Monday, September 29, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 5 - "Quiet Morning"

               As predicted, I woke up miserable.  My shoulder and neck ached so badly that I squeaked like a hatchling as I tried to climb out of my nest bedding.  A few scales flaked off from that area, damaged so badly that they had died.  The skin underneath was bruised black.  I had similar bruises and tears along my back and tail, but none quite as severe.  I had to sacrifice my last few hoarded pain pills just to get moving.  Antibiotic, styptic salve ensured that my scrapes would heal cleanly.

                Another foray into the urban jungle was not advisable in this condition.  Unfortunately, I had already squandered a full day with little to show for it.  I had only two days left before a verdict was expected.  I decided to split the day between self-pity and self-abuse. 
For the first part, I would stay home and study up on the case.  Hopefully my brain wasn’t too badly damaged.  I needed to find something that would stick a couple of puzzle pieces together and show a pattern.  I didn’t have much time, so I needed a direction that would pay off immediately.  In my favor, there wasn’t any further need to go to court.  Much of the day there would be occupied by routine statements, mostly from witnesses establishing their various versions of events.  If I really needed to know more than could be gleaned from Shllokwa’s notes, I could tune in the proceedings on my compad. 
At some point, though, I couldn’t afford to continue sitting on my comfortable stump, nursing my wounds.  I’d have to venture out and do something.  Investigators only solve crimes while sitting at home, nibbling cakes, in intellectual fiction.  If this case could be cracked by compad, the custodians would already have swapped Grust for the real villain.  The second part of my day would involve the masochism of stalking the streets. 
The problem was: what should I do?  Starting another bar fight was off the list.  Once those drugs wore off, I’d be an easy mark for a Hrotata yearling.  I could do some interviewing, maybe scare up some new witnesses to stretch out the trial.  At best, though, the defense could only hope to drag out proceedings through the end of the third day, and that far only if the witnesses had something relevant to say. 
Nothing said that my interviews wouldn’t turn into physical confrontations, either.  If I stumbled onto the sapient responsible for Grust’s very bad night, I might rouse them to action.  I probably already had.  Hopefully, the second time around, I’d know who I was looking for and they wouldn’t have pawns around to throw at me.
                I noticed one discrepancy right away.  Neither side, defense or prosecution, had listed the bartender as a witness.  On my first read-through of the witness list, I had overlooked that omission.  After visiting the Thunder Bar, I was more attuned to the setting, plus now I had a description to match to the bare-bones docket.  Did I think she was my culprit?  Not really, but I knew better than to let instinct guide my hunt.  I popped off a message to Shllokwa to relay to the defense counsel, Ktlrsh.  I didn’t elaborate much on where I had gained my insight; she would undoubtedly figure that out soon enough.
                Immediately afterward, I reconsidered my ‘insight’.  Surely both sides had considered the bartender, at least as a present witness.  She owned the frosted scene of the crime!  Yet if that was the case, why exclude her?  Maybe they thought she would contribute little not otherwise known.  Technically speaking, the ‘crimes’ Grust was accused of happened outside, in the street.  Unless he had said, “Hey, I think I’m going to go outside and assault a Hrotata,” she couldn’t attest to much more than his liquid intake. 
Maybe she was too risky for one side or the other.  The prosecution might think she would bolster the defense’s position by describing all the opportunities someone had to dose Grust.  She might be sympathetic to one of her regulars, too.  The defense might consider her ability to describe the accused’s drinking habits as a negative.  She might also dredge up past fights and make their victim sound like a brawler.
Other on-scene witnesses were more exclusive to that specific night and less likely to be personally connected to Grust, with the exception of his Herd-mates.  Leafing through that list, I made another discovery: there had been a Hrotata present at the Thunder Bar.  The witness list gave only a name - Krrutoki - and contact information.  That was still enough to turn up a profile through the networks, including a picture.  I couldn’t be precisely sure, but he looked familiar enough.  He could have been the same spectator who watched my one-against-three death match the previous night.
The prosecution had summoned Krrutoki.  As a Hrotata, they probably assumed he could give an impartial retelling of earlier events at the Thunder Bar.  Maybe he was just an innocent bystander.  Or maybe he was a voyeur.  Maybe he liked to watch the dumb saurians mix it up for his entertainment.  I vaguely remembered him perking up when I got clobbered.  That impression wasn’t really worth a note to the defense.  This guy was already a problem for them, on the list for the other side, and there wasn’t much they could do about him.  Plus, I’d have to explain where my misgivings came from… again, not so proud of my earlier work.
The coincidence was worth a note to myself, though: another potential connection to trace.  I was doing great at finding overlooked elements in this case, but failing at turning them into usable proof.  At this point, something to create reasonable doubt would be valuable.  I wouldn’t manufacture false leads, but I didn’t mind some temporary confusion to slow down the trial until I could find the real solution. 
I went back and reviewed the timeline of the case.  Nothing new popped up there.  The order and timing of events matched what had been presented already.  What were missing were the events preceding Grust’s departure: the unrecorded events that caused his odd behavior.  I started a new notebook and listed my ideas again.
Drugs were still the top candidate.  Hallucinogens or maybe a really potent aphrodisiac?  Mental conditioning?  Conditioning required that the responsible party have access to Grust for some extended period prior to the event.  Again, the bar was the likely point of contact there.  That assumption was the only way I could reconcile the second incident at the same locale.  Then again, there could be multiple causes.  I might not be the only one working to obscure this case.
I could come up with all sorts of complicated conspiracies to explain the events as known.  Before I wandered off into some twisted mental maze, I needed to consider ‘simpler’, singular explanations.  Genetic manipulation?  Parasitic infestation?  Money? Grust might have been hired to threaten the victim and took the deal too far.  One or more of my assailants at the Thunder Bar could have been paid off to start a fight or else covering for the responsible party.  It wasn’t impossible for a Taratumm to frenzy at will, just very unlikely.  “Violently unstable stomper for hire,” wasn’t a job you could advertise publicly, but there were private buyers. 
Frost and a malfunctioning heat suit!  I couldn’t even consider means without tangling it up with motive.  Why would someone mess with Grust, or Herd Torbur, or Trrptet Thunder Bar, or whoever this crime was meant to harm? 
Wait.  I was still assuming that the victim was my client.  The victim might be the victim: the Hrotata still prone in intensive care.  What if he was the target all along?  That still left the second incident to explain, but it remained possible that I was the target in that case.  The Taratumm were just the assault weapon. 
