Sunday, November 8, 2015

Broken Record - Chapter 7 - "Getting a Room"

          I slipped out of the restaurant, only a little shakier for the drink.  The intoxicant wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle physically, but I could probably blame it for a lapse of judgment.  I flagged down a free-roaming aircar, spending twice what I should have for a ride.  Right then, I wanted to get to the hotel, freshen up, and wait comfortably for Pkstzk.  A nap wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.

          Would it be in poor taste to call Tskksk while I waited for Pkstzk to arrive?  Not if my interest in both females was purely professional… which it could be… but wasn’t.  Terrible problem to have, really.  Still, as moral dilemmas went, it didn’t even make my top ten.  Just to quiet my conscience a bit, I tried calling from inside the ‘car.  No answer, again, but at least this time her number pinged a few times before going to voice recording.  She finally had the ‘pad turned on, but still wasn’t answering.

          Well, maybe she had a social engagement.  That would be more than fair.  Frost, she could have pack obligations, for all I knew about her.  Just because she had sole ownership of a business didn’t mean she might not cohabit with five or ten other sapients or take a turn tending nursery for someone’s young.  Between my own isolation and the company of widows, I was forgetting how much pack and family life meant to most Great Family sapients.

          Ah, the city, where traditions come to die.  Social commenters have been lamenting the death of the pack, the herd, and the traditional matronage for decades, mostly based on the increasing number of unassociated sapients in colonies and urban centers.  While the latter statistic is true, the pundits tend to overlook its underlying complexity.  Some of the trend is just due to preference and the increasing viability of a lone lifestyle.  Whether caused by mental deviation or natural variation, some sapients – despite biology – just choose not to associate.  Unless their isolation somehow drives them to antisocial acts, where’s the problem with that?  If the loners are losing out on some benefits, only they are hurt.

          More problematic are those sapients who really want to belong, but have no family due to circumstance (death or other separation), rejection, or personal difficulties.  Little sympathy is spared for those ejected from their group due to significant harmful acts, but some groups can be cruel and exile a member just for violating a taboo or failing the group badly.  You’d think pack bond would incline us to forgiveness, but there are types of mental illness other than self-isolation: some bad eggs can and will turn a pack against one member for a relatively minor infraction.  Terrans call it ‘scapegoating’: dumping all the blame on one victim for the ‘good of the group’.

          There are a handful of other reasons for separation; a simple lack of opportunities is a surprisingly high entry on that list.  Despite being closer together in a city, sapients still sometimes fail to meet a group they fit into.  A related problem is inappropriate bonding, where Vislin form bond feelings with groups that do not – or cannot – qualify as ‘packs’.  For example, a workaholic might suffer from a misdirected bond to their coworkers.  If you can’t get what you need at home, it’s tempting to try and substitute the associations you can form.  The problem there is that you miss out on forming a real pack.  A bad or non-mutual bond can be as strong as a good one and isn't any less exclusive.  Sometimes getting fired comes as a blessing for those types, provided they survive the rejection stress.

          Increasing travel across wider and wider stretches of space tends to spread sapients apart and reduce their bonding opportunities, particularly when employed in positions that demand such travel.  For some duties, unbonded youths are actually preferred, so that their associations can’t bias their performance.  For example?  Collective internal representation.  It is actually hoped that young Vislin will bond with non-Vislin teams, improving their understanding of other sapient species and guaranteeing their impartiality when handling disputes between Great Family factions.

          Add those together, allow for a significant intersectional factor, and you easily meet the level of separation observed in any major city.  I personally didn’t get the jaw grinding on the issue.  It really was predictable.  There was no way to go backwards to some ideal past of family harmony… even if such a past ever existed.  If we wanted to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’, then maybe a few new institutions needed to appear to help all us lonely souls find one another.

          In the meantime, we did the best we could.  If Tskksk had that aspect of her life well covered, well done for her.  If anything, it made her more attractive, with an existing pack a potential mate might join by proxy.

