This is the sixth 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.
Jube found himself in the serene half-state between awake and asleep; not dreaming, not thinking, just... existing, calm and relaxed. He felt better than he had in years. Nevertheless, something was odd, or wasn't it..? It felt like he was lying on a sofa, cozy with his back to the rear, warm, safe, tucked in by a paw over his chest --
In a twinkling, the cheetah was fully alert and standing.
"What the fuck are you doing there!"
"Before you shouted in my ear?" the puma inquired before indulging in a cavernous yawn that granted the cheetah an unobstructed view of all the teeth in his jaws. "Since you ask: I had been sleeping."
"Sleeping!?" Jubatus had trouble controlling his outrage.
"Yeah. Sleeping. Now, if you don't mind, I will just get back to napping." And Duncan followed up on his words by turning onto his stomach, stretching a little and closing his eyes again with a sigh.
But the cheetah would have none of that. "Why did you sneak up on me last night!"
"'Sneak up'? My, oh my. Aren't we a bit testy this morning!"
"When you find that some perverse animal snuggled up to you in your sleep, you damn well bet! Who wouldn't get pissed off about that!"
'Perverse'? These Americans -- hmph! the puma thought. Ah, well. Let's see how close he is to wanting to talk about sexuality... "Back up a bit, Jube. What is so wrong with snuggling? It is a fine way to conserve body heat, especially when --"
"You fu- -- bloody well know what's wrong! Two men sleeping together" -- Hm. Can he be a homophobe? the puma asked himself -- "and they're not even the same goddamn species!"
Duncan nodded. So, it is not imaginary homosexual behavior he objects to, it's just his standard "I am not an animal" routine. "Yes, quite right, two different species. What of it? Is this perhaps the height of a cheetah's mating season? It certainly isn't a puma's!"
"I don't care if --" Here the spotted cat broke off, as rational thought finally caught up to his careening tongue. He sat, blinking, for a few moments, and the ire faded from his scent. "Oh... right. Mating season. Wrong time of year. I thought..." Now he shook his head, banishing certain thoughts from his mind. "Hrrm. Never mind what I thought, I was way the hell wrong. Sorry about that."
No, the puma judged, he is not yet ready to bring this out into the open. Very well; let's try it again, three to five days from now... "Of course. But you slept well, right?"
"Sleep... That's not the point!"
"No? Tell me: When was the last time you really had a good night's sleep and felt like you had it."
"Well... sort of."
"You mean, no."
"I... What the hell did you do to me!?"
The puma shrugged. "I only tried to make you more comfortable. I might even tell you how you can achieve that without me 'snuggling' up to you, since you find that distasteful."
"Why... What have you done?"
"I think that can wait until after breakfast. I assume you're hungry?"
"Hungry. I... yes, damn it. You promised to take care of it!"
"And I will. Don't you worry!" Duncan said, when he began his morning stretch routine.
The cheetah watched it going on and on. Maybe I should join in... Like hell I should! Stop that!
Jube's inner conflict did not escape the cougar-SCAB's notice. "You really ought to give your body a little stretch from time to time, too. Should do you lots of good and yes, even humans do that if they know what is good for them. By the way, how is your back?"
"My..." Here Jubatus gave his spine a few experimental twists and turns, arching it back and forth, up and down. "...it's okay. Doesn't hurt. Just feels... I don't know... relaxed?"
"Good. So, you are ready to start with your training?"
"Start training? What the hell -- start with -- what have I been doing before now!? Haven't you already done more than enough to me? What madness are you talking about now?"
"Up to now, it was just preparation for the real stuff. Laying a foundation, you might say. Getting rid of all the excess baggage, so that it won't interfere when you really are learning how to be a cat."
"You call those torments of the last days 'preparation'!? Sekhmet's claws! -- what else have you got in store?
""Lots of things! But first, I think we should start with your senses. You don't seem to have even the slightest clue what they are capable of and what they are supposed to do."
"Senses? What about them? Vision, hearing, feeling, tasting and smell. So what?"
"For starters you might want to put them in the right order. Scenting, hearing, vision, smell-taste and feeling."
"I like my order just fine! And if you don't mind, I would like to order breakfast, now!"
"No need for any of that snarling, Jube. I will show you a nearby all-you-can-eat snack bar," said the cougar, making his way towards the cave's exit.
"Snack bar? That's something I gotta see to believe!" replied the spotted cat, slowly following the puma on all fours. "I suppose it's right next to the coffee shop?"
Duncan did not bother to answer what was clearly a rhetorical question. "Ah! The smells of early morning after a rainy night. You are in for a treat now, Jubatus," he said, turning his head back. "Living in civilization, you do not get much use of your nose, I'm thinking. Maybe you even wish you have no sense of smell, yes?"
The cheetah's expression was a clear indicator of how he felt about urban aromas. "So what? I happen to like the smell of a civilized breakfast: Coffee, toast, eggs -- even if I can't have any of that stuff."
"I know what you mean, but this is better. Come on, step outside, take a sniff of the air."
"Why? You actually have a coffee shop hidden under some rock?" Jubatus called after the mountain lion, who had bounded off like a playful kitten, jumping and rolling through the high grass, still wet from the rain of the day before. Not inclined to follow the cougar's example, the cheetah tested the wet ground before him.
"Come on!" Duncan called again, when he saw the spotted cat. "Geez, stop playing oddside."
"Naturally it's wet. It has been raining for hours."
"Yeah. And it's still wet! And what do you mean by 'oddside'?"
"A game cats play, that I had hoped to skip in your education. But seems you just have to start your lessons at the bottom of the list."
"What are you talking about?"
"FIS: Feline Indecisive Syndrome. Something insecure cats show a lot, not knowing if they want to go or stay and teetering on the brink of inside and outside. In short; staying in oddside."
"Me, insecure? Get stuffed! And I keep telling you, I'm not a cat at all!" And to prove his point, the cheetah jumped out into the wet grass, stalking towards the waiting cougar as if on stilts, trying to minimize contact with that evil wet stuff on the ground.
Just as someone living near a railroad would, over time, learn to tune out the noise from passing trains, Jubatus had early on stopped paying attention to all those bothersome scents accosting his nose. No wonder, given the cacophony of scents that anything with a real nose had to endure in any kind of setting near civilization. The smells from hundreds (if not thousands!) of people; of food being prepared, clothes being washed, perfumes, incense burned; of sewage, the exhaust from innumerable cars, fires, heating; all of these blended into an ill-matched pandemonium of scents. As bad, if not worse, was the cacophony of sounds that battered the ears at the same time; all thanks to the 'progress' of humankind, of technology and civilization. Of course, primitive settings did have their very own set of more-than-bothersome 'features', not to mention bugs and worse. It was a matter of picking one's preferred set of annoyances; you took the bad with the worse and tried to endure what couldn't be ignored. Fortunately, the cheetah's conscious mind could ignore most scents and even sounds... which didn't mean his instincts were similarly inclined.
