A Touch of Life
by Trey McElveen

1997


"Some of the most profound events in life are the ones the least seen beforehand."

The ER was eerily quiet that day. I sat directly across from my zebra associate, Dr. Gabriel Walters, and chatted a bit. He joked a bit about the Change and I laughed, my lion tail twitching in a smile. The halls were busy however, but not with the usual stretchers and patients. Doctors and nurses paced the halls, running errands while the lull in excitement lasted. Gabe watched a high-Degree cardinal morph walk hurriedly down the hall reading a file, suddenly put the file on a desk, norm-shift, and fly down the corridor.

"That's the most excitement that we've had today," Gabe quipped, giggling to himself.

I laughed along, nodding in agreement. The day had been pretty quiet. No calls in, no calls from above, no calls to above. In fact, many doctors had gone home on their lunch break instead of eating at the cafeteria. No one wanted to stay any longer than they had too. The entire ER was at minimal staff, if one trauma victim were to pop in unexpectedly, everyone in the ER would have to help. Even the receptionist.

I looked at a calendar in intense boredom. "November 24. The day the ER died," I said offhanded. The comment must have struck Gabe as extremely funny, for he burst out laughing. I looked to him and began laughing myself. I knew the joke had been lame, but right now someone walking down the hall could tell us "shoe horn" and we would burst out laughing.

Gabe affixed his eyes on the nurse again. By this time she was approaching the corner, and she turned it with graceful expertise. "Now there's something else I don't get," Gabe said, "How in the world do we have all these Powers?"

I shrugged, "I don't know. I don't have any. Well, except for that norm-shift thing, but that's so common it doesn't really count." Gage snickered and stuck his hand out. From across the hall, and empty metal bedpan flew from its resting place into his hand. He caught it with a soft metallic clang.

"Showoff," I huffed. I knew for a few days now that Gabe had the Power to attract metal objects in much the same way a magnet does. But he can localize his Power and direct it on one object. He smiled again and repelled the steel bedpan, reversing the magnetism. He turned his hand so that the bedpan floated just above it, suspended in air. I sighed. I was a little annoyed that I didn't have any Powers, it just didn't seem fair.

Gabe noticed me and put the pan down. "I'm sorry, Jeff. I know how you feel about this."

"I feel left out," I replied. "I wish that I had some power, like telepathy or kinetic absorption."

Gabe shook his head, "Telepathy I don't know about, but I know you don't want kinetic absorption. We had a guy call in a while back. Seemed a friend tested his new found Power and had stored up all that kinetic energy. He tried to get rid of it via heat, but he ended up flash frying himself."

I blinked. "Really? What happened?"

Gabe smiled, "No need for a cremation. That's all I'll say."

I leaned back and whistled in amazement. No easy task with my lion lips, but I've gotten used to my new body in the past few months that I've had it. I underwent a physical after the Change and attempted to map out my internal structure. Everything, well, at least for me, is pretty much the same, except my lungs are a bit smaller, and my intestines are longer to help break down the increased protein intake now that I'm more of a carnivore.

I laughed, "Well, never mind about that Power. Yeesh." I sighed again, "I just wish I had something."

Gabe smiled, his ears and tail twitched in merriment. He looked at a wall clock directly above me. "11:47. Humm... About time we got to lunch."

I nodded, "Yeah, I'm starved. I'm so hungry I could eat a... whoops." I caught myself just before I said something stupid.

Gabe laughed. "Zebra?"

The lunchroom was packed to the brim. Mostly doctors and nurses, but there were some visitors in the booths along the walls. The scent of food, gaiety, and a little anxiety hung in the air. I giggled, realizing that the scant fear smell was from the herbivores being around the carnivores at lunch. Gabe and I sat with two other doctors, an OB-GYN named David Beaird and a pediatrician named Janice Howell. They were already chatting up a storm when we sat down. We introduced ourselves and began a conversation while we ate. Naturally, in time it turned to the Change. We picked up quite well here, as we were both finishing our lunches.

I told Janice, who was a high-Degree otter morph, about mine and Gabe's experience during the Change. Her face suddenly turned to an expression of surprise as I continued. I left out the part about Gabe and his problems, it hurts too much to talk about.

"You're kidding me? You had the appendix in your hand when he began internal Change?" Her face was one of the most expressive that I had seem in a while. Most people had lost some expressions after the Change. Avian and reptilian were the most affected, they hardly had any expressions at all anymore. Scent had replaced much of sight for society at this time. Janice continued inquisitively, "What did it feel like?"

I was listening in on David and Gabe's conversation while I finished up my lunch, so I didn't hear the question. They were talking about David assisting labor when the Change hit. He was a falcon morph, high-Degree like myself. He held up his scaly, taloned hand and commented on how hard the baby was to pull out with the claws growing out of his fingertips. He also commented on how lucky the mother was that her change had started from the head down, for it may have shrunk the birth canal so tigh t that it crushed the child. Gabe sat in astonished silence, taking in every word the falcon doctor said.

"Hello?" Janice asked. "You there?"

I snapped to, "Yes.. yes. I'm sorry. What was the question?"

"What did it feel like?"

"What did what feel like?"

Janice sneered, "The appendix. You haven't been listening to anything I've been saying have you?"

I nodded slightly, "Sorry. I was kinda distracted." I pointed to my ears. "These things pick up everything now. It kinda hard to discern what's what."

Janice nodded in agreement, "Yeah. I had the same troubles. I almost went out of my mind the first tantrum a patient of mine threw while I was checking up on them. The screams rang out so loud that I thought I was in pain. I heard this little voice in my head screaming RUNRUNRUN!!! and I did. Next thing I remember was waking up in the psych ward, strapped to the bed."

I shook my head in disdain, "Damn instincts. They've gotten close to overcoming me a few times. But I had a bad enough experience with Gabe during the Change, I never want that to happen again."

"Really? What happened?" Janice said, perplexed.

"Well," I began, "After the final Surge, he took one look at me and just freaked out. I remember thinking to myself that lions and zebras don't mix. He shifted into his norm and bolted out of the OR. He ran down the hall, colliding with a nurse and a crash cart. He dislocated his shoulder and broke his arm."

"Wow. Wasn't there much panic in the hall? And what happened to you?"

"Well, I didn't realize that much panic, but the scrub nurse working with us later told me that the entire floor was in disarray. And me, I held on. Just barely."

Janice sighed and shook her head. Just then my hospital beeper went off. When I'm off the ER floor, I carry it with me, just in case a call comes in or something pops up while I'm away. Unfortunately, I had neglected to turn it to the vibrator, so when it began beeping, every head in the cafeteria dove for *their* beepers. Suddenly realizing that it wasn't for them, the room laughed and resumed conversing. I pulled the beeper off my coat and looked to Gabe. His too had gone off, and a quick survey of the room showed that others from the ER were already getting up and moving for the exit. Gabe nodded and we bid our co-workers a hasty farewell. as we left the room a wide grin broke across Gabe's striped face.

"Been a while since I was on a scamper. I forgot how fun it was."

I smiled.

A small group of five of the ER doctors and nurses, Gabe and myself included, met the medics outside. The air was chilly, but not terribly so. The mobile unit had already rolled the victim out of the ambulance. The group the ER workers quickly grabbed the stretcher and rolled him inside. The two drivers, a moose and an alligator, rattled off the condition of the patient. The patient was a partially Changed teen, 15 years old. I could not tell what he was becoming at this point. He had sustaineda gunshot wound to the upper right chest, through and through. Blood pressure was low, indicating a severed vessel, and he was unresponsive. The meds gave him a saline IV drip and a sedative to calm him. The patient had slipped into unconsciousness soon after the administration of the sedative.

By now, he was wheeled into Trauma One and we were already hooking him up. I looked to the medic/moose and she nodded. "Ok, everyone. Nice and easy everyone." I said, and five of us lifted the teen from the stretcher to the table. We cut off the jeans and shirt, and I got a first good look at the boy, and the wound.

The patient was Changing to a lion, just as I was. There was a slight covering of fur on his chest and arms. His hands had shortened and were getting their claws. Other than that, he was a normal human. I felt a sharp pang in my stomach, accompanied by near rage by my instincts. The shot had struck just below the collarbone, right where the neck meets the chest. I growled lowly, so no one would hear me.

But I had been heard. "Jeff," Gabe said, with out looking up from placing the heart monitor sensors, "Keep focused. I know what you're thinking."

I shook the feeling off as best I could. I put my mind to the task at hand, "Ok, people. You know the drill. Let's intubate and get a look inside."

"I've got a pulse!" one of the nurses said. It was the same cardinal that had flown down the hall a couple of hours earlier. She immediately to gather the tools needed to go inside. Gabe and two other nurses began to halt the bleeding from the wound. I grabbed the tubing and began to find a way into the air passage. It seemed swollen shut.

"Shit! Obstruction in the neck," I shouted. The monitors and hustle had come full blown by now. Nurses were in and out, and activity was everywhere. I shouted to no one in particular, "Someone call the OR! Get Cardiology on the phone!"

Suddenly, the clot in the throat disappeared, and the heart monitor went into its long drone. "He's in fib! Paddles!" I slipped in the tube and opened the passageway just as the paddles charged.

"Clear!" Everyone took their hands off and a nurse administered the shock. There was a -beep- -beep- and then the long monotonous beep, "Again!" The paddles were administered again, and instead of the heart beating, the patient began flailing on the table. The heart monitor went nuts.

"He's seizing!" Gabe yelled. One of the nurses, a low-Degree mouse, screamed in pain. She had been holding a scalpel in her hand when the patient flung his arm up and knocked her hand into her shoulder. The scalpel had stabbed her in the chest. She collapsed to the floor, writhing in pain.

"Jesus! Get her to a curtain, something!" I yelled, trying to hold down the quaking patient. Gabe placed his hands on one arm and leg of the victim, pinning them down. I held the head solidly to the table while the cardinal nurse held down the other arm and leg. The mouse nurse was dragged out of the room.

I looked to Gabe, but he was solidly concentrating on controlling the patient. "Where the hell is everyone?" he screamed. There should have been more people in the room. There were ten of us on call.

I turned to the nurse. It was hard to make her expression out on her face, but her smell gave her away. I detected mostly sympathy and fear, but some small hint of determination was there.

I looked at the patient. Every muscle in his body trembled, his eyes were sealed shut, and I noticed that the wound had begun bleeding again. I looked to the boy's face, and suddenly his eyes flew open and met mine. They focused on me.

