The Transformation Story Archive The Circe Treatment

Another Shell Game

by Bob Stein

Thomas shifted uncomfortably in the bed, forced out of deep slumber by a nagging feeling of something being wrong. Vague impressions sharpened into recognizable sensations - itching, swelling, and numbness in various parts of his body.

"Not again." The words were breathed through clenched teeth as awareness grew. He tried to scratch an itch, only to feel a coarse hair on his belly. Sitting up awkwardly, he stared at himself. White fur formed a spreading blanket across his chest, even the bones underneath shifting shapes and size.

These nocturnal transformations were becoming more frequent, and he seemed to change more each time. It had started a few weeks ago with strange dreams that left him wide awake and sweating for hours almost every night. All he could remember of them were odd noises and blurred images. Then he began waking with a patch of fur which would fade away as soon as he concentrated on it. He'd been happy at first, anxious to be able to change his shape again. But things were getting out of hand, and he was starting to find the changes as unwelcome as the other symptoms of this second trip through puberty.

He focused on the boy sleeping in the bed across the room from him. David was normally a living mirror, the ultimate identical twin. Taking a deep breath, he willed the changes away. It took longer than last night, even with David to look at. But finally, his body was back to that of a normal 12 year-old boy. Strange enough, considering that he'd been born almost 40 years ago.

Thomas got up and took careful stock of himself. No trace of the bestial features remained. He shivered involuntarily. So far, the changes reflected the much larger Percheron horse form which the Circe Treatment had made his 'real' body. The real worry was that he might shift enough to lose his current 12 year-old shape. If the much smaller newborn calf form started to take over, he'd lose the mass he'd built up over the past years. Which reminded him...

Moving quietly to the door, he slipped out of the room and padded silently downstairs to the kitchen. Mild hunger pangs were becoming more forceful. Marjorie called David and him her walking food processors. They were both constantly nibbling, trying to meet the demands of growing bodies. Thomas had gotten into the habit of fixing a snack when he woke up at night, though the 'snack' was getting to be more like a full meal.

Three peanut-butter sandwiches, two glasses of milk, four apples, and a couple of raw carrots finally satisfied his stomach. That was followed by a careful clean-up. He'd been reluctant to tell Marjorie about the nightly episodes, and it was easier if he didn't have to explain a messy kitchen. However, the changes were getting more serious now, and he needed to let her know about the problem first thing in the morning. He yawned. Fatigue was hitting harder tonight, and he had to struggle to make it back to his room. He didn't even feel his head hit the pillow.

David's bed was empty when Thomas finally dragged himself awake. Judging from the sun outside, it was already mid-morning. Groaning, he stumbled out to the hallway and made his way downstairs. The house was empty. He frowned in puzzlement, and then shook his head in disgust. Damn! The big shopping trip. Marjorie and the other boys had been planning a three-day clothing and supply binge in the city for weeks. Never one for the crowds and noise, Thomas had begged off, saying that someone needed to watch the farm. Besides, anything that fit David would fit him, so he didn't need to come anyway.

Marjorie had left a note. Good Morning, Sleepyhead. We left early, and decided not to wake you. Breakfast is in the oven. The number for the hotel is on the counter. See you Thursday night. And don't complain when you have to wear what David picks out! Love, Mom.

He smiled at the closing. The mother-son relationship didn't actually apply, yet they both had settled into it naturally. Marjorie was incredible. The woman who took them in 7 years ago had started a whole new life for her adopted family. It had been a terrible struggle at first, but she'd managed to keep them together. Thanks to selling the special nutrient formula that had come with the Circe Treatment materials, finances were no longer a problem. But she was constantly on the road now, coordinating marketing and distribution plans with the pharmaceutical company. And in addition to raising twin 12 year-olds, one of whom was actually older than she was, she had to deal with a young man who was mentally still a child.

Ricky, the other 'changeling' of this family, suffered the opposite problem from Thomas. The former Prince of Wales had started his new life as a young teenager, a good 5 or 6 years older than his real age. Unfortunately, Derksen's experiments had done something to the boy's mind, locking his mentality at the original 9 year-old level.

Of course, Thomas had problems other than the unwanted changes. Most people would probably love to wake up as a 12 year-old when they were supposed to be 39. Anyone who didn't remember what being a kid was really like, that is. Not that he was having a normal childhood this time around, but even the physical stuff was hard to deal with. Everything was built for adults. Until recently, he hadn't been able to even touch the floor with his feet when he sat in a normal chair. Things he'd have thought light as an adult were still immovable.

At least there was an end in sight for that aspect. He and David were showing signs of pubic hair, and Marjorie was having trouble keeping them in clothes that fit. That was one of the reasons for the big shopping trip. Thomas shook his head. Marjorie had jumped at the chance to get away, and he really couldn't blame her. He could be pretty hard to deal with at times, and the nightly changes weren't making things any better.

Breakfast turned out to be a big meal. They usually had bread and jam, with some fruit and juices. Marjorie had left scrambled eggs, hard rolls, and waffles in the oven, with fruit and juice on the table. Even considering his usual eating habits, there was an awful lot of food. Still, he wolfed it all down. Despite his nighttime snacking, the huge breakfast really didn't satisfy him.

Four peanut-butter sandwiches and two glasses of milk later, his stomach was still growling. He grinned, remembering Marjorie's recent good-natured complaints about him and David being eating machines. Well, she also hated leftovers, and there were plenty of those to nibble on.

It wasn't until Thomas found himself gnawing on raw cabbage that he realized something was wrong. Almost in a daze, he looked around at the empty bowls and dishes strewn across the kitchen. The refrigerator door hung open, displaying empty shelves. Yet he felt hungrier now than he had when he came in here. And it was really hot. He wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of one hand, wincing slightly as his arm and shoulder resisted the motion.

The twinge of pain puzzled him. One of the few good things about being a kid was flexibility. Normally, he could turn himself into a human pretzel. He rubbed at the sore joint absently. Bewilderment grew as his fingers began to go numb. Were his hands getting darker?

Forcing himself to ignore the demands of his stomach, Thomas made his way to the bathroom. The strange sensations and intense hunger were disturbingly familiar signals. His reflection only confirmed what he had desperately wanted to deny. A light coat of white hair was spreading over his skin, and the shape of his face and head had changed drastically. Pointed ears sat higher up, and his nose and mouth were pushed forward in the beginnings of a muzzle.

He concentrated on his human shape, willing the bestial features to fade. Nostrils flared and widened, becoming darker. Another attempt failed, as did a third. He stared in horror at the changing image in the mirror. After 7 years, the Circe Treatment had decided it was time for him to be a horse again.

Pain wracked Thomas' body as he stumbled through the house. The Circe process was continuing to transform him, but there wasn't enough raw material left to work with. His body was turning on itself, trying to stretch the mass of a boy into a Percheron stallion. Already slender, he stretched thinner and taller with each passing minute.

This was what Derksen had warned about, all those years ago. The process was single-minded, and would continue until he either became a horse, or died of starvation. At this point, there was little doubt that death was the likely result. Nothing edible remained in the house, not even potted plants. Oh, there was plenty of feed in the barn, but normal food would take too long to be processed. What he needed was...

Spinning suddenly, Thomas ran for the barn. He and Marjorie had built a small lab in the back to continue Derksen's research. Part of that work had focused on the nutrient formula they'd sold to the pharmaceutical company. It had been months since they finished recreating the nutrient, but they had not bothered to clear out the tanks yet. If Marjorie had left the environmental controls alone, the formula might still be good.

His strength was fading, and he had to lean against the wall as he fumbled with the latch for the lab door. Fingers were losing mobility as they continued to fuse, but he managed to get the lock undone. A new wave of pain left him writhing on the floor in agony. When it passed, he was unable to stand. Thomas' eyes watered as he looked up at the polished steel tanks. The lids were clamped shut, and he couldn't even reach them now, much less have the strength to open one.

God! He was going to die here. Thomas fell back on the floor, sprawling awkwardly with his head partially under the first tank. Would the next wave of change kill him? Or would he continue to be drawn thin like a piece of taffy, until there wasn't enough mass to maintain life?

Thomas blinked to clear tear-filled eyes, and found himself staring up at some sort of valve. Thoughts had become sluggish, and his brain took a moment to recognize it to be a drain for the tank. A drain. That was important, somehow. Focusing the last of his strength, he managed to lift his hand up to reach the petcock. Darkness was closing in on him now, yet he stubbornly clung to the metal valve. It finally turned, and a dribble of thick liquid began to hit his face. Tilting his head back, he caught part of the slow stream with his mouth, and swallowed.

It was the formula. A second pull on the handle increased the flow, and he barely took time to breath as he swallowed. Even the first mouthful seemed to ease his pain, and as he continued to drink, the darkness stopped closing in. When his hunger finally faded, he fought heavy fatigue just long enough to knock the petcock closed again with the numb mass of his hand, and then dropped almost instantly into deep sleep.

The pain was back when he woke, but it was a pale ghost of his former agony. He tried to lift his hand to open the valve, only to find that his arms no longer functioned that way. Fortunately, his mouth had pushed forward into a partial snout, and he was able to use his larger lips to pull the handle. A large part of the formula ended up on the floor, and he lapped the spill up eagerly after the tank had emptied itself.

When he was finished, Thomas finally took time to look at himself. This transition lacked the smoothness of his first changes. A human foot grew out of an otherwise equine hind leg, and his body was a misshapen mess. One thigh had swollen out to draft horse proportions, dwarfing the boy's buttocks nestled next to it. His right hand was fully transformed into a massive black hoof, while the right was a pinkish mass at the end of a swollen foreleg. His T-shirt and shorts had ripped apart, and he was glad he hadn't been wearing shoes or a belt.

Exhaustion hit him again, and he slumped back to the floor. He remembered the fatigue from his first change, but this uneven transformation had him worried. He drifted off to sleep, this time afraid not of dying, but of waking as a monster.

Hungry. He woke lying heavily on one side, and rolled up to all fours with a single motion. Smells hit him all at once, vaguely familiar and much stronger than normal. The most important odor came from the large shiny... metal... thing. It held food. Food came from underneath, like a mare's teat. But this teat was hard and cold. Massive lips pulled at it, and some small corner of his mind remembered that the projection on the side had to be moved.

