|This is the third 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.
Early summer morning in Idaho: The Sun was only just peeking over the hills to the East, and it already promised to be another fine day. Golden light bathed the topmost branches of nearby trees -- and a certain pair of large felines, one of whom was awake. They had spent some time in conversation last evening, during which the cheetah had been surprised to learn that Duncan's interests encompassed computers, space flight, and politics. "Of course," the puma had explained, "my involvement with such things is not as hands-on as it once was..."
Oddly, in the puma's opinion, Jubatus had not appeared to be any more content while discussing technology than he was at any other time -- that is to say, not at all. In fact, the cheetah was decidedly dissatisfied at all times, even when ostensibly at rest; in his sleep, he shivered and twitched incessantly. Except, of course, for the period during which Duncan had 'frozen' him, so as to prevent his interfering with... well, it was time to let the cheetah move normally again.
The cougar released his chronomorphic grip, and soon enough, Jubatus was active and awake. He went through what might have been a normal feline's 'morning stretch', accelerated to a comical pace by his default tempo of 6. Suddenly he stopped cold, his eyes fixed on Duncan.
"Good morning, Jubatus. How are you feeling?"
Instead of answering the cougar's question, Jubatus stated baldly, with his customary undertone of suspicion: "You froze me last night. Why?"
Interesting; how did he know? the puma thought. "May I as-"
"I only woke up twice between dusk and dawn, and I'm not a full night's worth of hungry... aah, forget it." Then, in an afterthought, muttered sotto voce: "Like I could believe anything he says..."
"If you think I am unworthy of your trust, why did you come here?"
That remark earned Duncan an irate look. "Why? You know why."
Yes, but do you? "You think so?"
"Don't worry about it."
"Did you sleep well, at least?"
Jubatus considered the question for a moment. "Actually, I think I slept a little better than usual."
"You sure? It did not look so restful to me. You were thrashing around quite a bit, perhaps a different bedroom might help?" When the cheetah didn't reply, Duncan said, "Well, if that wasn't a nightmare you had, you are worse off than I first thought."
The cheetah glared at his companion, but did not respond to that remark. Instead, he asked, "You're gonna take care of breakfast, right?"
"Sure, you want to tag along and help in the preparation?"
"No, thanks. While you're doing that, I'll just backtrack to my car and grab the spare vest."
"A little jogging in the morning to work up some appetite, mmh? Not a bad idea. You know, I am sorry about what happened to your garb, but are you sure I cannot persuade you to leave it be?"
"No, you can't, and I'm outta here." So saying, Jubatus was as good as his word.
Before long, the cheetah had disappeared beyond a hill, running at a tempo that was more in line with his reputation. Well, time to prepare everything for the cheetah's return, Duncan thought to himself. Let's see how good kitty is at tracking if properly motivated. He moved stealthily towards the site where he had already prepared breakfast, making sure not to leave any visible trail behind, just the scent of his paws on rocky ground.
Just a few moments after the puma had climbed up to his hiding post, a scream of anguish and outrage shattered the silence of the early morning mountain air. Clearly, Jubatus had just discovered that his vehicle -- and all it contained -- was no longer parked where he had left it. The cheetah's voice sounded even less pleasant than normal; it had somehow acquired a fingernails-on-blackboard tone. Having read the cheetah's medical files, Duncan knew why: Jubatus was using his chronomorph power, his so-called 'upshifting', which (among other things) transposed his utterances to a quicker and higher pitch.
"-- ripyerfuckinlungsoutyougoddamnbastardexcuseforafleabag --"
Suddenly Duncan realized something about Jube's voice: It was approaching. At a velocity which would bring the cheetah to him within no more than a few seconds.
The puma rather suspected that he would not enjoy being the target of Jube's fangs and claws. Certainly, not if the cheetah was even a quarter as enraged as he sounded!
Heiliger Schei... -benhonig, he is fast! Okay: Time to bug out.
It is a known fact: By any of its many names, the puma is a beast which cannot be located when it does not wish to be -- and Duncan was every inch a puma. Jubatus came in at a scorching pace and found... nothing.
Meanwhile, his quarry was 20 meters distant, perfectly concealed in a stand of trees. Let's see how long it takes him to start following his nose.
Jubatus turned about with a snarl, looking in all directions, and then launched himself into the air as a blurry projectile. At an angle more than 30 degrees off from Duncan's true direction. Well, well, the puma thought with a private grin, we gonna have fun playing hide-and-seek!
Time and again, the cheetah rushed from one point to another, at velocities that Duncan would have found disquieting if there were any chance that he might be found.
The fireworks were soon over. It being obvious that the enraged cheetah had spent his fury with the rest of his energy, Duncan called out from his hiding post a few meters above the, almost hoarse by now, spotted cat.
"Hi Jube! Good to hear that you are already willing to kill something."
Jubatus was having evident difficulty staying on his own two feet; for support he used every available boulder and shrub as he stumbled towards the puma. "Nobuddy rips me orrff, you bass'rd!" he said, his usual inhuman timbre now marred by a husk-like rattle. "You are so fucking dhead!"
"And on your first morning here! Seems I am getting better at this kind of thing."
"Teyll me whaar my kharrr iss, you szchneeeky lidddll theevv, annn' mey-be I whon't kkhhllll yyu zzlowlee!!"
Excellent, Duncan thought as he deftly jumped to another perch, three meters further away from the frothing cheetah. He's so enraged that he's losing control of his speech. "Who? Me?!? Ts, ts, ts. Such language! Here I am just trying to help you --"
"Haalp meee???? Hellpinn yurrrrrrzsellf tohh my gharrrrrr!"
"Excuse me, but I don't think I understand what you are saying. Could you explain that, please?"
In between deep breaths, Jubatus rasped, "Teh-meee'aarrr! Migaarrrizzzz! Kghill'oo!!!"
"Hmm. Do you want to know where your garb is? Is that what you ask?"
This was too much for the spotted cat; he leapt straight up for Duncan -- "HRRAAARRLWRRR!!!" -- but fell laughably short. He only succeeded in sprawling untidily on the ground, not a half-meter from his former position.
"Jubatus. Need I remind you about the not-so-fine print in that contract you signed?"
Hearing those words, a hint of reason returned to Jube's crazed eyes. "Wuhh... what... about it?"
"The 'all natural' clause. The 'no contact with civilization while you are here' clause."
"That clauzz... you can't... steal from me."
"No, but that clause does grant me the authority to ensure that you make no contact with artificial conveniences of any kind! That's 'no contact', as in absolutely none. No civilization. Zero. Nada. No vest, no car. Nothing but your fur coat."
"Like hell I'd --" He suddenly broke off with a worried expression, and 'blurred in place' for a few moments. Then, rather more subdued, he went on: "Fuck. I did agree to that."
"Yes, you did -- twice. First, when you signed the contract, and next, when you confirmed your willingness to stay by swallowing that device. Not so?"
"Rrrr..." Jubatus closed his eyes and somehow managed to slump from a prone position.
There was a pause, during which the loudest noise was intermittent rumbles from the spotted cat's stomach. In time, Duncan said, "Hungry?"
The cheetah opened his mouth, winced at the gravelly hiss he produced, and finally nodded.
"Let's have that promised breakfast then. Really, you will feel better with a full stomach. This isn't the end of the world, you know?"
Jubatus' glare was every bit as expressive as his voice no longer was.
"Okay, then -- but you shall have to follow me under your own power. If you haven't noticed, I am not exactly equipped to carry something your size unless it's dead."
The cheetah's response was the ghost of a raspy growl, after which he managed to lever himself up off the ground to stand, wobbling, on all fours.
"Don't worry. It's not far at all." After those words, the puma strolled off along the edge of the meadow which, just minutes ago, had been the battleground for the enraged cheetah who now, his energy spent, could do no more than trudge wearily behind.
True to his word, Duncan walked no more than a few dozen meters onward. He stopped near a swiftly flowing rivulet whose channel couldn't have been more than three feet wide and two inches deep, whose water nonetheless flowed rapidly down the slope. Its spring, fed by the melting remnants of last winter's snowfalls, was slowly diminishing under the heat of early summer sun.
Duncan had maintained a slow walking pace over this short distance. Nevertheless, Jubatus had lost ground, falling further and further behind his host, with every clumsy, lurching step he took. And he hadn't even tried to walk on two feet! Clearly, the spotted cat was drained, both physically and emotionally.
"What's to drink?" the cheetah panted. Not only had he not had anything to drink since before his vest (bottled water included) disappeared, but his recent rampage had left his throat in dire need of lubrication.
"All the water you can stomach," Duncan replied. "Just help yourself while I get our breakfast."
"Waterrr..." the disgusted cat mumbled to himself. "Coulda had decaffeinated, feline-safe coffee instead, but noooo..."
"Mmm? Did you say something?"
"I sai-ehhnkgh," Jubatus began in a normal voice -- against which his overly strained voice rebelled almost instantly. Glaring at the puma, he tried again, this time in more of a scratchy whisper: "Fish fuck in that stuff. You expect me to drink it?"
Duncan smirked. "Funny way to look at it -- but to answer your question: Yes, I do. There's nothing else to drink, unless you think there is maybe a soda fountain hidden around here? Oh, don't make such a face. That water is clean enough to be bottled and shipped as it is. You would pay real money for water as good as this in any high class restaurant!"
