by Phil Geusz
Text ©2006 Phil Geusz; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Home -=- #7 -=- ANTHRO #7 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This is the fourth tale in Geusz’s Lapism setting. The first four Lapism stories—
Drama Class, Full Immersion, Schism, and this one—are all included
in the Anthro Press collection The First Book of Lapism.

Author’s Note: This story is dedicated to Jon Sleeper and Volk-Oboroten

-= 1 =-

   Shredded tree bark is not the breakfast of champions. It has a sour and bitter taste to it, especially when consumed dry. And, worst of all, the texture is tough and unforgiving. Still, I spent many long minutes chewing on the stuff before the tiny spots of daylight trickling in through my front-yard shrubbery finally woke me up enough to groan and roll over. “Ungh!” I commented intelligently, spitting out the bits of garden-mulch that had found their way into my mouth after I’d passed out. “Phooey!” I was terribly thirsty, which was only natural after a long night’s drinking. My head was about to split open, and I felt sick at my stomach every time the wind blew and the little dapples of sunlight went dancing across the ground. But at least it was warm and safe under the bushes, I decided. It was warm and safe, and the ground was plenty soft. So why bother getting up? I asked myself. I’ll just lay right here and sleep some more…
   I must have laid there for a good hour passing in and out of consciousness before the steadily-growing pressure in my bladder won out over my hangover. “God damn it!” I finally cursed, after tossing and turning for the hundredth time, and climbed unsteadily to my feet. The motion made my head throb and my stomach lurch; worst of all, the bright morning sunlight felt like nails in my eyes. “God damn it! Why can’t a man’s bladder be bigger, for Christ’s sake?” In the middle distance a bird chirped a cheery little morning song; “Fuck you, too!” I roared back as I unzipped my fly with clumsy fingers and staggered towards the dead shrub in the center of the planting. “And the horse you rode in on, cocksucker!” Wisely, the bird shut up and made no further argument. Then I was done fumbling, and the urine fell like toxic rain. I sighed aloud, feeling my first satisfaction of the day…
   …just as a small voice spoke from very close behind me. “Hello, Doctor Aaron!” it called out. “What’cha doin’?”
   God damnit! Couldn’t a man piss in his own hedges in privacy these days?
   “Hello, Anne,” I replied patiently, not letting my irritation show as I cut off my flow and refastened my pants. Anne lived across the street, in the only other house in the area. She was ten, and small for her age. Cute as a pin, too. “Just getting up, is all. What are you doing?”
   “Getting ready for church,” she answered solemnly. “Uncle Ben says it’s not nice to go to the bathroom outside.”
   I sighed and nodded as I closed my lab coat over my now-raised zipper. “It’s not, really,” I agreed. “Your uncle is right. Just like he’s right about almost everything.” Anne’s Uncle Ben was the local handyman. He worked for me a lot. Long ago his house had been the servant’s quarters for mine, and three hundred years later things apparently hadn’t changed so much. Except that he owned his place outright while I carried a mortgage the size of the Nippon Tower. “So,” I continued, smiling weakly and changing the subject. “How’s your noggin?”
   Anne reached up and fingered the large scar that ran across her forehead. A year and a half or so back, I’d found her lying trapped under Ben’s utility trailer; she’d been playing, and had knocked out the tongue support. “Not so bad today,” she answered. “But I still get headaches.”
   I frowned and reached out with my right hand. “Let me see,” I ordered, and the little girl stepped forward. Gently I probed the fracture area, closing my eyes and feeling the places where the bones had knitted back together like I’d learned back in medical school. I didn’t play attending physician very often any more, but Anne was a special exception. Her chest had been crushed as well as her head; when Ben came bursting in I’d already called the ambulance and was administering CPR. It had been a very near-run thing. “Everything feels okay,” I said after a moment. “Though maybe you’d better come in and have another scan done.”
   Anne pulled away, gracefully avoiding the shrubbery despite the frilly church-dress she was wearing. “Maybe,” she said.
   “Maybe means ‘yes’ in this case, little lady!” Ben Stovers declared as he came striding up. “If the Doc says ‘jump’, you ask how high on the way up. You get me, child?”
   “Yes, sir,” Anne replied, looking properly chastised.
   “Good! Now, you go get in the truck and wait for your ole Uncle Ben.”
   “Yes, sir,” she answered. Then, smiling again, she curtsied and ran off.
   “What a wonderful little girl,” I observed for about the thousandth time.
   “Yep,” Ben agreed. “She shore is.” No one knew exactly what the relationship between Ben Stovers and Anne Callie might be, but it certainly wasn’t one of blood; she was light-skinned, while her ‘uncle’ was very dark indeed. But with Ben being who he was, one of the most respected figures in the area, no one ever asked. He tilted his head to one side slightly. “I don’t suppose,” he suggested, “that those headaches might come from her having to listen to you yelling all night at your wife?”
   I shook my head and looked down at the ground. Vaguely I could recall staggering around in the darkness and making a total fool of myself. “Please take me back, Peg! I lo-o-o-ove yo-o-o-u!” I’d cried out over and over again, but the windows had never lit up even once. “I’ll never touch another drink, honey-pie! I swear! You’re the only woman I’ll e-e-e-ver love!” Ben never called the cops on me because I’d saved his daughter’s life; why my soon-to-be ex never did, I hadn’t a clue.
   Maybe she did still care about me? At least a little?
   There was mulch stuck to my lab-coat, I suddenly realized. So I took it off and gave it a good shaking. The garment was made of smart-cloth, and turned snowy-white and sharp-creased in seconds. “I’m sorry, Ben,” I said after I was done. “I mean…”
   “You still love her,” he finally said for me. “Hell, Tom, I can understand that. But… It was three in the morning. A little girl needs her sleep. She’s got school tomorrow.”
   “Right,” I agreed, looking away again. “And, you’re late for church.”
   He nodded. “Right.” There was a long pause. “By the way,” he said. “That re-wiring job we discussed? It’s not just the two rooms. The whole place is shot. None of it will pass inspection.”
   I frowned and looked up at what had once been Peg’s and my dream home. It had eight bedrooms, four baths, and more building code violations than most home inspectors had ever heard of. The only thing Peg and I were still cooperating on was fixing the thing up, in her case with the intent of selling and in my case because I still had a dream. Ben was doing most of the work. He was utterly trustworthy as well as competent, a rare combination indeed. Plus, Peg liked him almost as much as I did. That helped a lot, too. “How bad?” I asked finally.
   “I’d say twenty grand, if you call in contractors,” he estimated. “I’ll do it for five plus materials. But, it’ll take me a few weeks. I’m not sure yet how many.”
   “Right,” I agreed. The longer it took, the longer it would take to get the divorce settled. Which suited me just fine. It’d cost me more in lawyer fees, but that was just money. Nothing important. “Do it. I’ll cut you a check Friday.”
   “Friday,” Ben agreed, his teeth flashing brilliantly in the sunlight as he smiled. “That’s mighty fine, Doctor Aaron. Do you need a ride back into town? We’re going that way.”
   I pulled out my cell phone and checked it; the charge was still good. “No,” I answered. “Thanks, but I’d rather call a cab.”

-= 2 =-

   “It’s all about rev-e-nue,” Josh was explaining from across the bar. He often broke the word into three separate syllables when he used it and was also drunk, which was surprisingly often. “Rev-e-nue. That’s what I’m talking about. You ought to consider doing more investing, Doctor Aaron. I offer some excellent plans. And for you, the deals I could make…”
   I nodded and smiled, trying to hide the fact that my head was still aching and my stomach heaving despite the wonderful little pills I’d prescribed for myself. They didn’t work nearly as well as they once had. Perhaps it was time for something more powerful? “Rev-e-nue,” I repeated, to save myself the effort of actual thought.
   “Rev-e-nue,” he agreed brightly, completely unaware that he was being mocked. Josh was enormously fat, and his multiple chins waggled as if to emphasize every word he spoke. Looking at him you’d never guess his net worth, which to be fair was in fact quite considerable. Any day now, he’d need to go in for a body-swap; I wondered how long it would take him to ruin the new one? “What you invest in doesn’t matter; the return is what matters. It makes the world go around, re-ve-nue does! It makes the wheels turn, greases the palms, opens the doors—”
   “Been to another positive-thinking sales seminar, Josh?” a new voice interrupted.
   “Ned!” I cried out, instantly feeling a little better. I was very glad indeed to be relieved of Josh’s company. Next he’d be showing off his expensive watch and waving around pictures of his many well-paid mistresses. Salesmen, even successful ones, could be such bores. I picked up my half-empty rum-and-coke and raised it in salute. “Father Ned! Come and share a booth with me!”
   “Of course!” my cousin agreed. We’d hardly known each other growing up; it was the purest of coincidence that both of us had found our way to Mikhail’s Round-The-Clock Bar and Grill. And, it was even more pleasant to discover that we actually enjoyed each other’s company. “I can only stay for a drink or two; have to make the noon service.”
   “Right,” I agreed. Father Ned always felt that he gave a better sermon about half-plowed. Which didn’t surprise me any; I’d always been able to bullshit better drunk myself. “How’s your Mom?”
   His face fell. “Not good,” he admitted. “Her heart’s weaker than ever. Yours?”
   I frowned as well. There was a maximum age beyond which radical whole-body treatments were no longer possible, and our mothers were both well above it. “Her blood-sugar is horrible. She has to carry a glass of orange juice with her whenever she tries to walk around the block, or she blacks out. She’s got practically no pancreatic function at all. I’m trying to get her into a home, but…”
   “Right,” Ned agreed, his face still glum. Our mothers were sisters, and very much alike. Neither was particularly easy to live with; probably, this was why they’d not been very close as adults. We’d consumed much alcohol together during the period when his own mother had fought entering the nursing home, and now it looked like I was about to be faced with the same struggle on top of everything else. The very idea made me take another long, deep sip of rum.
   “How’s the parish?” I finally asked to break what was developing into an awkward silence. “Did you have your vote?”
   “Yes!” Ned replied, his face brightening a little. “The results are in. We’ve reversed ourselves. The American Catholic Church is now once again against all chemical, but not physical, means of birth control. Pills bad, condoms good.” He shook his head and sighed. “It’s the stand I favored personally, but still… We’ve reversed ourselves six times now on this issue in as many years. Harold laughs every time I mention the subject.”
   I nodded again. Harold was Ned’s Life Partner, and a really nice guy. I liked him a lot. “Well,” I observed. “That’s democracy for you. If you wanted long-term moral consistency, you guys should have stuck with the Pope and a theological dictatorship.”
   Ned sighed and looked down into his drink. “Everything changes, week by week sometimes. We’re redefining morality by counting noses. I was looking over some old sermons last night, getting ready for today. Sermons that I once stood up and gave in the service and name of God. And you know what? They’re totally against today’s doctrine! I should just wad them up and throw them away.”
   “No,” I replied. “Don’t do that! Wait another few weeks, and they’ll be Gospel again. Just you wait and see!”
   I’d meant for my words to be funny, but Ned winced as if I’d sunk a knife into him. “Some things ought to be eternal,” he said. “I understand that. But… But… I love Harold. And he loves me. Other priests love their wives just as much. How can that be bad, or wrong? We had to break away! Over that and many other things, as well.”
   I sighed and looked up at the bust of Lenin that peered out solemnly over our booth. Mikhail’s was decorated in the Soviet motif. Socialist Realism permeated the place; even the bathroom fixtures featured hammers and sickles. “You can’t have it both ways,” I said eventually. “You just can’t.”
   “Amen,” Ned answered. He lifted his drink, a fruity concoction decorated with plastic leaves and fake apples, and drained half of it in a single draught. “Amen.” Finally he raised his eyes again to meet mine. “What are you up to today, Thomas?” he finally asked. “Sunday is your day off.”
   I half-snorted. “Are you kidding? Gengineers don’t get days off. I’m supposed to be in the office right now, actually.” I sipped at my rum-and-coke again. “But I needed a little hair-of-the-dog first.”
   “Right,” Ned agreed, looking away again. We both drank far too much, and we both knew it. But, we were also both too conscious of the glass-house thing to ever say anything out loud. “What’s your current project?”
   “You’d never believe it,” I answered, smiling for the first time all day. I liked gengineering, damnit! The rest of my life might be going to hell, but at least I still had one last thing I could still smile about. “I’ve got a customer who wants a rabbit’s body, of all things. Honest to God! It’ll be the most fun I’ve had in years!”

-= 3 =-

   The clinic was relatively quiet on Sundays; this was part of why I tended to show up more often on the Sabbath than on any other day. As a gengineer I wasn’t often directly involved in patient care; rather, I specialized in design work and cutting edge research. So far I had forty-seven patents and eleven trademarked and royalty-producing new gengineering procedures to my name, comfortably more than anyone else in the field. So many, in fact, that it was virtually impossible for anyone anywhere to undergo a procedure without employing at least one of my techniques. This was probably the main reason no one had worked up the nerve to fire me yet.
   That, and the fact that I owned a third of the place. Or maybe even more.
   “Doctor Aaron!” the weekend receptionist greeted me as I strode in the front door. “How nice to see you! What a rare treat!”
   If that wasn’t the politest way I’d ever been chastised for missing so much work, I didn’t know what was. “And you,” I replied, smiling through a mild alcoholic buzz. I’d never, ever do any patient-care work while intoxicated. That, however, was not at all the same thing as saying I’d never do any other kind of gengineering work while buzzed. In point of fact, I’d come up with five of my best patent-making ideas while drunk off my ass. “Is Agnes here?”
   “Yes, Doctor. She got your call.”
   “Thank God,” I replied, my smile widening as I weaved my way across the lobby to the waiting elevator and punched the big number seven. Agnes was my personal secretary, and I depended on her like no other living being.
   My office was on the corner of the top floor, which was supposed to be a big-time perk. I hated the location, however; there were twice as many sunshiney windows that had to be covered up when I was hung over. And, even worse, the elevators were centrally located, which meant that getting to my door required a long, public stagger down the corridor. This was bad enough in and of itself, but sometimes, on Sundays in particular, I ran into my patients before I was quite ready for them.
   “Doctor Aaron!” a young man called out as I rounded a corner. “How good to see you!”
   I glanced down at my watch; it was a good half-hour before I was supposed to see young Daniel. He was an early-bird, damn him. “Why, hello!” I responded, trying to smile wide enough to hide my stubbly beard. Somehow, I hadn’t thought to pack a razor on my way to serenade my soon-to-be ex. Or any deodorant either, for that matter. “Good to see you!”
   Daniel smiled back. His was better than mine. My future bunny was a smallish guy, maybe twenty-five and lightly built. He was attractive enough; in fact, his Significant Other was a wealthy stockbroker that until recently had been rated high on Gay Life Magazine’s Hundred Most Eligible list. “I’m a little early,” he admitted, looking down shyly. “This whole thing is so exciting, I just couldn’t wait.”
   “Of course,” I agreed, nodding and holding my smile. “I just have to take care of a little business in my office first…”
   “Right!” Daniel agreed, his head bobbing up and down amiably. The trained gengineer part of me observed the motion critically, imagining how the patient’s natural motions might be recreated and enhanced in a new musculature. “I understand entirely. Like I said, I’m early.”
   My smile became more genuine. It was impossible to dislike Danny, I decided. He was a very polite young man. That would help make him a good bunny. “The waiting room is the first door on the left,” I explained, pointing. “There’s a holo unit inside; feel free to turn it on. Or, there’s books and magazines and such. I’ll be with you just as soon as I possibly can.”
   Agnes was waiting for me in her alcove just outside my office, still wearing her church dress. “Thank you,” I said to her, first thing. “Thank you so very much.”
   She sighed and closed her eyes. “Don’t mention it. My bank account is grateful.” Then she looked me up and down. “You didn’t…”
   I nodded slowly, letting my head hang. “Yes,” I admitted. “I did.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out my new pill bottle, then swallowed another thousand milligrams of my new had-too-much-to-drink prescription. It was twice the recommended dosage, but then I suffered from twice the usual hangover. I could almost feel my liver dissolving. It burned.
   Agnes shook her head disapprovingly. She was an old friend of Peg’s; the one who’d introduced us, in fact. “Doctor Aaron…”
   I held up my hands, palm out. “I know, I know! I need to let her go, need to move on, need to find a new life.” I sighed and looked down at my feet. “Honest to God, Agnes. I don’t know how I keep ending up out there so late at night. I honestly don’t remember.”
   My secretary’s face softened somewhat. “You’re still in love,” she acknowledged. “That forgives a lot.” Then she shook her head again and stood up. “You’re a wreck, Doctor. In no condition to see patients. Go take a shower. Shave. And I’ll lay out some fresh clothes for you.”
   I nodded, relieved. The simple truth was that Agnes had always been at least as essential to my existence as Peg had been. Maybe even more so. And, best of all, she knew it.
   My office had all the trimmings: Private bath, steam cabinet, shower, a workout machine I never used, and even a little cot that I called home nowadays, when I wasn’t off sleeping under the shrubbery. I turned the water up all the way hot for a time to get everything nice and steamy while I shaved, then soaped myself and rotated solemnly under the sprayhead for a long, dreamy time until I felt better. Then I hit the dryer button and let the hot air blasts have their turn. By the time I stepped back out to where my clean clothes awaited me, I felt almost human except for the liver-burn.
   I was still adjusting my fresh lab coat as I strode out to my office, feeling confident and professional for the first time that day. Daniel’s file was waiting for me on my oversized, overly ornate ‘public’ desk; I did my real work at a little stamped-metal computer station in a tiny back room, but people seemed to need the reassurance of seeing me sitting behind something more expensive and substantial when seeking my services. I paged through the medical records quickly to ensure that my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. It wasn’t; there wasn’t anything to be found there except ‘healthy young male’. Then I picked up my phone and asked Agnes to see Daniel in.
   “Well!” I greeted my patient, rising to my feet and extending my right hand. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
   Danny smiled back and shook my hand. He had a warm, firm grip despite his relatively short stature. “You’re right on time,” he countered. “It’s me who was early.” His expression faded slightly. “I hope I didn’t intrude on something…”
   My smile slipped a little. He’d noticed my beard. Or perhaps my uncombed hair. Or something. “I was out all last night,” I explained. “Very urgent matter.”
   “Right,” Daniel agreed, looking satisfied. Most likely he figured that I’d been out doctoring, which suited me just fine.
   “Well,” I said again, lowering myself into my seat and getting down to business. “So you want to become a bunny rabbit?”
   Daniel blushed, then nodded.
   “It’s all right,” I said slowly, picking up his file and examining it, even though I knew everything in it. “You’ve come to the right place. I’ve done more animal transformations than anyone else in the world, though I’ll admit I’ve never done a rabbit before.” I lowered the file back onto the desk. “But… You’ll have to tell me why.”
   Daniel’s blush deepened, and he stared down into my desk for a moment before speaking. “I’ve always wanted to be a rabbit,” he explained. “As long as I can remember. I’m just glad to live in a time and place where my dream can come true.”
   I nodded; it was common enough. A whole ‘furry’ subculture had developed and even begun to gain acceptance in recent years. “And,” I added, “it’s also just as well that you live in a time and place where you’re not seen as being nuts.”
   “Heh!” Danny replied, smiling again. Once again, the gengineer in me took over, and I filed the smile away in my memory. I’d recreate it as best I could, maybe even make it better if I could find a way. Though that would be difficult indeed; the original was very fetching. “A lot of folks still do think I’m nuts. Especially my Mom.”
   “I can imagine,” I answered, observing the way that Danny’s left foot twisted up under him as he squirmed slightly in his seat, and making more mental notes. The foot-twisting was clearly a habitual gesture; with bigger feet it would be magnified, and help make him more personable still. “But… Why a rabbit, Danny? I’m hardly a stranger to the field; the big cats are far more popular in the furry scene. I’ve made dozens myself.”
   “I… Uh…” Danny bushed again, then met my eyes firmly for the first time since entering my office. “It’s what I’ve always wanted, like I said. But…” I waited patiently while Danny squirmed some more. “I don’t like cat-furries,” he said at last. “I mean, they’re really pretty, and all that. Soft. Huggable. But… They get all nasty. They start out as meat-eaters, and then they start to want to hunt. Kill things. They enjoy it.” He shuddered.
   I nodded. “So you want to be a herbivore?”
   “Yes,” Daniel replied. “Absolutely! But… There’s more.”
   I raised my eyebrows.
   “My last boyfriend, Jaggers, was a housecat.” Daniel smiled his so-attractive smile again. “We loved each other very much before he had the work done, at another clinic. But… He changed afterwards.”
   I frowned slightly and leaned forward, propping my chin in my hands. “Mr. Patten,” I said bluntly. “Everyone changes when their bodies are radically altered. It’s the way of things.”
   “I know,” Danny answered, looking down. “Believe me, I know. But, well… I’m from New York. Greenwich Village. I know a lot of furs.”
   I nodded; this was one of the major centers of the furry subculture. “Yes?”
   “They all change. You’re absolutely right about that. But…” He frowned again. “Jaggers turned all selfish and cold. He wasn’t like that before. We broke up.”
   I blinked slowly. “And you think you’ll do better as a rabbit?”
   My potential patient nodded eagerly. “I know so!” he answered. “I mean, a cat is expected to be cold and selfish, right? Hedonistic, even. But a rabbit is supposed to be warm and caring. That’s how I want to be! Warm and caring and full of love and contentment.” Daniel’s eyes sparkled. “If people expect me to be like that, it’ll help me to truly become that way. Provide guidance, sort of. Being a better person is what’s most important to me of all. I even want you to alter my brain. As much as the law allows.”
   I blinked again. “That’s… unusual.”
   “I know,” Daniel replied. “I know. But…” He sighed and looked down again. “Look, Congress is all over the place on gene-splicing. You know that far better than I do.”
   “Right,” I agreed. The clinic kept three lawyers busy full time just keeping up on what was legal during any given week and what was not. It was hell when a long-term experiment had to be dumped. Especially when a month later the lawmakers reversed themselves again, and everything had to start all over again. It happened much, much too often.
   “We’re on the three-country standard right now,” Daniel continued. “Anything that is legal in three other industrialized, gengineering-capable nations is permitted in the United States, so our research won’t lag behind like it did at in the ’teens. And, last week, South Korea legalized significant human brain alterations.” Danny leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Which, along with China and France, makes three. You’re the best, Doctor Aaron. The best there’s ever been. And my lover has promised me a new body as a wedding gift. He can afford the best.” Danny folded his arms and cocked his head to one side. “So, I want an altered brain as part of the package. A better one, kinder and more loving. And I think you’re just the man to give it to me.”

