Sozont the Tigri-Hippo-Strich
by Pyesetz the Dog

Chapter I:  A Furry Parody Finds Love

1.  Introducing Sozont

Sozont the Tigri-Hippo-Strich pranced across the prairie, happy to be alive.  Stopping at a small pond, he idly looked at himself, his ultraviolet fur irridescing in the moonlight.  His leg-feathers were a little dirty from dancing in the mud, but that had been a good time!  A growling in his stomach reminded him that tigrihippostriches are carnivores.  "Perhaps I can find a rabbit to eat," he thought.  He bounded off across the prairie, faster and faster, just for the glorious feel of the sweat poring out of his hippo segment.  Unfortunately, the first rabbit he came across was Tardrayn-rah, who was very helpful with Sozont's computer problems and shouldn't be eaten.  With a curt "hello", Sozont bounded off again to look for a better choice of snack.

2.  Sozont Eats a Snack

Sozont found another rabbit.  A youngster, perhaps foraging solo for the first time.
     —"Hello, what's your name?" said Sozont.
     —"I'm Venus Fly Trap" was the reply.  "I've seen you before, Sozont the Tigri-Hippo-Strich."
     —"Venus Fly Trap?  That's not a Lapine name!"
     —"Yeah, well, I guess my parents were sort of hippies in their day."
     —"Well, um, what do you think of computers?"
     —"Oh, they're great!  I can send emails to all my friends, and get weather reports without going outside, and look up stuff for my school reports, and —"
     Sozont bit Venus Fly Trap's head off.  "Useless Luser," he thought.  "Wait, maybe I should have had sex with her first?  Oh well."  Munch, bite, shred, chew, wipe muzzle with paws.
     While he ate, Sozont thought about Niven's Man-Kzin Wars and how few stories in that series were really any good.  "Eater-of-Grass, indeed!" he said, chewing on a plaintain leaf to cleanse his palate.
     But thoughts of reproduction refused to stay away.  It was almost rutting season.  Last year that had been a bad time for Sozont.  "Am I the only Tigger?" he said morosely, for sometimes he secretly thought of himself as being just an animated Disney character, transmogrified from the classic Milne stuffie, inside.
     Silly Sozont!  Someday you'll understand that you're not really a tigrihippostrich.  You're an anthro fur, and all anthro furs are mating-compatible.  So he's a bacterium and she's a blue whale?  No problem!  All it takes is a little imagination.
     But returning to our story...

3.  The Vixen

The next morning, Sozont woke up hungry.  Well, that's the wild life for you: always wake up hungry, and who knows how long it will take to rustle up some breakfast?
     Sozont sniffed around for awhile, and eventually came across a vole.  They're hard to catch, so Sozont carefully crept forward, trying to make as little ground vibration as possible.  Just as he was about to pounce, a fox came out of nowhere, grabbed the vole, and gobbled it up.  Sozont was... disappointed.  The fox was female and clearly anthro: the forebreasts were larger and rounder than the others.  As she licked her chops and picked her teeth, Sozont could see rippling muscles and shifting curves.  He should say something.
     — "Hi!  Nice vole!"
     — "It was tasty."  She was demure, waiting for him to say something about the stolen prey.  She had a bit of a smile and her eyes sparkled.  What could he say?  Nice jugs you got there?  Too mundane!
     — "So, are you nursing kits or just glad to see me?"
     Her smile turned to a scowl.
     —"You cad!  Don't you have any social graces whatsoever?  That's no way to talk to a lady!"
     —"I was just trying to make conversation."
     —"Well don't talk about my organs!  Had good hunting recently?"
     —"I was going to eat a vole, but then some fox stole it.  Your organs are very attractive."
     —"Horay for the vulpine!  You're ugly as last week's trash."
     —"Listen, creep, just climb back into whatever dung-hole you came out of."  She popped the last vole leg into her mouth and scampered off, scowling all the way.
     He had not obtained her phone number, nor even her name.  Oh, what's the use in trying?  He might as well plan for rutting season to be awful this year, just like last year.

4.  Sozont Gets Tail

     Sozont ate a lizard and some grubs, but he was still somewhat hungry.  He walked along, thinking happy thoughts, trying not to look as dejected as he felt.
     In a clearing he came across an echidna.  There were books and papers spread around, but it seemed the echidna's main concern was with the tan he was trying to get on his hairless belly.
     —"Hi!  I'm Spike," said the echidna.
     —"I'm Sozont," said the Tigri-Hippo-Strich.
     —"Yeah, I know.  You don't pay much attention to the other carnivores around here, do you?"
     —"I guess not.  Just call me 'nerd'."
     Spike gave Sozont's body a look-over, seeing things that Sozont had convinced himself were well-hidden.
     —"Echidnas are insectivores.  We eat ants and earthworms," said Spike, unnecessarily.
     —"I know that."  Sozont flicked his hippo-tail.  "We are not competitors."
     —"Yeah."  Spike looked at Sozont's tail for awhile.  He did some ab crunches, which emphasized the glint of his tan.
     —"Nice body you got there, Spike."
     —"Yeah."  Spike flexed his hindpaws, rippling his quadriceps.  "So, uh, you wanna?"
     —"Oh, why not?"  Sozont took off his belt and <lame sex scene deleted>.
     "That was oddly unsatisfying," thought Sozont.  "That was good," he said to Spike.
     Sozont ran a forepaw over Spike's spines — with the grain! — and snuggled closer.  Spike snuggled back, which actually seemed more worthwhile than the sex.
     —"So, um, Spike..." How should he put this?  "You got AIDS?"
     Spike laughed.  "I don't think so.  It's a bit late to ask now!  Isn't that an RL problem?  Nobody ever gets AIDS here in Furry Fairytale Land."
     —"Well, it's just a matter of time, they say.  Soon it will be here too."
     Suddenly the sun ducked behind some clouds and a light rain began.
     —"Shit!" ejaculated Spike, "I gotta grab my stuff."  He got up and started stuffing books and papers into a backpack.
     Sozont got up and put on his belt.  The raindrops glistened on Spike's spines.  He actually looked sort of nice.  Sozont grinned.
     —"Appropriate name, Spike!"  His hips wiggled unexpectedly.
     —"Thanks."  Spike smiled as he finished packing.  He stared appreciatively at Sozont's hippo part.  "Nice, um, segment!" he said, but then—thinking he had fumbled—he went on: "Or, I mean, tail!"
     —"So, um, maybe we could, like, do it again sometime?"  Spike seemed like he really wanted it.
     Sozont was unsure.  Maybe there were better lays, furs he could respect more.  "Yeah!" he said, surprising himself with feeling.

5.  Sozont Bags a Deer

Another day, another hunt.  It's a living.
     Sozont was passing through a glen and saw Bambi the Deer.  Bambi's movie-star days were long past.  Now he was just an old geezer, hanging on to life.  It looked like his right hindleg was broken.  He was gamely trying to browse, but the leg kept getting in his way.  He looked thin.
     —"Hello, Bambi.  Shouldn't you be going to the hospital?"
     —"Shut up!" said the prey to the predator.  "I don't need no doctor!"  Bambi moved to another shrub, stumbling and then wincing from the pain.  He took a mouthful of leaves and chewed, as if he actually intended to eat while a tigrihippostrich was watching him.
     Sozont half-bent his knees.  A gentle breeze ruffled his feathers.  "Death by starvation is slow and painful, Bambi," he said, meaningfully.
     —"Forget it!  I will not ask you to eat me.  I am a fighter, to the end!"
     —"As you wish."  Sozont lunged, and chomped on Bambi's neck, and grabbed his body with two taloned feet and two clawed paws.  Bambi began to — Sozont arched his back and flung his neck and — Snap!  Bambi's carcass fell to the ground, his face now frozen in a sneer of eternal defiance.
     It was a big kill.  Sozont dragged it into the bushes, creating a trail of cervine urine that stank of fear, determination, and ultimate failure.  But it couldn't be helped; doddering old fool.
     As he ate, Sozont's intestines rearranged themselves to make room, which produced a pleasant feeling below his tail that reminded him of Spike.  "I wish Spike were here to help me eat this," he thought.  But Spike's mouth — with that glorious tongue! — had no teeth.  This scene would not appeal to an echidna until the ants arrived.  "Aren't all carnivores really the same, inside?" he wondered.
     Sozont ate alone, rich in food but poor in friends.

6.  Martha Stewart, Eating

Into the glen came that vixen, sniffing along Bambi's urine trail.  "She's going to steal my food again," thought Sozont, but then he luxuriated for a moment in that *Spike* feeling from his hippo segment.  "She can't hurt me now!  I can play any game I want with her."  He stewed for a moment, then decided to roast the vixen over coals of kindness.
     —"Come on over!  There's plenty."
     —"Thanks."  She came into the bushes, disjointed the deer's left hindleg, and sliced through its tendons and ligaments with one swipe.  As she bit in, Sozont noticed that she was wearing brass claw-extenders on her right forepaw.
     —"Sometimes I wish I had talons," she said, following his gaze.  Sozont raised his whiskers for a moment.  If she didn't like her phenotype, why didn't she just mutate into something that suited her?
     —"I like my talons," he said, wrinkling his toes.  "I'm a tigrihippostrich."
     —"You're butt-ugly, that's what you are.  Can't you just pick one pheno for your whole body?"
     —"This is who I am right now," said Sozont, trying to keep his cool.  He reached into the deer's abdominal cavity and extracted a kidney.  "And that's no way to talk to the fur who killed your dinner.  Perhaps we both have problems with 'social graces'?"  He offered the kidney to her.  She struggled for a moment, internally wrestling with a snide remark, but eventually she just took the kidney and bit into it.
     —"Thanks.  That's yummy!"
     —"Yeah, I ate the other one.  My name's Sozont."
     —"I'm Martha Stewart."
     Sozont couldn't resist.  "Martha Stewart?  Shouldn't you be in jail?"
     She scowled, but just for a moment.  "I don't have to change my name just because some *non-fur* makes an ass of herself!"
     —"I suppose not.  So why are you a fox with brass talons, Martha Stewart?"
     She had finished the good parts of the kidney and gone back to chewing on the hindleg.
     —"I'm sort of attached to this vulpine form, for old time's sake."  Seeing that there was still some tongue left, she reached over to take it, while saying, "You can call me Marth, for short."
     —"Sure thing, Marth.  Have some tongue.  You seem rather hungry."
     —"Look, I know I have a weight-control problem."  There was that scowl again.  "But it's not every day that a fox gets to eat venison, so I'd like to pig out, if that's okay."
     —"It's okay."  Marth's cheekpads were a little heavy.  She had a definite "apple" shape.  Was there a hint of a moustache under the facial fur?  It all meant something, but Sozont couldn't quite place it.  He reached in and yanked Bambi's heart out of the carcass.  He took a bite.
     —"I've... never hatched any chicks."  He put the heart down, next to Marth.  She looked at it, but took another bite of tongue.
     —"You seem more like the live-bearing type to me."  She looked at Sozont's belt.  The feathers stopped below it.  The fur came down to it on both sides.  In front there were a few hippo-hairs peeking out.
     —"I'm more comfortable with bird-talk for, um, rutting season."  There it was.  He had said it.
     There was no more tongue left.  Marth picked up the heart, looked at it, hesitated, took a small bite.
     —"I've... never had any kits."  She took another bite.  "I've tried several seasons, but nothing happens."
     Gland problems!  That was it.  Her bodyfat distribution was off-kilter.
     —"Have you seen a doctor?"
     —"There's... nothing wrong with me that's covered by Universal Healthcare.  I don't have any money for the off-plan stuff."  She took what was left of the heart and passed it back to him.  Sozont took a bite.
     —"I think I'd be a good provider," he said.  Hey!  What happened to roasting her over the coals?  Sozont finished up the heart.  "I make a little money with computers, and don't have to spend any on food, so it... accumulates."
     —"I *wish* I could save some money," Marth said.  She looked over the carcass, but there was little left that was really edible.  Bambi had been quite old and many of his muscles were stringy and tough.
     —"Hey, wanna go for a swim?"  Sozont hoped he could see more of those shifting curves.
     —"No, I'm quite full.  I might get a stomach-ache."
     —"But this venison was really great!  Thanks for sharing it with me."  There was that eye-sparkle again.
     —"Well, if I bag another one someday, maybe I could call you to help me eat it?"
     Sozont pulled the cellphone from his belt and was about to ask Marth for her number, but she took the phone to enter it herself.  Although it was an off-brand model, she seemed to have little difficulty navigating the menus.  "Spike?  I think I've met him.  Insipid echidna.  Why do you have *his* number?"
     "Because he's an easier lay than you!" Sozont thought, but what came out of his mouth was "Oh, he's fun to talk to sometimes."
     She gave him back his phone.  He looked her up.  "Martha Stewart," it said, with a number.  He pressed CALL.  The sound of Lizst's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 came from somewhere on her body.  Sozont closed his phone and put it away.
     —"By the way," said Marth, "The other hindleg was infected.  I see you didn't eat it."
     —"Yeah.  It was hurting a lot.  I put him out of his misery."
     —"That's the job of a carnivore!  Somefur has to do it."  She was smiling again.  "Well, I gotta go."
     —"Thanks for helping me eat, Marth."
     —"Thanks for everything, Sozont.  See you soon!"  She slowly scampered off.
     Maybe rutting season wouldn't be so bad this year, after all.  But had he bitten off more than he could chew?
     The ants had arrived and were swarming over the carcass.  Sozont called Spike.

