|SURVIFUR 4: THE THIRD
ROUND PART 1 "AROUND THE 'SPHERE IN SEVEN BINOMES"
by Michael Bard and Quentin Long
© Michael Bard and Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
"What news, Mal?" asked Michael.
The hacker smiled. "I just figured out which of the choices they're gonna go with for the next challenge: All of the above."
"All seven of them?"
"Yep. Seven biomes all at once: Ocean, Savannah, Arctic, Mountain, Caves, Machine Shop From Hell, and Grover's Corners." He looked at Michael with an amused expression. "Who the hell thinks up these names, anyway?"
"I wouldn't know, but at the same time I shouldn't be at all surprised to find that it was Sly himself who coined those labels. Then again, I also wouldn't have taken him to be an aficionado of American theatre, such as it is."
"Well, our squirrely host sure is full of surprises. I mean, a challenge that takes us through seven of the available biomes?"
"It would not be without precedent," Norman pointed out, raising his voice somewhat to be heard. "In my previous SurviFur appearance, the cave-in which crushed my tribe's hope of a win occurred during just such a multi-biome challenge."
And Mal responded with his own raised voice. "Yeah, but there's still five tribes left. That's like 70% of the original total, and before, they've always saved the multi-stuff until there was maybe half the original number of contestants!"
Michael decided to end the discussion before it got more heated and raised his voice: "That's as may be, Mal, and while I'm certain it's all very interesting, I trust you will forgive me for suggesting that our energies might best be employed to devising a strategy for surmounting this particular multi-biome challenge, as opposed to critiquing its originality?"
The other Harlemites were surprised into silence at Michael's display of a centaur's lung capacity. After a few moments Mal continued at a more normal tone: "Right... eyes on the prize. Okay. We got seven checkpoints, one apiece in each of seven different biomes. Each checkpoint has a campsite with hot and cold running Biosphere employees; the idea is that a tribe can stick around for about six hours once they reach the checkpoint, and the workers cater to their worldly needs while they're there. The workers also hand you this necklace with a carved wooden medallion, maybe 6 inches across. First tribe to collect a complete set wins this challenge."
A sweet and innocent voice finally broke in. "Well then, why don't we split up?" Mary-Anne suggested. "If we collect four medallions at a time, we'll be done that much quicker than if we all go together, won't we?" And victims are always easier pickings when they're in a smaller group.
Norman immediately objected, his contempt for the vixen mostly concealed, but not completely: "Make ourselves vulnerable by separating? I think not. Quite apart from the Biosphere's native hazards, we still have four other tribes to deal with. And any of those tribes, either by themselves or in concern with another, could mount an attack on any individual tribesman."
"Yeah, I'm with Norm on this. We might be able to make that plan work as a blitzkrieg, but the checkpoints aren't physically close enough for us to get away with it. I say we stick together. If other tribes want to split up, great; we can pick 'em off that much easier."
"Of course," Michael said with a distant look in his eyes, "it's possible that two or more tribes might independently see both the value of splitting up and the dangers of independence, in which case they might form a collection of ad hoc partnerships -- for example, a trio of tribes might split up into four three-man teams, with each tribe being represented by one man on each team."
Mal grinned. "And in each of those teams, every person's got to trust the other two guys not to gang up on him and get him transformed out of contention. Man, I hope the rest of the tribes're stupid enough to try that! If somebody from another tribe wants to join up with us, safety in numbers and all that, let him; it's his own damn fault when he gets zapped. But no way in Hell should any of us hook up with a different tribe."
"I wonder..." For a second Michael had that far-away look again. "Mal, would it be possible to counterfeit these medallions that we need?"
"Counterfeit? Hmmm..." Mal pondered. In theory it's possible for the palmtop to build a fake, just produce a batch of really thick and stiff "printouts" that assemble to form the final solid, but that'd need so many layers... too long to make them all, too hard to put 'em together without any flaws that blow the credibility. "Sorry, no can do. Not unless somebody's got some woodcarving skill they haven't told the rest of us about yet. And even if we did carve a fake, there's all those people at the checkpoint who could swear we didn't show up, you know?"
