While standing on my front porch one day, I happened to glance across the gravel road into my neighbor's pasture. Normally it would be empty, with at most squirrels or birds in the oak trees along the stream on the far side. I spotted a small red fox and three half-grown kits running across the pasture. The fox moved steadily toward the oak trees lining the creek, while the kits were in a loose pack, which wandered back and forth across her trail. They vanished into the trees, only to reappear as they climbed the bank up into the adjoining pasture. She sat down in the sun and looked my direction. The kits continued to run and play in the meadow around her. I took a chance, and went into the house and grabbed my old pair of binoculars. I focused them on her, and watched her watch me for almost fifteen minutes, when she stood up, stepped behind a small rise and vanished with the kits. I took the binoculars from my eyes. I checked immediately to see where Hobo, my dog, was; and if he had noticed her. He was asleep in the shade next to the house, so I continued to watch.
"Looks like we have a new neighbor, Hobo," I said. He raised his head at my voice, but did not move. He was a farm dog, about 50 pounds, fiercely territorial, mixed breed, part shepherd, and part chow. He aggressively defended his yard plus a radius of about a quarter mile, from any encroachment by other dogs and wildlife. I wondered if he would consider her as another dog to be driven away, or, like a possum or barn cat, as dangerous prey. I figured by the next morning there would be a either a fresh carcass on the lawn, or a wounded dog in need of medical attention. Neither contingency occurred.
I saw her frequently that summer. In the fall, I could hear her ki-yi-ing in the evening. Hobo would give his warning bark when she entered the pasture, but did not leave the yard to pursue. While watching him mark his territory, I observed he had now moved his boundary to one of the oak trees by the creek, closer to the house than before.
The next fox I met was completely different.
It was a dark and stormy night. Really. We were under a severe thunderstorm watch, and I was sitting in my upstairs office watching the lightning flash in the window, listening to the scanner, and debating with myself whether the storm was close enough yet for me to sign off AOL, unplug the modem line and power down my PC.
Hobo was glued to the floor under my feet, and he definitely thought it was already stormy enough. I sighed, and powered down the system. Ever since my first introduction to the Internet, I've been an addict. I estimate it has dropped my productivity in half, and consumed two-thirds of my leisure time as well. Saturday night combined poor TV with a weekend, and so that was when I indulged my habit.
I stood up, rolled the chair back carefully so as to avoid Hobo's tail, and went downstairs to see what Marie was doing. Tonight, she was sorting through her newest garage sale finds, separating out children's books and toys. We had been married for five years by this time, and had established comfortable patterns and routines for interests and hobbies around the house. Although we are childless, she had more toys than a dozen kids, plus she bought for at least a thousand friends', coworkers' and relatives' kids. The spare bedroom down the hall was filled to capacity with her treasures. She was sitting on the floor in the living room, and the late news had just started on TV.
"Looks like the storm is coming", I opined.
"Look at what I've got here", she said, reaching for a stuffed animal. I feigned interest while I stepped around the clutter and lowered myself into my recliner.
"That's nice", I agreed. She then described where she had found it, what she had paid, and who she was giving it to. I grabbed the remote and turned up the volume another notch. Hobo suddenly discovered he was alone upstairs, and charged down at full tilt. He hit the bottom of the stairs, found the path to the living room blocked by her debris, and headed for the front door. He stopped in front of it and whined until I got up and let him out.
"Stupid dog, It's still storming out there."
"He's not stupid."
Back to the recliner. We continued to share the living room for another hour, during which time I found out entirely too much about the city-wide garage sale, and even more about the banal events on the evening news. The weather was the lead story, with competing Doppler radar images on each channel. I tutored meteorology while I was a teaching assistant in college, and practiced it as a sideline during my days in the army, so I proceeded to critique the Action 4 crew's effort. My major acknowledged failing is an uncontrollable urge to explain stuff, even to an audience who could care less, as my wife did at that time. She took it patiently while she cleaned up her treasures, then tried to stand. Her injured back and leg were swollen and sore from overexertion.
"Help me up," she asked. I raised her to her feet, kissed her, gave her a hug, and sat back down. She went into the kitchen to get an ice pack, then laid down on the couch to give the ice a chance to work. I knew she was down for the count, so I went back to the front door to let Hobo in. He was already on the front porch, soaked through from the rain.
"Hobo, hold still. No, quit trying to shake!" I grabbed for the towel we kept by the door. "Good dog!" I toweled him damp, if not dry, and said "Go to bed." He trotted into the bedroom and dropped to the floor with a thump like a bag of wet sand. I went back to the living room and kissed Marie again. She was asleep. "I'm going to bed now," I said softly.
