A Reach in the Dark
by Jon Sleeper

1997


Part 3
The Game's Afoot


When one sees two velociraptor morphs walking down a hallway, one might say "Hey, look at that! I wish I'd Changed into one." When one sees two velociraptor morphs striding purposefully down the same hallway, with angry looks on their faces, they might say "God, I'm glad I wasn't the one who got them mad!" That person would be right.

Add to that three equines, ears back in agitation. A red fox in a wheelchair, a raccoon with a swishing tail, and a black panthress with an equally dark look on her face, and even in the headquarters of Department Null, somewhere in the Wyoming Rockies, and the group was left very much alone.

Word spread quickly. Hallways were cleared right to the Red Clearance elevator that led down to the deepest part of the complex. Where, they thought, a definite answer awaited.

I'm getting too old for this. Maya thought. Though Bob would certainly say that she'd lost none of her vitality in all their years of marriage, there was one thing Maya could not -- would not -- stop. One of her basic beliefs that she had integrated into her Outwear suits was "Thou shalt not interfere with the natural process of aging." So she was nearly fifty years old. And though she was at the peak of fitness (as Bob would tell her) she had her own doubts.

The guards (A lowddie pirhana and a impala this year) were understandably surprised. The pirhana looked at Fox, saluted, and said, "Sir! We weren't expecting you for another two months. Sir!"

"Things have altered a bit, old boy," Fox replied nonchalantly. "Now be a good fellow and open the door."

"Sir, you know we have to have a scan of your DNA before we can let you through," the impala said. "Along with everybody else."

"Fine, fine. Let's just get through this as fast as we can, shall we?" Coonie said, impatient.

The group shuffled through the door, followed by the pirhana. Rebeca turned Fox's wheelchair around to face him. "Since when did I order you to follow me into the Red area?"

"They're umm... standard orders if Dr. Stein is around."

"Who gave the order?"

"You did."

Fox's expression hardened. "I gave no orders of the sort. But you will follow these orders. Go back to your post and stay there."

The fish-man snapped to and gave a salute. "Yes sir!" He then walked away, his moist suit-uniform making a faint squishing sound.

Maya looked at Fox. "If you didn't give that order, who did?"

"That's why I left Turlough up in Control. He's very good at weaseling his way through complex computer puzzles. My boy will come up with something, I'm sure," Fox replied with a vulpine smirk. "But now on to the question at hand..."

The group stood in front of the containment chamber, inside which floated an innocuous-looking red rubber ball. "I was just here a few weeks ago," Maya said. "I did all my normal checks. It's him."

"It's not that I don't trust you, old friend. It's just that this time I want to err on the side of caution."

Tom cleared his throat (an almost growling sound). "Fox, there is one thing that confuses me. What makes you think that he," he pointed at the ball, "is involved in this?"

"Just simple caution, Thomas," Fox replied, "there are times when it is good to make sure you cover all your bases. This is a logical place to start."

Tom nodded. "So what do we do now?"

"We open it up and I check to see if he's still in there," Maya interjected, already starting the opening process. In a very few seconds the process was complete, and she took the "ball" out of the chamber. Maya then rolled the ball around in her two-fingered hands and stared at it. Hard. "He's in there. I feel the same thing I felt last time."

David was fixing the ball with one of his "Looks" that, if he had the Power, could peel the paint off a car. "I've not seen that thing in twenty four years. I hope you've not been bouncing him around, Maya. That's pretty dangerous, you know. Considering what that guy's capable of..."

"David, you know me better than that! I never do that until I've renewed and changed the security lockouts... like I just did. Watch. It's harmless." Maya wound up for what was probably going to be the biggest superball bounce of the century...

...Until Fox knocked her forward with his wheelchair. "I would highly advise against that. Not that I don't trust you, it's just that I have a few suspicions regarding just who is responsible for the museum fire and Anna's attempted kidnapping..."

