Trickster's Gold
by Doug Linger

1998


Part 5
Karma


A low Degree fox-morph answered the doorbell. "Hey, man. How's tricks?"

"Trix are for rabbit-morphs," I replied with a smile as I stepped inside. I took a few sniffs. "Will making burgers?"

"Yeah," Sam replied as he closed the door. "Hope you haven't eaten." I had, but I could handle more.

Dracula looked at me over his shoulder as I passed the living room. "Hi, Trickster! How's it going?" he asked.

"Not bad. Same old same old."

The mid-degree vampire bat morph nodded neutrally in acknowledgement and turned his attention back to the TV. Sam took his usual pre-game seat as I continued onwards to the kitchen, intending to snag a few cans of Coke and perhaps a burger to bring to the table. I didn't get much past the door before I heard a voice, dripping with sarcasm, say, "Well, I see God's gift to gambling has finally arrived."

"Yup, I have indeed," I replied glibly. Will had decided he didn't like me after my first game with them. In his mind, "new to my group" equals "inexperienced" and thus "should lose". He was irked to no end by how lucky I was at poker, and how much I won. Particularly from him. It was a win-win situation; he took pleasure from needling me, and I took pleasure in taking his money.

I turned towards the stove. "Hi, Wi--" I began, then froze in mid-word. There was another coyote in the kitchen.

I am always surprised when I meet another coyote. I really shouldn't be; coyotes are one of the more common predator morphs in North America, and are seen all over the place. But with all the other possible morphs, it's still a touch shocking to me to see one like myself. That the burgers had covered his scent didn't help any.

I let out a short growl before I could stop myself. I'd been playing poker here every Friday for two months now, more than enough time for me to begin considering it my own territory, despite the fact it was Will's house.

The other coyote's lips twitched, but he had a bit better reign on his instincts. Probably because he'd been expecting me. "Hi," he said, extending an only slightly furry hand to me. "I'm Clay. You know, Will's brother?"

His very human greeting was enough to help me get my wits together. "Trickster," I said simply as I shook his hand.

Will was grinning ear to ear. "Ah, that was great! It's sure nice to see you have a bit of the animal in you after all, Trickster."

I looked at him, nonplussed. "What?"

"When you told me about your reaction to other coyote-morphs, I just had to get Clay here. You should have seen yourself. It was beautiful to behold." The huge mid-degree ox-morph turned back to the burgers, still grinning. I thought I could hear a chuckle over the spatter of hot grease.

I could feel the tips of my ears get red. I hated getting blindsided by my instincts like that. I glared at Will's back for a moment, then turned back to his brother with a more friendly gaze.

We took the time to give each other the once-over. Clay was a lower degree than I -- but then, pretty much everyone is. He had the head and the fur, but little else, not even a tail. "So, you gonna be joining us, then?" I asked after a moment.

"Nah, I dislike gambling. I'll just watch the Mariners trash the Royals."

"Suit yourself."

A few minutes later the hamburgers were done. Will piled them on a plate -- with a separate plate for his veggieburgers -- and we gathered at the dining room table, where we played our weekly game.

I'd turned to poker shortly after settling in the Seattle area. Winning at the tracks had simply gotten too routine, and the people's more intense reactions at seeing me win were worth the much smaller income. At that point I was a millionaire a few times over anyway, so I could afford it. I was pointed at a group of serious poker player -- this group -- by a coworker a few weeks after I started working at Animorph Adventures.

The game went as it usually did. I used my Power sparingly, since it's difficult to use it at poker; unless I'm the dealer, all it can do is tell me who's bluffing and who's not, which helps me win more money but not usually more often. I didn't use it on every hand, of course, just as I didn't let myself win every race at the tracks.

After a few rounds of cards, burgers, and chatter (Will trying as often as possible to throw me off my game by pissing me off), Clay abandoned the television (perhaps because Kansas City was winning, for once). Once it was clear he wasn't going to join after all, we just kept playing and talking. Clay just watched us from the couch, occasionally adding a few words.

Eventually, as it inevitably does every week, the conversation turned to our jobs. "...And when the police came, there he was on the curb out front, cheerfully counting his money. As if robbing our bank is nothing anyone should get upset over," Will finished. We all had a good laugh as we finished the hand.

