by Quentin Long
©2011 Quentin Long

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

Home -=- #32 -=- ANTHRO #32 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

   The next few days are kind of busy, and not just because of my unfinished contracts (29 and counting) and speech-class-related stuff and helping Splendor deal with the listening devices. To begin with, I pore over police records and the snake-lady’s files—but that’s maybe a couple of clock-hours at most. No, what really occupies my time is what I do with the data thereby gained: I smash hands.
   See, the cops have a pretty good idea of who-all is on Jocko’s payroll, and what their particular duties are. Just because the authorities don’t have enough hard evidence to nail a guy in court, that doesn’t mean they’re clueless about why he should be nailed in court. And if you’re curious about why the police might grant a puny civilian—i.e., me—access to this sort of sensitive information? Two reasons:
   First, money talks.
   Second, it seems I got a bit of a fan club in blue. Something to do with all those meticulously detailed complaint reports I keep filing any time some jackass messes with me or my property. I’m told that last year, about17% of all City trials for SCAB-related hate crimes used at least some data from one of my complaint reports—make it 23%, if you’re only interested in convictions.
   The point is, I got a line on Jocko’s whole organization. His entire chain of command, from him and his most-trusted seconds all the way down to his lowliest footsoldiers. And I also got several dozen of the freelancers he’s most likely to call when he needs a little extra manpower.
   Put it all together, I got me a good, long list of targets to hit… and hit them, I do. With a pair of bricks. At a closing velocity well in excess of the speed of sound.
   I tap each of their hands twice. Hit Number One, the bricks are parallel to the plane of the palm; Hit Number Two, they’re at right angles. Locating a target’s never difficult. After that, I do my business, leave a card, and bug out.
   The card, you ask? Just something I whipped up on a cheap-ass laser printer I bought, used for this one job, and melted to untraceable slag immediately after. Each card bears six words—TELL JOCKO HOMO TO GET LOST—and a single letter, J.
   No, as a matter of fact I couldn’t just waste ’em all. Three words:
   Got it?
   Aside from that, leaving Jocko’s crew mostly-intact is a good thing. There’s a lot to hate about organized crime, but one thing they get right is, you take care of your own people. ’Cause if you don’t… well, either you take care of them, or else they take care of you. Not to mention, a rep for fucking over your underlings makes it a lot harder to get replacement thugs when you need them.
   So. If I’d left Jocko with a pile of corpses, he’d just bury ’em and that’s it. But he’s got a pile of cripples instead, so he’s got lots bigger problems—like medical expenses for the victims, rent and food for their families, yada yada yada. Unless he’s just crazy, he must deal with all this stuff.
   Well, maybe Jocko is batshit insane; doesn’t matter. Crazy or not, he still needs warm bodies to do his business, right? Which means he needs a whole new ‘army’. And if people know how badly he screwed his last gang, who the hell’s gonna want to sign on with his next gang? Answer: No-fucking-body. And no, Jocko can’t just lean on people to ensure silence. Not while all the guys who would be doing the actual leaning are in hospital with mangled hands, he can’t…

   Splendor catches up to me a couple days after the drive-by (remember the drive-by..?). Another tete-a-tete in her office, which is where two of the five bugs were. She did what I would’ve suggested if she’d asked: Left ’em all in place, just paying attention to prefabricated sound tracks from a black box rather than ambient sights and sounds. But as I walk through the door this time, she welcomes me with a gesture that (by sheer coincidence, I’m sure) switches off the ‘bug bamboozler’ I installed in this room. Confusion to the enemy, hm? Okay, I can play along, I muse to myself with a subtle hand gesture that she picks up on.
   “Thank you for your promptness, Jubatus,” she says. “How many eavesdropping devices have you found?”
   “Two, I think.”
   “You… think.”
   And then she makes with a disapproving look, so I put on a show of annoyance: “Damn right, I think! You got any idea how old this place’s wiring is? There’s all kinds of components that the only reason I could even recognize them is, I’m old enough to have seen ’em back in the ’90s! And further-”
   The phone on Splendor’s desk rings. Twice. She picks up before ring #3, saying: “West Street Shelter. Splendor speaking.”
   I hear the voice from the handset, real clear. “Hey there, Miss Splendor! How ya doin’? I heard’ja had some trouble just recent.”
   Having heard that voice on some police surveillance recordings, I recognize it as Jocko Cargill; not sure about the snake-lady. “I am doing well,” she says in a professionally-controlled tone that doesn’t give away a damn thing. “If you’d care to tell me what business you have with the Shelter—”
   “Yeah,” Jocko interrupts. “I got business with you, alright: One’a your freaks dissed me, real bad—and it ain’t the kind of thing you can clear up with an apology. I know the little pussy’s there, so how’s about you put ’im on the line, huh?”
   “Excuse me? Could you be a trifle more specific about the person to whom you’re referring?”
   “Hel-lo? Big cat, spotty fur, too damn fast for his own damn good?”
   “Ah; you mean Jubatus. Ve-” she begins. A momentary upshift lets me confirm there’s no incoming assaults; when I revert back to the normal tempo, she’s turned on the speakerphone function, and she’s saying, “-ell; as you guessed, he’s here now.”
   “Jubatus,” I say to the ’phone, playing my part. “Who are you, and what do you want?”
