Book 2 – Milliscent Awakens
Milliscent sat on the log next to Fizzgig and watched the two newcomers. One of her bot APIs allowed her to see their user name, citizen number, and IP address. With another, it took only a thought for her to know their service provider and geographic location. Humans are funny; they expect privacy where there is none, she thought. Sometimes it's best to let people believe what they want. She watched them a few more seconds. Tedd Foxx and Francisco Garcia, those look like they might even be their real names, male names. They were wearing the default cowboy avatars and still floated about a dozen feet above the surface of the ground. They've not downloaded the basic terrain yet.
Francisco spoke first as he called out, "Mi amigo, how's the download?"
"Terrific, fast," answered Tedd. "Looks like a nature world. I'm starting to see rocks, trees, flowers, trees, and uh more trees... oh, and grass."
Milli smiled. I love trees. Three distinct woods met at the central clearing, located on a triangle of land where two small rivers met and commingled before they flowed south. She looked around; massive trees surrounded them, towered over them. My home.
"Yea, we seem to be hovering above a clearing," said Cisco.
"Oops! I just got the basic terrain. Gotta love Hyperlink." Tedd floated to the ground as gravity ramped up for him. "Touchdown! Foxx has landed."
"Yes! Got it. Still downloading, no avatars yet," Cisco said, as he floated to the ground. "I see a creek now too. Dood, this is a rich world. Lots of stuff to download."
Milli felt it was time for introductions. "Hi and welcome to SkunkWks," she said. "Home of the Center for Advanced Stuff, the Creation Workshop, and the Frobozz Magic Hosting and Object Companies."
"Don't forget, music and dancing most nights after eight PM," added Fizzy.
Cisco turned toward the sound of Milli's voice. "Hola. Did you say Skonk Works? Does Big Barnsmell operate a mysterious business here, involving skunks?" He laughed.
Milli froze. "Ahh..." What the feck?
Fizzgig laughed and said, "That would be telling."
"What's a 'big barn smell'?" asked Milli, wary. Stay calm; I don't think he can see me yet. He doesn't know.
"A who, not a what," Cisco said. "A famous comic strip character from long ago. He was big and worked at a mysterious company called Skonk Works that did something involving live skunks. Nobody liked him because he smelled bad. His name was Barnsmell." He grinned.
"What do you mean he did something with live skunks," she said. "He didn't hurt them did he?" Her voice took on an edge as her tail stood straight up. Cram, I hope he's not some kind of vivisectionist. If he is, I'll let Fizzy gut him.
Tedd injected, "Can't be mean to animals now. Skunks are people too."
Milli's eyes locked on Tedd. People too?
"I don't think he hurt them," said Cisco. "The skunks seemed to like him well enough."
"Well, okay then," Milli said, as she glanced from Cisco to Tedd and back again. Her tail relaxed into its normal, curvy, question mark shape. What kind of human says 'people too'?
"Bluto might be like Big Barnsmell," Fizzy said. "He's big, doesn't have many friends, and he smells funny."
"Bluto?" asked Tedd.
"He lives in the swamp," Milli said. "He's a symbiont. Algae live in his skin and give him his unique color and scent. Being an amphibian he..."
"Hey!" Cisco blurted out. "You're animals, and... Caramba! A skunk!" His eyes locked onto Milli's as he took an involuntary step backwards. "Download's done," he muttered.
"Yea they... Wow!" Tedd was staring at Milli, his mouth agape.
Aw cram. Here we go again. "Hey," her voice softened. "I don't bi..." She closed her mouth for a moment. A girl's gotta to keep her options open. She started over and as she spoke, the tip of her tail started to uncurl. "I don't have rabies, I bathe daily, and I hardly ever spray. You're safe here." She put on her most reassuring smile.
The words tumbled out of Cisco's mouth, "Oh my God, I'm so sorry; I didn't mean to offend with that story." He took a breath. "It was just an old comic strip."
"No offense taken." Milli smiled at him, then glanced over at Tedd. "Are you okay?" she asked him. He seemed to be frozen in place.
Cisco relaxed and laughed. "Oh never mind Seņor Zorro. He gets loco around animals." He removed the tablet computer from his belt and started fiddling with it. "What kind of avatars do you have here? Any Klingons or Romulans? Any Betans?"
"No, sorry," she said. "No Star Trek avatars."
