The Transformation Story Archive The Circe Treatment

Shell Game

by Bob Stein

(I have a mail dated 25.5.95 where yahoo told me they had included the tsa in their catalog. I don't really remember when I startded this, so I'm arbitrarily declaring the 1st of May as the "founding date". I started then with (I think) about 20 stories, most of them tg stories. To celebrate the occasion, I have the joy to present a new long story by Bob Stein, starring - me! --"Thomas Hassan")

I The Game Begins

A sharp crack sounded behind Thomas as he crashed through the brush, and he threw himself to the side instinctively. He heard something whiz by his ear, and felt his stomach knot up again. Shit! Now they were shooting at him! So much for the peaceful camping trip.

Branches caught at his backpack, slowing him down and threatening to knock him backwards. Despite the handicap, he was reluctant to abandon something he'd spent so much money on. Another gunshot suddenly dropped the equipment's value to nothing, and he shrugged out of the straps without missing a step. Maybe one of the bastards would trip over it.

He was going to die out here in the woods, alone, because he chose the wrong place for a hike. God, it wasn't fair! Of all the damned mountains around here, why did he have to pick the same one as a band of international kidnappers?

With the media blitz covering Prince Richard's abduction, there was no doubt in his mind who the frail, blonde-haired boy he'd seen at the camp was. Too bad the kid hadn't been gagged when they tied him up. The future King of England was not the brightest of children. Thomas had stumbled on the scene by accident, somehow managing to escape detection by the kidnappers. However, their victim started yelling for help as soon as he saw Thomas. Idiot kid!

The shouts of Thomas' pursuers were getting closer, and he heard a couple more gunshots. Adrenaline boosted his speed for a few moments, but then he started losing energy. The sudden fatigue was as bewildering as it was ill-timed. He was in excellent shape, and even a hard run like this shouldn't be exhausting him. Yet his feet were already starting to trip on roots and loose branches, his arms swinging like dead weights. Before he could stop himself, he tumbled forward in the rough brush, sprawling awkwardly on the ground.

Tears filled his eyes, and he fought to drag himself further. It was useless. His muscles no longer responded, and he wasn't even able to speak when the first of the kidnappers reached him. It was somewhat of a shock to see a boy who looked about 15 holding the gun. Was he the son of one of the kidnappers? Another young teenager pushed past and leaned over Thomas to pull something from his back.

Rising, the newcomer displayed a feather-tipped dart and smiled in satisfaction. "See? I told you I hit him." Thomas' mind raced. A dart? He must have been hit with a tranquilizer gun and not even felt it. Come to think of it, the pistols that both of the teens held were chunkier than a normal gun. He felt a rush of relief, even as darkness started to close in around him.

A third child, too fuzzy to make out now, but obviously smaller than the first two, joined the group staring down at him. "You idiots! I told you to keep an eye out for campers!" The voice was that of a child, but there was no mistaking the tone of authority. "Do I have to handle everything myself?" The newcomer leaned closer to look at Thomas' face. "Now, what are we going to do with you?" Just before he blacked out, Thomas was able to clear his vision enough to see the ringleader's face. The face of the future King of England - Prince Richard.

Thomas woke to a scent that was heavy and familiar. Horse manure, straw, sweat, and leather. He was lying on loose straw or hay, and opened his eyes to see the rough-cut wall of a stall. A stable, or maybe a barn. That much identified, he tried to get up. His entire body ached, and his head throbbed. Probably an after-effect of the drug they'd used to knock him out. A brief struggle verified that his hand and feet were securely bound. Twisting his body, he managed to roll up to a sitting position, and discovered that he was not alone.

Enough moonlight filtered in from an open window to see Prince Richard, also bound, staring at him from the opposite corner of the stall. Spitting strands of hay from his mouth, Thomas glared back at the boy. "So, your henchmen decide to turn on you? I don't know what game you little bastards are pulling, but you won't get away with it."

The boy's face twisted in obvious confusion, which changed suddenly to fear as the stall gate swung open. "Oh, I think we 'little bastards' are going to do quite well, Mr. Hassan." The voice came not from the boy across from him, but another small figure who stepped between them. "Oh, sorry. I suppose I should introduce myself." Thomas blinked at the face revealed in the moonlight. "Richard, Prince of Wales, and Future Kind of England."

Thomas' mouth fell open as he stared first at the speaker, and then at the bound child across from him. Other than the tied boy being rather dirty and disheveled, the two were absolutely identical. "But... " He looked again. There was a difference. The bound boy had the wide, frightened eyes of a child. His twin's eyes were narrowed in a very menacing, and very adult scowl. Thomas' mouth went dry, and he tried to back away. "You're.. not him. You're... a..."

"Fake?" The counterfeit Prince laughed and shook his head. "I assure you, I have the right fingerprints, the right voice, the right retinal patterns. Hell, I even wet the bed at night, though I wasn't aware of that little problem when I decided on this." He leaned against the wall at looked down at Thomas with a slight smile.

"You've become involved in a rather involved and complicated situation. Rather distressing for me, as I had taken such pains to avoid any more problems. Still, with all of the people looking for me, ah, him, I suppose it was inevitable that another innocent victim would have to be dealt with."

Swallowing hard, Thomas tried to ignore the implications of that last statement for now. "How could you possibly look just like him? And have all the other stuff? I know you can do things with surgery, but retinal patterns can't be duplicated!"

"Surgery?" The boy smirked. "Far too crude for anything like this. And you are quite wrong. Retinal patterns can be duplicated. So can eyes. And as you can see.." He struck a modeling pose. "It's possible to duplicate an entire human being."

Thomas felt a chill despite the warm weather. "But why?"

The fake Prince rolled his eyes. "Gods! Does no one have any imagination? Think about it, Mr. Hassan. What do you think I can do as the exact duplicate of our young friend there?"

Thomas frowned a moment, and then his eyes widened in horror. "You're going to replace him!"

"Very good, Mr. Hassan. Very good." The duplicate's smile broadened. "You happened to stumble on a rehearsal for the Prince's rescue. Tonight, local authorities acting on anonymous tips will find the kidnapped heir to the British crown tied up in an empty campsite. It will be assumed that the kidnappers heard them approaching and escaped into the woods. A story that the Prince himself will verify.

The boy will be taken back to Buckingham Palace for a tearful reunion with his family. Of course, there will be some noticeable changes in the boy's personality and behavior, all perfectly normal after such a traumatic experience. And when the time is right, a series of 'accidents' will take out Mummy and Daddy, leaving him - or should I say, me- as King of England."

If he wasn't looking at the impostor, Thomas would have said the plan was insane. As it was, he had little doubt that this phony Prince could do exactly what he said. However, the plan required only one Prince Richard. The impostor followed Thomas' gaze to the original heir to the throne, and nodded.

"Yes, an unfortunate necessity, I'm afraid. I can't risk having our friend discovered, and no normal confinement is really secure enough. So I'm afraid the original version will have to be, shall we say, erased?" Thomas' stomach tightened as cold eyes turned back to him. "As will you.

"Your backpack and wallet were most useful. When they and the rest of your belongings are found by the river, it will be assumed that you had a swimming accident. I'm sure your friends have told you how hazardous backpacking alone can be." The impostor motioned to someone standing outside the stall. A man in his early twenties entered, the first adult Thomas had seen connected with this hideous plan. He was dressed in what looked like a doctor's lab coat, and carried a tray holding two syringes.

Thomas screamed and thrashed about, panic taking over his actions. The two teens came rushing in, and held him while the doctor jerked down his pants and thrust the needle into his right buttocks. A terrible burning began to spread outward, and his screams became broken sobs. He heard the child cry out, and despite the knowledge of his own impending death, twisted up a hate-filled face to the impostor. "You evil bastard! He's just a little boy! Why do you have to kill him?

The response was a look of amusement that scared him worse than the spreading pain. "Kill him? Who ever mentioned killing anyone?" Thomas sank back to the ground in sudden relief, even though he knew something bad was going to happen. As long as he was alive, there was hope.

He took a deep breath to calm his nerves, and wormed his way to a sitting position. "It doesn't seem possible. I mean, that you can be a perfect copy. You've got to be older than he is, a lot older. How did you do it?" The question was more than just a stall for time. Whatever they had done to accomplish this was beyond anything Thomas had ever heard of, and he was understandably curious.

The impostor motioned the others to leave, and squatted down to look directly into Thomas' eyes. "I think I would have liked you. In your current situation, most people would be begging for mercy, not expressing scientific interest."

Thomas sighed and returned the fake's steady gaze. "Begging wouldn't change anything, would it? And whatever happens, I'd really like to know more about this."

His captor grinned, and tousled Thomas' hair. "Now I know I would have liked you. Very practical fellow, aren't you? Well, such honesty deserves an answer.

"Until about a year ago, I was the lab assistant for a rather famous genetic scientist. The fellow was quite brilliant, if a bit paranoid. He'd been researching cures for AIDS and various forms of cancer, and actually perfected a process that seemed to work on both.

"He injected a diseased male monkey with serum derived by using his process on the blood of a healthy female monkey. The sick chimp was completely cured within hours! However, there was an interesting side effect. The formerly diseased male had also become female, an exact duplicate of the donor chimp!"

The impostor shook his head. "Now, the scientist was upset by this, for he lacked vision. But I saw the tremendous potential. Because of his paranoia, he had made sure that no one else in the world knew about the process, and he was under the mistaken assumption that I was loyal, if not too bright. It was a simple matter to eliminate the scientist." He sighed. "I hated to leave him back at the lab, but the University would never have let me take a chimpanzee home.

"Quite frankly, I never did understand the details of the process, save that it restructures the recipient's genetic coding, and greatly accelerates cell functions. However, a friend at the University had a much better background in genetics, and he was quite willing to join me when I outlined my plans."

He smiled. "Actually, it was the original chimpanzee that gave me the idea. If you can make one monkey identical to another, you can also change a human to match another human. Not that I didn't test the theory out first. My two teenage assistants were considerably older before they joined me, and are quite grateful for the new lives I have given them. The original boys are also here. Perhaps you can meet them later."

