Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Bureaucrat's Tale - Chapter 7

          My subordinates and I worked with forced energy, striving to complete our mandatory tasks before our stamina failed.  The warning signs of fatigue surfaced quickly: drooping eyes, increasing errors, and strained tempers.  Fortunately, Aika was untouched by such frailties of biology, and kept us stimulated, edited, and mediated enough to proceed without problems.

          While Jacq and Tlalosseth drafted a second press release incorporating our newer updates, I composed a follow-up message to regional Defense Commander Grissakh bash’Ruushid, passing along the salient points from the compiled salvager reports.  I finished first and split off Aika’s attention to review my work while continuing to oversee the press release’s creation.  She also confirmed her simultaneous preparation of our routine updates to the local Collective Offices.  Each packet received my virtual stamp of approval as a formality before release.

          There were days I wondered whether including us biologicals in the bureaucratic process was an unnecessary drawback.  The Brins could handle every function faster, smarter, and cheaper.  It would never happen, though.  Other cultures’ paranoia aside, there was still a lingering discomfort even among my fellow Humans that releasing the reins anywhere would start the descent to our total obsolescence.

          Aika would be the first to object if I brought up that idea to her.  In the course of our past projects in settlement dynamics, she already had voiced her analysis of sapient-A.I. relations.  She claimed that no matter how well programmed or intentioned, artificial minds could never fully understand the needs, experiences, and preferences of biological organisms.  Thus, biologicals would always be needed to comprehend and govern their fellows.

          That analysis didn’t preclude the possibility of A.I. overlords using biologicals as subordinate overseers.  I avoided mentioning this interpretation in my discussions with Aika, not so much to avoid giving her ideas as to avoid drawing her offended objections.  It was nice of her to be reassuring about the value of meat creatures; I didn’t need to reject her gesture by suggesting the grim alternate possibilities.

          Our secondary press release was completed in respectable time.  I set aside my tentative notes for the Terran and Maraug governments’ updates and waved my staff over to review their document on my display.  Tlalosseth flowed out of his chair as Jacq rose stiffly, both sapients pulling their seats around to my side of the desk so that we could share the same view.

          I made a mental note to myself to requisition a cooperative wall display the next time budgeting allowed.  The request would probably be rejected, since complex and time-sensitive crises like the Locust affair were blessedly rare.  Most times, I and my subordinates managed well enough in our separate offices, on our separate systems, with shared networking sufficient to our daily labors.

          Everyone remained silent as I skimmed the proposed draft.  Since Aika had already fixed any lingering composition errors, my edit was mostly for content, tone, and organization.  Not that Aika hadn’t already considered those factors as well, but I might be privy to considerations she hadn’t known or couldn’t share.  I also had the final word on all releases from my office; while I sometimes waived that privilege, an official press release was something I should scrutinize closely before passing along.

          In structure and tone, this release was nearly the twin of the first missive the team generated.  No surprise, given the same authors and constraints.  It looked like the trio had cribbed from their prior organization, as well.  I swapped two lines from one paragraph to the beginning of an earlier block to emphasize their content more highly: the existence of survivors from the colonies.  Later text explained the lingering confusion about who and where those survivors actually were. 

          We omitted speculation about the nature of the Saving Grace's attackers.  That theft was left as a matter for further investigation, deferring specifics to Defense and Justice pending their official operations.  I was intensely curious, myself, about what exactly had happened to the ship, and I was certain citizens across the Collective would be asking questions.  While Settlement might have first view of the clues coming in from Locust IV, we were not qualified to offer any deductions, much less speculate on causes.  Once Defense had personnel on the ground locally, Settlement wouldn’t even be the primary recipient of updates; we would be dependent on reports from official investigators.

          I actually looked forward to taking a secondary role in the process.  Maybe it was the fatigue influencing my thoughts, but I was looking forward to a reduction in Settlement’s role on Locust IV.  Once we finalized the pronouncement of the colony’s termination and distributed our evidence, the workload in my Office should ebb back to a manageable flow.  Not that the pace would be leisurely, but my schedule would return to something more reasonable.  The work day already had stretched to more than twice its normal length, and the next day would likely start earlier and run just as long.

          Aware of the temptations of sleep, I did my best to avoid rushing my review of the press release.  I reread a portion to make sure it contained no unintentional references to our internal Office dialogue: no hints about the shortened communications circuit between the colony and the Terran cultural government, for example.  That telltale would surface on its own, as the press compared the timing of their data feeds to the officially reported information flow.  Settlement needed to look innocently ignorant of the entire matter.

          Finally, I pronounced the document acceptable for transmission.  In trade, I handed Jacq and Tlalosseth my notes on the Terran and Maraug cultural government briefings.  I asked Jacq to prepare the Mauraug contact and Tlalosseth to ready the Terran version, deliberately crossing species lines.  I trusted both beings to handle the composition and delivery of the necessary messages, especially since they had my models from previous communications.  Aika would also oversee, coach, and edit the final recordings as necessary.  Each assistant was also capable of modifying their presentation to appeal to the respective culture, although not with my skill.  That roughness was intentional; I wanted to use my subordinates specifically to undercut these reports with the message that neither recipient was important enough to merit my personal attention.  As long as neither assistant committed any overt misstatements, their offerings would be “good enough”.

          With those assignments, I dismissed the two to their respective offices, inviting them back to my workspace to consult with Aika as necessary.  I took to myself the privilege of getting to bed earlier.  I left the office shortly after the other two, taking my personal compad along.  Its authorized link back to Aika's main system would ensure that I stayed in contact no matter where I roamed.

          I wasn’t going far, though, merely a hundred meters or so to a small room colloquially termed a ‘bunk’.  It was my personal, minimalist apartment away from home, a single room apartment with bed, sink, shower, toilet, micro-kitchen, and a few cabinets for wardrobe and personal effects.  It might seem like a jail cell, except for the slightly greater space allowed and the more humane layout.  I hadn’t decorated much, perhaps in the fear that if I became comfortable with my allotted home-away-from-home, I would be doomed to use it more often.

          In my years in Settlement, I had only slept in the bunk five times: three times during particularly challenging year-end accounting reviews, once when I fell unexpectedly ill and didn’t feel safe navigating home, and just one other time during a crisis of the current magnitude.

          In that case, an entire colony ship had been lost due to an unforeseen magnetic storm at their destination – the result of an oversight during surveying – and Settlement had to oversee the search operation to locate the missing settlers.  We authorized recruitment of two dozen ships, including two Ningyo scouts to speed up the real-space search.  The colony ship was located seventy hours later, scattered across two systems due to breakup from incomplete transition out of trans-light speeds.

