A Star Is Reborn: The Rooster
by Oren Otter
"ORDER UP!" Ralph Baromean responded sleepily to the cook's shout. It was five in the morning. He had been working all night and was looking forward to going to bed. His feet hurt, his back ached and his clothes were starting to smell like french fries. Not a bad smell for most people, but Ralph could barely stomach the scent any more. The waiter carried a tray bearing a cheeseburger and onion rings across the dining room to its new owner.
"Anything else I can get you today?" asked Ralph.
"Yeah, some ketchup."
Ralph strode back toward the kitchen and returned with the ketchup. "Here you go." he said, politely.
"Thanks." said the diner. "Hey, something's been bugging me. I feel like I know you from somewhere."
"It's possible." said Ralph. "I've been working here nigh unto six years."
"No... I'm not from around here. But I know I know you."
"Please don't say it." the waiter thought silently to himself, trying to angle his nametag away from the customer. "Please don't say it."
The morning cook, a rather corpulent woman by the name of Lucy, walked into the diner. "Morning, Ralph!" she chimed as she made her way to the time clock.
"That's it! Ralph Baromean!" said the customer. "You used to do that thing with the pizza!"
"Yeah. That's me." Ralph confessed. "I sang 'Pizza Date'."
"Hey, my girlfriend used to love you. We played your songs all the time. Like that one, uh... what was it? 'Krakatoa'!"
"Crack-a-Boom." Ralph corrected.
"No, I'm pretty sure that wasn't it. Hey, you used to be somebody. What are you doing here waiting tables?"
The former singer hated being recognized. He had given this speech so many times, he now had the short short version down pat. "I forgot to pay taxes and spent too much, my wife was a gold digger and divorced me within a year taking everything I had left, I tried to make a comeback but I was too old and no one wanted to hear my songs any more. So now I'm just a guy trying to make an honest living here in Rodcastle."
"That's rough man. Hey, sing something for me? I know, sing 'Just in the neck of time'."
"It's NICK of time. And I don't do that any more."
"Come on, man! Just one verse? I'll leave a big tip!"
"I'll be back to top off your coffee."
Ralph returned to the kitchen area and slumped against the fridge as he gathered his composure. Every time he was reminded how far he had fallen, it was like a punch to the gut. "Don't let it get to you." said Lucy. Ralph just shot her a weak smile in response. "Hey, Ralph, I got some cool news." beamed the cook as she put down some hash browns and eggs. "I finally got it done."
"Ooh, can I see?" Ralph asked. Lucy removed her hat. On the top of her head was a pair of cat's ears, covered in yellow fur with black spots. "My Dad gave me the rest of the money for it for my birthday."
"Congratulations!" said Ralph, giving his friend and co-worker a warm hug. I know you've been saving up for a long time."
"Seven years." said the cook. "And totally worth it."
"Those anime fanboys will be all over you." Ralph warned. The hostess was sitting a new customer down. Ralph took his pad out and went to take the fellow's order. "Welcome to Stan's Diner." he said tiredly. "I'm your waiter, Ralph. Do you know what you'd like or shall I come back?"
"I'll have the fish and hot popper basket. Hold the tartar sauce, and if I could get..." Ralph looked up from his pad to see the customer staring at him intensely. Oh no. Here it comes again. "Ralph? Ralph Baromean?"
"Yes. That's me." said the ex-celebrity. "And yes, I sang Pizza Date and Crack-a-Boom."
"Ralph, it's me, Dave." Ralph drew a blank. "Dave Crenshaw. From North Palm High!"
The waiter stared for a moment at the stately grey-haired man, seeing him for the first time. His clothing was expensive, his face a bit wrinkled. Mentally, he erased the wrinkles, colored the hair and dressed the man in a ratty T-shirt and jeans. "Dave? Dave!" Ralph's demeanor completely changed. "Dave, I haven't seen you in so many years! How are you doing?"
"Oh, very well!" said Dave, rising to accept a hug from his old friend and setting back down again. "Life has been very kind to me."
"What are you doing nowadays?" asked the waiter, sitting down across the table.
"You might not believe me if I told you."