Standing, the fake Prince looked over at the whimpering original, and wrinkled his nose in disgust. "I would have preferred an older subject for myself. You can't imagine how difficult it is being so small and weak. Still, adults tend to pay less attention to the very young, a trait that will help me quite a bit. And a rerun of puberty is a small price to pay for the wealth and power I will receive." He grinned. "I get the British Kingdom, and the two of you get the animal kingdom."

Thomas shifted, trying to ease the throbbing which now pulled at his back and thighs. He tried to stay calm, but his voice came out as a coarse whisper. "So we're going to turn into monkeys?"

Another surprised look from the impostor. "Around here? No, monkeys are far too unusual. Besides, I want you both to live long, happy lives. Thirty, perhaps even forty years with good care, with all your wants and cares provided for. I'm even giving our young Prince there a head start on puberty. With the number of mares entering estrous this time of year, I imagine he'll be discovering sex within a week. And of course, he'll have you there to show him how."

Thomas blinked, and then gasped as his mind made the connection. "Horses? You're turning us into horses?"

The impostor nodded. "A matched pair of white Percheron colts, to be exact. Not quite two years old, with championship heritage and the papers to prove it. Cost me a bit to buy the original, but selling the two boys down there will more than make up for that. I'd thought about selling you as well, but I think our young friend will like to have a brother. Besides, it would be amusing to bring the two of you back to England to pull the Coronation Coach when I become King."

Burning pain had spread up Thomas' back, and he could feel it nibbling at the base of his brain. He fought back rising fear and panic, only to have anger take their place. "You sick bastard!" He spat into the smug face in front of him.

The impostor fell back, and his hand flew back to strike Thomas' face. Then the anger in the boy's eyes softened, and the movement became a pat on the head. "Extra points for defiant last moments. Just as well. Any pleading would have been wasted effort. Once the process starts, it cannot be reversed. Don't worry. The two boys have taken quite well to equine life. It seems that the mind adjusts itself to the body. In a few days, perhaps a week, you won't even remember being human."

Thomas sagged, hope smashed and despair washing over him. The impostor moved to the stall gate. "I have to go now. My assistant will take care of you. As much as I would love to watch the transformations progress, the time has come for Prince Richard to be rescued. See you in a few years, perhaps?" He laughed as he turned to leave. "Just look for the young man in the coach behind you."

II A Change of Rules

The small form pressed against Thomas' side shuddered slightly, and he had to grit his teeth against the pain even that small movement caused. Still, he wasn't about to make the boy move. Richard was in at least as much agony, and if Thomas could provide some comfort he was willing to suffer a little more for it.

Though the fire burning throughout his body made every moment stretch on for an eternity, it was less than an hour since the impostor had left. Thomas had wormed his way to the boy's side and looped his bound arms around the thin shoulders. Even the embrace of a stranger was helpful, and the child had managed a grateful smile before burrowing his face into Thomas' shirt.

The impostor had an evil sense of humor. When he had commented on having to 'erase' the two of them, he was being literal. Thomas and Richard's DNA coding was being wiped away from their genes, essentially erasing the patterns that made them who they were. When their cells received the new programming, they would restructure themselves to fit the new coding. And the human versions of Thomas and Richard would be lost forever.

Perhaps not Richard. His pattern lived on with the impostor. Maybe the boy's transformation could be reversed later. But there was no sample of Thomas' original coding. He pressed his head against the wall, feeling the sting of tears. Sure, there were times that he had wished to be different. Younger, thinner, maybe have a smaller nose, or different hair. He even remembered a few casual wonderings about life as an animal. But those had only been occasional daydreams. Faced with the reality, he wanted nothing more than to wake up tomorrow in his stocky 32 year-old, brown-haired, brown-eyed, and very human body.

The poison in his blood started burning again, and he clenched his teeth, trying not to cry out. Then he realized the futility of the effort and let a soft moan escape his lips.

"Sorry for the pain." Thomas opened his eyes to see the lab-coated young man looking down at him. "If I could give you something, I would. However, the treatment is unpredictable, and even an aspirin might kill you in this stage of the re-coding."

Pulling a knife from his pocket, the assistant knelt down next to him. Thomas almost hoped that the man was going to kill him. Instead, the blade cut through the ropes binding his hands and feet. Freed of their bonds, his limbs sprawled limply on the ground, starting new waves of pain. The action was repeated on the boy's ropes, but the man had noted Thomas's grimace, and lowered the small arms gently.

"Again, I am sorry." The man shook his head. "This new process has a greater attack factor. The others did not suffer this much."

Despite his pain, Thomas gasped out a question. "New... pro.. process?" The man nodded as he put the knife away. "My 'partner' is not quite the visionary he thinks he is. In fact, he is not really very bright. I have been manipulating him, and the others, from the beginning."

The man stood and left the stall, only to return with what appeared to be video cameras. He explained as he set them up on the tops of the stall walls. "I want to record the process. Couldn't before now, or that fool would have suspected something." He aimed the two cameras so that they covered the entire stall. "So far, all of the effects are internal, and nothing has really changed yet. The treatment works in a kind of time-delay, blanking out the original coding of your DNA first. That is the pain you are experiencing now."

Satisfied with the placement, he pressed some buttons, and Thomas saw the recording lights come on. "There. This will be of great assistance in future development. And I will be taking blood and tissue samples through the rest of your transformations."

He started for the gate, and then sighed and turned back to Thomas. "I know it is hard to speak now. And you can't move. That is why I freed your arms and legs." He looked over at Richard. "The boy isn't going to be a problem, but you will have some strength in another hour. Understand that the process cannot be stopped. If you were to escape, you would simply die in agony as a malformed monster. I am your only chance to survive."

He seemed to understand the hate-filled look Thomas gave him. "You are going to become a horse. That is not a thing I can change. Yet. However, regardless of anything Mark might have said, you may not be stuck as a beast forever."

Thomas was losing consciousness now, but he picked up the last of the man's words. As he sank into darkness, his fear was joined by a faint glimmer of hope.

Hunger. Thomas struggled to clear muddled thoughts, but he could focus only on the terrible emptiness of his belly. A damp, spongy cube was pressed into his hands, and he automatically took a bite of it. Bland and mushy, but edible. As he stuffed the remainder into his mouth, another cube was offered, then dropped into a large bowl of similar blocks. Thomas grabbed at the blocks, oblivious to anything but the ravenous hunger.

Full awareness returned only after he had stuffed himself full. The first thing to hit him was that the pain was gone. In fact, it seemed to have been replaced by a dull euphoria, like a pleasant buzz. His body tingled all over.

The man was standing across from him, holding another bowl of the odd blocks. "You should feel much better now. The pain is over." Thomas looked around the stall, and gasped when he saw Richard's naked form. The frail nine year-old had become a solid, if oddly-proportioned boy of at least 11.

"What happened to him?" Thomas started to rise, only to freeze at the sight of his own nude body. "Shit! What's happened to me?" He stared down at the smooth, muscular body of a man in his early twenties. Like the boy, the proportions were off. His chest pushed out in the center a bit, and his arms seemed a bit long and slightly twisted.

"The transformation has started." The man motioned behind Thomas, who turned to see a large mirror propped against the wall. The reflection in it was a somewhat distorted picture of Thomas as he had been about a decade ago. Except that the distortion was no trick of glass or light.

He slid his hand over peach-fuzz-covered cheeks. "I'm a kid!" The thrill of his renewed youth almost outweighed the horror of his situation. "But why does Ricky look older?"

The boy scrambled up. "We're going to be twins, remember? Bryan said that the treatment is making us both about 15, because that is the equivalent age that we'll be as horses."

"Quite right." The man nodded and smiled. "We've been talking while you slept. My name is Bryan Derksen." He extended his hand, which Thomas automatically took. "Circumstances probably paint me as one of the villains, but I assure you that I am trying to help you in every way possible."

The boy took his other hand and looked up with a faint smile. "He's really not one of them at all. He tricked them. And I guess I'm going to be better off."

Thomas was a little bewildered by the boy's attitude. "Better off? We're becoming animals. You'd rather be a horse than a boy?"

Richard shrugged. "No, I guess not. But I'm not going to die now."

Thomas was even more confused. The man chuckled, and tousled the boy's hair. "You see, I was the one who chose Richard as the so-called victim. My former partner has fallen into a rather ironic little trap I set, one that you may appreciate.

"I was the first lab assistant to Doctor Mason, the scientist who developed the process. Since my area of study was genetics, I figured out what he was trying to do early on, and tried developing some of his theories on my own. It was just curiosity, not any attempt to steal his work, but he fired me when he found out. I was really desperate to follow his work, so I needed an inside contact. When Doctor Mason started looking for my replacement, he wanted someone who wasn't so versed in genetics. Mark was perfect. He was doing poorly in classes, mostly because he wouldn't work for anything. But he did have a good background in science, and lots of ambition. All it took was a casual mention of the opening, and the status it offered.

"What neither of us counted on was Mark's ambition. He understood what the treatment could do, even if he didn't know how it worked. Before I realized what had happened, Mark was gone with the only samples of the original treatment. The fool had not only taken all the notes and computer files, he'd reduced the man who created it to a common lab animal."

The man shook his head sadly. "Such a tragic waste of a brilliant mind. I was frantic. The treatment had immense possibilities, and it seemed lost forever. And two days later, Mark came to me. I suppose it was inevitable. I'd made a point to become friends with him, and though he didn't know I had worked on the project before him, he did know I was in genetics.

"Mark had a plan. Kidnap a millionaire, and use the process to replace the victim." Derksen gestured at the boy. "I knew I wouldn't be able to stop him, but I could find a better target. Thanks to a friend working in London Hospital, I found Richard. The boy was perfect, and it was a simple matter to maneuver Mark into choosing him. After all, anyone can have money. But if he became the Prince of Wales, he would have political power, great wealth, and the unique situation of being Royalty."

Thomas stared at the boy. "And you think you're better off? That fake Prince is going to kill your parents and use us to pull his Coronation coach." To his astonishment, the boy grinned.

Derksen answered for him. "You might pull his funeral coach, but Mark will never be King. You see, I chose the boy in order to save him. Go ahead and tell him, Richard. It's not a secret here."

The boy scuffed a foot through the loose straw, and looked down. "I got some sort of sickness in my blood. Mum and Dad hushed it all up. I felt OK, mostly. But the doctors told my parents that I only had a year or two before the sickness killed me."Thomas blinked. "You mean... " His voice trailed off as the implication hit him.