Chapter II:  Equipment Failure Builds Relationships

7.  A Technical Glitch

Sozont the Tigri-Hippo-Strich was hungry and wanted to hunt, but there was something wrong with his eyesight.  He closed one eye and then the other, but couldn't see out of the right side of either one.  For a moment he toyed with the idea of continuing to hunt in his half-blind state, but Sozont prided himself on doing what was needed when it was needed, so he invoked the "exit program" sequence to return to his hy00man form.
     The first thing that hit him was the stench.  The air was dusty and moldy in his... "house"?  No, it was an "apartment".  These were not words Sozont had used recently.  He could smell urine; perhaps there was a plumbing problem with his VR unit.  It was a semipermanent model that allowed him to stay in Furry Fairytale Land almost continuously, while maintaining his human body for when he needed it, but there were some things it didn't handle well.  His skin was covered with the grime of ancient sweat.
     Sozont disconnected the equipment from his body.  He ran hardware diagnostics on the vision system: A-OK.  He ran diagnostics on the device drivers: fault detected.  Sozont was pretty good with computers, but this was outside his expertise.  He needed help.  It was time to call Tardrayn-rah.
     Sozont picked up the telephone, then realized he couldn't recall the number.  But next to the phone was a piece of paper with "Tardrayn" and a phone number, so Sozont dialed it.
     —"Hi, Tardrayn, this is Sozont."
     —"Oh.  Hello."  Odd, Tardrayn seemed rather unhappy to hear from him.
     —"The right side of my vision system is kaput.  Can you look at it?"
     —"Well, you know, I have a lot of work to do.  I have to support my *family*."  Very odd.  In the past the response had always been "Sure!"
     —"Don't you want Fairytale Land credits anymore?"  That was what Sozont always paid him.
     —"Yeah, I guess.  Why don't you get cleaned up and I'll be over in about two hours."
     —"Great, thanks!  See you then!"

     Sozont went to the bathroom to clean up—and froze in front of the mirror.  He was not a kid anymore.  How long had it been since he'd looked at his human form?  There had been a problem with the equipment two months ago, but it had been a simple loose wire that Sozont had fixed himself without need for anyone else to see him.  Actually, Sozont couldn't remember the last time he had used a bathroom.
     Well, that didn't matter right now.  Sozont hopped into the shower.  Of course, he knew how to wash himself, but it required thought because he was out of practice.  And the proportions of his body were just *wrong*.  It didn't move like his tigrihippostrich body did.  Sozont had never liked being a primate.
     Eventually he got out of the shower and put on some clothes.  Black pants, black shirt, black socks, black shoes.  He wanted to put on black gloves and a black baseball cap, but there was just no excuse for that since he wasn't even going out.  He spent a moment looking at the box holding his fursuit,  but wearing that for Tardrayn's technical-repair visit would invite a conversation that Sozont didn't want to have.  Tardrayn had always been more comfortable than Sozont with being a hy00man.

     He passed by the VR unit and the smell hit him again.  Well, that wouldn't do.  Whatever was bothering Tardrayn-rah, asking him to work on stinky equipment would just worsen his mood.  Sozont got some Wet-Wipes® and cleaned up the contact surfaces as much as he could.
     Next, Sozont examined the auto-vac.  The suction manifold had come undone.  The stupid machine had been sucking up dust and then mindlessly spewing it back into the air for who knows how long.  Sozont pulled the manifold taut and retightened the screws.  Hopefully that would fix it.

     The annunciator chimed.  It was Tardrayn-rah!  He was early!  Sozont went to open the door.

8.  Technician's Visit

Tardrayn came in and went directly to the VR unit without the handshakes and other hy00man stuff he usually did.  He ran some test programs. He fiddled with the vision hardware.  He tweaked this and tested that.
     Sozont suddenly remembered that he had been hungry when this all started and had had nothing to eat since then.  He went to the kitchen to get an emergency ration.  Opening the wrapper, he bit in and—ewwwww!  Sozont had eaten nothing but wild food for a long time.  The ration had "tame" written all over it.  Well, it was filling, anyway.  Sozont continued to eat it, but in small bites.
     Tardrayn stopped working on the VR.  "Bad news, I'm afraid.  I think the field emitter has actually failed, even though the diagnostics say it's good.  I'll have to get you a new one."
     —"Do you have any in stock?"
     —"No.  And the supply depot is closed for the night.  I'll get it in the morning."  He added snidely, "you'll just have to stay hy00man all night."  Sozont was glad he hadn't dressed up too much for Tardrayn.
     —"I can handle it."  I will do what I have to do, thought Sozont.
     —"It will cost about $300.  Can you pay now?"
     Sozont fired up his desktop computer.  He transfered some money to Tardrayn's account.
     —"There you go."
     —"Thanks.  Now, there's something else we should talk about."  Oh oh, thought Sozont, here it comes.
     —"What's that?"
     —"Venus Fly Trap.  She was telling you about her RL and you just bit her head off."
     Shit!  "I'm... really sorry.  I thought she was an NPC.  She didn't look anthro at all."
     —"She was playing an FLR6.  Aren't you carnivores supposed to look these things up so you don't go eating people's characters?"  Actually, Sozont almost never checked the records before making a kill.  He prided himself on being able to sense whether a character was a computer-generated food animal.  Well, he had flubbed this one, big time.
     —"I guess I forgot.  Look, I'm really very sorry..."
     —"You're just a goddamned troll!  It's guys like you who are making all the good furs leave Fairytale Land and move to a more controlled scenario.  Do you have any idea what it feels like to have your head bitten off?  She was moping around the house for days.  I ought to bust your ass, you fucking bastard!"
     The stream of epithets made Sozont feel beside himself.  "Just stand here and take it," he told himself.  "If he can get all the words out, there won't be any hitting.  Somehow there'll be a way to go on."
     —"Is there anything I can do to make it up to her?"
     —"Just stay away from her.  She's playing 'Siren Fox' now."
     —"Yes sir.  And thanks for working on my VR."
     —"Yeah.  Bye."  Tardrayn-rah went out the door.

9.  Online Research

Now what?  Sozont tried to take another bite of emergency ration, but the wrapper was empty.  He had eaten the whole thing without noticing.  He thought about getting another one from the kitchen.  Or there was the VR unit, with its food-elemental conduits connected to the city grid.  There ought to be a way to get something tasty out of that, but Sozont didn't know how.  Perhaps he going back to Furry Fairytale Land and try to rustle up some grub with a broken field emitter, but Sozont's inner animal was a healthy Tigri-Hippo-Strich, not a half-blind cripple.  Sigh.  Besides, he didn't know if Tardrayn had put the VR unit back together again, since more repair work was scheduled for tomorrow.  He got himself another ration bar.
     The computer was still on, so Sozont sat down and pressed a few keys.  Ah!  Now *here* was something his human body was actually good at!  He pressed a few more keys.  On a whim, he started looking up information on Martha Stewart.  She had recorded a lot of stuff about her thoughts and feelings, which didn't seem to match the brass-talon-wearing fur that Sozont had met, but he read it all anyway.  There was no mention of an RL name, but quite a few references to one female friend: "Red Bunny".  No male was mentioned more than once.  But there were many protected entries Sozont could not see.  He sent Marth an offer of friendship, making his own protected entries visible to her.  Hopefully she would reply in kind.
     Sozont wanted more, but there was nothing more to find about Martha Stewart.  So he looked up Spike.  That guy did not hide his RL name at all!  Nor his school's name, but what was his major?  Most of the information was about parties he had attended and lists of other furs who had been there with him.  Sozont had read this stuff before, as a tigrihippostrich in Fairytale Land.  There was no need to read it again as a hy00man, except to pass the time until his VR unit was fixed.  But he was bored with rereading it.
     Maybe he should go out someplace.  It had been a very long time since he had left his apartment.  What places could he still remember how to get to?  Well, there was the Furry Club.  And then there was...  Sozont drew a blank, which was ridiculous!  There were plenty of other places he could go.  He imagined the supermarket and traced in his mind exactly how to get there from here, but his body had no interest in making that trip.  They didn't sell ration bars and there was no point in buying any other kind of food, since Sozont would be going back to his VR life tomorrow.  Might as well go to the Furry Club, then.
     Sozont considered putting on more clothes, but he was just going out to pass the time.  He set the auto-vac to do a "major cleaning" cycle and left his apartment.

10.  The Furry Club

At the club there were people dancing to Gloria Estefan's Conga.  Some were wearing fursuits, but Sozont had not brought his and had never danced without it, so he went to the bar for a drink.
     —"Hi, Sozont!"  It was Harry.  What stupid character was he claiming to be today?  "DeadDog" said his nametag.  How original.
     —"Hi, Harry."
     —"Get a load of that Dalmatian.  Ain't she a cutie?"  There was a girl coming off the dance floor wearing a spotted dogsuit.  She had removed the headpiece, showing her fair and bony face.  Sozont wondered what Marth looked like as a human.  Well, it didn't matter much; they would just muddle through the RL parts of rutting season and then go back to being their anthro furry selves.
     Harry was still waiting for a response, so Sozont gave him one:  "The increasing number of good-looking furry girls is indicative of a rising tide of alienation in our hy00man society."
     —"Won't you even make an attempt with her?"
     —"No.  I'm just here because my VR unit is broken."
     —"You know, Sozont, you really should pay more attention to your human life.  Find a girl, settle down, *breeding*, all that stuff."
     The idea of "settling down" bothered Sozont.  He couldn't talk about his breeding plans with Marth because so far it was all talk.  Actually, he hadn't even gotten to first base with her.  There was nothing to say.  Sozont mumbled some reply.
     Another fellow sat down at the bar on Sozont's other side.  He was wearing a name-tag that said "Epistemology Wolf".  Sozont exchanged pleasantries.  Epistemology Wolf also liked to live in Furry Fairytale Land.  He seemed to know quite a lot about the physics of that world.  Sozont was familiar with its computer programming issues, including some tricky areas where things had to be patched up, but it all made sense when Epistemology Wolf explained *why* the world needed to have those tricky parts.  Sozont thought it was the most interesting conversation he had ever had with a canine.  Eventually the talk drifted to the topic of RL names, so Sozont mentioned his, and Epistemology Wolf mentioned his.
     Sozont had a synaesthesia moment.  He heard an off-key "clang" inside his brain.  Epistemology Wolf's RL name was one that Sozont had come across before.  It was also Spike the Echidna's name.  He had been talking to his boyfriend and didn't even know it!  But Spike had known.  Sozont considered the possibility of having sex with Spike while in human form.  He had never done that with his own body and it seemed strange to start now, when he was going back to VR tomorrow.  But here he was, sitting next to a guy he already done it with in VR, so wouldn't that be a great choice for first time in RL?  No, Sozont did not want to do it.  What had they been talking about?  Physics.  Sozont tried to talk some more about physics, but it seemed the heart had gone out of the conversation.  Epistemology Wolf spoke laconically and wore a disappointed expression.
     Another guy walked by: "Flambé Bear" said his tag.  It seemed Epistemology Wolf already knew him.  They started talking.  As Epistemology Wolf got up to walk with Flambé, Sozont said "So long, Spike!"  It was supposed to be a friendly gesture, to indicate that Sozont knew who he was talking to, but the angry look he got back from Spike was a complete surprise.
     Sozont decided he was having a terrible time at the Furry Club.  He went back to his apartment.

