by Quentin Long
©2010 Quentin Long

Part 1 -=- Part 2 -=- Part 3

Home -=- #30 -=- ANTHRO #30 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This TBP (Tales of the Blind Pig) story is part of the life of cheetah-morph Jubatus Acinonyx. Other stories of Jube are A Good Run of Luck (which appeared in Anthro #7), Second Heat (in Anthro #22), and Christmas Rush (in Anthro #26).
Go here for info on the TBP setting

   They call me Jubatus. Me being the fastest SCAB alive, I always have time to kill… so I always need new ways to kill time, simply to avoid going mad from boredom. You could call it Parkinson’s Law of Temporal Consumption: “Activities multiply to fill whatever you’ve got in the way of spare time.” I didn’t used to find this a problem—I got plenty of interests—but then, I also didn’t used to think there could be more than 24 hours in a day. There can be, particularly for people like me, to whom SCABS gave a seriously overclocked brain. That’s short for Stein’s Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, and can you blame anyone for preferring the acronym? I’ve got SCABS to thank for my being a bipedal cheetah with a train of thought that runs six times faster than anyone else’s, which explains how come from my point of view, there’s 150 hours in a day. Fortunately, I can control the rate at which my personal ‘clock’ runs; upshifting for greater speed, downshifting to interact with you slowpokes.
   What do I do with all that time, I hear you ask? Whatever I damned well please, and six times more of it than I ever could before. Today, like pretty much every other day, it pleases me to spend a couple hours of clock time puttering around the West Street Shelter. Seems I’ve got a bit of history with one of their volunteers, a rabbit named Phil, and I like to keep an eye on him. Think of me as a guardian angel with spotted fur and sharp, pointy teeth. May the good Lord forgive any fool who thinks he can give the rabbit a hard time, because I sure as hell won’t. Phil is good people, and if anyone forgets how good people should be treated, I’m up for teaching ’em a quick lesson in manners any day of the week.
   I’m not sure Phil notices, but I make a point of reducing my Dangerous quotient before I drop in. I trim my claws; I kill ‘cheetah breath’ with mouthwash; I also downshift to a tempo of around .95, marginally slower than the norm. Not that it matters whether he’s consciously aware. The way I see it, he doesn’t need to worry about a small flotilla of high-velocity knife edges zipping around him in loose formation. That’s basically the reason I bother with the Shelter at all, when you get right down to it—reducing the level of hassle Phil gets from an important part of his life. The instant Phil leaves, I’m gone, too.
   At this point, I’ll bet some of you are wondering how anyone, a highly-morphed SCAB like me in particular, could possibly be indifferent to the good work done at the Shelter. You guys should talk to the ones who aren’t asking; they’re just as cynical as I am, and therefore know why somebody might be less than enthusiastic about ostensibly-altruistic behavior. Let’s just say I’m a ‘value given for value received’ kind of guy and leave it at that, shall we?
   I suspect Splendor (the sometimes cold-blooded mistress of West Street in general, and the Shelter in particular) has an idea of what I’m really about here, but no matter how our philosophies may differ, she’s too pragmatic to reject assistance from any quarter. So far I’ve spruced up the joint’s Net presence, made sure a few time-sensitive deliveries arrived on schedule, written two drafts of a Shelter procedures manual, and done a fair amount of websearching on a notable variety of topics, to name only four of the tasks I’ve fielded here.
   Right now I’m seated in the lobby, not far from Phil’s office. I’m continuing work on the Shelter’s website. Specifically, the interface of the Shelter’s online database of SCAB-friendly businesses. Got my PowerBook before me, and I intend to cut that interface down to size, or die trying. You’d be surprised how many 56K modems are still in service, particularly among the SCAB populace that’s the Shelter’s target audience. And even if you aren’t surprised, the twit who originally created this interface sure as hell would be! I’ll bet he was thinking more of how it would look in his portfolio than how it would serve the client, damn his highly-trained eyes. He had every pixel of the bloody thing thickly encrusted with bandwidth-sucking leeches—I’m talking 32-bit animation, Java-3 applets, multi-track sound files, and on and on. End result: Not only does the sucker take forever to finish loading on a slow connection, but it runs like an arthritic clam (when it runs at all) on any machine the intended users are likely to be able to afford.
   So far, I’ve sandblasted all the graphics down to bit-depths of 8 or less, and killed every piece of animation that had no valid reason to live. The payoff is that the download time over a 56K modem has dropped to 235 seconds. Yes, dropped. By a factor of five. I won’t be satisfied until I reduce that figure to twenty seconds or less, and if I have to go with pure text to get—
   Phil is nervous, I can smell it. That scent, the odor of frightened prey, drills straight to the vital core of my hindbrain to stir up predatory voices. I can’t help that, but I sure as Artemis don’t have to listen to what those voices are saying.
   Being a rabbit, Phil scares easily; I don’t want to overreact. I close the laptop, carrying it with me as I walk calmly over towards the converted walk-in closet he calls his office. He’s with a client, a big sumbitch. From the back, the client looks like a norm with orange stripes dyed into his black crewcut, or maybe it’s vice versa. I hear a VoxPop voder say, “Sorry, but that command was invalid.”