The man nodded. "Mark is in for a very short reign as the Prince of Wales. I suspect he'll be dead within a year. Most certainly before he can do anything to the King and Queen. As for the two boys back there..." He indicated the stalls further down. "They were in serious trouble with the law and with some rather nasty gangs, and actually volunteered. I doubt that the men who took their forms will outlive Mark."

The irony brought a grin to Thomas' face, an expression which was repeated in the young face of his reflection. He frowned and moved closer to the mirror. In the brief time they had been talking, he had dropped even more years. The boy staring back at him was no more than 19, with a low forehead and protruding lower face. But it was the eyes that scared him most. Thomas' had always been dark, but the orbs he saw through now had deep brown irises which filled the sockets. Horse's eyes.

"It's so fast!" Thomas' voice cracked, and he felt a bit dizzy. Up to now, he'd managed to deny what was happening. But even if his reflection wasn't enough, a look down at Richard confirmed the worst. The boy was probably a thin 13 now, with much more bestial features.

Richard leaned against Thomas as he stared at the mirror, smile fading. A tear trickled down the boy's face and he started to tremble. "I'm scared. I know I would have died, but maybe I won't be me anymore when I turn into a horse. And that's the same thing as being dead, isn't it?"

Thomas put an arm around the boy's shoulders. "I think whatever it is that makes us who we are will survive. Maybe we'll remember being human. And if we do start thinking like horses, it will still be us. We'll just think we were born as horses, and that we are brothers for real."

A lump formed in his throat as Richard's tears grew into sobs, and he looked over at Derksen hoping for some sort of positive comment. All he got was a simple, silent shrug.

They stood there until the boy stopped crying. After a moment, Richard frowned and looked up at Derksen. "I'm really hungry." The man offered him one of the cubes, and after the first mouthful, Richard was hunched over the bowl in a blind eating frenzy.

Noting Thomas' surprise, the man moved closer and spoke quietly. "Both of you are becoming the same animal. However, Richard is smaller, so there is less human form to convert. He will become more bestial faster, at least until his mass equals yours. By that time, you will have become almost identical, with any differences fading as you complete the transformations."

He looked down. "As for the question of identity? I don't know. Memories are electrical patterns which could transfer to the horse's brain intact. However, the instinctual behavior which governs an animal's life is thought to be partly tied to genetics. You may remember everything, yet find yourself forced to act as a beast. Or the different physical structure may alter your comprehension to the point that you cannot relate to human experiences. The boys respond pretty much as normal animals. I have seen no sign of human intelligence at all."

Thomas looked at his reflection again, and then down at the still-eating boy. A lump had formed near the base of Richard's spine, and his thighs had taken a deeper, flatter shape. The boy's whole body seemed slightly out-of-focus, and Thomas realized with a start that a coat of fine hair had pushed out of Richard's skin in just the past few minutes.

"How long?" He turned to the man. "How long before we become animals?" The fear was returning, stronger now as the reality of the situation forced itself on him.

Derksen pursed his lips. "Maybe four days total, perhaps a little sooner. But speech will be harder for you after the next phase. The boy probably won't be able to talk at all." Thomas looked down and swallowed hard. With his face thrust into the bowl of food, Richard already looked like some deformed animal.

He felt a firm hand on his shoulder. "The important thing is to fight for your own identity. If the new process works, it should keep your genetic coding open for later reprogramming. And that may also reduce the influence of animal instincts."

Thomas stared at the boy. "What about him? What about Richard? It sounds like he has never been strong before. Will he even want to fight the instincts that make him a powerful young stallion?" He frowned, thinking of his own impending change. "For that matter, will I?"

He turned back to face the man. "Richard has something to fight for. His pattern still exists, even if it is sick. My pattern is gone. Thomas Hassan has been erased from the world. There's nothing for me to return to."

Derksen sighed, and leaned against the wall. "That's why I've been talking to you. Listen. Just because you can't be Thomas Hassan again doesn't mean you can't be human. Think about what you said to the boy. About whatever makes you who you are staying the same. If the treatment works the way I think it will, I can inject you with the coding of a human. I'll make you a child again if you want, or a teenager, or even a man much like you were. As long as you don't lose yourself completely to the stallion mentality."

Thomas was starting to feel the terrible emptiness again, and struggled not to think about the tempting bowls of food. "A child, I guess. If I have to start over, it's easier that way."

"Boy or girl?" The calm question startled Thomas, but he realized that gender was less to change than species.

"Boy!" He managed a faint grin. "If you have a catalog, pick one from the tall, strong, and well-hung department." Then his smile vanished as hunger clawed at his insides.

"This is it, isn't it?" He watched as Richard finished, and stumbled on misshapen feet to the corner. Thomas tried to resist just a little longer, but his legs folded on their own, and his hands reached for the cubes against his will. Then the hunger took over, and he was lost again.

III The First Shuffle

Thick lips pulled at Thomas' hair, and he tried to push them away. Why wouldn't his arm lift? Opening his eyes, he rolled awkwardly up and tried to look around. Only to recoil in horror as a massive snout was thrust into his face.

The bestial scream that broke from his throat was more frightening than the thing in front of him, and he realized that the snout and lips belonged to Richard. The boy worked his mouth, but the sounds which emerged were too slurred and guttural to understand. Scrambling up, Thomas forced himself to reach out for the boy, though his skin squirmed in revulsion as he felt hairy hide press against him.

It was something of a shock to realize he was embracing a four-legged animal. For Richard's arms had fully changed into the rounded forelegs of a horse. He could make out small indentations in the dark lumps that had been the boy's hands, but the hooves on his hind legs were fully formed. There was little to identify the former Prince of Wales.

White hair covered his entire body, except for the nose, mouth, and genitals. Not quite the full coat of an animal, but far more than any human might have. The coarse growth had even replaced most of the hair on his head, leaving only a narrow blonde mane.

Despite the barreled chest and forelegs, his body was still vaguely humanoid. That was not true of his head. Perhaps the changes were mostly cosmetic so far, yet Thomas could see nothing of Richard's face in the bestial snout.

He looked more like a colt with a pushed-in muzzle than anything remotely human. The wide, thick lips and teeth were fully equine, as were soft nostrils which flared impossibly wide. The animal eyes he had noted earlier were even larger and further apart, set deep under bony brows and a sunken forehead.

His examination of Richard was prolonged by a dread of looking at himself. However, he finally dropped his eyes down to his own body. A lighter covering of white hair blanketed his skin, and though they weren't yet forelegs, his arms were longer and set lower. His waist had narrowed between thighs that were both flatter and deeper, and his knees were higher and oddly shaped.

Even stranger were his feet, which had almost doubled in length. His toes fused into a numb, grayish lump at the end, already looking very hoof-like. At least he still had fingers. They were short and thick, and rather stiff when he tried to flex them. But he still had some feeling in the tips, and found he could grasp clumps of straw. That simple ability was surprisingly comforting, even if his thumb had shifted too far away from the rest of his fingers to be of much use.

Swallowing hard, Thomas turned slowly to look in the mirror. Whatever comfort he had found in functioning hands vanished as he saw his head. Almost a mirror-image of Richard's, his face was only slightly less pushed out, with the same deep-set eyes and sunken brow.

Thomas felt a chill. Their brains must already have shrunk and changed to fit inside these flat skulls. He didn't seem to be thinking differently. But would he even be aware of any changes?

Sensations were a little different. Color didn't seem to be as intense, and scents were stronger and more separated. Still, he felt awfully normal for the amount of change that had already occurred. Even the lack of toes did not bother him, at least not yet.

Richard stumbled over and nudged him playfully. The boy was obviously dealing with his own transformation well. Of course, he'd probably had more time to adjust. Thomas wondered how long he had been unconscious. Damn. He'd missed so much of the transformation. Then he almost laughed at the thought. Here he was turning into an animal, and he was worried about not seeing it all?

"Good morning." Both of them turned to see the man entering with a tray. "Just a couple of quick blood samples. And I'd like to run some tests on both of you." He drew the blood quickly and painlessly, labeling the vials before putting them in a case. This was followed by a thorough physical examination that got rather intimate. Thomas hadn't been thinking about sex up to this point, but the sensations generated by Derksen's handling were more intense and somehow different from anything he had experienced before. Richard developed a full erection, though his eyes took on an alarming blankness. He seemed OK afterwards, so it may have been simply the fact that the boy was experiencing puberty for the first time.

Thomas made several attempts to speak while the man was checking them over. Though his voice seemed more or less intact, he couldn't shape his mouth to form the proper sounds. The loss of speech bothered him tremendously, even more than knowing he would soon lose his hands and fingers.

Derksen listened intently to each effort, making guesses at the words Thomas was trying to say. Thomas got increasingly frustrated, but refused to quit until the man shook his head and put a hand over his bristled lips. "There's no point in getting yourself worked up. Your jaw and lips don't work the same way anymore. Don't worry. There are other ways to communicate."

"Richard?" The boy turned to face Derksen, who smiled and stroked his cheek. "We'll start with you. Just nod your head up and down for yes, and side-to-side for no. OK?" The man then proceeded with a series of questions about Richard's age, family, and even some math and English problems that could be answered by nodding to the correct answer. When it was done, Derksen frowned a bit. "Personal data is still intact, but there seems to be some loss of schooling." He brightened and tousled the boy's thin mane. "Of course, I suppose you don't really need all that anymore, do you?"

Thomas' questions were more complicated, and hit on subjects like the Common Market, European history, and current events. He missed more than a few, but was sure that he would not have known them before the change, either. Derksen pursed his lips. "I don't know enough of your background to tell much, but I can use these answers to track your abilities later."

For the next hour, the man talked to them. Nothing of importance, except for the news that 'Prince Richard' had been found by authorities, and was on his way back to England. Unable to respond, Thomas wondered why Derksen was keeping up the one-sided conversation. Then he realized that the man was stimulating their minds as best he could. He wouldn't be talking to horses.

Thomas found it hard not to stare at Richard. He could almost see the transformation progressing. It was somehow easier to watch the boy than to contemplate his own change. Not that he wasn't aware of what was going on. His fingers were getting numb, and a curious pressure gradually rotated his shoulders outward and down from his head.

