|This is the second 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 1: With a Single Step
by Duncan Cougar and Quentin Long
©2005 Duncan Cougar and Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
At a specific spot in the mountains of Idaho, the sky was clear. The Sun shone down on everything, not least a particular boulder on which a perhaps-familiar cougar was sprawled, sunbathing. Within sight of this boulder, there was but one sign of 'civilization' -- a matching pair of shallow ruts whose spacing suggested that at least one motor vehicle had been driven here in the recent past -- and even that could easily be overlooked. Harder to ignore was a low-pitched noise, the sound of a large automobile approaching in a lower gear.
He would drive all the way up here in his mobile home, wouldn't he? the puma thought. Why am I not surprised? Makes you wonder if the cheetahmorph hasn't got a bit of turtle in him, carrying his protective shell wherever he goes. Damn that noisy chunk of industrial junk, spewing noxious fumes into the clear mountain air...
Arrhh well, can't be helped for now. Trying to get a few more seconds of undisturbed sunbathing, the cougar luxuriated a bit longer on the warm rock in the middle of the meadow, his purring a sort of counterpoint to the rumbling engine of the nearing Ford Extremis.
Finally the SUV stopped a few meters away from the rock. The driver's side door opened; Jubatus stepped out. His ever-present vest was as bulky as Duncan remembered it, if not more so. Compared to the cheetah's usual demeanor, he was far less animated, if not diffident; the change was obvious even to one with the puma's small exposure to him. "Hello, Duncan."
"Oh, there you are. I must have missed your coming through all that noise and smell that piece of 'civilization' has been making while driving into my living room," the mountain lion answered, stretching one leg after another, before he finally jumped down from the rock.
"Welcome, Jubatus. Glad you could make it here, but I am curious: When last we spoke, you were adamant in your refusal to accept my offer. How did you come to change your mind?"
"Does it matter?"
"Not to me. So, you all set to go?"
"Yeah, just let me close up the car," answered the spotted feline, who let action follow his words.
The cougar watched indifferently for a moment; when it became clear that his companion was going to carry all his stuff, Duncan asked, "Don't you want to leave that vest of yours in the car as well for this short trip? To be honest, it strikes me as more than overstuffed. Can you truly carry so much payload?"
"Yep." Jubatus' smile was a wan facsimile of his customary expression. "Us cheetahs are stronger than we look -- 70-MPH sprints take a lot of power."
"Well, yes, but even so, you really think you will need all that?"
"You tell me," the cheetah said with a shrug before he began to display the contents of various pockets. "I like to be prepared. I got a week's worth of high-density protein rations and catalyst filter for fresh water; two space blankets; lightweight carbon-fiber pitons, hammer, and handsaw; disinfectant; feline-rated antibiotics and painkillers; sterile bandages; 50 meters of polyrope; insect repellent; hyperabsorbent terrycloth; flint and steel --"
"Flint and steel?! Oh my... when was the last time you have been camping, after leaving the Boy Scouts that is? A word from the wise, fur and fire don't mix. Therefore, at least leave that flint and steel. Better -- since you asked me to tell -- leave everything. Not one of the items you carry is needful." Here Duncan raised a paw, counting off points by extending one claw at a time: "There is plenty of food and drink; at this time of year, our fur will be all the shelter we need; and what our bodies don't have, our minds should be able to find."
"Says you. If you're wrong, we're screwed; if I'm wrong, I get some exercise. You don't need to be a Boy Scout to agree with their motto!"
"Of course, but I always thought they meant preparedness of mind and body, not senselessly lugging baggage around. Anyway, don't you think that I know something of what we'll need, after spending the last thirty-plus years outside? Really, just leave that junk here. It's rather a long walk up there, though the glorious view, especially at sunset, will be worth it. And climbing up there will be a lot easier, if you don't have all that stuff to get in the way, when you move on all fours."
"Quadrupedal? Not. Thanks, but I'll stand."
"Arrhhh, well. Have it your way. While I am your guide here, the choices you will have to make, will be your own. I can show you the paths I know about, but that is all. Take whichever path you like, or blaze your own trail; it is completely up to you. Since you are doubtless hungry after your long drive up here, shall we go out to dinner?"
