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Its morning when I finally emerge from the shadows of the cave.
My neck is stiff from the force of lying on hard-packed ground and my eyes are crusty from lack of sleep. I breathe in damp, cold air and make my way to the main tunnel. I have to find Trix. The sooner we leave the better.
I tip-toe to the cave’s main lobby, littered with metal tables and tattered books. Strange machines you’d never imagine layer the rectangular desks, while jet black monitors line the walls. It’s strange. I never realized how spotless the place was last night. Light streams in from the partially open roof; I notice the scientific instruments lack dust or dirt, allowing me suspicion. This was my uncle Rantik’s lab. He died ten years ago; someone had to have been maintaining this lab for years in order to keep it this clean. But the question is- who?
I don’t want to linger around much longer to find out.
Grazing my hands along glossy, smooth, pristine monitors, I decide to explore the cave. There’s just enough light in here to decipher object outlines; perhaps I can uncover evidence of an inhabitant. Maybe they could aid us by showing us the way to the Peak Division: the enemy of Tork. Friendly or not, whoever they are, they don’t belong in my uncle’s lab. It’s hidden from society, but it’s a jackpot for fugitives.
I quietly step through an open tunnel, wincing from time to time. I’m sure my ankle is still broken, but my makeshift brace Trix created keeps it in place.
It’s eerily quiet in here; the only sound audible are my footsteps. Every step I make sends a wave of echoes throughout the hollow. It’s scary how silence can be so loud. I wring my hands in agitation. My whiskers stand on end.
I am blasted with memories of my uncle; how he showed me everything he knew, how he held my hand and led me through this very cavern. I sigh. It’s been a long time.
Snapping back to reality, I feel a jolt of panic. I’m traveling aimlessly in this dark cave; what if the Force Squad coils in the shadows, waiting for me this very second? My gun feels heavy on my belt. If I knew how to control my own Mutations, I wouldn’t have to worry about the value of my life as often. However, I’m forced to elude control every full moon, waiting to let the tiger inside me rip those I love to shreds…
Out of nowhere, a rough, cold hand muffles my thoughts and drags me deep into darkness. I scream. I try to flounder without avail and pull those cold arms off my body-
Trix. It’s Trix. I breathe with relief when he releases me. He snickers.
“I knew I’d terrify you,” he laughs, “This proves my point that even vicious tiger Mutants can be frightened. I rest my case.” I glare at his growing grin.
“Not funny,” I say through gritted teeth. I cross my arms. This is not time for one of Trix’s sick pranks.
Silence fills the air as his smile fades. Things are still awkward between us after last night. He had told me I had possibly transformed him into a wolf Mutant on the night of the attack; the night we first met. It would explain his recent increase in strength, but if Mutants are contagious, how come he didn’t turn into a tiger like me? I don’t want to think about it, but the tension between us grows stronger.
Trix gazes up at my auburn hair and eyes, but lingers on my golden tiger ears. He sighs shakily and pulls his fingers through his black hair. I sigh also, not knowing where to look. His metal arms? No; my doing. His once blue eyes? No; I created those yellow irises as well.
Then he cuts the silence and gingerly grabs something out of his pocket, handing it to me. I glance down. A worn leather journal sits in the palm of Trix’s hand, the same size as a playing card. I read the title of the journal- Panthera Tigris Jacksoni.
My name. Only Uncle Rantik knew my real name, the full, scientific name for tiger.
“How…” I begin, but Trix cuts me off.
“Found it on an empty desk. Looks like it’s addressed to you…” I snatch the journal from Trix’s hands with enthusiasm and flip through its yellowed pages.
Of course. Everything he ever wrote was written in the Eastern/Peakian language. Most people brought up in Tork have no idea about other dialects, for its forbidden to learn anything other than what the government says to learn. But this Rantik taught me, slowly and carefully, assuring me I’d need it one day.
I gasp after skimming every small page, reading word after word of my uncle’s neat handwriting. It contains all of his secrets to biologically engineering humans- everything. Why didn’t I think to look here before?
“Trix!” I screech. “There’s a cure!” I point to the resolution of our predicament. He literally leaps out of his comfortable stance and glances over my shoulder.
“What?” He demands. He can’t read the script.
I quickly shut the book and place it in my pocket. “We have to get out of here,” I whisper frantically. I grip Trix’s metal arms and lead him to the base of the cave, ignoring his protests.