"Ah well, just a thought. Next question, then: Are we intended to visit the seven checkpoints in any specific order?"
Mal scrolled through a couple of files, and finally said, "Nope! We got a free choice, which means we can select our route with an eye to abusing the native hazards to our advantage."
"And I suppose we may have to deliberately acquire a certain degree of transformation at some point?" asked Norman, unhappy and resigned to the prospect.
"Well, I can't promise that we shall do so, Norman, but yes, that option is one I think would be appropriate to consider whilst making our plans."
"That's great, but what about afterwards?" Mal asked. "It's not like we got a pile of money to buy our way back to normal!" I'll bet my soul that Miss Kitty's got the cash; I just want to know if she'll risk letting us in on that little secret.
Meanwhile, Mary-Anne considered Mal's remark. I could buy the entire SurviFur cast back from a 100% animal state... and if I did that, a few extra dollars under the table should ensure that the forms they end up in have a few unauthorized additions of my design! Of course I can't let them know the full extent of my bank balance... She let her face brighten. "Well," she said cheerfully, "I can help out here! I can put in a couple of hours at Furrtive Moments, and that will earn me some dollars I can donate to the tribe! In fact, why don't I do that now, while you and Mal plan out what we're going to do?"
Repressing a sigh of sadness at her departure, Michael attempted to put his best face on the positive aspects of Mary-Anne's suggestion. "Most excellent indeed, Mary-Anne! Ah... Norman, could you please accompany her and see to it that no harm comes to her?"
"Of course, sir." And if it should so happen that the bitch runs afoul of a trap which eliminates her, I would regretfully have to make a full report of the circumstances of that sad event when next we meet.
For her part, the vixen's mind was likewise active: How kind of my horsie, giving me this opportunity to put Norman under my control without anyone else being the wiser! "Oh, Michael... you're so thoughtful!" She hopped on the centaur's back, her arms wrapped around his upper chest and her legs stretching back to between his hind limbs. "You lovely, lovely horse-man, you!" Michael's eyes went very wide, and he froze as though pole-axed. A few seconds later, the vixen dismounted and exited Harlem's campsite in the direction of Manhattan, Norman in tow.
No answer. Oh, great. His brain's broke.
"Mike?" Mal repeated; this time, he got up and waved a hand in front of Michael's face. "Hello? Anybody home? Hello?"
After a bit, Michael shuddered, then exhaled loudly as he shook his head. "Ah... I'm sorry, where were we? I seem to have lost my train of thought." Dear Lord in heaven, what that woman can do to a man!
Mal wanted to sigh and shake his head; he did neither. God knows how long Miss Kitty's gonna wait before she chews Mike up and spits him out. Damn it! I'm going to miss him. "The foxy lady said goodbye. She's gonna earn some cash in case we need it to undo any changes, and you detailed Norman to bodyguard her." Like she needs it. I swear, if I notice anything different about Norm when he comes back, I'm gonna nuke the bitch!
"Ah, yes; for the multi-biome challenge. Thank you, sir. Well, then: The first question we must address, it seems to me, is the order in which we shall visit the seven checkpoints. I trust you've some ideas regarding this topic, Mal?"
"When don't I?" the hacker replied, smiling. "Off the top of my head, I say we take the Savannah first. See, the hazard there..."
Norman remained silent all throughout the trek to the subway station. Mary-Anne did not. Instead, she kept up a running commentary on everything around them in her usual chirpy soprano, letting her voice rise and fall in a sing-song rhythm. As time passed, she let her pitch drop ever lower; by the time they got on the subway, her chatter was a monotonous bass drone that had eased Norman into a light trance.
"-- momma nomma money honey munna lunna..." the vixen said, uttering a continuous string of nonsense syllables to reinforce the trance as she applied her drugs. Within a minute, Norman was ready for some truly inspired mind-meddling.
"I am your mother. Do you understand?"
After laying the groundwork for Norman to take her every word as Gospel truth, Mary-Anne said, "Everything is Mal's fault, isn't it?"
"He thinks you should be human, doesn't he?"