Richard's legs were nearly complete now, and he moved with greater ease on his new hooves. His head finished up as well, leaving him looking like a normal colt with an undersized torso. As before, the hunger hit the boy first, and he started on a fresh bowl of cubes that Derksen placed in front of him.

Thomas finally forced himself to take stock of his own changes. As he expected, his hands were now dark lumps at the end of almost fully-formed equine forelegs. Rising, he stumbled around awkwardly before he was able to stand before the mirror. He had to move close to focus on the reflection, which remained slightly distorted by his new eyes.

However distorted, there was no mistaking the features in the glass. He had the same colt's head as Richard, looking only slightly less out-of-proportion because of his larger body. He worked his jaw, fascinated by the pull of different muscles and joints. A massive tongue probed thick, flat teeth, even the saliva of his mouth had a different taste.

For the first time, he realized that he wasn't afraid. It was very strange. He was more animal than man now, with time running out quickly. If anything, he should be terrified. Yet as he stared at himself, the greatest emotion he felt was curiosity. In fact, he found himself longing for the easy movement which Richard now enjoyed.

The change had slowed now, probably running out of the materials to continue. He didn't feel the hunger yet, but stumbled over to the bowls anyway. Once he started eating, the compulsion gradually built, but never reached the blind frenzy of prior binges. Still, he ate more than ever before, and then moved to collapse on the straw next to the already sleeping Richard. At least this time he did not dread what would come when he woke next.

It was hard to breathe. He could inhale, but pressure on his side and belly kept him from fully filling his lungs. An effort to stand automatically turned into a rolling motion that brought him up to all fours. Confused by a rush of powerful sensations, he shook his head and looked around. The images he got were oddly split, and though he could make out shapes clearly, detail and color were almost non-existent. It took a moment to realize that the dark mass splitting his vision was his own snout,

More staggering were the smells and sounds around him. The odors of urine, straw, and sweat were almost tangible, overlaid by an even heavier scent that somehow translated into awareness of his own self. And the former silence of the stable was filled with an incredible variety of sounds. Insects, the faint rustle of dead leaves on the roof, and the shuffling of the other male.

Other male? He felt some confusion. Sure enough, a large form moved close and pressed against his side. There was a brief flare of aggression which faded as he twisted around to sniff the other's rump and crotch. The scent was his own. It didn't make sense, but he had no trouble accepting the impossibility. Content, he lipped the other's back gently, and then dropped his head to pull up some loose straw.

A new scent came into the stall, followed by a strange figure which sparked some glimmer of memory. Two legs, not four. A human. Now it made noises. "Good morning."

Thomas shook his head, suddenly aware of who and where he was. The simple thoughts of moments before were still clear, and he felt a chill. He'd been thinking like a horse. Twisting around only verified what the thoughts had suggested. He and Richard were identical white Percherons. The transformation was complete.

Derksen squatted down and looked between Richard's hind legs and then turned to Thomas. "Ah. That makes you Mr. Hassan." Either equine faces could still convey emotion, or the man was able to guess Thomas' mental question. "A simple tattoo on the inside of the right leg. I did them while you were both sleeping. Since you are now twins, I needed some way to tell you apart."

The exam which followed did nothing to ease Thomas' fears. It accented a heightened awareness of his body that was new, yet seemed completely normal. He found himself prancing nervously, ears back as the man handled his genitals. The reaction of a colt or stallion. He forced himself to be calm, earning a pat on the shoulder as a reward. Richard was not as cooperative, snapping once or twice as Derksen checked him out.

Surprisingly, Thomas did quite well on the mental test. According to Derksen, he had lost ground in some of the general areas, but retained most of his knowledge and memories. As before, his companion did not fare as well. Other than the most basic questions, such as his name and age, Richard did not seem to even comprehend the man's words.

"I suppose it was to be expected." Derksen sighed as he prepared two syringes. "The boy simply doesn't have enough life experience to retain his human identity. In another day or two, he would probably have lost even his own name." He picked up the first hypodermic and injected something painlessly into Thomas' right rump. Then he shrugged nonchalantly as he picked up the second syringe and moved towards Richard. "Well, I won't be able to market the process for children. That's all I really needed to know."

Thomas jerked his head around at the callous observation. Derksen grinned back at him, but the expression was cruel. "Whereas, you have proven that I can safely use the process on adults. Now we'll test out some other properties of the treatment."

Thoroughly bewildered, Thomas backed away until he was pressed into the corner. What was going on? Something Derksen had said about Richard came back to him. 'He would probably have lost his own name.' Would?

His nose answered the unspoken question. The former boy's scent was changing, no longer a match for his own. And even his odd vision could make out the splotch of darkness that was spreading rapidly from where Richard had been injected. Derksen moved to the gate, nodding in approval as he watched.

Thomas had thought a transformation which took days was incredibly fast. Now he was witnessing a complete change in the space of minutes. Richard snorted, and twisted around to look back at himself. His back had already taken a very different conformation, with jutting hips and coarser, darker fur. The equine body was settling on shorter legs, becoming wider and heavier as the boy's head drew in slightly and thickened. And as the change finished up, the unused stallion's equipment vanished into his belly, while a pinkish sack appeared under his rump and sprouted teats. Richard was a cow.

With the completion of the change, Thomas' horror at such betrayal exploded, and he brayed in rage. His charge was stopped short by the sound of his cry. A bray? Twisting around, he discovered that Richard was not the only one who had been transformed again. The body which met his eyes and the reflection in the mirror both belonged to a huge, dark-furred mule.

There was a laugh from the stall gate as Derksen slid the bolt home. "Thank you for helping me test the treatment out. I had to have voluntary cooperation to test if the subject could retain memory and identity. And as you can see, the new process not only allows additional forms, it is quite rapid when you don't have to increase mass."

Thomas shook his head, having trouble understanding some of the words. Derksen grinned. "Don't fight it. You see, the new treatment does allow greater retention of original brain patterns, even though it locks the first new form as the 'true' self. If I'd selected human forms as the second change, even the boy would have recovered his memory. However, I can't have any witnesses to my involvement in this little project. So I made sure your new forms are somewhat less intelligent than the equine shapes they replaced."

A thickness was filling Thomas' brain, slowing his thoughts. Even his growing fear was not enough to overcome the heavy contentment which washed over him. Derksen nodded at the cow now munching hay. "Richard is quite happy now, or at least, as happy as a cow can be. The royal rug-rat you knew no longer exists."

He turned back to Thomas. "As for you? If you haven't lost yourself to the mule by tomorrow, we'll try something else. Perhaps another cow? Or a bull. Yes, that would be quite amusing." And with that, the man left.

Thomas shuddered, struggling to beat back the animal thoughts which were pressing in on the last traces of his identity. He felt terrible grief for Richard, but there was nothing that he could do for the boy. And if he waited much longer, there would be nothing he could do for himself. For now, he was holding his own against the rising tide of bestial existence. He had no illusions about his chances if Derksen made another injection.

The stall was solid and well-made, as was the gate. But the builders had not planned for a large mule with the intelligence to aim his hooves at the latch itself. A single blow shattered the entire mechanism and almost knocked the gate off its hinges. Thomas paused for a moment to look at the cow. Other than being startled by the noise, she showed no interest. Then he bolted out of the stable and headed into the woods. He was alive, and he could think, at least a little. There was still a chance for him, and he clung desperately to the hope that Richard might yet be saved.

IV Reshuffle

Pushing through the heavy brush, Thomas stopped for a moment to appreciate the sounds and smells around him. Hard to believe that just a few days ago he had been hiking through these very mountains on feet instead of hooves.

The whole world had been altered by animal perception. As he'd noted in the stall, hearing and smell were greatly enhanced. In truth, he wasn't sure if the improvement was due to better ears and nostrils or more refined processing of the information they reported. Perhaps a combination of both. The result was a rich texture of sound and odor which he found exhilarating. And out of the artificial environment, he found that his vision also offered some new capabilities. Night vision was drastically improved, and though images were still somewhat distorted and slightly blurred, he could detect movements and identify shapes almost 360 degrees around him.

Even more interesting were the sensations of his body. The hooves, for instance. Despite the numbness, he was aware of the texture and firmness of the ground as he walked. And he could feel his body. Not just when he thought about it, but all the time. Individual muscles quivered under his skin on command, and there was a feeling of mass and strength that was almost sexual.

Thomas realized he had dropped his head to pull up grass, but did nothing to stop the automatic motion. In the past few hours, he had discovered the secret to keeping his human identity alive. Survival lay in cooperating with the animal, not fighting it. For there were two beings in his brain now. Thomas the man, and Thomas the mule. The two had reached something of a truce shortly after he escaped the stable.

Peace came almost too late. His bestial mind was by far the more powerful of the two, drawing on primal instincts and urges. What actually saved him was giving up. Frustrated and confused by a body that did not respond like his human one had, Thomas had finally surrendered to the instincts which wanted to control his movements. And the suffocating attack on his human conscienceness had stopped almost instantly.

This dual identity was interesting, now that he was used to it. Thomas the mule had a series of memories, more a collection of sensations, that seemed to be from the life of a real mule. There were other bits which were similar, yet bore a different signature. The Percheron colt. The two beasts were merged slightly, maybe because they were so alike.

He had even submerged himself cautiously into the mule's personality. The experience was both fascinating and disturbing. As he assumed more of the animal nature, awareness of his surrounding increased and contentment filled his soul. It was not exactly happiness in the human context. He felt incredibly comfortable, connected with everything around him. There was no fear, no worry. Concepts of time began to fade, and existence focused on the moment. Even his sense of self was dimming.

Thomas had recoiled from the mule's thoughts at that point, realizing that animal contentment carried a heavy price. Such inner peace came at the expense of intelligence which not only comprehended obscure threats and fears, but allowed existence to be more than a day-to-day affair. Despite that, the thought of animal life did not quite lose its appeal.Different scents caught the interest of his animal self, and he began to move towards the source. Most were variations of the plant smell he associated with food. There was water as well, along with a more powerful collection of odors which combined in his mind to form a feeling of comfort and safety. He picked up his pace, having an easier time as the ground leveled out.

