In a private research facility in the southeastern United States, physicists Oscar Trask and Hutchison Carter are working with classified technology allegedly seized from the Germans at the end of World War II. So begins Folklore, a story by Robert A. Cook.
Carter is a conscript. He has no choice about what he does for a living, and Trask is essentially his keeper. Their experimental device is called a discomposer in official jargon, although they usually just call it “the centrifuge.” They are using specially modulated microwave signals as keys to unlock the mystery of the strange field the machine produces, attempting to understand its capricious, often bizarre effects.
One day, following a statistically anomalous series of malfunctions, Oscar and Hutch open a door they would rather have left closed.
The creature that falls into their test chamber is terrified, and once she regains her composure, angry as well. The most unsettling thing about her is not her alienness, but her conventionality. She seems very intelligent, and incredibly, speaks unaccented, colloquial American English with a few odd twists. Oscar and Hutch do not take this in stride. Her eerie familiarity spooks them. Hutch comes to think she’s delightful after he gets over his initial shock, but Oscar finds her frightening, “just plain wrong.”
The female gives her name as Maia Kopechne, which strikes Hutch as absurd yet somehow reassuring. Oscar, however, grows increasingly agitated as he realizes that Maia is basically just a person — and a bright, attractive one at that. He deals with it by going into denial.
“It’s probably no more self-aware than Bugs Bunny,” he tells Hutch once they are private. Hutch furiously disagrees, but in the end has to admit that their options are limited. Maia is a walking, talking security breach, and they cannot send her back. The centrifuge’s field would destroy her before the microwave key could be broadcast. Neither Hutch nor Oscar are aware of any facility for warehousing an alien waif from an alternate Earth. Project Folklore is organized into security cells, and Hutch is only authorized to acknowledge its existence to three people: his colleague Oscar; Lydia Cromwell, the CEO of the contracting firm for which both men ostensibly work; and Terrence Harvey, a government agent attached to the project. They must notify Harvey and let him do his job.
Hutch reluctantly accepts this, but is obviously upset. Oscar tells him to go home. He’ll get with Harvey and the two of them will take it from there. Hutch says he’ll be glad to put the whole tragic mess behind him and leaves. Oscar meets with Harvey and is obliged to sell Maia up the river. He knew all along that protocol made this development inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier for him.
Harvey is privately overjoyed to have the exotic, officially nonexistent female remanded to his custody, and he easily tricks Maia into accompanying him on a trek through cold, deserted corridors and a disquietingly deep ride in a cargo elevator to a room below the bowels of the building — one fully equipped for the elimination of biological evidence. Maia, who was a nurse in her former life and is far from stupid, recognizes the equipment immediately, but by then it’s too late.
She has already exhibited humanlike expressions of fear, anger, and hope, so presumably reacts just as normally to pain and humiliation. Harvey intends to test this hypothesis for as long as she can hold out.
Special Agent Terrence Harvey (not his real name) proceeds as one might expect…
Genus Homo, meet Genus Vulpes
Inasmuch as we humans are the dominant species of our world, Earth-η, vulpins are the dominant species of Earth-β, the first “alternate” or “parallel” world discovered through technological means. However, our two species had probably met before. The folklore of both worlds is full of legends that imply as much. We now know that the doors between universes sometimes open naturally when conditions are right, but neither civilization took such tales seriously until reality slapped us awake.
Vulpins are not, as their terms and superficial facial resemblance suggest, “evolved foxes.” Referring to them as such will win you anything from a blank stare (the word “fox” is not in their vocabulary) to an angry retort. They are the product of a unique evolutionary tree, and the fact that their terms for themselves are also our terms for several species of small, furry animals is no more surprising than that we share some of the same languages, and even similar historical events. That is consistent with Dr. Hutchison Carter’s Causal Seepage Hypothesis, which is outside the scope of this document.
Humanity’s world, Earth-η, has twelve species of Vulpes; Earth-β has only one: Vulpes sapiens. As with genus Homo on Earth-η, all other species of Vulpes are extinct on Earth-β. The planet does, however, hold many species of Canis that vulpins collectively call “primates.” In other words, their “dogs” and “wolves” are somewhat analogous to our monkeys and apes, but except for the universal presence of a muzzle and a tail, most look very little like our canines. The closest thing Earth-η has to an Earth-β wolf is the baboon, and even there the resemblance is remote and superficial.
