Fornax: Hauling Ass

by Matt J. McCullar

 

 

Moody Blackwater had the ideal roommate – at least as long as one of them was asleep.

Both of them worked for the popular music group Fornax, the five honey-badger sisters.  To save money, each member of Team Fornax – their concert tour support staff – shared a hotel room with another team member while the band was on the road, touring.  Normally this would not present much of a problem – but sooner or later, everybody runs into somebody they just can’t seem to get along with, and in Moody’s case that somebody was a big, muscular, dark-haired gray mule named Sinad.

Truth be told, there weren’t many in Team Fornax who did get along with Sinad.  For all his exposure to Fornax’s upbeat tunes, Sinad seemed to dislike the whole world and everybody in it.  Sinad didn’t say much; his ever-present frown said it all.  He was hired strictly for cargo hauling; he lifted, loaded, pushed and pulled heavy objects.  Sinad had nothing else to do with the concerts.  He simply loaded gear, unloaded it, set it up, tore it down, and hauled it from place to place.  When you’re touring the world with Fornax, you do that kind of heavy work practically every day.  Fornax’s beautiful, soul-stirring, fur-raising songs with lyrics about loving one another didn’t seem to make it to Sinad’s ears.  You know how mules are; once they get an idea embedded in their thick skulls, correct or not, you can’t blast it out of there with a bucket of dynamite.  One might as well talk to the stars on a cloudy night.  Ask him a question and all you’ll get is a grunt, a nod, or a snort.

Not that any of that stopped Sinad from enjoying an active social life.  After arriving in a new city and unloading all of the flight cases (an operation some of the crew had dubbed “The Flight Case Parade”) and setting up the equipment in the arena or music hall, he had nothing else to do until the shows were over and it was time to load up again and depart for the next city.  He spent most of his time exploring the city’s nightlife, and often picked up a willing jenny to spend the night with.  Flashing his Team Fornax uniform undoubtedly helped, but all that exercise had given him a powerful set of muscles to flash, too.  Even though Sinad was single, he didn’t often sleep alone.

Moody, on the other paw, was just a rabbit and barely strong enough to even carry Yellow Fornax’s purse.  But unlike Sinad, he worked much more closely with the beautiful musicians.   He was heavily involved in the actual recording of their music, in engineering and mixing their sound during their famous mega-concerts, and in helping the band and their manager handle all the big and small details of life on the road, so he was far busier and therefore didn’t have to see Sinad much.  Good for both.

Even though they were officially roommates on the road, Sinad often threw Moody out of their hotel room whenever the mood was on his stubborn hide.  Especially if Sinad had a woman in the room with him.  Two- and three-night appearances were the worst, because once everything was unloaded and set up there was nothing more for Sinad to do for at least a whole day, if not two, until the end of the final show, which allowed Sinad that much more time to go trolling for “companionship.”  Despite his personality, his success with the females was good enough that Moody often didn’t even bother going back to the hotel room on those nights.  Besides, if Sinad struck out at the bars and clubs, it would often be even worse because then he’d stagger back to their room, drunk and ill-tempered.  More ill-tempered than usual, that is.  All of which left Moody with a consistent problem: finding another place to sleep. 

The obvious question, of course, is “Why doesn’t Moody just trade rooms with someone?”  Because nobody else wanted to room with the big gray mule, either.  Messages fly thick and fast among members of a rock band’s tour group; it doesn’t take long for people to figure out who’s a “good” roommate and who isn’t... and Sinad definitely wasn’t anyone’s idea of a good roommate.

The next obvious question is, “Why doesn’t Moody complain to someone in charge about this?”  Because when you’re a rabbit, or a member of any other small species, you don’t want to cause trouble.  It’s better not to go up against anyone so much larger than you, because you know what can happen.  Sinad could’ve pulverized him with just one kick.  Besides, rabbits are lovers, not fighters; Moody had lost both his ears in a terrible fight only a couple of years before, and he certainly didn’t want any more scars on his pelt than he already had.  Better to sleep out in the hall than spend the rest of your days having to eat your carrots through a straw...

