|The Transformation Story Archive||The Other End|
The tiger prowled through the dense green undergrowth, senses alert and adrenaline flowing. He was an experienced hunter, the best in the entire jungle; his skill was finely honed, to the point of routine. When he was hungry, he could quickly find something to eat. But this was not a hunt like he had ever experienced. He wasn't hungry, and more importantly he wasn't the hunter. This time, he realized with dawning comprehension, he was the hunted.
He'd never been hunted before, and frankly it was an interesting experience. On one level it was thrilling, but on another he found himself afraid. He hadn't been afraid in a very long time, longer than he could remember. No, wait; he seemed to recall a time he had been attacked by a unicorn...
The tiger shook his head and refocused his attention on the strangely familiar beings tracking him. He didn't have time to think about those confusing memories that occasionally haunted his dreams, even had there been no danger he preferred not to think about them. They could make him feel sad or trapped when there was no reason to, and he didn't like those feelings. His existence until now was just fine without them.
But now he was being hunted, something which wasn't normally part of his existence. The tiger could hear them approaching, and he slunk deeper into the forested ravine he had been backed into. This was not good. Somehow, those things were able to see him when he left no sign. After having his level of skill and experience hunting, he knew he couldn't possibly be leaving a trail. But somehow they must be able to sense things he couldn't.
That triggered another memory. Glowing lines in front of his vision, forming patterns; patterns that represented maps showing things that could only be seen from far above, and shading over the things he saw that revealed more than his eyes could normally see. Could his hunters have this magic? It could explain their ability. If he could remember how it worked, perhaps he could remember how to defeat it...
Heat. He remembered that warm things had an invisible color, that special magic could see and that his camouflaged fur was useless against. He knew ways to defeat it... but the knowledge was tied up with the confusing memories again, of the time before his life began. The tiger forced them down. He was thinking too hard; that always felt bad. But he needed to know about his hunter's abilities, and reluctantly realized that he would have to think after all. Instinct wouldn't do any more. The tiger remembered... 'infra red'. Why did a color he couldn't see have a name? And what were names...? He cut off the thought as his sensitive ears picked up the sound of one of his hunters approaching again. He was hiding in a small nook near a brook and the noise of the flowing water would have drowned out some of their sound; that meant his hunter was close. His distracting reminiscences hadn't helped matters. But suddenly, the tiger had an idea. The hunter was alone, he knew, because they could talk to each other from afar. He could use his infra red vision against him and prepare an ambush. The tiger pressed his sensitive nose against the wall of the nook he had lain curled in; it was warm from his occupancy. Excellent.
The tiger slunk out of his hiding place and eyed the brook distastefully. He dipped his paw, and yanked it out; the water was ice cold from the mountains. He shivered distastefully, but then heard the approaching hunter again. The phrase "here goes nothing" formed in his mind, but he couldn't take the time to think about where it came from or what it meant. He reluctantly lowered his body into the icy water and crouched behind the bank, cold and utterly miserable. But hidden. He waited, tense and alert.
The hunter approached. The tiger watched intently. This was the first time he had actually seen one of his pursuers, and the image was so familiar... The shape moved carefully, circling slowly around to get a clear view of the nook the tiger had just vacated. It was making quiet noises, somehow communicating with its distant companions. Everything about it, its appearance, its speech, was striking deep into the tiger's buried memories. I can't afford this thought, he said to himself, I've got to settle this first... Squashing the rising torrent of thought and memory back with a desperate effort of will, the tiger summoned his instincts and rose quietly from the stream. He snuck around behind the creature... behind the man. Memories continued to surface, and the tiger couldn't hold them back any more. This was a man, he was carrying a gun, he spoke with language...
The tiger roared and leapt, catching the man by surprise and knocking him down under his weight. The man yelled in surprise and fear, struggling to raise his gun; the tiger batted it from his grasp. "It's on me! it's on me!" he screamed, and the tiger understood what he said. He hooked his claws in the man's helmet and ripped it off, baring his head and neck. The tiger pulled back his paw for another strike... and stopped.
The man stared into his eyes, cowering in fear. But he could see more than just fear; there was pleading, and knowledge of death. This wasn't an animal. his hunter was a person, like he was. The tiger slowly lowered his paw and looked at it.
