|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian
Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims
-- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for
short. Adapting to the changes inflicted by SCABS is harder for
some people than for others...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2002 Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
The name is Jubatus, and I'm the fastest SCAB alive. Granted, there might be one or two inanimorphs faster than me, but then I did specify 'alive', so stop quibbling, alright? Anyway, this'll be my first Christmas at the Blind Pig -- the Strikebreakers (me included) were on tour last winter, and before that... well. Let's just say I was collecting data on why no man, or SCAB, is an island.
Frankly, 2039's been one hell of a calendar year, and I'll be glad to see the end of it. For me, at least, the lowlights were January, when the Strikebreakers tour died on contact with Godzilla --
Yeah. That. Made the news and everything. Free advice: Whatever you do, don't even think about applying the placebo effect to inanimorphs. Long story, just... don't, okay?
To continue: July's when I came this close to maiming a lifelong dream beyond repair. Again, long story. Next, ending in September, I spent four solid weeks in a concussed and feral state after a car accident. Wasn't so bad at the time, since I (being concussed and feral) was terminally bereft of clue. Trouble is, when I got better, I discovered that my instincts are less dangerous than I am. How's that for a kick in the teeth? Oh, yeah, and there's a leonine SCAB high-schooler, Hallan Myers, has me to thank for the beating he received in March. Sure, he gave better than he got, and that's the final crap he ever took from the bullies who'd been riding his ass for months, but even so...
Like I said: One rhodium-plated, USDA Choice, triple-distilled hell of a year.
I'm at my usual seat, the small booth halfway between the bathrooms and the entrance to the pool room. Mathematically speaking, I'd've preferred a centralized location, meaning minimal distance to anywhere in the common or pool rooms or the big side hall opposite the pool tables, but someone might wonder why I changed my routine, and given what I'll be doing all night, it's going to be hard enough not to attract attention just because.
I repeat myself, but it bears repeating: For me, 2039 has been one hell of a year. Even so, I managed to get through it with no small amount of help from... hmm. I'm not sure if it's the right word, but... oh, what the heck. I got by with a little help from my friends. Seriously. Without Hallan in particular, Metron only knows where I'd be now. So: I racked up some debts of a non-monetary kind, and I was wondering how to pay 'em off. And somewhere along the way, not really sure when, I got the bright idea of playing 'secret Santa' to the Blind Pig. Cool image: At the Xmas party, someone reaches for his drink, his hand bumps into something he didn't notice before, and it's a present for him. Pleasant surprises all around.
It'd spoil the effect if anyone figured out who's behind these displays of selfless generosity, of course, but I'm not too worried on that score. First, yes I am that fast, courtesy of my SCABS-granted ability to make my personal Time run fast or slow: I upshift, zip over to the target, deposit the payload, zip back, and finally return to the normal (slow) tempo. After a few calendar days of practice in a warehouse I rented and remodeled for this purpose, I've got it down to a science. Elapsed clock-time .8 seconds or less for a round trip to anywhere in the Pig's three main ground-floor rooms, and no more than half a second to anywhere in the common room. Second, there are advantages to having invested so much time and effort in earning a 'high-strung, moody, fussbudget asshole' rep. As long as I don't let myself be caught in the act, nobody's going to even suspect that I'm the culprit.
Trouble is, gifts are a problem for me. Not the buying -- I'm as wealthy as the next technically skilled SCAB who can squeeze a few months'-worth of billable hours into one calendar day -- but, rather, the choosing part of the deal. In the workplace, I'm fine; off duty, in a purely social setting, I suck rocks. For good reason, or at least for what I thought was good reason. Okay, I was wrong there, but even though I can and should acquire them, social skills just don't come naturally to me. Which begs the question: What do you get from the man who can afford everything... except a decent idea of what you actually want?
Well, food is always an option. SCAB or norm, food's good for anything that's biological (and even a few inanimorphs, who aren't), even if most people don't need it in the quantities I consume. That's why God invented Sizzler gift certificates. Yeah, Sizzler's a steak house, but they've had a decent salad bar since about 1970, so herbivores are covered, too. $70 buys dinner for two, and then some.
I've got $100 gift certificates. 200 of them.
Oh, I've got other things picked out for a select few of tonight's patrons, but the Pig gets more of a crowd than usual on Christmas Eve. Higher SCAB quotient than usual, too, since norms tend to have more romantic/social entanglements to spend the holiday with. Funny how that works, hm?
