Megan had landed an eighth of the planet's circumference beyond the day/night boundary, and the rotation of the planet was now taking her further into the sunlight -- it had been mid-morning, in other words. After about six hours of walking, the sun, or the star, she should say, had reached and passed its zenith. It was approaching late afternoon. The day must be pretty close to twenty-four hours, Megan realized. Probably not exactly, and the settlers would probably have to make minor adjustments in their clocks, but a day here would be pretty much what the human race had accustomed itself to in the millions of years of its history. Megan saw she was, at last, reaching the outskirts of the settlement: she could see a light drift of smoke, seeming to be a few hundred meters in the distance. There appeared to be a clearing ahead, and Megan had an uncertain view of at least one building through the shifting gaps in the trees as she moved.
Megan trembled with excitement, seeing her first proof that the animal life was indeed human -- or certainly intelligent, at least, and humanity had as yet discovered no other intelligent species. Her legs sore from walking, Megan nevertheless broke into a jog. She saw a wooden fence now, marking the edge of the clearing near the last line of trees.
She broke out of the forest incautiously at a dead run, and stopped in her tracks, stumbling, unable to process what she was seeing.
As she stood still, her jaw hanging open, her mind spinning in "what's wrong with this picture?" mode, Megan slowly decided she had to accept the input from her senses, as nonsensical as it was.
In a cleared field enclosed by a fence on three sides, with a barn-like structure occupying much of the fourth side, there was a cluster of... well, if they had been cows, the sight would have looked perfectly normal. There were about three dozen of them, at a quick first estimate, standing on four legs, some of them gazing blankly into the distance, some lowering their heads to munch idly at the ubiquitous lettuce covering the ground, some taking a drink from a stream flowing diagonally across the pasture while a few others ambled in that direction. It was an idyllic pastoral scene. Except...
They weren't cows, however much they acted as if they were. They were women. Human women, down on all fours. All were naked, but seemed quite unconcerned about it. Most of their faces were blank, while one or two had benign half-smiles. Some sort of surgery had been performed on them: their arms had been cut off between wrist and elbow, the stump of the forearm ending in some sort of artificial hoof; their legs had been amputated a little above the knee, with similar hooves grafted at the end, the legs now about equal in length with the arms, so that standing on four legs looked comfortable, natural. Their hair was cut short, a little untidily, as if they had been sheared with hair clippers without much concern for esthetics. Each woman had oversized breasts hanging down from her chest, with prominent nipples and dark areolae. Given the context in which Megan was seeing them, she found it easy to make the guess that their breasts were quite functional, swollen with milk.
It occurred to Megan that these women must have been born on the planet -- not that they were an indigenous species, though that remained a possibility, she supposed. But more likely they were offspring of the original crew. There had only been seven women, including Janica, so this entire planet should only have seven women on it. There were many more than that right in front of Megan's eyes.
Anger surged through her. They had taken over somehow, the Hercules cult. She didn't know how they'd done it, but this was their work. On Earth, on their private island, they had done a number of experiments at trying to turn women into animals. They hadn't been entirely successful -- not to this extent, anyway. Obviously they had improved the system.
Unconsciously Megan's grip tightened on her blaster. She would kill those men, the evil men. Every last one of them. The decision to spare their lives had been wrong, so wrong, and now look what had happened.
Periodically Megan heard one of the women make a groaning sound. No, she told herself, it wasn't that. She was forced to admit it had a resemblance to a moo, a little better imitation than a human would normally make. Did the men do surgery on the women's vocal cords too? she wondered. So they could make a more authentic sound? Concentrating on the sound, Megan focused more closely on a nearby woman who had just produced it.
Megan's eyes narrowed, and she suddenly gasped in shock and dropped to her knees, her hands flying to her face. Her knuckles pressed against her cheeks, tears started to flow from her eyes. She tried to speak. Her diaphragm was frozen in horror, so she couldn't put any wind behind her words, but her lips moved silently, as she mouthed, "Janny! Janny! Oh no, noooo..." It was Janica's face she recognized.
Megan finally managed to make her lungs function again, and she held out her arms to the woman she could still see between the boards of the pasture fence. "J-Janny! Janny! It's me, Mig! It's Megan! I'm going to get you home!"