If the common and scientific names vulpins use for themselves aren’t misleading enough, their gender terms are equally “foxy.” A female vulpin is not being cheeky when she calls herself a vixen. That is simply what she is, and a vulpin male is a tod. “Tod” is to “man” as “vixen” is to “woman.” Failure to bestow appropriate dignity upon those words is to commit a social blunder — and, if you’re a real boor about it, possibly earn a punch in the mouth.
You don’t want to annoy a tod. I direct your attention to the following image, a photograph of a plaque carried by Emissary Iota, the first vulpin-made object to leave their solar system. It was analogous to the human-built Pioneer 10, and in yet another sterling example of causal seepage, the plaques the spacecraft carried were strikingly similar.
The gentletod with his hand raised in greeting is drawn to correct scale. He’s two meters tall and covered with hair, and that is typical. Tods are no more aggressive than men — if anything they’re gentler because they have to be — but you don’t want one to hit you even if he’s just trying to get your attention. He could easily shatter your jaw.
Vulpins are far more sexually dimorphic than humans. A vixen standing 5 feet, 6 inches and weighing 140 pounds is a robust lady indeed, but a 6 foot, 6 inch, 220 pound tod is just average. Vixens are entirely hairless except for their scalps, eyebrows and eyelashes, ears, and tails. Tods are covered with thick hair everywhere except their faces, chests, stomachs, groins, hands, and feet.
In spite of their huge eyes, their daytime vision is not particularly good and they can’t see violet at all. However, their night vision is extraordinary. They have slit pupils like those of a cat, or (I hesitate to say this because I know how they feel about it) a fox. In close proximity and bright light, the effect can be unsettling. Individuals with light blue or green eyes can look positively wicked, particularly if they snarl and reveal their sharp canine teeth.
Both genders have large, triangular ears located higher on their skulls than those of a human. If shaved, they stick out and enhance their fox-like appearance, but normally they’re buried under long, thick tresses like the ears of an Afghan hound. Surprisingly, vulpins report that shaving them doesn’t significantly improve their hearing (which, like their sense of smell, is phenomenal). It is merely a fashion choice.
Like humans, vulpins can become sexually aroused at any time and, assuming a willing partner is available, copulate whenever they feel like it. Vixens have a monthly menstrual cycle similar to a woman’s, but a typical pregnancy lasts only 32 weeks. Neonates are born blind, deaf, hairless, and relatively undeveloped except for their respiratory systems. As their crania are larger than ours, this is probably an adaptation to allow their big skulls to pass through the birth canal. One offspring per pregnancy is the norm. Multiple births are rare.
Below the neck, except for the presence of a tail, a vixen’s body does not differ from a woman’s in any significant respect. Indeed, there is as much variation between females of the same species as there is between species, although on average, vixens are smaller than women and more delicately built. It is only upon invasive examination that one might notice a difference: a vixen’s vagina is built for a tod, and in spite of their intimidating stature, tods have very slender penises.
Nevertheless, as the following excerpt makes clear, interspecies sexual relations have occurred. Regrettably, the first known instance is an ugly stain on humanity’s record, but probably everyone reading this knows about that atrocity. However, in spite of her brutal introduction to the world of men and after a significant amount of time and healing, Maia Kopechne entered into a consensual relationship with her rescuer and friend, Dr. Hutchison Carter.
“Dr. Carter seems to be a sore subject. Why is that?”
She fixed me with a sharp, inscrutable stare and lit a cigarette. The sight of that exotic creature performing such a mundane human act was at once ludicrous and fascinating, but in point of fact, vulpins have been smoking for far longer than European humans, and might even have introduced it to Native Americans after some hapless individual stumbled through a natural inter-universal rift — or perhaps it was yet another case of causal seepage, we’ll never know. In any event, smoking has been known to all vulpin cultures since their earliest surviving records were written.
Unlike humans, they do not experience any deleterious health effects and over 80 percent of vixens take up the habit, which most contemporary vulpins see as effeminate. Only about 25 percent of tods smoke, and those who do are generally rebellious, artistic, flamboyantly theatrical, or gay. Apparently, most males avoid it because they find it effete and distracting.
Tods don’t like distractions.
Maia had been silently glaring at me for an uncomfortable length of time: 18 seconds according to the recorder I’m using, although it seemed much longer. “It hurts to talk about him, doesn’t it?” I said quietly, giving her my best sorrowful, sympathetic gaze.
