Toymaker

toymaker.png

Toymaker

by Maeryn Lamonte

Caution with this one — Hopefully the picture will give you some clues that it's not entirely wholesome in places. This one's a little bit horror. It's also more science fantasy than science fiction, so please don't get on my case about how impossible it all is.

Todd Rains has just arrived on a frontier world, looking for a place he can breath without being told when and where he's allowed to, but there's something a little off with this world. Is it the paradise he's been looking for or has he jumped out of the frying pan into a very hot fire?

-oOo-

Ah freedom!

There's something about the feel of stepping onto a frontier planet for the first time — a sense of space and liberty, especially strong after spending a few months cooped up in the hold of a transport along with a couple of hundred other people possessing varying degrees of understanding of proper sanitation.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm all for civilisation. Without the organisation it brings, we wouldn't have had the capacity to make the FTL ship that had brought me this far, or any of a number of other neat pieces of technology that went to make life easier and more interesting. The thing is, in order to make technology happen, you need to cram a whole lot of people into one place, and when you do that, you have to put together a whole lot of rules and regulations to stop them from killing each other. Now when you do THAT, there are a few things that tend to happen.

The first is that the scum rises to the top. There's always certain people who put their own interests above those around them. They have no qualms about exploiting the masses, and in a large crowd, there's always a bunch of folks who don't know any better than to allow themselves to be used. The second is that, once they find their way into positions of responsibility, the scumbags start to influence legislation to further their own interests to the detriment of everyone else. The third and final outcome is that there ends up being a whole bunch of rules preventing you from being the person you want to be, and usually for no other reason that it gets in the way of some greedy son-of-a-something-or-other getting just that little bit more undeservedly rich. Either that or some rabidly religious zealot coming up with a bunch of arbitrary and inexplicable reasons why folks have to live a certain way.

That's why throughout history there has always been people like me — people prepared to take the risk of breaking a trail across whatever frontier happens to be at the edge of civilization. At one time it was the Australian outback, at another the Wild West. After we had explored and filled the land masses, we went on to populate the sea beds. Having gone as far as we could there, we managed to branch out into local space as far as Mars and Jupiter's larger moons before some bright spark came up with a way of breaking the light barrier.

I was born into one of the generations that followed and proceeded to take after my parents and grandparents in seeking to stay ahead of the inevitable spread of human civilization across the galaxy. Each generation of my family had found the growing restrictions on their birth world too great to bear and had jumped on a ship as soon as they could afford passage, never quite going far enough to reach the true edge of humanity's expansion, but just far enough to find a world where the mass of red tape wasn't in immediate danger of collapsing in on itself to form the sort of bureaucratic black hole - the sort of thing that plagues all long established societies, forming a socio-economic event horizon from which it becomes increasingly harder to escape.

That's not to say there's total freedom in frontier space. Wherever people go, they carry their moral and cultural baggage with them. Just being a part of a community means conforming to an extent, so even in a place like this I couldn't be truly myself. I could, however, be closer to the way I wanted to be and, in the true frontier spirit, if a disagreement arose between me and someone else, we could argue it through, probably fight over it a while, then eventually find some common ground we could agree on or at least enough ground between us that we wouldn't have to.

In any case, in a universe of imperfect solutions, it was the one that came closest to matching the way I wanted to live. I was prepared to give a little, because let's face it, if you're not, you're very soon gonna find yourself completely on your own, and good luck to you then.

The spaceport — if such a grand title could be given to the place — was pretty typical of a frontier world. It consisted of a large sandy plain with space and ground craft of varying size and condition scattered across it. There was a mishmash of modified prefab structures providing the variety of services spacefarers wanted — fuel, spares and repair, bar — and the inevitable half-hearted attempt at officialdom.

So here I was. New planet, new life. All I had was the clothes on my back and the contents of the tote over my shoulder — not to say that was insignificant. One thing my father had taught me was to research my destination carefully, and I had. Gold was named for its corn production rather than anything valuable that might be dug out of the ground — a secondary purpose for the name possibly being to lure the unwary. Agricultural colonies, and Gold was no exception according to my reading, were usually in desperate need of compact items such as self-programming AI chips and photosynthetic fabrics. After I'd raised enough to pay for my fare, I'd held on a couple of extra months, putting aside every spare penny. It hadn't been much, but it had bought me a box of chips and fifty square metres of fabric. The whole lot was folded down real small and tucked away inside my bedroll. I didn't know exactly how much it they would sell for, but I was hoping for enough to buy me a small store or farm outright. For now though, they were burning a hole in my tote and I urgently wanted to get them somewhere safe before some of the local muscle decided to try out the new arrivals. I'm no slouch in a fight, but I prefer to avoid violence when I can, especially when I'm visiting new territory.

One of the transport crew pointed out a single story prefab, faded and shabby after several decades of nature's sandblasting, and we all set out together to rubber stamp our arrival on this new world. For now we had safety in numbers, but soon enough we'd disperse and then the trouble would most likely start.

“So,” I asked the bored official while he was pretending to examine my ident for signs of forgery or tampering, “D'you happen to have such a thing as a bank in this delightful corner of the galaxy?”

He handed my card back to me with a world weary look, then raised an arm to point. “Half way down main street on your left. You won't miss it; it's the only place actually looks like it's prospering in this neighbourhood. Bunch of thieves and crooks all of them. You take my advice, you'll keep your stash in your boots and avoid those guys. They'll charge you the world and give you diddley squat in return.”

Following his directions but not his advice, I headed off the way he'd been pointing. Main street was long, wide and well-populated. Most folks were carrying some form of weapon, but only a very few had the look someone who'd use it for something other than in self-defence. For now I felt safe enough on my own, but I knew that was unlikely to last out the day. I hurried down the dusty road until I found the bank.

It was as described — richly appointed, freshly painted and looking as out of place as a princess in a pig farm. It stank of extortion in some form or another. Anyone who could make this kind of money in a place where most folks were doing well just to break even had to be doing something against the good of society. Perhaps not illegal, but then as I've said, some places the greedy few find a way to force legislation down a route that profits them over everyone else. Things were out of balance here. I decided to find out how much by.

The bank was filled with opulence, but empty of customers, which boded even worse. If these guys were pulling in this much cash without regular daily business, it meant they had a strangle hold on folks around here. I considered my options and came up with none I liked much.

This kind of wealth meant the bank probably owned most of the businesses hereabouts, meaning that if I wanted to buy a concern of my own, I'd have to negotiate with the gentlemen under this roof. With the monopoly they so evidently had, I'd pay way over the odds and my small piece of wealth wouldn't go far enough to more than buy me into the worst kind of servitude. Not for me.

I could hit the trail as soon as I could, see if I could find some outpost away from the spaceport that would offer fairer trade. Again, not the best of solutions. If the bank had a stranglehold on the port of entry, then they controlled what went out to the surrounding settlements. The freedom may be greater out there, but so would be the poverty too. I could maybe find a patch of land and stake a claim, set up a farm using the materials I had to make it run well, but that would just draw attention to myself, and sooner or later I'd find out what hold these guys had over folks when they tried to muscle in on my operations. As I say, I'm a lover, not a fighter, and I didn't fancy taking on a power that could grasp this much control over a world.

I could trade what I had for passage off this rock, but spacefarers would travel to the kind of planet I'd just come from and most likely wouldn't give me the price I'd paid for my goods, which would barely pay to get me into orbit much less to the next world. Even if I could find someone dirt-side who would give me a fair price on the chips and fabric, I'd still be limited to maybe half a dozen nearby systems, none of which had appealed to me in my research, the appeal being even less now, knowing that I'd be arriving with nothing.

I could offer to join these guys, but then I didn't have much to offer apart from the goods in my tote, and when they were gone, there would be no reason for them to keep me on. Besides which, if I were the sort to take sides with the establishment, I'd not be chasing my tail out here to the middle of nowhere in the first place.

So what did that leave me? Nowhere good, I was sure. I still lacked information, and I decided I wouldn't be able to plan a way through this until I knew better. I took a few steps deeper into the bank, very much aware in these sumptuous surroundings of the filth and stink from my recent voyage still clinging to me.

A plump gentleman wearing a hand tailored suit and a supercilious air appeared from somewhere and moved to intercept me.

“Can I help you sir?” From his tone, it was obvious he doubted it.

“Yeah, I'm looking to rent some space in your safe. I was hoping I could talk the matter over with someone.”

He looked me over with the sort of disdain I had travelled light years to escape, then reluctantly indicated a panelled wooden door that led deeper into the bank. It took us to his office where he sat behind his desk. He didn't offer me a seat, and when I looked around in search of one, it became apparent that there were none. Not a promising start.

“What is it you wish to store with us?”

No sir, no enquiring about a name, just impersonal and rude.

“I think that would be my business sir,” I wasn't about to lose my manners, even if he seemed not have any. “What I have in mind would take up no more than this much space.” I boxed off a volume maybe thirty centimetres on a side.

The man stared at me for a long moment, his face blank and unreadable. “You're new here, aren't you?”

No sense in denying it. Even if it gave him the upper hand, it was pretty obvious. “Yup. Just arrived on the transport this morning.”

“Hmm.” An all too familiar opportunistic gleam appeared in his eyes — again something I had travelled here to escape. I decided I had enough of a first impression; I didn't like this guy.

He steepled his fingers and smiled insincerely over the top. “Mr, er...”