Duncan nodded. "In that case, just follow me." With those words, the puma trotted off towards a trail leading through a small forest at the edge of the meadow up to one of the larger 'hills' in the North.
When Jubatus followed after his quadrupedal guide, it soon became apparent that while this pathway might be perfectly suited for anything standing less than 4 feet high at the shoulder, it was well-supplied with obstacles -- brambles, low hanging branches and more -- that seemed to have been placed there for the sole purpose of hindering the passage of anything walking on two legs or wearing some garment with bulging pockets.
Soon curses and other blasphemies could be heard in the otherwise silent mountain air, at first mumbled then more and more outspoken by an increasingly annoyed cheetah, who had evident difficulty in keeping pace with his companion. Before they had covered a mile, Duncan stopped to allow the spotted cat opportunity to catch his second wind.
Looking at Jubatus' rhythmically heaving chest, the cougar inquired, "I heard that cheetahs are good for cruising long distances at a jog. You, however, do not seem to be quite up to speed. Is something wrong?"
"Naah," the cheetah said in between breaths. "Just, not used, to fighting, my way through, this kind of, undergrowth."
"Hmm... in that case, there is an obvious solution: Lose that vest of yours and get down on all fours. You can always pick it up later when we come back."
So saying, Duncan strode off purposefully on four legs; after a short, irritated pause, Jubatus followed on two, his eyes shooting daggers at the puma. Before long, the two cats reached a point where the 'trail' (such as it was) took a dramatic turn towards the vertical, well-equipped with such obstacles as awkwardly-placed trees and sheer rock faces.
The cheetah's disbelief was evident before he opened his mouth: "We're going up that?"
Duncan was serenely unconcerned. "Yeah, quite easy going, I know, but if you like, we can take a short cut." So saying, the puma waved a paw towards what looked like a sheer overhanging wall of rock. Jubatus' worried eyes followed the direction indicated, but failed to perceive how any creature without wings might possibly ascend the forbidding slope.
"You've gotta be shitting me," Jubatus breathed.
The cougar SCAB merely shrugged. "No, but I wasn't sure how good you are at climbing and leaping. Still, if you like, we can go up the fast way. Just takes a few vertical and horizontal dynos," he said.
"And what, exactly, is a 'dyno'?"
Duncan responded by pointing at various ledges just large enough to put some paws on, each separated from its nearest neighbors by several meters of horizontal and/or upwards direction.
"You've gotta be shitting me," Jubatus repeated, with feeling, when he realized that this nigh-vertical wall truly was within the other cat's definition of 'a way up'.
"I take it you would prefer to take the scenic route?"
A speechless cheetah just nodded.
"Trust me, the view is worth the climb. And if my paws can hold me, your hands should have no trouble, right?"
Duncan gave the spotted cat no opportunity to reply; instead, he leapt upslope and started climbing. For his part, Jubatus began to ascend with less speed, cautiously choosing his every hand- and foot-hold. After a few minutes of serious climbing, the two cats hit a short stretch of less vertical ground.
While he patiently waited on his gasping charge to make his way up, Duncan rebuked mildly from above: "And here I thought even cheetahs had a little more endurance than that. Seems we have to work on that."
Jubatus looked harshly at the puma as he panted. "Endurance!? Look, pal... I don't usually... spend this much time... at a tempo of 1... Far as I'm concerned... I'm in, a 6-G centrifuge, at the moment. You try, climbing with one G, worth'a load, under six Gs."
"Ah! You are messing around with space-time, and not just speeding up your own metabolism? I had always wondered about that. So when you 'upshift' to faster than normal, you reduce your local gravity by the same factor? Sorry, no messing around in my area. And I must say, I am disappointed to discover how slow you truly are without your chronomorphic crutch!"
Still not recovered from the latest ascent, the spotted cat retorted, "You got, a lot of damn gall, calling me slow, when you're the one, slowing me down."
"Ts, ts, ts. I don't understand why you are unhappy, Jubatus. You spend so much time bitching about how the rest of the world cannot keep pace with you... and now that it can, you abuse the person who solved that problem for you? Such ingratitude!" Not deigning to notice the cheetah's irate glare, Duncan added with a toothy grin, "So, are you ready to pick up the pace some on the next stretch?"
"Rrr -- try me, speed bump!" Jubatus shot back without thinking.
