By Christopher Leeson
"That's the one!" the plain woman said to her blonde companion. The latter, Mara, was already looking where the other was nodding, at a twenty-something, fair-haired male lounging on a bar stool.
She frowned thoughtfully. "If you say so, Clara."
Clara smiled. Mara Carnovon, as her colleague called herself on this world, never could see what was always so obvious to her.
Mara, though she didn't have the same talent, admired Clara's expertise. As chief Hunter for the Ludnican mission, Carnovon appreciated talent, and Clara was the best seeker she had on call. But her subordinate was an insecure type that had to be handled carefully.
On Vedar, most slavers were male; women mainly served the Guild as support staff -- as clerks and office managers, and, of course, whip-trainers. That was still mostly true of the work on Earth, but here the basic idea of male and female was all mixed up. The reality-shift between Vedar and Earth had turned everything on its head.
Mara had been born male -- Marar C'jarnovaun, scion of a traditional slaving clan. In such a household, a young person couldn't help but develop an admiration for the slavers' calling. Young C'jarnovaun could barely have conceived of working at any other trade. Right after completing basic education, Marar had been taken on by a prestige House, the Ludnican.
Early on, he had excelled as a hunter. Always on the lookout for slave catchers who could work effectively on Terra, the House saw to it that all their most promising people were checked out. This was done by skilled seekers that periodically reviewed the newer staff members to discover those suitable for assignment to Earth.
A seeker had a talent for envisioning what a man of Vedar would look like as a woman on Earth (and vice versa). Few men welcomed the prospect of living and working as a woman on an alien planet, but such an appointment would qualify a slaving agent for large and frequent bonuses. Accelerated income would allow a slaver's early retirement in comfort, a prospect that appealed to a great many. It was mostly the ambitious who went to Earth.
On Terra, the hunter and seeker roles were pivotal. They were the specialists who found and brought in the prey. The seekers' talent was so rare that most of those serving the Guild had to be recruited from outside the members of the traditional slaving clans. But not every good hunter on Vedar made a good hunter on Terra. Violent abduction was to be avoided; it was a messy business that attracted official attention from Terran authorities. Sexual allure was a better way to entice and capture a potential victim.
For the Guild houses, this meant finding hunters who would translate into attractive women one Earth, and training them to perform seductively. Their aim was to meet and fascinate Terran males, with the intention of leading them into easy and safe captures. The prey was almost always Earth males, since there was very little market for captured women who would become men on Vedar. Slave males were largely used for manual labor, and modern engineering had made unskilled labor secondary in the economy. The small market that existed for erotic male slaves could be satisfied with local men, mostly those taken in war or born as the children of slaves.
Vedaran males lived for status, and they gained it in many ways, including through sexual conquest, and though monogamy was widespread, the institution of pillow-slavery got around it. The more supernally beautiful women that could be brought into the market, the better for business. But stealing other city-states' women, either slave or free, could lead to war. It was better to acquire stock from Terra. Mara's team was one of many posted across the face of the Earth to supply that luxury market.
While the feminine face looking back at Mara from the mirror no longer awed her, contemplating the mysteries of multiplanar existence always did. Ordinary biology or physics couldn't explain the results observed when the dimensional barrier between Earth and Vedar was pierced.
It seemed that the other realm would accept a visitor only on its own terms, and the transformations that took place appeared to break every natural law, including the laws of conservation of energy. How could a small woman become a larger and heavier man on the other side? Where did the additional mass come from? Or, for that matter, where did it disappear to when a man of stature became female and smaller?
The religious thinkers of Vedar said all reality amounted to no more than dreams in the minds of the supreme deities. If these gods "dreamed" that a male on one world should be female on the other, and vice versa, that was how it would be. Theologians explained it all as the exercise of unlimited god-power. "Let it be!" and it came to pass. Mara wasn't religious, but at least the faith-based certainty or religion was comforting.
Science, on the other hand, was not at all comforting, even though it acted more like a religion than it was willing to admit. Men with lofty degrees would came up with non-answers and then try to prove that they had solved every mystery merely by shouting the loudest. As far as Mara could see, science was competent at inventing mechanical devices, but was clueless when trying to explain the multiverse. But the multiverse was real and its peculiarities had been studied empirically. Enough was known about its operation to allow people to operate successfully between worlds.