After a few minutes, the brush and trees thinned to reveal a small pasture. There was enough moonlight to reveal three large forms at the far end which turned towards him as he stepped into the open. Mules. Pretty much identical to him. Two of the animals trotted towards him purposefully, and Thomas felt a little nervousness. The animal part of his mind was braced for a show of dominance. At this point, the last thing he needed was to be injured in a fight.

Sure enough, one of the two was another male, but there was no sign of aggression. If anything, his new companions seemed a bit skittish and submissive. He was snuffled and nudged, and almost every movement he made caused them to jerk away. It was confusing for a moment as he tried to scent the other mules. The female had an underlying element of her odor that marked her as a potential mate, and he found himself storing the information away.

The male was another matter. He seemed to have no scent at first. Then Thomas remembered his experience as a Percheron. A more careful snuffling confirmed his suspicions. This mule shared the same scent which Thomas found himself equating with his own name. Twins again! No, not quite. Apparently, the treatment did not duplicate surgical alterations, for the mule he'd been twinned from was most definitely gelded.

It did make sense. Derksen would have needed sample patterns from somewhere, and this pasture was not far from the stable he used as a lab. Probably belonged to a next-door neighbor. That bothered him some, but there seemed to be little risk in staying here for a while. He was tired, and surrounded by the other mules, he felt safe for the first time in several days.

The general temptation was to doze off, but this was the first time he'd really had a chance to explore his new situation. He'd only been a Percheron for a few hours before he'd been changed again, and that time had been spent locked in a stall being poked and tested.

He hadn't even noticed the transformation from horse to mule. Of course, the two forms were very similar in function and size, if not in appearance. Now that he thought about it, there was a slight heaviness that he hadn't felt as the Percheron. Looking at his new brother, he noted some white in the muzzle, and realized that they were both mature, if not old, animals. He wasn't happy about that, but it explained some of the difference. The Percheron form had been very young, probably not even fully grown.

Curse Derksen! As a colt, Thomas could at least have enjoyed several decades of life as a valuable stud. Now he probably faced death after only a few years as a common mule. The man had hedged his bets just in case. Thomas didn't know how long cows lived, but he'd read somewhere that most cattle went to slaughter houses after only a few years.

His gloomy thoughts were interrupted by a hard nudge from one of the females. A young one, from her scent. He automatically cataloged her as not ready to breed. So why the nudge? Teeth nipped at his flank and she leaped to the side, stopping to look back at him. She wanted to play! He'd never thought of animals playing, at least not domestic ones like horses and mules.

Curious, he took a few steps. She kicked up her hind legs and pranced around him, braying a coarse challenge. He answered without thinking, and shook his head. A second playful nip sent him charging after her, and the two of them galloped around the pasture in an equine version of tag. The gelding joined in once or twice, while the other female remained aloof from the activities.

He was lapping water from a wooden barrel when he realized the sun was high up in the sky. The young mare was close by, pulling up some grass. Both of them were heaving and sweaty after hours of romping, and he was starting to feel some pain from complaining muscles and joints. Despite the discomfort, he wouldn't have traded the experience for anything.

It was like being a child again, the childhood of people's dreams. Time had ceased to mean anything to him, and he had simply enjoyed the day. Stripped of petty human concerns and restrictions, he had found utter satisfaction in running and kicking, exalting in the sensations of his body and the company of the mare.

He had imagined animal life as dull and joyless, mindless existence without emotion. How wrong he had been. Perhaps human conscienceness was affecting his perceptions, but the mare seemed to have at least as much fun as he had. He found he could relive the romp in memories that included physical sensations as well as pictures. And everything around him had taken on a richer texture. The water, for example. He savored the minerals, bits of grass, even the saliva which mixed in with it. As a human, he would have gagged, but as a mule, the impurities were simply variations of flavor. Grass had a sweet aftertaste, while the loose straw had a slightly smoky flavor. Even the air itself brought incredible bouquets of trees, flowers, rich earth, and other animals.

The female moved closer, and he was content to stand pressed against her in the warm sunlight. His human identity was fading again, but this time he found it difficult to care. If he was to spend the rest of his life as a mule, he could find contentment here. A flicker of fear remained, but was unable to burn through the blanket of peace which covered his thoughts.

Strange noise came from the other side of the pasture, and he followed the other mules as they trotted towards the source. A large, angular creature rumbled and stank there, and it opened a mouth on its side as they came near. A truck. Thomas shook his head as different comprehensions struggled for dominance. Two men got out, one of them very familiar. It was.. he groped for the name, but all that came were impressions of danger and anger.

The two men looked over the group, and made noises at each other as the dangerous one came into the corral and approached Thomas. He laid his ears back, but remained still as Derksen - yes, that was his name - Derksen checked between his hind legs. More gibberish, yet he was sure they were speaking normally. Thomas shook his head again, unable to make out the man's words. He wanted to break and run away, but something told him to stay calm. The two men inspected him thoroughly, the scientist spending a lot of time just looking into his eyes. Then he grinned and patted Thomas' neck.

Derksen spoke as he headed back to the truck, with the other man following. Thomas strained to understand what they were saying. He had to think like a human. And the gibberish became words. "... to pack up a few more things." That was Derksen's voice. "Knew he'd come here sooner or later. I'll have the buyers pick him up tomorrow when they get the rest."

The men climbed back into the truck and drove back down the dirt road they'd come from. Thomas watched until even the dust had settled, the flicker of fear now blazing into terror. Thinking back, he realized that he must have homed in on the pasture with the original mule's instincts. Derksen hadn't worried about his victim escaping to tell the authorities. Thomas had done just what the man wanted him to do. And even knowing that, he wanted to stay a mule.

Shaken, Thomas forced himself to leave the group and found his way back to the edge of the forest. The young mare brayed and started after him, but it only took a warning kick to send her scampering back to the others. It took all his will to step out of the grassy field, and the urge to return faded only when the scents of his herd were lost behind him.

Derksen's words were the only things that kept him from letting go of his humanity forever. It would be so easy just to release the worry and the fear. But he was the only one left with a chance, however slim, to stop that evil bastard.

The sun was starting to set when he caught a new scent in the air. Walking had been automatic for hours, and he no longer remembered if he was heading to or away from something. The odor gave him a purpose, and he changed direction to follow it. As it got stronger, he perked up and increased his pace to a canter over the rough terrain.

As before, forest gave way to a pasture, smaller this time, with only one occupant. There was also a rough wooden fence which he pressed against as he drew in the lovely fragrance that stirred his loins. Munching sweet grass in the fading light of day was the object of all his desires. A female! And one in need of his services. Her scent called to him, and he felt himself emerging in response. It was more than simple lust or a desire for pleasure. The female had awakened a primal need to mate.

The barrier frustrated him, but he heard it cracking as he leaned harder. He started a rocking motion with his body, a literal jack hammer, until the railing gave way with a sharp crack. No longer blocked, he advanced on the mare.

He was vaguely aware that the animal he was trying to mate with was not quite the proper breed. She appeared to be a draft horse of some kind, more suited to the dimly-remembered Percheron form than the mule-shape he now wore. Yet the mule did not care. Her scent was close enough to a female mule's to overcome any other differences, and he pranced and snorted in frenzied courtship.

Her ladyship, however, had more discriminating taste in suitors. The mare's ears went back, and she kicked at him in warning. He ignored her protests, pressing closer and maneuvering for an opportunity. The dark shaft of his gift arched painfully, and the throbbing of his loins was a pulse which echoed through his body.

Mating was no longer a matter of choice. He was quivering with his own need. There had to be a way to get the female to accept him. As desire built to a peak, he felt the throbbing increase. The mare suddenly perked her ears up, and twisted her head draw in his scent. And then she ceased her protests and leaned forward, tail lifted up to the side in obvious invitation.

There was no opportunity to wonder at this change of heart, for Thomas the animal covered her in a single fluid motion. She twisted under his weight, but his forelegs gripped her sides firmly, and he prodded her backside frantically. Penetration brought a shrill whinny from the mare, which was joined by his own stallion's cry of triumph. The mating act was so intense that he wasn't even aware of the screaming intruder before a long stick broke across his lower rump.

"Get off her!" He twisted his head around to see a very small boy shaking the splintered end of a pine branch. The blow had hardly been noticed, but the interruption of his efforts was infuriating. He snapped at the child, who moved only enough to get out of range. "Stay away from her, you stupid horse! She's mine!"

The child jumped up to club his foreleg with the stick, and this time Thomas got flesh between his teeth when he snapped. A strong metallic taste exploded in his mouth, and he shook his head trying to get rid of it. In his frenzy, he bit his own tongue, but even that wasn't enough to break him from copulation.

The boy's shrieks were joined by others, and Thomas was dimly aware of a young woman rushing towards them. She grabbed up the child and started backing away, only to stop and stare in obvious horror at the mating horses. Her reaction puzzled him, but the pressure building in his loins drew his attention back to the mare.

He had slipped a little, and struggled to press himself back into her. Mounting was getting awkward, and he whinnied in frustration. She seemed to be getting larger with each thrust, and he felt his shaft pulling further out each time.

The woman was screaming now, her eyes locked on him. Concentration broke, and Thomas was able to twist his head around to look at himself. The white form of the Percheron colt met his eyes, but it was melting away even as he watched. Hind legs flailed in the air, and then he fell backwards to land heavily on the ground. The pressure in his loins erupted as he pulled free of the mare, shooting a milky stream into the air just before the testicles it came from ceased to exist.

Animal instincts were fading, leaving Thomas aware but confused. He was laying in a pool of thick, foul-smelling fluid which spread across the ground as he continued to shrink. A cry broke from his lips, high-pitched and familiar. And then the change stopped. Shaking and bewildered, he pushed himself up onto unsteady feet and looked down. Rounded, smooth belly. Tiny nub of a penis. Soft pink feet. The woman was staring down at him now, still holding the bleeding child. Thomas blinked at the boy's pink feet and rounded belly, and had time to giggle once before the world closed in around him and he passed out.

V New Game

Darkness and strong odors. Thomas woke with a start, afraid he was back in Derksen's stable. Straw scratched at his bare skin, and he shivered slightly in the cool night air. It took a moment to realize that his cold, itchy skin was human.