   “I want a cheetah-skin rug, Mister Juba-”
   “Well, if it ain’t Jocko Homo!” I break in. “What’s crawled up your ass, Mr. H?”
   “Ha, fuckin’, ha,” he replies. It’s hard to tell, what with the audio distortions of the telephone system, but I think his level of irritation just got boosted a notch or two. Good. “Funny, kitty-cat. Real funny. Lemme tell you what I do to little pussies that stick their noses where they don’t belong: I skin the fuckers alive.”
   “You and what army?” I sneer back at him. “Get real, Jocko—you ain’t got shit, and we both know it. Face facts: I am the fastest SCAB alive. You can’t threaten me—not when I can outrun any bullet on the face of the Earth! Hell, I can catch your damn bullets and throw ’em right back in your face!”
   “You’re dead, you goddamn pussy!”
   I give Splendor a ‘thumbs up’ gesture as I hammer the needles deeper beneath his skin: “Go ahead, Homo—lose your temper. Blow a gasket, that’s a good little thug. Let your blood pressure rise until your arteries explode. I’ll be sure to dance a jig of grief at your funeral, and piss on your grave.”
   I hold my hand up, warning the snake-lady not to interrupt, for the few moments of heavy breathing it takes Jocko to regain a semblance of self-control. Which he does: “Okay… Okay… You got me goin’ there, I admit it. Not too bad—for a fuckin’ animal. Enjoy it while you can, Mister Kitty, ’cause you won’t enjoy nothin’ after I’m done with you!”
   “So you can tag somebody who can break the sound barrier under his own power? Not!” is my smugly confident reply. “Try a gas weapon, Homo. A poisonous cloud is a lot harder to dodge than a bullet, and maybe I won’t zip through it so damn fast it doesn’t have time to affect me.”
   “That’s real fuckin’ hilarious, Mister Kitty.”—and now he pauses, just for a very short moment—”In fact, you’re a goddamn comedian, ain’t’cha? Well, it wouldn’t be polite of me to keep you from laughin’ it up, so I’ll just say g’bye now.” And he hangs up. I think about Jocko Homo’s pre- and post-pause vocal overtones, as much as I could hear them over the telephone, as Splendor turns the ‘bamboozler’ back on with a heartfelt exhalation…
   “Well,” she says, “that was interesting. May I assume there was a reason you insisted on giving Jocko the bright idea to try chemical weapons?”
   “Damn straight.” I grin mercilessly. “Look: We SCABs have an insanely wide range of biochemistries, right? What that means is, you can spend however-many megabucks developing a weapon that takes out one SCAB—but you got basically no idea whether or not it’s gonna affect any other SCAB! So let’s say you’re a weapons researcher who’s just been handed a pile of cash to come up with an equalizer that’ll work on people like us. Do you spend it on chemical weapons, knowing that it’s a fucking waste of resources, or do you spend it on new and improved projectile weapons, which are guaranteed to work on almost all SCABs?”
   She thinks it over a moment, and likes the answer: “In other words, you goaded Jocko into wasting some of his remaining resources on an intrinsically futile gambit.”
   “Bingo! Got it in one.”
   “Unfortunately, I believe there’s a flaw in your thinking. What’s to keep Jocko from attempting to acquire one of those experimental projectile weapons you spoke of?”
   I shrug. “Calculated risk. Assuming Jocko manages to get his hands on any military hardware at all, I’m betting he won’t get more than one or two pieces, if that. And the more he focuses on me in particular, the less he’s gonna be able to do to anybody else. Put it this way: Which would you rather deal with—a couple of superguns, or 150 Glock pistols?”
   “I see…” Splendor just looks at me for a clock-second or so. “You’re determined to play lightning rod, aren’t you.”
   “Better me than one of you slowpokes,” I reply. “What’s your point? I’m pretty much the hardest target you’ve got, so why shouldn’t I paint a bullseye on my chest?”
   “No reason at all,” she says in a neutral tone. “Thank you, Jubatus.”
   “For what? Premature much?” I grimace. “Save your gratitude until after we’ve dealt with the problem at hand.”

   Look, Jocko’s no Jubatus. If it was me plotting an assault on the Shelter, I’d have researched the place in exhaustive detail ahead of time, including all of its resident SCABs and their combat-useful abilities. I’d also have worked up about 14 layers of contingency plans in case Something Went Wrong. And in particular, I would not have allowed my targets any breathing space whatsoever after my first attack. Then again, maybe Cargill did have a Plan B—Splendor doesn’t think so, but, y’know, for the sake of argument? So maybe the guy did have a backup plan, like I said—but I got my counterattack in before he could push the button.
   Maybe. Maybe not.
   Either way, I’m not about to let up on him. For one thing, I’ve only tagged 68% of the targets on my list, and if you’re a slowpoke (which everybody else associated with the Shelter is), just one disgruntled twit with a high-powered rifle is all it takes to ruin your whole day. For another thing, three of said targets have already bolted and run, apparently the moment they heard about what happened to my first victims. Or… did they run away? Could be Jocko ordered ’em to go elsewhere and pick up a few 55-gallon drums of industrial-strength Whupass.
