This is the fourth 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.
And in the long hours before dawn, Jubatus slept...
Unsure where he was, he looked around for clues to his whereabouts. Perhaps he was dreaming? Wherever it was, the place was certainly calm. Inadequate lighting; a live pianist performing quiet music in the background; subtle aromas; snooty maitre d'. High-class restaurant, obviously. He hadn't been to any such place in years -- certainly not after he'd come down with SCABS. As for his human days, back then his exposure to these establishments was limited to those few occasions when a client insisted on it. For himself, he was never wealthy enough to spend $500 on a single meal, even if there had been any point in doing so (which there usually wasn't). But now that he could afford to do such things on his own account, he didn't want to. High-class restaurants expended quite a bit of effort and money to establish the proper atmosphere; no need to ruin it with what might as well be a 'Feeding Time at the Zoo' show...
But here he was. And... he was human! With a sense of wonder he looked at his hands -- real hands! without fur, without claws, without pads! -- as he followed the waiter, who was guiding him to his table. Warm lights barely illuminated the ceiling and candles on the tables provided a sense of privacy for the patrons already seated. He could make out his reflection (his real face, his human face, not the damnable spotted-fur mask that had been permanently welded to his skull since his change!) in the dining room's mirrored support posts. The walls were only barely visible, but he could make out the occasional glint of light that signified another mirror, interspersed with images drawn by overexpensive European artists. 'Okay, I'm dreaming,' he told himself. 'Have to be. Who cares -- at least it is a dream, and not another bloody nightmare.'
When he walked, no tail swayed behind him. When he sat down at the table, he did not have to take care, lest the far end of his spine get crushed or folded. When he picked up the napkin, he could feel the texture of the fabric -- linen! Without any fur to get in the way, without the reduced sensitivity of rugged paw-pads to cripple his tactile sense, he could feel the linen! If he concentrated, he could feel each and every individual thread in the cloth! Some idiots envied animorph SCABs for their 'heightened' senses; they were idiots because they didn't know, or care, about the sensory deficits that came with the package. Until now, he hadn't fully realized how badly he missed being able to perform such feats, trivial by human standards, as distinguishing between denim and tweed by touch alone --
"Would Sir like to see the menu? Or can we perhaps interest Sir in today's special?"
Exhilarated and absorbed with exploring his returned ability to just feel things, he nodded absently. The waiter was nowhere in sight by the time he thought to ask what a 'today's special' actually was. He wasn't kept in suspense for long. Apparently, today's special was a multi-course dinner, and the hors d'oeuvre was a platter of neatly labeled cold cuts. Some of them were normal -- roast beef, pork, turkey, chicken -- but most of them were exotic: Wildebeest, antelope (sable and oryx), even a slice of cheetah! The centerpiece of the platter was a veritable constellation of mouth-watering spices and marinades.
Before he knew it, the empty platter was gone, removed by the attentive staff. 'By Artemis, that was good!' he thought. Cleaning his lips with the napkin he felt -- he felt! -- some odd friction against his face..? Ah. Stubble. He hadn't shaved since he'd acquired a permanent case of five o'clock shadow; of course it had grown out a bit. Checking his face in a mirror, he saw that his chin was thickly covered in white hairs -- not surprising, given his age. Once upon a time, he'd thought of shaving as an inconvenient chore, and often went without it for days on end. And now? Now, he'd have gladly paid any price, if only he could regard the state of his beard as the only problem worth worrying about...
When had they turned up the lights? No, these places were always half-dark; his eyes must have adjusted to the dimness.
Scanning the room, he got his first look at the other patrons, at least the few he could see in the dim light. There was a young woman with curly black hair, a set of potted plants doing a decent job of screening her from his view; a huge brute of a man who would likely have done well as a tackle in professional football; a young couple, rather more interested in each other than in their dinner, to his left.
The next course was a colorful (and deliciously aromatic) array of something resembling sushi, that had been prepared with true artistic flair and served on black ceramic plates. Unfortunately, the dish's authenticity extended as far as the utensils that came with it -- chopsticks, which he'd never been much good with. Why hadn't he asked for the menu! Really, no sane person could be expected to eat raw fish... He looked at his neighbors; the big man was digging into a large bowl of green salad, with evident pleasure. 'Well, what's done is done,' he thought. 'May as well try this stuff.'
He made an experimental attempt to pick up a California-roll-like thing, and the thing collapsed into a neat pile of fine-smelling fragments on his plate. 'Okay,screw the sticks,' he thought. 'It's finger time.' His first piece, selected at random, was cool and firm but softened in his mouth like chocolate or ice cream. Its texture was its own antithesis; soft yet firm, grainy yet smooth, a combination which could surely be found only in raw meat. And the taste! Subtle enough that the intriguing texture had monopolized his attention at first, the delicate flavor increased with each passing moment, as if his taste buds -- his whole mouth -- were adapting to this marvelous new sensation! He attacked the sushi with gusto, not caring (or even noticing) that as he did so, his befurred face pushed forward into a fanged muzzle and his fingernails grew thick and pointed and sharp. And when he finished, he licked his fingers clean, without thinking or even hesitating.
Smiling and contented, he leaned back in his seat. Maybe there was something to $100-a-plate restaurants -- especially if this place was any indication! Now the waiter returned, for some reason pausing with wide eyes before approaching his table. "Is... everything to Sir's liking..?" the waiter asked hesitantly.
"It's great!" he said. "Can't remember any time I've ever eaten better!"
Suddenly the waiter's deodorant kicked in. "Ah -- you are -- most kind, Sir. Shall we bring the next course out for you?"
"Go for it," he said. The waiter bowed slightly, and was away. While awaiting the next course, he observed his fellow diners.The big bruiser was, if anything, even larger than he remembered, and the man had somehow found time for a tanning session; his formerly-pale skin was now decidedly brown. For that matter, the lovebirds to his left were also looking brownish. As for the black-haired woman, her skin now seemed to match her hair, albeit that might just be the poor light. She got up to visit the restroom in a lamb's wool sweater. Oddly, given the thick carpet, her footsteps were distinctly audible 'thud's. Well, her gait suggested that she was new to high heels -- perhaps that was it. Suddenly she paused, looked directly at him with a strange light in her eyes, and hurried along her way!
'Oh -- right -- shouldn't stare,' he thought. Then the next dish arrived; chicken soup in a turkey-shaped bowl. The smell -- the steamy flavor of the thing! The merest hint of its aroma caused him to salivate! He lost no time spooning the soup directly into his mouth. 'Mmm-mmm, good!' he thought. And all too quickly, the soup was gone, almost as if it had evaporated. It had been so very delicious that he was strongly tempted to lick the bowl clean!
He wondered what the next course would be, but realized that he'd know soon enough. In the meantime, he resumed his people-watching. The large man had, if anything, grown even larger; the mutually-absorbed pair were evidently lapine polymorphs, as their ears had extended far over their craniums. The black-haired woman hadn't emerged from the restroom yet. His ears twitched and strained for her footsteps, but when they finally zeroed in on someone approaching, it was just the waiter bringing the next course: Lamb with mint sauce. He was drooling just from the smell and sight of it! Especially the green mint sauce, which tantalized his nose even before the plate reached his table. Once there, it tasted better than any he had had before. He'd have to ask the waiter what kind of sauce that was.
Caught up in the delight of swallowing such delectable sustenance, he did not notice when fur sprouted from every inch of his skin. When the waiter came to remove the gleaming plate, he said, "Can I get the recipe for that sauce? It was the best I've ever had!"
The waiter inclined his head to acknowledge the compliment. "Chef will be most gratified to learn that his choice of cat mint for this viand met with your approval. Chef's elected purpose is to dazzle and delight our patrons' senses, changing the viewpoint from which they view their life -- or even their next meal. We must observe, he did prepare you a fine set of spots! But then, Chef's special creations always involve the freshest and best of ingredients. The lamb, we happily state, was humanely slaughtered not a quarter-hour ago..."
'Ah, well,' he thought. 'Shouldn't have expected them to give out any secrets, but it was worth a try.' He let the waiter blather on -- 'fine set of spots', indeed! What could you expect from a Frenchman, but to mess up the English language -- without listening in the slightest. His musings were abruptly short-circuited by the waiter's throat-clearing.
"Ahem! The next course shall be venison. Perhaps Sir might inform us of how Sir desires his to be cooked?"
Thinking of how long it had been since his digestive tract could tolerate cooked meat, he said, "Well-done. Not rare, not medium-rare, but well-done... On second thought, make that extremely well-done. Heck, make it Cajun -- blackened!"
The waiter sniffed, in that peculiar manner which implies (without any explicit accusation) that you have just committed a near-unforgivable faux pas, but they would never dream of bringing further shame upon you by pointing it out. "Of course," the waiter said. 'If that is what Sir desires, that is what Sir shall receive."
Then, once again, the waiter left him.
