Human to Hind

Cielo was worse off than me. I cursed myself for not noticing how much he’d been struggling to keep his shoes on. His feet had become solid dark hooves as we’d walked, thick and thoroughly inappropriate for human shoes. He must have been in agony through those long field walks and I had made him walk through mud, climb over fences and sneak along hedgerows. I hung Cielo’s shoes on the rucksack and he said that his feet felt alright on the ground without them anyway.

Again, I felt like we had found ourselves in a funeral, Cielo’s diminishing humanity lying between us like the tiny stove that was on its last atoms of fuel. Like the stove’s fire, his humanity was dying and fading with every day that passed. To think, it had only been one short week since he’d raised his head from his sleeping bag to find stubby antlers growing behind his ears.

It had happened in this same spot. I had wanted to go camping in the beautiful countryside close to Wessin’s border with Mercidan. Cielo had dared me to pick a spot as close to the border as we could and With the stricter curfews, I felt it had been our last chance to get away before we were barred from the scenery or it became a war zone. Back then, all I had been thinking about was how terrible it would be to see those lovely meadows and tall ancient trees being churned up under the wheels of a tank or a hypersize cannon.

I was a hopeless optimist. I chose to believe the television over what people were whispering in the streets. I wanted to think the stricter curfew was to keep out Mercidan spies, not to prevent people rushing to the coast with every belonging they could carry. I still believed in winning, believed winning was the only good way.

When we found the strange metal egg on legs in the river, I believed we had won. That we had achieved our mission. That the aching feet, the constant fear of being spotted by an enemy spy and the arguments over whether we were going the right way would be forgotten. We were the ones to have found the source of the animal transformations all over Winchester. The images of us handing over the egg to the army and seeing a cure being formed.

“Someone will be here to check on it.” Cielo broke over my happy mental movie, “If we camp out here, we’ll catch them.”

I tried to sustain myself with more happy thoughts about saving Wessin but it faded like an untended fire. We had lost sight of Winchester many nights ago. I thought we might get a view of Tamworth, Mercidan’s capital, but a big hill was in the way. We were absolutely in no man’s land. Cielo’s antlers were fully grown. At this rate, he only had a few days left. Mental number crunching gave me no more of an optimistic outlook than two days. It had taken us five days to get this far.

Was Cielo’s transformation so fast because he had drunk the contaminated water near the source? Or were the army’s mathematicians stupid? They hadn’t even given us enough rations for the trip. It was a good thing I’d got a hundred percent in survival training in my two months of military academy.

The metal egg we’d found in the riverbed just sat in its binbag, silent as a stray ornament. We hadn’t even noticed it was there the first time we camped out. Cielo had spurned the water bottle. If you were going to go camping, he said, you had to totally rough it. No shortcuts, no cheats. If Agata had been with me, I would have been bullied into drinking the water myself but Cielo didn’t push me. He let me keep my water bottle.

I don’t know when we dropped off to sleep but, when the footsteps crashed through the undergrowth, both of us started from a doze. The sky had switched from bruised purple to complete black. Cielo’s ears, that had lengthened in his sleep the second night after we went back, pricked up. I wished I had brought a knife. Or kept my academy gun.

Whatever it was made its very loud progress towards the river. I heard cursing as it pushed its way through a clump of low-hanging branches.

“Fucking thing. Like fucking barbed wire.”

Cielo’s antlers lowered, training themselves on the emerging figure like a turret of guns.

“No one here, of course.” The voice went on, “‘Take a camouflage suit,’ he said. He’s got no fucking clue about the terrain and he calls himself a fucking commander. Who did he fuck to get that position?”

The voice paused its rant and the footsteps halted.

“Aahhh, shit.” A light flared and a dimly visible hand directed it to the stream. In the absence of the egg, the water had become clear again, glittering innocently in the torchlight, “Shit, shit, shit.”

He turned off his torch and, a moment later, a dimmer red light appeared. The ‘on’ light of a radio. When the voice spoke, it was much politer and even straining to be posh.

“Hello, field control. We’re going to need a new transmutation diffuser…Yes, the current one has gone missing…My last check was twenty-four hours ago…Yes, I know… Can you line a replacement up?…Alright. Will report back in thirty minutes.”

