Monday, September 14, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 2 - "Kicking Old Habits"

            I tossed Pkstzk’s letter onto my couch and carried my travel case into the office.  After offloading my compad and grooming kit, I decided not to take any chances, and unpacked Rtrtr as well.

           Stalking back into the front room, I moved the offending envelope onto the floor and blasted it with Rtrtr’s lowest setting.  Destroy the evidence.  Burn the writer, by proxy.  The resulting fire left a charred mark on the plasticrete, but the property damage was worth it.  I felt a little better for indulging my feelings.

            I would need my best frenzy management strategies to deal with Pkstzk and her troubles.  Even if she stayed well-behaved – and that wasn’t guaranteed – there would still be nosy constables to deal with.  The investigation of her mate's death might stray into old, deep waters.  My past self, a more nervous, trigger-happy self, still lurked about, just waiting for an excuse to leap forward… or run away.  Swimming backward against time made it easier for younger me to influence older me.

           There were a couple of days yet before the next rest day.  Lots of time to relax.  I was glad I didn’t have to scramble uptown right away to meet Pkstzk.  I’d be able to let go of my presently agitated state of mind.  That was presuming I didn't work myself up more in the meantime.

            Despite that concern, I felt like I should do some background research.  I ought to check the history on Pkstzk and her mate.  I could review public records about the murder case.  Maybe I'd see what I could find about the old pack.

            I already knew that one packmate, Fzpktk, was dead, killed by constables while resisting arrest.  Rsspkz was in prison for life, along with Vztrrp.  The three of them had been identified on a job gone bad where sapients died.  I wasn’t sure which of them, if any, had actually killed, but as far as the law was concerned, they were all guilty of murder.

           Tklth had managed to escape the dragnet and made it off-planet.  Her trail was cold.  While I grabbed a drink and a snack, I confirmed that absence of information.  Her name turned up nothing on the news media.  She wasn’t listed in any Collective death notices.  I sent a query through the constabulary just in case, using the cover story of research for a client.  They might only give me a form response after a day or two, after skimming the public files.  I already knew that search would come back empty.  If I was lucky, the inquiry would spark some interest, maybe prompt somebody to dig deeper.  My search could backfire if someone linked Tklth and Pkstzk, but that was unlikely.  The two females had despised and avoided one another, and like I said, Pkstzk never worked jobs with the pack.

            I went through the same media searches for Pkstzk, Rsspkz, and Vztrrp, along with a few other hangers-on who weren’t part of the pack but still associated with one of us closely: Rsspkz’ siblings Zfzptk (off-planet, asteroid miner) and Ktchvch (diner cook), and Vztrrp’s childhood friend Ssptkt.  That last search turned up an interesting story: Ssptkt had apparently picked a fight with a Taratumm herd and was now paralyzed from the neck down.  I found nothing relevant to my current concerns, though.

            Nobody seemed to have an easy connection back to Rsspkz. Nobody was an obvious candidate for him to use to stalk or threaten Pkstzk or her mate.  I also didn’t see any indirect links between any of the old pack mates.

            That included me.  Back then, I didn't have any associations outside of the pack, other than my parents and their pack.  They moved away and passed away off-planet after I reached maturity.  Anyway, Vislin don’t generally maintain lifelong genetic family relationships like mammalians tend to.  I suspect that the modicum of affection adult children receive – or adult sibling affection – is a cultural imposition from the Hrotata and Taratumm.  Prehistoric Vislin were likely more like our evolutionary forbears, kicking young out of the nest to form their own packs as soon as they could hunt alone.

            Pack association is the strongest relationship in Vislin culture and society, far more important than genetic ties.  I reminded myself of this obvious fact to prepare my defenses.  Even mate bonds are secondary to the pack, although a good pack rarely forces the two allegiances into conflict.  Ideally, one mates within the pack and avoids the whole issue.

            Research is still trying to untangle all the ways pack mates bond: chemically, mentally, and maybe psychically.  Those bonds helped us survive in the past; a pack could make survival decisions and take action better than any of its component sapients.  Obviously, a coordinated pack hunts better.  Pack mates know when one of their own is in trouble and do whatever is necessary to assist.  The pack bond can even overrule frenzy in ideal circumstances.