" I'll be right in.", she mumbled. This was not true. I would get up several more times to get her moving, and we both knew it. Back in the bedroom, I stepped over Hobo on the floor and crawled into bed. Then I got up again and opened the blinds so that I could watch the storm. While I was up, I made another trip back to the living room, more for form than anything else. Hobo didn't like the lightning, so he had attached himself like Velcro to the side of the bed. I nodded off to sleep with one hand on his head. I remember that I half woke hours later as Marie climbed into bed from the other side, inviting the dog to jump up onto the bedspread. I spooned against her, shoved the dog out of my space, and fell asleep.
I woke with a start from a deep sleep, as a bright flash of lightning was immediately followed by a crash of thunder. A second flash burned an afterimage into my eyes, blinding me. I felt Hobo roll over against me, sticking the tip of his bushy tail into my mouth. I grabbed it. "Hobo, off the bed, NOW!" I jerked the tail toward the edge of the bed. From behind me came the sound of a dog starting in panic, as he thumped onto the floor and ran from the room. I realized at that instant I was not holding Hobo's tail.
"Ouch! What are you doing?" Marie's voice from the other side of the bed. I let go quickly. Groping around in the dark on the bed beside me, I found someone large and furry, whose tail I had just pulled. It sat up and turned on the bedside reading lamp. I could see again, but now had a greater shock. Where Marie had been laying was now a large, red fox!
She said, "Dave, why are you looking at me like that? Are you awake?" I couldn't form words, just took her paw and held it up in front of her eyes. She saw it, then her eyes widened. Both of them, one on either side of her pointed muzzle. She touched the end of her nose with her paw. "I don't believe this," she muttered. "I'm a dog."
She got out of bed and stood in front of the full length mirror. I was sitting on the edge of the bed behind her and saw her back and her reflection together. Her markings were a coppery red, with a white mask, chest, and "socks" on her paws. Her nose was a black button, and the tips of her ears had faint black markings. She was big, as big as a German shepherd, maybe 80 pounds, but with a thicker body and wider face. Standing on her hind legs she was four and a half feet tall. She touched her pointed ears, feeling her black nose and rubbing her furry chest.
She finally smiled, "Must have been something I ate." She sat back down on the edge of the bed. "Any ideas?" I looked at her long tongue and sharp teeth. An overage fanboy, I have never shared with Marie my furry tendencies, and this was certainly not the time to mention them. I resisted the urge to grin.
"This one has got me stumped," I lied. "You're not really 100 percent fox, you know." She tilted her head. "For one thing, you stood up on two legs," I resisted using the 'd' word. "… and for another… what about these?" I held up her hand. While it was narrower than a human hand, it was wider than a dog's paw, and had stubby, furry fingers. I pressed down on the pad, expressing fully her claws. I had a thought. "How do you feel?" She thought for a few seconds.
"Fine, I guess. I just keep noticing my snout sticking out of the front of my face, and with all this fur it feels like you've finally turned the thermostat in this room to a decent level." She shifted beside me. "Of course, I rediscover my tail whenever I sit wrong." I considered it. It was behind us, a large brushy mass of fur almost as long as the rest of her. She dangled the tip across my neck. I wrapped my arm around her, trapping it.
"That tickles," Marie said.
"It's a good thing I am not the one with the allergies, cause there's sure a lot of loose hair around here." We sat quietly for a moment. "I guess there's nothing more to do but see what happens in the morning."
"One more thing."
"I love you." We kissed. Her pointed muzzle and thin lips were less flexible than her old mouth, and I could feel a lot of sharp canine teeth. She responded with some amazing tongue action. We paused for breath.
"I'd better see if Hobo's OK." She laughed. "I gave him quite a scare." I went into the front room and found him laying on the couch. He looked up, and jumped to the floor, with his 'I'm caught and I'm guilty' expression. "You'll get away with it this time, boy," I said in a mild tone.
I called him into the bedroom, and he followed me through the door. As he rounded the corner he stopped and growled, his hackles raised on his back. "Easy, Hobo!" I said sharply. He began the low pitched bark he uses to indicate a close threat. "That's Marie, you know her." I grabbed his collar, and brought him close to her. I held his muzzle firmly closed with the other hand, and talked softly to him. Marie placed the back of her paw against his nose, letting him get used to her scent. She spoke soothingly to him and scratched behind his ears with her other paw. After a minute, he whined, and looked at both of our faces in turn. I let loose, ready to grab him. He whined again, but held his head down while she kept scratching him.
"I think that worked." She observed.
"Let's go to bed. Lay down, Hobo." He dropped to the floor. I shut off the light. Marie and I laid down side by side. I rolled against her back into our usual sleeping pose, and wrapped my arms around her. The maneuver placed her tail between my legs. "That thing still tickles." She wagged it once. I snorted.