There was an intense pressure on my mind. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. The pressure changed to an intense throbbing pain and I clutched at my temples, still screaming silently. My whole body began shaking violently and I threw myself onto the floor. I quivered along the surface, slamming my face into the leg of the table. There was no pain. I had no feeling anywhere in my body. Couldn't move my hands from my head, and soon they too began trembling terribly, banging into my temples. I saw my feet changing slowly as I began to involuntarily shift to my norm.

I saw Gabe scream something, but heard nothing. He came to me, looked into my eyes, and then there was darkness.

I woke up in a hospital bed, staring at the ceiling. The first thing I noticed was that the ceiling was a different color than the rooms in our hospital. There were painted a beige color, ours were white. I sat up in bed, and looked around. The entire structure of the room was different. The bed faced the door, the cabinet that held the TV was gone, replaced by a stand. The walls were painted an off-white. My hospital was a strange tint of beige, much like the ceiling here. A chair, occupied by a smiling zebra morph who I recognized by my friend Gabe, was right next to the bed.

"You feeling all right? You really had me worried." he said.

I took a deep breath. I felt perfectly fine, the picture of health. I didn't hurt anywhere, I felt no pain, but I did feel now. I sighed in relief. "I feel great!" I replied.

Gabe nodded, as if he expected the answer. Suddenly , the door opened and a low-Degree red fox stepped in. He walked slowly over to the side of the bed. He was smallish, but had a what seemed to be a sort of cheerful countenance about him. He grinned, which was really odd looking at him. I suppressed a giggle.

He stuck out a hand in greeting. "Dr. Jeffery Williams, I presume?" He laughed. I nodded and giggled with him, not able to control it. "My name's Fox Cutter, Special Agent, CIA."

I was dumbstruck. "CIA? What the heck?" My instincts kicked in and I panicked for a second.

"It's ok..." Gabe said, "He's a friend."

"I know that." I said, still shaken, "I want to know where I am, that's all. Last I remember was being on the floor of the ER having a seizure of some sort. Where am I?"

Fox looked to Gabe in astonishment, then looked to me, "Are you sure that is the last thing you remember?" I nodded. Fox whistled. "Wow. Do you have any idea what day it is?"

I looked around. There was no clock or calendar to check. "No I don't."

Fox shook his head, "It's December 26. You've been in a coma for five weeks."

I blinked. "You are kidding me right?" I turned to Gabe, "He's kidding, isn't he?" Gabe shook his head no.

"You should be dead right now, Jeff. We've got a lot of explaining to do."

I almost lost it, "You're damn right! You can start by telling me what the CIA is doing here!"

"We want you to accompany us on a mission to India. Your Power could prove invaluable." Fox explained.

"My... Power? I don't... I don't have one!" I said, not believing what he said. "What is he talking about?" I said to Gabe.

"Just sit back," Gabe said, "and we'll explain everything...."

"There's a first time for everything."

I nodded, and sat back easily into my pillow. Fox smiled and sighed. "I'm sorry for all this. I'll get a few things out of the way, then I'll answer any, and I mean any questions."

I nodded. "Thanks."

"First off, your family has been notified of your whereabouts. We have their permission to bring you here and to observe your progress and your Power. Second, your bid for residency has been transferred to this facility, and is being reviewed. Off hand, I think you stand a good chance."

I smiled, "That great. Just wish I knew where here was."

"In a second." Fox said, "Lastly, a place of residence has been purchased in full and the deed is in your name. You're welcome to stay there of find another place."

I frowned as best I could, "Wait. You sound like I'm staying for while."

Fox nodded, "I hope that you would. Your Power could help a great deal here and in India."

I shook my head, "Ok. That's enough." I sat up and stood out of bed. I flinched a bit when my paws landed on the cold tile floor. Fox looked away in surprise and coughed. He pointed out that my hospital robe was not quite long enough for modesty. I looked down and shrugged. I never wore much more than my lab coat. I looked around the room and found one folded on the chair Gabe was sitting in. He stood and handed me the coat. I took off my robe and threw on the coat. I looked at the tag attached to it. It read, "Jeff Williams, General Surgeon"

"Whoa! Wait a sec!", I said in surprise. "I'm only an intern!"

"Well," Fox said, "That's one of the perks of accepting the job here. And the mission. Your residency will be granted, for starters."

I raised an eyebrow, "Oh?"

Fox nodded. "And that's for starters, remember?"

Gabe interjected, "Uh, Jeff. Let's talk about this later. I'm interested about this India thing, so let's get on that subject."

I nodded, "How long have you been here? As long as I've been in the coma?"

He shook his head no. "I just came in yesterday. But I've been here on and off. I rented a place up north of here a month ago."

I turned to Fox, "Ok. Question one: Where are we?"

Fox smiled and walked to the door. "If you'll follow me, I'll answer questions along the way."

I shrugged and looked to Gabe. He shrugged too.

"Why not?"

I nodded and buttoned up my coat.

The halls were tiled with a checkerboard black-and-white pattern. The walls were a purple, more of a mauve color. We entered an elevator, and I looked to the number on the floor indicator. It stopped and opened on the 23rd floor.

"Jesus! How big is this place?!" I said.

Fox grinned, "Big." Gabe nodded in agreement. I shook my head in amazement.

The doors opened and another hall stretched to each side. We turned left and headed down a row of windows. Inside, there were many researchers of differing species and Degrees pouring over what must have been at least twenty different biological experiments. The windows were lined with various warnings of biohazardous materials and one that specifically indicated that mutanagenic substances were being used. I saw that the researchers were wearing environment suits. I hummed to myself.

Fox stopped at the door and turned to us. He put his hands behind him and looked as though he was about to give a speech.

"Jeffery..." He started.

I waved him off, "Don't ever call me that. I hate it. It's just Jeff."

He snickered, "Fine, Jeff. Welcome to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California."

I blinked. "Excuse me? California?!"

Fox frowned and nodded, "I'm afraid so."

"Last I remember I was in Montgomery... Alabama!" I yelled. A couple of the people in the lab on my right looked up from what they were doing. I quieted down quickly. "How the hell did I get here?"

"The Institute heard of your experience in the ER in Montgomery and of your Power. We asked permission from your parents and kin if we could bring you here. All the other arrangements were made after you arrived."

"Ok," I said as calmly as I could. "What is this Power that you are going on and on about? To the best of my knowledge, I don't have one, other than norm-shift."

Fox smiled, "It's fate that a doctor would get this Power." I looked at Fox oddly.

Gabe smiled, "Jeff, you have the Power to heal to an extent the researchers here have never seen."

Fox nodded. "Well put, Gabe. It's incredible, actually."

My mouth hit the floor. "You... you... you have got to be kidding me!" I stammered. Gabe shook his head no.

Fox did as well. "I'll let Gabe explain what happened to you in the ER."

Gabe smiled. "Thanks. Jeff, the boy that the medics brought in... the gunshot wound. You remember that?"

I nodded, still slightly in shock. "I remember everything up to the point where I blacked out. Next thing was waking up in that room a few minutes ago."

Gabe continued, "That boy had the Power to basically shut down any animal's nervous system. He used the body's own electrical impulses to short out and kill the brain." I stared at Gabe, dumbfounded. "When he saw what you were doing in the ER, he used his Power as self-defense. Anyone without your Power would have died instantly. But you regenerated the killed brain cells as fast as he could destroy them. The outcome was a battle Powers and you writhing on the floor in a grand-mall seizure."

I stopped Gabe, "Wait... Wait. You're telling me that I regenerated my brain cells? That's impossible!"

Fox shook his head, "It's not anymore. Soon after you blacked out, the patient died. Over 60 percent of your brain had been cooked. You grew them back in a matter of minutes."

I stared into the windows, astounded. "But... Why have I been in a coma for the last five weeks?"

Gabe shrugged, "I don't know. It could be that your new brain cells were rewiring themselves to your body. It could be absolute exhaustion. It could be any number of things."

I shook my head, "I can't believe this. What happened to me?"

Fox shook his head. "A miracle?"

He took us on a tour of the entire facility. The 23rd floors and up (there were 30) were all research, devoted to the Change and other scientific projects. Below, the Institute, as Fox called it, was the most incredible hospital that I ever had the great fortune to walk into. Every floor was stocked with every kind of antibiotic, vaccine, and treatment imaginable. Each was prepared for any emergency, be it a heart-attack, seizure, whatever.

Fox smiled, "We run a tight ship around here. Not in the sense that the administration is overbearing, but that we should be prepared for anything at anytime."

"Ah! Must be headed by a Boy Scout!" Gabe mused. I laughed. Fox giggled slightly.

"What about an ER?" I said. I was almost anxious to get back to work.

Fox grinned, "Best in the US, paws down. We are a bit short on staff, however. So..." He smiled at me.

"I'm sure that wasn't a coincidence," I said. Fox shook his head no. "Well, I'd kill to work in a hospital like this. You've got your man."

Gabe smiled, "I hope that your were kidding with that last comment." I shook my head no and snickered. "Great," Gabe said, rolling his eyes.

"Good show!" Fox said. He entered an open elevator and Gabe and I followed. He punched the floor for the ER. "Every department has a head, and they meet weekly to discuss policy and rules and other... stuff."

I looked to Gabe, "Are you working here as well?"

He nodded, "Yes I am. General surgeon, like yourself." He pointed a finger to my nametag.

I smiled, then remembered. "Fox? What's all this about India? And why is the CIA here? And what is this mission?"

Fox turned to me, his look serious, "Good questions... I suppose the best way is to answer them all in one swoop. The CIA is here to oversee a mission to India to stop a Dr. Chandra from furthering some biological experiments on unwilling subjects."

My expression was one of shock. My tail sank between my legs. "Like what? What do you mean?"

"We're not really sure. Complete transformation for the subject, to splicing of parts of animals into the subjects. Initial reconnaissance is sketchy at best. We haven't been able to get another team in since India closed it's borders. The last team was already stationed in India. After their orders, they reported back once, but not again. They were not at the expected rendezvous point either."

"Any evidence they were there?" Gabe asked, seeming interested.

Fox shook his head, "None at all. I doubt they made it out, or if they're alive."

"Or worse," I said. "So... If I say yes, what's my part in this?"

"You'll go out with the next team and act as medic for them. No fancy stuff, just keep them healthy."

I nodded, "And Gabe?"

Gabe shook his head, "I'm not in this, Jeff. I'm too old..."

Fox frowned, "Sorry, Jeff, but to put it simply, he was not invited." Fox looked to Gabe, "And you're not too old." Gabe smiled.

"Then why is he here? And why are you telling me this in front of him?"

"Everyone here knows about Chandra, just not the mission," Fox turned to Gabe, "And I have your absolute secrecy about this, don't I?"

Gabe nodded, "You can count on me."

Fox turned to me, "Can I count on you?"

