by ShadowWolf
©2008 ShadowWolf

Home -=- #19 -=- ANTHRO #19 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-
This is a TBP (Tales of the Blind Pig) story. Go here for info on the TBP setting

   Life’s a bitch when you don’t have it. I should know—I’m dead. No pulse; no brainwaves; you name it, I ain’t got it. Okay, I’m still conscious and thinking. Big whoop. While my condition promises immortality, it’s the immortality of a Vanderdecken. If someone had offered this to me I’d have laughed in their face.
   I’m not like a B-movie vampire—living death isn’t something I ever wanted—but more like a zombie out of a dime novel, shambling around when all I really want is to just lie down forever. Not that I was even among the living dead; I’d given up breathing, but unlike those zombies, I was still here. Nope, not me, my body was safely dead, only I wasn’t. And it wasn’t some wanna-be magician gave me this curse—it was SCABS. No matter the kind of pretty face you put on it, on August 5, 2037 the Martian Flu killed me. For several weeks I thought I was going insane—what I heard was a loud roar, sometimes voices, mostly just static. I thought I was blind too, because all I could see was a dizzying swirls of dots and lines, vibrating and spinning off into eternity. Thankfully I was wrong on both counts. It took me a while to figure it all out, but now I know—I had new senses. How long’s ‘a while’? By the time I learned how to interpret the information from my new senses, I’d already had a wonderful funeral and was six feet under.
   Several things have caught my attention, but the one that intrigues me the most is this cheetah, goes by ‘Jubatus Acinonyx’. Obvious pseudonym. Hell if I know what it is with SCABs and fake names. This guy can actually break the sound barrier under his own power, ’cause he’s what they call a ‘chronomorph’—makes Time run faster or slower, and he idles six times quicker than any norm. The particle trails he triggers when he starts moving are fucking bizarre; though all I know about that stuff is what I’ve seen, I can’t think of any other SCAB who’s got anything like that. I’m—I was—just a beat cop, no real science savvy, so I can only guess at what those particles are. But I think it’s got something to do with his speed. That son of a bitch can move faster than anyone should be able to without a rocket up their ass.
   Anyway, I found this bar Jubatus likes to hang out at—the Blind Pig—and I’ve been watching the place all week. I’d heard about it being the single most popular hang-out for SCABs in the city, but until last night I hadn’t known where it was. I think I’ll check the phone lines and communication going on there before I go inside. A man called Phil is sometimes there dispensing advice—counseling those he can’t see in the closet he calls an office. No way I’m talking to him; he’ll just try to give me a reason to live. Exist. Whatever. The thing is, I’m dead, okay? What am I going to do with a reason to live? It would be pointless—a waste of his time and mine, time better spent finding someone that can find a way for me to end my living death.
   Like I said, I’ve been watching the place all week… and the cheetah finally sat down. I’m betting he can figure out how to kill me; those ‘new senses’ I mentioned earlier include eavesdropping on the Internet without a computer, and from the net-info I’ve seen, he is the best damned troubleshooter on the market. With a reputation for always getting the job done, often within hours of the contract being signed, he’s one of the few who can name his own price instead of taking what the companies are willing to pay. I just hope he’ll take me on as a pro bono case… I can’t stand this triple-damned half-life any longer. I build a shadowy human form by blocking around half the light-particles from a given area across the booths table from him.
   I can clearly see the shock on his face, though he recovered so fast I doubt anyone else would have. He plays by his own rules, so I’ll have to be the first to speak. It took me a few thousandths of a second to decide on what tactic to try first—after all, it’s not like he goes around killing people in his spare time. And how does a bodiless ghost speak? Easy: I juggle air molecules. It was child’s play after the first time I did it. Anyway, I decided on the most direct route. “Can you spare a moment to help a tired man, Mr. Acinonyx?”
   “Sure,” he said instantly, and his voice sounded like it was the work of an psychotic sound-effects technician. “Tell him to get some sleep.”
   “Sir, I am the tired man.”
   “An innie, tired?” he sneered. “Yeah, right. Go bother somebody else.”
   Damn! That cheetah was even more surly than I’d imagined. “Sir,” I said, “I’ve got a problem that only you can help me with…” Aw, hell. From his expression, I’m going to have to try something to get him interested… but what? I reviewed what I’d snarfed off the net: There was that band he did percussion for, but that was no good since I knew squat about music… Thoughts raced by, my mind was working faster than any living thing could duplicate as I tried to find a way to get him in my corner. While I thought it over, I made another shadow-form and sent it to the bar for a drink. If I remembered correctly—and I always do, now—the cat drank a concoction called a ‘Mini-CD 50’. Okay, let’s buy him one and offer it in an unusual way.
   The bartender had the drink ready while I was still working on my plan of how to get it to the cheetah in a way he’d be intrigued by. Not teleporting—sure, I can do that, but the last time I tried, it made a building collapse, so that was out of the question—and the floating glass trick could just be telekinesis and… Then the lightbulb went off. Of course! I thought.
   My other self picked up the glass in a delicate pseudo-gravity field and walked over to the booth I was currently sharing with Jubatus. There were some surprised shouts; I’m not that good with the gravity trick, so it kind of slopped over on some of the other people in the bar. I ignored them and let the other me continue the trek to the booth I was sharing with Jubatus.
   “What do you think I am, your confessor? Get out of—” Jubatus was yelling at me as the other me set the drink on the table in front of him.