          Locust Four was my first experience with colony loss due to violent, military action.  There had been conflict in other colonies – both internal and external – including significant death tolls, but complete colony loss was rare.  Usually, the cause of colony loss was accident, like the spaceflight error already mentioned, or equipment failure (always compounded by operator error), or failure to account for a hostile factor in the planetary environment… and even then, there were usually survivors to rescue or evacuate.

          As I settled down for bed, I finally felt the emotional weight of the reported deaths.  Well over one thousand lives, no matter how you defined that term, had been ended by a brutal, needless attack.  The dead were casualties of war, and by that metric were a rather small group, but it was a war they had not sought and had not known they might die fighting.  Those who sent the colonists should have known. 

          In my opinion, the cultural officials were responsible. They demanded the settlement, negotiated its details, and organized the colony drives.  They were aware of the conflict they were provoking.  I and Secretary ChiTakTiZu argued that any joint colony would be a target.  At the least, its sponsors should have warned the colonists to expect sudden death as a possibility, if not negotiated harder for adequate defenses for the colony itself.

          Maybe they did warn the colonists... but I found it hard to believe so many people still would have volunteered, given an honest assessment of the risks.  In retrospect, death had become a certainty rather than a probability, but the prior probability should have been estimated higher.  When I looked over the colonists’ roster, they hadn’t seemed like hardened military types inured to the idea of violence, nor had I noticed a trend toward suicidal resignation.  The settlers looked like the usual cross-section of hopeful pioneers looking for a new home to build, skilled workers looking for a new place to show their merit, and yes, disaffected overflow hoping for a new start or at least some distance from old problems.

          Now at least ninety-five percent of them were dead, with no distinction made between those prepared for the possibility of death and those dismissive or ignorant of the threat.  The more there were of the ignorant, the more culpable their home governments were in their deaths. 

          In conjunction with Medical, we would start issuing official notices of death soon.  Families would be informed of their lost loved ones.  Friends would hear secondhand or find the names of the dead on the official published lists.  While a few hundred sapients was a bare sliver of the overall population of the Collective and a tiny decrement to their individual cultural populations, each death would be enormous to those who had known each colonist.  While the entire loss was small in proportion to past death tolls from war, plague, or natural or technological accidents - even relatively minor in comparison to some settlement losses - the tragedy was a painful blow to the Settlement Office.  It would be felt throughout the Collective.  It would thunder in the halls of government within the Terran and Mauraug capitols.

          Along with slowly arriving grief, I felt guilt for treating this tragedy as an intellectual puzzle, delivered for my personal challenge… or a product to be repackaged and sent out again to earn a day’s wages.  We were reporting the lost lives of real people, writing the obituary for their dream.

          I was still right for being aggravated, but not about the work involved and the nuisance of dealing with the personalities involved.  No, I was righteously angry at the parties ultimately responsible for the colony and its doom: the members of each cultural government who had ignored our warnings and pressed forward. 

          I was even hypocritically angry at whichever of my fellow bureaucrats were supporting those miscreants by feeding them advance information, allowing the guilty to prepare their defensive cover before the populist storm began.  It was hypocrisy because the leakers were doing nothing worse than what I did by throttling information to those same governments: playing games and jockeying for advantage based on the whims and needs of myself and my Office.  We were all manipulating information which, at its origin, was news of death and evil and wrongs needing to be righted.

          Not that any of us could do much righting, personally.  All we could do was our jobs.  But we could do them properly, honestly and well, not haltingly and with prejudice.  I drifted off to sleep with such noble goals floating through my mind.  Pity that they never seemed to survive into waking consciousness.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 9 - "Clean Bill"

          For a night that had ended so badly, my morning was full of pleasant surprises. The night held surprises, too, the unpleasant surprises of being woken up every couple of hours by my nurse. The cheery Hrotata male withdrew blood once, replaced my intravenous fluids once, and checked my bandages once each, spread over three visits. Each time, he also reviewed my vitals. The first visit was hazy, but the subsequent two were clearer each time.

          By the time I was ready to wake up and stay awake, my head felt considerably less clouded. That was the first pleasant surprise: I was decently clear-headed, neither woozy from medications nor overly distracted by pain. Either the pain meds weren’t scrambling my brains as much as usual, or else they’d lowered the dosage and my wounds were healing well.

         I had a strange moment when I tried to stretch: both arms and both legs ached in protest. This wasn’t surprising for my arms, since both of my wrists were tied with medical cuffs to the bed frame. On the left side, this served an actual purpose: keeping me from moving my injured arm. I wasn’t formally a prisoner, but I was being kept in custody until the constables were satisfied.

         My legs weren’t restrained. My right leg had a bandage wrapped around its lower half, securing a pad which covered an embarrassing number of stitches. I had been lucky the bullet that caught me ripped parallel to the muscle, rather than through a major artery or bone.

         So why was my uninjured, unrestrained leg hurting as well? And here was another oddity: for a brief hectad or two, it had felt like I had casts on both ankles. After that sensation faded, the ache in my good leg went away, while the pain in my right side migrated to the torn muscle above. 

         Once this symphony of pain settled down to a few notes, those notes faded to a more muted background. I was aware of the pain, but it didn’t aggravate me the way it had when the detective was questioning me. It certainly wasn’t as severe as I might have expected from bullet wounds; it wasn’t as severe as I remembered from past projectile injuries.

         Good drugs? Or good medical care? Vaktrri Medical was a better facility than I usually visited. It was possible they had materials and/or techniques more advanced than at lesser hospitals. Frost, that was the soul of inequality, wasn’t it? Not only did the poorer neighborhoods get less care, and need it more often, the patients even suffered more pain per ailment. If the doctors at Vaktrri could fix me up faster and with less agony, that had to be a function of the available funding.

         I waited, half-awake and bored, spiraling in my own thoughts, until the nurse returned with breakfast. I might be a prisoner in my room, but at least they offered room service. The smell of broth poured out of a covered dish as the nurse set up a tray in front of my bed.

         “Are you going to feed me?” I asked him, rattling the bed’s arms with my bindings for emphasis.

         “Sorry to disappoint, but no,” he answered lightly. “We’ve got another drinking tube. I hope they’ll cut you loose before we move you up to solids.”

         The nurse opened the bowl and retrieved another flexible siphon, putting one end into the broth and the other at the corner of my beak, replacing the water tube. I took an experimental sip and found the liquid thicker than expected and also better tasting. Actual meat had been cooked down and then pureed into the broth. For hospital food, the meal was still better quality than the synthetic, rehydrated swill I drank most mornings.

          Since I wasn’t going to be conversational for a while, the nurse stepped out to let me eat quietly. Drinking out of a hose aside, I managed to enjoy breakfast. The meal also gave me time to think.