           

*****

 

It was late morning in Panthertown.  Five shapely, sexy, ebony bodies with huge crowns of white hair softly padded around the breakfast table.  Their fur was still damp from the shower, and they wore colored bathrobes and towels.  The sun had been up for several hours by now, and the rest of the city was already busy with the new day; but because of their musicians’ schedule, which often kept them awake late into the night long after the shows were over and the crowds had gone home, the Fornax sisters had only just awakened.  The golden sun shone directly into their large, luxurious, top-floor hotel suite, glinting off of the dozens of musical instruments that shared their lives.  Every window offered a magnificent view of the city. 

Yellow Fornax loves to cook, and her family eagerly awaited the morning’s fare.  Green, Blue, Violet, and Pink Fornax sat themselves smartly at the table, pouring steaming hot cafone and honey into their mugs; Trevor Sarnoff, their Dalmatian music producer and sound engineer, sat with them.  This was one of those rare moments outside the studio when no one else was around to bother them.  They’d be busy enough for the rest of the day; for now, it was just themselves. 

The suite’s dining table was set for seven.  Moody often joined the Fornaxes for breakfast.  To him, this was the ultimate honor; thousands of Fornax fans would gladly sell their own pelts to sit where he sits.  But it was an honor the young rabbit had earned.  As Trevor’s assistant, he worked very hard, always doing his best to make Fornax sound good, practically living with them on the road as well as in the studio and never complaining no matter how much he was asked to do.  The Fornaxes trusted him, and considered him their friend – and that, coming from a honey badger, means a lot.

Being honey badgers, the Fornax sisters towered over Moody.  Even though he was in his late teens, and full-grown for his species, they sometimes teased him about needing a high chair to come up over the edge of the meal table.  But their jokes were always made with love, not meanness; and Moody, in turn, always treated them with tremendous respect, often to excess.  Not because of their species, their height, their strength, their potential ferocity, or even the fact that they sign his paychecks... Surprisingly enough, he respects them because he feels they really are very classy women, and genuinely admires them for the beauty they can create.  They love him for that. 

While they waited for Moody to arrive for breakfast, Blue idly picked out a melody on one of her guitars, while Pink tried out a couple of accompanying synth-lines on a small portable keyboard propped against the edge of the table.  It wasn’t unusual to see one or more of the sisters absently playing an instrument or two, even at the meal table, despite Yellow’s best efforts to discourage it.  She had even tried to lay down a firm rule against it, once; the rule had lasted all of two days.  Music is too much a part of them, too deep in their blood, to be put aside for anything – even a meal.  “I can’t keep it in; I’ve gotta let it out,” as an old song says.  Besides, you wouldn’t believe how many Top 10 hits they’ve written over a meal.

Just as they were about to call down to Moody’s room to find out where he was, Moody finally came staggering into the suite and flopped himself down into one of the empty chairs at the dining table.  Before he could even return the roomful of greetings, his arms and head landed smack on his plate with a soft bonk, and he was long gone, sound asleep.

Moody Asleep
 

The lady ratels examined him with amusement.  This wasn’t the first time this had happened.

“His clothes look like he slept in them,” said Green.

“He looks like you do after too much honey pie,” Blue chuckled. 

Yellow slinked over with a tray full of hot food, scowling a little as she caught sight of the unconscious rabbit.  “Oh, for the love of...  I made these carrot fritters just for him, too!” she said with an annoyed huff as she set the tray down in the middle of the table.  “Did Sinad throw him out of their room again?”

“It certainly looks that way,” Trevor growled.  He tried nudging his dog-tired assistant awake, with no luck.

Violet giggled.  “If this keeps up, he’ll be the first person in history to fall asleep during one of our concerts!”

Yellow tried tickling Moody under the chin; even that didn’t work.  She sighed.  “Spotty, will you please do something about this?  I hate seeing Moody this way.”

“Yeah, I mean... OK, it was funny the first time,” Green insisted, “but this is getting ridiculous.” 

“Moody’s got just as much right to a good night’s sleep as anyone else on the crew, doesn’t he?” Violet added.

“I quite agree, ladies,” Trevor said, holding up a paw.  “After breakfast, I’ll have a word with the loading-crew foreman about this.  Cargo haulers, we can get anywhere.  But we need Moody; furs who can do what he can do are hard to come by.”

