by Quentin Long
©2010 Quentin Long

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

Home -=- #31 -=- ANTHRO #31 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

   Third class is a field trip. To Derksen’s clinic. Would have preferred to start the class there, but this was the first Tuesday evening the doc-roach’s lab was free. Remodeled the living space in my Extremis; there’s four new seats (rented) in back. Those plus the passenger’s seat up front will handle the five humanoids, and there’s also room for Jenny the Rock to lie down. Hey, why shouldn’t I play chauffeur? I’m the teacher, it’s my responsibility to see that the class gets to where it needs to be, right?
   Good: Everyone’s a little early, especially the foxy lady. She’s delivered by what looks like the same pair of bodyguard-types, driving the same car, as got her home last week. She smiles at me, and she (not her voder) says: “Hrraiie-yhheaarh, Dj… Tchew… hraour!”
   I nod without smiling. “Better’n last week. Keep practicing, you’ll get there soon enough.”
   She digs her Magnavox out of her purse to reply. “I know I will, but. In the meantime. It can be frustrating.”
   Now I smile. “Tell me about it. You’re getting off easy, lady—you have an instructor who’s been there himself.”
   “Which you didn’t,” her voder says.
   “Yeah.” Shrug. “Ready for the field trip?”
   “Oh, yes. Allie was very pleased. She’s always wanted to—” and one rent-a-thug reaches over her shoulder to press the voder’s ‘mute’ button.
   “What did Miss Allison tell you about violating her privacy, Miss Mary?” says the thug.
   The vixen’s face spends a moment at ‘pissed off’ before shifting over to ‘mild embarrassment’. She un-mutes the voder, nods at the thug: “You’re right, George. I shouldn’t discuss family business in public.” To me, she (or at least her voder) says, “Apologies, Jubatus. Yes, I’m ready for this field trip. And I’ve been looking forward to it. Are we really going to see Dr. Derksen himself?”
   “Doubtful. He’s booked solid until the 12th of Never, you know?”
   That gets a couple of yipping laughs out of her muzzle. Which is about when Dennison shows up, with Anthony following close. Not so very much later, me and my class are tooling along towards the doc-roach’s lab. The rent-a-thugs weren’t happy about the fox being in my car instead of with them. That’s nice. They weren’t explicitly instructed to stay within arm’s reach 24/7, and even if they were, I couldn’t care less.
   The traffic’s thicker than I anticipated. 38 clock-minutes later, I pull into a reserved space in the parking lot of Derksen’s lab. My passengers talked; I paid attention to the road. Guess which hired limo stayed within five car-lengths of us all the way there?
   Derksen being a big name in SCABS research, his lab’s security is a couple notches above the norm—you never know when some idiot Nazi wannabe, Humans First or whatever, will take it into his head to strike a blow for stupid people everywhere. Me and my students pass through the outer gate without incident, but Zelinski’s thugs get detained when they set off an alarm. Good. There’s two more layers of protection I’m aware of, and Vulcan knows how many others. I wish the thugs joy of them all.
   I’m intimately familiar with the doc-roach’s torture chamber—his primary examination room—from all the times he’s worked me over. Being the highly exotic breed of chronomorph I am, it’s only natural that a world-class SCABS researcher like Derksen would want to observe the hell out of me, as often as he can… oh, joy. He’s here. I was afraid of that. On the plus side, he’s practically human today. Soft skin, blond hair, no antennae, compound eyes only a little bigger than human normal. See, Derksen’s one of us; he’s a polymorph SCAB, insectoid forms his specialty, and the roach traits kind of creep up on him when he’s irritated or preoccupied or whatever. One more reason I’m glad not to be a shapeshifter myself.
   “Hello, Jubatus,” he says, and his voice is a hell of a lot smoother than when he goes blattidae on you. Damn it. “ I don’t suppose—”
   “That’s right, you don’t suppose. And you don’t get another crack at me for seventeen days.
   “”Oh, well; can’t blame a mad scientist for trying!” He sounds happy, but even with no discernable chitin on him, his scent is too roachy for me to tell his real mood. BFD.
   I snort my disagreement at him. “Whatever. Since you’re here, does that mean you’re gonna make yourself useful checking out the fox?”
   “Yes.” Now he’s serious. “Among other things, I find it curious that her medical records are silent on a number of points that may add up to grounds for a malpractice suit.”
   My ears prick up. “Oh, really? Then what’s the story with Dr. Gordon?” I ask, referring to the physician in charge of the Zelinski case. “Is he corrupt, or just incompetent?”
   At this point, Derksen’s face hardens—literally—as exoskeletal plates form. “That is what I intend to find out. Either way, it’s clear that this Dr. Gordon has no business working with SCABs; the data from this examination will tell me whether I should push for censure or disbarment.” Then he sighs, and his plates soften a little. “Excuse me, Jubatus,” he says, and then he’s off to supervise a whole-body scan of Jenny, the stone dog.
   There’s an empty chair off to one side of the lab. I sit back and let Derksen (and his flunkies) scurry around the place with various implements of medicine. It’s actually kind of interesting to see them work on someone else. Hell, this time I don’t even mind the stench of disinfectant!
   Derksen & Co. conduct a sextet of very thorough physical examinations, covering everything from respiratory airflow to basal metabolic rate to speed of neural transmission to God knows what-all else. The doc-roach is going the extra mile, and then some—I’d only asked him to cover the vocal tract—but if that’s what he wants to do, it’s fine by me. That’s odd… they’ve left off a number of procedures he likes to use on me, but then they also include a few I’m not familiar with. I make mental notes—the lapses and additions probably have to do with my chronomorph power, which I don’t want anyone, Derksen or no, to learn too much about.
   Hmm… maybe it’s just me, but I get the impression that Derksen’s concern for Zelinski goes a little beyond the standard doctor/patient relationship..? Whatever; it’s none of my business.
