Friday, October 31, 2014

Escape from Grace - Chapter 1

               Evgeny Lerner was lord of his domain, master of all he surveyed.  That status was only temporary.  Technically, he was only the surveyor of all he surveyed.  Once he finished his survey and returned to New Gethsemane, the lands he had mapped would be parceled out to the waiting colonists.  Then they would be lords of their various smaller domains, feudal lords sworn to the Terran colonial authority tasked with overseeing expansion on Locust IV.  Maybe 'serfs' was more appropriate?  Evgeny hadn't paid much attention in the medieval history portion of his schooling.

                Those domains didn’t amount to much yet.  This portion of the planet’s most temperate continent was still a dry, dusty savannah, more brown than green.  Biologists might maintain that Humanity had risen to sapience in a landscape much like this, but Evgeny doubted they would have chosen such a native environment over, say, a tropical island or rainforest jungle.
                He hadn’t had much choice, either.  He had been a young teenager when the Lerner family were approved for interplanetary colonial transport.  There had been some arguing and sulking when Father declared his intention to move the family, but by the time the final selections were made, Evgeny had settled into a dull resentment.  It didn’t matter that several of his Terran friends’ families were also making the trip.  He was forced to give up a comfortable childhood on Humanity’s carefully controlled home world in return for ‘adventure’ and ‘opportunity’ on a dehydrated, undeveloped border world.
                It wasn’t just any border… the Locust system stood squarely between Human space and the Mauraug Dominion.  The Mauraug were supposedly now allies, per both civilizations’ membership in the Collective, that arbiting body of multiple sapient species and cultures.  Despite years of aggression and abuse, the Humans were now supposed to pretend that the asshole skunk apes were good neighbors.  Peace was better than continued war, Evgeny supposed, but that didn’t mean they had to cuddle up close to their former enemies. 
                That was exactly what the Locust Colonies had done.  Colonies, plural.  Evgeny refused to think of the two outposts as one Colony, the way the official documents read.  Both Humans and Maraug laid claim to the system.  The Collective’s Solomon-like solution was to split the baby and encourage both cultures to develop the system jointly.  The one ‘inhabitable’ planet - fourth out, a decent distance from a decently yellow star - would become the center of operations throughout the region. 
                The two civilizations rushed to pour resources into this dry gravity well.  Per the terms of the negotiated settlement, land and its concomitant resources would belong to those who demonstrated the best ability to make use of it.  That meant investing and expanding first.  In addition to putting bodies on the planet, both cultures were quickly trying to build industries to exploit and export whatever they found, not to mention building the habitations to support those industries.  Not by coincidence, the first two major settlements on the newly opened world were placed not far apart, on its largest and most hospitable continent.  Both cultures wanted to keep their rival in close sight and neither wanted to risk giving up the most potentially profitable foothold.
                Evgeny’s father, Ben Lerner, had been a trained geologist on Terra, a world largely stripped of its native resources.  Much of his paying work involved construction surveying and seismology.  When the opportunity to study and prep a whole new world became available, Father couldn’t jump fast enough.  Evgeny had the same interest in land and its variety but had defied his parents’ wishes that he stay in the sciences.  Instead, when he finished his secondary education a few years after their arrival on Locust IV, he had enlisted with Defense. 
                Evgeny looked the part of a soldier, albeit a young one.  His coarse black hair was kept buzzed short.  His body was built on square lines, nose and jaw and shoulders and hips all designed on the model of a brick.  His bright grey-blue eyes had come from his father, but his build had actually come from his mother, Ondrea Belinsky.  A sturdy Slovene agriculturalist, Mother had proven a good professional partner to Father on Terra and a steady pioneer on Locust IV.  She had also given Evgeny her grandfather's name and a hereditary respect for martial service.
                Technically, Defense was not a military.  It handled animal control for the existing predatory and scavenging species that couldn’t be persuaded to avoid the growing colony, managed the small amount of law enforcement that was required, and kept a wary eye on the border with their Mauraug neighbors.  Evgeny was trained more in survival, orienteering, driving, and basic equipment maintenance than he was in combat, armed or otherwise.  Still, he had a projectile handgun of his own and enough hand-to-hand practice to deal with a determined crabdog or trespassing Mauraug. 
                The further he traveled, the higher the likelihood became that he might actually encounter one of the oversized simian sapients.  This survey edged northward along the eastern border dividing the Human and Mauraug claims.  The idea was to expand and define that border all the way to the northern coast of the continent. 
Orbital surveys and automated probes had already catalogued and marked the land itself.  In a way, Evgeny’s job was redundant.  However, there was a reason that Defense and not Sciences handled ‘surveying’ in person.  He wanted to make sure the Mauraug were respecting the border and not trying to make inroads onto the Human-claimed territory.  They probably wouldn’t be blatant enough to set up an encampment or facility, but they might trek deep into their neighbor’s yard and pick up some shiny stones along the way… or divert a well… or poach biological samples.
Evgeny was old enough now to appreciate the hypocrisy of his superiors.  All those ideas about what the Mauraug might do were undoubtedly dreamed up based on what Human settlers might imagine doing… or had proposed doing… or had, privately, done already. 
Still, given Mauraug religious philosophy, an incursion of some type was almost a certainty.  Their ethos of Dominion made it a duty to push against any limiting force, be it border, treaty, alternate culture, whatever.  After all, if they pushed and won, they proved their worthiness to Dominate.  If they pushed and lost, then they were helping their opponent prove its worthiness.  Hell, one of their diplomats had stood up in a Collective courtroom and declared the Dominion to be Humanity’s only true friend, seeing as how their harassment had forced the young species to assert itself and come into its true place in the Universe.  Evgeny still had to roll his eyes every time the video clip of that famous speech came to mind. 
