A Reach in the Dark
by Jon Sleeper


Part 4

-I wasn't going to say 'I told you so,' but I'm afraid it's just too tempting. So...-

Don't even start with me! Robert retorted to his instincts. We're only doing this because there's no food. Now... where did you say the best place to hide was again?

-Over there, behind the second rock on the left. Smell that bit of musk? The 'goats' -- you called them -- come by here frequently. If we just keep the wind in our face we should have no problems. I just wish our odd-looking packmates were more able to help... oh well.-

Robert sighed, and crouched behind the rock in norm-shape. It was two days since the crash and he, his granddaughter, and her friend were making the best of the situation. But the fact that there was no food for him in the plane for him to eat was a bit of a problem.

A problem that when he woke up this morning, he'd found his raptorial self trying to fix. I really wish you'd told me you were going to do this. I might not have been so grumpy when I woke up and scared those mountain goats. Besides, I'm hungry enough now not to care...

Robert gratefully gave control to his other self. The past couple days a lot of conversation had taken place between his two selves. He'd watched as Ace had brought back all sorts of birds and small mammals from her own hunting expeditions. But that wasn't enough for all three of them. Robert was a strict carnivore, and he needed a lot of meat.

This meat was, at the moment, coming down off the rocks in front of him. He could smell them, and his instincts took full control. -You wanted to know how we behave, my other self. Watch and learn...- At the proper moment, he leapt...

It was over in an instant. The goat bleated in surprise as Robert fell upon what his instincts only thought of as "prey", and nothing more. The sickle-claws did the work they were designed to do. Robert closed his mental eyes, but could not block out the sensations of eating still-warm meat. But it filled the void in his crop and gizzard. -There! A job well done. Next time I'll let you do some hunting.-

You don't mean...

-No, not goats. Smaller stuff. This didn't take much energy now, but they now know we're dangerous. It won't be so easy next time.-

His instincts were kind enough to clean off all the blood before Robert opened his mental eyes. He was given control of his body again, shifted to morph, put on his clothes, and went to rejoin Ace and Anna at the crash site.

What was left of the plane was the best thing as a shelter. Most of the fuselage was intact enough to keep any water out. A storm had rolled in not too long after, turning the dusty meadow into a mud bog. Robert was covered with the mud up to his knees by the time he got back to the wreck. He hated being dirty. Those huge claws took forever to clean. He washed off a bit with some water that was kept in a large bucket for just such a purpose.

But all in all, the hunt had left him with a sense of... satisfaction? Was that it? He had to admit, there was something absolutely primal about it. Just something between predator and prey. Something... intimate.

Ace was there, next to the small fire they'd built out of what dry branches there were. She was roasting a rabbit over the open flames. Robert smelled like mud, and blood from his kill. "So you finally did it?" Ace said, more of a statement than a question.

"What choice did I have? It was either go hunt or starve. I wasn't going to impose on you to hunt for me."

"Thanks, I think. But it wouldn't have been much of a problem. There's a rather large amount of small game around here. We ocelots might be small, but we know how to hunt." She grinned slyly.

"Where's Anna?"

"Out foraging for herself. She shouldn't have any problems. Skunks can eat just about anything..."

The problem with being able to eat just about anything is that one hardly knows where to start. Of course, the fact that Anna had never been camping in her life might be part of the problem. It wasn't that she hated the outdoors, but flying had taken up all her time.

So here she was, poking at various roots and twigs. She picked up a muddy acorn and sniffed it. Ewww! That's gross! she thought, and dropped it.

So focused was she on finding some food she wasn't watching where she was stepping. She also preferred to wear shoes instead of going bare paw. She wiped her muddy fingers on her pants, grimacing at the mud that was stuck in her fur, and when she turned around promptly slipped and knocked her head on a rock.

Consciousness returned some time later. And she could tell that there was someone nearby. Check that. Someone standing over her, sniffing so closely that her headfur felt like it now had that "windblown look". And when she opened her eyes, her vision was filled by the bulbous muzzle of a rather large bull moose.

A moose that backed away as soon as Anna opened her eyes. And it was a good thing, too. Because if he (due to his velvet-covered antlers) stayed as close as he was then Anna would've sprayed herself with her own musk.

The sticky mud had basically glued her derriere to the ground by sticking to her tail. The moose backed off a little further. Then Anna saw the look in his eyes. This wasn't a mere animal. This was a person in norm. "Don't just stand there! Shift to morph and help me up!"

The moose shook his big head.