However the inter-dimensional transformation happened, it happened perfectly. The transformees could even sire or bear children.
Understandably, more woman-as-men were willing to experiment with this interesting option than were men-as-women.
Once the novelty of the phenomenon wore off, it was only the economic opportunities of dimensional travel that occupied men's minds. Different institutions sent teams of agents "over" to acquire useful medicines and technology -- which didn't amount to a great number of value items, because the science of Vedar was already more advanced in the most vital areas.
On the plus side, many of the Terrans were healthy and handsome, which greatly interested the slaving industry. Because of the sex-shift, the slave houses that raided Planet Terra for livestock had no choice but to kidnap men, seeing as how they would become women on Vedar.
To select the right men to "bring over" required a seeker's skill. If a mistake was made and the transformee turned out to be plain, her beauty could be improved by surgery and genetic treatments, but this artificial enhancement didn't impress the market. It was like the trade in natural pearls and cultured pearls; the difference in value was not rationally derived; it simply represented the preferences of the collector community. A seeker had to select the Terran males who would look like film stars on Vedar (not that Vedar had a film industry, a thing that Mara regretted). One who made too many errors would be demoted, or else be cast out of the guild entirely.
At that moment, Clara was watching her team leader intently. "You really enjoy playing the seductress, don't you?" she asked, sounding almost catty.
The Hunter glanced from the man at the bar and back to her. Clara was in "the mood" again. Unattractive people, she knew, always imagined that the physically well favored were getting much more sex than they were. It amused Mara to think that the Seeker envied her.
She had explained the truth to Clara many times, but it always went in one ear and out the other. A penchant for sexual predation while serving on Earth was not good for job performance. The Hunter had, in fact, performed sex only in the line of duty. All male hunters newly transferred Earth-side were trained to engage in sex as a woman without panicking. That was because, sometimes, the offer of sex was the best way to set up a target for capture. Usually, it only had to be a promise, but, infrequently, circumstances might put a slaver in the position where she had to deliver.
Going for long without recreational sex was not easy for a man of Vedar. When Earthmen began looking too damned good in Mara's eyes, it was a signal that it was time to return to Vedar and have a serious retreat in the company of nubile pillow slaves. She didn't want to lose her grip on her core identity as Marar.
"No, Clara," she sighed, "I was just thinking about how to best make contact with that man. Taking back another prize so soon should get us an outstanding bonus."
Clara shook her head. "I've never had the knack for hanging on to money; if I went home as often as you do, the temptation to spend would leave me busted. I only hope that I don't get 'change-fatigue' before I can afford to quit."
Mara smiled. Clara was always fretting about "change-fatigue." It was a paranoid thing with her.
True, the syndrome did exist. A person of one sex might suddenly find himself locked into the same sex on both worlds. His shape might be the right one or the wrong one in regard to his natural persona, but he was stuck with it permanently. If caught in a sex that he didn't like, his or her only recourse was to grin and bear it, or else go for cosmetic surgery and hormone therapy. They did excellent work in turning women into men, but they had not found any way to make a female into a sexually potent male. The parts might all be there, but her internal operating system couldn't run the hardware.
This was of serious concern, obviously. After all, sexual potency was at least half of the importance of being a male.
Mara scowled. She had met only a tiny number of Vedarans who had been trapped in the wrong sex. All of these had, incidentally, opted for surgery and genetic treatment. But the danger was more of a topic for sensationalists than any meaningful occupational hazard.
Unfortunately, there was another danger involved in Earth-side duty, one that was more immediately threatening. That was "personality-drift."
Soul-Searchers -- the term for psychologists on Vedar -- described a condition similar to the Terran "multiple personality disorder." But it was more an "alternate" personality than a multiple one. It rose up and challenged the old personality. It tended to be manifested in one who had lived for too long, cumulatively, in the opposite sex.
Men and women thought differently, they saw things differently. Their minds were structured differently. Their reactions to stimuli were different. It was pretty much the old mystical concept of the anima and the animus, the behavioral templates of men and women. It was not always possible to endure these changes over a span of years without some carry-over.
