by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2009 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #26 -=- ANTHRO #26 Stories
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This is a TBP (Tales of the Blind Pig) story. Go here for info on the TBP setting

   Maybe I’m just a raccoon who scavenges in the city’s alleyways. But however humble it might be, my identity is precious to me. And now that nightmare was coming back upon me again. If I couldn’t crush it down into my subconscious again it would overwhelm me and make me forget who I was. Will I forget forever, this time?
   I could feel it crawling inside my skull. I knew that as soon as I slept, it would start gnawing its way into the light. To keep it down, I had to find a safe place to sleep; a place near some people with clean minds.
   Not necessarily healthy minds. Who can stay sane in a world as crazy as ours? Besides, some of the healthiest minds are the most cruel. They’re all sharp angles inside. Their only music is a clacking like interlocking gear teeth. Their thoughts have no colors, only sharp-edged shapes in black and white, and they’re cold. Numbingly cold.
   Take my word for it; no matter how much the power of their mind might tempt you, never ever tap into someone who is too rational.
   By contrast, the thoughts of the ones who are a little crazy have the most beautiful tones, the most vivid colors, and sometimes a clarity of intuition that the so-called sane ones could only dream of. A touch of madness, if it is only a touch, isn’t the problem.
   The problem is filth. Hate, anger, indifference to my well-being (or to anybody else’s, too, I suppose), joy in causing pain, these things will warp your thinking. And that’s beyond the obvious physical dangers in being around people who like to hurt other creatures, especially small furry ones.
   I need what any pet needs; a warm bed, a roof overhead, a bowl of food and a bowl of water untainted by motor oil or gasoline. But I’m unusual enough that I need something more, too. I need minds that are clean. They can save me from that nightmare. The color of their thoughts, the patterns of their dreams, their sure knowledge of their own names, their unquestioned, unknown faith that nothing can change what they really are inside—how I envy that!—these things flow out openly. Freely given, they can flood full into my own thoughts and paper over the horrible nothingness that rises to take control of me.
   Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to find people so kind that it’s safe to let them see me. That’s the best of all. As long as I see myself through their minds, I can’t forget what I am.
   Unfortunately, when that nightmare started stirring this time, I was more vulnerable than I had been since I can remember. I haven’t been so helpless since the Martian Flu changed me; perhaps I hadn’t been so helpless before the Flu either, although of course any memories from those days don’t make any sense to me now.
   It was dawn, the time when I am sleepiest. Already, I hadn’t slept in two days. I’d been running from Snake, my former owner, for that long. I was having a devil of a time trying to get away from him.
   Snake wasn’t bad, really; I’d never have let him catch me if he were. He was the best I could find at the time, not that this was saying much.
   He wanted to be kind, but the needle in his arm ruled him. When he didn’t have his needle, his mind went oily gray-green with need. When he got it there was nothing inside him at all for hours. When the needle started to wear off, the anger and loathing would churn inside him, black and red, and he’d look around for something to break or hurt.
   His eyes would fall on me then, in my cage, and the fires would flare up. So far he hadn’t hurt me, but I know too much about fighting my own nightmares to think that he could fight his down forever.
   One night, when he went out onto the streets searching for another needle, I’d unlocked my cage and found my way out of his room. Once I reached the street I thought that would be the end of it. But when Snake found that I’d escaped he cranked himself up on some other kind of needle that kept him awake, and then he came looking for me. He wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t sleep, and he just wouldn’t stop.
   It was sad, in a way; it was mostly the clear blues and healthy greens that still survived somewhere deep in his mind that made him search so long. But those healthy colors were fading every day. I couldn’t trust them. I had to get away.
   When that nightmare started to come upon me, I’d finally gotten far enough from Snake that I couldn’t hear him any more. That meant I couldn’t run back to him for help either!
   I’d fled into a part of town I didn’t know. It was even more run-down and hopeless than Snake’s neighborhood, if that were possible. There wasn’t a clean mind anywhere near, few of any other kind either, and those there were made me shudder to touch them. Hardly any of them had any spare power to speak of. Honestly, some of the people you meet on the streets are so burned up by drinks or needles that it’s almost all their brains can do to keep their lungs working.
   Worse, I couldn’t see the Shadows at all. I’m sure you know how hard it is to move around safely when you have no idea what’s about to happen, not even ten or fifteen minutes into the future!
   With nobody to tap into, I was down to the level of the small, scared little animal that is the real me. I was running on instinct alone. I couldn’t remember why I was running, only that I needed to run; I couldn’t tell what I was looking for, only that I had to keep looking until I found it.
   My mind was so limited that I couldn’t even read the street signs. About all I knew beyond the greenest raccoon kit, fresh out of the woods, was that I had to look both ways before I crossed the street, and we all learn that quickly enough. We do if we don’t end up as roadkill stew within the first week after we hit the asphalt, that is.
   I felt something. I stopped right there and listened to it. Somewhere ahead of me was some center of warmth, perhaps even safety. I should have been able to tell how far away it was, but I couldn’t. Inside the warmth were many beautiful colors. One in particular caught my attention, a sharp blue gleam that came and went. It was a mind that burned with power. Its thoughts were nearly as hard-edged as the cruelest of the cruel, yet its hardness was based not on indifference or greed, but on… love? Fear? Some strange mixture of both?
   I edged out between two parked cars. I think one of them must have been parked there for a very long time; I seem to remember that it was resting on the pavement, with no way to crawl beneath it, which would mean it didn’t have wheels any more. I put my head out, looked left, looked right.
   I looked right into the eyes of a human I hadn’t even known was there. How I failed to sense his presence I will never know. I felt him now; felt the heat of his thoughts blaze up in a sick fire. I jumped back. His heavy boot whistled as it passed through the space where my head had been an instant before.