   “No, Mr. Acinonyx. I think you’re the single most interesting person I’ve seen since SCABS left me the way I am.” My other self quietly sets the drink on the table in front of him.
   The curiosity flashes across his face and is gone. Took maybe a tenth of a second for that reaction—he thinks he lives fast? Maybe so, but I’m faster. And I have no choice…
   “Okay, Mr. Penumbra. What do you want?” Oh boy, just what I was looking for: A sarcastic cheetah.
   “Why Mr. Acinonyx, I want you to do what you do best: Solve a problem nobody else can.” I paused… good, that got his attention. “I want you to help me die.”
   Bad move—he scowled. “No. Sorry, but I gave up murder for Lent.”
   “Sir, I do believe you’ll change—”
   “What part of ‘No’ are you having trouble comprehending?”
   “Jubatus… I am tired of life, tired of being tied—”
   “Okay, fine. In words of one syllable: I. Don’t. Kill. Got it, or do I need to break out the finger puppets next?”
   Goddamn his blatantly anti-social attitude! I oughtta… stifle myself, because no matter how big a pain in the ass he is, I need the son of a bitch. Again: How can I get him on my side? I needed a handle on the big cat, ’cause if anyone could find a way to kill me it was going to be him. My mind raced—I pored over the psych reports I’d read on him. Hah! Paydirt! His shrink said he refused all requests to research his Time-bending ability, since he was afraid somebody might find a way to collapse reality if they knew how he did it. There’s my handle!
   The table in between me and Jubatus becomes a swirling mass of Black. Slowly it resolves into a globe, then expands so that the outside of the Blind Pig is visible. A wall of nothingness absorbs the block, and the scene zooms out to the globe, which is slowly consumed by an inky darkness. The scene zooms out again and the galaxy succumbs to the blackness, then the show ends.
   “That was the end of the world, Mr. Acinonyx. And I could probably make it happen. I think the people at Ad Astra—” He tensed up for a moment. “—could also find a way to kill me, but then, my dear cheetah, I would also be handing them a treasure-trove of information. I don’t want that kind of information getting out. I will not let this genie out of the bottle if I don’t have to, but… You see, Jubatus, I, too, am concerned about the ability of mankind to turn harmless information into great weapons,” I lied through my nonexistent teeth. “But if it would mean the end to this gods-be-damned life of mine, I’d gladly let them study me. Especially if I had no other choice.” Frankly, I couldn’t care less about people getting ahold of scientific data from me; I just wanted it to happen on my terms. Beyond that, well, I figured a SCAB got me into this mess, a SCAB could get me out.
   I think that worked. He’s jumped a few notches up the time scale, probably thinking over his response. In the meantime I let the second ‘me’ fade out. The cat was interested, alright—so far so good—but now that he was listening, I had to make sure he’d go for the deal. Which was pretty likely, for the same reason that light show was necessary in the first place: His sense of honor.
   “You got my attention now. This better not be a joke.”
   I nodded and let a veil of shadows cover his face. If he only knew my story, that’d probably be a more compelling reason to help me leave this mortal coil. With an unseen smile I reached out and grabbed some particles that still carried traces of the day I slipped into the coma that led to my current situation. I concentrated; these particles slid in with the shadows around his head and began to dance, slowly forming pictures for his eyes, scents for his nose and sounds for his ears. If there was one thing I’d learned, it was how to entertain…

   Night: Dark from continual smog created by numerous steel mills. Foul-smelling clouds hid the Moon. In the city, crime lives for nights like this, and streets like this one, where the street lights are almost all busted, and muffled noises can be heard inside dark alleys. Listen and you can hear arguments in the ‘new’ housing projects.
   There’s a line of parked cars about half a block farther on. But one car is different: The pitted paint and streaks of rust hide the powerful drive train and electronic surveillance system of a modern police stake-out vehicle. Inside this car sits what most people in this neighborhood call a pig—and not a particularly bright one. He’s a lonely cop; his partner’s a block away, taking a piss at the corner bar.
   They’d call him a stupid pig because of that—and they’d be right. In this part of town, cops stay within sight of each other for defense. More cops have been buried after assignments to this neighborhood than anywhere else. It’s a stupid mistake, a rookie’s mistake, and the idiot’s too green to know what’s good for him. He’s wide awake and alert, never mind that it’s 3AM. Without taking his eyes off the house he lights a cigarette, the boring hours of watching the house across the street tearing at his nerves.
   These streets are a breeding ground for violence, not that the rookie is worried about anything like that. He’s a cop, cocksure and headstrong; he knows that nobody would attack him. He smiles and takes a sip of his coffee, looking back up in time to see the front door of the house open and close, a raccoon-morph SCAB slipping into the shadows alongside the house. The media hung a name on this perp; he’s the ‘SCABS Bandit’, for the gun he uses. It fires darts that he’s drenched in his own virus-laden blood…
   Our dumb-ass rookie takes another sip of his coffee and watches—then another mistake. His partner’s not in the vehicle, and their target has just left the building. Any cop with more experience would have picked up the radio and called in the activity, but this fool is too green to recognize the trouble he’s in.
   Another sip of coffee and he looks down at the bar, wishing his partner would hurry up, then looks back to the house. He jumps and drops his coffee, the raccoon is standing right next to the car.
   “Howdy, pig!” is the first thing out of the raccoon’s mouth as he raises the weapon that’s made him famous.
   A block away the rookie’s partner has just left the bar. He sees the commotion and starts running.
