy to live, follow them!"
The negotiator reluctantly picked up a radio and relayed my demands to higher authorities. The negotiator discussed the situation with them for about 3 minutes, then finally shut the radio down.
Sighing, he said, "Alright, then, human. They’ve agreed to your demands."
He turned to the other guards. "You heard him. We’ve got to pull out, ASAP."
I sighed with relief as soon as they were out of sight. Grabbing the fox again by his collar, I dragged the distressed vulpine down the hallway. He was nearly in tears from confusion and fear, but I resisted any pangs of sympathy for him. My mission was my mission, and if someone’s feelings got hurt in the process, that was their own damn problem.
I surveyed a nearby room, hoping that it would be suitable to fortify and hole up in. As I peered in, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the fox had his eyes fixed on something.
"What the hell is it?" I grunted.
"This," a deep voice behind me answered. Before I even had time to turn around, I received a heavy blow to the back of my head that knocked me out on the spot.
I came around to find myself seated in a sterile white room. My head was still throbbing from the strike, so I gritted my teeth and banished the pain from my mind while I assessed my surroundings. What I took note of first was the fact that my battle armor and visor had been stripped away from me, leaving me with just my fatigues.
"We took the liberty of relieving you of your armor and equipment," someone said. I jumped noticeably in surprise and looked over at the speaker.
It was a humanoid stallion sitting a few feet away from me. Evidently an employee of the lab complex, judging by his uniform.
"How can I understand you? I don’t even have my translator with me," I said, astonished.
The stallion gestured over at a familiar-looking box attached to the wall. "We modified it to have a longer range. That way, we can have relatively normal conversations without you needing to carry it around. I must say that your botched mission has provided us with a wealth of information on your kind. When we hacked into that translator, we were amazed to find a full database of your language in one small package."
"Look, I don’t give a crap if you’ve found The Great Linguistics Jackpot. All I want to know is what you intend to do with me," I cut in.
The horse looked unimpressed. "I personally find myself highly intrigued by that exact same question. We now have a live specimen of the fabled species that has terrorized our scientists for years now, making random raids and stealing priceless technologies. I tried to convince the authorities to turn the rest of your…squad over to us for further study." Irritation crept into his voice as he continued. "But, alas, they refused. They said that they will keep them captive while further decisions are made. Fortunately for the scientific community, they are unaware of the fact that you’ve been detained at this very facility. You see, we have so much to learn about your kind, both anatomically and culturally," he said with a strange wry grin that sent a chill down my spine. "So very, very, much."
I tried to conceal my fear by scoffing. "What are you going to do—have me take a reflex test? Give me a shot? Give me a break, you *******. You can’t scare me."
He continued holding his unnerving grin. "No, no. Intimidation isn’t our goal. We’re pragmatists, not thugs," he said.
A few stone-faced orderlies paced into the room carrying a syringe.
"You have a weird way of trying to emphasize your point," I said curtly as they approached me. I tried to resist, but I was quickly overpowered and injected. As whatever ungodly drug they had put in there seeped through my veins, I felt the energy drain out of me. In seconds, I was fast asleep on the floor.
When I woke up again, I felt more disoriented than ever. It was probably either the after effects of the sedative, or the fact that I appeared to be blindfolded. Even worse, it also seemed that I was strapped down.
“What…the….hell…happened?” I said weakly. I was answered by the familiar voice of the creepy stallion.
“We kept you unconscious for a few weeks so we could examine you. Well, not completely unconscious; we allowed you to go into heavily drugged but awake state at times so that we could ask you all the questions we wanted. Chances are, though, that you don’t even remember when we did so,” he paused, looking genuinely satisfied. “I should thank you, though. You gave us all the information we wanted from you in an amazingly short period of time, Private Thompson. Powerful things, anesthetics of today are.”
I felt sick and violated. I had given my captors everything they wanted without even really knowing it. There had never been any chance for resistance or escape. Even worse, I was no longer of any use to them. They now had no reason to keep me alive!
“We also put you under a special subliminal suggestion therapy so that we wouldn’t need to rely on that translator any longer. Your brain now automatically interprets what you hear as your own native language. Even more impressive, you’re actually speaking our language now—and you don’t even realize it!”
A small part of me was astonished at how advanced some of technologies of the Morphesians were, to completely switch my default language without me even noticing it. But the larger part of me was concerned with something a bit more important, namely surviving. I desperately tried to get away, even if I couldn’t see where I was.
For the first time, I heard him laugh. “It strikes me as just so very droll to see you like that. Tied to a chair, blindfolded, under maximum surveillance, yet still trying to escape. I can’t decide if that’s the sign of a tireless soldier or a desperate idiot. Anyway, I must get to the point now, Private Thompson. I’d like you to know that you are about to become the first person to test our latest innovation, Redemption.”
“What the hell is that?”
He was beginning to get irritated again. “’Redemption’ is what makes me proud to be the administrator of this laboratory. It’s also what you attempted to steal.”
I instantly realized what he was talking about. “The rejuvenation virus?”
“Precisely. You see, we hoped to market it upon its release to the general populace as the ultimate replenishment for anyone who found themselves tormented by the ravaging forces of old age, provided that they could afford it. Unfortunately, we had no subjects to test it out on….up until now, of course.
Cold dread built up in me. “You’d really have nothing to gain by using me as a guinea pig for the virus, you know.”
“Why would that be?”
“I’m a human! My physiology is literally worlds apart from your kind’s!”
“Ah, but you fail to realize that our research on your species has revealed that we’re much more alike than you may think we are. Besides, if you die as a result of this experiment, no one will investigate your death,” he said bluntly. “Speaking of which, the strain of Redemption you will be given has been modified to kill its host within 48 hours. If you survive the effects of the virus, you will die shortly after.”
Seconds later, I heard a door opening to admit a few sets of heavy footsteps. “Ah, yes. The assistants have arrived.
“Enjoy yourself,” the horse called as he exited the room. “I’ll be watching the results on closed circuit television.”
I threw all the energy I had into trying to break free of my bonds. Yet, once again my efforts proved to be completely fruitless as the ropes held me in place just as firmly in place. Dammit, I didn’t want it to end like this! If I was going to die, I wanted to go down in a firefight, not from some experiment!
But fate would not hear my pleas. I felt the sterile, frigid tip of a syringe plunge into my arm and inject its contents.
Ever had vertigo before? Or spun around rapidly in circles and abruptly stopped? Because that’s the exact sensation I had once I had been injected. Even though I couldn’t even see my surroundings, I had the strange sensation of everything spinning. Soon, the dizzying chaos faded away, replaced by oppressive tranquility. The tranquility became nothingness, and the nothingness became…
That was the first coherent thought to cross my mind after the injection. If I was dead, how could I see light? And furthermore, why did it seem so brilliant? Was this the next world; the afterlife? Or was it possible that I was still alive?
Life seemed like such a foreign concept in this netherworld of light and darkness. The events of the past seemed distant and vague, like fields shrouded in morning mist.
Meanwhile, the source of the light seemed to both be spreading to point of dominating my field of vision and losing its brilliance. I was beginning to make out shapes in the light, and it would only be a matter of time now before I could finally see what was ahead of me. I was unsure as to whether I should be eager or apprehensive about regaining my sight. Where would I find myself?
The mysterious shape that lay before me turned out to be a plaster ceiling. “How anticlimactic,” I thought. Yet, something seemed wrong. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but something just didn’t feel right.
I sat up and yawned. Immediately, I realized that my voice seemed dramatically higher than what I remembered it as being. Panicking, I looked over myself. The first thing that caught my attention was the fact that I seemed to be much smaller and covered with red fur, with the exception of a white patch on my stomach.
“What the hell is this?” I thought as I examined my former hands. They were now much more similar to paws.
I could feel some sort of a presence underneath me. I looked around and saw that it was none other than a fluffy red tail with a white tip. Then it dawned on me: I was now a fox! A goddam full-blown Morphesian!
“Congratulations, Private Thompson.”
There was no mistaking that voice. I whirled around and looked up at a door (Why was it so high?) to see the same horse stallion peering in through a small glass window.
“You managed to survive the Redemption virus. Unfortunately, you also transformed into a female fox kit of approximately 18 months of age. You’re in excellent health, however.”
To say that I was stunned by his words would be the understatement of the century.
Sensing my confusion, he went on. “Most likely, this odd combination of changes was a consequence of the fact that the viruses were switched. Had things gone according to plan, you would have retained your humanity, but you also would have perished by now. Instead, someone evidently intending to preserve your life exchanged the original virus that had been tailored for your genetic structure with a prototype variant that designed for red fox vixens of 20 years. As a result, your body was restructured to the shape it is in now. It left me in quite a dilemma.”