Nothing happened. Frustrated, he snorted and pressed his head against the thing. It slid sideways until it was stopped by the mass of a second shiny thing just like it. He moved around and snuffled the underside of this new thing. Another hard teat was there, and this one provided the food he sought. He ate until he could hold no more, and stared dully at the growing puddle on the floor. There was a way to stop it, but he couldn't quite remember what it was.

Sleepy. He started to drop his head, but felt uncomfortable with the metallic smell of this place. Fresher scents came from the opening behind him and he turned to leave, knocking over a table of equipment with a shower of sparks. He pushed out into a much larger space, and automatically moved into a vacant stall. Surrounded by the comfortable smell of hay and stray, he relaxed and drifted off to sleep.

Nostrils stung with a sharp acrid stink. He opened his eyes, and felt the sting of smoke. And there was a crackling sound behind him. He twisted around and saw the glare of flames on the opposite wall. Panic exploded, and he began to scream and kick. The fire raced upwards, and spread across the straw-covered floor towards his stall. Heat washed over him, and he bolted suddenly through the flames. Terror filled heart and mind as he burst out of the barn and galloped off into the darkness, trying to escape the stench of his own burning hair.

"I'm sorry, M'am, but I have to ask." Marjorie stared dully at the scorched remains of a T-shirt in the policeman's hand. "Does this look like your son's?" She nodded wordlessly, and looked past him at the blackened ruins of the barn. He shook his head sadly. "It was found inside by one of the firefighters. The only reason it survived was that some sort of metal tank actually melted over it. Nothing else in the room was... identifiable."

She wrung her hands, not wanting to hear what the man was saying. It wasn't possible. "We didn't keep anything dangerous in the lab. Thomas hasn't been in there for months. And he knew the place better than I did..." She stopped, realized she was already referring to him in the past tense.

The policeman folded the burned cloth awkwardly. "According to the report, it looks like the fire was started by an electrical short somewhere. They think that your son may have been playing with some equipment in the lab and knocked it over. There is a chance he was electrocuted and knocked out before the fire started. Children don't always know about..."

"Thomas was not a child!" Marjorie's voice broke. "I mean, he -isn't- a child. He put most of that equipment together in the first place!" Tears were running down her face now, and she fought to keep control of her emotions. "They didn't find a body anywhere, did they? He could have escaped!"

After an awkward silence, the policeman sighed. "It's been three days since the fire. You are a long way from town, but even so, the firefighters got here before the barn was completely consumed. That's why the house and the rest of the grounds weren't damaged. There was no one around when they got here, and they searched the area afterwards. If your son had survived, he would have shown up by now. I'm very sorry, Ms. Bennett. But it's pretty certain that he died in the fire."

Marjorie looked back towards the car. David and Ricky were staring at her, wide-eyed and pale. The windows were down, so they had heard everything. Seeing her real son brought home the fact that Thomas was gone, and she suddenly broke into sobs. The boys jumped out of the car and ran to her, their own tears joining hers as they shared loss and grief.

The policeman watched the three for a moment, and then went back to his car. He hated this part of his job. Flipping over the report, he saw one thing he had forgotten to tell the woman, but decided to leave it for someone else. It would only make things worse for her to know that one of the firefighters saw her horse escape the fire that had killed her son.

"Pull, Andre!" There was a loud cracking noise behind, and he automatically lunged against the harness. Straining, he threw himself forward again, this time feeling the tremendous weight break free and begin to slide. Many years of experience kept him from relaxing, and his hooves dug deep into the ground as he struggled to keep the weight moving.

There were many noises around him, shouts and screams from the two-legged creatures who watched. His ears twitched, trying to pick up the voice of the Master. As he passed the fluttering things on sticks, he knew it was almost time to stop. His heart was pounding, and his muscles ached from the constant strain, but he continued until he heard the Master cry 'Hold!'

A swarm of the two-legged creatures surrounded him, and his skin quivered at the touch of countless hands. The noise and confusion made him edgy, but he knew he was safe as long as the Master was there. And there was memory of many such times. His mouth watered as the Master approached, and his nostrils picked up the scent of the reward.

"Good boy, Andre! Good boy!" One of the Master's hands reached up to scratch just below his forelock, while the other held the expected apple in front of his mouth. The crisp sweetness of the fruit only accented the contentment he had at pleasing the Master.

The weight was released from behind, and he was led to his moving stall. After removing the straps, the Master walked him around the grounds, working out the muscle aches which remained. Then he got a rubdown and brushing, which felt wonderful. Darkness was coming by the time he was finally led back up into the moving stall and the Master closed the back up.

The acid stink of the puller thing annoyed him, but it meant he would soon be back in his real stall. There as a slight jolt as they began to move, and he rocked sideways for bit as the floor bounced. Finally, the bouncing settled into a smooth floating sensation. Content, he dropped his head to pull up a mouthful of sweet hay.

A loud screaming noise brought his head up just as he was thrown forward. The moving stall shuddered and twisted, bouncing into the air. He felt himself thrown out of the back, legs flailing as he whinnied in terror. And then there was pain, greater than he had ever felt before, followed by darkness.

It was hard to breath. Thomas woke slowly, shaking off only part of the heaviness which blanketed his thoughts. He was lying on his side, with his head elevated somehow. From the flood of sensations, he realized that he was a horse again. Flashes of memory came together. The sudden attack of transformation was clear, but he couldn't quite recall what had happened after that. The lab. He'd gone to the lab and found formula. But what had happened after that?

As he lay there, he became aware of the sound of someone crying close to his ear. It occurred to him that his head was in someone's lap, and that someone was crying. The sound of the voice and the scent in his nostrils combined to form an image of a blonde-haired young man in his late teens or early twenties. Master. What the Hell? Master?

Thomas snorted and rolled up to an awkward kneeling position, pulling away from the Master's embrace. As he got up to all fours, he could feel a thick liquid sliding down his sides, matting the hair of his coat. Despite the trouble he had thinking clearly, he realized that the dripping mess was the result of another transformation. Excess mass had been expelled. Yet he was a horse, his largest form. How could there be excess mass?

A shout drew his attention back to the young man he kept thinking of as Master. Eager hands checked him over quickly, feeling legs and sides. "You're OK! I was sure..." The voice trailed off, and there was another embrace around his neck. "Andre! You're OK!"

Andre? Why did that name seem so familiar to him? There were flashes of remembered faces tracing the same person all the way back to a child of 9 or 10. But that was impossible. He pushed the troubling thoughts out of his mind and looked around. They were obviously on some sort of road. It was night, but there was enough light from the cars stopped around them to see the area clearly. The twisted wreck of a horse trailer lay on its is side, obviously the victim of the large truck with a caved-in front end.

The lights were still flickering on the back of the trailer, and a number plate caught Thomas' attention. Unable to make out much detail, he ambled closer and focused on a paper parking pass still hanging from the bracket. Thomas stared at the lettering, not wanting to believe what he was seeing. If the date was correct, he'd been a horse for more than 10 years.

"Come on, boy." Thomas stepped uncertainly out of the trailer, a little nervous at the strange surroundings, and even more puzzled by his own attitude. Everything should be strange to him, including the well-built stable which he'd discovered was 'home,' and the tall, slender young man who was coaxing him along.

Yet he'd felt safe and content as soon as he entered what was obviously his stall, and there was a deep satisfaction in pleasing the Master. That last irked him somewhat. Thinking of anyone as being his Master. Of course, it was easier to accept considering Peter's obvious devotion to him. That was the young man's name. Peter. His Master for the past decade.

In the week since the accident, Thomas had pieced together some of what had happened. He remembered the sudden onslaught of the Circe Process, and struggling to find food before he starved to death. The transformation had obviously completed, but that didn't explain why he had lost his memories or intelligence. And more disturbing, how he could have ended up as Peter's pet.

A status he had for a very long time. It was a little difficult to build clear thoughts from the jumbled, distorted sensations which made up his animal memories. But the sight/sound combination which identified the Master... Peter. Which identified Peter. He shook his head, trying to focus himself. That package of sensations applied not only to the young man with him now, but to a gawky teenager, and in distant memory, a very small child.

As best he could tell, he had come into the boy's possession right after the transformation. But how? Marjorie would have known what had happened as soon as she saw him as a horse. And even if he had run off for some reason, she'd have looked for him. Of course, Thomas had not gotten the chance to tell her what was going on before she left. Though it should have been obvious when she saw the messes in the house and the lab.

Peter patted his neck gently. He smelled nervous. Thomas' ears went up, and he found himself feeling edgy, as well. If the Master was nervous.... Dammit! The kid wasn't a Master.

Why couldn't he shake this equine mentality? He was aware of his past, and seemed to have all of his human memories and intelligence. Yet he continued to think and act as a horse. More than once he had attempted to write something in the dirt, to let Peter know he was more than a dumb animal. He could form the letters in his mind, build the words, even figure out how to drag his fore hoof to make the proper shape. Yet as soon as he tried to actually do it, the knowledge went out of his head.

Worse, he had found that the life of a horse was completely natural and normal to him, even now that his human past had awakened. Peter had spent much of the past week with him, obviously worried. There had been a parade of strangers, obviously veterinarians from the way they each poked and prodded him. More frustrating was his own lack of interest in what was going on. Unless he really focused his thoughts, as he was doing now, he tended to fall into a pleasant, almost mindless animal state.

"It's OK, Andre." Peter scratched under his chin. "Just another 'interested' specialist. At least she isn't charging us." The young man sighed. "Maybe she can figure out what happened to you. And we can forget the whole crazy mess."

Happened? Something had happened to him? Thomas thought hard, trying to remember the accident. He had obviously been thrown from the trailer, and been badly hurt. The injuries had triggered a reset of sorts, restoring him to his original Percheron form. But why had there been leftover mass? And what would have been different? He was the same horse. A Percheron stallion. A 5 year-old Percheron stallion.

Of course! He would have aged normally as a horse. The 15 year-old animal had lost 10 years that night, restoring youth along with Thomas' mind and memories. No wonder there had been so many veterinarians checking him over.

Peter stepped towards the main building as a door opened. Thomas couldn't make out much detail, but it was obvious that the newcomer was female.

She extended her hand in greeting as she came closer. "You must be Peter Issakson." After shaking the boy's hand, she circled around Thomas's hind end. "And this is Andre? You are sure this is the same horse?"