He had seen that speech, along with a fair portion of the teachings of Sha’Bahn, in his comparative cultures classes during his first year of school on Locust IV.  The colonists wanted their children to at least understand (if not necessarily appreciate) the background of their neighbors.  He had also taken a year of study in the Mauraug language… language, singular.  Unlike Humanity, with its polyglot plethora of wildly divergent tongues, the Mauraug Dominion had stayed true to itself linguistically and stamped out all but one dominant language.  Just one more act of destruction by a bunch of self-righteous, rampaging gorillas.
Despite himself and the prejudices of his home world, Evgeny found some elements to respect in the Mauraug culture.  They were generally more honest than Humans; some of their religious sects believed that falsehood prevented true Dominion, since you could pretend to strength you did not have or defeat a superior enemy by deception.  Hell, lying well was the key to success in some Human endeavors.  Mauraug were constantly spiritual, forced to not only speak the words of their faith but live it daily, under the watchful eye of everyone else around them.  They seemed to resolve conflict quickly, if sometimes brutally, avoiding protracted feuds or wars.  Once Dominance was proven, the dispute was over, and vengeance was frowned upon.  Their poetry was actually pretty good, also.
Still, they were an opponent, if not an active enemy anymore.  The only negotiation they actually understood was defeat.  The Collective had proven stronger, so the Mauraug obeyed that organization… for now.  If they could bend the colonial treaty to their advantage, they would.  Not all Dominion sects believed in honesty or even obedience.  It only took a few bad actors to find ways to sabotage the Human colony and strengthen their own, within or without the terms of the treaty. 
So, Evgeny ‘surveyed’, patrolling northward up the border.  He actually did take notes on the terrain, filling in the details even survey drones would tend to miss.  He could observe animal life, count burrows, and snare samples alive or dead.  He collected plant samples as well and documented their patterns of growth to give ideas about rainfall and aquifer locations.  He kept an eye out for useful mineral deposits and landforms that might suggest bounties deeper down.  He also sketched out boundary lines that would be intuitive to maintain as property borders, flat regions that would be ideal for construction, and formations that would provide useful cover for defense.   
Another scout was doing the same thing down the southern reach of the eastern border, while many more were expanding Human territory out to the west.  Eventually, they would establish ports and connect routes to the smaller, less hospitable continents beyond the meager Locustian oceans.
Evgeny had grown into his mid twenties with solid training and enough experience to safely travel the wilds of Locust IV and find its valuable points.  As the colony grew, his solo forays would eventually turn into group patrols, maybe even escorts for construction crews creating remote outposts.  The seeds of additional settlements would be planted in the furrows he was tilling now.  His children, or their children, would grow up in towns that sprang up from the empty, cracked dirt he tread now. 
Evgeny did not especially look forward to this projected career.  He was ambivalent about the prospect of promotion within Defense.  A higher rank would just carry more responsibilities and reduce his freedom to travel.  He would be held more tightly to the colonial settlement itself.  He would be forced to attend family dinners nightly, watching his parents grow old and die, faster than they would have on Terra.  He himself would have a shortened lifespan, trading away years of comfort for the privilege of building a world for future ungrateful generations. 
There was no foreseeable route that led him back to the cradle of Humanity, Sol 3, Terra itself.  All his opportunities for success were here, on the world he knew so well, too well.  Just like his father, Evgeny was unsuited for the types of work needed on Terra.  He could program enough to get by and to interact with his A.I., Matilda, but he had no prospects in the signature Terran A.I. industry.  He could manage first aid, but would be hopeless in the medical field.  He could repair moisture evaporators and runner carts, air conditioners and even lift shuttles, but had no training in robotics, high energy engineering, or any of the trades needed to build or maintain interstellar ships or space stations. 
Terra didn’t need professional colonists; it needed doctors for its aging population, it needed AI programmers and elite engineers, and it needed leaders and lawyers and other managers to keep the system running and well-integrated into the body Collective.  Sure, it needed a whole host of other services for its vast population, but any less professional jobs could be filled internally from that vast population.  The only way an outer world colonist would be invited back home would be if they showed genius that Terra would want to import back.
Hell, if he could compose music or write an original story or even tell a good joke, he’d have a better chance of at least touring Terran space and making stops back home.  Maybe he should consider applying as starship crew.  Evgeny could pilot a shuttle decently well and knew the safety procedures for extra-atmospheric survival.  He could study the rest of what a sailor needed on his own time.  Yeah, right, and in maybe another decade he might be as qualified as a dedicated new recruit and only twice as old. 
No, he’d invested his youth in learning skills that anchored him solidly to a world he never wanted to live on and still wanted to leave.  Evgeny’s main solace was in his self-sufficiency.  He could be alone in the wilds for a time, thinking to himself, walking as he chose (within the limits of his assignment), and eating and sleeping on his own schedule.  If he really needed companionship, Matilda was available, sleeping in his personal computer, perfectly willing to lie dormant until woken for conversation. 
Evgeny's freedom was something of an improvement over the limited mobility and tight scheduling of Terran life, he supposed.  By itself, such feelings could explain why colonists chose to forfeit their health and security in favor of the hazards of a long interstellar journey and a wild land completely foreign to their entire biology.
By some standards, Locust IV was actually pretty friendly.  No particularly intelligent or hostile wildlife; the big predators generally had the sense to avoid the infinitely more dangerous sapients.  No major toxins in the atmosphere, water or soil.  There were some nasty allergens and a few poisonous plant and animal species, but that was inevitable.  It wasn’t a bad world in comparison to, say, the Zig home planet, impregnated every inch with heavy metals, or the mysterious Ningyo origin, supposedly the surface of a dead star, with insane levels of gravity and pressure. 