“Yeah, poor you,” I thought bitterly. “You didn’t almost get killed and wind up in a body with a different race, age, and gender.”
“I had thought to dispose of you while the transformation was setting in, but I’ve since decided that you, having undergone such a remarkably unprecedented change from the Redemption virus, have become too interesting to destroy—for now, at least. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have matters much more important to tend to than to make conversation with children,” he said in his typical cold tone. With that, he was gone.
Now, at this point most people in my situation what have either had a panic attack and lapsed into a state of shock or fainted. But I, however, did neither. Instead, I succumbed to a strong urge to curl up into a ball on the floor and whimper. God, my transformation was starting to affect my brain!
"No!" my training instincts screamed at me. "Don’t sit around and whine like some freakin’ recruit! You’re still a Marine! Find a way out of this hellish place!”
But no matter how hard I looked for a way out or planned for escape, I kept coming across the unavoidable truth: I was trapped. Not only in this sterile white purgatory, but also in a body so vastly different from the one recognizable as Private Keith Thompson’s that reality seemed like it had turned inside out. I wanted to believe that it was all a dream, but even dreams weren’t this ethereal.
Was this how it was going to end? Being spared from one horrible death only to meet another? Beyond the door’s window, I could see that the lights in the hallway were being shut off. It must have been closing time.
I never had been much of a religious person, but I found myself pleading with God to just end this humiliation now and let me die with dignity. Suddenly, I heard a clicking noise from the door’s locking mechanism. I froze, feeling a mix of fear and resignation. Who-or what-was behind that door? Surely, fate couldn’t hold anything worse than what I’d already encountered.
The door swung open to reveal the same fox I had held hostage! He had some beige bundle tucked under his left arm and an expression of controlled determination on his face.
"Come with me if you want to live," he whispered fiercely. Without bothering to wait for my reply, he reached over and scooped me up with his free arm. In one quick motion, he closed the door on that damnable room and threw the bundle over the two of us. Instantly, I recognized the blanket as the M842 Emergency Stealth Covering. It had the same adaptive camouflage properties as our cloaking battle armor, except it was meant to quickly shelter one or two people from sight. But how did he know what it was? And furthermore, how did he get it? And why the hell was he rescuing me?
"We’ll have to make our way through to the facility’s main entrance: They leave it open for employees working overtime, but they lock down every other exit as a security measure. We won’t be able to use this thing to sneak past them, though," he said. "Ever since they caught your squad, they learned to equip the guards with infrared goggles."
"What will we do, then?" I asked, trying my best to ignore my new lisp and high pitched voice that was about as befitting a Marine as a unicycle makes a good combat vehicle.
"You’ll see," he said. I knew from the start that I probably would not enjoy it.
We occasionally passed some scientists in the hallways, but none of them noticed the slight distortion we made in the shadows. After a quarter hour of this, we came by a very official looking polished wooden door.
"The administrator’s office. He seems to spend more and more time in there every day," he remarked in a very low whisper.
We heard someone talking from inside his office. Although it was very muffled, something just didn’t seem right about that voice. I’d need to listen more closely to be sure.
"Wait," I said. "Stop hewe."
"Is there something wrong?" The fox whispered back.
"Yeah. We’ll need those gwasses," I said, waving my dark-furred paw at a table with some sort of a water cooler and glasses resting on it.
It took a second for the fox to get my drift. But then he tiptoed (or tippawed) over to the glasses and took hold of them. Wrapping the camo blanket more tightly over us, he gently placed the lips of the glasses up to the hinge side of the door. It was a crude method, but it would do for the moment. We both put our ears to the glasses and listened intently.
"…Of course, when we realized that they had been captured, it became clear to us that there was no use in espionage and theft to acquire new technology. We wish to offer our most sincere apologies for any damage or trauma caused by the raids. We also wish to assure you that the Marines do not represent our species, and hence, what you wish to do with any captives is your choice.
Anyway, we at Neocorp hope that we can compensate by making an offer to trade some of the prototypes of our latest defense technology for a simple price: 5 intact and healthy samples of the rejuvenation virus…"
It was then when I realized that there’s no limit to how strange life can get.
It all seemed so absurd. To think that I had been a proud and combat-ready Marine loyally working for Neocorp only a relatively short time ago…
Regardless, though, the situation was getting more and more desperate. It was obvious now that Neocorp, the company that had led and supported us for years, wasn’t going to try to extract the captive Marines, or even send reinforcements. As if that wasn’t enough, the fact that they were now bargaining with the monstrous crooks that were in charge of the labs was just plain sickening. It wasn’t fair. It was a mean thing to do.
I shook my head, trying to clear it of the strange juvenile thoughts and emotions. I didn’t know which I found more terrifying: the fact that I had been regressed into a very young fox girl, or fact that my mind was getting into character. I had to find some sort of antidote soon.
I could hear footsteps now. Footsteps that were approaching the door.
"Time to go," the fox said quietly as we crept off and turned a corner. I could hear the door open a few yards away, and the sound of the footsteps grew louder and faded as the source of the sound became farther away.
Up ahead, I could see where the hallway exited out into the main atrium. We weren’t far now.
“This is where we’ll have to use some other methods of stealth,” he said as he carried me over to a nearby door. At first I thought it was a way around the security at the entrance, but when the door was opened, I realized that it was a public bathroom. What the hell did he have in mind?
He deactivated the stealth covering, rolled it into a bundle, and tucked it under his left arm. He then reached under his lab coat to pull out what looked like a plastic-coated white rectangle.
“What’s that?” I asked, getting more and more puzzled.
“It’s a diaper,” he said plainly while he unfolded it. “Think of it as a disguise.”
“If you’re gonna try to put dat on me, you’ll be thinking of it as a make-shift bandage,” I said, trying to sound as threatening as I could with a voice that sounded like a castrated chipmunk’s.
He rolled his eyes. “Look, you’re in no position to make threats. I rescued you, and now I’m risking my job—and possibly my life—to get you out of this place. I could easily just walk away right now and allow you to be recaptured. I’m not asking you to make use of it, nor even wear it for more than just this one time. But I sure as hell am not going to attract any more attention than necessary by carrying a completely naked fox kit through the main security checkpoint.”
Sighing, I said, “Fine. But as soon as we’re out of sight, I’m not wearing it anymowe.”
“As long as everything goes according to plan,” he said. Once again, his wording made me feel slightly puzzled.
Wasting no time, the scientist slid the accursed diaper under my backside, pulled the front between my legs, and threaded my newly acquired tail through an elastic opening. After taping it up tightly, he was finally finished.
Picking me up again, he carried me out of the bathroom and back into the atrium. With each step he took, the diaper painfully reminded me of its presence with a crinkling of the plastic cover and the oddly familiar sensation of my rear pressing into the thick padding. I vowed that as soon as this entire incident was over, I’d head over to a bar and drink hard liquor until I fell into a coma. Assuming I ever got old enough again to buy alcohol, that was.
We walked over to the security checkpoint by the main entrance.
“Hey, Todd,” a fat chinchilla guard said to the fox. “Who’s the kid?”
“She’s my cousin Alma’s daughter,” Todd said quickly. I winced at the pronoun she. “Alma was going to a conference and couldn’t find a babysitter for her, so she had me drop her kid off at the facility’s day care center.”
“Alright, then.” The oblivious rent-a-cop said, his curiosity satisfied. “Sorry, I guess I’ve just been feeling a bit edgy as of late.”
“No problem. It’s been the same way for all of us,” Todd remarked as he pushed the door open and exited the building.
The ensuing blast of cold evening air made me shiver noticeably. Even with a coat of fur, I could feel the chill penetrating me to the bone. The sky overhead, by contrast, was very picturesque; the twin moons of Morpheus loomed overhead in their luminous beauty among the vast sea of stars untouched by artificial light pollution.
Before that moment, I had been in a state of denial about my predicament. But something about the combination of the sobering feeling of gazing into the night sky and the freezing air caused a horrible revelation to come crashing down: I would never be the same again.
Tears were beginning to brim in my eyes. Sensing my discomfort, Todd held me tighter. Eventually, I could feel some of the cold being warded off by his body heat.
“Uh oh,” Todd said, glancing down at my waist.
“What is it now?” I thought irritably.
"Uhh…Well, this is an interesting new development."
Puzzled, I looked down at myself. To my horror, I could see a growing damp spot in the lower crotch of my diaper!