11.  Tardrayn's View

Sozont had a restless night.  It felt odd to be lying on cloth-covered bedsprings.  Eventually he got some shut-eye.  He was lightly half-sleeping when the annunciator chimed.  He got up and answered the door, still wearing the clothes from yesterday.
     Tardrayn-rah came in and began installing the new field emitter.  Eventually he said, "Okay, try this".  Sozont put the VR vision system over his eyes.  He saw another world!  Of course it was expectedly odd to be seeing Furry Fairytale Land but not feeling it in any other way, but he could see to his right side just as well as to the left.  He took off the vision system.
     —"Perfect!" he said to Tardrayn.
     —"Good.  And, um, I'm sorry I swore at you yesterday."
     —"And I'm really sorry I ate your daughter."
     —"Yeah.  It just tugs at my heartstrings to see her unhappy.  Daughters are really something else."
     —"Maybe I'll make some offspring of my own someday."
     Tardrayn made a disbelieving noise.  "Kids require a lot of RL time, Sozont.  I don't know if you'd want to make that big a commitment."
     —"Can't most of the childcare be done from VR?"  Sozont knew some furs who were raising pups.  Sometimes it seemed like just another hobby to them.
     —"No, 'remote-control' parenting doesn't work well.  Children need a lot of cuddling to make their nervous systems grow right.  Otherwise they end up with a permanent feeling of alienation.  And in their first few years, when they don't have enough imagination yet to use VR, somebody has to pay attention to them 24 hours a day.  Only a parent cares enough to give them the love they need to turn out well."
     This was not what Sozont wanted to hear.  He had thought past rutting season to the hatchling period, but had not considered the entire long-term project out to fledging and beyond.  Still, in the part of his mind where desires come from, this news seemed not to have any effect.  He still wanted kits and he was sure that he would do what was needed when the time came, like he always did.
     —"Well, I guess I still have time to think about it."
     —"Yeah.  And feel free to call me even when you're equipment isn't broken!"
     —"I'll do that.  Thanks for fixing it again!"
     —"Bye".  Tardrayn went out the door.

     So that was it, then.  He could go back to VR now.

12.  Back to VR

Sozont was hungry.  He considered getting another emergency ration bar from the kitchen.  But that was silly—he should go to Furry Fairytale Land and hunt!  Sozont chucked his clothes on the floor and began suiting up.
     As he often did while putting on the sensor/effector suit, Sozont thought about upgrading to a better model that would provide more kinesthetic realism.  But skinsuits needed periodic replacement.  He knew that once he upgraded he would never want to go back, so it would be a permanent commitment to a higher maintenance expense.  Sozont prided himself on his ability to make more money in VR than he spent in RL, while devoting only as much time to paid projects as he wanted to, but this required that he keep monetary commitments to an absolute minimum.
     Sozont installed the waste orifices and remembered how he used to feel, back when he first started to use whole-body VR, like he was preparing to have sex with a machine.  But that old thought was ridiculous now!  It was not the machine that he loved, but the world that it opened to him, which tasted of freedom from hy00man constraints.
     Sozont inserted the oral interface, swished its familiar parts around his mouth, and bit into the tooth holders.  He was almost home!  He put on the rest of the headgear.  The vision system was in "pass-through" mode.  He took a final look around his apartment; the place where he was leaving his human body seemed safe and secure.  He invoked the "enter program" sequence.
     He was in Furry Fairytale Land!  The smells, the sounds, the sights, the ground-effect breeze ruffling his feathers!  Speaking of odors, his fur smelled like the last few things he had eaten before the field emitter failed.  It reeked of places he had been recently and myriad other things.  Sozont was hungry, but he decided to put off hunting and started heading towards Soapy Lake to clean up.  How about some speed?  Faster, faster, faster!  His ostrich legs chewed through the distance.
     It was an unpopular time of day for a bath, so Soapy Lake was deserted.  Well, Sozont would rather bathe alone, anyway.  He took off his belt and jumped into the lake.  He wriggled and splashed to cover himself with soap.  He took some of the water in his mouth, swirled it around, and spat it out.  He even did some "just for fun" swimming.  Sozont was a poor swimmer, even by tigrihippostrich standards, but there was no one to see him.
     Sozont got out of the lake and went to Rinsing River.  He fluffed his fur and watched the soapy bubbles float away.  He kicked his legs and felt all his feathers move from the waves he made.  He moved his hippo segment around, this way and that, until the dischordant RL sensations were almost imperceptible.
     He walked out of the river and towards his belt, the water trickling off his body segments in three different ways.  He felt like a tigrihippostrich again!  He was home.  Life was good.

13.  Martha Skritches

As Sozont passed by Soapy Lake, he saw Martha Stewart on a pier, washing a spot on her hindleg.  He froze, with his thigh facing her.  She looked up, waved to him, and went to Rinsing River.  Sozont did not know what to do.  If he turned to face her, he would be making a genital display.  If he continued toward his belt, he would be rudely walking away from her.  He neck hurt from trying to look at her walking to the river, so he switched to a quadruped stance.  That moved some of the stress from his neck to his back.
     She finished rinsing and walked towards him.  "I noticed that you friended me.  I friended you back."
     —"Great!  Thanks."  Sozont started crawling on all fours towards his belt.
     —"I sent you an email."
     —"Thanks.  I haven't checked my mail yet today."  Actually he had spent the entire night refusing to let himself check his email, because it would have been so disappointing had there been none.
     She was gaining on him.  There was no way he would make it to his belt in time.  What should he do now?
     She caught up to him.  A new plan was needed, right now, but there was no time to think.  Sozont turned to face her, crouching lower, arching his neck to look at her.  His posture was ridiculous, but he couldn't think of anything else.  Well, he *could* say something.
     "I was going to call you, but I haven't killed another deer yet."
     Marth laughed.  "That was a lot of food!  A tray of voles with a side dish of small and cut fruits would be better for my figure."  Sozont made a mental note of the serving suggestion.
     —"I'm glad we got to talk about rutting season.  It's so rare that I ever talk to anyone about, um, personal stuff."
     Marth kneeled in front of him.  Sozont did some panicked calculations about line-of-sight down his abdomen and crouched even lower.  His fur touched the grass.  Well, if he was almost sitting, he might as well sit.  Sozont settled his belly on the ground.  For just this moment he wished he didn't have a hippo segment, as it made the usual sitting position for Order Carnivora uncomfortable for him.  He closed his hindlegs together and straightened up his back, kneeling almost face-to-face with Marth.  He was fairly certain that his private parts were covered, but willed himself not to look.
     —"I never get to talk to anyone about the things that really matter."  Marth scratched behind Sozont's ear.  A response was called for, but Sozont was very uptight.  In fact, he noted, his back was so tense it was actually trembling.  He felt like a military cadet on parade review.  He forced himself to pet her thigh a bit.  Maybe some more words?
     —"I was talking to a friend of mine recently.  He's a dad.  He says a lot of furs spend too much time in VR and don't cuddle their cubs enough."  Her eyes sparkled!  He must have scored a point or something.
     —"Yeah.  Babies need a lot of care."  She ran a claw from his shoulder down his foreleg.  He raised a paw to touch her, but it was shaking uncontrollably.  She looked concerned.  "Are you okay?"
     —"I haven't eaten in a long time.  I'm famished."
     —"You seem really tense.  Is there something you want to tell me?"
     "The only females I do it with are food animals!" shouted his mind, but Sozont could not say that.  What if Marth disapproved?  Sozont looked at the ground and said, "I'm just really uptight about, um, touching and stuff."
     Marth kissed him on the mouth.  He started to relax.  For an instant he got a whiff of the dust and mold of his apartment, which was strange—he almost never got perceptual bleed-through in his nose.  She stood up, but Sozont could not bear to do the same.
     —"You'd better go get some food," she said.  She started to walk away.
     —"Yeah.  And... I'd really like to see you again."  Sozont used his paws to turn his body around, then went back to quadruped stance and started crawling towards his belt.
     —"We should, like, have a date or something."
     Marth turned a corner and was out of sight.  Sozont reached his belt, stood up, and put it on.  He turned around to see that Marth had poked around the corner again and was looking at him.  He smiled and waved.  She did the same.
     As he left the bathing area, Sozont could sense, in the back of his mind, bits and pieces of plans trying to put themselves together into something that could be called a "date".

14.  Another Vixen

The path that Sozont was taking away from Soapy Lake was heading towards Fur City, which was an odd choice of destination for a hunt.  What was he thinking?  In his mind's eye he saw the city dump, with its ready supply of rats.  Sozont did not often eat rats, which tasted like earth.  He preferred the tangy taste of mice.  But few furs played rat characters, so almost all of them were NPC's.  "Oh", thought Sozont, "that's where this is going".  But there were *some* rat fursons, and he needed to be sure, so he invoked the "player name" overlay for his visual system.  Tiny "NPC" markings appeared in his eyesight next to every insect he could see.  It seemed a little ridiculous to mark up all the bugs, but Sozont had heard of one chemist-fur whose pheno was a cockroach!
     Sozont continued along the path and came upon a group of adolescent canids.  They were all anthros; the overlay labelled them with their names.  At one point Sozont got a line-of-sight on a lizard, which had an "NPC" marking.  As Sozont was looking around, he noticed that one furson was labelled "Siren Fox".  He walked by the juveniles without making eye contact, but Siren Fox came after him.  This couldn't be anything good.
     —"Hello, Sozont the Tigri-Hippo-Strich".
     —"Greetings, Siren Fox."  Her coloring was atypical for a fox.  Most of her fur was black, with a blood red patch on her thorax.  There were thin white stripes that traced her bones, making her look like a walking skeleton.
     —"I heard that you were talking with Tardrayn-rah recently."
     —"Yes, your father stopped by to fix my VR equipment."
     A pause.  "Eaten any innocent children recently?"  Sozont had nothing to say.
     "I suppose they're extra tasty if you talk to them first."  Silence.
     "Don't you have anything to say?"
     This was not a conversation that Sozont wanted to be having.  He didn't have a leg to stand on in this argument and all he could think about was the hunger-pain in his belly.
     —"Look, I just can't talk now.  I'm really very, very hungry."  She stiffened.  That hadn't come out the way he intended.  "I need to go find some NPC's to eat before I starve to death."
     —"Perhaps I'll just tag along after you to make sure they're really non-players."
     —"The Muck Lords don't take kindly to stalking."
     —"No?  They don't like trolls much, either."
     They stared at each other for a moment, then Siren Fox started walking back toward the other canids.  She picked up a rock and threw it at him.  For some reason he decided not to flinch.  The rock hit him in the foreleg.  It hurt, but his humerus did not break.  They stared at each other again, then Siren Fox made a strange noise and returned to her pack.
     Sozont continued, sadly, towards the dump.

