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. Some people see SCABs as a problem -- and some have exceptionally radical solutions for this perceived problem...

Go here for more information on the setting.

[tsat home] [#45] [stories]
The Downward Spiral • Ch. 1: i ii iii Ch. 2: i ii iii

The Downward Spiral
by the TBP Round-Robin Collective
©2005 the TBP Round-Robin Collective -- all rights reserved

Christmas Nightmare (Chapter 1, part iii)

33: Into Hot Water (Duncan Cougar)

When that voice suddenly boomed, "Everybody freeze. Put down your weapons and put your hands on the back of your head", my first thought was, That's it -- we're all dead. Unable to move my head without letting go of the weapon, it took me a moment to realize that if it had been one of the attackers, they wouldn't have spoken; rather, they would simply have pulled the trigger. Relief flooded through me when the same voice called, "You human goons drop the weapons now. I think you can release him, Mr. Cougar. If he so much as twitches he'll find out how a shotgun feels from the business end."

A quick glance confirmed that the cavalry had again come just in time. Now, with the fight over, my adrenaline levels back to normal, I felt every sore muscle in my body, every stretched tendon. Shit. Those doctors were probably right; I shouldn't have been out and about already. I felt like death warmed over. My half-healed wound bleeding, my side throbbed with pain with every step. Since the orangutan had taken control of the situation, there was not much left for me to do. Good to know I wouldn't have to step in to stop any retaliation; I sure didn't feel like doing that right now. Oh well; since the easy part's done, I better get myself cleaned up for the tough part. Namely, making sure that the police let me talk to them, instead of shooting me down first and asking questions later.

Limping back to the bar, almost all energy drained from my body, I barely managed a nod when I passed the SCABs giving first aid to the first victim of this madness, asking for getting more help.

Back inside the Pig I slowly shambled towards to the bar, trying to hide the wound below my chest with my right paw. By the stares me and my blood-covered fur were getting from the patrons, at least some of them were still unaware that anything dire had happened outside.

Concentrating hard on not falling on my face, I hobbled on all threes towards the bar. When I was close enough, I called over to Donnie:

"Ah, anyplace were I could clean up a bit?" In a lower voice, I added, "If you haven't already, you might want to call a few ambulances."

Judging by the shocked look on Donnie's face, he hadn't quite expected any trouble to have progressed this far. Judging by the gasps around, my comment hadn't been quite low enough not to be overheard, too.

Damn. I am really losing it.

Donnie pointed to the restrooms before handing the telephone to one of the wolf-morphs. So, that's where I was limped to.

Get out of the common room before you make an even bigger mess of things...

Finally, the door to the men's restroom closed behind me.

Tired... so god-damned tired...

I was just about to get back on all four -- well, three paws, the fourth still pressing down on that wound -- when a whimpering shriek made me realize I wasn't alone in here.

So much for your so-called 'superior' feline senses...

Of course: There was a rabbit cowering low in obvious terror, starring wide eyed at that blood drenched predator -- me -- which had just entered this safe haven. Shit. Think fast, before that rabbit has an heart attack. Think, stupid cat! What can I say... mmm, maybe...

"Quite a joke, huh? Don't worry, none in the bar got hurt... Mind if I use the shower?" Having said that, I made it obvious that I was going to completely ignore him. Not because I didn't care, but because I did care. This would be the only thing that I could do which might get him out of the shock.

What do you think happens when a blood-drenched predator fixes his attention on some poor rabbit, hm? To say nothing of what if that same predator tries to get closer... Unless you consider pouncing, that is, but you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what would happen then...

Fortunately, his hyperventilation slowed towards normal breathing. At least I'd gotten that part right.

I stumbled towards the left side of the restroom, where a sign hinted that the shower and bathing facilities were. Holy Shit, this place is impressive! Not only was this restroom one of the most versatile and SCAB-friendly facilities I had ever seen, it even came with a bath and a shower big enough for a small elephant or a very large horse! Dragging the shower curtain closed with a claw -- to break the line of sight between that poor rabbit and me -- I got a closer look at the fittings. Very well thought out; temperature, power and water flow could all be easily set with hoof or paw. Those operating the lower nozzles were also placed lower, so that smaller SCABS could easily operate them. Setting things to a downpour of warm water I let myself soak, lightly rubbing my blood-matted fur with a paw, slightly purring while I let the junior-grade Deluge wash all the (by now coagulated) blood away.

What's that -- you're wondering why a feline like me doesn't mind water? Well, not all of us cats hate soaking in that stuff. I only hated soaking in the cold stuff, especially when it drizzles from above or I get thrown into it...

Warm or even hot water, well, that's civilization for me. If a place is also fitted with industrial strength hair-dryers, that's advanced civilization. At first I had been dreading the prospect of getting dry again... but when I entered the shower I saw the big blowers overhead, like those you can find in a car wash . When -- after some 5 minutes or so of constant soaking -- I finally shut down the water and started the air, I knew I had found highly advanced civilization, at last! Those blow dryers were actually as quiet as could be expected of anything still able to move that amount of hot air. It was almost hard to say what was louder, the blowers or my purring (well, the blowers, but blame my hearing for that). I promised myself to come back just for using these facilities if nothing else -- o.k., also for the watered-down concoction, what had that wolf-morph called it? 'cat-a-tonic'?

But then those thoughts brought me back to ugly reality. After what had happened outside, would they even let me in again? Would they even let me out this time??

Surprisingly, no one had come in while I was showering. But why? Do they just want to give me some privacy, are they still busy dealing with the mess outside, or are they figuring out how to throw me out without causing another incident? What horror story might the rabbit have told? Worse, what horror story had been told of what had happened outside?

Well... if they want me to leave, I'll just have to leave... I sighed to myself. I wouldn't do anything to harm an innocent sentient being, not even if they dragged me out by the tail, bound and gagged -- but do they know that? Will they believe it -- of me -- after what had happened outside... even if I tell them ..?

Dreading what might happen, when I would get when I returned to the common room, I slowly made my way towards the door -- now back on all fours, since that stupid wound had actually closed enough to stop bleeding.

34: Unexpected Results (Ron Smythe)

He was nearing the Pig's address now. As he turned the corner on the given block, he could see that something was amiss. He sped up a bit, and as he got closer he realized that it was more than just 'amiss'. There was blood on the ground as well as several bodies, both human and SCAB! He dropped his bicycle and ran out into the street to see if any were still living. If he didn't have the medical and biological background he did, it would probably have shocked him. He stopped by another man whose hand was still clutching a firearm.

Ron wondered what the man had been doing, and why he had been using a gun. He checked the pulse and breathing. The breath was coming very shallowly and there was a pulse. The front of his shirt had been torn and he could see severe bruising through the tears. He pushed a little bit and the man groaned in pain -- ribs were probably broken. He was clearly going to have to call for medical assistance, and probably get some law enforcement in here as well.

"Hang on, man," Ron said, "we'll fix your ribs." He thought about moving  the man out of the street, but with broken ribs he realized that could easily do more harm than good. He hadn't brought his cell phone because he didn't want to be bothered, so he didn't call immediately. He went over to another injured man who was lying there. It seemed that either the 'morphs had been using guns, or in the confusion these people had shot each other. It looked in a bad way and was bleeding from an apparent bullet wound. He pulled out his first aid kit and did what he could to bandage the wound.

"Stay calm, everything will be fine," he said soothingly. He didn't know how true that was. He didn't even know the circumstances surrounding this apparent fight yet. Having done what he could for the poor person, he hurried into the Blind Pig . As he opened the door, what he saw there -- while less shocking than what was outside -- was to him more frightening. He saw what appeared to be a rabbit cringing in a corner. He could well understand the state of shock the creature might be in. A few other creatures were about and were giving him looks ranging from fear to anger. He quickly explained himself.