By now the large man had finished his meal and was reclining in his chair, chewing on something and rubbing idly with one hand what appeared to be horns growing out of the sides of his skull, with an almost mindless expression on his face. The black-haired woman still hadn't come back from the bathroom, and the rabbity duo were flaunting their rabbithood even more obviously than they had been earlier.
'Polymorphs,' he said to himself. 'Damned showoffs.' The waiter chose that moment to return, with the next course.
The tenderloin venison arrived in its individual skillet, accompanied largely by its own juices. It was rare, even bloody rare. But when he opened his mouth to complain of the error, he found the aroma to be so enticing that he instead uttered a blissful sigh. What the heck; as good as everything else had been so far, it might be worth a try; and he was dreaming anyway. What could it hurt?
The meat was seared gorgeously brown on the outside. Cutting a piece from it with his knife, he saw that it was succulently pink and cooked only to the point of nominal safeness on the inside. With its juices dropping, he raised the first piece to his mouth. His nose was almost twitching with anticipation when it made contact with his tongue. The taste! The flavor! It was so superbly done, it almost melted in his mouth! Could it have been this good if it had been as overcooked as he'd requested? Perhaps not... but maybe if it were medium, or medium rare...
He was almost finished with the venison when his hands and feet started to feel numb. It was a mild sensation at first, easily ignorable. However, it quickly intensified to the point where his knife and fork fell, clattering, out of his...
What was going on here? This was a dream, not a nightmare! But -- he stared at the fur on the back of his hands, fur that even ran up his arms, no, his entire body! Vainly he searched the mirrors for his reflection. His real reflection, that is.
However, all he saw sitting at his table was something with the head of a cheetah. He recognized that damned furry mask -- the face -- easily enough, the muzzle, the fangs, the black-rimmed ears, the all-over fur coat, the -- tail? He even had a tail here!? But...
He sighed when he saw the furred appendage wrap itself around his torso. 'Of course,' he told himself sadly. 'I should have expected this.'
He didn't spend any more time watching his fellow diners. And a few moments later the final course arrived: Dessert -- a bowl of cream with bits of salmon floating in it.
"Is Sir is pleased with his repast, thus far?" the waiter asked. "Is there anything else we might do, in order to ensure that Sir's experience is truly complete?"
"Yezz, I'd likkkh-" An abrupt throat spasm cut off his words. "I'dh llli -- Aie -- Arrh -- Hrrowr --" He wanted to scream, wanted to ask what was going on, but all that left his lips were a few chirps and a pitiful 'meow'.
The waiter looked down his nose and asked, in a supercilious tone, "Pardon our incomprehension, but perhaps Sir could rephrase Sir's request?"
"H'hkhh --yieee --" he whined, desperately attempting to form coherent words.
"Ah! Of course!" the waiter said, as if comprehending the inhuman sounds. "Sir had but to ask!" With those words, the waiter placed the bowl with cream on the floor. He did not think it unusual; rather, he leapt smoothly out of his seat, stepped eagerly to the bowl on all fours, and began to lap up its contents. Mmm! A purr emerged from deep within his chest...
And then a familiar new voice broke in: "Ah! There you are, Jubatus!" It was Sue Carter; hope flared in his breast. She knew that he was not a lowly animal, surely she could set these people straight! "I must apologize, Monsieur Garçon. Although his is the best-equipped and most comfortable cage money can buy, he nevertheless still insists on escaping and pretending to be human, God knows why." Now she took a leash from her purse and approached him. "Come along, Jubatus. It's well past time for you to go home. Time to go back to the zoo --"
-- and Jubatus awoke, screaming.
No!!! No -- wait -- just a dream. It was just a dream. I'm human, not a goddamn animal, not in a cage. I can talk, I got hands, not... paws -- claws -- fur -- ohfuckingshit -- nooo!!!
It could not have been long before he regained some degree of composure; the shadowline had not moved appreciably. Okay. Breathe. Calm down, deep breaths, calm down, deep breaths... get a grip, Jube. You really thought your SCABS might have got better? Body of a cheetah, you're stuck with it, so enough dreaming already! At least you're not at the zoo, you are... shit. Not for the first (nor fifth...) time, he wondered how he could have let himself be talked into taking this 'vacation'; he'd known it would be a bad idea! He'd known that the Universe would insist on proving that his initial judgment had been accurate... which, of course, the Universe had done. Repeatedly. Sigh... blame doesn't matter. I am here, never mind 'why'. I just hope I can survive the experience... wait a sec...
How was he going to survive? Under normal conditions, his accelerated metabolism required 60 pounds of meat per day; to be sure, that was a 'day' as measured by the rest of the world, but even so, 60 pounds was 60 pounds. Of course, that assumed his default tempo of 6. Since the cougar was keeping him at a tempo of 1 for the duration, that brought his needs down to 10 pounds per day. There being no way in Hell that he was ever going to chase down his own prey, the only acceptable source of food was that oversized fish. Yeah... 250 pounds. Maybe more, but let's be conservative. Duncan gutted it, and we both ate some, so what's left is, hmm... give it a low-ball estimate... 120 pounds. 10 pounds a day, I should be able to make it last 12 days -- all the way to the end of this 'vacation'! Yes!!
The cheetah's jubilation was short-lived: Quite apart from the question of how quickly the fish would start rotting, that 12-day figure depended on Duncan refraining from eating any more tuna. Yeah, like that's going to happen... Whatever. As if I've got a choice? Sigh. Gotta try to convince him. Where the hell is he, anyway?
This early in the day, the valley floor -- where Jubatus had spent the night -- was still cast into shadow of pre-dawn. There were no visual clues to Duncan's position, but as the cheetah's eyes scanned the vicinity, his ears suddenly zeroed in on a low rumbling sound. Now, why doesn't that surprise me?
The sound came from the top of a needlelike rock nearby, tall enough that its summit was already exposed to the sun. Only the end of a flicking tail was visible over the edge, indicating that the mountain lion was already 'busy' sunbathing and catnapping. Huh? How'd he get up there? Jubatus asked himself. And how'd he do it without waking me up? Oh, never mind. Better confirm how much meat is left, and put it back in that 'fridge'.
The piscine hulk was where Jube recalled; still lying near that rivulet, well in the shadow of the nearby boulders. After stretching his limbs, still a bit stiff from the night's rest and yesterday's activities, Jubatus stood up on his two feet and slowly walked over towards it. It looked good from a distance, but he wanted to be certain. And when the spotted cat's eyes had adjusted to the shadow, allowing him a close-in view of the fish --
"No!" Jubatus screamed. There was hardly any meat left! Huge chunks of it were neatly removed, and on the top side, the skin was peeled away to expose what lied below. In a dash, the cheetah was beside the tuna, his hands desperately seeking any meat that his searching eyes had not been able to detect. "No -- no -- no!" Turning to face the boulder where he had last seen that miscreant of a cat, Jubatus shrieked: "What the fuck did you do!?!?"
As one might expect, the cheetah's waking scream had jarred Duncan to full awareness. In the time since then, he had taken his feline morning stretch, and gotten comfortable on that boulder. Now he leapt to the ground, in a single fluid motion, and yawned extravagantly before he answered the spotted cat.
"Good morning, Jubatus. Something the matter, or just another nightmare?"
"Something -- you bastard, what do you think is the matter!? Look, damn it! Why did you do this?"
The mountain lion tilted his head, looking quizzically. "Do what?"
"Why did you eat all my tuna!"
Hm. 'My' fish, he calls it? Duncan actually appeared surprised. "Who, me?"
"Who the hell else could've ate it!"
In response, Duncan scanned his client with his eyes, slowly, from toes to head and back again. Then, just before the fuming cheetah lost all patience, he said, "Ahh, Jube? Before you start pointing any claws, maybe you should check back with your stomach, first."
"Fuck that noise..." It was at this point that the cheetah recognized a new sensation -- or, rather, the absence of an old one.
Jubatus was not hungry.
Still open mouthed, but now speechless, the cheetah stared back at the cougar, then lowered his gaze to his torso. There was a noticeable curvature at his stomach; this was nothing new. What was new, however, was the fact that this surface was convex rather than concave -- that it bent outward, instead of inward. Slowly, as if he did not trust his own reflexes and kinesthetic sense, Jubatus sat down on his haunches, wrapping his tail tightly around his legs. With an unsteady hand, Jubatus lightly prodded the bulge below the fur of his belly. Full. I'm full... Not hungry. Full! I don't... I haven't been full since...
Oh my god. What have I done? Shit, what else have I done!?
Lost in contemplation of increasingly horrific might-have-beens, Jubatus nearly missed Duncan's question: "You want breakfast?"
"Brea- No!" Christ, no. If I eat any more, it'll be all gone before sundown.
"Ok, then I will just clean up and pack it away for later." Here Duncan bent and went to work: His tongue quickly and efficiently rasped away all the little scraps and pieces that clung to the side and skin of the tuna.
