Bob awoke from troubled dreams, and stared muzzily at the ceiling for a few moments, wondering where on earth he was. Then his brain sluggishly began to turn over and he groaned. He blinked sleep-encrusted eyelids and rubbed at them. It was Sunday, and he needed to assist Minister Tharm at the Church, in his official capacity as Postman.
Growling at the glow-toad for a little illumination, he reluctantly crawled out of his wampus-fur bed and pulled the curtain aside to look out of the window. The dawn sun was peeking fitfully between a tattered overcast, and looked similarly disinclined to emerge from its fluffy bed.
He dressed in his black and red uniform, then shuffled to the kitchen and put the kettle on. He looked around, frowning. Nothing looked out of place, but he had an odd sense of disorientation; a feeling that something was drastically out of place if only he could put his finger on it.
No, that wasn’t it. He stared at his hands for a moment, but they were the same as they’d ever been: five digits, just as Minister Tharm advocated.
He shrugged. Too much grinkleberry wine last night, maybe?
He felt a little more human after a hot cup of dao-tea (and double-checked in the mirror to be sure – he had no wish to face the censure of Minister Tharm). Taking his uniform hat from its peg behind the door, he yawned, stretched and went out.
It was cool but not uncomfortably so. A refreshing breeze, scented with last night’s rain (ordinary rain for a change and not precipi-pox or drizzle-warp) wound its way through the huddled houses of Wamble-on-the-Wade. Distantly he heard the sound of cattle bellowing. There was a distinct enthusiasm to the noise that suggested a bull had broken (or been invited) into the Cowgirl Pastures.
Bob paid a couple of jacks for a steaming Bindleburger from an optimistic street vendor. The vendor had a somewhat lupine look to him, complete with bushy canine tail, but Bob carefully didn’t notice. He paid lip-service to Minister Tharm’s teachings, because it helped to pay the rent, but he knew, with a slight touch of guilt, that he didn’t really believe in Zorchism.
He thanked the vendor and whispered a warning to stay clear of the church district this morning, then wandered on, holding his nose as he ate the hot morsel. Bindleburgers were cheap and tasty, but had a rather distressing smell – Bob supposed it reflected the mood the bindle had been in when it was captured.
He passed the turning to Station Road, pausing as he always did to look wistfully at the distant Railway Station, with its neat brickwork and porcelain shingles. One day, he told himself guiltily. There was a Train today, but Bob did not have nearly enough chorkas for a Ticket yet. In truth, Bob could not think of anyone he knew who had ever saved up enough for a Ticket, though everyone tried. But why else would you live in Wamble if not to work towards gaining a Dream Ticket?
He tried to remember how long he had actually been living in Wamble. The question made him uneasy somehow. He couldn’t pin the answer down with any certainty. Quite some time, he thought. Several weeks. Months maybe. Surely not years. And it was surely better here than… wherever he’d lived before.
For a moment an image of a very different world spun behind his eyes, both tantalisingly familiar and surprisingly alien, then the ghost-memory vanished and he shook his head. Definitely too much grinkleberry wine!
Bob turned onto the arching bridge that spanned the Wade’s glistening waters. A few optimistic anglers were out, casting for riskfish. That was one way to earn enough for a Ticket in a hurry: male riskfish transformed into gold if you caught them. The trouble was that female riskfish possessed a different transformative power: apparently the only way for her to get her hands (and riskfish did have hands) on a male was to metamorph an unfortunate angler. Or maybe not so unfortunate: Bob had heard that the females were quite attentive to their unwitting partners. Male riskfish were notoriously difficult to catch, largely because most of them had once been anglers, but the transformation wasn’t permanent: you’d turn back after anything from a day to a year. There was a children’s rhyme about it:
Riskfish, riskfish, will you make or break me?
Will you fill my hands with gold or will you make me date thee?
There were fishermen who specifically sought transformation. Minister Tharm had a lot to say on this subject. Bob had even been asked to Post one fellow once: in the previous twelve months he had apparently caught the same female three times (or she had caught him) by using a particular brand of her favourite chocolates as a bait. As Bob had carefully attached the chains in just such a way that several determined tugs would assure freedom, the man had told him quite cheerfully that the only reason he bothered to climb out of the Wade at all was in order to buy his love some more chocolates.
Bob finished his pungent breakfast, and rapidly followed it with a mint (it wouldn’t do to attend Church with bindlebreath) and finished crossing the bridge. Here the buildings were huddled together and the streets were narrower and shadowy at this early hour. Furtive figures were still abroad; the lingering remnant of the night traders, hoping that the Faithful were not quite as faithful as all that. And Zorch knows we aren’t, thought Bob with a slight pang of guilt.
As if lured by the scent of faltering purity, a ponygirl loitering in the mouth of an alleyway accosted him, moving with an exaggerated highstep that looked like she was prancing in slow motion. She wore only a skimpy G-string and a top that satisfied decency only in word rather than spirit, allowing her pinto coat to show off to its best advantage. A thong attached to the back of the top held her tail in a permanently raised position. “Hiya, stud,” she murmured. “Fancy a roll in the straw? I’ve got a bale back here.”