"Um..." he swallowed, "I had nothing to do with whatever happened outside. There are wounded out there. We need to get help! I'm just a science student come to do some homework. I have some medical skill, and will offer what assistance I can until professionals arrive."

It was only one emergency response course he had taken a year or two back, but it seemed to be enough. Now there was bewilderment or skepticism spread across most of the faces. With that, Ron began moving around the room, trying to find some way to contact medical and police assistance.

35: Working Between the Lions (Father Ted Colbert)

The scanner was filled with chatter as Fr. Ted sped toward the Pig.

"Mohawk A12 responding to the West Street staging area," the scanner reported.

"Damn, that's four ambulances," I murmured. "Plus who knows how many before I was on the air?"

I listened intently, trying to determine where they were gathering the equipment near the scene. The last thing I needed was to get delayed by the police, who would have the scene cordoned off. Just then the scanner blurted out another unit with the cross street I needed.

"Shit," I growled, slamming the brakes on, the anti-lock system chattering to life in the slush as I slowed for the intersection. Making the turn I sped toward the new location.

As I approached the scene I could see the red lights of the emergency vehicles that filled the street. Bringing the car to a stop at the patrol car that blocked my path, I rolled down the window.

"I'm sorry sir," the officer said as he approached the car. "You'll have to turn around."

I saw his hand drop to his weapon as he saw my face.

This isn't good, I thought, as his flashlight now swept the car.

"I'm Fr. Ted Colbert," I said in what I hoped was a calming voice. "Can I help? I'm a chaplain and an EMT."

From the beginnings of my ministry in the area, I had made it a point to become acquainted with the police who covered this beat. But I didn't recognize the approaching officer as one of the usuals.

"Is there a problem?" boomed a voice from the other side of the car.

"I've got a SCAB here who wants to get in," replied the young officer.

I looked to the other side of the car and saw an officer I recognized, with his hand also resting on his hip.

I made sure my right hand was visible on the dash as I thumbed the switch to roll down the other window.

"You'll have to turn around," the other officer said as he leaned down and caught sight of me. "No one is allowed -- Father Ted? What are you doing here?"

"Officer Mullens. Win Mullens, isn't it?" I said, hoping to connect with him. He nodded and I continued.

"I heard there was a shooting at the Pig," I told him. "I thought they might need a priest or EMT."

"Father, it's a mess up there," he said, than paused. "Maybe you could help. Pull your car over there."

Obediently I moved the car to the side of the street and got out. Popping the hatch on the back, I grabbed my jump kit and vest with the medical symbols emblazoned in reflective material front and back. Officer Mullens approached me as I slipped it on.

"They've only now started to let the medics in," he explained. "With the carnage down there, it took us some time to be sure the scene was safe."

"What happened, anyway?" I asked, shutting the hatch and starting down the street.

"Whoa, Father. You're going to need an escort," he said, motioning to someone near an engine. "I wish I knew what happened. It's one of the bloodiest things I've seen since the Collapse."

As he drew nearer I recognized Sam Hutton, a firefighter I'd met several times. He was a veteran pump operator of many years, and I could tell by his countenance that we had a serious incident on our hands.

"Evening, Sam," I said when he was in earshot. "What have we got?"

"A war zone, from what little I've heard," he said, shaking his head. "More than a dozen are down, at least one fatality. More than that, I can't say. Weber just called an MCI."

"Sam, can you bring the Father down to the scene?" Win asked. "I don't want him walking into that mess by himself."

He nodded and we headed off at a brisk walk toward the Pig. If they were declaring this a Mass Casualty Incident, I knew I'd be needed in both my roles. What puzzled me most was the need for an escort. Still, I'd find out soon enough; what I really wanted was to get to the scene.

When I saw the minivan I knew what they meant. A yellow tarp covered a body near the burned and bullet-riddled vehicle. As I rounded the end, I saw a large area of crimson colored snow in the middle of the street. Captain Weber stood between a SUV and a pickup that was also covered with holes.

"How can I help?" I asked the Captain, dispensing with any amenities.

While the Captain finished giving an order over the radio, I noted some of the medics working on a fellow about halfway between the SUV and the Pig. I also saw two firefighters near a leopard who was face down on the ground, directly in front of the bar's window.

"Padre, we just started getting to people inside the bar," the Captain replied, still half-listening to his radio. "I think you'd be the best one to assist in there."

"You got it," I said, moving quickly for the door.

As I neared the door two police officers eyed me for a moment, but as the lights from the bar revealed my features, they recognized me and relaxed. I'd never seen these guys so uptight. Still, with what they were looking at I couldn't blame them.

By habit, I stopped briefly as I stepped in the door to size up the scene. The Pig was crowded with the usual patrons, but most stood near the back watching the drama unfold before them. I saw two ambulance EMTs near one of the booths working on someone.

"I need a medic with a chest kit," I heard him say to his partner. "He's got a chest wound and I can't stop it."

As his partner pushed past me he gave me a look of total disgust. I moved up behind the other EMT to see if I could assist.

"Do we have any other patients?" I asked looking down at the fallen SCAB.

"Some walking wounded," he said as he fumbled with a plastic bandage he held on the victim's furry chest.

A quick survey of the bar confirmed his statement so I returned my attention to the victim he was working on. He was a young lion, I'd have guessed just old enough to have his full mane. From the blood on the booth I figured he'd been hit in or near it, then slid off the bench onto the floor.

"Do you need some help getting him out so you can work on him?" I asked, noticing how his position was hindering the EMT as he attempted to treat him.

I could hear the breathing of the victim becoming more labored and knew he wasn't getting enough air. I turned to find the oxygen unit near him but with a mask unsuitable for a feline face.

"Did you get a PO2 reading off him?" I asked.

"I can't get the sensor over his paws," the young man replied as he pressed hard on the wound in the lion's chest. Looking at the oxygen monitor I saw that it, too, was configured for human, not SCAB, anatomy. I fumbled in the bag for a moment, came up with an ear sensor and clipped it on the cat's ear. The meter told the story all too clearly. The oxygen level in his blood was dangerously low.

"I can't get this damn thing to seal," growled the technician, removing the blood-soaked dressing from the lion's side. "Goddamn fur keeps getting in the way."

Glancing at the medical bag, I saw the solution sitting near the top. I grabbed the device and placed it near the EMT's hand.

"You've got to shave the fur before you apply the dressing," I reminded him.

"Oh, right," he mumbled, picking up the shaver and removing the fur. "Damn waste of time if you ask me. He's not going to make it."

"He's got a chance if you get the wound sealed," I replied, not liking his tone or attitude. "We've got to try."

"After what you saw out there, you're worried about a fucking SCAB?" he barked.

"I worry about all my patients," I growled, my ears now flat to my head. "Even if they're a SCAB -- like me."

It took a moment for my words to register. When they did, his head spun around, eyes wide. He found himself nose to nose with me, close enough to feel the breath from my muzzle. I never thought I'd see an instant albino, but he showed me one as all color left his body. I decided there and then I was taking charge of this patient.

"Get the S5 mask on the O2," I ordered, pointing toward the oxygen bag. "Set it up for non-re-breather and give him fifteen liters. Then get me a new chest dressing and set up the suction. Did you find an exit wound?"

"I couldn't check," the man replied, shocked out of his stupor of fear. "He's too heavy to move."

I made a split-second decision that could have cost me my license -- and, if I was wrong, this young SCAB his life. Without the usual precautions for possible spinal injuries, I grasped the young lion and pulled him free from the booth. If I was right that he had landed gently he would be unharmed; if not I could have just paralyzed him. Either way, I figured the need to get air into his lungs outweighed the risk.

Free of the booth, I rolled him over and found what I suspected: A ragged hole in his back. The EMT handed me the new dressing. I quickly shaved the area around the wound as best I could and applied it. Rolling him over to his back again I checked the first dressing which, with all the fur from the first attempt, still wasn't seated properly.

