User:Jetfire/Earning the Stripes

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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Earning the Stripes

Author: Jetfire
Author's Comments

A story inspired by Posti's 2008 Christmas Exchange story to Devin Hallsworth ( "Prison Stripes")

Sam skimmed through the job search sites, applying to another batch of jobs with his standard resume, and flagging a couple of other jobs for more personal attention. He didn't hold out much help from any of them though. He had been let go with hundreds of others from the telecom company in their latest round of downsizing, and the Ottawa market was saturated with engineers and programmers.

He closed down the job search sites and logged into his bank; his final pay had arrived as expected. With his savings, and careful budgeting, he would have enough for November and December rents, and maybe enough to spare to get a semi decent Thanksgiving dinner next week, but Christmas was going to be sparse. He sighed and sent a mental prayer hoping the market would stabilize enough for him to get a job in the three month buffer he had, but the news sites were not hopeful.

His days continued, falling into a routine of getting up early, skimming the job sites for prospects, surfing the net until lunch, skimming again after lunch and hanging around until after five, just in case anyone called. The phone stayed stubbornly quiet.

Just before Thanksgiving, he was sorting through the mail when he found a brochure for Ngorongoro Plains Tours. He knew of the company, few people didn't. They had discovered and spun off Splicer technology a decade earlier and were pulling in a mint with a resort filled with Spliced employees in Africa. Despite, or probably because of the exorbitant rates they changed to visit (Their service was often described unofficially as having more quality stars than a galaxy), it was one of the most desirable vacation destinations on the planet.

He flipped through the brochure, looking at the pictures of guests being served on by various smiling African animal Splicers, a baboon greeting visitors in a huge splendid entry hall, a gazelle safari guide driving a jeep with visitors, pointing to a lion sunning himself on a rock, an exotic leopardess waitress serving people in a dining room, and more scenes. He kept flipping through the pages slowly, feeling the African warmth coming off of them, contrasting sharply to the cold snap that had hit Ottawa just when he'd turned his heat to the minimum to save money. He had the application form half filled out before he realized it; the lure of the heat and the idea of being catered to from head to foot over riding common sense.

He looked at what he had written in first as reality set back in. "Even if I were working, this is so out of my budget I'd be decades paying it off," he mumbled to himself, pushing the brochure aside. He sighed and wrapped a blanket tighter around his chest to keep warm and skimmed Monster again.

Ngorongoro refused to leave his mind. While waiting for sites to load, he glanced at the shiny pictures, and the exotic Spliced creatures shown. He idly filled in more of the application form, the payment options section not even jarring him back to Earth. He filled in numbers from his final pay stub and signed and dated the form.

Reality reasserted itself when he was sealing the paperwork into the pre-stamped envelope. He held it in his hand over the garbage can, seriously thinking of throwing it away. Instead, he left it on his desk to mail when he checked his mailbox the next day.

A cold night later, Sam was in his tower's lobby, sorting through the mail, tossing out the credit applications and fliers and trying not to think too much of the bills that were left. The application to Ngorongoro was in his pocket, so close to going into the out going mail slot, but not in there yet. He pocketed the new envelopes and pulled out the application, a smiling lioness greeted him on the back of the envelope. He almost dropped it into the garbage, when a co-renter opened the door, letting in an arctic blast of cold. Sam shuddered and hugged himself quickly to warm up. He looked at the application one final time and tipped it into the out going slot.

"What the hell; worst case scenario, I end up on a bunch of mailing lists for even more things I can't afford," he mumbled, blowing on his hands and rushing to the elevator.

A week later, he was surprised when a courier dropped off a package at his apartment from the tour company. It contained everything he needed for his trip, plane tickets for a week later and paperwork to take to the Kenyan Embassy for his passport. Sam was stunned that they had accepted his application, and sat on it for a day, wishing he had as good luck on the other applications he had sent out. He was tempted to return it all with an apology, saying he really couldn't afford it, but the thought of the African heat was too alluring. With the city entering its second week of Arctic air, any heat at all was tempting.

And that was how Sam found himself jetting off to Africa on the first of December, a few days before the first major storm of the season. The flight from Ottawa to London was uneventful enough. In Heathrow, he had a few hours to kill before the flight to Nairobi, so he explored. He was surprised to find an Ngorongoro Agency store in the airport, staffed by a spliced gazelle.

"Can I help you?" she asked, looking up from her keyboard. She expertly tapped on it with hoof tipped fingers, two fingers on each hand larger and thicker than the other two.

"Uhm, I guess I'm just looking around. I'm on my way to take the tour and was surprised to see this here."

She flicked her ears and smiled, standing up and tugging her khaki coloured blouse down. "You're on the tour? Welcome, welcome. How long until your flight leaves?" she asked, glancing up at a screen in one corner. Before Sam could finish estimating the time, she had already taken his arm. "A few hours at least. Good good. Most of our guests end up transferring through London, so to make their visit more pleasant, we have a lounge in the back you can relax in, have some drinks and mingle with other guests."

She lead him behind the counter after a subtle check of the ticket stub sticking out of his pocket. He followed meekly, smelling the exotic scent from her and feeling the gentle, but firm grip on his arm. The corridor was lined with posters, not only advertising Ngorongoro, but also other tour parks the company was setting up in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and even Siberia of all places. His jet lagged mind barely took them in before they entered a bigger room.

The room was much like he would expect from any other higher class airport lounge, aside from the spliced wildebeest serving drinks at a bar. One monitor mounted in a corner showed the times of the next flights to Nairobi on the bottom below a constant BBC News feed. A smaller room was set up as a children's play area. Both rooms had large windows providing views of the runways and the constant stream of planes taking off and landing.

"If you would like something to drink, just ask Walter there. The chairs have tables and plug-ins for laptops if you want, we also have a selection of video games available if you would rather. And if you would like to rest or to take a shower, we have beds and showers available. Just ask Walter for a key. We'll make sure you don't miss your flight," the gazelle explained, pointing out the amenities.

Sam shook his head, overwhelmed. "I can't pay for all this," he stammered out.

"But you already have silly. It's included as part of your tour package. Enjoy your vacation!" with a cheery wave to the wildebeest, she disappeared back down the hall.

The stunned unemployed programmer looked around again, noticing the people in the room. It wasn't a full room, a family of four spread over one set of chairs near the windows, a young couple clearly on their honeymoon cuddling in another corner, and a few more loners like himself mixed in between. He made his way to the bar and sat down, setting his travel bag down at his feet. "A coke please."

The bar tender poured the drink and slid it to him. Sam sipped it slowly and nodded his thanks before turning around. Walter made his way to the other end of the bar to take an order from another tourist.

"I really can't afford this," Sam mumbled, shaking his head and sipping slowly.

A few hours later, Sam boarded the plane, and was surprised to find himself in a large seat in the business class section. He was standing in the aisle, double checking his ticket with the seat label when something warm bumped into him. He turned to look, and nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Excuse me, this is my seat. Are you the window?" the spliced dark bronze coloured crocodile asked in a British accent, dressed in heated clothing against the London chill.

Sam stammered and looked at his ticket one last time. "I think so. Sorry, I didn't mean to block you." He moved in and took his seat next to the window.

The crocodile pushed a bag under the seat in front of him and sat down carefully, bringing his covered tail between his legs. "It's no problem. You haven't met many spliced before I take it?"

"No, not many. I've seen a few but they aren't that common. Doesn't that hurt?" He pointed at the crocodile's tail.

"What?... Oh my tail? I'd be lying if I said it didn't, but it goes numb eventually and it's really the only way I can travel on planes with it. They shrank it down as far as they dared in the time they had before I left, thank goodness."

"Shrank it down?" Sam looked puzzled.

His seat mate grinned, showing his interlaced teeth. "I play a full animal in the park. I'm usually about five metres long, with tail of course."

Sam's eyes widened as he considered the length. "So uhm, what brings you here? I guess you're going back to work?"

The flight attendants interrupted them briefly to make sure their belts were buckled, and to provide some drinks.

"It was personal reasons. I had to go home for a funeral of my father."

"Oh, I'm sorry for your loss."

"Thank you. In any case, everything is settled now, and it's time to head back. Not that I mind much. London is COLD when you're cold blooded. I can't wait to settle down in the water and wait for the tours to come by and SNAP!"

Sam jumped in his seat, pressing back against the window and spilling his drink. The crocodile-man laughed and poured some water into his big mouth. "You think you were startled now. Wait till I'm three times bigger."

Sam shuddered a bit and focused on cleaning up his drink. An attendant came by and offered more napkins and collected the garbage. The trays were stowed, the doors sealed and they were off.

Once the plane leveled off, Sam stood and stretched a bit, careful not to touch the crocodile-man snoozing in the seat next to him. The Business Class section was full, mostly with people whom he had seen in the waiting area, but with a few more spliced people that probably worked at the resort. He carefully sat back down and plugged his headphones in to watch a movie.

In Nairobi, Sam walked off the plane and started sweating in the heat. He fanned himself and tried to figure out what time and day it was. Just past the door of the jetway, he spotted a spliced elephant waiting for them, holding up a Ngorongoro Plains Tours sign in his trunk. Sam made his way over to the elephant man with the rest of the people he'd noticed on the plane.

"Is everyone here?... Hey Sheila, welcome back... Good, welcome to Nairobi. My name is Harold. Normally I would be escorting you to a plane for the jump to the resort, but I'm afraid the plane is having mechanical difficulties and we haven't been able to arrange another plane," the elephant man announced.

"Good, I hate flying with those monkeys," the spliced cheetah woman the elephant man had greeted mumbled.

"Instead, we have arranged a bus to take you out. The trip will take about seven hours, including a meal break. Ngorongoro Plains Tour apologizes for the inconvenience this will cause. In reparation, we are willing to give you a discount for the lost day on the resort, or the chance to extend your trip an extra day, at no further cost to you. We will even arrange later flights as needed to get you home. Please speak with any host at the front desk to make the arrangements you prefer," the elephant continued.

It was late in the evening by the time the bus pulled off of a paved road into a long curved driveway leading up to a brightly lit building. The bus parked under a canopy and monkeys rolled out carts to unload luggage from below.

Sam climbed out of the air conditioned vehicle and started sweating again, yawning hugely. He shouldered his laptop bag and made his way inside.

Inside was as splendid as the outside hinted at. A multistory atrium greeted guests, with a bright chandelier overhead, and a bubbling pool to one side and the door to a restaurant on the other. Despite the late hour, there was still a lot of activity going on, all of the workers spliced, the few humans visible clearly guests. Sam joined the line waiting to check in, waiting behind the sleepy family as they made their arrangements.