Paralyzed from shock, Jubatus could only watch. Fuck! He's eating more of it, how can I stop --
With surprising ease, the tawny-furred cat wrapped the tuna's remains up in its loose skin, thus creating a tightly sealed package. In spite of having only paws and muzzle for tools, Duncan finished his task in less than a minute.
"There! We've got some dessert for later on."
Without waiting for a reply from the cheetah, who was still groping for words, Duncan ascended -- half-leaping, half-running -- straight up the vertical side of the rock he had only just abandoned a few minutes ago, holding Jube's hope for at least one more meal in his mouth.
"Wha-!?" Holy shit, how'd he do that! Jubatus thought. More importantly, how the hell am I going to get up there? Standing up again on his hind legs, Jube first attempted an upshift. As expected, the effort was wasted; Duncan was still holding him fixed at the normal world's tempo. Next, he tried his luck at scaling the sheer wall of stone. This, too, was a failure, except if 'success' was defined in terms of futile scratches left on the stone surface. Perhaps he could leap and run up the wall like the other cat..?
At this point a shadow overhead, Duncan, came down, taking the jump with an ease that suggested a 15-foot drop was hardly more difficult than stepping down from a small ledge. That suggestion was correct, at least for him or any other mountain lion, but as the saying goes: Don't try that at home -- not unless you are a specimen of Felis concolor! Jubatus had just turned his head, still leaning to the wall, when the puma said: "Aha! Already marking your territory and sharpening your claws for the day ahead? Very good, Jube!"
With a start as if that wall had suddenly become white hot, Jube withdrew his hands, almost stumbling over his own tail in the process.
"I was not 'marking territory'!"
"Hey, no worries, Jube. I told you, you got my permission."
"I said, I wasn't -- wait. Permission? What for..?"
"For putting your marks upon mine like you did with your scratchings there."
"That wasn't -- I didn't --" Jube gaped at the scratches behind him. There were older scratches beneath them.
"Really, I approve."
"Get stuffed!" the cheetah cried out while trying to wipe the dust from his hands behind his back. "I was just trying to figure out how you got up there, damn it!"
"Jube, don't worry. It's completely natural that you want to put your scent right on top of that of any other cat in your territory."
"Sce- Look, Duncan, I didn't leave any scent marks or mark any territory here --"
"Sure you did! Or have you forgotten all those trips in the night?"
"Yeah, all going in a slightly different direction from here. You made a perfect semicircle for your territory, with this side of the mountain as the baseline --"
"No, I --" Jube's whole body quivered, but suddenly with a jerk he yelled. "Stop changing the subject! Why did you take my fish up there in the first place!?"
"Because it is the perfect place for preparing the tuna for later." Duncan calmly explained. And again he names it 'my' fish, not to mention the topic he avoids. Interesting.
"Preparing? What 'preparing? You leave it in the sun, it'll go bad!"
"Naah, quite the contrary!" the puma said, with a gleam in his eyes and saliva in his mouth. "Believe me, that tuna is going to be greatly improved by what I have done!"
"What... What about other predators!?"
"No worries! You couldn't get up there, could you? How many other creatures do you expect will be able to? Okay, birds of prey, but since it is hidden from aerial view, even they won't have any reason to go looking for a snack."
"But... how long will it have to stay up there?"
"Can't wait for it, huh? Just a day or two. Less if the weather stays sunny, more if we get rain..."
Rain? Great, the cheetah thought to himself, only listening to Duncan with half an ear. He had to remind me about how the weather changes here. And with no bloody roof over my head... feh! Like I needed anything else to worry about...
"...the way, have you ever had well-aged tuna, slowly ripened in its own juices, before?"
Damn that cat! Here I am, trying to figure out how to stave off death by starvation for a few more days, and this son of a bitch has to keep on yapping about food!
Taking the cheetah's hard stare for a 'No', Duncan nodded and continued, "Thought not. In that case, you are in for a treat almost worth dying for!"
Jubatus glare turned in a horrified gape when Duncan -- who was, by every indication, utterly oblivious to the cheetah's distress -- performed the grandmother of all acts of flehming. An ecstatic purr rumbled from his chest out of his widely opened mouth. His tongue flicked in and out, licking his chops and whiskers, the latter quivering for excitement.
"Tuuuuhhhhnaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrhh," Duncan purred, drooling. With his head tilting even further back in absolute bliss, his body slowly slumped to the side and - heedless of his surroundings - the mountain lion started to roll on the floor, purring for all he was worth, rubbing his head and back against the ground. From time to time little squeals of pleasure came from his throat, just from remembering this pinnacle of the feline culinary arts.
With trepidation the cheetah watched the antics of his guide, which held (for him) all the inexorable fascination of a train wreck. Holy shit, he's lost it. Completely. But... if he's going all catty from just the memory of this 'dish', how does he expect me to react... Shit!! He can't -- oh hell, of course he can. He does, and he wants me to follow his example. But... whatever's left of my humanity, I've already surrendered too damn much of it, may Bast forsake me!
The cougar could have been a junkie, lost in the throes of his particular form of addiction. And Jubatus knew all too well that against such a seductive threat, his only weapon -- his willpower -- was, at best, an inadequate defense. How could he possibly retain any of his humanity? How could he avoid total, complete, and absolute degeneration... to a state of pure felinehood?
Just a minute ago he had been afraid that he would starve to death. Now, he was beginning to wonder if that fate might not be preferable... could this possibly get any worse?
The spotted cat grimaced. Possible or not, it probably would get worse anyway.
And the day had just started.
"No need to put on such a gloomy face, Jube." Duncan suddenly said, looking intently up at his companion. He was still lying on his back, but obviously no longer preoccupied with the feline pleasure of aged tuna. "Trust me, the waiting will be worth it."
The cheetah shuddered. "Worth..." he responded sarcastically. "Gaah! Thanks ever so much. Are you quite done here?"
"Yeah, sorry. Seems it got a bit out of paw there for a moment." Then, with a grin he added, "You will understand why soon enough yourself. So, you ready to start the day?"
"What have you planned?" the spotted cat asked suspiciously.
"What else but showing you your territory."
"Damn it -- I -- this isn't my territory, you -"
"Mmm, right you are."
"Way too many boulders, bushes and obstacles. A cheetah should have open country."
"Open country? What for..?"
"For catching your meals."
"Oh, no. Forget it! Like Hell I'm going to --" the cheetah exclaimed, his fur standing on end, his whole body shuddering. "No way!"
"Not? But at least you should do some running."
"I am not going to start chasing after meals!"
"Then how about just for the pleasure of running? Really, you should be able to enjoy yourself while out here. Just because you are so used to the limited space of that cage of yours, there is no need to stay within such a small area, here."
"Ca-" His ire quelled by confusion, Jubatus broke off, shaking his head. "Cage? Cage? What are you talking about?"
"That metal and glass enclosure you drove up here."
"The Extremis? That's my home, dipshit! Not a cage!"
"Not? Well, but in any case, there is no need to limit yourself to such a small area here."
"Yeah, well, even if you were right about the territory thing, this territory is yours. I wouldn't be stupid enough to mark it myself."
"Hey, you are invited! And any cat needs a bit of home turf. So, if you want to freshen up your markings..."
And again, the cheetah's mercurial disposition whipsawed over to anger. "You!! I didn't..!"
"As I said, I can understand that you would rather pick another area." And I also think I can understand why you might enjoy feeling nothing, for a change. "So let's have a look around. I can show you a few places that are far more suitable for a cheetah. Much better for you to properly satisfy your instinctual needs."
"Rrr... instincts," the cheetah muttered darkly.
"Exactly! But no matter which area you want to keep as your territory, this cat has to check up on his own and the neighbors'." Here Duncan sauntered off, his tail swaying with his steps. Suddenly he stopped and turned his head back to the fuming cheetah. "You might want to know that this place is actually on the border of my territory, at least as far as the other mountain lions in my humanly-owned range are concerned. Give them my regards when they come by to investigate who the new kitty is, will you?"
"Other -- fuck! You mean there are feral cougars out there?!? Are you nuts!!!"
"What do you expect? Just because I am living here, you think every other cat is going to keep his or her distance? This is open country! You own what you can hold. And you hold only what you patrol regularly. Nothing more, nothing less."
The cheetah glowered. Great. Just, frigging, great. Now he tells me there's multiple psycho kitties out there.
"You don't seriously expect me to... just... shit in the woods!? Sweet Leaping Jesus! How sick can this get!?"
