Around the 'Sphere in Seven Biomes
by Michael Bard and Quentin "Cubist" Long
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The AI was as good as its word: Mal encountered much less Mutopia
than his data told him to expect, and each trap he chose to trigger
only affected a small portion of his body, less than 5%. As expected,
the Machine Shop's traps turned flesh to metal, and caused metal
to extend itself further, on contact; either way, the robotizing
was a one-shot deal -- one shot per instance of physical contact.
Once he reached the checkpoint, Mal took the medallion, fastening one loop of his harness through it so it wouldn't come loose by accident or design. Declining the offer of six hours of rest, Mal moved off to a secluded alcove elsewhere in the Machine Shop, where he fulfilled his end of the bargain he'd made with the AI. He gave it a detailed concept which it reduced to practical blueprints. Mal's idea was self-propelled war tripods, just like the Martians had used in War of the Worlds; however, these would be only 8 feet tall, a fraction the size of the original model, and their weaponry would not include heat rays nor any other form of lethal armament. Instead, they would fire great globs of robotizing Mutopia, capable of transmuting any living matter (plant or animal) into more tripods.
When Mal suggested that the tripods might find it useful to be able to recognize which targets were appropriate or otherwise, the AI pointed out that it had already incorporated that feature into the design -- it didn't want to robotize its creators -- and, further, that Mal himself would be recognized and ignored, in accordance with the agreement between itself and Mal. The hacker elected not to ask whether the rest of Harlem could likewise be ignored; quite apart from not wanting to risk pushing the AI too far, he didn't much mind the possibility that a tripod might zap any or all of his three comrades.
Once the AI started producing tripods -- in threes of course (Mal had suggested it for the practical reason of mutual support, also because it was traditional) -- Mal said goodbye. By the time he exited the Machine Shop, both of his legs were robotic up to the pelvis, as was his left arm to the collarbone and his right arm to a few inches below the shoulder. The metal parts restricted him to a smooth, flowing, mono-speed motion which was initially irritating, but he quickly found himself growing accustomed to it.
Checking the video feed, Mal found that his comrades were coming, and would arrive in about 50 minutes. He spent the time chatting with 'Musfah', making suggestions on how best to deploy the tripods, and identifying local Mutopia traps.
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They didn't see Mal at first; he was standing near the Machine
Shop's exterior casing, and the highlights that reflected off
of his robotic parts were perfect camouflage against the reflective
metal of that casing. However, they certainly heard his voice:
"Hi, guys! Did'ja miss me?"
"Ah! There you are, Mal!" Michael said. "I trust that the new chrome finish is an indication of how successful you were?"
"Yep. Everything's copacetic. I wanna check on the immunity thing, but not here. See, the only point I fell short on is I didn't get the tripods to ignore Harlem, so we really should get going before the first group strides off the assembly line, okay?" So saying, Mal started to move, and the rest followed. "Aside from that, I got us everything on our shopping list. How about you?"
"Very well, thank you. We put in appearances at all the remaining biomes, and we even did a bit of tampering ourselves..."
Mal's new top speed proved to be an annoying handicap, as it kept Harlem from leaving the area anywhere near as fast as they'd have preferred. But leave they did; thus, no one was present to see it when the first three tripods emerged from assembly lines somewhere inside the Machine Shop From Hell. The trio scanned the enviroment, then headed off in formation to who knows where, releasing its haunting three-level cry of "ULAAAA!". Mal had suggested it as a way to inspire fear, which would cause victims to make mistakes.
One of the last things Harlem did before going to sleep this evening was test Mal's robotic immunity, which proved to be exactly as effective as advertised. Nothing happened when they smeared that infamous sap on a gleaming hand, nor when Mal stepped into a puddle of River water, nor any other Mutopia trap they could find or improvise.
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It was 8am, and a few minutes later, Harlem was fully awake and ready to embark upon a rather busy day. The first item on today's agenda was the "biome" called Grover's Corners, which, like Manhattan and the Machine Shop, was a man-made environment. In plotting out Harlem's plan of action for the current challenge, Mal and Michael had privately given this part of the BioSphere another name -- The Village -- because of the peculiar nature of its traps.