Evgeny could live quite a long time on the land here.  He had brought a supply of distilled water and a distilling filter to make use of whatever he found (or his own urine, in a pinch).  Some of the native plant life was edible, and Evgeny had vitamin supplements to make up for what the area’s vegetation tended to lack.  He could even hunt if he chose, although most of the armored native wildlife was unpalatable if technically edible.  Crabdogs did not taste like crabs, nor dogs.  More like mutton jerky soaked in runner cart coolant and coated in gelatin.  Their lipids weren’t quite right, either, and tended to be difficult to digest.  Better to eat his actual jerky ration and go light on protein for a few days than risk the side effects of eating local.
The surveyor was already five days out from New Gethsemane, the sole Human settlement on the planet.  He had possibly another five days to go before reaching the northern coastline.  That was based on a relatively straight-line path up the border, which was no guarantee while he relied on the little runner cart.  The vehicles were battery efficient and good with most relatively level terrain.  That sufficed for the majority of the surrounding savannah.  However, there were some rough canyons between Evgeny and the coast, which might not offer easy descents or ascents.  He might have to divert several miles around to keep driving.  That was still faster than trying to cross directly on foot, even if he did rappel down one side of a canyon and climb straight up the other.  Not to mention, his cart carried the majority of his supplies.  Abandoning it would mean a much less comfortable journey and maybe even a real risk of harm.
There were some places where it was tempting to detour around the eastern side of a canyon, where that was the shorter route to a crossing.  However, that meant crossing into Mauraug territory.  Besides not wanting to provoke a response, Evgeny wanted to maintain the moral high ground.  If he wanted to challenge any Mauraug intruding on Human land, he couldn’t go violating the border from his side.  Too bad the opposition had a different perspective on right and wrong. 
After consulting his maps that morning, Evgeny had started out on his selected route shortly after dawn.  Traveling by day was practical: he would miss less detail, not to mention pose a less tempting target for predators.  At night, he could spark a campfire in a clearing safely far from the tall grasses. 
It had been a tedious, routine half-day of travel under the bright glare of ‘Ra’, as some of the New Gethsemane natives had taken to calling their hosting star.  He had stopped where a tumbled boulder offered some mid-day shade.  It was a good time for a meal.  While he ate packaged biscuits spread with chickpea paste and apple butter, Evgeny looked over the stone itself.  Sandstone with streaks of quartz and mica, nothing remarkable there, but maybe a hint of carborundum, which could be promising.  Evgeny scraped off a sample of the specks of harder mineral and tagged it with his current coordinates.  Father might find it useful or might discard it as useless.  Either way, it showed Evgeny had been thinking of him… wasn’t that what presents were for?
Evgeny settled back into the shade for a brief nap, pulling his broad-brimmed wool felt hat over his eyes.  His canvas pants and shirt and hard synthetic boots were tough enough to keep out sharp stones, the spines of plants, and most pest species, so he doubted he’d be disturbed at his rest.  His outfit was also as dully beige as the dirt he lay on, so he might be ignored by any casually wandering predators.  If not, he had his gun close at hand.  Evgeny drowsed in the heat without fear.
He was roused by a strange, foreign sound.  The air shrieked as it was split by an object traveling many times the speed of sound.  Evgeny scrambled to his feet and turned to look in the direction of the retreating scream.  A contrail of condensing moisture marked the passage of something that had been moving fast and hot.  It had been going roughly northeast to southwest… toward New Gethsemane.  A shuttle?  No landing craft were expected today, per his schedule.  It had to be an emergency landing, going that fast within atmosphere.  It might even be an infalling orbiter, struggling to make it to the surface at a safe angle rather than plummeting to an instantly deadly impact. 
Evgeny raced to the runner cart and pulled out his compad, tapping Matilda awake.
“Matilda, monitor landing traffic.  What was that craft that just went by?”
Matilda’s young, female voice instantly responded from the compad’s built-in speaker.  Rather than her typical casual, conversational phrasing, she kept her answers succinct and professional:  “No scheduled or registered landings.  Three ships have arrived and are not responding to communications.  One is en route to New Gethsemane, estimated time of arrival three minutes.”
“No distress calls?  What about the orbital station?  What do they know?”
“No response from the station.  Communications are reported cut off from upstairs five minutes ago.  Analysis suggests that this is an attack.  Ships match configuration of Mauraug military landers.”
The Mauraug.  They must be more insane than Evgeny supposed.  The colony was under attack.  First they had taken down the Human space installation, now they were coming for the settlement.  Evgeny felt sick.  He would never be in time to help defend New Gethsemane from invasion.  At best, he might be able to follow back along the border, maybe stop some of the Mauraug colonists from joining their fellows in the assault.
“Is there anything from Defense?  Orders?  Anything from satellite visuals?  Survey drones aloft?”  Evgeny needed a direction before he sped off to battle. 
Matilda obliged as best she could, “All Defense personnel are aiding in evacuation of settlers to secure bunkers.  No orders have come for you, Evgeny.  Visual satellites are still active and transmitting.  Evgeny…?” Matilda paused, something in her routines having prompted her to slow her dialogue and wait for her Human’s response.
“What is it, Matilda?  Don’t hold anything back.”  Evgeny was already packing up as he spoke, mounting the runner cart and starting its engine in preparation for travel as soon as he was given a heading.
“The other two ships are heading southeast, toward the Maraug settlement, Gorash’Bond,” Matilda explained carefully.  “One has already begun bombing.  New Gethsemane is being bombarded as well.  They are attacking both settlements.”
Even if the ships were Mauraug, they weren’t Dominion.  There was no reason the hierarchy of the Dominion would destroy a colony it had fought so hard to establish, not even in spite for having to share a world with Humans.  The Mauraug had publicly welcomed the challenge set by the Collective.  To demolish all progress on Locust IV made no sense… except for those opposed to any collaboration between Mauraug and Humans.  Those who opposed and defied Dominion and sought to undermine its hold upon Mauraug civilization. 
