A Reach in the Dark
by Jon Sleeper


Part 1
Don't You Dread the Waking?

While her father took yet more pictures of Ayres Rock from every possible angle, Anna decided that it was time to do some exploring. Mistake Number One. Although she knew that skunks had fairly acute senses of smell and hearing, Anna's Degree of Change was not enough so she had the full measure of acuity. But she did have one out. Her grandfather was with her.

As she sat down on a rock, zipping up her jacket a little more in the coolness of early Winter the Southern Hemisphere (she had fur, but not her winter coat), she pondered the dinosaur that her parents had always told her was her grandfather. Of course with the Change one could not tell anyway; but it wasn't his physical appearance. As far as everyone knew, Robert Smith's consciousness had been replaced by that of the dinosaur. The thought scared her, she remembered a conversation that she'd overheard about three months before between Dr. Bob and her father.

"I don't understand it, Dave!" A frustrated Dr. Bob had said. "That was the most advanced treatment that we've developed. It has an eighty five percent success rate! It's worked on at least twenty other dinomorphs! I don't understand why he doesn't just..."

Her father's voice had been faint, "Maybe he just doesn't want to come back..."

She looked into the eyes of the velociraptor standing in front of her. That was another thing. In twenty four years he'd never hurt a family member. Never. No matter what they looked like, he somehow recognized who they were. She remembered the first time she'd met him, way back when she was four years old. He'd licked her on the cheek. She smiled at the memory. For all his ferocious look, her grandpa was nothing more than a scaly puppy dog. At least that's how she'd had always thought of him... "Well, grandpa. You have the nose. Can you lead us back to father?"

Her grandpa seemed to perk up at those words, and he regarded her with an intelligent, slit-pupiled eye. He blinked, then amazingly dropped his head to the ground and started to sniff. Off he went into the bushes almost before she could follow. I knew you'd come through, grandpa. she thought. Another memory briefly flashed through her head. When she was ten years old her father had finally cut through all the red tape and had been able to bring him home. What a happy day that was...

A sudden snap of a twig stopped them short. "What?" Anna said, straining with her senses. Her tail went up the air automatically, and she pushed it back down out of reflex. When she looked to where her grandpa had been, he was gone. "Grandpa?" she said. No response. Not a rustle. "Dad?!!" she yelled into the sky. But the sky was clear. Panic nearly took hold, but she shunted it into a small meditation exercise that her father had managed to teach her. It was then she caught the scent of a dog morph of some kind... And danger. She ran, like anyone would.

Only to bump right into the dingo morph, who grinned. "Well now, looks like our job has been done for us..." he said. Anna backed off. "You're not going anywhere, missy..." his tone sent shivers up and down her spine. Then the man's eyes seemed to glow...

Suddenly, her clothes billowed around her. He must be an shift Inducer! But what the hell could he want with me?? she thought desperately as she struggled to get out of her clothing in a body a fraction of its former size. Now being on four legs didn't help any.

When she did manage to get out she was rudely picked up by her tail. That hurt! The dingo-man smiled his satisfaction. "I know someone who'd like to meet you very much, Miss Smith. Very much. Bingman! Bring the sack!" he yelled at someone.

The realization dawned on her. I'm being kidnapped! she thought with panic. A nervous mouse morph brought the sack. The look on his face said he was only obeying the dingo-man out of fear for his life. Almost like...

"Hurry it up, Bingman! Two seconds longer and you're my dinner tonight! Nature must be satisfied!"

With that last confirmation, Anna decided to do what skunks do best. She'd held back because she was not as immune to the scent as she liked to be... The dingo-man nearly dropped her, and then surprised her by just pinching his nose with his other hand, "We'll have none of that, missy. I packed tomato juice just in case." With that, he dropped her in the sack.

Robert Smith was confused, but happy. Not for the first time in the past few months he thought, This has to be the weirdest and longest dream I've ever had. But it's been enjoyable. A dream. A wonderful dream, where he was the only thing he'd ever wished to be. But it could only be a dream. The world around him was too different to be anything else.