Peter nodded. "I've had him for ten years now. Every mark, every blemish, its the same. Anyway, " He reached up to stroke Thomas' muzzle. "I'd know him if he had turned purple. He's my horse, all right. It's just that he seems to be, well, younger. It sounds crazy, but he looks like he did the day we found him."

The woman patted his side, and moved out to where he could finally get a clear look at her. There was a moment of disbelief, followed by fear and panic. Peter grabbed at Thomas' halter. "Take it easy, boy! She's just a doctor!" Although he found himself automatically obeying the boy, Thomas's horror was evident by his wide eyes and laid-back ears. "I don't understand. He's usually very calm around strangers."

She grinned. "Oh, I'm not a stranger. Thomas and I go back a long way, don't we fella? Oh, by the way. I'm Dr. Janet Foley."

Thomas shivered, wanting to break and run, or trample the bitch where she stood. The hair was shorter, and the face a little older. But there was no mistaking the woman he'd seen in that stall almost 20 years ago. He was back in the hands of Bryan Derksen.

Peter moved to stand between Thomas and the woman. "What do you mean, you go back a long way? And why is he afraid of you?"

Foley gave him a long look. "What I am saying, young man, is that your horse is one of a group of experimental animals I was, ah, working with. He escaped from the facility, along with another of the animals. I'm rather relieved to get him back."

Edging back, ears flat against his skull, Thomas battled against the overwhelming terror. He had to get Peter away from this monster! Unfortunately, his Master wasn't ready to leave.

The young man bristled. "Is this why you called? Some cheap trick to try to claim my horse? Andre is mine. Even if he was yours once, I've owned him for ten years. We advertised finding him for weeks, and then filed for ownership papers. It's all legal." Peter stroked Thomas' neck. "There is no way you can just waltz in and take him from me."

The woman shook her head. "Oh, I didn't mean I was going to just take him. Of course, I plan on paying you a fair price. Plus extra, for your troubles all these years."

Peter snorted, and began to lead Thomas back towards the trailer. "Andre is not for sale. At any price. Besides, I've got plenty of money in the bank. He's more than earned his keep."

"Yes. You've done quite well at shows over the years, haven't you?" Foley's voice got cold. "And if all of those judges and other contestants found out you had a genetically modified horse, those winnings would be forfeit, wouldn't they?"

The boy faltered, and then stopped dead in his tracks. Knowing she had hit a nerve, Foley continued. "Nobody knew, of course. But it will be obvious now that he is young again. So you can't show him any more. And if word gets out, you could be ruined. Your father might even be implicated."

Peter spun around, defiant. "Up to now Andre has been perfectly normal. We have his records for the past ten years. Maybe I can't show him any more, but he's my horse, and I won't give him for you or anybody else. I don't care if I have to give back the prize money, either. So go ahead and do what you want, lady. I'm leaving."

"Wait! Please." Foley clenched her fists, and then softened her expression. "I'm really very sorry. I didn't mean to imply that I would ever try to cause you trouble. It was just a hypothetical case."

Thomas grabbed the boy's sleeve with his teeth and pulled him towards the trailer. They had to get out of there. Peter frowned at the uncharacteristic behavior, and patted his nose lightly. "No, Andre! We're leaving in just a minute."

The woman glanced back at the building she had just come from. "Would you at least allow me to take a blood sample? I could run some tests, and see what is going on with him. It's very important to me. No charge, of course." When Peter hesitated, she added, "Look. Nobody else has any idea what happened to him. I'm the only person who can make sure he is all right. And I won't tell anyone about this. I promise. As far as I am concerned, it will be like you never came here at all."

After a moment, the boy nodded. "OK. Just a blood sample. But out here, with me watching. And we're gonna leave right after that."

Foley smiled brightly, and headed back to the door. "Why don't you go ahead and put him in the trailer? I can do the blood sample with him there." Then she disappeared inside.

Thomas practically ran to the trailer, anxious to get away from this place. His coat was damp with sweat, and he jumped at even the familiar noises of latches and straps being connected. "Easy, boy." Peter came up to stand by his head, and offered him a handful of grain. "We'll be gone soon. And I'll never bring you back here again."

Too frightened to think of food, Thomas brushed his muzzle against the boy's hand. Get away! Get out! His screams came out as whickers and agitated whinnies. Peter seemed to pick up on his fear. "All right, Andre. We'll go now. She can stuff her blood tests."

Thomas jumped as something stung his rump. Peter saw the movement, and looked back with a scowl. "Hey! What did you do?"

Stepping up into the trailer, Foley displayed a pistol-like instrument in her right hand. "Just the blood sample. This is a multi-purpose instrument. No needles." She tapped a vial of bluish liquid sticking out of the top. "The sample gets mixed into the carrier solution automatically." She was directly in front of Peter now, pointing to a small lever with a safety catch. Flicking it, she smiled at him. "And now it is an injector gun." Lunging forward suddenly, she pressed the tip into Peter's stomach and pulled the trigger.

Thomas whinnied in rage and tried to lash out with his hind hooves as Peter doubled over, a stunned look on his face. Foley kept the boy between them, so that Thomas could do nothing but watch in horror.

The woman looked at him as Peter slumped onto the floor, unconscious. "I did offer to buy you. Too bad he got so attached." She grinned. "You do seem to evoke that kind of response in people. That Bennett bitch was a real headache. Not to mention our backwards friend, the former Prince. I'm sure you'll be glad to see them again." She guessed what he was thinking. "Yes, Thomas. They're here. Maybe not as you remember them, but alive and healthy. Like your young friend here."

Grunting, she hefted the boy over her shoulder. "Don't worry about your friend, Thomas. In a few hours, he'll be able to see you as often as he wants to. In a mirror!" And laughing, she turned and carried Peter out of the trailer, leaving Thomas kicking and screaming inside.

It was dark when Foley returned. She had some sort of metallic stick with her, which she touched to Thomas' flank from a safe distance. He squealed in pain, slamming against the front wall of the trailer as he instinctively bolted from a powerful electric shock.

"That was really just to get your attention, Thomas." The words were almost snarled, and he could feel the cold hatred in her voice. "I'm sure you'll behave for me. Because if you don't, I'll entertain myself with some interesting experiments on one or more of your friends."

She stepped into the trailer cautiously. "Oh, in case you have any ideas about trying to hurt or kill me? This is my base form, and I'll simply become about 5 years younger. And my men have standing orders to destroy every living thing on this farm if I turn up missing. As you might guess, very few of the animals here are what they appear to be. And I am quite sure that you wouldn't want to see them all killed. So be nice."

Thomas quivered with rage and hatred. The evil bastard had destroyed his life 18 years ago as an experiment. What he didn't understand was how she had managed to come back. A lucky accident had devolved her into a moth just before she tried to kill him, a moth which he had crushed. Or so he thought.

He felt a slight sting in his rump, and a surge of fear washed through him. She was using the treatment on him! He struggled against the straps, feeling them loosen a bit as his body shifted. His scent changed, vaguely familiar. Twisting around he saw the sleek white coat of his Percheron form vanishing under the coarser dark fur of a different animal. Again, somehow remembered. He whinnied in confusion, only to hear the braying of a mule in his elongating ears.

The form mattered little to him. However, he realized that his mind had fogged even more, allowing awareness, but even less control or human thought than before.

Foley looked him over carefully. "Just in case anyone comes looking, I can't have two Andres, now can I? I'm very appreciative for Marjorie's thoroughness. She saved everything from my lab, including all of the genetic samples. I may experiment with some variations later, but forcing you back to a previous form will do for now."

Foley was cheerful as she dropped the ramp of the trailer and motioned him out. "I knew you were alive. Even knew that you'd turned into a horse. Your precious Marjorie never bothered to read the report on the fire. One of the firemen saw you bolt for the woods. She thought you'd been killed. Her poor little boy, all burned to ashes."

A fire? Thomas snorted in surprise. That explained a lot. Poor Marjorie. Probably blamed herself for leaving him alone. As he pondered that, he was dismayed to realize he was automatically obeying Foley's gestures . Foley looked back and grinned. "Peter did an excellent job of training you. Though I am a bit surprised how strong the animal thought patterns appear to dominate. Some of the others have been mostly bestial, but you were always pretty strong in that respect."

Actually, Thomas had been wondering about that himself. Even now, the rage and anger he was feeling couldn't break through the complacent mule's consciousness. The past week had been torturous, struggling and failing to resist the omnipresent instincts and thoughts of a normal Percheron. In some ways, it was worse than being a passenger. He knew he wasn't an animal, but no matter how hard he tried, he continued to react like one.

The Doctor watched him silently for a moment, as if waiting for something. After a few minutes, she got a satisfied look on her face. "Tap the ground three times if you understand me." To his utter disgust, Thomas found himself lifting a fore hoof three times to comply. "Very good." She smiled, though the expression had no humor in it. "I had thought about changing you back into that damned calf and having veal for dinner. But this is so much more fun. You're already trapped by your own bestial nature. And it will get stronger, especially in mule form. I noted that the first time around."

She gestured at the open fields behind them. "You are free. Did you realize that? No ropes, no harnesses. You could run away right now."

Thomas twisted his head around to look, feeling sick inside. She spoke the truth. Nothing was stopping him from leaving. Except that he didn't want to leave. At least, Thomas the mule did not want to leave. Thomas the mule was hungry and thirsty. And Thomas the man was too weak even to get past those simple bestial needs.

Foley smiled again. "I have been waiting for you to surface again. Planning the things I would do when I finally found you again." She laughed. "I suppose you are rather surprised to see me, aren't you?" When he nodded his head, she leaned against the fence and crossed her arms.

"Fourteen years. That's how long it took me to come back. Fourteen years as a fly." She spat angrily. "There were maggots in the straw you crushed me into. Maggots! I spent an eternity of tiny, revolting lives, eating shit and sweat and rotting meat. And when it came close to my time to die as a fly, I would revert to a maggot and start all over again."

She shuddered. "About all I really remembered was my hate for you, and the need to find a nutrient I could use to restore myself. Lucky for me, you and your bitch friend decided to cash in on my research, my brilliance. I kept moving, looking, getting a little closer with each life cycle. And then I found a container of nutrient. It was on a small farm closer to the city. One of the experimental batches, I suppose. There was just enough - I was painfully thin, but fully transformed when I climbed out of the vat. Rather shocked the old couple who found me in there. "

Her eyes narrowed, and she fingered the electrical prod. Thomas felt nervous. If the Master was displeased, she... He shook his head suddenly. No! This evil witch wasn't any master of his.