“Apostates,” Evgeny spat. 

The Apostasy was an alliance of Mauraug 'heretics', specifically religious groups in armed opposition to the theocratic Dominion.  Since Dominion controlled the entire interstellar government of the Mauraug and permitted no rivals, disputes of faith had inevitably become an uneven war between Dominion and its detractors.  Unfortunately, with the inclusion of the Mauraug into the Collective, this internal dispute was spilling out to affect every region the Mauraug contacted... now including the Locust system.
“I agree.  I’m sorry, Evgeny, but both settlements are taking heavy losses.  We are losing Defense contact.  Deaths are estimated at seventy-five percent and increasing.  No word on your family’s survival or whereabouts.”
Evgeny sat, stunned, with the runner’s engine still grumbling.  He felt terrible, wrenching guilt at his earlier thoughts.  He had resented moving here, resented the colony and the settlement itself, but he had never wanted its death.  He was still angry at his father, but… no.  He had to be alive.  If anyone would, Ben Lerner would know where and how to build a bunker capable of resisting conventional bombing. 
“Communications are quiet,” Matilda concluded, remaining respectfully somber.  “No broadcasts from either settlement.  They’re probably maintaining silence to avoid further targeting.  The ships are making secondary sweeps per remaining visual data.”
Evgeny’s lunch threatened to escape.  He fought to keep his head clear and stay ready for whatever useful action he might take.  He still wasn’t sure if he should speed back to the settlement to try and rescue survivors or else seek cover and remain hidden from the Apostate ships.
Matilda continued to try and help him.  “One ship is landing at each site.  The third ship is returning to space.  It may take out the remaining satellites.  If so, I will have no further information to relay.”
“I understand, Matilda.  Thank you for that much.”
“I’m so sorry, Evgeny.  Please talk to me when you need to.  I understand you need to act, but stay safe.”
“Of course.  I can’t be much help if I get myself killed.  Let me know if you pick up any warnings.”
“I will.”
Evgeny put the compad on standby and slipped it into the runner’s storage compartment.  He wished the vehicle were more advanced, so that he could plug the compad into its systems and let Matilda drive for him overnight.  Even better would be if he could upload the AI into the vehicle and let her control it entirely… but that was expressly forbidden by Collective agreements.
The Collective.  Where were they now?  After dictating the terms of colonization on Locust IV, they were nowhere nearby when the colony was attacked.  They could do nothing as it died.  The colonists were the representatives of Collective civilization on this world.  The enemies of the Collective, or more appropriately, the enemies of one of its less desirable members, the Mauraug, had descended and undone the work of decades.  This was an easily accomplished yet significant blow against not only settlement in this system, but Human-Mauraug cooperation and their collaboration within the Collective. 
Of course this colony had been targeted.  In retrospect, its value as a striking point was obvious.  The colonists had not been warned about the threat.  While they might understand that Mauraug Apostates would view the joint colony as an offense, they had not been advised that said Apostates had the strength to strike against the colony.  They had not been warned that Apostate forces could get so close, unopposed.  They never should have gotten here, unopposed.  The Collective should have known to keep a watch on their grand experiment.  There was no force of law that would prevent terrorists from doing their worst, only force itself.
Evgeny’s anger at his family, at the colonists in general, and at his limited prospects coalesced and mutated into anger at the Collective itself.  Distant bureaucrats, most of them not even Human, had overlooked this world’s needs in favor of other priorities.  They had consigned the inhabitants of Locust IV to death, first by making them a political flashpoint, and then by failing to prepare for disaster.  He had to survive, if only to relate the tale of this abandonment to Terra.  If enough of the settlers had survived to re-establish New Gethsemane, then Evgeny need to survive to help them rebuild.
Either way, he wanted to advocate against the Collective.  They played games with Human lives… Mauraug lives, too.  They dictated the terms of civilization, then failed their obligation to enforce those terms on non-members. 
With grim purpose, Evgeny aimed the runner cart southeast.  If he returned west, he risked detection by the Apostate ship or its ground forces.  In the zone between the two settlements, he stood the best chance of joining up with any other survivors, Human or Mauraug.  They would need to work together to resist the Apostate purge, staying alive until one or the other of their home worlds sent a ship to check in on their suddenly silent settlements.  There needed to be witnesses.  The Apostates would aim to remove all evidence of their true strength, although they would undoubtedly take credit for the attack later.
Alone, without the resources of civilization, Evgeny might manage to live a few weeks.  If he could gather together enough of a team to overcome some of the Apostate troops and scavenge their supplies, that survival rate increased sharply.  At this point, Evgeny didn’t care if he had to recruit (or be recruited by) a troupe of skunk apes.  Just as long as they helped keep him alive, he would return the favor.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bad Egg - Chapter 7 - "Unfair Fight"

               The effects of the Hrotata neurotoxin actually came in handy, buffering the increasing discomfort from my aching neck.  My second round of pain pills had almost worn off.   I could feel a dull throb starting from deep inside the worst damaged area and spreading through that shoulder.  I started to worry that something was seriously broken in there.  Leaving a hospital was feeling like an increasingly bad idea. 

                That’s where sapience comes in: following through on a bad idea because, maybe at some higher level, it’s really part of a bigger good idea.  The good idea here was cracking a case, getting paid, and then relaxing in a hospital bed afterward.  I know, funny to say in retrospect.