Bob had to admit she was attractive enough to tempt him, and he blushed. “Um, thank you, not now.”
“Off to Church? Just five chorkas and I’ll show you a service old Barmy Tharmy could never dream of,” she whispered. “I can feel the stallion within you, straining to get out.” She twisted artfully on one hoof, so that her tail softly brushed his upper legs. A subtle scent teased his nostrils, tauntingly evading his forebrain and whispering seductively to his more primal instincts.
Guiltily wondering if the innuendo was somehow more than that and she possessed a touch of mind-sight, Bob hastily drew back and continued on down the street.
“What’s wrong? Got a thing against Paint?” she called after him mockingly.
Embarrassed, he moved on, and imagined being brave enough to make some sort of snappy retort. I prefer bay, he thought. Then he thought about her ample figure and added honestly, but not by much.
The Faithful were already gathered outside the Church; a scant twenty or so. Not many here were especially devout, but attended out of some vague guilt that Minister Tharm was adept at drawing out and using to hold them like a leash. Or a lead-rein, thought Bob, thinking of slender piebald legs. He sternly suppressed the thought and drew himself up. He was here in his official capacity after all.
“Morning, Posty,” a few of the Faithful greeted him. He nodded back in a friendly fashion, but inwardly wondered why the familiar use of his title sounded somehow wrong. He was the Postman, wasn’t he? So why did he have that curiously jarred feeling, as if the appellation had been spoken the wrong way?
He was distracted by the arrival of Minister Tharm, arriving in the Penitents’ Cart; a soft-engined, boxy-looking van whose pristine white sides bore sternly-worded Zorchian catechisms.
Loftinance Tharm was a tall, dour man, who somehow seemed to carry an aura of greyness about him. His heavy-lidded eyes always seemed to be downcast, as if by lifting them he might be sullied by the worldly sin that surrounded him. The people of Wamble, all harbouring that forbidden temptation to yield to the animal within, were an eternal burden to him.
Minister Tharm unlocked the Church doors and wordlessly gestured the Faithful to enter. Bob moved to assist him with the Shamed, opening the Cart’s rear doors, and gently ushering the three robed and cowled figures within. Concealed by the thick, hessian Penitent garments, he couldn’t see the nature of their Shame, but could guess by their muffled silhouettes. The first was short but quite rotund, and uttered a guttural grunting as he moved: no mystery there. The second was tall, but only, Bob suspected because the hood concealed something more than mere head: a crest, or horns, or something. The second figure followed the first with the hollow clack of hooves upon the cobbles. The final figure was about normal height, but walked only with difficulty, almost as if balancing on stilts. Bob helped the anonymous figure gain its balance, and his hands met a soft, yielding surface, as if the Shamed wore a thick fur coat beneath the Penitent robe.
“Thank you,” murmured a quavering female voice.
He patted her shoulder reassuringly.
The interior or the Church was dim and very high-ceilinged, its vaulted roof only darkly hinted at in the inadequate light of a handful of glow-toads. Bob lead the Shamed to the front of the congregation to stand at the left of the pulpit, then moved to stand at the rear of the Faithful, where technically he was to look out for any sign of Inappropriate Behaviour. In practice, he usually found himself guiltily wondering what it must feel like to have hooves, as many of the Shamed possessed. Today he was haunted by recollections of a black-and-white coat and an artfully raised tail.
Minister Tharm addressed the Faithful in sonorous, Gregorian tones. “Dearly Beleaguered, be seated.”
He immediately launched into a lengthy and monotonous sermon, drawing upon the Gospels of the Quintessential Zorch, Human of Humans. Zorch the Five-Fingered, who shunned all kinship with other creatures and set himself above and beyond the beasts and those who would become beasts. Privately, Bob thought this was a bit overdone, and could think of numerous ways in which human beings paralleled (or didn’t live up to) other creatures in the world. He really didn’t agree with Zorchism.
Which has to make you wonder why you attend the Church, murmured a quietly thoughtful part of himself.
The question startled him a little. Why did he come? When had he started coming? He couldn’t actually recall now. The disquieting feeling of being a stranger in a familiar place stole across him.
“Let your mind dwell upon the Perfect Number,” Minister Tharm droned, clearly pronouncing the capitals, “For that is the Number that shows us the way; that is the Number that makes us what we are. Turn away from that Number, and we Fall, and are Shamed. I speak of course of the Number Five, and the mark of it is upon us, for each of our limbs is blessed with Five digits.”
What about apes? Bob thought. Come to that, if you look at all mammals you’ll find a pentadactyl structure. The heretical thought slipped out before he could stop it, and left his mouth hanging open foolishly.
“Indeed, if you are to count the extremities growing from our bodies, again we see the Number made manifest; we have four limbs and a head. The lesser creatures are sullied by the addition of a tail.”
Unless you’re a chimpanzee or a Manx cat. And humans have tails: they just don’t show on the outside.