   “Damned furball…”
   I ran. There was a dead tree planted near the edge of the sidewalk, its trunk surrounded by a short cage of rusted rails; some forlorn relic of one of those periodic attempts at urban renewal, I suppose. My instincts told me to climb the tree, but somehow, in a momentary blue flash of higher thought, I realized that climbing a tree was what a raccoon always did, so it was the one thing I shouldn’t.
   With hardly a pause I ran around a set of steps and dove into the litter accumulated in the angle between the steps and the building’s wall. There was little to hide me there. Should I try to burrow under the trash? My persecutor might have seen me jump behind these steps. Should I turn and bare my teeth and get ready to fight?
   There was a hole in the masonry under the steps! Some bricks had fallen out, and another was loose. I pulled it aside. Using all my strength, aided by the fact that I hadn’t eaten in a day and a half, I squeezed through the little hole into a tiny dark space of earth and mortar-droppings beneath the steps themselves. I was safe enough here for the moment, if my persecutor hadn’t seen where I’d gone.
   He hadn’t. I could feel him out there, his thoughts full of anger and the image of… gasoline on fur… a match… something crawling away from him, engulfed in flames, squealing. I shuddered. Gathering what strength I could from myself and from his own mind, I reached inside him and pushed:
   You just heard the sound of claws on pavement, around the corner in the alley.
   The push worked, thank goodness. I heard his steps and felt his mind move away. For a few blessed minutes I was alone, and safe.
   But then he came back. Terror grew in me. I made myself small as I could, almost broke contact with him, only keeping the barest touch on what he was thinking.
   He was angry. Not just about missing his chance to torture me, but angry about everything and nothing. Now he came and sat down on the steps right above my head. I hadn’t escaped my persecutor at all; I’d hidden almost inside his very home!
   The sun was rising high in the sky. I hadn’t slept for so long! I could still feel the safety of clean minds, many of them, somewhere ahead. I could walk to them, once I got out of here. They couldn’t be too far away. But with my persecutor, the human named—I listened to him—named T. J. Lee, sitting right over my head, I could never reach safety before sleep took me now.
   There is one advantage to being a scared, nearly mindless little creature: You accept things exactly as they are. Denied the ability to reason, you’re also denied the ability to reason things away.
   What was left of my mind was as cold as clean water, as crystalline-clear as diamond: I was trapped between two terrible enemies. One was T. J. Lee. The other was that nightmare, which I then understood only as something bad that would come to me if I slept. But I was going to sleep. I had no choice. My only hope was to sleep and survive the bad thing, whatever it was, or not survive it. If I survived, it should be getting dark by the time I awakened. The evil man would go away, or at least I’d have the cover of darkness when I tried to escape him.
   There was nothing else I could do. So, with what I suppose was a bit of genuine courage, not knowing if I would wake up again, I closed my eyes and let sleep take me…

   I saw the Dying Man’s face again.
   The nightmare isn’t always quite the same. Sometimes I see the Dying Man reaching into my cage to offer a treat, or petting the dog, the cats, or the ferrets; he had so many pets! Sometimes he is hugging the woman or the boy, or just talking to them. I feel his love, then. Yet his thoughts and emotions are strange. They have no cheerful pink, no lovely musical tones to them, as these same emotions have when I hear them from the people around me. At the same time, they strike me almost as strongly as my own emotions!
   I can’t explain it, but who can explain a nightmare?
   We are all safe and happy, the humans, the pets, in a warm little world of our own. I see the million day-to-day events of a simple life. We are each part of a beautiful whole.
   I see him working. I see him reading books in the evening, because the Talking Picture Box is bad and only tells stories about the sickness; and he can do nothing about the sickness, so he doesn’t want to know. I see him caring for us, his pets. Sometimes I see his face reflected in window glass, in silvered glass, looking back at me.
   This time, the Dying Man was playing chess. He moved his knight, and the man on the far side of the board turned his king on its side. Then I saw the Dying Man holding a silver trophy in the form of a chess knight. It was only cheap plastic, but he was happy and proud to have it. The woman and the boy smiled at him as the bright lights flashed.
   He turned back to the chessboard to face a new challenger. An unusual challenger, this one, and a bit alarming; all dressed in shapeless black, his face hidden in darkness. No matter; these sixty-four black and white squares are my world. We are all safe here. The world outside is too big and too dangerous, but in my little world I can hold my own against anyone.
   The dark challenger moves his queen into a hopeless position. The Dying Man pounces, taking the queen with his pawn. But the queen is still there; it is his pawn that has vanished. One by one he uses his pieces to strike against his enemy. One by one his pieces disappear.
   He screams that this is unfair, it breaks the rules. One of them might catch the Martian Flu. His wife or his son might be changed into something new, different, and wonderful. There is even a chance, a tiny chance, that the dark challenger might take one of them away. But all of them? The wife, the son, the unborn daughter, all of them?
   It’s unfair, he screams! And his scream becomes the ringing of a telephone in the darkness of 3:00 AM.
   Tears blind him. Dead, all dead. The sorrow and despair are overwhelming. He staggers toward the window, shivering at the fever that is now beginning to burn him too. But he doesn’t care. He wants it to end.
   In the window glass, the reflection of his face changes. The flesh dissolves away, leaving only a skull.
   The pets are gone to the homes of friends and neighbors, except this little fellow; appropriate that he stays here, for he is dying too. Poor little raccoon. Whatever got him just mauled him too badly. At least he had a warm, quiet place to die. Perhaps, as he died, he knew he was loved.
   But the bandaged furry form has moved. It is—I am—weakly nuzzling at the bowl, licking up the thick creamy soup.
