by Quentin 'Cubist' Long

  The Secrets of Jubatus, #275 in a series (collect them all!): I don't really have a disposition -- it's more of a rocket-propelled roller-coaster ride. How can this be, you ask? I've got a seriously overbuilt endocrine system, that's how, with glands that could satisfy all the hormonal needs of any three ZIP Codes in the continental United States. It's just the ticket for any critter whose lifestyle is built around the need to at any moment go from zero to 50 MPH in two seconds. I don't recommend it, myself. The downside is that my bloodstream gets flooded with insane quantities of hormones and enzymes and God knows what at the drop of a hat, ergo my emotions tend to hit hard and fast and very intense.
  And here I'll bet you thought my severe mood swings were merely a sign of mental instability, am I right? No such luck. Oh, instability is part of it, true, but not a particularly large part. Under 30% for sure, might be less than 10%.
  It's not unlike living in a minefield -- hit just one "danger zone" by mistake, and whammo! your mental equilibrium gets whipsawed all to hell. All of which said, I have been like this for a couple years, and by now I've pretty much got a handle on it. For the most part.
  The exceptions can be pretty memorable. Let me tell you about one of them.

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

  This has not been a good day.
  I've just spent six clock-hours smashing my brains against a wall that happens to be a client. Figuratively speaking, of course -- he's no inanimorph, just an unmitigated idiot with more dollars than brain cells. I know, I know, twits happen, but this bozo is in a class unto himself. Call him Mr. Moron. Son of a bitch not only welches on our contract, refuses to pay me any money at all, but also files suit against me when I politely request that he destroy all the work I sent him.
  He's got lies and bluster on his side, nothing more. I, contrariwise, have plentiful documentation, complete with digital timestamps, digital signatures, and wall-to-wall encryption, all of it open source, all peer-reviewed algorithms. And as per usual, I've also got a couple surprises up my sleeve for any fool who tries to hack my chosen crypto. You say 'unfounded paranoia'; I say 'prudent precaution for anyone who does business over an intrinsically anonymous medium such as the Net'.
  Mr. Moron's actual complaint is a thick document, chock full of boilerplate text. I amuse myself by perusing the silly thing and identifying all the bits which just don't apply to this situation. My attorney is kind enough to check my guesses; I'm batting .550, not bad for a layman. It's obvious that Mr. Moron is posturing, in an attempt to intimidate me into silence.
  Like a cute little bird once said, He don't know me vewwy well, do he?
  I'll give you the Reader's Digest Condensed Version, no sense in both of us going half-mad waiting for the inevitable: Seven weeks of pre-trial maneuvers. Six unendurably protracted hours of sitting on my ass in an overheated Chicago courtroom. Four minutes for the judge to rule in my favor after the lawyers shut up. 3.5 seconds for Mr. Moron to announce (through his mouthpiece) that he's appealing the decision. One big, fat, juicy countersuit to recover my legal expenses and then some. No partridges nor pear trees in sight.
  Mr. Moron's got money, but then so do I. He thinks he can stretch it out until I'm broke, and then declare victory, he's got a major surprise coming. Is it any wonder that I've been thoroughly torqued off since halfway into today's legal ordeal? Still, while my temper may burn hot, it also burns out quick. We cheetahs have no reserves to speak of, we can't sustain much of anything for long. Thus does my anger diminish from NUKE THE ENTIRE BLEEDING WORLD, GOD WILL KNOW HIS OWN! all the way down to i'm annoyed, really i am by the time I pull into the Blind Pig's parking lot. No reserves, nothing left in me. You slowpokes don't know from tired; a cheetah running on EMPTY, now that's tired.
  I'm irritated to see Wanderer's glee club, random mixture of species that it is. I completely forgot that this was one of their nights to rehearse. My end of my relationship with that group is a love/hate deal, thanks to my own (lack of) singing ability. There are times I wish SCABS had finished the job, made me completely mute, because total silence might just be more tolerable than the half-assed vocalizing I'm stuck with.
  Don't sweat it. You would understand if you'd ever heard my real voice.
  I get a boilermaker with an ounce of whatever it is Sinclair found that can get me drunk -- alcohol won't work, I burn it off too fast. The glee club isn't singing? Of course not, they must be through for the evening. Morbidly curious, I move towards them to eavesdrop on their conversation.
  "-- turns into a howl!" That's Wanderer. Momus' beard! I hope they're not discussing what I think they're discussing -- not while my own musically useful range covers all of an augmented third, pestilence take it.
  "I know," says another lupine, I think it's Ringwolf, obviously sympathizing. "Me, I can't even reach high C before my control is shot." Heiliger Christus, they are -- No, damn it, I will not stand here and listen as these multi-octave sons of bitches piss and moan about how unfair it is that their range isn't any wider! But of course, I do anyway. Somehow, it's all I can do to not collapse into a chair, let alone move my entire body away. The damnable lupine morphs continue on in this vein, and it's the Maraschino cherry on the sundae, it is.
  Something fragile and overstrained shatters inside me -- I do believe it's the last surviving vestige of my patience, however much of that managed to withstand a day of dealing with Mr. Moron, L'Imbecile Sans Peur. Yes indeed, the wolves' self-pitying complaints are the proverbial pluperfect Last Goddamn Straw, complete with genuine imitation rhinestones inlaid to spell out YOU DONE GONE AND SCREWED THE POOCH, SONNY-BOY! on its dorsal and ventral surfaces. My brains and blood almost vibrate with a surge of adrenaline I wouldn't have believed I still had in me. I move before my conscious mind kicks in, and for once I and my hardwired instincts are as one.
  "Outta my way," I growl, shoving past and through anyone who doesn't obey quickly enough to suit me. I couldn't care less about the disgruntled murmurs that mark my progress through the crowd. Once at the piano, I arpeggiate a C major chord an octave above high C -- and that pisses me off even more, the fact that a goddamn fifth is now close to my limit, when my human hands were able to span an octave plus change.
  "Wanderer! Howl!" I snarl at him, punctuating the command by snapping my other arm up to point directly at him. He obeys, I'd say more out of shock than for any other reason.