          I busied myself with such musings on the way to Taburket’s, a hotel mostly used by off-world visitors.  I had no idea what language or culture the name came from.  Honestly, I didn’t know much about the hotel, at all.  Most of what I remembered came from their advertising, and I’m not even in their target clientele.

          The ‘car ride actually ran around and past the shuttle port, taking a longer, curving route in order to stay out of liftoff space.  Taburket’s was on the opposite side, then, away from the city center.  I wondered what had made Pkstzk choose the place.  There were cheaper rooms to rent, closer to her workplace, or further out of the way if she was looking for privacy.  Maybe it had to do with the clientele; a hotel catering to outsiders would be a less likely place to bump into an acquaintance or even a stranger who knows someone who knows you.

          Even within that limited category, there were other, cheaper options.  I had to hope she wasn’t naïve enough to use a place where she had a personal connection, like a friend in management or a discount deal through her employer.  Actually, her smartest choice would be random, selected by chance from the business listings.  It’s what I would do.  At least, it’s what I would do if I had less limited funds.

          I decided to stop questioning my good fortune and just enjoy the amenities.  Who knew, they might have an indoor sun room at this place!  It certainly looked promising when I stepped out of the private ‘car: a ten-story building with a big, overdone façade, its own garage, a private courtyard garden… advertisements for the wealthy and comfort-seeking.

          I went up to the ornate wooden doors and found them unguarded but locked shut.  A card reader was mounted on the frame between the two doors, just below a video intercom panel.  I presented my room key and was rewarded with a synthesized bell tone.  I pulled open one door by its handle, entering the hotel’s lobby.

          There was a Hrotata check-in clerk but no other staff.  A male Terran guest was also in the lobby, chatting with someone on his compad.  Knowing Terrans, there was probably a second guest in his ‘pad.  Maybe that A.I. was who he was talking to.  I did my best not to find out.  I’m only an eavesdropper when it’s done on the job.

          I figured that since I already had a key, I could just bypass the desk and go up to the room.  I walked past the clerk and to the lift, drawing no protest.  Next to the desk was a pile of grav lift plates: fancy tech, but cheaper than full-time luggage haulers.  Rebuilt, they could be a lot of fun in the hands of a clever, wild young sapient.  I used to know one of those, you know.

          The lift opened in response to another wave of my keycard.  After I stepped in, the system prompted me to insert the card into a reader, then I pushed a button to start moving.  There was no option to select another floor.  It was a decent security measure, but nothing I couldn’t have bypassed myself… the kind of thing that added another obstacle and some extra exertion to a thief’s plans.  Sometimes, making it inconvenient was enough to reduce crime.

          I was released on the eighth floor of the ten-story hotel.  I wondered, belatedly, how a guest would access the hotel’s public facilities, assuming there were any.  This place might save on costs by cutting out things like a gym, sun room, pool, or even a restaurant.  I hadn’t seen signs for any of those facilities, anyway.  I’d have to see what was listed in the room.  Maybe everything else cost extra, but became available once you had the right permissions added to your keycard.  Made sense.

          The card said ‘Room 818’, so I followed the numbers down the hall until I found the door with 818 stenciled onto its surface.  It had one more swipe card lock, the third checkpoint guests had to pass.  While reassuring for purposes of privacy, I had no doubt all those card swipes were being logged, creating a record of activity within the building.  Tttt, if someone wanted to track Pkstzk and her associates, I’m sure she and I already appeared on video records both at the restaurant and here at the hotel.  Leaving such evidence was inevitable; I often relied on its existence.  We just had to avoid giving the constables – or anyone else – reason to look into our actions.

          The door to the room unlocked at my card swipe, but I had to lever it open myself.  Chch, already getting spoiled, Stchvk?  The room inside was spacious, a bedroom bigger than my entire apartment.  Plus, two doors in the far right wall promised an adjoining bathroom and a secondary room, possibly a walk-in valet closet.

          I decided to check out the space.  Besides needing to use the facilities, old instincts cautioned me to inspect unfamiliar surroundings.  At first, I was just thinking about bugs… electronic ones, not the kind you’d expect in cheaper hotels.  The windows were also wide and the curtains open.  I wanted to check if anyone might have a view from outside.  Business or pleasure, I wasn’t planning on giving the neighbors a show.  I let the door close and crossed the room to close the curtains.