“If it weren’t for his strength, that dumb-ass mule wouldn’t even make good soap!” Yellow said scornfully.  “And he’d better not be out drinking while wearing our colors, either!”

When Moody does sleep, he sleeps hard.  The five Fornaxes could have played catch with his small, limp body and he wouldn’t have known about it.  Pink Fornax easily picked up Moody like an empty burlap sack, carried him around the grand piano, and very gently placed him on the comfortable sofa.  And she lightly kissed him on the nose.

 

*****

 

Later that night, long after Fornax’s second show in Panthertown had wrapped up, Moody braved his way into his hotel room and noiselessly nosed around.  No one was there, so he prepared to turn in for the night.  Perhaps the mule had found other quarters elsewhere; occasionally, one of the jennys and fillys Sinad managed to charm would invite him back to her place, and he would spend the night there instead.  Moody fervently hoped this was one of those nights. 

There was never enough time for Moody to do everything he needed to do, even at the best of times.  Every show had a hundred details that needed to be dealt with beforehand, and umpteen dozen loose ends to tie up afterwards.  So, despite the late hour and his exhaustion, he opened up his digipad and forced himself to try and get as much done as he could, checking notes, answering messages, and getting ready for the next day.  But after a full afternoon of concert prep, four hours of mixing a live concert, and two more hours at the crew party – all while running on barely four hours’ sleep on the Fornaxes’ hotel-suite couch – exhaustion quickly caught up with him and soon Moody was again sound asleep on his bed, surrounded by papers and other tools of his trade.  Out like the proverbial light. 

Moody never even heard Sinad come in.  The mule was in a foul mood.  He had been out, as was his custom, drinking in the local nightclubs and trying to impress the ladies by flashing his Fornax jacket and crew passcards to make himself look important – but tonight, unfortunately, had been one of those nights when he just couldn’t seem to get any of the girls he’d set his sights on to take the bait.  And to make matters worse, he was still stinging from the rather firm lecture he’d gotten from the loading-crew foreman earlier that day; apparently, Trevor and the Fornaxes had gotten a burr in their pelts about Moody, and had complained about it to the foreman.  The foreman, in turn, had told Sinad in no uncertain terms that if he couldn’t learn to share a room peacefully, he might not be sharing one with anyone much longer...

Like it’s my fault that scrawny rabbit can’t find someone else’s bed to sleep in, Sinad thought darkly as he clomped into the room, snorting with contempt at the sight of the young rabbit lightly snoring on the bed furthest from the window.  Suddenly a wave of irrational anger, fueled by whatever local brew he’d downed a few too many of that night, washed over him.  Stupid cottontail...  Get me in trouble just ‘cause you can’t take sleeping on the floor once in a while, will you?  Fine, you want someplace to sleep, I’ll give you someplace to sleep...!

Still fuming, Sinad picked up Moody with one massive, meaty paw and effortlessly deposited him into an open flight case parked against one wall of their room.  The case was one of several which normally contained all of the cables, spare connectors and components, and various paw-tool sets that Moody used at his audio mixing board.  Most of the case’s contents were still down in the concert hall, waiting for the final show tomorrow night; but Moody, ever the hard worker, had set a pawful of cables aside just in case he might find a few spare minutes here and there to repair them.  Even as deeply asleep as Moody was, he woke up quick when all that mixing-board gear fell on top of him as Sinad closed the case – but he came awake just a fraction of a moment too late, just as a clamshell of darkness closed over him.

Fortunately, the padded foam inside cushioned the impact some, but it was so thick that it pinned Moody’s arms and paws behind his back and he couldn’t move.  He couldn’t turn his head around, either.  He was pressed in there like a leaf in a book.  Just as he was about to use his powerful legs to try to kick his way out, Moody heard a loud sound that froze him solid…

The sound of latches being engaged.  Sinad had locked him inside.  Muffled, braying laughter reached Moody’s nubby ears.  He got the feeling of motion.  Then silence.  Complete, terrifying silence.

Oh, hraka, Moody thought. 

Hraka was right.  In Sinad’s drunken state, he’d sealed the young rabbit into an airtight box as a rude joke, rolled him out the door, and then passed out before letting him out again.  Moody cried out in a light panic, which became heavier as he realized that he could well and truly die in there.  No one heard him.  No one could hear him...

