by Quentin 'Cubist' Long

  I am a fortunate man.
  Truly, I am.
  I was born with many innate advantages -- tall, good looks, intelligent, an exceptionally fine voice, et cetera, ad nauseum.
  Even the Martian Flu has been remarkably kind to me. My initial symptoms were indistinguishable from a mild cold, and I happened to be asleep when it progressed to full-blown SCABS, thus sparing me the unpleasant sensations that come while one's entire body is reshaping itself into an alien form.
  I had little trouble adjusting to my new body; in fact, my co-ordination was far better after I woke up than it had ever been before. And the good news doesn't stop there! This body has certain physical capabilities far in excess of what I could do as a mere human. Further, I retained in full my hands, voice, bipedal posture, gender, organic nature, and intellect, albeit not quite the same in all details. And finally, while there are some disadvantages to my new form, each such problem came with at least one accompanying built-in benefit.
  And on top of everything else, I'm a SCAB-come lately -- SCABS only hit me two years ago, rather than at the time the 'Flu first appeared on Earth. Can anyone doubt that this was another stroke of good fortune? It was, truly, since it gave our Government and legal system time to adapt to the concept of radical bodily transformation. Identity theft was a major problem for the first crop of SCABs, who, after all, no longer matched the human photos on their passports and driver's licenses and so on. Such is not the case at present; nowadays, SCABs are only slightly more likely to suffer identity theft than are baseline humans. After a minimal amount of bureaucratic fuss, not much (if any) worse than a visit to the DMV, I was legally acknowledged to be myself, and could get on with my life.
  I am a fortunate man. Truly.
  Well, a fortunate male, anyway. I have SCABS to thank for my tail; digitigrade legs; built-in, all-over, spotted fur coat; feline-style face and head; and all the other features that mark me for life as a cheetah/human hybrid. Though my human looks are forever lost, I am assured that my present appearance is quite handsome by feline standards. As well, my vocal tract has lost much of its versatility. Thus did SCABS stop me from wasting any more of my time idly dreaming of a career in voice work. Am I not fortunate?
  As a bipedal cheetah, it's thematically appropriate that I am speed incarnate. My metabolism, digestion, healing processes, neurons, virtually all aspects of my body function at least an order of magnitude more quickly than the human norm. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it took several realtime days for me to re-learn how to react and speak and interact at the normal human tempo, during which period I lost my old job (retail 'phone bank, if you must know); on the other hand, it gives me a near-unbeatable advantage when dealing with anti-SCABS bigots of a certain type.
  I well remember my first encounter with SCABS-bashers -- even when I'd rather not. I was walking out of a bookstore, and they intercepted me before I reached my vehicle (a converted van, about which more anon). They couldn't have known much about me, as they clearly took me for an easy target.
  They probably thought that someone with my inhumanly slim build had to be a physical weakling; they didn't know my muscles have power enough to propel me at speeds above 65 MPH. They didn't know about my heightened senses of hearing and smell, nor that my vibrissae -- cat whiskers -- are just as sensitive to air currents as those of any natural-born feline. They must have known that my fangs and claws are dangerous, but I doubt it occured to them that my feet are as well-equipped as my hands.
  They couldn't have known just how fast I can be. I certainly didn't, at that time.
  There were five of them.
  I ignored them, hoping that they would content themselves with verbal abuse and move on, but no such luck. They surrounded me, and their intent was clear.
  I am a fortunate man. Truly. When my fight-or-flight reflex kicked in, the world ground to a near-halt around me, slowed down by a factor of at least 20. Or, from their perspective, suddenly I accelerated to 20 or more times quicker than I had been. Take your pick; either way, they never had a goddamn chance.
  I hadn't realized, before this encounter, this body comes with hardwired instincts. And when I recovered from what I can only describe as a berserk frenzy... it wasn't pretty. Not pretty at all. Not the least bit.
  I didn't kill them. This is important, you must believe me: I didn't kill anyone! Not one of them was dead when I left that place. All of my would-be assailants were living. All five of them.
  There were legal repercussions, of course, but as with so much else in my life, fortune favored me. Truly, it did. It seems that three of the five had extensive rap sheets, two of them featuring numerous SCABS-oriented hate crimes. In consequence, my statement was accepted without question, and while one of the bigots' families did prefer charges, the judge elected to throw their complaint out of court. Something about us SCABs being a "suspect class", I believe. See how fortunate I am? As for myself, I chose not to file a complaint -- what point would there be? Two of the five died within three weeks, and the remaining three would be scarred and crippled for life.