   Perhaps the Dying Man smiles. With his flesh dissolving, it’s hard to tell. His hand is nothing but bones as he touches my collar and strokes my ear, but there is still love in it.
   He opens the door of the cage and carefully ties it back with a wire so it can’t close again. He kicks the bag of dog food open and opens a window to give me a way to escape when I want.
   This little one, this raccoon he found in the gutter, will go on. This one, at least, lives. In that he feels a moment of overwhelming joy that I cannot understand. Why should he care? Why should survival for some other creature, not himself, not even his mate or his young, make him so happy? And yet it does. I wish I could feel joy like that.
   The raccoon will live; the Dying Man won’t. Now comes the worst part of the nightmare, the sorrow and despair that rise up and blot out the world. He will lie down and wait for the darkness to take him.
   I can’t blame him. The Dying Man’s sorrow was unbearable, unfathomable. If it was me, I would run anywhere or do anything to escape sorrow so powerful.
   Anything at all…

   My eyes were wet. I was crying as a human would. I woke up, shaking, wanting to vomit. Somehow I remembered I was in danger, and didn’t scream.
   But I still remembered who I was. I had survived that nightmare one more time.

   T. J. Lee tilted the wine bottle back until it was gone. “Damned furballs,” he muttered, throwing the bottle into the alley. It hit a brick wall and smashed.
   “You’re obsessed with that raccoon,” Leon said.
   I grinned, if raccoons can grin. I’d let Lee see me a few times, always when it looked like he might have some chance to catch me but really didn’t. It was driving him mad.
   I liked bothering T. J. Lee. He had wanted to set me on fire, and I wanted to get him for that. Getting him worked up was a down payment on my revenge.
   Of course, I had a nagging bluish notion that I shouldn’t want revenge. It wasn’t like me. It was downright weird that I’d think like that at all. But you have to stand up to the bastards! You let the other guys on Sixth Street know they can push you around, and they’ll do just that. They’ll take away your pride, they’d take your smokes or your wine or steal your money. You’ll never impress the sweet ladies if you let them diss you. They ain’t gonna push me, me, around and get away with it!
   I’d gotten to know T. J. and Leon and Carlos and the other inhabitants of Sixth Street. I’d started to see the Shadows again. T. J. and Company didn’t have much smarts to lend me, to make the Shadows become solid; but they did the same things, or the same nothing, every single day. That evened things out a little. Their Shadows, at least, were pretty solid, even if those of the other people around weren’t.
   Their minds weren’t the prettiest. T. J.’s mind was always the rolling black and red of anger and the sickly sour oily green of despair. He needed someone to hate, T. J. did. It didn’t matter much who. Last week it had been the cops, and then some raccoon who had the gall to run away before he could be properly burned alive. He didn’t have anyone to hate at the moment, but he was working on it. Not having anything else, he was remembering an ancient grudge. Something about starting a fight in a bar over on West Street and being tossed out on his ear. He was working up a good hate over that one.
   Usually, when I get into someone’s thoughts, I start to feel a little sympathy for them. In T. J.’s case, though, the more I knew him the more I wanted to hurt him, in ways ranging from great all the way down to petty.
   I’d even thought about just dashing out from hiding and biting him on the ankle. I could do it; I was behind a garbage can not ten feet from the steps of the transients’ hotel where Lee had been sleeping for a few days. He was sitting on those steps now, sharing a bottle of sugary wine with his friend Leon while his friend Carlos visited a world-famous restaurant to buy a take-out dinner.
   Biting T. J. on the ankle would be fun in itself, but since I was beginning to see the Shadows again, I could see there was more to it than that. I could see that he would panic. He would think he was going to die. I could see the Shadow of a long series of very painful rabies shots. That Shadow was solid.
   On the other hand, some of the less distinct Shadows following that involved a policeman carrying my head, in a paper bag, to a doctor for tests. I couldn’t tell how solid that particular Shadow was, but it really didn’t matter. Biting T. J. might be fun, but it wasn’t worth risking decapitation!
   “Damned furballs,” T. J. said again. “And it ain’t that damned raccoon. It’s them SCABs. Crowding real humans out of jobs, that’s why I can’t get nothing. They done crowded me out of my old neighborhood on West Street too, and one of them, this big cow, beat the crap out of me ’cuz I wanted a drink in a bar, is all. Hit me when I wasn’t looking, I should ought—Took you long enough. Where’s my burger?”
   Carlos handed T. J. the white paper bag. “Long line.”
   “Ya damned fool, I said I wanted a burger!” T. J. took the chicken sandwich and threw it at the alley. It hit the wall and fell to the pavement behind the garbage can next to mine; I had to wait until I was sure nobody was looking before I crossed over to grab it. That scared me. I’d been hiding right where the Shadow I’d seen showed the chicken sandwich landing. If the Shadow could be wrong about something as basic as where the sandwich would land, what else might I be missing?
   “That was mine, ya dumfool. Here’s your damned burger. What do I eat now?”
   “Your other chicken sandwich. You don’t need two.”
   Carlos grumbled. He was thinking about busting T. J.’s head. For a moment I thought about pushing him to do it, but Carlos thought T. J. would win in a fair fight. There are always unfair fights, I suggested. But I didn’t go any further. T. J. was a tough one, and Carlos was useful to me; he was easy to push. I didn’t want to risk getting him broken unless I was sure he could take T. J. down with him.
   “Damned SCABS. Them Humans Firsters is right. Ought to make them keep to themselves. Hell, ought to skin ’em out for rugs. Ought to show that damned cow who sucker-punched me. He ain’t gonna push me, me, around and get away with it!”
