by Michael Bard and Quentin 'Cubist' Long
1 2 3
4 5 6 7
8 9 A
As I drove Mr. Jubatus and his supplies to the airport -- I
knew that he'd made arrangements for his vehicle -- I wondered
about his reaction or lack thereof though it was what I had counted
on. I hadn't lied about the hazards of space given what it had
done to... No matter. As long as the cheetah could react calmly
in a hostile situation, he wouldn't be a complete burden. The
trip was quiet and we each kept to our own thoughts, mine being
on the coming plane trip -- I hate public air travel. Somewhat
odd considering what I did pilot, and even not pilot, but the
problem was that I knew too much. I knew what the pilots would
be doing, I knew the potential flaws, and above all I knew that
I could do a better job. Unfortunately, I was still kept helpless
in my seat because of US laws created after Sept 2001. As we got
near to the airport traffic slowed down from the vehicle overflow
from the nearby sports complex as the National League game had
just ended. The delay wouldn't be a problem as I'd allowed an
extra 45 minutes of travel time in case of traffic complications,
which of course meant that we had an extra 45 minutes of time
I had initially been a bit concerned about how my over-speedy (and under-patient) companion would take this delay, but he was prepared: The plentiful pockets of his vest were filled with a remarkable variety of things including a not-inconsiderable selection of tools and parts, and he occupied himself by interrogating me as to which of said items the gatekeepers in the terminal might be prone to object to. I was grateful for this gentle inquisition, as it was a welcome distraction from what was all too soon to come. It quickly became apparent that he had given this matter some thought a good deal before now; he had socket wrenches, electricians' wire nuts, conventional nuts and bolts, and so on and so forth, but nothing that could be used as a stabbing or piercing implement -- no knives, saws, blades of any variety, nor yet even a screwdriver. "The nuts and bolts might raise an eyebrow, but only because you've got rather a lot of them, and they would not be considered adequate cause to hold you back, Mr. Jubatus." He said nothing, so I looked at him, and found him glaring fixedly ahead of us. "Mr. Jubatus?"
"It's just a traffic jam, Mr. Jubatus. No need for profanity."
"Look to the left -- 11 o'clock, about 20 meters and closing. See those guys with the black jackets and baseball bats?"
"Certainly. What of them?"
"They're Humans First."
"I can see that. Again, what of them?"
"They're checking out the drivers and passengers of each car, that's what of them."
Maybe they were just trying to be helpful. "And..?"
"Why do you think they're carrying --"
And then my jaw almost fell open as they started beating the side of a limousine a few cars in front of us with those baseball bats.
"-- those bats around?"
I turned to Jubatus after tearing my eyes from the appalling display. "What are they doing?"
He returned my look with a nasty smile and gestured at the brutes. "That's what they're doing. What's the matter, you thought Humans First was just a bunch of misguided idealists or something?"
"No -- no -- of course their ideas are wrong, but I have only had civil discussions with their representat..." The smashing of glass dragged my attention back to the limousine just in time to watch the men reach in through a shattered window and drag a Dalmatian SCAB out of the limo. There was only one civilized possibility here. "Maybe he was injured and they're just trying to help him."
I heard Jubatus gasp, and then swallow before speaking over the rising sound of the impact of wood on flesh. "He's injured now." Then I watched Jubatus get something and heard the dialing of a cell phone so fast that key presses made only a single chirp. All he was going to do was call for help? I turned to look at him as the cell phone made the connection.
"Mr. Jubatus," I said, my voice cold enough to freeze helium. "Perhaps you can stand aside as another human being is savagely beaten before your eyes, but I could not live with myself if I did nothing. Excuse me, please." I got out of the car and strode purposefully over to the humans.
I stopped a few feet away from them and snapped "Sirs!" in my command voice. Being in charge of ground to orbit shuttles does teach one how to be noticed and obeyed. They stopped, startled, lowering their bats and letting the Dalmatian slump to the pavement oozing blood, and then they noticed me and smiled. I continued, "Your actions are in contravention of your own Constitution, to say nothing of your three Federal SCAB laws and common human decency..."
The largest, whom I noticed had blood on his bat as he raised it, smiled. "You afraid we hurt the widdle doggie? Oh my, we were so wrong..."
I started to turn to Jubatus to lecture him about the proper methods of maintaining civilized behaviour when their laughter drew my attention just in time to see their bats raised.
Their bats raised? Laughter? That made no sense. Sure they'd made a mistake, but there was still time to save their...
The one who'd spoken whipped his bat down and impacted it against my midsection, filling the street with the sound of wood on wood.
How could they? This was wrong -- they had to know that! It was morally incorrect to assault and damage another sentient. What could have possessed them?
The impact bounced off my flexible cellulose ribs and the elastic reaction threw me to the pavement. I was too stunned even to remember the basics of how to land properly.
This couldn't be happening! It was just wrong!
A brilliant eclipse of the streetlight caused by the upraised bat shaded my eyes and...
...and the bat bounced off the ground with much more force than gravitational potential could have passed to it and Jubatus was standing over me, eclipsing the light so that his dark form was haloed by the halogen glow. A distant part of me noticed a digital camera held in one hand.
"Are you all right?"
I couldn't answer. The neural rewiring which granted me vast increase in sensory acuity applied to all sensations, which (unfortunately) included pain. I was individually aware of each abused cell's injury as a separate and distinct note in a symphony of tormented flesh; I knew that the damage was nowhere near fatal, not even a broken rib thanks to their woody substance having a significantly higher elastic constant than bone, but the affected nerves were making themselves felt. It was all I could do to get out, "In... purse... prescription labeled... pain. Now!" Around me I could barely hear the thumps as the bodies of the humans slid to the ground and the distant sound of traffic as the pain became overwhelming.
Another blur. "These?"
By force of will I kept my mind free from the pain enough to look at the bottle and recognize the colour. "Two... mouth."