“Rains, Todd Rains.” It wouldn't do any harm to tell him, even if his asking was just a precursor to showing me his teeth and claws.

“Mr Rains, I'm sure you're an intelligent man.” Yep, soften up your pray. “You will, I'm certain, have noticed that our establishment is of a different nature to those around us.” Take them off guard and... “We own this planet, Mr Rains, which means that if you have anything of worth, sooner or later you will have to deal with us. The sooner you realise that, the better the deal you will get from us. If we come to an arrangement here and now, it will save us both a lot of time and energy. If, on the other hand, you wait long enough to discover that no-one else is capable of helping you, that will just put us in a stronger bargaining position, and our offer will drop in consequence.

“Tell me what you have to offer Mr Rains, and I'll be glad to negotiate the best price your likely to get around here.”

My father had once told me, if the salesman is eager to make the deal, then it's because he knows there's a better one elsewhere. I had no intention of taking his offer.

“I wasn't fixing to sell, sir. Just to put it in storage.”

“It strikes me that if you brought anything of value to this place, it was with a view to selling it Mr Rains. I'm afraid I'm not offering to store it for you, just to buy it.”

“Then I guess we have no business to discuss sir. Thank you for your time.”

The man's expression clouded. “You're making a mistake Mr Rains.”

“And it's mine to make, sir. I think I can find my way out.” With that I turned and left the pompous git's little empire.

Back on the street, I looked around for somewhere more wholesome. I felt like I could use a drink, but until I managed to shift some of my wealth, my means were severely limited. Another hundred metres down the main street was a large general store with ordinary looking folks walking in and out of it in a steady stream. The place looked neat without being wealthy. If there was anywhere in this town where a man could strike a fair deal, that looked like it. I made a bee line straight for it.

Unnoticed in the distastefully wealthy building behind me, a curtain twitched.

-oOo-

The measure of a man lies in how he deals with those worse off than himself. My father taught me that, and the instant I walked into his store, Taylor Marshal proved himself to stand as tall on that measure as any man I'd met. Certainly he was a complete contrast to the banker, skulking like a goblin in his richly appointed lair down the street.

A steady queue of customers came to his counter, buying to the full extent that their poverty would permit them and receiving overfull measures from the shopkeeper, who never turned away a customer, accepting promissory notes of future payment with the same genuine gratitude as he did the rare pieces of actual currency that came his way. I joined the line of people waiting to be served, and with each grateful customer, my opinion of the man rose until he stood on the verge of sainthood in my eyes.

I was halfway to the counter when jangling of bell accompanied the door opening. The sweet aroma of expensive perfume wafted into the store.

I started to turn, seeking out the owner of the heavenly scent. Everyone else in the store had fallen instantly silent, bowing heads and standing in what I could only describe as abject fear.

The newcomers — for there were three of them — consisted of a middle aged man, features turned ugly by the heavy jowls of a lifetime's overindulgence, and two young and strikingly beautiful women hanging onto his arms. They were richly, if a little scantily, dressed in ruffles and lace, with gold and gemstones encrusting them like barnacles on an old scow, and they gazed up at their companion, corpulent well beyond the point of obesity, with adoring eyes. The perfume belonged to them, of course.

The fondness in their expressions seemed to me to be genuine. I might have expected a feigned show of affection in return for the wealth he was so evidently prepared to shower on them, but to see them fawning over him as though he were Adonis was truly unsettling. The newcomer strode towards the counter, his companions staggering along on tall spiked heels, struggling to keep up. The shop's customers shuffled backwards to make room, eyes downcast, the tautness of terror stretched across their shoulders.

“Hey mister!” There are times when my mouth responds before my brain, and I guess there was some level of propriety in me that objected to this grotesque being show such subservience.

He half turned my way, an expression of surprised amusement on his face. “Can I help you sir?” There was more than a hint of sarcasm dripping from his lips.

Indignation still overrode common sense in my brain. “There is a line sir, and I see no reason why you should be afforded the privilege of walking past decent folk who have already been waiting a fair while.”

“Is that so?” He barked out a laugh that was more derision than amusement. “Does anyone else here feel so slighted?” He held his arms out rotating slowly about his axis, his two companions acting as moons to his oversized planet. If there was any reaction from the crowd, it was only to hunker down lower. “It seems you're on your own in such an opinion, Mr Rains, and being a good democrat, I'm sure you will bow to the majority view.”

“I take it you are the owner of the bank here then sir?” The only people on this planet to whom I'd told my name were the customs official, still presumably at his post, and Mr Toady in the bank. The logical leap wasn't so big an achievement.

“Oh, I own a considerable amount more than just the bank Mr Rains. But you're new on this planet. I shall leave Mr Marshal here to fill you in on all the little details of what you have stumbled.” Taylor Marshal was holding out a box of cigars, the evident pretext for the big man's visit. “I look forward to seeing you again, Mr Rains. Real soon.”

There was an ominous quality to the way he spoke those words, rendered all the more weighty by the brief glimpses of panic in the eyes of his girls. They clung tightly to his arms as if seeking some comfort, but there was none to be found. They left the shop leaving nothing more than the heady scent of the girls' perfume to mix with the stench of fear pervading the shop.

-oOo-

Most of the store's customers found reason to be elsewhere and the line, both ahead of me and behind me, rapidly dwindled to nothing. In next to no time, I was alone in the shop with its proprietor.

“I'm trying to figure whether you're the dumbest or the unluckiest sumbich on Gold. Right now I think it has to be a bit of both.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean the transport's not been on the ground more than an hour and you've already attracted his attention.”

“So I annoyed some big shot businessman, so what's the deal?”

“I take it, then, that you've never heard of the Toymaker?”

“The Toymaker?” My laughter carried a hint of incredulity. “How bad can he be?”

The shopkeeper sighed and shook his head. He jerked his chin at the door and said, “Why don't you flip the sign and come on back? I have some coffee on the stove and I reckon this is gonna take some explaining.”

Coffee! The stuff's illegal on most civilised worlds, my own home planet having outlawed it three years previously. The thing is it leaves a rather strong smell on your breath, so even if you can get it on the black market, there are only very rare occasions you can sit back and enjoy it. I had missed coffee. I hurried to do as instructed.

“I added something extra.” Taylor Marshal handed me a polyceramic mug full of dark steaming promise. “I think you’re gonna need it.”

I breathed in the heady aroma, detecting hints of sour mash in the midst of the stronger more familiar smell. It was hot enough to burn my mouth, but I drank down a large gulp anyway — pleasure overriding the pain. The something extra proved to be a quite generous tot of whiskey, and I all but coughed over the strong liquor.

“Sit,” my host told me, and I complied, content now to sit and smell the fumes while my drink cooled a little. Taylor marshalled his thoughts (sorry, didn't mean to pun there) and I waited him out.

“I heard what he called you. You got a first name Mr Rains? I prefer to be informal when I can, and I'd appreciate your using my first name too, if you don't mind.”

“The name's Todd, er, Taylor. Todd Rains.”

“Well Todd, the transport came in from Vita Nova and — forgive me for making assumptions — I figure you came from there. You don't look well enough heeled to make multiple jumps.”

“No offence taken, besides your right. I was born and raised on Vita Nova. My family's been moving out with the expansion by generations. Always looking for a taste of freedom, never yet found a place where it lasted more than a few decades.”

“Well I'm sorry to say you're not likely to find it here on Gold either. Being from a border planet, I assume you've heard of psioncs?”

The border worlds were those that sat between the frontier worlds on the edges of known space and the expanding civilised core. Vita Nova had been a frontier world when my parents arrived, but the great expansion was pressing on. As for psionics...

“I heard of them. Always thought they was just stories though. The kinda thing you tells your kids to scare 'em into being quiet, sort of thing.”

“Well, they're real enough — just incredibly rare, though maybe becoming less so. The current theory is there's a kind of radiation that increases the closer you get to the centre of the galaxy. It affects the cells at a quantum level causing mutations. Most mutants don't live to see light of day, poor things, most of the rest don't live to see their first birthday — either suffocated by a mother turned insane at what she brought into the world, or died from complications brought on by the mutation. Sometimes, though, the changes are so subtle there's no real noticeable difference physically. That's when the mutation gets to work on the brain, and a psionic comes into being.”

“Are you telling me that bloated leech who came into your store a while back is a psionic?”

Taylor nodded. “One of the most powerful anyone's heard of I reckon. No-one's sure if the fatness is down to the mutation or just overindulgence. He came into his powers in his early teenage,” from the stories I'd heard it was common for such powers to manifest at puberty. “The only thing people noticed at first was a change in the way his parents started behaving. They took him out of school and devoted their lives to him, giving him everything he asked for to the point where his father ran up enormous bills with folk all over Gold.

“His father and mother worked on what used to be one of the biggest farms around here. Both were well respected on the farm and in the community as a whole, but then they began to neglect their duties and eventually they were fired. The whole family was about to be evicted from their home, dumped out on the street with no more than the clothes on their back and the debts they owed to just about everyone hereabouts, when suddenly everything changes. They went as a family to plead for clemency, taking their boy with them, and the next thing anyone knew, they were living in the main farmhouse with the owners grubbing around in the mud with the pigs.

