Evil Eats Everything
by Michael Bard and Quentin "Cubist" Long
After making their unauthorized withdrawal from the Brooklyn campsite, Harlem returned to its own home base. There was no trouble; Mal's data gave them forewarning of most of the Mutopia traps, and their slow and careful progress allowed them to avoid what few they didn't know about. As the fire had long since gone out, Michael picked up his necklace and a horseshoe, and worked on getting the fire going. Meanwhile, Norman and Mal sorted through the evening's booty... and Mary-Anne just stayed near Michael.
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Mal shook his head. "Those idiots. They brought, like, nothing!
We got some bedrolls, clothes, a shovel, some metal utensils,
and that's it. Those morons didn't even bring matches!"
"They were not correctly prepared for the competition, and now they have paid the price.The surviving tribes will probably be better prepared, as Darwin suggests that the weakest tribes will be eliminated first."
And soon we'll find out which of us is the best prepared -- but there are other targets first. Malcolm looked up and saw that Mary-Anne was leaning into Michael's embrace. Mentally he sighed. "So, Norm, what do we keep -- if anything?"
Norman's eyes glittered in the firelight. "The cloth can be used for torches in case we need to, and for protection when handling dangerous substances. The shovel gives us a spare. The bedrolls we can use as padding so we can sleep more comfortably."
"Well..." At this point Mal's attention was grabbed by a silent buzz and he reached into his pouch and pulled out the palmtop. After glancing for a second he smiled. "My, my. It would appear that another tribe is trying to take unfair advantage via the BioSphere net. Let's see how good they really are..."
Norman just lay back on his side, curled up until he was comfortable, and then watched Michael and Mary-Anne by the fire.
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As Norman and Mal evaluated the booty, Michael checked that
his rifle was indeed still secured, then he picked up one of his
horseshoes and started setting up kindling in the fire.
"Thank you," Mary-Anne whispered. Time to increase the dosage, my furry friend.
"I did nothing that any other chap in my place wouldn't have done. There's no need for thanks."
Mary-Anne's voice began a carefully planned performance as it started to break up : "But there is. You... you..."
Michael abandoned the fire, letting the fledgling flame go out, and turned and opened his arms to Mary-Anne. She snuggled up against his upper chest and squeezed him tight, and he hugged her as she scratched her claws into his back, transferring certain chemicals from her fingernail polish into his bloodstream. "Shh, Mary-Anne. I'm here for you, or at least I am if you want me to be."
"Of course," she whispered, "I need you. If it wasn't for you I couldn't, couldn't..." She let herself fall into a quiet sobbing, almost not believing that anybody could fall this far this fast.
"I wish we hadn't had you do that, but we needed you to. For the tribe, for all of us."
Could he be faking!? Mary-Anne couldn't help but jerk back at this thought.
"Is something wrong?"
Let's see how the big, bad lion responds to fear... She let herself shudder and let go of Michael. Slumping to the ground, wrapping her fox's tail around her waist, she started playing with its tip. "You're just going to use me, aren't you?"
For a second Michael just stared at her. "Use you? I'd never do that."
"Everybody is. Mal, Norman, and especially you. Threatening me so that I will do what you want me..."
Michael grabbed her by her arms and twisted her so that her eyes were looking into his. "I did not use you. I can't speak for the others, but I can speak for myself. It's just, that, well, I've never known anybody like you."
"You're just saying that."
"No. I like you, I like you a lot." He sighed. "I've never felt anything like this before."
The vixen's untold years of manipulation, of simulated emotion, had left her unprepared for what might just be the genuine article. Could this fool be falling in love with me? For the first time in her life Mary-Anne was struck speechless.
Michael's voice changed to a whisper. "I've never had a lady care for me before. It's, well..."
"You... you like me?" As she said them Mary-Anne realized that for the first time both her actual thoughts, and what she needed to show to the world to get her way, required her to say the same thing.
Michael turned away and started the fire up again. For a few minutes he remained silent before finally whispering, "I think I love you."
Great Mother -- this idiot loves me?! Well! "But how can I believe you? You must have all kinds of women chasing you, a great big wonderful stallion like you."