“Thus does Zorch shine the light of Truth upon the Great Beast’s scheme to discredit the Human Being,” proclaimed Tharm, “For by adding a sixth extremity, he is suggesting that thusly are the other animals superior to us, but This Is Not So!” The capitals echoed in the gloomy heights of the ceiling as if Zorch himself were speaking down to them.
The sermon wound on, following a circuitous route that fully tested the Faithfuls’ well-honed ability to look attentive while dozing where they sat. Bob alone escaped this somnolent influence, for he was continually startled by this newfound streak of sacrilege within him. Indeed, it so startled him that at one point Minister Tharm blinked at him owlishly. “You have something to say, Brother Postman?”
“Hiccups,” Bob excused himself, feeling heat upon his cheeks despite the grey chill of the Church. “Please forgive me.”
When the sermon did wind down to a close, the Faithful greeted it in the way of a minor miracle, having been lulled into the belief that perhaps they were trapped in some sort of grey limbo, and Minister Tharm, misinterpreting their relief and pleasure, gazed upon his congregation with paternal beneficence. “Brother Indictor,” he addressed one of the Faithful. “Now it is our sad duty to Name and Shame those of our number who have fallen from perfection; who have shunned the Perfect Number, and wilfully turned their back on the teachings of the Quintessential Zorch, blessed be He.”
“Blessed be He,” mumbled the Faithful, as the Brother Indictor rose to his feet and nervously cleared his throat.
“Um, on this thirty-third day of the Month of Bright Shoots Greening…”
“Thirty fourth,” murmured Tharm in a carrying rumble.
“Ah, yes. Thirty-fourth day of the Month of Bright Shoots Greening, it is my stern duty…” There were sniggers from the Faithful, for surely no voice was ever less stern than the apologetic warble of Brother Indictor. He faltered, then doggedly continued, “…To announce that three of our number have Shamed both us and themselves. Brother Clarence, Sister Bethilda, and Sister Mary.”
As they were named, the three cowled shapes pulled back their hoods. The short, rotund figure of Brother Clarence, to no one’s great surprise, revealed a distinctly porcine aspect. He looked like he had already been bald, and the upturned snout and great ears completed the image. With a nervous grunt, the little man lifted both hands to his mouth, and as the baggy sleeves fell back, it could be seen that his stubby arms ended in hands that were already very trotter-like.
Sister Bethilda, sweeping her robes aside defiantly, showed the reason for her hood being so misshapen: her thick crown of auburn hair was crowned by two inward-curling horns. This went almost unnoticed however, as beneath the robe she was entirely naked, and where Brother Clarence stood in embarrassed apology clutching his robes about him, her stance was a blatant challenge. Her legs were fully digitigrade, ending in cloven hooves. Her hands, like Clarence’s, were a sort of halfway caricatures of hooves, but still essentially fingers. Her upper body was a lush invitation to any red-blooded male among the Faithful. Large breasts jutted defiantly, and upon her abdomen was the suggestion of an udder. A long bovine tail swept behind her, ending in the same curly red hair as upon her head. Her skin was dusted with a rust-coloured fur. Her whole appearance was a study in lush, erotic taboo, and her eyes, larger than a normal human’s, were an eager invitation. Bob swallowed, and was glad he stood at the rear of the Church. Most half-forms seemed blessed –or cursed- with overactive pheromones that could have a strong effect on a helpless young man. Or anything even vaguely male, come to that. Bethilda looked every inch as though she knew the effect she was having, and was anything but Shamed by it.
When Sister Mary pulled back her hood, Bob thought for a moment that she was wearing a second robe beneath the first, of pristine white. Then it became clear that her head was covered with soft, dense ringlets of hair, completely surrounding the grey-black skin of her face, which projected out slightly as a blunt muzzle. Her eyes, like, Bethilda’s were large and brown, but her expression was filled with desperate apology. As she raised her darkened, hoof-like hands to her ovine face, her robe parted slightly and revealed that the fleecy white locks thickly covered her entire body. Bob’s eyes widened. Sister Mary looked almost like she was entirely sheep, balancing erect on her hind legs. Only her face seemed to retain any human features, and not much at that. Complete changes were rare, and usually you took the Train if you were able. How had she managed it? And Bob knew her a little: she had always been one of the most devout of the Faithful. If Minister Tharm had sprouted fur and begun to bay at the moon, Bob would not have been more startled.
He sighed. Well, it just went to show: you never could tell. He was only surprised that his own inner desire never rose to the surface. Especially after that ponygirl… he hastily focused his attention on Minister Tharm, who was harshly emphasising the Shame that a moment’s weakness of the soul could cause. Bob had good reason to be grateful that it seemed to take a little more than a moment. His conscience pricked him to utter a plea for forgiveness and strength of will to Zorch, but he knew as he uttered the litany that he was merely going through the motions.
