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by Quentin "Cubist" Long and Hallan Mirayas
Quentin "Cubist" Long and Hallan Mirayas -- all rights reserved

Jubatus is my name. Among other things, I'm a technical writer, a troubleshooter, and a victim of Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome. I look like a purebred cheetah, but don't worry -- a whopping 5% of my human genetic heritage wasn't even touched by SCABS. And don't believe everything you hear about the plight of all those poor, disadvantaged victims of that awful disease, either; if it weren't for my condition, I'd never have been been able to raise my net worth up to the low ten digits. See, everyone else experiences time at a rate of one second per second. But thanks to SCABS, for me that rate is six seconds per second, and when I feel the need, I can push it as high as 40-odd. That's "upshifting", and I've found it to be a useful trick on occasion. I can also drop down to the normal rate of one second per, when I want to deal with you slowpokes, and no prizes for guessing that's what I call "downshifting".

All of which was fine and dandy, but I had other concerns at the moment. My car was a Ford Extremis; it may be the largest SUV they ever built, but it was positively dwarfed by the tanker truck it was trapped underneath. This was the second car accident I'd been in since I SCABbed over, and neither of them were my fault. This time around, on the road to Chicago, it was almost a comedy of errors -- the truck was coming out of a turn a little too fast, which wouldn't have been bad, except that some of his tires decided that would be a great time to explode. And then the idiot driving the truck got the damn thing to jackknife across five lanes of traffic, after which the tanker broke loose from the cab and started rumbling over everything in sight, like a rolling pin crushing eggshells!

When it happened, I was two car-lengths behind the truck and three lanes to its left. And sure, I could brake in time to avoid smashing up against the damn thing -- but if I did that, the guy riding my back bumper would rear-end my vehicle because he couldn't brake in time. Classic recipe for a multi-car pileup. If it was just me and the tanker truck... but it wasn't. Upshifting wouldn't do my car any good, not with all the damn slowpokes on the road. So the tanker was directly in front of me, losing forward momentum with every car it rolled over, and I was pretty much stuck in a pack with all the normal types who were only just then touching their brakes, too late to do more than cushion the impact, and --

Okay, we'd stopped moving.

I wished I'd bailed out earlier. I really did. But the Extremis was where I live -- literally -- it was my mobile home, with half a megabuck of customization. A good chunk of that went to reinforcing the body and chassis, so my car, at least, had no structural damage. Me, too. Upshifting kept my hide perfectly intact as the steel wall of the tanker crumpled to embrace my Extremis like a dysfunctional lover.

Damn me for a sentimental fool! Should have bailed out earlier, but I didn't, so I was screwed. I just hoped all the slowpokes around me appreciated that I kept full control all the way in. I had an unobstructed view of the tanker's stressed metal through my windshield and side windows; looking back, I saw the roof of somebody's vehicle butted up flat against my rear hatch and window. I could even see a little daylight. Too bad that gap wasn't wide enough for me to slip through. What did get through were ambient odors, like the intense aroma of what's leaking out of the tanker truck. I wondered...

My wireless connection was a little staticky, but it worked, and I pulled in data from the trucking company. Given the date, locale, and license number -- oh, shit. Now that I knew what he was hauling, I almost regretted having found out. It was a nitrogen compound, flammable, even explosive under the right conditions.

I really didn't want to end up frying in an oven...

Okay, Jubatus. You're a technical writer. Solving problems is what you do for a living, so let's see you solve this one. Given: A crashed tanker truck, its cargo (a volatile and explosive chemical) leaking out all over the place. Given: A heavily reinforced steel cage without exits that contains a highly-morphed cheetah SCAB. Problem: How can the nice kitty get the hell out of there before the damn thing blows?

I had plenty of time to think about this puzzle. Sure, detonation was a minute or two away by the clock, but I'd upshifted earlier and hadn't downshifted yet. I had 45 minutes of my time, easy. Probably more. There were things I should do in case I didn't solve the puzzle, so I timeshared, trading off between the main task (finding a way out) and secondary objectives (pre-death prep work). Nothing I hadn't done before -- except, of course, that the deadlines weren't usually quite so literal!

The clock kept ticking. I kept working. Things heated up, giving the Extremis' environmental controls a workout. And in the fullness of Time, I did come up with a solution; several, actually. Even the best of the lot sucked, but it sure beat the alternative, so it wasn't like I had much choice, did I? So I was going to wait (letting the ambient heat weaken the roof) until the spill detonated, at which point I'd upshift as high as I could; jump through the softened metal; and hope to Fortuna I could ride the shockwave to safety.

Looked like the end was nigh, judging by the exterior temperature and the odors leaking through the ventilation system. Time for one last review of my preparations. Let's see... Sent word to Triple-A; they'll recover and restore the Extremis if it's even marginally salvageable, cost is no object. Composed and sent a mass email to all my not-yet-complete contracts, explaining the situation and providing pointers to replacements in case I end up too dead to do their work. Shoulder bag held my laptop, my backup discs, and important documents (legal and otherwise). Message to Wanderer, he'll pass the word along to the rest of the Strikebreakers (who no doubt will want to celebrate my absence). Got the license number, make, model, and parent company of the goddamn tanker truck. Alerted my attorney so that me or my estate, whichever is applicable, will sue the bastards down to the bedrock and then some. The many pockets of my vest were crammed full of food and tools. No changes to my last will and testament -- if it's needed, I'm sure that Sinclair, the rabbit, and especially Carter will all be pleasantly surprised.

And then the ceiling rippled and sagged -- showtime. I was already in position. I upshifted for dear life and leaped with all the force my 60-MPH-capable legs could exert! It was the "straw in a hurricane" show as I blasted through the sheet metal, claws-first, into a world of nitrogenous nose-torture, intense pressure waves, and pure, Hellish flame. My insurance damn well better cover this! was the last thought to cross my mind before I lost consciousness...

Hi there! Call me Hallan. Please. My real name is Harrison Myers, but ever since I got a Christmas gift from SCABS in the form of a lion-esque build, complete with fur and claws, I really don't like "Harry" any more, okay? Especially now that my mane is finally starting to grow in instead of just looking like a ragged scrub brush. If I'm going to look like this for the rest of my life, I might as well look good. I do have my pride, after all!

One of the best things that happened to me this past year was discovering the Blind Pig Gin Mill. My mom thought so, too, even though it's a bar. (A very classy bar, I might add.) Why would a concerned, loving mother approve of her high-school-age son's visits to such a place? Because it's a SCAB bar. The bartender's a SCAB, and most of the regulars are too. Mom's met several of them and feels she can trust my safety there. As for me, I just like the atmosphere.

And mom's right. They're good people at the Pig, even if the communal sense of humor does run towards massive practical jokes. Well, most of them are good... there's also Jubatus, who I can't quite figure out. He's more of a cheetah than I am a lion, he swears in at least14 languages (I've been tempted to start counting), and he set me up for a fight with a school bully. But that bully had been on my case for months already, and he's never laid a hand on me since, which is exactly what the cheetah says he had in mind all along! I think he's older than me, maybe a lot older, and he's a pessimist to beat all pessimists, but he's fair, and rather brutally honest. He reminds me of Professor Higgins from My Fair Lady. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. I auditioned for the part in our high school's performance my freshman year.

Like I said, I can't figure Jubatus out, but that won't stop me from trying. I know there's a pleasant person in there somewhere. I've seen it once before, and I'm going to find it again sooner or later.

Beside that, I still owed him for the gauntlets he made me. When I'm wearing them, they put a strong shell around my fingertips, a shell which may be a little clumsy, but also ensures that I don't claw anybody, accidentally or otherwise. That helped more than I'd hoped: Though I still had to worry about anti-SCABS idiots, I actually picked up a few new friends from people who were just a little nervous about all the built-in switchblades on my hands.

I'll be the first to admit that things aren't perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't make them better!

The pain wakes me. Pain in head, some of my legs, other places. I try to move, but the pain explodes! I whimper like... like a... like a what? Never mind, it'll come to me. I smell blood, my blood. Head hurts. Hungry, too.

Head hurts bad.

There's something around me... fabric? Yes, fabric. Fabric, something, don't know! Fabric is important, I'm sure of it. Something else around me. It's a strap of some kind. A strap with a bag. The bag is thick, there's things in it, not sure what. Important things. Fabric, the things in the bag, why are they important? Don't know. They just are.

Shapes near me. Some are straight, no, square and rectangle! And trapezoid. That's it. Trapezoid. I remember. And para... something. Head hurts. Shapes, other shapes not straight. Circle. More shapes, not circles -- but not straight either! What are those shapes!? I growl in frustration.

I lie still. Hungry. I can move, but it hurts less to just lie there. Cold. Good smell coming from... fabric, little bags, pockets! Yes. Pockets. Feels good. Smells good, too, and the smell comes from inside pockets. Good smell. Maybe good to eat? I can -- no! Painpainpain! Don't want to try moving that leg again. More whimpering. More hunger. Got three more legs, maybe another... ahhh. That one doesn't hurt. I reach up and over, but I can't get at the smell. The pocket won't let me in! I snarl, move my leg for another try, and then the pain --

One more week of summer school. That's all I needed to finally catch up with the classes I missed from the Flu and SCABS! I hated health class. It was taught by Mr. Patterson, the most boring teacher in school. Mr. Patterson was an energy vampire, I swear it, able to put an entire auditorium to sleep in minutes. His voice had just the right pitch, just the right rising-falling cadence to put someone out like a light. The school should send him to the hospital as an anesthesiologist. They'd make a fortune. I mean, he didn't even move around to keep people's attention, but just huddled there behind his lectern and droned on... and on... and on...

Awake again. Something has grabbed the bag -- my bag -- in its forelegs. I scream and slash at it, my claws dig -- pain! It hurts it hurts it hurts! Can't sleep, must not sleep! What I ripped into isn't alone; I see, and hear and smell, more things like it. They move towards me, they must want my bag. But I won't let them take it! Hurts too bad, can't fight. Got to run!