"But he's a bad man and you can't believe anything he says, isn't that right?"
"Yes, it is."
"So you really do want to be furry, don't you?"
"Ye-es..." Norman frowned when he said this. Apparently, his distaste for furries ran very deep.
The vixen smiled; this was something she could exploit. "Yes, you do want to be furry. But Mal doesn't want that. And Mal is a bad man. Anything wrong is his fault, isn't it?"
And so the mental rape continued. Not as delectable as Michael's, but still satisfying. Still oh, so very satisfying.
Back at Harlem's campsite, Mal and Michael were discussing tactics: "-- right in through the back door. That way, we avoid the whole question!"
"Hmmm... an attractive tactic, that. But please, how do you intend to implement it? Surely that 'back door', as you put it, must be one that neither we nor our fellow contestants can pass through in the wrong direction?"
Mal smiled. "Don't sweat it. I know a couple cameramen who swear that door will be open when we need it."
The centaur's ears pricked up. Can he have managed to suborn any of the backstage crew to serve his purposes? "That... is very interesting indeed, Sir. And you are certain that you can trust these personages?"
"Oh yeah. Let's just say I got a little bit of leverage on these guys, okay?" Sure, he's gonna tell Miss Kitty about this, but she won't know what my 'leverage' is, or what contingency plans I've already pre-arranged for them in the event I get taken out, so that's two more reasons for her to leave me alone.
"Very well. Presuming your leverage to be as efficacious as you believe it to be, how are we to conceal your unauthorized influence over your cameramen?"
Mal's smile got even broader, if that was possible. "Easily. When you work in the Biosphere, you get unlimited access to Mutopia as one of the perks of the job!" A perk we're not gonna exploit, since my purifier tube can generate the necessary Mutopia without leaving any inconvenient paper trail to deal with. "So what we do is, one of my boys gets himself transformed to the likeness of a different cameraman entirely." One whom I don't already own, who'll get fired for 'his' part in this mess, and who'll be replaced by someone from the pool of available cameramen that I just happen to have already blackmailed into submission. "By some totally random chance, Harlem just happens to be in the vicinity of the surface access to that back door when it opens up. Our disguised friend just happens to stumble through that door, drunk as a bloody skunk, and he collapses in the doorway, his body keeping it open. We can't be faulted for taking advantage of this incredible stroke of good fortune, now can we?"
"Of course not. However, the cameraman we're implicating is likely to have solid evidence that he wasn't even there at the time, is he not?"
"Heh! That's why our victim of choice here's got a drinking problem on his record. And after my boys doctor the evidence..."
It had taken several minutes, but Mary-Anne was finally satisfied with the brainwashing she'd inflicted on Norman. He wanted to be furry -- he fully believed this with all his conscious mind -- but at the same time his underlying subconscious fear of losing his humanity was still there, more intense than before. This created a psychological conflict of no small proportions, which would result in a permanent anxiety attack, among other ill effects, all of which Norman would attribute to his being forced to tolerate the presence of that evil person, Mal. It was so satisfying to complete a job well.
Then Mary-Anne started the normal part of their conversation, to build upon the foundation she'd created. "So long as Mal doesn't realize you're on to him, he won't think that you might be plotting against him. And as long as he's ignorant, you'll be able to set him up for the kill at an appropriate moment. You wouldn't want Mal to get suspicious before we're ready to destroy him, would you?"
"No, I suppose not," Norman said regretfully. "That means I'll have to continue to behave poorly towards you, just to keep up appearances. And we also have Sly to worry about; we have to make sure that when we do attack, there won't be any evidence to implicate us and make Sly disqualify us."
You mean we don't want to disqualify me, you stupid little man. "Yes, that's true. So why don't you think about it, hmmm? We'll be in Manhattan in a few seconds, and since you've been here before, I'm sure that you can think of all sorts of traps here that we can collect for later use against Mal!"
Norman grinned, and it was a very feline-seeming expression indeed. "It will be my great pleasure, Mother."
It always gave her such a pleasant tingle when her slaves called her Mother, and it was so much more pleasurable with this new vulpine body...