   “Grrrrrr…” I know that growl, it’s the sound of an angry carnivore that’s 1.5 seconds away from killing something! I upshift, the growl dopplers down into the deep subsonic, and tiger-boy freezes up like the rest of the world. I memorize my position and move in, get a clear view of exactly what he’s up to… and breathe a sigh of relief. Tiger-boy is glaring down at the voder in his furless hands, caught in the act of stabbing one finger down to the touchscreen. He’s got fur down his neck; thick black skin on the bottom of his very human nose; round pupils in his glittery, reflective eyes. Okay, tiger-boy’s no immediate danger to Phil, but I still don’t like his mood.
   I return to my memorized position, downshift, pick up the walk where I left off. “Say, is that a Vox Populi voder I heard?” I ask. Tiger-boy doesn’t react, but Phil looks up.
   “Yes, it is!” the rabbit says in his cute, high-pitched voice. Not sure if he counts as tenor or soprano, I keep forgetting to ask Wanderer. Phil continues, “How much do you know about them? Mr. Anthony here is having a little trouble with his. Do you think that you could help?”
   “I can give it a shot. Got nothing better to do,” I say with a smile that keeps my teeth decently hidden. I make a show of looking for another chair, which of course there isn’t—no room. “Alright. Mr. Anthony, was it? Good. My name is Jubatus. How about we go up front where we can both sit down?”
   We move out, and Phil’s distress is inversely proportional to the distance between him and us. I give tiger-boy some leading questions he can answer with head motion and/or hand gestures: He’s a local. Single. Started to SCAB over eleven days ago. Spoke his last intelligible words nine days back. Just got released from hospital a week ago. Hasn’t noticed any tigerish instincts yet. The salesman pushed him into buying a top-of-the-line VoxPop that he really couldn’t afford.
   We sit down in the lobby. I open the laptop, bring up SimpleText, set the voice for Alfred, high quality, show him how to make it recite what’s typed into the window. “Mr. Anthony, that salesman didn’t do you a service,” I say. “Vox Populi voders do sound as good as you were told, yes, but they’re finicky bastards. If you’re a novice, you’ll have as much luck with it as a kid with a learner’s permit would have with an eighteen-wheeler.”
   “Call me Felix,” my laptop says for him. “Agreed. What replacement?”
   I ponder for a moment. “If your heart is set on using a voder, I’d say go with a Kurzweil. The vocal quality sucks at the low end, but even the worst Kurzweil has clear enunciation, and you can make yourself understandable within two days, tops. Most people, a couple hours’ practice is enough. You want a KV-240, maybe a KV-200 if you’re really hard up for cash. Anything less than a 200… well, it’s cheap and it works.”
   “Voder not needed?”
   Sharp man—he caught the implication of my ‘if your heart is set on it’ phrasing. I shrug: “Hell if I know. Depends on what SCABS did to your vocal tract. Can you open your mouth? I want to see what you’ve got to work with here.” He opens, and it’s a perfectly normal human mouth. Tongue, palate, teeth, jaws, all right out of a pre-’Flu medical textbook. With his flat face, I’ll bet his sinus cavities are human-normal as well. “Looks good to me. Now let me check out your neck.” I lay my hands on either side of his throat, taking care not to let my claws touch fur, let alone flesh; I don’t feel a larynx in there. Not a good sign. “Okay, make some noise.”
   “Rrrrrrrr…” he rumbles. Nothing’s vibrating in his neck.
   “Keep it going.” He does. I move one hand to his chest—there’s vibration. “Alright, that’s enough. You should definitely get a second opinion on this, Felix, but here’s what I think: Your larynx is gone. That’s the source of vibration for a normal human voice, and you ain’t got one no more. No voicebox, just a purr-box. The good news is, the rest of your vocal tract looks okay, and if I’m right about that, it should be fairly easy for you to relearn speech.” You lucky bastard, I don’t say. “In the meantime, let’s see what I can do with that VoxPop of yours. Got the manual?”
   He does, and is happy to hand it over. I upshift high, skim from cover to cover, re-read the important bits, downshift. I’m a technical writer, cramming like this is what I do for a living. And the problem I’m now faced with is how to cut the bleeding options down to something a novice can manage. Damn thing’s got more bells, whistles, and gongs than Office 2024 (yes, that’s the version the Feds actually passed a law requiring Microsoft to recall every copy of), and thanks to a multi-layered contextual menu system, every last control and setting is accessible with no more than four taps on the touchscreen. Wonderful if you know what you’re doing; otherwise, one misplaced tap gets you an Urdu accent thick enough to cut with a chainsaw—if you’re lucky.
   I do a slash-and-burn job on the on-screen controls, hiding 99.9% of them. I don’t touch the semantic analysis subroutines, they’ll ensure decent inflection, but I lock down the recognition parameters so Anthony can’t screw it up by accident.
   Next comes input. “You got the subvocalization options package?” I ask.
   “Good. That’ll help you retrain the muscles that shape your resonance cavities. But until you get the hang of it, you’ll probably want to do input by hand. Palmspring user?” I ask, referring to one of the more popular PDAs.
   “How’s your shorthand?” SCABS has given the two major shorthand systems (Pittman and Gregg) a new lease on life after decades of slow, word processor-induced decline.
