Clearly Birni is getting used to the slightly small shorts, formerly trousers. After that first hill, he is moving in a more relaxed and natural way, and they are making good time. As expected they reach the straight and narrow road just before sunset. They decide to follow it southward, because that is where it first disappears from sight. North- northeast the road is visible for a long stretch across the plains, but there is no sign of human habitation. So they opt for the unknown.
They travel in silence, as they have done most of the way. Helge-Dag is in a haze of tiredness and moderate pain. Even though he is not stepping on the leg, the pain is there all the time. And of course, Birni is in constant pain too, phantom pains from his battle form.
"We should be cautious" warns Birni as the road bends around the foot of a low hill. "Most civilizations are reasonably peaceful, otherwise they would have collapsed into barbarity. But many are afraid of foreigners; and we are as foreign as they come." "Yeah. My civilization is pretty advanced - we had like people walking on the moon decades ago - but you would probably have been used in scientific experiments or something." "Then again, your world is strangely intolerant for being so advanced. I suspect it comes from outlawing travel between worlds." "It is not so much outlawed as disbelieved. We don't really think there are other worlds, except in outer space." "You would certainly believe, if visitors from other worlds could safely visit and trade and establish embassies." "Well, let's hope things are better here."
The sun is down, but it is still not dark as they follow the road around another hill and suddenly see a most unexpected sight: A tarmac road, not quite an interstate highway but in good repair and broad enough for cars to drive in two directions. The small country road leads straight up to the other. And as they stand there amazed (well, Birni stands there, still carrying Helge-Dag) there is the most familiar sound, yet one Helge-Dag has not heard since he left his own world: The roar of an approaching car. And then, brakes.
"Put me down!" "Not yet! We may have to run away fast, and you can't do that." There is the sound of car doors, and Helge-Dag twists his neck and upper body to get a good view. Could it be - against all chance - that he is back on Earth? And then he sees the two who step out of the car, and his heart falls.
The first of the two shapes is a cowboy, or rather a bull-boy. While not quite a classic minotaur, he still has strong bovine traits. The head is enlarged to accommodate a human brain, but is otherwise that of a young bull. The horns may look more fitting for a comic book devil than a bull, but being headbutted by this creature would still be quite unhealthy. The neck and upper body are even more massively muscled than Birni in his human form. And behind him comes an even more bizarre form - it looks like a humanoid lizard, perhaps an iguana in vaguely human size and shape, a thick and powerful tail swinging behind him.
The iguana man pulls his stylish sunglasses up on his forehead and watches Birni and Helge-Dag with as much surprise. Then he asks: "Hey strangers, are you in trouble?" "I wish I knew what he was saying" mutters Birni, still standing ready to fight or flee as needed. "Perhaps they know Trader's Tongue." He takes a deep breath and announces loudly: "Hail! We come as guests and in peace. We will take nothing that is not given, and offer no harm unless threatened. We travel through and will soon be gone."
"What did he say?" asks the bull. "No idea. And say, don't those two look like humans?" "Could be a throwback bear." "The girl is human at least. Look, no hint of a tail!"
"Girl?!" Helge-Dag squeals with indignation. "Let me down!" He wriggles himself loose from the surprised Birni and drops down, landing on his good leg but still a bit unsteadily. Pointing at his bare chest, he asks: "Does this look like a girl's chest?" "Not really" admits the bull. "As if you would know, Tony!" ribs the green-skinned comrade. "Hey! Just because I don't ..."
"HD? You understand what they are saying?" "Yes ... Must be the amulet. It seems to be a universal translator. They seem friendly but wary of humans." "They may have reason. Keep trying to stay on their good side."
"Dang right we are wary of humans" says the lizard. "The Fur Wars may have been a long time ago, but we've learned all about it in school ..." "You must excuse Scott here" says Tony pleasantly. "You're from another world, aren't you? Got through the wrong far-door or swapped bodies or something?" "Something like that door thingy, yeah." Whatever a far- door is. "Happens. You can still be good people. I've seen it happen before. But you should know there's a lot of prejudice against humans." "And with good reason" mutters Scott. "Come with us. My roomie Kevin may be a smart-mouth, but he is also one of the brightest bulbs on campus. He can probably figure out a way to help you."
Helge-Dag explains for Birni. He can't help but enjoy the were-bear's wide-eyed ignorance about cars, but at the same time he has no idea how these animal people have a modern technology, modern cars, and clothes similar to his own. Hopefully this Kevin guy can fill them in.