"Mister Martin? Samuel Martin? Could you please come with me." Sam turned and saw a neatly dressed baboon splicer calling to him from the end of the counter. The baboon had a tag that said 'Manager' on it.

"That's me, is something the matter?" Sam asked, walking over.

"I'm afraid so. Could you follow me please? There are some discrepancies in your paper work we would like to clarify. It shouldn't take long."

Sam sighed and felt his scheme falling apart already. 'At least I got to see the place,' he mumbled under his breath.

The baboon led him down a sparse hallway into an office. It had a couple of chairs, a desk with a turned off computer and a file cabinet. The baboon waved a paw to a chair and sat down at the desk, the door closing behind them.

He clasped his hands on the desk and leaned forward, looking closely at Sam. "Let us get right to the point. Did you purposefully lie on your application to get here?"

Sam briefly toyed with the idea of protesting, but after so long traveling, his mind was too weary to keep any stories straight. He decided to stick to the truth and try to make the best of the situation. "Yes, I did. I'm sorry about that, I truly am. You see I just lost my job, and the market in my city is so bad, I just needed a break, to get away to somewhere else..."

The manager held up a paw to silence him, his expression carefully neutral. When Sam trailed off, he spoke up. "I see. Lying on your application, is a grave infraction of the contract you agreed to when you came here. But you are here now, and we need to figure out what to do with you."

"I can leave immediately. Take the bus back to Nairobi and get the next flight back to Canada," Sam said hopefully. He was disappointed to have to leave so soon after arriving, but at least he could say he was here. "I'll even pay you back for the flights and everything."

"I'm afraid that is not possible. The buses have already left."

Sam cheered inwardly, realizing he had unintentionally gotten himself at least one night at the resort. The baboon seemed to go pensive, opening up a folder and reading through it carefully.

"As well, our analysis of your real banking situation, and the status of the economy in your home country, indicate that there is only a slight chance you will be able to pay back your debts working from home."

"I'll pay you back! Sam Martin never shirks on his debts!" Sam protested.

The manager waved a paw to silence Sam again and nodded. "Yes, your banking history does indicate that. But I don't believe you realize just how much you owe us. Were you to liquidate all of your assets now, you might just be able to afford the flight to here that you just got off of. And that includes your Employment Insurance income. You would still owe for the flight back, not to mention the costs to arrange the expedited Visa entry permit for you and other costs you have incurred so far."

Sam sighed and slumped back in the chair, mentally reviewing his finances, but knowing the baboon was right. Getting home would bankrupt him.

"Declaring bankruptcy is an option, for you," the baboon continued as if reading Sam's mind. "But we would be unable to collect on your debts, which would make you a large red mark in our own accounting books. We don't like red."

Sam shuddered, his mouth suddenly going dry. All of the stories about missing tourists and African rebellions rose up in his head. "Whuh-..." he gulped and tried to clear his throat. "What are you going to do to me?"

The manager laughed, but it was a joyless laugh. "Relax. We are not going to kill you. As I said, we hate red, especially blood red." He reached into a drawer and pulled out another sheet of paper. "Instead, I am here to make you an offer. You'll get the chance to work off your debt to us at a reasonable rate. There is even a clause in there to continue on after the debt is paid off, if you decide you wish to remain, and if we decide we want to retain your services."

Sam looked warily at the sheet, beginning to skim it over. "It sounds good on the surface, but how do I know it isn't one of those debts with interest and other charges laid on it so high it is impossible to pay it off."

"I assure you, everything is very reasonable. Depending on what jobs you can take, you will be paid well enough to clear your current debt with us within a year easily. I promise you."

Sam still looked doubtful.

The baboon leaned forward, trying to reassure him. "Consider this, you will be working for us. We are a resort known for a high class of service, one of the highest in the world. We can't provide that type of service with unhappy workers. So I assure you, your debts will go down at a very reasonable rate, comparable to your other debts. After all, if you are concerned about money, you won't have our customers concerns in mind."

Sam frowned and skimmed over the job offer contract carefully, squinting at some of the smaller print. "What about food and lodgings? Hell what about my Visa? I just have a tourist Visa, not a work Visa. And I have my stuff back in Ottawa."

"Food and lodgings and a health plan are all inclusive. No extra costs to you unless you decide to leave the resort. Changing over your Visa will cost more, but we will add it to your debt and it isn't that much more. As for your old stuff, if you decide to sign on, we can either maintain your apartment, or have it packed up and put into storage. Or even sell it for you to remove it from your debt. I'm afraid one restriction we have to insist on is that you stay in the country here for a year or until the debt is repaid, whichever comes first."

"And if I don't sign on?"

The baboon's voice went cold. "Then we will bring you up on charges of contract fraud in Nairobi. And while I am not saying anything in particular, let us just say that there are certain advantages in the courts here for being part of a company that brings in a lot of money to a country. You'll probably end up back here, but in a much worst position to bargain from. And frankly, your current position is not all that great to begin with."

Sam felt a chill run down his spine and he skimmed over the contract again. There was a lot of small print, lawyerly wording and apparent contradictions that he couldn't quite figure out. Actual numbers were not clarified, but it seemed better than the alternative. He reluctantly signed and dated the pages where indicated.

The baboon snapped the papers away and folded them into an envelop which he stuck under his arm. "Excellent. I'm sure you will enjoy the years to come as an employee of Ngorongoro Resorts."

"Years? You said I would have this paid off within a year!" Sam protested.

"I said you would pay off your then current debts to us in that time period. But I'm afraid your debt is now much higher."

"WHAT! You said there wouldn't be any gotchas like that!" Sam bolted upright, but felt hands grip his shoulders and push him back down into his seat. To his surprise, he saw a big gorilla had entered the room silently and was now holding him in place. The beast had intelligent eyes, but he couldn't tell if it was a full or morphic splice.

"It was not a surprise. It was all outlined in the contract. If you think of it, it makes perfect sense." The baboon turned on the computer and turned back while waiting for it to warm up. He ticked points off with his fingers. "One, you are now an employee of Ngorongoro Resorts. Two, all employees of Ngorongoro must match the image we are trying to portray at the resort in question. Three, the image in question includes morphic or non morphic animals indigenous to the region local to the resort. Therefore, fourthly, you, as an employee, need to match that image, including the animal factor.

"Your old debts will have been paid off by the end of next year. The costs to splice you however will take a few more years."

Sam slumped back, realizing he'd been beat. Like most people, he'd looked into the costs of splicing back when the first successful splicings were announced, but the prices had started at astronomical levels, and were only now, years later, reaching stratospheric levels. He suspected the manager was being generous when he said his debts would be fully paid off in a few more years.

"I want to take my chances with the courts!" Sam exclaimed, scrambling for the last possible hope he had. "You didn't fully disclose what would happen!"

The manager looked at him coldly and kept the envelope with the contract tucked firmly under his arm. "But it was all outlined in the job offer. If you really do insist on trying with the local courts, I would urge you to reconsider. You would have broken TWO contracts with us at that point, and the courts and we, would be even less lenient with you. As it stands right now, I do like you, and can appreciate your situation and can give you a variety of options you might enjoy. But if you force us to go through the courts, then by the time you get back here, you will find your results much more limited. Do you want to risk that?"

Sam shook his head glumly, feeling the gorilla's hands lift from his shoulder.

"Good, now let's see. What openings do we have? In the full animal category, we have an opening for a black rhinoceros, an African elephant adult and a giraffe. Now just to explain the full animal positions, baring emergencies, you will expected to be a full animal eleven months out of a year. After nine months you can chose when to take a month vacation in a morphic form.

"Full forms live out in the parkland itself, and are expected to interact safely as animals with the guests. When no guests are around, you are free to do what you want. There are shelters and panic buttons hidden throughout the park in case you run into trouble, and except in extreme circumstances you will keep your voice.

"Still, it's almost a full year in a form that usually doesn't have usable hands, and is pretty solitary compared to other forms. We recognize that and pay the full animals the highest amount. You would pay off your debt full and clear in about three years. Even faster if you take the black rhinoceros or African elephant." He looked over the screen at Sam who seemed to be barely paying attention.

"Those two we add a danger bonus to. We closely monitor the boundaries of our parkland to make sure any intruders are caught and escorted out, but occasionally poachers can get in. And they usually go after the rhinos and elephants sadly."

Sam thought over those risks and about being trapped on all fours for so long. He shook his head. "No, I don't want any of those."

"Fair enough. You didn't seem to be the type who would go for that. In the morphic category, we have a warthog, a giraffe and a zebra, all for doing various jobs around the resort. I'm afraid those are the only options we have available at the moment."

"Can I have some time to think of it?" Sam asked, trying to stall and find another way out.

"Sure, you can have as long as it takes to get from here to the lab. Bruno, please help Mister Martin along."

The gorilla hand clamped on his upper arm and lifted him easily. Sam grabbed for his pack, but it was already out of reach. He stumbled for his footing as the gorilla escorted him from the office.

"Your belongings will be sent to your room once you are done. For now, you will be assigned a room in the dorms. Later on, if you wish, you may rent a larger room or a cottage in our workers village. Once you are processed, you will be able to see all of the options available."

The gorilla, Bruno, shifted his grip on Sam's arm and frog marched him down the hall. It was the longest yet shortest walk Sam had ever done. His fatigued mind spun in circles, alternating between trying to figure a way out of his situation, and considering the options he had been given. By the time he was pushed through a pair of swinging doors into an examination room, he had made one decision at least.

Another gorilla was there, in a lab coat and wearing a face mask. He was looking over a series of charts while Bruno lifted him onto a table. The Doctor looked up and picked up a needle with a clear liquid.

"Welcome to Ngorongoro Resort. I was told you were given the choices. Have you reached a decision yet?" he asked, a pleasant voice coming through the mask despite his appearance. Sam briefly had the thought that the doctor would be a good choice to play Beast if his fur was dyed blue.

"Can't you just let me go? I promise, I'll figure out some way to pay it back," Sam begged.

The doctor tapped the needle and checked it closely. "I'm afraid it's far too late for that. Have you made a choice or do you want it to be random?"

"Zebra! I want zebra!" Sam shouted, not sure if the random threat was serious or not, and not wanting to take a chance.

"Good choice. Now just relax."