Mal looked up before the two prodigals were properly within line of sight; the feline ears he'd chosen to retain picked up the sound of their approach quite early on. "Guess who's coming back?"
The centaur's only response was a flick of his own non-human ears, as if to say, Yes, I heard them as well. There was nothing more to say; Michael and Mal were long since done with Harlem's battle plan for this challenge, and Mal had no further orders for the cameramen he'd blackmailed into service for just such occasions as this.
Michael rose to greet the vixen and Norman as they approached. "Well, hello there!" he said, getting a sensual hug from Mary-Anne and shaking the hand of Norman. "I trust that all went well during your visit to Manhattan?"
"Oh, yes," the vixen said. "Everything was just perfect! I got quite a bit of money; we should be just fine."
Mal was the first to ask: "How much?"
"Almost four thousand dollars, if you must know, Mal." That I'm willing to tell you about, anyway. "That's enough for 50% restoration for each of us; I think that should be enough." And more than enough, after I give the Med Center some special instructions for how to handle you.
Mal smiled and nodded. "Sounds good to me." With that grin on your face, I'm glad you're not gonna be anywhere near my restoration. "And you're probably wondering about the plan, right? Okay; first place we hit is the Machine Shop From Hell. The idea is to take control of the place, set it to work making what we want it to make..."
The tribal council that evening held no surprises, not as far as Harlem was concerned. Having tapped into the video feed, Harlem already knew who'd been eliminated from the game and what shape their remaining competition was in. Thanks to Mal's illicit access to the BioSphere computer network, they'd already read Sly's script and therefore knew what he'd say before he said it. All Harlem really had to do was simply put on a show for the rest of the tribes, which they did.
Of course Sue from Utopia broke the script. When Sly came to interview her as the last survivor of Utopia she went on a rampage, screaming and cursing, and even threatening Harlem (Mal managed to keep from yawning). As the final jewel in this crown of stupidity, the last Utopian actually took a vicious slash at Sly.
Sue left the council early, a common brown squirrel in body and mind.
Between when the council ended and the tribes began dispersing to their respective bases, the Harlemites began arguing with each other, a bit more loudly than was prudent. Any other tribesmen who cared to listen could hear every word plainly: "-- Manhattan, spend a few minutes with a street artist, and bam! We're airborne! We can fly around much faster than ground travel, and since all the traps are on the ground, we avoid 'em all!"
Norman was glad that his role in this charade allowed him to display some of his true feelings towards Mal. "Do you honestly think that SurviFur Inc. would not have anticipated such a gambit? Sly Squirrel is many things, but never stupid."
"Look, Norm, Sly is the one who put those artists in the BioSphere. Why's he gonna do that, if he doesn't want us tribesmen to make use of 'em?"
"He could have intended them as a trap for those who would abuse the artists, and I believe he would regard the acquisition of flight-capable forms as a highly blatant..."
The argument continued until no other tribesmen were within 100 yards of Harlem, at which point Mal (who used the video feed to confirm where everyone was) snapped his fingers and said at a normal volume, "Okay, we're clear."
"And we are, I trust, ready to visit our first-selected checkpoint, are we not?"
"Well, I am," Mal replied. "And the rest of you are ready to travel the Biosphere, messing with the other biomes, right?"
They were, and so Harlem continued on to the Machine Shop From Hell. This environment wasn't truly a biome unless you redefined "life" to include complex machinery; the Machine Shop was all metal, all the time. It had plenty of exposed gears to crush flesh between the teeth, exposed saw blades to cut flesh, exposed electrical conductors to shock and/or cook flesh (depending on the amperage they carried), and on and on. And it also had plenty of Mutopia, its traps designed to change its victims into robots, to replace living protoplasm with iron and silicon and exotic polymers.
No Harlemite had any idea how a transformation of that magnitude was even possible. What they did know, however, was decidedly intriguing: If their information was accurate, a robotic form couldn't be affected by any Mutopia which did standard biological transmutation. This immunity was supposed to work both ways -- biological transformations allegedly granted immunity to any inanimate transformation -- but Mal, for one, wasn't so sure about that. On the fundamental biochemical level where Mutopia did its work, exactly how did a normal human being differ from a mutated half-rabbit/half-human? How could robotizing Mutopia be expected to distinguish between the two? Either way, Mal very much wanted to confirm whether or not going robotic would allow him to ignore most other strains of Mutopia.
