The rough-hewn man with the stubbly face was visibly nervous as he stood at the lectern. Sweat dripped from his forehead and rolled down the back of his neck, and he was the mottle white color of a man who just might puke.
He cleared his throat noisily, and stammered a few times before managing to croak out, “My name is Rick. ”
“Hi Rick!” said the rest of the group.
“And I’m a… that is I think that.. uh… ”
The group waited, patient and supportive.
“…and… and I miss the Before times!” he said,
“We do too!” said the group.
“I told you so, Rick. ” said Daniel, whose turn it was to lead the group. “We all feel the same way. You don’t have to feel ashamed when you are here. Nobody is going to treat you like a heretic for wishing the Confrontation had never happened. ”
He stopped, and corrected himself. “Had never NEEDED to happen, that is. ”
The group nodded.
“All because of that one fucking creep. ” said Teague as she nervously combed her long russet brown hair.
“Yeah. What a fucking psycho. ” said That Blonde Girl Sarah, who had chosen that name herself and seemed quite proud of the fact.
The group mostly called her Blondie.
“If I ever get me hands on him…. ” said Louis, punching a hairy knuckled fist into his palm over and over. “I don’t care if people think he’s ‘reformed’ and ‘doing well’ and ‘saved us all in the end’. Fuck that. He ruined everything. ”
“Nothing is the same as it was before!” lamented Bernie the Octegenarian.
His wife Esma nodded. “They say it is. They say that it’s the same only better. But it’s not the same and it’s not better at all!
“Everybody knows too much now. ” said Blondie.
“They know who they are and who they were and who… or what.. they were in between. ” said Daniel sadly.
“How can things be the same when you know so much?” said Esma.
“I…. had no idea other people felt that way. ” said Rick. “I thought I was the only one. You have no idea what it means to be to hear you say those things. ”
“Oh trust us, honey. We know. ” said Teague.
“But I bet none of you were…. I mean, you couldn’t havce been… ”
The group looked to Daniel.
“So whaddaya say, Danny boy? ” said Bernie. “Is it time for our little strip tease show? ”
“Yup. ” said Daniel. “But build up slow, okay?”
“That means I’m up first. ” said Teague.
Teague stood in front of the Lectern. “Now watch closely, darling, because I am only going to do this once. Okay? ”
“Okay. ” said Rick.
Vibrantly green leaves swirled around Teague, and when they receded, there stood a tall willowy Elf, who looked back at Rick with a sullen and arrogant glare.
“My name is Alexander Arrowfall. I’m the strongest hunter in my tribe. I lead the raids agaist the Killers of Trees and fight to drive them from our lands. ”
“And this his who you were… before? ” said Rich. The beefy man seemed less nervous now. But he still looked like he might bolt.
“Indeed. ” said Alexander.
“Okay. ” said Rick. “That’s not so bad. You’re pretty normal. You’re pretty cool. ”
“So it doesn’t bother you that in life I am a woman but in the Before I was a man?”
“Uh…. ” said Rick nervously. “I guess… no, I guess not. Must happen a lot, I guess. ”
“It does. ” said Teague as she turned back.
“Should I go next, Dan? ” said Louis.
“Sure thing, Lou. ” said Daniel. “But remember the loincloth, okay? This is not the jungle. We wear clothes here. ”
“Yeah, yeah. ” said Louis. “Geez, I only forgot that one time, give a guy a break. ”
“Once was enough, trust me. ” said Esma, with a girlish giggle.
Louis ignored her as he concentrated, and in a moment, he was a seven foot tall Tarzan type with a strong jawline and a look of savage cunning in his brown eyes.
“Not bad, eh? ” said Louis in a voice that would make James Earl Jones sound effeminate. “Ladies love it. ”
“One in particular. ” said Esma.
“Don’t bring that up, honey, you know that will only make her show… ” said Bernie, then threw up his hands as he heard the purring. “And it’s already too late. ”
A lithe leopard was rubbing against Louis’ leg and purring like a kitten in a sunbeam.
“Oh, I get it. ” said Rick. “You’re like Tarzan, right? Everyone knows Tarzan. ”
“Kinda like that, yeah. ” said Louis as he stroke the leopard’s head and grinned as the big cat rubbed its face against his arm.
“Well that’s not embarrassing at all. ” protested Rick.
“And who’s that with you, Jungle Jimmy?” said Esma.
Louis smiled even bigger, and as he did, the leopard wrapped around his leg and flicked its tail up high.
This gave Rick a glimpse at something he must have seen… he’d had cats all his life, after all, and some of them were female… he’d even been there when they’d had kittens… but it’s kind of different when the cat is that big and… and…
And that was most definitely a lady leopard.
“Why this here is Sheena. ” said Louis amiably. “She’s my girlfriend. ”
Rick covered his eyes. “Holy crap, put some pants on that… god.. ”
“Pants on a cat? ” said Daniel. “Now that would be silly. Still, Louis, you should have known better. If I known you’d be bringing her, I would have made you go last. ”
“Sorry, Danny. ” said Louis, his grin getting even wider.
“Like hell you are. ” said Blondie goodnaturedly. ” You just like showing her off. ”
The leopard was now rubbing her entire body against Louis’ arm like she was trying to shimmy up his torso.
“Well can you blame me?” said Louis. “She’s gorgeous.
“I think that’s more than enough, Lou. ” said Daniel.
Louis nodded, whispered something in Sheena’s ear, then kissed her on the head. Then, with a soft poof, he was back to normal.
“Well…. ” said Blondie, “since the cat is already out of the bag… ” said Blondie, to a chorus of boos and a shower of thrown paper.
