This is the fifth 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.
He knew he was dreaming, of course. In real life, it had been years since his fingers were so long and thin and hairless. As well, he recognized where he was, and in real life he had not been here in years, either: His old recording studio, a converted room in the home he'd been forced to abandon after SCABS had its way with him. It was all here, just as he remembered it; the 24-track TASCAM recording console, the sound-deadening carpets hanging along the walls, the compact bank of Martin loudspeakers... Even the smell of the place matched his memories.
So he was dreaming. Had to be.
But if it was a dream... surely it couldn't hurt to try...
He ran through the familiar pre-session checklist; unsurprisingly, all of the equipment was in perfect condition. And there he was, standing before his favorite microphone, the TEAC 87-HSC, with its double-layered, homemade spit-filter. Lyrics on the music stand -- Peter Warlock's setting of Balulalow. The TASCAM's reels rotated in silence... the click-track pulsed in his headphones... he took a breath and opened his mouth...
...and a bizarre, inhuman, noise issued from his throat.
Suddenly, his hands went numb -- no! His palms were blackening -- the lyric sheet fell from his now-clumsy grasp -- fur raced down his arms like an arson-set wildfire -- bones snapped and reformed --
With a scream and a convulsive jerk, Jubatus woke up. His pulse gradually slowed to a normal rate as he panted. Oh Morpheus, what a dream. A miserable end to a miserable night. Going to bed without dinner was bad enough; waking up without any breakfast in sight was even worse. Groggily Jube arched his back. 'Bed' -- hah! What bed? Sleeping on the ground just plain sucked. Sure, he had a built-in fur coat, and so what? The fur was a lousy substitute for a real blanket, and it made a worse mattress. He must have found every lump and stone there possibly could be on that patch of ground... Stretching his legs, the cheetah let out a big yawn. For good measure he stretched his arms as well and gave his back and fur a good shake, before stumbling -- his eyes still half closed -- towards one of the tiny streams that seemed to be almost everywhere in this area.
Damn, I'm thirsty... Without bothering to check the place he sucked in a few mouthfuls of water, feeling better with every swallow --
"Gaaargh!" he blurted, spewing water from mouth and nostrils alike. What am I doing! Now fully awake, Jubatus realized that he, while still half asleep, had lapped up his drink, no different from any other animal! And, even worse, he was standing on all fours -- must have walked over like that from where he had been sleeping -- without even realizing it!
Okay; first things first. Try to stand, see if his back had recovered from Duncan's 'treatment' yesterday --
"Hi Jube!" he heard the mountain lion say to the right of him. Great, just fucking great. So much for keeping his damn nose out of it.
"How are you this morning?"
I don't need this. I really don't need this. "Fine. Just... fine."
"Jube, don't try that 'all is fine' routine on me. I saw you sleep -- or rather, twist and turn and whimper and cry all night. Don't tell me you are fine."
"Rrr -- I was fine, before I came here, damnit!"
Duncan gave the cheetah a skeptical look. "Wall-to-wall nightmares are 'fine'."
"They never used to woke me up!" the cheetah screamed.
'Woke'? He must be really disturbed for such a lapse to happen. "So... constantly twitching and making incoherent noises in your sleep, every time you sleep, is 'fine'."
"Yes! No. I mean, it's..." The spotted cat paused, raking his fingers through the fur on his bowed head, for a moment. "It's all, all this. I can't -- deal. With it. You have to let me go! I can't stand this anymore. I... I'm losing it. I think. Losing my mind." He stared directly into Duncan's eyes, with a tormented expression half pleading, half accusing. "A-and, I'm, there's... I mean, I lose my mind, and what the hell's left, okay?"
Close to the breaking point. Within twenty-four to thirty-six hours, most likely, was Duncan's professional judgment. He didn't enjoy dispensing such strong medicine, but Jubatus was not his first client to require it, nor would he be the last... "I'm sorry, Jube," he said gently. "You know I can't do that. Even if I want to."
"Sure you -- w-what's stopping you? I mean, it's just a damn contract, we can break it by mutual --" The cheetah broke off abruptly; then his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Somebody bought you off! Didn't they? Who!? What did they pay you? I'll pay you twice double!"
"Money isn't going to solve this problem for you. So stop stalling and tell me: What are these nightmares about? Is it something that your instincts want to make you do?"
"I don't know!"
Jube bellowed those words at his utmost top volume -- or, if he could be any louder, Duncan hoped never to be within a mile's radius when the cheetah did it. The puma's instincts took over and drove him away from the unbearable noise; by the time he regained his composure, his ears -- still flattened to his skull -- had mostly stopped ringing.
Meanwhile, Jubatus sat curled up on the ground with his face buried in his hands... all he wanted was to make the world go away. Eventually his breathing slowed and became regular; later still, Jube opened his eyes and saw...
The cougar flicked his ears. It had taken Jube more than fifteen minutes to become aware of his presence; clearly, hunger had dulled the cheetah's normally razor-sharp wits. "Good morning, Jube. Quite a set of lungs you got there! You wouldn't mind giving a bit of advance notice before you do that again, would you?"
The cheetah smiled weakly. "You got all the warning I did..."
"None at all, eh? But to answer your earlier question: There are two simple reasons why I can't let you go. One practical: The device to turn off that pill you swallowed is not here. One professional: You are not healed, yet. However, you are doing fine."
The puma expected a sarcastic reply; what Jube actually did, instead, was put a mild frown on his face. "Damn. Cheetah needs food, really badly," he muttered. "Coulda sworn I heard you say I was doing fine..."
"Yes, you did -- because you are doing fine! If you will recall, Jubatus, I told you that going through with this would not be easy. You maybe thought I was joking? No. I was not. I did understate the case, but then if I'd told you exactly how beastly it might become, I don't suppose you would have stuck around for it."
"Sure I would've. My car's gone. When do I get it back?"
It occured to Duncan that he might never have a better opportunity to explain to the cheetah than now, when lack of energy made him a most attentive audience. "After you start learning to be feline. It's like learning to swim; you can't do that without getting wet. There you have to immerse yourself into water, here you have to embrace the feline way of life. Jube, right now, you stand at the very edge of it. Just like a non-swimmer standing where his feet can barely touch the ground. The water has risen up to your muzzle. You don't feel that there is any bottom in front of you. One more step and you will drown, right?"
"I wish. Drowning I can live with, because, you know, it's over, and nobody else gets hurt..."
The cougar sighed. So he yet fears that his instincts will impel him to commit mass murder. And here I thought we'd gotten past that hurdle... Ah, well. "No, Jube. One more step and you will start swimming. Instincts will make you swim, if you let them. If you don't give up and sink to the bottom without a struggle. In either case I will be there to help you, by swimming along or by tugging you back to safety."
"I'm not ready for this! It's too much, too soon, too fast!"
"Too fast for you, the fastest SCAB alive?" Duncan asked in a skeptical tone. When the cheetah did not respond, he went on: "Look at the bright side. You are almost through the worst of it. And yes, I am pushing you through it. You want to know why? Because left at your own pace, you would drag this out to the point of making it impossible to bear and stay sane at the same time. Trust me in this. Others have tried and failed. So yes, I am pushing you into this, as fast and gentle as possible. I don't like dragging out the period of fear, terror and uncertainty; not with my prey, and certainly not with my patients. But, and you got my promise on this, I will pull you out as well. Or put you out of your misery, should that be the only option left."
"Heads you win, tails I lose. No matter what happens, I'm screwed."
"That's for you to decide," Duncan replied, "because you are the one who defines the objectives you strive for. If the war you want to win is keeping your biological human-ness, then you have lost that war the day you woke up with a permanent fur coat. Yes, you have fought valiant rear-guard battles, one after another. But there is no way you can win that war."
Terror blossomed in the cheetah's scent. "No! I can! I have to!"
Not bothering to react to the interruption, the puma went on. "And when there is no way to win a war, you have but two options: Surrender or re-define the meaning of victory."
"Redefine? Are you nuts?"
"No. Only did my strategy and tactical homework. Tell me, Jube, what is it you are fighting for? Becoming or staying a baseline specimen of Homo sapiens? If yes, I suggest you take a look in a mirror or the next lake. There is no way you will become that kind of 'human' again. You are stuck with your body -- there is no wonder drug, no marvelous operation, no miracle cure. For you, that war is lost."
"No!" the spotted cat shouted with yet another burst of fear. "I am human!"
"Oh? If you truly believe that, why do you torture yourself constantly, day in and day out, for the past twenty-five of your years?"
"You -- I -- rrr... "
"Then why haven't you cut off your tail, shaved yourself bald, gone through one cosmetic surgery after another?"
That query injected severe irritation into Jubatus' scent. "Surgeons," he declared, his disdainful tone indicating his opinion of that idea. "Pfft! The bastards won't even touch me, damn it."
The cougar blinked in surprise. "So... you've tried to have your tail surgically removed."
"Just because -- huh?" Jube said, confused. "Tail? What brought that up? Voice!" Abruptly, the cheetah's confusion was buried under anger. "Sonzabitches got you talking -- but you wouldn't believe the excuses they got for not working on me. Fucking bastards!"
"Oh -- I see," the cougar replied. Given the bizarre alterations SCABS could inflict on a human body, performing surgery on animorphs was always an 'iffy' proposition; every surgeon willing to do so in the first place, made sure to emphasize the uncertainties to their patients beforehand. Throat surgery was a risk Duncan had been willing to take; apparently, Jubatus could not say the same. "But let us put all of that aside, shall we? When I speak of which flavors of humanity you can or cannot aspire to, I am just pointing out the obvious. You say humanity lies in the biology? If so, you cannot be human anymore. But, you are still sentient. You are still a loving" -- here Duncan ignored a rude snort from the cheetah -- "and caring" -- here, the puma did not respond to a sarcastic burst of outright laughter -- "individual. And you are as sane as anyone could hope for in these circumstances. If those are the things you are fighting for, then yes, that is a war you can win."
Scent does not lie; in the time it took Duncan to speak those last four sentences, the cheetah's volcanic emotions had ebbed to nothing. "So tell me, Jubatus: What are you fighting for?"
"I..." The spotted cat bowed his head to study the ground before him. "I don't know. Not any more."
"You know, I think I should give you some slack and let you think about that. You might even start to appreciate the brighter sides of feline life by then. If nothing else, some practice of relaxation and meditation won't hurt."
