|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. Of course, there are other sources of -- and cures for
-- pain in this world...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Bob Stein
©2002 Bob Stein -- all rights reserved
"Merry Christmas, Doc! We have eggnog fresh if you want some." Marcie, one of the Blind Pig's newer waitresses, either didn't yet recognize his 'leave me alone' posture or chose to ignore it. "And how come you aren't up there singing carols?" She gestured to the piano, where Jack DeMule and some of the wolf pack were butchering Deck the Halls.
"No, thanks. On both counts." Dr. Bob hunched over his hot chocolate, hoping she would go away.
Oh, don't be such a grump!" The girl was not taking the hint. "It's Christmas Eve! Come on and join the fun!"
He laid his ears back, the perfect image of a surly horse. If he was standing, he might have even given a warning kick. While the girl's effervescent personality was usually infectious, tonight she was just plain annoying. "I just want to drink my cocoa, OK?"
"OK. But I know one horsie who is gonna get a lump of coal in his stocking if he doesn't get into the holiday spirit!"
At this, he turned and glowered at her with enough animosity to startle her out of her bubbling good cheer. Flustered, she retreated from his table. "Umm, I'll just go see how your salad is coming."
Dr. Bob felt a flicker of guilt, but then depression took over again. Turning his back to the boisterous crowd, he settled into gloomy contemplation of his cocoa. It had probably been a mistake to come to the Pig on a night when he didn't feel like talking to anyone, but then, it was Christmas Eve. He sighed, wishing he could get into the Holiday spirit. While he didn't really follow the 'Bah, humbug' line, this year here felt closer to Ebenezer than Santa.
A shadow fell across the table, and he felt a fresh stab of annoyance. You'd think that most people would stay away from a surly half-ton Shire horse morph. However, he turned to find a visitor that both out massed and outranked him. Donnie, the Blind Pig's bull-morph owner, was staring down at him with arms crossed. Although SCABS had left Donnie mute, the expression on his bovine face left no doubt that he was not in the best of moods, either.
It took a moment for the cause to register. Then Dr. Bob flushed slightly, his embarrassment hidden under his own black fur. "I'm sorry, Donnie. I shouldn't have reacted like that. If you'll get her to come back over, I'll apologize."
Donnie regarded him for a moment, and then eased his massive frame down on the facing bench. It was strong testimony to the Pig's accommodations for different SCABS victims that both of them could sit in the same booth. Liquid brown eyes stared at him impassively. Again, no words were needed. Donnie wanted an explanation.
A whole list of excuses paraded across Dr. Bob's mind. There had been some recent trouble with the Humans First movement, and serious damage to his office computer records due to a malicious virus. City council had tabled the SCABS handicapped access referendum he had been pushing for the third year in a row. All-in-all, the past month had been pretty depressing. However, the real cause of his depression was much more recent, and quite a bit more personal. Just thinking about it hurt. He stared back down at his mug of hot chocolate. "The Goat is dead."
There was a long silence. Then Donnie gave a loud snort that startled him. Plucking out his writing pad, he scribbled a note. [IT'S A MACHINE.]
Dr. Bob had a flush of anger, then felt silly. "I guess I can't expect anyone else to understand. It was more than just a car to me."
The minotaur shook his head and underlined the word [MACHINE], then wrote in big letters underneath: [FIX.]
"I can't." He slumped. "The main shaft snapped and took out the whole guts. I might have been able to rig one gear, or substitute some bearings. But the entire transmission is junk -- and the only mechanic who'll even touch a car that old can't find the parts anywhere, not even someone who can make the pieces. It predates most people's grandparents!"
[TOUGH BREAK.] Donnie flipped to a new page and then wrote, [SHOULD WE SHOOT YOU?]
Dr. Bob blinked, and then managed a wry smile. "Yeah, yeah. Pretty silly, isn't it? People out there are starving, getting murdered, and here I am in a blue funk over a broken machine. Damn, it was stupid to push it so hard. Now it's ruined." He sat up. In truth, the antique high performance car was the one major extravagance of his life, a black hole that he had been throwing money into for the past four years. It was a dinosaur from a bygone age of motoring, requiring special licenses and insurance, not to mention an ungodly amount of gasoline.