  But I get ahead of myself. A few hours after the attack, visiting an establishment of a kind I'd never felt the need to patronize before, I discovered yet another of the many benefits SCABS has bestowed upon me: I can't get drunk. With my hyped-up metabolism, alcohol simply doesn't stay in my system long enough to affect me.
  However, my tear ducts are still fully functional.
  Three days after that abortive assault, I left my hometown. I haven't been back since. It was not difficult at all, thanks to my then-landlord. I'd known of his allergy to cats, of course -- it was the reason feline pets were forbidden to his renters -- and so I was unsurprised when my rent tripled after SCABS hit me. Had I not been fired, I might have considered fighting the rent increase; as it was, I couldn't afford to exercise my rights under the law. He did return my deposit, which was quite helpful. So with my savings and severance paycheck, I bought a second-hand Ford Extremis and converted the cargo space to living quarters. Of my possessions, I sold what I didn't want or need to keep; took with me what the van had room for; and put the rest into storage. I really needed to winnow out the excess crap anyway, so it's fortunate that my landlord gave me the impetus to do so. Truly, it is.
  While this put a roof over my head, it did nothing for my income. Then and ever since, online contracts have kept me afloat. I'm talking web design, copy editing, graphics, programming, you name it -- anything I can do through an Internet connection. On the 'Net, no one knows you're a SCAB, as the saying goes. And I can comfortably take on more contracts than the average freelancer: Not only does my natural tempo give me the functional equivalent of a 100-hour day to play with, but I have discovered that I almost don't need to sleep. A few catnaps scattered through the day are sufficient unto my needs, and I can get them over with in a few seconds apiece by slipping into fast-time. Thus do I make far more money now than I ever did when I had a stationary home. Truly, am I not fortunate?
  I haven't had a fixed address since. Not for snailmail, that is -- my fiver@jubatus.nucom e'ddress has been quite stable, thanks for asking. I travel the country, going from place to place as the spirit moves me. My spirit moves me in a predictable fashion; one slashed tire or broken window, and I'm out of there.
  My migratory existance doesn't preclude social interactions. Such comradeship as I need, I get through my laptop. Email, newsgroups, instant messages, that sort of thing suffices. Truly, it does. That, and the occasional face-to-face meeting when I'm in the neighborhood of an online acquaintance. It's not like I had many offline friends even before I SCABbed over, so goodbyes were rather less of a problem for me than one might expect.
  As for my online comrades, it's interesting to observe their reactions when they first see me in the flesh. While I've never volunteered the fact that I'm a SCAB, neither do I deny it when asked. Most people get over their initial nervousness quickly when they meet me, and the ones who can't, aren't worth my time. Thus does my inhuman appearance reduce the number of twits and idiots that I would otherwise be forced to deal with on a daily basis. Since I have never suffered fools gladly, I count this as fortunate. Truly.
  Among other benefits, this gives me more time to read. Three years ago, I clocked in at 900 words per minute; now, particularly when I shift into fast-time, my reading speed would put an Evelyn Wood graduate to shame. I used to think I was a voracious reader... and then SCABS taught me the true meaning of that phrase. Truly, a most fortunate turn of events for a bibliophile such as myself. And as a side benefit, I'm building up a truly impressive collection of library cards in my travels.
  You needn't bother telling me; I already know that I overuse the words "fortunate" and "truly". Do you think it makes me sound like Pollyanna? If so, you are more right than you know. I've read the book, and Pollyanna was no mindless optimist. She was fully aware of how terribly cruel the world can be. For her, looking on the bright side was a deliberate, premeditated choice. It worked for Pollyanna, and it works tolerably well for me.
  Oh, I know the statistics. I know the suicide rate, median income, homeless percentage, violent crimes commited against, mental health figures, all the dismal litany of the "average" SCAB's existence. Christ on a sidecar!, I know the bloody numbers, I could recite them under anaesthesia (if anyone could find a drug that kept me under long enough to do it), and so far, I've beaten the odds. For two long years running, I have beaten the odds, do you hear me? I have beaten the odds!
