Sunday, April 3, 2016

Broken Record - Chapter 20 - "Acquaintance Forgot"

          “You,” Pkstzk began.  “It’s always you.  I’d shoot you, but I’d probably miss.  I know what you’re doing here, or at least I can guess, Stchvk.”

          I was honestly confused by her rancor.  “Ttt, I doubt it’s what you think…”

          “I don’t mean the whore, you idiot,” she snapped.  “I mean you’re up to something, or you think you are.  You’ve spent the last decade crusading around, wasting your life and all the work your pack put into you, like some martyr of justice... while all you’ve really done is waste time and gratify a few pathetic victims.”

          I raised my claws, genuinely surrendering.  “You could be right, but where is this coming from?  You sound like you’ve been obsessing over me for years, but you just got in touch with me a week ago, for the first time since…”

          “Since Pack Vzzrk was ruined.  Since you ruined them.  And now you’re just doing it more directly.  I asked you to find my new mate’s killer, and here you are, moved into her nest.  Did she offer you something better?  Or just something easier?  Your loyalties are so flimsy.”

          Her accusations were all over the place.  I’d like to say this wasn’t the Pkstzk I remembered, but it actually was: spiteful and cruel when she didn’t get her way.  I’d glossed over that aspect of her character in favor of the soft scales she could show when she was pleased.  She was always self-obsessed, too; how had I forgotten that?

          I protested, “If you’d actually listen, you’re far off-trail.  In fact, I think we’re both being played by the same enemy.  But this isn’t the place…”

          “This is the place,” she objected.  “The whore lives here, you’re here, and Vzktkk died just outside here.  I managed what you were having so much trouble with.  I found out what they were doing… and why she had him killed.”

          Now I couldn’t help encouraging her.  “Really?  Because you’re right: I couldn’t figure it out.  Enlighten me.  What’s the real story… and how did you get it?”

          I was being idiotically brave, with a plasma thrower pointed directly at my face.  At that point, though, I didn’t care.  Either she was going to shoot me or she wasn’t.  If I survived, I at least wanted to hear what she had to say.  Sitting still and staying silent wasn’t going to spare me, I suspected.

          Pkstzk snapped and scratched the floor, but kept her trigger claw still.  She bit off the words: “Vzktkk was seeing Shtvtsk, replacing me.  She was using him to collect information.  When he found out, he tried to break it off… but she wouldn’t let him.  Did she tell you that?  Did she offer to bring you in, introduce you to her real employer?  Or were you satisfied with just her tail?”

          My survival depended on keeping calm, but I was angry.  I shouldn’t have cared about Pkstzk’s opinion of me, especially not right then, but her accusations stung just a bit too much.  My crest flattened before I could reestablish control, and my legs tensed to spring.

          Pkstzk caught the reaction and waved her weapon slightly, either warning me against an attack or daring me to try.

          Instead of leaping with beak and claw, I lashed out verbally.  “You assume a lot about me.  I didn’t realize how little you’d changed, and you don’t understand how I’ve changed.  I don’t automatically fall in with every gang that offers fellowship… or every female that shows interest.  I was working Shtvtsk, myself.  Or I should say, I was uncovering Ktchvch.  You remember?  Your mate’s sister?  Why might she be seducing your new mate, I wonder?”

          I had hoped my revelation would stun Pkstzk and maybe make her reconsider my value.  Instead, my accusation only seemed to infuriate her further.

          “You’re ridiculous.  You think I wouldn’t recognize Ktchvch?  I worked with her, once.  There’s no way they’re the same.”

          I gestured toward the image on its shelf across the room.  “Look.  There’s a picture there.  Even if they’re not the same, they know each other somehow.  This is about Pack Vzzrk, but we need to work together…”

          Pkstzk stiffened at my gesture.  She wasn’t about to move past me to look at the picture.  I started to rise, to pick up the frame and show it to her myself.

          “Sit down!” she chattered.  She was having a serious breakdown, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if she wasn’t heavily armed.  “Stop lying!  Just admit you’ve been working with her!”