   Entry to exit, we’re done in four clock-hours. Zelinski’s thugs aren’t around when we leave—how sad. The drive back to the Shelter is uneventful; my passengers are too busy comparing notes to bother me. I park, five of the six bug out, the vixen doesn’t.
   “Waiting for something?” I ask.
   Foxy’s fingers touch her voder, but it stays mute. She looks at me. I look back. Her machine finally says, “Were you always male, Jubatus?”
   Huh..? I consider asking why she wants to know, but I decide to just answer the question. “Yes.”
   She spends a few seconds thinking before her voder speaks up again. “Then why are you so angry?”
   “Angry?” I snort a laugh. “Like any SCAB needs to ask.”
   Dead air. Zelinski’s not happy. Before anything else can happen, a particular rented limo screeches to a halt beside us. I point a thumb at them.
   “Your ride’s here,” I say. “See you next Tuesday.”

   The homework showed up across a week, starting last Friday. Tiger-boy’s arrived first; birdbrain’s came last. Funny how that works. Right now I’m in my classroom, reviewing the assignments over lunch. Nothing from Jenny—not that I expected anything, of course. But what could I have assigned her, damn it?
   Lots of people fear them, with good reason—check out any of the ‘true crime’ books about inanimorph perps—but I just think they’re damned weird, is all. Strictly speaking, I guess I should be afraid, since innies are among the few things in this world with half a chance of hurting me… but I’m not.
   Thank you, Jay Nelson Xavier.
   “What the—”
   Somehow, I know that the voice I’m hearing in my head (not my ears) is Jenny. And when I turn to look at the stone dog, I see… something. Can’t make out details—my eyes can’t decide whether it’s transparent or not—wait, it’s solid now. Human body, female, which I (again, ‘somehow’) know to be an idealized version of Jenny’s pre-SCABS body. Clothed, yet.
   Her lips don’t move: Is this form more to your liking, Jay Nelson Xavier?
   I evade the question. “Call me Jubatus, I use the other name for business. Thanks for what?”
   For your downshifting. The single-minded intensity of your concentration. For giving me something to focus on. I am grateful.What you did allowed me to… obviate? Reify?—no. I am sorry, you lack the vocabulary.
   “Whatever. You know, there’s paperwork to fill out if you’re dropping the class…”
   For the first time in my life, I ‘hear’ a laugh that really is like the tinkling of bells. No mockery in it; I know that she’s just appreciating the absurdity of the situation… Thank you again, Jubatus. It is very good to exist in human reality.
   “There’s another kind?”
   In a manner of speaking. If two people perceive the Universe so differently that they cannot communicate, are they truly living in the same reality?
   Philosophy? Feh. “Yes, they are,” I say. “Look, it’s not like you need a speech tutor any more, so why are you here?”
   As I said, Jubatus, I am grateful. I want to express my gratitude in tangible form.
   ‘Tangible form’? Heh! The first image that comes to mind is impossible—I’m a cat, and she’s dead—but she apparently picks it out of my brain anyway. And suddenly, without any warning, Jenny’s a cheetah, too! She’s fur-naked, and there’s this indescribable scent, and she’s stepping towards me, and—Very well, Ju-
   No! I scream from the far corner of the room, only twitching a little. “No. That’s, ah, no. None of that. Really.”
   And then she’s back in her chair, back in human form, and a repentant sigh echoes lightly through my mind. I misunderstood…I apologize.
   It’s easy for me to calm down, because I know her remorse is genuine. “That’s, um, okay. So. You can read minds.”
   A light touch of uncertainty… In effect, yes. While I am not truly telepathic, I have certain… perceptions…
   “…which I lack the vocabulary for you to describe.”
   I’m afraid so. This time, I know the communication gap’s got her as frustrated as me—maybe more so—but she’s honestly doing the best she can. I really am sorry—all of this, being an inanimorph, it’s still very new to me. I hope you can forgive me my errors.
   I shrug. “Not a problem. No harm done, you didn’t mean it, and you learn from your mistakes. Right?”
   Right, she ‘says’, and for a moment I feel—something—like someone walked over my grave? Or like I’m being watched from every direction at once? Vocabulary again. Not really painful or unpleasant; just, I don’t know, weird. Whatever the sensation is, I don’t miss it when it stops. It’s so very hard not to make mistakes with an unfamiliar set of abilities you’ve only just acquired… wouldn’t you say?
   I give her a tolerant, rueful smile. “Tell me about it.”
   As if I need to! Her sympathetic amusement is clear. But seriously: You did me an enormous favor, and I want to reciprocate. What would you like?
   ‘What would you like?’ If it was anyone biological, I’d tell them to forget it—but this is an inanimorph ‘talking’. And innies can do pretty much anything, blowing off physical laws as needed…
   The words are out of my mouth before I realize what I’ve said: “Can you cure SCABS?”
   She’s ‘silent’ for a good ten-fifteen clock-seconds. I don’t press her, and clouds of uncertainty and intense concentration drift through my brain as the time passes. I… don’t know. I think I—
   “Do it!
   She’s taken aback by the force of my command. That makes two of us.
   Let me finish, please. As I was going to say, I think I can eliminate all traces of Martian Flu virus from your body. That much I’m reasonably sure of. Changes inflicted by SCABS are a tougher problem, but I may even be able to undo them, too. The problem is, I don’t know what condition you’ll be in when I’m finished! Yes, you might return to your former, human, self; but you could also end up a normal cheetah, or even dead. If I try this, it could ruin your life, your very existence, in any of thousands of different ways. On second thought, make that ‘millions’. Is this a risk you really want to take, Jubatus?
   Rhetorical question. To be human again—fully human!—well, let’s just say it’s one hell of a prize Jenny’s dangling before me. How can I believe she’s up to the task? How can I not? There may be no hope of a cure from any human agency, but that doesn’t say squat about what an innie might be capable of! “Do it,” I repeat.