"Hah! You think I'm gonna fall for that line again?"
"No 'line', Jube! I will leave you alone. No tricks, no intentional distractions."
"BFD. The way my stomach's growling, hunger's all the distraction I need."
"Well, in that case, how about if I take care of breakfast?"
"Yeah, right. What's the catch -- I only get fed if I lick myself clean? How much humanity do you think I can give up, any more? None, damn it! None at all -- thanks to that cat-brained scheme of yours!"
And yet, in spite of your words, you still sit there and listen, the cougar mused. I do not think your opposition is quite as strong as you think. "Jube, I just want you to watch me hunt. Just watching, collecting information! Don't you think you can do that?"
"What's the catch? You been tricking me all along! No matter what you think, I'm not an animal -- I'm still in control of my actions! I won't let you scam me into jumping up to join you in your chase --"
"No tricks, Jube. No scams. No catch. I only want you to watch. See it done, not do it yourself. Nothing more, nothing less."
"Just watching," the cheetah said, his face a study in paranoid distrust. "From a safe distance."
"Exactly. How about up there, is that ok for you?" With a paw the puma pointed to a set of boulders rising up from the valley floor like a wave still far from breaking from the sea.
"Mmh. That can't be all. What is it you want?"
"For you to get some time off and enjoy your life, getting comfortable in the water."
"Yeah, right. As if I could believe that."
"Ok. How about you settle down there or wherever else you like? Have a nice long catnap, without any more of that caterwauling, and I will take care of dinner as well. How does that sound?"
"Too good to be true, that's how it sounds. Where is the hook?"
"Jube, I have to check on my territory. And right now, walking around is not going to help you get better. So, why don't you stay here, get cozy and comfortable and just relax. Stop worrying about all the stuff. Just relax. Don't think. Breath. Enjoy life. Be."
"You provide breakfast now," the spotted cat said suspiciously. "And I just... you know... lounge around."
"Right. Of course, you will have to prepare breakfast by yourself." Here the mountain lion waved his left paw around. "I am no good at this, at least not in any civilized way."
"Mmmh. But you're the one who kills whatever I have for breakfast and dinner. I don't have to... you know..."
"Quite right, Jube. I take care of shopping, including delivery. You just have breakfast."
"And all I do is sit back; watch you... shop for breakfast; and if I spend the day thinking or whatever, you also take care of dinner."
"Exactly. Do we have a deal?"
With a sigh, Jubatus replied, "I've got a very bad feeling about this... Okay. You got a deal."
"Good. Don't worry so much, things will work out!" So saying, Duncan bounced off towards the valley ground. In the meantime Jubatus settled down on the viewing post the mountain lion had recommended. Just as promised, it offered a perfect view over the grassy valley below; even better, the sun had warmed the stones, and a light breeze was sending the scents from below towards him. There was a tree nearby, blocking the view to the river half a mile or so away.
It was the perfect spot for him, and not just for this catnapping nonsense. It was isolated; the only way up here was from below and downwind. No chance for anyone, prey or otherwise, to accidentally walk up to him. His scent, as weak as it was, should be ample warning for anybody coming up that way. And since the cougar had promised to stay away, what other creature would intrude upon him? No, here he was: In a comfortable spot, no obvious distractions, no chance for a re-run of yesterday. All he had to do was just watch this bloody hunt, or at least pretend he was watching, to earn his breakfast. Just stay up here all day and have dinner. What more could anyone possibly ask for? Letting his gaze wander over the high grass below, he saw that there was no visible prey -- no large deer, no moose, nothing else big enough to be seen above the grass. Ha! I won't even be able to see the kill! the cheetah gloated to himself. Breakfast and dinner, here we come. Only... there was movement: The puma, stalking through the high grass, his body low to the ground and his gaze intent on the still unknown quarry. The wind carried sound to the cheetah's ears, twitching in anticipation. His nose sensed myriad aromas. Jubatus couldn't help but open his muzzle slightly to drink in the scents flowing up from the scene below...
There -- he saw the cougar's quarry: A large bird, picking at the ground and from time to time looking up and about. Something bothered Jube about this scene... wait. Had there been some noise? Had the mountain lion, still a dozen meters away, made a mistake? Something's wrong here. Something, can't put my finger on it...
It took Jubatus several seconds to realize what wasn't right -- what shouldn't be possible, but somehow was. He shouldn't be able to see the bird or the cougar in the high grass. But he could! Not in as much detail as if they were in clear view, their shapes and forms and colors were kind of fuzzy, undefined. But he could make them out, despite the fact that the cougar's fur was -- at least to his eyes -- almost perfectly camouflaged against the high grass. And even that turkey -- and how did he know it was a turkey? -- should be completely concealed behind meters of high grass. But they weren't!
What's going on here? the cheetah fretted to himself. How could he see the cougar's swiping tail? How could he know when the turkey was looking the other way? It was impossible -- but he was doing it! And, seemingly, the mountain lion was, too, using each of those little moments to slink a bit closer. Jube's ears could even make out the sound of the scratching bird, searching for his last meal. He couldn't hear the puma's steps, just a kind of whistling, almost like the wind, when its fur brushed against the grass.
There! Duncan was closing in on his quarry. In one fluid motion his stance changed. His hind paws hammered against the ground, his muscles propelling him forward. Big chunks of grass were violently torn from the sod. His back arched with every leap; his forelegs grabbed for ground; the chase was on!
The turkey, far more perceptive than its domesticated cousins, fully recognized the danger it was in. Surprisingly fast for such a large and clumsy-looking bird, it ran, gathering speed for an emergency take-off. Gobbling and yelping, it took to the air! Its wings fluttered madly, in a desperate attempt to preserve its life and freedom.
Jubatus wasn't sure who he should root for: The bird or the cat? Life or death? Or, just for breakfast..?
The puma ended his pursuit with one last leap, fast and high. Like a furry bullet with outstretched forepaws, his body rushed towards the bird. His forepaws blurred down to strike the bird like a pair of axes, just before the moment of impact, in what looked like a deathly parody of a 'slam dunk' in basketball. The turkey tumbled to the ground, its wings and back broken, where it was pounced upon by the landing cougar.
It was only then -- after the hunt was over -- that Jube realized that he was standing at the edge of his observation point, that his tail was eagerly swinging back and forth, his haunches had coiled up like a spring, ready to leap down and join the cougar in...
No! What am I thinking!? But he knew all too well that 'thinking' had nothing to do with it. The instinctual urge to hunt, to join with his... coalition..? Oh Christ! It's happening again -- still! Damned if I do, damned if I don't. No matter what I do, I'm fucked either way! It was then that he heard the breathing of something coming up to his place -- Duncan, with the turkey's neck firmly in his jaw.
Jube's breakfast had arrived... and he couldn't stop salivating. Apparently unaware of his guest's distress, Duncan tossed his prize to the cheetah with a deft flick of his head. "Pfft!" he said, spitting out a few loose bits of plumage. "Feathers -- you will want to remove those before you break your fast. Taste's terrible, texture is even worse. In any case, here is breakfast, as ordered."
The cougar did not expect any reply, nor was he disappointed. Jubatus sat, quivering unconsciously, as he stared at the dead bird with who-knew-what dire thoughts foremost in his wounded mind.
Still he hesitates? Schmetterling! Can he actually have sufficient willpower to starve himself to death? "Okay... While you take care of this, I'll just go get my own food, yes?" So saying, Duncan padded off to the south; once safely beyond Jube's field of vision, he turned and found a hidden vantage point from which to observe the spotted cat.
When the puma had settled himself down, he smiled: Jubatus was supporting the avian carcass with one hand while attempting to pluck its plumage with his other hand. 'Attempt' was assuredly the operative word, for the turkey's feathers were very strongly rooted indeed! After the first few times when those feathers slipped out of his grasp, it was clear that regardless of how dexterous they were, Jube's fingers were simply incapable of gripping the dratted things tightly enough to remove them. With a clear view of the spotted cat's face, Duncan could tell the exact moment when the cheetah realized that he might have to put his fangs and tongue to use in a re-run of what he'd done to the tuna...
Come on, Jube. Open the 'can', he thought, sending a silent prayer to the cheetah. Open it or starve; you've got no third alternative... With an indistinct curse, Jube dropped the bird and scanned the area, clearly looking for something. Duncan's ears pricked up. Hmm? What's kitty up to now?
Before long, the cheetah found what he sought: Two larger-than-fist-sized rocks, which he picked up, one to a hand. How curious. Surely he's not going to batter the carcass into submission..? The mystery was dispelled after Jube slammed one rock into the other with a very sharp, very loud, krak! -- not at all unlike a gunshot -- then did it again, and again. On the fifth krak, a sizable sliver of stone flew to the ground; Jubatus picked it up, tested its edge with his thumb... and cursed when the fragment crumbled to uselessness. Ah -- he tries to give himself a new edge, Duncan observed. A stone knife? He is a resourceful little kitten, isn't he? But stoneworking is hardly within his normal skill-set -- I wonder if he'll actually be able to succeed...
Several stony slivers later, the feline SCAB was still without a knife. As a mere tyro in the art, his 'blades' were either too thin (hence, weak) to withstand the stress of cutting, or else too thick to hold an edge. Through it all, Jube's hunger had not decreased; his aggravation had clearly heightened with each failed prototype... There! As luck would have it, just when Jubatus was ready to cast the stones away in disgust, a suitably large and sharp blade emerged out of the banging. With gleeful joy Jube pronounced it good and brought it to its intended task, carefully handling the almost razor sharp knifelet between his nimble pawpads.
But alas, he grasped this two-edged sword of desperation no more securely than he had the turkey's feathers. While it did indeed cut into the carcass, with one slip it also sliced his own skin -- or so Duncan judged from the cheetah's abrupt yowl of pain and the reflexive twitch that sent his tool flying towards the stony ground. But Murphy was not done with the spotted cat; when the stone knife hit... it shattered. Sucking at the cut on the base of his thumb, Jubatus stared in shocked disbelief at the useless fruit of his wasted labor. The smell, the taste of his own blood did nothing to alleviate his hunger, the need for food, for more blood and gore, preferably not his own.
But there was more than just the scent of blood that reached the feline part of his mind. While the other part was occupied with sorting alternatives, new tools, new procedures...