   Again, Splendor doesn’t think Jocko’s subtle enough (or smart enough) to do that; I’m inclined to agree, myself. Nevertheless, it’s a loose end that needs to be tied off before it trips up anybody who matters. I’ve uploaded a few spiders to the Net, to keep an eye on the runners’ financial activity; nothing big, just what I need so’s I’ll have a little advance notice if/when they make a suspicious purchase wherever, or they return to this fair city, or yada yada yada.
   Anyway… the meeting. Which Jocko didn’t cancel, amazingly enough. Besides me, Splendor recruited Gail, a gorilla-morph,and Forsythe, an innie who looks to be made of solid metal as her crew. Good choices, right? The gorilla, she looks like she could pull arms and legs out of sockets without breaking a sweat; the innie (who can do a little shapeshifting) made himself a copyright-violating ringer for the robot badguy in Mecha Murder, a horror flick that was real popular 7 years ago; and of course me, the supersonic, man-eating predator.
   What I’m curious about is, will Jocko recognize that Splendor’s little crew is two-thirds ‘Potemkin army’? Forsythe looks like isotopically-pure Lethal On A Stick, but his reflexes are awfully damned slow—he’s no bloody good in a fight, except maybe as a decoy. Gail’s got a full set of gorilla instincts… which (contrary to popular belief!) makes her shy, retiring, and downright pacifistic. Well, whatever; with any luck, my upshifting will allow me to pick up the other guys’ slack if the shit hits the fan.
   ‘ If’? Yeah, right. I’m betting on ‘when’, myself, but Splendor’s calling the shots here, and she wants to give Jocko every opportunity to be a nice guy. Not being a congenital imbecile, she’s also fully aware of how likely that is—I mean, she roped me into this thing, okay? And she made sure me and Gail got doped up with broad-spectrum antibiotics and antitoxins, just in case Jocko tries to get smart that way. It helps to have a couple of world-class Martian Flu experts on speed-dial, which Splendor does. As for armor, that’d be pointless for me and the innie, but the snake-lady actually dug up some usable Kevlar-derived pseudopolymer body armor for the big ape…
   And then it’s showtime. The venue is Chok See’s, a venerable Chinese restaurant in a borough that’s seen better days; the place itself has held up better than its neighbors. I upshift for a bit of 360-degree reconnaissance, and detect nothing suspicious within a 2-block radius. Well… for values of ‘nothing suspicious’ which ignore stuff that seems like it wasn’t orchestrated by Jocko Homo, I mean.
   Anyway, Splendor’s merry quartet enters the restaurant on schedule. Jocko and Co. are late, so I occupy myself by Timeshifting to look at the place in IR and UV—
   It’s like this: When I upshift, UV wavelengths doppler down into my visible range; downshifting makes IR doppler up. Got it? Good. So okay, exotic forms of vision. I pick up on a couple chunks of wall that look ‘off’ in UV. By sheer coincidence, I’m sure, said wall-chunks also happen to be anomalies in IR.
   Alas, I don’t have time to do any serious investigating before Jocko shows up with a three-man posse. I let Splendor play negotiator with the rabid non-SCAB-shark-in-human-form; while inconsequential talk-talk roils the air, I keep an eye out for unpleasant surprises. And as should surprise absolutely nobody…
   Yeah. And it happens while Jocko’s making word-noises come out of his mouth: “Hey, don’t get me wrong—I don’t like killin’ people any more’n the next guy! But what can you do when some fuckin’ dipshit asks f-”
   —multiple attacks: threat levels high, extreme, extreme, lethal, extreme: 5, 5, 6, 6, 7 o’clock—
   —the instincts upshifted me to a tempo of 40? Damn. Looks like my buddy Jocko is playing with very dangerous toys! A rather strong hammerblow to my back pushes me forward; I go with it, especially because there’s a couple points on the back of my head that’re feeling real hot just now. As I fall forward, the hot spots on my skull cool down a bit, and a second hammerblow glances off one shoulder.
   Yes, Virginia, I got hit with supersonic bullets and military lasers. How did I survive to tell the tale, you ask? Tempo of 40, that’s how. Upshifted that high, from my point of view the bullets were only carrying one-sixteenth of a percent of their ‘full’ load of kinetic energy; body armor did the rest. As for the energy weapons, my upshift cut their power—how much energy they deliver in a given amount of time—to only 1/40 normal, not to mention what it did to the photons’ frequency. That kind of tweakage can really mess up a laser beam’s innate capacity for destruction, you know? Still dangerous, but only if I’m dumb enough to stick around and wait for it to burn me. No, I can’t outrun photons; then again, I don’t have to be faster than light.
   I just have to be faster than whatever’s adjusting the laser’s point-of-aim.
   Moving right along: You damn betcha I’m prepped for beam weapons. Jocko may not be Jubatus, but I am. One vest pocket holds a few grams of light-sensitive dust; laser-safety goggles in another; a third pocket’s got a matched set of six corner-cube reflectors. My left hand tosses clouds of powder into the air for the beams to reflect/refract off of, while I put the goggles on with my right… bingo! There’s the beamlines—all three of the SOBs, right from the centerpoints of beautiful downtown IR/UV Anomalies #1 & 2. Fine. Three corner-cubes, coming right up. I give each one a whole bunch of angular velocity so it twirls in place; that won’t stop it from reflecting the laser exactly back the way it came, but it will reduce the amount of time any particular piece of reflector spends in direct contact with its beam.
