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