A jumble of memories finally fell into place. There was no light at all, but he was able to use his hands to confirm the impossible truth. He was a child! Younger even than Richard had been. But how? After becoming a horse and a mule, waking as a child was almost anticlimactic. Except that he knew what had changed him into the animal forms. Certainly there had been no injection to cause this.

He tried to think back. He'd escaped the stable as a mule, and traveled for hours. There had been a pasture, and a mare. Even now, the sensations of mating were intense in his mind. The female had refused him at first, only to change her mind. He must have changed back to the white colt before he mounted her. The treatment! Derksen had said that the first new pattern was retained as the true self. Perhaps the intense need to mate had triggered transformation back to the Percheron.

However, the colt had melted down to a small boy. Where had this pattern come from? He thought of the screaming woman. She'd been holding something. A child. A little boy with pink feet and a rounded belly just like his. A boy with blood on his shoulder.

Thomas shivered again, this time not from the cold. The taste of the child's blood came back to him, and a lump formed in his stomach. God, had he killed the boy? He'd lost control when the stick hit him, and nothing was clear. But he did remember a coppery taste in his mouth and the red stain on the child's shoulder.

The blood! He'd gotten blood in his mouth. Somehow, the virus must have absorbed the boy's pattern. Perhaps it had been still active from the change to Percheron, or maybe exposure to anything alive would trigger a transformation. He shuddered at that thought. How sensitive was this stuff? Would he become a head of lettuce when he ate a salad? Or a cow when he chewed on rare steak? Like Richard.

The familiar lump in his throat suddenly faded, and he felt a thrill of renewed hope. He knew how to help the boy! If it wasn't too late. Derksen didn't know how the shared minds worked. He'd assumed that Richard was lost. Perhaps the boy had simply allowed the beast immediate control, and still lived in the corners of the bovine brain.

Time was the enemy, now. Derksen would certainly find out he was missing from the pasture. He'd gotten careless when he thought Thomas had truly become a mule, but the man was too intelligent to take unnecessary chances now. All he had to do was clean up the place, pack up equipment and any notes, and... Alarmed, he forced himself to finish the thought. And dispose of any evidence. The two boys, and Richard. Thomas had no doubt that Derksen could kill all of them without shedding a tear. He only hoped that the man still planned to go through with the sale.

There was no way of telling how long he'd been unconscious. Rising, he stretched his arms out and walked forward until his fingers brushed against rough wood. The source of one of the stronger odors became obvious as he felt his way around. He was in a small tack closet, with a single door which was secured from the other side. There was also a faint musky odor of horse mixed in with the leather which he found curiously comforting. No tools, though, and this time kicking the lock only bruised his foot.

Frustrated, he began to beat on the door and yell. The shrill tones of his new voice were unnerving, and he started to tire quickly. Tears sprung up in his eyes, and he felt his nose running. Everything seemed so overwhelming. And it was so dark and scary.

A noise from the other side of the door interrupted his sniffles, and he pressed his face against the wood. "Let me out! Please! I gotta help somebody!" After a moment, he heard a scraping sound by the latch, and the door came partly open. He eagerly pushed it the rest of the way, and stepped out into the dim light of a lantern hanging on the opposite wall. The woman he'd seen earlier was there as well. "I've got to find a farm just over the hill. A friend of mine is in ..." His stream of nervous chatter was silenced by an ominous metal click.

The woman pointed a huge shotgun at his face, her face pale and frightened. Nervous eyes looked him up and down, and she swallowed once before speaking through clenched teeth. "What the hell are you? And why do you look like my son?"

Thomas fell back against the wall, eyes wide in sudden terror. Tears started to flow again, and this time he could not control them His whole body shook as he cowered down and crossed his arms over his face. "I'm sorry. Please don't hurt me!" He became aware of his own sobbing, and clenched tiny fists. Why was he acting like this? With great effort, he managed to still his quaking form and stop his crying. Wiping his nose on a bare arm, he hugged his knees and looked up at the woman.

The shot gun had lowered a bit, but snapped back into aim. She was absolutely terrified, and he had to admit that she had good reason. Fear had tightened his own throat so that he could barely force out a whisper. "Is he all right?"

She looked confused for a moment. "Are you asking about David? My son?" Thomas nodded meekly. She repeated the gesture. "He's at a neighbor's. The wound looked much worse than it was."

He dropped his head. "I'm sorry. I don't exactly remember what happened, but I didn't mean to hurt him." Tears started to flow again. "I don't want to hurt anyone. I just want to stop this." He clutched at his knees again, and rocked slightly.

"Stop it!" The woman's voice was suddenly harsh. "Why are you rocking like that?"

He looked up in bewilderment. "I.. I don't know. I just sorta did it. What's the matter?"

The gleaming barrels of the shotgun did not waver. "That's just what David does when he is frightened or worried." Her finger curled tighter over the trigger.

Thomas placed his hands on the ground, and pressed against the wall to steady his shivering body. "Please. I'm really scared, and I need help. I know what you saw must have been awful, but I'm the one who's going through this Hell." The barrel lowered a bit, but did not stray far.

He tried to figure out an explanation. "I don't have time to tell you everything that's happened to me in the past few days. I don't even understand half of it myself. "

The woman leaned lightly against the stall gate behind her and gave him a grim smile. "I'll be the one who decides how much time you have to talk. Start from the beginning, and make sure it sounds like the truth. I haven't told anyone what happened, and right now, there isn't much keeping me from blowing your counterfeit little head off. "

Thomas swallowed hard and gathered his thoughts for a moment. Then he launched into the events of his backpacking trip. Starting with his own name and age, he described the discovery of the bogus Prince, his own capture, and the strange treatment used on him and Richard. The woman's eyes narrowed once or twice as he spoke, but the trigger finger relaxed a little and she did not interrupt.

By the time he got to the part with the mules, the shotgun was drooping a bit. Finally, he told her of waking in the tack room, and his worries about Derksen.

She shook her head slowly, and finally let the weapon drop until it was pointing at the floor. "That is the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard. But I have a pool of something real nasty out in the pasture and a son who swears he saw an ugly old mule turn into a big white horse that bit him." A faint smile twisted her lips. "And if it isn't true, then I've cracked up. Because I saw a draft horse turn into my 5 year-old's twin brother."

Thomas was silent, still too scared to move. She sighed, and reached down to help him up. When he cringed away, she frowned and then looked at her shotgun. "Oh, hell. I guess you can't do much harm." Placing the gun on the floor, she turned and suddenly hefted Thomas up in her arms. "Might as well get you cleaned up and dressed. Then we'll see about what to do next."

He clung to her neck, a little embarrassed, yet also very comforted by her embrace. It was a strange experience. A beautiful young woman was holding his naked body against her chest, but there was nothing erotic about the sensations. About the only interest he had in her breasts was a slight thirst, which he immediately pushed from his mind.

As she carried him towards the small house, her hands explored his buttocks and crotch, and she sniffed at his hair. In some ways, it was much like the snuffling session with the mules. Oddly enough, her scent was familiar to his nose.

The final destination was the washroom, which held a large cast-iron tub from the last century. The antique facilities had been modernized, probably with tanks and electric pumps, but she didn't wait for the water to warm up before setting him down in it.

He yelped, but stayed still as she pulled out soap and a rag and started to wipe him down. Between the dirt, straw, and dried traces of whatever the rest of his equine body had turned into, the cloth and the water both turned gray. She was quick and thorough, and a couple of times she seemed to forget that he wasn't really her son. He was a little concerned to realize that he was having the same trouble.

He had a chance to look in her dressing mirror while she picked out some clothing. His perspective had drastically changed from the huge mule and horse shapes. Besides being less than a meter tall, he was slender to the point of looking skinny. Oddly, he didn't feel weak. In fact, he felt wonderful. It was more like everything was bigger and heavier than it should be.

As his tongue probed the corners of the small mouth, one of his upper front teeth wiggled a bit. Pushing at it, he realized that it was probably one of the boy's baby teeth about to fall out. Instead of being interesting, the discovery made him think about his situation a bit more.

What could he do now? As a small child, he could hardly force Derksen to do anything. Worse, without the concentrated food blocks, it would take far too long for him to build up the mass to become a colt or mule. What was he now? Maybe 15 kilograms?

It occurred to him that he might not be able to change into another form, at least for a while. It wasn't just the question of raw materials. How many forms would the virus store? He already had three on record. The little boy in the mirror wasn't his first choice of a new body, but there were some advantages to this extreme youth.

"All right, Thomas." The woman handed him some tiny shorts and an equally small t-shirt. "These are dirty, but David always seems to like them that way." A pair of socks, and sneakers finished the ensemble. He fumbled with the shoelaces, having trouble coordinating his fingers. She grinned and brushed his hands away, tying them with the deft movements of much practice. He flushed, not quite so keen on being a child. Was it a problem of physical coordination, or had he actually lost the skill?

She sat down on the bed and looked at him thoughtfully. "I've put this off as long as I can, but I guess I have to go ahead and accept your story." Frowning, she looked away. "I'm sorry if I went too far with the bath and all. It's just that the only way I can deal with this is to pretend you are David."

Sighing, she looked back at him. "But you are not. You are a 32 year-old man named Thomas Hassan who happens to look like my son right now." She held out her hand and gave him a wry grin. "I suppose it's time I introduced myself. Marjorie Bennett." He touched the outstretched hand and nodded as her face got serious. "What can we do to help the boy? We can't exactly go to the authorities."

Thomas snorted, imagining them trying to convince anyone about what was going on. "There isn't time, anyway. If Derksen knows I left the pasture, it may already be too late."

"He knows." Marjorie shook her head. "I did some calling around after I locked you in the tack room. Didn't tell anyone what really happened, just tried to find out if someone was missing a large animal. The farm you ran away from is about 20 miles from here. They'd already put out the word about a mean-tempered mule being lost. Offered a real good reward, too."Thomas's face went white. "Twenty miles?" He hadn't even thought about how he would get back to Derksen's place. Somehow, he'd assumed it was just an easy walk.

The woman nodded. "You traveled quite a distance today. Don't worry. I have a car."

He jerked his head up. "No! You'd get in trouble, too! It's way too scary. I..." She held up her hand to silence him.