But with all what had happened in the last few days, the cheetah's nose had become hyperacute -- as had his other senses. The aromas entering it now were no less powerful than anything he'd had to endure in the last years, only this time, instead of the olfactory equivalent of the noise of several highways and railroads and an airport combined, the scents blended into each other like the sounds of an symphony orchestra. Equally loud, close up, but that's where all the similarities ended. He could smell the earthy, slightly musky odor of the wet ground, the grass, the trees, the scents brought to him by the wind. His vibrissae detected each and every air current and tagged each scent with a direction. He knew that scent of flowers was coming from over there, even before he could see the flowers. And what was that scent? Animal, the cheetah's instincts pronounced. Cougar. Duncan.
And sure enough, the puma was sitting over there, watching him, breathing, smelling.
"Greetings! You like it?"
"Is it... always like this?"
"These smells. Do you --"
"Ah, ah!" the puma interrupted shaking his head.
"Do we --"
"I mean... does it smell like this all the time?"
"All the time? Hrmmm..." He considered this question for a time before replying: "No. Sometimes it's better. Once you allow yourself to experience things for what they are, and not for what they had been when you were still only human, or even what they should be from some silly notion or other, there is a lot to appreciate."
"There isn't much point in reminding you that I am human, is there? I've been telling you for days, and all I get is your 'feline' crap."
"Because all I get is your human shit. That's okay; I will have it all, soon," Duncan said, then turned and sauntered off along the path. "Come, let's not keep our breakfast waiting." Jubatus stared unbelievingly at the cougar's tail vanishing in the undergrowth. Did he just say what I thought he said..? There was no visible sign of the cougar. It was almost as if the trees and stones had swallowed him up! Jube remembered all to well his fruitless attempt at tracking down that cat on his first day here. Shit! He's gone... how the hell am I supposed to follow that son of a bitch? If I was a cat, no problem, I'd just track him by... scent? His whiskers vibrated; inhaling deeply, the cheetah searched for a familiar scent -- all too familiar, by now -- and found it. There, and there, the cougar had left a trail of scent with his paws. The trail -- invisible to his eyes -- seemed to almost glow to his nose. Well, whaddaya know: It works! I will find you, and when I do, you -- are -- toast!
Thus inspired to follow his nose, Jubatus tracked the cougar. At first that task was as easy as could be; the other cat had walked along the trail, each paw print clearly 'scentible' to the cheetah. But then the puma's gait changed, from walking to loping, even bounding here and there. That made the trail (such as it was) far more difficult to follow by scent alone, but there were still more than enough visual cues; paw prints in the mud, grass still bent by the impact of the cougar's bouncing, a tuft of fur on some branches at a narrow spot. Soon, all the cheetah's senses operated at their maximum level of acuity, providing his human intellect with the necessary inputs for working out the other cat's path. And quite a labour that had become, as the puma left fewer and fewer clues with every new hectometer he travelled.
Now, the cougar's path was marked by only the slightest smudge mark on wet stone; hardly any plants were out of place. If not for the cheetah's nose being this close to the ground -- and that much closer to any minuscule trace of scent -- Jube would have lost the trail ages ago. But still he followed, ever more slowly, ever more careful, so as not to overshoot the trail and lose his quarry. The path led him along deer-trails, their scent mixing and overlaying the other cat's spoor. Why, that stinking son of a -- damn it -- where the hell did he go? ... Ha! There! The lion had passed beneath a fallen tree, then turned back and jumped on the log. He left only slight scratch-marks on the wet bark, but those were tell-tale enough. Damn. This thing -- its diameter is ten feet if it's an inch! Bark's kinda crumbly... no branches to grab... how the hell do I get up there? The solution was reasonably obvious; coiling back on his haunches, Jubatus took careful aim, then jumped.
The cheetah landed on precisely the spot he'd intended; alas, he hadn't taken into account the texture of his target. Ouch! Where's that 'slippery when wet' sign when you need it? His scrabbling claws sent a blizzard of bark-chips flying, but in the end had indeed stopped him from falling off that log, albeit only just barely. And when the sawdust settled, he lay squarely atop said dead tree, clinging for dear life with every available limb. Okay, that tears it.That cougar is sooo fucking dead, once I get a hold of him! With renewed vigor Jubatus picked himself up, following the track of the wildcat. His head bent low, shifting from side to side, his nose sampling every spot for a whiff, the cheetah's eyes searched for any trace left by the devil cat. By now his attention was fully focused on this task, and this task alone. His silent steps startled more than one unsuspecting creature; some fowl, some deer, even a few rabbits and other small creatures. His ears twitched from time to time to any sound, instantly dismissing it when his eyes or nose confirmed that it had not been made by the cougar. That damned feline had resorted to almost every trick imaginable to throw his hunter off his track: Mixing his trail with that of other mammals, switching directions, going up trees or (worse, at least from the cheetah's point of view) up stony cliffs and down treacherous ravines. The spotted cat's quarry never followed a simple course, nor yet went in a straight line; he obscured his scent-traces, even hiding them by dragging leaves onto his trail or walking in one of the rivulets that seemed to be virtually omnipresent in this area. However, the cheetah followed -- penetrating every ploy, unearthing every scent, trace or clue -- slowly, but unstoppably, until...
Hold it! Jubatus thought. I know this scent! And indeed he did, as it was... his own! "That -- goddamned -- Cougar!" he cursed. "He's toying with me! Well, this game hasn't been played out, yet!" And with dark thoughts of retribution and bloody vengeance he kept on tracking.
