Anna sat patiently while another female skunk morph combed the tangles out of her furry tail and headfur. "Ye canne go around getting yourself that muddy, lass!" said that skunk morph in a Irish accent.
Anna laughed. "Well, I didn't have much choice, did I, Cuanu?"
"Aye, Anna. That you didn't. Just be more careful anyway." Cuanu finished and pronounced both her headfur and tail fit for public viewing. A full day of brushing, bathing, then more brushing had finally fluffed out Anna's skunk's tail to it's full glory. Cuanu had also given Anna a lot of tips for keeping it that way.
Anna left Cuanu's tent to go find Keith. He'd promised to send one of the fliers in the group to go find a ranger station to point the searchers that were undoubtedly looking for Anna, Robert, and Ace in the right direction. She found the winged osprey morph in his tent, cleaning his talons. "Any word from your flier?" she asked, standing at the flap of the tent.
Keith looked up, startled at Anna's sudden appearance. "Uhhh... by the end of the day, I should hope," he said in an nervous tone.
The camp had seemed a bit smaller than the day before. Anna didn't like the tone of the osprey morph's voice, either. "Well, just so long as we do hear from that person soon. I want to go home." Then Anna walked out of the tent into the quiet campground. Most were out gathering food, or hunting for it. Anna's grandfather was out with one of these hunting parties. He'd seemed strangely evasive when she'd asked him why he was going.
Anna found Ace in the spare tent they'd been assigned. She was in norm form taking the proverbial "catnap". Ace opened her eyes when she heard Anna come in, and shifted to morph. "You certainly look better," she said with one of her wry grins.
Anna turned around a couple times like a fashion model on a runway. "Yes, I do, don't I?" she said in a vain-sounding voice. Then she sighed and sat down on her cot. "Do you have the feeling like you're not welcome, all of a sudden?"
"What do you mean?"
Anna gained a thoughtful expression. "Well, it's sort of like they're only giving us the barest of courtesies. I'm beginning to wonder if it was wise to allow them to see the innards of the plane after all. I mean, now that we know that you-know-who was probably involved in our unexpected plunge towards the earth, we're probably putting them in danger."
Now it was Ace's turn to look thoughtful. "Well, they did say their splinter group used to belong to the Natural Order. But they don't seem to have the Order's -- shall we say -- less endearing traits."
"Well, for one, you see herbivores and carnivores mixing. Which is nearly unheard of in the more fanatical chapters. I'm not saying that herbivores can't join, I'm saying that they have a subservient position in everything. The highest-ranked equine has to obey the lowest-ranked wombat. And that's just in what could be termed the least radical of a bunch of radicals."
Anna looked mildly disturbed, remembering her near kidnapping, and what happened to her kidnappers. "I think I know how bad it can get, Ace. You don't have to say any more."
The ocelot morph reached under the bed and found the device that'd been used to sabotage the plane. "There is something else. The Natural Order are the biggest bunch of hypocrites you'll ever see. They profess to be 'anti-technology, throw it all away', that kind of thing." She tossed the small bit of technology up in the air a few times. "Well, this little gizmo is definitely something that'd only normally be available to super-secret military organizations like the one certain relatives of ours work for. So you can see where the hypocrisy is." Her tail twitched from side to side, and she replaced the gizmo under her cot.
"These people seem a lot different from the Natural Order, though."
Ace nodded. "I think it's genuine, too. But I also have a few suspicions. But I don't want to alarm you."
Anna rolled her eyes and nodded. She knew her old friend well enough that she knew she wasn't going to get any more information out of her. "What do we do if one of your 'suspicions' comes true, though?"
Ace yawned and stretched and settled on her cot again, laying on her back, eyes closed. "Don't worry, I've got a plan," she said in a confident tone of voice.
That was a phrase that Anna had heard since they were both five years old, and more often than not, Ace's often spur of the moment plans actually worked. However, when they fell apart, there was usually no hope of salvaging the situation. But, when Ace used that tone of voice, Anna knew there was no prying out what she was planning anyway. Well, I just hope you know what you're doing, cat-girl, She thought in her friend's direction. Because I don't want to be around if you screw up. Hear me?