The sermon concluded, as it always did, with the Minister entrusting the Shamed to the Postman, that their sins be openly displayed for all to see. Minister Tharm never tarried to see the Posting himself. Indeed, Bob was curious as to exactly what Minister Tharm thought ultimately became of the Shamed. Maybe he thought the Quintessential Zorch struck them down with his five-fold wrath of lightning from on high, or benevolently took them up into some otherworldly place of correction where they would in due time be restored to humanity and returned to the mortal realm.
The congregation never lingered either, no doubt thinking guiltily, There, but for the grace of Zorch...
Bob led the three Shamed to the little plaza before the Church, where five great wooden posts stood, black with pitch and hung with heavy chains. Clarence he took first, apologetically taking the Penitent Robe from him, so that his porcine features could easily be seen: short, chubby arms and legs, the latter with their animal-hind-leg proportions, all ending in cloven trotters. A tightly curled tail sprouted from his well-rounded rump, and his rotund torso sported eight nipples.
Bob quite deliberately placed the manacles loosely, and attached a light chain from them to the much heavier ones depending from the first post. “Loose enough?” he whispered.
Clarence looked up at him gratefully. “Thank you. It’s a good thing you do, here.”
Bob shrugged, embarrassed but pleased. “As long as you’re happy.”
Clarence nodded. “The manageress of the Portly Pig and I have an understanding,” he confided. His voice had a trace of squeal to it, and the words were punctuated by involuntary grunts. “She’s going to take me on as a mascot, and says I can eat all the leftovers I want.” Bob was vaguely familiar with the lady concerned – a woman of generous proportions. He thought there was probably a pair of kindred spirits there.
Bob moved on to Sister Bethilda, and was not very surprised to find she had already tossed aside her robe. She advanced toward him on her bovine hooves, her abnormally wide hips swaying sensuously, her long cow’s tail flicking languorously from side to side. Bob steeled himself and took a deep breath, trying not to inhale the blast-front of pheromones the cow-girl projected. “Sister Bethilda,” he said with a nod, trying vainly for a detached, professional front.
“Bessie,” she corrected, in a husky, lowing voice. “I’m Bessie now.”
He fitted the manacles to her as he had for Clarence: easy to slip off with a little effort, even with her altered hand-hooves. “I think you know where to go,” he murmured.
“Oh, yes,” she sighed happily. “Cowgirl Pastures, here I come!” She looked at him appraisingly. “I hear they’re always very welcoming to a new bull,” she lowed softly. “Wanna come with me?”
He was sorely tempted, but shook his head with a wry smile. “Thank you, uh, Bessie,” he declined. “But I’m sure there’s many an eager young man out there who’d be only too happy to escort you.”
He turned to Sister Mary then, gently removing her robe. As if the rude cloth had been the only thing supporting her, she fell lightly forward, landing on all fours, and Bob saw how futile it would be to Post her now. If any of her remained physically human, he couldn’t see it. The sheep looked up at him apologetically and baa-ed.
He knelt down before her. “Can you still a talk?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered, though her voice was a quavering bleat.
“How did this happen? I can see how Clarence slipped from the Path a little, and Beth… Bessie, looks like she took a running dive from it, but you’re the last person I would have expected to see here.”
“Minister Tharm said that we were part of his flock,” the sheep told him sorrowfully. “And I thought about that, and it just seemed to be a comforting image. I thought about living in a nice sheltered meadow with a few hundred close friends while Minister Tharm stood watch over us all, and I guess I just… slipped. Baaaa.”
The notion of Minister Tharm standing vigil in a meadow with a shepherd’s crook was a comic one, and he smiled, though a little sadly.
“I’ll take her with me,” Bessie offered softly from behind him.
“That would be a kindness,” he told her gratefully. He turned back to Mary. “Is that alright?”
The sheep bleated at him, swallowed and bleated again, finally offering a helpless nod. Clearly her voice had gone too. She didn’t seem too distressed.
“Well, luck to you all,” he said awkwardly. He turned to leave.
He turned back to Bessie. “Yes?”
“You’re fighting the change yourself, aren’t you?”
“My soul is pure,” he said defensively, wondering who he was trying to convince.
She laughed. “Yes, but pure what?”
He didn’t answer but gave her a parting nod and walked off. Her question had unbalanced him enough that he took the wrong direction, and rather than admit his mistake and have to walk back past the Posts and face Bessie’s knowing grin, he continued on. It was foolish, he knew. This road, gloomy between forbiddingly tall rows of house to either side, led directly to Wamble’s most dubious quarter, known as the Morfs. A pervading musky odour in the air spoke of the high level of half-forms that dwelt here, with a sharp tang of ozone where wild magic had earthed itself. Twice he saw a glimmer of slow green lightning crawl around a drain cover, or a lamp-pole.
Bessie’s parting words were taunting him, and he tried to bring to mind Minister Tharm’s sermon, though it was futile: he hadn’t been listening that closely. He tried to recall any sermon, and quickly recognised the uselessness of it.
You’re fighting the change yourself, aren’t you? The cow-girl’s words ghosted back to him.