While Fox launched into his exhaustive (but very logical) explanation, David watched while Maya replaced the ball in the chamber. He paid attention to what Fox was saying, which was mostly how in the past few years the Natural Order had gotten new leadership. Leadership that knew more about and used more technology than any previous. David thought it was all very interesting, but he was more drawn towards the red ball in the chamber. It seemed to pulse and glow with an odd light.

Maya had not secured the chamber, and everybody was focused on Fox's speech. So no one noticed David reaching into the chamber, and taking hold of the ball... "David, what are you doing?" Coonie asked.

Without warning, the ball suddenly wrapped itself around David's hand, and was absorbed into his skin.

Tom watched in horror as everything seemed to start going wrong. Almost as soon as the ball vanished, David seemed not to be able to hold his form. He first let out a scream before that changed into a chirp as he shrank into the form of a meadowlark, which then changed into a roaring lion, then a bottlenose dolphin, a hawk, a whitetailed deer, and back to velociraptor again. The changes forced him onto the floor, writhing in pain. Even in his pain, David seemed to realize something. His eyes went wide, "Purge!" he rasped in a nearly-unrecognizable voice.

A black film suddenly appeared on his skin, thickening until it looked like he was wearing a wetsuit made for dinomorphs. But that didn't last long. The film seemed to slide off of him, forming itself into a the shape of a basketball next to his chest. Then David's pain seemed to ease, his eyes suddenly closed, and he slipped into unconsciousness.

Maya was instantly at his side. She put a hand on him, and started a scanning sequence. It only took a millisecond to confirm it. "DAMN IT!!!!" Maya yelled. "That wasn't him! It was a fake!"

"What?! Fake? Maya, what..." Fox began.

But Maya was more concerned by a dire voice from her suit's computer. [Warning: Subject's blood sugar level is at danger level. Cardiac arrest imminent. Begin emergency procedures?] Maya didn't even need to think about that. [Notice: This will drain your own blood sugar level twenty percent. Proceeding...]

She felt one of her fingers form into a hypodermic needle, which was inserted into David's right arm. Almost as soon as enough was transferred, David's eyes snapped open. He'd collapsed in norm form, and by the look in them David's human mind was still unconscious. His reaction was purely saurian. With lightening quickness he leapt to his feet, throwing Maya backwards. David growled menacingly at those gathered around.

Coonie reacted just as fast, shifting into a velociraptor-norm, as did Tom. They stood in front of the others in the group in a protective stance, making a series of growling and hissing noises that made up the raptor "language". But David's spurt of energy didn't last long. First his legs got all shaky, and between one blink and the next David seemed to regain himself. He shifted to morph, and promptly collapsed.

Maya repeated her performance, this time adding a sedative to put him to sleep. By that time a gurney was rolling down the hallway towards the group. Maya told the medics was David needed, he was given an IV, and the group followed. Before he left, Tom had the presence of mind to pick up David's suit. "Okay, mare. What just happened back there??" he said.

Maya sighed. "Like I said; I got complacent. How he escaped doesn't matter, all that matters is that we find him. Thanks to Fox we know where to start looking."

"What happened to David?!" Coonie, still a raptor morph, growled.

Maya sighed again, deeper. "Some how he was able to find enough surplus nanites to construct a kind of duplicate of himself. He was also able to fool the mass sensors once he fissioned off of that ball. And I think I might know just who got him out..." Maya became thoughtful.

"Maya, don't play games. That ball did something to David, too. Answer," Jack said.

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry. From what I was able to determine the ball was programmed to kill David. It would have if David had not had the presence of mind to purge his suit. As it is, those rapid changes that you saw drained his blood sugar level almost to nothing, not to mention putting his body chemistry out of whack. Outwear suits are programmed to 'die' with their owner. So with David dead our enemy would have one less suit like mine to contend with.

"What you saw me do was stabilize David's body chemistry. You know what happened after that.

