|This is the first installment of a story set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims -- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for short. For many people, SCABS is a ticket to Hell; the question is, must it be a one-way ticket?
Go here for more information on the setting.
Day 0: Entrèe
by Duncan Cougar and Quentin Long
©2005 Duncan Cougar and Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
Nobody cared when the puma stalked into the common room. Not here at the Blind Pig Gin Mill; four of its regulars were permanently trapped in animal-like bodies, and many of the rest could assume such forms at will. It said something that even now, after nearly four decades of the Martian Flu and its attendant body-warping complication, SCABS, the Pig was one of the very few bars where a SCAB could usually count on having a drink in peace...
No, nobody cared -- not at first. But there was something about this particular feline, something in his overall bearing. His every motion was as smooth as napalm and gelignite, and his body language all but shouted Don't even think about messing with me at everyone who saw him. People moved, SCAB and norm alike, and soon the cat was the central focus of a bubble of empty space that followed him around the room.
It was a pretty good crowd tonight, a crowd whose membership was a pleasant surprise; of the patrons, perhaps one in four was a normal human. The puma padded along confidently, heedless of the worried looks and abrupt changes of seating that accompanied his passage. He was completely focused on his quarry -- a twitchy, cheetah-derived animorph SCAB, the sole occupant of one of the side booths near the back of the common room. The spotted cat wore a many-pocketed vest, thick and lumpy. He worked with an open laptop, his fingers a sand-colored blur on the keyboard, and beside the computer was a tall glass of something whose aroma made the cougar salivate.
"Excuse me, but is that catnip in your drink?"
Those were the puma's first spoken words, closer to an inflected growl than human speech, but intelligible nonetheless. Everyone within earshot relaxed a bit -- including the cheetah, whose motions became a great deal less jerky as he replied, "Yes, it's a catnip daiquiri," and his voice was little (if any) better than the other feline's. "Good stuff, but you probably don't want it full strength; this one's watered down by 60%."
The mountain lion looked thoughtful for a moment. "From my first experience with that concoction, you are right. When and if I do order it, I think I will ask for it to be diluted with 60% water... On second thought, make that 80%."
"Hold it. 'First experience'? You've been here before?"
"Indeed I have, but it was quite a while ago. However, I am digressing. May I join you?"
The seated feline snorted in cynical amusement. "Sit where you like. It's a free country, or so they keep telling me." Hearing this, the newcomer jumped onto the bench opposite the cheetah, sitting with his forepaws flat on the table as competently as if he weren't a full-time quadruped. Only then did the cheetah stop typing and finally look at the other cat. Whatever human aspects the puma had, they were well hidden beneath the medium silvery brown fur with the typical build and coloration of the animal he resembled. If there was an ounce of fat contained in those powerful 200 pounds of feline grace, it was only because his last meal had been rich in it. He wore only one garment: a collar around his neck, custom made as a few slots for small items had been sewn into its lower half.
After a good half-second of silence, the cheetah asked, "Alright, catboy. What do you want?"
"Mr. Acinonyx, my name is Cougar, Duncan Cougar. And I am the guide for the vacation Dr. Halliburton suggested to you."
The spotted cat's unreadable expression did not change. "That's nice. Looks like he didn't mention that I don't want or need any time off."
"Indeed. He told me at great length how you go about... killing... time. In any case, you would be absolutely right, if this was just a trip to the Bahamas and hanging out at the local bars and beaches. However, what I offer you is nothing so frivolous as that."
"Well, when the doc asks, you can say I told you to fuck off and die after you made your pitch. Is there anything else you want to bother me about?"
Duncan raised a forepaw to poke around, with great care, for one of the items attached to his collar. As he worked, he said, "The pitch, as you call it, has not been made yet. I have some documentation stored on a memory stick... hraow! Yes!" He moved his forepaw away from the collar; a small object was wedged between two of his digits. Jubatus grabbed the object before the puma could shove it across the table.
"Here you are, Mr. Acinonyx. You will find a description of what this trip is about, and where the place is, on that. And since you are probably going to wonder why I should be your guide on this trip, I included what information is available concerning me, my life and what I have done for a living over the past 40 years. Some of the information is encrypted, but if you agree not to reveal any of it, I will give you the password. You would probably be able to find most of the information through other channels, I am sure. But even as good as you are, even with the help of some of your friends, you wouldn't be able to get that data without raising a few alarms and I wouldn't want that."
Jubatus favored the puma with a sarcastic smile. "How dreadful. Have you been playing 007 for the CIA, or what?"
"I believe that information should fall into the 'or what' category. As for the why of it, you shall have to read the data in order to find out. Do you agree not to reveal any of this information?"
"What the hell; I agree." Something blurred in front of the cheetah's face, but it was gone too quickly for Duncan to recognize what it was. "I got half a clock-hour to kill before Hallan shows up for tutoring, and this'll do as well as anything else."
"Very well," Duncan said as he again groped at his collar with a forepaw. "Oh, and there is another thing: Don't try to copy it. Some of the data packages got really bad manners if someone tries to move them. So I seriously suggest, you don't. You got 2 hours after typing the password until the data deletes itself... annnnd... this is the password." This time when he offered the paw, a crumple of paper was clutched in his clumsy, nigh-fingerless grasp.
The cheetah looked askance at the paw as he took Duncan's note, but his only words were, "Like I said: Half a clock-hour."
"If you say so. Nonetheless, if you have any more questions, please be so kind to ask me first, before you do anything... ill-considered. I don't mind telling you what you need to know."
"And I should trust your judgment on what I need to know?"
The puma shrugged. "Why not? I certainly do! If you don't, it is your problem, not mine. In any case, you will find all the available data on this. I will be here for a few hours. So take your time."
And suddenly, the cheetah vanished in a sand-colored blur and a pulse of breeze.
Duncan let himself relax with a noisy sign of relief. The spotted cat's therapist, Dr. Halliburton, had assured him that Jubatus was not currently in any danger of a psychological meltdown -- but he knew from his years of experience that SCABs in Jubatus' situation could and did run amok with little or no warning. And with the cheetah's physical capabilities...
At least the first part had gone reasonably well. They hadn't been sure if Jubatus would even look at the data or just reject the idea outright. One obstacle down, just a few hundred more to go.
With the object of his focus having left the room, the mountain lion consciously let his gaze sweep over the bar. The last time he'd been here, well over a decade ago, the place had been a battleground -- the site of a skirmish between SCABs and certain humans who, in their bigotry, felt that the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution ought not apply to persons who did not look entirely human. Had he judged only by the present throng, the cougar would never have known that such prejudice was still alive in the world...
As for the physical structure, not much had changed in the interim. Sure there had been quite a few cosmetic alterations, fresh paint and so on, but nothing of substance was different. The Pig's proprietor and bartender was still a (literally) bull-headed man, and his clientele was still a mixed crowd, SCABs and norms alike. All kinds of people, gathered together for a good time, even if just a drink in the company of friends. Duncan was acutely aware that he had lived without this sort of companionship for most of the time since his change, half a human lifetime ago.
Moving into a more comfortable position, Duncan lay down on the bench, resting his head on his front legs as he watched the Pig's other patrons. They came and went freely, and the bouncer didn't even bother to check any of the human newcomers for concealed weaponry! The cougar wondered how the barkeeper, Donnie Sinclair, had managed to create and maintain the 'atmosphere' which let SCABs forget the rest of the world for a time. Quite an accomplishment, he thought. And -- good Lord -- no one is even giving me a second glance any longer! Rather than being the focus of a crowd's fear and distrust (as he had so often been in the past), the cougar SCAB was just there. The other barflies were giving the large cat no more thought than they would his small domestic cousins. His presence seemed utterly and completely unexceptional.