I looked up what I had on the victim, Tharrliki.  According to his mate, Yavirrt, Tharrliki had no connection to Grust prior to the challenge.  Their Clan, Takerrl, had some remote links to Herd Torbur, but no notable business dealings.  Clan Takerrl was moderately prosperous, though a newcomer to ChtkKttp, having made their money among the newer Great Family colony worlds.  Tharrliki was first-generation local, both to the planet and to Layafflr City; his matron was an immigrant.  His mate was an ‘acquisition’ favored by the Clan matriarchy, a female with closer ties to the City’s political establishment.  Nothing exactly suspicious there, just the usual entrenchment of wealth into power.  I made a note to myself to research the mate’s background, but that seemed a less meaty trail than others.  I returned to focus on Tharrliki.
The victim’s proximity to Trrptet also appeared to be a matter of chance.  The couple, along with their Vislin bodyguards, had been shopping on the adjacent street.  One of the wrecked storefronts had apparently belonged to a moderately successful silversmith.  If I strained, I could call up a fuzzy memory of the place. 
After browsing the shiny trinkets there, the couple had decided to sample the local atmosphere, strolling toward the ornamental parks.  They bought some candied insects… strolled through the hedges… boring… boring… then were ready to leave when Grust approached.  The mate, Yavirrt, said they thought he was just drunk, maybe sick.  They felt sorry for what they assumed was a Herd-less, luckless sot, possibly reduced to beggary for train fare home.  Unlike a properly cautious resident, they let him get close enough to talk without allowing their bodyguards to block the way.  Even when Grust voiced his challenge, they were more confused than alarmed. 
Though it wasn’t in the testimony, I suspected that the well-off Hrotata couple were amused.  Maybe they had a laugh at the poor, dumb, pickled Taratumm.  Maybe not.  That could have been my prejudices talking, but really, why did they misread the situation so badly?  What happened was weird, true, but they should still have anticipated the possibility of getting robbed, not to mention plain old assault. 
Civilization doesn’t preclude occasional savagery; modern medicine doesn’t always spot mental illness.  Plenty of unpredictable, dangerous people can jump out at you through cracks in the urban façade.  In a place like Layafflr City, rapid growth and economic divides spread those cracks plenty wide.  I know this from first-claw experience.  Pile that up together along with organized crime, theft at every level, and the daily sins of those striving for dominance… let’s just say there’s plenty of work for the custodians.
Precious little of that workload comes to your noble narrating investigator, mind you.  Usually, the victims are dead or poor and the survivors are just happy to stay alive and avoid provoking their tormentors further.  It takes a rare combination of events to create clients with credit to spare, something to gain from spending it on my services, and the courage to seek help... along with a case not already solved by custodial detectives.  The corruption among the custodial forces is the main reason I can eke out a living doing what I do.  If the wronged party can’t outbid the bribes of their enemies, they can perhaps spend that budget on me, and buy a chance at justice.
Other types of cases that came to me were like this one: weird.  Cases where the custodians couldn’t or wouldn’t look deep enough to find the real causes.  “Grust of Herd Torbur is a violent degenerate” was a much easier explanation than, say, the experimentation of a mad social scientist in a slum neighborhood.  Yes, I wrote that one down.  Stranger events had already come to pass in Collective history.
Where was I?  Right, the flash point itself, the moment of violence.  Grust issued a slurred, formal challenge in a language neither Hrotata spoke.  When he got no satisfactory response, he bent double at the waist and smacked his bony, crested head into Tharrliki's forehead.  The medical examiner's report noted a fractured skull, intracranial bleeding, some minor neural damage, and spraining between the neck vertebrae.  Tharrliki was knocked out into a coma that took him three days to recover from.  He was still having trouble speaking as of that date.
The Hrotata mate’s account didn’t have much more to add after Tharrliki was attacked.  Grust struck, Tharrliki fell, Yavirrt dove to protect her mate, and her Vislin guards slashed at Grust to drive him back and sounded a general alarm.  They took some whacks for their trouble.  I could directly empathize with them.  From there, Grust was driven away, pursued by bystanders struggling to bring him under control.  The female’s perspective from then on was focused on protecting and escorting her mate back to safety and eventual medical care.  
Tharrliki, of course, would not be able to witness on his own behalf.  There was such a thing as too much efficiency.  In all likelihood, the two sides of the trial had probably agreed that they didn’t need Tharrliki’s account to make either of their cases.  He wasn’t likely to add anything to his mate’s testimony.  The guards weren’t being put on the stand, either.  They had submitted sworn statements which – no surprise – conformed to their employer’s account with perfect precision.  Kkkk, they’d swear an AI attacked Tharrliki, if his Clan paid their Pack enough and said Pack ordered them to corroborate the story.  I know my own species all too well.
So where did this leave me?   The remaining witnesses broke down into three groups: those who had been in the Thunder Bar earlier, those who were out in the street later, and those who were character witnesses for and against Grust.  I looked more closely at the latter category.  The defense’s notes indicated that both negative character witnesses were Taratumm with grudges against Herd Torbur.  Hopefully, they would be easily dismissed as biased. 
Reaffirming my suspicions of an outside agency, Grust had no prior criminal record, no previous assaults, and therefore no ‘prior victims’.  That didn’t mean he was a paragon of virtue.  He could have had minor charges dropped or expunged, particularly given Herd Torbur’s influence.  At the least, though, he shouldn’t be considered unstable.  The only real assets the prosecution had on their side were the flagrant and public nature of the crime, plus the lack of a competing explanation.
I couldn’t do much to debunk the known facts.  The testimonies were largely in agreement.  What I needed, apart from a comprehensive proof of causation, was a strong alternate theory.  It had to be stronger than the current defense, namely “drugs”. 
Right then, the biggest question I had was: Why that particular act?  Why challenge and attack anyone for a mate Grust had never met, much less a Hrotata?  Grust’s account was very specific about being aroused, albeit toward a hallucinatory Taratumm female.  Tharrliki’s mate agreed that Grust seemed very intent on her and very aggressive toward her partner.  That could be a side effect of something chemical, I supposed, but it might also be the intentional purpose of the influence.  ‘Aphrodisiac’ was rising on my list of causation.  Maybe the bartender had the ruts for Grust and tried to get him to reciprocate… then she somehow mistargeted his arousal?   Other patrons could have been triggered to come to her defense in the same way when I became a problem.   Looking back now, this all sounds dumb, but right then it gathered up more facts than any of my other knotty nets.
The main problem with that plot was that I didn’t believe it.  Besides the extent to which it stretched logic, the aphrodisiac scenario didn’t match with my impressions of the bartender.  Not that I thought she was innocent, necessarily, but she did exert herself in my defense, sort of.  Plus, I hadn’t gotten any sense that she was grieving for Grust’s plight.  She defended him, but in a general way, like any other patron.  So, she was either a villain and a great actor or else innocent in this case.