Anna didn't think Ace was a telepath. But with her, one never knew. Ace opened an eye and winked at her friend, then flash-shifted to norm and went back to her catnap. Anna went looking for something to eat.
The camp was set up so there was a fairly large area that served as a communal kitchen. There was an area where a series of firepits of various sizes that either had kettles, pots, or barbecue grills over them. A few of them were active, and Anna smelled beans simmering inside one large pot. Since there were so many people in the group it was basically impossible to provide food for everybody from the world around them, and not everyone could eat their species "natural" foods to begin with. So they'd brought large sacks of dry goods and other basic foodstuffs to help them along. Not to mention things that their children could eat without trouble.
However, this only really worked for the herbivores. Carnivores had to find their own food. Dried meat substitute isn't the most flavorful thing in the world, Anna's grandfather had told her. She felt lucky that her diet really didn't need to change at all. Under normal circumstances.
There were certain "snacks" set out on the tables. Anna sampled some fried fruit tarts made from the ample supply of dried fruit. They were pretty good, and filled the void until dinner (probably those beans she'd smelled) was ready.
She sat down near one of the larger pits used for the nightly bonfires and waited for the day to end.
Ace woke her out of her nap a few hours later. "Dinnertime, sleepy head. You messed up your headfur again, you know."
Anna groaned and reached up to smooth her headfur. "I really hate this stuff sometimes. Is my grandfather back yet?"
Ace nodded. "He came back with that bunch of canines and felines he'd gone off with. They were successful in that hunt of theirs. The others were giving him compliments on his hunting ability left and right."
Anna was a little bit shocked. "You're kidding? Grandfather's not exactly been conscious long."
"Apparently he has good instincts, though. They got enough meat to last several days." Anna started to get up. "Umm... I'd really suggest that you'd wait until they've washed off all the blood first. They were all rather soaked in it." Anna just shrugged. "When you have two parents that can become the best predators on the planet, you get used to a little blood. I've seen my father bring down deer. No big deal." She stood up and walked over to where the carnivores were busy cleaning themselves and butchering their meat. She saw her grandfather scrubbing himself down in a stream. "Grandfather!"
Robert looked up from his scrubbing to see his granddaughter rushing down to meet him. Most of the blood was off, now, except for certain spots where his claws met his skin, and near the base of his tail.
Until he realized for he last few hours he'd been traipsing through the woods in norm form, completely and totally naked. And the fact that he also had nothing to hide in morph form either. Nevertheless, he quickly put on a pair of underwear and shorts before Anna arrived. When she did, she hugged him very tightly. "How'd the hunt go?" she asked.
Robert was suddenly more embarrassed. "Well, we got what we went for, but I couldn't tell you how."
"What do you mean?" Anna sounded worried.
"It's not that!" he reassured, "It's just that I got very caught up in the moment, and I can't remember anything past when the pack-leader gave the signal. The next thing I knew I was gnawing on a leg. They're going to go barbecue that leg for me, now."
"I'm glad you don't like things raw."
Robert tailsmirked. "Well, granddaughter, raw is okay, I guess. But I like mine rather well done. Do you want any?"
"Sure! Skunks are omnivores! What did you catch?"
"Mule deer, I think. I got so caught up in thing that I didn't even notice."
"There's a couple of deermorphs in camp, grandpa..."
"Somebody came back ahead of time and let them know. This group is respectful enough that they realize that a carnivore needs meat. But the carnivores aren't so crass they won't tell them ahead of time. Which is what my cheetah morph hunting partner is doing right now."
Anna and her grandfather walked back to the main camp, where the final preparations were being made for that night's meal. Ace, Anna, and Robert helped out of gratitude for their saviors. What struck the three of them the most was the sense of community that the gathering seemed to have. "This is incredible, Keith," Ace said in an awed voice. "I've been to get-togethers before, but none like this!"
Keith smiled and sipped a drink from a straw. "This is what we're most proud of. We have no set hierarchy. At least, not one based on species. My second in command is a mouse morph. She's an incredible organizer, so she gets the job. In other organizations, it's purely what you look like."
Dinner was ready, and the four of them walked up to the buffet line to grab what they wanted to eat. Anna took a rather large amount of beans, while Keith took a couple of his favorite "sushi". While there was at least three fish morphs (of the freshwater kind) in the group, they didn't seem to mind. At least, not too much. Anna was again amazed.
