Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 2 - "Femme a Poil"

            With a flourish of bureaucracy, the court’s proceedings concluded for the day.  All the preliminaries had been laid down, introducing the charges, arguments, evidence, witnesses, and judges.  Great Family court proceedings always have at least three judges, one from each of its constituent sapient species.  Usually, a Hrotata ends up senior-most judge.  The little mammals are actually shorter-lived than either of us reptilians but have far more patience than Vislin and more ambition than Taratumm.  Plus, they're clever manipulators.  Whatever rivals they can’t outwait, they can nudge out with politics.

            As a society, we had gotten past bloodier, nastier means of resolving disputes.  That went as much for law enforcement as for politics.  These days, technology and social research have pared trials down to just a few days.  Evidence can be collected and evaluated much faster now.  No long waits for genetic identification, for example.  The shorter periods also mean more efficient courts, less jail time for innocent defendants, and less stress on the surrounding society.  Crimes don't hang around in the public sphere any longer than necessary.  Like I’d said, none of us is comfortable in a crowded courtroom.
This progress hasn’t happened on a single trajectory.  There was a phase of exaggerated politeness for a period of Great Family history, with a lot of long-winded protestations of civility and gentility.  Back then, for example, trials were actually dragged out longer than necessary.  That age collapsed under its own pretense.   Plenty of common people realized that such elaborate etiquette just reinforced class distinctions.  Only the elite profited.  They were trained early and used the quality of their education to recognize one another.  The less-privileged could be identified and denied opportunity on the basis that they were insufficiently respectful.  You couldn’t protest without being branded “disruptive”. 
The backlash resulted in a period of rebellious opposition.  No wonder, in retrospect.  Cultural arbiters can suck my cloaca.  Still, the defiance of convention started to get just as stupid as the rituals had been.  People just try too hard, sometimes.  Once revolution and counter-revolution died down, both sides saw how ridiculous they had been… no, I’m joking.  There are still idiots pining for the days of high and low culture.  In reality, it was the apathetic middle that just stopped paying attention to either extreme.  Still, the past follies had served as bad examples.  More serious work was put into building a mixed society that took everyone’s needs into account.  That included base, physical needs along with higher ideals.
In the interim between counter-revolution and the present, some of the lower class rebels peeled off from Hrotata Prime and the early colony worlds.  Among the unlicensed colonies they settled was our glorious Layafflr City.  The settlement started as a thermocrete landing pad and a circle of plastic huts.  It took centuries for a ‘city’ to develop from that sad little seed.
Now we have all the trappings of urban civility.  Even so, the jungles of ChtkKttp aren’t impressed by modern construction.  As I emerged from the courthouse into the open air, I felt the static tingle of the repulsion field surrounding the grey stone building.  The charged fields are necessary if we want to keep buildings standing for more than a few decades.  Otherwise, encroaching greenery will climb their walls, invade their cracks, pile onto their roofs, and eventually crush stone into rubble.  Street cleaners scrape down the roads regularly to prevent invasions.  Chemical suppressants had been tried, but anything strong enough to cull our world’s wildlife is strong enough to poison us, too.  City life is a constant battle.  I like it that way.  It reminds us never to take prosperity for granted; every day is a fight to be won or else you give up ground.
My life makes that metaphor a little less figurative.  If I had a little more tolerance for authority, I might have been a soldier or custodian.  A conflict-free career would have me chewing my limbs off.  I respect law enforcement… at least, I respect honest custodians.  They have a tough job, too.  Tougher in some respects, since they have to show restraint and courtesy even in the face of the worst scale-rotted criminals.  I can’t do it.  I have to call a crook a crook. 
Frost, I don’t even have the restraint needed to keep a pack.  You have to be loyal first to the pack and second to yourself.  That means defending one another even when a pack mate has done something obviously heinous.  That’s what Herd Torbur was doing, circling around their disgraced member, Grust.  They offered a year’s wages for three days of work, just to protect one of their own.  The payment was contingent on success, but still a hefty chunk of credit.  They didn’t care if he was guilty or not, so long as they did everything possible to get him off the hook.  Personally, I can’t manage that kind of intentional blindness.
