Nohar Rajasthan stood still, the stand of pines giving him partial cover from the clearing about thirty meters away. His breathing was slow and deep despite the adrenaline that was tightening his perception. He could smell the musk of the deer in the clearing, and from the way the deer stood— taut, alert— Nohar could tell that the animal was beginning to smell a predator in the vicinity.
The bewildered animal had not yet figured out where the smell was coming from. Nohar moved deliberately so that when it knew, the knowledge would be too late to help it.
The wind was in Nohar’s face, bringing a light dust of February snow to his fur. He could feel his age in his joints as he raised the bow to be level with his shoulder. His arm was steady despite the ache that shot through his right knee and his left shoulder.
He could feel his pulse, as his aging metabolism sensed the proximity of combat, and blood. He sighted through the bow, focusing on the unmoving buck. The scene through the eyepiece had the contrast artificially heightened to compensate for his poor day vision. Nohar placed the cross-hairs over a vital spot, and drew back on the bow. A small digital readout in the corner of the eyepiece started reading off the kilos of tension he put on the composite bowstring.
The small green numbers had just crossed three-hundred when the buck moved. The movement snapped the animal into focus and Nohar loosed the arrow slightly early.
The shaft plunged deep into the front of the buck’s chest. The impact dropped it to its knees and nearly knocked it over. It let out a bellow and struggled to its feet. The wind carried the ferric scent of blood to Nohar.
The smell lit up his nerves like a high-tension wire. The universe shrank down to just him, his prey, and the thirty meters between them. The buck struggled to run, even with its mortal injury. Nohar dropped the bow and sprang after the animal.
Nohar’s adrenaline-fueled attack closed with the buck before it had reached the edge of the clearing. Like his genetic ancestors, he attacked the neck. He sank his fangs into the soft flesh of the throat, his powerful arms— claws fully extended— crushed the vertebrae, and his one fully-functional leg kicked at the buck’s abdomen, slicing it open from sternum to groin.
It was dead in less than a minute.
When the buck ceased moving, Nohar rolled off of it exhausted. He lay next to the body, sucking in breath after burning breath while snow swirled in the pines above him.
In every part of his body, he felt his age. His fifteen-year old knee injury flared as if he’d just recently torn apart every tendon and ligament. His hands ached with arthritis as the claws slowly tried to retract. The small of his back ached, as if someone was trying to knee him in the spine, right above his tail.
Beneath him, pine-needles itched, and were sticking to the blood in his fur.
Over and over, in his mind ran the words, too old, way too old.
When he’d retired to the woods, escaping human and morey alike, hunting wasn’t a difficulty. Back then, he’d even occasionally hunted without a bow.
Now, with the bow he could barely manage it. His forty-year old body was telling him that his days as a hunter were numbered. Soon he was either going to have to go into town for his food supply, or violate the local firearms restrictions.
Doing either was too much like admitting defeat. As far as he was concerned, self-sufficiency was all he had going for him. Someone whose genetic code was engineered for combat, and whose ancestors included Siberian and Bengal Tigers, should certainly be able to feed himself.
Nohar winced as the claws in his hands finally retracted. It’d be easier if the gene-techs didn’t always fuck up the hands.
Nohar’s bloody confrontation had lasted less than two minutes, but he lay next to his kill for nearly half an hour. Between that, and the several hours he’d spent laying in wait, it was late afternoon before he tied up the body and started carrying it home.
A year ago he would have hung the meat out in a tree and gone for another kill. Today though, he felt all of his forty years. Today, he would just return to his cabin, wash up, and sleep.
The mountain snow stopped as he made his way through the pine forest toward the clearing where his cabin was. As the trees thinned, Nohar could catch occasional glimpses of where the Serria Nevadas merged with the sky. His eyes weren’t enough to resolve details on the neighbor mountains, but they were a constant, a cloud-bank that never moved.
He was so swamped in the aroma of musk, blood, and his own exertion that he was almost in sight of his cabin before he smelled the car. The scent drew him up short. There was strict regulation of vehicles this close to the park, especially in the homestead areas.
Nohar stopped at the base of a bluff that was between him and the cabin. He could smell a human now, which meant that being covered in blood and stinking to high heaven might not have betrayed his presence to the stranger.
