PART 10 - STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
The door to the D Tails Excursions office swung open and Gwen Riley stepped out, stretching wearily and breathing in the cooler night air. With a shiver, she unknotted the sleeves of her coveralls and shrugged into them, buttoning up the front over her swimsuit with a sigh. The vixen turned and looked over her shoulder at her partner, who sat at the paper and map-cluttered desk cross-referencing charts and doing calcuations on a pad of paper. She gave the raccoon a wry look. "Okay, Lori. I'm gonna head home and get some sleep. Don't stay up too late."
After receiving a mumbled grunt in reply, the sandy-haired she-fox rolled her eyes and closed the door behind her, walking up the pier toward the lights of Casino Island.
A hulking bear in a sailor's pea coat over filthy, oil-stained clothing, faded out of the darkness between two warehouses and fell into step behind her, his heavy boots clunking on the wooden planks of the dock in a slow, relentless tempo.
Shortly afterward, a trio of hard-bitten ruffians emerged from the same shadows, scuttling across the span of the pier toward the office of D Tails Excursions and the quiescent form of the Glass Goose. As they fanned out, the grinning hyena and hollow- eyed dhole headed toward the plane with crowbar and axe in hand, while the stern- faced leopard drew a revolver from his sash and stepped up to the office door, a fifth figure watched the proceedings from the alley.
He stepped out of the shadows, his ears laid back against his bandage-shrouded head, the only features visible beneath the criss-crossed gauze, a single orange eye blazing in contrast to the purple, swollen lid of the other, and sharp, tightly clenched teeth, with a few gaping black gaps among the gleaming white points. The figure stood half-hunched, his right arm in a sling held tight to his chest under a draped trench coat, while in the other hand he gripped a machete with the knuckles of his hand whitening under his filthy, off-white fur.
Gwen's tail swished diffidently behind her as she walked, humming to herself as she moved along the darkened pier. She stopped in a doorway and bent down as if to tying her shoe, with her foot up on the wooden plank stoop. With a lopsided grin, the bear closed in on her, stretching a garrote between the thick fingers of his hands that gleamed dully in the pool of light cast by a hanging lightbulb over the door that was so dim only a few insects fluttered about. A look of mild puzzlement flitted across the hulking ruffian's face as he realized she wasn't wearing any shoes to tie.
The vixen abruptly stood and spun on her heel, slashing upward with a knife that had appeared in her dark furred hand and cutting through the garrote with a twang like a snapping guitar string. Her tail bristled as she leapt back and dropped into a ready stance, the blade raised toward the bear's face as he blinked dimly at the curled halves of his assassin's weapon.
A sharp toothed grin spread across her features, belied by the wary intensity in her eyes. "I've had boys try to feed me a line before, but you take the cake, big boy."
With a shrug, he dropped the bits of wire and reached into his coat, drawing forth a heavy blade as long as Gwen's forearm. He took a step toward her, waving it in front of him menacingly. "Not paid to take this cake. Just take head, da?"
At this, the vixen let out a nervous laugh, and with a flick of her wrist threw her knife at his face. As he dodged clumsily aside, she turned on her heel and darted into the darkness, her bare feet pattering across the boards of the pier. The bear cursed to himself in Tundric and lumbered after her.
The vixen pelted through the dark back alleys of Pier 7, leaping lightly over broken crates and fallen trash bins that her hulking pursuer merely crashed through like an out- of-control freight train. She dodged nimbly around dock-whallopers, bums, and sailors alike as they stumbled in her way, while the bear swatted them aside like annoying gnats, leaving them stunned and supine on the ground in his wake, cursing at them both in a wide range of languages.
The farther her headlong flight took her, the more uncertain she became of her direction, until finally she found herself down a blind alley blocked by a span of chain link fence. She slammed into the fence, gripping the links in her dark furred hands and spitting out a stream of curses that probably would have floored the sailors she'd passed as surely as her musclebound pursuer had.