All this deduction was great, but I was deducting myself out of ideas.  So far, the one gap that really gaped was the specificity of the victim.  There were lots of better, more ‘threatening’ targets for Grust to attack, either in the bar or on the street.  There were better reasons to attack a couple of well-off Hrotata slumming in his neighborhood… but if you were going to do that, why not take down their guards first?  The consensus of testimony said that Grust left the bar, walked half a block over, and went on a direct approach to Tharrliki.  What was the attraction?
I came to a decision.  I needed to find out more about the injured party.  The case notes, corroborated by several media reports, said that Yavirrt and the rest of Clan Takerrl were maintaining a vigil at Tharrliki’s hospital bed.  That hospital was where I needed to be.  I might learn something from the Clan, given the right approach.  Maybe there was some link even his family didn’t know; they might be willing to explore the matter with me.  I had some ideas about how to gain their cooperation… better ideas than I had tried before.
My traumatized, screaming flesh gave me incentive to be more clever this time.  I stood back up with some difficulty and risked a second dose of pain pills.  I was even getting low on those.  I might have considered picking up another bottle, except that I was going to have to wager my remaining savings on transportation.  There was no way I could walk to the hospital and back, not in this condition.  Today's gamble had to pay off or else I’d be broke and still no closer to cracking this case.
While looking up the hospital’s information and checking my credit balance on my compad, I put the court proceedings on in a separate window.  The summary said that Yavirrt had already testified, along with Grust’s Herdmates, Ktuck and Veruth, and most of the random patrons of the Thunder Bar.  I left that feed running while I prepared to venture out, holstering Rtrtr and applying a bandage to my shoulder.  My stiff, slightly too small, second-hand suit of formal armor was actually helpful in that it limited my range of motion.  I'd have some problems moving quickly - or breathing deeply - but it might reduce the agony from my torn shoulder.
The next witness caught my attention: an expert witness for the prosecution, the custodial forensic scientist reporting on evidence collected from the scene and from Grust.  I watched with a sinking stomach as the simple questions were ticked off.  Was there any evidence of psychoactive chemicals in the defendant?  No.  Any evidence of said chemicals or residues in the containers seized from Trrptet Thunder Bar?  No.  Anything related found on the furnishings, in the garbage bins, or anywhere on the premises?  No, the Bar was apparently the cleanest recreational facility within kilometers.  It contained not a trace of anything more mind-altering than good old alcohol, vinegar, and the usual trace narcotics found in exotic liquors both local and imported. 
The defense’s “drugs made him do it” argument was pretty well sunk.  It was still a possibility, sure.  It wasn’t impossible to introduce a chemical that did its dirty work, then metabolized into something untraceable.  It also wasn’t impossible to bribe a custodial functionary.  Either explanation suggested a level of expert manipulation well beyond anything the court would believe… without reason.
I needed to get out there and find that reason.  Maybe that reason would lead me backwards into the cause of Grust's behavior.  The way things stood at that moment, Grust was going to rot in the cages, and I was going to starve to death.  Both tragedies taken together outweighed my desire to stay home and sleep off my aches. 
I have to admit, either one separately might not have been enough.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 4 - "Graceful Exit"

                After I was attacked at Trrptet Thunder Bar, things happened fast.  I was kept busy just staying alive.  I’ll have to do my best to reconstruct exactly what did happen.  Sorry if I throw in some guesses and a little self-promotion. 

                So, after the first stomper, the chartreuse, smashed me into the furnishings, I switched my wits from ‘talk’ to ‘dodge’.  I was ready for his second charge.  He raced forward on a direct line.  I hopped sideways, putting a table between us.  The heavy wooden surface got between his fists and my body.  Unfortunately, it also put him between me and the exit.  Now I was sandwiched between one frenzying Taratumm and three more that looked ready to snap. 
                I assume that around that time, the bartender hit the trouble alarm.  That timing fits with when the custodians arrived.  It also explains why she didn’t help any sooner.  At the time, I had to assume she condoned my mauling.  After all, she wasn't obviously jumping to my aid.  Frost, for all I knew right then, she was the one responsible for her patrons’ bad tempers.  She was the one serving the drinks, after all.  Unlikely, I know, for reasons already explored.  In fact, she was helping me by making sure that custodians and medics were en route to prevent any further trauma and to scrape up my pulverized body, respectively.
                The pair of female Vislin weren’t helping me either.  They chose that moment to stand up and scramble for the door.  They were probably taking the smarter option.  I really wished I could follow them. 
                The lot in the pit had just started to catch on about the problems upstairs.  I could hear movement behind me.   I hoped that they weren’t coming to join their comrades in a group beat-down.  My situation was already bad enough. 
                 Then it got worse.  As stomper Number One got ready to mash me between himself and the pit railing, Numbers Two and Three launched into full-rage frenzy as well.  I’m going to guess those were the two singles.  I could only spare each of them a moment of my attention.   All three frenzying Taratumm were bellowing and stamping the floor, working themselves up to another charge.  If all of them came at me at once, my odds of escape would drop below my lottery success rate.
                I had to raise those odds to at least marginal.  Any sympathy I might have had for my attackers – given my own provocations earlier – was undercut by my sympathy for myself.  I reached down with a practiced motion and pulled Rtrtr from its holster at my hip. 
                Most rational sapients, when facing the wrong end of a weapon, will either freeze in fear or dive for cover.  A frenzying Taratumm isn’t exactly irrational, but their thoughts are mainly focused on removing threats, not avoiding them.  Drawing a gun was a seemingly irrational move on my part.  You get Taratumm to stop frenzying by convincing them that all threats are gone.  I just made myself a bigger threat. 
Hrotata could often talk Taratumm down, soothing and calming the seething brutes.  For Vislin, 'removing the threat' usually meant removing themselves by running far away.  I didn’t have that option.  My exit was blocked.  Laying down and playing dead wouldn’t work; I’d still be trampled to make certain I couldn’t fight anymore. 
                In this case, I had to make use of lethal force, not threaten with it.  I still did my best to cripple rather than kill.  As the three frenzying Taratumm crashed forward, I darted to the far side of their converging paths and fired at the legs of the first attacker.  A big chunk of his left leg was flash-cooked by focused energy and burst across the floor in a spray of steam and charred meat.  Without that support, he toppled to that side.  I was heading to his right, so his flailing tumble missed me entirely… exactly as I had intended.