She misinterpreted his action. "Oh, I was in no shape to do anything. Took weeks before I could remember basic word skills, and months before I was able to function normally. It wasn't until later..." She stopped, looking at her watch. "Later than I thought. I must take care of some unfinished business. Follow me."

Foley led him to a large sliding door, which opened to reveal a stable area. It was rank, obviously occupied by many large animals that hadn't been cleaned up after. He could identify several species by scent alone. Cattle, sheep, and some equines. There was also some sort of predator scent, faint, but enough to make him edgy. Despite that, a particular equine smell caught his attention, and he pushed past the woman to follow it to the source. A familiar white Percheron stallion was huddled in the corner of a large stall.

"Already found your buddy?" Foley opened the stall gate to let Thomas in, and then spoke to the stallion. "Here you are, Peter. Andre will make a nice stable mate for you until I figure out what to do with him." The horse's ears perked up, and he snuffled cautiously in Thomas' direction.

After locking them in, Foley disappeared for a few minutes. Peter was understandable skittish, but did not attack automatically. From the reactions, his former owner was more in control of himself than Thomas was. If they could figure out a way to communicate...

"Come take a look, boys. I have a surprise for you." Foley had returned with a rolling cart. The vacant-eyed youth lying on it was dressed in Peter's clothing. He also had Peter's face. She grinned at the stallion. "The sampler took a unit of your original DNA as I injected you with Thomas' coding. Which allowed me to create a very convincing stand-in. I'd originally planned on staging some sort of accident, but you provided me with a much better solution."

She pulled a glass vial out of a pocket and showed it to Thomas. It was half-full of pale blue powder. "Your precious master had a nasty habit, Thomas. One of the newer designer drugs. Nasty stuff. Gives quite a high in small amounts. However, an overdose literally fries the brain. So that it doesn't really matter that this particular version of Peter had the intelligence and memories of a goat before he 'accidentally' took too much."

The stallion lunged against the gate with an angry whinny, baring his teeth and laying his ears flat back against his skull. Only to fall back suddenly as the woman hit the soft flesh of his nostrils with the business end of the electric prod.

Foley glared at the Percheron still shaking his head in pain. "Watch it, boy. You're alive and still mostly yourself. At my discretion. You could also end up as a female mule for our mutual friend there, a goat, or perhaps even a maggot. Trust me, it is not a pleasant experience."

Peter fell back, shaking. Thomas managed a soft whickering and went over to press against him, trying to offer some form of reassurance. The woman watched him from the gate, mouth twisted in a cruel smile. "Compassion for everyone but me, Thomas?"

She moved back to the cart, and started for the door. "I'll be back soon. And then we'll have a nice long talk about my plans." She started to laugh as she pushed the false Peter out of the door, laughter which echoed in Thomas' ears for a long time after the door was shut.

Thomas was startled by hard nip on his rump. Twisting around, he saw Peter snort and then paw at the ground. The stallion seemed agitated about something, shaking his head and rearing up slightly.

Turning around, he tried to focus one eye on the stall floor. There were marks there. His mind struggled to beat through the dullness of his mule identity. The marks looked familiar. Shapes. Letters. Blinking, he looked up at Peter and then back at the ground. U NO MULE?

The boy had managed to write in the dirt floor with his hoof! Thomas nodded, surprised. Using his muzzle as an eraser, the stallion started fresh, laboriously forming new letters with his foreleg. How long had the former human been working to coordinate his new limbs? Thomas felt more than a little ashamed and scared. He had simply drifted off, munching straw and letting his mule nature take over. Thomas the man had just shut off, leaving Thomas the mule as a normal, docile animal.

Finishing his second message, Peter backed away and snorted. U B MAN? Thomas nodded again, this time punctuating the remark with a long, loud braying. The stallion stared at him for a moment, and then cleared the message. Instead of writing again, he snorted and backed away, pawing at the ground.

It took a moment for Thomas to realize that Peter wanted him to respond. Focusing his thoughts as best he could, he placed a fore hoof in the dirt and tried to think of a message to write. Several flashed through his mind, yet he couldn't conceive of how to transfer that information into the dirt. Frustrated, he tried to write anything at all. And ended up leaving meaningless gouges.

He couldn't write! It was more than physical coordination. Either the length of time in the Percheron form or the heavier mental limitations of the mule's body had stripped that skill from his mind. Sighing heavily, he shook his head and backed away.

Peter seemed to understand. He also seemed to be in much better spirits. No longer cowering in the corner, the stallion was alert and full of energy. Shaking himself, the boy snuffled at the air, and whinnied. Then he wrote again. FEL GUD.

Staring at the words, Thomas puzzled for a moment. Fel gud? Oh! Feel Good! Why should Peter feel good? He slowly realized that while being a mule was little different physically from his former Percheron shape, the boy was experiencing the expanded sensations of a stallion for the first time. It had been years since Thomas first wore a horse shape, but he could remember the exhilaration of strength and awareness. Funny thing was, he still had those same feelings as a mule. It was just that he was used to them. After ten years as a horse, human sensations would probably seem numbed.

There was a sudden surge of anger, not towards Foley, but at himself. Marjorie and Ricky were here somewhere, if the bastard was to be believed. And he hadn't given a thought to them since he'd left the horse trailer. Moving to the gate, he thrust his head over and snuffled the air. Human scents were there, but he identified them quickly as Peter's and Foley's. Other animals were around them. Cattle, sheep, goats. A canine odor indicated some sort of dog regularly traveled the stable, though it didn't seem to be here now. And the predator scent, unfamiliar, but tinged with a sense of danger.

Marjorie and Ricky could be any of the creatures around him. Alive and healthy, according to Foley. But not human. Of that he was sure. What had Foley done to them? Marjorie might still be OK, but if Ricky had been reduced to animal form again, there was little chance his mind would survive. The child had been left mentally impaired by the last bout of transformations. Even David had been more advanced from the start, though his former twin had been years younger.

David! Thinking back furiously, Thomas tried to recall everything that Foley had said. Marjorie's real son had not been mentioned at all. He'd be, what? Twenty-two? It was impossible to picture the skinny 12-year old as a grown man. But if David hadn't been caught, where was he?

He dropped his head back in the stall, not knowing if David's absence was good or not. Foley had known about him. Ten years was a long time. It occurred to him that the boy might have died of illness or accident since he last saw him. No. Thomas forced the thought from his mind. David had to be alive. As long as he believed that, there was a glimmer of hope.

Peter whickered at him, and pawed at the ground again. ESCAPE. Thomas stared at the word for a few minutes, and then brushed the dirt clean with his muzzle and shook his head. They had to find out more about Foley's plans. And he needed to know where and what Marjorie and Ricky were.

He was lucky that he'd wiped the marks from the floor, for the doctor suddenly appeared at the stall gate. She seemed amused, which made Thomas even more nervous. "Well, that little chore is taken care of. It's very late now, so I think I'll head off for bed. I trust the two of you will be comfortable for the night?"

Thomas simply glared at her as best he could, but Peter snorted and pranced a bit in obvious agitation. Foley shook her head. "Sorry, boy. Maybe after tomorrow, I can let you out in the pasture. Guess you want to try those new legs out?" The stallion nodded his head, whinnying loudly. "Be patient. And be good. If you don't cause trouble for me, I can make your life quite pleasant. If you cross me..." She stared pointedly at Thomas. "Then Heaven help you, for I'll make your life Hell."

And with that, she turned and left, flicking off the stable lights. Thomas stared after her, feeling fear build up again. Foley hated him just as much as he hated her. Problem was, she was in a position to do something about it, and he wasn't. He tried to ponder the situation a bit longer, but with the lights out his mind began to drift. Exhausted by the events of the day, it wasn't long before the stallion and the mule were fast asleep.

Peter was gone when Thomas woke. The stallion's scent was very strong, so he must have been moved recently. Pushing his head over the gate, Thomas could smell the lingering odor, stronger in the direction of the large exit doors. Foley had taken the boy outside. The fact that she had moved him was not as disturbing as vague recollection of the activity. Thomas the Mule had apparently awakened just enough to see there was no danger, and gone back to sleep.

The boy was probably safe enough, at least for now. Foley could have actually overdosed him last night, instead of using the transformed animal to take his place. She was evil, but apparently remained fairly practical in her actions. At least in the case of her other victims. Thomas had no illusions about his future. Whatever Foley was planning for him, it was bad.

Worse, there didn't seem to be much hope of rescue. Assuming he was even alive, surely David would have come for his mother and Ricky by now. And he was the only human left alive who knew what Foley was capable of. Thomas was mildly surprised at his own thoughts. He had already categorized himself, Peter, and Foley's other victims as animals. Snorting, he gave the equine equivalent of a shrug. Well, if the horseshoe fits...

Perhaps Peter could escape. Foley wouldn't give him the chance for a while, but she'd probably relax a little if he didn't cause trouble. As long as she didn't find out about the writing ability. Thomas realized he was a little jealous of the boy. Even when he was first transformed, he'd been unable to coordinate, or think clearly enough to write. From what he could tell, Peter had survived the transition to a beast remarkably well. Thomas needed to figure out a way to communicate with him, something better than the yes and no head movements.

Alone in the stall, it was easier to concentrate. Clearing the floor again, he tried writing with a fore hoof. As before, the letters came to mind, but he couldn't translate the ideas into leg movements. The equine portion of his mind had no grasp of symbols. Frustrated, he brushed away the first attempt with his muzzle. And then stopped with a snort. His muzzle!

Thomas looked around the stall, snuffling through the straw carefully. At first, nothing seemed to look right. Then he saw a riding croup hanging on the far wall. From the cobwebs and dust, it had been there a long time. He lipped at it, pulling the end far enough from the wall to grip it with his teeth. The leather taste was bitter, and he dropped it instinctively. Cursing silently, he tried again, this time getting a mouthful of old straw in the process.

Moving very carefully, he turned the whip in his mouth until it stuck out from between his lips like a long cigarette. Then he pushed the free end into the dirt and concentrated on moving his head. It took four attempts just to make a line even close to being straight. Still, Thomas was excited. It would take practice to develop the crude lines into recognizable letters, but he could write! Which meant that he could 'talk' to Peter. Feeling much more in control, he spent the better part of the morning trying to improve his control of the awkward 'pen.' Some hours later, he had finally managed to write out PETER . His triumph was short-lived, for he heard the main door opening. Spitting out the riding croup, he hastily wiped out the marks and did his best to cover the precious tool with straw.