It was only force of habit that kept his ears twitching from time to time, scanning the room like military radars in search of potential threats, of anything unusual... A particular voice caught his interest. Could that be..? How could it not! As if there could possibly be two American canines with that particular accent...
The cougar had some time to kill; it should take Jubatus much longer than 30 minutes to read all the data, even if he did so at what was believed to be his top speed. The cheetah's half-finished drink was still standing on the table, its aroma tantalizing Duncan's nose. Well, I'm sure he wouldn't want it to go to waste. I'll just have to buy him a new one later. Maneuvering his muzzle around the straw, he finished the drink. Ah! And now to properly greet an old acquaintance. Pausing only long enough to extract a pen from his collar and laboriously inscribe a series of mostly-legible letters onto a napkin, he padded inconspicuously through the crowd to Donnie, who occupied his usual post behind the bar.
"Hello Donnie. Do you still have my bowl, the one with 'Kitty' stenciled on it?"
The bullish bartender looked surprised at first, but then, after a bit of thought, nodded.
"Could you mix a catnip daiquiri into it, 80% dilution, and bring it to me in a minute or so? Together with this note, please."
Raising an eyebrow, the bartender gave this request a conspiratorial smile as he smoothed out and read Duncan's paper. This was far from the first time one of Donnie's customers had enlisted his aid for a practical joke of one kind or another -- and nobody quite knew how many pranks had been played without his active connivance.
Having set the machinery into motion, Duncan dropped back onto all fours, slinking along the wall to where a lupine, cape-wearing SCAB with a Shakespearian accent was reciting some piece of movie dialog to an oversized bundle of white fur. Using the available cover of chairs, tables and many other patrons, the puma stalked his still-unsuspecting quarry. He began to purr, and cranked up the volume to more than 20 times that of a domestic cat when he brushed his fur and tail against the backside of the wolf's two legs.
The thespian's performance ground to a stumbling halt. Looking down at the miscreant who had interrupted his impromptu recital, he only managed to utter "I, um..." before recognition dawned on his face. "Who... Duncan?"
He recognized me! By now the quadrupedal feline had meandered around to his victim's front side. In one fluid motion, the cat rose up on his haunches and gave the other SCAB's nose and muzzle the full benefit of his long, rough tongue, complete with the residual smell of Donnie's concoction on it.
"Oh, dear," was the wolf's flabbergasted response, looking cross-eyed at his wet and now very smelly nose. "Not again."
"Miaow!" was the cougar's innocent reply, sounding just like an overgrown housecat. The bartender recognized his cue: Just then Donnie came to the table and placed the bowl in front of Duncan, handing the note to Wanderer.
"For your pet" was scribbled on it, and a second message in a beautiful long hand: "Please keep a closer watch on 'your' cat, this time". Shaking his head with a mixture of surprise, laughter and bad memories, Wanderer handed the note over to the other SCAB sitting at the table. Meanwhile the mountain lion was happily lapping up the content of the bowl placed between his forepaws, giving a few mischievous sideways glances in the direction of his 'owner'.
"Well, Wanderer, it would appear that you two already know each other. Perhaps you might care to introduce me to your... ah... 'pet'?" The voice belonged to an oversized white rabbit, a lapine animorph whose external appearance was somewhat more human than the puma's.
With a theatrical sigh the wolf responded, "I had intended to cleanse my palate -- and philtrum, and muzzle -- but I suppose there is little harm in delaying that happy task for a moment. Phil, it is my... duty and honor... to introduce to you this silver lion, who goes by the name of Duncan. He has spilled a certain amount of blood, even at this place of peace -- albeit none without valid cause, let me hasten to add -- which is why our bovine host felt it necessary to remind me to keep an eye on him. I trust you will both excuse me now?" And he left for the washroom.
Now it was the cougar's time to look dumbfounded, not just about the second-to-last sentence, but even more so at the other's introduction. "Phil? As in Phil Geuß?!?"
Hearing Duncan's words, the rabbit smiled broadly. "You pronounced it correctly! Thank you very much indeed!"
"How else would you pronounce it?" the cat replied, still more than mildly embarrassed about having just played a silly prank in front of the famous SCAB.
Phil's eyes rolled. "You have no idea how inventive people can be, when it comes to mispronouncing or misspelling my last name."
"Uhh, think nothing of it; anyone whose mother tongue is German could do the same. And I am happy to meet you, the creator of the Colonies of Shame website himself."
"Thank you again, but in all honesty, there are thousands of other people who could have done a better job than I."
The puma canted his head at a noncommittal angle. "That may be so, but they didn't. You did."
"Perhaps -- but I rather doubt that any website is why you are here."
The puma had intended to broach the subject in his own way, but since Phil clearly wished to go straight to the heart of the matter, Duncan accommodated him. "Very well, Mr. Geuß. I have followed your work over the last few years with great interest. Not just concerning the colonies, but even more so the individual cases where you were able to help with the mess they suddenly found themselves in after SCABS had changed their lives. Thanks to the efforts of you and those who followed your lead, I find that I am out of work --"
"I am sorry that my --"
"-- and I am very grateful for that."
"What?!?" Phil blurted, nonplused.
"You see, Mr. Geuß, in my former profession I trained Government agents how to deal with those SCABs who could not be reached by you or those like you. I expect you call such people your failures; I call them 'customers' -- people whose lives were shattered by the Martian Flu and have since been living in a fine and private hell of their own. It is the likes of you, offering a helping word, hand or paw at the right time, nudging people away from madness, who make the world a better place whenever you succeed."
Phil, huddled in on himself, looked uncomfortable. "But I don't succeed as often as I should..."
"That may be so, but you are failing less and less every year! The more you do succeed, the fewer feral or psychotic SCABs there are. With less need for me to deal with them myself or to train others to do so, the bean-counters at my former employer suggested that I should retire. That is when I finally decided to follow in your footsteps, even as big as they are compared to these little paws of mine. In the last four years, I set up my place, got all the necessary permits and a degree in SCAB psychology and counseling. And now, instead of hunting down those 'customers' who have been overcome by their predatory nature or 'instincts', I help my 'clients' deal with those urges before they reach that point. I provide them a place where they can safely learn to live with their new form, where a few mistakes on the way are not going to cost anybody their life, and where their pictures will not end up on a page titled 'Wanted! Dead or Alive'. In short, I help them find a future outside of a cage or a casket --"
Just then, a great bundle of noise emerged from the near vicinity of the dart-board, making it impossible for Duncan or Phil to hear themselves speak for a time. After that furor died down, the feline SCAB continued: "Seems the crowd is a bit lively tonight, hm?"
"Indeed they are! In a way, it's a pity Jubatus isn't here with us now -- I've noticed that the Pig is generally a good deal quieter in his immediate vicinity, because very few people want to sit or stand near him."
"Perhaps, but I prefer his absence for the moment. As I was saying: I help my clients hold onto their civilized minds, and I couldn't be more pleased when it all works."
"I see," Phil stated. "I rather suspected that this was no social visit, and I equally suspect that your business involves a certain higher-than-high-strung cat, with a very distinctive voice, who happens to be one of my clients."
Looking at the rabbit, Duncan could not help but perceive the force of his will; lapine-seeming body or no, this man was about as far as one could get from the typical SCAB-bunny who surrendered to his body's new fears and reflexes.
"As much as I enjoy being here again, you are right: It isn't and it does. You, of course, know how hard it is to deal with a predatory SCAB that has or is about to become feral. No matter that you are poorly equipped to handle such persons, no matter that instincts and common sense both tell you to run for your life, you still do your best to help them -- and for that, you have more than my utmost respect.