  I am fortunate. Truly. And if you think I perhaps shouldn't need to remind myself of this fact quite as often as I do, if you don't agree with my tactics, you may kiss any of my furry cheeks that strikes your fancy. It's my case of SCABS -- my life -- and by the God I don't believe in, I'll continue to cope with it my way, thank you very kindly for asking. I've gotten by on my own quite nicely thus far. And for some peculiar reason, I simply don't see any great need to cast aside a tactic with an established, favorable track record just to adopt someone else's unproven, ill-informed, yet oh so very well-intended advice. Whatever else that bloody disease has taken from me, I still retain my full original complement of IQ points, and I'm not afraid to use them, damn your eyes! I don't want or need your sympathy, and I will not be patronized. By anyone.
  Bitter? Moi? Of course not. Truly. I'm such a fortunate fellow, there's not a blessed thing in my life that I could possibly feel bitter about, least of all "the gift that really keeps on giving". Why, SCABS has even improved my sarcasm, it has!
  I'm sorry, I've been a trifle overstressed of late -- you didn't need to hear that.
  It won't happen again.
  I'll make certain it doesn't.
  I am feeling more stress than usual, mind you. I just can't figure out why, as I've been fortunate enough to live a fairly stable life over the past year or so. I'm not getting any less sleep now than I did before; my workload hasn't changed; my brushes with bigotry are fewer, since my growing familiarity with the warning signs has made me better able to avoid such situations to begin with; and it surely can't be directly related to SCABS, considering the two whole years I've had to grow accustomed to myself. All of which said, nevertheless I am indeed feeling an inordinate level of stress, even if the cause eludes me. These days I've got a mild headache 24/7, among other symptoms. Annoying, true, but nothing I can't live with until I figure out what's going on.
  Perhaps a bit of sightseeing will help. To my chagrin, I realize that I can't remember the name of the city I'm now parked in -- stress. Definitely stress. No matter, that's why God invented civilian GPS units. I fire up mine, and I know where I am. Next on the agenda: Locate a few sights to see. I surf the web to scabsonthenet.org, and not just because I did much of the initial design for that site. I do like to see how much of my work they're still using, granted, but it's also a damn fine set of resources for SCABs in daily life.
  In particular, I'm now consulting the regional index of tolerance for SCABS. I conceived it as a scrollable, zoomable map with various regions color-coded as either green ("you're a SCAB? great! I'm a Virgo"), blue ("gosh, it's too bad you can't stay longer"), red ("we don't like your kind 'round these parts, friend"), or black ("burn the freaks! now!"). Mindful of my own visual deficiencies, I spent a bit of time finding tints and hues that can be distinguished even by the legally color-blind. It may be an aesthetic disaster, but the damn thing works. Hmmm, that's interesting. The map's colored regions now have distinctive crosshatch patterns in addition to the colors. I didn't do that, but I think I understand; it makes the map usable for people whose retinas can only distinguish black from white. And there's a link to a "sonified" page? They have been busy, haven't they?
  No, I'm not just farting around on the Net. By myself, I percieve Time at a rate at least six times faster than normal humans; why do you think I had to re-learn how to interact with normal humans? And the site I'm visiting is built for speed. It's a lean, clean, infosharing machine, with none of those bandwidth-sucking bells and whistles that make so many other sites a Chinese torture for anyone who can't afford the latest and greatest Net-toys. This site only does animation with 8-bit GIFs, the way God and Vint Cerf intended, and it reuses them with wild abandon. In short, the time I spend here is minimal. And even if it weren't, I've found that reviewing my past work often sparks a sense of pride and accomplishment that helps me cope with life's little disappointments. This, I'd say, is far too important to be dismissed as wasteful.
  But I digress.
  I've found the regional index to be quite useful in my travels. The data comes from reports emailed in by SCABs around the world -- not unlike, oh, the Zagat tourist guides -- and I do appreciate having advance notice of just how unpleasant my first exposure a new town is likely to be. Here we are; the site mates with my GPS as though they were made for each other (they were), it zooms in to display the city within 20 blocks of my position, and there's a beautiful green spot on the map.
  Well, well, well. It's the Blind Pig Gin Mill. I've never been there, but word does get around if you know where to look, especially to message boards and USENET threads and so on. For that matter, a few of my email correspondents drop in there every so often. Some people are well and truly besotted with it; messages from them paint the 'Pig up to be Callahan's Place made real.
  I'll believe that when I see it.
