A Reach in the Dark
by Jon Sleeper


Future's Past

Appearances can be deceiving. Inside the deepest bowls of an unknown mountain somewhere in Wyoming, there sits an innocuous-looking red rubber ball not unlike one can buy from a supermarket vending machine. It floats, in a vacuum chamber, in midair suspended by a magnetic field. Precautions that might seem a bit over the top for something so harmless-looking, but to those few in the world who knew, more would be preferable.

Dr. Maya Lighthoof-Stein descended an elevator for her yearly visit to this godforsaken place. I can't believe that it's been twenty one years, she thought to herself. Twenty one years since David had discovered her, or rather her consciousness, trapped inside a nanotechnological suit of her own invention. The events that had ensued had changed the very universe itself, for better or worse. Maya swished her horse's tail back and forth, thinking of the rewards of those events. Her husband Bob, especially. Never had she been so happy. But those thoughts stopped once she thought of the terrible cost of those very rewards. An entire furry universe was destroyed by him to make this new one, where humans, when they hit puberty, become a random animal morph. Trillions of lives...

Maya steeled herself as the elevator finally slowed to a stop and the doors opened. Her hooves thump-clopped on the floor, which was coated with an anti-slip coating for hoofers like herself. Though she tended to have her farrier use special shoes anyway. Just one of the many ways this universe had adapted over the years to the Change, as it was known. There were two guards at the secure entrance, a low degree ("Lowdee" in normal society) hippo morph, and mid-degree ("Middee") jackrabbit morph. They both wore the green/gray security uniforms of Department Null, a little-known division of the CIA. "Please place a finger on the scanner, please," the hippo rumbled emotionlessly. Maya complied.

As a precaution that she herself had suggested, they changed the guards yearly so none had a chance to get to know what they were guarding exactly. Nobody else was allowed beyond the doors but her and a few others, like Fox and David. The scanner finally dinged and the gray-furred jackrabbit said, "Dr. Maya Lighthoof-Stein confirmed. Follow me, Doctor." Then he went through the door ahead of her. Maya's tail swished faster, "I thought I left strict orders that nobody was to be with me during my visits," she said in a cold voice. Her ears rotated against her skull, showing her agitation.

The jackrabbit (he had no nametag) was unperturbed. "You realize that Command only took your 'orders' as suggestions, don't you?" Slowly Maya nodded. "I've been given new orders. I am to be with you as you make your visit. Just in case."

Maya was infuriated that she seemed no longer to be trusted. "Can you at least tell me why for crying out loud!" she said.

"Sorry, I don't question orders. I just follow them. If you'll follow me, please..."

"I know the way, thank you." She stormed off towards the special cell, pushing past the jackrabbit. Once she arrived, once again she swore that the little red ball got a little bit redder, like he knew she was here again. But she was probably just seeing things. One of the things she did each visit was renew the security lockouts on the "ball", which was actually a collection of nanites the held his consciousness in perfect suspension. Oh, he experienced the passage of time, but there was no sensory input. Not sound, not sight, not touch, not smell, not taste. Nothing. Darkness. Maya allowed herself a brief smile, the man merited no compassion anyway, she reasoned.

Glaring at the nameless jackrabbit guard again, she placed her two-fingered hand on another scanner plate, which started the sequence that would first fill the chamber with air, then open a panel. The magnetic field did not shut off, she just reached inside and removed the ball from the field. "Are you sure that's safe?" the guard asked. Maya just nodded, and stared at the ball like she always did at the start of each meeting.

The guard repeated his previous statement, and that got Maya frustrated. "Yes, it's safe! See?" She held the ball in her fist, then slammed it into the wall with all the force she could muster. Of course, the ball ricocheted all over the place. Off the walls, ceiling, floor. Equines are very strong, and Maya herself was three hundred pounds of horseflesh in morph form, all sleek muscle from all the exercise she gets from running with Bob in norm-shape every morning. She was legendary on the racetrack, as luck her had it her breed was thoroughbred. However, this meant that the random bounces of the ball went on for quite some time, and even though the guard was quick he could not avoid being hit square in the nose by it. Maya caught the ball instantly.

The guard's eyes were wide with terror, and he smelled fearful, "why in hell did you do that? That thing is supposed to be deadly!"

"Something like that," Maya said, containing herself. God, I must be close to my estrous time. she thought. I'm not normally this irritable. She held the guard by the shoulder for a moment, "stay still..." she said forcefully, the jackrabbit-man obeyed. Using the scanning function in her Outwear 2500 that she was wearing, she scanned over cubic nanometer of his body. Nothing. "You're clean. Now would you mind leaving us alone for a moment?"

His expression hardened, "I still have my orders..."

"Shove your orders! I need to do a couple things to this thing, and then I'm done. It'll only be a minute. Now shoo before I shift forms and land a kick to your behind." The guard obeyed. I wish I'd stayed in bed... she thought. Or at least taken a Pre-Estrous Syndrome tablet... She clasped the ball in her hands, and briefly checked on the person within. A brief confirmation of his raging insanity was all she needed. Carefully, methodically, she renewed and altered all the security lockouts, and added even more layers. No way in hell he's getting out, not ever, she thought smugly, not for the first time.

She paused once before she replaced the ball in the magnetic field, "Justice." She whispered to no on in particular. Once more, the ball seemed to glow even redder. Maya snorted and put things back the way they had been. She then left the complex, putting the whole thing out of sight and out of mind for yet another year.

[From the Diary of Anna Smith]

June 17, 2020

Dear Diary,

Well, today it finally happened. My Change is finally finished! I woke up this morning to find overnight my tail had finally grown in. It's long and bushy, but what else can I expect from a skunk's tail? My hair changed too, finally. It's what everybody calls "headfur" now. I've decided to wear it short, since if I wore it too long it would be unmanageable. I'm definitely a Middie, though. And I have to say I'm quite pleased. Though I could've wished for a better First Sign. My parents were surprised when I said I wanted to keep my scent glands. Hey, they have to come in useful someday.

The only thing I wish is that I hadn't started so late. My whole Change was a bit unusual. I mean, I'm eighteen and it took me nearly two years to Change! Oh well, at least it's over.

But ahhh, my parents. Both of them offered to spend the day as skunk morphs also, but I said I like them as they were. Not every kid has a velociraptor father, after all. And I've always preferred mom as a raccoon anyway, for all she can be anything she wants. Then there's dad with all his Powers. I've not shown any yet, not even norm-shifting. Oh well. Powers aren't everything.

Dad's all big that I've finished my Change on the twenty fourth anniversary of the thing. He spent all afternoon showing me pics of what he used to look like. Frankly, I like his saurian face better. And besides, I was born seven years after the Change anyway. How can I imagine the world being any other way? I guess that's what's got the whole world big on this "Second Change" thing.

Oh, I'm sorry Diary, you don't know what that is, do you? It's just that next year, on the winter solstice most of the world is going to adopt the "Nature Calendar". Yes, next year is officially year "0", and the year after that is "1". I admit to it being really cool that they're making this change. They say it's because of my generation after all. Frankly, I'd rather not draw attention to myself like that. Heh...

Whoops! I just looked at the clock. I need to get packing! National Geographic is sending dad to Australia on assignment. And I get to go along! Woohoo! Not only that, but grandpa is coming too! But God... I wish grandpa was himself again... Twenty four years stuck like that...

Dad's getting on my case to get packing. Cya later, Diary!

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