   She’s quiet for a long moment before she ‘talks’ again. Jubatus. You do realize that just as I can perform actions far beyond any limits of biological life… so, too, can I make mistakes far more terrible than anything biological life is capable of.
   “No shit, Sherlock.”
   You know this, but you still want me to try.
   “Got it in one.”
   You’re absolutely certain.
   “You’re damn right I’m absolutely certain,” I snarl. “Stop screwing around! Shit or get off the pot! Do it, or fuck off and… oh, hell. Just… do it.”
   Another longish pause, then she ‘says’, Very well. I’m going to scan you now, Jubatus… and suddenly that bizarre ‘watched from all directions’ sensation is back, in spades, doubled and redoubled. It feels like she’s poring over my entire life, back to the moment of my birth and forward to my eventual death, simultaneously—and no, I haven’t got Clue One how that impression entered my sensorium. Then my mind is drenched by a mixture of embarrassment and pity and regret and endless, bottomless sorrow.
   Oh, dear…
   “What’s wrong?”
   You… don’t even know, do you, Jubatus?
   Huh? “What the fuck are you talking about!?”
   I really and truly am sorry. But I… I just can’t give you what you really want.
   What the—goddamn bitch! It’s my life she’s toying with! “‘Can’t’, or ‘won’t’?” I growl.
   A foreign sigh drifts across my frontal lobes. If you must put it that way, it’s ‘won’t’—
   I’ve had more than enough. So what if she’s an inanimorph, nobody jerks me around like that! No-fucking-body! I don’t let her ‘say’ another word: “Then get lost. Go find another fly to pull the wings off, you goddamn corpse.”
   Please, let me exp-
   Okay, that is the proverbial it. I scream and upshift high and leap straight for her lying throat and—
   —and then the world turns inside-up around me and it’s like I’m moving in some direction I wasn’t previously familiar with and—
   —disoriented, I blink. What the… oh, hell. I missed another meal, didn’t I? With my high-speed metabolism, I’ve found that my higher brain functions tend to decay after a couple of clock-hours without food. Better get a snack once I’m done here.
   Let’s see… Jenny just asked what she could do for me. Right. The words are out of my mouth before I realize what I’ve said: “Can you cure SCABS?”
   I’m afraid not, she ‘says’, and I know her regret is sincere. Maybe at some future time, but right now, I don’t even know if it’s possible, let alone how to do it.
   “You mean innies aren’t omnipotent?”
   That gets me a mental cloud of tolerance/amusement/sympathy/self-effacement. You may find it hard to believe, Jubatus, but we inanimorphs do have limitations. They’re just… different… from the ones you live with.
   I roll my eyes. “Oh, well.” That’ll teach me to hope… “Since you can’t do what I want, I guess I’ll take a rain check.”
   Either she’s old enough to know the term, or she learned it when she scanned me earlier: Alright, a rain check it is. A sequence of 40 digits drifts across my forebrain, and I know I’ll never forget it. Type that number on any computer or telephone keyboard, and I’ll be there for you.
   “Do I want to know the details?”
   A mixture of amusement and frustration, both mild. Yes, you do. And if you had the vocabulary, I would explain.
   “Gee, thanks. I’m beginning to see why you guys don’t usually hang around with us living types.”
   Tell me about it, she ‘says’, her words and tone echoing an earlier remark of mine. And thank you once again; now I know what I should do with myself.
   “Gonna play Speaker-to-Breathers, huh?”
   A tinkling giggle dances through my brain… Something like that, yes. Farewell, Jubatus. Until we meet again…
   …and I’m alone in the room…

   Homework. Birdbrain did a decent job on all 40 phonemes; tiger-boy did better; foxy lady did best of all. I flatly will not think about how her voice is gonna end up sounding. The bug’s—Borman’s—stridulation is a little iffy, but not bad for a first shot. Dennison? My questions for him amount to an abbreviated Piscine Anatomy 101 final exam, and he aced it. 25 answers dead-on correct, the other two technically invalid but strongly arguable anyway. As for Jenny… she’s outta here. All her paperwork and computer files are in order, not that anybody noticed her turning in any forms or anything. None of my business anyway (he says, with a shrug).
   As for the class itself (number four in a series of ten—collect them all!): Anthony sounds better than I do, goddamn his near-intact throat. I give 10:1 odds in favor of the bastard regaining full human speech before the final class session. Calgonetti? Phonemes he’s got down pat, but he can’t quite manage to put ’em together into honest-to-God speech. Funny, that. Chalk up another one for ‘self-imposed mental block’, and I go out of my way to rub salt in his wound. He’ll thank me for it later, right? Borman actually surprises me by stridulating recognizable phonemes; only three of ’em, granted, but I didn’t think he’d be able to swing it at all. Not this early, anyway. Good sign. Dennison turns out to have an internal swim-bladder, complete with swatting muscles, and he demonstrates it with a kind of “ahh-eee-ahh” that more-or-less spans an augmented fifth.
   And then there’s Zelinski. Her eyes aren’t as bright as last week; her vocalizing is decidedly worse than before; and she fumbles with her voder like she’d only just started using the damn thing yesterday. Oh, and I could tell her scent was ‘off’ (including what the ‘new’ chemicals were) before she stepped into the classroom. I do the math, and the answer is clear: She’s drugged. Given the data I’ve already acquired re: the Zelinski household, there’s exactly 1 (one) person who could’ve done it to her: Alison Zelinski, her ‘loving’ spouse. You think I’m pissed off? Damn right I am. Nobody has the right to fuck up someone else’s free will like that! I stifle my anger for the duration of the class.
   This week’s homework is pretty much a rerun of last week’s; more phoneme-practice, singly and in combination. When the rest leave, I ask the vixen to stay. She gives me a vague look: “I muost gho homm,” her voder says. “Mizz Awl-lee dee-uz-int wand me tu ss’tay owwit laid.”
