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] [#48] [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 2, part iii)

61: Keeping an Eye on the Pig (Mike Carson)

Mike slid the tape deck back under the bar and locked the cabinet.

"You're all set, Donnie," he said, turning to the bull. "We now have full coverage of the Pig. The monitor down there switches to a fresh camera every three seconds, and it all goes on tape. If you see something you don't like, just hit the 'hold' button and it'll stay with that camera."

Holding up a small control box, he continued to explain: "You can also manually move to any of the cameras by using this control. The cameras' fields of view overlap, so no one can tamper with one and not be seen by another. The one across the street can be panned and zoomed, so we can track someone if we need to."

Donnie scribbled on a pad in reply: [TOO COMPLICATED FOR ME.]

"Don't worry about it," Mike said. "I'm going to train several of our regulars on it so they can run it if you need. The only important one for you really is the hold button, and the bar camera."

[BAR CAMERA?] Donnie questioned using the note pad.

"Yeah. Remember, we said we decided on full coverage." Mike replied, pointing to a small camera hung just behind the bar. "That one will catch anyone who looks suspicious in the place."

[TAKE IT OUT,] Donnie wrote on the pad. [DON'T WANT ONE INSIDE.]

"But we may need it!" the orangutang SCAB, currently in his human form, retorted. "What if some goon like those the other night comes busting in? We'll need it for evidence."

The auroch shook his massive head.

[NO! TAKE IT OUT,] he wrote in larger letters.

"Donnie, you know what the media is doing to us," Mike began -- but a snort and the bull's lowered brow told him this was a battle he wouldn't win.

"Okay, but I'll have to do it later," Mike said. "For now, I'll leave the lens cap on. I should be able to get it out tomorrow."

Donnie reached up and grabbed hold of the small camera with his hand.

"No!" Mike shouted, seeing the bull about to rip the device from its mounting. Donnie shook his head as he simply pointed the small camera toward the ground. He then took a plastic cup from under the bar, slid it over the device and taped it in place.

[TAKE IT OUT TOMORROW,] Donnie wrote as Mike sighed in relief, [OR I WILL!]

"Sure thing, Donnie," the orangutan morph said, relieved that Donnie hadn't destroyed the camera. "I just don't have time today if I'm still going to finish setting up the equipment in Al's place."

The expression on the bull's face made it clear that Mike had lost him. So the broadcast engineer explained it again.

"I've got a full bank of recorders in Al's apartment, so if anything happens in here that would destroy the tape, we have backups of all the angles. All the cameras are wireless and fully encrypted. That's how we can view them here and at Al's. Look, I've got to run, but if you have any questions you can call me at the station or the next time I stop by."

Donnie nodded as Mike packed up his tools. Leaving the Pig, Mike walked across the street and paused for a moment. Looking up, he could see two of the cameras on the corners of the building. If he hadn't known where to look, however, they would barely be noticed. Entering the building he went up to Al's apartment. The lemur-morph welcomed him in as soon as he saw him.

"Is everything set?" he asked.

"Yeah, all but the camera in the bar," Mike replied. "Donnie doesn't want any cameras inside."

"I can understand that," Al said, his tail gracefully sweeping about as he spoke. "I certainly wouldn't want to feel I was being watched these days, and I'm sure a lot of the others would just as soon stay out of view."

"Well, it's not like we're going to be broadcasting this all over," Mike explained as he moved to the stack of VCRs in the corner. "This is for our own protection. First, it should let us see anyone before they can do any harm. Secondly, if they do anything, we've got them on tape and the police can use that for evidence. Lastly, it allows us to refute anything the media puts out if we need to."

"This whole thing has to put you in a tough spot," the long-tailed SCAB observed. "I mean, you work at one of the TV stations here and they seem to be doing a number on us, these days."

"Well, Channel 5's been pretty fair, all things considered," Mike said, checking the monitor and making a few adjustments. "Unlike that damn Yordan over at channel 3, most of our news people take the time to get all sides of the story. I'd love to get some dirt on that bitch and toss it all over the airwaves..."

"I know what you mean," Al replied, nodding. "It's a shame what she did to that poor Kangaroo morph. Shit, she makes it look like he was some kind of psychopath. The guy looked like he was scared out of his mind when the cops threw him in the car."

"He was," Mike said finishing his work. "He was just a poor kid, not even twenty. He just reacted to the situation and probably saved a lot more lives then he took. I spoke to him after the fight -- he was pretty badly shaken."

"I hope he's doing okay," the lemur replied. "I can't imagine what it's like to kill someone."

"I hope you never find out," the engineer told him, recalling his own past. "But I'm afraid a lot more of us will know how that feels before this mess is all over. You know, now that I think of it, the kid never did get back to me. Maybe I should try getting ahold of him and see how he's doing."

"Do you know where he lives?" Al asked.

"No, but I have my sources," Mike said with a bit of a smile. "One of the advantages of rubbing shoulders with people who have to track others down for a living. So, are you clear on the equipment and what you need to do?"

The lemur looked at the stack of recorders and other equipment and nodded.

"Pretty simple, from what you've showed me," he began. "Change the tapes each day, check the signal in the evening, and rotate the tapes every week. That's about it, right?"

"Yup; nothing more unless you have a problem," Mike answered. "Just give me a call if anything doesn't look right, and I'll stop by and fix it."

"Where'd you get all this stuff, anyway?" Al queried, looking the stack over again.

"Well, I had to buy the cameras," the orangutan explained, "but most of the other stuff is discards from the studio that I've been hanging on to. I figured they'd come in handy some day, and it looks like today is that day."

"Still had to cost you some bucks," the lemur commented.

"Less than you might think," Mike told him, heading for the door. "When you're in the business you can cut some pretty good deals. Speaking of business, I've got to run. Give me a shout if you need anything... and thanks."

"No problem," Al replied as Mike walked out. "If it makes things safer for SCABs, I'm glad to help."

62: Lending a Paw (Father Ted Colbert)

A sabre-toothed tiger isn't really a tiger; their proper name is 'smilodon', and they're long extinct. Most norms don't know this, but if you happen to be a smilodon-derived animorph SCAB, you learn fast. One such, Tig, was busy putting one of the exam rooms back in shape when he heard a familiar voice from the door.

"You know they're only going to mess it up again," called a voice nearly as deep as his own.

"If you want to play, you got to pay," Tig replied. "So how was your Christmas, padre?"

"At church it was fine," the lion replied. "I'm afraid it was far from merry, elsewhere."

"Yeah, I heard," the medic replied with a nod. "I was at the Pig last night. From what I saw, we got lucky. It could have been a lot worse."

"I can't argue with that," the priest said, then made a quick change of topic. "How was your Christmas, Tig?"

"Good, actually," Tig replied. "We had the whole family gathered at the folks' place. Jenny and Bob did the usual feast for twenty, even though there were only seven of us. Got to spend some quality time with the kids too."

"That sounds great," Father Ted replied with a grin. "I know you love spending time with them.

"Hard to believe how old the kids are getting. Dot is starting to look like a young lady. Emily is in high school and really helped Jenny with the cooking this year. Scott's looking at colleges and may get a scholarship in track. Even Sam was able to relax from his master's studies."

"Kids sure do grow up quickly," the priest agreed, his expression growing a bit more somber.

"So what's on your mind, father?" the saber-tooth asked as he noted the lion's expression. "I can see it certainly isn't the holidays."

"You never were one to dodge the issue." Father Ted said. "It's about the shelter fire. I've talked to a number of the victims, and they all say someone threw firebombs through the windows. Yet everything I've heard says they're calling it an accident."

"What!" Tig growled, nearly dropping the supplies in his paws. "Who's the idiot running that investigation?"