I thought for a moment. It sounded like a suicide mission, and I felt that there was more to this than he was telling me. I knew the Government would easily pay for such an undertaking, but there had to be private funding from somewhere. The Institute recieved an annual grant from the Government to the tune of $200,000. There was no way that this place could keep up the experiments and the medical supplies with that.

"Another question first, Fox." He nodded. "Where does all the money for this place come from? And I won't take fund-raisers as an answer."

Fox pressed a button on the elevator's console. The car lurched to a halt. He pulled out a small cellphone from a pocket in his shorts. He flipped it open and punched three digits into it. His face lit up when the other end picked up. "Bob! I thought you were still at the race! Glad I caught you, old boy!"

There was a slight murmur over the phone, but I couldn't pick it up even with my sensitive ears. I turned to Gabe, but he shook his head. "What? David's here? Oh yeah, the EEG and biopsy. Totally forgot about it. Well, I've got Dr. Williams and Dr. Walters here in the number 8 elevator..."

I clearly heard Bob screaming on the other end, "I told you to bring him here when he was awake!!! How long has he been up??"

Fox grimaced and took the phone from his ear, "I really wish you wouldn't get that way. It's not like you."

More muffled conversation on the line. I strained to hear, but failed. Fox continued, "That's ok, Bob. I'm excited too to tell you the truth. I'll bring them down right now. And see if you can find Jack. Oh? He's there too? He met you at the track, I see... Ok, we'll be there in a second." He looked to me and Gabe and punched the button for the tenth floor. "Well, looks like we're in luck!"

"Who were you talking to just then?" Gabe asked.

"Bob is head of biological research here at La Jolla. He's been dying to talk to you." Fox looked to me, "David's our main private donor. I'm sure you've heard of him."

I thought for a moment, "David.... Wait, David Smith? The David Smith?!" Fox nodded, "Well... yes and no. I'll let him explain that. He has a bit of a grudge against Dr. Chandra." I shrugged and took his word for it.

"Who's Jack? You mentioned him, too," Gabe added.

"Oh! Jack's in training for the upcoming mission. He's a very talented telepath and telekinetic. He'll be leaving for India on the first flight out we can get."

I nodded, and the elevator stopped. The doors opened and just outside were two people waiting for us. One was a massive (and I mean massive) horse-morph and a dino-morph. Velociraptor to be exact. I smiled. I had not seen a dino-morph before. The horse-morph extended a hand. I took it, almost timidly. This guy was impressive!

"Bob Stein," he said, "It is a great pleasure to meet you finally!"

I nodded, "Jeff Williams, and it's a pleasure to meet you as well." We shook hands, quite firmly. Bob was very, very powerful. I let go and turned to the other man next to him.

He extened a razor sharp, claw-tipped hand. I shook it with extreme trepidation. Some of that fear was my instincts warning me of the danger that this predator posed, but most of it was getting my wrist slit accidentally. "Ummm... and you are?" I managed.

I noticed a slight upturn in his reptillian grin and the furious twitching of his tail. "I'm David Smith. Good to meet you!"

I tail-smiled and noticed that it was much the same as David's. "Wow... Never thought I'd be shaking hands with you!"

He snickered a bit. "The feeling is mutual, I assure you."

Bob cocked an ear down an adjoining hall. I did too and heard what he did. There was a faint clopping of hooves on the tile floor, and it was getting progressively louder. "There's our old friend Jack, now."

At that moment, a grey mule-morph turned the corner, grinning from ear to ear. "Sorry I'm late, everyone!" he apologized, "But I had a little run-in a second ago." He rubbed his right hand as if to massage it.

"What happened?" Gabe asked.

"Oh, nothing. Just practicing..." he stopped and looked to Fox. "Is it ok it I tell them?"

"I'm sorry Jack! Completely slipped my mind!" Fox said. He pointed to Gabe and me, "Jack, this is Dr. Jeff Williams and Dr. Gabe Walters. Doctors, this is Jack DeMule." I smiled at the pun on his name.

Jack got a look of understanding, "Oh, hay! The healer! Think you could do something for me?"

I looked around, confused, "Ummm.. sure. What it it?"

Jack held his hand out to me. Under the light cover of fur, the hand was slightly swollen and turning a slight shade of purple. "I bruised it practicing my telekinesis. I was levetating a weight. Didn't quite catch it correctly, so it bent back my hand and fell to the floor. Hurt like all get out."

I took his hand and examined it, putting pressure on some of the more tender spots. Jack flincked a bit. This must have really hurt. I looked around worried, "Ummm... I'm not quite sure what to do. You see, I haven't been able to heal anyone other than myself. Heck, I was in a coma then!"

Jack looked suddenly to David, his gaze appearing lost in thought. David looked like he was thinking to himself. Suddenly, he nodded idly, and Jack piped up, "You know, that just might work."

"What? What might work?" I asked, confused again.

David walked over to me, "You can norm-shift, correct?" I nodded, "How do you visualize it in your mind?"

"I... uh, I picture a door, and I open it and walk through. That's how I do it." I replied.

"Close your eyes." David said. I complied, and imagined myself in the little room with the door. Normally it was empty, but now, in a far corner stood a large book on a pedstal. I walked over to it in my mind.

I heard, "What do you see?" from nowhere. It was David's voice.

"There's a book here. It... didn't used to be..."

"Open it."

I did.

I felt a sudden warmth rush over my hands. I flew my eyelids open and looked at them. There was a strange green aura floating around them. It illuminated them brightly, so brightly that my white lab coat glowed green from the light. I extracted my claws, and found that they too, were glowing the same green luminescense.

I was at a loss for words. I managed a "Wow." Jack offered his hand to me and I took it in both hands, clasping it much as a priest would hold a distressed church-goer's hand.

The feeling I had was almost indescribeable. I could feel the blood coursing through the vessels in Jacks hand. I felt a strong electric tingle spread up through my hands and wrists and all the way up my arms. I felt the swelling subside and saw the purple tint to his knuckles fade to their original color.

I let go of Jack's hand and saw that it bore no evidence of any injuries. Ever. There was not a scar or mark left on it, the swelling was gone, even the early bruise was gone. Jack brought it up to his face, staring wide-eyed at the change.

"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it." he said, smiling that wdie grin that I was getting used to seeing. Bob, David, Gabe and Fox looked on in silent wonder.

I felt much the same was as everyone else. I looked to my own hands in astonishment. I couldn't believe what I had just done. Years of medical practice and learning, and now I didn't need them anymore, at least for myself. Or did I? An idea flashed into my mind. It was risky, but I had to know.

Jack gripped my shoulder, "Are you sure you want to try that?" I had forgotten that he could read minds. "What if it doesn't work?"

I nodded, "I want to know. But not if it will work on me, but on others as well."

Gabe stepped forward, "Jeff, what are you two talking about? Don't do anything rash, please." He was genuinely concerned, even by his smell.

I nodded, and now everyone was looking at me. "I want to try something," I said, letting my claws coming all the way out of their sheaths. I put my hand on to my arm, letting the claws sink into the fur and rest on my skin.

Fox bolted forward, "Whoa! Whoa! Hold on there, chap! Don't be slicing yourself up!"

"I'm not. Watch." With that, I put pressure on my arm and felt my claws sink into the flesh. There was no pain, and I didn't see any blood come from the pricks. I suddenly felt very confident in myself. Violently, I ripped my paw across the rest of my arm, dragging my claws through my arm.

Gabe screamed, "Jesus Christ! What in the hell prompted you to do that?!"

Bob and David stepped forward to get a better look. I combed through my arm's fur with my still glowing paws and found that I hadn't even left a scratch. Not even the slightest scrape.

Bob's eyes were wide in amazement, "What did it feel like?"

"I didn't feel a damn thing. No pain, nothing." I said.

"I don't believe it. I just don't believe it." David added.

Fox grinned and walked up to me, "I knew you had it in you, ol' boy! Now, you decided about coming along to India?"

I nodded, "Yes sir. Glad to be aboard." And as I shook his hand, I realised that my paws were still glowing. I closed my eyes and shut the mental book in my mind, noticing the title for the first time.

"A Touch of Life".

"There's no place like home.... There's no place like home..."

As Fox and I shook on our deal, Bob spoke up behind me. "As much as I would like to stay here and talk, David, Jack and I have an appointment. We'll see you all later!"

I turned and waved to the trio as they walked down the hall. "Bob! Wait a second!"

He stopped and turned, "What is it?"

"Umm... Do you want me to go down to the ER today or should I go do... whatever?"

"Go on home for today, Jeff. Get settled in and have a look around your neighborhood."

I nodded, tail wagging in a smile, "Will do! See ya tomorrow?"

"Sure thing!" Bob said.

David waved to me, "It was nice to meet you!"

Jack waved his healed hand to me, and said in a voice not unlike a bray, "Thanks a lot, Jeff! Remind me to visit you before my next-checkup!" He started laughing, and that really sounded like a mule's bray!

I laughed, mostly at Jack's voice, "Cheater!" Gabe and Fox laughed too. Just then I realized something. My new house had better be within walking distance, because I didn't know if my car was here or not. I got a worried expression on my face, and Fox noticed it.

"What's wrong, ol' boy?"

"How far is my house from here? I don't have a car."

Fox grinned, "Remember those perks I told you about? Well, that's one of them."

"A new car? How much did David donate? A million? Two?"

"Right around that, yes." Fox said. I shook my head in disbelief. All this just for me. And in my memory, not more than eight hours ago I was just an ordinary doctor in an ordinary hospital in the Southeast U.S. It was staggering.

I regained my composure and turned to Gabe, "Looks like I've got a free day today, pal. Wanna join me?"

Gabe smiled. "I would be delighted!" he said, giving a bow.

I giggled, "Great!" I looked around myself, and realized that I had no idea where I was in the Institute. "Now... How the heck do we get out of here?"

Fox laughed and pointed to the elevator. "We'll exit out the lobby. I'll have the valet bring your car to the front."

As I entered the elevator with Gabe and Fox, I could only think of one thing. "What the heck is a hospital doing with a valet?"

The lobby was expansive, and that was an understatement. The celing went up about eleven stories and opened up into a glass skylight. I noticed by the tracks on the glass that the skylight was retractable and could be opened on a warm day. The sun shone brightly throught the glass, and I knew it was day. That was kind of comforting, I still had time to settle in and have a little fun.

The furniture in the lobby was the same purple color as the walls. Abstract paintings hung on the walls, and each one had it's own personal lamp hanging from the top of it. The couches were in a floral pattern, mostly yellow and blue blooms against the purple background. We stepped out of the elevator. I saw the welcome desk and the receptionist sitting there turned around and smiled. She was avian, and even though I knew very little about species of birds, I recognized her as a secretary bird. It's hard to forget a name like that.