Shit. Licking my paw, just like... No!!! the cheetah thought. But... oh, joy. I can keep licking until it clots, or I can leave fresh blood spattered around to attract God knows what monsters. No way out, curse that cat... He's done it again!
Embarrassed, he starred at the offending member in front of his muzzle. Back to the drawing board. Again, he thought sourly. He couldn't believe it. Looking at it objectively, all he'd lost was a bit of clothing and a few toys; was that all there was to humanity? Surely there was -- had to be -- more to being human than a vest and some manners? Or... had the damn 'beast' been there all along, lurking under his coat, poorly concealed by a few bits of thread and scraps of cloth? Three days... that was all it had taken. Just three fucking days in the wild, and he was seriously contemplating abandoning all pretense of civilization, ripping into a carcass, like a pre-stone-age hunter, like a primitive savage, like a -- now four-legged -- feral animal!
And now, with his willpower and fortitude being eroded by pain and ever-more-insistent gnawing in his guts, Jube found that he could no longer ignore a certain nagging little voice from the back of his skull -- the voice of his instincts. Sheesh. What's the problem? You got all the tools you need for survival right here. You got paws and claws; just grab the bird, already! Your pawpads might not have enough traction to tear those feathers out, but your front teeth are made for this sort of thing. Sure, there's a few bits your fangs won't be able to get at, but hey, why do you think you got a tongue like a file? And once you've cleaned up the skin, your canines can tear the sucker open real good. After that, let your side teeth hack into the meat. Good eating! What the hell are you waiting for? Get to it!
But for all that there was no viable alternative, still did Jubatus hesitate. Terror warred with hunger in his mind; he recognized that to do this thing would be to cross a very important line. And after he crossed that line... would he even want to return..? Was there a way back?
No computer, no tools, no work... he couldn't live like this. No -- more accurately, he hoped he couldn't live like this. Because if he could...
The spotted cat's belly rumbled.
Jubatus fancied he could hear the 'beast' calling for him, waiting with a hunter's patience until it could claim him for its own. But he couldn't allow that to happen! If it did happen, he'd lose... he'd...
What would he lose? What in his life was truly that important to him, that its loss would make any difference? Not the money; he'd never intended to become rich in the first place, and wealth came well-supplied with its own intrinsic annoyances. Not the work; with his bank balance, the real reason he took contracts was to fill up his endless supply of time. Well... there were a few people he'd miss. Hallan. Wanderer. That damn rabbit. He'd even miss Sue Carter, a little.
A word leapt into the forefront of Jube's attention: 'Friend'. The concept was alien to him, rendered unfamiliar by long-standing disuse --
The cheetah's thoughts shattered when his stomach growled, more insistent this time.
Now he was on his own. In the wild. About to lose his last tentative hold on civilization. And for what? Staring at the dead bird in front of his paws. Cold turkey.
Cold turkey indeed. Could it be that all this worrying was nothing more than withdrawal symptoms? No! For that would imply that civilization was merely a kind of addiction, a bad habit he needed to break --
That thought was interrupted forcefully by his stomach's bellyaching about what the frigging hold-up was? It wanted food, now! Jube's gut vibrated like an cement mixer; the vacuum in his torso had passed 'uncomfortable' hours ago, and was now approaching 'unendurable'...
Finally, Duncan thought, when he saw the cheetah's teeth tear into the bird with increasing gusto. Time for me to have a snack as well. With hardly any sound the cougar left his perch on the way to have breakfast as well. Leaving his client in the middle of the valley to the pleasures and horrors of cold turkey.
It was about an hour later when the mountain lion returned to check up on his charge. However, the cheetah was neither asleep nor present. Hmm. The remains of the turkey... unguarded. Not good. Duncan padded about the area, sniffing and casting an experienced eye over the scene of recent feeding. No sign of struggle, no blood -- not Jube's, at least. "Hrrrrr..." So where are you, little kitten? Well, let's see where this trail over there leads...
In the end, it took forty-five minutes for Duncan to locate Jubatus. The cheetah was lying on his stomach, on a large, sun-baked slab of rock at the top of a cliff, near the outer boundary of the 'cage' whose extent was defined by the suicide pill in his gut. He was not moving. Damn it! Has he taken the coward's way out? Fortunately, Jubatus dispelled all such concerns with a spoken sentence when Duncan approached.
"If I jumped, I'd be dead before I hit bottom, wouldn't I."
"Well... yes, you would. Which means it is a good thing you're not going to."
Jubatus smiled. It was a sad and weary smile, which only meant that it matched his demeanor. "Optimist..." Then, after a short pause, he said: "The pill? You were right. It does feel like 'a fire in the guts'."
"I am glad we agree. So why not come back where it does not hurt as bad?"
The cheetah-SCAB shrugged. "It's only heartburn."
"Very painful heartburn, yes. Do you like it so much?"
"I've had worse."
"And you lived?" Duncan favored his companion with a skeptical look. "When was this?"
"The last time I ate nutmeg... January of '36. Just after I SCABbed over. Janus, but those first few days were an absolute madhouse... I was stuck at a tempo of 6 -- didn't realize I could downshift, at first. Had to recalibrate my senses, vision and hearing. Smell, too, but not because of the chronomorph thing... And, of course, I also had to re-learn how to talk, and figure out my current dietary needs, and get my low-G reflexes, and..." He sighed. "One hell of a lot to deal with, all at the same time. Don't recommend it."
Good, Duncan thought. He's actually opening up, talking about what SCABS did to him, in a way he never has before. Quietly, the puma asked, "And the nutmeg?"
An ear flicked. "Dietary needs. Trial and error. And I was hungry. Made a mess of the kitchen. Couldn't read the labels, but I could damn sure smell what was what. Sort of. Tiny bits of everything; didn't want to risk a lethal dose of whatever... Chocolate, that was alright, at least until the migraine started. Most veggies smelled bad, tasted worse, gave me diarrhea. But, you know, small doses, so it was a small mess. And meat... Tried some cooked pork. Threw up. Raw beef, that stayed down. Tasted real good, too. Such a damn cliche -- I mean, animorph SCABs and raw meat, you know?
"Fucking nutmeg... Couldn't've been as much as a gram. Half that, easy. Damn near killed me. Felt like it, anyway. Like, I dunno, ground glass in my stomach. Woke up in a hospital."
"Might have been easier to check in normally?"
"Sure -- but how? I couldn't see straight, couldn't talk, couldn't understand normal-speed talking. Not back then, not in the first couple days..." Jubatus sighed again. "Woke up in a hospital, like I said. Strapped down. Padded nylon. Apparently, I'd been thrashing around while unconscious. One hell of a surprise to wake up to... My vital signs hit the roof. That brought a few doctor-types running, ASAP. But, you know, tempo of 6, so I figured it out and calmed down before anyone arrived. Learned pretty quick that touching slowpokes wasn't a good idea -- velocity differential. I never took damage, but the attendants got all kinds of bruises and sprains, some of 'em pretty serious. Discovered the Timeshift thing pretty early on... but I couldn't control it worth a damn. Not at first, not back then. Fortunately, they managed to find a qualified nurse who happened to also be a rheotic chronomorph. Only name I ever got was 'Alfred'..."
After a while, the puma inquired, "When did Alfred show up?"
"Hhrrr... not sure. Tempo of 6, klutzy Timeshifting... hard to say. Felt like about 3 weeks after I SCABbed over. Maybe 2-3 days, realtime? Anyway. Once I got a handle on downshifting, the sons of bitches hooked me up with a voder...
"Sony TalkMan. Odin, but I hated that fucking thing. About as wonky as the Doctor's TARDIS; it zeroed out any time it felt like it. Never got more than 23 words in a row out of the bastard. Didn't even sound good." Here, Jube's pique intensified abruptly: "And the son of a bitch worked perfectly well for anybody but me!"
"Strange; those are usually quite reliable. Crude, but reliable."
"Hah!" Jubatus snorted, one solitary laugh, and then explained: "My fault -- not that I had a clue at the time, but still... I was only just beginning to master the chronomorph thing, okay? My Time-field kinda fuzzes out around the edges; there's a fringe effect. So some of the voder's circuits were running faster than the others. Signals get out of phase, yada yada yada, and the damn thing don't work..." Staring off into nothing, a rueful smile on his face, Jube shook his head. "Like I said: My fault. If I'd mastered the Timeshift sooner, the TalkMan would've done the job... How about you?"
Duncan blinked. "Excuse me? What do you mean?"
"We're both rheotic chronomorphs. How did the rheotic thing mess you up, back when you were just getting used to being a SCAB?"
"Ah! That's a bit of a long story. Maybe I will tell you while we wait out the rain, hm?"
Jubatus had not paid any attention to the clouds which marked the sky; only now, after having it pointed out to him, did he realize that that those clouds were both common and dark. And if that were not enough, the two SCABs' sensitive ears could easily make out the sound of rolling thunder, still some distance away.
"A cloudburst. Wonderful. Now what -- do we sit here and get soaked?"
The puma grinned. "Not unless you like the odor of wet fur, you silly kitten! No, why do you think I have been searching for you? To show you where a good shelter is!"
"Shelter? You actually got a house?"
"Nah," the cougar replied, "there is a cave, not so far away, in which we can wait it out."
Jubatus glowered. This just keeps getting better and better, he thought to himself. Some choice: I can crawl into a damp hole in the ground to hide from the elements, or I can get soaked. 'Cave', he says. Why didn't he just say 'den'!
"Come on, Jube. Just because some humans don't have the sense to get out of the rain, that doesn't mean us cats need to follow that foolish example."
With a sigh Jube looked towards the approaching curtain of falling water. He hadn't been caught out in the rain at all since his change; always zipping into his Extremis, or if that wasn't sufficiently close, into the nearest building. Around here, neither was available. I could be lounging on the couch, listening to some music as I wait for the rain to stop, but no... Here and now, the comforts of even primitive civilization were out of reach. He was shut away behind the invisible walls of a virtual cage.
"At least there really is a fence," the cheetah mumbled to himself while slogging behind the cougar, dragging his tail. "No way out, no chance --"
"Watch out! Lots of burrs around those twigs," the mountain lion called out. "They are a pain to pick out of fur."