"Get me another dressing!" I commanded, taking the oxygen mask from the EMT and placing it on the lion's muzzle. A quick check of the O2 levels told me we were still fighting a losing battle. Blood continued to spurt out of the entrance wound on his chest, and I could tell from his breathing that he wasn't getting the air he needed. The EMT finally handed me the new dressing, and I wiped the area clear with the old one and applied it to the bare skin. The lion had not taken three breaths when I noticed the difference in his breathing sounds.

"We got it!" I cried to my assistant. "Keep an eye on that PO2 while I sound him."

"Right," he replied, now starting to react like a professional again.

I listened with my stethoscope to both sides of his chest. Seconds crawled by as each breath was drawn. Faintly I began to hear the sound of air being taken into his wounded side.

"The level's up one -- no, make that two points," the EMT told me.

"Good," I said, nodding approvingly as I continued to listen to the life-giving air return to the feline's chest. "What's holding up those medics? He needs to be tubed."

I had no more than got the words out of my mouth when I saw one of the fire department medics enter the bar. I made eye contact with him and he quickly dropped to the side of the victim.

"We've got a gunshot wound, lower left chest," I began, giving the standard report for handing him over. "Entrance and exit wounds. Diminished lung sounds on the left side. I've got a dressing on the exit wound and this one."

I pointed to my most recent work as the medic began pulling out his equipment.

"His PO2 is really low," I reported glancing at the meter. "Eighty six right now. I think we'd better tube him."

"Agreed," the medic replied setting a trachea tube on the victim's chest. "That one look right to you?"

"I'd go one bigger," I replied, sizing up our patient. "You want the placement or me?"

"You're in position, go for it," he replied, handing me the scope and reaching for the larger tube.

I snapped the stainless steel leaf into place and looked at the lion's massive mouth. Intubating a large feline was always difficult, but if he was to live we had to do it. Quickly I removed the mask, opened his mouth and looked down his throat.

"Suction," I called as I noted blood in the back of his mouth.

Obediently, the EMT handed me the unit and I cleared the victim's throat. Precious seconds without oxygen had been lost, and I knew we should get him back on the O2. Just then I saw the EMT lean forward with a feline mask on a demand regulator.

"Hit him," I said, closing his mouth so the man could work.

He gave the lion the standard number of breaths and I jumped back in to complete my task. Opening his mouth again, I placed the scope within and cleared his tongue. The medic passed me the tube, which I carefully guided down the large throat. With the tube now set and sealed, I attached the regulator and administered another breath of life-giving oxygen. The medic, meanwhile, listened at the victim's chest, first one side then the other.

"You got it! First try!" he cried with some surprise. "Nice work. We've got good lung sounds both sides. Let's get him boarded and on the road."

Together, the three of us lifted the lion onto a backboard and then the stretcher. We rolled him out of the door and toward a waiting ambulance. As we closed the door, the EMT I'd confronted in the bar turned and looked me in the face.

"I'm sorry for what I said in there," he said, though his expression was still hard. "You did a hell of a job. I guess not all SCABs are killers."

"Most aren't," I responded, still concerned for the patient I was placing back in his care. "Take good care of him."

He nodded and got into the driver's seat. As the ambulance sped off, siren wailing, I prayed to God to watch over the young victim. I turned back to the Pig to see who else might need help... and suddenly realized something was wrong. As I entered the bar I remedied my omission: I added to my prayer that the young medic might be helped to see SCABs as people too.

36: Interesting Postscript (Steve Carson)

I don't remember how long I stayed in the alley. Long after the other SCABs had filed out to seek help or talk to the police, I just sat there in the dirt, my back to the wall, with my arms wrapped around my knees.

Flashing police lights filled the streets and bathed the alley in a surreal glow. I closed my eyes to keep a firm grasp on my sanity. It wasn't working. I began rocking back and forth, trying to clear my head. Trying to make sense of something seemingly devoid of rationality.

God, the smell of death permeated the alleyway! I could taste the decay on my lips; drink the slaughter in my throat. I forced myself up, shaking with fear at the horrible stench of mortality.

I couldn't stay here any longer.

I got to my feet, dusting off my legs and tail, and slowly proceeded out of the alley. In the street there were dozens of police, some questioning witnesses, some taping off the scene, others holding back reporters and other gawkers. One of them came up to me and asked me where I came from. I pointed to the alley and he and a few others proceeded in. I was corralled into a group of familiar-looking SCABs, like the orangutan and a few others that had been in the alleyway.

They questioned me but my mind was elsewhere. My name?

I'd rather not say. Equestrian will do. Yeah, as in horses. Yes, I know I'm a kangaroo and that doesn't make sense. Yes, I fought in the alley with the others. Yes, I beat up a few of the shooters. No, I didn't know what was going on when I first got here, but I quickly put it together. Testify against the shooters? I don't know; can I have time to think about it?

There were plenty of other SCABs more than willing to talk to the police, so they sort of let me go after that. I wasn't allowed to leave the scene yet, mind you; I just didn't have to be interrogated any more at the moment. I went over to a secluded corner and sat down, not sure what to do with myself.

My parents had probably heard about this by now, but what could I do? I wish they were here right now. I've never felt so alone in all my life! I ran my hands over my face repeatedly, trying to calm myself down. I felt sick, very sick and petrified with fear. I only felt this way one other time in my life.

I was horrified when I first caught the Martian Flu. Hundreds of millions of people around the world were dying or turning into who-knows-what. It was Hell on Earth to many. Even as the disease ate away at me, I tried to be strong for my parents while privately begging God for His mercy. The disease eventually went away but was replaced with something equally terrifying -- this kangaroo you see before you today. Don't get me wrong; I'm grateful to be alive. I make it a point to thank God every morning that I survived the plague. But still, the hideousness of the situation knows no bounds.

I was afraid of losing my humanity, of becoming a dumb animal. I did everything I could to avoid the situation, staying in human form whenever I could, and avoided taking my animal appearance almost constantly. I was grateful I could look human if I wanted to. I didn't want anyone to know.

God, the cold air is unbearable. My clothes were an unfortunate casualty of my altercation, still attached to me but now in tatters. They must have ripped sometime during the fight, not really designed for type of fighting in which I'd just engaged. But I have to deal with it for now since I don't want to change back into human form. I'm not sure if I want anyone to know who I am. I don't want my family to pay for what I've done here tonight.

What I did here tonight. Why did I have to do something so stupid and put myself at risk?

"You okay?" came a voice from above.

Shocked, my ears perked up and I jerked my head up to face my inquisitor. I was so deep in thought I hadn't even heard him come over.

"What?" I asked timidly, my mind snapping back to attention.

It was the orangutan from the alley. He seemed to have reverted to his human form, but his hair still gave him away.

"I asked if you were doing okay," he repeated.

"Uh? Yeah... I guess," I muttered.

He nodded, and then looked me over. "Mind if I sit down?"

I really didn't feel like talking to anyone else other than my family right now, but on the other hand, I know I needed to. This man had risked his life to help the others and me, so at the very least I owed him a few moments of my time.

"Go right ahead," I said, trying to pretend like this didn't bother me. He took a seat next to me, and I slowly turned to face him. "Look, um?"

"Michael," he piped in.

"Oh, okay. Michael. Thanks a lot for coming to help me in that alley. You probably saved my life."

He lifted his hand. "No need to thank me. I was just responding the way I usually do when someone starts throwing lead my way. How about you? You handled yourself pretty good in there. You took that one out like a pro, but unless I'm mistaken, you're not usually a fighter, are you?"

"No, I'm not," I said, managing a smile. "Is the other guy doing all right? The one I kicked into the wall? I didn't really want to do any serious damage to him -- just stop him is all."

The smirk on the orangutan-man's face quickly vanished and he shook his head. "He got a massive head injury when he hit the wall. He didn't make it."

The Earth froze, and with it my heart. My ears flattened on my head and my jaw dropped. "He, he's dead? You mean... I killed him!?"

