Around the 'Sphere in Seven Biomes
by Michael Bard and Quentin "Cubist" Long
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Reflexes honed by long hours of kenpo karate training were the
only thing that saved Mal. His hands and feet shot out in a flash,
scrambling and seeking and eventually finding support before he'd
fallen more than a few yards. Thank God for the claws! There was no pain, just a few points of discomfort. Adrenaline rush. Okay. Gotta get up there while it lasts, the
aftermath's gonna be a killer in this context. Mal hoped he hadn't gotten cut, but he couldn't spare the attention
to worry about it -- he'd just have to trust his fur and newly-toughened
skin, and anyway, getting back up to the plateau was a more immediate
Norman looked over the edge, and his eyes grew wide. Damn the man's luck! At least he has no reason to believe I am at fault, since this was clearly a horrible stroke of ill fortune. "Mal! Is there something I can do for you?"
While Norman watched the hacker, Mary-Anne walked over to the checkpoint. She picked up the carved icon and put it around her neck, and then grabbed a chilled glass of champagne and made her way back to observe Mal. She always enjoyed watching her children at work for her.
Mal ignored the short man as, inch by inch, foot by foot, he fought his way back up. He climbed barehanded, wth no backup and no safety net. He did not allow himself to think about the fact that his fingers were visibly fusing together as he climbed. What he did think about was the curious fact that three pitons and a belaying line all came loose within seconds of each other. He thought about the one person who had placed every piton Harlem had used on this climb. He thought about the one person who had fastened all the lines, tied all the knots, for this ascent. And finally, he thought, That fucker is toast.
Norman asked again, "Can I --"
Mal didn't let him finish. "No! Both of you stay back! Too risky!" For me, especially.
By the time Mal got to within arm's reach of the top, his hands had two thick fingers apiece, with massive nails so large that they almost be taken for cloven hooves; one leg was very much distorted; and a magnificently coiled pair of horns had sprouted from his head. And he was tired and aching all over. On the plus side, at least I don't have to worry about Mike sniping at me. He refused to let any of that distract him, instead focusing on the plateau rim just above him and the panther's eyes he saw surrounded by rhinoceros hide. And he estimated forces and vectors...
"Let me help you, Mal," said Norman, cautiously reaching one arm over the edge.
Mal looked up, envisioned his grip and subsequent motions, and then said, "Sure <gasp> thing <gasp> Norm." He then reached one hand blindly up, grabbed hold of Norm's arm just below the elbow, and abruptly twisted with as much force as he could muster.
"Aaagghh!" Norm screamed as things broke loose inside his arm. Mal jerked the arm downwards, putting all his weight on it, and was rewarded by a muffled snapping sound; tightening his other hand's grip on the rock, Mal then pulled Norman straight off the plateau in one irresistable motion, sweeping him around to painfully smash his head into the rock and then to fall when Mal released him.
Mary-Anne moved, but one word from Mal stopped her in her tracks: "Don't." The scuttling rustle and rumble of Norman's descent quickly faded into the distance.
Mal's warped fingers closed on handholds like pliers close on nuts and bolts. He was as secure as it was physically possible for anyone in his position to be, and the one active threat was under control. But now the adrenaline was fading; now he could feel his body warping in places, the changes a result of the Mutopia he'd absorbed from the rocks with every new step of a wounded foot, and every new grip of a bleeding hand.
His arms beginning to stretch and twist, Mal levered himself up onto the plateau while the horrified vixen stared at him. In between deep and ragged breaths, Mal shouted, "That son of a bitch. <gasp> Tried to kill me! <gasp> Stay back!"
Even in this extremity, Mal's brain kept working. Why now? There's another biome left in this challenge, and it's just stupid to wipe out your own tribesmen before... Then he finally saw Mary-Anne's strategy. Of course! She doesn't care if any of us survive! As long as she makes it to the merger, she can use her drugs to brainwash all the other tribesmen into letting her win!
Mal squelched his panic with sheer force of will. What's done is done. Speaking of which, my changes seem to be done. Never letting his eyes stray from the vixen, he took an experimental step, another, and then deliberately fell to all fours. The quadrupedal position felt more comfortable, more natural -- but at least he could stand upright, and his hands, while very hooflike, still retained a portion of their usual manipulatory capacity when he did stand.