                I took the lift down from the 10th floor of Vaktrri Medical to the lobby, then discarded the unregistered guest tag I had borrowed.  I didn’t know if an alarm would signal if I tried to leave with the microchipped tag, but there was no reason to chance it.  I did my best to look like a patient being discharged rather than a patient needing admission for treatment.  My one-handed, home-made bandage job wouldn’t pass close inspection as professional work, but it sufficed to get me out the door unnoticed. 
                I went out the front door this time.  No sense exiting through the emergency room and chancing a second meeting with staff who might recognize me.  From there it was only a few steps to an aircar depot.  They were kept close for sapients exactly like me: patients with limited mobility. 
                As I keyed in my credit code to authorize release of one of the floating pods, disaster struck.  Insufficient balance.  Frost, of course it was insufficient.  I had already paid for two aircar rides in the last two days, from an account that had been barely sufficient to keep me in synthetic protein for the next week. 
Now, I really wouldn’t starve, no matter how broke I got.  There are public feeding stations in Layafflr City.  Otherwise, the huddled masses would start dying in the streets… or rioting in them, more likely.  The Great Family has enough sense to make sure basic survival needs are met.  Most families take care of their own and the government tries to pick up what slack remains. 
However, surviving isn’t living, and it’s very difficult to lift off from the bottom of the financial gravity well.  Mobility is a problem, for one thing: not just economic mobility but the literal problem of getting from one place to another.  Public transit has a cost.  That cost hasn’t been socialized in Layafflr City, at least not yet.  There are also some areas you have to have clearance to enter, which means registration fees, background checks, and other credit sinks.  For instance, I couldn’t actually have registered as a patient at Vaktrri Medical.  I wasn’t cleared for its zone.  If I were more socially ‘valued’ or monetarily valuable, I could get that clearance in the span of a few tail twitches. 
I wasn’t.  I still am not.  I’m not sure I want to be, if you catch my meaning.  Still, it could be nice.  Right then, I would have settled for enough credit to for an aircar ride, plus maybe another bottle of pain pills.  Since that wasn’t happening – and I wasn’t going to steal any of the above – I had to find another route to visit Krrutoki.
I slumped further down the street to a public info terminal.  At least their major functions were free: weather reports, public media, shopping services… and directory assistance.  I looked up Krrutoki of Clan… Chevrruk.  I made sure I was matching up the right Hrotata of that name by confirming the location of the address given... yes, my neighborhood.  I committed the address to memory.  Now I had a destination; I just needed a way to get back there. 
I could afford a tram or train, but that would be slow, cramped, and exposed.  If I let it get past dark, Krrutoki would likely return to his favorite haunt, the Thunder Bar.  I suspected my appearance there would be unwelcome.  I was wasting time.  There was one other avenue I hadn’t explored.  No, not aircar theft, asking for help. 
Continuing with the directory search, I looked up Shllokwa of Herd Torbur.  ‘Counselor’ was the title she appeared under in the Herd’s official business site.  There’s a term with many meanings.  Her business number was listed as well.  I initiated a call.  A miniscule fee was charged to my credit balance, a cost tiny in comparison to transport fare. 
Now, if I’d been foresighted enough to bring my compad along, I could have used her private number and even placed the call from the miniaturized computer.  The problem there was that the device now contained some rather sensitive information I’d rather not worry about protecting.  Plus, the compad itself was an important tool in my work, an expensive one, and thus literally irreplaceable.  Besides the possibility of theft, the likelihood of damage was high while I was working a case… at least as high as the likelihood of damage to myself.  One of these days I’ll get myself a nice, shock-proof, lockable compad case... right after a full larder, a new set of armor, a personal aircar, and a penthouse apartment, in that order.
So, I used the public systems: easy to overhear, easy to tap, easy to trace.  You’re welcome.  At least the conversation wasn’t too suspicious out of context.
It started with the standard answer, “You have reached the offices of Mistress Shllokwa of Herd Torbur.  My name is Esstvarr.  How may we assist you?”  This was delivered by the image of a chubby, young, tan-on-brown male Hrotata. 
I played it calm and professional, my manners helped by Yavirrt’s lingering saliva.  “Stchvk.  Urgent news to report to your Mistress regarding Herd business.  Extremely immediate.”
The Hrotata kept a bland expression but typed something into his keypad with admirable speed.  The result must have been encouraging, because he didn’t challenge me… much.  “Mistress Shllokwa is currently meeting with elders.  May I relay any important messages?”
“No, sorry, and she’ll want to hear this on a secure line.  She can call me back right here, if she really can’t get free this second, but it’s time sensitive and private.  Sorry, but she likely will punish you if you fail to inform her soon.”  I refrained from speculation about the personal relationship between ‘Mistress’ Shllokwa and her secretary.  Judging from her behavior with me, that punishment might take some interesting forms.
“I… understand.  Please hold,” Esstvarr carefully responded.  He might have been placating me, except that his answer was punctuated with a bristling twitch.  I was handing him a dilemma, but I wasn’t sorry.  He was getting paid – likely very well – to make such judgments correctly.
                The feed switched to a pastoral scene from Hrotata Prime, something neutral and relaxing for any Great Family species.  I only had to watch the video pacifier for a couple of minutes before the picture swapped back to Shllokwa, seated at the same office desk Esstvarr had vacated.
                “What is it?” she snapped without preamble.  Her disapproval stung my narcotized feelings.  I wanted her to be pleased with me.  Too bad the Hrotata couldn’t just dose themselves with their own neurotoxins, I thought, they’d be more amiable. 
                “I have a solid lead.  I can go into detail if you want, if you think it’s safe.  I think I know who set Grust up, and why… I just need to check them out to determine how.  Problem is, I’m stuck downtown, they’re back near my office, and I’m broke as an empty eggshell.  Any chance of an advance on the promise of payoff?  A retainer?  Low-interest loan?  Please?”