15.  Food at Last

There were indeed many rats at the dump, and the overlay showed that they were all NPC's.  Sozont grabbed one and ate it.  This was just too easy.  He caught another one and was eating it when he suddenly felt sick to his stomach.  This was not hunting!  He did not want rats, he wanted rabbit.
     Sozont moved to a nearby meadow.  There was a rabbit eating some ragweed.  It was an NPC.  Sozont approached to its 8-foot defense perimeter and started circling it.  Although he knew it was pointless, he started a conversation because, well, that was what he always did.
     —"Hello, I'm Sozont.  What's your name?"
     —"I'm Flayvao.  I *love* ragweed!"
     —"Oh?  Some animals hate ragweed.  It makes their noses run."
     —"Yeah.  Not me!"
     Sozont had nearly finished his circle.  It was clear what the best spot would be for a pounce: opposite from a rock, which the NPC rabbit would stupidly run towards and then have to veer away from.  Sozont continued circling, to get back to that spot.
     —"I'm a troll.  I eat anthro animals."
     Flayvao gave him a funny look.  "That's not good.  You should eat NPC's like rats and lizards."
     —"Oh, I eat those too."
     —"Recidivist trolls can get banned from Fairytale Land."
     Sozont was in position.  He feinted a direct attack, then pounced toward where he knew the simply-programmed rabbit would end up.  He ripped off its belly fur and ate the viscera.  Rabbit tasted so good!  But seeing the "NPC" overlay disappear as Flayvao's heart stopped just seemed totally unnatural, as if Sozont were looking at the world through a viewscreen.  He ate the entire rabbit and was still hungry.
     Sozont found another rabbit, its "NPC" overlay comforting yet irksome.  He was on an overhang and the rabbit was below.  Sozont turned off the overlay, to see his world as he wanted it to be.  He pounced.  At the last moment the rabbit saw him and bolted.  When his first talon hit the ground Sozont pivoted and pounced again, grabbing the quickly-darting bunny.  He looked into its eyes.  He bit off its head.  Life was good.  He ate the rabbit.
     Although he was not exactly full, Sozont was no longer ravenously hungry.  He decided that the next thing he really wanted to do was to read that email from Marth.  He went home to his lair.

Chapter III:  Job Stress

16.  An Animal at Work

Sozont was in his lair, working on the SIGMA project.  It was difficult to explain the Σ project without going into considerable detail about how Furry Fairytale Land really worked.  That was one of the things that Sozont liked about the project.  One of the things he didn't like was Springer the Leopard, with whom he had to work.
     Sozont was doing the kinesthetics module, receiving input from the player-furs.  Springer was doing the core-database access, finding meanings for the player's actions.  There was a defined interface that specified how their modules were to interact, but Springer disliked it and wanted changes.  His emails didn't make sense to Sozont; when Springer talked about "client/server models" it seemed he was trying to suggest that the database access module should be telling the kinesthetics module what to do, which was not the Furry Fairytale Land way.  He kept sending diagrams showing the database access module on top of the kinesthetics module, which Sozont thought was simply wrong-headed.  Kinesthetics should be on the outside, with DBAccess closer to the core.  Sozont was in the middle of yet another long email to Springer, trying to find common ground.
     Sozont's life had not gone very well until he came to Furry Fairytale Land.  He was now quite good at this job and the tokens of appreciation (Fairytale Land credits that were convertible to RL money) were many and frequent.  Programming was the thing Sozont did that other furs liked enough to give tokens for.  It would be unconscionable to do the job poorly just to keep the peace with a problematic leopard.
     Although he was getting hungry, Sozont did not want to stop in the middle of the email to hunt up some game.  Despite what he had said to Marth about not spending money on food, Sozont invoked a can of salted rabbit.  He held the can against the floor with one foot while opening it with a talon on the other foot.  The can was fairly inexpensive and very easy to obtain, and its contents tasted vaguely like fresh rabbit.  Looked like dogfood, though.
     Sozont typed very quickly and generally did not look at the keyboard.  That way he didn't have to see that his VR paws were not quite keeping up with his RL hands.  It was one of those annoyances you just had to put up with to stay focused on the paying job.  Sozont finished up the email and sent it, then did some more coding work on the Σ input system.
     Later Springer sent a reply email, which made it quite clear that he thought his module should be dominating Sozont's module.  This was so wrong it was hard to imagine anyfur even suggesting such a thing.  Purrhaps some FTF communication was needed to resolve the problem.  Sozont sent back an email offering his lair for a business meeting.

17.  A Business Meeting

Springer arrived at Sozont's lair.  His body form was surprising: leopard-sized and a class 5 anthropomorph, with all non-Panthera features muted.  Most carnivorous furs opted for human-sizing and a class 3 or 4 anthropomorphism, as those minimized the amount of body-form translation that the VR equipment needed to do and thus maximized hunting prowess.
     Sozont knew how to run a feline business meeting.  He had a container of milk and some cups.  But this wouldn't do for a class 5, so Sozont poured the milk into saucers and they lapped it up while making small talk.  Sozont noticed that Springer seemed to be staring at Sozont's hindlegs.  Perhaps he hadn't met many chimeras, but the topic stayed unmentioned.  Eventually the milk was gone and it was time for brass tacks.  Sozont liked to start with an incontrovertible statement.
     —"Basic Fairytale Land principles require that the player can make any move he feels like." 
     —"But the E project core must be protected from invalid user input."  Ack!  It was the Σ project, not the E project!  Didn't Springer even know his alphabet?  Sozont tried again.
     —"The DBAccess module should just ignore player moves that don't mean anything."
     —"The Kinesthetics module should block invalid moves."
     It was an impasse.  Thankfully they were in VR and there were standard mediation techniques available which could not be used in RL.  Sozont skritched behind Springer's ear while saying, "Your code comments are clear and helpful."
     Springer resisted!  His body remained stiff and his apocrine glands were putting out a "dominance" scent, which seemed quite inappropriate to Sozont.  And Springer was staring at Sozont's hindlegs again.  Maybe he had a problem with featheries?  Sozont walked across the room, ostensibly to get a drink of water, while using an exaggeratedly-feline gait.
     Springer laughed.  "A programmer is a cat; a cat is a programmer."  Perhaps Springer did not realize that this comment could cause offence.  Sozont knew some furs with all-cat bodies who actually believed in that aphorism.
     —"A cat is also a hunter.  I prefer rabbits as my prey."
     —"I go for songbirds."  Springer relaxed a little.  He nuzzled Sozont's side.  "Your emails are very detailed."
     Did Springer just not know how to do this mediation thing?  But the project required that they work together.  Sozont grasped both of Springer's forepaws in his own.
     —"Once I fixate on a rabbit, I keep chasing after that one until it's in my belly."  He tried touching the leopard's hindlegs with his own, but Springer shrank back—presumably to avoid contact with feathers.
     Springer slid his paws up to Sozont's elbows.  "I pick a bird, I spring at it.  If I miss, I try a different bird."  Ick, he was a quitter!  And what was with all that "dominance" scent he was putting out?  Sozont gamely tried to continue the mediation.
     —"So that's why you're called Springer?"
     Springer smiled.  "Yeah.  So what's a 'Sozont'?"
     —"It's from an old Russian epithet: И по морду знать, что Созонтом звать.  It basically means that anyone with a peasant name like 'Sozont' must be a subhuman animal."
     —"But animals are superior to hy00mans."
     —"I just thought it was funny when I was picking a name."  The mediation protocol required that all statements be complimentary to the other fur, but Springer's statements were just ornery.  What was wrong with him?  Sozont rubbed Springer's belly and said, "The interface spec was written by Be-A-Wulf, who knows what he's talking about."  Wait, that wasn't complimentary, either.  Sozont was starting to do it Springer's way, instead of the right way.
     Springer put both paws on Sozont's shoulders, pushing him down.  He bit the back of Sozont neck and tugged twice.  He whispered in Sozont's ear: "Be-A-Wulf is a manager.  We programmers have to do these things our own way."  He dropped one paw to Sozont's waist and ran a claw inside the top of Sozont's belt.
     Sozont had had quite enough.  Be-A-Wulf had a fine grasp of programming concepts; otherwise Sozont wouldn't work for him.  And Sozont had deliberately chosen a belted body-form so that the phrase "below the belt" would be meaningful—Springer was now skritching below it.
     Sozont grabbed Springer in a bear hug and said, "The primacy of the player's wishes is a fundamental precept in Fairytale Land.  Having DBAccess tell Kinesthetics what is permitted makes the furry player a slave of the machine.  HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY BELIEVE IN THAT?"  It was more strident than he had planned.  It was also more of a hug than planned.  Springer's back was arched backwards and his haunches were clamped by Sozont's thighs, but the leopard didn't seemed to be bothered by the feather/fur contact.  In fact, he was... liking it?  There were other scents too, that Sozont couldn't pin a name on, but they were quite disturbing.  Sozont unhugged and got another drink of water.
     —"The user's invalid move needn't be completely blocked.  Just put up some resistance to tell him he's going the wrong way."  Oh, *now* he's willing to be reasonable?  Sozont made an offer.
     —"Perhaps a callback function specifying the expected next-moves?"
     —"Yeah.  I'll draw something."  Springer took a pencil and paper.  Sozont stared at Springer's paw.  The physics of its hold on the pencil were completely implausible.  How could Springer live with himself, claiming to be a 5 but acting like he had an opposable thumb?
     Springer drew some boxes and lines on the paper, but no labels on anything.  "So the move-analysis goes up to DBAccess" — the paw with its impossible grip on the pencil waved high in the air — "and the move-prediction goes down to Kinesthetics."  The paw came down, but the pencil went flying, landing just behind Sozont, who turned around and bent over to pick it up.  Springer sprang onto Sozont's back.  "Hi-yo, Silver!" he cried.  "Head out the door for a spin!"
     —"Fuck that.  I go where I please.  You figure out where that is."  Sozont crawled toward the bedding, intending to roll Springer off gently when he got there.
     —"You're heading to the R&R area."
     —"Bzzzt!  Too abstract.  Try again."
     —"You're planning to take a nap.  But you shouldn't do that yet.  The milk-saucers are still out."
     —"Good point."  Sozont turned around and crawled toward the saucers.  He passed by them to their right, intending to pick them up with a paw as he passed, but Springer dug his right-side claws into Sozont's hide, while leaning over to pick up the saucers with his left forepaw.  Then Sozont crawled on toward the washing area.  He was starting to feel a little better.  This skit was a metaphor for how their modules should interact.
     Springer put down the saucers in the sink.  "Okay.  Now you can go to bed for some crazed-weasel yiffing."
     This was just too much for Sozont.  The idea of having sex with this disgusting twerp was nauseating.  He jerked suddenly, throwing Springer to the floor.  As Sozont rose to full height, his whiskers drooped and his teeth bared themselves.  Was there a hint of a growl in his throat?  Springer's face froze but the rest of his body assumed an exaggerated relaxed pose and was now churning out even more dominance scent.
     Sozont's tigrihippostrich could beat the shit out of Springer's leopard, although he'd get banned from Furry Fairytale Land for proving it.  But only if Springer filed a complaint, which would unavoidably reduce his levels of that dominance pheromone he seemed to love so much.  Yes, Sozont could probably get away with a little...  No, for the good of the project he must keep the peace with co-workers.
     With effort, Sozont pulled his lips closed, although the whiskers still drooped.  "I think this meeting should be adjourned now."
     —"What about the interface specification?"
     —"I have heard no *technically-valid* argument for changing it."
     —"Then the meeting is not over yet."
     Sozont's lips curled back again.  He was surprised to find his whiskers could droop even further, now pointing almost straight down.  He raised a foot over Springer's belly, wrinkling his toes so the talons would bob up and down.  "The meeting is over," he growled.  Still the leopard lay there, his apocrine glands making an insane claim about his dominance.  Well, two can play at this inappropriate-scent game.  Sozont thought of various horror movies he had seen, imagining himself as the homicidal maniac in each one.  He allowed his foot to drop a bit, so a talon pricked Springer's skin, picked it up slightly, then let go of it.  Springer bolted from the lair, leaving behind a faint whiff of fear that was far less satisfying than it should have been.