   “Grafitti only.” That’s the simplified letterform system that was devised a few decades back as a practical solution to the problem of handwriting recognition, and pretty much every palmtop these days can handle it.
   I nod. I turn off Pittman and Gregg, leaving Grafitti and the onscreen keyboard as the two manual input modes. As a final touch, if he manages to screw it up in spite of what I’ve done, I give him a friendly red button to click on that’ll restore the damn thing to the state I left it in. And just in case he manages to nuke the button, I beam a backup copy of the configuration file to my laptop.
   “Here you go. Use Grafitti, or click here to bring up a keyboard you can use the stylus with. Like so,” I say, demonstrating. “And if anything goes wrong, this is the panic button—as long as that’s visible, clicking on it should reset everything to this condition.”
   Oh yeah, tiger-boy knows his Grafitti. It’s only a second or two before his VoxPop says, “That was impressive. Thank you, Jubatus. How are you at speech training?”
   “You really want to learn how to talk from someone who sounds like me?” I ask with a smile. It’s not a rhetorical question, because I know what kind of noise comes out of my mouth, damn it. Ever heard an old-time tracheotomy patient whose voice is driven by a hand-held electric buzzer? It’s a nasty timbre, metallic and inhuman, and my speech has been compared to that. Unfavorably. And then there’s a familiar whiff of nervousness in the air; Phil speaks up before I finish turning to look at him.
   “I would if I were you, Mr. Anthony,” says Phil. I aim a puzzled look in his direction. What’s that rabbit think he’s doing? He continues: “Jubatus would never admit it, but there’s nothing human left in his throat and mouth. His speech is quite good, considering, don’t you agree?”
   Phil can be devious and manipulative when it suits him. Fortunately, he’s sworn to use this great power only for Good. I’ll bet half my stock portfolio that I know what he’s up to now. “So how many other mutes you gonna deliver into my tender care?” I ask him.
   “Total of six,” he says, bubbly and cheerful. “We’ve already started cleaning out one of the upstairs rooms for your class.”
   I keep my tone light—no need to disturb Phil’s client. “And when were you thinking about letting me on on the secret?”
   Phil waggles his ears in a noncommittal fashion. “I thought that you’d figure it out on your own, so I wouldn’t have to say anything. And that is what happened, is it not?” he asks with an innocent, guileless expression. That rabbit has no shame. I think he had it surgically removed, unless SCABS got there first.
   I get the feeling that maybe Phil manipulated me, and I don’t like being manipulated. If the rabbit really did play me like a violin… Anyone else, I’d be thinking about how to make the bastard pay. But not Phil. Never Phil. As far as I’m concerned, he’s paid so far in advance that I owe him, and I always will. I swallow my aggravation, and nod. “Alright. Six students, including Mr. Anthony here. No problem. You wouldn’t happen to have any information on the other five, would you?”
   “Sure,” he says, hopping over to me. “In the backpack.” Which he’s wearing, so I open the main pocket and extract a set of manila folders. If you’re wondering why he didn’t just hand them to me, you should know that Phil doesn’t have hands. His forepaws really are paws, bloody near zero manipulatory capacity. But he can speak, damn it! Somebody had to have helped him with the files, and I deliberately, explicitly refuse to become annoyed at this evidence of premeditation on his part. He thanks me and hops back to his hutch-cum-office.
   Tiger-boy’s VoxPop speaks up: “There really is nothing left of your human voice?”
   It’s the voder’s built-in tone of polite inquiry—dunno what he’d prefer the question sound like. I take it at face value. “You can’t tell? Yup—all gone. You’re lucky, SCABS didn’t even touch most of your vocal tract. All you have to do is learn how to work with a new sound source. Probably end up with an exotic-sounding tone in the bass register, good for attracting girls.”
   He starts composing a reply, then stops and looks at me. After a moment, his VoxPop says, “You sound bitter.”
   I hadn’t intended to, but he’s right. Vocalizing has always been a touchy subject for me, ever since I SCABbed over. Maybe tiger-boy is just offering me a sympathetic ear; too bad that kind of offer is one I’m not about to accept. Ever. “That’s one reason I don’t use a voder—most of ’em can’t do emotional overtones very well. The VoxPop line is an exception, but you already know how delicate the controls are,” I say with a shrug. “Anyhow, I’d recommend that you exchange the damn thing and get a more economical model, or at least one you don’t need a Masters’ Degree in to use properly…”
   Tiger-boy leaves after I’m done giving him advice. I close my eyes, lean back in my chair, and breathe deeply; it took more effort than usual to keep a lid on my customary bad temper, and the voice thing is why. And then Phil’s scent again—
   “Are you alright, Jubatus?”
   I don’t bother to move or look at the rabbit. “Hello, Phil. It would’ve killed you to ask? Or even give me some advance notice?”
   “If I had asked, you would have refused,” he says reasonably. “But I don’t know what your problem is. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?”
   “You see me in a puddle of blood, none of it mine, on the Six O’Clock News,” I say without thinking.
   There’s an elongated pause, broken by Phil. “You know what, Jubatus? You worry too much. And coming from a rabbit, that’s saying something.”
   I almost laugh—of course, he doesn’t know how goddamn close my scenario came to playing itself out, with him supplying the blood, when we first met. “Gee. Thanks.”