"Look here, Jube," the puma said patiently. "If you aren't marking your territory, the other cats will come over and investigate. It's kind of like a sign-in procedure that says 'Hey, I'm using this area now -- try again later'. And it even works with the other predators, most of the time, given that we all use the same places for marking, such as high spots of ground, stones, large trees, in short landmarks. It is our way of telling everyone where our private area starts, which they better stay out of. Just like humans do with their homes, except that our 'walls' are made by scents and scratches. You see, they also kind of double as gossip. Lets everyone know what the other has been up to lately, hm? Come to think of it, there probably isn't much difference between this kind of gossip and the human version, other than doing it via blackboard instead of sticking ones heads together. The latter just wouldn't do for us cats; population density is way to low for meeting each others by chance."
Jubatus twitched and looked as if he couldn't decide whether to run for his life, suffer a cerebral aneurysm, or just vomit. Imperturbable, the cougar-SCAB went on: "So. Shall we go for a walk and let all the other cats know that there is a new kitty on the block?"
Without pausing to observe the cheetah's reaction, Duncan padded away on his appointed rounds. He did not remain unaccompanied for long; apparently, Jube's fear of encountering a feral feline by himself outweighed his distaste for his 'host'. Of course, that distaste manifested itself in many ways, not least the spotted cat's annoyed comments when Duncan marked territory...
"Do you have to do that?"
"What do you mean?"
"That... spraying, clawing and -- son of a -- Do you really have to do that?"
"Jube, make up your mind!"
"My mind is made up! What are you talking about!?"
"Do you want to make this your territory or not?"
"No! What brought that up!? Damn it, stop changing the topic!"
"Not at all. Just tell me if you do or don't want me to cancel out your earlier markings here." Hearing these words, Jubatus' expression would have befitted a man who had just taken a 14-pound sledgehammer blow to the temple. Duncan did not deign to notice as he continued: "Honestly, I don't mind if you want to freshen it up again. Fine by me, but do make up your mind, okay?"
Jesus Haploid Christ! Shoulda kept my big muzzle shut. He probably would've told me anyway, but no! I just had to ask for it...
"I know; you are such a perfectionist that you fear to do it wrong, yes? But as long as you do it at all, there isn't any wrong way! If you like, you can just back up with your rear end towards that tree, and maybe also add a few more scratches. And if you want to make sure that it will last a few days, not to mention also get the attention of whomever comes along, just check it with your nose from all directions. All very simple and easy, especially if you let your body do what it wants and knows how to do!"
The cheetah's reply to that was a low, quiet whimper. As well, Duncan noted that one corner of Jubatus' mouth twitched, seemingly of its own accord, and kept on twitching...
The two cats padded through the wilderness, which area was as close as anyone might get to completely and utterly untouched by humanity. Only one of the pair appreciated the spectacle which surrounded them on all sides; for all the reaction Jubatus displayed, he might just as well have been stalking through a city dump or a wino-infested alley.
The cheetah's (lack of) response did not escape Duncan's notice. The puma of course realized that not everyone, animorph SCAB or otherwise, had a taste for unspoiled nature; at the same time, he suspected that 'love of wilderness' might be one of the many things Jube rigidly denied himself as part and parcel of denying his own nature as a SCAB. Okay, Duncan thought. He keeps his feelings and instincts on a short leash; let's see just how short it is... "Hold up a bit, Jube," he said, stopping at a particular scenic spot. Gesturing with a foreleg, he smiled at his spotted companion. "Well -- what do you think?"
That got him a blank expression for his trouble. "Of what?"
"The scenery, of course! What do you think of the view?"
"Yep, it sure is a view, alright." Jubatus shrugged. "So?"
"Yeah. I know what you mean. Same old, same old. Each spring I think I should get down to some cleaning up, but then with all that area to patrol, I am usually far too busy and well -- quite frankly -- lost my taste for gardening a while ago. Nevertheless: What do you see?"
The cheetah scanned his surroundings. "Trees. Rocks. Dirt. That river or stream or whatever."
"And how do you feel about it?"
"'Feel'?" Jubatus looked quizzically at the other SCAB. "How am I supposed to feel about rocks and dirt?"
Hearing those words, Duncan sighed. Well, nobody said it would be easy. "Never mind. I do think you should pay attention, however, if only so that you can get some idea of what regions are best suited for a fine young cheetah such as yourself."
"'Young'? Pfft!" Jubatus snorted. "Only for values of 'young' which include 'born during the Johnson administration'..."
Somewhat later on, the puma lost track of his client. He was accustomed to trusting his sense of smell to inform him of other creatures' whereabouts; Jubatus' scent, however, was sufficiently weak that Duncan could not count on his nose where the cheetah was concerned, particularly when the other cat stayed downwind. Fortunately, the spotted cat (still twitching!) had made no attempt to run away. He was compactly seated on a log, his tail wound up around his haunches, staring off at nothing in particular. "Hello there? How are you feeling?" asked Duncan.
"'Feeling'," the cheetah said in a dismissive tone. "That, again. How do you think I'm feeling!?"
"Evasive? Come, now. I think you know what I ask here. What goes on in that overclocked brain of yours, hm?"
"Rrr --" The seated cat's irate glare quickly dissolved to pensive sadness. "Just... you know... thinking. About stuff. Nothing pleasant..." Jubatus sighed. "Okay. I hate my body." A pause. "I hate myself."
Duncan waited; eventually, the spotted cat spoke again. "I'm pissed at the whole fucking world."
Another, shorter, pause. "I can't even remember the last time I went 24 clock-hours without being afraid."
Again, the puma did not speak.
"Basically..." Jubatus finally said, "my life couldn't suck any harder if it was written by Microsoft." Only now did he look at Duncan. "That answer your question?"
"In a way, yes. But what keeps you from having the life you want?"
In response, the cheetah raised one foreleg and wiggled the three 'fingers' on that 'hand'. "Take a guess. What with the damn cheetah package, I can't afford to live any other way."
"Afford t0? Don't you think that someone with your bank balance wouldn't have to worry about that?"
"Not that kind of 'afford', Duncan."
"Yeah. 'Cause even if you hadn't a single penny to your name, you still could afford to change your life. You would almost have to then."
"Like hell I would!"
"No? Why not? Who but yourself is telling you to live like that?"
"Don't you get it? I've looked over all the alternatives! The life I'm living may suck, but everything else sucks worse!"
"You? Or your fears? Just between you and me: If my fears told me to stick with a sucky lifestyle, I wouldn't listen to them."
"That's you," the cheetah retorted. "This is my life, damnit!"
"Yes, it is. And you don't seem to like the way your life is going. So, maybe it is time for a change, or -- to use your phrase -- if you don't like the old, why not switch to a new operating system? Get some iLife instead."
"Pfft! An apple a day is great for computers, but it won't keep the cat at bay."
"No? Then let me extend the metaphor. You remind me of some of my former colleagues, the ones who got so comfortable with all their old machines' bugs and quirks, they just wouldn't change a thing -- not if their life depended on it! These people knew the bugs; they just couldn't wrap their mind around the idea that -- maybe, just maybe -- there was an alternative that would let them do their jobs without having to bother with all those little workarounds they'd come up with. The reason, of course, is that it had taken them ages to figure out those solutions in the first place. And by clinging to the old system that needed the workarounds, they could keep up the pretense that all their workaround-finding efforts hadn't been a complete waste."
"Duncan, that's not it."
"Good to hear! So will you step through the door, when the cage opens? Or will you be too afraid to step outside ?"
"Door? What frigging door?"
"Mmh, maybe it's still too early. Don't worry, it's there for you, when you are ready."
"And you have zero intention of pointing it out."
There was no reply; as if nothing important had been said, Duncan just turned around a few times and settled down, making himself comfortable. "Good place for a little rest. Shall we have a stop here?"
And without waiting for an answer, the cougar settled himself on top of a dark patch of rock and earth.
Jubatus watched him, waiting for some sort of answer, not quite sure what to do now. After some time he also settled down, making sure that his tail wasn't in the way, but curling behind him around the stone, before he sat down in human fashion.
"So, what do we do now?"
"Yes, do. What do you do here all alone?"
"Mmmh, aren't we doing something already?"
"No, we are not! We're just lounging around here and doing nothing!"
"Sounds good enough for me," the cougar said. "Let's do a bit more of that." So saying, he turned back on his side, closing his eyes for another catnap.
"Oh, no. Get up, you lazy cat."
Duncan half-opened one eye. "What for?"
"Whatever the hell you normally do here! Okay, you got no internet, no phone, no TV or radio or newspaper or whatever -- but surely you do something with yourself besides eat and sleep!?"
"Well... yes. Patrolling the area. But we just did that."
"Fine," the cheetah growled, his voice far more grating than normal. "Eat, sleep, and walk around. Are you saying that's all you do here?"
"Of course not! Mmmm... We could go shopping."
"Shopping?" The spotted cat's disbelief was obvious. "Yeah, right. Must have overlooked the supermarket and the grocery store."
"Does the term 'hunting and gathering' ring any bells?"
"Yes, and none of them have anything to do with shopping. Stick to one topic, damn it! Stop jumping around!"