          I wasn’t sure how to placate her, at that point.  Agreeing with her meant admitting I was guilty, and that might get me shot.  Disagreeing with her just meant further argument and greater agitation.  Pkstzk obviously had been fed disinformation against me.  I’d love to know the source, but that revelation had to wait on my escape from this showdown.

          “Pkstzk.  You said you’d been looking into the case.  You found some information.  Where did it come from?  You said I was the only one you could trust, but now you don’t trust me… and you clearly have been listening to someone else.”

          Her response was a derisive clicking.  She eventually added, “You’d like to know, wouldn’t you?  Who sold you out.  Who decided to tell me the truth, rather than continuing to play with me.  They were going to talk to me at Taburket’s, you know, before you tried to kill them.”

          I what?  The spin going on here was making me dizzy.  I supposed I had blown up my own apartment, also.  Or else Pkstzk’s mysterious informants had told her that was retribution for my ‘attack’ on them.  Ttt, I was sure dangerous all of the sudden.

          I’d never had opportunity to defuse a bomb before, but I imagined this situation was similar.  Which lead did I disconnect… or reconnect… to keep from getting blasted?  Touch the wrong contact point, and you’re dead.  I mean, I’ve set bombs before, but the skills don’t necessarily transfer to disarmament.   And don’t forget, that was a long time ago.  I was also talking about a female, not a bomb.  Not that I've never set... oh, never mind.

          I had talked down crazy sapients, and much more recently.  Of course, those disarmaments sometimes went badly… also resulting in me being shot, once or twice. 

          Wait, I shouldn’t assume Pkstzk was the same as a timed bomb.  Maybe my best strategy was just to keep her talking and see if she would wind down on her own.  I might even be saved by the arrival of constabulary officers.  Then again, their intrusion might be the trigger that got me killed.  Still, stalling seemed like a better idea than intentional or accidental provocation.

          “You’ve got your story, and I’ve got mine,” I answered, pretending to confidence we both knew I lacked.  “We’re obviously not going to reach agreement here.  So what’s your plan, Pkstzk?  Were you coming to kill Shtvtsk?  She’s not here.  I shouldn’t be here, but I broke in.  What happens if she comes back?  Do you kill her?  Both of us?  You had to have been seen entering.  After that explosion outside, there are constables in the neighborhood.  Would you like to know how that happened, by the way?  Why a store down the street from this apartment, from the spot where Vzktkk was killed, was bombed?”

          “More of your coverup?” she snarled, still keeping the plasma thrower trained between my eyes.

          “Hardly.  The owner was an informant; she gave me some clues about what actually happened here.  For example, she was the one who picked up the connection between you and Shtvtsk: your phone calls before and after Vzktkk’s death.”

          Pkstzk’s features tightened, as did her grip on the weapon.  “She was taunting me.  She knew he was dying, even while I begged her to tell me if he was here.  He said he was still helping her with the legal mess…”

          “… with her old employer,” I finished for her.  “But it wasn’t a legal issue, exactly, was it?  It was more like a gang matter.  Extortion and negotiation.  Diplomacy and bluster.  Just like we’re dealing with now.  Who controls who.  Maybe Shtvtsk was in on it, but why?  What did it earn her?”

          “It was her way out,” Pkstzk concluded with mad conviction.  “She wanted out, Vzktkk helped her, but he couldn’t stop the threats.  She probably offered him her body in return for his help.  I should have seen it sooner.  But they never really let her go.  Vzktkk became their enemy.  When he became a big enough problem, they told her she could have her release… if she sold him out.”

          “Who are they?” I pressed.  “Who told you any of this?  Please, Pkstzk.  If you give me something to work with, we can figure out this mess, see who’s lying about what…”

          “You’d like that,” she spat.  “Tell you what I know, so that you can twist it to make your story more believable.  Just like Vzktkk.  He used me to get to her, used her to fight his enemies… and then she used him, lied to him.  You’re all the same!  At least Rsspkz is an honest criminal!  I’d rather be a killer than… like all you liars!”