"Rrr -- thanks ever so much for the advance notice," was Jubatus' acid response. After a short pause to extract the debris from his tail, he started not only to pick up his pace, but also to pay more attention to where he was walking. This time the walk through the undergrowth was far more pleasant than on his first day, where it had seemed he had to fight his way through the undergrowth with every step. Now, padding along on all fours, he could easily follow the lead of the other feline, and with his head so much closer to the ground, all kinds of scents accosted his nose -- and pleasantly, at that. Maybe there was something to walking on all fours... at least when one was in the wild...
Holy Bast, what am I thinking!?!?
"So, shall we go up here?" Duncan said, pointing up a small trail up the side of a ravine. Before Jubatus could respond, the cougar leapt on leading the way. Grumbling, the cheetah climbed after the other cat. Paw over paw, he scaled until he finally got to the top. The cougar was already lying on his side not far away on another of the countless mountain outcrops, just before the entrance of the 'den'.
Jubatus stumbled onto the flat ground, briskly walking up to the tawny cat. It was only after the fourth or fifth step that he realized that something was... odd.
He was standing on his hind legs. Yes! I can walk again! Caught up in the joy of simply attaining an upright posture, Jube stepped about in a kind of joyful jig... Like before! Like --
"Yowwrlll!" ...and then, without warning, he was on the ground, pinned there by a spike of pain.
Ouch -- son of a -- oh Acheron it hurts! Ulfur and Odin and Hydyr, I must have pulled something. Shitshitshit! An abortive attempt to rise proved that now, even a four-legged stance hurt.
The cheetah's cry of pain summoned Duncan to his side. "Jube! What happened?"
"Back. Hurts. Must. Have. Twisted. It." Jubatus gasped between moans of pain.
"Can you move enough to get inside?" the puma asked, with evident concern. "Or do you want me to help?"
"Thanks, but... fuck off. I got, all the help from you, I can tolerate. I'd rather... stay right where I am!"
"You sure about that..?" As luck had it, just then the first drops of rain put in an appearance, promissory notes for the deluge to come.
The cheetah's answer was nonverbal; more crawling than climbing, he moved towards the safety and shelter of the cave's entrance. His effort was fueled equally by willpower, determination and the instinctive feline aversion to getting wet. Once inside, the first thing the cheetah did -- beside muttering to himself about the insanity of the situation -- was curl up to sleep on a relatively comfortable patch of rock. The puma was not similarly inclined, but even if he had been, Jubatus' incoherent screams and thrashing during his restless sleep would have dispelled any possibility of rest. Even when the cheetah first arrived here, his sleep had been neither silent nor peaceful -- but in four short days, it had gotten worse. Much worse.
Watching his client's inner turmoil played out, Duncan thought: Damn. This is neither good nor natural. But what is the cause? And how best to cure it?
After a quarter-hour or so, Jubatus' abnormal sleeping cycle came to an end. Something surprisingly easy to detect, as with the return of consciousness, so, too, did the cheetah's customary façade of iron-willed control return.
"You mind telling me about your dreams?" Duncan asked the cheetah, who at first tried to keep the pretense that he was still fast asleep. However, after a sigh and a venomous glare, Jubatus rolled over into a half-lying, half-sitting position, staring out into the rain.
"I wish I was dreaming... It'd be nice to make it all go away just by waking up..."
"Does your back still hurt?"
"You want me to fix it?"
"Yeah, that --" the cheetah had been about to answer, before he recalled what other consequence this kind of treatment would have on his back. "No! You stay the hell away from me and my back!"
"Why? Really, I know what I am doing. A friend of mine -- also of the feline persuasion -- once had twisted his back while moving stuff. Got that sorted out in no time at all. He was good as new after a few hours' rest."
"That's nice. I'm not falling for that line again."
"'Falling'? What do you mean?"
"What do you think I mean? You're turning me into a animal! That's what I'm talking about!"
"I really don't understand why you make such a big deal out of walking on two legs. Sure, there are situations where that is damned useful, but around here it's really not worth the punishing you put on yourself."
"Says the permanent quadruped! Talk about 'sour grapes'..."
"Funny; you didn't strike me as the type who gives a damn about what other people think about him."
"Is that why you always try to stand on your hind-paws? So that you look more human?"
"Fuck you! I don't just look human, I am human!"
"Really? Well, then it makes no difference if you're walking on two legs or all fours, yes? If you're human, you're human. Looks shouldn't matter, right?"
"Yeah, right. Tell that to all the morons who think 'four legs' means 'not human'."
"Oh?" The puma affected a look of surprise. "Didn't you just say you don't care what other people think of you?" Jubatus sputtered incoherently for a moment, until Duncan spoke up again: "I know what you mean, really I do. It's hardwired in the human brain: If it looks like an animal, it is an animal. Period."
"I am not an animal!"
"Jube, have you ever spoken to anyone who has to sit in a wheelchair?"
"'Wheelchair' -- rrr -- what the hell are you talking about!"
"I'm talking about hardwired responses of the human brain; the kind of responses we call 'instinctive' when we observe them in species other than human. If you sit, you look smaller. And instinctively people treat smaller people like children. They can't help it -- not unless they know about the effect and make a conscious effort to not behave that way. So when I note that you do take other people's opinions into account, I am not trying to insult you! All I am saying that I can understand why you want to stand upright if at all possible. But here and now, no one cares if you walk on twos or fours. So, why make an issue out of it?"
"Because I don't want to go on all fours!"
"Looks like you better have a change of mind. These back issues can last for days."
"No, I'll be okay in a few hours."
"Days. Take my word for it."
"No, that can't be. Okay, it always hurt a bit..."
"What do you expect?" Duncan told the spotted cat. "Your spine isn't built for any of that rain dancing you had to do outside."
"I wasn't rain dancing, you nitwit!"
"Call it what you like," the puma said with a shrug. "In any case, it's raining cats and dogs, so neither of us is going anywhere for the time being. So since we're going to be lion around here anyway, why not let me take care of that pain?"
"Jube, that's silly."
"Come on, you are going to feel a lot better."
"You want me to do it anyway?"
"It's not as if you can run away, you know?"
"Which part of 'no' don't you understand?"
"The part that doesn't make any sense. If I don't take care of your back, you will be crawling on all fours for the next several days; if I do, you will be walking on it. So why make such a big deal out of it?"
"I -- you -- I just -- can't! Don't you understand?"
"Maybe I will, once you explain it to me. In small, simple words, so that a mere animal like me can follow your reasoning."
Jubatus was puzzled. "Huh? Didn't you say you were an animal..?"
"True, and you said you're not one, so you are not going to walk on all fours. Hey, fine by me; whatever rocks your boat, cowboy. But some people, who aren't so damned lucky as you are, who haven't been able to walk upright for decades, might take it just a tiny bit offensive. Capice?"
"Oh." Jubatus sat in silence, blinking. "That, uh, that's, not what I meant."
"Well, what did you mean?"
"It's, uh... Look, it's one thing if it's a physical problem, if you can't stand up on two legs, okay? But it's, it's something else if you can go bipedal -- if you're on all fours 'cause you chose to do it. I just... I, uh... I'm not going there."
"All nice and good, but tell me, how are you going to take care of your next meals?"
"Don't have to. You promised to deliver."
"If you stayed put and spent the time relaxing. You didn't. So why should I go out and fetch it for you? And in this weather!"
"You really would sent me out into that kind of downpour?" Duncan answered while waving a paw at the almost solid wall of rainfall just outside their 'den'. "I wouldn't even throw a dog out into that. And that's saying something."
"Right -- you'd just let me starve with a back injury."
"Of course not: Injured animals should be eaten. It would be the humane thing to do..."
Jubatus stared at his host. "You've got to be kidding."
"Not at all! That's what a predator does. It says so right in the job description: 'Eats those not fit to survive on their own, and by this keeps the population healthy'."
"Not? Mmmh, you might be right. Wouldn't be a good advertisement if people found out that I devoured my last client."
Jubatus waited for some hint that his host would take care of his meals while he was out of action... but when the pause became longer and longer he had to ask: "Look, are you going to take care of dinner, or what?"
Instead of answering his question, however, the puma bent down and sniffed the cheetah's hide.
"Hey! What do you think you are doing?!"
"Ooops -- sorry. Just checking. Thought someone mentioned dinner."
"Cut it out!"
"Nah, just gonna take a bite or five."
"What is your problem, hmm? Just make sure that you aren't in the injured category when dinner time arrives."
"You want me to go out there, get soaking wet, fetch you dinner and listen to your yowling?"
"I -- you -- rrr... Yes. Please."
Duncan's ears twitched in surprise. He says 'please'? He must be hungry, if he's willing to attempt politeness... "You ask so nicely, how can I refuse? But you also are not so good at cooperating, so I don't see why I should just obey you. I will give you three out of four if you give me three out of four."
"What do you mean?" the cheetah asked suspiciously.
"You lie down over there, seriously try your paw at relaxing, without any more of that yowling, and let me bring your spine back into shape. And in a few days this will be nothing but a memory, another campsite story."
Jubatus considered his options. "A few days," he says. But a lot can happen in a few days... Will I be able to stand upright at the end of that time? Will I even want to? How long before the skin of my paw pads forms calluses from walking on all fours? How long until my hands lose all their remaining dexterity -- how long can I retain the use of my fingers? How long until I don't merely behave as an animal, but actually see myself as one? I can't risk that! I just -- owww! Here, a muscle spasm shot a bolt of agony up his spine, obliterating his previous line of thought. What I can't do, is go on like this. Damnit. My back's killing me! In more ways than one... if the pain doesn't get me, the starvation will. Unless I can depend on the 'kindness' of my host...
Greatly annoyed, Jubatus said, "Okay, you win. Again. And I'll keep my bloody mouth shut." And gritting his teeth he got up and -- slowly -- shambled over to the indicated place; not noticing that the devil cat had placed a paw over the end of his tail. A little tug was enough to usher in a fresh episode of back pain. "Rrrowrl!"
"You said something?" replied the cougar with his best imitation of complete innocence, only slightly spoiled by waving off the dust from the guilty paw.
"You-! Rrrr -- that hurt, damnit!"
"Did it? Well, if your back hurts that much already from no more than a little playful tug, it does need to be treated. Doctor's orders."
"Doctor, my ass. You're a quack!"
"And you got other problems, if you mistake me for a bird," Duncan said as he trotted around to face his client muzzle-to-muzzle. "Really, Jube, do I look like I got a bill?"
"Only one the size of Rhode Island! And it's a bill I ain't footing -- not unless I get regular meals!"