-= 4 =-

   “Better. Kinder. More loving.” I murmured the phrases over and over again to myself as I sat and played games with anthro-lapine musculature patterns on my computer. It was late, and the last of the alcohol had long since burned itself out of my system. In fact, I’d have been suffering a terrible case of the DTs were it not for my wonderful new liver-burn pills. Each new motion-simulation got better; I was still in the very early stages of designing Daniel’s new physique, making the grossest of metabolic and anatomical decisions. The body would be a relatively simple job; in fact, since a lot of the earliest research had been done on lab rabbits, in some regards I had more of a database to work with than any other species I’d ever done. But the brain, now… I felt myself smiling gently, as I always did when facing a challenge. That was new territory entirely! “Better. Kinder. More loving.”
   “Who’s more loving?” a deep male voice interrupted.
   I sighed and slowly closed my eyes as Ben Davis sashayed into my private office as if he owned the place. He was a partner, sure. But then again so was I, and I didn’t treat his office like public property! That was what I got, I supposed, for leaving the door open, even on a Sunday. “Hi,” I greeted my fellow gengineer quietly. “No one’s more loving—yet. But in a few weeks, who knows?”
   Ben frowned, the expression unnaturally forceful on his million-dollar-work-of-art face. Every line was perfect and considered, every pore thought out and located unerringly where it would do the most good in projecting the ideal image of an intelligent, concerned doctor; I wanted to crawl under my desk and hide, Ben’s frown was so powerful. “Brain work?” he asked, disapproval resonating in his perfectly-designed voice. “That’s not legal.”
   “South Korea,” I countered, turning to face my partner. “South Korea legalized substantive brain work on willing and informed volunteers last week. That makes three nations, which makes it legal here too. Our pet lawyers haven’t confirmed it yet, but you know how lily-livered they are. I’ve done a little homework on my own, and it looks clear enough to me.”
   “But…” Ben frowned again, the very image of a displeased god. He specialized in beauty work for Hollywood and A-list types, and felt with some justification that he needed to be a walking advertisement for his own skills. Three weeks out of the year he was in a Tank, having this or that subtle imperfection touched up. “Tom, I know you’re supposed to be cutting edge. It’s why we offered you the partnership here. But the publicity on this—”
   I leaned forward and interrupted. “Look!” I exclaimed, pointing at the monitor. “He wants to be a bunny! A better, kinder and more-loving bunny! What can be so terrible about that?” I smiled. “And, like I said, it’s legal now. Or, it will be any day now, once the new rules take effect in Seoul. If it’s legal, I can work on it. That’s what our agreement says. No other restrictions. Or else I’d never have signed it.” I grinned like a little kid. “I haven’t been more excited about a project in years! This is new territory, Ben! Not just simple species-melding! Even in France and China, no one’s really taken off and run with human brain work. They’re too superstitious and afraid. It’s my chance to go someplace first again!”
   This time it was Ben’s turn to close his eyes slowly, then re-open them. “But Tom! Brain alterations?” He sighed. “Look, we didn’t mind the cats or the horse, or even the full-morph bear that can’t talk. Hell, we all three posed with the bear; it made for great publicity! But I don’t know…”
   I shrugged and let the silence stretch out for a time, then turned back to my monitor. Ben didn’t take the hint, however. “We had a staff meeting Friday,” he pointed out.
   I nodded. “I’m sure there’s a memo floating around somewhere covering the main points.”
   My partner’s lips thinned. “Attendance was mandatory. We discussed emergency evacuation procedures and storm shelters. No one was supposed to be exempt.” His eyes narrowed. “We needed you there to set a good example for the employees.”
   I shrugged and turned to face my accuser. “Me? A good example? Brother, are you barking up the wrong tree! I was drunk off my ass at Mikhail’s, just like I am almost every afternoon. If you expect me to be at a stupid staff meeting, hold it there.”
   Ben’s face reddened. “Your reputation as a renegade did precede you, yes. Pat and I were not entirely naive. But still, even a scientist and practitioner of your undisputed caliber—”
   “—can be a total and complete jerk,” I finished for him. “With shitty work habits, to boot.”
   My partner stood up, his fists clenched. “Tom…” he began. Then he made a clear effort to relax, and opened his perfect, sculpted hands. “Tom, I happen to like you. Believe it or not, I really, honestly do. I also know what this divorce must be doing to you; I’ve seen you with Peg, and know how much you loved, and probably still do love her. But…” He shook his head. “Tom, this can’t go on. Pat agrees with me. You’re not pulling your weight. I’m not even sure if your patients are getting proper care, what with the state you’re in. You need help.”
   My eyebrows rose. “I’m not pulling my share?” I asked. “Tell me, have you checked the books lately? How much revenue are my forty-something patents pulling in? More than both of your patents put together, I’m quite certain. Probably even more than your all day, every day stable of Tank-addicted movie stars who demand expensive gengineering treatments every time they gain three pounds or generate half a wrinkle.” I sighed and shook my head. “God damnit, Ben, I’ve been through three Clinics and three sets of partners already in my career, all because no one wants to believe I really mean it when I say that I’m going to do anything the hell I want to in terms of office hours and lines of research.” I looked directly into my partner’s eyes. “Don’t make me go for Clinic number four. For the most part, except when people come and interrupt my work to hold little talks like this one, I like it here.”
   For a long moment Ben met my eyes, and I thought I really was going to have to find someplace else to practice. Finally he looked away and grudgingly nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said. Then his face hardened again, and he met my eyes once more. “No, damnit. I’m not sorry, Tom! You’re right, in that you’re carrying your share financially. You could never show up at all, and we’d have no complaints on that score. I was wrong to put things that way. But…” He shook his head. “Tom, you’re the best in the world. Or at least, you once were the best in the world. An artist, not just a gene-chopping technician like me. You’ve always been hard to work with, by reputation at least. But it used to be because you were a perfection-demanding workaholic, not a… a…” He screwed up his face, working up the courage to use the word I knew was coming. “A drunk.” He shook his head. “A drunk who’s now talking about gene-chopping someone’s brain. Tom, when I became your partner, I was so proud. I felt like I’d finally made the very top level, at long last. And now, every time I see you I feel like I’m attending the funeral of a once-great man. For God’s sake, for the sake of your talent, even. Get yourself some help!”
   I sighed and looked away, not really knowing what to say. “Ben, you’re right. I’m a drunk. The booze is eating me alive. It’s killing off my brain cells by the million. Every day I fade away a little bit. But I just don’t care. Why should I? There’s nothing but this big empty spot inside of me where I ought to give a shit. When eventually I die, that empty spot will be all and everything that I am. Nothing matters.”
   Ben shook his head. “Everyone else cares about you. You’re an asshole, yes. But in your unique way, you’re the most respected asshole I’ve ever met. Hell, even the public cares about you. You’ve seen the gossip columns. Especially the recent ones. They wouldn’t write about you if people didn’t care. It wouldn’t sell any papers.”
   “Heh,” I snorted. Then I shook my head and looked away. “Thanks. Really. But…” I worked my lips a few times, trying to find the right words. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do with my life, Ben. Exactly! It’s mine, not anyone else’s. And there’s no sense trying to stop me.”
   Ben had a lot more to say after that. “Self-destructive,” he said, among many other things. “Endangering your license. Hell, endangering our licenses!” And more. But in the end, I knew he’d leave me to live my life and alter brains in peace.
   Why? Because no matter how much he hated the fact, I was most of his firm’s rev-e-nue. And that was what really mattered in life. Or, at least, that was what seemed to matter to everyone else.

-= 5 =-

   Liver-burn pills could not make up for lack of sleep, but benzedrine worked absolute miracles. I’d always had a bad habit of losing track of time while working on challenging projects, and the problem had only grown worse since I’d discovered a pleasant twenty-four-hour bar. It no longer really mattered to me whether it was day or night, except when I had appointments to keep. I’d been at my comp for almost sixteen hours straight, doing the broad-brush work on Daniel’s new physique. But it had only seemed like a few fleeting moments. One minute I’d been grumbling about my colleague’s rude interruption Sunday evening, and the next bright sunlight was shining into the corner of my eye through a crack in my heavy blackout curtains. A whole night, gone in a seeming instant!
   It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t been scheduled to go out to the house and meet with Peg, like I did every Monday morning at nine. I had barely enough time to call a cab, dry-swallow a stay-awake pill, and go racing across town against traffic, promising my driver stratospheric tips all the way.
   He seemed satisfied enough with my gratuity as he smiled and pulled away; my life might be in ruins, but that was no reason to break my word. Peg was like that too, I mused as I walked down the little sidewalk I’d had built through the centuries-old hedgerow. It was in full bloom, and a thousand undersized sweat bees busily pollinated a million tiny white flowers. Her word was still good as well, despite our troubles. Or else we would have passed beyond the stage of active cooperation long since.
   “Hello,” Peg greeted me at the door, looking down at the welcome mat we’d picked out together in Honduras on our honeymoon instead of meeting my eyes and then throwing her arms around me, as she once had.
   “Hi,” I replied, eyes downcast as well, where once I would have smiled, lifted her off of her feet, and twirled her around the entry foyer. “How are you?”
   “Well enough,” she answered dully, opening the door the rest of the way and letting me in.
   “Me too,” I answered, following her down the hall and trying not to let my eyes wander to the dozens of watercolors that lined our entranceway. Peg was a moderately talented painter, and each frame captured a time and place we’d once shared. Our marriage had lasted over twenty years, and had been extraordinarily happy. Until… Until…
   “Have you been praying to Jehovah-God?” Peg asked as she pulled out a chair for me at the kitchen table. There was a large window there that looked out over a huge flower garden; we had almost never eaten in the stiffly-formal dining room. “Have you read those tracts I sent home with you last time?”
   I frowned and looked outside. A hummingbird was sipping nectar at one of my feeders; I’d always loved hummingbirds, and apparently Peg enjoyed them too. At least enough to keep the feeders full. “No,” I answered, my drugged heart pumping as fast as that of the little winged creature outside. “Peg, I never lied to you the whole time we were married, and I won’t lie to you now. I think this whole Witness thing is nonsense, pure and utter nonsense. I love you very much, but still can’t see how you were taken in.” That was the truth, the literal, whole truth. One day I’d left my home for the Clinic, and kissed my loving wife goodbye. When I got home, the door was locked and a Watchtower magazine featuring an article on the evils of gengineering was taped to the knocker.
   Peg pressed her lips together and shook her head. “You just won’t believe,” she replied. “Deep down inside of you, your heart is crying out for Jehovah. You’re too proud to give in to Him.”
   Thumpthumpthump my heart went for an endless time as I looked my wife in the eyes. Then I sighed and looked out over the garden. “I love you more than anything,” I said finally. “You know that.”
   “But you’re an unrepentant sinner,” she answered. “A horrible, horrible sinner even worse than I was before I found God. A gengineer, Thomas. One who thinks he is greater and wiser than Jehovah. And now, the way you’ve gone to pot and ruined the beautiful body you were given as a temple for your soul…” She shook her head in disgust. “You never could sing, you know. Not a single note, even when you were young. What makes you think you’re any better now, drunk and in the middle of the night to boot?”
   This time, my contrition was genuine. “Peg, I’m sorry. I really don’t know—”
   But she wouldn’t let me finish. “Ben tells me he’s talked to you about the wiring,” she declared, ending all meaningful personal contact of the kind I was so starved for. I knew from experience that once we began discussing the house and estate, everything would be all business no matter how I protested. “As you know, we can’t even legally put up a ‘For Sale’ sign until all the building-code issues are resolved.”
   “Yes,” I agreed, my voice dull and dead. “It’ll take him a few weeks to get things sorted out. Even he’s not sure how many yet. Or, at least he wasn’t sure yesterday morning.”
   “The house will remain habitable at all times,” Peg added. “I won’t have to move out; there won't be any extra lodging expenses.”
   I nodded. Peg was being scrupulous with every dime, even while I plowed through the thousands like a drunken sailor. Perhaps I should have felt ashamed, but I didn't. “After the wiring work is done…”
   “Then everything will be done,” my soon-to-be-ex replied brusquely. “Everything. And we can finalize the papers.”
   I nodded, even though finalizing the divorce was absolutely the last thing I wanted to do. I’d never been happy for a moment in my whole life, save when I was married to the only woman I’d ever loved. “Peg,” I began, my voice a near-sob, “I—”
   “I guess that’s everything,” she interrupted, standing up to indicate that our meeting was over. “As time goes on, we have less and less business to discuss. The divorce is going quite well, I must say, and I thank you for your cooperation. This could have been far, far worse for both of us.”
   It could have? I asked myself silently as I stood up to leave. How? It was hard to imagine.
   “Let’s skip next week,” Peg suggested. “The ladies' group down at the Kingdom Hall has been inviting me to join them in a fellowship group, but I’ve been unable to go. And surely a man as busy as you are must have other priorities as well?”
   All through my marriage, I’d been a busy man. But never too busy for Peg. Not once. And now… now…
   My entire universe was shattered, and had been for months. Every single effort I’d made to rebuild had come to nothing. There were only two things left to me, gengineering and my dignity. I was determined to preserve as much of the latter as I possibly could. “Right,” I agreed. I even managed to force a professional smile. “A week from next Monday, then. We’ll have the progress on the wiring to discuss.”
   “I’ll keep all the receipts,” Peg promised as she ushered me through the front door. “Goodbye.”
   And then I was outside, alone with the shrubbery again.

-= 6 =-

   My house was a good thirty minutes or so outside the city limits, and I’d never had a cab arrive at my front door in anything less than three-quarters of an hour after being summoned. So, after snapping my cell-phone shut, I decided to take a little walk in the garden. Peg wouldn’t mind, I knew, or at least she wouldn’t say anything. She never did.
   Long before we bought the place, our home had been famous for the variety and richness of its flowers. Since then, I’d spent a little of my spare time gengineering all-new hybrids; snap-lilies, for example, and peri-lions. Plants weren’t my specialty, or even within my field, strictly speaking. But Peg planted my seeds nonetheless, and they grew straight and tall and beautiful…
   …until this last spring. Then, Peg ruthlessly weeded out every last unnatural hybrid, root and branch. There were large gaps in the garden now, areas that featured nothing more beautiful than naked earth and a sprinkling of weeds. I frowned at one such area, then bent over and examined the ground carefully. There were tiny wildflowers blooming among the more mundane growth, violets and something with purplish foliage and miniature red blossoms I couldn’t identify. It was as if the mutilated garden were determined to heal itself, whether Peg cooperated or not.
   “Hello!” a small voice said from behind me.
   “Hi, Anne!” I replied, turning around and smiling with a lot more sincerity than I’d felt a couple days back, when she’d interrupted me urinating on the shrubbery. “How are you today?”
   “Fine,” she answered, smiling back. Anne was dressed in her playclothes today, denim overalls with great big smiling daisies sewn on them here and there, and a yellow shirt. She held up her doll. “Mrs. Gladstone wants to know if you need to use the bathroom. If so, we’ll leave. Uncle Ben told me it wasn’t nice for me to interrupt you the way I did last time.”
   I laughed, despite myself. “No, Anne. I’m not out here to use the bathroom. I’m just waiting for a cab.”
   “Oh,” she answered. Then her face lit up. “You’re here to see Mrs. Aaron?”
   I nodded.
   “Was she happy to see you, this time?”
   “I’m afraid not,” I answered, looking down at the tiny wildflower blooms. “I’m afraid Peg doesn’t like me nearly as much as she used to.”
   “Oh,” she said again, her face falling. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, it lit up again. “I’m going to be in a play!”
   “You are?” I replied. Peg and I had been attending Anne’s school productions since she’d been in kindergarten.
   “Uh-huh!” she answered brightly, spinning a happy little circle with her doll cradled tightly against her breast. “I’m going to dance as a green fairy, in fact! Would you like to come?”
   “Wow!” I replied. “Of course—” I began, then cut my words off. “Well,” I said slowly. “I’d very much like to come. But if Peg is going to be there…”
   Anne stopped her happy spinning. “She isn’t coming,” the little girl answered, her voice heavy and sad. “She says fairies are creatures of Satan, and it makes Jehovah-God unhappy when we pretend to be one.” Her lips pursed. “Who is Jehovah-God?” she finally asked. “The minister at our church doesn’t ever talk about him.”
   “Well…” I began, looking off into the distance and trying to find words. Damn Peg anyway! Couldn’t she leave even a child in happy, blissful peace? “When is your play, Hon?” I finally asked, changing the subject.
   “A week from Thursday,” she replied. “At seven. In the auditorium, like always.”
   “I’ll be there!” I swore, pulling out my appointment book and typing in the information on the spot. My memory was growing very spotty, of late. “I promise!”
   “Yay!” she cried out, hugging Mrs. Gladstone to her chest once again and spinning, spinning, spinning through the garden. “Yay!”
   “And don’t you sweat what Jehovah-God thinks, either!” I added. “He never has any fun at all! Honest injun!”

-= 7 =-

   Anyone could have predicted that my next stop would be at Mikhail’s; I’d already been away for much longer than was my habit in recent months. Willy had my rum-and-coke ready for me before I even stepped up to the bar, and I nodded my thanks as I handed over an even larger tip than usual in gratitude. My hand trembled slightly as I raised the glass to my lips and sipped at it; I needed the drink, worse than I needed anything in the world. It was a little frightening, how badly I needed it. My liver-burn pills had finally worn off; I swore never to let that happen again.
   “Have you heard?” Willy asked as I took a long second sip.
   “About what?” I asked.
   “Josh,” he answered, indicating an empty stool at the head of the bar. “Josh Gibson.” He made an overly-serious face and lined up three fingers under his chin. “‘Rev-e-nue.’ That guy.”
   “He had a stroke,” someone at the bar added. I didn’t know him. “In the shower. No one found him for hours. He’s brain-dead.”
   My fingers were still trembling, so I took another sip of my drink. “Is that so?” I answered. In truth, I hadn’t cared for Josh very much. None of us had.
   “They’re gonna pull the plug,” the stranger continued, shrugging. “Fat bastard was too cheap to buy a new body; kept putting it off. Now he’s a vegetable.”
   “Not much rev-e-nue in that,” someone else observed.
   “Or in being fertilizer,” a third stranger added. “That comes next.”
   “Whatever,” I answered, downing the rest of my rum and gesturing for another. I’d been a physician before going on into gengineering, and doctors saw far too much of death to find much humor in the subject. Willy shrugged and mixed, I handed over a wad of bills, and then I found my way to my usual booth in back.
   Unlike most people, I was perfectly happy to do my drinking alone. The bust of Lenin gazing down on me was all the company I needed. “Well, Vladimir,” I said once I’d finished my third drink and the pain of it all was starting to fade a little. “You’re dead. Josh is dead. And, eventually, I’m gonna be dead too. What do you think of that?”
   Lenin didn’t answer; probably because the question was a meaningless one in terms of Dialectical Materialism. But Father Ned chose just that moment to join me, and he filled in the gap. “Damned if I know these days,” he answered, sliding into the seat opposite me and loosening his clerical collar a little. “Damned if I know.”
   I smiled. “But you’re supposed to know!”
   He sighed and shook his head as Willy delivered his usual fruit-filled drink; I didn’t even know the name of the thing, I realized suddenly. “Hey!” I asked the bartender before he could leave. “What’s that my friend is drinking?”
   “It’s called a ‘Poison Apple’,” he answered. “Evil thing, full of fire. Don’t let the looks fool you; it takes a real man to drink one. You want to try your luck, Doc?”
   “Sure!” I answered, feeling happy and bold like I always did when getting drunk. “An Apple, that’s what I want.”
   “Right,” Willy agreed. Business was picking up; I knew it would be a while. But that was okay. I still had plenty of rum.
   “So, cousin,” I said to Ned. “What’s got your tail in a knot?”
   He shook his head and sipped at his drink. “Everything,” he answered, gesturing widely, as if to include the whole world. “Everything, and nothing.”
   I looked up at Lenin, then back down at Ned. “Come on,” I urged him. “Spill. Unload. It’s good for you.”
   He took another pull of Poison Apple, then nodded. “All right. You’ve heard about Josh, I guess? Rev-e-nue?”
   “Yeah,” I answered, looking away.
   “Well… A long time back, before you started coming here, he told me he was Catholic. Though he wasn’t sure which kind yet, and hadn’t been to services in years. So I gave him my card, in case he wanted to come on down to St. John’s Parish. I thought he might be more comfortable, knowing one of the priests.”
   I nodded encouragingly.
   “So, he never showed up. But apparently he never tossed the card out, either. This morning, after he was hospitalized, his son called me.” Ned shook his head, his mouth a flat line of disgust. “His father wasn’t even dead yet, but he wanted to know how much I’d ask to officiate at the funeral. ‘I know another guy who’ll do it for two-fifty,’ the little snot warned me before I could even answer. ‘So that’s your upper limit.’”
   “Heh!” I snorted. “Rev-e-nue.”
   “Exactly!” Ned snapped, his fist slamming onto the table. “Exactly!” He sipped again at his drink before continuing. “I told him I’d do it for free, out of my own pocket. That’s not what we’re supposed to do, mind you, not even for friends. But he’d pissed me off, you see. So I made the offer.” My cousin shook his head sadly. “He seemed so happy about my not charging anything that I thought he was going to start dancing or something; it was positively indecent. I did tell him that donations would be accepted, but I don’t expect to see a dime. Not that it really matters.” Ned shook his head again. “Here’s this kid’s father, brain-dead, and they’re considering pulling the plug, and…”
   Ned let his words trail off into nothing as my own Apple arrived. I sniffed at it; the thing smelled like cider gone bad. “Some people are like that,” I answered. “I don’t understand them, mind you. But it’s how they are nonetheless.”
   “Do they even have souls?” Ned wondered aloud. “Sometimes I wonder if any of us do.”
   I shrugged. “You’re asking the wrong guy, cousin. All I can tell you is that souls don’t show up on CAT scans.”
   Ned sighed and rolled his eyes. “And then there’s something else, too. Which bothers me even more.”
   “What’s that?” I asked. Ned had listened to me pour out my heart for hours about losing Peg, and would probably do so again more than once before all was done and over with. I owed him a little turnabout.
   Ned sighed and stared down into his drink for a while before answering. “Remember a couple days back, when we had that vote on birth-control doctrine?”
   I nodded. “Pills bad, condoms good.”
   “Well…” He sighed. “The losing parties have already filed again for another vote. It hasn’t been forty-eight hours yet. Even Jesus stayed dead longer than that.”
   I blinked. “Wow!”
   Ned shook his head and took a long pull of Poison Apple. I’d decided not to drink mine; it smelled too nasty. Apparently, I wasn’t enough of a man for one after all. “They’ve already filed with the New Vatican in Boston! Already! And there’s more.”
   “Really?” I asked.
   “This time, the drug companies are bankrolling the pro-pill position. It’s all over the front page of the American Catholic Review.” My cousin’s face turned cold and hard. “There’s going to be an actual organized political campaign this time around, complete with signs and speeches and dirty money. To determine the true will of God.”
   I winced. “I’m sorry, Ned.”
   “Me too, Tom,” he answered softly. “Me too.”
   I’d allowed my rum-and-coke to go empty; I shoved my unwanted Apple to Ned’s side of the table and gestured to Willy. Presently, my new drink arrived.
   “I still don’t see how we went astray,” Ned said after a very long time. “I mean, we were right to create a schism. The Roman Pope was drifting more and more towards the right; he was practically a fundamentalist. The churches were emptying. And, most of all, he was wrong. So we took away his authority and freed ourselves.” He shook his head. “But what have we created? A mockery, is what! A Church where people are about to vote on right and wrong based on rev-e-nue.”
   I couldn’t think of much to say, so I just sat and held my peace and gazed up at Lenin. Is God dead yet? he asked me silently. No, I answered back. Just a vegetable, so far. But we’re getting there. Finally, Ned lowered his head into his arms and began to sob. “What have we done, Tom? What have I done? All we wanted to do was to make things better!”
   I sighed; as an unbeliever, who was I to offer an opinion? But, as a human being, it clearly was my place to offer comfort. So I reached out across the table, and clapped my hand on Ned’s shoulder. “Come on,” I said. “You did the best you could do at the time. You did what you thought was right.” My words didn’t seem to help much, so I went on. “You can’t have it both ways, Ned. A man can either accept moral doctrine from what he believes to be a higher source, or he can make up his own rules either alone or as part of a group. Both ways have their drawbacks. What you’re facing is nothing new; it’s just an issue that few religious people ever have to confront. It’s new to you, but not new to mankind. We agnostics confront it every day, I can assure you. As a gengineer, I can doubly assure you.”
   Ned nodded, though he didn’t raise his head. “I hear you’re getting ready to alter a human brain. For real, I mean. Not just trivial stuff. Soul-surgery.”
   I pressed my lips together. Several of my staff were Ned’s parishioners. “I might be,” I allowed.
   Ned raised his head. “Well,” he explained, reaching for his last Apple and draining it to the dregs. “Better you than me, cousin.” Then he stood up and raised his empty glass in salute. “Forgive me, but I have to go hear confessions now. Today is my turn. And you know what? It’s the damnedest thing. I haven’t heard about a new sin in years. Human nature never changes. Same old nonsense, over and over and over again. Boring creatures, we are. No wonder God needs the day off.”