Believe me, I’ve tried.  My last pack didn’t even make it a difficult choice... or a subtle one.  They literally said, “Choose the law or us”.  Two of them are now permanent tenants of the City cages, one is dead from a fight with custodians, and one is at large in the universe.  Hopefully, she’s far away from Layafflr City and ChtkKttp in general.  Hate to think she holds a grudge and might visit again sometime. 
Hey, don’t start getting twitchy on me now.  I’m not just talking to talk, especially not about myself.  You looked like you were getting lost earlier.  All this background will be necessary if you’re going to follow the rest of the story.  A lot gets lost if you don’t know the culture. 
Fine, back to the actual narrative:  I left the court building quietly.  I needed to talk to a contact for Herd Torbur, but not in public.  My job would be more difficult if word got out who I was working for.  Their go-between and I had a meeting scheduled in my office.  I had originally been hired by phone, but I was pretty sure my contact was a female Hrotata, judging by her voice and her name: Shllokwa. 
I walked a couple of blocks down the street to a skimmer rental post.  The little flying pods aren’t comfortable, but they're cheap and fast.  I spared a few of my last remaining credits to unlock a skimmer.  The cover slid back with a puff of hot, compressed air.  There was also a musky stink: a mix of Hrotata oils, salt excretions from Taratumm and Vislin, the pheromones of all three species, plus a tracing of more alien effluvia from visiting foreign sapients.  Public transport always manages to reek like its users.  This one was unpleasant but at least not nauseatingly foul.  They usually clean the things if a rider leaves anything bio-hazardous behind.  Usually.
I climbed aboard, settling myself into the cushioned riding couch and adjusting the environmental controls.  Despite the brightness of the sun, I kept the cover transparent.  I liked to see where I was going, not trusting the system enough to darken the cover for shade.  Last, I tapped in the address for my office.  I could go on manual, but it would be slower, since the system would restrict me to low-altitude public lanes.  On automatic, it could coordinate with the city traffic grid, get permission for higher layer travel, and generally take advantage of any gaps to get me home faster. 
Layafflr City is big enough that foot travel was out of the question.  I’d be late for my meeting by half a day.  I wasn’t anywhere near enough financial security to own my own car, ground- or air-.  Frost, at the time, I could barely afford to keep my own apartment lit, much less charge a car.  If my hypothetical car broke down, I might as well not have one at all. 

The rent for my apartment usually takes up most of my occasional earnings.  Even so, I live in the cheap edge of town, where the pest control sonics are less effective and the sprays less regular.  I have to deal with the occasional native wildlife stealing my food, trying to nest in my wall, or, in the case of the bigger ones, challenging me for territory.  Rtrtr is sufficient answer for the latter, but I hate leaving burn marks in my floor.  At least my aim has been getting better as a result. 
As I rode, I watched the buildings change from the uniform, clean lines of the city center to the rougher, more random architecture of old Layafflr.  Another blessing of the surrounding jungle is that it spares our city the prefab dullness of suburban sprawl.  Neighborhoods are each intentional expansions, fully planned and endorsed by the central government.  This process has the usual effect of making each project a money sink of contractual corruption, but necessity demands that the construction barons at least make each new neighborhood a functional whole.  Otherwise, it won’t integrate with the central grid, the static fields and sonics and whatnot won’t work, and the defective growth will get bitten off by Nature itself. 
This modular expansion meshes well with the pack structure of Vislin and Taratumm heritage, since each neighborhood has a prepared population of pack groups ready to move in as a block.  That's one way the matriarchs reward particularly successful offspring: give them leave to settle and start a new pack.  Sometimes, a pack will pick up and move as a whole, abandoning one decaying neighborhood for a fresh start further out.  It's a little like the old days, when the Taratumm would eat everything green and move on or a Vislin pack would eat or chase off everything in a range and be forced to relocate. 
My place is in one of the ‘abandoned’ zones, where the buildings are still habitable but a bit shabby.  Unsuitable terrain – something to do with faults and caves and other geology -  prevents the city from expanding further beyond, to the north.  Thus, ours is a ‘historic’ neighborhood, great for tourists and the entrepreneurs that prey on them, not to mention shady sorts who want less custodial attention.  I suppose I fall somewhere between the latter two types. 