Sam tensed as the doctor approached with the needle. The other gorilla held his arm firmly and turned his forearm towards the doctor. The needle pinched a moment, and the liquid was injected into Sam. His arm immediately went numb.

"What was dat?" he mumbled, finding it harder to control his mouth as the numbness spread.

"Just a sedative and a relaxant. We need to take a lot of samples to tune Splicer to your system, and it's easier for you and for us if you're out of it for most of the sampling."

Sam never heard. His world went dark before the first sentence was finished.

A bright light was shining in Sam's eyes, bright enough to notice but not enough to hurt. He tried to decide if it was worth doing something about it, and decided not to. Around him, he could hear a voice singing over beeping equipment and clattering instruments. He decided it wasn't worth trying to decipher the song.

A machine beeped louder, and the singing stopped. The light went dark, eclipsed by a dark shape Sam couldn't bring himself to bring into focus. A brighter, more painful light shown into his eyes one at a time. That one he did decide to react to, but by the time he could try to close his eyes, the light was gone.

"Good, you're awake. Don't try to talk, or move much; you're pretty much out of it and will be until we're done," the singing voice said. Sam vaguely recalled it as the voice of the doctor. He became aware of aches all over his body, including in areas he never thought could ache, but none were painful.

"Do you know much about the Splicer process? It's a great little process, but very dangerous. That's part of the reason why it's so pricey. It needs to be tightly regulated. In the early stages, if we don't put retarders into your system, it will burn you up trying to change you. If we really push it and use cooling baths and twenty four hour supervision, we can change someone from human to morph or full in a couple of weeks."

Sam listened, partly trying to remember but not really sure what was happening around him. The doctor continued talking as much to himself as to Sam, moving around Sam's body. "We could go the fast route for you, but you ARE here for debt reasons, and we've found that a slow process is cheaper on all sides than dealing with the shock of a fast one. Hence that's what we'll try to do for you. If you have any sensation in your arm yet, this may sting a bit." He laughed and Sam felt something lift his arm and press into his wrist.

"So we're going to go slower on you. Your change will take about eight weeks. Heat is still a problem of course." Sam felt something spread his legs and press against and then into the inside of each thigh. Sam realized he had to be naked now but couldn't bring himself to care.

"A bit chubby there aren't you? Where was I? Oh yeah the heat. Even spread over eight weeks, the heat is noticeable. You're basically going to have a two month long fever while you change." His other wrist was lifted and something pressed in.

"All this will be on your desk in your room. While you change, until you stabilize, you'll be seeing me every day for a check up, and a dose of retarders. If you don't take them daily, you will literally cook yourself from the inside. I'm sure you don't want that." Something pressed into his neck lightly.

"After two months, you'll stabilize, the bulk of the changes will be done and you'll be at the morphic point. That is when we up the retarder dose high enough to stop the changes. In order to stay a morphic form, you'll need to take those daily. Otherwise you'll step a bit closer to the full animal form. We could turn Splicer off at that point, but experiments have shown that bad things tend to happen then, so we leave it active and blocked at that point."

That got through to Sam to almost rise him out of the stupor, but his body refused to react to his mind. Apparently not noticing Sam's reaction, the gorilla finished his set up. Sam felt touches on his thighs, wrists and neck, before the gorilla walked away.

"Once your debts are paid off, we can reprogram Splicer, and take you back to human, if you want. Or we can discuss other options. It's a long time from now after all, and who knows what will be discovered by then. It's all set. Injecting Splicer now," the doctor said. At first Sam couldn't tell if anything happened. Then a warmth started to spread in him from the points the doctor had touched. His mind went fuzzy and the room went dark again.

Sam woke up slowly from a dreamless sleep, his mind having a hard time getting into gear. His body refused to obey him at first, so he just lay there, trying to put memories together. The last events clicked into place and his eyes snapped open, showing a plain white ceiling. Now that his eyes were working, his ears started clamoring for attention, bringing the sounds of hooves and claws clicking on floors, voices talking, some shouting from further away, and occasionally the sound of insects he didn't quite recognize.

He turned his head one way and saw a plain white wall, with a curtained window, opened and screened, a well maintained lawn outside. He was apparently on the first floor. Turning the other way, he saw an end table with a lamp on it, then another wall with a door on it and a long mirror on the door. Along the door's wall was a dresser and a wardrobe. Lifting his head a bit, he saw a simple desk, a small TV mounted to the ceiling, and surprisingly, his luggage, apparently unopened.

The view of the desk and TV also brought the rest of his body into view. He was laying on a single sized bed, covered in a light sheet, a little tangled from slight movements. He remembered more about what happened and managed to get an arm out, expecting it to be covered in white and black fur. To his slight surprise, it was bare, completely bare and unmarked beyond a red welt on his wrist.

During his slow inspection of the room, the rest of his body was waking up and sending signals. Two in particular took priority. First of all, was a general, all over body itch. He squirmed a little, trying to ease it, but it was futile, especially with the second signal of an overfull bladder. A second quick look around confirmed there was no relief for that in the room.

Sam weakly moved his limbs, getting the muscles used to moving again and preparing to stand up. The sheet slowly pulled away from him, bunching up at his feet and revealing the source of the itching, along with his lack of clothing. As far as he could tell, every hair on his body had fallen off while he was sleeping. The sheet had held most of it to his skin, enough to cause the itch. A tentative touch to his scalp showed it was as bare as the rest of his body.

The bladder reminded him of its needs, refocusing his attention. He swung his legs off of the bed and tried standing up, grabbing the headboard post to stabilize himself. After the room stopped swimming, he considered his options. He knew he had underwear in his luggage, but he wasn't sure he could make it there and bend over long enough to find a pair. Instead, he pulled at the sheet and wrapped it around his waist, pulling it up high enough to not trip over. He took a couple of cautious steps and reached the door, hearing voices talking on the other side. Without waiting, he took the door knob and twisted it, hoping it wasn't locked. The door flew open.

"If she puts me on the breakfast shift one more time, I swear I'm going to go feral. Everyone knows no one tips during breakfast. I'm going to go- Why hello there sleepy head. Go get Sarah, tell her the newbie is awake."

Sam blinked and tried to make sense of the scene. A lioness Splicer was leaning against the door jamb of a room across a wide hall from his own room. She was in the khaki uniform of the resort, the top partly unbuttoned to show her upper breasts and a smaller pair of breasts below them. She had been talking to an antelope Splicer, the ceiling just tall enough to handle her horns.

"Bathroom," he croaked out, as the antelope ran off down the carpeted hall.

"Down the hall, hun. That way. Door right at the end," the lioness said helpfully, pointing.

He nodded his thanks and took off that way, one hand on the wall for balance. He didn't see any male or female signs on the door, so he pushed through and looked for a stall. He briefly had the impression of a half dozen sinks along one wall, a row of toilet stalls along another wall, and a wide doorway that had the steam of hot water coming from it. He slammed through the first stall and unwrapped the sheet, barely getting it freed before his bladder decided enough was enough.

As he finished up, he became aware of voices talking near the sink, but he couldn't make out the words over the roar of fans coming from deeper in the bathroom. He cleaned up, and wrapped the sheet around himself before opening the door to see what was waiting for him. A leopardess and the lioness were at the sinks, both looking at him as he came out. The fans shut off.

"Damn! The heater elements blew again. I thought Jimmy fixed them?" a female voice called from the steamy doorway.

"He did! You probably blew the heater circuit again," the leopardess shouted back, before looking at Sam. "Hello Sam, sorry I wasn't there when you woke up. My name is Sarah, and I'll be your mentor until you get settled. You've already met Judy here," the leopardess said, introducing the lioness. Like most of the voices he had heard here, she spoke English clearly, with a British accent.

"Hi... I'm sorry, I think I ran into the woman's bathroom," Sam said, looking around and realizing where he had to be.

"Oh no, don't worry about that. We're pretty flexible here." She picked up a bag from the counter and held it out to him. "Here you go, some soap and a face cloth. You're probably itching like you fell in a flea circus. Showers are through there. Don't worry, you haven't got anything we haven't seen before."

Sam blushed a bit and took the bag, his hand brushing against the soft fur of her paw. "Thanks. I'm uhm, I'm just a bit overwhelmed. What about...." he nodded towards the showers where the voice had come from.

"That was just Maria. Might as well meet her now, the two of you will be quite the pair. Hey Maria! Stop messing with the driers and come out here a sec. I want you to meet someone."

"Who is it? I'm on duty in an hour, and if my fur isn't dry, it's going to soak my uniform," the voice said, coming closer. Finally the figure came around the corner, rubbing her arms with a towel.

For the first time, Sam had a glimpse of his future. She was just under six feet tall, with a white and black striped mohawk-mane extending a few inches above that. She had a horse head, with white and black stripped fur, black nose and lips. She had narrow shoulders and arms, leading down to a hand with a long thick middle finger with a hard nail on the end. She still had four other fingers and a thumb, each with a similar thick black nail on it, the skin on her palm dark black like her lips.

Standing up, the stripes on her upper body were horizontal, stretching from her back to her white front, some ending at an upper pair of breasts with black nipples. Her belly was tight, muscular covered in white fur leading down to a pair of slight bulges, with black nipples hidden in the fur. At her waist the stripes twisted direction, going vertically down her hips and legs all the way to black hooves covered in rubber textured shoes. A striped tail leading to a black tuft of fur swished behind her as she kept drying herself.

She paused and looked at Sam unabashedly. "Sam is it? We were told to expect you, and that you'll be wearing the stripes." She held out a hand. "Welcome to the herd."

Sam took the offered hand, and looked at it, feeling the thick finger and the smaller fingers. "Thanks, I... I didn't have much of a choice."

"Sure sure. I gotta get going. I'll talk with you later." She tossed the towel over her shoulder and trotted out of the bathroom.

Sarah grinned and pushed the bag back in Sam's hands. "Go, take a shower. It's empty now. I'll have a change of clothes waiting for you out here when you get back."

The shower room was a large tiled chamber with a drain in the center. Four alcoves had an array of shower heads for cleaning with. Another couple of alcoves had vents with power switches in then, while a set of shelves far from the water were filled with towels.

Sam double checked that the showers were empty before he grabbed a towel and took a stall. The hot water helped wake him up more and ease some of the aches in his body, along with the itchiness. He turned the water down a bit and examined himself closer. Other than the heat coming off his body, the complete lack of hair, and a darker tan, he couldn't find any other signs he was changing. Even the welts on his wrists had disappeared. He finished cleaning up, turned off the water, and started drying off. He walked out to find Sarah waiting there with a bundle of clothes. A male lion splicer walked out of a toilet stall and nodded to him in passing.

