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"Why? Why are we here?" I wondered aloud, glancing at each of my new friends. Amren was wandering around the roof, curiously examining every vent and pipe that protruded from it. Sajala was huddled in front of the large vent, trembling in fear. The banker, the Clavispati banker, was standing not very far away, removing her oversized parka and carefully removing the darts that were embedded in it, placing them in a neat pile.

"Why did you follow me?" I asked, not speaking to anyone in particular. "Why did you save me?"

Amren paused in his exploration and turned. "Are you talking to me?"

"Okay, you first. Are you in trouble with EFTA?"

"I thought they were chasing me! It's because I'm running away from home," he answered, reaching into his jacket and pulling out the wind instrument he had been playing earlier. "I live in a white zone and they won't let me play my ocarina, or keep my hair long!"

"Ugh," I responded. "I hate white zones."

G-vars weren't even allowed to live in these so-called "white zones". Nor were bodmods, alien species, smokers, drinkers, artists, the dark-skinned, nor anyone with an accent. These were districts in which "absolute human purity", as they call it, is preserved with religious zeal; by, of course, religious zealots. Why did such districts exist? It was a compromise, designed to satisfy those who demanded a total lack of freedom, without letting them force the same on the rest of the country.

"I prefer red-light districts!" I added with a chuckle. "They're pretty much the opposite!"

"Opposite? Sounds cool!"

"Don't," the banker interrupted sternly, as she filled out yet another slip of paper from her checkbook. I noticed the word "Deposit" on this one. "You're too young. Some of the things that go on in those places... When you're old enough to understand them, you might be ready, but before then, all that'll happen is you'll get your mind warped!"

"Oh."

I turned to the banker. "How about you?"

And then I noticed that the pile of darts next to her, along with the parka, had apparently vanished.

"And who?" I added quickly. "Who the heck are you, anyway?"

She smirked. I didn't like the way she smirked. It made me suspicious.

"It seems," she answered, pausing for effect, "that I am your contact!"

"What?"

I was supposed to meet someone at the border of the white zone, exchange code phrases, and then hand over the item I was smuggling. It would then be brought into the underground, the white zone's underground. (Commonly referred to as the "whunder-ground".)

"So you tell me, Alphonse Stanislav Fetter..."

That was my full name. She knew my full name. How did she know that?

She continued, "Have you been keeping up on current events?"

That was the code phrase. To confirm my identity and intention, and also to avoid looking suspicious in public, I was supposed to respond a certain way. "Just the weather," I answered. "I'm concerned about the--"

"Yes, yes," she interrupted. "We don't need to do this now. Plans have changed and I've been forced to improvise. That's why I was on that transport instead of waiting at the rendezvous point; we're just lucky we wound up in the same car!"

For some reason, I was feeling tense. There was something about her that was making my heart race.

"I have something for you," I said as I reached under my shirt and into my belly.

"You don't need to worry about that," she answered. "I hope you don't mind, but I've already helped myself to it."

"What?" I exclaimed as I felt around my dimensional pocket, trying to locate the item. I knew exactly where I had placed it, but that section of shelf was bare now. It wasn't there. "How?"

"I happen to have some control over subspace!" she answered with pride as she walked towards me and reached for one of her sleeves. "See this mark?"

The geometric figure tattooed on her wrist. The word "subspace". The name "Clavispati", and the Clavispati Banking House.

"I'm what's called, in some circles, a subspace witch. This mark identifies subspace as my domain."

Suddenly, it all clicked. These were my employers. These were the ones who had given me my pouch in the first place. That symbol had been painted on a wall, in the room where I recovered after that surgery and had the dimensional pocket explained to me.

And then the mistwalker yelped. She had crept up on me while I was talking to the banker, and was just inches from my face. "Good heavens! You're hit!" she screamed, directly into my ear; fortunately, my right ear, my deaf ear.