"So you want to go short on me? Well, I can give you a run for your money."
"That's nice. Also stupid, if you think a cheetah is ever going to lose a footrace."
"Ah, so now you are a cheetah? Question is, if you can't run are you still one?"
"That -- you -- rrr! You gonna fix me dinner, or talk at me?"
The puma affected a look of surprise. "What's that -- you don't want to talk as humans do? Dear me! Could you be more of a cheetah than you thought?"
"I am human, and you know it. Got that?"
"Hmm. I'm not so sure; it is not always easy to distinguish human from cheetah -- one is just as lousy as the other, when it comes to groveling on their bellies. But since you require regular meals, are you sure you don't mind crawling to the other side of my place for them?"
"Your 'place' is too damn big... waaiit a second... You want me to run a marathon before I get food?"
"Hey, it's worth it! You'll have the best view in town! And don't you just love the customer service?""
"If this is what you call 'service', it's no wonder you don't have any customers."
"As you know, I got more of those than I ever wanted. I could do with some less cranky clients though. Maybe a little massage would help?"
"Customers? What the --" Jube snapped, before his brain caught up to his mouth. The irritation just past having dissipated in a split-second, he murmured, "Oh. Right. You mean..."
"Indeed I do mean. It's your choice entirely, though. Whichever path you want to take, it's all the same to me."
"It would be, wouldn't it..." the cheetah-SCAB said in a subdued tone. "Look, Duncan. I, uh, I know I'm a fucking pain in the ass. Okay? So, y'know, if you tell me to piss off... it's okay. I'll understand. But, uh... If you can put up with me, I can put up with you. Okay?"
"Thank you, Jube. You should know that I have never given up on a client yet, nor will I give up on you. Still, I must admit that it would be nice if you would actually take advice without arguing about it until there is no other option left but taking it."
"Yeah, well, that's something I'm working on. I'm never at my best when I'm fighting down the urge to run screaming into the night," he said with a sad half-smile. "You sure there isn't any other way?"
"Oh, there are plenty of other options. It all depends on how you want your life to go. But if you want a happy ending, as in 'he lived happily ever after'..."
Here, Jube's smile turned crooked. "Like that's ever going to happen."
"That, too, is your choice," Duncan pointed out. "Happiness is not a matter of having what you want, but, rather, of wanting what you have. We can discuss that later, hm? For now, I think I had best do as you asked -- namely, fiddle with your vertebrae. Just relax and try to enjoy it, okay?"
Jubatus grumbled something unintelligible. Then, slowly and delicately and with much wincing, he lay down on his belly and lowered his head to rest on his crossed forelegs.
The better part of half an hour later, the puma's ministrations had reduced Jubatus' stress level to a pitiful shadow of its former self. Not only was the cheetah actually resting peacefully, without any trembling or screams of terror, but Duncan's nose could detect no anxiety, let alone fear or worse -- and scent could not lie. As he worked on the spotted cat, he felt the hardened muscles soften, felt the whole body relax under his kneading paws. Jube's eyes were closed; were it not for the utter absence of any thrashing and caterwauling, Duncan would have guessed his client was having a most pleasant catnap! Or perhaps even soundly asleep, for he knew all too well how difficult it was to tell those states apart, where felines were concerned.
For his part, Jubatus was awash in sensations and emotions he did not -- could not -- recognize. All the cheetah did know, was that he felt... good? Even his customary degree of suspicion was distinctly weaker than it ordinarily was: Mmmm... this feels too damn good to be true... but true or not, I guess I can live with it, Jube thought half-consciously. Only a matter of time before they pass a law against whatever-it-is... In the meantime, I sure could get used to this!
Only now did Jubatis realize that the rhythmic rumbling noise he could hear was the sound of his own purring. Mmmmmm... chalk up another one for the instincts. He found that the thought of succumbing to 'the beast' was no longer violently repulsive; here and now, it was 'only' very unpleasant. All that effort, all that stress and strain, all that fuss over staying human... and a simple backrub brings me that much closer to being a cat. All that fighting. All that resistance... he thought as consciousness crept softly away from him. Is it really worth the bother..?
Duncan, too, had heard the cheetah's purr; he, unlike the cheetah, was distinctly puzzled. Alright, what's going on here? he asked himself. That kitten normally sleeps as if he shares his bed with a banshee, so why does he now nap away happily? This would be much easier if he didn't insist on doing everything to extremes... ah, well. No need to disturb him; kittens need their sleep...
Jubatus enjoyed the sleep of the just (for a change). Duncan stood guard. Soon enough, the spotted cat arose; while still half-asleep, he went through a very creditable stretch-and-yawn routine.
"Good morning, Jube! Feeling better?"
The cheetah whipped his head around to glare at Duncan. "Better than what?"
"My, my -- such a crabby reply to an innocent question! Your back pain has not returned, has it?"
"Get stuffed! You think I care about a little pain, you're crazy."
"Noted. So what is bothering you, Jube?"
"Rrr..." He exhaled and shook his head. "It's... No matter what I do... I mean, my life has been going downhill since all this showed up, you know? But... for a while there, after Phil hooked me up with Doc Holliday, things were maybe looking up again. Until..."
A few seconds after the cheetah's voice trailed off, Duncan spoke: "Why are you here, Jube?"
The spotted SCAB furrowed his brow and took a long moment to think. When he finally responded, however, he did not answer the question; he said, "I'm... not ready to talk about it." After a second pause, he continued, "There just isn't any way out, is there?"
"There are always ways. Some better, some worse."
"You keep saying that," Jube said glumly. "Usually just before you turn up the heat one more notch, and I jump out of the frying pan into the fire. I don't know how much more of that I can take..."
"Is that why you have been rattling the 'bars' of your virtual cage? See if this might be your easy way out?"
"There isn't an easy way out! There isn't any way out!"
"Not even killing yourself?"
Jube looked puzzled for a moment, then blinked and murmured, "Huh... I haven't ever thought of suicide. Not even once. Isn't that remarkable..."
"Indeed it is. With that speed of yours, you always could have taken the coward's way out. Just run into the next wall and there would be only a big smear left. But you didn't."
"Well, yeah. Suicide is dumb -- it's a permanent solution to temporary problems."
"And SCABS is temporary?"
Jubatus glared at the puma. "You know it's not! What's your, point..."
"But..." The cheetah's puzzled expression returned. "I don't get it."
"What is there to get? If you haven't thought of killing yourself, you haven't thought of killing yourself." And perhaps you will be ready to learn the 'why' of it before you leave. Duncan shrugged. "So tell me, please: If not to kill yourself, why did you go to the cliff-top?"
"I think... I just needed to confirm what you told me. That there really is no way out. That no matter what happens, I won't be able to... you know."
"Still worried you might hurt someone? Don't worry. You will be fine, as long as you don't run head-long into that virtual fence. And so will all the others."
"You wish. Where'd you get that toy, anyway?"
"I know someone who had a few of those left, from my earlier days."
"Earlier... So how'd you know how that thing feels inside of you when you get too close to the boundary?"
"By finding out the hard way. Just like you."
"The... what?!" Open-mouthed, the cheetah starred at the mountain lion.
"It's a long story. You know what a K9 unit is?"
"Sure -- dogs used in police work. Pun on 'canine'."
"Right. Now can you imagine that they wanted to stick me into the same kennel as those barking flea bags?"
"Not if they wanted the dogs to stay alive... what kind of moron would've done that to you?"
"Hey, it was a long time ago! Back then, there wasn't a SCAB unit at the police or later at the FBI. So what do you think they might do when they got a full morph, non-talking animal working for them? Remember that was just a few years after the Collapse. In theory, SCABs like us were still full members of society; in practice, they hadn't really any rights back then. Not unless they could talk or write and pay a lawyer."
"Well, sure, but, you had to have clued 'em in that you had a brain. They must have known you were still human, right?"
"Sentient, yes. Human? At that time I wasn't quite sure about that myself."
"But you are now, right?
"Indeed. And the answer is, 'No'."
Jubatus was sure he must have misunderstood the cougar. He couldn't have said 'no'? Such a matter-of-fact statement, as if he were only talking about the weather... While the cheetahmorph tried to wrap his mind around what his ears had heard, the mountain lion continued: "Anyway, in the end I was indeed stationed with the other critters on the payroll. Only they didn't like my scent, and I didn't like their barking."
"But, but you're human!"
"But, you are a SCAB like all the others?"
"You mean like yourself."
"So where is the problem? Why is this 'human' thing so important to you?"
"Imp... It's the most important thing of all!"
"Being regarded as sentient, I can understand that. But we are talking about being seen as a specimen of two-legged, stinky old Homo sapiens sapiens. Why would any self-respecting cat want that?"
"Self-respect? You let them treat you like an animal! You got a lot of damn gall, talking to me about self-respect!"
"Hey! It was a lot better than the alternatives at the time, like being shot on sight or tranquilized and waking up at the nearest zoo. But you are right, in the end I had to put my paw down and demand my own little den, with a nice sun-spot for the day and a cozy heater for the night; 10 pounds of meat every second day and fresh water and someone to take out the kitty-litter every week. All in all, not the worst pay one can get."
"You -- you're -- you can't be serious!"
"Do I smell like I joke with you? As I said, at least I got food that I didn't have to hunt for, and work that helped other people, and a place to stay where I was welcome, and people who cared if I lived or died. The problem was, they didn't trust me. Couldn't trust me, a mere animal, with whatever urges came with the package. Predatory, feral ones."
"Pffft. How stupid was that?"
"Not stupid at all! No, they were afraid."
"Afraid? Of what?"
"Of me. I was good at the job, you see. Too damned good. Over the years, my team members became less and less comfortable around me. For them I was a live weapon -- in every sense of the term."
"But you were working for them!"
"Sure; at first I was the pet, then the team mascot, and after a while they send me out for reconnaissance. It came as it was wont to happen. And one fine day, exploration turned into explosion. The suspects I was investigating decided to shoot back, before we could take care of them. And they were far too well-armed... It was carnage, a blood-bath. None of us should have survived it, least of all the unarmed animal...
"After that there was always a bit of awe and, increasingly, fear. With every time they had sent me into some crazy situation and me taking care of it somehow, it got worse. And the second or third time it happened, I began to suspect I had a little something extra."
"You mean... your chronomorphic power?"
