by Narzain

"I might have guessed something like this would happen. Yeah, sure I might've. Who am I kidding? After all, how likely was it that I'd wind up on the run with a fifty foot tall anthropomorphic tigress in tow? Ah, maybe I should start at the beginning. All this might make more sense that way. Didn't help me any, but I'm in the middle of it all." The hazel-eyed man shifted in his seat, scratching the side of his nose as he adjusted his circle-framed glasses and ran his hand through his unkempt brown hair. The slight gut that pushed out the fabric of his once-stylish grey jumpsuit suggested a sedentary life, but the wary glint in his tired eyes belied that impression. A simple blaster was slung at his hip in a worn holster, hardly unusual but seeming somehow incongruous with his appearance. A battered black duster-style raincloak lay crumpled next to him, an equally battered satchel flung haphazardly atop it. On the other side of the booth's table sat a compact, well-muscled man with close-cropped raven hair and deep blue eyes. This one wore a clean, crisp shipsuit tailored to fit, and the blaster at his side was polished to a shine. He motioned for the weary waitress to re-fill the speaker's mug as he leaned back to listen. The speaker accepted the drink gratefully, and continued his narrative.

"About seventy years ago, some hotshot magitechs - those guys who try to apply what little they know about magic to sciences like computers and genetics - figured out how to create real live zoomorphs. You don't know what a zoomorph is? I knew the Outworlds didn't keep up on all the latest news, but that's practically ancient history, even here in the Station Colonies. Well, here's the crash course, so listen up. Take a basically humanoid bipedal body to start with. Throw in some features from your favorite animal, say a tiger. Fur, claws, a tail, digitgrade legs and the face, generally. What you wind up with if you did it right is a zoomorph. Or an anthropomorphic tiger, a pantheraform, a furry, whatever you want to call it. Anyway, these magitechs figured out how to make them. Trouble is, with the exception of some very vocal support groups, zoomorphs were generally considered second-class citizens or slaves. Not a happy time." He paused to toss down part of his drink.

"But of course the magitechs never spared a thought for the consequences of their experiments. They're scientists; when they're all hot on some new breakthrough, society can take a flying leap for all they care. Self-righteous dipshits. The people they created - have no doubt, they're people as much as you or I - wound up being bought and sold, and they went on designing the next batch. Can you believe it? There hadn't been slavery for centuries, and some beaurocratic bastards decided to bring it back just because the first-generation zoomorphs were born in a lab. That's right, I said first-generation. Zoomorphs have very erratic genetic structures, but they're extremely fertile. All the better to produce the next generation of slaves. They can even crossbreed, though the kids of mixed parents are usually all one species or the other. Usually." The disheveled narrator tossed back his mug again, letting the light-brown fluid within sear a path down his throat.

"Ah, I don't want to get sidetracked into zoomorphic genetics. Could write books on it. Already have. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, slavery. It really burns my ass. Damn politicians having 'morphs declared slaves. Of course all the bastards who voted to pass that bill got a free slave, species and gender of their choice. Corrupt shits need a taste of their own damn medicine.

"Hrmph. Sorry, I go off about that real easy. It's a sore spot with me. What do you think about it?" He glanced at the black-haired man briefly; the other nodded grimly in agreement. "Mmmm. Good. Man after my own heart. There's no slavery in the Outworlds, am I right? Won't be long before every 'morph who gets the chance heads for the Outworlds. Life's hard out there, but as long as you carry your own weight, nobody much gives a damn what your background is or what you look like.

"Hell, I don't need to tell you about your home. But you've got a basic idea of what I'm talking about now - how zoomorphs came to be, and how they've been treated. Slavery's decreased in the past seventy years, and about seventy-five percent of today's zoomorphs are freeborn. They're still second-class citizens in most places, but that's better than being slaves. But while things were still a mess, the damn magitechs just couldn't leave well enough alone. The next thing they came up with was the Carroll Process. Let me guess, you've never heard of that either. Simply put, the Carroll Process is size manipulation; increasing or decreasing the size and mass of living organisms without screwing them up in the process. Where's all the extra mass come from or go to? Beats the hell out of me. Converts to energy and gets shunted off into a subdimension or something like that for all I know. For that matter, a bipedal body shouldn't even be able to support itself at the sizes the Carroll Process makes possible. Like most of what the magitechs do, nobody has the faintest idea how it works; it just does. The trouble with the Carroll Process is that it only works on zoomorphs. Something to do with their magic-sensitive unstable genetics, I think.