“I heard tell of a newcomer to Gold, who headed out to the farm looking for honest work just after that time. He saw those folks in the pig pen, clothes torn and muddy, and changed somehow. You could see they was human, but there was something else about them — the way they looked at you with deep set, blank eyes, the way their noses seemed flattened, their ears loose and high up on the sides of their heads — that made them seem more like the pigs around them than the people they'd been.

“The way I heard it, that feller came high tailing it back to town and straight into the bar. He drank himself insensible that night and was gone the next morning. Some reckon he jumped the first ship off planet, others that he took his belongings and headed off into wild country away from the town, others still reckon he lived out his days on the farm as some form of twisted abomination like the ones he told about.”

“You're saying this guy can turn people into animals?”

“Not quite. Or maybe, I can't be sure. He can affect people's minds, influence them somehow, and so strongly that they do change physically.”

“So why call him the Toymaker?”

“That's because of what came next. It was some years before he grew to be a man, and all that time he and most everyone on the farm stayed away from here. Then the day he turned eighteen, he came into town to celebrate, bringing with him everyone who lived on the farm with him. You could recognise who they'd been, but they were so changed you could see they weren't the same people anymore. The least effected were those that he'd changed into cowboys and Indians or soldiers, though even they had some degree of grotesque caricaturisation about them. The rest though... He had zoo animals and dinosaurs and monsters. Still the folks we'd known from the farm, but somehow also the things he wanted them to be. Life size human toys, changed for his amusement. They all stayed close to him too, like their only purpose in life was to be what he wanted them to be and to do what he wanted them to do.

“I was still young back then, not much out of my teens myself, but I what I saw terrified me. I watched them coming past and resolved to stay clear. What happened in the bar, I only heard later from Mike, the barman, who said he'd been just as scared as me, and probably more so when things went wild.

“You have to understand, this was a typical frontier town back then; a bit rough around the edges and a place where hard working folks from the country could come and let off a bit of steam. The Toymaker — nobody around here remembers his real name now. The ones who knew him that well were the ones he changed into his playthings — He had already put on quite a bit of weight and, despite being just eighteen years old, there was an unpleasant roundness to him. He walked into the bar, surrounded by his toys — and I got no better way to describe them than that — and pretty much every one in there turned and laughed.

“One in particular — Jimmy Henderson, I seem to remember. Not a nice character in anyone's eyes, but he did not deserve what happened to him. Anyway Jimmy takes in this mess of weirdness, then walks right up to the Toymaker and says into his face, 'So what you meant to be fat boy? A beach ball?'

“The whole place collapses in laughter. All but the Toymaker and his toys, and the Mike who was old enough and wise enough to realise there was something real hinky about all this. Anyway, the Toymaker looks at his entourage and nods at the crowd of laughing farmhands. Next thing you know, folks are flying out the windows, some are missing arms and legs from where they've been chewed off by something that looks as much like a T-Rex or a tiger as it does a human. The whole bar is trashed and everyone crawls away with some injury or another, all except for Mike cowering behind his bar and Jimmy Henderson who is surrounded by nightmare faces, the worst of which belongs to the Toymaker.

“'I come into town to celebrate my eighteenth birthday,' he says, 'maybe have a drink or two and hopefully get laid. What do I find though? A bunch of very rude guys and no girls what-so-ever.'

“Mike points a shaking finger across the street, and tells the Toymaker that most of the pretty girls are round at Sally Tinker's place. 'Do I look like the sort of person who needs to pay for the attention of a girl?' the Toymaker says. 'Why should I pay when I have charms of my own?' With that he turns a feral grin on Jimmy and starts to croon at him, 'Ain't I the most handsomest feller you ever seen sweetheart? Ain't I just the sort of guy a pretty little thing like you would want to open her pretty little legs to on his eighteenth birthday?'

“Next thing, Mike swears he saw Jimmy change before his eyes. It was slow, so slow you couldn't see the change happening, but as the minutes passed this roughly chiselled, unshaven brute of a young man seemed to shrink in on himself. His skin became softer and smoother, his hair grew, his rugged features softened, his eyes grew or his face shrank, his lips became pouted, full and red. And all the time he could do nothing but stand there and stare at the changes coming over his own body. The horror grew in his eyes as the bulge in his pants receded to be replaced by twin bulges under his now baggy shirt.

“We had lawmen back in those days, and with all the commotion, Sheriff Tanner and a couple of his deputies head over to the bar to sort out the trouble they'd seen. They burst into the bar halfway through Jimmy's transformation. The Toymaker glances over his shoulder and with an evil grin he says, 'Ah good, I need a few new cowboys for my collection,' and without so much as batting an eyelid, the three lawmen stop where they are. 'Go make sure we ain't disturbed no more,' he tells them, and they step outside with guns at the ready.

“When the transformation is complete, the Toymaker says to Jimmy, 'I think your name should be Cheryl, what do you think sweetheart?'

“'My name is Cheryl, darling,” she responds, because it is a she now. The voice is female and all that's left of Jimmy is locked behind the eyes and screaming silently to get out.

“'Mother,' the Toymaker says to a rotund doll-like figure beside him, ' why don't you go and help Cheryl put on those clothes you brought with you while I get some drinks for us?' and the two of them head off into a back room. When they came back some minutes later, Jimmy — now Cheryl — looks pretty much like those two dolls you saw on the man's arms this afternoon.

“They had their drink, and a meal the bar tender's wife prepared for them, then they retired to an upstairs room where they stayed the rest of the night. Mike told me he didn't know at what time Jimmy — the Jimmy locked behind the eyes — disappeared, but by the time the two of them came down for breakfast, all that was left of the brash young man was a doting, vacuous doll of a girl.

“They headed off later that morning, with Cheryl, Tanner and his two deputies, now showing signs of change themselves, tagging along.”

The coffee had gone cold in my hand, but I drank it down anyway, glad of the whiskey mixed in with it. “You are yanking my chain,” I said when I finally I found my voice.

“I wish were.” Taylor reached across to refill my empty mug. “A lot of years have passed since that incident, but they've been eventful. I get the feeling that he was stretching his wings that first time, seeing how far he could go with what he could do.

“The few months that followed were the worst. He would visit town regularly, and each time he would take a bunch of folks back to the farm with him. Sometimes they had families, sometimes not. It didn't matter, they were never seen again. Every now and again some soul was brave or drunk enough to head out that way to see what they could see. Those that returned, and it wasn't all of them by any means, told of a transformation to the place — that it looked more like a fun park than a farm now.

“Anyway, things eventually settled down. I don't know if there's a limit to the number of people he can control, or if they need him to tell them what to do, so with a great many he has to spend too much of his time giving instructions, leaving too little time to debauch himself. He set up the bank and more or less pressured everyone into selling their land to it — well tell me you wouldn't do the same if the alternative were to be turned into a plaything for his pleasure. As things stand, everyone round here rents from the bank now, and the rent is just so high that it leaves enough left over to eke out a living of sorts. The bankers aren't his things, but rather the sort of people who don't mind profiting from someone with power. My guess is that they wouldn't do such a good job if they were his automatons.

“Most of the money the bank hauls in goes to paying for his little luxury palace, and the rest of us turn a blind eye, get on as best we can and hope against the day when he runs out of life.”

“He still comes into town from time to time when there's a new ship just landed, and when that happens, it isn't unusual for one or two of the new arrivals to disappear, and for him to have a couple of new playthings hanging on to his arm the next time anyone sees him.”

“So what, are you saying that he has me in his sights to become his next floozy?”

“I'm sorry Todd, but it seems very likely.”

“So what can I do? Beg passage off world? Run for some distant part of the planet?”

“You could try, but you won't get much co-operation from the folks around here. He takes a special interest in something and you'd better not get in his way, otherwise he might take a special interest in you instead.

“Look I can offer you a hot meal and a comfortable bed for the night. Afterwards, I'm afraid you're on your own. I have concerns of my own.”

“Yeah, like the majority of the people around here who rely on your kindness to make ends meet. How come you can afford to take so many IOUs?”

He shrugged. “I guess I play both ends against the middle a bit. Since there's no law to speak of around here, it's pretty easy to trade on the black market. I get the kind of things the bankers want to make their lives more fulfilled — or may just more filled — and charge them enough of a price to give me some spare capital. That means when folks come in needing stuff they can't afford, I can let them have it for the price of a promise they most likely can't keep.” He shrugged again at the look of shining appreciation in my eyes. “We all do our part.”

“Isn't it dangerous for you though? I mean, if I know bankers, they'd be looking to loan money at exorbitant rates and squeeze even more from these folks. Aren't you afraid they'll complain to him and get him to come sort you out?”

“They tried it once, a while back. Today's only the second time the Toymaker's been in my establishment. About ten years ago, I heard rumours that the bankers were trying to make trouble for me, so it wasn't a total surprise when the Toymaker himself turned up on my doorstep.

“'I hear you've been lending money to folks around here,' he says to me.

“'That's about right,' I reply.

“'Lending's the business of banks. Don't you think you should let them take care of it?' he asks.

“I have to say I was near soiling my britches by this time. I have no more reason than you to want to be turned into some greedy fat sumbich's play thing, but somehow I manage to speak my peace. 'I reckon you can only squeeze a person so hard, sir,' I tells him. 'I reckon if the bankers are allowed to hand out loans and demand interest payments on top of what they're already asking of folks, they're just going to end up with fewer customers. People will die, sir, or mayhap simply run away.'

