by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
chapter 2
 2 3
 5 6 7
 9 A

  Why had I invited him?
  I'd made a supply run to Brin and stayed up only two days, as I couldn't stand to stay up any longer -- could that have something to do with it? But what? It made no sense. Just like it made no sense that I had had to take a commercial flight to be at the Blind Pig on the evening of April 19th, and at the invitation of Phil himself. Sure, it was convenient as I could also meet Mr. Jubatus at the Blind Pig to pick up samples and give him a list of needed supplies, but that could have all been done remotely. "Could have", but for the annoying fact that I'd been unable even to grab his baseline stats from Derksen's records, nor yet the formula for the metabolic depressant he would probably need. Clearly, someone had blocked out my usual attack methods. Probably Mr. Jubatus, damn him.
  So why did that make me more eager to see him?
  There was no mystery about the date; it was the anniversary of the first confirmed case of SCABS spontaneous morph. And for the Blind Pig Gin Mill, April 19th was a veritable holy rite, the date on which the coveted Hassan's Horse Award was given to the victim of the best practical joke of the year. But what could that have to do with me? Phil wasn't the type to pull things, yet he had invited me. Had Mr. Jubatus put him up to it for some reason of his own? It had to be Mr. Jubatus.
  Damn his towering, overweening, feline arrogance! He'd even made me miss a promising storm front just so that I could be at the Pig on this date. Oddly, I didn't really regret missing the storm, which was even more worrisome as storms were almost all I lived for these days.
  Even though I arrived at the Pig about seven in the evening, local time, it was quiet. At first I was surprised, but then I remembered that the award ceremony proper was firmly restricted to 'regulars' and their guests. No 'regular' I, thus I had to be a guest, the only question being -- whose? The only two candidates were Phil and Mr. Jubatus, and I was tending towards Mr. Jubatus. He probably had engineered a practical joke like last year and wanted to lord his superior mind over me. 'Superior mind' -- not a chance! After I entered I heard a click and noticed Donnie locking the door and then a glance around showed that both Phil and Mr. Jubatus were present. I turned and made my way through the crowd to sit beside Mr. Jubatus as he was much preferable to an eater.
  A growly throat clearing drew my attention and I turned to see Wanderer standing near the piano, in an open space, holding the Award trophy.
  "Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages! Welcome, one and all, to this fair establishment on the eve of an occasion most solemn." That was met with a volley of raucous laughter from everywhere, which the wolf did not deign to acknowledge. "Far less solemn than it might have been, however! For as each new day did end without any fresh japery to enliven the atmosphere, and the joyless months did drag by, in all sooth I did fear me that we would have had the ever so sad experience of a year free of pranks. And, what is worse, that I would be the first one so ill-starred as to have no new prize winner to whom I might surrender the magnificent Hassan's Horse. But while the gods Momus and Murphy are cruel at times, they are not so cruel as all that! For as my dolor was at its height -- at the very last moment before Catastrophe would have been both inevitable and irreversible -- my fears were all undone! Truly, my friends, in this quiet twelvemonth of near unending seriousness and deep thoughts, we were saved from that most horrific of calamities: A year marked, if not fatally marred, by a complete and utter absence of practical jokes. And now, as I am not long winded," another blizzard of laughter greeted that from all directions, "I will simply announce your chosen winner. By popular vote, a shoe-in due to the curious paucity of other blessed candidates, I do hereby announce the winner of this year's Hassan's Horse Award: She is a beauteous and most intellectual addition to our community, and her name is -- Ms. Sue Carter!"
  Applause thundered as I just stared at him. Me? That wasn't possible. I'd only been here twice. The first time nothing had happened, and the second time I'd simply tried to sit on the inanimorph stool who'd gotten out of the way.
  "That's just a rumor, you know," Mr. Jubatus commented from beside me.
  I turned and stared. How had he known what I was pondering?
  "Given the circumstances, you had to be thinking about The Stool That Walks Like A Man, not so?"
  Ah -- of course. Everyone knew of my little misstep, and Wanderer had commented on a lack of other candidates. Very well, it was officially a practical joke, which begged the question: Who had done it? The cheetah's doubts notwithstanding, I as yet lacked sufficient data to rule out the possibility of an inanimorph being involved. If the culprit was a living creature, however, the primary candidates were either Phil or Mr. Jubatus. Out of the side of my eye I could see Phil looking away, but most of my vision was filled with Mr. Jubatus' grinning.
  Well, that clarified that. Mr. Jubatus thought that he could pull a fast one on me. Well! Soon he'd be in my hands and then... No. It had to be in the bar, it had to be public, and above all it had to be most embarrassing indeed. But until I was ready to spring my trap, no sense giving off any clues...