He clopped over to her and quietly said, "Here's the deal, Miss Kitty: Out of the goodness of your heart, you're gonna give me $2000 so's I can buy my way back to fully human. Being the delicate, squeamish little flower you are, you just can't bear to be anywhere within 20 blocks of my Med Center while I'm getting fixed. And you're not gonna fill Mike's head with any silly notions about me attacking Norm without provocation; you've got too much respect for the truth to tell lies as big as that."
"You seem to have forgotten something, my big black cat. I'm the one with the money -- why shouldn't I tell you what the deal is to be?"
"You'll do it because it's the right thing to do, and because you're not as stupid as you look. You don't know what kinds of deadman switches I got set up, or how much crap will come down on you if I go away, and you don't know if you can brainwash me fast enough to stop me calling down a world-class shitstorm on you."
"You bastard!" the vixen hissed, but she dug her wallet out of the bag that was her constant companion and started to remove paper currency from the wallet.
"Oh, and one more thing. Just because you love money so much, you're going to give each bill a proper goodbye, unfolding it and kissing it and rubbing it over yourself on both sides, before you hand it over to me."
If looks could maim, Mal would have been a paraplegic after the heated glare Mary-Anne gave him. She didn't give voice to her feelings; what she did do was put certain bills back into her wallet, replacing them with certain others. And she followed the procedure Mal had dictated, handing each bill over, one by one, after confirming that there was no Mutopia on it.
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Several dozen meters below the top, Norman managed to stop his
fall with a wrench that felt like it would dislocate his good
shoulder. How could he have known? I didn't give him any reason to suspect!
It hardly matters, not right here and now; I must not let myself
-- At this point, all thought stopped, driven out of Norman's skull
by unspeakable pain in the arm Mal had abused. The broken bones
were warping and fusing in unfamiliar ways, and his other arm
was likewise changing. He was in too much agony to recognize what
his arms were becoming: Wings. And when his fingers shriveled
up to the point where they could no longer maintain a grip, he
started falling again, collecting more lacerations and abrasions
even through his rhino-tough hide (which seemed to be softening
Norman's transformation was complete long before he would have stopped falling naturally. He wept, but not for his lost humanity. "I'm so sorry I failed you, Mothaarrrrkkh!" he said before his mind evaporated.
The solitary cry of a peregrine falcon echoed mournfully off the peaks.
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Michael was sitting on a boulder at the base of the mountain
idly throwing stones into a burbling creek when he heard footsteps
approaching. He turned and it was, indeed, Mary-Anne and Malcolm
-- and they did not look happy. They were walking side by side
but nearly 10' apart. Given their expressions it would have been
more if there had been room.
Michael crossed his arms and just sat, idly tapping his left hoof on the boulder he was seated at. Eventually the pair arrived and Mal just stopped as Mary-Anne raced forward and hugged Michael, tears in her eyes. "Mi... Michael -- it was horrible... Mal, he --"
Mal, who had had enough of the whole charade, simply muttered, "Shut up, bitch."
Michael just sighed, swallowed, held Mary-Anne for a minute, and then slowly stood up pulling himself from her grasp. Then he turned to face Mal, completely ignoring Mary-Anne -- who stuck out her tongue so that only Mal could see it. "Well?"
"How much did you see?"
"All of it. Why did you do it, Malcolm?"
"Son of a bitch tried to kill me! And it was --" Mal forced down his accusation against Mary-Anne. Now was not the time, at least not while Michael was her slave. "-- not like I had any choice. I'll be damned if I'm gonna go down without a fight."
"You didn't have a choice," Michael echoed, then he sighed. "Do you remember what I said at the beginning of this? One tribe, indivisible, working like a well-oiled machine? Each person pulling their weight for the good of everybody? I know that you do. Now, there is either an accident, or an attempted assassination for whatever reason, and then you, in cold blood, in full control of your mind and facilities, kill him. You, with full conscious decision have succeeded in destroying another human being."
"Damn right I did! And if I hadn't, the bastard'd be right here now. Prob'ly plotting his next attack, maybe against you. 'Well-oiled machine', my ass! But hey, you want to talk to Norm, he's flying around somewhere," and Mal pointed vaguely upward.
