A Reach in the Dark
by Jon Sleeper


Part 2
Malibu Surf

Robert Smith sat on his son's couch in their home in Malibu, remote control in hand, flipping channels. Click. "Five hundred fifty seven channels and nothing on!" he grumbled through his sharp teeth. In a slot in the couch rested his tail. The end of it twitched idly as he went through channel after channel.

Click. "Donnybrook Farriers. For the discriminating equine." Click. "The new Warmth Plus Coldblood Envirosuit! Never worry about temperature management again! Antarctic-proven!" Click. "Worried about the upcoming hibernation season? New from Ursa Major! 'No Doze 3000'. Never miss Christmas again!" Robert shut it off and threw the remote across the room. It clattered loudly against the wall and fell to the floor. David appeared in the door a moment later. Robert had heard the thump-click of his footsteps as he'd descended the wooden stairs into the windowless TV room. David saw the remote on the floor, picked it up, then handed it back to his father. "How are you feeling, dad?" He asked for the third time that day.

Robert regarded his son with a bit of irritation. "I've told you how I feel. But the bruises have finally healed, at least." David chuckled Robert's small attempt at humor. "I guess this tail thing takes a bit of getting used to, now that I have control of my body again." He remembered knocking it against several walls. His tail was slightly more flexible than David's, but David had had twenty four years to get used to his. Twenty four years... Robert shook his head in disbelief, "I guess this wouldn't be so hard to take if I hadn't missed so much..." he said.

"Well, you're here now, Dad," Dave said as he sat down next to his father on the L-shaped couch. "Anything on TV?"

Robert turned the TV back on, only to be rewarded with an infomercial for something called the "Ruminator 5000". The overexcited goat morph on the screen said "Guaranteed to make your cud fully digestible or your money back!" Robert was very glad for his gizzard at the moment. He changed the channel, and an advert for a fight between "Mike 'Termulenator' Mannigan" and "'Bent Rack' Bucktail". Robert looked at David and smiled in his own way, "At least I know TV hasn't changed much."

"You can say that again! Heh." Dave's tone became serious. "But was there anything, anything at all?"

"It's been two weeks, son. I've been poked, prodded, and probed inside and out. I've been psychoanalyzed from teeth to tail tip. I can't say I've gotten used to what's happened, or what I did to that dingo-man. But the fact is I'm here, aren't I? And I'm not going anywhere."

David only nodded at his father's words. There was silence for a few minutes, until the doorbell rang. "Computer, who's at the door?" David said. In the corner of the TV appeared a small live video of who it was. "Ah, Jack's here. Come on, Dad. You've been down here all day. This is someone I've been wanting you to meet."

Reluctantly Robert stood up and started to follow his son, only to snag one of his foot claws on the carpet. He nearly tripped. "Damn it, I thought you said this was no-snag carpet!"

"Nothing is 100% guaranteed. I'd get tile or hardwood floors but they can get rather cold underfoot. The stairs are bad enough. C'mon, Dad." They went upstairs.

Anna had beat them to the door, and she was busy giving the mule morph a big hug. "Uncle Jack's here, Dad!" she said, releasing him.

"I noticed that," Dave replied, tail twitching. Jack and Dave carefully shook hands. "Good to see you after all these years, Jack. I bought your latest bestseller only last week. Finished it, too"

Jack grinned toothily, "Only last week?" he said with mock indignance. "I just hope I didn't go overboard with that one."

David shrugged, "Well, it may not win a Hugo or Nebula like your last one, but it's a fair effort. Besides, who will be able to tell that it's what actually happened to the Universe? Wilder theories have been proposed."

Jack looked in Robert's direction, and his expression changed. For a moment, Robert felt a tingle in his head. Jack looked at David, "It is your father, isn't it?"

"Providence has looked kindly on me," David said. "But I just wish the circumstances had been different. I had to cut my assignment short as it was. But I don't mind at all."