I move, whine from the pain. Too slow! But it hurts! I can't go any faster or the pain will make me sleep. Funny; I'm too slow, and the moving things still can't keep up with me. How much faster could I move if it didn't hurt so much?

I move, no, crawl is what I do. Head hurts. I crawl and whine. Getting tired. So hungry. The moving things smell like... food? Yes. They smell like food. Or maybe I'm smelling my blood? I'm hungry. I wonder if the moving things will let me eat them? Don't think so, I wouldn't let them eat me. Doesn't matter; they're far away, so I can't eat them anyway. I feel good, but why? There's nothing good about going hungry!

Now I'm in a hidden place, nothing can see me. Now I can stop. I'm tired, hurt, cold and hungry. I curl up around my bag and sleep...

Another day, another doldrum... Time to suffer through health class again, then on to the library to futz around on the computers before Mom comes by to pick me up. Well, at least I could look forward to e-mail from Aunt Sadie and Uncle Dan, out in Chicago. My family was heavily into the medical profession, and Uncle Dan was no different. He always had Aunt Sadie send me a little anecdote of his day as a paramedic, edited of course for confidentiality. I think he's still trying to get me to follow the family tradition rather than go off after meteorology, which I'm thinking I'd like. Why Aunt Sadie? Because Uncle Dan was as technologically inept as his sister, my mother, who could make a computer weep with terror. Aunt Sadie, on the other hand, was an e-mail master, and an accomplished storyteller. Whenever she visited, everybody wound up in stitches. The laughing kind, not the incision kind.

The next while is sea... no. A sea. Of sleep. Every so often, a piece of awake rises up out of the sea and sinks right back down.

Sight, smells, noises are different in each piece of awake. Pain is less, even head hurts less. Different shapes around me. Still hungry. Something puts food in my mouth; I swallow it.

Where is my blood? I don't smell it any more, just sharp odors. I feel straps around me; my strap, the strap of my bag, and other straps. Fabric is there too. It's not cold! Another good thing: Whatever has me, it hasn't eaten me yet.

I am warm. Not hungry. Safe. Life is good. I purr as sleep rises up around me.

At last! The final day of summer school! I thought to myself as I settled into a chair in the library computer lab. And now for every lion's favorite part of the day -- checking e-mail!

Another virus hoax. Translation: Spam. Delete.

Chain letter. Spam. Destroy -- no, wait. On second thought, save to 'chain letter' folder for later printing. Sometimes I just felt like shredding something, and chain letters worked nicely for that.

Credit card offer. More spam. Nuke. With extreme prejudice.

Hey, this is interesting. News from the Capitol says a bill's in the works to let SCABs back into food companies. I felt my ears perk forward at that, and chuckled slightly. And here I used to think being able to wiggle my ears was neat. I've heard all sorts of people with SCABS complain about how awful their life has been since coming down with it, but I think it's been more of a blessing for me. My hearing is better, my sight is better, and I've often ribbed my friends over a meal with the line 'If you knew what you were missing...' while tapping my nose. Sure, it can be annoying at times, and frustrating, too, but at least I don't have to worry about acne or glasses or walking with a limp anymore, I thought to myself. The limp was from getting hit by a car several years ago, and it had vanished along with my nearsightedness when I came down with SCABS.

The flicker of the screensaver brought me out of my reverie, and I reread the 'news from the capitol' e-mail. The people at the Pig might want to hear about this, I decided, and clicked the printer icon. Print.

The machine remained silent. I scowled. Print.


"Print, you Stone Age piece of junk!!!!"

Oops. Judging by the look I'd just gotten from the school librarian, I must've said that last one out loud. Matter of fact, the way my throat hurt, I must have roared it. Ow... When I'd first come down with a fur coat, I soon discovered I had enough lion in my head that it would sometimes try to punch the volume up to a roar on perceived need. Unfortunately, my vocal cords are too human to handle that kind of stress for long. On the plus side, this means I can still talk without a voder. Anyway, the printer was now going like crazy, a fact that earned me looks of admiration from the few other people in the lab. I smiled sheepishly, sat back down, and opened the last e-mail, which was addressed from Aunt Sadie and Uncle Dan. As I started reading, my eyes widened in shock and the frenzied antics of the printer passed right out of my mind.

Room. Where I am is room. Lots of straight shapes, room included. Other shapes -- curves! Curved. Yes. Circle is not the only curved. Straight is just straight, but curved is many curved. I feel good.

Room has lots of things to see and hear. Thing to see, box, elec-something, monitor! That's it. Monitor. More than one monitor, and they all show different things. Some go whong, whong. One goes whong in time with my heart! Another, in time with... air, lungs, breathing! In time with my breathing. I know, because I stop breath, and that monitor stops whonging. I can't stop breath for long, I feel worse and worse. Heart goes faster, head hurts more, and monitors show different things. One monitor doesn't care when I stop breath, but the rest get busy with new things to see and hear.

The monitor that doesn't care is different, it shows different things than the rest. The others show lines and dots and patterns that make me feel funny when I look at them; the one that doesn't care shows pictures. No -- pictures don't move, and what this one shows does move... window! It's a window. I like looking at the window box, the monitor boxes get boring fast.

I wonder why monitors are here. Then I know: Monitors are for me. All for me! Goodgoodgood.

And I've noticed something else. There are two kinds of shapes; one kind moves by itself, and the other kind doesn't. Even though both kinds of shapes have a lot of different scents, the moving ones all smell kind of the same.

The moving shapes smell like food.

I feel bad when I think about that, so I try not to, but it's true -- moving shapes do smell like food! And there's... something, label? 'Doctor'. 'Nurse'. There are a lot more of nurse than doctor. At first I thought all nurse were female, and all doctor male, but this is just mostly true. Now I think it's age; doctor are older than nurse.

I guess word had already gotten around by the time I reached the Pig. Wanderer, my favorite wolfmorph, was talking to the rest of the Strikebreakers, the mostly-vocal band Wanderer's the leader of, and Jubatus does percussion for.

"Forgive a suspicious old wolf, Ring," he said gently as I pushed the door open, "but given your general opinion of him..."

"Sure he's an unbelievable pain in the neck," Ringwolf said. Well, technically, that wasn't exactly what he said, but I didn't feel the need to remember the list of swear words he'd used. "But he's our unbelievable pain in the neck, okay? No way I'm gonna stand by and let those idiot Feds lock him up and throw away the key, alright?"

"What!?" I had figured from my aunt's e-mail that Jubatus was involved in a bad accident, but lock him up?

Wanderer turned his attention to me, his ears dipped with stress. "Ah, Hallan, my young friend." He sighed, visibly trying to put a good face on things. "The long and short of it is that Jubatus, that prosperous cheetah, wound up in rather an automotive mess today." He raised his hand before I could speak. "He's alive and well, and healing as rapidly as one would expect from him. However, he received a concussion..."

For a moment, he stopped to pull himself together, and he looked horribly tired. Just for a second. Then, smiling again, he continued. "The crack on the cranium seems to have rather crossed a few wires. And the government, sweet souls that they are," he somehow drawled sarcastically in that weird British accent of his, "feels that he might be better off in a... what's the term? 'Professional Care Facility'. Or was it 'Permanently Compounded F --" He checked himself, hard. "Forgive me. I've had a very long day."

"I had initially considered Mr. Acinonyx's fears on that score to be exaggerated," said an unfamiliar voice, "but in view of the message I have today received from the Department of the Interior, it would appear that his was the more accurate point of view."

"Department of the Interior? What..." Who is this guy, and what's going on with Jubatus? I wanted to shout. "Will someone please tell me what's going on?"

"I'm afraid I must away," Wanderer sighed. Then, to the stranger, "If you might please explain to him?"

"Of course."

"Many thanks. If I may..." With that, Wanderer hurried off.

Whoever this new person was, I'd never seen him at the Pig before. He was a norm, looked Oriental, maybe 5 foot 6 and 120 lbs. Straight black hair, and he wore a black suit with silver pinstripes. "Well," he said, extending his hand for a shake. "So you are Hallan Meras, also known as Harrison Myers?"

Thankfully, although he grabbed my hand rather than the wrist, his grip wasn't heavy enough to make my claws ache. "Ah, yes sir. Um..."

He smiled. "And you're wondering who I am. My name is Kevin Tanakata, and I have been Mr. Acinonyx's attorney of record since October of 2037." Then he released my hand.

The last name didn't ring a bell for a few moments. "Mr. Assinonni -- Oh, you mean Jubatus?"

"Yes. And he is far and away my most interesting client, I assure you! He being a SCAB, there were a number of occasions on which we discussed the possibility that his instincts might someday overwhelm his conscious mind. I felt that it would be best to set up mechanisms to ensure a smooth transfer of authority in the event that he did become mentally incompetent. He disagreed sharply, on the grounds that any such mechanisms could be used to facilitate his involuntary incarceration in a SCAB colony for life. I felt his concerns were somewhat exaggerated, particularly those related to Government action, but at the same time I could not deny their factual basis. So in accordance with his wishes, I arranged his affairs in such a way as to present the greatest practical degree of difficulty for any outside agent who wished to usurp control over his life and property.

"I regret to say that events have proven Mr. Acinonyx to be correct in all particulars. While there are certain substantive details of the current situation that I am ethically bound not to reveal, one thing I can say is that had Mr. Acinonyx followed my initial recommendations, he would be in 'protective custody' at this very moment. As it is, we have --" he checked his watch "-- 69 hours 46 minutes to find him a caretaker that will be acceptable to a duly appointed representative of the Federal Government."

"And if that doesn't happen?" I asked warily.

Mr. Tanakata frowned. "In the event that such a person fails to appear within the allotted time, Mr. Acinonyx will then be inducted into the deceptively-named Federal SCAB Acculturation Program."

I have a new trick! I can make the world go fast or slow!

I was in room, like always. There were two shapes that move; very very slow, but I can see them move, more easy if I look away for a while and then look back. The shapes make noise, groaning slow and deep. I think maybe there is something more to the noise, if the shapes would just hurry up about it.