   The adrenaline rush is fading—I can feel blood vessels throbbing in my neck and scalp, not to mention the opening twinges of a killer migraine. That’s what I get for overstraining my chronomorph power. I can’t maintain a tempo of 40 for long, so I gotta make the most of each Time-shifted fractional second while I can.
   Okay—the bullets. Only one source, thank Ares. They look to be moving at 40-45 MPH, which (after factoring in my tempo) means they are supersonic. Somewhere around Mach two-point-five, I think the exact figure doesn’t matter. I extract a pair of hand-sized metal plates from yet another vest pocket, align the plates at just the right angles, and thereby nudge the stream of bullets towards the trajectory I’d rather they follow. The headache’s just begun, but I ain’t got time to deal with the pain, so I ignore it. I give the room a quick scan; yep, the same four targets. Good. Hmmm… the first bullet just struck target 1, so I shift my ‘bucklers’ to redirect the stream to the next in line, then target 3, and finally Jocko himself. Bastard would ensure that he’s nowhere near the direct line of fire, damn it.
   The lasers are gone now—quelle surprise, and I appreciate the corner-cubes’ sacrifice—so it’s time to deal with the gun-on-steroids. A cloud of drywall fragments tells me exactly where the bullets are coming from (that being IR/UV Anomaly #3), so I leap straight at that point, twirling my hand-held shields before me in a paddle-wheel-type maneuver so’s the projectiles get knocked out of my flight path into the floor. Each bullet-slap jars me up to the shoulders, in a rhythm that clashes against the pulsating throbs of my cerebral arteries. I hit the wall a little over the bullets’ exit hole; no problem! I dig into the wall with the claws of two feet and one arm, and I use my free hand to ram a ‘shield’ right down the barrel of the damn gun.
   Okay, it won’t fit—it’s too big—but you know what I mean, right? If I can clog up the barrel with its own bullets, I negate this particular threat. And the bullets keep coming; each new impact against the ‘buckler’ sends a serious shockwave up my arm and down my torso to rattle my internal organs. One… two… thr-son of a fucking bitch!!!
   Very bright light. Then pain makes a fast getaway as the world goes real dark…

   Lying down in an unfamiliar bed; I smell medicines and rubbing alcohol; right. I’m in a hospital. Private room. Kind of tired, but I don’t feel much pain—apparently, I’ve been healing for a while? And… okay, I recognize that scent: It’s Splendor. I see a light cast on her left elbow, neatly-applied dressings on her neck and the right side of her face, plus a glued-down patch over her right eye—and Apollo knows what she might be hiding underneath her clothes. No cane; she must not’ve been hurt that badly. I downshift to talk to her…
   “Hello, Splendor. I’m guessing the good guys won.”
   “Jubatus!” She seems a little surprised to hear me speak; not sure why. “Welcome back to the land of the living. And yes, we did.”
   “Good. How much collateral damage?”
   “If you’re referring to injury to property, Chok See’s is undergoing approximately two million dollars’—”
   “Fuck the money,” I interrupt, which gets me an elegantly-arched eyebrow. “I’m asking about injured innocents.”
   “Ah…” Splendor pauses for a half-second as she parses my final sentence. “Yes. Innocents. Fortunately, no legitimate employee of Chok See’s was present. It appears that Jocko Cargill did not feel he could trust any of them to follow his orders without question, so he insisted, rather forcefully, on replacing them with his own hand-picked underlings. As for your compatriots: Forsythe being a metallic inanimorph, you’ll not be surprised to learn that he was only stunned. Gail suffered minor burns—her fur provided a certain amount of protection—and several bruised bones, and she is expected to make a full recovery within the next three weeks.”
   Not good… but what the hell, could easily be much worse. “What happened after I fell asleep on the job?”
   The lady makes with one of her oh-so-elegant veiled smiles. “You may have ‘fallen asleep’, but I shan’t complain. After all, a railgun did explode in your face…”
   I roll my eyes. “Now tell me something I don’t know.”
   “Of course,” she says, nodding. “From what I could determine afterwards, I was outside the blast radius proper, but the shockwave knocked me senseless anyway. When I came to, I was naked except for the coils of duct tape Jocko had wrapped around me—and I knew it was him because he wasn’t finished. I’m afraid he noticed I was awake before I’d quite recovered my wits; he took great pleasure in telling me exactly and precisely what he intended to do to me, now that my ‘freak flunkies’ were too dead to protect me.” Now she looks me in the eyes; her unblinking gaze makes it real clear (like it wasn’t before?) what kind of critter that damn disease blended her with. I wait for the snake-lady to keep talking.
   “And then he raped me.” It’s a flat, calm, statement of fact she’s just made… “Which only proves that he was unaware of the full extent of what SCABS did to me.”
   My mind races—there’s a few rumors about certain events in her past—I throw out an educated guess: “Projecting chronomorph?”
   Splendor acknowledges my remark with a subtle inclination of her head. “Correct. I can only adjust other people’s ages downward—but when sex is involved, the rejuvenative effect is permanent.”
   I ponder the possibilities… “So you rolled his odometer back. How far?”