"Yeah, you got it in one. I can well understand how chronomorphing makes people uncomfortable; it makes me uncomfortable, never mind that it has saved my tail any number of times. Without that power, I wouldn't have ever been exposed to that kind of danger in the first place and I would have been able to do what I liked. With that power, I got stuck with doing what I had to, because no one else was that good at it. So as you can see, it was rather a mixed blessing, hmm?"
"Yeah, tell me about it... What else did they make you do?"
"Rescue hostages, mostly. That part, I liked; it was what made me keep doing it. The bad part was that far too often I had to deal with situations where the only way to rescue them was to be less than nice to whoever held them hostage. As you might have guessed, I rather could do without that part. Not to mention the part that others took notice about this strange phenomenon, far too common, where I managed to get the hostages out without a scratch while the kidnappers were a bloody mess."
"In the end they deemed me too independent, too unreliable -- too feline. At the same time I was too valuable an asset to retire permanently. And since my superiors had never liked my attitude towards their authority, they decided to give me a taste of my own medicine."
"What -- you, disrespectful? No! So what was your well-earned fate?"
"They put me in charge of training rookies in the arts of survival and hunting down criminals."
"Poor bastards. Any of them survive?"
"Hey! I got paid to make sure they all survived. Their bodies, anyway -- their pride usually didn't, though."
"Gosh, I just can't imagine why... But how come you took the job? I mean, after rescuing hostages, wouldn't a classroom be a little dull for you?"
"Ah, yes. The excitement and thrill of being part of a S.W.A.T. team, swatting the criminals with one paw, so to speak. But as a matter of fact, I was less a member of the team and more one of the 'Special Weapons And Tactics' S.W.A.T. stands for. Plus, I was tired of getting shot, stabbed, bitten, clawed and whatever else. 'Dull' ain't hardly so bad, by comparison!"
"I suppose not..." Jube said in a reflective tone. "But that's not what made you swallow a suicide pill."
"No. Things at that time were pretty tight; there was talk about putting all 'dangerous' SCABs in cages or worse, for no other reason as for what we are. For this, someone decided that former species be damned, any 'animal' that is capable of taking care of several criminals armed to the teeth, is too dangerous to be let running around unchecked. And as every weapon, this one needed a safety. That's how they saw it, at least. So I figured that if I co-operate some, voluntarily accept unreasonable rules and restrictions, it reassures people that a little fur and fang does not prevent you from working and playing well with others."
"So they made you swallow a suicide pill, and everything was fine, yes?"
"Everything was fine, not. As you should know, and as I found out the hard way, the human mind doesn't work like that. No, those who were uncomfortable with me roaming free, were even more uncomfortable with me, when I agreed to go with their restrictions."
"How does that work?"
"Simple: Since I was willing to agree to their terms, I confirmed that even I thought their worst fears were valid, which in turn made them a reality for them. In short: They began asking themselves what atrocities was I capable of, that I would accept these terms.
"Think of it this way: Put a muzzle on a friendly dog, and see how people are going to change their attitude towards it. It is muzzled, there has to be a reason for that, therefore it is dangerous -- has to be, why else would it be muzzled. Given how everything was heading down the drain for SCABs like me at that time, I figured if I was to end up in a cage no matter what, I would rather be the only one. And I took steps to ensure things didn't go from bad to worse. Unfortunately, this confirmed to my critics what I was truly capable of if I ever get out of control again."
"Right, right. So this happened... rrr... about the time you killed that one guy, what's his name --"
"Correct. I killed someone. As I said, at that time it seemed to be the wisest cause of action."
"Your higher-ups sure didn't like it, if that stack of complaints in your personal record means anything. I'm not sure why, though; I mean, it's not like this was the first time you'd ever wasted anybody, right? So what's so special about that corpse, in particular?"
"One, he hadn't seen judge or jury. Two, he hadn't even been on trial. Three, I wasn't following orders, more specifically I disobeyed a direct order. Four, while he certainly had been outspoken about what he was going to do, no one was willing or able to come forward with proof that he actually did something, certainly not any kind of felony." Duncan extended one claw after another while counting. "A paw-full of reasons."
"So... officially, no justification for lethal force. Hmm. Why did you kill him?"
"Because that son of a bitch was about to light the fuse of a powder-keg, and I didn't want to watch the fireworks from the 'safety' of a cage."
"Jube! I did what I did, because all the alternatives would have been worse, at least to my way of thinking. I am not exactly proud of it, but under the same circumstances I would do it again. There were only two options: One, kill him right there, right in front of his supporters, by challenging his leadership of his little terror gang. Two, let him do foolish things that end up with me, my friends and very likely countless other SCABs, dying or suffering greatly. My way, only he had to die."
"But they charged you with murder?"
"Sort of, afterwards they found more than enough evidence to sentence him to death three times."
"So they gave you a medal instead?"
"Hardly. After what had happened, they had to lock me away or face another public outcry from those who wanted all SCABs locked away or worse."
"So that's where the device comes in."
"Yes. On the one paw, I was scheduled to spend the next several years in a cage for what I did; but on the other paw, I was supposed to start training other agents in the art of survival and hunting criminals in less civilized areas at the same time. Some smart brass came up with the idea for that device and this area we are now in. That way, they killed three birds with one stone. I am in my very own federal prison; I can do my duty for the FBI; and my trainees get a real criminal to hunt.
"All in all, I think that was probably the best that could have happened to me. I am still doing good and valuable work, but no more killing for the job. Instead I can hang out in nature and be myself. And for entertainment, they send me a new bunch of rookies every other month!"
"Yeah, things could have turned out a lot worse. A lot worse... but come on, Duncan. You really think this is preferable? I mean, sure, you got shot at before, and that's no fun, but at least you could live in a civilized manner..."
"Bah! Civilization is overrated, at least when you are a wild cat. I admit there's a lot going for a full fridge of tuna and meat, not to mention a sunny spot in front of a window and floor heating. Nevertheless, I really can do without the scent of fear and terror any time I take a walk outside. As well, I just can't stand places I can't walk out again any time I want. Not after being caged up. I just have to prove to my inner self that I can go out if I want to, anytime I want to, every odd hour -- at least when I am indoors. On the other paw, out here in the open, I just feel at home."
"'Open'?" Jubatus scanned the surrounding rocks and dirt. "Looks more like a cave to me..."
"Well, yeah, but with an exit," the cougar replied with a smirk.
"And a drafty one, at that. Damn it, if you hadn't hijacked the Extremis, we could be waiting out this storm in climate-controlled comfort! And if you really can't stand being surrounded by human-made artifacts, that's why God invented wildlife documentaries on the Discovery Channel."
"Heh! Who needs movies when they got the real thing?"
"Anyone who doesn't want to deal with all the irritating crap that comes with the real thing," Jube stated firmly. "So what do we do now? Just lie around and stare at the walls... or d'you got something more interesting in mind?"
"Actually, that sounds like a damned good idea."
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"Staring at the wall. Let's do that."
"Staring... uh, Duncan? That was supposed to be a joke, okay?"
"It was?" The cougar's ears flicked in a feline shrug. "Doesn't matter. Let's watch the wall for a few hours."
"Hours! You must be joking!"
"No. Come on, get comfortable in front of that wall over there and we can watch it together."
"What for? It's not going anywhere?"
"All the better! That way we can have a nice lie-in and don't need to hunt it down."
Incredulously the spotted cat gaped at the puma getting comfortable in front of one of the walls, tail curved around at one side, hind paws tugged in and the other paws out front, his shoulders slightly raised, his head looking straight at a nondescript piece of rock, about two feet in front of his muzzle.
Five minutes passed by. Jubatus scrutinized the cougar, the wall, the cave, even the rain falling outside, which had by now turned to a steady dripping that could last for hours if not days. "Okay... what am I missing, here?"
Duncan only rotated his head slightly, looking the cheetah straight in the eye. "Only one way to find out, not so?"
"There's nothing to find out, damn it! Just a stupid wall!"
"Exactly? And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Great. And they tell me my sanity is at risk."
"Just humor me. Be a nice copy-cat and pick your own spot on the wall."
"And watch it? Is this some sort of feline mind-game of yours?"
"No, it's a way to relax and meditate. Won't hurt you to try, promise."
"And you are hell-bent to keep on with it, no matter what, right?"
"Got that in one. So what are you waiting for? Got some business more pressing?"
"Rrrr.... Why in Vulcan's name did I have to be come here to stay with a mad cat..." But in the end the cheetah caved in -- more for lack of anything else to do than for any other reason -- and settled himself at the far end, out of the way from the cold drafts near the entrance.
"Okay, I'm doing it. Staring at the damn wall. Care to tell me why?"
"To find out what's important."
"Getting bored stiff is important?"
"Just watch the wall."
"What for -- there's nothing there!"
"Jube, have you ever drawn a picture or done a sketch?"
"Sure. So what?"
"So, did you use a blank page or something already covered with pictures and writing?
"A blank page, naturally. Stupid question."
"That's why we are using a blank wall."
"So what?" the cheetah-morph repeated. "In case you've forgotten, there's no pens or brushes or anything here!"
"Don't need any such toys. We got something better: Our mind. Just throw whatever is in your mind at the wall. Don't worry. It's an old wall. It won't object. Probably has seen it all and see a lot more. After all, it likely will still be here when even the memory of us has been long gone."
"Very feline-sophical," the cheetah said as his ever-present suspicion re-asserted itself. "Come on, what's your game? What are you really after here?"
"'Nothing', he says. Yeah, right."
"Just spill whatever is on your mind on the wall."
"You want me to spill my guts so that you can dissect my mind? Is that what you're after?"
"You don't have to tell me anything. If you want to, fine. I promise, I will listen; nothing more, nothing less."
"There nothing to tell!"
"Not? I won't mind, and neither will that wall. How about you start by telling about your dreams?"
"Too bad I don't dream," was the cheetah's acid response.
Interesting. Does he truly not remember any of it, or does he push his dreams so far into the back of his mind that he suppresses the memories? "Not? Too bad, and here I thought we could swap some imaginary hunting stories."
"So all the chit-chattering and thrashing around in your REM sleep is about... nothing?
"Pfft! If you're going to play Sigmund Freud, you need a couch."
"I could get you a couch, next time you are here, if you want."
"You think I'm ever coming back here, you are crazy! What's next -- you gonna ask me about my mother?"