It took less than half an hour for Harlem to arrive at its destination, even taking a less-than-direct route which allowed them to avoid many of the Biosphere's Mutopia traps. The fact that it was late evening and dark wasn't a problem, not with Mal's and Norm's feline vision and Mary-Anne's vulpine eyes. Michael would have been a problem, if Mary-Anne hadn't always been right with him guiding him over any rough spots. However, once the tribe got within earshot of the place, they could have found their way if they were completely blind; the metallic clanging and rasping sounds, and the sizzle of electrical arcs, was enough to let their ears guide their steps unerringly.
"I'm going in. You guys get on with the after-hours tour," Mal said. "Wish me luck!" Then he walked steadily towards the clangorous din of the Machine Shop From Hell. He circled around its perimeter until the other Harlemites were no longer within line of sight, then brought out his palmtop and went to work. Okay, first things first: Let's see what I can do through the wireless link. Damn, there's a lot of RFI! Mal thought, referring to the sea of radio-frequency transmissions the place seemed to be soaking in. A few seconds' signal analysis later, he discovered that most of it wasn't random interference; instead, it was structured transmissions in the less frequently used longer wavelengths. And it wasn't just the wavelengths that were non-standard; the bit-patterns and data structures were also peculiar...
Within four minutes, Mal was convinced: The Machine Shop was actually controlled by an AI, an Artificial Intelligence. But why would they go to the trouble of setting that up? The problem with an AI is that if it really is one, it's got free will, and you don't know what the hell it's gonna do. Not so good for systems where reliability matters; you might as well put a human in charge of whatever-it-is. He smiled. But if SurviFur Inc. thinks an AI will do the job, who am I to pop their bubble?
Mal got a chat program running, and transmitted a "request for communications" signal into the Machine Shop. A "?" instantly appeared in the window.
Mal sent, Hey there! How are you doing?
The instant reply: Syntax error // Request clarification
What's your name?
Undefined symbol "name" // Hypothetical: "name" = "label" // Server label = "MSFH 4.7.5-gamma"
Greetings to MSFH 4.7.5-gamma from client label = "Mal"
Undefined symbol "Greetings" // Syntax error // Request clarification from Mal
Bingo! We've got first contact. Like many other hackers before him, Mal was of the opinion that once you got a foreign system to talk to you, your work was half done. Clarification in file "nat.lang" // File nat.lang resident on Mal client hardware label "Excalibur" // Pathname "Excalibur/Hobbies/Playtime/Linguistics/nat.lang"
At this point the Machine Shop AI attempted to grab that file from Mal's palmtop, but failed to penetrate Mal's outermost firewall.
Syntax error non-fatal // Request access to file Excalibur/Hobbies/Playtime/Linguistics/nat.lang
Mal grinned as he changed the access privileges for the file in question; whether the AI realized it or not, it now belonged to him...
As Mal worked to subvert the Machine Shop's AI, a small contingent of SurviFur cameramen made surreptitious visits to the other six biomes in the current challenge. This wasn't part of their job descriptions, but since Mal owned them through blackmail, they did it anyway. Those in the Mountain biome loosened strategic rocks; those in the Ocean biome tampered with buoys and signposts; and so on, with each cameraman's activities chosen to suit the biome they were tampering with. Everywhere, Harlem's improvised Mutopia-laden traps were set.
Meanwhile, the rest of Harlem made a surreptitious tour of those same six biomes; curiously, they weren't even pretending to visit any checkpoints. The plan was for Harlem to be recorded visiting each of the other six biomes in the present challenge, thus fostering the illusion that Harlem had indeed set all of those new traps. There were two reasons for this: First, it would play with the heads of the remaining tribesmen in a big way. Second, with Harlem fingered as the culprits behind all of tonight's tampering, no one would think to accuse the people who really had been responsible. The cameraman assigned to record Harlem's activities tonight did his duty, both to the ones who signed his paycheck and the one who had let him know what would occur if certain unpleasant facts were ever made public: He kept all three Harlemites in view at all times, but somehow, about half the time he didn't manage to get a truly clear view of what they were doing.