  "Awwoooooo --"
  -- and the instant he hits that G, I clench my hand shut and snap out, "Hold that note!" Next it's "Ringwolf! Howl!" and "Hold that E!", and finally Wolfshead on the C. Their chord has a unique quality to it, a timbre that I can't recall hearing from them ever before.
  I repeat the C chord. "Modulate! Up!" I transpose to D, and the three wolves move up a major second. "Down!" Back to C. "Down!" Next stop: B flat. "Up!" Back home at C. They've tracked me pretty damned well, considering they were just recently kvetching about how impossible it was for them to hit controlled, musically useful notes in this register. After a few seconds more of C, I end it by ripping my arm through the air in a gesture that looks well-suited for gutting a very large sturgeon.
  "You got all that?" I ask, hurling the question at them as though it were a hand grenade. "You damn well better, because I never want to hear any of you bloody sons of bitches making any goddamn noise about the top end of your fucking range ever again! Jesus Christonagddmnfknscr --" and my tempo begins to rise even before I finish swearing at them. The front door slams within seconds.
  I'm done. Spent. Exhausted. If I was running on fumes before, what I'm burning now must be the memory of fumes. The proof is in my involuntary upshift: I didn't do it because I was in a hurry to leave, I did it because I was so damned tired that I lost the concentration I need to stay at the human tempo. No, I lie. Forget exhaustion; it's hunger that docks me 60 IQ points, and it's my attorney's advice that brought me to this state, more fool I for following that advice. It's been nine whole clock-hours since I've eaten any protein, and for a turbocharged metabolism like mine, this constitutes a hunger strike. It's always time to feed the beast, damn it. Next time a lawyer advises me not to bring food into a courtroom, I'll advise him to shut the hell up.
  It's a still night, not much going on in the neighborhood. I've got slabs of meat in a small fridge in my Extremis -- the largest Ford-made SUV of all time -- I trudge on over. The colors of fast-time are as odd as ever, but I'm long since used to it. I hear the purring rumble of crickets in a vacant lot a couple blocks to the north, the leathery sounds of fistfights and arguments from many directions. My vibrissae (cat-whiskers) tell me there's a breeze, but I can't really feel it through my fur. Too bad. I catch the scents of fresh urine and vomit from faceless drunks here on West Street. Fun location we're at. I don't quite fumble the key, and the side door opens.
  Three kilos of sirloin start thawing; I dial my hotplate to 40 degrees Celsius. Waiting for the microwave's bell, I have time to set the table for dinner. Good silverware, china, and crystal, the whole nine yards. I may be a true carnivore, but there are still forms that must be observed, by God. I'll be dead and damned before I adopt non-human eating habits to go with my non-human diet. Not that the diet is absolutely non-human, mind. I've a decent collection of condiments -- sauces and spices and such -- and tonight I choose to experiment with a garlic-enhanced Worchestershire blend.
  I could just inhale the raw protein right now, as is -- there's a vacuum inside me that's bigger than I am -- but I won't. Makes for a fine test of my willpower, and thus far I'm winning. Can't do much about the drooling, damn it. About the same time as my main dish is ready, the Pig's front door creeps open, framing a silhouette. I transfer one slab of meat to my plate, the rest to the hotplate that will keep them at body temperature until I'm ready for them. The shadow-shape inches towards me, gradually resolving itself to Wanderer as the seconds ooze by. I've got plenty of time to observe him in motion, plenty of time to think as I cut (with a fork and knife!), chew, and swallow.
  I don't understand people like Wanderer. In my experience, generosity is the fastest, surest route to ingratitude; no good deed goes unpunished; turning the other cheek gets you a matching bruise; intimacy just lets them get close enough to stab you in a vital spot; and anyone can fuck you over at any time. And yet Wanderer is generous and forgiving and on and on -- he makes himself a perpetual goddamn target -- so how does he get away with it? It irks me, it really does. I don't like unsolvable puzzles...
  Ah. His mouth is open. His voice dopplers up as I downshift to his tempo: "--rrre you in a civilized mood?"
  I let out a sigh; even that sounds "off" to me. I swirl my glass, hold it up to let the single street light within 100 meters sparkle off of its contents. "Getting there." I lower the glass, take a sip, look at the wolf. "How in hell do you manage, damn it?" I ask, irritated.
  "Excuse me? I really --"
  "Fuck that noise," I interrupt. "You know damn well what I'm talking about, or at least you should. You're the life of the bleeding party, you are, always ready with a quip and a smile, and never a hint that you know how positively shitty life can get. How in Polyhymnia's name do you do it?"
  He doesn't answer, just looks at me, and finally (after a good second of silence) states, "You honestly don't know."
  I grimace. "Suurre I do. The only reason I even bothered to ask is that I just love to hear the sound of my own voice." I sigh again, and my whole body sags in on itself -- I can't sustain more than a pilot light's worth of annoyance, if even that much. "Never mind. What do you want from me?"
  Another pause, this one well over two seconds.
  Finally, Wanderer says, "I want to know how long you're going to continue making yourself miserable. Didn't you say it's been more than two years? When will you get on with your life?"
  "'Life, don't talk to me about life'," I quote, then laugh and echo his earlier words. "Heh heh heh. You honestly don't know." I continue laughing, and it's a bitter, jagged, thoroughly unpleasant noise; whatever humor it might have held to start with is soon absent. Hysteria, thy name is Jubatus. And then Wanderer is in the Extremis with me and he grabs my right shoulder and there's a sharp pain in --
  -- damage: non-impairing: kill --
  -- NO, Goddamnit! --
  -- and I stifle a murderous yowl. Or maybe I just let it die for want of effort, it's hard to say. It is hard to say. Hard to speak, think, do much of anything else. That last adrenal surge really took it out of me. The forepaw that was poised to rip the wolf's face off of his skull, I instead let drift down along my own face, gingerly tracing the shallow furrows he left when he slapped me. My hand comes away with fluid on it. Smells like blood, feels like it, doesn't look like it. Oh. Right. Colors of fast-time. I try to raise my hand for a closer look, can't do more than slow its descent to my lap. Don't have the energy. Heh. Fastest SCAB alive, and here I am too tired even to move. Funny.