"I started working in biotech back in 2103. I started working on the Fast Upgrade, Regeneration, Redesign and Youth project. And, well, long story short, I'm now the CEO of my own biotech company.
"Not at all." He motioned across the dining room to a table where a woman was sporting a tiger tail which swished lithely while she talked to her companion. "I invented that."
"Get outa town."
"Seriously. Don't believe me? Come down to the Genco building. I'll give you a tour."
Ralph looked out the window to the city of Rodcastle proper. He could see the Genco building towering over the downtown area. "I get off at six." he said.
Dave smiled. "I start work at seven."
* * *
Normally, Ralph would be exhaustd right now, and would already be in his bed, waiting for the sandman. But today, he felt oddly energized. It had taken longer than expected to get downtown. A panel on one of the train tubes had broken, making a vacuum impossible, forcing the train to take a longer route. To reach the Genco building, it was necessary to cross a large open square where buskers were in abundnce. On his way in, Ralph passed by a pair of duling violinists, a mime, a contortionist, some guy playing an odd intrument made from PVC pipes, and Darth Vader on a unicycle playing a set of laser bagpipes. There was also a woman doing elaborate dances with two long tentacles coming out of her back. He wondred idly why, if she had been wealthy enough to afford such a mod, she would be out here performing for spare change. He then thought of himself and had his answer. He'd once had a mansion with a swimming pool right in his bedroom. Now he dwelt in a sub-basement apartment next to a noisy elevator.
The security desk had been alerted to Mister Baromean's visit and, after giving him the appropriate guest tag, sent him to he 45th floor. There, in the sky lobby, he was directed to the executive elevator which took him directly to the office of the CEO. The receptionist ushered him right in. The office was enormous, almost cavernous. The walls were polished dark wood, except for the enormous window which overlooked the square below. Standing there at the window behind a large, cluttered desk, stood Dave Crenshaw, sipping coffee and looking thoughtful. "Ralph, delighted you could make it!" said the CEO. "You would have to come in and catch me not working, wouldn't you?"
"I figured it was the job of a CEO to stare out the window looking thoughtful." teased Ralph. "So it's true. You're a billionaire scientist."
"Trillionaire." corrected the businessman.
"I didn't think such a thing existed."
"Money's not worth what it was. This is 2126. A trillion dollars will only buy a few small countries these days."
"How'd you manage it though?"
"Oh, perseverence. You recall that horrific crisis when kilocoin was crashing? Then it was Autodollar? And then Digipound?"
"Do I ever. I lost a fortune on Gemcraft currency."
"I ate a lot of ramen dinners while buying up all the currencies that had gone into a nosedive. It was risky. I lost nearly a year's wages on some, but the ones that recovered recovered BIG. I invested everything back into the company and, well, the results speak for themselves."
Dave shook his head and whistled. "I never would have guessed it back in the day when you and I were hanging out in the holo-arcade with Susie Gumter. Say, what ever happened to Susie?"
"You don't know? She was a big name soccer player down in Colombia. Then the war hit and most of her team got drafted."
"And you, one of the biggest names in entertainment."
Ralph got suddenly somber. "Formerly. I'm a has-been."
"I'm sorry." said Dave empathetically. "I didn't mean to touch a nerve. Hey, you came here for a tour. How would you like to go see the really interesting stuff?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Dave slid a panel out of his desk and pressed a button on it. A door opened in what had looked like a seemlass wall. Beyond was a white corridor and beyond that, a labyrinth of laboratories.
A small robot which looked more than a little like fusion of a small child and a mouse came and greeted the two of them. "Good morning, Mister Crenshaw. And good morning to your friend as well."
Dave leaned down to read the nameplate on the machine. "Good morning... Albert. This is Mister Baromean, a friend of mine from my younger days."
"I am pleased to meet you, Mister Baromean. I hope you find your visit enlightening." Albert extended its hand and shook Ralph's warmly. "May I say you have strong hands, Mister Baromean? If you don't mind my curiosity, are you a physical laborer?"
"I am." said Ralph. "You're rather perceptive. And strangely curious for a droid."