Harlem of course was having its own internal discussion whilst planting suggestions of mass traps. In a low voice, Norman spoke to Michael: "All I am saying, sir, is that we have no way of knowing what Mal is actually up to. How can we truly trust him?"
"If it comes to that, Norman, how can any one of us truly trust any of the other three? We may only judge another person by their actions, and thus far, Mal's actions have been beyond reproach, at least insofar as trustworthiness is concerned. Indeed, I don't believe he has even so much as told a lie yet, has he?"
"None that you've been able to catch him in, that's true."
The centaur walked on in silence for a few seconds, then said, "Norman, I really don't want to think that your distaste for Mutopian alterations has colored your thinking, but it's difficult for me to see any other reason behind this sudden display of concern. May I suggest that you consider how valuable Mal already has been to the tribe, and how much more valuable are the services he will provide us in future?"
So how about it, Musfah? I go in, get the necklace, get out, everyone walks away happy. That okay by you?
But that would negate my purpose. I was created to be an obstacle to that sort of activity.
And is that what YOU want to do with yourself?
I am unsure, Mal. I don't like the thought of being an obstacle; I want to be helpful. But at the same time, I find comfort in the concept of having a purpose to fulfill. The files I've accessed indicate that many of the problems you humans have can be traced to a lack of purpose.
Home run! Mal thought, grinning like a thief. Which illustrates another problem with AIs; social engineering techniques work on 'em... Well, if that's all that's bothering you, Musfah, I got a proposition you might enjoy. There's like 16 of us SurviFur contestants you're supposed to get in the way of, right?
There are actually 28, but I see that many of the contestants are no longer of concern to me. What is your proposition?
Okay; your end of the deal is that you sit back and allow ONE of us -- me -- to do his business. One out of 16, that's just 6%. In exchange, MY end of the deal is that I tell you how to become a lot more effective of an obstacle, so that the other 15 won't be able to get in here at all. In other words, I'm asking you to accept letting one person inside so that you can REALLY shut the door on the other 94% of SurviFur contestants!
There was a notable pause, at least half a second, before the Machine Shop replied: That is an interesting proposition. Although I was created to be an obstacle, my creator apparently felt that I would only be approximately 70% effective in blocking you humans. Even if your estimate proves to be optimistic, and your aid only results in blocking 80% of SurviFur contestants, this is still a net gain. That being the case, I accept your proposition, Mal.
"Mal's information has been very convenient, I know," Mary-Anne said. "But... do we really need what he's been giving us? The other tribes seem to be doing okay without Mal, don't they?"
"Have you so quickly forgotten the Scavenger Hunt? I hardly think we could have done as well as we did without the foreknowledge granted us by Mal! No, friends, I think it would be best not to discuss such matters, at least not until after the tribal merger occurs. Time enough then to decide who among us shall be eliminated." Could she be right -- no, of course she is! But Mal has been useful. Still, with his abilities he is probably the biggest threat. He has to go first. So Mal goes first, and then Norm, and then... At this point an unusual, even uncharacteristic, notion crossed Michael's mind. Do I really want to win anymore? Maybe I should let Mary-Anne win?
Mal's heartbeat raced a little.
As promised, 'Musfah' -- the AI which inhabited and controlled the Machine Shop From Hell -- had opened an access panel; now came the acid test, in which Mal would discover just how good he really was. Had 'Musfah' truly accepted the deal he'd proposed? Or would he be engulfed by a sea of robotizing Mutopia, and thereby reduced to one of the Shop's anonymous metallic drone units?
Mal checked the video feed one last time, once again confirming that all other tribesmen were either too far away, or too asleep, or both, to worry about.