            It has character, at least.  I could recline, watch the roof eaves scroll by, and still identify the blocks leading up to my building from that architecture alone.  The builders had drawn from a particular cultural and historical style that leaned toward a ribbed, fluted sort of aesthetic for walls and roofing.  The pattern was a stylized holdover from the use of woven tree branches for housing.  Millennia later, we had faux branch huts three stories tall on a planet unimaginably far away, yet still at the edge of a (rain) forest.  I love a finely aged coincidence.
            The particular fake hut I call home – or at least the 300 square meters of it I lease – is at the cross of a T intersection.  I was already stretching and preparing to sit up before the skimmer began deceleration.  When the cover slid back, I hopped to the ground, relieved to be out of its artificial funk and back to the natural funk of my chosen hunting ground.  Peppery, mulchy, occasionally fecal odors wafted from the forests in the background, overlaid with the stinks of urban rot: wet concrete, rusting metal, and the muted decay of food waste.  None of it is potent enough individually to force anyone to really clean up the place.  All together, it forms a signature bouquet that says, “Welcome to the cheap end.”  Downtown, a lot of labor and expense gets spent to keep the streets shiny and sterile.  Layafflr City is ostensibly civilized.  Some parts are just more civil than others.
            Crossing the street to my building’s door, I tapped in the entry code.  The door slid aside, getting stuck at the usual spot, two-thirds open.  Not needing to force it fully open that day, I hunched my shoulders and squeezed through.  I made my way up the stairs to my second-story apartment, thinking how great it would be to peel out of my leathers and maybe wipe down my scales before the rep for Herd Torbur got there.
            That was only the lesser part of my irritation when I opened my apartment door.  My guest was already present, waiting.  A Hrotata female, a bit under a meter long, was curled up on the lounge in my front room.  She had either been napping or was trying to give the pretense of having slept.  She lifted her head and craned her long neck to point her snout at me as I entered.  By Hrotata standards, I suppose she was high-class: sleek, striped fur, ranging from dark brown to almost black; bright gold eyes; carefully groomed claws tipped with silver caps; wrapped up in a red synthetic shift with designs woven in glittering black metallic thread. 
            She blinked drowsily, stretched, and muttered, “You took your time getting home.” 
            “Yeah, home,” I growled, “Supposedly a secure place of personal privacy?”
            “Security and privacy are illusions, Stchvk, especially when your neighbors, your landlord, and your network provider are all willing to supplement their income.”
            “You’re aware that I do this job because I don’t like criminals,” I began.
            The Hrotata interrupted my rant, “I’m aware.  Herd Torbur wouldn’t have hired you if you were anything less than honest and driven.  But if you’re naïve as well, you won’t be of much use to us.”
            I was thrown off-balance again, “Wait, us?  You’re not Taratumm, ergo…”
            She continued to hold the lead, “… I can’t be Herd?  You’re really not impressing me.  I’m honorary, an adoptive child.  Shllokwa, if you hadn’t guessed: employee and member of Herd Torbur.  Taratumm understand the value of incorporating the strengths of other sapients into their herds.  It’s a lesson Vislin have been slower to learn.”
            I let myself bare a few teeth.  “Or maybe we just like keeping one thing Hrotata can’t squeeze themselves into… our packs.”
            She sat up straighter on my lounge.  “What pack, investigator?  While your… unattached nature… is an asset today, most would consider you socially deficient.”
            “Yeah, maybe I should find a nice furry matriarch to adopt me.  That’d be completely normal.”  I rubbed my aching ear slits with the backs of my hands and hissed in irritation.  “Look, you’re not paying me in therapy sessions, and this conversation isn’t getting Grust any closer to freedom.  Let’s just agree that you’re sneaky and I’m brilliant but maladjusted and get to the point... before it gets late and you have to scurry home in the dark.”
            “Cute... but a very large aircar will show up whenever I call.  You know, benefits of the job?”  She wrinkled her nose and flipped her tail rapidly in what I recognized as a mildly rude gesture. 
            Blessedly, she took my suggestion and got down to business: “You heard the public statements today.  Most of what we know is out there already.  The defense wasn’t being clever; the little we have to go on comes from Grust himself.”