"Get dressed. We gotta get some food and the stabilizer in you, and then we're going on the tour. You're going to start working behind the scenes, in the laundry, in the kitchen, sorting garbage and other miscellaneous jobs until you change enough to meet the look. Today, is a free day for you basically. We generally work five on two off; once you get settled in a job and changed you can arrange with your group about what days you want."

The rest of the day passed in an orientation blur for Sam, that he was almost able to forget Splicer working in his system. She showed him the crew only routes around the resort and where the key areas were. He managed to get the ones she said were most important, like the doctor's office, the laundries and the kitchens, locked into his fever addled brain.

By evening, he was exhausted again. They wrapped up in the dinning hall, a large building half way between the four long dormitory buildings, and the nest of smaller cottages. They mingled in the dining hall with the other workers, all Spliced like he was going to be. Maria took a seat next to him and talked about life on the resort while Sarah took a break. He studied Maria closely, how she moved and handled silverware while eating, to get an idea of how he would have to do it eventually. He even decided she was attractive.

The days that followed settled into a pattern. He would wake up every morning to an alarm, sheets soaked from his sweat. He'd gulp down a bottle of water to rehydrate himself, and checked himself for changes. His coworkers told him that most changes seemed to happen at night, when the strains on the body were the least, but as far as he could tell, apart from darkening skin, everything was going on unseen inside of him.

Then he would pull on a pair of shorts and head to the showers. The first few days he was shocked at the openness of his dorm mates. They regularly moved around the dormitory building in various states of undress, both the females and the occasional male. Maria confirmed that their dorm was more for the younger workers and tended to be pretty open about their appearance and dress. The other dorms and cottages varied in what was acceptable behavior, usually more towards the prudish, as she explained it. He was glad his shorts were loose enough to maintain some of his modesty.

After breakfast in the dining hall, he checked with Sarah for his tasks of the day. As she had explained, they were the behind the scenes grunt tasks; doing the laundry, scrubbing pots, sorting garbage. After lunch, he had a checkup with Doctor Rilla (he never found out if that was his real name or not), before it was back to the grunt tasks until dinner. Some nights, he stayed in the common rooms, socializing with the other Spliced he worked with (those not on duty that was), watching TV, learning French, German, Japanese and Swahili, and just talking a bit about where they were from. Other evenings, either right after dinner, or after he'd had enough socializing, he retired to his little room.

In his room, he'd long since put away his luggage and stored the empty cases under the bed. With his laptop, he was able to get on the Resort's local networks to see among other things his schedule for the days to come, and his current debt to the company. The total was staggering, to the point he avoided looking at it. His account had limited access to the outside net, but he recognized the systems. To keep his former job skills somewhat sharp, he found himself hacking into the resort network, plugging a few holes, and making a few private holes for his own use. He used his camera and computer to maintain a diary of his changes, what few he could see.

By the fourth evening, Maria was spending more and more time with him. She wasn't the only zebra in the resort, but she was the first he had met, and the one he felt most comfortable around. He wasn't sure if it was her personality, or Splicer taking effect, but he didn't mind it. She helped him document his changes.

The fifth day proved to be a major day. It was the first day he became aware of how much he was changing. He woke up with skin that felt itchy all over, and was rough to the touch. Doctor Rilla assured him it was normal and the worst would pass in a day or so. He thought that was the only change that was visible, until he grew frustrated with the errors he kept making while touch typing. When he examined closer, he realized his middle finger had swollen larger, with the nails on all of the fingers noticeably thickening and curling around the finger tips. That brought the scale of the changes going on inside his body home to him; he spent the evening curled up in Maria's furry arms, getting through the shock that finally crashed over him.

He began to track his hand changes using a pad of paper, and continued typing as much as he could to stay in practice and to adjust. His fur grew in quickly after the first itchy days, the striped pattern noticeable on the second day, and almost all of the bare skin covered a couple days after the first itchy day. Once again, Maria proved indispensable to him, teaching him how to care for the fur, and just providing a solid support for his changing room. She spent many more nights with him, talking, cuddling and more.

One evening, he lay on the bed, one arm around Maria, the sheet tangled around their legs. He held up his hand and looked at it in the dim moonlight coming through the window, studying the enlarged middle finger with the nail slowly thickening into a hoof. He'd noticed his ears had become pointier, and new muscles had grown to try and move them. Noises in the kitchen were giving him a muscle ache at the back of his head as the new muscles tried to move ears that weren't quite shaped right to move yet.

"You know," he said softly, rubbing Maria's bristly mane with his free hand.

"Hmmm?" Maria asked sleepily, pressing her nose against his chest.

"I wasn't sure of it at first... There were so many people coming in that I wasn't sure who lived where. But now I'm sure of it. This is a woman's dorm isn't it?"

"As you may have noticed, we don't really get hung up on details like that," Maria mumbled, giggling softly and licking at a dark nipple through his fur.

His breath caught and and smiled down at her. "I suppose not. But it is a women's dorm isn't it? They put me in the wrong place?"

"Does it matter? We're all adults here, we live where we want to live. James and Tony, they spend as much time here as they do in the other dorm. And Lisa, Monica and Judy practically live in their boy friend's rooms." Maria sat up and looked at him closer.

Sam sighed and leaned back. "I suppose not. Just a little puzzling I guess, but I don't really know how things work here, even now... especially now."

She reached up and rubbed his head, feeling for the hairs of his growing mane. They barely stood above his normal fur. "Don't worry about it, you're learning fast and you're fitting in fabulously. I'm glad you're part of the herd."

The second week brought about a range of deep muscle aches as Splicer began to work more thoroughly on his bones. His feet began to reshape, the big toe shrinking while the middle toe grew larger. Walking became more difficult, especially when combined with the musculature changes, but not impossible for him yet. Maria and Doctor Rilla both warned him there would be a few days where he'd be off his feet until the worst of that particular transition passed.

More annoyingly was the ache in his skull that gave him a low grade headache that just would not fade. The headaches came with jaw aches and plugged sinuses, revealing his changing facial structure. His nose turned upwards, and his jaw began to jut out more, gaps appearing between his teeth to accommodate new chompers. His one solace was the base of his ears had loosened up enough that he could now turn his ears towards noises without feeling like he was trying to tear his ears off. But the aches with the constant fever he was running made him extra irritable. He dented the side of a washing machine in frustration when it broke and overflowed sudsy water into the laundry room. He snapped at his coworkers over the littlest things, and his anger grew against the resort for tricking him into this, and especially against himself for getting into this mess in the first place.

Maria stayed by his side through his worst moods, trying to not let him go too far into the negative. He spent less time in the common rooms in the evenings, and more in his own room, talking with Maria and skimming the net. He had to admit, when Maria brought it up, that joining the resort was probably one of the better things to happen to him, even if he hadn't picked it in the first place. It was guaranteed employment for at least the next five years, which was more than he'd be sure of in the markets he'd left.

They continued to share a bed through the nights, but he found he wasn't as interested in sex as much as he was earlier. He mentally chalked it up to Splicer messing with his insides and didn't think much more of it.

"Hey Sam, how was your day?" Maria asked, pulling a chair out and sitting down across the table from him.

"Horrible," he answered glumly, sipping a glass of water. "I was on kitchen duty again, which wasn't so bad, but the dishwasher backed up and overflowed. Which wouldn't have been so bad, but someone, NOT ME, left a box of garbage over the floor drain. I was hoof deep in water before we could find it and clear it. What a mess."

"Sounds like it. But at it wasn't your fault. How are you feeling?"

Before he could answer, Sarah arrived with a couple of plates, one of pasta, the other a hamburger. "You know, the doc said you should be cutting back on this stuff," the leopard said, setting the burger down in front of him.

"That ape can just shove it where the banana's don't grow. I may look like a horse but I'm not giving up my meat fix. Besides he did say I could still eat it."

"In moderation, Sam. In moderation." Maria looked helplessly at Sarah and shook her head. The feline shrugged and headed back to the kitchen. "I guess you're still irritable. Your muzzle's coming in nicely."

"If you say so. You coming up tonight?" Sam asked, squishing the burger down a bit and taking a big bite.

"Not tonight. Tonight's the poker tournament and I'm one of the dealers. Rumour has it, the World Poker Tour has scouts in the pool to see how we handle it. Ngorongoro Resort may become their first African stop if we play our cards right. Sam! Are you all right?" Her chair banged against the wall as she stood up and rushed to the striped man.

Sam gasped for breath, his chest heaving, holding his belly. Drool dribbled out of his mouth and he fell back, unable to speak. He heard someone shouting for a doctor while the ceiling lights went blurry, throbbing with the pains in his stomach. He vaguely felt himself being lifted up and stretched on a stretcher, before something was injected in his arm. Merciful blackness overcame him.

A steady beeping brought him back to awareness, his heart thumping in sync with the beeps. He pried his eyes opened, and saw a bright light above him, tilted away so it didn't shine into his eyes. He was soaked, laying in a tub of liquid with something stuck down his throat. He tried to cough, but it wouldn't move, the tube stretching from his throat, out his muzzle and out of sight.

"Just a minute Sam, just a minute!" His ears turned towards Doctor Rilla's voice, but he didn't feel like turning his head. He sensed movement to his side and soon the gorilla loomed over him, tugging on gloves. The liquid began to drain from around him. "We had to put you under while we got you stabilized. You've entered one of the key transition phases, a little faster than expected, and things got a bit out of control. But you're stable now." As he spoke the doctor began to pull at the tube, easing it out of his throat.

Sam coughed wetly and turned his head once it was clear. Once the wet coughs settled down, he looked back. "What... What happened?"

"My fault I'm afraid. You've been great at visiting regularly for checkups, but I'm afraid I overlooked a rather significant detail. Looking back now, I can see your body temperature has been steadily rising, not enough between visits to be noticeable, but very clear when you look at the trend. It's an indicator that Splicer was working faster in you. Basically you've been changing faster than you should have been, and Splicer decided you were at the point to start rearranging your internal organs more."

He drew some blood and set it aside, then set up an IV going into a tube in Sam's arm. "We've got Splicer stabilized again in your system, and slowed back down to the expected rates. There shouldn't be any harm done, but to be safe I'm going to keep you here until tomorrow. The good news is that you're probably a week, maybe a week and a half ahead of schedule now. The bad news is, you're going to be on a mostly liquid diet until your stomach and digestive system finishes their mambo in your guts."