One of the shocks Robert had gotten was that his son worked for National Geographic. But once David had told him the truth about his origins, it seemed a boon to Robert. Yes, he had had a bit of trouble accepting it, but this version of David was still his son in any case. One that he liked better. Jack extended a three-fingered hand and Robert took it carefully (the last few times he'd scratched arms with disturbing ease). "Nice to meet you."

"Like father like son, eh?" Jack replied with that infectious grin.

Once more, Robert looked at the differences between his son and himself. The concept of Degree amazed him (Most pointedly, Robert's more expressive face, mostly human-shaped torso, and his nearly human hands). As did the Powers. What else do I have besides that cursed norm-shifting? he thought. -Me- was the reply from the raptor's mind. Jack gave him a startled look.

There was another knock on the door that brought out Coonie (in her raptor morph form) and their other child, Xavier (who was half-Changed into a platypus). "Bob and Maya are here, David. I saw them arrive through the hall window." Coonie said. David opened the door.

Robert already knew Dr. Bob. Not only from recent physical exams, but from the flashes of memory from the raptor's mind told him that he'd known him much longer. Bob was carrying a laptop computer, "I've got your test results, Robert. I'd like to give it to you as much as possible. I have some good news about your Alzheimer's Disease. But if you don't mind I'd rather tell everybody at once." Robert nodded in agreement.

They all moved to the Living Room while waiting for the others. Robert didn't know just who else would be there, but it was surely many. He sat next to David and Anna, with Xavier next to her. Bob, Jack, and Maya took the couch opposite. And they talked. Robert said little. Then there was a knock on the door, so he decided to answer it. What greeted him was yet another velociraptor morph. They stared at each other for a while, -This young one has potential,- the raptor's mind said.

Robert did not reply.

The new arrival extended his hand and once more Robert shook it carefully. "Glad to meet you, Mr. Smith. We've met before, just not like this..." he said in a young voice. "I'm Tom Boxhall. David and I have known each other for a few years."

"Just a few," David said from the room behind Robert. "Good to see you, packmate. How'd your boss take my little 'donation'?"

Tom's tail twitched in obvious happiness. "I thought it was impossible for a deer to do cartwheels without bending his antlers. I was quite wrong. He says some things will be impossible to replace, but most of the one-of-a-kind items were kept in a warehouse out of town and weren't scheduled to be brought in until a week before opening. Good thing, too." Tom came inside, and looked at the gathered people. Most pointedly, Robert, Coonie, and David. "Wow, we've got a regular raptor pack going on here, don't we?"

Robert glanced at the others. "I guess so, young packmate. Unless you can become something other than a raptor..."

In response, Tom suddenly shifted. His teeth grew blunt, like an herbivore. His overall size increased. His claws reduced to blunt nails, and his face started to change. Two nubs formed above his eyes and one on his lengthening muzzle, extending into horns. A bony frill appeared out of the back of his head. His feet and legs became elephantine. "How's this, Mr. Smith?" He said through triceratops lips.

"Not bad," Robert replied. "But your coloring is the same."

"That's the one thing I can't change. I can do all dinosaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, even some near-birds. But I can't change my coloring a smidge. Not that I care..."

Robert was understandably surprised. Once more, he welcomed in the new guest and they all sat down and talked, and talked, and talked. (Tom shifted back to raptor before he sat down.) And waited. "Son, was there somebody else we were waiting for?" Robert said.

David looked at his watch. "Come to think of it, Fox should've been here an hour ago... But then he's always been fashionably late. Come and sit down, Tom. We have much to discuss."

Anna listened in the conversation, but didn't add much. She mostly thought of the predicament that she'd gotten herself into two weeks before. It had taken two days to find another Inducer to change her back! She shuddered a bit. I never want to be that small again! She thought. Not only that, her father had told her he'd taken steps to make sure nothing like that would ever have a chance of happening again. Sure, she could see her father's point (especially when he'd clicked his foot claws against the tile floor in the kitchen), but to a girl in her late teens, freedom was more important.

At a knock on the door she nearly launched herself out of the couch. She hissed in pain as she forgot to dip her tail out of the slot, and it pulled on her fur hard. Darn it, a little lower Degree and I wouldn't have the damned thing! she thought. She looked back at her parents. "I'm fine, I'm fine." She reassured.

