User:Cubist/The John Moschitta School of Elocution

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The John Moschitta School of Elocution

Author: Quentin "Cubist" Long
Tales from the Blind Pig story universe

They call me Jubatus. Me being the fastest SCAB alive, I always have time to kill... so I always need new ways to kill time, simply to avoid going mad from boredom. You could call it Parkinson's Law of Temporal Consumption: "Activities multiply to fill whatever you've got in the way of spare time." I didn't used to find this a problem — I got plenty of interests — but then, I also didn't used to think there could be more than 24 hours in a day. There can, particularly for people like me, to whom SCABS gave a seriously overclocked brain. That's short for Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, and can you blame anyone for preferring the acronym? I've got SCABS to thank for my being a bipedal cheetah with a train of thought that runs six times faster than anyone else's, which explains how come from my point of view, there's 150 hours in a day. Fortunately, I can control the rate at which my personal 'clock' runs; upshifting for greater speed, downshifting to interact with you slowpokes.

What do I do with all that time, I hear you ask? Whatever I damned well please, and six times more of it than I ever could before. Today, like pretty much every other day, it pleases me to spend a couple hours of clock time puttering around the West Street Shelter. Seems I've got a bit of history with one of their volunteers, a rabbit named Phil, and I like to keep an eye on him. Think of me as a guardian angel with spotted fur and sharp, pointy teeth. May the good Lord forgive any fool who thinks he can give the rabbit a hard time, because I sure as hell won't. Phil is good people, and if anyone forgets how good people should be treated, I'm up for teaching 'em a quick lesson in manners any day of the week.

I'm not sure Phil notices, but I make a point of reducing my Dangerous quotient before I drop in. I trim my claws; I kill 'cheetah breath' with mouthwash; I also downshift to a tempo of around .95, marginally slower than the norm. Not that it matters whether he's consciously aware. The way I see it, he doesn't need to worry about a small flotilla of high-velocity knife edges zipping around him in loose formation. That's basically the reason I bother with the Shelter at all, when you get right down to it — reducing the level of hassle Phil gets from an important part of his life. The instant Phil leaves, I'm gone, too.

At this point, I'll bet some of you are wondering how anyone, a highly-morphed SCAB like me in particular, could possibly be indifferent to the good work done at the Shelter. You guys should talk to the ones who aren't asking; they're just as cynical as I am, and therefore know why somebody might be less than enthusiastic about ostensibly-altruistic behavior. Let's just say I'm a 'value given for value received' kind of guy and leave it at that, shall we?

I suspect Splendor (the sometimes cold-blooded mistress of West Street in general, and the Shelter in particular) has an idea of what I'm really about here, but no matter how our philosophies may differ, she's too pragmatic to reject assistance from any quarter. So far I've spruced up the joint's Net presence, made sure a few time-sensitive deliveries arrived on schedule, written two drafts of a Shelter procedures manual, and done a fair amount of websearching on a notable variety of topics, to name only four of the tasks I've fielded here.

Right now I'm seated in the lobby, not far from Phil's office. I'm continuing work on the Shelter's website. Specifically, the interface of the Shelter's online database of SCAB-friendly businesses. Got my PowerBook before me, and I intend to cut that interface down to size, or die trying. You'd be surprised how many 56K modems are still in service, particularly among the SCAB populace that's the Shelter's target audience. And even if you aren't surprised, the twit who originally created this interface certainly would be! I'll bet he was thinking more of how it would look in his portfolio than how it would serve the client, damn his highly-trained eyes. He had every pixel of the bloody thing thickly encrusted with bandwidth-sucking leeches — I'm talking 32-bit animation, Java-3 applets, multi-track sound files, and on and on. End result: Not only does the sucker take forever to finish loading on a slow connection, but it runs like an arthritic clam (when it runs at all) on any machine the intended audience is likely to be able to afford.

So far, I've sandblasted all the graphics down to bit-depths of 8 or less, and killed every piece of animation that had no valid reason to live. The payoff is that the download time over a 56K modem has dropped to 235 seconds. Yes, dropped. By a factor of five. I won't be satisfied until I reduce that figure to twenty seconds or less, and if I have to go with pure text to get —

Phil is nervous, I can smell it. That scent, the odor of frightened prey, drills straight to the vital core of my hindbrain to stir up predatory voices. I can't help that, but I sure as Artemis don't have to listen to what those voices are saying.

Being a rabbit, Phil scares easily; I don't want to overreact. I close the laptop, carrying it with me as I walk calmly over towards the converted walk-in closet he calls his office. He's with a client, a big sumbitch. From the back, the client looks like a norm with orange stripes dyed into his black crewcut, or maybe it's vice versa. I hear a VoxPop voder say, "Sorry, but that command was invalid."

"Grrrrrr..." I know that growl, it's the sound of an angry carnivore that's 1.5 seconds away from killing something! I upshift, the growl dopplers down into the deep subsonic, and tiger-boy freezes up like the rest of the world. I memorize my position and move in, get a clear view of exactly what he's up to... and breathe a sigh of relief. Tiger-boy is glaring down at the voder in his furless hands, caught in the act of stabbing one finger down to the touchscreen. He's got fur down his neck; thick black skin on the bottom of his very human nose; round pupils in his glittery, reflective eyes. Okay, tiger-boy's no immediate danger to Phil, but I still don't like his mood.

I return to my memorized position, downshift, pick up the walk where I left off. "Say, is that a Vox Populi voder I heard?" I ask. Tiger-boy doesn't react, but Phil looks up.

"Yes, it is!" the rabbit says in his cute, high-pitched voice. Not sure if he counts as tenor or soprano, I keep forgetting to ask Wanderer. Phil continues, "How much do you know about them? Mr. Anthony here is having a little trouble with his. Do you think that you could help?"

"I can give it a shot. Got nothing better to do," I say with a smile that keeps my teeth decently hidden. I make a show of looking for another chair, which of course there isn't — no room. "Alright. Mr. Anthony, was it? Good. My name is Jubatus. How about we go up front where we can both sit down?"

We move out, and Phil's distress is inversely proportional to the distance between him and us. I give tiger-boy some leading questions he can answer with head motion and/or hand gestures: He's a local. Single. Started to SCAB over eleven days ago. Spoke his last intelligible words nine days back. Just got released from hospital a week ago. Hasn't noticed any tigerish instincts yet. The salesman pushed him into buying a top-of-the-line VoxPop that he really couldn't afford.

We sit down in the lobby. I open the laptop, bring up SimpleText, set the voice for "Alfred, high quality", show him how to make it recite what's typed into the window. "Mr. Anthony, that salesman didn't do you a service," I say. "Vox Populi voders do sound as good as you were told, yes, but they're finicky bastards. If you're a novice, you'll have as much luck with it as a kid with a learner's permit would have with an eighteen-wheeler."

"Call me Felix," my laptop says for him. "Agreed. What replacement?"

I ponder for a moment. "If your heart is set on using a voder, I'd say go with a Kurzweil. The vocal quality sucks at the low end, but even the worst Kurzweil has clear enunciation, and you can make yourself understandable within two days tops. Most people, a couple hours' practice is enough. You want a KV-240, maybe a KV-200 if you're really hard up for cash. Anything less than a 200, well, it's cheap and it works."

"Voder not needed?"

Sharp man — he caught the implication of my 'if your heart is set on it' phrasing. I shrug: "Hell if I know. Depends on what SCABS did to your vocal tract. Can you open your mouth? I want to see what you've got to work with here." He opens, and it's a perfectly normal human mouth. Tongue, palate, teeth, jaws, all right out of a pre-'Flu medical textbook. With his flat face, I'll bet his sinus cavities are human-normal as well. "Looks good to me. Now let me check out your neck." I lay my hands on either side of his throat, taking care not to let my claws touch fur, let alone flesh; I don't feel a larynx in there. Not a good sign. "Okay, make some noise."

"Rrrrrrrr..." he rumbles. Nothing's vibrating in his neck.

"Keep it going." He does. I move one hand to his chest — there's vibration. "Alright, that's enough. You should definitely get a second opinion on this, Felix, but here's what I think: Your larynx is gone. That's the source of vibration for a normal human voice, and you ain't got one no more. No voicebox, just a purr-box. The good news is, the rest of your vocal tract looks okay, and if I'm right about that, it should be fairly easy for you to relearn speech." You lucky bastard, I don't say. "In the meantime, let's see what I can do with that VoxPop of yours. Got the manual?"

He does, and is happy to hand it over. I upshift high, skim from cover to cover, re-read the important bits, downshift. I'm a technical writer, cramming like this is what I do for a living. And the problem I'm now faced with is how to cut the bleeding options down to something a novice can manage. Damn thing's got more bells, whistles, and gongs than Office 2024 (yes, that's the version the Feds actually passed a law requiring Microsoft to recall every copy of), and thanks to a multi-layered contextual menu system, every last control and setting is accessible with no more than four taps on the touchscreen. Wonderful if you know what you're doing; otherwise, one misplaced tap gets you an Urdu accent thick enough to cut with a chainsaw — if you're lucky.

I do a slash-and-burn job on the on-screen controls, hiding 99.9% of them. I don't touch the semantic analysis subroutines, they'll ensure decent inflection, but I lock down the recognition parameters so Anthony can't screw it up by accident.

Next comes input. "You got the subvocalization options package?" I ask.


"Good. That'll help you retrain the muscles that shape your resonance cavities. But until you get the hang of it, you'll probably want to do input by hand. Palmspring user?" I ask, referring to one of the more popular PDAs.


"How's your shorthand?" SCABS has given the two major shorthand systems (Pittman and Gregg) a new lease on life after decades of slow, word processor-induced decline.

"Grafitti only." That's the simplified letterform system that was devised a few decades back as a practical solution to the problem of handwriting recognition, and pretty much every palmtop these days can handle it.

I nod. I turn off Pittman and Gregg, leaving Grafitti and the onscreen keyboard as the two manual input modes. As a final touch, if he manages to screw it up in spite of what I've done, I give him a friendly red button to click on that'll restore the damn thing to the state I left it in. And just in case he manages to nuke the button, I beam a backup copy of the configuration file to my laptop.

"Here you go. Use Grafitti, or click here to bring up a keyboard you can use the stylus with. Like so," I say, demonstrating. "And if anything goes wrong, this is the panic button — as long as that's visible, clicking on it should reset everything to this condition."

Oh yeah, tiger-boy knows his Grafitti. It's only a second or two before his VoxPop says, "That was impressive. Thank you, Jubatus. How are you at speech training?"

"You really want to learn how to talk from someone who sounds like me?" I ask with a smile. It's not a rhetorical question, because I know what kind of noise comes out of my mouth, damn it. Ever heard an old-time tracheotomy patient whose voice is driven by a hand-held electric buzzer? It's a nasty timbre, metallic and inhuman, and my speech has been compared to that. Unfavorably. And then there's a familiar whiff of nervousness in the air; Phil speaks up before I finish turning to look at him.

"I would if I were you, Mr. Anthony," says Phil. I aim a puzzled look in his direction. What's that rabbit think he's doing? He continues: "Jubatus would never admit it, but there's nothing human left in his throat and mouth. His speech is quite good, don't you agree?"

Phil can be devious and manipulative when it suits him. Fortunately, he's sworn to use this great power only for Good. I'll bet half my stock portfolio that I know what he's up to now. "So how many other mutes you gonna deliver into my tender care?" I ask him.

"Total of six," he says, bubbly and cheerful. "We've already started cleaning out one of the upstairs rooms for your class."

I keep my tone light — no need to disturb Phil's client. "And when were you thinking about letting me on on the secret?"

Phil waggles his ears in a noncommittal fashion. "I thought that you'd figure it out on your own, so I wouldn't have to say anything. Isn't that what happened?" he asks with an innocent, guileless expression. That rabbit has no shame. I think he had it surgically removed, unless SCABS got there first.

I get the feeling that maybe Phil manipulated me, and I don't like being manipulated. If the rabbit really did play me like a violin... Anyone else, I'd be thinking about how to make the bastard pay. But not Phil. Never Phil. As far as I'm concerned, he's paid so far in advance that I owe him, and I always will. I swallow my aggravation, and nod. "Alright. Six students, including Mr. Anthony here. No problem. You wouldn't happen to have any information on the other five, would you?"