"Anyway, what we wound up with was a race of animal-people being treated as second-class citizens or slaves, who could be anything from pocket-sized to giants whenever the activating agents were applied. Take a wild guess how all that got exploited. It didn't take long at all for the first 'furry fight organizations' to spring up. Somebody got the idea to combine pro wrestling, boxing and ancient damn gladiatorial games, and made all the fighters zoomorphs. And these places are still up and running today. Like just about everything else, there's good examples and bad ones. Some places nowadays feature free 'morphs only, pay them decent salaries, even provide health benefits. Then there's the slave promotions. No salaries, usually run by bastards who nobody free would ever work for, who abuse their 'morphs in ways that would turn your stomach. But since it's 'only furries' most people don't say a damn word. They're too busy watching fifty-foot zoomorphs slug it out in the arenas, and they don't care what happens to them after the fight. Which brings us back to what started me off on this whole story, and the reason I'm talking to you at all.

"I was supposed to meet a friend of mine - a 'morph-rights activist - at the downtown arena in Chance City three weeks ago. Said he had something vastly important for me. Well 'vast' was sure right. He'd managed to get ahold of proof that Ambria, one of the zoomorphs in a slave promotion who was scheduled to fight that day, was not only freeborn but was also kept drugged so she couldn't tell anyone she wanted out. How he found all this out, I don't know. But he called me up and got me involved. Said he had proof of her free birth and a sealed sample of the drugs, and arranged a meet. What'd he want me to do about all this? He wanted me to take all this evidence to the right people and keep Ambria out of the sleazeball promoter's hands until we could get him shut down. Sounds simple, right? Ha!" A wry grimace twisted the speaker's face as he drained the last of his mug's contents. His companion signaled the waitress to leave the bottle, sipping quietly at his own drink while the other continued.

"I showed up at the arena right after noon, just a few minutes before Ambria's first match started. I met Chon, my activist friend, around back of the promoter's building and picked up the goods. Trouble was, he hadn't been able to get to Ambria before the arena officials applied the Carroll activator. And there's no way he could've smuggled a fifty-foot tall bikini-wearing tigress zoomorph into a back alley. But he had a plan. I just wish he'd clued me in a lot earlier. Y'see, for a while he'd been switching her drugs with sugar-water and she'd been playing along, acting like she was still drugged. She's a lot smarter than most people expect a zoomorphic professional wrestler to be, and she's a damn good actress to boot. Anyway, my friend the master planner - ha! - got spooked. He thought the slimeball was on to him. So he had to act fast; too fast. He told Ambria to make a break for it during her match and hook up with me. Never mind the fact that it'd be a good fifteen minutes before the damn short-term activator wore off and she returned to a concealable size. His confidence in my abilities was astounding, but dumb.

"Well, I was already in too deep to back out, as if I could've left Ambria in that slime's hands for another day anyway. I set myself up on top of the promoter's building, just waiting for all hell to break loose and getting ready to help it along. It was pretty obvious when 'Ria made her move - she cleared a whole damn section of bleachers in one leap. Poetry in motion, absolutely beautiful. I could've watched her move for hours. Unfortunately I didn't even have minutes; I had to provide a distraction. I lobbed a fistful of blackout grenades into the arena, powered up my gravboard, and jetted after her like a bat out of hell. Nearly had a sudden career change to roadkill before I managed to ID myself to her. For someone that size, her reflexes were frighteningly fast.

"If I'd had enough prep-time I could've set up an escape nobody would've been able to trace, even with 'Ria at that size. Not braggin', just statin' the facts. As things stood, though, I had to improvise. No problem, I love improvising. 'Ria says I should be an improv actor. Anyway. I'd brought along a holoprojector belt to disguise her on our way out, but the thing was nowhere near powerful enough to hide someone her size. Just too damn much area to cover. And I couldn't take her to the hideout I'd lined up until the Carroll activator expired. Ten minutes or so later. That's a long time when you're on the run. I didn't expect local law enforcement to respond too quickly, and I wasn't disappointed. But the promoter's security goons were a lot faster on the uptake. They were on our tails inside of two minutes after we made the break. And those boys were packing some serious firepower. Heavy stun cannons that'd turn a normal-sized person to pulp at full power. Their first 'warning shot' took 'Ria in the arm, and she damn near dropped right then. The whole left half of her body was drooping, right down to the hip. A square shot at close range probably would've stopped her heart. Nice to know those bastards wanted her back alive." Another swig of liquor followed, another grimace twisting the speaker's face.

"So there we were, a fifty-foot tigress with one good arm and a would-be hero up against a couple dozen security types in skimmers. I've got no delusions of grandeur; there was no way we could take them all down. All they had to do was stay out of 'Ria's arm's reach and stun her, and they'd have her. I could've skimmed out of there easy; my gravboard has more zip to it than any grunt skimmer ever built. But that would've meant leaving 'Ria back in slavery. Not an option. Call it professional pride, call it too much testosterone, whatever. But there was no way I'd leave her to those assholes. Nobody screws up my rescues!" An almost feral snarl crossed his face at that, but was quickly wiped away. "Anyway, I was all set to do a suicide charge right into the middle of the goon squad, when all of a sudden this empty hovertruck sails upside-down past me and turns the lead skimmer into modern art. Here I'd been so worried about them staying out of 'Ria's reach, I forgot she could throw around small buildings.