   “You’re welcome. Gotta run—bye-bye!” And then the rabbit is gone.

   A cursory scan of the files indicates that all six are animorph SCABs of one kind or another. I start with Anthony’s file, which confirms what I already knew, then go on to Kerry Dennison. Sales clerk, married, no kids. He’s a fish -morph, bulgy eyes and webbed fingers and scales all over, and a Godawful ugly bastard, to boot. The picture shows flat, wide tubing wrapped around his neck… ah. He’s got (barely-) functional gills and the remnants of his old lungs; the tubing supplies water for his gills, and between them and his lungs, he gets enough oxygen to survive. No wonder his file has nothing on his current capacity for vocalization… the doctors would’ve had their hands full just keeping him alive, and his insurance ran out before they could do anything else.
   Third in line, Mary (née Martin) Zelinski, is a living cliché: She’s a fox gendermorph, a fuzz-covered wet dream who could’ve stepped out of a PlaySCAB centerfold. Formerly an investment banker with a trophy wife, the ’Flu giveth her an all-over permanent fur coat as the ’Flu taketh away her mind. She’s not feral, just amnesiac—a near-complete tabula rasa. With her (former) profession, she’s got to have money, so why is she here at the Shelter, instead of upstate at St. Jude Medical or the like? And how come she went through five doctors in her first month as a SCAB? Reading between the lines of the vixen’s file, I can’t help but wonder how much the other Mrs. Zelinski has to answer for…
   File Number Four is a schoolteacher, name of Sawyer Borman. He’s a man-sized insect-morph, cricket with an occasional grasshoppery touch. Basic body plan could be described as “humanoid with four arms”. Doesn’t even have lungs, per se—his body is thoroughly riddled with a branching network of air passages that oxygenate all tissues directly, never mind that considerations of airflow and surface area make that scheme unworkable for a critter as big as him. What the hell, he’s a polymorph (with a limited selection of insectoid forms), I guess he can have an impossible metabolism if he wants to.
   Next is the Right Reverend Charles Calgonetti. I’ll get to him.
   And finally… oh, joy. Inanimorph. This one’s been living (?) at the Shelter for seventeen weeks now, ever since the day an animated, life-sized granite statue of a Great Dane showed up from nowhere. No ID, no clue to her former life—and even the ‘her’ is only an educated guess, based on the statue’s anatomically correct details. At least she (?) answers to ‘Jenny’. She can understand spoken or written English, but doesn’t appear to be able to speak or write herself. Wonder how badly she’s been disoriented by her radical transformation? Inanimorphs… well, hell. Just have to see what (if anything) I can do to reach her. It. Whatever.
   After I’m done with my reading, I suspect the preacher’s going to be the hardest nut to crack. Physically speaking, Calgonetti is a mynah bird scaled up to a body length of four feet, with avian-type talons at the ends of his feather-covered, humanish legs. Black feathers all over, interrupted only by a ring of iridescent white around his throat. Who says SCABS doesn’t have a sense of humor? Chuck traded up from his human body eleven years ago, and hasn’t spoken a word since. Pretty tough on a guy who’d been a professional talker.
   A mynah bird, speechless? Yeah, right. My best guess is, he’s got a self-imposed mental block about speech. This sort of thing definitely isn’t my forte, but I’m betting he’ll talk if I can piss him off bad enough. I’ll try not to enjoy needling a man of God.
   Okay, I’ll try not to enjoy it too much.
   But I digress… Never heard of Chuck’s denomination, but it’s clearly not one of the bigoted ones: His flock—sorry, couldn’t resist—have been supporting him all this time, providing sufficient resources (financial and otherwise) to keep him going until he’s ready to get back in the pulpit. He’s got a record, he does; over the years he’s attended eight different speech classes, none of which did him any good whatsoever. He’s always gotten good marks for attendance and participation, always declined use of a voder, always projected a congenial air, consistently maintained that the Lord will restore him to full voice whenever it suits Him to do so. All of which does nothing to explain why he’s here, a bloody homeless shelter in a rotting neighborhood that’s maybe three steps away from complete and absolute urban collapse, for the love of Ahura-Mazda.
   I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling that I know what’s really going on behind those beady little eyes. I think I may already have been where he is—except, of course, that he’s got faith in the Almighty. I wonder how much of that faith is still alive in his heart right now…

   I don’t need to check the schedule. I work with the Shelter’s online resources, I already knew that the speech class will begin three calendar days from now. Just didn’t know who the ‘teacher to be announced’ would be.
   Three calendar days. Plenty of time for me to familiarize myself with my classroom, work up a lesson plan, collect and/or create some teaching resources, talk to Donnie at the Pig, make arrangements with Dr. Derksen for use of his lab, and generally prep for the tutoring gig.

   Time for the first session to begin. Butterflies in my stomach? Naah, the hornets killed and ate them all… I really shouldn’t ought to be as nervous as I am. After all, I’m a technical writer; teaching people is what I do for a living! I just don’t usually do it in person. And I also don’t usually do it with topics that are quite so personal, topics that strike quite so close to the core of what a human being truly is.