"What? Why not??"

In response, the moose let out a loud bellow. And before Anna could respond, a circling osprey morph descended upon her. "Hello down there! You seem to be a bit stuck!" he said in a smooth baritone voice.

"You noticed! And your friend's been a bit impolite by not helping me!" Anna yelled back.

He landed, flaring his wings and tail feathers to slow down. He was the flighted (six-limbed) kind of morph. "I'm really sorry about that. But there's an explanation for it. But perhaps I'll ask you this first." He cleared his throat. "What are you doing out here, anyway? There isn't a road for fifty miles! And you aren't wearing camping gear."

Found! They'd been found! Elation flooded Anna's thoughts, and she forgot the fact she was stuck in the mud. "Whoever you are, I'm so glad you found us! You see, our plane crashed and..."

"Tom, quit playing with it! I know you've not had any hair for sixteen years, but a squirrel morph??"

Tom grinned, his rodent buck teeth showing themselves. "So? I like squirrels."

"Tom, that suit is not a toy." Coonie said sternly.

"Okay, okay." Tom sent a command to the suit. "How's this?"

"You make a handsome raccoon morph. But Thomas, it's not a toy."

Tom sighed and became his raptorial self again. "Any word on Anna at all?" he said, worried.

"Air Traffic Control says they dropped off the GPS system when they got over the central Rockies. You could blame that part on a solar flare, but there isn't one. They were on VFR rules, too. And knowing Anna they took the scenic route. They could be anywhere." Coonie's tone was worried.

"Not anywhere," came a young male voice. It was Turlough, Fox's son and Ace's twin brother. "We've started to narrow down the search area. We'll leave in a couple hours. But until then, Dad has a job for the three of us."

"What's that?" Coonie asked.

"Remember that falsified order that let Chandra escape? Well, I found out who gave that order. And Dad wants us go to take care of it."

"Who gave that order?"

Fox's weasel-faced son grinned slyly and handed Tom a sheet with a name written on it. It was in a shorthand code that Fox had developed, and Tom knew how to decipher. Tom growled and handed the paper to Coonie before he ripped it to shreds. Even she, as a raccoon, managed an angry hiss. "When can we see him?" she said.

Turlough grinned even wider, making him look even more devious. "We meet him in ten minutes. Shall we go?"

As one, Coonie and Tom stood up and followed Turlough to the elevator that lead to the office area. The person they were going to see was pretty high up in more ways than one. The elevator reached the top, and the three determined people went into the person's office, where the kangaroo receptionist greeted them. "General DeClerk will see you in a moment. Please have a seat."

Brigadier General Jacob DeClerk was probably the best in the spy business... next to Fox Cutter, of course. The only reason why he wasn't in charge was because he had certain flaws in his character that made making him any more than an underling a mistake. But he was otherwise a competent administrator, and had given Department Null many years of dedicated service.

But apparently, he was a bit more ambitious then anyone previously thought. Of course, his enormous ego might've had something to do with it. Even though when they walked in, there he was, sitting on his perch-chair. He looked like Woody Woodpecker. But nobody ever called him that to his face. And lived.

He was snacking on bag full of "Cajun Katydids" when the three walked in on him. "Come, sit down," he said in his rather high voice. Near his perch was a rather large log with lots of holes in it of varying sizes. The General liked to keep his beak sharp. "What can I do for you?"

Turlough saluted and stood beside the door, acting very much like the Academy Cadet he was. "Cadet Cutter reporting for my father. Sir! It would also be my pleasure to introduce Coonie Smith and Thomas Boxhall. Sir!"

Tom was startled by Turlough's sudden change of attitude. But then he realized it must be some sort of sham. The General looked at Turlough with approval then stood up on his perch, showing at the same time he was a non-flighted type of bird morph. "At ease, Cadet. Now, leave us while we talk."

"Yes. Sir!" Then Turlough turned and left the room.

The General grinned as best he could around his pointed beak. "I do hope your husband recovers, Mrs. Smith. He has been a great asset to us over the years." There wasn't a hint of sincerity in his voice.

"Thank you, General. But we didn't come here to chat," Tom said.

The General sat back down on his perch, and tossed a few more spicy insects into his mouth. "I don't imagine you did. So, what is the problem?"

Turlough had given Tom another printout. "We're here in reference to order FC/2017/288: 'Order FC/1997/118 is hereby altered. All visitors to Compound Null Zebra are hereby required to be accompanied by Guard Number Two.'" Tom placed the sheet on the General's desk.