By any name, Grover's Corners had no Mutopia lying around for unwary people to step in by accident. Rather, it had a preposterously extensive and complex set of laws, and all of the punishments its justice system meted out involved transformations of one kind or another, sentence carried out by injection of Mutopia into a bicep muscle. Last night Harlem had been careful to get four copies of the "Tourist's Guide to Grover's Corners" from an outlying kiosk, and they used that thick book (in combination with Mal's information) to review the relevant laws while riding the subway.
"-- is Wednesday, so we only need to worry about the rules printed in purple or green ink, plus anything in sections 37-J through 40-T and 81-X."
"Thank you, Mary-Anne. Very well... hmm. White clothing is forbidden in the morning before 11am, but white fur is always acceptible."
"Excuse me, sir, but that's printed in blue ink, not purple. I believe this is the relevant section here."
"This? Ah -- so it is, Norman. So it is. White fur acceptible before 11 am in the morning, white clothing must not be worn while the Sun is in the sky. Well, we shall be off long before 11am, so I am unconcerned. And..." At this point, the centaur stared at his Guide, throughly puzzled. "Whyever would anyone make a law that forbids speaking any word containing the letter sequence 'inte'? Do you suppose you could... Mal?"
Michael looked uncertainly at the hacker, who had plugged his palmtop into the socket he'd morphed the back of one hand into.
"Er... are you feeling well, Mal?"
The half-robot's voice was slightly distant: "Fine. Never better. Fully functional."
"I see. And what is it you're doing now, if I may I ask?"
"Hacking into Grover's Corners comm-net. Route non-citizens' calls to bogus voicemail tree, back door lets us call normally. Also security net. After we leave, non-citizens' images automatically trigger high priority security alert. Also checkpoint scheduling subroutines. After we leave, if next position within 45 minutes' walk of any non-citizen, erase and re-calculate next position among suitable locations; if no suitable alternate, re-calculate next position on basis of difficulty of access."
Checkpoint! I very nearly forgot, bogged down in the minutae of that dratted rulebook as I was! "Ah -- thank you, sir. And have you gotten access to the list of checkpoint locations for the immediate future?"
"Yes. Park at center of map quadrant A7 until 9am, courtyard of main library between 9 and 10. Given relative mobility levels, you should be able to reach park before 9am if rest of us left behind. If 'lone centaur' scenario unacceptible, all Harlem together can reach library at 9:45am, exit Grover's Corners through East Gate 5 by 10:05am." Mal unplugged his palmtop, let his hand revert back to its usual shape. "Annnnd... we're done," he said, his voice noticeably more animated than it had been mere seconds earlier.
"Are you quite sure you're all right?" Michael asked pointedly.
Mal was amused. "What's the matter? You think I got metal on the brain or something? Don't sweat it; I was a little distracted just now 'cuz I was busy, that's all."
"The metal of your legs will be handicap enough," Norman said.
Mal shrugged. "Maybe so. But on the bright side, staying back at my pace means we can't break the pedestrian speed limit."
The vixen's eyes widened. "Speed limit? You mean that when you suggested Michael should rush in to the checkpoint, you knew he'd be violating a local ordinance?" She turned to the centaur. "Michael! How can the tribe tolerate this terrible man who wants to trick us into taking ourselves out?"
"I see. And what have you to say for yourself, Mal?"
The hacker smiled. "Just that this isn't the first time somebody's gone off the rails with only half of the story. Yes, Mike, if you did gallop in, you'd be way the hell over the speed limit. But you know what? The way they got the cops set up here, you'd have a 65% chance of getting away with it all by yourself. Yeah, that's a real effective way of taking somebody out! What's more, your odds of success would be a lot better than 65% if the rest of us got a few distractions going to divert their attention from you. So tell me, Mike: If I'm tryna take you out, why the hell would I go with a plan that has a 35% chance of success at best, and that much only if I can somehow convince your lady-love and Norm not to load the dice in your favor? Anyway, we've arrived, so let's just table the politicking and get to work, okay?"
Harlem's journey through Grover's Corners was uneventful by design, but no less worrisome as a result. Had they memorized all of the rules and regulations which might affect them? At any moment, one of the numerous Grover's Corners justice agents might stop them and pass sentence on the spot, and the least they could expect was 40% transformation to any of a wide variety of different punishment forms. It was fortunate that Mal's robotic (lack of) speed kept any of them from bolting forward, an error which would surely have brought down a vast amount of Mutopia on the culprit, if not the entire tribe.