With a growl, she started clambering up the face of the fence. Just as she reached the top, she let out a yelp as an iron-like grip clamped onto her dangling tail.
She looked down with wide, frantic eyes, her voice rising in a shriek. "HEY LEGGO YOU BIG APE!"
The bear let out a chuckle, deep and mechanical like a diesel engine failing to turn over. "Maybe I cut this off first, da? It seem to get you into trouble."
As Gwen desperately clung
to the chain link with fingers and toes, resisting the bear's
relentless pull, it bothered her that the only thought in her head
was that she and Loretta would probably have to change the company
name because of this.
Loretta Pike chewed on the eraser end of a pencil, staring down at the paperwork spread across the desk before her. With a weary sigh, she sat back and rubbed the bridge of her nose, her natural mask compressing as she clenched her tired eyes shut. She looked over her shoulder as the icebox compressor whirred to noisy life behind her, and she gave it a nod. "Yeah, that's a good idea." With that she pushed back the chair and stood, stretching her back with a grunt, then turned and crossed the room to the fridge, fishing in the pocket of her coveralls. She dropped a 5-cowrie coin into the jar and reached inside, pulling out a bottle of Colala that frosted up like it was in the one of the company's glossy advertisements almost instantly. Bumping the door shut with her hip, she turned and popped the bottle open on the window mounted opener, catching the cap in her hand and flipping it like a coin onto the windowsill. She leaned on the file cabinet and took a pull from the bottle.
One of her ears twitched as a knock came to the door. She glanced at the clock on the desk, and then called out. "Who is it?" She cocked an eyebrow as she was met with silence, followed by another knock. A look of annoyance crossed her face. "Who IS it?"
More silence, then another knock. She let out an exasperated breath. "Look. We're closed! Beat it!"
Still more silence, so long an interval that Loretta shrugged, and took another pull from her bottle of soda.
A sudden explosion of gunfire shattered the door's lock mechanism and sent splinters flying as the mouthful of cola the raccoon female had just taken suddenly became a cloud of fine mist in front of her face. The bottle dropped to the floor and shattered as she dove behind the desk with a yelp.
The door flew open, and a
mangy leopard stepped into the light with a smoking revolver clenched
in his hand, scanning the room with a deadpan expression on his face.
His ears twitched at the sound of a drawer being eased open, and he
reached up his thumb to cock his pistol, aiming for the center of the
desk as his finger tightened on the trigger.
A whimper escaped Gwen Riley's throat, as she felt her fingers and toes begin to give way. Suddenly, her nose banged sharply into the fence as the grip on her tail was released, the rattle of the metal links ringing over the deep voiced exclamation of pain and surprise coming from below. The vixen shook her head to recover her bearings and looked down over her shoulder, her eyes widening in shock.
The bear was on his knees, surrounded by a quartet of sinewy, tan furred female rabbits, three of which were clad in nothing but their bare fur, with the fourth wearing a loose white male's shirt. Two of them each had one of his arms pinioned behind him, their athletic bodies straining against his massive strength and pulling him backwards as he roared in hoarse, outraged Tundric. A third had a grip on his thumb and pinky, and as Gwen watched in amazement, peeled the huge blade out of his hand with a painful sounding crack, sending it clattering to the ground as the bear bellowed in agony. The fourth bounced on the balls of her feet for a moment, as if taking careful aim, then brought her foot up in a snap kick between the ursine thug's legs.
A shrill squeak that Gwen would never have imagined coming from such a large creature sounded out, and her pursuer doubled over, letting out a long, feeble wheeze like a balloon deflating. The two does at his sides released his arms as he folded in on himself, and in an uncannily coordinated motion, spun on their heels and slammed their knees into both sides of his skull as he fell forward, causing him to drop limp to the ground, a faint, strangled gurgle coming from his throat.
