by Quentin 'Cubist' Long and Hallan Mirayas
1 2 3 4
The kid went first. When he opened the door, I could smell all
the wonderful fear and anxiety as a sort of continuo accompaniment
to the food-odors that'd pumped my salivary glands into high gear
on contact with my nose. "Hi, Mom! We're back!"
There in the doorway was the woman I'd attacked without rational provocation. And for the first time, I got a good, close look at her face -- I had too much else on my mind when I saw her before. Dark eyes, probably brown; wavy hair in a similar hue; short; middle-aged; bright, solid-colored shirt and shorts. Played the gracious hostess pretty well, but it was a good bet she could be a real hardass when needful.
"Hello, Mr. Jubatus. Won't you come in?" Scent said she's nervous -- rightfully so -- but her voice was pretty steady, which meant she was doing a decent job of hiding it. "I expect you're hungry, and I've got some steaks ready , just the way you like them: Still twitching from the butcher's final blow, and slathered in spice and sauce, just the way you like it."
I could not stop salivating, damnit! "Thanks. If you're worried about a rerun of the claws thing, I promise you that will never happen again."
"I'm sure it won't." She actually smiled as she beckoned me to enter! "And I'm looking forward to finally getting to know you. Please, come inside and join us."
"You're just going to stand there until I do, aren't you?"
Her smile got quirky, even through her nervousness. "That was my intended plan, yes."
I entered, trying not to drool. And once inside, they got out of the way as I zeroed in on the meat, upshifting so they couldn't see what happens to my table manners when I'm starving. She hadn't lied: the protein dripped with a mouth-watering combination of garlic, cayenne pepper, and steak sauce, and I got outside of it real quick.
Ten kilos of sirloin later, I sat back to stare at Hallan and his mom, looking for some clue to the puzzle they presented. I mean, I was a clear and present danger to this house and everything in it, so why the hell were they treating me like an honored guest? I could see Impersonal Courtesy, but they were going for Genuine Hospitality, and I couldn't figure out why!
I gave up after a few seconds of fruitless pondering. No point wasting any more time. I downshifted...
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
He ate fast, too fast for anyone to get a clear view of it. I think he did
that on purpose; the blurred impression he left wasn't very pretty,
and I don't think slowing it down would have been an improvement.
Once he was done, he sort of blurred in place for a second or
so, dropped back to normal speed, and only then did he talk.
"How much do I owe you?"
"You and your son were both caregivers, yes? I'm afraid I don't know the going hourly rate for qualified attendants. Is $300 an acceptable figure?"
"That really isn't --"
"No? Alright, $500 per hour, 24/7. Just to keep the numbers simple, I'm going to assume that anything over 8 hours per day, or 40 hours per week, is double the base rate. 8 hours at $500 per, plus 16 at $1,000 per, is $20,000 for the first day of a week; ditto for the second day; since that takes us past 40 hours, the third through seventh days are $24,000 apiece. That's $160,000 per week, per attendant, over a period of... four weeks, was it? Fine, that's a total of $640,000 per. I can cut checks for you and the kid right now, Mrs. Myers. Don't worry about complications like Social Security and withholding; my accountant will massage the figures so you end up with 640K apiece take-home pay."
Mom, looking stunned, sat down in one of the kitchen chairs. I just gaped as Jubatus took a checkbook from one of his vest pockets and started writing. Mom found her voice first.
"As... staggering as your offer is, there really is no need." When he didn't stop writing, she said, a bit more forcefully, "Put away your checkbook, Jubatus."
He stopped writing and looked at my mom. "I'd prefer to settle this debt here and now. If you'd rather be paid in hard currency or gold bullion, I can arrange that, too; it'll just take a few ex --"
"Jubatus!" Mom snapped, in a tone that made Jubatus and I both flinch. He shut up and stared at her. "We believe in treating friends like family and family like friends. And when was the last time you saw a family member getting paid for tending to a sick relative?" She held up a hand to forestall a reply to that. "Your lawyer already took care of the grocery bill."
I finally got my jaw to stop hanging around my knees, and cut in, "That means you don't owe us anything, Jube."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
"No?" I looked around, noting the thrashed linoleum, unpatched
gouges in the walls, and other signs of the beast's recent tenancy.