But the shapes don't hurry! The shapes never hurry! And the shapes don't stop making the noise! It's pissing me off -- and then the shapes do hurry. The shapes get fast, and the sound goes fast and high, and light goes weird, and I get very heavy. And the noise makes me feel funny, just like the patterns on the monitors make me feel funny. I'm missing something, but I don't know what!

What am I missing? I don't know, or care, because I feel very very good about making the world go fast. But I get so tired, so quick -- and the monitors go beep instead of whong, and the shapes get busy around me, and my head hurts -- so I let the world stop being fast. Then after the monitors go back to whonging, and the shapes quit being busy, I wonder: I can make the world go fast, and when I do, I get heavy. Can I make the world go slower than usual? And if I can, will I get light?

So I try it. And I can, and I do. Fast world means high sounds; slow world means low sounds. Light goes funny, color goes funny, either way. But my head hurts bad, so I let the world go its own speed. And I sleep...

Jubatus had been taken to the Worthington HMO just outside of town. I've never been there before, and I wouldn't be there now except that Mr. Tanakata asked me to come along. I'm not sure why he asked me, but I'm glad he did.

We went through the checkpoint at the admissions desk, and a few minutes later we reached our destination. And... this was Jubatus? A lot of his fur was shaved, and he had bandages and casts and IV lines and sensor patches all over his body. The whole effect was kind of weird, and even weirder was something I might not have noticed if I hadn't been from such a medical-oriented family: Even though the accident had to have happened only a day and a half ago, he looked like he'd been recuperating for a couple of weeks! And he wasn't moving... right, one of the IV lines was feeding him a mild sedative. He was probably asleep.

"Well, it would appear that his injuries were less severe than we had been led to believe," said Mr. Tanakata. He was quiet, but not quiet enough. Jubatus' pulse and so on increased by a factor of three on the monitors, his ears twitched, then he cocked his head and looked at us, first the lawyer, then me. I didn't see any hint of recognition in his eyes, just curiosity.

"Now, perhaps, but certainly not when he was first brought in." It was Wanderer, who entered the room with a steaming Styrofoam cup filled with some commercial relative to chicken ramen, if my nose read the scent right. "Good day to you, my friend," Wanderer said with a smile, then turned his attention to Jubatus' lawyer. "And to you, Mr. Tanakata. I hope you don't mind, but I've taken the liberty of arranging a small welcoming committee for the governmental representative." He dipped his head to lap from his soup, and I tried not to grin as I watched him work to keep from getting noodles stuck to his muzzle. I quickly looked away toward Jubatus before Wanderer could catch me trying not to laugh. "We shall guide him here with all appropriate speed," I heard him say a moment later. Whew. He hadn't noticed. The door opened, then closed as Wanderer left the room, and the cheetah laughed with his tail and a purr.

Trying to restrain a smile, I murmured, "Cut it out, Jubatus. That's not polite." It was funny, though.

The big cat rolled his eyes and laid his head back on his pillow, looking out the window at the birds outside.

Watching him lie there, I found it hard to believe that this laid-back cheetah was the same person as the abrasive, tightly wound feline I knew from the Pig. Maybe the experience would be good for Jubatus, in the end. I hoped so, anyway. Nobody should be so alone in the world.

"So... how did you come to know Mr. Acinonyx?" asked Mr. Tanakata, who was watching me curiously.

"Umm, I met him at the Pig. He made me kinda nervous at first, but he's a decent guy once you get to know him. Even if you do want to smack him with a clue-by-four from time to time."

The lawyer smiled. "An apposite observation. One can only wish that a different kind of enlightenment would befall him now, before Wanderer returns with that Government gentleman."

"Yeah." I didn't have anything else to say, until I thought about exactly which branch of the Government Mr. Tanakata said he'd been contacted by. "Sir? What does the Department of the Interior have to do with SCAB colonies?"

"It's a question of land. Lapine SCABs can be warehoused very densely; carnivores, such as my client, require a great deal more space. Since the Department of the Interior controls most Government-owned land, it was inevitable that most SCAB colonies would end up in that Department's portfolio of responsibilities."

"Ummm... Okay..."

Loud yelling out in the hall cut off my next sentence, as suddenly, the door slammed open and in stormed a man whose clothes and demeanor screamed 'government'. He was trailed by Wanderer and a man-sized bug that I remembered seeing from TV. Dr. Derksen, I think his name was. The man and Derksen were arguing loudly, and it was quickly clear what the man had come for.


Moving shapes in room -- why are they here? They are not doctor, not nurse, and not hungry. But I am not fear! Not as long as I can make the world slow. Still can't run, I hurt when I move too fast, but I don't need to run. If the shapes try to hurt me, I can make them stop moving and they will never hurt anything again.

I like their scents. I don't want to make them stop. Don't think I'll have to.

I feel good.

Can't figure out why shapes are in room... I guess it will come to me. And if it doesn't, who cares? Room is boring to look at, the shapes are different. Good shapes, good scents. And they make noise that makes me feel funny. One shape, not dog, cane, a lot of canes? That's wrong. What does a lot of canes have to do with anything? And that shape isn't a cane anyway! Not even -- rrrrrr! Never mind. The cane-shape that isn't a cane makes noise that sounds very good. I wonder if these shapes will stay in room? Maybe they will. That might be good.

And then there is a new shape. I smelled it before I could see or hear it. That smell, pine? Yes. I think it's pine, and a lot of pine, too -- it's a skunk! Not sure if 'skunk' is right, but this shape is covered in black and white, and it stinks real bad, so what else can it be? Skunk. For some reason, I only feel a little bad when I think about hurting the skunk-shape. I don't like the skunk-shape, and neither do the shapes I do like. It doesn't like them, either.

I don't get it: The shapes I like want to hurt the skunk-shape, I can smell it on their scents, so why don't they? I guess it doesn't matter. At least the skunk-shape sounds good when it makes noise. It makes a lot of good-sounding noise at me, even does something with ears -- scratches! The skunk-shape scratches behind my ears, and it feels good. I'm glad I didn't slash at its forepaw. I still don't like the skunk, but I guess it's good for something...

It's not polite to say bad things about someone you hardly know. That why all I'm going to say about the Government guy is that he had a nice voice and a clean suit. As for Mr. Tanakata, I don't know how he did it, but he managed to stay flawlessly courteous while conveying the impression that the agent reminded him of something to be scraped off the sole of a shoe. Me, I just listened and tried to keep from gagging on the stink of the cologne the agent was wearing, which was thick enough to make my nose hurt.

"May I ask who you are, sir?"

"Gordon Phelps. Senior vice-chairman, Department of the Interior. And you?"

"My name is Kevin Tanakata. I represent the interests of Mr. Acinonyx."

"Meaning you're the SCAB's attorney," Mr. Phelps said, not sounding pleased.

"I have that honor, yes," Tanakata said, holding out a business card, which the agent made vanish. The lawyer then took a small vidcam out of an inside pocket. "I trust you have no objection to my making a permanent record of this proceeding?"

Mr. Phelps sure didn't look happy about it, but he said, "No. Of course not."

The lawyer set the vidcam up on a wall, held in place by some kind of suction cup, giving it an unobstructed view of the entire room. "Thank you, sir. I'm sure it pleases you to know that there will be incontrovertible documentation of the correctness of your actions."

"Is there anything we can get for you before you begin, Mr. Phelps sir?" asked Wanderer, in a voice that made me want to turn and stare at him. His British accent was gone, and his tone had a whine in it that sounded like he was half a second from groveling. Has to be an act, I thought to myself. Has to. There's just no way Wanderer would talk like that if he didn't have a reason.

"No, thank you," Phelps said, a lot more rudely than you'd think from the words.

"It's no trouble, really! Water -- a throat lozenge --"

"Thank. You. But. No."

"A doctor --"

"No!" Phelps shouted, and then he calmed himself. "No, that won't be necessary." Looking at the bug, he went on, "Dr. Derksen. I... appreciate... your concerns, but there is really no need for you to waste any of your valuable time here. It's not the SCAB's physical health I'm concerned with, but, rather, the state of what's left of his mind. Therefore, your more-than-ample qualifications are, quite simply, not applicable to this proceeding."

"I should think --" Dr. Derksen began, but Mr. Tanakata interrupted him.

"Excuse me, sir, but the law is quite clear on this point: As the Government's chosen representative in this matter, Mr. Phelps is fully empowered to accept or reject any witnesses he desires, on any criteria he desires."

I'm not sure what Dr. Derksen thought of that -- it's not easy to 'read' a chitin-plated face with lidless compound eyes and rigid mandibles -- but after a short pause, he said, "Very well. Far be it from me to obstruct a Government official from committing his duty."

Mr. Phelps looked a bit uncertain for a moment as he glanced at the lawyer, but he didn't let that stop him. "Thank you, Mr. Tanakata. How reliable is your vidcam?"

"It meets the legal definitions of 'untamperable' and 'glitchless' as stated in HB490987. Would you like to review the certification?"

"That won't be necessary. I will allow the video record to stand in lieu of written documentation, and I enjoin you to transmit a copy of said record to my office via secure protocol."

Mr. Tanakata inclined his head to acknowledge the command. "Of course -- my client wouldn't have it any other way."

"Very well. Unless there are any further issues to address," he said, not quite glaring at Derksen, "let's get on with it." He pointed at me, Wanderer, and Mr. Tanakata. "You three will serve as witnesses. For the record, state your name or valid alias, your profession, and your relationship to the SCAB known as Jubatus Acinonyx."

The lawyer went first: "My name is Kevin Tanakata. I am a lawyer, and I am Mr. Acinonyx's attorney of record."

"They call me Wanderer, I work in the theatre, and Jubatus is my voice coach."

Then it was my turn: "I, uh, I'm Harrison A. Myers, I guess I'm a student, and, um, I'm a friend of Jubatus."