“He looks at me strange, like he's concentrating real hard and I can feel the blood fizzing in my veins. 'You know, you should learn to be more compliant,' he tells me, 'otherwise bad things might happen to you or someone you care about.' Well that's all bluff and he should have known it. I was orphaned at an early age, and there's never been anyone else special in my life. After this event I became determined never to allow it to happen either.

“'Yes sir,' I say. 'I don't mean no disrespect sir, just telling what I believe sir.'

“'Well it may be this time you're right,' he says. 'You keep your nose clean Taylor Marshal, and find me a box of those fine New Columbian cigars I know your supplying to those weasels down at the bank, and we'll let it be this time.'

“I found him those cigars, same as I did today. Since that day, I've always made sure I've had a box stashed some place against his coming back. A few days after, the chief executive of the bank disappeared, and in the middle of it all, I became a hero to these people.”

“You reckon he tried to change you?”

“I can't be certain. Maybe he just agreed with me and decided he needed to show his banker colleagues that he was the boss rather than the lackey to come with his wagging his tail whenever they called for him.”

There was a knock at the front door and Taylor rose to answer it. He came back a moment later with a large package in hand, my name scrawled on the label. I tore it open and lifted the lid.

“Well my friend, it looks like we have at least one of your questions answered.”

The box contained a short ruffled dress in purple satin and white lace, along with all the bits to complete it.

-oOo-

I didn't sleep much that night, despite the provision of one of the finest meals I could remember — a local rodent apparently, with a strongly flavoured meat, not unlike goat or mutton. The stew could have done with a pinch more thyme, but was still very tasty none-the-less — and a soft, warm bed.

I had taken the dress out of its box and held it up in front of me to look at my reflection in a cracked and faded mirror. The flimsy bundle of satin was far too small for me, and I found myself struggling to believe that by this time tomorrow I would most probably not only fit into it, but look a darn sight less ridiculous. The shoes that came with the outfit were a good two and a half centimetres shorter than my feet and stood altogether nearly on tip toes with fifteen centimetre spike heels. Now that was just plain dumb. I mean why go to all the trouble of shaving fifteen centimetres off a man's height — even if that were possible — only to stick his feet into these instruments of torture just to bring him back to near the same height he'd started at.

All that had been hours ago and the first glimmer of dawn was peeking through the window. There wasn't likely to be a day in my life when it would be more important for me to be rested and alert, and I had wasted the night tossing back and forth, worry at the same old problem, looking for a solution where a town full of folks had done the same for near a quarter of a century without result.

I had spent a couple of hours planning an escape, or several rather. How would I sneak onto an orbital shuttle and from there onto the next outgoing transport without being caught and returned to the surface? A few ideas had sprung to mind, but I figured I had less than thirty percent chance of pulling it off. How could I leave town quietly and unobserved with the means of staying ahead of my pursuers? That would involve stealing a horse, and since I didn't have any riding experience what so ever, my chances of pulling that off were even slimmer.

Besides, even if I could get away, that would just heap retribution on Taylor, and after the kindness and hospitality he'd shown me, I wasn't about to pay him back by putting his life in jeopardy. Maybe he was immune to the Toymaker's abilities, but I could hardly risk both our survival and well-being on a maybe.

Immunity. There was something about the story Taylor had told me that nagged at my mind, and I wasted the rest of night chasing will o wisps of though the tangles of my memory, all to no avail.

I watched the red dawn break across the world and somehow found the peace that had eluded me through the night. Calm acceptance of my fate settled onto me. Now I'm not usually a fatalist — 'a man makes his own luck,' my father had said to me. 'You don't like the life you're living, you don't have to accept it, just go out and get yourself a new one.' It was sound advice, and I'd lived most of my life by it, but nothing is absolute, except possibly that statement, and no, don't get me started on paradoxes. Today I was facing the kind of inevitable that even a hardened proponent of free will like my old man would have had trouble staring down. I had done my best to think my way through the problem and come up short, so that pretty much left me with a choice on how I was to meet the inevitable, and I chose to face it with equanimity.

Breakfast was bacon, egg, sausage, fried bread, fried tomato, pretty much anything you could fry was on my plate that morning. The condemned man's last meal, we both saw it such and managed to communicate it with rueful smiles.

“Any idea when he might come around?” I asked.

Taylor shook his head. “The man is a law unto himself, and pretty much everyone else around here. He'll come when it pleases him to come, whether that's this morning, tomorrow or a week from now. All he said was real soon, which could mean anything.”

“If you were to guess?”

He thought for a moment. “Then I'd say most likely sometime this evening. He's a vindictive sort, so will want you to fuss and worry about what's coming for as long as possible, then just when you think you've gotten away with it, he'll pounce.”

“Can he read minds?”

“I don't think so. In fact, now that I do think on it, I sincerely doubt it. Telepathy is supposedly an empathic ability, and I doubt that man could put himself into another person's shoes if his life depended up on it.”

“He does a pretty good job of figuring out just what will scare the wits out of a man.”

“Yeah, but all you need do there is think on what scares you. We're all pretty much alike you know, and what works for one will work for pretty much everyone, especially if you go for the worst of the nightmares.”

“I could carry a knife.”

“Wouldn't do you no good. As soon as he takes hold of people's minds, he controls them body and will. You wouldn't be able to move.”

It was a last ditch desperation idea. I really needed to let it all go. I dug into my breakfast like there was no tomorrow. I mean, chances were there would be, but just how much of it I would be able to enjoy remained to be seen.

“So,” I said with a determinedly brighter tone. “Is there anything much worth seeing around here other than sand?”

“Hell yeah!” Taylor's tone was a little forced as well, but there was genuine underlying enthusiasm. “Of course you wouldn't have seen the planet coming in, being cooped up in that transport's hold. The sand bowl exists pretty much as a direct result of all the ship arrivals over the years blowing away the topsoil. You head more than half a click in any direction and you'll be in some of the richest farmland you're likely to see this side of the galaxy.

“This all used to be an open plain covered in clumps of broad leafy plants that stood as high as your waist. There is some local wildlife, grows about as big as an elephant, but it's too dumb to domesticate and too strong to coral — besides which the meat tastes pretty rank and the carni that feeds off of them is just as big and stupid.

“We've been clearing the land pretty much since my parents arrived with the first wave, and now the main settlement reaches out half a day’s ride in every direction. There were a few folk decided to strike out on their own, and you'll find smaller colonies scattered about for about a thousand clicks in every direction. Most of them just about scrape a living because they're constantly having to fight back the local flora and fauna as well as do the planting and tending. We fair better because we have a ring of ultrasonic emitter towers round out little patch of land that dissuade both plants and animals alike. We'd have pushed out further, but we don't have the tech to build any more.”

“That reminds me,” I said, walking back into my room to fetch my tote bag. “The reason I came into your store in the first place.” I pulled out my bedroll and opened it up, placing the chips and fabric on a clear patch of table. “I was wondering if you could keep these safe for me for a while. I mean depending on how things go today I may not have a use for them tomorrow, in which case do what you think best with them.”

It didn't look much a box of one hundred twenty eight chips and fifty square metres of photosynthetic fabric, but Taylor new what it meant. His legs went weak and he sat down, unable to take his eyes off the small stash.

“It was going to be the stake that set me up here. I figured I could buy me a smallholding or a shop a little like yours with the proceeds I made from selling these. I guess that's not likely to happen now.”

Taylor's swift mind was running through some calculations. “We put place the ultrasonics at kilometre intervals around the perimeter. With the new posts we could build with these chips, we could push the boundaries back another twenty clicks. That's more than ten thousand square kilometres extra; a forty plus percent increase on what we got now. You'd of got a darn sight more than a smallholding out of these, Todd.

“Sheesh! I wish more newbies had the sense you shown here.”

“You reckon I could buy my way outta the trouble I'm in with these?”

“You let the Toymaker know you've got these and he'll tear the town apart looking for them. Then when he's got them, he'll sake thank you kindly and burn your mind just the same.”

“Yeah, well, I guess there's still a part of me looking for a way out. Never mind. You stash them away somewhere, and if by any chance I see my way out the other side of this... Well you know.”

“Yeah, I guess I do.” He gathered up the treasure and took it into his store room. I guess there's nothing much quite like hiding stuff in plain sight, is there?

“There's a range of hills about thirty clicks west of here. Farming's not so good on the slopes, so they've let some Earth growth run free there. Folks tend to make a day of it, heading out with a picnic. There are viewing points that give you a pretty good sight of what Gold has become in the last twenty years, that and a kind of a zoo for some of the smaller local wildlife. About the best thing I can offer for a last day of freedom sort of thing.”

“I don't ride,” I said.

“Then I'll pick you out an animal that won't mind your inexperience, and by the time we get back into town, you'll be able to say that you do. Best thing is when you wake up tomorrow, you'll have other things to think about besides the pain.”

He was trying to make light of it for my sake, but he was falling short of brightening my day.

“Taylor?” He looked up, giving me his full attention. “You say that every now and then, newbies disappear and the Toymaker ends up with new girls on his arm.”

“Yep, pretty much once or twice a year.”

“What happens to the old ones?”

His face darkened. He gathered the plates and set about washing both them and the skillet. I was ready to ask again when he spoke.

“Nobody knew for a long time, but then a few years back there was this young couple, just married, who arrived. Toymaker took the husband and turned him into, well you know what he turns them into, and for the next eight months, there he was, bright bubbly and blond, hanging off his arm as though the very breath of heaven came from him. The wife had to join Sally Tinker's establishment to make ends meet. No she didn't whore, just worked as a servant — washing, cleaning, that sort of thing.