"Sure," he says, hopping over to me. "In the backpack." Which he's wearing, so I open the main pocket and extract a set of manila folders. If you're wondering why he didn't just hand them to me, you should know that Phil doesn't have hands. His forepaws really are paws, bloody near zero manipulatory capacity. But he can speak, damn it! Somebody had to have helped him with the files, and I deliberately, explicitly refuse to become annoyed at this evidence of premeditation on his part. He thanks me and hops back to his hutch-cum-office.

Tiger-boy's VoxPop speaks up: "There really is nothing left of your human voice?"

It's the voder's built-in tone of polite inquiry — dunno what he'd prefer the question sound like. I take it at face value. "You can't tell? Yup, all gone. You're lucky, SCABS didn't even touch most of your vocal tract. All you have to do is learn how to work with a new sound source. Probably end up with an exotic-sounding tone in the bass register, good for attracting girls."

He starts composing a reply, then stops and looks at me. After a moment, his VoxPop says, "You sound bitter."

I hadn't intended to, but he's right. Vocalizing has always been a touchy subject for me, ever since I SCABbed over. Maybe tiger-boy is just offering me a sympathetic ear; too bad that kind of offer is one I'm not about to accept. Ever. "That's one reason I don't use a voder — most of 'em can't do emotional overtones very well. The VoxPop line is an exception, but you already know how delicate the controls are," I say with a shrug. "Anyhow, I'd recommend that you exchange the damn thing and get a more economical model, or at least one you don't need a Masters' Degree in to use properly..."

Tiger-boy leaves after I'm done giving him advice. I close my eyes, lean back in my chair, and breathe deeply; it took more effort than usual to keep a lid on my customary bad temper, and the voice thing is why. And then Phil's scent again —

"Are you alright, Jubatus?"

I don't bother to move or look at the rabbit. "Hello, Phil. It would've killed you to ask? Or even give me some advance notice?"

"If I'd asked, you would have refused," he says reasonably. "But I don't know what your problem is. Really, what's the worst that could happen?"

"You see me in a puddle of blood, none of it mine, on the Six O'Clock News," I say without thinking.

There's an elongated pause, broken by Phil. "You know what, Jubatus? You worry too much. And coming from a rabbit, that's saying something."

I almost laugh — of course, he doesn't know how goddamn close my scenario came to playing itself out, with him supplying the blood, when we first met. "Gee. Thanks."

"You're welcome. Gotta run — bye-bye!" And then the rabbit is gone.


A cursory scan of the files indicates that all six are animorph SCABs of one kind or another. I start with Anthony's file, which confirms what I already knew, then go on to Kerry Dennison. Sales clerk, married, no kids. He's a fish-morph, bulgy eyes and webbed fingers and scales all over, and a Godawful ugly bastard, to boot. The picture shows flat, wide tubing wrapped around his neck... ah. He's got (barely-) functional gills and the remnants of his old lungs; the tubing supplies water for his gills, and between them and his lungs, he gets enough oxygen to survive. No wonder his file has nothing on his current capacity for vocalization... the doctors would've had their hands full just keeping him alive, and his insurance ran out before they could do anything else.

Third in line, Mary (née Martin) Zelinski, is a living cliché: She's a fox gendermorph, a fuzz-covered wet dream who could've stepped out of a PlaySCAB centerfold. Formerly an investment banker with a trophy wife, the 'Flu giveth her an all-over permanent fur coat as the 'Flu taketh away her mind. She's not feral, just amnesiac — a near-complete tabula rasa. With her (former) profession, she's got to have money, so why is she here at the Shelter, instead of upstate at St. Jude Medical or the like? And how come she went through five doctors in her first month as a SCAB? Reading between the lines of the vixen's file, I can't help but wonder how much the other Mrs. Zelinski has to answer for...

File Number Four is a schoolteacher, name of Sawyer Borman. He's a man-sized insect-morph, cricket with an occasional grasshoppery touch. Basic body plan could be described as "humanoid with four arms". Doesn't even have lungs, per se — his body is thoroughly riddled with a branching network of air passages that oxygenate all tissues directly, never mind that considerations of airflow and surface area make that scheme unworkable for a critter as big as him. What the hell, he's a polymorph (with a limited selection of insectoid forms), I guess he can have an impossible metabolism if he wants to.

Next is the Right Reverend Charles Calgonetti. I'll get to him.

And finally... oh, joy. Inanimorph. This one's been living (?) at the Shelter for seventeen weeks now, ever since the day an animated, life-sized granite statue of a Great Dane showed up from nowhere. No ID, no clue to her former life — and even the 'her' is only an educated guess, based on the statue's anatomically correct details. At least she (?) answers to 'Jenny'. She can understand spoken or written English, but doesn't appear to be able to speak or write herself. Wonder how badly she's been disoriented by her radical transformation? Inanimorphs... well, hell. Just have to see what (if anything) I can do to reach her. It. Whatever.

After I'm done with my reading, I suspect the preacher's going to be the hardest nut to crack. Physically speaking, Calgonetti is a mynah bird scaled up to a body length of four feet, with avian-type talons at the ends of his feather-covered, humanish legs. Black feathers all over, interrupted only by a ring of iridescent white around his throat. Who says SCABS doesn't have a sense of humor? Chuck traded up from his human body eleven years ago, and hasn't spoken a word since. Pretty tough on a guy who'd been a professional talker.

A mynah bird, speechless? Yeah, right. My best guess is, he's got a self-imposed mental block about speech. This sort of thing definitely isn't my forte, but I'm betting he'll talk if I can piss him off bad enough. I'll try not to enjoy needling a man of God.

Okay, I'll try not to enjoy it too much.

But I digress... I don't recognize Chuck's denomination, but it's clearly not one of the bigoted ones: His flock — sorry, couldn't resist — have been supporting him all this time, providing sufficient resources (financial and otherwise) to keep him going until he's ready to get back in the pulpit. He's got a record, he does; over the years he's attended eight different speech classes, none of which did him any good whatsoever. He's always gotten good marks for attendance and participation, always declined use of a voder, always projected a congenial air, consistently maintained that the Lord will restore him to full voice whenever it suits Him to do so. All of which does nothing to explain why he's here, a bloody homeless shelter in a rotting neighborhood that's maybe three steps away from complete and absolute urban collapse, for the love of Ahura-Mazda.

I've got an uncomfortable feeling that I know what's really going on behind those beady little eyes. I think I may already have been where he is — except, of course, that he's got faith in the Almighty. I wonder how much of that faith is still alive in his heart right now...

Separator k.png

I don't need to check the schedule. I work with the Shelter's online resources, I already knew that the speech class will begin three calendar days from now. Just didn't know who the 'teacher to be announced' would be.

Three calendar days. Plenty of time for me to familiarize myself with my classroom, work up a lesson plan, collect and/or create some teaching resources, talk to Donnie at the Pig, make arrangements with Dr. Derksen for use of his lab, and generally prep for the tutoring gig.

the first week

Time for the first session to begin. Butterflies in my stomach? Naah, the hornets killed and ate them all... I really shouldn't ought to be as nervous as I am. After all, I'm a technical writer; teaching people is what I do for a living! I just don't usually do it in person. And I also don't usually do it with topics that are quite so personal, topics that strike quite so close to the core of what a human being truly is.

Who am I kidding? I'm nervous because this hits me where I live. Even now I get the shakes just thinking about those first few days after I SCABbed over. That's when I couldn't talk at all, when I didn't know how to coax anything close to an articulate sound from my newly-remodeled throat, when I had no way of knowing whether or not I ever would be able to speak another word for the rest of my life...

It was bad. Leave it at that.

What the hell, it'll be a learning experience in more ways than one.

No more waffling; I walk up the stairs, down the hall, and into my classroom. What do you know — Jenny's mass of stone doesn't exceed the limits of the Shelter's structural integrity.

Once at my desk, I upshift while setting up all the connections for my laptop, then look at each student in turn. "Hello. My name's Jubatus. I think we all know why we're here, so no need to belabor the point. The first thing you should know is that if you really want to talk, you can. And you'll do it before the end of this first session. That's a promise." I pause to let that sink in, then flip three small devices out of a vest pocket and catch them between the fingers of my other hand. Some of my students recognize the gadgets, which I hold up and fan out like a poker hand. "These are voders. Low-end Kurzweil models, KV-150s; nothing fancy, but they do the job. I've got one for everybody. And they're the reason I can make that promise.

"What I don't promise is that you'll be able to talk without mechanical assistance. Maybe you can, maybe not — it depends on two things. First, on exactly what kind of mess SCABS made of your vocal tract, and second, on whether or not you can figure out how to manhandle a comprehensible voice out of your current set of pipes.

"And hell, maybe you'll decide you don't actually want to talk. Even then, you've got options; you can learn Sign," — here I fingerspell AMESLAN IS NOT A VAN VOGT NOVEL — "and if all else fails, there's always the written word. Donnie Sinclair, guy who runs the Blind Pig, is mute and doesn't use a voder; I'll see if I can't get him up here to fill you in on living without a voice. I think that would be a mistake, myself, but it's your decision, and as long as you're satisfied, it's none of my damn business how you choose to live your life.

"And now that that's out of the way..." Here I pick a manila folder up off my desk, open it, look at the contents. "Couple of you guys have a bit of a track record. Calgonetti, says here you've been slacking off in vocalization classes for more than a decade," I say, hearing amused noises as I drop some papers into a convenient trash can. The bird doesn't appreciate my description. Good. "Dennison, you've got a signed certificate says you're permanently mute." I drop more papers. "As for the rest of you..." I shut the folder, send it to rejoin its missing contents. Then I take a butane lighter from a vest-pocket, ignite it, and toss it into the trash. There's a momentary FWOOSH as an inches-wide ball of flame rises up, dissipating before it hits the ceiling. It's pure theater — I'm just burning Xeroxes — but it does the job. All six of my students are focussed fully on me.

"I don't give a flying fuck what anyone may have told you before today. Far as I'm concerned? As of now, each and every one of you will talk — or I'll know the reason why.

"Any questions?"

I wasn't expecting any response, but the bug makes a 'clickick' noise and raises his upper left hand while his upper right scribbles on a notepad in his lower pair. After he's done, a quick upshift and the notepad 'teleports' into my hands.

"Okay... Borman here wants to know what happens if someone can't talk by the end of summer." Another upshift reunites the bug and his paper. "Well, it's true that we only got this room for ten weeks, but it's also true that the Shelter's not teaching this class. I am. You want out, say the word and you're out; otherwise, I'm not giving up until you can speak. And if that's after session ten, I'll just have to find us a different classroom. Any other questions?"

Dead air.

"Good. First, let's take a look at how speech works when it does work..." Here I upshift, extract a roll of eight-millimeter correction tape (red) from my vest, and spend a clock-second or so putting a schematic diagram of the human vocal tract on the wall. Back at a tempo of 1, I point at one specific bit of the diagram. "See this? It's the larynx, but you can call it a 'voicebox'. It's got a couple folds of skin that vibrate when you shove air past 'em, not unlike a clarinet reed..."

By the time I'm done, my students (most of them, anyway; with the fox and rock, it's hard to tell) have a solid grounding in the biomechanics of spoken language — i.e., how a normal human vocal tract operates. Now for the voders, which I distribute in half an upshifted clock-second.

"Okay, time to keep that promise I started class with. See what's on your desk? It's a KV-150. If you're clueless about voders, give the built-in tutorial a try. You can't figure something out, lemme know and I'll see if I can make it clear for you."

Within two clock-minutes, the first "Hello, world!" tutorial is audible. And ten clock-minutes further on, they get to "The time is eight forty-seven pee-emm" and "I am a SCAB" and "Today is Tuesday, the twenty-ninth of June, two-thousand thirty-eight ay-dee." Damned if I can tell how the inanimorph works a voder with stone paws, but she (?) does. Too bad her machine's only reciting random words and phrases. Zelinski's doing better; she actually got her voder to say "My name is Mary Zelinski." On purpose, yet. The150s sound better than I do, damn it, but then I knew the job was dangerous when I took it. Focusing on technical matters — how well my students are or aren't using the Kurzweils — helps me keep a lid on my annoyance.

I assign homework (practice with the 150s), and then it's over. Dennison and Anthony drive themselves home; Zelinski's picked up by some random luxury car; Chuck and Borman ride the bus; and the innie, the stone dog, walks downstairs. What are the odds of the vixen's ride being an incognito limousine? I make a note to check the license plates with the DMV.

Only after I'm finally alone do I let myself unclench. I didn't come anywhere near losing it; the scents of the bird and fish didn't make me any hungrier than usual; all in all, it went better than I expected. Of course, 'better than I expected' just means I didn't dismember anyone...