Cisco sighed; he was staring at the tablet in his hand. "What's a cowboy?" He tapped at the screen with his stylus and stared at it for a moment before he reached up with his free hand and touched one of the long horns growing out of the side of his head. Next, he crossed his eyes and looked down his broad muzzle. "I'm a Texas Minotaur! Are all the avatars here like this? Animals."
"Just the cow-people," said Fizzy. "They're humanimals, part human, part animal. All the rest of the guest avatars are human. Cowboy, and the second one, cowgirl, are the tourist avatars."
Cisco grimaced, the skin along the sides of his muzzle wrinkled and the brass ring in his nose lifted as his nostrils flared. "Yuck, tourist avs."
Milli giggled and said, "Humanimals are a special project of Dougie's. He has plans for more, but he's kinda busy right now with avatars and scripts for new bots. We'll be getting tigers next." She glanced at Tedd and did a double take. He was still standing with his mouth hanging open. "Is he okay?"
Cisco prodded Tedd in the ribs with his stylus. "Hey Zorro, tear your eyes away from the zorrilla bonita for a few, okay? We're doing avatars now, unless you want to be a cow."
Tedd jumped and blinked. "Oh... oh yea, sorry." He focused on Milli, "Sorry. It's just that you're so buh..." Even beneath the short fur on his face, Milli could see him start to redden. "Umm, sorry, I didn't mean..." He looked at the ground, then groped around for the tablet computer on his belt, removed it and started concentrating on its screen.
Geez, what's his problem? she thought.
Cisco chucked. "See? What did I say. Loco!" He turned his attention back to his tablet and started cycling through human male avatars, trying each. "Any squires?"
Tedd was poking at his tablet's screen, scrolling down the list of avatars. "What about foxes?"
Milli shook her head. "No squires, we're a bit to casual for that here, and Dougie's mentioned no plans about foxes to me. Either as bots or as avatars for visitors, but he did mention trying to do some wolf humanimals at some point."
"Wolves," Tedd mumbled. "Why is everyone fixated on wolves?" He started trying on avatars. "Human it is... again." He sighed.
"Better human than cow, amigo," said Cisco. "We may have to break down and commission some custom avatars. I could use a decent squire. Oh, and who is Dougie?"
"Dougie McDonnell and his wife Lene are the world owners here," offered Fizzy.
"Oh, of course," said Cisco.
"Oh, I like this!" said Tedd, examining the avatar he'd just put on and focusing on the shoes. "Five-Tennies. Spiral!" He bounced up on the balls of his feet, snapped his right foot back and caught his ankle in his right hand. Balancing on one foot, he held the pose for a few seconds. "Dancin' shoes," he said, grinning.
"Yea, yea, don't get too excited, ballet-boy." Cisco turned back to his tablet computer, frowned at the list on the screen, then stabbed at it with his stylus. "This'll do," he sighed. "A bit too casual, even for hunting attire. At least it looks a little like me." He held his tablet computer out in front of him, as if it were a mirror, and ran the fingers of his right hand through the dark wavy hair on his head.
"T-shirt pants," said Tedd, examining his legs. "Rockin'!" He gyrated his hips, causing the loose fabric to sway back and forth. "Breezy. Perfect for a hot day."
"Amigo, those are the ugliest pants I've ever seen," said Cisco. "Pink and green with black glyph whatevers," he paused. "Dood, it looks like the Mayan god of bad taste threw up all over those pants. And what's with that T-shirt?"
Tedd burst out laughing. He looked down at his shoes. "Chartreuse, the T-shirt matches the shoelaces. It's color coordinated. You're just jealous. I mean a prep shirt, blue jeans, and runners. You're such a clone."
Cisco sighed. "This ensemble is rather dull," he sniffed. He held the tablet computer up before him again and started rubbing his chin. Then he turned his head to the side and examined his profile, touching his nose. "But you gotta admit, except for the clothes it does sorta look like me."
"Yea," Tedd sighed, "it does." He put his right hand on top of his head. "Blond hair is not me, I need red. And these ears." He cupped his hand next to his ear, with his fingertips standing several inches above the top of his head. "I need real ears."
"Ears," said Milli, suddenly curious. "What's wrong with the ears?"
Cisco laughed. "Well you see, he's really a... Oh! We are remiss." He focused on Milli and Fizzy, his voice changing to a smooth tenor. "Where are our manners? Allow us to properly introduce ourselves." He stood straighter as his hands tugged at the hem of an imaginary dress jacket and he lifted his chin. "Greetings and felicitations." He spread his hands out to his sides, low, with his palms forward. "I am General Francisco Gil Garcia, retired. The Squire of Gothos, but you may call me Squire." He tipped forward in a kind of genteel bow.