He's like me, the tiger realized. I'm like him. Or I was... what am I? who am I? The knowledge that he wasn't the only person in the universe struck a deep blow against his basic conception of the world. It was suddenly bigger, and the memories and concepts that until now had only been a source of extraneous confusion were rushing in to neatly fill that new room.
His name was Harold, he realized. He had been a human, in a life that had existed before there was the forest and the hunting. He had lost it somehow, and the memories and concept had been lost with it as extraneous... but now they were back. Harold looked at his raised paw, turning and examining it as if for the first time, and then looked into the man's face again. The man was still paralysed with fear, clutching feebly at the other paw that held him down. Harold flexed his paw before him; it couldn't grip things like the man was. But it could, once.
"Who are you?" he tried to ask the man, but though he now remembered the concept of speech his mouth and throat only produced a muffled grunt. Oh god, I can't speak! he thought. He'd never had the need to until now, or even knowledge that such a concept existed, but suddenly he realized that he wanted to very badly. Trying again to force the words through, Harold managed to pronounce "Hhhoo ahhh oo?" It was slightly easier that time, as if he were limbering up disused vocal equipment, and he felt the sudden hope that he could make himself understood.
Then, suddenly, Harold heard distant running and his instincts instantly snapped back into control. More hunters were coming.
Harold abandoned the man without a thought, bounding into the underbrush and running deeper into the woods. But as he ran, he held onto his thoughts. He suddenly realized how important they were to him, and didn't want to lose them again just when he was starting to remember.
At last he reached a new area of temporary safety, his pursuers well behind him for now. Harold crawled into a concealing depression and refocused his attention on the memories again. He remembered his former existence more clearly now, and it was beginning to actually mean something to him. He was Harold, a man, with a job and a home and a life. Or he had been.
He remembered his first real hunt, when he had lost his humanity.
Harold felt the loss now, the feeling that had always driven him back when he had faced these memories before. A tear trickled down his striped cheek. With great surprise, Harold realized that he was crying.
Why did I do that? He asked himself in silent agony. How could I throw it all away? But he remembered why, now; remembered how everything had been fresh and new and more alive when he first became what he was. It had seemed better, then, and he had willingly left his past behind. He must have been mad. He felt in his heart now how that had been a loss, and he wanted to scream.
So he did, a low keening cry of despair. He dug his claws into the ground and wept, remembering the people and places he had lost and wishing he could somehow return. But they were gone; that world was forever cut off from him. Let the hunters hear if they wished, they seemed of small importance now. They belonged to the limited, narrow world of a tiger; Harold wanted more than that.
After a few minutes Harold's untigerlike sobs diminished and he tried to regather his wits. He wiped his eyes with the back of his paw and sniffled, trying to clear his senses; he would probably need them soon, for fight or flight. Nothing more. But then he noticed that something had felt different, odd. He wiped an eye again, and realized that his foreleg felt more flexible than it should have been. He examined it intently, and sudden hope blossomed. As he splayed his paw, he saw that he had fingers again! Crude and stubby, yes, but definitely more than just toes. Harold clenched a paw, making a fist, and then tried picking up a twig. "It works," he whispered, and then realized that he had just whispered, too.
Harold got to his feet, almost delirious with excitement, and then tried getting to his feet again. His hind feet this time. It was a struggle, but he eventually balanced himself. "It works!"
he cried, voice low and distorted but definitely recognizable. He was somehow forcing himself back into human form! Harold strained to continue, taking a series of unsteady steps with increasing confidence. Mentally it felt like he was forcing his way through deep mud, every inch a struggle, but physically it was getting easier with every moment. Harold paced and flexed with assurance now, almost fully human in overall shape if not detail.
And then he got stuck. Try as he might, that was as human as he could make himself; he was back in his original hybrid form.
At the moment, however, Harold didn't care; he was almost dancing with joy. He felt like himself again. At least, he felt more like himself than he had. For a long time he had been content as a full tiger, but only by suppressing his original identity as a human. He had become an animal in mind as well as body. He couldn't forget his animal self like he had his human one, he knew; but he was much more than that now. He was whole. "I'm me!" he shouted. "Oh shit!"