Michael stood up and paced away, and then back. He lay down, stood up, and then lay down again right in front of Mary-Anne. "So you'd think." He sighed and then whispered in a barely audible voice, "I'm a virgin."
Mary-Anne let her mouth hang open in shock. He really is... Ohh! I've never broken a virgin before! She let a slight smile onto her lips and then leaned forward and hugged her big furry plaything. By the Mother, this will be such fun! "It's all right," she whispered. "I believe you."
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"Gotcha!" Mal's voice spilled across the tribal camp.
Michael turned and paced over, Mary-Anne following. "And what is it that you got?"
Mal turned and smiled, a smile that would make any human run for cover. Even though Michael was now feline, it still made him flinch. "It looks like some poor bastard in Queens tried to hack into the BioSphere's internal network."
"And he thinks he's broken in and has full access."
"But I take it that he only has access to what you've set up for him?"
"Got that right, Leo. Before I left, I made sure to build a portable mock SurviFur net for just such an emergency."
The palmtop vibrated again and Mal looked down. "Ah, crap."
"Did something bad happen?" asked Mary-Anne.
"Yes. The Queens hacker figured out that they've been had, so now I won't be able to feed them any more false info! At least they didn't do any damage."
"Out of curiosity," Norman asked, "how did you discover that your victim had escaped? Some clever trap?"
Mal shrugged. "Naah -- the guy just sent me an e-mail swearing vengeance." He shook his head. "Gosh, I'm scared. See how frightened I am."
It was Michael who responded next. "Do you think you should be? Since you're using Linux, this person might be good enough to take advantage of some of the code you used in your kernel."
"Ha! This kernel is all mine. The best thing about Microsoft crashing, and Apple getting religion, is that us techies can name our price. I wrote the whole damn thing and there ain't no way nobody's gonna break it."
Norman nodded, then reported to Michael: "Then we are safe from that threat and maintain our advantage, sir. As to our booty, we found very little of worth in Brooklyn's camp. They were not prepared in the least."
"Thank you, Norman. Well then, let's at least see what kind of funds we were able to pick up." Michael emptied his pouch (the only thing he was wearing), and Norman and Mal followed suit. Mary-Anne put only her original $50 in.
Maybe I can break her hold on Michael, Mal thought, and then spoke to Mary-Anne. "It's too bad you didn't grab Brooklyn's cash when you had the chance. How could you forget?"
Michael's voice was cold as he responded. "Sir, she did the best that she could. We forced her into something that she found morally repugnant and she did it only to respond to Norman's threats. If not for her we wouldn't have eliminated Brooklyn at all."
Mal sighed. Great; Mike's her puppet, so he's already out of the picture. "You're right, but... it just woulda been nice, is all. Oh, well. I shouldn't've got on the foxy lady's case, and I apologize." And then there were three.
Michael turned to Mary-Anne and waited until she nodded and then turned back. "All is forgiven. So, how much are we worth now, Norman?"
The other three watched as Norman quickly and efficiently sorted and counted the bills. "Sir, we have a total of $830. This is from the $110 total we had left over from our initial allotment, plus another $720 we acquired while others were occupied."
"Norman, I'll trust you to take care of it for us then?"
"So, now we need to take care of defenses for our camp."
"Defenses?" Mal asked, puzzled.
"Doubtless the other tribes are returning from Manhattan, and we know that at least one tribe was eliminated with planted blame. We also know that Queens knows a hacker is out there and they may know that it's us. We may be assaulted later tonight, in our sleep."
"Sure, but --"
The liontaur was on a roll and barely noticed Mal's interjection. "So the first order of business is to set out trip wires amongst the trees. We can tie them to the trunks low to the ground. We can also create a stash of water bombs and load my rifle for our counter-attack. Unfortunately we don't have time to dig pits and cover them..."
Mal shook his head. Pits? How paranoid does Mike want us to be? Or is that Mary-Anne manipulating him?
"Norman, take the shovel and start digging some pit traps along the edge of the clearing. It would also be nice if we could make a fake camp as bait, and sleep away from it. We have the clothing we no longer need, so we can just fill that out with soil."
Norman nodded. "Mal and I can start working on that..."
Mal laughed. "Mike. You do know that we're three cats and a fox now?"