Michael sighed and shook his head. "Yes, his body is alive, but his mind is dead. Dead at your --"
"What the fuck was I supposed to do!? Let him 'help' me up so he can take a second shot at me?"
Michael stood up and paced over until he was standing in front of Mal looking up. Even though he was shorter, any observer would have sworn he looked taller. "Malcolm, there is no excuse for murder. There are always alternatives."
Mal cocked a cynical eyebrow at the satyr. "In this situation? Name one."
"You could have ordered him to back away. You could have warned him --"
Like the fucker's gonna be swayed by words, Mal thought.
"-- You could have asked Mary-Anne for help if you didn't trust him --"
Oh, there's a real winner of a plan.
"-- Is your life important enough to be worth the utter destruction of another?"
"When it's someone who already tried to take me out? Hell, yes! Anyway, like I said, the son of a bitch is still around somewhere."
"And that's the worst part about this whole nightmare. Yes, we can all point up at a falcon and say 'Look; there he is,' and then wash our hands of what happened. We can grin, laugh, secure in the knowledge that Norman's body still lives in some form... when the truth is that a unique, vibrant, thinking human being has ceased to exist!"
Mary-Anne's black heart was filled with exultation. This couldn't be better if I'd scripted both parts out in advance! My great big goat throws the nasty hacker out for stupid moral reasons; I get to see how many pieces he falls into when I shatter him tonight; and next morning, there I am. Alone, innocent, helpless, cruelly betrayed by the soulless monsters I thought were my fellow tribesmen... and ready to do it all over again with the next batch of victims. Life just doesn't get any better than this! "Michael, if what you say is true, well, well, it's horrible. You're right, this is an evil, hateful place. And if Mal has murdered once, then he can do it to us too! We..."
Michael spun around, nostrils flaring, glaring at Mary-Anne which such disgust and disappointment, that the vixen found she couldn't speak. "Nobody listens anymore. Nobody cares about life, about law. Everything is for the individual, with no other cares. Mary-Anne, an eye for an eye never works. And, Mal has suggested that you may have influenced Norman."
How could he know?! "Michael, how, how can you believe that? I'd never..."
For the first time today, Mal let a smile spill across his features. Could you have been faking all this time!? Way to go, Mike!
"Mary-Anne, no I don't believe you did anything. But, Mal does. So, which of you am I supposed to believe?"
"She --" Mal started to respond, but Mary-Anne's overly loud sobbing drowned him out.
Running up to him she hugged him and buried her face in his chest, crying and sobbing. "Michael? You think that I..? But, I wouldn't. Norman disliked me but how, how? -- I wouldn't do anything so evil or hateful. Not to anybody, and especially not to you!" And she made sure to scratch him. By the Mother, this goat is mine and he is not getting away! Mary-Anne gradually let her voice fade as she injected the drugs into his system.
Mal had a sinking feeling. Shit. This is my last chance to reach him. It's not going to work, but I've got nothing to lose, and I have to try... "Michael. She's dangerous. She's got drugs, she uses hypnosis. She brainwashes people, controls them. She must have done it to Norm when they went to Manhattan, and she's been doing it to you."
Unfortunately, as Michael looked up from the quietly sobbing Mary-Anne and leveled a cold, hard gaze at Mal, the hacker knew that he was too late.
"Mal. How can I trust you? You murder, and then you plant wild accusations --"
"-- that can't be right. Dear God, do you even know what you're saying?"
Double-plus shit. He really is gone. "Yes, I do," Mal sighed. "You don't believe me, fine. You want to be her slave, fine. Just remember this, and remember what a damned fool you're being." He shook his head with a sad smile. "We coulda been friends..."
"Mal. Just, just, go away. Mary-Anne and I will take care of the Savannah token. We'll go to the council together with the tokens and... we'll carry on from there. Just, please, leave."
For a second Mal thought of saying something, anything, but then he just turned and walked away on all fours, listening to Michael comforting Mary-Anne behind him. Okay: The tokens I've got will keep the bitch off my back, but only until we turn 'em in at the next tribal council... Now the battle lines of this dirty little war were well and truly drawn. Now... Hell with it, I'll think of something.