Megan stopped, stunned by the utter absence of recognition on Janica's face. Janica had turned her head towards Megan at the sound of her voice, her gaze neutral, completely incurious, before ducking her head down to tear away another mouthful of lettuce.
A little louder, more insistently, Megan said, "Janny, you know me! It's Mig, remember? Janny..." her voice broke, "What have they done to you?"
In one motion Megan rose and vaulted over the short fence, aware of the startlement of nearby women, who scrambled away with frightened moos. She caught herself, not wanting to scare anyone, and in that moment her attention fixed on another woman, about ten meters ahead of her.
This one had Janica's face too. Megan looked back and forth between the two, this new Janica and the previous one. The two women were absolutely identical, and both were absolutely Janny, right down to the unique golden-blonde hair that Megan had always wished she could have.
Megan froze, her mind spinning. A vague fear floated through her mind, telling her this was a nightmare from which she was finding herself unable to awaken. She slowly walked through the herd, looking closely at faces. At least four of the women looked exactly like Janica, and several others looked like Lieutenant Heather Lopez, Janica's close friend, with Heather's smoky brown eyes and dark, almost black hair. The redheads all looked exactly like Aoife O'Lonigan. And the chocolate-skinned ones were all in the image of Aurora's commander, Tanisha Ologwu. Megan looked around carefully at the entire... herd. Every face she could see was that of one of the seven Aurora crew members.
Megan's jaw tightened. "They're cloning them! The bastards, they're making clones!" The practice had long been illegal on Earth, but of course that would be of no concern to the Hercules men. It was one of the least of their crimes.
Megan's spirits rose momentarily with the realization that this did prove Janica was alive somewhere. They were using her genes, and those of the others, to produce these animals.
Following on that was a thought that was very strange to contemplate: The women here, the ones who looked like Janica... all of them were Megan's sisters. Literally her sisters, not just in spirit. Each of them had all the same genes as Janica, the ones that had come to Janny through the same mother who had given an equal number of her genes to Megan. Suddenly Megan had a much larger family than she had ever imagined.
Megan had not had a chance to focus her attention on the house that stood about a hundred meters to the right of the barn, and was startled when the door of the house banged open. She drew her blaster instinctively as two figures trotted towards the pasture, then her arm dropped to her side as her jaw sagged open again. These were women as well, and similarly on all fours, but not at all of the same demeanor as the "cows" in front of Megan. As the new women ran through an unnoticed small break in the fence near the barn and approached the herd, Megan tried to drop her disbelief and convince herself once more that she was really seeing what she was seeing: these two women seemed to be playing the role of dogs.
As naked as the cows, the two "dogs," though clearly human females, sported patches of dark and light skin, possibly tattoos intended to resemble patterns common in dogs' fur. They had the same four shortened limbs as the "cows," though each terminated in rubbery-looking "paws" more suitable for running. Their breasts, swaying underneath them as they ran, were of normal human female proportions, not at all on the same scale as the milkers. As the "dogs" came closer, Megan could see each had a tail, stiffly standing upright from their backsides. And as they circled the herd towards the side away from the barn, they began making sharp sounds that uncannily resembled barks. They paid almost no attention to Megan, clearly intent on their assigned task.
One of the "dogs" had Heather Lopez's face; the other looked like Sabrina Marion, Aurora's first officer.
The "cows," nearly all of whom had stood at the sound of the approach of the "dogs," now backed away in alarm in response to the barking, moving in the direction of the barn. They all turned in that direction and began walking slowly towards it, the "dogs" prancing around on either side to keep the "cows" in a tight formation. In minutes the "cows" had all entered the barn.
Megan walked quickly to the barn door, stopping at the entrance to let her eyes adjust to the relative darkness. Once she could see, she found that all the women were lined up against the far wall, facing away from Megan. Walking closer, she saw that each had inserted her breasts into rubbery-looking cups in an assembly built against the wall. The sides of the cups were rippling slightly -- obviously the women were being milked. For the most part they were silent. A few satisfied sighs were the only sounds other than the slight humming of the milking machinery.
Megan heard grunts to her right, beyond a smaller door through which the house was visible, and through which the "dogs" must have returned to the house. She went to that door and looked for the source of the sound, and found her capacity to be astonished challenged once more.