“I know why you didn’t transform into a tiger when I bit you,” I say as I drag Trix through the maze of tunnels. “You were right when you said Mutation was like a virus. I was already infected with Mutation when I bit you. That same infection, poisonous to any human, traveled into your bloodstream. It affected your DNA, creating a whole different creature. But your genes control what animal you transform into; it chooses whatever animal you’re closest to in personality or heritage. Apparently, you’re closest to a wolf.”
Trix looks like he’s about to faint. “How long does it take for the virus to fully form in the body, after being infected?”
Finally, we reach the base of the cavern. Ladder; where’s the ladder- there! I shuffle through my uncle’s horde of technology in the cavern and bring myself to a halt in front of the rungs- our way out.
“Trix,” I begin, turning to him, “do you trust me?”
He nods, but I need him to promise. But how can he after all I’ve done to him?
“Do you trust me?” I repeat firmly.
“Of course.” He crosses his heart with his titanium fingers.
I nod in satisfaction, and make my way up to the sunlight of the Forest.
The sun feels unnatural after being in darkness for so long. I am blind at first- then my eyes adjust. Giant trees loom over me like wise, trusting people. This is where I grew up. I smile wide and let my body slurp up the sun like a straw.
Trix follows shortly with all of our provisions strung to his back. I limp through the rugged forest, but know where I’m going. Every leaf is green and every stream is full. I bask in the happiness of summer I never knew existed.
I’m glad Trix remains silent. He never asks questions; he’s confident in my instincts.
A minute later, something thumps beside me. I turn. Trix- he lies on the floor, cradling his head like an eggshell.
“Are you okay?” I ask, panic obvious in my voice.
Trix groans in agony and looks up at me. Fiery, bright yellow eyes burn with rage and razor sharp fangs glint in the sunlight.
“What’s… happening?” I ask, terrified.
I back away slowly until I bump into a tree. My breath catches in my throat. Trix’s body wraps in an unnatural position, contorting and twitching every few seconds. A horrible thought enters my mind. Is he… Mutating?
A terrible howl escapes his open mouth: now gurgling in red liquid. I hear his bones crack into positions. I cover my mouth to stifle sobs.
Then I remember. The cure. Rantik said they would be the only cure to Mutations- but it only works before you first Mutate. Way to wait until the last minute.
Uncle wants me to do this, I can feel it. He risked his whole life researching Mutant cures behind the government’s back. I can’t let his years of hard work go to waste.
I have to save Trix; my one and true friend. No, he’s more than a friend. He’s my world. He doesn’t deserve this- no one does.
Flashes of green spark my vision as I dash past hundreds of trees. It should be there- yes. I grab the berries and run as fast as my inner tiger allows.
But when I reach our spot, I almost drop the remedy berries on the floor in shock. A whole pack of Force Squad troops surround a vulnerable Trix in the twilight; black suits and all. They all aim their guns at him while he writhers on the floor.
I gasp and shrink back into the darkness of the woods. Trix is in the middle of Mutating; I need to get him to eat these berries before it’s too late. But not when the Force Squad is here. It still sends a shudder down my spine when I think of their identical robotic movements, their red pupils and gleaming white irises.
Trix still groans in pain while his muscles and bones warp. The first time is always the worst. I cringe. It’s almost painful just to watch him. I can’t let him go through this alone. What if the Force Squad decides to shoot? They’re merciless; they would do it. My stomach clenches. Think of something!
Then, Trix yells out his last human words. “T-Tigris! Save yourself. I’ll see…you soon.” He procures one gulp of air and allows the wolf take over. I scream. I don’t care if it reveals my position to the Force Squad. Trix’s life is ruined. He can’t go. He can’t.
I rush past the Force Squad who grunt as I push through them and shelter Trix’s body with my own. If he was going to die, we would die together. His breathing is heavy under my arms, and pointed ears begin to sprout on his head. Almost time for the wolf to take full form-
“Meet me in the cave when you’re human,” I whisper. He slightly nods, covered with sweat. Claws replace his metal fingers and fur spreads like wildfire across his back. The Force Squad has me; Trix can get away.
I curse myself. Why can’t I control my Mutation? I would get us out of this. I would help Trix. Tears stream from my eyes as I grip Trix’s fur and bury my face in his hide.
He releases a long, lonely howl, squirms under my grasp, and takes off into the Forest. The Force Squad is confused; they don’t know who to capture or kill first.
I just stare as Trix scurries deeper into the Forest, memory of me erased until our next meeting.
But I know this isn’t goodbye.