|This story (a sequel to Quetzalcoatl's Revenge) 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. But no matter how bizarre the effects of SCABS may be, the ways people react to that illness can be stranger still...
Go here for more information on the setting.
You Know What They Say About Revenge...
©2005 Wolfshadow -- all rights reserved
You definitely can't say that the week or so since I returned to the US has been quiet. Not that things have ever been very quiet over the last thirty-odd years, but at least there were some dull points. On the plus side, I actually found a decent place to drink -- the Blind Pig Gin Mill -- that accepts customers who (like me) look like one of Dr. Frankenstein's later experiments, after he collaborated with Dr. Moreau.
As I leave the Pig tonight, I'm too busy brooding over my confrontation with a Scab by the name of Jubatus, and the general reactions during my conversation with Dr. Stein, to notice the patrol car pulling up to me with its lights going. I am snapped out of my assessment of the evening's festivities by someone yelling "Halt!" Heh... looks like the night isn't over yet. What the hell do the police want? Let me guess: I must have scared someone, or maybe Thug Boy -- the jerk I caught in the act of vandalizing Jubatus' car -- wants to up the ante. Guess I'll find out soon enough.
I look around and see two police officers cautiously exiting their patrol car. They aren't taking any chances with me; I'm pinned between their car and the building, and each one has his gun readied as they cut off the only remaining directions.
"Put your hands flat up against the wall, sir."
Meanwhile, the spinning lights from the patrol car are drawing the patrons of the bar to the windows. Dr. Stein soon exits the bar followed closely by Jubatus. Walking up to one of the police officers, Dr. Stein said: "What seems to be the problem here, officers?"
"Doc Stein, huh? Mind showin' me some I.D.?"
With a sigh, Dr. Stein pulls out his wallet and shows his driver's license to the officer in charge. "Will this be enough?"
"Good enough for me, Doc. Mind if I ask why ya need to know? I don't mean to be rude, but ya ain't his lawyer and well... Ya can never be too careful in these situations."
"He is a new patient of mine. At least he will be if he isn't in jail," accompanied by a look that spoke volumes about how mad he would be if I screwed up and did go to jail. "I need to know if he will be able to keep his appointment. Officer..?"
"Name's Stuart. Sgt. Stuart. Okay, I guess ya got a good enough reason to be concerned, but it still ain't enough for me to let you get involved."
"He is very important to my work, for a number of reasons. He hasn't broken any laws that I know of, so may I ask what your interest in him is?"
"It's like this, Doc. This half-naked guy comes into the precinct and says a dangerous animal fittin' this guy's description is on a killing spree in this neighborhood. Now while I can see there is no killin' spree goin' on, the guy did say he was assaulted by yer boy here, and we gotta check that out."
The pat-down had progressed quickly, up to this point. Then things hit a snag. "Sarge? This guy ain't got no I.D."
"No I.D.? Are you hidin' somethin', Mister?"
"Wolfshadow. And no, I am not hiding anything. My I.D. was lost some time ago. Slavers have a tendency to want to remove any documentation from their victims. Makes them harder to identify, especially if they have to be disposed of."
"So. You ain't from around here then. Mind tellin' me where ya are from?"
"A lot of different places, actually. I haven't really had a place to call home since this," I point at my face, "happened."
Before I go any further, Jubatus jumps in, "The guy who fed you this story. He about 6' 2", weight around 250, looks like he works out, blue eyes, bald head and a goatee? He should have a tattoo of a snake around a sword on his right arm and one of a snake coiling through a skull on his left."
"Yeah. That's the dude. You met him before?"
"Yes. His name is Carl Benton. My advice is that you check out his rap sheet before you go around harassing the people he sends you after. We might even have grounds for a lawsuit as it stands now..."
"Look sir, we are just tryin' ta do our job here. Someone comes in and says they was assaulted, we have ta legally check out the story. If we don't and yer boy here really was tryin' ta kill people, we would be in bigger legal trouble than you could do ta us right now. Ya get my drift?"
Meanwhile his partner is radioing in to have the name 'Carl Benton' looked up on the computer.
Dr. Stein then adds, "Jubatus, he has a point. Please let the man do his job. Officer, I will work to get him some new identification first thing in the morning."
"Okay," Sgt. Stuart replies. "See that he gets it." Then turning to me, "Now, why did you try ta take this Mr. Benton's head off?"
"Honestly, I wasn't going for his head, officer. The guy was drunk and trying to re-arrange that SUV over there. He was also talking to himself about trying to get even with Mr. Jubatus here. Then the guy got the shock of his life from the vehicle's security system. I went over to see if he was still alive about the time he was snapping out of the effects of the electricity. His next move was to go after my head with the metal-laced baseball bat he was carrying. I tried to tell him that was a bad thing to do, but he spat in my face and said a few things about my condition that weren't very flattering. Since words weren't getting through his thick skull, I warned him not to go any further by breaking his bat for him. I think this got the message across, since he fled, minus his shirt. Mr. Jubatus, would you kindly bring over the stuff your 'admirer' left behind?"
"Done." I didn't see him move, but suddenly he's holding the shirt in one hand and broken bat in the other.
When Sergeant Stuart gets a look at the shirt, with its Humans First message on it, he lets out a string of words that would make even the most experienced sailor take notice. "I can't believe that bastard tried ta play me like that!" He hands the shirt to his partner, who also becomes angry after reading it.
"I'm sorry, Sir. I should'a realized something wasn't kosher when the guy wouldn't give his name to the desk sergeant." He pounds the top of his car. "Those bastards!"
About this time, his portable radio squawks. "Unit 17, Unit 17. We have reports of a riot in progress on 53rd and Maple. Witnesses say a person matching the description of Carl Benton is leading a mob toward your location, causing property damage as they go. Respond Code 3. All available units, S.W.A.T. and the rapid response force are on the way. Acknowledge."
Stuart says, "Aw shit!" as he and his partner get back in their car. Jubatus is now standing there looking concerned, almost like he thinks the address should be familiar. Then a look of realization crosses his face and he is gone in a blur.
Sgt. Stuart radios back: "Roger. Responding to 53rd and Maple. Code 3. Current situation clear. The guy here is a possible target of the individuals at 53rd and Maple not an assailant as reported by this guy Benton, if I read you correctly. Benton is apparently is a Humans First activist. Remember our op-brief that these guys were planning somethin' and just lookin' fer an excuse. This is probably it."
Meanwhile, a few loud clunks and a quick rocking motion draw my attention to the SUV. I just barely had time to catch the blur that sped away from the vehicle and down the street in the direction that Thug Boy went earlier.
Sgt. Stuart gets into the car, and then looks out the window at us. "Dr. Stein, ya might want ta move everyone here ta another location 'til this blows over. I got a feeling these bastards set ya up with the incident here. Seems they were lookin' for an excuse to make their next move." He gets into the car, puts it in gear and speeds away, siren blaring in his wake.
Dr. Stein turns around with a puzzled look on his face. "53rd and Maple... 53rd and Maple... Why does that address sound familiar?"
"53rd and Maple? It's a community theater where we put on a few shows during the year and where the Strikebreakers perform once in a while... Why?" Wanderer says as he steps through the crowd that has now gathered in the doorway of the bar.
"Because Humans First is holding a riot there," Dr. Stein responds. A few of the patrons either pull out cell phones, or head to whatever phone is available in the bar. The rest look at Dr. Stein expectantly, a couple even acting like they are preparing for a fight. Then Dr. Stein turns pale. "Wait... isn't that theater within blocks of the Shelter?"
"My thought exactly," Wanderer says, all trace of the British accent gone. "And where the hell did Jubatus go?" Wanderer looks at the white rabbit that was part of the conversation earlier. Thumper's stress level is through the roof -- you can tell from the way his ears are laid back -- and he's rapidly dialing his cell phone. Before the rabbit finishes dialing, Dr. Stein says, "Phil, tell them we're on our way, with whatever help we can get."
"OK. Wait -- 'Shelter'? What Shelter?" I ask.
"The West Street Shelter. It's one of the most important parts of our community," Dr. Stein says. "They help homeless and unemployed Flu victims get a new start on life, among other things. There are at least 30 people there right now that have no clue what is going on and are in a highly vulnerable position." Meanwhile, the rest of the bar patrons begin to head off in different directions, one or two mumbling something about needing to get more people to help.
The rabbit finishes his phone conversation. "Everything is fine in the Shelter for the moment, but they really want help there as fast as possible. One of our homeless clients who uses the food bank just ran in and told them the theater was on fire and there were at least a hundred frenzied people in the area. This mob is attacking any Scabs in sight. They are also breaking into and looting houses. The police and fire departments have started to show up, but there are too few there right now to stop things. Sounds like things could get bad there... soon."
Great. More riots. And it looks like I gave them the excuse that they needed to start. Well, I can't just leave them to fend off these guys. Sasha should be safe, since the motel is well away from this area. "Since it seems I have gotten y'all into this mess, I should help. What is the plan?"
"This isn't your fault. These assholes are always looking for an excuse; they are just a tad more organized this time. If it wasn't for you, then Jube would have been the trigger, and perhaps have been messed up badly, too," says the rabbit. "Besides, don't you have a wife to protect?"
"Heh! In case I didn't mention it before, my wife can definitely take care of herself, and the motel she is in is well out of range of this. Let's get over to the Shelter. How far is it?"
"It's about ten minutes away by car."
"That's nice, but I don't travel much by car anymore. Tell you what? Why don't one of you draw me a map and I'll run over there."
"No time," says Dr. Stein as he heads for his car with the rabbit, Phil, in tow. "Wanderer can show you the way. We'll meet you there."
Turns out Wanderer's another two/four-leg convertible; he doesn't like to change forms, but I guess trying to stop a riot is good enough reason to do it. We make it to the Shelter about a minute before the others in their cars. There is a lot to be said for being able to go across lots and through alleys rather than having to stick to the grid of the city streets. When we got there we found the front of the Shelter blocked, by a mass of people and Scabs carrying improvised weapons. "Where the hell did they come from?" I heard Dr. Stein say to Phil as they got out of his car. I could tell Wanderer was confused by this as well.
"Perhaps there's a mole in the local Humans First cell, so when they mobilized, their opponents did as well?" Phil remarks.
"Maybe, but why respond now, and so quickly? The actual rioting itself may have been planned, but Wolfie's intrusion should have thrown a wrench into the works..."
"Well, eventually groups like this form. They might not even be truly organized as of yet, but there they are. If you remember from history books, however, when the KKK would stage things, people usually come out of the woodwork to fight them. It is a natural, human response," Phil says.
Wanderer responds: "Well, if the rioters make it here, I think I might feel sorry for them. This group looks like it means business."
Taking another, more appraising, look at the crowd, I pick up on something I remember from the rioting below the border. "For all of their sakes, even the police, I hope the rioters don't get here. I am not sure there are enough police here right now to keep things from getting really ugly. Similar stuff to this happened in the riots in Central America. Mini civil wars in localized areas are never pretty, and the body count is usually high."
A familiar voice then sounds out from the policemen controlling the crowd. "My boys here got it under control."
"Well, hello again, Sgt. Stuart. Can you give us a heads-up on the current situation? I have had a tad of experience with this type of thing before, so maybe I can help. Had a lot of time to observe riots in old Mexico. Even had a chance to write a paper nobody read on the trends the riots went through. My guess is that you are at a critical point here. If the rioters drive off the arriving Police and fire crews, you might lose this whole area."
"It ain't looking good at the moment, but we seem to have it contained. That block is on fire though, and the fire department can't get ta the heart of it because of the rioters. Plus, a group of these mugs behind me are now fightin' with the Humans First idiots. It's all we can do ta keep the status quo. Especially since about a third of the riot squad refuses to come here. And what the hell do you mean by 'Old Mexico' anyway? Ain't the Borders closed by Federal order? "
"You didn't expect me to be escaping from slavers in the good ol' U.S. of A., did you?"
Dr. Stein steps up to us and starts herding me toward the door of the shelter. He says, "You. Inside. Now." Under his breath he says, "Not one more word to him. We don't need an investigation and you detained. Not now." Then loud enough for everyone, "We have to decide what we are going to do in case the situation changes and the rioters do get here. Plus, I have asked Phil to start a file on you as we wait. Should make things easier in the long run."
"Easier? Why? And why another a file on me? You're starting to make me a bit nervous, Doc."