Mike turned and knelt in front of me. "You didn't know? Damn, I thought that's why you were over here. I'm sorry."

His words bounced off me, and tears began to well in my eyes. "I, I killed someone!" My body began to shake as I looked at my hands, inhaling and exhaling deeply. "My God, I killed somebody! I'm a murderer!"

"No, you're not a murderer." Mike said calmly but firmly. "You defended yourself in the only way you knew how. Your action saved your life, and probably the lives of a lot of others as well. How many do you think would have died if those goons had gotten back to the Pig? You only did what had to be done."

"I don't know that!" I shrieked. "You don't know that! He wasn't threatening me until I got involved!"

"The hell he wasn't!" Mike snarled. "These guys were here to kill SCABs. They didn't give a rat's ass about anything else. You, me, anything with fur was fair game. You had every right to defend yourself."

They sounded like hollow words in my ears. "But the man's still dead. I don't know him; I didn't have anything personally against him. What am I going to tell people? What am I going to tell my parents? What am I going to tell myself!?"

"You seldom know your enemy. It's one of the few things that make it bearable," Mike said almost mumbling the last sentence. "What you tell yourself and anyone else is that you did what you had to do," Mike answered softly. "Why did you rush into that alley?"

"I, I don't know," I sputtered. "I wish I hadn't now..?"

"Think! You have to have a reason. No one risks their life for nothing. Why did you do it?"

The words came, I don't know from where. But still, through my tears they came. "I guess I was just angry. I mean, so many people died from this disease around the world. SCABs are persecuted everywhere, that damn Barnes trying to turn this city into Nazi Germany, and now this! It just twisted my stomach. It was rage. I couldn't sit by and do nothing."

"That sounds like a good reason to me," Mike replied with a faint grin. "You can push someone only so far before they'll fight back. These goons pushed and you had every right to push back."

I snorted. "Did I? What right did I have to do anything I did? Do you know this is the longest I've stayed in my kangaroo form in nearly 8 years? I do everything possible to avoid being known as a SCAB. I look at others and I'm thankful -- thankful I don't have to deal with the same things they do. What right did I have to be angry?

"And that's the thing that frightens me the most. I did it out of anger. What if I wanted to kill that man? What if subconsciously I hit him harder then I needed to?"

Mike broke in, grabbing my shoulder and twisting me toward him. "Listen to me. I was a Marine, and I did more than my fair share of killing. Just because I'm not in uniform any more doesn't mean I've forgotten what it feels like. When you're in combat, you do what you have to do. In the midst of it all, fear and anger can make you do things you never dream you could. You do what you have to do to survive. You may have killed that man, but you didn't put the gun in his hands and the hatred in his heart."

My eyes began to slide back, trying to look away as he spoke. But he grabbed my muzzle and yanked my head until it was facing straight on with his. "Look at me, damn it! You are not a murderer, do you hear me? You did what you had to, and you risked your life for others. For strangers even! Some would even say you're a hero!"

He let go of my head. I sighed, wiping some tears away from my eyes. "I don't feel like much of a hero."

Mike placed his hand on my shoulder. "You're just a kid, right?"

"I'm 23," I blurted. I looked at the man, so much obviously my senior, and then I begrudgingly added, "Yeah, I'm a kid."

Mike stood up. "This is probably the hardest thing you've ever had to deal with. This isn't supposed to be easy. It leaves a hole in your gut and a darkness in your soul that no one who hasn't killed can know. You're not supposed to go home and brag about killing someone. And I'm not going to tell you some bullshit like 'Don't worry about it' or 'Everything's going to be fine.' I know how hard it is to take someone's life, even when it's justified. I just want you to remember one thing: Because you had the guts to risk your life, someone will be able to go home to their family tonight. Not to mention that you possibly saved countless others who would have been killed by that lunatic down the road, too.

"You don't have to love what you did, but you do have to come to terms with it. Because no matter what you do you'll never be the same. I'm going to leave you alone right now, because I know this is personal. But I'm here if you need me. My name is Michael Carson. If you need some one to talk to you get ahold of me."

Carson? Internally I laughed. He's got my last name... He turned to walk away, but I yelled out at him.

"Hey, my name is Steve," I said, a smile barely creeping onto my face.

He nodded at me. "I'm glad to meet you, Steve." And then he turned and continued on his way.

The cold air didn't seem so unrelenting anymore, but it still tasted of horror. What a hell of a way for Christmas to end... Could I ever forgive myself for what I had done? Was it wrong to kill that man? I wanted my parents here right now. At that very moment, I wished more than anything else that I could still be five years old and climb into my mother's arms. After tonight, how could life ever be the same again?

37: Bloody, Crazy Dreams (Jonathan Practice)

The flashing lights burned into my retinas and painted the hazy vision that now covered everything in red and blue. The sidewalk and the street were littered with bodies. In my ears, I could hear the chatter of police, and civilian. I could also hear the kangaroo kid -- who ever he was -- complain that he didn't know he killed the guy.

The gaping hole in my back and the subsequent one in my chest begin to throb in time to the pulsing lights around me. Almost like some strange disco from hell. I could see a human, blurry in front of me, the words jumbling now. The alcohol must be still getting to my brain. "Tell the kid, I said it's alright," I tried to explain to the paramedic. "Tell him he's a great kid..."

Even when you're drunk and dying, you can tell when someone's patronizing you. The look on his face said it all as he went about shaving my fur and cutting my only good shirt away. "I will, now just relax and hold still for a moment. If you haven't noticed, there's an extra hole in you," he joked. "That might... explain the blood?" I joke back. "But I'm serious... tell that Kangaroo guy... I said it's alright. Tell him... good job... weren't f' him... someone would have... finished me off?"

My vision began to swim after that. I'm not sure if the paramedic heard what I was trying to say. "Tell him... Good him... finished..." is probably closer to what came out. I could feel someone grab my ankles and shoulders. Could see the carriage next to me, waiting to take me to my destination. Then as they began to pick me up, I could feel something tear inside. I growled aloud, my eyes squinting against the pain.

Then it went black...

As they were working on me, I had some crazy dreams.

At first I was a child, standing naked in front of the floating head of my father. All was black around me. I couldn't see anything but his face. "You went and got yourself shot for what you've done. It's your entire fault that she's dead. Just look at her." To my left the world lit up, and there in grass laid the body of my mother. Sick and dead from the 'Flu. Her eyes staring straight into me. "This is your fault," he growled again.

I looked back at him one last time. And I ran. I kept on running, tears streaming down my face. I just ran until I hit something solid and hard.

I looked up, and wiped the tears from my eyes. The small child that I was, and saw... me. Or at least, the leopard me. This creature had to be 20 feet tall. He bent down and effortlessly picked me up. I could still hear my father's voice getting closer: "You deserve this for what you've done!" Then the great beast opened his wide maw and tossed me in...

I awoke with a jump. That was soon followed by a groan. My chest hurt. My back hurt. Everything hurt. My head was dazed with all of the alcohol in my system. I knew they hadn't given me any medication. With all of the alcohol in me still, they probably couldn't. I looked around the blackened hospital room, listened to the machines beep as I watched my green heart monitor screen come alive from time to time.

My father's head. Where did that come from? I wasn't responsible for what happened to mom. Even though the whole town claimed I did it with witchcraft voodoo or something. She just died. She died as I began to change. I couldn't help that. So why did I dream of it?

Now, more than ever, I wished for a drink, or something to scour the images from my head. But they'd never give me anything like that in here. I did what I could do then, though. I slumped back down and closed my eyes, praying to God that my father would not interrupt my life again.

38: In the Shotgun Seat (David)

A ceaseless mutter of voices drifted into David's mind, lifting him slowly from the thick black depths of unconsciousness. Other sensations began to intrude as he neared the surface; the chill of the air on his unshaven face, a light that flickered painfully on his closed eyelids, the unpleasant yellow smell of old cigarettes. His head was tilted backward awkwardly, and he became aware of a dull pain in his neck where the muscles had cramped. His thoughts were blurred and indistinct. Where am I?