"So anything interesting happen to you this week, Trickster?" Dracula asked as Sam raked in his winnings. I gathered the cards for to shuffle for my turn to deal.

"You kidding? I work the front desk. Nothing interesting ever happens there." I took the time to toss my ante in, as did the others.

I hadn't always worked up front. For the first week or so, I'd been a guide like Samantha and the other four founders of AA, keeping watch over the customers and trying to keep them out of trouble. It was great. Being at least one form other than coyote per day, often six or more, was incredibly fun. I'd been various degrees -- and even genders, a few times -- of fox, porcupine, horse, bull, goat, dolphin, and others. My favorites, though, like most customers', were the dino-morphs.

Unfortunately, on my sixth day of being a guide, some guy in golden eagle form just would not listen to advice about not barnstorming a train tunnel. Unlike the other guides, I was unable to threaten to cut short his Adventure by changing him back to himself early, since I had no shapechanging Powers at all. Without that threat, he saw no reason to listen. The only reason he's still alive is because I replayed a few minutes and tackled him in midair. Luckily the guy wasn't suing. These days he might even have won. But that was the last time I was a guide.

Since then I've stayed in the store while on the job. And while still interesting at times, it was nowhere near as much fun. And it's usually boring as hell.

"Ah, but what about the back rooms?" Drac asked, and winked.

"Nah, nothing back there either." I continued to shuffle. Shuk-k-k-t.

"Not even with Samantha?" Will said, looking at me knowingly.

"No, 'Mantha and I prefer more comfortable places." I offered the cards to Drac, who cut the deck.

"Well," Will said, casually sipping his beer, "who said anything about Samantha and you?"

All movement stopped. "One chance to take that back," I snarled at him.

"What?" Will spread his massive hooflike hands in a display of innocence. "All I'm saying is--"

"I heard you," I cut him off. Will smiled, confident my anger would throw me off my game for a round or two. Oh, no. I'm not off my game, I thought. I'm focused. You are going to lose. I started to deal. "No limit, nothing wild," I growled.

"Will, I think that was a bit much," Clay spoke up.

Will shrugged, as he gathered his cards. "We'll see." Then he smiled at me. "I might know for certain, though. Perso--"

"Shut up, Will," Dracula said tersely.

The rest of the hand was spent in silence, other than what was needed for betting. Will was wagering heavily; he obviously had a good hand. Sam folded early, and Dracula folded shortly thereafter. I only had a pair of twos, but I gained a pair of aces and a third two from the exchange.

Full house. Not bad, not bad at all.

I stayed in a while longer, until it was evident that Will was not going to give in. "Fold," I sighed. "Out of curiosity, let me see your hand, Will."

"You're not supposed to do that," Clay said pointedly, looking hard at his brother. Will was too busy pulling in his winnings to pay attention.

"You didn't object to the other two times tonight we did it," I said to him.

"Yeah, but..."

"No problem. Here," Will smirked. He made a big show of putting his cards down, one by one. Ten. Jack. Queen. King. Ace. All spades.

"Woah..." We all breathed. The legendary royal flush.

Will began to pull in the pot, which had made it to seven or eight hundred dollars or so. Underneath his scent of smugness he smelled relieved; he hadn't been doing well tonight, and had already lost a grand or two.

We play serious poker.

Damn nice hand. But I'm afraid your lucky streak is nipped in the bud. I concentrated briefly, and turned my mental dial...

[Blink]

"--aying is that Saman--"

"Right," I said, interrupting Will for the second time on the same sentence. Will smiled again. I started the deal. "No limit." I paused, as if considering. "Deuces wild."

"Will, I think that was a bit much," Clay spoke up. Was it my imagination, or was he a bit more insistent this time around?

Again, Will shrugged, as he gathered his cards. "We'll see." Then he smiled at me. "I might know for certain, though. Perso--"

"Shut up, Will."

"I really think you should apologize, Will." I blinked and looked at Clay. He didn't say that last time... What changed? Clay turned and looked at me worriedly.

"Sorry, Trickster." Will's voice was dripping wish sarcasm. I snorted.

The hand went much the same as before. Will bet heavily from the start, and once again Sam and Dracula folded early on. I got my full house again -- apparently nobody else had that fourth two last time, or it might have changed things I didn't want changed. With the new wilds, though, I bet a lot heavier than before.