"Bullshit. If I were renting, I'd've lost my deposit real fast. As for your 'friends are family' deal, that sounds nice,
but it's not applicable here. First, we're not related. Second,
any friend who'd leave claw marks in your neck must not like you very much."
Good, they caught the sneering emphasis I put on the word 'friend'.
"It's really quite simple: You two went out of your way to help
me. Therefore, I'm in your debt -- and I take my debts very seriously."
"There are other kinds of debts than financial," Mom pointed out. "If you're determined to repay our kindness, I can think of --"
"No, you can't," I interrupted. I might not understand why they're doing this, but I recognized a specious rationalization when I saw one. Had to force them to face reality, otherwise their delusions would lead them to get in the way and generally interfere with what I had to do. "Face it: Anything that involves me spending time with Hallan is right out. Maybe you forgot that I got him beat up, but I ca -- haven't. And in case you were wondering, there's a number of jurisdictions where handing a kid over to someone like me would get you nailed for child abuse. As for anything else, I don't have the patience, and won't have the time, so why don't you just let me give the money and run?"
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
His tone made me want to slap him. I'd heard him cynical and
rude before, but nobody talks to my family that way! Slapping him wouldn't help, though
(and I'd never connect, anyway), so I settled for a quick count
to ten to settle my temper and ticked off countering points on
my fingers. "One: The damage is covered. You have a very thorough
lawyer. We were planning to renovate anyway. Two: You couldn't
have been expected to know that this place is safe. It's more
my fault that you panicked than anyone else's. I knew you could come back to yourself at any time; I knew how paranoid you can be; yet I left you alone in a strange house.
Three: Despite what a pain in the butt you can be at times, yes,
I consider you a friend, and I'll treat you like one. Four --"
That was when Mom poked me under the table. Glancing over, I stopped
talking when I saw Mom's expression; she had something big on
her mind. "Um. Four can wait." It was just as well, because my
nose was starting to itch distractingly.
"Thank you, Harry. Now, Jubatus, you said that you 'won't have the time' to do anything besides write a check. But you can squeeze an entire month into a day when you feel like it, so I'm curious: What could possibly take up that much of your time?"
"None of your business."
"Maybe not. But as one of your caregivers, your doctors' records are my business, and I found them fascinating reading."
"You're welcome. What's your point?"
"Dr. Halliburton says your favorite way of dealing with problems is to run away from them, and it certainly seems like you're preparing to run now."
"Again: Your point?"
"Running implies a destination. What's yours?"
"Like it matters? Yes, I needed caregivers while my mind was toast, but I'm all better now, and I'm going to get on with my life."
"That's good to hear, because I thought you might have some silly idea about locking yourself away in a SCAB colony forever."
Jubatus glared at Mom. "Think what you want." He resumed writing in his checkbook. "Soon as I'm done with this, I'm out of here."
My heart sank like a rock in a pond. In the time I'd known him, the closest he ever came to lying was not telling all the truth, and right now there was a truth I desperately wanted to hear from his lips. "You, uh, you're not going to do that, are you, Jubatus? Check into one of those 'roach motels' after we all worked so hard to keep you out?"
"That's exactly what he's going to do, Harry." My mother's eyes never left the cheetah. "Because he's not well, and whatever his real problem is, he's too afraid to deal with it, so he's going to avoid it like he avoids everything else. Isn't that right, Jubatus?"
Jubatus' writing hand blurred for an instant as his pen literally snapped in half. A new pen appeared an eyeblink later, and he said, "Piss off. I don't --"
"Isn't that the point?"
Suddenly Jubatus' voice came back in a roar, and so did all the body language he'd been repressing, blaring rage and terror like a fire siren aimed at my head. "You fucking morons, I'm trying to save both your lives! That's the point!"
While I tried to pry my ears off my scalp and get my nose to stop telling me it wanted to sneeze from the weird scent that was irritating it, I tried to figure out what him leaving would have to do with saving lives. Then it hit me: He was terrified that he'd hurt someone again. Meanwhile, Mom continued on, as inexorable as a freight train.
"No, that is not the point."
"Don't you -- I could kill you! Both of you, where you stand! Jesus Christ, woman --"
"Jubatus!" my mom shouted, her voice a ringing slap that actually stopped the cheetah short. She went on, her voice cold and unforgiving: "You don't believe that's a good reason to lock yourself up, and we both know it. Forget the excuses."