Harold dove to the ground as a gyroc round snapped through the air where he had just been standing. The hunters had caught up with him while he had been distracted, and had almost got the drop on him. "Oh shit oh shit oh shit" he continued muttering under his breath as he scrambled for cover. He had traded some of his quadrupedal speed for a bipedal stance, but he was still far faster and more nimble on all fours than a human would have been.
He leapt behind a tree just as another round thudded into it and blasted splintered woodchips from it. Those were no tranquillizer loads, he realized; they were shooting to kill. Harold ran for it, dodging effortlessly though the vegetation even though he was out of practice with his body. His instincts were apparently still very strong, and guided him well.
He wasn't as fast as he used to be, but he was still faster than the humans and Harold was soon able to stop to catch his breath and think. I wonder who they are? Why would wildlife management be after me in this wilderness? Then he remembered that this wilderness used to be a city, and that he was responsible for its current state. Oh. But still, why go after me? Wouldn't it be best to go after Bob again, first? Harold realized that he didn't even know how long he had spent as a tiger. It must have been a long time, he felt, perhaps even several years, but it was impossible to be sure. He hadn't really been aware of the passage of time; there had just been an ever- present now.
Well, he could conceive of the future again, and in order to plan it he needed to know what was going on. Also, to even reach that future he would have to shake these hunters somehow. He hadn't been able to do it as a full tiger, but perhaps now he could apply some human ingenuity to the situation.
Harold stroked his furry cheek for a moment, thinking. The hunters had come in a single group this time; his earlier ambush must have made them wary of splitting up to try flanking or surrounding him. That was a benefit, but it also meant that it wouldn't be easy to ambush them again. Not that he wanted to, very much; he just wanted them to stop trying to kill him long enough to figure out what was going on.
The solution, when he thought of it, was surprisingly simple.
And he would never have thought of it as a tiger, let alone been able to carry it out.
Harold continued onwards, pacing himself and keeping ahead of his pursuit; he located a moderately large clearing in the jungle and angled his path towards it. Dropping back to all fours, he jogged though it at a leisurely pace; any satellites or reconnaissance drones the hunters were using would undoubtably pick him up and report his passage. Then, once he was back under the canopy's cover, Harold circled back to the side of the clearing to hide. The group should pass through the clearing, safe from surprise attack while out in the open but also completely visible to Harold. He waited in the shadows, only the top of his head peering over his solid cover, motionless except for the occasional twitch of his tail. None of their sensors should be able to easily detect or target him under those conditions.
The hunting party entered the clearing and began making their way across. As they reached the center, Harold tensed; time to make his move, and be prepared to run for his life if it failed.
He nervously cleared his throat. "Hey!" He shouted, "Truce! Let's talk!"
Harold had obviously taken them by surprise; they quickly fell into a defensive huddle. They didn't seem to be targeting him intentionally, suggesting that they still couldn't see him.
Harold kept alert. The instant that changed, he wanted to be able to duck and run. "Who are you?" one of them called out at last.
"I'm Harold, the one you've been hunting!" Harold shouted back.
That obviously caused some discussion and confusion amongst the hunters. "What do you want?" their spokesman finally asked.
"I want you to stop trying to shoot me! Maybe we can work this out!"
"How do we know we can trust you?"
"You're the ones with the guns! Why should I trust you? And besides, I didn't hurt you earlier when I could have!"
That caused even more discussion. "All right, come out and we'll talk!" the hunter offered at last.
"No way! What's to stop you from shooting me?" Harold was starting to worry about getting shot anyways; if they localized his voice closely enough, they might be able to detect and target even the little part of his head that he had showing. No one was looking through their scopes right now, probably out of deference to the continuing negotiations, but that could change quickly.
"All right!" the hunter spoke after another discussion. "We'll put down our guns, and then I'll meet you halfway!"
"No!" Harold thought for a moment. "Throw a communicator into the forest, and then go to the far edge of the clearing! I'll pick it up!"