"Hello Mr. Cutter! Leaving so soon?" the secretary bird said, in a low voice. It almost didn't seem feminine.

Fox acknowledged with a nod. "Yes ma'am! We need to get Jeff's car. Know where the valet is?"

She turned and punched a few keys into the computer console on her desk. The screen flashed a couple of times and then showed a top-down view of one of the floors. A dialoge box popped up just then, indicating the first floor. A small red blip on the screen began moving down one of the halls.

"Oh! You're in luck, Mr. Cutter! Seems that the valet is coming here right now. He'll be here in a couple of seconds." the secretary announced.

I leaned to Fox and whispered in his ear, "How can she pinpoint where he is?"

Fox reached into his pocket and pulled out a small beeper. "Everyone that works here is issued a beeper. It contains a small tracking device that the computer systems can tap into and detect where you are, in the hospital. If you leave the hospital, it becomes a normal beeper." Gabe pulled an identical beeper out of his lab coat's pocket. I patted my pockets and found a small lump in the lower left one. I reached in and retrieved it. It was a beeper, just like Fox and Gabe's.

"It's usually used to find where a doctor or nurse is in the event of an emergency. Personally, I almost feel violated by having to carry it around, but I've found that it really does come in handy." Fox added.

"Hmmm.... What if you leave it behind?"

"Then they call you over the intercom to retrieve it. And that's embarrassing." Gabe said with a chuckle. Fox tucked his tail and blushed.

Just then, a door to the left opened and a cheetah-morph walked through. He wore the stereotypical valet's suit: small vest, cylindrical hat, and funky pants. He stopped and turned towards us. "Mr. Cutter! I got your beep. Need your car?"

Fox shook his head, "No. I need Car 54. Thanks." The valet thought for a second, then twitched his tail and smiled. He walked out the front door (which was automatic).

I giggled, "Car 54? Is that some kind of code name?"

"Nope," Fox said, "Coincidence. Also, I'm not to confident having the fastest mammal on land as a valet." We followed him past the receptionist, who gave us a wave goodbye, and we walked outside. No later than when we walked out, the valet pulled up with the latest BMW FuelCell model. Top speed pushed 180 from the factory, but that "guzzled the gas" as it were. It was candy apple red, with a convertible top and leather interior. I peekd inside and noticed that the fuel cell was fully charged, and could go at least a few hundred miles on that. I was literally drooling over this car.

"Is this mine?" I asked, not believeing what I was seeing.

Fox sorta half-nodded, "It yours. But this isn't from us, this is from your family. A sort of "Get Well Soon" gift from your parents and siblings. I hear they all chipped in for it."

I gasped. "They shouldn't have! I mean... They aren't the most financially sound people in the world! This must have cost a fortune!" I couldn't help but feel guitly for passing out in the ER to take advantage of my parents. I knew that this wasn't true, but I couldn't shake the feeling.

"Why don't you give them a call when you get home? They'll be thrilled, I'm sure," Gabe suggested. Fox motined for the valet who promptly moved to his side.

"Get our cars as well. We going to go with him." Fox said. the valet nodded and within ten minutes had brought out both Fox's and Gabe's cars. The valet gave them both their keys and said goodbye as he walked back into the hospital. I was still ogling my new car, so I didn't see what they were driving. Fox walked over to me and dropped my keychain that I had before I had my accident in the ER. On it were a few new keys that I had not owned previously.

Fox pointed to some of them. "This is for the car, and this is the trunk. This one's for your apartment. You think you can drive, ok?"

I sighed. "I'm fine, Fox. Never felt better!" Fox smiled and tail-grinned. I knew that he had set me up to say that then. Man, he was good!

"Ok... The house isn't far from here. About ten miles or so, but a lot of it's city roads, so it'll be about twenty or thirty minutes. Just follow us, ok?"

I smiled and nodded as I climbed into my car. Fox and Gabe started their motors and pulled off. I followed just behind them.

I stayed pretty close until Fox pulled into a large apartment complex. He weaved his way through the small streets and finally parked in front of one of the larger buildings. Gabe took the only parking spot left in front of the building, and I audibly growled at him. I turned and parked at the end of the street, opposite my building. I walked up to Gabe and Fox, who were waiting for me at the door of Apartment 43.

I growled at Gabe, "That was my spot." He just shrugged, but both his expression and scent told me that he was trying his very hardest not to break out into laughter. I snickered myself and twitched my tail idly.

Fox smiled, "Well?"

I turned to him with a confused look. "Well what?"

"Aren't you going to let us in?"

"Oh!" I said. "I didn't know what you were talking about!" I reached in the pocket of the labcoat that I still had on and retrieved my keys. I had thought that Fox had let himself and Gabe in, so I put them in there. I fumbled with them for a sec and tried the door. Locked, of course.

"I feel like I'm being tested." I thought aloud. Fox and Gabe both laughed out loud. I tried a few keys in the door and none of them seemed to work. Sure they would fit, but none would turn. And of course, the last key I tried slid in and turned with ease. The door unlocked and opened.

The interior of the house was huge for any apartment I had ever seen before. The door opend into the living room, which had two white leather couches just begging to be stretched upon. I had to supress my "lounging" instinct, as I called it. Lions often just lie around and do nothing. I had no complaints with that instinct, but I decided that now was not the time for it. The living room also had a 27" TV in it, just like I had at home in Montgomery, and a small coffee table that separated the couches. I stepped in and looked around some more.

The kitchen was off to my left. It was a walk-in, and the tile floor stopped abruptly where the carpet started. The kitchen was complete with an oven, stove, microwave, and and a dishwasher. There was a sink and cabinets lined the far wall. A refrigerator sat in an indentation between the cabinets.

I turned to Fox and smiled. "This is my apartment?"

Fox nodded, "It's yours. We've taken all your belongings from your place in Montgomery and brought them here. The glasses are in the cabinets, your clothers are washed and put in the drawers in the bedroom..." He nodded down a hall at the other end of the room. "...and the first month's rent is paid for."

I smiled. "Ah! So this isn't a freebie!."

Fox laughed, "Sorry, ol boy, afraid we can't afford that! You've got to take care of yourself somehow, you know!" I smiled and watched Gabe move from Fox's side and lay on the couch, suspending his keys in the and making them spin with his Power. I laughed and watched for a few moments. Normally, that had annoyed me, because I thought that I lacked any exotic Powers. Now, it amused me really.

Fox watched for a second as well, giggling. Then he turned to me and said, "Jeff, Bob and Jack are currently in a training program for the mission into India. Today, Bob had just gotten in from a race at the Del Mar racetrack here in La Jolla. He's honing his physical prowess, just as Jack is honing his mind by practicing hs levetation and telepathy whenever he can." I nodded as Fox paused.

"So, am I going to be included in one of these training programs?"

Fox nodded, "Yes. You're going to be stationed in the ER for a while. Use your Power whenever you can, and try to find it's capabilities..." He looked at my hands, "And faults, if any." Suddenly, his beeper began screeching in his pants pocket. "Oh, goddammit! I hate this thing!" He pulled it out, checked it and smiled. "Looks like I'm needed with Bob and the guys. You get settled in and here," He handed me a wad of bills. "Here's $200. We didn't stock the fridge, either."

I laughed and he turned and exited the door, his tail waving good-bye to me as the door closed. By now Gabe had stopped spinning his keys, but was now shooting them up to the celing, letting them fall and stoping them before they hit his hands, then doing it again. I decided to have a little fun myself. I closed my eyes and opened the door in my mind. I felt the familiar melting sensation over my body and I fell to all fours. I opened my eyes and moved the coat from my eyes, I saw the zebra-morph lying on the couch. His scent flared my nostrils and my instincts began clawing at my mind to take control. I growled inwardly and shoved them away from my conscious self as best I could. I still heard them screaming to dive at Gabe and tear him apart, but I controlled them now. I slinked around the back of couch and crouched. I could smell Gabe's scent turn from casual to caution. He knew that he was being stalked, but not from where.

"Jeff... I know what you're doing. I don't like it." he said. I waited for him to send his keys to the celing again before I struck. I saw them rise, and not a split second later, I let an inward laugh and sprang up, putting my forepaws on the top of the couch and snarling in his face. Fear-smell suddenly permeated the air and Gabe wheeled off the couch, whinnying and braying like his morph counterpart. I quickly shut my eyes and thought of stepping out of the small room and whipping open the book all in one smooth motion. After the tingle of the morph subsided, I stuck out my glowing hand and caught the keys on the way down from the celing. I clutched them tightly and smiled smugly to Gabe. He was panting heavily, but obviously had a grip on himself.

"You really must stop being so jumpy." I said with a laugh.

"Oh, shut up." Gabe retorted, "Showoff." I laughed, remembering what he was refering to. He sighed and held out one of his hands. "Can I have my keys back? I wasn't done with them."

I nodded and tossed them to him. As as they glided through the air, I noticed a faint green trail of light following them. Gabe caught them, and opened his hands to look at the keys. Sure enough, they were glowing the same color green as my hands were. We stared at them for about two minutes, and by that time the green glow had faded away.

"Incredible." Gabe commented, "I wonder if it could have healed as you did?"

I shrugged, "It stands to reason that they would. I didn't know I could do that." Gabe mirrored my shrug.

I just sighed. Another discovery in a day of revelations. Gabe asked, "Are you going out, or you staying here for a while?"

I spied a visi-phone sitting on an endtable next to one of the couches. "I've got a few phone calls to make first."

Gabe nodded and added, "Mind if I use your bathroom?" I smiled and told him he could, if he could find it. He left down the hall and when he was gone I walked to the couch and sitting on it found it very comfortable, especially when I slid my tail in between the cushions. It picked up the reciever and thought for a second, the dial-tone droning in the background. I wanted to call two people and I had a hard time deciding which to call first. I smiled, finally deciding, and put the phone back on the hook. I switched on the monitor and dialed the number to the bedroom of my friend, Trey McElveen.

The phone rang a couple of times, and suddenly, it picked up. The screen turns from the static to a picture of a dresser with a small touch lamp and a dry-erase board with some caclulus scribbled on it. I could hear the typing of a keyboard a few muffled giggles. Suddenly, a small three-fingered, taloned hand waved in front of the camera.

"Sorry, whoever's there! I'm a bit busy at the moment, I'll be with ya in a sec!" The voice came in a course alto, but identifiably masculine.

"Jesus, Trey, if you would just get off of that computer for more than ten seconds you'd save your eyes from warping themselves." I replied.