"See your two hundred," I said, putting in the bills. Will is going to remember this hand for a long time. "And raise you another." I tossed in another two Franklins. The pile of cash in the center probably had a few thousand dollars in it.

Clay came over to the table, smelling concerned at his brother's putting so much in the pot. I was surprised, but I wasn't worried. He was sitting behind Sam, and couldn't see any active hands from there.

"I'll see your two hundred." Will was looking at the pile with wide eyes. He was anticipating it in his corner already. He licked his sizable lips. "And raise you five."

My ears twitched. Nobody had ever bet five hundred at once for a game here. This was going to be a sizable haul for me. Will obviously thought the same thing. "I see your five, and raise you five."

Will was eyeing the pile. "I see your five..."

"Will." Clay's voice cut the tension between us. "Think about it. Please."

"Trust me, Clay. And I'll raise you another five. Grand." He counted out fifty hundred-dollar bills and placed them in the center. He only had a few bills left in his pile.

"Um." I goggled. We play some serious poker, but this was serious poker. We bring more to the table than that -- barely -- but we've never come close to shooting any of our wads.

"Too high for you?" Will's voice was mocking. "Feel like folding yet?"

"No and no. I'm rather surprised is all." I thought for a moment, then counted out fifty hundreds as well. I took a look at my pile. I hadn't brought enough to raise it the same amount, as I had been doing. I thought about just pushing my pile into the center, like in the movies. But I wanted to see how high Will was willing to go -- he had a great hand, after all -- and doing so typically indicated the end of betting.

I pulled out my checkbook and started writing. "I see your five grand... and raise..." I could suddenly smell a fresh burst of astonishment of everyone. "Oh hell. Can't ruin a trend. Another five." I tossed the ten-thousand dollar check into the center. "And I'm calling if you don't, next time."

"This is insane," Clay declared. "Will, please stop. You're going to regret this, I know it."

Will shook his head as he pulled out his checkbook. "Uh uh. Impossible. I see your five and raise twenty." He tossed in his check with a flourish. "Match or fold, Tricks, match or fold."

I shook my head as I wrote another check. Makes sense. I did say that his would be the last round. And he naturally assumes he'll win... how much? Thirty grand, give or take. Wow. I tossed the check into the pot.

"There you go. I call. Show 'em."

Will grinned. He smelled very confident and very happy. He put his cards down the same way he had last time. They were the same as well.

Everyone was silent. A royal flush. Everyone looked to see what my reaction would be. I smiled back, as best as I could. My tail was certainly wagging away.

I didn't bother with Will's theatrics. I just laid my hand on the table. Two aces, three wild deuces. Five of a kind.

Unbeatable.

"Oh. My. God." I had no idea who said that. Will looked like he'd been shot. His mouth was open, and he was making slight gasping sounds.

I tore up the two checks made out to Will for ten- and twenty-thousand dollars, then started putting the cash into neat stacks. Sam and Dracula started to talk rapidly, interrupting each other and occasionally themselves. "Woah..." "Did you see th--" "I've never seen a round li--"

"Aaaaaargh!" Will's scream of frustration interrupted everything. He leapt from his seat and stormed out of the room, waving his arms and shouting angrily. "Take it! Damn you, take it for all I care! Aargh!" The rest was incoherent cursing and yelling. We could hear the front door open and slam shut.

"I guess tonight's gaming is over," I said into the silence.

"I guess so." Clay's glare at me was as cold as his voice.

Sam was looking out the window, presumably at the retreating ox-morph. "You think he'll be back?"

"I assume so," Dracula answered. "It's his house."

"I think," Clay said to me, "you'd better go."

"Yeah, maybe you're right. I'll see you next week, maybe."

Sam and Drac nodded slowly. "Depending on Will, of course," Dracula noted. "As I said, it is his house."

I was humming as I left.

It was a nice night. The spring rains were long gone, and now only Samantha would only have to scrunch her nose on rare occasion at the dreaded Wet Fur Smell.

We were walking back from Edderman's, one of the best restaurants in the Seattle area. Their lobster was as delicious as it was huge. I'd acceded to a small celebration of my birthday, consisting of a good dinner and a single gift. Small parties are more to my liking. Even if the waiters do sing that damnable embarrassing song at our table.