"How did it go, Jubatus?" Who else? It's the damn bunny.

"No blood got spilt. Guess that means I'm stuck teaching next week's class, right?"

Puzzled, the rabbit wrinkles his fuzzy nose. "Why wouldn't you be? Judging by what I saw and heard from your students, you did quite well — as I knew that you would!"

Sigh. "Phil, has it ever occured to you I might have a reason to be a pain-in-the-ass loner?"

"Well, you're a cheetah-derived animorph SCAB. Which means that you're influenced by cheetah characteristics, including their solitary nature, are you not?"

He doesn't get it — wonderful. Time for an object lesson. "That's right as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Hold on a sec..." The Shelter's got a few board games; Monopoly, Yahtzee, like that. I upshift, grab some dice, downshift. "...okay. See this?" I say, holding one of the dice before me. "Got a deal for you. Roll it, and if you get anything but a one, I give you a million dollars."

His ears skew at odd angles. "What's the catch? If I do roll a one, do I have to pay you?"

"No catch, the money's yours either way — but if you roll a one, somebody within a twenty-block radius of here ends up maimed or dead. What do you say, Phil?"

He stares at me for a moment and says, "No."

"Why not? It's an honest die; there's five chances in six that no blood gets shed!"

"Perhaps, but it's that one chance in six that bothers me!"

"Come on, that's not even 17%!"

He shrugs with his ears. "I don't care. I wouldn't roll that die for a million dollars."

Suddenly I've got two dice in my hand. "Fine. How about now? Same deal, but nobody gets hurt unless you roll snake-eyes, a one on both dice. That's a 35-to-1 longshot, less than 3% chance of it actually happening. How about it, Phil?"

"Still no."

"Okay," five dice, "how about this? Five ones, that's a little over point-zero-one percent, just one chance out of 7,776. Isn't that worth a megabuck?"

"No, it —"

"Ten dice!" I say, putting them on the desk between us. "One million dollars, Phil. One. Million. Dollars. Only one chance in sixty million they come up solid ones."

"Only one chance in sixty million that someone gets hurt, you mean!"

I shrug. "Details. Alright, how about a billion dollars? I'm good for it, you know. Roll these ten dice, and one gigabuck is yours, free and clear!"

Stunned, the rabbit stares at me for a while until he finally says, "I don't care how many dice it is, and I don't care how much money it is either. I'm not going to do it, Jubatus."

"Why not? For the love of Mammon, you're throwing away one billion dollars because of a sixty-million-to-one longshot! Don't you want to be filthy rich?"

"Not like that, I don't!"

My voice is quiet — "Good." — and his face goes blank with surprise. Then I go on: "I'm not perfect, Phil. I got mood swings make a rabid wolverine look like a Zen master. I can fuck up, bad. 'Can', hell; I already have! And with my kind of speed —" I break off, almost managing not to shudder. "You're damn right I worry. Wouldn't you?"

He doesn't need two swats from a clue-by-four. "Oh."


And again: "Oh!"

I dig out a smile from somewhere. "Don't worry, me going postal on any given day is a world-class longshot — billion-to-one, trillion-to-one, somewhere up there. The real risk is long-term: If I keep rolling those dice, they will come up snake-eyes sooner or later. The only question is when. And if you're wondering how I can justify putting innocents at risk by hanging around the Pig, it's because the odds of me having a lethal breakdown will go way up if I don't interact with other people."

"I think that I see the problem now," Phil says thoughtfully. "You believe that your life is like an unending game of Russian roulette, do you not, Jubatus?"

I nod. "Pretty much, except it's not me who'll get hurt when I lose. The thing is... what choice have I got?"

"Perhaps you don't have any better alternatives," the rabbit acknowledges. "But then again, perhaps you do!"

"Oh, really?" I bet I know where he's going, so I cut him off before he can get there: "Look, Phil — if you're thinking about taking me on as a client, forget it. My days are 150 hours long, remember? There's no point in you reinventing wheels I considered, and discarded, years ago."

His ears shrug for him. "Very well, let's say that it truly would be a waste of time for me to try to help you. What difference could that make? It is, after all, my own time to waste, if I so choose!"

"Gimme a break! You're always pissing and moaning about the ones you lost, so why make it worse for yourself? Why the hell would'ja want to fart around with me when you could give more attention to someone who really needs you?"

"I see your point, Jubatus, but there are two factors that you haven't taken into account. And the first one is that whether you know it or not, you already are a client of mine, and have been ever since the night we met!"

Suddenly it's my turn to say, "Oh." Now he tells me. "And... the other factor?"

"When I work on you, I am giving attention to someone who really needs me."

It's not often that I'm left without an appropriate comeback...

"Of course, I must admit that I don't give you as much attention as perhaps I really ought. Not that I don't care about your well-being, not at all! But truly, your case just isn't as urgent as the rest of the ones I deal with. And unlike you, I simply don't have the time to do everything I want to or need to, Jubatus." He sighs. "Speaking of which, I've a date with Clover that I'd greatly prefer not to be late for, so I simply must say 'good-bye' now. Good-bye!"

And then I'm alone again. Just the way I like it. Right?

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Time flies, even when you're not having fun; I've got 43 contracts in various stages of completion, i.e. my usual workload. And where do I find the time to handle all the tasks related to teaching my class? I could've cut back a little, freed up some hours for classwork, but I didn't because I can get the extra time from upshifting. Of course, my concept of 'classwork' may be a little more expansive than some people's. F'rinstance, take the car that picked up Zelinski. DMV files say it's a TransportElegance rental; TE records indicate that it was paid for by a corporate credit card; and according to SEC databanks, 51% of that particular corporation is held by one "Alison Gomez". Care to guess the maiden name of Zelinski's wife? Yeah. Such a coincidence, that. Just another drop of data in the stream I'm sucking in, the better to figure out what the hell is going on in the Zelinski household.

Then there's Jenny. The Shelter's inquiries went nowhere, but then I wasn't the one asking the questions. Not that I expect to do any better, mind you. All I've got to go on is SCABS; an apparent gender (which may or may not be the one she was born with); a given name (ditto); the date on which this innie first showed at the Shelter (which only puts a lower limit on how recently she could've SCABbed over); and a dog's likeness (which may or may not have anything to do with any pet she may have owned or admired). What the hell — that's why God invented internet spiders and agent software. The count so far: 137 possible 'hits', each one a false alarm. Good thing computers don't get tired or distracted.

Maybe I am trying to do too much... every once in a while I get this funny feeling, like someone's looking over my shoulder from behind. Nobody ever is, of course, but my hackles keep rising anyway. Okay, I'm paranoid, but it's not usually this bad! Sigh. Must remember to get more sleep. Sometimes I hate being a cat...

the second week

Second class rolls around; everyone's present and punctual, even the rock. "Good evening, people. How you doing, Dennison?"

"I, am, fine. This, voder, is, harder, to, work, than, I'd, thought."

With your webbed fingers? No shit, fish-boy. "Bummer. Keep at it. What about you, Borman?"

The cricket's voder says he's doing okay, and his superintendent claims they'll return him to active class duty once he re-learns how to talk. I don't sneer or contradict; granted, he's an utter moron if he believes what he's saying, but I don't have time to set him straight. Okay, maybe I do, but the slowpokes here don't. I wish him luck, then I continue the impromptu survey of my students' level of skill with the voder. Only item of note is that Jenny's box yelped "Pangloss!" when I got to her. Why? Thoth only knows...

That done, I explain we'll cover sound sources this time. Then I hit a key, and my laptop plays a thin, weak, wispy tone, like an anemic flute. "Anyone care to guess what this is? No? Fine. It's the sound produced by the human voicebox. Some damn fool back in the 1960s let a doctor shove a microphone down her throat to record the actual vibrations produced by her larynx, and that's what we're hearing now." I let the sound continue a few seconds before I kill it. One of my students' hands is raised, so I ask, "What is it, Anthony?"

I note that tiger-boy's using the KV-150 I handed out, not his VoxPop. "If that's a recording of the human larynx, why doesn't it resemble speech?"

"Like I said, it was recorded deep in the throat, at the source. So we're hearing the waveform before it gets worked over by nasal resonance cavities and like that. Same deal as how a trumpet mouthpiece sounds a lot different when you play it by itself, without the rest of the horn." Then, to the class at large: "Remember what you just heard! As long as you're good for any sound whatsoever, there's a chance you can turn it into intelligible speech. You already know how Norms make noise, so let's check out how other species manage..."

Between putting anatomical diagrams on the walls, playing relevant sound files, explaining what it all means, and answering questions when someone needs further clarification, I'm pretty busy for the next clock-hour and a half.

"...inflection, at the very least! Alright — here's your homework assignments." I pause, scan the class. Who to start with... I roll mental dice and turn to fish-boy.

"Dennison," I say, looking straight into his bulgy eyes. "I'll bet you're wondering why I haven't already given up on you. After all, fish are intrinsically silent, right?" He nods his head. "Wrong. It just so happens that some fish damn well do make noise!" I start to count on my fingers: "Angelfish, parrotfish, silver perch, red drum, black drum, and more than 200 other species. Most of 'em got this air-filled, internal swim bladder they smack around. Ever heard of the oyster toadfish? Didn't think so, but you're ugly enough to be one, and that sucker's got specialized muscles to swat its bladder up to 200 times per second. So if you are a toadfish, you should be good for pitches topping off right around G below middle C. And if not? Well, we'll just have to find out what you are, won't we?" A quick upshift, and a sheet of paper appears on his desk. I continue as he picks it up to read it: "27 questions, and I'll want the answers two weeks from now."

Then it's the bug's turn. "Borman. You're mostly a cricket — can you chirp like one?" He nods and makes the noise, two or three octaves below a natural-born cricket. "Congratulations. What you just did is called 'stridulation', and it's the sound source of a natural-born cricket. You want to arm-wrestle intelligible words out of it, you're gonna need to vary that sound. Can you? Damn if I know; that's your homework. I'll want a sound file. Get cracking on it. And by the way: If stridulation doesn't work for you, there's at least two other avenues you can explore before you abandon speech."

I let the bug ponder my remark as I look at the inanimorph... What's going on inside that rock? Are you even there, Jenny? Is anyone there? Nothing in those dull, grey eyes, or at least nothing discernable to me. Sigh. Moving right along — "Calgonetti. What's up with you, guy? Considering how well natural-born mynahs talk, it's hard to see why you should have any problems with speech, let alone take more'n ten bloody years to re-learn it. So... what's the story?"

"It is not for us to question the Lord's will," the preacher's voder says. "I have faith that He will return my voice to me at a time of His choosing."

Sounds like a rehearsed answer to me. "Uhhh-huh. Would that be before or after the Second Coming?" Oh yeah, that hit a nerve. Good. Bird-brain glares at me as other people make amused noises. "Come on, Chuck. You're gonna have to work with me here. 'God helps those who help themselves', am I right?" A sheet of paper 'teleports' onto his desk. "But I digress. Your homework is phonemes — the individual sounds that serve as the fundamental building blocks of spoken language. English uses 40 of 'em, each one of which is on your list there, and you're gonna record 'em all. I don't care what format you use, just let me know if it's cassette or MP3 or what, I want three samples of each phoneme, and I want you to bring the recording in two weeks. And that goes for you, too, Borman."

Chuck's not happy. His voder says, "What if I cannot make all the sounds?"

Looking at him and the cricketmorph, I shrug. "Try 'em and see. If there's any you can't do, all it means is that SCABS worked over your noisemaker worse than I thought. Get on it."

Then I turn to the fox. "Zelinski. How's your voice, girl?"

Her smile strikes me as a lot more genuine than mine usually is, and she's game to try: "Oowwwwrrr..." Oh, well. Too bad she's not there yet. She taps at her voder — a Magnavox Express; wonder what happened to the KV-150 and where the new one came from? — which says, "I am prack-tiss-ing. I will learn."

I nod. "Can't ask for more than that. Keep it up."

"I will. I praw-miss."

I nod, and look at the last of my students. "Mr. Anthony," I say. A sheet of paper pops up on his desk. "You get what the bird got. Again, I don't care if it's MP3 or WAV or what, but it'd be nice if you can gimme advance notice of which."

He nods. His voder says, "MP3."

"Groovy. Email it to me any time within the next two weeks." To the whole class: "Remember, we've got a field trip next Tuesday, so I don't need your homework 'til the week after. For now... go home."