Sam groaned softly and laid his head back on the pillow of the hospital bed. The doctor offered a glass of water to him. "Speaking of diet, I understand you were having a hamburger just as this happened?"

"There's nothing wrong with that! You said I could keep eating meats."

"Yes yes, I know I did. But I also warned you that you should moderate your intake more. Your system won't be able to process meat as well as humans can. Try some of the vegetarian options maybe... at the very least, cut back to once or twice a week tops."

Sam groaned again and looked at his soaked fur, the white fur blue tinted from the liquid. The gorilla spun a wheel to slowly tilt the tub to its side and helped Sam stand up. He winced in pain and fell against the strong ape, feet and leg muscles trying to move in ways he remembered, but not being able to. Looking down, he saw his middle toe had swollen larger than the rest, the hoof half developed. His foot had shrunk back a bit, and his legs were, to his eyes, misshapen. His feet and leg muscles could no longer bend enough to put his ankle to the ground, but his toe wasn't strong enough to hold him up.

"Just as well, looks like you're off your feet until your hooves strengthen. I expected that to be honest." The gorilla set him down on an examining table and got some towels.

"How long was I out?" Sam asked, scrubbing his fur. He half wondered if the blue tint would wash out with regular water.

"Three days. Splicer can be a nasty bugger when it gets out of control. Are you feeling all right? Your heart stopped once or twice during the process."

"I'm exhausted, and still aching, and still feel like I'm burning up, but not as bad as I felt before I whatever I did. Seems strange to be exhausted after sleeping for three days." He rubbed his belly dry, feeling a couple of sensitive nubs there, but didn't think anything of them. He recognized them from playing with Maria's in bed (and in other places), and having his own vestigial pair as well wasn't a concern.

"You were in a drug induced state of unconsciousness; you weren't asleep. All dry?" The doctor had been working down his back before doing some other things unseen in the office.

Sam ran the towel over his back, and felt muscles twitch at the base of his spine, lifting and lightly thumping something against the table. He reached down and felt another nub, a few inches long, furry with longer fur on the tip growing there; the start of his tail. "I guess so."

Doctor Rilla offered him a pair of shorts and helped him pull them on. Once Sam was ready, the gorilla lifted him and carried him over to a bed, setting the zebra-man on his side. Sam yawned hugely and licked his lips, feeling a bit of stickiness where the breathing tube had been taped down still. The doc pulled a light sheet over him, adjusted a few monitors, and raised the sides of the bed.

"I'll be nearby if anything else happens, but you're over the hump now and should be fine.

Sam nodded briefly and closed his eyes. When he reopened his eyes, the room was brightly lit, and the doctor was checking over a lion Splicer. The doctor was peering at the man's paw under a lit magnifying glass.

"I know you're a lion, Leon, but you didn't have to follow the thorn in the paw parable so closely. How did you get this jammed in so far?"

"We were fixing fences in the back lot and I took a sliver. Pulled it out and I didn't think anything of it until I got back and realized it was still hurting."

The gorilla held the paw carefully and pulled something out with a pair of tweezers. He swabbed the spot and put a small bandage over it. "That should do you. Make sure you wash your paws regularly in clean water; don't want it getting infected."

"Thanks Doc. Looks like the zebra's awake."

Sam waved a hand to the pair as they focused on him. "Hi. What time is it?" he asked, blinking, his vision a bit off from his swollen nose and muzzle. He swung his legs down and looked at his feet, his hoof still looking woefully too small to stand on, his foot still looking too much like a foot and not like a horses hoof to his eyes.

"Just before dinner. You feel up for going back to the dorm?" Doctor Rilla looked him over expertly. "I've got a wheelchair you can use tonight and tomorrow. You should be ready to use a walker to get used to walking again by tomorrow evening."

"Yeah, I want to get home, get cleaned up, get this blue stuff out of my fur... man I never thought I would ever say that."

Leon chuckled. "My shift's done. I can push you back to the dorms and help you out if you want."

"That'll be fine. The chair's over here."

Soon enough, Sam was being pushed by the lion back to his dorm building. His stomach was rumbling, but he didn't want to eat before he could get cleaned up.

"I don't think I've seen you around much. Have you been here long?" Sam asked as he was pushed down the path.

Leon chuckled. "I'm as old as the hills. One of the first Splicers, and one of the resort builders. I had a paw in building the main building."

"Wow, were you spliced then?"

"Nah, I was human then, but once we were in the final setup phase, that's when I got Spliced. When we had the grand opening, I greeted each guest as they arrived. But I like getting my paws dirty, so I went back to maintenance, and I just got off a year stint as a full morph, just to say I did it."

"And you still like what you are?"

He tilted the chair back to get over the lip of the door. "Oh yeah, Wouldn't give it up for the world. Which room is yours?"

"Second on the left there, hey Sarah."

"Sam!" the leopardess turned suddenly and leaped, nearly knocking the zebra out of the chair. Leon chuckled and stepped around her to hug and kiss Judy.

"Easy Sarah, Easy. I'm fine. Seriously, I'm fine now. Clean bill of health. Doc wants me off my feet until they finish hoofing it."

"That's good. Really good to hear. We've been worried sick since you collapsed in the dining room. Splicer shock is so dangerous; Maria nearly stressed her stripes off."

Sam finally managed to push Sarah away enough to feel like he could breath again, surprised at how nervous he felt among the three feline splicers. "I'm fine, seriously. Just give me a bit of room to catch my breath. Right now, all I want is to get cleaned up, take a shower or a bath or something, and then get something to eat. I'm famished."

Sarah slid around and took the handles of the chair, beginning to push him to the bathroom. "Thanks for your help Leon. We'll take it from here. If you see Maria, tell her Sam's back. Judy, get him a fresh set of clothes from his room please."

She pushed Sam direct to the bathroom and into the shower rooms. She helped him into a stall and turned on the water. Sam tried to help as best he could but was mostly left to keeping his head out of the water while Sarah and then Judy scrubbed the left over blue liquid from his fur. With only the slightest tint of blue left, they shut off the water and carried him to the dryers to dry off. Judy held him up long enough for Sarah to brush through the fur around his back and hips before they eased him back into the seat.

"Seriously ladies, while I appreciate the attention... I really appreciate it," he laughed a bit, his reaction to the wet ladies unhidden by shorts. "But I'm sure I can get myself dressed and push down to the dining hall. Can you give me a bit of space?"

They finally backed off enough for him to dress himself. He winced in pain when he put his changing feet on the floor and used them to heft himself up a bit, enough to get the shorts on, but he managed to wave the girls off before they swarmed him again. He settled back in his chair and shrugged into the shirt Judy supplied. "Okay, I'm good to go, and starving. There anything left to eat?"

He reluctantly let Sarah take control of the chair. "Only the over night kitchen in the resort is still open, but I can whip you up something. Doc sent the word ahead; liquids and soft foods only.... and no alcohol."

"What other liquids are there?" Sam tilted his head back and to one side so he could see Sarah from the corner of his eye. "Just kidding. A shake and whatever soft is available will do. I'm hungry enough to eat a horse, but that'd probably be some weird form of cannibalism."

The trio went quiet a moment as the chair was pushed back out of the building and towards the common building.

"Sarah, why are you doing this? Helping me out so much?" Sam asked.

"What do you mean?"

"The tackle, and everything. I barely had time to catch my breath since Leon pushed me in. And I can't figure out why you're doing that. It's not like we've known each other for a long time or anything."

Sarah shrugged and smiled. "Well, you're the newbie; part of it may just be pack or mothering instincts. But it's also that we've all been through what you're going through, and we know support's important. Especially if you aren't entirely here voluntarily. And finally, we do like you. Maria especially likes you, and not just because you're in stripes. You've made a good impression on Judy and I too, and even the guys you met before you realized you'd be working here."

"If you say so," Sam didn't seem convinced but the smells left over from dinner his nose was picking up was making his stomach rumble. He was pushed to a table and Sarah disappeared back for food.

Sam was on his second bowl of soup and pudding when he heard a clattering of hooves at the door. Still in her evening uniform, Maria rushed into the room and knocked his chair sideways as she gave him a big hug. "Sammy! You're all right!"

He hugged her back tightly and nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine, I'm fine. Sarah and everyone else have been treating me like a king since I got out. Though I'll be back to the grind tomorrow. Doc thinks I'll be on my feet by the evening."

"Yeah the hoof change is always the worst part. I'm just glad you made it. You scared us all to death. Are you hungry? Do you have enough to eat?"

"Plenty. For now at least. Maybe in a few hours you can come by with desert." He winked up at her and gently pushed her away so he could reclaim his drink.

More workers checked in on him that evening, both from his dorm and other residences. He was a bit overwhelmed by how many seemed genuinely concerned for him, especially given how much of a wallflower he thought he'd been acting as.

Maria eventually pushed him back to their dorm. Sarah stuck her head out the door as they wheeled past. "Sam! Just to give you a heads up, you're on for working tomorrow. Light duty, stuff you can do from the chair and stuff. If you're up for it. If you aren't, swing by the doc and he can sign you off."

"Sure, I think I can do it. I'm not hungry any more, and other than the ache in my feet, I feel great. I'll check the schedule before going to bed."

The days that followed fell back into a routine. As the Doc guessed, he was on a walker by the next day, and relearning how to walk soon after that. His changes were nearing their planned end, and he was getting increasingly concerned. Other than the skin colour change, his groin was unchanged; if anything it was smaller. And he was finding it increasingly difficult to perform, to his dismay and frustration.

The first day off the walker, proved to be the breaking point. He and Maria were trying to celebrate the day free of the device, but no matter what he tried, he couldn't finish. Finally he rolled over and sat up, punching the wall with his thickest finger in frustration.

"What's happening to me?" he grunted in frustration, feeling his cheek fur getting wet. He panted and shook his hand, aching from the punch.

Maria sat up and leaned against him, hugging him but she didn't say a word. He looked down at himself closer, feeling like a veil was being lifted off his eyes. He noticed the swelling of his pectorals, the tightening of his waist, and the size of his genitals and pieces fell into place. "No..." he mumbled, shock overcoming him, having one last moment of denial.

"Sam?" Maria asked worriedly. She reached out for his hand.

He pulled away suddenly and stood up, stumbling a bit on his hooves. "There has to be a mistake. It's making me a mare isn't it?... No it isn't a mistake, that's why I'm in this dorm," he mumbled to himself putting the thoughts together. "How many of you knew? Were you all in on this?" he shouted, finally turning on Maria.

