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Dead Heat [IC]


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[Author's note: This story was intended for the Crucible vignette, but I didn't finish it in time to beat the Dreaded Deadline Doom…

Midtown, evening of 13 February 2011

And it came to pass that Jubatus, the Fastest Cat Alive, encountered a woman dressed in an expensive-looking, stylized version of a standard cowgirl outfit. He saw her at a jewelry store in the Midtown district, at 2 AM. Frozen in the stillness of fast-time, she was leaning through the remains of a jeweler's shattered plate-glass storefront window, her arms poised in the act of cramming loose gemstones and such into a heavy canvas sack. No cops? Hmm. I'll bet Ado Annie there was on the scene right when the window broke. Of course, the tableau before him was, in essence, a single frame of a movie. In and of itself, that one frame wasn't enough to distinguish a thief from a public-spirited citizen who was returning the stolen goods to the storefront…

Still upshifted, the cheetah deployed his customary set of high-speed digital cameras to record this interaction from all angles at once; he photographed the woman's fingerprints; then used a pair of long-handled tongs to extract from the sack a few items which he dusted for prints.

Well, well. Extremely clear match. Say howdy to Mr. Probable Cause, cowgirl!

In the woman's eyes, what happened next was simply this: Her sack, with all the not-yet-collected valuables in the store, vanished in a split-second -- and a bipedal cheetah appeared in their place.

"What in the consarned -- why, you're Mr. Jubatus!"

She knows who I am, and she's not worried? Okay, she's a heretofore-unknown black hat. Wonderful. 'Exercise caution in your daily affairs,' Jube. "Okay, lady, funtime's over. You can come quietly, or you can scream as you go. Your choice. "

"Well, Mr. Jubatus, that's mighty kind of you to offer me a choice, but I believe I'll just go about my business in peace."

"Wrong answer. You don't get a third option." And he upshifted—but when the rest of the world froze into immobility, the cowgirl did not.

"Sure I do!" the woman said in a cheerful and confident tone. "Y' see, I call myself Annie Oakley. 'Cause anything you can do—" Without warning, the woman burst into motion, literally running circles around the Fastest Cat Alive! "—I can do better!" And she punctuated her sentence with a hyperspeed swat at the cheetah's head, a blow which he saw coming every millimeter of the way, a blow he wasn't quick enough to evade. For a moment, the pain of the impact sent a constellation of phosphenes across his field of vision.

"Mr. Jubatus, I'd greatly appreciate it if'n you just left me alone and be on your way. 'Cause if you don't, well, I don't much care for folks what abuses animals, and I'd surely hate it if'n you forced me to beat on a fine ol' cheetah like yourself." She started looking around, ignoring Jube.

Is she that stupid, or that confident? Let's find out, the feline mused through his discomfort.

"Now, where, oh where, can all my loot have—" By this time, Jubatus was back to battle-readiness, and he leapt at her and tackled her, with a roll of duct-tape at the ready "—oh! Why, you big ol' stubborn kitty!" Oakley cried, and she completely negated his tackle with another hyperspeed swat, harder than the first one, that sent the feline crashing painfully into one of the jewelry store's interior walls. Son of a xixxx, that hurts—don't think anything's broken—oh, joy, she can copy more than one power at a time—

"I get it! You're not just fast, you got yerself a li'l ol' Early Warning Radar kinda deal!" She grinned. "Which means I got that, too. So if'n I was you, Mr. Jubatus, I'd just hightail it on out of here, in whatsoever direction you see fit to travel."

Jube growled at her and focused through his pain. She may have copied my 'radar sense', but when I triggered it, at first she didn't seem to recognize it for what it was… As his mind raced, the cheetah declared, "Not… not gonna happen, lady. You want these jewels… you're gonna have to abuse this animal. Is the loot really worth that?"

"Aw, come on, Mr. Jubatus!" said Oakley as she stepped in through the glassless window. She began walking around inside, keeping one eye on the cheetah while looking all around herself. "I could just as easy ask, do you really think these shiny trinkets is worth your gettin' the crap beaten outta you? Heck, they ain't even your trinkets!"

As Jube laboriously unpeeled himself from the cheetah-shaped indentation in the drywall he'd smacked into, he spoke: "I think…" Okay, I got my third wind now. "…the only thing necessary…" But why did she let me have time to recover? "…for the triumph of evil…" She's faster than me, she could've pounded me into a coma, easy! "…is for good men to do nothing." Which means… she can't just make with a hyperspeed beatdown at any arbitrary moment. "And that works for values of 'good men'…" What's she need to make it happen? "…that include me." Obvious hypothesis is obvious. Now to test it.

"Well, that's a right fine sentiment, Mr. Jubatus—" The cowgirl abruptly stopped in her tracks. "Ah-hah! There's my bag—and my sweet Lord, I do believe it's more full than it used to be!" She looked in the bag, then smiled a 50,000-watt smile at Jube. "Thank you very kindly indeed, Mr. Jubatus! I'll just be on my way now, if you please. Good-bye!"

Carrying the bulging sack over one shoulder, Annie Oakley turned her back on Jubatus and walked out of the jewelery store.

Well, of course, Jube thought. She thinks I can't do a damn thing to stop her, so why shouldn't she ignore me? A jagged twinge of pain danced across the cheetah's lower back. Let's hope she's wrong about that… okay. Testing a hypothesis about her power. And the Fastest Cat Alive turned off his Timeshift, thus returning to his default state of 6 times faster than normal. Immediately, gravity's hold on Jubatus dropped to 1/6 its normal strength; the reduction in physical stress soothed his various aches and pains. He still found himself favoring his left leg, however…

Jubatus extracted a roll of duct tape from his vest, and followed Oakley outside. Okay. Okay. Step and step again. Too damn slow, but there's my innate 6* multiplier… and here we go. He pulled at the loose end of his tape-roll, and smiled as he saw the beginning of Oakley's reaction. Right, she's got my 'danger sense'. But I'm not using my Timeshift, so—what the— and then the world exploded into pain.