"And what have you been up to this morning?" Foley smiled at him from the other side of the gate. "Writing out a last will and testament?" He felt a moment of panic. Did she know? Then she laughed. "Oh, that's right. No hands. And you can't even give dictation." He shuddered in relief, though Foley misinterpreted his shiver. "Scared? You should be, Thomas. After what you have done to me, you should be very, very scared."

Despite the anger he felt, Thomas couldn't help being confused by her attitude. Yes, he'd tried to kill her. After she almost murdered Ricky by slitting his throat. Not to mention stripping the once-bright boy of his intelligence, and taking away both his and Thomas' lives forever. Now he was stuck as a mule, and God knows what she'd done to the boy and Marjorie. While she was in a fairly young, attractive human body, back at her old tricks. What could make her hate him so much?

Foley opened the gate. "Come on. I think it's time for a family reunion." When Thomas held back, she snapped her fingers in a familiar command, and Thomas the Mule obediently trotted out. Automatically responding to ingrained cues, he followed her to the far end of the stable.

His ears went back, and he pressed against the right wall trying to get away from the powerful, unfamiliar odor that had made him nervous last night. The last stall on the left had been glassed in, with metal bars on the inside. A huge Bengal Tiger paced back and forth inside, eyes focused on the woman. Foley grinned. "A custom order for a hunter with lots of money, and the desire to hunt an almost extinct animal. I've had him ready for almost a year now. Be a shame to give him up."

She motioned to the open stall on the right, indicating a huge bull standing against the back wall. "I believe you remember His Royal Highness, Prince Richard?" The woman gave a mock curtsey. "I brought an old friend to see you, your highness."

Thomas stared at the animal, looking for some sign of intelligence. The only thing he could read from the animal was nervousness at the predator across the stable, a feeling Thomas the Mule was having trouble fighting as well. Foley stepped closer to the bull. "Richard? This is Thomas. Your hero. The one you wanted to come save you. The one you called out for as you became a calf again." Her words were ignored by the huge bovine, but they slammed into Thomas like bullets. As they were intended to.

Foley sneered at him. "He actually did have some intelligence left, even as a calf. Then I discovered that intense animal instincts actually reduced the remaining humanity of a transformed person. Instincts such as sex, and fear.

"Marjorie made an excellent cow." She grinned at Thomas' sudden start. "Oh, yes. Almost volunteered once I made Ricky into a calf again. That strange motherhood instinct, I suppose. Ricky grew up quite quickly. Cattle tend to do that, you know. And then I let nature take its course. I think he really tried to resist the mating urge when it hit. She obviously thought he was suffering, and forced the issue. That single coupling was enough to burn away what little control Ricky had, and he continued mounting her until she was no longer in heat. By then, the intense animal actions had left him pretty much a normal bull."

Foley patted the huge animal's flank. "Of course, I told her what she had done. It was rather satisfying. The self-righteous bitch had destroyed the boy she had been trying to save. Rather incestuous, really, considering she'd mothered him both as a human and a cow."

Thomas looked at the huge bovine, wanting to cry, but incapable of that human act. He tried to nuzzle the big male, only to be warned off by a warning bellow and a toss of the powerful head.

"I'm afraid he isn't very sociable these days, Thomas. Probably something to do with his friend across the stable. He stays nervous all the time, even after a year of seeing the tiger every day. And the tiger stays well behaved, because he doesn't want to frighten the poor bull any more than he has too."

A prickling of horror crept down Thomas' spine, and he twisted around to take a long, hard look at the Bengal. Foley laughed and clapped her hands together. "Oh, you did figure it out! I was wondering if I would have to tell you."

Unable to overcome the terror of Thomas the Mule, Thomas the Human could only stand where he was, agonizing over the suffering of his friends. Ricky, trapped as a bull, living in constant fear of the huge cat. And the tiger itself, caged and burdened by undeserved guilt. The tiger that had been Marjorie Bennett.

Foley allowed him a long time with his former family members. There was no kindness in the act. She was enjoying his torment as much as he was grief-stricken over theirs. Ricky was bad enough. At least he had already been caught up in this when Thomas met him. But Marjorie's involvement was his fault. He'd dragged her into this, gotten her and her son tangled with the twisted genius who now stood next to him.

How much of Marjorie was left inside that prowling form behind the glass? A good bit, if she was intentionally staying calm to protect Ricky. He wanted to go to her, make her understand somehow. Yet he could not approach the glass. To his utter shame, he was afraid of what she had become, and his fear overwhelmed any human reasoning.

Finally, the woman clucked her tongue and led him back to his stall. She was uncharacteristically silent, simply giving him a satisfied grin as she shut the gate behind him. Thomas shivered in misery. Guilt weighed on him like a locomotive strapped to his back. He'd never understood suicide before. Now death would be a welcome relief. It didn't matter what Foley did to him any more. Thomas felt the mule part of his consciousness stir, and grabbed at it eagerly. Yes! To sink into the emptiness, the blankness of bestial existence. Perhaps he would feel physical pain, but the greater mental anguish would fade away with Thomas the Man's consciousness.

He was barely aware of the stall opening again, but Thomas the Mule became interested in a new scent. Peter trotted in, his heavy musk not quite covering the more delicate and appealing odor of mares. The former human had been busy today, very busy from the number of scents. Although the mixed odors were arousing Thomas the Mule, Thomas the Human began to get alarmed.

Forcing animal consciousness back as best he could, Thomas focused on his stall mate. The stallion was prancing around, somewhat skittish and wide-eyed. Foley had said something, something about animal instincts. How intense instincts would eat away at the human mind.

She had bred Peter. Several times. The bitch had let him experiment with his new body, knowing each thrust was another seal on his transformation. Fresh guilt washed over Thomas. Another innocent, caught up in this horror because of him. However, instead of trying to plunge deeper into his animal self, Thomas suddenly pushed the Mule away.

Foley had to be stopped. And Thomas the Mule wouldn't be able to do anything to stop her. He shuddered. At this point, it seemed unlikely that what was left of Thomas the Man could do much, either. But he had to try.

Escape was unlikely. Even if they managed to get away from Foley, they would still be common animals. Yet it seemed to be the only action that they could take. Peter was the most likely candidate for now. Depending on how much of him was still resident in the stallion.

Rooting through the straw, Thomas pulled out the whip and held it in his teeth to write. The boy watched him as he dragged the end across the dirt. U OK. Thomas backed away, looking for some sign of response. Peter stared at the marks, snorted, and then lifted his tail to deposit a large steaming pile of manure on the ground behind him.

Too soon, perhaps. Thomas refused to give in to the despair which tried to overwhelm him. Peter was still recovering from standing stud. Even if his mind was untouched, such an experience would be terribly confusing.

There had to be a way to do something. Thomas' ears perked up. Marjorie! If there was enough of her left to control a tiger's nature, perhaps she could still read. If he could get out of the stall....

Foley had not forgotten the reason for his escape those many years ago. A heavy steel latch secured the gate of this stall, one that would take a lot of force to break open. The two of them, working together, might rip the gate off its hinges. However, Peter was still beyond any coordinated action.

Thomas studied the mechanism. The stall was of average construction, with fairly large gaps between the boards. If he had something to fit between them, he might be able to slide the latch up. Thomas shook his head, trying to relieve the growing ache of clamping the riding croup between his teeth. And was suddenly glad that Peter couldn't appreciate how stupid his stall mate was.

The whip slipped under the latch easily, the stiff shaft providing enough leverage to raise the bar clear of the catch. Thomas pressed against the gate and almost fainted in relief as it swung open. He was afraid the stallion would try to come out with him, but Peter was just standing still now. His eyes were wide, but he didn't seem quite as agitated.

Trotting quickly down to the other end of the stable, Thomas had to fight Thomas the Mule to get close to the cage. Fear was growing, despite his confidence that the huge cat would not harm him even if it got free. He rebelled against the fear suddenly, sweeping it away with a rush of a different emotion. Anger. Anger at Foley for what she had done. Anger at himself for causing so many people harm. And Thomas the Human got stronger.

The Bengal eyed him curiously. Moving as fast as he could, Thomas wrote his name in the dirt floor. Even before the last character was done, the tiger had leaped up to press paws against the glass wall. A lump formed in his throat as the big cat nodded. It was Marjorie, all right. As he tried to think of what to write next, a loud bark startled him into dropping the croup.

Twisting around, Thomas saw a huge black dog snarling at him, teeth bared. He recognized the scent as the canine odor he'd noticed earlier. The beast was thick and muscular, easily over 150 lbs. And it did not look friendly. Thomas reared up as the monster lunged at him, snapping at his hind legs. Instincts took over, and he galloped back to his stall without thinking. The dog was close behind, snarling and snapping all the way. Thomas spun around, ready to defend himself. However, the stupid animal hit the gate in his enthusiastic attack, slamming it closed. Just as the main door opened.

"Brutus!" Foley came in, looking puzzled. "Stop that!" Her eyes narrowed as she approached the stall, and she checked the latch to make sure it was secure. "Are you up to something, Thomas? I'd be very careful of Brutus, here. He is very protective of me."

Thomas tried to act calm, though his heart was still pounding. Foley stooped to pat the mutt's head. "Believe it or not, he's not one of my creations. Just a stray that showed up last year and decided I needed a watch dog. He's never barked at any of my other guests." She smirked at Thomas. "Maybe he knows you don't like me very much. Or perhaps he'd like some horse meat for dinner."

As his pulse dropped to a less frantic level, Thomas realized the vicious beast had actually done him a favor. If the dog hadn't come in just then, Foley would have caught him outside of the stall, perhaps in the act of trying to communicate with Marjorie. And then his heart skipped a beat. The message! He hadn't had time to erase his name from in front of Marjorie's cage, and he'd even left the riding croup!

Hopes that she would just turn around and leave were dashed as she headed further into the stable. Probably a routine inspection of some kind. Oh, God. She would find the whip and his message, and that would be the end of things. Unable to do anything, Thomas dropped his head, awaiting the discovery of his final failure.