Frith, help me, Moody prayed.  This can’t be… No Last Bite… I didn’t even have a chance to run…

He squirmed frantically inside the box, trying to at least work his paws around from behind him, hoping that he might somehow be able to undo the latch from the inside (how, he wasn’t sure) if he could just get hold of a paw-tool, or...

My digicom!  he suddenly thought, as his paw brushed against a lump in his left pocket.  Offering up the most fervent thanks to Great Lord Frith that it hadn’t fallen out of his pocket before he’d been dumped into the flight case, he squirmed and pushed and strained until, after several minutes of physically exhausting labor, Moody was finally able to get both arms out from behind his back, fish the digicom out of his pocket, and call for help.  He ran his thumb over the keypad, looking for one particular button, and pressed it frantically...

Every Team Fornax crewmember carried a digicom, and each one had been programmed with a Panic Button to instantly alert Kiv, the ratel head of the Fornax Security Team, and his second-in-command Zipper in case of emergency.  Like most of the rest of the crew, Kiv had been asleep, trusting his well-trained team to keep their sharp eyes on things during the night, but the distinctive Panic Button alert sound from his own digicom brought him instantly awake and ready for action.  After just one beep, Moody heard some of the greatest words of his life: “Security.  Kiv here.”

“Kiv, this is Moody!” Moody hissed.  “Sinad just locked me inside a flight case!”

Very few things surprise Kiv.  This, however, was a new one.  “He did what!?

“He threw me into a flight case and I can’t get out!  Help!

You’ve gotta be kidding me, Kiv thought to himself.  But he didn’t say so out loud.  “Where are you?” came Kiv’s professional voice from the ‘com.

“I don’t know,” Moody whimpered.  “I was asleep when he grabbed me by the scruff and dumped me in here.  I think he wheeled me into the hallway, but I don’t know for sure.  He locked the latches and I can’t get out.  Hurry!  There’s not much air in here.”

Kiv growled to himself and thought fast.  “Your room is on the 38th floor, isn’t it?  We’ll be right there.  Bang on the case, kick it, do something to make as much noise as you can so we’ll find you.  But don’t scream, and stop talking.  You’ll waste your air.  Keep your digicom on.  We’ll find you.”

“Please hurry, Kiv,” said Moody, trembling.  “I don’t want to die in here…”

“Stay calm, rab,” Kiv said, deliberately keeping his voice calm and even for Moody’s benefit.  “Try to relax.  I know it’s not easy, but the more you panic, the more you’re gonna use up your air.  Just sit tight, and keep banging on the case, and we will find you.  I’m going to hang up now and get some more help.  Understand?”

Moody hesitated.  He felt a quick twinge of abandonment... but he knew Kiv was right.  “I… yeah, I understand….”  And then he slowly, methodically closed the digicom.  He hoped he wasn’t already in his coffin.  He did the only thing he could do.

He waited. 

 

*****

 

Eight floors down, Kiv pushed some buttons on his own digicom and activated a large emergency network.  Within seconds, every single member of Team Fornax was awakened by or attracted to a screeching, flashing, vibrating racket coming from his or her own digicom.  It was a seldom-used, impossible-to-ignore “Red Alert” panic signal that demanded everyone’s attention.  It was the best way for everyone to get the same news in a hurry.

“Emergency!  Emergency!” came Kiv’s voice.  “We have an emergency situation, so everyone listen up!  Moody Blackwater is trapped inside a flight case somewhere in this hotel.  He doesn’t know which case, or where it is.  Wherever you are, find the nearest flight cases and OPEN THEM!  I repeat, this is an emergency situation!  Moody’s only got a few minutes of air in there.  He needs our help!  Search your rooms, search the halls, search each other’s rooms, find every single flight case and OPEN IT UP!  NOW!!!!” 