          It was possible I would be moved from the hospital into a prison. My involvement with Pkstzk’s case might end there, along with any ability to help her. On that path, my concerns would focus more on keeping myself - and her - out of worse trouble.

          Alternately, the detective might question me a while longer and then cut me loose. I was savvy enough to realize that this option would be a trap. Detective Nrissilli would have me watched closely to see where I went and who I met with afterward, in the hopes that I would incriminate myself further… or take the risks for her while finding the actual criminals. Either outcome might be worth the risk of letting me go ‘free’.

          I could get lucky; the third, least probable outcome was if the detective decided that I was not only not guilty, but that I could be an asset. In that scenario, the constables might share their information in return for mine and trade my assistance for my freedom. It had happened before, but not often. Usually, the best returns I could hope for were dropped charges and a warning to say out of constabulary business.

          In this case, the ‘good’ third option actually wasn’t much better than the second. I’d still be dancing across a minefield, trying to pursue whoever had killed Ktkkrz and whoever tried to kill me and possibly meant to kill Pkstzk. If those weren’t the same party, or if one or both were linked to Pack Vzzrk, I might not be able to dance nimbly enough to dodge the explosions. I definitely wasn’t in prime dancing form, what with my recently perforated leg.

          I expected my next visitor to be the nurse or possibly Detective Nrissilli. Instead, an unexpected third party stopped in: a male Vislin in beige doctor’s robes. His scales clashed with the light fabric, most of them a black so dark it reflected blue from the indoor lighting.

          He carried an official compad and wore an ID badge, so I assumed he was, in fact, a doctor. That wasn’t a given; I had pretended to be a doctor at least once before to sneak into a hospital room. An assassin could easily do the same to get access and catch me defenseless.

          My paranoia was reduced somewhat by his demeanor: he did absolutely nothing to put me at my ease. An assassin would have either shot me outright or tried to lull me into feeling safe, in either case making sure I didn’t call for help. This doctor gave me plenty of time to inspect him and worry. I could have called the chief of constables in the time he took dawdling around.

          He checked over his compad, looked up at me without catching my eyes, and then looked back down at his screen again. Then he crossed to my vital monitor and compared its display with his ‘pad's. Like the nurse, he made a few notes with a claw-tip. The entire time, he neither spoke to me nor acknowledged my presence. It was like being dark matter studied by an astronomer; I was apparently invisible but somehow produced measurable effects in his universe.

          It wasn’t until he removed the feeding tube from my beak and I muttered, “Thanks” that he indicated any awareness of a patient inside the bandages.

          “Stchvk?” he mused aloud, glancing again from his compad to me and back.

          “It’s true. I do exist,” I quipped back.

          He either missed the joke or ignored it. “I’m your doctor, Ssvktk. I’ll need to check your injuries. We’ll start with your leg, see how the stitches are holding.”

          He put the compad down somewhere behind my field of view and came around the opposite side holding a tray and a pair of scissors. He continued his monologue: “I’m going to lift your leg slightly and cut off the bandages. There may be some pain from both actions.”

          I finally put it all together: his muted demeanor, his averted gaze, his careful warning; Doctor Ssvktk was afraid. Even with my arms tethered, he was afraid of me. What had the constables told him? That I was a suspect involved in a public firefight? Or had they just left it at ‘dangerous suspect’ and let him fill in the details? I suspected that this section of Vaktrri Medical didn’t see many patients in custody. Otherwise, the doctor might have come in with a security escort or at least been a tougher sort.

          I was tempted to abuse my position and terrorize the doctor. That urge passed quickly as I recognized that he was my doctor and – for what it was worth – my healing was in his hands. I stayed quiet and still as he lifted my leg, which only protested slightly in response. He cut away the bandages, which clung slightly and pulled at the wound, then inspected the stitching on its underside.

          “Tt?” He clicked, which I assumed was doctor-speak for either “That’s bad,” or “That’s odd.”

          It turned out to be the latter. As he wrapped my leg in new gauze, the doctor informed me, “Either the injury was less severe than we thought, or you heal quickly. It’s already sealing… our surgeon can’t take credit for that much improvement.”

          From past, hard experience, I knew that I wasn’t a “quick healer”. I was willing to believe that the gunshot wound had looked worse – and felt worse – than it actually was. Cleaning up the blood, removing the loose and impacted scales, and stitching up the tear would have improved its appearance considerably. Still, it had hurt quite a lot at the time, and if past experience was any indicator, it still ought to sting badly.

          I had been assuming that topical and internal pain medications were suppressing that sting. Maybe they had less work to do than usual.

          The doctor moved on: “I’ll take a look at your arm now. I will need to unbind your arm. Please remain still. Any sudden motions could damage your injury further and will be exceedingly painful.”

          I had had enough. I blinked theatrically and informed him, “Look, Doc, I appreciate the play-by-play, but I’m not dangerous. I ended up in the right room at a bad time and some actual criminals put some holes in my hide. Just do what you need to, and I promise you, I won’t do anything ‘sudden’... or stupid.”

          I didn’t add: you can untie me, and I won’t go anywhere, I promise. I was tempted to, but that’s exactly what a criminal who was planning to escape would say.

          He didn’t respond directly to my statement, but he did stop pre-narrating his actions. He used the scissors to gnaw through my left wrist restraint, then to remove the bandages on that arm. This time, I could see the injury. I knew the bullet had gone through my forearm, not far from the wrist. I had been fortunate it missed the bones to either side. Even so, I expected a nasty, puckered wound, stitched together with some difficulty or even packed to keep the bleeding down.

          Instead, I saw neat straight incisions on both sides of my arm. It looked like the bullet had opened the flesh with minimal effort and politely closed the doors on the way back out. This wound, even dressed, had to be the tidiest gunshot wound I’d ever seen.

          The doctor gave his little click again and started in, “This is very good…”

          I interrupted, “It’s surreal, is what it is. Is Vaktrri experimenting with some next generation medical tech? If so, I’m not complaining, even without signing any contract. Either that, or my attackers were using some experimental ‘low damage’ ammunition.” I tried not to sound angry. The weirdness probably wasn’t this doctor’s fault. I really wasn’t complaining, either. Being less hurt was a good thing. I just wished I could explain it.

          I couldn’t blame Doctor Ssvktk for giving me a pained look anyway. He shook his head and stepped back, setting down the tray with its discarded bandages and retrieving his compad. He took a picture of my arm and tapped the screen a few more times, likely transmitting the image to a colleague. Possibly, he was querying the surgeon who had seen my wounds originally.

          “No, while Vaktrri Medical is near the state of the art for ChtkKttp, no otherwise special techniques were used in your surgery,” he finally and flatly stated. “It is possible that armor piercing rounds were used, and you had the good fortune to be struck only in non-vital areas.”