"Uh, Mom..." Why was she baiting him?
She shot me a sharp 'Not now' glance that would have put my ears back if they weren't already all but pinned there. Meanwhile, Jubatus yelled, "Excuses! I'm talking murder, and you think it's just an excuse!?"
"Oh, cry me a silly river. You've been just exactly this dangerous for years, and only now you're getting around to having yourself committed? You're lucky I've sworn an oath to do right by my patients, because I've got half a mind to let you go through with it. If you can't be honest with me, you should at least be honest with yourself: Why? Are? You? Doing? This?"
He blinked to the farthest corner of the room, and his face was a mask of incredible fear and dread. "I -- you --" He just plain started to crumple. "Phobos and Deimos! I have spent so fugging many years. Bein' so fuggin' a'ferayed o' my fuggin' innastinkits. So ga-hod fuggin' dammid a'ferayed o' the beassst. Annow. Annndd, now. I. F'f'find. Th-at.
"Dabeasst. Isssa. B'h'rrr, better. Hhhhhyuuuminn. Beeyin'.
"Iiiiiyyyy..." And then his voice gave out completely; no more words, just an inarticulate cry of pain as he collapsed to the carpet.
I think Mom was expecting something like that, because she stepped in with a hypo that she produced from one of her pockets, and applied it to the side of his neck near the jugular. With an air-injected hiss, Jubatus stopped twitching and his yowls faded out completely. Then she collapsed onto the couch and breathed deeply. I suddenly realized how frightened she was; the scent of Jube's fear had been thick enough to bury anyone else's. "Harry? The next time I think about doing something that insanely dangerous, would you be a dear and rip out my vocal cords for me, please? That's a good boy."
Like I said -- a weird sense of humor. Thank heaven for it, because it took my mind off how badly my own hands were trembling... Mom watched me for a few moments, then got up and hugged me. "If we're going to be shaky, we might as well be shaky together," she said.
I was glad for the hug, because I was quivering like an aspen leaf. My chest felt like I'd inhaled a block of ice, and I had to keep my hands tucked in close to me rather than hug her back, because my claws kept flexing out, and I didn't want to hurt her. "C-c-could you... open some windows, M-Mom? It-it really smells in here." And it did... kind of a coppery, metallic smell. The scent of Jubatus' fear. I'd noticed it first when he started yelling, and it just kept getting stronger during the whole argument. She nodded and did so, then came back and held me until I stopped shaking, gently rocking me back and forth with her for a few minutes while the outside breeze cleared the air.
"I sincerely hope that's the end of that, because I think I'm going to need a very long vacation when all this is over... Are you okay now?" she asked, and waited for my nod before letting me go. That done, she took a deep breath, visibly pulled herself back together, and got back to the business of checking Jubatus over.
"Is he going to be okay?" I asked, worried.
"Oh, yes. He's just resting. I gave him a very strong sedative in that hypospray. Right now, the last thing he needs is to dream about all this."
"Okay. Now what?"
"Now we call Dr. Halliburton and get him over here fast." Suiting action to word, she scooped up the telephone and started dialing. Within 25 minutes, he was sitting on our couch.
"Tell me everything," Dr. Halliburton said. So we did. I spoke more than Mom, since I'd had more to do with it than she had. And when we were done, the doctor sat in silent thought for a while.
"What's your prognosis, Doctor?" Mom asked.
"At this point, there are precisely two scenarios with any likelihood of occurance: Either his condition will worsen, or he will get better."
"That is... less than helpful."
"Agreed. Unfortunately, it's the best I can do at the moment. Jubatus is an inordinately strong-willed person; willpower and denial are what have kept him going all this time. But if he has truly made up his mind that he has no business pretending to be a civilized being, that same willpower and denial will make it exceptionally difficult to persuade him otherwise."
"He's willing to accept voluntary permanent exile to protect Society from himself," Mom pointed out. "With that kind of concern for others, he's not just 'pretending' to be civilized."
The therapist spread his hands. "I fully agree with you. Unfortunately, it's not me who has to be convinced of that. Jubatus is far from unintelligent, but he is ruled by fear, and that fear has driven him to reject many courses of action which would ultimately prove beneficial to him. Also unfortunate is the fact that his fears are fully rational."