The moment Kiv stopped shouting, he heard yips, yowls, barks, whinnies, and various other animal noises of panic and astonishment throughout the building.  He could hear lids being unlatched and swiftly popped open.  In less time than it takes to read this, over a hundred furs began tearing the hotel apart, dumping over flight cases and rifling through the contents.  Cables, makeup kits, dresses, shoes, lenses, batteries, rolls of tape, even dirty clothes spilled out everywhere.  Kiv tried to organize the operation by confining team members to the floors they already occupied, ordering them to stay on their own levels.  That way people wouldn’t waste any time going up or down the stairwells to floors that were already being handled. 

“Moody’s banging and knocking on the case, so listen for it,” Kiv growled.  “And for the love of the gods and goddesses, HURRY UP!  MOVE IT!!!”

Even at this late hour, every hotel room door was propped open and tails flashed from one end of each room to the other, up and down each corridor, tracking down cargo and inspecting it.  It would take too long to try picking up Moody’s scent, but some sensitive noses tried anyway.

“He may be unconscious by now!  Open everything!  Hurry!  Every second is another breath of air!  HURRY!!!”

While the search was on, Kiv tagged his second-in-command, Zipper, and told him to find the mule who started all of this.  They knew about Sinad’s drinking habits, and found him exactly where they’d suspected he would be: passed out on his bed in his room.  All efforts to bring him to failed.  And he was the only one who knew exactly where Moody was.  It took a tremendous amount of restraint on Zipper’s part to keep from clawing his hide off.  “Now what?” he growled.

Kiv rubbed his muzzle.  “As drunk as he is, he couldn’t have gotten too far,” he reasoned.  “Could he have wheeled Moody into an elevator and pushed the button?  Did he push him down the stairs, maybe, or just leave him in the stairwell?”  He whipped out his digicom and issued new instructions to rest of his security team.  “Security – I want you guys to check every elevator, every stairwell.  Start checking the service corridors,” he ordered.

“Boss, I hate to say it, but...” Zipper began, glancing at his watch.

“Then don’t,” Kiv snapped.  “We are going to find him, and we are going to find him in time, and that’s all there is to it.  Understand?”

Zipper understood.

The minutes ticked by.  With each passing second, everyone in Team Fornax was more and more afraid they’d open a lid and find a dead rabbit inside. 

Up in their top-floor suite, the Fornax sisters were going bananas.  Even though Moody was only a few years younger than they were, they loved him like family, like he was their own kit, and would gladly brave gunfire for him.  But how could they help someone they couldn’t even find?

It was Asta, a young silver mouse girl from the makeup department, who saved the day.  She found Case #382, marked “MIX, F.O.H.,” parked between an ice machine and a beverage dispenser inside the vending-machine room on the west side of the 34th floor.  With her large, round, sensitive ears, she could just barely make out a faint tapping coming from inside the case over the noise of the ice machine.  Instantly she undid the latches and lifted the heavy lid.  Moody leaped out into the light like he’d been fired out of a cannon, gulping down liters of cool, fresh air as though each breath might be his last.  His clothes and fur were soaked with perspiration.  He gasped and wheezed like a hundred-year-old engine as he collapsed against the wall, getting as far away from the flight case as he could before his shaky legs gave out from under him.

“I FOUND HIM!” Asta squeaked into her digicom.  “I FOUND HIM!  I FOUND HIM!  HE’S OKAY!!!”

“WHERE ARE YOU??  WHERE IS HE??” four voices cried at once over the open channel.

Asta gave their location, and in less than a minute the whole hotel shook to the rush of a hundred pairs of feet pounding up and down the stairwells as the whole crew rushed to join the scene.  The rumor had already spread that Moody had accidentally fallen into the box while reaching for something, but after Kiv explained what really happened, anger spread through the crowd.  Fur of every color and texture stood on end, and claws came out of tightened paws.  “Where is he?” some growled.  “Where is that *#^!ing mule!?  We’ll straighten him out!”  “Give him what for, we will!”  Some of the smaller team members came forward with some of Sinad’s dirty dealings toward them, too.  Apparently, Moody hadn’t been the only member of the crew the mule had bullied or picked on when he’d been drunk or in a bad mood.  “That sounds like his idea of a good time, terrorizing people who can’t fight back!  We’ll change his tune!”  Sinad was definitely not anyone’s flavor of the month at the moment.