   The rookie panics, scrambles for the radio’s mic. “10 Bravo Uniform. Situation hot. Officer needs assistance, 24th and Line.”
   “Copy, Officer needs assistance, Twenty-fourth and Line.” The dispatcher’s reply is automatic and well trained.
   Half a block away now, his partner stops and draws his gun. “Hands in the air!” He’s got good lungs—he’s not out of breath—and his voice carries well in the heavy night air.
   The terrified rookie frantically stabs at the electric window’s controls, totally forgetting to turn the key to the ‘Accessories’ position. He repeats his call for help.
   His partner has moved closer and carefully trains the red dot of his pistol’s non-issue laser sight on the raccoon’s head. “I said, get your hands in the air—now!”
   The SCABS Bandit doesn’t obey; he’s toying with the idiot rookie, enjoying the fear he brings. Outside the car, the raccoon pulls the trigger. A dart leaps from the barrel of his pistol and hits the rookie in the neck.
   “Good-bye, Pig. Chances are you’ll—”
   The report of a nine millimeter pistol fills the night. The SCABS Bandit drops to the ground. Dead, from a single gunshot wound to the head.
   “Mig? Mig!!!” the veteran yells, slipping his pistol into the holster and running to the car. But his partner is already down, and will not wake up until after SCABS has turned him into something subtly less than human, but more than human at the same time.

   I let the shadows dissipate, let go of the particles that had carried a trace of the images, then waited for Jubatus’ reaction. I knew he’d have some reaction—after all, he was from one of those cities that never really gave up the dreams of the 1960s. It wasn’t long in coming.
   “So you were a cop. Screwed up, huh? Too bad.”
   “My whole life—”
   The cheetah makes with a derisive snort. “Get over it.”
   “I see… perhaps it would help you to know that they signed my death certificate and buried me before confirming anything. They didn’t even bother to find out if I’d developed SCABS. My life was my work, and they won’t even believe me.”
   “Ess eff dub’yew? Listen, you blubbering sack of hot air! What the hell do you think you’re—gaah! Do you even realize how many options there are for a guy with your kind of power? For crying out loud!”
   He’d upshifted and seemed on the verge of running. I couldn’t let that happen. “Power? Jubatus Acinonyx thinks I’m powerful? He loses his voice and gains the ability to run faster than most commercial jets, and he thinks I’m powerful? Are you that blind? You—the most sought-after troubleshooter in the world—” This shocked him, for some reason. “—holder of the patents for the world’s fastest sort algorithm—” Wait a second, was he actually amused now? “—you think I’m so powerful I should just keep on living?”
   He stared at me for a moment, an unreadable expression on his face, before he said, “Drop it. You really are clueless, aren’t you?”
   I let my thoughts run for a full second, not sure if he realized that we’d been carrying out our conversation at his normal speed of operation. He really thought I was powerful? I focused on the radio waves bouncing off satellites and pored over even more information on him. Had to be something there to explain that.
   “Jubatus… I’m sorry, but… you have to help me. I don’t want to live like this, but nothing I’ve tried has worked! I’ve tried smothering myself with carbon monoxide; drowning; getting crushed under a million tons of avalanche; burning up in a live volcano; letting a train run over me; sitting in the core of a nuclear reactor—all these and more, and I’m still here! You are the only person alive who could possibly meet the challenge of finding a way to kill an inanimorph like me. Think of the fame, think of the questions it would help answer.”
   There: I’d played my trump card, called out to his vanity. I knew he liked fame, otherwise he would never have insisted on the royalties from that search algorithm or on turning the Blind Pig Glee Club into the Strikebreakers. He had to be vain enough to take on the challenge, right? I pulled even more concentration into the web search for information, knowing that I might have to rely on blackmail to get his help if persuasion didn’t work. When I switched my mind back to the Blind Pig all that was there was a hazy blur of excited particles slowly disipating—shit! He’d gone and disappeared on me! I reached among the particles for the odd-flavored ones that carried a bit of information about current events.
   Ah, he’d just left at his highest normal speed. I flashed to his vehicle outside the bar. “Just like you to run, Jubatus. You ran from your problems in California, and tried to run from your problems on Easter Island. I should have guessed.”
   He turned, barely suppressing his surprise that I’d been able to follow him that fast. “I’m not running!” he growled. “You want me to help you? Fine. You’re signing a contract.”
   And then he was a fast moving blur of a matter-energy mix and inside the bar. Not a problem; I reacted just a little faster and beat him to his booth. “No need for a pen, Mr. Acinonyx…” I said as he put the contract in front of me, with a pen needlessly clipped to the top. I scanned the pages as fast as the world would allow, and noted that it was a standard contract for the type of work he normally did, with two exceptions. One was the pay rate—he was asking for $50 billion dollars, half in advance, half on completion—and the other was a waiver of liability so he couldn’t be prosecuted for carrying out the terms of the contract. I reached out to the swirl of photons and electrons that make up the global networks, and checked it against all the laws on the books. He’d been thorough in its design; the thing would almost certainly stand up in court.
   Twenty-five billion dollars wasn’t all that much, really. Doesn’t buy what it used to. Inflation and other factors have driven the value of the dollar so low, making six figures a year is the norm for most cops. I chuckled, focused on the area left for a signature at the bottom of the page, and moved a few zillion atoms around; the name ‘Maxwell Grant’ appeared in the correct spot at the bottom of the page. The cat rolled his eyes—but a name is a name.
   “That’s half up front. See you in one week, sucker!”