They reached the courtyard of the main library at 9:42am, claiming their necklace (which Mary-Anne insisted on wearing) from the checkpoint a bit ahead of schedule. It was 10:04am before they left Grover's Corners behind entirely, just in time to hear the eerie wail of a distant siren. Mal smiled. "Looks like we got out just in time," he said.
"Well, it would appear that your restricted pace was beneficial in this case," Michael observed.
"Yeah, but I kinda doubt we'll get that lucky again. Ya know, I'm starting to miss being able to run, or even walk fast! Oh, well. Onward, right?"
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Two of the BioSphere's camera crew met with a shadowed figure.
"You've got the sample?" the mysterious figure asked.
"It's right here," said one of the camera crew, a man of middling height and a light tan, as he handed over a tiny envelope.
The shadowed figure nodded in silence, did something with the envelope and a small cylindrical object, and soon gave a small bottle of clear fluid to the one who'd handed him the envelope. That person drank the contents of the bottle, and quickly transformed into a different man of roughly the same height and build.
The other camera crewman, a short woman, said "Lookin' good, Harry! You get where you're supposed to be, and I'll keep the film rolling."
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"And where, may I ask, did you traipse off to?" Michael inquired
as Mal rejoined the group.
"Talking to the people who're gonna let us beat the Caves," Mal said. "The fix is in; let's go."
"Can't you move any faster?" Norman said, irritated.
"Not since I got the metal on me. You want to try it yourself, you know where the Machine Shop is."
Bickering aside, Harlem's assault on the Caves went almost perfectly according to plan. The only deviation was the unscheduled appearance of another tribesman; unscheduled, but not unexpected, thanks to Mal keeping an eye on the video feed. It was a representative of Melrose, not in good shape, and when he came around the final bend in the passage leading to the checkpoint chamber, he was met by a fusillade of Mutopia which left him partially rooted to the ground and completely non-human. The BioSphere workers at the checkpoint were very curious to know how Harlem had gotten in through the exit, but after the workers used their legitimate access to the video feed to confirm Harlem's cover story, they handed a medallion over to Michael, who promptly gave it to Mary-Anne "for safekeeping".
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Next on the agenda: A visit to Manhattan, so that Mal could
lose the metal, and all of Harlem could prepare themselves for
the next pair of biomes.
"What do you think, Mal? Do you wish to retain your inorganic limbs?"
Sure thing -- I just love slow-moving body parts with lousy dexterity. "Naah. I'd just as soon go back to pure flesh, if it's okay by you. But you guys shouldn't wait around for the Med Center to get done with me. How about you all go on ahead, and the Center puts aquatic stuff on me at the same time as the Zoo's doing the same for you?" Shoulda just gone with a street artist, but the Zoo has free admission; Miss Kitty made noise about needing to save money; and Norm bought her line, so the vote would've been 3 to 1 against me if I'd pressed the point. And that puts her farther away from me and my restoration, so I'm not complaining.
"I still think it would be better to conserve Mary-Anne's money supply and let a street artist eliminate the robotic parts," Norman said.
Mal looked skeptically at the short man. "Conserve. Like you're not gonna tap that same money supply for the pitons and crap we'll need when we hit the Mountains. Anyway, you honestly think their Mutopia can affect the metal bits?" The immunity's nice, but the cost is just too damn great.
"I thank you for your consideration, Norman, but I fear Mal does have a cogent point. Very well. We can afford to do this, can we not?" Michael asked the vixen.
Damn the man! I want to give the doctors some last-minute orders after they put Mal under, but I don't see how I can manage to do that! Just you wait, my big black cat-to-be. This is most definitely not over yet. "Yes, we can. If you have anything left over after you're through, you'll be sure to save it for the tribe, won't you?"
"I sure will, and that's mighty generous of you, Miss Kitty!" Mal said. One arm rose smoothly into position; the hand split open, revealing a cavity inside. Mary-Anne stared for a moment before she stuffed a wad of cash into that cavity, which then sealed itself shut.
Damn. And I worked so hard to impregnate those bills with pigeon shit in a way that would still let me carry them safely. Actually, Norman did the work, but since he's mine, what difference does it make? Oh, well; it was an idea. "Thank you, Mal. You're too kind."
Mal grinned. "Yeah, I know. It's my only fault. So long, and I'll see you all in an hour and a half at the Zoo entrance, okay?"