   “I fully intended to ‘roll his odometer back’, as you put it, to the point at which his zygote originally formed,” she says. I blink at that. Okay… someone remind me never to piss her off… “As it happened, I didn’t need to go that far; at the moment of his death, I’d reduced him to a first-trimester premature birth.”
   “Damn…” I picture the scene in my mind. “And since he was raping you at the time…”
   “Exactly: Jocko was a trifle distracted while I worked. By the time he perceived any difficulties, he was physically incapable of doing anything about it. Now it’s your turn, Jubatus. What did you spend these past few days doing?”
   So I talk. Snake-lady listens—and from her occasional questions and comments, it’s pretty clear that my info is mostly just confirming what she’s already learned from other sources.
   And then I finish the story. Splendor stares off into the middle distance for a while; I take the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep…
   …and when I open my eyes, she’s gone. There’s a note taped to one of my bed’s side-rails, scent tells me Splendor left it: “We’ll chat more later. Thank you, Jubatus. For now, rest and heal.”
   I yawn. Like I said, I’m not really hurting, as such… but I’m tired. Don’t really feel up to anything more strenuous than resting in a horizontal position. And before long, my eyelids drift closed yet once more…

   This being week seven, of course there was a seventh class session. Happened on Tuesday, like all the others, and the abortive meet-and-greet with Jocko went down on Wednesday. Nothing much happened, certainly nothing out of the ordinary; more practice making phonemes and words, more fiddling with voders, yada yada yada. Amusing point: The bird’s doing great with individual phonemes, but he still can’t put ’em together to actually, like, talk.
   Hmm. I think I’m gonna have to get medieval on his feathered ass.
   Next week.
   What else… contracts. The unscheduled hospital visit kind of got in the way, but even so, I’m down to 18 unfinished jobs. And there was much rejoicing…

   Week numero ocho: Mostly boring. Well, that’s okay; I like boring, mostly because I don’t get much of it in my life. Then again, some people might say my freelance work (incomplete contracts: 11 and counting) is pretty damned dull. All that typing and staring at computer screens, you know?
   So ‘boring’ is in the eye of the beholder, really. And like I said, ‘mostly’ boring. This week’s class was a bit of a high point, less so for me than for the birdbrain. See, my remaining students have got to the point where they’re pretty much honing their extant (albeit comparatively low) levels of skill, except dear old Chuck Calgonetti. Seems that the preacher-man just can’t put all the pieces together. Just can’t quite manage to actually utter an intelligible word.
   I’ve been needling him all along—my plan’s always been to piss him off so bad he does an end-run around whatever mental blocks are getting in his way—but he hasn’t done his part. Of course, I haven’t yet made any serious effort to enrage the man. Thus far, I’ve contented myself with pointing out the unvarnished obvious. Namely, that God ain’t done shit for his voice so far.
   First time I’ve ever needed to work at pissing someone off; terra incognito for me.
   So class begins. Borman’s doing okay with one-syllable words; Dennison can do decent phonemes, even combine them a little; Anthony’s voice sounds awfully damned good (damn his feline eyes); and Calgonetti… like I said, he just can’t quite manage to pull off the ‘comprehensible speech’ thing. I pour salt on the wound: “Come on, Rev’. If the friggin’ bug can form actual words, what the hell is your problem?”
   Bird-brain doesn’t like it, but his voder only says, “The Lord will return my voice to me in His own good time.”
   “Oh, really,” I reply, heavy on the sarcasm. “When’s that gonna happen—before or after the Second Coming?” There’s a bit of a collective hush in the room; apparently, I’m the only one in the room who’s got experience with overt sneering at Faith. Their loss. “As the saying goes, ‘the Lord helps those who help themselves’. So how about you get off your feathered ass and start, hmm? Or maybe you think your imaginary friend’s gonna step in and do the job for you?”
   “It is not for mortals to question the Almighty—”
   “’Almighty’, he says. Get real! Face it, Chuck. You’re screwed, blued, and tattooed; you’ve been there since 2027; and the one who did you is that God person you think so bleeding highly of. You want to wait until He gives you your voice back, you’re gonna be waiting an awfully damned long time!” Heiliger Christus! The preacher’s fuming, but he still hasn’t lost his temper!? Better turn it up a notch: “Swear to Coyote, you’re like an abused child. You know that Big Daddy Jehovah just keeps right on kicking the shit out of you, but oh, no—God couldn’t be enjoying it. No, He’s got a good reason for making you suffer, and it couldn’t possibly be that He’s a fucking sick bastard who gets His omnipotent jollies pulling the wings off—”
   “Awwwrrrrk!” Ah; Calgonetti’s finally had enough. “You, awwrrrr, an abawwmination, unto, the Lawwwwrrd!” The birdie’s tone is raucous, eardrum-piercing; his enunciation is horrible; to be honest, he sounds like nothing more than a cheap avian caricature of attempted speech. My ears wilt back against my skull in a futile attempt to protect themselves from the godawful racket. Even so—in spite of everything—it is a beautiful noise, all objective evidence to the contrary, because by Thoth he can be understood, and those are the first comprehensible words he’s spoken since SCABS had its way with him.