In the midst of all this, the timid lepine could be forgiven, just this once, for suddenly kissing Asta without warning.  But her smile said she didn’t seem to mind.  Everyone nearby laughed out loud and felt better, now that the danger was over. 

The five Fornax sisters burst out of the elevator in a headlong rush and all wrapped themselves around Moody.  He assured them that he was all right, even when they squeezed him so hard he found himself gasping for air even harder than he did inside the case.  (Sometimes, the sisters forget just how powerful they really are.)  And when they learned the truth of how Moody had wound up in there, ears flattened up and down the hallway and everyone took a step or two back when four of them screamed in harmony, “WE’LL KILL HIM!  BY THE GODDESSES, WE’LL KILL HIM!!!”  Even Pink, by far the gentlest-natured member of the tribe, seethed with silent fury in her eyes.

Other team members joined the chorus, even some of the smallest ones; they were now far more angry than afraid, because if Sinad could lock Moody inside a small box, he could do it to them, too.  They looked around wildly for big sticks.  “We’ll fix his—”

FWWEEEEEEEEEET!!!  Kiv’s sharp, piercing whistle silenced the crowd all at once, a few of the furs nearest to him quickly stepping back as the loud, high note hurt their ears.  “OK, EVERYBODY JUST SETTLE DOWN!!” he said loudly, once he had the crew’s attention.  “And I mean EVERYONE!” he added, fixing his gaze directly at the boiling-mad Fornax sisters.

The tribe bristled at him for a moment... then slowly backed off.  Kiv doesn’t just guard their lives and their property; he guards their public images as well.  If he had something to say, it was best to listen to him.

“I understand how you all feel, believe me.  I’d like to put his head through the nearest brick wall a few times, myself.  But if you ladies put so much as a scratch on him,” he said, keeping his gaze fixed on the Fornaxes, “it’ll be all over the tabloids by morning, and they’ll milk as much scandal as they can out of it, facts be damned.”

Reluctantly, one by one, as much as they hated to admit it, the Fornaxes agreed he was right – no matter how much Sinad might deserve their wrath, the five of them could not possibly do Sinad any physical harm and expect the scandal rags not to hear about it.  Not only would the scandalous press coverage harm their careers; worse, it would only confirm, in far too many furs’ minds, all those negative stereotypes Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet, and Pink had tried so hard to overcome through their music.

But this still left a hundred or so furs in various stages of anger and undress with a huge mess to clean up, and a bigger score to settle.  Firing Sinad wasn’t enough, all agreed.  He had to learn a lesson and learn it well; otherwise, he might do something like this again – and the next victim of Sinad’s bullying might not be so lucky.

Finally R’Leer, another ratel from Kiv’s security team, stepped up to tug at Kiv’s sleeve.  “Hey, boss... I think I just might have an idea...”

As R’Leer explained his plan, slow, evil grins began to spread among the crew.  “Oh, that’s bad,” Kiv finally told him.  “I mean, that’s really, really bad.”

“It’s sick,” Zipper agreed.

“Probably scar him for life,” another of Kiv’s team added.

Murmurs of agreement rippled through the crowd.  All quickly agreed that R’Leer’s plan was twisted, and evil... and thoroughly deserved.

 

*****

 

The key to R’Leer’s plan was simple.  Sinad and Moody’s room was on the eastern end of the 38th floor, and Sinad knew it.  But what he didn’t know was that on that end of the hotel, all of the floor plans were laid out exactly alike.  The internal layout of any given room looked identical to that of the rooms directly above or below it on any other floor.  Room 218 looked just like room 318, which looked just like rooms 418, 518, and so on, all the way down to the furniture,  the wallpaper, the doorways, paint schemes... everything. 

As it so happened, Aarnie, one of the pyrotechnics experts, and Pingo, one of the laser-show techs, had the room which was the second-floor twin to Sinad and Moody’s.  They immediately agreed to “donate” their room to the cause, and quickly ran downstairs to empty the room of all their belongings while the rest of Team Fornax eagerly and quietly dashed to the balconies all over that side of the building.  They would have a grandstand seat.