Avian faces are not that expressive. But for a moment a look of surprise crossed the General's face. As Tom expected. The General grabbed the sheet and examined it. "This is a falsified order! Where did you find this? I'll launch an investigation immediately!"

"Not necessary, General." Coonie reassured. "We have already found the culprit."

"You have? Why wasn't I told?" The General seemed so calm.

"You just were, sir," Tom said, "But we were wondering if you could clarify a few facts for us. For instance, the real order..."

DeClerk's beak was already moving over the touch screen. His beak was much faster than his fingers could ever be. "Ah! Here it is. The original order is more about the cleanliness of uniforms. Or lack thereof. I'm just glad I don't have to wear one other than this sash."

Tom took a moment to Glare critically at the General. "If you would check and see the dates of the two conflicting orders, I think things might become clearer."

The red-headed woodpecker looked at the two dates. "Why, one is two weeks before the other! How did you find this, anyway? I would expect it would've been deleted before the newer one took it's place."

Tom knocked on the door behind him, and Turlough came in. "Care to enlighten our fine feathered friend, Cadet Cutter?"

"Sure thing, Tom," Turlough replied, that grin on his face again. He looked at the General, his face serious. "Sir! The false order was posted when my sister and I were with my father on a camping trip. Sir!"

To Tom, the General seemed distinctly nervous. He shuffled a bit on his perch. And considering Turlough's reputation with computers, that was no surprise. His friends didn't call him the "Computer Weasel" for nothing. "And where did you find this order, Cadet Cutter?" he asked, some of that arrogant self confidence cracking a bit.

"Sir! It was buried in a previously unknown partition in the main computer's holographic memory. Sir! It was programmed to show itself to each new group of guards, placed so carefully that I nearly missed it. I would've, if someone hadn't used an old fashioned bit of HTML coding to link it to the main computer. HTML was supplanted over ten years ago. Sir!" Then his voice lost all pretense of military respect. "There is something else. The person who put it there seemed to think nobody would ever find it. So it was very plain who gave the order." He paused again, his expression becoming as hard as steel. "I have been ordered by my father to place you under arrest, sir. We have a few questions to ask." Turlough turned to knock on the door.

Tom was expecting it. But was nearly too slow to stop it. As it was, he barely stopped the tip of DeClerk's beak from skewering Turlough through the torso. But the General pulled his beak free before Tom could get a better grip. Tom Glared at the General. "You have a lot to answer for, DeClerk. And if you don't come quietly, Coonie and I will have to take steps."

No guns were allowed in the Department Null building. But then, there were some that don't need them in the first place. Tom barely avoided a pair of eye beams that that stabbed towards him, the air crackling with their power. Realizing he was a bit big to maneuver in the small office he used his own Power to change into a procompsognathus, a tiny, chicken-sized dinosaur.

Coonie had done something similar, but she'd changed into a squirrel. Worried about Turlough, Tom looked up to see him avoiding other eye blasts with lightning-quick movements that looked almost comical. Distracting the General long enough for Tom and Coonie to slip under the desk, right below where the General was perched.

Then Tom decided to use what his current species was best known for. He jumped upward and clamped his little jaws onto Declerk's scaly leg. Compys might be small, but their jaws were as strong as an alligator's. The woodpecker squawked in pain and turned his glowing gaze on Tom and Coonie, who'd clamped onto the other foot.

Tom was about to change into something larger, but there wasn't time. He braced himself for the impact of the beams. It never happened. A bright blue beam hit DeClerk in the chest, knocking him into the wall behind. Unfortunately Tom and Coonie went along for the ride, but were cushioned from the impact by the General's body itself. Tom let go and shifted back to raptor, and stared at Turlough.

Turlough was standing with his hand cocked like a gun. His pointing finger was smoking. He just stood there with that devious grin of his, and blew off the drifting smoke. "Ssssssmokin'!" he said with that sly grin.

Coonie looked at the smoking General and looked back at Turlough. "I think your father and I need to have a talk. You've seen too many 'Mask' movies."

Turlough merely continued to grin.

"What do you mean you didn't bring any technology with you," Ace nearly yelled. "Are you people crazy?"

The osprey morph, Keith Renner by name ("Ossie" to his friends), seemed unfazed. But then, it was impossible to tell. He sighed. "Look, I know it's hard for you to believe. But we're just a bunch of nature enthusiasts who want to get away from The Grind for a few weeks. This is an annual thing for a lot of us. You're just lucky that not everyone in our group is like Kenneth, the guy who found you."