            While she talked, I worked my way around to my desk, a curved burl of pale, polished wood topped with a plate of rounded glass.  Another oddly shaped chunk formed a surprisingly comfortable seat.  On some worlds, these bits of natural art would fetch high prices.  Here on Spore, they're backyard debris, picked up on my last nature walk.  Sure, fine, I clean them up a bit, but don’t go spreading it around.  I like my vocation and avocations kept in that order.
            The natural beauty of my workspace was cluttered with bins of data beads, souvenirs from past cases, and beverage canisters and snack wrappers that failed to make it to the waste bin.  I slid a compad into the little clear area left and claw-tapped for a clean document.  “Do you have a recording I can view?” I asked, all professional, myself.
            “Not yet; everything official is in police custody, and we didn’t want to risk making any recordings of the private counsel session.  I can give you the relevant points: Grust went to the Trrptet Thunder Bar at eight in the evening, local time, as per his normal routine.  He had two herd-mates with him, Veruth and Ktuck, both male Taratumm.  They work together in the Herd’s manufacturing plant further south… you know the place?”
            “Tsrrk-Tor Materials, yeah, I’m familiar.”  The factory is a cornerstone in Layafflr’s economic foundation.  They take in raw metals and fabricate equipment for both housing and vehicle construction.  My building undoubtedly has Tsrrk-Tor girders holding it up.  The frame for the aircar I rode home was probably molded at the same plant. 
            “So, normal day at work, normal evening out with the males.  At worst, they might break some furniture, maybe get rough on the stomping floor.  Some of our witnesses will attest that Grust was acting completely normal up until he started drinking that night.”
            “That’s the part I’d like to hear about, from his perspective.  When did things get not normal?”
            “He’s no help there.  He says he remembers a strong urge to go outside… a mating urge, like he’d smelled a female Taratumm in heat and heard her bellowing.  Hallucinations, like the defense said.  He saw said female, whom he described to us as ‘the most beautiful mate ever’, with no specifics.  Literally, he could not describe her consistently, only construct a description based on his own aesthetic preferences.  Said hallucinatory Taratumm female was in distress, restrained by a male… again, a male Taratumm, description also vague.  Grust claims he felt very, very drunk, more than his actual consumption should cause.  He reacted instinctually, both in making a challenge and in reacting to the injuries inflicted after his attack.”
            “Great, so the accused isn’t much help.  He could be lying about his drinking, or even about taking a drug.  We have only the word of his Herd-mates that he didn’t inflict his disability on himself.  I’m assuming nobody saw anyone slip him anything?”
            “No, no one so far.  That’s what we’d be paying you for.”
            “Right.  So my first stop is the Thunder Bar, to see what I can turn up.  Hence the sneaking around.  They won’t talk to the custodians or to Herd, but I might get a lead.”
            “Very good!  You might be worth hiring, after all!”
            “Right now, I’m cheap at free.  The question is, are you going to pay for a lead, or do I have to do the custodial work, too?”
            “The terms are clear.  If you turn up something that gets Grust proven innocent, you get paid.  You might want to make sure there’s enough evidence in his favor to ensure that verdict.  A few blood drops might not be enough trail to convince the court, so I’d recommend tracking that prey as far as you can, yourself." 

            We were both speaking in Hrotata Primary, but her use of Vislin idiom was solid.  I could appreciate the subtle linguistic flattery.
            I prompted, “speaking of which, could you give me some more specifics?  Addresses for Grust’s drinking mates, name and address for the victim, custodial reports, witness statements…?”

            She clambered down from my lounge, crossed the room, and flowed up the front of my desk.  I winced at the claw-marks she was leaving in the formerly smooth wood surface.  Perching across from me, she bent over my compad and reached forward to input data. 
            I barely managed to pull back my hand in time, before her furred shoulder brushed against it.  Her eyes narrowed at my sudden movement.
            “What is your problem?  Are you actually repelled by other sapients?”  She sounded genuinely offended, but I wasn’t sure it wasn’t an act.
            “No, I just have issues with touching Hrotata.  For all I know, you spent all that time waiting for me grooming.  I’d rather not have your spit clouding my senses, thanks.”
            To my surprise, she gave me an ear-flick of amusement.  “I’m not used to being turned down, not by any species.  I chose to join Herd Torbur, but I made sure they would extend an invitation themselves.  Your resistance is admirable.  Perhaps even valuable.  It’s still a little insulting.”