There were about a dozen naked women, each one huge -- Megan guessed they must weigh at least a hundred-fifty kilos each. Some were lying on their sides in the mud of their small enclosure, and a few were standing, on their no-longer-surprising four cropped legs, eating from a trough filled with some kind of grain. It was from these enormous four-legged women that the grunting sounds had been coming. Pigs, of course. Megan thought she should have expected it by now. One had Janica's magical golden hair, though with her face swollen by fat the resemblance was muted.
Standing in the pigpen, Megan now had a view of the field behind the barn, and for the first time spotted a man, no doubt one of the Hercules. He was walking behind a plow, of a design probably not widely used on Earth for centuries but clearly useful here. Two women were harnessed to the plow, pulling it along behind them. Squinting to make out details across the distance, it appeared to Megan that the women had normal legs and feet -- normal other than the impressively well-developed muscles that clenched and flexed mightily with the effort of pulling the plow. They seemed to have no arms at all -- their shoulders ended in rounded nubs. Of course, she thought. For this job they only needed legs.
Megan pulled out her blaster, determined to shoot the bastard here and now and rescue these women -- all of them, in all their animal forms, before a thought ran through her head that stopped her, and she holstered the blaster again. She simply couldn't kill all the men and somehow save the women. She had no idea how many women were on the planet -- probably hundreds, if there were more farms like this one -- and Megan obviously couldn't take them all back to Earth with her in her ship. In her small vehicle, she'd be lucky to squeeze in one extra person to share the ride with her. Two would be impossible. And she couldn't leave all of the rest to fend for themselves over the weeks it would take to get back to Earth and then return with a rescue team. They would have no idea how to take care of themselves without the supervision of the evil, blasted, hated... Megan ran out of adjectives... men.
Absorbed in these thoughts, Megan nearly jumped out of her skin when a piping voice behind her asked, "Who are you??" She whirled and drew her blaster in one motion, her training at the Academy making her defense instinctive. Then she gasped and tried hopelessly to hide the blaster from the eyes of the small boy who was looking at her wonderingly.
He couldn't have been more than eight or nine years old, and his eyes were wide with fascination, not fear. He looked at the blaster. "What's that?" Again no fear, only curiosity. He may not ever have seen any kind of weapon before, might not even possess the concept.
Megan struggled to reply. "Uhh, walking stick," she said vaguely, and she put it away once more. "Do you, ahh... live here?"
The boy nodded vigorously. "With my dad," he said, pointing towards the farmer guiding the plow in the distance.
Dad, thought Megan. A teacher of some sort? Then it came back to her, as a colloquialism out of history. It means father, she recalled. The boy lives with the man who fathered him. It seemed very odd.
The boy turned his attention back to Megan, looking over her flight suit. With the intuitive leap only children seem capable of, he asked in an awe-struck voice, "Are you from Earth?"
Megan blinked, marveling at whatever associative process had led the child to that question. "Yes, I'm from Earth. Do you know much about it?"
He nodded excitedly. "Oh, sure! We study about it in school. Earth is where the gods came from!"
The religious aspect puzzled Megan, and then she decided this was the name he had for the original Hercules cult members. Megan noticed his eyes hadn't flicked back towards his father when he'd used the word. She turned to take another look at the man, then back to the child. "Is your... dad one of the gods?"
The boy shook his head. "No, sir," and Megan blinked at the gender misidentification. "He was born here, like me. He was one of the first in the Native Generation." He pronounced the words carefully, showing obvious pride in the accomplishment of his father's birth.
That seems to work, thought Megan to herself. Thirty years is just enough time for a man to be born, grow up and father a child this age. Then the significance of the boy calling her "sir" sank in.
The boy could not possibly have any idea Megan might be a woman! There were no talking women in his life, no woman with an intelligence level remotely approaching his own. Women were simply farm animals.
Even his father might have the same perception. The man was older, fully mature, but the odds were he'd never seen a talking woman either. Wherever the original crew of Aurora was, there was probably no reason this man would ever come into direct contact with them. To explore the idea, she asked the boy, "Did the gods bring the..." she gestured at the "pigs," an arm wave that went further to suggest the herd in the barn and the pair pulling the plow, "...animals with them from Earth?"