He lifted his head slightly, and a bolt of agony shot through his temples. Oh, God... It felt like his head was full of broken glass. He squeezed his eyes shut tighter against the flashing light outside. Each flash across his sensitive retinas brought a fresh burst of red pain. He tasted the sour residue of beer in his mouth, on his breath. How many beers? What have I been doing?

He'd gone over to Leroy's, he remembered that much. Not that he liked Leroy that much, of course; arrogant, insufferable bastard with his cruel humor and sense of absolute self-righteousness. The latter trait was shared and encouraged by the Reverend, the self-anointed spiritual and moral custodian of their local fraternity. The other members of the brotherhood were a mixed bag; he shared few interests with most of them, other than the one common thread that bound them together. But it had been Christmas Eve, and his apartment had been so empty. He had tried to call Kate...

Kate. Michelle. He remembered.

Fresh tears welled up, sharp little pinpricks from eyes that were already raw and sore from crying. He had called Kate, of course. Kate was staying with her mother, and he had called and called but got no answer. He couldn't be alone; he didn't trust himself tonight, not at Christmas. So he had gone out. He drove out to Leroy's place. At least he could talk freely with the others, speak his unguarded thoughts on certain topics not acceptable to polite company. Leroy had said that there would be beer there, and had hinted that he had something special planned for the evening. Knowing Leroy, it would probably be a stripper or something. A stripper for Christmas, David had thought dourly. Hallelujah.

There had been beer, all right. He remembered someone helping him stagger away from a potted shrub, the trunk of which was freshly decorated with foaming vomit. He remembered shouting at the others as he punched his fist in the air for emphasis, telling them that this was no way to spend a Christmas Eve; that they should be home with their god-damn families. He knew that it was wrong to cry in front of the other guys, but he just couldn't help it, and he found himself telling them all about Michelle. What a beautiful, perfect little girl she was. She had her daddy's eyes. He told them about that last time, how his little girl had laughed as she had waved goodbye to him and Kate for the weekend. How he had noticed that his sister-in-law Ellen had looked a little ill and pale, he had said that maybe they had better not go after all, but Ellen had said no, she was fine to babysit, it was just her allergies acting up, and besides they needed to get away, it was their anniversary? He began to cry harder, cursing the others, cursing the world and all the miserable inhuman freaks in it to hell forever.

Then the Reverend started talking. Usually David found his little sermons tiresome and offensive, a sorry attempt to drape pure, honest hatred in the garb of religious absolutism. Yet strangely enough, this time it had seemed to David that he was making perfect sense. This is what we are fighting against, the Reverend had thundered as if declaiming from the pulpit. These soulless abominations of Herod are allowed to walk unhindered in our streets, even as they strike down our own children! As he listened to that hectoring voice, David found his numb lips forming the word: Amen.

Then Leroy told them that a bunch of the brothers were planning to send a very special Christmas message this evening, and they wanted to share the opportunity for the others to get in on the action. The details hadn't really registered on David at that point, but the overall intent was perfectly clear.

That was when the rage had gotten hold of him again, white-hot and overwhelming all reason. Someone had slapped him on the shoulder; something metallic was pressed into his hands; they were in the van and driving; the others in the back were talking and laughing, looking forward to the wild work ahead. Maybe Ellen would be there, he thought vaguely. Leroy said that's where they all gathered, so maybe she would be there too... No, of course not. Ellen was dead, the police had come and put her down. Ellen was dead already.

But maybe there would be someone there who looked like her.

Through reddened eyes he had stared out the van window at the night sky above. Merry Christmas, Michelle, he whispered. Merry Christmas wherever you are, sweet one. Daddy loves you. He loves you so much.

A sudden, sharp series of taps jerked David back to full consciousness. He lifted his head and groaned as fresh pain gripped his skull. Someone was shining a light in his eyes, making them sting and water. His vision slowly cleared and he found himself staring down the muzzle of a police automatic being pointed at him through the windshield. Another officer stood outside the passenger side door, flashlight in one hand, pistol in the other, both aimed directly at David. He blinked confusedly at them, like an owl. Nothing made sense; he had no idea where he was.

The officer to his right shouted something incomprehensible and gestured with his flashlight. David became aware of a weight on his lap, and looked down to see a short-barreled semiautomatic rifle nestled there. Dazed and horrified, he knocked it away clumsily with the heel of his hand and it clattered loudly to the floor of the van.

The officer shouted something else and gestured at the passenger side door. David looked around again, more details of his surroundings starting to register in his muddled brain. The van was parked near the front of an alley, across from a bar in a neighborhood David didn't recognize. Half a dozen police cars and emergency vehicles were on the scene, their lights strobing ugly red patterns across the blank walls of the surrounding buildings. By the pulsing crimson glare, David could make out the silhouettes of moving figures. Some of the shapes were not human. I'm in Hell, he thought dimly.

The police officer to his right tapped on the window again. David reached over clumsily and fumbled the lock open. Instantly the door was jerked wide and David was dragged outside, unyielding and uncomprehending, and shoved roughly to the pavement. The officer shouted something in his ear; David couldn't put the words together. Where's my family? he tried to ask them, and found that he was crying again instead. This time it felt like he might go on crying forever.

39: Flight or Fight (Draxa)

Draxa got up and slowly wandered into the street outside the bar. He was in a daze. After all the action, what he had witnessed finally began to sink in: It wasn't just an attack on one individual, but a declaration of war on an entire society. It meant that what he had fled when he left his hometown was not isolated. It was more widespread than he had believed before. He pushed past a few fellow SCABS, some dazed like himself, others rushing to help. His mind barely registered a screaming figure running by -- someone dealing with shock in a manner completely different then his own. His walk brought him closer to where the injured terrorists lay and other SCABS were gathered.

Not wanting to get involved in anything further, and assuming that someone had probably called the cops already, Draxa decided it would probably be for the best if he made his escape. Considering his normal line of work, a police interrogation would not be the most efficient way to continue his life the way he had lived it.

Draxa's thoughts kept moving towards what had happened. Who would have expected that someone would want to do this, especially on a night like tonight? Yet, somebody had managed to change Christmas, a day usually known for beauty, into something of horror. And that just would not do. So what if his personal feelings at this time didn't really cause him to appreciate the holiday! This was so much more than one person. It had impacted the lives of many people, everyone who was at the bar tonight. And in the morning, when the news spread through town, probably by biased news crews and propagandist people, the world would change for SCABs. After so much work had gone in to stop anti-SCAB legislation, and anti-SCAB Politicians, this would probably destroy the pro-SCAB work faster than it could be salvaged.

Anger coursed through Draxa's brain, replacing some of the confusion that had previously muddled him. Someone had to take revenge against these people, and the SCABs standing by the injured terrorists were just watching them -- one person had even started helping one of them! He wasn't doing much, just applying pressure to a wound in the victim's torso, but it was more sympathy than a terrorist like this deserved. In disgust, he started to walk away from the scene, following the side of one of the buildings. He didn't get far before he noticed another terrorist on the ground, a man still living, but obviously suffering from a broken neck. A quick survey of the area assured Draxa that no one was watching him, and he knelt down beside the terrorist.

"Hi, guy. I know you can hear me. And I know that you can't do anything to protect yourself from me. I just thought you might want to know what it's like to be the one that's feeling helpless. Sucks, huh?" Draxa reached down into one of the terrorist's pockets, taking his wallet and keeping it for himself. Draxa looked around again, to make sure no one had seen what he had done. The coast was clear. He kneeled beside the injured man, and leaned down towards him, his face resting inches away from that of the terrorist. "I bet this is just killing you inside. You hate me, don't you? Of course you do -- I'm a SCAB. I'm not human, am I?" He looked in the man's eyes, and then grinned, showing him his reptilian teeth. "You've ruined one of the best days of the year for us; the one day that SCABS should be able to get along with humans. It's not enough you rob us of our humanity, but you wanted to take away the one decent thing society still gives us!?" Draxa looked around again, realizing that that outburst had been a little too loud. He looked back down at the injured man, who had a look of pure terror in his eyes now. Something inside of Draxa snapped, a voice in his head chanting at him insistently, End it -- end him -- make him pay -- end him -- end it. Make him pay!