"That's because he's not a droid." said Dave as he led his friend down the hallway. "Albert and his brothers are hybrots. They have mechanical bodies but their brains are organic, made from a combination of human and mouse brain cells."
Ralph looked shocked. "That has to be illegal." he posited.
"Oh, it was." he said. "Back in the early days. Long story, but we ultimately made hybrots legal by demonstrating to congress AND the supreme court that the hybrots are happy. Didn't you hear about that? Big news item in 2118."
"In 2118, I was rather preoccupied wih a messy divorce."
"Ah. Say no more, then." Dave reached a door and paused for a moment. "Always watch for the lights." he told his guest, pointing to a row of lights above the door. "Red light means toxic environment, blue means clean room protocols in effect, yellow is quarantined. This one has a gren light, so we can go on in."
Inside, it was a zoo. Literally. A humanoid tiger was running on a treadmill. He was completely nude, yet whatever scientist had designed his body had left it family friendly. A similarly nude humanoid frog was jumping on a specialized machine that appeared to be measuring his leaping force. Beyond that, a humanoid penguin was having his blood drawn.
A tall woman in a long, white coat approached. She had a pair of fox ears and a tail which wagged slightly as she spoke with a mild Scottish brogue. "Mister Crenshaw. Good morning. Have you come to check on the progress of the avian project?"
"Actually, I'm playing tour guide today. This is my friend, Ralph Baromean. Ralph, this is Stendy Dockerson, head of the rapid alteration research team."
Stendy looked at Ralph with his somewhat squarish face and curly brown hair. "THE Ralph Baromean? As in Baromean and Kline?"
Ralph smiled a smile devoid of joy. He had once partnered with a singer named Ringo Kline. Ringo had been a little turd who manipulated the legalese in their recording contract so that ninety percent of the profits went to the one who wrote most of the lyrics- himself. "Yes." he said, bitterly.
"Doctor Dockerson," said Dave, stepping in. "Why don't you tell Ralph what you've been working on here?
The scientist's eys lit up. "Absolutely. You've no doubt seen splicers here and there. People with cat ears, horns, tails, spots. Well... obviously you have now." She wiggled her fox ears. "That's just a small part of what we've been doing here at Genco." Dockerson started walking, leading her boss and his guest past a variety of animal-like people being poked, prodded and tested in various ways. "We've been instrumental in curing a number of genetic diseases. Cancer. Down's syndrome. Progeria. But this is what we're excited about."
Ralph peered into room where a humanoid mongoose was playing whack-a-mole as a reflex test. "Certainly this is dramatic, but if you're curing cancer, surely that's more important."
"In the short term, yes." said Dockerson. "But this is the first step into the bigger picture."
"What bigger picture? Dave, please tell me you're not one of those mad scientist types who wants to turn the human race into animals."
Dave laughed aloud, and Stendy couldn't help but chuckle as well. "Nothing like that. Picture this. Canton ivy is choking out farmland in the south. People are starving. Nothing eats canton ivy except the Chinese giraffe and no one has seen one of those since the sixteen hundreds. Here's a solution. Take a thousand starving volunteers and turn them into Chinese giraffes for a year. They repopulate the species, balance the ecosystem, get free meals for a year, everyone wins!"
"I don't think either of those things are real."
"I made them up, yes. That's not the point. We're looking at the complete transformation of one life form into another. The possibilities are endless."
"We can bring species back from extinction." chimed Dockerson. "Give soldiers extra abilities that don't require hardware. Give maritime rescue workers the ability to swim like dolphins."
"Imagine police who don't need guns." added Crenshaw. "Firejumpers who need no parachutes. Imagine having meaningful communication with all manner of creatures from prairie dogs to whales."
A smirk made it's way across Ralph's face. "Well, I admire your ambition. But what about the downside?" He indicated a hamster-woman who was running laps in a wheel. "What happens to her social life now that she's a rodent?"
"Oh, these transformations are only temporary." said Dockerson. "All of our test subjects will be changed back to their normal forms, all in perfect health. Of course, then they go into the Semac's Law study, but that's a whole different lab."
"Maybe you'd like to be one of our volunteers." Dave suggested. "The pay is good."
