III: THE SECOND ROUND
by Michael Bard and Quentin Long
© Michael Bard and Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
After making their unauthorized withdrawal from the Brooklyn campsite, Harlem returned to its own home base. There was no trouble; Mal's data gave them forewarning of most of the Mutopia traps, and their slow and careful progress allowed them to avoid what few they didn't know about. As the fire had long since gone out; Michael picked up his necklace and a horseshoe, and worked on getting the fire going. Meanwhile, Norman and Mal sorted through the evening's booty... and Mary-Anne just stayed near Michael.
Mal shook his head. "Those idiots. They brought, like, nothing! We got some bedrolls, clothes, a shovel, some metal utensils, and that's it. Those morons didn't even bring matches!"
"They were not correctly prepared for the competition, and now they have paid the price. Likely the surviving tribes will be better prepared, as Darwin suggests that the weakest tribes will be eliminated first."
And soon we'll find out which of us is the best prepared -- but there are other targets first. Malcolm looked up and saw that Mary-Anne was leaning into Michael's embrace. Mentally he sighed. "So, Norm, what do we keep -- if anything?"
Norman's eyes glittered in the firelight. "The cloth can be used for torches in case we need to, and for protection when handling dangerous substances. The shovel gives us a spare. The bedrolls we can use as padding so we can sleep more comfortably."
"Well..." At this point Mal's attention was grabbed by a silent buzz and he reached into his pouch and pulled out the palmtop. After glancing for a second he smiled. "My, my. It would appear that another tribe is trying to take unfair advantage via the Biodome net. Let's see how good they really are..."
Norman just lay back on his side, curled up until he was comfortable, and then watched Michael and Mary-Anne by the fire.
As Norman and Mal checked the booty, Michael checked that his rifle was indeed still secured, then he picked up one of his horseshoes and started setting up kindling in the fire.
"Thank you," Mary-Anne whispered. Time to increase the dosage, my furry friend.
"I did nothing that any other chap in my place wouldn't have done. There's no need for thanks."
Mary-Anne's voice began a carefully planned performance as it started to break up : "But there is. You... you..."
Michael abandoned the fire, letting the fledgling flame go out, and turned and opened his arms to Mary-Anne. She snuggled up against his upper chest and squeezed him tight, and he hugged her as she scratched her claws into his back, transferring certain chemicals from her fingernail polish into his bloodstream. "Shh, Mary-Anne. I'm here for you, or at least I am if you want me to be."
"Of course," she whispered, "I need you. If it wasn't for you I couldn't, couldn't..." She let herself fall into a quiet sobbing, almost not believing that anybody could fall this far this fast.
"I wish we hadn't had you do that, but we needed you to. For the tribe, for all of us."
Could he be faking!? Mary-Anne couldn't help but jerk back at this thought.
"Is something wrong?"
Let's see how the big, bad lion responds to fear... She let herself shudder and let go of Michael. Slumping to the ground, wrapping her fox's tail around her waist, she started playing with its tip. "You're just going to use me, aren't you?"
For a second Michael just stared at her. "Use you? I'd never do that."
"Everybody is. Mal, Norman, and especially you. Threatening me so that I'll do what you want me..."
Michael grabbed her by her arms and twisted her so that her eyes were looking into his. "I did not use you. I can't speak for the others, but I can speak for myself. It's just, that, well, I've never known anybody like you."
"You're just saying that."
"No. I like you, I like you a lot." He sighed. "I've never felt anything like this before."
The vixen's untold years of manipulation, of simulated emotion, had left her unprepared for what might just be the genuine article. Could this fool be falling in love with me? For the first time in her life Mary-Anne was struck speechless.
Michael's voice changed to a whisper. "I've never had a lady care for me before. It's, well..."
"You... you like me?" As she said them Mary-Anne realized that for the first time both her actual thoughts, and what she needed to show to the world to get her way, required her to say the same thing.
Michael turned away and started the fire up again. For a few minutes he remained silent before finally whispering, "I think I love you."
Great Mother -- this idiot loves me?! Well! "But how can I believe you? You must have all kinds of women chasing you, a great big wonderful stallion like you."
Michael stood up and paced away, and then back. He lay down, stood up, and then lay down again right in front of Mary-Anne. "So you'd think." He sighed and then whispered in a barely audible voice, "I'm a virgin."
Mary-Anne let her mouth hang open in shock. He really is... Ohh! I've never broken a virgin before! She let a slight smile onto her lips and then leaned forward and hugged her big furry plaything. By the Mother, this will be such fun! "It's all right," she whispered. "I believe you."
"Gotcha!" Mal's voice spilled across the tribal camp.
Michael turned and paced over, Mary-Anne following. "And what is it that you got?"
Mal turned and smiled, a smile that would make any human run for cover. Even though Michael was now feline, it still made him flinch. "It looks like some poor bastard in Queens tried to hack into the Biosphere's internal network."
"And he think's he's broken in and has full access."
"But I take it that he only has access to what you've set up for him?"
"Got that right, Leo. Before I left, I made sure to make up a portable mock Survifur net for just such an emergency."
The palmtop vibrated again and Mal looked down. "Ah, crap."
"Did something bad happen?" asked Mary-Anne.
"Yes. The Queens hacker figured out that they've been had, so now I won't be able to feed them any false info! At least they didn't do any damage."
"Out of curiosity," Norman asked, "how did you discover that your victim had escaped? Some clever trap?"
Mal shrugged. "Naah -- the guy just sent me an e-mail swearing vengeance." He shook his head. "Gosh, I'm scared. See how frightened I am."
It was Michael who responded next. "Do you think you should be? Since you're using Linux, this person might be good enough to take advantage of some of the code you used in your kernel."