After a while, Foley stopped back by. Bracing himself, Thomas lifted his head to meet his fate directly. Foley looked mildly curious at his stance. "You trying to tell me something, Thomas? Or do you even know who I am, now?"

He was so startled that he almost broke eye contact. Instead, he tried to make his gaze softer, blanker, and then dropped his head to pull up some straw. Heart pounding again, he forced himself to ignore the woman for a while. How could she have missed the markings? And the riding croup?

He heard her mutter something, and then start walking away. "Come on, Brutus. You can eat him later. When I'm sure he's finished." The dog padded past the stall, apparently following his mistress. Thomas waited an agonizing few minutes, expecting some sort of trick. Finally, he looked out over the gate, vainly trying to focus equine eyesight enough to see the far end of the stable.

Maybe he'd accidentally erased the marks when he reared up at the dog. Or she just hadn't noticed the writing this time. Thomas' heart sank. Without the whip, he couldn't write or leave the stall. Their one chance at freedom, less than hundred feet away. It might as well have been on the moon.

The main door creaked slightly, and Thomas drew back quickly and assumed a more natural position. His act was broken by a heavy thump against the gate. Looking up, he saw Brutus staring at him. The dog had jumped up on its hind legs, massive front paws wrapped over the top of the gate. Thomas shivered, despite himself. There was intelligence behind those eyes.

After a moment, the beast dropped back down and trotted back towards Marjorie's cage. He heard the dog whine, and the sound of claws against glass. The stupid animal was trying to get to Marjorie! Thomas had to smile mentally at the picture of that particular cat and dog fight. Even a massive dog like that would be shredded in an instant.

Brutus must have tired of his game quickly, for he reappeared at the stall gate. Thomas started to bray in defiance, only to stop when he realized the dog had something in his mouth. The riding croup! Brutus whined once, and then dropped the whip into the stall. Then, with a soft 'woof,' the dog dropped back down and trotted out of the stable, leaving a very confused mule behind him.

PETER. Thomas stepped back from the marks and brayed at his stall-mate. The big stallion seemed to have calmed down quite a bit, though there had been no further attempts at writing. He was relieved when the horse tossed his head up and down in an obvious yes. He waited, hoping that the boy would try communicating.

After a few minutes, he got frustrated and put a more direct message in the dirt. WRITE. This time, Peter stared at the ground for a while, and then whickered. Brushing out the letters with his muzzle, the Percheron began to drag one hoof awkwardly across the floor. He was having much more difficulty coordinating himself this time, and the letters he formed were cruder. Still, Thomas was able to read what he had written.

LIKE HORSE. Thomas puzzled over that. Was Peter asking if Thomas liked him? He nodded and brayed softly. The stallion snorted and shook his head violently. That wasn't what he meant, apparently. Staring down at his own message, Peter scratched another letter in between the two words. LIKEBHORSE.

Like be horse? Thomas shook his head. No, he wanted to be human again. Though being a Percheron might be nicer than being a mule. His answer still wasn't right. Peter pranced around, obviously agitated. He stopped, stared down at the dirt, and added another letter to the markings. I LIKEBHORSE.

Thomas' head shot up, and he stared at the big animal. After a moment, Peter slowly nodded his head up and down. Braying angrily, Thomas pawed the letters into oblivion, and shook his head. Didn't Peter realize the horrible trick Foley had played on him? It wasn't the boy saying that! It couldn't be. It was the stallion who had mounted the mares.

Focusing his anger, Thomas hastily wrote out U MAN. Then he wiped that out and scratched NO B HORSE. Peter looked at him and whickered softly. Dropping his head, the stallion used his nose to wipe out two of the letters. Thomas stared at the remaining message. B HORSE.

Confused and a little frightened, Thomas backed away. Had the boy's mind been affected that much? It didn't make sense that he would still be able to read and write, and yet have lost the desire to be human. Did transformation affect other people differently? Even though he was mostly locked into mule's behavior and reaction, Thomas did not want to be an animal. He desperately longed for human hands, and a human voice, even after a decade of animal existence. Peter had been a stallion for less than 2 days.

"No point in arguing, boys." Foley smiled at them from the stall gate. Thomas quickly moved to block her view of the writing, though he knew it was already too late. "Nice try, Thomas. I've been watching you for a while now. One of the advantages of leaving the lights out at night. You were both too preoccupied with your little conversation to notice me sneaking in."

She opened the stall gate and clucked her tongue. "Come on outside. The sun is going to be coming up soon." Thomas felt cold and sick inside, yet he found himself following her. Peter pranced behind him, apparently of his own free will.

Once they left the building, Foley led them to a large, fenced-in pasture. Still unnaturally pleasant, she patted the stallion on his flank, and opened the gate for him. "Go on, boy. I know you want to stretch your legs." Peter bolted immediately, galloping across the thick grass with his tail flying like a pennant. Thomas started to follow, only to be stopped by the woman's command.

"Not for you, Thomas. I have a special place for you." She led him to a narrow holding pen, actually smaller than his stall. Once she had backed him in, she shut the gate. Thomas was annoyed by the close quarters, finding that he couldn't even turn around. "Watch him, Thomas. All the vigor of youth, the joy of discovery. This is what he wants."

She raised an eyebrow at his derisive snort. "I'm telling you the truth! Yesterday, all I wanted to do was let him run so I could observe his adjustment. The mare wasn't even in the pasture. He smelled her, and came running over to me. It was rather obvious what he wanted. I actually warned him about the effects, and he didn't seem to care!" Foley shook her head in bemusement. "Rather insatiable, that one. I had another mare brought over yesterday afternoon, and he mounted her too, after two couplings with the first one."

As much as he hated to admit it, Thomas believed the woman. It seemed impossible that anyone would intentionally choose life as a beast. Yet he could see the distant stallion leaping and kicking his way across the field in obvious joy.

"It almost makes me want to make him human again. After all, I didn't do this to make him happy." Foley turned a cold smile back towards Thomas. "But I can see how miserable his choice makes you, so perhaps it is even better. You can watch him throwing away his future, his humanity. And in an hour or so, I have a couple of new mares coming. You can spend the morning watching him lose a bit more of himself with each thrust of his loins."

She grinned. "What? Nothing to say? Oh, that's right. I have your 'tongue.' She reached down and picked up a familiar black stick. The riding croup. "Here you are, Thomas. Talk to me."

Taking the whip from her with his teeth, Thomas wrote out the question that had been burning inside him. WHY.

Foley looked puzzled. "Why? Why what, Thomas?"

He added a second word. WHY HATE.

Her smile vanished. "Why do I hate you." It was spoken as a statement. She gave him an incredulous look. "I went through 14 years of hell because of you. Isn't that enough?" Then her eyes narrowed. "No, I suppose not. I guess you count that as fitting punishment for trying to kill you before." When he nodded, she balled her hands into fists.

"All right, Mr. Hassan. You want to know your crime? The one for which I am going to torture you for the rest of your very, very short life?" Foley's voice got bitter, dripping with hatred that was almost tangible. She gestured towards another building behind them. "I have a first-rate lab in there. All of my notes, samples, even the video tape of your first transformations. For the past three years I have been going over research that I did, records that I made, equations that I came up with."

She paused, and then spoke through tight lips. "I don't understand a word of it. That is your crime, Thomas. I survived all those years as a maggot, as a fly, hanging on to the core of my soul as I vomited on shit and then ate my own vomit and the shit with it. I was determined to come back, to be human again. And I succeeded. But not completely.

"I was a genius before, Thomas. That's not being boastful." She looked back at Peter, still romping in the grass. "The process that made this possible was decades ahead of modern science. Maybe even centuries. I refined it, made it usable, predictable. Given time, I would have created a process that could have done anything. The ultimate genetic genie. Make a wish, and inject the treatment."

Foley turned to glare at Thomas. "I have trouble operating a standard computer now. I suppose the effect is much like what happened to your precious Ricky." She almost spat. "But he was a child! What loss was there, really? You cheated the world of one of the greatest minds that ever lived! You cheated me of the fame, the power. And for that, I am going to make you suffer."

She snatched the whip from his mouth, and threw it as hard as she could. "This is going to be a busy day for you, Thomas. When Peter is done with the mares, I have a couple of cows coming for Ricky. If there is any humanity left in him, it will vanish as you watch. Both of them devolving into animals because of you. Late this afternoon, the hunter is coming for Marjorie. He isn't happy about the short notice, but I wanted you to see her carted off. Before you, Peter, and Ricky get picked up by the meat packing plant tonight." Foley smiled suddenly, the expression more chilling than her earlier hatred. "They were a little reluctant at first, but I insisted on following them back, so I can watch each one of you put down. And you will be the last, Thomas."

Foley stood there a bit, savoring his horror like a fine wine. Then she gestured towards the reddish glow of approaching dawn as she headed back to the lab. "Enjoy the sunrise, Thomas. It's going to such a lovely day."

Thomas tried to signal the Percheron stallion for more than an hour, braying and kicking whenever Peter came towards his end of the pasture. The boy must have thought he was still protesting his wanting to be a horse, and ignored him. After a while, Thomas gave up. It wasn't just the lack of response. He realized there was no way to communicate, even if Peter did respond.

Sunrise was beautiful, though he was not in much of a mood to appreciate it. Shortly after dawn, a truck and horse trailer came over the rise and stopped at the far end of the pasture. In a few minutes, three large mares had been unloaded and ushered into Peter's enclosure.

Thomas strained against the gate, anxious to save the boy. Or was that his true concern? A flush of shame did nothing to dampen his interest in the female scents which drifted to his nostrils. Thomas the Mule cared nothing about the stallion, or worries for Ricky and Marjorie. Even the knowledge of impending death did nothing to lessen the lust which was building in his loins.

Frustration at his confinement joined with disgust at his reaction, and he brayed and kicked to no avail. He saw Peter prancing around the first of his conquests, feeling a strange combination of envy and pity. The boy had no reservations at all, immediately covering the mare with a brutal thrust. Foley came out soon afterwards and placed a padlock and chain around the heavy gate of Thomas' pen. "I've got to take care of some business. Don't want you running off while I am gone." She followed his gaze to the still-coupling horses. "Enjoy the view, Thomas. I'm sure Peter is going to provide quite a show."

She went around the back of the lab, pulling out a few minutes later in a battered four-by-four that probably hadn't even been built when Thomas was last human. She honked as she passed, and stopped up by the horse trailer and truck on the way out. Whoever had brought the mares got back into the truck and followed her as she drove out of sight, probably to get the cows.