                She sneered at the camera pickup.  I couldn’t see from that angle, but I was sure her tail tip was flicking in aggravation.  “This is not the proper method of contact.  No, don’t give any specifics.  Even if I encode your call on this side, you’re still at a public terminal.  Unless you truly are seconds away from a breakthrough, my opinion of your professional ability will plummet fatally.  I can ‘advance’ you enough for a couple of aircar fares.  If your next call to me doesn’t give amazing and specific revelations – in complete privacy – expect to be billed double for repayment.  Anything else to waste my time with?”
                “No, Mistress,” I answered respectfully.  I think she realized that my wheedling, courteous approach wasn't just pathetic beggary or a bad attempt at comedy.  Her fur lowered and she stared at my image on her screen with a slightly wider eye. 
                “You’re drugged,” she cleverly deduced.  “Who have you been consorting with?”
                I grinned, pleased to have shocked her, even if her suspicions were exaggerated.  “Sorry, Mistress, can’t say.  Not a secure line.”  To keep her from going away angry, I backpedaled, visibly curling my claws under.  “It’s just narcotics for pain.  I took a couple of punches while asking questions.”
                She looked impressed despite her remaining suspicions, “I see.  The wrong questions… or the right ones?  Never mind, the funds are transferred to your account.  See that you use them well.”
                “Of course, Mistress.”  I was starting to come out of the Hrotata-induced daze but continued my act for maximum tail-nuzzling effect.  I could use the credit for later, when I returned to my usual surly self.
                Shllokwa cut the connection.  I used a few more seconds to verify that my credit balance had jumped, more than doubled after Herd Torbur’s contribution, however stinting.  Enough crouching; it was time to spring.
                I returned to the aircar stand and wasted no time selecting and settling into my transport.  Again, I had the luxury of a few minutes to collect my thoughts and prepare for my ambush meeting with Krrutoki. 
If he wasn’t home, I might take the opportunity to break into his quarters.  I wasn’t sure whether he lived alone in a public apartment, in a private building owned by his Clan, or in shared, Clan-only dormitories.  Given what I already knew of him – unmated male fixated on an unattainable female – he wouldn’t have a partner or family sharing his space.  There could be roommates, though: other bachelors or bachelorettes splitting quarters. 
If he was home, we’d have a very frank, pointed conversation.  I planned to confront him with what I knew.  If he ran or attacked me, I’d be certain I had found the guilty sapient.  Then it would become a matter for the custodians to sort out.  Given my previous call, Herd Torbur would prevent him from wriggling out of arrest.  I was fairly certain I could defend myself, provided he wasn’t better armed or shot me without warning. 
The worst outcome would be if he just ignored me, ignored my questions, and/or insisted on baffled innocence.  I wouldn’t let up on him – I couldn’t let up, not now – but I’d have to work much harder if he played it cool and let nothing slip.  That might make for a slow night of stalking, if I had to tail him throughout his social rounds.  Worst of all would be if he just stayed home all day and all night, into the next day, letting the trial run out while I waited. 
I was going to have to be a provocative bastard once again.  Good thing I’ve had practice.  It was almost tempting to start the fight, myself, just to get him tangled up in the legal system… but I didn’t want to get stuck there, myself.  No, I needed him to react to my presence and my accusations.  I wanted to see the guilt register on his greasy little face.  The only thing I could threaten him with was the truth.
Too bad I didn’t have much ‘truth’ to throw at him.  Then again, I didn’t have to admit the limits of my knowledge.  If anything, pretending to know more than I really did could work much better.  I allowed myself an inward, predatory grin.  Might as well enjoy the hunt.
When the aircar pulled up at the specified destination, my grin widened.  The target building was just one of a half-dozen identical stacks of plasticized concrete spanning one side of an equally nondescript lane.  Mass housing.  Even if Clan Chevrruk owned the whole block, Krrutoki’s apartment was nothing special.  I didn’t have to worry about armed security or even protective neighbors.  My arrival was likely being recorded from two or three angles, but that was hard to avoid anywhere. 
The next obstacle was the locked outer door, a sandwich of clear plastic and steel built securely into the walls.  It opened by sliding along a fixed track.  It could be forced… by a pneumatic jaw, which I didn’t have.  An intercom panel offered the only means of access.  Lacking the necessary code, retinal or genetic configuration to identify myself as a resident, I would have to be admitted or else override the mechanism somehow. 
When in doubt, I default to trial and error.  I punched the number for Krrutoki’s apartment and waited a few seconds.  No answer. 
I tried the same sequence again, but this time, spoke aloud: “Hey, you in there.  I know you recognize me.  We’re going to have a conversation one way or another.  Either you let me in and we talk privately inside… or else I start talking REALLY LOUD out here, by myself.  I hope you’re home, or else your neighbors are going to hear some really interesting thoughts.”
My clever gambit paid off.  The intercom spoke back, with a voice obscured by fur and phlegm.  “I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about.  Go away now and I won’t call security.”
Kkkk, this prey was terrible at feints and false trails.  I laughed - just like that, "kkkk" - and called back, “Krrutoki of Clan Chevrruk, I’m here to talk about your visits to Trrptet Thunder Bar…”
My introduction was cut off by a buzzer from the door and a yowling curse, “Filth in your nest!  Come in, then.”
This was shaping up to be a really memorable discussion.  I might get to run through my entire vocabulary of vulgarities.  Frost, I might learn one or two new ones. 
I hurried to grab the offered opening, sliding the rightmost door along its track and slipping into the building’s lobby.  Playing it safe, I skipped the lifts and took two flights of stairs up to Krrutoki’s floor.  From there, I only had to pass two doors on the left and I was at the right number.  That was just as well.  After all that exertion I was feeling nauseated and a pulsing flame was working its way up the side of my face.  I’m fortunate I didn’t suffer a stroke or embolism, now that I think about it.  Oh, just wait, the abuse was just starting.