"I still can't believe you did this yourself!" I said to her as we walked off our dinners on the city streets. Her present had been a fairly large portrait of me that she'd drawn in colored pencil. I was looking at it as I avoided the occasional pedestrian, a trick I learned in high school so I could read books in the halls as I went between classes.

"What did you think? That I majored in Turning People into Animals in college?" Samantha replied from my side.

"What, they didn't offer that at your school? For shame!" I said with a grin.

"'Fraid not. I majored in art. And so, here it is. First thing I've drawn since I got the idea for AA."

"Well, I love it. I've never had a portrait drawn for me before. Pictures yeah, my dad's a photographer. But not drawn." I gave her a quick kiss. "This is great. Thanks a lot."

"Hello, Trickster. Fancy meeting you here," came a familiar voice out of nowhere. It didn't sound in the least surprised.

"Hi, Will!" I said even as I turned. "What brings you here? Doing some late shopping?"

The big ox shook his head. "No, just wandering. And I see you, and say, to myself, 'Why don't I have a little chat with the little bastard?' And here I am."

Will wasn't acting anywhere near as aggressive as he smelled. It was making me nervous. "What's on your mind?" I asked, acting as calmly as I could.

"I want my money back," was the immediate response.

"Trickster won that money fair and square," Samantha said. I'd told her of last week's events, minus the use of my Powers, of course. There'd been little reason not to, especially since she could as easily have found out via one of the people at work. An early lesson I'd learned in lying is not to tell falsehoods that can easily be uncovered as such.

Will looked at Samantha. "Fair and square," he snorted derisively. Then he returned his gaze to me. "I want my money."

Want all you want, big dumb... well, ox, actually, I thought at him. There was no way in hell I was going to give that money back, after what he'd said. "It's not your money any more, Will. I won it. I'm keeping it."

I didn't anticipate what happened next. Will shot a fist straight into my belly. "Oooof..." was the extent of my wit as I sagged to my side on the ground. With the strength such high degree bovids have, I was lucky something didn't rupture.

"You leave him alone!" Samantha yelled, imposing herself between us. "You leave now before I turn you into a fucking rat!"

Will bellowed in anger that bordered on animalistic. He swung his arms and literally swept Samantha aside. I don't think she was even touching the ground when she hit the brick side of a building with a meaty smack.

"This fucking rat cheated me!" he screamed at her limp form.

Still breathless, I stared at Samantha. If she's hurt... I'll kill him. I'll kill him! Then I blinked. Waitasec, why need she be hurt? I'd been so busy trying to fend off a major confrontation, then trying to breathe again (Both failed attempts, came the unbidden thought.), that I'd neglected my Power. I grinned as I reached for the dial.

Will suddenly whirled and gave me a savage kick in the ribs. "You cheated, you bastard!" Another kick. "What did you think, I wouldn't find out?" Another kick, and I felt something snap inside. I instinctively curled into a fetal position to protect myself.

The huge ox morph was hitting me so hard and often that it was impossible to concentrate enough to replay. It does take a bit of concentration, or at least focus, to use my Power, but not much. Any distractions, like crowd noise, had previously been far too small to interfere.

Being beaten to death is a mighty big distraction, though.

Will crouched down over me. "Clay's a telepath, you ever think about that?" he said softly. "He can't broadcast his thoughts, only listen to others'."

I cursed to myself. This was the second time telepaths had ruined my fun. I used the pause in the beating to try once again to Replay. But by chance or design the ox chose that moment to hit me again. Unable to get at my stomach, he instead drove an overhead blow to my side, as if pounding a nail in with a hammer. But the hammer was his rock hard hoof-hand, and the nail another newly broken rib. I groaned in agony.

"And so I lost thirty-five thousand to you!" he said, once again at a bellow. He punctuated that statement with another blow. Apparently through with hitting my body, he chose to aim at my head, and I was in no condition to avoid it. His heavy fist slammed into my temple like a mace. My head bounced painfully against the sidewalk, making the hit effectively count double.

Will was still shouting, but the world had gone blurry and I couldn't concentrate enough to figure out what he was saying. When I managed to get my eyes to focus a few moments later, they rested on my birthday present. The glass was shattered from the frame, which was bent on one side. 'Sfunny, I thought, even my thoughts slurred. I don't even remember dropping it...