"You're five years old. That means you can't walk twenty miles. And you sure as Hell can't save anyone by yourself." She stood, and then crouched down in front of him. "I don't think we have a lot of time, anyway. It's more than just your body, Thomas. You're starting to move and talk like David. Maybe not him specifically, but more like a normal little boy."

He started to protest, but realized with faint horror that she was right. Oddly, it had been easier to fight the animal comprehension. The changes brought about by extreme youth were harder to catch. There were no strange sensations, no dimming of thoughts to be scared of. If he concentrated, the knowledge and memories of his adult life were still there. It was just that he was having a harder time relating to those memories. Derksen had said something about different physical structures causing problems like that. Was a child's brain different from an adult's?

She watched him for a moment, and then touched his cheek gently. "I don't know how I'll manage to pull it off, but if you do forget everything, I'll take care of you here. David would love a brother to play with." Standing, she tousled his hair and grinned. "Besides, I can always fatten you up and turn you back into a Percheron!"

Thomas managed a half-hearted smile. "I guess we'll find out if that's gonna happen pretty soon. But we gotta help Ricky. Please? I have a plan..."

VI Player Challenge

Question was, did he have a -good- plan? Thomas chided himself mentally as they stood outside the door of Derksen's cabin. It was a bit late for second thoughts. Marjorie knocked again, a bit harder. He started to wonder if they were already too late. Had the man panicked and left early?

The door opened suddenly, and Derksen stared at the two of them with obvious annoyance. "Yes? What is it?"

Marjorie cleared her throat. "Are you Mr. Derksen?" When he nodded, she assumed a more severe tone of voice. "Then you own the mule that raped my prize mare today."

The man blinked, and looked at his watch. "Yes. I received a call about that. I understand he got away again. Pity. I am very sorry, but it is quite late and I am busy right now. Perhaps we can talk about this tomorrow...?"

She pushed her way past him and stormed into the room. "No, Mr. Derksen! I must know that horrible animal's background. His health records, if he has any known diseases, and see where he was being kept. I will not endanger my poor filly simply because it is an inconvenience for you. You should have taken steps to secure him better!"

Taken aback by her angry demands, Derksen nervously gestured for Thomas to come in as well, and shut the door. "Forgive me, Mrs. ....?" She glared at him. "Bennett. Marjorie Bennett. And this is my son, David."

The man's eyebrows raised slightly, but he gave each a curt nod of the head. "Forgive the clutter, but I am packing for a, ah, short trip. Thomas looked around, there were open boxes and metal cases stacked all over the room.

Marjorie flounced over to an empty chair and plopped down. "And just how would I be able to talk to you tomorrow, then? No, I think we will take care of this tonight."

He smiled suddenly, and moved to a desk across from her. "Very well, Mrs. Bennett. As I am quite sure you are aware, mules are sterile, so your mare has suffered a temporary indignity at worst. However, I will be quite happy to compensate you for any trouble or damages. Say, two thousand?"

Thomas was a little startled. He didn't know what mares cost, but that seemed an extravagant sum for his one-night stand. Marjorie, on the other hand, did not blink an eye. "That is satisfactory. However, there is still the matter of inspecting the animal's quarters and going over his health records. If everything is in order, I will drop the matter."

"You want to see my stable?" The man showed no signs of concern. Thomas was not surprised. Everything was already packed up in these boxes. "Certainly. As to the health records, you will have to speak with Franz Schlondorff over at the next farm. He has the paperwork. But I assure you that the animal was in perfect health."

She remained firm. "Nevertheless, I want to examine his stall. If there are any droppings, I will take them to be analyzed. I will not risk my mare's health for any amount of money."

Derksen sighed and gestured towards the door. If you will follow me, then. I trust you will not take too long?" She got up with a sniff of disdain, and started outside. Thomas moved to follow her, only to get a stern command from his 'mother'. "No, 'David'. You will sit there and not touch anything until we come back. Do you understand?" He gave her his best little boy smile and climbed up on the chair. The man scowled a bit, but said nothing as he followed her out and shut the door.

Perfect! Thomas waited a few moments to make sure they were clear of the cabin, and then jumped down to check out the boxes. Notebooks, papers, some textbooks. The fifth box held what he was after. Videotapes! Derksen had even been kind enough to label each with the date and time period covered. Most of the tapes were duplicated, thanks to the double camera setup he had used. He found three that would contain yesterday's events, and then tried to arrange the remaining tapes so that the hole wouldn't be noticed. Failing that, he grabbed a book from another box, and used it to prop the tapes from underneath. That did the trick. Grabbing the three he'd taken, he cracked the door open and checked the barn. They were still inside. Marjorie was going to delay as long as she could, but he still had a lot to accomplish.

He ran as quietly as he could to Marjorie's car and dumped the tapes through the open back window. Then he dashed back and shut the door. No sign of their returning yet. He went over to one of the metal cases. Two of them had stickers on them denoting the contents as fragile. He opened the first, and saw three rows of sealed test tubes, all marked with a neatly printed 'CT,' followed by the name of an animal. He pulled one out of the heavy foam insulation. "Percheron, male, =4a." Another had "Chimpanzee, female, =2c." He pocketed the vials in his jacket, and closed the case. As he started for the second, a familiar metal tray caught his eye. There was a syringe on it, still capped and full of a clear fluid. He also found a partly- emptied vial labeled 'calf, male, =1c."

Calf? With a chill, Thomas remembered Derksen's original plans for his mule form. It looked like he'd changed his mind about making him a bull, though. This needle had been meant for him. Richard would have become his mother, not his mate.

Almost too late, he heard the two adults returning from the barn. On impulse, he grabbed the hypodermic and stuck it in his pocket before running back to the chair. Derksen opened the door just as he pulled himself back up, and frowned. After a quick glance around the room, he seemed satisfied, and came the rest of the way in.

Marjorie was still maintaining the act pretty well, but Thomas saw her hands shaking. As she entered, she gave him a pointed look. "Were you a good boy, David?" He nodded silently. That let her know that the evidence they needed was secured. It was time to go. They would sneak back later to attempt rescuing Richard. Besides the delaying tactic, her inspection also had given her a chance to try locating him. "Well, I suppose that is all, then." She motioned for Thomas to join her and turned for the door.

Derksen blocked her way with a quick motion. "Aren't you forgetting the two thousand?"

The woman looked a bit flustered, but recovered her calm. "Of course. How silly of me." She followed him back to the desk, which he opened and started searching.

"I assume a check will be all right? I don't have that much cash." He looked at Thomas and gestured to a table behind him. "See if there's a pen over there, boy." He found one and displayed it. Derksen nodded and held out his hand. "Toss it over here to me, please."

He complied, though his throw wasn't very accurate. The man caught it and smiled. "Thank you very much, Thomas." Before either of them caught his words, he pulled a familiar-looking weapon from the desk and shot Marjorie twice.

She screamed and fell over backwards, pulling at the feather-tipped darts which had appeared in her chest and stomach. As Thomas tried to run to help her, he was grabbed roughly from behind and lofted into the air. The man slipped his fingers inside the Thomas' shirt and pulled it hard enough to reveal his smooth, unblemished shoulder.

Derksen threw him down roughly, stepping back to cover them both with the tranquilizer gun. "Quite clever. You might have even succeeded if your doctor wasn't so thorough, Mrs. Bennett. I told you I'd gotten a call about the rape. I neglected to mention that the reason for the call was not our young friend's indiscretion, but a rather bloody, if minor bite wound he gave your real son."

Thomas started to move towards Marjorie, only to get a warning gesture with the gun. "In your present form, the amount of tranquilizer in these darts could be hazardous." The man frowned. "I do wish you would tell me how you accomplished this new change. I assume it had something to do with the bite."

Remaining silent, Thomas looked at the woman. She was unconscious now. Derksen knelt to pull open one eyelid, never taking the gun's aim off of him. "She won't be a bother now." He looked around the room. "You took something for evidence, didn't you? No matter. I'll check your clothes and the car before I leave."

The man moved back to the door and pulled it open. "Let's go. I'm sure at least one reason you came back was to see your little friend." Thomas looked at Marjorie, feeling helpless. "Now!" Cringing, he trudged slowly outside.

"You have been quite useful in my research, you know." Derksen batted at some moths flying around the outside light, and then snatched one out of the air with his free hand. "You have proven that adults can retain their memories and identities even after multiple animal forms. And this new transformation is really quite remarkable." He held up the fist containing the moth. "I wonder how quickly the treatment would turn a boy into an insect?" Thomas shuddered as Derksen pressed his fingers down, smashing the moth to a pulp against his palm.

"Go on." Derksen pushed him roughly towards the barn, and he reluctantly went inside. The stall they had been kept in was empty, its broken gate propped against one wall. Two Percherons occupied the stalls across from that one. A soft lowing drew his attention further down. The cow there looked about right. Derksen nodded at his questioning look. "That's him. I didn't need to do anything else.

"However, in your case, I think another treatment is called for." He grabbed Thomas' arms and clamped one hand around his wrists. Putting down the gun, he searched the boy's jacket and smiled when he withdrew the syringe and one of the test tubes. "Very considerate of you to bring this. I did notice the empty tray."

He jerked Thomas around and threw him into the stall with Richard. "Unlike Mark, I do not admire people who prove themselves to be clever. In fact, it really pisses me off. So I'm going to put an end to your troublemaking." He moved to the side of the stall and picked up something long and shiny from the floor. A knife!

Thomas scrambled back against the wall, fighting terror. "We told people we were coming here! You can't kill me! If anything happens to us, they'll come looking for you!"

Derksen grinned. "Oh, I expect they'll come looking for Bryan Derksen." His features seemed to blur, and Thomas rubbed at his eyes. The man's hair was changing color, taking on a reddish cast as it grew out rapidly. "No plan is foolproof, even mine." His voice cracked, and then shifted up an octave. "There is always the chance that Mark or one of his stooges would talk, and I have been seen by too many people here."

Twin bulges pushed out Derksen's chest, and his clothes shifted as his body assumed new proportions. "However, no one here has seen Janet Foley, my lab assistant. She is back in California, establishing a very solid alibi for me. Not that she knows about any of this. It's rather perfect. When I get back, I will assume her life. She is quite intelligent, single, financially well-to-do, and as you can see, very attractive." Thomas' mouth fell open, and he stared at the stunning redhead still holding a very long and dangerous knife. "I picked her out almost as soon as I came up with this entire plan. And when you proved the new treatment worked, I used it to create my disguise. When I get back, she'll make a nice Irish Setter, don't you think?"