  My head falls forward. Good. Wanted a clearer view of the stuff on my fingers. Heh. Just thought of a punchline. Wanderer will love it. Oh yeah, gotta downshift, he won't understand it at this tempo. Can't hardly think, hard to shift. Okay, talk slow & deep.
  "TThhaaannkksss... II... nneeeeddeedd... tthhaaa..."

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

  I'm lying down?
  I am. On a full-sized bed, under a blanket which (amazingly enough) is only warm, not sweltering. I'm not wearing any clothes, that must be why I'm not overheated. I feel a dull, throbbing ache all over, head to tail and toes. Still tired, just not the marrow-deep exhaustion of last night. I could open my eyes, but why bother? I can already catch the scents of antiseptic, specialized foods, and Wanderer. Not to mention the delightful sensation of sharp things poking into blood vessels in my arms. Put it all together, it spells "hospital".
  For a moment I wonder what the wolf is doing here. Then I remember what happened. He slapped my face, and I collapsed like a string-cut puppet. Christ on a sidecar, I could lay such a guilt trip on him... heh. Forget it, I've done enough already.
  "You're awake!" It's him. I must've said something, I've been known to talk in my sleep. "Are you alright?"
  "Mm. I feel like..." Only cliches come to mind. "Damn. If my brain weren't wrapped in cotton right now, I'd have a better description than my brain feels like it's wrapped in cotton."
  "I hardly think this is a joking matter," is the quiet reply.
  "Why not? There's always something to chuckle over, if you take your humor black. 'If I may be seen to laugh at any mortal thing'..." I begin.
  "...'it is so that I may not cry'," he says, completing the quote. "From Don Juan, by Lord Byron, isn't it?"
  "Yes, but in my case, the operative verb isn't 'cry'. I laugh so that I won't take an illicit assault weapon to the nearest rooftop and fire randomly into the crowd."
  "Hmm. That's rather a hefty load of anger you're carrying," he observes thoughtfully.
  "No kidding. What was your first clue?" I sneer, but my heart isn't in it. "Yes, I've got a bad temper, and no, it's nothing to do with SCABS. I'm just an angry young man who stayed angry." I finally open my eyes, to look at the wolf. He's seen better days; it wouldn't surprise me if he'd slept in that chair. "Your turn. I've already asked, and I don't think that 'how long will you mourn' crap is the real answer: What do you want from me?"
  He considers me for a long moment. "I'd like to know how you got pure tones out of us in that register, if I may. I wouldn't have thought it possible!"
  I shrug. "It was obvious. Your vocal tract is basically human, but from the way you bitch about high notes, there's gotta be some lupine bits in there as well. Two different boxes of tools, two different skill-sets. Can't work with the lupine bits if you're stuck on human vocal techniques. Like I said, obvious."
  He chuckles ruefully. "To you, perhaps, but I can assure you it was appreciably less than obvious to us! And such being the case, I should be very pleased if you would consent to work with us in future. What would you say to that?"
  "Fuck off and die," I state, calmly and without heat. "Work with you? Yeah, right. You guys are an amateur vocal group, and I can't sing! Look, Wanderer. You can invent pointless little make-work tasks to keep me out of your hair. You can even give me a fancy title like Artistic Director to distract me from realizing what you're doing. But what you can't do is expect me not to recognize when I'm being blatantly patronized."
  "I hardly think it patronizing to want to benefit from any further 'obvious' ideas of yours!"
  "What makes you think there'll be any more? Even if I owned a hat, I couldn't pull miracles out of it on command."
  "You're right, of course. Just because you can walk on water doesn't mean you should be able to swim."
  "Say what? I think you missed my point," I begin, but the wolf doesn't give me the chance to explain.
  "Nay, sirrah, 'tis you have missed mine!" he growls. "What makes you think I'm doing this for some half-brained feline with the manners of a drunken monkey? Do you honestly think you're such an attractive charity case that I just can't stay away? Please, Jubatus. If I knew anyone else who could do it half as well, I'd be on their doorstep in a heartbeat, and I mean one of yours.
  "Because I know my limits. I'm an actor, a singer, and something of a comedian. But I will never be a dancer, and not just because these footpads of mine are utter wrecks on anything with less traction than carpet. I can't dance anything more complicated than the box step without a lot of training. I'll never be a choreographer because I can't analyze my own movement, let alone someone else's. And I'll sure as I'm wearing a fur coat never be a choir leader, because I can't explain it to anyone who doesn't already know it. Now, do you need more reasons, or has yon fool of a wolf satisfied thy curiousity?"
  My mind whirls, albeit at a much lower RPM than usual.
  Not a charity case -- Never a choir leader -- How could he not know -- No charity --What's he think he's been doing -- Instructor wanted -- No leader, my ass -- Not a handout --
  "So... you really are interested. In me. With your boys. Teaching."
  "I believe that is what I said, yes," Wanderer replies in a tone of dry amusement.
  Hope flares without warning -- I'm a technical writer, teaching people is what I do for a living -- and dies just as suddenly. "That's great, but... I think I've burned a few too many bridges. You really think they're gonna stand for working with me?"
  "You oughtn't be too quick to disqualify yourself. Would you care to know what the group thought of your little exhibition?"
  I grimace. "Don't tell me. The cat-thing reacted with amused contempt; the tenor wants my head on a platter; the bug is too spaced-out to comprehend what went on; the other wolf can't figure out why I don't just leave you the hell alone; the buffalo didn't deign to notice anything; and Wanderer would like me to apologize for publicly humiliating the lupines." My lack of energy shows in my tone all throughout this recitation. "How'd I do, Rin Tin Tin?"
  He smiles. "Poorly, if you must know. In point of fact, you engendered the same initial reaction in all six of us -- intense fear. I truly cannot recall our exhibiting such unanimity on any other topic!" I wince at this statement. So I scared them all shitless. Oh, joy. "At least you're not a violent person," he concludes cheerfully.
  I frown. "Fat lot you know about it."
  "In truth, I rather think I do. You were quite the fearsome sight throughout your little tutoring session; I wasn't at all certain that you could refrain from opening a few arteries! Yet, the only things you did open were our upper registers. And during your first visit to Donnie's establishment you were disquietingly active, but, again, peace of mind was the only thing you inflicted any significant damage on."