"Go to sleep."
Morning began at 5:30 a.m.. Hobo woke me up to be let out, and when I returned to the bed, I looked over the scene by the dawn light through the window. During the night, Marie had kicked all the blankets to the foot of the bed, and was now curled nose to tail into a ball, fast asleep. I laid back down without touching her, I looked her over. It was clear that although she resembled a red fox in coloring and her distinctive features, her head was proportioned larger than a dog's in relation to her body, which was designed for a more upright posture. She lacked the distinctive upper chest development of her furry namesake. Her hands had thumbs and looked capable of manipulating tools, but were not as long or flexible as my own. She was much smaller than she had been as a human, but was firmly muscled. I spent the next half hour lying awake, thinking about what came next.
At 6:00 a.m., the clock radio came on, the DJ telling me to 'Rise and shine, it's Monday!' Strange, I could swear it was Saturday when we went to bed! Missing time. Great.
She woke up. I made sure I kissed her the second her eyes opened. "Woof!", I barked. She looked up, startled, crossed her eyes for an instant to look at her nose, then smiled. "Still the same as last night," I said cheerfully. She snapped her teeth at me. "I think we ought to call in sick today, while we figure this out."
"But I don't want to use up all my leave, I might need it when I'm really sick." This was a ritual phrase for her. 'Really sick' meant the same thing to her as 'near death' for anyone else in her office. I looked at her with a serious expression.
"I think this counts. You probably need to see your doctor for an exam, if nothing else."
"Or a Vet…" She grinned an open mouth grin, showing many teeth. "Wouldn't Linda freak out if I came in."
"Might be cheaper, but she's not on our insurance plan." I laughed. "This probably isn't covered anyway. Seriously, though, I think we have some important decisions to make this morning. Publicity or secrecy? The way I see it, we have a choice between your appearing on 'Good Morning Today' or being locked up in a secret government lab for the rest of your life. I think we need to be careful here. Either way, you probably are going to miss work."
"Well, I guess I'm sick today then." She rolled on her back, curled all four paws in the air, and lolled her tongue out of her mouth in a classic 'play dead' pose. She looked sideways at me with one eye open and said: "Why don't you play doctor?" I pinned her to the bed with one hand, and roughed up the fur on her belly. She kicked her hind legs. "Beast!" I tackled her, and we wrestled our way back into bed. It was a unique experience for both of us, reminiscent of our first time together, with lots of awkward fumbling and false starts. Eventually, we got all the parts and pieces lined up, and worked our way into a state of exhaustion.
Later, we showered, and I used the first aid kit to dress a few scratches on my back caused by over-enthusiasm, and one 'love nip' in an unexpected location. Marie was in the bathroom figuring out how best to groom her new fur. I called out.
"I hope the blow dryer doesn't burn out from all that extra use." I heard a strange sound from her. "What was that?" She shouted back over the blower:
"I can't get a decent raspberry sound with this muzzle."
Time for some work. I sat down at my desk in the study, took a deep breath, and picked up the phone. I called Marie's boss first, and told him she was sick. He knew and trusted her, accepting without any real question. He wished her a quick recovery, and I hung up. I called my office next. My supervisor was in, and I told him I would be out taking care of some errands for Marie while she was sick. I work as a defense contractor, and my work has irregular hours. Since he was constantly harassed by the main office trying to get me to use some of the seven months' leave I had built up, he interrupted me.
"Dave, take the whole day off. Take the week. Come back in on the…" I heard him flip through his calendar. "…eleventh of next month."
"I'll be in tomorrow."
"Wednesday!", he countered. I hung up. I sat a minute, staring at the phone, then went downstairs to check on Marie. She was fluffed out like an Akita.
"More creme rinse next time," she sniffed. I ran my fingers through the fine fur on her arm.
"Feel's fine to me." I bent over to kiss her, and we got a small static spark when out noses touched. "It's time for a decision, dear. Which do you want more, media circus-style publicity, or annoying government snooping?" She frowned.
"That's a choice?"
"I don't know any other ways to do this. Since nobody has stepped up to claim responsibility for changing you into a foxy, er fox, we are stuck with either going public or setting up a meet with someone from my old line of work." I had been in the intelligence field before we were married.
"We could just pretend it didn't happen, but I think someone will notice."
"It was fun while this was just our little secret, though."
Suddenly, we heard Hobo growling, then the sound of a dog fight out in the front yard. As I charged to the front door, I heard him snarling, suddenly changing to yips of pain, and then silence. I threw open the screen and went out onto the porch. Our dog was lying still on the grass, his muzzle red with blood. Standing upright in front of me, panting for breath and clutching her left side with her paw, was another fox! I advanced on the stranger, who must have thought I was going to attack.
