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Deal 979: Moving day

It was a dark time, the great war was. Everyone was committed to their sides, there was little or no chance of anyone listening to reason. The world around us was on fire, and we had no choice but to watch as the fever ran its course. Then that fateful day changed it all.

That day was just like every other day: wake up scared, scrabble for food enough to survive, hope to remain unnoticed, and eventually sleep again.

“You aren’t like the others, are you?”

The voice was commanding. What else could I do but stop and hope it went away?

“You there. I know you understand, not like the others around town.”

Oh. Those others.

“Who wants to know?” I asked, quietly.

“Don’t fret about disturbing anyone. No one is paying any attention. I’m clearly doing my job, and neither you nor I are expected to be talking instead. So even if we were seen, it won’t matter.”

I edged a little ways into the light, then backed down swiftly. The voice was a cat. We don’t generally care for cats, it’s likely instinctual, as I don’t think we have a rational reason for our feeling.

“Yeah, yeah, talking cat. And you’re a talking rat. I don’t see why that should be cause for surprise.”

“But, we’ve been so careful.”

“And that is what I noticed. The other rats in town are much more carefree. But they don’t talk, even when cornered. You talked when merely offered the chance. That all by itself is a difference worth noticing.”

“Oh,” I said.

“There is a place you can go where you will be safer. How many in your clan?”

Now, that was information I could not divulge. “Enough. You know I can’t say.”

“I don’t need an exact figure. I just need a sense of scale so I can help.”

“But, you’re a cat.”

“We’ve been over that part. Yes, I’m a cat. You’re a rat. So?”

“Aren’t we traditional enemies?”

“We both have a bigger enemy right now, and it is killing this city. I’m searching for survivors that need my attention.”

“Not us.”

“Ah, the famous rat pride. No, not really you, but any of the others around time that escaped and founded colonies.”

Oh. Maybe we weren’t really alone. But, still, pride. “We can take care of ourselves, but perhaps we’ll do a little scouting. Where do you suggest?”

“On the other side of the water, a four story brick building. You’ll know it when you see it.”

“We’ll check. Transport that far may be trouble for some.”

“That can be arranged. I can arrange for a truck to be left here, then moved there.”

Even today I don’t know why we trusted him, being a cat. But scouts came back with gifts. We loaded everything up, nearly filled the truck. And now we live here, with the cats. And big cats. And some really odd creatures too, including a human that understands our difference.

And most importantly, dawn arrived.

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Deal 932: Not entirely clumsy

As I entered the room, I stumbled and caught myself on a waiter. “Sorry about that.”

“No harm, sir. Watch for that step.”

His warning was just in time as I made my way across the sunken dance floor. I bumped into a couple of dancing couples, each time with an apology accepted. Safely arrived at the bar, I settled in at a stool for a few minutes. “Stout, the darkest you have, please.”

“Sorry, sir, the darkest beer I’ve got tonight is the Pale Fish, a pilsner. ”

“Single malt?”

“All blended, all born yesterday.”

“Moonshine?”

“Now there you might be in luck, this bathtub gin was brewed in a poolside cabana last week. It does burn a little, or a lot if it gets too close to an open flame.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, better make it a double.”

I took a sip, and coughed. The bartender just chuckled and turned to the next customer. So I left a healthy tip and wandered on. Ten minutes later I’d made the rounds and only bumped into five more people, somehow never quite spilling the drink on any of them. I settled down at a small table out of the way where I could watch crowd without being too conspicuous. That gave me a chance to plan my next move.

There was a war on, but you’d never guess from the crowd. The room held the upper crust of local society. Since this is the capital, it also held a number of diplomats and such from most of the neighboring states, some of which were on opposite sides of the official conflict. Of course, if you looked closer you could figure out who was on the same side in the real conflict. My clumsy progress had accomplished half of my mission. The message that was to be delivered tonight to cement one of the secret alliances had been intercepted, and was now in my pocket.

The other half of my mission was just as simple: put that message where it would do some good. But first, I should read it. Picking up a program as cover, I unfolded the message slip in my lap. It was in cipher and likely coded too, but that certainly was expected and I didn’t need to read it now.

GRQQL ORNEG RRGUP YRNAR QNAQC BYVFU RQTBN GABBA

A glimpse was enough to commit it to memory, but notes on a napkin were safer. At least after another glance at the crowd to make sure I was still unnoticed. As I wrote it down, I realized the cipher was not very strong at all. That was still a subject for later, I was risking enough by reading the note in public at all.

I looked around and spotted my target on the dance floor with his wife. Snagging a rose out of a centerpiece, I made my way back across the room, being careful to accidentally bump into a number of couples. When I arrived at the far wall I still had all of my drink but no longer had the message. This table’s centerpiece like most of the others had a teddy bear holding up part of its centerpiece, as well as a candle. It was a matter of moments to accidentally spill my drink on the bear, then in the fluster that followed, spill the candle on it as well.

It went up better than I expected, and soon the whole table was on fire as the tablecloth caught and spread the fire to napkins and an abandoned coat. The half glass of the same moonshine I hadn’t noticed on the far side of the table finished the effect, becoming a very satisfying column of fire.

I didn’t even have to yell “Fire!”, just fade back toward the wall as the crowd surged in that sort of purposeful panic that results when a room full of people who ought to know what to do actually have no idea at all. I was gratified to see that one attempt to put it out with another table cloth just added to the fire. Apparently yet another glass of hooch had been spilled on that one in the frantic effort to claim it.

All pretense at clumsiness set aside, I changed my posture, abandoned my showy jacket where it was sure to add dramatically to the fire as soon as it too was helpfully used to fan the flames, and made my way out the front door, then across the plaza to where I’d left an inconspicuous car. As I drove off, the sudden whoosh of fire implied strongly that the bladders of ether I’d sewn into the lining of my jacket had found a flame.

All in all, a successful evening.

Now if I could just find a decently dark beer in this wasteland, and some time to wonder why a teddy bear needed its teeth cleaned.