The light clicked off, “Fucker.” He went back to his rant, “‘Have you checked if it came loose and got washed downstream?’ Doesn’t have a fucking clue about diffusers.”

A loud snort came from Cielo. The stranger only had time to stop dead in shock before the horns smashed into him.

“Argh, fuck! Get off me. Stupid fucking animal!”

I scrambled around for a torch and turned its beam on the scene.

I almost dropped the torch in shock, not just at the stranger in Mercidan uniform but at Cielo. The transformation had progressed even further. His thighs had expanded, ripping open his jeans and my borrowed belt was cutting tight into his thickened waist. His head was still human shaped but sat on a neck twice as large as a normal one.

We’re almost out of time. Cielo said we’d have time.

“Who are you?” I asked, pushing as much fear out of my voice as I could.

“Fuckin’ hell.” The stranger replied, “Get this fucking thing off me and I might tell you. I can’t think straight with a fucking antler in my neck.”

“Was it you who put that thing in the stream?” Cielo’s voice sounded deeper, throatier. Close to the groan of a rutting deer, “Do you know what it does?”

“Fuckin’ hell, it can talk! What is it? Some kind of fuckin’ super soldier you Wessins have cooked up?”

     “The diffuser made him like that.” I said, hopping over the stream to stand at Cielo’s side, “He drank river water after you put it in and now he’s turning into an animal. Everyone is turning into an animal.” An image of Mr Leighman’s teeth in Alia’s throat flashed before my mind and I squeezed my eyes shut against it. I may be a wimp but I wasn’t going to ruin Cielo’s plan. Not when the whole of Wessin-kind depended on us.

The stranger stared up at us. His eyes had the red strain of someone who had been forced to work nights for a long time.

“Are you having a laugh, kid? This some kind of funny joke that Wessins like to play on a cold and frosty night to keep the spooks away? Fuckin’ hell, this isn’t funny.”

“You’re telling me.” Cielo growled.

“Who told you to put that thing in the stream?” I asked.

“Now, we’re playing good cop, bad fuckin’ cop. Cop or not, I’m not telling you two a single shitting thing so you lot can fuck off back home before I chop off those horns and put ‘em on my wall.”

He reached up and tried to pull the antlers off Cielo’s head. Cielo didn’t like that. He pushed the stranger further into the ground. A prong dug into his neck. It hadn’t looked very sharp before but there was no mistaking the blooming spot of dark red.

“Cielo, stop.” I cried.

The stranger opened his mouth but the only sound that came out was a wet gurgle. The prong had gone through his neck like a baked apple. His lips tried to form one last ‘fuck’ but no sound came out. A finger of red swelled at the corner of his mouth and dropped down his chin.

With a great effort and a squish, Cielo extracted his antler from the man’s throat.

“His base probably isn’t far.” Cielo said after a pause of what felt like decades, “We can find his car or something. Maybe, find a way to get his navi-com to tell us where it is. Bring that egg thing.”

He bent over the corpse and riffled through the stranger’s pockets.

I didn’t wait to be asked but I was just as incapable of gripping the stranger’s ID tags, removing his wallet and unhooking his radio than if I had hooves. No matter how careful I was, I still had to touch the body. I expected cold slickness like a market chicken but it was still warm and dry. Like he might be still alive and would grab my neck any moment.

I pushed down my disgust. Cielo would never be this pathetic and, as his impromptu wing-girl, I couldn’t let him down. Given the choice, I would be the last person he’d picked. Choice, however, was denied him. All his other friends had turned into wolves or bears. As had most of his platoon.

I took as long as I could to put the stranger’s effects in a bin bag and stuff it as far as it would go into the tent bag. But, stuffing a bag takes less time than it should and I had to turn and face Cielo. His face was blank. Not indifferent, not uncaring, just blank. His dark eyes betrayed nothing. His furry face might have been funny if there had been any humour within a mile of us.

I unbuckled the belt and, after a bit of consideration, put it around his thickening neck. “That was digging in a bit. Okay, let’s get going.” He walked away in the direction the stranger came and, at last, I had to move. My limbs were no more supple than a shop mannequin as I followed.