Draxa shook his head, trying to clear it of the voices. "Make it stop -- stop talking to me! Why won't you stop?" he yelled suddenly, now talking to no one but the voices yelling at him from his own head. Suddenly, he calmed down; his eyes narrowing as he once again stared at the injured man.

"Well, it's been nice talking to you... but I'm going to have to cut it a little short. I've decided what I'm going to do with you, and I think you'll agree that it's appropriate." He reached one of his hands down, and placed it onto the man's broken neck, feeling it, and squeezing a bit. He could feel the broken bones beneath the skin, and he knew what to do. Slowly, his hand started to squeeze. It wasn't much at first, but then the pressure got a little stronger, bit-by-bit. His hand also started to twist, moving the man's neck further out of alignment. He wanted this man to feel pain as he died, to know how mad he had made him, and how much pain he had caused now, and in the future.

He was about to give his hand the final twist that would seal the fate of the injured terrorist, when something stopped him. "Hey! You! What are you doing! Get away from him!" He snapped his head towards the voice -- a SCAB was running in his direction.

"Well, I'll have to leave you for later," he said to the man, jumping up and sprinting away from the oncoming SCAB. He spread his wings and flapped a couple times, jumping to give himself a little bit of thrust. It worked; he was airborne. It took a lot out of him when he used his wings, but given current events, 'exhausted' was far better than 'caught'. He quickly made it to the top of a nearby lamppost, and from there flew to the top of the adjacent building. Draxa took off in a sprint, running not only for his freedom, but also from the voices in his head urging him to go back and finish what he had started.

Reaching the edge of the building, he spread his wings again and jumped into a glide. This was much easier, not taking much energy at all for him to maintain. He landed on top of another building and kept going. He had to escape. Prison definitely was not an option; he knew what happened to his kind there. SCABS victims didn't last long with human inmates. His sprinting and gliding quickly took him away from the Pig, and the general neighborhood. Police cars driving towards the scene with lights flashing barely registered in his mind. He had to escape before they caught him; he had to get out -- now!

It didn't take long for him to make it back to the pawnshop where he lived. This part of the city was well known to him. He slid back down the alley along the side, and through the basement window into his home.

Draxa was safe.

Exhaustion overwhelmed him. He was barely able to keep awake long enough to make it to the pile of blankets he used as a bed. About to fall asleep, he woke with a start, remembering the wallet. He opened it, and immediately dropped it in shock. He'd expected that a terrorist's wallet would be filled with horror, snapshots of clubbed animorphs and the like; what he saw was exactly the opposite. Out of the wallet tumbled something he had not expected to see, something that affected him and hit him with the cruelty of what he had just tried to do. A simple plastic accordion-type cardholder fell out, filled with pictures.

The terrorist with his wife... a wedding? More pictures than that, one was a group of babies, all held by a proud, yet exhausted mother. Triplets. He had three children. Farther down was another picture, of the two girls and boy with Mom and Dad, now around the age of 2. There was even a hockey card, obviously a personalized one, showing his boy shooting a goal. The final straw was a poem that was lovingly placed in one of the card slots.

Daddy, I love you,
you're cool to me,
I want a pet dove,
so that I could see
how much you love me.

Draxa stumbled away, crawling into the corner, as far as he could push himself from the wallet. Tears formed spontaneously and unnoticed, fell from his eyes. He began to rock back and forth, slowly at first, and then faster.

If someone had been listening, they would have heard quiet murmurs. A man's voice, slowly repeating to himself "no -- no -- no -- no -- no -- no -- no -- no," until eventually the sobs quieted, and he fell asleep. His body twitched, controlled by a mind plagued with bad dreams. What he had done clutched at his mind even as he slept, not letting him escape even in the depths of dreams. Dreams bringing him back to what had happened earlier, only this time he wasn't alone. The family was standing, watching. The daughter recited her poem. The words echoed not once, but an infinite number of times. Her words drove into his mind making him wish he could stop. Yet he could not. And as the night past, he killed the man again, and again. Whimpers escaped his mouth as he faced his actions, his soul in anguish that seemed to him to last eternally. And despite this anguish, he could not wake.

40: Miranda Blues (Steve Carson)

I didn't know what to expect next. I just sat in the cold, rubbing my hands together as the night pressed on. The police interrogated more SCABs for what seemed like forever, obviously wanting to get their facts straight.

I couldn't help but wonder how the media was going to handle this issue. "Brave SCABs decimate would-be killers?" That would be a good headline tomorrow. If only.

A female police officer suddenly came over to me, accompanied by a rather nervous looking male partner.

She looked me dead in the face and asked, "Are you the kangaroo from the alley?"

"Huh?" I responded.

"Some of the other SCABs said that a kangaroo SCAB fought in the alleyway. Is that you?"

"Yes," I said meekly.

She nodded. "Do you know that one of the shooters you attacked has died from his injuries?"

Her words reopened my wounds. "Yes, someone just told me that."

"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to come with us."

I wasn't ready for that. "What do you mean?"

"You've killed somebody, Mr. 'Equestrian'," she said rather matter-of-factly. "We're going to have to question you for that."

Words couldn't give justice to what I was feeling right now. "But it was self-defense! I didn't mean to kill him."

She shook her head. "It doesn't matter. The law states that we have to take you into custody until we determine for sure what happened."

I was dumbstruck. I couldn't believe what she was saying. How could this be happening?! I didn't do anything wrong!

"I'm under arrest?" I asked timidly.

"We're not sure yet. But for now, you have to come with us."

During this whole exchange I couldn't help but notice the nervous cop kept his hand close to his gun holster. Another officer was heading my way, this one with dead eyes. I bit my lip, letting out a quick exhale as I raised my hands in a stopping motion.

"Look, I don't understand what's going on here!" I sputtered. "I don't even know everything that's happened here."

The policewoman lifted her hand. "Look, you're coming with us, and that's that." She reached onto her belt and pulled off a pair of handcuffs. The nervous cop swallowed quickly, placing his hand on his gun.

The shear suddenness of all this left me flabbergasted. I'm being taken into custody! The worst punishment that ever happened to me in my life was being sent to the Principal's office for talking back to the teacher in second grade. Now I'm being detained by the police!?

"Don't put those on me!" I said, angry but without force. "I'll go quietly with you, but you don't need to use those."

The nervous cop exhaled again, which was making me nervous as well. By now this whole scene had caught the attention of the other police officers as well as the SCABs and other witnesses being questioned inside the tape. I felt a sea of eyes staring down on me, each set watching with unique concerns about what was going on. I never felt so ashamed in all my life.

"It's standard procedure," the policewoman said. "Turn around and place your hands behind your back."

I remained firm in my resolve. "I already told you, I'll go with you quietly, but there's no need for the cuffs. I'm not going to do anything."

No sooner had I said those words then I felt a hand grip the back of my head and push me forward. The police officer with the dead-looking eyes had snuck up behind me and grabbed me. I barely had time to register this in my mind before he forced me into the rear panel of a police cruiser and then shoved my upper torso down hard on the trunk.

"I don't think you realize what's going on here," the big oaf said as he shoved my face down on the rear hood of the car. "You're going to do exactly as we tell you to, you SCAB bastard!"

I looked helplessly around as I felt cold steel snap unto my hands, a clicking noise signaling my loss of freedom. I heard someone scream from the crowd, "Let him go!" I'm not sure, but it might have been Michael.