   Leon pulled his Value Size Fries out of the white bag and picked one of the fries out. He hesitated before putting it in his mouth. “If he sucker-punched you, face him down in a fair fight. You say you can take him, so do it.”
   “Shut up, ya dumfool. It ain’t like that. Damned cow SCAB’s got his goddamn SCAB friends around that place of his, every livelong day. Can’t have no fair fight. I take that cow down, all them mofo SCABs come after me at the oncet.”
   Carlos munched his chicken sandwich. He was already forgetting how angry he’d been at T. J. There was a reason Carlos was easy for me to push; he was a lickspittle, pure and simple. He was a nobody who was put on this miserable planet to be a pilot fish to whatever human shark he might find. I realized, with a surge of disappointment, that there was no chance I could get him to stand up to T. J. It just wasn’t in his nature.
   Now, like any good yes-man, he was trying to help his master. “Take a gun,” he said, finally. “You can beat that cow, or bull, or whatever he is, and when the others rush you, pull the gun and make them back off.”
   “Hell, boy, you don’t know where there’s no gun.”
   “But I do. Ya know Slide, the crack dealer? His gang has guns. Tosses a few on top of the shipment every time they bring in a couple tons of coke or weed. Talk to him, he might be able to set you up.”
   “Can’t use no gun. Cops’ll be on me faster’n a hound dog on a pork chop…” But T. J.’s thoughts didn’t match his words. He was thinking of fighting a SCAB, a bull-man. He wasn’t thinking about it being a fair fight, either: A gun. A gun would give him the edge he needed, just drop the mofo in his tracks like so much pot roast. No mofo SCAB was gonna mess with him, him, and get away with it!
   His thoughts made something click inside my head, and a Shadow started to form. It was hardly more than some of the hunches I might have had before the Martian Flu, but it was there.
   I sensed a chance to get righteous revenge on T. J., and maybe some way to find food and shelter for myself. That was the most important thing of all, of course, more important even than revenge.
   I bared my teeth slightly, clicked them together, and backed away into the shadows. This might become interesting.

   Getting to the place I’d seen in T. J.’s thoughts was the worst part of the whole affair. I had to slink through alleys, avoiding letting people see me. That meant there were never enough people around. And of course I had to cast off the people and places I knew, which knocked the Shadows back down to almost nothing again. I was running almost blind.
   And the minds along the way were even worse than T. J.’s. Let’s just say that the people you meet in the back alleys of the city aren’t always the nicest. The colors they carry inside are like the ripped, exposed entrails of dying monsters. They remember old pain, misery, hatred, fear. They’re too beaten to even dream of revenge.
   But I, at least, could still dream of revenge. I kept going, all the way to West Street and a place called The Blind Pig.

   I’ve been stupid.
   I thought that a lot in the three days I spent hiding near The Blind Pig. Not in the way of blaming myself for bad decisions, but rather because I recognized it as a simple truth.
   For I had been stupid. The Blind Pig was full of minds, and although those minds were full of hurt and pain and, often, alcohol, they weren’t defeated. Especially not that sharp blue one! They hadn’t surrendered to the filth that had filled and twisted my mind while I was hanging around with my old bud T. J. Lee. They hadn’t given up like the ones I found sleeping it off in the alleys. No, these minds were still alive, still full of the better emotions, not least the cheerful glows of pink and yellow and orange of the friendship and love they felt for each other. And not having surrendered, these minds had power.
   There were so many of them, too! I’d never been around so many powerful minds at once, not even back in the days of the Dying Man! The effect they had on me was amazing, delightful—
   It was terrifying, that’s what it was. These minds, their Shadows were nearly painful in their power and clarity. More people visited, I learned more, I meshed with the neighborhood, I started hearing people from farther away, and the Shadows just got sharper.
   One evening as I woke up I realized it was time for me to change my plans. I was here just to spite T. J. Lee, but why should I care about having revenge on him? I couldn’t eat it, it wouldn’t keep me warm, and if there was such a thing as God, revenge was his job, not mine. Worse, my need for revenge must have been just the filth in his mind infecting my own. By going after him, I was becoming him and letting him destroy me to boot. I had to let him go.
   True, leaving him alone meant that something bad would happen. Big deal: Something bad is always happening, somewhere. If I couldn’t eat revenge, I couldn’t eat someone else’s happiness either. And if someone else happened to get cut up, that wouldn’t make me bleed.
   So why was I still thinking about it? What bothered me so much about what was going to happen here tomorrow night?
   And then into my mind came the image of the Dying Man’s little world. The sixty-four black and white squares, the little pieces that moved where his hand told them to move, according to perfect, predictable rules that never changed. It was time for a game.
   A game?
   Could all of this become just a game? Could I move people and events as if they were chess pieces? Just how sharp, how detailed, could the Shadows become if I actually reached out and tried to tap into as many people as I could? I’d never done that with such a solid base of minds near me. How much could I do if I tried?
   The Blind Pig was full that evening, and all those minds were near. I gathered their spare power to myself. I took a deep breath. For the first time since I’d left Sixth Street, I reached out and pulled as hard as I could…

   …Unit 53, on Barksdale; the end of a long day on the beat, my feet hurt, but we caught that scumbag wife-beater in the act, and now he won’t be…
   …turbulence ahead. Should we descend? No, not yet; we burn less fuel up here. If the planes ahead of us keep reporting turbulence at our altitude we can ask to descend a few thousand, maybe as we approach Greenland…
   …square is beautiful, and the Great Leader’s tomb looks the same, but the world doesn’t respect us as they did under the Old Man. Some day…

   Somewhere an animal was screaming, a high squall of pain and terror. It was so far away, I couldn’t find it, but if I tried to listen to it oh god oh god it hurt
   —and somewhere deep in my mind, the bit of it all that was me was trying to fight its way to the surface, saying, Best to avoid doing that again, yes? with insane calm. I stopped screaming as I collapsed into myself. I was curled into a tight ball, every muscle spasming and torn with pain. I let go, exhausted, shaking. I was one little creature in one little body in one little place again, not something else reaching across hundreds, maybe thousands of miles. The mind-crushing roar of millions of thoughts died away…
   I caught my breath. No, no, let’s definitely not try that again!