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Mal slowly made his way back to camp, cursing the body Norman's
actions had left him with. Let's see, now: She's got her drugs, she's got Mike, she's got
her little nightclub, plus whatever cash and warm bodies came
with the property. Meanwhile, my hands're only partially functional,
and I'm on my own -- by the time I can forge an alliance with
any other tribe, she's in the winner's circle. It's official:
Life sucks. Okay, deal with it. He reviewed a mental inventory of his resources, re-examined the
range within which he was free to maneuver his pieces on the board.
What I need most, now, is information. What's the bitch doing, how long's she gonna be occupied? Mal retrieved his palmtop from its sealed pocket in his harness. He had to keep moving, but with his lower body the way it was, he had no prayer of using it while walking on two legs. Fine. Hold the stylus in my mouth and go three-legged for a while. Fortunately, this arrangement worked, however awkwardly. And the video feed revealed the bitch and Mike riding the subway. He checked the schedule; that car was going to... Manhattan? Not the Savannah? Right, she's got plans. Which means I got time for my own plans --
By the time he reached the campsite proper, Mal knew what his strategy should be. His subconscious mind had been chewing over the puzzle, and as so often in the past, it'd come up with a complete list of objectives whose fulfillment would add up to ultimate victory. It was just a matter of correct implementation, putting it all into the right order...
The first move was obvious: Having previously set up a number of contingency plans, now Mal sent out a coded signal to trigger a specific one of them. Although he normally preferred subtlety, this one was an incredibly massive strike. It would be a textbook example of blatant, flagrant overkill with an extravagant amount of collateral damage. That didn't matter, for of all his pre-arranged gambits, this one offered the highest probability of destroying the target. Too bad the results won't show instantly. Still, when it finally hits, the bitch is toast. I'll have to thank HacMan for writing that virus; it only gave me a few minutes' window of opportunity, but that was enough. Under cover of the confusion it created, I installed all the patches I wanted, edited all the files.
From here on in, it was all mind-games to ensure that Mary-Anne remained in the BioSphere like a good little target. And while she's busy in the big city, I've got business in the Savannah. Problem: Getting there without leaving any traces that might alert the bitch to what I'm doing. Solution: The combat form.
Mal had never told the rest of Harlem that his water purifier tube could generate Mutopia, and he'd certainly never told them about its twelve memory slots, seven of which contained the blueprints for various types of mutagen. One of them would transmute him into the "combat form", a body he'd designed to kick ass in ways beyond what his human form was capable of. He wasn't a genetic engineer himself, of course, but he knew people who were, and they'd created the building blocks out of which Mal had assembled all of his stored genetic blueprints. Naturally, there were some practical problems with this kind of unauthorized mutation, but nothing unsolvable. He tapped out two messages -- one to the cameramen he owned, the other to the BioSphere computer network -- and it was showtime.
Mal stored his current DNA sequence in one of the purifier's empty slots, then used the tube to shift over to the combat form, which looked not unlike one of H.R. Giger's biomechanical nightmares. It was large, strong, armored, had a 6-foot-long prehensile tail, and was equipped with two kinds of nonlethal venom. And it could keep going for more than fifteen minutes straight at its top speed of 30 MPH. The final thing he did before leaving camp was set a large pot of rice cooking at medium heat, in preparation for his return. And a thank-you to Sly for the Scavenger Hunt prizes -- looks like they turned out useful after all.
In all, it took Mal less than 10 minutes to find the mutagen he was looking for, do his business, and get out of the Savannah.
Back in camp again, Mal used the DNA sequence he'd stored just previously to return to his goatlike form. This body felt even clumsier than he remembered, in comparison with the supremely well-coordinated combat form. Next, he again sent messages to his cameramen and the network, returning all systems to the state they'd been in before this temporary diversion. Only then did he allow himself to eat, and after his recent exertion and formshifts, he was hungry.
Five liters of overcooked rice later, Mal pulled up the video feed on his palmtop. He made a cursory survey of the other tribes, finding no obvious points of concern, then turned his attention to the true danger. Not in Manhattan... got 'em. Just disembarked from the subway. Now they're gonna hit the Savannah. Then he noticed something; more accurately, he noticed a lack of something. She's naked -- no tokens, no purse, no nothin' -- not even her watch! The goat frowned, deep in thought. No way she got robbed or forgot 'em. Must've left 'em in Furrtive Moments. Why? Safekeeping. Doesn't want to risk losing stuff. Which implies she's gonna deliberately loosen up her control a little. And given the biome they're...