He gently slipped them in with water out of a bottle from his vest and I forced myself to swallow them and closed my eyes and clenched my teeth against the rising tidal wave of pain. Then they reacted and the pain receded and I could begin to think once again.
"Pain is a sensory impulse, isn't it."
I took a few deep breaths to clear my head, the oxygen pushing the pain away and helping the healing. "Yes it is, Mr. Jubatus. It most certainly is. My bodily substance is..." I winced as I made an experimental attempt to sit up, and my body forcefully argued that that was a bad idea. "Less easily injured than animal protoplasm... but once it is damaged, the pain is very very intense."
"You're all right?"
"I'll be fine -- the drug makes me a bit unsteady on my feet so it is probably better that I rest for a few minutes before the law enforcement officials arrive. I take it that you called them and then took photographic evidence before dealing with the problem with your enhanced metabolism."
"Oh, yeah," he said with a sad smile, his voice quiet and a trifle unsteady. "Solved the problem real good."
Interesting -- not the cynical tone (which was expected), but that he sounded shaken, which was odd since with his abilities he would never have been at risk. I moved around, more carefully this time, until I was sitting on the ground with my legs crossed in a much more comfortable position. "I would have expected you to answer with more vehemence given your earlier attitudes."
"I don't enjoy pulling the wings off flies, no matter how much they ask for it. Anyway, how the hell could you do something so incredibly stupid?!"
"Stupid? Based on my experience with such persons, these were aberrations --"
"Your experience? That, lady, is sampling error with a vengeance! Before the Pig, when's the last time you spoke to anyone with an IQ under 130?"
I almost answered his question -- but there was a more important ethical issue to address. "Mr. Jubatus, violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
He sighed. "And some folks' first refuge is selective blindness. I imagine it's easier to do that when you live in a hermetically sealed bubble." He held out his right forearm. "Here. Why don't you take off one of your damn gloves and feel what the real world is like!" He thrust it further forward almost into my face.
"As you wish Mr. Jubatus." Mystified, and after swallowing, I carefully removed my right glove and felt along his forearm until I found a minor discontinuity in his skin, buried in the fur. "That is scar tissue, is it not."
"Congratulations. You've found the spot where one of those Humans First 'incompetents' pulled a knife on me. And if you're interested, the rest of the guys at the Pig can give you the gory details of their own up-close-and-personal brushes with such 'incompetence'."
"I still don't understand. All the other such individuals I've talked with were vocal, but not violent. I've never --"
"Never had to deal with that kind of irrational bullshit? Never? Not even during the Collapse?" he asked, and his questions were pointed accusations.
And just like that, it was upon me: A terrible, terrible experience I hadn't thought of in years, a memory which (hindsight assures me now) I must have been doing my best to suppress all along. Just like that, the present was expunged from my sensorium, replaced in its entirety by a past that I had no desire to revisit...
March of 2003: I was at University, just finishing my undergraduate work in physics. The Martian Flu had well and truly left its mark on the outside world, but surely the University campus was safe -- surely the fine intellects gathered in this place would not fall victim to the hysteria which gripped the populace at large? Surely the Collapse would not make itself directly known here?
Surely I was a fool.
No, the Collapse had not respected the sanctity of the University... and a group of people, many of whom I had called friends, made me fully aware of the true extent of my folly as they attacked, seeking to burn the Library.
The power failure, the gibbering howl of the approaching mob, the acrid smoke burning in my nostrils, my finger on the trigger... I felt the salty taste of blood in my mouth, the blood of a fellow student; I smelled the flame and heard the ravening roar of its hunger. I remembered every kick of the rifle and the horror of sentients falling to the ground, shot by others and by myself, never to rise again. I shook with the realization of what I had done, what I would be required to do...
...and then I was back in the present. Safe and blinking in 2039, with more than three decades of insulation between myself and my sins.
"You have dealt with this kind of thing before, haven't you," the cheetah said, the partially-concealed pain in his eyes doubtless a match for my own. "Flashback, am I right?"
"I... yes. I have. During the Collapse. A mob came. Attempted to burn the, the library. I and others... stopped them."
Fortunately, he did not press for details. "You alright now?"
"Not yet," I said with a convulsive shudder. "If you will excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick." I turned and ignored Jubatus as I vomited my drink from the Pig up and onto the street. When my body finally calmed I swallowed dryly and turned back to him. "If you will help me to the Dalmatian, I will examine him before the authorities arrive -- I do have basic training in first aid. You need no longer fear that such a situation will incapacitate me again as I will not forget my self-defense training next time."
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
The dryad was just full of surprises, wasn't she?
I helped her up, did what I could to assist while she made the mutt comfortable, and we waited for the cops to arrive. Dog-face had no internal injuries, but he was hurting bad from a bruised rib. When the cops finally did show, Carter's diplomatic credentials ensured that we weren't held up long. Of course, given my photos and the oversupply of other witnesses, I'm not sure her credentials made any practical difference. Another surprise: Carter refused to press charges.
"Mr. Jubatus, your country's legal system will deal with them as they deserve to be dealt with. If I make an incident about this then they could get deported to Ad Astra and I'd have to shoot them."
"Sounds good to me. Can I..." That's when I realized she wasn't smiling. "Hold it. You're serious."
"I am. In terms of surface area, Ad Astra is very small. We haven't the space for a prison or other such facility. The only punishment is corporal. I would not press for deportation, but if they were remanded to Ad Astran justice, I, as the idiot who caused them to be deported, would be the one who would have to shoot them."
There wasn't anything to say after that. I drove, since Carter was still a little woozy from the drugs, and we arrived with time to spare. I returned the rental, then grabbed my carry-on bags -- the rest of my stuff'd been shipped ahead by courier -- and followed her into the terminal.