Anyway -- "in for a penny, in for a pound", like the man says. If I'm going to be all generous in the first place, why not cast the net wide, as it were? So I'll play inverse pickpocket, drop certificates into the pockets of people I don't know, until I run out or until closing time, whichever comes first. As for those I do know...
Dr. Stein was easy: He's a car freak, antique gas burners in specific, to the point that he devotes a good chunk of his spare time to his pet Pontiac GTO. Took a bit of digging, but I found a model GTO, 1:12 scale -- pretty sad condition, but all the wheels are still there and can turn. Sure, I could've gotten one in mint, or even in the unopened original packaging, but those are damned expensive. No sense giving an anonymous present whose price rules out 99% of potential donors.
God knows why he's in a funk tonight, but the toy should help -- he'll love it.
Jim Hart wasn't quite so easy: I don't really know much about him, aside from he's a wrestling-obsessed full-morph squirrel. Further, I strongly doubt anyone else does, either. Go ahead; talk to the tree-rat about anything, and I'll give you $1,000 if you can keep the topic off of Wrestling for more than 90 clock-seconds. Frankly, if it weren't for my nagging suspicion that I'm one of the contributing factors that led to his inadvertent (and, thankfully, unsuccessful) suicide attempt, I'd have been just as happy to leave him out of it entirely...
Anyway, I did some net-searching, and I found something I hope he'll really like: Shoes. That's right, shoes. What's so special about wrestling shoes? Hell if I know, but on a wrestler's forum, I saw a 'laces or velcro?' flamewar that was every bit as intense as a Linux-versus-BSD jihad. And it turns out there is a company makes 'em for animorph SCABs -- even psychotic little squirrels! -- for the low, low price of $2,900 a pair. What the hell, it's only money, right?
I got some lingerie for Raven Blackmane. Real hardcore stuff, long past PG and well into X. You think that's not appropriate for a devout Christian? Sure it is, especially for a Christian who's been exposing herself over a pool table for an absolute minimum of 1.5 calendar years. Major exhibitionist tendencies, she has. I have no idea how she reconciles them with her religious beliefs; then again, I don't need to know how she does it. The fact that she has reconciled 'em is good enough for me.
Then there's Sue Carter, the plant with a brain the size of a planet. Sadly, she sees other people as nothing more than tools to exploit. That's why I found her a vintage LEGO Mindstorms set -- robotics kit for kids, used to be popular before the turn of the millennium. My hope is that while she's playing with it, she'll notice that she treats the Mindstorms parts the same way she treats people: Namely, she manipulates the hell out of 'em. Depending on how much empathy is left in her, that realization might just help spur the dryad to change her ways.
Frankly, I wasn't expecting Carter to actually show up tonight. She did make an email promise to attend; thing is, it's a 6,000-mile commute for her, you know? But she is here, and that's good. She gets her present now, instead of --
Huh. When did Hallan Myers get here?
"Hello, Mr. Acinonyx!" It's the lion cub himself, striding through the crowd, all wrapped up against the cold snap that rolled in earlier today.
"Hey there, catboy. What's a nice kid like you doing in place like this? Don't you have a family to be with?"
"Yes, sir, I do. I came to drop off some gifts for those who don't," he said, digging through his backpack for a flat, near-square package, wrapped in cheap holofoil-embossed paper. Before he can actually hand it over to me, it changes to one covered in plain white paper. "Merry Christmas -- sir?"
Of course he was surprised; a little upshift let me pull the swap in the blink of his eye. Meanwhile, I turn over the original (shiny) gift in my hands, spectrums dancing across the foil.
"It's for you," I tell him. "May as well open it now."
I follow my own advice. A few claw-made slits in the foil later, I see a disc whose title I don't recognize: Speechless With Wonderment. No UPC barcode...
"I burned it myself," the cub says as he uses one of his own claws to slice up the wrapping on his little package. "Of course, that's after I converted the files to play back at sextuple -- oh wow!"
Bingo. I smile. He's just seen that I gave him a pre-release copy of The Strikebreakers Meet Godzilla, our second album. Definitely not a title I would've chosen, but both Greyflank and Wanderer said "there's no such thing as bad publicity", so --
"Oh my gosh! Omigosh!"
--and that's Myers realizing that yes, the thing is autographed. By all the band members.
"Oh -- My -- Gosh!"
I think he likes it.
I upshift and put a glass (filled with a teabag and hot water) before Myers; once he stops roaring, he's gonna need a little something for his throat. That's not all I did in fast-time. I also dropped a couple of plastic tubes in his backpack -- tubes which just happen to contain $50 worth of tokens for local video arcades. Given his audio response to the CD, I think I better be elsewhere when he notices the tubes.