"Well, if you're going to be here for any period of time after I'm through examining you, you'll need a job, and a place to stay. That's what Phil does. He also helps new Flu victims cope with what happened to them, but I suspect you won't need that service from him. Now let's go inside and --"
"Wait a minute!" Sgt. Stuart says. "I thought his I.D. was just lost when he had escaped from slavers, even if it was from 'Old Mexico' as he was saying." Dr. Stein gets pale again, pale for a horse that is, but this goes apparently unnoticed by Sgt. Stuart. "So why should you be so concerned about having a file created on you by a career counselor?"
"It's a long story, Sarge. And I really don't have time to tell it right now. Maybe over a beer once things in my life get resolved. Suffice to say that it isn't a legal issue. At least not a valid one, and rest assured, you wouldn't find me in any active case files."
"That's enough for now, Wolfie..." Dr. Stein nervously says as he more forcefully pushes me toward the door.
"Dr. Stein... Are you vouching that what he says is true about not being wanted for a crime? Because otherwise, I can't just let him go..."
"Yes. I can truthfully state that he has committed no crime in your jurisdiction, or in the United States, that I am aware of. Now I am going to take my patient into the Shelter and we are going to open a file with his case worker. So unless you have probable cause to think he committed a crime, either charge him or let us go..."
"Dr. Stein, there's no reason ta get pissed at me. I'm just doin' my job. He shows up without I.D., was someplace he shouldn't have been able ta get here from, and now, he sounds like someone might be lookin' for him. This don't smell right. Let's go inside and talk a bit more, shall we?"
"If you insist..." responds Dr. Stein and he rather abruptly shoves me through the open doors of the Shelter as Sgt. Stuart informs his shift commander by radio that he is making his hourly check of conditions in the shelter.
"You had to open your mouth, didn't you?" he chides me. "I don't want to have to wait for the government to get through with you before I do my testing!"
"What do you expect me to do? Lie?"
"No, but can you at least be selective about what you say to who?"
"Why? With the computers that should be around nowadays, how long do you think it would take him to check out whatever story I came up with? Either way, it will lead to him opening up a police investigation, and as you said, do we need that right now? If I'm honest with him, he might see that he is in a situation that he can't do anything about."
"Just tone it down for now. I'll try to figure out some type of damage control here..." and he pushes me down the hall, mumbling something bout my big mouth under his breath.
We enter what we thought was an unoccupied room to continue the discussion. Just before we make it to the door, however, there is a strange gust of wind, a blur and then the sound of a body hitting the ground. Inside we find Jubatus sprawled on the floor, gasping for breath. Wanderer and Sgt. Stuart slip in behind us.
"What the hell is this?" Sgt. Stuart asks. "You OK, buddy?"
The cheetah is pretty well out of it, but manages to mumble "Hun-gry..."
Dr. Stein immediately says, "Wanderer! Get him food. Now!" as he's rushing over to Jubatus to take his pulse. "Wore yourself out again, Jube? What did you do this time?"
At this point, Sgt. Stuart's radio makes more noise. "Riot control leader to base."
"Go ahead RC."
"We need every ambulance you got, A.S.A.P. We have many rioters down, at least 30, some critical. We also have at least three down permanent. This is really strange. According to witnesses, and a few of my men, many of the rioters just keeled over after being hit by something they couldn't see. A few of the victims appear to have been shot. This includes a group of five to six that were trying to beat a Scab to death on the street. Three of this group are dead. The others are hurt real bad. There are also five Scabs beaten to death that we know of, and another five or six that are hurt pretty bad. We need every ambulance the city has. And get Dr. Stein's emergency people out here too. It's going to be a long night."
"Say again RC? People just started keeling over?"
"Never mind! Just get the fire people and ambulances down to 53rd and Maple, now!"
The news is better than I'd hoped. I say, "Sounds like your boys have something else to look into, but if they're calling for ambulances and fire response in the heart of the riot zone, the main event is just about over."
At this point, Wanderer enters the room with a platter of raw steaks, which Jubatus quickly grabs and devours. Dr. Stein just stares at Jubatus, shaking his head in wonder. He says, "You never cease to amaze me."
Then Dr. Stein's pager spouts annoying high-pitched beeps and whistles that set my teeth on edge. After the Doc turns his pager off and pulls out a cell phone, I ask, "Now what do you really need to know, Sarge?"
My question startles Sgt. Stuart out of his train of thought. He quickly recovers. "I want ta know what yer covering up. Why don't ya want ta admit who you are. Ya haven't once offered your name, just an alias, since the start of this. Yer nervous about people finding out things about ya, but ya freely admit that ya escaped from slavers someplace with a Federally closed border. What gives?"
"I'm not covering up anything, per se. I'm trying not to end up dead, and to keep others from getting hurt or killed in the process. The person who hired the slavers has tried to have me killed more than once, and the results weren't pretty. Does that explain it enough for you?"
Dr. Stein, catching a bit of my response as he hangs up his phone, lets out a groan and says something about "opening my big mouth again" under his breath but purposefully loud enough for me to hear.
"Huh. Sounds like ya almost couldn't be in a worse situation if ya was that archaeologist guy that they tried ta crucify thirty-odd years ago on a bogus story about startin' the Martian Flu epidemic."
Dr. Stein rolls his eyes and groans even louder as I chuckle and say: "You might be surprised..."
A puzzled look crosses Sgt. Stuart's face. "Ya don't mean..."
"Yes, I do. Congratulations: You just won Final Jeopardy."
As I finish my sentence, I hear a gasp and the clatter-and-splat of a tray full of food hitting the floor. In the doorway is an obviously aging rabbit morph. His eyes glaze over for a moment, then he lets out a squeal and bounds over to me and begins to hug me around the neck, muttering "I can't believe it's you!" over and over. The voice is one I haven't heard in close to thirty years. What the hell?
"Ralph?!?!?! I can't believe this! They said you died in a colony in Louisiana!" I give him as tight a hug as I dare, and thank God that maybe I hadn't totally screwed up at least one life I had touched since the outbreak.
"I... I... I... escaped during a big hurricane that came through about a year after I was locked up. I been trying to find somebody I know, anybody, since then. I didn't dare go back to school, because I didn't want to get sent back to the colony. I didn't dare go home 'cuz I found out the hard way that they didn't want me anymore. So I went looking for Stan. I lost him in St. Louis. After all the news came out in the paper, and I found out that he lives here, I walked here. Somebody, an otter I think, found me half dead with fatigue outside of town last week and dropped me off at the shelter. But I found you now! After all these years! You won't leave me behind will you?" he asks plaintively as his eyes well up with tears. None of this even registers with Jubatus, who is now sleeping soundly on the floor next to the remains of his dinner.
"Of course I won't," I reply. When I say this Ralph buries his head against my neck and begins to sob, thirty years of frustration working their way out of him at once.
I see movement in the doorway. It's Phil. He has the strangest look on his face. "Well, well, well! I've been trying to get him to open up since he got here. No wonder he was so unwilling to talk! I think I have all the confirmation of your story that I need, Wolfie. That being said, there are a few people that I need to talk to. I don't promise anything, but I might be able to help more than I thought I could with your current plight. Sgt. Stuart, will you trust me on this?"
"Yeah, I guess I can. The big guy has reason ta be as secretive as he is. But do you really need to get involved here, Phil? We got programs designed for things like this, ya know. Witness relocation comes to mind..."
"A federal program?" I respond. "Thanks, but the guy who's after me is a fed. The farther under his radar we are, the better for everyone."
"Figgered as much. Okay, but keep your nose clean. Not sure I can do much for ya if ya do get brought in for something."
"Thank you sir," I say as he turns to leave. He just waves, shakes his head in disbelief, mutters something about not knowing how he was going to explain this to the chief, and walks back out to the streets. About an hour later, after Phil has questioned me rather thoroughly about my background and training, Sgt. Stuart walks back into the room.
"Alright. It looks as if most of the remainin' rioters are headed ta the lock up, includin' yer friend with the baseball bat. Ya can all go home now, since things seem ta be pretty much wrapped up." He then looks at me, shakes his head in disbelief again, and heads back toward the front doors.
"We'll give it another hour, just to be certain," says Dr. Stein. "I'm not needed at the hospital as of yet, so my Emergency crew must have things under control. I'll go check up on them when we are through."
Thus begins another hour and a half of questions, where Phil gets the address of the motel out of me. There were a few secretive phone calls by Phil as well, and quite a few humorous stories and jokes by Wanderer to lighten the mood. After a little over an hour Dr. Stein calls an end to the proceedings. "Okay, Wolfie. I guess we can get you back to your motel as soon as Jubatus is conscious enough to drive. You will be riding with him back there. I insist."
"Well, since you put it that way... I just hope Jubatus and his SUV survive the trip. I don't tolerate cramped spaces very well anymore, so he'd better have a claw-proof interior."
"Not a problem," replies Jubatus, as he tiredly forces himself up off the floor. "Your claws can't wreck the interior any worse'n what it's already been through. Let's get this over with... I need more protein and a good night's sleep. Badly."
Now Dr. Stein and Jubatus get into a quick, hushed conversation. Meanwhile, my attention is drawn to Wanderer as he works on cheering Ralph up with an anecdote about how he got zapped by a practical joke, meant for Jubatus, that backfired on him. Even though distracted by the story, I thought I saw Dr. Stein pass a note to Jubatus. Once the story ended, Ralph and I were then ushered to Jubatus' SUV.
"Now, before I let you go, you have to give me your word that you will follow my directives to the letter," Dr. Stein says.
"Sir, yes sir!" I say as I snap to attention and try to give a perfect military salute, which doesn't work as well as I had hoped, since my anatomy gets in the way now. Dr. Stein lets out another groan and asks the sky, "What have I gotten myself into?" before he heads back into the shelter.
"Let's get this over with," says Jubatus as he tries to stifle a yawn, and we head back to the Blind Pig to get his vehicle.
Getting me into that SUV wasn't a good idea. Since no seat belt would fit me, Jubatus had an alternative: Cargo netting, of all things! It was tough to find a polite way to tell him that if he thought my concern over cramped spaces was bad, he really didn't want to find out how I felt about being 'tied up'. It brings back too many bad memories to go along with the paranoia and fear I would feel. Not a good recipe under any circumstances,
Worse, I felt quite cramped in Jubatus' vehicle -- it wasn't half as roomy inside as it looked from outside. Even if he didn't have all those electronic gizmos and what looked like half-finished projects strewn about in there, it still would have been cramped. Hell, it took me a whole ten minutes to work the kinks out of my neck, even with the hyper-active healing ability, after I got out. Jubatus wasn't anywhere near as cantankerous towards me as he was in the bar, but even so, it was still obvious he wanted to get my carcass off his hands as soon as possible.
I didn't know something as big as that SUV could accelerate that quickly. Learning this fact resulted in a couple new 'battle scars' to his interior. And when he hit that huge pothole at seventy-something, my head sure left a dent in the roof! I hope he can get that fixed. At least I held onto my pack for the trip. It saved his dashboard from getting shredded. Put it this way: When you haven't been in a vehicle smaller than a bus in thirty years, and even that was a rarity, you tend to forget how fast 70-plus really is. And when you're just drifting around loose... Well, let's just say it makes for one less than happy kitty/mutt/whatever.
When Jubatus drops us off at the motel, he hands me a note. "It's from Stein. Show it to the motel manager and the owner of the Scab-run eatery across the street. The Doc's got an 'arrangement' with 'em, wink-wink, say no more." The Monty Python reference surprises me, but not as much as when he actually says, "Sorry for what went on in the bar." Before I can tell him not to worry about it, he hits the gas and burns rubber out of the parking lot.
"Thanks!" I yell at his exhaust. Ralph and I head to the motel manager's office. A matronly lady of around sixty, she reads the note, smiles, and hands me a form. "Here you go, honey, fill this out."
I read the contract and notice some strange clauses. "Excuse me, but is this right?" I ask. "According to this, I'm getting a special rate and the hospital is paying for my room!"
She nods happily. "That's right! A few years back, when my son got sick, the Doc saved his life; ever since, I've been more than happy to help him out any way I can, including reduced rates for his patients who stay here."
I don't know how I feel about that. On the one hand I'm grateful, as I know the money we have left will be barely enough to pay for the room if we check out in the morning, and with another mouth to feed; on the other hand, it just don't feel right taking money that the hospital needs. My conscience wins out over rationality. "That's all well and good, but the hospital needs all the money it can get, so it doesn't need to waste it on me or my wife. I'll pay for the room... somehow."