Not every personality type made a good slaver. A change of values and outlook could ruin a person's suitability for his job. And, in truth, Mara had reason to worry. What she felt stirring, if it went too far, could ruin her for her chosen occupation.
The Hunter wanted to think about something else. She said to her colleague, "If change-fatigue happened to you, Clara, would you stay as you are, or would you go to the surgeons?"
The other woman squirmed. "I never think about it."
Mara didn't press. To corner Clara into talking about something that she clearly didn't want to would only bring on a burst of temper. But being locked into a woman's shape, when that shape was as dumpy as Clara's, would not be an attractive prospect. She would almost certainly go for a surgical restructuring job, no matter whether it meant impotence or not. An ugly man could make due socially as long as he had money. For women it was not so easy; the best men were status-conscious men, and the most satisfying way to gain status was by winning a woman of beauty.
But Clara -- Claravad of Vedar -- was one of the most unlikely of slavers to have to concern herself about the syndrome. It struck people who had transformed hundreds or thousands of time, except for a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage who seemed to have a weakness in that regard. Nonetheless, the Seeker avoided crossing the barrier as much as she could. Over the twenty years that they had worked together, Mara had hardly ever seen Clara in her male form.
"Let's talk about something else," suggested Clara. "How are you going to do it?"
The Hunter gave a careless shrug. "Oh. The usual way. I'll come on to him as if I'm looking for a 'private party.' I've had good success lately coming on to a man like Gwen Verdon in Damned Yankees."
The dark-haired woman frowned thoughtfully. Decades on Terra had acquainted her with its popular culture. "Remember, Lola finally blew it and got into trouble with the boss."
Mara smiled. "Don't worry about me. A man like Shoeless Joe doesn't come around all that often."
Clara sighed. "Being noticed always seems to be so easy for you. I wish…" She stopped herself.
The Hunter tried not to grin. Her partner would never admit to envy. With her, it was probably superstition. Some people believed that lurking godlings -- what Earthmen would call spirits or fairies -- spied upon human conversations and punished the foolish by making their ill-considered wishes come true.
To avoid provoking the prickly Clara, Mara changed the subject. "I hope that the guy turns out to be a hormone-driven lecher. That will make this short and sweet."
"You're saying you prefer to enslave someone you don't like?"
"Yes. We're destroying people's lives, after all."
"That's a funny way to look at it," the darker woman replied.
Mara regarded her companion. It seemed so easy for most of her colleagues to look at Earth people as livestock that didn't have any feelings to worry about. To think that way was hard for Mara, and getting harder all the time. She didn't want to make an argument for compassion, though; a disgruntled employee might report an observed weakness in a team leader.
"Hush," Mara said. "I've got to start this capture before the person decides to go to his room."
Mara was focusing now. Back in the 'Seventies she had honed her techniques by studying motion pictures featuring temptresses. She had also been trained to always use Earth-style seduction methods, words and ploys that would beguile Earthmen and not arouse their suspicions. Today she would try being Lauren Bacall. The last time her model had been Marilyn Monroe. Variety was the spice of life.
Clara watched the Hunter psyching up. With practiced body language, Mara had gotten the attention of the man across the room. Well, no surprise there. Clara had noticed many of the men in the lounge glancing toward their table, and she was not fool enough to suppose that anyone had been looking at her.
Now that the prey was gazing her way with interest, Mara projected a quirky smile, a little off-centered and charming. It was a coy invitation to a man to come over and speak to her.
The Seeker thought that the Earther did look interested, but uneasy, too. He held onto Mara's gaze for just a few seconds, then seemed to lose his nerve and glance away, pretending to be distracted by the exotic labels on the liquor bottles behind the bar.
'Damn these Terrans!' Mara thought. "It gets harder every decade." Why couldn't they act like the confident men in their own classic movies? What made most Earthmen of this generation afraid of girls?
She waited, hoping, but the lounger sending no more encouraging signals. It was easiest to manipulate a subject if he could be gulled into thinking that he had initiated the first contact. But increasingly, in late years, the Hunter had had to get used to making the first move herself.