It wasn't exactly pleasant. I hadn't been around this many normals at one time since before I stopped being one. For that matter, hadn't been in this big a crowd, period. As a SCAB, being surrounded by normals has always been a nervous-making experience for me.
My heart rate was elevated. My senses were abnormally acute. But it wasn't panic; I just felt... intense.
"Are you alright?" asked the dryad.
"I'll manage," I replied, the finality in my tone putting an end to further discussion. As we continued down the main concourse to our gate, I found I had to keep downshifting -- my tempo insisted on creeping up of its own accord. A little voice from the back of my skull provided a running internal commentary on potential threats and escape routes.
Something tapped my shoulder; I upshifted instantly to... oh. Carter. I downshifted. "Yes?"
"Mr. Jubatus, please calm down before you bang your head on the ceiling. You're acting as the proverbial cat that everyone is described to be as nervous as."
I stopped, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. "Sorry. I don't like crowds." I gave her one of my patented sardonic smiles and continued: "After all, we cheetahs are solitary critters."
Double-plus damned instincts! I steered us away from Carter's choice of ticket line, since I recognized the agent there as a Humans First member. No sixth sense, just scabsonthenet.org's online "rogue's gallery", which I'd checked this afternoon. The line moved fairly quickly and the tickets weren't a problem, either. Unfortunately, the twit manning the sonic scanner flagged my luggage as "officially questionable". Even less fortunately, the rent-a-cop who handled it turned out to be a previously unrecognized anti-SCABS bigot.
"Come on over here, Mr. Cat."
Oh, there's a fine display of courtesy. Let's just see how you like it, fucknose. "Not a problem, Mr. Ape," I said as I (and my carry-on luggage) followed him to a large booth off to one side of the main concourse. Sure enough, his scent acquired a sudden charge of anger. Good.
"Excuse me, but are you quite sure --" Carter began quietly, probably below the threshold of human hearing. Me, I didn't care what the clown heard.
"Yes, I'm sure," I declared at a normal volume. "After all, I have a name, and the primate here couldn't bother himself to either ask or call me 'Sir'. He doesn't want to be reminded he's an ape, maybe he should've thought twice before he called me 'Mr. Cat'. After all, some people are sensitive about their species, and it's not very polite nor professional to stir up needless hostility. Isn't that right, Mr. Ape?"
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Enough of this -- the electronic board said the flight was still
on schedule, and after the delay on the way here the last thing
I needed was for Jubatus to get somebody so angry at him that
they held him back.
Oblivious to me and secure in his duty, the security man responded: "Mr. Cat, there is evidence that something in your carry-on will require us to prevent you from boarding --"
Fortunately I'd had an opportunity to read the name tag on his chest as he approached. "Mr. Jacobs," I snapped.
He stopped and whipped around to look at me, anger at his diatribe being interrupted reddening his face. "You're free to go, but he's not."
"I don't have time for this crap, and I don't care who calls who what. What is the problem Mr. Jacobs?"
"I don't have to tell you SCAB."
I very much did not have time for this! "Mr. Jacobs, I am an ambassador of the sovereign state of Ad Astra. As such, you will tell me the problem or I will make an international incident over this. And when it reaches that level I can assure you that your ass will be thrown to the wolves to keep me happy. Now, what is the difficulty?" I had trained my voice to the proper military snap and used it during Brin's construction. His hand flinched as he started to salute before he suppressed the urge.
He licked his lips before answering. "There is no legal reason for me to divulge such information to you. According to subsection 12a of..."
"I am fully familiar with American law. 12a states that you may search and question a passenger about suspect luggage and nothing else. 12b and 12c cover whom you may restrict from boarding. The introduction to section 12 states that such actions listed below should not prevent a passenger from boarding a flight unless dangerous substances are confirmed. Nowhere does it state that such information is privileged." I raised my voice. "I will ask for the last time, what is the problem?" I watched him visibly deflate when he realized that I knew the word of the law.
Pointing at one of the two carry-ons, Mr. Jacobs said, "That contains an unknown powder inside a metal case. We need to know what the powder is."
I turned. "Mr. Jubatus -- may we see the case." There was no question in my voice.
Jubatus reached into his carry-on and pulled out the case.
"We need to check the contents sir."
Moon dust? Where had he gotten that?
Mr. Jacobs swallowed. "I need you to open the container so that I can examine it."
"Moon dust isn't an explosive."
My turn. "Mr. Jubatus, you will open the container and you will do so now. Mr. Jacobs, I will show you the contents and confirm or deny what they are. Is that acceptable." Again, there was no question in my voice.
"Good. Now. Mr. Jubatus."
He paused for a second before gently opening the case. I looked, and there was indeed rock dust there, pale gray in colour. I removed my right glove, dampened my fingertip, and glared at Jubatus until he held the container in front of me whereupon I touched the surface and let a few grains adhere. I moved my finger so I could examine the material and then I tasted it. Rock. "Mr. Jacobs, this is neither drugs nor explosive. Unless you wish to argue my statement and create an international incident you will let Mr. Jubatus through."
He swallowed again as Jubatus snapped the container closed. "I'm sorry but..."
"Section 12e states that an inspection by a foreign point of entry within a sovereign state that has signed the appropriate air travel treaties with the United States as stated in section 2 will be considered sufficient for suspect substance inspection unless there is obvious incongruity with what is specified by the foreign point of entry. Not only has Ad Astra signed the appropriate treaty, but also I, as a duly appointed inspector of the goods in question," I whipped out the appropriate card, "certify said goods as harmless. If you wish, you may file a protest under section 12 subsection g, but you will need physical evidence of the harmful nature of said substance. Do you wish to file such a protest?"
He paused for a second before answering quietly. "No ma'am."
"Are there any other concerns?"
"No ma'am, he is safe to pass."
"Good. Come along Mr. Jubatus, we have 42 minutes until our flight leaves." After we were through the gate I continued, "And that is how you handle a civilized SCAB hater."