  "Ms. Carter! Wouldst grant mine unworthy self the honor of your presence 'pon the dais? Prithee, step up to receive thine well-earned prize, if you would!"
  I whispered to Mr. Jubatus, "I wonder who did it?" and then stepped up, advancing silently in my skin-tight lycra to greet the wolf. As I approached him, Wanderer bowed and held out the award, a statue, appropriately enough of a horse's rump on a pedestal, cast out of well polished silver. The tail was raised to expose the fullness of the horse's ass.
  Wanderer stood up. "Inasmuch as you are a relative newcomer, fair lady, it has been requested that I state the rules and restrictions under which thou'rt bound for the next three hundred and sixty and five days following. Primarily, you must always have the statue with you, prominently displayed, each time you enter into and are seen within the Blind Pig Gin Mill. Shouldst thou forget to bring said statue but one time, thou must buy each entity in this establishment a drink; 'pon a second such lapse, thou art forbidden to enter for a period of one month; and if thou do neglect to bring it yet once more, 'tis 'three strikes and out' -- thou wilt be forbidden to ever enter this establishment again."
  I nodded. "I believe that vengeance is not frowned upon?"
  "Not at all, milady." Wanderer smiled. "Do thee but know the identity of thine tormentor, he or she is yours to use as you will. Of course, anybody is fair game at any time, notwithstanding the decline in both quantity and quality of pranks which seems to have o'ertaken us all these past few years. An thou take an oath to forswear thine righteous vengeance, mayhap the prankster may voluntarily reveal himself."
  "I could, but surely that would take all the fun out of it? I will swear no such oath."
  He played to the crowd: "Intelligent, beautiful, and she truly recognizes the value of a good jest! Would that all who enter this hallowed space were as congenially compatible to our customs." Then, focusing on me again, "Milady, I wish thee the best of luck in thine year of shame and glory." Lastly, after an elaborate and sweeping bow, Wanderer turned and left me to brave the spotlight as best I could.
  I slowly looked around at the patrons, the man with the ears of a raccoon, the deer laying on the floor, the horses, the bugs, the wolves, and the guilty Mr. Jubatus grinning at the table. Of course, they were all grinning the same, so maybe he -- no. It was him, it had to be him. But if it wasn't... Well, in that case, I'd simply have to get each and every one of them, thereby ensuring that the guilty party was caught in my net. QED. I smiled. "As our florid and lupine host said, I am new to your ranks, and not truly familiar with your customs and mores." That was apparently the cue for a discordant electrical noise from the direction of -- Jubatus? Odd, it didn't look like he was working a buzzer -- and a light scattering of chuckles all around. "Therefore, I can only plead ignorance if my next action is in unwitting contravention of said customs: There shall be one round of drinks for the house on me, so that all may enjoy one night of freedom before their doom comes to them."
  If the rather loud cheer was any indication, there were no objections whatsoever. Soon everybody had drinks. Indeed, I was given my usual rum and coke before I could even reach Mr. Jubatus's table. For a second I was afraid to touch it for fear of what it might contain, but then I smiled and added a dash of potassium nitrate. If they were so afraid of me that they had to get me this quickly, well then vengeance would be all the sweeter.

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  Well, what do you know. Little Miss Can't Be Wrong didn't blow a gasket; I probably wouldn't've taken it that well myself. Nice touch, that round for the house. I watched as she made her way through the ridicule that sounded like congratulations, and sat down across from me just as the waitress, Sinclair's daughter, brought me a Mini-CD 50 I hadn't asked for. FYI, that's a concoction consisting of equal parts water and catnip daiquiri -- not recommended for non-felines with a normal metabolic rate. Carter sat down with a trophy-on-table impact that sent ripples across the surface of my drink. She stopped me as I reached to take a sip.
  "Not quite yet, Mr. Jubatus, please."
  "I need the biological samples I came for free of contamination. It seems that I couldn't access your baseline records, as though certain parties had intentionally locked me out."
  Locked out? What the... I upshifted and let my mind race. The records she wanted were safe in the files of Dr. Derksen, whose professional ethics forbade him to pass that kind of data around like candy. Had she gone through normal channels, a couple leaps through bureaucratic hoops would have gotten her what she wanted; but she was 'locked out', meaning she'd gone for illicit access, first, last, and only. She hadn't even bothered trying standard procedures! Naughty, naughty, little girl. No wonder she'd been so well-informed last time around... Okay, time for an unscheduled 'tiger team' check on my own encryption and IC, and my compliments to the doc-roach on the quality of his defenses. Back at the normal tempo, I made a deadpan reply: "Ever heard of doctor-patient privilege? There's a rumor going 'round about how Derksen takes that shit real seriously."