  I look him in the eyes. "Thank you," I say quietly, and I mean it.
  He nods. "You are most welcome. Now, if I may continue: We spoke amongst ourselves after you, hrrhrm, became indisposed, shall we say? Once the topic ran to what you actually did, as opposed to the distasteful manner in which you did it, we quickly realized that your insights could be of great value to us. And as it happens, even Ringwolf is willing to put aside his enmity, presuming your ministrations prove to be as beneficial as I suspect they will.
  "The question is, are you prepared to behave yourself? Can you put an end to mourning your lost voice? If not, which is to say if you continue to disrupt our rehearsals, we'd best start looking for a new space in which to rehearse."
  I think I know what the wolf's aiming at here, and I cut to the chase. "You're trying for that 'shared pain is lessened' bullshit, aren't you."
  He nods. "I have always found it to be helpful."
  "That makes one of us," I say with another grimace. Then again, nothing I've tried has done any good yet, so what the hell? Can't hurt. "Alright, fine. You ask me 'how long, o Lord?' I dunno. I got denial out of the way already -- did I mention that I couldn't even speak at first? That, I denied so strongly that I actually taught myself how to talk again, took me five calendar days. Anger, I got that as soon as I stopped being relieved about learning to talk again, and been there ever since. Bargaining, probably not. I've never believed in any god to bargain with. Does my research into possible cures count? Depression, well, it was only frustration when all I knew was that I couldn't sing. Now that I know why I can't sing -- my vocal tract is pure cheetah, nothing to sing with -- now I'm getting some depression, big time. Acceptance... I just don't know. Ask me again next year."
  "I shall. In the meantime, though... what carries you through the day? Were your life such a torment, I rather doubt you'd have lived to see the bar."
  I give him a wan smile. "It's not that bad, mostly. Hell, I can go for clock-hours on end without thinking about it."
  "Clock-hours?" Wanderer asks, puzzled at this non-standard term.
  "Hours by the clock." I wave a vague gesture. "What you slowpokes live by. My hours are faster." He gets it -- and suddenly I get something, too: Wanderer is moving, even though I didn't downshift to his tempo. Derksen must have me on some kind of metabolic depressant. Wonder why? "Anyhow, like I said, I can go for clock-hours at a time without hurting. But with the glee club around..." I shake my head. "Think of me as a moth, helplessly spiraling to my doom around the fire of your little group."
  "But surely you possess more self-control than the insect you name?"
  "Of course I do! It's just, well... I think I can name that pain in four words: Humans sing. Animals don't."
  "Animals do, actually," Wanderer answers with a smirk. I glare back at him. "We wolves love a good sing-along."
  I cut in before he can say more. "Oh, please. You know any natural-born wolves can belt out a Broadway show tune? Me, neither. Sure, a wolf call is an interesting noise, but it's not song! And the same goes for the sounds whales make, if you were thinking about going there. Singing, real singing, is a uniquely human activity. And I was awfully damned good at it... before."
  "So this is at the root of it all: You fear for your humanity."
  Anger flares within me. "Yes yousonofafuckingbitch I am afraid --" I snap at him, then I realize what I've just said, what I've admitted. My anger fades.
  Oh, shit...
That's what I get for having the fastest mouth in the Western Hemisphere. I wait for the other shoe to drop. I just know it's going to be a very heavy steel-toed boot, with plenty of sharpened cleats protruding from its hobnailed sole, that falls with great force onto something highly sensitive.
  The silence lasts many seconds. I'm the one who finally breaks it: "I don't suppose you'd be willing to forget what you just heard?"
  Wanderer shakes his head. "No. If you are willing to speak further on 't, however, I should be curious to follow your reasoning. Surely you don't believe that lack of singing ability ought automatically brand one as subhuman?"
  I stare up at the ceiling. If I'm willing to speak on it, he says. Suurrre I'm willing to talk about it. Golly gee whiz, who wouldn't jump at the chance to put their vulnerable points on public display? Oh yeah, sure thing, you betcha.
  But... this is Wanderer. He doesn't behave like a real human being. Maybe...

  "Alright. You want it, you got it. On one condition: You don't talk. Whatever you see or hear, none of it leaves the room. You ever repeat any of this, and I swear by Tyr and Themis, your next role is Cream of Wolf on Toast. Capische?"
  I think he got the message. He's uncharacteristically serious: "My lips are sealed. I promise you, I shall be the very soul of discretion."
  "You'd better."
  I move the blanket aside, then sit up, ignoring all the complaints from the muscles involved. Ordinarily I'd just do it, from thought to act in one smooth, electric sweep. But now, doing anything feels... 'laborious' isn't the right word. The best description I can think of at the moment, is that I'm aware of the effort I'm expending. It's almost as if a utility company had just started metering my muscle-power. Slowly, so very slowly, I stand, revealing the full extent of what SCABS did to me. I used to be human, surely I should be able to remember if this is what it felt like to move the body around?
  "Here I am. Take a good look." I turn around twice, clockwise first and then widdershins. It's been such a long time since I lived at the normal tempo... I move ponderously, not just because of low energy or the all-over ache, but also because of the tubes running into my arms. Wouldn't want to tangle them up or pull one out.
  I lower myself back down onto the mattress. Gravity is more insistent than I'm used to, I must continually expend more of that metered power lest I collapse in an untidy heap. It feels so good to just lie in bed and let the pain diminish to a weak background sensation.
   "That's me all over, Wanderer. Derksen tells me my body is pure cheetah, except for a 5% intrusion of human traits. So the body isn't human, but that's just the physical instrument, isn't it? You're only as human as you think, right?"
  I've gone this far, may as well give him the whole package. No matter how nervous it makes me. I swallow. "Okay, fine. But. My mind isn't human. Not completely. Got a choice collection of brand-new personality quirks when I SCABbed over. And. Some of 'em scare the living shit out of me." If you're gonna go for the whole package, Jube old son, go for the whole package. I scan Wanderer with my eyes; this time, breaking a solemn promise I made to myself years ago, I let the beast in my hindbrain get a look in. "25 MPH tops. Time to intercept, no more than 15 seconds. Maximum chance of escape, 5%. Healthy; lots of good meat on the bones. Keep me going 2 days easy, less if a scavenger finds you before I'm done with you."