“Anyways, the time comes when the Toymaker tires of his companions and turns on three brothers, triplets, who'd just arrived on world. 'Three of a kind,' he'd tell everyone and expect them to laugh. Anyway, he was in uncommon good sorts because of the new arrivals. The change he made in them was exactly the same, so he still had his triplets, and he would dress them all alike too. Still the wife of his former companion approaches him one day when he's joking and well settled after a fine meal at the bar, and she asks after her husband and if she could take him back now that the Toymaker had done with him.

“According to Barney, the Toymaker gets this evil grin on his face, and says to her, 'Why sure. I'll have him delivered to you at Ms Tinker's establishment in the morning.' Then off he goes with his little group of three girls and larger group of soldier types there to protect him.

“Next morning this girl arrives at the Tinker's. The same blond, buxom beauty he had been transformed into, but with empty eyes. All she could do was sit around and stare, a kind of living statue if you will. She'd eat when she was told, sleep when she was told. She even had to be told when to use the bathroom. Every now and again, she'd look up at someone who was passing and ask, 'where's my love? Have you seen him?'

“In the end it was too much for them both, and the wife takes her former husband out for the day, riding in the Sally's trap a few miles out of town. She finds a secluded spot, sets up a picnic for them both and feeds them both one last meal. I don't know what it was she mixed in with the food, but when we found them, they were lying like they'd fallen asleep.”

“I'm not sure I understand.”

“Best I can figure is he can affect hormone levels in the human body. Quite how he goes so far as to change a man into a woman, or make him lose height and weight is beyond me. Sally said that this girl who'd been the husband was all girl as far as she could see. No sign of anything male between her legs, and every sign of being female, so I guess there has to be something the body can do to change sex. I mean you hear of it happening in some species of animal, and even in rare cases where folks are intersexed, so who knows, maybe with a strong enough control, you can make the change complete. There's also hormones that imprint a baby onto its mother and a mother onto her child. We figure he triggers them as part of the change, and so strong that afterwards, all they can think of is him. They dote on him when he's around and they pine away completely when he's not.”

“Why does he change men? I mean why not women? He changed his mother and the farm owner's wife, so it's not that he can't.”

Taylor was putting some food in a saddlebag. I helped as best I could be picking out cups and plates and cutlery. You could tell he didn't much like talking about such things, but this was my last day, so he strung along.

“Perverse preference maybe. It's all about domination for him, and it's easier for a man to dominate a woman than another man. He does it because it gives him a feeling of greater power perhaps. Or maybe he figures that if he was just going about stealing other men's women, sooner or later he'd have a crown of guys hammering on his door. Instead, if every man who knows him lives in fear of being turned into a fawning beauty pageant queen, then they're likely to be too scared to stand up to him.”

We headed out to the livery stable where the stable hand came out to greet Taylor.

“Do you know everyone round these parts?”

“Pretty much. It take a while for new arrivals to get established and start coming into town, but my line of business, pretty much everyone on Gold's primary settlement comes through my door at some stage or another, and it's only polite to pass time of day with them if there ain't nothing else too pressing.

“Hey Simon, any chance I could take Jesse and that chestnut gelding of Hank Peter's for the day?”

“No sweat Mr Marshal. Mr and Mrs Peters don't have nothing planned today, so I'm sure they won't mind, especially since it's you.”

He set about saddling the gelding while Taylor got his own horse ready. I stood by looking after the bag of food and watching on with interest. I was so engrossed in what they were doing that it made me jump when a large shadow fell across me, and I spun to look up into the overly muscled and rugged face of one of the Toymaker's cowboys.

“Might I ask where you're off to Mr Rains?”

“Oh, er...”

“He's with me.” Todd stepped away from his business with the horse and stepped forward protectively. “I was going to take him up into the hills, show him a bit of the countryside here abouts. I figured your boss wouldn't have a use for him till later.”

“You, stable hand, saddle my horse too.” It was strange. It was almost like he was ignoring Taylor, but at the same time he had reacted to his words. He turned his attention back to us. “I'll be coming along, just to make sure you don't try to make a run for it.”

“Suit yourself,” Taylor shrugged at him and turned back to his horse. “We don't got enough food to share around, so you'll have to sort yourself out for vitals, and we're leaving once we've saddled up so you'll have to catch us up yourself.”

We were ready a few minutes later. Taylor showed me how to encourage my gentle steed into a trot and we headed out of town with enough speed to put some distance between us and our chaperone. “With any luck he'll just trail us from a distance rather than try to catch up.”

“For a moment back there, it was like this was just a normal frontier world. I guess the Toymaker doesn't want me to forget what's coming.”

“We can still have a go. Do you mind if we change the subject from blight on our world. It seems we've been talking about little else.”

“Okay then, tell me about what it was like growing up here. You said you were orphaned. Do you mind talking about it.”

It turned out he didn't. He had been born here when the settlement was still very much in its infancy. The town and spaceport had grown inside the ten square kilometres that had been burned by their colony ship's landing thrusters, and it had taken pretty much all there resources that first year to clear another fifty square clicks and plant it with food to survive. They hadn't been able to mount any defences and had nearly lost the colony a couple of times to stampeding grazers. It was during the third year, while turning yet another stampede, that Taylor's mother had been taken by one of the carnis that had spooked the herd into charging. Then his father had set off to hunt down the carni pack that had taken her, hopefully to rescue her. He had never come back.

By then the town was growing into something approaching civilisation, and Sally Tinker's establishment was in place. The colonists, most of whom, in the first wave, were male, had asked her to take care of baby Taylor, agreeing that she should receive recompense from the colony as a whole for raising him.

“So I had the best sort of life you can imagine,” he said. “I don't remember my folks, which makes it all the easier, I mean you can't miss what you never knew you had. I grew up with a dozen mothers, and more fathers than you could shake a stick at. On the one hand it meant that if I got into any trouble, chances were I'd be seen and recognised, so I had no way of getting away with it, bit on the other hand I knew I was being cared for by pretty much everyone here.”

“Is that why you're so ready to help folks?”

“Perhaps in a way it is. I know I wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for the care I received by pretty much everyone who founded this colony, and I guess you learn best from the folks around you. Sally and her girls taught me to be generous and kind but not to be any man's fool either, and the colonists as a whole taught me the value of community, so yeah, a lot of who I am does come from them.

“What about you? What were your folks like?”

“So I told him about my parents and my grandparents leading back across the generations. People not quite prepared to put in the hard and dangerous work of break ground in new territory, but not wanting to be tied down by the traditions and laws of long established society. I told him of the nomad lifestyle my forbears had adopted, always seeking after that balance between freedom and security.”

“Well, I guess without your sort there wouldn't be second and third waves, which would mean places like this would shrivel up and die.”

Our shadow caught us up as we reached the first of the range of hills. Thankfully he kept at a distance, so we had privacy, albeit with the constant reminder of his presence.

Taylor regaled me with stories of his childhood, growing up in a cat house, and believe me he had some stories. I almost fell off my horse for laughing at some of them. In return I shared news of the inner planets as had reached me before heading out for less crowded pastures. We shared an unusual intimacy. Something that went beyond friendship, but still managed to shy away from anything deeper. I guess you could call it love of sorts, but with no expectations of a physical aspect. To lonely souls sharing common values and hopes and dreams that pointed the same way. I was left in no doubt that we would have been fast friends had we been given the time for friendship to grow.

There were times — when we were up on one of the peaks and Taylor was pointing out some feature in the distance, or when we went to the zoo and I spotted some antics the some animal or another was up to — when for a moment a hand would rest briefly on an arm or a shoulder. An uncomfortable moment would follow, then we'd laugh it off and get on with the day.

Soon enough the sun was in the descent and Taylor called our day out to a close. We had some hours to travel and would be lucky to make it back by sunset as it was.

Turning back seemed to signal the end of the lighter part of the day. We rode for some time in silence, the Toymaker's man — if you could truly call him a man — stayed within sight, acting as a constant reminder of what was to come.

“Taylor, tell me about the Toymaker again.”

“Todd, please. I said I'd rather not.”

“I know, but there's something in your telling that keeps gnawing at the edge of my mind, something I haven't quite figured yet.”

“You think it will help?”

“It can't hurt at this stage.”

So he did. For the rest of the journey home, he told stories of the Toymaker. How he came into being, how he changed his family and friends, then moved on to changing town folk and newcomers. He told the stories from a different slant, from different people's point of view, anything he could to bring new information, new ideas into my mind. And all the way home, there was that nagging feeling at the edge of consciousness, taunting me from just beyond reach.

We were in sight of the town when the trap finally snapped home, and the errant idea lay squirming in my hands. I sat very still on the back of my horse, and it took it as a signal to stop.

Taylor pulled his own steed round and looked across at me. “What is it Todd?”

I hardly dared voice the embryonic plan that was forming in my head. It seemed so insubstantial that even the gentle breath of my speaking my blow it into tatters. When I finally spoke, it came out as barely a whisper.

“Just how well stocked is your store, Taylor? And how good a shot are you?”

-oOo-

We tended the horses when we got back to town. My bum was sore from all the unaccustomed riding, but I followed Tyalor's lead, removing saddle and bridle, then providing a trough full of feed before brushing down the animals coat with a handful of straw.