"Holy shit!" was the reply. The hand was quickly retracted and then replaced by my friend. He was an American Kestrel, I remembered, the smallest raptor in the US. I chuckled to myself when I remembered that he had shrunk from about 6'1'' to 5'9''. He was so proud of his height and it had annoyed him that he couldn't get it back now.

His head was smaller than most birds-of-prey. On top was a small cap of rust-red feathers that runs down his back and spreads out on the tops of his wings. His faces down to his beak is a bright blue, with the sides of his face down to the breast is a bright white. The chest has a small band of the red feathers then turns a slight color of off white with large black speckles running vertically down his breast. His wings, at the moment, were folded against his back, but when opened you could see the flight feathers were a brilliant blue and hd the same black speckles his chest had. The tail feathers on the outside were black with white spots. The inner tail feathers were a sort of mixture of the blue and red. His arms were covered in thick, speckled down feathers that reached his wrists. His hands were mirror images of his feet: three fingered with long black talons on the ends. The thumb was moved down and lower to where it was directly opposite of the other fingers. To simplify, if you took a natural American Kestrel, gave it those arms and grew it to 5'9'', you'd have Trey McElveen.

Avian morphs are not the most visually expressive, but Trey's gaping beak and wide eyes just screamed shock. I smiled and chuckled, "Surprise!"

"Jeff!! Where the hell have you been?? I've been trying to get in touch with you for weeks!" he yelled.

I hesitated, not wanting to tell him too much. "I'm in California right now. Have you heard what happened to me?"

Trey blinked. "I'm sorry, I must not be recieving you very well. I could have sworn you said California."

I nodded. "You heard me right. You can pop on over if you want. It would be nice to see you."

Trey nodded and turned off camera. I could hear the typing of keys at the keyboard. "I'm just telling them I'm logging off. Go ahead and hang up. I'll be there in a sec." I nodded and hung up the phone. I turned and looked to the living room. No more than five seconds later, there was a blue flash of light and Trey's form seemed to expand into existance from the center of the light. The light dimmed, and Trey stretched his wings, his body still seeming a bit hazy around the edges. He quickly regained his visual acuteness and nodded to me. He wasn't wearing any clothes, which was the norm for him. He really didn't have anything to hide, and everything to show off, so I didn't blame him. I stood and walked over to him, my tail swishing in glee.

"What took you so long?" I said, laughing hard. He turned to me and giggled himself.

"Traffic. Temporal space is a very busy highway."

"I really wish I knew how you did that." I said off the cuff. I reached around my pal and gave him a hug.

Trey returned the gesture. "I can try to tell you. That's what I'm studying in one of my new electives."

I looked at him, "Really? An elective on Powers?"

Trey nodded, "Yeah, we sit around and try to explain these Powers. It's very interesting, really. The local colleges: UAB, Auburn, UA, they're all waving funds in our face if one of our students makes a breakthrough. We're getting close, actually. I've been spending a lot of time on my Powers."

"Which one have you been studying? The teleportation or the other one." The other one I spoke of was really terrifying. I had never seen it myself, but he said that he can dissolve the molecular bonds that binds atoms in matter together. He didn't speak about it much, because of the incident in which he found out he had the Power. He hasn't told that to anyone, at least no one I know.

"Both really, but I think we've almost reached a theory on the teleport." he said, flitting his tail feathers.

I cocked my head, interested. "Is that so? How?"

He seemed to brighten. "Well... Umm... Argh! I had it a second ago!" He sagged and sighed. "Damn! Gimmie a sec!"

I laughed and heard Gabe close the door to the bathroom down the hall. "Did you find it ok, Gabe?"

"Yeah! I found it! Big too! I hope you like flowers!" I groaned. Great, a floral pattern in my bathroom. Gabe walked in, giggling. He stopped and stared at the newcomer in the room until recognition swept over him.

"Trey! What are you doing here? How are you?" he shouted, apparently excited to see Trey. His tail swished to and fro in an obvious gesture of happiness.

Trey looked up from his thinking and flexed his wings in response, "Gabe! I'm here visiting Jeff! And I feel great! Thanks!" He sighed and returned to thinking. "I'll tell you in a second, Jeff."

Gabe looked to me, slightly confused, "Tell you what?"

"How he can teleport, Gabe. Remember?" I said. Gabe nodded, remembering.

"Sorry there, must've slipped my mind." Just then Trey lit up and pointed a talon upward in a classic "Eureka!" pose.

"Got it! Sorry about the delay, we're sorry for the inconvienence." he said with a giggle. I laughed too at the blatent reference to Douglas Adams. "Ok.. here we go."

I sat back as Trey began his explanation. Gabe found the comfy spot on the couch he was lying on earlier. Trey fluttered up and perched on the back of the couch facing all of us. He sat down and began, "We were trying to approach the problem mathematically. We knew that as anything travels so fast that it approaches the speed of light, its mass becomes larger. Correct?"

I nodded, "That right. Einstein said that, I think."

Trey nodded in response, "Yeah, that's right. We extrapolated that if anything were to go faster than the speed of light that they would break the barrier of the third dimension and travel into the fourth."

Gabe held up a hoof, "Wait, wait. You just lost me."

Trey smiled, or did the equivalent at least, "Sorry Gabe. As matter approaches the speed of light, its mass gets larger. At the speed of light, the mass is infinately large. I theroized that when matter reaches the speed of light, it 'had infinate mass' because it was no longer a part of this dimension, but a part of the fourth dimension that 'surrounds' this one."

Gabe blinked and shrugged, "Heh. Whatever." I nodded, and was surprised that I was actually understanding some of this.

"Please, go on Trey."

Trey nodded. "In the fourth dimension, there is a dimension exposed to the inhabitants of the fourth dimension of the i nhabitants of the third dimension." Blank looks all around. Trey giggled. "Think of it this way. When you draw a square, a two-dimensional square on a sheet of paper, you can see inside it. Right?"

I nodded, understanding, "But to another square or a triangle or a circle, they wouldn't be able to see inside each other."

"Right!" Trey said, flapping his wings. "To those in the fourth dimension, there is an open dimension in the people of the third! This is one explanation of how ghosts can walk through walls and matter. I theorized that I could passively increase my speed past the speed of light, thus the blue flash, escape the third dimension and use the free dimension to travel anywhere in a matter of nanoseconds."

Gabe blinked, "You're kidding me."

Trey shook his head, "Nope. And so far no one's debunked me. But I'm expecting anything soon. It's got a few flaws."

I thought for a second and decided to ask about the other one as well. I wasn't sure that he was going to answer or not. "Trey... If you don't mind, what have you discovered about your other Power?"

Gabe looked to me. "What other Power?"

Trey explained. "I don't really want to talk about it. But since I know you and trust you, I will give you a demonstration, if there's anything in here you wouldn't mind losing."

My heart jumped. I was a bit afraid at first, but decided to go with it. I didn't know what this Power was capable of, but my feline curiosity got the better of me. I looked around and pointed to a potted plant in a corner. It was a small tree, but I could not distinguish its type. I pointed to it, "Do it on that."

Trey nodded and reached out a taloned hand to it. His eyes narrowed and began concentrating very hard. Both Gabe and I looked to the plant. It shook slightly, as if in the breeze. But I didn't hear the heater or the AC on, and I didn't see a fan nearby. Suddenly, the outlines of the plant became fuzzy, just like Trey's teleportation. And then, silently and very quickly, the plant obliterated into countless particles that slowly began to dissolve themselves. In a matter of seconds, the plant had been reduced to nothing. Trey let a gasp of exhaustion and sank back on his legs. "I don't do that enough to be used to it. I'll be fine in a second."

Neither Gabe nor I responded to him. We both stared in gaping awe at the empty space that had once been residence to a plant.

"Holy God." Gabe said first. "Can you do that to people." Trey nodded.

"How do you know..." I started, and then realized what Trey had meant. "Oh, God. Trey, you mean to say..."

"That's how I found out I had the Power. I was at home for the summer when a gang of bullies in my home town decided it was payback for what I did to them before I left for my school in Birmingham."

"What did you do?" I asked.

"Presented evidence to the police about their drug selling and usage on campus. Pissed them off real bad and they got in severe trouble for it. But they plea bargained and got off easy. They waited until this summer when I would be home to get back at me. Even the Change didn't phase them. It just made their anger stronger. I was out at the baseball fields when they caught up to me beat me up bad. I was so hurt that I couldn't fly away. Then they jumped into their truck and started towards me to run me down. I flung my arms over my head and screamed. I felt a strange tingle over my body and a rush of air radiate from myself. Then I heard the wrenching of metal and their screams of agony as each molecule of their bodies were ripped from one another and dispersed to the winds."

"Trey..." I said, attempting to comfort him, "If I knew it was that painful for you.."

Trey stopped me. "It wasn't that, Jeff. It was the crowd of innocents nearby watching the game. Some had tried to break up the fight and had run for help when they got in the truck. I had sent out a shockwave that reached for at least 200 feet all around me." Trey sobbed into his downy arm, almost unable to say the next sentence. But I knew he felt he had to. "I killed over 150 people that day. One hundred fifty screaming people, Jeff. All dead because of me."

Gabe couldn't breathe. He excused himself and went to the kitchen and grabbed a glass from one of the cabinets and got himself a glass of water. I sat, absolutely astounded at what I had just heard. I couldn't think, I couldn't even imagine how that must have felt to him.

"It's hard for me to control it at times, that's why I don't use it much. At all, really." Trey said, regaining his composure. The blue streaks of feathers that ran from his eyes down his face were wet with tears.

An idea hit me like a lightning bolt. "Trey, you think you could stay over for a couple of nights?"

Trey shrugged. "I don't see why not. I'm on Christmas break and I don't have a job over the holidays." Gabe returned from the kitchen. He almost looked a bit winded. "I'm sorry Gabe. Perhaps I should have given warning."

Gabe shook his head, "No... No. You just surprised me, that's all."

Trey fluffed his tail feathers, "I guess that's good. I'm really sorry." Trey then straightened up and hopped off the back of the couch. "I'll be back in a second." he said. He closed his eyes and began to blur. The blue light overtook him and his body began to look like a TV that was getting a bad reception. The light surged and flashed, and just as soon as he appeared, he was gone.

Gabe shook his head in astonishment, "Makes my Power look dinky. It's not really more than a novelty to me."

I smiled and got an idea. I walked to the kitchen and pulled out the longest, sharpest knife I could find. I returned and placed it on the dining table and led Gabe to the other side of the living room, as far away as we could get from the knife. I looked to him and in all earnestness said, "Attract that to you and catch it."

Gabe looked at me like I had lost my marbles, "Are you nuts?!"

I shook my head, "No. Just try it. If anything goes wrong, I'll be here." My hands began to glow their green aura.