She looks amused. "You didn't read the note, did you?" she says as she hands it back to me. After informing the hotel and diner managers that I am a patient, and asking them for the 'hospital rates', it says: "Whether you agreed to follow Dr.'s orders or not, the hospital's budget allows me to do this sort of thing. It is my hospital after all. Consider this compensation for the rigorous examination I will be putting you and your wife through. I will let you know what the arrangements are later this evening or tomorrow morning at the latest. Eat hearty tonight because I will be wanting to do some dietary work over the next couple days..."
With a shudder at the thought of the physical that is to come, I give in to the inevitable for the second time that night. I hope this doesn't become a habit. Sasha and I have been pretty much self-reliant for thirty years, and you get used to that after a while. Still feeling like I am taking something I shouldn't, I finish the paperwork, thank the manager and head outside, Ralph in tow.
The wind has picked up outside, so I stuff the note in my pocket to make sure I will still have it when I get to the diner. As I enter, the skunk morph behind the counter takes one look at me and her jaw about hits the floor. At first, I thought I had just made another one of my showstopping entrances. That or the sight of a Rabbit riding on the shoulder of a large carnivore is the cause. I realize how wrong I am as she starts berating me for not taking care of myself. "Honey child! What you been doin' to yo'self? You look like you ain't had a decent meal in weeks!" She isn't far off. I can't remember the last time Sasha and I had a real meal... Probably back at Baton Rouge. You won't believe how much worse scrounging is north of the border. As I start to pull the note out of my pocket, she says, "Yo' money ain't no good here, Mr. Wolfshadow. That nice Dr. Stein called ahead o' you, so you jus' relax an' I'll have ya somethin' cooked up in a jiffy." She pats me on the arm and gives me one of those motherly type smiles as she leads me to a large booth.
"Thank you, but Dr. Stein told me to give you this note."
"Yessiree. An, you had betta do what the Doc says. Can't find no better man nowhere, No Sir. Now do like I say and y'all take a seat," as she waves for me to put the note back in my pocket.
"Ma'am, I thank you very much, but I think my wife would be very angry with me if I didn't invite her to eat as well. I'll be back in five minutes, I promise."
"You is married? An you didn't bring her wit' you? Some husband you are, going out to eat and leaving your poor wife to starve. You go get her right quick!"
Ralph hops down into the booth. "I'll keep your seats warm!"
With the skunk giving me a stern look, I quickly exit the diner, cross the street, and head to our room. Sasha meets me at the door. "What the hell have you been doing?"
"What do you mean?"
"I send you to find this Dr. Stein we're looking for, and the next thing I know, you make the evening news! Honestly, I don't know if I can leave you alone for five minutes without you starting something. What did you do to that asshole to get him so riled up and get his friends to start a riot? He didn't name you directly, but the description he gave didn't leave much to the imagination."
"Look hun, I'll explain things to you when we get back from dinner. Right now I've got a major surprise for you over across the street."
She glared and said, "You know we can't afford that. We don't even know how we are going to afford this room beyond tonight. And that's if you saved all of your emergency funds!"
In response I hand her the note. "Go ahead, read it. You'll see I did at least one thing right tonight."
She reads the note. "Well, at least that's something. But you should know that I tried to contact Stan, and he wasn't home. There was a note on his door that said he was going someplace warm for a few weeks, and he wasn't leaving a contact number because he didn't want the guy harassing him to ruin his vacation. What's worse is that the note had been read before me, and there were about three to five stressed-out people there sometime earlier that day -- and with the gun oil I smelled, they had to have been heavily armed. Oh, and let's not forget the scratches around the door latch. Something definitely isn't right here."
"Not much we can do about it now, especially if we don't have a way to contact Stan. Anyway, as I said earlier, you have a surprise over in the diner that we shouldn't let sit there too long. I told the owner I'd be back with you in five minutes, and it's been longer than that now."
The scene in the diner is classic, when we get there. Ralph is small enough where he can't be seen over the back of the bench seats of the booth. The food on the table looks better than we've seen in years, but the first thing to catch my wife's attention is the third place setting. She looks at me puzzled, then catches a scent I can tell she vaguely remembers. Even more confused, she slowly makes her way around the edge of the booth and is almost knocked over by a ball of fur that bounds out of the booth and drapes itself around her neck. Ralph looks up at her face as he hangs there and says "Did you miss me?" It's all Sasha can do to remain upright as the sound of that voice registers. She looks as if she has seen a ghost. Slowly taking a seat in the booth, she just stares at Ralph, who jumps into the booth as she sits down. "How?? Where???" Then, looking at me, "Tell me I'm not dreaming."
"No, hun, you're not dreaming. He was at the Shelter I visited tonight. I'll explain more after dinner, when things are a bit more private."
The service in the diner is impeccable, and the food is much better than can be expected in a normal diner. In fact, I would be hard pressed to tell you where I've had better. The shock of seeing Ralph again seems to have done a number on Sasha's appetite, but it's not long before sheer hunger wins out. After the meal, I bring our plates up to the counter. "I'll wash these and whatever else is dirty for you if you want, as a way to say thanks. The food was definitely the best we've had in a long time."
"Don't you worry about it, dearie. I have staff who does that. An' besides, the health codes don't let no customers in the back. Doc Stein will see to things. Y'all come back bright and early, 'cuz the Doc likes to get things started quick. If you isn't here by seven, I'll send somethin' over. Now go get you some sleep. If you is gonna get a physical from Doc Stein, you is gonna need it."
We heartily thank her again and head back to our room. As we enter, we see the little red 'message' light on the phone blinking. I look at the phone for the procedure of retrieving a message and the follow the instructions.
"Wolfie, listen up. I cleared out my schedule for the next week, except for the really important checkups I need to do. I want you ready to come in tomorrow morning, since I want to get this done as soon as possible. Too many 'complications' pop up in your life for me to be leisurely about this. Will start with a dietary exam and move on from there. I'll call you in the morning. Oh and bring along your friend Ralph. At the very least, he needs a checkup, especially given his age and what he has likely been through."
Joy. More fasting and CAT-scans. And if being in that SUV is claustrophobic, I'm certain Stein's machine can't be much better. Next, I bring Sasha up to date about my adventures in the city. Her annoyance with me becomes concern as I get to the incident in front of the bar and the escapade afterwards. She isn't happy that Sgt. Stuart knows about me, but what's done is done. We round out the evening by filling Ralph in on what we've been up to in the thirty years since he and Stan left us. Sasha does most of the talking, giving my voice a rest. Then Ralph tells his story. When this wraps up, Sasha and I settle in for what's left of the night, and Ralph curls up in a chair and falls asleep immediately. He looks like he hasn't been this happy in years. At least someone is; my paranoia will keep me up, I can tell. The clock blares 2:30 am at me as I finally drift off into a restless slumber.
We get the wake-up call from Dr. Stein about seven. "I stayed up late last night and got the background research on you started. Don't worry. I have Jubatus on the job, and he's as good as he is motivated, if not more so. I don't mean any offense by doing this, but with everything that has been going on around here over the past few years, I have to double-check everything."
"Well, you'll have to forgive me if I worry anyway, Doc. If you say Jubatus is that good, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, but... Believe me, this guy is very resourceful. He tried to kill us five times, which means he had to have found at least five ways into the Mesoamerican Church's computer net. Do you have any idea how much work and money went into that system? Hell, by now he might even have found out about the visit to Baton Rouge and what that entailed. I wouldn't put it past him! And if he saw the news last night, things could get hairy, so to speak."
"The news? What about the news?"
"Benton got interviewed at the riot scene last night. Started to give a good description of 'the freaking animal responsible for the riot' before he was arrested on live TV. If the guy after us doesn't know we're here, it will be a miracle."
"I thought you told Sgt. Stuart that this person thinks you're dead?"
"I told him that, just to get him off our case a bit. I'm pretty much certain that our stalker knows we're still alive, but not exactly where we are. Now he probably knows that someone accessed our files. How long before he finds out where the info was, and is being, sent?"
"I understand your concern," Dr. Stein replies, "but we have taken the utmost precautions. The van will be there to pick you up at eight."
"Fine, just so you realize, we might have to end testing abruptly, and could be putting the hospital in grave danger, just by being there."
"Don't worry about that. Even this mysterious official wouldn't be stupid enough to try anything here. This facility is too important to the study of the Martian Flu for anyone to risk outright violence against it. Even the Humans First crowd haven't tried it, and you know how they feel about us. The feds would destroy their whole organization within a week if they tried."
"OK Doc. We'll be waiting. We might not be as relaxed as you want us for the tests, but we'll be there."
"Thank you. I'll see you in my office at nine." And the line went dead.
"What was it he was telling you about or files?"
"He has a computer-savvy contact checking into our records, despite the warnings I gave him last night. I get the impression that Dr. Stein is very anxious to get his hands on everything about us." I say with a smile.
"Well, let's not disappoint him then. Get your things, the van should be here any minute."
We got dressed and got our important things repacked, just in case we needed to make a quick exit, and stepped outside into the parking lot. We were soon met by a large white utility truck that is driven by an orderly from the hospital. Looks like something someone would distribute beer in. Oh! It's even got a faded-out Guinness logo. Nice touch. Both clandestine, and roomy. Well, nothing like being told, even accidentally, that life will never be normal again. I can just imagine what the conversation with his staff was like...
"Whatcha got there?"
"A plan to get our two new patients to the hospital."
"A Plan!?!?! Brilliant! What is it?"
"Go get them in a large truck."
"A large truck?!!?! Brilliant!"
Ouch... that was good marketing, for me to remember it after all this time. Well, if this is what Doc Stein wants... I turn to my wife, "M'lady, our chariot awaits," and help her into the back. Ralph then hops up into the back and I climb in after him. As soon as the doors are shut, the van takes off at a high rate of speed. Other than a few turns where I am sure that we are going to go ass over teakettle, the trip is uneventful. Thus begins a week full of poking, prodding and exercising, all put under the banner of a medical exam.
I must admit, I thought our prior physical at the University medical center was as bad as it could get. I was wrong. I had a feeling that a hospital specializing in Scabs would have a few more instruments, but not that many more... Jesus, they even had a scale big enough to weigh us!
The worst part, though, was when they tested our healing. For me, these tests doubled with trying to find out how much strength I had and the torque I could produce. Stein did his best to work up a re-run of the scene with the rebar-laced bat from my trip to the Blind Pig. He didn't get all the healing information he wanted from that test. I'm afraid I broke his little machine -- baseball bats and monitors don't mix well. And once that went, the rest shut down to prevent electrocution or fire. We had to do the test no less than three times before they worked out all the bugs.
Once my hand and arm heal -- again -- with the inevitable monitoring devices recording everything, Dr. Stein walks me over to another device, which Torquemada would've loved. The thing makes me squeeze and pull and push so many different ways, it could've been an audition for the role of Stretch Armstrong in some sort of sick, nostalgic toy-inspired movie.
Next on the agenda was a few hours' walking and running on a treadmill that could only have been designed for a horse, or some other large four legged creature. Stein had me run in all my forms, and even "change on the fly", just to cover all possible scenarios. This part interested him the most, it appeared. He said something about it being rare to find someone who can change forms as fast as my wife and I said that we could.
It's not as if we changed forms all that fast normally. When we explained that the quick changing happened under stress, he said he would adjust the testing to take this into account. I don't know where he got the flash/bang grenades... I should have realized something was up when he made an excuse to go get something to drink and the rest of the staff joined him, while I had to keep running. Soon after they left the room, I heard a buzz followed by a series of clicks then the sound of three or four things rolling across the floor. I turned to look at one of them just in time to catch the flash. I was stunned for a minute or two, and blinded for a short time longer.
When my hearing came back on line, it sounded as if somebody behind the two-way mirror in the room thought there was something funny about the sight of a large, stunned jaguar-thing being thrown off a moving treadmill into lab equipment. My instincts took over for a moment when the pain hit, which was my second surprise of the day. First time that's happened in a while. I'm very glad that there was no one in the room -- and they should be very glad, too. It takes a lot to get me feral, and when there's a source of perceived danger close at hand, let's just say it isn't healthy for other persons nearby. If you're not on the "friends list" registered in my brain, well, the term "fair game" comes to mind.
When my mind righted itself, I (much more slowly) changed back into my bipedal form and extricated myself from the tangle of lab equipment I had just created. That was when Doc Stein entered. "I apologize for the shock, but that was the most expedient way to get information on your 'reflex shifting'." He shook his head in amazement. "Forty-five seconds from start to finish, with most of the work being done in the first thirty-five. Interesting. This is a new one on me!"
