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 décor. 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?