In the meantime, I check out my new disc -- no, discs. Two of 'em. As the name implies, they're a collection of instrumentals, some of which I haven't heard in years: Skating, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio; one movement of Water Musick by Handel; Music Box Dancer; the Rockford Files theme; a Steeleye Span tune, Robbery With Violins; Tomita's version of the Canon in D; a Vangelis cut I don't recognize the name of; Classical Gas; a couple of J.S. Bach pieces; Chateau, by Larry 'Synergy' Fast...
"You're welcome, sir."
It's Myers, talking in between sips of tea -- oh, right. I must've muttered 'thanks' while preoccupied. Gotta watch that... "Looks like a decent selection. You really didn't need to go to the trouble of sextupling the playback speed, though; I can get that through software, no sweat."
He grins. "Of course -- but this way, you get the music at your normal speed from any CD player!"
I smile back at him. "Good point." We exchange a few more words before he moves on to his next delivery. Me, I just stay put in my booth, or at least that's what it looks like. Every so often I do my own delivering: Upshift high; leap up to the ceiling and then directly over my target; let my foot-claws pin me to the ceiling as I reach down to deposit the package; then return to my seat, going back the way I came. All that at a tempo of 40, by the way -- no, I wasn't joking when I said I could make a round trip to anywhere in .8 seconds or less. Technically, I could drop 'em off at a rate of about 100 presents per minute, get it all over and done with in a few minutes; but that idea's a non-starter, as it would pretty well guarantee I'm caught in the act. I keep a watchful eye on the crowd, and I only do the deed during moments when nobody is looking in my general direction.
Oh, fucking joy. Dr. Stein was talking to Donnie a bit earlier, and now everybody knows, or at least the regulars: The Doc's GTO broke, and there just aren't any replacement parts available. Shit! Wonderful time for him to receive a present that reminds him, damn it.
Maybe I can salvage something. Literally. I zip out to the Extremis for privacy as I work. Pontiac made I don't know how many million of the damn things, so the first avenue of attack is spiders to comb odd corners of the Net for relevant blueprints, CAD files in particular. While that's happening, a second set of spiders will sort through the past eight decades of DMV records nationwide, focusing primarily on Planned Non-Operation certificates... No need for me to babysit the machinery while it's running; I'll just pop back out every couple hours, for a status check. Here's hoping I can locate a useable transmission...
Interesting: When I re-enter the Pig, there's a full-morph wolf laired under the pool table, and the Lupine Boys' Ladies Auxiliary is nowhere to be seen. The 'what' of it's obvious, but not the 'why', so I buttonhole Wanderer: "Looks like Blackmane turned quad. What's up?"
"She was among the beneficiaries of our would-be Father Christmas; her gift proved to be a rather exotic set of lingerie; and an incautious reference to certain visual misadventures appears to have triggered an attack of purest mortification."
"That's crazy," I say, frowning. "She's been giving free shows for as long as I've been around, at least eighteen calendar-months -- and now she gets the vapors over it?"
He shrugs. "A most cogent and perspicacious observation, my abrasive friend. Alas, she who might explain the mystery is literally in no shape to do so."
Bloody hell. Don't want to think I made a mistake, but... hold that thought for when she's back. Onward to more pleasant matters: I see that Wanderer and his niece are holding court near the Lupine Boys' table. Nice girl, polite. Not sure when he got back from his performance; somewhere near... well, hell. When did he return? A trivial question, true, but it won't let me alone as I sip my drink. Mini-CD, a diluted 'catnip daiquiri', the only thing whose residency time in my system is long enough that it can get me drunk. Anyway -- the wolf left, what, 4:30 PM? Yeah, that's about right. 4:30, 4:40, in there somewhere. And he returned...
My blood cools below freezing point, sobering me up, as I realize I don't know.
I downshift to a tempo of .9, just below normal; walk carefully to the bathroom; pour my drink down the sink; and then spend a half-hour waiting for my metabolism to dispose of what's currently contaminating my bloodstream. Upshifted to a tempo of 35, I'm done in less than one clock-minute, after which I leave to get a vodka boilermaker. Alcohol's safe; I burn it off too damn fast... and no, I am not overreacting to the thought that maybe, just maybe, I might have gotten too blitzed to remember when Wanderer made his entrance.
Not overreacting at all. When you can break the sound barrier, you can't afford any degree of loss of control...