   Who am I kidding? I’m nervous because this hits me where I live. Even now I get the shakes just thinking about those first few days after I SCABbed over. That’s when I couldn’t talk at all, when I didn’t know how to coax anything close to an articulate sound from my newly-remodeled throat, when I had no way of knowing whether or not I ever would be able to speak another word for the rest of my life…
   It was bad. Leave it at that.
   What the hell, it’ll be a learning experience in more ways than one.
   No more waffling; I walk up the stairs, down the hall, and into my classroom. What do you know—Jenny’s mass of stone doesn’t exceed the limits of the Shelter’s structural integrity.
   Once at my desk, I upshift while setting up all the connections for my laptop, then downshift to look at each student in turn. “Hello. My name’s Jubatus. I think we all know why we’re here, so no need to belabor the point. The first thing you should know is that if you really want to talk, you can. And you’ll do it before the end of this first session. That’s a promise.” I pause to let that sink in, then flip three small devices out of a vest pocket and catch them between the fingers of my other hand. Some of my students recognize the gadgets, which I hold up and fan out like a poker hand. “These are voders. Low-end Kurzweil models, KV-150s; nothing fancy, but they do the job. I’ve got one for everybody. And they’re the reason I can make that promise.
   “What I don’t promise is that you’ll be able to talk without mechanical assistance. Maybe you can, maybe not—it depends on two things. First, on exactly what kind of mess SCABS made of your vocal tract, and second, on whether or not you can figure out how to manhandle a comprehensible voice out of your current set of pipes.
   “And hell, maybe you’ll decide you don’t actually want to talk. Even then, you’ve got options; you can learn Sign,”—here I fingerspell AMESLAN IS NOT A VAN VOGT NOVEL—”and if all else fails, there’s always the written word. Donnie Sinclair, guy who runs the Blind Pig, is mute and doesn’t use a voder; I’ll see if I can’t get him up here to fill you in on living without a voice. I think that would be a mistake, myself, but it’s your decision, and as long as you’re satisfied, it’s none of my damn business how you choose to live your life.
   “And now that that’s out of the way…” Here I pick a manila folder up off my desk, open it, look at the contents. “Couple of you guys have a bit of a track record. Calgonetti, says here you’ve been slacking off in vocalization classes for more than a decade,” I say, hearing amused noises as I drop some papers into a convenient trash can. The bird doesn’t appreciate my description. Good. “Dennison, you’ve got a signed certificate says you’re permanently mute.” I drop more papers. “As for the rest of you…” I shut the folder, send it to rejoin its missing contents. Then I take a butane lighter from a vest-pocket, ignite it, and toss it into the trash. There’s a momentary FWOOSH as an inches-wide ball of flame rises up, dissipating before it hits the ceiling. It’s pure theater—I’m just burning Xeroxes—but it does the job. All six of my students are focussed fully on me.
   “I don’t give a flying fuck what anyone may have told you before today. Far as I’m concerned? As of now, each and every one of you will talk—or I’ll know the reason why.
   “Any questions?”
   I wasn’t expecting any response, but the bug makes a ‘clickick’ noise and raises his upper left hand while his upper right scribbles on a notepad in his lower pair. After he’s done, a quick upshift and the notepad ‘teleports’ into my hands.
   “Okay… Borman here wants to know what happens if someone can’t talk by the end of summer.” Another upshift reunites the bug and his paper. “Well, it’s true that we only got this room for ten weeks, but it’s also true that the Shelter’s not teaching this class. I am. You want out, say the word and you’re out; otherwise, I’m not giving up until you can speak. And if that’s after session ten, I’ll just have to find us a different classroom. Any other questions?”
   Dead air.
   “Good. First, let’s take a look at how speech works when it does work…” Here I upshift, extract a roll of eight-millimeter correction tape (red) from my vest, and spend a clock-second or so putting a schematic diagram of the human vocal tract on the wall. Back at a tempo of 1, I point at one specific bit of the diagram. “See this? It’s the larynx, but you can call it a ‘voicebox’. It’s got a couple folds of skin that vibrate when you shove air past ’em, not unlike a clarinet reed…”
   By the time I’m done, my students (most of them, anyway; with the fox and rock, it’s hard to tell) have a solid grounding in the biomechanics of spoken language—i.e., how a normal human vocal tract operates. Now for the voders, which I distribute in half an upshifted clock-second.
   “Okay, time to keep that promise I started class with. See what’s on your desk? It’s a KV-150. If you’re clueless about voders, give the built-in tutorial a try. You can’t figure something out, lemme know and I’ll see if I can make it clear for you.”
   Within two clock-minutes, the first “Hello, world!” tutorial is audible. And ten clock-minutes further on, they get to “The time is eight forty-seven pee-emm” and “I am a SCAB” and “Today is Tuesday, the twenty-ninth of June, two-thousand thirty-eight ay-dee.” Damned if I can tell how the inanimorph works a voder with stone paws, but she (?) does. Too bad her machine’s only reciting random words and phrases. Zelinski’s doing better; she actually got her voder to say “My name is Mary Zelinski.” On purpose, yet. The150s sound better than I do, damn it, but then I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. Focusing on technical matters—how well my students are or aren’t using the Kurzweils—helps me keep a lid on my annoyance.