"I hope you got all the information you needed that time Doc, because it might not be wise to do something like that again. I pretty much went feral there for a moment, due most likely to hitting my head while being flung into that lab equipment and the wall. It takes a lot to get me that way, but you succeeded. It wouldn't have been good if anybody was in the room at the time, so you might not want to try that again. Sorry if I broke any of your toys."
He waves that last bit off. "You went feral? I'll keep that in mind."
"Do. Because when I do end up feral, it doesn't matter how long, the resulting instincts stay hard wired for days. This makes it much harder for me to keep holding back my feral side if I have to react to stressful situations. Don't get me wrong. I don't become a killing machine, I still have that much control. It just makes it much harder to react in a 'human' manner. You know, talking instead of growling, scratching, biting and trying to drive off an apparent threat."
"That's good to know. You OK right now?"
"I'm fine Doc, except for an instinct insisting that I don't want to be in a closed room right now. That one is easily overridden though, since no one here is actively trying to kill me," I say with a smile.
"I'll take your word for it," he says, a trace of worry crossing his face. He even smells concerned, almost wary. I drop the smile and force back the 'let me out of here or else' instinct. That gets the Doc's mood to lighten up a bit, likely since I should not be giving off as many bad 'signals'. He collects himself and changes the subject: "Okay, we may need to consider speeding things up a bit. Jubatus just contacted me and he is very concerned. There was a back-trace to his equipment, followed by a major 'hack attack' on his systems. The hacker left behind a nasty little logic bomb that actually took Jube over twenty-five minutes to disarm. And for him, that is an eternity. The hacker is one of the best he has encountered. It will likely take him days to trace the source, if he even can. He is up to 1000 sites used to host the attack so far."
"I told you the hacker he hired was good Doc. It seems that the years haven't diminished my antagonist's anger, either. Trying to take out Jubatus' system is a pretty strong message."
"OK. Let's call it a day. With all of the paces we ran you through this week, you must be famished. I'll go get your wife, and then we can all go pick up Ralph at the Pig. I know a nice restaurant we can eat at, then we can go back to the Pig and unwind. I think we're through with the physical portion of your testing. That is if we don't have to repeat some things to check the data."
"Whatever you say Doc."
OK. Maybe I lied earlier. It's been pretty quiet since the 'flying jaguar' incident three days ago, and I'm bored. Doc says he's just about through with the testing he thinks he can get away with while we are still running from the asshole with a grudge. It's kind of disappointing, really. At least while I was moving around I had something to do besides watch TV and try to pass the time. (Sigh) I guess it could be worse, but sitting for the past two days is getting on my nerves. At least I am not recounting the past thirty years to Doc Stein -- again!
When I returned to the Doc's office on the afternoon after my treadmill-induced attempt at flight, my testing consisted mainly of interviews. I had to go over the entire escapade in Egypt and Central America again, in so much detail that I felt like I had been drained of all the information my brain possessed. I had to describe how I felt after each incident with the disease/water, how the symptoms first appeared and in what order (as if I could remember that clearly after thirty years!) and even how my 'system' came back 'online' when I woke up from the coma I was in. Then I had to wait while he went through the same thing with my wife. At least he recorded everything. At around 6 PM, he sent us back to the motel to wait for a day or two so he could analyze the information he had obtained, and compare it to the data from our physicals at the university.
At one point I ask about the hacking incident. Jubatus was extremely frustrated; Dr. Stein says he'd somehow followed the path back to every known mainframe computer in Europe and the U.S. -- and still hadn't found the source. He almost thought that the Revised Mesoamerican Church's computer was the host until he found a very well hidden back-door that had been accessed from somewhere else. The next day we saw first-hand how frustrated he was over the hacking. The curses he let out when a second logic bomb went off in his system while he was sitting in the bar were enough to give Sgt. Stuart a run for his money. Quick work on his part, however, led to a confusing bit of knowledge. While the virus was supposed to look like it totally wiped out all the information from his system, it had actually created a storage file for all of his data and programs. Even more surprising, the files showed up after his hard drives were re-formatted, and should have been wiped clean. It's safe to say that Jubatus is becoming very impressed by the hacker's prowess, even if it does make him mad as hell.
Anyway, it is now late on the second day since the Doc started his analysis. Sasha and Ralph have gone over to the diner for a late evening snack. I'm here because I'm not hungry, and some instinct is strongly telling me something important is going to happen. My instincts are hardwired for days after I go feral, and this time it seems like they are hanging on for dear life. I'm absolutely glued to the 24 hour news channels anyway, much to Sasha's chagrin. I figure it's a good thing, since it should help me get some clue on how society stands, an important thing after being 'out of touch' for so long. Still, it gets boring.
As I start to contemplate ignoring my instincts and joining the other two, the phone rings. It's Doc Stein. "Well, Wolfie, we have some very interesting information to tell you. How about you have a leisurely morning while I put what I want to tell you in a more concise format, and then join me in my office. Say around 1 p.m. How does that sound?"
"Sounds fine Doc." Then something on the screen catches my eye. "Um, could you hold on a minute Doc? Holy shit! Doc! You need to turn on the all news channel... Now!"
"What's the problem?"
"They just put a picture of me -- the old me, before the change -- up on the screen! Hang on a minute..."
"...Tomorrow is the 32nd anniversary of the disappearance. Prime News has exclusive new information concerning this case which we will air exclusively for you on Bertrand and Garrison, 8:oo p.m. Eastern. We promise that this is something you won't want to miss. Now repeating the news headlines, the Congress today was shocked to learn of the resignation of Senator Sam Nelson of..."
"What the hell is up, Doc?"
"Beats me. At a guess, I'd say it's got something to do with a bunny rabbit who has certain political contacts in his address book. We'll just have to watch the program tomorrow night at the Pig."
"If that's the case, then tell the walking rabbit stew to warn me next time one of his friends decides to spring a leak. Madre de Dios!"
"Hey, he has no control over that. You know politicians. And besides, if the news were that important, they would be telling you now, not waiting for prime time on the anniversary of your disappearance."
"OK. If you say so. But this is playing hell with my survival instinct right now. I told you I would be hard wired for days. Now I just have to hope that the asshole wasn't watching the all news channel." Well, at least I'm not bored anymore... "See you tomorrow then?"
"Yes. Have a good night." There is not a small amount of concern in his voice.
"I'll try, but it's going to be a long one. Everything will be fine Doc."
"I hope so." And the phone hangs up.
Later, when Sasha and Ralph return, they're not happy about the news story. The news that Doc Stein wants to see us, though, gets her thinking about other things. We spend a restless night, and a nervous morning waiting until it was time to go to his office. The truck returns to pick us up at noon, and we get in.
When we get to the hospital, I am escorted immediately to Dr. Stein's office, while Sasha gets funneled to the exam room to redo one or two of the running tests -- it seems that one of the sensors was malfunctioning when the tests were first done.
My escort is a very stern looking intern. He leads me to a waiting room and says, "Dr. Stein is busy right now, so wait here. He will let you know when to enter his office," and closes the door to the main hallway behind me. Great. More hurry-up-and-wait. I take a quick look around. The only place in this waiting room big enough for me to sit is a couch across from the check-in desk where another, female intern, is shuffling through paperwork. The couch protests mightily as I sit down, but holds. I have the feeling the manufacturers didn't have anyone my size in mind when they made the thing.
After about five minutes the intercom buzzes and she motions for me to go in to the office. Dr. Stein points at a chair that looks big enough to support a draft horse. "You might find this interesting," he says as he turns the monitor in my direction. On his screen, which is in what looks like screen saver mode, is a message. "The end is near. Make sure Mr. Wolfshadow is there at 1:30." This message kept scrolling across the screen. "I can't access my computer with it doing this. Something is shutting me out. I have Jubatus coming here right now to check it out and see if he can trace the hacker. At least I have a hard copy of the exam results here to go from, so we can go over some of my findings while we wait. You have given us some remarkable information with these tests, for which I thank you."
"Glad I could oblige... mostly... There are, however, a few of your instruments I don't ever want to see again," I say with a smile. He just grins at me, then returns to his printout.
"The most interesting thing we learned is that your healing has a chronological element to it, besides the fact that it takes time to work. It behaves in almost every way like that of other chronomorphic healing we have seen, except in one crucial area. Your cerebellum seems to figure out what is happening and actually directs your cells to use your DNA in new ways to prevent as much damage as possible. It even does the same to allow you to perform tasks you need to do in such a way as to minimize the strain on your body systems. With four complete sets of DNA to work from, it can get very creative."
"Wait, wait, wait. Four complete DNA sets? How the hell does that work? Forgive my ignorance. From the little I learned about genetics way back in college, wouldn't four sets of DNA result in major problems?"
"Not when they are the result of whatever the Flu does, it seems. Most animorph SCABs -- the ones that end up displaying animal traits -- seem to have their normal DNA reconfigured to express those new traits. Many of the victims that can change their form are still unexplainable, but quite a few have complete extra sets of DNA. The body seems to be programmed to select the dominant normal traits from these and even alter dominance either through sheer will of the individual and/or in relation to stress. So, no: You having four sets of DNA is not as unusual as you would think. What is unusual is that both you and your wife do, and are pretty much affected in the same way. The only clues to that we have is your exposures to the two water sources that may carry the older Flu strains.
"But back to how your healing ability works, some of the creative adjustments include re-enforcing bones, especially in response to breaks, trying to prevent future damage and adjusting musculature to make tasks such as running more efficient. For instance, when you were running on the treadmill your overall cell structure altered itself to assist you on being able to run further and faster with less energy expenditure. When you stopped, the cells returned to their normal state. We definitely need to do some more testing..."
There is a buzzing from the computer, followed by some instrument readings being fed to the screen. "What the... This is a feed from ICU. We got a patient in De-fib..." As he gets up to rush out of the room, the hospital intercom blares: "We have a code red in ICU, I repeat, code red in ICU. Dr. Stein, Dr. Jacobs please report to ICU immediately." And Dr. Stein is out the door in record time. The intern is soon in the doorway, smiles at me, and then closes the office door.
I wait for about five minutes where I do nothing but stare at the feed coming through the computer monitor. Then the monitor goes dark, and the words "He is here, be prepared. The end of this is near," scroll across the screen. Who the hell is He? And the end of what is near? This really isn't good... old Mr. Survival Instinct is back and screaming in my ear. I start to itch as stress starts to trigger a form change. No. I can't let that happen. Not right now. It won't be much good if all I can do is bark...
I'm distracted as the intern in the waiting room begins protesting loudly, muffled by the low-grade soundproofing in the walls. Then the screen goes back to the input from ICU, which seems to have returned to normal. "You can't go into Dr. Stein's office. He is busy with a patient," the intern protests loudly. This is followed by an angry man's voice. "The hell I can't. You have no clue who I am, lady. If you deny me access to Dr. Stein, I'll have you brought up on charges of impeding a government investigation, and anything else I can think up. Brad. Make sure she doesn't cause any trouble."
"Hey. Get your hands off me!" says the intern's voice and the door to the outer office swings open. Then there's a growl and another man's voice saying, "Ow! Sheesh, lady, get a grip! I'm just doin' my job here!"
A middle-aged man walks through the door. "Dr. Stein... I..." The view of the room stops the man in his tracks. He is obviously shocked to see no one in a room where he thought Dr. Stein would be. His attention was so focused on where Dr. Stein should have been that nothing else mattered. "He was called out for an emergency and should be back when that is finished," I reply. "Then he will finish up with me, allowing you to have your turn. Comprendo, bendejo?"
The man just about jumped out of his skin twice in rapid succession. First, at the sound of a voice in a room he thought was empty, and again when he got a look at my appearance. The surprise is followed by a look of derision and not a small amount of anger as he seems to recognize me. The man acidly spits out, "You! I should have known you weren't dead. No matter, I can fix that."
Wait... Is this the asshole that's made my life hell the past thirty years? Is that what those messages on the computer screen were about? The urge to throttle this man within an inch of his life, or further, begins to well up in me, and I let out a low growl. Thirty-some years' practice controlling my feral impulses is just barely enough, when confronted with his sheer arrogance. I say to no-one in particular as I force the urge down, "No... I will not make myself the monster he claims I am."
He coldly says, "It's too late for that. Much too late, you murdering monster!"