"Still, no matter how ill-suited you are to helping predators, it goes without saying that I am even less equipped to assist any 'prey' SCABs -- unless you want them running for cover that is. There is just no way I could help there. But predatory SCABs are a different story entirely, and I have quite a bit of experience dealing with very dangerous customers, myself not the least among that number. And even if this might be hard for you to believe, those predatory urges -- the hunger, the hunt, the kill -- those urges scare the shit out of us -- "
"Not all of you," Phil interrupted. He was shaking, and his fear-tinged scent was a tantalizing enticement to the puma. "A-and don't even try to claim that p-predatory urges frighten carnivores as badly as they do herbivores! Those urges don't kill you!"
Duncan was not expecting such a reaction, but he knew the reason for it. "You have been hunted," he said quietly.
The rabbit blinked and forcibly pulled himself together. Even his scent was less fear-marked. "Yes," he replied, matching the puma's volume. "It's... I don't like to talk about it. Don't like to think about it. It was very. Very. Very. Bad."
"I understand," Duncan replied softly. "Truly, I do. Yes, the urges of a predatory SCAB can destroy your bodies -- but they can obliterate our own souls just as easily. You are right, it's not violence we have to fear, but the joy of the hunt, the kill. When we suddenly find ourselves shoved out of the driver's seat of our own bodies, as the star of some b-rated horror movie, that does scare most of us more than you would believe. It becomes worse when we realize: 'Hey, that wasn't so bad. Maybe I can have more of this. Maybe I want more of this! Get even with all those bastards who have ever wronged me.' You are right, the body is not harmed in the least; but what of the mind and spirit? These urges erode the higher, more civilized aspects of the mind, leaving a vacuum in place of such things as compassion and rational thought. But 'nature abhors a vacuum', doesn't it? And I'm sure you can imagine what sort of twisted things will gladly grow to fill that abyss -- especially when well-fertilized by others with the manure of spite and aversion."
Phil nodded minutely.
"Okay. Then add in the rest of the package: Senses that tell you how delightfully tasty the people around you smell, just add a bit of 'catch-up'. Reflexes that are hardwired to lash out at any move they make to run. A body that is built to quietly stalk and hunt your quarry, to bring down your prey, your dinner. The exhilaration of the kill is like a drug that is always available, always right in front of you, always right there for the taking... and there is no price attached, right? ... just somebody else's life. Somebody you neither know or care about. Now, it's one thing for a creature to grow up with such impulses, know them from infancy. But a newly-made animorph SCAB? You may as well put some kid behind the wheel of a Ferrari without some training, some kind of driver's license. In such a situation, the least you can expect are a few close shaves and small mishaps. More likely, there are more than just a few accidents and innocent deaths. And at worst, the kid starts to like this kind of reckless driving -- as you said, he is not the one who dies from it, after all. The adrenaline, the sheer thrill, it is an addiction more deadly than heroin or crystal meth! And before so very long, maybe the addiction is in full control, subverting conscious thought, banishing what is left of the victim's true personality to a private hell, powerless to help himself, unable to cry out. This is the point when even a quick death is welcomed; any other way out, a dream.
"That's where I come in. As long as there is still something left that wants this nightmare to end, that has not completely succumbed to the beast, I can help them to find a way out and give them whatever training they need to learn how to safely drive their new bodies. Offer them the time, place and advice, so that they can come to terms with those senses, instincts, urges and reflexes at their own pace, without hurting others or themselves."
By now, the frightened bunny rabbit of a few seconds' past was gone, replaced by the hard-as-nails counselor so many SCABs owed so much to. "Jubatus."
"Exactly. That poor bastard has a supersonic jet-cat by the tail; I came here to propose a 'test drive' in an safe, secluded area, without any bystanders to get hurt if and when he should do a not so gentle landing."
"What do you need," Phil asked, "and how can I help?"
"The lapine gentleman expresses my sentiments as well," said Wanderer, who had been silently listening since he returned from cleaning up.
"I am pleased to hear you both say so. That is why I wished to meet Jubatus here, in his natural habitat -- his preferred watering hole, so to speak -- where many of his friends congregate," the puma replied. "Speaking of which, I am given to understand that one of his friends is a leonine youth?"
"Quite so -- and the person to whom you refer is the 'Hallan' that our currently-absent comrade shall tutor in the arts of programming."
"What he said," Phil confirmed. "I'm sure that Hallan will show up in just a few minutes, and I am equally sure that either myself or Wanderer will be happy to point him out to you when he does. In the meantime, what can we do to help?"
"Well, I have read all the available files," the puma replied, "but I cannot say I know him, and that is where you all come in. What is your personal impression of Jubatus?"
The rabbit scanned his surroundings thoughtfully. "Hmm... In all honesty, I would prefer that discussions of this sort be conducted in a rather more private setting."
"Perhaps, but the joint is truly jumping," Wanderer observed. "Should anyone seek to eavesdrop over the roar of this crowd, I wish them great joy of their attempt! So, Duncan. You ask me what I think of Jubatus? You would have my opinion of he whose name must surely appear at least twice in any list of the ten most insufferable persons on Earth? You inquire as to my impression of the intensely egotistical and paranoid feline who roundly bested me in one of my personal specialties -- music -- in public, before a de facto jury of my peers, no less?"
"Well... yes, if that is how you wish to phrase it," Duncan said.
The wolf smiled serenely for a short, emphatic pause. "I rather think I like him. Oh, he can be insufferable, make no mistake -- enough so that he and that Susan Carter creature constitute a match made in Heaven, or perhaps a somewhat lower spiritual realm. And when he is engaged in troubleshooting, he does not allow such trivialities as time or money to obstruct his investigations; the problem he is absorbed with shall no more escape unsolved than any bystanders shall escape with egos unpunctured. And, as curious as it may seem for one as hot-tempered and fur-covered as he is, Jubatus has never been one to dispense 'warm fuzzies' when he could instead dispense with them."
Just then, before the wolf could begin the next paragraph of his oration, a new voice carried over the ambient noise: "Hello, Wanderer!"
"Ah; that would be the lion cub himself," Wanderer said to Duncan before turning his gaze towards the newcomer, whose forehead was plainly visible over a sea of hair, fur, feathers, scales, and hats. His appearance could be described as 'adolescent male, human body plan overall, with many leonine features and an arm-full of books'. "Hallan! Your timing is a thing of beauty; please, come here, won't you?"
"Alright. Hey, Phil, how arrr -- rrk!" Hallan said, his eyes bulging momentarily at first sight of the collared quadruped. That was all that was necessary for a radical change in his demeanor. The texts he carried fell, unnoticed, to the floor as he flowed into a defensive combat stance. "Phil. Wanderer. No. Sudden. Moves. Just back away. S-l-o-w-l-y."
Both of the lion's friends were greatly surprised. With his thrashing tail and extended claws, neither of them quite recognized him now. Indeed, more than a few people were hastily retreating from what they feared was a bloodbath in the making! Hallan did not notice any such reactions. To his dilating eyes, now focused fully on Duncan, the cougar was clearly nothing but a dangerous animal, and the lion-SCAB intended to blunt the beast's fury, no matter the cost to himself.
The puma's long experience gave him a rather good idea of what the other feline's problem was. Looking up from his bowl, from which he had taken a few laps just a moment ago, he responded in a friendly tone: "Hello, Hallan! My name is Duncan."
This remark stopped the youth's incipient pounce, leaving him frozen with puzzlement and shock.
"Me Duncan, you Hallan?" the cougar said to the lion, whose train of thought had been completely derailed.
Rising up on his haunches, the puma bumped noses with the other cat, the tip of his tail flicking back and forth in silent (and feline) laughter.
With but one more word -- "Miaow?" -- Duncan licked the cub's muzzle, deliberately coating it with Donnie's concoction.
Hallan, not at all sure how to respond, tried to stare at the deliciously fragrant end of his nose. "Um... err..." Then his crossed eyes became slightly unfocused. "Rrrrrrrr..." he purred.