Why was Cielo not turning into a predator? As far as I knew, he was the only one turning into a stag. Or, at least, as far as I knew. We’d left Windham to start our mission only a day after we returned from camping. Neither he nor I knew why the army had sent him to find the source. All I knew that he would be court-marshalled back to the analog age for bringing along an army dropout.

Was it because he wasn’t turning into anything dangerous to me? Because I was his sister and they thought I’d be able to reason with his animal self? Because I wouldn’t be any use anywhere else? In wartime, everyone adopted the cold logic of the wild. Those who could survive were valued while those sent out to die. Military school dropouts shouldn’t get the luxury of sanctuary.

Cielo was still walking on two legs but, even in the torchlight I could see him becoming more animal-like. His darkening nose was twitching, scenting the air and letting it guide him towards a high hedge. How long did he have left? What would I do when he ran away to find a herd of does and left me in Mercidan territory? I had my map and a better sense of direction but I would never make it back. I couldn’t even get through a quarter of a year of military training, let alone make it through enemy lands.

There was no gap in the hedge but Cielo insisted that our goal lay beyond it and said so in such a way that made me too scared to argue. I roved my torch around like a searchlight over the neatly trimmed hedge. My torch glinted on something shiny. Under a thin layer of branches was what looked like a small metal door like a human cat flap. I tried to push it inwards, but it wouldn’t budge.

“Try the tags.” Cielo instructed, “They might have a chip.”

I loathed holding the trophy of the dead man but I was too frightened to argue. I fished out the tag and held it up by the door. A muffled beep sounded and a dim green light appeared over the door.

I went through first and, once onto the road, I held open the flap to let Cielo through. It was very awkward work. His antlers scraped the door, leaving large obvious grooves in the metal and showering him with leaves and twigs.

At last, he got through but he didn’t get up.

“Cielo, what’s up? Are you okay?”

“No. This is starting to feel more comfortable. We’d better hurry.”

Nausea pooled in my stomach. Was this the point of no return? Had we come so far only for Cielo to be lost to whatever was transforming him? I swallowed hard and shone my torch around the road. It must be a military road. It was large enough for a small tank to drive through but narrow enough to disallow two-way traffic. It would just take a small convoy to block enemy progress. As it stood, there was nothing blocking our way, no road blocks or convoys of enemy tanks and cars with guns trained on us. Not even the gate blocking civilian traffic. By the look of the hollow power box, that had been deactivated months ago.

A car was parked at the side of the road. Just an ordinary civilian car that, like the door, opened for the stranger’s tags. I slid into the driver’s seat and Cielo seated himself over the back seat, his head lowered so he wouldn’t block the rear mirror.

Waving the stranger’s chip over the navigator computer didn’t bring it to life. I had to search through the rest of the stranger’s things, picking through the wallet like I was a vulture picking over a fresh carcass. I swallowed several times and closed my eyes against the swelling nausea in my throat.

“Try the ID stick.” Cielo told me, “People always save their passwords on those.”

We’d been told enough times on bulletins not to but I was the only idiot who listened. The ID stick woke the computer up and started the engine, “Hello, Enrico.” I put my head in my hands. It had been easier to call him ‘the stranger’, not to assign him anything human, “Where would you like to go?”

A small list of options appeared. Home was right at the top, giving the address as somewhere in Birmingham. It didn’t sound like a small flat. Enrico probably had a family. Perhaps children, now orphans without knowing it. Not a strip club or a drug den appeared, only the address of an office, a supermarket and a hotel.

“That’ll be it.” Cielo said, gesturing clumsily at the hotel with his antlers, “That’s right on the border. Bet that’s where his camp is.”

“Uh, Cielo?” I finally spoke up, “Do you think it’s a good idea to go there? I mean, you’re – you’re nearly – ”

“Exactly. We haven’t got much time.”

“But, what if you change all the way before we can get the information back to Winchester? Then, this’ll all be nothing. We should at least call for back-up.”

“They won’t care. Too busy rounding up wild animals to send anyone. Come on. We’ve only got one chance. Let’s get to that base.”

He tried to lean over and select the address to the hotel but navi-coms aren’t designed for hooves. It didn’t respond at all.