"Good. We now have three witnesses, as specified in Article 26 of the Federal SCAB Acculturation Act, and we may begin." Then he took a deep breath and spoke very fast, as though reciting some legal boilerplate that he'd memorized: "On the basis of a complaint from one Daniel Weathersby a paramedic residing in or near the city of Chicago Illinois a question has been raised regarding the mental competence of the person known as Jubatus Acinonyx a victim of Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome. This proceeding has been called in order to determine whether or not the aforementioned Jubatus Acinonyx may reasonably be expected to be a danger to the people around him. I Gordon Phelps in my capacity as a duly appointed representative of the United States Federal Government have been charged with the duty of making this determination and will now discharge this duty in accordance with all relevant guidelines as provided in the Federal SCAB Acculturation Act."

I honestly don't know how Mr. Phelps managed to get through all that without inhaling, but he did! And then he started talking to Jubatus: "Well, now -- aren't you a stupid animal, Jubatus? Yes, you are. Yes, you are!" He kept going for a while, using the same tone of voice you'd use on a well-loved pet, and his words... well, what he actually said was about as far as you could get from the cheerful, happy manner in which he said it. I could feel my claws twitching in my fingertips and wished fervently that I'd remembered to bring my gauntlets. Why isn't Jubatus doing anything?? I asked myself with increasing worry as Mr. Phelps crooned on about putting Jubatus in a zoo. I looked down at the cheetah, watching him for a bit, when a sudden hunch jumped into my thoughts and smacked me upside the head. He's waiting...

"He's not going to go with you," I broke into the man's 'test', not making any effort to minimize my scowl. This guy was now officially a jerk, and deserved every toothy snarl I could give him.

"Not today, no. That's alright; we'll get him when you people fail to produce a suitable ca -- aah!" Suddenly, there was a sand-colored blur at the agent's wrist, and Mr. Phelps stumbled backwards at a slow run; if Wanderer hadn't caught him, the agent would have tripped over a chair and fallen flat on his back.

I smiled, not bothering to minimize the number of teeth it showed, like I normally do. "I don't think you should stand next to him, sir. He doesn't like you very much."

The man blanched as he massaged one shoulder, muttering, "My God, never even saw..." Suddenly he smirked. "Fortunately, that unprovoked attack is one more piece of evidence to support my conclusion that he's gone feral. He's like a junkyard dog -- he hates everybody."

"He likes some people well enough, sir," I said pointedly as I put my hand on Jubatus' shoulder, letting Jube's satisfied rumble punctuate my statement. "As for you, if you'll just move two steps closer, I'm sure he'll show you exactly how much he dislikes you. He hates your cologne, for starters. And your outfit. You're also blocking his view of the birds."

"Oh, really?" the agent said with a condescending sneer. "How would you know? Psychic?"

I looked at him. Was he really that much of an idiot? I pointed at Jubatus. "He's not a vegetable, sir. The head injury only made him nonverbal. Can't you read his body language? One: You're the only person he's wrinkled his nose at this entire time. Two: whenever he looks at you, his ears flatten, his tail twitches, and he squints. Three: He was lying quite peaceably, watching the birds for the past fifteen minutes, until you showed up and stood in the way. The only thing that kept you from getting swatted was your scratching his ears."

Phelps nodded. "All of which confirms that he's operating purely on instinct." Then he paused and looked at each of us, and said: "On this 29th day of July 2039, in the presence of these three witnesses good and true, the person known as Jubatus Acinonyx, a victim of Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, has failed to display sentience when put to the test. Therefore I, Gordon Phelps, in my capacity as a duly appointed representative of the United States Federal Government, hereby declare the aforementioned Jubatus Acinonyx to have regressed to a feral, subhuman mentality. Mr. Tanakata, within the next 24 hours you will present to me a comprehensive program of care for your client, including the disposition of his estate. If you cannot present such a program, or if your proposed program does not adequately provide for the welfare of either your client or the general public, I will be forced to declare your client a ward of the Federal Government until such time as it can be determined that he has regained his sentience. Thank you all for your cooperation, and goodbye." So saying, the agent hurried out of the room.

I stood there for a few seconds, trying to dredge up a reply, but he was already long gone. Slick, Hallan. You just did his work for him. And... Wanderer was -- "What on earth are you smiling for??"

The wolf shushed me. "A moment, if you please? Mr. Tanakata is speaking to a colleague."

Still confused, I swiveled my ears towards the lawyer, who already had his cell phone out: " -- witnesses, none of them medically qualified, one underage. Explicitly and voluntarily declined opportunity to have qualified observer present. Sentience test restricted to comprehension of spoken language, no test for ability to speak, no test for comprehension or use of written language. No attempt to distinguish between injury-derived mental deficits and SCABS-derived feral state. Sue Phelps in his professional capacity for malfeasance in office, violation of 8th Amendment prohibition against takings, and violation of public trust; sue Phelps personally for emotional distress, violation of Executive Order 298768, violation of the SCABS Anti-Discrimination Law, and conspiracy to commit grand theft; throw in anything else your fertile mind can dream up in the next 15 minutes. I want the whole package on Phelps' desk, waiting for him, when he returns to his office. Thank you."

After he re-pocketed his cell phone, he gave a thumbs-up gesture to Wanderer. "Excellent. As my client might say, 'I love it when a plan comes together'."

"Wait a second. You mean you wanted Phelps to do what he just did?"

"'Wanted'? Hardly! It was, however, no more than we expected." The wolf grinned. "Let us say that we brought with us a sizeable quantity of rope, and allowed the gentleman to take as much of it as he felt he could carry."

I sighed. Is it just me, or has everyone on this Earth gone cynical and devious? "All the rope he needed to hang himself, you mean."


The lawyer smiled elegantly as he took up the tale: "While all of Mr. Phelps' actions were strictly within the letter of the Federal regulation which authorized the SCAB Acculturation program, I'm afraid he neglected to take into account any of the associated case law."

I thought fast. "The witnesses?"

"Among other things, yes. While the text of the law proper specifies that there must be three witnesses to the test, it is silent as regards the witnesses' competence to make judgements of this kind. It was not until Horsten vs. US Government, in 2015, that it was actually made mandatory that the witnesses be qualified medical personnel. And the 2021 case of Carson vs. Carson established that in case of head injury, organic brain damage must be ruled out as a cause of mental incapacity before a SCAB can be declared feral."

"In sum," Wanderer broke in smoothly, "it would appear that SCABs in this situation have rather more in the way of legal protection than is commonly appreciated. The Government has done nothing to publicize these protections, of course, and in fact tends to encourage the victims' next of kin to waive any applicable safeguards without knowing what they're waiving."

I felt abruptly nauseated. "But -- how can they get away with that kind of thing?"

Mr. Tanakata sighed. "Most people don't see any point in raising a fuss over improprieties in the proceeding. If a SCAB's mind is sufficiently affected to raise a question of his competence in the first place, he's going to end up in a colony anyway, or at least so goes the rationale. In this case... Mr. Acinonyx may yet prove to be irrecoverable, but I see no reason not to put off arriving at that conclusion as long as possible."

"And amen to that!" Wanderer exclaimed.

"Well. I have enjoyed your company, Wanderer, and it has been a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Myers, but I really must be going. I hope we next encounter each other under more pleasant circumstances."

With that, Mr. Tanakata left. Wanderer whistled in appreciation at his retreating back. "There goes a man who'd be a wonder on stage."

"Or in the courtroom," I agreed. Mental note: Don't get sued by Jubatus. I looked down at the cheetah, who wore a sad look on his face, like he hadn't wanted Mr. Tanakata to go. I rubbed his shoulder and consoled, "Don't worry about it, Jubatus -- he's got work to do."

After a few moments, I glanced over to see Wanderer and Dr. Derksen both watching me. Wanderer looked openly surprised, while Dr. Derksen remained as inscrutable as ever.

"Well! I see that our friend's lawyer was not the only person in this room capable of impressive feats."

"What do you mean?" I looked at Jubatus, who was contentedly watching the birds again.

"Your comprehension of Jubatus' body language. I picked up on the birds, but not on the cologne, and certainly not on the outfit. Or perhaps you were merely funning the gentleman?"

I shook my head. Couldn't they see it either?

"It appears that your common feline nature grants you two a certain degree of affinity, Mr. Myers," Dr. Derksen intoned. Wanderer shot a significant glance at the doctor. It might have been returned, but I couldn't even hazard a guess about a humanoid cockroach's expressions.

"And your mother is a nurse by vocation, is she not?" Wanderer asked, looking sober and serious. "Hallan, Jubatus is going to need a caregiver for the duration of this... episode. If we cannot provide for his needs, the Government most assuredly will -- but I rather doubt our friend would approve. Are you at all familiar with conditions in the lapine colonies?" I shuddered and nodded. "You may take it from me that things are no better for other SCABs deemed 'feral'."

"And you want me to take care of him?" I asked, not at all sure I was up to the challenge.

"Possibly. At present, we are merely assembling a list of suitable candidates, but I rather think you have proven yourself to be one such, and time is short. May we add you to the list?"

I gulped slightly. "I'm going to have to talk to Mom." Dr. Derksen, without a word, handed me a cell phone. I dialed home and waited.


"Hi, Mom. Umm, Mom, can you come down to Worthington?" I hated how that came out, and her startled exclamation came as no surprise.

"Worthington? I thought you said you were going to the Blind Pig! What happened? Are you hurt?" All of this came in a five-second barrage.

"No, I'm fine, but... Do you remember Jubatus?"

She paused for a moment. When her voice came back, it was slightly cautious. "The gentleman who made those gloves for you? I remember you talking about him."

I nodded, even though she couldn't see it. "Yes, that's him. Well, he got..." I paused, unsure of how to phrase this, and finally asked, "Look, can you just come down? It'd be easier to explain."

After a long pause, she said she was on her way.

I closed the phone and handed it back to Dr. Derksen, then rubbed my nose and stifled a sneeze. "I didn't like his cologne either, Jubatus." He flicked his whiskers, then went back to watching the birds.

There are lots of moving shapes, lots of kinds of them. The doctor and nurse shapes all have different labels of their own. This makes sense, especially for nurse, which there are so many of. Mary nurse and bella nurse and many many others. Maybe all moving shapes have different labels of their own? I think they do.