Jubatus' smile was full of black humor. "Wrong -- that's how you handle those people. Probably just as well that I let you do all the talking. I could've force-fed him the letter of the law myself, but..." A sigh, and then in a conversational tone, to no one in particular: "I'm gonna be real glad when we're in the air."
He was silent the rest of the way. To prevent further delays I led him to an empty area of the waiting lounge and after he sat down I turned and spoke to him: "Now, since we are waiting I do have an NDA for you to sign before we reach the island and you see any of the facilities." I reached into my carry-on and pulled out the folder that contained the agreement. "I would have given it to you earlier, but I preferred not to let the others at the Pig get a clue as to what you are getting yourself into. Signing this is a non-negotiable act and is required before you board my plane in San Francisco. You can look at it on the flight over."
"What if I don't like it?"
"Then you stay in San Francisco. Ad Astra will cover your flight back. Mr. Jubatus, you seem to believe that I live inside a hermetically sealed bubble, separate and distinct from the 'real world', and I won't argue the point here and now. However, I would like to point out that your existence has been confined to a bubble you call the United States of America, which bubble you are in process of exiting. From my point of view, you are only just now entering into the real world yourself. And if you'll excuse me, I would like to freshen up."
In truth, 'freshening up' was the least of my concerns, although I did want to sip some water and make sure that any remaining bits of vomit were absent from my chest and face. I was far more concerned about Jubatus. Given how jumpy he was in crowds, I decided that I had better make use of the special scent I had created sooner rather than later.
While it is widely recognized that animorph SCABs can display behavioral traits appropriate to the species they resemble, the full extent of this phenomenon is appreciably more obscure. Yes, animal instincts can indeed fully replace an animorph's mind, but that is comparatively rare; it is far more likely that said instincts merely influence the mind, to a greater or lesser degree. In fact, some animorphs, consciously or otherwise, even exhibit social adaptations of what might be termed their 'template species'. In Jubatus' case that was obviously cheetah. One little known fact of wild cheetah society is that, unlike most large felines, small groups of male cheetahs from the same litter would live and hunt together, co-operating against others. Accordingly, one of the things I'd done with the samples I'd taken from Jubatus was to create a 'littermate scent', which I applied now. No human would be able to detect this scent, as the formula's concentration was too low for it to be consciously noticed even by Jubatus' sensitive nose, but it would be there nonetheless, and would cause his subconscious mind to consider me a littermate and trusted friend. I had chosen not to apply it before meeting Jubatus at the Pig since I was going to talk to Wanderer, for I felt it best not to take the chance that he might notice it and start to wonder. There were other ploys for the wolf, lupine social actions and behaviours that I had plans to use on Wanderer in the future, and there was no sense in arousing any suspicions in his mind prematurely.
After the perfume, I didn't use makeup as I didn't see the need, it was a polite excuse-me as another woman entered and quickly made lots of room for me, and then back out to Jubatus.
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
"Now, if you'll excuse me, I would like to freshen up."
I watched her walk towards the rest room. She thinks I'm out of touch with the 'real world'? Real funny, that. I wonder how she'd do on her own, without a whole damn country backing her up? Like to see her keep up with an appetite for meat that can be measured in pounds per minute. Let's see how she handles instincts like a bloody hurricane in her head. Yeah, and let's see how long it'd take her to relearn how to see, to hear, to fucking talk, to move around a world of barely-mobile obstacles without breaking anything... The whole situation was looking more and more like a deal with the devil, but I didn't care. I'd coped with worse than Carter when the stakes were nothing more than a lousy contract; now, with a lifelong dream in my hands, so close I could almost taste it...
Calm down, Jube. I upshifted for privacy and opened the folder to read. The NDA was fairly standard, except for a couple of clauses. First: Anything I developed or worked on, either on Easter Island or on Brin Station, belonged to Ad Astra -- I wouldn't be allowed to take a copy with me. Fine. It wouldn't be the first time a client asked for that, and from what I knew of the setup on Brin, it wasn't likely that the solution to their problem would be useful to anyone dirtside anyway. Second: They wanted me to leave my own toys downstairs, use their hardware and software exclusively -- not that I'd have brought anything even if they allowed it, seeing as how Carter hadn't given me any of the technical data I needed to choose an appropriate selection of cyber-tools. Annoying, but again, not unprecedented, especially among clients who did have a clue about crackers. There was a pen in the folder (Carter had thought of everything), so I downshifted and used it for the signature. So far, I haven't found a pen that works right at any tempo over 4.
Interesting; the dryad emerged from the bathroom a lot sooner than I'd expected. I upshifted, zipped over to her, held out the folder, and downshifted. "Signed."
She twitched, but squelched her surprise almost instantly. Not bad for a slowpoke. After giving the document a once-over, she pulled a small hand scanner out of her purse and used it to capture my signature and the date. "I just sent a copy of your agreement electronically to the US net to make sure that legal copies are available with all required authorities."
"No problem, we can --"
-- attack: 9 o'clock: threat level low --
-- and my claws were poised to reduce an inflatable ball to a cloud of tiny rubberized shreds. Goddamn instincts! I looked around, and saw a little girl running towards me, caught in mid-stride by my involuntary upshift. I put a neutral expression on my face (a smile would be better, but there's still a few prosecutors who think they can get some mileage out of child abuse charges), caught the ball, and downshifted. "I believe this is yours?" I asked as I gently tossed the toy back to its owner. Too bad Mommy Dearest dragged the kid away before she could catch the ball, which bounced off who-knows-where. Oh yeah, crowds are just so much fun.
"Mr. Jubatus, are you usually this high-strung? Every hair on your spine is upright."
"You noticed." Ordinarily I'd just let it go at that, but like Carter said earlier, she was in charge of me for the duration, so she did have a need to know. "It's my instincts -- part of my brain's hardwired to do realtime threat assessments on anything that comes near me. Sight, vision, scent, data on air currents from the vibrissae, my instincts add it all up. And if they don't like the total, I upshift on the spot, end of discussion."