  The wolf is silent, and I can't blame him. Not only have I just pronounced him easy prey, I've coldly quantified exactly how easy...
  "And if that kind of crap weren't bad enough, there's the mental changes which might be SCABS-related. Personality traits I had before, but they're a Hell of a lot stronger now. Short-tempered, antisocial, et cetera ad nauseum. Maybe I would've gotten that way without the Martian Flu; then again, maybe I wouldn't. Bottom line is, I've got no way to know how much of my mind survived the fur coat!
  "So. My body surely isn't human, and God only knows how much of my mind still is. Which begs the question: What's left of me? What percentage didn't get over-written by the beast? All I really know is... however much humanity I had before, I've got one Hell of a lot less of it now."
  I swallow again, and my next words are quiet, perhaps below the threshhold of human hearing: "I can't afford to lose any more."
  Swallow. Deep breath, exhale. Back to a normal volume level: "Does that answer your question?"
  The wolf nods. "I believe so, yes. Now it's your turn." So saying, he disrobes completely, one article of clothing at a time, starting with his cape and working his way down to the bare fur. Then he turns around, aping my earlier action; on him, it looks like a pirouette. "Here am I! Only one small bonus away from being as much a wolf as you are a cat, and damn lucky to be here. When I get tired, or sick, or drunk, I'm not even this well off. You could say I go to the dogs. Or haven't you heard about that little trick yet?"
  "No." I shake my head. "Four on the floor, is that it? 'Look, Ma, no hands'? Strong and silent type?" The wolf confirms all three with a nod and a "Yes."
  I say nothing for a moment, then chuckle. It's a genuinely healthy laugh, very unlike the noise I made last night. "Just can't stop yourself slumming among the voiceless, is that it?" I ask, a sardonic smile on my face.
  Wanderer sighs and shakes his head. "You, sir, are incorrigible."
  "So don't incorrige me."
  He looks exasperated. "As if I ever have! Well. If you will be so kind as to excuse me, I do have other business to attend to. Good day, Jubatus."
  "Be seeing you, Wanderer."
  Suddenly, neither he nor his clothes are in the room. And I didn't notice him leaving... right, I took a catnap. Fell asleep without even realizing it. For some reason, this doesn't particularly bother me; must be good drugs Derksen's got me on.
  Speaking of the doc-roach, he drops in to chew me out. There's a reason he put me on a metabolic depressant: I was running on empty. When the blast furnace I call a metabolism ran out of loose protein and nutrients to burn, it moved on to the next available source of fuel. Namely, my own muscle and connective tissues. Self-inflicted tissue damage, anyone?
  No wonder I ache all over. No wonder Derksen wants my metabolic activity throttled back to where the body's got half a chance of healing. And finally, no wonder he's not happy about my vital signs spiking up to near my normal levels. He does something to the mix being fed into my veins, and I'm gone, Jack. Within seconds I can feel random pieces of my brain shutting down.
  I spend the next week as a semi-intelligent meat puppet -- or, if you like, Derksen's prescription keeps me mellowed out on a scale unseen since the 1960s. I'm pretty sure I had at least one more visitor, but I'll be damned if I can remember any specifics. Wonder what sort of conversationalist I was.
  Seven interminable days. That's how long it takes the doc-roach to pronounce me healthy enough to release, if that's what I want -- and want, I most definitely do. Inactivity grates on us cheetahs, medically-enforced or no. If it weren't for my status as a drug-induced zombie, I'd be leaving footprints on the goddamn walls and ceiling; as it is, I'm only a little annoyed.
  I'm on the street three hours after I tell Derksen I want out, what with paperwork and reclaiming my stuff and other flavors of bureaucratic nonsense. Somewhere along the way, I pick up a week's supply of some fluid that's polysyllabic and hard to pronounce. I dub it Prozac Plus, the post-industrial strength pain reliever.
  So I'm looking over the parking lot, and where the hell is my Ford Extremis? Think, cat! Alright, I remember pulling up at the Blind Pig, and then -- oh, shit. I sure as Elysium didn't lock the car! God only knows what's left of it now...
  I'm back in the lobby at time T plus 3 hours 45 seconds, calling the 'Pig.
  A female human answers. "Blind Pig Gin Mill. Susan speaking, how can I help you?" I think I recognize the voice; it's Donnie's daughter.
  "Hi there. This is Jubatus. Could someone look out the window and tell me how bad the damage is?"
  "Ah... hold on," she says uncertainly. I hear indistinct conversation-type noises. It occurs to me, belatedly, that I really ought to have explained the situation to her. Less than a minute later (and for once, my minutes and clock-minutes match up with each other), Susan's back on the line: "Mr. Jubatus? We had your vehicle towed to the West Street Shelter, and you'll find it to be completely intact."
  Praise Hermes, I think to myself. "Thanks for the update," I say, punctuating this remark by hanging up. My next call is for a taxi.
  The cabbie wakes me up outside the Shelter. I must've lapsed into unconsciousness again -- gotta watch that. I pay the man, and it doesn't even cross my mind that I might have been overcharged. I make sure I don't leave anything in the cab before I disembark.
  I trudge on up to the front door... so damned slow... and then inside. I can't recall the Shelter ever being this busy. Then again, I am stuck at their tempo for the duration -- maybe it's always looked this way to slow eyes?
  A human-seeming woman with a snake-cold manner about her interrupts my rubbernecking. "You would be Jubatus, correct?"
  Her voice is cool and cultured. She looks important, maybe I've seen her before, but I'll be damned if I can remember where or when. "That's me. You mean there are other cheetahs in this town?"
  A smile floats briefly across her lips. "You'd be surprised. Have you any business here besides reclaiming your vehicle?"
  "Not really. If Phil was around I'd say hello, but I guess he's not here."