  Still, even the most hardened cynics admit that it's a fairly comfortable place for a SCAB to get soused in. If it only lives up to that undemanding standard, I'll be satisfied; anything more would be pure lagniappe. I slip into the driver's seat, spark the motor, and I'm off to see the Blind Pig.
  Traffic is traffic -- except if you're in Boston, in which case traffic is Hell -- and I am fortunate enough to get an opportunity to give my store of French expletives a good workout before I reach my destination. The Blind Pig is an unimpressive hole-in-the-wall kind of bar in a very lived-in neighborhood, and the cars in its parking lot say something about the financial status of its patrons. My own vehicle stands out, and not just because of its behemoth-like size: No dents in the bodywork.
  I arm the defenses, prime the sensors, re-check certain gauges. Only then do I exit the cab and lock 'er down. I've sunk quite a few dollars into my mobile home, and I don't care to lose any of it to some moron who had nothing better to do than whale on a SCAB's vehicle. Every broken window gets replaced with Lexan II polymer; there's only one of the original glass ones left. The tires are both puncture-resistant and filled with an amusing greenish fluid, good both for sealing knife slashes and for scaring the shit out of vandals who jump to the conclusion that the wheels contain live Martian Flu culture. Can't imagine why, other than maybe the numerous "biohazard" symbols stenciled on strategic locations. Or perhaps it's the bumper stickers -- "SCABS Is Not For Sissies" is one of my favorites.
  Then again, perhaps it's the active measures I've had installed. The real transmission, fuel lines, and so on, are all safely concealed behind an armored undercarriage plate; what seem to be vulnerable tubes and cables are, in truth, filled with a fluid that my car finds quite inessential, under 7 atmospheres of pressure. It's mostly water, with cornstarch for a hint of non-newtonian sliminess, syrup for adhesion, a couple other inert ingredients, plus a damned expensive catalyst that makes the inert stuff react with certain chemicals in human sweat to create an exceedingly color-fast dye. In other words: Any son of a bitch thinks it's a good idea to hack at my brake lines, he gets a face full of something that feels like a bacterial culture and turns his skin a very bright shade of green not found in Nature that doesn't wash off. I can't put the fear of God into such idiots; fear of SCABS, now, that's something they've already got, and I'd be an idiot myself not to use it against them.
  It occurs to me that I'm lingering at my car, and I don't know why. It's a bar, for God's sake. An exceptionally SCABS-friendly bar. With a minotaur barkeep who doubles as bouncer, or so I've read. And I chose to come here of my own free will. What the hell am I waiting for?
  Perhaps it's that my Extremis is the only point of familiarity in some Godforsaken candidate for urban renewal I've never seen nor visited before...
  Stress. Definitely stress. I need to unwind, and will enjoy doing so.
  I step across the threshhold. Almost instantly I feel, I don't know, I can't put a clawtip on it. Whatever this unidentifiable sensation is, however, I know that I like it.
  The joint is jumping, as they say. I pad silently through the crowd, trying to attach faces to any of the names I've gleaned from electronic messages. The (literally) bull-headed man tapping a fresh keg is easy, he's got to be the bartender, Donald Sinclair. There's a flamboyant, caped canine SCAB seated at the piano, his back to the keys, chatting up some sweet young thing. Near the counter is a pack of canines that must be the Lupine Boys.
  I don't realize I'm gravitating towards the jukebox until I'm right up next to the infernal device. It looks to be a late '90s Wurlitzer, I think. By some quirk of fate, the jukebox is playing Bobby McFerran -- Don't Worry, Be Happy -- and I am pleasantly surprised to find that it no longer pains me to listen. Can the emotional wounds have healed? Truly, another stroke of good fortune! I forget myself, purr an improvised basso accompaniment to McFerran's multitracked a capella --
  "Keep it down, willya?" These words are uttered, quietly, by the female to my left. A cheerful woman, she is marked as SCABS only by her nonhuman pupils and lightly-scaled skin. She is mildly intoxicated. "I'm tryna lissen here." Of course. I fall silent.
  If the wounds were healed, at least one has just re-opened. I move away from the jukebox, concentrate on sounds in my immediate vicinity. Anyone who objects to being eavesdropped upon has no business conducting a conversation in a SCAB bar.
  People converse around me. I say nothing; it's impolite to butt in. I slip through the throng like a Stealth bomber, observing without being observed. My goal is the counter. I intend to see if Sinclair is up to building a pousse-cafe, a rainbow whose seven liquid layers are held separate only by their differing densities. Bartenders fall into two classes: Those who can't make a pousse-cafe, and those who are very, very good.