Darkness descended like a sledgehammer with the next blow.

Awareness returned more reluctantly than it left. One by one my senses came back. First came sounds. There weren't many; some distant traffic, along with some voices, and once the sound of claws on tile walking nearby. Everything was oddly distant, though.

Next came my sense of smell. I could smell myself, of course, and I could also detect that numerous strangers had been in the room. But overlaying all those were scents of ammonia and other disinfectants. It probably helped me wake faster, though; even in my semiconscious state, the stuff was irritating. Having a canine nose could be nasty, at times.

Feeling came gradually, for which I was rather thankful. It started as a dull ache everywhere above the waist, and gradually grew into more sharp pains. They were worst in my chest and head, and were amplified and multiplied whenever I shifted my body at all. I quickly stopped fidgeting; the ache from lying on my tail was much easier to take.

At this point I opened my eyes. The room was mostly dark, but that didn't matter; coyotes are adept at seeing in little light. Something seemed wrong with my eyesight, though. I took a look around the unfamiliar room, trying to get my bearings. The place was pretty spartan, with only two straight-backed chairs for furniture. The wall to my left was mostly window; outside I could see the yellow glow of city lights. In an upper corner a television was bolted to the wall. I was lying in a bed, and for some reason it had railings. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a bottle of clear liquid suspended above me, with a tube trailing downwards. I couldn't tell where; when I moved my head to follow it the pain was too intense.

It was only then that my mind started working again, and everything clicked into place. I was in a hospital. The tube and bottle was an IV, probably going to my arm. The chairs were for any visitors.

I wonder why I'm not dead, I mused. Well, easy way to find out... I reached with my right hand for the nurse call button and pressed it a few times. It took two tries, due to the drugs I was no doubt filled with.

While I waited for someone to answer I took stock of my body. My head hurt something terrible -- the term "splitting headache" might be literal in my case -- and I realized that my vision was odd because I was only seeing with my right eye; the left was swollen shut. The upper right area of my head felt distantly like ants were crawling on it, biting. My left arm was probably broken; at least there was a cast around most of it. Several ribs, all on the left, ached bitingly, and I felt the pressure of bandages that indicated that they too were broken. My right side was almost uninjured; I'd fallen on that side, and so much of the damage was on my left.

A stream of light entered the room as a nurse opened the door. I winced as my eyes were momentarily overloaded, and again as she turned on the light. "Ah, you're awake. I'll get the doctor." Then she was gone. I hadn't even had time to see what she was a morph of.

It was only a few minutes before someone else came in. He was a mid-degree avian of some kind, a crane or a cormorant or something similar. I could tell my the enormously long beak. "Hello, ah, Trickster," he said, reading from my chart. "How are we feeling today?"

"I dunno about you, but I feel like shit," I said. Something was wrong with my mouth, I realized as I spoke. Running a tongue along the inside, I discovered that a few teeth were missing. And his voice was still muffled, even though I knew my ears were away from the pillow. Must be covered by bandages, I reasoned.

"I'm not surprised," the avian said. "You were beaten up pretty good."

I declined to comment on the contradiction he'd just said. "What's the damage?"

Dr. Jones -- I learned his name from his nametag, since he never did introduce himself -- glanced at the sheets he held. "Hm, well, you have multiple broken bones: three ribs broken, two cracked...." He continued to run down a litany of injuries. I only paid half an ear; the drugs made it hard to concentrate for too long on any one thing. Most of what he was saying I had already figured out, anyway.

Then he said something that made me pay attention. "What was that?"

He looked at me a bit oddly, not unlike a teacher catching a student looking out the window. "I'd said that your head was lacerated a bit by the gravel on the sidewalk. Your right ear is pretty badly torn up." That explained the ants, then, as well as the reduced sound.

"To continue then..." he looked at me harshly, obviously annoyed that I'd interrupted his list.

"Yes?" I had to keep from glaring, myself. You really need to work on your bedside manner, Doc.

"Scans showed that two of the bones in your left ear were shattered by the hits you received. I'm afraid you're going to be deaf in that ear, permanently." My eyes -- well, eye -- went wide. I'd never really considered that there would be permanent damage. The doctor didn't miss a beat, though. "There were no signs of brain damage, although you did have a minor subdural hematoma, from the brain's dura mater covering. That's pooling of blood by the brain. It's why you were unconscious for as long as you were. We'll take another scan later to see how that's clearing up."