     Sozont felt very depressed.  At every step he had tried to make the best move on behalf of the project, but now the cost seemed way too high.  Soon enough the Σproject would be over, but Sozont had allowed that looney leopard to taint his soul forever.
     Perhaps he could call Spike for some companionship?  But Sozont suspected that his next time with Spike would involve an apology for his RL reticence, and right now Sozont was in no mood to apologize to anyone.

18.  Simmering Anger

Days passed, as days do.  There were rabbits to eat and lines of code to write.  Sozont watched all the code that Springer wrote.  When it was good, he said nothing.  When it was bad, he complained, even cc'ing Be-A-Wulf with the juiciest complaints.  Sozont did not attend any meeting that Springer attended.  When Be-A-Wulf called him about that, at first he made excuses.  Then he admitted that he didn't want to be in the same room with Springer.  Be-A-Wulf suggested mediation, but Sozont said he had tried that and Springer refused to follow the protocol.  (Sozont left out the off-color details.)  It seemed Be-A-Wulf found it hard to believe that Springer would refuse mediation.
     Sozont began to be concerned that he might lose his employment on the Σ project.  He looked around for other work, but at this time of year most of the available jobs related in one way or another to the upcoming Rutting Season celebrations.  Sozont wanted to stay away from such projects.  He still did not have a firm commitment to rut with Marth and didn't want to be continually reminded of that if things fell through.  In his travels around the web, he came across this text:

While it's hard to imagine Furry Fairytale Land without its Rutting Season, that holiday was actually not part of our original scenario.  It arose, as far too many things do these days, from a lawsuit.  One kid's parents were upset that he spent all his time with us, so they sued to have us shut down.  The suit claimed that whole-body VR was equivalent to an addictive drug or a brainwashing cult.  We managed to get the "cult" claim thrown out, but the "drug" claim was more of a problem.
     The claim went something like this:  Our players were like drug users because they "lost interest in their RL lives" and spent all their time attached to VR "paraphrenalia" living in "electrochemically-induced dreams", doing nothing useful and letting their bodies rot.  Fairytale Land credits were not real money, yiff was not real sex, imaginary mates and offspring were not real mates and offspring... you get the picture.  In fact, the lack of RL offspring seemed to be the main complaint from these wannabe grandparents, who somehow were sure that their kid would settle down and breed if only they could make his VR equipment stop working.
     Things were going badly for us in the lawsuit.  We searched desperately for something to do to avoid getting shut down.  At one point we thought of adding a simple fertility festival, basically as a PR move.  Well, things just sort of snowballed from there!  Furs who liked the idea joined our community, while those who didn't left us for other venues.
     Today, Furry Fairytale Land is the premier community for furs interested in RL breeding.  Innovations such as synchronized estrous cycles, semi-VR childcare arrangements, etc., all arose in response to the needs of our increasingly-fecund community.  Last year we produced more offspring than all other furry-VR communities combined!  And we need your help to continue growing.  If you'd like to donate your time or credits to help make this year's Rutting Season the best ever, please click below on one of the...

It was signed "H. Nelson Hornblower, 1st Muck Lord (ret.)".  Good ole' Horatio, thought Sozont.  Such a great programmer!  Actually Sozont had never worked on the Fairytale Land kernel system.  Hornblower ran a very "tight ship", as it were, and Sozont had so far not been willing to submit himself to that level of micromanagement.  But with Hornblower's retirement, kernel management was getting more relaxed.  Perhaps someday soon Sozont could work on extending and improving his world.  It would make him proud to be doing such an important job.
     Sozont had found the rutting-season concept very attractive when he was first looking around for a whole-body VR scenario to join.  In his naïveté he had thought that it would be easy to find a mate during the run-up to rutting season, when everyone would be wanting to pair up with someone.  But Sozont had not realized how unpopular he would be in the meat market.  It was only recently that he had started to apply the word "troll" to himself as a partial explanation for why this kept happening to him.  And he had not yet realized that his unwillingness to tell anyone how he really felt about anything was a major stumbling block on the road to love.
     Anyway, there didn't seem to be any good job he could hop to if his Σ position became untenable.  Hopefully he could stick with it for a few more months.

19.  Boiling Anger

One day, Sozont received a terse email from Be-A-Wulf, addressed to all members of the Σ project.  It announced that Springer the Leopard had left the team and his duties had been transfered to OursSuisse, whom Sozont had worked well with before.  This should have been good news: Sozont had outlasted Springer!  But it was strangely unsettling.  Sozont felt like there was unfinished business between him and Springer, which now could never be finished.
     Sozont noticed that his paw seemed to be grasping at thin air.  When he thought about what imaginary object was in his paw, it turned out to be Springer's neck.  Sozont felt ill and lay down for a nap.  He awoke with a pain in his toes.  His dreams had been very confused, but he remembered one isolated scene of the fur being torn from Springer's backside.  There was a disturbance in the bedding where Sozont's talons had attacked in his sleep.
     This was one of those rare times when Sozont actually did not want to be a tigrihippostrich.  He exited from Fairytale Land
and lay down on his mattress.  But his thoughts were bizarre and his hands kept curling into fists.  He needed a distraction, new furiends, something.  He got dressed and went to the Furry Club.

     At the club, Sozont put on his name-tag and circulated around the tables, looking at tags to find somefur whom he had met in VR.  Unfortunately, the first familiar tag he found said "Springer the Leopard", attached to a short pudgy fellow.  As his legs walked themselves to that table, Sozont told himself, "Don't make a scene!" but in his mind was the thought that RL fistfights were considered a police matter and could not result in banning.
     —"Hello, Springer!"  Sozont thought his own voice sounded surprisingly chipper.
     —"Hello, um..." Springer's eyes focused on Sozont's nametag, then his irises narrowed and his voice flattened.  "... Sozont."
     —"So, you wanna fight *now*?"
     —"WTF?  I left the project, man, what else do you want from me?"
     Sozont thought.  "You owe me more submissiveness.  I opened my heart to you—now I'm stuck with a touch-image of your disgusting interaction modality."
     Springer gave him a confused look.  "Can't you just restore your character from backup?"  It seemed the leopard-fur knew very little about the part of the world he had sought to control.
     —"It doesn't work like that.  Much of the touch-image effect is piggybacked onto hindbrain neurons in the hy00man player's brain.  There's no REWIND function over there."
     Springer raised both hands, palms up.  "I was just playing my game.  I'm sorry you got offended."
     Sozont suddenly felt better, although Springer really hadn't said much.  "I think we should continue not working together on projects, at least for awhile."

     Sozont restarted his nametag scan of the tables.  He noticed two woman walking towards the club exit.  The larger one was staring at him.  There was something familiar about the way she moved.  He went over to investigate.  Her nametag read "Martha Stewart".
     —M: "Hello, Sozont."
     —S: "Hi, Marth!  So, we finally meet in RL!"  Yep, gland problems for sure, but hopefully a little off-plan medical treatment could get her womb working.
     —R: "Oh?  You two have met in VR?"  The other woman's tag was "Red Bunny".
     —M: "Yes, we've had a few, er, run-ins."  What game was Marth playing?  Well, Sozont would try to play along.
     —S: "Like the time we were both chasing the same vole?"
     —R: "How did that work out?"
     —M: "I ate it."
     They had reached the club's outside door.  Sozont flashed a smile at Marth.  "It was nice meeting you!"
     Marth smiled back, very briefly but seemingly at very high wattage.  "Yeah."  The two women left the club.

     Sozont went to the bar and got a drink.  He noticed that his armpits were very wet.  Apparently he had been spewing pheromones at Springer and Marth.  He wondered what his scent had said, and what scent-replies he had gotten, but the human vomeronasal organ is nearly vestigial and there was just no way to answer those questions.  Yet it seemed Sozont's Inner Animal was very happy with the scent-replies.  He nursed his drink and thought a little about why he had suddenly felt better when talking to Springer, although the leopard-fur had really not said anything conciliatory.  He thought a lot about Marth and how she moved and the emails she had sent and what the relationship between her and Red Bunny seemed to be.
     Sozont finished his drink and considered ordering another, but he decided it was silly to be spending money at the Furry Club if he wasn't even talking to anyone.  He went back to his apartment, suited up,
and went to sleep in his bedding.

Chapter IV:  Preparing to Rut

20.  Trying New Things

Sozont was hunting.  He was trying out some new software he had found to replace the "player name" overlay.  Instead of an artificial-looking "NPC" tag hanging in space, the new program caused turning gears to appear whenever he looked into an NPC's eyes.  The effect was subtle, yet unmistakable.  The fur who had written the "NPC-gears" program was a true artist, yet had given the software away for nothing.  Sozont thought the program was worth real money to him, but its author had not provided a channel for sending credits.  Sozont did not understand this "Free Software" concept—he spent all his programming time working on projects for which he was paid.  But certainly he could appreciate the artistry, the blood and soul that had gone into this free gift to all Fur Kind.  In other words, Sozont was a selfish brat who took but never gave, but at least there was hope that he might someday mature into a decent furson.
     A rabbit was hiding behind one of those stupid signs that had started to appear with the change of season.  Like all such signs, its basic color was a particular shade of blue that had become associated in Furry Fairytale Land with "hy00man matters".  Few phenos had blue-receptors in their eyes, but all player-furs could see that shade of blue as a special exception in the programming.  This particular sign showed a bearded person on a throne, finger pointing out at the viewer.  Sitting at attention next to the throne was a grey wolf.  In the foreground was a human baby crawling towards a rattle, a stuffed tiger-tail hanging off its orange-striped diaper cover.  The caption was, "God and Dog Want YOU to Participate in Evolution."  It was as subtle as a brick wall.  Sozont could not believe that these signs actually increased the birthrate any.  What, are we lemmings?
     Sozont had encountered these sign-hiding rabbits before.  There was a special trick to catching them.  You grabbed a paw-hold conveniently placed on the sign, swung around the side, and caught the prey with talons.  It was very easy—if you were willing to touch the sign.  Sozont was willing.  He grabbed the rabbit, transferred it from talons to claws, looked it in the eyes—turning gears—and ate it.
     While he ate, Sozont thought about a programming difficulty he was having on the Σ project.  Then his mind drifted to Marth and the date he still hadn't taken her out on.  Rutting time was getting ever closer.  For the last few days Marth had been staying in RL, sick with an early-season case of the flu.  She was mostly over it now, but still feeling a little weak.  She had posted a friends-only message that hinted she might appreciate visitors to her apartment.  Sozont thought he could perhaps get a brownie point for going, but that wouldn't be a real date.  Besides, words like "gift" appeared often in her emails, so of course he would have to bring her one if he went for a visit, but what gift could he possibly bring?  He didn't want to present her with some mundane little thing, like flowers or chocolate.
     Remembering something Marth had once said, Sozont had a flash of inspiration.  Now *that* was a present he could make!  It involved some food prep, which wasn't Sozont's strong suit, but it seemed fairly simple and he was sure he could pull it off.  Walking back to his lair, he kept thinking about his present and how he would make it and what it would look like when he was done.  Since he had no clue what he was really getting himself into, the plan looked great to him from every angle.
     Sozont showered and dressed, in brightly-colored clothes.  He considered calling Marth to confirm that she wanted visitors, but decided against it to avoid spoiling the surprise: he was vainly proud that he had figured out where she lived by correlating all the little hints from everything she'd ever said about her RL activities.  He went to the supermarket for some supplies.  Frozen prepared chicken Kiev, rosemary, scallions, rice noodles, toothpicks, pimento, red food coloring.  Then Sozont discovered some prepared decorations—pimentos artfully arranged on toothpicks to form cone-shapes.  There was no way Sozont could do as well, so he took the preconstructed decorations and put back the toothpicks and jar of pimentos.
     Back at his apartment, Sozont put together his gift.  When he was done, it looked like... some chicken with stuff on it!  Yet at the same time it was quite close to what he had imagined it would be.  Perhaps he was just being hyper-self-critical and other furs would be able to see what it was supposed to look like.  Sozont wrapped up the still-frozen now-decorated chicken and set off for Marth's place.
     Unfortunately, the route he had mapped out was erroneous.  He had to backtrack and ask directions and backtrack again.  Eventually he got to her building.  He activated the annunciator for her apartment.
     —"Who is it?"
     —"It's Sozont, from Furry Fairytale Land."
     The door opened.  Red Bunny was standing there.