"Ha! This kernel is all mine. The best thing about Microsoft crashing, and Apple getting religion, is that us techies can name our price. I wrote the whole damn thing and there ain't no way nobody's gonna break it."
Norman nodded, then reported to Michael: "Then we are safe from that threat and maintain our advantage, sir. As to our booty, we found very little of worth in Brooklyn's camp. They were not prepared in the least."
"Thank you, Norman. Well then, let's at least see what kind of funds we were able to pick up." Michael emptied his pouch (the only thing he was wearing), and Norman and Mal followed suit. Mary-Anne put only her original $50 in.
Maybe I can break her hold on Michael, Mal thought, and then spoke to Mary-Anne. "It's too bad you didn't grab Brooklyn's cash when you had the chance. How could you forget?"
Michael's voice was cold as he responded. "Sir, she did the best that she could. We forced her into something that she found morally repugnant and she did it only to respond to Norman's threats. If not for her we wouldn't have eliminated Brooklyn at all."
Mal sighed. Great; Mike's her puppet, so he's already out of the picture. "You're right, but... it just woulda been nice, is all. Oh, well. I shouldn't've got on the foxy lady's case, and I apologize." And then there were three.
Michael turned to Mary-Anne and waited until she nodded and then turned back. "All is forgiven. So, how much are we worth now, Norman?"
The other three watched as Norman quickly and efficiently sorted and counted the bills. "Sir, we have a total of $830. This is from the $110 total we had left over from our initial allotment, plus another $720 we acquired whilst others were occupied."
"Norman, I'll trust you to take care of it for us then?"
"So, now we need to take care of defenses for our camp."
"Defenses?" Mal asked, puzzled.
"Doubtless the other tribes are returning from Manhattan, and we made sure that at least one tribe was eliminated with planted blame. We also know that Queens knows a hacker is out there and they may know that it's us. We may be assaulted later tonight, in our sleep."
"Sure, but --"
The liontaur was on a roll and barely noticed Mal's interjection. "So the first order of business is to set out trip wires amongst the trees. We can tie them to the trunks low to the ground. We can also create a stash of water bombs and load my rifle for our counter-attack. Unfortunately we don't have time to dig pits and cover them..."
Mal shook his head. Pits? How paranoid does Mike want us to be? Or is that Mary-Anne manipulating him?
"Norman, take the shovel and start digging some pit traps along the edge of the clearing. It would also be nice if we could make a fake camp as bait, and sleep away from it. We have the clothing we no longer need so we can just fill them out with soil" Norman nodded. "Mal and I can start working on that..."
Mal laughed. "Mike. You do know that we're three cats and a fox now?"
"Well... yes, we are. So?"
"So cats and foxes are very light sleepers."
"Light slee..." That's when comprehension dawned on Michael's face.
Mal nodded. "Now you're talking. Go ahead and load your rifle. I don't see that we really need to do anything else beyond just setting the trip wires; those'll give us enough advance warning that invasion shouldn't be a problem."
Michael smiled. "You're right. Let's get the tripwires taken care of and get some sleep. Tomorrow we need to try and figure out what the next challenge is, and how we should prepare for it."
And so Harlem went to bed.
A side effect of being felines (and vulpines) that Mal hadn't mentioned was the fact that though they were light sleepers, they slept a lot. Thus it was almost 2:00pm by Mary-Anne's watch before Harlem started awakening. Mary-Anne was the first up and left her warm spot cuddled against Michael; she quietly went behind some bushes to do her business, and then to her supplies to freshen up (and reload). Her departure awoke Michael who stretched and arched his back and yawned mightily as he blinked his eyes in the afternoon sun. Then he made another big stretch and turned to Mal and Norman who were still curled up asleep. "Gentlemen, this is your wake up call." And then he let out a mighty roar.
Mal and Norman leapt to their feet convulsively, looking around until they saw Michael watching them. "I trust you slept well, gentlemen?"
Norman was the first to answer. "I apologize for my tardiness, sir. It seems that the feline additions to my form have corrupted my internal clock. It won't happen again."
Mal just frowned and then stretched and shook out his rat tail, turning to look at it. "I'm gonna have to do something 'bout that."
Michael's stomach rumbled, and then he frowned. "There seems to be another unforeseen problem -- in our current conditions the food we've got with us isn't entirely edible. Any ideas?"
Mary-Anne returned, looking neat and freshly groomed, and kissed Michael on the cheek. "Now, that is something that I can do. I've been a cat already. So let me..." Will Michael pass the test? I do want him to be my minion, but I don't need a mindless slave.
"Just a moment please, my dear. Mal, do you know what is actually safe for us to eat in these woods?"
"Let's see..." Pulling out his palmtop Mal tapped something and then read. "First of all, the squirrels are right out. Not only are they loaded with mutagen, five'll get you 50 that Sly takes a dim view of anyone munching on his cousins. Fish are out, too; no way of knowing which ones swam up from the river and are therefore full of Mutopia. Birds are too damn mobile, I just don't trust them. Best guess is that rabbits are safe."
"How safe?" Michael asked. "I wouldn't want to think that you were using this as an opportunity to eliminate a tribe member."
"Gosh, Mike -- I could almost believe you don't trust me." I thought of that, and if I hadn't seen you two earlier I might even have tried it. "No, rabbits should be safe as long as they're in the forest or at the edge of the Savannah. I definitely don't recommend going there as both the animals and the plants'll get you. Other rodents should be fine too."
Norman was looking a little sick. "Why don't we just buy something in Manhattan? It's got to be healthier than eating a wild animal. Sorry sir, but how safe can they be with all those poisons in the ground? And they're so..."
"Buy food? From Manhattan? Like I said, the whole damn place is a giant transformation trap, and that includes any food that we buy there!" Here Mal paused and smiled. "But it sure would be nice if any of the others were stupid enough to try it, huh?"