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65 minutes later, Mal was completely cleansed of his metallic
taint; 10 minutes after that, an artist's commission had rendered
him an undersized anthropomorphic orca. "Undersized" by orca standards,
at any rate, for he was about 9 feet tall and well over half a
ton. His harness was now a very snug fit; had he grown much larger,
it would have become downright uncomfortable.
The Med Center technicians told him of the contamination on the money he'd carried with him, contamination which hadn't affected him as it had only touched his robotic parts, and which the Med Center had eliminated just on general principle. An evil idea occured to Mal: He had $480 in change after paying for the Med Center and his latest portrait, so he opened up his hardshell notepad, extracting $480 from within the shell proper and filling the resulting gap with his change. There. Once she spends this cash, all they gotta do is check the serial numbers and she's nailed for smuggling money in from outside! As he walked, he composed and sent a message to some of the cameramen he controlled, asking them to be public-spirited citizens and report to Sly their suspicions about where Mary-Anne could be getting all her money.
This left a quarter-hour to get to the Zoo entrance, and he arrived with two minutes to spare. He would have arrived earlier, but he'd stopped to admire the results of his work with Musfah: A poster warning Manhattan citizens to not leave the city, as three-legged robots were attacking and transforming people. Steps were being taken to contain the outbreak, or so the poster claimed. Well, what do you know. Considering what I've been able to get away with, I think I'll put my money on the AI.
As expected, he'd been preceded by three persons, all of them entirely covered with brown fur, with varying levels of walrus traits. Michael's face and horse-ears were recognizable, but his nose had vanished and his nostrils were flat against his face; his fingers had fused together, making his hands resemble furry mittens; and his recognizeably human torso extended forward from a walrus' body. Mary-Anne had to be the more-or-less human-proportioned one with a pair of prominent breasts, flippers in place of arms, and a deeply split tail which allowed her to move clumsily about on land. The third, therefore, distinguishable from a true walrus by his large braincase and arm-like flippers (or was that flipper-like arms?), had to be Norman.
"How you doing, guys?" Mal asked. His current voice boomed in the lower register, perhaps deeper than Norman's usual voice.
"I do believe we're all ready to go, sir!" Michael said, looking at his companions. "I'm afraid Norman has lost all ability to vocalize, and Mary-Anne cannot utter coherent words at present."
"Hwaoork," the former vixen said, confirming Michael's statement. Being mute is a terrible bother, but if it can get Mal to lower his guard, it'll be worth it.
For some reason, Mal couldn't help but think she was a trifle irritated. Norman, too, gave every indication of being royally ticked off, but that was understandable, given the circumstances.
"I, for one, am inclined to think that the subway will be our swiftest means of transport to the ocean. Does that seem logical to you, Mal?"
"Hmm..." The orca paused for a moment to visualize the map, then replied, "Sure does. And if you'll all follow me, I can get us there within half an hour or less. That okay by the rest of you?"
The journey to the border of the Ocean biome was marked only by one incident: They turned a corner and saw a contestant from some other tribe. Michael fired at the person reflexively; whoever it was vanished, the sound of his retreating footsteps suggesting that Mutopia had granted him greater-than-human speed.
Norman started to pursue, but Michael stopped him. "No! This isn't the proper time, and whoever that was, their tribe might well have set up a trap for them to lead us into. Let us continue on with our own plan, shall we?"
They did, and were at the Ocean border within minutes. When the doors slid open, Mal said, "It's a darn good thing the subway has a station close to the shoreline."
"Quite so," Michael agreed, and Mary-Anne more or less 'honked' her assent. Norman, forcibly mute, just glared in the vixen's general direction. After the car doors opened, the Harlemites walked, shuffled, or flopped, as appropriate, up the subway steps to ground-level. Their collective nostrils were instantly filled with the salty, organic smell of the seashore, a complicated aroma made up of innumerable individual scents. Within a minute, all four Harlemites were in the water and swimming rapidly.
The Ocean biome's checkpoint was on a large island somewhere in the water, almost a mile away from the nearest shore. Since Harlem knew exactly where to find this island, it was a small number of minutes' swim for them. And since their ocean-adapted forms could stay submerged for more than half an hour at a time, none of them bothered to break the surface until they were at the island itself. It was easy, and the absence of any visible wake also gave no help to any of the their competitors. The only potential hazard along the way were two small formations of aquatic humanoids, none of whom could swim fast enough to keep pace with Harlem. A group of these others tried to ambush Harlem, but Mal sped up and slammed into one with the full force of his newly increased mass. As his victim slowly sank, oozing blood, the rest of the group fled into the depths.