"I don't know," Ted said. "That's why I was hoping you might talk to one of your friends in the fire department."

"I can do better than that, Padre," the long-toothed cat said. "I'll take a look at it myself. How much was left standing?"

"I think just about everything is in the basement," the lion cleric said. "The walls are still standing, though part of the back wall did collapse."

"That's what the news was reporting," the smilodon replied. "I hear it took two fire fighters with it?"

"Yeah. I helped pull one out," the priest said sadly.

"Wait a minute. You were on scene there, as well as the Pig?" the shocked cat answered. "You were busy that night."

"No, it wasn't the night of the fire," the priest told his friend, his mouth sagging into a frown. "They were still looking the next day. I just happen to be there when they found the body. I helped lift up the wall so they could remove him and the two victims."

"You okay, Father?" the former fire fighter asked, seeing the priest's face. "Body recovery can really hit you. I've been there too many times myself."

"Yeah, I'm okay, Tig, but thanks for asking," the lion told him. "They're in God's hands now, I'm sure. The best thing for us to do now is to find out who did this, so no one else has to suffer."

"I'll get right on it," Tig told him, closing the cabinet he'd been restocking. "And I'll get in touch with a friend at the department to see who's fumbling the ball on this one."

"Thanks, Tig," the lion cleric answered. "Oh, by the way; I told Pat you had a new jacket for him, but I'm not sure he wants to part with the old leather one."

"I guessed as much," the saber-toothed cat said with a nod. "Even if he doesn't wear it all the time, it'll give him something to wear when one of the bovine residents has an instinct problem."

The smilodon snapped his head toward the door and his body tightened. With ears erect he stood silent for a moment.

"Problem?" Father Ted asked after Tig's attention seemed to relax slightly.

"We've got incoming," he told the priest. "Multi-car accident on the expressway. I just heard it on the scanner."

"Okay, I'll let you get ready for that," the priest said moving toward the door. "Let me know what you find out."

"You got it, Padre," the medical tiger said as he headed for the desk. "With both fire fighters and SCABs killed in this one, I've got two good reasons to nail whoever torched the shelter."

63: Tig Investigates (Charles 'Tig' de Maistre)

Tig walked up to the gutted-out building, the mixture of scents assaulting his feline senses. This was a scene that was all too familiar to him from his years in the fire service.

"Damn. Baker was right," he said to himself as he eyed the area. "She was a hot one."

He checked the strap that held  his custom boots onto his paws and moved into the debris. He mentally ran down the list of problems Father Ted had given him. Gently pushing aside some of the small debris that lay on the front steps, he moved to the door. Externally it seemed to have met all the safety requirements; Ted said all the doors had panic bars on the inside and exit signs. He grabbed the handle and tried to open the door but it was locked. Well, the pastor had given him a key, which he used now. As he squeezed the latch it released under the pressure of his thumb, but the door refused to open. Looking all around the door, he saw nothing out of place. Taking his multi-tool out, he ran one of the blades down the edge of the door. It stopped well above the latch.

Hmm... what have we here? Tig mused as he looked more closely. There within the crack he saw a small metallic object.

"Well, time to start building our case," he said, pulling out a camera and taking several pictures. "Now let's see just what you are."

Now he worked the tool against the obstruction. He was surprised by the amount of force it took to dislodge the object. Finally it yielded; two small wedge-shaped pieces dropped into his gloved paw. Putting them in a plastic bag, he noted where they'd been found. Now, the door could open with a gentle pull.

The wedges had left a heavy impression in the metal, a testimony to their effectiveness and the efforts the trapped people had put into their attempt to get out. Again he photographed the door and the sill. Beyond the door, he saw a rubble-filled basement. A large portion of the back wall had collapsed onto victims and fire fighters alike. The smilodon growled at the thought as he continued to survey the scene.

He went to his car for several pieces of pipe and a small box. Back at the once-jimmied door, he assembled the pipes into a single long pole and attached a piece of cloth to the end. He then lowered the cloth into the water in the basement, then retrieved the saturated fabric and put it in a vial in the box. He took samples from several places, from both the front and back doors. Then he examined the remains of the back door, which was lying amongst the fallen wall. On its edge were the same telltale marks he'd seen on the front door. He photographed it and did a brief search in the debris for any sign of the metal pieces that must have been there.

"That's two down," he growled to himself. "Now let's see if the fire escape had any help."

Much of the fire escape was now little more than twisted metal, crushed and bent by the falling wall; this didn't mean Tig couldn't find clues if he knew where to look. He began by examining the mounting brackets themselves. They showed no sign of failure, and were still covered with the protective paint that was visible on the entire escape.

"Well, it looks like they kept good maintenance on this," he mused as he looked at the next angular bracket. "Not everyone even thinks to paint these things."

Suddenly something caught his eye on the angle iron: A perfect hexagon of bare, paint-free metal where the mounting bolt had been. Next to it were several places where paint had been scraped clear in a circular pattern. As he took a closer look at it, he noticed a second scrape in the protective coating, also circular, concentric with the first but with a larger radius.

Wait a minute, he thought as he moved the bracket slightly. There's something that's not right here...

He wasn't sure what he'd just found, but something told him it was the next piece of the puzzle. He examined several more of the brackets; about half of them had the same patterns in the paint. His eyes opened wide as he saw the next support. Laying there in the angle iron was a bolt -- and the remains of the mount embedded in a fragment of wall. What caught his eye was that rather than being tight to the wall fragment, the bolt was a good inch out, though the end was still in the wall. All at once the marks, paint shadows and lack of bend in the supports made sense.

"Why, you dirty bastards," the saber-toothed cat cursed. "You took out the mounting bolts! That's why it collapsed."

Grabbing his camera, he took another series of photos of the various supports, particularly the one with the bolt still in the wall and bracket. If ever there was a smoking gun to the failure of the fire escape, this was it. All this time, a fire was building in the cat such as he hadn't felt in years. He'd lost too many friends over the years to fires set by those who enjoyed watching buildings burn. What fanned the flames of hate within him all the more was the malice shown here. Whoever had set this off, they'd done it in a very premeditated way, with the intent of causing the greatest possible number of fatalities.

A deep rumble coursed through his throat and chest. He wanted blood. He wanted to sink his claws into whoever had done this and rip the skin from their bodies while they still had life enough to feel the pain. For a long time he simply sat on the pile of debris, his anger coursing out in snarls as he considered all that he had discovered. Then, clearing his head, he rose to his hind paws and moved to the front of the building once again.

There's one more piece I need, he thought. And I think I know right where to look...

There was a power pole just to the side of the building. He could see where the power company had disconnected their lines; hanging just a few feet below was another wire. Tig removed his boots and sank his claws into the pole. Climbing with the skill of a lineman, he moved up to where he could clearly see the cut wire. To anyone who hadn't seen phone workers clear lines from burned-out buildings, nothing would seem amiss... but to Tig it just didn't look right. Using one paw he took a couple of pictures and returned to the ground. Now he needed a couple of photos taken before the fire, so he could see what the pole had looked like before the phone company came. He was sure this would only confirm what he suspected. With one last look at the building, he picked up his boots and returned to his car with all the evidence he had gathered.

"I don't know who you are," he rumbled to himself as he placed his equipment in the back of the vehicle. "But whoever you are, you're going to pay. If I have to deliver the bill myself you're not getting away with this. I'm going to take you down and down hard!"

The cat eased himself into the driver's seat and started the car. The scuff of the tires expressed a small portion of the anger seething within him as he drove away planning his next move.

At the offices of the city fire department

The young fire fighter picked up the cellphone in his usual manner.

"Arson investigation, Lieutenant Barry."

"Did you get the message?" asked a voice he was learning to dread.