At this Duncan took off in large bounds. For his part, Jubatus - also on all fours now - was right behind his 'host'. His rate of climb soon matched and exceeded the puma's. After just a few minutes Jube overtook his guide, charging ahead along the ridge leading up to one of the lesser peaks.
There was no banter on this leg of the ascent; at the pace the cheetah set, even Duncan had little breath to spare for such things. After both cats had caught their breaths at the summit, a smug and gloating Jubatus jeered, "I told you us cheetahs are stronger than we look. And did you seriously think you could outrun something that holds the land speed record?"
"In this terrain? If it's bipedal, sure! But then, four-point support is a great deal better than two-point."
Hearing these words, Jubatus' smirk was instantly replaced by a venomous stare; if looks could maim, Duncan would have instantly become a basket case. "You planned this."
The other SCAB's face was a marvel of childlike innocence. "Who, me? I can't imagine what you think you're talking about. Come on, we don't want dinner to spoil -- hey!"
Duncan interrupted himself because his companion had slumped to the rock, utterly without warning, slowly sliding down one side of the ridge. The puma immediately rushed downslope and tackled the other cat, while counting upon his chronomorphic power to keep his charge under control and safe.
Soon he had four solid paw-holds, and his jaws were firmly clamped to the back of Jubatus' overloaded vest. What the fuck happened -- heart attack? Stroke? Circulatory collapse? Just over-exertion? Mmmh, he does smell funny... Well, whatever. First get him to a safe place, then check him out -- and this cursed vest, too.
He kept Jubatus 'frozen', on the theory that an inert cheetah would be less bothersome than one who might otherwise awaken at an inopportune moment, while en route to the summit. Taking the fast route up, the cougar carried the cheetah like a mother cat with a rather too large kitten. With just a few leaps Duncan arrived at their destination. There he took off Jube's vest in a hurry -- while he could not work the zipper, his claws provided a second, equally efficacious, means of removing the garment -- before checking for pulse, breathing and scent. Damn it! I knew it. He used some kind of drug, probably dosed to his customary high speed metabolism...
Looking at the soggy shreds that remained of the vest after having been abused, first by carrying its wearer and then by getting torn to pieces by Duncan's fangs and claws, the mountain lion had a mischievous thought: How considerate of Jube, granting me this opportunity to get rid of his supplies! After he had safely disposed of the vest and all it contained, the puma sat down on his haunches about a meter away from Jubatus. Only then did he allow him to return to the normal flow of Time. This caution was justified; as soon as the cheetah was able to move, his limbs thrashed as if in frantic search for handholds, a panicked reaction which ended in less than a second. His eyes darted this way and that until he caught sight of his savior. A moment of furrowed brow later, he asked, "Okay, what just happened here?"
The puma shrugged. "You decided to fall asleep on an 80-degree slope -- not a good choice, to my way of thinking. Your turn now: What happened? Why did you suddenly keel over like that?"
Mercurial, Jubatus' mood shifted to abject embarrassment in an instant. His subdued reply was, "I, um, screwed up. Shouldn't've let you piss me off like that -- I missed the warning signs."
"'Warning signs'? Of what, if I may ask?"
"Low blood sugar. Exhaustion. What you'd expect from someone with a metabolism like an atomic blast furnace." And now the cheetah wore a sad, weak smile. "Care to guess how many calories I burned beating you up here? Usually I make sure to eat before I collapse, but judgment's one of the first things to go when I'm running on empty. Good thing I packed a few snacks..." Here Jubatus patted himself down, in search of something not present. "Shit -- my vest!" Only then did the spotted cat realize his usual outfit, and the voluminous list of things contained in its pockets, was gone. "Where'd it go, what did you do!"
"I am sorry, Jube, but your vest didn't make it," the cougar calmly replied. "I had to stick my claws into something to keep you from sliding down and over the precipice. It was either you or your vest."
"Rrrr... never mind," the cheetah growled, his outrage dissipating as quickly as it had first arisen. "I got a spare in the Extremis; I'll get it. After dinner."