Mal, as the token biped with 9-foot stature and corresponding length of stride, went ashore to retrieve Harlem's medallion. While he was so occupied, his three comrades swam around the island, ready, willing and able to throw a gargantuan monkey wrench into the plans of any other tribes unfortunate enough to approach the island/checkpoint while they were on patrol. This checkpoint was a pavilion that would have done credit to Club Med, complete with fully stocked wet bar, an extensive buffet table, and comfortable chairs to lounge about on. Being an orca, Mal wasn't in any shape to appreciate any of these pleasures; the chairs were far too small, and his current tastebuds and digestive system weren't at all compatible with the food and drink. He took the medallion and, like the one from the Machine Shop, threaded one harness strap through it for security.
Of course, once Mal returned to the sea to rejoin the rest of Harlem, an animated discussion about who should carry the medallions began. Michael said, "Excuse me, Mal, but do you intend to keep both of those medallions to yourself?"
"Why not? I picked 'em up, and I don't see any reason to hand off either of 'em to someone else. But hey, if you guys think different, you can transfer yours to whoever. The medallions're staying in the tribe either way, so what's the problem?"
"Well, the problem is that these medallions really ought to be distributed evenly. It simply wouldn't do to have any one person carry too many of them, for what would the tribe do if that one person is lost to us?"
"In that case, the rest of the tribe'd have to go back for duplicates of what's missing." Mal shrugged. "Annoying, but not fatal. Like I said, if you guys want to shuffle your stuff around, that's fine. Me, I'm keeping what I pick up, and that's the name of that tune."
So saying, Mal swam off towards the neighboring Arctic biome, thus putting a firm end to the dicussion.
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When Mal and Michael were discussing Harlem's strategy for the
Ocean and Arctic biomes, they'd first thought that all four Harlemites
should become walruses. This idea lasted only until Michael considered
the layer of ice in which the Arctic environment was thickly encrusted,
and wondered if even a quartet of walruses would be able to break
through that ice for air. They decided Harlem would be better
off with at least one orca as icebreaker, and after the rest of
the plan firmed up a bit, Mal ended up with that role.
Mal rather enjoyed the feeling of power that came with his great size; it was just a whole lot of fun to dive deep and then hurtle upwards at high speed, smashing a large airhole in the ice sheet. As before, their knowledge of the map allowed Harlem to cut their travel time to a fraction of what it would otherwise have been.
It would have been nice if Mal could have just smashed up from beneath the checkpoint to send it straight to the bottom of this biome; unfortunately, the Arctic checkpoint was soldily within the small fraction of the ice sheet that rested on land, rather than floating on water. The best Mal could do was break an opening a couple of hundred yards away from the checkpoint, which he did. Oh well, I'll just have to be content with having reduced our exposure to the Arctic hazards to a fraction of a mile's-worth.
The square/cube law gave Mal another reason to be an orca. At his size, he had the lowest surface/volume ratio in Harlem, which meant he lost heat at the slowest rate. And that, combined with the orca's insulating layer of blubber, made Mal the best choice to take care of the Arctic checkpoint. Which didn't stop Mary-Anne from 'honking' her distress when Mal clambered up onto the surface of the ice.
"Something wrong, Miss Kitty?"
"I think you know very well what's wrong, Mal. Including the one from this biome, you're going to hold three medallions!"
"And this is a bad thing? Let's cut the crap, Mike. Do you trust me, or don't you? Simple as that. If you don't trust me, say the word and I'll jump right back in the water. You guys send whoever you like to this checkpoint, and I'll just swim a few laps while you're grabbing the medallion, how's that?"
"You know very well that without your map..." Michael's voice trailed off as he saw the problem.
Mal nodded. "If you don't trust me, how the hell can you trust any info I give you? Shit, I might be settin' you up for a fall right now, for all you guys know! But if you do trust me, there's no problem, right? So. The real question is, which game are you guys playing? Politics... or the one with a 5 megabuck cash prize to the winner?"
Mal went ashore. As well as retrieving the Arctic medallion, he also got a chance to whistle appreciatively at the hot tubs full of scantily-clad women waiting at the checkpoint. Oh, well... maybe later.
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There was no way any self-respecting Harlemite would retain
their aquatic form, not when the next biome on their schedule
was the Mountains. As per the plan, Harlem visited Manhattan for
the second time that day, so that the local street artists could
solve their bodily problems.