They sat and chatted with some of the other members. Most of them seemed to be very intelligent individuals who were a bit out of place out in these woods. Their education was as mixed as their forms. Construction workers, Ph.D's in psychology, computer technicians, a taxi driver.
While Robert was talking with a deermorph, a sudden fatigue overcame him. He pleaded tiredness from his hunt, but didn't make it halfway back to the tent before he collapsed on the ground.
Anna saw her grandfather leave with a very tired look on his saurian face. He was, after all, a bit older than he seemed to think of himself and she wasn't surprised. Though she was a bit worried. Robert was pushing eighty human years old, and though Dr. Stein had said that there was no trace of his Alzheimer's Disease, doubts still remained. She was talking with Keith. "I thought you said your flier would be back by now. With rescue."
Keith seemed to look nervous for a moment. "Well, you've never flown..."
"I've had a pilot's license for two years, and have had a lot of cockpit hours. I know flying."
"Be that as it may, you've never flown with your own wings. There's a lot of air currents up there that make things a lot more difficult. So we might want to give him at least another couple days."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ace yawn tiredly. It really wasn't all that late, she reflected. Then a wave of fatigue overcame her. "I think I'll hit the sack," Anna said. "I have no idea why I'm so tired..."
Keith smiled. "You've had a rough few days. I'll take you back to your bed, if you like."
Anna smiled weakly, while Keith carefully held onto her arms. Which was a good thing, because she suddenly collapsed forward into Keith's soft chest feathers.
Robert awoke first. His head throbbed a bit, and when he opened his eyes and looked around the tent, he found Anna and Ace asleep in the cots nearby. There was somebody else in the room, though. Someone with blue-scaled hands and feet, and feathers. Robert growled. "You drugged us, didn't you? Why?"
Keith sighed. "Because quite obviously the Natural Order is out to get you."
"What would drugging us accomplish, then?"
"Listen for a moment."
Robert heard nothing but the wind through the pine needles. None of the sounds associated with a busy camp. He rolled off the cot and stood up. "Okay. Just where did everybody go?" he growled.
"That's what I'd like to know, too," Anna said suddenly. She was staring at the osprey morph. "If you didn't want us around, you could've said so."
"Look, I'm sorry. This wasn't my idea. But we've been running from the Natural Order for about two years. Ever since they got some new leadership and things got worse. Not like we weren't going to split off anyway. But we were just going to do it in our own time. Then we discovered that the Order was going to get rid of us. Not wanting to find out what that meant, most of us scattered into the wilderness." He paused and took a breath. "As for where everybody went, your guess is as good as mine."
Robert nearly spoke up and told the bird brain exactly what he thought of him, but Ace interrupted. "I was wondering when you'd do this. I was expecting it, but I didn't know you'd do it this quickly."
"Expecting it?!" Anna and Robert said in unison.
"Yes," Ace replied calmly, "we have no right to put these people in danger." She looked at Keith. Her tail swished back and forth. "So, why are you still here?"
"Well... I kinda feel responsible. And you can't find your way out of these mountains without an expert. We've been living in these mountains for a while now that I pretty much know where things are. We just hadn't moved into that particular campsite until after your crash."
"I see," Anna said in a steely voice. "So are we just left here with nothing?"
Keith shook his head. "Not at all! We left you travel supplies and backpacks. There's a ranger station about thirty miles from here. I'll fly ahead and you can hike for that." The osprey stood up and went outside. When he returned he was holding two large backpacks. "There's one made for reptile morphs for Robert, and a chest pack for myself."
"But you didn't answer my question. Why are you still here?" Ace repeated.
Keith seemed to blush under his feathers for a second when he looked at Anna. But that didn't last. "Like I said; because I'm a bit responsible for you. And I'm not about to leave you three stuck in a place you don't know very well. You could use an air scout, anyway."
Robert was very close to being angry, but when he thought about it, there was nothing to be angry about. "Well girls, we don't have all day. We'd better get a move on." Anna just stared at him. "He's right. We do need an air scout. They're out searching for us, to be sure. And he's more likely to encounter anyone then any of us."