  "Mr. Geusz is unavailable," she confirms. "However, I will pass the sentiment along to him. As for your car, follow me." So saying, she leads the way through corridors I'd get lost in without a guide. I laugh a little when it hits me that I actually have to hurry up to keep pace with her -- who'd'a thunk it? I just smile and shake my head when she looks quizzically back at me.
  We arrive at the Shelter's garage. Even to my drug-bedimmed faculties, it's obvious that they had to rearrange the place to make room for my Extremis. I wonder how many man-hours went into this unscheduled remodeling.
  I get my checkbook out of my vest. "Look, you don't strike me as the kind that goes for senseless acts of random kindness," I say, and then I retrieve a pen. "How much do I owe you?"
  "Fifty thousand dollars." If I had any eyebrows to raise, I would. I could buy another Extremis for that kind of money. Of course, it wouldn't cover a tenth of the modifications I've installed... I look at her. I think she's serious. What the hell, non-profits got to get their income where they can.
  I nod. "Fifty grand. Isn't that a bit steep for parking?" I ask with a smile. I can afford it, I don't feel like arguing, I write the check.
  She looks at the numbers as I write them. She says her next line with a deadpan delivery: "Did I mention the handling charges?"
  "What?" I ask. "No, you..." That's when a neural impulse finally makes it across the lone synapse between my two functioning brain cells. "Oh. That was a joke, wasn't it. The 50 thousand, I mean."
  "I'm afraid it was. But since you did ask..." She goes on; I tune out her voice and think about what I've just written. I realize that it's the literal truth: I do have more money than I know what to do with. I could let this check stand, and never notice or care. Hell, it's even drawn on my Petty Cash account!
  I hand the check to her. "Here. Have a donation." After all, the Shelter did keep my car safe while I went AWOL. Value given for value received. Anyway, it'll be... hmm. "It's tax-deductible, right?"
  Suddenly I'm in the driver's seat. Must've fallen asleep. Again. This is getting ridiculous -- whoever heard of a narcoleptic cheetah? Thinking back, motion seems to be the key; my brain is active when, and only when, my body is. I call the hospital. Anyone think I hadn't installed a cel-phone in the car? Good.
  Derksen must have anticipated me. The flunkie who answers is well-informed, says I can cut 15% off the dosage, and a like amount more if the spontaneous episodes continue. Praise the Lord, any Lord, any Lord at all.
  Speaking of which: The dashboard clock says it's been more than four hours since I last ate, and I'm not hungry. I repeat: I am not hungry! Just a touch of appetite, I have to make a special effort to even notice it, nothing like the insatiable, bottomless vacuum that's inhabited my gut ever since I SCABbed over. God, it's been so bloody long...
  I think I could get used to this. I even sustain that fantasy for a few seconds, until reality intrudes. You can't go home again, and I can't live at the normal tempo. Right now, moving the body feels like telepresence across orbital distances: My brain issues the command to do something, and there's a lag between thought and deed. A tiny delay, a mere fraction of a second, nothing big... but it's driving me bugfuck, because it's always there for everything I do!
  And the lag is only the beginning; the body is slow, it moves at a snail's pace by comparison to what I've grown accustomed to. And on top of everything else, I'm so damned heavy -- 32 feet per second per second, by slow standards, is only 5 plus change, by mine. You try living with a fraction of your normal energy level and lead weights hanging off of every joint. Me, I'm pretty sure I can stick it out for a week. Anything much longer, and all bets are off.
  Enough. Gotta keep my mind on something else; Wanderer's offer is a suitable topic. He means well, but he's such a bloody optimist, I'd want a second opinion if he told me the Sun was shining. I think he really does believe his kids would be willing to work with me, I just can't buy into it on his say-so alone. I need hard evidence. Me sitting in with 'em on a song, now that I could believe, for good or ill. Ideally I'd want a song that plays to my strengths as a vocalist, but I haven't got any, damn it!
  Pitch range? I can handle an augmented third, D to G in the bass clef. On those occasions when Apollo feels well-disposed towards me, I'm good for maybe 1 or 2 semitones more on either end. Anything beyond that, and you can start a betting pool on where my voice craps out first -- tone, timbre, volume, or pitch.
  Dynamic range? I'm good to go if and only if it's mezzo-forte. Louder or softer, and it's anybody's guess whether my volume level matches the composer's notation. Having spent a number of years (my years) trying to make it do what it won't, it's my considered opinion that my current vocal apparatus just plain doesn't have the precision of the human version.
  Tone and timbre? Forget it. You'd get just as good results trying to use a sound effects module as a voder. I should know, I arm-wrestle intelligible speech out of a completely non-human vocal tract. You may have wondered why I talk so much if I can't stand what I sound like? I need to keep in practice, that's why. It's not easy, and I really don't want to lose it again.
  Endurance? Hmmm... maybe I spoke too soon. My human voicebox got replaced by a feline purr-box, and when's the last time any cat stopped purring to inhale? Yeah, I can keep a note going indefinitely. Give me one in my D-to-G range, and I'll do you proud... wait a minute...
  God's teeth and gums! There is a vocal piece, I did it in college with that madrigal group, the entire bass line consists of a few quarter-notes at either end of an organ point -- that's one continuous note, held until you keel over dead or the composer tells you different, whichever comes first -- and it's an E-flat organ point! I can hit it as is, no need to even transpose the damn thing!
  This is the kind of good fortune that leads some people to conclude there is a God. Me, I ask inconvenient questions, like where the hell was God when my voice died?
  I break out a disc I couldn't bring myself to dispose of, even though I believed I'd never use it again. It's the old 4.7-gigabyte DVD format. Among other things, it contains my complete collection of multi-part vocal arrangements -- including an early 20th-Century piece called Balulalow, by a guy named Peter Warlock. Balulalow. Stupid name, exquisite music.
  I bring it up on my laptop's screen. Oh yes, I remember it well... The lyrics are English, just not contemporary English. Not good. Rather than force the group to wrestle with the likes of "with sangis sweit unto thy gloir", I spend a few minutes sandblasting the language down to modern specifications:
     O my dear heart, young Jesus kind,
      Prepare thy cradle in my mind,
       And I shall rock thee in my heart
        And never more from thee depart.
     But I shall praise eternally
      With song sung sweet to glory thee;
       The knees of my heart shall I bow,
        And, artful, sing Balulalow!