He was always an observer in his dreams, he'd never attempted to take control. The past few months had been a bit of a disappointment; there was little chance of learning real-life velociraptor behavior in this odd world of human/animal hybrids that his mind had created. Funny that his mind had made David another raptor, though. One with hands and a voice at that. Then there was the raccoon that was his wife, apparently. A granddaughter who was now a skunk, and they had a younger son that was turning into a duck-billed platypus. His own grandson.

Details, details. There were so many details to this dream! So much realism! Every imagined sensation, from the muzzle, to the long tail, to the claws on his feet. It was just too real to be a dream! So he had doubts; about his sanity if nothing else. Then his dream-granddaughter had went and gotten herself lost...

The words of those around him were garbled a bit, as they had to filter through the raptor mind that was apparently just above his. All of his other senses were somewhat smeared, too. The raptor seemed to think of Anna (Robert thought that's what her name was, even though the interference) as a packmate of some kind. If it was one thing that he'd learned in the past few months, in the dreams-within-dreams, it was that to velociraptors the family pack was everything. To that he could relate.

A scent on the breeze. The raptor stopped in his tracks. -Prey?- was the thought from above. -Hide, watch...- A leap off into the bushes, expertly executed so to leave no traces. -Danger to packmate- The raptor's heartbeat quickened, and Robert felt his mind ride closer to the surface. Speech was suddenly recognizable. As was the awful scent that could only come from a skunk in distress. In distress? Anna! he thought. His body responded like it never had before.

The dream was suddenly less pleasant, and as far as he was concerned had gone on far too long anyway. But try as he might, he couldn't wake himself up! The tiny amount of control he did have over his body was not enough to try to punch or prick or what-have-you or do something he knew would help! There was only one thing to do. Hell if I'm going to let even a dream granddaughter get hurt! Robert thought. But then there was the control issue... He threw the command at the raptor's mind. Don't just stand there, do something!!!

Suprisingly, the response was one word: -patience.- He felt his body creep up towards the dingo-man, downwind so he could not be scented. Closer and closer until he heard a few phrases that were for the first time, understandable. The mouse-man was saying, "Wasn't s-she w-with somebody? I thought I smelled something else before we arrived. Something p-predatory..."

"Well, I didn't smell anything but some kind of lizard," was the irritated reply. "All he told us to do was nab the girl and get out. So, let's get..."

The man didn't have time to finish his thought. In an unexpected, but actually fairly exhilarating, move to Robert, the raptor had expertly gotten within two yards of the kidnappers. The bag had been handed to the mouse-man. Then the moment came. The dingo-man turned his back. The raptor leapt with a challenging scream, ripping into the back of the dingo-man with his sickle claws. Robert panicked! I didn't want you to kill them! he thought quickly, closing his mental eyes at the sight. He could do nothing about the screams.

At his shocked thought, the raptor stopped his attack. But the man was already dead. Blood-scent joined the skunk-scent faintly. For a moment Robert opened his mental eyes and saw the mess. God! You could've done it differently! he thought as his body started to eye the mouse-man, who was shivering with fright, clutching the burlap sack to his chest. He could see Anna's small form struggling within.

The raptor was taken aback for a moment by Robert's thought. -You so smart! You try it this time!- it said, in the most coherent thought Robert had ever heard from it. But he didn't have time to ponder how or why, as he was suddenly in control of his body. If he hadn't gotten used to it and the way it moved over the past few months he would've fallen over! He had the presence of mind to not show how confused he was. Tense seconds passed, and a problem presented itself.

In order to do what he wanted he had to be able to talk.

Robert almost gave up, when he remembered an odd thing he'd seen every so often. People changing between a hybrid and a fully animal form. He needed a voice, and he thought he could do it, but first the proper mood must be set. Putting one clawed foot in front of the over, once again amazed by the incredible realism of his dream. Before, all the nerve sensations were mere ghosts of what he was feeling now. An odd euphoria swelled in him. He hissed at the mouse-man, who only clasped the sack tighter and taken only one step back, fear in every movement.