Nohar knew it was a stranger, no one he had ever met before. That meant that it was unlikely that it was a ranger. He knew all of the humans that worked the forest around here.
Nohar had been avoiding people for so long that he seriously considered simply waiting out his visitor. Eventually the pink would leave and he could go back to his life. When the thought made itself concrete, Nohar felt disgusted with himself.
He would deal with the stranger, whoever it was.
He tossed the buck over the bluff, ahead of him. He pulled himself up after it. His shoulder protested, but he swallowed his discomfort. He didn’t know who was watching, but there was no reason for him to advertise how difficult this day felt.
The front of Nohar’s cabin angled toward the bluff, and his visitor had been sitting on the cinder-blocks that made the makeshift front steps. He stood up as Nohar cleared the bluff, took a step forward, and stopped.
The guy got high marks for not shying away. Nohar was old, but he still towered over the man, 260 centimeters worth, and right now his fur was matted with blood. Nohar smiled, but politely, without showing any teeth. “Can I help you?” He asked.
The man did not belong in the woods. He wore a black suit and tie, an his vehicle was a silver Jaguar aircar. The man belonged at a board meeting somewhere. In contrast, Nohar’s appearance stopped just short of feral— and then only because of the bow and utility belt he wore.
“Nohar Rajasthan?” The man asked.
“You are?” Nohar asked, picking up his kill. Now that he saw the man, he didn’t feel any threat from him. He’d smelled hostility off of a lot of pinks, he wasn’t getting any from this man. If anything, Nohar smelled fear— which made sense considering the situation. Precious few pinks ventured into the homestead areas.
As Nohar carried his kill to the back of the cabin, his visitor followed at a discrete distance. “My name’s Charles Royd, I’m a lawyer from Los Angeles.”
Nohar made a noise halfway between a snort and a growl. He didn’t like lawyers, and he liked Los Angeles even less. It had been nearly a decade since the National Guard razed almost all the moreau neighborhoods in LA, Nohar had been there when it happened. Ten years was not enough time to wash the taste out of his mouth.
“It’s been difficult finding you—”
Nohar nodded. “That’s intentional.” He hung his kill up on an iron hook attached to the back wall of the cabin.
“I would like to talk with you.”
“Come inside then.”
Nohar’s cabin was a ancient building made of rough local wood. There was no electricity, and water came from a rusty hand-pump in the corner. The furniture was limited to a bed, a table, a few rough chairs big enough to support Nohar’s 300 kilos, and a foot-locker. He hung his bow up on a peg in the wall and began pumping water into a plastic bucket.
As the handle made screeching protests, Nohar said, “So what does an LA lawyer want with me?”
There was a hesitation in the lawyer’s voice as he looked around the sparse room. Nohar didn’t prod the man, he simply finished topping off the bucket. Then he brought out a scrub-brush and began attacking the blood matted in his fur of his leg. Within a few moments the water had turned the color of rust.
“You are Nohar Rajasthan, the private investigator. You do missing person’s work.”
From the man’s expression, and his confused smell, Nohar could tell that he was having trouble reconciling the rustic surroundings with the moreau he was looking for.
Nohar scrubbed his legs and said, “No.”
For a moment he thought to leave it like that and let the crestfallen lawyer leave disappointed. But Nohar knew if he did that, the man would be back. “Once, but not any more. I’m retired.”
The man stepped forward and extended his hand. “I represent a client who wishes to hire you.”
Nohar looked from the hand to the man’s face, then back again. He didn’t take it. He returned to grooming the blood off of his other leg. “I’m retired.”
After a moment, the lawyer dropped his hand and said. “Hear me out, my client was adamant that I hire you. I can offer fifty-thousand for this job in advance.”
Nohar looked up at the man with narrowed eyes. He was starting to distrust him. Pinks bearing him large sums of money usually meant trouble. The last time anyone offered him near that amount, he’d been beaten, shot, had his best friend killed, and was eventually driven out of his home town.
“I don’t handle human cases.”