"Which would explain the failure of that water balloon trick of Wanderer's, would it not?"
"You got it. The instincts are my own private DEW line, so fast projectiles are basically worthless against me, except maybe as a decoy."
She smiled at that. Why? "That's quite interesting. Perhaps a coordinated volley of multiple projectiles might have better luck?"
I shrugged. "Maybe so. I'd be able to dodge most of 'em anyway, so you'd get a hell of a lot of collateral damage from the ones that miss."
"Yes. I can see that that would be quite inelegant."
Whatever the hell was going through the dryad's mind, I did not need it -- not on top of everything else that had happened, I didn't. "Alright, Carter. What's up? Why do you care?"
"It is an interesting practical problem in applied ballistics Mr..."
Her sentence died, buried by the terminal PA system: "North Am Flight 223 to San Francisco is now boarding. Would passengers with tickets for rows A-C please move to the boarding gate now. Other passengers will be let aboard in sequence."
She stood up. "That's us. Just stay with me, ignore any problems, and relax."
That made sense; she'd done this a lot more than I ever had, and was giving me the benefit of her experience. "Fine by me. I'll be on you like white on rice."
She gave me a quirky look. "The thought is appreciated, but I doubt it will be necessary for us to be quite that close!"
"What's the matter? You afraid people will think we're in love?"
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
In love? Why did I suddenly shiver in anticipation? No, it couldn't.
He wouldn't -- he had to be joking. There was no way that he could
know. I stopped and looked at him and smiled, "I don't see anything
wrong with that --"
His expression was gratifyingly disturbed.
"-- however if you draped yourself around me as your simile suggests, I would guess like a house cat asleep on my shoulder, it would detrimentally interfere with my mobility."
He laughed, a deep purr-like chuckle.
That was unexpected. Based on our previous interactions I'd expected some kind of sardonic comment to push me away. This was certainly not typical. The perfume?
And then I felt something furry tickling me on my opposite side. Shocked, I spun around to see nothing as I heard another rumbling laugh. It had to have been his tail. What was going on? Was Jubatus joking? Was the perfume breaking his mind? Did he love me? No, it couldn't -- probabilistic analysis proved that it couldn't. Love? My heart beat faster...
As I turned back he pulled away. "Did I err?"
"Ye... no..." Why had he stopped?! No, I would not act like this, I refused to act like this! Say something... "I think there may be some residual effects from the pain killer."
He nodded and stopped.
Damn it! Why'd he have to stop?
We both remained silent as we were seated, the other passengers boarded, and the plane took off. I didn't want to remain silent but what could I say? I couldn't love -- I no longer had emotions. I could care for people like Ang... But love? No. So why did I feel so hurt when he stopped?
As soon as the plane reached level flight I pulled out my laptop and flipped it open with a vengeance; while waiting for it to boot I turned to Mr. Jubatus and spoke with a calm voice: "You should probably just sleep -- it'll be a few hours before San Francisco and you look like you need it." I needed rest myself, but that was out of the question thanks to the ballistics problem he had unwittingly inspired.
"Sounds like a plan to me." So saying, he started pulling items out of various pockets of his vest -- protective coverings for his claws (hands and feet) and fangs.
His left hand was covered, and he was putting the guard on his right, when I interrupted. "I take it that there are things I should know about how you sleep?"
"The claw-guards? Let's just say you do not want to see what happens when I don't wear 'em."
I blinked. If he did move a lot when sleeping that could be a problem. "As you wish then Mr. Jubatus. However, I do have a practical question that does need an answer. When you sleep how do you sleep? If you upshift that would affect air consumption and I need to take that into account."
"Okay; I've got enough feline in me that I spend about 40% of the time sleeping. The default schedule is 15 minutes awake, plus 5 minutes light sleep on either side of a 1-minute coma, for a 26-minute cycle. I can stay up for about 5 hours straight when I feel like it, but that's the extent of it. All that's my time, by the way -- the clock-time varies inversely with whatever tempo I'm running at, and as far as I know, the tempo I sleep at is 6."
By now all four limbs were padded and he was getting ready to put the mouthpiece in. "And do you usually move around a lot? Should I be careful waking you up?"
"I don't think I move around more than anyone else when I sleep, just faster. Not so good with claws. And no, I won't need a wake-up call."
"So you'll always wake up on your own? I would prefer a backup plan just in case. The proverbial 10' long pole?"
He shrugged. "Like I said -- 5 minutes of napping on either side of a 1-minute coma."
"10' pole it is. Enjoy your nap."
As Jubatus went to sleep I turned to my computer and started working on the fascinating problem he'd suggested to me. Ballistics is a wonderfully exact science, at least when firing one shot at a single immobile target. But when you are shooting multiple projectiles in sequence at an even faster target, it becomes very complex very fast; it becomes more predictive probability than ballistics. Given the speeds involved it couldn't be controlled by me, so it would necessitate a programmed AI system to adjust...
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Mental note: Try to avoid sleeping on airplanes. The instincts picked up on every vibration of the engines, every
little twitch of the airframe, every passenger movement or cough,
you name it; if my default tempo of 6 hadn't dampened the plane's
vibes (from my point of view, anyway), I doubt I'd've gotten any rest. The flight attendants must've been aware of my dietary
requirements, as they made sure to supply a steady stream of beef
jerky, not as good as raw but still edible. Meanwhile, the dryad's
mind was completely absorbed in some ludicrously abstruse mathematical
problem. Definitely over my head, but one of her equations looked
like it might have something to do with orbital docking maneuvers.