The one in the white shirt nodded in satisfaction, dusting off her hands, as the one who had disarmed him leaned down and picked up the blade, walking back toward her half-clothed double. Gwen blinked in amazement, hanging tightly to the fence with her tail frizzed out like a bottle brush. The tan furred female vanished, blinking out of existence and leaving the one in the shirt examining the ugly weapon that was suddenly in her hand, before casually tossing it over her shoulder into a nearby trash bin with a resounding clang.
The other two identical does stepped up to the fence and held their hands open, calling up to the stunned vixen. "Come on' down, darlin'."
The other nodded encouragingly. "We'll catch y'all."
Gwen maintained her hold on the fence, shouting down at them with a voice edged with hysteria. "What the hell ARE you?"
The one in the shirt planted her hands on her hips with a look of annoyance on her face. "I'm th' gal that jest saved y'all from gittin' pruned like a goldurned hedge, so why don't y'all git a grip... er... release yer dang grip and come on down here."
One of the tan furred rabbits standing below her nodded impatiently. "Yeah, don'tcha wanna git back an' make sure yer pardner's all right?"
At this, the young vixen gasped, a look of terrified realization washing over her face. "Oh NO! Loretta!"
Galvanized into action, she pushed off from the fence and spun around as she dropped, hitting the ground running. The vixen dodged around the white shirted rabbit and raced down the alley without a backward glance.
The two tan furred rabbits standing by the fence shrugged at each other and stepped forward, recombining into a single doe who leapt lightly over the prone, insensate bear and vanished as she was about to collide with her partially clad double, who turned and set out at a run after the rapidly receding Gwen.
A slight smile came to the leopard gunman's lips as he aimed, confident that the heavy caliber rounds in his pistol would punch through the desk and make an end to the Sylvanian female crouching behind it.
This confidence, and all other thoughts, were banished in an instant as muscular tan furred arms wrapped around his throat, jerking him backwards through the door with a strangled gasp as powerful legs pushed off on either side of the doorframe. Something slammed into the backs of his calves, sending him toppling backwards.
His pistol roared in his flailing hand, and the blue painted duck decoy leapt off of the top of the file cabinet with a burst of splinters. Loretta popped up from behind the desk with a warlike howl, firing off both barrels of her shotgun and stumbling backwards from the recoil and her awkward footing, narrowly avoiding falling on top of the radio table as she spun and slammed into the wall.
The heavy-gauge buckshot sailed over the feline's chest and grazed the tip of his muzzle as he found himself bent backwards with a knee wedged into the small of his back. A bare, padless foot came down heel first on his solar plexus like a hammer, knocking what wind remained out of him as the pistol dropped from his nerveless fingers to the ground with a clunk.
In the sudden, dreadful silence of a room filled with blue smoke, Loretta recovered her bearings and stepped cautiously forward with the snub-nosed shotgun clenched in her trembling hands and a ringing in her ears. As her grey eyes stared wide in disbelief, the splayed body of the feebly coughing leopard was rolled sideways off of a tan furred, sinewy female rabbit who laid on the deck with her knees up to her chest, wearing nothing but a loose pair of olive drab pants with leather suspenders up over her bare shoulders.
While the stricken leopard curled into a miserable ball on his side and retched, the doe gave the disbelieving raccoon a smile and raised her hands up beside her cocked ears. "Hold yer fire, darlin'. I'm a friend."
An identical rabbit doe leaned in from the side, this one not even wearing any pants, and gave Loretta a searching look. "Y'all okay in thar?"
The racoon blinked, and her hand shot up to rub between her eyes before she looked at them again, her shotgun slowly lowering down at her side. "Miss... Miss Early?"
Both rabbits smiled at her, as the one on the deck sat up and crossed her legs, propping herself up on outstretched arms. "One an' th' same, darlin'."
She cast a glance at the leopard beside her as he stirred on the boards and groaned. She pursed her lips and snapped a punch at the back of his neck, causing him to go limp with a grunt, before turning her attention back up to the raccoon with a smile.