She gritted her blue-white teeth and rose.
Carla couldn't help but envy her companion in motion, but she despised herself for envying Mara. Did she want to do what Mara did? She wasn't sure, but she didn't want to go where self-analysis might take her. Anyway, short, overweight, and ugly girls did not make good hunters. She hated her own face and the social rejection that went with it.
It would have been nice to be admired, she thought, even if it was only as a woman.
Just then, the Seeker saw the young man on the bar stool glance back at her table, only to find himself staring into Mara's cleavage. He lurched in surprise.
"I think I've seen you around here before," the Vedaran remarked pleasantly. For a moment, Mara's azure eyes seem to hold him spellbound. They were like matches held up to the tinderbox of his libido. "Buy me a drink?" she asked.
The lounger replied, "Uh, yeah, sure, M-Miss."
Mara continued smiling. She could afford to be bold around these sexually timid people. She wouldn't have liked to be a woman amid the men of her own tribe. They would have thrown a forward-acting female over their shoulder and whisked her away to a night of pleasure -- and, if they had connections, into a life of pillow slavery. Earthmen, of course, couldn't behave that way. They weren't free people. No such thing as sexual-harassment laws existed in the fatherland.
"What would you have?" the stranger asked.
Mara shrugged. The motion made her hair bounce, and she knew how irresistible that could look.
"What are you having?" the blonde inquired. "It certainly has the bouquet of a man's drink."
"Scotch and soda. It's rather strong," the lounger added apologetically.
"I'm rather strong, too," said Mara. "I think it will suit me just fine."
The stranger ordered the drink and it came swiftly. Mara took the glass with appreciation bright in her eyes. As she raised the rim to her lips and sipped, the Hunter appraised her companion. He only lacked the self-confidence needed to have any woman he wanted. He would have benefited from being born in a different Terran culture -- Russian or Hispanic, especially. Of all the Earth males, English-speakers had the least sexual confidence. They worried too much about other people's "rights" and "feelings."
"My name is Mara," she said.
"Like Mara of the Wilderness?" he quipped. The beguiling woman's look informed the lounger that she didn't understand. He explained, "A low-budget adventure movie."
Mara smiled tolerantly, waiting for him to identify himself.
"Oh, Stewart Lindstrom," he said.
"Like Stewart Granger? That's a real man's name. Everything that's uber-male excites me."
To Mara's disappointment, Stewart seemed to tense up. She wondered whether she was coming on too strongly. "Are you from Los Angeles?" she inquired.
"Oh, yes. Have you been here long?"
"In this club? For too long. I was hoping to find someone to show me a place with more possibility."
Mara tried to hold a straight face. With such a reticent man, the girl had to do all the hard pulling. No wonder Western women were the most frustrated in the world. But if they wanted to beat males over the head with Women's Liberation, they were making a bed that they rightfully should lie in -- alone.
Suddenly, to her satisfaction, the wheels in Stewart's mind appeared to be turning. "Is that your -- friend, over there?"
Mara glanced back at Clara. "That's my secretary," she lied. "The poor thing doesn't get out much. But if we ignore her, she'll take the hint and go back to her hotel."
"That's nice," Stewart said. "Ah, where would you like -- someone -- to escort you?"
Mara allowed herself a strategic pause. "Back to my place. My family has leasing property in Hillsdale. Fully furnished." She described a posh suburban gated community with high fences to keep out the "little people."
The Hunter didn't mention that Ludnican slavers actually ran the residential unit and it was friendly territory for the Ludinican abduction operation.
"You said that you've seen me before. I never noticed you around, and, believe me, I would have."
"That was just a pickup line, " Mara admitted with a sly grin. "I'm not often in town. I only came over because you're the handsomest man in the room." She lifted her glass as if in toast. "I always have to have the best of everything, whether it's men or jewels, or else my day is a failure."
She waited a beat, to see if her Paris Hilton-type projection would excite him. It didn't seem to. Maybe Stewart Lindstrom didn't have enough self-esteem to handle himself well. Rallying quickly, she added, "I've learned that if a person sees an opportunity, he has to take it. He might not get another."