Maybe. And by the algorithms of Ada, she was even working on some
low-level assembler code! I spent my own waking minutes trying
to anticipate all the problems I might be faced with on the next
leg of our journey. The fraction of said problems I might actually
be able to help with wasn't large, but even so, it beat driving
myself psycho trying to figure out where Carter's head was at...
Time crawled along. When we reached SFO, a domestic blend of fog and drizzling rain ensured that visibility sucked during final approach. After touchdown, it was a matter of waiting for the damn plane to taxi into position for us to debark. Somewhere in there I asked the pretty dryad, "Whatever you're working on, it looks pretty hairy. What is it?"
"AI-controlled kinetic interceptions between moving objects of widely disparate velocities."
"It's a surprise."
"That would be telling."
The quote piqued my curiosity -- did she know it was a quote? And from where? "By hook or by crook, I'll find out."
She smiled. Reference confirmed! "You're dating yourself quite badly there Mr. Jubatus --"
Heh. "And you're not?"
"Touche. But now I believe it is our turn. Please follow me as we are not going the public route but need to go to the private area of the airport. The plane should be ready upon our arrival. Also, we will not need to bother with customs as that was taken care of when we first boarded so you won't have to control yourself during any more interactions."
Annoyance flared up in me. "I did contr --"
"Mr. Jubatus. I'm tired, and still sore from the outside altercation. To be blunt I want to go home."
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
After a short pause, he actually said, "Okay. Home. Want to
kick back and relax for a while?"
Kindness? Maybe... No it was just the perfume. At least the mathematics had cleared my mind on that account. "Thank you but no. Our arrival window is set and changing it would be more trouble than it's worth. If you'll follow me?"
I nodded to the stewardess, critiqued the landing which had seemed overly rough to me, and then led off the boarding ramp, past the other passengers, down corridors and past doors leading to other gates, and then through a door marked 'Gate 12 - Private' which I unlocked. Then more travel through quiet hallways and then out into a misty rain lit only by overhead street lamps and the thick scent of salt and oil and gas. The piercing whine of a nearby plane made me envy my companion's ability to protect his ears by pulling them close against his head. A five minute walk across the cold tarmac and then the Fokker 10 was before us with a staircase leading up. Finally I turned and hurried over to where a norm in blue coveralls was closing a cargo panel.
The figure hurried down the ladder with a clipboard under his arm. "Did you have a good flight ma'am?"
"I've had better. This is Mr. Jubatus," I said, introducing the cheetah. "Did his cargo arrive safely?"
"It came last night, and here's the manifest with it and the rest of the supplies." He handed me a clipboard, which I quickly leafed through. Everything requested was loaded, and Jubatus' cargo was all on the last page. Interesting -- if this document was truly accurate, he could build a small rocket out of the items he was bringing up, if he chose to. But why? What would the payload be?
"Mr. Jubatus, please check and make sure that all of your supplies are on board and accounted for."
The cheetah blurred in place momentarily (which Jerry goggled at) to read the manifest, and then returned the clipboard to me. "The list is complete, but I'd like to --"
"Mr. Jubatus. If you are concerned that items listed on the manifest may have gotten misplaced in transit, you needn't worry. Jerry's competence and reliability are shared by all his fellow employees." Then, turning to the human himself, "Very good. Jerry, thanks." Then the final piece of the ritual we'd established: I handed him a small, gift-wrapped package from my purse. "Say hello to your daughter for me, won't you?"
"I sure will, Ms. Carter!"
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Whatever was inside the colorful paper, smiling 'Jerry' made
it vanish before he moved over to the boarding ladder. The dryad giving out presents? What a peculiar exhibition...
"Come, Mr. Jubatus." She jogged up the staircase, acting like a kid in a candy store. I followed her up into the cramped cabin and then watched as she sealed the hatch and waited for Jerry's 'all clear'.
The cabin had seats for five: one on each side of the hatch, the other three along the opposite wall. "What seat I should use?"
"No VIPs today -- take whichever your prefer. You'll find water and sandwiches in the cabinet there. Flight time will be about eight hours, I'll know more after I talk to the control tower."
I sat down in the nearest seat and watched her shoehorn herself into the cockpit. "Is the shuttle this small?"
Her voice echoed oddly from in front. "Smaller, passenger-wise. Of course, you'll be sitting beside me up front then."
Up front, with a cockpit full of controls I was clueless about... "I'm not a licensed pilot, you know."
"Then don't touch anything."
Then she got busy with pilot-y things up front, leaving me to amuse myself back here -- ah! The safety pamphlet. It clearly showed where the life jackets were, oxygen, the life raft, provisions, flares, seat belts, padding, first aid kit, plus neat little pictographs to show how everything worked... Not a bad piece of design. All it needed was a friendly red button and the words 'Don't Panic' on the cover. I was looking over the emergency instructions for manual inflation of the life raft when the dryad poked her head out from the cockpit.
"Our flight arrived a little ahead of schedule so we won't have a slot available for another eight minutes."
She still looked a little frazzled; maybe a bit of a distraction would help. "Eight minutes to kill? Fine. Care to play Questions?"
"Aren't you familiar with Tom Stoppard?"
"You mean it's that silly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thing where you answer each question with a question?"
"You have a better idea?"
"Are we playing yet?"
"Foul! Non sequitur. One-love."
"How is that a non sequitur?"
"Do you honestly believe 'are we playing yet' follows from 'you have a better idea'?"
"Does not 'are we playing yet' carry an at least implicit presumption that the current activity is indeed the better idea, hence constitute an adequate response (however oblique)?"
I saw her point, but put a puzzled expression on my face. "I'm sorry, could you explain that a bit more clearly?"
"As clearly as when you said you loved me?"
What the -- "Are you sure you heard me properly?"
"You were right beside me -- how could I not?"
"Then why don't I remember saying 'I love you'?"
"Your exact words were 'You afraid people will think we're in love?' which implies that you love me, does it not?"
"How does that follow?"
"Why else would people think we're in love?"