Later, Jubatus would reconstruct the glitch: Oakley had sensed his approach. She'd swung a fist at him. His 'danger sense' detected this attack, and reflexively triggered his Timeshift—which meant Oakley had the Timeshift, too—which made her attack faster, more dangerous—which made his instincts boost his Timeshift—

Positive feedback.

Oakley's fist was moving at a speed well in excess of Mach 1 before it made contact with the cheetah's ribcage.

Somewhere, a wounded animal whimpered…

Oh. Wait. That's me, isn't it? was Jubatus' first coherent thought. He tried to move—and discovered that he was wrapped up in his own duct tape. And… yes, he was being carried. By Annie Oakley.

Low-intensity agony washed through the cheetah's body in discrete pulses, synchronized with Oakley's footsteps. He deliberately did not think about the possibility of permanent damage. Instead, he focused his thoughts on the villain who was taking him who-knows-where. Lemme see… right. She didn't pull a Timeshift just then, not until my damn instincts triggered my own upshift. Betcha that's a limit on her power of mimickry; otherwise, she'd never have let me catch up to her. A momentary headache derailed his train of thought. Where was I..? Right. Oakley's Xerox power. The original has to be active before she can copy it for her own use? Seems that way. Doesn't retain a copied power for long, maybe not at all…

Somewhere in Jube's cogitations, he realized that Oakley had stopped moving. He looked up at her face; she had a concerned look, and her lips were (slowly, slowly) moving. Huh. Interesting, but I've got other things to think about. The cheetah continued thinking about Oakley's power, and what sort of responses were available to him in the current situation… and when he was done, he downshifted to a tempo of 1.

He caught Oakley in the middle of a sentence: "—awake, Mr. Jubatus. So how about y'all talk to me, okay?"

Hm. Very worried look on her face. "Aawwwrr, Annie," he said, his speech even worse-sounding than usual. "Lazzt chance: Zzurrrenderr. To me."

The worry faded from Oakley's countenance, shoved to one side by shocked admiration. "You're—well, you ain't okay, exactly, but you're okay enough to try that!?" She shook her head. "I swear, Mr. Jubatus: I seen people try to bluff on a busted flush, and I seen people try to bluff on a handful o' nothin'. But in all my born days on this Earth, I have never once seen anyone try to bluff on no cards at all!"

The cheetah shrugged, winced from the pain that was triggered by that minor motion. "Di'n't think you'd go forr it. Had to trry. I' was worrth a zzhot."

"Yeah, I suppose it was," the cowgirl agreed, and she started walking again. "Since you're awake an' all, I thought you should know I'm takin' you to the Hanover Zoo, 'cause yer li'l ol' Medic Alert bracelet says that's where you get yer doctorin' from—and Lord knows you could use a perishin' big pile o' doctorin' right now."

Hm. So she does care about hurting animals. Lucky me… wait, it is lucky. Fits my next—Jubatus did not allow himself to think the word 'final'—tactic. "Thankz, I g'isss," he replied. "Taking a while. Mind if I upzzhift?"

"I don't… oh! 'Upshift', that's what you call it when you go all speedy, right?"

"Got it… in one."

"Well, you just go right ahead, Mr. Jubatus! And thanks for bein' so understanding about this."

The feline was as good as his word; he upshifted, and both he and Oakley were at a tempo of 40. "De nada," he said. "You'rre not afrraid o'… whateverr carrdz… I might have up my sleeve?"

"Not in the least," Oakley said with a smile. "You ain't got any cards that can hurt me."

No, I don't, was the cheetah's silent rejoinder. But you do. "Juzzt checking." And he waited for the surgically perfect instant…

"Come on, Mr. Jubatus. You can't do nothin' to me; you can't even talk straight! How d'you—aaaaaaahhhh!"

…the surgically perfect instant… right between the moment her front foot had made contact with the ground, and the moment her back foot left the ground.

The surgically perfect instant when Jubatus downshifted to a tempo of something less than 1/4, a tempo perhaps one-twentyfifth as quick as his standard default value, a tempo at which gravity's pull on him was boosted to 25 times its normal strength.

Annie Oakley's power was already plugged into Jubatus' Timeshift; when he downshifted, she did the same. And her strange ability gave her a stronger version of whatever power she was copying… For both Timeshifted people, gravity's effective pull was multiplied by 25 or more. But Jubatus had an unfair advantage: His baseline default value for gravity was a mere 1/6G—not the 1 full G it was for Annie Oakley. She hit the ground much harder than Jubatus, not to mention being crushed under what was, from her perspective, the ton-and-a-quarter weight of his body.

Under most circumstances, 4 Gs probably wouldn't have hurt Jubatus; probably wouldn't even have done more than immobilize him. But 'most circumstances' didn't include the cheetah's having already absorbed a beating severe enough to warrant medical attention…

The smell of blood was thick in his nostrils when Jubatus woke up. He was resting on a warm, lumpy cushion, none too comfortable… No, not a cushion. Oakley. And then, a little later: I think this means I won..? Call me 'Pyrrhus', and hooray for the good guys. A little later yet, the feline put his fangs and claws to work, clumsily cutting himself free of his own duct-tape, and dialed 9-1-1 to report the theft and summon medical assistance for himself and Oakley.

Edited by Cubist
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