I scratched at the provided plate on Krrutoki’s door.  He yelled from somewhere inside, “It’s open!”
I couldn’t blame him; in the same circumstances, I wouldn’t have opened the door myself if I could avoid it.  I obliged the yolk sucking little vermin and toggled the latch, pushing his door open carefully in case he was hiding behind the barrel of a plasma thrower, hovering over the trigger.
Nothing came flying toward me except more vitriol.  Krrutoki did have a weapon; an ornamental wooden staff usually carried by Taratumm elders during… some kind of ceremony, I forget the name.  It was the kind of thing you can pick up at antique stores as tacky ethnic home d├ęcor.  He was holding the massive staff in two hands… Kkkk…
Sorry, sorry, I’m getting silly now.  I’m nervous, you know?  Dumb jokes are funnier when you’re afraid for your life.  Not as funny for you?  Vvvv, your loss.
Anyway, he waved the substitute phallus in a sad attempt to look menacing.  I had been concerned when I thought I might be incinerated.  Actually seeing him, I was amused.  I could take three of Krrutoki, even injured like I was. 
Like I had thought at the Thunder Bar, he seemed small for an adult male Hrotata, maybe a bit thin.  His eyes were slightly sunken but still bright, not sick but probably stressed.  His light brown fur had thin stripes of black in a rippling pattern, easy to miss in the dark.  He was still wearing the same business outfit I had seen him in before, although it looked better laundered the second time.
I stepped confidently into the apartment.  It was bigger than mine, no surprise.  Even a struggling bachelor Hrotata in a Clan rates better housing than I could afford.  The furniture wasn’t as nice, though.  It was all prefab, budget, assemble-by-the-numbers junk, covered with souvenirs of equally boring vacations.  Some miniature projectors showed still images and videos of other Hrotata; family recordings, most likely.  I counted no fewer than five likenesses of Yavirrt in my initial survey.  Krrutoki definitely had a problem letting go.
After taking a leisurely look around – also determining that there were no roommates or other confederates waiting to jump me – I closed the door.
“What’s this about?  I didn’t have anything to do with those Taratumm attacking you.  I’m sorry I didn’t help, but neither did the Vislin who were there.  If you hurt me, my Clan will ruin you.”  He chattered almost too fast to follow, his native language’s accent muddying the Great Family’s mutually pronounceable patois.
I waved to Rtrtr, at my hip.  “If I wanted to hurt you, I would have already.  If I didn’t already know you set those Taratumm on me, I’d be certain of it after that pathetic protest.  I know how you did it… what I want to know is why.  You didn’t like how I was talking to that stomper?  You were bored and wanted another floor show?  Or was it because I was getting too close to how you ruined that filth-eating imbecile… Grust?”
His lip quivered between a defiant snarl and the tightness of panic.  His eyes ricocheted around the room, watching me, the exits, maybe other available weapons.  I didn’t need to be a student of Hrotata behavior to recognize guilt and fear.  “I told you, mother-eater, I was just there for a drink.  You made your own trouble.  Obviously, you can’t help your paranoia.  Go get help.  Leave me alone.”
I abruptly changed direction to ease him back from the brink.  This furball wasn’t any sort of mastermind.  Definitely an amateur, way out of his nest. 
With my best intimation of confidence, I told him, “You have me all wrong.  I only threatened to say something to get your attention.  I’m hoping we could work together.  See, I hate living around Taratumm.  I hate having their noisy pit in our neighborhood.  If you’re manipulating them, humiliating them, like I think you are, we might be able to do business.  I know you were there when Grust frenzied.  Having him proposition that high-class matron… brilliant.”
Wrong approach, again.  Krrutoki’s expression stayed wary but became tinged with disgust.  Nostrils flaring, he spat back, “Yes, I was there.  But it wasn’t my fault.  You sicken me.  You’re full of excremental fantasies and the custodians will deal with you.”
I tried Plan C: sinister.  “The custodians?  If I have to, I’ll talk to them instead.  The stompers are already shamed… but I could talk about how their Hrotata masters encourage the idiotic, violent nature of their thick-skulled slaves, using them as weapons…”
Pause a moment here.  Even given my stated goal to provoke Krrutoki, this was laying it on a little thick.  I’m not really that kind of bigot.  As I talked, though, I was getting more and more angry, disgusted, and yes, paranoid. 
Driving these emotions from underneath, as it always is, was fear.  At the time, I interpreted my own rising fear as worry about the case.   I had to crack this furred egg.  I was in too deep to stop.  If I didn’t make my threats believable, I would lose the lead, lose the case, lose my business… I could lose everything.
I won’t take up the rest of the day detailing the rest of my rant.  You probably don’t want to hear that kind of foulness.  Suffice it to say I outdid myself, laying out a grandiose plan of interspecies war and apartheid, with Krrutoki as the instrumental genius… or the martyred patsy, as he so chose.  He stood aghast, both of us feeling the grip of unreasoning anxiety. 
Finally, he had had enough.  He screamed, “GET OUT!”
Between words, between thoughts, I obeyed.  I had no choice.  My mind agreed with him completely.  I needed to GET OUT, that very moment.  If I didn’t leave, something unimaginably horrible would happen to me, probably involving horrendous pain as well.  I sought out the nearest exit.  The door was closed.  The window was closer, not to mention a faster route.  My hyper-focused mind pointed my body in the necessary direction and kept it moving forward. 