21.  Visiting the Sick

Sozont could hear Marth's voice coming through the door.
     —M: "Who is it?"
     —R: "Sozont has come to see you."
     —M: "What???"  Sounds of apartment-tidying.
     —S: "I've brought a present."
     —R: "Well, come in then."
     Marth was wearing a bathrobe.
     —M: "Why didn't you call first?"
     —S: "I didn't want to spoil the surprise."
     —M: "The place is a mess."
     Sozont looked around.  The apartment was cleaner that most bachelor pads.  "What mess?" he asked innocently.
     —R: "Heh.  At least this year's specimen is a gentleman."
     —M: "So what did you bring me?"
     —S: "I'll show you.  Um, it needs to be cooked."
     —M: "Let's go to the kitchen, then."
     Sozont unwrapped the gift on the kitchen counter.  Some of the decorations had gone askew, so he tidied them up.
     Marth looked at Sozont's handiwork for a minute.
     —M: "It's a tray of voles!"
     Sozont beamed.  "Yeah."  But then suddenly he was crestfallen.  "Damn!  I forgot all about the small and cut fruits!"
     —R: "It's a WHAT???"
     —S: "It's just chicken."
     Marth was smiling.  "See?  The scallions are tails.  The red circles are the eyes.  Noodles for whiskers.  What are those noses made of?"
     —S: "Pimentos.  And there's four pieces of Kiev.  One for each of us, plus a spare."
     —R: "No thanks.  I don't eat mice."  Red Bunny went into a bedroom and closed the door behind her.

     Marth put the tray in the oven and sat at the table, so Sozont sat across from her.
     —"So, to what do I owe this visit?"
     —"Your, um, last broadcast message to friends sounded like you wanted company."
     —"It did, didn't it?  I can't imagine what I must have been thinking.  Oh, yes, now I remember.  I was thinking that people would CALL FIRST!"
     —"I *thought* you'd be resting in bed, so if I called then you'd feel obligated to go racing around tidying the place up and give yourself a relapse."  Wait, this couldn't be the right time for an argument.  It never happened like that in the movies.
     —"So how did you figure out where I live?"
     —"You dropped hints.  I listened."
     —"I don't remember hinting about my address."
     —"You've talked about what's nearby, how long it takes to get to certain places, a few tidbits about your building.  Enough to triangulate your location."
     Marth stared at Sozont for a moment, then spoke in a small voice: "It sounds like you put a lot of effort into it."  She got up to take the tray out of the oven.
     —"Nah, just paying attention."
     Marth transferred two pieces of chicken to plates.  She set the table with forks and knives and napkins and glasses of water.  Sozont realized there was much more involved in serving dinner than just decorating the meat.  He was sorry he was making work for her during her illness.  He wanted to help out, but didn't know what to do, so he just did nothing.
     Marth sat down, cut off a piece of the chicken Kiev, and ate it.  "The rosemary really adds to the flavor."
     —"I just sprinkled that on to look like 'fur'.  If it actually tastes like anything, that's just a bonus."
     —"You're quite the culinary artist."
     —"I just threw this together.  I don't do much with arts and crafts."
     —"Oh, I do.  I've been playing around with some clay recently."
     As they talked and ate, Sozont noticed that the chicken actually did taste pretty good.  And Marth had recognized the "tray of voles"!  Sozont had to keep telling himself that, because it seemed so hard to believe.
     —"So when are you hoping to return to work?"
     —"Oh, another day or two.  I' still not back to 100%."
     —"Well, I hope you feel better soon."
     —"Yeah.  So I'm, er, not really up to, um, hopping in the sack with you today."  Wait, she's talking about having sex!  Was there a whole subtext to this conversation that Sozont hadn't been paying attention to?
     —"The thought hadn't crossed my mind," he said gallantly.  But the reply he got was a negative facial expression—one might even call it a "scowl".  Perhaps some backpedalling was in order.  "I suppose it should have."
     —"Yeah.  Or were you planning to wait for rutting season to get into high gear and then suddenly start trying?"
     Sozont was getting nervous.  He had no idea how to navigate this topic.  He really ought to just tell her about his RL virginity, but she was being so forceful that he didn't want to show any weakness.  "I don't think this meeting really counts as a 'date'.  I've been trying to think of something we could do, but I just can't settle on an appropriate excursion."
     —"How about a visit to East Cupcake Hot Tubs?"
     —"Sure.  When?"
     —"Wednesday.  8 PM."
     —"I'll be there!"
     Marth wrapped the other two chicken breasts in foil and put them in the fridge.  She washed up Sozont's tray and gave it to him.  "I'm really very tired.  I should go back to bed."
     —"It was nice meeting you again, Marth.  I can hardly wait until Wednesday!"
     —"Yeah.  See you then, Sozont!"
     As he headed out the door, Sozont tried to shake hands with Marth, as if this had been a business meeting.  But she caressed his hand instead of shaking it, so he touched her hand too.  Sozont was surprised at how the tender moment felt—why should touching hands matter so much?  But it did.  Then Marth moved her hand to the door, waiting to close it.  Sozont took the hint and left.

     On his way home, Sozont thought about his visit with Marth.  The hot-tub thingy was scary.  He was quite certain that he would be expected to get naked for that.  But Sozont would do what was required for the situation.  And if he was stiff and formal about it he probably wouldn't embarrass himself too badly.

22.  In the Hot Tub

It was Wednesday.  Sozont arrived at East Cupcake Hot Tubs, precisely on time.  Marth was already there.  They went in together.  Since this date was Marth's idea, she spoke to the attendant.
     —M: "A tub, please."
     —A: "We're closing early tonight.  I can give you only a half-hour slot now."
     Marth seemed taken aback by this news.  Apparently she had not been aware of the early closing.  She looked at Sozont.  He thought shorter would be better, anyway.
     —S: "Well, we're here.  We might as well take what we can get."
     Marth gave money to the attendant.
     —A: "Right this way."  He walked them into a room with a giant circular Jacuzzi.  "The buzzer will tell you when there's five minutes left."  He left the room, closing the door behind him.
     Marth took off her clothes, so Sozont did too.  Marth got into the tub.  Sozont took off his underpants and walked towards the tub.  He felt odd.  He was obviously naked, yet he felt like he had a second skin, perhaps a fur-covered one, that continued to cloak him.  He was sure that Marth was looking at his groin, but he kept his eyes and his mind focused on the ladder and on entering the tub without slipping or anything.  After sitting down in the tub, Sozont decided to make an utterance.
     —"Hi there!  So, what should we do first?"
     Sozont thought.  "I guess we should do some demonstrative swimming, to show that our bodies are well-formed and thus we are suitable mating material."
     —"Okay."  Marth swam around in the tub.  It didn't seem to bother her that her breasts flopped every time she changed direction.  Then it was Sozont's turn.  Thankfully the tub was small and shallow, so it was quite unclear (he thought) that he couldn't swim very well.  Sozont stopped swimming and flexed his biceps.  Marth made an approving noise.  Sozont crouched down in the water, then jumped into the air, so his penis flopped as he came back down.  Marth openly stared at Sozont's mid-section during the entire maneuver, which actually didn't bother Sozont too much.  Perhaps this hot-tub thing wasn't going to be as bad as he had feared.  Marth spoke:
     —"It's too bad there's only half an hour."
     —"Maybe we can do something else afterward."
     —"Red Bunny is staying home in my apartment tonight."
     —"So, um, what's the situation with you gals?"  Were they best friends who moved in, or roommates who got to be friends?
     Marth stared at Sozont.  "We are lovers, if that's what you mean."
     —"Oh.  Well, I'm... having sex with Spike."
     —"Whatever do you see in him?  He's such an idiot!"
     —"That's just his 'echidna' act.  He's much brighter when he plays a wolf."
     And that was it.  A topic they had been avoiding in email for quite some time.  And now it was out in the open, with just a simple "oh."  Sozont felt like there was a barrier between him and Marth that had softened.  He could get closer to her if he wanted. Sozont moved his body closer to Marth's.  She touched his arm.  The wet skin contact felt new and interesting.  He touched her shoulder.  Her entire body was soft and fleshy.  Sozont didn't think anyone would want to touch his bony excuse for a physique.
     Marth spoke again: "So, what do you think of Furry Spirituality?"
     —"Well, I've heard the fox-totem wants to know a little about every topic."
     —"Uh huh.  So what's your totem?"
     —"Oh, I don't know.  I'm not really much of a tiger, I guess."
     —"You don't know what your totem is?"  Marth seemed to find this idea hard to grasp.
     —"Maybe you can help me find out.  There's a nice VR program I've been meaning to try.  It uses biofeedback to select a suitable totem and then it turns you into your animal."
     —"That could be fun.  Which set of totems does it use?"
     —"Um, Cherokee, I think, but maybe it's a mixture of tribal beliefs."
     —"We should try it sometime."
     —"How about Sunday?"
     —"My lair?  8 PM?"
     —"Sure, I guess.  So, um, how much do you make?"
     Sozont told her his income level.  She shook her head in wonder.
     —"There's no way I'll ever make that kind of money!"  She worked as a clerk in a department store.
     —"Why do you have such a crappy job?  Surely you can do better."
     —"Nobody wants to hire a fat woman.  I can only get crap jobs."
     —"Really, that job would barely cover the cost of child-care."
     —"Yeah.  It would be cheaper for me to stay home and take care of our kids myself."
     The "stay-at-home mom" lifestyle was not a popular choice among Furry Fairytale Land players, or at least was not much discussed in the local media.  But Sozont was in favor of anything that saved money.
     —"My job exists in VR.  I have to spend a lot of time there.  So you'd be alone with the offspring for much of the time."
     —"That sounds like a reasonable division of labor."
     Excellent!  Sozont wouldn't have to spend gobs of time in RL, after all!  Sozont had thought, when they kept dancing around this issue in email, that there was going to be a problem in this area, but there was just no disagreement at all.  Sozont wanted to kiss Marth, but the habits of a lifetime were hard to break.  He rubbed his leg-feathers — no, just legs — against hers under the water.  She massaged his scrawny pectoral muscles.  Was that a hint?  Sozont ran a paw — no, a hand — down the side of Marth's breast.
     Already?  Marth kissed Sozont, but when he tried to massage her breasts some more she got out of the water.  Sozont followed.  She towelled off, so he did too.  She started to get dressed, so Sozont got dressed.  He was done dressing while she was still struggling with her bra.
     —"Could you help me with this?"  Sozont had never before tried to install a bra.  It took effort and some hints from Marth.  She finished getting dressed, then hugged him.  Sozont wasn't sure what to do now.  He returned her hug and — since his hands were in the area anyway — massaged where her neck met her shoulders.  She rubbed the same spot on his body.  It felt nice.
     The door opened.  The attendant's voice came in through the opening.
     —A: "You guys decent in there?"
     —S,M: "Yes!"
    Sozont and Marth walked out of the tub room, through the lobby, and out to the street.  Marth spoke first:
     —"I had a good time."
     —"Yeah.  So you don't want to do anything else tonight?"
     —"No.  I'm so sorry about the short tubbing.  I didn't know they were going to close early."
     —"These things happen.  So, um, totem-exploration at my place?"
     —"I'll be there!"
     Sozont decided to try kissing her good-night.  It really wasn't hard, and somehow it seemed to be meaningful in some way.  Then Sozont and Marth went their separate ways back to their apartments.
     Sozont had a lot to think about.  The child-rearing plan they had discussed had good points and bad points.  There was not much RL-time obligation for him, but he would be the breadwinner for a family and might not be able to take a month or two off from work when he felt like it, which he sometimes did.  Yet the idea of being a normal member of society seemed strangely attractive.
     Normal.  Sozont did not often think that this word could apply to him.  But when he thought about the things he wanted to do as a father to kits, it all seemed so very normal.
     Previously, Sozont had believed that the sperm-transfer aspect of rutting season would be something he would just have to put up with, but now he was enthused about RL touching with Marth and wanted more.  He would have to wait until Sunday.  Why hadn't he suggested something sooner???  And Marth seemed really interested in making love to him, though he couldn't understand why.  Did he deserve her?