For his part, Duncan had followed the cheetah's trail, which, in turn, followed the cougar's earlier path. Alas, Jubatus soon discovered that he couldn't seem to distinguish between his quarry's new and old tracks. Even when he was flehming for all he was worth, there seemed to be no difference. After he had carefully checked for any clues that he might be watched by a certain miscreant, he even stooped so low as trying to take a sample of the puma's scent with his tongue, pressing it directly against the vomeronasal organ at the roof of his muzzle. But it was all to no avail; there was simply no indication which overlain track was the newer of the two! Each one seemed to be just as strong, just as fresh, as the other. Were it not for the occasional paw-print, and his knowledge of their starting point, the cheetah wouldn't even have been able to tell in which direction the mountain lion had walked. Why do people call this kind of thing a 'wild goose chase'? They should name it 'wild cat chase'. If I didn't know the bastard was out here, I'd almost think he sent me on a snipe hunt... Now what? Start the whole thing over again? Keep chasing my damn tail? With a sigh, Jube took up the trail. Fine... he's gotta step off sometime, somewhere. He's probably sitting down someplace, having a good laugh as he watches the cheetah running in circles around him. Well, we'll see who laughs last! Soon, however, the two trails diverged; one of them was painfully obvious, with seemingly no effort to hide it and, worse, leading away from the 'circle'. Must be a false lead, Jubatus thought while contemplating his options, staring at the new trail. After all the trouble that cougar had gone through to hide his track, there was no way this open, in-your-snout, absolutely obtrusive trail of paw-prints could be anything but another trick. Still, it was the only place he'd found that held any indication of where the cougar had left the 'circle'. Rrrr... 'When you've eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' And fuck you very much, Mr. Holmes... Fuming, Jubatus followed this new path made by his host, a path that all too soon led to a clearing -- and ended there, right in the middle of it, in what looked like a place where a miniature tornado had gone folk-dancing. The puma must have rolled around in the high grass; several square meters were flattened or otherwise messed up. The cougar's spoor was everywhere, it seemed! Where Jube had formerly had trouble getting at least a slight whiff, he now could hardly keep from smelling anything else. He tricked me, again! Damn that cat; he could be anywhere by now. Hell, he might have even walked the other way on that circle, with all the lead he must have on me... For one last check Jube even tried to stand up, but only managed to rise slightly above sitting on his haunches before he lost his balance. Shit -- back's still no good. Damnit, I need some food! And that means I need to find the cougar. Bastard's my meals ticket, unless...
With a sigh that sounded uncomfortably like a pitiful 'meow', the cheetah turned around, trudging back to where he'd left the trail, dragging his tail behind.
"Hello there, stranger! You got any pressing business elsewhere?" came Duncan's voice from close behind. The cheetah's fur stand on end, when he turned around in a flash.
"You! Where the hell did you come from!?"
"Who, me? I just took a nap in the grass over there, waiting for you."
"Why did you do it?"
"Well, the sun is out again, the grass here is already dry and -- "
"Forget the damn napping! You went running off -- why!?"
"Yes, that! I thought you were gonna bring me some breakfast, instead you just walk out on me."
"And here I thought you'd have gotten tired of breakfast in bed by now..."
"That's not the point! You got any idea how much trouble it was to follow your path?"
"I rather think I do. Have you any idea how much trouble it was to lay down such a labyrinthine trail?"
"That -- you -- what the hell was the point of dragging me though this godforsaken wilderness?"
"Tsk-tsk! It may not be much, but I call it 'home'," Duncan replied. "And for all my efforts, you did manage to follow me -- even caught up in the end. So what is the problem?"
"The problem!? You! You might like creeping around on all fours through the undergrowth, sniffing around for breakfast, but I sure don't. I am not a --"
"Yes, yes," Duncan interrupted. "You are not a cat -- I heard it the first twelve dozen times. You needn't repeat it twelve dozen more."
"Well -- rrr -- I'm not a cat, damnit! And you're a piss-poor host, leaving me to starve!"
"Oh, please, Jube. Surely you don't think I should have just brought you breakfast, and kept on sweet-talking you into using your feline senses and instincts for half a day or more, until you magnanimously deigned to go along with another of my peculiar demands!"
"That -- you -- that's not what I meant!"
"You know, I could have done it your way. But would you have used what you got so enthusiastically? No, I think not. My way, I only need to say a few words -- and you put every ounce of cunning into your first session. Congratulations, you passed it with flying colors."
"Session? This all was just a test!?"
"Your first training lesson, yes. The syllabus covered how to follow a trail, and how to distinguish different scents and concentrate on the one you want to follow. Very important for us hunters."
"Hunt..? Forget it! I'm not going to do it, no way! So you can give up right now with your tricks and scheming!"
"So you aren't hungry, yet?"
"Hungry, you bet." Jubatus said without thinking, and only then realizing that he was more than 'just' hungry. Shit, with his attention focused on hu- chasing after the cougar, he had almost forgotten the hollow feeling in his stomach. Unfortunately, his stomach hadn't forgotten. Not at all! By now, it felt like his internal vacuum was getting ready to eat its way through his backbone. "Rrrr... I'm starving."
"So shall we grab a few snacks before starting with your next lesson?"
"I'm not --" The cheetah aborted his oncoming tirade. "Snacks? What kind of snacks?"
"I am so glad that you ask. Can't you hear them running around in the grass?"
"Hear? Hear what? What kind of madness..?"
"Always with the negative waves, Jube. Always with the negative waves." The spotted SCAB's mind boggled -- was he hearing things, or had the puma actually tried to emulate the voice of Donald Sutherland? "Really! Here, I will show you," said Duncan, and he bounced off towards something scurrying through the grass. A pounce and an abrupt squeak later, Duncan came back with his 'snack'.
"Oh no, you didn't... you don't mean for me to... How can you do that!?"
"Mwhad?" replied the cougar with a mouthful of mouse, its tail dangling and still quivering.
"How can you eat that!?"
One slurping sound (and a tail that vanished like a strand of spaghetti) later: "Very easily! As it happens, there are two schools of thought. Some think chewing is optional at best -- just swallow and enjoy the tinkling of tiny paws scrambling down your throat -- while others say that a few bites are required to bring out the full flavor. You might try both and then tell me what you think is more tasty, hm?"
Jubatus could only stare at his host; the cougar's words had left him speechless.
"You look a bit pale around the nose. Something wrong?"
"Something wrong? Everything's wrong! How... Christ on a sidecar! Just watching it makes me sick! And you really believe I'll join you in this... this cruelty?"
"Cruelty? What are you talking about? It's food! Those are mice, and we are cats! It's the most natural thing in the world!"
"Well, I'm not --"
"Pfft! Going for twelve dozen plus one, I see."
"Rrrrr... I. Am. Not. A. Cat!"
"Not? You keep saying that, but maybe such a good human hunter will help a poor kitty catch his quarry?"
"Catch? You think I'm going to do any of that, you can go to Hell. Human or feline, I'm not a damn hunter, you got that!"
"Of course not, as loud as you are. How about this: You point them out, and I pounce them. Or are you blind and deaf as well?"
"Piss off. There's nothing to point out."
"Not? And here I thought I had heard something over... there."