They leave, mostly. Tiger-boy sticks around after the rest are gone. He says — he honest-to-God says — "Ehhhrro, Djju-bhadd-huzz."

"You've been practicing, haven't you."

He nods, then gets his VoxPop out of an inside pocket. "Yes. I've also done some research on you."

Oh, joy. "That's nice. Want a cookie?"

He smiles and goes on: "No, thanks. You're helping me; I just wondered how I could help you in return."

An idealist? Will wonders never cease. "Help me? Forget it — you can't. Anything else the rabbit twisted your arm about?"

Tiger-boy looks hurt for a moment. "Phil didn't twist my arm, Jubatus. But he did warn me what to expect from you."

"If he said I can be blunt, rude, offensive, abrasive, difficult, obnoxious, and generally antisocial, he was right. Anything else you want to know before you leave?"

The hint is as subtle as a sixteen-ton weight. Even so, whole clock-seconds pass in silence, me staring a laser-sharp, unblinking gaze into his eyes, before he gets the message. "Next week," his voder says. Then he's gone.

A few seconds later, I quit staring at the door. I can't really say I like stomping on people like that, but... it's better this way. Lesser of N evils, honestly.


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The next week's pretty boring, so I'll just give you the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. More hours put in at the Shelter; the net-spiders researching Jenny turned up another 950 false alarms, plus three leads I haven't yet proven bogus; I've sucked down a lot more information (financial and otherwise) related to the Zelinski household — I'll bet Mrs. Allison noticed that somebody's been poking their snout into her family's private affairs, because somehow, I just don't think it's coincidental that she's boosted the budget for security (real-world and cyberspace both) within the past couple weeks. Like I care. As for the contracts I handle in my day job, it's five down, 38 to go.

Business as usual, really.

the third week

Third class is a field trip. To Derksen's clinic. Would have preferred to start the class there, but this was the first Tuesday evening the doc-roach's lab was free. Remodeled the living space in my Extremis; there's four new seats (rented) in back. Those plus the passenger's seat up front will handle the five humanoids, and there's also room for Jenny the Rock to lie down. Hey, why shouldn't I play chauffeur? I'm the teacher, it's my responsibility to see that the class gets to where it needs to be, right?

Good: Everyone's a little early, especially the foxy lady. She's delivered by what looks like the same pair of bodyguard-types, driving the same car, as got her home last week. She smiles at me, and she (not her voder) says: "Hrraiie-yhheaarh, Dj... Tchew... hraour!"

I nod without smiling. "Better'n last week. Keep practicing, you'll get there soon enough."

She digs her Magnavox out of her purse to reply. "I know I will, but. In the meantime. It can be frustrating."

Now I smile. "Tell me about it. You're getting off easy, lady — you have an instructor who's been there himself."

"Which you didn't," her voder says.

"Yeah." Shrug. "Ready for the field trip?"

"Oh, yes. Allie was very pleased. She's always wanted to —" and one rent-a-thug reaches over her shoulder to press the voder's 'mute' button.

"What did Miss Allison tell you about violating her privacy, Miss Mary?" says the thug.

The vixen's face spends a moment at 'pissed off' before shifting over to 'mild embarrassment'. She un-mutes the voder, nods at the thug: "You're right, George. I shouldn't discuss family business in public." To me, she (or at least her voder) says, "Apologies, Jubatus. Yes, I'm ready for this field trip. And I've been looking forward to it. Are we really going to see Dr. Derksen himself?"

"Doubtful. He's booked solid until the 12th of Never, you know?"

That gets a couple of yipping laughs out of her muzzle. Which is about when Dennison shows up, with Anthony following close. Not so very much later, me and my class are tooling along towards the doc-roach's lab. The rent-a-thugs weren't happy about the fox being in my car instead of with them. That's nice. They weren't explicitly instructed to stay within arm's reach 24/7, and even if they were, I couldn't care less.

The traffic's thicker than I anticipated. 38 clock-minutes later, I pull into a reserved space in the parking lot of Derksen's lab. My passengers talked; I paid attention to the road. Guess which hired limo stayed within five car-lengths of us all the way there?

Derksen being a big name in SCABS research, his lab's security is a couple notches above the norm — you never know when some idiot Nazi wannabe, Humans First or whatever, will take it into his head to strike a blow for stupid people everywhere. Me and my students pass through the outer gate without incident, but Zelinski's thugs get detained when they set off an alarm. Good. There's two more layers of protection I'm aware of, and Vulcan knows how many others. I wish the thugs joy of them all.

I'm intimately familiar with the doc-roach's torture chamber — his primary examination room — from all the times he's worked me over. Being the highly exotic breed of chronomorph I am, it's only natural that a world-class SCABS researcher like Derksen would want to observe the hell out of me, as often as he can... oh, joy. He's here. I was afraid of that. On the plus side, he's practically human today. Soft skin, blond hair, no antennae, compound eyes only a little bigger than human normal. See, Derksen's one of us; he's a polymorph SCAB, insectoid forms his specialty, and the roach traits kind of creep up on him when he's irritated or preoccupied or whatever. One more reason I'm glad not to be a shapeshifter myself.

"Hello, Jubatus," he says, and his voice is a hell of a lot smoother than when he goes blattidae on you. Damn it. " I don't suppose —"

"That's right, you don't suppose. And you don't get another crack at me for seventeen days."

"Oh, well; can't blame a mad scientist for trying!" He sounds happy, but even with no discernable chitin on him, his scent is too roachy for me to tell his real mood. BFD.

I snort my disagreement at him. "Whatever. Since you're here, does that mean you're gonna make yourself useful checking out the fox?"

"Yes." Now he's serious. "Among other things, I find it curious that her medical records are silent on a number of points that may add up to grounds for a malpractice hearing."

My ears prick up. "Oh, really? Then what's the story with Dr. Gordon?" I ask, referring to the physician in charge of the Zelinski case. "Is he corrupt, or just incompetent?"

At this point, Derksen's face hardens — literally — as exoskeletal plates form. "That is what I intend to find out. Either way, it's clear that this Dr. Gordon has no business working with SCABs; the data from this examination will tell me whether I should push for censure or disbarment." Then he sighs, and his plates soften a little. "Excuse me, Jubatus," he says, and then he's off to supervise a whole-body scan of Jenny, the stone dog.

There's an empty chair off to one side of the lab. I sit back and let Derksen (and his flunkies) scurry around the place with various implements of medicine. It's actually kind of interesting to see them work on someone else. Hell, this time I don't even mind the stench of disinfectant!

Derksen & Co. conduct a sextet of very thorough physical examinations, covering everything from respiratory airflow to basal metabolic rate to speed of neural transmission to God knows what-all else. The doc-roach is going the extra mile, and then some — I'd only asked him to cover the vocal tract — but if that's what he wants to do, it's fine by me. That's odd... they've left off a number of procedures he likes to use on me, but then they also include a few I'm not familiar with. I make mental notes — the lapses and additions probably have to do with my chronomorph power, which I don't want anyone, Derksen or no, to learn too much about.

Hmm... maybe it's just me, but I get the impression that Derksen's concern for Zelinski goes a little beyond the standard doctor/patient relationship..? Whatever; it's none of my business.

Entry to exit, we're done in four clock-hours. Zelinski's thugs aren't around when we leave — how sad. The drive back to the Shelter is uneventful; my passengers are too busy comparing notes to bother me. I park, five of the six bug out, the vixen doesn't.

"Waiting for something?" I ask.

Foxy's fingers touch her voder, but it stays mute. She looks at me. I look back. Her machine finally says, "Were you always male, Jubatus?"

Huh..? I consider asking why she wants to know, but I decide to just answer the question. "Yes."

She spends a few seconds thinking before her voder speaks up again. "Then why are you so angry?"

"Angry?" I snort a laugh. "Like any SCAB needs to ask."

Dead air. Zelinski's not happy. Before anything else can happen, a particular rented limo screeches to a halt beside us. I point a thumb at them.

"Your ride's here," I say. "See you next Tuesday."

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The homework showed up across a week, starting last Friday. Tiger-boy's arrived first; birdbrain's came last. Funny how that works. Right now I'm in my classroom, reviewing the assignments over lunch. Nothing from Jenny — not that I expected anything, of course. But what could I have assigned her, damn it?


Lots of people fear them, with good reason — check out any of the 'true crime' books about inanimorph perps — but I just think they're damned weird, is all. Strictly speaking, I guess I should be afraid, since innies are among the few things in this world with half a chance of hurting me... but I'm not.

Thank you, Jay Nelson Xavier.

"What the —"

Somehow, I know that the voice I'm hearing in my head (not my ears) is Jenny. And when I turn to look at the stone dog, I see... something. Can't make out details — my eyes can't decide whether it's transparent or not — wait, it's solid now. Human body, female, which I (again, 'somehow') know to be an idealized version of Jenny's pre-SCABS body. Clothed, yet.

Her lips don't move: Is this form more to your liking, Jay Nelson Xavier?

I evade the question. "Call me Jubatus, I use the other name for business. Thanks for what?"

For your downshifting. The single-minded intensity of your concentration. For giving me something to focus on. I am grateful. What you did allowed me to... obviate? Reify? — no. I am sorry, you lack the vocabulary.

"Whatever. You know, there's paperwork to fill out if you're dropping the class..."

For the first time in my life, I 'hear' a laugh that really is like the tinkling of bells. No mockery in it; I know that she's just appreciating the absurdity of the situation... Thank you again, Jubatus. It is very good to exist in human reality.

"There's another kind?"

In a manner of speaking. If two people perceive the Universe so differently that they cannot communicate, are they truly living in the same reality?

Philosophy? Feh. "Yes, they are," I say. "Look, it's not like you need a speech tutor any more, so why are you here?"

As I said, Jubatus, I am grateful. I want to express my gratitude in tangible form.

'Tangible form'? Heh! The first image that comes to mind is impossible — I'm a cat, and she's dead — but she apparently picks it out of my brain anyway. And suddenly, without any warning, Jenny's a cheetah, too! She's fur-naked, and there's this indescribable scent, and she's stepping towards me, and — Very well, Ju-

"No!" I scream from the far corner of the room, only twitching a little. "No. That's, ah, no. None of that. Really."

And then she's back in her chair, back in human form, and a repentant sigh echoes lightly through my mind. I misunderstood... I apologize.

It's easy for me to calm down, because I know her remorse is genuine. "That's, um, okay. So. You can read minds."

A light touch of uncertainty... In effect, yes. While I am not truly telepathic, I have certain... perceptions...

"...which I lack the vocabulary for you to describe."

I'm afraid so. This time, I know the communication gap's got her as frustrated as me — maybe more so — but she's honestly doing the best she can. I really am sorry — all of this, being an inanimorph, it's still very new to me. I hope you can forgive me my errors.

I shrug. "Not a problem. No harm done, you didn't mean it, and you learn from your mistakes. Right?"

Right, she 'says', and for a moment I feel — something — like someone walked over my grave? Or like I'm being watched from every direction at once? Vocabulary again. Not really painful or unpleasant; just, I don't know, weird. Whatever the sensation is, I don't miss it when it stops. It's so very hard not to make mistakes with an unfamiliar set of abilities you've only just acquired... wouldn't you say?

I give her a tolerant, rueful smile. "Tell me about it."

As if I need to! Her sympathetic amusement is clear. But seriously: You did me an enormous favor, and I want to reciprocate. What would you like?

'What would you like?' If it was anyone biological, I'd tell them to forget it — but this is an inanimorph 'talking'. And innies can do pretty much anything, blowing off physical laws as needed...

The words are out of my mouth before I realize what I've said: "Can you cure SCABS?"

She's 'silent' for a good ten-fifteen clock-seconds. I don't press her, and clouds of uncertainty and intense concentration drift through my brain as the time passes. I... don't know. I think I —

"Do it!"

She's taken aback by the force of my command. That makes two of us.

Let me finish, please. As I was going to say, I think I can eliminate all traces of Martian Flu virus from your body. That much I'm reasonably sure of. Changes inflicted by SCABS are a tougher problem, but I may even be able to undo them, too. The problem is, I don't know what condition you'll be in when I'm finished! Yes, you might return to your former, human, self; but you could also end up a normal cheetah, or even dead. If I try this, it could ruin your life, your very existence, in any of thousands of different ways. On second thought, make that 'millions'. Is this a risk you really want to take, Jubatus?