"Oh? Well, I am glad you aren't too mad at me about this -- but by all means, you should stuff yourself before you do anything else. Fortunately, a friend of mine brought some treats for us just this morning: Fillet steak á la feline." So saying, Duncan stepped out of the way, granting Jubatus unobstructed sight and scent of the neatly trimmed pieces of raw beef lying on a clean slab of rock. A quirk of nature had positioned a few boulders just so that the place not only afforded a gorgeous view over the landscape below, but was also shielded from the wind and the elements, even though it was just a few meters away from the edge of the cliff. The cheetah took in the sight, his mouth salivating while his belly reminded him that it was, once again, 'time to feed the beast'.
"Just help yourself. There should be enough to fill even your stomach up to bursting."
"I don't see any plates or utensils," Jube observed, remembering his manners just in time, even though he was hard pressed not to drool at the sight.
Duncan raised one of his front paws. "Sorry, but those are hardly of any use for me, so ... ah... hadn't thought of bringing up any."
Jubatus grimaced. "Yeah, well, I thought of it -- but somebody decided to throw away all my stuff." It was obvious that Jube was unhappy with the eating arrangements. However, that stone looked almost as clean as a table and those slices of fillet were about the size of triple hamburger patties. The cheetah would have continued to complain of the recent theft, but that train of thought was derailed by loud rumbling from deep within his gut. Instead he stumbled forward, hunger making him unsteady, remarking, "Too bad there's no garlic..."
"Garlic?!?!" A shocked Duncan could not let those words pass. "Bleahh! That stuff is bad for us cats and it smells horrible and tastes even worse! Brrrrrr. No, this is much better!"
"Maybe for you, but --" here Jube grabbed a steak and took his first bite "-- khh'owr-- naw'f'me. Kshhlrp, shnnrr. I gaw'nuff hoom'n i' me, grrowwlp, 's safe 'f I don' eat it, khhraww, ev'y day."
Duncan watched Jubatus stuffing himself for a moment before he interjected. "Geez. Hold it, will you. After gorging down 3 pounds of beef in 30 seconds, it will surely be at least another 5 minutes before you starve to death!" Shaking his head, the cougar continued. "No need for you to put up a speed record in beef demolition. "
Had Jubatus slowed his feasting in response to those words? Perhaps. A trifle. "You want I should eat slow when I'm starving?"
"And to think that people tell me I am voracious! Well, how do you like the meat?"
This question gave the cheetah pause. He looked at the tiny scraps of the fillet in his hands, then at Duncan, and said, "What about it? Meat is meat."
"Okay, that's it!" With that, Duncan swatted lightly on the paw of the cheetah who was just about to grab another chunk of beef. "This isn't fast food, you know."
"That's for sure," Jubatus responded acidly. "Even Burge'R' U.S. has a bigger menu and better service."
"Just get a grip on your instincts, ok?"
"Instincts? What instincts? I'm hungry, damnit!"
"I am sure you are -- and when real cheetahs are hungry, they eat very quickly. It is the only way they can get some food down before another carnivore shows up to drive them away from their kill. Relax, will you? Nobody here is going to steal your food while you are still eating. So there is no need to stuff everything inside and run."
"This. Isn't. An. Instinctive. Reaction," the cheetah growled... and his rate of consumption was, only just now, conspicuously reduced from what it had been.
"Of course not," Duncan agreed. Hmm... I wonder if I should make a feint at taking one of 'his' steaks? Just to see his reaction, of course...
"You're bloody right it's not! Anyway, what's so fucking special about this hunk of protein?"
"Why don't you use your tongue for its intended purpose for once and find out, mmh?" Duncan responded, 'handing' the hungry cat another slab of beef.
Jubatus eyed it suspiciously before taking it. "I don't see what the big deal is."
"Right you are. Nothing to see -- but there might just be something to taste. So, why don't you shut up, close your eyes, and let your tongue do its real job?"
The cheetah -- his suspicion still present, its object now being the cougar -- dabbed his tongue against the meat. "Tastes like chicken. Okay, okay, it's beef. So what?"
"Jube, stop wriggling your tongue. Use your nose and your sense of smell-taste."
"Don't tell me SCABs didn't provide you with that special organ at the top of the mouth called Jacobson's --"
"You mean the 'vomeronasal organ'. Yes I've got one, damnit!" the cheetah replied, making a face when thinking about all the scents that had assaulted this particularly bothersome new 'feature' that came with the fur coat.
"Yes, good. That's almost it!"
"That's almost what?"