-= 8 =-

   It was time for me to sleep, once I got back to the Clinic. So I took some sleeping pills along with the liver-burners, then doubled the dose when the recommended amount didn’t do the trick. It was growing harder and harder for me to get to sleep, I noted, even when seriously soused. That was probably a very bad sign of something, but I really didn’t want to think about what. Being a doctor, I might just guess right.
   I woke up fourteen hours later with a dry mouth, a full bladder, and a surprising aura of well-being about my person. Probably, this was due to the fact that it had been who knew how long since I’d been alcohol-free for an entire half-day. That was the first thing on the agenda, I decided; even before visiting the bathroom, I dug a can of Coke out the little office ’fridge that Agnes kept stocked for me, bless her, then poured it into a plastic cup and topped it off with two fingers of rum. “Breakfast of champions!” I mumbled to myself as I stirred the concoction with my right index finger, then I gulped the whole thing down and belched. Presently there was a small fire burning in my liver again, and the world was a warmer and happier place for it. What a perfect day!
   It was five in the afternoon when I finally finished showering and shaving and dressing and such, just barely in time to catch the busy day shift folks as they finished up their day’s work. So, I sipped at another rum and Coke for half an hour in my little bedroom to be sure that most everyone was gone, then quietly emerged into my working office.
   I’d promised Dan some definite answers on his new body in a week, and though I could probably let the deadline slide without him complaining too much, something deep inside of me resisted this last small step into total decrepitude. A doctor or a gengineer owed his patients his full attention and dedication; nothing less was acceptable. I wasn’t playing games with Daniel, I was designing him a new body, one which in many ways would be him for, hopefully, a period of many years to come. Even if he hadn’t come to me seeking custom work of the very highest caliber, offering me top dollar along the way, it would have been my duty, my sacred obligation even, to give him my best. Any gengineer who felt otherwise wasn’t worthy of the title. In fact…
   I looked at the remains of my drink, then frowned and tossed it in the trash. No more, I told the little monkey that lately had been spending more and more time on my back. No more pills or potions of any kind. Not until later.
   It was my habit never to shut my computer off; when I sat down the e-mail icon was blinking insistently at me. “You have Five Hundred and Thirty-Six Unread Messages!” read the bubble over the little cartoon postman’s head. Even as I watched, the counter turned over to five hundred and thirty-seven; I snorted, then brought up my inbox.
   Most of the messages were pure crap, each little envelope representing a bill left unpaid or some other obligation I had no intention whatsoever of honoring. It hadn’t always been like this; even as recently as six months back I’d prided myself on keeping my financial life neat and well-ordered. Someday, I knew, my accountant was going to kill me for what I’d become. But that day lay waiting far, far off in the future, of no concern whatsoever to me today. I whistled a happy little tune as I deleted bill after bill, thereby ensuring that the day of reckoning lay just a little bit further off with every keystroke.
   There were a few letters of consequence waiting for me, however. Ferguson, my very first anthro-job, had dropped me a note commemorating his five-year anniversary as a cat. I smiled and typed back a warm reply reminding him to take his supplements; back then we gengineers hadn’t been nearly so good with biochemical details as we were today, and daily supplements were a fact of life for the first-generation species-benders. I’d had a lot of reservations about species-work before meeting Ferguson, but seeing with my own eyes how happy he was with the new look had settled every last doubt and put my conscience totally at ease; I’d been pushing the limits ever since.
   Ben, my contractor, had also written me a note. The wiring job, he explained, was going to take about five weeks. Once he got a check, that was. Plus, he’d brought Anne into the Clinic like I’d suggested. The scan had shown some bony ridges developing along the fracture line in her skull, putting a bit of pressure on the brain. What did I think he should do next?
   I frowned and opened up the attachment. It didn’t take long for me to find what the technician had apparently pointed out to Ben. Sure enough, a small, mishealed part of little Anne’s skull was growing into her brain. In another time or place, it might eventually have proven fatal. But nowadays…
   “Ben,” I typed into the little ‘reply’ box. “This is not nearly as serious as it looks. In a year or three we’ll have to be thinking about finding our Green Fairy a new body to dance in, is all. Yes, I know there are all kinds of difficulties at present when working with growing kids, but the field is progressing by leaps and bounds. Plus, when the time comes I’ll make a special study of the subject beforehand. We’ll make sure everything comes out right as rain. You know that I’m a man of my word; everything will be fine.”
   I paused and checked my bank balance; it was stratospheric, naturally enough, given that I’d quit paying my bills. “Attached find a bank draft for five thou. And while you're at it, if you can find a way to rewire Peg's brain so that she’s sane again, I’ll swap you even for the work Anne needs to have done on hers.” Then I frowned and erased the last sentence; it was gallows humor, was all. “Be seein’ you!” I typed instead. “Bye!”
   The most recent flurry of e-mail to hit my box was centered around my new patient. There was still nothing from the legal department, unfortunately, so I couldn’t really begin any brain-design work. There were other things to keep me busy in the meantime, however. Agnes had already sent me the packet of routine stuff I always asked for from a new patient; complete medical history, certification of mental competence and the like, all of it in hard-copy format. But before doing an anthro, I always wanted more. Daniel had complied, in spades. “Hi, Doctor Aaron!” his e-mail read. “I’m writing from my mom’s place; she’s come around now, and is absolutely DYING to see me as a bunny rabbit! I’m sending copies of every home movie she has of me, just like you asked, plus all of her photos. There’s so much of it that it’ll take several mailings; Mom has tons of stuff lying around here. I was an only child, and she was a real movie-maker.”
   I nodded and smiled as I typed a pleasant reply. One of the secrets to designing a truly superior anthro body, I’d discovered early on, was studying and then matching the patient’s childhood movement patterns and habits. Adults were stiff and inhibited by comparison; if you wanted to truly capture the personality, you used footage of the subject running around being silly and having fun like it was most natural thing in the world. I called up the first frame of a home movie entitled ‘Beach Birthday, Fourteen’, then spilt my screen and opened my working folder, where everything on the new bunny-body was kept. Daniel had specified that he wanted to be a sort of smoke-colored gray, with black eartips and paws. I’d added a white belly and tail on my own initiative; if my patient didn’t like it, fur coloration was easy enough to fix. With a single keystroke I brought the animation to life; the new Daniel blinked and smiled at me from the other half of the screen, exactly as he was programmed to do. Then I started the movie, slaved the bunny-figure to the boy-Daniel, and sat back and watched as my bunny aped every single motion and facial expression of the real Daniel, down to the tiniest detail. He played volleyball for a long, long time, then giggled with friends, blew out candles, and ran flat out across the sand. All in all it looked like one heck of a fourteenth birthday, much happier than my own had been; Mom had made me spend it handing out leaflets. Right at the end I couldn’t help but laugh out loud; during the group photo, some young prophet had made bunny-ears with his fingers over Daniel’s head.
   I hadn’t done too badly, I decided as the home movie ended. Not badly at all, for a first effort. But there was still so much to do! I peeled bunny-Daniel’s skin back, something much easier to do with a mouse than with a scalpel, and adjusted the tone of his eyelid muscles and softened the cartilage underpinnings of his ears just a tiny bit. He blinked much better the next time through, I decided, but the ears were now too floppy…
   It went on for hour after hour, and home movie after home movie. I had to send out for Chinese twice, and the second time had to settle for pizza because every single Chinese place in town had been closed for hours. But, eventually, I got Daniel’s body right, more right, probably, than any other gengineer in the world could have. Or would have, I corrected myself. There were others every bit as capable as me and more, but they tended to rush through their cookie-cutter patients one after the other in search of rev-e-nue. Me, I was into perfection. That was my drug of choice, setting liquor and benzedrine aside for the moment. What did I care for rev-e-nue, anyway? At least I wasn’t that kind of fool…
   “Hallelujah!” I cried, rising up out of my swivel chair for the first time in more hours than I really cared to think about. I was staggering badly, not drunk for once, but simply a little unsteady from sitting in one place for much, much too long. “Hallelujah! I’ve nailed him! Today the body, tomorrow the mind!”

-= 9 =-

   I was overdue for more sleep after such a long and successful work session; in fact, I didn’t even need any pills. Since I didn’t know what time I went to bed, save that there was sunlight peeking around the corners of my curtains, I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep when Agnes came in and shook my shoulder. The only thing I could be utterly certain of was that it hadn’t been nearly long enough.
   “Doctor!” she was saying as I finally became aware of my surroundings. “Doctor Aaron! Are you all right?”
   “Eh?” I asked intelligently. “Wha?”
   Agnes shook her head. “You were practically in a coma,” she explained. “I’ve been trying to wake you up for ten entire minutes! It’s like you were totally sleep-starved.”
   I probably was sleep-starved, I thought to myself as I threw my legs over the side of the cot and sat up. People didn’t rest properly when they took sleeping pills, and this was the first shut-eye I’d gotten without chemical assistance since I didn’t know when. “Sorry,” I mumbled vaguely, still not very alert. “What’s wrong?”
   “It’s your mother,” Agnes replied, her face suddenly hard. She didn’t like Mom; almost no one did. “She called and insisted that you ring her back immediately.”
   I nodded my understanding. My mother was such a difficult person that I’d long ago instructed my secretary to refer anything to do with her directly to me. This wasn’t out of mere kindness to Agnes, though that was definitely a factor. Mostly, it was because Mom was the most intelligent and able human being I’d ever met, on top of her being so unpleasant. If Mom even suspected that I’d tried to put her off on an underling, there’d be so much hell to pay that no one involved would ever see the end of it. Therefore, it was best to deal with anything to do with her personally and up front. “Right,” I agreed. “I’ll call her in a minute or two. Thanks.”
   “No problem,” Agnes replied, her smile warm and motherly. Then her face hardened again. “Really, Doctor Aaron. I’m worried about you. Your color has been off for days. You’re not eating right. I keep finding empty prescription bottles in your office trash; while I’m not a medical professional like you are, I’m not stupid, either. I recognize the names. You’ve always kept odd hours, I know. You’ve also always had the most eccentric work habits I’ve ever heard of. But lately you’re not on any kind of schedule at all. Your patient load is down to nothing, where before you were busy all of the time. And whenever I run into any of the medical staff they ask where you’ve been; none of them have seen anything of you in weeks. You sneak in and out of here like a thief, even though you practically own the place.” My secretary shook her head. “Doctor, you’re not just my employer. You know that. I consider you a friend as well. And as a friend, I’m telling you that you need to pull out of this. You need to find someone who can help you.” She shook her head again. “Doctor Aaron, you’re a good man. Deep down where it counts, you really and truly are. You don’t have to do this to yourself. Not even over Peg.”
   For just an instant my mouth formed a hard, thin line and I nearly snapped at Agnes; what right did she have to bring up Peg? Then I remembered all the things my secretary did for me, all the ways in which she went above and beyond the call of duty. She was a friend, and as such had every right to be concerned. “I’ll get over it,” I reassured her, even though I didn’t believe a word of it. “Once the divorce is final, I’ll be fine.”
   “You’re rich,” Agnes reassured me. “You’re famous. Near the top of your profession. Life is too long for you to throw everything away over a broken relationship. Especially now, with all the new treatments. Who knows how long you can live?”
   Why would I want to live? I asked myself even as I forced a smile. What is the point of wealth or success, without love? Without any kind of happiness or joy? “I’ll be fine,” I reassured my secretary. “I promise.”
   “Good,” Agnes replied, smiling and looking as if she wanted to pat me on the head like an obedient little boy. “I’ll call down to the commissary for a breakfast tray for you, then. Scrambled eggs and bacon. That used to be your favorite. All right?”
   “Sure!” I answered. So it must be morning, if they were still cooking eggs. “Thank you, Agnes! For everything, as always.”
   She blushed a little. “I’ll be back in half an hour or so.” If my secretary hadn’t already been married to a very fine man named Douglas, Agnes might well have been the answer to all of my problems. As things were, though, we were merely co-workers of many years standing. Which was too bad, really. For me at least.
   But not for Agnes. She was better off without me. I’d made quite certain that my loyal secretary was mentioned rather heavily in my will, and even after all of my recent fecklessness my estate would still be worth quite a tidy sum indeed. Who could know when I’d take one pill too many? Surely it couldn’t be long now. And as a doctor, I ought to know.
   For a long time I stood and stared down into the rum-and-coke that somehow magically appeared in my hand as soon as Agnes was out of sight. Soon, now, I thought to myself. Very soon. Then I drained my cup to the dregs, belched, and picked up the phone to call my mother.

-= 10 =-

   “How am I feeling?” Mother demanded over the top of her menu; she’d exacted a promise of dinner from me, dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. At least the food was good. Or would be good, I corrected myself, if we ever got past the ordering part. The waiter had already been by three times, but Mom hadn’t decided yet. Instead her water glass had been inadequately iced, her placemat soiled, and one of the legs on her chair too short, in that order. “How in the hell do you think I’m feeling? I’m sick, Tommy. And old. In a world where no one else is ever going to get old.”
   I sighed and looked down at my placemat. It was best to say as little as possible, I knew from long experience. The more long, awkward silences, the better. Yet, polite conversational habits were hard to break. Besides, in all fairness, my mother was old and sick. Terminally so, in the case of the latter, though she might linger on for years of progressively increasing misery, if she were careful. And, it could be said in justice, terminally ill in terms of age as well. She was far too old for any kind of meaningful gengineering work; we’d fitted her with new eyes and reduced her arthritis pain, and that was pretty much all there was to be done. The real infirmities were much too deeply-seated to touch.
   “So, now that I get to see you for the first time in three months, all you’re going to do is sigh?” Mom shook her head and frowned. “Why do I bother, I sometimes wonder. Why do I bother at all?”
   I looked over Mom’s shoulder; the waiter was approaching again. If I handled things just right, I might be able to distract her. “I’m sorry you’re not well,” I said, trying to make my voice sound as sincere as possible. After all, I reminded myself, I was sorry. “If there were anything in the world that could be done, you know I’d get you to the front of the line.”
   Mom’s mouth opened, then slammed shut again as the waiter appeared at her elbow. “I deeply regret that everything has been so unsatisfactory,” he explained, smiling a fake, oily smile. “My manager has asked me to let you know that everything will be fifty-percent off tonight, because of our mistakes.”
   Mom blinked, then blinked again. Apparently she could find no fault with the offer, though clearly she was making a mighty effort. “All right,” she acknowledged, sounding vaguely disappointed. “I’ll have the veal parmesan, with a large side salad and the spaghetti marinara.”
   I waited for our server to finish scribbling, then ordered a simple spaghetti and meatballs with salad for myself. Mom frowned, then tore into me anew once the outsider was gone. “You’ve been ordering that same dish ever since you were a little boy,” she complained. “Won’t you ever grow up?”
   My eyebrows rose; we’d had this argument a million times when I’d been younger. I’d thought we were long past it. “I like spaghetti,” I explained. “I like lots of plain, ordinary foods. Why should I eat things I don’t like?”
   “That’s always been your problem, Thomas,” she replied. “You’ve never aspired high enough. When I think of all you could have been and done, had you properly applied yourself…”
   I sighed and looked down at my placemat again; there was a tiny red stain on it, about five times the size of the one Mother had complained about on her own setting, but still so tiny as to be insignificant. I’d known Mom longer than I’d known any other human being, and yet I still didn’t understand her at all. Why did she get so worked up about insignificant trivia?
   “Not that you’ve done all that terribly badly,” she admitted grudgingly, as she always eventually had. “I mean, you did make it through college and so forth. Not that you didn’t have your moments. Especially over that stolen car thing.”
   My hands were safely under the table; I clenched them both into fists for a moment, then willed myself to relax them. There was something wrong; Mom hadn’t mentioned the incident that had earned me a few months in reform school since I didn’t know when. “That was done and over with twenty-five years back,” I countered, holding my voice as calm and level as I could. “I was a kid. I was stupid. The kids I was with were even stupider for bringing drugs along. The American legal system erases the criminal records of minors, and is wise for doing so. Why can’t you give me the same break?”
   Mom smiled and shifted triumphantly in her seat; she’d scored, and she knew it. “It’s all water under the bridge, I suppose,” she acknowledged, not meaning a word of it. She reached over and touched my cheek. “You’ve done well, I suppose, considering how badly that one slip hurt you. I’ll have to give you that.”
   I smiled back, the expression every bit as sincere as Mother’s loving caress. “It’s only because you’ve been behind me all the way,” I countered. “After I had my troubles, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without you.”
   Mom’s face froze; a point for me. The fact of the matter was that I’d gone into full adolescent rebellion at age thirteen. Instead of trying to help me along, Mom practically disowned me; she’d never so much as lifted a finger for me from that point forward. I’d paid my own way through college, through med school, then a third time to become a gengineer. Plus, I’d bought my own cars, my own clothes, even paid for my own lawyer the one time I’d actually been caught doing something illegal. That had taken a very, very long time at minimum wage. If Mother felt guilty about any of that, it was her problem, not mine. My hands became fists a second time, then unclenched as the waiter brought us our salads. “Thank you,” I said with a smile, grateful for the interruption. “That looks delicious.” I hadn’t eaten any greens in weeks; my mouth was literally watering at the prospect.
   Mom and I ate in silence for a time; apparently she was very hungry too. “So,” she said eventually, when we were about halfway done. “How’s Peg?”
   Suddenly my greens didn’t taste so good. “Okay, the last time I saw her. She’s still a Witness, if that’s what you mean.”
   Mom nodded. “God-damned brainless idiot,” she observed. Mother was a notorious atheist of the angry and meddling sort; she’d taken me to anti-religious demonstrations long before I could walk. “I can’t believe that such an intelligent-seeming woman fell for such a line of crap.” She met my eyes. “In this, I am genuinely sorry for you. What Peg has done to you is beyond all rational comprehension. At least Buddy Boy left me over another woman. That, at least, I can understand.”
   So could anyone else who really knew Mother. I’d hated my absent father for many years, once I was old enough to realize that he should have cared about me and spent time helping me grow up. Then, later, when I finally reached true maturity and developed a genuine understanding of what must have happened between my parents, I found it in my heart to forgive him. By then he was long dead from a car wreck, but at least I felt better about our lack-of-relationship. “I know, Mother,” I replied. “I know.”
   Our main courses finally arrived, and I frowned at Mom’s platter. It was piled high with cheese and starchy spaghetti, far higher than usual. Apparently, management had taken her complaints to heart and was trying to please her. Ordinarily this would have been innocent enough, but… “Mom,” I said rather timidly, watching her tear into the cheesy veal. “Uh… Should you be eating all of that? I mean, there’s your condition…”
   She smiled and finished her first bite of meat before replying. “I’ll take an extra balance-pill,” she promised. “Besides, what’s the point anyway? I’m going to die. You’re going to die. We’re all going to die. It’s all a pointless waste of time. Let everyone else lie to themselves about it; I won’t. It doesn’t matter at all when or how I die. Nothing matters.”
   I nodded again, then tore into my own meal. Life probably was totally pointless, or at least it certainly had been pretty pointless for me ever since Peg had locked me out. Besides, I was actively and knowingly drinking myself to death. So who was I to object?
   “I went to a protest last Sunday,” Mom declared proudly, interrupting my thoughts. “The first one I’ve felt well enough to attend in months! I wish you’d have been there. It was so wonderful! We walked in on a church service shouting ‘God is dead’, then handed out pamphlets on all the factual errors and logical contradictions in the Bible. Sure woke the stupid idiots up! They called the police, and then prayed for us. What utter fools!”
   I nodded as if interested. “Really?”
   “Some of us got arrested, but I was using my walker. Cops hate arresting old ladies with walkers, so they let me go.” Her face lit up. “Though for a few minutes there I thought they were going to bust me, too. If they had, I planned to let my pills fall out of my purse. That way, I might have died in jail. Wouldn’t that have been something? Imagine the headlines! ‘Mysticist congregation causes death of pro-rationalism demonstrator’.”
   I nodded. “That would’ve done it.”
   Mom smiled proudly, and reached over again to caress my cheek. “I so miss these little get-togethers,” she crooned. “Let’s do it again next week. Please?”