I like doctor and nurse, they make pain go away. Pain is bad, pain hurts. I don't like pain. And there are other moving shapes, not doctor and not nurse. They all smell like food, but I don't hunt them. Hunting means moving, and I can move but it hurts enough that I don't want to, and I don't have to hunt anyway because nurse brings me food.

I like nurse. A lot.

Other shapes. I know they're around, because I can hear them. I can also smell them a little, when the stinks in room aren't strong. And I've noticed that some moving shapes don't move much, just like I don't move much right now. I think maybe the shapes that don't move much are hurt; maybe doctor and nurse make pain go away for them, just like doctor and nurse make pain go away for me.

When I think about this, I feel good. Why? I don't know! I don't know why I feel bad when I think about eating the moving shapes, either. And hunting is funny, I feel good and I feel bad, both at once, when I think about hunting. It's, something, question, game, puzzle? It's a puzzle. A puzzle! Yes! Puzzle! It's a puzzle, and I can't figure it out. I'm missing something, don't know what. I can't figure it out, and I feel bad. But it's a different bad than the bad I feel when I think about eating shapes that move! It's pissing me off! Bad is bad, how can there be two bads!?

Nurse are here. Is here? Never mind. Anyway, nurse knows when I'm pissed off because monitor boxes tell her so. Nurse uses her forepaws, does things to shapes that don't move by themselves, and I will soon feel better...

Other shapes! Shapes that do move, and aren't doctor or nurse. I see them through window. Wait, that's wrong, window is for wall, not door. Not window. Glass? Yes, glass. My room has door, and I see moving shapes through glass in door, and I can hear them go up to shapes that don't move much. Doctor and nurse shapes are here to make me feel better, make hurt shapes feel better. The first time I noticed the other moving shapes that aren't doctor or nurse, I didn't know why they come here. Not-doctor-or-nurse shapes don't come to eat, even though some of them are hungry, and shapes that don't move much would be easy kills; not-doctor-or-nurse also don't make pain go away.

I just couldn't figure it out. And then a not-doctor-or-nurse shape came to my room! I didn't know why, but I didn't worry, because by that time, lots of moving shapes had been in and out of room, and not one of them even tried to eat me! This new shape had a familiar scent, like dog or something, and I felt good. Something in back of head tried to tell me I should feel bad, but I didn't pay attention.

I like dog-scented shape.

That shape has come back, can't think how many times. Other not-doctor-or-nurse shapes have come to my room, too. I feel good... and I think that must be why not-doctor-or-nurse shapes come here: So that shapes that don't move much can feel better.

I'm still not sure why I was chosen. Maybe I was just the first one who could make the commitment on such short notice? Whatever the reason, if I was going to take care of Jubatus, I wanted to do as good a job as I could. Dr. Derksen was very helpful, he spent five hours talking to Mom and me about Jubatus' physical quirks. And then we had an appointment with Jubatus' therapist...

The man at the door was a well-dressed animorph SCAB. Probably snake, judging by the light sprinkling of scales and his piercing, glittering eyes. He didn't even blink when my grey and white tabby kitten, Stratus, attacked his shoes. Instead, he merely stooped down to pick her up, extracted his shoelaces from her mouth, and handed her off to me with a hint of a smile at my embarrassed look.

"May I come in?"

"Of course, Dr. Halliburton," said my mom, gesturing at the couch. "Please, make yourself comfortable."

He entered with an odd grace to his movements, almost boneless. "I am given to understand that the young fellow has been selected as Jubatus' caretaker for the time being?"

"That is correct, Doctor. Of course, Harrison is underaged, so my name is on the paperwork. Naturally I'll do what I can, but..."

"Of course. Very well; since both of you will be serving as attendants, both of you should hear what I have to say. First and foremost, you must understand that Jubatus is fundamentally damaged, and his ruling passion is fear."

What? That didn't make sense! "You're saying Mr. Acinonyx --" (the name got easier with practice) "-- is a coward?" Even I knew better than that!

"Coward? Not at all! To some degree, fear is present in every human mind, including those that are regarded as courageous. What I am saying is that if you observe Jubatus, examine the motivations for his actions, you will find that fear is the single most common motivating factor, by a significant margin. For instance, he positively detests the sound of his own voice -- and yet he is extremely talkative. Why do you think that is?"

It didn't make sense to me... after all, if I hated my voice, I wouldn't exactly be eager to hear myself speak. But my mom had an answer: " He's afraid of losing his humanity. He talks because he doesn't want to voluntarily give up a uniquely human activity."

"Exactly so! And that is the reason he has always gone on two legs, even though a quadrupedal stance would be much more comfortable for him. It is also one of the reasons he continually strives to stifle his emotions."

"'Stifled emotions'? You must be kidding!" I interjected before my brain could tell my mouth to shut up. Again.

"No, Mr. Myers, I'm quite serious. Have you any idea how severe his mood swings can get when he doesn't try to put a damper on them?"

I thought about that for a bit, then shuddered and decided I really didn't want to know.

Something very bad happened to me, I'm sure of it. I can remember fire and pain. Much much very worse pain. Badbadbad.

I'm shaking. Think of something else.

Moving shapes that don't move much. There's a lot of them around here; I think they're in different rooms, and sometimes more than one shape in a room. I can't really tell from what I hear and smell, though. Want to see, but that would mean I getting out of room, and it hurts when I move! Not so much now as before, but some, and it keeps on getting better. It will be nice to not hurt at all when I move.

I also have stiff things on legs that make it hard to move anyway. I didn't like the stiff things when I first noticed them, because they make it hard to move, but since it hurts less when I don't move, I like the stiff things anyway. Not hurting is very good!

Some rooms have more than one shape that doesn't move much. I'm sure of it. But I'm the only shape that doesn't move much in my room! Don't know why. Doesn't matter; having to look at the same shape all the time is boring.

There is window in wall, I spend a lot of time looking through window. Window changes, dark and light and between. I see a lot of different shapes out there. Some don't move, and they're boring. I also see moving shapes, and they're interesting. Some of them move through air! I'm pretty sure I could move through air if it didn't hurt to move, but that would just be jump. I don't think jump is what air-moving shapes do.

Sometimes I sleep.

Not-doctor-or-nurse shapes come to my room, too. I'm pretty sure they all have labels, just as doctor shapes and nurse shapes have labels. There is the wanderer shape, that's the dog-scented one. I like how it sounds when the wanderer makes noise. Other shapes, too. There is the phil shape, when the phil is here I feel very very bad so I shake and whine and hide my head under forelegs until the phil goes away. There is the hallan shape; the hallan smells like me, sort of. I don't know how I feel about the hallan, I feel good and bad and I think of my cubs except I don't have any cubs. Do I?

Ah! Doctor got rid of the stiff things. Feel good all over. I can move, play! Goodgoodgood! But the doctor shapes and nurse shapes don't want me around any more... Maybe they know I don't have any more pain for them to make go away? That makes sense. They make pain go away, so why stick around after that's done? But what happens if I leave room? Room is warm and there is always food. I know I can hunt my own food, but I feel very bad when I think about that...

The hallan is here. The hallan wants me to go with him. The hallan will feed me, I'm sure of it. The hallan will keep me warm.

I was a little worried when I took custody of Jubatus; if he didn't want to go, there really wasn't any way I could make him... Fortunately for me (and him), he didn't mind, and he climbed into the back seat of Mom's little Geo Spark without any fuss. He actually seemed to enjoy the ride, looking out the windows like a little kid watching the world go by.

When we got home I led Jubatus in the door, just in time to meet Stratus' charge around the corner from the kitchen. Oh, the look on her face! She screeched to a halt so hard she nearly sat down, made a right hand turn within half a body length, and beat a hasty retreat under the couch. She then proceeded to watch the cheetah from beneath the dust ruffle, her bright blue eyes and pink nose the only things visible.

Jubatus stood and looked back at Stratus for a few seconds, then seemed to shrug and padded over to the large sunbeam casting itself down from the picture window onto the living room floor and laid down, looking like he wanted to soak up as much of it as he could. I smiled. He wasn't the only cat in the house who liked that sunbeam. Stratus was a regular fixture there and, occasionally, so was I. I sat down in the chair across from the couch and waited. Stratus didn't disappoint me. One minute to the second after the cheetah settled down, she pounced on the tip of his tail.

Rather, Stratus tried to pounce on the tip of his tail. But it wasn't there when she landed, because it blurred elsewhere at the last moment, settling behind her. She wobbled, thrown off her balance with surprise, and looked around for her vanished quarry. Aha! She found it behind her, and gave it a careful pat with a forepaw. It stayed put. Emboldened, she pounced again... and it was gone again, blurred out of range.

Good for Stratus. I can always tell if she likes somebody by whether she attacks or hides. If she likes you, she'll pounce. If she doesn't, or you scare her, she'll hide. She's always been a good judge of character, and I'm glad she didn't think Jubatus was dangerous.

Jubatus lifted his head to look at the grey-white fluffball, visibly rolled his eyes, and laid back down without bothering her. Stratus quickly tired of trying to catch the cheetah's elusive tail, affected a loss of interest, and climbed delicately up onto his back and curled up, snuggling into the spotted cheetah fur. The sight of the two together made me glad Mom and I had rescued her from the pound. She'd been born with only three legs, a defect that didn't slow her down in the slightest, but her previous owner apparently decided she wasn't worth keeping and had dumped her at the pound. Cretin.

"Looks like Stratus has made a friend," Mom said, smiling as she walked through the room. I certainly hoped so. Stratus may be a very smart kitten, but she'd be no match for Jubatus if he decided he didn't like her.

The hallan treats me, treats, something, pet? Like a pet. Something is wrong, don't know what. Feels wrong. What feels wrong? Never mind. He feeds me, that's good. The hallan place is warm. Warm is good. I like warm places.

The hallan place has other moving shapes, big and little. Big shape has funny scent; if you put big shape's scent together with mine, what you'd get is sort of like the hallan's. Female! Big shape is female, I think she is the hallan's dam. Smells right.