"Norman, we need to be safe and be ready for the next challenge. We'll have to live off the land." Michael couldn't help but lick his lips at the thought.
Mary-Anne called out, "I'll be back in a while then with dinner. And don't worry, I'll be careful." Careful not only with myself, but also to start the rest of you on my cocktails as I spike the meat. And yes, my big lion, you passed the test. "Bye!" She waved, and then turned and bounded off into the forest on all fours. Norman stared after her, shuddering at the vixen's display of quadrupedal (animal) behavior.
"Well that's taken care of then. Norman, why don't you go off and see if we had any unfriendly visitors last night, and I'll get the details of the next challenge from Mal here."
"Yes sir. However, I don't think I'll be able to eat a wild animal, even cooked."
"Norman, you need your strength."
"Yes sir, I do. But I think that being physically sick will be worse than being a little weak. After all, we did eat well yesterday."
Michael frowned for a second. "I'll leave it up to you then, but if you are weak I will make you eat for the good of the tribe. Is that understood?"
"Yes sir." And then Norman turned and walked off.
Mal, meanwhile, wasn't happy. The kitty was providing food, and he was absolutely certain she'd throw in a few additives that he didn't want to eat. Either Norman was telling the truth, or he'd already given himself a way out, and that just made it more difficult for him. He'd have to make sure to eat his meat really well done, and use the nanoassemblers in his water purifier to try and neutralize any toxins. At least he'd have a chance to analyze some.
Even with all these thoughts running through his head, Mal was still able to get his palmtop out and ready before Michael turned to him.
Michael's voice was a whisper as he asked, "So, can you find anything for us?"
"Well, let's see here. Tribal council is tonight, along with votes from the audience." Hopefully, the timed net viruses he'd set up before arriving would help stack the vote for Harlem now, and for himself later. "I've had this baby searching overnight, and it's found something. Now, let's see... Hmph. It's a Scavenger Hunt."
"That sounds simple enough."
"Not really. Tonight Sly hands out metal detectors; tomorrow we go after buried treasure. Some is real, most of it's trapped. And so's a lot of the wildlife."
"Can you tell if the goodies are already buried?"
"Yes, and they aren't. Schedule says they're to be buried tonight after the council and then we go hunting the next day. Hmmm... There'll be some dire warnings about interfering with the setup, but they should be done by 2:00am."
Michael stared off into the middle distance as his still agile mind went through various possibilities. "Which means that from 2:00am on, we can go in and stack the deck as it were."
"Alright. And you've got something in mind?"
"Well, we have all this dangerous water, and the leftovers from last night. Why don't we just fill some balloons and bury them on top of the prizes? That way the ground is already disturbed so there's no evidence of our tampering, our victims dig, pop the balloon, and sploosh."
"I like that! Hmmm... Why don't you go hunting? Should be lots of worthwhile targets in the other tribes."
The idea felt right to Michael; he grinned unconsciously. "What an excellent notion! You know, it's just too bad we couldn't meet under friendlier circumstances, we seem to think alike."
But at least I can see the fox for what she truly is. "Seems we do. Now..."
Hearing a figure running towards them, they both turned and saw Norman returning at high speed. He stopped in front of them and leaned over and whispered: "Somebody left us a bug last night."
"A bug? Where?" Mal asked.
Norman pointed. "In that tree -- I was lucky to see it."
"Mal, what can we do with it? We should destroy it if we have to, but I'd prefer to make use of it. Could you feed it a false signal?"
"Maybe. Let's go and take a look at it."
They all stood up and followed Norman over to the tree that contained the bug, stopping about five feet away from it. All three Harlemites moved as silently as, well, cats. Norman pointed and Mal nodded and hunched over his palmtop as Norman and Michael gave him room. After about five minutes Mal motioned them both back over to the remnants of the fire, and they silently followed him.
"Well?" Michael whispered.
"It was planted by someone from the Bronx. The way that sneaky bastard set it up, it transmits its signal up to the cables overhead, then the audio piggybacks over the Biosphere's own network." He smiled. "And that means he's been too damn sneaky for his own good."
"How so? Given all the trees and terrain in the way, surely our eavesdropper would have to use the overhead cabling to make sure the signal gets to him?"
"Come on, Mike. That's old tech, and even in the '90s there were ways around it. And you're forgetting it's in the Biosphere network. Which means I own that signal. Sure, it's encrypted, so I gotta break the code. Once that's done, I can feed them anything I want."
"How long do you think it'll take to crack?"
"Depends how clever our boy really is. A couple hours if he's stupid; more likely into the evening if he's got a real brain."
"So then, do we live cautiously until you crack it, or is it safer to just eliminate it now?"
"Safer, yes, but not as useful. Once I crack it, we can use it for all kinds of fun things." Now it was Mal's turn to juggle alternatives in his head. "In fact... since the Bronx probably has other bugs, I should be able to grab all their signals after I break their code. Won't be as informative as the camera feeds, but it'll tell us what the Bronx knows."
"Is it sensitive enough to pick us up whispering?"
"Yes. It's a Kelmener T-47; it can pick up a whisper from 50 feet away. So as long as we stay near the fire on this side, we should be safe."
"Then let's wait and see if we can take it over. I'll leave it in your hands."
Mal smiled. "Don't you mean 'paws'? Anyway, we should give the bug something to listen to. Much easier to crack --"
"Michael! I'm back!" Mary-Anne shouted out.
"Sir," Norman whispered, "she'll give us away."
"I'll let her know when she reaches us. For now let her shout -- it'll hide the fact of our discovery, and give Mal some data."
Mal looked away from his palmtop and looked at Michael. He knew there was no way she was going to give away anything she didn't want to give away. In the worst case all she would do is let something harmless slip to make everybody see her as naive. "Mike? How sure are you that she'll know to keep quiet?"