Rhetorical question. To be human again — fully human! — well, let's just say it's one hell of a prize Jenny's dangling before me. How can I believe she's up to the task? How can I not? There may be no hope of a cure from any human agency, but that doesn't say squat about what an innie might be capable of! "Do it," I repeat.

She's quiet for a long moment before she 'talks' again. Jubatus. You do realize that just as I can perform actions far beyond any limits of biological life... so, too, can I make mistakes far more terrible than anything biological life is capable of.

"No shit, Sherlock."

You know this, but you still want me to try.

"Got it in one."

You're absolutely certain.

"You're damn right I'm absolutely certain," I snarl. "Stop screwing around! Shit or get off the pot! Do it, or fuck off and... oh, hell. Just... do it."

Another longish pause, then she 'says', Very well. I'm going to scan you now, Jubatus... and suddenly that bizarre 'watched from all directions' sensation is back, in spades, doubled and redoubled. It feels like she's poring over my entire life, back to the moment of my birth and forward to my eventual death, simultaneously — and no, I haven't got Clue One how that impression entered my sensorium. Then my mind is drenched by a mixture of embarrassment and pity and regret and endless, bottomless sorrow.

Oh, dear...

"What's wrong?"

You... don't even know, do you, Jubatus?

Huh? "What the fuck are you talking about!?"

I really and truly am sorry. But I... I just can't give you what you really want.

What the — goddamn bitch! It's my life she's toying with! "'Can't', or 'won't'?" I growl.

A foreign sigh drifts across my frontal lobes. If you must put it that way, it's 'won't' —

I've had more than enough. So what if she's an inanimorph, nobody jerks me around like that! No-fucking-body! I don't let her 'say' another word: "Then get lost. Go find another fly to pull the wings off, you goddamn corpse."

Please, let me exp-

Okay, that is the proverbial it. I scream and upshift high and leap straight for her lying throat and —

— and then the world turns inside-out around me and it's like I'm moving in some direction I wasn't previously familiar with and —

— disoriented, I blink. What the... oh, hell. I missed another meal, didn't I? With my high-speed metabolism, I've found that my higher brain functions tend to seize up after a couple of clock-hours without food. Better get a snack once I'm done here.

Let's see... Jenny just asked what she could do for me. Right. The words are out of my mouth before I realize what I've said: "Can you cure SCABS?"

I'm afraid not, she 'says', and I know her regret is sincere. Maybe at some future time, but right now, I don't even know if it's possible, let alone how to do it.

"You mean innies aren't omnipotent?"

That gets me a mental cloud of tolerance/amusement/sympathy/self-effacement. You may find it hard to believe, Jubatus, but we inanimorphs do have limitations. They're just, different, from the ones you live with.

I roll my eyes. "Oh, well." That'll teach me to hope... "Since you can't do what I want, I guess I'll take a rain check."

Either she's old enough to know the term, or she learned it when she scanned me earlier: Alright, a rain check it is. A sequence of 40 digits drifts across my forebrain, and I know I'll never forget it. Type that number on any computer or telephone keyboard, and I'll be there for you.

"Do I want to know the details?"

A mixture of amusement and frustration, both mild. Yes, you do, and if you had the vocabulary, I would explain.

"Gee, thanks. I'm beginning to see why you guys don't usually hang around with us living types."

Tell me about it, she 'says', her words and tone echoing an earlier remark of mine. And thank you once again; now I know what I should do with myself.

"Gonna play Speaker-to-Breathers, huh?"

A tinkling giggle dances through my brain... Something like that, yes. Farewell, Jubatus. Until we meet again...

...and I'm alone in the room...

the fourth week

Homework. Birdbrain did a decent job on all 40 phonemes; tiger-boy did better; foxy lady did best of all. I flatly will not think about how her voice is gonna end up sounding. The bug's — Borman's — stridulation is a little iffy, but not bad for a first shot. Dennison? My questions for him amount to an abbreviated Piscine Anatomy 101 final exam, and he aced it. 25 answers dead-on correct, the other two technically invalid but strongly arguable anyway. As for Jenny... she's outta here. All her paperwork and computer files are in order, not that anybody noticed her turning in any forms or anything. None of my business anyway (he says, with a shrug).

As for the class itself (number four in a series of ten — collect them all!): Anthony sounds better than I do, goddamn his near-intact throat. I give 10:1 odds in favor of the bastard regaining full human speech before the final class session. Calgonetti? Phonemes he's got down pat, but he can't quite manage to put 'em together into honest-to-God speech. Funny, that. Chalk up another one for 'self-imposed mental block', and I go out of my way to rub salt in his wound. He'll thank me for it later, right? Borman actually surprises me by stridulating recognizable phonemes; only three of 'em, granted, but I didn't think he'd be able to swing it at all. Not this early, anyway. Good sign. Dennison turns out to have an internal swim-bladder, complete with swatting muscles, and he demonstrates it with a kind of "ahh-eee-ahh" that more-or-less spans an augmented fifth.

And then there's Zelinski. Her eyes aren't as bright as last week; her vocalizing is decidedly worse than before; and she fumbles with her voder like she'd only just started using the damn thing yesterday. Oh, and I could tell her scent was 'off' (including what the 'new' chemicals were) before she stepped into the classroom. I do the math, and the answer is clear: She's drugged. Given the data I've already acquired re: the Zelinski household, there's exactly 1 (one) person who could've done it to her: Alison Zelinski, her 'loving' spouse. You think I'm pissed off? Damn right I am. Nobody has the right to fuck up someone else's free will like that! I stifle my anger for the duration of the class.

This week's homework is pretty much a rerun of last week's; more phoneme-practice, singly and in combination. When the rest leave, I ask the vixen to stay. She gives me a vague look: "I muost gho homm," her voder says. "Mizz Awl-lee dee-uz-int wand me tu ss'tay owwit laid."

"Maybe so, but she also wants you to relearn how to talk, am I right?" Zelinski pauses, then makes with an uncertain nod, and I go on before her voder can say anything else: "You need a little extra attention right now, is all. That's what we're going to do tonight, and if Miss Allie doesn't like it, you just tell her it's my fault, how's that?"

I keep an eye on the parking lot while I talk — an occasional momentary upshift, nothing the fox even can notice in her drugged-out state — so I see the TransportElegance limo as it pulls in. Good thing Zelinski rather likes the idea of having some time away from home: Her face slides into an off-kilter grin, and her voder says, "Ohh khay!"

"Great. Now, sit down and close your eyes; I've got a big surprise for you." She obeys. I upshift. Four-point-eight clock-seconds later, she's in the back of my car, seated in front of a big-ass computer display with Newspaper Tycoon VII running. The rent-a-thugs in the limo think Zelinski's still in the Shelter; I brought her down so fast they didn't — couldn't — percieve anything. I could care less if they try to look in the Extremis; there's a couple aftermarket features that normally let me sleep in private, but they work just as well now. Specifically, the electrochromic film on the windows (currently set to Total Eclipse), and the cab divider in front of the cargo space.

Zelinski makes with a little squeal of delight when she opens her eyes. "There you go!" I say. "I've got the game set up for voice commands, but you can also use mouse and keyboard, if you'd rather. Need any help?" Apparently not — her fingers dance on the keyboard as she dives right in.

"Thank you," her box says, "but I don't believe that will be necessary." Interesting: Her skill with the voder is distinctly higher now than it was a few minutes ago. Good.

My cel phone has a wireless link to the Extremis' video cameras; that's how I know when the rent-a-thugs leave their vehicle for the Shelter. Absorbed in an orgy of virtual capitalism, the vixen doesn't even notice when I drive off. The rent-a-thugs won't be following us — not with their distributor cap in my glove compartment, they won't. Upshifting can be useful at times...

At this point, I'm not sure what the deal is with Alison Zelinski. Sure, I know what she's done to her ex-husband, but I don't know why, and the 'why' matters. Well, I'll find out soon enough.


Moving right along: Most people think the "Betty Ford Clinic" is just a punchline, what with all the rich actors and singers who supposedly go there to detoxify or whatever. Wrong. The Clinic is very real, very discreet, and damned good at what they do. And they've got a SCAB-friendly branch office in the west end of Pennsylvania. A couple hours of air-conditioned driving, and foxy lady is safely deposited there. The staff was quite professional, even while enrolling an unscheduled client at 2 AM. Wasn't exactly 'no questions asked', but that's okay; what with all my poking around the Zelinskis' private affairs, I had the right answers.

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So. It's 9 AM Wednesday. By now Alison Zelinski's got to know that her gendermorph hubby has evaporated. Odds are, she hasn't slept. She's probably shitting bricks wondering when the ransom note will arrive. Wish I could've seen her face when my e-note did arrive in her inbox...

FROM: J. Acinonyx (fiver@jubatus.nucom)

SUBJ: re: Mary Zelinski's vocalization

I'm afraid that Mary's progress in class has been disrupted by a set of problems beyond my capacity to solve. Accordingly, I have taken the liberty of securing an outside specialist who can help her overcome these problems. I would like to speak to you in a private conference, at your earliest convenience, about preventing a recurrence of these problems. When would be a good time for you?

Heh! I think I hit just the right chords; aside from the none-too-subtle hints that I know exactly what she's done, I've all but confessed to the kidnapping. Best of all, the language is sufficiently innocuous that no lawyer or judge could regard the note as evidence of anything nefarious. How long will it take Zelinski to decide that her only option is to talk to me?

I get her answer at 2:26PM. She wants to meet this evening, her place, 8 o'clock. As usual, I got clock-hours to kill — oh, joy. In between working on my legit contracts, I make contact with the Zelinski home network. Well, well: Miss Allison has been researching me, much good may it do her. Security protocols are unchanged, which just means that if she is planning any surprises, she's doing it offline. Do I have a plan? Damn straight I do. No point wasting time in conversational parry and riposte. Instead, I'm gonna blitzkrieg the bitch — hit her fast and hard, from multiple directions at once, changing attacks before she can adjust or reply. Considering how easily I torque people off just because, it'll be interesting to see how bad I can rattle somebody when I work at it. All of which assumes there's no armed resistance or whatever. If there is, no problem: I upshift and nuke it, after which Zelinski gets my undivided attention.

The clock-hours crawl by...

8PM — showtime. The Zelinski house is a bloated, two-story carbuncle with a bunch of underground floor space; when I ring the bell, the front door is opened by a familiar-smelling rent-a-thug. His demeanor is designed to intimidate, not that I give a damn. He says, "Miss Allison will receive you in the living room," and leads me inside.

The living room turns out to be an interior chamber with a good chunk of one wall taken up by an oversized flat-plasma display. Once I'm there, a female voice says "Thank you, Marcus. That will be all," and thug-boy leaves as we both sit down. This voice belongs to a female norm, straight black hair, semi-dark skin tone. Judging from her scent, she's a little shaky, uncomfortable, and trying not to let it show. Let's see how fast I can coax a reaction out of her. "I'm... my name is Alison Zelinski," she says.

"Jubatus," I reply.

"Would you..." She breaks off with a sigh. "I'm sorry, this is all so complicated..."

Shrug. "Seems pretty straightforward to me. Your hubby SCABbed over seven months ago — different sex and species. She's been stoned out of her gourd ever since, courtesy of you. I'm curious, how many doctors did you go through?"

"Excuse me?" Hmmm... steady pulse and scent... nope, her confusion is just an act. This isn't the first time my SCABS-heightened senses have come in handy.

"How many doctors?" I repeat. "Before you found one who didn't care what he did to Mary, as long as your checks cleared."

Okay, now it's a genuine response: High-end anger. "Mister Jubatus, I'll tha-"

Her words are drowned under my "Shut up, bitch." My voice may suck rocks, but I can definitely go Loud when I feel like it. "You may not be old enough to remember date-rape drugs, but I sure as hell am, and the only difference I see is that you married your victim first!"

"I — you —" From 'calm' to 'stuttering, with pulsing vein in forehead' in under 7 clock-seconds. I love it when a plan comes together. "How dare you!"

"How dare you, lady!? Go play the Righteous Indignation card somewhere else, 'cause I'm not interested. What I've got on you, I could nail you to the wall in court yet — and I just might."

It's working. I can practically smell her brain cells burning out as she almost keeps up. "You — you'd never win!"