"I beg your pardon!" Wanderer exclaimed, getting a firm grip on the collar of the tawny-furred cat and waving clean air past Hallan's muzzle. "For all his virtues, Hallan is yet underaged!"
"Really, those rumors that I would eat other lions for breakfast are highly inaccurate." the scolded cougar replied. "It just wouldn't be proper, you know. A Lion's share should always be the main course of dinner, now shouldn't it?" the puma finished his statement with a mischievous smile, the tip of his tail almost a blur.
Meanwhile, the tip of Hallan's nose was soon free of its decoration, fully cleansed by his eagerly questing tongue. "Feeling better?" the puma inquired.
"Yeahhh..." the youth murmured before shaking his head and blinking. "Wow! What the heck is in that stuff?"
The cougar shrugged. "That query is best directed to Mr. Sinclair behind the bar. Hope you don't mind this tomfoolery of greeting another feline; obviously not in the best of ... ah ... taste."
"Oh, it tasted very good. Thanks!" Hallan said, and Duncan knew that his rather unfortunate first impression would not be a problem any longer.
"So. You are the 'Hallan' of whom Dr. Halliburton has spoken so highly, are you not?"
Picking up his books, the adolescent said, "Yes, and you must be that 'Cougar' guy the Doc warned me about. Ah... I'm really sorry... ah... about how I reacted, but, well, it's just that you don't come off like a human at all... um... I mean..."
"So you really are that good at reading the body language of other felines?! But you are right: I'm not human. I am indeed a puma -- just add sentience, as the saying goes."
"Okay... Wait a second. If you're here, it's got something to do with Jube, doesn't it?"
"Indeed it does," Wanderer said. "The gentleman desires --"
"Excuse me." It was the bouncer, a muscular man with a deep voice and decidedly strange-looking eyes, who had interrupted. "Everything okay here?"
While the primary human sign of embarrassment was invisible beneath Hallan's fur, the feline's ears were an adequate substitute. He said, "Yeah... I, um, kinda..."
"It was a simple misunderstanding," Duncan said. "Far from the first time such a thing has happened to me; and with my looks and general demeanor, it is nobody's fault, eh?"
"Good." The bouncer's professional eye swept over the four SCABs, lingering on Duncan for a short time. "I'll be around if I'm needed. You folks have fun."
So saying, the bouncer walked away, leaving a shame-faced Hallan to weather a somewhat uncomfortable pause.
It was the puma who brought the conversation back on track: "Well. I believe Wanderer was speaking?"
"Of course," the wolf-SCAB said, smoothly picking up from where he had been interrupted. "You see, Hallan, our cougarous companion wishes that we inform him of our respective opinions of Jubatus, the better for him to successfully provide aid and succor to our pardine acquaintance."
Grateful that the others were as willing as he to pass over his recent faux pas in silence, the young feline declared, "I'm in," as he grabbed a chair to sit down at what he judged Phil would find a comfortable distance.
"Thank you," Duncan said. "Now, given your special insight and your close exposure, I am rather curious what you think of Mr. Acinonyx, Hallan?"
"My opinion of Jube. Okay..." The youthful lion leaned back in his chair, hands folded right-over-left across his lap, and a descending whistle passed through his teeth. He paused for a long moment, absently grooming his mane with one hand as he gathered his thoughts, but spoke before Duncan decided that a gentle prod might be in order. "I think... he can be a real jerk, sometimes. And heaven forbid he should ever let anything get out of control for even two seconds. And yet..." he trailed off for a few moments. "There's more to him than just that. You can tell, because every so often he slips up and you get a glimpse of the really cool person he could be."
"Thank you, Hallan. Now, when you entered, I think Wanderer was just about to explain how it is that he can like a person who makes a career of irritating him?"
The wolf smirked. "You can't guess? Oh, very well. Jubatus provides an service essential to anyone who, as I do, enjoys holding court -- for it would be a sad court indeed that lacks a jester!"
"A jester?" Hallan inquired. "Come on -- Jube's not that funny!"
Phil, too, had been puzzled, but only for a moment. "No, he isn't. But then he doesn't have to be, does he, Wanderer?"
"Exactement, mon petit ami! Contrary to popular belief, the jester's calling is not to tell jokes but, rather, to speak the unvarnished truth. While others may tell you what you want to hear, or what they think you should hear, it is the fellow in the jingling hat who tells you those things you most need to hear. Yes, Jubatus is blunt, rude, and honest to a fault -- and these qualities are precisely why he makes such an excellent jester! In debate or a contest of wordplay, one cannot ask for a more challenging opponent; likewise, his assistance is invaluable to all who lie in need of clear, rational thinking."
"You can say that of a man you call 'paranoid'?" Duncan asked.
For the first time, Wanderer's mood turned somber. "So I did name him, yes. As the poet hath said:
"He holds the fear of every man,
"The fear of beasts that lurk within,
"An animal beneath the skin,
"That's hid below since time began."
"That, he does," Phil observed. "So, Duncan: You want to know what I think of Jubatus? If truth be told, I feel sorry for that poor, sad, son of a bitch! It's clear to me that he is perfectly miserable almost every day of his life, and nobody deserves to suffer like that."
"Amen!" Hallan said.
"Ah! Dr. Halliburton did mention that you are a devout person. Have you considered converting Jubatus to your religion?"
Hearing those words, Hallan was greatly surprised, but only for a moment, before he laughed and finally said, "Convert Jube? Good luck! I mean, sure it'd do him a world of good -- but if you ask people to attend church, you're more likely to get a 'yes' out of Count Dracula than Jube. Frankly, it'd be easier to get Sue Carter to teach basic algebra without turning it into fourth-dimensional physics, okay?" His mane waved as he shook his head. "Like I said before, there are days when he's a world-class annoyance, but I think it's mostly an act. He doesn't let the mask slip very often... but when you do see the real Jube, you know there's a good person in there."
Phil nodded his agreement. "Indeed. Jubatus never misses an opportunity to grumble about those vocalization classes that I maneuvered him into teaching, but at the same time, I've also noticed that he's never yet missed one himself."
"Yeah! See what I mean? Heck, he's even tutoring me! That Transcript language is a lot easier than Pascal, but sometimes I just can't see how to make it do what I want, and Jube always has an idea. Or three. Or five."
"Very well, but let us return to something Wanderer said: 'He holds the fear of every man,' and so on. Do you think Jubatus is afraid of losing his mind -- becoming the animal he resembles?"
"Oh, yeah. Big time."
"Naturally," Phil stated. "He is not a stupid man, and he is doubtless aware of the relevant statistics for high-degree animorph SCABs like himself."
"It is a fool indeed who fears his own inmost self, and in this matter, Jubatus is most certainly a fool of the first water."
"But none of you are concerned yourselves," Duncan observed. "Why is that?"
"Why should we be concerned? If you're suggesting that Jube could turn feral and start killing, without anyone being able to do a blessed thing to protect themself, I suppose that you're right. What of it? There are lots of things that we bunny rabbits have to worry about. We learn to prioritize our fears -- or if we don't, we've got a one-way ticket to a SCAB Colony."
"As ever, Phil speaks wisdom," the wolf agreed. "In theory, anyone, SCAB and norm alike, could snap and go on a murderous rampage; I myself could take a gun to every producer that ever rejected me, did there exist bullets enough. The world holds potential dangers aplenty, most of which are never realized; to worry on them all is to court madness. "
"Which is exactly why we bunnies learn to prioritize. Jube can't kill me any deader, or more easily, than a norm with a .44 Magnum -- and there are a hell of a lot more norms with .44 Magnums than there are Jubatuses! Besides, in his case, at least, you're absolutely right about predatory urges. They frighten him, too, and very badly indeed! He really doesn't want to kill anybody, and I honestly believe that Jube would do anything to ensure that he never, ever, ever goes feral."