I'd already figured that I wasn't within replay time of the fight. There had to be time for whoever found me to find me, for the ambulance, the scans. I'd just figured it was midnight, though, maybe early morning. The phrase "as long as you were" forced me to reconsider. "How long have I been out?"

Dr. Jones evidently was expecting this one, because he didn't look or smell upset this time. "A little under a day. It's Thursday night."

He said a few more things, but the pain relievers were coming on strong again, and I was trying to think. I didn't listen to anything else he said, and after a minute or two of silence, he left.

A day. A day. I can't replay that far yet! Over time, I'd been able to stretch my Power, and could now replay quite a bit more than the ten minutes I could a year ago. It was like a muscle: use it enough, and it gets stronger. But a day was still much, much too far back. I sighed; it looked like I was stuck with being half-deaf.

I don't know how long I sat there thinking over such things, over and over replaying the fight in my mind. Any attempts I'd made to try to keep track of time were confounded by drugs, and there weren't any clocks in the room that I could see. I'm reasonably certain that I drifted in and out of consciousness a few times. Eventually I went out and stayed out.

Breakfast had been horrible. I'd had hospital food once before that I can recall and it had been passable, but I'd been human, then. Management may offer diets specific to your species now, if you needed that, but apparently they hadn't seen a need to change the quality of the food much. Any improvement they had made was more than taken up by the increased sensitivity of certain senses. And they say taste is mostly dependent on smell...

Two men entered my room, passing the orangutan nurse as she left with my dishes. One was a mid degree dolphin or porpoise. He looked to be just this side of needing to be immersed full time, but he must still need a portable spritzer, as his gray skin was wet with moisture. The other was a mid degree rat. He reminded for an instant of Leo back in Kansas, but then the association faded; this one was shorter and a more typical brown color.

"Mister Trickster? I'm Detective Kemmer," began the rat morph, and then indicated his companion with a glance. "And this is Detective Nagato. Do you have a few minutes?"

I made a show of looking around to room, remembering a touch too late the pain that moving my head so much would induce. "I seem to have the time," I remarked dryly through my wince.

"I suppose you do." As Detective Kemmer talked, his partner took a small recorder out of a pouch like that I usually wore, along with pen and pad to note anything especially relevant. "Now, could you tell me what happened Wednesday night?"

With occasional inturruptions from Detectective Kemmer for questions, I began to give my story of what happened, starting with the end of dinner. When I was done, Nagato spoke up for the first time. "You say Mr. Marshall was shouting about your cheating at a card game. Did you cheat?" He looked at me closely when he asked that.

"Of course not." I tried my best not to give anything away through scent or betraying ear movements. The rodent's nose twitched, but he stayed silent.

"Hm. Mr. Marshall lost some thirty-five thousand dollars, a lot from his son's college account, you know."

"From the college account?" I was surprised. Will had always portrayed himself as well-off. If he'd had to duck into his kid's accounts then he wasn't as prosperous as he'd led us to believe.

Now the first detective spoke again: "Yeah. He couldn't afford all that, and had to dip into his son's account. Then he lost... he pretty much ruined himself. It's no surprise he blamed you." The words were accepting, and he even had the tone right. But something told me he wasn't buying the idea that it was that simple.

I realized dimly that he was prodding me hoping to make me do something to show that I did indeed cheat. Not unlike the wolf at the casino, way back when. They'd probably talked to Clay. Luckily, I was in too much of a shock to say anything incriminating. Indeed, I said nothing in response.

My thoughts, however, they would not keep still. I ruined him. His son... what's his name? Jason. He won't go to college, or not a good one anyway. Will's going to jail. His family... not just Will, but his entire family is in trouble of various sorts over this.

It hadn't even been on purpose...

The detectives apparently took my silence as a sign that the interview was over, as the dolphin was putting his tools away. I wasn't done quite yet, though. Telling the tale had raised a few questions of my own in my mind. Foremost among them was where Samantha was; I hadn't been cogitative enough last night to even wonder.

"Aah..." Detective Kemmer hesitated before the door when I asked. Immediately a hand was clutching my innards. "When the police came on the scene, Mr. Marshall was still beating you. Ms. Higgins, though..." Another hesitation, and the hand squeezed tight.