The cheetah couldn't help but look at the spot the cougar stared at. Both cats' ears were trained on the tiny sounds emanating from behind a tuft of grass. The renowned feline focus took over; both cats' attention was riveted on the mouse that cowered behind the grass. The cougar's tail was slashing out, his hindquarters rocking from side to side. The cheetah watched open-mouthed, taking in the sound, the sight, the scent of the prey.
Suddenly, the puma jumped -- pounced -- on the still-unsuspecting animal! Its last squeak rang in the cheetah's ears; he was still engrossed in the hunt, the kill.
"Have a bite!" said the cougar; with a practiced move, he snagged the mouse's tail with his left forepaw and deftly threw the protein towards the spotted cat.
The cheetah almost caught it, by reflex, but managed to hold back at the last instant. Horrified, Jubatus starred at the dead carcass in front of him -- the one he had nearly caught in his mouth! His instincts hadn't even tried to spur his hands into action, which, in turn, caught him completely off-guard. It shouldn't have. Cats had paws, not hands, so how should he catch this tasty smelling morsel, other than with his fangs?
Another mouse landed in front of him, startling him out of his ever-darkening thoughts. "Duncan! Stop that -- what the hell do you think you're doing!"
"Beside bringing my client some nice treats, before starting his first day of training?"
"Treats!" Jube shouted. "You really expect me to eat this vermin!?"
"Sure -- unless you'd rather go looking for other stuff to eat."
"What other stuff? There's nothing edible in sight!"
"Use your other senses! Don't you hear all those delicious things, just waiting to be grabbed and swallowed? Besides, there are those dead mice in front of you. They aren't going to get any fresher by lying dead in the grass."
"Forget it! I'm not going to eat... this!" the outraged cheetah said, pointing a claw at the small bodies lying in front of him.
"Not? Okay, then I will just catch a few more for myself," was the cougar's answer. Not bothering to wait for more talk from his client, he instead searched the high grass for more treats. The spotted cat watched his host pouncing on, and wolfing down, 'snack' after 'snack'.
Jubatus had thought about what insanity he might next need to deal with to get food -- the next piece of his soul he'd have to sell to the devil's cat that happened to be his host for the time being. He had thought long and hard on it during his rest -- not that his rest ever was truly restful, except for last night. What the hell did he do to me? -- Since coming here, the one thing he had been most afraid of had been that sooner or later, the other cat might force him in a position where he had to...
His worst fear had been that his host might not even give him this much, that he'd have to go out and chase down and...
One thing he hadn't bothered contemplating had been that Duncan might offer him food for free, but that's exactly what the puma had done! Only... he couldn't eat it. Not mice... Why not? said a voice in the back of his head. They don't look so bad, and they smell pretty good. Might be tasty, too...
No! He couldn't eat mice. Cats ate mice, and he wasn't a cat. Q.E.D.
Fine, but don't you want to know if they taste as good as they smell? Hmmm? inquired the traitorous voice from his hindbrain... No! That wasn't -- couldn't be -- possible. If he did eat them, he might as well sign his membership to the feline race. In blood. And after that, there wasn't any way back, was there? If he ate even one, he'd have as good as admitted to himself and the world that he really was a cat. But he wasn't! So he wouldn't.
This was one nightmare he had never even dreamed about, and now he wasn't dreaming, it was happening. It was either mice or... or... or what? By comparison, even hunting didn't sound too bad... Oh, fucking -- by all the gods that never were -- what am I thinking!?
As hungry as he was, he could still clearly see the problem: He had to eat s0mething. If not mice, something else -- but what? He had to eat, and his last meal was more than a day ago, and the vacuum that had been his stomach was becoming more uncomfortable by the second. Question was, when would it be uncomfortable enough to swallow... No, he wasn't going to do that. He'd rather... what? What would he rather...
It was then -- when his mind was racing for alternatives, for anything that kept him from contemplating the tasty scent of a fresh kill, emanating from those small still warm bodies right in front of him -- that a buzzing sound registered in his mind, followed by a stinging sensation before a mosquito got thrown off from his flicking ear. Great -- now the locals are sucking me dry.
"Damn it! Why are you doing this to me? If you had to steal my car, at least you could have left me my vest. That way I could do something about being eaten alive by your little friends." And to emphasize his words, he swatted at one of the more bothersome flies that were buzzing around the two cats.
"So you don't mind killing if whatever-it-is bothers you enough?"
"Killing? What are you talking about, they're just insects!"
"Yes. They are. So you don't mind killing things, as long as they are a lot smaller than you?"
"It's not a question of size, damn it. They're just some bloody bugs!"
"Mmh, right. Have you talked about that with your doc?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Derksen, your doc-roach. Does he know about your attitude problem towards him and his fellow insects?"
"He isn't an insect -- he's human and a polymorph."
"Who happens to have a remarkable affinity for cockroaches, yes."
"He knows I would never hurt him!"
"But you don't trust yourself on that, or you wouldn't be so bothered about a little hunting for your meals."
"That's not it! Not. At. All. I just don't trust these instincts, all this... feline stuff."
"Well, then: It's a good thing that you are now going to learn all about it, yes?"
"Good!? It's insane! I should have never agreed to it."
"Well, why did you? Why did you come here?"
Jubatus muzzle worked silently, as if to find the right words, but when he finally did speak: "I could've sat on my couch, listening to some music and enjoying a big fat steak. But no, I had to fall for your ploy."
"Ploy? I only handed you the invitation? It was your choice to take it or leave it."
"Hah, and what about Wanderer and Hallan bugging me all about it?"
"Yeah, right, play the innocent cat. As if I could believe anything you say. And what did you do to me last night?"
"You mean, beside making sure that for once you get a good night's rest?"
"Yeah..." And here Jubatus looked worried. "I... did feel more rested. How?"
"As much as you seem to hate the idea, Jube, scents are very important to us cats."
"Yeah, we had that drill already, remember? Chase that scent, right? What's that got to do with me sleeping through the night?"
"Actually, us cats don't use our noses for chasing prey, that's what ears and eyes are for. But scent, we use that to mark out our turf and make ourselves right at home."
"And that means what?"
"You have been in a strange place, with strange sounds and scents. It's no surprise that you had trouble sleeping; there wasn't enough of your scent around to make your inner kitty feel at home, safe and secure."
"Yeah, right. And how does that theory work with a big sneaky cat snuggling against my back? That's about as unsafe, insecure and un-home as it can get!"
"You think so? We've been sharing scents for days now. Why don't you take a sniff at your hide, or even your paws, for some genuine, unchanged by civilization, Jubatus spoor."
Dubiously Jube looked at the mountain lion. He's got to be kidding. Isn't he? Well, it can't hurt to try. After all, it's not like my own scent's going to kill me... I hope...