However, the car had been a feast for the senses -- the throaty rumble of the Pontiac triple-deuce V-8, G-forces pushing him back in the seat, with the heady odors of hot oil and antifreeze wafting back from the engine. Some relieved tension by gardening, or watching vids. He blew off steam by careening along the few back roads left in the area in an ancient automobile.
Donnie scribbled another note and thrust it under his nose. [SING!]
"You aren't going to let me sulk in silence, are you?"
[NO GRUMPS ON XMAS.] Donnie wrote the last word with a flourish and then pointed at the piano, where Wanderer was trying to organize patrons to sing 12 Days of Christmas.
"Oh, all right." He slid out of the booth and clomped over to join the carolers, amidst some scattered applause. Having sung with a regional opera in his youth, he had a strong voice and could actually stay on key -- when he was Dr. Bob. However, the applause turned to groans and laughter halfway to the stage as his massive frame suddenly shrunk down to a fraction of its original size. Ignoring the pundits, he grabbed his loincloth in mid-shift, expertly flipping it up to form a toga-like garment without breaking stride.
Flashing a gap-toothed grin back to Donnie, the 5 year-old, red haired, and tone deaf little boy that was Dr. Bob's alternate form scrambled up to the end of the stage where the chronomorphs had formed an impromptu 'children's choir' and added his ear-splitting shriek to the already painful mix. Their rendition of All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth prompted a hail of dinner rolls.
After a few songs, however, 'Robbie' had extracted enough revenge, and shifted back to his far more melodious equine form to provide a bass backup to Wanderer's Silent Night. The combination of friends and music actually made him forget his sorrows, and the first glimmerings of Christmas Spirit began to form. By the time he made his way back to the booth, his bad mood had all but evaporated.
His salad had been delivered, along with a large mug of eggnog. There was also a cheerfully, if inexpertly, wrapped box on the table. Surprised, Dr. Bob looked around the room to see if he could figure out who had left the gift. The few friends here that he normally exchanged presents with normally came over on Christmas Day. His mystery benefactor had apparently made other stops, for similarly wrapped boxes were being examined at other tables around the Blind Pig.
Already boosted spirits raised a notch as he pulled the bright wrapping paper off. The box was not very heavy. Knowing the crowd here, it could be anything from a stolen Blind Pig peanut dish to pull-up training pants as a gag gift for Robbie. The item inside was wrapped in toilet paper, and he braced himself for something really awful.
It was a very old, very battered model of an orange Pontiac GTO. The toy had obviously been played with by lots of children, with magic marker numbers and decals stuck all over it. Most of the plastic trim had lost its chrome plating, and the back bumper was missing completely. Even so, considering it had to be about a half-century old, the model was surprisingly solid.
He stared at the rusty toy. It was a tremendously thoughtful gift that would have normally delighted him. Unfortunately, the old model was also a graphic reminder of his real Goat's demise, and brought his mood crashing down. He forced a smile, in case the giver was watching. However, he rewrapped it hastily and pushed the box aside so he wouldn't have to look at it the rest of the night.
The telephone roused Dr. Bob at 6:30 a.m. He groped for the phone blearily, wondering who would be calling so early on Christmas morning. "Yes, who is this?"
"Dr. Stein? This is Margaret Stoltz." Ah, the 'Condo Nazi,' as she was not-so-affectionately known by most apartment building residents. While she did not openly support the Humans First activists who regularly harassed him, she made so secret of her disgust at having a 'barn animal' as a neighbor. "It's happened again. I won't have my son's Christmas ruined because of your political problems."
"What are you talking about?" He was unable to keep the annoyance from his voice.
"There is a revolting object in front of your door. And a trail of dirt all down the hallway to the elevator. If you insist on being a radical activist, you really should consider moving to a private residence. It's just not fair to the rest of..."