          I stared at the doctor in disbelief, long enough to make him uncomfortable again. He looked away and then shuffled away to put down his compad again.

          He returned with a new tray and said, “Last, I’ll look at your back.” At least he spared me any further instructions.

          I rolled over obligingly, balancing myself on my good arm where it remained tethered to the bed rail. My abused tail stretched automatically, flicking against the mattress. I hadn’t realized how cramped it had been until painful tingles started running from its base to tip. A hospital bed was a poor substitute for a proper nest, no matter how ergonomically it was designed… and no bed is comfortable when you’re strapped in place.

          The doctor didn’t flinch when my tail moved. I took that as a sign that he was relaxing. He pulled at one of the patches on my back and dropped the bandage onto his tray. He probed around the area with a claw-tip, I assumed to check for any remaining embedded shrapnel.

          “I’m going to attribute this result to your armor and distance,” he offered right away, rather than clicking and pausing first. “The shot didn’t penetrate very deeply, but even so, you ought to show more impact trauma.”

          “It sure kicked hard enough,” I responded, working our rapport toward camaraderie. “Practically threw me out a window.”

          He did click, once, in reply to that statement. He worked quietly and quickly afterward, removing and replacing pads. I counted them to entertain myself: eighteen. Eighteen separate pock marks from my shoulders down to my tail base. I supposed I was fortunate my tail had kept any shot from going up my backside, but I was also glad my angle had kept any projectiles from smacking into my skull.

          So, three armed attackers had done their best to murder me in a locked – though admittedly spacious – hotel room, and I came out with nothing worse than twenty-one lines of neat stitches? Between medical glue and self-absorbing sutures, I’d be almost intact in a few days. The soreness would fade before the scars did, but at least the scale-less patches weren’t anywhere obvious.

          Pretty good deal, all told. Very good. Too good. If I were more religious, I’d owe a Goddess or two an offering for such amazing luck. Maybe I had been blessed for my virtues? Yeah, let’s laugh a moment at that thought.

          The doctor cleaned up as I considered more secular reasons for my good fortunes. Had they been trying to wound but not kill me? I reviewed the attack in my memory, which was functioning amazingly well for recent events despite its problems with more distant recall. No, they had definitely been trying to kill me. Maybe they were a little slower on the trigger than seasoned professionals, but that could be explained by a) surprise at seeing the wrong Vislin in their trap, and/or b) not actually being seasoned professionals, despite their gear. Other than their delay, they had certainly installed enough lead into the suite to make a convincing case for murderous intent.

          My evasive skills weren’t the reason, either. I have a pretty quick dodge, honed by necessity and natural talent, but I’m no trained martial artist or soldier. If I managed to move away and turn aside enough to minimize injury, that wasn’t by intent or skilled reflex.

          I supposed, lacking any new information, I’d have to reluctantly ascribe my survival – actually, my minimal damage – to sheer stupid chance. I guess every so often, even a hard-luck sapient gets an undeserved favor.

          Another bit of luck: the doctor didn’t bother to re-bind my free, injured arm. I wondered if that was deliberate, but I was alert enough not to mention it. No need to remind him of forgotten duties in this case.

          He nodded to me as he started toward the door, only belatedly remembering to throw in basic courtesies. “Medically, I believe you can be released today, citizen Stchvk. You should require only further rest with minimal strenuous activity for the next half-cycle, before being evaluated again.”

          He continued, reciting the rest of his dialogue from a familiar routine: “Notify your physician if you notice any swelling, discoloration or discharge from any wound site, if you experience increasing pain, numbness, or warmth, or if you have fever or weakness lasting more than one day."

          Last, he went off-script to note: “Of course, your discharge depends on the constable overseeing your medical residence. You may be moved to a holding facility at her or his discretion. In either case, I likely will not be needed again. Thank you and good day.”

          He was out the door before I could respond. Busy sapient, other patients to see, still afraid for his safety, you know, the usual. I settled down, this time on my side, and prepared myself mentally for another long wait.

          I missed out on the anticipated boredom. Less than a decad after Doctor Ssvktk stepped out, the door opened, and Detective Nrissilli stepped in.

          I straightened out and tried to settle my left arm back into place. “Detective, welcome back,” I greeted her. My ruse clearly hadn’t worked, as her eyes went to my freed arm. Instead, I lifted it and waved slowly. “It appears I’m in good hands here.”

          “So I hear,” she confirmed with a smile. “The doctor says you don’t need to stay here long, although you might want a crutch for that leg.”

          “What’s next, then?” I asked, getting right to the point.

          “I think that’s up to you,” she countered, “We’re still right at the same point where we left off."

          I clacked at her in irritation. “Except today I’m not in as much pain.”

          She had the grace to look embarrassed, even lifting a paw and tilting her head down before stopping short of grooming an ear. “You know that’s standard procedure. I’m doing my job according to protocol. Otherwise, I might do something like let you go and see if you lead us to Pkstzk… or have you shot up with hypnotics until you tell us where she is.”

          “She’s still missing?” I sat up a little, betraying my concern.

          “Officially, she's not 'missing'. But she hasn’t been located, either. As a person of interest in an attempted murder - even as the potential intended victim – we have constables out looking for her. I’m confident we’ll track her down soon, assuming she’s still alive. Sorry.”

          I waved off the attempt at sympathy. “I agree with your fatalism. I’d like to join the search myself, but I suspect there may be difficulties there. I assume my attackers haven’t been located, either?”

          The detective looked irritated, then. “No. I was really hoping you might have remembered something else… because otherwise, they’ve vanished. You’re fortunate other guests and the clerk remembered them entering, because otherwise, they might be considered fictional. Now, I’m not disputing the facts of the firefight up there…” She held up both paws to forestall my nonexistent protest. “…because there’s plenty of broken glass, holes, and a fried grav lift to verify your story. But how do I explain three armed and armored Vislin getting in and out of a hotel without leaving any sign on video?”

          She paused, actually waiting to see if I could offer an explanation. Actually, there was something nagging at me… “Wait, no video? I thought you said you saw them going in, on the recordings from the lobby cameras.”

          Detective Nrissilli stared back at me and answered smoothly, “Did I? I must have been assuming we had that. It turned out we didn’t. I talked to the officer who reviewed the video… no images of them.”

          Was she lying now? Was she lying back then? Was she actually sloppy enough to claim evidence she didn’t have, by mistake? My instincts said she had meant what she said earlier, which meant she was either hiding something now… or testing me? It wasn’t uncommon for a detective to deliberately misstate facts in a case, seeing if a suspect or witness would let the error pass, getting caught in a lie or revealing their actual uncertainty about a detail. I had used the technique myself in the past.