  "Let's get this over with quickly." She pulled out a plastic case about 6" square that contained a needle, a pair of scissors and three vials. "First I need a hair sample for base DNA," and she held out the scissors --
  -- attack: frontal: threat level low --
  -- damned instincts. I downshifted and took the scissors from her, also the vial. "Try not to let your fingers contaminate it."
  "No problem." A quick shpritz of DeadGlove -- every cheetah's favorite inert polymer in a spray can -- then I snipped off a fair chunk of fur. Meanwhile, Derksen had arrived; the dryad handed him a sealed needle and a blood vial. "Well, aren't you prepared?"
  "Always, Mr. Jubatus. I made the arrangements with Dr. Derksen before I arrived, as I had confirmed he is your doctor and would be present."
  'Confirmed' exactly how, hmm? One more stomp on the instincts, and the dryad had her blood.
  "I greatly appreciate your co-operation. Now I just need one more, which I trust you'll prefer to donate in privacy." She held out what I recognized as a urine sample container. "I doubt the washroom will be booby-trapped tonight."
  Heh. Looks like news of Wanderer's unscheduled shower spread farther and wider than anyone would have expected. And the old barstool trick took this year's prize? No doubt about it, the Pig was going downhill. I took the vial. "I'll be a minute," and stood up taking my drink with me. Think I'd trust her with it? Fat chance.

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  I watched him go with what seemed almost a dim echo of sadness, but that couldn't be. Ignoring my imagination I smiled at the crowd to see Phil standing right beside me.
  "It wasn't me."
  "I didn't think so. You did e-mail me though."
  He almost smiled. "Sure! Wanderer asked me to since I had your address already."
  Wanderer? Why would he have... ? To make sure there was somebody to take the award off his hands? I took a sip of my drink to calm my nerves. "Out of curiosity, how is the award determined?"
  "The regulars cast a secret ballot. Kind of silly this year, since you were the only contender. Anyway, the current holder of the award gets to hand it to the new victim."
  "I see. But how is it that Wanderer got the Horse last year? I thought the perpetrator of the winning prank had to remain unknown, and since everyone knows that Jubatus got him drenched by his own water balloon trap, wouldn't that particular practical joke be removed from consideration?"
  "Well, sort of. Not everyone is sure Jubatus is the one to blame, and even if he was the one who did it, nobody's been able to figure out how, which is just as good. Anyway, I couldn't help but see Dr. Derksen with you. Are you okay? I'm not doing anything for the rest of the night..."
  I glanced at the gloves on my hands; felt the tight lycra pressing against my body so that I knew I was in no danger; remembered the terror I'd felt in space. "I'm fine, thank you. Quite fine."
  Phil looked doubtful.
  "I'm not going to kill myself, and it's all thanks to you. Dr. Derksen was here because I needed him to take a blood sample from Mr. Jubatus."
  "Mr. Jubatus?"
  "I'm taking him up to Brin in July."
  I watched him glance upward for a second. "Jubatus in space?" He leaned forward and spoke in a whisper, "Do you really think he's astronaut material?"
  "I can handle him, and he is needed. And..." I looked up and saw Mr. Jubatus returning and then had a sudden thought. "Would you please tell Wanderer too -- he was curious." Yes... that flamboyant wolf would likely be very curious indeed, and inasmuch as his spotted victim-of-choice had managed to turn the tables on him so completely, it was more than likely that he'd be equally interested in returning the favor. No sense letting that Shakespeare-spouting mind go idle -- give him some information and I could simply watch him reel in Mr. Jubatus.
  In less than a minute Mr. Jubatus was sitting down in front of me and holding out the sample container. He'd watched Phil depart with look on his face that even I could tell was foreign to him. Genuine concern, perhaps? Interesting.
  "Here you go -- fluids topped off and everything."
  I took the vial from him and put it, and the other samples and sample-taking equipment back in their plastic case and slipped it back into my purse. "You wouldn't believe the trouble I had getting these through customs. But, I do have some more information for you." Picking up my drink, I finished it off and looked to see Phil talking to Wanderer. Mr. Jubatus followed my gaze and inwardly I smiled and decided to plant some extra paranoia -- if Mr. Jubatus could be convinced to strike at Wanderer, then more power to me. "Wanderer had asked Phil to ask me about Dr. Derksen here so I told him that Dr Derksen was taking samples preparatory to your trip into orbit."
  "Did he, now." He turned away from them and looked straight at me. "Anyway, you mentioned a list of requirements and restrictions?"
  "Yes. You need a space suit -- I've e-mailed the details and suggested manufacturers to you. You will need to shave, if not for the suit, to prevent clogging and damage to Brin's systems. You may bring personal belongings massing not more than five kilograms."
  He nodded. "I received the specs and it won't be a problem."