The boy wrinkled his brows in momentary puzzlement, then matched up her word with a similar one he knew. "The girlimals? The gods brought seven with them, but they were untrained. They didn't know how to... do what they do now," he struggled to express the thought, "So the gods had to train them to be what they are."
That was probably as much history as she'd be able to get out of the boy, Megan decided. Maybe the father would know more. It should be safe, talking to the dad. The man wouldn't know Megan was a woman any more than the boy did. The bulky flight suit hid any obvious physical differences. Even her hair, cut very short as was required for members of the Space Force to accommodate helmets, headphones, and other assorted headgear, but styled in a way that anyone from Earth would recognize as feminine, wouldn't give her away. The style would mean nothing to him, given that he would expect some things to be different about anyone from Earth.
It was a lucky thing Megan had learned the farmer wasn't an original cult member, since she saw now she'd be talking with him in just minutes: the boy had streaked excitedly past her, waving his arms and shouting, "Dad!! Dad!! There's a man from Earth here!!"
After the boy reached his father the two of them spoke inaudibly for a moment. Then the man looked towards Megan and waved. "Let me just finish this row," he shouted, "And I'll be with you in a few minutes."
Megan shouted in return, "Take your time," nearly biting back the words at the end in sudden fear he'd recognize by her voice she was female. Quit worrying about that, she insisted to herself. She would have to rely on the man's inability to imagine she could be a woman. He doesn't even know what a normal female's voice sounds like, Megan realized, and obviously lots of men have high-pitched voices anyway. She was confident she could pass.
In about twenty minutes, the man reached the end of the row and adjusted the plow for free-wheeling. In a few minutes more, the women pulling it had brought it back to the barn, where the farmer unhitched them and patted their rumps. Neither gave much evidence of particular physical strain, other than the sheen of sweat, brilliant in the sunlight, covering their bare bodies. Their legs were magnificent even at rest, their breasts full and slightly uptilted, their shoulders broad, though looking odd in the absence of arms. They stood, shifting their weight from one foot to the other idly, looking blank but placid. One looked like Gretel Schweiz, the other was a clone of Sabrina Marion.
The man gave the plow a push into the barn, turned to Megan and held out his hand. That much social custom had survived the interstellar trip, Megan realized, as she shook hands with him -- her glove in his bare hand, actually.
"Glad to meet you. I'm Jason. I see you've met Bret already."
"Hi, likewise. I'm..." She hesitated just a fraction of a second, too short for him to notice, most likely. "...Martin," using a name with some resemblance to her own.
"So you're really from Earth? I imagine that would explain being dressed that way." He smiled.
Megan smiled back. "For real."
"Well..." Jason waved his arm in a gesture that encompassed everything around him. "Welcome to Freeworld. Now there's a sentence I never imagined myself saying."
Megan looked around. "The planet is called that, not just your farm?"
He nodded. "The gods named it that when they first came."
Freeworld. Probably a reference to being free from the control of women. It's a free world from the men's point of view, Megan thought. She could see the women wouldn't agree.
The man turned to his son. "Bret, towel down the horses and water them, while I get Martin into the house."
"Yes, sir." The boy ran into the barn to look after the... "horses."
Jason smiled again. "Come on in the house. You could probably use a cold drink. And not to be impolite or anything but... well, I can't help wondering what you're doing here." He turned to walk towards the house, with a friendly, beckoning gesture to Megan, and she followed him up the steps into a cool kitchen.
Jason went to a small, rudimentary refrigerator, the cooling mechanism clearly visible behind it, and opened the door, saying over his shoulder, "Beer? I grew the barley here. Friend down the road grows the hops."
Megan was about to answer, but froze suddenly, her astonishment surpassing any so far reached today. Sitting on the floor, now suddenly leaping to her feet with a yearning, almost desperate look on her face, fixated on Jason, was a complete, unmaimed woman, the first Megan had seen here. Naked, except for a metal collar encircling her neck, her hair was a bit longer than any of the women's outside, though still not shoulder length. She was breathing hard, almost whining, not as if in pain but as if she could hardly contain her excitement. Not from seeing Megan, whom she gave no evidence of even noticing. She had eyes only for Jason.