I give her a nasty smile, heavy on the fangs. "Bets on that? Imagine your face plastered across the front page of every newspaper in a 1,000-mile radius, not to mention all the broadcast media and net coverage. Think of all the editorials. Visualize the Zelinski name permanently associated with cute stuff like anti-SCABS bigotry, chemically-mediated enslav-"

— attack: threat level high: 12 o'clock —

— oh, hell. It's not the first time this has happened: My instincts trigger an upshift without my say-so, because they don't like something in my immediate vicinity. In this case it's Zelinski, floating in midair, with hands poised to do some damage. Physical assault? Gosh, I must've hit a very sensitive nerve. I could tear her several new assholes... but instead, I just move around to lean on the back of her chair, resume a tempo of 1, and watch her land, clumsily, on the couch I just vacated.

Confused, she looks around, and I speak when her eyes meet mine: "That was your first free shot at me. Hope you enjoyed it, because nobody gets two."

"Bastard! I'll sue —"

I laugh, a cruel, venomous noise that shatters her focus. "Hah! Go ahead and try, for all the good it'll do you. Face it: Whatever you do, you can't stop me opening a can of worms you'd much prefer stay closed. Me, I could care less about bad publicity — can you say the same? If you think you can possibly fuck up a SCAB's social status any worse'n it already is, feel free to try. Who knows, you might even be able to come up with something that's not prima facie grounds for a libel suit. Should be fun."

"You..." I can smell fear, anger, concern, and confusion fighting it out in her scent. Fear wins. "Alright. Do your worst, you monster."

"Says the bald ape who arranged a permanent brainwashing prescription for their own spouse," I retort. "Alright , Mrs. Zelinski. I've got half a mind to sic my lawyer on you anyway, but I'm a reasonable man. Play it straight with me, I'll return the favor. Fuck with me, and I will own your sorry ass. Your choice."

Fear and guilt: A powerful combo. They're both on her face and in her scent. Eventually, she gets herself under control again. "What... what do you want?" she asks.

She's defeated, alright — scent doesn't lie — so I get down to business: "I want the truth. Why is Mary a drugged-out zombie?"

Zelinski kind of sags in her chair. She sighs, doesn't (can't?) look at my face. "I... no one ever intended..."

A few seconds after she trails off, I kill the silence. "I'm not hearing a 'why'."

"It's... complicated..."

"You already said that," I point out. "Feel free to start at the beginning. Alternately, how about I just leave, wait 'til Mary's done getting detoxified, and let her decide how many new orifices to rip out of your hide? Your call — pick one."

She goes for 'start at the beginning'. Takes her an unnecessarily long time to spit it out: Hubby SCABs over (fur and tits), goes nutbar over the gender thing, needs to be sedated for his/her own protection... and ever since, Zelinski makes sure hubby gets a fresh dose whenever she's too close to sober.

"You... didn't know Martin before," she says, as if her words were threading a minefield. "He was... difficult to live with, not —"

I cut her off. "So. Fucking. What. If Mary wants to be permanently blitzed, fine, but guess what? That's not your goddamn decision, lady! So here's the deal: As of now, Dr. Gordon is off Mary's —"

"What gives you the right to interfere with the private affairs of this family!"

Zelinski shuts up when I look directly into her eyes. She looks right back. Both of us are way the hell pissed. Her anger is cold like liquid helium; mine is hotter than a deuterium-fusion torch.

Zelinski breaks first. When she lowers her gaze, I speak up, as inexorable as a glacier: "What, exactly, gave you the right to interfere" — I spit that word out with a freightload of sarcasm — "with your spouse's mind and free will."

Her scent goes heavy on shame, with a side order of fear. No other response.

Okay, fine. "Like I was saying, here's the deal. One: You will sever all connections, professional and otherwise, between Mary and Doctor Gordon. Two: You will accept whoever Dr. Derksen recommends for Gordon's replacement. Three: You have no say whatsoever about Mary's medical needs — you will do anything the new guy says, agree to anything they recommend, and generally treat the new guy as if they're the Voice of God Himself. Four: If, at any time in the future, I find out that you have ever again so much as dreamed about interfering with Mary's medical treatment..." Here I whisper, as lethal as a sack of cobras: "I. Will. Destroy. You."

Zelinski crumples in silence. Her eyes glint with highlights that weren't there before — poor fucking baby.

I give her 15 clock-seconds; still no reply.

I'm out of there. Nobody gets in my way, not Marcus the thug nor any other hireling. Fine by me. The mood I'm in, I'd go through them. Not a good idea to leave a trail of broken bodies. I give the Extremis a once-over when I get to it; nope, no signs of tampering. Only then do I let myself relax. A little, anyway.

On the road, I don't think about what I just did. I don't want to think about it. I just drive. I want to — no. Bad idea; I don't want to get drunk.

Well... maybe just a little...

the fifth week

It's none of my business, of course, but I keep an eye on the foxy lady over the next few days. Just to make sure Miss Alison stays the hell away from her ex-husband's treatment, is all. And wouldn't you know it, Zelinski makes quote, remarkable, unquote, progress. Think it might have something to do with not getting pumped full of mindfuck drugs on a regular basis? Funny how that works. Even so, the Ford medics insist on keeping her there "for observation" for another 8-10 days, minimum... which means she's going to miss a class. Maybe two.

In other news, I close 5 more contracts before next Tuesday. 33 more to go; I might run out before the tenth class. Hey, I am taking it easy — I haven't accepted any new clients since I started teaching the class.

Speaking of which, this session (the fifth) has a guest lecturer: Donnie Sinclair. And while he's scribbling at my students, I fill in for him behind the counter at the Pig. That's the pound of flesh he demanded before he'd do what I asked. I hate the idea; I mean, I don't do crowds! But since it puts a three-foot-wide faux-marble countertop between me and the customers, it should be okay... right..? Aside from that, I have no idea how Donnie creates and maintains the Pig's SCAB-friendly atmosphere — so I won't even try. Instead I'm going to pour the booze, keep a paranoid eye on everything, and stomp on anything that smells like it even might be trouble. I just hope I can stay alert until closing time; for whatever reason, SCABS left me with a half-hour-long sleep cycle. Mind you, I don't have to conk out that often. I can actually stay up five hours at a time, but that's kind of like a norm staying up for five days solid... well, that should be enough. Hopefully. I'm pretty sure, anyway.

Having a few weeks' advance notice, I did my usual obsessive prep work beforehand. The cash register is a late-2016 NCR job, tablet-style touchscreen; before I'm through, I know it better than Donnie himself does. I'm packing 47,583 different drink recipes on a PDA, complete with recommended ingredient substitutions for when stuff runs out, and the thing happens to be equipped with a wireless internet hookup in case somebody wants something outside the onboard library. More recently, I confirmed that the Pig's supply database is 100% up to date (I double-checked each item myself). Come the fatal Tuesday, I make sure the lavatories are fully loaded — which is trickier than you might think, since the Pig's bathrooms accomodate a wide range of SCAB body types. Comfortably, yet. I also stash a couple dozen pounds of beef jerky behind the counter; the kind of calories I burn, I'm gonna need that protein...

And then it's showtime.

The hours pass in a blur. Jesu Christe, there's a shitload of customers — I sometimes have trouble keeping up with the orders! Upshifting doesn't help, because I have to understand what all you damn slowpokes are saying. And that means my tempo needs to be real close to 1 most of the time...

I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.

"Gimme a Stattenvorl."

I take orders.

"Three shots of Jack Daniels, straight."

I make change.

"Vodka martini for me, an' a Purple Ray for the li'l lady."

I pour booze.

"— tellya, I wuz on top'a th' world —"

I hate it. Sob stories from self-pitying morons — gaah! I pay those twits as little attention as I can manage. Most of 'em take the hint and stay the fuck away from the counter; occasionally I delegate one to Wanderer or somebody via an an upshifted note in their glass.

I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.

"Atomic Firewater!"

I take orders.

"Scotch and soda, heavy on the soda."

I make change.

"— you gonna do about it, runt?"

Oh, fucking joy. I quit pouring. Commotion by the dart board; there's a St. Bernard-derived animorph SCAB who can't aim worth shit, lost a bet, and is now proving himself to be a welching asshole and a mean drunk.

I point one finger ceilingward. "'Scuse me a sec," I tell the customers I haven't gotten to yet. Then I zip over to the big dog, telling him, "You lost, Bernie. Pay up and deal with it."

He's like six-foot-thirteen and 380 pounds, none of it fat; me, I'm five-eleven and forty-odd kilos. Seeing this as he turns to look down at me, Bernie makes with a contemptuous grin. "Who's gonna ma-yeee!!!"

There's an instant cloud of ozone and burnt fur — I didn't let Bernie see my TASER, but he damn sure felt it. He hits the floor like a 380-pound sack of dog food. Upshift, extract his wallet from a pocket, downshift, hand the wallet over to the norm-looking guy that beat Bernie. I say, "Take your winnings out of this," then I upshift again, this time so's I can haul Bernie's ass out the front door. We cheetahs are stronger than we look — we have to be, since our legendary top speed is muscle-powered — and besides, I've found that local gravity gets weaker when I upshift. Put 'em together, and I'm not even breathing hard when I set Bernie down on the sidewalk outside the Pig.

Once more behind the counter, I inhale dried meat, downshift, and pick up where I left off — elapsed time 8.6 clock-seconds in all. "I'm back. You there, what do you want?"

I keep a watchful eye on the crowd.

"Make mine a Jumper Cable."

I take orders.

"Bacardi 151 on the rocks."

I make change.

"Irish Coffee."

I pour booze.

Time goes on. The clock-hours spin and gyrate...

...and suddenly I blink, confused at what I see before me. Minotaur? I ask myself. That's — hold it, what's Donnie doing here..?

Ah. Right.

The place is damn near empty, only a couple of stragglers still hanging on; I must have signaled Closing Time already. Thank any applicable god... Oh, yeah. Must ask... "Hhhh..." I stop, close eyes, swallow, restart. "How'd the class go?"

Donnie shrugs, then gives me an interrogative "Mmm?"-and-look combo.

I'm tired. My head hurts. "If you're asking how my end of the deal went, it sucked. I have no idea how you can stand doing what you do. Can I go now?"

Donnie looks at me with some inscrutable bovine expression. He nods.

I do likewise myself, no words. I manage to drag myself out to the Extremis, get inside, and lock up before I collapse...

the sixth week

Week 6: Nothing much happened. Okay, I did lose another student, but it's all good... I guess...

On Thursday (that being July 29th, if you've lost track), I get a call from out of state — the Betty Ford Clinic. Guess which of their recent patients put in a request to chat me up, personal-like? Right — her. No reason given. Well, what the hell. I got time to kill, like always, so I agree to do the conversation today. I make time for it (and I do mean 'make time'), and at 5 PM, I'm in Mary Zelinski's private room at the Clinic.

She screws up her face a little, concentrating, and says — she honest-to-Thoth says! — "Hhhee-rhho, Tcheu-baddhuz."

I smile and nod. "Hello yourself, Ms. Zelinski. Needs work, but not too damned shabby. Y'know, if you wanted to let me know you're dropping the class, you could've just sent me e-mail..."

Despite herself, the foxy lady smiles. Only for a moment, but it's there. And then she goes on: "Iiayy, wrrahndtuu... hrraauuw!" A frustrated yowl. Frowning, she picks up her voder, which just happens to have been lying on her nightstand, and lets it speak for her. "Yes. I'm dropping your class. This is about something else. What happened to my wife?"

I wasn't expecting that. If I had eyebrows, I'd raise them. "It matters?"

Angry and some other emotion fight it out on Zelinski's face; Angry is losing, big time. "I'm not sure any more," her voder says in its incongruously level tone. "I'm not sure I want to know. But I must know. And you can tell me. Can't you?"

Oh, fucking joy. "Yeah. I can. But just remember, you asked for it..." And I make with an infodump. I give Zelinski the whole story, everything from when I first read her file to when I hammered on dear little Alison. The foxy lady doesn't interrupt; she sits there and absorbs it all without making a sound. And then I'm done...

"...back to the Pig, to get smashed."

At this point, Zelinski isn't the least bit angry. She's kind of hunched over into herself; her voder lies, forgotten, on the bed next to her.

I wait a bit, then kill the silence: "You asked. I answered. Is that it?"

The vixen pulls herself together. "Yes," her voder says, "that's enough." Then her fingers pause over the talk-box. A few moments later, it recites the words she'd been typing; it gets as far as "I wish" before she hits the 'abort' button. She starts over, her hands a little shaky: "Tank you mitt sir Jubatus. You comforted my suspectings. Please lever me out lone."

Which I do. The Ford Clinic staff wants to debrief me; I blow off most of their questions with variations on, "Ask the foxy lady — it's her call."