"Okay, that'll work!" The hunter slung his rifle and walked slowly in Harold's general direction; the others kept alert. He reached the edge of the clearing and paused, obviously searching for Harold, but after a moment shrugged and threw a communicator far into the woods. He retreated to the other hunters waiting at the center, and then the group continued backing away to the far side of the clearing. Harold ducked down and crawled through the dense undergrowth to where the communicator had been thrown. It was caught in some branches about twenty feet up; Harold climbed easily with his claws, staying on the far side of the trunk from the clearing and then leaping out to snatch the communicator and drop back into the undergrowth before he could be targeted.
Harold landed lightly and scrambled back under heavier cover before pausing to examine the communicator. It was a wrist communicator of a model he himself had often used before. Harold grinned widely as he noted that the emergency locator beacon was active; he deactivated it and strapped the communicator to his wrist. He looked at his arm for a moment, noting that this was the first time he had worn more than a burr or patch of mud since he'd first transformed. The communicator made an interesting contrast to his otherwise primitive appearance, he decided. He liked it. Then he started moving away from where he had found it and opened contact. "You really thought I wouldn't notice the beacon?" he asked with some amusement.
"Can't blame me for trying," the man's voice crackled back.
"Yes I can," Harold retorted. "I was right not to trust you people. Now, why are you trying to kill me?"
"We're here to pacify this zone, they're rebuilding the highway through here. We want to protect people, not kill them. And we were trying to capture you alive when you attacked one of our men, we only switched to HEX rounds after that. We thought you might be a relatively normal tiger, after all. But you're not a normal tiger, you're the tiger-man who unleashed the unicorn, aren't you?"
Harold could tell there was a lot of anger behind that question. "Uh, kind of," he replied quietly.
"You've got a lot to answer for, you bastard," the man replied. "What the hell were you thinking when you let that monster loose again? He went on a real rampage this time, and he's still out there somewhere. Hundreds of thousands are unaccounted for, probably most of them near-braindead animals by now! But you already know that, don't you."
Harold was silent for a long time as that sank in. What had he been thinking? The agency was going to turn him back, he remembered. But he'd felt so good, he didn't want to change back. He'd gone to rescue Bob, so that he'd stop them from doing it... "Oh my god," Harold whispered. "What have I done? I didn't even ask..." He didn't ask to be left as he was. He didn't consider a legal restraining order, or even think to run away if they refused. He had simply unleashed Bob Stein's chaos on civilization. A little chaos would have been fine, he felt, but not a calamity like this. And then he had thrown away his remaining human identity, making the whole thing for nothing.
"Harold? You still there?"
"I must have gone mad," he told them. "I don't know what I was thinking, I didn't think..." he trailed off.
"You don't know?" The man asked incredulously.
"I lost my mind," Harold explained. "Like everyone else, I lost it. Your hunt, the man I ambushed, you woke me back up. I could almost thank you for that... How long?"
"How long have I been out?"
"Almost two years now,"
Harold was silent again. Two years! And in all that time not a thought, no recognition or enjoyment of what he had become. Just mindless existence. How depressing, no wonder he hadn't wanted to think about it. And he wasn't going to think about it now, either. He had a future to think about now. And there was only one thing he really wanted to do with it. "Where's Bob?" He snarled with sudden resolve.
"East" the man told him, sounding taken aback by Harold's sudden change of mood. "About fifty miles, somewhere over the mountains. Why?"
"Your hunt is over," Harold informed him harshly. "I'm hunting now." He closed the channel and breathed heavily, taut with emotion. He would keep the communicator, he decided; they couldn't track it while it was switched off, and its presence would make sure he didn't forget who he was again. Besides, he would probably want to tell the authorities where to find the bones.
Harold unsheathed his claws and snarled. He would hunt the unicorn again, and this time he would taste blood. His tiger self was a permanent part of him now, he realized; but so be it. That's who Bob had made him, and so that's who he was.
He had the intelligence and knowledge of the greatest human hunter, and the senses and instincts of the greatest animal hunter. Losing these men would be simple now, and finding Bob merely a challenge. Then he would see how his teeth and claws were matched against Bob's curly magic horn. Harold smiled a predatory smile and disappeared deeper into the jungle, toward the east.
Predator-Prey Relations copyright 1996 by Bryan Derksen.
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