"More to the point: Absent just cause, I simply do not believe Jubatus Acinonyx shall ever inflict damage 'pon his friends, home, nor territory. It is a heavy load indeed that he has taken upon himself to bear, but I am confident that he will not snap beneath it."
Duncan gave Wanderer a look, half-skeptical and half-inquisitive. "How can you know that your confidence is justified?"
The wolf-SCAB grinned, his fangs carefully hidden behind his lips. "Because I, sir, am quite the unusual character. I could say that a killing spree is not within my comrade's pattern of behavior; that I have a touch of second sight, and have seen no such thing in his future; that wanton violence is, quite simply, not in him; or any of a thousand other things. All in all, it comes down to a very strong Feeling, such as has saved my life on several occasions. And in this case, the Feeling tells me that for all his fears and forbidding façade, Jubatus is a man both good and trustworthy."
"You think so? Would you trust him with your life?"
"Indeed I would. In truth, I do so every day!" Wanderer shrugged. "To my way of thinking, there is no future in the alternative."
Here, Duncan turned to the lion. "I notice that you did not speak up, Hallan. Do you think Jubatus' fear is unfounded?"
Hallan looked uncomfortable. "I try not to think about it. And I pray for him. Anyway, that's why Jube sees Dr. Halliburton, right? To make sure he doesn't lose it. Like Phil said, he's not stupid, and he's always got a plan to deal with any problem, including this one. It's just too bad he doesn't trust anybody but himself, because there's other people who'd be happy to help, if he'd only let them!"
"So, Jubatus is a self-reliant person," the puma said. "But it does not sound as if you entirely approve. Do you really think his independence is a problem?"
"Well, it certainly can be, when taken to excess," Phil noted. "Just like anything else. Toxicologists have a very relevant saying: 'The dose is what makes the poison'."
"Or, perhaps more appositely to the current topic, 'No man is an island' --"
"-- 'but I have met quite a few isthmuses, and even a peninsula or two'," Hallan said, interrupting.
Wanderer favored the lion with a quizzical look. "If you'll pardon my saying so, I rather doubt John Donne would have recognized those words."
"No, but Robert A. Heinlein sure would've! Jube's definitely a peninsula, and an awfully thin one."
"Which is to say that his interpersonal relationships are very few in number, if not nonexistent," the cougar observed. "Are there any persons he does like? A girlfriend, perhaps?"
Phil replied, "Or a lover? That question would be a great deal easier to answer if Jube would only -- yiee!" he interrupted himself, slipping beneath the booth's table as an unsteady inebriate tripped over a chair, crashing down where the rabbit had been seated. This person, whose skin had the texture and coloration of weathered asphalt, was immediately accompanied by an irate, rhinoceros-derived SCAB. The first arrival was surprised; the animorph, clearly spoiling for a fight. Fortunately, the bouncer had been on top of their situation, and he arrived in time to pick them up and hold them separate, in one hand apiece, before their disagreement could further degenerate into a drunken brawl.
"Excuse me, people," the bouncer said, nodding at Duncan, before he carried the two troublemakers off -- one to a hand, without evident strain -- to eject them from the Pig.
After recovering his poise, the cougar said, "You know, I don't remember that fellow from my last visit."
"Ah... I believe he is a temporary addition to Donnie's staff," Wanderer explained. "Keeping the peace, as it were..."
At this point, a still-shivering Phil crawled carefully out from under the table to return to his former station. "Don't -- don't mind me," he said. "I'm fine. Just, startled. It h-happens."
Now Wanderer spoke up, seemingly ignoring the lapine SCAB's distress: "I think I might deem the bouncer's presence to be a good omen; when a drinking establishment feels the need for such an addition to the payroll, it generally indicates that the clientele are increasing in number. And in fact..."
The wolf went on to narrate a short anecdote involving a bouncer he had dealt with in the past; curiously, Duncan did not choose to interrupt. Only when the anecdote was finished did the cougar speak: "Are you alright, Phil?"
"Yes, I am, and thank you all for... ah... thank you," the rabbit replied. "Now, where were we? Oh, yes. You were asking if Jube has a girlfriend or lover, and I had just begun to say that in my opinion, he really ought to display his true feelings every once in a while. In any case: As matters stand, I tend to doubt that he has either a girlfriend or a lover. After all, the mere concept presumes that Jube is capable of love -- which he may very well not be, more's the pity."
"Sure he is!" Hallan insisted. "He just won't ever admit it, not even to himself!"
"I fear I must concur with Phil," the wolf said. "I believe Jubatus regards close emotional ties as a luxury he dare not not allow himself, for the simple reason that he fears the worst-case result if he should turn feral. Therefore, until his fear is resolved, I, too, deem the cheetah incapable of love."
"Come on, Wanderer. What about Sue Carter?"
"What of her? If you mean to imply that Jubatus has feelings for that entity, I will not disagree; I shall merely point out that genuine love demands a degree of intimacy far in excess of any capacity our pardine friend has yet displayed for such."
Phil shook his head. "Truly, I can't say which is worse: Jube's isolated lifestyle, or the fact that he has chosen to live that way. I certainly couldn't do that, not even if I wanted to!"
"Excuse me, but we drift from the point," Duncan said, taking control once again. "That spotted cat doesn't let himself love, thus has no lover -- very well. Has he any true friends?"
"I suspect that would depend on the definition that you use," the white rabbit mused. "If a friend is someone who likes him, then yes, he has friends -- and I would be saddened, but not surprised, to learn that every one of them is present here and now. But if you mean a person in whose company he prefers to be, someone he can share his woes and joys with... I don't believe there is anyone."
Hallan looked as if he wanted to contradict Phil, but remained silent. Wanderer said: "Regrettably, I must once again agree. Friendship is but one more of the close emotional ties Jubatus rigidly denies himself."
"No! No, he doesn't!" Hallan said, finally unable to hold his tongue. "I'm sorry, Wanderer -- and you, too, Phil -- but I've been trying to find a polite way to say it, and there isn't one, and you guys just don't know what you're talking about. Jube's a cat, okay? Wolves run in packs, and rabbits live in warrens, but cats walk by themselves! There's plenty of people Jube likes; the thing is, he wants to enjoy them from a comfortable distance. Not up, close, and personal."
The white rabbit looked thoughtful. "And I presume that he, likewise, cares about other people far more than one might suppose from his antisocial demeanor?"
"He sure does! I mean, with his kind of speed, do you know how many ways he could accidentally hurt people? Believe me, Jube knows. He could tell you about every one of those ways, in exhaustive detail, and he goes to great lengths to make sure none of them ever happen. If he didn't, people around him would get sprained and bruised, and worse, all the time -- but they don't! Jube cares, alright. In fact, I'm pretty sure he cares more than even he knows!"
"And yet, he is a highly abrasive person. If you are correct, Hallan, the picture of Jubatus' self-image thereby implied in corollary is... a rather distressing one," Wanderer observed.
"Yeah, but as far as I can tell, Jube really does think of himself as a time bomb looking for a place to explode -- which isn't true, but just try telling him that. And the fewer people are close to him when it happens, the better for everybody, as far as he's concerned. Why else would he try so darned hard to be a permanent pain in the neck?"
"Yes. I know all too well about that myself," Duncan answered, mostly to himself. While it appeared to the others that he was just lost in thought for a few seconds, his stark emotional pain was clearly evident to Hallan. In a low voice the cougar continued, "Sometimes the best thing you can do for the ones you love, is to stay away from them. Sometimes it's the only thing you can do. At least if you want them to live." Then the puma shook his head, as if to physically dislodge certain bad memories from his attention, before he continued in his normal voice, or what passed for it.