"No jumping. It's a well known fact that most people instinctually use the same strategies that primitive humans used to survive. And in a way, shopping is as critical for survival of contemporary homo creditcardus as hunting and gathering was for ancient homo sapiens. Well, unsurprisingly, us cats also go shopping, or if you prefer, 'hunting and gathering'."
"You mean hunting and killing!"
"There's a difference?" Duncan shrugged. "It's part of the business. Just like paying the bill after a successful shopping expedition. All part of the game."
"No, that's not the same thing at all!"
This remark brought the cheetah up short, fumbling for words. "Well... well... for one thing, you don't do any gathering!"
"Oh, yes we do! I must admit that most cats prefer hunting to gathering, though. The results are fresher that way."
"Fresher -- you mean --"
"Yep! Accidents happen; not everything dies because it became prey. And hunting is dangerous! Why take a chance on getting injured if you can instead munch on a free meal that can't fight back? And let's not forget that quite a few other creatures make their whole living from searching for leftovers."
"Ugh! That's gross."
"Tastes vary," Duncan said with a shrug. "And if your sensory equipment should happen to tell you just how tasty and mouthwatering these particular remains are, why not have a go at it, right?"
"That's even worse!"
"No -- it's efficient. Nature is anything but wasteful. There is some critter for every task. Fortunately, given our sensory equipment, our task is not cleaning up, but providing something for those who do, as well as making sure that those who live by killing off the weeds and other plants don't kill all of them."
"Herbivores don't kill plants, they just eat a few leaves or fruits or whatever."
"And Carnivores don't kill herds, they just eat a few deers or moose or whatever."
"That... that's not the same at all!"
"Not? I would imagine the individual leaf is just as dead as the individual deer. It's keeping the plants or the herds in good health that matters. I mean, suppose no one would keep the plant eaters in check at all? The herbivores wouldn't give up breeding, would they? Then they would eat the entire plant -- they would have to. And then they all would die and we with them."
"Yeah, so everything is fine. We kill them, so that they don't kill themselves. Bullshit!"
"No, it's the balance of nature. It's really quite simple, Jube: Carnivore and herbivore alike, every animal must kill to keep itself going. Some kill directly, with their own teeth or claws; others kill by proxy, allowing other creatures to perform the actual deed on their behalf."
"Rrr -- You fucking think I'm going to chase down some fucking innocent animal just so I can rip out the fucker's throat, you can go straight to fucking Hell, you fucking psychotic son of a bitch! There is no fucking way I'm going to let myself turn into a fucking serial killer!"
"Such versatility from one word! You don't mind if I take notes, do you?"
"Do whatever the fuck you want. I don't fucking care."
"If you don't, where is the problem?"
"Where..? You fu -- frigging well know what the problem is!"
"Maybe. Anyway, I just don't understand why you think it is a problem."
"Why -- rrrhrrh!! Are you so far gone that killing for a living doesn't even bother you anymore?!? "
"Are you an inanimorph?"
"What!? No! What brought that up? Damn it, can't you give a straight answer to any question!?"
"Jube, only the dead have no need to kill any more. Everything else has to consume something to power their life. For us carnivores, especially for us cats, that source is meat and meat only."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
"I've had more than thirty years to get used to the idea," Duncan pointed out. "Even so, sometimes it does bother me -- but that's just the way it is. It's not gonna change just because I wish it to be otherwise. So bothering isn't going to help anyone."
"It bothers me! And I am not letting you turn me into a faster version of yourself, you killer cat."
"What makes you think that this has anything to do with what a killer does, Jube."
"You just don't get it, do you?"
"No. 'Cause what we do here is ranching, not killing."
"'Ranching', pffft! No matter what kind of nice-sounding label you stick on it, it damned well is killing."
"You think all that cattle is miraculously turned into steak by the wave of a wand? Hardly! More with the wave of a butcher's knife."
"You think I don't know that!" Jubatus snarled, irate.
"So does that make every rancher, everyone who sells cattle to the butcher a killer in your eyes?"
"That's completely different!"
"They don't have to keep on repressing the urge to rip the living shit out of every fucking moron within line of sight!"
"But you do?"
"Ye-" Abruptly, in mid-word, Jube fell silent. After a couple of deep breaths, he went on in a much calmer tone: "Yes. I do. And I can -- but that only works as long as I keep a lid on those fucking instincts."
"Jube, look at me! Is there any doubt in your mind that I am a wild cat?"
"What's that got to do with it?"
"Don't you think I got a few of those instincts, too?"
"Well, sure. But --"
"No 'but's! I am a cat, with all that this means. Not just some human who looks like a Felis concolor," Duncan snarled at the cheetah, waving a paw before his face. "Capice?"
"No. I mean, you got several university degrees. A long, successful career at your former job --"
"And none of that makes me any more human. You feel that you have the urge to rip the living shit out of every moron you can lay your eyes on? Well, you got that in common with quite a few humans. Us cats, however, don't give a damn about morons -- just about getting a meal, if and only if it's necessary. Frankly, it sounds to me a lot more like you got human borderline disorder. You know, quicksilver fast changes of emotions and all that. That sure isn't an behavior I have ever heard about in felines."
"Borderline? No way. All that started when I SCABed over! I wasn't like that before."
"Sure, and guess what's the most typical cause of borderline symptoms? A traumatic event. And in your case, one day you literally woke up to find yourself a full-morph, six times normal speed cheetah --"
"I'm not a full-morph! I can do this," he snarled, punctuating his words by flipping Duncan the bird.
"Fine. You are not a full-morph cheetah," Duncan replied with sardonic emphasis." But in one fell swoop, you did become isolated from all human society, because of both your new body and your new built-in tempo. Are you going to tell me that isn't a major trauma?"
"Well -- yeah, but -- becoming a cheetah, that's a one-shot deal! Short, sharp shock, and it's over. It's, it's being a cheetah, year in and year out...-"
"Are you that sure? Because, real cheetahs don't have that warp-speed change of disposition you have made your trademark."
"Hey, guy, this is where I live! I know about cheetahs, okay? We're built to go from zero to 100 clicks within a second. Can you say 'grossly overdesigned endocrine system'?"
So 'we' includes natural cheetahs, now? Duncan thought. Interesting. "Not really, unless you think world class athletes, who by the way also go from zero to their top speed within a few strides, are a different breed of human? Not at all! Just a lot of training with a few bits of talent -- and neither makes them any more disposed to hyper-fast mood changes than your regular couch potato."
"Not comparable! Order of magnitude difference. With cheetahs, we -- they --"
"-- can't afford to waste any extra energy on emotional pyrotechnics," Duncan stated. "They have a hard enough time to make a living as is." Jubatus was still groping for words, when Duncan continued. "I think it's high time someone introduced you to the art of being a feline."
"That's the last thing I need now!"
"No, that's exactly what you need to know. Who do you think has spent thousands of years perfecting the art of instant relaxation, mmh?"
"Relaxation? What brought that up?"
"I did -- because you need to hear it. Relaxation, meditation, yoga; in whatever form, this is the best treatment for anyone with borderline symptoms."
"I'm not a borderline nutcase!" the cheetah snarled with claws extended.
"Ahh, yeah, right, you are not." Duncan tried to calm the other cat, who had started to walk -- on his hind legs -- back and forth, his tail jerking left and right, with ears pinned back and an unhealthy light in his eyes. "But even so, don't you think there might be some benefit in training to achieve serenity even under non-ideal circumstances?"
"What for? That's not changing my body, and there is the problem."
"If you say so, but you will probably agree that the mind can indeed control the body."
"Well, yes, maybe."
"So, when the mind leads, the body will follow, right?"
"What are you hinting at?"
"That you need a calm mind. And once you fînd the serene center inside yourself, there will be no need for your emotions to whipsaw all over the place."
"'Need' -- rrr -- you idiot, I don't need to be an emotional time-bomb at all! It's just -- I mean -- it happens, okay? And I can't help it! All I can do is suppress and control those goddamn instincts, 24/7."
"Jube, no one can be in perfect control for every millisecond of their lives. But you can learn a state of mind where little problems aren't growing into big problems. Where instead of an unstable equilibrium" -- and here the cougar grabbed a little stick with his muzzle and placed it, upright, on top of his left paw. For a few seconds he balanced the stick before it fell to the ground -- "you can have a stable equilibrium, where little errors, a bit of overcorrection is not feeding on itself. Instead all is falling back into the stable state all by itself."
"You know, they got treatments for delusions like yours." the cheetah said sarcastically. "This 'relaxation' isn't going to help. It's a physical, not a mental problem."
"Mmh, maybe, but even if you are right, why not give it a shot and see what happens."
"It's not going to hurt, is it? And it might do some good."
"Optimist," was the spotted cat's acid reply.
"And I suppose you have some other activity in mind for the rest of the day?" the cougar asked exasperatedly.
"Well, we could... rrr... I don't know, damn it. What do you do around here?"