The skunk morph sighed. "I guess you're right." She glared at Keith, still not happy. "Let's go."
When they stepped out of the tent they saw just how complete their loneliness was. There was no trace that the camp had ever been there. Not one tent stake, not even the traces of the firepits. Just the clearing that had previously been home to almost two hundred people. "How long were we out?" Ace asked.
"About two days. We have a rather powerful teleporter with us. He zapped most everyone out the first day. We've moved around often enough that we know exactly how to put things back the way they were."
The tent was packed and the gear stowed. Anna remained angry with Keith, though. While things were being made secure, and the wind was rustling through the trees like it always seemed to, she would fix the bird-man with a flinty gaze for a few moments then go back to their task. They were ready by midmorning.
Anna looked up into the clear blue sky at Keith, who was circling above on the thermals that rose from the frequent small meadows they would cross every half hour or so. After much reflection, her anger with Keith had subsided to mere frustration. What she was more concerned with was this "plan" of Ace's. There was little conversation, and the only other sound was the ever-present wind through millions of pine needles. It sounded almost like breaking waves to someone who'd always lived right next to the ocean. This was probably what had helped her regain her composure. What's done is done, I guess, she thought.
They were following a deer trail through the undergrowth when they were suddenly enveloped in shadow. The sun had dropped below the mountaintops to the west, and it would soon be dark. "We'd better make camp," Ace said. "It's going to be too dark in about an hour to see very much."
Anna gratefully unfastened the stomach straps and set the large internal frame backpack down with a clunk on the ever present small, round rocks that seemed to be such a part of the landscape. She sat down on a larger rock and picked up a small gray stone. "I'm getting really tired of you," she said to it. "So why don't you spend the rest of my life other there?" She then tossed the rock in the general direction of New York City.
"It's glacial till," came Keith's voice from behind. "A few thousand years ago this whole valley was covered in a glacier several hundred feet thick. That would certainly have been a sight to see."
"You're a geologist?" Robert asked, interested.
"It's more of a hobby, actually," Keith replied. "May I ask what you do for a living?"
"I was a paleontologist for about twenty five years before the Change..." The raptor morph almost seemed to choke on something.
"That explains your Change, I guess. And after?" Keith went on, somehow missing it.
"After is something I'd rather not talk about." Robert sighed deeply, and looked down at the rocks under his clawed feet. Ironically, embedded in one of those rocks that'd been ground off the mountainside, was part of an ammonite. A squid-like animal with a shell that looked like a ram's horn. An amazing piece of Nature's work.
"Oh. Okay," Keith said. He looked up into the sky again. "I've got a bit of time before we run out of light. I'm going to look for those searchers that are undoubtedly looking for you. I'm sure there has to be a helicopter, or at least some other fliers looking around. I'll see you in about a half hour." With that, he spread his wings and sprang back into the air.
Anna and her grandfather pitched the tent while Ace built a cooking fire. "I've always loved camping," she said as she brought back an armload of firewood.
Anna, pounding a stake into the rocky ground, missed a stroke and hit her thumb. She immediately stuck it in her mouth to dull the pain. "That's easy for you to say!"
"Didn't David ever take you camping?" Robert asked, amazed.
Anna took her finger out of her mouth. "Yeah, Grandpa. But I never got into it. I've spent to much time in the cockpit since I was twelve my feet have hardly touched the ground." She crouched down and took up the hammer again, picking up a tent stake. "I guess I'm just wishing they'd given us one of those new lightweight tents rather than this old canvas thing."
Robert tailgrinned. "I spent most -- no. All of my digs using tents like this. I remember a certain expedition to the Gobi that we awoke to having the tent nearly being blown away with Elena and I inside." He seemed to choke on something and had to turn away. "Excuse me for a moment. I'm going to go get another tent stake."
Elena Smith. Anna's grandmother, had died five years before the Change. Just how she'd died was a mystery. Her father had never volunteered the information, and she wasn't the type to ask. She finished pounding in the stakes then went in to finish the interior.
When Keith still didn't show up when the sun had finally vanished altogether, they began to get worried. "You think he's abandoned us?" Anna asked.