   I looked for a smile, hoping he was joking. He wasn’t. Where the heck was I going to get that kind of money? No—wrong question—where would I get that kind of money, this quick, without screwing up a hell of a lot of other things? I was pretty sure I could transmute large quantities of of coal into diamonds, but that’d kill the diamond market, and possibly put a target on Jubatus’ back. I mean, DeBeers has a tendency to violently protect their profit margin—this I knew from a case I’d worked a few months before dying. Perhaps… no, somebody would be bound to notice me shaving pennies off of corporate accounts, and I wasn’t sure I could pull that off anyway. Okay, I could read the global networks traffic, and even insert new signals and crap, but big companies tend to be real paranoid about forged messages. And if one of my fabricated signals was flagged as a fake… let’s just say I’m sure it causes more than a small number of problems.
   I looked at Jubatus and shook my head. Even with my thoughts running as fast as they do now, I couldn’t figure out a way to get the money to him that fast. It would take days to arrange for the penny shaving, and longer to arrange a way to get the diamonds on the market. “Well, Mr. Jubatus, it seems you have me between a rock and a hard place. I—” Something in the Pig’s parking lot caught my attention. “Excuse me, please.” With a thought I was outside and looking around, trying to see what—
   Four men were attacking a dog. Damned if I know why that caught my attention. “You think you’re better than us, SCAB?” one of them said as he landed a vicious kick. That explained it—the ‘dog’ wasn’t an animal, but a full-morph SCAB. Like it mattered: Nobody has the right to beat anyone that bad. I focused on my avatar back inside the pig. “Be right back, Jubatus. Seems I’m needed outside. Oh, and you might want to come, too,” I said to the cheetah before killing that avatar.
   There’d been enough violence already—the canine SCAB was obviously hurt pretty bad—so I decided to scare the idiots away from him. I reached out and grabbed onto a shitload of photons, making a rather large, glowing white wolf-body. I announced myself with a warning: “I’d suggest you leave him alone.” I didn’t know how long I could keep the photons contained, because this was the opposite of what I normally did to create an avatar.
   Two of the thugs looked at me while the other two kept on with the beating. “And who the hell do you—” When he saw my glowing ‘doggie’, his jaw dropped and he started to run. I couldn’t let that happen. I reacted instantly, throwing the mouthy one into a nearby wall—hard enough to crack the bricks.
   The other one who’d just been watching ran at me. He had a tire iron, with fresh smears of the dog’s blood on it, and he swung it at me. I smiled and let it pass right through my light-wolf; the metal heated up real good, as if it had just spent six hours in a car with closed windows at the height of summer. With a shout of surprise and pain he dropped the tire iron. That was fine by me—I picked it up and slammed it, hard, into his midsection. “So you think you can just beat a SCAB and get away with it?”
   “N-n-no… no!” he stammered as I picked him up by his shoulder.
   “Then what were you doing here?” I didn’t expect an answer. As a cop I’d seen plenty of reports on beatings like these, and the cases were always filed ‘unsolved’. Not this time! I threw him into the same wall I’d thrown his friend and turned to face the other two.
   Fortunately (for them, I mean), I didn’t need to do anything more. Jubatus was there, helping the dog-morph to his feet. The other two thugs were tied up—literally. They were hanging from one of the street lights, gagged and hog-tied with duct tape.
   “Not good, Mr. Penumbra. That first yutz—the one you threw at the wall—dammit, you could have killed him!” He seemed a tad angry. “Glad I was here…” he muttered under his breath.
   “You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I said. “What’s the problem? He’s just a piece of scum, and you know damn well he would’ve killed that dog-morph.”
   “Maybe—but these geeks will all wish they were dead when my lawyers get done with them. Don’t worry about any of these perps getting away with this! Anyway, what the hell did you hit that one with?” Jubatus was interested, but I knew already that he was collecting information to give to the police when they finally got here.
   “I don’t really know, Jubatus. I don’t know how I do most of what I do.” With that I faded out, left him alone there to think about our contract. Me, I still had to find a way to come up with the money.

   Time passed. A couple of days later, the police had come and gone. I didn’t recognize any of them, as if I would have anyway. Different city and all that… come to think of it, I wasn’t certain which city I’d been a cop for. I was thinking about that, trying to remember where I’d worked and where I’d been buried, when I spotted Jubatus walking into the Pig again. Time for a little more magic and I could have his drink waiting for him before he made it through the doors. He may be the fastest SCAB alive, or so the media’s said once or twice—but ‘alive’, I ain’t. And now, after a bit of research over the last two days, I’ve got a halfway decent description for what SCABS did to me: I’m a quantum computer with a built-in AI.
   I focused and felt time run slower and slower—just perception, mind you, since my thoughts seem to be superluminal. Which violates relativity, but there you are. ‘Superluminal’? Yeah, that’s another term I managed to pick up somewhere. I calmed down and did the big appearing act, creating a null-space in the little dots—photons—I’ve learned are the light in a room. Earlier, I’d pilfered a twenty from a nearby ATM (what? you think I’d try counterfeiting money?); now I plopped it on the counter, and asked Donnie to make up one of Jubatus’ normal drinks. It was on the counter just as Jubatus walked—well, I’m guessing it was a walk—by.