  "Good. I'd love to stay and chat, but I need to catch the 10:30 North-Am Air flight back to LA." I stood up, picking up the statue. There was no way it'd fit into my purse so I'd have to get a second carry-on bag at the airport. "Mr. Jubatus, I will see you on July 1st -- I trust you'll be ready? I wouldn't want to disappoint you by having to leave you behind on the ground." Then I turned and pushed my way through the well-wishers in the crowd and left.

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  Whether it was the date or my own innate paranoia or what, I kept chewing over the dryad's words: 'Wanderer had asked Phil to ask me about Dr. Derksen... ' Now, why would the wolf do that? Sure, he was capable of subterfuge, but that kind of three-times-removed Byzantine maneuvering just wasn't his style. Which begged the question, why would she have felt the need to inform me of this fact? Well, she'd as much as admitted that she intended to zap the lot of us -- 'all may have one night of fun before your doom comes upon you' -- so it depended on how she wanted --
  -- food creature: harmless: within range --
  -- a squirrel? For a Pan-forsaken squirrel, my instincts had to cut in? Even if his bright orange vest hadn't marked him as an obvious SCAB, I wouldn't want to eat him; I mean, he's barely a mouthful, okay? More, the runt well and truly piqued my curiosity. He was clearly uncomfortable in my presence, and yet he had to've gone way the hell out of his way to meet me eye-to-sternum, so what gives?
  I downshifted. The squirrel was too busy jittering in place to say anything, so I figured I'd break the ice: "Nice jacket. Fashionable. Hacked it out of a hunting vest with a Swiss Army Knife, am I right?"
  He stammered out, "S-s-s-s-so h-h-how are you? I'm J'jim and I'm n-new here..." His words came out awfully fast, for a slowpoke. Gosh. I might actually have to upshift a bit to follow what he's saying. Amusing.
  "Yes, and you're scared shitless to boot. So tell me -- what brings you to the big, bad predator in the corner?"
  Jim calmed himself with a visible effort. He may be a squirrel-sized runt, but he had more determination than most human-sized people. "I'm, trying, to, overcome, a, flight, reflex."
  "Flight reflex? So... you run away from dangerous situations. This is a problem?" I wanted to ask why a little (read: fragile) guy like him would actually want to stick around when danger strikes, but he cut in before I could do so.
  "I'm, not, one, to, run." Oh yeah, he had balls of brass. King-sized. And he wanted my help dealing with his instincts? What the hell, I'm game.
  I smiled without showing any teeth. "Bets on that?" A momentary upshift, and my claws blinked into place before me, every last knife-edge clearly visible to the squirrel. "You might want to rethink that 'overcome the reflex' deal. You little guys break real easy. When the weapons come out, you damn well better run, or you're dead, Jim."
  He squeaked out, "I would kill to be able to stand and fight!" at warp factor 2.
  It wasn't just the irritating overtones of his voice that dampened my mood. "Believe me, you don't want to kill things. Been there, done that, don't recommend it." This was really a job for Phil, but he was busy with Wanderer at the moment, so I was stuck with it. O joyous day. "You know, you're not exactly sounding rational at the moment. How about we kill some time by letting me pick your brain about it?"
  Well, that sucked. Phil on his worst day could come up with a better opening line in his sleep. At least Jim was still here -- score one for the tree-rat -- and yes, that was a nod. Fine, I'd take my best shot at ID'ing his problem.
  "So: You're an uptight little rodent that wants to act like a badass, but thanks to SCABS, you ain't got the body for it no more. Care to give me the rest of the story?"
  "I, I wrestled."
  Ah -- progress. "And now you can't find a suitable opponent. So what?"
  "I coached."
  "Looks like pulling info out of you is gonna be like cracking nuts," I observed. It wasn't much of a joke, but I was just trying to lighten the mood a little. No visible response from Jim. "So anyway. You used to be on top of the world, but now you're at the bottom of the heap."
  He nodded. Words would be better, but at least a gesture was something.
  I gave the 'moving right along' gesture. "And..?"
  "I used to be somebody!" he squeaked. "Back in the day I was a respectable man!"
  Bingo! Finally hit pay dirt. "So that's your problem: SCABS took you away from what you love. Ripped a jagged hole in your heart." And now that it was out in the open... now what do I do? What would Phil do, damnit!? I upshifted, bought myself a little time to think. 'Tough love' was the only option that occurred to me. And Jim did want help with some of those pesky squirrel instincts, so... I downshifted and laughed, started inching my face towards him. "Well, guess what? You're not the first, and you damn sure won't be the last. Take a number and join the fucking club, friend.
  "I got four words for you: Deal with it, tree-rat." And as the piece de resistance, I put a very toothy smile on my face. In response, Jim shrieked and scrambled up the wall as fast as his tiny little claws could carry him.
  Hmm. Looks like I overdid it.

chapter 2
 2 3
 5 6 7
 9 A