          She was working herself up again.  Her logic was already a smoking wreck, scattered all over the place.  I wasn’t sure how to avoid the same fate.  Appealing to her reason and doubt just seemed to convince her further that I was manipulating her.  She was using her fury as a shield against argument.  Someone clearly had wound her up and inoculated her against counter-argument.  When I found out who, I was going to enjoy disassembling them… their organization, I mean.

          Them.  They.  What kind of weird shadow war were we involved with here?  And which side was ‘Pack Vzzrk’ on?  I had the sense that any role the ‘Pack’ was playing was purely historical, a phantom used to manipulate Pkstzk and me, and maybe Ktchvch.  But that could be wrong.  Rsspkz could still be out there, pulling strings…

          …except that wasn’t his method.  I was the con man, the trickster of the Pack.  Rsspkz was the confident, charismatic, but ultimately straight-forward actor.  That was why he got pulled into a murder plot; he didn’t think far enough to recognize the dangers of accepting a death contract.  He didn’t see how he and the rest of the Pack were being used, then how they would be discarded as scapegoats after their job was done.  Someone got the assassination they wanted, without even paying for the service, and only Pack Vzzrk took the punishment.

          Who, exactly, hired Rsspkz was an old, cold case, one I’d given up solving long ago.  But my frustration from back then fed my frustration in the present.  Shadow players.  Puppet masters.  The real villains of Layafflr City, as opposed to the workaday criminals who stole less and paid more for their crimes.  I hated that I usually tracked and caught the little predators but couldn’t touch their bigger bosses up the food chain.

          I seethed, and Pkstzk seethed, and we were both being overheated by the same enemy… but aimed at each other.

          Finally, I exploded first.  I screeched, “I am not your enemy!  I have always been on your side, Pkstzk, even when you were my packmate’s mate.  Yes, you’ve been misused, but not by me.  I’m just me, Stchvk, the clever youngling who liked to play with locks and forge credit signatures.  I solve puzzles.  So now I solve them for less pay and better reasons.  The Pack moved away from me, not the other way around.  They left you behind, too.  And now someone’s trying to use us again.  Frost, Pkstzk!  You’ve known me longer… why are you trusting some gangsters who arm and armor you and send you out to do their work?”

          At least we were unified in emotional arousal.  I felt the tingle of frenzy reaction starting to tense my larger muscles, increased blood flow feeding them oxygen and fuel.  I fought to keep my scales from rippling and giving away my urge to act.  My aggravation wasn’t an act, but overdoing it would force Pkstzk’s instincts to label me a threat.

          She did clench and coruscate visibly.  Her crest went flat.  She was struggling, fighting an inner battle between my pleas and her previous convictions.  It would come down to trust: me or her newer ‘friends’.

          I lost.  Her slitted eyes focused on me again and she snapped, “I trust the sapient that gives me what I want.  Truth.  Knowledge.  Attention.  Yes, weapons.  You gave me nothing.  You ran and hid from me, back then and again now.  You’re a lying, betraying coward, Stchvk.  You’re getting ready to run, even now.  Do it.  Frenzy.  Try to get past me.  Then I’ll know what you are… and I can kill you like you deserve.”

          What was I supposed to do?  Protest further?  Flee like she wanted?  I realized then that any reaction would have the same result: Bang.  Dead.  I could stay very, very still and hope she’d be content to hold me there until Shtvtsk – or the constables – arrived, but then I’d only die a little later.

          Frost it all.  I was tired of the frosted game.  I was sick of trying to deal with insane people to solve problems created by more crazies.  I was tired of talking and getting nowhere.  I was even tired of being threatened.  I was either getting away or I was getting shot, but I wasn’t going to keep sitting there, waiting, tensed up, miserable and powerless.