                I didn’t get much time to appreciate my brilliant, skillful strategy.  One opponent was down, but he was still a dangerous obstacle.  I didn’t want to shoot anyone else, but the two other attackers were still coming.  I couldn’t run backward toward the door; there was still too much scattered furniture between me and the exit.  Turning and running might have made sense… except now the pair of Taratumm upstairs were picking up chairs to throw.  One hunk of wood whizzed past my shoulder.  Their aim was terrible but their projectiles were big enough that they might get lucky.  Turning my back would make myself an easier target. 
                I don’t know if the damage to her bar finally stirred the bartender to action or if she just needed a few seconds to find her own weapon.  Fortunately, she decided not to shoot me.  She didn’t exactly aim away from me, though.  As the two frenzied Taratumm that remained standing turned and pounded after me, projectiles zipped through the air between us.  I assume the bartender was trying to lead her targets.  She might just have been a terrible shot.  At the time, I had to assume she might have been aiming at me and also a terrible shot. 
                I can’t really complain.  My next shot was hurried and hit a table rather than the attacker I was aiming for.  Fortunately, the wood popped and spattered the nearby Taratumm with shrapnel.  The impact slowed him down just enough for the bartender to catch up.  The unlucky target of our crossfire was pelted with flechettes. 
There wasn’t much blood.  I guessed later that the bartender’s weapon was throwing stingers: slivers of metal impregnated with a paralytic drug.  It’s a great weapon for discouraging rowdy customers and petty thieves: inflicting lots of pain and disabling movement with minimal risk of serious damage.  By contrast, Rtrtr is a vicious, hot-tempered sadist. 
Sadly, a big, angry Taratumm is only slowed, not stopped, by a stinger barrage.  That threat remained to my left, cutting off a possible route of escape as he staggered forward.  I had been hoping to repeat my earlier trick and hop aside into the opening created by my heater shot.  Finding that path blocked, I didn’t have any time left for new choreography.
The third frenzying Taratumm, uninjured, smashed its way through the décor and flailed a meaty fist in my direction.  The impact caught me hard on the side of my neck.  Lights flashed behind my eyes and my gut wrenched at the pain.  Frost, it still hurts there now.  At the time, it felt like the set-up to the eventual stroke of death.  I couldn’t even think. 
I felt the twinge of hormones I had kept suppressed earlier, the harbingers of my own frenzy.   I wanted to turn tail and bolt as fast as possible for the nearest exit or hiding spot.  What was left of my brain was screaming, “RUN!”.  That was the last thing I needed.  If I succumbed, I’d injure myself on the way out, leave myself vulnerable to multiple attackers, and get tangled up in the hurdles all around.  Basically, I’d do all the wrong things and get hurt worse.  Good job, evolution.
I’m used to trouble and confident in my own reactions, so I can hold off frenzy longer than the average Vislin.  That’s not bragging; it’s just a fact.  In this case, as long as I felt in control of events, I could ignore that nagging voice of atavism.   Still, no Vislin can ignore that level of pain for long… not without serious drug use, at least.  When your body is saying, “no more”, even the best trained mind has trouble arguing it down. 
I compromised by scrambling across the floor, bent low.  Another hurled chair rocketed over my head.  I was backing away into the only clear path left but giving up my access to the door.  Turned away, I also couldn’t aim for another shot with Rtrtr.  I wasn’t making myself an easy target, but I also wasn’t doing the smart things that might actually get me out of danger.
The bartender continued to pour stingers into her original target, grinding him almost to a halt as the paralytic toxin accumulated.  This reinforces my original thought: she wasn’t so much helping me as trying to reduce the damage to her business.  I can’t complain; from her perspective, I started the whole mess by picking a fight.
My real salvation came from a less likely source: the party downstairs finally decided to join the party upstairs.  The wage slaves from the pit had started to move towards us after my second shot.  Brawling alone hadn’t triggered their notice, but blood and smoke must have caught their attention.  Half of them interposed themselves in front of the pair in the back.  There was a lot of bellowing and shouting going on, followed by the thumping sounds of Taratumm grappling one another.
The other half of that group came my direction.  Two of them pinned the two Taratumm who were injured and immobile (but still frenzying).  The rest closed on my current attacker.  They probably planned to grab me, as well. 
Here’s why we call it a ‘mindless’ frenzy.  When the new Taratumm got closer to the Taratumm menacing me, they became the more immediate ‘threat’.  It didn’t matter that he had just been fighting me.  I was a smaller entity, moving away, and had not touched him.  Maybe given a choice between neutral Taratumm and Vislin targets, a frenzied stomper would choose the biter, but right now, he was a lone male being assaulted by a hostile herd. 
The gang beating turned into a bar brawl.  I took my cue and sprang to the exit.  Doing my best to absorb the impact with my less beaten side, I slammed into the heavy swinging door and flopped out onto the street. 
Getting out of the racket in the Thunder Bar, I could hear a high-pitched screeching in the distance.  Custodial alarms had been sounded.  They were getting closer.  The part of me that was still sane thought, of course they’re coming, somebody almost got murdered here.  I needed to not be caught up in the net.  I started running – at the best speed I could manage – across the street toward cover.
At the same time, I didn’t want to go too far.  Whatever had just happened was connected to Grust’s outburst.  My antics should have only stirred up some anger, not full-scale threat frenzy.  Even if one unstable stomper thought I was personally antagonizing them, it would be rare for more than one sapient to react.  There was something odd going on.  I had a feeling whoever was responsible would also want to leave the scene soon. 
At the time, I didn’t consider one additional factor.  The frenzies hadn’t started when I was outright talking about eating Taratumm.  They didn’t go off when my voice raised or when I started accusing the bartender.  The trouble started when we were both talking about culprits, when she suggested me as a suspect.  In other words, things got crazy when the argument turned into an investigation.  Later on, when I had time to look over the pieces, I would wonder if the fracas was started as a distraction.  In a way, I was to blame for triggering a reaction.  Looking for the instigator had scared someone into playing their hand.
From that perspective, it might have been useful to see who stayed behind.  At the time, I wasn’t really thinking, just trying to get away from danger.  I bolted past the stores and alleys across the street and tore into the adjoining park.  The headlong flight helped to burn out some of the stress hormones that were trying to shut down my ability to form complex plans.  Complex, though perhaps still stupid.
I dove behind a stand of carefully sculpted underbrush at the edges of the park and collected my thoughts there.  The scree of the custodial alarms was only a couple of blocks away, and I could see the flaring orange lights of their transports.  By then, the only good options available were to sneak away home or hold still and see what happened. 
So far, no one had followed me out of the front door.  The mob inside might still be slugging it out.  The pair of Vislin females were long gone.  For that matter, the young punks that had been loitering in this park were gone as well.  So much for the theory that they were waiting for an excuse to pounce.   I watched the door closely… then realized, belatedly, that there might easily be a back door.  I hadn’t really looked.  Good job, investigator. 