Another unsubtle invitation; being used to Vedaran women, behaving in such a way appalled her. But Mara had never lived as a woman on Vedar. Society had never required that she be mannered and demur. Still, this barbarous planet was no place for mannered and demur ladies.
The conversation had slowed to a stall. Stewart still wasn't holding up his end in this seduction. 'Back off; be unthreatening,' she told herself.
"I'd love to see your place," the young man said at last.
'Huzhar!' thought Mara.
When the two of them went outside a couple minutes later, she didn't cast a glance back at Clara. She didn't have to. Clara knew the game. She would return to Hillsdale alone, and, once there, would help Mara wrap up the capture.
As Mara's chauffeur-driven limousine approached the house, she stole another glance at Stewart Lindstrom. She didn't feel any excitement about having success within her grasp. Was it another sign of some sort of personality-drift? Mara hadn't managed to work up any dislike for the Earthman, and now found herself fighting to keep herself from feeling sorry for him. His life would soon change horrifically, and she would be to blame.
Damn! What a thought! She was a slaver, not a priest. Mara's sense of guilt grew larger the closer they drew to the compound and guilt was something that every slaver had to keep on a short leash. 'Why feel guilty?' she asked herself. A butcher didn't have any animosity towards the animals he slaughtered. He just had a job to do, a necessary craft that supported the community. It was an unpleasant job, so he kept himself emotionally detached. So it was with slavers.
Mara tried to get past her doubts and focus on the task at hand.
Usually, a drugged nightcap was all that Mara needed to render her target unconscious, making it easy to strap him into a transfer capsule. Safety procedures required a pilot to accompany a prize -- and Mara was a good pilot. Anyway, the man inside her considered himself overdue for a visit home. She'd been feeling too much like a woman lately.
The capture-capsule would be phase-shifted into the Vedaran reality, there to appear within a receiving dock inside a Ludnican House stronghold. A practiced team would be on hand to help the new arrivals exit.
The all-important shape-change would, by the way, have already acted on both the pilot and the prize. It always occurred with the speed of thought.
Clara had not said that she'd like to come along; she seldom did. The Seeker would elect to remain on Terra and await Mara's return. She was always so anxiety-ridden about inter-dimensional shifting.
Far from being timid, Mara was a gambler, too devil may care to worry about unlikely outcomes, and she liked the psychic recharge that went with becoming Marar again. She thought that some additional male-time would have done Clara a world of good, too.
The Seeker could be so annoyingly female without it.
When they reached the closed neighborhood, everything proceeded smoothly. Mara sexually teased Stewart until he had accepted the drink that had laid him out flat. Then, with the help of a couple members of her team, he was loaded into the capsule. Mara then changed her clothes so that she wouldn't be embarrassed when she accompanied the prize into the Vedaran dock.
Clara arrived belatedly, but there was little left for her to do. Mara returned to the dock and nodded at her as she walked past. Then the Hunter entered the capsule and the Seeker stood by to watch a tech launch it. She knew there wasn't much piloting required for the trip; Mara's skills would be called for only if there were a glitch.
During the barrier leap, there was a weird lighting effect and a sensation of weightlessness. Then, an instant later, Mara was Marar, wearing a now-snug unisex jumpsuit.
When his mind cleared from the disorienting effects of the crossing, Marar regarded the attractive woman sleeping in the chair beside him, wearing a too-large leisure suit. The reality shift had diminished Stewart's stature and muscle-mass. Marar stared down on his prize of the day for a long moment, unsure of what he should be feeling.
Then he heard the hatch latch click.
The Hunter went directly from the capsule to the check-in office, where he did the paperwork. He felt dog-tired by the conclusion of his short debriefing with a senior house staffer. He afterwards went to his assigned quarters and there sank into a sleep of exhaustion.
When Marar saw Stewart again, less than twenty-four hours later, he -- she -- was wearing a slave's choker, one that displayed the emblem of the Ludnican House. No clothing, not even a brief slave slip, had been provided; it was customary to train a pillow slave in the nude. In a day or two, Stewart would receive the small hip tattoo that would indelibly mark her as prime chattel, origin Terra.