"Well... yes, we are. So?"
"So cats and foxes are very light sleepers."
"Light slee..." That's when comprehension dawned on Michael's face.
Mal nodded. "Now you're talking. Go ahead and load your rifle. I don't see that we really need to do anything else beyond just setting the trip wires; those'll give us enough advance warning that invasion shouldn't be a problem."
Michael smiled. "You're right. Let's get the tripwires taken care of and get some sleep. Tomorrow we need to try and figure out what the next challenge is, and how we should prepare for it."
And so Harlem went to bed.
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A side effect of being felines (and vulpines) that Mal hadn't
mentioned was the fact that although they were light sleepers,
they slept a lot. Thus it was almost 2:00pm by Mary-Anne's watch before Harlem
started awakening. Mary-Anne was the first up and left her warm
spot cuddled against Michael; she quietly went behind some bushes
to do her business, and then to her supplies to freshen up (and
reload). Her departure awoke Michael who stretched and arched
his back and yawned mightily as he blinked his eyes in the afternoon
sun. Then he made another big stretch and turned to Mal and Norman
who were still curled up asleep. "Gentlemen, this is your wake
up call." And then he let out a mighty roar.
Mal and Norman leapt to their feet convulsively, looking around until they saw Michael watching them. "I trust you slept well, gentlemen?"
Norman was the first to answer. "I apologize for my tardiness, sir. It seems that the feline additions to my form have corrupted my internal clock. It won't happen again."
Mal just frowned and then stretched and shook out his rat tail, turning to look at it. "I'm gonna have to do something 'bout that."
Michael's stomach rumbled, and then he frowned. "There seems to be another unforeseen problem -- in our current conditions, the food we've got with us isn't entirely edible. Any ideas?"
Mary-Anne returned, looking neat and freshly groomed, and kissed Michael on the cheek. "Now, that is something that I can do. I've been a cat already. So let me..." Will Michael pass the test? I do want him to be my minion, but I don't need a mindless slave.
"Just a moment please, my dear. Mal, do you know what is actually safe for us to eat in these woods?"
"Let's see..." Pulling out his palmtop Mal tapped something and then read. "First of all, the squirrels are right out. Not only are they loaded with mutagen, five'll get you 50 that Sly takes a dim view of anyone munching on his cousins. Fish are out, too; no way of knowing which ones swam up from the river and are therefore full of Mutopia. Birds are too damn mobile, I just don't trust them. Best guess is that rabbits are safe."
"How safe?" Michael asked. "I wouldn't want to think that you were using this as an opportunity to eliminate a tribe member."
"Gosh, Mike -- I could almost believe you don't trust me." I thought of that, and if I hadn't seen you two earlier I might even have tried it. "No, rabbits should be safe as long as they're in the forest or at the edge of the Savannah. I definitely don't recommend going there, as both the animals and the plants'll get you. Other rodents should be fine too."
Norman was looking a little sick. "Why don't we just buy something in Manhattan? It's got to be healthier than eating a wild animal. Sorry sir, but how safe can they be with all those poisons in the ground? And they're so..."
"Buy food? From Manhattan? Like I said, the whole damn place is a giant transformation trap, and that includes any food that we buy there!" Here Mal paused and smiled. "But it sure would be nice if any of the others were stupid enough to try it, huh?"
"Norman, we need to be safe and be ready for the next challenge. We'll have to live off the land." Michael couldn't help but lick his lips at the thought.
Mary-Anne called out, "I'll be back in a while then with dinner. And don't worry, I'll be careful." Careful not only with myself, but also to start the rest of you on my cocktails as I spike the meat. And yes, my big lion, you passed the test. "Bye!" She waved, and then turned and bounded off into the forest on all fours. Norman stared after her, shuddering at the vixen's display of quadrupedal (animal) behavior.
"Well that's taken care of then. Norman, why don't you go off and see if we had any unfriendly visitors last night, and I'll get the details of the next challenge from Mal here."
"Yes sir. However, I don't think I'll be able to eat a wild animal, even cooked."
"Norman, you need your strength."
"Yes sir, I do. But I think that being physically sick will be worse than being a little weak. After all, we did eat well yesterday."