"Hallan, since you haven't been around earlier when I told Wanderer and Mr. Geuß about my new line of work, let me give you a short summary: I own a 'little' range in the West, where I specialize in counseling predator-type animorphs with instinct problems. As you have probably guessed by now, Dr. Halliburton recommended my services to Mr. Acinonyx and I am here to propose a two week 'vacation' from his human self, some time off, to get to know his feline self.
"Now, you all are certain that he never would intentionally hurt anyone, but given the nature of this vacation, I am rather concerned about what would happen if his rational self isn't in control of his actions. In short, should I better ask my local 'Patch Adams' to store up on bandages, gauze, stitching thread..?"
"What for?" a puzzled Hallan asked. "Jube won't need that stuff, because nothing else is fast enough to hit him!"
"Perhaps not, but it is my own hide I worry about, not his," Duncan replied. "You see, my Doc has been getting a bit antagonized lately about me not taking proper care and appreciation of all his handiwork."
"You mean to say that getting torn up is normal for you??" Phil blurted out.
"Not the least bit unusual," the cougar replied, unconcerned.
"Dr. Halliburton didn't tell me that about you," Hallan said, looking at Duncan with new respect. "Hopefully, you don't need to spend too much time recuperating?"
Duncan shrugged. "Nah, a few extra scars are hardly a thing to get frantic about. No lasting harm, other than to the resale value of my pelt, but since I ain't selling..."
A mildly exasperated sigh was heard. "Is it just you and Jubatus, or do all felines use black humor to deflect concerns about their personal health?" Wanderer inquired.
"What is to deflect? The body heals fast enough, just apply some Band-Aids and stitches. Wounds of the soul, now, those are a different matter; there is not any fast and easy fix for those." As an afterthought, muttered more to himself than any outside hearer, he went on: "And I got already more of those kind of wounds than I care for..." Then he continued; his voice was again firm and clear, although it was still hardly more than his customary inflected growl. "In any case, that is neither here or now. So Hallan, Dr. Halliburton told me that you were the caretaker of Mr. Jubatus when he had to recover from a car accident last year. You mind telling me how much trouble that was?"
"Hoo-boy..." Thinking back on those weeks, Hallan shook his head with a rueful smile. "Let's just say that Jube was as bad as an oversized kitten. He got into everything, and he left paw-prints everywhere -- including up the walls and on the ceiling!"
Duncan's ears pricked up with interest at these words. "Even from my small exposure to the man, I can tell that Jubatus is a tightly-wound fussbudget -- but you say he was frisky as a kitten? Now, you made me real curious for more of that little episode. How about I buy you a drink?"
"Thanks, Duncan! I'll take a Coke, if that's okay."
"Caffeine?!? You ain't serious? No, I think what you really want is something far more suitable for a feline of your stature, something like -- a catnip daiquiri! That will put some hair on your chest," Duncan stated with a twinkle in his eyes and a little jab at the young lion, before he added in his best conspirator's voice: "Gives the girls more to play with. Believe me, they'll love it!"
The lion-cub's ears and tail fell at these words. "Eep!" Looking over his books to cover his disquiet, Hallan said, "I, uh... omigosh! I left my homework back at home! I gotta go!" Even before he finished speaking those words, the youthful feline had risen to his feet and was rushing for the door.
Looking first at the cub's receding back, and then the wall-clock behind the bar, Phil said, "I fear that I, too, must leave. You see, there is another client waiting for me at the West Street Shelter, and his appointment begins in 10 minutes. I'm going to have to hop as it is, to make it in time."
"Of course! Don't allow me to delay you. And thanks for the time you took here. It certainly helped me to get a better understanding of Jubatus."
"I'm glad I could help. Say -- why don't you come to the Shelter after you talk with Jube? One of our other residents is a Rottweiler quadruped SCAB, and I haven't done much with him, for fear that my approach might actually make his problems worse. With any luck, you might just be able to help him get a handle on his instinct problems."
"I would be most pleased to help in any way I can! I will be there, after my talk with Jubatus."
"Great! See you later, Duncan." With that the rabbit hurried out of the bar.
After the dust settled a bit, Wanderer asked, "Is alcohol a standard element in your arsenal of therapeutic techniques?"
"Not at all. For one thing, it would poison more than a few of my clients; for another, catnip alone is far more useful when dealing with felines. Why do you ask?"
"Just idle curiosity, to be honest. After all, Hallan is still underage."
"Mmm... I don't think you and I are looking at the same person. The Hallan I see has not only grown a mane, but is a grown man. And even if he were not, there are some countries in which he would certainly be old enough to have something as innocent as a bit of well diluted catnip daiquiri for a drink."
"They do grow up quick, don't they?" Wanderer mused.
"Tempus fugit," the cougar replied. "Speaking of which, I believe I should get back to my table as well. Just in case Jube is going to be back on time."
After the Cougar had settled down again on the bench opposite to where the cheetah morph had sat earlier, he thought to himself: Now, we just have to find out if Mr. Jubatus is willing to leave his cage of fear when someone opens the door. Duncan was just taking another lap of out of his bowl of diluted catnip daiquiri, which again rested between his paws, thanks to the help of Wanderer, when a large and brawny deer-derived animorph SCAB stepped through the front entrance. Fur-covered and with two thick fingers on each hand, perhaps his most obvious non-human feature was his antlers; he was at least a 12-point stag, perhaps even 14-point. As had been true when Duncan arrived, nobody in the common room gave the newcomer a second glance. He was accompanied by another deer-SCAB, this one female, albeit conspicuously more human than her companion. She got second glances -- third as well -- along with an array of appreciative whistles.
"Don't worry, Zelda," the stag said, "anybody wants to take a bite out of you, they'll have to get through me first!"
"Gosh, Stuart," she replied, "You're so big and strong that I just can't help but feel safe around you!" The amusement in her voice was clear, but apparently not enough so for Stuart to notice it, for he was busy finding a nice, vacant and out of the way place for a bit of tête-à-tête. His gaze came to rest on a seemingly empty table in the back of the bar, and he had very nearly sat down upon Duncan's tail when the cougar spoke up.
"Hello, my Deer. Is it dinner time already?" Duncan announced with a grin for which he made no effort whatsoever to conceal any of his pearly whites -- which, in turn, very nearly startled the cervine SCAB out of his mind. That (as luck would have it) was the tableau which greeted Jubatus' eyes when he returned to the common room, and the cheetah's concern for Stuart was exactly and precisely that of any driver for an approaching speed-bump. Clearly, the feeling was not mutual. Stuart, suddenly finding himself trapped in between two staring felines, froze in evident terror -- which meant that he continued to obstruct the spotted cat's way to his seat. After a moment of the antlered SCAB's paralysis, Jubatus blurred around the obstacle to sit down on his bench. Still unable to move, the stag began to emit a piteous whine.
Jubatus glowered up at the noise. "Do you mind? We're trying to talk here!"
"No -- please -- I would love to have him stay," Duncan said with a predatory grin that, if anything, exposed even more of his fangs than previously. "For dinner."
That was too much for the stag, who bolted for the parking lot. Behind him remained but two things: His fear-touched scent, and quite a few of his antler-tips, the latter of which he apparently did not notice breaking off against the steel door-frame when he exited the common room.
"Can't take that man anywhere," the doe-SCAB sighed, rolling her eyes heavenward . "I swear, if he wasn't so damn good in... oh, never mind."
"So, no desserrrt for this lonely kitten?" Duncan purred while trying to make puppy eyes at the lovely doe.
The object of his flirtation giggled and stroked the cougar's head. "You're cute, did you know that? Sorry, but I never date outside my species. 'Bye, kitty-cat!" So saying, she followed her male companion -- but did not pick up his discarded antler-pieces as she went.