Ralph was tempted for an eighth of a second. "No thank you." he replied. "I can only imagine how painful the process must be."
"It's not painful at all." remarked Stendy.
"You've done it? The full body conversion?"
The scientist pointed to a wall with photos of the various volunteers. Among them was a very lovely humanoid peahen in a labcoat. "That's me." said the doctor. "February of 23. We're still working the kinks out of the bird forms. We still haven't managed to get one to fly."
Ralph studied the photo, then looked back at stendy. He could see a little bit of the peahen still in her face. He then looked at his old friend and wondered if Dave might have volunteered at any time. What he saw there was a look of... frustration? "Why the look, old chap?"
"That look you have right now that I last remember seeing when every single girl in North Palm High turned you down for prom."
"Not every girl." said Dave, trying to evade the question. Ralph just stood there waiting for an answer. "All right. You might as well know. What we're doing here IS legal, but it might not be for long. There's a heavy push from the anti-science community to make rapid alteration illegal. Some garbage about 'playing in God's domain'. The entire rapid alteration division could be shut down, billions of dollars and huge amounts of scientific progress: gone."
"That does sound... bad." was all Ralph could think to say.
The rest of the tour was rather boring compared to that first lab.
* * *
Ralph Baromean sat on his somewhat ratty sofa eating a TV dinner of processed ground beef, corn and watery potatoes. He had lost track of just what program he was watching. Some fantasy show on HBS about a federation of goblins. The scene became exceptionally dark for a while, and Ralph saw his own face reflected in the glass. Said face was wrinkled and a little pale from only working nights. His hair was an unattractive brown and stood out from his head in an unsightly mess of curls. His eyes were dull and carried a permanent sadness to them.
"If only I were younger." thought Ralph aloud. There were treatments available, of course. He'd seen some of them today. But those were for rich people. Ralph was just a waiter trying to make it from month to month on minimum wage and tips, and the state of Huron was currently talking about making the tipping system illegal. Of course, there was his friend, the trillionaire. He had money and wouldn't bat an eye at paying for such a treatment. But no. It was wrong to ask for a freebie, he was alwys taught, unless you earn it by giving something back. Ralph had nothing to offer. Maybe he could get a job in the company. But Ralph wasn't a scientist. He didn't know a mitochondrion from an amino acid.
A trailer for a historical documentary played about a superhero in Jefferson stopping an errupting volcano. The man was flying, of that there seemed no question. But he was wearing a reindeer costume. Ralph dismissed the story as nonsense and changed the chanel. An old game show was playing on the oldies station where a panel was trying to guess the identity of a singer in a mask. The singing was fine at first, but was quickly garbled by the machinery of the elevator next door. The TV went off. Ralph got his coat. it was still only late afternoon, though it was hard to tell in the sub-basement, and he didn't have to work tonight. A walk would do him some good.
A walk turned into a ride. The former singer couldn't help slipping deeper into depression as his thoughts kept returning to his friend's success and his own failure. On days like this, he liked to get on the train and just ride. He didn't care where. He just rode. Before two hours had passed, Ralph found himself downtown, rapidly approaching the Genco building. On a whim, he decided to visit the square in front of the tower. It was late spring here in Huron, though one could hardly tell from the chill in the air. The day would be quite long, so the buskers were still in full force. As he watched them, a smile began to build upon his face. It was fun to watch the jugglers, the acrobats, the mimes, the puppeteers, and so on. Across the plaza, he heard a dulcet voice. a very failiar, dulcet voice.
There was a woman in a fox costume shooting a video. It was a very well-designed costume, for the mouth moved in time with the words to the song "Mi Loco, Poco Amour". He wondered momentarily if this might be one of the full-body splicers he'd met in the lab the other day. But no, that was definitely a costume. The fox woman told her cameraman to take a break while she sat on the edge of a planter and caught her breath. "I know that voice." said Ralph as he approached her. "Alana Moreno?"
"Hello there." said the fox. "You're a fan, eh? I think I got a picture I can sign somewhere on me..." she patted herself down, but of course, there were no pockets as the fox she was portraying was completely unclothed. "Wait..." she got up and put her paws on either side of his face, pinning his unruly hair back. "Oh my Goodness, it's You! Ralph Baromean! I haven't seen you since the Gasden concert! How are you doing?"