Maria shied back a bit, bumping the headboard and pulling a pillow around in front of her. She stammered wordlessly, "We... I.... I didn't know.... But... But... But I suspected. It's not the first time."

"So you were lying to me? Were you all lying? You tricked me! You all tricked me! Change me back! You broke the deal!"

"Sam, calm down. Please calm down." It took him a moment to recognize the voice. Turning, he saw the baboon manager, Elton, standing there, the gorilla guard behind him, both in the room. Sarah was visible in the hall, standing in Judy's open door, with the lioness peeking out. "Please, get dressed and come with me."

"NO! I've had enough of this crap! I'm not going anywhere with you unless its' to reverse this damn Splicer." Sam crossed his arms and stamped his hoof, trying to ignore how soft his chest felt.

Elton stood there calmly while the zebra worked some of the anger out. When Sam paused for a breath, he spoke up. "Let's go talk. Your friends here have to get their sleep to work tomorrow. Come with me, and you can shout and rant and rage against me all you want, and then we can talk."

"Friends? What friends? Friends wouldn't have kept this farce up for the past few weeks. Real friends would have told me you'd tricked me into becoming a damn girl on top of everything else. Real friends wouldn't have fucked me every chance they could get while they could." He glared at Maria who shied back, tears in her eyes.

"I... No it... " she stammered, at a loss for what to say.

The baboon motioned for her to leave, stepping to one side. "He just had a horrible revelation, Maria. He doesn't mean it all. Just leave and let us handle this," he said gently. She looked back at Sam and grabbed the sheet from his bed, running out of the room. Sarah caught her and escorted her away with Judy following.

"Don't put words into my mouth. My mind and my voice are still my own! I meant that! I meant it all!" Sam yelled, taking a few steps towards the door, stopping when the gorilla took a warning step closer.

"Fine, fine. Just put something on and follow us please Sam," Elton kept his hands at his sides, not wanting to make the zebra any angrier than he was.

"I'm NOT going to follow you. You've done too much to me as is. You've taken everything from me. Hell you damn near killed me. I've got nothing to say to you. Just get out and tell that damned Doctor Moreau you've got to be working on a way to change me back."

The baboon frowned and got even more serious. "Sam, this is your last chance. If you don't follow us willingly, we will be forced to take you out by force. I am willing to speak with you, but not here."

Sam glared him down, eyes going between the two primates. He took a deep breath and seemed about to refuse, but he ran out of words. He gave the pair a dirty look each, and grabbed his shirt and shorts, getting dressed quickly.

Elton confidently led them from the dormitory. As Sam left, he could hear sobbing from Maria's room, and felt eyes coming from cracked, and outright opened doors, but he refused to look anywhere but ahead. He stayed quiet until Elton closed the door in his office, the gorilla guard standing watch outside.

"Okay, here's your chance. You screwed up, but I'm giving you one chance to fix it without any problems. I don't care how you do it, but change me back and release me. Hell don't change me all the way back, but put that Y chromosome back and I'll overlook the rest," Sam said, staying standing, leaning over the desk.

Elton looked back up, and reached into the desk, pulling out a folder. He opened it, showing a copy of the contracts Sam had filled out. "Actually no, there was no screw up. When you signed on, I gave you a variety of options for what role you would take. The exact forms were available, had you asked, but you did not. You picked the zebra without asking for more details. So it is your fault. If sex was really that important to you, the warthog was a male form. As was the Rhino."

"That's Bullshit reasoning and you know it!" Sam slammed his hands on the desk. "You didn't even hint that a sex change was going to happen, so how would I know to ask about it?"

Elton studied Sam carefully, clasping his rough hands on his belly and leaning back. "You are an intelligent person, Sam. Surely you know what the number one use of Splicer is, outside of our resorts and business related reasons?"

"Number one reason?" Sam frowned and thought a moment. "Sex changes... Oh."

"Exactly, you knew that. There's no reason to think that just because we alter your appearance we can't also alter your sex at the same time. You should have thought of that before making your choice."

"That doesn't matter! The fact is you tricked me! Made me into a girl horse instead of a stallion. You owe me!"

"No, you owe us. A fair amount at that," he looked up and waved a hand for Sam to take a seat. The zebra reluctantly sat down.

"Now, despite your anger, I'm afraid you do not have any recourse yet. But if you really want to, I can have Doctor Rilla prepare a sex change dose for you. However, as he would tell you, mixing Splicer in transition is dangerous. I have a report from your checkup this morning, and he estimates you have about a year before your system is stable enough to Splice again. A year as a woman; do you think you could handle that? Then we can change you to a stallion, if you still want it. I can even arrange a discount for it."

Sam glared at him wordlessly, too furious to speak. Elton sighed and leaned back. "The simple fact of the matter is, sex sells, not just actual sex but the imagined sex. And given we are in the hospitality industry, we exploit that relentlessly. Surely you noticed that three quarters of the staff is female, haven't you? That's the reason for it. While our resorts are all costs inclusive, we know that the tips and other bonuses tend to be higher with a mostly female crew. Hence most of our employment positions are female as well."

"But you didn't make that clear! I never asked for this. You should have made it all clear." Sam faltered, realizing he sounded like a spoiled kid, but unable to think of anything else to say.

"Noted, our spiel could use some work and we are improving it. But that still leaves you. What will you do now?"

Sam grunted and slumped back, the fight out of him. "I don't know, not like I have much choice now do I?"

"You always have choices. You may not like them, but you do have them." The baboon held out a finger to tick off his points. "You could refuse to work. Of course without working, you'll lose access to the stabilizer. While it won't kill you now, it will make you a full zebra within a week or two. A zebra mare. We'd put you in the preserve where you'd work there for the year, or you could try to escape and take your risk in the wild."

"Or you can do the bare minimum work, continue working behind the scenes. You'll pay off your debt in a few years be changed back and try to pick up your life again after a number of very unfulfilling years."

"Or you go into this new job with more gusto. When you're up to it, we can give you some up front jobs, to interact with the guests, and more openings can come from that. Some jobs pay more than others, which in turn would pay off your debt faster. Given time, there may even eventually be openings suitable to your original training"

He leaned back and clasped his dark hands again. "You still have time to chose. Even if you give up, you will have a week or two before you go past where we normally stop. And you can always switch between the other two choices depending on your mood and such. Those are your options.

"You don't need to pick a choice now. You don't even need to say what you eventually decide; your actions will speak clear enough for you. In the mean time, I don't want you to think we are uncaring to your situation. You'll have a couple days to get settled in your new situation, and a pass to go out into the field, if you want. Maybe a full form is what you'll want after all is said and done. Now, go back to your room, go get some rest. Bruno will escort you."

Sam fumed, but he was spent. The shock of his discovery had set in, beginning to numb him as badly as the doctor's drugs had. He clenched and released his fists a few moments before standing up and turning his back, his stubby tail twitching over the back of his shorts. Bruno glanced in when the door opened and Elton nodded to him. The gorilla wordlessly fell into step behind Sam.

The dorm had calmed down significantly while Sam was away. Most of the rooms were dark now, but as he opened the door to his room, his ears twitched towards Maria's room. Muffled sobs came from the room, along with the hushed voice of Sarah. He gritted his teeth, feeling them interlock a bit where the new teeth hadn't quite finished growing up as big as the old teeth, and slammed the door. His nostrils flared, taking in the familiar scents of the two zebras. He glared at the bed and stripped the sheets off, throwing them and the pillow out the window. He was tempted to throw the mattress out, but he couldn't fit it through the window. He fell onto the bare mattress and cupped his head in his arms, feeling the fur and mattress getting soaked with silent tears.

Sam woke up the next morning to a tentative knock on his door. He twitched his ears and listened but didn't respond.

"Just let him be, Maria. He needs to sort himself out on his own terms," he heard Judy say to someone. Claws and hooves clicked on the floor as they walked away, and he drifted off back to sleep. He rolled over on the mattress and drifted back off to sleep.

When he woke up again, he listened carefully, but he couldn't hear any movement. He debated sleeping further, but he couldn't drift off again. Biological needs made him get up and peek out into the hallway. It was deserted, but he could hear a couple of people asleep in their rooms; people who had worked on the evening shifts. He trotted to the bathroom, and used the toilet, wondering how much longer he would pee standing up. Now that he knew what was happening, it seemed to be happening faster. As he looked at himself in the mirror of the bathroom, he swore his breasts were larger, and his member was smaller.

He changed his clothes and brushed his fur before leaving the dorm. There were too many people milling about the common building, so he turned away, following a path he'd been down once or twice before. The path came out onto the main trail, leading to a gate with a monkey morph playing on a DS. He snapped it closed when he noticed the zebra coming up.

"I was told I have access to the preserve, if I wanted to go out into it." Sam said, hesitating a bit.

The monkey looked at Sam, then tapped on a computer. "Sam right? Let me check.... yeah you're cleared. Free range where ever you want." He handed over a PDA and a necklace. "Here you go. There's a map and other information on the PDA, I'm sure you can figure it out. And the necklace has a panic switch on it. If you get lost, or discover an emergency, just yank it off and it'll send an alarm."

Sam took it, putting the necklace over his neck, and checked the PDA, the screen large enough for his fingers. "Thanks. Anything about the preserve itself I should be aware of?"

"Nothing in particular. There's a crew fixing the fence to the south west, a natural elephant broke through it a couple days back."

"Thanks." Sam thought for a moment, remembering her seat mate on the plane, though he also realized he didn't know the crocodile man's name. "Where... Where might I find the crocodiles? I flew down here with one coming back from vacation in London. I think I'd like to talk to him but I don't know his name."

"Croc from London? Got a couple of them, but Wally is the one you probably mean. He just got back last week." The monkey plucked the PDA from his hands and highlighted a path. "He's probably sunning in the lake on the west side around now."

"Thanks... Uhm I never thought of this, but can he talk? Probably not much point in going out to talk to someone if they can't even talk back."

The monkey chuckled and handed the map back. "I don't know, my wife sometimes wishes she could talk without me talking back. But yes, he can still speak. May be a bit hard to understand, but he can speak."

Sam thanked the monkey and trotted through the gate. He glanced at the map, and then at the paths forking away in front of him, and decided to wander. He put the PDA into a pocket and took the first left, feeling the monkey's eyes on his back.