She pleaded, in fair English, "It's all my fault, but please don't hit me! He's not dead, just tranquilized!"
I stopped, about to yell something, when I suddenly realized exactly what had just happened. I took a few breaths and said as calmly as I could, "I thought someone looking very much like you might put in an appearance. Better come inside before anyone else sees you." I held open the door.
In retrospect, It could have been a more graceful moment.
Standing in the humans' living room, hot, dirty, out of breath, my mouth tasting like cotton, I tried to think of what to say to smooth over the fiasco that was the last three days. I had started this project confident of my skills as the best contact specialist in the exploration corps, but now I was reduced to picking up the pieces of the mission. It's tough to be a failure on your 23rd birthday. "Er…," I began, then I felt suddenly dizzy, the room spun around, and the floor came up and met my snout. I heard the humans talking, but could not focus my eyes.
The female, the one who had been a human called "Marie" before I killed her, realized what had occurred, and reacted first. "Dave, she's been bitten by Hobo. Run and get the first aid kit, and a damp washcloth." The big human male left the room. She rolled me over onto my back, and I felt her paw against my forehead. "Lie still, dear. Its all right. You can tell me all about it later." She unbuttoned my blouse, and I had a sharp stab of pain as she felt the wound on my side. Dave came back into the room as she began to clean it.
"Is it bleeding much? I'd better check on Hobo, then." He left my field of view. Marie continued her exam.
"Strange, this is the only major bite, and it's not too bad. You're burning hot! Should your nose be this dry?"
"No, I am warmer blooded than your race, but my nose should be moist. I think I need a drink of water. I'm winded, mainly." Marie clicked her teeth, wiping my lips with the washcloth, and fanned my face.
"You're hurt. Wait here, don't, move." She went into the kitchen and returned with something wrapped in a towel and a glass of ice water. "This should help." Marie placed a towel-wrapped block of ice on the barrel of my chest, moving it around, cooling my skin. I squirmed at the sudden cold. Gradually, I began to feel better. She tipped the water glass so that I could lap the contents.
"I think you fainted from heat exhaustion brought on by the fight with Hobo. When did you last drink anything?" I admitted I had been lying in the tall grass outside, watching the house, and had not had any liquids since before midnight. "Just rest, now." She went outside to see what Dave was doing. I heard them talking quietly, and in a few minutes, they both came back inside. Marie smiled at me. "Hobo's still groggy, but he's uninjured. Do you feel ready to talk?"
I nodded, and they sat on the couch facing me. Dave looked me up and down once, and then said: "I think it's safe to say we can skip the 'I'm an alien from another planet' part of the speech. We've figured that one out. Let's start with the easy stuff: What's your name?"
"I am called Chessec." They both tried it. Marie's mouth made the proper slight click at the end, while Dave said it in the mushy tones caused by his flat muzzle.
"And I'm guessing you know our names already," he continued. I blinked. "I would say you have been watching us ever since you changed Marie into a fox."
"Not a fox. We prefer to be known as Diyim'yi." I cringed at how pretentious that must have sounded. "I did not mean to cause this to happen to Marie. There was a terrible accident."
"Is it reversible?"
"No, her old body died." The discussion was not going my way, and I felt I had to change the subject, to get control. I started again, speaking fast so that he wouldn't interrupt: "We have come here to your planet to make friends with your people, and I would like to ask the two of you to help us." I looked at both of them in turn. Marie was examining her paws again, with a thoughtful expression, while Dave looked straight into my eyes, He was showing so many of his blunt teeth that I thought he was about to attack me. Then I remembered that the expression was not a threat on a human, but instead a smile.
Dave laughed and said: "I read way too much bad science fiction. Guessed that one right. Just what I thought you were going to say. Although, I was holding out for 'take me to your leader.' Why did you decide to come up to the house just at that time?"
"I was afraid you would call the authorities before I could explain. We are not ready to contact them yet."
"Of course, not."
Marie said, "Dave, quit interrupting and let her finish. My new body seems to be doing just fine, so far, and I'm sure she was in some kind of hurry to talk. Ignore him Chessec, he's always that way." She adjusted the ice pack.
I composed my thoughts, and then summarized the speech I had intended to give them. I explained that Diyim'yi and humans were two of the several known intelligent races. Except for lack of interstellar travel, humans were probably the most technologically advanced. Because of that, we had been observing them for three years, learning their language and customs from intercepted video and audio broadcasts. I concluded, "I would like you to come to our world, meet our people, and then return here as our representatives, to help establish relations and trade between our to worlds."
Dave spoke first: "Chessec, that is a lot to think about. How soon do we have to give you an answer?" I instinctively looked at my wristwatch. It was broken.
