Normally, Albert E. Washington loved his job at Quantum, Inc. He got to think, create and nerd-out all he wanted to, and he got paid well for it. Last week, he’d finished helping design a prototype motherboard that had the potential to be groundbreaking if the test models worked. Which they will. Albert had complete faith in his and his coworkers’ skills. They were all going to be well-known names in their field after the motherboard was put on the market. But Albert didn’t care about his name being out there. He wanted to create the best products he could in the information tech sector.
It was very important to him to succeed. Shifters weren’t known for being tech-savvy, though many of them were quite adept with modern technology.
Still, the majority of shifters preferred more physical or manual labor, which tended to mean working outside. Albert didn’t blame them—his cat liked being outside, too—but his brain thrived on challenges, and his curiosity was endless.
Albert stretched and purred when his spine popped in several places. The sunlight was streaming through his office window, and the desire to curl up and take a nap was strong. Alas, one of the cons of working in an office versus outside. Can’t relax in the sunlight for an hour or three. Not that his fellow shifters were outside napping on the job, but they were getting the benefit of direct sunlight, whereas Albert got the glass-filtered version.
Eh. I love my job even if I wish I had more sunlight. And a cat tree in my office. He was comfortable at Quantum, even though he was one of only a few shifters employed there. Species didn’t matter at Quantum. Most of the people he worked with were geeks like him, and bullying wasn’t something that happened on the job.
After growing up in public schools and going to college at sixteen, Albert had too much experience with being bullied. Sometimes he’d been picked on for being a shifter despite the fact that humans and shifters had coexisted for centuries. There were still some assholes that wanted to hate a species just for hate’s sake, and that was true of humans and shifters both.
Albert didn’t care who was what. Most other people hadn’t cared either, so he’d been able to get past the ones who had. He’d caught more shit about being gay than he had about being a shifter.
Gods knew, if Albert heard, “But you don’t look gay,” from one more person, he was going to possibly scream. He didn’t know what ‘gay’ was supposed to look like, but apparently, it wasn’t him. Stupid stereotypes.
Albert pushed his taped glasses up his nose then grinned because he did fit the stereotype of the geek with taped-together glasses. At least he used cool tape, though, not the white kind. Albert had used blue tape with computer monitors printed on it.
He glanced at the window and winced. He’d gotten distracted from his task and needed to keep on track.
Albert spun in his chair and saw his boss, Ezra Harrington, standing in the doorway. Ezra was one of the other shifters at Quantum, and like Albert, he too was a cat.
“You look like you could use some fresh air.” Ezra winked at him. “Want to deliver this camera to a photographer doing a shoot? His name is Marco, and he’s down the street in the square not far from the Alamo.”
“Uh.” Albert got up. “Sure.” He walked over and held out his hand.
“Thanks.” Ezra gave him the camera bag. “Take your time—within reason, of course. Wouldn’t want you to doze off in a sunny spot and not return today.”
“Okay.” Albert waited for Ezra to get out of the doorway, then he left the building, slightly puzzled by being given the errand. He couldn’t remember ever being sent out like a delivery boy, especially for a product he’d had nothing to do with.
Albert hadn’t been one of the developers for the camera, so why he got to deliver it was beyond him. He wouldn’t have dared to argue, though. Ezra was a cool boss, and Albert would walk a few blocks in the awful heat for him. As much as Albert loved sunlight on his skin, he kind of hated the triple-digit heat and the humidity.
Albert started sweating a few feet out the door. He was going to be gross and slimy by the time he handed off the camera. His glasses slipped again and he huffed in annoyance. He’d ordered a few pairs after his debacle this morning. The neighbor’s kitten was lucky Albert hadn’t fallen on it when the little thing had tripped him up.
As angry as he’d wanted to be about his glasses, he’d only had to look into the big blue eyes of the fuzzy white kitten to decide the glasses were worth the sacrifice—he would have been devastated if he’d hurt the kitty.
One strap of Albert’s suspenders started to fall down his shoulder. He reached for it and bumped a guy speeding past him.
“Watch it, asshole,” the man barked at him, flipping Albert off. The heavy scent of canine made his nose sting. His cat wanted to run away, but Albert reined the instinct in.
Then he stumbled over an uneven spot on the sidewalk and bumped into someone else.
“Move,” the guy growled. “Fuckin’ nerd.” That insult came from someone who was strictly human. His scent was just as rancid as the dog’s had been, though.