The resort's public preserve was a large area, large enough to get lost in if you weren't careful, and well stocked with actors and some of the more tame naturals. It was divided by a river that flowed through the middle of the preserve, the river itself expanding into a small lake surrounded by trees in the center. The rest of the preserve was made up of grasslands and other groves of trees, some natural, some planted to hide worker homes and equipment storage depots. Beyond the boundary of the fences of this preserve, for thousands of acres around, stretched one of the national game preserves, maintained and monitored by the resort company as part of their arrangement to get the resort land.

He trotted down the gravel path, listening and looking around but not seeing any animals, human or otherwise. For the comfort of the guests, tours were usually run in the morning and early evening, so being just after noon, it was down time. Sam spread out his arms and stretched, feeling the African sun beating down on him. It warmed him more than Splicer was, but he didn't mind it; the warmth on his fur felt more natural than the all body heat from the devices in his body.

He heard before he saw the crew working on the fence, and paused, debating whether or not he wanted to be seen. He decided to sneak up a little and see if he recognized anyone. The crew of five was taking a break to eat lunch at their vehicle while the concrete set around the tall fence pole. He recognized all of them, but he didn't know them well. At first he thought the big elephant near the crew was the natural one that had torn through the fence originally, but he soon realized the elephant was talking with the crew. Sam decided he didn't want to interact with them yet, so he backed away to the tour trails and continued his wandering.

The sight of the work crew's lunch did remind him he had skipped breakfast and lunch. His stomach rumbled and he wondered if he should head back. The path had curled around another grove of trees and widened out into a small parking area. Picnic tables and computer information panels were set up to describe the plains environment, and the types of animals to expect there. He went to one of the panels and paged through until he reached the entry on zebras. He knew the resort's zebra herd was mostly natural, other than a husband and wife pair who stuck around when the herd was released. He hadn't met the pair since both were on their month vacation, so he had no one to ask what life as a full form would be like. Instead he skimmed the information dump listed on the panel, paying extra attention to the feed section. His eyes twitched from the panel to the tall grasses around the eating area, debating taking that step.

"If I'm seriously thinking of this, I gotta try it," he mumbled, walking carefully into the knee high grasses and looking around. He was looking for grass that looked tastier than the rest, but it all looked the same to him. Finally, he crouched down and tore a small handful of grass stems free and stuffed them in his mouth. He chewed a few times and spat the blades out, grimacing at the taste.

"When you're full form, your taste buds change, making that more palatable. I'd say it's bullcrap, but on the other paw, I went from liking my steak well done to preferring steak tartar, so what do I know?" a voice called from back at the lunch area.

Sam spun around and saw a big lion laying on a picnic, nibbling on his paw. "Leon?" he asked tentatively, fighting down the urge to run.

"Nope, he's in morphic mode, working inside. My name is Lex. You must be Sam, right?" his voice was deep but surprisingly clear, with a rumble to it that felt like it should shake the ground.

Sam nodded and took a couple of tentative steps closer. "How'd you know?"

"You don't have to get closer if you don't want to. Some instincts tend to come along with the form, especially when you're full form. I'm not about to jump you or anything, but I know there's a voice in the back of your mind screaming to run away right about now." The big lion gave up on his paw and looked up at the zebra, seeing him nod.

"As for how I knew, word came down from Elton that you were having a rough time and might be checking out the preserve to weigh your options. Specifically we were told to give you your space and let you approach us, if you wanted to. But given what I read about your case, I figured I should come talk to you."

"Talk to me? Why? What could you know about what I'm going through?"

The lion smiled, and then seemed to remember his fangs, turned his head away quickly. "Because I've been through everything you're going through. Really everything. My name was originally Alexis. I was an actress in Hollywood who had a couple of big roles early on in my career and a long dry spell of TV walk-ons and stuff like that."

"I finally decided it was time to disappear for a bit, get out of the Hollywood shuffle and rediscover myself. Got the application to come to the resort here, filled it in, but I hadn't realized my accountant had made some bad choices. Turned out I had a lot less than I expected, something they notified me of as soon as I arrived, leading to a choice similar to your choice."

"That seems to happen regularly," Sam muttered angrily, kicking a hoof into the dirt.

"Not as often as you might think, but yeah there are a lot of us here caught in the contract trap. Sometimes I think they do it on purpose to hire some of the skills they need or want without specifically advertising them." Lex stood up and shook himself, mane rustling around his neck before he settled down again. "Unlike you though, I picked this. I decided to go full form right off the bat, and the lion seemed a good choice. Plus, I figured it would get me through this the fastest AND it would give me a Spliced system, possibly opening up more doors for me when I returned. Once you have Splicer in you, it's easier to change to other forms. Cheaper too."

"Did they tell you it would be a lion and not a lioness?"

"Not exactly, but I did ask and clear things up. Didn't seem to be a big deal to me in the end, considering how much else they were changing in me. I just viewed it as another role and rolled with it."

Sam frowned and turned away slightly, keeping the lion in view from the corner of his eyes, and feeling worst for not asking the obvious when he had the chance. "So how much longer are you in for?"

The lion laughed, a rumbling roar that despite it's humor sent a shiver down Sam's spine. "I cleared my debts with the company two, almost three years ago. When my time was up, I thought carefully about how I was living now, and what was waiting for me back in the States, and decided I liked this better. I renegotiated my contract with them, arrange a six months full, six month morph schedule, and I'm their front man for a lot of their advertising, along with a few other roles that come up. I'm probably in more movies now as a lion, morph and full, than I ever was as an actress."

Sam took a couple of steps away and shook his head. "I just don't know if I can take this is all. I was tricked. Yes I should have asked more questions when I had the chance, but still, I never even thought they'd mess with my sex too on top of everything else."

"Well maybe you should just stop thinking of it then? Just look at it as another bit of biology to get used to on top of your tail and hooves and muzzle and all that. That's how I handled it. Okay, I admit, I didn't take it quite as easily as I'm making it sound like. But in the end, you're still you in your head, no matter what your body looks like. Keep your head screwed on right, and the rest will follow."

"Easier said then done," Sam mumbled, plucking another blade of grass and trying to chew it. He spat it out again and bleh'ed.

The lion chuckled again and stood up. "You want to talk more? Or would you rather think for a bit? I was planning on heading back to my den and getting a bite to eat, but if you want to keep talking, I'll stick around," Lex said.

"No, I don't want to keep a hungry lion from their lunch. Especially when I could be seen as lunch. Thanks for talking with me."

"Anytime. I'm on the roster if you ever want to talk. Phone's best of course. Can't really type with these things." He held up a big paw, then leaped off the table, landing in the grasses and padding into the taller grasses. "Take care of yourself Sam."

"Thanks Lex."

Sam stood there a long moment, ears and nose twitching, but not picking up any more animals nearby. He moved further away from the picnic tables and calmed down significantly. Looking further down the path, he could see the shine of sun reflecting off the lake and considered visiting the crocodile as well, but his heart wasn't in it. Hunger was really beginning to gnaw at his stomach, and the thought of seeing another predator type was taking away the last of his resolve. He checked the map and followed a path back to the gate, handing in the equipment to the monkey.

"You find Wallace?" he asked as he recorded the panic button and the PDA back in.

"Nah, but I bumped into Lex. Had a talk with him." Sam answered pensively.

The monkey sat back in his chair and put his feet up, reopening the DS. "Good guy, that Lex. Both lions really. See yah around."

Sam trotted back to the worker's village and went into the dining room. It was busy with people getting the last few minutes of relaxation done before the dinner and evening shifts started. He felt their eyes on him and heard whispered conversations starting as he walked to the kitchen to call in an order, but he tried to ignore them. He filled a glass with ice water while waiting, looking over the room, but not wanting to talk to the people who, before his realization, he'd been considering as friends. The chef handed him a big bowl of freshly mixed salad, and he retreated to a table in the corner, far from his and Maria's usual table.

He ignored everyone else in the room and focused on his meal. Around him conversations picked up again, but not quite as loud as they'd been before he walked in. As he chased down a cherry tomato with his fork, he heard the room go silent again. He looked up and saw Maria had walked in and stopped, staring at him. She looked as worn out as he mentally felt, her ears drooping, tail limp, and eyes red. Her face lit up with hope when she noticed him looking at her, but he purposefully hardened his expression and looked away. Judy lightly took her arm and led her to another table away from both Sam and their usual spot. Judy settled her down with her back to Sam and went to order a meal.

He picked up his dishes and returned them to the kitchen, feeling the eyes of the room on him, some of them angry, most sad. The direct route out went close to Maria's table, close enough that he considered detouring, but he refused to acknowledge her in any way. He started towards the door.

Maria did a double take when she saw him heading her way. She looked hopeful, twisting around in the chair to face him. He refused to meet her eyes however, and didn't falter his step as he walked by, seeing her face literally fall as he walked by. "Sam," she said quietly, almost too quiet to hear, but as loud as a fog horn in his ears. He ever so slightly stumbled, part of him wanting to go back, but he held his resolve, reaching out to an empty chair to steady himself before continuing.

To his surprise, he found the bed made and his room straightened up when he returned to it. His nose identified Sarah's and Judy's scents, but not Maria's. He found himself a little torn at his feelings about that. There was a note from Sarah on his keyboard.

We need to talk, when you feel up for it. it simply said. He crumpled it up and tossed it in the garbage.

He spent the rest of his time pounding at the keyboard listlessly, his head still spinning. Typing with his changed hands was still difficult, but he was able to get by. He slipped through a couple layers of security on the resort computer networks and surfed aimlessly, tempted to cause some vengeance mischief, if not outright destruction, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. Despite all they were putting him through, he couldn't break his own personal ethics like that. He backed out of the secured networks, carefully covering his digital tracks, before shutting down and flopping on his bed. Both Elton and Lex had hinted that he might have a future here with his old skills, and he had to admit it was tempting, even as a hoofer. No point in burning those bridges just yet before he was ready to decide fully.

He visited the doctor for his daily check up soon after he woke up the next day. The gorilla chided him on missing the day before, but Sam didn't rise to the bait. Sensing Sam's mood, the doctor became serious and finished the examination as fast as he could. Sam barely noticed, his mind heavy with other thoughts. While cleaning up that morning, he had discovered that while he still appeared to have the male equipment, the bullets were no longer there.

Sam made his way back out onto the preserve and waited at the picnic table until Lex came by. They talked until the afternoon tour came by, on a variety of subjects and sometimes on nothing at all. With the crunch of gravel under tires approaching them, Sam bade his friend goodbye and jogged back to one of the side trails. His mind was still spinning and distracted by the extra bounce in his chest, but he was feeling a bit better. He hadn't consciously made a decision of his fate yet, but his feelings were beginning to settle in a way that he recognized from working on particularly tough problems. His subconscious had figured out what to do, he just had to wait until it decided to let his conscious know what to do.