"I’ll get that taken care of once we get back to my apartment," Todd said nonchalantly as we made our way over to his car. "Fortunately for you, I have some ‘spares.’"
I had reached the deepest circle of Hell. Against my own will I burst out crying, a shrill babyish wail that only made me feel worse to hear.
Todd buckled me into a small safety seat (Geez, he really did have all this planned out) and gently scratched me between my pointed ears. The sensation it produced had a strange, but relaxing effect on me. Within seconds, my crying had been reduced to whimpering.
"Shhh, it’s all right," Todd whispered in that special tone of voice adults use to soothe children. "We’re safe now."
For a few moments, I didn’t care about the loss of my status. I only felt a very strong trust for Todd and a feeling of contentment. Almost as if my personality had been temporarily altered to fit my body.
The feeling gradually subsided within a few minutes, but I felt much calmer than I had before. Nonetheless, I still found myself staring sorrowfully out at the night sky through the car window as we drove along.
Home felt so far away.
The tenement Todd lived in looked livable, but by no means impressive. It was a run-down old building with a lawn that looked like it had given up the ghost years ago.
But when I saw it, I realized that something was definitely strange about Morpheus. A populace of creatures that looked like bipedal versions of Earth-dwelling animals? A level of technology often comparable to ours? And now the same mediocre living conditions? It was like I had been transported to some parallel universe.
I squirmed impatiently in the car seat as we pulled into the dusty parking lot. The clammy feeling of the wet diaper was so irritating, I was practically looking forward to getting it changed.
"Looking forward to that? I’m really getting desperate," I thought sullenly.
Although I feared that that we’d encounter a few furs curious about me, the interior of the apartment building seemed almost deserted. If it hadn’t been for the muffled sounds of conversation and appliances emanating from some of the apartments, I would thought it had been abandoned. After going down a few hallways and up three flights of stairs, we finally arrived at Todd’s apartment.
"It’s nothing impressive, but it’s livable," Todd said as he unlocked the door. "They don’t pay that much at Hill Industries."
The first view I got of the apartment certainly vindicated his statement. I’m no interior decorator, but I can assure you that the two small and cramped rooms with peeling paint and faded tiling weren’t exactly palatial. Nonetheless, it was better than some of the places I had slept in during my career in the IMC.
Todd carried me over to his bedroom, where he had set up a card table and a plastic mat as an improvised changing table.
"All right, then. Let’s get this operation underway," Todd grinned as he laid me down on the table and pulled out a package of disposable diapers, along with other supplies.
I couldn’t help but giggle as he tickled the white fur on my belly. "General anesthetic administered."
He untapped my wet diaper, disposed of it, and produced a wipe from a nearby plastic tub. "Applying sterilant," he said as he cleaned off my loins with the wipe. I didn’t dare to look down and assess my new female “equipment,” so to speak. Yeesh.
After sprinkling my diaper area a few liberal shakes of baby powder, he pulled out a fresh diaper from the package, slid it under my rump, and taped it up.
He set me down on the floor. "You should be proud of yourself, miss. You’ve just undergone a successful diaper transplant," he said with a smirk.
I didn’t realize it at first, but a special bond between us had already begun to form on that night.
When I look back upon that moment now, I believe that my subconscious mind was already beginning to view Todd as a father figure.
But I was focused on something other than my thought process at the time. I was in the blissful world of a child again; no concern over the unresolved issues of the past. Perhaps this is what so many people seek when they dream of restoring lost youth.
“I have to admit, I never thought you’d make such a cute cub,” Todd said, playfully poking my vulpine nose.
“And I nevew fought I’d see da day when a civilian would call a jarhead ‘cute.’”
Todd laughed and scooped me up. “Here, have a look at yourself,” he said as he carried me over to a full-length mirror.
I don’t think I ever had as great a shock since a Marxist nutjob tried to garrote me in the anti-Neocorp uprising. To say that I looked “different” would be the understatement of the year—there was nothing remotely familiar about my reflection whatsoever. I swished my tail around, irrationally hoping that the innocent-looking baby fox girl in the mirror wouldn’t mimic my actions. When it did, I started crying once again. The horrible sense I had before of humiliation and loss was returning.
While I bawled uncontrollably, Todd cradled me and rocked me back and forth gently. While that classic position helped, it still took me a few minutes for my crying to slow to an occasional sniffle.
“Oh, I’m so sorry about that--I should have waited until I knew you were ready,” Todd said apologetically.
“It’s alwight,” I said.
“Say, how about some dinner? I’m sure you haven’t eaten for a while.”
I brightened at this. Come to think of it, the last meal I remembered having was some unidentifiable meat on crackers before I got on the dropship. “That’d be great.”
He brought me to the pint-sized kitchen and placed me in a scratched high chair.
“Now, I don’t know what you eat on your planet, but I hope this isn’t too unfamiliar,” he said as he pulled a bottle of some mushy beige substance from a cabinet.
I cringed. “Baby food?”
“That it is. Your teeth haven’t developed enough for normal food, so you’ll have to make do with this stuff,” he said as he spooned the sludge into a blue plastic bowl.
Knowing that there was no other way out of the situation, I decided to at least have a try. I might as well attempt to get used to it, seeing as how I had no idea how long I’d be in this form. It was thanks to this mindset that I was also able to tolerate him tying a disposable bib around my neck.
He set the bowl and a small spoon on the tray in front of me. “Eat up.”
The first challenge was to manage to grasp the spoon. To say the least, this was a difficult undertaking. My hands were now paws, and I seemed to have lost a good deal of my motor skills. After a considerable expenditure of effort, I clumsily picked up the utensil.
Steeling myself for what I was sure to be the worst-tasting food I’d ever encounter, I sampled a blob. To my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. It was as bland as hell, but not offensive. Perhaps countless nights of “lasagna” MRE’s tend to lower your standards.
“Want something to wash it down?” he asked. That sounded great, except…not to get all supernatural or anything, but something in the back of my head was telling me to get the hell out of Dodge. Naturally, I told the thing in the back of my head to go screw itself. If it had been there when I needed it, (like right before I got taken prisoner by a psychopathic equine) I wouldn’t have wound up in this mess.
Still, something was beginning to seem weird about Todd, who was presently filling up a glass with tap water. It was pretty easy to see that he was getting nervous about something. And the way he awkwardly leaned over the glass as if he was concealing something he was putting in it turned the feeling I’d had earlier into a full-blown mental alarm.
Almost reflexively, I began to struggle in the high chair, desperate to get out. Alas, the damn safety strap was too tight and strong. Todd approached me with the glass looking both desperate and sorrowful; the look of man forced to commit a cruel deed at gunpoint.
He sounded once again like he was back near the end of my stint as a hostage-taker in the research facility.
“I’m so sorry, Keith...I had to do this. I promise I won’t let them hurt you,” he begged as he tried to stick the glass up to my muzzle. I barely registered some details of what he said, such as “I won’t let them hurt you” and the fact that he knew my name. All that I knew at that moment was that he’d apparently poisoned the water, and was subsequently trying to kill me. I replied by giving him my first ever fox growl and trying to turn my head away from him with my mouth shut tightly.
It was a losing battle from the beginning, but we jarheads never turn away from unfavorable odds. Bravado? Nah, its part of a little something called semper fidelis. Always faithful. At least, it used to be that way when we fought for the good ol’ USA and no one else, but I’m already getting off subject. Anyway, about 45 seconds and four tablespoons of spilled H2O later, Todd was eventually able to pry my mouth open and pour the liquid down my throat.
“This is really it,” I thought resignedly as the sounds around me grew muted and dull. “Semper fi, Mac…” The last thing I remember hearing was Todd’s voice, babbling about how it was okay, and that I wouldn’t be harmed.
“He’s waking up.”
Indeed, I was. The face peering over me was oddly familiar, a lot like Sanchez’s. God, how many times had I been knocked out now? If things kept up like this, all the anesthetics companies over the globe would want me to be their spokesman. Spokesfox. Spokeskit. Ah, never mind.
“Speaking of which,” I thought, “Am I human again?” It was possible; Sanchez had said “he.” I glanced at my body, and to my disappointment I found that I was still a little fox girl. Damn. And worse still, I seemed to be wearing some tacky little dress-like garment. Imagine a cross between a hospital gown and a laminated bath towel and you’ll get the basic idea. Without any further consideration, I got up and tore the horrid thing off. It was no surprise that the only thing I had on underneath was a simple white disposable diaper with paw-print decorations on the tapes. As much as I detested it, I had to admit it was better than that idiotic toga-thing.