   I assign homework (practice with the 150s), and then it’s over. Dennison and Anthony drive themselves home; Zelinski’s picked up by some random luxury car; Chuck and Borman ride the bus; and the innie, the stone dog, walks downstairs. What are the odds of the vixen’s ride being an incognito limousine? I make a note to check the license plates with the DMV.
   Only after I’m finally alone do I let myself unclench. I didn’t come anywhere near losing it; the scents of the bird and fish didn’t make me any hungrier than usual; all in all, it went better than I expected. Of course, ‘better than I expected’ just means I didn’t dismember anyone…
   “How did it go, Jubatus?” Who else? It’s the goddamn rabbit.
   “No blood got spilt. Guess that means I’m stuck teaching next week’s class, right?”
   Puzzled, the bunny wrinkles his fuzzy nose. “Why would you not be? Judging by what I saw and heard from your students, you did quite well—as I knew that you would!”
   Sigh. “Phil, has it ever occured to you I might have a reason to be a pain-in-the-ass loner?”
   “Well, you’re a cheetah-derived animorph SCAB. Which means that you’re influenced by cheetah characteristics, including their solitary nature, are you not?”
   He doesn’t get it—wonderful. Time for an object lesson. “That’s right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Hold on a sec…” The Shelter’s got a few board games; Monopoly, Yahtzee, like that. I upshift, grab some dice, downshift. “…okay. See this?” I say, holding one of the dice before me. “Got a deal for you. Roll it, and if you get anything but a one, I give you a million dollars.”
   His ears skew at odd angles. “What’s the catch? If I do roll a one, do I have to pay you?”
   “No catch, the money’s yours either way—but if you roll a one, somebody within a twenty-block radius of here ends up maimed or dead. What do you say, Phil?”
   He stares at me for a moment and says, “No.”
   “Why not? It’s an honest die; there’s five chances in six that no blood gets shed!”
   “Perhaps, but it’s that one chance in six that bothers me!”
   “Come on, that’s not even 17%!”
   He shrugs with his ears. “I don’t care. I wouldn’t roll that die for a million dollars.”
   Suddenly I’ve got two dice in my hand. “Fine. How about now? Same deal, but nobody gets hurt unless you roll snake-eyes, a one on both dice. That’s a 35-to-1 longshot, less than 3% chance of it actually happening. How about it, Phil?”
   “Still no.”
   “Okay,” five dice, “how about this? Five ones, that’s a little over point-zero-one percent, just one chance out of 7,776. Isn’t that worth a megabuck?”
   “No, it—”
   “Ten dice!” I say, putting them on the desk between us. “One million dollars, Phil. One. Million. Dollars. Only one chance in sixty million they come up solid ones.”
   “Only one chance in sixty million that someone gets hurt, you mean!”
   I shrug. “Details. Alright, how about a billion dollars? I’m good for it, you know. Roll these ten dice, and one gigabuck is yours, free and clear!”
   Stunned, the rabbit stares at me for a while until he finally says, “I don’t care how many dice it is, and I don’t care how much money it is either. I’m not going to do it, Jubatus.”
   “Why not? For the love of Mammon, you’re throwing away one billion dollars because of a sixty-million-to-one longshot! Don’t you want to be filthy rich?”
   “Not like that, I don’t!”
   My voice is quiet—”Good.”—and his face goes blank with surprise. Then I go on: “I’m not perfect, Phil. I got mood swings make a rabid wolverine look like a Zen master. I can fuck up, bad. ‘Can’, hell: I already have! And with my kind of speed—” I break off, almost managing not to shudder. “You’re damn right I worry. Wouldn’t you?”
   He doesn’t need two swats from a clue-by-four. “Oh.”
   And again: “Oh!”
   I dig out a smile from somewhere. “Don’t worry, me going postal on any given day is a world-class longshot—billion-to-one, trillion-to-one, somewhere up there. The real risk is long-term: If I keep rolling those dice, they will all come up snake-eyes sooner or later. The only question is when. And if you’re wondering how I can justify putting innocents at risk by hanging around the Pig, it’s because the odds of me having a lethal breakdown will go way up if I don’t interact with other people.”
   “I think that I see the problem now,” Phil says thoughtfully. “You believe that your life is like an unending game of Russian roulette, do you not, Jubatus?”
   I nod. “Pretty much, except it’s not me who’ll get hurt when I lose. The thing is… what choice have I got?”
   “Perhaps you don’t have any better alternatives,” the rabbit acknowledges. “But then again, perhaps you do!”
   “Oh, really?” I bet I know where he’s going, so I cut him off before he can get there: “Look, Phil—if you’re thinking about taking me on as a client, forget it. My days are 150 hours long, remember? There’s no point in you reinventing wheels I considered, and discarded, years ago.”
   His ears shrug for him. “Very well, let’s say that it truly would be a waste of time for me to try to help you. What difference could that make? It is, after all, my own time to waste, if I so choose!”
   “Gimme a break! You’re always pissing and moaning about the ones you lost, so why make it worse for yourself? Why the hell would’ja want to fart around with me when you could give more attention to someone who really needs you?”
   “I see your point, Jubatus, but there are two factors that you haven’t taken into account. And the first one is that whether you know it or not, you already are a client of mine, and have been ever since the night we met!”