Could be better, I suppose... Hell, nobody really listens to the words of these things anyway. Close enough for government work; it'll serve.
  That problem solved, I move on to the question of assigning parts. It's SATB (soprano-alto-tenor-bass) with a soprano solo on the side, and the glee club does have enough warm bodies to pull it off even without me. Too bad they've only got 1 (one) soprano to work with. Okay... I give the soprano accompaniment to the tenor, Ringwolf, and bump Wanderer up from his usual baritone to the tenor line.
  I print out seven copies of the sheet music, one for each of the vocalists who'll perform the damn thing -- Wanderer, the five other members of his group, and me.
  It's 11 PM. Time enough to lapse into a coma.
  Next morning I wake up, thaw and devour breakfast, take the reduced dose of Prozac Plus. Much, much better than yesterday. I feel within arm's reach of normal, or at least what passes for normal in my life. Looks like I'm running at a tempo of 2, or thereabouts. Still a fraction of my usual tempo, still going easy on my overstressed body.
  It's 7 AM on Wednesday. They'll rehearse tonight, starting maybe 8 PM? I've got time, and I spend it catching up on business I let slide during my unscheduled vacation. A lot more of it than I was expecting -- no, it just seems that way because I'm not up to speed. Lots of e-mails, a fair number of "where's the work I hired you to do?" complaints. I send a mass e-mail to all my clients explaining that I had an unexpected medical emergency, that I won't be fully recovered for another few days yet, and that this is the first opportunity I've had to make contact with them. Clients whose deadlines I've blown get extra verbiage; I won't object if they invoke the penalty clause for non-performance, apologize for the necessity of even discussing it, and give 'em pointers to people who can finish the job if they decide to terminate their contract with me.
  I spend the next hour conducting triage, deciding what jobs get which priority, then have brunch. Or at least that's the plan; my appetite isn't playing along. Of course -- I ate for my usual hunger, not what I'm enjoying now. It's been so very long since my stomach stayed full for more than a couple of minutes! I don't miss the sensation. I feel bloated. Gotta burn calories, and then some.
  My Extremis has a royal mess of crap stacked around and over and under it. I don't bother summoning help from the Shelter offices; I just upshift and clear a path by myself, moving crates and machine parts out of the way, so I can drive out. I punch my tempo up to 10, as high as I can comfortably go right now, so it takes less than four clock-minutes. I then downshift, drive the car out to the curbside, park, upshift back to 10, and re-organize the Shelter's garage. This final task takes an hour of my time, including frequent curbside jaunts to make sure the Extremis is still in one piece. Only after the garage is ship-shape do I lock down my car. Then I take a nice, leisurely jog around the city at the default tempo, not bothering to shift up or down.
  I said "around the city", and I mean that literally. Total circumnavigation of the greater metropolitan area. I move along the shoulder of the road when I can, cut through private property when necessary, use bike lanes and pedestrian paths when possible. Feels damn good... right, my glands are cheetah enough for the endorphins to really kick in, and my brain is human enough to enjoy the hell out of it.
  I'll have to try this again sometime.
  I'm back at the Shelter before 10 AM. The Extremis is still untouched. I drive the few blocks over to the Blind Pig, park, set an alarm, go back to work at a tempo of 8. I cube a slab of turkey breast, nibble on the resulting snack at random intervals. 7 PM is when I call it a day. Still got time to kill before the glee club shows; I go jogging again. If Derksen had known how it makes me feel, he would've prescribed 75 miles a day.
  Back at the 'Pig once more, and it's 8:10. I make sure I've got the sheet music in my shoulder bag, then breeze on inside. They've just started Ado Annie's song from Oklahoma, and damn they're good. Donnie's got fresh oranges today; I get a screwdriver, sidle over to them unnoticed, sit down and enjoy.
  It's done too soon: "-- caaaaan't saaaaaay noooooo!" they conclude, and the applause is why they rehearse here instead of some place with better acoustics. I make with a lupine howl instead of clapping -- we cheetahs ain't half bad at sound effects. Good enough to fool Wanderer, who comes up empty looking for the new wolf. Heh. He does a doubletake when he sees me.
  "Ah, Jubatus. It pleases me that --" He breaks off, puzzled. Now that I think of it, I don't believe he's ever seen me in this good a mood before. "You?"
  "I went jogging. Runner's high," I tell him. "What's the matter, never seen a cheetah smile?"
  He's speechless. I make a mental note of the occasion.
  What the hell, that's as good a cue as any. I catch the glee club's collective attention by standing up. "Hello. I suppose you're wondering why I've called you all here today..." Well, that joke fell flat. Wanderer manages to crack a smile, but then he would, wouldn't he? Gesturing at him, I continue: "Benji here tells me you people are in the market for a pain in the ass who does vocal training on the side, and I'm number one on your short list. Fine by me, but first, I got two words for you all," I say, inserting a dramatic pause before my next words.
  "I apologize."
  Dead silence from the club. It's the tenor who is first to reply: "Who are you, and what have you done with that cocksucker of a cheetah?"
  I smile. Familiar ground at last. "I love you, too, Ringwolf. Don't worry, the Jubatus you know and loathe will return as soon as the drugs wear off. In the meantime, I brought a peace offering with me."
  I extract the music from my shoulder bag. First copy goes to Sunya, who isn't a centaur because her below-the-waist bits are pure jaguar. She's got these amazing green eyes, a more than decent soprano voice, and an attitude best described as prima donna with a feline accent. "Here you go, sweetness. Enjoy." She raises one eyebrow, affects that superior catlike expression, accepts the solo part as her due.
  Next is the alto, Constance. She's part bumblebee; SCABS gave up on her after bestowing those distinctive markings up and down her torso, plus oversized compound eyes that have got to give her a very strange worldview. No idea how much internal remodeling she got, of course. Quiet girl, not all there. She nods and smiles her quirky smile, just like always.
  Third in line is Ringwolf, tenor and Lupine Boy both, who gets along with me as smoothly as #5 sandpaper. He's better than he thinks he is, when he forgets the damn self-consciousness. He snatches his copy out of my hand before I can give it to him. "You write this?" he asks.