"Quick! What time is it?"
"Ten after nine."
Damn. "I need my bag right away! It must still be outside." Dave went out and got it for me. I dumped everything onto the table, grabbing my cell phone. I dialed. It rang three times. "Mitzep! Answer, Dammit! It's me! I'm OK!" I waited, holding my breath. I heard his voice through the static.
"You scared the hell out of me," he growled. "Another 30 seconds and I would have broken orbit."
"I'm OK. I've made contact and we're talking. I'll call back at my next check in time." I looked over at the two of them. They were waiting expectantly. "That's my ride. I missed my reporting time."
Dave observed, "Nice range on that cell phone."
"It's a Motorola. We stole it yesterday, because none of our stuff is small enough or works well enough. Would you two like to be alone to think about my offer? There is no hurry. Take some time for a reasoned decision. I can leave if you would like." I made as if to stand.
"Sit down. Make yourself at home," said Marie. "I'm already home sick today, so we might as well enjoy the day off."
Dave said quietly, "Why don't you tell us about the accident. Don't worry, we won't bite." I looked up at him sharply. He had zeroed in on the key point I had hoped to avoid.
I took another breath, then exhaled. "We landed Friday night after midnight. Once you were both asleep, I tranquilized you and we carried your unconscious bodies up to our mother ship. We have a machine which records a copy of your brain, memories and all. We were going to attempt to analyze that record, to try to better understand your people. The plan was to return you here before you awoke Saturday morning. While we were scanning Marie, an accident killed her body. We could not revive it, and it seemed certain she was dead. But our ship's doctor came up with a plan to save you." They were silent, waiting.
"The injury and death rate for contact specialists like myself is very high. To try to save as many as possible, we store a cloned, adult body of each landing party member in cryogenic storage in case major surgery such as limb or organ replacement are needed. That body is physically complete, but has never actually been 'alive'. What Doctor Plaksa did was to transfer the copy of your memories into a clone."
"Whose clone?" Dave asked.
Marie came over, sat down beside me, tilting my muzzle toward him with her paw. She held her own head at the same angle. "That should be obvious. Look at us, Dave, we're identical twins." She turned and looked at me. "How old are you, Chessec?" I told her today was my 23d birthday. "Congratulations. And how long will you live?" I said the average was 68, but more than a few lived into their late eighties. "See, Dave, you're married to that younger woman you've always wanted. Think you can keep up?" He sputtered, and his face reddened. Marie continued, "Why don't you entertain yourself upstairs for about 15 minutes. I need to talk with Chessec about maintenance and upkeep of the new me, or actually, us."
He stood up and left. Marie led me into the bathroom, took off the light blue robe she was wearing, and stood beside me in front of the mirror. "Dave could have stayed, but I've found men can be frightened by too much detail when discussing women's plumbing. OK, tell me what I need to know." She questioned me in much more detail than had been covered by my hygiene classes in school. I answered as best I could, but some things didn't translate exactly, and I had not been that good a student in that class anyway. Finally she said, "I think that's enough to keep me out of trouble. I'll bother you again some other time. One last thing, for now… Where are you today in your menstrual cycle?"
It was my turn to be embarrassed. I had come into heat last night, and I was sure everybody on the planet could scent it. I explained briefly.
"So that's it," Marie laughed. "We're truly identical twins. I've been so randy I couldn't think straight all morning, and I was wondering if it was a permanent condition."
I flattened my ears, "We placed microphones in your house. This morning, while you…oh, I'm ashamed to say this. I must have been asleep with the earphones on when… That was the most intense erotic experience. I felt like it was me in the bedroom. Oh, I'm so sorry!" I grimaced, "I'd been without a male so long, I was daydreaming."
She put an arm on my shoulder. "Are you sure that is all it is? When Hobo bit you out in the yard, I felt it too! You say we are effectively identical twins. Hmmm." She looked around the room. "I wonder how close." She reached into a dish and grabbed several soap pellets. "Take these, and pick up some number of them. Without showing me, think about the number of pellets in your hand." I did, concentrating hard on the four pellets.
"It works! I sense that you have four pellets, but I keep hearing the word 'dupt' instead of four." I smiled in amazement.
"That's 'four' in our language. We are reading each other's thoughts and experiencing the same physical sensations."
"Chessec, it'll be all right, I'm sure." She laughed. "Let's not tell Dave, yet. I don't think he's ready to perform for an audience. Why don't you go outside right now and make friends with the dog, while I talk with Dave."
I realized she was changing the subject, trying to put me at ease. I was worried about the beast. To keep a large carnivore in one's home. One of the unique things about the humans, different from all the other intelligent races, is their concept of 'pets.' "What do I do, he'll attack me if I go out there alone, and I don't want to stun him again."