  "Gr-r-r-reetings, pard!" The "r", far from a growl, is magnificently rolled. I'd already known that one of the wolves was approaching (my sensory enhancements, you know how it goes) and with that oh-so-teddibly-propah Received Standard accent, I feel it's got to be the cape wearer. It is -- such a surprise. He offers his right hand; I like theatrical, that's why I follow his example. He's got a firm grip, solid without being uncomfortable.
  "'Pard'? Sorry, Rin Tin Tin, wrong species. I'm no leopard, I'm a cheetah."
  "Quotha!" expostulates the refugee from a Shakespeare festival. "Thou'rt truly educated!" I blink at his use of the "t"-word. He goes on with a sly expression: "Mayhap o'erly so, as all of Christendom do know that divers and sundry other felines be contained wi'in the compass of yon word."
  "Oh, well, if you want to get technical about it..."
  The wolf grins broadly. "Well met indeed! I hight Wanderer, and 'tis a most fortunate fate hast led thou hither." I can't help it; I burst out laughing. Wanderer is so blatant, lays it on so thick, and then he has to go and say my two favorite words. What the hell, I'll play along.
  "Certes, it be that in all good sooth, friend Wanderer. An thou hath spake thy name unto me, so now doth I reciprocate: Jubatus am I yclept."
  The wolf's eyes are wide. I really don't think he was expecting that kind of reaction. He snaps out of it very fast, for someone who isn't a cheetah. "Gadzooks! 'Unless mine ears mistake me quite / It seems this Wand'rer of --'"
  My smile fades; I shake my head and hold up one hand. Wanderer lets his stanza die. "No. I came here to get plastered, not talk," I say.
  He looks into my eyes. "Let me guess. You're an actor, am I right?"
  I had been wearing a smile. You can tell. Truly. "Not really. Once I sang in the chorus of HMS Pinafore, but that..." My posture sags, my head bows. I would have to remind myself, wouldn't I? A fine way to kill a mood. I sigh before continuing. "That was a long time ago." I turn to the minotaur. "Mr. Sinclair, I believe?"
  "He hight Donnie," Wanderer points out helpfully. I half-smile without looking at the wolf, and Donnie stands before me with an expectant look on his face. Now I remember -- SCABS pressed the "mute" button on him. Permanently. By comparison I am fortunate, well and truly, but I haven't yet crossed over the jagged, gaping chasm that lies between knowing it and feeling it. Not sure if I ever will. Don't know if I ever can. I suppose it's petty of me to continue brooding over my own trivial impairment, isn't it?
  If it's so goddamned trivial, why does it still hurt like a fucking shrapnel grenade to the chest??
  Abruptly, I realize that Donnie (hell, the entire room) stands in the stillness of fast-time. I ponder, make a decision, then downshift to their speed. "I'd like to show you something, Mr. Sinclair -- establish my bona fides." I rest an elbow on the counter with my arm pointing straight up; I pivot to lay my palm on the formica countertop, then return the arm to an upright position. From here on it's lather and rinse and repeat, like it says on shampoo bottles. I continue to move my arm in this way, upshifting to fast-time and beyond as I do, until slow eyes perceive my arm in two places at once with a translucent blur in between. Just for the hell of it, I make the two arms circle slowly around each other for a second or so before I downshift back to the common tempo.
  "Mr. Sinclair, what I want is to get blind, stinking drunk. I'm talking throw-up-on-the-floor-and-not-remember-it drunk, would-you-like-some-blood-in-your-alcoholstream drunk. But I've got a metabolism like a blast furnace, so what I'll settle for is anything that's good for better than a mild buzz, and keeps me there for more than a half-hour. What have you got for me?"
  "Mmmmmm," the minotaur remarks thoughtfully. He fishes a notepad and pen from a front pocket, and -- good Lord, he's actually writing in longhand! It's the 21st Century, and this poor SCAB bastard is still using pen and paper to communicate? I can't believe what I see; any damn body can afford a voder, you can get a KV-140 for... Oh. Right. With a 140, you're typing out everything letter by letter anyway, and the voice sucks worse than mine, so why bother?
  I'm a technical writer; solving problems is how I make my living. To have my nose rubbed in a need like this, is to instantly start figuring out how to satisfy said need. Keep the retail price under $50, meaning parts cost of $10 or less... I am lost in my own private cyberspace, The World Inside The Crystal, working out details and making notes to myself to research areas that I'm ignorant of.