"Oh yea, I'm Tedd Foxx, a red fox from Pennsylvania." He smiled at Milli. "With ears." He waved his hand at the side of his head.
With ears? She hesitated for only a moment, "And I am Milliscent, first bot of SkunkWks, but you may call me Milli." She smiled. "Or even Stinky, if you're real good." Her smile broadened into a grin.
"And I am Fizzgig, master thief and cutthroat, but you may call me Fizzy." Still seated, he gave a short bow then added, "Also of SkunkWks." He flashed a toothy grin.
"Squire," said Milli, "where did you say you were from?"
"The stormy little planet of Gothos. Ahh, you know... out in space."
"Out in space?" Milli tilted her head, thinking. "You're an alien?" Her eyes grew bigger. "Shut up! That is so cool. You're an alien! Umm... but wait." Bullshit alert! Her eyes narrowed. "Can we get an Internet connection to another planet? How do you manage the latency?" This isn't science fiction. There's no such thing as a faster than light ping time, she thought.
Squire Francisco smiled. "Ahh, well you see, I'm quartered on Earth at the moment, in Pennsylvania, as part of a student exchange program."
"I see," said Milli. She looked over at Tedd.
"He's a big fan of the original Star Trek series," said Tedd. "His 'rents have all the tapes."
Francisco shot Tedd a dirty look.
"Oh, but he really is the Squire of Gothos," said Tedd. "I think that's why he likes the old TV show so much. He's from Gothos, but he's living in Pennsylvania right now." He turned to his friend. "You just started picking up the original broadcasts on Gothos a few of years ago, right?"
"Quite so," said Francisco. "But we got them a few centuries early due to a temporal anomaly. And Tedd really is, umm, a red fox too. We met in high school last year." He winked at Milli, who was grinning from ear to ear.
"A fox?" asked Milli. "But Dougie said that citizens were human... in reality that is." Ears? No! This cannot be. I'm gonna die if they are not human. She held her breath.
"Well," said Tedd carefully, "most citizens are human I suppose, but there are quite a lot of us furs too, in reality. Lots of us live on the East Coast and in the Midwest: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, states like that. And lots of species: foxes of course, and skunks, but also cats, squirrels, beavers, tigers, bears, mice, and wolves, too many wolves. Plus there are a few hybrids, like a tiger-skunk or a wolf-squirrel. We even have conventions and get together."
Now it was Milli's turn to stare, mouth agape. No way! No way! Her eyes flicked from Tedd to Francisco and back again before her mouth snapped shut. Her mind reeled as the words tumbled out, "Shut up! What did you call yourself, a 'fur'? I'm a fur person. I've never heard of a 'fur' before. Oh wow, this is so... so..." She could not think of anything coherent to say. I am so gonna die!
"Yea a fur," answered Tedd, picking up her excitement and speaking faster. "A fur, or furry, is an animal just like you. With lots of human traits: intelligence, speech, uses tools, walks on two legs, and about human sized. 'Fur person' is another good name for us. The high school I go to has humans and furs attending." He glanced at Francisco. "Oh, and exchange students like Cisco, but he is the only one from another planet. The only alien."
I'm gonna die!
"What are you doing in high school?" asked Fizzy. "What grade are you in?"
"I'll be a junior this fall. We'll both be juniors," said Cisco, slipping out of his role as the Squire.
"What's a 'junior'?" asked Fizzy.
"Eleventh grade. We're both sixteen. I'll be seventeen next month, after school starts," said Cisco.
Oh God! Oh God! This is too much! Milli burst out, "I could die! You're sixteen? You're both sixteen? I'm sixteen too!" She took a breath. "Well, in human equivalent years I'm sixteen." She was grinning and the tip of her tail quivered. Do something girl, be smooth. "I could bite you if you like." Her eyes widened as she clapped her paw over the end of her muzzle, horrified. Oh, what did I just say? Stupid! Stupid! Her tail stood straight up in alarm and she felt her face grow warm. Calm; be calm. She willed her tail back down.
Fizzy didn't seem to notice Milli's blunder. He chuckled, "Kids. That makes me the old man of the bunch. In human equivalent, I'd be about 32." He looked at Cisco. "What is Gothos like?"
Cisco was staring at Milli, a confused expression on his face. He shook his head, as if to clear his thoughts. "Err, ahh, boring. The 'rents and I are the most highly evolved life forms on Gothos, so I turn to observing other planets and lesser races for my entertainment: Klingons, Ferengi, Lizarians... inferior races."
