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.

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