          But what possible value did it hold to alter that particular detail? What suspicions about me were related to the hotel video? Did she think I somehow removed or altered the recordings or had someone else do it? Did she think it would be a problem for me to either have or not have the videos?

          I didn’t get much time to consider the possibilities. To be honest, some of these ideas occurred to me later in the day, after our conversation. Detective Nrissilli pressed on, changing the subject in a way that was itself suspicious.

          “Actually, there’s not much evidence indicating you committed any crime: no bodies, whether or not you fired in self-defense. We’ve already searched your compad: you were clearly working the Vzktkk case, but I didn’t see any earlier calls between yourself and his mate… actually, no calls at all. Very clean work, even for a P.I. We know you two met at her place of employment, had a drink, and she gave you the hotel key there. A check of your recent travel shows that you were out of town at the time of Vzktkk’s death."

          I did my best to keep my feelings out of my response: “All accurate, and thank you for noticing. Very thorough work, yourself. You are correct: there is no evidence I did anything illegal, because I haven’t. Improper, maybe. Imprudent, definitely. But I’ll swear to you, if it will help: I’m just the hired hunter here, trying to find a killer. Maybe I found three. I’ll be the first to admit this case got bigger than I expected and I walked into the middle of it.”

          “I still think there’s more between you and your ‘client’ than you’re telling. Why hasn’t she called you… why didn’t she call you before, at least once? What would you or she be afraid of that required phone silence? If it was the fact of your hire, then why meet with you in public?"

          I had an answer for that, at least: “She came to my office while I was out of town and left me a note to meet her. She figured coming to her workplace would give us an excuse to talk without drawing attention.”

          True so far, but then I reversed away from the truth: “I don’t know why she was being so careful. She said she didn’t want anyone knowing she had hired private help. Maybe she thought I would be more effective if the killer didn’t see me coming. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from whoever shot her mate.”

          “That didn’t work so well,” the detective offered, deadpan.

          “I assume she didn’t know they would track her reservation at a dockside hotel,” I suggested. “But she booked it under her own name, so she wasn’t being totally cautious.”

          “I’m still not convinced,” Detective Nrissilli warned, “but I will admit that I don’t have anything – yet – to hold you on. Given your injuries, I’m going to trust your good sense and let you go home to recuperate. Consider yourself off Pkstzk’s case. Unhired. If she makes contact, you let me know. My number is on your compad, which you can pick up when you check out here. We have to hold your heater as evidence until the hotel incident is resolved. You can have your armor back, although I’m not sure it’s worthwhile to repair at this point… maybe bury it with honors.”

          Her tone was light but her words heavy. I understood the warning. She wouldn’t expect me to honor her ‘orders’ to drop Pkstzk’s case, but if the constables enforced jurisdiction, I would be fully liable for any damage or infractions caused while pursuing that case. I was already guilty of one known breaking-and-entering. If I persisted, I certainly wouldn’t have any friendly witnesses regarding the shootout at Taburket’s. Plus, if I was found at any scene related to this case – like Taburket’s, the restaurant, or the murder site in Isstravil – I could be arrested on sight for ‘tampering’ or ‘trespassing’.

          The same applied if I had contact with Pkstzk before the constables found her and didn’t call the detective immediately. That oversight would be considered ‘interfering with an investigation’ or ‘obstruction of justice’.

          Holding my weapon, Rtrtr, hostage to my good behavior… that was just cruel. Besides leaving me unarmed, keeping my heater in lockup was punishing a good weapon for its owner’s misfortunes. The detective probably didn’t realize how much I loved my sidearm, but she understood that I was less likely to start any (more) trouble without it. Yes, it actually was evidence, but that was a secondary concern.

          My body must have betrayed my frustrations. Detective Nrissilli squinted at me and added: “Do we have an understanding? Your release on good behavior?”

          “Sure. Fine. I’m not happy, but I get your meaning. I’ll be good for a day or two, anyway, just to make sure these stitches don’t pull out. I hope you’ll have everyone rounded up by that time.”

          “I’m hoping to have your three, plus Pkstzk, in custody by the time you’re discharged,” the detective shot back. “And you’re not entirely loosed from my claws: Stay in town and out of trouble. You may still get a free ride downtown if I hear something I don’t like.”

          “Heard. So, can you cut me loose here?” I indicated my bound wrist. With all the turning and twisting, the restraint tie was cutting in enough to make my fingers feel cold.

          The detective actually obliged, digging out a pair of scissors and cutting off the bindings the same way the doctor had. I flexed my good arm and hand gratefully, getting the blood back where it wanted to go.

          “Stay in bed,” Detective Nrissilli warned. “Besides your good health, there’s still a guard outside. Don’t make him nervous.”

          “No problem,” I confirmed. “I’m still not sure how well I can stand up. I’ll wait on the nurse to help out there. Tttt, one more thing: Would you mind if I call Tskksk, make sure she’s all right?”

          She twitched an ear in agreement. “We have a patrol checking in on her. She opened her store on time this morning, no signs of any trouble. She doesn’t answer her ‘pad very well, though.”

          “I noticed that.” I relaxed slightly, relieved that at least one possible victim of this case had avoided trouble. “Thanks. I don’t expect any attention toward her, considering you already spoke with her and others in the neighborhood about Vzktkk’s murder. I haven’t mentioned the new evidence to anyone… and I’ll keep it that way.”

          “Good,” the detective replied. “Although I don’t know yet what value that evidence will be to the murder case. If someone does come after her, that would tell me it's important.”

          I didn’t like the sound of that. I countered, “But even if that was the case, now that we have the recording, there’s no reason to bother her.”

          “Sometimes, criminals don’t need reasons. Murder may have a motive, but that doesn’t mean the motive isn’t irrational.” Her lecture was strange, coming from a constable detective to a private detective who, she knew, had dealt with more than one murder case. Then again, she was far ahead of me in years and experience; maybe she had been exclusively dealing with death for a long time.

          She was right, too. Just knowing that Tskksk had provided evidence that might implicate him or her, the killer might target her as retribution. I hated the thought. For one thing, it gave me additional incentive to ignore the detective’s warnings and help find the killer that much faster.

          “Well, let’s not give them any reasons, either way,” I declared.

          “It won’t be public knowledge until we have the killer on trial,” she confirmed. “And then, only if it is relevant. Get some rest, would you? You’re winning here, don’t push it.” On that note, she left the room, locking the door behind her.

          I didn’t feel like a winner. Fortunate, yes. But the game was still being played. And by the empty shells of my mother’s unlaid eggs, I wasn’t about to get off the field just yet.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 8 - "Patient Investigator"

          I came to still attached to the stretcher, but in a hospital room.  A tan-striped auburn male Hrotata in nurse’s scrubs was checking my vitals, transferring numbers from a readout to his work ‘pad.  Noticing my eyelids fluttering, he leaned over and shone a light in my eye.  I restrained the urge to snap at his hand.