Okay, how stupid do you have to be to antagonize someone you've already prodded to almost a killing rage? Too bad he doesn't realize his mistake until after I start shifting over to wolf form, the better to rip his lying throat out. He goes pale and stinks of fear as he rushes out the door, slamming it behind him. "Carl! Brad! Get that couch in front of the door! Now!" This is followed by the sound of someone dragging something large to block the door, a futile effort since it opens into the office.
There's a lot of sounds: Moving furniture, a yell for security, a short and painful fistfight. The intern shouts, "That'll teach ya to sic your goons on me, mister all high and mighty government man!" Laughter. Somebody says, "Sheesh boss... I never thought a little girl could take ya. And don't you think about it missy. The first one was free, since he had no reason to sic us on ya. You do it again and I hafta start doin' my job." Then heavy footsteps and Dr. Stein shouting, "What the hell?!?!"
By the time Dr. Stein returned, I've forced back the urge to rip through the door after my antagonist and decided that discretion is the better part of valor, as they say. At this point, I am wolf enough to let out an extremely loud howl that Sasha and I had worked out as a distress call. Before I lose my hands entirely, I stumble over to the window and force it open. I then shove out the screen and security cage on the outside. I awkwardly climb through the window and out onto the lawn between the Hospital and the main parking lot. As I get my bearings, I hear a terrified yell come from somewhere behind me, followed by the sound of something being thrown, hard, against a wall. Next, the door to Dr. Stein's office slams inward so hard even a normal person could hear the hinges protest and wood splinter. Scared by the unexpected noise, I finish the wolf-shift on the spot and start running. Sasha, also changing to wolf, jumps through the open window and makes a beeline straight for me. We flee through the hospital parking lot.
We have to practice with our reflexes as we evade a familiar (to me anyway) large SUV entering the lot. I catch a glimpse of a puzzled Jubatus sitting behind the wheel of his SUV as he screeches to a halt. Before I lose sight of him, his head snaps around to look at something near the entrance to the building. I could understand Jubatus' confusion. It isn't often you see a matching pair of lion-sized, jaguar-spotted wolves race by you in such a hurry. Before we turn a corner into an alley that smells of rotten garbage and god knows what else, I look back one last time to see if anyone's following us. No pursuers. Instead, I see Jubatus' SUV sitting askew in the entrance to the lot with the door open and Jubatus intently looking through the window to Dr. Stein's office, trying not to be noticed. Then Sasha nudges me and we take off away from the hospital.
This is really getting annoying. Running from this bastard has consumed more than its fair share of our lives over the past thirty years, and now he's got us on the run again. We've spent the past three hours, minimum, going down alleys; climbing up and down fire escapes; jumping from rooftop to rooftop; and wading through puddles that smell so bad I don't want to know what's in them. Somewhere along the line, it starts raining. While not so good for our footing when we jump between buildings, at least it keeps our scent down and washes off whatever crap we're treading in.
There's no danger at the moment, so we're catching our second wind on a rooftop -- also catching up on each other's doings. Sasha didn't like my news, but at least now we had a face to go with our assailant. Sure, both of us would prefer a name; even so, a face is better than nothing.
"...which brings us up to date," I say, finishing the mutual exchange of data. "Now what do we do?"
"Dr. Stein said we should go back to the Pig," Sasha replies. "I don't know if you heard him -- at the time, you were pretty busy dodging out of the way of that monster SUV."
"The Pig!?" I say, confused. "No way! If the Pig isn't already on that asshole's radar, us going back there should just about finish the job. Does Stein want what's-his-name to napalm the place?"
"I don't think so -- but we're not in Central America any more. What do you want to bet it's a lot harder for our nameless enemy to call in air strikes on targets within the continental US?"
"Good point," I agree. "Even so, I'd still like to shift the odds in our favor as much as we can."
"That makes two of us. Okay... how about we return to Stein's hospital? Our enemy isn't going to expect us to head back to a place he drove us away from, right?"
I grin. "Yeah. And from what Stein himself told me, there's a lot of 'guardian angels' watching over it."
My lovely wife matches my grin. "Which means our personal stalker will have that much more trouble having it destroyed. Let's get moving!"
Ours is a long and crooked route; any pursuers should have no clue about our ultimate destination. We've got more experience with jungle than city, but any terrain can be made to work in your favor. One good sign is that while we have to dodge quite a few patrol cars en route, none of them follow us -- which means no one has called the cops, or so we hope anyway. We also do 'on the fly' shifts to our other forms, in case the guy knows about our wolf form. The 'camouflage factor' might not be as high as we'd like -- not when all of our forms are lion-sized and have jaguar spots -- but the way we figure it, every little bit helps.
Hell, we even wind our way through the subway system for a while! There's no way to track anything by scent through there, and with a maze of maintenance tunnels to play in, every other mode of tracking should be equally screwed. A handy maintenance tunnel with no cameras and, luckily, a remote entrance in a park made sure they couldn't tell where we left. Not that our exit was uneventful, or even unnoticed. On any other day, the sight of a squirrel wearing an orange vest, just outside the entrance, would have stopped us in our tracks. I hope he's OK. The two of us popping out of the ground and barreling past him was probably the biggest shock to his system he has had in a while.
After that park, we figure it's safe to head back toward the hospital on a slightly more direct route. Considering all those open and blind alleys, rooftops, and even drainage tunnels we've slogged through, anybody who managed to trace our path would have had to have been very, very good at it, or a wizard of some sort.
We'll sneak into the hospital under cover of darkness. In the meantime, we find an interim hiding place; a roof overlooking the hospital parking ramp. The sun is going down... can we really have been running for five hours? Oh, well. Suddenly, a strange buzzing noise appears behind me. The buzzing noise turns into a string of curses as I spin around, claws extended, to react to it.
To my surprise, it's Jubatus standing there, wet, disheveled and grimy. I about jumped out of my skin, and Sasha... well... let's just say it's a good thing that cheetah is quick. After another string of curses: "Did you two have to find every slime pit between here and here? I can't believe you made me run all this way just to end up back at the hospital." He looks a bit dizzy. "I'm going to need some food soon."
"We didn't make you do anything, Jubatus," I say. "While I appreciate that you went through the trouble of finding us, I kind of wish you hadn't. That idiot who showed up in Dr. Stein's office is our problem. We'd just as soon you and the others stay out of it because we have too many other peoples' blood on our hands because of that asshole.
"We sure don't want the same thing to happen to any of y'all," my wife says. "You people have been better to us than you needed to, and we would really hate to repay you by having that jerk blow you up. It may be already too late, but making friends is a luxury we really don't have in the current situation. I think this guy takes a perverse pleasure in removing people he feels are contaminated by our mere presence. Imagine what he would do to friends of ours..."
"As to why we are back here," I say, "well, what better place to hide than a location that has already been cleared? And maybe we can get a scent trail to follow and end this." Sasha flexes her claws when I finish my sentence.
"It's also where he ordered Stein to bring you if we caught up to you within the next 48 hours." Jubatus replies. "He says he'll take, quote, drastic measures, unquote, if we don't deliver you to him." Jubatus shrugs. "It's a moot point. The Doc and some unexpected friends worked out a plan before I chased you down. We should be able to end this without any more bloodshed on any side. I'm to take you to the Shelter where things will be explained. By the way, that bastard's name is Phelps. He and I had a run-in a while back. I guess I became the second person or persons to ruin his career, so I have as much interest in seeing him fry as you do. Seems I made his list."
"You don't have to be on his list to be a target," Sasha pointed out. "The guy cares nothing about collateral damage as long as his goals are met. Last count I remember was eighty three innocent people dead and close to two hundred maimed or wounded in some way. Those are just the numbers in the attacks we know about. There have been rumors that he staged others, but no real proof. Also, that death toll doesn't even cover the hired goons he has sent after us. He has a hell of a lot to pay for."
"Going to the Shelter isn't the smartest move either," I add. "He figured out that Doc Stein was actively researching us again, even if he didn't know we were actually here. It only stands to reason, since he knows we are here now, that he would find out what else Doc Stein is associated with. That means the Shelter, and even the Pig could be targets now. For this I am very sorry. I had hoped that things would work out without setting this guy off. Now we have gotten you and the others involved. I think the best bet is if Sasha and I drop out of sight again for a while then show up someplace else. Since we are his main targets, he might just delay what he has planned for you and even Dr. Stein now. Maybe that way we could arrange something to our advantage and end it once and for all."
"Not likely. Since I'm also a target, he might just decide to blow up the Pig, or do something else to me and Dr. Stein in spite of your being gone. I cost him a lot of money, and his high standing in the Department of Interior. He won't forget that soon, if your story is any indication. And besides, I don't take being on people's hit lists well."
Something finally clicks in my mind and I turn pale. "Wait... 'Phelps'?" I say. "Um, Sash... wasn't there a Phelps in that group with our first slaver encounter?"
Judging from her expression, she knows exactly what I'm driving at. "Yes. He was the guy in charge of the operation. The guy that went insane when I found him. One of the things that you missed there haunts me to this day. He kept babbling something about his son, and then something disjointed about not having a son but a monster."
"Hun, if my guess is correct, that's because one of the 'slaves' may have been his son. Remember that guard I stopped that was shooting up the room with the flu victims in it? He was making a special point at shooting one Scab in particular. A low-grade bovine morph, an ox or something. The ox/kid gasped out to me to tell his father that he loved him as I tried to stop the bleeding. If that is the case, then no wonder Phelps wants us dead. He may have lost a brother and a nephew then. That explains a lot... I didn't think that someone would hold a grudge for thirty years over losing a job."
"Whatever," Jubatus says impatiently. "It doesn't really matter at this point, does it? He wants you two dead, and God knows what he wants to do with me. To tell you the truth, I really think the guy is off his rocker. He thinks he has a way to deal with you, even if you are not there at the appointed time. Well, Doc says there's a plan and to bring you to the shelter. Sounds like the best idea to me right now. I'll call him from a pay phone and ask him if there isn't another place to bring you, but don't get your hopes up."
"Don't you have a cell?" I ask.
"Using my cell phone here might be a bad idea if he can tap phones as well as he hacks computers... You two don't move, unless you really have to. I don't want to have to follow you through those damned cesspools and alleys again."
There is a blur as Jubatus takes off. My wife just stands there, jaw agape. "He's faster than that damned hummingbird!" she manages to blurt out.
"You have no idea."
Then, from behind us, there is an explosion. We turn to look, just in time to see the end of the parking structure closest to the front entrance to the hospital collapse. Then there is a second explosion as Jubatus' SUV goes up in a ball of fire. At least it looks like it does. The explosion looked a little 'off center' for some reason. Strangely enough, neither explosion did any real damage to the hospital itself. It almost looks as if there is some sort of shimmering glow between the two explosion locations and the main building. My confusion over this lasts only a few seconds though, as what looks like a firework shoots out of the shimmering thing and 'explodes' at a window in a building at the corner of one of the cross streets. This light then becomes a very cartoonish arrangement of neon signs saying things like "Secret Hideout" and "This way to the Mad Bomber." Taking the hint we run across the rooftops to a building across the intersection from the now insistently flashing neon signs. Standing in the indicated window, with a look of grave concern on his face, is Benton. He appears to be being held in place by something he can't see.
"What the hell is he doing out of prison? And why hasn't he fled the scene?"
"Worry about that later. Right now we have to call the cops and keep this guy from leaving," my wife says as she heads for the fire escape.
We climb down into the alley, then run out to the street where we find a pay phone to dial 911. The police dispatcher informs Sasha that emergency crews are already on the way. Then another of those neon lights appears right in front of me, pointing at the window which reads, "Get up here. You aren't the only one with things to do." Leaving my wife to finish the call, I enter the building and rush up to the room. There is another neon light there that reads "FINALLY", then changes to one that reads, "Listen to Dr. Stein. He knows the plan," and disappears. Thug Boy opens the door as I start towards it and catches sight of me. His eyes grow large in surprise, and he slams the door shut. This is followed by three slugs being wildly fired through the door, and a loud "oof," then a thud as a body hits the floor. I cautiously try to open the door and find it locked. As I go to kick the door open, the bolt slides back and I have to stop myself before I kick my wife in the stomach.
"How the hell did you get in there?"
"Beats me... Something hung up the phone and then lifted me up here. And then I was forced to deal with this idiot, who I can only assume was shooting at you, since you make friends so well," and she smiled at me.
"Well, this is the guy I told you about. The one you saw on the news. He shaved, but it's him." I point to the unconscious form on the floor. "Let's see if he has anything on him that might give us a better clue as to what's up."