The little shape, the hallan gives it label stratus, little is different. Very young, too. The stratus doesn't have every leg! Maybe the last leg hasn't grown in yet? Not sure about that. Anyway, the stratus is stupid. Its forepaws are clumsy. It makes noises that don't make me feel funny. Big-shape-noises do, but stratus-noises don't. The stratus is definitely a pet. I try to play with the stratus, but little shape doesn't get it, not like the hallan. The hallan is lots of fun to play with! More fun than the stratus.

Stupid stupid stratus.

The hallan feeds the stratus like he feeds me... I think maybe I am a pet. Have I always been a pet? Don't remember. Doesn't matter anyway. The hallan is good to me, that matters. Head hurts.

Note to self: cheetahs and cabin fever do not mix. He'd taken to running up and down the halls (a practice gleefully joined by a playful, but much slower, Stratus), which meant that we had some lamps to replace. Worse yet, Jubatus actually managed to leave pawprints and claw marks up the walls and on the ceiling! I gave myself a headache trying to figure out how that worked... Besides, we simply didn't have the space for him to run around inside, which is why I ended up holding a collar and leash in front of him and trying to look hopeful.

He sniffed suspiciously at the pieces of cowhide, then growled a little, but he sat back down. "See? Just a couple of strips of leather. Here, let me put the collar around your neck."

Well, he let me do it. But when I stood up, I felt a little rustling around my own neck, and the collar was on me! I immediately glared at Jubatus, who (to all appearances) hadn't moved an inch. He just looked up with an innocent "who, me?" smile, his tail curling a laugh.

I swear Stratus giggled from her sentry post on the couch. Leveling my finger at her, I said, "You stay out of this," and removed the collar. Returning my attention to the faking cheetah, I started talking, hoping that he'd understand. "Jube, you need to wear this, or that stupid Federal guy will say we're not taking steps to protect the public from you --" as if a leather leash would do any good whatsoever! "-- and you're screwed. You've already got one strike against you for taking a swipe at my uncle. Wear it, or I can't take you to the park."

I think he got the point. He didn't like it -- his ears went back and his tail twitched with irritation -- but he stood up and held his head forward, exposing his neck so I could collar him more easily. I'd have to remember to snag or rig up a harness for him instead of a collar. It would (hopefully) be less demeaning and actually be more secure.

We went out the back door. Immediately Jubatus tensed, and I followed his gaze to my neighbors playing Frisbee in their backyard. I recognized the 'chase' stance right about the time my face hit the dirt as Jubatus took off full-bore after it. The leash, never designed for the stresses of an accelerating, lion-dragging cheetah, snapped like twine.

Pushing up onto my knees, I spat dirt and grass from my mouth and wiped at my face. I felt a nudge in my ribs and opened my eyes to see Jubatus. His smile, the most purely happy one I'd ever seen on his face, was wrapped around the plastic disc in his mouth. "You," I said as I took the Frisbee from him, "are going to get me in serious trouble if you don't slow down."

My neighbors, a pair of newlyweds named the Nashes, came running up a moment later. Mrs. Nash was of pure Irish heritage, and it showed in her willowy build, fair complexion, and flaming red hair. Only her lack of an accent identified her as of local descent. Mr. Nash, on the other hand, was built like an ox and had a Southern accent that thickened as he got excited. It was thick as molasses when he asked, "What on earth was that?"

I wiped my face one last time, shot Jubatus a 'hold still' glare, and looked up at my neighbors. "Mr. and Mrs. Nash, I'd like you to meet Jubatus. He's staying with me for a little while." I handed them back their Frisbee, hoping it would distract them from pursuing that statement. "Sorry about him swiping this. He's a little too quick at times."

Mr. Nash laughed while Mrs. Nash arched an eyebrow. "Harry, I've known you since you were a baby, and I have never heard you understate something so thoroughly!"

Don't know why the hallan wants the strap-thing around my neck. Don't care, either. It doesn't hurt, and without strap, the hallan wants me to stay in new room -- no, not room. House is what the hallan wants me in without strap. The strap, I feel good, but why? What is right about strap? Feel bad, too. Don't know why that, either.

Very much good! We are out of house. Lots of new things to see -- circle! I see circle! Circle moves through air! Too high, I can't reach it. But if I make the world slow, I get light -- maybe then I can reach it? I make the world slow, start run, but stupid strap makes neck hurt, so I twist and claws break it. Now I run, jump, get circle! Circle has thick part all around it. Circum, circuit, I forget. Doesn't matter.

I saw other moving shapes throw circle to themselves; maybe the hallan will throw circle to me? I hope so -- catch is fun! -- I bring circle to the hallan. I wish the hallan wasn't slow, but my head hurts, so I forget about that.

Maybe the hallan can make himself fast? That would be good. Someone I don't have to think about making the world fast and I can play with them anyway... Maybe the hallan can do it a little? I was hurt, lots of things I could only do a little, but I can do them more now. Maybe the hallan is like that, too?

I make the world fast, just not quite as fast as usual. Maybe the hallan can keep up. Hope so. He makes angry noise at me but I know he's not angry because he doesn't smell like it. Ha!

Circle-throwing shapes come here. They are afraid of me, I can smell it on them. I feel good and bad about that. Don't like feeling good and bad together, but it keeps happening. New shapes are a mated pair, sire and dam -- their scents are all over each other. The hallan and the pair make noises at each other, and then everybody throw circle for me to catch, and then I get tired, and then I sleep.

Goodgoodgood. All good!

I heard a car pull up on the street, and shortly afterward, there was a knock at the door. Glancing out the window, I recognized Wanderer, who was carrying what looked like an armful of groceries. As I unlocked the door and opened it, I felt a rustle around my neck, and Wanderer did a classic double-take on seeing me. "I don't mean to be rude, young Hallan, but pray tell why you're wearing a dog collar?" he asked over the top of an especially full bag.

I sighed and removed the collar from around my neck. "Jubatus is feeling particularly mischievous, apparently. C'mon in before your arms fall off." I glanced around for Stratus, but she was nowhere to be found. I shrugged. Then, taking some packages from the wolf's arms as he stepped inside, I led the way to the kitchen. We passed the living room, where Jubatus was draped across as much of the couch as he could, with a smug little smile on his muzzle and tail.

Wanderer chuckled. "On the bright side," he somehow drawled in that clipped British accent of his, "at least he's showing signs of abstract thinking."

"Yeah, but I'm getting kind of worried. There's not much left of summer, and if he doesn't get better before school starts..." I let it trail off as I turned the corner to the kitchen.

Wanderer jumped with a startled yelp as Stratus flung herself out from under the kitchen table onto his foot, saving me the need to continue that thought.

I chuckled. "That means she likes you and thinks you're safe to be around. If she didn't, she'd hide and you'd never see her."

Wanderer picked her up, and she promptly turned her pretty blue eyes full onto him. I grinned as the wolf melted. "She's adorable!" he almost whispered, and she quickly snuggled into his chest with a purr.

As Wanderer started to coo over her, I glanced over at Jubatus. He was looking quizzically at the kitten. A second yelp from Wanderer returned my attention to him. "Careful, she's not declawed."

"So I noticed," he replied through the tail waving across his face. Stratus, having sufficiently snuggled his chest, had climbed up onto his shoulder and was rubbing against the side of his head, not much caring where her tail happened to wind up in all of this. Or maybe repeatedly tickling it across his nose was part of the fun. I found it particularly amusing how she distracted him out of his accent three times during the rest of the conversation.

Wanderer left after he'd dropped off the supplies, and I was just putting them away when I heard a thump from the living room. Closing the fridge door, I went to see what the matter was. Stratus had knocked my mom's knitting basket off its stand by the armchair, and was copying Jubatus' 'Who, me?' look from her position half-buried in the yarn. Jubatus was holding a yarn ball in one forepaw. Hand, I chided myself. He may be four on the floor most of the time, but those are still hands, and he's still a person. Don't you dare forget that. Meanwhile, Jubatus' gaze flickered between the yarn ball and Stratus, like he was trying to figure out what Stratus found so fascinating about it.

Seeing my attention distracted, Stratus gleefully started playing with the yarn, sending yarn balls bouncing out across the floor. Both of Jubatus' forepaws -- hands -- blurred out to catch another one as it rolled by, and he let his first yarn-ball bounce away elsewhere. I picked Stratus out of the basket before she could get herself thoroughly entangled (and ruin Mom's yarn), and set her down amidst her kitty toys, then started picking up the yarn balls that had rolled all over. I paused when I came to Jubatus, who was staring intently at the ball of yarn he'd thrown away. As I eased the yarn-ball out of his hands, I was very careful to watch his face. If he was going to get mad at me, I at least wanted a chance to see it coming. Fortunately for me, he didn't protest. In fact, he started purring as I watched! Extricating Stratus from the basket (again), I set it up out of her reach and went back to the kitchen. She immediately started mewing unhappily.

A few moments later, I heard a rapidfire sequence of 'thuddadud's. "What the..?" I ran back into the living room and saw unballed yarn drifting to the floor all over the place. It looked like Jubatus had thrown all the yarn-balls at the walls, letting them unwind to leave colorful lines floating in midair. The cheetah himself was lying on his back in the middle of the room, fascinated with the moving lines over his head, apparently not concerned that the falling strands were even now wrapping him up in a cocoon. Meanwhile, Stratus was merrily bouncing about among the strands again. Sighing, I set to untangling both kitties, put the basket up out of Jubatus' reach this time, and went back to arranging the steaks and hamburger in our freezer and fridge.

Then I heard the basket thump again. I put my head in my hands and thought to myself, This is going to be a looooong day...

Sounds... I remember... wolf? No, many wolf. And cat. Big cat, smells very very good, I want her. And... horse! Bug, too! I remember! I remember! Labels -- no, not labels, names! Names! Stein and Ringwolf and, and Wanderer! Feels good, it feels good to remember, I feel good. We are all of us in big room, and we make sounds. Music. Good music! I remember, and I feel good, and --

-- feel... strange..?

Okay, where the hell was I? And what was I crying for?