"Her skull was caved in when she was thrown into the wall. She was dead when we arrived." The hand was a claw, twisting my intestine, tearing away at them. "I'm sorry."

I just lay there in shock for a time, long after they left. "Samantha..." I said softy into the silence of my hospital room. The mere idea of her death numbed my mind. The fact of it numbed my entire body. I felt nothing, no physical sensation, even when I tried. Only sorrow.

How the hell could she die? She hadn't been pushed that hard, had she? Surely Will would rather have killed me, not 'Mantha... Tears began to well up as what had happened began to truly seep through my shock. A life alone, without Samantha... I barely knew her three months, and the concept was already too horrible to consider.

"Why?" I wailed aloud. Why did she die? It couldn't have been anything more than a freak accident; she should have escaped with nothing more than a concussion! It's not fair! I pounded the bedsheets with both arms, my left sending knives of terrible pain to and past my shoulder. I barely noticed. If there had been anything nearby, I'd have thrown it, likely at the TV. She shouldn't have died!

I was suddenly reminded of a bumper sticker I'd seen: "Fate Sucks." Well, Fate can blow it out my ass. I'd become too angry to think very clearly. 'Mantha, my first love, was dead, and I could save her, if I could just manage to stretch my Power a bit. I couldn't even go back a day, much less two. But my range had increased naturally from use; other than once or twice early on, I'd never tried to go back further than I thought I could. Maybe if I pushed it as hard as I could, I could manage it.

Part of my mind still shouting incoherently at Fate, I called up the mental dial. As always it appeared, floating serenely in sea of untroubled darkness that was as the exact opposite to the boiling red and purple of my emotions. I reached out and grabbed it, turning it viscously as far back as it would go. Instead of letting go, though, and letting the replay take effect, I held on, kept the pressure up, trying to turn the dial still further. It was similar to turning a doorknob until the latch was released entirely, and then continuing to try to turn it. The dial resisted like the knob, as if there was a stopper built in.

But rage apparently helps not only physical muscles go beyond their means, but mental ones as well. With a snap that was as much a figment of my mind as the dial itself, but no less real for it, the dial was suddenly turning freely in my hand. I knew immediately, in my bones, that I could replay as much as I wanted. More, even. I had the gut feeling I could go back to before Change Day -- over a year back -- were I of a mind to do so. But what would be the point? I only needed two days to save Samantha's life.

I turned it in my mental hand a few times; I wasn't sure how far that would send me. My ability to instinctively know how far I'd replay, previously so acute, had apparently been dulled by the time limit vanishing. But I wanted to make sure I went back far enough. I needed to make sure. There wouldn't be a third time through.

I let go, allowing the replay to take effect.

[Bli-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ink]

Anyone who's ever seen "The Time Machine" will have some idea of what I went through in the next few subjective seconds. Still pictures flashed in front of my eyes, each given just enough time to be registered to my brain, or even less. I could make out scenes in intervals; apparently such a replay is impossible to take in one go, much like a commuter plane cannot go around the world without a few refueling stops. It was immediate visual overload. In the space of a second, I saw the hospital room jerk around through various angles as my head was in slightly different positions each time, then a period of blackness that consisted of my unconsciousness. It was hard to tell after that where in time I was; there were a few flashes of darkness as I viewed myself at a times I was asleep, and occasionally I'd recognize something, but then it would be gone before I could place it exactly.

The effect was disturbing. Every other replay had been instantaneous, similar to walking through a doorway. This was like getting pushed down a waterslide at a theme park; I couldn't control it very well, and I never knew when to expect the pool of water at the end.

But suddenly it was there. The strobing of images ceased, and I was in reality again.

I was standing behind the Animorph Adventures desk, with a low-mid degree cat woman in front. Between us was a computer half-filled with insurance information. I vaguely remembered her; she'd wanted to become a high degree flighted eagle morph for a day to experience flight. It was a pretty common request.

I had only a moment to take all that in before the usual aftereffects of replaying hit me. It felt like a freight train -- not in speed, but weight, as if I'd been holding one aloft for a month. I had replayed far, far in excess of my previous maximum, and that left me exhausted.

"Are you all right?" the woman said. It sounded odd, as if from a bad speaker.