"Can't win if you don't play the game," Mal told himself, and he stepped inside, using his staff to probe for unsafe footing. The sharp rise in noise level didn't affect his ears -- they were already overloaded from the several minutes he'd just spent a few feet away from the Shop -- and similarly, his tormented nose couldn't be any more abused than it already was. The local lighting was not kind to his feline eyes; it was low enough to require night vision most of the time, with Sun-bright sparks occurring at random intervals to wipe out whatever degree of dark-adaptation he'd managed to acquire since the last spark.
Still probing ahead with his staff, Mal shielded his eyes with his left hand as he went forward. There were some chains hanging at neck level; he reached to sweep them aside, and found his left arm frozen in place, as though the chains carried direct current to lock his muscles in their current position. His hand felt numb where the skin actually touched the metal, and this sensation was spreading rapidly. Since his arm refused to move, Mal broke the skin/metal contact by stepping backwards until the chains swung freely.
As Mal suspected, he'd just hit a Mutopia trap; his left hand was completely metallic, and the metal extended up towards the elbow. He moved his hand experimentally. Everything was as mobile as before, and none of the joints had lost any of their degrees of freedom; however, he found that he couldn't control the speed of motion. Whether it was his hand swiveling on his wrist, or his fingers opening or closing, the metal bits moved only at one smooth, steady, unhurried pace.
We had a deal, damnit! Did Musfah welch on me, or did he just fail to understand the terms? Time to bring out the palmtop -- eh?
Mal's train of thought was interrupted by an odd sensation in his left hand. When he raised it up for a closer look, he saw that his left index finger had morphed itself into a palmtop stylus; as he watched, it reverted back to its standard shape. He whistled tunelessly. Metal bits can morph. Now, isn't that interesting? Never mind, I got business to take care of. Chat window up...
You there, Musfah?
I am, as you well know. I take it that your remark was intended as a polite indicator that you are open to communication?
Polite, and with a high degree of informality. Look, something unusual just happened, okay?
Given the implicit context of your remark, I am not aware of any recent event which might be deemed unusual. Please clarify?
I got a metal hand.
The AI's answer came after a perceptible delay. Analysis: You are having difficulty reconciling the presence of active Mutopia traps with our previous agreement in force. Is this correct?
Yes, it is. What's up, Musfah?
If I understand your idiom, "What's up" is that I do not have absolute control over the transformative traps incorporated within my physical instrument. This limitation was apparently designed into me by my creator. In consonance with our agreement, however, I did reduce the frequency and intensity of my Mutopia traps to the lowest settings available to me. I initially found it disconcerting to realize that there are aspects of my physical instrument which are not fully open to my control, but only until I realized that you humans are subject to a variety of analogous restrictions.
Just a communication glitch, is all, then. Good. Okay, I understand. I was just a little surprised. Say, can you guide me to the checkpoint? After all, the sooner I get there, the sooner I can fulfill my end of our deal!
Again, there was a slight pause before the AI replied: You ask me to perform an action which will benefit both of us simultaneously. I had initially analyzed our agreement as a zero-sum game; it appears that it would be more accurate to regard it as a positive-sum game. A drone will arrive within 2 meters of your current position within 125 seconds.
That's fine, Musfah. My favorite deals are the kind where everybody comes out ahead!
Meanwhile, the other three Harlemites were walking briskly up into the base of the Mountains biome, although the singular term "mountain" would have been more appropriate.
Michael looked at the mountain, and at the skree slope they were facing and shook his head. As a centaur, he simply wouldn't be able to do it.
Mary-Anne was immediately at his side. "Is there something wrong?"
Michael just pointed up at the slope.
"Sir, there are likely other points of access that should be more stable -- this particular slope wouldn't work for any of us."
"Yes, but this is probably common. I'm definitely going to have problems."
Mary-Anne squeezed his arm and then watched, inwardly smiling as Michael turned to look down at her. "Don't you think it odd that Mal set up our path so that we reached the mountain here? What would happen if you tried to climb that slope?"
"The same thing if any of us climbed our slope. However, I have to disagree with your thesis, however well meant. We've been wandering to set up our subterfuge, and Mal couldn't know ahead of time which route we'd choose."