She looked exactly, absolutely like Janica.
Discarded on the floor beside the woman was a photocube she had been holding, containing a half-size image of Jason's head. She leaned a few more centimeters towards him, then flinched back with a squeak of sudden pain.
Megan was aware of Jason looking at her expectantly. She couldn't remember what he'd asked. "S-Sorry, what?"
He looked at her curiously, saw her attention attracted to the woman in the corner. "I was asking if you wanted a beer. Isn't she gorgeous? She's my favorite model."
Megan tried to fathom what that meant, realizing in a moment that with seven body types to choose from, Jason had picked this one out. One of the seven models. But for what? "What's she... I mean, what is she?"
Jason looked at Megan in astonishment. "Don't you have dollies on Earth?"
Megan shook her head slowly. "Not in my circles."
Jason grinned and sighed. "You don't know what you're missing. Bought this one about a year ago, had it imprinted on me. It's the greatest."
Janica -- Megan knew she wasn't the real Janica, but she didn't know what else to call her -- Janica grew more distressed by the second, holding out her arms to Jason in supplication, seeming to want to run to him but unable to, despite nothing visible keeping her in her corner. "Imprinted." Megan knew it as the word that described the instant attachment of baby ducks to their mother, making them follow their mothers anywhere. Obviously that was exactly what Jason meant.
Megan saw that Jason was holding a beer bottle, gesturing with it towards her questioningly. A beer certainly wouldn't hurt, she thought, and grabbed at it to give her hands something to do while her mind still whirled. Relieved of the burden at last, Jason grinned. "I better let her go before she goes crazy." He thumbed a button in the wall opposite the one behind Janica. Janica, seeing this, squeaked ecstatically and hurled herself across the room towards Jason, throwing her arms around him, hugging him so tightly the muscles in her arms quivered, rubbing her lightly-furred mound against his upper leg lasciviously, kissing and licking his neck as if in desperation for his taste and touch.
Megan took a long gulp of beer and tried to calm herself. She could never in her life have pictured Janica this way: as a mindless, passionately devoted, almost maniacally driven sex slave for a man. A man who referred to her as "it."
Jason laughed while wrapping his arm possessively around Janica's waist. "The electrified collar keeps it on hold while I'm working. Otherwise it'd chase after me out to the fields and I'd never get anything done."
Megan looked at the corner Janica had just vacated. Megan understood that the collar must have shocked Janica earlier, and would do so anytime she tried to leave her corner, until Jason pushed the release button. There was a food bowl, water dish, a pad to lie on, and behind all that a small cubbyhole in the wall with a toilet -- evidently Janica was toilet trained. She had everything she needed right there -- except Jason. The photocube must be there to remind her of him, Megan decided, to make her feel he was at least partly present. Judging from its smeared surface, she probably spent much of her alone time kissing it.
Bret came in, scuffing his feet dutifully on the entry mat before entering the kitchen. In the abrupt way of children, without further greeting Megan, he shouted "I'm hungry."
Jason nodded. "Me too. I'm sure you are too, Martin." Megan almost looked behind her to see who Jason was addressing before she remembered she was Martin. "Umm, yes, thank you." She drained her beer.
Jason snapped his fingers, and Janica instantly stopped rubbing up against him and looked at him attentively. When he pointed to the corner, she gave him a disconsolate look but turned and immediately went to the corner, sitting cross-legged, still watching him closely as he thumbed the button to reset the shock collar. She picked up the photocube and rubbed her face forlornly against the side of it.
Jason stooped and opened the lower portion of the fridge, clearly the freezer section judging from the escaping vapor. "Pork and veggies sound okay?"
Megan nearly said, "Sure," before her mind froze, a flood of horror breaking over her in a wave that nearly drowned her. Pork. Pigs. She'd seen the pigs. Those women were being fattened up to be eaten! Megan would be eating the flesh of a woman raised to be slaughtered for exactly that purpose. The meat could even be from one of Janica's clones! Megan might be eating her own sister! In any case, Janica or not, Megan knew she could never eat it. It would be hard enough watching Jason eat it. "I'm, err, I'm a vegetarian. Pretty common on Earth."
Jason nodded. "No problem. I'll fix you up something tasty."
"Could I... have another beer?"