"'Fleming'? Yeah, right. I've never delivered milk in my life, Duncan!"
Where did that come from? Never mind -- ignore the non sequitur, it's just a diversionary tactic. "Come on, Jube. I know you are smart, knowledgeable and thorough enough to have researched all about cheetahs and probably all other kinds of felines as well, while you were at it. So stop playing the innocent cat. You haven't the cunning for that, yet."
"No cunning, huh?"
"Hehe, nah I would say you rather lack the practice, " the puma smirked. "Although, I wouldn't be surprised to discover that you are a natural. However, as you are going to find out, there is more to being a cat than having whiskers." The cheetah just rolled his eyes at that. Duncan continued: "But no matter the potential, everyone needs training to achieve mastery."
"Assuming they want to..." Then Jubatus sighed. "Okay, fine. I did read about the v-n organ. Where I live, the ambient odors suck bad enough just because, without sticking a supercharger up your nose."
"My sympathies. Good thing you are not in civilization any more, yes?" Now the cougar placed his paw on one of the remaining chunks of meat and deftly skewered it on his extended claws. 'Pawing' it over to the spotted cat, he said, "Just give it a try, ok?"
Jubatus picked the proffered gift out of the lion's paw and claws, looking rather dubiously at the piece of meat, reluctantly sniffing at it before sticking out his tongue for a first taste test.
"Why do you delay? Poisoning you would hardly do when everyone knows you are here, and me the only sentient suspect for such a deed."
"Weren't you just bitching about how fast I eat?" the cheetah growled. "Slow or fast, make up your damn mind!"
"Just give your feline side a chance, Jube," and here Duncan took another piece and dabbed it with his tongue, savoring the taste-smell with nose, tongue and Jacobson's organ. "You might be in for a pleasant surprise. Unless you die from the shock of finding a positive thing about being a cat, that is," the cougar sneered.
"Do you have any idea how stupid you look, when you sniff like that?" Jubatus sneered back.
"Don't know. Don't care, either. And when did you begin to worry about what other people think?" Duncan riposted. "Come on, don't be such a scaredy cat."
"Harrrr!" And with a grimace which was at least half part annoyance, a good part disgust and only a little part an attempt at 'flehming', Jubatus underwent the ordeal...
...it wasn't one.
His eyes snapped open: "Honey!" Shocked beyond any ability to engage in his customary posturing, Jubatus stared at his host. "It's... it tastes just like... like honey tasted before..."
"Surprised after all, huh?"
"Well, yes, but... how? the spotted cat asked, wide-eyed. "Christ on a sidecar, nothing tasted the same! I thought, I thought it was just the way things were, new nose, different sense of smell, all that crap. I just -- I never -- I thought -- oh, Ceres, I can taste honey!"
"Yeah, I know what you mean. It was one of the worst parts for me too, finding out that most things just didn't taste right anymore. Worse, finding out not to be able to taste anything sweet, ever again. At least so I thought. Believe me, it took me quite some time and tinkering before I got even anywhere close to 'there might be hope, yet'. "
This is how strongly the new revelation had affected Jubatus: He spent a good twenty seconds sniffing at the ambrosia in his hands, with eyes closed and muzzle twisted into an exaggerated 'flehm', before he took his next bite.
"I take it, you like this 'naturally flavored beef'?
"Oh, God... Twenty-five fucking years of knowing that it's out there, and never once being able to taste anything sweet..." And then the cheetah recovered a portion of his usual poise. "Okay, you were right, I was wrong. Don't rub it in. Got any more pleasant surprises in store?"
With a toothy grin, the cougar replied, "Well, why not let's find out, piece by piece?" as he picked up another sample.
Jubatus wasn't having any of that 'piece by piece' nonsense; he blurred from meat to meat, inhaling deeply over each one, in turn, and yet not bothering to swallow anything. "Peach!
"Cherry, by the Green Man!
"Onion and vinegar," the puma said. "Not something I care for. And that one over there, it's malt."
"Lemon... and pepper, right?"
So it was that the cheetah played a game of 'Name That Scent', a game which ended all too quickly, as far as he was concerned. Since it was followed directly by the (perhaps even more pleasant) game of 'Name That Taste', however, he was not of a mind to complain.