"If I see any reason to," Duncan replied. "But seriously, what does go through your head when you 'rest'? The only times I ever have such a workout during my sleep is when I have another nightmare about my time at the hospital and the zoo."
Grateful for the opportunity to change the subject, Jubatus did exactly that: "That reminds me: How did you happen to end up at the zoo? And how'd you ever manage to escape? From that dossier you handed me back at the Pig, I could figure out the broad outlines of what happened, but not so much on the details."
"In all honesty, I can't even clearly remember, at least not most of it. That might be the worst part of the whole thing... All I remember are bits and pieces from the nightmares I have had ever since. Don't know how much of any of that was for real, or if all that is just my over-active imagination. Whatever, they had me drugged real good. It was only after a few days at the zoo that I regained something like a conscious mind. The only bits I do remember are from those dreams, nightmares more precisely, I have about that place. Never liked being inside hospitals ever since. The smells, the sounds -- it's just like a waking nightmare."
"Okay, but how did you get out? Talked a keeper into unlocking your cage, or what?"
"Didn't. Couldn't. Not talk. Not. At. All. Had trouble understanding normal speech as well, it was way too low for my new range of hearing. Wasn't it the same for you?"
"Sort of... The frequency range wasn't a problem; I did a lot of phone work and recordings, so I'm used to voices with weird audio processing. What got me was the tempo difference, me being six times faster than everybody else."
"Well, I lacked all such experience. Took me weeks to figure out what former sounds those rumbling noises were. Had to learn it all over again. More by error than trial. Later, I tried to communicate with my warden, but he was deep into religious radio shows, always listening to those. No place for a mere animal to butt in. Worse, I did not have the fine manipulation ability -- my attempts to scratch letters in the dirt were simply illegible. So whenever I tried to write a plea for help, he just ignored it or cleaned it away. Since he had been told that I was rescued from an animal research facility, he just explained away all my attempts at communication as being the antics of a mistreated, playful cat. Still, he did bring me a piece of fish every Sunday. So he wasn't really bad, you know. Just too deeply rooted in his own little world. There was no place for an abomination like a sentient wildcat."
"Holy Moses. So what happened? Someone finally get a clue about you being sentient?"
"No. Fortunately, as it turned out. The Collapse was only just beginning, yes? More and more people got affected by the first wave of the Martian Flu. Unsurprisingly there were few to no visitors coming to the zoo. There was talk about getting rid of all the high-cost meat eaters, at least the large males. And as it turned out, our warden had a sweet spot for us 'beasts of god'; one night he freed all of us. I will never forget the words he said, when he opened the cage..."
When it became clear that the cougar was lost in thought, Jubatus asked, "Well, what did he say?!"
"'Make sure those freaks don't find a home in the last wild places, where earth is still as unspoiled as on the day He has made it'."
"Right. Good thing he never got wise on what he was letting out of the cage."
"So what happened afterwards."
"I had to learn the feline way of living and surviving in the wild. As you might have figured out by now, not as easy as it sounds."
"Yeah. Tell me about it..."
"Nah, your turn. Why do you not wish to take a vacation from being human? Are you that scared to try your paw at the feline life style for awhile?"
"Rrrrr..." Jubatus glared at the puma, but only for a moment. "Yes, damnit! I am scared... of becoming an animal for real."
Duncan nodded. "Of course. I won't lie to you, Jube: Such a fate could befall you. It's quite possible that you might be non-sentient for some time, especially given your habit of running off to extremes."
"Wonderful," the spotted SCAB said with a grimace. "And still you want me to stop fighting and... how did Doc Halliburton say it... 'embrace the beast'?"
"Yes, I do. Risk it may be, but as a licensed professional, I say it's a necessary risk. So are you ready to try your luck at the feline way of life?"
"No," Jube stated. "But... I don't have any alternatives, do I."
"Not really. Not unless you count arguing till your tongue falls out."
"Sure, because arguing's done me so much good -- not." Here, the cheetah sighed. "For all my bitching, I'm further away from staying human than I ever feared to come..."
"And yet, you are still as sentient a being as ever, all your arguments notwithstanding. You willing to go with the flow for once, and embrace the beast? Or would you rather wait 'til it swallows you whole?"
The feline SCAB closed his eyes in silent thought for a time. "What do you want me to do?"
For answer the cougar waved a paw towards the wall.
"That -- staring at rock?" Jubatus asked incredulously. "What's that got to do with with all this animal stuff!?"
"Hey, napping is central to feline nature! And once you got the basics down we can move on to more advanced techniques."
"Rrr... So... I just lie down and do nothing."
"Yep -- well, don't forget to breathe. Everything else will follow."
"And when are you going to start to really torture me?"
"Torture? Make sense, Jube! Have you ever seen a cat that looks like it didn't enjoy life?"
"Lions in the zoo. They look bored stiff from all the meat walking by their cages that they can't get at."
"Yeah, not my favorite pastime. But I mean, any free-roaming cat?"
"As a matter of fact, they seem to be rather smug about life in general."
"Want to find out why?"
"And staring at a wall will help?"
"Sure, if you want you can try to imagine that it's the door to a fridge full of tuna."
"Hah! Stop making me hungry... Okay, stare at a wall. Gotcha. How long am I supposed to keep it up, anyway?"
"Just a few hours, for starters."
"Hours? For starters!? You -- rrr -- okay, okay. Stare, wall, hours on end. You're obviously trying to bore me into submission."
"You think so? You are wrong. Even though you think that there is no activity, you are actually doing something. You are expressing yourself. You are expressing your feline nature. The most important thing is to express your nature in the simplest, most adequate way and to appreciate it in the smallest things."
"Yeah, right. How the hell does staring at a wall 'express' anything? Is this more of that 'cat-zen' crap of yours?"
"Yes, it is. I'm sure you find it an impenetrable mystery, but that is alright. You will come to understand what I mean, when you continue this practice week after week, year after year."
"Sure! With time, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and it will cover everything you do in your everyday life. It will show in your eyes, in your voice, in your demeanor. Then eventually, when it resumes itself, you will find your true nature."
Jubatus, with his innately supersuspicious nature, could not believe that what the puma was saying might be true. But at the same time, he also could not deny that Duncan's methods, however senseless they might appear from a certain point of view, had gotten plenty of solid results... "There's a trick to it. There's gotta be some kind of trick."
"No tricks, Jube. At this point, can you possibly still expect some sort of miracle cure in a bottle or syringe? No! If you want to understand yourself, you have to study yourself. To study yourself you first have to be yourself. For that you have remove all that is not yourself, bring yourself to rest, so that you can understand yourself in the simplest state. And what would be more simple than resting in the most natural posture? It might look special for those who haven't found it, but once you have it, it's the most ordinary thing one can imagine. There is nothing special to it. Just be yourself."
"Just... be myself," the cheetah echoed. But who is 'myself' -- who am I? What am I? Human or feline? Or both?
"Exactly so," Duncan affirmed. "And if you need some assistance, just follow my example." So saying, the cougar returned his attention to the rock wall before him.
It looked so easy from watching the mountain lion, serenely lying there. Only a slight twitching of ear or tail once in a while, as well as the minimal movements of slow, deep breathing, indicated that the tawny cat was still alive. There was no question about that, where the cheetah was concerned. He couldn't bring his mind to rest and his body showed it, moving from one posture to the other. His eyes searched for something to focus on, a spider crawling over the floor, a fly settling on the wall. His ears twitched constantly, trying to zero in on any sound there was, the sound of wind blowing outside, the rain drops falling and hitting the ground.
Without any of his myriad pastimes, there should be nothing to distract him... but there was. What had seemed to be as easy as breathing, turned out to be more arduous than working on three projects at the same time, all due yesterday. How do you work at not working? How to think about not-thinking. This is crazy! I'd rather deliver snailmail to every resident of New York in an hour than sit here and do nothing...
Okay, calm down, just breathe. Look at that brown, almost purple spot on the wall, the spot that looks almost like a dead --
Okay, try again. Close your eyes. Don't look, just listen to the sounds. Rain, lots of it, hitting a staccato on the ground, like the sound of hooves running
I'm going mad! Jubatus despaired, his hands now flattening his ears against his skull, covering his head, his tail twitching wildly with irritation.
The seconds dragged on. Slowly. He could almost make out the sound of each single rain drop. The ultrasonic whispering of its fall through the air. The splat of it finally hitting the ground. The sound of the rebounding water, of drops hitting each other. His mind was searching desperately for something to do, something else to do, anything but
Yes, what was it I am trying not to run away from? popped suddenly up in his mind. There's only myself. Just myself. But how do you run away from yourself? How not to?
It seemed like he had endured this torture for years, but when he was almost ready to scream, he heard the mountain lion next to him, stirring.
"Hello, Jube! Looks like you really earned your dinner," Duncan said, while first stretching each limb, then arching his back up, then down and finally walking towards the cave's exit. "Try not to gnaw off any of your appendages while I catch it, will you?"
In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, the puma was gone; swallowed by the rain still falling outside the cave. Only then did Jubatus realize that his breath was labored, that he seemed to have worked up a cold sweat, that he was completely spent from his first attempt at total relaxation. Damn. Who'd have thought you could burn that much energy doing nothing? he thought to himself.
Waiting for the cougar's return, Jubatus settled himself near the cave's entrance. The sky was still gloomy, but the rain had let up and become a constant drizzle. Fog was rising from the warm earth and the undergrowth, reducing visibility and sound to almost nothing. The sun had been hidden behind clouds ever since before the storm broke; even so, he could tell that dusk had fallen, perhaps an hour ago.
The cheetah's stomach growled lightly. Boy, am I glad Duncan's doing the hunting, he mused. But whatever he brings in, I still have to eat the thing... joyous. As he'd done so many times before, Jubatus thought frantically, trying to find a more-acceptable option; also as so many times before, he did not come up with any such thing. This time, however, a different notion rose to the fore: According to him, at least, the 'beast' only needs to be house-trained -- it's just a matter of learning the proper responses for whichever instinctive urges. And if that's true... I'm a technical writer; training people is what I do for a living. Maybe I can train 'the beast'..?