Ace shook her head. "I doubt it. He probably just misjudged how much time he had. And since a most birds of prey except owls are practically blind in darkness, he probably found a place to perch for the night." She looked around into the darkened woods. "Maybe I'd better stand watch for a while. We'll switch off, perhaps. If the Natural Order is after us then we shouldn't relax a moment." She looked at Anna's tired face. "Go to sleep. You too, Robert."
The raptor morph blinked. Robert had returned with an expression that clearly said he'd just gone through something rather traumatic. "I'm quite old enough to know when I'm tired, young woman. So if you don't mind, I'll stand the first watch. So go to bed." He gave the two young women a glare that brooked no opposition.
Ace and Anna hit the sack immediately.
Out of a sound sleep, Anna was awakened by the feeling of being watched. It was particularly frightening because it wasn't focused in any particular direction. Then she heard movement in the tent, and the dull tap of claws on the canvas floor. She opened her eyes to see her grandfather in silhouette above her, slit-pupil eyes seeming to glow. The sight nearly made her spray. "Don't do that, grandpa!" she said, out of breath.
"We've been surrounded," he said simply, going to wake Ace. It didn't take much, since she was obviously awake. "Though if we hurry we can get out before they tighten the noose."
Anna blinked. There was something... different about her grandfather. Though she couldn't place a finger on it yet. "How do we get away?"
"Follow me," Robert nearly growled. But instead of unzipping the flap, he went to the back of the tent and neatly slit a hole in the base. "We go out this way, come on."
Ace crawled up next to Anna. "Your grandpa seem different to you?"
"Yeah. But I don't think now's the best time to bring it up." The moon was but a sliver outside. But there was enough light so anyone who was moderately nocturnal, like Anna, could see where she was going. As the three of them crawled out of the tent, Ace shifted to norm, and Anna watched her grandfather's tail disappear into the undergrowth. I wonder what's going on with him, anyway, she thought.
"Are you coming?" her grandfather's voice from right in front of her.
She looked up to see Robert glaring at her. She'd never actually seen that particular expression on his face. It only magnified her feeling of uneasiness. "Sorry," she whispered., "I'm coming."
"Get up next to me. I want you where I can defend you if I have to."
Anna nodded, and crawled up next to him. "What's going on?"
"We've been found, but not by David. I sense an opening in their blockade. It might be a trap, but we have to take it."
This wasn't her grandfather. Or was it? "You aren't exactly him, are you?"
"It's a bit complicated to explain now. But I am Robert. I'm just what you would call his 'instincts', I guess. My other self fell asleep about a half hour ago. He needed it. Shall we go?"
People who had basically two parts to themselves weren't uncommon in a society where people are part animal. But only a relatively small number actually had the instinctual parts of themselves as a separate, sentient part of themselves. There were enough that it wasn't considered exactly rare, but there were few enough in society that they were rather stigmatized by some. One of these people wasn't Anna, fortunately. "Oh. Okay. Let's go."
She crawled next to her norm-shifted feline friend and so close to Robert that the end of his tail was nearly poking her in the eyes. They crept as slowly through the undergrowth as they could. Only to be suddenly bathed in light from some unknown source. They heard a voice from a loudspeaker. "You might as well come out! We know exactly where you are."
Ace shifted to morph. "Don't worry, I have a plan."
"And what, pray tell, is this 'plan'?" Anna hissed.
She was about to answer when there was a sudden noise of breaking branches from behind, and they were roughly grabbed by the shoulders. All except for Anna. Whoever they were forgot that it was a Bad Idea to come up behind a skunk morph, or they were never told that one of them was a skunk in the first place. Whoever was behind Anna was suddenly wishing he hadn't gotten out of bed that morning. He let out a yelp and stumbled backward in the brush. Anna took the opportunity to bolt, only to run into a rather small jackrabbit morph.
Before she could even cry out, the rabbit, who had an odd red discoloration on the back of his right hand, laughed triumphantly. It was a laugh so insane that it made Anna's fur stand up. He stopped laughing, and fixed her with a red-eyed gaze that was even more insane than the laugh. If not for the harsh light, Anna would've missed something else in that moment of stark clarity. Behind that insanity, was a person screaming for help. The jackrabbit grinned. "Well now. So we're finally face to face. Fancy meeting you here."
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