All the blood drained from Mal's face as he fully recognized the enormity of the vixen's scheme. Oh. My. Dear. Sweet. Lord. She can't, not even Mary-Anne would... He shook his head, near to weeping. Shit, who am I tryna kid? She can, and she would. She is, for Christ's sake! She is doing it! But why? She owns Mike, he'll do anything to help her get the prize. Wasting him doesn't make sense, not if she wants to win! Mal's thoughts paused in confusion and then a thought hit him. What if she doesn't want to win? And if that's true, why in God's name is she here?
A few seconds' thought provided no answers. Gotta understand the mind if I'm gonna play with it. I need more information. Could've checked out the other tribesmen myself, as part of my pre-game prep work, but I thought I could trust SurviFur Inc. to keep psychopaths out of the game. Damn me for an imbecile! Mal sent some bots and spiders out beyond the BioSphere into the larger Net, to gather information. A bit of work to filter out irrelevant data, and a clear picture of Mary-Anne's life emerged in short order: Born under the name Bonnie Harris. Went furry two days after the initial Mutopia announcement. Seven-time widower. None of the men survived his marriage by more than a month. Each husband left everything to her. Ten-digit bank balance.
Mal frowned. Well, the five megabuck prize certainly isn't what she's after. So what the Hell is she doing here? He reviewed the circumstances of her seven husbands' deaths; suspiciously-timed behavioral changes in the victims, no hard evidence, no grounds for legal action. Knowing what he did of her behavior in the BioSphere, Mal found it all depressingly familiar. It was the same lethal pattern, time and again. Geez. You'd think she'd get bored, repeating herself...
Mal blinked. He had the answer, the only possible answer: She is bored. She's not playing in the game, she's playing with the game! And she couldn't give a flying fuck what happens, as long as it isn't dull!
The video feed pinpointed them well inside the Savannah borders. No! Too soon! Mal rifled through his mental inventory of resources, frantically seeking any method physically possible to extract Michael from the unspeakable danger he was blithely walking into. Can't intercept in person, they got too much of a head start. Even with the combat form I'm at least four minutes too late, the stealth form is slower, and the sensor form'd be toast from the goddamn flying vampire squirrels... Forget the subway, stations're too far from the checkpoints... I got nobody working the Savannah this shift, so I can't move anyone into position soon enough to do any good... Can't call in a warning as myself, they'll never believe me after Mike backs her up that I'm a psycho killer... Can't call as someone else, they'll want to know how I know... Don't have any plans already in place that can hit before the deadline... I could do a slash-and-burn hack, to Hell with low profile, but the net doesn't have enough direct connections to do shit out there in time to make a difference...
There was nothing he could do, and each failed idea was another cold brick crushing his heart. All of Mal's plans, all of his preparations, none of them were applicable to this situation, none of them could affect matters for the better. Every second he wasted in futile attempts to devise a viable rescue plan brought the unwitting satyr another second closer to his doom.
Michael was dead, and he didn't even know it. And Mal was ineffectual, impotent, unable to do anything but avenge the comrade who'd thrown him out of the Harlem tribe. He shut his eyes, steeled himself visibly, bulldozed over his grief and horror with raw willpower. Turn off those damn feelings. Treat it like an abstract problem in game theory. 'Cuz if I lose it, I lose everything, and the bitch walks away scot-free. And by God, that is just not acceptible!
From here on in, nothing mattered. Not the other tribes, not Sly Squirrel, certainly not the pot of tainted gold at the end of this toxic rainbow. Nothing in the Universe mattered except seeing to it that Mary-Anne paid for her mortal sins. In blood.
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"Just, please, leave," said Michael. The hacker looked as sad
as Michael felt... His harrowing experience must have unhinged him, poor fellow.
What else could possibly account for such absurd lies, coming
from so honest a man?
And then the moment passed. Michael stared after Mal's retreating back, unmoving, until the vixen drew her fingers along the outside of his right flank. He looked at her, and his eyes were bright with unshed tears.