I winced at the noise nevertheless, and then I looked at her face. She was looking down, so I looked down, and she pointed with her hoof to the side of my body. Two darts were sticking out of it.

Maybe that was why my heart was racing. The darts had struck my numb side; they were apparently in my arm. My right arm was numb, limp and useless, so I kept it strapped to my side and concealed under my shirt. I liked being able to forget that it was there.

The whole side of my body seemed to be quivering. I reached over and yanked out the darts; it took me two tries to grab them. "Thank goodness I don't feel that," I mused.

"But you're crying!"

"No I'm not!" I replied as I instinctively reached up to my eye to rub it. It was dry.

Then I felt my head move to the side. Had something pushed it? I turned quickly, and saw that Sajala had poked the side of my head with her hoof.

"Why are you poking me?" I demanded, with some irritation. "I told you, I'm fine!"

And then I placed my hand on the numb right side of my face, on the spot near where I thought she poked. My cheek was wet. "What the?" I exclaimed as I continued to feel the area.

Except it wasn't really my face, was it? It was that darn otter face, growing out of the side of my own face. Oh, how I hated being reminded that it was there. And now the alien deer, the banker, even that boy had come; and they were all staring at it.

Sajala poked at my side with a misty hoof. "Really, my good sir, you don't feel that at all?"

This was making me angry. "Will you stop that? And stop staring!" I yelled as I stood up. My legs felt slightly shakier than usual, but they still worked. "I'm okay! I'm not hurt! I'm not in any pain so stop staring, okay?"

Suddenly the boy spoke up. "Oh, wait a minute... I know what you are!"

I wasn't going to like where this was going.

"There's two of you!"

Yup, I didn't like that.

"You have a ferret face and an otter face and can't feel your other side because you're brothers and you're stuck together!"

"You've got to be kidding," I muttered.

"And that's why you two are different colors!" he continued.

I sighed. This was wrong. This was so wrong.

"Does he have a name? Can he talk? Have you tried taking the tape off of his mouth?"

Now this was getting stupid. "Hey kid," I growled at him, "will you shut up?"

"Let it go, Amren," the banker advised. "Just let it go."

"But--"

"Can't you see how much this is bothering him?" the banker continued.

"But he doesn't even know!" the boy protested.

"Shut up!" I yelled as I took a step, an angry step towards him. "You're wrong! This is just a mutation and I'm having it removed, that's all! There... is... no... otter!"

And then I fell backwards against the air vent. I guess my legs were shakier than I thought. Or maybe it was all that running I had done earlier.

Amren was scared. He backed away from me with his hands up defensively, while I slumped back to the ground.

A minute of awkward silence followed, during which I stared at the boy. As angry as I was, I was also starting to feel guilty.

Finally, I broke the silence with a sigh. "Sorry if I scared you," I mumbled. "I told you, I told you earlier, it was a radiation accident."

"And he also said he was sensitive about it," the banker added. I never did get her name, but perhaps it was moot at this point.

"S'okay," the boy replied. He sat down a distance away and began playing his ocarina. It was a calm, soothing melody and I found it rather relaxing.

"Some fine music, my boy," Sajala said as she knelt down next to him. "Please, play on!"

Suddenly, he stopped playing. In a moment of silence, for a moment, I thought I heard helicopters in the distance... Approaching helicopters.

"May I suggest a hasty departure from this rooftop?" Sajala suggested politely as she practically jumped to her hooves. "My strength and my resolve have returned, and I believe the time has come for--"

"Get on!" the banker interrupted, as she once again pulled me and the boy onto Sajala's back.

"But please remember," the mistwalker explained while she began running, "I can't go near the pineapple!"

The banker, riding in front this time, leaned forward and whispered to Sajala. "You won't even see it. We're going somewhere else. As soon as we're in the air, close your eyes and I'll guide you to somewhere secret, okay? Trust me?"

"Very well," the alien answered as she continued accelerating towards the edge of the building. "My hooves shall be in your hands!"