          You’ve heard of someone dodging a bullet, right?  Not just metaphorically, but literally, too.  Just move aside fast enough and get out of the way of the projectile.  It doesn’t work like some observers assume.  Even for a physical bullet, there isn’t enough time between the click of the trigger and the arrival of the projectile.  Between nerve transmission and muscle tension… forget it.  Take my word, no reflexes are that fast.  Besides that reality, a plasma burst travels even faster than a bullet and a laser arrives at literal light speed, once triggered.

          When you can dodge is between the shooter’s decision to fire and their actual triggering movement.  As soon as you’re sure they’re about to fire, start moving.  If you guess the right direction and timing, you can be elsewhere when the bullet… or plasma ball… arrives where you used to be.

          The problem is that by moving, you’re also making it more likely that your shooter will fire, if only in reaction to your twitch.  If they weren’t going to attack before, they suddenly become committed.  That concern isn't as much of a problem if you (or they) have friends nearby who will restrain (or shoot) them after the first shot.

          In the case being discussed here, only Pkstzk and I were present.  It also didn’t much matter if I misjudged her intent: eventually, she was going to fire.  I just decided to choose my reaction preemptively.  My only real chance was to disarm her. 

          Moving forward, into her, wasn’t going to work.  Between my seated position and my bad leg, she’d drop me before I got close.  Dodging backward and going for one of the side rooms wouldn’t work for similar reasons.  I’d just get incinerated from behind rather than from the front.

          I needed a weapon of my own.  The only candidate was the laser pistol.  It was close at hand, although I’d have to retrieve it from a half-closed table drawer.  That was my direction of choice as I half-leapt, half-fell off of my seat.

          Pkstzk fired, as she had to.  A purple sphere of superheated matter flew over my head, spattering against the far wall.  Both its passage and its detonation seared my scales with stinging heat, and the instant fire it started on the wooden furniture radiated more warmth.

          I ignored those discomforts in favor of my survival plan.  I managed to slide open the drawer and grasp the laser.  Pkstzk’s eyes widened as she realized that I was now armed, and she swung the plasma gun downward to blast me on the floor.

          I was fortunate that the laser pistol was the faster weapon.  I lived, by virtue of that difference and my faster reflexes… my finely honed survival instincts.  Those instincts include a certain amount of self-importance and certitude about my own value.  I didn’t hesitate to shoot.

          I was unfortunate that my aim wasn’t as good as my speed.  I meant to hit the weapon, or failing that, Pkstzk’s arm or shoulder.  Like I said, a laser isn’t usually a fatal weapon if you hit an extremity or even the outer torso.  But if you catch an unarmored target squarely in the head… like I did Pkstzk… you can kill instantly.

          The beam caught her just inside her right eye, between orbit and sinus.  As she staggered back and fell, I wondered at the similarity to the shot that had killed her mate.  Same weapon.  Same hit area.  Same result.

          Pkstzk spasmed slightly as she hit the floor, but she was already gone.  Smoke rose from the seared hole in her skull, mingling with the fumes from the burning furniture.  Her plasma gun clattered as it struck the laminated wooden floor.

          I lay where I had fallen, laser still aimed in case she tried to rise and fire again.  Her death didn’t register for several hectads.  The fact that I had shot and killed her didn’t register, at first.  When I realized she was still - completely unmoving - the situation finally coalesced within my fragmented brain.

          The young female I’d grown up with, the idol of my early adult years, the star of most of my erotic dreams, was dead.  And I’d killed her.  The facts of the event, the elements of provocation and self-defense, didn’t intrude on my self-incriminations.  The full horror of my acts poured in, unfiltered, undiluted by reason.

          She had been right.  For the wrong reasons, but ultimately, she was right: I killed my Pack.  I ruined everyone around me.  I abandoned Rsspkz and Vztrrp and Fzpktk, the last to his death.  Tskksk would die because of me.  I even failed half of my clients.  And now, I’d killed Pkstzk.