“Cielo.” I sucked up every little reserve of courage I had and said, “This is stupid. You’ll be completely transformed in another night. If not, sooner. We need back-up and we need it now.”

“No way, Di. We’re going to storm that base, destroy their labs and bring home a glorious victory for Wessin!”

“Cielo, be serious.”

“I am being serious, Di. We’ve got just about as much chance of defeating the Mercidans as the army does now so we might as well roll the dice.”

“Cielo! That’s not funny!” I reached for the ‘new destinations’ button. Terror of death flung aside my timidity. I jabbed in the first line of our home address then a heavy hoof knocked my hand down.

“Yeah, it isn’t!” Cielo nearly shouted, “But, that’s the way it is!”

Not even I could kid myself that he was still joking. I turned around to face him, “Cielo, what is the way it is?”

All I could see of Cielo’s eyes were two dark glints reflecting the light of the navi-com screen. All he did was stare at me for a moment then he sighed, “Okay. Might as well start being honest with you. This might be the only chance I get.” He drew in a breath like he was about to dive off a cliff, “The army didn’t send me. This isn’t an army mission. This is my mission. All my idea.”

The statement hit me like an out-of-control armoured car, “But – but – then, you deserted?”

“Right in one.” He nodded, antlers scraping on the ceiling, “I didn’t want to be stuffed in a holding pen like the rest of them so I pelted out of the base and set out on my own.”

“So…” The white snow-like shock made my mind almost blank. The vague shape of one thought pushed its way through the haze, “…why am I here? Why did you ask me to come? So, I could tell your story?” I wished I hadn’t said it even as the words came out of my mouth. I turned to the road to hide my burning face. Cielo seemed to take my shame for anger. His tone became more placatory.

“I, uh, just didn’t want to be alone. And, well,” He again had to take a deep breath to make himself say it, “you’re more sensible than me. I don’t think I would have got this far without you knowing how to avoid the roads and how to ration the food and all that stuff that never got through this melon.” He tried to nudge his brain with a hoof but his shoulders wouldn’t work that way, “I know it’s selfish. I know I should have left you safe in Winchester but there’s a reason the captains said you could have been a better soldier than me. If it hadn’t been for bloody Agata, you probably would have been made a captain by now.”

“Cielo, you said you were going to be honest with me.”

“I am being honest. I’ve been telling you that for years and I’m going to keep telling you for as long as my voice still works. Agata made your life hell because you were better than her at everything. She forced you to quit and she forced you to think you were a wimp and you couldn’t do anything right. Y’know where she is now? Repeating her training for the third time because she keeps failing the entrance exam.”

“So, this is why you brought me out here?” I scrubbed my eyes with my sleeve, “To tell me I’m amazing? Cielo, that is so stupid. You could’ve been cured and back on duty by now.”

“No, I wouldn’t.” Another deep breath, “Hell, I’m already guilty of desertion. Might as well throw in giving away army secrets. Di, the army is being pulled back. They’re not fighting anymore. Some platoons have already surrendered to Mercidan and some have just mutinied. They haven’t told the news because they don’t want to know that Wessin is going to lose the war.”

The mental white-out was complete. Not a single thought, let alone, word would come to me.

“When the country split up, the Wessins might have got all the resource fields and mines but the Mercidans let us have them. They knew they the better smuggling network and better stealth tech. They knew that they could steal all our resources and win decisively next time. And, that’s just what they did.

“Now, it’s too late. It’s been too late for ages. There are tanks for miles, ships everywhere and planes all over the sky. And,” His deep breath for this revelation was ragged, “just before we left for camping, they managed to get a virus on Wessin’s military computer system. Every computer is just showing bears, stags and wolves dancing about to techno music.” He gave a little snort, “Can see why in hindsight. The cyber team are trying to find some way to get it back but, at this point, it’s just firefighting. We’re not fighting to win. We’re just fighting to lose on our terms and, now, even that’s not an option.  Who would have thought that they would win the war by turning us all into animals?” He shook his head, sending the antlers into a blur in the dim light, “That has got to be the most embarrassing defeat in history.”

The notion of Wessins facing certain defeat floated before me. It couldn’t quite fit in my mind, so big and so impossibly-shaped was it.