Looking through the peekhole she saw just who she expected. She opened the door. "Well, if it isn't the Twin Geniuses," Anna said matter-of-factly. "Hiya Ace, Turlough. Howzwa been?"

Ace smiled, showing her canine teeth for a moment. Ace, the daughter of Fox and his black panthress-morph wife Rebeca, was a feline herself. A Middie ocelot. The pattern of spots on her head could be confusing if one looked too long. But it lent her face a lot of character. She looked like she always had some trick up her sleeve, and she had a sense a humor to rival her foxmorph father. Ace grinned wider, "Well, are we being the greeter today Moneybags? Or are you just happy to see me?"

Turlough, a long-tailed weasel, smiled too. "So are you going to let us in or what?" he said. He was a Lowdee, but had a tail. He had a light coating of light brown fur all over his body, a short snout, a slightly willowy build, and clawed feet and hands. "Mom is helping Dad out of the van."

Anna looked outside and saw Fox in his wheelchair. Ever since a mysterious accident on some mission five years before, Fox hadn't been able to walk very well. Even though the doctors said that if he went though physical therapy he could walk with a cane, for one reason or another Fox refused. It was very painful for him to walk for any length of time. The injury had been life-threatening. And no Healing Power could repair the damage for some reason. Fox still had that vulpine grin on his face and he said, "Anna! So good to see you, dear girl. Your father is still waiting for me, I trust?"

"You're late as usual, Fox." Anna's dad said from the room behind her. "You probably had your pilot circle the field for an hour before you landed, knowing you." David finished with good humor in his voice.

Fox got an innocent expression on his face. "Me old friend? Now why in heaven's name would I do that? Besides, it was a bit foggy."

Fox had wheeled inside with his wife behind him. "You know, Dorothy, if you're hungry I'm sure Anna can find you something to eat," Rebeca said.

"Mom! I told you to call me 'Ace'! I'm turning eighteen next week, you know." Ace replied. "Sheesh, I'm not a kitten anymore." Ace had been Changed for about two years, in fact. "Besides, I want to hear the news like everybody else does." Ace grinned again. Her tail swished to emphasize even more.

Everybody found a place to sit, and Bob cleared his throat (it sounded more like a whinny to Anna). "First off, Robert," Bob began, "you'll be pleased to know that through all the testing we were able to determine that there is no trace of your Alzheimer's Disease. Either your doctor misdiagnosed it twenty five years ago, or perhaps velociraptors are immune. In either case, congrats." Bob grinned.

The Smiths all sighed in relief, even Tom did.. "That's... that's just great." Robert said with obvious relief. "I really don't know what else to say... thank you."

"My pleasure."

"Now, I don't mean to interrupt," Fox interrupted. "But we do have business to attend to. Mr. Smith, Anna. If you two would recite for me what happened in as much detail as you can, we can begin to dissect this incident."

Tom raised his hand. "Fox, if this is just for Anna and Robert, then why am I here?"

Fox gave everyone one of his vulpine grins. "All shall be revealed in good time, my scaled friend. Now Anna, Robert, if you would please."

It took about an hour and a half to go through the incident. Fox seemed to concentrate a lot on what David and Coonie had found when they searched the area. David said, "We had a hard time tearing ourselves away from Dad and Anna." David tailgrinned. "But what we found I don't know if I should repeat in front of the kids..."

Anna snorted and rolled her eyes. "Dad, I'm eighteen now. Besides, I'm as much involved with this thing as you are. Even moreso, really. I think I have a right to know."

David looked at Coonie, who nodded her agreement. David sighed. "Well, okay. But Xavier, go to your room please. You don't need to hear this."

Xavier knew the drill, but he got up with all the enthusiasm of a fish morph in a desert. David grinned and said, "You know those 'long lost' episodes of 'Taz-Mania you were looking for?" Xavier immediately dashed for his room.

"Bribery, dad?" Anna said, smirking.