"Gaaah!! Holy shit. I really need a bath. I stink!"
"You think so? Why don't you give it another try."
"No. I stink like... like..."
"A cat? A cheetah? Yourself?"
"No! Like a predator."
"Well, yes. And?"
"I need a bath! And some food!" and here Jubatus swatted at another mosquito buzzing around his ears. "And some insect repellant! This is unbearable!"
"Okay; let's do something about those insects. Come, I'll show you how we keep them at bay around here."
"You got some insect repellant hidden under a tree?"
"Not quite." Duncan answered while walking towards the west side of the clearing. "See those plants over there? It's lemon grass. It contains quite a bit of 'citronella', a main constituent of many insect repellants. At least of the more natural ones."
"And we do what? Roll around in it?"
"Nah, that would never do for covering the whole body."
"You aren't asking me to spread it all over by licking my..."
"Not a bad idea. But rather inefficient." Seeing the expression of utter disgust on his client's face, Duncan added, "Don't worry, we will leave 'Proper fur care and grooming' for later."
"You misspelled 'never'. But what do you want me to do with that?"
"Eat. Grass!?" Jubatus asked incredulously. "Thanks. Not! I'm still sick from watching you eat those mice. No need to make me sick for real by swallowing green stuff."
"Always with the negative waves, Jube. Always with the negative waves. Well, fine; enjoy your buzzing little friends then, while I freshen up my protection," said the cougar, who started munching on the 'lemon grass'. "Quite tasty, in an unusual way. You really should give it a try."
However, when it became apparent that the puma wasn't going to throw up, and hadn't poisoned himself, Jubatus couldn't help his curiosity. It's something to eat. And while it's not exactly nourishing, at least it'll fill my stomach. And if it really does keep those god-forsaken buzzing bloodsuckers at bay, it's worth it. But grass? That's so... what? Un-human? Un-feline? Undignified, that's what it is. Still... He nibbled tentatively at one of the grassy leaves. Hmm, doesn't taste too bad.
"It's also good for cleaning your teeth. See, you can brush them like that." And here Duncan see-sawed his head from side to side while munching on a still-rooted strand of lemon grass.
"Thanks. I'd rather do it my way." Jubatus answered. Tearing off a few leaves, he pulled them between his fangs as if they were ordinary dental floss. "So what's the deal with lemon grass?"
"The citronella isn't digested. Instead, some of it gets into our the blood stream, and from there it goes to all parts of the body. In short, over time you get a whole-body insect protection from the inside out."
"If you haven't already been sucked dry..."
"What do you think tails are for? Beside many other things, they help make sure any overly-curious insects learn to keep their distance the hard way."
Before long, that patch of lemon grass was exhausted, and Duncan padded away, followed by an unsteady cheetah. When the two cats were back to their resting place in the middle of the clearing, Jubatus grumbled: "I thought you said this was a snack bar. Doesn't that imply more than one kind of snack?"
"Sure. You want some grasshoppers?"
"Bleah! Duncan, when are you going to catch our breakfast?"
"I already did. You just haven't eaten it yet."
"All you got is mice! I'm talking breakfast here!"
"And why should mice not be breakfast?"
"Because... Please, Duncan, can't you just catch something -- anything -- else?"
"Mmmh... no. Not on a full stomach like that."
"No!? This isn't funny, Duncan! My empty stomach is killing me."
"Well, then, I would suggest you eat what is already on the table."
"No! I... I'll pay you. 10,000 bucks for a deer? 50,000? 100,000?"
"You got pockets in your fur coat?"
"What? Of course not! Why?"
"Just wondering where you might be hiding that money."
"I can write you a check, once I get my Extremis back."
"Tell me, Jube: Where am I going to spend all that money around here, and on what?"
"Why are you asking me!? It'll be your money, spend it however you like! Just -- please -- can't you take care of breakfast?"
"Are your checks tasty?"
"What? Damn it, stop talking about food and start catching some!"
"Jube, what I am getting at is that money isn't really worth much around here, where you can't buy anything with it. Back in civilization, sure, there it's a necessity, but here it's just pieces of paper. And neither of us is good at stomaching that."
"Isn't there anything I could do, so that you will catch breakfast?"
"And kill it?"
"Mmh, well, a good grooming would help to make up my mind about that."
"Groo -- no!"
"Yeah, you are right. A beginner like you would hardly be able to do a good enough job to be worth hunting an animal down for."
"That's not... Damn you, it's your job to keep me alive and now I'm starving to death!"
"Rrrr..." Jubatus knew all too well the terms of that contract he'd signed and agreed to, no matter what state of derangement he might have been in at the time. "No. But, it's so easy for you to do, can't you just do it, please?"
"Mmmh, and what do you offer in return? And no, money is right out. Even if you had any right now, that would be completely unethical for me to accept. After all, you already paid me. So what are you willing to do, to make me kill another living thing for you to feed on?"
"I... I don't know. Maybe... what about... I give you a massage? Would you... please..?"
"Well, it's worth a try. But I am not going to agree on anything, unless I like it."
"O-okay. I'll, um, do it, is here-and-now good?"
"By all means!" And the mountain lion stretched himself out on the ground, well-poised for Jubatus to go to work. Duncan was quite curious to see how well his client would perform this task; how much would his bone-deep antipathy towards all things feline get in the way? In any case, the simple fact of making the effort at all would earn Jube his meal -- if it was done well, that would be lagniappe.
As it happened, the massage did go fairly well; what the cheetah lacked in experience was made up for by the dexterousness of his forepaws. And since Duncan's hide was every bit as tough as that of any other mountain lion, he was unaffected by slips of Jube's clawed hands which which would have left bleeding cuts in a human back. The spotted cat worked systematically, pushing and kneading at every square inch of Duncan's back, each in its turn. And if his forepaws occasionally trembled with fear or for want of food, the puma did not mind in the least. All in all, Duncan found the experience to be a pleasant one.
Eventually, Jubatus ran out of new areas to push and prod at. "Well... that's it," he said. "You like?"
"Yeah, not bad. Worth at least four mice."
"Ok, make that five."
"No! No, no, no! No mice! I'm not a c-"
Duncan interrupted with an extremely rude noise that drowned out the cheetah's words. "Jube, you are a cat," the cougar-SCAB stated. "I can supply you with prey to feed upon, but if you refuse to eat, where's the point?"
"I can't. I... I'm just not ready to... not this!"
"Jube, what do you think I have been doing in the last days?"
"You mean, beside torturing me?"
"Studying you and what you know already about the feline life style."
"To better torture me?"
"No! So that I can provide you with situations, lessons and training that - while challenging - are not beyond your capabilities."