Michael frowned for a second. "I'll leave it up to you then, but if you are weak I will make you eat for the good of the tribe. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir." And then Norman turned and walked off.
Mal, meanwhile, wasn't happy. The kitty was providing food, and he was absolutely certain she'd throw in a few additives that he wouldn't want to eat. Either Norman was telling the truth, or he'd already given himself a way out, and that just made it more difficult for him. He'd have to make sure to eat his meat really well done, and use the nanoassemblers in his water purifier to try and neutralize any toxins. At least he'd have a chance to analyze some.
Even with all these thoughts running through his head, Mal was still able to get his palmtop out and ready before Michael turned to him.
Michael's voice was a whisper as he asked, "So, can you find anything for us?"
"Well, let's see here. Tribal council is tonight, along with votes from the audience." Hopefully, the timed net viruses he'd set up before arriving would help stack the vote for Harlem now, and for himself later. "I've had this baby searching overnight, and it's found something. Now, let's see... Hmph. It's a Scavenger Hunt."
"That sounds simple enough."
"Not really. Tonight Sly hands out metal detectors; tomorrow we go after buried treasure. Some is real, most of it's trapped. And so's a lot of the wildlife."
"Can you tell if the goodies are already buried?"
"Yes, and they aren't. Schedule says they're to be buried tonight after the council, and then we go hunting the next day. Hmmm... There'll be some dire warnings about interfering with the setup, but they should be done by 2:00am."
Michael stared off into the middle distance as his still agile mind went through various possibilities. "Which means that from 2:00am on, we can go in and stack the deck, as it were."
"Alright. And you've got something in mind?"
"Well, we have all this dangerous water, and the leftovers from last night. Why don't we just fill some balloons and bury them on top of the prizes? That way the ground is already disturbed, our victims dig, pop the balloon, and sploosh."
"I like that! Hmmm... Why don't you go hunting? Should be lots of worthwhile targets in the other tribes."
The idea felt right to Michael; he grinned unconsciously. "What an excellent notion! You know, it's just too bad we couldn't meet under friendlier circumstances, we seem to think alike."
But at least I can see the fox for what she truly is. "Seems we do. Now..."
Hearing a figure running towards them, they both turned and saw Norman returning at high speed. He stopped in front of them and leaned over and whispered: "Somebody left us a bug last night."
"A bug? Where?" Mal asked.
Norman pointed. "In that tree -- I was lucky to see it."
"Mal, what can we do with it? We should destroy it if we have to, but I'd prefer to make use of it. Could you feed it a false signal?"
"Maybe. Let's go and take a look at it."
They all stood up and followed Norman over to the tree that contained the bug, stopping about five feet away from it. All three Harlemites moved as silently as, well, cats. Norman pointed and Mal nodded and hunched over his palmtop as Norman and Michael gave him room. After about five minutes Mal motioned them both back over to the remnants of the fire, and they silently followed him.
"Well?" Michael whispered.
"It was planted by someone from the Bronx. The way that sneaky bastard set it up, it transmits its signal up to the cables overhead, then the audio piggybacks over the BioSphere's own network." He smiled. "And that means he's been too damn sneaky for his own good."
"How so? Given all the trees and terrain in the way, surely our eavesdropper would have to use the overhead cabling to make sure the signal gets to him?"
"Come on, Mike. That's old tech, and even in the '90s there were ways around it. And you're forgetting it's in the BioSphere network, which means I own that signal. Sure, it's encrypted, so I gotta break the code. But once that's done, I can feed them anything I want."
"How long do you think it'll take to crack?"
"Depends how clever our boy really is. A couple hours if he's stupid; more likely into the evening if he's got a real brain."
"So then, do we live cautiously until you crack it, or is it safer to just eliminate it now?"
"Safer, yes, but not as useful. Once I crack it, we can use it for all kinds of fun things." Now it was Mal's turn to juggle alternatives in his head. "In fact... since the Bronx probably has other bugs, I should be able to grab all their signals after I break their code. Won't be as informative as the camera feeds, but it'll tell us what the Bronx knows."
"Is it sensitive enough to pick us up whispering?"
"Yes. It's a Kelmener T-47; it can pick up a whisper from 50 feet away. So as long as we stay near the fire on this side, we should be safe."