-= 11 =-

   I was at Mikhail’s within minutes of dropping Mother off at home; she’d always had that effect on me. After one of her heart-to-hearts, I invariably wanted to either go out and steal a car, shoot myself, or get shit-faced drunk. All three responses, I was wise enough to realize, were variants of the same basic drive.
   Ned was waiting for me at our favorite table when I arrived. “Hi!” I greeted my cousin, grateful for the distraction of his company. Neither of us usually frequented the bar during peak evening hours; what a happy coincidence that both of us should be there! I let myself smile, something I rarely did these days. “How the heck are you?”
   My cousin looked up from his Poison Apple, eyes utterly dead. “Okay,” he answered in a voice equally lifeless. “And you?”
   “I’ve just come from dinner with Mother,” I explained, smile fading away to nothing.
   “My sympathies,” he replied, not bothering to look up again. “If you need to purge, the stall in the men’s room was open a few minutes back.”
   I half-smiled. “It wasn’t that bad,” I allowed. “At least she let me leave a tip for once, instead of complaining about how the waiter didn’t deserve a dime.” There was a long pause as I took in Ned’s defeated posture, the pallor of his skin, and the way his right hand was trembling. “All right,” I said at last, after another long pause. “What’s wrong?”
   “Nothing,” he replied. “Nothing at all.”
   Just like there’s nothing wrong with me, I thought to myself, looking at my own right hand. It was trembling, too. Had been for weeks, off and on. We’re all going to die, Mother’s voice whispered in my ear. All of us, every one. Nothing matters. “I see,” I said eventually.
   Ned sighed, took a long pull of Apple, then met my eyes again. “I’m a fraud,” he said at last. “I have been for years. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for me to admit it to myself. But I just can’t run away from it any longer. I’ve lost my faith.”
   My rum and coke arrived, unasked-for. I raised it in salute to the attentive barmaid, then returned my attention to Ned. “Lost your faith, eh?” I answered. “Well… Forgive me, Ned. In all honesty, I realize that this must be a major emotional tragedy for you. But I’m hardly the man to talk to about such a thing.”
   “Heh!” he grunted, his face taking on a semblance of life for a moment. Then he shook his head and stared down into his drink again. “Maybe you are, and maybe you aren’t. Tell me, how exactly does one live without faith in God, anyway?”
   By telling one’s self a different set of lies, I didn’t reply. Or by becoming my mother. Either way works just fine. “It’s not easy sometimes,” I answered.
   “Heh!” Ned grunted again, smoothing out his cassock. “They teach us at seminary that God is the First Principle behind everything, the Uncaused Cause. The center and arbiter of all ethics and morality. The ultimate meaning of life, even. Heaven is living in the acknowledged presence of God, hell is defined by his absence. He is the root of all love and hope.” Ned sighed and shook his head. “Now, nothing makes any sense. I don’t know what’s right or wrong. Except that it's definitely wrong to vote on God’s will, and that it’s also equally wrong for an old man in Italy to sit there and tell me that it’s not all right for me to love Harold either as a priest or as a gay man.” He slammed his fist on the table. “Not right! Neither of them! And yet if they are both wrong, then the whole house of cards tumbles away to nothing.”
   I shrugged and sipped my drink before replying. “Mom taught me that right and wrong are illusions, and that there is no purpose to anything. There is only what is expedient, and what is not. I try not to think about it too much. It makes my head hurt.”
   “Heh!” Ned replied. “I imagine it would.” Then he leaned forward. “But really, Thomas. Truly.” He shook his head. “You’re getting ready to operate on a man’s soul.” There was a note of wonder evident in his voice. “On his soul, the very essence of who he is. And you don’t think anything more about ethics than it makes your head hurt?”
   Predictably, my head began to throb. “We gengineers adhere to a strict, carefully-thought-out code of ethics,” I explained. “Of course, said code changes every time another country passes a new law. We Americans then immediately scramble to keep up lest we lose too much patent revenue or have to pay foreigners for something valuable that we could have invented ourselves. Then a few years later, the ethics people get around to justifying why the new path was the morally correct one all along. Expediency, just like Mom says.”
   Ned frowned. “Rev-e-nue,” he said slowly.
   “Exactly!” I replied, lifting my glass in salute. “To rev-e-nue!”
   “To rev-e-nue,” he replied. “His plug is being pulled right about now, incidentally. The funeral will be Thursday afternoon. If you want to come.”
   “I have a date already,” I answered. “To see a fairy dance.”
   Ned nodded sadly and looked around the bar. “No one from here is coming. Not a single soul. A man is dead, and nobody gives shit one. Yet these were the closest friends he had.”
   I shrugged. “He was a small man, in all honesty. Small of both mind and spirit. All he ever cared or spoke about was money.”
   Ned’s eyebrows rose. “Isn’t money expedient?”
   “For some people it is,” I allowed. “Me, I can’t stand the stuff any more. All it does is make everyone around me treat like I’m not a total piece of shit, when the reality is that I am.” I shook my head, then spoke again. “Hell, who am I to put money-worship down, now that I think about it? If it made the poor bastard happy, why shouldn’t he have been obsessed with the stuff? There’s never enough happiness to go around in this cold, cruel, miserable world.” I waved my drink in the general direction of the dead man’s seat. “Sorry,” I apologized to his ghost. “I was wrong. Nothing personal.”
   Ned shook his head again. “I… I was so wrong about you,” he said slowly. “When you and Peg were still together, you were the happiest man on earth. I thought you had everything worked out, all the i’s of life dotted and all the t’s crossed.”
   I leaned back my head and laughed. “I did! That’s the funniest part of all!”
   “How so?” Ned asked, his head cocked to one side.
   “I was happy,” I explained. “Happy as a clam. I loved Peg for all she was worth. Still do, really; a man doesn’t fall out of love overnight, divine intervention by Jehovah-God excepted. And that’s the secret of it all! Just being happy! That’s all that matters in the entire universe!” I laughed again, so hard that I had to wipe a few tears from my eyes before continuing. “Loving Peg, and being loved by her, made me happy. Who gives a damn, in the end, about anything else? And now that I’ve lost her, I don’t give a good Goddamn about anything!” Ned was looking at me as if I’d gone mad; he might well have been right, but it didn’t really matter. Nothing mattered, which was the whole ultimate point of things, as Mother understood so very well. “Look. You mentioned soul-surgery.”
   Ned nodded. “I did. The Church hates the idea, by the way.”
   “And why should that matter to you, Mr. Lost-His-Faith?” I countered. His bringing up Peg had brought my cruel streak to the surface. “Look. This kid Daniel. He wants to be kinder, and more loving. That’s all.”
   Ned blinked. “Really? I figured he wanted to become a superman or something.”
   “Really,” I answered. “And, I think I know how to make it happen. Altering brains is nothing new, really. We do it every time we make an anthro. Take, well… Rabbits, for instance. Because this particular kid wants to be a rabbit.”
   Ned nodded. “All right.”
   “A rabbit’s got highly mobile ears,” I continued, pointing towards the air over my head. “And, they act as radiators, too. That’s how a rabbit’s body is cooled, mostly. Very different from human physiology.” I smiled. “The human brain doesn’t have the right hardware to handle this sort of thing. A little coarse ear-wiggling, yes. But beyond that, nothing. So, what do you suppose we gengineers do to create a viable organism?”
   The priest blinked. “You mean…”
   I slapped my palm on the table, startling everyone in the place except Lenin. “Of course! We incorporate rabbit-tissue into the subject’s brain!” I replied. “How in the hell else do you think we can eliminate sweating, which is what a human brain is programmed to do? And with rabbit brain structure comes rabbit sensations and experiences. And, eventually, rabbit thoughts and viewpoints. On a small scale, I mean. Most of the brain remains human. Though less than you might think, after one makes adjustments for nose-wriggling, managing a non-human digestive tract, a tail, new reflexes for hopping… And then, of course, the whole thing has to physically fit in a part-rabbit skull. Which means further large-scale morphing towards a bunny-type brain-plan.”
   “But…” Ned’s mouth dropped open, then closed again. “I’ve never read about this! Not anywhere!”
   “You probably never will,” I answered smoothly, sipping at my drink. It was almost empty; I gestured for another. “It’s not like the information is top secret, mind you. But it squicks people out so badly that we gengineers rarely speak of it.” I half-smiled. “Congress knows, but they don’t speak of it very often either. It’s not expedient to stir up opposition to gengineering at any level, when other nations are continually poised to run ahead.” I shrugged. “Besides, most shrinks think the secondary shaping effects are stronger than the actual rewiring.”
   Ned blinked again. “Secondary effects?”
   I nodded easily, the alcohol warm and glowing inside of me. “When a guy loses an arm in an accident, it will probably change his whole life. Not just by making physical things more difficult for him, but in far more subtle—and far more important!—ways. For example, he might begin to think of himself as a cripple, unable to help himself. One result of this could be that he quits seeking promotions on the job, even if his missing arm has nothing to do with what he does for a living. So his career stagnates. He might begin to doubt that his wife still finds him attractive; this could end the marriage, reducing his self-confidence further still. Which in turn could lead to drinking…” My new rum-and-coke arrived as if on cue; I raised it and smiled. “Pretty soon, we have ourselves a bitter, broke, lonely and very angry one-armed man living under a bridge, all purely due to secondary shaping effects.”
   Ned nodded. “Fascinating!”
   “The same thing happens to anthros,” I continued. “I’ve done a lot of cats. Most opt to become pure carnivores. So they’re permanently on a feline diet. They have feline noses, feline fur, feline muscles, and their brains are in part feline as well; they have to be, in order to control the non-human functions. Plus, most of these guys—and for some reason, it’s almost all guys—identified heavily with cats to begin with. So, over time, as they come to see themselves more and more as cats, they tend to become vain, high-strung, somewhat cold and distant…” I shrugged. “Not all of them, mind you. But an awful lot. My bunny-client noticed this as well; he’s a sharp kid. Gonna make a fine rabbit, I bet.”
   “But…” Ned shook his head as if to clear it. “You’re saying you’ve been altering human souls for a long time now. That this is nothing new after all.”
   “Right,” I agreed. “Doctors have been doing it for centuries, with every amputation. We are our bodies, Ned, in a very real way. There is no such thing as an immutable soul; ask anyone who’s ever worked with a patient brain-damaged in the personality-forming regions. Even a tattoo changes who we are, just a little bit. Though the way I play God as a gengineer is a little more direct. And much more through.”
   “Then what’s the big deal?” my cousin demanded. “Didn’t you say that you’re able to do this now because South Korea passed a new law?”
   “Yep,” I agreed, leaning back and grinning. “Absolutely.”
   “Then… What changed?”
   “Up until now,” I explained quietly, “We could only make changes when our redesign work absolutely required it. Now, I can make brain-changes at will, so long as my patient approves. In other words, I can sculpt his mind as freely as I previously could his body. I can change him more than absolutely necessary, in other words. In regions I was previously not free to touch.” I leaned forward. “And you know what? He wants to be kinder, gentler, and more loving. He would have ended up that way anyhow, most likely, just by becoming a rabbit. Because people expect these traits of bunnies. And in time, he would have come to expect them of himself.
   “But now I can take him further down the rabbit hole than he could ever go before. And I plan to do just exactly that.” I finished my drink and stood to leave, suddenly eager to get back to work. “So long as he pays cash up front, of course. Our Clinic requires that. We don’t do charity work.”

-= 12 =-

   I wanted to get right back to work, but it didn’t quite work out that way. While waiting outside for my cab I suddenly found myself lying on the sidewalk. “Are you okay, Mister?” a teenager was asking me when I came to. “It looks like you just sorta blacked out.”
   I was fine, I assured him, as I regained my feet just in time to climb into the arriving taxi. It was the liver-burn pills, I decided; I’d just taken two in order to clear my head enough to work on the new Daniel. According to the instructions I was never, ever supposed to take more than one a week; perhaps I’d been hitting them a little heavily. When I got back to my office I was still feeling quite woozy. So instead of doing any real work I drew a little blood from my arm and left it down on the lab’s receiving desk, marked “Patient Timothy Leary, standard preliminary workup required, Doctor Thomas.” The results of a standard preliminary workup would cover everything really important, and be ready in a few hours. Then, I went to bed. Or I almost went to bed. But not quite. Instead, I passed out again while taking my pants off, so that I actually slept on the floor instead of my mattress. This wasn’t so bad, I decided as the world spun in ever-tightening circles around me, dimming all the while. My office floor was much more comfortable than the heavily-mulched earth under the shrubbery in front of my house.
   It was daylight when I woke up again, feeling very weak and nauseous. I could tell it was daylight by the sunlight trickling in around the edges of my blackout curtains. It took me perhaps ten full minutes to climb up off of the floor and into my cot, and once there I had to lie still and rest a little while longer before the black spots in my vision cleared enough for me to even think about standing up. The room stank badly; I’d vomited in my sleep, and had been remarkably lucky not to choke to death on the stuff. “Well,” I croaked through the foulest-tasting mouth I’d ever known, looking down at the congealing mess half-soaked into what had until recently been a very nice carpet. “It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. Nothing does.”
   No matter how much a living human being might want to simply lie in peace and never move again, eventually some internal need forces movement. In my case, it was a sudden cramping in my stomach. Black spots or no, I leapt to my feet and rushed into my little bathroom, making it just in time. This time I vomited mostly clear fluids, but they carried a crimson tinge that didn’t bode well at all. This second draining left me shivering and covered in cold, sticky sweat; I barely made it back to my bed before collapsing yet again. At least this time I didn’t quite pass all the way out, and actually managed to make it all the way to the cot.
   A long time seemed to pass before I began to feel human again, or at least human enough to sit up, remove my soiled garments, and reach across to my little office fridge for a coke. I almost splashed a shot of rum into it, then grimaced at the very idea and put the bottle back on the shelf where it had come from. Drinking myself to death was all well and good, yes. That was indeed the plan. But later, when I felt a little better.
   I was halfway through the coke when my phone blinked at me; I’d set it on ‘silent’ months back. “Yes?” I croaked.
   “Hello, Doctor Thomas!” a familiar voice replied. “It’s Nicky, down in the lab. We’ve got two sets of results in for you; a preliminary for a new patient named Mr. Leary, and the full, final detailed workup for your bunny candidate.” He paused. “We’re all so excited about the rabbit down here, Doctor. We can’t wait to meet him. Do you have a date in mind for the procedure yet?”
   The Clinic lab staff did much more than just blood tests; in fact, simple workups like the one I’d requested for myself were almost an insult to their capabilities. During a procedure, it was they who did the day-to-day monitoring and routine chart-reading that made gengineering possible. While they always worked under supervision, in point of fact they were the workhorses of the operation. And Nicky was one of the best. “Not yet, Nick,” I answered, trying to sound as eager and hopeful as my underling. “Though I bet it won’t be more than a week or two.” I paused and tried to think; the wheels turned just a little before freezing up solid once more. “Tell you what. I still haven’t done the final brainwork yet. The biochemistry isn’t set in stone, either. But the broad-brush work is complete. So, I’ll send you what I’ve got in a few minutes, and you can start the program whenever you like. Okay?”
   “All right!” Nicky answered, the enthusiasm in his voice genuine. He’d confided to me once that he wanted some fur-work done on himself someday, once his parents passed on. Something about a raccoon. “I’ll start loading the data as soon as I get it, then. I’ll stay over late, even; it’s been a long time since anything we’ve had to do down here sounded like so much fun! We can begin the in vitro in the morning.”
   Stay over late? I activated the clock on my phone; my heavens! It was four-thirty in the afternoon! I’d slept at least twenty hours!
   Or perhaps been in a light coma…
Lab workers, in theory, were not qualified to interpret blood tests. In practice, they did so every single day. “How about Mr. Leary?” I asked, trying not to let any concern show in my voice. “What do his numbers look like?”
   Nick sighed. “Pathetic, is the best word for them. He’s about your age, Doctor, but not in nearly as good a shape as you are. He’s a chronic alcoholic, and there’s so little liver function left that… Well…” He sighed. “I doubt you’ll approve him for gengineering at all. He might well never come out of the Tank alive. The man’s let things go much too long. Plus, he’s got all kinds of funny stuff going on in his bloodstream. I’m not qualified to say exactly what, but it looks to me like a crazy mix of drug interactions. I’m purely guessing, mind you, but I suspect it was the drugs that ruined his liver more than the booze.” There was another pause. “You want me to send hard copies up to your office?”
   “Right,” I agreed, still forcing a note of cheer into my voice. “Leave them on my formal desk; I’ll pick them up later.” I smiled, despite the sick feeling still emanating from my gut. “I admit it; I’m enjoying working on the rabbit, too. This is going to be fun.”
   “Yep,” Nick agreed. “A lot more fun than rebuilding a wreck of a patient like this Leary guy at least, who did it to himself and would probably do it to himself again even if we did manage to get him out of the Tank in one piece.” He sighed. “Sometimes I just don’t understand some people. Here we live in a universe full of beauty and wonder, and all they care to see are the bottoms of pill and whiskey bottles.”
   “Isn’t it awful?” I agreed, meaning every word. “What a terrible waste.”