   His anti-social attitude aside, I’d come to like Jubatus after his actions in helping me save the dog-morph SCAB two days before. He could have ignored it, let the poor bastard get beaten to death; instead, he nailed two thugs in the time it took me to collar one. He’s definitely not the asshole he presents himself as. Not deep inside where it really counts, anyway. Behind that gruff exterior was the heart of a champion, a hero—he reminded me of what I’d been like back when I had to breathe. I still didn’t have the money that’d get him started on researching a way to kill me, but what I did have were lots of questions. In the last two days I’d done even more digging and learned about some of the things that’d happened before he left California. How he could still have that (admittedly well-disguised) optimistic core after everything that’d happened to him? I didn’t know, but I promised myself I’d find out. When I was sure he wasn’t planning to leave anytime soon, I created a second body across the table from him and left the original one to deliver the drink.
   “So, Mr. Penumbra. Got cash?”
   “No, Jubatus. I’m here to ask you a few questions…”
   He shrugged. “Feel free. Just don’t expect any answers.”
   I sighed, but then I saw my other self setting the drink down. “I could have the money for you tomorrow. It’s just a simple matter of me not wanting to hurt the economy that stops me from doing it. After all, twenty-five billion in diamonds suddenly appearing on the market would devaluate them, and that’d cause massive problems on the markets.”
   “Yeah, it’s not like you could just hand over 25 gigabucks in diamonds and let me worry about the consequences.”
   That made me laugh. “Oh, I could do exactly that, and believe me, I thought of doing just that when you told me the price for your work.”
   He cocked his head and jumped up to maybe thirty times normal speed. I couldn’t be certain exactly how fast time was flowing for him, but he gave off a steady stream of those really odd particles that had first brought him to my attention. What’s going on inside that head? I wondered as his gaze remained steady on my shadow-body.
   By this time, I’d learned exactly how I could manufacture enough diamonds to make that price. All you need is a bunch of carbon with the right mix of other atoms; shuffle ’em into the proper kind of crystalline pattern, and you end up with blue diamonds of such clarity and brilliance the price would be… well, it’d be astronomical. Knowing that he might not believe me, I split my focus and descended into the sewers under the bar.
   It maybe took me a minute to separate out the atoms I needed from what was down there. After that, a few seconds of concentration arranged those atoms into a specific pattern—the frozen lattice of a diamond. By this point Jubatus was talking again, so I focused the main part of my mind back on the vibrations in the air. Hey, how do you think I manage to listen without living ears?
   “-ere a cop. Means something—your average cop doesn’t willingly break the law.” he was saying. It wasn’t the attitude I’d expected, but after the experience with him having his lawyers go after the Humans Firsters who’d attacked that SCAB two days ago…
   “Ideally, that’d be the truth. But even though I was only on the job a few months, I met more than my fair share of dirty cops.” My plan was to be diplomatic with him while I moved the diamond up out of the sewer. Sure, I could have used the booth’s table—carbon is carbon, right?—but that would’ve pissed off the bartender. “But never mind that, Mr. Jubatus. The good news is, I’ve found two ways to get you the money. For one I’d need a real body and at least a year. It’s real estate. With my senses I could easily spot any potential problems and pick the winners. The other is to ‘borrow’ the money from people like the Humans First movement.”
   Jubatus laughed. It wasn’t pretty, but he let loose an honest-to-God laugh! Then the doors opened again and my other shadow body walked in carrying a rough, uncut diamond. Again there were shouts as the (sloppy and self-made) gravity field I was carrying it with, upset a number of drinks and caused general chaos. Someday I’d have to find a better way to move physical stuff around, but for now I just laughed at people’s consternation.
   My other ‘self’ plunked the diamond onto the table. I motioned at it. “It’s a flawless blue diamond, of the type electronics companies have been trying to manufacture for years. Undoped, with the proper characteristics, I believe. My research has shown me I could easily raise any amount of money you want by supplying these to various firms.”
   He wasn’t laughing and didn’t look too happy about things. He was giving off those weird particle trails and flashing through different speed states with amazing regularity. Finally he smiled… and his shiny teeth sent a flash of worry through me. Then he spoke, his voice low and barely understandable.
   “You damn innies are coming out of the woodwork like crazy. First the asshole that blew NASA to hell before heading off into the cosmos, and now you. Listen carefully, dead boy: You break any laws to get me the money, and the deal is off.”
   I nodded, and let the diamond sit on the table as I disappeared. There had to be some way for me to make the money legally—or illegal and so untraceable that even Jubatus and his various friends wouldn’t be able to figure it out. There had to be; I just needed to find it. I let my mind work on the problem, and I searched the nets to see about potential ways to find the money.
   Millions of opportunities presented themselves to me. The computer I’d become sorted them out, one by one, the illegal options going away silently. Jubatus may not have known it, but his statement about lawbreaking did have an effect. Not the one he might have planned, though; all it did was spark a feeling I hadn’t had for a long time. Call it an innate moral sense. Even growing up after the Collapse—or perhaps because of it—I had a profound respect for the law and had never, to my knowledge, willingly broke any.
   It was going to take a while for me to evaluate all my options; even though I can think faster than anything, there’s no way I can suck in data any sooner than the global network is able to transmit it. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to meet Jubatus’ deadline… well, hell. We had a contract, right? And contracts could be renegotiated. All I needed was another week to finish the search and I could get his money to him. And even then, I’d found a few possibilities already, marked them for later net searches for information. Oh, there’s no need to get into them, as any number of them are indelibly tied to my unique abilities, but… let’s just say there’s more than a few ways for me to turn a tidy profit.