All too soon, both cats' appetites were satisfied. "Mmmm. Oh man, that was good. Okay, spill it," Jubatus demanded: "How did you manage to get that meat flavored all the way through?"
"A friend of mine owns a little ranch not too far off to the south from here. He feeds some of his cattle on herbs and other things. Gives the meat different flavors all on its own, especially when you got the refined sense of smell-taste of a feline."
"I can see I'm gonna have to talk to this 'friend' of yours before I go back home... So. Where do we go from here?" Jubatus asked. By this time, the last surviving fragment of meat was gone and both cats had laid down on their full stomachs, watching the sun going down over the valley.
"On to business, I think is best. Since you came here, I take it that you are at least somewhat willing to find out more about yourself. However, I need to know the strength of your commitment. In the following days, I intend to drag you through the suburbs of Hades; it will not be easy for you. In particular, you will confront your instincts, that part of you which you call 'the beast'. And you will discover how much of what you believe about the 'beast' is actually true, what is based on facts and what is not. I cannot say that this knowledge is going to solve your problem; I cannot even say that your worst fears will turn out to be groundless. What I can promise you is that in the following days, you will learn precisely what kind of 'beast' you got lurking in your skull."
Anger flared in the cheetah's scent. "Like I don't know already!?" he growled.
"No. You do not," was Duncan's calm reply. "You lack true knowledge of your feline part, and in consequence you have always been afraid of 'what if's and 'might be's, such as what if you do turn permanently feral. I grant you, these concerns are valid. You could inflict quite a bit of damage, given your speed and your other physical capabilities. That is one of the reasons why we are undertaking this in such a remote area, to limit the damage you could possibly do."
"Hmph. I can break the sound barrier under my own power," Jubatus said, his tone somewhere between fearful and contemptuous. "If 'the beast' comes out to play, what makes you think distance will make a damn bit of difference?"
The cougar remained unperturbed. "Patience, please. Now, you are horrified at the mere thought that your control will slip, that you will go feral, lose control of your actions -- but that is exactly what I am counting on! I want you to loosen up that control, so that you may finally come face to face with the real 'beast'. However, this is not without risk; there is a chance that you will become non compos mentis." Duncan paused, looked at the other SCAB, whose eyes were pools of torment. Half of the cheetah's attention was on him, half was focused on something unpleasant and invisible.
"I will of course do what I can to reduce this risk. Even so, the danger is real, and I will not subject you to it involuntarily. So I must know if you are really committed to this. If you decide this is a bad idea after all? No problem. We will have a nice talk and nap under the stars, walk down-slope tomorrow morning, and I will see you on your way after a little breakfast." At this point, Duncan raised a forepaw to his neck, beginning the laborious process of removing an object from one of the slits in his collar. "However, if you decide to stay, you have to swallow... this." The item he spoke of slipped out from between the digits of his paw; he cursed under his breath, but Jubatus' hand blurred out to catch the item before it hit the ground.
Jubatus raised it for a closer examination. It was a red, oblong capsule, much like any other, except larger than most -- perhaps an inch in its longest dimension."Okay, what is it? Suicide pill?"
"In a manner of speaking. Once ingested, it will adhere to your intestinal wall until it receives the signal to 'stand down'. Until that time... you will not be able to leave this area and live."
"So it is a suicide pill."
"If necessary, yes. Call it insurance, call it a fail safe, in case you really should go feral and manage to escape me. So long as the device is active, you must remain within 20 miles of this spot."
"A virtual cage, huh?"
"More or less. If you approach the perimeter of this cage by 500 meters it will start vibrating; if you come as close as 100 meters, it will be like a fire is building in your guts. And if you move one stride beyond its limit, the device releases a very nasty neurotoxin and you will not survive to take another stride."
Jubatus looked curiously at the tiny package of Death, apparently unconcerned with the threat it represented. "You're not worried that I might be able to survive by upshifting the stuff to harmlessness?"
"Not particularly, since the poison will be within your body. Or perhaps you can upshift only those organs which are not affected by a toxin?"
"Hm. Good point. So why are you telling me this?"
"It is a matter of ethics -- if I am going to put you in harm's way, I would rather it be with your informed consent."
"And how do I know there is any neurotoxin? For all I know, you're just pulling a con job."