Back in the common room, I keep busy (does the phrase "Jubatus has time to kill" ring any bells?). First, there's the gift runs, and while I'm at it, I also try to keep an eye out for potential troublemakers. Haven't seen any yet; every one of the merrymakers really is interested in making merry, thank Dionysus.
Ah -- Blackmane's resumed her anthropomorphic status. The more I consider it, the more uncertain I become about her present... I zip over to catch her before she can rejoin the throng. "Santa Claus kinda screwed up on your gift, huh?"
Raven jerks around, looks at me. "Oh! Jubatus. Yes, I suppose you could say that. I just, well, it was a real shock to learn that I'd been exposing myself..."
Damn. I did mess up. "I thought you knew already," I say quietly. She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out, and she ends up closing the jaws and looking at me. "Come on. One free show, fine, that's an accident. But doing it over and over again, week after week, month after month -- you had to be aware of it."
"I don't see how that follows," she says carefully. "Clothing is kind of loose and floppy, by its very nature. I don't think you can reasonably expect someone to be micrometrically aware, at all times, of the position of every inch of cloth they're wearing."
"You damn well better be," I say, annoyed at her lackadaisical attitude. "Otherwise, you're just asking for people to get pistol-whipped when you walk by them. Hell, even a loose zipper can take the skin right off a body!" She doesn't reply, just gives me a confused look. "What's the matter, you need a demonstration?" And suddenly light dawns in her eyes.
"Jubatus? Just how quickly do you think I move?"
I glare. 'How quickly', my bleeding -- And then the clue phone rings. Now it's my turn to open mouth and say nothing.
Meekly, she says, "So... you really do have to worry about uncontrolled cloth."
"And you really don't," is my brilliant riposte. Game over. Sigh. "Oh, well. It was fun while it lasted... Alright. Stay put and I'll get you the receipt..." And I trail off because I don't recognize the expression on Blackmane's face. "You are going to exchange the lingerie, right?"
"Not relevant. You said 'fun while it lasted' -- why must it end now?"
Isn't it obvious? Well, maybe not, after the cloth routine... I shrug. "I screwed up. When that happens, I do what I can to solve the resulting problems and ensure there's no rerun, then move on."
I'm about to retrieve the receipt, when she says, "Jubatus." We look into each other's eyes, then she continues: "It's okay for you to be fallible."
"You think Stein would agree?"
She's got that expression again. "I think... he'd agree it's not your fault that you couldn't foresee his breakdown. As for me, you only hurt my dignity! If I cared about that, would I be a regular here?" she asks. "I think it's a very good thing you're doing, and it would be a shame if you stopped."
"Oh, really. So I should spoil a few more people's Christmas?"
"No. You should brighten a few more people's Christmas." She pauses for a moment. "If you're responsible for all the surprise packages this evening, you should know that your hits outnumber your misses by a sizeable margin. Ask Wanderer, or that squirrel --"
"Yes. Talk to Jim Hart, find out what he thinks of his gift. Or even Greyflank; I'm not at all sure I want to know what he got, but whatever it is, he seems to like it..."
"You're right -- you don't want to know."
The wolfette blinks twice. "I, see. In any case... You're a better man than you give yourself credit for, Jubatus. Please, don't give up."
And then one of the Boys challenges her to a game of pool, thus proving that a wolf SCAB can be very like a lamb to the slaughter.
'Don't give up', she says. And why the hell not? My old habits are looking mighty comfortable right now! Also safe, can't forget safe. There's so much that could go wrong, so many ways for me to hurt people without trying to, without even knowing! And the cheetah side of me sure doesn't see anything wrong with being socially isolated...
Sigh. That way lies madness, and you damn well know it. Gotta get out of that shell before it crushes you. The prospect scares you? BFD. Phil's got at least as much reason to be afraid -- and being eaten alive is what he's afraid of! If that kind of fear isn't enough to stop Phil from putting himself on public display, what the hell is your excuse, Jube...
A voice breaks into my reverie: "-- meseems that our fair maid of the verdant complexion hath been o'erly silent of late --" Wanderer, as if anyone else sounds like that. He's inviting the dryad to play toastmistress! Carter eats it up with a spoon; if she ever decides to mellow out a little, I think she might turn out to be a bigger ham than the wolf. Something to look forward to... 'Look forward'? My, my. Is that actually Hope I see before me? Heh! Looks like even my pessimism has finally hit the wall.
Hope: It's an unfamiliar feeling.
"A toast, then," Carter says, and my mind continues the sentiment: It's not like Anybody's out there actually listening, but...
Can next year not suck? Let 2040 turn out halfway decent?