"Isn't that one of the logical inferences from seeing one person stick to another like white on rice?"
"Then why did you taunt me so knowing that I'd make that logical inference?!"
"So... I take it I hit a nerve?"
The dryad stalked over to the fridge and yanked it open, grabbing a bottle of water. "Yes you did!"
It was only when she turned that I saw tears in her eyes --
-- attack: 11 o'clock: threat level low --
-- and a bottle of water hung suspended between us. She'd tossed it good and hard; its motion was perceptible, even at a tempo of 15. I plucked it out of the air so it wouldn't damage anything. My mood fell with my tempo as I downshifted just in time to watch her flee into the cockpit and slam the hatch shut. "Two-love," I recited mechanically.
Shit. Fine way to start an airplane trip.
/ / / / / / / / \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \
Damn him! Damn him to fucking hell! How dare he?!
I'd considered inviting him up to the co-pilot's seat but not now. No way and no how.
How could he be doing this to me? Even Ang...
That stopped me. Angelo. I thought I loved him, but did I? If I did why was Jubatus so much more, well, intense? Was it something psychological like simple bounce back? I needed him -- it's why I'd brought him along. He had been right when he'd suggested others to solve the problem, he personally didn't need to come, but I needed him to come. So why was he making me so god damn miserable...
I sat down in the pilot's chair, leaned back, and closed my eyes.
My life had been so simple, mathematically perfect. I knew where I was going, what I was doing, and who I was doing it with. Then the accident, the death, and it all fell apart. Maybe I should have just ended it -- that would have been so much simpler. Elegant even. Now look at me.
Had Phil even helped me when he'd convinced me to try again? It seemed that I'd been keeping too much hidden from him, even from myself. Kind of like Jubatus that way, each of us playing out roles and letting nobody get close. Except I seemed to be letting him get close. Thoughts of him were all that had kept me going...
"Flight 131, you may proceed to runway."
I shook my head to clear it. These thoughts would have to wait. Maybe in a storm I could relax enough to think.
"Roger tower. Flight 131 acknowledging."
"You may taxi to runway 21. Weather is clear above flight level five-zero."
I threw myself into the routine and tried to forget. Radio back and forth, conditions, statements, clarifications, then bring the engines to power and taxi across.
"Mr. Jubatus, we are preparing for take off. Please close all cupboards and the freezer and lock your seat belt until further notice."
I wanted to check, legally I should have checked, but a part of me wanted to splatter him across the floor, and another part was horrified at that thought. It wouldn't happen -- I had too much pride to let him be splattered. Finally I was on the runway and clearance was given, and finally I could pull back and open up the engines of this Fokker 10. The power was nothing compared to Babylon's, but it was better than sitting helpless while half-trained incompetents held my life in their hands. The Fokker was a good plane, one of the best around these days, but it lacked the power of the shuttle, and the simple elegance of the originals. I remembered when a friend had taken me up in his DR1 replica. There the wind was blowing in my face, the rattle of the engine filled my bones, and I could dream of chasing down Billy Bishop. Quickly I reached cruising altitude, performed a last communications check and flight path confirmation, set her on course, and set the autopilot. It was time to face Mr. Jubatus again.
With a sigh I got up and opened the door to the passenger cabin and Jubatus was there, strapped in. "You can get out now." I noticed him gritting his teeth. "You may need to pop your ears to adjust to the lower cabin pressure. Here," I got him a bottle of water from the fridge, "drink this, that should do it."
He did and it did. "Thanks. Guess I made a botch --"
"Never mind Mr. Jubatus. It's almost 2:32am your time, 11:32pm Pacific Time, and 7:32pm on Easter Island. Flight time is an estimated 7 hours, 42 minutes, which means we shall arrive at 10:14am your time, or 3:14am on Easter Island. Smoking is not permitted, and you know where the drinks are. The autopilot is functioning and I'm going to take a nap and wake up in about 3 hours -- plenty of time. Please do not disturb me."
He frowned, and anxiety blossomed in his scent. "Who's going to fly the plane while you're asleep?"
"The autopilot. Don't worry -- other than landing, a five-year-old could fly this. Kind of goes against the grain if you're an Evil Overlord, but that's life."
"'Evil Overlord'? I don't even play one on TV, so I want to know: What if something goes wrong?"
"Nothing will go wrong, Mr. Jubatus. Of that, I am certain enough to bet both of our lives. But if it'll make you feel better, you may keep an eye on the controls." Here I latched the cockpit door open and gestured at the autopilot. "If that light flashes red, wake me. If other lights flash red, wake me and try to hold the control wheel steady. And if all the lights flash red, assume nuclear attack position and kiss your ass goodbye. I'm going to sleep now."
Turning away I reclined one of the seats into a bed and grabbed a pillow from one of the cupboards.
"Can it. I can't take any more of you today. I've got half a mind to just open the door and throw you out, but I have too much pride to lose my cargo that way. I'll talk to you later." I closed my eyes and tried to ignore him.
Damn him. Why'd I have to go through all this? I should have slept on the North Am flight, but the damnable ballistics problem he'd suggested had grabbed my attention. I couldn't even solve the stupid thing -- there were too many unknowns about the target. I yawned. Maybe a different approach, something psychological...
\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ / / / / / / / /
Can you say 'day from hell', boys and girls? I knew you could.
My life tended towards extremes at the best of times, but this
day had been a roller-coaster ride that made orbital reentry look
positively sedate by comparison. No wonder the dryad was having
problems dealing with it! Doesn't matter. None of it matters. You just keep your eyes on the prize, Jube...
Carter yawned. No need to look, I already knew what I'd see; a body that could set pulses racing in male humans, and did nothing at all for me. And what brought that to mind? Irrelevant. Remember The Dream, that's what this is all about.