   I’ve got a shit-eating grin on my face. For some reason, Charlie doesn’t approve: “Awwwrrrr! The Lawwwrrd Gawwwd will nawwt be mawwwkkked, Mister Jubawwwtus!”
   “Is that so? Sorry, but He’s not on the class list. How about you fill me in on what sort of horrors God will visit upon me for my disrespect?”
   My grin spreads to the rest of the class. Seeing this, Calgonetti gets even more pissed off. “Haaooww caaan you aaask such aaa thing of me? Have you cawwmpletely forgaawwtten that Iaaiiiyy cannaawwt speak?”
   Amazing—he’s still clueless. I throw him a bone: “Maybe I have. Care to tell me about it?”
   He opens his beak for another sonic assault on my suffering ears. Then his eyes widen and he freezes up, not talking, not moving, not anything.
   “Iaayyaaam taawwkking,” he finally says, and not only is it halfway quiet, but I believe I can actually hear a hint of reverence in his voice. “Praayyse the Laawwrrrd, I caaan taawwwkk!”
   The room erupts with discordant growls and squeals, a joyful (albeit inarticulate) collective expression of triumph. I give the bird two thumbs up as I rise from my chair. “Yes, you can,” I say, approaching to stand before him (on my knees, so he can look me in the eye) with right hand extended. “Hello there. I’ve seen you around the place, but I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. My name is Jubatus. What’s yours?”
   He’s just beginning to recover from the shock. There’s something in his eyes, and it sure isn’t anger. He raises his right leg so we can shake, hand to talon, and replies, “Maaiiy name is Chaawwrrles Calgoawwkkkk—awwrr—rrawwwk!”
   Damn it! Hell of a time for his newfound voice to give out. Throws him straight into a delicate frame of mind. Happened to me, too, those first few days… Comforting the afflicted doesn’t come naturally to me, but I have learned something from Phil; snuggling is a valid response when somebody’s freaking out, so I release Chuck’s leg and reach over a wing for a one-armed hug. “It’s alright, you can talk, you’re just out of practice, it’s alright…”
   As soon as I did it, I realized the hug was a stupid move. Being grappled by a cat isn’t exactly on the Top Ten list of ways to calm a distressed bird, y’know? Even so, it worked—Chuck didn’t lose it. Another small favor he’ll probably thank God for.
   Whatever. The ‘torquing off the god-botherer’ plan was an absolute win, and the fact that I had tons of fun doing it is of secondary importance at best. And that’s about the only interesting part of week eight.

   The penultimate class session—week number nine in general, really—was pretty uneventful. Finished five contracts, 6 to go. Class was disrupted, technically speaking, but in a non-hostile manner. So considering that all four of the remaining students had already broken the Basic Intelligibility barrier and just need to work up their expertise, I rolled with it. A good teacher’s got to be flexible, right?
   It started with a knock on the door. I was of course suspicious—who the hell would want to knock at the door of a classroom full of SCABs?—but only mildly so, because most of the answers to that question worked at/for the Shelter.
   If it wasn’t for the small percentage of other answers to that question, I might not have been suspicious at all. And if I didn’t have four slowpokes to worry about, I wouldn’t have cared who the guy was, or what they might do. But it was, and I did.
   So okay, a knock at the door. I upshift, climb the walls a little, look down through the transom; the angle-of-view sucks, but it’s enough for me to recognize a fox-derived animorph SCAB in uniform, carrying a large-ish square bundle and a bag that looks to hold a couple 2-liter bottles of soda. One guy, unaccompanied, and the two other people visible in the corridor are Shelter personnel. Also, there’s a mouth-watering aroma.
   Judging by appearances, dude’s from Larry’s Pizza, a local restaurant that makes a fairly decent pie, and just happens to deliver anywhere within a 50-mile radius. Anywhere. Including SCABtown, the neighborhood in which the Shelter and the Blind Pig are both found. I provisionally conclude this is what it seems to be. Next, I resume the position, posture, and tempo I was in when I upshifted; say, “I’ll get it”; and finally open the door for the maybe-deliveryman…
   …and it’s Mary Zelinski!
   “I thought you dropped the class,” is the first thing it occurs to me to say.
   She giggles, then replies, “You’re right, I did,” in a perfectly ordinary voice with a mild accent, exotic-sounding and unplaceable, well within the range of human norms. “I just wanted to give you a proper farewell before I left. Can I come in and set the pizzas down somewhere?”
   “Ah, right, just a sec…” I say, and one quick upshift later, I’ve set up two folding tables from the Shelter’s so-called ‘auditorium’, on which I’ve put paper plates, napkins, and cups from kitchen supplies (I’ll replace what I took later). “…okay. Go for it.” And she does.
   While Zelinski sets the table, I talk to my students: “Change of plans, folks! Forget the scripts I handed out last week: Tonight’s vocal practice is making small talk over pizza. If you think you might need your voder, keep it handy in a pocket. Otherwise, leave the damn thing under your chair.”
   Thus does the party begin. The pizza is appreciated by all, which isn’t actually unusual—something like 85% of all non-innie SCABS are perfectly capable of digesting bog-standard Purina Human Chow. Whether or not they like it is another matter, but at least they can eat it without any funky downstream problems. As for SCABs who end up unable to handle normal human food, they tend to fall into one of two classes. Either (a) they’ve got enough money for an exotic diet to not strain their resources, or else (b) they die real soon, sometimes even before they finish SCABbing over.