            Even in modern times, the pack bond is still a significant asset.  The frenzy control effects can’t be discounted, especially now that there are fewer and fewer places where you can acceptably vent your anxieties.  Packs that work together produce superior results to mixed-pack work groups.  That truth applies to intellectual work as much as physical labor, which explains some of the historic technical and military advantages enjoyed by Vislin.

            What all this biopsychology meant was trouble.  I had escaped my old pack through a combination of chance and idiosyncrasy.  I was fortunate to not be involved in that last job, the one that went bad and cost most of the pack their lives or freedom.  I was also lucky to be absent when the constables came to round the others up.  Otherwise, in either case, I might have been caught up against my better judgment.  With pack mates present and in trouble – no matter that it was trouble of their own making – I’d have felt obligated to help them fight or escape.

            Even afterward, if I was ‘normal’ but avoided death or arrest, I’d have been in the courthouse standing by to help their case.  I might have threatened witnesses, destroyed evidence, even assassinated court personnel if I thought that would help… presuming I wasn’t jailed or killed first.  Even now, I might have wanted to assist Rsspkz and Vztrrp in prison, taking their calls and sneaking them contraband.  I certainly would have identified, proudly, as their pack mate, earning me constant constabulary observation.

            I am not ‘normal’, thank sun's warmth.  When things went bad, I was actually relieved.  I had been having second thoughts about the pack’s activities for years but didn’t see any way out.  Mine was the voice that encouraged them away from dangerous, violent jobs and sought opportunities for stealthy, zero-casualty crimes.  I wasn’t any paragon of virtue, but I did what I could.  Maybe I should give myself credit for finding a strong personal code of ethics.  Moral objections might have been the counteractive force that weakened my pack bonds.  It’s certainly a more comforting theory than just thinking I’m defective, unable to bond properly or capable of discarding those bonds for my own convenience.

            Where I found a ‘strong personal code of ethics’, only the Egg-Thief knows.  My parents didn’t teach me much, except how to function socially, keep myself fed, and to stay in school.  Civics was taught in my nursery, but only as a set of dry ideals, not a practical lifestyle.  My pack wouldn’t know an ethic if it burrowed under their scales.  I didn’t have a friend, mate, or even play-mate to teach me right from wrong or look disappointed about my moral failings.  I just somehow came to realize that what the pack was doing was wrong.

            Not at first, either.  When I first joined up, it seemed exciting.  We were pulling tricks on society, taking what it couldn’t protect, proving ourselves clever and quick hunters in a world going soft.  We loved rough, frontier ChtkKttp and our home town: grim, gritty Layafflr City.  Pack Vzrrk was part of a tradition of lawlessness stretching back to our colonizing ancestors.  We had dreams of scaling the walls of society and taking our rightful places among the high kleptocracy, once we had amassed enough wealth to prove ourselves worthy.  Our victims were pathetic, weak fools who couldn’t defend their possessions and so didn’t deserve to keep anything.

            In short, I now make a career out of finding and capturing the type of idiot I used to be.  That’s how I understand them so well.  It often comes as a revelation to criminals – especially thieves - that anyone else could be as clever and tough as they believe themselves to be.  I suppose you could argue that I’m so amazing because of my criminal past; that I’m not really one of the soft marks of society, unlike the clients I assist because they can’t help themselves.  I think, though, that I’m smarter and more skilled now than I ever was back when I thought myself better than everyone else.

            I managed to make a clean break from my foolish youth.  I stayed out of reach and out of contact from my pack until they were safely in prison, in space, or in the grave.  Any urgings I felt to come to their aid were quashed by my better sense.  Maybe I rationalized, at the time, that I could do more for the pack by staying free and anonymous than I could by sticking close and getting spattered with their same stink.  Such thoughts might have fooled 'normal' pack-sense for a while.  Yet even afterward, I could deny our bond without much effort.  Someday I’d help them out.  Someday it would be feasible to step out of the shadows and risk contact.  Just keep pushing that someday further into the future.  Until then, I could keep away from temptation and out of trouble.