"As you so aptly said: Walk, eat, sleep and a few other things beside."
"Okay, let's try 'the few other things'."
"Mmh? Well!" The puma's ears perked up. "If I had known you were ready for those, I would have arranged for a few female cheetahs to stop by."
"Female cheetahs!" Jube's face was a mask of shock. "You mean..."
"No, no! No way!"
"Ok, I'll cancel the keg-party."
"Keg-party?!?" Jube screamed, but then realized by the mischievous twinkle in the cougar's eye and flicking tail that Duncan was just pulling his tail.
"So. Shall we take care of lunch instead?"
"No! No, can't we just do something, anything else."
The puma inclined his head thoughtfully. "Sure, we could check out a few more places. However, and you might want to take my word for this, with today's weather this is one of the best places to hang around in the vicinity. Nice dark rock that heats up fast in the early summer sunshine. Some fresh water over there and always a little breeze with all the scents from the valley below. In short, the ideal place for you to learn 'nekodo'."
"Nekodo -- the way of the cat. Although I privately call it cat-Zen."
"Yeah, I know us cats had the art of Zen perfected millennia before humans even left their caves, but you are more familiar with human than feline habits, yes? I thought it's better if we call it by some name you might have a chance to recognize. As you may already know, 'Katzen' is German for 'cats'; while there is no relationship between this particular style of Zen and the German word, it fits just fine."
"Yes, I did know that," the cheetah said, glowering at his host. "And I'll be damned if I'm going to trust my life and sanity to someone who thinks a bilingual pun is a valid basis for -- for anything."
Duncan gave his client a tolerant glance. "And life has to be consequential, right? No, Jube, it's not. It just is. Anyway, what is your basis for not co-operating here, hm? It surely is not that it would keep you from patrolling or marking your territory, because you don't want to do that. You wouldn't be hunting instead, because you don't want to do that, either. You might prefer to have a snack, but without hunting there is nothing to eat. So, why not try your paw at meditation? We are already at the perfect spot for it here -- there is also no point in going anywhere else. Or, if not meditation, give a try to some other feline technique for relaxation."
"I don't need to relax!" Jube declared, making a curse of his last word. "What I need is better control, goddamnit!"
"Because that has worked so well up until now, of course." Curiously, the spotted cat had no ready retort. However, his scent bore decidedly less anger than one might have expected from his tone of voice. Duncan went on: "Your problem is, you make the mistake of confusing 'means' and 'end'. Your end -- the goal you seek -- is to never lash out blindly, yes? And total control is the means by which you hoped to reach that end. Fine -- but now that your means has failed, the solution you desire is more of what failed! Tell me, Jube: Is there any other kind of problem for which you would automatically prescribe 'more of the same', without even considering any alternatives?"
Jubatus' jaws worked, but no words emerged. He was now less angry than afraid. The puma took that as his cue to continue. "Yes, your life is disordered, chaotic. Do you think you are the only person that is true of? Trust me on this, you're not. And the key to finding peace in the midst of chaos is to become mindful of what is -- to live in the present moment. It's not to live in the past, of what was or could have been. It's not to live in the future, of what you want or need.
"No, Jube, what you need is to live in the present, existing in harmony with your surroundings, being content with your self, without regrets or any need for the approval of others. In order to do that, you must know -- understand and, as important, accept -- who and what you truly are. It is only then that you will have achieved what humans call mastery of your life. But the name doesn't matter; call it what you want. For us felines, catnapping is the ticket."
During those last few sentences, the puma was surprised to observe that a single flash of hope had -- just for a moment -- managed to raise itself above the ocean of Jube's customary wariness, fear, and rage. Duncan paused to grant the cheetah opportunity to reply. He did, speaking quietly: "You talk a good game. But, it's... too good to be true. How can I believe you?"
"Perhaps you can't," Duncan said matter-of-factly. "But if so, that would have more to do with your own lack of trust than anything else, would it not? And you haven't anything better to do, so at worst, any time you spend on this was already going to waste anyway. So here is the deal, Jube: You lay down here and just relax. Concentrate. Meditate. Focus. Cat-Zen. Just be. Lay down on your belly with your hind legs tucked in and your paws to the front, also known as the 'alert cat position'. And if you don't fall asleep or run away or start arguing, but just stay here and have a nice long catnap, I will take care of dinner tonight."
"What's the catch?" the cheetah asked, his voice and eyes full of suspicion.
"What catch?" Duncan responded. "All you need do is be still for a while, and I go hunting for us both. But if you fail in the task of stillness, you catch our dinner."
"And all I have to do is just lounge here and do nothing."
"Yes. If you want to call it nothing. Fine by me."
"For how long?"
"Until the sun sets behind that mountain, about ten or so hours from now."
"And you take care of dinner."
"If I don't have to listen to you snoring or talking, yes."
For the first time in some little while, Jubatus smiled in pleasure. "Piece of cake."
"If you say so..."
So it began. And the first hours had been easy. There were more than enough things to occupy his mind. After all, having some time to kill was anything but unfamiliar to him. And under normal circumstances, he had any number of topics and activities with which to fill time; the next contract for a client, how to improve a program, a new layout for the web-site of another client, and so on, endlessly. But without a computer, damn it, not even some paper to make notes, to set his thoughts out, he soon ran out of things to do. There was more time -- even at a tempo of 1 -- than he knew how to kill. He had solved every problem he could; the only ones left were those directly related to he himself, his life, his situation, here. How could he survive? How was he going to make it even to the next day? How would he keep his humanity? How to not succumb to complete feline-hood?
None of that was worth thinking about -- at least, not if he wanted to stay sane, human.
All too soon, all that was left as input for his thoughts was his surroundings. Nature, with all its beastly smells, sounds, and sights, encroaching on his senses.
How could I ever let myself be talked into this? That cougar is a quack, a mad cat. 'Cat-Zen' -- what a stupid idea. Yeah, just be yourself. To hell with this. I can't stand it, this lying around and not doing anything. Looking at the cause of his misery didn't help either. Urgh, he's licking himself again -- and worse -- enjoying it!
Okay, fine. It's just three more hours to go. Then he eats his words and I eat dinner. Sounds like a plan.
Two hours, fifty-nine minutes.
Two hours, fifty-eight minutes, thirty seconds.
Two hours, fifty-eight minutes, forty-eight seconds...
He tried to keep his curiosity in check, tried to stop thinking about all those mysterious scents which accosted his nose. Just breathe through your mouth. Sadly, that made things even worse, thanks to that obnoxious sense of taste-smell at the roof of his mouth, a sense he had been able to tune out before he came here, a sense that just now he had started to appreciate... and dread. Stop thinking about scents and what they mean, you idiot! Calm down. Deep breaths -- no! Anything but deep breaths! Do you want your instincts to take control?
All of this was the cougar's fault. Had he not shown up at the Pig, nothing like this would have happened. He would be still safe in civilization. But that damned cat had shown up, messed with his mind, messed with his life. And now, here, Duncan was messing with it again, turning him into a beast; running on all fours, savoring his meat, overloading his senses with that odious nature. 'Way of the cat', what a laugh! He would laugh, if he wasn't afraid it would kill him... No, the thought of his own death didn't bother him -- 'very few people die at my age' -- killing others, now, that he worried about. But... he'd lost control, once. Pushed by that infuriating devil cat, perhaps, but he had lost control... wait. Duncan was a trained psychologist; surely he must have had some idea of how Jube might react to his damned proposal. Could he have planned that encounter, and its (fortunately non-lethal) consequences? What was the puma's true agenda? How had he managed to bring Doc Halliburton on his side? Come to think of it, the snake-doc had suggested Yoga and meditation as well, not to mention some other alleged 'treatments' that just didn't bear thinking about. Had those two been in league all along --
An abrupt muscle cramp shattered Jube's pondering. In search of a more comfortable position, he moved, again, when his ears caught a sound, twitching on their own accord, trying to zero in on its source.
The cougar's tail.
The cougar's moving tail.
The twitching, uttermost tip of the cougar's moving tail.
Jubatus tried his best to ignore it, as he knew very well that intense focus on moving objects was one of those ruddy instinctual responses that a significant chunk of his brain was hardwired for. He tried to think of something, anything, else. But no matter what his chosen topic was -- be it cryptarithmetic puzzles, bad movie quotes, computer algorithms, musical arrangements, or whatever else -- it was only a matter of time until he got completely distracted. He could ignore the scents, at least to some degree, by taking shallow breaths. He could more-or-less turn a deaf ear to all the sounds, no matter how much nature tried to horn in on his twitching ears. But every time there was a bit of motion, he couldn't help paying attention. There were never more than a pitiful few clock-seconds before any and every train of thought was irreversibly derailed by...
Finally he decided to just watch the tail instead of trying to ignore it. Only... now it did not move. Not at all. Not a hair. Clock-second after clock-second crawled by.
And. It. Did. Not. Move.