We made it back to Taylor's store in good time, and I reheated the remains of the previous night's stew on the stove while Taylor hunted through his store room for the things we would need later. I checked over what he had found and nodded my approval. It would do.

We sat down to what might be our last meal together, eating with more hope and passion than we'd though we might earlier.

“You know this is something of a hail Mary pass don't you?”

“Look, it's all we got. If it doesn't work out, then what have we lost?”

“If he ever figures out it was me fired the shot...”

“I know, but you'll be hidden and chances are no one will even notice that a shot's been fired. I mean the gun doesn't make much of a noise and its dark enough that no one will see, plus all his cohort will be looking at him, so they'll quite easily miss it.”

“What if it doesn't work?”

“Then we're no worse off than we would have been. You've given me a fine day's distraction today Taylor, and I'm grateful. If nothing comes of my plan, then you've given me as good an end to my life as any man could ask for. That and we at least tried to do something.”

“I guess you’re right. Doesn't mean I have to like it though.”

“There's truth in that my friend.”

We mopped up the last of the stew with some pan bread I'd cooked up while the stew was heating. With everything done, we set about gathering the gear we needed. I grabbed the package of clothes the Toymaker had sent me the previous day and headed out the door, walking straight down main street towards the town's only bar. People stared at me as I passed, news of what the Toymaker had in mind for me having swept around the colony. I felt more than a little self-conscious under their scrutiny, but this was what I had hoped for. With all eyes on me, there would be none left over to spot the Taylor ducking through the shadows.

The bar fell silent as I walked through the saloon doors. I dropped the package of clothes on the counter and indicated that I could do with a drink. Normally I don't drink strong liquor without mixing it first, but this particular night, I needed something to help calm my nerves, and tossing it down neat was the quickest way I knew.

The room remained silent and I could feel eyes boring into the back of my neck as I studiously ignored the attention I was getting. The whiskey was raw and very nearly set me to coughing, but I managed to hold it in and call for another. The second took two swigs to put away and the third I left on the counter.

I turned to my audience. “Are you sure you want to be here when he comes looking for me?” They took the hint, downed their drinks and scurried out the door. Before long it was just me and Mike. “Sorry to mess up your business Mike.”

“No, you done the right thing mister. There'll be other nights for folks to drink, you done right to clear the place out before he arrives.”

“I only wish you'd go too.”

“This is my bar. I ain't got nowheres else to go. Besides, he ain't done nothing to me in more'n twenty years, I kinda think he ain't about to start now.”

I sipped at the whiskey and grimaced. I'd had enough of that for now. “You got any coffee?”

-oOo-

I was on my second mug of the black stuff, mixed in with a shot of the industrial grade paint stripper Mike called whiskey, when the Toymaker arrived. Tendrils of fear began to creep through my blood. Not so much the outright terror that Mike was showing, but more nervous anticipation of the unknown that lay before me. I pushed them down, uncertain of how they might mess up my plans.

“This is new,” the fat man told me. “Usually I have to chase my quarry — gives my Indian trackers a little exercise — but here you are bold as brass. Did Mr Marshal tell you what happens to interfering little toads like yourself?”

“He mentioned a thing or two, yeah.”

“And yet still you're here. Didn't you believe him?”

“The stories seem a little farfetched, I have to admit. I mean are you seriously going to tell me that those two ladies clinging onto your arms used to be men?”

“I don't see why I should waste my breath reiterating what others have already told you. If you didn't believe them, why would you believe me?”

“I don't suppose you could prove it, could you? I mean change them back. It would be a lot more believable if I could see it for my own eyes.”

“I don't think so. You see I'm quite happy with these two the way they are, and you don't have to believe for me to be able to change you.

“You've brought the clothes with you. That was very thoughtful.”

“Well they don't fit, so I thought it only proper to return them to you.”

“Well then, let's see what we can do to sort that out, shall we?”

He disengaged himself from the two girls hanging on to his arms and moved towards me. I stepped towards the open window, trying to look like I was backing away from his reach.

“Come now, there's no need to be like that. Now let me see, I was thinking about a redhead this time.”

“If it's all the same with you,” I said trying to make it sound as much like false bravado as I could, “redheads tend to burn easy in the sun. I'd rather a brunette.”

“Chestnut then. Yes I can see you with chestnut hair, and I won't have to change the eye colour then. You have no idea how much effort those little details take. How about a name? Do you have any preference?”

“My mother once told me she'd have call me Tamsin if I'd been a girl.”

“Tammy it is then.” He moved in close and I could feel the effects of his will take over me. “You don't mind standing still for a while do you Tammy?” The will to move drained from me. I mean I could have just got up and walked out if I'd wanted to. The thing is I didn't want to.

“Now keep still Tammy, there's a good girl.” I was a good girl. My name was a Tammy and I was a good girl. I would do what this nice man wanted. I'd stand still for him. “There's a good girl. Don't worry this won't hurt a bit.” There was a tingling in my blood and I felt a hot and cold tides ebb and flow within me. It was almost an orgasm — no it was better than an orgasm. Even my bones were filling with fire and ice. I could feel the weight of hair on my head increasing and it seemed as though he were growing. I wanted to look down at me hands. They felt different — smaller, more delicate — but I couldn't take my eyes off his face. 'He's disgusting,' I told myself, 'fat and blubbery. You couldn't love something like that.' But I could. He was just the sort of man I wanted to be with. I felt the familiar bulge of my male genitalia shrink and withdraw into my body, to be replace by a moistness deep inside me. I clenched my legs together and all but moaned at the waves of pleasure that coursed through me. I could feel the swelling of newly formed breasts pulling on my chest, the nipples standing proud and erect and tingling as they rubbed against the rough fabric of my shirt. And it was all down to this man, oh how I adored him. “You're doing so well Tammy, nearly there. Now you need to look into my eyes and see the man you're going to love for the rest of your life. Look into my face and know me to be the only person that matters in this world.” I could feel a new sensation flooding through me now. A euphoria that overwhelmed even the feelings I had experienced up till then. The feeling and the face were mixing together. To look on one was to feel the other.

There was a sound like a cat bringing up a fur ball, but not so drawn out — a sort of whispered cough in the night — and then a sharp sting in my buttocks. A flood of adrenaline shot through me, washing away the euphoria, breaking the spell that was holding me still. I reached behind me as surreptitiously as I could and pulled the dart from my bum. I could move now. I could grab a knife or a gun and attack, but this wasn't the time. I turned every ounce of will left in me to directing the fight or flight sensations buzzing through me. I held the cow-like devoted gaze, but behind it I railed at the man before me, telling myself how much I loathed him for the way he looked, for the way he behaved. Red rage filled my blood and I blotted out his gentle brainwashing, replacing it with my own outrage at being so violated. What remained of the euphoria, I directed to my imagination, focusing on the one other face I knew well enough to hold in my mind's eye.

I hadn't asked to be turned into a girl, to have my manhood stolen from me. I had no desire to become some sycophantic ornament on his arm. He had no right to do this to me, no right to invade my body, to strip away my humanity and turn me into a plaything.

I fought for my mind and I won. Furthermore, I fought to maintain control on the outside. He couldn't suspect at this stage. If he knew that I had broken his spell, he might guess I'd had help and both Taylor and I would suffer at the hands of his goon soldiers. Though it revolted me I forced myself to lean in on him, to will myself to act as though he were everything that mattered in the universe. His soft blubbery flesh repelled me, but I told myself that for now I had to imagine it was like caressing silk.

“I think you should change Tammy. Those clothes don't suit you anymore.” I looked down at the shirt and trousers I was wearing. They were way to big, and felt rough and uncomfortable besides. My broad hips were all that had prevented the trousers from ending up round my ankles and I grabbed at the belt to hold them up. The Toymaker laughed as I took a few clumsy steps in my oversized boots. “Why don't you go with her, mother, and help her get changed.”

The Toymaker's mother looked like a human version of a Russian doll — Broad and rounded in all directions, with pink spots on her cheeks. She waddled rather than walked forward and picked up the box of clothes I had brought with me, leading me to a room behind the bar.

It felt strange stripping off in front of a woman, and doubly so considering that this was the Toymaker's own mother, twisted into a semblance of a Babushka. It was also strangely exciting to see my new body. The physical transformation was complete. That had been one of my worries. I figured I could get by as either a man or a woman, but to be stuck in the middle would be no kind of life.

And what a transformation it was too. Long chestnut hair hung ruler straight either side of my face. The face was still mine — almost — only the features had shrunk into something almost childlike. On a woman, the effect was strikingly beautiful. The breasts weren't over large — more than a handfull's a waste as my Dad would have said — and the rest curved in and out in all the right places, with enough flesh to leave me looking smooth and rounded.

“He's getting better at it, dear. You look quite startlingly beautiful.”

It came as a shock that she could talk other than under her son's direction, but I suppose there was a human being under all that, and she had been this way longer than most.

“I don't understand why he doesn't transform you the same way. I mean, you are his mother after all.”

“He came into his power too early, dear. We weren't able to teach him to think of others before he was able to influence the people around him. All he knows is how to gratify himself.

“You're unusually in control of your own mind. He tends to strip his playthings of all their personality and self-motivation.”

I'd let the cat out of the bag now. All I could hope was that there was more of the mother than the plaything.

“I managed to interrupt the process. You're not going to tell him are you?”