-= 13 =-

   My life might have been a terrible waste, but my patient Daniel’s wasn’t. After spending a few minutes going over his and my blood tests, I shrugged and got back to work. I was going to die, because I wanted to die; he was going to live, because he wanted to live. It was as simple as that. I was bound and determined, as his gengineer, to make his new life as wonderful as I could possibly make it. My own existence no longer mattered.
   I was pretty familiar with the anatomy of the brain, and of the importance of the vastly-complex chemical balances therein. My computer was more familiar still; within seconds of my sitting down to work, my monitor displayed a three-dimensional rendering of Daniel’s new gray matter, surrounded by a host of complex pie charts, line-graphs, and numerical matrixes representing both his current brain chemistry and suggestions for improvements. I looked things over and frowned; my program was designed to maintain as fully as possible the original personality of the original patient. Based on what I could see, Daniel’s brain structure and chemistry revealed that he was highly intelligent, very gay, childlike in many aspects of his personality, and probably a bit of an idealist. He was also very greedy, narcissistic, and emotionally cold; the latter surprised me quite a bit, at first. Then I recalled that he’d just married a rich stockbroker who’d been featured on a well-known gay ‘Most Eligible’ list, and things made more sense. There were no pure saints in the world, not as revealed by brain-scan. Almost certainly, Daniel had worked at getting married to someone so desirable. That was human enough, and certainly forgivable given that he very sincerely wanted to change, now that he could.
   I frowned again, then split my overlarge screen and brought up a typical male rabbit’s scan on the other half. Rabbits were not nearly such nice creatures as they were made out to be in tradition and myth, it was obvious for anyone to see. While bunnies were indeed soft and snuggly creatures capable of developing deep friendships with one another, they also sometimes fought cutthroat dominance battles among themselves, nigh unto death. Their love-lives consisted of what among humans would be considered serial aggravated rape, often followed by abandonment. Nor were they very bright. I didn’t have all that much to work with.
   Rabbit-Daniel already possessed some limited lapine mental characteristics, courtesy of those parts I’d had to bring in to make things work at all. In order to give him full tail-control, I’d also had to import the tail-raising startle reflex, and with it a reduction in overall aggression; it was all a single, unbreakable package. This same brain-structure had also biased his ‘fight-or-flight’ bias more towards flight and avoidance of danger, though only by a few percentage points. While I’d pulled in other bits of bunny-brain here and there as well, my software indicated they would have little psychological effect. In the past, under the old rules, this would have been the limits of Daniel’s true, hard-wired rabbity-ness. But now, it was to be only the beginning.
   “Kinder,” I mumbled to myself. “Gentler. More loving.” Wonderful things to aspire to; the human race had sought to make these changes in itself for millennia, through religion, education, and most recently the science of psychology. While these methods had had some isolated successes, overall their record was one of tragic, overwhelming failure. Gengineering, I fully expected, would prove to be a better answer.
   Where do the roots of kindness and gentleness lie? I asked myself. And love? In the physiological sense, that is? While kindness could be learned and unlearned, ultimately it, like all other behavior, was derived from physical brain-structure. In rabbits, we’d learned in early studies, the brain-structures most closely related to the raising and nurturing of young also deeply affected socialization at all levels. Evolutionarily, this probably meant that social-grouping of adults had developed from child-rearing brain structures. On a practical level, it meant that if I tweaked those areas in Daniel’s new brain, then based on the graphs and charts I painstakingly produced into the small hours of the morning, he’d feel impelled to do more to get along with others. Obligated, even.
   Which translated very nicely into kinder, gentler, more loving.
   There was more to do, much more. As I worked the clock around, I did a particularly neat job of translating a bunny’s urge to snuggle into the new brain; this involved my working out a complex translative-technique. I’d never come across anything remotely similar to it before. Patent number forty-eight, I realized slowly, if I bothered to file for it. Snuggling, I reckoned, would serve as an alternate form of secondary behavior-modification; after all, how could you not be kind and gentle to someone you wanted to hug for hours at a time? And Daniel would feel a subconscious urge to hug and rub up next to everyone; not a strong or overt urge, but just enough to make him want them to like him a little more than the typical human would. Besides, I reckoned, with the soft, luxurious fur I had planned for him, Daniel would be continually hugged anyway; he was going to be absolutely irresistible among the furry crowd, and probably outside of it as well. It was a kindness to make absolutely certain he would enjoy the experience.
   The hardest part, in the end, proved to be deciding what not to alter. It was highly tempting, for example, to further reduce Daniel’s capacity for aggression. I’d already cut it a little, as a side effect of all the other work. However, I made no radical changes even though it would have been as easy as playing with his testosterone level. Rabbits, I was shocked to discover, were almost as violence-prone as humans, under all the playful fluff. The world was a cruel place; if Daniel was ever unable to run, I wanted him able to fight. If he wasn’t satisfied with that, then he could go find someone else to play God for him. I’d learned in reform school what happened to the helpless, no matter how kind and loving they might be. My patient had to be able to survive, not just snuggle.
   Suddenly, an endless time later, there was nothing left to do. I was finished. It always snuck up on me that way, the end of a project-stage, and left me feeling cold and empty inside. This was the sensation I hated more than any other; it reminded me of Mom, somehow. I got up out of my chair, joints creaking and protesting from disuse, and paced for a little while, making sure I’d forgotten nothing. Then I sat down once again and forwarded my now-complete design to the legal staff, to my partners for their review, and to Daniel himself along with the urging that he seek a competent second opinion before making the final leap. Almost as an afterthought, more out of habit than anything else, I also wrote my patent attorney about the new translative-technique I’d used; maybe my heirs might make a few dollars off of it.
   When all was finally done, I sat in my upholstered easy chair and drank three rum-and-cokes, to ease the joint aches and fill the emptiness. The liquor never really did all that much for the emptiness, but at least the stuff made me not ache so badly. Then I went to bed, only at the last minute remembering to set my alarm to wake me up so that I’d not sleep forever and a day. Tomorrow—no, today!—was Thursday, and I was scheduled to see young Anne dance.
   I smiled at the thought, just before sleep took me, and suddenly didn’t feel so empty. Anne, it seemed, was a much better cure for emptiness than rum-and-coke had ever been.

-= 14 =-

   Anne’s elementary school was located only a few miles from my house; I looked longingly out the window as the driver steered us past the entrance to my driveway, where my favorite sleeping-shrub was located. “That place belongs to Doctor Aaron,” he explained. “He’s a big-time local gengineer, makes tons of money. Isn’t it gorgeous? Look at all those flowers! The house is really, really old. And the gardens are world-famous.”
   I nodded weakly, noting the unfamiliar blue sedan in front of the garage. “Very nice,” I answered. Probably the car belonged to someone from the Kingdom Hall, I decided.
   “Guy’s got it made,” the driver observed. “How lucky can you get?” Then we were at our destination, where I overtipped, as was my custom, despite the unsolicited tour of my own property. It was almost seven, and I was practically alone on the parking lot. So, I made my way inside to the auditorium. There weren’t all that many parents there, which was kind of sad but also made for plenty of empty seats. Ben was sitting in the center of a patch of empties; he smiled and waved me over when our eyes met.
   “Hello!” I greeted my neighbor.
   “Hi!” he replied, standing up and reaching out to take my hand. Ben’s handshake was firm, and full of calluses. “I’m so glad you could make it!”
   “We… I haven’t missed a recital yet,” I answered almost without a stumble. Instead of dwelling on my mis-speech, I plowed right on. “I bet Anne’s all excited.”
   Ben sat back down and indicated the folding-chair beside him; I took it, with a polite nod of acknowledgement. “She’s been running around the house in costume ever since school let out,” he explained. “Wings and all. I was scared to death that she might tear one off or something; I’m no tailor, not even for plain, ordinary clothing. But we made it in one piece.”
   I smiled at the image of Anne dancing around the plain little house. It made my burning liver feel better; I’d had to take an extra pill to get over my hangover, since I didn’t dare show up at a school function with liquor on my breath. “You’re so lucky,” I said, not really thinking about what I was saying. “What a wonderful little child that girl is.”
   “I’ve always thought so,” Ben explained, turning towards the stage. Something fell behind the curtain, making a loud thump. Then there was a chorus of childish laughter, followed by a more mature tittering on our side of the barrier. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine what had happened.
   “Well, that’s probably a five-minute delay,” a woman in front of us opined.
   “More like ten,” a man a few seats away countered, though judging by his smile he wasn’t in the least upset. “I bet it was a big piece of scenery.”
   “Whatever it was,” Ben said to me, “You can be sure Anne’ll want to tell us all about it afterwards.”
   “Of course,” I agreed easily, crossing my legs and feeling myself smile. “That’s half the fun, when you’re ten.”
   “And when you’re forty,” Ben agreed. Then his smile faded and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I got your e-mail about Anne’s skull injury,” he said.
   I pressed my lips together and nodded. “She’ll be fine. Like I said.”
   “Perhaps,” Ben agreed. He looked down at his feet for a moment, then stared fixedly at the closed stage curtain. “You didn’t say in your note that Tanking a still-growing juvenile carries a twenty-percent mortality rate. Or that even those kids who make it out alive have the devil’s own time with cancer and growth disorders.”
   It was my turn to look down at my shoes. “I didn’t want to worry you,” I replied. “Honestly. By the time Anne needs that kind of treatment, things’ll be lots better. I mean, look at how fast anthro-work has progressed. Like what I do.”
   Ben nodded, still staring at the stage. “She’ll need treatment in four years, tops. That’s what your technician said. Do you agree?”
   I closed my eyes and paraded Anne’s scan-images before my mind’s eye. “That’s about right,” I agreed. “Though before I commit to a specific figure, I’d want to see the actual images again.”
   There was a long silence. Suddenly the stage curtain rippled as someone ran across it from behind, dragging one hand playfully in the fabric. But still the show did not begin; instead, there came a sound of hammering. Improvised repairs, I imagined. “Did you know,” Ben said at last, “that four years ago, the numbers for juvenile patients were almost exactly the same as they are now?”
   I closed my eyes slowly, then reopened them. “No,” I replied. “In all candor, that’s not within my area of specialty. I don’t keep up on juvenile stuff in a detailed way. If I had known, I’d have told you.” I frowned, and wished I had a drink. “But I stand by what I said, in essence. Gengineering as a whole is advancing by leaps and bounds. Advances in one field tend to bleed over and support new techniques in others.” I smiled. “Just yesterday, I began the process of applying for a new procedural patent. For a translative process. I don’t think that it’ll have any applications in juvenile work, but who knows?” I shrugged. “If it doesn’t, someone else’s procedure will. That’s just the way of things.”
   Ben pressed his lips together, then turned to face me. “The work you do is important,” he acknowledged. “And, if the magazines are to be believed, you’ve done more to advance the art of gengineering as a whole than any other living American.” He looked away and shook his head. “You’re a genius, they say. The doc with the golden touch, the man who sees something that in retrospect ought to have been obvious where no one else sees anything at all.”
   “I’m not responsible for what the magazines say,” I countered, my back stiffening. “I haven’t accepted an interview offer in years.”
   “No,” Ben continued. “You’re not responsible for any of that. Which makes it all the more remarkable.” He cocked his head to one side. “You’re into anthros now. Species-bending. It’s valuable work. You’re learning new things for the good of all. I’m not questioning the legitimacy of what you’re doing. Not at all! But before that, you were into accident-restoration work. Until the art grew to the point where nothing worth doing remained undone, or so the magazines say. And before that, you were into brain-damage reversal. That’s where you made your name, refining the procedures until pretty much everything that can be saved is saved, nowadays. That’s still where the bulk of your income comes from, you contributed so much.” Ben turned away. “So, I’m asking you. Research in pediatrics is stalled, by any standards. Have you ever considered changing fields again?”
   I wanted to tell Ben that, friend or no, he really didn’t know what he was talking about. But before I could do so, he was speaking again. “Look, Doctor Aaron. It’s none of my business, none at all. You’ve been good to Anne and me from the minute we met. You’ve treated us like neighbors, social equals, even, where the pretentious snobs who owned that mansion before you treated us like common country dirt, not worthy of their time or notice. They wouldn’t even let Anne on the property, much less play in the gardens! You even saved my niece’s life, and though I’ve been willing to pay you’ve never sent me a single bill for what I know damned well are better medical treatments than we could ever afford for ourselves.” He looked away and shook his head. “I’m so damned sorry about what happened with you and Peg; don’t get me wrong. What she did to you was unforgivable, pure and simple. Totally beyond my comprehension. But… Doc, I’ve just gotta say it!” He shook his head vigorously. “You don’t deserve to suffer the way you are. You’re a good and decent man, even if you don’t believe it yourself, as good and decent as anyone I’ve ever known.” He shook his head again. “Normally, if someone wants to ruin themselves, it’s their own business and no one else’s. But people like Anne and everyone else you can help with your gifts don’t deserve to suffer, either. As they most certainly will unless you stand up like a man, sir, and get your shit back together.”
   For a long moment I sat speechless, mouth hanging open in what must have appeared to be a most ridiculous pose. Then, before I could speak a word, there was a drumroll, the lights dimmed, and suddenly little fairy-winged Anne stood center-stage, among other children dressed as trees, flowers, and forest animals. She raised her little arms in the sudden silence, kicked, spun…
   …and the play was on.
   It was a simplistic little thing, as plays went, full of little errors and miscues. A frog-boy hopped half a beat too late, the stage-left daisy-girl was rocking back and forth much harder than the stage-right one, the singing water-lily muffed a line. And, of course, someone had propped up the owl’s perch with a naked two-by-four; this must have been the cause of the crash and giggling we’d heard earlier. But the performance was still a wonderful thing, right up to the very end where everyone took their original places and froze, leaving only Anne dancing magically among the now-still forest with the spotlight focused on her, and her alone. Until eventually she dropped into a curtsey…
   …and the curtain fell to a silence far more compelling than any applause could ever be.
   “Wow!” I declared to Ben, rising to my feet and applauding like everyone else around us, now that the magic moment had passed. The curtain rose again, revealing all the children in their cute costumes lined up across the stage, looking a little frightened at all the uproar. “Wow! I didn’t know she was the star!”
   “She wanted to surprise you,” he answered, grinning smugly and applauding as hard as he could. He took a break to wave, and Anne waved back at us both, shyly squatting down just a smidgen as she did so.
   “She surprised me, all right!” I answered, grinning and waving back for all I was worth. “She was—” And just then my phone vibrated, indicating an incoming call.
   I didn’t have many patients these days, and even fewer friends. But I was still a medical professional, with binding obligations even in my off-hours. Worst of all, the number on the call was blocked; I had no way of knowing who was on the other end of the line. Fortunately Ben understood my obligations, and covered for me by waving twice as hard as I made my way to the back of the auditorium and out into the hall beyond. “Hello?” I finally said into the tiny receiver when I’d found a semi-quiet place. “This is Doctor Aaron.”
   “Hello, Thomas!” It was Ned’s voice. He was one of the few with my cell number, though he almost never called. “How are you?”
   “Just fine!” I explained. “But it’s kind of a bad time for me. I’m at Anne’s play. She’s up on stage right now. I’ve told you about Anne, haven’t I?”
   “Oh,” my cousin replied, sounding disappointed. “Yes, of course.” There was a long pause. “Well, I suppose you’d better get back to her, then.”
   My brows knitted together. “Is everything all right, Ned?” I asked. My cousin didn’t sound like himself at all.
   “Oh, yes!” he answered, brightening a little. “It’s just, well… This afternoon I performed the service for Josh. The funeral, I mean.” There was a long, pregnant pause. “It was awful, Thomas. Just awful. His ex-wife and grown children were fighting over the estate in the nave when I got there. Screaming obscenities at each other, even. With the body lying right there, just a few feet away. And, no one else came except for them.”
   My heart went out to my relative. Though I didn’t really know what to say. “Geez,” I finally replied, even though the word sounded very lame even to my own ears. “That really sounds rough, Ned.”
   “Your mother is right, Thomas,” he continued, as if I’d not spoken at all. “She always has been. It’s all for nothing.”
   Suddenly there was another outpouring of applause from the auditorium; my feet itched to carry me back inside. Anne would be wondering where I was. “Look,” I said. “This really isn’t a good time for me. But… How about tomorrow evening? At Mikhail’s? The usual table. We can forget our troubles together, like always. Laugh, even.”
   “Sure,” Ned answered me, sounding a little better. “Mikhail’s, the booth right under Lenin’s eye. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you there, Thomas. Very much. I’m sorry we weren’t closer as children.”
   “Me too,” I answered, not really listening. Instead I was craning my neck, trying to see what was going on in the theater through the tiny window in the door. “Me too, Ned.”
   “Well,” the priest replied. “I guess that’s it, then. Good-bye, Thomas. You’re the best family I’ve got.”
   “Good-bye,” I answered back. “I’ll see you tomorrow at…”
   But Ned had already hung up.

-= 15 =-

   I was still smiling from Anne’s warm good-bye hug as I retraced my route back to the clinic in yet another cab. By the time I’d gotten back to my seat she was waiting there for me with her uncle, glowing with pride. It had been wonderful indeed to stand alongside her and share in her moment of triumph; other parents had come by to congratulate her, as well.
   What if Peg and I had decided to have kids of our own? I wondered to myself as the world crept by. Perhaps then, things might have been different? We’d decided we were much too busy and broke, while we were still young. And then later, we’d decided we were too set in our ways to start a family.
Was this where we’d gone wrong?
   At least my new driver spared me the travelogue as we rounded the curve in front of my home, but the blue sedan was still parked in front of the garage. “Hold up,” I instructed, pointing. “Make a left in this driveway. The one right here.”
   “Are you sure?” the twenty-something girl driving asked, hitting the brakes and slowing us to an uncertain crawl. “That’s a pretty ritzy place. We might get nailed for trespassing or something.”
   “We won’t,” I assured her. “Promise. The owners are like family to me.”
   “Really?” she asked, impressed, as she made the left-hand turn into the drive and rolled us silently up the gentle slope until the cab was up close behind the mysterious blue car.
   “Wait here, please,” I instructed her. “I might be a few minutes. But you’ve run my credit card already, right?”
   She nodded. “Take all night if you want to,” my driver answered. “The meter’s running, and I’ve got my needlepoint to work on. Don’t mind me.”
   “It won’t be that long,” I answered as I climbed out. “Less than half an hour, certainly.”
   There was nothing in any way extraordinary about the blue car, when I looked it over. It was two or three years old, of average price and American manufacture, and in good repair. It could have belonged to anyone.
   No one answered when I rang the front bell; after a very long wait I tried a second time, and again got no result. Something’s wrong, a little voice whispered in my left ear. Peg doesn’t ever go anywhere this late.
   Just then another car came around the corner and, with a crunching of gravel and a screech of tires, swung up into the driveway. The driver gunned his engine hard as he completed the turn, then came barrelling up the narrow roadway much faster than I’d ever done. At first it appeared he might rear-end the parked cab, but he hit the brakes just in time, effortlessly hauling the little two-seater convertible to a complete stop in much less distance than most people would have thought possible.
   I wasn’t fooled, however. In fact, his being able to stop in such a short distance was no surprise to me whatsoever. Because it was my car he was driving.
   With Peg sitting close alongside him.
   “Hi!” Peg greeted me, climbing awkwardly out of my little Mercedes. She’d always hated the car and refused to ride in it, back when we’d still been together. Because, she claimed, it was too cramped and awkward and undignified for people of our stature. Now her cheeks were flushed with excitement and her hair all awry from the whipping wind. She seemed to have trouble meeting my eyes. “We… Ah… Uh…”
   “Your car had been sitting for months,” the man with her explained. “It’s not good for a car to sit so long.” He crossed his arms. “Peg’s asked you to take possession I don’t know how many times; it’s not in her part of the settlement.” He frowned. “Any more than all of your personal stuff that you’ve never come to pick up. It’s all still here for you, in crates, any time you want it. In the way, in fact.”
   “The car is still joint property,” Peg pointed out. “Technically speaking. Until the divorce is final, at least.” She looked away again. “Perhaps I should have asked first. But the weather was just so perfect, and…”
   I nodded coldly. “Don’t sweat it. You’ve been more than considerate through all of this, about many things. The last thing I’m going to do is get angry about an issue as trivial as my car being driven without permission. Besides, you’re right. The car is technically still joint property.”
   Peg looked down at the blacktop. “Thank you,” she murmured.
   “You know,” the man continued, “if I were so lucky as to own a ride like that, I wouldn’t leave it sitting so long.”
   I looked at Peg and raised my eyebrows; we’d been married for twenty years, and she still knew how to interpret my body language. “This is Jim Lake,” she explained. “He’s an Elder down at the Kingdom Hall.”
   “Ah,” I replied, carefully not extending my hand in a gesture of friendship. Nor did Elder Jim offer his own hand.
   “Peg has told me that she’s given you tracts to read,” Jim said, his arms still crossed. “Have you read them?”
   “I’d rather burn my eyes out with acid,” I replied honestly. Something had broken inside of me, something primal and ugly and… liberating. Peg flinched at the words, but it was worth it. I’d been wanting to say that for months, now.
   “You’re in league with the devil!” he countered, making a flippant gesture with his right hand. Then he wrapped his arm around my soon-to-be ex-wife and pulled her close. “You’ve been evil for so long that you’ve lost track of everything that’s good and normal and decent, gene-cutter!”
   Ignorant louts like Jim, I knew how to deal with. They were easy enough to disregard, a dime a dozen. Mother had taught me that much, if nothing else. It was Peg who was ripping my soul out. Ignoring her boyfriend as thoroughly as if he’d never existed, I turned back to Peg. “Even now,” I said slowly. “Even now, I still love you with all of my heart and soul. For twenty years, we shared our lives. I was happy, and I thought you were happy as well. I’d still take you back in a second, if you’d have me. You’re all I’ve ever lived for.” Jim tried to interrupt me, but I waved him into silence. If he tried to interrupt me again, I fully intended to lay him out on the pavement before he knew what hit him; you learned how to do that sort of thing in reform school, or else you spent a lot of time on the pavement yourself. “I don’t understand what happened, or why I lost you,” I continued. “I don’t understand it at all, and every time I’ve tried to talk to you about it, you’ve put me off.” I balled my fists and let them dangle at my sides. “Please, Peg. Don’t put me off. Not again. I just can’t stand it.”
   “Now see here—” Jim began, stepping forward. I pivoted on the balls of my feet, shifted my weight just so, and kicked him in the left kneecap. “Ungh!” he cried out, instantly collapsing to the blacktop and clutching his injured joint. Peg flinched in horror and took two steps back, looking first at me and then at her boyfriend, not quite knowing what to do.
   “It’s not broken,” I assured her, not sparing Church-Elder Jim a glance. Mother would have been proud indeed. “I held back. If he’s smart enough not to get up, and to keep his trap shut, I won’t have to do anything like that again.”
   Peg’s jaw worked once, as if she was about to speak, and then a second time. Finally she half-shrugged and looked up to Heaven for guidance. “Oh God! Oh Jehovah-God!”
   “What happened?” I demanded again. My marriage was truly ruined now; any slight hope of ever salvaging anything of it had vanished when the side of my foot had impacted Jim’s kneecap. Or, more correctly, any slight hope of ever salvaging anything had ended the moment that Jim drove my sports car up my driveway with my wife at his side; I was realistic enough to recognize the true roots of my rage, even without the broad hint offered me by the waves of savage exultation racing up and down my brainstem at the sight of my helpless, cowering rival. But still, I had to know! “Come on, Peg. Give! What really happened?”
   “I…” she stuttered, not at all the icy-calm, in-control matron who usually greeted me at the door, but far more the immature, inexperienced nineteen-year-old I’d married so long ago. “It’s all been great for you!” she finally snapped. “But what about me?”
   “What about you?” I demanded angrily. Jim looked up at me just then, but a single glare made him back down. “I gave you everything! We were rich! And famous! We travelled the whole world! Anything you ever dreamed of, you could have!”
   “But… Everything was so empty!” Peg blubbered. “Nothing meant anything. Our life was empty! And you were empty, too.” She wiped at her eyes. “You’re so cold and so empty, just like your mother, even though you don’t realize it. You’re sick in spirit, both of you, sick unto death! You say you love me, yes. And, I think you really believe you do. I’ll give you that much, Thomas. You’re sincere as can be, and loyal, and thoughtful, and honest, and…” Her eyes screwed up again. “But empty! Cold! Purposeless! Jehovah-God can save you, Thomas! I know he can! Like he saved me! I… I cheated on you, Thomas, over and over again for fifteen years. Took advantage of how much you trusted me. With men who were warm and affectionate and who believed in something! Who had a great, important mission in life, like saving souls. I was wrong to cheat on you; I know it. But God forgave me! He’s loving, and caring, and—”
   Just then I realized that my phone was vibrating again. I was a still a doctor; even at this moment, Peg understood that I had obligations. So she just nodded slightly as I held up one finger to indicate that I needed a moment to myself, then looked at my cellular-unit.
   It was Mother calling, of all people. Two family calls in one evening, where normally I went weeks without receiving any! And, she’d added the emergency symbol that hadn’t been used between us since I was twelve. “Hello?” I said, raising the receiver to my ear. “Mom?”
   “Hello, dearest,” she greeted me. Her voice was all warm and silky; something very bad must have happened to someone, I realized, to make her feel so good.
   “What’s wrong?” I demanded.
   ’It’s your cousin Ned,” she answered, sounding happier than I’d heard her in years. “He’s attempted suicide. Slit his wrists. Harold found him in the bathtub, heart already stopped. They resuscitated him, but he went a long time first.” She practically purred with joy. “He’s in City Hospital’s ICU. No one there thinks he’s going to make it.”