"Yeah, right." He favored the tiny creek with a dubious look, then rasped out a question: "I don't suppose you've got anything to drink from -- a cup or whatever?"
"No, I don't. Why?" Duncan replied from several yards further upstream, where he was apparently about to take a shower under some kind of miniature waterfall.
Just bleeding wonderful, thought the spotted cat. Irritated, he said, "'Why'!?! Rrr -- you -- would drinking from a cup violate one of your fucking principles as badly as doing an upshift, or what?"
"No, that's something completely different. Still, no cups."
Jubatus' temper flared, as it had done far too many times before; he tried to squelch it yet again, with even less success than usual. "Rrr... I'm serious, damnit!"
"So am I," Duncan said patiently. "Ask, demand, as much as you like. It doesn't matter -- you're not going to get a cup."
"Because. I. Have. No. Cups," the puma said, raising a foreleg to wave a paw, pointedly, at Jubatus. The significance of this gesture was not lost on its intended target. The cheetah twitched; his eyes widened; he hunched in on himself slightly, as though recoiling from an abomination.
"H'rrr..." Jubatus closed his eyes and breathed deeply, attempting to diffuse his outrage. Let's see, he thought to himself. Inside of an hour after I arrive, catboy gets me racing quadrupedally; and now I either lap it up like a bleeding animal or go thirsty. It's official: This is one of the 25 worst days of my life, ever. And now a strange thought crept out, unbidden, from some hidden corner of his mind: "Not to go on all-fours... Not to suck up Drink... Are we not Men?"
When the spotted cat opened his eyes, nothing had changed. The streamlet still bubbled merrily downslope, and there was still no container with which he might drink in a civilized manner. He looked upstream; Duncan was occupied with something under that waterfall. Maybe he's not a Man, but I am, by Prometheus! I may not have as much humanity left as I used to, but I will be well and truly damned before I let that cougar rip any more of it away from me... Thus resolved, Jubatus walked up to a wide spot in the rivulet, where he could cup some of it in his hands.
An involuntary yelp -- "Cold!" -- left the cheetah's throat at his first contact with the icy fluid.
"I thought you wanted to drink, not wash your paws?" the puma called from further up.
Ignore him, Jubatus thought. With a low snarl, he tried to scoop up some water with his pa -- hands. They are hands, damn it! But for all that his spirit was willing, his flesh could not cooperate; between his hand-pads (far less flexible and yielding than human skin) and the innumerable hairs that made up his fur, it was flatly impossible for his fingers to achieve anything close to a water-tight seal. Several attempts later, he had accomplished nothing beyond getting the fur on his hands soaked through, dripping with frigid water. Glancing up the creek, searching for a place more suitable to drink, he saw that the other cat had put his head inside of what appeared to be some kind of cave or hollow behind that little 'water fall'. So that's how you do it yourself, huh?
Only, instead of drinking, the large cat seemed to be struggling with something inside, ignoring the icy water flowing over his head and back, his hind legs dug firmly into the ground. Still bent low above the water, Jube watched the cougar dragging out what appeared to be a fish. His jaw dropped at the sheer size of the thing; it must have weighed 250, maybe 300 pounds, if it was a milligram.
"Breakfast is ready!" Duncan called out, when he had schlepped it onto a flat rock next to the water.
Jubatus was about to make one of his trademark acid comments, when his nose, still heightened by the pleasant surprises from the evening before, caught a first whiff of the tuna. His mouth watering with anticipation, surprised by his own reaction, he swallowed -- only to find that his mouth had been filled, not with warm saliva, but with cold -- no, icy -- fluid. Shocked and horrified, there was an appreciable pause before he realized where that icy water must have come from, what must have happened, that -- unconsciously -- he, no his tongue, had -- just like a cat -- lapped up...
His torso convulsed, gagging up as if he had swallowed hot acid and not cold water. His thoughts raged: Fucker did it to me -- again!
"What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?"
"You -- I --"
"Something wrong? Don't tell me, you don't like fish?"
"No, fish is fine. It's just..." Not to eat Flesh or Fish. Are we not Men? "It's..." One of the ten worst days of my life, is what it is. Jubatus closed his eyes again. Clearly, he would have a lot of opportunities to practice suppressing his emotions -- and this 'vacation' had just started. "It's fine," he growled in a low voice, as to not strain his throat any further. "But that's one mother of a fish. How you gonna cut it into bite-sized chunks? What with that 'no artificial conveniences' rule of yours, knives are right out, right?"
"Right! Finally you cat-ch up. Dig in."
"You call that 'preparing' breakfast?
"Yes." The puma shrugged. "Simple enough: I got it out, you gotta eat."
"Yep, that's all."
"Great. Just fucking great," Jube mumbled as he gingerly prodded that fish with a careful finger. Hunger and the pleasant culinary experience last night had supercharged his senses to a point, where he couldn't help himself from salivating.
"Smells delicious, doesn't it?"
Jube's disdainful glance spoke volumes. So did the blob of drool he couldn't swallow up fast enough, when he wanted to make a scorching retort.
"Yeah. Delicious, alright," the cougar answered his own question, "but drool isn't going to open this 'can' of tuna, you know."
"Coulda had sirloin from the freezer," the cheetah growled under his breath. "Knives and plates from my car. But no, Mr. Kitty has his fucking principles." Stepping closer to the carcass, Jube examined it minutely. Come on, it's just a damn fish to open up, he told himself. You're a technical writer, solving harder problems than that is what you do for a living. Looking at his claws, the spotted cat was unsure if they would be equal to the task of cutting into the tuna's hide -- but only for a moment. They're claws, he told himself. Ripping into shit is what they're for, damnit.
Meanwhile, Duncan had jumped onto a close rock, which the morning sun had already warmed up nicely, to watch Jubatus' progress -- as small as it was -- from his perch.
At first the cheetah had believed that his claws would peel the skin away like knives. However, while in Civilization, he kept his claws well-trimmed and filed to an innocuous bluntness; here and now, with the cougar's chronomorphic power holding him back to the same tempo as the rest of the world, nowhere near enough time had passed for his claws to have grown out to a useful state again. In addition, Duncan's power denied him the use of his upshifted swiftness. And finally, Jubatus' attempts to cut himself some hand-made sushi were even less efficacious than could have been deduced from the state of his claws, as he lacked the force or the knowledge to get through its scaly armor.
After a time, Duncan gazed with dispassionate interest on the cheetah's continuing assault on the dead fish. In the battle between cheetah claws and fish scales, the scales were ahead on points; not one of Jubatus' efforts to extract convenient morsels from the fish had succeeded. At length, Duncan spoke: "Have you considered letting your instincts guide you?"
The spotted cat replied with a momentary snarl and a roughly whispered, "Get stuffed."
"Why, thank you. I shall, believe me! After you. Unfortunately, you do not seem to be making much progress. Are you sure you do not wish to allow your instincts to guide you? Stop thinking so hard, give your reflexes a chance and see what kind of clue they might provide."
The cheetah glared at Duncan for a second or so, then muttered, with intense disgust, "Instincts."
"Yes. Give them a try -- what have you got to lose, hm?"
Duncan shrugged and continued sunbathing. When he next looked at Jubatus, the cheetah gave his alleged breakfast an irritated slap and turned to glare at Duncan. "What's the point? You know how to do this, why do I have to?"
"Jube, you know why you have to do it. After all, that's why are you here, right?"
"What's that got to do with it?!?"
"You said it yourself, yesterday, "Duncan explained. "When you are running on empty, you lose your control, act instinctual. And since finding out about your instin-"
"No!" Jubatus shouted, when he realized what the other cat had in mind. "You -- you can't do that to me!!" With each word he stepped further and further away from the cougar.
"Do what to you, Jube? I am not going to do anything, certainly not to you."
"You ca-" The cheetah interrupted himself the moment he realized, belatedly, what Duncan had actually said. He frowned, thinking, for a moment, before going on: "So how do you open it?"
"Would a real cat have to ask?"
"'Real' -- rrr -- I'm. Notta. Cat."
"Not? Then why all that worry about instincts? If you are not a cat, what's the problem?!"
Apparently unaware that he had lost his balance and slumped to the ground, Jubatus protested: "Human! Not Cat!"
"Your looks say different," Duncan replied. As does your scent, particularly now. "But since you seem to be of two minds about what kind of instincts you got, seems it is time for us to find out, isn't it."
The cheetah attempted to leave this place; as tired and unsteady as he was, however, all he managed to do was stir up small clouds of dust. He declared, "I won't. I can't!"
Duncan replied by stretching and getting up off of his rock, and then stepping calmly over to the spotted cat. "Jube, there aren't that many options for you. One," and here he scratched a tally mark into the dirt between them, "you let your instincts run free willingly and feed. Two," another tally mark, "you try to keep the lid on your instincts until they take over anyway and feed. Three," still another mark, "you manage to keep your instincts under control until you die by starvation. Given your self-control, you might just succeed in doing this. But, take my word for it, death by starvation takes a long time and is no fun at all. Four," one more dirt-scratch, "you take the coward's way out: Kill yourself before your instincts can take over, and never find out if they are a problem or not. Of course, given that you have a very well developed survival inst-"
"No. No way."
"No? Well, there is option number..." Here, Duncan paused to inscribe one last mark into the dirt, intersecting the previous four. "...five."
"I said --"
The puma ignored Jubatus' outburst. "You or your instincts decide not to have fish for breakfast, but venison or hare or mice, or even cougar, if you have your mind set on it."