"I wouldn't do that, if you want this guy to end up where he belongs," came the voice of Sgt. Stuart from the hall behind me. "You've done enough, putting him out of commission. If you do anything else, the evidence will be compromised. We have him covered. You two need to come with me. Now."
We come with him. We meet Jubatus, who looks even more disheveled, tired and pissed than before, waiting by Sgt. Stuart's patrol car. "I can't believe someone else just nuked my car," he snarls. "Makes me wonder if I should even have one. And you have no idea how long it's going to take to replace what I had in there."
"The someone else in question was Benton," I say. "Somehow, Thug Boy is out of prison and into the bomb business. If I had to guess, he decided to do some damage to the hospital, or was hired to do it. When he got here, he saw your SUV and couldn't resist the opportunity. This is a guess mind you. What puzzles me more is why there was no damage to the hospital from the explosions and what was with all the neon signs that led us to Thug Boy."
Sgt. Stuart explains, "He was bailed out three days ago, just after his arraignment. The bail bond company wouldn't say by who, but some 'creative' police work has led us to an account here at the hospital. Now don't jump to conclusions. While the hacker who broke into the account was good, he wasn't good enough to fool us. More will have to wait until you get back together with Dr. Stein. We would've taken the hospital's van to get you there, but it went up in the first explosion. You're gonna have to walk. With Mr. Jubatus as escort, since the rest of us officers have some other business to attend to."
Jubatus rolls his eyes, "Okay... I'll get them there." Then to us, "But this time we're not taking the long way. I've been through enough. We're going there, then I have to deal with getting my car replaced. Again! My lawyer is going to be a happy man..."
The hour-long trip to the Shelter (apparently too slow for Jubatus' taste), with a stop for food, is uneventful. When we get there, we find armed F.B.I. agents and police patrolling outside the building. At the perimeter of the cordoned-off area, we meet a badger morph wearing a government-issue green windbreaker with a Department of Interior badge on the upper left breast. She seems very relieved to see us. "I'm Sheila Martin, head field rep for the DOI in this region. I'm glad you could all make it, though I wish you hadn't taken the scenic route to get here. You were making us nervous when you didn't show up when you were supposed to. Let's go inside. They're waiting for you."
Before we can get a word in, she ushers us into the Shelter where Dr. Stein is expectantly waiting at the front doors. He leads us to the same room we used on the night of the riot. Waiting inside were Ralph, Phil, and Wanderer. Also in the room is a man, oriental in appearance, who Jubatus immediately goes over to and begins talking to about suing Thug Boy to the hilt. Wow... Jubatus does carry some weight. Most lawyers I remember don't make emergency house calls, unless they are ambulance chasers, or their client is really, really important to them.
To round out the list, the other attendees are introduced as Capt. Charles Stanton, Captain of the 23rd Precinct; Shawna Roberts, Special Agent in charge of the F.B.I. detail; and a Ms. Moorehouse, aide to Senator Randeaux of Louisiana. The room was a tight fit before, and is worse now, which doesn't help my disposition much. I am already very nervous, because this is too much 'brass', as we used to say in the military, and Sasha and I had their full attention. Now I was close enough to these important people to smell what they had for dinner as they exhale. I can only imagine what I smell like. My unease seemed to amuse Phil, Dr. Stein and even Jubatus, who evidently knew more of what was going on here than I did. I could tell Sasha wasn't happy either, but she smelled more of being curious than anything else. She does have a point there... Given the arrangement of alphabet soup agencies and police and government people in this room, the explanation ought to be good.
Ms. Moorehouse is first to speak. She takes our hands in turn and shakes them, or at least tries to, given how big mine is. "Please allow me to be the first to welcome you back to the 'living', and congratulate you on having your citizenships reinstated. I'm sorry this has to be done on such short notice, but the recent unpleasantness has forced us to alter our plans slightly. Reinstating you now, instead of in the planned ceremony, will make the prosecution side of this case much easier. Your reinstatement will be confirmed in a formal public ceremony after the current situation concludes. We sincerely hope you will accept the humble apology of your government for failing to protect your rights in this situation."
"We appreciate that Mrs. Moorehouse, we really do," my wife says. "But is the public ceremony you have planned really the right way to go with this? One thing we've learned is that even if you completely exonerate someone, there are still going to be people who won't believe it. There is no way to tell how many people out there still blame us for starting this epidemic."
"Please understand. We have to do this publicly. You might be surprised what the true feeling is out there. The stories exonerating you in the press have done well in that regard. For that reason, if nothing else, if we do not resolve this in a public fashion, the repercussions could be enormous. We will contact you through your legal council," nodding in the direction of the man Jubatus began talking to when we entered.
Our new lawyer gave Sasha and I a calm, confident smile as Ms. Moorehouse continued, "This will be no small affair, so please be prepared. There will be a few protocol practice sessions for you to attend as well. Again, we apologize for what has happened to you, and hope you will accept our invitation to the ceremonies." With that, she shakes our hands again and strides out the door where she is met by an F.B.I. escort.
Jubatus' lawyer, Mr. Tanakata, then introduces himself and retorts: "Not to be rude, but the rough translation of that last bit is that a lot, and I do mean a lot, of people were very embarrassed by what occurred thirty years ago. This is their chance to either make amends, or save face, when it comes to their legacies, whichever way you look at it. I think we can get some very favorable results out of this, if you will allow me to represent you in this matter." He hands us each a set of identification cards. "These have been provided for your use."
At this point Ms. Roberts steps in. "Mrs. Moorehouse is right though, I think you are worrying too much about the whole public blaming you for the Flu outbreak. I certainly don't blame Y'all for this," and points to herself. "I came to the realization that the disease changed my gender, plain and simple. Didn't care how it happened, because that didn't matter, as it doesn't with most people I know. Plus, the fact that the people over in Egypt and the Middle East got nailed at least as bad as we did, helped blow the story accusing you out of the water. So I think you can rest easy now, at least on that."
"And you can pretty much rest easy on the whole Phelps thing too. The F.B.I. has that covered. We got a special agent working the case. He is one of our best people. You met him earlier today at the bombing in front of the hospital. Terry tends to get a bit showy, but he means well. We want to ask you to help us in this. We are going to make it look like Dr. Stein has actually found you in the basement of the Blind Pig and Terry will 'allow' him to intercept a call to Mr. Jubatus telling him so. We will have agents there, so don't sweat that either. When Mr. Phelps comes to the bar to 'finish you off', we nail his ass. But, we have to catch him in the act. Anything you can get him to confess to will help us enormously. And rest assured, the brass want him nailed in a big way. Phelps caused major embarrassment to the Bureau with his vendetta and they want his ass on a silver platter."
"Joy... So what you are saying is, we're bait. The trouble with being bait is, it doesn't usually work out for the best."
"I assure you we have things under control. We usually don't ask things like this, but he hates you so much, you might even get him monologuing, and the more you get him to confess, the longer we can put him away."
"Well, it doesn't seem that we have much of a choice here -- especially if we want our reinstatement as citizens to go through, right?" The room is filled with sheepish looks. "Great. Some things don't change, do they? It's not enough that we want our lives back and want the running to stop, but there has to be an arm twist as well. Let me guess, you guys are also behind getting us to come here in the first place?"
"That will be explained later. Right now, all you need to know is that this will be coming to an end, and we need your help to do it."
Sigh... "Okay, how are we going to keep him from finding out we are here, and blowing things early? All the security here can't have gone unnoticed."
"Right now, Mr. Phelps is only seeing what we want him to see. As far as Mr. Phelps knows, the police are looking for you in the northeastern suburbs and the woods surrounding them. He won't go to see things firsthand, because he's trying to stay low-profile. He needs to be seen as innocent so he can go after Mr. Jubatus next, without any legal hurdles to cross. He doesn't know about the Bar, except the fact that Mr. Jubatus hangs out there, and the Shelter isn't even on his radar."
"Wait... something confuses me here... You say that your inside man in regards to Mr. Phelps, was at the hospital today when the bombing happened. The only person we saw, besides Jubatus, was that idiot who set off the bombs. That wasn't him was it? And if not... how come your inside man was playing with Thug Boy and not at his post with Phelps?"
"Later. Right now, the less you know the better."
"Yeah, but who was watching Phelps while your man was dealing with Thug... er... Benton?"
"Don't worry. Terry wouldn't have left Mr. Phelps if he wasn't absolutely sure that Mr. Phelps was under complete observation."
"Okay that says you got someone else inside. I hope he or she is as good as you indicate. So. What now?"
"For now, you stay here where we can keep an eye on you. You can work things out with your new lawyer, doctor and counselor while you wait. Then you get a good night's sleep, because we need you to be well rested for your roles tomorrow. Once this is over, we will be getting a bit better acquainted as we will need your testimony to make our case airtight. We have case officers going over your recordings you gave to Dr. Stein, but you have more detailed information about this case that we need. You have complete pardons from the U.S. Thanks to the Church you worked for, you have one from every government in Central America as well, not that you're likely to need them with all of the humanitarian aid you assisted with there. So nothing you say will be held against you. In return, we expect your full co-operation. See you in the morning." And the rest of the government people left the room.
"Great. What have we gotten ourselves into?" I say to the ceiling.
"A return to a normal life, I hope," says my wife with a sigh. "At least after the government gets through with us, that is."
"Most certainly," says Mr. Tanakata, "though keeping the press at bay might be a tougher problem. I hope you will consult me before you sign any book deals or movie rights. I apologize for my abruptness, but Mr. Jubatus and I need to talk about other matters. I will be seeing you again." He makes a crisp, but short, bow and leads Jubatus out of the room. That was the last we saw of Jubatus that evening. It seemed he had more of a part to play in the plan. At this point Wanderer also made his exit. "If thou shalt be so kind as to excuse me, I must go practice my small role in tomorrow's adventure. So I bid you good evening and wilt see thou anon," taking and kissing Sasha's hand before he leaves.
"We should be going as well," says Dr. Stein, while indicating he is including Phil. "It's been a long week for both of us and if we are to be there tomorrow, we should also sneak some extra sleep while we can. See you in the morning."
"Oh crap! I almost forgot -- we're getting a whole hour on the news tonight!" I say.
Phil responds from the doorway: "That story has been put on hold, and the overzealous aide put on notice -- at the price of giving Prime News 'exclusive interviews' when everything is wrapped up. You are going to be popular for a while once that happens. I hope you are prepared," he says with a knowing laugh, and heads out the door. And with that, our evening came to a close.
The next morning is a blur of activity. From the get-go we feel as if we're on a small boat in a big whirlpool, even with the pep talks we get from Wanderer. They don't let us eat, or even shower, because the plan needs us to look like we've been on the run. Ralph just stands there, watching nervously. He's not happy about having to stay at the shelter, and makes certain we know it. After finally convincing him that it's better for him just to wait, we get fitted with a few electronic gadgets and gizmos 'for our protection'. This mainly consists of special ear pieces for listening to the radio traffic and updates prior to Mr. Phelps' arrival, and some sort of new experimental body armor the F.B.I. is field testing. Instead of Kevlar or ceramic tiles like in the old days, this stuff appears to be entirely electronic. The only information about it we got was how to turn the gear to standby mode just prior to Phelps entering the basement.
Dr. Stein stays well out of the way. His main job: Go to the Pig with us at about 11:30, then phone Jubatus. Jubatus had spent most of the night where the 'police search' was supposed to be taking place, giving periodic updates to Dr. Stein. These updates were being fed to Mr. Phelps to keep him occupied. At 11:30 Dr. Stein gets to tell Jubatus to join me and Sasha back to the bar, where Jubatus can keep an eye on us until Dr. Stein arranges to get us to a safer place. It's all disinformation for Phelps' benefit; Special Agent Roberts felt that the man wouldn't be able to resist acting, if all three of his main targets were in one place at the same time.
At about 10:30, after the kinks were worked out and the agents knew their roles, we were covertly taken to the Blind Pig and stuffed into the basement. The only disturbance to the dust in the room was that of normal daily work. We were told to mill about and investigate the basement so as to make it look like we had been there for a bit. We found a little space behind some kegs and waited for the show to begin.
At 11:30, the ear pieces activate and we hear the call from Dr. Stein to Jubatus. We felt sorry for Jubatus because he was going to have to run clear across town, just to make the story work.
"Jubatus? Dr. Stein here. The police are looking in the wrong place. I found them hiding in the basement of the Pig of all places. You can stop spying on the police search. We need you to get over here. It took some doing, but they are willing to go with you to a safe house when I get one arranged. You have to keep the police out of it, however, so don't let anyone see you leave."