"Yes," he answered, a tightness in his voice. "I took care of it this morning."

"Good, we'll be in touch," the voice replied.

"Look, I can't keep doing this," the young officer said. "We lost two men in that fire."

"You know the alternative," came the reply without a hint of emotion.

The young man closed his eyes. He knew all too well and he couldn't allow that to happen. The silence provided the answer his caller desired.

"We'll be in touch," the voice said again and hung up.

The fire fighter let the phone rest in his lap as he stared at the ceiling. In his mind he kept running over and over the depth of the pit he had fallen into.

At Tig's apartment

Tig scrolled through the images he had taken at the shelter. Each picture spoke anew of the unknown enemy's detailed plan to trap the Shelter residents and burn them alive. Tig moved to the close-ups of the wedges that had jammed the front door. The sides that had faced each other had a number of small stepped grooves what worked like interlocking teeth. Once the wedge had pushed past one, it could not slide back. This meant that the farther the pieces were pushed past each other the tighter they became. The backsides of the wedges still held pieces of wood and paint from the door and frame. If his guess was right, they'd been held in place with some kind of fast-acting glue.

He needed to get this information into the hands of the arson investigators and the police. Picking up the phone he dialed a number that had been indelibly written in his memory for years.

"Fire department, arson investigation, Captain Dugan speaking," a voice said through the receiver.

"Ed, this is Chuck de Maistre," Tig said.

"Chuck, you old smoke eater! How you been?" the surprised voice replied. "It's been years since I last saw you. I've damn near forgotten what you look like."

"Oh come on, Eddy," Tig shot back. "You can't forget a face like mine in just a couple of years."

"Oh, hey, I'm sorry man," Ed replied, his tone suddenly changing, realizing how cutting his comment could be to a SCAB. "I know it's got to be tough living in a body like that."

"Not really," the feline answered. "Food's easy to come by, if you can get it past the teeth. But I didn't call to make small talk. I've got some hot information on an arson investigation you're running."

"Let me guess. The SCABs shelter?" replied the captain. "We lost two good man at that fire, but we haven't come up with anything that clearly points to arson -- not yet, anyway. What have you got?"

"How about exit doors that were wedged shut, and a fire escape unbolted from the wall?" Tig  said. "On top of that, the phone line was cut -- and if my nose is right, there's gasoline residue in the basement."

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone with the sound of papers being shuffled. Finally the conversation continued.

"I just took a quick look at our case list," the captain continued. "The one handling that case is Tom Barry. He's new since you left. Young, but seems to be a sharp kid."

"Can you see what he's come up with so far?" Tig asked, hoping his friend might let him in on the details.

"Yeah, give me a second," Ed replied as the sounds of a keyboard being used filled the background. "Pulling it up now..."

Tig waited for his friend to finish. If they'd taken samples, they should at least be able to confirm his gasoline theory.

"The case is still open. No surprise there," Capt. Dugan told him. "A lot of the tests are showing inconclusive."

"Inconclusive?" Tig growled. "Where'd he get the samples? What tests did he run?"

"His report says the structure was too unstable to get internal samples," the fire fighter said. "He ran the standard battery of tests, but nothing came through as a clear positive. He's currently listing the cause as electrical, with possible gas line leakages accelerating the fire."

"You don't believe that, do you Ed?" Tig asked as he felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck. "The building was badly damaged, but I was able to get in without a problem. Sure, you don't want to go rummaging around the basement, but you know as well as I there are other ways of getting samples from the outside."

"After what you just told me, no, I don't buy it," came the reply. "But you know as well as I do, it's a judgment call as to whether you enter a building to investigate or not. What exactly have you got?"

Tig ran down the list of items he had, and sent him a couple of the photos he had taken. He explained how he believed the fire escape had been tampered with and the phone line cut before, not after, the fire.

"That's a lot of good evidence," Ed conceded. "Still, in a court it's all circumstantial. But it's more than enough to label this as a torch job. I could pass it onto Barry if you like."

"Ed, I've just got a bad feeling about this whole thing," Tig said, trying to make a case for what he really wanted. "These attacks were well coordinated. They had good equipment, and in this case at least, they knew exactly how to do the most harm."

"So someone hired a pro to do the job," Tig's friend suggested. "It could still just boil down to one SCAB hater with big bucks."

"This was done by more than one person," Tig explained. "I've got statements from victims telling of multiple Molotov cocktails being thrown into different rooms. From what they said, some of those didn't have just gas in them. The stuff stuck to fur and was hard to put out. Sounds all too much like some form of jellied gas -- maybe even a phosphorous mixture."

"So you're saying this is more then just someone looking to burn down a shelter?" the captain asked.

"Maybe. Ed, the word on the street is that this Flame of Justice group is a real threat," Tig told him. "If you go with the extreme point of view, they're a terrorist group whose sole purpose is to destroy every SCAB they can."

"You think someone organized all these attacks?" Ed asked.

"I don't know," Tig answered honestly. "But I'd rather play it safe. Better than half of what I've got, we only get one crack at. This Barry you mentioned? He sounds a little wet behind the ears. I'd like it if you could run the tests yourself and look at the results."

"That runs contrary to department policy," the captain pointed out. "Still, you had one of the best noses for things running foul I'd ever seen, even before you grew a tail."

"So I take it that means you'll look into it?" Tig asked.

"Yeah, I'll just need to pick up the evidence," Capt. Dugan told him. "You still live at your old place?"

"Yeah, I can email you the address," Tig answered.

"Okay, I've got to go out on an inspection later today," the captain said. "If you're going to be in, I'll swing by then and see what you've got."

"Thanks, Ed. I really appreciate it," Tig replied.

"If it helps us get whoever got our guys killed, it'll be more than worth it," Ed declared with genuine steel in his voice. "I'll see you then."

Tig hung up the phone and turned back to his computer. He sent the captain the address as he promised, along with a few more photos. After grabbing a bite to eat, he packaged up the evidence for when the captain stopped by. He knew if he could get Ed to ride shotgun on the investigation, it would be done right.

At the offices of the city fire department

The lieutenant ignored the cellphone as he completed work on a report. The last thing he needed right now was to lose his train of thought. After he completed the work and saved it, he picked up the phone and retrieved the voice mail from the missed call.

If anyone had been looking the shock that spread over his face would have led them to believe he'd just heard of a death in the family. Closing the phone he got up and headed for the captain's office.

"Hey, cap, has anyone else been working on the fire at..." he started to say as he entered the office but then saw the captain was not in. A glance at the coat rack told him the officer wasn't just out for a cup of coffee. He recalled him mentioning something about an inspection and figured that's where he was. Suddenly he noticed the image on the computer monitor: There was a picture of the front of the shelter from the fire he was investigating. Closing the door, he moved to the desk and looked at the image, which he now saw was part of an email. For a moment he considered forwarding the message to himself, but decided to print it instead.

The printer sprang to life, making far more noise then the young fire fighter was comfortable with. Several pages later, he returned to his office and reviewed the find. Here was enough evidence to clearly show that the doors and fire escape had been tampered with. He glanced at the clock and checked that his cellphone was close at hand. At the time the message had given the phone rang again.

"Arson investigation, Lieutenant Barry."

"We have a serious problem," the voice said harshly. "Someone has been snooping around the fire. He's likely to be coming to the department with evidence."

"Yes, I know," the lieutenant started to answer.

"I want his name and address," the voice commanded. "and make sure to get anything he's collected."

"He's already made contact," Tom replied but was again interrupted.

"What's his name?" demanded his caller.

"Just a sec..." he said, shuffling through his fresh printouts. "de Maistre, Charles de Maistre."

"What did he give you?"

"Nothing! He didn't come to me," the young man replied and immediately regretted his answer.