“I’ve known we were going to lose for a month but I wasn’t allowed to tell you. I’m sorry.”

“That’s fine.”  I leaned my head against the steering wheel, tears soaking into the bright orange fluffy cover. The happy positive barrier around my mind broke down like wet paper, “But, what are we going to do now? Why did you come out here if you knew there’s no point?”

“Because…because, I don’t want to spend my last days as a human stuck in a pen. No, I want to go out there and take down as many Mercidans as I can.”

All counterarguments bounced off him. All it did was bring on a fit of hysterical sobbing in me.

“Okay, let’s brief. We’ve got one gun, one pair of hands between us, a set of antlers and the element of surprise. We’ve also got no idea how many soldiers are in the camp, no idea what their weapons are like or even if they have anything useful. What a brilliant plan! Where on earth did you get the idea that I was better? I can never compare with such brilliance!”

“Well, that’s why you’re not coming.”

My brain was almost squashed flat with all the weighty surprises being dropped on my head.

“My time is nearly up. One more night and I’ll forget who I am and all about you. I haven’t got time to take on the Mercidans but I can at least go down with as many of them as I can. I can lose in a cool way, not an embarrassing one. I do the stupid thing, you do the sensible thing. That’s how it works.”

What he was intending to do had drifted outside my brain when he told me his plan but it had been so ludicrous, so unthinkable, that I hadn’t allowed it to enter. Now, it slammed into my head with the finality of a bullet.

“No. Cielo – Cielo, we can pretend to be Mercidans. I can say the egg got you by mistake. They’ve got to know a way to turn you back.”

I expected Cielo to shake his head. Probably tell me to be serious. Instead, he put his hoof to where he thought his chin was and considered it, “That…actually might work. It’s a longshot but, hey, any shot’s better than none.”

I was about to say I didn’t mean but swallowed my words. More dismissed thoughts were rampaging around my head. I may be useless at standing up to bullies and at seeing through harebrained schemes but I was good at not being noticed. The only friends I had were ones made through Cielo (the only exception being Agata, who was only pretending) and people just seemed to slide away from me like I was surrounded by a forcefield.

“Are you sure you want to come along?” Cielo asked, “This car’ll be fine taking me there if you want to start heading back.”

“I’ll be arrested for being out after curfew.” I reasoned, “Hell, they might even think I’m a Mercidan spy.”

“Diane,” He said, his voice low and making me panic without how stag-like it sounded, “you can go back now. The car’ll get you back, no problem. I’m going to leave you one way or another. Isn’t it better that it’s now while I still have a human voice box? And, I can say goodbye?”

His throat constricted and mine did too. For a long minute, neither of us could say anything. My vision was hazy with tears and possibilities. Paths I could have taken, things I could have done better, plans I could have made if I had only seen what was staring me in the face, swam before me, forever out of reach. No matter how hard I tried to grasp logic, it always slipped out of my fingers.

“I want to come.” I said, selecting the hotel’s address, “If I’m going to be arrested for a spy, I might as well come back with some important documents with me.”

#

The unsuspecting car took us straight to the address. The hotel turned out to be an abandoned roadside motel. The Green Man Inn. The painted swirl of leaves around a jovial face was still there. No sign of the Mercidan axe painted over it. We didn’t even pass any checkpoints or snipers hiding in the trees. Doubt jabbed me but I shook them aside. I’d made my choice and, this time, I was going to stay the course. No time to allow anyone to tell me I couldn’t do it. Not even myself.

I parked the car and pulled out a length of rope. Cielo scrambled out, all legs and hooves. I finally looked at his face and was almost pleasantly surprised to see that it had not lengthened yet. It still looked more like a human with daft deer face paint.

It was cruel, whatever it was that was working on him, to take the mind last of all.

I tied the rope around my borrowed belt and led him towards the hotel entrance, nerves electrifying me.

The reception desk was empty. A desk screen told us to check in electronically if we were newcomers or, if we were returning, to type in our room number for our key.

I searched through Enrico’s belongings. Hiding behind a credit card was a hotel key. I could almost hear him muttering ‘not trusting that fucking machine with it’ in my ear

The card had a watermark chip. Holding it up to the screen produced a room number. It was -100.