   Anyway, I decided to see if he was okay with giving me an extension. On the sixth day, the day before that one-week deadline, the big cat was in the Pig once again; I decided to be a bit dramatic. I made with a disembodied voice before I formed a shadow body. “Jubatus, I’ve got a lead on the money. I just need another week.”
   He ignored me until I formed the body and repeated myself, at his normal pace. Then he looked at me, a small flash of something like surprise running across his face. He then smiled a nasty smile and pulled out the contract.
   “Funny—I don’t see anything about an extension in here. Don’t want it bad enough, huh?”
   “I could have it right now if it wouldn’t totally screw you over and be illegal as hell!”
   “Get real! Do you think anything you do could screw me over?”
   What!? That—he—aargh! “Okay, you son of a bitch. You want it, you got it! I’ll be back in half an hour with all your stinking money.” I made it sound loud to his ears, but nobody else would have heard it. That fucking cheetah was a greedy and amoral asshole! If he wanted the bucks that bad, I’d damned well get it for him. More than he could ever hope to spend… I just hoped that the people I’d be borrowing the money from didn’t kill Jubatus before he delivered on his end of the deal.
   Five minutes later, I’d located all bank accounts linked to the Humans First movement. There wasn’t enough money in those accounts, but it was a start. The rest of the money? I grabbed it from a source just about as dangerous as the Humans First movement—the Mafia. Those guys were so paranoid, tracking down their finances took most of the remaining twenty-something minutes. You say the local Mob would be pissed when they found their secret accounts missing? Okay, they’d be pissed, too. Like I cared. That arrogant, overconfident cheetah deserved whatever happened to him! He might think his speed made him invulnerable, but with Humans First and the Mafia after his ass in specific, he was dead meat. But I’d warned him, and he didn’t listen, so it was all on his own head!
   The problem with a conscience is that the damn thing bites you in the ass at the worst possible times. I was in the process of redirecting the money to a numbered offshore account for Jubatus when mine kicked in. I just couldn’t go through with it: Nobody, not even an amoral jackass like that cheetah, deserved the kind of shitstorm that would fall on him when the paper trail was unraveled. But I had the cash… so what the hell do I do with it? Well, the Mafia could keep their money, but there was nothing stopping me from keeping what I’d skimmed from the Humans First accounts. Okay, nothing except for the fact that I don’t actually need the money. The situation sucked—too much danger coming from too many directions—but there had to be some way to turn it to my advantage! There had to be a solution, and all I had to do was find it… Unfortunately, my half-hour came and went, and I had to admit defeat to that smug asshole.
   “Can’t do it.” I admitted, not really expressing the truth. As before, I was at Jubatus’ normal pace, my words lost on everyone but him.
   “Imagine my surprise. No wonder you innies hide away from the world—not a one of you can ever follow through.”
   “Oh, I had the money—I just couldn’t go screwing you like that. As pompous an ass as you are, as fast as you can move, I couldn’t leave you dodging Mafia and Humans First goons the rest of your life. Some of us do have morals.” With that said, I started to fade out. There was nothing left for me in that bar—
   That one word—that one satisfied word—stopped me and drew my attention. He was happy that I hadn’t screwed him, even after all the provocation… The fucker had been testing me! “Keep talking, catboy. You’ve ruined my good mood, but it might come back.”
   “It’s really quite simple, Mr. Penumbra: The money was never important. You’re an innie, so the issue wasn’t getting the cash at all, but how you got it. I was betting you weren’t a big enough sleazeball to go through with it—and I was right! There are times wh-” He stopped in mid-word and looked at me intently. “Hold it. You said ‘Mafia’ and ‘Humans First’. Where’s the money right now?”
   “Still in their accounts. I came to my senses before moving any of it.” My mind flashed ahead of his thoughts at the speed of light; I had no clue why he’d be interested in that money—maybe he really did want the bucks, after all? Even with his existing pile of cash? Another option presented itself, and seemed better than sheer greed. “Why? Want me to get Humans First and the Mafia into a war?”
   “What? Take the money and make it look like—”
   “Exactly,” I interrupted him. “Just have to find somewhere to park it, with evidence that points the Mob at Humans First, and vice versa. Somehow, I doubt that those two groups will do anything like suicide bombings in their little war.”
   “That’s not the point. You’re leaving a paper trail, and that’s a problem. What happens when somebody does a backtrace and finds out where the money really went?”
   Again I’m stunned by him. I’d more than halfway come to believe that he really was motivated by sheer greed and uninhibited self-interest… But if someone could untangle the mess I was going to create, I figured they deserved to get the money. “Only two people will know the truth, and I’m not about to talk. Are you?”
   “Doesn’t matter,” he said, only a little irritated. “You’re leaving clues. No matter how twisted they are, it’s possible that someone else could trace ’em back to you.”
   My shadow-self shrugged. “Not unless they use all the computing power on the planet for ten years.”
   I watched Jubatus flash to a faster timestream. Maybe he hadn’t been looking to create a war, but that’s exactly what was now within his reach. And damaging Humans First and the Mafia the way this war would, that’s definitely something he’d be interested in. So I let my mind go, processing everything I knew about him, including what I’d learned from personal interactions. His possible reasons for asking about the money flashed by and disappeared as unlikely. Three (subjective) minutes later, I had the real answer: It was his standard perfectionism—he’d asked because he wanted to be sure that every possible loose end was tied up. He’d probably agree, once he worked it all out for himself, so I pushed myself to work faster than I ever had before and re-created my unbreakably twisted paper trail. With no idea where the money should go, I set up a list of all registered SCABS charities in the US and funneled a portion of it to each of them.