   And yet the Shadows were so clear now! I could see all the pieces, all the squares on the board. If I was careful, if I reached out only a little, only as much as I needed to push my pieces into position, maybe… maybe I could…
   Hypothetical God, there could be a lot of free food in this!
   Maybe I could do something special. The Shadows showed me surviving, whether I won or lost, so why not? Maybe it would change me, but maybe it was time to change. Maybe I didn’t have to hide any more.
   Hell, yes: Set up the board! The game is on!

   At sunset the next day I was ready to make my first move. And wouldn’t you know it? Some fool on a bicycle almost got me at the last second.
   Dodging out of pure instinct, and terrified that no Shadow had warned me the bicycle was coming, I hid between a litter basket and a lamp post near The Blind Pig’s front door. I tried to calm myself. I hadn’t lost my ability to see Shadows, no, no, the bicyclist was just someone new in the neighborhood. I hadn’t listened to him yet so he wasn’t part of my model of the neighborhood, that was all. I could still handle this. I could still pull it off!
   This wasn’t a good hiding place, even though it was in the shadow of a truly huge, boxy car that took up about one and a half parking spaces. But the usual crowd was inside the bar. I could feel them. Soon I was almost up to game speed. I had arrived. I was linked in. I was safe.
   Some humans passing by noticed me. It’s just a raccoon. Just a raccoon, you see them every day, nothing to worry about, you’re too busy to tell anyone about him. The suggestion worked. Good. If you try to push someone and it works, you know you have the power that night. Nothing else can prove it.
   Now that I could hear the people inside, the Shadow was becoming solid. All the edges were sharp. I’d cut the timing closer than I’d known. I had to think fast to plan my moves. Thank Hypothetical God that I could think fast now!
   Speaking of fast: That one, the cheetah—he knew his name was Jubatus—was going to be a problem. Poor fellow; on the surface he was all the yellow-orange of fear, but it was fear for the people around him, not himself! He feared how he might hurt those he didn’t let himself know were his friends. But underneath the yellow and all the spikes and barbs and red flares, his innermost self was such a lovely, clear blue. And the power of that blue searchlight of a mind was enough to take your breath away. Maybe some day he’d let that color shine through. Some day.
   But no matter how beautiful Jube’s mind was on the inside, it was going to be a problem for me: He had lots of Shadows, far more than anybody I’d ever seen or heard, all of them as sharp as tomorrow’s sunrise. What if the Shadows I was interested in got lost in Jube’s crowd? I could lose valuable seconds finding mine! And if that happened at the wrong time in the game, we were all cooked. 
   So I had to cut him out of the network. That made him hard to predict. It also limited my ability to push him, not that pushing him would be safe anyway. He was ruled by fear; fear of himself, fear of everything else. With all that paranoia, with the way he distrusted himself, he was very likely to notice any push I tried. And you just can’t push someone who is on guard against strange thoughts, whether they know those thoughts come from outside themselves or whether they don’t.
   I was tempted to keep him right at the bar, where his abilities could save the day if mine failed. But there was a high probability he’d mess things up by trying to be a hero. I could tell he thought he always had to be the one to act, to take control. You have no idea how annoying people who think they need to control things are to those of us who actually do!
   On the other hand, I could use him if I could move him to a position where he was more predictable. But how?
   I let the Shadows churn and shift in the back of my mind as I considered all the variables. Meanwhile, I jumped into the litter basket. It hid me better, and you never know when you might find something shiny, or an apple core, or maybe something you could use to tweak the game a little.
   Ah, there! A big gob of chewing gum, of a particularly annoying fluorescent orange color. Nobody likes stepping in chewing gum. Anybody who saw it would avoid it, which meant the gum was another way to control behavior. It wasn’t much, but little things add up, and sometimes the subtle means of control are better than a plain old push.
   I scrambled out of the basket with the gum, placed it just so on the sidewalk in front of The Blind Pig, and squeezed in close to the wall. It was starting to get dark. The usual crowd was inside, playing their usual games with each other, enjoying their usual routines on a normal evening. I was the only one who knew the game clock was running.
   7:32:41. A Shire horsemorph named Stein walked out of the front door of The Blind Pig. Leaf-eaters have great peripheral vision, but his eyes were way up there and I was in the shadows down here. He hesitated in the doorway to wave goodbye to someone inside. It was no trouble at all to duck around his legs and go in unseen.
   I could hear everyone, now that I was within sight of the crowd. The colors of the people in The Blind Pig were healthy and cheerful, mostly. I could feel old tragedies, but most of the people here were handling these well. The love that flowed between them all must have helped a lot too.
   This close to the crowd, my mind cleared even more. I looked around and listened to the people, started refining my moves.
   Jubatus the cheetah was at the bar. A white rabbit, a friend of his named Phil, was chatting with him. And there, behind the bar, was Donnie Sinclair, the minotaur who was the point of this whole exercise. He was hard to listen to, somehow, in spite of being highly intelligent. Maybe it was because he’d gone so long without being able to speak.
   That was unfortunate. I wanted to hear him more than anyone else, because of the special circumstances that faced him this evening. I know why it happens, of course; most people can’t see the old Shrouded Figure coming for them the way I can. But it still amazes me how normal a person’s life can seem to him right up to the instant he faces death.