"What?!?!? Okay. Since the police don't know I'm here, that last part should be easy. I'll head back, but you do realize it will take a bit since that jackass destroyed my ride. You got someone on them until I get there?"
"Yeah, I'll make sure those two don't leave. And be careful. They are understandably quite nervous. We don't want this to go bad."
"Right Doc. Well, I should get moving if I am going to get there. I'll be there in half an hour, tops," and the line went dead.
About ten minutes later the earpiece started up again. "Subject is on the move. We got a burst transmission from Terry relating that the subject has retrieved the decoy canister along with a SIG-90 and some ammunition. Subject will be armed, repeat, subject will be armed. Ammunition appears to be ballistic armor piercing. All involved agents are warned to make sure their armor is functioning to full capacity. Subject's ETA to target area 15 minutes. Terry will burst transmit updates if anything changes. Heads up, people: The show has started."
There is a moment where it almost feels as if the air is electrified as the agents above us test their electronic body armor. From the way the techies who put mine on me talked about it, I gather the stuff is extremely top secret. The electric feeling lessens sporadically as each test is completed and the armor is set to standby mode. They said ours would activate when it was needed, but not until then. I was really glad we had our healing and didn't absolutely need to depend on whether the armor activated "faster than a speeding bullet," or not. Not that I actually relished the thought of getting shot again, either. Great, time to get serious. Looks like this is it. Thirty years of running, and it finally comes down to another confrontation in a bar. If this isn't irony, it's damn close.
The next 15 minutes drag. Finally, at about noon, our earpieces kick in again. "Subject is 2 minutes out. Get that mule playing the piano. Everybody is having a nice leisurely lunch, remember that. Okay. Subject has arrived in front of the bar. Showtime, people! Subject is remaining in the vehicle." The next update, three minutes later: "Here is Mr. Jubatus, right on cue." The cheetah morph jogs up to the doors and enters the bar, looking like he is suffering from a runner's high. He tiredly stumbles to the basement door, opens it and starts down the stairs while one of the patrons closes it behind him. He then drops the act and finds another spot to hide in. Two more minutes. "Subject is now entering the bar. Wolfshadow... Sasha... Take out your earpieces, turn them off and hide them. Mr. Jubatus is now our link with the basement. Good luck." As we lose the ear pieces, a few people upstairs began to sing along with the music wafting down from above. The bar quiets down, likely as Phelps and his two bodyguards walk in. Three sets of footsteps head directly to the basement door, accompanied by loud bellows of protest from Donnie.
"You two guard the door and make sure no-one enters. Use your guns if you have to. And somebody shut up that cow before I shut it up for you." The door to the basement opens. As he closes the door behind himself, Phelps cautiously heads down the stairs. Before Phelps reaches the the bottom landing, I hear noises from upstairs, noises that sound an awful lot like two bodies hitting the floor and being dragged away. Good... sounds like the bodyguards aren't a problem anymore.
Oblivious to what is happening behind him, Mr. Phelps cautiously steps into main basement room. "It's no use hiding... I know you three are in here. I'm between you and the only exit. You can't get away, so you might as well come out now..."
Sasha says, "You're in a really bad position, you know... You are in a room with two 'vicious beasts', as your henchmen called us in the slaver camp. If we want out we have to go through you to get there. And you are only a normal human after all. Not a very healthy prospect."
"Ah... so you freely admit you both are animals. Animals deserve to be hunted and killed. They don't have any rights, and they don't deserve any chances, much less second ones."
"Oh... So ruining our lives on trumped up charges and then trying to have us killed not once but five times..." I say sarcastically.
"No, not five. Try more like eight, or is it twelve, I can never remember. Time has a tendency to blur reality. Anyway, it's at least eight times when you should have died. Well, this is the last time. I'm tired of hiring incompetents. Now I do this myself. You don't deserve to live. So, I'm giving you the same chance you gave my brother and nephew... none."
"We didn't kill either of them." Sasha growls, her anger rising. "Your brother went insane because of what you forced him to do. His son caught the Flu and was changed. You forced him to kill his own son..."
"Lies! You inflicted the disease on Kelly before you killed him! Made my brother watch as his son turned into a monster, then killing Kelly to torture my brother some more! Watching his son die drove my brother mad and then you killed him as well! And all just to spite me for finding out what you did with your terrorist friends in Egypt!"
Must... keep... temper... in... check. This guy is definitely delusional. Sasha is now emitting a barely audible growl and Phelps doesn't even notice. I'd better move things along. "What world are you living in? We didn't even know who the hell you were until today, and that's only because Dr. Stein put a name to your face. Hell, I didn't even know your face before you barged into his office. How the hell could we have known that those two were related to you? Like my wife said, your son was killed by the mercenaries hired by your brother, on your brother's orders. Evidently from a policy you set down in the papers we found at the scene."
"Again lies! They were innocent, running a legitimate Scab re-acclimatization operation. Trying to bring trapped Americans back home. They were heroes! You knew who they were and slaughtered them because I found out about your plan to set off a genetic weapon in the U.S.! Because of me you took it to Central America instead. It's you who are the monsters here!"
Wow! This guy has gone deep into the looney bin. How the hell did he hold it together long enough to stay in the government this long? I step out of my hiding spot. Fuck this shit. Let him take his best shot. "Innocent? Heroes!?!? Innocent people use torture and hold people prisoner whose only crime was to have gotten sick with an alien virus? Heroes turn around and try to kill these same prisoners when someone tries to rescue them? Innocent people, or heroes, use every means possible, including drugs to kidnap, torture and frame two people who you wanted to lynch because you screwed up and jumped to an erroneous conclusion, then got demoted for it? Let me tell you about innocent people. What about those thirty innocent people in Cancun that you had blown up? All because I had been in the hotel they were occupying more than a month before you had it blown up? What about those innocent people wounded and killed in the marketplace in Chetumal two months later when your paid assassins tried to hose us down with machine guns? What about those computer techies that you blew up, all because they were looking into the trumped up investigation you started? You want me to go on? You have enough innocent blood on your hands to fill the Gulf of Mexico --"
"Those weren't innocents! Many of them were monsters, just like you! The rest were either helping you or in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had no control over them. You could have been somewhere else and they wouldn't have gotten killed. Yes... that's right! So the blood is on your hands, not mine! And you should have died there too. My contact told me he hit you in the chest three times with an AK-47 and your 'precious' wife was hit too!" Oh, joy. Sasha is really getting pissed. The smell of anger has just increased ten-fold in here and the growl is getting much louder. Come on girl... Hold it together... Phelps continues, "By all rights you should be dead! Why the hell didn't you stay dead!?!!?"
Thank goodness cats can see well in the dark. I'm getting the feeling I might have to stop Sasha in order to keep us from going to jail. Her ears are now laid back... this isn't good... And now I can see Jubatus moving into a better position. He looks just as pissed as my wife. I have to keep Phelps distracted, before he starts to feel threatened and tries to shoot someone... "Your 'contact' and his hired gunman had the aim of a drunken elephant. They didn't so much as hit me as get really f-ing lucky. If it wasn't for that kid in your henchman's line of fire, they might not have hit us at all. As to why I didn't die, that's part of my blessing, or curse, depending how you want to look at it. I see you brought another gun to try again. How many more innocents do you plan to kill this time?"
"Nobody here is innocent! They are all abominations or minions for them. They all need to die! No! No more talking. I'm finishing this, now! You see this canister I have here? These little babies were made for me by an engineer friend that used to work in Covert Ops. He designed these little darlings, these nano-bots. They'll shred the DNA of any 'Flu victim they come in contact with. They key in on genetic markers left behind by the disease and do their dirty work from there. They are completely self sustaining. They can even reproduce. So you see, I am unleashing a plague of my own, to set things straight. Justice will be served!"
"Holy shit!!! And you call me a monster or an abomination! If those things do what you say they do, your going to make Hitler look like Mother Teresa! What if the Flu doesn't only leave genetic markers in those it changes, but anybody who ever got it? Who will be left? I can't let you do that!" And I lunge forward.
I wasn't fast enough. Neither was anyone else. While he was talking, Phelps had secretly hit the activation button on the side of the canister. As I move, there's a series of beeps, followed by some of the most horrendous metallic noise I have ever heard. Something, almost like solid air, stops my progress and pushes me back away from Phelps. The same thing happens to Jubatus and my wife before they can get to Phelps to end his life. Then, the canister, instead of opening, plays the Mission: Impossible theme. The room is then filled with the same voice from the tapes in the old TV show: "Good evening, Mr. Phelps. This is a mission we truly wish you hadn't accepted. Your career, and your freedom, will self-destruct in 5 seconds. Good riddance, P-brain." And then the canister began to smoke. The look on Phelps' face is inscrutable. When realization finally sets in he screams, "Nooooooooooooo!" and rapidly squeezes the trigger of the semi-auto, which is pointed at me.
I close my eyes, knowing what's coming, and also knowing there was nothing I can do to stop it. Sasha and Jubatus are floating in mid air, leaping in the direction of Phelps as the impact of the first round hits me square in the chest, followed by three more in rapid succession. The force of impact is accompanied by an electrical tingling. It was one of those times in life where everything looks like it goes in slow motion. I'm knocked off my feet by the force of the impact.
Strange... I feel the pain of each impact, but it all seems localized at the impact site and the general area beneath it. If those were armor piercing rounds, they should have gone through me like a hot knife through butter. I ever so slowly roll onto my back and see a glowing force around my wife, fully in lion form, dangling in the air, caught in mid leap. Her teeth are less than an inch away from Phelps' throat, if it were still there. Phelps is lying on the floor in a heap and Jubatus is nowhere to be seen.
Then the pain really hits me. Looking at my chest, the bullets are there, suspended in mid air, about a quarter of an inch from my skin, each surrounded by an electric glow. Mentally assessing the damage, I thank God it's just bruises and maybe a broken rib or two. Those will heal fairly quickly, so I won't be incapacitated, but damn, it hurts to breathe. After nodding in response to something, Sasha is set down and released by whatever force had held her. She 'reflex shifts' back into her bipedal form and rushes over to check me.
"Ow.. (Gasp) I'm OK... Sore, but not bleeding, which I am finding quite remarkable at the moment..." My speech slurs a bit as shock, and the euphoria I usually feel as my body begins to heal multiple injuries, kick in.
Special Agent Roberts, now in the doorway, yells into her radio: "Get Doc Stein down here, call an ambulance, and get somebody down here to get Phelps into custody!" A portion of the air in the basement begins to shimmer like an old Star Trek special effect; within seconds there is a new person standing where the shimmering was. Inanimorph? Roberts doesn't freak out -- she must be familiar with him/it.
"Already done, at least the Doc Stein part anyway," says Jubatus behind Special Agent Roberts. "Now if you will move, he can check out Wolfie over there."
"It's okay, Doc. Phelps took his best shots. Got one barely in the ten ring and three more in the nine. Overall I would say he had a nice grouping, even under stress. He must have had some training."
"OK... wait..." Agent Roberts says in amazement, "he just took four armor piercing rounds in the chest. Even with the E-M vest, he shouldn't be healthy enough to joke about it! One of our agents took one of those rounds during a field test and was in the hospital for a week with busted up ribs. This ain't right..."
"She wasn't really listening when we said we have a souped-up healing ability, was she?" I say to my wife. Distracted, Sasha shakes her head in astonishment as she plucks the bullets from in front of my chest. Once she pulls the last one away from me the electric sensation ends, and the pain increases a little, followed by the fierce itching that accompanies the later stages of the healing process. My arm is even itching for some reason. Oh... there's a superficial welt. I must have gotten grazed by one of the early rounds. As Dr. Stein starts checking me over, I rub my arm. "Hmmm... looks like the grouping wasn't as good as I thought it was."
"How can you be so cavalier about this?" says Special Agent Roberts.
I shrug. "When you've caught as many rounds as I have, many courtesy of Mr. Phelps here, you get a bit more used to it. Knowing that you heal from injuries like we do makes tolerating the experience even easier. The fact that this time there aren't any holes to watch close, and blood to clean up, makes seem almost like Christmas. Except for the pain..."
The new person in the room, who I could only assume was Terry, comes over to me as two police officers enter and begin unceremoniously dragging the unconscious Phelps up the stairs. "So, what happened to him?" I ask.
"It appears that Mr. Phelps fainted when he realized there was an enormous lioness about an inch from his throat," Terry says as he ambles over. "Experience and super healing aside, I bet you're glad you wore one of my electro-mag vests."