Kiv took Zipper, R’Leer, and three other Team Fornax security ratels back up to Sinad’s room.  As they expected, the mule was still out cold.  Moving swiftly and quietly so as not to wake him, they quickly loaded Sinad and Moody’s belongings onto a luggage cart, then bodily picked the mule up and carried him out the door.  After a quick descent in the elevator, they carefully laid him back down on the bed closest to the window, with the curtains partially open, and arranged him and all his belongings exactly as they had been.

“Phew!” Zipper exclaimed as he got a whiff of the unconscious mule’s breath.  “What the hell did he drink, anyway?”

“We’ll find out in a minute,” Bartos grinned.  “You got Moody’s stuff?”

“Right here.”  They placed all of Moody’s clothes, carry bags, toiletries, and other sundry items exactly where they had been on Moody’s side of the room.  Then they went out onto the balcony and examined the scene below: a soft, freshly dug knoll of topsoil, part of the hotel’s elaborate flower bed.  It elevated up toward the second-floor balcony in such a way that anyone jumping off would fall only two or three meters before making a relatively safe, soft landing.  After a long, careful examination of the scene, all six ratels grinned evilly.  They brightened the room lights so the balcony couldn’t be seen very well through the closed glass door.  It was still dark outside.  The stage was set.  Kiv spoke into his pocket digicom once again.  “Attention all units: one minute to showtime.”

Even through all that, being carried all the way down to the second floor and left there on the bed while all of his and Moody’s luggage was carried into the room, Sinad hadn’t woken up, or even so much as twitched his tail.  Completely unaware that anything had changed, what followed for him was pure panic. 

Somewhere in the middle of his second dream of the night, he was blasted awake by a gut-wrenching blast from a shock stick, followed by crushing grips on his arms and legs.  Enough of the night’s spirits had dissolved in his system to finally let him reach consciousness – hazy though it was.  Sinad awoke with a crushing headache. 

“YOU MURDERER!” he heard blasting in his ears.  “You filthy, stinking MURDERER!!!”

Sinad couldn’t budge with all that weight on his arms and legs.  He looked up and saw what no one in his right mind ever wants to see: six angry ratels, all staring directly into his face, with their black fur standing on end, fangs and claws bared, and blood-rage in their eyes. 

Powerful though Sinad was, the physiques of the security team made him look like a breadstick.  All he could do was ask what the hell was going on.

“I’ll tell you what’s going on!” Kiv snarled, only millimeters from his muzzle.  “Do you know where Moody is!?”

Sinad blinked repeatedly, stirring his foggy mind for clues.  He looked over at the other bed.  Moody’s belongings were still on it, but the young rabbit wasn’t there. 

Neither was the flight case.

Suddenly it came back to him.

“Oh, no—” he brayed.

No… no, he couldn’t have…

All six ratels dug in their claws slightly, just enough to pierce the mule’s thick hide.  “What the hell were you thinking!?” Kiv screamed.  “What in this world could Moody have ever done to you?  Why did you have to kill him!!!???”

“KILL him?  I didn’t—”

“Did you or did you not lock him inside a flight case!?”

Sinad could only stammer helplessly.  “I… I… But I...”

Kiv tightened his grip around the mule’s neck and snarled right into his muzzle.  “DO YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU’VE DONE!!!???  YOU MURDERED HIM!!!”  The other guards intensified their snarls and leaned closer as well. 

Even the stoic, normally silent Zipper was moved to words.  “Your life won’t be worth a hraka pellet when the tribe gets their claws on you!”

“Damn straight,” Bartos added.  “Won’t be nothin’ left but a bloody skeleton!  They’ll shred you like an old newspaper!”

Sinad’s eyes were exploding out of his head.  He knew what the Fornax sisters could do when enraged.  “I didn’t mean to…  Oh, gods, no!  No!  I couldn’t…” 

“The podestas are on their way right now!” R’Leer snarled.  “Your scent is all over that flight case!  And your paw prints!  You’re going to prison!!!”

Sinad was very close to tears now.  “Oh, gods – I murdered the little fella!  I didn’t mean to—”

“How ‘bout that, bads?” Barton sneered.  “He caved in like a house of cards!”

 “I’msorry!I’msorry!I’msorry!I’msorry!” Sinad cried. 

“Well, that’s something I’ve never heard you say before,” Kiv growled contemptuously.  “But we’re not the one you need to apologize to.”  He looked up at Zipper and R’Leer.  “Get the cuffs on this piece of—” he started to say.