Yes, he was, he admitted, and recalled the pinto girl and her pheromone song. He had almost felt the rewinding of his DNA then. Even now, part of him wanted to return to her and beg her to show him the way.
So why didn’t he?
He wandered on, unsure where this road led but sure it would emerge somewhere familiar eventually: Wamble was not a very big town. A movement in the shadows of a side alley caused him to lurch away instinctively, but it was no threat. Two figures embraced in the shadows, their outline indistinct but both with long, bushy tails. Squirrels or lemurs, maybe.
His resistance was partly habit, he admitted to himself. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been living here now. He had a vague recollection of becoming Postman after old Joe had caught a female riskfish. That was how long ago now? Several months… maybe a year. Surely no more than two at the outside. He couldn’t remember what he’d done before that.
Once again that curious sense of displacement washed over him, and the tantalising almost-memory of some other life.
There was a buzz and crackle, and a brief mauve glow as a trickle of wild magic crawled up the corner of a nearby building. He shivered. It wasn’t too dangerous – if you didn’t let your guard down at the wrong moment. He was glad he didn’t live here though. No control over what you might become.
Habit seemed a poor reason to resist. He pondered the matter, troubled.
I’m a prude, he admitted. To change in Wamble seemed somehow crude and seedy. It happened, but it always seemed to happen as a lack of self-control, and was seen as such. He wanted to change, but he wanted it to be deliberate and considered. And though it had its appeal, he didn’t want to become a half-form, with an over-active libido ruling his actions as it so often seemed to, like the pinto girl, and Bessie.
He was near the heart of the Morfs now, where the tall buildings had an almost organic look to them, and seemed to lean drunkenly against each other, leaning uncertainly out over the street, each storey overhanging the one below until the top storeys seemed almost to touch their opposite numbers across the street, and daylight was a narrow strip of light that did very little for the gloom below.
Up head, he heard voices: one raised flamboyantly; others murmuring excitedly. Knowing it was probably a bad idea, he moved ahead, seeking the source. Everything was furtive in the Morfs: he wanted something brash, and blatent, and loud, and cheerful.
A Harlequin, his costume a riot of garish cheques and diamonds, stood at a table over which a silken green sheet was spread, exhorting a small crowd of humans and half-forms to play his game, which appeared to be a gambling game of some sort: Find the Lady, maybe, or Piggy-Piggy. In one hand he held something which shone with a warm, golden light. In the other, he tossed something that caught the dim light with a silver flash.
“Another try, ladies; gentlemen; in-betweens!” the Harlequin called. Bob envied the easy confidence his voice exuded in such a place. “On my very own shape, may I become a hag-fish half-form if I’m lying: one genuine Ticket must be won today. Only one chorka a go. Who’s up for it?”
A racoon girl tendered some coins.
“Well, done, madam! Here she is: look at her closely.”
Moving closer, fascinated in spite of common sense, Bob saw the Harlequin hand the girl a palm-sized silver coin. “Examine her: give her a few tries if you like. We wouldn’t want anyone here to think there was something fishy going on.”
The raccoon girl looked closely at the coin, and gave it a few half-hearted tosses that apparently satisfied her.
“Are you ready now?” the Harlequin asked.
The girl nodded.
“Call as she flies then!” The Harlequin tossed the coin into the air, and Bob stared, entranced, as the silver disc seemed to slow and hover, and somehow grow until it claimed all attention. Over and over the coin turned, still rising, but slowing; nearing the peak of its trajectory.
“Tails!” the racoon girl said, sounding awed.
“Very appropriate,” the Harlequin approved.
The coin fell, and time quickened once more until it hit the table at normal speed, striking with a chiming sound like a crystal bell.
“Oh, alas,” the Harlequin said, his voice ringing with sympathy. “Heads. No win this time, dear lady.”
A man, human, but with a slightly feline cast to his features that suggested he was unlikely to remain so for very much longer, approached the table. “What’s the angle?” he asked. He didn’t sound belligerent; merely curious, which was a wonder in itself here in the Morfs, where a rigged game was likely to prove very unhealthy for the showman if he were to be caught.
“The angle, dear sir?” asked the Harlequin, affecting an attitude of polite confusion.
“Yes, what’s with the coin?” the man asked. “I’ve watched eight plays now, any nobody’s won. It doesn’t look weighted.” He picked up the coin and tossed it. The Harlequin made no move to stop him. “Is it magic?”
“Of course it’s magic!” the Harlequin laughed, seemingly delighted that anyone should make so obvious a deduction. “This is a Determinant Coin, checked and blessed by an ordained minister in Quainton only yesterday. I should have preferred your very own Reverend, but I fear Minister Tharm is against games of good chance.”
“I’ve never seen one before,” the man said. “How do they work exactly?”
“Determinant Coins are said to see the near future,” the Harlequin said. “In every game, they’ll heed only one toss, no matter how many times they’re thrown. Some say they are truly random, for none but the coin knows quite when they’ll heed a call of heads or tails. Others say they look into the souls of the players and pick the one whose need is truest. All I can say for sure is that one player here today is guaranteed to go home a winner.”