Either the basement had been created as a secret military bunker or the construction of the basement rooms hadn’t been completed when the Mercidans had taken over. The walls and floor were bare concrete without even the benefit of a polishplate coating. It made the corridor feel a lot longer than it probably was.

Cielo’s hooves clattered like a cavalry charge. I froze and listened for any shouting, any alarms and the sound of readying guns. None came. Only the booming of my heart deafened me.

“Cielo,” I whispered, barely moving my lips, “you’d better stay out here.”

In answer, Cielo lowered his head once in what could have been a nod or a bow. I swallowed my resurgence of terror for his mind and approached the first door.

The room was -100 alright. I read it multiple time to be sure. All the time, I like I was doing something terribly wrong and ought to go back to the car before something worse happened. I was being stupid and I knew it. I had no business being here but I still held the card to the control panel. The beep and accompanying green light on the panel might have been an amplified klaxon for the rattling it gave my nerves.

The door clicked and swung open, summoning images of a wife and possibly kids hiding behind her. The room turned out to be empty. Automatic doors, of course. Twenty years and they scared me every time.

The hotel room had been stripped of everything vaguely connecting to a hotel. The space was almost entirely given over to an array of tables groaning with all sorts of machines, electronics and bottles of sand.

Metal eggs lay in various states of assemblage. Some lay in two empty halves. A few had their legs half-attached. Another looked identical to one salvaged from the stream. A bottle of the same glowing sand sat next to it and, beside that, an instruction book.

It was clear that Enrico hadn’t been an expert scientist. The instructions were brief and garishly illustrated. I skimmed through them until I found a promising one:

  1. Use the water tank to test its capabilities. The ark must keep the grains out of the water until ready for the release. Exposure to water in vast quantities before ready for deployment could compromise the GTG’s abilities. The ark must release one grain of the GTG per ten minutes. Any more than this will compromise the GTG’s capabilities, as the GTG is prone to cannibalism. DO NOT RE-USE THE SAME TANK OF WATER FOR MORE THAN ONE ARK. DISPOSE OF THE WATER SECURELY IN THE DECONTAMINATION ROOM AND DO NOT CONSUME IT.

If you believe you or someone on the team has consumed GTG infected water, please report to Biologist Commander Clara in Room -106 immediately.

I may have a name for what was changing Cielo but there was no clue of how it could be reversed. The pamphlet and the instructions ought to be enough for the Wessin scientists to get some idea, though.

Someone shouted from outside. I whipped out of the bathroom and stared out of the peephole. Armed guards were running towards Cielo. He bellowed just as an angry stag should. I dove into my rucksack and found Enrico’s pistol

Then, I remembered something terrible – I had never fired a pistol in my life. Not even the beginner’s aim-correcting model Enrico had carried. The thing felt cold and clunky in my hands. I couldn’t lift it without two hands.

Cielo had a guard on the ground and, one nasty squelch later, the man was still. Another shot was fired and clearly missed. Cielo’s antlers scooped him and a fellow up and flung them against the wall.

I would never think of deer as helpless prey again.

Men were shouting. A woman was bellowing orders. I was still standing behind the door, wondering what to do. A horrible idea of running while the guards were distracted and leaving Cielo to his fate nearly took hold. Then, I shook myself. I couldn’t leave Cielo. Right now, he was probably wondering why I hadn’t intervened.

I turned back to the room and found a bag full of papers stamped important. No time to read through them. I bunched them into my pack, opened the door a crack and peeked my head and pistol through the gap.

Cielo’s shoulder was smoking but he didn’t seem to feel it. Three soldiers lay groaning on the ground where he had trampled them. One lay convulsing with a spouting wound in his neck. The first still hadn’t moved.

Two more guards left standing. A spindly woman in a scientist’s coat was shouting “Shoot to stun! Shoot to stun!”

Neither guard listened. A glowing shot whizzed inches away from Cielo’s head. His antlers lowered, guarding his body. prongs scraping the walls. I raised my pistol and aimed between them. The auto-aim locked onto the one on the left.