  Truly, a technocrat like me is fortunate to have a overclocked brain, even if it did have to come courtesy of SCABS. I've already created rough cuts of three different interface designs, one of them based on good old hunt-and-peck, when a loud thram on the counter brings me back to reality. I see Sinclair's notepad: "HOW ABOUT I MIX YOU UP A CATNIP DAIQUIRI, MISTER CHEETAH?"
  I look into the middle distance, pondering. A catnip daiquiri, for God's sake? What kind of twisted mind would conceive of such a monstrosity? Donnie's, that's what kind. "Go for it," I reply. "This could be... innnnn-teresting."
  Donnie busies himself with his mad creation; I busy myself with filling in more details of the schematic I'm constructing in my mind. I'm truly a problem-solving animal, and it's fortunate that SCABS granted me the ability to solve them so much more quickly. Almost makes up for the insoluble problems that came with it. Goddamn package deal.
  I hear Wanderer say something to me and I don't even look at him. I ask him what he knows about the 2001 Crusoe architecture, and he shuts up. Time passes. I am abruptly wrenched out of my technogeek trance, this time by an odor most peculiar and insistent. I look around, blinking, and see Sinclair before me. Him, and a cut-down 2-liter bottle filled with the source of the aroma and a corrugated tube. Jesu Christe, I'm getting buzzed from the smell alone! I can feel my nose twitch for the fluid; my tongue moves with a mind of its own. I smile at Sinclair, being careful to keep my teeth as well-hidden as I can manage. "If that stuff lives up to its advance PR, you're getting a real big tip."
  Sinclair nods. His facial anatomy is no good for smiling, but I'll be damned if he doesn't give the impression of a smile anyway, I have no idea how. I raise the converted coke bottle to my muzzle, close mouth on the straw and sip an experimental sip.
  Oh, my dear Lord...
  The catnip daiquiri is good. Very good. Very extremely good. The afterburn sears my palate, tongue, and throat with imperious vigor, and when it hits my stomach, the results are not unlike the reaction one might get from throwing a stick of dynamite into a blast furnace.
  A good chunk of time passes in a catnip-and-alcohol haze. Nothing is clear, but I think I'm a loquacious drunk, presuming "drunk" is the right word for a victim of Donnie's evil potion. Loquacious, and highly energetic -- such a surprise, hm? I think I spew rapid-fire jokes and puns; mourn my lost singing voice; drink people under the table with Coors beer; berate the damned jukebox; perform a Flamenco dance (my first) on the counter; cry when even my Peter Lorre goes unrecognized, for God's sake I can't even do Peter bleeding Lorre any more; soundly thrash Wanderer in an impromptu session of Name That Folio; and God knows what else. I shift up and down, not just from fast- to slow-time and then some, but also in wild emotional gyrations. I'm a 33-RPM manic-depressive playing at 78. I am dimly aware that my behavior is within arm's reach of textbook insanity, and I don't fucking care. The tighter a spring is wound, the more violent its thrashing when it's released, not so? Zoroaster knows how tightly this spring has been wound over the past two years.
  So it is that a hyperactive cheetah-morph bounces off the walls (literally, at least once) of the Blind Pig until even the Sinister Fluid of Donald Sinclair cannot fuel further activity. Total elapsed time, from taking that first sip to the ultimate loss of consciousness, might be as long as two hours, probably less. Cheetahs aren't known for their endurance.
  I don't remember falling asleep...

= - = - = - = - = - = - = - =

  physical contact: food creature: harmless: attack in progress --
  -- and at the instant of my awakening, I find that I occupy a large, overstuffed chair (but how -- never mind) and one hand is slashing at a rabbit-morph's neck in a swift, lethal arc. I am just able to curl my fingers in time to prevent my claws from gouging into it, deep and deadly. I flip sideways out of the chair, putting the lapine well out of harm's reach. How could I have been so stupid, allowing myself to fall asleep in a place I've never been where I don't know anyone? My heart hammers out a post-techno beat, 6 per second, as I realize how terribly near a thing it truly was. Exactly how close I came to committing murder during that fraction of a second when the body's instincts were in the driver's seat... I shudder. Uncontrollably. I'm running on fast-time, to my eyes the room's other occupants are hardly moving. Must slow down -- it's impolite to be unintelligibly fast. I am shaking when I decelerate to their tempo, and not just because of the aftermath of the receding adrenaline rush.