She explained that I needed to speak to him firmly, in a calm voice, and keep scratching him behind the ears until he calmed down. We went into the kitchen, and she reached into a jar and handed me some kind of biscuit. "Just feed him one of these, and you'll have no problem." She left the room and went upstairs to talk with her mate.
It had already been a full day, and It was only ten in the morning. I left Chessec, and walked slowly upstairs toward Dave's study. My new body was not really balanced to climb stairs on two legs, so I gave up and used all four. Standing again at the top of the stairs, I went into the room. Dave was sitting at his desk, writing on a notepad.
"I sent her outside, so we can talk," I announced.
"Marie, I…" Dave began.
"Hold it. I want to speak, before you say anything else." I held up my paw. "Remember, what's done is done. The question is what happens next." I sat down beside him.
"I just wanted to say that I don't know how much to trust her. After all, she claims she killed you."
"I feel pretty alive right now. And I think we can trust this one. Did you hear the tone of her voice? She seems young and inexperienced at her job. She blames herself," I paused, and continued in a quieter voice, "and I think she's trying to wing it, now that her plan is off schedule.
"Well, she certainly doesn't have a good feel for security. I'll bet she forgot all about the dog when she decided to run in here. But what do we do? Join them; or to stay here and tough it out?" Dave stopped, and turned his head down not meeting my eyes. "I want to do what's best for you."
"You've made your point. But this is a two-way street. I know you. I know how much you love Star Trek stuff, and miss the spy-stuff.
"Star Wars, he interrupted.
"Whatever. Shut up, I'm not done yet. I know this could be better than anything we've dreamed about, will probably be interesting, and I think we ought to do it." I stopped for breath, and looked at him expectantly.
He looked up at me, and said slowly. "What about you? We would lose the house, and have to leave all your family and our friends. And what about your new body? Do you want to be like that?"
"Dave, I realize all that. We'll figure out a way how to let them know that we're all right later. If what she says is true, we'll back before too long. And as for the body…" I stood up, stretched out my full length, and flexed my claws like a cat. I sat back on my haunches, facing away from him, then turned my head completely back around over my shoulder and faced him. "I couldn't bend like this when I was healthy. I haven't had a day without back pain since my accident, and right now I feel better than I have in twenty years. I didn't think I'd ever want to be a redhead, but I could get to like it. Besides, I didn't notice any complaints from you this morning."
He exhaled, then leaned over and kissed my nose. "OK. Let's go find our new boss. We've got work to do."
"Dave, one other thing." He stopped. "We are identical twins. Just make sure which one of us you're kissing. A hint: I'm the fox that's not wearing any earrings." I batted him on the shoulder, hooking his shirt with my claws briefly, then quickly kissed him to show I wasn't too serious.
We went downstairs, and I went into the bedroom and put on an old pair of my shorts, and was immediately, painfully reminded of my tail. I got a pair of scissors, and cut a hole for it. I pulled on a cut-off T-shirt and looked in the mirror. "Flat-chested now, but with four nipples, wow." I muttered to myself. I reached for a longer shirt, then decided that my fur was more than thick enough for modesty. I went out into the living room. Dave was looking out the window through the curtains. He heard me, and motioned me toward him.
Outside, it appeared that my advice to Chessec had been successful. Hobo was sitting on the steps next to her, in pure bliss as she scratched the back of his neck under his collar with her claw. I walked to the door. She looked up, nervously, sensing my presence.
"Why don't you two come inside before the neighbors think we've got a new dog." I opened the door. "Come on, Hobo. Inside!" He started for the door, and looked back to see if she was following. "You have a fan," I observed.
"We've decided to take your offer," Dave said. "What's the plan?" Chessec breathed out, and looked relieved.
"Mitzep will land after dark with the shuttle, and we'll leave for home," Chessec said. "It will take about twelve days to get there." Dave interrupted her.
"That's not much of a plan," he began. "Do you think anyone might notice we're gone? You did say we were coming back later." She looked concerned again.
I glanced at him. "Remember what I said, Dave."
"I'll be polite," he continued. She looked puzzled, so he adopted his 'Herr Doktor Professor' posture, and explained. "Do you think someone might notice if we just disappeared, without some plausible reason. It would make it much harder to continue your mission if we don't cover our tracks. Make sense?"
"I hadn't thought of that," began Chessec. Dave was on a roll, and quickly cut her off.
"Just part of the service. Now here's the plan…" He outlined the financial moves, lies and half-truths that would allow us to leave on an indefinite vacation without arousing suspicion. He concluded with: "Of course, for all this to work, Marie will have to die."
"Wait a minute! I already died once. Why do it again?" I thought I understood what he meant, but wanted him to spell it out to Chessec.