   Suddenly it’s my turn to say, “Oh.” Now he tells me. “And… the other factor?”
   “When I work on you, I am giving attention to someone who really needs me.”
   It’s not often that I’m left without an appropriate comeback…
   “Of course, I must admit that I don’t give you as much attention as perhaps I truly ought. Not that I don’t care about your well-being, because I really and truly do! But honestly, your case just isn’t as urgent as the rest of the ones I deal with. And unlike you, Jubatus, I simply don’t have the time to do everything I want to or need to.” He sighs. “Speaking of which, I’ve a date with Clover that I’d greatly prefer not to be late for, so I simply must say ‘good-bye’ now. Good-bye!”
   And then I’m alone again. Just the way I like it. Right?

   Time flies, even when you’re not having fun; I’ve got 43 contracts in various stages of completion, i.e. my usual workload. And where do I find the time to handle all the tasks related to teaching my class? I could’ve cut back a little, freed up some hours for classwork, but I didn’t because I can get the extra time from upshifting. Of course, my concept of ‘classwork’ may be a little more expansive than some people’s. F’rinstance, take the car that picked up Zelinski. DMV files say it’s a TransportElegance rental; TE records indicate that it was paid for by a corporate credit card; and according to SEC databanks, 51% of that particular corporation is held by one ‘Alison Gomez’. Care to guess the maiden name of Zelinski’s wife? Yeah. Such a coincidence, that. Just another drop of data in the stream I’m sucking in, the better to figure out what the hell is going on in the Zelinski household.
   Then there’s Jenny. The Shelter’s inquiries went nowhere, but then I wasn’t the one asking the questions. Not that I expect to do any better, mind you. All I’ve got to go on is SCABS; an apparent gender (which may or may not be the one she was born with); a given name (ditto); the date on which this innie first showed at the Shelter (which only puts a lower limit on how recently she could’ve SCABbed over); and a dog’s likeness (which may or may not have anything to do with any pet she may have owned or admired). What the hell—that’s why God invented internet spiders and agent software. The count so far: 137 possible ‘hits’, each one a false alarm. Good thing computers don’t get tired or distracted.
   Maybe I am trying to do too much… every once in a while I get this funny feeling, like someone’s looking over my shoulder from behind. Nobody ever is, of course, but my hackles keep rising anyway. Okay, I’m paranoid, but it’s not usually this bad! Sigh. Must remember to get more sleep. Sometimes I hate being a cat…

   Second class rolls around; everyone’s present and punctual, even the rock. “Good evening, people. How you doing, Dennison?”
   “I, am, fine. This, voder, is, harder, to, work, than, I’d, thought.”
   With your webbed fingers? No shit, fish-boy. “Bummer. Keep at it. What about you, Borman?”
   The cricket’s voder says he’s doing okay, and his superintendent claims they’ll return him to active class duty once he re-learns how to talk. I don’t sneer or contradict; granted, he’s an utter moron if he believes what he’s saying, but I don’t have time to set him straight. Okay, maybe I do, but the slowpokes here don’t. I wish him luck, then I continue the impromptu survey of my students’ level of skill with the voder. Only item of note is that Jenny’s box yelped “Pangloss!” when I got to her. Why? Thoth only knows…
   That done, I explain we’ll cover sound sources this time. Then I hit a key, and my laptop plays a thin, weak, wispy tone, like an anemic flute. “Anyone care to guess what this is..? No..? Fine. It’s the sound produced by the human voicebox. Some damn fool back in the 1960s let a doctor shove a microphone down her throat to record the actual vibrations produced by her larynx, and that’s what we’re hearing now.” I let the sound continue a few seconds before I kill it. One of my students’ hands is raised, so I ask, “What is it, Anthony?”
   I note that tiger-boy’s using the KV-150 I handed out, not his VoxPop. “If that’s a recording of the human larynx, why doesn’t it resemble speech?”
   “Like I said, it was recorded deep in the throat, at the source. So we’re hearing the waveform before it gets worked over by nasal resonance cavities and like that. Same deal as how a trumpet mouthpiece sounds a lot different when you play it by itself, without the rest of the horn.” Then, to the class at large: “Remember what you just heard! As long as you’re good for any sound whatsoever, there’s a chance you can turn it into intelligible speech. You already know how Norms make noise, so let’s check out how other species manage…”
   Between putting anatomical diagrams on the walls, playing relevant sound files, explaining what it all means, and answering questions when someone needs further clarification, I’m pretty busy for the next clock-hour and a half.
   “…inflection, at the very least! Alright—here’s your homework assignments.” I pause, scan the class. Who to start with… I roll mental dice and turn to fish-boy.
   “Dennison,” I say, looking straight into his bulgy eyes. “I’ll bet you’re wondering why I haven’t already given up on you. After all, fish are intrinsically silent, right?” He nods his head. “Wrong. It just so happens that some fish damn well do make noise!” I start to count on my fingers: “Angelfish, parrotfish, silver perch, red drum, black drum, and more than 200 other species. Most of ’em got this air-filled, internal swim bladder they smack around. Ever heard of the oyster toadfish? Didn’t think so, but you’re ugly enough to be one, and that sucker’s got specialized muscles to swat its bladder up to 200 times per second. So if you are a toadfish, you should be good for pitches topping off right around G below middle C. And if not? Well, we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?” A quick upshift, and a sheet of paper appears on his desk. I continue as he picks it up to read it: “27 questions, and I’ll want the answers two weeks from now.”