“This isn’t a human case. I am just an intermediary. My client desperately wants this person found.” He took a small folder from his pocket and removed a high res picture of a feline moreau. “His name is Manuel. He disappeared from his job a week and a half ago.” He placed the picture on the rough-hewn table. The picture was obviously from some state or federal ID. Manuel didn’t look as if he liked having his picture taken. Nohar didn’t reach for the picture, but he did examine the face. Broad nose, broader than Nohar’s in proportion to the face, the fur was glossy black for the most part, but there were bands of russet in it, sculpting the outlines of a snarl that didn’t quite show teeth. The ears were laid back so Nohar couldn’t make out any markings.
“Species?” Nohar asked, though he expected the answer already.
“He’s a cross-breed between two large felines,” Mule he means.Nohar felt a wave of sympathy for the kid in the picture. How old was he, ten, thirteen? Physically mature, but still young enough to take the pain of the world’s prejudice personally. Bad enough to be non-human and young, but to be a Mule as well. That was the worst curse Nohar could wish on anyone, to be an outcast from both worlds, human and non-human. The genetics of Mules were always a crap-shoot. No two moreys had their genes fiddled in quite the same way, and with a Mule the engineered and non-engineered chromosomes decided to link up mostly at random. A Mule could turn out nearly pink, or— more likely— like a defective beast only slightly out of the jungle. Perhaps worst were the Mules that got the engineered body, and whose brain reverted to an animal nature. Manuel looked lucky, humanoid— and the fact he held a job somewhere meant that his intelligence wasn’t too adversely affected.
Most moreaus nowadays were born as the result of artificial insemination. Manuel was an exception. Two feline species had merged in him— two parents who probably never expected their union might result in offspring.
In every case, a Mule was a minority of one. Even Nohar had the knowledge that there were, somewhere, other tigers descended from the same genetic stock as he. Manuel was different, unique. That uniqueness would forever prevent him from being fully accepted into the moreau community, such as it was.
Almost better to be a Frank.
The pink lawyer was still talking. “He was last seen at his job, at the Compton Bendishiem Clinic.”
There’s still a Compton left?Nohar thought.
There was an irony having a Mule work at a Bendishiem Clinic, where the point was to allow the thousands of moreau species to breed with their own genetic material. There were so many strains that even a couple who looked exactly alike needed genetic testing to see if they could breed true. Nine times out of ten, they couldn’t. Two moreaus not only had to have the same genetic ancestors, they had to’ve been engineered out of the same lot in the same lab. There were probably twenty-five hundred species of moreau rat alone. Add to that, the fact that a lot of gene-techs had fiddled with the reproduction instinct in their creations— the idea was to keep a constant supply back during the war— a lot of moreys hadto breed. It was a problem that the Bendishiem Clinics were designed to solve.
From the folder, the lawyer brought out two ramcards and laid them on the table. The little plastic rectangles shimmered rainbow colors, masses of optically encoded data fracturing the light. He tapped one and said, “This is your fee, to be credited to any account you prefer. The other is a comprehensive data file on Manuel.”
“Did I say I’d take the case?”
“Take some time to think it over—”
“Who’s trying to hire me?”
“My client has requested anonymity.”
Any inclination Nohar had to get involved with the lawyer’s offer evaporated at that point. He stared at the man and said, quietly, “Leave.”
“I’m retired,” Nohar said with a growl under his voice. “And I don’t work for people who hide behind lawyers.”
“My client assures me that when you hear the details you’ll want to take this job—”
Nohar stood. The scrub brush in his hand sprayed droplets of bloody water across the table and Manuel’s picture. “Take your money and leave. Take that sports-car and find some Culver City pink who doesn’t ask questions.”
The man backed up and then reached over, taking the ramcard that was to be Nohar’s payment. “I’ll take this. But I’m leaving the picture and the file. When you read it you might change your mind.” He put the ramcard back in the folder, and put it away. He then took another shiny card, paper this time, and placed it on the table. “This is my card. Call me if you change your mind.”
Nohar stood, towering over the man until he’d retreated from the cabin, and he didn’t sit until he heard the fans of the Jaguar aircar engage. As the lawyer flew away, Nohar finally sat. He spared one ironic glance at the ramcard the man had left, the file on Manuel. The thing was worse than useless to Nohar. He didn’t have a comm to read the damn thing.
He gave Manuel a last look, wondering why the curve of his dark-furred cheek seemed familiar. Then he returned to the business of washing the blood from his hands.