   “Maybe so, but she also wants you to relearn how to talk, am I right?” Zelinski pauses, then makes with an uncertain nod, and I go on before her voder can say anything else: “You need a little extra attention right now, is all. That’s what we’re going to do tonight, and if Miss Allie doesn’t like it, you just tell her it’s my fault, how’s that?”
   I keep an eye on the parking lot while I talk—an occasional momentary upshift, nothing the fox even can notice in her drugged-out state—so I see the TransportElegance limo as it pulls in. Good thing Zelinski rather likes the idea of having some time away from home: Her face slides into an off-kilter grin, and her voder says, “Ohh khay!”
   “Great. Now, sit down and close your eyes; I’ve got a big surprise for you.” She obeys. I upshift. Four-point-eight clock-seconds later, she’s in the back of my car, seated in front of a big-ass computer display with Newspaper Tycoon VII running. The rent-a-thugs in the limo think Zelinski’s still in the Shelter; I brought her down so fast they didn’t—couldn’t—percieve anything. I could care less if they try to look in the Extremis; there’s a couple aftermarket features that normally let me sleep in private, but they work just as well now. Specifically, the electrochromic film on the windows (currently set to Total Eclipse), and the cab divider in front of the cargo space.
   Zelinski makes with a little squeal of delight when she opens her eyes. “There you go!” I say. “I’ve got the game set up for voice commands, but you can also use mouse and keyboard, if you’d rather. Need any help?” Apparently not—her fingers dance on the keyboard as she dives right in.
   “Thank you,” her box says, “but I don’t believe that will be necessary.” Interesting: Her skill with the voder is distinctly higher now than it was a couple minutes ago. Good.
   My cel phone has a wireless link to the Extremis’ video cameras; that’s how I know when the rent-a-thugs leave their vehicle for the Shelter. Absorbed in an orgy of virtual capitalism, the vixen doesn’t even notice when I drive off. The rent-a-thugs won’t be following us—not with their distributor cap in my glove compartment, they won’t. Upshifting can be useful at times…
   At this point, I’m not sure what the deal is with Alison Zelinski. Sure, I know what she’s done to her ex-husband, but I don’t know why, and the ‘why’ matters. Well, I’ll find out soon enough.
   Moving right along: Most people think the “Betty Ford Clinic” is just a punchline, what with all the rich actors and singers who supposedly go there to detoxify or whatever. Wrong. The Clinic is very real, very discreet, and damned good at what they do. And they’ve got a SCAB-friendly branch office in the west end of Pennsylvania. A couple hours of air-conditioned driving, and foxy lady is safely deposited there. The staff was quite professional, even while enrolling an unscheduled client at 2 AM. Wasn’t exactly ‘no questions asked’, but that’s okay; what with all my poking around the Zelinskis’ private affairs, I had the right answers.

   So. It’s 9 AM Wednesday. By now Alison Zelinski’s got to know that her gendermorph hubby has evaporated. Odds are, she hasn’t slept. She’s probably shitting bricks wondering when the ransom note will arrive. Wish I could’ve seen her face when my e-note did arrive in her inbox…

FROM: J. Acinonyx (fiver@jubatus.nucom)
SUBJ: re: Mary Zelinski’s vocalization
I’m afraid that Mary’s progress in class has been disrupted by a set of problems beyond my capacity to solve. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of securing an outside specialist who can help her overcome these problems. I would like to speak to you in a private conference, at your earliest convenience, about preventing a recurrence of these problems. When would be a good time for you?

   Heh! I think I hit just the right chords; aside from the none-too-subtle hints that I know exactly what she’s done, I’ve all but confessed to the kidnapping. And best of all, the language is sufficiently innocuous that no lawyer or judge could regard the note as evidence of anything nefarious. How long will it take Zelinski to decide that her only option is to talk to me?
   I get her answer at 2:26PM. She wants to meet this evening, her place, 8 o’clock. As usual, I got clock-hours to kill—oh, joy. In between working on my legit contracts, I make contact with the Zelinski home network. Well, well: Miss Allison has been researching me, much good may it do her. Security protocols are unchanged, which just means that if she is planning any surprises, she’s doing it offline. Do I have a plan? Damn straight I do. No point wasting time in conversational parry and riposte. Instead, I’m gonna blitzkrieg the bitch—hit her fast and hard, from multiple directions at once, changing attacks before she can adjust or reply. Considering how easily I torque people off just because, it’ll be interesting to see how bad I can rattle somebody when I work at it. All of which assumes there’s no armed resistance or whatever. If there is, no problem: I upshift and nuke it, after which Zelinski gets my undivided attention.
   The clock-hours crawl by…
   8PM—showtime. The Zelinski house is a bloated, two-story carbuncle with a bunch of underground floor space; when I ring the bell, the front door is opened by a familiar-smelling rent-a-thug. His demeanor is designed to intimidate, not that I give a damn. He says, “Miss Allison will receive you in the living room,” and leads me inside.
   The living room turns out to be an interior chamber with a good chunk of one wall taken up by an oversized flat-plasma display. Once I’m there, a female voice says “Thank you, Marcus. That will be all,” and thug-boy leaves as we both sit down. This voice belongs to a female norm, straight black hair, semi-dark skin tone. Judging from her scent, she’s a little shaky, uncomfortable, and trying not to let it show. Let’s see how fast I can coax a reaction out of her. “I’m… my name is Alison Zelinski,” she says.
   “Jubatus,” I reply.
   “Would you…” She breaks off with a sigh. “I’m sorry, this is all so complicated…”
   Shrug. “Seems pretty straightforward to me. Your hubby SCABbed over seven months ago—different sex and species. She’s been stoned out of her gourd ever since, courtesy of you. I’m curious, how many doctors did you go through?”
   “Excuse me?” Hmmm… steady pulse and scent… nope, her confusion is just an act. This isn’t the first time my SCABS-heightened senses have come in handy.