"I thought you were in charge of this investigation," growled the caller. "Who'd he see?"

"No one," the nervous young fire fighter answered. "I happened to see an email. He sent some photos of the shelter."

"Who got the email?" the voice asked.

"Capt. Dugan," he said. "He's in charge of the unit. He'd get any general information just sent into the unit and not to a specific investigator. He'll probably pass it on to me."

"Good," the caller replied, his tone somewhat calmed. "You know what to do when you get it."

"But if the evidence turns up missing, they can always go back to the scene and get more," he objected, knowing that someone else could get the samples he had refused to get.

"That's under control," the caller stated. "I doubt they'll have very much left to find. Now, do you have an address for this de Maistre?"

The young officer read off the address that was part of the email without thought. Suddenly his mind seized what this might mean.

"What are you going to do?" he asked in a near panic.

"That is not your concern," came the cold reply. "Just destroy the evidence when it arrives, and keep your end of the bargain."

"Look, I didn't agree to harming anyone," he began to reply.

"You know, I've been told that an animal can freeze to death if they don't have time to grow a proper winter coat," the voice said with a chilling tone. "We certainly wouldn't want that to happen... now, would we?"

"No! You can't do that!" he nearly screamed into the phone.

"Then you know what you have to do," came the harsh reply followed by silence.

"Hello... hello?" Lt. Barry called into the phone, knowing it was useless. He dropped the phone onto the desk and buried his face in his hands.

This is not happening, he thought as a multitude of images raced through his mind.

He was sliding down a very slippery slope with no handhold in sight. He had to do what they asked. He had to... or else they'd carry out their threat. If it were just himself, he'd march right into the captain's office and spill his guts; but he couldn't. It would kill her if he did. He had to keep her safe even if it meant letting others get hurt. He slipped the email into the folder he had on the fire and tried to return to his work.

64: Headaches for Another Day (Jonathan Prentice)

Local news report on the Blind Pig attack: "On Christmas Eve, not everyone has the holiday spirit. Case in point: Last night the Blind Pig Gin Mill, a SCAB-owned restaurant, was brutally attacked by terrorists calling themselves 'The Flames of Justice'. A late-model white Ford Ranger and a black SUV pulled up to the Blind Pig at about 9:00 last night and opened fire. One SCAB, named Jonathan Practice, a local musician, was injured and is reported in stable condition.

"The local police have refused comment on the situation, only calling it a 'terrorist attack gone awry'. An anonymous source within the police department had commented that 'apparently, the terrorists hadn't planned on the SCABs fighting back.' The police are unsure if any of the terrorists survived the attack.

"Pro-SCABS groups have declined comment at this time, only promising that there would be consequences.

"I'm Janet Rahmes for Action 5 Eye-Witness News."

The walls seemed to grow taller, closing me in. The black SUV stood in front of me, looming over me as the window slowly rolled down, only blackness within. I desperately clawed at the walls, trying to escape, not even my leopard claws helping me. I could only watch in horror as a barrel the size of a cannon emerged and listen to the maniacal laughter as whatever it was pulled the trigger.


The news report woke me. That and the feeling of a draft up the gown I was wearing. Nothing like a gunshot to sober you up when you're stark raving drunk, I suppose. My head felt like a road crew was building a freeway bypass through my skull. As I reached over and pulled on my shades, my door burst open; some idiot shoved a camera the size of a goat into my face.

"I'm Jack Carnes, and I'm standing here with the victim from last night's shooting. Tell me, sir, how are you feeling now?"

I could feel the fur begin to push out of my skin as the growl formed in my throat. "I haven't even spoken to the police yet! I've just been shot, I've got a hangover the size of New Jersey, and you want to know how I feel!?"

The reporter visibly shrunk as I reached out and grabbed him by the shirt caller, pulling him down near me, face to face. I could smell the fear on him now as I bared my teeth "Tell you what, Carney-baby: How about you get'cherself a .38, shoot yourself with it, and then take a pipe and bash yourself over the head, huh? Then you tell me how it feels, you two-bit newshound! Get out of my fucking room!"

Just then two cops came in and dragged the creeps out, kicking and protesting the whole way. I could hear shouts of "Freedom of the press!" as the door clamped shut. I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God someone heard me...

The door creaked open again, and I could see the police officer poke his head in. "Sorry, Mr. Practice. We just came on duty when we heard that punk harassing you. If you need anything, you let us know, okay?"

"Sure." I replied, my head pounding. "Can I get some Aspirin or something? And when will you take my statements or what ever?"

"I'll get a doctor. And we'll get your statements later, when you've healed up and you're not hungover." The cop grinned as he gently shut the door.

And people say there are no good cops around anymore...

I gently relaxed and waited for my aspirin as I relaxed into my bed. My back was throbbing in pain from my sudden outburst, now letting itself be known. Maybe the cop would let me have a little bit of the hair of the dog..? I wondered as I slowly began to drift off to sleep again.

65: Father's Daughter (Elizabeth Hallsworth)

"Alright, I'll see you later, Glenda. Drive careful," I said as I stepped out of her car.

"Don't I always?" she asked with a smile. Unfortunately, it was obvious the smile was for show. Hearing from Elizabeth about the attack last night had been a shock for both of us. The fact that there was people who hated SCABs enough to go out and perpetrate violence against the changed, that wasn't news. I'd been on the receiving end of enough gang beatings in my junior year to know how bad that anger could get.

But the fact that there were people who wanted every SCAB in sight dead and were taking measures to see this goal through... Well, even as bad as it got sometimes, you just couldn't even think that that would ever be possible.

Thanks to some of my dad's war stories, I could easily see that sort of thing happening in any of the collapsed countries. But how could the violence ever get to that level here?

Glenda backed her car up, then drove towards the ramp and out of the below-ground parking garage of my apartment building. I tried putting the grisly news out of my mind for a second until I could get upstairs.

I walked over to the stairwell door and got my keys out, I got the key in but the lock refused to turn. Perplexed by this I tried again, and again after that only to have it stubbornly refuse to unlock.

"Crud, what the..." I muttered under my breath.

"Problems?" said  my father's familiar voice. I jumped even though I recognized the voice; he'd crept up behind me so silently that my doe ears hadn't picked up any sound until he was close enough to touch me.

Of course he hadn't meant to creep up on me. For him, keeping his footsteps as quiet as humanly possible wasn't something he even thought about. It was a survival trait, pounded into him by his time in the Army, that he could no more turn off than I could turn off my instincts to run like hell at the sudden sound of his voice so close to me.

I didn't run, though, for two reasons: First, he was behind me and there was a wall directly in front of me, and second, because it was the voice of my father. Exhaust fumes in the parking lot might overpower his distinctive scent too badly for me to recognize it, but the sound of his voice was something I'd always associate with safety.

With a sigh, I turned my head so I could see him.

"Lock's jammed, I think." His eyebrows furrowed at that, and he motioned for me to move out of the way. He put his hand on the key and turned it once, getting no more result than I had.

"Not jammed, busted. Gonna have to use the lobby door," he said, so I followed him inside and up to the lobby.

He pressed the button for the elevator and we both stood there waiting for it to come down. Now that the car-stench had dissipated, I could tell my dad was pretty tensed up. He did an incredible job of hiding any visible details of it, but he couldn't hide his scent. I wondered if he was just tense after hearing about the attack, or if something specific had happened while he was on duty.

He cleared his throat and looked me in the eye for a second to compose himself. "Did you hear anything on the radio while you were out today?" He asked.

"Not on the radio, but yes, I did hear about the attack," I said. He nodded.

"I tried to phone you on your cell this morning, but you propably forgot it when you headed out," he said. I checked my purse and found he was right. "And I bet you're not carrying any protection, either, are you?" I could see his chest was trembling lightly now. It wasn't much -- just the only noticeable sign of fear he ever showed to the world. As far as I knew, it only showed up when he was either scared for his life or mine.