Crying, my fuzzy little toy? So soon? Just you wait, and by the Mother you'll really have something to cry about! Mary-Anne's eyes were damp, too, but she'd had to help herself along with a claw to the back near the base of her tail. "Michael? Can we go now? I'm afraid that if we stay, Mal will come back here and do something horrible to take us both out of the game."
"Yes. The game, of course," the satyr said, shaking his bowed head. "Always and ever, the game." He looked straight into Mary-Anne's lying eyes. "Do you know, I'm beginning to wonder if this particular game can truly be worth the candle?" He closed his eyes and exhaled loudly, then pulled himself together. "I'm sorry, you weren't meant to hear that. Yes, you're right, best to move on. Mal is dangerous, albeit I'd thought his danger to be more potential than actual, to be perfectly honest. And now, on to the Savannah, shall we?"
"Of course, Michael. But do we have to go there right away? That evil man knows it's our last medallion, and I'm afraid he might be somewhere out there now, lying in wait for us!"
Could Mal truly be that vindictive -- of course he could, just look what he did to Norman. "Yes, I think you might just be right. But he really can't afford to do that for any too long, not with the Savannah's traps being what they are!" Michael's face fell into the old, familiar faraway expression. "In fact... given the extent of his current state of mutation, I'm not at all certain he could last as long as an hour, perhaps not even half that, before he must exit to a different biome. So where shall we go to pass the time waiting, my dear?"
She snuggled up beside him. "Manhattan?" she asked hopefully.
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Nobody was at the Manhattan subway station when they arrived
and even the ticket booth was unmanned. This hardly mattered to
the two SurviFurs who rode it for free anyway, but Michael wondered
what was going on. Mary-Anne did not, for her mind was too full
of delightful visions of exactly what she was going to do to the
besotted, simpering, cloying horsie who clopped along beside her.
Up on the surface all became clear. The streets and sidewalks were also empty, and practically every unoccupied vertical surface bore a poster whose large, bold type exhorted all persons to remain in their homes. It seemed there was a plague upon the land, an infestation of three-legged robots that transmuted every living thing in range to more robots. It would appear that our hacker friend's meddling with the Machine Shop bore a bit more fruit than he'd intended. Or perhaps he did intend it? He certainly didn't manage to shield Harlem from the tripods -- or at least he said he didn't. But why would Mal lie about that?
For her part, Mary-Anne was caught in the throes of anticipation, savoring the events to come so much that she was quite oblivious to the here and now. It hardly mattered, because the city was now without its Mutopia traps of an animate kind -- street artists, bums, pushers, pigeons, and so on -- and it was easy for Michael to steer her away from those which remained. The pair quickly arrived at their destination, Furrtive Moments.
"Here we are, my sweet."
Hearing this, Mary-Anne brought herself back to the present. "Ah -- thank you, Michael! No, can't touch now, you'll just have to wait. Now let me see, who's still here... ah! There you are, Jenny," she said to one of the staff. Jenny had once been a street artist before he'd made the mistake of putting hooves on the end of Michael's arms; now she had the mind of a seven-year-old child in the body of a 20-year-old prostitute. "This is Michael, and he's a wonderful, wonderful man. Take him to the Petting Lounge and make him comfortable. Can you do that for me, Jenny?"
"Oh, yes, Mother! Can I touch him?"
"I'm sorry, Jenny, but no you may not touch him. He's a good man."
Light dawned in Jenny's half-vacant eyes. "Ohh! I'll tell the others. I like good men."
"Yes, you do," Mary-Anne said. Then, to Michael: "She showed up here one day, with no memory of her former life." 12 hours as a pigeon left her mind in just the right condition. "We've been taking care of her ever since." And making damn sure she never escapes to tell her story. "And now I've got an errand or two, and I'll rejoin you as soon as I can." With that, Mary-Anne mimed kissing Michael, then disappeared upstairs to her office.
The first thing she did was lock all of her possessions into the safe. The former owner had been justifiably paranoid; he'd actually commissioned a safe with a secret compartment inside it, a compartment whose hidden catch would take five concentrated minutes of close examination simply to locate, let alone have any prayer of opening. It was this compartment she put her arsenal into, just on the off chance that her quarry might somehow get into her sanctum sanctorum without becoming the newest member of the staff. I honestly don't see how he can do that, but my big black cat has already surprised me too many times before! Another layer of protection won't hurt. And just in case he does show up, I'll leave a little something especially for him.