Once again, the clouds of white mist surrounding Sajala's hooves became thicker and more solid as she ran, and soon she wasn't running on the roof; she was running on her own clouds. As if this was her cue, the banker leaned forward again, and placed her hands over the deer's eyes. "Up!" she commanded.

I was sure we all knew what the plan was; even Sajala probably knew and didn't mind. We were still going to go to the same building, but if Sajala couldn't see the pineapple, she couldn't be frightened by it. As for why she was scared of pineapples in the first place, it never occurred to me to ask. I was too preoccupied with other issues, such as survival.

There was some ducking behind a couple of tall buildings, and a few more sudden changes of altitude than I would've liked, but with us almost directly between the setting sun and the helicopters for most of the flight, evading them was surprisingly easy.

I noticed, though, that Sajala was becoming nervous again. I could spot the logo, the one the banker had described, in the distance. Despite the banker's hands over her eyes, Sajala could still apparently sense that we were approaching it. Once again, we were slowing down.

The banker noticed this, too. "Come on, Sajala," she commanded. "We're nearly there!"

"I'm sorry," the mistwalker replied. "I am trying to be brave, trying to be brave..."

"Not again!" Amren said, as we suddenly lost about a foot of altitude and began slowly losing more. "If we crash up here, I'm gonna be really mad!"

Suddenly, out of nowhere, I had an idea. "Amren, play that song again."

"Huh?"

"That song you were playing earlier."

"Yes, I liked that song," Sajala added.

"Okay! If you think it'll help!"

With that, he played; and, as I had hoped, the music had a calming effect on Sajala. We were flying level again and regained most of our prior speed.

"Well done!" the banker exclaimed; I wasn't sure and didn't care which one of us she was talking to. "Up!" she commanded again.

A few minutes later, we were very high up indeed. We approached the roof of our destination, and as soon as it was no longer possible to view the logo on the side of the building, the banker let go of Sajala's face and sat up. "We're here. Time to land."

"Just in time," Amren said. "That was the end of the song."

As soon as we landed, the banker led us to a service entrance on the roof, and opened it with a 12-digit passcode and a retinal scan. This led to a stairwell. As we climbed down flight after flight of stairs, the banker pulled a small phone out of her pocket and tapped a couple of buttons.

"This is Tessa," she began. "I'm in the building with some special guests; I'll be treating them to accomodations for the night, possibly two."

"Is this a hotel?" I asked. The banker, apparently named Tessa, opened a door, and we left the stairs and found ourselves at the corner of two wide hallways, very ornately decorated, and with lots of doorways visible on each side.

"Three guests, three rooms, preferably on a secure floor... Well, we're on 74 right now. Yes... Yes, do that. And bring up some fruit baskets too... No, the smaller ones without the pineapples in them. Yes, thank you."

"Wow!" Amren exclaimed in awe as we followed Tessa down one of the hallways. "You mean we get to stay here? Cool!"

Tessa concluded her phone conversation and then spent a few minutes tapping on her phone, probably to confirm and pay for the rooms. "I'm sure we all have some questions about what happened today," she said. "But we should probably get some rest for now. I trust we'll all be here in the morning?"

For now, at least, I could apparently forget all my worries. Minutes later, I was sitting peacefully, munching an apple in a very fine hotel room with a great view through bulletproof glass; Amren was playing his ocarina in an adjacent room, and Sajala the mistwalker was assigned to the next room beyond that.

I mentally compiled a list of questions I would have to remember to ask later. I still didn't know why Sajala had joined the rest of us; I didn't suspect her motives at all, but I was very curious. I was also confused about how Tessa had managed to access the item in my dimensional pouch. How was she also able to summon objects out of thin air? Did those checkbooks she was messing with all day have something to do with it?