"Wha.. yes I..." I said trying to get the words out, the question itself didn't surprise me, what surprised me was the intensity in his voice. Giving up on the words I lifted the edge of my skirt up to reveal my tazer in the holster I used for carrying it.

"Is that all you're carrying?" he asked, averting his eyes to the ground now.

"Yes, it is." I said simply, realizing what was wrong with my dad now. I could hear his breath become ragged and I realized he was breaking down. I'd only seen him do this once before in my entire life.

"Damnit... damnit, Sara, how many times do I have to tell you that a tazer isn't going to hold off a mob -- or even just a small group of thugs if they want to hurt you." The way he phrased it it wasn't a question. The elevator door opened and both of us just stood there for a minute. Dad was the first one to move when the elevator door started to close; he stopped it with his hand, then stepped inside. I did too and the door closed behind us.

I reached out and pressed the button for our floor.

Neither of us spoke while the elevator rose to our floor. He stepped out and started walking slowly towards our apartment. I stepped out of the elevator but stopped just outside of its threshold.

I know who my dad is. Sara knew that anyone could and would say as much -- but most of them had no idea just how complex that question could be if their fathers were anything like hers. I know who my dad is. I know that despite the cocky, seen it all, war veteran front he puts out to the world, just the thought of being in the line of fire makes his guts twist. And I know, worse than that, the thought of losing me causes him an unfathomable amount of pain.

He was approaching middle-aged now, and he'd steadily lost people who mattered to him since the day his own father died. Not all of them at once, of course. A good number of his friends met the cold embrace of death in the service; others, like my mom, severed contact with him after I came down with Martian Flu and SCABS. But it was a constant factor in his life, the loss of his friends and loved ones.

That was part of the reason my condition hadn't affected his love for me at all: As long as I still had a heartbeat, nothing else mattered. I was alive -- what more could he ever ask for?

And what if I ever did die? I thought. This went far beyond the normal fear every parent has for the safety of their offspring. If some thug ever did just stab me in some alley and leave me to bleed to death... what would that do to him? That was his worst fear in the world. How could I possibly bring my father that much pain? After all he's done for me?

The answer was incredibly simple. I loved my father more than anyone else, and I couldn't ever... no, I will never do that to him... and anything that would try to make me break that promise could take a running jump and go straight to Hell!!! I now realized I'd made that promise some time before in my life without realizing it... probably after mom walked out on us.

Yes... that must have been when I promised myself, and him, that no matter what else happens in my life, he would never have to live with my death. And now that I know I'm never going to put his fears to reality, I just need to convince him of that so he can let me live my life, secure in the knowledge that I will always  be sure to shield my own safety, that I can and will protect myself from harm.

"Hey, dad!" I yelled out. He was halfway down the hall to our apartment, about seven meters away. I crossed that distance before he could turn fully around and see me coming.

I placed my right leg in behind him and rammed my shoulder into his chest, I only weighed a little more than half what he did; most people would assume the little doe girl would just bounce off him. But my dad hadn't taken any liberties when he schooled me in self defense -- I knocked him flat on his back with the ease of a pro football player.

As he tried to catch his breath, I walked up beside him. With one hoof on his left side I placed my right hoof on the middle of his neck just off to the right of his windpipe, applying enough force that he would know who in control here. His eyes widened as he looked up at me from his position on the floor. He recognized the move, he'd taught it to me as a efficient (if unorthodox) restraining move. From where I'd put it, a minute amount of force was my hoof would need to cause huge amounts of pain, throttle back the flow of air, or even crush the trachea entirely... and I knew exactly the amount of force each needed. And, possibly for the first time, he could see I knew what I was doing; that I was in control and capable of exercising that control on anyone of ill intent.

After ten seconds I removed my hoof and knelt down beside him. He slowly sat up but stayed sitting as opposed to getting up. From here we could both see eye to eye, and on more than just the physical level, I think.

"Dad..." I said in a level tone.

"Yes?" he said, staring me straight in the eye.

"I want you to trust me completely with my own safety from now on, alright?" He tried to speak, but I silenced him by putting my hand on his mouth. "That's not a request, dad." He said nothing. "I love you, and I will never give anyone the chance to cause you that much pain by killing me. I don't care if it's a torch-carrying mob or a group of terrorists with assault rifles. I will do anything and use everything you have ever taught me to protect myself."

We continued just staring into each other eyes and what I saw caused me more joy than I thought should be possible considering the gravity of this situation. I could see his fear dissipating right in front of me. It didn't leave him completely  -- he'd been too horribly scarred by life for that to ever happen -- but he could no longer fear like he had. He trusted me not to leave him now, either by choice or death, as fully as I trusted him to never stop loving me.

I stood up again and offered my hand. He took it and I helped pull him to his feet. He just stood there, staring down at me for a minute, no longer having any horrible dread to hide from the sight of the world.

"Besides, I am my father's daughter; if my father is any indication, I'm too damn tough to die," I said, imitating the brash tones my dad always used when asked about how dangerous his job sometimes was.

He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me into a hug I gladly returned, but not before I could see a huge smile spread across his face. He lowered his head and kissed me on the forehead.

"Damn straight, and don't you dare change on me...


I pushed away from him in mock revolution. "Aauughgg! That was the worst possible time for a joke, dad!!" I said, trying (and failing utterly) to sound disgusted and holding back my laughter.

"Sorry. How about I make it up to you by making you supper?" he said with no small amount of joy in his voice either.

We walked to our apartment, still holding onto each other, not just as father and daughter anymore but as two people who now knew with all their heart there was no length they wouldn't go to for the other.

66: From a Tight Spot... (Lt. Tom Barry)

The young fire fighter picked up the cellphone in his usual manner.

"Fire department, arson investigation, Lieutenant Barry."

"Did you get the message?" asked a voice he was learning to dread.

"Yes," he answered, a tightness in his voice. "I took care of it this morning."

"Good, we'll be in touch," the voice replied.

"Look, I can't keep doing this," the young officer said. "We lost two men in that fire!"

"You know the alternative," came the reply without a hint of emotion.

The young man closed his eyes. He knew all too well and he couldn't allow that to happen. The silence provided the answer his caller desired.

"We'll be in touch," the voice said again and hung up.

The fire fighter let the phone rest in his lap as he stared at the ceiling. In his mind he kept running over and over the depth of the pit he had fallen into.

67: A Stop For the News (Draxa)

The weather wasn't too bad that day. Draxa wandered the streets, his actions from the other night reduced to mere recollections, a shadow of a memory deep within his brain. He slunk down the street, moving between different passers-by without them even being fully aware of his existence. That was one of the advantages SCABS had given him. To them, he was just another victim of poverty, a pity case for social workers and people who believed in helping others. To him, they were easy targets, people not expecting a non-existent individual to rifle through their pockets as they passed.

Things were working at a good pace that day: He'd already grabbed himself a few wallets, a woman's money satchel from within her purse, and a businessman's money clip. His hands moved with a purpose, flitting in and out of pockets in the time it took to brush against a stranger in the crowd. He even managed to rob an individual that he was fairly sure had tried to do unto him! Probably why he recognized the wallet he managed to free from that man's pocket. All in all, it was a successful day. There hadn't even been any need for breaking-and-entering; he'd gotten enough from these pedestrians that he could afford not to invade any houses today.

At around 7:00 that evening, Draxa decided that he'd been out long enough. Feeling a little hungry, he started heading home, when he walked past a display of televisions showing the evening news. He stopped, something bringing him to watch for at least a little while.