                My oversight was forgiven by the emergence of two figures from the Thunder Bar’s front door.  Two big figures, slightly battered but moving just fine.  Moving fast, in fact, given that they were Taratumm.  It looked like the pair of males that had been drinking together: the chair-chuckers.  They must have broken free from their opponents.  Actually, I wasn’t sure they had ever really been frenzied.  That was suspicious by itself.  They could have convinced the other Taratumm that they were done fighting and wanted to leave quietly.  They certainly weren’t frenzying now, but they were in a hurry.
                The oncoming custodian transport was the likely reason for their haste.  They hit the intersection across from me and turned… in my direction.  The favorable spirits were sending prey my direction, upwind.  Now all I had to do was stay still and not startle them.  Where were they going?  What were they saying?  Were they my culprits?  Even if not, they might have seen something I missed after leaving.
                My primitive urges were actually being helpful for a change.  I had no problem locking my muscles and stilling my breathing.  It was a natural response to being in the path of two charging Taratumm.  I felt my skin crawl as subcutaneous glands secreted chromatic compounds, recoloring my scales in a mottled pattern to match the underbrush and shadows.  I successfully blended in and was overlooked.

                The next problem came after the pair ran past me.  I had to convince the lower areas of my brain that the threat was gone and that now was a really good time to return to the offensive.  Hunger made a good motivator there: I thought hard about the wretched taste of synthetic protein and how nice it would be to haul home a slab of the real thing.  Following those two stompers might be the key to getting paid. 
                I just had to do it right and not get scented.  I let them get almost a block away before standing up.  To be honest, it took about that long to overcome my fear.  I had to start moving right away, fast but quiet.  I’m fairly competent at tailing, but I was out of practice.  A wide open street also isn’t the best venue for a stealthy chase.  There’s not enough cover sometimes.  When too much open space intervened, I had to let the pair get out of sight before I felt safe to catch up.  Afterward, I’d have to trust my ears or occasionally my instinct to choose which direction they had turned.  I could sometimes hear them grunting to one another, but between their caution and their lack of breath, the words were impossible to make out.
                They seemed to be heading back downtown.  Not locals, in that case.  Given their dress, they could be anything from aircar mechanics to computer techs.  Not quite upper class but maybe not underclass slobs, either.  Maybe they contracted for some medical research firm and had picked up some pharmaceuticals on the side?  It was a long shot, but half of my job is finding unexpected connections between crime and culprit.
                This time, the long shot did not pay off.  The pair stopped at a public transit station to catch their breath.  I managed to edge close enough to overhear the end of their conversation.
                One of the two, the slightly more green one, was saying, “…that place.  I know you grew up out there, but it's too rough for my taste.”
                The other, less green but somewhat more bloodied, replied ruefully, “I know.  Maybe it’s one of those herd hysteria things?  People get on edge and start expecting a fight.  So, naturally, they’re easier to set off? Anyway, you’re right.  At the least, we’ll stay out of Trrptet for a few weeks and let it cool down.  I’ll miss seeing her, but it’s not worth getting shot.”
                The first greasy stomper nodded and added, “Right.  Get some sleep, tend to those scrapes… and let me know if any custodians call.  We’ll make our statements together if they investigate.  Otherwise, we still have to clock in on time tomorrow morning.”
                “Ugh, maybe getting shot would have been better,” his friend joked weakly.  The other Taratumm slammed shoulders with him, a playful rebuke.  They tapped foreheads in a modern gesture of friendly male bonding, then separated.  One waited above ground for the local shuttle bus.  The other descended below for the cross-town subterranean. 
So, the pair were co-workers.  Probably Herd mates.  Maybe even brothers or other relatives.  It sure didn’t sound like the plotting of co-conspirators.  They likely had nothing to do with the outbreaks; they sounded like they had as little clue about the cause as I did.  It was just as well, since pursuing them without being spotted would be nearly impossible on public mass transit. 
I decided to cut my losses and backed away, skulking out of sight down a side street.  I really needed to get home and tend to my own scrapes.  It might be a good idea to wash again to get the stink of burnt flesh and wood smoke off of my scales.  I’d have to change out my armor, as well, giving up my favorite old suit for a while in favor of a newer, stiffer, more formal model I had in storage.  It was bad enough that my description was going to be shared with the custodians as the likely instigator of tonight’s brawl.  No need to make their job easier by looking and smelling the part.  I turned my beak toward my own part of the neighborhood, toward home.
So what had I gained from the night’s escapade… aside from setting back interspecies relations in Layafflr City by a generation?  I could compare tonight’s clientele with the witness list and see if anyone matched up.  That would tell me who had opportunity, not just once, but both times Taratumm had frenzied unexpectly.  Obviously, the bartender was on that list, but I had my doubts about her as a suspect.  I had a chance to observe her, the venue, and some of its patrons.  That was valuable information but hardly worth the pain and risk involved. 
What I was missing were the two most important elements: means and motive.  How had the culprit – and now I was fairly sure there was someone to blame – caused one and then later three Taratumm to hit frenzy without warning?  Drugs could certainly do it, but how were they being administered?  Were my two escapee engineers on the right track?  Was it some kind of psychological effect?  Conditioning based on a trigger stimulus?  Maybe all the affected Taratumm had something in common?
Each of those possible causes was necessarily tied to the why of the matter.  If Herd Torbur were being targeted, the matter should have ended with Grust.  Or maybe not.  Maybe Grust was the true target and the other Taratumm were aimed at me as a secondary victim.  Maybe the second crime was done to obscure the reason for the first.   If the two events were related, what then?  Was someone trying to ruin Trrptet Thunder Bar?  These two incidents might not do it, but a third uproar could certainly prompt the government to shut the place down in the interests of public safety… particularly if someone died as a result.
There were still plenty of leads to pursue.  Not many possibilities had been shut down by what I had learned that night.  If anything, I had more new lines of inquiry than before.  That was good, but I had limited time to pursue each possibility.  I had to think.  With my head still ringing from my earlier clubbing, that night wasn’t the best time for deep contemplation. 
I staggered back home, stripped off, and just managed to scour myself passably clean before collapsing into my ragged second-hand nest.  It was still a warm night.  That was just as well.  I couldn’t spare the energy to drag a cover over my naked scales.  If it were the cold season, I might have slept though my deadline.  Waking up was already going to be painful enough without failure on top.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 3 - "Tough Crowd"

            After Shllokwa, the Hrotata agent for Clan Torbur, left my apartment, my next priority was to clean up.  That included myself, first.  I stripped out of my leather armor and spent a few minutes wiping it down with cleanser and oil.  Then I applied a similar treatment to my scales.  Salt, dust, and bacterial accretion can do nasty things to a Vislin’s complexion.  I’m not vain, but I hate being itchy.