-= 16 =-

   I pleaded with my cab driver. I offered her substantial bribes, and cursed aloud when she stopped at red lights instead of blasting on through. She was patient with me, and kind; I’d leveled with her about my cousin being on death’s doorstep, and she understood my angst. But no matter how loud or demanding I became, she refused to do anything unsafe. I tipped her well anyway; even at that moment, when my entire world was unraveling, I realized that she was right, and that I was so very, very twisted and wrong.
   I knew City Hospital well; one of my previous Clinics had been located right across the street, and we’d rented bed-space and nursing services for our patients on an as-needed basis. The ICU was located on the ground floor, at the southeast corner of the building; I had my driver drop me in the ambulance lane, so I only had to jog a few steps to the main patient entrance. I didn’t even have time to clip my medical ID into place on my lapel; instead I waved it vaguely at the guard and then at the duty-nurse as I briskly strode back to the treatment rooms.
   Figuring out which room held my cousin proved not to be at all difficult; Harold, Ned’s life partner, was leaned up against the wall just outside the nearest doorway, bawling his eyes out and pounding the wall with his free hand, while a dejected-looking doctor filled out what I already knew was a death certificate. Medical professionals do not like to give up on patients, and whenever someone finally has to put the paddles down, a palpable scent of gloom fills the air. Ned was gone; you could see it all over the faces of the ER team, if you knew where to look. Just then the doctor glanced up. I waved my badge at him, catching his eye, then pointed into the room and made a questioning gesture with my hands. He shook his head slightly in response, then returned to his dismal paperwork.
   My cousin was gone. Ned was gone. A suicide.
   My fists balled up, and for just a tiny second I wanted to pick up the trauma-tray in front of me and throw it and all its shiny instruments down the hall. I wanted to kick and scream, to rage and pound things and foam at the mouth. Ned! Oh, Ned! But instead I forced myself to open my hands, one at a time, then step the rest of the way down the corridor to where Harold was weeping like a man utterly lost. “I’ve got him,” I instructed the nurse whose arm was wrapped around his shoulder, flashing my ID again. “I’m family, not on staff. But I’ve got him.”
   “Right,” the nurse agreed, backing off and allowing me to take over. “And I’m very sorry, Doctor. We did our best.”
   I forced a professional smile as Harold half-spun then, recognizing me, dropped sobbing into my arms. “I know, Nurse. I know.” I inclined my head towards the waiting room; the nurse nodded and pirouetted out of the way. “I know.”
   It was a long sloppy evening. The hospital’s grief counselor came by as Harold sat next to me and poured out his sorrow to the world, but she wisely stepped aside when the first of what proved to be about a half-dozen American Catholic priests arrived. Soon Harold was surrounded by them and I’d edged my way far off to one side of the crowd, which was appropriate enough since Harold and I, while we’d gotten along well enough the few times we’d met, had never been particularly close. Finally, when I figured that I was far enough away from Harold for him not to miss me, I tapped an elderly priest on the shoulder. “Are you going to take care of him? Make sure he’s not left alone, and all of that?”
   He nodded. “Of course.” Then he looked me up and down. “How about you, son? Are you all right?”
   “I’ll be fine,” I assured him. “But Harold, here…”
   “We’ll take care of him,” the priest reassured me, taking me by the shoulder and leading me away from the group. “How do you know Father Ned?”
   “I’m… I was his cousin,” I explained. Was! the little voice in my head screamed in agony. Was! “We grew fairly close, in recent years. I… He…” Though I tried my hardest to prevent it, I felt my own face screwing up. “He called me earlier tonight,” I explained, my voice bent out of recognition by the lump in my throat. “He… He sounded depressed. But I was too busy to talk. At a play, you see. A kid’s play. It was a really big deal to her. So I thought we could talk tomorrow instead. And… And…” For a brief moment I lost control and openly wept on the old man’s shoulder. Then I remembered who I was and that I was entitled to no comfort from a man of the cloth. Or at least not any man of the cloth outside of Ned; that was different. And Ned… I’d never comfort myself on Ned’s shoulder now, not ever again. So, gently, I pushed the priest away. “I’m all right,” I reassured him. “I’m a doctor myself. Used to this sort of thing. But… Thank you anyway.”
   “Right,” the old man answered, smiling gently. “Of course.” Then his smile faded. “You need to see someone, you know. Talk to them about this. Perhaps your wife, or another relative. It wasn’t your fault that you didn’t have time. Children are important, too.”
   His lie rang and echoed around my head. It wasn’t your fault It wasn’t your fault It wasn’t your fault… “I’m a doctor,” I replied. “I know it wasn’t my fault.” I forced another weak smile. “I’ve been trained, too.”
   “Of course,” the priest repeated, looking worried. “Of course.”
   “Thank you,” I answered, taking two steps backward and nearly tripping over a chair I hadn’t noticed. Embarrassed, I forced another fake smile. “Thank you very much. But I’ll be fine.”
   “Of course you will,” the old man answered, his eyes tired and defeated. “Good night, Doctor. And I’m so very sorry for you.”
   So very sorry for me. So very, very sorry. “Good night,” I repeated back to him, for lack of anything better. “Please, just take care of Harold. There’s no one else unless my mother shows up. Ned’s aunt. But even if she does, she won’t be wanting any help from you either. I’m quite certain of that. Good night!”

-= 17 =-

   It was raining when I left the ER, more a drizzle than anything else. I had no destination in mind. My body craved booze, that was a given after such a long, dry day of subsisting on nothing but pills and food and water. But even the thought of entering Mikhail’s with Ned lying cold and stiff in a morgue somewhere made me screw up my face and want to sob again. It wasn’t your fault It wasn’t your fault It wasn’t your fault…
   The Clinic was only a few blocks away; there would be rum and coke there, I realized after a time, as well as dry clothes and a nice warm cot to weep in. And, if that wasn’t enough, there would be work for me to do there. Work that might distract me for a short time, help me escape from the persistent, maddening voices in my head. I cheated on you, Thomas, over and over again for fifteen years. Cheated on you cheated on you cheated on you…
   The guard was doing a crossword puzzle when I came in; he looked quite startled to see me without having a taxi pull up to the curb first. I brushed past him without speaking; it was out of character, but that was just fine by me.
   There was indeed rum and coke waiting for me in my office. I mixed and downed two large drinks before the terrible voices began to slur and loose track of exactly what they were saying halfway through their sentences. So when I poured myself a third coke I didn’t splash any rum into it; enough was enough, when I had serious work to do.
   And serious work awaited me, I could see from the oversized yellow envelope and single large package that awaited me on my work desk. It was the patient-package I’d ordered for Daniel-bunny. Over the years, my profession and the shrinks had worked out a fairly standardized methodology for helping our patients adapt psychologically to a new body. I opened the envelope and let the big fragrant leather book inside slide onto my desk, making a substantial thump as it landed. I smiled to myself in satisfaction; any sort of inexpensive notebook would have sufficed for keeping a patient’s personal Journal and daily checklists near-to-hand, but I’d gone all out for my furries. The cover was of hand-tooled Cordovan leather, the leaves were gilt-edged, and I’d specified only the very finest paper. The kind of people who sought my services were generally used to fine things, and several patients had already informed me that they’d continued with their journals far longer than the suggested year. Idly I flipped the cover open to see what Daniel had decided to name his Journal; The Book of Peace,” I read aloud. It was as good a title as any, I supposed. Then I scanned up and down the checklists, verifying that everything had been thought of and nothing was amiss. “Day Zero Minus Five,” read the first checklist. “Spend half an hour brushing your bunny as soon as you get up; keep in mind that very soon now this will be how you start every single day. Tell three friends about the big change coming up in your life. Take your bio-prep meds morning and before bed. Write five paragraphs in the space below about how being a bunny will make things different for you, then five more about things that will be the same.”
   I smiled, then worked my way through the rest of the book. Everything seemed to be in order, so I opened up the package. It contained a quarter-scale custom model of Daniel’s new body, mocked up so realistically it seemed almost as if my computer-animations had come to life. Danny was to care for it as if it were real for the last few days before entering the Tank. This was not so much to ensure that he knew how to brush a bunny-body; anyone could do that. Rather, the exercise was intended to help him familiarize and bond himself with his shape-to-be, so that when he looked down at himself from the inside for the first time, he would not be seeing or feeling or smelling anything he hadn’t seen or felt or smelt many times before. I couldn’t wait to give the thing to Dan; unless I missed my guess, his face would light up like a child’s.
   There was a plain paper envelope waiting for me under the bunny-box; I didn’t even notice it until I’d cleared away the stuffed doll. My name was hand-written on it, but there was no address. Shrugging, I ripped it open and read.

   Dear Doctor Aaron:

   I sincerely regret to inform you that my life-partner Daniel Patten and I have broken up. The circumstances of this breakup are of an entirely personal and private nature, and I would be most grateful if you would treat this as a confidential matter. Neither Daniel nor I are eager to face the Press after such a short marriage.
   This unfortunate and unforeseen situation forces me to cancel Daniel’s change into an anthro-rabbit. I regret this on many levels. First, I still hope someday to engage your services to make me into an anthro-ferret, and therefore the last thing I desire is to create bad feelings between us. Second, before our misfortune Daniel showed me the design you’d worked up for him, and I must say I was immensely impressed. It is almost a crime that no one will ever wear such a magnificent work of art. And, thirdly, I regret the waste of your time and resources, time and resources which might have been better spent on a project that stood a chance of achieving fruition.
   Of course, I recognize that I will forfeit my advance deposit, and surrender all rights to you. This is what the contract I signed called for under these circumstances, and therefore these are the terms to which I shall adhere. Again, my most sincere desire is that our personal relationship remains undamaged; someday, Doctor, I very much hope to do business with you again.

Gus Patten

   I sighed and let the letter fall onto my desk, then stared blankly at it for a very long time. So, on top of everything else, my pet project was dead. Just like my marriage was dead. And my cousin was dead. Financially, it didn’t really matter too much; I had the deposit, and my new patent, if it paid off, would likely net me more than a dozen actual anthro-jobs. But… But…
   Suddenly I was angry again. I slammed my fist on the desk, bouncing poor Danny-bunny half an inch into the air. “God damn it!” I roared. “God damn it all to hell!” I’d wanted to bring this particular bunny to life, wanted to remap Daniel’s mind for the better, wanted to be able to work through this night of all nights, this worst night of my life! But now there was nothing to distract me from my misery! Nothing to dream about.
   Nothing matters, my little voice whispered. Everyone dies, eventually. Your Mother has always understood this. Everyone and everything. Dreams. Love. Friends. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. It’s all an illusion.
“No!” I roared again, not sure even who or what it was that I found so wrong or unacceptable about things dying. Death was the most natural thing in the world, after all. It happened every single day. “No!”
   Then I stood up, forced my hands to relax, and unclenched my jaw. A drink, my little voice whispered. A drink in a bar. That’s what you need. And maybe a happy pill or two. You’ll feel lots better.
   “No,” I whispered, speaking aloud. “No, not Mikhail’s. No! I couldn’t stand it! Not tonight!”
   It has to be somewhere, the voice replied smoothly. Now doesn’t it? And you know other parts of town…
   I nodded to myself, then opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle of pills. Yes, there were other bars. Not as nice, not as clean, not as safe. But they sold rum.
   There you go! my voice crooned as the pills slid down my throat. That was easy enough, wasn’t it? It’s not your fault you’re a junkie. Not your fault not your fault not your fault…
   “Not my fault,” I agreed aloud, pulling my worn-out old trench coat from the closet; the rain was growing worse, I could tell from the pounding at my window. “Not my fault. None of it is. Doesn’t matter anyway.”
   There you go! the voice repeated as I pulled out my cell-phone and dialed the taxi company. It sounded a lot like Mom, now that I thought about it. There you go! Nothing matters and everything dies. It’s a perfect night for dying. Don’t you think?

-= 18 =-

   My head felt as if it were about to split open. Brilliant lights flashed in my eyes, and thunder roared. My bed gently rocked back and forth to the howling of the wind. “God damnit!” I muttered, rolling over and trying to block out all of the uproar. “God damnit all to hell!” But the wind didn’t quit, the thunder didn’t stop, and the lightning continued to flicker and dance all around me.
   I didn’t know where I was. Or, for that matter, how I’d gotten there. It didn’t matter, really. Nothing mattered, and everything died. I rolled over onto my side in what I now vaguely understood to be the cramped, uncomfortable seat of a car, so that I was facing the seat’s backrest. There! That was better! And I’d almost fallen back asleep when a steady drip-drip-drip of icewater began to fall on my left ankle.
   “God damnit!” I roared again, this time actually raising my head up off of the cheap vinyl upholstery and blinking a few times. The car I was in was already too small to make a comfortable bed; clearly it was some kind of compact model. One so cheap that it leaked in the rain. I tried drawing my feet up closer to my body, but that didn’t help any either. My ankle stayed dry that way, but lines of fire drew themselves up and down my back and spine. My right arm and the left side of my face felt all swollen, too. God, but I was stiff and sore!
   Cold, too, I suddenly realized. Cold, and getting colder. I tried to wrap my trench coat up tighter around me, but somehow I seemed to have lost it. My ever-present lab-coat was missing, too. It was no wonder I was cold, I suddenly realized in an unwelcome spurt of clear, rational thought. A cold front had come in; after all, winter was long overdue. That was what the storm was all about. And I was sleeping in a car, in my shirtsleeves. Hung over, at that.
   There was an exceptionally bright flash of lightning then, followed almost immediately by a deep bass ‘Ba-room!’ of thunder. It was enough to wake the dead; even I blinked and shifted position a little. But it was my ankle and the icewater dripping onto it that finally brought me fully awake; somehow, my legs had managed to stretch themselves out again.
   “Fuck!” I muttered, finally giving up and accepting I wouldn’t be getting any more sleep, no matter how badly I needed it. My mouth tasted like an open sewer, my eyes felt like two pissholes in the snow, and every joint in my body felt as if it were filled with broken glass. God, how I needed a drink!
   Despite the lightning all around me, I couldn’t see a thing. The windows of the car were all fogged up. But even if they hadn’t been, the wind was blowing the rain almost sideways; it struck the car in perceptible sheets, each impact sufficient to shift the car’s suspension slightly as if it were staggering under a blow. I’d rarely seen such a storm.
   Moving slowly, so as to favor my aching back and right arm, I inched myself around until I was sitting behind the car’s wheel; after all, I reasoned, I couldn’t get myself a rum and coke until I at least sat up first. Everything felt strange and odd, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It wasn’t until I reached out and tried to find the key to turn the heater on that I realized something was wrong.
   The ignition switch wasn’t where it should have been. And… And…
   How exactly had I gotten here, wherever I was? The last I could remember, I’d been leaving my office, warm and comfortable, looking to go out and try to forget… try to forget…
   Suddenly I was weeping, though at first I wasn’t sure quite why. Then I remembered it all. Ned. Peg. Daniel. All of them, everything worthwhile in my life, gone. There was a box of tissues in the car; I used up most of them before my sorrow was finally spent. Or at least it was spent for the moment; in time, I realized dully, I would cry again and again. But, for the moment at least, all I felt was dull and empty. And cold. And thirsty for a drink. Thirsty, thirsty, thirsty.
   There were pills for that, I knew. Wonderful pills that made me not hurt, not weep, not thirst. And I always, invariably, carried some just in case. Smiling just a little at my own cleverness, I reached up into my special pocket…
   …and found nothing, nothing at all. My lab coat, with all its pharmaceutical miracles, was God only knew where. I certainly didn’t; that was for sure.
   A slight panic rose inside of me. Perhaps it was in the back seat? I fumbled at the dashboard until I found a switch that made the interior lights come on. I was inside a green car, I saw immediately, a green car with many holes worn in the seats, and a badly sagging headliner. The back seat was absolutely full of junk; little kids’ toys, a child’s safety-seat, a basket of dirty laundry. But nowhere, nowhere, could I find my pills!
   My head began to pound, even worse than before. Most of the time, when I was hung over, the pain focused in my temples. This time, however, it seemed to find its home in the left side of my face. I reached up and tried to massage some of the throbbing away, but agony flared at the lightest touch, so that I jerked away in reflex. “Ah!” I complained, my tongue thick and dirty. “Aaah!” Blinking painfully in the too-bright light, I reached up and swiveled the rear-view mirror around so I could see myself. My face was swollen badly, much of it one massive bruise. With the utmost delicacy, I used my tongue to systematically explore the inside of my mouth; sure enough, an upper molar was missing. Something had hit me, hard. I didn’t remember exactly what. But whoever or whatever it had been, I could tell by my sore knuckles and bruised feet, had paid dearly for the privilege.
   My God! What on earth had I been up to last night? How had I ended up out here, clearly somewhere in the middle of nowhere? And… And…
   Whose car was this, anyway?
   A sudden icy certainty hit me; I knew the truth long before I looked down and saw the big daisy-decorated keychain dangling sunnily from the ignition key. I’d stolen this car, I knew as surely as if I could remember the act. Stolen it with a vicious, angry sneer on my lips, just as I had done for fun as a rebellious little shit of a teen when I’d been having a bad day. “God damnit!” I repeated, pounding the dash with a still-sore fist. “God damn the whole world to fucking hell!”
   Then I closed my eyes and tried to force myself to think a little. You’re such a disappointment, Mother’s voice whispered in my aching mind. That’s what she’d said right before she walked out of the police station and left me to my fate, back when I’d been a kid. After all the advantages you’ve had, you’re a common criminal. A loser! If only you’d been stronger…
   Part of me wanted to go back to sleep; the storm had passed now, leaving only a cold drizzle in its wake. If I did so, then eventually the cops would come and haul me away; I’d been to jail before, and I could survive it again. Or not, if I chose; it didn’t really matter. But… But… But…
   Damnit! The car I’d been caught in hadn’t been my first, not by a long shot! I’d gotten away with auto theft a dozen times or more before being caught, and I knew the rules of the game. If I’d been able to get away with it then, then surely I ought to still be able to do it now!
   So, it was childish pride that finally got me moving when all I really wanted to do was lie still and die. Very carefully, I used my remaining tissue paper to wipe down the entire inside of the car. The old thing wasn’t worth much, I judged; probably the cops wouldn’t bother running a print-check on it anyway. But if they did, I made sure they would find nothing. Then, without touching anything directly, I stuffed the used tissues into my pockets and swung the driver’s door open.
   It was much colder outside the car than I’d expected; not far above freezing, I judged. The icy wind felt good on my swollen face, though it cut right through the rest of me. The night was still plenty dark, but the retreating lightning storm revealed enough, in bits and flashes, for me to be able to make out the basics of my situation. Somehow or another, I’d found my way far out into the country. I was just off a side-road that ran next to a creek; either drunk or blinded by the rain, I’d driven off the pavement into a muddy little ditch. While the vehicle seemed undamaged, it clearly wasn’t going anywhere on its own.
   It was time to do some thinking. If I walked either way down the road and was seen by a police patrol, then they would undoubtedly associate me with the stolen car. While no sane police organization would routinely do DNA tests or other expensive forensic work on a stolen junker, once my name entered the picture all bets were off. It had been raining hard; trying to ford the little creek was liable to get me killed.
   So, by Hobson’s choice, I set out across the freshly plowed field.