"Cougar? What!?" The spotted cat's confusion was momentary, and quickly replaced by intense dread. "You mean..."
Duncan ignored the cheetah's horror, as well. "Indeed I do mean. After your recent display, I would say you might be more than willing and able to kill me for a little early morning snack."
If anything, that statement disturbed the cheetah even more than his lack of viable options.
"I wouldn't and you know it! Not while I can keep those --"
"Wrong!" Duncan snarled at the other cat. "I have yet to see a cheetah who willingly would hunt or stalk a bigger predator. They don't do that -- never! But your human mind was just a few minutes ago ready and willing to try your very best to --"
"Not me! Not me!"
"Yes, you. Oh, you blame it on the 'beast', meaning your instincts, but the 'beast' is part of you! Anyway, what makes you so sure your 'beast' was in control then, hmmmm?"
"Rrr... 'Beast', not me! I'm no animal, damnit!"
The puma gave Jubatus a skeptical look. "No? Which else are you -- vegetable or mineral? You are an animal, we all are! Even if it was your 'beast', what makes you sure it wasn't a human beast?"
"Not Human --"
"Yes, human. The real King of the Beasts, the only animal that is always dangerous, even when not hungry. The two legged brute, the terror of all that lives on this planet, the only species which can, or wants to, deliberately render another extinct, including his own. Desiring to kill for any reason other than survival, makes you a member in good standing of Homo sapiens, not Acinonyx jubatus! Man is the one animal that can't be tamed. He goes along for years as peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a cheetah look like a tabby cat. From my point of view, your feline side would be much safer for me and the rest of the world, not so?"
"No! They -- they kill --"
"How many humans have been killed by cheetahs in the last century, less than you have claws and that's counting the accidents as well! How many humans have been killed by other humans? How many are being killed this very second!? More than you got claws. Cats only kill 'cause they have to. We are carnivores, after all. But even though humans could live without meat, how many other animals die to feed them anyway? Worse, how many die just for some human's pleasure, for trophy or because of some stupid superstition?"
"You -- rrrr..."
"And how were you going to complete that sentence? 'You don't know what you are talking about'? Have you forgotten my former line of work? Or perhaps 'You don't understand what this is like'? You think there is more cat in you than in me?" Duncan brandished a forepaw in the cheetah's face. "Look, you! See my paws, that need days and weeks of practice before they can fumble through tasks that hands like yours can do without thinking! See my God-be-damned hind legs, that I cannot stand on for more than a few seconds at a time! See the scars on my throat and face, where a surgeon spent five hours cutting into me before I could speak even this badly!"
Jubatus would have replied, but the puma wasn't about to stop. "How many times do people call animal control to pick you up when you go shopping? How often do you get shot at 'cause some idiot cannot tell you apart from a wild beast? Look at me, damn your eyes! Don't you tell me how comfy, nice and safe things are in that oh-so-wonderful human world of yours. Been there, done that. Thank you very much. Now it's your turn to find out about the feline perspective."
As he spoke, Duncan inched ever closer to the spotted cat. Jubatus' mouth opened and closed, soundlessly, as if he wanted to refute the puma's argument but could not. Finally, with mere inches separating his nose from the cheetah's quivering snout, Duncan said with quiet intensity: "Welcome to my world, kitty."
Jubatus' eyes were filled with torment -- which, of course, meant that his expression had not changed. "Rrr... Won't kill! Not for food! Not for anything!"
"And are your instincts telling you to kill something?" Duncan demanded. Then with a sigh he continued, in a softer tone: "Jube, I do not ask you to kill. At least not yet. All I am asking now is for you to pay attention to your instincts, not the same thing at all. You have instincts, we both know it, so why do you pretend otherwise?"
"I don't. Listen. Won't."
"Why? Because you fear what your instincts might tell you. Stupid! You allow fear to get in the way of acquiring data that is very relevant indeed! Why don't you start with finding out what your instincts are really telling you?"
"Can't afford to!"
"Pfft! What is your problem, hmm? The fish there is not resting, it's dead! It is deceased. It is not going to wake up. Do you perhaps think it plays possum, awaiting its chance to leap up, off that rock and flop back to the Pacific on its dorsal fin? It has gone belly-up. Done for. Gone to meet its maker. This is an ex-tuna!"
"I know," the spotted cat mumbled.
Unheeding, Duncan went on: "It has expired. It can only float upside-down. It is no more. It has joined the choir invisi-"
"I know!!!" the cheetah screamed, wincing with pain that was not entirely due to this abuse of his throat.
"Then you must know you cannot kill it any deader than it already is. So I ask again: What, exactly, is your problem here?"
Jubatus did not reply in words; for long seconds he did not respond at all. When he finally did react, the spotted cat got up and stepped slowly towards the dead carcass of Thynnus thynnus. Judging from his expression and overall demeanor, he could well have been a condemned man on his way to the scaffold. His eyes swung between the tuna and the cougar, between noose and executioner, without really seeing either, for whatever his attention was focused on, it was nothing that existed in the here-and-now. When he reached the fish, Jubatus gave its glittering scales another tentative prod with his trembling right forepaw before sitting back on his haunches. This... I can't... Please, just let it end. But when he opened his mouth to ask the cougar to relent, a far-too-appetizing smell hit his palate. Dig in. There is perfect food inside...
"No!" Recoiling as if he had burned his fingers, Jubatus jerked his hand away, turned around and ran off a few steps before his customary iron control reasserted itself. The cheetah closed his eyes. Calm down. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Deep... hey, that tastes goo- Shocked, he opened his eyes, seeing his right paw in front of his muzzle, fragrant juices clinging to the fur and pads. With unease that quickly evolved to horror, he realized what must have happened, what he -- no, not him, never him, his treacherous tongue -- must have done. Not to lick your paws, that is the Law! Are we not Men? Panting now, he turned, stumbling hurriedly towards the rivulet, to wash the taste away, to drink, to clean his pa -- hands. Only then realizing that to get something to drink he would have to... just like an animal... again. He turned around, began running back, and stopped when he realized he was returning to the fish. Again he reversed his course --
The cheetah's behavior was strikingly similar to that of a caged animal, desperately searching for an exit. Seeing it, Duncan was forcibly reminded of the time, more than thirty years ago now, when he had to face the challenge of how to survive in the wild, how to deal with (and -- later -- how to trust) his instincts. Admittedly, he hadn't been in such a state of terror on what those instincts might make him do, mostly because he had been forced to find out what they were or were not about right from the start, when he had woken up at the Thelton Zoological Garden.
Even when he'd been human, Duncan hadn't much enjoyed those rare trips to the zoo. Although he liked watching animals close up in the wild, he equally disliked to see them penned up in places measured in square feet instead of square miles. In that respect, he felt, even the best-tended zoo was a violation of nature, the final encroachment onto the living space of those beings who were literally on display. That feeling hadn't been lessened by finding out how life really was on the other side of those bars and animal-proof windows.
At the zoo he learned the hard way that he really had, in biological terms at least, been altered into a Felis concolor. As much as he'd wanted to deny it, the meow of his kittens had rid him of any notions of physically still being human, even one equipped with tail, fur, claws and paws. It had taken much longer from acknowledgement of the physical changes, to acceptance of the fact that his mind had been no less altered...
Karl Marx had said it best: Das Sein bestimmt das Bewußtsein, 'the body defines the state of mind'. Of course, much of Marx' writings were just nonsense, but that particular observation contained far too much truth for Duncan's liking. It took years for that realization to cease troubling him. It took decades for him to come to terms with himself, even learn to enjoy his life -- the life of a sentient wildcat.
However, back in the early days of the Collapse -- that time when society had crumbled to a halt under the strain of the Martian Flu and its more obvious, if less deadly, sidekick, SCABS -- he had been lucky that one of Thelton's wardens had unlocked the cells, let his charges go "back" to the wild. But all that really meant was that instead of certain death in a cage, he now had a good chance of starving in freedom.
Whether one would consider this a good chance, was another question entirely. What had he known about on how to live in the wild, how to hunt, how to kill or how to get at the meat? Nothing. Not unless some knowledge had come as part of the fur coat, as 'firmware'.
Duncan's first days at living out in the wild were nothing short of a disaster. The chasing part had been easy enough, even though he'd lost much of his stamina during his then-recent months in a cage, but the catching part was another matter entirely. By the time he finally brought down his first deer, he'd acquired an excessively large collection of injuries -- a cracked rib, plus far too many bruises -- from all his previous, failed, attempts to catch dinner. Yes, Duncan recognized the cheetah's current situation from his own painful experience: Imagine a starving man, surrounded by crate upon crate of the most exquisite canned foods, without a can-opener -- or, as bad or worse, possessing a can-opener but not knowing what the thing was or how to operate it!
That being the situation Duncan had been faced with early on, he quickly sought out other sources of meat. Garbage cans were both pointless and dangerous, as he discovered all too soon. In those early days of the Collapse, anything he would have found edible, or rather his body considered digestible, was far too valuable to be thrown away. Worse, anything sneaking around garbage cans in the dark was considered to fall into one of two categories: If vaguely human, it was a threat; otherwise, it was a meal. Very quickly, Duncan learned that he better not tempt his luck any further if he didn't want to find himself the main course for some happily drooling family of Homo sapiens looking forward to dine on cougar steak.