Robert felt mentally for some kind of sign on how to make a shift. What he encountered was a kind of barrier. He hissed again menacingly, and as he did so pushed through the barrier. The result nearly overwhelmed him! He could feel his long tail start to shrink, his shoulders started to shift as his ribcage seemed to deflate as his stance became upright. His muzzle pulled inward, vision becoming more stereoscopic. Additional fingers appeared on his hands, along with a real thumb. Robert noticed his feet changed little, but to accommodate his changing stance. Then it stopped. His hiss hadn't stopped with the shift; now with a voice rough from non use he said in a near-growl "put my granddaughter down, or I will have your guts on the ground." He made sure he caught the bag before the mouse-man fell over, either dead or fainted.

I'm beginning to like this... Robert thought as he opened the burlap sack. It helped that his hand were nearly like a normal human's, but for the short claws on the tips. He looked at the skunk inside, "Are you okay, Anna?". The skunk, clearly shocked, only nodded. The sack stank so much it made Robert want to retch. The euphoria was starting to fade. This was his dream, why should others react like that?

Carefully he dumped Anna out. She continued to look up at him in shock. "What? You're not okay?" She nodded numbly. "Can you change back?" She shook her small head. Robert deflated in defeat. Then he had an epiphany! This was his dream, he could control it! Now that he was in control he could change others if he wanted to. But when he focused on Anna nothing happened. This dream control thing must be highly overrated. Oh well... But the thought of his granddaughter stuck that way for the rest of it, now that he could have a conversation was totally out of the question.

"David, David will know what do," he said aloud. Anna chittered positively in response. Carefully he picked Anna up and started away from the place in the direction that they'd come in. But they didn't have long to wait. Robert looked up to see a threesome of circling eagles, two of which were much larger, and had arms as well as wings, start to descend.

When they landed Anna's look of shock and disbelief was repeated a hundred fold from two of them. Then with practiced ease, one became a raccoon-woman and the other a velociraptor-man. Robert looked at his son, remembering that little trick his sometimes did. He smiled, said nothing. Then remembered, "Someone tried to kidnap Anna!" he said in a gruff voice.

David's only response was, "Dad?" as if he couldn't quite believe his eyes. The raccoon-woman (Robert thought her name was Coonie, but that might be too obvious to be her real name) took Anna from his arms. David reached out to touch him, "Dad?" he repeated.

Robert looked at himself, then at his son. "Yes, it's me. Who else?"


Robert rolled his eyes, "Son, if you don't snap out of it I'll have to slap you."

David rushed forward with speed only a raptor could muster and was almost choking Robert as he broke down into sobs, "Thank God! Thank God thank God thank..." David said with incredible joy in his tone of voice.

The whole situation was a bit embarrassing in front of a total stranger, Robert reluctantly pushed his son away, nearly crying himself. "You know I'm going to be very disappointed when I wake up from this dream," he said. "Yes, very much so."

"Dream?" David said, incredulous.

Robert pointed at the eagle-man, then the raccoon-woman he thought was David's wife. "What else could it be for God's sake? I mean, we're dinosaurs and whatnot."

"I hate to tell you this, but this is no dream..."

Robert looked at himself, then at David. He noted that his own tail was at least a foot shorter, and he didn't seem to have as long a muzzle, and had a more upright stance. He could feel his tail moving from side-to-side slightly, a sensation that was actually too real to be real. Humans were not supposed to have tails, much less saurian ones. "Not a dream? I don't believe it."

"Have you ever been able to control your dreams, Dad?"


"Well, there you have it."

Robert's doubts grew. Everything seemed too... real to not be a dream. And yet... "Well, there's one surefire way to wake myself up," he said confidently, looking at the claws on his fingertips.

"Dad, I wouldn't..."