"You look... very foxy." said Ralph, avoiding the question. "Is this some kind of advertisement you're doing?"
"No, it's... hey, do you mind if we move behind the bushes? I really need to take this head off and there's kind of a rule..."
"Oh, of course." The two friends moved where the vegetation blocked them from view and Alana removed the fox head. Underneath was a beautiful half-Mexican, half-Japanese woman with large eyes and straight black hair.
"Whew. it's hard to breathe in this thing sometimes, even with the articulated jaw."
"So what is it you're doing here? You said it's not an ad.
"Oh, no, not an ad. I do videos on MeTube now."
"Is that lucrative?"
"You know that guy, Smoopy X?"
"The one with the xylophone? Wanted to get into Green Man Tribe?"
"He's doing MeTube videos, and he just made his first hundred million. I bet Green Man is wishing they signed him on now."
"I have a lot of sponsors who are furries. They're big fans of Genco, so I came here to do a video with their building in the background."
'Furries? Aren't they like... perverts?"
"No, Ralph." said Alana with an exaspirated tone. "They just like animal characters. That's why I wear this suit. I play K'Buki Fox in some of my videos to make the furries happy. It's nothing dirty."
"Oh." Ralph blushed, embarrassed for having thought such a thing.
"What are you doing these days?"
Ralph fidgeted. "Not much. I..." Baromean stopped himself. He didn't want to tell her he was waiting tables now. "I was here, yesterday, in point of fact. I was visiting the CEO of Genco, Dave Crenshaw."
"Uh huh. Right. YOU know Dave Crenshaw."
"I do. We went to high school together."
"Good one. Well, I have to get back to work." Alana smiled and nodded to the approaching cameraman as she replaced her head.
"Beautiful costume." Ralph commented. "I wouldn't have known it was you if I hadn't heard you all the time years ago."
"Thanks." said K'Buki. "I hope I see you around."
Ralph made his way back across the plaza. He was halfway across the square when an idea hit him like a bolt from the blue. Immediately, he bolted in the direction of Genco. "I need to see Mister Crenshaw." he told the guard at the security desk.
"And you are?"
"I'm Ralph Baromean."
"And I'm Elvis Presley."
"Come on, man!"
The guard looked annoyed. "Sir, if you don't..."
"He checks out." said the guard next to him. "He's Ralph Baromean. And he's whitelisted."
"My apologies. Just let me get you a guest badge, Mister Baromean."
Dave was on his way to his private exit when Ralph burst into his office. "Dave, I have it!"
"If by 'it' you mean heart medication, good, because you just about stopped mine barging in like that."
"What? Oh. yeah, sorry. But Dave, I've got it!"
"Got what? You still haven't said what 'it' is!"
"A way to save your work and my career."
* * *
The crowd cheered raucously as the MC stepped out on the stage. "HELLO LANSING! Hey, thank y'all for the warm welcome. Hey, thank you, thank you. My name's Mellow Mike. But y'all know dat. And while I would love to rap for y'all, yo, I ain't gonna be doing that tonight. Because tonight, it is my privilage to host this new program, A Star Is Reborn!" The rapper waited for the cheering to die down once again. "To start things off, I would like to introduce to you one of the greatest names in science, THE richest man in all Huron, the mad scientist himself, Doctor David H. Crenshaw!"
"Thank you Mike." said the scientist, stepping out onto the stage.
"Yo welcome, Doctor C. Why don't you tell us more about what we'll be seeing here tonight?"
"Well, Mike, I'm sure you know about splicing."
"Yeah, that's where you get yourself a tail or a flipper or like that. Hey, look, I got something to show ya." Mike turned around and lifted up his shirt, revealing a back covered in leopard spots. The crowd ate it up.
"We did that!" said Dave proudly.
"Yo, man, easiest tattoo I ever got."
"Well we've taken splicing and taken it a step further. We went out and rounded up thirteen celebrities, then we gave all of them full body transformations. You, the audience, will have the job of trying to figure out who they are."