The shadows darkened all around. Moonlight filtered trough the clouds and turned the scenery in an eerie twilight, when one shadow started to move towards the spotted feline, coalescing into the shape of a large cat. No sound reached the twitching ears of the cheetah, but he could make out the green glow from Duncan's eyes and the wet bundle of fur in his jaws. Dinner had arrived! And Jubatus was hard put not to drool at the prospect of finally filling the cavern inside his belly. The mountain lion was soaking wet when he entered the cave, and so was what he was carrying. Given the angle between back and neck, there was no doubt about it that it was dead. Much to the horror of the spotted cat, there was also no doubt what his dinner was going to be: Rabbit!
All reason went out of the window in a flash. He couldn't eat -- not of all things out here -- rabbit! By all the gods that never were, why on earth did... wait, that fur... While Jubatus dithered, Duncan was just inside the cave's entrance, trying to shake off most of the water lodged in his fur. "What a miserable day for hunting! Everything is sitting tight and dry; nothing moves; with all the rain you don't even hear your own foot steps, forget about sounds from anything else around; and whatever scents or tracks had been made by whatever was out before the rain, got all washed away."
While the puma chattered, Jubatus managed to restore his equilibrium, to some degree at least: Okay, okay -- brown rabbit -- nobody you know. Get a grip, Jube. It's not like he was gonna bring back a sausage pizza. Okay. Time for 'Beast' Obedience School. First lesson: Not to eat Rabbit, that is the Law. Not to eat Rabbit. Not to eat Rabbit...
Oblivious to his client's internal struggle, Duncan continued his cheerful monologue: "I hope you appreciate the trouble I had to go through for your dinner, Jube. If I hadn't almost stumbled over it, I would still be out there looking for something edible. And now, with that ghastly fog, it is all but impossible to get even the slightest whiff or hint of any prey out there."
Jubatus' stomach chose this moment too complain loudly of why food had not arrived inside, despite the tantalizing aroma of a fresh kill, of fur wet with blood. Not to eat Rabbit. That's not food, 'beast'. Not to eat Rabbit. But would the 'beast' pay attention to his tutelage? Not to eat Rabbit. Only one way to find out if it's listening. Not to eat Rabbit. Ignoring his gut, the spotted SCAB stepped, with great care and hesitance, over towards the still-warm carcass...
Once within arm's reach of the meat, the cheetah grabbed it and tore into it. Duncan smiled; Jubatus might have been less than enthusiastic while approaching his meal, but he made up for it, and then some, with the vigor he now displayed. "Well! Nice to see one's cooking appreciated!" the puma said. "What do you think? Maybe it needs salt?"
"G'wrrauur --" the cheetah (tried to) say around a mouthful of rabbit-haunch, then he swallowed. He then cried, "Not to eat Rabbit!", and abruptly froze; his only moving part was his tongue, busily cleaning the blood off his lips and muzzle-fur.
Now even the tongue stopped moving. The cheetah's face bore an expression of ever-deepening horror, even as his scent changed likewise. Slowly and unsteadily, his head turned to look at the bloody mess he held chutched in his forepaws. Suddenly, in one convulsive movement, Jubatus screamed like a hell-bound soul; threw (what was left of) the rabbit out the cave-mouth; and ran deeper into the cave, his flight ending when he blindly slammed into a large outcropping of rock.
Duncan caught up to the cheetah while he was still stunned from the impact. "Okay," the puma said, sitting on his client to ensure he did not run again. "I don't need to use my nose, to see that something is wrong. You care to talk about it?"
Duncan was not at all prepared for his client's explosive outburst: "You told me instincts are learnable you said 'the beast' could be taught!" the cheetah babbled. "SoItriedit, Itriedit, Ithought, IthoughtIcouldteach'thebeast'! ButIwaswrongIwaswrong, ohChristIwaswrong! Andthatmeans, Ican'tevergoback, thatmeans, 'causeifhe'sthere, I'llkillhiman'eat'im, an'nobodycanstopme! Tha'means! Nevergoback! I'lleat'im! An'it'sallover! Can'tstopme! Nobuddyelsec'movefastenuf! Ca'gobakk! Annitzdunn! Ohfuckhe'llbededdan'Ikillt'imannaydim! C'neff'rgobakk!"
Jubatus paused to inhale. "Who?" Duncan shouted, now able to get a word in edgewise. "Who is it you will eat?"
"Phil!!!" screamed the spotted SCAB -- and from that point on, there were no more words. There was just a violent, frothing, fast-flowing cataract of yowls and clicks and screeches and hisses, an amalgamation of sounds which required no words to form an all-too-clear expression of Jubatus' torment. Wailing incoherently, he clutched at the cougar like a child grasping a security blanket. It was unclear if the cheetah actually recognized Duncan; perhaps any soft and warm object might have served his needs.
For his part, Duncan remained still as the tsunami raged about him. Jubatus had been in desperate need of emotional release, a moment of catharsis; now that he was having it, the puma played the role of an anchor. He was a point of stability to which his client could cling safely, rather than being swept away and lost. And eventually the floodwaters fell. In time, the cheetah's wailing was reduced to deep, shuddering breaths...
"I am sorry, Jube," the cougar said softly. "Really and truly. If I had known, I wouldn't have caught it in the first place. Damn it, I was so happy when I finally caught it, they are actually quite a treat -- okay, forget that, but you know what I mean. And now it was all for nothing."
"Not your fault..." Jubatus murmured. "You sure there isn't anything else available for dinner?"
"Again, sorry. In this weather and at this time of night, going out there for hunting is an exercise in futility. But see, the rain is almost done; the local wildlife will be coming out from under cover any time now. Catching something tomorrow morning will be a piece of cake. We just have to wait 'til then."
"Wonderful," Jube grumbled.
"Oh, don't be such a baby. What is your problem? You had a few pounds of meat today already, and cheetahs in the wild can go for days without another meal and not fall flat on their face. By tomorrow, you'll just have worked up a healthy appetite."
"Unless I go hunting myself..." This statement shocked the cougar -- but given Jubatus' sardonic expression, it was merely the latest in his endless series of morbid jokes.
"Fine by me," Duncan said. "You alright now?"
"Not since 2036..." Jubatus mumbled indistinctly. Then, in a normal voice: "Yeah. I'm okay."
"Good." So saying, the puma stepped away, allowing his client to move freely again. "Any questions?"
"Questions... pleh. I just want all, all this," he said with an unsteady gesture that encompassed the cave and everything in it, "to be over and done with."
"Well, you'll get your wish; just not right this second," Duncan replied. "Until then, you must take it one day at a time. Speaking of which, another day has passed. Was it as bad as you feared?"
The spotted cat snorted. "Like anything could be as bad as I fear."
"Come now -- you know what I meant to ask. How bad was it?"
After a lengthy pause, Jubatus finally responded. In a subdued voice, he said, "I... don't know..."
The cougar cocked his ears at Jubatus. "No? Odd; if memory serves, there are a few points at which you purred in utter bliss. I would have thought that any day which offers such opportunities, has to be a good one."
"I guess. Maybe. I dunno. That..." At this close range, Duncan's nose was able to pick up on the cheetah's weak scent: He smelled mostly of confusion, with a minor undercurrent of fear. "Purring... Look, it didn't feel bad, exactly, but there was... something... I dunno." Jube's scent was rich in annoyance for a moment, which matched his disgruntled countenance, before he dismissed the question with a percussive snort. "Hrff! Never mind. It was okay... I guess..." And then the spotted cat yawned an enormous yawn. "...hmm."
"Yeah... it's that fucking half-hour sleep cycle of mine..."
"Of course it is," Duncan replied. "Have you any idea why you have such an abnormal sleeping pattern?"
The cheetah's ears twitched. "You know as much as I do, if you've read my medical files."
"I have -- but that data does not provide any explanations." Of course, I got my suspicions... Duncan thought to himself. "Ah, well. With a bit of luck, maybe we can do something about that before you go back home. How about you just get some sleep right now? Or do you have pressing business that requires your alert attention?"
"I wish..." Jubatus muttered, annoyed and worried for no discernable reason. "What the hell. Nobody here but us felines. Good night, John-Boy." And with that cryptic utterance, the cheetah lay down and curled up for his usual imperfect facsimile of repose. His eyes might have been closed, but he was not resting; as it had been before, his sleep was decidedly unquiet.
Meanwhile, Duncan was grooming the water and mud out of his own coat. Thus distracted, it took him some little time to notice a peculiar fact: Although the cheetah's sleep was anything but restful, his present thrashing and yowling was distinctly less intense than it had been in his 'sleep' of a few hours past. But how can this be? the puma asked himself. After the unfortunate incident with the rabbit, his nightmare-driven shaking ought to be powerful enough to register on the Richter Scale! But it's not... Fine. What is different now? What presence that was formerly absent, what absence that had been present? Padding closer, Duncan inspected his sleeping client. He sniffed the scent of the cheetah, then the air in the cave. Hmm. Could it be that simple..? In the end it was as plain as the muzzle on his face: Kitty didn't like being in a strange place that held none of his scent -- a place that didn't smell like home.
He thought back to when he had met the cheetah in the Blind Pig, and to Jube's arrival here. A cheetah's spoor was quite weak at the best of times, but on both of those occasions, the spotted cat's scent had been utterly undetectable -- and given Duncan's well-trained nose, that was saying something!
It made perfect sense: Given his attitude towards any and all aspects of himself which might hint at his lack of 'humanity', or even induce others to react as if he were other than human, Jubatus must surely have gone out of his way to eradicate all traces of cheetah scent -- his scent -- from his paws, from his fur, probably from his breath as well. His abrasive demeanor would have served this purpose, too; even the best nose would have a hard time picking anything up from as far away as Jube wanted to keep almost everyone away from him. A fine theory, the puma thought, but it wants empirical confirmation. So...
Duncan rubbed his own forepaw against the ground, greatly concentrating his own scent on that limb. Without touching the cheetah's nose he placed his forepaw near it, right in front of Jube's muzzle. Within a few breaths, the spotted cat's sleep grew calmer. Ha! So you are a for-real cheetah in the night. No wonder you have trouble remembering any of it, when you are awake and human again! Well, well. Good to know -- and helpful, too.
Poor little kitty. Facing a strange new world. Scared of nothing and everything -- but mostly himself, I think. Okay, let's just put the new information to use...
Duncan lay down beside Jubatus, his belly against the cheetah's back, and he draped a gentle foreleg over his client's snout. At once the spotted cat's twitching and yowling began to fade, and within seconds he was resting -- truly resting, for the first time since his arrival here.
"Good night, kitty. Sweet dreams."