“No dear. I've lived this long knowing the kind of monster I brought into the world. He doesn't allow me enough control to do anything about it, and it brings him some amusement to see me looking on impotently at his excesses. If there's anything you can do to bring this to an end, I won't stand in your way, though I won't be able to do much to help you either.

“Come on, we'd better get you dressed, or he'll start getting suspicious.”

She helped me into the clothes he'd bought me. There was something sensuous about the feel of soft, rich material against my newly softened skin, and I found myself wondering if this was going to be as bad as I had first thought.

That was before I put the shoes on.

“How in the name of all that's sacred are you meant to stand in these things, let alone walk?” I asked. The question was rhetorical, but an answer came back even so.

“They do look a little painful dear, but I'm not sure if you’re worse off than some of us.” That put me in my place. At least I still looked human. “You'll probably find that your sense of balance has improved with becoming a girl. If you concentrate on moving slowly and carefully — small steps dear — you'll find that you can manage quite well. It will be painful, and the others have the benefit of being totally devoted to him to distract them from the pain. You'll just have to put a brave face on it and look forward to the times when you can sit down. People are remarkably adaptable; you'll get used to them if you allow yourself the time.”

“I sincerely hope I won't have to. I have quite enough to be getting used to as it is.”

There was a mirror in the corner of the room and I looked myself over, savouring the sensation of all the new clothes. The silky underwear felt deliciously cool against my skin, and in the soft cradling support of the bra, my new breasts felt truly comfortable for the first time since they had grown. The stockings felt like a second skin against my legs, stretching and flexing strangely as I moved, and the dress, so very much ridiculously smaller than me last night, fit like a glove. The bodice hugged me gently all over, and the skirt ballooned out on layers of tulle to cover my legs down to about mid-thigh. My toes ached in the shoes, but by rapidly increasing degrees, I was feeling less precarious perched on top of them.

I turned to see the Toymaker's mother holding the last item in the box. It was something I had placed there in the hope that I would be able to use it. There was a hint of gentle reproach in her eyes as she looked from the hunting knife in her hands to me.

“It's like you said, er... I'm sorry I don't know your name.”

“Jenny. It's Jenny. Nobody’s used it in such a long while I almost forgot myself.”

“Well, it's like you said Jenny. He has to be stopped one way or another. I had thought of using a tranquilliser, but I don't know of anything that would act fast enough that he wouldn't have a chance to lash out with his mind before he went under. And then what would we do with him once we captured him? It wouldn't be safe to let him have contact with other people, and it wouldn't be humane to keep him alive and in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. What would you do?”

“Well there are those of us he's already changed, for whom contact with him couldn't make things worse. I would be prepared to be locked up with him, to keep him company and hopefully to help him.”

“Even after all he's done to you?”

“I'm his mother Tammy — I hope you don't mind, but you are going to have to get used to the name sooner or later. You won't understand until you have a child of your own, but you never stop loving your own child.”

“I think I understand better than you know. When he makes his dolls — the girls like me — he makes them secrete the same hormone that imprints a baby and its mother. That's why they're so devoted to him. That's why they waste away once he grows bored with them and discards them. I have a partial imprint as it is, and it's hard for me to consider doing him harm, even though I know him for the monster he is.”

“How did you stop the imprint from completing?”

“Epinephrine. I triggered a very large timed shot when he came in through the door. It kicked in just as he was getting me to imprint” Okay, not the complete truth, but that matched my lack of complete trust in her. I wasn't going to put Taylor at risk if I could help it.

“Epinephrine? That's adrenaline isn't it? What made you think of that?”

“Something I heard when listening to stories of your son. The ones he didn't try to influence, or perhaps couldn't, were always scared out of their wits. I figured that the adrenaline they must have been pumping interfered with whatever he was doing.”

There was a loud bang on the door. One of the Toymaker's goons, gauging by the heavy handedness.

“We'd better get out there,” Jenny said. “I'm sorry dear, but I can’t think of anywhere you'll be able to hide this in that dress.”

I had to agree with her, and to curse my own stupidity. I'd known ahead of time what he was going to dress me in. I should have known I wouldn't be able to hide that knife. I looked around for something else I could use. Nothing sprang to mind.

Jenny hid the knife and led me slowly — her waddling, me mincing in those ridiculous heels — back into the bar.

“Ah, there you are. What took you so long.”

I forced myself back into my role and ran to him as best I could, stumbling and nearly turning my heel just as I reached him. I steadied myself on his arm and leaned in to hug him to me. It was revolting and I felt the gorge rise in my throat. I swallowed it back down.

“I'm sorry my love. I wanted to come back sooner, but I couldn't get my bra to hook up.” I managed to squeeze a tear out, and my voice developed a natural quaver. Was it really so much easier to manufacture emotions as a woman?

“Never mind. You're here now, and that's all that matters.” He wrapped a pudgy arm around my shoulders and I had to fight with all my will not to shudder in revulsion. “Perhaps you'll join me for a meal while the barman gets our room ready.”

It wasn't so much an invitation as an instruction, or perhaps an expectation. I felt a rush of excitement as the part of me that had been affected by the imprint took control. “I'd love that,” I gushed, the inner, more controlled me allowing the superficial part to lead the way.

The meal was as good as one might expect from a frontier world bar — which isn't to disparage it in any way. Either Mike or his wife were exceptionally gifted in the kitchen, and I only regretted not having enough space to enjoy it more. My stomach had shrunk in proportion to the rest of my body, and the portion of stew I had enjoyed before coming out was still filling a lot of space somewhere between the way in and the way out. I ate slowly, cutting the portions up small and taking my time over each forkful, which meant that by the time he had finished his enormous plateful, I was barely half way through mine. As predicted, he called for the plates to be cleared away the minute he had finished, so my small appetite passed without comment. In a similar manner, I sipped at my wine while he quaffed his down in heroic quantities. I still had the whiskey shots from earlier filling my veins with less in the way of body to metabolise them, so I was still fairly numb by the time we were done.

“Now for the best part.” He leered at me and I let the half formed bimbo inside of me clap her hands with excited anticipation. I wasn't sure if I could face what was coming next. For the Toymaker it was all about domination — that he had taken an adversary and turned him into a compliant little bit of fluff, that he was able to haul his grotesquely flabby body on top of mine and cause me to squeal with delight. There was no pleasure in bringing pleasure for him. It wasn't love making, because there was no love involved from his side. He led me up the creaking stairs, leaving the majority of his retinue to wait patiently below.

The room was basic but clean, the bed large and robust enough to take his immense frame without being overly strained. There was a screen in one corner and I ran behind it before he could say anything. Out of sight, I began to look about me for anything I might use, but again there was nothing. I began to undress, hearing grunts from the other side that indicated he was doing the same, but without the help he was accustomed to receiving.

I slipped off my shoes and stared at them with hatred. The nerves in my feet shouted their relief and their protest at having been so abused, even if only for a relatively short period of time. I slipped the dress off and slung it over the top of the screen, then set about unclasping my bra. My new body was more limber than I had been as a man, and the hooks gave me no trouble. I made frustrated noises none-the-less, as a way of eking out a few extra seconds before surrendering to the inevitable bedding by the beached whale.

Eventually I couldn't drag it out any further, and with a squeal of success, I tossed the bra over the screen. The rest of the clothing came off swiftly and smoothly, and I felt the future rushing down on me like a train. Adrenaline — the natural stuff this time, not the contents of an ampoule from Taylor's medical supplies — entered my blood stream, and in my moment of greatest desperation, I found myself staring at me shoes again.

I picked one up and pulled at the heel. I had a lot less strength than before, and the shoe resisted my abuse. My brain wasn't so affected though, and with a moment's clarity appearing like a break in the overcast, I slipped the shoe back on my foot and deliberately leaned all my weight — less substantial as it was — on the heel.

It gave with barely a sound, although I nearly went sprawling as it broke. I scooped up the spike heel — fifteen centimetres of relatively sharp steel — and tucked it into the palm of my hand, hiding the sharper end behind my wrist, before stepping out in the room.

He was lying on the bed, immense folds of flab all but obscuring the unimpressive erection between his legs. Making full use of my new grace and beauty, I sashayed slowly across the room towards him. I pulled my arms behind my back to bring my breasts to greater predominance, and to hide my makeshift weapon all the better. The grin he gave me was lascivious, and I returned it with lewd and suggestive looks of my own. I leaned in close to whisper in his ear, fighting my own revulsion as he cupped one of my breasts in his hand.

“Why don't you roll over, and I'll give you a massage before we get started?”

Thankfully, he like that idea and, he rolled over on the bed.

I had considered my options, where I might stab him. Death had to come instantly, so no Ehud and King Eglon equivalent with the blade — or heel in this case — disappearing into the folds of flab in his stomach. There really was only one place, and I had to strike it hard and accurately. And now as well, before he began to suspect.

If I'd been able to see his eyes, I'm not sure I would have been able to go through with it. There was still an unreasoning part of me that idolised this fat, selfish lump of worthless jelly. As it was, the back of his head held no special attraction, either for me or the empty headed part of me he had created.

There's a sort of knot at the base of the skull where the spinal cord joins to the brain. With one swift, continuous motion, I jammed the sharp end of my makeshift weapon into the knot and brought the heel of my other hand down on it as hard as I could. It sank in about a centimetre. Without thinking, I rocked back and brought all the little weight and strength he had left me down on it. It sank in half its length. I struck it again, and again, my breasts jiggling with every blow, making a mockery of the whole business. Eventually the spike would go no deeper, and with the last of my strength, I hauled his immense body onto its back.