Dr. Bob hung up on her, having long since lost any regard for the woman's feelings. However, he immediately rolled out of bed and headed for the front door with growing dread. It had been a couple of years since the more radical Humans First factions had left dead animals at his entrance, but a hundred pounds of fresh horse manure had appeared there six months ago. He hoped this was not a resurgence of the species bigotry that had only recently started to ease up.
Opening the door cautiously, he stared down at the dark, filthy lump. Completely covered by thick black dirt, whatever it was had been buried for a long time. A cautious sniff seemed to rule out anything at least recently dead. He frowned. The shape was vaguely familiar. Using one hoof, he nudged the item around, surprised at how heavy it was.
His eyes widened as the other end came into view, revealing the clean, if slightly rusty input shaft of a manual car transmission. It couldn't be... kneeling suddenly, he started digging off the cocoon of dirt, trying to keep his hopes from getting too high. The case was so rusty that layers of metal were breaking off with the dirt, and the linkage was rotted completely away. The guts were probably ruined.
As he turned it over to knock a clump from the bottom, thick, honey-like liquid began to spread over the carpet. The source was a break in the filth where someone had removed and replaced the top inspection plate. Only four bolts had been put back in, but the thick, three-fingered hands of his morph form were too big to grip the heads. After fumbling anxiously for a few minutes, Dr. Bob looked around to make sure no one was watching and then shifted to Robbie.
Luckily, the bolts were loose enough that his reduced strength as a child was still enough to remove them. He paused for a moment, afraid to pull the plate off. Then he took a deep breath and slid the cover aside -- and gave a shout of joy.
Polished shafts and perfect gears glistened under a golden film of transmission oil. Better yet, the inside of the casing had 'GM' cast into the metal. General Motors -- the long-extinct corporation that had owned Pontiac. While it was unlikely that this transmission actually matched the one in his GTO, he was pretty sure that the internal parts could be adapted to work.
"Robbie! Just what do you think you are doing?" The Condo Nazi was glaring at him from her door.
He grinned up at her, hefting the dripping, filthy top plate in his hands. "Opening a present! Isn't it wonderful? Merry Christmas!"
She gave him a withering glance and slammed the door. Off, no doubt, to complain to the building Super. He used the already ruined floor mat to drag the transmission into the apartment. Then he stepped back and grinned at it for a few minutes before realizing he had forgotten to grab his loincloth when he changed to Robbie. He was naked except for streaks of dirt and old grease.
He didn't care. Right now, all he wanted to do was stare at the wonderful gift. Who could have managed this miracle? Almost nobody knew about the shattered transmission. Donny, perhaps, but he had just found out last night. Bryan Derksen, his partner, had known, of course, and Jack DeMule. Robbie laughed. Given that group, probably everyone in the bar knew of his woes.
Which reminded him of the box that had appeared on his table last night. Padding over to the sofa, he pulled the model out and unwrapped it again as he went back to sit next to the transmission. The battered toy was a good bit heavier to his 5-year-old muscles, and he set it carefully down on the floor.
Robbie ran a greasy finger over the scratched paint and faded decals. The highly detailed model had obviously been expensive when it was new. If the toy hadn't been played with, it would be worth hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars. His real Goat was the single most valuable possession he had, appraised for more than three hundred thousand dollars. It was crazy to risk such a huge investment for cheap thrills on a back road. He really should leave it in its heated garage, a pampered and preserved mechanical work of art.
On impulse, Robbie pushed the bright orange car gently over the carpet with one finger. A grin formed on his face and he looked at the open transmission with renewed happiness. "Work of art, my butt!" As soon as the Goat was fixed, he'd be terrorizing the back roads again. A toy should be played with, not locked away.
Actually, he didn't even have to wait. Flopping down on his stomach, he grabbed the model and rolled it in a wide arch. "Screeeeeeeeeeech, braaap, braaap, braaap. Vroooooooom!"