            “Yeah, well, maybe I haven’t spent enough time around your charms.  Want to go on a date?  I’m going to a Taratumm bar tonight.”
            “No, I think you’re right, we should keep it professional,” she bantered back, all the while tapping on my compad.  I watched her closely for any further violations of privacy, but she only opened an encrypted stream to a private server and downloaded a file to my system.  Opening it, she showed me the witness list, including the names, addresses, and contact information on everyone interviewed about the case.  That included the victim, the victim’s mate, his bodyguards… pretty complete.
            I scrolled through while she watched, stretched out full-length on my desk.  Again, the pose was probably alluring to Hrotata, maybe even erotic.  I wasn’t sure why she thought it would do anything for me. 
            It’s not that I’m asexual.  As you might be aware, Vislin don’t have the same libido as mammalians or even analogues like the Zig.  Most sapients outside the Great Family can’t even tell the Vislin genders apart.  Most of the time, it doesn’t really matter to us, either.  There’s not much sexual dimorphism; the idea of dismissing a female as less capable seems quite literally insane to us.  Mating is the only time it matters, and once the eggs drop, that division is done again.  There you go, the flitters and the social insects of Vislin sexuality.
            The funny part is, I do notice.  Maybe it’s my unique aesthetic sense.  Maybe I’m a pervert.  Whatever the reason, I like how other Vislin look, especially females.  It might be hormonal, some kind of overactive mating urge.  It’s not like I have the credit to spare for psychiatric evaluation to find out.  It’s actually not much of a problem, as long as I don't say anything or act on my attractions.  In a way, I could understand Grust’s actions a bit better for it, particularly in his reaction to normally repressed urges surging to the fore. 
            The flip-side, though, is that I don't understand cross-species attraction.  Some Vislin and Taratumm purport to enjoy the looks of Hrotata, and even understand their standards of beauty.  Certainly, the fur-bearing sapients - Hrotata and Humans and Mauraug - seem to recognize one another’s body morphics and language enough to translate.  I just don't get it.  If I wanted to be crude, I could call it an indiscriminate palate: I can’t tell which foods look better than one another. 
            Definitely far too much about me.  Back to the narrative: I finished skimming the data provided, and bobbed my head in confirmation.
            “Good enough.  Just to say it: I keep complete confidence.  I’ll ask your permission before sharing anything private.  Terminate our agreement, and I’ll delete every file… along with anything I’ve learned, shared or not.”
            Shllokwa writhed her way back down my desk.  I wished she would have jumped down and spared the wood more scratches, but that probably wasn’t ‘sexy’ enough. 
            She retorted, “We would expect nothing less.  Your word is nice, but don’t forget who you’re working for.  If you did betray us, Herd Torbur could make your life very difficult.  Maybe impossible.”
            I narrowed my eyes but stopped short of a full threat display.  “Yeah, I didn’t forget that.  Thanks for the reminder, though.  I almost started thinking of this as a friendly chat.”
            “Oooo, don’t get offended now.  I honestly don’t know how you’ve survived, growing up in this city, a supposedly moral creature in a decidedly immoral land.”  She slinked away toward the door, her red shift rippling and sparkling in the last blue rays of the evening sun as they shone through my windows.
            She turned back as she reached up to tap the door open: “Just do the job.  Do it well, and Herd Torbur will pay well, and we’ll all stay on friendly terms.  I’d look forward to working with you again, Stchvk.”
            The door slid open and she slid out.  I waited a few seconds after the panel closed again, then walked over myself and changed the door code.  It probably wouldn’t keep her out if she was determined to enter again, but it improved my peace of mind.  I needed to have a talk with my landlord.  If she was, in fact, selling out her residents’ door codes, I would be moving, not to mention reporting her to the custodians. 
            Herd Torbur was not, actually, above the law.  It just sometimes avoided legal action.  I wasn’t terribly happy to be participating in that process, but if Grust was in fact innocent, I could appreciate getting him exonerated.  If he was guilty, I wasn’t going to ‘find’ evidence otherwise.  If Herd Torbur wanted to play it that way, I’d drag them to the cold hells with me.

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