"I trust her."
"Then you're a fool!" Mal hissed. "The stakes are too high..."
Michael reached over and grabbed Mal's chin. "We are a tribe, and we will work together. She will not betray us on purpose, and won't let anything loose by accident. Did she not come through last night?"
"Fine then." Michael stood up and then shouted over to Mary-Anne, "That was fast, and those rabbits look wonderful!"
Mary-Anne ran over on two feet and kissed Michael on the snout and then giggled. "I told you I could do it."
Michael reached over to hug her and then whispered in her ear, "Be careful what you say. Norman found a bug in that tree over there," and he pointed.
"A bug?" By the Great Mother, how did somebody sneak that in? "Will it sting us?"
"Not that kind of bug -- a listening device."
"Now, Mal is going to crack its encryption so that we can send false information, so just be careful what you say in its general vicinity. We'll work out our plans in detail after your wonderful dinner, and we'll just whisper as usual."
"Are you sure it's safe? It won't hurt us?"
"No, not us. But Mal will make sure that it hurts the Bronx. They planted it last night."
"I trust you." I can think of all kinds of devious things to let the Bronx overhear. Hopefully I won't have to suggest them.
Michael raised his voice to normal. "Well then, who's up for dinner? There's a rabbit for each of us."
"Sir. I'm going to, well, pass. My stomach won't handle them."
"Are you sure?"
Norman swallowed. "Yes."
"Remember my warning. How about you, Mal?"
"If you give me one, I'll skin and cook it for myself. Got some Cajun recipes I want to try out." Burned to a crisp is blackened, so that's no lie.
Mary-Anne frowned. "You don't like my rabbits?" Norman was getting away and heat would affect the chemicals. How much of their hesitance was true, and how much was against her? She'd have to work on their suspicions, or just spike their damn water.
"Of course they do," Michael reassured her, "they just have different tastes is all. Besides, it leaves more for us."
Mary-Anne gave a sly smile. "Have you ever tried meat raw? It's actually quite tasty, especially with us as we are now."
"Well no, I can't say that I have. But I trust that you can introduce me. It's safe, isn't it?"
"Oh, for you it is."
Mal just shook his head and worried. Looks like I'm not the only one whose portrait gave him a few more changes than he asked for. I wonder how much of his brain is still human?
For the rest of the afternoon, Harlem rested, ate (Mary-Anne and Michael having theirs with the blood fresh, and Mal trying not to grimace as he ate his which was cooked almost into charcoal), and then they made their plans. Michael put his gloves to excellent use, soaking Norman's paper in river water and squeezing liquid from the resulting pulp into his squirt rifle. Mal's water purifier tube (with the nasty filters temporarily disabled) was used to start filling balloons which were then carefully tied shut with gloved paws. By the early evening, everything was set and they took a nap until Tribal Council that night. The snapping of a twig brought them all awake and they followed the squirrel off to the council meeting place.
Once again a roaring bonfire was lit, but the benches were noticeably emptier. Two tribes were gone, one tribe had gotten the worse of it (with one becoming partially rabbit, and one becoming partially squirrel) but three more tribes looked virtually untouched. They barely had time to seat themselves (and Mal watched Bob glare at him; he just smiled back. I beat you, punk. Deal with it.) before Sly stepped in.
Like the other night Sly went through the rules but eventually announced that before the votes were counted, he wanted to ask some questions. Mary-Anne stayed close to Michael as Sly walked over.
"So: Members of Harlem, I see that you had fun last night."
Norman just growled.
"But it was successful. Michael, did you know that the tribe you saw vixenated was actually Bushwick tribe?"
"Dear me, no. They told us that they were Brooklyn. Do you mean that they weren't?" Mary-Anne leaned against him and started petting his back and Michael visibly shuddered and actually started to purr for a second. He had to concentrate, no matter how much Mary-Anne's touch was affecting him.
"They must have lied -- and I can't tell you how shocked I am to learn that members of one SurviFur tribe might sink so low as to deceive another. Tch, tch, tch. By the way, did you have fun vixenating them?"
Michael just blinked his eyes as Mary-Anne clasped his hand to comfort him. "Us? Oh, no. Poor chaps, if what you say is true. There was a bar fight, and we managed to leave before it got too ugly. I don't know what happened to them, in fact none of us do."
With a sigh of relief Michael watched Sly move over to his next victim. After some more questions -- apparently the Bronx and Melrose were having problems, the former being the tribe which had planted the bug -- it was time to count the votes. Silently Michael watched, aware only of the votes and Mary-Anne's presence as the votes were counted.
Mal was silent too as the tally grew. To him, the counting was clearly contrived to maximize suspense. Maybe it was - it wouldn't be too hard to program that into those Macs. It was satisfying to know that his automated Mutopia distribution system was working as designed, dispensing random changes to those who failed to vote for Harlem...
And then finally, Harlem was told that they had won.
Norman was the first to comment. "It was expected, sir. With our co-operation and superior skills and resources, there was no other possibility."
Sly handed the certificate for 40% reverse transformation to Michael; he held it and smiled at Mary-Anne.
Together, in silence, they watched the other tribes receive their punishment, and all were careful to look suitably fearful and respectful of the other's pain. Had a telepath been there to read their minds, he would have found internal smiles; and Mary-Anne was actually laughing in her head.
Then they received their metal detector and started making their way back to camp, being always careful of the path.
They were silent until they arrived.
"Oh, we actually won!" Mary-Anne sounded amazed.
Michael, however, was unsure. "So, now what do we do with this?" he asked, holding out the certificate. "It's not as though we really need it..."
"I do, sir."