But while the Collapse had been thoroughly awful in general, there was one specific moment which Duncan had nightmares about even today, thirty-some years after the fact. He was weakened by hunger; he was not entirely rational from sleep deprivation from keeping a constant lookout for trigger-happy humans; and somehow, he had stumbled upon the body of a dead human, a girl who looked to be twelve, maybe fourteen. Fortunately, she had been dead for at least five or six days. 'Fortunately' because that meant his feline senses told him clearly, "not food" -- the meat had gone bad...
Suppose Duncan had chanced upon that corpse earlier? Perhaps not soon enough to drive off her killer, the faceless monster who had done far worse than just slit her throat, but well before decomposition had set in..?
Duncan knew very well, for all his unwillingness to so much as think about it, what might have happened then... and what might have happened any number of other times, had he not gotten the hell away from the crumbling wreckage of what everyone had called 'civilization'. No, there was no place for him among humans.
Better to be found dead in the wild, than turn into a man-eater -- a cat gone bad.
Shuddering, Duncan forced those uncomfortable memories back in their box. His client needed him more than did any phantasms of the past.
By the way the cheetah was rocking back and forth, it was becoming clear that such 'civilized' niceties as cleansing one's appendages, or eating with utensils, were losing whatever importance the spotted cat had previously accorded them. With each passing second, more of Jubatus' mind was consumed with the insatiable need to fill his stomach. Could he manage to extract some meat from within the tuna's scaled hide? This question was of more than academic interest. The cheetah's high-energy metabolism demanded a uninterrupted supply of fuel, lest his over-designed 'engine' grind itself to pieces...
Blindly, insistently, Jubatus rocked forwards and backwards. Pushed by hunger, drawn by the scent of the tuna that wafted downwind towards his muzzle, the forward motion stopped each time just slightly closer to his breakfast.
Suddenly, the balance was broken -- the cheetah rocked too far forward. His right hand shot out to keep him from falling. Uncomprehending, Jube stared at the offending member in front of him; he tried to retract it, but the traitorous limb would not obey his command! Perhaps his other arm could pull it back..? His left hand blurred forth -- but it missed the other by a small margin, landing even further in front. Duncan applauded, silently; the spotted cat had made his first step towards satisfying his growling hunger. Slowly, grudgingly at first, Jubatus moved towards the dead fish. Smelling, then savoring the smell coming from the carcass. At first tentatively, but all too soon with more and more vigor, even urgency, trying to claw his way inside, spending whatever was left of his energy in one final attempt to feed, to get at the oh-so-deliciously-smelling meat, before he collapsed.
It was soon clear that Jubatus was wasting his effort -- the tuna's hide was as impervious to his current attack as it had been to his earlier assault -- and that he would not stop until hunger sent him into a coma. Okay, time to intervene. Duncan used his chronomorphic power to bring Jubatus' personal Time to an absolute halt and raced away. Thus 'frozen', the cheetah was in no danger from his own lopsided metabolism; by the same token, however, in his current state he would be trivially easy prey for any large carnivore that might chance upon him. Duncan quickly found what he was looking for -- a plastic-wrapped package with a strong loop of rope, which had been stuffed away behind that little waterfall. He grabbed the rope in his teeth, and hurried back, dragging the package with him all the way.
Fortunately, nothing had disturbed Jube during the cougar's short absence. Duncan didn't truly expect any unwanted guests, as all the local wildlife knew very well that this was his territory, but at the same time he had left Jubatus in a condition of total helplessness... Never mind, he told himself. We got more-pressing business to deal with, just now. Puma-claws flashed; long and ragged slits appeared in plastic which had been impervious to the friction of being dragged along over dirt and rocks; a highly delectable odor drifted forth from said gaps. In less time than it takes to tell, Duncan had extracted a slab of flavorful beef from his package and laid it down before the cheetah's muzzle.
Now the cougar-SCAB 'thawed' Jubatus; unfortunately, the spotted cat wobbled on unsteady legs and collapsed to the ground. Had he waited too long -- was the cheetah too close to metabolic collapse from want of nutrition? This was the moment of truth; it all depended on whether or not Jube could manage to feed himself in his weakened state --
There! A twitch! And a second twitch!
Slowly, in spastic jerks, the spotted cat maneuvered the meat down his drooling maw. And while he was thus occupied, a much-relieved Duncan dragged the rest of the beef to within foreleg's reach of him. Next, since it would be some time before Jubatus was coherent enough to discuss matters, the puma trotted over towards his enormous fish and dragged it a few feet away, so that its scent would no longer interfere. Only then did he settle down on his haunches in between the fish and the spotted cat.
Unsurprisingly, the cheetah's breakfast was finished before the cougar-SCAB had made himself comfortable. Jubatus was seated feline-style on the ground, his tail wrapped tightly around his hind legs; he stared at the remains of the plastic wrap which he held, human-like, in his hands, turning it over occasionally.
He did not acknowledge Duncan's approach nor presence.
"How are you feeling, Jube?"
"Feeling?" The cheetah turned to look at Duncan. A smile passed over his face -- one of his automatic, empty, meaningless smiles -- after which, he returned his attention to the plastic in his hands. "I'm not."
The spotted cat sighed. "I'm not feeling much of anything at the moment. Wish it'd happen more often... Were you quoting Moreau at me?"
Puzzled by the abrupt and unanticipated change of subject, the puma could only reply, "Ah... what do you mean?"
"The Island of Dr. Moreau. H. G. Wells novel. Thought I heard someone recite from the Saying of the Law -- 'not to lick your paws'. No? Never mind..."
"Of course," Duncan agreed, filing that information away for possible later use. "At any rate, did I hear you say you wish to not feel anything?"
The cheetah turned plastic over in his hands for a time. At length, Duncan inquired, "So, are you ready to face what you did while your instincts were in control?"
That certainly got the cheetah's attention. "My inst -- I didn't -- I mean, they weren't -- I couldn't --"
"Not? Well, then. What happened before you passed out, right on top of your dinner? Mmh?"
"I... I don't know?" If anything, having to admit his ignorance was disturbing Jube even more.
"Well, why don't you find out then?" Duncan asked.
"No. No!" Jube said, beginning to shiver. "I can't, I didn't."
"Can't what? Do you mean you can't eat fish? Why not? This would hardly be the first time you ever eaten some fish, or would it?"
Jube's reply was nonverbal. His actions -- he shook his head and began backing away from the cougar and the fish that was concealed behind the larger cat -- spoke louder than any words could have.
"What is it you are afraid of, Jube?"
"Afraid!? I know what the damn fish looks like! I don't need to see it!"
"Why not? As you know, that fish was already dead before you came here. So nothing you could have done, would have made it any deader, right?"
"I said, I don't fucking need to see the goddamn broken shredded torn-up thing!"
There was a long, still pause. Duncan ignored the torrent of fear (with a strong thread of rage) which was Jubatus' scent. "Jube," he said quietly. "I think you do need to see it. Why are you here, if not to learn about being a cat, to find out what all this instinct stuff is about?"
"I don't -- this -- you can't -- this isn't --" the cheetah sputtered, his backwards motion still continuing.
"Stop stalling. Speak English, and tell me what you 'know' your instincts made you do."
By now, the unsteady cheetah had backed up against the mountain wall behind him, while the puma was pressing on for answers.
"Speak up! What is it that you fear your instincts would tell you?"
The wild-eyed cheetah, positively shaking with fear, started to collapse in on himself, his back sliding down the rock behind him. "You know. You know! You've seen it! You'veseenit, Hallan'sseenit, everyfuckingbody's --" A few shuddering breaths later, Jubatus was composed enough to mutter, "Oh, God. Oh, Phobos and Deimos..." When Duncan still did not speak, the cheetah said: "Won't look! I refuse to look! You can't make me look!"
Duncan sighed. "If you refuse to look, I cannot make you," he agreed. "But I can ensure that wherever and whenever you do choose to look, that fish will be front and center within your field of view. And... I can outlast you. Why not just get it over with right now, hm?"
With that, the puma stepped to the side, so that the tuna and its skin and scales -- heavily scratched, but still unbroken -- became clearly visible to the cheetah.
Jube just stared. "I don't get it..." After a time, he frowned. "What happened?"
"You acted without rational interference by your sentient mind."
"But..." The cheetah's frown deepened. "It's intact. Not even torn..."
"And why should it be? Even normal cats have to learn how to prepare their food and how to get at the meat!"
"Oh. Yeah, I gue-" Suddenly, the spotted cat interrupted himself. "Hold it! If you knew that my instincts are clueless, why the fuck did you tell me to listen to them?!?"
The cougar did not back down one millimeter under Jube's instantaneous tirade. "Because that is what it took to get you to stop listening to your fears! You had been worried that your instincts would take control and force you into a murder spree; did that happen?"
"Like hell that's what I wa-"
"Did -- that -- happen?" the mountain lion interrupted, burying Jube's riposte beneath a very insistent question.
The cheetah spent long seconds staring into Duncan's eyes, saying nothing as salvos of military-grade emotions detonated behind his countenance. At length, Jube's gaze faltered; he looked at the ground off towards his right and quietly muttered, "No. It didn't."
"That's right. You listened to your instincts, and you didn't go on a feral rampage. Had I told you this beforehand, would you have believed me?"
When Jube just continued to stare at the ground for several more long moments, Duncan inquired more forcefully: "Would you!?"