"Works with you, doesn't it? Most of the time. But anyway, on with it." David cleared his throat, an almost growling sound. "I'm afraid that we -- Coonie, Gryf, and I -- didn't get back to the spot until at least two hours after the incident. What we found..." David swallowed his gorge. The sight hadn't been pretty. "We found that they were both dead, and had been well picked over by scavengers. And I'm not talking natural ones. I'm talking people in norm, and I sometimes smelled the odd one in morph."

Anna had to clamp her muzzle shut. "You were right, dad. I really didn't want to know that." Even Fox looked sickened. David suppressed a shudder.

Fox drummed his fingers on the right arm of his wheelchair. "Did you find anything of use in that... mess?"

Coonie replied, "Yes, quite a surprise, actually. We found a backpack full of tomato juice. It was oddly scentless, and I only caught sight of it because I was in eagle-morph form at the time." Coonie got up and went over to a desk. She took out a computer disk and handed it to Fox. "I've been waiting to give this to you for two weeks. But I couldn't reach you. We found it in one of the compartments of the backpack. Funny, I thought you'd retired from Department Null." Coonie grinned knowingly.

"Oh, I still do some work for them in a administrative capacity. But only if they ask me to. But I am sorry that you couldn't find me."

"I'm sure you knew somehow what was going on, though," Jack said.

"Quite right, my muleish friend." Fox looked at the old-style magneto-optical disk he was now holding. "David's suit couldn't break the code?"

David shook his head. "Neither could Maya's. But not for lack of trying. Whoever encrypted that data had a Power to help. And that's beyond the realm of both our suits." He shrugged. "But it's the symbol on the cover that I'm more interested in. I've never seen it before, but it does look familiar in some ways."

Fox had recognized it immediately. He'd seen it appear all too much in the past six months or so. "Tom, if you would take a look at this, please?"

Tom stood up and walked over. Fox held up the disk so he could see it clearly. There was a muffled ripping sound as Tom's sickle-claws successfully disproved the "no rip" guarantee on the carpet. The symbol was a variation on the Greek symbol for "Earth" (a circle with two lines crossing through the center at right angles). This one looked like a variation on the Nazi symbol. "That confirms it, then." Fox said. Then he looked pointedly at Maya. "When was the last time you checked our 'friend' in Wyoming?"

"June 17, like I always do every year," Maya replied confidently. "He was in there, I checked."

Fox was unconvinced.

"I did what I do every year. Reset and rescramble all the security protocols. Check to see if his consciousness is still there, which it was. I've been doing it faster since you ordered one of the guards to accompany me while doing it. I don't even get to bounce him around anymore." Maya looked offended.

But Fox was alarmed. "I never gave an order like that. You know how I feel about him. As I've told the lot of you many times, I have more reason than even David to hate him." Fox paused while he regathered his wits. "But there's only one way to be sure."

Bob sighed, and closed his laptop. "Pack your bags everyone. We're going to Wyoming."

Throughout the whole exchange Anna had been listening with interest. Her father had always confided many secrets in her, knowing that she knew how important it was not to tell anybody. Fox had gone one step further and had sent his kids to a high school that Anna very much suspected wasn't just the normal kind she'd gone to. So of course she was naturally -- but not overly -- jealous of the ocelot and the weasel. So when her father said, "Would you mind going to your room for a moment, Anna?" She was understandably surprised.

For a moment she thought her father wanted her to go pack, that she was to come along. But she knew the way her father's tail was twitching all too well. "Fine..." she said unenthusiastically. Ace looked both excited and apologetic. "Lucky," she said to Ace. Then she went to her room.

Five minutes later her mother (in her Center raccoon morph form again) opened the door. "Pack your bags, m'girl."

"What for?"

"Well, I'm sure you've figured out that you're not to come with us. But you're not alone. But since this thing might turn out to be dangerous I'm sending you, along with Xavier and your grandfather to my parents in Chicago. You might have another along, too..." Anna could make out a heated discussion going on in the next room. The voices were Ace's and Fox's.

Anna sighed. "I bet you've probably bought the tickets already."