That feeling was frenzy, but at a new level.  This was to frenzy what orgasm is to a caress.  There was nothing else in my mind, no little voices suggesting alternate ideas, guiding me away from hazards, saying maybe I shouldn’t attack the custodian, she’s only trying to help, nothing.  Just fear and the most clear and immediate responses to relieve that fear.  When I was outside, it would stop.  That thought wasn’t a promise, it was certain knowledge.  Just get outside and the dark, wrenching torment would let go.
The worst thing about that experience wasn’t the experience of fear itself.  The worst part wasn’t even when I went through the window and fell two stories to the street below.  I was lacerated, less by the glass and more by the reinforcing wire meant to hold it in place.  I hit the pavement with an impact that wrenched my upper ankles and tail.  I narrowly missed cracking my beak on the ground as I fell forward.  I did lose two claws catching myself.
No, the worst part came afterward, when my mind began to clear.  The worst part was the memory of what I had felt, lurking just around the corner of my psyche.  It was the knowledge that it could come back again, at any time, just as awful and just as unavoidable.  I’ve dealt with criminals I considered monstrous.  They were wobbling hatchlings compared to this horror.
I would have run further, except for my sprained ankles.  Every step was making the damage worse, so after two blocks I was basically crawling.  The pain kept trying to renew my frenzy, but by that point, I was burned out.  There weren’t any more hormones for the glands to pump.  I collapsed at the edge of an alley between two businesses.  I remember one must have been a diner; the awful smell was distinctive.
There was also a horrible sound.  It took me a couple of minutes to recognize it: the screech of a custodial alarm.  That came as no surprise in retrospect.  I must have tripped an alarm going through the window.  A cruiser raced by and stopped half a block away from me.  I was still far enough gone to fumble for my heater… I was afraid Krrutoki would find me and hurt me again.
Praise Kktkrz’ crushing jaws that I was too weak to draw the weapon.  The custodians might have fired their paralytics first just to be safe.  As it was, two of them, both Vislin, approached me cautiously with their guns aimed.
I lay still and let them disarm me.  My mind was finally pulling itself together, despite the agony shouting at it from every direction.  I heard the custodians call for medical support and I clicked in agreement.  Let them take me into custody, into care.  I could finally rest, recover, and then recount what I had learned.  Herd Torbur would take care of the details.
You see, I knew what had caused Grust to become so strangely aroused and what had directed that arousal toward a seemingly unlikely target.  I knew what had made those other Taratumm rise in anger against me.  The same source had projected its terror into my mind.  We were puppets of Krrutoki’s psyche.  The rotten sack of entrails was psychic.  He might not realize it.  He might only be able to affect others when experiencing extreme emotions.  But he most definitely was the cause of all the recent troubles surrounding himself. 
Whether or not Krrutoki was a bad egg, Grust was not.  Being reeking drunk had probably made him more vulnerable, but intoxication was no crime.  The proposal to Yavirrt and the challenge to Tharrliki were all Krrutoki’s wishes being acted out by proxy.  Everything else that happened afterward was also Krrutoki's fault. 
I’d have to leave it up to the authorities to determine if that mind bending had been intentional or not.  Did Krrutoki lure Tharrliki into proximity near the Thunder Bar in order to attack him?  Or did he only want Yavirrt close, then became jealous and overwhelmed a nearby, receptive target with the projection of that frustration?
It wasn't my problem anymore.  I was out of the game, benched with injuries.  I got my medical care, in the secure clinic of the nearest custodial station.  I was left there almost overnight.  I slept in a medicated haze, while other sapients worried over my recent actions and my fate. 
When I woke up, I was stripped bare except for a neck support collar and braces wrapped around my upper legs.  Nothing remained of the multiple small cuts I had sustained from going through the window.  The benefits of advanced medicine are grand, for those who can afford them or get the government to pay for them.  There was still deep, throbbing pain in my neck, tail base, and upper ankles, but it had receded from ‘dying’ to ‘unpleasant’.
I swung myself off of the bed and looked around the room.  Not far away was a folded prison jumpsuit, the gleaming red of freshly spilled mammalian blood.  I don’t know if those things are meant to be humiliating or just easy to spot.  It was less embarrassing than going around nude, so I struggled to pull on the provided uniform.
                You know how the story goes from there.  I expected, eventually, to be led from the room, either to an interview room, a less comfortable holding cell, or else a judge’s bench.  I was prepared to ask for counsel – hopefully Herd Torbur would take my call – and then explain my whole insane but factually supported story.
                Instead, you, and you, and that cute spotted female that hasn’t come back yet, you all showed up.  I got a dose of happy gas sprayed in my face and woke up here.  Considering how long I’ve been talking without the urge to shut up and ask for my lawyer, I’m still under the influence of something.  Drugs?  Grust didn’t have that excuse.  I suspect I don’t, either. 
                You just listened to that insane but factually supported story I was preparing for Herd Torbur.   I didn't see any skepticism on your faces or hear any objections, so I suspect I'm right.
                I’m really, really, hoping that story gets back to them.  I’m also hoping you’ve already caught Krrutoki, unless he's smarter than he looked and started running.  I suppose it’s too much to ask that the truth be made public.  This kind of back room discussion suggests something much more private.  If you’re one kind of audience, I’ll probably have another ‘accident’, involving irreversible brain damage if not my early demise. 
               If not, do you have enough conscience to prevent an innocent sapient from being disgraced and imprisoned for most of his life?  If I’m right, and I’m talking to the psychic custodians or whatever you call yourselves, then you could nudge a few minds the right direction.  Even if you can’t let the truth about Krrutoki get out, could you manage something believable that lets the brute go free?      
               At the least, could you let his Herd know Grust is innocent, and that I found the proof?  Presuming you let me leave here, with or without my memories, I’d really like to retain my reputation.  I figured this out all on my own.  I practically led you to the troublemaker.  I hope that makes me valuable.
               If you’re really feeling generous, any chance I could still get paid?