   “How many doctors?” I repeat. “Before you found one who didn’t care what he did to Mary, as long as your checks cleared.”
   Okay, now it’s a genuine response: High-end anger. “Mister Jubatus, I’ll tha-”
   Her words are drowned under my “Shut up, bitch.” My voice may suck rocks, but I can definitely go Loud when I feel like it. “You may not be old enough to remember date-rape drugs, but I sure as hell am, and the only difference I see is that you married your victim first!”
   “I—you—” From ‘calm’ to ‘stuttering, with pulsing vein in forehead’ in under 7 clock-seconds. I love it when a plan comes together. “How dare you!”
   “How dare you, lady!? Go play the Righteous Indignation card somewhere else, ’cause I’m not interested. What I’ve got on you, I could nail you to the wall in court yet—and I just might.”
   It’s working. I can practically smell her brain cells burning out as she almost keeps up. “You—you’d never win!”
   I give her a nasty smile, heavy on the fangs. “Bets on that? Imagine your face plastered across the front page of every newspaper in a 1,000-mile radius, not to mention all the broadcast media and net coverage. Think of all the editorials. Visualize the Zelinski name permanently associated with cute stuff like anti-SCABS bigotry, chemically-mediated enslav-”
   —attack: threat level high: 12 o’clock—
   —oh, hell. It’s not the first time this has happened: My instincts trigger an upshift without my say-so, because they don’t like something in my immediate vicinity. In this case it’s Zelinski, floating in midair, with hands poised to do some damage. Physical assault? Gosh, I must’ve hit a very sensitive nerve. I could tear her several new assholes… but instead, I just move around to lean on the back of her chair, resume a tempo of 1, and watch her land, clumsily, on the couch I just vacated.
   Confused, she looks around, and I speak when her eyes meet mine: “That was your first free shot at me. Hope you enjoyed it, because nobody gets two.”
   “Bastard! I’ll sue—”
   I laugh, a cruel, venomous noise that shatters her focus. “Hah! Go ahead and try, for all the good it’ll do you. Face it: Whatever you do, you can’t stop me opening a can of worms you’d much prefer stay closed. Me, I could care less about bad publicity—can you say the same? If you think you can possibly fuck up a SCAB’s social status any worse’n it already is, feel free to try. Who knows, you might even be able to come up with something that’s not prima facie grounds for a libel suit. Should be fun.”
   “You…” I can smell fear, anger, concern, and confusion fighting it out in her scent. Fear wins. “Alright. Do your worst, you monster.”
   “Says the bald ape who arranged a permanent brainwashing prescription for their own spouse,” I retort. “Alright , Mrs. Zelinski. I’ve got half a mind to sic my lawyer on you anyway, but I’m a reasonable man. Play it straight with me, I’ll return the favor. Fuck with me, and I will own your sorry ass. Your choice.”
   Fear and guilt: A powerful combo. They’re both on her face and in her scent. Eventually, she gets herself under control again. “What… what do you want?” she asks.
   She’s defeated, alright—scent doesn’t lie—so I get down to business: “I want the truth. Why is Mary a drugged-out zombie?”
   Zelinski kind of sags in her chair. She sighs, doesn’t (can’t?) look at my face. “I… no one ever intended…”
   A few seconds after she trails off, I kill the silence. “I’m not hearing a ‘why’.”
   “It’s… complicated…”
   “You already said that,” I point out. “Feel free to start at the beginning. Alternately, how about I just leave, wait ’til Mary’s done getting detoxified, and let her decide how many new orifices I should rip out of your hide? Your call—pick one.”
   She goes for ‘start at the beginning’. Takes her an unnecessarily long time to spit it out: Hubby SCABs over (fur and tits), goes nutbar over the gender thing, needs to be sedated for his/her own protection… and ever since, Zelinski makes sure hubby gets a fresh dose whenever she’s too close to sober.
   “You… didn’t know Martin before,” she says, as if her words were threading a minefield. “He was… difficult to live with, not—”
   I cut her off. “So. Fucking. What. If Mary wants to be permanently blitzed, fine, but guess what? That’s not your goddamn decision, lady! So here’s the deal: As of now, Dr. Gordon is off Mary’s—”
   “What gives you the right to interfere with the private affairs of this family!”
   Zelinski shuts up when I look directly into her eyes. She looks right back. Both of us are way the hell pissed. Her anger is cold like liquid helium; mine is hotter than a deuterium-fusion torch.
   Zelinski breaks first. When she lowers her gaze, I speak up, as inexorable as a glacier: “What, exactly, gave you the right to interfere—I spit that word out with a freightload of sarcasm—”with your spouse’s mind and free will.”
   Her scent goes heavy on shame, with a side order of fear. No other response.
   Okay, fine. “So… here’s how it’ll go down. One: You will sever all connections, professional and otherwise, between Mary and Doctor Gordon. Two: You will accept whoever Dr. Derksen recommends for Gordon’s replacement. Three: You have no say whatsoever about Mary’s medical needs—you will do anything the new guy says, agree to anything they recommend, and generally treat the new guy as if they’re the Voice of God Himself. Four: If, at any time in the future, I find out that you have ever again so much as dreamed about interfering with Mary’s medical treatment…” Here I whisper, as lethal as a sack of cobras: “I. Will. Destroy. You.”
   Zelinski crumples in silence. Her eyes glint with highlights that weren’t there before—poor fucking baby.
   I give her 15 clock-seconds; still no reply.
   I’m out of there. Nobody gets in my way, not Marcus the thug or any other hireling. Fine by me. The mood I’m in, I’d go through them. Not a good idea to leave a trail of broken bodies. I give the Extremis a once-over when I get to it; nope, no signs of tampering. Only then do I let myself relax. A little, anyway.