Hypnotized by the gender transformation, Thomas failed to notice his captor moving closer. Her hand shot out and grabbed his arm, and he screamed as she plunged something into his back. Stunned, he fell to the ground expecting death. But the object in her hand was the syringe, not the knife.

A strange pulling sensation spread out across his back, and he knew he was becoming a calf. But Derksen wasn't finished. She dropped the needle and pulled the knife out again. Stepping quickly to the cow, she grabbed one of the animal's ears and called to him. "In a few minutes, you're going to be a calf. No one cares if you kill a calf. And you know how I'll do it? Like this!" The knife flashed, and a spray of blood erupted from Richard's throat.

"No!" Thomas' scream came out as a mewling sound, and he fell to all fours as he lunged at Derksen. She barely avoided his attack, only to be knocked down by the cow as it fell heavily onto its side. Cursing, she scrambled up and grabbed at her left hand. Blood streamed from a long gash, apparently received when she fell. Thomas shook his head, sick from the smell of blood. Almost fully transformed now, he felt the instincts of a newborn calf crowding out his human identity, drawing him to the full teats of the dying cow. Not that it mattered. Derksen found the knife again, and came towards him with a crazed grin. "Time to join your mommy." The blade raised up and Thomas froze, calf's instincts locked in terror.

Derksen stopped suddenly, and rocked unsteadily on her feet. Her features were blurring again. In fact, her whole body was starting to sag and droop. Her hands dissolved rapidly into dark liquid, and the knife fell to the ground as a scream gurgled in her throat. Now fully a calf, Thomas was only partly aware of what was happening, but his terror faded.

The melting lump that had been Derksen fell backwards in the straw, liquefying into a pool which drained through to the dirt underneath. In moments, nothing was left but a large wet spot with a single moth at the center. It fluttered its wings spasmodically, trying to break free of the sticky straw. The calf snuffled at it once, and then crushed it with a single blow of a forehoof.

A weak bellow reminded Thomas of his dying friend. The stream of blood was slowing as Richard's veins emptied. Shock restored human conscienceness, as well as human grief. He burst out of the stall, lowing frantically for help, but there was no one to answer. Marjorie was going to be out for hours. The only person who could save Richard was... David!

Thomas stopped and concentrated on the boy's body, trying to remember every detail. The cow's breathing was weak and shallow. Derksen hadn't quite severed the jugular, but he'd cut deep enough to kill. Salvation lay in the half-empty syringe which Thomas could see, but not use as a calf. Frustration peaked, and he screamed again. A human scream. Not waiting for the transformation to finish, he crawled desperately to the hypodermic, and picked it up as soon as his hands were formed enough to grasp. As he plunged the needle into Richard's side, the cow gave one last shuddering sigh and went limp. Thomas cried out, and then collapsed over the still body in broken sobs.

VII Winner Take All

"Boys? We're going to be leaving soon. Make sure all of your toys and books are packed up, OK?" Tommy and David shouted a joint "OK, Mom!" and then collapsed into giggling fits again. As Marjorie had predicted, David was delighted to have a twin brother to play with, and after more than a month even Tommy was completely comfortable in his new role.

Life as a five year-old was not what he'd expected. The size differences were to be expected, if awkward to deal with. And his trouble with coordination and muscle control had pretty much gone away, at least to the point where he was on par with David. The big change was being cut off from more than 25 years of accumulated knowledge.

They'd gotten the first hint when he found he couldn't read after changing back into a child. History, math, current events, and writing skills were beyond him as well. Yet he had not lost any personal memories. And it seemed that the missing skills weren't actually gone. After just a few weeks of studying, he was already back up to a 4th-grade reading level. The best they could figure was that the links to the information in his head had been severed by differences in physical brain structure. He was going to have to rebuild those links, but the process seemed to work much faster than normal learning.

If he studied hard enough, he could come across as quite a prodigy. Still, he wasn't in any rush. It looked like he was going to be stuck as David's twin for the foreseeable future.

Of course, there were the options of the animal forms. He'd even considered becoming a calf again to take advantage of the animal's faster rate of maturity. Ironically enough, it was David who pointed out the problem of that idea. "Wouldn't you just be 5 when you got human again? Then you'd be my little brother, instead of my twin."

Explaining the sudden appearance of a twin for a boy who had grown up in the area had been difficult. Marjorie got around most of the questions by telling people that Thomas had been living with her long-estranged husband, who no longer wanted custody. At least she hadn't had to explain a triplet in the form of Richard.

Thomas sighed. Of all the situations he'd been forced to get used too, dealing with Richard was the hardest. Maybe one day it would be easier, but for now...

"Gotcha!" He was suddenly grabbed from behind and lifted into the air, arms pinned to his sides. He cried out and tried to squirm free, but his captor was too strong. Twisting around, he saw the face of the teenage assistant who'd captured him those many weeks ago.

"Put me down, Ricky!" Tommy wiggled and kicked, only to burst into laughter as the older boy's fingers began to tickle his sides. "No, stop it!" David giggled and tried to pull Ricky's arms away to free his twin, only to get captured as well. Then the three of them fell across the bed in a gentle free-for-all that lasted until Marjorie came up to investigate the noise.

"All right, cut it out you guys!" She picked up a pillow and gave them a good-natured swat. "We've got to get on the road if we're going to make it to the new house by dark. Grab whatever you don't want the movers to take, and get in the car."

Ricky and David scrambled up and started gathering the last few odds and ends. Tommy sat up and watched them for a moment, and then grinned at his new mother. "At least the new neighbors won't be wondering where me and Ricky came from!"

She nodded, and sat down on the bed next to him. "Are you sure about this? Once everything is set up, you'll pretty much have to stick with being a kid."

He shrugged. "I guess I really am a kid now, at least in all the ways that count. Me and David like the same games, and even if I read better, it's more fun to look at his books." A sad look crossed his face. "I wish I could tell my parents, though."

Marjorie put her arm around his shoulders. "We went over that. If you told them, you'd have to explain how it happened. And who knows what would happen to you and Ricky then? Maybe later, when people know about the Treatment. But for now, let things stay as they are."

He nodded, and stared at his small hands. "Do you think people will ever be ready to know about it?"

She shrugged. "I sometimes wonder if Derksen ever realized just how big a can of worms he opened? All he saw was the possibilities of shape changing and healing. He never thought through what the treatment really offers."

"Immortality." Tommy whispered the word, still not quite able to grasp the concept. There was no other way to describe what looked like the permanent ability to transform based on stored patterns. Even at the moment of death, Ricky had shifted to a healthy calf minus the mortal wound.

Derksen's notes were mostly scientific gibberish to them, but Marjorie had pieced together a decent overview of the 'Circe Treatment' with the help of a good dictionary. The name hadn't meant anything to Thomas when Marjorie first found the reference in Derksen's notes. She'd bought a children's book on Greek mythology which explained how Circe was an enchantress who turned men into beasts. Appropriate enough.

According to the scientist's theories, the treatment made a permanent record of the donor's cell configuration at the time of the sampling, including the setting of the biological clock. Unnatural physical damage, such as castration and slit throats, was not part of that configuration.

David's observation was borne out by Derksen's notes as well, but the age lock was not necessarily permanent. The scientist theorized that if the subject's DNA pattern was stable, secondary information such as age might append itself in a sort of 'add-on' file. If that was true, when Tommy and Ricky reached maturity, they might be able to transform and become human again without regressing to the original human ages. Ricky would be able to test that theory in a few years, but Tommy had more than a decade to go.

And even if they were able to safely transform then, larger forms required appropriate mass. The food cubes Derksen had given them had been formulated as perfect building blocks for the treatment. Unfortunately, although they had found the formula with his notes, Marjorie couldn't figure it out. Until that problem was solved, they'd never be able to safely become horses, or any larger creature.

Of course, there were many other drawbacks. Ricky, for instance. They'd had to find a human form for him quickly before the calf's conscienceness stripped even more of his human awareness. The only prepared samples available had been the female lab assistant, Derksen's real body, and the two boys who'd been turned to horses. The adult forms were unsuitable for a 9 year-old, so they'd picked the younger of the two teenagers.

It had been a close call. The multiple animal patterns had eroded Ricky's mind so badly that he couldn't speak or walk when the change was done. His identity and basic skills had surfaced after a day, but even after a month as a 14 year-old, he was behind David in knowledge and abilities. Despite the slow progress, he was improving, and they hoped to have him back up to his prior abilities in another month or two.

Both of Derksen's victims also suffered some minor, if annoying, side effects from the animal transformations. Neither could eat any kind of meat, and spices other than salt were hard to tolerate. Even sodas were unpleasant, so both of them stuck to plain water.

A more awkward problem was Thomas' occasional lapses into complete 5 year-old's mentality. This usually occurred in times of stress or anger, and he would literally become the child he appeared to be. They hoped that his adult persona would become more stable as he got older. Richard hadn't had any problems like that. It was too bad that Thomas couldn't become the teenager's twin, instead of being stuck as David's.

Oh, they'd tried that. But the new DNA had no effect. Apparently, the virus could only store four patterns. They were lucky that the scientist hadn't tested additional animal forms. Both of them would have been stuck as beasts.

"Come on, then." Marjorie got up and held out her hand. "Time to go." He smiled and let her help him off the bed. All of Derksen's notes, samples, and records had been carefully packed away. They had waited a few anxious days before cleaning out the rest of his things, but no one came. After all, he'd told everyone he would be going away.

So now the Circe Treatment was safe from anyone who would misuse it. Thomas would do his best to become a scientist this time around, so he could continue work on it. Until he could solve the problems of recreating the special food and adjusting biological clocks, the Percheron and mule forms were not available. And he longed to visit that world of utter peace and contentment again.

The other two boys joined them, arms and hands entwining. As the family walked out towards the car, Thomas got a warm, familiar sensation and smiled. Maybe he didn't have to visit the animal world for that after all.

The end

Shell Game copyright 1996 by Bob Stein.

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