"Irrational fears are not founded upon reality. As a result, such fears can be treated by demonstrating how unreal they truly are. But in the case of Jubatus, it is possible that his instinctual drives may overwhelm his conscious mind, and were that to happen, he could be reduced to a mindless berserker. And with the speed at his command... Yes, I can see that both of you find that prospect as disquieting as I do. How much more so must it be for Jubatus himself?"
"Yeesh. No wonder he's such a pain!"
"No, Mrs. Myers, your son is absolutely correct. Jubatus has never been truly gregarious, but since he came down with SCABS, he has indeed cultivated a prickly, abrasive demeanor, for the reason that the fewer people are close to him, the fewer will be at risk if and when he does go feral."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
-- cub: harmless: do not wake --
...mmm. Weight on my chest, grey and white -- ah. Must be Hallan's kitten. Damn lucky for it that the instincts didn't... wait. The instincts didn't peg it at a threat. Didn't recommend any violent action! And that realization shocked me to full consciousness.
For the second time in as many days (if even that long), I woke up in the home of Hallan Myers. The difference this time being, I knew what was up and could squelch my fear -- okay, 'terror'. No point in lying to yourself. You damn well were terrified, Jube, and you know it. Same room I woke up in last time around; probably Hallan's, by the looks of it. I downshifted and got up, carefully so as to avoid waking the kitten, and looked around the place: Queen-sized bed, dresser with a dusty pair of glasses on top, computer desk, and what looked like a hand-made bookshelf, all of it lightly garnished with cat hair and Teenage Clutter.
Interesting taste in wall posters: Violent weather -- tornadoes, lightning storms, and suchlike. And... hm. I'd taped a note to the inside of the door when I prepped the place, and that note was still there, half-crumpled as if by careless impact: "Stay cool, Hallan. I don't know what's going on, but I'm getting us out of this mess. Jubatus". If the damage to the door's knob and frame was any indication, he never even saw the note, let alone read it. Not a surprise, seeing as how he knew his mother was...
Don't go there, Jube. You just keep right on running from the real problem, that's a good cheetah.
Hallan's bookshelf was heavy on science fiction -- the honest-to-Gernsback genuine article, with only a few examples of that 'science fantasy' crap. Good for him. Chanur's Legacy -- so that's where he got the name! Which reminds me, I really ought to re-read my own Cherryh one of these days... His computer was a homebrew Windows box, kind of old, but looked like it was well used. Clutter on the computer chair: a silk-screened t-shirt which read, PROUD TO BE A JESUS FREAK. Stupid, but the kid would just have to make his own mistakes. Not like I had any standing to advise people on how to live their lives, anyway...
If truth be told, sometimes I envy people like Hallan, people who can manage to draw comfort from belief in a Big Daddy upstairs who actually gives a tenth of a tinker's damn about us. Sometimes I really do envy them. I just can't be one of them; quite apart from the absolute lack of objective evidence for God's existence, even as a human I could never really get behind a God Who lets innocents get fucked over for no reason. And then the Martian Flu came along -- proof positive and irrefutable that all religions are completely full of shit.
If there's any credo I've ever held as an article of faith, it is this eternal verity: People Are No Damn Good. And no, I don't exempt myself. Never have. Especially not since the fur coat came on me. With the kind of speed I'm capable of, all it takes is one slip-up, one little mistake, and someone -- maybe a lot of someones -- ends up hurt, maimed, or dead.
One little mistake... I have to be perfect if I'm going to interact with slowpokes. And I have to do that because if I don't, my sanity dribbles away by milliliters. Then again, trying to be perfect all the time isn't exactly conducive to mental health either, so I'm screwed either way...
I can't go on like this. Something's got to change. But what? I know what Hallan would say: 'Just let God into your life and everything's going to be alright.' Heh. Considering the nastier qualities God displays in the Bible, I'd sooner check myself into a SCAB colony.
Actually... I'd been planning to do just that, hadn't I? As if any colony could possibly be more than a minor obstacle to a feral SCAB that can move faster than sound! Stupid. That'll teach me to make important decisions when I'm hungry and spazzing out. And even if it weren't stupid, the fact that the beast is relatively harmless... hmm.
The beast is relatively harmless. It's not a mindless, rampaging berserker; nothing like the monster that's haunted so many of my recurring nightmares. And, loath though I am to admit it, the beast is a part of me. A part I've always denied, for fear of what might happen otherwise...