“Hey, boss, I’ve got a better idea,” Bartos said.  “Why give the podestas a live body?” 

The other five ratels stared at him.  “What do you mean?” Kiv finally asked.

Bartos simply released his grip, then slowly examined his surroundings.  He casually walked over to the balcony door and slid it open.  Faint street sounds entered the room as he stepped out onto the balcony, and made a show of carefully looking over the edge.  He whistled in astonishment.  “Hoo, that’s a looong way down.”   He looked back over to his crewmates and rejoined them.

R’Leer glanced over at the open balcony door, then back to Bartos.  “You mean...?” he asked, as though the idea had only just dawned on him. 

“Hey, I’m just sayin’,” Bartos said.  “Long trial... bad publicity... mess up the concert schedule for months...  for what?  Just so this piece of hraka can sit in a comfy cell the rest of his life?  The hell with that.  Let’s just get rid of him.  Not like anybody’s gonna miss him or anything...  We’ll just say we burst into the room to take him into custody after we found Moody’s body, and when he realized what he’d done he panicked and threw himself out the window before we could stop him.”

“YEAH!” the other guards said at once.  “Why make the tribe look bad?”  “Lousy ass takes the easy way out!”  “Nothing left but a red blotch on the pavement!”  As a unit, they bodily picked him up off the bed.

“WAIT!!  YOU CAN’T DO THIS!!!” Sinad whined, crying fit to kill.

“Really?  I wonder if Moody said the same thing...” R’Leer wondered.  Then he bared his fangs and dug his claws into Sinad’s flesh even deeper.  The others did the same.  “You’re not picking on a defenseless rabbit anymore, you stupid drunken jackass!  Now, you’re taking on ratels!  And this time, YOUR ass is grass!!!!”

The six honey badgers, hauling their reluctant cargo, stepped back against the front door, then ran back towards the balcony, snarling as a unit.  The only thing missing was a trumpet blast.  Sinad gave them a terrific fight, and it took all six of them to keep him from twisting free.  His screaming and braying could be heard absolutely everywhere.  No one who witnessed the event will ever forget that horrible noise: the terrified screams of someone who’s certain that he’s about to plummet to his death.  (It was something Sinad wasn’t likely to soon forget, either!)  Over the balcony railing he went with a mighty toss; Sinad’s tail slapped hard against the balcony railing, then ricocheted away and followed his screaming into the inky darkness.  He was gone. 

Hardly a second later, he hit the soft dirt only a few meters below with a muffled thump.  The impact was so soft he might as well have jumped into bed.  Falling into the hotel’s swimming pool would have hurt about as much.  But in his drunken, panicked state, that didn’t stop him from passing out anyway.

Everyone else in Team Fornax saw the entire event (some of the quicker-thinking members even captured beautiful footage of it) and convulsed in laughter until the sun came up.  Yellow Fornax quit laughing long enough to rub Moody’s head and get a grin out of him. 

“Are you going to tell him the truth when he wakes up, Miss Yellow?” Moody asked.

“Oh, I suppose we’ll have to.  Eventually,” she replied with a chuckle. 

Then she turned serious.  “Moody, I need to ask you something.  How did you survive in that box?  We thought... we all thought for sure you were a goner.”

“Oh.  Well…  I guess it was partly because of my size.  I’m smaller than you, so I don’t need as much air.  And it was probably because of my species, too.”

“I don’t understand,” Green said for her sister. 

“Sometimes, if a rabbit is in a dark, enclosed space for a while, he may go into a mild form of hibernation.  It’s an instinct left over from when our ancestors lived in warrens, underground.  When you’re in that state, you’re still there, can still see and hear and think, still work your arms and legs... it’s just a slower state of activity.  Funny... I didn’t even think about that until you asked me, but that must’ve been it.  But make no mistake – even in that state, you can still die if you’re trapped in there long enough.”

Fortunately, Moody suffered no ill effects from the experience, although it was quite a while before he could bring himself to get near an open flight case again.  But that next night, Moody Blackwater enjoyed the longest, most refreshing sleep he’d had in a long, long time.

 

– end –