"When your old body has it's car wreck, I will not only be granted compassionate leave, but will get to spend your insurance and pension money." Dave rubbed his hands together and cackled.
"You ruthless bastard." I laughed, but Chessec looked puzzled.
"I don't understand all this, but if you think this is necessary…"
Dave said, "I do. Let's sit down and timeline this out.
"How about some breakfast first," I said.
I felt a wave of relief when Marie said she wanted to go. With her attachment to friends and family, I knew this would be harder on her than me, although I was surprised she zeroed in on my motivations so quickly. I guess that's why she married me. It was true, the cloak and dagger aspects appealed to me as a challenge in a way that my present job did not. As for the 'Star Wars' stuff, well, YES! I grew up on science fiction, and was so tired of reading stories whose main character had obviously had never read any, or even seen a movie.
I outlined the plan to arrange for Marie's old body to be discovered at the wheel of our car, dead of an accident caused by an apparent stroke. I would play the grieving husband for a week, arrange my affairs, close up the house, and appear to take off on a trip alone. Then we would make the trip to Chessec's world. Later, after we found out what they wanted, and after my vacation time ran out, I could resign from the company. By that time I would be ready to recruit some agents.
Marie said, "It's a good thing you hadn't tried to kill me off earlier. That plan ought to work." I grinned. Chessec seemed a little lost in the twists and turns of the details. "You do still have the body?" I said, kidding gently.
She nodded. "It seems so complicated."
"That's nothing, compared to the paperwork," I replied. "Unless anyone else can think of anything, let's do it tonight. When can Mitzep meet us with the body?"
We agreed that 9:30 that night would work. Chessec explained that the shuttle would land in my neighbors pasture, and we could leave it there until dawn, if needed. "OK, let's do it."
Everything went as designed. The shuttle came down, and the pilot and I man- (fox-) handled the body into the car. Several hours later, the Sheriff came out to the house and told me the bad news. The hardest part was dealing with the outpouring of sympathy from our friends and family. Fortunately, Marie had made plain her desires years before for a private ceremony, followed by cremation, and the family was expecting it. I was still surprised when her sister attended the service, as they barely spoke.
Once the mourners had left, Marie and the two real Diyim'yi came back to the house, and we spent the next few days getting to know one another better, and planning our next move. The pilot, Ensign Mitzep, hid the shuttle in the barn, and I worked to ready the house for our departure. Chessec took advantage of my computer and Internet connection for some research of her own while Mitzep coached Marie and myself on their customs and language. I tried to learn, but the different mouth shape, as well as the sizable component of ear position and display of teeth was making progress difficult for me. Marie seemed a natural, and was rapidly becoming fluent.
Slowly the concerned phone calls and letters of condolence trickled to a stop. By Friday, I had had enough. That morning, I went over to the fort to my office and saw the boss. Larry was a retired Air Force Colonel, and a former fighter jock. Now that he was a civilian he was the most laid back supervisor I'd ever worked for. "Larry, I know everybody is being supportive, but I've got to get away and clear my head out, if I'm going to get any work done."
"Dave, you know you can take all the time you need. Let some of the other folks play 'Shell Answer Man' around here for a change." "How much time do you want?"
"I think about six weeks. I think I'll go out to Colorado and do some fishing in the mountains. Then maybe drive out to my parent's place in the northwest. Have payroll keep sending those checks to my bank, though."
I drove off post, and back across the river. I met with our, now my lawyer, a high school classmate of Marie's, and set up a limited power of attorney to deal with any complications resulting from probate and her life insurance. I went to the bank and arranged to have my utility bills debited directly, then went down to see a kid in town to mow the lawn for the summer. Then I went home.
I walked in the front door, and saw two vixen sorting through large piles of clothes. Since they had met, Marie and Chessec were virtually inseparable. I kept on walking past them into the kitchen, and spotted Mitzep, the young pilot. "How long have they been doing that," I asked.
"Since you left." He had moved the ship into in the barn, but was clearly nervous about staying on the planet surface this amount of time. I'm sure he was a great pilot, but Mitzep had actually never set foot on another world before, and it was clear "aliens" like me frightened him. He was the youngest member of the expedition: about 20, dedicated, efficient, gullible and easy to tease. I liked him. "How much weight can we carry?"
"Weight is not a problem unless that stuff's made of lead. We'll cube out first. Probably two cubic meters of cargo, if we all sit close together."
"Maybe Chessec will sit in your lap," I said with a grin. Once Marie had pointed it out, I could see he was strongly attracted to Chessec. Apparently, she had resisted his attentions thus far.