She glanced down at her hands, and for a moment she looked much softer. Those impossibly long lashes briefly concealed the glittering black slits of her pupils. Then she blew a hitching jet of smoke and looked up, and I realized I’d hit the target. A single tear ran down the swale where her muzzle met one of her prominent cheekbones.
“Everything about loving a man hurts like hell,” she said. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“You mean physically, or…?” I hesitated, cursing myself for lacking the ghoulish instincts of a first-rate interviewer. You’re supposed to make ‘em cry, I thought, but this suddenly felt cruel and wrong.
“Emotionally,” she said. She wiped the side of her nose with her wrist and sniffled. “Both, really, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. He was kind to me. He risked his life to save mine. I was alone. He loved me, and I loved him. It was worth it.”
She paused and looked away. When she turned her face toward me again, those enormous eyes were dry. “Anyway,” she said, “it didn’t hurt for long.”
—Interview with the Vixen, Chapter 1: “Firefox”
Once they’ve adjusted to each other’s anatomical differences (a process I have been told is mostly psychological), humans and vulpins can take pleasure in each other’s bodies. However, our DNA is too dissimilar for fertilization to occur. In the early stages of their relationship, Ms. Kopechne occasionally had nightmares in which Dr. Carter made her pregnant, even though her rational mind told her it was impossible. As their bond developed, however, she began to grieve because he couldn’t — an issue that remains unresolved for her as of this writing.
While we can relate to each other in many ways, there is something in the emotional makeup of a vulpin that is unfathomable to humans, and vice versa. Considering that we are literally from two different universes, that’s not surprising. To the contrary, it’s incredible that we understand each other as well as we do. However, there seems to be a place deep within the psyches of each species that the other cannot reach. Tods are almost cartoonishly masculine, and vixens are über feminine. Compared to vulpins, men and women are practically the same gender. Humans can find vulpin partners exasperating. Conversely, vulpins often complain that intimacy with a human is like trying to relate to an androgyne.
Maia Kopechne is no longer a typical vixen, if she ever was one. Most vixens are modest to the point of prudishness, but she’s brutally frank, unabashedly brazen and routinely sheds her clothes in the company of humans she trusts (including her faithful biographer, moi). She says she got used to going nude while she was in hiding, and realized she was more comfortable in just her skin. Nobody except Hutchison Carter was around to see her anyway, and she wanted to remain accessible to him at all times.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to take this off. It’s making me claustrophobic and I know you’re not going to attack me.”
“Make yourself comfortable. It’s your apartment,” I said. Actually, I was surprised she’d made it through our first two sessions without shucking her bathrobe. In the circles I frequent, her casual nudism is legendary. She kept her place like a sauna, too. It must have been at least 85 degrees in there.
She took off her robe and tossed it to the far side of the couch, and I’ll admit, I was somewhat taken aback by how pretty she is. Graceful. I suppose she caught a whiff of something, because her eyes narrowed in sly amusement. “You can join me if you like,” she said, holding her ever-present prop coquettishly near her face (just assume she was always smoking unless I say otherwise; it’ll save me from being repetitious). “I rather wish you would.”
“Is that a proposition, Ms. Kopechne?” Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me….
“I haven’t decided yet, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t enjoy looking at men. It’s an acquired taste. You guys really look naked when you’re naked.” She sighed. “You can’t go home again.”
“Thomas Wolfe,” I said.
“A man named Thomas Wolfe wrote that. Did you just make it up?”
“Make what up?”
“‘You can’t go home again.’”
“Oh, yeah. It’s not exactly profound, is it?”
Although she’s welcome among her own people, she spends very little time with them. She says they bore her. “I don’t have anything in common with other vixens anymore,” she told me before we began the formal interview process. “All they want to talk about is tods and kits and housework, and tods have one-track minds. It’s all sex or politics with them.” She paused and smiled sardonically.
“They can’t even think about both at the same time.”
—Interview with the Vixen, Chapter 3: “Naked”
During the long, slow months that her existence had to remain secret, snuggling with Dr. Carter was the highlight of her life. Cigarettes, red wine and the internet came in second, third and fourth, in no particular order. She pronounced our TV programming garbage at first sight, and although she came to Earth-η speaking recognizable English, it was some time before she learned to read our Latin alphabet fluently. She was bored out of her skull.