"Nonsense! Though I will miss you when I wake up. I do wish you'd improve in your photography, after all. Frankly you're just so bad that a blind man would balk." The dream was about over, so Robert felt that he could be frank.

David only grinned, that is, his tail swished back and forth. "Okay, dad. Let me get that first aid kit, though..." His confidence momentarily shook Robert's.

Doubt grew. Was this a dream? Or was it cold, hard reality? Robert looked at his hands again, his hairless, black-and-tan scaled skin. If this was indeed reality, even in light of what had just happened a few hundred yards back, it was not a bad trade. And there as a odd lilt of maturity to his son's voice... it had to be a dream. "I'm sorry, but..." with that, Robert dug his claws into his forearm. He screamed in pain, blood flowed. "This isn't a dream!"

The raccoon-woman gestured to the eagle-man, "Help me, Gryf. I don't think he dug too deep, but..." she said hurriedly. In quick order the wound was cleaned out and bandaged. Some attention then finally turned to Anna, who was sitting on her haunches on a rock, still with a tiny bit of stink coming off of her. Robert sat down roboticly next to her, wincing a moment when he sat on his tail.

Robert just stared at his son, looking with fresh eyes at those around him. He looked down at his granddaughter, "Why can't she change back like I did?"

The coon-woman said, "Some people can't do it on their own. We'll have to find another person with an Inducer Power to change her back. What happened?"

"Just one moment..." Robert looked at hands again, and at the bandage covering his right arm. "Dear God, David. How could this have happened? We're dinosaurs! And how long have I been out, anyway? I've a bad feeling it's been a trifle more than the few month's I've experienced that other way..."

David cleared his throat, as if choking on something. "Well Dad, I'll tell you. But not here. Let's get everybody normal again first."

Normal, he says, Robert thought. Nothing will ever be normal again... But then his thoughts took an odd turn, and he grinned, noting that his tail was swishing. His tail. Well, life is just a dream anyway, isn't it? He got up and walked with his family back to the campsite.

Thomas Boxhall rolled over in bed and lick-kissed his wife on the side of her muzzle. "Good morning, sleepyhead," he said. "You taste wonderful this morning. Want me to get you breakfast in bed?"

"Fattening me up, are you?" Marsha replied with a bemused grin on her gazelle's face, matched by Tom's saurian smile.

Tom made a show of carefully feeling her slender arm, "But of course, my dear. A few more decades and you'll be just right." He couldn't remember a morning in three years of marriage when they didn't trade banter like that. It was one of the things that added spice to their relationship, ever since they'd met in graduate school. Who'd think that a morph of a common prey species and a velociraptor morph could fall in love?

Marsha blinked a couple times, and carefully sat up in bed, making sure she didn't hit anything with her spiraled horns, "Didn't you want to go to work early today?"

Tom blinked a moment, then remembered. "Zenk! I almost forgot! They're starting the movie shoot at the museum today! How could I be so dense... I'd better get going."

"I'll be there around lunchtime. I've always wanted to meet this friend of yours that you've told me about for years."

"Yeah. Too bad his acting career takes him everywhere around the world. The last I saw him was at his college graduation. Then his career almost literary took off."

"You're no slouch yourself, you know. Assistant Curator of the Boston Museum of Human History. That's a very nice job."

Tom smiled, and got out of bed. "I guess you're right. As always. I guess I'd better get going... I'll get there faster if I fly, too. See you at lunch."

"Aren't you going to get breakfast?"

"I'll get it on the fly."

Marsha smirked, "Good luck."

Tom chuckled even as the flight membranes were forming on his changing arms. His muzzle extended into a pterosaur beak. He stopped at the morph stage, then went out the front door. He secured a flight transponder around his neck, put on the flightpak that had his more important items, then spread his wings and took off.

Tom lived in Quincy, about seven miles as the crow morph flies from his new workplace. The newest museum in Boston, in fact. He'd been helping the Curator in his task of supervising getting all the displays, dioramas and activities set up preparatory to the Grand Opening which was three weeks away. Once aloft he shifted to norm shape, and angled over the water of Boston Harbor to snatch some breakfast.