Sanchez’s voice jerked me back into reality. “You all right, Thompson?”
A quick inspection of my surroundings led to me almost jumping through the ceiling in panic. It was almost identical to the creepy sterile torture chambers of the lab administrator; all white and featureless, with the exception of a heavy reinforced door on one wall and what was presumably a two-way mirror on the other. And it certainly didn’t help when I realized who the other occupants were: Corporal Hall, PFC Sanchez, PFC Bridge, Private Murphy, and Private Bradley. The rest of the squad.
Needless to say, the situation seemed to be FUBAR.
”Where am I? What’s going on?” I asked weakly. There was a pregnant pause as everyone continued staring at me disbelievingly, as if I were some bizarre alien creature. Which wasn’t really far from the truth. I didn’t blame them; after all, it isn’t every day your squadmate ends up two feet tall and losing their toilet training.
Sanchez was just about to say something when I heard the heavy door open. Whirling around, I saw a grim-faced Todd accompanied by a heavily armed black panther. I could almost feel the others tensing up in apprehension.
“I’m authorized to tell you if you’d like,” he said. His voice was repeated in English to the rest of the squad with another one of those salvaged translators. This puzzled me; Morphesian and English sounded exactly the same to me. The same went for speaking. I used this ability to convey a frank sentiment to Todd.
“I’d wike it if you’d go fu-…”
“Let him speak, Thompson,” Corporal Hall ordered.
Todd took a deep breath. As violated as I felt about his apparent betrayal, I knew he had taken my anger personally. “First off, you’re not at Hill Industries again. This is actually a government-owned detention center.”
“Lucky me,” I thought. “At least now I’ll be imprisoned with the support of Morphesian tax dollars.”
“I ‘ll explain further: After you were captured by that security guard, Hill Industries faked reports that you had escaped. But the government was smart enough to not swallow that story. Knowing that I was the one who knew the most about you, they hired me to work as an undercover operative to investigate your ‘disappearance.’ It took me quite some time to find where you were being held, let alone getting security clearance. And even when I did locate you, there wasn’t much I could do: Calling in an extraction team would have only resulted in a high likelihood of you being executed.”
At least they wanted me to live. I wasn’t exactly sure if that was a good thing, though.
“So, when they started preparing you for the testing of the Redemption virus, I took advantage of my security clearance to switch the intended vial with…well, the vial that resulted in you becoming what you are now.” So he was the one responsible for this! I was torn between rage and grudging gratefulness. On one hand, he’d saved my life. On the other, he’d basically robbed me of one my most important possessions: my body!
“I guess we can start calling you Kelly, now, huh?” Murphy offered feebly. The silence and sour looks he received caused him to practically melt into the floor. Poor kid; it seemed like he’d be in the Social Oblivion for quite some time.
I ignored him and asked the million-dollar question to Todd. “But can’t I be turned back?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t say for certain at this point,” he said softly. Ah, yes. The public relations jargon for “probably not.” Something flexed in my mind, and then broke.
Dammit, I couldn’t take a second of this anymore! I stomped toward him on my two pudgy legs, tail swishing furiously. Even though I was a third his height, he flinched.
“Enough with da bullshit,” I screamed at him. “I want to be mysewf again! I want to be Keith again!” I burst into an almost unintelligible stream of childish obscenities, sobbing all the while. It was almost funny, in retrospect; I must have looked almost exactly like a young child throwing a tantrum. I beat my fists against his knees, I cried, I did almost everything except hold my breath until my face turned purple. All the while I knew that it was just a matter before someone restrained me. But I didn’t expect that the person would be Sanchez.
She silently slid her hands onto my shoulders and pulled me back from Todd. Having nothing more to say, he and the guard left the room.
Fury was replaced by sorrow and shame. I knew that Todd had done all he could, but I didn’t want to admit it. As I keeled over weeping, Sanchez laid her hand on my shoulder, this time in reassurance.
“Don’t sweat it, muchacho. You’re still the same Marine I know.” I looked up at her with interest. Sanchez rarely ever expressed such feelings, and she only called her close buddies “muchachos.” She turned to the rest of the squad. “And as long as we’re all Marines, we won’t go down with a fight. Anyone else share that opinion?”
Sure, no one with an IQ of over 75 ever contradicted Sanchez. But the resounding ooh-rah the squad replied with seemed like the most sincere one I’d heard in years.
As moving as Sanchez’s boost to the squad’s morale was, there was a big problem: What the hell were we supposed to do next? Fortify a position in a corner of the room? Call in an air strike on the two-way mirror? Recon the metal door? Sit on our asses and hope that something happened before we starved to death?
I sighed and sat in a corner while Sanchez’s rallying continued, the thick diaper serving as a cushion between my rear and the hard tiled floor. I thought of our assets. Let’s see…combat fatigues, no visible inherent danger, and everyone except me in normal shape. Liabilities? No weapons, no supplies, no backup, no communications, and one squad member a female fox-toddler. Things weren’t looking so good. And the increasing pressure I felt in my lower abdomen didn’t feel too good, either. Almost like…Oh, crap.
My digestive tract apparently took that last one as a command, because its next action was to empty the previous night’s meal into my pants.
Ironically, it was what happened next that was the most unexpected: I laughed. It might sound insane at first, but after I’d finished the act that bears do in the woods, I was struck by a thought as completely incongruous as an elephant in a grain elevator. I remembered how when Private Bradley described anything he found remotely unusual, he’d assume a goofy accent and call it “crahzy sheit.” Then I thought about all of the events of the past few weeks, and how suitable his assessment was for it. In fact, I realized that life itself was crahzy sheit. Hell, the whole goddamn universe was crahzy sheit. So why was I taking crahzy sheit so seriously?
And so there I was, sitting in a dirty diaper and laughing like a kid at a theme park. It didn’t matter to me when the other Marines utterly failed to grasp the humor of my situation, and their flabbergasted looks made me laugh even harder. Finally, Bradley took it upon himself to ask what was going on.
“Crahzy sheit,” I answered, and despite my higher voice and lisp, it was a pretty f--king good imitation of him. There was a flash of blank incomprehension, and then he too was chuckling. Pretty soon, everyone else was laughing in some way or another. I would have liked to see the expressions on the furries behind the two-way mirror. They must have thought that the stress had finally gotten to us. But we’d won another big victory for morale, laughing like the bunch of crazy fools that we were.
After the laughter died down, I noticed the terrible smell coming from my uh, soiled garment. I don’t care if you were told otherwise; sitting in your own waste is not a pleasant feeling. The mood shifted from pure humor to acknowledgement of the inevitable next step. It was the task that almost all parents with very young children have to repeat thousands of times.
Murphy finally found courage to speak up again. “Hey, who in here is good at babysitting operations?” As bad a joke it was, it was a step up from his usual inept comments. As the squad stared at him in amazement for his achievement, the door opened again, admitting an embarrassed-looking Todd.
“I am,” he offered. Like the Red Sea before Moses, the squad parted before Todd, giving him a clear space to get to me. He obliged the opportunity, and scooped me up into his arms. I squirmed a bit, but it was more because of my diaper than anything personal.
He carried me through the doorway and into a dimly lit room. In there, along with a few surprised looking guards, was a utilitarian rectangular table with a package of diapers and changing supplies resting on top of it.
I still felt embarrassed about exploding on Todd, so I offered him a weak smile and a weak statement. “Just wike old times, huh?” I said.
He nodded as he laid me on the changing table. “I guess I’m going to get pretty good at this.”
I stared up at the ceiling contemplatively while he undid the tapes and lifted my legs into the air. “Is there any chance we have of getting out of dis place?” I asked. He paused while he cleaned me off, and I saw him throwing a glance at the guards. “Well, as matter of fact, the Council of High Priests has held a secret committee over this matter after they dissolved Hill Industries,” he explained as he cleaned me off. High priests and control over industries. Theocratic socialism. I filed that fact away for later.
“They took great interest in your case. They said that while the others would continue to be incarcerated for interrogation, they considered the possibility of special treatment program for you.”
Special treatment program? I wanted to know what that meant, but there was still another detail that burned at my conscience.
“But what about the twansmission we heard from the administwator’s room? Did you tell anyone about dat?”
He shook his head sadly, ears drooping slightly. “I told the Council about it, yes, but all they said was that they would ‘investigate further.’”
“Different planet, same bureaucracy,” I mentally sighed as the diaper was taped together.
“Care for a shirt?” Todd asked as he held up a small green t-shirt. Not my favorite thing, but it reminded me of my standard Marine green undershirt. So I willingly put it on. In times where success can’t be reached, you really begin to appreciate the small victories.