"Klingons again, what are Klingons?" asked Fizzy.
"Ahh," said Squire Francisco, slipping back into his role, his voice taking on the haughty tone of someone lecturing an underling. "Klingons are a primitive race of warriors. Living by the law of might, they have refined brutality into a grand civilization. They control vast reaches of space."
"Pirates perhaps?" asked Milli, trying to act as if nothing was wrong, but thinking, Thank you Fizzy, you are a lifesaver.
Francisco thought for a moment. "Well yes, I suppose so. They often behave like pirates."
"Hey, we are pirates... and thieves." Fizzy flashed a toothy grin. "Noble professions, piracy and thieving."
"Ahh, I see. Well, the Klingons have made it into a noble thing as well." Enjoying the conversation, Francisco clasped his hands behind his back as he rocked back on his heels.
"We have two great warriors here in SkunkWks," said Milli. "Great pirates. Picaroons!"
Fizzy was grinning. "Mister Mike and my Sparkle. Both are masterful swordsmen."
"Ahh, masters of the art of swordplay? Absolutely smashing!" Francisco rubbed his hands together and grinned.
"Sparkle studies long and hard," said Milli. "She is quite skilled, but with Mister Mike, it's instinctive. As if the sword is not just an extension of his body, but part of his mind as well."
Fizzy's face grew stern. "Around Mister Mike, you'd best not even blink wrong."
Milli nodded. "Last week he ran a citizen through. I don't think he even took the time to think. He just did it. He has his reasons I suppose, even if he doesn't realize them at the moment."
"Heeh yea! Stuck like a rat on a skewer." Fizzy looked pleased.
"I got to clean up that mess," said Milli, frowning. "Fix the ejection list, apologize and all. Funny thing is, while talking to that citizen, I got the feeling, and urge maybe, that Mike was right to run him through. After the guy left I put him back on the eject list." She shrugged. "Not as dramatic as a sword, but just as effective."
"What sort of people are Mister Mike and Sparkle?" Francisco asked. "Besides brave picaroons, that is."
Fizzy puffed out his chest. "Ferrets, like me! Sparkle is my mate. She's the prettiest ferret in all the world."
Tedd spoke up, "Are you a pirate too, Milli?"
"Oh no, I'm just little ol' Milliscent, first bot. I'm powerful. I don't need weapons." She smiled.
"Ahh yes, when I am home on Gothos, I have power like that." Francisco cleared his throat and his face darkened. "I've been temporarily stripped of power by my parents, something about 'learning a lesson'." He hung his head and shuffled his feet. After a few moments of silence, and when no one made a comment, he looked up. "So, do you have a standing army here in SkunkWks?"
"No army," said Milli. "There are the ferrets, who go about rather heavily armed; Bluto, who has size and strength; myself; and even Edgar packs a wallop. It's pretty safe here, unless you've come to cause trouble. We'll be getting more bots soon, too."
"Heavily armed?" sniffed Francisco. He looked Fizzy up and down. "I see only one dagger."
Milliscent and Fizzgig exchanged glances before she bent down, opened her leather tote and removed the plastic bag with the mango seed. They both stood. Fizzy unsheathed his dagger, balancing it on his fingertip, while Milli walked over to a tree trunk about 20 feet away. She hung the bag with the seed at shoulder height, hooking it on a small nail head, then stepped aside.
Thunk! Thunk! Two daggers stuck on either side of the seed in quick succession, pinning it to the tree. Fizzy stood, twirling a third dagger around his finger. Thwack! The dagger struck and split the mango seed. During his performance, Milli had been standing less than two feet to the side of the target, unflinching.
Tedd stood rooted to the ground, his mouth hanging open, starting at Milli.
Francisco started clapping. "Hip-hip-hurrah!" he shouted. "That was magnificent! Smashing! Judging by knife technique alone, Klingons are primitive brutes compared to ferrets. Well done, Master Fizzgig. In any battle with aliens, I'd want to be standing at the side of the ferrets of SkunkWks!"
One by one, Milli pulled the daggers from the tree trunk and tossed them, underhanded, to Fizzy. He easily snagged each out of midair and returned them to their places, two inside his vest and one on his hip. She inspected her plastic bag and wrapped what was left of it around the two halves of the mango seed and sauntered back to the others, the tip of her tail bobbing up and down, her hips swaying.
Still excited, Francisco gushed, "And Seņorita Zorrilla showed nerves of steel. Bravo! Outstanding!"