Michael called out, "Well, let's go to bed and we'll worry about it tomorrow." And then he turned his voice to a whisper. "Norman, we need you the way you are for tonight. We have until tomorrow night to use this, and there will be time between the Scavenger Hunt and Tribal Council to go into Manhattan. As for me, I'm happy the way I am, and I'll let Mary-Anne have my 10% if she wants it."
"Why Michael, thank you!" she squealed out loud. Take that, Bronx -- it won't tell you a thing.
Mal reacted immediately. "Be quiet!" he hissed. "Remember the bug."
"I'm sorry, so sorry."
Michael tried to make peace. "Well, never mind. No real harm done. We'll split it equally, but save it until after the hunt as we may need it then. Now does everybody know the plan? We'll sleep now -- Mary-Anne, don't forget to set your watch, and then at 11:30pm we'll start our infiltration and observation. At 2:00am, once the prizes and traps are placed we'll begin our sabotage and neutralization of any other tribes that have the same clever idea. At 8:00am when the challenge officially starts, you three will get the good stuff that Mal has identified and I will go hunting for targets of opportunity. Did you pick up the sap that Mal mentioned, Norman?"
"Yes sir. It's sealed, and you have two vials full to supplement the infected water you're already loaded with and are carrying."
"And don't forget what I told you about my rifle -- although it can shoot to 200 yards under ideal conditions, in practical terms it has an effective range of only about 50 yards. Ah -- yes, Mal?"
"There's a problem," Mal whispered. "Your rifle must've been a standard Super-Soaker model before you upgraded it, right? So how about my palmtop prints out some decals to hide the pretty colors?"
"I think that would be of great benefit, sir. Please, see to it, won't you?"
"I'm on it. You'll have your decals before the Hunt starts."
"Thank you very kindly, Mal. Any questions?"
"Then let us to bed, for we have a busy night ahead of us."
And so Harlem tucked their little heads onto their pillows, and dreamed their dreams of sabotage and betrayal. And, of course, Michael and Mary-Anne slept curled up together.
Both Mary-Anne and Michael awakened nearly simultaneously as the watch alarm went off. Mary-Anne let out a little meep of shock before she canceled the alarm. A few minutes later, the rest of the tribe was awake. After a last check that all of the equipment they left behind was wrapped in plastic and several layers of Mutopia-laden artist's paper (which Norman knew all too well), and to wait for a few minutes for Mal to cover up the bright plastic of Michael's squirt-gun with camouflage-printed strips from his palmtop, Harlem moved out towards the Scavenger Hunt area. Norman carried most of the balloon ammo in his backpack, but Mary-Anne and Mal carried some also. All four Harlemites tried to ignore the comparatively loud noises of the cameramen that were shadowing them.
After about 20 minutes of slow and careful travel, Harlem arrived in the hunting grounds. According to the information Mal was able to get, the actual setup wasn't slated to start until midnight. Quickly scouting around, the tribe found one of the largest trees in the middle of the area and made their way up into its lower branches (Michael helping Mary-Anne). Michael was the last one up, and had the most trouble finding a comfortable place, but ended up laying on one of the lower branches about 15' up.
Being lazy and not at all at home in the dark, the biosphere workers arrived at 12:10 (a little late) and proceeded on their task of digging holes and putting in goodies. After each item was buried, one of the workers typed in a code on a palmtop of some kind to activate the mutagen. The workers were easy to track, with their large flashlights and muted conversation. However, just to be on the safe side, Michael detached the scope from his rifle, activated its light amplification feature at a low power, and scanned away from the flashlights for other unauthorized intruders.
It wasn't long until the first unauthorized intruder attempted his entrance.
With his real-time access to the video feeds, Mal was the first to know, and he whispered the information to Michael. Apparently it was a member of Utopia tribe -- Colby -- who was partially squirrel. His dark colouration made him hard to see, but the light amplification of the cameras (not to mention Mal's digital binoculars) made him obvious. Waiting until there were no workers nearby, Michael slowly lowered himself from the tree with a thud that sounded loud in his feline ears but really wasn't. The others climbed down and followed along behind him to provide aid and support.
Moving quietly and slowly, they were able to avoid the workers (whose loud mutterings and flashlights made this an easy task), and about half an hour later Michael could just make out the giant squirrel about 80' away. A quick peek through Mal's binoculars confirmed that they had the right squirrel, and Michael went on his way whilst the Utopian waited unwittingly.
In Michael's dark-adapted eyes, the forest appeared almost as a mythical faeryland. There were no sounds of animals; the SurviFur workers had scared away the native wildlife. Only the odd faint unintelligible mutter from them could be made out, and the flash of their lights in the distance. Otherwise the forest was a sea of blackness interspersed with patches of silver from the moonlight that made it way through the dome roof and the tree cover. Occasionally a rustle of needles, and the scent of pine, could be made out as a light breeze moved the tips of the trees back and forth.
Checking his scope, Michael watched Colby examine a freshly dug hole at the base of a tree. The Utopian was in the darkness, but with his enhanced feline vision Michael could make him out even without the scope. Creeping forward until he was hidden in the shadows about 50' away, Michael crouched down on his lower chest... took aim... and pulled the trigger.
The liontaur's weapon made far less noise than a conventional firearm. A tiny 'pop' as a microsecond burst of laser energy created an ionized tunnel in the air to reduce air resistance; a quiet 'chuff' as CO2 was released; a faint hiss as the stream of water passed through that tunnel. That was all - nothing like the explosive report of a rifle. Another difference was the speed of the projectile; it took the CO2-driven stream of water just over a second to cross 50'. If the target was aware of the incoming fluid, he'd have a chance to move out of the way. Fortunately, Colby was not aware -- Michael's first shot was a clean hit. He fired again and the second shot was almost at its target before Colby realized anything was wrong.
