The third part of my adult sci-fi/western novel The Wulf and the Tiger. This follows directly on from the last part. Please bear in mind it’s a first draft work in progress.
He’d discarded what he could only call his shirt – he supposed once upon a time it was a distant relation to the colour white – and wrapped it around his waist, after sawing away his bonds on a rock. They were in bad condition and it didn’t take long. The sweat dripped down his skin, as the white yolk of the purple-frayed sun rose higher in the sky. He’d forgotten to ask for directions from Sav to the town, but he wondered if she’d even have helped. Whenever he thought of her, he got this slightly sick feeling, low down in him. A kind of bristling, impatient warmth that was nothing to do with the sun. He wondered how much of this feeling was him alone, and how much belonged to this body.
Jay Wulf was going the wrong way.
He inspected for the hundredth time what he could make out of his chest and arms. He couldn’t stop – it’s not every day that the body you’ve grown up with, grown wearyingly used to seeing every day in the mirror or whenever you look down, is suddenly entirely different and novel.
Past his hands – which were solid red gloves of skin, trailing past his wrists in flames – most of his skin seemed mottled, a kind of paler Middle-Eastern thing going on for the base, then covered with the same doomy scarlet in twisted abstractions and patterns – if patterns there were.
Burn victim? He wondered. Pigmentation, port-wine birth marks? Somehow he thought not, not with the variety and wildness that these blood stains draped and dappled his skin. He resolved to find a mirror as soon as possible.
He’d hung around the dead men for a while, a task not a grisly as he’d have expected. He took money from their pockets – a handful of round red coins like poker chips. It wasn’t until later that he even thought twice about this.
The men had been a single colour, all hairy and beardy. They looked very barbarous, but he figured they could have passed for half normal Earth-people if you’d stripped them (which he hadn’t). That was until he found the second set of ears half hidden by their hair.
Now, panting under the midday sun as he leaped the land with newfound agility and vigour, he realised that was another thing he should have asked her. He should have asked her if he was human.
He heard a scrabble of pebbles from behind him, and span around. There was nobody there.
‘Show yourself!’ he said, his voice showing the kind of no-bullshit aggressiveness his previous voice had never had.
There was silence.
‘I warn you, I’ve got a gun!’ He meant this as a lie, but then realised he’d taken a gun off one of the men. The same gun that meant to take his life. It was another thing he’d done without really thinking about it, on an autopilot he had no truck relying on, not this soon after an entry into a new world of fucked up.
He pulled the gun out of his holster – another thing that had been there all along. Little fragments of Jay Wulf were revealing themselves to his attention, as though in a queue, all waiting to come into play at their intended time. The pigmentation, the strange pendant hung from his neck, the hair shaved at the sides and long at the top. The array of muscles that shone tan and red and purple in the light. The gathered weight in his loins. The holster on his belt.
And what does that tell me? It tells me I’m the kind of man who is used to carrying a gun.
He’d never shot a gun before. Hell, he’d never even handled one. But now he clutched it with undeniable familiarity, the grip comfortable in a palm that was the driest part of his body. It looked old and worn and ugly, like something belonging to a previous age of the Earth, but it was nothing he could name, short of ‘pistol’. It looked very loud and very lethal.
A tiger slunk out from a boulder. It was black with red stripes; not the red of his skin but a bold, bright scarlet that seemed like jags of red lightning over the fur of the night. The claws – even the teeth were red. It moved calmly, carefully, sweeping its tail in the dust. But its dark gaze didn’t leave his face, and its teeth were bared.
He waved the gun. ‘Get back!’
The tiger stopped, but continued to glare at him. It was crouching now, tense.
‘Don’t even -’
The tiger sprang.
He was bowled over by the full weight of the thing – are all tigers this big?! – was his thought as he fit the ground with a thud. He was surprised to find a lack of savage teeth sinking into his neck. There was hot breath on his face. He opened his eyes tentatively, to see the tiger’s glaring eyes two inches from his. Its claws were gripping him tight, but not puncturing – not yet.
His arms were pinned beneath the weight of the tiger. The gun had fallen from his hand. He couldn’t even struggle – not with those teeth so sharp and so close to his jugular.
For a few seconds there was nothing but the breath of the tiger and the thump of two hearts. He could feel the tiger’s heartbeat through his own chest, and wondered if the tiger had the same sensation.
It roared, a sound that seemed to fill the world. It lasted a long time, and that was one more time that day the newly thinking Jay Wulf would cringe and expect a gory death.
Even now a whimper wouldn’t come. Even at my own demise I’m a hard-ass, apparently. Not a man for whom whimpers come easy.
The tiger’s eyes retreated, the weight lifted. He rolled away and backed up in a crouch. He looked to the gun but the tiger growled, and then went over and sat on it. It never took its eyes from his.
Cats never had the most tell-tale of expressions, but he had never seen such a curious look to one. That it was angry, that was certain, but there was more than that, hidden behind the impassive features . . . Annoyance? Frustration? And . . . confusion? Wonder? The tiger was staring at him with wide imperious eyes as though Jay was a marvel, a profoundly irritating source of amazement, something it’d never really seen before.
Maybe it hasn’t?
Every so often it growled low in its throat, or flexed its claws, or shook its head, as though trying to dispel an illusion. But if it meant me harm, it’d have done it already.
He stood up. The big cat did too.
‘I’d like my gun back,’ he said.
The tiger shook its head slowly.
He blinked. ‘You can understand me?’
The tiger just looked at him.
‘Okay . . .’ He felt like he was slipping, talking to a tiger. Relax, you’re doing pretty good for someone completely out of their depth.
He took a few steps back. The tiger took a few steps forward.
‘Are you going to follow me?’
The tiger did not reply.
‘Well. What should I call you? Tigger? Stripes?’
The growl rose, and so did haunches.
‘Alright alright. I guess you’ll just be a tiger then.’ The tiger laid back down on the gun and put its head on its paws. It finally took its eyes off Jay and sank them to the ground.