"Too bad. That deer looked delicious."
"BFD. Any other pressing business you need to deal with? No? Good," the cheetah said with an irritated expression. Then, with no more preamble than a blur and a tiny rush of air, Duncan's memory stick was in front of him. Jubatus gave the puma no time to respond before speaking further: "Interesting reading. So you're a rheotic chronomorph?"
Duncan glared at the other SCAB, answering with a slight snarl. "You would know about that more than me. Still, I do not think either of us have time to waste, so let's be brutally honest."
"Yes, let's. 16% of all your 'clients' end up dead, and three quarters of the carcasses -- 12% of the whole lot -- died because you ripped 'em apart with your fangs and claws. Why should I give you a one-in-eight chance of wasting my ass?"
"I see you have done your homework. Just so that we talk about the same thing, none of my 'clients' died, ever. However, those 'customers' you just referred to were all hazardous criminals, and it is those persons to whom that 16% figure applies! Every one of them was wanted 'dead or alive', for things they already had done, things they could and very likely would do again, anytime they so desired or the opportunity arose. And it is worth noting that the 16% includes those who died of an accident, those who killed themselves rather than be captured, and the 12% who were too dangerous to be captured alive. And even so, I still managed to bring back 5 out of 6 of them alive for a proper trial! I invite you to compare my record to that of any other operative who has ever dealt with similar targets, Mr. Acinonyx. Or if you would rather not, consider what sort of existence any of them could have enjoyed had I let them live: The best any of that 16% could have hoped for after what crimes they had committed was to be chained up and beaten in an isolated cage for the rest of their life."
"In other words: They were gonna die anyway, so why not cut to the chase, is that it? Well, I guess every killer has his excuse. You enjoy it? Murdering people, I mean?"
"We all gonna die one day. However, I am not a savage, Mr. Acinonyx. When I kill, it is from necessity, because all other options would be even worse. But now let me turn your question around: Do you enjoy the way your life has been running since your change? How long do you believe can you continue as you are? Another year? Two? Or much less? You don't have to answer that, just think about it. There is just so long until something gives... Just like a kettle on a fire. Maybe the fire goes out before the whistle blows, but if not, it will start to give off steam and sooner or later it will blow."
"Assuming nobody's around to reduce the flame or vent off any pressure, sure. What's your point?"
"My point is that you are giving off steam already, Mr. Acinonyx. You need some time to yourself, an opportunity to safely reduce that pressure. Maybe also learn some other ways to deal with your unique situation. If you do none of these things, well, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what can happen when your whistle blows. If you are lucky, your mind erases itself. You go feral, become a simple, normal cheetah for real. Maybe end up in a zoo."
"So what? Seems to me like a zoo would be a good place to keep an animal."
Duncan took note of the cheetah's emphasis. "If you really believe that, maybe you should check into one for a week, as that would seem to be among the better options for your future. But as you have read my file, you should know that I have been trapped in such a place. Take my word for it, you don't want to live in a cage. Not even a well-intended one! As I said, that is if you are lucky. And if not ... you end up dead, and God knows how many other corpses before you."
"Fine," Jubatus said coldly. "Are you done telling me what I already know? What? Is? Your? Point?"
"Simply this: You are running towards death, either of body or of mind -- and you know it. Do you find this prospect so attractive that you are unwilling to follow a different path? If so, fine. It is your life, while you still have it. But I offer an alternative, a way for you to bank your fires -- in an isolated area where there are no innocents to be maimed or killed if anything goes wrong. Can you afford not to accept what I offer?"
"Yes," the cheetah shot back without a pause. "Y'know, I'm beginning to doubt you've talked to my shrink; if you really had, you'd know that high-pressure tactics don't work on me worth a damn."
"Actually, the only tactic I have used is the single one he felt would work on you, Mr. Jubatus: Speaking the truth, as completely and objectively as I can. If either of us has failed to listen to Dr. Halliburton, I think it would be you! Has he not given you many suggestions and proposals? And have you not steadfastly refused to co-operate with the vast majority of those suggestions? At minimum, this trip will provide you with the hard facts you need to decide how to continue your life, which proposals to consider and which to reject. Or would you prefer to be guided by preconceptions, fears and superstitions instead? In truth, both your doctor and I really would rather have you as one of my clients than one of my customers. When he heard about me opening shop last year, he contacted me immediately."
"That's nice. You want somebody to play guinea pig for any of your pet theories, you can just keep right on going, because it sure as Gehenna ain't gonna be me."
"Being someone's pet isn't quite as bad as you might believe -- it sure beats finding yourself in the spot you are heading towards. Been there, done that, you know."
"If you think being a pet is so damn great, why the hell are you here instead of somebody's yard?" the cheetah sneered. "Be a fucking hypocrite, see if I care. But whatever you do, just leave me the hell out of it. You want I should pack up and go with you on some wilderness trip where there's no witnesses? Yeah, that's a winner. I wouldn't put my life in your hands if you had any. As for me, you're right; Doc Halliburton has made bunches of noise about 'letting go' and 'bringing the feline instincts out into the light' and all that bullshit." For all that Jubatus' voice was unmistakably inhuman, the corrosive contempt in his tone would have made his opinion clear even without the terminal expletive. "I know what I'm physically capable of, damn it! Anyone thinks I'm gonna take a chance on letting a supersonic predator run free, they can go to Hell and kiss my ass."
"Anyone who did wish to kiss your ass would have to go to Hell -- or am I wrong to believe that that is where you now live? This devil cat knows the way around that particular real estate quite well. Nonetheless, I did find my way out. If you like, you can think of my offer as a chance to acquire a 'get out of Hell free' card of your own. And yes, I can ensure the safety of yourself and, maybe even more importantly to you, all those around you. Since you have read my data, you might agree that this promise is not an empty one."
"Right. I should be a good little kitty-cat, just follow you up to some Godforsaken mountaintop where nobody's around to watch as you rip my throat out. I should forget your Federal connections, and not worry about any sleazebags who figure it's easier to railroad a SCAB who's unstable enough to need your kind of counseling. I mean, it's not like you could possibly have anything to do with any of the Government stooges who've already tried to slap a 'feral' label on me, lock my ass up in a Colony, and rob me blind, right?"
The sarcasm was thick enough to plant trees in; Duncan ignored it. "I think I know of the stooges you refer to, and I share your distaste for them. But I should remind you that the Governmental branch I worked for, the CIRG, bears the motto 'servare vitas' -- in English, 'to protect life'. And during my term of service, I did protect life to the greatest extent I could, including the lives of those not so innocent, even if I myself got hurt in the process. This is what I do now, really; the only difference is that I get involved before someone like you goes postal, not afterwards. Much nicer all around."
"Like I care. Why don't you just head on back to your little Idaho compound? With your body count, I'm sure you fit right in with all the neo-Nazis and militia freaks up there." If Jubatus noticed the fire that started to burn in Duncan's eyes when he made this tactless statement, he gave no outward indication of it.
"Those ain't quite my taste," the puma answered with more than just a hint of a snarl, "neither their greasy supremacist's potbelly bodies, nor their slimy ideology and moldy idiocy. Don't you worry; those smart enough to read have learned to stay clear of my place, while the rest, the majority of those hillbillies, aren't going to bother me more than once." Then, with visible effort, the mountain lion got a grip on himself. "As for you, I am puzzled. If you go feral and become one of my customers, you have an 8 out of 9 chance of living, which you say is not good enough. At the same time, the clients that I have worked with over the years have a 100% survival rate -- and yet you don't like that, either. You do not want to hurt innocents, and my 'compound', as you call it, is very far away from civilization. There is hardly nobody around who could be hurt! Even so, you still do not accept my proposition.