After several minutes of focusing his attention on the triple-cursed tail, he gave up on catching it in the act. Maybe I can have some non-interrupted moments, now. Closing his eyes, he turned away, when his ears caught the tell-tale sound of...
It had moved.
Having reached the limits of his endurance, the spotted cat said, "Will you stop that!" with rather more force than necessary.
"Mm?" Duncan yawned. "Stop what? I am only just lying here, like any self-respecting cat should and would! But then, your activity level is enough for both of us together. So why should I do anything?"
The cheetah's venomous glare could have stripped paint off a wall. "Go," he said. "Away."
Duncan yawned, wide and lazy. That was his only response -- that, and the flicking of his tail.
The spotted cat fumed in silence for a time before speaking up. "I said. Go away!"
Duncan opened one eye to look at him. "Yes. You did. Most inconsiderate, I must say. Do you think you could stop making loud noises? I don't know how you can concentrate with all that jabbering --"
"-- Rowwwrrll!" Jubatus screamed as he leapt for the puma-SCAB's tail! But Duncan was not there; the spotted cat's claws touched hard ground, not fur or vertebrae. In a blur, Jubatus spun about until he saw the owner of that tormenting tail -- just as the cougar began trotting away.
In the sparking of a synapse, no conscious thought needed, Jubatus pursued the puma. Each cat's movement was as smoothly flowing as the other's.
While the cheetah is the undisputed holder of the animal kingdom's land speed record, it was solely by comparison to that super-elite standard that the cougar might be deemed 'slow'. Duncan made use of every available obstacle, easily jumping bushes or boulders that Jubatus had to circumnavigate. In this terrain, their respective abilities were finely matched. Time and again, Jubatus -- out of habit and desire both -- tried to upshift to close the gap between him and his quarry. 'Try' being the operative word; each time, he found himself even further behind than before.
Finally, instincts took over. Jube's body 'knew' that he could catch his quarry without resorting to anything but his physical abilities. The cheetah's body stretched further, his spine flexed like a spring with each stride, his tail balanced his body at every turn. Yes -- he was closing in -- the catch was just moments away!
By then each cat's breath was labored, their muscles on fire. While the cheetah was hardly up to the usual fitness of his feral brethren in Africa, given his pampered life in front of computer screens, the wild cat would have earned a medal in the puma Ironcat Championships, had such a thing existed. As a rule, mountain lions are good for short bursts of extreme activity; prolonged sprinting and jumping, however, is not their forte. Therefore, it was in mere minutes -- equivalent to hours by human standards -- that Duncan took refuge by jumping into the branches of one of the larger trees.
"You slowed me down even when I wasn't using any upshift! Get'cher ass down here so I can rip that sonofabitching tail off you... you... cheater!"
From the safety of his perch high above his frothing charge, Duncan observed the spotted cat's antics, unconcerned, before he answered with a wide grin: "And here I would have thought you had figured that out ages ago, Jube. The only cheetah around here is you!"
That was too much for the spotted cat. In one leap he made another attempt at getting his paws on the cougar's tail, swaying and dangling in front of him, just out of reach! His effort was to no avail; whether it was native cunning or the puma's chronomorphic power, that dratted tail remained conspicuously un-caught. So when Jubatus touched ground, he did not leap again. Rather, he sat, poised like the fuse of a hand grenade, ready to explode into motion at a split-second's notice. For his part, the puma did not move, either (other than an occasional tail-twitch).
For long minutes, no words were spoken; the loudest sound was the cats' breathing...
...and suddenly, Duncan leapt away! The cheetah instantly followed, in a sand-colored blur. His field of view contracted; he saw only the fleeing cougar directly in front of him; all else was an inconsequential blur. And he would catch that wretched tail, catch it and... and... never mind. He had to catch it. He had to catch it, and that was all that mattered.
The two cats, one in hot pursuit of the other, ran up a slowly rising slope, when suddenly Duncan's gait changed from all out running to a high vertical leap, almost backwards. He made a somersault over the cheetah, who -- right on the heels of the mountain lion -- couldn't match this stunt. Instead Jube tried to turn, to brake his speed. But too late! His paws had run out of ground to find purchase. His momentum carried him forward over the edge of a riverbank into empty air. All four of his legs scrabbled wildly against nothing, and for a moment it almost seemed as if the spotted cat -- just like in some old cartoons -- would be able to make it back to solid ground. Alas, gravity finally deigned to notice the desperate cheetah and pulled him down.
"-rrr -- hey, wha-"
Duncan stood at the river's bank, looking into the water, poised to leap in after his client. He didn't expect that Jubatus would need to be rescued, but just in case... Ah! Duncan thought. There he blows! And, sure enough, the spotted cat's head broke the surface, a few dozen meters downstream from Duncan's position.
Okay, that's it, the cheetah thought, envisioning the 'righteous' retribution he would visit upon Duncan, even as he paddled back to the riverbank. That cat is dead. So. Fucking. Dead! Finally Jube made it back to the shore. After he shook most of the water out of his fur, steam rose from his still overheated body, when he set his eyes on the miscreant -- that puma! -- who was now lounging at the edge of the riverbank above him. Watching him, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Slowly, Jubatus made his way along the shore to where the chase had led up the slope to the riverbank, to where his nemesis was resting. Had he been aware of it, he would have been most disturbed by the fact that his advance was nigh-indistinguishable from the hunting behavior of his African counterparts -- except that native-born cheetahs usually were not quite so wet, when they stalked their prey.
On all fours, his belly close to the ground, Jubatus advanced on his seemingly-unsuspecting quarry. Cutting off his escape route, edging in step by step, staying downwind, soundlessly. All Jubatus could see was that cat.
Then, he was in position. There was no escape; time for the stalk to end, for the chase and (above all) the catch to begin. This time he wouldn't be cheated out of his prize! 'Cheater', my ass. That son of a bitch wants some cheetah? Well, he's damn well gonna get it -- good and hard. Eagerly his tail swept back and forth; his hips rocked, warming up like an athlete before a sprint, loosening muscles and sinews. Aw, gee; he's looking the other way. Well, that's his problem. It'll be like dynamiting fish in a barrel -- shit! No!
By whatever quirk of a capricious Fate, the cougar had chosen just this moment to jump into the river. Jubatus leapt after Duncan on the spot, calculating his leap for a tempo of 1 -- which tempo the puma was still keeping him at, fortunately. With his head start, Duncan left the water and was on dry land and running before the cheetah could catch up to him. The chase was on again!
The cheetah had an unexpected advantage in this leg of the race: His fur was thoroughly water-soaked. As it happens, the primary limit on the cheetah's celebrated hunting sprint is not exhaustion; rather, it is the rapid build-up of body heat from their intense muscular exertion which forces them to slow down. And as Jubatus' fur dried in 70-MPH wind, the evaporating water carried some of that heat away...
If that weren't enough, this side of the river was open grassland! Duncan's lead shrank. Ten meters -- six -- two -- and the cheetah's forepaws grabbed for the blasted tail. Only in the last moment, Duncan swished his tail out of the cheetah's maw, and executed a perfect 90-degree turn. The abrupt change in trajectory threw the cheetah off. The cougar stopped and spun to see where his client was -- just in time to meet the cheetah's mad charge!
The spotted cat's left foreleg blurred forth to grab around Duncan's neck. Pushing the puma down and to the side, his other foreleg swept up towards the cougar's neck. His muzzle wide open, he was going for the throat! Duncan arched his back; in one and the same motion, his head rose as he threw his forelegs forward to clamp onto the cheetah's shoulder, exposing his chest and pushing the spotted cat's torso down. The cheetah did not notice how this maneuver spoiled his aim; indeed, he bit down, hard, without hesitation. Meanwhile, Duncan's momentum spun both SCABs down to an awkward th-tump on the grassy ground.
His jaws never lost their grip when Duncan rolled over on top of him. The spotted cat couldn't figure out what had gone wrong. He'd chased the prey; it ran out of breath and stopped moving; he'd caught it, gone for the throat and shut his jaws. He'd done everything right, so the prey should be dying -- unable to breathe. But somehow, the prey was very much alive! It wasn't suffocating! Instead, it was on top of him, and one of its hind paws pressed into his belly, only a rip away from gutting him.
In short, it wasn't dying; rather, he was going to.
Desperately, his paws grabbed for a tighter hold, his jaws tried to clamp down harder, his maw tried to close around more throat. But all he had in his muzzle was thick fur and skin. He was breathing hard, his large nostrils flaring.
At first he'd savored the scent of his quarry; now the cheetah was drowning in the smell of his own fear...
...and then Jubatus realized that something was wrong.
He had been hunt- ...no, chasing... running after the cougar and catch... smacked into him when Duncan stopped and then his paws had seized... No, his hand had taken hold, and then they both tumbled, and now the mountain lion was sitting on top of him and...