"What's with him, anyway?" Anna asked.

"He's a bit more into our club's Creed. He won't come out of norm all the time we're here. It's his way of 'communing with nature'. I'd join him, but I can't norm shift."

Anna sighed. There was no help for it. But at least she'd gotten a good meal out of it. She, Keith, Ace, and a few others were standing outside the wreckage of the plane. Anna's grandfather had gone back to the new arrival's man encampment. Seemed there was a teen back there who'd gotten her First Sign during the trip. The kid wasn't becoming a common morph, and they were sure she was becoming a dinomorph. Some sort of ceratopsian.

They were waiting for another member of the camping group to complete an examination of the plane's electrical system. He was a pine marten, and small enough to get into tiny corners to look for anything overt as to why the whole electrical system had failed. He appeared in the door, in norm and with something in his mouth. He glowed slightly as he shifted back to morph. "I think I found the problem, Ossie." He said.

"You sure, Marty?" the osprey morph replied.

The marten nodded glumly. "I'm not all that familiar with aircraft electrical systems. But I know enough to be able to tell what should and shouldn't be there." He held the chip between two fingers. "I found this attached to one of the regulators. It was linked into the bus of the main computers. It's so high tech it must've cost a fortune. You were sabotaged, Miss Smith. Though I wish you'd tell us why."

Anna shrugged. "If I told you, then you'd be involved. You don't want to be involved in this. When did you say that helicopter was going to pick you back up, Mr. Renner?"

Keith smiled as best he could. "Call me 'Ossie'. And it'll be another ten days."

Marty was looking critically at the chip, he blinked once in astonishment. "Ossie, would you mind taking a look at this? Your eyes are much better than mine." Marty handed him the chip.

Keith looked at the chip as closely as he could. "That looks like a radio transceiver of some sort... Hmmm... Short range, too. I wonder..."

"Was there something, Ossie?" Ace asked.

"Well, something of this size would be overloaded by a powerful signal. So it'd have to be a short range transmitter. But we don't have any technology like that with us. The only tech we allow are canvas tents and camp stoves for our less 'devoted' members." Then he paused, deep in thought evident in the set of his wings on his back.

Ana pointed back and forth between Ossie and the other campers. "Just who are you people, anyway?"

Marty shrugged. "We're nature enthusiasts."

Keith clicked his beak. "But we're also an offshoot of the Natural Order."

"What?!" Ace and Anna said in unison.

The osprey shook his head. "No! Let me clarify! We broke away from them two years ago when they started getting too radical! We call ourselves the 'Peaceable Kingdom'. All we are is a bunch of nature lovers who take a little break from the Grind every year or so. We don't have the same predator/prey divisions. Everybody does their part. We had nothing to do with the fire in Boston last month. And we make no pretense about hating technology like they do. It's a part of our everyday lives, but it's nice to get away from it every once in a while."

Anna and Ace sighed. "That's good to hear," Ace said. "I wish we could tell you, but we don't know what's going on ourselves. But not having a cellphone or something is going to make things a bit interesting. I'm just glad you found us!"

Anna turned around to the sound of someone slogging through the mud, and found her grandfather walking towards them. A spring in his step and a happy twitch to his tail movements. "What's the verdict, Grandpa?" Anna yelled.

"Protoceratops!" he yelled back. "I dug up enough of those fossils back in Mongolia to know what they'd look like in the flesh. My nose confirmed it, too." He was now close enough that they didn't have to shout.

"What do you mean?" Anna asked, puzzled.

"My 'friend' in my head seemed to know right away, before I even had a look at her. Velociraptors and protoceratops lived at the same time, you know."

"I hope you can keep a handle on those instincts, grandpa..."

"Oh, I had a very firm talk with him. Very firm." Robert's grin was positively viscous, as if it could look any other way. "I think I got my point across."

Anna smirked. "I bet you did, Grandpa. Did you get something to eat?"

"Yes! I've not had goatburgers before. Apparently there are some hunters in that group that are better than I. Anyway, did you guys find out anything new?"

Anna filled him in.

Unnoticed by the others, small form flitted into the branches nearby. Watching those gathered around the wreckage. He had a band around his left leg, like a lot of birds do in order to track their migration movements. But this band was a bit different. He used his beak to peck at it, and it sent off a single radio ping to his masters.

Then he flew off, hoping that completing this task would finally enable him to resume his original life, and return to his wife and child.

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