The next step was obvious: Embrace the beast. Accept all of myself for what I truly am.
Easy to say. Not so easy to do.
Like it mattered. Easy or hard, something's got to change. And one way or another, I would change, like it or not -- either I deliberately and explicitly make it happen, or I stay my current course, continue to resist all change, and eventually crack like a taco shell. One way, my mind shatters into millions of jagged little psychotic fragments, and a SWAT team guns me down at the end of a short (if I'm lucky) or long (if I'm not) trail of blood-spattered corpses. The other way... I had no idea what I'd become, but it had to be better than the alternative.
Had to be better. Whatever it was, it couldn't possibly... Okay, what's rubbing up against my feet? What do you know -- again, the itty bitty kitty fails to trigger any lethal response from my instincts. I picked it up; the missing leg worried me for a moment, until I realized that it was too well-healed to be a recent injury. Bet it's a birth defect. The little tripod purred as I skritched behind its ears. You don't care if I'm human, do you?
Mmm. Tired. What did you expect, when you keep on trying to ignore the feline sleep cycle SCABS stuck you with? You know damned well that you're only designed to stay awake 15 minutes out of every 26. Just because you can stay up as long as 5 hours at a shot, doesn't mean you should do that all the time.
The bed was looking awfully comfortable. 'Embrace the beast', eh? There were a lot worse ways to start doing that...
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
I peeked in my bedroom door, and smiled to see Jubatus snoozing
peacefully. Good, he's still asleep. I'd ducked away from Mom and Dr. Halliburton for a moment to
get myself looking presentable again and check the house over.
Mr. Tanakata had told us to keep a list of damages so that we
could be reimbursed, and I figured there'd be a few new items
for the list. Bedroom door latch, broken, I wrote, then thought better of it and scribbled it out. Technically, that wasn't his fault...
A few minutes of cataloguing later, I returned to the living room, where Mom and Dr. Halliburton were still talking: "-- excellent question, Mrs. Myers. I would say that Jubatus has two major outlets for emotional release, one of which is his profession: He is a troubleshooter, meaning he identifies and repairs the root causes of technological glitches. On a psychological level, he thus becomes an embodiment of all that is good in the universe, battling on the side of Knowledge and Wisdom and Order, pushing back Chaos and Ignorance. By serving the cause of Creation, he bolsters his strength, feeds his resolve to resist becoming an avatar of mindless Destruction."
"Wow," I said -- and I meant it.
The doctor smiled. "I realize that must sound pretentious, or perhaps even silly. Just keep in mind that I'm describing the interplay of symbols and archetypes in his subconscious mind."
"Very well. And what is his other emotional outlet?"
"Gallows humor. It's been a rather effective coping mechanism for him; as long as he can joke about things, there is minimal danger of his actually going psychotic, no matter what he may fear."
I nodded. "'A sense of humor so black it lapses into the ultraviolet'."
"That's an interesting turn of phrase, Mr. Myers. Is it yours?"
"No, it's something Jube said once --" And then there was a heart-rending whine from my room, where the cheetah himself was resting. "Uh-oh..."
= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =
-- and suddenly I was awake and panting in fast-time.
Bad dream. That's all, just a dream. The only blood around here is safe in the original packaging, not -- just a dream. Not real. Not real!
To judge by the angle of the sunlight shining through the window, I'd only slept for maybe a couple minutes by the clock, if that much. Still in Hallan's room; looks like he got a new decoration -- no, not enough time -- wait a sec, that's Halliburton! What's he... ah. Mrs. Myers probably summoned him. And he came? That's got to be above and beyond the call of a therapist's duty. No doubt about it, I'm luckier than I deserve. Hallan and his mom aren't the first ones to offer me a helping hand, and I've slapped it away. Rational? Well, I'd thought so at the times. 'Fear is the mind-killer', and I've been so unspeakably afraid... of nothing serious, as it turns out.
Spider Robinson was right about God: He indulges in irony, big time. God is definitely an iron.
The doc would be worried about me -- that's what he gets the big bucks for. Hell, it was even possible that he might be worried for reasons having nothing to do with our professional relationship. There's a few things he's wanted to try, but I was always too frightened to give my okay... heh! I had the perfect line. I downshifted.
"What's up, doc?"
1 2 3 4