"Now you're under arrest," the cop said, "for failure to cooperate with a police officer. You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you..."

The nervous cop had long since drawn his gun, and the female officer followed suit, seemingly reluctantly.

"Watch his feet," the timid officer said. "He can kill you with his feet!"

The tough officer didn't seem to notice his fellow cop's outburst. He opened up the back door to the police car and quickly shoved me inside, slamming the door which then bounced back after being blocked from shutting by my tail, which hadn't made it inside yet. God, it hurt, and I let everyone know by how hard I screamed in pain. The big lug just absentmindedly grabbed my bruised appendage and pushed it inside, closing the door more successfully this time.

I began to cry. I couldn't believe I was being arrested. I couldn't believe I was being treated this way. Like a dangerous animal. Like a monster! I looked out the rear windshield with tears in my eyes, watching others in the crowd as they stared at me.

I wanted to be invisible. No -- I wanted to have never been stupid enough to leave my parents' home on Christmas Eve on some sort of personal fact-finding mission. I wanted to have never killed that man. But I was a killer. I still couldn't believe what I'd done, but now I was in police custody, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The oaf got in the driver seat of the car and turned the ignition. He turned around to face me, a sadistic smile on his face.

"We're going to want some answers, you beast," he spat. "There's a whole street full of people torn up pretty bad, and since no one else is claiming responsibility for that yet, I guess the blame falls on you for the time being. Merry Christmas."

I looked down at the floorboard, too ashamed to face anyone as the car pulled away through a flood of rubberneckers and other prying eyes.

41: Servare Vitas (Duncan Cougar)

When I entered the common room almost all talk just stopped -- only to be replaced an instant later by low murmur, or at least so it seemed to me.

Oh well, face it, no way around it. At least they haven't shot at you. Yet.

I fixed my gaze on Donnie at the bar and slowly walked over there, making sure to keep my distance to any and all I had to pass by. The bar had obviously just been vacated by the patrons. Finally, there, I stood up on my hind legs, placing one front paw on the counter, while dragging the credit card out from my collar with the other. By then Donnie had come over to where I leaned against the bar. Slowly shoving my card over the counter towards the bartender, I kept my gaze down on the counter.

Fearing what the answer might be.

Hoping what the answer might be.

My ears lay flat back on my head in fright; my tail quivered with anticipation and dread. I said, "Thanks for letting me clean up and... uhhm, would you mind running a tab for me? Assuming I am still welcome here, that is..."

Donnie looked back at me as if I had lost my marbles, not comprehending my reluctance, still not connecting me with the carnage that had happened outside. Was it just a few minutes ago? To break the silence between us, I finally said:

"Could you bring me a bowl with milk, please?"

After Donnie had turned to get me my drink, I finally took the time to shift my focus away from the bovine to the rest of the bar. You see, when I am in what I call 'hunting mode', nothing short of life-threatening can shift my focus away from my prey, my target. That singlemindedness, this complete determination, completely focused on one goal, paired with awe-inspiring swiftness and ruthlessness of a predator... I can very well understand the nervousness of others around me, especially of those who have seen me hunt. I wouldn't have believed it myself, if not for the day some of my colleagues shot me on film bringing down a deer. At first I hadn't even connected that moving image with what I had done just a few moments ago -- didn't even realize that it was me that I was seeing there.

Relaxing my focus -- the curse as well as benefit of the feline mind -- I let in the rest of the room.

Most of the patrons were gathered near the front windows, gawking outside, discussing what the fuck had just happened, what to do. At one booth some people were trying to revive one SCAB. Seems I had been wrong. At least one in the bar had been hurt during the attack; whether by the attack itself or just by it giving him a heart attack, I couldn't say from my place at the bar.

Time to wait for the cops to come in, I thought to myself. Sure, I could walk out there on all fours. If I was lucky, someone had called Animal Control and all I would have to worry about was waking up with a headache in a cage. Not quite so lucky, and they'd have gotten the doses wrong and I wouldn't wake up from slumberland. More likely they would have heard enough of what had happened out there to play it safe and put me out, right on the doorstep.

No, I knew what I was doing. I wanted to meet them on my terms. I wanted to see them to see me as a sentient being, someone they could talk to, not needed to shoot down. If that required me to make them unsure about their footing right from the start, so be it.

I had to break their preconceptions, had to behave in a way they couldn't expect of a wild animal. Which meant I had to start this on the same eye-level as they. If their first view of me was on all fours, I would never get back to eye-to-eye in any time to matter. It's hardwired in humans and even most SCABs. I have been there often enough to know better now. The only chance to start this, without them looking down on me (literally as well as not), would be for me to stand up... and for me that meant I had to lean to something. Curse this four-on-the-floor body SCABS put me in! And right now, that meant me standing on my hind legs at the bar, one paw on the counter. Hiding my wounded side from view, my ID card below my paw, I was waiting for the curtain to go up.

Finally, two cops stepped through the front door. Both officers were SCABs to some degree, one with a bit of Rottweiler in him, the other with more than just a bit of wolf or wolfhound.

Police doggies. Why doesn't that surprise me... I hoped we might get better along than the proverbial cats and dogs. Still, not a bad move, I silently added to myself, sending SCABs into the place first in a situation like this. Probably the reason why none of the other officers had come in by now. Maybe this will go smoother than I could hope for.

Both of them were obviously nervous, looking for the murderous SCAB responsible for what had happened outside. They clearly thought the perp would be hiding below a table, behind the other patrons; they overlooked the cat in plain sight, right in front of their muzzles.

"Thank you for coming, officers," I greeted them, "I presume you are looking for me?"

Both did a double-take, their hands going to their pistol holsters, when they realized who had addressed them so.

"Please, that won't be necessary," I tried to calm them. "Have a seat," I indicated with my free paw towards two bar stools. Still playing the cool cat, I went on: "I believe introductions are in order?" Then, with a move that had taken me and my goddamned paws months to master, I 'handed' over my ID card for their inspection.

'Mr. Wolf cop' took the card and silently read it with a quick glance:

Special Agent Cougar
Critical Incident Response Group
Tactical Branch -- Operations Training Unit

While he was handing my card over to his fellow officer, I continued: "I hope you don't mind if I am of service to you, officers. Could you please tell the ranking officer out there that I would like a word with him, at his earliest convenience?"

42: A Completely Different Christmas Party (Ezekiel Cavanaugh)

Christmas Eve, somewhere in Maryland

The sound of voices was loud enough that Ezekiel Cavanaugh had to strain to hear the Christmas music playing in the background. Not that he was listening; the music was set on endless loop, if it ever ran out it would repeat itself. But it was one more detail in the evening's party that he was keenly aware of. It was the first he'd thrown since his family had been broken by the Martian Flu.

Strangely, it was the sounds he was more keenly aware of than anything else. Was he hoping to hear his wife's trilling laugh amongst the guests, or the studious and careful conversation of his eldest son, or even the willful and coquettish whispers of his daughter? Perhaps the whine of his next son, the one who had not died, merely changed? Was he listening for them?

Ezekiel did not know. Perhaps he was just listening to the music. What was the tune? It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, he thought. Shaking his head, he looked back at the tall, dapper man that had moments before greeted him.

"Forgive me, Senator," he said, extending his hand once more. "I thought I heard something."

Senator Hargreaves laughed warmly, shaking hands with that familiar politician's grip -- not too hard, but firmly and warm. "Funny you should say that, Zeke, I can barely hear myself speaking here. You've invited quite a crowd this year."

Ezekiel smiled and nodded at that, letting his hand fall to his side. "Well, we did quite well in the elections this November. It seemed fitting to celebrate."

"Not all of us did so well this year," Hargreaves said, sipping at the small glass of wine he held in one hand. "How are your two boys?"

"Well enough. We're coping. It's always hardest around the holidays."