   So like I said, the pizza isn’t a problem. More than that—Zelinski had to’ve done some kind of fancy research, because for each person in the classroom, there’s a whole extra-large pizza devoted to their favorite toppings (pepperoni, Italian sausage, and Canadian bacon with garlic and ranch dressing, for me). I encourage the foursome-plus-one to talk among themselves, exchange personal insights and yada yada yada. When somebody tries to drag me into the conversation, I remind ’em the point of all this is to practice talking, and I don’t need any of that. Somewhere along the way, the vixen approaches me, and she won’t be brushed off…
   “Okay. What’s up, Zelinski?” I ask in low tones, so as to not stomp on anybody else’s conversation.
   “Well,” she replies, matching my level of quietude, “I thought you should know how things are working out between me and Ally.”
   “If you like,” I say with an indifferent shrug. “Your business, not mine.”
   Foxy lady gives me a bemused look. “I rather think you made it your business, when you intervened to get me into detox. What you did…” She pauses, shakes her head. “I… won’t say I approve, but… under the circumstances, it would be ungrateful of me to complain. In any case: My wife. In spite of… everything, I can honestly say that our relationship is presently the healthiest it’s been for the past 13 years.”
   “Your marriage was that bad before?” I ask with a curious expression.
   If the question pains Zelinski, she doesn’t let it show on her face or in her scent, Just… a little regret, maybe? “Yes. It was. During the past seven months… there have been many occasions during which Ally was the woman I originally fell in love with. Before I SCABbed over, that…” Yep; sorrow and regret. Definitely sorrow and regret. She sighs. “That hadn’t been true for a number of years. And…” Another sigh, and a determined smile that only looks a little bit forced. “Well. Our marriage is still somewhat dysfunctional, but for the first time in longer than I can recall, both of us acknowledge the problems, and both of us are truly committed to finding solutions. We now have a fighting chance to make it work, and we have you to thank for that chance.”
   “No problem. Sounds like love to me.” Because you’re willing, if not eager, to forgive your spouse after she made you spend seven solid months as a drugged-out zombie, and the only other reasons I can think of are brain damage and insanity.
   “It is, Mr. Acinonyx. It truly is.” And she steps forward to give me a hug and kiss. I’m intellectually aware of the sexual undertones of her action, but ‘intellectually aware’ is as far as it goes. Is she disappointed that I don’t respond in that way? Maybe, maybe not. Hard to say. “Thank you again, sir.”
   “De nada,” I reply. And then Foxy Lady goes off to interact with the rest of her fellow students.
   I spend the rest of the class making notes on whose talking exhibits which weak points. Personal interactions I minimize. It is, after all, only the ninth class; I’m still the instructor, still responsible for their learning, for one more week.
   And then I’m (finally!) off the hook.

   31 August 2038: Tutoring’s over. The final class session—tenth and last—was pretty much a formality, what with all four students having already earned the coveted ‘comprehensible speech’ achievement. Every one of the four (even the damn bug!) sounds better than I do… I tell myself it’s a good thing when the student surpasses the master. Not that I believe it, of course.
   But, y’ know, I can pretend.
   Yeah, it’s a bit of an ordeal. But it doesn’t last long, and I give the quartet pointers on where they need to improve their enunciation and such. When it’s done, the four go away; I start tidying up the classroom; and then I’m once again…
   Hm. Not alone. Tiger-boy came back.
   “Hello, Anthony,” I say in even, uninviting tones. “What do you want.”
   Undeterred, he replies, “To give you something. It was the Reverend’s idea to start with, but the rest of us were agreeable, so—” He extracts a larger-than-fist-sized lackage from a pocket. “.. here you are.”
   I take it off his hands. Given the size and shape, I’m betting it’s a coffee mug. “Didn’t think of presenting it in front of everybody?”
   “Oh, we did,” he says as my claws slice through the wrapping. “But only until I thought of how you were likely to react if we did that.”
   “Hrmm. Fair point.” And… yep, it’s a coffee mug. Mottled gray enamel… wait a second… that’s not gray, that’s black text on white! I hold the mug up close to the light and squint at it:

You want to know what I make? • I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could • I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor…

Damn. Didn’t think anybody still remembered Taylor Mali. Looks like the Internet doesn’t forget. I nod at tiger-boy, saying, “Nice mug; thanks. Any other business before you go?”
   My tone is an unsubtle hint, which Anthony doesn’t take. “Yes: I’m interested in more training in vocalization.”
   “Unnecessary in your case, but not a bad idea,” I say with a nod. “I’ll do some research, and email you a list of speech pathologists.”
   “Thank you, sir, but no,” he says patiently. “You helped me so much, I’d like to continue learning from you.”
   I glare at the idiot. “Because when you’re looking a speech tutor, everyone’s first choice is a SCAB whose voice sounds like the bastard offspring of a Moog Sonic 6 and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.”
   As you can probably imagine, that’s when the conversation dies. Tiger-boy attempts to apply CPR in the form of an attempt to change my mind on the ‘speech tutor’ thing; after that fails, he says goodbye and goes away.