"And with that, the kitten was freed from the well, returning to his loving family after twelve hours of furious rescue work. Makes me feel like there is a little hope in this world, when something so horrible can lead to such a joyful reunion." The oh-so-clean-cut human reporter wiped a tear from his eye, and turned into another camera view, a picture of a human silhouette outlined in chalk up in the corner.

"In other news: Last night there was a vicious incident down near a popular SCAB bar named 'The Blind Pig'. Details aren't clear at this time, but several people were injured after a group of inebriated humans tried to enter the bar. Eyewitness accounts tell of a high-degree cougar morph scab attacking at least half a dozen individuals, and killing at least one. Other SCABs were seen reacting in a highly violent manner towards these harmless individuals, leading to the injury of most of them. Police and ambulance personnel have refused comment at this time, telling us that the incident is still under investigation, and they are currently not at liberty to say anything. However, we were able to speak briefly to one witness, and what he tells is a tale of horror, torture, and deliberate cruelty."

The reporter frowned, and the image changed again. This time, in the top corner of the screen was a crude sketch. It looked like an artist's interpretation of a description; it showed a lizard-like person of small stature.

"This composite sketch our station's artist put together shows the individual our witness described as having attacked, attempted to kill, verbally torture, and mock an individual with a broken neck. It is possible that the suspect may have broken that man's neck; witness say that the SCAB was apparently choking  his victim. The reptilian suspect and is wanted for questioning by local police. If you see this individual, consider him armed and dangerous, and report him to police as soon as you can."

The news continued on, but the sound faded into the back ground as Draxa stared at the picture on the screen. It looked close to him, frighteningly close. Thinking back to the night before, he realized he couldn't remember most of it. Nothing at all after he left his house to find a bar where he could lose himself in a glass...

"Ohh... shit," he quietly whispered, realizing that he might very well have hurt someone during his blackout the night before.

Suddenly scared, he turned and ran, towards his home, running as fast as he could, dodging between people, and through side streets. He never noticed as the world started to fade from view again, slowly becoming blurs and shadows, until eventually, he stopped sensing anything at all.

68: Media Catches the Lion's Eye (Father Ted Colbert)

I relaxed for the first time that day, in the common room with Father Ken, watching the early news. My ears perked up as a new report about the attack on the Pig came on. As  I'd expected from this station, the spin was mostly anti-SCAB. I let out a low growl as a sketch of a small dragon-like SCAB appeared on the screen.

"You must be tired," Father Ken remarked. "It's not like you to get verbal when something upsets you."

"Yeah, that and having been there," I replied. "The way the media is twisting this, that SCAB could have actually been trying to help him, not hurt him. Guilty or not, they've just painted a big target on him."

"Did you see him when you were at the Pig?" the pastor asked.

"Not that I can recall," I told him. "If someone accused him of harming the guy at the time, he might have run off. When it comes to things like this, a lot of SCABs don't trust the authorities."

"I can understand that," my friend said. "Still, in the long run, isn't it better if they cooperate?"

"Generally, yes," I replied, knowing that there were certainly times it didn't. "I think in this case it would be."

My attention returned to the TV as the weather came on.

"Good, looks like we'll have a decent New Year's eve, weather wise," I commented as I stood to leave. "I promised one of our residents I'd be back over for supper. I'll see you later."

I stood and exited the room and turned down the hall toward where my coat hung.

"Ah, Father Ted!" came the housekeeper's voice from behind me. "I was just coming to get you. There's a woman here to see you."

"Who is she?" I asked.

"Her name is Susan Riley," she replied. "It has something to do with a new resident at the shelter, from what I could make out. She's very upset. I put her in the front sitting room."

"Thanks, Betty," I said heading for the front of the house. "Could you call the shelter and let them know I'll be a little late for supper?"

"I'll see to it," she replied as we went in opposite directions.

As I approached the room, I heard a woman sobbing. I slowly entered the room and saw a middle-aged woman with shoulder-length brown hair sitting, face down, a tear-drenched tissue in her hand.

"Good afternoon, Susan," I began keeping my voice soft. "I'm Father Colbert. How can I help you?"

The woman looked up, her face drawn with distress. As our eyes met, her expression shifted to one of horror and  her chair slammed against the wall as she instinctively backed away.

"You're a, a..." she stammered, her voice trembling.

"I'm a SCAB," I finished for her. "I won't hurt you. Please, don't be afraid."

"You're a lion!" she gasped, fear still painted on her face.

"Yes, that is the body SCABS left me with," I told her, lowering myself into a chair. I assumed as non-threatening a posture as my form would allow and continued: "I am also the director of the shelter. The housekeeper said you needed to talk to me about one of our residents..?"

"No, she's not a resident," the woman said, still clutching the arms of the chair, her body and speech still tense. "At least not yet -- but she may need to be soon."

"Maybe we should back up a bit," I said. "Who are we talking about?"

"My niece," she replied. "Her mother is sure to throw her out now that she's changed."

"She has come down with SCABS, I take it?"

"Yes, she caught the Flu a couple of months back. At first, she seemed to have recovered fine," she explained, "but then the fur started to show. That was all it took. My sister now considers her one of the damned, and is going to throw her out of the house."

"Excuse me, but did you say 'one of the damned'?" I asked, not certain I'd understood her correctly.

"Yes, it's part of her church's belief," she said. "If you get the Flu and then come down with SCABS, you are considered claimed by the devil."

"What church is this?" I inquired, not wanting to believe any religion would make such a claim but knowing better.

"The Church of the Chosen," Susan replied. "Pastor Raphael says that the Martian Flu was one of the final tests before the Second Coming. If a person is a true believer, they can catch the Flu and not come down with SCABS. If they die of the disease, they are being taken to be purifie d for the Second Coming,  but if they are changed in any way, it's a sign that they belong to the devil. The most certain sign is those who are turned into animals, for he claims that is the mark of the beast spoken of in the scriptures."

"I can't say I've ever heard of that sect," I observed. "Still, even the Catholic church has had those who would have condemned SCABs. Is your niece a part of this church?"

"No, but her mother is," the woman replied, the tears beginning to flow again. "Terry never believed any of their nonsense... but her mother was taken in by their teaching after her husband died from the Flu."

I offered Susan a box of tissues, which she took and with shaking hands drew more sheets from to soak up the flood.

"Terry is your niece, I take it," I said.

"Yes, she's a lovely girl," she said through her sobs. "She was all set to go to college next year. Then she came down with SCABS. I don't understand it. My sister loved that child; how could she be prepared to throw her out on the street?"

"People can do strange things in the name of religion," I counseled her. "Especially when blinded by grief or loss. How long has she been a member of this church?"

"Not long. She joined shortly after Bill died," Susan explained. "Rev. Raphael and some of the members came to her saying that God had directed them to seek her out and comfort her. They helped her get all the legal affairs settled and seemed to always be there to help her."

"Bill was her husband?" I said, piecing together what she had said.

"Yes, he was a wonderful man," she replied. "He thought the world of Terry and would never force her out, no matter what."

"If I may ask, what were the legal issues you mentioned?" I questioned. "Were there some debts or such that she needed help with?"

"No, far from it," she answered. "Bill left her quite well off. He was a very successful businessman. His insurance more than took care of the bills, and left her enough money to live comfortably, even if she didn't work herself."

"Does this church require its members to tithe?" I asked, beginning to see perhaps another reason for what was happening.

"I'm not sure, but I think so," she replied. "I seem to recall Lucy saying something about that. She told me they live as a community, just like the Scriptures report in the early church."

"I'll bet they were referring to the part that says 'They sold the property they owned and lay it at the feet of the apostles'," I told her, now more certain of the true intent of this church. "I'm not saying this church is one, but some people have started nonaffiliated churches for no other reason than to bilk people out of their money."