  "Nope, it's a little before my time," I reply. "Who knows, you might like it." Ringwolf snorts by way of response.
  On to the two baritones. I hit Wolfshead first, he's another Lupine Boy. He's easy to overlook; he's so bloody retiring a soul that I can't figure out how, or why, he ever hooked up with the Boys in the first place. Keeps to himself. I have no idea what he does when he's not at the Pig. "Thank you, sir," he says when I hand him his music.
  "My pleasure," I say.
  The second baritone is actually a first baritone, oddly enough -- it's Wanderer. "Thanks indeed!" he says when he gets his copy. He freezes almost immediately when he sees what he's got, looks at me as though I suddenly turned into Richard M. Nixon, then shakes his head and blinks and focuses on the music. The rest of the crew started in scanning their own specific parts as soon as their music was in hand; Wanderer's looking over the whole thing. I can practically hear him working out the harmonic relationships in his mind, the dynamics, the overall tonal quality of the piece. And yes, he does mess with my part assignments. Heh. Amused, I think to myself, "Never be a choir leader" my ass, you melodramatic scenery-chewer!
  He focuses on something at the bottom of the first page. "''The basses are instructed to stagger their breathing, so as not to interrupt the smooth flow of sound,'" he says, quoting the performance note that caught his attention. His eyes hold a question that I ignore.
  "That's right," I say. "Composer's orders."
  The last handout goes to Eltro Gannet, the glee club's basso absurdly profundo. He's got some bison in him; he's solid muscle, about two-and-a-third men wide, and with 15 men's dignity. I'd bet he's seriously annoyed at being stuck with a one-note harmony line (I wasn't happy about it myself when first I performed it, as I recall), but that kind of complaint would be beneath him, so he only says, "Mr. Jubatus? The bass line is... unusual."
  "Sure is," I agree. "But the end result's gonna be worth it. Think of it as one of those sacrifices people make for their art."
  So now everybody's got their melodic line, and Wanderer plays the various parts out on the piano, and it's not long before the whole group's prepped and ready for the first trial run. Before they do, I make my move.
  I've got one final copy of the music. I take it out, move up next to Gannet. I ignore my elevated pulse rate as best I can. "Awwrrrhhh --" I begin abortively, clear my throat, try again. "I thought I'd sit in with you. Tonight. Unless anyone has any objections?"
  Ringwolf looks like he does, but one look from Wanderer shuts him up. The not-a-leader asks, "So I am to presume that this is in the way of a trial run, then."
  I nod. "Yep. And if you're wondering, I do know my part."
  He doesn't even glance at the sheet music, just looks me in the eye. "Well, I am told that preparedness is a virtue. Very well." We get our starting notes from the piano, and we begin.
  I let Gannet do the heavy lifting for those of the initial notes I can't hit worth a damn, but I'm right there when that big, beautiful E-flat organ point starts rolling...
  For those of you who haven't heard Balulalow: It's an etherial soprano solo floating over a continuous, gradually-shifting chord structure. And it's beautiful. By all the gods that never were... it's one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard.
  There's a difference between just hearing the music, and making it. And I've been on the short end of that difference for so damnably long a time... My cheeks are damp and getting more so. I don't care, it's not affecting my voice.
  "My voice", now there's a joke. Christ almighty, what right have I to apply that term to the noise that comes out of my mouth! None at all, no right whatsoever. Not when I've spent years of my time desperately trying to smash a square peg into a round hole, sweating blood just to achieve a minimal degree of intelligibility, working my ass off simply to be understood, and any one of these people can blow me completely out of the water on their worst day.
  So here I am with a song hand-picked to afford me every possible advantage, a piece that might as well have been commissioned especially for me... and I'm still a seventh-rater. Compared to real singers I simply don't measure up any more, and I never will.
  Alright, that affected my sound; I hope nobody else noticed. Keep your flipping mind on your part, Jube old boy. I manage to hold it together for the duration of the organ point, and let Gannet handle the notes I can't at the end. Pan and Apollo, the difference between me and them... I'm sorely tempted to swiftly and silently vanish away, but that would make this whole exercise a waste of time.
  Now comes the hard part...
  "What do you think?" I ask, and behind my poker-face, I am sweating bricks. The 2-meter concrete kind, that they build skyscraper foundations out of. I remember Ringwolf gleefully pointing out every last mistake he noticed in my performance, which is about 50% more than I actually made; Wanderer complimenting my taste in music; everything else they said might as well be white noise, for all I can remember of it. And then I'm walking calmly over to the counter for straight bourbon. No blood was spilled at the piano, so I guess it went well, and that brings us up to date.
  Okay... so I can't sing worth a damn. Big deal. Lots of people can't. My vocalist days are done.
  t't't'rat tat tat, t't't'rat tat tat, t't't'rat tat ta-tat -- ta-tat tat tat
  It still hurts, and I don't know if I'd ever want the pain to go away entirely, but... Somehow, it just isn't as bad any more. I think the wound is finally starting to heal.
  t't't'rat tat tat, t't't'rat tat tat, t't't'rat tat ta-tat -- ta-tat tat tat
  Bit of an anticlimax, really. Especially after all that weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth I've been doing all this time. Whatever.
  t't't'rat tat tat, t't't'rat tat tat, t't't'rat tat ta-tat -- ta-tat tat tat
  Like I've always said, life is better when you accept Reality for what it is. No matter how hard it may be, accepting Reality is better than the alternative.
  t't't'rat, t't't'rat, tat tat t't't'rat, tat, tat, t't't'rat-t't't'rat
  That's interesting... haven't done that for a while; I'm tapping out rhythms on the table. I try varying between clawtips and finger pads.
  t't't'rat tyt tyt, t't't'rat tyt tyt, t't't'rat tyt ta-tyt -- ti-tat tyt tyt
  I'm done with singing... but maybe I'm not done with music?
  t't't'rat tyt tyt, t't't'rat tyt tyt, t't't'rytta-tytta-tytta-tyt
  I walk over towards the piano, tap Wanderer on the shoulder.
  "Yes, Jubatus?"
  "You think you guys could use a little percussion?"