          “Welcome back,” he said brightly, with little trace of sarcasm, “You’ve had a rough night.”

          I cleared my throat, not wanting the obvious straight line to go to waste, but my tongue was so dry and thick I couldn’t talk back.

          “You left some blood behind,” the Hrotata continued, “plus the painkiller is probably drying you out.  Wait a while until we get fluids into you.  Just rest for now.  You’re all stitched up, at least.  We’ve got the lead collection from your back all bagged up and waiting for you, along with some ventilated armor.  The armor helped, but you really might want to invest in something thicker.”

          Great, a comedian.  Plus, he was stealing all my jokes.  I groaned, and not in appreciation.

          “Sorry about the feeling coming back.  You’re not due for another dose of the good stuff.”  He grimaced, which was just visible in my peripheral vision.  Officially not due.”

          I got it.  Technically, torturing a suspect was illegal, but constables could delay administration of painkillers for quite a while, in the interest of “obtaining a lucid statement.”  I hoped my beak would get lubricated well enough to satisfy them before the aches became unbearable.

          Anticipating my concern, the nurse pulled over a drinking hose and inserted the nozzle at the corner of my beak.  The flexible tip would open and dispense small amounts of water whenever I bit down hard enough.  I sipped a little without choking and he looked pleased.

          “Other than that detail, there’s a signal box by your right hand; push the button if you need anything else.  You’ve been spared a catheter, but I have to get someone to release you if you need the bathroom.  Surprised you didn’t mess yourself when the shooting started… must be a tough lizard?”

          His use of the common slur surprised me, but his tone was hardly dismissive.  I wondered how much of his patter was his normal persona and how much was an act tailored to each patient.  I was a suspect from a gun battle, so I got tough banter and slang.  A little old Hrotata matron with a heart condition would probably get a different routine.

          Hey, his patient, his show.  I was just happy he wasn’t rude... or terrified of me.

          I tried speaking again and managed: “Where am I?”

          “Vaktrri Medical,” he answered without further jokes, “Room 1221.  Post-surgical recovery.”

          Vaktrri?  I’d been there not too long ago… why?  I didn’t remember being admitted recently, and my regular doctor was closer to home… not that I saw him very often, either.  The exact circumstance eluded me, but I was sure I’d been to Vaktrri Medical for something recent.  A case?  To see a wounded client?  The hint of a memory, along with the other oddities I’d noticed over the last few days, was aggravating.

          Another anomaly: Vaktrri was in an entirely separate neighborhood from Taburket’s.  In fact, it was half the city away from the shuttle port.  It wasn’t even closer to where I lived.  It was close to a major constabulary office, so maybe that was their reasoning in hauling me so far away.  Even if there was a reason, it was still irresponsible.  No matter how minor my injuries, I should have been taken to the nearest emergency room.  Maybe my injuries had been worse than I thought; Vaktrri did have excellent surgeons.  I couldn’t remember much about the hospitals around the port.  Maybe this hospital had been a logical choice for reasons I couldn’t figure.

          The nurse slipped out of the room while I thought this over.  I chewed a few more swallows out of the drinking tube and tried to relax.  Twinges from my arm, leg, and back kept nudging me awake.  Those aches, coupled with the strange events of the previous few days, sent my mind racing.  Working on the case might make my head hurt, but it distracted me from other pains.

          What had happened?  Three well-funded but amateurish Vislin street soldiers had jumped out of hiding and tried to kill me.  Why?  Was this somehow related to the case I was working, the murder of Vzktkk?  Was I missing some past grudge someone would want to kill me over?

          Wait, wait, wait.  Why was I assuming they were lying in wait for me?  What an ego.  I hadn’t reserved the room at Taburket’s… Pkstzk did.  It was far more likely they were waiting for her.  To kill her?  It was possible they only started firing after I did.  They might have been there to kidnap Pkstzk or maybe just threaten her.

          Whatever the reason, there was clearly something deeper involved in Vzktkk’s death.  Pkstzk hadn’t warned me to be careful.  It was possible she honestly didn’t know about a threat.  I suspected she did at least know the general outlines of what was going on with her mate.  So did she not know about the possibility of assassins?  Or had she avoided warning me to also avoid scaring me off the case?

          Worse chance, maybe Vzktkk had died as a consequence of whatever Pkstzk was involved in.  I might have narrowly avoided being the second casualty of her actions.

          I still needed that conversation with her, present delays notwithstanding.  Now I had four additional interviews to look forward to: a constable detective and perhaps the three attackers… presuming they hadn’t died at the hotel.  Once again, I fervently hoped no civilians had died, in a crossfire or as hostages.  Trapped idiots with guns and without scruples tended to cause collateral casualties.

          I also needed to make sure Tskksk was all right.  I might have been paranoid, worrying about her before, but with this new twist, my fears weren’t so unfounded.  I’d warn the constables to look in on her.  Hopefully they already had her evidence and knew her value as a witness.  If not, I could provide her recording and explain its significance.

          The waiting started to wear on me.  I hoped the nurse was notifying a detective that I was awake, waiting, and in genuine need of medication. 

          More water, more time, and more stray thoughts: one of the thugs had been packing a laser weapon.  Vzktkk was shot with a laser.  Was that significant?  Given the weapon and Tskksk’s recording, could we verify a match?  It was probably coincidence; there were lots of weapon-grade lasers in Layafflr City.

          When the potential leads and connections between them began to run out, my thoughts turned to my own personal mysteries.  I was forgetting some events and remembering others without context.  I had suffered a lot of injuries over the years, but not that many were blows to the head.  Well, here I was in the hospital.  I could always ask the doctors to scan and test everything.  I’d be in permanent debt and have all my vitals on permanent record, but maybe it would be worth it to salvage my mental and possibly physical health.

          I almost became aggravated enough to signal the nurse and ask him how much longer I’d have to wait.  His peace was preserved by the arrival of a stranger.  A fairly large female Hrotata eased into the room, opening the door no wider than necessary to shift inside.  She shut it again behind her, while I craned my neck to try and see my guest more clearly.

          She was pale cream almost all over, with darker markings on her nose and around her ears.  Her large size was partly length and partly weight.  I wasn’t the best judge, but she looked a little rotund for a Hrotata.  Any markings on her body were hidden by a formal robe, a heavy grey garment usually worn by important matriarchal leaders but sometimes adopted by other authority figures.  This female was someone who wanted to make it clear she was In Charge.