            Apparently, that "someday" was coming up, two days from now.  Pkstzk wasn’t pack, so I wouldn’t feel those urgings toward her.  Different urgings, sure, and I had to be ready for those feelings, too. 

            Even so, she was still linked to the old pack.  Helping her might mean contact with my past pack mates.  Even without direct contact, my motivations and perceptions would still be influenced by our mutual past.  I still felt the pack bond.  I wasn’t that insane, regardless of how my neighbors or clients thought of me.  I could just push that bond aside better than most.  I had to hope that if I stayed introspective and made sure my decisions were rational, I could avoid doing something loyally dumb.

            Speaking of bonds, I eventually remembered to look up Pkstzk’s dead second mate.  I found both their public mating certificate and the record of his death.  The stiff was named Vzktkk.  From the little I could find, he sounded pretty dead even when he was alive.  Accountant… what a terrible job for a Vislin.  Office worker.  Low income, likely working his way up.  Liked to play space fighter sims.  When that’s the highlight of your obituary, you did something wrong in life.  Not like me.  I’m sure my death record will be spectacular, a tribute to my wonderfully varied existence, capped off with an explosive ending.  Yeah, not boring like poor Vzktkk.

            I suspected this guy’s herbivorous lifestyle was what had attracted Pkstzk.  He was safe, a refuge after the wild ride with Rsspkz.  He wasn’t too bad looking, either, judging from the pictures on record.  Probably would have been a great provider for her and their young.  That was a shame; she deserved that stability.  Knowing Pkstzk, though, she probably had been chewing her claws off from boredom.  Back with the old pack, she had enjoyed most of the craziness, at least until things turned bad and bloody.  It was the messy ending that scared her off.  We had that in common as well.

            Frost, to be honest, most of my current life is pretty boring.  It just gets punctuated with moments of deadly hazard and occasional frenzy.  I wasn’t as good looking as Vzktkk.  I was certainly poorer on most days.  Plus, the guy had gone out with a blast. 

           The official cause of death was listed as homicide, but the obituary didn’t go into any details.  A news article on the crime only elaborated that Vzktkk was found dead, shot once through the head with a laser, on a side street in central Layafflr City.  There were no witnesses and no evidence on the scene. The murder was thought to be a mugging or fly-by shooting or maybe a random act of pointless violence.  These things happened.  Constabulary investigating.

            The article was dated from only a week ago.  Not much time had passed since Pkstzk’s visit, maybe between one and six days depending on how long she waited before seeking me out.  I didn't find much else to go on.  Even the news article didn’t name the neighborhood, much less the street or address where Vzktkk was found.  The time of discovery and time of death were omitted.  That suggested that facts were being kept out of circulation by constabulary request. 

             On some worlds, such 'requests' wouldn’t matter to the media, but the press on ChtkKttp was conditioned to keep on the constabulary’s good side.  The government could still wield the law as a bludgeon against troublesome publications, if it chose.  Keeping the constables happy also meant easier access to information… when they chose to provide any.

            I wasn’t bound by such friendly agreements.  I’d get the details myself.  The first step was to see Pkstzk, hear what she had to say and figure out what she knew.  That was the logical choice, right?  I wasn’t just being influenced by my own desire to see her again.  I was fairly sure both motivations were involved.  I’d just keep it professional and not get personally involved.  That resolution always works (it never works).

            I had two days to fill.  What was I going to do with myself in the meantime, if I wasn’t out scrounging for leads?  Sit around the nest, hunting around the networks?  Play space fighter sims?  Go tempting fate and take a walk around my neighborhood?  There weren’t many options if I was trying to hold onto my saved credits.  Even a public aircar to take a walk in a ‘safer’ uptown park cost a bit.  Actual recreation could take a chunk out of my finances.

            Just thinking about it was wearing me out.  Between my post-vacation depression, travel lag, and the thought of enforced downtime, I was getting tired.  I stripped off and curled up in my nest for a nap.  I'd just sleep for a couple of cycles, to refresh myself before dinner and decision time.

            I woke up the next morning, confused and then irritated.  Well, that was one day down.

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