-= 19 =-

   It didn’t take long for me to come to realize that Hobson, whoever he’d been, was a total idiot. There weren’t any trees or buildings out in the field to break the cold, keening wind, and while it wasn’t raining very hard any more I was soaked to the skin in minutes. Plus, the field was a sea of black mud, and I was wearing ordinary street shoes. Before long I was carrying them; with each step, the sucking, gripping mud had been tearing them from my feet anyway. Even barefoot, with every single step I pulled a huge divot of mud out after me, so that I must have looked like some kind of prisoner staggering through the darkness, equipped with not one but two balls-and-chains.
   It was exhausting enough just trying to cross the field, but I wasn’t feeling all that well going into the enterprise. My liver was burning again, even though I’d taken no pill to provoke it, and somewhere along the line I seemed to have lost a lot of my once-excellent cardiac conditioning. I was puffing and blowing with each mudball-lifting step, and my heart was thumping along like I’d taken a pep pill. If things went on too long, I was a prime candidate for a heart attack. All of this was on top of my pounding headache, dehydrated mouth, and missing molar.
   It wouldn’t have been so bad, I told myself as I sort of step-waddled along, sometimes stopping to scrape the mud off of my feet and sometimes not, if I could just remember what had happened, and where I’d been. I was familiar with alcoholic blackouts; anyone who studied medicine just about had to be. But I’d never experienced one before. Or perhaps it had more to do with my having been hit on the head? I’d clearly both been drinking and fighting…
   Maybe I’d even had good reason to steal the car. Maybe it had been my only way out of a bad situation. If only I could remember!
   But, I somehow knew, I never would.
   The plowed field hadn’t looked all that big when I’d started out; a mile wide, at most. Even at the rate I was plodding along, I should have been shut of it in an hour or so. But as the lightning storm receded over the horizon, it grew darker and darker. There was no moon anywhere in sight. My head pounded harder and harder, and I had to stop more often to rest.
   And, worst of all, it steadily grew colder.
   At first, the chill in the air had actually been a good thing; it had perked me up, gotten my mind working, even felt nice on my swollen cheek. But now it was turning into something else entirely, a numbing, deadly force that tried to penetrate my body from all directions at once, driving icy little arrow-heads into my chest, my muscles, and my brain. I was working my body very hard just moving along through the muck, very nearly as hard as it was capable of working at all. And yet, I was still shivering like a fevered wretch!
   The field stretched on and on; I fell sometimes, and over and over again had to lever myself back onto my feet. It was bad, very bad, a walking, staggering nightmare. All the while my liver burned brighter and brighter. There’s no reason for any of this, my little voice whispered to me while I was lying catching my breath. No reason at all. You’re going to die anyway, sooner or later. And this field isn’t such a bad place. Why get up?
   Why indeed? I wondered. Why indeed? It wouldn’t take more than a few minutes of lying still, I reckoned, to do me in. Most likely my damaged, abused body would fold up in nothing flat, if I but let it. So I laid there for a while longer, until I realized my mouth was filling with mud-water. It tasted like shit—literally, not figuratively. The farmer must have been spread a thick layer of manure recently. “Gak!” I choked, my mouth now tasting worse than ever. “God damnit!” Even getting up and walking a little further wasn’t as bad as dying with a mouthful of shit!
   The field went on and on; the thing seemed endless. My thighs ached, my head hurt, I hadn’t felt my bare feet since I didn’t know when. I must have been covered with black, filthy, manure-laced mud, though I couldn’t tell in the dark. And the voices were coming back. Shit’s not so bad, they whispered to me. You’ve lived your whole life knee-deep in shit. Your shit, your mother’s shit, Peg’s shit… There’s not a bit of point to any of it.
   “No point,” I agreed aloud, staggering along. Everyone knew that, or at least anyone who had a brain. God didn’t exist; couldn’t exist, in any form recognizable to anything resembling a religion. And even if He did, He surely didn’t give a shit about me. Or else why had He pointed me in the direction of this fucking shitfield?
   You may think there are good times, the voice continued. But it’s just happy-chems being released in your brain. Brain-chemistry, all of it. Good times, bad times, the illusion of free will. Your whole being. Love, joy, pain, it’s all just chemicals in your brain.
“Chemicals,” I agreed, huffing and puffing as the mud thickened a bit. I must have hit a low spot. “Brain chemicals, is all we are. Electrochemical interactions. No fucking different than a battery going flat.”
   Going flat, the voice agreed. All batteries go flat, eventually. Even the universe will eventually die. And nothing and no one will care.
   “I made brains better!” I observed, crossing my own tracks once again. God, but I was so incredibly lost! Not that it really mattered, in the greater scheme of things. I’d been lost since I was a child, really. Never had a chance. No one did. The whole world was a shitfield. “Made people better, too! Or I would have!”
   Still mortal, the voice observed. Still mortal, still limited, still material, still flawed. Nothing special.
Somehow, I’d fallen and hadn’t noticed. I didn’t realize it until my mouth was full of shitwater again. “Gah!” I protested, shaking my head vigorously to try and sling the evil stuff out of me. “Fuck!”
   It’s not so bad, the voice repeated. Rotting tastes pretty bad, too. And that’s inevitable. Total. Permanent. Your only true destiny.
   “Fuck!” I screamed again, once more climbing to my feet. “Fuck you!”
   Fuck yourself, the voice answered calmly. You always have. You always will.
   “Goddamn you!” I screamed aloud, surging forward once more. “I’ll beat you yet, you motherfucker! I’ll live, just to spite you!”
   For a little while, at best.
“I hate you!” I screamed at the voice, the one that sounded so much like my mother. “I fuckin’ hate you!” Despite the mud, and the fact that I was so weary that I could barely stand, I thrashed my arms around, desperate to find and strike my enemy. But, in the end, my hands found nothing. For Truth has no body, no shape, no form.
   Soon I was lying in the mud again, mouth half-filled with shitwater, cold and empty in both body and soul. The sun was finally coming up, but that didn’t matter. It was watery and heatless and cold, a cruel trick just like love and life and every single thing I’d ever known or valued. Nothing mattered. In the end Mom was right and Death claimed all. Perhaps there would be a double funeral, me and Ned lying there side by side, stiff and cold together. I rather hoped so; Mother would enjoy it so very much. More than anything else in her entire life; she might even suicide as well, and make it a triple! I stayed very still and calm; by now, the very idea of moving my arms and legs was too difficult to contemplate. The chill was part of me now, the arrowheads had sunk deep and met inside of me, shutting my sick, diseased chemistry down bit by bit. I was cold and stiff, like Ned. Only a few easy steps left to go.
   “Just like a battery going dead,” I burbled through the shit-water. “Just a chemical reaction stopping, is all. Slowing down, then stopping.” I smiled one last time, then closed my eyes and waited for the end of all irrationality.

-= 20 =-

   “Doctor Aaron?” a little voice demanded. There was a tugging at my shoulder. “Doctor Aaron, are you all right?”
   “Wha…?” I asked, looking up and blinking in the bright sunlight. This wasn’t right at all; I wasn’t supposed to wake up! “Who…”
   But the answer became obvious almost instantly. It was little Anne, wearing her pixie wings.
   “Dr. Aaron?” she asked again.
   I felt bloody awful, worse than I’d ever felt in my life. I was covered with muck, and was still freezing to death. With a great effort I raised my head a little; now that it was daylight, I could see I’d made it all the way to the ditch bordering the plowed field. Another dozen steps would have put me on solid ground. “I… I…” Then it was all too much, and I let my head plop back down into the muck. It still tasted like manure, and I was still too tired to care.
   “I’m getting Uncle Ben,” Anne declared after a moment. “You stay right there, Dr. Aaron! I’ll be right back!”
   I don’t remember much of anything that followed, just little fragments and images. “There he is!” Anne cried out at one point. “See, Unca Ben? I told you so! He always tries to come home when he’s been drinking.” Then there were strong arms wrapped around me, and a long, easy ride back to Ben’s place in his wheelbarrow, as all the while I stuttered and tried to explain.
   “You just lay easy, Doc,” Ben finally said as he swung me up his little driveway. “Never mind about the how or why just yet; the first thing we’ve got to do is to get you warm and clean.”
   Then I remember swallowing three prescription painkiller capsules from Anne’s headache hoard, and standing for a long, long time under a jet of nice steamy hot water. There were soft clean towels waiting for me when I stepped out, and even a set of my own clothes. I almost felt human again once I was dressed, though still very weak and sore.
   “He’s done!” Anne called out from down the little hallway as I opened the bathroom door; presumably, she had been doing sentry duty.
   “Good girl!” I heard Ben reply from the other end of the house. “You just point him towards the study for me, won’t you, sweet thing?”
   “Okay!” she yelled back. Then she looked up at me, smiling sweetly. “Uncle Ben wants you to wait for him in the study,” she explained formally. “He’s cooking us all a nice breakfast.”
   I smiled back at her, even though it made my swollen face hurt something awful. “All right,” I agreed. “But first, I have to thank you for finding me.”
   She grinned, then shrugged. “I was just out playing.”
   “I’m still very grateful,” I answered, bowing low. “You saved my life, I think. We’re even now.”
   As I’d hoped, she giggled and did a little dance. “Maybe,” she allowed. “Or maybe not. But come on into the study. I don’t think breakfast will be very long.”
   I’d never been very far inside of Ben’s house before. It was small compared to my own, but he kept it neat and clean. There was a nice historical plaque in the main hallway; having once been the servant’s quarters for my own mansion, this building was of necessity practically as old and historically significant as my place. But, somehow, it never seemed to attract a fraction of the attention.
   Ben’s study door was all the way down at the far end of the hall; Anne opened the door for me and stood aside as I stepped through. Then, much to my surprise, she closed the door after me and left, instead of following me inside and keeping me company. I pressed my lips together for a second, then shook my head. It was too bad; I’d been very much enjoying the little girl’s company. Considering my mode of arrival, however, who was I to complain?
   The study was absolutely lined with bookshelves, and every single shelf was packed groaningly full of books. I was still trying to work some of the stiffness out of my legs, so instead of sitting down in one of the big red leather chairs I strode slowly around the room, fascinated by my handyman’s taste in reading material. There was mass-market stuff, to be sure, and a whole section devoted to murder-mysteries. Plus a shelf of science-fiction, as well. But most of the books seemed to be very heavy reading indeed. Kant’s Copernican Revolution, one spine read. Spinoza and the Development of Rationalism, proclaimed another. Aquinas: The Search For Divine Logic. Essays on Schopenhaur’s Metaphysical Reality. And, at the very end of the row, my own mother’s What Neitzsche Knew: How to Liberate the World and Yourself From the Pestilence of Mysticism.
   I pulled the volume down and examined it critically. I’d spent much of my late childhood and teens watching Mom sign piles of the things; she’d been on all the TV and radio shows, and had even written five follow-up volumes. Sure enough, when I opened up the black-and-red cover, there was Mom’s signature, faint but very much there. The thing was probably worth a considerable sum, even as beat up as it was.
   “I’ve always wanted to meet your mother,” Ben said from close behind me; I almost dropped the book in shock. “She’s a very, very intelligent person.”
   “Yes,” I agreed, returning the book to its place and turning around. Ben was standing there, holding a large tray loaded down with two heaping plates of scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon. Suddenly I was drooling; heaven only knew how long it had been since I’d eaten. “Here, let me help you with that…”
   Working together, Ben and I got everything set up so we could sit face to face, each of using an end-table to set our plates on. For a long time I did little but shovel eggs into my mouth; it was the perfect food for someone with a missing molar and, I suspected, a broken upper jaw as well. And never had such heavenly fare been enjoyed by a more appreciative diner; with every bite I felt stronger and more human. “Thank you,” I said finally, when I was very nearly done. “Thank you so very much.” I tried to look my host in the eye, but somehow could not quite do so. “I never meant…. I mean, I didn’t exactly plan….”
   Ben sighed and raised his right hand dismissively. “Don’t worry,” he said slowly. “Don’t worry about it a bit.” There was a long, long silence. “Though eventually we’ve got to call the police. You’ve been reported missing.”
   I’d been just about to bite into my last slice of toast, but suddenly the idea of eating made me sick. “Missing?”
   He nodded. “Ever since you missed your cousin’s funeral.”
   Carefully, I lowered my bread down onto my plate and pushed it away. “What day is it?” I asked at last.
   Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Sunday.”
   “Sunday,” I whispered. Ned had died on Thursday. “Three days.”
   “Yeah,” Ben agreed. He shook his head. “Dr. Aaron…”
   “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I agreed, picking up the sweater that Ben had found for me somewhere and wrapping it around my shoulders. Then I stood up to leave. “It was awful, what I did. I know that.” I met his eyes again. “Please believe me when I tell you I had no intentions of dragging you two into this mess.” I gestured down at my empty plate and fresh, clean clothes. “I owe you more than I know how to repay, or even to thank you for. Honest to God, I don’t wish you any trouble.”
   “I know,” Ben agreed, standing up and turning towards his window; it overlooked my rose garden. “I know.” Then he frowned. “If I didn’t think you honestly meant every word of that, well… You might still be lying in that ditch. But, things have gone as far as they’re going to go, Doctor Aaron. There are limits, sir.”
   I frowned and looked down at the table. “I’ll do anything for you,” I whispered. “Anything.”
   “What can you do?” Ben answered, pulling out a pipe and a tobacco pouch. I hadn’t even known he smoked. “How can you possibly do anything for me, Doctor, when you can’t even help yourself?”
   I looked down again, then stood and turned towards the door. “Well,” I said. “I guess there’s no arguing with that.”
   “No,” he answered. “There’s not.” Then he sighed and put the pipe, still unlit, back into his pocket. “Sit back down, Doctor. Please.”
   I sat. What else was I going to do? If he wanted to give me a tongue-lashing, I deserved it in full.
   “I’ve read your mother’s book,” he said at last, still looking out over my roses. “Over and over again. She’s brilliant, you know. Her later works grew progressively weaker, but that doesn’t diminish the breadth and daring of Nietzsche. Not one iota.”
   I cocked my head to one side. “You know,” I said slowly, “I’ve heard a lot of people say that over the years. My professors, fellow students, even a few people I’ve met on the street who recognized me. But of them all, you’re the one I least expected it from.”
   “Heh!” Ben responded, raising one foot up onto his windowsill. “She was absolutely brilliant, Doctor. Especially in the way she organized the book. Chapter One is all about why the existence of God is the most central question in a human being’s life. That’s the same starting point as the theists, you see. Both sides are clearly correct about the importance of a person’s relationship with God. Everything in a man’s life must ultimately stem from his or her personal answer to the God-question. ‘If there really were a God,’ your mother states, ‘then everything that is so deplorable about the churches and the various religions would make perfect sense. Give God his due; if he really existed, then he would be our moral center, our font of wisdom, our purpose for being. People would be right to sing hosannas of praise to him, and to pattern their laws and customs upon His slightest desire. And He would be the center of every man’s soul.’”
   I nodded, recognizing the passage. “‘But if there is no God after all,’” I continued the quotation, “‘then just the opposite is true. The holy books would all be lies, the singing of praises nothing but a waste of time, all of our ethics based on nothing but insane ramblings. And nothing would mean anything at all.’”
   Ben nodded and smiled. “She is so right,” he said. “Nothing would mean anything at all.”
   I sighed and shifted uncomfortably in my seat. “Forgive me, Ben,” I said. “But you’re not likely to make a Christian out of me, of all people.”
   “I wouldn’t even dream of trying,” he responded, his smile widening. “Hell, I don’t believe a word of the Bible myself. They keep trying to make me a deacon, and I don’t believe a single word of their nonsense. Ain’t that a bitch?”
   My mouth opened, then closed.
   Ben laughed and waved at his bookshelves. “Come on, Doctor! I’m not a stupid man. I gave up years ago trying to reconcile the existence of evil in the same universe with an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God. I’ve pondered uncaused causes and spent plenty of sleepless nights pondering determinism. And you know what? Your mom is right. The religious people are full of baloney. Absolute nut-cases, every one!”
   “I… But… Why…”
   “Why do I go to church every single Sunday, and pray right alongside the rest? Because of Anne, of course. Anne. Her needs come first.”
   Again I tried to speak, but could not. Eventually Ben took his foot down from the windowsill and began pacing back and forth as he spoke. “It’s like this, Doctor. We live in a terrible, terrible time, spiritually speaking. God really is dead, for most of us. And, just like the man predicted, we’re having a terrible time trying to get by in His absence. Every single activity of mankind used to be based on blind faith, every last one! Why did we obey the King? God’s will. Why did we obey the law? God’s will. Why didn’t we succumb to misery and kill ourselves when things grew hard? God’s will, and the promise of an afterlife. God was central to everything, Doc! The ultimate answer to all questions. If you take him out of the equation, nothing makes sense.”
   “Which is what Mom was brave enough to say out loud, and in a public way,” I replied slowly.
   “Right!” Ben exclaimed. “Exactly! With God debunked, there isn’t any rhyme or reason to anything! If you burrow all the way to the center of things, absent God, you find a great big void of purpose and meaning where there used to be at least some kind of answer.” Ben shook his head violently. “Your mother is absolutely obsessed with death, isn’t she?”
   “Totally fascinated,” I agreed.
   “Which makes perfect sense, from her point of view. In the absence of God, death is mere nonexistence. A void. The endpoint of a meaningless, purposeless series of experiences. The inevitable capstone of all nonsensical chaos.” He sighed. “The more people figure this out, the crazier our world gets.” He looked me in the eyes again. “And that’s why I go to church, Doctor Aaron.” He pointed to Mom’s book. “Because I don’t want her exposed to that. Or to grow up like you.”
   I looked out the window and sighed. Anne was out playing in the roses now, dancing in her wings. “I wouldn’t want her to grow up like me either,” I agreed. “Who’d want that for anyone? But still, Ben! Don’t you think she deserves to grow up knowing the truth?”
   “Hell, no!” Ben retorted. “And before you ask, you’re damned right I lied to her about Santa Claus. And the Easter Bunny, too!” He smiled. “And you know what? She loves Christmas and Easter, to this very day. She laughs and smiles and is happy, in her state of ignorance. Would you rather she grow up with me explaining to her every year why Christmas trees are marks of ignorance?”
   He had read Mother’s other books, apparently.
   Ben sighed again. “Anne’s a very smart little girl,” he continued softly. “Maybe someday she’ll decide there is no God. Or, maybe she won’t. But one thing’s for damned certain, and it’s that I’m going to make sure she’s old enough to handle the ethical consequences of atheism before she has to choose. I won’t see her whole psyche transformed into a mass of purposeless scar tissue. Like yours. And, God help me, like mine.” He closed his eyes for a moment before going on. “I’m not a highly-educated man, Dr. Aaron—”
   “Neither is Mom,” I pointed out, interrupting. “I’m not that kind of snob.”
   “I know,” he replied. “But, anyway… I don’t know what or why or how it happened, Doctor. But somehow, either through evolution or through culture or whatever, humanity got to where it needed some kind of god. That’s why people everywhere keep reinventing the concept, I think. We’re born with a religion-shaped hole in us, and hunger for mysticism just as surely as we do for our mother’s milk. It’s an irrational drive, certainly. But then again, so are all of our other basic drives, when you really think about it. There is no objective, purely logical reason, after all, for us to prefer happiness over sorrow, pleasure over pain, life over death. Not in a godless world where nothing can ever mean anything, and everything must eventually pass into nothingness.” He smiled. “So, I’m filling Anne’s irrational need for God, just like I fill her irrational need for love, her irrational need for approval, her irrational need for attention, and her ultimately irrational needs for food, water and shelter. It’s all equally nonsense, from your mom’s point of view. If nothing truly means anything, why not strangle the children at birth instead of nurturing them, for their own good?” He turned towards the window, and pointed out towards where Anne was now picking herself a bouquet. “And yet… Irrational as it may be for anyone to blindly favor pleasure over pain, do you think that even someone as dedicated to absolute objectivism as your mother could find it in her heart to knowingly deny a little girl like Anne that which she so clearly needs in order to grow tall and strong and sane in body and soul?”

-= 21 =-

   It wasn’t much short of noon by the time I left Ben’s place; there had been much to do before I could show my face in public again. I’d had to call Mother, the police, the Clinic… And, there was worse. Peg, it turned out, had finally lost patience and stacked all of my stuff out in the front yard. My neighbor had been kind enough to store it inside of his garage, which explained neatly enough how he’d had my own clothes ready and waiting for me when I got out of the shower. Peg also abandoned my car out on the street; Ben had put the top up and taken care of it for me, as well. I was now driving it back to the Clinic.
   It felt good to be driving again, I had to admit. In fact, I felt far, far better than I should have. Over the last three days I’d assaulted my ex’s new beau, lost my cousin and best friend, had my pet project cancelled, gone on an unplanned three-day binge complete with blackout period, stolen a car, almost died in a shitfield, even lost a molar. And yet… And yet…
   If it wouldn’t have hurt my face so much, I’d have been whistling a happy tune. It made no sense whatsoever. And yet, there it was. A mystery.
   I took the long way back to the Clinic, hoping against hope that the car I’d stolen hadn’t yet been noticed by the local law-enforcement types. If there was any way of doing so, I hoped to find a way to square things up with the owner. But, sure enough, a tow truck and squad car were already on the scene. Impulsively, I pulled over and stopped. “Good afternoon, Curt!” I greeted Officer Bopp. He was very much interested in local history, and I’d given him unlimited access to my mansion and grounds to help him with his research. “How are you today?”
   “Glad to see you, Doc!” he replied cheerily. “We were mighty worried.”
   I shook my head. “It was one of those things. When my cousin died, I… I…”
   “It’s okay,” Curt replied. “I understand. I’ve lost family, too.”
   I nodded, then looked over at where the wrecker’s driver was making his hookup. “What gives?” I asked.
   “Typical teenager stunt,” he replied, shaking his head. “Some poor single mother downtown got distracted unloading her baby, and left her keys in her car. Then our adolescent wonder took it joyriding.” He shook his head again. “At least this time the kid didn’t trash it out, or torch it. Little bastards usually do.”
   I shook my own head as well. “Terrible,” I muttered, remembering the pathetic little pile of toys in the back seat. Somehow, during all of my misadventures I’d managed to hang onto my wallet, and I’d already been by an ATM. “Tell you what,” I suggested. “I really feel for this lady, somehow. Would you mind seeing that she gets something from me?”
   Curt shrugged. “Sure! Why not? I feel for her, too.”
   I removed five crisp hundreds from my billfold and handed them to Officer Bopp. “I’m a very fortunate man,” I explained. “We who are lucky in life have the obligation to share our good luck.”
   “That’s very generous,” Bopp observed, tucking the money away into his pants pocket. “Very generous indeed.”
   I smiled. “The least I can do.”
   The policeman grinned. “You’re all right, Doc,” he said, slapping me lightly on the shoulder. “But then, I already knew that. Everyone does.”
   Why did you do that? Mother’s voice demanded as I climbed back into my Mercedes and, with a smile and wave, drove off. You’d gotten away clean!
   “Because it was the right thing to do,” I answered her aloud. No, Mother would not have stopped and offered money, I knew as surely as I was alive. Mother never gave anything to anyone if she didn’t have to; for that matter, if she’d found a man lying freezing to death in a ditch, as Anne and Ben had found me, she’d have simply turned her back and walked.
   It was a fascinating contrast, really. Ben agreed with Mom about there being no God, and even about how this knowledge was the bedrock of all morality. But there were never two more different people! My neighbor was generous, honest, warm, outgoing, pleasant… All the things Mother would never -- could never – be.
   So, what was the difference?
   Clearly, I decided as the miles rolled by, while Mom and Ben shared a common belief system, they varied a great deal in terms of ethics. Mom, depending exclusively upon her highly-touted reasoning skills, had looked out at a godless world and decided that, in the absence of divine rules, nothing meant anything. After all, she didn’t care about anyone but herself. She didn’t even care about me, I knew deep down. All that really mattered to Mom was the feeding of her own immense ego. I’d always felt vaguely ashamed of Mother, despite her fame. But, because her viewpoint and decisions were as purely based on logic as she could possibly manage, she had no real sense of purpose about anything. In the end there was no logical reason to prefer life to death, and her every thought and action reflected this. Because her arid unfeeling logic led nowhere, her life led nowhere. Only the negative feelings poked through the ice; she disguised them to herself as ‘hard-earned wisdom’ and ‘a healthy cynicism’. And, I well understood, she’d be relieved more than anything else when her time finally came and she didn’t have to pretend not to find shameful, irrational beauty in sunsets any longer.
   Ben, I realized slowly, in many ways shared the same starting point. He’d out-and-out stated at one point that, in the absence of God, he accepted no standard of values save his own purely subjective one. Yet he clearly loved Anne like his own child, worked like a draft horse, was thrifty and thoughtful towards others… In truth, I didn’t see how he’d behave very much differently if, deep down, he was the most serious Christian who ever lived.
   Could it be, I wondered as I sat at a traffic light near the Clinic, that living what amounted to a strict Christian life was what made him happy, and that he was smart enough to know it? That Ben was in fact being selfish by being such a generous and giving soul? Perhaps even more selfish than Mother?
   There was a lot to be said for that possibility, I knew. Humans were hard-wired to function as members of social groups; there were a million and six ways this was evident in both universal behavior patterns and even physical brain structure itself. If I wanted to, I was fully capable of rendering a man a hermit with my gengineering knife. However, I’d have to work very hard indeed to make him a happy hermit, and if I succeeded in such a project I wasn’t sure the result would still be entitled to be called a human being. People wanted to be liked and respected and esteemed; Ben had certainly succeeded in this, in a way that Mother never would.
   Mother valued status, where Ben valued friends. Mother valued power, where Ben valued equality. Mother valued logic, where Ben valued…
   I sighed and leaned back in my car’s comfortable leather driving seat; it was much more restful than the cheap vinyl found in most taxis. Like most other college freshmen, I’d found time in my schedule for a philosophy class or two. Some ancient guy—his name was long lost to me—had tried to convince everyone that the universe was logical, and that virtue therefore could be defined as the application of cold logic and reason to all human problems. A classmate had laughed out loud at this. “What’s logical about a baby?” he countered. He felt that while logic was a powerful and potent tool, not to be underestimated, that the ancient thinker in question was confusing a tool with its utterly irrational gibbering monkey of a maker.
   “If people did whatever they felt like,” the professor had shouted at one point, “then everything would be anarchy!”
   “People like order,” my fellow student had replied calmly. “I would propose that when you look out the window and see the world we’re living in right here and now, you see the net result of humans responding blindly to their emotions. We humans like having families and working hard to raise them, or else we’d have quit doing it long since. And, we prefer a peaceful, stable environment to do it in. So, we create one for ourselves. Logic barely enters into it at all. I mean, what’s logical about sacrificing today’s pleasure for the future good of one’s children? Not a damn thing, when you get right down to it.”
   Neither student nor professor had ever really won the ensuing argument, though I’d been highly prejudiced in favor of the professor. So had virtually everyone else in the class; my mother, had she been there, would certainly have been as well. Logic and reason were her ultimate objects of faith, the only things in the universe she truly believed in…
   …and it was this pure, abject faith in logic and reason unsullied by irrational emotion, I suddenly understood, as I swung my Mercedes first into the Clinic parking lot and then into the long-empty spot by the door with my name on it, that had led her down the road to the purest of ice-cold bitch-hood. While Ben, full of irrational emotion and bubbling with illogical love-of-life, was one of the happiest men I knew.
   And yet we spent uncounted schoolroom hours telling kids all about logic and how wonderful and important it was, while hardly talking about their emotions or feelings at all. Go figure!
   Somebody, I decided, really ought to do something about that someday.