And throughout her preparations, she dreamed as to how she was going to break Michael. Shatter him to see how many tiny pieces he'd fall into, for no better reason than because she damn well felt like it. She used to get an almost sexual thrill from controlling people, manipulating them like little toy robots, destroying their free will, but the thrill just wasn't there any more. She'd gotten too good at it; it was too easy: To achieve Result A, inject Drug B into Artery C, and push emotional buttons D, E, and F. All she had to do was go through the motions, as predestined as a fast-food cook assembling sandwiches! Thanks to her growing expertise, Mary-Anne had become almost as much a machine as the allegedly free-willed toys she abused and discarded.
That was the whole point of not obliterating Michael's will, not reducing him to a mere appendage of her mind; he was a useful tool, but a tool cannot feel pain when it breaks. She needed him obedient, but at the same time he had to retain enough individuality to recognize what he'd become, what he'd allowed her to do to him. Her horsie was on a leash, but not a short one, oh no! The line had enough slack in it for him to hang himself. It was a fine line to walk, never straying too far towards either free will or abject dependence, and in that walk Mary-Anne found the challenge that had been missing from her life.
That was the reason she'd entered the SurviFur arena in the first place; the challenge, the non-trivial possibility of failure. It wasn't the money -- she could already buy and sell many of the smaller nations -- nor was it the accompanying prize of a free transformation. It was the BioSphere's limited environment, the competitive elements which demanded both cooperation and suspicion from the SurviFurs, the circumscribed set of resources she'd begun with.
She knew very well that sending Norman against Mal was a tactical error -- but only in the game everyone else was playing. As far as the vixen was concerned, it was a test to see just how far that squat and stupid man could be pushed. Had Mal actually fallen, she would have danced a little jig of grief; as it was, she now had a competent, intelligent and aware enemy whose capabilities weren't fully known. By throwing Norman to his doom, the cat-to-be had proven himself the single most dangerous threat she'd ever faced.
It would be a glorious hunt.
Harlem might lose the next challenge; she herself might get zapped by that nasty squirrel; it simply didn't matter. With her resources, she could easily recover from any such setback, and then it was simply a question of taking over all of the others, one by one. Giving them gentle nudges, turning them against each other. Sitting back along the sidelines and just watching, helpless and innocent and horrified, as they unwittingly destroyed themselves for her pleasure.
But she didn't want to get ahead of herself. Tonight Mary-Anne would devour a succulent steak tartare, rare in every sense of the word. Her horsie was all prepared and ready for the abbatoir -- but first, it was time for some precautions. According to her information, it was mating season in the Savannah, and the air was not only heavy with pheromones, but also thick with an aerosol suspension of Mutopia. This mutagen's primary function was to alter the endocrine system, make the victim increasingly responsive to the potent scents of lust; its secondary function came into play only when a victim gave in to the impulses created by his raging hormones. Michael was a prime target -- she'd made damn sure he was closer to animal than she was, appearances to the contrary -- thus, she would be able to follow him down into oblivion with a bit of time to enlighten him before he was irretrievably lost. But it wouldn't be much fun at all if she was irretrievably lost! So it was time for a little self-hypnosis, just to make sure that she remembered to do the right thing.
Entering a trance was easy for a woman of Mary-Anne's experience. And the suggestions were easy too, as she had put a lot of thought into them. The first suggestion: Return to Furrtive Moments and touch one of the vixens. No matter what mental state (or lack thereof) she was in at the time, that would trigger the restoration. The second suggestion: Don't touch anything that even might be a Mutopia trap. After all, the last thing she wanted was to become a carnivore and go hunting or something. The final suggestion, possibly the most important: Avoid Mal at all costs. Mary-Anne knew she'd be in a vulnerable condition, and she equally knew that he was ruthless enough to exploit any advantage she was foolish enough to give him.
When she awoke from her trance it was time to begin. Her possessions were safe, and even if Mal had somehow watched her stash them, they were beyond his reach. Now to fetch Michael and begin her feast. Ohh! I can hardly wait! A virgin, and he's all mine! She couldn't help but clasp her hands together as the anticipation shivered through her.
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