Like a pelican, he skimmed over the water, and seeing a likely fish just under the surface, dipped his beak in and swallowed it whole. Exhilarated at the thrill of success, he tried three more times and was rewarded with two more fish of good size. Satisfied, he gained altitude and headed off towards Boston proper, thinking about the past sixteen years since he'd Changed. He smiled to himself.

Eleven of those years had been spent just getting out of high school, going to college, then getting his Ph.D. in European history. He'd graduated in the top ten percent of his class in High School, College, and grad school.

But in all that time, he and Zenk had drifted apart. Yes, they were still friends, but once they both went off to college and Zenk had been discovered by a Hollywood agent while starring in a local play called "Avian Antics" (a comedy that reminded Tom of "Airplane!"). From there the rest is history, Zenk was probably the best comedian since Charlie Chaplin or Jim Carrey! Tom thought of the movie that they were supposed to be shooting today. The title was "Murphy's Law", about an oblivious guy who has no clue that all his problems are caused by a Power he didn't know he had. What Tom liked about the concept was that it even starred a goshawk morph like Zenk. Goshawks weren't exactly considered clumsy so it went against the popular stereotypes.

There was a click sound, and at the speaker near his ear hole he heard, "Attention all fliers. Be advised of a smoke warning at two thousand feet. There is a fire in downtown Boston. Recommend taking an westerly course over Waltham until the smoke clears. Winds are now from the west at that height so we expect it to clear there the fastest. Have a good day." Just as the announcement ended Tom smelled the first wisps of smoke, and seeing the haze of it ahead, did angle westward. Once he cleared the haze he got a surprise. There was a familiar-looking flighted goshawk morph who was waving frantically at him about two hundred feet below.

Tom shifted to a flighted, morphic form and descended to meet Zenk. "I thought you were going to meet me at the museum!" Tom yelled. For a bird of prey morph, Zenk had a very expressive face. So expressive, in fact, that some suspected that it was some sort of Power that he could make the faces he does. But that could not be proved. The fact remained that he had a "rubber face" for being a bird morph. The result was very good comedy.

A brief look in Zenk's direction revealed, for a moment, a face with a apologetic look. But when Tom blinked that look was gone. Zenk said nothing, but instead he pointed at the landing platform of the restraunt that was on the top floor of the Hancock building. Tom nodded, and headed in that direction. He settled on the platform and had moved away he returned to his Center velociraptor morph. Zenk landed a moment later, smiling, "God, it's great to see you!" he said cheerfully.

"I'll say! Nine years! You missed your high school reunion, you know." Tom said, just as happy.

"Well, my agent was against it. And at the time... you know."

"Yeah, yeah. You and your movies. I don't blame you one bit, but some of the others were a bit put off."

"I can imagine. Do you want breakfast? I'm famished myself!" His voice seemed a little strained to Tom, and his face remained static in its expression. To Tom, that meant there was something odd going on.

"No thanks, I ate on the wing. But don't let me stop you from eating. What, they don't feed you enough on the set?" Tom punctuated the good-natured ribbing with a knuckle on Zenk's feathered shoulder. People were starting to recognize Zenk now, and there was an increase in the general murmuring of the café.

Zenk smiled. "It's not that, it's just that I'd heard a lot about this place and..."

Tom didn't hear the rest of Zenk's statement. A waitress had seated them while they were talking, and behind him Tom overheard a conversation in the booth behind his table. A duck-ish voice was saying, "Didja hear about the fire at the new museum? I heard its destroyed half the place!"

At that statement Tom stood bolt-upright, skittering his chair across the floor. He looked at Zenk, "How could you keep me away from that?" He started towards the door, changing to pteranadon morph as he did so. "How could you?" Tom repeated in a yell. He leapt off the edge of a run, nearly colliding with a starling morph in the process.