"That's right! Now you can download the voting app for your phones, bracelets or S-chips from the Genco website or from the HBS website. Y'all guess wrong, they stay like they is and they keep coming back. But if fifty-one percent of y'all guess right, that celeb is eliminated, and they go back to being they old, washed up, pathetic human selves. That right?"
"That's right, Mike. And we've taken great care to keep the identities of the participants completely secret. Even their families don't know who they are."
"And to the last one standing goes a cash prize of five BILLION dollars!"
Dave raised an eyebrow. "Back in my day, our superstars only cost a few million."
"Yo, that's inflation for ya, man. Now to help you guys make some educated guesses, we got a panel of experts over here that are gonna try to figure out all the clues. Lemme introduct them to y'all."
"All right, who do we have?"
First, we got the meanest chef in the entire world, chef GEORGE KAKU!" There were as many boos as there were cheers for him.
"Yeah, boo yaselves!" the chef jeered back.
"Next we got the inventor of the nanodisk, recording company magnate JERRY STUBBS!" This time, there was a huge cheer.
"Thank you, Mike. thank you, Doctor. It's great to be here."
"And our third and final expert, hailing all the way from Ross Island, it's the ice queen herself, actress NICOLE AMUNDSEN!" This time, the cheer was deafening.
"Thank you!" said the voluptious black actress. "It's so awesome to be here. We don't have ANYTHING like this in Antarctica."
"Awright, thank you, experts, thank you, Doctor Crenshaw." said Mellow Mike. "And now, let's bring on out the first of our mystery celebrities. Singing "Last One to Fall", here is THE ROOSTER!
The curtains parted. There stood Ralph Baromean, not the curly-haired, wrinkled, sad-eyed man, but something completely new. He ws dressed only in a fine gold vest, the rest of his body being covered with thick feathers. His body a deep maroon, his head white, his tailfeathers an almost metalic aqua. His comb was large and bright red, his wattle small, but equally scarlet. Spreading his wings, he opened his beak and sang the first line of his song. The audience went nuts.
* * *
Backstage, one of the other performers was having an impromptu meeting. "What are you doing here? Someone is going to see you."
"Relax. This show is all about secrecy. No one is going to know we were here."
"Do you have it?"
"Two hundred fifty million has been depsited into your offshore account. The other two fifty is yours once this freakshow is history."
"Don't worry. You just take care of your end of the bargain. I'll make sure this thing goes way south."
* * *
Ralph was over the moon. He went back to his dressing room, passing the dolphin and the kangaroo along the way. On his door was a gold star which read only "the rooster". Each of the performers had one like this. They could tell no one their true identities. Not even their families. Each person had an official excuse for suddenly disappearing. In Ralph's case, it was that he had just taken up a very lucrative job in bioengineering. That was true enough. Out on the stage, a rat was belting out a bombastic Italian aria. The rooster listened, nodded his approval and slipped into his dressing room.
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. "Come in!" Ralph called, still surprised at how different his voice sounded now that it was coming out of a bird's throat.
Dave Crenshaw came through the door. "Hi, R..."
"Ah ah ah!"
"...Rooster. I wanted to congratulate you on your performance."
"Thank you, Doctor C. I owe it all to you."
Crenshaw shut the door. All sound from outside ceased. "I thought I was going to faint doing that introduction." said the scientist. "I am NOT one for public appearances."
"You did okay." said the Rooster. "So what did you think of my performance?"
"You were spectacular." said Crenshaw without emotion.
Ralph thoughtfully scratched his wattle with his thumb, the only finger remaining on his wing. "Something else is bugging you."
"I've got a bad feeling." said Dave. "I can't shake this feeling that someone is going to sabotage the show."
"Why would anyone want to do that?"
"Like I said before, there's an anti-science crowd who are fighting us on keeping transformation legal. Actually, it's not one crowd. It's more like a dozen little crowds. I've amped up security, but I still have a terrible sinking feeling."
"Who do you think it might be?" asked Ralph.
"That's just it. I don't know. Could be right wing nut jobs, left wing nut jobs, a rival company, the mob... PETA..."
"Well then, we'll just have to keep our eyes peeled."