"To endure torture?"
"Will you stop that?" the mountain lion interjected annoyed. "Why don't you take a sniff at your front paw and tell me what you smell?"
"Whatever. What do you smell?"
Suspiciously Jubatus starred at his right appendage. What is that puma up to now? Hesitatingly he took a whiff. Has it become even stronger? Only... it didn't smell quite so bad, or did it? Suspiciously he sampled the scent of his paw again. His scent, and that of Duncan. The spoor of two completely different individuals, even species. So different, but at the same time so very similar: the essence of two cats.
"No," Jube moaned.
"After tracking all morning, that is all you can tell me?" Duncan asked, then stepped closer and rubbed his head against the cheetah's muzzle, in the way of two felines greeting each other. Only for an instant Jube wanted to draw back, before a new kind of calmness spread through his body. Smells good, feels even better, he thought, when he reciprocated. A purr started to emanate from his chest, which didn't stop when the Duncan drew back and sat down on his haunches, watching his client.
"What have you done to me?"
"Scents, Jube, are a very important aspect of our feline life. Our own scent, especially, can greatly effect how we feel. We need it around for feeling secure, safe, at home."
"I'm not a goddamn cat!"
"But I am. And pray, tell me, are our fragrances that different, compared with that of humans?"
"No. But... No!"
"Why don't you check it again?"
Jube took another sniff at his paws. There was no denying it, as much as he wanted, but the two odors, were too close, to familiar and too different from what he remembered of human bouquet. Something he hadn't smelled for days, that didn't cling to his fur at all, didn't surround him anymore with civilization -- and the ever present humans it contained -- far away. He should feel upset, but instead was more relaxed, calm than ever. Maybe another sniff. Yes, that feels much better now.
It took more than a minute before Jubatus realized that his own scent did indeed affect himself. Hold it, what am I doing. What's happening. Holy shit! It's like I'm on some strange sort of drugs...
"Doesn't feel so bad to be a cat, finally, does it?"
Pleadingly he starred at the mountain lion, the inner turmoil clearly visible on his face and body, asking for another verdict, some respite. This couldn't be true, he wasn't or was he? Let's check -- No -- But it smells rather nice -- No -- You will feel better - Nooo!
And then the truth dawned on him: Oh my God... I'm hooked on my own scent!
"Looks like you really have earned your breakfast by now. Why don't you let your inner feline out to play for a bit: Locate and chase down your meal."
During the short period of Duncan's speech, the cheetah became greatly more calm. Now he frowned, saying, "And kill it."
"Did I say that? Come, now. This is a necessary exercise. You worry so about your instincts; do you not wish to know, from experience, whether or not the 'beast' truly will decimate your sentience? You didn't need to come here to live in terror of your own self --"
"And if I'm going to do that anyway, why am I here. Isn't that what you were going to ask?"
"The question had crossed my mind, yes. Your answer?"
Jubatus lay still for a moment, silent and shivering. Then he finally asked, so quiet as to be near inaudible, "What if I like it?"
Duncan tilted his head, considering. "If you enjoy hunting prey, you enjoy hunting prey. So? To be honest, I do not see the problem."
"You wouldn't. What if... I like it so fucking much... that I never want to stop?"
The two felines stared into each other's eyes. The cheetah's were filled with fear; the puma's, with compassion.
"I am your guide, I will help you through this. One way or the other. And if in the end you need to die, you will."
It was Jubatus who lowered his gaze first. Suddenly he smiled: "It's funny... I never thought I'd be grateful when somebody promised to kill me..."
"Should that be the only alternative, then and only then. But truly, don't you want to know what living like a cheetah is all about before you start killing the cat?"
"What makes you think I want to know about that? I mean... Look, I've got this, this mindless thing lurking in the back of my skull, okay? It's an animal. It can't read or write, it can't talk, it doesn't know anything. All it's good for is eating, sleeping, and fucking. A-and... if I let it take over... all I'm good for is eating, sleeping, and fucking..."
"But you don't actually know that. Not for certain," the puma observed.
"I can't goddamn take that chance!" Jubatus screamed, his face distorted by fear and hunger. "Just... rryowwr! Leave me alone..." And with those words, he curled in on himself, becoming a sometimes-trembling ball of fur.
Hm. This isn't good, Duncan thought. He might actually have sufficient willpower to ignore the world until he starves to death... well, let's see which is stronger; his insane dread of himself, or his curiosity plus survival instinct. Finding a comfortable spot, the cougar sat down and began to speak at his seemingly-inert client: "You speak of the 'beast', Jube, and that is not a bad turn of phrase; what you must do is very like training an animal. Fortunately, animal training is a field for which there is thousands of years of time-tested lore. Right now, what you have done to control your personal 'beast' is put chain after chain around its neck and legs, shut it away into a corner, trap it within iron bars. As long as it is chained up like that, as long as the cage holds, you got it 'under control' -- if you want to call it that. Now look at it from the beast's perspective. It doesn't know why this is being done to it, but what can it do? The flight reflex tells it to try and run, but chained up like that, all it can do is curl up and wait for a merciful death. On the other paw, the fight reflex tells it to bide its time; wait for a chance to break free, to kill everybody in the general vicinity, on the grounds that that gives it the best odds of vengeance upon those who have inflicted this pain on it."
"I know all that!" Jube said. Ha! Gotcha! the puma thought, but he did not allow his pleasure to show on his face. "What I don't know, is what the hell alternative have I got!?"
"Patience, please. Right now your 'beast' is biding its time, but one day, one of two things will occur: Either its will to survive has been broken, or it will break free, even if it is going to be killed in the process -- but since the animal is an integral part of you, its death will include you, too, and maybe not just you. If you never give an animal any slack, you can never know when you have control -- you can only tell when you have reached the end of the tether. What you have done to your 'beast' is the equivalent of chains and beatings; an external sort of control, you might say. Such things can work, but only for a limited time. And when they fail, the 'beast' will do as it pleases -- which is likely nothing you would appreciate. No, what you want is for the 'beast' to want to do your will; an internal sort of control, that is to say. If things are going as you intended without so much as a tether, it is only then that you truly have control. And true, genuine control over your 'beast' -- not threats or chains or beatings -- is exactly what you need to have, as long as you are going to interact with human society. But then there are ways to 'control' an animal, where you won't even need a leash after a while: Understanding, Trust, Co-Operation.
"You make it sound so easy, but it doesn't work! I tried and I failed. Oh Lord, how miserably I failed..."