   As I finished setting up my scheme, Jube dropped back to a normal pace. I immediately slowed myself back down to match him. “Do it,” he said in his crumpled basso voice. Immediately the computers I’d co-opted started pouring the money out of the Humans First and Mafia accounts and into the accounts of the charities. When they reported their success, I erased all incriminating files in a flash of high-energy electrons and focused on the Blind Pig.
   “Done, you manipulative son of a bitch.”
   “I’m manipulative!?” he growled, irritated. “Says the innie who twisted my arm with an end-of-the-Universe lightshow? Cry me a fucking river!” Then he sighed, even looked embarrassed. “Okay, okay. You’re right. I can be manipulative, but I try not to. I really do. It’s just… you caught me on a bad day. When you showed up, I mean…”
   That was probably as close to an apology as I could expect. “Don’t worry about it. I’m done, like I said, so now I’ve got to be going—I need to find someone to do the research you wanted the money for.” Once more I started dissipating my shadow body.
   And once more, his smug, annoying voice pulled me back: “You managed to work up an impenetrable ten-year snarl that fast? Not bad, for a slowpoke.”
   I was tired of his quicker-than-thou act and reformed the body. “I’m a hell of a lot faster than you’ll ever be. Hell, to me you’re slow!”
   He gave me a skeptical look. “If you’re that fast, what did you spend the week doing?”
   “Research. I may be fast, but the rest of this world is still fucking slow. Why? Want to know what I found during my research? Want to rub it in that I couldn’t come up with the money?”
   “Me, gloat?” He tried to look innocent. Didn’t work. “Thanks for offering, but I’ll take a raincheck. I’d rather know what you came up with. Because you got one day left, and you still need to pay for the work—let’s see if you found a way to get the money without screwing someone.”
   Stunned, I sat back in the seat and forced the remnants of my emotions away. Without a true physical body, feelings are just a well-remembered habit; without the chemicals that drive emotions in normal people, squelching a bad mood is easy. So I started going over the results of my research with Jubatus. Strictly speaking, his six-speed boost shouldn’t have made any real difference—not when I cruise a few hundred times faster than that—but it did. Hell, sometimes I needed my speed advantage to keep up with him! The give and take in the conversation reminded me of my days as a cop, riding around in a squad car with my partner… The bar was closing as I reached the end of the list of possible ways to get the money Jubatus had asked for. He yawned and stretched: “As good a breakpoint as any,” he said as the minotaur-looking bartender walked towards the table. “You may not need to sleep, but I sure do! See you tomorrow.” And before long, he was safe in his big-ass car, dead to the world.

   Another day, another five years plus change. For me, anyway. You can do a lot of reading in five years… but none of it really helped. At this point, I needed to pull in well over a gigabuck per hour, and there just isn’t any acceptable way to do that. Sure, you can do it if you’ve got insane power and you don’t care how many people you stomp in the process—but I did care!
   No doubt about it: I had to beg for an extension. Okay, he blew me off before, but maybe he’ll play ball this time. Unless he’s still testing me… well, one thing at a time. I can read the global net, I can write on it just as easy; and with what I’d been learning, I could do a phone link to his private number, no sweat. Jubatus answered on the second ring: “If you’re not Grant, I’m hanging up.”
   “How did you—never mind. Yes, this is Maxwell Grant. Jubatus, I really do need an extension on our contract. Between my personal ethics and obeying the law, I just can’t get you the cash in time!”
   A little bit of dead air, with traffic sounds in the background. “That so, huh? Sorry, but you’re out of luck. And I’m busy. Can we continue this later?”
   No extension—damnit! “What else is there for us to talk about?”
   I could hear his intensely smug grin through the phone connection. “Life, the Universe, and everything.”
   A straight answer would’ve been nice… “Fine. As long as my death is one o-”
   Jubatus drowned me out with the rudest fucking Bronx cheer I ever heard. “Don’t tell me you still think you’re in the market for a permanent dirt nap?”
   “After 35 tries? You’re damn right I want to die!”
   “Bullshit you do. Those weren’t suicide attempts, they’re hesitation marks! Look, I got a conference in seven minutes. Meet me at 4 o’clock, okay?” And then the line was dead.
   Aaargh! That cocksure, arrogant son of a goddamn bitch! ‘Hesitation marks’, my ass! Any beat cop who’s ever dealt with suicides knows the difference between a serious shot at death and some whiny putz trying to make people sorry for him! And I damn well am serious about dying. I mean, Jesus Christ, every last one of my suicides would’ve been 150% guaranteed to waste any normal… living…
   Oh. Right.
   I’m faster than Jubatus, by orders of magnitude. How the hell does that cat stay two steps ahead of me!?

   I met him at 4. He hadn’t said where, but he didn’t need to. A guy with my sources could locate his ass no matter what—which is probably what he figured on. So, like I said, 4 o’clock. At this city park.
   He was at a picnic table, the last shreds of a turkey carcass to the left, his laptop on the tight. I formed a shadow-body. He noticed it real soon: “Howdy, Mr. Penumbra.” His words sounded a hell of a lot better than—
   Ah: That gadget around his neck, a voder. He hadn’t been using it before… something clicked for me.
   “The voder. You said I caught you on a bad day—that what you meant?”