          My safety instincts saved my scales.  As I walked, I heard a scratch from inside the further room.  Whatever was making that sound, it was even bigger than the local bugs.  My hand went to my holster and I released Rtrtr.  Heater in hand, I turned toward the far door just as it burst open.

          A smaller, dark-scaled Vislin in modern tactical armor jumped out, both claws on a small automatic ballistic weapon.  I managed to shoot first, tagging him in the closer hand.  Rtrtr’s beam turned his flesh into charcoal, and his gun jerked aside as he lost his steadying grip.  A stream of bullets spat out of the little weapon’s barrel, tracking across the floor and throwing puffs of stuffing out of the bed mattress.  My attacker screamed behind his visored helmet.

          He struggled to straighten out his aim, still firing as if his trigger hand was stuck.  At the same time, the other door opened and two more Vislin poured out.  They were both taller and tougher-looking than the first attacker, but wore the same armor.  The vests and helmets were probably laser-proofed and shielded against impact and puncture, which meant I couldn’t hope for a fatal shot with my little heater.  At best, I could cripple them with skillful (or lucky), well-placed shots.  That would probably take longer than they’d need to blast my more poorly protected hide.

          The lead assassin had another ballistic weapon, a large-bore shotgun.  He leveled it as I dropped to the floor.  A hail of pellets scattered over my head, shattering the windows and kicking shrapnel off the wall and furniture.  I felt a few stings from flying shards of wood and plastic.

          My position was not tactically viable.  If I stayed down, one or the other of the shooters would get close, fast, and have a clear line of fire.  The third attacker was at least not firing.  I wasn’t sure if he – or she – had a weapon, actually, but she – or he – didn’t need one; they could just stand back and keep me from going out the door.

          I made a snap decision and rushed to my left, toward and then past the first shooter.  Between pain and surprise, he was still too slow to hit me with his still-barking gun.  Plus, he provided me a moment of cover; his confederate hesitated to fire while an ally was in the way.

          I kept running and flew through the open closet door.  Looked like I was right about the room.  Empty hangers rattled around me as I slammed into the far wall of shelves.  I whipped around and pulled the door closed, taking a shotgun pellet in my left arm but deflecting several other projectiles with the heavy door.

          Frost, that hurt!  I was lucky; the arm didn’t seem to be broken, but the pellet had gone through the meat of my forearm.  At least I still had my gun and could use it; that’s why I’m smarter to use a one-handed weapon.  I jerked to the side just as several more bullets tore through the door.  I lined up Rtrtr to cover the opening, in case they tried to rush in after me. 

          I’d suffered worse injuries before and, believe it or not, been in worse situations, so it wasn’t as hard to manage my frenzy urge as you might think.  A civilian Vislin would have bolted for the exit by now.  I would have, ten years ago.  Maybe there was something to the idea that suffering made the victim stronger.

          My position still wasn’t very good.  My best hope was to slow my attackers down enough that the constables could arrive.  Someone must have heard all this shooting and placed an emergency call, by now.  Did these guys want me dead badly enough that they’d risk the possibility of being stuck inside the hotel, surrounded by law enforcement?  Would they risk my counter-fire to come in and get me faster?

          Another volley of fire smashed against the door, reducing it to splintered boards.  Then a whining sound caught my attention.  A section of the far closet wall glowed and then burst into flame.  Great.  A laser.  They could burn me out or actually hit me around a corner with a lucky reflected shot.  There was enough shiny metal in the closet to make that possible.

          Thinking about cover or a shield, my eyes lit on a feature I’d missed upon entering.  One of the grav lift pads was inside the closet, plugged in and charging.  A handy courtesy to move bags or furniture around… and loads of fun for innovative couples… or singles.

          I bent down and yanked the lift away from its socket, grunting as the motion made my injured arm burn and bleed.  At first, I just planned to hold it up as a shield, protecting my vulnerable face and chest.  Lifting it up, though, I spotted the mechanism for the gravitic disc underneath.  Crazy that they used these powerful things for domestic push-carts.