"Subspace... Banker..." I mused to myself. I thought of the slips I had seen her fill out: Deposit, Withdraw, Transfer... Maybe she had a dimensional pocket too, but instead of reaching into a surgically-installed kangaroo-like pouch, she did it with paperwork, like a banker would.

I was amused by the thought, and managed a chuckle.

Only one thing remained before I slept for the night; Upon seeing how well-furnished the bathroom was, I couldn't resist the opportunity to take a nice, long, luxurious shower.

As soon as I removed my shirt, however, I was distracted by my own reflection in the bathroom mirror. The numb side of my face was still wet, from tears that had poured out from under my rightmost eyepatch. I stared at the eyepatch, and then stared at my extra snout, that had been held closed with tape for as long as I could remember.

And then I stared at the seam, the vertical stripe down the entire middle of my body where it changed color; purple on the right, green on the left.

What the boy said had gotten to me. What if it was true? What if I was even freakier than I thought I was?

I reached for the eyepatch covering my rightmost eye and slowly, carefully, flipped it up. The eye underneath was closed, but it moved. I gasped. It squinted tight, and I could see the eyeball beneath it moving, back and forth, as if trying to escape the light that was too bright for it. Well, duh, I thought to myself, as I lifted my hand to shade it. It seemed to relax a bit.

"Is it true?" I asked aloud. "Is there someone else in here?"

The eye opened, very briefly, before shutting itself tight. I continued to stare, unsure whether to he horrified or disgusted, or angry, or relieved or sad, or... I had no idea what to think.

Slowly, I flipped the eyepatch back down. This felt wrong, incredibly wrong. It was way too confusing. My head swam for minutes while I tried to think.

I finally concluded that there was only one thing I could do. Perhaps, I thought, I should just stick with what I know, what I've done all my life: Denial.

"There... is... no... otter," I slowly whispered to myself. Somehow, that made me feel better. "There is no otter," I repeated, breathing a sigh of relief.

Unable to think of anything else to do, I proceeded with the shower, then wrapped myself up in thick luxurious blankets, went to sleep, and practically forgot the whole day.

A few months later, I started seeing a psychiatrist, and have been going there once every month ever since.

There is still no otter.
Finally, here's part 2 of that thing I did for :icondiscomfortzone:...
[Part 1 is here.]

This half is slightly less action-packed, and more character-based. For the most part, a character is only as good as its story, so I put a lot of effort into trying to explain things. All of these characters have personalities, and they have reasons for behaving the way they do. Generally, a story should try to explore these whenever it's reasonable, because that's often where the heart of a story actually ends up! (Of course, we shouldn't overdo this because it can get in the way of the story.)

I spent a lot of time debating just how much I wanted to get into After's unique condition: Specifically, explaining the condition itself, the way he prefers to see himself, and the difference between the two. That difference, the definite schism between the truth and his self-perception, is a rather defining characteristic of the character, and influences him and his motives in some very specific ways. This was actually more fun to explore than I expected, and now I definitely want to reuse this character at some point in the future... if possible!

As for the other participants' characters, I put significant effort into keeping their personalities as close to the way they were described as possible. Each of us had to design our characters using traits/criteria suggested by the other members, and I was determined to make sure all of these traits came into play in the story as well. I assume I did rather well in that regard...

As for the setting itself, this will definitely be reused, because it's actually one I've had in mind for years, planning to use it for a sizable series of short sci-fi stories that will involve humans, aliens, more "genetic variants" (the exact nature of which I've planned in detail already), plus some very futuristic technology. In case you noticed the word "bodmods" in this part; that's just me hinting at these plans. (Hint: The word refers to a specific form of advanced technology that has a multitude of medical uses, cosmetic uses, practical and/or kinky uses! Most of my planned stories will revolve around this in some way... assuming I ever get around to them!)

I mainly worry about the overall writing style here. Despite how much I've tried to make this seem like professional-level work, it just doesn't seem to me like I'm quite there yet. I really want some opinions on this: Does my inexperience still show?
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