Coonie smirked. "That's where you're wrong. David and I both think that this is something that you should do yourself." Anna just blinked a few times, disbelieving. "Take our plane and fly it yourself. It's time you put some of those four years of flight training to good use beyond flights to San Francisco and back."

"Mom... this is... I..." Flying was one of Anna's first loves. Every moment she could spare out of school was spent in the cockpit. She had an instrument flight rating, and over six hundred flight hours in her log. The last fifty had been in the family's single engine turboprop. A Pliatus PC-14. Even though the plane was a turboprop, the FAA classified it under the same area as the smaller single-engine, gas-powered Pipers and Cessnas. So she didn't need any special license. And where her father was gifted in the Martial Arts, Anna was so gifted in flying airplanes. But in previous flights she had not been allowed to fly the long distances she wanted. "Mom, what can I say?" She thought a moment. "I can say that I'll give grandpa a smooth ride."

Coonie smiled. "Well get packed, file a flight plan, and we'll get going tomorrow morning. Besides, I don't think any of us has noticed how late it's gotten." Indeed, since Fox had gotten there late it had been dark for hours. It was nearly midnight, in fact. "I'll see you in the morning." With that, Coonie quietly closed the door and left the room.

But Anna couldn't sleep. Not by a long shot. She could never sleep before a big trip. Instead, she immediately sat down at her computer and started to plan her route. There was a knock on the door a few minutes into it. "Come in," she said absently. She recognized the scent of her best friend. "Hiya Ace. You smell happier than I heard you were earlier. What's with your dad?"

"Oh, I was just little miffed that he didn't seem to think that I was ready for my first assignment. Dad's been hemming and hawing about that lately. I guess he's right, though. I'm not ready. And school's out so Turlough and I have nothing to do. I assume that plane of yours can carry us all?" There was something in Ace's tail twitch that Anna thought odd. But then, she'd never been too adept at reading feline expressions.

Anna grinned. "What do you think?"

"I think you need a co-pilot." The grin was unmistakable though.

"When did you solo?"

"Last month. I only need two more hours and I can take the test and get my license. You can show me the ropes of the larger planes."

Anna could at least tell Ace was hiding something. But then, knowing her friend as well as she did she knew that it would be impossible to pry it out of her. With one final swipe on the keys, Anna finished her flight plan and sent it off to the local FAA site. A half moment later, a confirmation came back that her plan had been registered and approved. "Well, that's it. I'd better try and get some sleep. Long day tomorrow." She smiled, excited.

Ace stretched in a sensual manner, and yawned. "Can I sleep in here? Dad forgot to get any hotel reservations. I have no idea why he sold his house..." At Anna's nod, Ace shifted to norm and curled up in a corner.

That seemed to make Anna tired all of a sudden. So she got into bed herself, curling her tail around her face.

Robert got up the next morning with a crick in his tail. It took five minutes to work it out before he could get out of bed. Two hours of sleep in a night isn't a good thing, it tended to make him cranky. Not a good thing when one has the capability to rend someone limb-from-limb! As a result he made sure he put on the claw sheaths, tossed some clothes into a suitcase, and had a nice breakfast of real beef.

He understood why David didn't want him to come along. He wasn't by any means trained to do what David did on the side from his photography. Besides, he wanted to meet Coonie's parents.

He sat in the plane in a seat that was actually quite comfortable while Ace and Anna went though the preflight check. Xavier had opted to go visit a relative in Canada instead, and had already been seen off. David and friends were already in the large Gulfstream VI private jet that was outside the same hangar.

Anna and Ace appeared in the door a few minutes later. The door was closed and latched. Robert watched with interest as she went through yet more checks. It seemed to take forever and Robert lost interest. -You humans have come up with some interesting things since my time,- the raptor said. -But does it all have to be this boring?-

Shut up, you. Just because you're there doesn't mean I have to talk to you. Just leave me alone if you don't mind. Robert thought back. Paleontologist or not, he did have his limits.

The engine finally started after what seemed like forever. Anna showing Ace a few things about the cockpit, it seemed. David's plane went first, then Anna taxied the turboprop out from its parking spot on the tarmac. Fifteen minutes later they were airborne.

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