23.  Spike's View

As fall turned into winter, the foliage died back and rabbits became harder to find near Fur City.  Today's hunt had taken Sozont far into the hinterlands, but now he was on his way home.  He passed through a clearing that seemed strangely familiar.  He knew that the last time he'd been here, the décor had been greener and there hadn't been one of those stupid blue signs in the middle of it.
     The sign pictured two scruffy wolves in a junkyard.  Ugly weeds grew through holes in the junk.  The wolves were licking each other's tongues.  The caption read: "Gay Sex Doesn't Make Babies".  It was in remarkably poor taste, even for a rutting sign.  Sozont was glad it had been placed in the middle of nowhere and hoped it had been a donation, not paid for with tax debits.
     So what was familiar about this clearing?  Oh yes, now he remembered: this was where he had first met Spike.  Sozont pulled out his cell phone and called the echidna.  The phone rang quite a few times, with several "call being transferred" noises.  Eventually his friend answered.
     —"Hi Spike!  It's Sozont."
     —"Hey!  What's happening?"
     —"I was just passing through that clearing where we first met and thought of you."
     —"Well, isn't that sweet!"
     —"There's a stupid blue sign there now."
     —"Yech!  I hate those signs.  I don't spend much time in Furry Fairytale Land in the winter.  I'm over in Jism Market now."
     —"Oh.  I was hoping to see you again some time."
     —"Be at your lair in a hour."
     —"Great!  Oh, and I'm sorry I was so uptight at the Furry Club."
     —"No worries, mon.  If I got wound up about everything I ever wanted but didn't get, I'd be a nervous wreck!"
     —"Glad to hear it.  See you soon!"

Sozont got home with some time to spare before Spike arrived.  He used the time to rehash the last conversation in his mind.  It was something he did far too often.
     Sozont had mentioned "Furry Club" and Spike had talked about not getting something he wanted, which was presumably RL sex with Sozont.  The tigrihippostrich wasn't sure how he felt about that.  Certainly the RL stuff with Marth was very attractive and perhaps Epistemology Wolf would also be a good time.  On the other hand, things were moving rapidly with Marth right now—Sozont would prefer not to make big changes in the rest of his life while he worked on getting his rutting-season commitment firmed up.
     Spike had also mentioned that he was spending time in Jism Market, a scenario that Sozont had never visited nor had ever intended to visit.  Firstly, it was non-furry (there was a "Spooge Market" for that).  Also, Sozont could not understand how the economy worked in those gay-fantasy scenarios.  He didn't want join a VR community where he'd always be just a peon because he couldn't figure out how to get ahead in life.

     Spike arrived and Sozont was happy to see him.  They talked about stuff.  Sozont remembered what a good time he'd had with Marth at the hot tub and thought perhaps something similar could happen with Spike if he spilled a bean or two.
     —"It looks like I might actually have a rutting partner this year."
     —"Oh?  Who's the lucky girl?"
     —"Martha Stewart."
     —"That one???  I wouldn't go near that bitch.  At my school we have some girls like that—they're trying for an 'MRS' degree."
     —"There has been no discussion of marriage.  We're just rutting."  In Fairytale Land, legal marriages were for furs who planned to leave the meat market and choose the same partner every year for rutting.  Tardrayn-rah was married.  The culture was somewhat negative on marriage because the gene pool was fairly small and it was necessary to keep swapping partners to raise the diversity of offspring.
     —"Uh huh.  You know, once you have a kid with a girl, you're related to her forever.  And that vixen has some nasty claws.  Why do you like her?"
     —"Oh, I don't know.  We just sort of 'click' together, somehow."
     Spike cocked his head in a canine manner.  "Have you met her in RL?  What does she look like?"
     —"Yeah.  Let's just say she's an 'old-style Furry girl'."
     —"Tsk.  That bad, eh?"
     This conversation was nothing at all like what Sozont had hoped for.  Instead of getting closer, he and Spike seemed to be moving apart.  And Spike was dissing Sozont's girl, the only girl who had ever expressed any serious interest in rutting with him.  That made him feel defensive and feisty.
     —"Well, *I* like her."
     —"Okay, okay, don't have a cow, man.  I'm only a fruit.  Don't let me interfere with your eternal happiness. I'll just walk off into the sunset by myself now."  He starting humming Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
     —"Yeah?  Well 'not today, Zurg'."  Sozont assumed the quadruped position and did several sudden deep knee bends.  "So, uh, you wanna?"
     —"Oh, why not?"  Spike pretended to remove his nonexistent belt.
     So they cuddled, and did other things such as you can imagine, and then snuggled some more.  Afterward, Sozont still wanted to reduce this barrier that had arisen between them.  He decided to try some 'pillow talk'.
     —"So, um, Spike?"
     —"Why does your penis have only three heads?"
     Silence.  Not good, what had Sozont stepped on now?
     "I mean, a standard echidna penis has four heads, right?  It's, um, quite unusual for a fur to pick a body form that's, uh, nonstandard in that area.  I mean, I like it just the way it is, but I was just wondering, um..."
     The expression on the echidna's face made him seem much older and wiser than usual.  "It reflects something not quite right about that part of my hy00man body.  I'd rather not talk about it, since it's obviously something you'll never want to see, Mr. Going Straight As An Arrow."
     —"Hey!  I'm still the same ole' bi guy I've always been.  I'm just getting closer to my straight-side goals, that's all."
     Spike moved to the lair's exit.  "I've yiffed a lot of guys and a few gals in my time, Sozont.  I think I know a little about these things.  That girl will be asking you for an exclusive contract.  And unless I'm mistaken, you're going to give it to her."  Spike left the lair without saying good-bye.

     Well, that was depressing.  Spike and Marth did not like each other at all.  Spike in particular seemed to think of Marth as a competitor he couldn't beat.  And Sozont had never told either of them about the sex he had with rabbits.  Why would anyone want to know about that?  It was bloody and would have been extremely painful if they weren't NPC's...  Sozont tried to shake the thoughts out of his head.  He was *so* glad he had been too hungry that day to use Venus Fly Trap as a yiffing toy.  She would have been a life-destroying mistake.  Sozont hadn't done any rabbit-sex in recent times, not since he had first met Spike actually, but deep down he was still just a goddamned troll and nobody who really knew who he was could possibly love him.