“Some people are such assholes,” said a lady on his left.
Gods, everyone was going to call him names! “Sorry,” Albert mumbled, wishing he’d told Ezra to send someone else on this venture.
“I meant those two idiots,” the woman clarified, smiling broadly at him. She was older than him by a few years, he’d guess. She had pretty brown eyes and green and pink hair. She also wore tortoise-shell horn-rimmed glasses that did nothing to detract from her cuteness. “Are you okay?”
Albert fixed his suspenders and blushed hotly. “Yeah. Thanks.” He sniffed as unobtrusively as possible and picked up her scent. She was a shifter, though not a cat. She had the baby-powder and carrot aroma of a rabbit.
“Dude, I hate bullies like them. People now days are so rude and full of themselves.” She winked at him. “I’m Perry Chacon. You’re a cat?”
“Hi. Albert.” Albert was confused. “Yeah, I am. You’re a rabbit. Um, why are you talking to me?”
“I’m a killer-bunny, or at least a snarky one.” Perry laughed. “Oh, and I’m talking to you because you looked like you could use a kind word instead of a name-calling. Plus, I’m working at the photo shoot down at the square. Ezra told Marco that he’d sent someone with some fancy new camera he wanted Marco to try out. I got to play lookout for you!” She hooked an arm through his. “So, come on and meet Marco.”
Albert followed before he could think about it. His phone buzzed with an email and he took it from his shirt pocket. “But I could give you the camera—”
“Oh, no, no,” Perry protested. “If Marco has questions, I won’t be able to help him, and Ezra said he would be in meetings for hours.”
So that means any questions Marco has will fall to me to answer? He noted the junk email and started to tuck his phone back in his pocket, then decided the camera bag was probably a safer place for it, considering the jostling he’d gotten already. “I didn’t design the camera or anything. I don’t know why Ezra sent me.” He put his phone in a small outside pocket of the bag.
“Probably because he knows you’re super-smart and could figure out anything Marco needs to know anyway,” Perry replied. “I bet you got a perfect score on your SATs and ACTs.”
“Not quite,” Albert muttered. “I missed a few questions on each.”
“Well, even I know that everyone working at Quantum has to be, like, a genius,” Perry said, grinning down at him. She was taller than Albert’s five-five, no surprise there. Most people were taller than him.
“Er. Mostly we just have to have a Bachelor’s.” He had a Master’s. Albert really didn’t want to talk about himself. “Uh…” But he wasn’t sure what other topic to broach.
“How long have you worked at Quantum?” Perry asked. “Do you like it there? Are you part of a clowder?”
“Four years and three months,” Albert replied. “Uh, and yes? And, um. No. I don’t know of anyone who lives in a clowder.” Then again, he didn’t hang out with a variety of people, so he didn’t know how common clowders were now.
“You like your job?” Perry stopped walking and looked at him. “Are you not sure? You didn’t sound certain. That’s kind of a bummer about the clowder thing. I always thought that’d be cool. But rabbit shifters don’t have a crap-ton of babies—usually. I guess I shouldn’t have expected cats to live in clowders. None of the cats I’ve met lived in clowders.”
“Uh, I am sure. I do like it, I just…” Albert shrugged and the bag with the camera slid down from his other shoulder, catching at his elbow. He should rethink where he’d put his phone, but Albert just left it in the bag. “Um. I don’t know how to do this.”
“This what? Have a conversation?” Perry started them walking again. “Simple. Just like we’re doing. You seem to be a cautious cat.”
Well, that was obvious, but Albert felt out of his element. At Quantum, he was amongst his own kind, as it were. Not shifters, but introverts who weren’t at home chatting with strangers. People like Perry never looked at him outside of Quantum.
Except, she had looked at him. And that made Albert start to worry. Is she flirting with me? Does she want to date? Or have coffee? Gods, should I tell her I’m gay? Not that he was ashamed of it, but saying anything that personal to a stranger was next to impossible.
Maybe she’s only being nice. It could happen.
Albert realized he’d stopped listening to her and started listening to his inner fear-mongering. Now he had no idea why she was staring at him. He gulped—and choked on his spit, which led to an embarrassing sound coming out of his nose as he hacked. It was almost like coughing up a hairball, except worse.
And he was so loud that several people turned and looked at him.
Several attractive, shirtless men.
Where is a giant sinkhole when I need one?