Gabe nodded tenatively and he brought up his arm. He squinted and concentrated on the knife, and from where I was I could see it wiggle and start to slide across the table. Gabe squinted harder and and suddenly the knife soared across the room, point facing towards him. Gabe whinnied in terror and I knew he was trying to reverse the attraction. My eyes went wide as I noticed that he was not going to be able to stop it in time. He threw his hands in front of his head and screamed as the knife sank through and through both of his hands. They were pinned together and as he tried to pull them apart in panic the knife kept them in place.

I reacted quickly. I grabbed Gabe's wrists and ripped the knife out of his hands. He screamed in agony and fell to his haunches. I held his hands in mine and concentrated on my Power. I felt the gashes begin to seal themselves and soon I felt with my fingers no evidence of the injury. Gabe began to breathe normally and calmed down. I opend my hands and looked to them. Sure enough, they were fully healed. I dropped to my knees and looked to my friend, "I'm sorry, Gabe. I wanted to see if you could catch it by the handle."

Gabe nodded, "It's ok. I think I know what you're getting at. In the ER, it would be invaluable to be able to do that. If something happens to a nurse, you could just call the tools to you."

I nodded, "That's what I was thinking. Fox would say you could disarm a enemy with a thought and then use it on him." Gabe nodded in agreement.

Another flash of blue light filled the room. Gabe and I stood up and turned to the origin of the flash. The outline of Trey's body took form and shaped itself, the blurry outlines focusing. I noticed that he was carrying a suitcase that looked filled to overflowing. He turned to us and in a cheerful tone said, "Good news! I can stay as long as I want! I just have to be back at school when it starts."

"That's great! I have some people that I would like you to meet you out where I work. They might be able to help you with that Power of yours."

"If they could, I would be most grateful." Trey added with a tail-fluff. "You mind if I stay here, pal? I don't take up much room and I don't need a bed."

"Not at all! You're welcome here! Go ahead and unpack and Gabe'll take you out tonight."

Gabe looked to me, "You're not coming?"

I shook my head, "No. I've got another phone call to make as soon as I get back from the store." Gabe shruged to Trey, who walked down the back hallway. I realized that I was still in my lab coat so I walked back to my room. It was large for an apartment, but then again, everything was large for an apartment here. The bed was against the far wall in the middle and a large dresser with a mirror sat in front of the wall to the right. I walked to it and pulled out a pair of my favorite blue jeans. I slipped them on under my coat and after I had zipped them up (taking care not to snag my fur) I unbuttoned the coat and set it on the bed. I took the keys from the pocket in the coat and carried them in my hand back to the living room. As I left Trey exited the room across the hall.

"Nice place you've got here. How much do you pay per month?"

I laughed. "I wouldn't know!"

Trey and I walked into the living room. Gabe had sat down and was watching TV. He stood when we entered. "I'm going by my house, Trey, to pick up some clothes. You're welcome to come along."

"That's fine. I'd like to see your place, too. That way I can teleport to it." Gabe looked confused for a moment. "I can only teleport to places I've seen. I can look at a picture and go there." Gabe nodded, understanding. I did too, I had not known that.

"Well," I said. "I'm going off to the grocery store. I'll see you when I see you." Gabe chuckled and Trey waved a talon.

"See ya later, Jeff! Thanks for letting me stay!"

"Anytime!" I said as I walked out of the door and went to my car. I sat in the driver's seat, almost forgetting that this *was* my car. I put the key in the ignition and drove off.

I got back home late that night. I checked my watch as I entered with one armload of groceries that I had bought. It was past 9:00 at night. I sighed. That made it 11:00 in Montgomery. I put down the bags and went for the second load in the car. I almost dropped one of the bags, but I managed to keep it off the ground. I walked into the house and set them next to the first load.

I opened the fridge and put all the refrigerated items in there: Cokes, veggies, beer, juice, and the essentials. I had remembered at the store that I was still essentially an omnivore, but was a little atoned to meat. So I had bought a few greens and salad makings just in case I wanted a steak.

I filled the freezer with every kind of meat you could imagine. Poultry, beef, pork, you name it, I got it. I was rather disturbed as I walked by the meat section of the store. When I cast a glance to the rows of red meat, my instincts went absolutely berserk. I could smell the blood from the packaging. My mouth began to water and when I picked up a particularly juicy side of beef, I couldn't stop myself from sinking my teeth into it. I looked up as soon as I did it, realizing how stupid I must have looked at this point. Down the asile a bit, a female wolf morph was watching me and chuckling at me. My mind screamed -THIEF!!TAKEFOOD!!Kill!!KILL!!!- but I thought better of it and quickly placed the punctured package into my cart. I blushed a bit when the lady walked up to me and whispered in my ear, "Dont worry. I've done it too." I smiled and giggled to her.

I packed the cabinets with canned goods and spices. Tomatoes, tuna (I love fish), fruit packs, cereal, pepper, salt. I made a mental checklist as I had shopped. One thing I had noticed was how much better my mind retained information. I was much better at memorizing than I had used to be. And it was a good thing, too. I remembered all my family's birthdays and anniversaries now, so I never missed an important date.

I checked the bags one last time to make sure I had put up everything. They were empty, so I folded them up and set them in an empty drawer to take to the recycling center later. I walked somewhat sleepily to the couch and sprawled out on it. I let my "loungeing" instinct take over and I almost fell asleep instantly. I picked up the phone before then, however and dialed a number into it. It rang twice and a very familiar voice picked up on the other end.

"Hello?" it said.

I let a tear roll down my cheek. "Hi Mom."

"There's somebody at the door."

I woke up the next morning on the couch, the overhead fan squeaking loudly in my leonine ears. I yawned (Wide!) and gave a snarl-growl to show my general displeasure in having to wake up. I sat up and as I did a blurry, but somewhat familiar figure walked into the room.

"I see you're up. Took you long enough." Trey said. "Gabe's already left for the hospital. I don't think they're expecting you for a while." He ruffled his feathers and preened a second, letting me know that he too had just woke up.

"Really?" I said, glad that Fox, or whoever was in charge, was letting me get some rest. "That's great. The last few weeks have been rather strenuous."

Trey seemed to get a rather concerned expression on his avian face, "Jeff, just what the hell has been going on?"

I sighed, "A lot more than I can explain, friend. I'll sum it up." And I did, and Trey sat attentively during the whole story, seeming to understand every word I said. Even the places that I was fuzzy on he was able to decipher. It was then I realized just how bright this teenager really was. He wasn't just studying the Change at school, he was researching it, learning about it, figuring out what was at the heart of it.

When I finally finished my tale, Trey spoke, "I see. And so the... CIA wants you for what?"

"Supposedly, there's some mad doctor in India that's doing strange experiments on unwilling subjects, like splicing animal parts into humans."

Trey chuckled softly, "Didn't the Change do that enough already?"

I shrugged. I didn't know anymore than that. Trey took the hint and moved on, "So, what are you going to do?"

"I don't know. I suppose Fox is going to talk with me at length about it sometime."

Fox Cutter had a headache. Not one of those "take two Tylenol and pray it goes away" headaches. This was one of those full-blown migraines. And what had caused it was still held in his paws. Slowly, he sat up, reading the report once more, still unbelieving what the airline had sent him. Sighing deeply, and picking up the phone, he dialed an extension.

"Yes, Bob? You'd better take a look at this."

Trey and I talked a little while longer and shared what we had missed. I had a lot of life left to catch up on, missing five weeks of it is a curse I would wish upon no one.

"So why the big suitcase, Trey? I thought you usually didn't wear clothes."

He smiled, "Oh, that's my work. I brought along some literature on the Change to study."

"Really? Mind if I take a look?" I said, getting interested. I had always wondered about the change, but never actively looked at it any closer than the common person did.

"Sure, I'll go.." Trey began, but was cut short by the phone ringing. I reached over the armrest and picked up the phone, answering, "Hello? This is Jeff."

Fox's voice came over the line. He sounded like he was forcing himself to be calm, for forcing himself not to pass out. I couldn't tell. "Jeff. This is Fox. I need you to come down to the hospital as soon as possible. Something's come up."

"I'll be there as soon as I can, Fox."

"Thanks, 'ol chap. See you soon." And he hung up.

Trey tilted his head inquisitively, "What was all that about?"

"Gotta go, pal." I said. "Something's going on at the hospital, and they need me there. Probably some wreck on the highway and they're getting all the ER cases."

"Mind if I tag along?" Trey asked.

I thought for a moment, "Uh, sure. Why not? C'mon, I'll give you a ride." I fished around in my pocket for my car keys, but instead found them on the coffee table. I picked them up and smiled to Trey, "I'd lose my head if it wasn't bolted on." He laughed, and together we walked out the door, into the car.

I drove up to the ER entrance, and there to meet us outside was Bob and Gabe. Bob shook talon-to-hoof with Trey as we introduced them to each other, and Bob even raised a brow when Trey mentioned his Powers, just off the cuff. They exchanged pleasantries, and broke off. I took that as a cue to ask, "Ok, Bob. So what's going on around here?"

"Fox got a passenger list from an airline that states..." Bob stopped himself and opened the door into the ER, "Maybe we should go inside for this. way inside."

I can take a hint, even when applied with a sledgehammer. We followed Bob into the ER, and through an elevator to the top floor. There, the doors opened into a small hallway with a swipe-through lock on the door. Bob took his nametag from his coat and ran it through the lock. The loud sound of steel bars clinking back was heard, and the door swung wide on its own accord. Inside, I saw Fox and Jack sitting at a conference table, heatedly discussing the document that sat between them. The four of us entered, and the both politely stood and greeted us.

Fox shook with Trey, "You're a friend of Jeff's, I assume?"

"Yessir. I suppose you're the CIA agent Jeff's been telling me about." My complexion suddenly turned a deeper shade of yellow as Fox cast me a stern glance.

Bob suddenly saved me by saying, "Trey tells me he's a Teleporter, with a Disintergration Power to boot." Fox raised an eyebrow, "Really? Interesting..."

Jack stopped Fox before he got any farther, "There's time for that later, Fox. Right now, I think there's a more important matter at hand." Fox conceded and offered all of us a seat. I sat next to Gabe and Bob. I sent my friend a look that asked "What's going on?" and he just replied with a shrug. Trey perched atop one of the chairs next to Fox. The remaining chairs I could only assume were for other members of the team, namely David and anyone I was yet to meet.

"So, what's this all about?" I said as the door swung closed and steel-bolted shut.

Fox beat Bob to the punch, "I received a fax from a major airline that some agents are covering for me. Take a look." He handed me the small paper that lay in the middle of the table. "Passenger 28."