"More probably Hobo," he retorted. While I love my dog, I had not yet quite figured out the fascination these people had with him. Chessec had tried to describe it, saying that understanding how we had domesticated dogs and cats would make the trip worthwhile. As she explained it, they had never had or encountered a race which had non-food domestic animals, and certainly never such a drastically genetically engineered carnivore like canis familiaris. Both of them were giving him constant attention, and, spoiled dog that he was, he was enjoying it.
Finally we were ready. I packed a few clothes into a B-bag, then went down to the basement, collected some of my weapons from the safe. I got my laptop computer from my desk, grabbed all the CD's I had, and headed for the front room. The scene was still a disaster, but Chessec had convinced Marie that clothes were less important if you wore fur. Marie then surprised her by showing what could be done with silk scarves, and as a result, they were packing as many of them as possible. The Diyim'yi fashion world might not recover. They briefly looked up as I sat my stuff by the door, then they went back to work. I returned to the kitchen. "What time do we lift off?" I asked Mitzep. He was still at the table.
"About three hours. Sunset." He looked bored, like he was tired of sitting.
I thought for a minute. "Want to go to town?"
"WHAT!" He stared. "Is that safe?"
"Sure, got an idea." He followed me into the front room. I handed him one of the "yuppie dog" bandannas Marie made Hobo wear, and told him to take off his few articles of clothing and put the scarf around his neck. He looked dubious, but complied. "Marie, we're going to the store and get a few steaks for the grill. I'll take Mitzep and Hobo in the truck." She looked at him wearing the bandanna and grinned.
"Don't let them jump out. He doesn't have any tags." She looked at Chessec, and held a paw up to prevent her objection. "They'll be all right. This should be fun."
As I walked out the door, I grabbed another bandanna for Hobo. "Lets go for a ride," I called. He ran to the truck, and I put it around his neck and opened the door so that he could jump in. I motioned Mitzep in beside him. "Just sit up on the bench seat between Hobo and the window, and smile a lot. Don't talk, and don't pick up anything with your fingers, and you should be fine." I climbed in and off we went. Hobo loved to ride, and kept trying to swap places with Mitzep, who was swiveling his neck, trying to see everything at once. We met two cars on the road to town, and I waved. I drove down the length of Main Street, and Hobo barked at a stray cat. Ah, typical small town evening... As we approached the market's parking lot, I cautioned, "I'm going to leave you both in the car. As long as you act like a dog, everyone will love you. Keep smiling."
I parked right in front of the doors, and got out of the truck. I said loudly, for effect, "I'm going to leave the windows down. You two be good." I scratched Hobo's ear. It was a warm evening, and the grocery baggers, both teenage girls whose faces I remembered from a picture in the paper of our winning high school volleyball team, were sitting on the front curb socializing. "They won't bite," I said.
I went inside, got four steaks and went quickly to the checkout. I exchanged some pleasantries with the checker, who was a neighbor, and went back outside. As I expected, Hobo and Mitzep were having their ears scratched by the girls. Both had their tongues hanging out, but I think Mitzep's grin was wider.
One of the girls asked. "What kind of dog is he? He's marked up just like a fox!" I explained he was a collie/Irish setter mix. "Cool!" I got in the truck and drove home.
"I told you it would be fun," I observed.
He grinned. "You wouldn't believe it. They never stopped talking about how cute we both were, and I got rubbed in some amazing places. I had a tough time keeping still."
"Did you ask for their phone numbers?"
"I had to say something, so I just said 'woof'."
"Down boy. Now you see why this mission is going to be a challenge. We humans have been interacting with dogs for so long that we both have some expected, instinctive interactions, and both expect predictable behavior. Hobo knows if he plays the role of the friendly dog, we respond accordingly. You just look too close to a dog for some of that not to rub off." I looked over at him. "Besides, you do look like a collie/setter mix!" He flipped me off, a most un-dog-like response.
When we got home, I fired up the grill and threw on the steaks. "How do you want 'em," I called into the house.
"Two rare, one medium for you and a well done for me ought to work," Marie shouted. "And use up that potato salad in the refrigerator! There's got to be ten pounds left over from my wake."
The evening was perfect, and we sat outside on the porch and watched the stars come out. Marie asked, "Which one is your home?" Mitzep explained that it was too far south to see tonight. I washed the dishes and put them in the sink to dry. On the way out, I locked the door.
"About that time, I think. Last chance for the bathroom!" We went over to the barn and opened the doors. Mitzep grabbed something like a TV remote control from a recess on the landing skid, and used it to walk the shuttle out of the barn. Saucer-shaped, of course. It was about 24 feet in diameter and 10 feet high, symmetrical except for a small fin or large antenna to one side of the top disk, and a skirt beneath it from which retractable skids protruded. I closed the barn door, lifted Hobo inside, and we all climbed into the cabin.