"He should be fine, eventually. There wasn't enough memory in the ball's nanites to have a secondary plan of attack. So it was kind of all-or-nothing."

"Not 'nothing', old friend," Fox interjected, "We do know that he's out and about again."

"Yes, but at least now we can get started on putting him away again," Bob said, fist glowing with kinetic energy.

Fox's expression hardened. "That we can."

David was tended to in the infirmary by a very low Degree raccoon morph. Time passed as they all waited to hear word on his condition. Maya and Fox had gone in with David. Tom sat in a chair, bouncing the "ball" that was David's suit on the stark white linoleum floor. "Will you stop that, Tom?" Coonie said.

"Sorry. I hate all this waiting. I just want to be able to give this back to David so we can get on with this." Coonie nodded, nervously cleaning her claws with a brush. They waited.

Fox and the raccoon doctor appeared ten minutes later. The raccoon, Dr. Coaler, said, "David is out of danger. At least that's what Dr. Stein says. Seems that he has nothing more than a bad case of the flu.

"I just hope that's not the Martian flu we're talking about, here," he finished with a smirk.

Blank looks all around, except for Bob and Jack, who smiled.

Dr. Coaler looked embarrassed. "Sorry, I'm a bit of a 'Blind Pig' buff. One of the characters is right after my own heart. Anyway..."

Fox said, "What he means, everyone, is that David and Maya will be indisposed for this mission. Maya says this flu is caused by the invading nanites; which she will have to purge from his body. Until that happens, David will not be able to wear his suit either. Because to do so would be a repeat performance of what we just witnessed."

Tom held the ball closer. "Then what do we do with it?" he said.

Maya poked her head out of the room down the hall. "Everyone! He's awake, asking for Coonie and Tom. Nobody else." She disappeared again.

Dr. Coaler gestured for those two to follow him, which they did. They found a coughing, sneezing, panting David in bed with IV's and all kinds of sensors hooked up all over. "Hi Coonie, Tom," he said weakly.

Coonie went to David's side, and lick-kissed him on the muzzle. "I'm glad you're okay. What do you remember?"

"Not much. Just being overwhelmed, and waking up here. Maya filled me in." David looked at Tom. "Tom, I want you to do me a favor." He sneezed.

"Anything, pack-leader," Tom replied.

"Take the suit, and use it until you can give it to Anna."

Maya looked surprised. "David, you know that the drivers are specifically for raptors like you and Tom. Anna couldn't use it unless..."

"Unless someone wrote new drivers for a skunk morph," David said in a raspy voice. "Which I have been doing since she had her First Sign! I was planning to give it to her when she was twenty five anyway. I've also put in a few other 'surprises' for her, which she alone will discover. They will be critical to this mission.

"Frankly, Doc, that suit can do more than even you have imagined," David tailgrinned weakly. "Once she has it, my daughter will know what to do." David's eyeslids began to droop, and he yawned. If Tom wasn't already a raptor he might have flinched. Dr. Coaler did. "Go... find her now... she should be over the Great Plains... her plane isn't as fast as ours was..." His eyes closed a moment, and he seemed asleep. Then they opened once more. "Tom, to put it on, just say 'slam dunk'," David fell into a deep sleep with a smirk on his face.

Tom did just that.

Robert looked out the side window at the high peaks below. A two hour stop in Grand Junction to have lunch with some old friends had improved his spirits tremendously. Though the unscheduled stop had delayed their trip somewhat, he didn't care. While he was looking out the window he saw Ace get up out of the co-pilot's chair and make her way towards him. "I thought maybe you'd want to sit next to Anna for a while," she said with a tail twitch.

Robert smiled, and only after what was in effect "baring his teeth" did he remember that he didn't have to do that anymore. He already felt the tip of his own tail moving in a saurian smile. "Thanks. I think I will," he said. He slid out of the seat, marveling at it's design for a moment. It had obviously been designed for a person with a large reptilian tail. There was a notch in the side just for that purpose. And by the look of it, it was used quite a bit. It even smelled a little bit like his son.