  "Geez -- I knew cats are high-strung, but this is ridiculous!"
  The cheerful voice belongs to the rabbit-morph. He has neither the sound nor scent of a person who has just escaped bloody death by a painfully narrow margin. Only then does it hit me: He doesn't know. From his viewpoint, my action must have appeared as nothing more than a sand-colored blur and a whoosh of air. I should say something, but how do I tell an innocent man that the simple act of waking me up brought him this close to being killed and eaten?
  Still shaking, I lean heavily on the chair I'd just vacated. God only knows what kind of expression is on my face. Now the rabbit is afraid (a bit late there, friend). He doesn't look it, much, however. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asks, and his voice is almost level.
  I shut my eyes and concentrate. I will calm down. I will not break here and now, goddamn it! It works as designed: I stop shaking. I appear perfectly at peace with myself and the world. "Thank you, but there really isn't anything to talk about," I say with a confident smile. Nothing other than, "Hey, I bloody near wasted your cotton-tailed ass when you woke me up just now. How about those 'Niners, huh?" I may not be able to sing worth a damn these days, but SCABS failed to rob me of my vocal control. My voice sounds exactly as the voice of a bipedal cheetah should; no tremors, no strain, and my tone is mildly apologetic, suggesting that minor degree of regret appropriate to having just wasted a small amount of someone else's valuable time. I've still got it. Still got my control. Fortunate. Truly.
  I smile and continue: "I do appreciate the offer, but truly, you needn't worry about me." I shrug, spread my hands. I am as steady as a rock, and display my true state of mind every bit as accurately, too. I look around; the ambient sounds and aromas already told me, and my eyes confirm, that I am among the last customers. I turn to Donnie. "I see that you're getting ready to close for the evening; I really shouldn't detain you from your duties. Is there anything I can do for you before I leave?"
  Donnie and the rabbit look at each other for a moment. I sense something pass between them, some private understanding. Then the lapine says, "You know, there just might be something you could do. See, I'm what you might call a counselor."
  "That's funny -- you don't look half-Betazoid," I interject, going straight for the jocular.
  The rabbit rolls his eyes and doesn't completely conceal his amusement. "Star Trek Lite. And here I was thinking that you had taste." I am about to respond, dragging the conversation further afield, but the rabbit doesn't allow me the opportunity. "Anyway, you're right, that's about the size of it. I'm a career counselor, but I do a little social work on the side. SCABS cases -- can't imagine why, can you?" Again, I want to respond; again, the rabbit scurries along so that I can't deflect this little chat to other topics. "And believe you me, I've seen all the ways a life can unravel when the Martian Flu gets involved. But SCABS isn't the worst of it." He shakes his head. "So many times I've walked in on the wreckage, so many times I've had to help some poor bastard reassemble a pile of broken shards into some kind of life. That's the worst of it, really; knowing, just knowing, that I could have done a lot more good for the client, if only the son of a bitch had opened up enough to ask for help before he hit bottom.
  "For real social workers, that's got to be one of the worst feelings there is. It's one of the leading causes of burnout, y'know. So... I was wondering, do you know of anybody who's having a little trouble at the moment? Nothing big, just something that a good word now can stop from growing into major crap a few months down the line. You know anybody who fits that bill?"
  He looks at me with a carefully neutral expression. I say nothing. The silence elongates. Finally, I hear a voice reply to the rabbit's query. "I think I might know of someone who fits your criteria." Good -- nothing to do with me, of course, but it's nice when someone who needs help can get it before they pass the point of no return. The new voice continues: "Perhaps you have a business card I could pass along?" I don't understand why I'm still standing here, eavesdropping on a conversation that (by rights) I ought not be privy to, until I recognize the new voice.
  It's me.
  Perhaps my hardwired instincts are good for more than gouging wet chunks out of organic statues. It would be nice to think so.
  We continue speaking, the counselor and I. His name is Phil. Our conversation is, simultaneously, both a ludicrous charade and as deadly serious as deciding a man's destiny. Arrangements are made. Appointments are scheduled. I fear what will occur -- to be open is to make yourself a vulnerable target; to openly admit needing help is to invite being stomped on without mercy -- but now, for the first time, I fear it less than the alternative.
  I am truly fortunate.