          A third round of bullets and another laser shot prompted me to think faster.  The door was nearly gone at this point, and I could hear the assassins shifting around for a better angle.  My life had already been saved by the building’s good, sturdy construction, but I couldn’t count on its protection much longer.

          I used a couple of well-placed heater shots to fuse several contacts in the grav lift’s circuitry, shortening the path between its battery and the lift disc.  Besides increasing the power to the disc, this shortcut bypassed safety features meant to keep the lift moving slowly and near the ground.  I wanted a very different range of operation.

          My next shot went out the door, aimed at nobody in particular.  It only set the bedroom’s wallpaper ablaze, but achieved my intended purpose: the attackers paused a moment to make sure they weren’t in my line of fire.

          Without any stupid warning scream, I leapt out of the closet myself, smashing through the tattered remains of its door.  I held the grav lift in front of me, hoping it could serve both its original purpose as a shield and its newly intended purpose.  If it suffered too much damage – or if I did – my idiotically clever plan would fail in a smear of blood.

          The shooters paused only a moment, long enough for me to cross the bedroom and approach the broken window.  The third one, with the laser, fired first, and I felt a section of the grav lift’s outer surface heat and melt slightly, singing my claw tips.  Infertile eggs forever for him.

          Kktkrkz’ endless digestion for all of them.  Why were they trying to kill me?  A question for another time.

          As I launched myself out of the open window, a hail of bullets helped me on my way.  I took most of a shotgun blast to the back, which hurt but didn’t penetrate anything vital.  Good armor.  Best armor.

          The automatic weapon was still having trouble finding me, which was just fine, but a chance shot grazed my lower leg as I flew past.  That hurt, tearing deep and spraying blood and scales into the air.

          The remainder of me, blood and scales and bones, was in midair after that.  I prayed to the entire frosted pantheon that my alterations to the grav lift had been enough.  I hoped my slippery memory had given me the right details from my tinkering childhood.  If not, both the lift and I were going to suffer the unforgiving effects of real gravity.

          I fell five heart-stopping stories before anything happened.  When the lift kicked in, I wondered if my slowing descent was just an effect of stress hormones or the fabled time-dilation experienced just before death.  I didn’t get time to look forward to a replay of my life.  Instead, my common sense picked up on the crackling whine of the overloading grav lift.

          It was working!  I’d converted the lift into a landing pad.  Not as much fun as a racing sled, but more practical for my current needs.  I dropped below terminal velocity and actually coasted down the last five meters like a feather.  A really heavy, bloody, clumsy feather, but  better than landing like a blood-filled balloon.

          A scattering of impacts against the turf of the courtyard reminded me that I wasn’t safe yet.  I scrambled on all fours, seeking cover behind a fountain on the hotel grounds.

          These were not smart killers.  Good armor, decent weapons, but terrible planning.  If their initial ambush had been successful, they still had the problem of getting out of the hotel.  Now that I was loose, they couldn’t do much more than shoot from above… with every second they wasted giving the hotel time to alert the authorities and lock down the building.

          I didn’t bother to shoot back.  At this distance, there was no point, and I was still safer under partial cover than exposing myself to try for a lucky hit.

          There were the howls of the constable cruisers, finally.  The sound seemed to alert the shooters that their time was expired.  Stray shots stopped raining down.  I waited, crouched behind the fountain, trying to decide whether I’d be safer holding still or leaving the courtyard.  I wasn’t looking forward to talking to the constables, but I was also leaking from several injuries.  None were life-threatening, but I couldn’t go far without leaving a blood trail, and the leg tear felt like it would slow me down.

          This case had gone from the investigation of a cold trail to an active conflict against multiple armed opponents.  In that light, I was better off talking to official detectives and enlisting them to arrest my would-be murderers.  While it was almost inevitable that my connection to Pkstzk would come out in the investigation, I might be able to keep any digging into our dirty past to a minimum.  If it turned out that these hunters were connected to that past, to Rsspkz or some other ‘old friend’, then I needed to know that, too.  A chance at going to prison was better than the certainty of being hunted and killed.