I reviewed my memories: Driving to Chi-town, check. The crash, check. A shitload of fire and pain, check. Then it got fuzzy, and the next thing I knew, I was, well, here. Wherever 'here' was -- I had no clues whatsoever. Christ, I couldn't even be sure what year it was! Where was I? How'd I get here? My head was filled with these, and too many other, questions. My scent was strong in this room; I must've been here for quite a while. As in, "longer than it would have taken my injuries to heal". And I was non compos mentis all the while until just now...

The conclusion was obvious: Someone had done this to me, forced my higher cognitive functions into dormancy. I didn't know the "why" of it -- maybe they were Humans First, maybe they wanted my money, maybe one of a dozen other possibilities -- but for some reason, keeping a man braindead for an extended period just didn't strike me as a friendly act.

I prowled, searching the place, touching only the floor to minimize the risk of triggering any nasty surprises my "host" might have left for me. Odd; although I didn't recognize any of the pictures on the walls, mine wasn't the only familiar scent. I caught whiffs of Wanderer; Derksen (phew!); Stein; damn but there was a lot of that new kid, Hallan My --

Heiliger Christus.

It was beginning to add up, and I didn't like the total.

The gauntlets were such a simple idea; I hadn't stopped to think why nobody had bothered to make them before, but I should have. Any time you've got a de facto underclass like SCABs, there's money to be made in keeping them down, plus any number of slimeballs who're willing to take that money. And the aforementioned slimeballs don't take kindly to any threat to their ill-gotten income, such as a relatively inexpensive gadget that could go a long way towards defusing normals' concerns about SCABs.

It all fit. The tanker had been meant to take me out, and they'd been so confident that they hadn't made a backup plan. So when I obstinately refused to turn up dead, they had to improvise, and thus tried to kill my mind. Shiva, did it ever fit.

But why Myers? He was just a kid! Had my mystery assailants contented themselves with working me over, okay, that's one thing -- but the sons of bitches had had to drag an innocent child into it, didn't they?

I would find out who was behind it all... and then somebody was going to die.

"The duct tape on the fridge door didn't work as well as I'd hoped."

Mom and I were coming back from grocery shopping, which was much earlier than usual since Jubatus had once again gotten into the fridge during the middle of the night. "It was a good idea, honey. I didn't think Jube would be able to cut it, either."

"Yeah, but now I'm going to have to think up some new way to end his midnight snacks. I've seen him eyeing the freezer when he thinks nobody's looking. I'll bet he's going to try for the frozen hamburger next."

Mom chuckled. "At least he leaves Stratus' food alone. And anything that's not meat in the fridge."

"Stratus eats dry kitten chow. And Jube's a meat-eater."

"Oh, stop being so depressed, Harry. I bought some chain and padlocks from the hardware store, should we need them." She smiled that little smile of hers that always left me guessing whether she was kidding or not. After a long pause, she asked, "Have you spoken with your father lately?"

I growled and sulked further into the seat. "Why, so I can send him a mail bomb?"

Mom frowned, and pulled over. Uh-oh. I was in trouble. She didn't pull over unless she was winding up for a lecture. "Harrison Alan Myers, you stop that right now." Yup, I was right. "He is your father, even if we are divorced. He deserves your respect. Understand?" She kept that all in an even tone of voice, but her look could have drilled through granite.

I folded my arms across my chest and looked out the window. "I'll give him my respect when he earns it." I love my mother, but there are certain lines I won't be coaxed across, not until I'm darn good and ready. Charles Myers and I had been in a state of war for as long as I could remember. After the divorce, he and I had settled into entrenched mutual silence. He didn't bother me, I didn't bother him. It worked for us, or at least it did for me. Mom, on the other hand, felt that I should have some sort of relationship with him, being his youngest son. I felt I had all the relationship I needed.

She sighed and pulled into traffic again. "Well, what about your brother and sister? Any e-mail?"

That brought a smile to my face. I may detest my father, but I liked my brother and sister. (Technically, she was my half-sister, but I could care less about the 'half'.) "Jay is feeling a bit homesick, but says he likes the Minnesota autumn. He's enjoying bible college and says that if all goes well, we'll have a minister in the family in three more years."

She chuckled. "I wish he would write normal letters, though. I grew up with e-mail and I'm still awful with it."

I just smiled. Her skills at creating e-mail disasters were legendary. "Jean is rather frustrated with her customers, but her arts and crafts store is running well." Jean was ten years older than me, and only related to me by my father, but she loved Mom and treated Jay and I like full brothers. The title 'half' never existed for her or me.

"We should get everybody together and have some new family pictures done. It's been well over a year since our last one. Everybody's gotten older," she said, then leaned over, grinning, and tousled my hair! Aack! "And you've gotten fuzzier."

"Mom!! Cut it out!"

"But you look so cute when you're embarrassed!" She laughed, then stopped ruffling my hair and gave my arm a squeeze. "And you've put on a bit of muscle. It was so nice of Mr. Jones to loan you those barbells for the summer. What did he call it, summer homework?"

We continued on with this as we turned the corner for home. Just before she got out of the car, she smiled. "Jube is going to be happy with the steaks. Was he alright with us both heading out at the same time?"

"He should be. He was curled up on my bed when we left, fast asleep. I left my Strikebreakers album playing for him, since he seems to like it."

On searching the place, I'd found a collar and leash, but the scents on them were very cold -- they hadn't been used in days, maybe weeks. The tools and parts in my vest and bag were intact, so I put the stuff to use; didn't find any hidden cameras or bugs, in fact no indication of any extraordinary security precautions whatsoever. Fenris and Tyr! I had to have been running on instinct, and if I'd gone berserk, there's nothing that would've kept me away from the general populace! I found myself hating my unseen enemy more and more.

Well, my captors had probably decided that a non-sentient me didn't offer any risk of escaping. Not any more, guys! And whoever they were, they didn't know I'm back, which gave me a golden opportunity to prep the place in anticipation of my keepers' return...

...and in the fullness of Time, someone pulled up in front. I saw two people get out of the car, a little red compact that could park in the back of my Extremis. Wouldn't have pegged it as a kidnapper's vehicle; then again, they wouldn't want to be conspicuous, would they? I didn't recognize the woman, but I sure knew the kid. I rechecked my preparations one last time. And when the front door opened, I made my move: I upshifted high, carefully transported Hallan into the room I'd been occupying, and locked the door, the single mode of egress from that room that I hadn't already sealed. Elapsed time: Less than one clock-second. Next, I stepped around behind the woman, moved my fingers into position, let the clawtips of both hands press gentle dimples into either side of her neck, and finally downshifted.

Her shriek died a-borning when I started talking. "Don't move or scream," I breathed into one ear. "I'm going to ask you some questions. Tell the truth, and nobody has to get hurt."

"What have you done with my son?" Her voice was firm under the fear-induced tremors. That response wasn't one I'd expected, but what the hell. Either she really was Hallan's mom, or an enemy was trying a little emotional manipulation on me; either way --

One eyeblink, I was outside, opening the door. The next, I was in my room, the door slammed and clicked, and a stifled scream came from outside. Only one person moves that fast... I whirled and grabbed for the doorknob. Locked! "Jubatus!" I yelled as I pounded on the door. "Jubatus, don't you hurt her!" The door rattled on its hinges, but didn't open. My throat and hands hurt, but I didn't care.


Hellfire and damnation! There went any hope of secrecy; that roar must have rattled every window in a 3-mile radius. I had to focus on the job at hand -- no time to waste, no telling when we'd be interrupted. "I didn't hurt him. Talk to him. Tell the truth, and you'll be fine."

She shuddered and swallowed. "H-Harrison? I'm -- it's a little tense in here, but I'm alright..."

At this point I upshifted, made myself some time to think about what Hallan had said: 'Don't you hurt her'. Okay, he was way the hell worked up. So he knew this woman, whoever she was. She did claim that he's her son, so maybe that's it. Come to think of it, their scents did match up pretty well. And hers was all over this place like Hallan's.

So she really was... and they really were... but that would mean...




At this point, a small piece of me was thinking, What have I done? The majority damn well knew what I'd done: Held an innocent woman at knifepoint ("clawtip", if you're into picayune pedantry). And not just any innocent, but someone who must have been actively helping me while my mind was AWOL. So what's the problem here? Come on, Jube, you know that no good deed goes unpunished. Just finish ripping the bitch's throat out already, that'll teach her a lesson she'll remember as long as she lives! And hey, after you find out if she's really got good taste, there's a few more do-gooders you can punish, Wanderer and Donnie and Ph --

My mom was talking to me, you know? She was telling me she's alright. And all of a sudden there was this horrible scream like I never, ever want to hear again, as long as I live.

I didn't stop to think. Didn't stop at all. My vision went dark around the edges and I just moved.

I heard something splinter and there was pain in my shoulder and my upper back hurt and I was in the hallway and why was the front door open and she was standing there, my mom was okay! Except there was red on her neck and I smelled blood and she had this really weird look on her face and I swear to God I'm gonna rip his throat out --

"Calm down, honey," she said, her voice even. "I'm okay."

"But he hurt you, Mom! He --" was all I managed to say before my voice gave out with a strained squeak and a raw stab of pain. Ow... my throat felt like I'd swallowed a box of razor blades.

She saw my expression and handed me one of the discarded bags of groceries. "I'll make you some tea, honey. You just be quiet and let your throat rest." She looked amazingly composed for someone who'd just been attacked by Jubatus. Had he attacked her? Of course he had, where else would those marks on her neck have come from? But...

I followed her into the kitchen to put the groceries away. That's when I saw how much her hands were shaking. She turned and gave me a long hug. "I'm okay, honey," she said, sounding like she was trying to convince herself of that as well. "It's, he only, just a scratch. He missed the carotid, missed the jugular, missed the -- it's just a scratch. I'm really okay. Just a scratch. Just a scratch."

We decided to leave the groceries where they were for the time being, and both of us had some tea to calm down with. Stratus came out from under the couch where she'd been hiding and curled up in Mom's lap.

After her third cup, Mom finally broke the silence. "According to Dr. Derksen, his head injury was completely healed weeks ago..."

I scribbled my reply on a pad of paper: SO WHY DIDN'T HE SNAP OUT OF IT? I'd definitely have to think about relearning Sign. I was too out of practice to make coherent sentences. WHY DID HE STAY WILD?