"Just yesterday, with... with that rabbit. I tried to talk to it, tried to reason with it and teach it not to eat rabbit, but you know what happened. It... I tore into it anyway. There'zzz... n-n-no way to control it!" And with a sob, Jubatus added, "There is no way back."
"You 'talked' to it, but are you sure you used the right language?"
"Language, what language? It's me, at least a part of me. A part I will never be free of, never! Don't you understand!?"
"A part that is mostly cat. So did you use a language any cat understands? Or just some gibberish like English?"
"What gibberish are you talking about!?"
"Why should that inner kitty of yours understand words? At all? Assuming it is willing to listen to them, those funny sounds don't mean anything to it. Not on a hungry stomach, not when it knows the food in front of it is his by right?"
"But I told it 'not to eat rabbit'!"
"Friss keinen Hasen."
"I used German. I am sure you understood me perfectly, right?"
"German? Well, I know a few words, but..."
"Exactly. But! You wanted to tell your inner feline some rather complicated context. And you did so in a language it doesn't really understand. At a time when it was a bit pre-occupied with finally getting a bite to eat. What do you expect is going to happen? Mmmh?"
"It does exactly as told?" Jubatus asked hopefully. "Never mind, I see what you mean." After a pause and a long sigh he continued, "I don't have a chance, do I?"
"I think you do. The catch is, you must start to understand your inner cat, see the world through its eyes, know what it smells and hears, and what all that means to it. And after all that, it is just a simple matter of learning to speak Feline with it."
"In other words, I was right the first time -- I am screwed."
"Don't sell yourself short, Jube! All you need is a bit of training, and you will have a good understanding of the feline sensory package of yours. And then you just have to find out about the feline language of scents and markings, sounds and yowlings, and the body language of ears, whiskers and tails."
"Hrmm..." The cheetah-SCAB considered this for a moment. "Yeah, that might work. But once I finish that, what do I do with the next thirty-five years of my life?
"Now, really, Jube. You're the fastest SCAB alive, a technical writer, and a trained space-cat. You seriously think you gonna take years to pick up on what any mere animal -- a real animal, not a full-morph SCAB -- can learn in weeks?"
"Flatterer. So... what's next on your agenda of torturing me?"
"For starters: Don't you think it is time to stop running from the battle? It's one you have to fight, sooner or later anyway. And no matter what you might think now. It's one worth fighting."
In the end, recognizing that he had no real alternative, Jubatus acquiesced to the mountain lion's terms: Chase a target down, catch it, let Duncan kill it, and finally -- finally -- he could eat. For a time, he could fill the internal vacuum that had been his stomach; was now turning into a monster; and would eventually turn him into a monster. Eventually... but not quite yet.
For his part, the cougar-SCAB was well pleased; as difficult as his client was, the progress they'd made was at least as good as anybody could have hoped for. Suddenly, he said, "Hush!" as urgent as he was quiet.
Jubatus gave his host a puzzled look. "Wh-" he began, cutting off when Duncan touched his muzzle with a forepaw.
"Hush," Duncan repeated, still quiet. "You don't want to frighten your lunch away. Over there." So saying, he gestured towards a nearby creek, where a raccoon was fishing for its dinner. "Unless you had a different meal in mind?" the puma said with a mischievous glint in his eyes. "No? Excellent! So get going; if not the raccoon, there are plenty of other available targets. Just pick one, chase it down, and bring it back here."
The cheetah's immediate response was merely a worried look out into the surrounding forest. "You're sure there aren't any full-morph SCABs out there."
"Other than myself? No."
"And all I have to do is choose a target, chase it down and catch it. No need for me to, you know, kill anything."
"After you quit stalling, yes. What do you wait for? Get moving!"
The cheetah stared at his prey-to-be, then steeled himself, visibly. "Yeah," he murmured. "Moment of truth. Here goes nothing..."
With half-mad eyes, the spotted SCAB stalked off towards the raccoon. He was utterly silent at first; alas for him, a loose twig cracked under one paw when he was some twenty meters distant from his prey. The raccoon needed no more warning than that; in an instant, it was fleeing, with Jubatus not far behind it. Duncan observed the cheetah's style with a professional eye. Although he was clearly untrained, he nevertheless had a distinct core of native ability -- wait, that tree, would he manage to dodge in ti-
Crack! The impact of Jubatus' skull against wood was not so very loud, but it nevertheless caught the puma's attention. By the time Duncan reached him, the spotted cat was muttering polytheistic blasphemies as he gingerly rubbed his head. Fortunately, there was no scent of fresh blood -- the skin had not been broken.
"Are you al-"
"Fuck that noise," the cheetah snarled. "Outta my way -- that stinking care-bear is dead beef!" So saying, he rose to his feet -- all four of them, Duncan noted with interest -- and stalked off, purposeful determination in every step. The cheetah's progress was marked by silence for the next minute or so; then two sets of rapid footsteps close together, and the rustling of disturbed foliage; a muffled thud and "Shit!"; more footsteps, more rustling; and finally a scream of pain, short and abruptly ended.
Suddenly, a cadaver fell to the ground before the puma -- it was the raccoon, the object of Jubatus' hunt, followed closely by him who had thrown it. "Here. Satisfied? Or should I maybe do it again?"
"Well done, Jubatus! No need for a re-run; I shall pick up a snack of my own, as you have earned this one."
"Good." Without another word, the cheetah snatched up his prize and started tearing into it.
Duncan nodded, then went off to acquire his own lunch. Maybe another raccoon? It had smelled quite appetizing...
About a quarter-hour later, the puma finished cleaning the last of the blood off his face. Then he trotted back to his client. He found the cheetah sprawled atop a large, flat rock surface, soaking up heat and sunlight as if he'd been doing it all his life.
"Thanks, Duncan," said the spotted cat.
The puma looked at him with a quizzical expression. "Mm? Thanks for what, may I ask?"
"Like you don't know?" Jube's tone was light, amused. "S'alright. You gave me space to recover when my skull made contact with that stump, and that's worth my cutting you some slack. Bringing down the raccoon, that was just icing on the cake."
This was worrisome. Can he truly not remember!? "Ah... Jubatus... it was not I who killed your supper. Rather, you did it -- and much more competently than I would have expected of you."
The cheetah, only mildly annoyed, rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. I'm not ready for the 'red in tooth and claw' thing yet, and you know it."
"I thought so myself, until you demonstrated otherwise."
"Not funny, Duncan."
The cougar shrugged. "Agreed, it is not funny. However, it is truth: You chased down your target, you ki-"
"I said, that's not funny." Jubatus' face corroborated what his scent was telling Duncan: The cheetah's rage and terror were building, with rage in the lead. "I didn't -- I can't have killed the damn raccoon! Stop lying to me, goddamn it!"