"But why would they ask her to throw Terry out?" Susan asked. "What would they gain from that?"

"That's one of the reasons I'm not sure that's their primary goal," I said, not willing to say more until I knew more about this church. "That doctrine would give them a reason to expel someone if they felt he was going to expose them... but it would only apply to SCABs, so that doesn't make sense. Do you know where this church is located?"

"Not off-hand, but I could get the address," the woman told me. "They have a televised service daily on the satellite."

This took me somewhat by surprise. If they were wealthy enough to have a daily broadcast on a satellite, this was much more then some upstart group. Either way, there was a greater problem that needed to be solved.

"Is your niece still living at her mother's house?" I asked, concerned about the new SCAB.

"Yes, she has until the third to move out," Susan replied, shaking her head and sobbing once again. "That's why I don't think her mother really wants to throw her out. If the pastor and deacons had their way she'd be on the street now. My lease wouldn't allow me to have her stay for more than a few days, and I certainly couldn't store her belongings."

"Well I can assure you she won't end up on the street," I told her firmly. "She will always have a place at our shelter. Still, I'd like to see if we couldn't convince her mother not to throw her out."

"Do you think you could do that?" she asked, her face coming to light with hope.

"There are no guarantees, but I'm willing to give it a try," I said, knowing it was a shot in the dark. "When can we go to see her?"

"Lucy's out of town until New Year's," Susan told me. "I've already got the day after that off, if you can go then."

"Fine, what time?" I said, pulling out my PDA and entering the appointment.

"She's usually there in the morning," the woman told me. "I can call her and make sure she's there."

"Say, ten o'clock?" I suggested.

"Yes, that would be good," she agreed, drying her eyes, her tears having stopped.

"Fine. We'll see if we can't get this solved without Terry having to move," I said, knowing that I'd need to know more about the family to have any hope of success. "I'll need the address and if you don't mind I'd like to get a little more information as well.

We spent the next hour talking about Terry and her family. By the time we parted company I knew a great deal about the teenage SCAB and her mother. I also had a good understanding of how Lucy had been drawn into this church. What I didn't have was any idea of how I could prevent Terry from being thrown out of her home.

As I escorted Susan out of the rectory I noticed the time; I had clearly missed both supper and my meeting with our newest resident. There was another meeting I needed to get to, so I wouldn't have a chance to see him until tomorrow. I decided to give Pat a call so he could explain to Matusleo, but first I was heading for the kitchen. This was one of the times I was thankful that my lion body allowed me to feel I had a good meal by simply downing a few pounds of uncooked meat.

69: "Thank You... Oops!" (Jonathan Prentice)

"But, Nurse Tank! You don't understand..."

The large woman glared down at my leopard eyes. Usually they can intimidate norms, and I can get my way. However, Nurse Tank was not your usual lady. "Don't give me that 'Nurse Tank' stuff!" she grumbled as she filled the syringe with clear liquid and injected it into my I.V. bag. "This is the doctor's orders!"

(I'm sure by now you'd like to know why I nick named her Nurse Tank. Well, nurse Shelly Gibson is a rather large woman. She does have a nice demeanor, but absolutely will not take crap from anybody, patients included. And when Nurse Tank sets her mind to something, there's nothing stopping her. Much like a tank in that regard.)

"Nurse Tank, you don't understand! I'm a recovering drug addict, what you're giving me is highly addictive! It's insane!"

"I tell you what," she sighs finally, rolling her blue eyes sky-ward. "I'll discuss it with the doctor and see if we can't change your medication to something less powerful, okay?"

"Thank you!" I sighed, relief starting to fill me. "You don't know what it's like being hooked on Morphine and Oxy Contins, then having to quit cold turkey. I'd rather saw my limbs off with a rusty butter knife than go through that again."

She grinned and patted me on the cheek affectionately. I could see in her actions that she wanted to give me one of those big woman hugs, the kind that most bears would find powerful. "Just don't forget it when it comes time for your bath tomorrow." She chuckled as I rolled my eyes.

The phone hadn't been replaced in my room yet. I only knew that if I'd been getting calls, they  weren't telling me. I guess finding the phone in several pieces against the wall was some clue as to what was bothering me, I don't know.

What I did know was that Nurse Tank was on top of things. Two previous times I'd attempted to check myself out of this place, and both times I got caught. I guess people think it's strange to see a gowned man in a wheel chair rolling around a hospital with an I.V. line sticking out of a vein. I don't know.

Slowly I felt the medicine begin to kick in, and slowly the pang returned a little. That's the bad part of being an ex-drug addict. Every time you take something stronger than aspirin, the old pang returns just a little. The need comes back just a little stronger. Kind of like a withered monkey who only needs a little nourishment to climb back upon your back again.

But that was one monkey I was determined to abandon completely. I clicked on the television in the darker room. The flickering of the idiot box giving me some comfort as it distracted me away from my pain and current tormentor.

"As you can see from the diagram..." the reporter continued, drawing out on screen the attack that left me in my current state "the assailant against the humans apparently knew what he was doing. Stalking from..."

Two words struck home: 'assailant', and 'humans'. 'Assailant'. They could've used any word they wanted to use. Why choose the word 'assailant'. Humans? Yeah, they were humans, but my only memory of them was of a gun barrel, shortly before they shown me exactly how much human sympathy they held for those who didn't fit their description of human.

"This is getting big..." I grumbled, flicking the television off. There must've been another person there, and from the looks of things, definitely of the feline persuasion.

In the silence I could hear faint clicking. Glancing over, I noticed that the door remained open, yet the hallway was eerily quiet. And yet there it was again. Click... click... almost like fingernails drumming on a table; or toe claws on linoleum.

His shadow revealed him first. When his head came into view, I could tell that it was a him, noticing the more masculine features of the cougar's head as he comically winced with each step of his paw. Yeah, I recognized this kitty-cat, alright. "Hey," I yelled over, at him. "Cougar, guy!" The big cat stopped, and turned his head, his tail slowly twitching in annoyance. He gave me a look that I easily translated as what do you want?

"Just wanted to say thanks for saving my tail back there. From what I can tell, it was youwho made sure I wasn't Swiss cheese. I don't give a fuck what the media says. You're one 'assailant' who's a hero in my book."

I'm unsure  if my words affected him or not. Although he seemed to perk up a bit, stepping a little lighter as he continued to try and sneak by, Nurse Tank once again graced me with her presence. Silently she reached down and nabbed the cougar by the nape of his neck. "Come on, hero," she teased "back to bed with you. Doctor's orders."

"Whoops! Sorry!" I called after the cougar. "Didn't mean to get you caught..."

70: Reassignment (Devin Hallsworth)

I was getting a bit nervous despite my best efforts at calm. I'd been told that Thompson, the precinct's CO, wanted to see me as soon as he got out of his meeting; then I was told that he was in a meeting with some pro-SCABS people from some group or another; and of course the thought of charges being brought against me springs to mind.

Thompson and I had become good friends after I had joined the force. When I first met him, I had noticed the pictures on his wall -- some of the old NATO military bases in Europe from which peacekeeping operations were staged. So I asked him if he'd been a part of any peacekeeper force, he asked me how I'd guessed, and when I told him about my four years in Serbia with the Canadian armed forces before moving to the States, we wound up just trading stories about the place and what it had been like just after the collapse and what it was like now.

Maybe I was worrying too much, now that I think of it; not only did Thompson trust me, but he also knew  why I took this job in the States. If he was being grilled for the way those drunks got beaten, it wouldn't take him long to connect the two and he'd probably just make sure I controlled my anger better in the future.

An hour later, I'd finished the paperwork associated with today's incident. Now all I had to do was keep myself occupied until the chief got out of his meeting.