          She gestured that I should lie back, saying, “Investigator Stchvk?  I’m Detective Nrissilli, Layafflr Constabulatory.”  She stepped closer to the bed, within my comfortable field of vision.  “I’m going to need to ask you a few questions.  Answer to the best of your ability, and we’ll be done sooner…"

          “…and you can be home before dinner,” I mumbled in interruption.  I started to spit out the drinking tube.  She reached forward to help, and I tensed, anticipating the contact with her fur that would transfer the Hrotata’s narcotic saliva.  To my surprise, she was careful not to touch my mouth or scales, but only picked up the tube by its base and lifted it away.

          “Right,” she answered with a smile, “You’ve played this part before.  I’m familiar with some of your past work.  You want to sit up?” she asked, gesturing toward the bed controls.

          “Please,” I agreed, “Save my neck some strain.”

          She adjusted the bed until I was halfway upright.  The elevation let me unbend my crest as well as look at her without turning my head.  Unfortunately, it brought blood rushing out of my head and into my arms.

          I must have looked uncomfortable, since Detective Nrissilli winced sympathetically and said, “Sorry I can’t unbind you just yet.  We need to make sure you won’t run off anywhere, first.”

          “I do have places to be,” I muttered sullenly, “Some rotted eggs interrupted my plans for the night.”

          “Let’s start with that, then.”  She produced a compad from a holster beneath her robes and tapped it awake.  “What happened last night?”

          “I was going to a room in Taburket’s – Room 818 – to wait for a friend.  A female friend, named Pkstzk.  We were going to meet at her room, see how the evening went.  She reserved the room.  Have you checked on her?  Is she safe?”

          Nrissilli nodded, scrunching up her nose in an expression I could never reliably interpret: either irritation or amusement or both.  “We’re sending a unit to look for her at home.  She left work as usual, took a public ‘car toward the shuttle port, then nothing.  She wasn’t at the hotel, if that’s your concern.  Any thoughts where she might have gone, otherwise?”

          We were trading information.  It wasn’t a fair transaction, but it was nice not to just be answering questions into a vacuum.  I supposed senior officers were allowed some latitude to act less like rabid rktpk.

          “No, don’t even know where she lives.  I think she chose the hotel partly to keep it that way.”  Talking so much was drying my mouth out again, but I didn’t want to ask for the drinking tube and chance contact with the Hrotata again.

          “Okay, so you went into the hotel.  Any sign something might be wrong?  Any forewarning this could happen?  Looks like you were armed: an old-model heater?”

          “I always carry that.  I have a permit, under file along with my PI license.”

          “I know.  So you’re a throwback that way, too.  Not everyone with a weapon and a license feels the need to carry all the time.”

          “I do.  Never know when you might be jumped."
          “Sure.  That’s a no, you didn’t suspect anything?"

          “No.  Far as I knew, I was going to an empty room to wait, maybe clean up, nap, see what I could afford from room service.”

          “All right, then what?"

          “I opened the door and went to the window… the curtains were open.  I heard one of the shooters inside the closet and drew.  He came out and I shot him… left hand.  Vislin.  Darker scales, short, maybe 1.7 meters.  Had a small automatic ballistic, squarish, no idea what model.  There were two others that came out of the bathroom, also Vislin, both taller and lighter.  Didn’t get a good look at them.  All three had black tactical armor, catalog-order stuff but good enough.  I didn’t get a chance for a second shot.  One had the shotgun, missed me the first time when I dropped.  Number three had a laser, but I didn’t find that out until later.  I managed to run into the closet, which they shot up for a while.”

          I paused for a breath and to moisten my tongue.  The detective took advantage of the pause to observe, “I got that much; I’ve seen video of the scene.”

          “Good,” I started again.  “You’ll know everything matches up.  My heater didn’t touch anything else.  I found the grav lift inside the closet… rewired it… used it as a shield and then as a cushion after going out the window."

          “About that,” she interrupted again, “I wondered how the lift was involved.  So you shorted it, yourself, in a couple of seconds?  Then trusted that work with your life?”

          I clacked my beak in rueful laughter.  “I did.  Good thing I did the job right."

          “As unlikely as that sounds, it does fit the evidence.  Your survival was pretty unlikely, too, if everything happened like you say.  I can see where your history supports some pretty narrow escapes, but it also suggests some dangerous skills, too."

          At first, I tensed up, thinking she was referring to my youthful past.  Unless the old pack had talked, though, there shouldn’t be any official record linking me to our past crimes. 

          I had to assume she just meant my prior official cases.  It was true, there were some dark marks on my record.  Most of the felony charges had been dropped out of discretionary gratitude for services rendered to the City; I had beaten the one complaint that a city attorney decided to pursue.  A few misdemeanors – breaking and entering, evidence tampering, witness intimidation – had been left in place and served with fines in order to make a point.

          I was surprised the official records mentioned any of my more impressive feats.  I figured the constables who witnessed my survival or took down the statements afterward would have glossed over my role.  Maybe I had a fan or two on the force.  Then again, they did have to keep verbatim records of my statements, and I wouldn’t have spared any self-praise.

          “At the risk of seeming conceited, that’s the truth.  I had a secret rendezvous; three unknown thugs tried to kill me; I got away by flying on a jury-rigged lift."

          She continued taking notes, betraying only a slight smirk.  “Let’s go back.  It sounds like you didn’t recognize any of these sapients.”


          “Was there any reason to think they were there to ‘kill you’?  You fired first.  Did you initiate aggression?”

          “They had deadly weapons, up and ready to use.  I wasn’t going to wait and see if they wanted to talk.  It’s possible they were there to kidnap me… or Pkstzk.  She could have been the target.  That’s why you should find her right away.”

          Again, she reassured, “We’re doing everything we can think of on that account.  Is there anything else you can add that might help there?”

          She was offering me a chance to spill everything.  I gave her a few drops to see how much she already knew.  “I know her husband was killed recently.  Shot.  I was looking into it for her.  We were going to talk about my progress on the case.”

          “So Pkstzk was employing you?  As a PI?  To investigate her husband’s death...  nothing else?  You said she was a ‘friend’…”

          It had been too long since I danced to this tune.  I misstepped earlier.  It was a shame, since I really enjoyed the rhythm and found I missed it.

          “You know how it happens sometimes… a grieving widow, a handsome male offering assistance, bonding over shared danger…"

          She fixed me with a stare like she was the one suffering in pain.  “You’re saying the relationship turned non-professional.”

          “Well, I had hopes.  I’m not proud."

          “And here I had you labeled as purely professional.  I guess that changes when romance gets involved… except it doesn’t.  Not for Vislin.  Not in such a short time.  Her mate’s been dead barely a week.  You don’t show up on the case until two days ago.  So try again.”

          I clacked again, as best I could around my thickening tongue, “I’m… a fast mover.  Guess she is, too.”