His sightless eyes stared up at me, and I felt a profound loss tear through me. It was only chemicals, but they had done a pretty tidy job of rewiring my brain. This fat lump of filth, who had brought nothing but misery to everyone he met, was still like the moon and the stars to me, and I wept over his death, even as I exulted over my victory. My hands were covered in his blood and spinal fluid, and even though he revolted me, I buried my face in his chest and cried out a deep anguish that I knew was no real part of me.

-oOo-

It seemed like hours before I recovered enough composure to leave the body. There was a shower en suite with the bathroom and I crawled into it, curling up into a ball and allowing the soft, warm rain to wash away the blood if not the overwhelming sense of guilt and loss.

I don't know how long I stayed there, but eventually the inner me managed to wrest control from the whimpering wreck he had put in me. I dried myself off and dressed myself once more in the clothes he had provided for me. The shoes were pretty much useless, so I stepped out of the room in my stockinged feet. A dozen pairs of eyes turned my way as I descended the stairs. One pair in particular I had difficulty meeting, but she understood without my saying a word and waddled over to envelop me in a caring embrace.

“I'm sorry. I couldn't go through with what he wanted, and there was no other way.” I thought I had cried out all my tears, but from somewhere in my desiccated soul a well spring burst open.

“Shsh, dear, it's alright. I could have wished for a happier outcome, but at least it's over now. And it looks like those shoes weren't such a terrible design after all.”

I laughed in spite of myself, and before I could help it, I was crying mixed tears of laughter and misery. She held me to her until the spring ran dry then offered me a handkerchief to ease the worst of the damage my outburst had wrought.

She turned to the rest of the crowd, sitting blank and immobile, and spoke. “My son is dead,” she said. “Whatever hold he had on you is broken. Whatever is left of who you were, you're free to live the lives you once had.” They stared at her uncomprehending, then settled back to waiting.

“Er, Mr barman...”

“His name's Mike,” I muttered quietly.

“Mike then. Would you mind going to fetch a doctor. Someone is going to have to pronounce Jeremy's death.” So that was his name. It seemed incongruously normal for such a monster. She turned to me. “You're sure he's dead, dear?” I nodded, too numb to make any of the facetious comments that ran through my head. “Then someone is going to have to try and take care of these folks and the ones out at the funny farm.”

“The what?” Mike asked.

“It's what those of us who weren't totally in Jeremy's thrall called the place. It's an old euphemism for an insane asylum, and it worked quite well as a play on words because it was once a farm before it was transformed into a sort of fun-house adventure playground for his amusement.”

Mike headed for the door, disappearing, unchallenged by any of the Toymaker's — Jeremy's — goons, into the night. He was back within ten minutes with the local quack and Taylor. My mood lifted at the sight of him and I ran into his arms. It felt so good to bury my face in his chest, and he smelt so wonderful I nearly started crying all over again. It seemed you could imprint on an imagined face.

“Todd?”

I shook my head. “It's Tammy now. I guess I'm going to have to get used to being someone different, so we might as well start straight away.”

“I heard...”

“He's dead. Mike's taking the doctor upstairs to confirm it, but he is dead.”

“So what happens now?”

It seemed like such a bizarre question, but when you took a second look at things, perhaps not so much. Humans are capable of adapting to the worst sort of privations, and surviving under them. When liberty is restored, it often takes a while for those affected to realise what it means. Some never adapt, the patterns of imposed restrictions being so deeply ingrained that they cannot let them go. Others take a while, but once they find the courage to investigate, and discover that they can indeed live as they want without fear of repercussions, they bloom like the desert after long awaited rains.

That's how it was with Gold. Once news spread that the Toymaker was dead, people flocked into the town from their farms to see if it was true. The revelries that followed ran through several days and nights and at times went so out of control that a new sheriff had to be sworn in, along with a whole posse of deputies, to maintain the peace.

The bankers were caught trying to sneak off planet with the wealth they had extorted out of the people over the years and, given the questionable manner by which they had come to own all property on the planet, it was all confiscated and paid back in full to the original owners. The bankers themselves got off lightly, with the colony agreeing to pay passage to the nearest planet, and letting them leave with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing. Given their only means of making a living on arrival at the other end would be hard labour, perhaps it was harsh enough as punishments went.

Of course with the wealth returning to the people, there was suddenly a flood of farmers coming into Taylor's store insisting on paying off their IOUs. Taylor tried to say no, but when facing down a stubborn, prideful frontier farmer, you'd best know when to give in. In a very short time, he became massively wealthy and, being Taylor, he then used his wealth to buy my little stash of technology, which he then donated back into the colony to expand its boundaries. That went down so well that he was unanimously elected governor of the colony, which meant that I had to give him back some of the wealth he had directed my way in order for him to have sufficient funds to help the colony grow. Of course by that time it didn't make no odds, because he had already proposed marriage and I'd accepted.

Our courtship had been a strange affair. He felt inhibited by my once having been a man, and I fought long and hard to rid myself of the feelings the Toymaker had put in me. I took up rooms at Sally Tinker's, thinking that if the establishment was a good enough to raise as fine a man as Taylor Marshal, then it was a good enough place for me to stay. Everyone was aware of what I had done to free the colony, and it had given me something of a celebrity status, which in turn rubbed off on Ms Tinker, bringing her place some much needed respectability. Any indication that it had once been a whorehouse evaporated from people's minds, and it became a respected finishing school for young ladies.

Jeremy had tried to make me devoted to him, but the adrenaline Taylor shot into me had interrupted the process. I had directed the last of the imprinting hormones onto a mental image of Taylor and it had worked after a fashion. I was left with a long road to travel to rid myself of the bogus feelings, but fortunately I had chosen well with Taylor and his honest character and hard work and dedication to the people of Gold added to the chemical bond to overshadow anything I might have been persuaded to feel for Jeremy. Once I had made up my mind to love the man, I made use of some of the trick Sally's girls taught me to turn Taylor's head my way, and in next to no time all he could see was the beautiful young girl I knew I had become, and what followed was inevitable.

How I adapted to being a woman is still something of mystery. I've heard it said that it doesn't rightly matter what you look like on the outside. What holds strongest is the way you feel on the inside. I'd been a man all my life until I met the Toymaker, so by rights I should still be a man inside this delicate flower of a body. However I took to being a woman from the moment the change occurred. It could be that the mix of hormones fixed me to thinking more like female than a male, but my mind keeps going to Mike's account of the first man Jeremy had turned into a woman, how he'd said you could still see Jimmy locked behind the eyes right up until the morning after their first night together. Hard as it had been for me to contemplate that hideous mound of flesh clamber all over me, I can only imagine the horror Jimmy must have gone through.

Maybe I've never been so strongly male, as some folk. Maybe that's the way I was born, maybe part in the way I was raised. I know my parents never set me in a particularly strong male role. Those times I got into my mother's things, they didn't scold me for more than taking them without her permission, then they bought me some of my own. They even let me wear them outside of the house until the neighbour's kids made fun of me and bloodied my nose over the matter. I guess I learned to live according to other's expectations on that front, but I always felt maybe a stronger affinity for being with girls than boys — you know, just to talk and stuff, not so much for going on dates, though that was something I enjoyed too. I certainly didn't feel so attached to my male parts as some guys I know. For me the change was more something of an interesting and exciting new experience than the loss of something precious. The strange thing is, now that I'm this side of the line, I wouldn't choose to go back. I miss being as strong and tall as I was, but being cared for makes up for that, and sharing a deeper intimacy with the other girls I've got to know since has been better than any friendship I had before.

Best of all though is Taylor. We shared something special that first day, and I think it freaked us both out some. I mean that kind of behaviour is accepted on some frontier worlds, but not many. I think I began to love him that first day out, but I've felt free to love him since becoming Tammy, and once he got over the whole used-to-be-a-man thing, he found that same freedom.

The funny farm became property of the colony and was converted into an asylum for the Toymaker's victims. Some of the colony's newly rediscovered wealth paid for skilled surgeons, psychiatrists and neuro-chemists to come treat those affected, and many were able to return to something near their normal lives. Most of those that couldn’t lived on contentedly in the grounds of the farm, with Jenny and her husband Nathaniel taking over the day to day running of the place, once the surgeons had returned them to something remarkably close to the way they had been before their son started messing with their minds and bodies.

It's some years on now, and Taylor and I are happily married. We have two boys, and while I can't even begin to describe how unpleasant childbirth is, the devotion I feel towards both of them shook the last vestiges of feeling I ever had for the Toymaker. He now remains in our minds as nothing more than a bad memory — a nightmare story with which to scare the children on Halloween, though we have to temper the reality some so's not to scare them too much.

Gold is a prosperous border colony which my husband continues to govern. Unusual for such an established world, we continue to resist any legislation that seeks to take the power and the wealth out of the hands of the common people. We welcome religious orders, but don't allow any of them to dictate government policy. It's a hard fight at times, but it's well worth it. For many many generations, my family has followed the expansion of mankind looking for a world where a man — or woman — can grow up free and prosperous. For the first time in all that time, it seems I may have found just that place, where I can grow old in peace and watch my grandchildren grow up.



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
90 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 17824 words long.