   On the road, I don’t think about what I just did. I don’t want to think about it. I just drive. I want to—no. Bad idea; I don’t want to get drunk.
   Well… maybe just a little…

   It’s none of my business, of course, but I keep an eye on the foxy lady over the next few days. Just to make sure Miss Alison stays the hell away from her ex-husband’s treatment, is all. And wouldn’t you know it, Zelinski makes quote, remarkable, unquote, progress. Think it might have something to do with not getting pumped full of mindfuck drugs on a regular basis? Funny how that works. Even so, the Ford medics insist on keeping her there “for observation” for another 8-10 days, minimum… which means she’s going to miss a class. Maybe two.
   In other news, I close 5 more contracts before next Tuesday. 33 more to go; I might run out before the tenth class. Hey, I am taking it easy—I haven’t accepted any new clients since I started teaching the class.
   Speaking of which, this session (the fifth) has a guest lecturer: Donnie Sinclair. And while he’s scribbling at my students, I fill in for him behind the counter at the Pig. That’s the pound of flesh he demanded before he’d do what I asked. I hate the idea; I mean, I don’t do crowds! But since it puts a three-foot-wide faux-marble countertop between me and the customers, it should be okay… right..? Aside from that, I have no idea how Donnie creates and maintains the Pig’s SCAB-friendly atmosphere—so I won’t even try. Instead I’m going to pour the booze, keep a paranoid eye on everything, and stomp on anything that smells like it even might be trouble. I just hope I can stay alert until closing time; for whatever reason, SCABS left me with a half-hour-long sleep cycle. Mind you, I don’t have to conk out that often. I can actually stay up five hours at a time, but that’s kind of like a norm staying up for five days solid… well, that should be enough. Hopefully. I’m pretty sure, anyway.
   Having a few weeks’ advance notice, I did my usual obsessive prep work beforehand. The cash register is a late-2016 NCR job, tablet-style touchscreen; before I’m through, I know it better than Donnie himself does. I’m packing 47,583 different drink recipes on a PDA, complete with recommended ingredient substitutions for when stuff runs out, and the thing happens to be equipped with a wireless internet hookup in case somebody wants something outside the onboard library. More recently, I confirmed that the Pig’s supply database is 100% up to date (I double-checked each item myself). Come the fatal Tuesday, I make sure the lavatories are fully loaded—which is trickier than you might think, since the Pig’s bathrooms accomodate a wide range of SCAB body types. Comfortably, yet. I also stash a couple dozen pounds of beef jerky behind the counter; the kind of calories I burn, I’m gonna need that protein…
   And then it’s showtime.
   The hours pass in a blur. Jesu Christe, there’s a shitload of customers—I sometimes have trouble keeping up with the orders! Upshifting doesn’t help, because I have to understand what all you damn slowpokes are saying. And that means my tempo needs to be real close to 1 most of the time…
   I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.
   “Gimme a Stattenvorl.”
   I take orders.
   “Three shots of Jack Daniels, straight.”
   I make change.
   “Vodka martini for me, an’ a Purple Ray for the li’l lady.”
   I pour booze.
   “—tellya, I wuz on top’a th’ world—”
   I hate it. Sob stories from self-pitying morons—gaah! I pay those twits as little attention as I can manage. Most of ’em take the hint and stay the fuck away from the counter; occasionally I have to delegate one to Wanderer or somebody via an upshifted note in their glass.
   I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.
   “Atomic Firewater!”
   I take orders.
   “Scotch and soda, heavy on the soda.”
   I make change.
   “—you gonna do about it, runt?”
   Oh, fucking joy. I quit pouring. Commotion by the dart board; there’s a St. Bernard-derived animorph SCAB who can’t aim worth shit, lost a bet, and is now proving himself to be a welching asshole and a mean drunk.
   I point one finger ceilingward. “’Scuse me a sec,” I tell the customers I haven’t gotten to yet. Then I zip over to the big dog, telling him, “You lost, Bernie. Pay up and deal with it.”
   He’s, like, six-foot-thirteen and 380 pounds, none of it fat; me, I’m five-eleven and forty-odd kilos. Seeing this as he turns to look down at me, Bernie makes with a contemptuous grin. “Who’s gonna ma-yeee!!!”
   There’s an instant cloud of ozone and burnt fur—I didn’t let Bernie see my TASER, but he damn sure felt it. He hits the floor like a 380-pound sack of dog food. Upshift, extract his wallet from a pocket, downshift, hand the wallet over to the norm-looking guy that beat Bernie. I say, “Take your winnings out of this,” then I upshift again, this time so’s I can haul Bernie’s ass out the front door. We cheetahs are stronger than we look—we have to be, since our legendary top speed is muscle-powered—and besides, I’ve found that local gravity gets weaker when I upshift. Put ’em together, and I’m not even breathing hard when I set Bernie down on the sidewalk outside the Pig.
   Once more behind the counter, I inhale dried meat, downshift, and pick up where I left off—elapsed time 8.6 clock-seconds in all. “I’m back. You there, what do you want?”
   I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.
   “Make mine a Jumper Cable.”
   I take orders.
   “Bacardi 151 on the rocks.”
   I make change.
   “Irish Coffee.”
   I pour booze.
   Time goes on. The clock-hours spin and gyrate…
   …and suddenly I blink, confused at what I see before me. Minotaur? I ask myself. That’s—hold it, what’s Donnie doing here..?
   Ah. Right.
   The place is damn near empty, only a couple of stragglers still hanging on; I must have signaled Closing Time already. Thank any applicable god… Oh, yeah. Must ask… “Hhhh…” I stop, close eyes, swallow, restart. “How’d the class go?”
   Donnie shrugs, then gives me an interrogative “Mmm?”-and-look combo.
   I’m tired. My head hurts. “If you’re asking how my end of the deal went, it sucked. I have no idea how you can stand doing what you do. Can I go now?”
   Donnie looks at me with some inscrutable bovine expression. He nods.