Before Loretta could articulate, or even form a thought, a ragged cry followed by a loud splash sounded from the direction of the Glass Goose. The raccoon and both rabbit's heads whipped around toward the sound, with ears cocked.
A look of horror crossed Loretta's face. "Gee Gee!"
She dithered for a moment, then dropped the shotgun, rushed back to the file cabinet and grabbed the bat, and went running out the door, hardly pausing in her headlong charge as the rabbit doe rolled hastily out of her way.
Miss Early's unclothed duplicate reached down and helped her to her feet, and suddenly there was a single doe standing by the doorway, straightening her suspenders and watching Loretta's bisected tail disappear around the corner of the building down the ramp leading to the plane. The tan-furred rabbit furrowed her brow in determination, cracked her neck, and set out after her.
Down by the gently bobbing hulk of the bright blue Grumhund G21, an athletic rabbit doe ducked and dodged the wild swings of a snarling, red-furred dhole wielding an axe, her feet set wide in the low canvas shoes that were her only clothing. Several feet up the ramp, two more rabbits pulled at the ankles of an unconscious hyena who was currently floating face down in the dark, oily water of the lagoon.
The two identical does' ears perked up at the sound of a shrill bellow from up the ramp, and they turned to see Loretta barrelling down the gangplank with the bat raised behind her shoulder and fury in her wide grey eyes. As the shrieking raccoon hurtled past, only one of them managed to rear back out of her path, clutching the baseball cap to her orange-haired head as the other was knocked headfirst into the water with a yelp and a splash.
Halfway along the span of
the ramp, Loretta reared back and suddenly hurled the bat ahead of
her, sending it spinning end over end down the gangway like a
The canvas-shod rabbit doe ducked just in time as
the dhole drew back for another wild swing of his axe. The blunt end
of the bat hit him right between his bulging eyes with a sound like a
bullet going through a coconut, and he dropped to the deck like all
of his bones had suddenly disappeared.
His former lapine opponent straightened up, looking over her shoulder with a mixture of caution and amazement. The raccoon stood with shaking knees, her feet spread wide and her hands clenched in the air in front of her as she came down off of her adrenaline rush with ragged, panting breaths. She looked down at the dhole, who laid unmoving with his eyes rolled back in this head, and looked back at Loretta.
With a wry half smile, she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Aaaaaand he's out!"
The raccoon rocked on her heels, and sat heavily down on the ramp way, a stunned look on her features.
In a few bounding strides the rabbit doe had matched pace with Gwen, and the two pelted down the the back alleys of Pier 7 side by side.
The vixen looked over at
her running companion warily, gasping for breath. "I...
r-repeat... wh-what... what... the... HECK... are you?"
The rabbit grinned at her and shrugged, bounding along seemingly unfazed by the effort. "I'm jest a regular gal, darlin'."
The vixen shook her head, a grimace on her face. "Buh... bull... bull p-pucky... There's... there's nothin'... regular about what... what... what I just... just saw... back.. back there."
The rabbit gave her another shrug. "Well, I'll admit, most gals couldn't field an entire ball team by herself, but otherwise I'm flesh n' blood jest like y'all."
Gwen shook her head, glaring over at her companion. "If... if... thats... true... how can... can you... be run... running... all out... out... like... this... with... without... even... breath... breathing heavy?"
Jane gave her a knowing grin. "Well, darlin'... Lets jest say I got a lotta spare time t' exercise. I'm a l'il outta trainin' right now 'cos I'm on this here trip, but most o' th' time I got me workin' out jest 'bout twenty-four seven."
The vixen burst out coughing, stumbling a bit before catching herself. She turned and spit, then looked back at the rabbit doe. "Ch... Cheez... they... they would... would... just... just... LOVE you... at Song... Songmark..."