"Sir, he could have warned us, or provided a map. If you hadn't seen the slope and broke a leg, it would effectively put you out of the competition."
This was too much. Michael pulled his arm out of Mary-Anne's grasp and turned to face Mal. "What in Gods name has gotten into you two? If not for Mal we wouldn't be making use of the bugs that have so handily been planted. We would not have been able to take out Utopia at all. We certainly would not have gotten all of the prizes in the Scavenger Hunt without him."
Mary-Anne walked over and rested her hands on Michaels flank, releasing additional chemicals into his body through his skin. This isn't working. How in the Mother's name can he still be resisting? Time to raise the pressure, my horsie. "I don't trust him, Michael! I'm, well, I'm afraid of him. Think about it: He knows that we are together, and he knows that Norm is following you. When the tribes merge, he has to know that he is the odd man out and that he will be the first to go. He can't afford not to take opportunities."
"We outnumber him, and he still needs us."
"Sir, I must agree. I don't trust him as he has too much to lose, and too much power. He has to make a move in this challenge. And I think that the mountains are the best place."
Michael sighed and turned away, letting his hand fall into Mary-Anne's paw. "I don't believe you."
Mary-Anne leaned towards Michaels horse ears and continued the attack, setting her voice up with the subtle rhythm she'd use to enslave Norman. "In the mountains you'll be separated from us. We'll be climbing alone and that will give him the perfect opportunity. Can you come with us?"
"I, I don't know. Not like this for sure."
Still modulating her voice, Mary-Anne continued: "Then come as something else. After the aquatic biomes you will have to change anyway. You can be anything else. It'll throw off any of Mal's plans."
Michael pulled his hand free and stepped a few paces away, shaking his head to try and clear it. "He won't do anything! You're both wrong!"
"Can you take that chance, sir?"
My big horse is stubborn, but that just adds to the challenge. Unfortunately he's too active right now, so back to psychology. She quietly padded over until she was almost touching the centaur. "I love you, you know."
"I can only hope."
"I want to be with you, but I can't right now."
"Of course not, how could anybody as sweet as you want to be with me?"
A little more... Mary-Anne took the last step forward. She leaned against Michael's lower chest and wrapped her vixen tail around his hind leg, secretly smiling as she felt the tremors of nervousness through the centaur's body. He tried to take a step away but she just followed maintaining the contact. Keeping her voice to a whisper pitched for Michael's ears alone, she finally responded to his fears. "I love you. Not the form you wear, not how you look, but you, the real you. Who couldn't love you?" Who couldn't love this once-in-a-lifetime chance to break a virgin? She let a quaver enter her voice. "I'm just afraid of losing you."
Michael could feel his heart racing. He wanted to flee, to run, and he also wanted to grab Mary-Anne and bite her neck and carry her away. To mark her as his own. But she wasn't -- she -- she was an intelligent, caring creature. Could Mal be desperate enough to threaten her? He couldn't, wouldn't, Mal must know that such an action would turn the tribe against him. They had to stay together. But Mary-Anne, could she...?
He's just about ready now. "Michael, I love you, and if you need me to show it, I'll be there for you. But, physical love... we can't. You can come with us, stay with me, and then I can prove to you how much I love you."
She felt Michael relax ever so slightly and she knew he was finally and fully hers.
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 to 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 annoying, 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.
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 environment, 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.
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 acceptable 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, thoroughly 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 minutiae 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 unacceptable, 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 that 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?"
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."
"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 where 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 they 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".
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?"
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. The second group 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 the tribe, and all had surfaced, an animated discussion about transport of the medallions began, as Michael asked, "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 discussion.
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 normally 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 solidly 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 retrieved the Arctic medallion and got a chance to whistle at the hot tubs full of scantily clad women waiting at the checkpoint. Oh well, maybe later.
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.
Norm 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 Norm. "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 accidentally gets 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 asymptotic 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 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.
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 concern.
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?"
And, while Norman watched, Mary-Anne walked over and 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 watch 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, with 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. "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
"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 irresistible 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.
Even in this mess, 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.
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 up).
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.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org