Just one of the many simple things that said that society had adjusted to this "Change".

The copilot's seat was similarly designed. With only a little bit of difficulty he wedged himself into the seat, his tail turned to his left a bit to clear the bulkhead behind. "Hi," he said casually. "You're doing a nice job, you know." No response. "Anna?" Still nothing. He shook her shoulders a bit.

That woke her up. "What? Oh, sorry Grandpa. When I fly every bit of concentration goes into it."

"That's okay. Where are we now?"

"Somewhere over the central Rockies. We're on VFR flight rules, so I've been weaving a bit to prolong the view. I just love flying over mountains."

"'VFR,'?" Robert asked, curious.

"Sorry. 'Visual Flight Rules'. We're not under strict control of air traffic control, so I can pretty much go where I please. But take a look at this, will you?" Out of the front windows, beyond the spinning prop, was what must've been the eastern edge of the Rockies. Just passing to the right were some very high peaks that were probably only a few thousand feet below. "These are some of the lower peaks. We're just below eighteen thousand feet and I'm going to be going down to fifteen thousand. But it's nice to see some trees again. Just look at that..."

Robert did, he looked out the side window and saw the peaks just pass beyond viewing behind. Below was a large expanse of forest, and just to the east of that, just visible out the front, a smaller spine of mountains. "Thanks for the look see, Anna. I really appreciate it."

She smiled in return, briefly taking a hand off the yoke to comb an errant bit of headfur out of the way. Not succeeding, she took both hands off the yoke and took out a comb. She then nonchalantly rearranged her headfur so it would stay. "I'm still not used to this stuff. It's a lot thicker and softer than my old hair. Oh well, nothing I can do about it."

Robert looked at the yoke in alarm. "I hope you've got the autopilot on!"

Anna snorted. "Nah. I never use the thing. It detracts from the flying experience. I prefer to fly the whole way myself; I'm never bored... Whoa..." Anna's hand immediately went to the yoke. "I guess it was... Whoa!"

"What?"

"I'd thought I felt something odd from the plane a moment. Now the yoke's really hard to turn. Which is strange... it's not a fly-by-wire but it's sort of like having power steering in a car. Electrical assist..."

Just as she said the last two words, the CRT screens that showed most of the instrumentation in the plane flickered once, and went out. "Better get out of that seat Grandpa. I'm going to need... ACE! I need you to help me bring this thing in!" Then there was an ominous sound from in front of them, and the propeller suddenly started to slow down. Then both of the radios sparked themselves into inoperation. "Correction... I'm going to need your help to crash this thing!"

While her grandfather quickly got himself into the back, Anna kept a tight grip on the control yoke. Damn it! And she feels lighter than she should... I wonder if she's been leaking fuel, too... she thought. Ace made herself comfortable, grabbing the yoke and giving Anna more slack. "We're going to turn around and head for some of that forest land," she said.

"Looking for a clearing of some kind?" Ace replied, tense.

"Exactly. I think that when the electrical did whatever it did it made the engine flame out. Throw forward the blue lever next to the throttle... thank you. That'll feather the prop so we have a clearer view..." Indeed, when Ace did that the prop stopped short. "Good, now help me turn around and lose some altitude."

The next few minutes put Anna's ability as a pilot to the test. The plane was sluggish without the electrical assist. After many twists and turns, looking for someplace to land, Anna finally settled on a tiny speck of a clearing that could very well hold a pond. Not the best, but it was better than nothing. "Hold on everybody, it's going to get bumpy," she said. Ace helped her at every turn.

She dropped as much flaps as she could to slow down, then free-fell the landing gear. The trees got close enough to snap a few tops as they glided over them. Anna's breathing quickened, heart pounding in her chest. She was panting. Finally they cleared the trees. The wheels hit the rocky soil.