As soon as her car disappeared over the rise, Thomas tried to break out of his pen. It was easy to find the anger needed to focus his thoughts, especially with Peter still covering the mare. His mule form was powerful, as strong or stronger than the taller, less compact Percheron. Unfortunately, the pen had been built with such strength in mind. He might as well have been straining against a mountain.

A dark shape appeared from behind the lab as he bemoaned his plight. Brutus! The mysterious animal sniffed the air cautiously, and then trotted over to the pen. Thomas the Mule began to get edgy, remembering the snarling attack of last night. He lay his ears against his skull, giving a coarse braying and pawing with his hooves in warning.

Brutus ignored him, jumping up to examine the gate. After nosing the lock and chain, the dog's ears drooped. He looked at Thomas for a long time, and then dropped to all fours. The non-threatening attitude of the beast allowed Thomas the Man to regain some control, and he stood still as the animal slipped into the pen and sat down in front of him.

Once again, Thomas got a prickling as he stared into those intelligent eyes. It occurred to him that last night's attack might not have been spontaneous. Thinking back, it would have taken a deliberate change of course for the dog to switch from chasing him to slamming the gate closed. And he had no doubt that Brutus had somehow erased his writing at the some time he'd hidden the riding croup. He tried to remember where Foley had tossed it. If the dog could bring it back to him....

Thomas screamed in shock and pain as the huge dog suddenly leaped and buried its teeth in his throat. Caught by surprise, he couldn't rear back in time to use his fore hooves. Kicking and braying in panic, Thomas the Mule tried to shake free of the dog's powerful jaws. There was a pulling in his neck, and then the dog dropped free, muzzle coated in blood. Thomas tried to suck in a breath, only to choke on warm liquid which filled gaping ruin of his throat. Deprived of oxygen, his brain began to shut down, and he fell heavily against the side of the pen and dropped to the ground.

The dog wasn't satisfied with ripping out his throat. Thomas felt new pain as the monster buried its head in his soft underbelly, unable to do more than convulse as he was ripped open and disemboweled. Darkness was closing in, and his last bitter thought was that the dog had at least cheated Foley of her torture.

Except that it wasn't his last thought. Hovering on the edge of death, Thomas felt his body begin to melt. Aching lungs suddenly drew air through a restored throat, and the pain in his belly vanished as his mass reorganized to form new ones. The pen seemed to expand around him, scents and sounds changing subtly as mules ears and nostrils became smaller, different.

Thomas struggled to his hooves, now cloven. His cry of surprise came out as a wailing bellow, and he realized he had become a calf. The knowledge was of no use, for Brutus pounced on him again, this time knocking the smaller form to the ground under his greater weight. Thomas squirmed in the stinking goo which had once been part of his mule's body, lost to blind terror. And once again felt the dogs teeth rip out his throat and then tear away at his flesh.

Some small part of his mind tried to understand why the dog had been seemingly helpful before, and now was bent on ripping him to pieces. However, that tiny portion of his consciousness was buried by the pain and fear of this horrible death. Choking on his own blood, Thomas the Calf felt the warmth of another change, and screamed in anticipation of another attack.

A human scream. Thomas lay quivering in a pool of bubbling slime, waiting for the cruel fangs to rip at him once again. Nothing happened. He opened his eyes to see Brutus watching him intently from the far side of the pen. Terrified, he skittered backwards, banging his head as he passed under the pen's railing. He instinctively rubbed at the spot, only to freeze at the sensation of matted, sticky hair.

Confusion began to replace terror as he looked down at pink, hairless flesh. His hind legs were different, ending in soft-looking appendages with five indentations. Toes. Feet. The remnants of Thomas the Mule and Thomas the Calf clouded his thoughts, but he was still able to recognize the slender, pale form of five year-old David Bennett. He blinked at the unexpected sharpness of image, and the explosion of color around him. Then he remembered the dog.

Brutus was still in the pen, but his form seemed to blur. Thomas rubbed at his eyes, but the dog's image continued to soften and change. The cruel fangs and blood-covered muzzle fell back into a rounder, flatter skull. And the massive paws elongated, spreading out into human hands.

A tall, dark-haired young man shook himself, and spit several times to clear his mouth of blood and torn flesh. Then he climbed over the pen's side and looked down at Thomas with an amused expression. "Well, Tommy. I don't think we're gonna be able to pass as twins this time."

Thomas gaped up at the man, trying to match the adult face with the dimly remembered features of his former 'brother's' 12 year-old self. Struggling, he made a gurgling noise in his throat like an infant. Talking wasn't going to be an option, at least for a while. Frowning, he wrote 'DAVID?' out in the dirt with a small, pink finger.

The man grinned and nodded, squatting down to tousle his hair. "Been a long time, hasn't it? Sorry I had to chew you up a bit. It was the only way I could force the transformation. And I had to rip away as much mass as I could, so you'd shift to the next smaller form." He grabbed Thomas up in a sudden bear hug. "Damn! I can't believe you're alive!"

Thomas returned the embrace awkwardly, a little overwhelmed by the size difference, and dazed by the sudden reappearance of the lost boy. David pushed him away gently after a moment, and stared at him. "It's really weird to see you like this. I mean, I knew you would end up as a kid, but I'm having trouble getting used to having a brother again."

Nodding, Thomas looked down at himself and shook his head. Five years old again. Worse, he realized that all of this horror could have been avoided if he hadn't gone to the nutrient tanks all those years ago. He wouldn't have died at all. The treatments would have shifted to the smaller child form, instead.

He looked at the young man curiously. It wasn't too hard to understand how the forced shifts worked. But David had gone from dog to human with no apparent effort. HOW U CHANGE? Writing was much easier with hands, though his vocabulary was frustratingly limited.

David looked at the scribbled letters and frowned. "How I what? Oh! How I did I change? Practice, Tommy, and my new Circe Treatment." He grinned at the obvious surprise on Thomas' face. "Did you think I was going to drive trucks when I grew up? I'm a graduate student in genetic engineering. Working on my Doctorate, Thomas. Guess having all of Derksen's stuff around so long made it a natural choice. I figured the process out about three years ago, and improved it. Made the transformation controllable."

He sat down in the dirt, looking very tired. "I was away in school when Derks.. I mean, Foley, came to the farm. I guess she thought she'd find all of us in one place.

"You're the only one who actually saw what she looked like that first time she changed. So when she showed up, claiming to be from the company that had bought the process, they didn't think anything about it. After all, we all were sure Derksen was dead." David shook his head. She made a mistake, though. Started asking questions about you and me. Asking where we were. Mom knew something was up, because everybody at the company knew you died in the fire." He shrugged. "Well, we all thought that.

"Anyway, that was two years ago. Mom sent me a letter, telling me about Foley. She was suspicious, and a little scared. Told me to stay away for a few weeks while she checked things out." David looked down at the ground. "About a week later, I got a call from one of the neighbors. There'd been another fire, and Mom and Ricky were dead."

"It just didn't seem possible that I could lose you, and then Mom and Ricky, to fires. The house was gone, and my new lab. I realized that it hadn't been an accident right away. Everything had been taken from the lab. Then the police had me identify the bodies. I was sure one of them was Mom, and I sorta lost it. Didn't look at Ricky's until the next day. And it wasn't him."

David shook his head. "Ricky broke his leg real bad about two years after you, uh, vanished. Had to put a plate in it. The body looked like Ricky, but it didn't have a plate in its leg. The bone was burned, but it had never been broken. That got me thinking. If the dead Ricky was a phony, then Mom's body had to be fake, too."

Thomas nodded, remembering the stand-in Foley had created for Peter. Which reminded him... Jumping up, he ran for the pasture. David scrambled after him, shouting. "Tommy! What the Hell are you doing?" The stallion had uncoupled from the mare finally, and stood in the center of his new harem. His coat was sweaty and his penis was still partially erect and coated with the mare's fluids.

Strong hands grabbed him before he could squirm through the fence. "Hold on, buddy!" David grunted as he hefted Thomas up in his arms. "You're a little kid, Tommy! That horse could kill you with one kick! We had horses growing up. Dammit, you were a horse yourself! Don't you know better than to get between a stallion and his mares?"

Thomas struggled to get away, angry that David was keeping him from helping Peter. He calmed down quickly as he realized David was right. Even last night, Peter had been jumpy and wide-eyed for hours after he'd mated. If anything, his stallion's nature would be stronger now.

As soon as he quit wriggling, David put him down and kneeled in front of him. "We have to help Mom and Ricky first. Foley will be back soon, and she won't be alone. If we don't free them now, we may not get another chance." He looked over at the horses. "Besides, he wants to do this. It sounds crazy, but I watched him yesterday. Believe me, that kid is right where he wants to be."

Remembering the conversation Foley had interrupted, Thomas could only nod his head sadly. David grabbed his hand and started for the lab. "Come on! Let's complete this family reunion." Sweeping the smaller boy off his feet, the man ran for the building.

Marjorie was lying in the corner of her cage when they reached the end of the stable. As soon as she saw them, she leaped up and placed her paws against the glass. The bull that had been Ricky, showed no sign of recognition. Thomas looked at the animal sadly. Perhaps it was already too late for him.

David must have been thinking the same thing. "We'll take care of Mom, first. I'm sure she is mostly there." He swallowed as they approached the huge Bengal. "At least, I hope she is."

There was only a small opening in the front of the cage for food and water, but they found a steel door built into the side of the stall next to the cage. It was padlocked, but David found the key on a ring nearby. He started to open the latch, and then looked down at Thomas. "Maybe you'd better go outside, just in case."

Thomas shook his head firmly, and reached up to take the older man's free hand. They were in this together. David lifted the latch, and pulled the door open as he stepped back away from the opening. "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty." Despite the seriousness of the situation, Thomas giggled at the nervous whisper. And then Marjorie exploded out of the cage.

They fell back in the straw, and Thomas heard himself screaming as the huge animal pulled at him with its paws. Hot, foul breath washed over him, followed by the rough caress of the tiger's tongue. David received equal attention, and joined Thomas in a tearful embrace of the woman who had cared for them so long.

Ricky wasn't so glad to see the Bengal outside of its cage. The huge bull bellowed in terror, and jerked so hard on his tether that he ripped the mounting hook out of the wall. Thus freed, he swung around and lowered his horns, pawing the ground in challenge.