   The rear of the bar was crowded. The Lupine Boys were back there, along with another wolf who wore a cape and knew his name was Wanderer. They were ‘singing’, I believe they call it, or trying to. We raccoons aren’t good judges of this thing called music. But the sounds they made were pleasant, in a way that seemed strangely familiar. Well, the Dying Man would have listened to music; maybe he’d played some while he was tending my injuries, after he rescued me.
   They really should move a bit more to the side. I tried to suggest that, but they stayed where they were, even though the suggestion was for their own good. I hate it when the gamepieces don’t listen! Well, nothing to do about it now. I dismissed them from my mind. I could probably pull this off even if they weren’t quite where they should be. Other than being visible from the front door, they didn’t have any important part in the game, except of course that their presence helped me to think better.
   Phil saw me first. “Hey, it’s a…”
   Cat, I almost suggested. Being a cat would be useful at 7:48:16. The way my mind was working tonight, with all these people around, was almost scary. I was sure I could hold the ‘cat’ suggestion if I had to. No, wait, that would be a bad idea. It would be easier to keep the moves straight if I didn’t have to split my attention across too many things at once. I would let them see me as I was.
   “…raccoon,” he finished. “It’s a raccoon.”
   “So what? Haven’t we had a raccoon SCAB here before?” Jubatus asked. He was thinking about some sort of mixture of alcohol and catnip, feeling sad because he couldn’t sing, and feeling ashamed for feeling sad. And he was worried that he might rip Phil’s throat out. If that lovely, clear blue deep inside him was any indication, he couldn’t do that, and never would. If only I could tell him so! If only I could comfort the poor fellow somehow. But of course I had more important things on my mind, I didn’t care if anybody nearby was happy or not. I didn’t care. No, really, I didn’t.
   On the other hand, yeah, if he was happy he might be easier to control. Maybe I should try to cheer him up for the good of the coming game? Yes, that made sense. I knew it was dangerous, but I tried pushing anyway. You are safe. You are in control. Listen to the music; it’s lovely, isn’t it? Don’t mourn. You have no vocal tract, true, but think about that. It’s impossible for you to speak, yet you do. You’ve already learned to do one impossible thing. Perhaps you can learn to sing again too.
   It was probably true. The suggestion brightened his colors a little, anyway, and that made me happy. Not because I thought he deserved a little hope, of course. I’d never worry about anything so trivial as that.
   “We have, but I don’t believe that I am speaking of a SCAB now,” the rabbit said. “This raccoon appears to be of the normal, wild variety, much as one would find in any forest. Observe him and judge for yourself.”
   Not a SCAB, huh? I’ll never understand the human-centric outlook, especially among people who don’t consider themselves human any more. And I could hear that they didn’t even know they were doing it. Didn’t it occur to them that a strange disease like the Martian Flu might possibly infect someone who hadn’t started out as a hairless ape? I am just a raccoon. I was never human.
   Jubatus was looking at me. I could feel the suspicion in his mind. He’d brightened for an instant when I suggested happiness to him… of course. I’d suggested that he was ‘safe’ and ‘in control’, but he deliberately, expressly refused to think of himself in such terms! The thought was new and foreign, I was new and foreign, it seemed logical the two new things might be related. Maybe I was a SCAB after all. I might even be some kind of inanimorph, however impossible that seemed. But ‘innies’ (as Jube abbreviated the word) don’t need to eat or sleep, and I do, so how could I be one? I had no idea, and no time to peek deeper into his mind to figure it out.
   How to deflect his thoughts? I didn’t dare try pushing him again when he was already suspicious. (Why had I pushed him in the first place? That was stupid!) Then it hit me: I turned and looked back toward the door. That let him see the battered red collar I wore. There’s more than one way to push a thought into someone else’s head!
   Jubatus said. “See if he can talk or write before you say he’s no SCAB. But he’s wearing an old collar. Maybe he’s somebody’s pet.”
   Good. I was glad that was settled, because I had little time to place the living pieces on the gameboard. It was 7:34:02, and time for the next move.
   The raccoon looks hungry. Feed the raccoon.
   Donnie blinked. He reached under the bar, pulled out a bowl, and started to fill it with a snack mix. He was watching me while he did it.
   “Do you think that it’s a good idea to feed him?” Phil asked. “Collar or not, raccoons should not be pets.”
   “Go ahead, Donnie. Hunger is hunger, and we can always call Animal Control later.” I managed not to growl at Jubatus for that. He looked back toward the singing wolves. He was thinking about trying to sing.
   “Honestly, you shouldn’t feed him. He might not be housebroken.”
   I’m cute and well-behaved. I was somebody’s pet, but now I’m lost and lonely on the cruel streets. Look at my collar! See how friendly I am, see how people don’t scare me, I’ve been around people all my life! See? No, there’s no use in trying send me back to my owner, the tags are gone. I’m lost and hungry, and only you can help me. I’m starving. Starving! Look, I can sit up and beg!
   Donnie handed the bowl of snack mix to Jubatus. The spotted cat set it before me on the floor. It was a tasty mix of pretzels, little bread sticks, wafers, and crackers with that delicious orange powder called ‘cheez’. I was hungry, come to think of it. I’d known I was going to get snack mix, but I hadn’t known how good it would taste! A hamburger would be better, but that came later.
   The bowl was to the side of the front door. I made my best cute, thankful churr and began to eat. I ate slowly, even though I felt half-starved now that I had food before me. I had to make this last for another five minutes, forty-eight seconds.
   Jubutus watched me eat. He smiled. “Where do you think he came from?” he asked Phil. “Have you seen any raccoons around here? Any ‘lost pet’ posters around?”