            That done, I pulled on a robe, gloves, and sandals and wiped down my lounge, my office floor, and my desk.  I wasn’t kidding about not wanting to rub up on Hrotata spit.  That stuff is technically neurotoxic and sticks around in your system.  It was inevitable that I had breathed in a little, but that was impossible to avoid.  I had gotten a bigger dose around the Hrotata in the courthouse, even with its industrial air filters.  That was nothing compared to direct contact.  I still didn’t like Shllokwa very much, which was proof that I hadn’t absorbed much of her drool.  If I had let her give me a tongue bath, we’d be best pals for a few hours. 

            Fortunately, it’s not very specific stuff.  I would have been friendly and receptive to a Mauraug slave-master if one showed up right then.  Maybe.  Definitely would have been slower on the draw.  Anything that gets between me and my heater is a bad thing.
            Speaking of Rtrtr, it got a good wipe-down, too, inside and out.  As I got dressed again, I secured it into its custom holster.  Hopefully, I wouldn’t need the weapon tonight, but you never wanted to be without one.  I could inflict bloody harm with tooth and claw, but a focusing lens pointed in their direction tends to be more intimidating to most sapients.
            Also for practical purposes, I bolted down a few chunks of synthetic protein.  It was close enough in taste and texture to raw meat to satisfy my gullet and it would keep me sated for the rest of the evening.  Technically, it was nutritious food.  It still tasted artificial, like chemistry trying to pretend to be cuisine, and the composition was too regular to fool anyone’s palate.  Better synthetics existed but of course, they were more expensive.  I had to settle for the bargain version.  
            If I was going to a bar, I needed to drink to maintain my cover.  If I was going to drink, I needed to eat first.  I also didn’t need to be starving if sudden activity became necessary.  For one thing, a hungry Vislin is less rational, more instinctual.
            It was bad enough that I was going to a Thunder Bar.  They’re a Taratumm cultural institution and not the preferred watering holes for Vislin.  Not that Vislin were discouraged; plenty of my kind made the occasional visit and some stopped in regularly.  It just wasn’t our kind of scene.  Loud music, louder singing, stomping around, and mock challenges: in the bad old days, a Vislin hearing that racket would probably be dead soon afterward.  
Worst of all, I personally had never been seen at this particular bar, Trrptet.  It wasn’t as if it was too far away, either; it was only eight blocks away from my apartment.  Anyone from my neighborhood would know something was suspicious if I showed up there randomly.
I needed a cover story, in case anyone asked.  Even if they didn’t ask, I needed an angle so that secondary inquiries would get the wrong idea about my presence.  I gave the problem some thought as I dressed.  I could just play dumb and pretend I was checking out the damage in the area… but that wouldn’t open many mouths.  I could say I was investigating on behalf of the victim, Tharrliki.  That might get me some information from those interested in seeing Grust convicted, but it would still bias what I heard. 
I was still thinking it over as I stepped outside onto the street.  I had some time to consider my strategy.  Walking from my place to Trrptet Thunder Bar would take a few minutes.  The route was actually pretty familiar.  The Thunder Bar might not be my usual destination, but a few of my favorite shops were along the way.  Hopefully, I’d get to stop in at the butcher soon and spend some of my upcoming paycheck.  I might even think about new armor; this suit was comfortable but even I had to admit that the straps were corroding. 
The block where Trrptet itself was situated had a few nice features.  There were a couple of pleasant ornamental parks nearby and the resident fried sausage vendor was a seasoned pro. 
Well, the block had nice features, past tense.  As I got closer, I could see the path of Grust’s rampage.  The storefront across the intersection from Trrptet was sealed up with plastic sheeting.  Chips of glass glittered here and there in the streetlights, where cleaners had not yet swept them away.  Further in that direction, a large disposal bin was stacked high with debris from the adjacent buildings: chunks of masonry, smashed electronics, and an entire steel awning. 
I could envision the sequence of destruction, with Grust and possibly one or two other Taratumm crashing headlong into structures and ripping up architecture for makeshift weapons.  Stompers on a rampage were scary, not only to Vislin but pretty much any other sapients, including themselves.  Especially when anaesthetized by drink (and possibly other drugs), Grust would have been tough to take down without using deadly force.
The crowds were correspondingly smaller tonight.  It was a work night, so it wasn’t going to be too busy anyway, but with fewer intact attractions, the neighborhood was suffering a further reduced draw.  Most of the folk I spotted out and about were an even mix of Taratumm and Vislin, working stiffs walking to or from work or relaxing afterward with a trip to their nearby social spot.  The occasional Hrotata passed by, as well: always males and often a bit scruffy, likely less favored offspring forced to struggle to prove their worthiness.  They ended up getting assignments in ‘rough’ neighborhoods like this one, working a branch of a family business, establishing themselves in a trade, or even venturing out on their own with new ideas. 
Anyone with enough money or status was somewhere else tonight.  If they passed through these streets, it would be in an aircar.  Shllokwa had definitely been slumming at my apartment.  A high-class Hrotata female stood out around here.  It made me wonder: what had a mated Hrotata couple been doing in the area?  The victim of Grust’s attack, Tharrliki, and his mate, Yavirrt, were officially noted as innocent bystanders targeted by a rampaging drunk.  Why were they bystanding at all?  Shopping for cheap souvenirs?  Visiting a Thunder Bar for thrills?  Or did they have some connection to their attacker, some reason they would be outside his usual haunt, maybe some reason they were the focus of his rage?
I had to stop chewing that bit of gristle when I realized I was only a block away from my destination.   I was personally dismayed to see the park with my fried sausage vendor torn up and fenced off.  The landscaped turf was scarred with deep ruts and the flower beds were trampled.  I just hoped my greasy friend – and his cart - hadn’t been hurt.  Hopefully, he was set up in a new park somewhere less dangerous.  The official list of casualties had mentioned only the destruction of a roast tuber cart, so the odds were good.
I was definitely getting closer to the origin of the storm.  I could already feel the bass vibrations from the Thunder Bar around the corner.  Somewhere in front of that building, Grust had stumbled out and picked a fight with a guy one-eighth his mass. 
So, what was my line?  I had been too busy observing the landscape to think about my social approach.  That observation was a waste of time; the cause of this destruction wasn’t in question.  Even the defense agreed about what had happened after Grust attacked Tharrliki.  It was whatever led up to that attack that needed to be investigated.  What approach would get me a lead on the ‘real culprit’, the supposed saboteur who had slipped Grust a squirt of crazy juice?  