“Now before I do this, Rick, I want you to clear your mind. ” said Blondie. “This can get… pretty intense, and the clearer your mind when you experience it, the faster you will adapt to it and the less confused you will be by it. Can you do that, Rick? Do you know how to clear your mind? ”
“Sure. ” said Rick. “It’s not like there’s a lot up there to clear in the first place. ”
Everyone laughed. Blondie said “Then look away until you see the flash, okay?”
Rick dutifully looked away. The first thing he heard was silence. The second thing he heard was a noise like a door creaking open. And then he heard a subtle sound like a distant conversation, which grew in volume and complexity until it turned into utter cacophony, which suddenly resolved into the most beautiful music Rick had ever heard. Music against which there could be no defense. Music that would melt the heart of the fiercest of music critics and make music lovers out of the most tone deaf of Philistines.
Then there was a multicolored flash, and Rick turned to look.
And look. And look. And keep on looking,
Because what he saw was far too much to take in all it once.
Where Blondie had been was a sphere of scintillating, pulsing, coruscating colors that blended and combined in transfinite combinations. Within the colors were shapes that underwent constant topological transformations of dizzying complexity. Rick’s mind was filled with the scent of tropical blooms in full riot and a taste like the best parts of every kind of fruit flavour dripped onto Rick’s tongue. The vibrations of the music permeated every cell of Rick’s was
It was beautiful.
It was cosmic.
It was orgasmic.
It was beauty in its purest form.
Soon Rick looked away again and puts his hands over his ears, and was just beginning to curl into a ball when Blondie reverted back.
“It takes some getting used to. ” she said.
“You can get used to that?” said Bernie as he mopped the sweat from his brow.
“What WAS that? ” said Rick.
“Beauty. ” said Daniel. “More or less. ”
“But it was… so MUCH… ” said Rick. His head was spinning as the colors continued to flash before his eyes, first as abstract shades, then as flickering images, then as kind of a kaleidoscopic slideshow.
“Too much, I know. ” said Esma sympathetically. “You should be ashamed of yourself, little Blondie. You should have toned it down a little for this young man. ”
Blondie shrugged. “It’s who I needed to be, ”
“Now listen, you cheap showoff, I ought to… ” Esma began hotly.
“Now now, Esz by dear. ” said Bernie. “You know how you get. Daniel, don’t you think it should be our turn now? ”
“Yup. ” said Daniel. “I want go last. ”
“You mean, after us? ” said Esma. “But our show is so blue… oh, but with you it’s… oh. Okay. We’ll go next. ”
“Now you have to understand that by the time we were added to the system after that lev accident… ” began Bernie.
“One wire goes sphitz, and SMUSH!” said Esma matter-of-factly.
“..it had been a long time since this beautiful goddess and my humble self had been able to get, er, intimate… ” continued Bernie. ”
“Too dry and too soft. ” added Esma.
“..and when we were younger, we had always been a fairly, er… passionate couple… ” continued Bernie with a sidelong glance at his wife.
“What? ” said Esma.
“,,,so when we found ourselves in young bodies with all of the powers of the System at our disposal, we had a lot of er, catching up to do… ”
“What my erudire husband is trying to say, ” said Esma, “is that we fucked like bunnies.”
“My wife, the articulator. ” said Bernie with a chuckle. “My darling, where would I be today without you?
“Probably still trying to finish asking me out. ” said Esma.
Bernie laughed. “So what you are about to see, my young friend, is the miracle of lovemaking expressed uninhibitedly, and that might… ‘
“…might put you to sleep if we don’t get at it soon!” said Esma. “plus all this sex talk has given me the itch, ”
“Duty calls!” said Bernie.
The two vanished and were replaced by a mighty stallion (rampant) and a strong and sturdy chestnut brown… cow.
“What, you want to do bull and cow? ” said the Bernie-stallion.
“Nah, you’re right, mare and stud is more dramatic. I will switch. ” said the Esma-cow.
Esma’s form shimmered and suddenly she was a massive marbled mare.
The two were quickly conjoined, and fucked like a couple of wild animals (sic) right in front of Rick’s lectern. There was much whinnying, pawing at the ground, and banging of barn doors. Rick watched, eyes glazed.
“Very impressive. ” he said when they were done. “Reminds me of summers on the family farm when I was a kid. ”
“Pfff. ” said Bernie. “the kid’s seen it all before. That’s no fun. ”
“We should have done something like blue whales or elephants. ” said Esma. “That would have knocked his socks off. ”
“Or done someone of that queer butt stuff you like so much… ” said Bernie.
“Some of what now? ” said Rick.
“Finally. ” said Daniel. “we come to me. ”
Daniel flickered, then reappeared as a child whose curly brown hair and strong nose made it clear that it was still Daniel.
“So this is it. ” he said. “Ta da!.”
“But you’re just a kid. ” said Rick. “What’s so weird about that?”
“Think about it. ” the boy said softly. “Where do you think I was on the night of the Confrontation? And what form do you think I was in? ”
“That one?” said Rick. “But everyone was uh…. doing grownup things… ”
“So was I. And so were a lot of the other ‘kids’. But you have to believe me… there are no actual children in the System.” said Daniel.
“Just adults who maybe need to be kids for a while to work through some stuff. ”
Daniel shifted back. “So now that you have seen all our dirty laundry, do you feel ready to tell us what you were? ”
Rick shrugged. “It would be way easier to just show you. ”
And with that, Ricky disappeared, and something else took his place.
And when everyone saw it, they gasped, then laughed, then cheered.
But that’s a story for another time.
TO BE CONTINUED!