   The rabbit wiggled his ears in a kind of shrug. “In all honesty, I don’t believe that I could say. But this fellow seems unusually well-groomed; he might be somebody’s pet, lost and lonely on the cruel streets. However, it is possible that he could have run away from home long ago. So-called tame raccoons do tend to go wild. I’ve seen quite a few around lately, although I didn’t notice that any were wearing collars. I’ve seen some coyotes, too.” 
   Jubutus snorted. “Maybe being a SCAB has made you more sensitive to wild things than you used to be.”
   “Perhaps. It’s not so very strange to think that a rabbit might be on the lookout for coyotes, foxes, and such, after all. Or perhaps the hate-filled humans of the world don’t have time to persecute the wild animals as much as they used to, now that they have us.”
   Don’t you believe it, Phil. Ever try to dodge a taxicab that’s trying to run you down? Not that it’s been any problem since the Martian Flu changed me, of course. Last time that happened, the jerk ended up having to explain a wrecked cab. Sometimes those concrete planters can just jump up out of nowhere, sure.
   “I’d applaud your sudden attack of common sense, but it’s not like you to be as bitter as I am. Don’t preach positive thinking to me if you’re not going to take your own advice. If I said something like that, you’d remind me that most humans are OK, in that irritating, ever-so-calm manner you have.”
   “Did I say that humans weren’t OK?”
   I nudged the food bowl another half-inch. Again. Just a bit more, then a bit that way… there! Perfect.
   “What’s got you so gloomy, then?”
   Phil sighed. “Things are going too well lately.”
   “I repeat: Things are going too well. It’s been ages since a Humans Firster tried to bust one of us up—since we’ve had any kind of a crisis at all, in fact.”
   “That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve heard in the past half-hour, and that’s saying a lot. Nothing’s wrong, and you’re worried about it?”
   Again with the ear-shrug. “I simply have a feeling of dread that I cannot shake. Something is coming, something bad. I can feel it.”
   Interesting: Could Phil see the Shadows, too? I listened to his mind… No, what he was talking about wasn’t like what I saw at all. And yet there might be something real to it.
   Is it really possible to see the future, not by calculating it, but by actually seeing what would happen, finished and complete? Interesting. I never believed in that mumbo-jumbo supernatural crap, but Phil’s colors, when he spoke of it, were unusually sharp-edged and vivid.
   Donnie snorted. Jubatus looked my way. “The little fellow seems to like your snack mix well enough.”
   7:48:16. The raccoon would like some milk.
   Donnie reached into the cooler. Phil frowned. “Half-and-half? You’re going to give the raccoon milk? It’s not raccoons that like milk, it’s cats.”
   “Speak for yourself,” Jubatus said, thinking about alcohol and catnip again, but dismissing the idea. He was thinking he should leave soon. He had work to do. Yes, that was why he had to go. It was important work. He had a deadline coming up. Well, maybe not, but he could find some work to do, anyway. Or he could invent some.
   Donnie laid his ears back, poured the thick milk into a saucer, and handed it to Jubatus. Phil shrugged. “Well, maybe raccoons like milk too.” The cheetah set it down for me. He placed it well out of the way of the door, not quite where the Shadows said he should have. That’s what I get for locking him out of the network, but it was no problem, really. I could fix that. I started licking up the milk, all the time nudging the saucer into position.
   Just then, Phil buzzed—it was a cellphone, Velcroed to the harness he wore. He shoved at the gadget with a forepaw and craned his neck until he could read its display. “Drat! Some poor sod had an overnight attack of SCABS. Now he’s a low-degree animorph… deer, this says, a whitetail, and he’s not handling it well. I’d better head over and talk him through it. I’ll see you later, Donnie. Good-bye, Jube.”
   The dreaded outside influence! Now a piece was leaving the game, and almost at the last moment. The Shadow reconfigured itself—for an instant I could hardly breathe from fear—but then I relaxed. Everything was all right; it should work better this way, in fact.
   Jubatus said, “I’m leaving soon myself. Save my barstool for me for a minute, Donnie? I have to talk to the quartet about their lousy enunciation. Again.”
   Donnie nodded, but Jubatus was gone before the minotaur could finish the nod. Phil shrugged; the discourtesy didn’t seem to surprise him. He hopped up onto the counter, let Donnie extract some money from his wallet (also Velcroed to his harness), got back on the floor, and walked out the door. He thought about moving my bowl and saucer away from the door, but he didn’t. Good: It would have taken a lot of effort to get them back in the right places in time without being too obvious about it.
   I couldn’t tap into the too-fast kitty; I couldn’t push him much, either; he had to go. Now was the time to get rid of him.
   Jubatus’ barstool had levelers on each of its four legs. Everyone was looking elsewhere—with only a little encouragement from me, in one or two cases. I hurried over there. I got my back under the cross rails, first one and then another, so I could work on the levelers. When I was done, three were out as far as they’d go, and the fourth had fallen free completely. I kicked it into the darkness under the bar and hurried back to my bowls. It was 7:50:35.
   Something streaked through the air, and Jubatus appeared next to his barstool. “I thought I’d have a Mini CD-50, but I should finish that Whetcom web design tonight. Guess I’ll call it a night early for once, Donnie…”
   7:51:14. Right on time. This was dangerous, but I had to try it: Remember how thirsty you are. A glass of cola would taste good.
   “…but before I go, I think I’ll have one last drink for the road. An extra large Bloody Mary, with extra hot sauce, no ice. Hold the vodka, won’t do me any good anyway.”
   Cats. Contrary beasts they are, even the un-catlike ones like cheetahs. Well, have your tomato juice if you want it; it’s your vest.
   Donnie handed Jubatus his glass. Just as he reached for the glass, the cheetah sat on his barstool. It lurched, of course. He cursed. He flipped the glass, too. Tomato juice spiraled from the spinning glass.
