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?

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