Marar regarded the new bondmaid. Clara had been right, as always. What a curvaceous and fine-featured beauty Stewart had translated into. Her breasts were full, a big plus that would add to her salability. It was a detail that not even Clara could have anticipated with authority. Her chief trainer, Marar learned, had already given Steward the slave-name of Leeza.
A pretty name for a pretty girl.
Leeza looked baffled and miserable behind the cage wire. She probably thought that she was having a nightmare. Her trainer would have to be careful; handling a girl too roughly at this stage might drive her insane. Someone with English would soon come to explain the situation to her; that would help the prisoner understand the situation rationally.
She'd survive; maybe even thrive. There were many Terran girls who had started out on Vedar. Over some forty years, Marar himself had provided the market with about a thousand slaves. The majority of abductees seemed to adjust. Men were by nature promiscuous, and once a slave discovered the pleasure that a woman could have with a man, or with a clientele of men, she normally found pillow slavery congenial.
Marar hoped that no one would seriously miss Steward Lindstrom back on Terra. He probably didn't have a wife or children, but he very likely had parents, parents who would never know what had happened their son. For years they might carry in their hearts the impossible dream that he would someday return. A sad thought.
Marar sighed. He envied Clara and the others on his team; they didn't seem capable of feeling.
If only he could be as hard of heart as he had formerly been! Why should the thought of other peoples' pain matter to a detached professional? Why were his eyes starting to burn?
Damn it! These feeling were supposed to stop when he got away from the planet Terra, away from the female sex. On previous trips they had stopped almost at once. Should he blame himself? He had only done what he had to do. If it hadn't been Stewart, he would have had to take someone else, maybe someone even more innocent, maybe someone with kids. If it hadn't been Mara claiming the prizes, it would have been some other slaver.
What were the options? It dawned on Marar that if one were a slaver, he had no decent choices.
Except to stop being a slaver?
Marar shook his head. His father had been a slaver, as his father had before him. His great-grandfather had been a hireling who had faithfully served a slaving clan and finally had married into it. The profession was in his blood. And he was a damned good hunter. He wasn't a bad man either, or a cruel man.
He knotted his hands into fists. He was doing it again! He shouldn't even be thinking in terms of "cruelty." If he did, he was defeated before he began. He had to think about something else -- anything else.
What the off-duty Hunter most wanted -- needed -- was something to remind him of the good work he was doing. Hoping that talking to his friends should be helpful, he turned and made for his favorite tavern.
The cheery greeting of his co-workers and colleagues at the club took some of the weight off Marar's shoulders. He struck up a conversation about current events and politics. The familiar faces, familiar voices there, helped to bring him back to the man he had always been.
But when a girl was dancing for the house, he barely paid attention. He was thinking instead about Mara. It made him queasy to contemplate becoming her again so soon.
But there was no avoiding it. To suddenly tell his supervisors that he didn't want to go back on schedule would have provoked questions, questions that he had no good answers for. He was due to return as soon as a capsule was available.
It was more economical to combine different shipments to Earth on each trip, like taking supplies along with passengers, since the energy required to make the jump was considerable and expensive. Cost effectiveness was everything to the Guild.
But why should he worry about being Mara? She wasn't his madcap sister, some foolish girl always getting him into trouble. He was Mara. He was in control. The two were the same person. Mara would do what she had to do. And what she had to do was be efficient at bringing in the bonuses, so that they both could get out of this life, a life of subjecting innocent people to misery.
But what was he saying? Was he actually thinking that his career was something loathsome?
The dance had already stopped. "Master," a tray slave said to him. Marar smiled stiffly and offered his tankard to refill.
The conversation around the tables soon turned to the sword games in the arena and all else was forgotten as friends discussed their favorite duelists. Then, tired, Marar took a tavern slave upstairs and kept her beside him until he fell asleep.
By the time Marar left the tavern, he felt a world better. He walked slowly, taking in the sights and sounds of the city around him. Home had a way of healing a troubled spirit. The energy of the home world had restored the psychological foundations needed to resume his work on Earth. Home had reminded him of how good it was to be a man of Vedar.
And a slaver of Vedar.