Even more subdued, finally the spotted cat answered, "No."
"That's ok, Jube", he said, throwing down one more piece of beef towards the other cat. "Here, eat a bit more first, then take a nap."
"There was meat left!?" the cheetah flared. "Why didn't you ..."
"Because first, you needed to find out this important fact about yourself, on your own. Besides, you didn't ask. Don't look for any more of that beef, because that is the last of what is left. Now, eat, get some sleep. We'll talk about what is next, when you are rested."
The spotted cat did as Duncan bade him. No great surprise, that; according to his medical files, Jube's normal sleep cycle was but 27 minutes long! Not for the first time, the puma pondered this peculiar datum. Both humans and felines had 24-hour sleep cycles, so how could combining the two have granted the cheetah a half-hour cycle? It made no sense!
And now Jubatus was asleep; the puma could tell by the way he moaned and twitched as he lay, curled up into a tight ball, on the ground. Maybe this explains it? Duncan asked himself. If my nights were like his, I'd have trouble sleeping myself... Eventually the spotted cat's incoherent yowls died off, and the cheetah was once again awake and blinking.
"Feeling better? Still hungry, though, right? Don't worry, I will show you how to get at the meat, right after making sure you fully understood your first lesson today."
The cheetah huddled more closely in on himself. He did not speak; his haunted eyes were the only indication that he had heard.
"Your instincts are only telling you basic things -- run away from what hurts, run away from what runs towards you, chase what runs away from you, eat what smells good, stay away from what smells bad and so on. However, the instincts do not tell you how to do those things! The 'how to do it' part, that's learned behavior. In most cases, kittens learn these things from their mother early on. Since all will be taught in similar ways, it might look as if that learned behavior is instinctual as well. But as you just found out, that is not even half the story."
Now Jubatus spoke. "What's your point?"
"Just this, and it is a very important point indeed: It is learned behavior -- which means it can be taught! Did you get that? You can teach yourself which way you want to respond to any instinctual reaction! For instance, the instincts will tell you 'hello, we're hungry', and that impulse triggers an action. But it is up to you whether the action so triggered is 'go to the next supermarket and buy some meat'... or 'chase that deer-morph, bring it down, kill and eat it'. Do you see how it works?"
Something passed over the cheetah's face, but it did not remain long enough for the puma to identify. "Yeah. I see it," Jubatus said. "I just don't believe it."
The cougar shrugged. "What is to disbelieve, hm? Do you want to repeat that first lesson?"
"Do you still doubt it?"
"What do you think?"
Duncan smiled. "Good to know that some things do not change. In any case, the road I give you will not be easy. Teaching cats never is. But it can be done!"
"Yeah, right. What if you're wrong?"
"Wouldn't be the first time," Duncan said with a shrug. "What of it? Supposing I'm wrong, how are you any worse off?" And now his tone turned solemn. "Jube... you don't have a lot of options. I honestly don't think you can afford to not try it."
"Optimist... So, what's next."
"Well, breakfast! What else? Or have you forgotten about the tuna already?"
"Forget that armor-plated, economy-sized fish? How could I! And how the hell do you get at the meat!?"
"No worry, you will see! And the rest is just learning by doing. Now shall we get cozy with breakfast?"
Jube followed the mountain lion, muttering as he went: "'Not to eat Fish or Flesh' --" here, his stomach chose to remind him loudly that it was, once again, 'time to feed the beast' "-- 'that is the Law'."
Hearing those words, Duncan looked skeptically back at Jube and replied: "I don't know about your laws, but out here, it's eat or die!"
Jube just sighed. The trepidation on his face said all that needed to be said regarding his view of the upcoming 'lesson'.
"Come on, let's eat, it will put some fur on your chest!" Duncan tried to cheer up the cheetah, before he started his demonstration of how to tackle that tuna.
"Pft! Like I need any more of that." Jube grumbled.
"Okay. First, you pin down your food," the puma said, and his left forepaw did. "Next, pick an entrance area and clean it with your tongue and front teeth." Here Duncan bent low and his tongue flicked out again and again. With surprising efficiency the cougar's agile tongue rasped away at the fishy scales, with his fangs in a supporting role from time to time, chiseling away at the piscine protection.
"See? This is how you get all the inedible stuff out of the way. Come -- have a go yourself."
Jubatus displayed no inclination whatsoever to follow the other cat's example. "Ghrrrr -- I think I'd rather starve."
"Jube, what's the matter?"
"Eating like a ruddy animal!? What the hell do you think is the matter!"
"As you wish," Duncan said. "But if you want to eat, you're kind of going to have to, don't you think? Or maybe you want your non-sentient part to take charge again, give the 'beast' a bit more practice?"
"No, but -- can't you just open up that fish?"
"Sure could, but first you need to learn how to do it properly and for that you have to clean it. Believe me, you want to keep scales and fur away from the meat."
"That's what tools are for!" the spotted cat snapped. "Who the hell uses their tongue?"
"We do," the puma stated. "Or at least cats do. It's a good thing our tongue is perfectly suited for the task."
"'Perfectly suited', my ass! I'm ready to puke just from watching you lick up that slimy crap."
"Argh, an uneducated gourmet, a real raw diamond of one, aren't we?"
"That shit looks worse'n stewed okra, for the love of Demeter!"
"Have you ever tried it? Very popular in Japanese cuisine."
"Get real -- it's slime. I don't need to try a goddamn thing."
"Yeah, almost as bad as fish eggs, right?"
"Maybe I should have bought you a few cans of Beluga caviar instead, mmh? Just for a starter until you are ready for the really delicious stuff."
"I know from delicious, and that ain't it!" Jube shot back.
"Jube, I know that us cats are picky eaters, almost as picky as the next human. Some love nothing better than oysters, preferably while they are still alive and twitching from a little splash of lemon juice; others would rather starve then gobble down that slimy thing in a shell. Same here. I don't know if you like it, but at least some would consider it a treat.
"I... I don't eat oysters, either! Or caviar!"
"Just you try it once. Do you really think us cats would eat this kind of thing if it wasn't a pleasure? Or perhaps I am stupid enough to lie to you about something you can check for yourself, with just one sweep of your tongue?"
The cheetah grimaced, again. "Well... when you put it that way..."
"Look here, Jube," the puma said patiently. "Your 'beast' is not going away -- don't deny, we both know it -- so the question is, how do you want the 'beast' to regard you? Would you rather the 'beast' trust you to take good care of yourself, even if the going gets tough -- or would you rather the 'beast' ignore you, and just lie in wait for the next opportunity to strike? Sure, cats are good at waiting, if they have to. But is that the road you want to travel?" Jubatus did not reply; his worried expression, and the strong aroma of fear in his scent, suggested why.
After a time, Duncan said, "Get real, Jube. You are going to do it, either on your own terms or not. So quit blabbering and do it!"
"Rrrr... the things I do..." Jubatus grumbled, and then he sighed. "You sure there isn't there some better way than using your tongue?" He attempted to move the fish into a better position, but to no avail. Between the tuna's great mass and its slippery scales, he was hardly able to budge it at all. Lifting it up was completely out of the question. "Can't I at least search for some better way than behave like some fucking animal!?"
"Once you are back in civilization, sure. Here, you will have to do things just like 'some fucking animal'!"
"Why! Damn it!"
"Because you need to know what the alternatives are, what your choices might be if you want to find out how to lead a healthy life in the future."
Instead of answering, Jube gave the fish another hard prod with his right front paw and bent reluctantly down towards the spot where Duncan had started to rasp away the scales, sniffing suspiciously. His traitorous tongue however, had -- again -- a mind of its own, snaking out to make contact with the slime only slightly before the rest of the cheetah's body could manage to recoil away from the fish.
"Garrrghh!" Jube squawked -- and then the smell and taste receptors in his muzzle informed his brain of the new flavor that was suddenly inside his mouth. Jube's eyes grew wider and wider, when the taste spread from his tongue to the Jacobson organ at the roof of his mouth.
He uttered an incoherent cry of bliss as he exercised his new skill of flehming, savoring every molecule of what little his tongue had been able to salvage. More where this came from -- want more! With a vengeance, the spotted cat bent down to the task of lapping up this delicious sauce, rasping away at the scaly belly of the tuna in the process.
"Ugh, Jube. I think you can stop now," Duncan said when the cheetah had un-slimed the entirety of the exposed belly and was about to start on the rest of it.
Hearing Duncan's words, the cheetah froze, his tongue still extended and one paw gripping the tuna as if in a vise. "Errr..." If Jube's lowered ears and drooping tail were any indication, he had only just now realized what, exactly, he was doing! He looked sheepishly up to the mountain lion, who -- with a wave of his paw -- asked the other cat to move aside.
"Now, after you have cleaned the entrance like that, you keep your meal steady with a paw while you open its belly with your canines." Here Duncan bent down and let action follow his words. "This can be tricky at first, especially if you don't want to rip open any of the innards. That's hardly the flavor any gourmet cat needs with his meal."
Jubatus, however, still mortified by his lapse of 'rational behavior', had drawn away, a bit. At first he merely gave the cougar room to work, but when he saw just how his canines were sawing open the tuna's hide, and pictured himself in Duncan's place, lost in the pleasure of... of ripping into his meal...
Cheerfully oblivious to Jube's distress, the puma continued with his commentary, given between breaths and taking care of business. "And when you got it open, you drag out the intestines and other disgusting stuff..."