Well, it was about time for Sara's lunch break. She often spent this time in the library, chatting with her friends on the net; I logged on to check in with her. No joy -- she wasn't online, probably eating lunch or something... Sara could take care of herself; no need to worry. I decided to get some time on, to see if I could add a few wins to my dismal score.

I noticed the SCABs group leaving Thompson's office just as I was in the middle of my first match, a four-player free-for-all in which I'd grabbed half the resources and eliminated one of the other players' figures.

As I walked by the group (which included several visible animorphs), I noticed they seemed pretty down on something. Like they'd just been told they were being sent off to a prison camp tomorrow.

There were a lot of empty disposable coffee cups  littering the floor of Thompson's office, most of them behind his desk. The chief was downing another  of 'em when I walked in; he tossed it behind him before waving towards a chair in front of his desk.

"Sit down, Hallsworth. You're making me nervous standing there like that." I promptly did so. "Now, just so you know, that group out there didn't have anything to do with you. Normally I would've gotten an earful over the way you busted that SCAB's jaw in more than five places -- but that crook won't get any sympathy from anyone, seeing as the girl he beat the living daylights out of is still in ICU." I nodded my head, trying to look thankful, but I couldn't as he'd also answered my question about the girl.

"So what was that all about then, sir?" I asked. "If you don't mind me asking, that is." He gave me a sour look, then grabbed another cup of coffee from somewhere behind his desk.

"Devin, the day I mind telling you of the hells I've been going through is never. Dumping my problems on  a younger version of myself is a hell of a lot cheaper than a shrink!" I grimaced a bit at the thought.

"Younger version of you?" I said, not at all encouraged by the thought of looking like the chief in my later years. The chief grimaced too, now.

"Damn... Today I've been told how ugly I look by everyone but my wife, and that's what she usually says to me first thing in the morning... um I mean, anyway. Hallsworth, those people back there  wanted to know our stance on this whole situation."

"That took two hours, sir?"

"No; what took two hours was talking them out of turning vigilante and leaving justice to us cops. Wouldn't have taken that long if I didn't also have to convince 'em that we will do everything in our power to nail those terrorists." He took another swig of coffer -- probably synthetic -- and shook his head. "The hell of it is, it's distinctly possible that the West Side's  going to end up a war zone. Anyone thinks I want that kind of shit going down on my watch, they're crazy! Which brings us to the reason why I wanted to talk to you, Devin." Hoo-boy, now I'm in for it... I  thought to myself.

"We're forming a supplementary unit -- backing up the SWAT team in the event of any civilians deciding to take violent action. And I want you to be the commander of this unit, Hallsworth. Seeing as you, alone, have more combat experience than half the rest of the force." Thompson leaned back in his chair waiting for my response. I didn't have to think about it long.

"Sounds good, sir," I said. "But before I sign on the dotted line, I have a few questions. " He nodded for me to go on. "First: Who picks the  personnel for this unit? Me, you, or some backroom jackass?"

"This unit's commanding officer will have full descretion to pick his men," Thompson said. "Since it's being formed to counter the possibility of illegal manhunts on the West Side, I'd strongly recommend choosing officers who already patrol in the area; we can bring in people from outside the neighborhood to handle standard patrol duties. And your other question?"

"What type of armament are we  authorized for, sir?" I asked, fairly sure I already knew the answer but hopeful nonetheless.

"Well..." he said with a sly grin, "First, let me tell you that I know exactly what you're thinking. No, you  don't get to play with the really  shiny toys; that means no M79s, no M16s with the grenade launcher attachment, and you don't get our M124 even if you were authorized to use explosives, which you're not. We only have one of those, and I don't break that motherfucker out  for anything less than a tank ripping through our fair city. Other than that, however, you will have full access to the armory." Wait a second... 'full access'? No, he must have just forgotten... he couldn't mean --

"Second: I know that if things get really rough out there, you'll wish you had something with a little more stopping power than your assault rifles. Which is why you're authorized for that special little acquisition we made last year if we start losing men out there too fast. Do you remember it?" I almost laughed, then realized he was serious.

"Uhm, sir..." I began hesitantly, "Most of the weight is in the backpack, sir, but that  monster still weighs two hundred pounds." And two hundred pounds is not light for a single gun.

"Which is why you'll probably have to carry it. I doubt anyone else could, this side of a SCAB or a professional wrestler. But with that thing, you damn sure won't have to worry about being overwhelmed!" I almost felt like saying duh, but bit my tongue instead. In my five years of service, there was only one type of infantry weapon I'd never had a chance to at least look over, but this wasn't surprising. Except on one or two fighter jets, that type hadn't really been used since the US Army declared them obsolete back in the early Twentieth Century.

"Anything else, Hallsworth?" Thomspon asked, waiting for my input. I just shook my head and muttered no. It was only just now sinking in that once again, I might have to fight people with human intelligence and bestial strength. "Good. Since you're now part of our SWAT team, your patrol duties will be reassigned to someone else. Seeing as today, when everyone is still trying to figure out what to do, might be you only free day for the next month, I'm giving you the rest of the day off, alright? See you tomorrow at the firing range!" I nodded briskly and walked out the door.

I knew Thompson wouldn't mind me leaving like that; he'd been all over the world just after the Collapse, and had seen things even I had trouble wrapping my mind around. If anyone on the force understood the potential horrors of fighting against SCABs, it was him.

I didn't really pay attention to the drive home -- too preoccupied. I was sitting on the couch watching TV when the door opened and closed behind me. It used to be all I could do not to get up and ask her how her day had been; these days it was getting easier. Because of the high SCAB population, this city didn't always attract the highest amount of norms, but moving here had still been the best move I'd ever made.

Not once since I've moved here have I ever had any major grounds for worrying about Sara when she went out. I still worried anyway, since sometimes things just happened to SCABs like her, but at least getting beaten at school or targeted by some roaming mob weren't on the list. You might think that was only minimal comfort, but the amount of good it did both of us was damn nigh indescribable.

"Hi, daddy." I looked up; Sara was leaning on the back of the couch, watching the news.

"Hi, sweety." I went back to watching the news broadcast. It was a complete waste of time for any pro-SCAB in this day and age, because the temptation for news stations to pander to the prejudices of its mostly human viewers was too irresistible. Not that they resisted all that hard anyway...

We just watched in silence as some pictures of the aftermath of the attack started playing. All the while, the anchorman just kept going on about how many of the terrorists were still dead or in critical condition. It disgusts me the way people could be so bigoted, but I'm ashamed to say I used to think exactly like them three years ago.

Sara, probably getting tired of the anchorman's bs, started to her room. I turned my head away from the tv to look at her as she walked away: Remembering when she first contracted SCABs. How she looked before. How her mother left us. Remembering the heartbreak that sending her to school each morning had caused.

And as I remembered, I had a hard time connecting it with today. Sure, my wife was still gone, but I was working. And if you didn't know better, you'd think Sara had been born a mule deer doe-morph, for all the trouble it seemed to cause her today. The school she went to now was the first one since her transformation with a big-enough SCAB population that she didn't stick out as a target.

I smiled as she went into the hallway and out of view. The problems of being a parent of a SCAB were something I could gladly live without, but nothing would never stop me from loving Sara.

Back to the news again, I noticed they were showing videos from UN peacekeeping operations. The anchorman talked about how much of a danger the SCABs were by showing how much damage they could do in third-world countries. I went from smiling to shaking in ninety seconds flat, and finally just shut the TV off and tried my best to think of something else. But I couldn't.

No matter how hard I tried, images just kept popping into my head. Images that would be as good as gold to the news services, if they weren't just memories in my head... and the head of every soldier unfortunate enough to face duty in a third-world country since the Collapse.

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