"Perhaps, but you also know I am absolutely able to kill, when a situation so indicates." The puma shrugged. "Once you swallow the device, feel free to test my claim if you wish. That would solve your every problem, permanently. I trust your common sense not to try this out, and if that fails, I trust your survival instinct to kick in."
Jubatus nodded, then looked at Duncan with a sad, lopsided smile. "And I suppose I'll just have to trust you that the damn thing's not going to pop off prematurely."
"Yes. Is that not what you ask of Donnie and everyone else in the Blind Pig, every time you drink there?"
"Well, now that you mention it..." He sighed. "Okay. Bottoms up." The cheetah raised the red pill to his mouth, balked and grimaced at the pill's distasteful odor, and finally forced the thing down his throat. "God, that's horrible. Artificial strawberry -- bleah!"
"Yeah, sorry for that. No idea who thought of this particular dis-taste for the pill." Duncan apologized. "At least it makes sure, nothing sane would accidentally swallow it."
"Alright. Now what?"
"Now, we get you into situations where you must let your 'inner kitty' out to play. I know that you are scared shitless of going feral, losing your sentience. From personal experience though, I would say it is highly unlikely that you really would lose all of your sentient mind."
"That'd be the time you spent as one of the exhibits at the Thelton Zoological Garden, right?"
Duncan's ears twitched. How did he know? "You... sound confident in this statement."
"I read your resume."
"Yes, but I happen to know that that document did not provide any details on the specific nature of my relationship to that organization!"
"Didn't need to. You're a form-locked full-morph; you SCABbed over just before the Collapse; your human self allegedly died in St. Jude Hospital, Denver, Colorado; a St. Jude staffer donated a cougar to Thelton a few days after your untimely 'demise'; and this new beastie's body just happens to be a carbon copy of your current form." He shrugged. "Gimme a little credit, okay?"
Seems this one is as sharp as he is thought to be... Duncan nodded. "Very well. You can see that this is more than just a theory for me, don't you? Yes, I was feral for some time, right after the Collapse. The first few weeks of my existence as a SCAB, my body was fully directed by autonomic reflexes, at least most of the time. However, while my conscious mind was not in control, it was also not unaware of what was happening either. It was kind of like watching the show from a back seat. A rather strange feeling if you ask me. A bit like dreaming while you know that you are actually awake, but at the same time you lack any influence over whatever actions your body is performing. It takes some shock, a strong stimulus to 'wake' you up again, generally something that makes your sentient mind figure out that without some intervention the non-sentient part is going to get all of you into trouble. This is the main reason why I wanted your informed consent. This way, while the pill can kill you, it can also be your lifeline back to sentience."
Jubatus frowned. "I don't get it. How?"
"Because you know about it, what it can do. That knowledge will always be there in your conscious, sentient mind. None of your instincts would care about it, though. Only with your sentient mind back in control will you survive; and since those instincts just want you to be comfortable, safe, secure --"
"-- and never mind how wide a trail of bodies I leave," the cheetah muttered.
It was clear that the puma had intended to say something different, when he continued. "You are wrong about that, but let me try a different approach: People fear what they do not understand, yes? Right now, you don't understand your instincts. You are clueless about why they want you to do things. Yes, it could be that once unchained, this 'beast inside' is going on a rampage. However, since we are already playing 'what if', let's stay with the rules. If you lose all sentience, you would act like a real cheetah, not so? Well, does any real cheetah go out and kill whatever it sees? No, they do not. Catnapping, grooming and playing, i.e. having a good time, are far more appealing than chasing, hunting or killing. Those activities are real work out here in the wild, as you will find out sooner or later yourself. It's a lot easier to just walk over to the fridge or go shopping at the next supermarket for the necessary food so that the cat inside will be happy. But you do nothing to satisfy any of the wants and needs that are peculiar to your feline part! Your nomadic existence, your adherence to human waking hours, your adamant neglect of everything that makes your internal cat purr -- it would be difficult to design a lifestyle that is more likely to make your feline side feel uncomf -"
"Fuck you, catboy!" the cheetah bellowed, stinking of rage and terror, one finger-claw waving in Duncan's face. "What the hell was I supposed to do, Goddamn it!? Just let the fucking 'beast' toy with its prey -- at trans-sonic velocities?"