Thomas felt the low growl in Marjorie's throat before he heard it, and grabbed at her as she crouched automatically. David fell back, and then jumped between the animals. "No, Mom! It's Ricky! Oh, God. Don't lose yourself now!"

After a moment, the tiger shook its head and assumed a more relaxed posture. Unfortunately, Ricky was not so forgiving. The bull snorted and lunged, stopping short of the stall entrance. Months of fear had taken their toll on the former human's mind, and all he could do now was see a hated enemy.

"Shit!" David tried to edge to the side, only to prompt a bellow of rage and a swipe of the animal's massive horns. "We've got to get out of here! Thomas felt helpless, unable to speak. He stepped forward, hoping that some small part of Ricky might recognize him. Only a quick tackle by David saved him from being gored. They rolled away from the bull, back into the stall where Marjorie once again crouched.

"No, Mom! If you attack him, one of you will be killed. We have to find another way!" David checked the back wall frantically, looking for a window, a door, even a loose board. Thomas ran back to him and scribbled DOG? in the dirt. Maybe David's canine shape could drive the bull back far enough for them to get past.

The man shook his head. "I can't change again for a couple of hours. Not voluntarily, at least." Looking back at the bull, his voice broke. "We may have to kill him, if we're gonna get out of here before that bitch gets back."

A sharp metallic sound came from the front of the stall, and they looked to see Foley aiming what had to be an elephant gun at them. Ice blue eyes glittered at them from behind the gunsite. "Too late, friends and neighbors. The 'bitch' is here."

Marjorie growled, low and deep, and the gun barrel shifted immediately. To point at David. "Uh-uh, mom. Unless you want your real son's head splattered all over the stall." The tiger dropped back to the ground, ears flat and teeth bared.

Foley looked at the three of them and shook her head. "I'd like to say I expected something like this, or some sixth sense told me to come back." She gave a short laugh. "The simple truth is, I forgot my purse! Imagine my surprise when I saw a rotting mess in the pen instead of a mule. You were rather stupid not to at least close the stable door. It made a rather obvious sign."

She hefted the massive weapon. "I made a quick stop in the house first. Though I have something else that will be more useful, I think." She edged over towards Ricky, keeping her eyes on her prisoners. Then, shifting so that she had the gun held in her left hand, she groped behind her back with the right. "Don't even think about moving. My aim might not be so good one-handed, but with this thing, I only have to be close."

Preoccupied with the tiger, the huge bull barely paid any attention to the approaching human. Foley reached out with a familiar pistol-like object and pressed it against the massive animal's side without looking. She stepped away quickly as Ricky shook his head and seemed to dissolve before their eyes. Fur, skin, bone, and muscle liquefied and ran down to form a growing pool below what gradually reformed into a newborn calf.

"While I appreciate his help, there's no point in taking chances, is there?" Foley hefted the sampler she had used on Peter earlier. "The important thing is, he will be in his smallest form. And if anything happens after that, he dies for real. That's how it works, isn't it, David?" She looked pointedly at the young man. "Or should I call you Brutus? You 'killed' Thomas until he became the child. Limited immortality. I suppose I should thank you for saving me from a rather embarrassing mistake at the meat packing plant. Thomas and Ricky wouldn't have really died, would they? However, you can all die now. Or is this your smallest form, David? How many different patterns can your new process store?"

David glared back at her defiantly. "Figure it out for yourself, bitch. Oh, that's right. You can't." Thomas grabbed at the young man's hand, trying to stop him from enraging the woman. David jerked away and leaned against the wall, his arms folded. "I've been watching you. Still trying to figure out a process that's already outdated. I came up with a better treatment when I was 19! Lets you keep all of your intelligence and personality without losing the instincts and natural abilities of the new form."

Foley took a step into the stall, practically spitting in fury. "Built on MY work! MY genius! You could never have come up with the process on your own, you lousy thief!" She brought her other hand up to steady her aim, and Thomas was afraid that she would kill David on the spot.

Instead of backing off, David shouted back at her. "Genius? Ha! You stole the original process from the real inventor! The one who ended up as a monkey?"

"Shut up!" Foley was screaming now. "You fucking bastard! You and your God-damned family has screwed me up for the last time!"

The young man sneered. "And the moment you pull that trigger, Mom is gonna rip your guts out." He nodded towards Marjorie, who was crouched and ready to spring. "And if you try to shoot her, I'll be on top of you before you can cock the gun again." He clucked his tongue. "Bad choice of weapon. One shot at a time."

"The woman's face flushed with rage, and she spoke through clenched teeth. "A standoff?" She backed away slightly. "I don't think so. My men will be here shortly, and their guns will more than equal the odds. And if you do get me, they'll kill every living thing here."

"They aren't here yet." David smiled suddenly. "And our reinforcements have arrived." A loud whinny came from behind Foley, and she spun around to see Peter rearing up with hooves flailing the air. Marjorie was already in mid-leap as the woman whipped back with a scream and pulled the trigger.

Thomas was slammed against the wall with numbing force, sprawling awkwardly onto the straw. He saw the tiger's front claws driving deep into Foley's body as the beast completed its attack, while David spun around and ran towards him in obvious horror. Everything was in slow motion, sight and sound having a crystal clarity. Except that the edges of his vision were cloudy, and the images were getting darker.

His head flopped suddenly to the side, muscles no longer under his control. From this view point, he could see the shattered remains of his left shoulder. The fact that there was no arm attached to it was noted with detached calm. As was the knowledge he was dying.

Thomas felt himself being lifted into the air, and heard David screaming over the guttural snarls of the tiger. His head fell back, changing his view to an upside-down picture of the stall which panned quickly as David started running with him. Too late.

Even the bobbing, upside-down picture faded, and Thomas felt himself drifting off. Sixty years, more or less. Not a long life, but not a bad one. It had certainly been different. And now it was ov...

Death was comfortable at first. Sensations of warmth and floating. No pain, just the strangest feelings of dissolving away. Yet there was also a curious awareness. Physical sensations too faint to identify at first, which gradually strengthened into sounds and light.

"Thomas?" He felt large hands sliding under him, lifting him out of the warmth. Opening his eyes, he found himself being hefted in the arms of a woman, his small body pressed against her breasts. He wiped thick liquid off his face and looked up at the person holding him. Foley.

Screaming, Thomas flailed his arms and legs in a frantic attempt to escape, continuing to struggle even after she passed him off to someone else. "Tommy! It's OK! It's not her! It's Mom." David's voice broke through the panic, and he twisted around in the man's arms to take another look.

Though unmistakably the same basic person, this Janet Foley was a younger version from earlier nightmares - and she radiated a warmth that Derksen had been lacking in any form. Marjorie. He tried to voice the name, but was still unable to talk. Frustrated by his inability to communicate, he stared at her a moment, and then offered her his hand.

His left hand. Blinking, he wiggled the extended fingers. David lowered him to the ground so he could examine himself. The familiar little boy's body was completely intact. Marjorie knelt down in front of him. "We almost lost you, Thomas. If David hadn't known where Foley's tanks were, it would have been too late."

David gave him a soft smile, crouching next to his mother. "We won, little brother. I used one of the original samples here in the lab to change Mom to look like Foley. She sent the men away when they came. None of them even noticed she was younger." He turned and picked up a jar containing a fluttering insect. "Good thing you told me what happened that night with Derksen. She almost got away, but I knew what to look for."

Thomas stared at the white moth, wondering if Foley was conscious, if she knew she was an insect again. If the jar was shaken hard enough, perhaps the moth would die and become a maggot. He pushed the thought from his mind. For now.

Marjorie stroked his cheek with her fingers. "Ricky is gone. I guess he's been gone ever since..." Her voice broke, and tears began to run down her face. "She tricked me at first, and then it didn't matter any more. I could see what little there was left of him eaten away by fear. Of me." She wiped her eyes and sniffed. "We'll take care of him now, make him as happy as a cow can be."

"Peter really came through for us." David looked thoughtful. "I had to get Foley mad so she wouldn't see him coming up behind her. For a while, I was afraid she'd shoot me before he could get close enough." He shook his head. "Funny thing is, he still doesn't want to be human again. After I told him you were OK, he took off back to the pasture. I guess it's for the best, at least for now. As far as the world is concerned, he is brain-dead from a drug overdose. The only way to give him his old life back would be to reveal the Circe Treatment."

Thomas nodded, not surprised by the boy's decision. Looking down at the scrawny child's body, he started wondering about joining the Percheron.

Marjorie guessed at his thoughts. "Are you thinking about being a horse, too?" When he nodded, she pursed her lips and looked at him for a moment. "I know you've already been a child twice. And you'll probably change to the stallion when you hit puberty again, anyway. But I'd like you to stay human, to stay with us, as long as you can."

She held his hands gently. "I can take care of you as a horse, like I will Ricky and Peter. David inherited a sizable estate from me, and I guess we have all of Foley's property and money, as well. But I can't talk to a horse. We can't be friends, not like we were. I've missed you, Thomas."

David nodded. "I'm still working on a way to break the pattern limit. If I can. it means that you could be an adult again." He frowned, gesturing towards the pasture outside. "You've already lost the ability to talk. I'm pretty sure you'll get that back in time. But if you go back to being an animal, you might eventually end up like Ricky. I'm hoping Peter will come to his senses before it's too late."

Thomas looked at them both for a while, and then back down at himself. The remembered pleasures of life as a stallion were enticing, even reinforced by Peter's obvious preference. Yet he realized what David said about losing intelligence was true. Did it really matter to him? He looked at Marjorie and felt a tug at his soul. Of course it did.

He reached out and touched her face gently, eyes conveying emotions which he was unable to speak. Marjorie filled an emptiness inside him that he'd never known was there. He wanted a different relationship than the one they had shared before, or the one he faced for the immediate future. For that chance, he was willing to endure another childhood. Maybe several. He smiled and nodded his head.

She took his hand and grinned. "Well, we're starting out a little closer to the same age this time. And I promise not to make you wash behind your ears." She opened her arms, and he threw himself into her embrace. The old saying was that the third time was the charm. Thomas hoped there was some truth in that. At least he had a hobby to look forward to. He smiled as he looked at the glass jar behind Marjorie. Just how long could you keep a maggot alive?

The End

Another Shell Game copyright 1997 by Bob Stein.

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