   Then it’s the bug’s turn. “Borman. You’re mostly a cricket—can you chirp like one?” He nods and makes the noise, two or three octaves below a natural-born cricket. “Congratulations. What you just did is called ‘stridulation’, and it’s the sound source of a natural-born cricket. You want to arm-wrestle intelligible words out of it, you’re gonna need to vary that sound. Can you? Damn if I know; that’s your homework. I’ll want a sound file. Get cracking on it. And by the way: If stridulation doesn’t work for you, there’s at least two other avenues you can explore before you abandon speech.”
   I let the bug ponder my remark as I look at the inanimorph… What’s going on inside that rock? Are you even there, Jenny? Is anyone there? Nothing in those dull, grey eyes, or at least nothing discernable to me. Sigh. Moving right along…
   “Calgonetti. What’s up with you, guy? Considering how well natural-born mynahs talk, it’s hard to see why you should have any problems with speech, let alone take more’n ten bloody years to re-learn it. So… what’s the story?”
   “It is not for us to question the Lord’s will,” the preacher’s voder says. “I have faith that He will return my voice to me at a time of His choosing.”
   Sounds like a rehearsed answer to me. “Uhhh-huh. Would that be before or after the Second Coming?” Oh yeah, that hit a nerve. Good. Bird-brain glares at me as other people make amused noises. “Come on, Chuck. You’re gonna have to work with me here. ‘God helps those who help themselves’, am I right?” A sheet of paper ‘teleports’ onto his desk. “But I digress. Your homework is phonemes—the individual sounds that serve as the fundamental building blocks of spoken language. English uses 40 of ’em, each one of which is on your list there, and you’re gonna record ’em all. I don’t care what format you use, just let me know if it’s cassette or MP3 or what, I want three samples of each phoneme, and I want you to bring the recording in two weeks. And that goes for you, too, Borman.”
   Chuck’s not happy. His voder says, “What if I cannot make all the sounds?”
   Looking at him and the cricketmorph, I shrug. “Try ’em and see. If there’s any you can’t do, all it means is that SCABS worked over your noisemaker worse than I thought. Get on it.”
   Then I turn to the fox. “Zelinski. How’s your voice, girl?”
   Her smile strikes me as a lot more genuine than mine usually is, and she’s game to try: “Oowwwwrrr…” Oh, well. Too bad she’s not there yet. She taps at her voder—a Magnavox Express; wonder what happened to the KV-150 and where the new one came from?—which says, “I am prack-tiss-ing. I will learn.”
   I nod. “Can’t ask for more than that. Keep it up.”
   “I will. I praw-miss.”
   I nod, and look at the last of my students. “Mr. Anthony,” I say. A sheet of paper pops up on his desk. “You get what the bird got. Again, I don’t care if it’s MP3 or WAV or what, but it’d be nice if you can gimme advance notice of which.”
   He nods. His voder says, “MP3.”
   “Groovy. Email it to me any time within the next two weeks.” To the whole class: “Remember, we’ve got a field trip next Tuesday, so I don’t need your homework ’til the week after. For now… go home.”
   They leave, mostly. Tiger-boy sticks around after the rest are gone. He says—he honest-to-Taliesin says—”Ehhhrro, Djju-bhadd-huzz.”
   “You’ve been practicing, haven’t you.”
   He nods, then gets his VoxPop out of an inside pocket. “Yes. I’ve also done some research on you.”
   Oh, joy. “That’s nice. Want a cookie?”
   He smiles and goes on: “No, thanks. You’re helping me; I just wondered how I could help you in return.”
   An idealist? Will wonders never cease. “Help me? Forget it—you can’t. Anything else the rabbit twisted your arm about?”
   Tiger-boy looks hurt for a moment. “Phil didn’t twist my arm, Jubatus. But he did warn me what to expect from you.”
   “If he said I can be blunt, rude, offensive, abrasive, difficult, obnoxious, and generally antisocial, he was right. Anything else you want to know before you leave?”
   The hint is as subtle as a sixteen-ton weight. Even so, whole clock-seconds pass in silence, me staring a laser-sharp, unblinking gaze into his eyes, before he gets the message. “Next week,” his voder says. Then he’s gone.
   A few seconds later, I quit staring at the door. I can’t really say I like stomping on people like that, but… it’s better this way. Lesser of N evils, honestly.

   The next week’s pretty boring, so I’ll just give you the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. More hours put in at the Shelter; the net-spiders researching Jenny turned up another 950 false alarms, plus three leads I haven’t yet proven bogus; I’ve sucked down a lot more information (financial and otherwise) related to the Zelinski household—I’ll bet Mrs. Allison noticed that somebody’s been poking their snout into her family’s private affairs, because somehow, I just don’t think it’s coincidental that she’s boosted the budget for security (real-world and cyberspace both) within the past couple weeks. Like I care. As for the contracts I handle in my day job, it’s five down, 38 to go.
   Business as usual, really.

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