I was carried back out of the room by Todd and set on the floor. I looked over at the squad; as expected, they looked as bored as hell. I decided to strike up a conversation with Sanchez. I noticed that while I was gone, several cots had folded out of the walls.
“So, Sanchez,” I said. “How’d you guys wind up hewe, anyway?”
The ensuing conversation must have lasted an hour, with Marines interjecting and adding to the detail of the story. As it turned out, everyone had been shipped off secretly to a kind of Morphesian equivalent to a hearing. As expected, they only gave their name, rank, and serial number. And also as expected, the furries got pissed. But for some reason, they didn’t try to torture them into submission. All they did was just fume and keep transferring them to different locations. Perhaps they were trying to bore us to death.
My transformation, however, was something they had only learned about very recently, and they were understandably having a lot of trouble accepting it. Still, the fact that Sanchez was talking to me instead of passing me off as a hallucination was a good sign.
They also hadn’t been let in on the reality that Neocorp had abandoned us. So I decided to break it to them.
The reactions were basically as follows;
“Bastards,” said Corporal Hall.
“Corporate scum,” said PFC Sanchez.
“Assholes,” said PFC Bridge.
“Well, that’d explain why they never lifted a finger to rescue us,” said Private Murphy.
“Shit happens,” said Private Bradley, shrugging.
It was no coincidence that Bradley was the one who got to be on sentry duty when we hit the bunks.
My sleep was plagued by strange dreams. In the last one remember I was back in boot camp, lining up for the daily inspection. I looked at myself and, much to my horror, found that I was still a Morphesian. Blushing furiously, I looked back up, hoping that the drill instructor somehow wouldn’t notice. But when he finally came by, instead of the usual expected deluge of frank comments about my intelligence, my parents, and my sexual orientation, the drill instructor leaned down next to my ear and whispered, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” While I pondered this odd lapse of aggression in the instructor, gunfire broke out!
I sat bolt upright from my dream in terror to see a figure in battle armor opening up on Bridge’s bunk. Bradley was on floor, groaning, and Murphy sat stock still, like a deer in the headlights. Then for a few seconds, I did something I had always hoped not to do in a combat situation: Nothing. I was frozen in panic, unable to accept the murderous new visitor. I was frozen until I started hearing the screams.
For once, the feeling in the back of my brain was helpful, if a bit prone to stating the obvious. “Go! GO, damn you!” it yelled. I evaluated the situation again. The combatant apparently didn’t see me, and he didn’t have any support with him in the room. I guess he figured he was shooting fish in a barrel.
Getting out of bed and jumping to the ground, I rushed at the back of his legs, the feeling reverting to its old PITA self again and telling me that this was stupid, and it wouldn’t work. But what did I have to lose? I slammed like a linebacker into the man’s hamstrings, my claws extended. As diminutive as my stature was, it was enough to cause his legs to buckle.
The move had its intended effect. He was forced into a kneeling position, and his weapon slipped out of his hands and clattered onto the ground.
“What the…?” He cried out.
“Murphy,” I squeaked frantically as I kicked the carbine with all my might towards him. “Get the gun!”
The kid proved himself to be a better Marine than I thought. He sprung out and grabbed the rifle while the thug recovered. The stranger tried to draw his sidearm, but to no avail. Murphy expressed his disapproval with a point-blank burst of 6.58mm bullets, and then another to solidify his point.
With a horrible gurgle, the stranger toppled over, his chest heavy with lead. But just when we thought it was over, even more gunfire erupted, and this time it came from the two-way mirror. Bullets whizzed by, and one impacted Murphy in the shoulder.
But Murphy was far from finished. He expended the rest of the gun’s magazine in a sweeping hail of suppressive fire at the mirror, convincing the bastards behind it to stay low.
Meanwhile, Sanchez got up and picked up the thug’s pistol as Murphy reloaded. “Everyone! Get behind cover!” She shouted. I had no time to argue; I hid behind the protection of my cot, worried more about the status of the squad than anything else. Murphy and Sanchez crouched low and slowly crept towards the open doorway. They leaned around it, and after a pause disappeared behind the corner.
There was high staccato of assault carbine fire and pistol rounds, followed by return fire. The exchange repeated several times, and then fell silent. The silence continued for a few minutes until I heard a blessed phrase from Sanchez: “Area clear!” Taking a deep breath of relief, I almost reflexively checked my diaper. It was no surprise to me that I’d wet myself in the course of the firefight. Given the circumstances, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the others had done so, too.
Our first priority was to check the med status of the squad. Bridge was in pretty bad shape, Bradley had been struck in his upper bicep, and Murphy was the proud owner of his first bullet wound in the shoulder. Despite this, he limped hurriedly around the dark room behind the mirror, rummaging for medical supplies. As the wounded were desperately tended for, I inspected the corpse of one the gunmen.
My stomach dropped a few miles when I saw the familiar star-and-eagle symbol of the Interstellar Marine Corps.
It didn't matter whether we'd betrayed the Corps or the Corps had betrayed us. Either possibility made me feel like the lowest piece of filth in the galaxy.
It seemed as if it was all going according to plan. We were to locate the anti-Neocorp rebels’ camp, radio in the coordinates, and the M3A1 Vengeance multirole armored fighting vehicles would shell them out of existence.
But something had gone wrong, and now it was hell on earth. Shells exploded all around us. Being purposefully bombarded by enemy tanks is one thing, but being accidentally bombarded by your own side's is another entirely. I pressed into the dry soil more closely, praying that the explosions would stop.
“Tango two, check your fire!” Corporal Hall screamed into the radio. I felt deep pangs of both disgust and pity for the crew in the distant M3A1. They would soon find out about how their incompetence had almost cost the lives of fellow marines. And that alone was a punishment in itself.
I vowed that no matter what, I would never find myself in their situation.
I once again had the maddening feeling that fate was screwing everyone over and having a hell of a time all the while. Crahzy sheit or not, it was beginning to piss me off.
It certainly didn't help that Bridge was in critical condition a few feet away from me. I scurried over to his side with the squad desperately trying to treat his wounds, but there was nothing I could offer to help except to stand there and offer him whatever encouragement I could come up with. Which wasn't much.
Two minutes later, Bridge was gone. There were no noble last words, no peaceful coming to terms with death. I'd encountered death countless times, but it did nothing to soften the impact of it all. We were all so stunned by his sudden, violent loss that we hardly noticed or cared when what reminded me of a Morphesian equivalent of the old SWAT teams came bursting in.
“Drop your weapons now!” an anonymous muffled voice hollered from behind one of the guards' facemasks.
Murphy resignedly threw his firearm on the ground, with Sanchez following suit.
“They just ran in here and started shooting up the goddam place,” Murphy said weakly. “We fought back.”
Sanchez shot a dirty look at him for his ill-considered and fairly less-than-honest-sounding testimony.
For some reason, though, the burly guards didn’t use it as an excuse to pummel us into the ground. An armored figure from the group, canine in shape, approached us while we were bound in some kind of magnetic wrist bindings by the sentry team. Needless to say, an exception was made for me.
“We know that you evidently acted in self defense,” said the apparent squad leader. “But it seems that the other members of your force who destroyed Hill Industries didn’t.”
“Wait a minute—other members of the Interstellar Marines?” Murphy questioned.
The leader nodded. “Not surprising for men who tried to assassinate their comrades.”
I cringed as the squad finally spotted the IMC patches on the fallen would-be assassins.
“What the hell is this?” Bradley gasped.
“Seems like someone was making a last ditch attempt to get the Redemption viruses,” the leader observed. “But this recent assassination attempt is an interesting development.”
“’Interesting development?’ Our fellow Marines tried to f---ing kill us!” Murphy said. “And with Bridge over there, they succeeded!”
The leader wasn’t too sympathetic. “I base my statements on a recent transmission received by our government from your planet Earth. The ‘Neocorp’ headquarters, to be more exact.” He produced a small black spherical device and squeezed it. A voice we knew too well emitted from it.
“…After we fired the executive Evan Bergmann, who was the man chiefly responsible for the regrettable ‘Bergmann Raids,’ he was immediately hired by the recently formed rival corporation Gigadyne. He quickly persuaded the Gigadyne corporate leaders to continue the destructive clandestine activities on Morpheus, and the Interstellar Marines were subsequently bought up by Gigadyne and used again for technological espionage.