   I do likewise myself, no words. I manage to drag myself out to the Extremis, get inside, and lock up before I collapse…

   Week 6: Nothing much happened. Okay, I did lose another student, but it’s all good… I guess…
   On Thursday (that being July 29th, if you’ve lost track), I get a call from out of state—the Betty Ford Clinic. Guess which of their recent patients put in a request to chat me up, personal-like? Right—her. No reason given. Well, what the hell. I got time to kill, like always, so I agree to do the conversation today. I make time for it (and I do mean ‘make time’), and at 5 PM, I’m in Mary Zelinski’s private room at the Clinic.
   She screws up her face a little, concentrating, and says—she honest-to-Thoth says!—”Hhhee-rhho, Tcheu-baddhuz.”
   I smile and nod. “Hello yourself, Ms. Zelinski. The voice needs work, but not too damned shabby. Y’know, if you wanted to let me know you’re dropping the class, you could’ve just sent me an e-mail…”
   Despite herself, the foxy lady smiles. Only for a moment, but it’s there. And then she goes on: “Iiayy, wrrahndtuu… hrraauuw!” A frustrated yowl. Frowning, she picks up her voder, which just happens to have been lying on her nightstand, and lets it speak for her. “Yes. I’m dropping your class. This is about something else. What happened to my wife?”
   I wasn’t expecting that. If I had eyebrows, I’d raise them. “It matters?”
   Angry and some other emotion fight it out on Zelinski’s face. Angry is losing, big time. “I’m not sure any more,” her voder says in its incongruously level tone. “I’m not sure I want to know. But I must know. And you can tell me. Can’t you?”
   Oh, rapture and fucking joy. “Yeah. I can. But just remember, you asked for it…” And I make with an infodump. I give Zelinski the whole story, everything from when I first read her file to when I hammered on dear little Alison. The foxy lady doesn’t interrupt; she sits there and absorbs it all without making a sound. And then I’m done…
   “…back to the Pig, to get smashed. Well, as smashed as I can get, anyway.”
   At this point, Zelinski isn’t the least bit angry. She’s kind of hunched over into herself; her voder lies, forgotten, on the bed next to her.
   I wait a bit, then kill the silence: “You asked. I answered. Is that it?”
   The vixen pulls herself together. “Yes,” her voder says, “that’s enough.” Then her fingers pause over the talk-box. A few moments later, it recites the words she’d been typing; it gets as far as “I wish” before she hits the ‘abort’ button. She starts over, her hands a little shaky: “Tank you mitt sir Jubatus. You comforted my suspectings. Please lever me out lone.”
   Which I do. The Ford Clinic staff wants to debrief me; I blow off most of their questions with variations on, “Ask the foxy lady—it’s her call.”
   And then I’m on the road again, driving back home.

   Nothing much happened for the next week or so, and that includes during the next class session. Fortunately. I’ve been on the short end of too damn many surprises already…
   Wait, there was one thing: The bug. Borman. He can actually stridulate isolated syllables! He sounds lousy (still better than I do, damn it), and it sucks up so much of his attention and concentration that changing to a different syllable is a major feat… but when all is said and done, he can talk. It’s just a matter of practice, honing his currently-primitive skill.
   Well, whatever: I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, to coin a phrase.

   Okay: Week seven. So I’m coming in for today’s stint at the West Street Shelter. I’m not three steps past the front door when this lightly morphed rat-SCAB, a new addition to the staff, says Splendor wants to see me in her office right away. What does she want from me? Hell if I know—but ‘in her office’ means it’s a private conversation, and that cuts way back on the number of alternatives…
   By the time I open her office door, the short list is down to about three possible agendas. I close the door. Splendor’s just beginning to greet me; I interrupt her, saying, “You want I should work somebody over.”
   She blinks. “What makes you… never mind. Actually—”
   Some things are best stopped before they start. I cut her off again: “Not interested. Go find someone else to play shock trooper. I’m sure there’s plenty of people around here who’d love to put a hurting on some asshole who desperately deserves—”
   “That’s exactly why I want you for this job!” Her turn to interrupt, it seems.
   My turn to blink.
   “Okay…” I finally say. “You’ve piqued my curiosity. Explain.”
   “Thank you. First, some background.” She opens a file drawer, pulls out a manila folder, hands it to me. “Read this.”
   Upshifting, I follow her advice. ‘This’ is a collection of eyewitness reports—seems that Splendor has an unofficial network of informers all over the City. It’s mostly surveillance on the comings and goings of various lowlifes, but there’s also some educated guesses on what said lowlifes will be up to in the near future. Hmmm… if I’m reading this right, it looks like the West Street neighborhood’s been relatively low on criminals for a while, and a gang from outside the City is planning to move into what they perceive as a vacuum.
   I close the folder, slip back to a tempo of 1—”Done.”—and return it to her. “Alright, that’s the background. So what?”
   “I know the local thugs, and I’ve gotten most of them to stop committing their crimes in my neighborhood.”
   “Bully for you.” I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling I know what’s on her mind, but—”And I should get involved… why?”
   She gestures at the folder. “The Cargill Mob. If they establish a presence here, it will be… well. Let’s just say it would be best for all concerned if they don’t. I want to dissuade them with a show of force; give them a demonstra-”
   “No. I flatly refuse to play enforcer.”
   “Will you let me finish!?” she says, glaring at me. Well, what do you know—the snake-lady actually has a temper. I gesture for her to continue; she does. “I’ve set up a meeting with Jocko Cargill,”—head honcho of the eponymous Mob, says her files, real name ‘Giocomo’—”and I want to be accompanied by people who I can be absolutely certain will not initiate any hostile action.”
   “Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I say without much sarcasm. “So what do you want from me?”
   “You’re welcome. And I want you to serve as bodyguard.”
   Damn… Hadn’t considered anything even close to that…
   “Frankly, I’d be a fool to trust Jocko as far as I can—” BLAM!