"I don't know. But I've looked over the notes and files we got from Drs. Derksen and Halliburton, and I've tried to imagine what that kind of existence would be like. Did he strike you as a person who enjoys life, Harrison?"


"How sad," Mom said with a thoughtful expression. "I think that might be the key to the puzzle: For the first time in a very long while... he was happy."

It fit. AND HE DIDN'T WANT IT TO END, I replied.

"And when it finally did," she said carefully, staring off into nothing, "he woke up in a place he'd never been in before. A strange and empty place. With no idea how he got there, or who put him there, or why, or what they wanted to do with him. It couldn't have been pleasant for someone who's ruled by fear.

"That poor man..."

I came to my senses... again... in a grove of trees with a stream running through it. Nice, peaceful place. I could hear people, all of them far away; good. I didn't want to deal with genuine human beings, not until I can once more persuade myself I really am one of them.

The trouble is, I'm not human. No matter how much I kid myself otherwise, I'm just not human. And I woke up in a private residence instead of a jail cell or wherever, so the beast -- that's what I like to call my wonderful instincts, which had to've been running the show while I was out to lunch -- must not have hurt or killed anyone during all the time my body was parked there.

Makes for one hell of a contrast with what happened after my mind got better.


My greatest worry was that the beast would run amok, leaving a trail of maimed and half-eaten bodies; in reality, it's less dangerous than I am. And now that I know what the real beast is, it's pretty clear what I've got to do: Settle my affairs, check into a SCAB colony, and never ever put any other human at risk, ever again.

To walk away from human civilization, human existence... the prospect doesn't disturb me. Really, it doesn't. 'Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.' The less contact I have with other people, the less opportunity for me to damage them, physically or emotionally. 'First, do no harm.' And it's not like anyone will actually mind my absence; I'm sure Wanderer will make some appropriately regretful-sounding noises, but only because it's the kind of thing that's expected of him. He's got a reputation to maintain, after all. Not a chance in Hell that he'll really give a tenth of a damn about the bastard who told him to fuck off and die when first he made that offer of a teaching position... 'To thine own self be true', and mine own self is a congenital asshole, pure and simple.

It was easy to find Jubatus. All I had to do was follow the quiet, near-ultrasonic keening wail of a soul in torment to a secluded grove in the park behind my house. He had his knees wrapped to his chest with his arms and was rocking frenetically back and forth. A very human display of distress, played out in Jubatus' fast-time.

Rather than approach him in that state and risk scaring him off, I reached over to a nearby bush and snapped a dead twig. As expected, the sound I'd followed cut off the instant Jubatus blurred to his feet. He was in fight-or-flight mode, all his many personal demons hidden behind an iron mask of an expression even before our eyes met. When he was 'wild', reading his body language gave me a window into his thoughts. Not now, not when every inch of him was rigidly controlled, as impassive and featureless as a steel door. On recognizing me, he said, "Congratulations -- you found me. What do you want."

I stepped into the shaft of sunlight that pierced the canopy of leaves and made this unimproved little nook one of my favorite outdoor spots, and smiled slightly at the warmth. I couldn't help it. It felt good. But I didn't let that stop me from what I'd meant to say. "I was worried about you."

There was no good cheer behind his smile. "Me, or the trail of bodies you feared I might leave behind."

His voice sounded flat. Dead. Inhuman, even. It sucked the warmth right out of the sunbeam I was standing in. "You. Are you planning to run away again?" I coughed. My throat still hurt, and my voice sounded like gravel in a grinder, but at least it didn't fade in and out on a whim. I soothed it with tea from the thermos I'd brought with me.

"No point to running away," the cheetah said. He looked calm enough, but his voice was even worse than usual. There was no inflection, no feeling. It was like a computer talking. "Not any more."

I sat down, and gestured to the ground next to me. "Have a seat, Jube. If you're not going to run, then we might as well talk."

"I'll stand," he rumbled, looking off into the distance.

"Are you sure you won't feel more comfortable --"

"What part of 'I'll stand' are you having trouble comprehending." He turned his gaze on me, and his dull, zombie-like stare sent chills up my spine.

I replied, "The part where you said there wasn't any point to running. If you're not going to run, then why bother being prepared to run?" I tried to keep my tone as even and reasonable as I could, remembering Mom's words before I'd left the house. He's just lived through two of his worst nightmares in rapid succession, Harry. l can't begin to imagine what his current state of mind must be like, but he's got to be terrified. Be extremely gentle with him, or you'll scare him away. To which I added, or worse. Without the cues from his body language, I wouldn't stand a chance against him if he got violent again.

"Fine. Have it your way." There was a waist-high rock outcrop about 15 feet away from me, poking out from the ground like a shelf. He walked over to it (at a normal speed!) and sat down. "Talk."

"Are you feeling okay now?"

"Better than your mother, at least."

I bit my tongue to keep down the anger that tried to boil up in me, which I figured was probably Jube's goal: To make me angry enough to leave him to whatever doom he was concocting for himself. Well, full-body poker face or not, I wasn't going to play that game. Not after seeing how happy he was capable of being. "Mom's okay. Matter of fact, she's cooking your lunch now. I'm told by cheetahs in the know that her recipes are quite tasty." Appeal to his ever-empty stomach. I knew he had to be hungry by now. He hadn't eaten in three hours.

He went on like he'd barely even heard me, holding his hands before him and staring down at his fingertips: "There's residual scent on the claws... I had to've done some damage. How bad is it."

"Some superficial scratches. Nothing serious. She patched them up in under three minutes."


I could have said something, but let him close his eyes, take a deep breath, release it, swallow, and continue: "How bad... was I."

I knew what he was really asking for -- assurance that he hadn't killed or maimed any living thing. "I thought you were pretty well-behaved. For the most part, anyway."

"'Well-behaved' for a human being, or for a nonsentient carnivore."

"Door number three -- well-behaved for a playful housecat. When you weren't sleeping, which was most of the time." Thinking back on some of his tricks, I smiled and wished I'd thought to digicam him. "I won't kid you, Jubatus. You were quite a handful. Your first night, you discovered how to raid the fridge and ate every ounce of meat we had. If we hadn't had a set of steaks in the freezer, you'd have gone hungry the next morning. Never a good thing. Then you discovered the use of opposable thumbs." I shot him a sidelong glance, curious if he remembered the pranks he'd played with the collar. "You also started taking lessons in the art of cuteness from my kitten once you saw her make silly putty out of Wanderer."

"You have... a kitten?" The slight tilt of his head was the first bit of body language I'd seen out of him since I'd snapped that twig.

"Yeah. A gray tabby, named Stratus."

"Huh. I think I caught the scent. Didn't see her." He shrugged, then locked his eyes on mine. Those dead, dead eyes... "What are you looking at."

"You," I said frankly.


"Because you're deliberately blocking your body language, which means I have to watch closely to catch anything that might peek around the fringes. It makes it very hard to talk to you."

"And despite everything, you think it's worth the effort to try."



"Because I've seen how happy you can be."

Jubatus muttered "Happiness is overrated," eyed me for a bit, then changed the subject before I could think of a better reply than a reflexive one-liner. "You snuck up on me. About 20 feet away when you broke that twig. How'd you get that close without me noticing."

I smiled slightly. "Cheetahs chase. Lions stalk."

I was hoping for a laugh. A smirk, at the very least. But before I could get either, Mom's voice cut in with a single mortifying phrase, carrying from the back porch. "Soooooouuuuuie!!" I put my face in my hands and inwardly panicked. Please, please, please tell me she didn't do that.

Jubatus stared off towards my house. "Hog call. I'm going to assume that this has happened before."

"Yes," I muttered into my hands. " My mother's an Indiana farm girl with a weird sense of humor."

"You'd think a farm girl could tell the difference between a pig and a lion."

Was that a joke? I couldn't tell -- not even his tail was moving! "Yeah. Dinner's ready. I assume you're interested, sir?"

I don't want to do this. I really don't want to return to the scene of my crime...

Tough shit. Life is hard all over.

"What the hell. Gotta face the music sooner or later," I said. "Your mom called from your house, right?"

"Yes, sir." The kid was nervous. No surprise, considering I'd damn near given his mother an impromptu tracheotomy. Fortunately, I was under control; he should calm down as soon as he figured that out. As for myself... well, I don't do 'calm'. Especially not now. Maybe I'd been wrong about my little 'episode' being a backup plan, but if my accident hadn't truly been accidental, I'd be a fool to assume there wasn't any backup plan. As we walked to Hallan's place, I upshifted once every few seconds; tempo of 30-something, just long enough to do a 360 scan for trouble. Of course my instincts would automatically trigger an upshift if someone took a shot at me, but that wouldn't do the kid much good if he was a target, now would it? Better safe than sorry, by Themis.

The walk back home was unnerving. It wasn't just that the cheetahmorph was still as unreadable as a robot, which he was, but also that he was sort of "blinking" in place every second or so... After about the twentieth time, I finally lost it. "Would you quit doing that? Nobody's going to shoot you."

A flash of annoyance squeaked its way out from under the lid he was keeping on his emotions. "How do you know?"

"You 'blink' every time you upshift and downshift. I just added in what I knew of you, which is 'maximum paranoia', and figured what would make you 'hiccup' along like that. 'Sniper on the third hill to the right' just happened to be the first thing that came to mind." I smirked slightly.

"It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you," he pointed out, looking around suspiciously.

"Ha, ha. Actually, I'm amazed you didn't go check. You must really be hungry."

"Yup -- and the Sun rose this morning. What's your point?"

I tried my best to ignore that as I climbed the steps to the back porch, jumping the creaky third stair. I could already smell Mom's cooking, and it put me back in a good mood. "Welcome to Casa Myers," I said with a smile. "Home cooking a specialty."

He nodded. "You first. Your mom's had enough surprises today."

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?"

"Excuse me?"

"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'.

"Bedder, den.

"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."

"Excuse me?"

"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 feral 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 Raven (and Hallan, I guess), 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 Raven 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?"

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