          As a screaming, glowing constable ‘car landed in the courtyard, I raised my hands and flagged them down.  Armed, armored strike forcers climbed out: a Vislin/Taratumm pair.  The stomper lowered a nonlethal sonic cannon my way.  I dropped Rtrtr to the ground and stood slowly, staggering as my leg flared.

          “I’m the victim!” I shouted, “I’m hurt.  There are three of them inside, room 818, black tactical armor and all armed.”

          The Taratumm bellowed, “Stay where you are,” but her Vislin partner spoke into a collar radio, repeating my words to other officers.

          More cruisers were landing around the hotel.  I could see lights from its roof, as well.  These jokers weren’t going anywhere.  I was looking forward to an explanation once they were interrogated… presuming they didn’t end up accidentally dead.  Frost, what if they got desperate and took hostages?

          I was trying to help the constables by thinking ahead, anticipating possible approaches, but shock was muddying my thoughts.  Honestly, if they hadn’t accepted my surrender and had threatened to shoot, I might have gone over into frenzy by then.  I felt safer, if not in any good situation yet.

          Thinking about that scenario – a frenzied flight, especially after going through a window – brought on a strange surge of familiarity.  When had I been in a situation like this before?  I’d think I would remember falling eight stories on a modified grav lift… if I survived the fall, that was.  I’d been shot at before, sure, even ambushed in a closed room, but the last time that happened I’d shot one attacker, bitten another (and taken a laser to the shoulder for my bravado), and then run away from the others down a hallway.

          In that case, the attackers had caught me rifling through the records of a warehouse where they stored smuggled goods.  I understood why they had been willing to kill.  Snuffing me out would have protected their secrets.  What was the point of this attack?

          My head was getting light and hurting.  Otherwise, I would have realized one of the more likely explanations for the ambush.  Deduction would have to wait for a later time.  I swayed where I stood and nearly fell to my knees.

          The Taratumm threatened with her sonic and was about to say something, then realized why I had moved.  She kept me covered but gestured to her partner, pointing in my direction.

          Among the Vislin constable’s messages was a call for an ambulance.  About time.  I chanced moving my hands to cup my perforated arm in my good hand.  Though I felt naked without Rtrtr, I had enough experience to know not to even look in my weapon’s direction.  Bullets had hit dirt not far away, not long ago, and these constables would be jumpy.  Any half-clever perp could claim to be the wounded victim, then bolt away… or start shooting… the moment an officer let down their guard.  I’d learned that the hard way.

          After a long wait, the Vislin constable approached me.  He warned, “I’m not going to restrain you, but if you try anything, my partner will drop you on your face.”  He gestured toward the parking garage.  “There’s an ambulance coming in over there.  Can you make it?”

          I tested my torn leg.  It hurt like a bite, but supported my weight.  “Yeah, if they can’t come to me.  Let’s go.”

          To his credit, he looked torn between offering me a shoulder and watching me suspiciously.  When I reached the sidewalk surrounding the hotel block, I stumbled and would have fallen, except that he stepped forward and caught my arm.  From there, we hobbled together to the garage.

          The pair got me to the ambulance, where my good arm was strapped to the rail of a stretcher bed.  Then the medical tech (Hrotata, female) got to work wrapping my holed arm, restraining that also, and pressing a pad into my ripped leg, leaving the leather greave strapped on around it.

          “Some shrapnel… back…” I slurred to her, the aftereffects of the fight draining my energy away.

          “We’ll take care of that at the hospital,” she assured me.  “Any allergies?”

          “Nope, give me anything,” I confirmed, hoping she was checking what painkillers I could handle.  All of them?  Simultaneously?  I had actually dealt with worse pain before… when?... but I was already tired of dealing with this set of aches.

          She obliged with a quick injection between the scales of my elbow.  Before the medication could even take effect, my body accepted the suggestion and dropped me into sleep.

          What a lousy date.

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