   He was quick, Jubatus was, got to give him that; he snatched the glass out of midair before it had a chance to hit the floor and shatter. He even caught most of the drops and blobs of tomato juice in midair, moving in a blur of motion too fast for my eyes to follow. Most, but not all. And a good fraction of the remainder got on him.
   “All right, who did that?” he shouted.
   Gales of laugher rolled in from the back of the bar. “Forsooth, ’twas not I, although I trow I would be proud were I the varlet who troublest thee!” Well, that’s what that wolf in the cape said. I’m not sure what language it was supposed to be.
   Jubatus sputtered. “I’d better mop this off my new vest before the stain sets.” Poof, he was gone again. Good. He’d be in the back of the bar, out of sight. He could still react, but not before I could. Another gamepiece was in position.
   Donnie looked my way. The spill, such as it was, had made him think about safety. I could hear that he thought somebody might stumble on my food and milk. At 7:52:16 he walked around the end of the bar, heading my way.
   7:52:18 and a half, approximately. I playfully scampered to the minotaur. I leaped high, catching his trouser leg with a claw (but being careful not to catch flesh) to boost my jump, and grabbed the beautiful ring of shinyflashyjingly keys on his belt. The leather thong that held them was old and weak; it snapped. I dashed back around behind the bar, carrying the beautiful keyring in my teeth.
   Donnie took a swipe at me, but I was too fast. He was remembering some interesting and strong words he had favored back when he could swear. He chased me.
   7:52:22. I dropped the beautiful keys—reluctantly. I dove through the gap between the bar and the wall. It was too narrow for Donnie to follow me. I waddled back to my bowls, my Cuteness turned up to full power. I was careful to stay to the right, out of what was going to be Jubatus’ trajectory when he came back. It was almost time. Four, three, two, one
   7:52:28. T.J. Lee pulled the door open and stepped inside. He was at the side of the doorway instead of the center because there had been a wad of chewing gum on the sidewalk, and he didn’t want to step in it. He was quiet. Nobody else noticed him at first. His hand was already reaching into his jacket pocket.
   I was almost at his feet. I growled at him. He looked down.
   The shock of seeing that damned furball again made him jump back. It also made him jerk the revolver as he tried to draw it. Its hammer caught in the lining of his pocket, so he couldn’t pull it free. Backing away from me, he started to set his foot on my bowl of snack mix. Then trying to avoid that, he stepped in the saucer of milk. The saucer cracked in half. The milk spilled.
   It was slippery. His foot shot out from under him. He went over backward. As his butt hit the floor, his hand clenched. The revolver went off inside his pocket.
   Of course since the saucer of milk had been where it was instead of an inch to the left, the bullet didn’t go into the back of the room, where the crowd was. Instead, it went toward the bar, through the space where Donnie usually stood. The minotaur wasn’t there, though. He was on hands and knees behind the bar, trying to find a lost keyring.
   The bullet hit the wall, deflected upward, and ended up in the structure of the edge of the roof. It would cause no harm there, or almost none. There was a misty, wavering Shadow of a leak and some water damage to the ceiling, but that wouldn’t happen for days, maybe weeks. Things that far away aren’t very real yet, even if they only involve dead things that don’t have minds and wills of their own.
   I’m sure Lee would have tried to fire again, but before he could Jubatus was all over him, claws at his throat, suggesting it might be a good idea to cease hostile action. Jubatus, now, that boy is fast. Did I mention that before?

   After the police took T. J. away, there was no more thought that a wild raccoon might not belong in the Blind Pig Gin Mill. Donnie was frying me my hamburger on the little grill behind the bar.
   And I was happy. It surprised me. I wasn’t happy because I was going to have a delicious hamburger all my own, and a warm place to sleep. I was happy because somehow I had made everyone else happy. I felt the same joy the Dying Man had felt when he saw me move in my cage and knew I was going to survive.
   I’d kept someone from being hurt. It shouldn’t matter to me, except for what I got out of it, but it did. It made me as happy as I could remember being. I was going to have to think long about this strange new thing.
   Jubatus had decided he wanted his Mini CD-50 after all. Work could wait, and if there wasn’t time, he’d make the time. Who better than he?
   He was watching me. His eyes were thoughtful. I stayed out of his head as completely as I could and concentrated on being a raccoon, only a raccoon. He was suspicious I might be something else, however ridiculous that idea might be. Then again, he’s always suspicious of something, and the shape of his thought was tending toward low priority. Talk to Phil about it sometime.
   “You know,” Jubatus said, “maybe we should call him Lucky.”
   Lucky? I’ve never had a name before. I think I like having one.
   Too bad it can’t last. I’ll be gone tomorrow. They’ll be sorry I’m gone. They’ll worry about me.
   But there’s that nice lady who isn’t as good at dodging taxis as I am. That game is becoming more and more solid, only a block from here. I can help her easily, at no risk to myself, and then I’ll know if helping somebody else really can make me happy.
   And while I’m preventing tragedies, there’s another one brewing down the street next Thursday. I don’t know whether you think the loss of a truckload of jelly donuts is a tragedy, but I do. I’ll take care of that if I can. No donuts will be spilled into the street on my watch!
   Well, all right. Maybe a few donuts, someplace where I can get to them first.
   After that, though—well. There’s nothing big forming up in the Shadows yet. And over there, outside the back door, I can see the Shadow of a warm little bed to sleep in. There will be a dish that is seldom empty, and… well… friends. If it’s not presumptions for me to imagine having friends. I’m only a dead man’s pet, after all.
   It’s not too solid yet, but if I move the right pieces to the right squares, I can make it happen.
   And I will.

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