-= 22 =-

   As was to be expected, my desk was littered with three days worth of debris. There were bills, medical reports related to Danny’s cancelled Tanking, even condolences on Ned’s death. The effect was worsened by all the frantic phone messages left by relatives, co-workers, and even police agencies that had been trying to locate me. Agnes’s recordings sounded particularly doleful; “You’ve been so sick,” she explained in her third message. “And I know how close you and Ned were. I’m very, very worried about you.” I’d listened to maybe fifteen of the things when, out of nowhere, I suddenly realized that yet another rum-and-coke had materialized in my hand.
   You need a drink, Mother’s voice urged. After all you’ve been through, you deserve one.
   I licked my dry lips and looked down into the black depths of the plastic cup. I wanted the rum, all right, hungered for it, even. And yet… And yet… Somehow, the very thought of drinking the evil stuff felt like an endless march through a frigid shitfield. My stomach lurched uncertainly; I frowned, then stepped over to my private bath and poured the drink down the toilet.
   I tried to settle down and get some work done; I even paid an overdue bill or two, as uncharacteristic as such behavior had become for me of late. But somehow, I just couldn’t concentrate. There was far, far too much on my mind. “I missed Ned’s funeral,” I explained to Danny’s stuffed rabbit, the miniature model of what he had just barely missed becoming. I rather liked Danny-bunny; he was a friendly-looking devil. “Part of me is glad, Dan. I’m honest enough to admit that to you. I hate funerals more than anything in the world, except maybe graveyards. It’s from growing up around Mom. Ned knew about how I feel; he would have understood and forgiven me. But… But…”
   Daniel-bunny’s ears seemed to twitch a little in sympathy, even though I knew it was only the central heater kicking on. Not your fault, he seemed to whisper. NotyurfaultNotyourfaultNotyourfault… My hands balled up into fists, then relaxed. “No, Daniel,” I agreed. “You’re right. It by-God wasn’t my fault. It hurts like hell, and I’ll never, ever get over missing him. But my fault it wasn’t.”
   Not your fault, Danny-bunny agreed again through his fixed, happy smile. He was too good to go to waste, I decided. Maybe I’d give him to Anne? Too bad there wasn’t anyone around who wanted to take over the bunny-body itself, still taking shape several floors down below me. What a terrible, terrible waste…
   I didn’t bother opening any more of the real Daniel’s medical files; there was no point. Instead, I lifted my little plastic trash receptacle up level with the top of my desk, and swept the envelopes into it in a tidal wave of broken furry dreams. One large manilla envelope escaped the surge of doom; “Doctor Aaron,” a note on the front read, “This is regarding your new patient, Mr. Leary. Sorry about the delay! Signed, Nicky.”
   Mr. Leary? I asked myself. Mr. Leary? Oh! That Mr. Leary! Timothy Leary! Me! Carefully I ripped the envelope open. Inside was a full, detailed workup for a body renewal procedure, along with a photocopied article from the latest copy of Transgenics. ‘New Procedures, New Hope’ the article was entitled; it was all about re-bodying chronic alcoholics and drug abusers. Apparently, if one introduced certain enzymes at the onset of Stage Three…
   I read the article not once, but four times before laying it back down on my desk. Nicky, I decided first of all, deserved a raise; Transgenics magazine was a professional journal written for practicing human gengineers, not lab techs. If Nicky was not only reading it but grasping its import well enough to bring it to my attention in a specific case and to make specific recommendations based upon it, well… I frowned across the room to where my own copy of the magazine lay somewhere near the bottom of a large pile of unread professional journals, then shifted uncomfortably in my chair. I’d made a terrible, terrible mess of everything in my life, from my marriage to my profession.
   You could catch up on your reading, Daniel-bunny observed. It wouldn’t be hard at all. All you’d have to do is get a new body, then take a few weeks off to get used to your new form. Everyone does it, when they get out of the Tank. Especially if a significant change is involved.
   “That’s true enough,” I agreed aloud, nodding slowly. So what if I was talking to a stuffed rabbit? At least I was doing it sober, for once.
   It’s the perfect time, Danny-bunny continued. You have no patients, no obligations, nothing to distract you. You could grow yourself a new body and be living in it inside of six weeks. Healthy, not needing pills to go to sleep or to wake up. Plus, you could become anything you wanted! Heck, everyone would expect you, of all people, to test the limits. They’d be disappointed, in fact, if you did not. By the time you’re up and about again the house will be sold, the divorce finalized… It’d be like starting all over, except with money and status and a job this time around. Rev-e-nue.
It had been so very hard, establishing myself, I recalled. But I’d been young then, full of pep and energy and dreams…
   Would I have dreams again, I wondered? In a young body? Perhaps that was what had really gone wrong with me; I’d stopped dreaming.
   Of course, I reminded myself, it won’t be all sweetness and light. If I go through with it, that is. I’d have to pay the rest of my bills, and face the wrath of my accountant. I’d have to admit to my own staff, including people like Nicky whom I liked and respected very much and who I knew looked up to me in return, that I was ‘Timothy Leary’, and that I’d been fool enough to raid my own medicine cabinet. I’d have to abandon the whole drinking-myself-to-death project, in fact. Even though it wasn’t in character at all for me to abandon something I’d sunk so much time and effort into…
   Aw, come on! Daniel-bunny whispered. Admit it to yourself. You don’t really want to die, and you never did. You just wanted the pain to go away. No one can blame you for that. That’s natural enough, when someone’s carrying an overload of the stuff.
   I nodded again. “Who wouldn’t want the pain to go away? Even if there isn’t any purely objective reason for wanting it to?”
   No one, the rabbit answered, his voice smooth and soothing. No one who’s sane, at least. Sane in spirit as well as in mind. But you’re through the worst of it now, and have come out the other side of the storm far stronger and wiser than ever you were before. He seemed to rock back and forth slightly; probably the doing of the heating system, once again. It’s your choice, he whispered. Your future, your choice, just like it always was. You can be whatever and whoever you want to be. No one’s going to stop you, save yourself. Every single day of your life can be a bold new adventure. Everything is already in place for you, waiting for you to choose. Mother’s right, you know. She always is. You have yet to begin to live up to your true potential. The world awaits you, Thomas.
   All you have to do is remember how to dream.

-= 23 =-

   “Hello, Ned,” I found myself saying to an unhealed grave a few hours later. It was dark and cold, but the old priest had recognized me from the hospital and let me into the cemetery. He’d even given me directions to the proper marker. It had been very kind of him. “I’m here, finally. I’m sorry it took me so long.”
   It was odd, really. Everything else in the universe seemed to talk to me; stuffed rabbits, my mother, even my drinks sometimes. But from Ned’s grave there was only silence, and I suspected that this was all there would ever be, forevermore. “I’m also sorry,” I continued, “that I wasn’t there for you, right at the end. Heaven knows that I, of all people, understand how hard it can be to live without faith. I should have been able to see that you’d break under the strain, that you weren’t cut out to live a life absent the myth of a God that loves you. I had my own troubles at the time, yes. But that’s no excuse. You reached out to me, and I wasn’t there.”
   I reached up and wiped away a tear before continuing. “Ned,” I said slowly. “I was weak too. You knew how I was drinking, but there was more you didn’t know. I’ve done some awful things, to myself and to others. I was ready to die too. Or at least I thought I was. But things went a little, well… differently for me than for you. Maybe for the better, maybe not. Only time will tell.”
   I sighed and looked up at the cold, distant stars. “We all wander through shitfields at times, Ned, cold and blind and lost and bereft of all hope. I don’t know if there’s any point to it or not, and I don’t think anyone else really does either. But I do know that for every sorrow in life there’s a joy, and for every shitfield there’s a concerned, caring neighbor. Cold reason be damned, if reason is all it can ever be about; logic never grew a daffodil or made a child laugh, either one.” I paused to wipe away another tear. “I made it through my shitfield, Ned. I’m sorry you didn’t make it through yours. Sorrier than you will ever know.”
   I paused for a long time, struggling to find more words. “I’m moving on with my life,” I finally said. “Moving on, and trying to grow a little. Maybe I’ll help others grow along the way. Or maybe not; who knows? But I’m not ready to lie down in the mud yet, Ned. I’m not ready to give up and die. Though it was a damn near-run thing.”
   There was another long pause, then I spoke to my cousin one last time. “I hate death. I hate it with a passion that only Mother’s offspring could ever even begin to grasp. So, I’ll probably never be back. I know you’ll understand, Ned. You’re not forgotten, not unmourned. But, I’ve got a life to live.”
   Then I deposited a single pale lily on the already heavily-flowered grave, stood up, and walked quietly away.

-= 24 =-

   It didn’t take long at all for me to take the rest of the necessary steps. The Clinic was well-prepared to handle most of the legal and peer-review issues in-house; where we weren’t, I signed ‘Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’ in the remaining blank spaces. No one would ever bother to double-check anything, I knew. The only time anyone ever checked the veracity of signatures was in the event of a lawsuit, and what was I going to do? Sue myself?
   The lab team seemed very pleased with my choice, Nick the would-be raccoon in particular. He seemed very satisfied with his raise as well. Most of all, he was very, very proud of my having suggested that he become a gengineer himself. I’d also offered to write a letter of recommendation for him to any school he chose to apply to. “Tell me what it’s like, will you?” he asked more than once as I went through the last formal checks and tests. “I mean… I’m seriously interested. If you know what I mean.”
   “Of course,” I replied with a slight smile. “I’ll drop you a note every couple of weeks while I’m out recovering. How’s that?”
   “Wonderful!” he answered, grinning in the slightly silly way that everyone ‘in the know’ seemed to adopt.
   Agnes seemed quite pleased as well. “I’m so glad you’re not drinking any more, Doctor,” she told me right after I’d made everything public at a little staff meeting. “And even gladder that you’re making such a clean start of things.” She dimpled. “Somehow, I knew all along that you’d end up doing something like this. I only hope it will make you as happy as you truly deserve to be.”
   Even Dr. Davis, my partner and soon-to-be gengineer of record, seemed upbeat. “This is going to be good for you, Tom,” he assured me with a smile as I sat on the patient’s side of the desk for once. “You’re still a genius; that new brain-structure you’ve created is a masterpiece! It’s unbelievably well-balanced; I suspect that someday it’ll serve as a model for those who seek self-improvement.” Then he cocked his head over to one side. “But… why go anthro, Tom? The brain you’ve developed here would be plenty potent enough in a normal human physique.”
   I smiled, taking a moment to think before speaking. After all, it was a question I expected to have to answer a lot in coming days. “Because I want to make a clean break,” I answered honestly. “Because I don’t want to go back to how I’ve been. Because I want to be reminded of how badly I needed to change who I was every time I look in the mirror. And…” I let my grin widen.
   I placed my red herring carefully; there were some things in life that were simply too private to share, and if my little white lie was properly planted, it would spring deep roots and avert nosy questions for years to come. “I’ve been doing anthros for some time now, as you know.”
   Dr. Davis nodded.
   “Well… Many are gay, of course. But those who are not tell me that women just love the cute-and-furry look, and they turn down more offers after the big change than anyone else would believe.” I let my grin become lecherous. “I’ve been married a long time, you see. I don’t plan on settling down again anytime soon.”
   Ben’s eyebrows rose, then a knowing look spread across his carefully sculpted features. “You sly dog!” he declared, slapping his palm on his desk for emphasis. “That’s not a bad trick at all!”
   I smiled smugly, knowing I’d never have to explain again; Ben was a good man, but had a tendency to engage in office gossip. Within hours, everyone would be hearing this version…
   …instead of the truth, which was that I never intended to occupy a human body again. Because I wanted more than anything in the universe to become something better. Kinder. More loving.
   “Well,” Ben said at last. “I’ve never done a fellow gengineer before, but I know that when I get Tanked myself I appreciate very much the fact that my own doctor doesn’t try to make me jump through hoops or treat me like I’m ignorant of the whole process. Don’t bother keeping a diary if you don’t want to, or any of that other junk. I’m sure you’re sufficiently psychologically prepared. And far more familiar with your new body than any normal patient ever is.”
   “Right,” I agreed. I hadn’t been exactly keeping a standard patient’s journal. But I had been sitting and writing every day in Daniel’s Book of Peace, jotting down odd thoughts on this or that. Pouring my soul out, even, and then re-examining it in the cold light of day. Mostly, what I was creating was a personal values statement, taking what I felt to be good and right and laying it out into a structured, coherent format so I could perhaps come to understand why I felt the way I did. It was something I should have done long ago. So far, it was the most self-empowering action I’d ever taken. Liberating.
   “Well,” Ben said again, still smiling as he rose from behind his desk and extended his right hand for me to shake. “I must say, Tom, that I’m very much looking forward to this procedure. It’s something new and wonderful, unlike so much of my own work.” His eyes met mine. “And, I’m also very much looking forward to working with the new you that emerges. Everyone in the profession admires your ability, Tom. And your genius. We envy you, even. But…” His smile faded, and his eyes narrowed slightly. “After this, I rather suspect we’ll discover that you were only just getting warmed up, in the greater scheme of things.”
   I wasn’t able to say much to that, so I sort of muttered incomprehensibly as I took Ben’s hand in my own and shook it firmly. “Thank you,” I finally managed to sputter. “Thank you so much, for being so patient with me. For so very, very long.”

-= 25 =-

   And then, after all the paper-signings and blood-samplings and DNA workups, there was only one thing left to be done.
   It was in Section Nine of Daniel’s little book, and I’d almost forgotten about it. But there was still one night left; I wouldn’t climb into the Tank until two in the afternoon tomorrow. So I had plenty of time.
   “Hello, Doctor!” Ben Stovers greeted me as I pulled up beside his little home.
   “Doctor Aaron!” Anne squealed as she came racing up as well. “Doctor Aaron!”
   “Hi, Anne!” I greeted the little girl, also taking a moment to smile up at her Uncle Ben for a moment so he’d not feel neglected. She threw her arms around me as I climbed out of my Mercedes, and hugged me tight.
   “Well!” I declared, hugging back. “I’m very glad to see you, too!”
   “I’m gonna be in another play!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down slightly in place. “And… And I’m getting an ‘A’ in spelling! And I lost a tooth!” Anne opened her mouth and pointed. “See?”
   “Wow!” I answered, examining the perfectly-ordinary dental gap with proper respect and admiration. Then she hugged me again, and Ben invited us inside.
   I’d originally suggested to Ben that I take the three of us out to a restaurant, but once he’d heard what it was all about, my neighbor had suggested he cook at home instead. “I don’t really expect any problems,” he’d explained. “But, if there are, Anne’ll be more comfortable here.”
   We ate a wonderful meal of baked ham and sauerkraut, and then when we were almost finished Ben offered me my cue. “Honey,” he said to his niece. “Dr. Aaron here needs to explain something really important to you.”
   She looked up at me with her soft brown eyes, and a little lump formed in my throat. But I managed to swallow it. “First things first,” I answered. “Anne, go out to my car and look behind the seat. There’s something there for you.”
   “For me?” she asked, eyes lighting up.
   I nodded. “For you.”
   It took her all of twenty seconds to dash outside, find her present and return carrying Daniel-bunny. “Wow!” she declared. “He’s almost as big as I am! Thank you!”
   I nodded, smiling. “He’s a mighty big bunny, all right.” I paused, cocking my head slightly to one side. Body-swaps could be quite traumatic for kids, unless they were warned and reassured up front. “That’s actually not just a toy bunny,” I explained. “That’s a model of a body that one of my patients ordered from me, but canceled.”
   She nodded, eyes big. “Like that otter-guy you had out at your house once? He was so cute!”
   I blushed slightly, though I wasn’t sure quite why. “Yep,” I continued. “Just like him. Except this young man had to cancel. So, he didn’t need his model-toy, and I’m giving it to you.”
   “I’ll name him Sweetgrass!” Anne declared. “Sweetgrass Bloomsniffer Rabbit. Because I’m going to take him out in the flowers with me all of the time!”
   “What a wonderful name!” I exclaimed, filing it away for future consideration. Some sort of name change was in order, I’d long since decided. Who knew? Sweetgrass might prove to be as good as anything I could come up with myself. “But there’s more, Anne.”
   She looked up at me again, face soft and open.
   “Well… When this patient cancelled, I couldn’t bear the idea that such a wonderful bunny-body should go to waste. So, I’m going to have them put me in it. I changed the fur color and altered the face a little, so that my original client could still maybe have their own look someday, if they changed their mind. But…” I pointed at Bloomsniffer. “Anne, in a few weeks, I’m pretty much going to look like that. I came by tonight so you’d understand, and not be scared when I come to see you.”
   Suddenly my arms were jam-packed full of little girl and stuffed rabbit. “I think that’s wonderful!” Anne finally said, looking up at me. She giggled. “I used to pretend you were a rabbit sometimes, you know. Because you liked your gardens so much. And slept in the shrubs. And went to the bathroom—”
   “Annie!” Ben interrupted, a stern look on his face. “Be nice!”
   She colored, though I was sure my face was considerably redder than hers. “And when I’m all settled in,” I promised. “Things are going to change.” I looked over at Ben, meeting his eyes. “For one thing,” I promised, “I’m going to work on juvenile gengineering issues, at least for a little while…”
   He closed his eyes and nodded his thanks.
   “And then, who knows?” I tweaked Anne’s nose. “Maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life gengineering the perfect carrot.”
   “Hee-hee!” she giggled. Then she looked up at me and wriggled the appendage back and forth. “And maybe someday I’ll get made into a bunny rabbit too!”
   “Maybe,” I echoed. “Life can be pretty strange, and it’s certainly full of mysteries. You never know just what’s going to happen somewhere down the road.”
   “Nope,” Ben agreed, a wistful grin on his face. “You just never do.”
   “I’m gonna be a bunny someday!” Anne cried out, hopping around the room in a most undignified and unladylike matter. “I’m gonna be a bunny!”
   “And I’m the luckiest man alive,” I said, turning to face Ben. “Thanks to you, more than anyone else in the world.”
   He smiled. “Don’t mention it, Doc. It’s my job to help out my fellow man when he’s suffering. After all, I’m practically a deacon!”
   I snorted and extended my hand. But somehow Ben and I ended up hugging like brothers instead. It was quite strange, really. Neither Ben nor I were much of the touchy-feely type. Yet hugging somehow felt very right and proper between us.
   Though for the life of me, I could never have explained quite why.

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