"Now, I hate to be outdone as much as the next guy. But that's a hard act to follow. So I just did my best, and let the parts fall where they may. I swooped my gravboard up under one of the heavy skimmers and popped my plasmaclaws. I'm no weapons expert, but let me tell you something. If you're ever in a close-in fight against someone in heavy armor, plasmaclaws are the way to go. Just pull on the gauntlet and flip the switch, and out come four six-inch energy claws riding the snap-out guide wires attached to the back of each finger. The fingers and wrist are all reinforced, and the tug from energy claws is almost nil, so you can't hurt your hand. Suckers can cut through hullmetal like butter too. And they're great for scaring hell out of back-alley muggers. Anyway, I popped the claws and ripped open the bottom of that buggy like nobody's business. If the claws had been much longer I probably would've ruptured the powerplant and toasted a couple city blocks, and me with them. Lady Fortune loves idiots, I guess, 'cause not only did I avoid gettin' turned into a microwave dinner, the morons who shot back at me took out one of their own skimmers. Total no-brainer. Almost made me think we could pull off that getaway after all.

"I think I mentioned I had a holoproject belt with me, right? Well it might not have been enough to hide fifty feet of tigress 'morph, but it was just enough to make me look like a seven foot long Chinese dragon breathing smoke and fire. One of my favorite holos. Wouldn't fool anyone, obviously, but it sure screwed up their aim. I kept weavin' in and out of the goon squad on top thrust and kept 'em so busy they forgot all about Ambria. I told you she was smart; she just stayed real still and real quiet until one of those jerks got too close, then pow! Fastballed him right into the ground.

"They say time flies when you're having fun. It also flies when you're fighting for your life. Next thing I saw, 'Ria was shrinking fast. She must've been tagged by another stun-blast, 'cause she was falling too. Well, I had to ditch the goons and get to her fast. So I played my last ace and let loose the pinger. The pinger's a little toy I came up with: a self-guided skimball with a force field around the business end. It seeks out large metal objects and bounces off of 'em at very high speeds. Not enough to seriously damage a good-sized skimmer, but it's a good distraction. Same time as I set it loose, I switched the holoprojector to chameleon mode and dropped like a rock. Since nobody shot me before I hit ground level, I figured they all lost me in the chaos. Which was exactly what I wanted. I went over to pick up 'Ria and nearly fell off the damn gravboard. She's 6'3" normally and just about solid muscle, even her curves. Heavier than she looks. I finally got her hauled onto the board, and lit out for my hideout.

"Not much more to tell beyond that. Once we got into the safehouse and delivered the goods, it was all smooth sailing to here. Now we're sitting in this Midworld space-station bar trying to hire a ship the rest of the way Outworld. Your ship. You want to know why? Isn't it obvious? Haven't you been listening to a thing I just said? 'Ria's got no future back on Terra - even though she isn't a slave anymore, she'd still be a second-class citizen at best. In the Outworlds she's got as good a chance as you or me. We've been hiding out together for three weeks getting this far, and we've gotten to know each other pretty well. When you're waiting hours on end to hear from your contacts, there's not much to do besides talk. 'Ria told me she has three goals once she gets Outworld: to settle down somewhere, to start her own theatre company, and to get too fat to tempt any more sleazeball promoter-types. Not necessarily in that order of occurrence. Sounds like a good plan to me; all the workers in the Outworlds could use some good entertainment, ne? So whaddya say? Two passages Outworld. We'll pay you well. Hmmm? Yeah, that's right, two. I'm going with her. I plan to be part of her settling down. I told you we'd gotten to know each other. We also found out we can't imagine living without one another any more. Funny how that happens, isn't it? So, do we have a deal or what?"

The raven-haired ship captain simply nodded and quoted a price. One credit transaction later, the hazel-eyed fugitive lifted his mug and drained it a final time before motioning to a cloaked figure seated at the bar. The figure rose and strode to the booth, squeezing in beside him, and pulling back its hood to reveal the face of a tigress. Brilliant green eyes glinted in contrast to her striped rust-on-gold fur. As she moved to curl lovingly around the man next to her, her cloak drifted open slightly. Through her snug, open-midriff top, her muscular curves were clearly outlined. The power in her body was quite evident, though softened by her lush fullness. In the weeks since her escape, she had already made some progress toward her size goal, and her plumpness was a pleasure to the eyes. Instead of the harsh snarls one might expect from such a fierce visage, her voice flowed from her throat like a silk scarf, wrapping soothingly around the listeners. "Airc, aren't you going to introduce me to our benefactor?" she inquired musically.