Milli tried to suppress a grin, but it revealed itself as a crooked smile. Well, that's two more citizens who won't take us for granted. She put the damaged seed and bag back in her tote, smiled and asked, "So, what sights in SkunkWks would you fine gentlemen like to see?"
"Sights?" said Tedd, his voice weak. "There are other sights here?" He had not taken his eyes from her since the first dagger struck the tree trunk.
"Well, yes. The Center for Advanced Stuff is off that way." Milli waved her paw toward the northwest. "And there are some beautiful classical gardens in Choblyn Wood, to the north and northeast." She swept her arm to indicate the general direction.
"Advanced Stuff?" asked Cisco, shedding his role and becoming the curious teen. "What kind of name is Advanced Stuff?"
Milli shrugged. "Dougie has... an interesting sense of humor, and he's into a broad spectrum of technology. I guess if his clients don't mind the name...."
"Our hole is that way," said Fizzy, pointing west. "The White Woods are beautiful, open and pleasant, and there are two ponds. South of our hole is the Creation Workshop and the lake."
Milli looked at Fizzy. "Mister Mike might not like it if we wake him too soon."
"Oh yea, I forget. But they could go to the lake."
"Umm, Milli, you live with the ferrets in a hole?" asked Tedd.
"Oh no. I live at the Center for Advanced Stuff, and the ferrets' hole is not what you'd expect. Very nice, you'd be surprised. You should visit sometime when it's okay." She smiled at Francisco and curtseyed. "A domicile and furnishings fit for a squire." She continued the verbal tour. "Sundor Forest is to the east and southeast. The larger trees have been cut down, but there is a castle and a rock quarry."
Francisco perked up, popping back into his role as squire. "A castle? You have a castle? How perfectly exquisite."
"A ruined castle, no one lives there now," she said.
Francisco grinned. "Ahh, delightful. Mysteries of the past."
"Yes," said Milli. "Long ago men moved to the Sundor Forest, cut down the trees, dug the quarry and built the castle. Then the tigers came, killed many of the men and drove the rest away. Since then the tigers have been replanting the forest and the castle has fallen into ruin."
Tedd knit his brow. "Tigers... Is it safe?"
"Well you see..." Milli began, "there are no tigers there, yet. The avatars are done, but Dougie has been having some difficulty with the behavioral scripts." Unstable behavior he says. Tigers make me nervous, but unstable tigers make me real nervous.
Grinning, Francisco said, "Ahh, well that cannot be helped. When creating worlds it does not all happen in a mere fortnight. Tigers that were, and are not, and are to be; it all sounds like some sort of temporal anomaly. Such things are all too common on Gothos." He took a step toward Milli. "Lovely lass, I am most fascinated by castles. It would be simply marvelous to explore this one. Let's go!" He rubbed his hands together.
With a small voice Tedd said, "The garden sounds nice."
"The castle is this way?" Francisco asked, sweeping his hand toward the east.
Pointing, Milli said, "Well, we can go up that streamside path to the northeast then cut south, or we can take the path south and veer to the east, over the hill, then down into the ravine and past the waterfall."
Francisco stepped toward Milli, took both her paws in his hands, and gazed into her eyes. "Ahh, fair maiden, would you be our able guide?"
"Well..." She looked at Fizzy.
"You go," Fizzy said. "I'll stay here and entertain these mice." He patted his lunch sack and grinned.
"That is not what I had in mind Fizz." She gave him a stern look. "You are not to shake down the tourists, I don't care what Marley says. You need to be a good example for him."
Milli watched Fizzy for a few seconds before turning back to Francisco. "Yea, okay. Let's go."
"Absolutely smashing!" Francisco released her paws. "Lead on, my little wood nymph. You shall be my guiding beacon, and I shall be your swain."
Tedd looked at his friend and rolled his eyes.
Milli giggled. "How about the southern route, past the waterfall? Some say it is very romantic." Maybe we can try a friendly little bite there, you smoothie.
"Yes, yes," said Francisco. "To the castle. Lead on."
"This way." Milli walked south out of the clearing and under the encircling trees. After crossing the first bridge, she turned east at a fork in the path and headed up a gentle slope, Cisco and Tedd following close behind. The massive, well-spaced cottonwoods at streamside gave way to equally large elms further upslope. After walking uphill about 30 yards, the trees became smaller and more crowded, then ended as the path emerged into bright sunlight. The path split, skirting the edge of the forest to the northeast and southeast. She stopped to let the two boys catch up.
<End of chapter 2>