"I have not lied to you yet, nor will I ever," was the calm reply. "Trust your nose: Do I smell like I am lying?"
Wordlessly, Jubatus moved forward to get a closer whiff of his companion -- who, for his part, was every bit as wary as he would have been if the cheetah were a natural-born, and rabid, beast. But for all that Jube's own scent reeked of intense fear, nothing untoward did occur. The spotted SCAB merely stood there, transfixed and shivering, trying to grasp what really had occured, the act he couldn't possibly have committed, yet he'd done it nonetheless...
"You did hunt and kill your food, Jubatus. And in so doing, you did not regress to a feral state! And Not. At. All. No, you merely took a nap in a comfortable spot, like any sensible cat."
The cheetah's only response was an incoherent, piteous whine. No -- I didn't -- couldn't have -- With an abrupt start, Jubatus staggered towards the place where he had ki - No! Not killed, but caught! -- the place where he'd caught the raccoon, where he had... not... Aha! There! The very place where he'd eaten his ki- meal. The cougar-SCAB was lying -- had to be lying -- it must have been Duncan who'd killed it. That damned cat was just playing mindgames, messing with his head. But... there wasn't even the slightest hint, not even a trace, of the tawny cat's spoor on the raccoon... Nothing! And considering that he'd spent all morning tracking that wretched ghost-cat, he blo- damned well would have found it... if it was there... wouldn't he..?
Watching the spotted cat's frantic search, Duncan thought: Time to dissipate the pressure a bit. "Perhaps you cannot appreciate it properly, but allow me to assure you: This was a very good sign! Your actions were controlled, and directed towards a specific target, with little or no collateral damage."
Okay, maybe he killed it ahead of time and let his scent wear off, the cheetah thought. Yeah, that's the ticket! This notion suggested some questions: Where, and how, had the 'coon really died? Yes; all he needed to do was prove that the damned mountain lion had murdered an inoffensive creature, and then Duncan would eat his scheming lies, as he -- Jubatus -- hadn't, couldn't have...
Nose close to the ground, the cheetah retraced his steps. To his increasing terror, they were, indeed, his steps, and his steps alone.
The cougar padded after the spotted cat. "Jube, please. Calm down. For once in your life, won't you just look the facts in the eye? In spite of your obsessive and futile pursuit of 'humanity', you nonetheless possess an admirably high degree of innate feline skill."
Ignore him. Son of a bitch is trying to scam me... There! Signs of battle still marked the ground; even the grass was torn up by swift paws. Here he would find confirmation, proof, that the murderer had been the puma, not him. Never him! Yeah, there's the blood -- still fresh on the ground. Shouldn't there be more of it... no, never mind. Eyes on the prize, Jube. Find the killer's scent. And, sure enough, he found it: His scent. Not the puma's, but his...
"Really, Jube, you shouldn't worry yourself about these things. While hunting is a quintessentially feline activity, it is also a very human one, too! And it's nothing to be concerned on, if it is not taken to extremes and happens under controlled circumstances. Feline or human, hunters don't -- at least not usually -- kill everything in sight. Quite often they don't even take more than they can comfortably carry away and eat. And unsurprisingly, us cats never eat more than we can chew, and hardly ever kill more than we need. And guess what? You didn't, either!"
Feverishly, the cheetah paced the ground, searching, not willing to listen to the mountain lion's deceptively calm words. There had to be some other scent -- not his own -- not the scent of his ki- the damned raccoon --
"It was a clean kill, Jube. Nothing more; nothing less. And -- just one."
The puma's client emitted a queer, strangled noise: "Hhkhooaaawwwwrrr..." It was impossible, inconceivable! The puma had done it, so there had to be physical evidence of that other cat's involvement!
"Given the evidence at hand, I may confidently predict a totally favorable outcome: You're going to be an excellent ca-"
The cheetah drowned out the final word with a tormented scream -- "Nhaiyaaarrrhkhssnhss!" -- as he spun about to run, blindly, away from himself, with every bit of the speed for which his natural-born cousins were noted.
Looking at the receding dust-cloud which marked his client's retreat, Duncan spoke to the empty air: "You'll thank me for it later." Or at least, I hope so... And with a deep sigh, the cougar-SCAB stepped forth to follow in his client's footsteps.
There was no difficulty at all in re-tracing the cheetah's path; quite apart from the lingering stench of terror he'd left in his spoor, Jubatus' pawprints were utterly obvious, as were all the disturbed and broken plants he had trampled over in his headlong flight. As well, his trajectory was as close to a Euclidian line as the terrain would allow -- further proof that the spotted cat had had no true destination in mind when he fled.
The puma was in no particular hurry. Given the speed at which the cheetah had left the place of his first kill -- like a cat out of hell -- he wouldn't have the slightest chance of keeping up with his client in the first place. Not that it really mattered; they were deep enough inside the virtual 'cage' that the cheetah would run out of steam well before he reached the lethal boundary. As with all feline kind, they both were good for short, extreme bursts of activity...
No; for now, it was best to let things run their natural course. With him around, the cheetah was hardly in danger from any local predators; as well, he knew that his client would need some time to recover his senses. There was little or no chance that the spotted cat could evade him, Duncan, for more than a few hours, and given the recent exhibition of hunting skill, Duncan judged that mindless panic or no, the spotted cat would be amply capable of surviving all on its own.
In the end, it took perhaps twenty minutes for Duncan to catch up to the spotted SCAB -- who was lying inertly under a fallen log, curled in on himself, as if asleep or dead. The cougar paused: If his client had suffered permanent mental damage in his recent breakdown, there was no telling how he might react to Duncan. Especially if he wasn't expecting such a guest...
Backing off to a comfortable distance, the wildcat spoke one word: "Jube?"
In response to this sound, the cheetah's head shot up and his ears swiveled to zero in on its source. Good -- not dead or wounded, the puma thought. Having located the foreign entity that had disturbed his rest, the cheetah then gave a mighty yawn and rose up to stretch himself like taffy. Hmmm... not concerned or hostile? Interesting, the counselor-SCAB thought. The cheetah's next act: Grooming his own fur -- his technique was somewhat unorthodox, but no less effective for all that -- followed by another good stretch. Only then did the cheetah approach Duncan, stepping calmly and confidently, as if he hadn't a care in the world.
With a politely interrogative "Hrrm?", Jubatus circled the puma, curiously cocking his head this way and that, the better to observe this novel addition to the world around him.
Duncan sighed and nodded to himself. Breaking strain reached and exceeded, he mused. Now to re-assemble the pieces, so that the real healing may begin...
to be continued