The athletic rabbit doe grinned over at her. "Oh, are they hirin'?"
At this, Gwen rolled her eyes, too out of breath to answer as they darted out the alleyway onto the main boardwalk of Pier 7. The vixen and rabbit sprinted down the docks in silence, unmindful of the curious glances the waterfront denizens they passed gave them in their headlong flight.
In a few moments, the pair came to a stop in sight of the D Tails Excursions building and the Glass Goose. The vixen bent over, clutching her side and panting heavily with her other hand on her knee, as Jane stood beside her with her hands on her hips, peering down the ramp.
Several of her duplicates were pulling one of their own and the unconscious hyena from the water. Another was helping a dazed Loretta to her feet, while yet another crouched beside the splayed body of the dhole. The doe wearing the khaki pants looked up and gave her shirt clad double a cheery wave by the buckshot punctured doorway as she sat cross legged on the supine form of the leopard.
Jane turned to Gwen and clapped her on the shoulder. "Thar y'all go, darlin'. Yer gal's okay an' yer plane ain't even scratched. Look's like everthin's under control."
The vixen caught her breath and ran over to the entry to the ramp. Gwen leapt into Loretta's arms as she stepped up onto the pier, nearly bowling the shorter raccoon female over. "Oh God! Lori I'm so glad you're okay!"
The dark masked engineer extracted herself from the vixen's embrace and clasped her shoulders, a looking her in the eyes with a turmoil of relief, confusion, and weariness on her face as she spoke in a quavering voice. "I'm not a hundred-percent sure about that, Gwen."
She glanced over her shoulder at the quartet of rabbits who carried the limp forms of the two thugs who'd gone after the Glass Goose. The vixen nodded with a wry expression on her face. "You seein' double too, huh?"
The raccoon looked past her friend to see the white shirted rabbit standing behind her with her hands on her hips, surveying the surrounding scene. "More like double times double times double. I know I'm pretty good with figures but this is almost too much multiplication for me to handle."
The partners leaned on each other for support as the tan-furred does propped the unconscious attackers against the nearby dock piling and stepped toward one another, four of the five becoming two, which in turn became one before the vixen and raccoon's wondering eyes, until all that remained was one clad in a shirt, canvas shoes, and ballcap, and one dripping and shivering under a coating of oily salt water.
The pair of identical rabbits glanced at each other for a moment and stepped toward one another. The drenched one vanished, a cascade of mist dropping into a puddle beneath the space she vacated while the remaining doe sidestepped, self consciously tugging the hem of her white shirt lower.
Gwen shook her head in amazement, a note of humor on her shaky voice. "You must save a fortune in towels."
Jane chuckled and shrugged her shoulders. "Sure, but y'all oughta see my laundry bill."
She nodded at two more doubles who carried the unconscious leopard over to join his cohorts, then recombined and stepped up next to her. A moment later a fully clothed rabbit stood before Gwen and Loretta, shoving her hands into her pockets with a broad grin.
After a pregnant pause, Loretta couldn't take it any longer, and exploded in a shout, startling both the rabbit and vixen. "WHAT THE H-E-DOUBLE HOCKY STICKS IS GOING ON ?!"
She pushed Gwen aside, nearly knocking the sandy haired she fox off the dock, and advanced on the rabbit doe, pointing and gesturing and waving her arms. Jane's ears dropped back in consternation under the bristling raccoon's onslaught, but she stood her ground. "Where do all those other bunnies come from? How do you DO that? Why were you naked? Who are those guys? Why were they trying to kill us?" She reached up and grabbed the tan furred doe by her suspenders. "I want answers, darn it!"