She was probably always eccentric, and her confinement only brought it out. At any rate, one cannot overemphasize her peculiarity. Possibly owing to vixens’ lack of body hair, female nudity is at least as taboo among vulpins as it is in most human cultures; however, male nudity is common. There is no such thing as a swimsuit for tods, for instance. Their thick pelts are undoubtedly a factor. That their penises are concealed by a sheath unless they’re aroused probably is as well, but an erection slipping out in public inspires nothing harsher than good-natured kidding, and even that is considered juvenile. The mere sight of a penis shocks no one because vulpins cannot conceal sexual excitement even when fully clothed. Their phenomenal sense of smell is like a psychic ability in that regard.
Although I have been assured that this is not the case, I can’t help wondering if the double standard is as simple as, “We can strut around in nothing but our own God-given hair because we’re TODS, by damn, but don’t you dare look at my vixen!” By mainstream American human standards, vulpins seem extremely sexist. They live by the credo “equal but different” to a degree that could make a politically correct head explode, and to these small human eyes, one gender looks more equal than the other. Not only do tods and vixens look radically different, they think and act differently as well.
And Maia doesn’t think or act like anyone else I’ve ever met.
It slowly dawned on me that my mouth was hanging open. I’m sure I looked like an idiot. “I’m not following you,” I said carefully. “It almost sounds like you’re glad that the agent attacked you.”
Whatever reaction I expected, it wasn’t what I got. Staring blankly at her lap, she lifted her tail from where it lay beside her thigh and cradled it in her arms like a baby. She ran her long fingers through its soft fur, slowly rocking.
“I am,” she said softly. “If he hadn’t stopped to rape me, I’d be dead. He was just supposed to kill me, but he tore me down to nothing instead. He shattered me. It was all uphill after that.”
She finally looked up at me, and there was a wild light in her eyes. All vulpins are crazy, but for the first time I wondered if she was truly, clinically insane.
“As soon as I was sure this was healed,” she said, indicating her tail with a slight nod, “I presented myself to Hutch like a wanton slut. Do you know how… how not right that is? It is just not done. Tods chase. Vixens run away, but if we like the guy we don’t run too fast. Hutch had been rutting for me since the day we met. I could smell it on him. Every time I touched his hand, his musk blasted me right in the face. But you men are nothing like tods, or at least he wasn’t. If I hadn’t done what I did he never would have touched me, and after almost two months in that septic tank, I desperately needed to be touched.”
Hating myself, I suppressed a spastic chuckle and covered it with a small cough. This wasn’t funny, goddamn it, but her behavior was making me nervous and the pleading expression in those improbably large eyes reminded me of bad anime. “So, what you’re saying is…”
“I’m saying that Harvey tore my identity to shreds along with my clothes and my cunt, and I’ll never get it back. I’m more woman than vixen now, or maybe I’m nothing, but if that horrible man hadn’t broken me, I think I would have stayed aloof. I never would have got beyond seeing Hutch as a monster — a nice monster, but invulpin, you know? I couldn’t have smelled his sweetness without knowing Harvey’s stench. I wouldn’t have allowed myself to love him, and I wouldn’t have had anything to live for.
“One way or the other, I would be dead.”
—Interview with the Vixen, Chapter 3: “Naked”
That was the only time I ever had to cut a session short. She probably could have kept going, but I couldn’t. I was drained.
Normally, vixens handle the messy, routine, annoying stuff that never stays done, and they can do several things at once with smooth efficiency. They don’t even resent it. They call it “vixens’ work” without a hint of bitterness or irony, and they do it because if they don’t, nobody can. Tods, brilliant as they are in many respects, are barely capable of eating a sandwich and listening to music at the same time. Vixens can be difficult to understand, but compared to tods they’re strikingly conventional. Tods are a bit like idiot savants.
When left alone to concentrate, an average tod possesses a level of scientific and creative prowess that, quite frankly, leaves 90 percent of poor humanity in the dust. However, according to a certain long-nosed, charmingly exhibitionistic expert whom I trust, tods are easily distracted, and in noisy, chaotic environments they can turn into wretched, whining creatures who resemble nothing so much as gigantic, hairy, heavily muscled, sniveling 7-year-old boys. They are not multi-taskers.
I’m generalizing of course, but that’s the way vulpins tend to sort themselves out. Sexist as they seem, however, there’s one respect in which they’re less so than humans:
Vixens are fairly compensated for what they do.