He was still breathing hard from the... the running. Not hunting, it couldn't have been that, but running. Running! His nostrils were full of the smell of blood and fear and thrill and fur; his mouth was full of fur and... the taste of blood.
Why was he -- what was he -- biting down on..?
In shock his eyes opened wide... then wider, when he realized that his vision was filled with a very close up view of the underside of the cougar's throat and muzzle, that it was Duncan's fur in his mouth, the cougar's blood he tasted --
By then the mountain lion had turned his head at an awkward angle to get a better look at this newly acquired breast ornament, when he saw something like sanity return to the spotted cat's eyes. Jubatus blinked, frowned, slowly opened his mouth as if to scream... and then collapsed in slow motion, like a demolished building.
-- and then Jube's world turned black.
Duncan bent down to Jubatus. The cheetah did not react; instead, he curled in on himself, mumbling something over and over. Only when the puma was close enough to nuzzle his client did the mumbling became clear:
Duncan sighed. "Poor little kitten," he murmured as he gently stroked Jubatus' flank with a forepaw. He stepped downwind so that the scent of his blood would not further traumatize the cheetah; then he sat down to groom and dry the fur of his charge, making him comfortable.
It was cooler when Jubatus returned to his senses again -- an hour or so before sunset. Okay... what happened here? He was lying in the grass. His fur was dry. He felt... the sensation was unfamiliar; it took him a few seconds to make a tentative identification... relaxed..?
"Hi, Jube. Awake again? Sounded like you had a nice catnap."
Catnap? Opening his eyes, he saw Duncan, lounging a few meters away on a patch of sand. The mountain lion was grooming himself again. There were wet patches all over his fur. Only, the fur looked drier where he was actually licking it. If it's wet, but not from this...
Suddenly it all came back. Jubatus felt torn between blackest revulsion and giddy triumph -- at least until the revulsion won that internal battle.
What have I done?
"I am unsure if you meant to say that question out loud," Duncan said, surprising the spotted cat, "but since you did speak: What you did was exhibit a fine display of cheetah hunting technique. Just as I planned."
"How could you do this to me!"
"We both had to find out a few things. Me, I wanted to know if you had taken Doc Halliburton's advice about meditation, focussing your mind -- that is to say, if you could prevent some minor distractions from disturbing your piece of mind. As it turned out, you did better than I feared you might, but there is still room for improvement."
"So this was all... what? Some kind of mindgame?"
"Not at all. Had you been able to keep your focus, I would have known we can start with more advanced stuff. Since you could not, I took the opportunity to find out if you are capable of catching your prey. And you did. Perfectly. Got the whole protocol right the first time. Congratulations!"
For some reason, Jubatus did not appreciate the puma's praise; his expression and general demeanor would have better suited a man who had just been given a sentence of death, effective today.
"Ah... I think I know what bothers you!" Duncan declared. "You're feeling aches and pains from the unaccustomed level of activity just now, yes? Well, I can fix that; a bit of massage will set you right. Shall we get on with it?"
In truth, Jubatus hadn't previously noticed any such sensations. But now that the puma had pointed it out, his attention was monopolized by the discomfort he'd been ignoring! "Hrr... yeah. You broke it, you fix it."
So saying, he lay down in preparation for a session of massage, delayed only by the occasional need to avoid putting stress on an overstrained and aching joint. Duncan again put his skills to use as he'd done yesterday, and before long, the cheetah was reduced to a relaxed and purring state.
"There -- all done. Get up, walk around, tell me how you like it, okay?"
The cheetah moved his hands into position to push himself up -- and stopped, with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Something wrong, Jube?"
"I can't feel my -- no. I can feel my back. But it's..." He reached back with one hand to probe cautiously around the root of his tail. "It's... not wrong, just... different..." Now he craned his head over for a visual examination of the region in question, before favoring the puma with a half-worried, half-quizzical glance. "What the hell did you do to me!?"
"Just a bit of a massage. Loosening things up, relieving strain, that sort of thing..." the cougar trailed off because Jubatus' mercurial countenance had shifted from puzzlement to shocked comprehension.
"It... doesn't hurt," the cheetah breathed, his tone equal parts awe and surprise. "Pain -- gone -- it doesn't hurt any more!"
"You are most welcome. I was hoping I could help out with your recent aches and sprains."
"No! Forget that crap. That's not what I meant! My back doesn't hurt!"
"Good!" Duncan nodded. Then, fearing he already knew the answer, he quietly asked, "Can you tell me the last time that happened?"
"The last..." The cheetah thought for a moment before dismissing the question with a frown and a shake of his head. "Never mind." He wriggled his torso experimentally, then rose up to stand on his hind legs. Rather, he tried and utterly failed; with an outraged "Rowr!" he collapsed to the ground, quite against his will, before reaching so much as a half-erect stance.
Try as he might, his spine would not keep straight! It was almost like an empty water hose, sagging to one side or the other, but never standing upright. All too soon Jubatus realized the unwelcome truth: He could no longer walk on his hind legs -- couldn't even stand erect. Desperately he tried to stay upright, grabbing for any help. "I can't let this -- I have to stand up, I have to walk. This isn't happening, it can't be," Jubatus muttered to himself. "Just concentrate, Jube. You figured out how to walk, when all this started. You can do it again! It's a solved problem, it's got to be doable..."
"Jube, calm down. Geez, you would think this is the end of the world. But it's not. It's just -- "
"You messed with me again!" the cheetah snarled at the cougar.
"'Messed'? Such gratitude! I wouldn't expect thanks I when I try to help you, but --"
"Help? This is what you call help!?" Jubatus screamed, incredulous. "Go to hell and take your fucking help with you!!"
"So you prefer to keep on slowly destroying your spine?"
Those words stifled Jubatus' tirade before it could properly begin. The puma explained: "Jube, your body isn't meant for bipedalism. Thus, when you go on two legs the way you do all the time, you subject your tendons and joints to all manner of stresses they were never supposed to receive. Good Lord, bipedal posture can be too much even for a human spine, at times! Did you really believe a cheetah spine can absorb such punishment without harm?"
Duncan nodded. "As I thought. So let's not have another complaint about losing your standing. Besides, you will need all your skill and new maneuverability to provide us with dinner." Here Duncan pointed at the sun, which just now seemed to touch the top of the mountain on the other side of the valley.
"Dinner...? No. No! Forget it. No way!"
"Jubatus, we had a deal. Remember? You didn't stay put, so you take care of dinner."
"No! I mean, please, can't you. I -- I'm not ready for this. I can't do this! Man, I -- don't you realize how close I came to killing you!?"
"You only got a mouthful of chest fur. I take worse almost every day!" Duncan replied, mildly amused. "Where is the problem, Jube? You did what any cheetah would have done -- if they had been chasing a gazelle. A free word of advice: Don't tackle something you can't put your jaws around, hmm? But as long as you restrict your menu to deer or other small prey, you will do just fine."
"No, no, no..." Jubatus pleaded, his voice getting smaller and smaller, shaking his head but keeping his eyes focused on the mountain lion. "Don't make me -- don't do this to me."
The puma sighed. "You know what happens with bad kittens?"
Jube just continued to shake his head.
"They go to sleep, hungry."
"But -- you -- I... Please don't force me to --"
"Pfft! I do not force you to do anything. Instead, I merely ask you to live up to your end of a bargain."
"But... but..." Emotions ran wild in the cheetah's scent; then he screamed, "Go away!"
"I will. Since I know that you can take care of yourself. Maybe I should leave you for the night. Lots of time to think, mmh?"
With those words, Duncan stood up and began walking away -- but he stopped before his tenth step. Turning his head, he said, "You are not afraid of the dark, are you?"
With those final words, Duncan padded off into the darkness, leaving his client isolated under the impassive quarter Moon...
The cheetah quickly found that he could not sleep. With nothing better to do, Jubatus took stock of his current situation, not daring to hope that it might be somewhat less intolerable than he thought. Okay... No computer. No cell phone. Hell, no tools of any kind. Can't even stand up. Well, look on the bright side, Jube: At least you can talk! 'Talk' -- ha! Now, there was a joke. SCABS had completely eradicated his real voice box, leaving him a cheetah's soundmaking apparatus in exchange. And after years of intensive practice and experimentation, the absolute best he could do with his throat was make an inhuman noise that was extremely easy to mistake for human speech.
A crude approximation of real speech; that was all that was left of his humanity. Oh, his mind yet retained a few scraps of sentience... but considering how often his feline instincts had overridden his conscious desires in the past couple of days, he had no illusions about how much longer that state of affairs would endure. 'A snowflake's chance in hell' sounds about right, damn it. But what can I do...
Miserably he curled up next to one of the boulders, shivering and twitching. It was quite some time before he fell into a restless, uneasy sleep. Meanwhile, unnoticed by the cheetah, a pair of glowing eyes -- Duncan's -- watched over him from atop a nearby outcrop...