The rabbit let out a sigh and adjusted her hat as the raccoon breathed through clenched teeth into her face. She shrugged over at the vixen, who stood nearby wringing her hands, and looked into Loretta's grey eyes. "Uh... Okay, answerin' y'all in order... One, Redwater Gulch, SouthWest Territories, Sylvania. Two, it's complex, and it'd take a while t' explain it proper. Three, 'cos I only got one set o' duds on me an' it's too hot here fer extra layers. Four, prolly a buncha hired flunkies workin' fer whoever's runnin' that sub base we're a'lookin' fer. And five, prolly 'cos they don't want us t' look fer it."
Loretta gripped her lapels tighter, a look of anger furrowing the center of her mask. "And you don't think you and your Missus Pearl might have mentioned that the opposition would be sending their goons for a social call?"
The rabbit gave her a laconic look and shrugged. "We weren't sure how much trouble was coming our way. Figured y'all had plenty of other stuff t'worry about." She gave the raccoon a wink. "And anyway, I had y'all covered."
The raccoon let out a long breath and released her grip on Jane's shirt and suspenders, her arms slouching to her sides as she stepped back, shaking her head. She looked over at the pile of unconscious thugs slouched against the dock piling, and down the ramp at her sea plane, then looked back at the tan furred rabbit with a contrite expression. "Yeah. I guess you did. I'm sorry I got all worked up. Thanks."
Gwen stepped forward, throwing her arm across her partner's shoulder and smiling at their rescuer. "Ditto for me. Thanks a lot!"
Jane shrugged and gave her a grin. "T'ain't nothin', darlin." She cocked her head toward the dock piling and the thugs arrayed around it like a pile of garbage. "Now if'n y'all would oblige me with a l'il bit o' rope fer our buddies over thar, and maybe some coffee if'n y'all got any, I'd call us more'n even." She took her hands out of her pockets and rubbed her arms with a rueful expression. "All this runnin' round in my birthday suit gits kinda chilly."
The vixen smiled at her and headed toward the door to the shack. "Sure thing. Hey Lori, is the coffee pot workin' again?"
The raccoon called back to her partner as she peered down the boardwalk. A phalanx of uniformed constables were hurrying up the pier in their direction. She gave Gwen an absent nod. "Uh, yeah. It's back in the workshop. I just got the plug hooked back up to it. Better make a full pot, we've got a lot more company coming." She glanced nervously over at the tan furred rabbit standing beside her and leaned over, talking out of the side of her mouth. "Although how the heck we're gonna explain what happened here is beyond me."
Jane gave her a sly grin. "I reckon these fellers all slipped on a banana peel and knocked themselves out." She raised her hands in a shrug as the raccoon looked at her dubiously. "Hey, anythin's possible."
Loretta shook her head, chuckling to herself. "Ain't THAT the truth, sister..."
In the shadows of the alleyway, the bandage-swaddled figure crouched down among the garbage cans, his orange eye narrowing in bitter hatred as he watched the trio of females deal with the police. A low growl escaped the back of his throat.
His weary body ached to spring, ached for revenge on the gaijin usagi, and simply ached, but he would wait. To succeed in his mission, he needed to kill the gaijin neko female. His target was bound show up eventually, and he would take pleasure in carving his way through as many of the does as it took to get at her.
He set the machete down beside him and settled in among the stinking refuse, pulling his coat tight around his shoulders. He would bide his time.
An hour-or-so later the constabulary had gone, carrying the battered thugs away in a black-mariah after taking the owners of D Tails Excursion's statements.
Gwen sat heavily down on one of the chairs after closing their bullet-riddled door behind the last of the police officers, taking a coffee cup from Jane as the rabbit doe proffered it to her, then sat down on the edge of the desk, looking at the young vixen with a weary smile on her face. "I gotta admit, darlin', that was some durned impressive fast talkin' y'all did. I woulda totally believed that was whut happened if'n I wasn't here t'see otherwise."
Loretta looked up from ruefully examining the bullet hole torn in the side of the blue painted duck decoy. "It helps that the truth is so hard to believe in the first place."