I suddenly collapsed in a heap where I stood, too tired to stand. I tried to tell her something, anything, but even that was too much effort. I heard her shouting, "Somebody call an--"

Blackness.

Waking up was much faster this time. One second I was in dreamland, the next I was lying there wide-eyed.

I lay there for a moment, trying to reorient myself. It was immediately apparent that I was back in the hospital. The room looked much the same as the last one; the only difference was the view outside the window. If it weren't for that, I'd say it was the exaqct same room I had left only a minute ago.

My tail ached from sitting on it for lord knows how long. Other than that, however, the only thing I could complain about was exhaustion. There was no deafness, no broken bones or cuts. When I shifted to a position off my tail, there were no pains to hinder me. It felt wonderful.

Then I heard something that made me forget all about my tail. "Triskster?" She was on one of the chairs against the wall, I saw, reading. The book -- Faulkner, I noticed absently -- was dropped to the floor, forgotten, as she rushed to the bed. "Oh my God, you're awake!"

"You're alive," I said weakly behind a huge smile.

Her laugh came out choked. "I'm alive? Oh, 'Ster... You've been in a coma for a week! I was beginning to think..." She sniffed and turned away, unable to complete the thought.

"A week..." It was a disturbing amount of time.

Before I could ask exactly what day it was, though, she rose and moved towards the door. "I'd better get the doctor in here," she said.

I put a claw on her arm before she could go too far. "No... this... wait a minute."

"But... your coma! You just--"

I shook my head. "I'm fine, really."

She looked at me doubtfully. "And just how would you know that?"

I gulped. In some ways the decision had been a hard one. Not telling had become a kind of habit. But I loved her, and this was not something I wanted to keep from her forever even if I thought I could manage it. And considering what I had done with it, the harm it had done, I didn't think I could ever use it that way again.

It was time to come clean. No more secrets.

No more cheating.

"You remember how I said I had no Powers?" I began.

Epilogue

She was upset, of course. More than a bit. My cheating at the races was bad enough, but what I did to will and Dracula and Sam bordered on evil. That I had lied to her didn't exactly help.

I'm honestly not sure why she didn't just walk disgustedly out of the room and my life. I can guess, but that's all it'd be. It's a subject I'm loathe to broach with her.

In the end I promised her never to Replay for personal gain again. I didn't want another Will Marshall on my conscience, much less another Samantha Higgins. I also promised to give the money I had stolen back. This was a much harder promise to make; I have always had a sort of pride in needing no-one, and this would make me a pauper again. I'd have to rely on Samantha, or get a job. More likely both. But there can be no renewal without punishment, no punishment without sacrifice. I made restitution to the poker gang for approximately what I had taken -- I had never kept exact track of my "earnings" -- and dropped out, much to their surprise and Will's delight. The rest I gave to charity -- the idea of giving to the race tracks seemed ludicrous even to Samantha. I did it all with a grimace, for it was painful, but willingly. I had to.

I quit my job at Animorph Adventures. It was too damn boring. I eventually found a job at one of the charities I'd donated to, the Mindlost Fund. It's a group dedicated to getting all the people who had been overtaken by their instincts back to reality -- such as it was, these days. It's based way down in La Jolla, but I was able to stay in Seatlle and work by vid, since my job mostly was administrative. It honestly isn't much less boring that the desk at AA, and the pay ins't that great, but it still feels a lot better.

Occasionally, I take trips down to the San Diego area for important business meetings at the Mindlost main offices. Samantha is considering opening a branch down in the area so we could live there full-time. She already has three people with Cloning lined up to work there.

I proposed to Samantha last week. The wedding is set for February.

Before I left the hospital, they did a full examination. The closest thing to a prognosis they could offer was a stroke, except there had been no burst blood vessel. The tissue in a small section of my brain had simply died. They said it was a little-used area, though, so there should be equally little effect. So far as they could determine, there was none at all. With no lasting effects, I was prescribed only a few follow-up visits for checkups.

There were, however, some lasting effects that I never told the hospital. My Power was gone, burnt out. Dead. Trying to Replay only brought on fierce headaches. I soon stopped trying.

I don't miss it a bit.



WoC ArchiveTop PageDoug's Fiction
 Part 4: Home Is Where the Head Is