          “I don’t buy it, Stchvk.  Someone tried to kill someone else last night.  You’re involved, and your ‘client’ is involved.  Odds are good it’s related to the death of her mate.  I want to know how.  I think you’re hiding something… and you’re usually good about sharing knowledge.  I’m not letting you go until I know everything you know."

          The setup was too tempting, “We could be here a long time, then.  I could starve.”

          “You can eat me, if you keep stalling like this.”

          Why was I just now meeting such interesting sapients, when all I got were stiffs and crooks back when I was nothing but honest?  I really wanted to fill her in, but a lingering fear of facing my past prevented me from adding the last piece.

          I tried a diversionary tactic: “There is something else I can share.  I have a recording of all the EM disturbances from the street where Vzktkk was killed, including the time of his death and the entire evening before and after.”

          “I have that,” she replied, “from the compad store owner…” She checked her ‘pad, scrolling through her notes. “…Tskksk.   She mentioned you.  I know this part.  She said you were looking into the pet importer/exporter across the street.  What was that about?"

          Bait taken, now set the hook: “That’s where the shooter fired from.  I found a pane of glass in the door lintel wiped clean, where the others were dirty.  The cashier’s counter inside was also wiped down, no dust… I figure they stood on it to line up the shot.”

          “That would have been nice to know.  When were you going to share these important details?”

          “After I talked to Pkstzk.  Which was supposed to happen tonight.  So this conversation is actually right on time, just in a less comfortable setting.”

          “All things considered, I’m not sure which option I would have preferred.  Actually, I would have preferred the one where you shared your insights before creating a military incident.”

          I winced, only partially from my own pain.  “Anyone else hurt?”

          “No civilians, if that’s what you mean.  No constables.  In fact… we never caught the shooters.”

          “What?”  Now it was my turn to be incredulous.  “How was that possible?  They were trapped inside."

          “That’s my question.  We know they were there; hotel cameras show the gang checking in, going upstairs, going into the room… and then running out when they heard sirens.  We know they keyed the elevator… and then nothing.  Pffft.  Vanished.  Any idea how?"

          I was stumped.  I was also angry.  “Now I’m suspicious.  If constables were covering every exit, like they should, how could they get past?  Tunnels?  Maybe you should let Internal Affairs know to look into those officers’ credit accounts."

          She bristled at the implication, but said only, “I’ll take it under advisement.  I actually hoped you might have an idea.  Short of Ningyo tech, they shouldn’t have had any way out.  No other guests, so far, and no constables said they saw them go by.  We had a unit on the roof and yes, at every exit.  A scene tech swept for any hidden routes or lingering spatial distortions… nothing."

          “That’s fast work,” I said with honest praise.  Layafflr City might see too many of these sorts of armed incidents, but the extra note of weirdness seemed to have prompted a quick, thorough investigation in this case.

          “Thanks.  So, no ideas.  Anything else on the other case?  Connections to this mess?"

          “I don’t have any, yet.  Again, I’m hoping Pkstzk can warm up some… provide some help.”  Kkkk, bad choice of metaphor.  “There was one other thing, if Tskksk didn’t mention it… I was attacked at the pet store, too.”

          “She mentioned some abandoned animals.  What happened there?”

          “Someone left three rkptk, and maybe some other animals, locked in the building to starve.  When I entered – my fault on the lock, by the way, I’ll cover the damages if the owner gives me a call – the sole survivor broke out of the back room and tried to take a bite out of me.  I shot it dead.  You’ll find the corpse on the floor; I didn’t want to handle it."

          “Another crime scene I wish you’d mentioned at the time.  It’s going to stink something awful by now.  Guess who’ll be touring that store next?”  She gratuitously pointed at her own chest.

          “Sorry.  I wanted to wait until I had a connection between the building and the murder,” I explained.

          “You wanted to have the whole case wrapped up for your client before you fulfilled your obligation to the public,” Nrissilli accused.  “I get that from every other P.I. out poking around in this city.  I didn’t expect that from you."

          She sounded like she really had followed my career, more than I might have expected.  While gratifying in other contexts, right now she sounded like a conscience.  Not my actual conscience, which had grown up with me and understood the complexities of my life and work.  Some other conscience, freshly assigned to the job, without any experience.

          “Maybe.  Maybe I waited too long.  Maybe I got too concerned with impressing this female.  Guilty.  But I wasn’t deliberately hiding anything.  I got Tskksk’s recording to you.  Honestly, if I had known the undercurrents or if I discovered them after meeting with Pkstzk, I would have called in right away.”

          I was delivering an impressively mingled blend of truth and deflection.  I had been honest with Pkstzk when I warned her I wouldn’t conceal criminal acts from the authorities, nor would I give her the name of her mate’s killer without first advising the constables.  At the same time, I did tend to keep the law at claw’s tip until I was ready for them to be involved.  It made certain investigations easier.  It was a practical deception, not a deliberate criminal act.

          Detective Nrissilli spoke my thought for me: “I mostly believe you.  But you’re lying to me.  Maybe you’re lying to yourself, too.  I’m taking a break so I don’t have your suffering on my conscience… but I’m coming back later.  I hope you’ll have a few new memories by then.”

          I hoped so, too, but not in the way she meant.  I kept quiet while the detective left the room.

          Shortly afterward, the nurse returned and slipped a syringe into my intravenous line.  The stuff made my extremities feel cold and tingly, then steadily less painful.  As I started to drift off, I thought about the detective’s demands and my possible responses.

          I wasn’t pack bound to Pkstzk.  If she was involved in something bad now, I’d have no problem turning her in.  I was protecting myself now and I'd protect myself later.  Yet if I thought my silence was endangering Pkstzk, I’d have to choose between my freedom and her life, and life had to win.  I wasn’t quite convinced the situation was that dire, yet.  I was biased toward myself enough to need a clearer threat.  If Pkstzk couldn’t be found soon, though, the balance might tilt toward complete disclosure.  If I got a hint that Rsspkz, her former mate and my former pack mate, was involved, I’d know it was time to come clean.

          We weren’t to that point yet.  I didn’t owe the detective anything more until then.  If she chose to keep me in custody in hopes I’d reveal something more, I couldn’t do anyone any good.  If, however, she was uncertain about her suspicions, she might err on the side of trust and let me go. 

          Frost, explaining the entire story right now might convince her to arrest me right away, and then where would Pkstzk be?  If it wouldn't actually help her to speak up, I shouldn't.

          Actual ethics isn’t about the law.  That’s especially true in a city like Layafflr, where crime is built into the literal laws.  I’m sworn to uphold those laws, but I choose to fulfill their real purpose, not the interpretations favored by the gangsters in charge.

          Big words, I know.  But I’d been a gangster, even if just a little one.  I recognized their rules when I saw them.