   —attack: threat level extreme: 2 o’clock—
   Shit! The whole south wall’s erupted with itsy-bitsy explosions. The instincts upshifted me to a tempo of 35-40, somewhere up there, and the ambient noise dopplers down like always; I can see…
   Holy limping Hephæstus—I can see the bullets moving!
   It actually takes a couple seconds of my time before I snap out of it and get to work. Numero Uno: Digital camera from my vest, aim it at the wall’s exit wounds, leave it floating in midair at1,000 shots per clock-second. Numero Two-o: Shpritz a layer of DeadGlove (inert polymer in a spray can) on my hands, grab bullets out of the air, store ’em five-to-a-mylar-envelope. Would’ve preferred individually-wrapped, but I ran out—wasn’t prepared for this many projectiles! Numero Three-o: There’s a second wave of airborne crap (shards of window glass, wood chips, nails, yada yada), so I sweep it all to the carpet and bury it under several dozen pounds of books to make sure it don’t go noplace it shouldn’t ought to.
   I retrieve my camera—good, it’s still got 91% free RAM—and there’s nothing visibly moving at the moment, so I downshift to a tempo of 1 so’s I can hear if there’s any more bullet-in-flesh impacts. There aren’t any, but I do hear screams and wails from casualties, damnit! Well, hell; they probably won’t die in the next few clock-seconds, so I upshift to a tempo of 35 and avoid the jagged remnants of windowpane in the frame as I go outside to get some good shots of a late-model Chrysler, nicely framed between a lamp post and a dumpster; driver and two passengers, shabby paint and no discernable plates. Oh, and a pair of rifle barrels sticking out its side windows, complete with muzzle flash and more fucking bullets on the way. The car’s tilted forward, which means the sons of bitches are braking to give themselves more time to shoot.
   Fine. I move in, camera k’chnkk-ing away as it stores images of the bullets and their source, and when I’m in range, I reach inside the car; grab the front gun by its chamber; and pull the fucker out and down, with the kind of force you’d expect from muscles that can shove a hundred-pound mass around at 70 MPH. Next up is a re-run with the back-seat firearm.
   Both guns are firmly lodged in the dirt, barrel-first. The guys who were holding them have a bunch of fingers sticking out at real weird angles. Fuck ’em both. I’m busy—the guns may be harmless now, but there’s all the bullets they already fired… okay, got the last one. My envelopes now hold seven bullets apiece.
   Hungry now. I inhale a slab of beef jerky from my vest while I plan out my next move…
   By the time I’ve made my decision, the dudes-in-car are starting to react to the abrupt change in their immediate surroundings; there’s the beginnings of shocked/worried expressions evolving on their faces. Hmm… the car’s not so tilted as it had been… betcha the driver’s floored it. I grin as I extract a genuine Swiss Army Knife from a vest-pocket, unfold the (diamond-hard, waterproof, corrosion-resistant, tungsten/vanadium alloy) cutting blade, and slash a diagonal gouge all the way across the tread of the driver’s side front tire. Not waiting for it to finish blowing out, I do likewise to the driver’s side rear; then I step back onto the sidewalk, resume munching on shriveled meat, downshift to a tempo of 1, and watch the wreck swap out ‘incipient’ for ‘actual’.
   As per my unwritten script, the car—driver’s side, at least—drops to the pavement with a hell of a clang and a shower of sparks. Then it makes with a metal-on-asphalt shriek all the way to its 45-MPH collision with the dumpster. Oooh, no airbags! That’s gonna leave a mark…
   I finish my snack, keeping an eye on the perps in case someone feels like doing something cute; nobody does. I upshift high, strip all three assholes down to their underwear, expend an entire pocket-sized roll of duct tape making damn sure the perps are gonna sit tight where they are, clean out the glove box and trunk… and for an encore, I downshift and call in the whole sorry encounter to the local police precinct.
   Citizen’s arrest is a good thing, right?
   Waiting for the cops to show, I drop back to my default tempo of 6 and amuse myself checking out my loot. No discernable ID on any of the trio—such a surprise—so we’ll just have to see what their photos, fingerprints, and DNA (from impromptu blood samples) say about the matter. Again, the car is plateless, and there’s no VIN either. As for the guns, they look like they could be Izakawa ‘Divine Wrath’-model automatics. That, or else homebrew jobs. I sure hope it’s the latter, since I happen to know that Izakawa doesn’t do firearms for any civilian market.
   Onward to happier thoughts. Let’s see… the clothes look to be generic off-the-rack Target. Residual scent is mostly drowned under cheap-ass cologne, so there’s not so much chance of getting olfactory ID off of it. Just one of the tricks criminals have learned for dealing with a post-SCABS world…
   …ah. Someone’s approaching—correction: Splendor’s approaching. I downshift to match her tempo.
   “Nice day, huh?” I say.
   She grimaces a little. “Hardly. It seems I’m not the only one who felt a show of force might be appropriate.”
   “Seems like,” I agree. “The timing’s pretty interesting, though. It could be coincidence… but me, I bet Cargill had your office wired for sound. Not sure when.”
   Splendor nods. “That makes sense. Perhaps we should relocate this discussion to a more secure place?”
   “No point. I mean, he’s already eavesdropping, right? So he’s gotta know his boys got way the hell hammered on, by someone who’s literally faster than a speeding bullet. He may not be sure what other tricks I have up my sleeve, but I, for one, will be happy to help him learn—the hard way. Of course, that’s assuming Jocko Homo has the balls, not to mention the requisite lack of functional brain cells, to suit up for Round Two.”
   Splendor’s eyes widen, just for a moment, about halfway through my last sentence. Then she gets it and puts a subtle smile on her face. “I… see. I trust you know what you’re doing…”
   “Always,” I state flatly. “And I know something else: That fucknose is toast.”

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

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