Friend of the accused?  Hardly believable.  Clueless sightseer?  No, already considered and discarded that idea.  Speciesist agitator?  That might work. 
Hardcore species purists are a shrinking minority among the Great Family, but there are still plenty out there.  The majority of them are Vislin; no big surprise to you, I’m sure.  Look, I may make species jokes, but I understand the necessity, even the advantages, of cooperation between sapients.  Nobody sane wants to go back to the days of predation and genocide.  Still, there are those who straddle the edge of reason, making it sound plausible that Vislin would be better off on their own.  Some even claim that all three species are being held back by trying to find mutual solutions to every problem.  It’s nonsense if you actually pay attention to the facts, but separatism is about emotions, not reality… about what ‘feels true’.  Sometimes, I get the feeling that there will be hate and zealotry until the last star burns out.  You know what I mean; the Collective has problems enough keeping popular support.  The various members have millennia of mutual grudges on top of basic isolationism and other-hate.  For the Vislin, who like to think of ourselves as superior, apex predators, clearly smarter and better-looking than any other life-form… yeah.  There’s no shortage of morons.  I share an egg line with some of them.
Pretending to be one such moron would piss off Taratumm, giving them a reason to loudly protest Grust’s innocence.  It would also gratify any speciesist listening in, maybe ingratiating me enough to hear any rumors about ‘how the dumb grazer got doped’.   Right there was my first reasonable theory about a possible culprit.  Disrupting a Thunder Bar and disgracing a member of a prominent Taratumm Herd would certainly be a coup for a Vislin separatist.  Something that specifically triggered the Taratumm frenzy reaction would be seen as poetically appropriate. 
Of course, dropping slurs in a Thunder Bar was also a good way to get my own skull fractured.  If I took that course, I’d need to be ready for a quick escape… and maybe a few apologies later, once the case was done.  It was a bit sad that I felt more believable as a hatemonger than as a peacemaker.  I'd manage.  Doing Herd Torbur a favor would be more evidence of my goodwill than any public protestations of tolerance.
So, I got ready to act like a real tail-biter.  By the time I’d worked out my script, I was solidly in front of Trrptet Thunder Bar.  In fact, I’d already been standing on the sidewalk for a couple of minutes, probably looking like a sapient planning trouble.  I scanned the crowd to see if anyone was watching me.  As if that didn’t make me look even more suspicious, or anything. 
I didn’t catch anyone staring, at least.  There were definitely a few individuals that looked out of place.  A trio of Vislin males were seated outside the park on the far side of the same intersection.  I couldn’t hear their conversation, but their body language suggested that they were hoping to be provoked.  Maybe they were looking for a chance for a legal ‘hunt’ on another rampaging Taratumm.  I tried to remember their appearances for later consideration.  An elderly Taratumm female was dragging along back the way I had just come.  She kept stopping to stare at the damage, shaking her faded, armored head and grumbling.  Probably remembering the days when this was a prosperous new expansion, before the jobs moved away and the low-lifes (like me) moved in. 
Nobody looked as if they had recognized me.  No one looked like they were returning to the scene of a crime, either.  If I wanted any answers, I’d have to ask inside the bar.  I straightened my helmet, prepped my schemes, and checked the catch on my heater for good measure.  Only then did I walk up to the swinging door of Trrptet Thunder Bar and shoulder my way inside.  Seriously, I mean I had to ram it with my shoulder to get it open.  It was heavy.
Opening the door doubled the volume from the music rumbling inside.  As I stepped in, I recognized a popular song from a Taratumm artist.  At least, I recognized the bass line.  The vocals were being provided by a decidedly amateur singer groaning into a hand microphone.  It takes talent for a Taratumm to sing that badly.  A herd of other Taratumm were seated in the pit around him, half-listening and chatting among themselves.  A mixed group by age and gender, all dressed in work uniforms, they probably were all employees of the same plant, maybe even the Tsrrk-Tor facility. 
On the upper level, where I had entered, a handful of patrons sat either alone or in pairs, all drinking.  Most of them were also Taratumm: a pair of greenish-grey males in engineers' jumpsuits, a lone steely female in private security armor, plus another two lone males: one grey-green, the other, older, tending toward chartreuse.  The latter two wore simple strapped leather kilts, showing off their bulk for the appreciation of... somebody not yet here?  All of them seemed dedicated to silence and intoxication.  Maybe they would join in if the entertainment picked up intensity.  I did my best to file away their features, as well, but there is only so much you can notice in poor lighting while trying not to make eye contact. 
A sole Hrotata male also sat alone.  I got an equally poor look at him: a sad sack who looked almost asleep already.  He wore a businessman’s shift, badly.  A pair of Vislin, both female (remember, I can tell), one white with definite emerald patterning even in the low lighting, the other with dyed amethyst scales, were sharing some sort of fried snack and tall, strong-looking drinks.  Their armor was minimal, just some lacquered wood and silk for propriety’s sake.  They seemed far more interested in one another than anything else in the room… including me.  That was fine; I wasn’t there to make friends. 
If anything, I was there to make enemies.  I strutted over to the remaining occupant of the bar, the bartender herself, a Taratumm of interesting proportions.  For one thing, she was short and slight for a stomper, maybe only a half-meter taller than me and twice my mass.  Not young, though, as a few missing scales attested.  Her scales were also faded with age, but still held a pattern of steel grey and sky blue that suggested an interesting mutation in her egg line.  She wore a heavy, dark indigo robe that complimented her natural coloring, cinched by a thick leather belt.  Clever gaps and folds allowed her shoulder and elbow spines to poke through.  I looked into her deep-set black eyes and thought, what a fascinating sapient.  Shame I have to poke at her nest.
“Hey, hard-head, you got anything worth eating in here?  A steak?  Or just leaves and bark?”  I gave her my best naughty youngling stare. 
To her credit, she looked confused rather than upset.  She rumbled, “Friend, in case you missed the enormous glowing sign... and you’re deaf… this is a Thunder Bar.  No meat.  Taratumm culture.  Maybe you want to be somewhere else?”
“Maybe you should check the menu.  Some dumb beast trampled my favorite sausage cart, and I’m missing my evening snack.  I’m pretty sure I smelled meat in here.”  I looked over the room with an exaggerated toss of my head, letting my jaws drop open, tongue tasting the air.
“Well, we don’t serve your kind here.”  She made the cliché sound like righteous defiance.  Yeah, I definitely needed to come back here and beg her forgiveness later.  Right then, though, I had to push the act.
“You don’t serve us anymore, you mean?” 
            “What’s your problem, dung-beak?  Either settle down or walk out, or else I’ll have the custodians escort you out.”