Now the man looked sceptical. “But how can that work?” he objected. “If that correct call is the first one of the day, no one else would play, knowing it to be futile.”
“And so it sometimes works out,” the Harlequin acknowledged with a rueful smile. “And when that happens I must draw my pipes and work for a living!” and he drew a small set of wooden pipes from a pocket on his breast and played a lively trill of sound. “But no one has called it today so far!”
The man played, twice, but called wrongly both times, and a woman who appeared to be wearing an exquisite dress of intricately embroidered design, but which turned out to be a coat of multi-hued feathers growing from her own body.
A more quarrelsome-looking individual, with a heavy build and the snout and tusks of a warthog (and the scent, thought Bob, leaning away) demanded, “How do I know it hasn’t played true before I came along? I might be wasting my coin.”
“Ah, can anyone enlighten this fine gentlemen?” the Harlequin asked the small crowd.
“The sound when it lands,” Bob said. “It makes a ringing sound if it hasn’t landed true yet. After that it gives a dull, flat sound.”
“Exactly,” the Harlequin said, nodding to Bob with a smile. “And besides, some of the fine people you see here have been watching since I began.” There were some murmurs of ascent.
Bob knew of determinant coins. Though they would stand every test of randomness, within a single game they would only ever heed one call. Outside the game, it would act in all ways like an ordinary coin and give a fifty-fifty chance of heads or tails. In essence, it was no different from drawing a single card from a pack, but it was far more stylish.
The warthog man squinted at Bob. “You’re Minister’s man,” he said. “How do I know this isn’t a con?”
“It isn’t likely,” Bob said reluctantly. “The penalties for counterfeiting a determinant coin are quite severe, and that’s assuming he were to escape his clients when they found out. If it was checked and blessed, he should have a certificate…”
“Here, good sir.” The Harlequin handed over a sheet of paper with a heavy wax seal.
Bob examined it carefully. “It looks genuine. I’m more interested in the prize. Did you say it was a Ticket? Do you mean a Dream Ticket?”
“I did indeed, sir,” the Harlequin acknowledged. He held aloft the golden object that had arrested Bob’s attention in the first place: a small wafer of gold, hand-sized, glowing with a warm, shimmering light. Images appeared and faded within its surface. There was no mistaking it: it was a genuine Ticket: a Ticket to ride the Train: to escape half-formed Wamble and its half-formed ambitions and fully realise one’s dreams.
Bob said warily, “I’m a bit more suspicious about the prize than the coin. How do you come to have a Ticket to give away?”
“I’m hardly giving it away,” the Harlequin chuckled.
“Okay,” Bob agreed, “But a Ticket costs thousands. You surely don’t stand to make such a quantity here, do you?”
There was a rumble of agreement from the crowd, but the Harlequin seemed quite unconcerned. “Hardly. But you’re missing the point, good sir. Why do Tickets cost so much?”
“Because they’re valuable,” rumbled Warthog.
“It costs but a few jacks to make them, and the Train could be run for a few chorkas each. Why are the Tickets valuable?” The Harlequin’s voice grew low and intense. Bob had to admire the way he had reined in his restive audience once more. Now they were co-conspirators.
“Who makes the Tickets?” asked Bob suddenly. It was something he’d never thought to ask before.
The Harlequin gave him a brilliant smile, like a teacher applauding a bright student who has suddenly grasped a difficult concept. “I do.”
There was a sudden murmur. “You do?”
The gaudy figure coughed. “Well, not alone, no, but it’s what Harlequins do. In a crude sense, I have a Ticket to give away because I made this one. It is indisputably mine. I could give it, here and now, to any one of you. I shan’t of course, but I could. But again I ask you, why do Tickets usually cost so much?”
“To make you rich,” growled Warthog.
The Harlequin inclined his head. “I will not deny that many of my compatriots do achieve some modest degree of wealth.”
“Modest?” asked Bob mildly.
“Well, rolling in moollah, if you wish to put it that way.” The Harlequin sniffed fastidiously. “But that’s merely a happy side-effect. And the fact that people will willingly pay such a sum proves their worth, does it not?”
“But hardly anyone can afford them, worth it or not,” Bob said.
The Harlequin snapped his fingers. “Exactly! That is the point indeed, my friend.
“The price is simply to restrict the numbers?” Bob asked, incredulous.
“Well, think, good sir! How would it be if everyone were granted their Wishes at once? Anarchy! Madness! Chaos! Wamble is a place where dreams might come true, but it must be regulated! Dreams are only worthwhile if you strive for them!”
“But they’re completely out of reach!” an elfin-looking girl protested. “How am I ever going to land that much money?”
“Indeed, dear lady,” the Harlequin nodded. “And so, here am I, redressing the balance, for only a single chorka.” He bowed, like a philosopher having just elegantly reasoned a new supposition to a group of students.
“I don’t believe you,” Warthog stated bluntly.