Michael watched, waiting for another clean shot as Colby stared down at the layer of bark that was forming on his legs. Panicking, he turned to flee but stumbled as his legs grew increasingly stiff. His relative immobility allowed Michael another two shots, and then it was too late. Colby stopped moving, and within five minutes the forest had acquired another pine.
Michael crept back to the rest of the tribe and whispered, "Our opponent is now a small tree." He then led the rest of the tribe back to the site of the ambush. Mal covered his fingertips with duct tape to make sure that his claws didn't ruin anything by poking out, then put on his inert, impermeable silicone gloves to loot the tree.
By 1:30am Harlem was back in its original tree, monitoring the video feed for new intruders.
Mal smiled to himself. The three remaining Utopians were in an escalating argument, primarily between Richard (who was still fully human) and Sue (who was about 20% brown jackrabbit), about whether or not they should try to rescue Colby. Finally they decided to try and find Colby and what had happened to him. Tina, with her horse's head and neck, remained silent the whole time. Once the dispute was over Richard led his tribe towards the Scavenger Hunt area.
Mal signaled the rest and Harlem got ready to move. Unfortunately, the workers chose that moment to bury something right beneath their tree, a task which took them 20 minutes to finish up. Michael spent the time comforting Mary-Anne -- not only to keep her quiet, but also to just be with her. None of the treed cats (or fox) made a sound while waiting. After the workers were done and gone on to the next task, Harlem waited five more minutes, just to be safe. Then they hit the ground and made their way towards where Colby stood. It was only a 10-minute walk, but by the time they arrived, it was too late to set up an ambush -- the rest of Utopia were already there.
"What the hell happened?" Richard asked, his voice a loud whisper.
"I told you this was a bad idea," Sue hissed.
"But as a squirrel, Colby could blend in!"
Tina interrupted the argument, getting the others' attention with a gentle nicker followed by mostly understandable speech. "Colby didn't fall for a trap -- he was ambushed." She pointed at tracks that could be seen in one of the spots of moonlight. "They look feline."
Richard is the first to put the pieces together. "It must have been Harlem."
Unfortunately for Utopia, this hurried conference gave Michael a perfect chance to get into firing position. He put two shots into Tina, the second fired before the first one struck home. Meanwhile, the rest of Harlem waited with water balloons at the ready.
Tina whispered, "We should leave. This isn't worth it, as there's no sign of a struggle and they outnumber -- neighhhssshhh!"
He last word was almost a rustle rather than a sound; the two squirts were already taking effect. Her feet were rooted, and her legs fusing together into a trunk. Even so, Tina still tried to wave to the others to run away as Michael took aim at Richard and the other Harlemites burst into the opening with balloons. Richard and Sue turned and fled; Sue's jackrabbit speed let her avoid taking any hits, while Richard only took one shot, which turned him green and put some leaves on his head. Sadly, Tina received two balloons, joining Colby as a tree. And, as before, Mal stripped the body.
Harlem gave Mal a few minutes to check the video feeds, confirming that the survivors of Utopia had nothing on their minds besides fleeing, before they (Harlem) returned to their tree.
Peace and quiet returned to the forest as the workers finished their tasks and departed.
It was 2:15am before the workers were finally finished preparing the hunt. Harlem waited in their tree for another half-hour, just to make sure the coast was clear, before they moved. Curiously, none of the cats found their attention flagging during this period of inactivity... a circumstance which both Mal and Norman found disquieting when they noticed it.
At 2:45am, thankful that no other tribes were up and around at this hour of the morning, Harlem got out of their tree and went to work. Michael and Norman started to booby-trap the prizes; they made their way across the grounds systematically, digging a shallow hole above each of the buried prizes, inserting a balloon, and re-covering it. They also buried metal utensils as decoys in locations the workers had never touched, making sure to use more balloons to place traps above the decoys. As for prizes that were hidden, not buried, Mal and Mary-Anne took them and re-hid them in the tree they'd been using as a base, leaving two balloons in place of each of those prizes. They'd considered simply stealing the prizes, taking everything back to their camp, but since no one was quite sure how Sly would react to such a gambit, they decided it would suffice to merely move the good stuff to places only Harlem knew. When she wasn't moving prizes around, Mary-Anne set up box-and-stick traps for the squirrels, using acorns as bait. By the time dawn broke, six boxes contained six increasingly annoyed squirrels looking for victims. Mal continued to keep an eye on the video feed for advance warning in case anyone else came to bother them.
By 5:40am Harlem had placed six decoy traps of metal utensils and balloons; buried balloons overtop of five prizes that hadn't been trapped before; relocated 19 non-buried prizes near their central tree; and placed nine more traps under rocks and up near prizes that are hidden in the trees. At that point somebody else finally decided to interfere in Harlem's game.
Mal, still monitoring the video feeds, called the tribe together to watch as two members of Queens, Joseph and Bob, made their way into Harlem's campsite. They snuck across and grabbed the largest bundle first, and Joseph was the poor boy who unwrapped it. Mal actually laughed, oblivious to Norman's glare, as the Mutopia-impregnated paper took effect. Within a few moments Joseph ran off, triggering every trap he could find, followed by a worried and confused Bob.
"Got ya twice," Mal whispered.
It was an entertaining sight as Joseph ran around mutating; his headlong rush ended when he found a trap which put tiger traits on him. Still intoxicated by the mind-warping effects of the drawing paper, he proceeded to trigger that trap over and over again. By the time he came to his senses, he was half tiger with a good selection of traits from many other creatures and plants.
With the entertainment over, as a final touch, the piece de resistance (so to say) to the Scavenger Hunt, Harlem set up piles of acorns in strategic places to attract swarms of squirrels. As Michael said, "After all, one can never have too much mayhem, can one?"