Maia was a nurse in her previous life, and she wants to be one again if her undesired role as a celebrity ever leaves her enough time. However, being Little Miss First Contact does have its advantages. She’s set for life. If she wanted to spend the rest of her days lounging around her apartment naked, smoking cigarettes and entertaining an endless line of curious humans, she could do that. She won’t, though. She’s too driven.
Anyway, she was a nurse, specifically a “Rho Nu” (her culture’s term for an RN), but she stood to earn as much as a non-specializing medical doctor with an equal number of years on the job. That wasn’t even a year in her case, unfortunately. She fell down the rabbit hole only a few weeks after being certified.
“Hutch used to preach the same junk you’re shoveling,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s garbage. ‘Sexist’ is up there with ‘fox’ in my list of human words I never want to hear again.”
“So how many vixens become doctors?”
I won’t say daggers flew out of her eyes, but the points of her teeth flashed before she assumed a poker face. “Goddamn it, that’s insulting,” she said in a low, dangerous monotone. “If I thought you knew what you’re implying, I’d ask you to leave, then I’d see about getting that book you’re writing shut down. But I honestly think you believe you’re bringing enlightenment to a noble savage. You don’t understand us a bit.”
“So enlighten me, please. Why are there no male nurses or female doctors in your world?”
She began ticking off points on her fingers. “First, that isn’t true,” she said. “It’s just atypical and they’re often what you call ‘transgendered.’ Second, your job descriptions and our job descriptions are not the same. Except for surgeons, most doctors rarely see a patient. They’re sitting in dark, quiet offices reading numbers off a screen, providing backup and making the hard calls while the routine diagnoses and hands-on work are being managed by nurses. Third, I haven’t been able to figure out what your nurses do, but they sound like glorified maids. When a doctor needed to see the vitals on a patient, I made that call. By your standards, I am a doctor, or very close to it. Fourth, if you were to put any vulpin, male or female, through the kind of training you inflict on your doctors, all you’d get is a basket case. Most tods would fold under the pressure and most vixens would fail at differential diagnosis. Fifth, our health care doesn’t even consume a tenth of the resources yours does. We don’t put an army of parasites behind every clinic. It’s more efficient, more compassionate, at least as effective and nobody goes without it, so how dare you criti…”
I had been holding my hand up since point three. “Stop,” I said. “Your doctors sound like air traffic controllers. I get the picture.”
“I hope you do. Bless his heart, Hutch never did, but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t going to run off and write a book about us.”
“It really is like you’re from two different planets. We joke about that — ‘men are from Mars; women are from Venus’ — but in your case it’s actually true.”
“If you say so. From where I sit, men are just small-breasted women with penises.”
“Why ‘ouch’? I think you’re kind of cute, and I really do wish you’d get undressed and show me that epicene skin. What’s wrong with that?”
“Well, it’s a little…” I trailed off, realizing I had just been checkmated.
“A little what? Insulting? Degrading? Chew on that for awhile, then come back and tell me which one of us is sexist.”
For the umpteenth time I was reminded that I was in the presence of a creature who is smarter than average for her species, and that in all attempts to measure it, “average” for her species is around 120 on the WAIS — and that’s without even taking cultural bias into account. How the hell did we beat them to the brass ring of inter-universal travel?
Oh, yeah, we stumbled across it by accident.
—Interview with the Vixen, Chapter 6: “Moo”
I opened this article with a discussion of linguistics, so I might as well close with one. “Fox” and “sexist” aren’t the only words that can’t be found in a vulpin dictionary. They also have no need for “monkey,” “purple,” “teenager” or “realtor,” and we’re still discovering gaps in each other’s vocabularies. Maia understands all of those words, as well as the concepts behind them (she already knew the color purple existed, just as we know ultraviolet light exists, although she was initially amazed that we can see it), but most vulpins don’t.
And the knife cuts both ways. Her vocabulary contains dozens of words for different odors. She used some of them during our meetings, too. For instance, I translated “dulce” and “noice” to “sweetness” and “stench,” because most humans would not have understood what she actually said. Vulpins also have words for professions that we don’t need. Like, have you ever heard of a “caudalist”? That’s a tail doctor.
There’s one word, however, that both of our species use, and it means exactly the same thing. Regardless of how our faces are built, we’re people.