She set the decoy down and crossed to the desk chair, spinning it around and sitting down with her elbows propped up on the back cushion. She gave the rabbit doe a pensive look. "I don't suppose you could explain how it is you can make all those copies of yourself."
Jane turned and gave her a grin. "Well, fer starters, I ain't makin' copies. Each one is th' original article, 'cept one zigs while th' other zags."
The raccoon nodded, picking up her own cup of coffee and sipping it. "Okay... How?"
The tan-furred rabbit let out a long sigh, rubbing the back of her orange haired head as she gave them both a grave look. "Fore I tell y'all y'gotta promise me that this don't ever git told t' anybody, and I mean anybody. Thars only a handful o' folks runnin' round th' world today that know my big secret, and most of 'em are me. I reckon a couple o' Songmark gals can be trusted to keep somethin' like this t' themselves. Am I right?"
The raccoon and vixen glanced at each other, then nodded solemnly to her. Gwen looked her in the eyes. "Yeah, I think after tonight we owe you that much. I promise."
Loretta pursed her lips and shifted in her seat. "Well, even though I'd point out to my partner here that you and Missus Pearl were the ones that brought that bunch of thugs down on our heads in the first place, I'm still inclined to agree with her. You saved my life, my best friend, and my plane. I swear on what's left of my tail that I won't tell a soul." She let out a sigh as she slouched in her seat. "I mainly wanna know so I can get some sleep tonight."
Miss Early nodded in satisfaction. "Good enough."
She pushed up from the desk and walked over by the window overlooking the silhouette of the Glass Goose outside. After looking out it for a moment, she turned to face them, her hands shoved into the pockets of her baggy trousers. "It's like this. About a decade after th' turn o' th' next century, I'm gonna fall down this hole. Not a hole in th' ground, but a hole in time, if'n y'all can wrap yer heads around that."
Loretta and Gwen looked at each other bemusedly, as the young raccoon cocked an eyebrow. "Sounds like the plot to something out of Singular Tales magazine."
The rabbit gave her a grin and a wink. "T'ain't nothin' singular 'bout me, darlin'."
Her expression became serious as she continued. "So anyhow, I fall down this hole in time, and I wind up stuck back here in th' nineteen thirties. Now, if'n y'all visualize yer life as a line movin' forward in time, then my line'd be kinda looped back n' forth on itself, 'tween a couple o' significant points, and then cinched a l'il tight too. Well, somehow I figgered out how t' pluck that ol' line like y'all'd pluck a guitar string, and y'all know whut happens when y'all pluck a guitar string. It's kinda in two places at once."
With that, suddenly there
were two identical rabbit does standing in front of them,
differentiated only by what they wore. The one on the right wore the
loose white shirt and the left shoe, with her hands held in front of
her hips as if she still had them in the pockets of the baggy
trousers the one on the left was still wearing, the suspenders
framing her bare, muscular torso, a single shoe on her right foot.
The duplicate wearing the shirt raised her hands in a shrug as she
gave them a grin.
Loretta wiped her chin on her sleeve after having spit out a mouthful of coffee in a cloud of fine mist. She glanced across at Gwen, who was looking ruefully down at the front of her coveralls after having done the same, then up at the pair of rabbits who now stood where there had been only one before.
Her dark mask furrowed in deep thought mixed with puzzlement. "But... but a guitar string only looks like it's in two places at once. It's an optical illusion. Each one of you seems as solid and real as the others."
The one on the left snapped her suspenders and shrugged. "Yeah, y'all're right, but it's as close as I can come t' explainin' it without bein' some kinda durn quantum-math genius."
Her shirt clad duplicate spread her hands out to her sides, and suddenly she stood barefoot next to a third doe wearing nothing but a single shoe, who gave them a sly grin. "I'm purty good at multiplyin' by powers o' two, tho..."
A moment later, she vanished, leaving two half dressed rabbits once more, the shoe reappearing on the shirt wearing doe's foot. She chuckled. "And I can make one n' one equal one..."