"What I have to offer, it depends on you, Mr. Acinonyx. It cannot work without your help, your cooperation. So why do you refuse? Okay, you fear it will turn out to be a bad idea. I cannot prove you wrong beforehand, but at least I can ensure that there will be no innocents involved, just you and me. On the other paw, what if it turns out to be a good idea? Maybe you find a way to deal with your unique situation and live. If nothing else, you will have a better idea what you are really up against, get some hard facts to base your future decisions on."
"You want facts? Fine. Here's one: Every fucking time I've ever lost control, people get hurt -- and my casualty rate make yours look trivial. And here's another fact: You haven't even been able to stop slowpokes from ripping you some new scars! Worst case, I'm a Mach 3 berserker, and what the hell makes you think you'd have any chance whatsoever? Ares and Tyr! You'd be dead before you even felt the entrance wound."
"Perhaps. But I do think I would have a chance, and the reason why is in the data I gave you. Ah, well. I don't blame you for your doubts; it does sound pretty much unbelievable. So how about we make an empirical test, have a little race? The last one to the door, pays the bill."
"You're onnn..." the cheetah said with an unpleasant smile, his voice trailing off oddly at the final syllable. Curiously, he moved no more than mere centimeters as Duncan lazily sauntered over to the Pig's front entrance, threading a path between Donnie's many customers with leisurely strides. Only after the puma reached his destination did Jubatus finally follow suit, first at his accustomed eye-blurring pace, then slowing down more and more from a run, to a jog, to a walk, to a near-standstill, breathing hard by now, a few strides away from the cougar.
"There you are, Jubatus! What keeps you, hm?" Duncan smiled up at the glowering feline, who was now only two steps away. "Give me a call when you are coming, will you?" So saying, the puma took advantage of a paw-friendly handle to open the door and make his exit.
Jubatus stared at the door for some few seconds after it closed, and his thoughts were his own...
"Ah -- Jubatus?"
The cheetah whipped around to look at the intruder. "Oh. Wanderer. What's up?"
"After that little exhibition just past, I was hoping you could tell me. Whatever became of your far-famed celerity, if I may inquire?"
"The puma's a rheotic chronomorph, that's what became of it."
"Of course. Naturally, I would never question the veracity of your statement, but perhaps you could clarify the meaning of the word 'rheotic'? Strictly for the benefit of those who are not fully conversant with the finer points of SCABS-related taxonomic terminology, that is."
"Come on -- it's the same root as 'rheostat' and 'rheology', for crying out loud!"
"No doubt. And..?"
The cat buried his impatience under a growl. "Rrr... Okay, fine. Sucker plays with Time flow -- he can put the brakes on other people. Pretty rare trick, and he's one of the few who can do it."
Wanderer looked thoughtful for a moment. "Indeed. So... while you were 'upshifting', as you call it, Duncan was, at the same time, 'downshifting' you?"
"Yeah," Jubatus said with a grimace. "And it looks like his mojo's stronger than mine."
"Truly?" The wolf blinked in surprise. "That is most wondrous excellent! If you were the praying kind, one might even say it was the answer to your prayers."
"Well, sure. I mean, two weeks with an admitted serial killer the only company within a 50-mile radius? Who wouldn't pray for that?"
Wanderer's face fell. "You're not going to do it."
The cheetah's only reply was a disdainful glance.
"Jubatus. You..." Then the feline had vanished in one of his typically abrupt (and blurry) exits. Fortunately, he had merely resumed working with his laptop, rather than leaving the Pig. Wanderer sighed. There are days, he mused, when a fellow could wish that cheetah made it easier to be concerned for his well-being... Very well. Once, for his sake. And whatever the result, that shall be the end of it.
It was at this point that Hallan returned with his missing books. "Hello again, Wanderer! I'm not late, am I?"
"Not at all, my young friend. In point of fact, you are just in time to witness an attempt, likely futile, to encourage a certain cheetah to change his mind."
One look at Jubatus, and Hallan's tail drooped and his ears sank flat against his skull. "Um... I don't think that's a good idea. Sir."
"In all honesty, I am inclined to agree with you. Nonetheless, I shall essay precisely one act of persuasion. And after his doubtless expletive-laden refusal, I shall walk away with clean hands and clear conscience."
"Well, yeah, but --" Hallan muttered as Wanderer began walking towards the cheetah. "Oh, geez. 'I've got a really bad feeling about this'..."
With Hallan in tow, Wanderer quickly rejoined the cheetah, who (to all appearances) was exactly as he had been before the puma had disturbed him.
The cheetah didn't even look up from his typing. "Hallan can stay. Wanderer can get lost."
"I intend to. After you have answered one question for me: Why do you reject Duncan's offer?"
Now the cat reacted; in one super-fast motion, he slammed his laptop shut and turned to stare directly at Wanderer. "Because he's a goddamn idiot! He wants me to let my instincts run wild, no fucking control whatsoever, and nothing but empty air between me and Artemis only knows how many innocent victims! Christ on a sidecar, like I don't have enough recurring nightmares already!?"
"Recurrent... ah. So at least one person has already died at your hands."
"Please, Wand-" the young lion whispered urgently to Wanderer.
Whatever else Hallan said was lost under Jubatus' next, bellowed, words: "You're damn right I've killed before, and I got two words for you: Never. Again. My God! every, fucking, time, it was so fucking easy, and that's when I'm trying to play by the rules! Can you even imagine what kind of body count I'd rack up if my instincts were in charge? I. Can. It's bad enough that movie keeps playing inside my head; if I ever see it outside, I just hope there's enough of me left that I can manage to off myself before anybody else buys the farm! You think I'm stupid or bloodthirsty enough to take a chance on the killer kitty's playground of corpses, you can take two running jumps and go straight to Hell. So listen up, dogface, because I'm only going to say this once: Leave. Me. Alone. Me and the cub got work to do."
"Please --" Hallan whispered; his companion gestured him to silence.
"Of course you --"
Suddenly the cheetah stood up to interrupt Wanderer, punctuating his loud words with impossibly swift gestures that produced thin, ragged strips of bloody flesh: "Whatpartof" -- hwst! -- "leavemethefuckalone" -- hwst! -- "areyouhavingtroublewith!" -- hwst!
Without a word, Wanderer slumped backwards against the side of the booth, looking at the cheetah in shock and twitching as though he were a target of invisible blows. Hallan, crying, "Jube! Stop!" tried to interpose his own body as a shield.
Unfortunately, something blurred around the wolf and lion. With a contemptuous "Where'syourfuckingGodnow, Scripturebrains!" and a staccato series of rapid-fire thumpathump impacts, Jubatus sent the cub flying off to slam loudly and heavily into one of the common room's support posts.
Having disposed of an obstacle, the mad cheetah returned his attention to his primary target. "You again." -- hwst! -- "What's up? Nothing to say? Come on!" -- hwst! -- "What's the matter, actor-boy? Cat got your tongue? Where's the practiced, professional charm" -- hwst! -- "that's made you a household name, star of stage and screen!" -- hwst!
While the spotted cat howled, a horrified Wanderer could only stare helplessly into his assailant's contorted face.
"Comeon!" -- hwst! -- the cheetah screamed at Wanderer. "Saysomethingwitty" -- hwst! -- "yougoddamnsonofabitch!"
Two simple words... that hit Jubatus with the force of a battering ram. He froze up, spending two full seconds as an organic statue. The Pig was as silent as a tomb; all eyes were upon the spotted cat, including those closest to the support post Hallan's inert body had slid to the bottom of. Finally the cheetah vanished in an indistinct blur. Before his afterimage faded off anyone's retinas, nothing was left behind other than the 'click-clack' of the latch to the Pig's front entry and the slowly-dispersing stench of rage and terror.