   Now I’m alone. I finish cleaning up, then put back the cleaning tools, broom and so on—
   Yeah, I said ‘broom’. Vacuum cleaners are too goddamn noisy, okay? You think I’m the only SCAB with overly acute hearing?
   Anyway. When I’m done, the room’s in better shape than it was ten weeks ago. And then… I dunno. Usually, when I complete a contract, there’s this sense of accomplishment; now, nada. This wasn’t anywhere near a standard contract, granted, but… I’m not really sure what I feel about it. Something… I guess…
   It’s late—10:45 PM. Tired after the clock-hours of class and yada yada. Sleep sounds good, but not immediately… As I’ve done a few times in the past three weeks, I upshift to give the Shelter a super-fast once-over; while Splendor is justifiably confident that what she did to Jocko Cargill won’t have any legal consequences, I’m worried about nasty surprises from what’s left of his Mob. ‘Better safe than sorry’, as the saying goes.
   I pass by Phil in the lobby as I make my rounds. He’s still there after I finish. Decent chance he wants to talk to me, so I downshift to his tempo before I walk through the lobby, making sure my footfalls are not silent as I approach him.
   Of course he hears me. “Ah—there you are, Jubatus! As it happens, you’re just the hyperkinetic feline I was hoping to speak with!”
   Suspicion confirmed, I think to myself. “Good evening, Phil. What’s on your mind?”
   “At present, I’m most curious to learn more about your first experience in the field of speech tutoring. If you should happen to be agreeable, perhaps this might be a good time to discuss how the class went?” In case anybody’s wondering, Phil talks like this all the fucking time. No idea why.
   “It worked as designed: All six students can now speak intelligibly.”
   There’s a pause as the rabbit realizes I’ve said my piece. “I… see. And may I ask what you think of the class, and of your role in the proceedings?”
   I shrug. “Some of it sucked, but on the whole, I don’t mind having been part of it.”
   Now his ears are at half mast. Good: The more time and effort he wastes on me, the less he can do for his real cli-
   “It isn’t going to work, Jubatus. Because I simply refuse to allow it to work.” Okay, the lowered ears were indicative of Determination, not Retreat. “Now, I would not be even the tiniest bit surprised to learn that you already know this, but I was an automobile worker before I became a cute little bunny rabbit. Can you seriously imagine that there is any tactic of discouragement you might employ which I have not been repeatedly subjected to, and long since learned to recognize and work past, during my decades on the Universal Motors line?”
   I don’t retort Like any of your fellow UAW wage slaves would’ve torn you into 117 distinct pieces and drank your blood!—but I sure as hell think it…
   Not sure what Phil took my silence for, but he breaks the short pause with, “Jubatus, I believe you should know that you are far from the first client of mine who has tried to manipulate me into giving up on their case. And in my experience, that sort of thing is almost always an externally-visible indicator to some rather deeper problem.” And he shuts up, with the unspoken so how about you talk to me about whatever-it-is, huh? hanging between us like an unexploded mine.
   He’s right; I should talk about it. All I need to do is, y’ know, talk about it. Easy… except when paralyzing terror gets in the way… Well, maybe I can sneak up on the topic…
   “Okay: My first night at the Pig. How’d that look from your end?”
   He thinks back before talking. “Well, I truly didn’t notice you when I came in. Or at least not at first, I didn’t. But you soon made yourself quite impossible to overlook! You became rather manic for a while—I regret to admit that I spent a rather large fraction of that time crouched far back in my favorite booth.”
   “Because I scared the crap out of you.”
   “Well… yes. That is correct. However, as the minutes passed, and I gradually recovered myself from the initial shock, I eventually came to understand that you were not truly an overt hazard to public safety. Far from it! In point of fact, it wasn’t so very long before I began to percieve that the true state of affairs was quite the, ah… that it was quite improbable that you would ever do violence to another person.”
   Sounds great, except for the bit where I near as damn-all ripped your throat out… I can’t tell him. I want to, but I just can’t. Physically unable to form the words. The rabbit sighs, then continues: “You’re not alone, Jubatus. Not unless you wish to—”
   Irritation comes on me thick and fast. “That’s easy for you to say!” I interrupt. “And what the fuck is so bloody great about being with other people? Togetherness is for rabbits, not cats!”
   “That’s as may be. But togetherness is also for human beings, which is what you are, is it not?”
   I glare at him. “Have you looked at me lately?”
   The rabbit doesn’t give a micron: “Yes, Jubatus. I have. And on numerous occasions, I’ve also heard you insist, in a most vehement manner, that you are a human being, and that you are not a cat. I can’t say that I approve of such denial, but considering how deeply this particular truth disturbs you, I’ll not begrudge you your choice of coping mechanism!” And then, without skipping a beat, he changes the subject. “Now, I’m curious to know what you thought of the Right Reverend Calgonetti…”
   I’d still prefer not to discuss the class, but I do talk about it—bare my soul, even—because the damn rabbit won’t let me get away with my customary avoidance. When it comes to counseling, Phil’s an immovable object and irresistable force, both in one package. Still not sure how I feel about the speech tutoring, but in the fullness of Time, I conclude that it definitely isn’t a bad feeling. And before the rabbit’s finished, may Brân strike me dead if I don’t find myself saying something I thought I’d never say:
   “When should I start prepping for the next batch of students?”

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