The duplicate wearing the trousers crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave them a wry look as the young raccoon and vixen wiped their muzzles again. "Y'all might wanna put yer cups down 'til we change th' subject."
With that, the two identical does glanced at one another, and were once again a single, fully dressed Jane Early.
Gwen set her dripping coffee cup down, making yet another ring on the desk's battered surface, and looked up at her with a sparkle in her eye. "So what's it like in the twenty-first century?"
The rabbit doe gave a mournful sigh and a shrug. "Purty much th' same as it is today, darlin'. Thar's the same amount o' good n' bad in th' world, jest in different places n' different concentrations."
Loretta's face became grave as she looked at the tan furred female. "You miss it, don't you?"
Jane's brow furrowed, and she sniffed and gave a nod, her ears drooping. "Yeah... Yeah, I do. All my friends ain't even been born yet. Heck, I ain't even been born yet. Far as I can reckon my grandparents ain't even met one another."
She averted her eyes as she petulantly wiped her nose on the back of her arm. "An' that's jest th' big stuff. It's th' l'il stuff that really gits t'ya. Punk rock don't git invented fer another fifty some years, computers is jest buildin's fulla vacuum tubes fer calculatin' artillery trajectories right now, an' it'll be at least another decade 'fore any decent dojos open up in a country where I can speak th' language. Thank th' good Lord y'all got baseball back here in th' thirties or else I'd'a gone completely loco. As it is them uniforms with th' nice tight pants don't git innerduced 'til th' seventies."
She looked up to see Gwen standing beside her, fidgeting with her dark furred hands and biting her lip. With brimming eyes of her own, she reached out and drew the rabbit doe to her bosom. "I'm sorry I made you homesick."
Jane tensed for a moment, then relaxed and hugged her back, a weary smile coming to her face as she patted the vixen's back. "Aw, y'all're good people, Gwen Riley." She let out a sigh. "Don't worry none, darlin'. That'd be th' first question I'd ask somebody who came from th' future."
When they disengaged she looked over at Loretta, who sat with her chin propped up on her hand and a fond smile on her face as she gazed at them.
Miss Early cocked an ear toward her. "That satisfy yer curiousity, darlin'?"
The raccoon wryly shook her head. "Not in the least, but you answered my question, so I oughta be able to sleep tonight."
The rabbit doe nodded, then gave a yawn and stretched, cracking her shoulders and neck. "Good 'enuf. Speakin' o' which, it's gittin' a might late. Y'all probably wanna close up shop n' git on home t' bed."
Loretta yawned as well, catching it from Jane. She looked ruefully at the damage to the office front door while Gwen failed to suppress a yawn of her own. "Yeah, but I dunno how closed the shop's gonna be 'til I can install a new lock tomorrow morning."
The rabbit crossed her arms and gave the raccoon a grin. "Don't y'all fret none about that, darlin'. I can hold down the fort here 'til then."
Loretta rose from her seat and stretched, and returned the tan furred doe's smile. "That would be great. I've got a pallet set up under one of the work tables in the machine shop if you want to bed down here for the night."
Jane nodded as she accompanied the office's two owners to the door. "That's right nice o' y'all, Miss Loretta, I can git a dupe t' take a quick forty winks while I'm keepin' an eye on th' plane. I'll git a full night's sleep once I recombine with th' me that's sleepin' in that nice soft bed back at the hotel right now."
The raccoon opened her mouth to ask a question, but thought better of it and shook her head. "Whatever you say, Miss Early. Good night."
She patted her compatriot on the shoulder as they stepped out the door and into the stillness of the tropical night. "C'mon, Gwen. I'll walk you home if you and Takua do the same for me."
The vixen put her arm around her partner's shoulder as she looked back at Jane as she stood silhouetted in the doorway. Gwen gave her a drowsy, sweet smile as she called back to her. "Pleasant dreams..."