I looked, and there, in the passenger listing, Passenger 28 read none other than Dr. Chandra.

"What the hell?" I roared. "He's here???" Gabe was quick to snatch the paper from my claws, just before they ripped the sheet to shreads. His reaction was nearly the same, but not as vocal.

"Doubtful." Bob said, "Chandra's too smart to do that. It's more likely one of his cronies."

"Question is, what is he, metaphorically speaking, doing here?" Gabe asked.

"I don't know. He must have gotten some information for our first recon team."

"But, how? It's only been a day since..." I began.

"It's been five weeks, Jeff. Remember? That's plenty of time for Chandra to organize a strike against us." Fox corrected.

"Oh, right."

Finally, Trey spoke up, "Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Jack began to concentrate on Trey, and the kestrel's look became absent for a moment. I knew that Jack was filling him in on the details as the vocal conversation continued.

"So, what's the plan, fearless leader?" Gabe said.

"Nothing, really. We don't know where the passenger was headed, but we can only assume it's here. He landed at LAX this morning and hopped a cab. He could be anywhere." Fox said.

Trey snapped out of his trance, "Thanks. I think." He nodded as Fox finished, "Well, we know he's not a teleporter, or he would have made his move by now."

"Maybe, maybe not." Jack said, drumming a hoof on the table, "Chandra's probably waiting for the best moment. You can never be too certain with this man."

"Point taken." Trey said, sinking his head in between his wings in thought.

I began to get a bit worried. If the Dr. Chandra was as bad as these guys were making him out to be, we could be in real trouble. Not only me, but Fox, Trey, Bob, and everyone involved.

"Right now, we're tightening security around the residences and the facility here. Nothing gets through with out a check-in and check-out." Fox said, seeming to give me a little better feeling.

"So, what are we supposed to do?" Gabe asked.

"Nothing, let us take care of everything." Fox said. He stood from his chair and smiled, "Well, I just thought you'd like to know about the passenger. Jeff, I think they're needing you in the ER."

I smiled, almost forgetting about the job I held here, "Great. I'm ready for some action." With that, I closed my eyes and opened the book in my mind, sighing softly as the warm, green glow swept over my hands.

"Cool!" Trey said with a start.

Fox turned to the avian and smiled, "Would you mind staying after? I'd like to ask you a few questions." Trey shrugged, "I suppose. I'm not doing anything for, oh... a few weeks."

Fox grinned, "Excellent."

Gabe and I left the meeting room and descended to the ER, a full 30 floors down. There, we entered into absolute chaos. Apparently, one of the major highways had experienced a 10-car pileup, and we were the only fully-staffed ER, which was an understatement. Gabe and I split up as I donned scrubs as quickly as I could and ran off to the nearest Trauma room. The tour from the day before was still fresh in my mind, and I had no trouble remembering where everything was.

When I reached the room, there was a five-person team already hard at work. I asked for the vitals. A flighted robin nurse gave me the rundown as I examined the patient. She was feline morph like myself, only a panthress instead of a lion. Her skull had been fractured, and a large gash ran down her left cheek. Her right cheek was completely missing, and the jawbone was visible. Her injuries below the neck were stabilized, and her pulse and blood-ox was looking good.

"Doctor, her BP is falling. If we don't seal up those head wounds..." I didn't even stop to listen. Quickly, I shut my eyes and opened the book in my mind, feeling the warm rush over my paws. Using my finger like a combination suture and cauterizer, I sealed up the gash on the patient's head as fast as I could go. The nurse team looked on in astonishment as I moved on and took the patient's cranium in my paws. I grimaced as I felt the skull plates shift, realign themselves and fuse back together.

"Dear God." A nurse whispered.

With some fear I moved onto her right cheek, which looked like it had be dragged across the road during the wreck. I noticed a tiny fracture in her jawbone, and I sealed it back together before moving to the cheek. I took a small flap of what was left in my paw and began to regenerate the tissue in my hands. It felt like I was holding a slippery wad of gum that seemed to get larger and larger in my hands. Finally, after only a few moments of this, I took the flesh and joined it back to the skull, healing the cut at the eye socket in much the same way that I had the gash earlier. I finished, and smiled as I watched the black, tawny fur grow back into place on her new cheek.

I closed my eyes and shut the book in my mind. When I opened them again, the nurse team was staring at the instruments and at me, slack-jawed.

"Pulse normal. Blood-ox normal. BP normal." The robin chittered. She looked at me, "What now?"

"She may have internal bleeding, and I'm not about to cut her open to heal it. Get her up to ICU and stabilize her." With that, two nurses rolled the stretcher out of the room while the other three stared at me still.

"Dear God." said one of the nurses, a male lizard of some type I was not able to define. I recognized the voice as the one I heard earlier.

"Well, what are you people waiting for? There's a lot more patients out there, let's move!"

And as they left to assist other cases, I couldn't help but stand there, smiling, and feeling every bit like God.

"Rook takes Queen. Check."

The wreck kept the entire ER rather busy for the rest of the day. There was more than thirty casualties, and since County was down we got them all. Everything from glass splinters to D.O.A. rolled through the doors, and I used my Power on everyone that needed it. I apparently attracted some attention later on as the onrush of patients died down. In fact, I had my own little gallery watching me in Trauma 3 as I healed a nasty cut on a turtle morph's leg. I sealed the cut up with a "suture-finger" as I was beginning to call it.

As the nurses wheeled the patient out of the room and towards recovery, a few of the onlookers began applauding me. Some even shook my paw and congratulated me on my Power! I felt wonderful, like I had just won the lottery! The rush was greater than I had ever felt before, and I wanted more of it, so much more.

Gabe was quick to steer me away from the throng, which quickly dissolved and began to reorganize the ER. Gabe took me by the shoulders and gave me the sternest look that his muzzle could muster.

"What's the problem, Gabe? Jealous?" I said, not even trying to hide the elation that I felt.

"Not in the least, Jeff. This is getting to your head."

"You are jealous, aren't you?" I smiled from ear-to-ear. "I can't believe that you, Dr. Gabriel Walters, is jealous of me!"

Gabe screamed, which sounded more like a high-pitched whinny, "I AM NOT JEALOUS OF YOU! This Power you have is going to your head. If you're not careful, you'll get some kind of God complex!"

"I just brought about six people back from certain death, and you're telling me to be fearful of a God complex?" I got right in Gabe's face and growled, "Let me tell you something right now. I AM GOD. This Power will heal anyone, no matter what the affliction. As far as I'm concerned, you are nothing. What small surgical skill you have is nothing compared to my Power. You can take your scalpel and scrubs and shove them. I've got bigger things to do."

Gabe look at me, incredulous. Words seemed to fail him before he finally spoke, "Fine. If that's what you want. You're setting yourself up for the biggest fall of your life, Jeff."

"I doubt it." I said as cold as ice. Gabe turned around with a sigh, and clopped off.

It was then I began to feel a bit saddened about what I had just said. The adrenaline rush from the chaos was beginning to wear off, and slowly I padded my way back to Gabe's side.

"Listen, I'm sorry. I don't know what made me say those things."

"No, you're absolutely right. It's time this old coot threw in the towel." With that, he stripped his nametag from the blood-stained scrub he was wearing and tossed it into a nearby trash can.

I bent down and fished it out of the receptacle. "Gabe... I... I don't know what to say. I didn't mean..."

"It's not you, Jeff. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. I know this seems sudden, but you must remember that five weeks of your life was taken from you in a freak accident. In those weeks I took the time to analyze my years in the medical profession. There are so many memories that I have that I never want to encounter again. People rolling into the hospital with limbs shattered, illnesses that defy the cure, and then there's the Plague..." He shut his eyes tightly and swallowed back a convulsive sob.

"Seeing you lying there in that hospital bed, not knowing if you were going to come out of it reminded me of watching my family all die from the Plaque. My brother, mother, father, everyone I ever loved was gone, gone forever." And then he did something I had never seen him do. He started crying.

I didn't know what to say. Never in the long while that I had known him was he ever this emotional. I opened my mouth to say something, but only silence came out. Instead, I placed my paws around him and held him close, not wanting him to feel alone. "You'll always have me, Gabe. Always."

He looked up at me, the tears dampening his muzzle, the black-and-white stripes seeming to take on a darker shade. "You were always the family I never had. Like a son to me."

I smiled, "Listen. I'm sorry for saying those things back there. I let it go to my head, I suppose."

"Just don't let it happen again, ok?"

I nodded, "I won't."

I tried my best for an hour or so to convince Gabe that he would be needed here at the hospital, and he understood that, but it was time for him to move on he kept saying. Gabe went upstairs to the offices soon after our discussion. He claimed the stress of the situation he was in was just too much, and that he needed to tell the Powers that be that he was quitting, and I didn't blame him. It wasn't everyday that you poured your heart and soul out to your best friend. I felt closer to my zebra friend than I ever had before. For the first time, he felt like a family member to me, and for the longest time, the leonine part of me seemed to call -Pridemate- every time I saw him. There was something special about Gabriel, and I was glad that I w as his friend.

I didn't want him to just quit like that, but his decision was final. I called up to Dr. Stein from the receptionist desk and told him the news.

"I'm not surprised one bit, Jeff. He's already tried to hand in three resignations in the past three weeks. It's not that he feels too old or anything."

"I know that," I said, "I just feel like I was the cause of it."

Bob sighed over the phone, "Jeff, Dr. Walters has seen things that no one should ever have to live through. He's spent the better three quarters of his life helping people in times of need. He's tired and wants to rest, that's all."

"I understand. Listen, what are you doing around dinnertime tonight? I'm working into the night it looks like."

"Well, I'm still in conference with Fox and your friend Trey. I don't know if I'll be done by dinner, but just head on up to the cafeteria and I'll attempt to meet you there."

"Ok, I suppose that'll do. I was hoping to plan a going-away party for Gabe sometime soon. It's the least I could do."

"Good idea!"

I remembered something from the meeting a couple of days ago, "Any word on mysterious passenger?"

"Actually yes, and it's rather disturbing. We've gotten a description from the airline. He's a Mid-Degree brown rat, about 5'11''. He was carrying no luggage."

"No luggage?"

"None. And that's not the scary part. Taxi company that gave the passenger his ride remembers serving someone that fits his description perfectly."

"Where did he ask to go?"

"San Diego."

After hanging up the phone, and shaking off the immense feeling of dread that I was experiencing, I stepped into the waiting room and tried to attended any small cases that were being neglected. A small boy, not even to his Change yet, was waiting with a young lady gazelle. The lady was pressing a blood-soaked gauze to the child's arm.

She called out to me, "Doctor? If you're not too busy..."