"Yes," Hargreaves replied, before standing to his side and sipping at the wine again. It had the pungent pinch of alcohol blended with a mix of peaches and grapes. Ezekiel kept a store of fine wines in his cellar merely because it was expected of a gentleman, not because of any special love for libations.

"And how is your son?" Ezekiel asked after a moment's silence. He saw a few of the reporters that had been invited to the festivities standing by the buffet table, looking around. He and the Senator were standing up along the raised balcony overlooking the ballroom floor. Everyone would have seen them by now. The Senator from Kentucky's reputation was well known, as were the people that Ezekiel lobbied for. Likely conspiracies were already floating through the minds of everyone present.

"Feeling a little under the weather at the moment. Julia told me I should come by myself while she looks after him."

"I thought you had a nurse."

John Hargreaves shook his head. "'Had' a nurse, yes. Caught her ODing on painkillers a month ago, had her fired immediately. Haven't found a new one yet."

"That's a shame. I do hope James is feeling better soon."

"I'm sure he will." The Kentuckian turned to the side, resting his elbow upon the alabaster railing. "Tell me, Zeke, will you be returning to work full time next year? You could help me out with a bill I'm working on."

Ezekiel lifted one eyebrow. He'd been waiting for this. "What do you have in mind?"

"Well, we won a few more seats in both the House and the Senate in the election, at least for our cause. I think we may have the votes now to pass some form of SCAB regulations. They're a threat that needs to be controlled."

"True. What will you be proposing this time?"

"Oh, the sort of things we've usually talked about. I'll propose something radical of course. What I need your help with is lobbying some of my wavering associates. I'm willing to have some of the bill pared down so we can get the votes, but I'd like to get something passed this year." Hargreaves finished his glass of wine and ran one finger long the edge of the glass. His piercing blues eyes regarded the lobbyist.

"Can I count you in?"

"Give me one week to prepare some materials on this. When are you going to propose the bill?"

"As soon as Congress comes back in session. I'm working with the Minority leader to get the SCABS committee stacked on our side with anti-SCAB votes. The other guys will probably have one or two in there already, so we should be able to get it before the Senate at least without major changes."

Ezekiel grimaced. "That's not much time for me to prepare, John. But I'll do what I can."

John Hargreaves patted him on the back, his smile wide. "Thanks, Zeke. I knew I could count on you." He patted him one more time, and then stepped away from the railing, and back down into the crowd. Ezekiel let his eyes wander over to where the reporters were still standing. As expected, they turned their heads the moment his gaze reached them. No doubt they'd approach the Senator or one of the Senator's aides in the next few minutes. Before the end of the evening, they'd approach him as well.

As he scanned the rest of the crowd he saw his senior aide, Michael Gallagher, pulling his cellphone from his pocket and answering it. Even as he stared, the young man turned to look at him in concern. He pointed at the phone, meeting his employer's gaze. Narrowing his eyes, Ezekiel gestured at the top of the balustrade. Michael nodded and began to wade through the sea of faces.

Ezekiel moved to meet him at the top of the stairs. In a low voice, he asked, "What is it?"

"It's the State police. They need to talk to you."

"What about?" Ezekiel asked, now genuinely confused. Why would they be calling him?

"They wouldn't say," Michael handed over the phone.

Taking it, he lifted the receiver to his ear. "Yes?"

"Is this Ezekiel Cavanaugh?"

"Yes, this is."

"I'm afraid I have bad news for you, sir. Your son Methusaleh was shot this evening in an incident."

Ezekiel stiffened, his free hand tightening into a fist. He kept firm control over his voice. "Is he alive?"

"Yes. I don't have all the details, but I can give you the address and number where he is being treated." The officer began to rattle off the name of a hospital and everything he'd need to know. "He's listed in critical condition, but he's still alive. I'm sorry."

Ezekiel listened and committed it all to memory. "Thank you, officer. Is there anything else?" He hung up a moment later and turned to his senior aide of five years. "May I borrow your Palm?"

Michael nodded, and reached into his jacket pocket. He handed the silver case over into the steady hands of his employer. "What's wrong?" he asked, though no answer was forthcoming. Instead, Ezekiel quickly wrote out the address into his aide's Palm Pilot. The number he kept to himself.

"I need a plane ticket and ride to take me here as soon as the party has ended. Tell no one."

Nodding, Michael looked down at the address and frowned. "A hospital? Is something wrong?"

"Yes, but you need not worry about it any further. Just get me the plane ticket and transportation I need. I'll be travelling alone. Have my overnight bag readied as well." Ezekiel forced a smile and patted his friend on the back. "And then enjoy the rest of the party."

Michael smiled slowly and nodded, slipping the Palm back into his jacket pocket. "Of course, sir. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Mike." He smiled a bit wider that time.

43: Evolution in Action (???)

The world was at war.

Darwin proved it, and no matter what people believed, that war had never ended.

Only the fit would survive.

The timer dinged. I removed the lid from the iron pot and let the clean smell of rice waft up and out. Using the handle I took the pot over to a tray, pushing aside the box of tissues, before a 30" black and white monitor and sat it down on a piece of cork. I could own dishes, my problem wasn't money. My problem was that by transferring the rice to a plate, some grains and nutrients would be lost. Everything must be precise.

I checked the clock hanging above my medals and it was indeed time. If they were on schedule. With a rewired remote I switched on the monitor; there was only one signal, very carefully laid and very carefully planned. The picture was sharp and clear and still quiet. Figures that they're late.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter.

A leopard staggered out of the door of the Blind Pig supported by another feline, possibly a lynx. Nobody had discovered the camera or the wiring. A car entered the scene and sparks of light flashed from a muzzle shoved out one of its windows.

Picking up the polished spoon I scooped up some hot rice and breathed on it before putting it in my mouth and chewing.

The muzzle was a little bit low. Well, you get what you pay for, and perfection wasn't needed. In fact, perfection would have been detrimental to the goals of those I was working with.

Others moved into the scene, more gunfire, and then the truck.

I swallowed the last of the first spoonful of rice and took a sip of filtered cool water. The world was at war and only the fit would survive. I remembered the numbers shown to me years ago. Numbers of SCABs slowly increasing, numbers of SCABs that were immune to time slowly increasing. Eventually there would be more SCABs than humans.

And the SCABs would have proved their fitness.

My eyes began to water and I inhaled and exhaled in accelerating pulses, finally letting out a massive sneeze. Sniffling, I pulled out a tissue, blew my nose, crumpled the tissue up, and tossed it into the garbage on the far side of the room. I wished I knew where I'd gotten this cold -- hopefully it wouldn't develop into this year's flu.

I swallowed another spoonful of rice as the chaos unfolded on the monitor. My father had been involved in the rat experiments in the last century. Give a rat the minimum amount of nutrient it needs to survive, and it ages slower; it lives thrice or more as long as a rat that eats whatever it wants. My father had extended the experiment to me.

More gunfire. Others entering the scene. The truck beginning to be unloaded. I'd supplied the weapons through go-betweens. They thought it was hate. It wasn't. I'd seen hate, fought hate. When I was a SEAL I'd seen what hate could do. Hate lost wars.

More gunfire and the screen was momentarily washed out in the silent explosion of the truck. What the..? The ammunition? Maybe... I'll have to check. Idiots. They weren't fit, either -- but at least they were useful.

The last spoonful of rice, and then a damp finger to pick the rest out of the pot. There was exactly enough, no more, no less. I'd be alive in 200 years and I refused to lose the war.

Numbers don't lie.

Another SCAB, one with contacts within the so-called government. The government that didn't realize a war was being fought though some within it did.

The fire from the explosion was dying down and emergency personnel were arriving. The target hadn't been hurt -- a small defeat in a single battle in a larger campaign in a larger war.

It didn't matter for what was to come.

The world was at war, and I would make sure that humanity would survive.

With the remote I switched off the monitor. Then I stood up, picked up the pot, and went to wash it.

The Downward Spiral • Ch. 1: i ii iii Ch. 2: i ii iii
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