All the LEDs were green up front -- no glitches yet. I could see the dim glow of the moon through the cockpit windscreen. Its light made a monochromatic abstract of the Fokker's interior. Dreams... and to think I'd actually believed I was no longer susceptible to that kind of delusion...
I had time to kill. I always have time to kill. Seven hours plus change, by the clock; three hours shy of a weekend, by me. Sure, I could kill lots of time by downshifting to a tempo lower than 1 -- slow time -- but gravity gets stronger when I do that, so I generally don't bother.
The last week's professional journals on microfilm (and the reader), check. Order-5 Rubik's Cube, check. Latest wad of downloaded SF pulp e-zines, check. Hardcopies of some Strikebreakers arrangements I'd been working on, check. A few dekamegawords of microfilmed recent SF, check. Paperback collection of NY Times crossword puzzles, check. I fed the latest Kemperson anthology into the reader, that'd be good for most of an hour...
What had happened? What the fuck had happened? I'd enjoyed Carter's company -- probably because she was the first person in years who could actually keep up with me, the only person who got more than half of my jokes! So maybe I played around a little, and then it all fell apart. Why? I was just trying to be friendly!
But... I don't do 'friendly'...
I could feel my spine cooling.
Something was very wrong. And whatever it was, I wasn't the only target, not while the dryad was getting all sappy. If it was just me, I could maybe believe she was trying some kind of prank, but as matters stood, I had to assume that an as-yet-unknown third party was playing with our heads. Fine, but who? Why? How? All good questions. And until I got some good answers, I would stick to her like white on rice. Unlike Carter, I'd been living on a steady diet of intense mood swings for the past 20 years, which meant I was better qualified than her to deal with the situation.
And deal with it I would. Be damned if I'd just let some jerk mess with her mind!
Nice resolution, but I still had bunches and bunches of time to kill. I turned my attention to the microfilm reader, and loaded Dr. Dobb's Journal into the thing...
I looked up, blinking. Carter was right in front of me. Must've gotten absorbed in something, lost track of time -- "I'm here. What's up?"
"I felt you should know that we'll be landing in about half an hour. I apologize for not being a gracious host, but this day has taken a lot out of me."
I nodded. "You and me both. It's definitely been one for the books."
She smiled for a second, but said nothing more.
"Got any last instructions or advice for me?"
"Yes Mr. Jubatus. You are about to enter the real world. We don't worry about knives or bats here; the games we play involve automatic weapons and bombs and electronic terrorism. You may have scars, but thus far we have intercepted one attempted nuclear strike on Easter Island, along with a large number of assaults involving conventional explosives. Fortunately the anti-tech terrorists are not too dangerous as they tend to stay away from advanced equipment so that our defenses have little trouble dealing with them. The more annoying problems are the hacker 'gunslingers' looking to make a name for themselves by crashing the Easter Island net. I've done my best, and hired the best, to make the island net bulletproof, but so far I have had to oversee three full system resets and one complete rebuild. We regularly deal with NORAD and they have the same problems. This is the real world, and we play for keeps. Now strap in for we're about to land and I need to give the appropriate clearance codes so we're not shot down."
"Shot down," I echoed.
"As I said Mr. Jubatus, we play for keeps. We can't afford not to."
She returned to the cockpit and took the autopilot offline.
"This is Susan Carter," she said, talking to the Island's air traffic controller, "returning to home base with mission specialist Jubatus Acinonyx."
"Acknowledged. Please transmit your security clearance code, captain."
'Captain'? Well, she was captain of the shuttles...
"Code 0 0 0 Destruct 0."
Now that was an odd selection. Once a Trekkie, always a Trekkie, I suppose.
"Code acknowledged, welcome back captain."
"So Pete, how have things been? Anything interesting?"
"It hasn't even been a day. A private plane ditched outside the 300 kilometer limit and Sylvia's swimming out with supplies."
'Outside the 300 kilometer limit' -- swimming? I'd definitely have to ask later.
"She's probably enjoying the variety. Are the quarters for Mr. Jubatus ready?"
"All set. Drew's looking forward to running him through the physical trials tomorrow."
Oh, joy. It's for The Dream, so keep your eyes on the prize, Jube. Eyes on the prize.
"I bet. Ten bucks says Drew gets beaten."
"Ten bucks? If you're going to throw your money away I'll be the first to take it."
"You should know by now that I never throw my money away."
"This time you have."
"You'll see. Signing off -- I'll talk to you after I get down."
"Roger. There's a storm front moving in but you'll be down long before it should cause a problem, and the lights are on. Talk to you later."
I popped my ears as the plane went into a steep dive, pulling up with very little clearance to spare. The landing gear slapped the runway hard and loud, but if there was any accompanying vibration, I didn't feel it. Then there was a basso roar as the engines reversed, pulling us to a stop amid the knife-edged pools of illumination from the runway's stark artificial lights. I'd unbelted myself by the time the dryad was done with shutting down the systems, but I let her open the door -- it was the polite thing to do, not to mention less likely to get me shot at by some justifiably paranoid guard. A ladder was waiting and she waved to a rat SCAB on the dry runway.
"Well what are you waiting for Mr. Jubatus? We're here."
Easter Island. For space freaks like me, it was the Holy of Holies, like Ayers Rock, Mecca, and Solomon's Temple all rolled into one -- a divine artifact which must needs be kept apart from the Gentiles, for disaster would surely follow if it were ever sullied by the touch of infidels -- one of the few remaining places on Earth where The Dream was still a living reality, not a forgotten relic gathering dust in some museum. I'd finally arrived!
Carter's feet clanged down the steps, a sound which really ought to have been less mundane, damnit! I just stood in the door and sniffed the air. Looking around I could dimly make out one of the enigmatic faces in the distance, next to a strongly lit concrete bunker. I pointed. "Is that..?"
"That's a SAM site. The main building is in the opposite direction. Welcome to Easter Island, Mr. Jubatus.
"Welcome to the real world."
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