   “Yep.” He nodded. “In for maintenance and, well, the voice thing, y’know?” My turn to nod; ‘the voice thing’ was a fairly major part of his psych files. “Anyway. What’s on your mind, Grant?”
   Good question. I just wasn’t sure I had an answer. Now that Jubatus had rubbed my nose in the fact that I didn’t really want to die, I didn’t need him to research that problem; so why had I come here? Well, what the hell. He could satisfy my curiosity.
   “You’re always been three or four steps ahead of me. How the hell do you do that?”
   He shrugged. “Easy: I think faster than you.” Before I could tell him he was full of shit, he explained: “Okay—you’re an innie, your mind isn’t bound by biological signal speeds, all that and a bag o’ chips. Bee-eff-dee. My laptop’s faster than me, too—but it’s just a machine. It can’t do shit unless it’s got the right software for whatever-it-is. So maybe I can’t out-speed you, any more than I can out-speed my laptop; but I can sure as Hell out-think the machine, and I can out-think you, too.”
   That didn’t seem right, somehow. “Well… yeah, but… Look, Jubatus. I run two-thousand times faster than normal. That’s, like, 300 times quicker than your usual six-speed! To me, a person saying ‘Good Day’ takes up almost seventeen minutes at my normal speed. The calendar says I died four years ago—but as far as I’m concerned, that works out to nearly eight thousand years of my time.”
   Jubatus shrugged again. “Think of it this way: You’re running MS-DOS 1.0 on a petahertz chip, and I’m running the latest Linux distro on a forty-year-old G6. You lose—end of discussion.” Then he looked thoughtful: “Tempo of 2,000… I think I could do that. It’d blow several major blood vessels and kill me, but I could probably do it. Still…” He trailed off and I wondered what he was thinking about. Suddenly, he turned to his laptop and started typing. Google was on the screen; I noted the terms he typed in, ‘quantum existence’ and like that, and I ran a search of my own—on the mass of information I’d sucked in over the past 80 centuries—and did a little more searching right now.
   “Try The Possibilities are Endless, by Dr. Jack Davis Strong. Copyright 2002—published just before the Collapse,” I said—just as that very book was coming up in the results page. “He thinks the odds against sentience in a quantum field are about 150-million to one.”
   The cheetah didn’t even look up. “How did you know that?”
   “I read the book just now.”
   “Which isn’t available online, and the only surviving copy is in the Library of Congress, it says here.”
   “And that’s where I read it. So what?”
   “So you’re telling me you were in two places at once? That’s a good trick.”
   “Nah. I can do five or six before it gets to me. I’m not all that good at multi-tasking.”
   He frowned and muttered “Damned innie powers,” then turned off the computer. “Still, five or six places at once, that’s impressive. You’re the first SCAB I’ve heard of that can do that.”
   “Same here, but it’s really just a party trick. What you’ve got is a lot more useful. I mean, sure I’ve learned to read nearly every written language on the planet—so what? You can outrun damn near any bullet ever made!”
   “Hey! Don’t go putting me on a pedestal.” Jubatus sounded pissed, but the chemical stew in the air registered as ‘amused’ once I let my mind decode it. “And let’s not waste any more time. You mentioned security as one of the ideas you researched, right?”
   I had, mostly because of my background as a cop. “Yeah. And?” Security—police—‘you say tomayto, I say tomahto’, right? It made sense. Hell, I’d even be good at it! I may get a migraine if I keep more than six avatars going at a time… but if all I need to do is take a look-see a couple times a second, I’m good for a hundred different spots at once, easy.
   “The ‘and’ is, it just so happens I’ve been working up a private project that could really use a guy with your abilities.”
   And it involved security? I was already interested. But rather than answer right away, I decided to try making him play catch-up for a change: “A job is always welcome. But I’m puzzled—if I had gotten you the money, what were you going to do with it?”
   He took it in stride—no discernable hesitation. Damn! “Charity, just like it did go to. By the way, who ended up with the bucks?”
   “, Epona… I gave some to every pro-SCABS charity I could find. Hell, the venerable West Street Shelter got a quarter of a million dollars!” He’d dodged my question; I pressed for an answer. “But seriously, Jubatus. If you gave the money to charity, what would’ve paid for the research?”
   “What research? I just kept stringing you along until you came to your senses.”
   “So you never—” I was stunned! “But—you signed the contract—”
   “Yep,” he said with a smug, feline grin. “The contract which specifies that, in the event I fail to fulfill my end of the bargain, all monies paid to me would be returned to the party of the second part; namely, you.” His grin became even more self-satisfied. “I figured you could probably use a nest-egg. Once you dropped the suicide crap, I mean. And speaking of nest-eggs, I believe this is yours—”
   He tossed something at me; I caught it by reflex. It was a pale blue rock, glittery and transparent. Its molecules were real familiar…
   It was the diamond I’d made and given to him, back in the Pig.
   That insufferable cat! Or… was he just pleased at how things had turned out? “Dunno what you’ll do with it, but I expect you’ll think of something. Say, how about that job offer? You want to say ‘yes’, or ‘gimme more details’, or what?”
   Oh, to hell with it: He was right, I had no more chance of out-thinking him than of out-playing a chess grandmaster. Maybe later… after I’d upgraded myself, assuming I could do that… but just now, fuggeddaboutit. And if you had to work for a manipulative bastard, you could do a lot worse than one who actually gave a damn about other people, who pulled strings for their benefit and not his own.
   Yeah, you could do a lot worse than this cheetah…
   “You’ve got yourself an employee, Jubatus.”

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