The spotted cat watched with intense disquiet, backing further and further away, as Duncan pawed out the innards. I can't... won't... oh Hestia, I can't do that... Hardly able to refrain from vomiting, but transfixed with a sort of morbid curiosity, his attention held as if by a traffic accident, he was utterly unable to avert his eyes from what the puma was doing.
"... and bury those." said Duncan. The last of the tuna's inedible parts slid out from inside the fish's belly with an oily, gelatinous slurp and plop. There was an abrupt retching noise behind him; looking up, he only saw the cheetah blur and disappear.
"Jubatus!" the cougar shouted, uselessly. "Rrrr..." Never mind. He cannot get far. And if hunger doesn't bring him back, me being the only available source of intellectual stimulation will. He'll be back soon enough...
Duncan was not at all averse to waiting for the cheetah. Once he had buried the innards, he delighted in one of his most favored pastimes: bonelessly lounging about on a boulder, without a care in the world. After a time, however, the cougar realized that the shadows had shortened -- Jube had been gone for entirely too long, half an hour or perhaps more!
The puma was not worried about Jube's physical safety; with that chronomorphic power of his, the cheetah was nigh-invulnerable. Rather, Duncan worried about his client's state of mind, how he might have reacted to whatever he encountered. Rubbing Jube's nose in the realities of existence was necessary, but it was also strong medicine -- strong enough that it was best taken in small and controlled doses!
Fortunately, it was not at all difficult to locate the cheetah: All Duncan had to do was listen, follow his ears, zero in upon the whimper of a sleeping (and terrified) kitten. And when the cougar found his quarry, he lay down, waiting for Jubatus to wake up.
"Hmwhrrmm..." the cheetah yawned, eventually.
"Hello!" Duncan said -- Jubatus was instantly awake and standing in a two-legged defensive posture -- "Did you sleep well, Jube?"
"Duncan!" he exclaimed, loosening up a trifle. "You... rrr... what the hell are you doing here?"
"I live here," the puma pointed out. "Well. You had a nice, refreshing nap, but we got some unfinished business. Follow me, please?"
"Why should I!?" the cheetah demanded reflexively.
Duncan canted his head in thought for a moment. "Hmmm... No reason, I suppose, other than having breakfast at last. Feel free to stay here, all by yourself, while I eat your share as well!" So saying, Duncan walked calmly away from the cheetah. Within fifteen seconds, Jubatus was walking beside the cougar.
When they were almost back at the 'breakfast nook', Jube asked: "Urgh, Duncan. Could we deal with something else first?"
"If you think it's important."
"It is. When I went to my car, it wasn't only to grab my vest, but also to take a dump. And with it gone and everything else that happened after..."
Duncan affected a puzzled expression, then smiled as if he'd just understood. "An infodump, you say? I see; you would like to know where you can answer your e-mails from here, right?"
"Yeah, I've been expecting --" Suddenly, the cheetah shook his head, growling. "Rrr -- no! Forget the e-mail! Does the word 'excrement' ring any bells? Take a dump -- take a shit -- where do you keep your damn bathroom!?"
"Oh, is that what you wanted to know? Really, you should have asked sooner. Still, very considerate of you, I must say. But yes, you have my permission."
"Permission? I'm tryna be a polite guest, and you want I should ask permission... rrr... Just tell me where your local version of a restroom is!"
"Sure!" Duncan waved his paw at the surroundings. "Anywhere you like. All around us, there is all the kitty litter one could wish for. Just let your instincts pick an appropriate spot..."
"Instincts -- again!" Jube complained.
"Yep. In this case, there really are some instinctual behavior patterns hardwired -- like not taking care of that business next to your meals, for example."
"Gee, and here I figured not shitting where you eat was just common sense. How a-"
"Why the sarcasm? No one said instincts have to defy common sense, right? At any rate, I am glad you agree. Shows that you got -- at least sometimes -- the sense of a cat."
At once, Jubatus' irritation was replaced by puzzlement. "Huh? What do you mean by that?"
"Well, I always thought it explains quite a lot about humans as a species -- or at least the civilized versions -- that most people would go to a restaurant, when they actually just want to visit the restroom. No wonder this place is in such a mess, with them running --"
"Enough!" the cheetah screamed. "Where!? Tell me! Now!!"
Duncan looked innocently at Jube. "I already did. Just follow your nose and pick a place that... right," he concluded with a sigh, for the cheetah had already vanished. However, judging by the sounds of rustling branches that had only just now been disturbed, he had not gone far...
Jubatus was behind a large bush near a small stand of trees. Shit! he thought to himself, unaware of the pun. Never should've let myself get talked into this... 'Let your instincts pick a spot', he says. Well, this is as good as any...
The cheetah quickly relieved himself of hydraulic pressure -- and another kind of pressure, as well -- after which a second question arose: How to clean up? Shit, how do cats -- no. How would a human handle this?
The spotted cat had just finished dragging leaves and twigs over the result of 'taking care of business' when his hair-triggered instincts informed him that he had company -- Duncan, of course. He glared at his unwanted companion.
"What do you want?!"
"Just checking if you are ready for breakfast. Are you?" Duncan asked the annoyed cat -- who became even more annoyed when the nonchalant cougar not only pointed, but actually walked over to the newly disturbed piece of ground. "Ah! Good to see that you are getting the hang of listening to your instincts."
"Instincts? What the..? asked Jube, who had no idea what the cougar was referring to. However, when Duncan began to sniff at the region, the cheetah's annoyance was cut with equal parts embarrassment. "Hold it! What do you think you're doing?!?"
The large cat ignored Jube's question. "Hmm... Stopped in a fast food restaurant on the way here? No wonder you are so cranky! That stuff always gives me the runs."
"How -- what --"
"Quite an infodump, for cats."
"Are you nuts!"
"No, we are cats; nuts are for squirrels. They eat them for breakfast, you know?"
"Rrr..." The cheetah let go of his annoyance, with a visible effort. Then he laughed, once, with little humor. "Heh. Breakfast, that's a good idea. Are you quite done here?"
"Yep. I take it you are ready to pick up your lesson from where you --" Again, the cheetah was already on his way before Duncan had finished speaking. "-- left off..? Hm."
At a leisurely pace, the puma ambled back to where his breakfast, and Jubatus as well, awaited him. "What the hell took you so damn long?" the cheetah demanded. "You -- rr -- oh, forget it. Okay: Breakfast. Pick a site, clean it, make an incision. What's left to learn?"
"Just the whole reason for opening up the fish in the first place: Dig in."
"Yeah, but -- the size of the thing -- it wants getting cut up into bite-sized bits! How you gonna do that with just claws?"
"Cutting? Not at all. Why would you want to cut it? No, Jube, this way it will keep clean and fresh. No flies sitting on top of the meat, as they will have a hard time to get into it, as long as it isn't torn up."
Here Duncan patted the ragged line that his claws and canines had left when opening the fish's belly, with his left paw. "See? Even where we opened it, the skin still seals it tight."
"Okay, fine. You don't need Tupperware. How do you fit the stuff down your throat?"
"Just as I said. Dig in. Literally. Heart, liver whatever strikes your fancy. You'll want to save the meat for last; the muscles keep longer than the organs, and the outermost part cool faster anyway. So basically, eat from the inside out. Which you probably ought to now, to replace the protein you threw away. You game to try?"
"Dig," the cheetah said dubiously. "In."
"Yes, that is what I said. You ready to join the fun?"
"Join the... I already did that, Duncan! You made your point, so I don't have to do it again, right? I mean, no sense in pushing my luck... right..?"
The cougar gave Jube a skeptical look. "Did you truly believe that would be a one-time-only event? Sorry -- here, you gonna use feline table manners all the time."
The cheetah trembled in silence.
"It's really quite simple, Jube. You eat, or you die. Those are your only options. Or do you think you can find a third alternative?"
"It, doesn't matter. Can't eat like, act like, animal. Or else..."
"Ah -- the 'beast' again. Jube, I don't doubt that you think there is a huge and terrible monster lurking in the back of your skull. But you have not actually seen any monster, have you! Rather, you have only seen shadows, cast by the light of your fear on the wall of your imagination. You worry that you look upon the shadows of a behemoth, a ferocious hellcat; but if you just would stop watching that shadow grow and actually look at what is really there to cast it, I think you would see no more than a frightened kitten, cowering from his own shadow."
"You think. Not certain!"
The cougar-SCAB sighed. "Jube, you really ought to install a governor on your imagination. It would be a shame to kill yourself without any real reason other than being afraid of a huge shadow."
"Whrrr..." The shivering cheetah paused, swallowed, and began again: "What if. It's not just my imagination. I mean. I got n-n-no fucking margin of error, okay? I can't afford to be wrong. At all! 'Cause if I am. People die."
"Perhaps -- but do you want to know, or would you rather keep on living in terror? If your fears are right, you got my word that you are not leaving this area alive. But if you are wrong, you will have many more years ahead of you. So why not find out, given that there is a very good chance that you are wrong for once?"
"I... can't. I don't even know how!"
"Oh very well, I'll show you."
And here Duncan got down to business. One paw grabbed at the top of the tuna, while his other front paw reached inside, opening up the belly, and shortly followed by his head. In no time, the cougar was up to his neck and shoulders inside the fish and -- if the rhythmical movements and the sounds of ripping and shearing at flesh accompanied by those of swallowing were any indication -- enjoying his meal.