          I released my grip on the laser.  It was part of the evil, part of the destruction.  It had killed two sapients, one with my assistance.  The room was burning… I had been part of that, too.  I created hells out of homes: this one, Tskksk’s store, my apartment…

          I’d burned down the Pack’s old safehouse, too, to destroy evidence.  Did I not mention that?  Arson was one of my specialties, so I knew exactly how to make sure everything burned.  No wonder Pkstzk had suspected me of the other two attacks.  I could do it, even if I hadn’t literally set the explosives personally.

          I was done.  I would never escape.  I ought to just stay there, to burn alive in the apartment… no, the safeties were already kicking in.  Water rained down, extinguishing the flames the way it should. 

          I could still wait for the constables and turn myself in.  That encounter, the final destruction of Stchvk, frightened me also.  I thought I could deal with incrimination and humiliation.  I’d rehearsed the moment in my mind often.  Yet when it came to the real moment of truth, I was terrified.

          I’d been arrested before, many times, but every other time I was either innocent or felt myself justified in my infractions.  Most of the time, I was certain I’d get out of the charges.  Almost always, I had.  But this was murder.  Obvious, unconcealable murder.  Using a weapon that had already killed another sapient in cold blood.  I would never escape this situation.

          That realization coupled with the reality of Pkstzk’s death and my culpability in it, then joined forces with thoughts of the unknown – maybe unknowable – enemy that had guided us all into this confrontation.  My confidence was ruined.  Not only couldn’t I fight back then, I’d never be able to fight now.  I was done.

          Some sapients, in such a crisis, collapse into catatonia.  Some take their own lives.  Vislin don’t, particularly not after a life-or-death struggle.  I was already halfway to frenzy while Pkstzk and I were arguing.  The aftermath of our battle was more than enough to send me over that edge.  I leapt to my feet, disregarding the agony from my tormented leg, and ran to and through the exit.

          Down the stairs, out of the building, and into the street, I ran.  I had no destination, just moving out of the area, out of the neighborhood, and away from the evil that seemed to hover always around me.  I would never be able to run far enough.  Whether it was the city, its population, or me personally, there would always be darkness and horror and death.  What I did… who I was… would never let me escape, until I died.

          As a response after murdering someone, my reaction was terrible.  I was visibly fleeing, very obviously leaving some kind of awful scene.  I might have been screaming; I don't remember.  Even if not, the haste of my travel and my general demeanor would alert any observer that here was a Vislin frenzying away from… something.  Something bad.  Something the constables needed to look into.

          They would.  They would see the carnage there, take a statement or two, and then follow me to wherever I eventually collapsed.

          Hearing this, you may wonder how I was so clear-headed.  I wasn’t.  You’re getting this all after the fact, after I’d had some time to reflect and analyze.

          But, as I fled, I did achieve a certain level of clarity.  My inner demons, chanting about evil and guilt and shadowy oppressors, said a few sensible things.  Someone definitely had been manipulating my reality and that of everyone involved in this case.  I had never had a chance to solve the case, much less to realize that the case wasn’t the real mystery to solve.

          And the frenzy… the frenzy was familiar.  Some time, not too long ago, I had frenzied just like this, overwhelmed by the pressure of terrorized thoughts.  I had the same feeling of swarming dread, of unseen tormentors gathered just to harm me in every way possible.  Too many troubles, in too short a time… in a ridiculously short period of time.  Ridiculously many troubles.  Ridiculous troubles.  Absurd.  Artificial.  Like the acts of a torturer: pain inflicted deliberately and judiciously for some reason I couldn’t conceive.
          I was far outside of Isstravil by the time I reached this mindset.  I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings, but I had no idea where I was, either way.  Then everything stopped.

          I didn’t pass out from exhaustion, not exactly.  I didn’t calm down, either.  I just stopped.  The moment I had that thought - "torture" - all of my thoughts... stopped. 

          All my thoughts.  Vision, hearing, even the sense of my body disappeared.  The frenzy disappeared.  My pains went away. 

          My last coherent, emotionless thought was: I’m dead.  This is what death is. 

          Well, frost.  Took it long enough.

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