“You do not have to, good sir,” the Harlequin said. “But this is a genuine Ticket, and I am the genuine owner, and if you were to win it and be away to the Station, who could gainsay you before you boarded the Train?”
Bob was profoundly sceptical too, but the Harlequin did have a point: it was a genuine Ticket. “I’ll give it a go,” he announced.
The crowd was suddenly quiet. “Yes, I rather thought you might,” the Harlequin murmured. Bob offered him a chorka, but to his surprise, the brightly coloured figure shook his head. “This one is on me, for your reasoned aid in explaining my… um, mission.” He passed Bob the Determinant Coin. “Flip when you’re ready, sir.”
Bob took a deep breath, and wondered why he felt so suddenly nervous. The coin was heavier than it looked, and somehow gave him an impression that, in some curious way, it was heavier yet than it felt, as if the coin were merely the tangible part of something much, much larger – a mountain maybe. A planet.
He flipped it with his thumb, half expecting it to drop instantly, but it sprang into the air as if gravity were a scolding mother and it was a wilful child. As before, it seemed to slow, and to gather in all attention around it until a coin like a dinner plate hung almost motionless at the apex of its flight.
“Heads or tails?” the Harlequin asked softly.
For an incongruous second -but how could one judge time at a moment like this?- an image flashed in Bob’s mind: a long, flowing tail, and an equine head ; ears alertly poised; nostrils flaring; eyes dark but glinting with soft intelligence.
“Both,” he said, entranced.
“Oh, brave call! I like your style, sir!” the Harlequin approved as the coin began to dwindle and drop. Bob had an instant to begin to think, What a bloody daft thing to say, when the coin struck the table with a musical chime and began to spin, singing as it did. It didn’t slow: it accelerated, forming a misty sphere of flashing silver, then, like a cell dividing, the sphere seemed to stretch in one axis and part, and there were two spheres spinning in unison.
One slowed swiftly and toppled with another chime, falling to lie still with a horse’s head uppermost; the heavy but noble features of a draft horse. The other coin continued to spin with a crystalline whining gradually growing in intensity. All eyes followed it as it began to precess, the blurred sphere slowly flattening, until at last, with a bell-like crescendo, it settled.
Bob leaned forward. The silver coin was stamped with the solid hind-quarters of a muscular horse, its full tail describing a ‘s’ shape as if in the process of swishing.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Harlequin said to the awed watchers. “We have a winner.” He carefully lifted the two coins and showed them to a gawping audience. Both coins were complete, each stamped with an equine head and tail. When several people had observed closely that the coins did indeed show an instance of each, he tossed both coins into the air, where they sparkled and flashed, and returned to his outstretched palm as a single coin once more. Theatrically, he held it up, and then dropped it to the table. It landed gracelessly with a solid thud, without bounce or roll, as if one strong magnet had been dropped onto another.
“Your Dream, sir,” the Harlequin said, presenting the warmly glowing Ticket with a graceful bow. “That was well played.”
Bob didn’t linger. For one thing, the Morfs was no area to be openly carrying something as valuable as a Ticket. But the Ticket seemed almost to be pulling him: somehow communicating a sense of urgency to him. It exerted no force as such, but he could sense a pulsing warmth through his fingertips clutching the golden rectangle in his coat pocket, and he fancied the Ticket was somehow guiding him and urging him to hurry. Though he had never visited this part of town before, he moved unerringly from street to dark alley to street again. He passed people who stood aside to stare at him, for he moved with an obvious confidence and purpose which was scarcely his own, and those he encountered came to the conclusion that someone so determined evidently knew how to handle himself and was the sort of person likely to be too much trouble to be worth accosting. Bob was not unaware of this, and was simultaneously amused and grateful, in addition to being more than a little horrified at his own actions. He wasn’t quite sure whether he or the Ticket was controlling his body at the moment.
The buildings around him drew back, admitting a surprisingly clear sky, and the street widened until he was safely clear of the Morphs and beginning to recognise the geography once more. The houses here somehow seemed more solid: the architecture of the Morphs was transitory and sometimes disturbingly organic. No longer could he detect the crawling discharges of raw magic rippling across the brickwork. He did not follow his original path back, evidently taking a more direct route, and soon he had returned to more familiar territory and reached the Church. He was unsurprised to see the Posts were all empty now.
He moved on and came to the river, crossing the bridge again, and only as he came to the crossroad beyond did the enormity of what he was doing begin to creep up on him. He was going to the station! He was going to Catch the Train! Nervous excitement began to crawl through his belly as he thought about it. He was going to undergo a Full Change! No half-form for him; no uncertain random transformation like had befallen poor Sister Mary.
His feet determinedly carried him toward the neat station building, exhibiting far more confidence than he felt right now. It was beginning to dawn on him that although it was common knowledge that if you wanted to move on from Wamble then you needed to take the Train, he had no idea how that actually happened. Did the Train change you itself? Did it simply deliver you to a place where you would be changed? Some genetics laboratory, or a wizard’s tower maybe?