Duncan's snarl caught Jubatus totally by surprise; he froze up, one hand poised to swing a deadly arc through the puma's throat. After a few seconds of this uncomfortable tableau, the cheetah lurched back, two clumsy steps, and collapsed into a seated position.
"Okay," Jubatus said, an odd warble in his voice. "Okay. Badmove. Badmove. Ijust. Imean..." By now, his entire body was shaking. "Iknew, okay? Bandaid. I knew. Nevermeant, neverthought, it'dlast. Butitworked, Goddamnit! Anditkeptworking!" He stared at Duncan, his eyes pleading for -- understanding? Death? Absolution? "Whatthehell... wasI... s'posedtodo? Whatthe... fuckinghell... wasI... s'posedto..."
His enunciation was no longer even marginally coherent. It didn't need to be, for the sound expressed Jubatus' pain all too clearly.
Duncan observed the wailing cheetah with a professional eye. Surely he cannot be spazzing out from hunger, not this quickly? Hmm. He has a half-hour-long sleep cycle, and it's been hours since he got any rest... "You're tired, Jubatus. Go to sleep. Things will be better when you awaken."7
The spotted cat heard and understood; within seconds, Jubatus was curled in on himself and completely unconscious. The cheetah's rest was exceedingly unquiet, both figuratively (for he twitched incessantly) and literally (for his caterwauling never truly ceased, although its volume was reduced). And, because he had necessarily returned to his default tempo of 6 for the duration, it was well under three minutes before he awoke and returned to the puma's tempo of 1.
The cheetah shrugged. "You know, there's a reason Doc Holliday had me on a mood-stabilizing drug..."
"No doubt. But I think our purpose here will be served better without that drug. Speaking of which, can you tell me what I was saying just before you 'crashed'?"
Jubatus 'blurred in place' for a moment, apparently using his chronomorph power to buy himself extra time to think. "Instincts. Real cheetahs don't just rip open any convenient blood vessels at random, and their instincts say that playing's a lot more fun than fighting or killing."
"A concise and accurate summary," Duncan stated. "The point I was driving at, was that there are some instinctual impulses that can be safely indulged! You have chosen to deny all your feline impulses, but that is both unhealthy and unnecessary. Rather, you need to be selective, focusing your efforts on those which would present a hazard to yourself or to others. Therefore, you need to learn which triggers are not appropriate, so you may avoid them as needed. A cornered beast will lash out at whatever target is within reach; a neglected beast will obey no rules but its own; but only a hungry beast will hunt and kill. Not because it is a bloodthirsty monster, but because an empty stomach is very uncomfortable indeed, to say the least. So if you do not want to lash out blindly, if you want to live in a larger society, you must understand your feline instincts. Find out what is triggering those urges, what you have to do to experience them only if and when you are ready for them, and above all, learn how you can prevent them from interfering with your normal life and still be a happy cat. Those instincts aren't your problem; not understanding them, is."
"The way you talk, it sounds awfully damned simple -- but I don't buy it. It can't be as easy as you're painting it up to be."
"Right on both counts," the cougar replied. "It is simple, and it will not be easy. Confronting the hidden parts of oneself never is. Nonetheless, there are good reasons why this should help you in working out a solution to your particular problem. There is a sound theory, based upon empirical evidence gained from other similar cases and situations. Still, there is quite a bit of individual variance to SCABS; there is only just so much one can learn from any theory, any simulation, any other case. If you want certain knowledge of your own particular case, you simply have to do it -- get your hands dirty with experiments, that is. That is why we are here."
"Yeah. But... the whole damn thing is such a die-roll..."
Duncan shrugged. "The only certainty in life is death -- and with SCABS, even that isn't so sure anymore. Perhaps you know of something in life for which the element of uncertainty is completely absent? I don't. But I am glad you swallowed the device; that act tells me you do want to live, to survive. Now I know that I can help you to come to terms with what the Martian Flu did to you. I don't know what will happen in the next days, only that they will not be easy for you. I cannot name your personal demons; I can only tell you that you must face them down for yourself. But no matter what is going to happen, you have my promise that I will do whatever is necessary to help you."
"Or kill me."
Jubatus stared off into the distance for a time. In the end, he said, "Okay."
The two cats watched in silence as the sun set behind the horizon and the stars came out.