"Hwaooorrrk!" Mary-Anne 'said', clearly agitated over something.
"Excuse me?" the ever-polite Michael replied. Now whatever can she be displeased with? We're going to return to our normal bodies, surely that can't be it. Perhaps... "You have an objection to being restored by an artist?"
"Oooaarrrk!" she said, nodding vigorously, then she broke into a clumsy parody of a dance.
Mal was the first to catch her meaning. "Furrtive Moments," he said. "So you'd rather be a vixen than a cat, huh?"
Mal looked at Michael: "And Norm goes with, to play bodyguard?"
Michael seemed almost embarrassed. "Actually, in view of that gentleman's present physical difficulties, I thought I'd take that role myself. So, ah, well, yes. Actually. You and Norman should be well able to handle the details of returning yourselves to your preferred forms, I trust?"
"I expect so. Granted, he can't talk or write at the moment, but I'll bet we can figure a way for him to let the artist know what he wants."
"Very good. Carry on, and we shall rendezvous at the subway station!" And after Mary-Anne handed over enough cash to pay for two portraits, she and Michael went galumphing off to the once and future vixen's place of employment.
"Looks like it's just you and me, Norm. I know what I'm going for, but you... Hmm. Yes-and-no questions are good, you can nod or shake your head, but it'd take forever to get the message across. How're the arms? Can you gesture, make letters in the air?"
Norman waved one flipper/arm.
"Y... E... S. Great! Just to keep things moving, I'm gonna describe what I think you want, and you break in any time you disagree, okay? Fine.
"What you had before we changed over today, that's what you want -- no. Lose the feline bits? No? You want more non-human stuff? Huh! Wasn't expecting that, but alright. Okay, spell it out for me. S... K... I... tougher skin? I see, guard against getting cut on rocks, got it. Tough skin, what are we talking here? Armadillo, shark, something else? R... H... I... rhinoceros? Right..."
It wasn't long before Mal learned what sort of body Norman wanted for the final pair of biomes, and the two Harlemites were soon re-drawn for the final portions of the current challenge. Norman's chosen form was a bipedal, half-and-half human/panther blend, except that he was completely covered in thick rhinoceros hide. As for Mal, he ended up with feline eyes, ears, nose, pads and claws, just as he'd had yesterday; the only feature he hadn't previously selected was an all-over coat of tiger-striped fur.
Norman and Mal reached the subway first (no surprise to the hacker). In fact he'd been hoping for this as he wanted to try and figure out what, if anything, had happened to the shorter man. "You've been here before, Norm; you think anyone could manage to bring in some mind-fucking drugs?" The thought of Norm wanting to be less human -- not just grudgingly accepting, but actively wanting it -- had frightened him. Mal worried when others acted outside of their norms.
Unfortunately, the others arrived before Norman could answer.
"Hey, Mike! You..." Mal began. His eyes widened and all of his warning flags went off as he stared at Michael. Shit!
"Good afternoon... sir?" said Norman, who was also a trifle perplexed.
For the centaur was no longer a centaur; he was still equine (more or less) below the waist, but the nonhuman bits belonged to a goat, not a horse. To all intents and purposes, he was a satyr. As for Mary-Anne, she was, once again, every inch a vixen.
"Good afternoon to you both," Michael replied, seemingly oblivious to their reactions. "You will recall, I'm sure, that my centaur form was rather unsuited to scaling sheer cliff walls, which is why our initial plan called for me to haunt the lower reaches of the Mountains whilst the rest of you moved upslope. But now, mobility is far less of a problem for me! Tell me, what would you say to my accompanying you, so that we can ascend as a foursome?"
Miss Kitty and Norm together is bad enough! Throw in Mike, and I'll never reach the top... "Ah, no need for that, Mike," Mal said. "I think it's better to stick with the plan. You were going to pick off targets of opportunity while we went upstairs, right? And, ah, you can conceal yourself better, and you're a smaller target, so I'd say you're better suited for the hunting thing now."
Mary-Anne let a little pout appear on her face, but inwardly she was pleased. She'd expected Mal to object, which was fine with her. My little goat won't be hunting anyone else, not after our recent chat! It's odd, but I just couldn't dissuade him from riding shotgun to protect me in case Mal tries anything. And if my cat-to-be should happen to get soaked, well, accidents do happen.