            She was still trying to keep things quiet.  I was aiming for the opposite.  I feigned disgusted rage and shouted over the soundtrack, “My problem is this place.  A whole block is smashed up because you stompers come in, get drunk, get worked up, and then roll outside.  Usually you just wake up sleepers and terrorize pedestrians, but once in a while somebody, like that nut-brain Grust, goes off.  Then somebody gets hurt, maybe killed.  Some shop owners lose windows; everyone loses customers.  I don’t expect you to be sorry.  This is your business.  But maybe some of your smarter customers will realize they’re in the wrong place, too.”
            It wasn’t bad for a speech prepped just minutes before.  While I ranted, I tried to draw in the crowd.  The Hrotata gave me a bleary-eyed glance but little further reaction.  The two Vislin stopped their conversation and turned to watch, but were clearly annoyed by my antics.  One might say they were even offended.  The Taratumm in the pit looked up briefly but either couldn’t hear my insults or didn’t care; they went back to their business as before.  The ones that really took notice were the Taratumm couple and the loners.  They were pissed off.  I saw nostrils flare and heard toe-claws grind into the floor mats.
            Still, no one got up.  The bartender herself looked aggravated, but hardly enraged.  Frost, she’d probably already heard worse, maybe even said better.  I was just one more angry Vislin to endure, that night’s indigestion in this part of the city’s gut.  As I had hoped, though, my tirade prompted her to a rebuttal.
            “You’re stupid.  I think you know you’re stupid.  Grust of Herd Torbur is probably brighter than you, tail biter.  He’s definitely less obnoxious, even when roaring drunk.  He’s never even come close to attacking anyone here, inside or out, before now.  This so-called pit of trouble sees one, maybe two fights a moon, and nearly all of those end with the first kick.  In fact, if I do have to boot you out the door, you’d be more provocation to violence than I usually see in a year.  Go home, watch the trial on your screen, and cry when Grust is proven innocent.”
            Cry?  I’d drool for joy if he were set free.  That wasn’t likely without some kind of proof.  This female would be a great character witness for the defense (probably already was, I should check the witness list again), but she wasn’t giving me anything useful. 
            I pushed again: “What, you buy that ‘I was drugged’ defense?  I don’t.  And even if that story makes him sound blameless, how does it look for you, for this bar?  Drugs just dropping into drinks?  Maybe the food?  Maybe I don’t want your cooking; I might go rip up an elderly pedestrian!  I suppose somebody not from around here doped up your pal Grust?  Is that your next excuse?  Or did you see the so-called ‘real criminal’?  No?”
            Her eyes narrowed and her nostrils finally did flare.  “You know, it occurs to me that someone like you might create trouble at my bar, exactly for the reasons you bring up.  Seems like too much coincidence, now that I think about it.  No, I didn’t see who messed with Grust.  For all I know, it could have been you.  You do look familiar.  Maybe I saw you in here a couple nights ago…?”
            A very good theory, madam, if I do think so myself.  As gratifying as it was to be reinforced by an independent thinker, being fingered as a potential suspect was not the outcome I had in mind.  If brought to the custodians’ attention, I could explain myself out of trouble, but that alibi would blow the secrecy of my employment by Herd Torbur.  Confession would be bad for many reasons. 
            I was pretty sure that the bartender had nothing more to contribute.  Even if she remembered a stray detail, she wasn’t likely to share it with me now.  Nobody else was shouting out anything in defense of Grust.  There likely weren’t any separatists in the bar at the moment, either.  At best, I could hope that they would hear about my outburst second-hand and possibly be receptive to my approach.  I should start with that gang in the park outside…
            I was backing off from the bar as the bartender shouted her accusations, making it look like I was backing down from the argument.  At first, I kept her in sight, maintaining an expression of disgust and fear.  I heard a noise from across the room: tables and chairs shifting.  When I looked over in that direction, I discovered that the three lone Taratumm had risen from their seats and were looking at me with unconcealed loathing.  One of the males already had his shoulders hunched, leaning forward with head down, a definite threat display.
            “Not a violent place, huh?” I said, the sentiment fitting both in and out of character.  I had expected to be shouted down and threatened.  I had not expected to actually be in danger of attack, at least not so soon.  
            The bartender looked at the standing Taratumm, herself, and I caught an expression of surprise.  She evidently thought this behavior odd, as well. 
            “Hey, sit down,” she bellowed, visibly more upset at her patrons’ behavior than at my harassment. 
            They ignored her, pushing aside obstacles to come closer, picking up speed.  The pair of male Taratumm that had been seated were also starting to rise.  Even the Hrotata who had been so dopey before was perking up.  He stared at me with clear interest and a sneer of disgust.  I couldn’t see the pair of Vislin, not wanting to turn my head in their direction and lose sight of the oncoming Taratumm.  Fortunately, the group of Taratumm in the pit was remaining oblivious and therefore uninvolved. 
            I gauged my distance to the exit door.  It looked like I had plenty of time.  I tried to feign feigning bravery, letting my real concern show through as seemingly ill-concealed fear.  I backed away slowly, casually, giving the bartender a sneer.
            “Yeah, I thought so.  Peaceful Taratumm, so superior.  Maybe that’s true…”  I didn’t get to finish my improvised parting shot.  With no further warning, the foremost of the Taratumm, one of the lone males, charged forward at full speed.
            He wasn’t just angry… he was already at full frenzy.  How was that even possible?  They should have been bellowing and stomping, giving me at least nonverbal threats if not verbal warnings before any of them hit that extreme.  Taratumm have an instinctual battle dance that telegraphs their eruptions.  This guy had gone from grumpy to murderous in just a few seconds. 
            You can’t blame me, then, for being surprised.  Normally, I swear, I’m quick on my feet, quick with a claw, quick on the draw.  If I had known an attack was coming, he wouldn’t have touched me. 
As it was, I tried to leap backwards and got smashed to the side, clobbered mid-air by the attacker’s forearm and shoulder.  If I had stayed low, he might have trampled me into the floor mats.  I was fortunate not to be impaled on his shoulder spine.  Some days, my armor isn't just a social formality.
I went sprawling into the nearest table, cracking my spine against the edge of its wooden surface.  My tail whacked the adjacent chair.  Both impacts stung fiercely, and the air was already knocked out of my lungs from the original slam.  I staggered and struggled to get upright. 
There wasn’t much time for thought.  My assailant was turning and getting ready for another charge.  Worse, there were three more angry Taratumm behind him.  They looked close to frenzy, themselves.  How was that possible?  How had I gotten myself in this much trouble, this fast?  More to the point, how could I get out of it alive?