"Yeah -- means less time watching my body put all the pieces back in the right place."
Before Terry can respond, Dr. Stein gives his assessment. "Mmm... hmmm... No broken ribs I can find, now that they've snapped back into place. No extra holes that shouldn't be there. From the testing we did, I don't think your healing ability can be that fast. So the vest really does work well. You are one lucky guy, and a major tax on my nervous system," he says with a smile. "What do you do for an encore? Catch cannon balls in your teeth? Well, I am giving you a new set of doctor's orders. Mostly concerning not antagonizing people into shooting you."
I make with a rueful sigh. "Look, Doc. I truly would like to oblige. And with him out of the way, maybe I can do that now. That is, if none of the relatives of the students who are still missing from my archaeological project want my head. And as long as Phelps didn't leave behind offspring or underlings, that want to carry out his plans. As for the rate of healing, it all depends on what my body has experience with, and the priority it sets. Wounds to the body 'core' seem to heal faster than the extremity wounds you based your timing on, and as I said, I have had a lot of practice catching bullets..."
Special Agent Roberts chimes in: "Enough gabbing. If he isn't hurt, we need to clear this area so my team and the police can process this area as the crime scene that it is. We also need to recover our digital recordings. We do wish we could have gotten a picture of the bullet locations to show how the E-M vest performed, but that isn't pressing. Our video cameras should have picked up enough to go on. Good job with getting him to confess. Now get out of here and let the cops do their work."
Dr. Stein helps me up off the floor and we get ushered upstairs into the bar, where the police are dragging Phelps to the entrance. By this time he's conscious and babbling about having finally killed me, in between bursts of weird laughter that sounds almost like crowing. If he weren't being restrained, I think he'd be strutting around like a rooster in a barnyard as he revels in my seeming demise. It's all I can do not to laugh as Sgt. Stuart, who was playing one of the patrons in the bar, orders Phelps turned to face me. "Does that look like you killed him? Your aim must be lousy. You might even owe the bartender a new wall with those armor piercing slugs you were using." The astonished look on Phelps' face: a thousand words. The ability to put it there: Priceless.
"No, his aim was pretty good. Four hits and a graze. Ain't modern technology wonderful?"
Now Sgt. Stuart gets to look amazed. Even so, it's Phelps' reaction that makes my day. "There was no way in hell you could be uninjured! I had those explosive armor piercing rounds specially made for this occasion! Getting them made with silver jackets cost me a fortune! Nobody could walk away from being shot with those. I tested them out on one of you monsters personally, and had my underlings use some of the earlier versions in my attacks on you, so I know what I say is true! They harmed you before and since these are more potent, even if you are a monster, you should be dead!"
"You mean you killed someone just to try out the bullets you wanted to use on me? You were willing to use a weapon of mass destruction against everyone who ever caught this disease, and you call me a monster? Maybe you should look in a mirror sometime. You might look human, but your soul is a hell of a lot darker than mine ever was, or will be." Is it me, or is he even looking more frenzied... and ill... His voice even seems higher and more nasal. Why? Hell. It doesn't matter. Only getting past the trial matters.
Upon hearing our final conversation with each other, the mood of the patrons in the bar changed. This was especially true for those F.B.I. agents with Flu-derived alterations that were there as backup in the bar crowd. It was all Sgt. Stuart could do to get Phelps out of the Bar and into a patrol car before things got seriously ugly. Special Agent Roberts speaks from the basement doorway into her two-way radio: "Go ahead Control."
"Roberts, tell the local police that the director has ordered us to take Mister Phelps into Federal custody within the hour. The Secret Service would like quite a few words with him. Even though his 'nanobots' never actually existed, he believed they did, and acted accordingly. That means we can add conspiracy and at least five counts of attempting to assassinate government officials to the charges against him. Also, State feels that at least three countries will want to start separate proceedings against Phelps on their own, maybe more considering what he wanted to do. Mr. Phelps will be going away for a long time."
"Roger Control. I'll have the local police rep here inform the Precinct Commander. Out."
"Already on it," responds Sgt. Stuart and he steps back into the bar. Can we keep someone from stringing up Phelps in the meantime? I'm not sure. I'm less sure I'd even want to try, if it were necessary. Stuart goes back outside to make the call.
Special Agent Roberts leads us over to an empty booth as the patrons and various police agency members begin to clear the scene. A table gets pulled up and Terry sits down at it, along with Wanderer, Phil and Dr. Stein. "Okay. If you will just wait here until we get things cleaned up, it would be highly appreciated." With that Special Agent Roberts turns around and starts checking up on her team members.
Special Agent Roberts returns about 15 minutes later. "Okay, let's get the preliminary debrief over with. There will be a more formal debriefing where you three will be asked to give details on everything you know that Mr. Phelps has done. Right now though, I think we can clear up a few of your questions.
"To start things off, we've kept an eye on Mr. Phelps ever since the news broke that you were set up as the culprits in the Martian Flu outbreak. That's probably the biggest reason he hasn't tried anything over the past few years: He found out he was being watched and so tried to lay low. He almost suckered us into believing there was nothing going on, until his run-in with you, Mr. Acinonyx." Now Roberts turns her attention to Jubatus. "We believe your personal fortune is what initially attracted his attention to you; once he learned that you were a spotted feline, like Mr. Wolfshadow, he apparently decided that you had to have been conspiring against him in conjunction with Mr. Wolfshadow. This was why he lost control and broke several federal statutes to try and force you into a colony."
Disgruntled, the cheetah says, "That's nice. I still think you should've let my lawyer get medieval on his ass."
"Your opinion is noted, Mr. Acinonyx." Back to the rest of us: "Once he had Mr. Acinonyx in the colony he used as his private preserve, he could be tortured for information or eliminated at Mr. Phelps' leisure and no one would really notice. We think this was meant to be a trial run for what he planned to do to you two if he caught you, Mr. Wolfshadow. Terry was our agent inside by that time, and he found this scenario in Mr. Phelps' personal papers.
"Terry followed this lead and discovered documentation on the plots against the Mesoamerican Church in general and you two in particular. While this information might have been enough to convict, the DOJ wanted more, to reduce the likelihood of Phelps' being able to plea-bargain his way out of serious punishment. Working with friends and agents in Mexico, we were able to feed the Church the pertinent information which would trigger your attempt to get home. Problem is, we lost you in Mexico City."
"Then how did you know we were even in the country?" Sasha asks. "And how could you have known we were headed to Baton Rouge in time for you to engineer us coming here?"
"We have a few people helping out at the border, and one or two just across the border in Mexico as well," Roberts explains. "One of our agents in Juarez recognized you. From there it was pretty simple. Have you contact our agent, then he takes your money and arranges to get you across the border. Your money will be returned to you, by the way. After you crossed the border, it logically followed that Baton Rouge would be your destination. Baton Rouge was where all of the things that mattered to you were, therefore where you would go to try to start over. Since your size forced you to go on foot, we had plenty of time to set our plans in place."
"Alright, I guess I can buy that," I say. "But if Phelps was so wired to get us, how could he be so ignorant about our presence, even when Benton described me so well on the news?"
"That's my fault," Terry answers. "I did what I could to keep the really important stuff hidden. Given that my talents lie with electronics, both in manufacture and operation, it wasn't hard to become the computer analyst of Mr. Phelps' dreams. A ginned-up story about being in covert ops also helped get me an 'in' as one of his bodyguards so I could basically watch him 24/7. I soon replaced his highly paid and extremely eccentric hacker, and that was it. I'll have to apologize for giving you such a rough time tracking me down, and I hope you were able to use the trail I left to re-establish your system Mr. Acinonyx. I did try to make restoration as easy as possible.
"As to Mr. Benton, it seems that Mr. Phelps learned about him while conducting background research on you, Mr. Acinonyx. When Phelps heard that Benton was in custody, and the reason behind it, he felt that Benton would make the perfect protégé. He then bailed out Mr. Benton and as a test of loyalty, sent Mr. Benton to the hospital with explosives. This was meant to send a 'message' to Dr. Stein. I was ordered to follow Mr. Benton to make sure he carried things out. Mr. Benton was supposed to place all of the explosives in the van used to transport you and your wife to the hospital, but Mr. Acinonyx's vehicle proved to be too tempting a target. Once it was obvious that Mr. Benton was not going just skip bail and sell the explosives, I radioed the police and directed them to the hospital. Then I formed a barrier between both vehicles and the building to limit the damage from the explosions."
"Hold it," I say. "Does this mean Jubatus was just acting when he complained about his car getting wrecked?"
"Correct. All part of the show," Terry says. "And the next part you know."
"But what about the nanites?" Dr. Stein asks. "Is such a thing even possible?"
Jubatus says, "Not. Which Phelps would've known if he had a clue about tech."
Terry nods. "Correct again. Nanotechnology, while prevalent in the early 2000's, was hit hard by the post-Collapse anti-tech movement. The major obstacle to true nanotech is what it's always been: How to keep nanobots from cooking themselves in their own waste heat."
"So the whole nanite bomb thing was just a ruse," Stein says.
Terry replies, "Yes. I just fed him a paper from the late nineties with a few enhancements from some fiction stories, plus an enhanced diagram of a thermos turned into a delivery unit. He bought it all -- hook, line, and sinker."
He would have said more, but Agent Roberts' radio activated. "Control to Special Agent Roberts."
"Roberts here, go ahead."
"Be advised the situation with Mr. Phelps has changed. We can pack up the investigation. Over."
"Lets just say he's not going to bother anyone else."
"Who killed him?"
"Incorrect assumption. He is, shall we say, not Phelps anymore. Recommend that you proceed to the police station and see for yourself."
"Right. On my way."
"And take the bait, er, the others with you. They might enjoy it," the person on the radio says while stifling a laugh.
By the time we hit the police station, it's cordoned off. Outside the cordon are many reporters, clamoring for more information about what happened. How the heck did they find out so quickly? Then I see a couple broken windows and the Humans First slogans painted on the front of the station. Before we can start forcing our way through the reporters, Sgt. Stuart meets us in the street clothes he'd worn in the bar. He leads us around back to the rear entrance.
"It happened while the Firsters attacked the front of the station. You're definitely gonna find this interesting." He leads us to the holding area, where we see something that looks like a cross between a chicken and a man. Strangely, it's recognizable as Phelps, and becoming less recognizable by the minute.
Jubatus wears a cynical smile. "Good," he says -- but I can't see why.
"What the hell is going on here?" Agent Roberts asks, before I can get a word in.
Terry speaks up. "Oh... this is too rich. Phelps got sick about a month ago, okay? Him being so paranoid about Martian Flu, I'm sure you can imagine how well he took it. But he didn't SCAB over, so everybody, Phelps included, figured it was just a head cold or something. He was grateful as hell -- but I guess his relief was just a tiny bit premature. From the looks of things, psychological stress must've just triggered the onset of SCABS!"
By now, Phelps' clothes look baggy on him and he's got feathers everywhere. What little trace of sanity he had left was lost when he looked at what remained of his hand. Agent Roberts delivers what's probably going to be Phelps' eulogy: "Thank you all for your assistance in closing this case. It's terribly sad to see a dedicated public servant like Phelps become a ward of the state." Wow -- who knew an FBI agent could be that sarcastic? "And since he neglected to plan for this eventuality, I'm afraid he might just end up in one of those camps he was fond of sending 'Flu victims to. It would be truly tragic if some bureaucratic snafu caused him to be assigned to a carnivore enclosure!" She says all this with a much-too-innocent smile. "As for you two, Wolfshadow and Sasha, we're done with you now. Senator Randeaux's office has already started the proceedings for your public reinstatement. I wish you luck." She then leaves the room followed by Terry.
"Well, don't that beat all," says Sgt. Stuart. "Dunno about you guys, but I could definitely use a beer. How 'bout we head back to the Pig?"
"Might as well," responds Dr. Stein. "I know that I need a drink after all this." Wanderer and Phil just nod in agreement.
"You guys go on," replies Jubatus. "Have fun. I need to go sort a few things out."
"Sasha and I will meet you there. We should probably head back to the shelter and get Ralph first. He has got to hear this."
As we turn to leave, the thing that was Phelps attacks the bars of the cage in an attempt to get to us. After a few moments, he stops pecking at the bars and just stares. Then his eyes cloud over and he starts to scratch at the floor, pecking for food. Hell, on one hand, this is just too fitting. Phelps is now what he hated. But is this really what he deserves? Eh... It doesn't matter now, does it? I take my wife's hand and we follow Sgt. Stuart out of the police station.