"An excellent point, Mal," Michael said. "Very well; we shall stick with our original plan, then."
Wait a minute. No dissent whatsoever? Shitshitshit! The sirens in Mal's brain, already active after seeing the new Michael, were now screaming bloody murder. Son of a bitch! Miss Kitty can't be making her move this early -- we haven't even had the damn tribal merger yet! What the hell does she think she's doing?
In accordance with their plan, Harlem rode the subway to the (misnamed, on account of only being large enough to hold one peak) Mountains. The dome containing this biome was the tallest single part of the BioSphere; it was more than 5 kilometers high at its center, and the highest single point in the Mountains proper extended about 4 kilometers above the ground, with a good-sized plateau at its summit. It was on this plateau that the Mountains checkpoint was found. Like the one in the Caves, this checkpoint also had a "back door" that would allow much easier access to it, but unfortunately Mal only controlled a small fraction of the BioSphere's camera crew, and the ones he did control, he wasn't free to deploy arbitrarily. Mal wished he'd figured out this challenge sooner, but as it was, he just hadn't had the time to move enough pawns into place to defeat both the Mountains and the Caves. And of those two choices, he and Mike had both agreed that it was far better to beat the Caves than the Mountains. With the traps in the Caves, just one trap was enough to erase a victim's eyes, rendering them totally blind; as for the Mountains, it would take the accumulated effects of several traps to impose a dangerously high degree of non-human qualities (falcon or mountain goat or eagle, say) on a victim.
Or so they'd thought while making Harlem's plans...
The first several hundred meters of the ascent were not difficult, as the lowest parts of the Mountains had a rather shallow slope. Michael split off from the rest of Harlem, and he would spend the next few hours lurking around the bottommost kilometer of the Mountains, sniping from cover at any tribesmen who caught his eye. Or at least that's what he agreed to do. But since Miss Kitty had her way with him... Mal kept a wary eye open. Boy, am I glad that squirt-gun can't hit worth a damn much over 50 or 60 yards. Then Mal, Norm and Mary-Anne kept going as a group, always ascending. A couple of times Mal could have sworn he saw Michael, but he was never quite sure whether it was him, or a goat. It seemed that the body Mary-Anne had talked Michael into was very well-adapted to mountainous slopes.
The trail up the Mountainside grew steeper as they went on, an asymtotic curve cast into stone. Before Harlem reached 2000 meters in altitude, they were crawling up a slope in the range of 50 to 60 degrees. Pausing for a short break, Norman said, "From this point on, it would be best to employ standard mountaineering practice. The climbing equipment I purchased in Manhattan should prove useful, particularly at the prices they charge."
Mal shrugged. "So you paid for the privilege of not getting a pile of Mutopia with your tools. Speaking of which, lemme know when you're plotting a course, will you? My buddies did some tampering, loosened rocks and and so on, and I'll be happy to help us avoid all of the danger zones. And if you don't want my help, that's okay too; I'll just go by myself, meet you at the top." There. Now let's see the bastards try to take me out on the way up.
"Thank you, Mal," said the panther in rhino hide. "I'd appreciate that."
A few minutes of preparation later, all three Harlemites were tethered together and continuing their ascent. Their rate of travel was much slower than it had been, what with the need for Norman to pound pitons ahead and reclaim them from behind. Mal was the last one in line, as Norman felt that his greater bulk might be beneficial to anchor them all if anyone should lose their grip and fall.
Mal tried to convince himself to relax. Come on, man. Every foot of altitude is another foot of distance between me and Mike, right? He did not allow himself to ponder the falsity of that assertion; he couldn't do a damn thing about it, and tense people made mistakes. In spite of everything, he still felt twinges of nervousness crawling up and down his spine.
At last, after what seemed like hours or days of climbing, the summit was in reach! They could see the rim of the plateau above them, getting ever so gradually closer and clearer as they moved up. Norman was the first to stand on top. He reached down to assist Mary-Anne as she neared the high end, leaving the hacker as the only Harlemite still on the rock face itself.
CRACK! Without warning, a piton above Mal broke free of the living rock.
"Son of a -- aahh!" Mal shounted and then screamed, his unscheduled descent slowed only for a moment by his secondary belaying line -- which itself came loose less than a second after his 320-pound weight hung fully off of it.
CRACK! CRACK! Two more pitons wrenched themselves loose. Mal kept falling.
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