"Then let's wait and see if we can take it over. I'll leave it in your hands."
Mal smiled. "Don't you mean 'paws'? Anyway, we should give the bug something to listen to. Much easier to crack --"
"Michael! I'm back!" Mary-Anne shouted out.
"Sir," Norman whispered, "she'll give us away."
"I'll let her know when she reaches us. For now let her shout -- it'll hide the fact of our discovery, and give Mal some data."
Mal looked away from his palmtop and looked at Michael. He knew there was no way she was going to give away anything she didn't want to give away. In the worst case all she would do is let something harmless slip to make everybody see her as naive. "Mike? How sure are you that she'll know to keep quiet?"
"I trust her."
"Then you're a fool!" Mal hissed. "The stakes are too high..."
Michael reached over and grabbed Mal's chin. "We are a tribe, and we will work together. She will not betray us on purpose, and won't let anything loose by accident. Did she not come through last night?"
"Fine then." Michael stood up and then shouted over to Mary-Anne, "That was fast, and those rabbits look wonderful!"
Mary-Anne ran over on two feet and kissed Michael on the snout and then giggled. "I told you I could do it."
Michael reached over to hug her and then whispered in her ear, "Be careful what you say. Norman found a bug in that tree over there," and he pointed.
"A bug?" By the Great Mother, how did somebody sneak that in? "Will it sting us?"
"Not that kind of bug -- a listening device."
"Now, Mal is going to crack its encryption so that we can send false information, so just be careful what you say in its general vicinity. We'll work out our plans in detail after your wonderful dinner, and we'll just whisper as usual."
"Are you sure it's safe? It won't hurt us?"
"No, not us. But Mal will make sure that it hurts the Bronx. They planted it last night."
"I trust you." I can think of all kinds of devious things to let the Bronx overhear. Hopefully I won't have to suggest them.
Michael raised his voice to normal. "Well then, who's up for dinner? There's a rabbit for each of us."
"Sir. I'm going to, well, pass. My stomach won't handle them."
"Are you sure?"
Norman swallowed. "Yes."
"Remember my warning. How about you, Mal?"
"If you give me one, I'll skin and cook it for myself. Got some Cajun recipes I want to try out." Burned to a crisp is blackened, so that's no lie.
Mary-Anne frowned. "You don't like my rabbits?" Norman was getting away and heat would affect the chemicals. How much of their hesitance was true, and how much was against her? She'd have to work on their suspicions, or just spike their damn water.
"Of course they do," Michael reassured her, "they just have different tastes is all. Besides, it leaves more for us."
Mary-Anne gave a sly smile. "Have you ever tried raw meat? It's actually quite tasty, especially with us as we are now."
"Well no, I can't say that I have. But I trust that you can introduce me. It's safe, isn't it?"
"Oh, for you it is."
Mal just shook his head and worried. Looks like I'm not the only one whose portrait gave him a few more changes than he asked for. I wonder how much of his brain is still human?
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For the rest of the afternoon, Harlem rested, ate (Mary-Anne
and Michael having theirs with the blood fresh, and Mal trying
not to grimace as he ate his which was cooked almost into charcoal),
and then they made their plans. Michael put his gloves to excellent
use, soaking Norman's paper in river water and squeezing the resulting
pulp into his squirt rifle. Mal's water purifier tube (with the
nasty filters temporarily disabled) was used to start filling
balloons which were then carefully tied shut with gloved paws.
By the early evening, everything was set and they took a nap until
Tribal Council that night. The snapping of a twig brought them
all awake and they followed the squirrel off to the council meeting
Once again a roaring bonfire was lit, but the benches were noticeably emptier. Two tribes were gone, one tribe had gotten the worse of it (with one becoming partially rabbit, and one becoming partially squirrel) but three more looked virtually untouched. They barely had time to seat themselves (and Mal watched Bob glare at him; he just smiled back. I beat you, punk. Deal with it.) before Sly stepped in.
Like the other night Sly went through the rules but eventually announced that before the votes were counted, he wanted to ask some questions. Mary-Anne stayed close to Michael as Sly walked over.
"So: Members of Harlem, I see that you had fun last night."