We understand that these statements may seem abrupt and hard to believe, but for that reason we have transmitted various files along with this message that should contain a persuasive amount of evidence. The situation is dire; we have intelligence reports from sources in Gigadyne that Interstellar Marines are poised to strike at various installations throughout your planet, and action must be taken to prevent this as soon as possible. We ask for your cooperation; an alliance to defeat the corrupt and dangerous mercenaries before further harm is done.”
Sanchez rolled her eyes, but the usual sarcasm was replaced by pure fiery anger.
“This is bullshit! They tried to do this co-opting **** with the administrator, too! Didn’t anyone find those messages from Neocorp?”
“If there ever were such recordings, they were destroyed. The facility was practically leveled.”
“What about the lab administrator, then? Can’t you question him?”
“Thomas Hill was killed in the assault,” the squad leader said.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Bradley murmured. “If Neocorp was responsible for all this, why the hell would they kill the guy whom they were making a deal with?”
“It makes perfect sense,” Corporal Hall said, halting all commotion. “Hill doesn’t cooperate the terms of their trade. So they send some more mercs in, this time who go for broke and toast his ass while they steal the virus prototypes. Then they micro-nuke the place to destroy the evidence so they can blame the entire thing on someone else.”
Bradley looked thoughtful. “But why would the marines do their bidding if Neocorp was just going to stab them in the back?”
Hall shook his head. “I haven’t got a clue. But something is really suspicious about this sudden formation of ‘Gigadyne.’”
The leader was taken aback. “How would you know all this?”
“Neocorp covert warfare and industrial espionage tactics. Being a hired corporal for them gets you pretty damn familiar with their tricks. They love convincing people that Neocorp is their greatest and most trustworthy friend. Then, when they think you’ve swallowed enough of their poison, they screw you over for good. Its how they became so powerful.”
There was an awkward silence. “Is that behavior common in your world?”
It was our turn to be taken aback. “What?” Hall asked.
“Malign deceit. The act of hiding or providing false information for immoral and unethical purposes.”
“Well, Thomas Hil--…” Sanchez interjected, but her would-have-been wiseass comment was cut off by the officer.
“Thomas Hill disobeyed the Divine Code of Solen’Nar,” he said sharply. “It is a high crime to do so, and it occurs quite rarely.”
We all looked at each other. Was it ordinary for law enforcement authorities on Morpheus to get into this kooky religious crap? We decided to go along with it for the time being.
“I guess you could say that. Sometimes, people of our kind want to have more power or money. And sometimes, they break the rules to get what they want,” Murphy said, acting as if he were explaining it to a child.
Something was highly unsettling about this to the Morphesian squad. “This shall be discussed more later,” the squad captain continued, trying to snap back into professional mode, “at the Council. As for the child, she shall come with us.”
“What? Keith is just as much a marine as the rest of us!” Sanchez said.
“She cannot accompany you any longer; she has no place in the legal proceedings that you shall attend. By order of the Divine Code of Solen’Nar, only adults may be given trials.”
“F--- you and your Code of Solen’N--” Sanchez growled as she tried to lunge at the guards. Immediately, I heard a soft buzzing sound come from the cuffs on Sanchez’s arms and she buckled over in pain, groaning and cursing.
“This matter will be discussed no further. Escort the kit away,” he said, motioning to two of the guards.
Several hours later, the guards and I arrived at our destination. The ride away from the government complex had been long and dull; and I had one hell of a rash from sitting in a soggy diaper for a few hours in an underground hovertrain. When we finally left the train and emerged from the tunnel, I was blinded by what appeared to be a flash of outdoor morning sunlight.
But when my eyes finally adjusted, I figured out where I was: It was some kind of massive glass-ceiling atrium, about a half mile in diameter! A massive lush green indoor forest was in the center, and I could pick out a few glimpses of a crystal-clear bubbling creek running through it. My sullenness was forced to take a backseat as I took in how fresh and beautiful everything seemed. Why hadn’t I felt this way back on Earth? Then it hit me: my senses were much better than when I’d been human. Sights and sounds were far more detailed. Even the distant rustle of trees was like a symphony if I just listened carefully.
“Welcome,” one of the guards said, “to the Sanctuary.”
“But before you go, tell me who you are,” the guard whispered, kneeling secretively down to my level.
I hesitated. “Keif Thomps-…”
“Wrong. You are now Kelly Hawkins, the year-and-a-half-old niece of Todd Hawkins. You’ve been assigned this new identity for your protection. Anything you say or do around these premises that could compromise your identity will result in you being immediately removed. So, try not to wear out your welcome. Agreed?”
I knew better than to contradict him. “Agweed..”
“Ah, yes. There’s Mr. Hawkins.”
I looked behind me and saw Todd, dressed in a tucked-in shirt and jeans, walking towards us. “Good to see you again,” he said, smiling and swishing his tail in welcome.
“Mr. Hawkins should be able to answer any other questions you might have.” With that, he and the accompanying sentry departed.
“Well then! Welcome to where I really live,” he said.
My eyes widened in disbelief. “This entire place is yours?”
He shook his head and laughed. “No, no…the government didn’t pay me that much for rescuing you. A lot of others live here, too. You see, the Sanctuary is an arcology; a self-sustaining community. You could practically live your entire life in it without ever having to leave if you so desired.”
“How?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“It’s because all the necessary services are provided inside,” he said, gesturing at a well-kept garden as we passed it by. He paused and winced when he spotted my sodden diaper. “Ugh. I should probably get that changed when we get to my quarters,” he added.
I nodded and listened intently as he went on further to describe the Sanctuary. Apparently, it was kind of like some massive enclosed commune, with a large population of residents living together and sharing the ample resources available within the structure. There were also a large number of them across Morpheus. Anything the residents couldn’t harvest from the Sanctuary they bought from government-owned industries.
He referenced some kind of conflict between the “industrialists,” (he described Thomas Hill as having been one of them) who felt that their privately owned business system was the best for the economy and promoted a natural order that would allow the best individuals to rise to the top, and the “pastoralists,” who feared or disliked the living conditions created by the industrialists and wanted to return to the more simple community-oriented way of life.
Because of this, the pastoralists built the Sanctuaries and tried to isolate themselves as much as possible from the growing industrial world. But the industrialists had political clout on their side, and forced the Council of High Priests (the Morphesian worldwide governing body) to require that the Sanctuary residents work a given amount of time at an assigned company to support the global economy, a decision which Todd explained as being the reason why he had formerly worked at Hill Industries. The Council also set limits as to how self-sustaining a Sanctuary could be, and required them to rely on products bought from private businesses instead of the government.
“But because of the act of Malign Deceit committed by Thomas Hill, the Council of High Priests said that they’re reconsidering their policies,” Todd said. He looked wistfully at an unspoiled meadow as his tail wagged slowly. “Personally, I’m glad our community will be able to be more independent again.”
We walked along in quiet for a few minutes until we entered a large grove of trees. “We’re almost there,” Todd said as we reached a clearing. “Look, there’re some of the dwellings.”
At first I had no idea what he was talking about, but then I caught a glimpse of a small rectangular door set into the side of a hill. They reminded me of something out of an old Tolkien fantasy book I’d read as a kid.
Todd’s voice lowered to a whisper. “Hold my hand.”
I looked at him incredulously. “Whaaat?”
“Shh! We’re going to meet with the neighbors pretty soon, and we can’t get them suspicious. Kits practically always hold their guardians’ paw when they’re on walks.”
Getting diaper changes from Todd and returning to my squad as a vulpine small fry had been extremely difficult for me as it was. But having to put on the ordinary-fox-kit-masquerade yet again was crossing the line.
“Dis is insane,” I muttered as I reached up to grasp his hand.
“I’m no fan of this, either,” Todd said. “But I’m not calling the shots. Besides, it’s either this or they’ll throw you in a holding room again.”
I shuddered. Even I had to admit that returning to another one of those claustrophobic cell-like spaces was a worse alternative than this.
So, swallowing my pride for the umpteenth time, I tried my best to look around the place in childish awe. Pretty soon, I felt myself sinking into my Kelly-persona yet again. I had full awareness and control as usual, but it was if the world seemed big and strange and full of wonders once more. It sounds crazy; a former merc like me talking about how I found youth again, but it was true.
It was then that I was reminded of how I had been able to put up with all the babying crap. By both looking at life through the perspective of a child, and keeping the simple sense of humor of one, (like I did with the Crazeh Sheit incident) I realized that I could live with the diaper changes and baby food and whatever else was thrown at me by a world that hadn’t the slightest clue who I actually was—or had been before.
Soon enough, my new way of looking at things was tested quite quickly. A cheerful-looking tigress reclined on the grass near the entrance to her dwelling. She lowered her sunglasses and smiled bemusedly as we approached.