The same could not be said of a certain cheetah. Jube's initial reaction had been shock, then dread, then angst; that happy trio quickly crept up his spine and settled in his bowels, where hunger was already waiting for them. And here I'd actually been idiot enough to think things just couldn't get any worse...
"See? As easy as eating a cake without hands!" Duncan told Jube cheerfully when he surfaced again from the depths of the fish's hulk, licking blood and flesh from his chops and paws.
That was too much for the spotted cat. As he had done before, Jube was getting the hell away, his innate velocity multiplied by his so-called 'upshifting'; however, this time Duncan was prepared. The puma had found that his own chronomorphic power allowed him to perceive the Time-distortion of the cheetah's power in use -- which Jube was doing right now! Here we go, Duncan thought as he 'put the brakes on' his flighty client and followed after.
In this situation, Jube's animal instinct and human mind were of one accord: Run away. Thus preoccupied, the spotted cat did not object when his instincts made him aware that he was being followed -- chased, rather: Predator. Large. Highly dangerous. Run, run, run! But no matter how swiftly his legs pumped, no matter how high the tempo he shifted to, his pursuer was gaining on him. His blood pounded in his ears, pulsed forcefully in his veins; breathing became laborious as hot, dry air rasped through his throat, his chest heaving with every stride of his legs, his muscles on fire. Faster, must go faster! He could feel the hot breath of the animal that (literally) tailed him. Nooo! He felt claws grappling for his fur. Rational thought, which might have informed him of the futility of his actions, was nowhere in sight; unable to admit defeat, he was still trying to barrel on.
Wham! Duncan tackled the cheetah, no different to him than countless other targets, be it prey, 'customer' or 'client' alike. Jube still tried to scramble on, unwilling to go down, heedless of the cougar on his back, whose claws were firmly locked onto his chest and back. No! Can't, won't, die here! he thought, knowing in his gut that he was lying to himself.
And then the jaws of the mountain lion closed around his neck. Oddly, there was no fear; just acceptance, patient anticipation of his fate...
The next thing he knew, he was picked up by the nape of his neck, like a kitten. Duncan was half carrying, half dragging the spotted cat back to their 'breakfast nook'; without ceremony, he dropped his cargo in front of the tuna.
The cheetah stared blankly at the fish, still unable to comprehend what had happened. How was he still alive? When he felt the teeth of the cougar close around his neck, he had thought his last second had come. Instead, a sudden calm spread throughout his body when the cougar lifted him up. Shock might explain the paralyzing effect, but he hadn't even been able to speak!
"Free advice, Jube: Never run away from a big cat. It triggers our hunting instinct! Now! Feed!!"
Jubatus was still lost in shock and disbelief; it had been decades (as measured on his own personal calendar) since the last time anyone, or anything, had been able to touch him without his active acquiescence.
"You almost... I could've... died?"
"Nonsense. If I had wanted you dead, you wouldn't be back-talking now. And if I would not kill you myself, I am hardly going to let you kill you, certainly not because you just don't want to contaminate your fangs with the juices of fresh protein. As the saying goes: If the muzzle doesn't come to the meat, the meat has to go to the muzzle."
This brought Jubatus out of his funk. The cheetah shook his head violently; his eyes darted in all directions, as if futilely seeking a path out of this Hellish situation. "You -- no! I won't -- you... damnit! Can't we just call for pizza? I mean, you're willing to let me starve rather than violate some stupid principle of yours!?"
"No. You are the only one here who is willing to starve rather than violate some stupid principle. However, you are not going to starve. This I guarantee, even if I must feed you mouth-to-mouth."
"Oh, no. You wouldn't."
Jubatus did not -- could not -- speak. He looked into the puma's eyes, and found no hint of sympathy within.
Eventually, Duncan broke the silence. "Fine," he said, getting to his feet. "I guess I got to treat you like a kitten, feed --"
At this point, an unnatural gust of wind marked the cheetah's departure; he sped to the tuna and started in on it, looking for all the world like a fast-forwarded videotape of a wild beast caught in the act of dining on a fresh kill. For his part, Duncan was content to stand and watch. Hmm... fast, yes, but I think I can still make out individual motions. He must only be at his default tempo, a mere six times quicker than normal. The sounds of Jube's feeding were barely recognizable -- distorted as they were by his speed -- but the clouds of delectable aroma which billowed invisibly forth from the torn tuna, were not the least bit affected.
And then the spectacle was over and done with. Jubatus, curled up on himself, sat upwind of the tuna with his back to it; with his legs pulled in tight and his arms wrapped around his knees, his posture was a peculiar mixture of human and feline tendencies. He made no sound beyond the pulsing rhythm of air forced into and out of his lungs.
"Congratulations, Jube! You did it, all by yourself."
The spotted cat did not respond to his host's remark.
Duncan padded over to the fish for a closer look at Jube's handiwork; it was no better or worse than he'd expected. "Hmm... not so bad, for a first-timer. You got talent that you never let yourself know about!"
This got a reply: "Don't rub it in."
The puma looked at his guest -- no change in posture. He stepped towards the spotted cat. "Jubatus, I did not intend anything but praise. And tell me, truthfully: Was the experience really as bad as all that?" Duncan suspected that the cheetah had, in fact, enjoyed it; the question was, would he admit it? "No more code of silence, Jube. Keeping such things bottled up inside you does nobody any good." The cougar stepped around to Jubatus' front, the better to look him in the eye. "Simple question -- yes or no -- did you like it?"
For a long moment, the puma suspected he would get no response at all. And then, abruptly and without warning, Jubatus screamed an abbreviated noise -- Duncan leapt backwards by reflex -- the spotted cat blurred away to who-knows-where.
Duncan took this opportunity to trot upwind from his client's former position. While Jubatus' scent was (like that of any other cheetah) generally too weak to consciously register, it was also true that Jube's emotions could and did make his scent very intense. Duncan could remain calm while immersed in the spotted cat's vaporous rage and terror, but doing so was... quite the challenge for him.
As he took deep, slow breaths of clean air, Duncan pondered the cheetah's last utterance. It had been short and clipped, very much as if Jube was upshifting to a higher tempo while he made that noise. It had began with a kind of high-pitched 'eee' which quickly transmuted to a hiss; what could Jubatus have intended by it? 'Eee'. 'Sss'. 'Ee', 'ss'. 'Ee-ss'. 'Ee-iss'. 'Eeyiss'. 'Yiss'... 'yes'..? It made sense; Duncan had asked a yes-or-no question... Ah. Now, all is clarified. Very well, give the kitty some time to come to terms with this new self-revelation...
Later, Duncan got up, stretched and yawned, and started tracking down the cheetah. There was no hurry -- Jubatus couldn't have gotten far; giving the spotted cat more time to himself surely wouldn't hurt; and if truth be known, the puma welcomed this temporary respite from having his nose continually rubbed in Jube's volcanic temperament. All of which said and acknowledged, the cheetah was a client, so Duncan would have to track him down. In a few minutes...
The cheetah's scent presented another problem, here and now. Had Duncan been the natural-born puma he appeared to be, hence dependent more on his sense of smell than on vision, following Jubatus' trail would have been a difficult proposition. However, Duncan was more than a puma. His nose might be of little use here, but his trained eyes could and did detect the small patches of disturbed ground which were the signs of Jube's passage.
He found the cheetah at the summit of a cliff, lying on his belly and staring disconsolately out at the valley below. It was unclear if he even noticed the puma's approach. Duncan said, "Hello, Jubatus."
Jube's ears flicked back and forth; that was the cheetah's only response.
"How many more times you gonna run off like this? Quite a waste of energy, really. Just makes you hungry again that much sooner."
"Yeah. I know."
Duncan waited for him to continue. At length, when no further words were forthcoming, the puma said, "You enjoyed your breakfast, Jube. Can that truly be so wrong?"
"Yes! I don't want to enjoy ripping shit up! I don't want to enjoy tearing into flesh -- and blood running down my throat -- a-and, oh God, the t-taste of raw meat --"
The spotted cat paused as if struck by a 25-kilo sledgehammer.
"You fear that enjoying these things will cause you to lose control, regress to a savage monster. Very well -- but you did enjoy them. Did you regress when that happened?"
"Like I could fucking tell if I had!?"
Duncan wasn't having any of Jube's customary evasions. "Did. You. Regress?"
The cheetah could not meet Duncan's eyes. After a time, he reluctantly admitted, "No."
"Thank you. However difficult it may have been for you to say so, the fact that you could say it at all is a good sign, and it earns you a reward. So come here, please, and lie down."
The cheetah just shook his head in refusal.
"You gonna question everything I ask of you?"
Jubatus' upper lip corrugated for a moment, accompanied by a low snarl, but he did obey. First sitting back on his haunches, then, slowly, lying down on his belly, stretching his arms and paws out to the front.
"No need to make such a face. Trust me when I say, you are going to enjoy this."
The cheetah's expression was a mixture of disbelief, mistrust and annoyance --
"You might like to find out what a 'Muskelkater' is, but I sure don't want your complaints chasing away all the available food for miles."
-- which was now replaced by curiosity, embarrassment and dread.
"Ah, sorry. 'Muskelkater' is German. While the direct translation would mean 'muscle tom cat', the actual meaning is 'stiff muscles from overexertion'. And given your performance this morning, you are in for a bad case of it without a bit of massage to loosen up your muscles and sinews. So, just relax, and in the meantime, no talking, okay?"