Dawn broke to brighten the Biosphere; Mal couldn't help but yawn as took a last look around. Unfortunately, he discovered another disadvantage of feline-dom, namely, bare feet. Distracted, he failed to notice stepping into a spot left over from one of the balloons that Norman dropped and then buried to hide the coloured rubber.
The earth was still damp.
The first thing Mal noticed was a peculiar vibrant feeling in his tail. He turned his head and grasped it to look at it, just as a beam of sunlight broke through the trees to clearly delineate it.
His rat tail was no longer brown, or even rat-like. It was green and, as Mal watched, it sprouted leaves and started to grow. He even saw his fur change from orange-with-black stripes to green-with-black-stripes.
Michael heard him and came up beside him. "Is anything... oh. You poor chap."
"Poor my... This is definitely being taking care of tonight and -- don't you dare laugh!"
A few feet away, Mary-Anne stifled a giggle. This is almost as good as if I'd planned it! Never one to miss an opportunity, she was immediately beside Mal offering her hand to help, but she barely touched the cool fuzzy vine that was now Mal's tail before he turned and jumped out of her grasp.
Shit -- she almost had me that time! Mal turned to look at Mary-Anne who stood beside Michael looking hurt. "Nobody's touching this... this vine but me!" Not the best excuse but...
"Mary-Anne, he didn't mean it. He's just, well, green with envy you might say. It wasn't anything against you personally."
Mary-Anne just whispered, "Ok." You got away that time, my big black cat, but all I need is one mistake. Just one. And when you make that mistake, I'll be waiting.
"Excuse me sir, but it's almost time for the actual hunt to begin. I've placed the last of the acorns we gathered over some of the lesser prizes, as discussed. We should probably withdraw and get ready for the actual hunt."
"You're right Norman. Ok let's go - I need to get muddied up, and you three need to get ready to start digging. No sense letting the others know we've been here all night."
And so Harlem left the Scavenger Hunt area and made their way back to their camp. They had to run to make it all the way and get setup -- for Michael himself to get drenched in safe mud from the stream and cover himself with branches and leaves using vines and fishing line provided by Norman, and for the rest of the tribe to get ready and rest a bit. At 7:50 when the squirrel came to lead them to the Scavenger Hunt area they all made a big deal of waking up. Following the squirrel they arrived at the area by 8:00 and Michael snuck off and a few minutes later was hidden under a bush near the middle waiting for victims. His own camouflage rendered him almost invisible, as he looked more like a bush than a competitor.
Slowly and leisurely the rest of Harlem entered the woods as the hunt began!
Knowing the woods very well by now, albeit unfamiliar with how it looked in the daylight, the three open members of Harlem stripped the good prizes from where they'd hidden them around the central tree and made their cautious way out of the woods and back to camp with the first load of their booty. The only sound they heard was a cry of shock as somebody popped the first balloon with a shovel.
Michael remained hidden and vigilant, looking for targets, when he saw the surviving members of Utopia nearby. He took aim at Sue, but thought better of it when he saw that she was near a pile of acorns and one of Mary-Anne's stick-and-box traps. Michael made a near silent run out of the brush -- not as easy as it used to be, as he was essentially a bush himself - and the drying mud was pulling painfully on his fur! -- and tilted up the box so that the opening faced Sue and the acorns. Suddenly aware of Sue (and the acorns), the highly annoyed squirrel in the box went on the offensive, and his frantic chittering attracted a veritable swarm of his compatriots.
By the time Michael made his way to another hiding place, Sue was fleeing in terror, a 3-foot-long squirrel. Richard chased after her, eschewing clothes to let his verdant new complexion serve as surprisingly effective camouflage. Michael decided not to fire. Drat. Too difficult a shot, and after Mal's accident, I'd much prefer not to create any more puddles for us to step in. He waited until the sounds of their flight faded away and the squirrels were gone, then he crept out to gather up the items that Sue dropped for later pickup and return to Harlem's camp.
It turned out (and was confirmed through the video feeds) that Richard did return later, but was unfortunate enough to dig up a buried container marked with the PBS logo. It contained a Barney doll and Richard got its full effect, becoming a life-sized Barney clone. Throughout the rest of the day the words "I love you, you love me..." were heard echoing through the woods, as Barney offered his help to the other tribes. Meanwhile, Sue apparently kept to herself.
Unfortunately, the rest of the day was not quite so successful. Although Harlem got the biggest prize (another 40% TF restoration coupon) and fifteen other prizes, Michael's rifle claimed no more victims. The remaining tribesmen had learned caution.
By noon, silence again reigned in the ravaged woods, as the last of the Survifur participants returned to their camps to lick their wounds or (in Harlem's case especially) count their goodies.
By 1:00pm, a tired but successful Harlem were relaxing and counting their goods. The big prize was another certificate for 40% reverse transformation. The rest consisted primarily of various survival tools - matches, thin rope, preserved rations, even a propane barbecue.
Norman spoke immediately after the wealth was categorized. "Sir, I would like to go back to Manhattan now. I don't want to stay like this."
"So you don't believe your feline capabilities will be of any further use?"
"Doubtful, sir. Like other Survifur games, each challenge will likely different. It's highly unlikely that we'll be able to take advantage of night vision as we did this time."
Sighing, Michael turned to Mal. "Have you managed to get anything on the next challenge?"
"You bet," the tiger said, but he wasn't happy. " I got the entire range of options they're considering for the next challenge; trouble is, they haven't made up their minds yet, so your guess is as good as mine which option they'll go for. On the plus side, I've cracked Utopia's code. Nothing interesting, and it looks like the only tribes with active bugs are us and what's left of Utopia."
"I see. And who or what is left of Utopia, please?"
"A big-ass squirrel throwing a tantrum. Since we planted Colby and Tina, and Dick's gone missing, it's gotta be Sue."