“Well, who do we have here? A love-child?”
Todd returned the grin. “Nah, not yet, Tanya. This is my niece, Kelly…my sister and her husband are going on a trip to Masail, so I’m going to be watching her while they’re gone. Say hi to my fearsome kit-eating neighbor, Kelly!”
“Hi,” I said simply, smiling shyly and clutching Todd’s leg in a gesture of meekness that wasn’t entirely staged.
Tanya laughed, a sound that I found strangely transfixing. Perhaps it was because she was the first fur aside from Todd that I was beginning to take a liking to.
“Todd’s a filthy liar, I tell you,” she said. “I only snack on kids on weekends.”
I tried to look fearful as I held on to Todd more tightly.
She laughed again. “Easy there, kiddo. You’re going to leave dents in his shin if you’re not careful.” She turned to Todd. “Say, Todd, is she the kind that likes to make new friends? ‘Cause if she is, some of the cubs are going to be playing down by the creek this afternoon.”
Todd nodded. “Oh, I’m sure she’d like that. It’s been a while since you’ve had a chance to run around, hasn’t it, Kelly?” He said, patting my head. “Well, until then, I guess we’re going to be inside. I have a little paperwork to finish.”
“While you’re at it, you might want to let Kelly take a good long nap,” Tanya suggested. “She looks a little sleepy.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.” Todd remarked. With that, we started heading towards Todd’s abode.
The interior of Todd’s home was larger than the apartment he had showed me a few days earlier, but not by a huge amount. The room we had just entered from was a small living room with a crib and a changing table in the corner. Through the doorway on the left was a kitchen, and the doorway on the right led into a bedroom. Simple, but a hell of a lot better than any other place I’d stayed in the past few days.
He carried me into the kitchen, where I had a filling breakfast of baby food and a drink of apple juice from a sippy cup. As I was finishing up the juice, I was bothered by how wet my diaper felt. I looked down and saw that the front was beginning to bulge out, obviously close to being filled to capacity.
Todd noticed my discomfort. “Ah, I should have changed you as soon as we came in, but I forgot. You hardly complained at all! You were a real trooper.” I snickered at the irony of this. For a moment he looked at me uncomprehendingly, but then laughed when he understood.
Todd took me over to the changing table and did the usual procedure—remove diaper, wipe down, powder, dress in new diaper. The only difference to this was the fact that new diaper he taped me into was much thicker than before. “Naptime diaper,” he explained.
He also produced a pink sleeper and promptly zipped me into it. Past complaining, I tolerated it, although I wasn’t going to gush over how cute I looked in it. He then gently set me down in the crib.
“Try to get some rest now,” he said softly. “If you need anything, though, just tell me. I’ll be in the other room.” With that, he departed for his bedroom.
As I lay down, I realized just how tired I was—no big surprise, considering the rude awakening the goons had given us the night before. Shortly afterward, I fell into a deep, refreshing dreamless sleep.
When I woke up, the sunlight through the window had changed from the expectant brightness of the morning to the lazy glow of the afternoon.
I yawned, relishing how great it felt to have caught up on my lost hours of sleep. I wondered idly what the rest of the squad was doing at the moment, and hoped that they’d get a chance to have some R & R, too.
A few moments later, Todd emerged from his bedroom. “Well, I see you’re done with your nap. The other cubs should be getting ready to play in the creek pretty soon. Are you interested in joining them?”
I didn’t have much else to do, so I decided on going. “Sure,” I said.
“In that case, let’s get you dressed,” he said. He unzipped my sleeper and checked my diaper. “You’re fairly dry. But since you’re going to the creek,” he said, frowning contemplatively, “I might want to get you dressed in a swim diaper.” He rummaged around in a dresser for a few seconds.
“Dang, I don’t seem to have any around at the moment. I suppose you should be okay, though. Here, put this on,” he suggested, handing me a yellow sundress. I struggled with like a hapless adventurer with a boa constrictor before Todd realized that it was best if he put it on me himself.
We left Todd’s house and emerged outside to find a small group of three young furs and their parents nearby. I could see Tanya kneeling next to the tykes, making childish small talk with a young skunk girl.
“Look, there’s Kelly right now!” Tanya said to the cubs when she noticed us coming. Their ages varied, but they seemed to all be fairly close to my physical age. “Say hi to her!”
“Hi, Kewwy,” The skunk girl lisped. She was dressed in sundress similar to mine. Her bushy white-striped tail loomed behind her, twitching timidly.
“Hiya,” squeaked an equally bashful-looking leopard toddler in a one-piece bathing suit.
What I heard from the last cub, a small otter boy wearing blue shorts and a t-shirt, was more a mumble than anything else.
“Kelly, meet Samantha, Katie, and Jimmy,” Tanya said, gesturing to each of the cubs respectively. She got up and smiled. “All right, let’s get going, guys! The creek awaits!” Several of the parents chuckled at this as we started on our way, the sound of our bare paws treading through the grass an overture for our afternoon adventure.
It was a short distance to the creek, and when we arrived, I felt a resurgence of the excitement I’d felt when I first arrived at The Sanctuary. Being a fox made me feel far more like a part of nature than I’d been as a human. I felt as if Mother Nature had reintroduced herself to me, not as a distant ancestor but as a close relative.
We were all eager to wade in the water (Jimmy was the most, I’m sure the sight of water that he could swim in drove him crazy) but Samantha and I had to take our sundresses off first to avoid getting them soaked.
I felt a hand slap my back. “Tag, you’re it!” a youthful voice squeaked. I whirled around to see Jimmy giggling and diving into the creek like the otter he was. Smiling and growling in mock-menace, I jumped in after the others. The chase was on.
As soon as I hit the creek, I felt the nighttime diaper begin to bloat as it soaked up water. But this wasn’t important; I was it, and now someone else had to be it.
Katie yelped when she realized that I was close to tagging her. But she quickly took off like a rocket, making me understand how pointless it was to chase a leopard. I couldn’t tag Jimmy again, so that left Samantha as the only other option. She was running around in the water a few meters in front of me, and as I darted up to her, she too realized that I was the hunter and she was the hunted. Squealing playfully, she splashed upriver.
But I caught up with her quickly and tagged her on her bushy tail in a matter of seconds.
“You’re it!” I cried.
As Samantha went off to tag someone else, I used the moment to take a breather. But soon afterward, Samantha had tagged Jimmy, who in turn was out to tag me again.
Jimmy dove underwater and swam after me like a furry brown torpedo. I bolted as fast I could through the water, hoping to attract his attention to Katie instead. As hard as it was to run in water, I felt something else slowing me down. I looked down and saw that my diaper had sucked up enough water to keep me hydrated for a week in the desert. The resulting weight and bulk had slowed my fastest sprint to little more than a fast walk. Needless to say, Jimmy caught up quickly.
“Gotcha!” he shouted as he sprang out of the water and tagged me on my lower back. But his paws slipped against my wet fur and he ended up accidentally ripping the diaper’s fastening tape that went over the base of my tail. The garment, which was sagging heavily and was relying on that tape to stay up, slid down my hips and landed in the creek with a resounding splash.
The adults couldn’t help but laugh uproariously at this, and I blushed furiously. But I’d been through worse, so I took it in stride and began to giggle as I realized that it was kind of funny, after all. Jimmy was actually the one who was most embarrassed by the incident, and took it upon himself to retrieve my diaper from the creek.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly but sincerely as he handed it over to me. I suddenly had a picture of him as a red-faced Victorian era gentleman who’d accidentally ripped a woman’s dress during a parlor game.
“Thank you,” I said as I took it. I made an intentional comic display of fruitlessly trying to put it back on before Tanya finally stopped guffawing and put me in a spare swim diaper.
Practically as soon as Tanya finished fastening the second tape, I jumped back into the river. “You’re still it!” Jimmy cried.
We played tag for a few more minutes until I was beaned in the back by a flying clump of mud. Not surprisingly, the culprit was Katie.
“Hey, I thought we were still playin’ tag!” I protested.
“Nuh-uh! Now we playing mudfight!” she said cheerfully as she scooped up another ball of mud from the bottom of the creek.
“Now kids, don’t play too rough,” one of the adults warned. I didn’t listen. Adult advice was beginning to seem more and more boring.
As I skillfully chucked gob after gob of muck into my newfound playmates, I mused that the nerve-wracking hand grenade training course I’d gone through in boot camp had finally come to use.
“Meanie! Dat’s not fair!” Katie whined.