And then I'm on the road again, driving back home.

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Nothing much happened for the next week or so, and that includes during the next class session. Fortunately. I've been on the short end of too damn many surprises already...

Wait, there was one thing: The bug. Borman. He can actually stridulate one-syllable words! He sounds lousy (still better than I do, damn it), and it sucks up so much of his attention and concentration that changing to a different syllable is a major feat, but when all is said and done, he can talk. It's just a matter of practice, honing his currently-primitive skill.

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So I'm coming in for today's stint at the West Street Shelter. I'm not three steps past the front door when this lightly morphed rat-SCAB, a new addition to the staff, says Splendor wants to see me in her office right away. What does she want from me? Hell if I know — but 'in her office' means it's a private conversation, and that cuts way back on the number of alternatives...

By the time I open her office door, the short list is down to about three possible agendas. I close the door. Splendor's just beginning to greet me; I interrupt her, saying, "You want I should work somebody over."

She blinks. "What makes you... never mind. Actually —"

Some things are best stopped before they start. I cut her off again: "Not interested. Go find someone else to play shock trooper. I'm sure there's plenty of people around here who'd love to put a hurting on some asshole who desperately deserves —"

"That's exactly why I want you for this job!" Her turn to interrupt, it seems.

My turn to blink.

"Okay..." I finally say. "You've piqued my curiosity. Explain."

"Thank you. First, some background." She opens a file drawer, pulls out a manila folder, hands it to me. "Read this."

Upshifting, I follow her advice. 'This' is a collection of eyewitness reports — seems that Splendor has an unofficial network of informers all over the City. It's mostly surveillance on the comings and goings of various lowlifes, but there's also some educated guesses on what said lowlifes will be up to in the near future. Hmmm... if I'm reading this right, it looks like the West Street neighborhood's been relatively low on criminals for a while, and a gang from outside the City is planning to move into what they perceive as a vacuum.

I close the folder, slip back to a tempo of 1 — "Done." — and return it to her. "Alright, that's the background. So what?"

"I know the local thugs, and I've gotten most of them to stop committing their crimes in my neighborhood."

"Bully for you." I've got an uncomfortable feeling I know what's on her mind, but — "And I should get involved... why?"

She gestures at the folder. "The Cargill Mob. If they establish a presence here, it will be... well. Let's just say it would be best for all concerned if they don't. I want to dissuade them with a show of force; give them a demonstra-"

"No. I flatly refuse to play enforcer."

"Will you let me finish!?" she says, glaring at me. Well, what do you know — the snake-lady actually has a temper. I gesture for her to continue; she does. "I've set up a meeting with Jocko Cargill," — head honcho of the eponymous Mob, says her files, real name 'Giocomo' — "and I want to be accompanied by people who I can be absolutely certain will not initiate any hostile action."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I say without much sarcasm. "So what do you want from me?"

"You're welcome. And I want you to serve as bodyguard."

Damn... it's not often that I'm left speechless...

"Frankly, I'd be a fool to trust Jocko as far as I can —" BLAM!

— attack: threat level extreme: 2 o'clock —

Damn... the whole south wall's erupted with itsy-bitsy explosions. The instincts upshifted me to a tempo of 35-40, somewhere up there, and the ambient noise Dopplers down like always; I can see...

Holy limping Hephæstus — I can see the bullets moving!

It actually takes a couple seconds of my time before I snap out of it and get to work. Numero Uno: Digital camera from my vest, aim it at the wall's exit wounds, leave it floating in midair at1,000 shots per clock-second. Numero Two-o: Shpritz a layer of DeadGlove (inert polymer in a spray can) on my hands, grab bullets out of the air, store 'em five-to-a-mylar-envelope. Would've preferred individually-wrapped, but I ran out — wasn't prepped for this many projectiles! Numero Three-o: There's a second wave of airborne crap (shards of window glass, wood chips, nails, yada yada), so I sweep it all to the carpet and bury it under several dozen pounds of books to make sure it don't go noplace it shouldn't ought to.

I retrieve my camera — good, it's still got 91% free RAM — and there's nothing visibly moving at the moment, so I downshift to a tempo of 1 so's I can hear if there's any more impacts. There aren't any, but I do hear screams and wails from casualties, damnit! Well, hell; they probably won't die in the next few clock-seconds, so I upshift my tempo to 35 and avoid the jagged remnants of windowpane in the frame as I go outside to get some good shots of a late-model Chrysler, nicely framed between a lamp post and a dumpster; driver and two passengers, shabby paint and no discernable plates. Oh, and a pair of rifle barrels sticking out its side windows, complete with muzzle flash and more fucking bullets on the way. The car's tilted forward, which means the sons of bitches are braking to give themselves more time to shoot.

Fine. I move in, camera k'chnkk-ing away as it stores images of the bullets and their source, and when I'm in range, I reach inside the car; grab the front gun by its chamber; and pull the fucker out and down, with as much force as you'd expect from muscles that can shove a hundred-pound mass around at 70 MPH. Next up: A re-run with the back-seat firearm.

Both guns are firmly lodged in the dirt, barrel-first. The guys who were holding them have a bunch of fingers sticking out at real weird angles. Fuck 'em both. I'm busy — the guns are harmless, but there's all the bullets they already fired — okay, got the last one. My envelopes now hold seven bullets apiece.

Hungry now. I inhale a slab of beef jerky from my vest while I plan out my next move...

By the time I've made my decision, the dudes-in-car are starting to react to the abrupt change in their immediate surroundings; there's the beginnings of shocked/worried expressions evolving on their faces. Hmm... the car's not so tilted as it had been... betcha the driver's floored it. I grin as I extract a genuine Swiss Army Knife from a vest-pocket, unfold the (diamond-hard, waterproof, corrosion-resistant, tungsten/vanadium alloy) cutting blade, and slash a diagonal gouge all the way across the tread of the driver's side front tire. Not waiting for it to finish blowing out, I do likewise to the driver's side rear; then I step back onto the sidewalk, resume munching on shriveled meat, downshift to a tempo of 1, and watch the wreck change from 'incipient' to 'actual'.

As per my unwritten script, the car — driver's side, at least — drops to the pavement with a hell of a clang and a shower of sparks. Then it makes with a metal-on-asphalt shriek all the way to its 45-MPH collision with the dumpster. Oooh, no airbags! That's gonna leave a mark...

I finish my snack, keeping an eye on the perps in case someone feels like doing something cute; nobody does. I upshift high, strip all three assholes down to their underwear, expend an entire pocket-sized roll of duct tape making damn sure the perps are gonna sit tight where they are, clean out the glove box and trunk... and for an encore, I downshift and call in the whole sorry encounter to the local police precinct.

Citizen's arrest is a good thing, right?

Waiting for the cops to show, I drop back to my default tempo of 6 and amuse myself checking out my loot. No discernable ID on any of the trio — such a surprise — so we'll just see what their photos, fingerprints, and DNA (from impromptu blood samples) have to say about the matter. Again, the car is plateless, and there's no VIN either. As for the guns, they look like they could be Izakawa 'Divine Wrath'-model automatics. That, or else homebrew jobs. I sure hope it's the latter, since I happen to know that Izakawa doesn't do firearms for any civilian market.

Onward to happier thoughts. Let's see... the clothes look to be generic off-the-rack Target. Residual scent is mostly drowned under cheap-ass cologne, so there's not so much chance of getting olfactory ID off of it. Just one of the tricks criminals have learned for dealing with a post-SCABS world...

...ah. Someone's approaching — correction: Splendor's approaching. I downshift to match her tempo.

"Nice day, huh?" I say.

She grimaces a little. "Hardly. It seems I'm not the only one who felt a show of force might be appropriate."

"Seems like," I agree. "The timing's pretty interesting, though. It could be coincidence... but me, I bet Cargill had your office wired for sound. Not sure when."

Splendor nods. "That makes sense. Perhaps we should relocate this discussion to a more secure place?"

"No point. I mean, he's already eavesdropping, right? So he's gotta know his boys got way the hell hammered on, by someone who's literally faster than a speeding bullet. He may not be sure what other tricks I have up my sleeve, but I, for one, will be happy to help him learn — the hard way. Of course, that's assuming Jocko Homo has the balls, not to mention the requisite lack of functional brain cells, to suit up for Round Two."

Splendor's eyes widen, just for a moment, about halfway through my last sentence. Then she gets it and puts a subtle smile on her face. "I... see. I trust you know what you're doing..."

"Always," I state flatly. "And I know something else: That fucknose is toast."

The next few days are kind of busy, and not just because of my unfinished contracts (29 and counting) and speech-class-related stuff and helping Splendor deal with the listening devices. To begin with, I pore over police records and the snake-lady's files — but that's maybe a couple of clock-hours at most. No, what really occupies my time is what I do with the data thereby gained: I smash hands.

See, the cops have a pretty good idea of who-all is on Jocko's payroll, and what their particular duties are. Just because the authorities don't have enough hard evidence to nail a guy in court, that doesn't mean they're clueless about why he should be nailed in court. And if you're curious about why the police might grant a puny civilian — i.e., me — access to this sort of sensitive information? Two reasons:

First, money talks.

Second, it seems I got a bit of a fan club in blue. Something to do with all those meticulously detailed complaint reports I keep filing any time some jackass messes with me or my property. I'm told that last year, about17% of all City trials for SCAB-related hate crimes used at least some data from one of my complaint reports — make it 23%, if you're only interested in convictions.

The point is, I got a line on Jocko's whole organization. His entire chain of command, from him and his most-trusted seconds all the way down to his lowliest footsoldiers. And I also got several dozen of the freelancers he's most likely to call when he needs a little extra manpower.

Put it all together, I got me a good, long list of targets to hit... and hit them, I do. With a pair of bricks. At a closing velocity well in excess of the speed of sound.

I tap each of their hands twice. Hit Number One, the bricks are parallel to the plane of the palm; Hit Number Two, they're at right angles. Locating a target's never difficult. After that, I do my business, leave a card, and bug out.

The card, you ask? Just something I whipped up on a cheap-ass laser printer I bought, used for this one job, and melted to untraceable slag immediately after. Each card bears six words — "TELL JOCKO HOMO TO GET LOST" — and a single letter, "J".

No, as a matter of fact I couldn't just waste 'em all. Three words:




Got it?

Aside from that, leaving Jocko's crew mostly-intact is a good thing. There's a lot to hate about organized crime, but one thing they get right is, you take care of your own people. 'Cause if you don't... well, either you take care of them, or else they take care of you. Not to mention, a rep for fucking over your underlings makes it a lot harder to get replacement thugs when you need them.

So. If I'd left Jocko with a pile of corpses, he'd just bury 'em and that's it. But he's got a pile of cripples instead, so he's got lots bigger problems — like medical expenses for the victims, rent and food for their families, yada yada yada. Unless he's just crazy, he must deal with all this stuff.

Well, maybe Jocko is batshit insane; doesn't matter. Crazy or not, he still needs warm bodies to do his business, right? Which means he needs a whole new 'army'. And if people know how badly he screwed his last gang, who the hell's gonna want to sign on with his next gang? Answer: No-fucking-body. And no, Jocko can't just lean on people to ensure silence. Not while all the guys who would be doing the actual leaning are in hospital with mangled hands, he can't...

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Splendor catches up to me the day after the drive-by. Another tete-a-tete in her office, which is where two of the five bugs were. She did what I would've suggested if she'd asked: Left 'em all in place, just paying attention to prefabricated soundtracks rather than ambient sights and sounds. But as I walk through the door this time, she welcomes me with a gesture that (by sheer coincidence, I'm sure) switches off the 'bug bamboozler' I installed in this room. Confusion to the enemy, hm? Okay, I can play along, I muse to myself with a subtle hand gesture that she picks up on.

"Thank you for your promptness, Jubatus," she says. "How many eavesdropping devices have you found?"

"Two, I think."

"You... think."

And then she makes with a disapproving look, so I put on a show of annoyance: "Damn right, I think! You got any idea how old this place's wiring is? There's all kinds of components that the only reason I could even recognize them is, I'm old enough to have seen 'em back in the '90s! And further-"

The phone on Splendor's desk rings. Twice. She picks up before ring #3, saying: "West Street Shelter. Splendor speaking."

I hear the voice from the handset, real clear. "Hey there, Miss Splendor! How ya doin'? I heard'ja had some trouble just recent."