24.  Showing Inner Animals

Sunday finally arrived.  Marth came to Sozont's lair.  Her vulpine body-form looked good.  Sozont thought they made a nice couple, in a "Beauty and the Beast" sort of way.  Sozont started up the "Be Your Totem Animal" program.  His body changed.  He became a jaguar!  Somehow that seemed quite appropriate, although not what Sozont would have guessed.  And Marth had become a...
     —"Marth, you're a bear!"
     —"Yeah.  Guess I don't need brass claws now."  She was a huge grizzly bear, at least four times as big as Sozont's jaguar.
     —"This lair doesn't feel right.  We should go out someplace."
     —"Um, I sort of don't want other furs to see me like this."
     —"Okay, I'll redecorate."  Sozont invoked an isolation field, disconnecting his lair from the rest of Furry Fairytale Land.  He created a wetlands scene, lush with spring growth.  It cost some credits, but this was a date-like thing and surely Sozont should spend money on that.
     —"Hey, pretty good!  But a bit too hot for my taste."  Oh yeah, bears like it cooler than jaguars do.  Sozont created two bubbles in the isolation field, keeping the humidity high near himself but low near Marth.
     —"How's that?"
     —"Nice!  How about some music?"
     —"Oh, I never know what to pick."
     —"Well, I can help with that!"  Suddenly the air was filled with Kansas' Dust in the Wind.
     —"Good choice!"
     —"Thanks.  I just love Kansas."
     —"Frankly, my dear, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
     —"No, that's just a line from W.C. Fields."  Sozont wondered why he'd made that joke.  He still *felt* like himself in this jaguar form, but maybe it made him want to say different things than he usually did.  "You sure are a very LARGE bear."
     Marth looked at the ground.  "I don't really think of myself as being this big."
     —"Actually, I never think of myself as being a jaguar at all.  I just am."
     —"I often think about being a bear when I'm working.  Sometimes I really want to cuff a customer!"
     —"Thankfully I don't have to work with the public in my job."
     —"Yeah.  This scenery is very creative."  A frog hopped across the marsh.  Had Sozont invoked that?  He hadn't been paying attention to all his invocations.
     —"I've been working on Fairytale Land for a few years now.  I know the kernel programming fairly well."  Suddenly the music changed.  Now it was Carly Simon's You're So Vain.  "Okay Marth, so I'm vain; is that a problem?"
     —"Oh!  Sorry."  Marth changed the music to the Doors' Riders on the Storm.  "I'm so used to picking songs, sometimes I don't even pay attention to what I'm picking anymore."
     Marth's Inner Animal does her own invocations, without conscious thought!  That's my kind of girl, thought Sozont.  He moved towards Marth while making a flehmen grimace, but without thinking about what that meant.
     Marth seemed a little uncomfortable.  "Um, I thought this was supposed to be a spiritual journey, not a sexual one."
     —"Uh huh.  In these bodies, I don't think our mating parts would even fit together."
     —"Good.  Because I've had some problems in the past with guys who claimed they wanted to rut, but they would only ever do it in VR.  So now I insist on RL yiffing before I'll do anything in VR."
     —"I've, um, never—actually—done it in RL.  I'm hoping you'll be my first."
     —"Oh.  Um, I'll try to make sure it's a good time for you."
     —"Thanks."  Sozont had a thought.  "So, what about at Soapy Lake?  What would have happened if I hadn't been so bashful?"
     —"Well, after I'd gotten you all hot and bothered, I'd have told you that we had to switch to RL if you wanted to score."  Marth giggled at her own naked admission.
     She's a troll.  The thought bounced around in Sozont's head while he tried to get a grip on it.  She's a troll.  For an instant all of Marth's behaviors made sense to Sozont.  She's a troll!  Suddenly Sozont began to believe that this whole rutting thing might actually work out.  Spending 18+ years with her raising young?  Yeah, that could happen!  The thought, oddly enough, made him hungry.
     —"Hey Marth, are you hungry?"
     —"I could eat."
     —"Hmm.  Grizzly brear...  eats salmon!"
     —"I suppose you can make a wriggling fish suddenly appear in my paws?"  She sat on her haunches and held out her forepaws.
     —"I can do better than that!"  Sozont invoked a creek that started from noplace, ended up noplace, but somehow was stocked with fish.  Hang the expense, he thought, I'm on the road to WINNING the dating game!
     —"Ooh!  Those fish are huge!"  In the middle of her sentence, the music changed to Bette Midler's The Rose.  Must be another animal invocation, thought Sozont.  Her Inner Bear is trying to tell me something.
Some say love, it is a river
     Marth put her forepaws in the water and clawed a fish.  She ripped the skin off the wriggling thing and took a big bite.  "Ooh," she squealed, "this is delicious!"
     —"Oh course!  It's unisex salmon.  I don't kid around."
     Sozont extended his claws and grabbed a fish, but the thing was a fighter and almost got away, so Sozont put his head into the water and used his jaws to crush the salmon's skull, in self-conscious imitation of typical FFJ6 hunting style—which really wasn't all that different from Sozont's usual "bite the head off" approach.
     Sozont sat down to eat his fish.  It really was very good.  Marth was still standing while eating hers, which made her tower over him.  Was he really going to win with her?  "Maybe we should go out for dinner and a movie.  Do the normal dating thing."  There was that word normal again.
     —"Sounds good.  What movie?"
     Sozont giggled.  "I don't even know what's playing these days."
     —"There's Star Trek XCIX: Endless Rehash.  It'll be around for a few more days.  I haven't seen it yet."
     —"That could be good.  And Joey's Steakhouse is good."
     —"Let's do it, right now!"
     —"Um, I don't think I can go to dinner right after eating this salmon."
     —"Oh, yeah.  Well, tomorrow then?"
     —"There's no way I can get Red out of my apartment tomorrow.  It will have to be Tuesday."
     —"We could use my apartment.  I've got a mattress.  I know, it's not much."
     —Fear.  "I think I'd rather use my apartment, for our first time."
     —"Oh, should I be afraid of what devilments you have hiding in your lair?"
     —"Generally speaking, it is the female who is expected to be afraid during mating."
     —"Yeah, I suppose."  Bette Midler was still singing:
It's the dream, afraid of waking, that never takes the chance
     Sozont decided that he *wasn't* afraid of waking from this dream, and he *would* take the chance.  He sprang onto Marth's back and rubbed her tail-flap with his inguinal region.  She stopped eating and stood motionless and silent, but her scent was positive.  He crawled along her back and started chewing her ears.  She took two steps, then sat down—Sozont jumped off and landed on four paws.  Marth rolled over on her side.  Sozont nuzzled her belly and imagined his kits growing inside her.  He looked up at her face, seeing something for just a moment, but then Marth rolled back and stood up.
     —"Like I said, RL first."
     —"Let's go, now!"
     —"Tuesday.  9 PM."
     Why was she holding back?  Perhaps it was the wrong time of the month?
     —"So, what monthly cycle day are you on now?"
     —"Oh, um, today is day 16."  So that wasn't it.  Hey, wait a minute!
     —"So... at the hot tub... that was a fertile day?"
     —"Well, yeah."
     —"Don't you think you should have told me that?"
     —"I was going to... but the early closing screwed up my plans...  Anyway we never really got started on doing anything."  Marth's eyes were wet, which was out of character.  Bears don't cry; that's a primate trick.  Sozont rubbed her side with his.
     —"I'm not asking for much.  I just want to finally do the regular Rutting Season thing this year, that's all.  But that means all practice matings beforehand have to be on non-fertile days."
     —"Okay.  But my cyles are irregular—my body doesn't take well to estrous synchronization.  I wouldn't want to base my plans on having any fertile days during Rutting Week."
     —"Well, I would still like to plan on it, but it's okay if the plan fails."
     —"Okay.  And remember that even if do I ovulate on cue, I probably won't get pregnant.  I've never succeeded before."
     —"What about that off-plan medical treatment idea?"
     —"A reputable doctor won't treat me until I've been trying with the same partner for six months.  So, um, do you still want to rut with me?"
     This plan was quite far from the ideal that Sozont had had in mind, but it was still tons better than the no-chance-at-all he'd had during previous years.  And she was still a troll and he was still on the road to winning.  He looked her in the eyes.  "Yeah."
     —"Tuesday, 9 PM, Joey's Steakhouse?  Dinner, movie, then popping your cherry?"
     When she put it that way, it made Sozont nervous.  Did he really want to yiff this girl for real?  She had already shown herself to be extremely dangerous.  Would he actually go through with this?  Hmm...  Yes, he would!
     —"I'll be there."  Sozont terminated the isolation field and the "Be Your Totem Animal" program.  They were back in his lair, a tigrihippostrich and his vixen.  But there was something odd about his perception.  The spot where Marth was standing had some sort of annotation attached to it, suggesting that it was the most important location in the world.  He moved around a bit—the annotation stayed with her.  Was this a Fairytale Land effect or was it in his own brain?  Sozont wasn't sure.  He had never had a rutting commitment before—various bits of never-before-used brain tissue were now activating.  He went to Marth and gave her a hug.  She hugged him back.  He rubbed the base of her neck, like last time.  She put a paw below his belt and rubbed under his hippo-tail, which Sozont supposed was okay considering what he had recently been doing to her tail-flap.  It felt... really nice.  Sozont was still finding it hard to believe that he was actually going to win with her.  And Marth was a troll like him; he could be himself with her.  Sozont startled when he realized that he had been standing there motionless, staring into Marth's eyes while she stroked his ass.
     —"What's the matter?"
     —"Nothing.  I...  really liked that."
     —"Yeah.  It'd be fun to try that totem program again someday."
     —"Well, I should go now.  See you Tuesday."
     —"Okay!  And Marth...  I, um, love you."
     She gave him a piercing stare.  "I love you too, Sozont."  Marth tried to scamper out of the lair, but she was too full.  "And you've *got* to stop overfeeding me like this!"  She walked slowly away.  Sozont watched until she was out of sight.

25.  Martha Stewart, Loving

     Sozont could hardly believe his luck.  He was going on a real date!
     At the restaurant, sometimes they talked a lot, sometimes there were silent periods.  Although this hy00man body couldn't detect anything, Sozont had faith that communication was still occurring during the "silent" periods.
     At the movie, Marth started rubbing Sozont's legs.  Somehow Sozont had never figured out that this was the whole point of going to a movie on a date!  So he rubbed Marth's body, a bit self-conscious in his copying of her moves.
     Afterwards, they went to Marth's place.  She mixed up two drinks and handed him one.
     —"I need a drink?"
     —"Yes.  You're still very uptight.  Drink up!"
     So they drank and talked.  Favorite music, foods, movie stars.  Eventually the alcohol was all consumed.  Marth went on the offensive and kissed Sozont wetly.  Then Sozont <I don't write sex scenes; sorry>.
     Afterward, they talked some more.  Parenting styles, healthcare, proper uses for VR.  Red Bunny would be home soon, so they put their clothes back on.  Marth kept saying that Sozont should go, but then they would find another subject of interest and Marth would talk some more.
     When Red arrived, Sozont took that as his cue and walked towards the door, but it seemed Marth still wanted to talk, while Red was almost literally stamping her feet.  Sozont stood by the door for awhile, while Marth talked and kept drawing Sozont into conversation by saying interesting things.  Eventually Sozont kissed her while rubbing between her cheeks and ears.  They had a silent moment, then Sozont went home to his apartment.
     He lay on his mattress.  He didn't want to go back to VR just yet.  He still couldn't believe his luck.  Sozont had a girlfriend!  And she was a troll, so he *did* deserve her.  He still hadn't told her about the rabbit sex, but there were probably lots of bad things she had done that he hadn't heard about yet.  All in good time.  He wished she were there with him, but at least he was still in the body that had mated with her.  Sozont couldn't figure out how he felt about that.  There were so many feelings!  Clearly there were lots of newly-activated brain bits, that had not been fooled by his VR life and had refused to activate before.  He felt older; there was more of him now.
     Sozont went to sleep.  It was the first time in several years that he had voluntarily slept in human form when VR was available.  Marth had made love to this body, so it wasn't such a bad body, after all.

Chapter V:  Gaining Social Status

26.  Project meeting

      Sozont awoke and remembered that he was supposed to attend a Σ project meeting today.  He was about to hop into the shower when he realized that the meeting was in VR and he wasn't.  He had a moment's confusion about where he was and why he was there, but then he thought again about Marth and last night.  Finally something *good* happened in RL!  He suited up.
      Sozont was in his lair.  The meeting was in Fur City.  Time was a bit too short to walk there.  He could just teleport to the meeting, but there was a hefty "laziness fine" for that.  He decided to teleport to the center of Fur City and walk from there—the fine was considerably less and there was sufficient time for it.
· · · · · · · · · · · · ·
     There was a huge crowd of anthro furs in the City center; it stank like a dog kennel.  He walked to his company's offices, getting to the meeting room with five minutes to spare.  OursSuisse was already there.  Others arrived.  Be-A-Wulf was last.
     Be-A-Wulf had an agenda and tried to stick to it.  But one fur would say something on-topic, another would make a joke out of it, then everyone would have a laugh at the project's expense, or at some stupidity in Furry Fairytale Land programming, or whatever.  The project's splash-intro was supposedly done and should have taken only a moment to check off from the agenda, but Sill E. Skunk and Yellow Squirrel got into a heated argument about some details in its decorative elements.  The argument was not interesting to Sozont, nor (it seemed) to anyone else besides the skunk and the squirrel, and perhaps also the wolf/manager who was trying to adjudicate.
     Sozont looked around the room at his co-workers.  Probably most of them already had their mates selected for Rutting Season.  He wanted to tell them all, "I finally have a girlfriend!" but it was not the sort of thing that they talked about at meetings.  His gaze paused for a moment on OursSuisse, who smiled at him and gave him a thumbs-up sign for no obvious reason.  What was that supposed to mean?  While Sill and Yellow talked, Be-A-Wulf looked over at Sozont and gave him a big grin.  Sozont wondered what kind of odor he was giving out.  Perhaps he should not be thinking about rutting now.
     Eventually the splash-intro discussion petered out and conversation moved on to muscle-tremor timing and how to use it to provide more realistic feedback to fur-players.  This Marth was not chicken/vole an area hot tub that Sozont jaguar and bear had paid dinner and movie much attention to copulation.  What???  It seemed to Sozont like there were two streams of thought going on in his head.  The other stream seemed to be telling ?someone? about his sex life.  Well, he was rather proud of his sex life at the moment.  He looked around the room, but no one seemed to be looking back at him.  Should learn more about muscle-tremor timing came a thought from nowhere.  A sensible idea, though.  Anyway, there was nobody here Spike whom he wouldn't want to tell about rabbits his sex life.  Okay, now he was just scaring himself.
     The meeting was adjourned and furs were leaving.  As Sozont headed towards the door, Be-A-Wulf caught up to him.
     —"Doing anything for lunch today, Sozont?"
     —"I haven't made any plans yet."
     —"How about joining us at The Happy Camper?"  OursSuisse was standing next to Be-A-Wulf.
     As the threesome made their way to the VR restaurant, Sozont remembered Springer the Leopard, and what a pushover he had turned out to be in RL.  People can be so different in VR sometimes.  And leopards and jaguars were almost the same species...

~~by Pyesetz the Dog.
    (Check here for Sozont updates; see also my website.)