Sarah approached him at dinner that night, but he shook his head before she got too close. The leopardess frowned but turned in mid-step, leaving him be. He never saw Maria at all that night.

As he settled down for the evening in his room, he realized he had partly made a decision. He logged into the job listing section and signed up for Preserve work for the immediate future. Preserve work paid the least of almost all the jobs on the resort. It involved visiting the full changed in the Preserve, bringing them food, drink, supplies and just keeping them company. It was a good job to take when you didn't feel like interacting with anyone at all since there was very little oversight. It was also a signal from Sam's unconsciousness; he was going to keep his hands.

Sam discovered he enjoyed the Preserve jobs. He quickly learned the layout of the park and where all the full forms tended to be while on and off duty. Lex was always a good listener when Sam had to get a load off his increasingly loaded chest. The fraternity of chimpanzees managed to coax a few genuine laughs out of him with their clowning around in the trees near Wallace's lake. And Wallace himself was a surprise. The big crocodile tended to be a loner, spending most of his days floating in the lake, taking in the sun, or going into the shade when it got too hot, so he hadn't been keeping up with local events. So he didn't believe Sam was the same person he'd sat next to on the plane when Sam introduced himself. Afterwards though, the crocodile became as good a sounding board for Sam's frustrations and confusion as Lex was, though he tended not to provide much advice other than generic quotes.

Five days after taking on the Preserve jobs, Sam realized the day had come. He woke up in the morning as usual and went to take care of business, and was forced to sit down. There simply wasn't enough left to stay standing up with. She stayed in the stall, shoulders shaking with quiet sobs long enough for Sarah to notice.

Sam tried to ignore the quiet tap on the stall door the first two times it happened. She mentally willed the leopardess away, but Sarah stubbornly waited. "Sam, it's time we talked, woman to woman," she called out, rapping on the door again.

"Not a-" Sam started to call out but was cut off.

"Stop fooling around Sam. We all know it's coming, if it isn't already here. Now pull your pants out and get your tail out here. We need to talk and set some things straight."

Sam stubbornly waited another five minutes before standing up and pulling up her pants. She opened the door and saw Sarah back up a few steps to give her some room. She was escorted to the sink to wash up before Sarah led her away. The leopardess opened the door to her own room and motioned for Sam to enter. "Have a seat and make yourself comfortable. You want a drink or anything?"

"No thank you." Sam shook his head, eyes going around Sarah's territory in amazement. Unlike her and Maria's rooms, Sarah had a full sized apartment, without the bathroom but with a kitchenette and a separate bedroom. Sam took a seat on the couch and waited.

The leopardess shrugged and poured a couple of glasses of water and set one on the coffee table in front of Sam. The other she sipped and put on the end table next to her chair. "Like the place? Seniority has some advantages. Most people, once they really settle in, will move into a cottage, but I decided to stay in the dorms and do what I could to help new people adjust as the changes finish."

"Help us? What help can you give? You don't know what I'm going through," Sam growled, not looking at her.

"Well other than both of us being Spliced you're right, I don't know what you're going through. But I can help more than you might think. I am a certified psychiatrist among other jobs I do here."

Sam glared at her and grudgingly took a sip of water. "If you're a head doc why didn't you help me earlier?"

"I did what I could, but frankly you were doing so well to start, I... I messed up. You and Maria were getting along so well, that I just let things go. If I had realized you hadn't realized what was coming, I would have intervened sooner. But what's done is done.

"After your break down, Denis, that's Doctor Rilla to you, and I discussed your situation, and how we could help you. Believe it or not, we do care for you as coworkers and as friends.... even Elton and Bruno if you believe that. You were forced into this situation, but we don't want it to be entirely unpleasant for you.

"We've talked it over, and I was going to approach you if you made no moves. But you did, you started going to the Preserve, talking with Lex and others, and you seemed to be coping. In fact in my professional opinion you are coping well. But the last tipping point has been reached, or is about to be reached, and the Full's can't help you with this. The last planned changes will be happening over the next few days, and they can be rough, especially for sex changers. Splicer is great for getting the structures in place, but the hormone reactions are beyond even its controls. You are going to ache, to leak, to bleed, to cramp, and more in the days to come, and I want you to know I, and everyone else here will be here for you. It's a rough period, it may even feel rougher than everything you went through, but it won't last forever."


"Yes Everyone. Including Maria. I'll be blunt. You hurt her. You really hurt her. You hurt me too, and frankly, it took me a long time to settle myself down to the point where I don't hate your guts for what you did to Maria. I know your having a rough time, but it's a tough thing to recover from too."

Sarah sat forward, interrupting Sam before he could finish his thought. "You may think she was a plant, but she wasn't. I did intend to introduce you since you have your stripes in common, and I expected her to help your transition. But what happened between you two was all natural. She likes you... hell she loves you for you. She doesn't care what's between your legs. I hope you two can mend your relationship, but for now, for both of your sakes, I've asked her to keep her distance from you, until you're ready. Just don't rush yourself. Maria has moved into one of the cottages for now to give you guys some space.

"We can go back to that later. I do want to talk to you about it, but we have some practical matters to take care of first."

Sam sipped the glass and was surprised to find the glass empty. "What sort of things?"

"I need measurements for your new uniform and underwear for you, and there are some biological matters we need to talk about, since I doubt your mom ever thought to give you that talk."

Sarah talked to Sam through the rest of the morning and into the afternoon, explaining what he could expect and what was happening. Sam stayed silent for most of the discussion, but she gradually drew the zebress out and got her talking. Sam hated what they were talking about, doubly hated that they applied to her, but she was practical enough to recognize she needed to know this stuff, at least for her near future.

They walked together to the dining room. As Sam was getting used to, the room went silent when she entered, but the conversation picked up louder than before when they spotted Sarah. Sam called in her usual order and walked back to the corner table she had claimed. Sarah placed her own order and followed but didn't sit down until Sam motioned for her to.

They stayed on neutral topics over dinner, trying to make it seem like a normal dinner. A few others stopped by to say hi, but Judy and Maria didn't appear. After the feelings and day of talking, Sam was thankful for that.

She returned to her room and collapsed, her head sorting out all the subjects she'd talked about. Her dreams were troubled but not as bad as previous nights had been. She followed her normal routine in the morning, and was surprised to find a bundle of clothes on her bed when she returned. Sarah had left a note saying if she needed help putting it on, to get her. Sam crumbled the note up and added it to the garbage pile before sorting out the clothing. The panties and shorts were simple enough, but the bras gave her trouble at first. Sarah had warned her that finding a proper fit would have to wait until she finished changing, but she had included a variety of close sizes so she found something that seemed to fit well enough, and pulled on the uniform blouse. She grudgingly admitted to herself that it fit better than the old shirts she'd had.

The days that followed were as much a roller coaster as Sarah had warned her it would be and then some. She found her temper even shorter than before, and her emotions swinging almost uncontrollably. Lex understood and tolerated her crying into his mane at one point. Wallace seemed to listen to her rage against everything that had happened to her without a word. The Chimps tried to cheer her up when they could, and kept their distance when she wasn't in the mood. And what the Full's didn't take, Sarah helped her through.

At the end of the week, she woke up and sensed something was different. Her body still ached, and her nipples were sore and leaked a little, but that wasn't it. She took careful measure of her body and finally realized the difference; she felt chilly for the first time in months. Doctor Rilla confirmed it a few hours later. Splicer had finished its changes and was finally letting her fever break.

"You'll still need the retarder to keep you at this point. It'll keep the Splicer in your system at bay, otherwise, it'll surge back and bring you to full," Rilla reminded her as she got dressed from the examination.

"Right right, I'm stuck here for at least a year, unless I want to go down on all fours." She still hated Rilla for what the primate had done to her, but she had come to respect him enough for his skills.

"It'll probably be a few more weeks before your hormones settle fully, but as far as I'm concerned, you're fit for any job you want and are qualified for. Check in every other day for the next couple weeks, and weekly after that and you'll be fine."

Sam adjusted her clothes and rubbed her mane a little. She snorted. "Fine the less I see of you the better. Now I've got a meal run to do."

Sarah began to see Sam more than the doctor did. They continued their talks, usually after dinners. Sometimes she traveled with Sam on the meal runs, talking with the Fulls along with Sam. Sam gradually began to feel normal enough to realize what an ass she had been to Maria, but their paths never seemed to cross. She knew she was on the resort, but they were going in different circles.

Finally, she gathered a few supplies and trotted to the cottage Maria had moved to. She stayed in the shadows and watched a figure move in the windows. She gulped, feeling butterflies churning in her stomach, and walked up to knock on the door.

"Be right there!" she heard Maria call out. She waited patiently while the figure moved in the cottage. Finally the door opened, and the zebra's stared at each other in silence.

"Maria," Sam started, the words she had prepared escaping her mind before being said. She shoved a bouquet of flowers into Maria's hooves. "They're edible.... and tasty," she explained, still trying to remember what else she wanted to say.

Maria took the flowers and stared at Sam, dumbfounded. "Sam? What are you doing here?"

The words returned in a flood. "I'm here to apologize. For what I said. For what I did. For what I accused you of. I... I was an idiot. I was under a lot of strain, still am to be honest, but that doesn't excuse what I did. And I want to start making amends."

She stood there with Sam's flowers in her hands, blinking rapidly. Sam reached and took one of her hands and brought it to her muzzle in a kiss. "Don't say anything, don't do anything. But I'm going to start going back to our table for meals. If you want to join me, to try and rebuild what I tore down so badly, you are welcome. If you'd rather cut your losses, I'll understand. I'll be heart broken, but I'll understand. Especially after what I put you through. But whatever happens, thank you. Thank you for everything you did for me in the early days. I know I didn't repay it properly, but I do appreciate it now, especially now." She let Maria's hand go and stepped back, watching the stunned zebra as she backed up to the main path.

She was just turning away, when Maria called out. "Sam!"

Sam stopped and looked back.

"I'll.... I'll see you tomorrow. For breakfast.... Our table," Maria shouted.

Sam grinned and fought the urge to run back. "Usual time. I'll look forward to it," she called back happily. She blew another kiss to Maria and walked back to the dorm, her tail and ears lifted high in happiness. Her time on the resort may not be as bad as she had anticipated.

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