Norman just growled.
"But it was successful. Michael, did you know that the tribe you saw vixenated was actually Bushwick tribe?"
"Dear me, no. They told us that they were Brooklyn. Do you mean that they weren't?" Mary-Anne leaned against him and started petting his back and Michael visibly shuddered and actually started to purr for a second. He had to concentrate, no matter how much Mary-Anne's touch was affecting him.
"They must have lied -- and I can't tell you how shocked I am to learn that members of one SurviFur tribe might sink so low as to deceive another. Tch, tch, tch. By the way, did you have fun vixenating them?"
Michael just blinked his eyes as Mary-Anne clasped his hand to comfort him. "Us? Oh, no. Poor chaps, if what you say is true. There was a bar fight, and we managed to leave before it got too ugly. I don't know what happened to them, in fact none of us do."
With a sigh of relief Michael watched Sly move over to his next victim. After some more questions -- apparently the Bronx and Melrose were having problems, the former being the tribe which had planted the bug -- it was time to count the votes. Silently Michael watched, aware only of the votes and Mary-Anne's presence as the votes were counted.
Mal was silent too as the tally grew. To him, the counting was clearly contrived to maximize suspense. Maybe it was -- it wouldn't be too hard to program that into those Macs. It was satisfying to know that his automated Mutopia distribution system was working as designed, dispensing random changes to those who failed to vote for Harlem...
And then finally, Harlem was told that they had won.
Norman was the first to comment. "It was expected, sir. With our co-operation and superior skills and resources, there was no other possibility."
Sly handed the certificate for 40% reverse transformation to Michael; he held it and smiled at Mary-Anne.
Together, in silence, they watched the other tribes receive their punishment, and all were careful to look suitably fearful and respectful of the others' pain. Had a telepath been there to read their minds, he would have found internal smiles; and Mary-Anne was actually laughing in her head.
Then they received their metal detector and started making their way back to camp, being always careful of the path.
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They were silent until they arrived.
"Oh, we actually won!" Mary-Anne sounded amazed.
Michael, however, was unsure. "So, now what do we do with this?" he asked, holding out the certificate. "It's not as though we really need it..."
"I do, sir."
Michael called out, "Well, let's go to bed and we'll worry about it tomorrow." And then he turned his voice to a whisper. "Norman, we need you the way you are for tonight. We have until tomorrow night to use this, and there will be time between the Scavenger Hunt and Tribal Council to go into Manhattan. As for me, I'm happy the way I am, and I'll let Mary-Anne have my 10% if she wants it."
"Why Michael, thank you!" she squealed out loud. Take that, Bronx -- it won't tell you a thing.
Mal reacted immediately. "Be quiet!" he hissed. "Remember the bug."
"I'm sorry, so sorry."
Michael tried to make peace. "Well, never mind. No real harm done. We'll split it equally, but save it until after the hunt as we may need it then. Now does everybody know the plan? We'll sleep now -- Mary-Anne, don't forget to set your watch, and then at 11:30pm we'll start our infiltration and observation. At 2:00am, once the prizes and traps are placed we'll begin our sabotage and neutralization of any other tribes that have the same clever idea. At 8:00am, when the challenge officially starts, you three will get the good stuff that Mal has identified and I will go hunting for targets of opportunity. Did you pick up the sap that Mal mentioned, Norman?"
"Yes sir. It's sealed, and you have two vials full to supplement the infected water you're already loaded with and are carrying."
"And don't forget what I told you about my rifle -- although it can shoot to 200 yards under ideal conditions, in practical terms it has an effective range of only about 50 yards. Ah -- yes, Mal?"
"There's a problem," Mal whispered. "Your rifle must've been a standard Super-Soaker model before you upgraded it, right? So how about my palmtop prints out some decals to hide the pretty colors?"
"I think that would be of great benefit, sir. Please, see to it, won't you?"
"I'm on it. You'll have your decals before the Hunt starts."
"Thank you very kindly, Mal. Any questions?"
"Then let us to bed, for we have a busy night ahead of us."
And so Harlem tucked their little heads onto their pillows, and dreamed their dreams of sabotage and betrayal. And, of course, Michael and Mary-Anne slept curled up together.