The recoil from my first shot slammed the handle into my chest. The barrel went awry and the auto-aim couldn’t save it in time. The bullet made a hole in the wall three feet over the guard’s head.

“Another one!”

“Is she transmogrified?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Then, shoot to kill!”

I whipped back into the room as shots rained towards my hiding place. I tried to return fire but the next shot nearly took my ear off and I was forced back.

Cielo bellowed again, sounding more stag-like than ever. Two grunts of pain told me he’d hit someone. The scientist was shouting for someone else, “Get a tazer! Get him under control. Watch out. There’s an enemy soldier at large”

I almost laughed. She thought I was a soldier?

I leaned out and fired another blind volley. No cries of pain answered, only the crunch of crumbling stone. The auto-aim had broken. Probably, at my first disastrous shot.

Another stag bellow cut off the fighting for a moment and Cielo’s horns came up covered in blood and a few scraps of uniform. I peeked out again and got the glimpse of a soldier falling with a great cleave in his chest before the other’s bullets forced my head back.

Just one on one now. For one mad moment, I thought I was going to win. That I was going to take this Mercidan hideout by storm and force the scientists to find a cure at antler-point. That Cielo and I would be the impossible heroes of Wessin.

Then, a bone-rattling buzz shot through the air and the stag’s bellow rattled like a broken radio. A heavy thump and the scientist called, “Get it in the testing chamber. You, take care of the intruder.”

I dared another peek. Cielo had been thrown to the floor. Two scientists had already wrapped a net around him. I had raised my pistol without thinking. I was going to take one of their heads off, auto-aim or not. But the new soldier fired first. I only just got my hand out of the way.

If I was braver, I could have abandoned all sanity and emptied my gun at them before being shot down myself. But, I wasn’t brave.

I ran for the stairs, the bullets shaking the walls around me. I grabbed the desk screen and flung it against the closed door. I reached the door in three steps and, my chest burning and my breath coming in choking sobs, I flung myself into the car.

I ignored the request for a destination and took manual control. Cielo had said it was a skill worth having. By the time I was squealing out of the car park, the Mercidan soldiers had only just reached the doors. I pummelled the accelerator and plunged ahead at the dark road.

The navi-com politely asked me to slow down three times. Then, the driver diagnostics kicked in and took control. I missed crashing into that huge tree by inches and the car rolled itself to a halt in the middle of a country lane.

I yanked the wheel, I swore at the computer and kicked at the pedals but nothing could get the engine to start again.

“Your driving indicates your mental state is unfit for driving. Please practise calming techniques for one hour. Goodbye.” With that, the computer switched itself off and all lights went out.

I screamed at the darkness, bashing my hands against the steering wheel, “No! No, I need to – to get away – get help – I need – I need – ”

I had no idea what I needed. All I wanted was to fall back into my tiny bed in our family house and find Cielo in his bed next to mine as his human self.

Had Cielo thought this would happen? If he had the choice, would he have chosen death or capture? Surely, death. Still, at least two must be dead. Cielo had lost on his own terms. I had chosen to take the documents and crystals and run – but what good would they do? Wessin had lost. Scientists would be either assimilated or forced to farmwork. In the last war, some had committed suicide rather than face that.

They had lost on their own terms.

Wessin scientists wouldn’t do any good. Wessin was finished. Maybe, forever this time. But Cielo was still alive. And, he hadn’t wanted to die in a holding pen. He didn’t want to be a dumb animal.

I didn’t want to be a wimp. I didn’t want to be the one who ran when everyone around me was attacking me. I wanted to be like my brother. I wanted to turn on them and go down in flames of glory. So what if they didn’t put my name on any statues or monuments? The fire in my heart at the thought would be enough to sustain me.

I started the engine, prompting the computer to go through the mental calmness test. I passed it. My rage and grief were spent. All that was left was calm robotic logic. I typed in my home address. The checkpoint soldiers would surely stop it before it got there. They would hand over the Mercidan documents in my rucksack propped in the driver’s seat.

The car started itself up. Oblivious to the lack of driver, it pulled away and beetled away towards the border. As the sun rose, I turned back. The country land overlooked a pleasant landscape. The roadside motel was a clear white spot in the middle of the green like a bullseye.

END

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