They drive through a city not unlike those Helge-Dag remembers from Earth. But the people he sees are ... well, not quite human. Most seem patterned on some familiar mammal, but some have bird-like traits. As they park on some kind of campus, Scott runs off and comes back a little later with a couple trench-coats and a humanoid orange cat. "Put these on" says the cat-boy. "We don't want a panic. I'm Kevin, by the way." "Helge-Dag, but just call me HD. Everybody does. And this is Birni, a were-bear." "You're pure human, huh? Poor guy." "It's not so bad usually." "We'll fix that later. Now, come with me. And keep your head down."
A short walk later, they are sitting in a small but cozy dorm room, surrounded by animal faces. Besides those they have already met, there is a vaguely kangaroo-like person on rollerblades, a woman/mouse with a clipboard, and some kind of bird-guy with a cap. "You look like you could need a cup of coffee" remarks the bird-guy, who is already filling up his own cup. Helge-Dag nods. "God, I thought I'd never smell coffee again!" The beaked face seem to show a recognizable grin. "You may be a monster" concedes their feathered friend as he fills up a large cup, "but at least you have your priorities straight!" Actually Helge-Dag is not particularly fond of coffee, but anything that reminds him of old Earth seems like Heaven to him now. It feels like it has been weeks, not days, since he was sucked into another world, and he had nearly given up all hope of ever coming home again. The sheer familiarity of coffee and a normal room brings tears to his eyes, as long as he manages to tune out the impossible shapes around him.
"Now" says Kevin, "I think you should explain exactly where you come from and how you got here." After exchanging a glance with Birni, Helge-Dag gives a rather pruned version of the truth: They were out traveling with a group of friends, and a spell went wrong and deposited them in the wrong world, out in the wilderness and a bit above the ground. The coffee-drinking bird nods. "Blasted magic. I can't believe some people still insist on using it. It is just not reliable!" "See, I told you!" says Tony to Scott. Then turning to Helge-Dag, he explains: "Would you believe we had some other guy landing here in the dorm some while ago? He had walked through what he called a far-door, and evidently something went wrong and he was stranded here until his wizard friend located him and got him home." "Wizard friend?" "Yeah ... some old wizard. Jurah Lightwalker, wasn't it?" Several nods. "You know what? If we could contact him, he might be able to get you home! From what Martin told, this old man is really powerful and has sworn to help people in need." "Sounds good to me." "Now we just have to find a way to contact him ..."
Kevin frowns. "We can probably get them to Isle of Mystics, and they may be able to send a mystic message or something. But there is a more pressing problem. The human." "Oh, he is all right" says the bird. "I know, Brad, but he won't be. He is a human, right? So the Counterstroke virus will get him within 48 hours. Even if he leaves our world, the virus may follow him. Also, we can't be sure we have him offworld within 48 hours." "Counterstroke virus?" "Something designed during the Fur Wars. You may say it won the war for us, if the old stories are to be believed. The virus certainly is real enough." "Is there no cure?" "There is, and a very simple one. Your werebear friend will not be affected, for instance. All you need is to become at least part animal, and the virus will leave you unchanged. During the old times, there were found many ways to ... furrify people, I think that was the expression." "The Vixenator!" exclaims Scott. Kevin looks at him disdainfully. "I don't think that would be his first choice, greenie. HD, there are both magical, medical and nanotechnical ways to release the anthro of your inner self. There is a stash of this old stuff around, and I think I can find out where it is."
Helge-Dag stares. "You want me to become an ... I mean ..." Kevin frowns. "I don't see anything wrong with being like us, to be honest. But if it offends your sensibilities ..." "No, not at all! But if I leave here in a few days anyway, it may upset people elsewhere." "And this is our problem how?" "Well, I get the impression that your ancestors had some trouble with humans?" "Yeah, right. They can be an intolerant bunch, can't they?" "So, uhm, is there any way I could be only a little bit furry?" "We'll certainly look into that when we get to the wartime cache. But if you do nothing, you're not likely to get away that easily." "Oh." "OK, boys!" roars the mouse girl. "We have a job! Kevin, you find out where that cache is. And you two can start packing for a car trip. Snap to it!"
If some of the new characters seem vaguely familiar, then you probably read The Class Menagerie, as well you should. Characters from TCM are (C) Vince Suzukawa. Needless to say, he is not responsible for the way they act in this story, nor is this intended to be part of TCM continuity. (Think of it as an alternate timeline, if you will.) Martin Transmorph and Jurah Lightwalker created by TimberBram, though the fanfic in which they appeared is sadly lost and I have had to rely on my memory. Oh, and The Vixenator is borrowed from FurryMuck.
Index of chapters.