A distant whistle caused him to start, and his heart began to pound. Letting his body carry him forward and refusing to dwell on his sudden doubts, he jogged the remaining yards to the neat station building, hearing the Train approaching.
He pushed through the entrance doors and looked around. A ticket window was closed with a blind, but it was a Sunday, and he already had a Ticket. Taking a deep breath, he moved out on to the platform itself.
The Train was still not in sight, though it sounded very close. Only a short stretch of track was visible, emerging from one tunnel in one direction, and vanishing into a second in the other. The track was narrow-gauge, rails running neat and straight, supported on dark-stained wooden ties over pristine white ballast.
Unsurprisingly, he was the only person on the station. The platform was neat and clean, its surface tiled with salmon-coloured bricks. There were a pair of neatly painted wooden benches and some small conifers in large terracotta pots. Some milk churns bore large brown-paper labels advertising that they were the product of Cowgirl Pastures, and he lifted one label to read some smallprint beneath, which warned that the manufacturers accepted no responsibility for any unplanned bovine mutations.
A large nameplate on the station wall bore the name WAMBLE-ON-THE-WADE and from the wooden canopy hung a simple destination board that simply held two plaques in the shape of arrows. One pointed in the direction of the rapidly approaching train, and read, “From Whence You Came (Valid Return Tickets Only)”. The other direction read, “To What You Aspire to Become.”
The Train burst in to view, chuffing industriously as if approaching on an upward grade. Dark smoke belched from the tall smoke stack, and white plumes of steam hissed rhythmically from its cylinders. The track sang as the Train slowed and came to a gentle halt in the platform.
For a moment, Bob could only stand and regard it. The locomotive was a small steam engine, immaculate in its royal blue livery and polished brasswork. Mounted on the side of the boiler was a bold name-plaque that read, aptly, Circe. The cab looked disproportionately large, but as Bob stared, a unicorn emerged from the steam-filled interior, coat somehow immaculately white despite proximity to well-greased machinery and piles of coal. An oil-can levitated through the air beside it and as the creature nodded with its alicorn at various spots on the engine, the can dipped and applied splashes of lubricant to joints and rods.
“Are you boarding, sir?” a polite voice asked from behind him. The voice was harsh, with squeaky accents and resonant lows, and Bob turned to find himself eye-to-eye with a large, brown donkey wearing a conductor’s cap.
“Uh, yes,” Bob answered. “Yes, I am.”
Bob proffered the gently glowing Ticket, and the donkey bit it to leave one corner neatly clipped. “Excellent, sir. Which carriage would you prefer?”
There appeared to be a choice of three. They were labelled in copperplate script, Worst, Fecund, and Furred. The first exuded a faint smell of stale alcohol and cigarette smoke; Bob grimaced. “I think I’ll try Furred,” he said, dreading to think what the middle carriage implied.
“Very wise, sir, and probably quite appropriate too, if I may be so bold,” the donkey opined with a rusty bray.
The rear car turned out to be what looked like a converted cattle-car, or maybe converted was too strong a word: the floor was carpeted in deep, golden straw, and the air had a pleasantly dusty stable smell to it that made Bob think of hot summer afternoons for some reason. There were no seats, and so Bob sat himself down in the straw, back propped against a wall.
“All aboard!” cried the ass, itself joining Bob in the carriage, and used its teeth to tug twice on a string by the door. A bell sounded, and was echoed by the engine’s whistle. There was a jerk, and a sudden burst of furious puffing as the engine wheels briefly slipped before the Train began to move and the tempo settled to a business-like chuffing.
“Is it a long journey?” Bob asked the conductor.
The donkey looked him over with its large, brown eyes. “Not for you, I shouldn’t think, sir. I’d say you were most way there already.”
They were beyond the platform now, and headed for the tunnel mouth.
“Some say it helps to focus on your destination, sir,” the donkey said helpfully, and then the Train rattled into darkness.
Bob awoke from troubled dreams, and stared muzzily at the wooden-beamed ceiling for a few moments, wondering where on earth he was. Then his brain sluggishly began to turn over and he groaned. He blinked sleep-encrusted eye-lids and shook himself heavily, before heaving himself to his feet and again shaking himself to shed a shower of loose straw from his coat.
The dream was receding rapidly, losing coherency as it did, and he snorted. It had seemed so real a few moments ago: being trapped in some surreal, nonsensical limbo, trying to find a means to become…
What I already am, he said to himself, casting his eyes back over his sleek, black coat, and then down his stocky forelegs to his broad hooves with their snowy skirt of silken hair.
For a moment, a strange fancy slipped through the young Clydesdale’s mind; an elusive phantom of almost-memory: something even more tenuous than the dream. It was a curious sense of difference that he couldn’t quite isolate. He looked around the loose-box uneasily, and thrust his head out over the door into the stable aisle beyond, but could see nothing untoward.
The distant sound of the food-shed being opened claimed his attention then, and the foolish dream was swept from his mind as he joined the other horses in the stables in looking eagerly down the aisle for the arrival of breakfast.
Everything was as it should be.