Tom barely sensed that Zenk had followed him into the air as he wheeled 180 degrees around the building. He realized that Zenk had chosen that restraunt because even though it was high, it was out of view of the museum. But now out of that area, and now over the Charles River, he easily saw the billows of steam from the fire, which was obviously being doused with water.

The air traffic was being controlled by policebirds, so Tom had to land a mile or so from the museum on the O'Brian Highway. He then shifted back to raptor and sprinted for the fire trucks. Ten of them and several people with water control Powers were busily putting it out. It looked bad.

Tom found his boss just standing there, staring. For a whitetail deer morph, he was unaware that Tom had stopped beside him for almost a minute. "Hi Tom." He said in a dazed voice. The fire seemed nearly out, though.

"What happened, Mr. Sleeper?" He didn't seem to hear, so Tom repeated.

"Arson." Was his reply. His ears went against his neck. "The bastards! Ten years of my life, gone!" He slammed a fist on the hood of his car. Tom noticed that his antlers were glowing slightly, but that increased with each slam on the hood, which hardly made an impact. He worked himself up to blue, "excuse me," he said in a cold voice. He left, vanishing in the greenery near the river.

Zenk arrived a minute or so later, he'd had to walk. Not easy with four-inch talons on one's feet. "I'm sorry, Tom. I at least hoped to keep you away until they put the fire out. I think I succeeded..."

Tom thought a moment, and decided that it wasn't worth it to hold a grudge. "That's okay. I guess that has a certain logic, to it. But God..." Tom sighed. "What am I supposed to do now?" Off in the trees, there was an angered yelling, which made Tom and Zenk turn their heads in that direction. Just in time to hear the sound of a blast of some kind, then a rather large tree fall over. "Looks like my boss is working out his frustrations." Tom said, wishing he had such an outlet.

A couple minutes later a smiling (and dirty) deer morph reappeared. "I feel much better now." he said in a satisfied tone. Looking at Zenk he said, "The investigators have already ruled out any kind of failure of any of the electronics or photonics of your film crews, Zenk. They've got an investigator with a Temporal Echo Power inside already."

"That's good to hear," Zenk replied. "But 'Temporal Echo'?"

Mr. Sleeper blinked. "Oh, that's a rare one. Every place has a 'memory' of sorts. Take your house. If someone can 'attune' themselves to the structure, they can call up everything that's ever happened inside it or just around it. Nice Power for any kind of investigation." He sighed. "Tom, I've had enough for the day. Call me right away if anything develops. I have to report this to the Massachusetts Historical Society as it is, and that's going to be a headache. Excuse me."

Tom and Zenk had to move has he got in his car and sped off for home. "What's with him?" Zenk asked, referring to the tree that had been destroyed.

"I'll put it this way. Be glad its July instead of October. The whole grove would be kindling if it was fall. Now, let's go find an official of some kind..."

They didn't have to move. A Middie German Shepherd morph in a fireman's uniform found them. "You can't be any other than Thomas Boxhall," he said with a grin. Dinomorphs were still something of a novelty, for all there were nearly 150,000 worldwide nowadays. That number had been steady for four years, so Change scientists though that was equilibrium level. Tom was handed a folded piece of paper. "This symbol was drawn by the investigator. I'm sure you recognize it."

Tom nearly ripped the sheet to shreds before he remembered how important it was. He shoved it into the dog morph's chest, ripping the guy's shirt in the process. Tom still had his flightpak on his chest, he pulled out a celphone. His call was answered immediately. "Fox Cutter here. What can I do for you, old boy?"

The museum was supposed to be dedicated to what some called the "human past." Pre-Change history. So people do not forget their origins. That humanity used to look like the children do for their entire lives. But there were some groups that did not like it. They wanted to forget anything to do with being human. They even saw their kids as being some kind of "inferior species" until their Change. Then, if they became a prey species... Tom shuddered at the memory of what he'd read.

Tom took a deep breath. "Fox, we have a problem. The Natural Order is back in business..."

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