Airc snugged an arm around the tigress' shoulders and smiled. "Of course, 'Ria. This is K'van, captain of the Crimson Manx. K'van, this is Ambria, your other passenger and my bride to be." At the word 'bride,' Ambria swept Airc into a bone-bending hug, burying her face in his chest as she crushed the breath out of him. "Sh-heee!-e's very affectionate," Airc gasped. "She does that whenever she thinks about us getting married. Urk! See what I mean?" She relaxes her grip, but keeps ahold of him. "For all I know, we'll be the first case in seventy years of a human marrying a 'morph. Some people, mostly the ones who want to see all 'morphs enslaved again or wiped out entirely, don't like that. They don't like the idea that a human can love a 'morph, or that 'morphs are even 'human' enough to feel love. Then there's the religious fanatics who'll want me burned as a heretic and pervert. All in all, there's lots of good reasons to hold the wedding in the Outworlds, where prejudice is lower and we'll be harder to find."

The ominously familiar click and whine of a blaster being armed cut him off abruptly. Ambria's body tensed under her raincloak, but she made no move, and Airc's hand remained conspicuously fixed to his mug. "Nah, not all that hard to find," a nasal voice proclaimed. A thin man with oily black hair walked across the suddenly silent bar, flanked by two hulking goons, one of whom held a blast rifle aimed at Ambria and Airc; the other pointed a hand blaster at K'van in lazy menace. "You were right, though. Some people think what you're planning is a sin and a perversion. Me, I don't much care. I wouldn't mind getting a shot at her myself. But the guys who hired me want you two to become an example. Nothing personal. So if you'll just come along quietly, we'll make you a quick example. Otherwise we'll have to drag your deaths out a while. You," he nodded at K'van, "should be more careful who you deal with. Just sit there and finish your drink, and you won't get hurt. It's that simple."

"It's no skin off my nose," K'van replied, ignoring the angry glance that Airc shot at him. "I can always find more passengers. But my copilot Dante isn't as understanding as I am. Are you, Dante?" From behind the two goons, a low voice growled. "No, I have a real attitude problem about that sort of thing. And I don't like when people interrupt my partner's drinking." A pair of huge black-furred hands fastened around the neck and left leg of the handgun-waving goon, hoisting him up into the air and revealing a seven-foot black wolf 'morph in a shipsuit modified to fit his frame. The insignia on his suit matched that of K'van's. As the second goon turned, his rifle swinging toward the wolf, Ambria's leg shot out of the booth, her foot landing solidly in his groin. He fell to his knees, clutching himself, his rifle clattering to the floor. Moving unbelievably fast from what seemed a very unbalanced position, Ambria dove out of the booth, her shoulder catching the kneeling thug in the chest and crushing him to the floor under her. The oily-haired bounty hunter twisted his wrist, a holdout blaster popping into his hand from a spring-loaded forearm holster. But before he could even choose a target, the sharp hum of a vibroblade cut through the manager's cry of "No blasters!" A hum, a sizzle and a scream later, the bounty hunter clutched the stump of his right arm against his chest. Smoke curled from the wound, seared shut by the powered blade which now hovered just below his chin, protruding from Airc's fist. His eyes flicked wildly around the room, but no help was forthcoming. Dante still held one thug helpless in the air, muscles rippling under his fur. Ambria knelt astride the other, pinning his arms down and running the backs of her claws teasingly over his face.

K'van took a calm sip of his drink. "Nicely done, you two. I'm impressed. What should we do with these three? Since it was your heads they were after, it's only fair that you decide how to dispose of them."

Airc shook his head slowly. "There'll be no 'disposing' of anyone. These three will wake up in Station Medical with splitting headaches, and we'll be long gone. Hopefully in your ship." K'van exchanged glances with Dante, then nodded in agreement. "Good. Now it's naptime for the goon squad. Ambria, Dante, if you'd be so kind?" Grinning ferally, Dante slammed his thug to the bar floor with enough force to knock over a nearby table. Ambria locked her left hand around the other thug's head, digging her thumb and index finger into pressure points in his temples, and he followed his comrade into oblivion. "And now you," Airc addressed the bounty hunter, "will forget you ever heard of Ambria. Or me. And if he's wise, so will your employer." With no further words, Airc slammed the hilt of his vibroknife into the man's head, laying him out cold.

"I thought you didn't know about zoomorphs," Airc commented as he powered down his vibroblade.

K'van shrugged. "You can learn a lot about a prospective passenger by listening to him describe something he thinks you don't know about. I haven't stayed alive this long by being careless. But now, gentleman, lady, your coach awaits."

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