“Life’s not fair,” I observed, bending over to gather some more mud. I was immediately hit by a wave of sludge that nearly engulfed me. The resulting laughter of the other cubs made it pretty obvious they’d learned the value of coordinated attack. “And dat wasn’t, either.” I sighed. I was almost completely covered in mud, but a thorough dunk in the water fixed that.
“Okay cubbies, that’s enough,” Tanya called. “It’s time to come out of the water.”
Reluctantly, we bid farewell to the creek and climbed onto the bank. The parents wrapped us up in towels and dried us off, a process that our wet fur made very time-consuming. After Tanya helped me don my sundress again, we headed back for the dwellings, enjoying the cool breeze that announced the beginning of the evening.
When we got back, Todd emerged from his abode and invited us to stay for a while at his place. Wanting to sit down and chat with their neighbor after his long absence, the other adults accepted his offer.
The rest of that evening, I played right into the neighbor’s expectations. I was cooed at, bounced on knees, tickled, and altogether gushed over, but I never broke character.
But what made that evening so memorable weren’t the actions of the adults; after all, they were just reacting to who they thought was just a very cute little kit that had just moved in.
I don’t know how Jimmy was able to get some hint of the fact that there was more to me than what met the eye, but he did it. Perhaps it was just some oddity in how I acted or played. Or maybe kids just have some sort of perception adults don’t have. All I know is that while I was making a simple building-block pyramid, he noticed something about me.
“You’re special,” he said at last. “You aren’t like everybody else.”
I returned his gaze, but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Why is dat?” he asked.
I paused for a moment as I thought of an answer. “’Cause I’m not from dis place.” I said truthfully.
“Oh.” he said, resuming helping me out with the pyramid. “I thought so.” As quickly as he brought it up, he dropped the subject and chased after Katie while waving a pillow like a cutlass.
The rest of our evening play went without any other events of interest until it was time for the cubs and their parents to head home. As Jimmy and his father were stepping out the door, I overheard him talking.
“Dad, will I get another chance to play with Kelly?”
“Of course you will, Jimmy.”
“I like her.”
“And why’s that?”
Just before the door shut, I was able to hear his reply. “’Cause she’s special. She’s not from here.”
I yawned, smiling to myself.
“Well, you ready to get some sleep?” Todd asked, resuming his more serious attitude towards me.
I grinned mischievously and made an exaggerated imitation of a runner’s starting stance. “Sure, but you’re gonna have tah earn your right to make me go tah bed. On your mawk, get set—…”
He chuckled and scooped me up before I could make my getaway. “No, not tonight, young lady. Besides, I need to get you changed.” he said, sniffing the air and wrinkling his nose slightly.
He promptly set to work on changing my diaper. As he finished taping up the fresh one, I drifted asleep.
Time passed quickly for the rest of my stay in the sanctuary. As my friendship with the neighbors’ cubs grew stronger, so did my attachment to the place. We had afternoon snacks in the kitchens of our homes, we played in the creeks, and when we grew tired or had nothing else to do, we napped in the waving fields of grass.
The fate of my squad was often in the back of my mind. I had many dreams about them, both nightmares about hearing of their deaths and pleasant visions of meeting with them again.
Weeks after my arrival, the question that my dreams so constantly posed was answered. That fateful morning began with Todd waking me up, addressing me urgently but secretively.
“I got a message from the Council of High Priests last night. They say your squad’s trial is over.”
I blinked, nearly unable to grasp this news in my half-asleep confusion. “What?”
“They told us to go to the entrance of the Sanctuary,” he continued. “They didn’t offer any explanation.”
I tensed up, my mind racing with horrid possibilities. Were they about to be executed? Was this some kind of a trap? It quickly became clear that it wasn’t going to be my decision to obey them or not. Dressing me quickly in another simple sundress, Todd scooped me up and carried me out of the dwelling. Too groggy and resigned to do anything else, I let him bring me to the entrance. Whatever the truth was, my long period of waiting for something new to happen was about to come to an end.
When we got to the entrance, several Morphesian guards were waiting for us. “They’re here. Bring them in,” a guard spoke into a radio.
A few seconds later, I heard footsteps coming from the stairs to the hovertrain. Four silhouetted figures, flanked by a pair of guards, trudged into view. When they stepped into the morning light, it was obvious who they were.
“Keith!” Sanchez said. “It’s damn good to see you again!”
I grinned. “Sempa fi! What’s been goin’ on?”
Sanchez looked like she was about to speak, but the sentry with the radio cut in. “The High Council has granted your squad a temporary reprieve. They found their claims of the threat posed by Neocorp plausible enough to warrant further investigation and a chance for the squad to prove their trustworthiness.”
The expressions on the faces of the squad members darkened. “They want us to run a recon mission on the Neocorp headquarters.” Corporal Hall explained.
I was shocked. “Dat’s insane! We’ll get blown out of the sky!”
“You mean you wusses don’t trust your sergeant’s leadership skills?” A bemused-sounding familiar voice said. We all turned to see a man accompanied by another guard walked out of the subway.
“You haven’t changed the slightest since the last time we saw each other,” our Sergeant said.
We instinctively stood at attention, in my case stiffening up suddenly in Todd’s arms.
The officer chuckled. “At ease, Marines. There’s no time for the usual formalities.”
“Your Sergeant was apprehended shortly after your squad’s capture. He chose to risk capture and continue searching rather than leave.” the radio guard said emotionlessly.
“With all due respect, sir, I thought your orders were to scrub the mission and leave if we were unable to get to the extraction site.” Murphy said.
“And abandon my men to obey some goddamn suit? I may be a mercenary, Murphy, but I have integrity. Anyway, the Morphesians were kind enough to prep our shuttle for launch. That train down there will take us to our point of departure. I want your asses in there ASAP! Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir!” came the reply. With that, the Marines quickly marched down the stairs.
“Wait! What about Keith?” Todd called.
Sergeant Gray paused as he looked back at me. “Didn’t they tell you? You two are coming along, too!”
“The Sergeant is right. The High Council has ordered Keith to serve as a specialist on Neocorp, given his valuable firsthand experiences with them. You, having also shared some of these encounters with Neocorp, will accompany him.”
Todd looked like he was about to become violently ill. “What? They can’t be serious! This is far too dangerous!”
“Given the obvious combat experience of the Marines, the Council has concluded that you will have significant protection from attack,” the guard said.
“My squad is waiting. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make us keep doing so.” Sergeant Gray said curtly.
I could tell that Todd wanted to object, but something seemed to stop him and force him to head for the subway. Orders were orders, and it was time to go.
Riding in the Argo again was somehow strange but reassuring at the same time. I realize now that I’d grown to miss that shuttle more than our barracks.
I squirmed anxiously in my seat. Surprisingly, the Morphesian engineers had gone so far as to modify it to fit my reduced size. It now looked more like a child’s carseat than anything else. They’d also built an extra seat for Todd, who was presently staring at a video monitor.
I nudged him. “Hey. What’s up?”
He pointed to the monitor, which was now showing Earth looming closer and closer.
“Is that your planet?”
“Yes, unless I fowgot what it looks like.”
He smiled but did not laugh. “It looks a lot like Morpheus.”
I shrugged. “Maybe they’re doppelgangers.”
We both fell silent as we watched the planet’s continents and swirling clouds seem to become more detailed as we approached.
“You think I have what it takes?” Todd asked.
“To be a Marine? Don’t ask me, I ain’t a recruiter.”
“Not that. I meant to carry my own weight around with you guys.”
Sergeant Gray turned to look at him, looking contemplative as he pulled out one of his signature cigars. “Well, we’ll find that out soon enough, shall we? Personally, I think you stand a good chance.”
The officer seemed fairly detached as he chewed on his cigar, but I knew better than that. There was a spark of sincerity in his eyes, and I’d never seen it before when he was talking to someone who wasn’t a Marine. Todd must have realized the relevance of this; instead of just ending the conversation, he seemed to take more interest in Sergeant Gray.
“Why would you say that?”
Sergeant Gray lifted his eyes from his cigar to meet Todd’s.
“You willingly took good care of Private Thompson, right?”
“Even though he’d once held you hostage?”
“And you risked your life to save him?”
Todd hesitated. “Well, I…”
“Just answer the question with one word. Did you or did you not?”
Sergeant Gray smiled, not his usual sardonic grin but an actual smile. “Like I said, I’d say you stand a good chance.” He offered his right hand to shake.
The rest of the squad and I gaped. Throughout all the years we’d served with him, we’d never seen Sergeant Gray shake hands with a civilian.
Todd took his hand uncertainly. Still smiling, Sergeant Gray grasped it and shook it firmly.