Instead of an answer, the cheetah just closed his eyes. Duncan set to work, systematically kneading the spotted cat's spine and back with his forepaws, sometimes moving Jubatus' fur back into place with a forceful tongue. This was not the puma's first time giving a massage; practice made up for his lack of manual dexterity.
It was not long before a low, rumbling sound -- a purr -- began to vibrate the air. Duncan grinned, for it was Jubatus' purr. The puma continued his work, lavishing great care upon the cheetah...
Some time later, Jubatus allowed one eye to open; he must have nodded off, as hard as that was to believe given the circumstances and his instincts' usual response to any threat nearby. Well, I was dead tired. And after a breakfast that size... Jube was just about ready to ease back into deep slumber when something odd registered with his half-awake mind. The massage was done, Jube wasn't quite sure how long ago, but there was an odd sound coming from directly behind him, from where the large cat had settled when he had started to work on him. Mmm. Duncan was right, it did -- does -- feel good. Trying to ignore the noise, Jube luxuriated a bit more, feeling the afternoon sun on his pelt. Damn it, why can't he turn off the noisemaker? Wish he'd make up his mind, shut up or keep on massaging... How had the cougar managed to do it with his paws? The strong pushes and shoves that kneaded his muscles had soon been followed by gentler moves, which had only slightly pulled at his fur. Man that was great. Maybe I should just ask him if he couldn't do a bit more of that for me, Jube thought. And turn down that noise... Have to look for a masseur back home. Had it come closer? or just louder? Half opening his eyes, seeing the puma sitting a few meters away in front of him, he was just about to turn his head, to ask the cat behi-
With a convulsive, eye-blurring start, Jubatus was fully awake and dashing away from where he had just been lying on the ground. Since the cougar was in front of him, that noise couldn't have come from the large cat. Something must have sneaked up on him, something so stealthy that neither the mountain lion's nor his own feline senses had picked up onto the danger until it was almost upon them.
"Something the matter, Jube?"
"Heard something, behind me," the cheetah panted. "Made some kinda, weird noise. You must have, heard it. What was it?"
"Ehh, Jube? There wasn't anything behind you."
"Yes, there was! I heard it come closer, damn thing got louder and louder!!"
Duncan gave the spotted cat a concerned look. "There wasn't any noise coming from behind you, or at least not in the sense of from some other thing behind you."
"Like hell there wasn't! I know what I heard, you liar!"
"I am not lying to you, Jube. I mean, haven't you recognized it? There was only one sound from your direction, but that wasn't from behind you, but from you. "
"From me? Bullshit! I know what kinds of noise I can make, and whatever that was, it wasn't one of 'em!"
"Jube, are you trying to tell me... No, that can't be. I mean, surely you must have done so all the time....
"It's called 'purring'. Cats do that, you know."
"Purr -- like hell I was purring! I'm telling you, I know every fucking sound I can drag out of my throat, and that wasn't one of them!"
"You don't purr with your throat, Jube."
"And cheetahs don't --" The spotted cat broke off; the sense of Duncan's words had, belatedly, caught up to his wildly careening brain. "We -- I mean 'they' -- I mean... oh, hell..." Words failed him for a moment; then he exploded, "Stop doing that to me!"
Duncan looked as innocent as only a cat can. "Whatever could you be speaking of, Jube?"
"You know damn well... rrr..." The cheetah breathed deeply with closed eyes for a few moments. "Oh, never mind." Suddenly, he did a double-take at the puma, realizing exactly what Duncan was doing as he sat there, sunning...
"Purring?!? No, that's perfectly normal."
"Perfectly normal!? Forget the purring, what the hell do you think you're doing there? You act like an animal -- how can you -- Damnit, you're human --"
"Don't be insulting!"
"-- as human as I am, anyway. But, but how can you do something so, so beastly!"
"Beastly!? Jube, I thought we covered this already? Look at me: I am a cat! Grooming ourselves is part of our lives. It's perfectly normal and healthy behavior. Although I can understand that you might be reluctant to do it yourself, given that horrible-tasting shampoo you are using."
"Well, at least I do use shampoo and don't smell like an animal! Just take a sniff at your hide! before you..." Jube trailed off as Duncan's exact phrasing registered on his brain. He stared at the cougar, whose tongue was again furiously at work. "You..." He couldn't have... Could he? But how could he know the taste of... Whipping his head around, he gaped at the fur on his back. "You didn't..?"
After a day of stumbling through thickets, of crawling through shrubs, of sleeping on the ground, all without benefit of currycomb, Jubatus knew that by rights, his fur ought to have been a mess. Ought to have been -- but was not. Rather, it looked as expertly well-kept as a putting green. "You did! You licked me! Christ on a trampoline -- how could -- you --"
"The word you grope for is 'grooming', Jube," Duncan replied calmly. "You really ought to give it a try yourself."
"Try it myself -- are you insane!?"
"What's the fuss? Believe me, you could use a good grooming! What with the state of your fur --"
The cougar broke off because Jubatus had blurred away, followed almost instantly by a rather nasty-sounding series of bumps and clatterings and a quickly-stifled yowl of pain. Duncan had expected his client to run away, and had been mentally prepared to block that exit with his own chronomorphic power; even so, he'd very nearly missed it when Jubatus upshifted to leave. But as the cheetah's unscheduled impact demonstrated, 'very nearly missed' was every bit as good as a direct hit.
To the accompaniment of polytheistic blasphemies, Duncan padded over to the spotted cat. The fact that Jube was capable of complaining about it with such eloquence was a good sign, for it indicated that his actual physical injuries were somewhere between 'minor' and 'nonexistent'... and there he was, only just now raising himself up to a bipedal posture.
"Goddamn son of a -- you!" the spotted cat muttered. "What the hell was that about? I'm not like other people, you psycho -- pain hurts me!"
"Yes, yes. All very unfortunate. But seeing as how cheetahs cope with physical contact at 70 miles per hour when they sprint, you ain't gonna persuade me that you got anything worse than bumps and bruises. Ah, well. I guess you are going to run away at every opportunity, hm? Okay by me -- but then, I want you to heed your instincts. Please, don't tell me you fail to see that 'run away' is a very natural instinctive response for cheetahs?"
"Get lost!" Anger and fear blossomed in the cheetah's scent, matching his wild-eyed expression: "You --you -- you -- cat!!"
Looks like he has reached the end of his supply of insults and derogatory descriptions, Duncan thought to himself. A bit earlier than anticipated. "Indeed I am! Good to know that it finally sank in. Speaking of 'sinking in', I got a question for you: Were you a swimmer, before your change?"
"What!? Stop changing the subject!"
Well, well; the fastest SCAB alive is having trouble keeping up. He's in worse shape than he would ever acknowledge, even to himself. Okay, let's see if a bit of reinforcement helps. "Not changing it at all, Jube. You see, learning to be a cat is like learning to swim," Duncan told the cheetah. "For the first you have to become a cat, for the second you have to become wet; and yes I know how reluctant us cats are when it comes to that. But once you know how, it doesn't matter how deep the water is, a few feet or a few miles! And if you have the skill, no depth of water holds terror, for you can swim safely regardless."
"Is there a point here?"
"Yes -- it's an analogy. Right now, you stand on the shore of unfamiliar water; you worry how deep it could be, judging from nothing more than the look of the surface. In your mind you fear it's getting deeper every minute; and the mere thought of going out on it scares the crap out of you. You need a lifeguard -- me -- to teach you how to swim. And once you know how, you need never fear water again!"
The cheetah's anger flared. "It's not me I'm worried about!"
"Please, Jube. Don't fuss over the literal terms of the analogy. We both know you're smarter than that. Why do you think your Doc believed this stay with me here would be perfect for you? Not just because we share similar fates, but because I really am a cat -- which means I am well qualified to teach you how to be a cat! Even so, you gotta work with me, because the finest possible teacher can do nothing for a student who refuses to learn. So how about it? You gonna keep on refusing and running away... or you gonna let me help you?"
Jubatus had heard and understood -- the cougar could tell from how his emotions ebbed and flowed in his scent -- but he did not speak for long minutes. Instead of giving one of his trademark acid replies, he looked to the west. The Sun slowly set behind the (still!) snow-covered mountain peaks; he saw neither one, but something else that could be hope or doom.
Duncan was resolved to wait until he got some response, however, and eventually, his patience was rewarded. "I, don't know," Jubatus said. "I mean, I'm trying to cooperate. Swear to any god you care to name, I'm trying. But, you know, it's like... I dunno, I just... I can't not think of all the ways it can go wrong, you know?"
"Naah, that's not it. I mean, sure, I am scared, but that doesn't stop me. Fear, I can deal with. If I did let fear get in the way, I'd never leave the Extremis, okay?"
"Hm. I see what you mean," Duncan said -- and he did: In other words, even your heightened tolerance for terror has its limits. "In any case, you are willing to expose yourself to things you must find quite unpleasant, which is a good sign. And since you are all set now, with food, water and a good place for the night, why don't you give the meaning and purpose of this vacation some extra thought, maybe while you work on your grooming, purring and napping skills?"
When the cheetah looked up again, Duncan was gone, vanished as thoroughly as if he had never been there. All that remained was the fish leftovers. Its dead eyes stared back at the spotted cat, and its scales shone with an opalescent gleam in the gathering moonlight.