The left main gear immediately collapsed from a combination of hard landing and a rather large rock. If not for her straps Anna would've been thrown through the windshield. Anna had dumped as much fuel as was left, which turned out to be a very good idea. The left wing tore off during the slideout, then the right was nearly so when the plane was finally stopped by a large Aspen.

She sat, dazed, for several minutes before she realized she wasn't dead. Her eyes snapped open. "Ace? Grandpa? Are you okay?" She yelled. A bit of smoke drifted through the cockpit.

A groan from beside her told her Ace was in the same position she'd been in a few seconds before. But a scaly hand on her shoulders was much more telling that her grandpa was okay. "I'm fine," he said in a comforting tone. "Are you fine?"

"Just a bit dizzy... I swear we spun at least twice. Is Ace okay?"

She undid her straps and buckles as Robert looked at Ace, who when she looked at the large branch that had put a dent in the transparent aluminum windshield, felt very lucky. "I'm fine too. Now. Good landing, my skunky friend. We're all in one piece. Let me just put out the smoldering radios..." She reached for a fire extinguisher just under her seat and used it.

"I dumped every bit of fuel we had. Now, let's get out that emergency gear. We're far enough off course that we might be a while before we're rescued. All we have to do is pull out that emergency GPS transponder and we're as good as rescued."

Unfortunately, it wouldn't prove that easy. Whatever had shorted out the electrical system had also fused the crystals in every radio, and nearly melted the batteries. "We've been sabotaged," Ace said simply. "None of this stuff works except the life raft! And that's basically useless!"

"What's wrong with the transponder?" Anna asked, puzzled.

"There isn't one."

"What?! I checked before we left Van Nuys! It was there!"

"Well, it isn't there now. Like I said, we've been sabotaged," Ace sighed, and looked at the ground a moment. "Look, I know this is hard for you to accept, but somebody was obviously out to get us. I'll give you one guess as to who.

"So much for being 'safe in Chicago'."

"Do we at least have emergency food? No?"

"Nope. You'd better feel lucky that skunks can eat just about anything. I can hunt, and so can your grandpa. At least you picked a good spot to crash in."

Anna surveyed the area around the crumpled aircraft. They'd discovered that the fuselage had buckled where it'd impacted the large tree that had stopped their uarter-mile slide. The surrounding trees were tall enough to directly obscure the plane, though the scar made by the slideout was probably enough to give any air searchers a clue. Nobody questioned that Anna's skill -- with a bit of luck -- had saved their lives. "At least we can use the plane for shelter. We really shouldn't leave it," she looked around. "Have you seen my grandfather?"

"He walked off towards the other end of the clearing. He seemed a bit... thoughtful? I don't know how to read saurian expressions very well."

Robert sat on a large rock near where the landing gear had torn off, thinking. "What have I gotten myself into?" he said to himself. "Maybe I should have stayed in that dream state..."

-Why dream when you can experience the real thing?- His raptorial self said in his mind.

"Shut up, you. I don't need your advice!" he replied, standing up. Then a fleeting movement in the dark forest immediately made him dive behind the rock. He felt his mind start to push against the barrier that would make him norm-shift, but he stopped himself before he ruined his clothes. Looking briefly above the rock he'd dived behind he saw a herd of mountain goats. It was then he realized he was hungry... and then it hit him what he was thinking. "Damn it! I'm not an animal!" The herd ran.

-Oh, come on! Those fur-things would've been easy to take down even without other packmates, and you're hungry aren't you?-

"I'm not that hungry, damn it! Now leave me alone."

-Okay, okay. I'll go away for now. But don't expect me not to take the opportunity next time. I can still take control if I want to.- To make his point, his other self made his sickle claws jam against the rock painfully. -Next time I won't be using them on a rock.- And he was gone.

He heard Anna's voice calling. "Grandpa! Come back, we need you!"

"I'm coming!" he returned, hopping a moment on his hurting feet, before he walked back to his granddaughter and her feline friend.



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