"How very unfortunate -- for Utopia. Well then, we've got a good six hours to kill before tonight's council. Now, with our original certificate, the new certificate, and the $800 and change we have, we each have 30% free reverse TF to play with."
Norman raised his voice. "Sir, I really must ask for all of my proper share. I can think of no pressing need for me to remain like this, and it will help our food supplies and efficiency if I am restored as much as possible."
Mal nodded. "I'm with Norm. I never wanted a tail in the first place, and the damn thing's grown out another 2 inches since this morning. But I think I'll keep the eyes, ears, nose and claws."
"Mary-Anne, I already offered you my share of the first certificate; you can take my share of the whole lot, if you need it."
"Michael, I don't know what to say." You're mine, all mine! Now I can get you to help me get the rest.
Mal swallowed and then had an idea. There might yet be hope. "Mike, I think you need the reversion more than me or Miss Kitty." Bite, please bite...
"Why? I'm happy the way I am."
Bingo! "Forget happy -- the game is what matters. We want to win, right? And part of that's messing with the other tribes' heads, getting them to worry about us and what we're doing, instead of keeping their minds on their own game plan. Everybody's seen you as a lion-thing; if you show up at tribal council looking like your old self, what d' you wanna bet they'll be shitting bricks and fuming about how it should've been their tribe what got the prize? "
Perhaps... "It won't be that big an effect, surely."
"Maybe not, but every little distraction helps, and there's another reason. Okay, you've got better senses as a feline, but what's it costing you? You're not as fast as you were, and you're also on a pretty restricted diet. Like Norm said, stealth probably won't make a difference in the next challenge -- which means it has a good chance of requiring speed."
"I don't know..." That makes sense, so why am I hesitating? I worked for years to become a centaur, I loved being a centaur, so why do I not care anymore? Why am I resisting the notion now? Michael turned and looked helplessly at Mary-Anne but she was glaring at Mal.
He's mine! "But we need him like this!" Mary-Anne said. "In case we get attacked by other tribes -- his claws, stealth..."
"I'm afraid I must agree with Mal, sir. We will almost certainly need your speed in the future. As to stealth and combat effectiveness, with that rifle you will have both."
Mal knew that his next words were crucial. "Speed, Mike. We need what you've got as a centaur. We want to win -- and if we do win, just keep in mind that you can become anything you want, including what you are now. Nothing here is permanent."
For a second Mary-Anne's ears pulled against her skull and she started to hiss, but then she fought down her rage. Michael was hesitating; still, he was hers to play with, and it was his free will that she needed for now. It was a fine line... but what better way to make the others overconfident? "Michael, I know you want to stay with me, but, for the good of the tribe I think you should go back too."
Say what? Mal couldn't believe what he was hearing. No way she's giving up that easy!
"Then I'll do it. For the tribe, and for you." And why am I so nervous all of a sudden?
Too late, the pieces fell into place in Mal's mind. Shit! She's feeding him some line so he won't escape! Damn her!
"I'll stay with you as you change, Michael. I know your heart now, and your appearance doesn't matter." Not as long as I own you, it doesn't! Nice try, black cat-to-be.
Mal wanted to scream but knew that he couldn't. He couldn't even get Michael alone now; she'd completely outfoxed him, no pun intended. Fine, but why did she give in so easily for the plan to vixenate a tribe? Doesn't make sense, not unless... A chill slowly moved up Mal's spine. She wanted to get into that place. And we left her alone there for hours. Jesus Christ! If she's got the drugs I think she's got, she owned the joint after a couple of minutes alone with the manager...
Norman seemed completely oblivious. "Then let's get going, sir. We can get there now; return before dark; and have a few hours to rest and get dressed before it's time for council. I recommend you go to one of those artists again, but take one certificate to remove any unwanted things the artist does to you. With Mary-Anne accompanying you, you should be fine."
Mal wanted to glare at Norman. He can't be that clueless about what's happening... can he? Never mind; I've been outmaneuvered, so it's time to fall back and regroup. He put a very credible smile on his face. "You said it, Norm. Let's get going."
And thus after hiding and trapping their booty, Harlem made their way to the Med Centers of Manhattan and back. Norman and Mal together absorbed all 40% of the certificate they'd found in the Scavenger Hunt, plus their half of the tribe's money. Norman ended up the way he'd started, and Mal rid himself of his skeletal alterations -- the increasingly long tail, the muzzle, and the stretched-out feet. He would have had the Med Center eliminate his fur and remaining plant-traces, too, except that's where their cash and certificate were both completely used up.
The other two carried the rest of Harlem's cash and the certificate awarded them at tribal council. Michael's plan to have an artist change him back to his former, centaur, self was less successful than he'd hoped. True, his lion-body was now a horse-body and there were no lion-bits on his human parts, but the artist had also given him the head and ears of a horse. Worse, his hands were replaced by cloven hooves, whose manipulatory capacity wasn't enough to even hold his rifle, let alone pull a trigger...
Although Michael had initially wanted to smash the artist's face in with his new hooves, Mary-Anne got him calmed down enough to visit a Med Center instead. She let the centaur go ahead of her while she drugged the artist to ensure that he would vixenate himself at Furrtive Moments. At the Med Center she had herself partially restored, but didn't care for the effect. It took the rest of one of the certificates to undo the changes to Michael's face and hands, but he ended up keeping the ears. Afterwards the pair visited Furrtive Moments themselves, where Mary-Anne returned to her full vulpine glory (and, not by any chance whatsoever, made damn sure that today's new vixen lost at least 25 IQ points within an hour).
They returned to camp and divided up into two groups: Mary Anne and Michael on one side of the fire, the vixen eating another rabbit that she'd caught on the way, and Mal and the silent Norman on the other.
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