Having heard that voice on some police surveillance recordings, I recognize it as Jocko Cargill; not sure about the snake-lady. "I am doing well," she says in a professionally-controlled tone that doesn't give away a damn thing. "If you'd care to tell me what business you have with the Shelter —"

"Yeah," Jocko interrupts. "I got business with you, alright: One'a your freaks dissed me, real bad—and it ain't the kind of thing you can clear up with an apology. I know the little pussy's there, so how's about you put 'im on the line, huh?"

"Ve-" she begins. A momentary upshift lets me confirm there's no incoming assaults; when I revert back to the normal tempo, she's turned on the speakerphone function, and she's saying, "-ell. He's here now."

"Jubatus," I say to the 'phone, playing my part. "Who are you, and what do you want?"

"I want a cheetah-skin rug, Mister Juba-"

"Well, if it ain't Jocko Homo!" I break in. "What's crawled up your ass, Mr. H?"

"Ha, fuckin', ha," he replies. It's hard to tell, what with the audio distortions of the telephone system, but I think his level of irritation just got boosted a notch or two. Good. "Funny, kitty-cat. Real funny. Lemme tell you what I do to little pussies that stick their noses where they don't belong: I skin the fuckers alive."

"You and what army?" I sneer back at him. "Get real, Jocko — you ain't got shit, and we both know it. Face facts: I am the fastest SCAB alive. You can't threaten me — not when I can outrun any bullet on the face of the Earth! Hell, I can catch your damn bullets and throw 'em right back in your face!"

"You're dead, you goddamn pussy!"

I give Splendor a 'thumbs up' gesture as I hammer the needles deeper beneath his skin: "Go ahead, Homo — lose your temper. Blow a gasket, that's a good little thug. Let your blood pressure rise until your arteries explode. I'll be sure to dance a jig of grief at your funeral, and piss on your grave."

I hold my hand up, warning the snake-lady not to interrupt, for the few moments of heavy breathing it takes Jocko to regain a semblance of self-control. Which he does: "Okay... Okay... You got me goin' there, I admit it. Not too bad — for a fuckin' animal. Enjoy it while you can, Mister Kitty, 'cause you won't enjoy nothin' after I'm done with you!"

"So you can tag somebody that can break the sound barrier under his own power? Not!" is my smugly confident reply. "Try a gas weapon, Homo. A poisonous cloud is a lot harder to dodge than a bullet, and maybe I won't zip through it so damn fast it doesn't have time to affect me."

"That's real fuckin' hilarious, Mister Kitty." — and now he pauses, just for a very short moment — "In fact, you're a goddamn comedian, ain't'cha? Well, it wouldn't be polite of me to keep you from laughin' it up, so I'll just say g'bye now." And he hangs up. I think about Jocko Homo's pre- and post-pause vocal overtones, as much as I could hear them over the telephone, as Splendor turns the 'bamboozler' back on with a heartfelt exhalation...

"Well," she says, "that was interesting. May I assume there was a reason you insisted on giving Jocko the bright idea to try chemical weapons?"

"Damn straight." I grin mercilessly. "Look: We SCABs have an insanely wide range of biochemistries, right? What that means is, you can spend however-many megabucks developing a weapon that takes out one SCAB — but you got basically no idea whether or not it's gonna affect any other SCAB! So let's say you're a weapons researcher who's just been handed a pile of cash to come up with an equalizer that'll work on people like us. Do you spend it on chemical weapons, knowing that it's a fucking waste of resources, or do you spend it on new and improved projectile weapons, which are guaranteed to work on almost all SCABs?"

She thinks it over a moment, and likes the answer: "In other words, you goaded Jocko into wasting some of his available resources on an intrinsically futile gambit."

"Bingo! Got it in one."

"Unfortunately, I believe there's a flaw in your thinking. What's to keep Jocko from attempting to acquire one of those experimental projectile weapons you spoke of?"

I shrug. "Calculated risk. Assuming Jocko manages to get his hands on any military hardware at all, I'm betting he won't get more than one or two pieces, if that. And the more he focuses on me in particular, the less he's gonna be able to do to anybody else."

"I see..." Splendor just looks at me for a clock-second or so. "You're determined to play lightning rod, aren't you."

"Better me than one of you slowpokes," I say with a shrug. "What's your point? I'm the hardest target you've got, so why shouldn't I paint a bullseye on my chest?"

"No reason at all," she says in a neutral tone. "Thank you, Jubatus."

"For what? Premature much?" I grimace. "Save your gratitude until after we've dealt with the problem at hand."

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Jocko's no Jubatus. If it was me plotting an assault on the Shelter, I'd have researched the place in exhaustive detail ahead of time, including all of its resident SCABs and their combat-useful abilities. I'd also have worked up about 14 layers of contingency plans in case Something Went Wrong. And in particular, I would not have allowed my targets any breathing space whatsoever after my first attack. Then again, maybe Cargill did have a Plan B — Splendor doesn't think so, but, y'know, for the sake of argument? Like I said: Maybe the guy did have a backup plan, but I got my counterattack in before he could push the button.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, I'm not about to let up on him. For one thing, I've only tagged 68% of the targets on my list, and if you're a slowpoke (which everybody associated with the Shelter is), just one disgruntled twit with a high-powered rifle is all it takes to ruin your whole day. For another thing, three of the targets on my list have already bolted and run, apparently the moment they heard about what happened to my first victims. Or did they run away? Could be Jocko ordered 'em to go elsewhere and pick up a few 55-gallon drums of industrial-strength Whupass. Again, Spendor doesn't think Jocko's subtle enough (or smart enough) to do that; I'm inclined to agree, myself. Nevertheless, it's a loose end that needs to be tied off before it trips up anybody who matters. I've uploaded a few spiders to the Net, to keep an eye on the runners' financial activity; nothing big, just what I need so's I'll have a little advance notice if/when they make a suspicious purchase wherever, or they return to this fair city, or yada yada yada.

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"Hey, don't get me wrong — I don't like killin' people any more'n the next guy! But what can you do when some fuckin' dipshit asks f-"

— multiple attacks: threat levels high, extreme, extreme, lethal, extreme: 5, 5, 6, 6, 7 o'clock —

— the instincts upshifted me to a tempo of 40? Damn. Looks like my buddy Jocko is playing with very dangerous toys! A rather strong hammerblow to my back pushes me forward; I go with it, especially because there's a couple points on the back of my head that're feeling real hot just now. As I fall forward, the hot spots on my skull cool down a bit, and a second hammerblow glances off one shoulder.

Yes, Virginia, I got hit with supersonic bullets and military lasers. How did I survive to tell the tale, you ask? Tempo of 40, that's how. Upshifted that high, from my point of view the bullets were only carrying one-sixteenth of a percent of their 'full' load of kinetic energy; body armor did the rest. As for the energy weapons, my upshift cut their power — how much energy they deliver in a given amount of time — to only 1/40 normal, not to mention what it did to the photons' frequency. That kind of tweakage can really mess up a laser beam's innate capacity for destruction, you know? Still dangerous, but only if I'm dumb enough to stick around and wait for it to burn me. No, I can't outrun photons; then again, I don't have to be faster than light.

I just have to be faster than whatever's adjusting the laser's point-of-aim.

Moving right along: You damn betcha I'm prepped for beam weapons. Jocko may not be Jubatus, but I am. One vest pocket holds a few grams of light-sensitive dust; laser-safety goggles in another; a third pocket's got a matched set of six corner-cube reflectors. My left hand tosses clouds of powder into the air for the beams to reflect/refract off of, while I put the goggles on with my right... bingo! There's the beamlines — all three of the SOBs. Fine. Three corner-cubes, coming right up. I give each one a whole bunch of angular velocity so it twirls in place; that won't stop it from reflecting the laser exactly back the way it came, but it will reduce the amount of time any particular piece of reflector spends in direct contact with its beam.

The adrenaline rush is fading — I can feel blood vessels throbbing in my neck and scalp, not to mention the opening twinges of a killer migraine. That's what I get for overstraining my chronomorph power. I can't maintain a tempo of 40 for long, so I gotta make the most of each Time-shifted fractional second while I can.

Okay — the bullets. Only one source, thank Ares. They look to be moving at 40-45 MPH, which (after factoring in my tempo) means they are supersonic. Somewhere around Mach two-point-five, I think. The exact figure doesn't matter: I extract a pair of hand-sized metal plates from yet another vest pocket, align the plates at just the right angles, and thereby nudge the stream of bullets towards the trajectory I'd rather they follow. The headache's just begun, but I ain't got time to deal with the pain, so I ignore it. I give the room a quick scan; yep, the same four targets. Good. Hmmm... the first bullet just struck target 1, so I shift my 'bucklers' to redirect the stream to the next in line, then target 3, and finally Jocko himself. Bastard would ensure that he's not anywhere near the direct line of fire, damn it.

The lasers are gone now — quelle surprise, and I appreciate the corner-cubes' sacrifice — so it's time to deal with the gun-on-steroids. The cloud of drywall fragments tells me exactly where the bullets are coming from, so I leap straight at that point, twirling my hand-held shields before me in a paddle-wheel-type maneuver so's the projectiles get knocked out of my flight path into the floor. Each bullet-slap jars me up to the shoulders, in a rhythm that clashes against the pulsating throbs of my cerebral arteries. I hit the wall a little over the bullets' exit hole; no problem! I dig into the wall with the claws of two feet and one arm, and I use my free hand to ram a 'shield' right down the barrel of the damn gun.

Okay, it won't fit — it's too big — but you know what I mean, right? If I can clog up the barrel with its own bullets, I negate this particular threat. And the bullets keep coming; each new impact against the 'buckler' sends a serious shockwave up my arm and down my torso to rattle my internal organs. One... two... thr- Sn'f'fckngbtch!!!

Very bright light. Then pain makes a fast getaway as the world goes real dark...

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Lying down; I smell medicines and rubbing alcohol; right. I'm in a hospital. Private room. Kind of tired, but I don't feel much pain — apparently, I've been healing for a while? And... okay, I recognize that scent: It's Splendor. I see a light cast on her left elbow, neatly-applied dressings on her neck and the right side of her face, plus a glued-down patch over her right eye — and who knows what else she's hiding underneath her clothes. No cane; she must not've been hurt that badly. I downshift to talk to her...

"Hello, Splendor," I say. "I'm guessing the good guys won."

"Jubatus!" She seems a little surprised to hear me speak; not sure why. "Welcome to the land of the living. And yes, we did."

"Good. What happened after I fell asleep on the job?"

The lady makes with one of her oh-so-elegant veiled smiles. "You may have 'fell asleep', but I shan't complain. After all, a railgun did explode in your face..."

I roll my eyes. "Now tell me something I don't know."

"Of course," she says, nodding. "From what I could determine afterwards, I was outside the blast radius proper, but the shockwave knocked me senseless anyway. When I came to, I was naked except for the coils of duct tape Jocko had wrapped around me — and I knew it was him because he wasn't finished. I'm afraid he noticed I was awake before I'd quite recovered my wits; he took great pleasure in telling me exactly and precisely what he intended to do to me, now that you were too dead to protect me." Now she looks me in the eyes; her unblinking gaze makes it real clear (like it wasn't before?) what kind of critter that damn disease blended her with. I wait for the snake-lady to keep talking.

"And then he raped me." It's a flat, calm, statement of fact she's just made... "Which only proves that he was unaware of the full extent of what SCABS did to me."

My mind races — there's a few rumors about certain events in her past — I throw out an educated guess: "Projecting chronomorph?"

Splendor acknowledges my remark with a subtle inclination of her head. "Correct. I can only adjust other people's ages downward — but when sex is involved, the rejuvenative effect is permanent."

I ponder the possibilities... "So you rolled his odometer back. How far?"

"I fully intended to 'roll his odometer back', as you put it, to the point at which his zygote originally formed." I blink at that. Okay... someone remind me never to piss her off... "As it happened, I didn't need to go that far; at the moment of his death, I'd reduced him to a first-trimester premature birth."

"Damn..." I picture the scene in my mind. "And since he was raping you at the time..."

"Exactly. Jocko was too distracted to perceive any difficulties until after he was physically incapable of doing anything about it. Now it's your turn, Jubatus. What did you spend these past few days doing?"

So I talk. Snake-lady listens — and from her occasional questions and comments, it's pretty clear that my info is mostly just confirming what she's already learned from other sources.

Doesn't take me long to finish the story. Splendor stares off into the middle distance for a while; I take the opportunity to catch up on some much-needed sleep...