I sat next to them and smiled, "Not anymore. What seems to be the problem, little guy?"

"I got cut."

"Oh? Can I see it?" He lifted up a patch of gauze pressed to his upper arm. Under it was a huge gash, a cut that looked like a knife wound. My jaw immediately hit the floor.

"What on earth happened to this child?" I said, almost growling.

The lady sighed, "He's the little brother of a local gang member. The rival gang thought it would teach them not to mess with them if they knifed his brother."

"Jesus. Are you his mother?"

"No. I'm Jane Radi, Social Services."

I nodded and took my paw to his arm. He flinched and whined in pain as I pressed against it. My paw began to glow green, and the lad gasped as he felt the cut begin to seal itself up. I waited until the procedure was finished, and lifted my paw. There was no sign of scarring, or any sign that the wound was ever there.

"Feel better, tough guy?" I said with a warm smile.

He nodded and said happily, "That was cool!"

"It's like it never happened." Jane said. "Incredible." She stood and hoisted the boy off her lap and onto the floor. She hugged me and I smiled.

"It's not everyday you see miracles worked." She said.

"I don't consider it a miracle ma'am." I replied. "I'm just doing my job."

I took the time to ask that the child be placed into protective custody until the ones that did this could be found. Jane assured me that she would try her best, and as they walked out the door, I felt a hoof on my shoulder.

"I'm proud of you, Jeff."

"Gabe? I thought you went home."

"I'm heading out that way right now. You handled that wonderfully."

I gave my fellow doctor a hug, "Listen, if something comes up, just call me, ok?"

"I won't even hesitate."

I let my look become very serious, "Gabe, the passenger that Dr. Chandra sent on the plane may be in San Diego right now. You be careful, ok?"

"I will." He returned the hug and smiled, "Besides, why would he want to get at me? It's Bob and Fox he wants. Jack too."

I nodded just as a nurse rushed around the corner and into the waiting room, "Dr. Williams! You're needed at Curtain 4!"

I nodded to her, "I'll be right there."

"Go save some lives, Jeff. I'm going home." Gabe said with an equine smile.

"Take care, Gabe."

"You too... son." And Gabriel walked out the doors.

The day went from bad to worse, then. The patient in Curtain 4 was suffering from cardiac arrest, and efforts to revive her were a hopeless cause. When I arrived, she had already been flatlining for a full minute. CPR was being administered, and paddles were not working. After twenty minutes of failed attempts to resuscitate the patient, I was forced to call the time of death.

I was allowed a little free time after that disappointment, and I gazed up at the clock. It read 7:50, and I realized that it was almost time to meet Bob for dinnier. I headed up to the cafeteria, picking up my beeper and clipping it to my coat pocket. When I arrived, I noticed a very familiar marking pattern on a bird morph sitting with his back turned to the door. I walked up to him and tapped a wing, "You're still here? It's past 8 PM."

Trey looked up from his coke and smiled, "Yeah. The meeting ran a little longer than I had hoped. Bob is going to meet me here in a few minutes. Seems they're pretty interested in getting me into India."

"You? What on Earth for?" I asked, seeming a little unbelieving.

"Jeff, I've been all across the Earth today. I've been to Paris, Milan, Barcelona, everywhere. They've been testing my Powers all day. I'm exhausted." He said with a heavy sigh. "This is the longest time I've sat in one place all day. Hell, I even dragged Bob to Hong Kong with me."

"You can do that??" I said, incredulously while taking a seat next to him. "I'm waiting on Bob myself."

He nodded in understanding, "Apparently so. But it takes more out of me than you can imagine. I feel like I've been through the wringer five or six times." Just then, the -clop clop- of hooves was heard approaching our table, and Dr. Stein took an open seat at our table. His massive frame seemed to swallow the table whole, and Trey and I moved over to give him some extra room.

Bob laughed, "I'm not gaining weight, am I?"

"No sir," Trey quipped, "Muscle, maybe, but not weight." I laughed.

"Well, test results are in. Looks like you're a go, Trey. We could use an emergency evacuation plan just in case anything goes wrong." Bob said matter-of-factly.

"Um, that's great. I think." Trey said with yet another prolonged sigh. He cast a glance at me that just screamed, "I'm too young for this..."

"You think that's a good idea, Bob? I mean, he's not even out of High School yet." I said, trying to change the decision.

Bob nodded, "Duly noted, Jeff, but we really need a Teleporter of his magnitude on the team. If anything happens he can get you all out of there faster than we could mobilize a rescue squad."

Trey's tail feathers wiggled in frustration, "Give it up, Jeff. I volunteered for this, I should have weighed the risks."

"Can't you back out of it, Trey?" I asked, looking more to Bob in the process.

"Sure he can. Just say the magic words."

Trey looked like he was in pain. I knew the debate in his mind was raging: to go and help his friends, but possibly get killed, or to stay and not know what was happening to me, or Gabe. It was a tough decision, and one that he did not want to make.

"I... I don't know. Can I get back to you on that one?"

"Most certainly. I'm not pressuring you into anything."

Trey sighed, "No. Of course not."

Bob stood and nodded, "Well, I'm needed back on the research floors. Need anything, just beep me." We both nodded our understanding, and Bob -clopped- out of the cafeteria.

"They made you do it, didn't they?" I asked Trey.

"No. But they did some delving into my records. Seems that 'accident' at the ball park with those bullies shook them up. Not only am I an emergency evacuation plan, I'm a one-man demo team as well."

"Jeez, the CIA gets what it wants, doesn't it?"

"That it does."

Bob nodded silently, and I wondered why. Before I got to ask anything about it, he smiles his enigmatic grin and said, "So, what's the plan about this party for Gabe you want to throw?"

I smiled, the conversation turning away from what I didn't want on my mind right then, "Oh, just something to cheer him up a little bit. He was feeling kind of depressed this afternoon after I blew up at him."

"What happened, Jeff?" Trey asked.

"Oh, nothing really. I just said some things that seemed to upset him."

"You shouldn't take it so hard." Bob said in a somewhat comforting voice. "He's been thinking about retirement for a while now, and personally, I feel the man's due for a rest."

"Perhaps. He has been working hard all his life. He deserves a little R&R. This party should help."

I listened as best I could, but there was a feeling that I just couldn't shake. Something that reminded me of impending doom, or some other ironic happenstance that was just unfolding somewhere far away from the Institute.

Bob, Trey and I talked for a few more minutes over a piece of chicken that Trey had ordered before I had arrived. We were discussing the origins of the Change when the beeper blared in my coat pocket, and I reached into grab it. A nurse started screaming frantically over the communicator, "Dr. Williams! You're needed in the ER, now!"

I flinched, and about half the cafeteria perked their ears to listen, including Bob. "What's the problem?" I said into the beeper.

"We've got two stabbing victims down here: one rat morph and one zebra! One stabbed multiple-" The nurse suddenly became very quiet, almost solemn, "Dear God, no."

"What? What is it?!" I screamed back, already knowing the answer in the farthest reaches of my mind.

"It's Dr. Walters."

I dropped the beeper onto the floor, and a few nearby hospital workers gasped. I whispered, "Trey. Now."

He nodded and took my hand, and in a blue flash of light the cafeteria became the ER. I ran over to the desk, and the receptionist pointed me directly to Trauma 1. I ran as fast as I could, my paws already glowing with my Power. I turned into the room, and head the satisfying -beep- -beep- of the heart monitor.

I rushed to the bedside and looked down at Gabe. He had more knife wounds than I could count, and I could already tell his vitals were weakening. Blood seeped from every stab, and they all seemed to be glowing with some eerie red aura. One of the assisstants began calling off the situation, but I didn't listen. Instead, I went right for Gabe's wounds with my paws, no gloves or anything protecting me. I pressed one of them tightly with my hand, and Gabe moaned in pain.

"Gabe! Gabe, can you hear me??" I cried, both in fear of my friend, and in the confusion that I couldn't feel the cut healing under my paw.

Gabe nodded and spoke harshly, "Ch-Chandra did this. T-The rat... Knife... Red, glowing... Ohhhh..."

I lifted my saturated paw, and the cut still bled just as horribly, still was there, gaping open. And then it hit me. "Oh, shit... Get some hemostats in here! I need full surgical gear, stat!"

The fastest one to react was Trey, who had followed me into the Trauma Room. He disappeared in a blue flash, then reappeared right next to me, with sutures and clamps in talon. "Here. Direct from the OR."

I grabbed everything that I could and tried to close up the wounds, the whole time attempting to use my Touch to heal my friend. Nothing worked. I worked for God knows how long, clamping and stitching my friend together, wiping the red stripes on his coat so they would look white and pure again. I did everything I knew, everything that I could to save Gabe.

Trey elbowed me and I was brought back to my senses. A loud, monotonous, droning beep emanated from the heart monitor and filled the room. Other than that, the entire ER was silent.

"It's been an hour, Jeff." Trey said, placing a clawed hand on my shoulder. "It's over." A nurse pulled a white and red splotched sheet over Gabe's scarred body.

"Call it, Doctor."

I looked up to the clock, and said without even thinking, "Time of Death: 9:27 PM." And then I looked down at the shrouded form of Dr. Gabriel Walters and there was only one thing I knew to do. I gripped the side of the stretcher, threw my head back and roared in such agony that I didn't think was ever possible. Windows shook, orderlies grabbed their ears, patients screamed. But I didn't care. I subsided, and began to weep bitterly. I growled low, "Now. Now it's personal, Dr. Chandra. Now it's personal."

"And I don't wanna live to see the day we say goodbye..."

There was the sound of hoofsteps echoing down the ER's empty hallways as I sat in the waiting room, my head between my knees, thiking about what had transpired only hours earlier. I looked up just as Dr. Stein, Fox Cutter and a very sleepy but saddened Jack DeMule entered the room, but I paid more attention to the clock than to them. It read 3:28 AM, and I slowly calculated that I had been sitting in the same chair for six hours. I sat up stiffly and moaned as the popping of sinews in my back uttered their displeasure of being kept in the same position for so long.

Fox sat in the chair next to me, and Jack and Bob sat in the row across. "It was a Nullified knife wasn't it?" They all nodded, but I knew hours before, when I had tried to save my friend's life.

"Funeral services are in three days." Fox said, "Go home, get some rest."

"Family?" I said, out of reflex.

Bob said quietly, "You were his family, Jeff. Here." He reached out across the aisle and handed me a small packet. On the outside was a handwritten notice: "To Jeff."

"Dr. Walters gave specific instructions to give this to you upon his retirement." Bob said. "I... I'm sorry, Jeff."

"I know. We're all sorry." I split open the seal on the letter and pulled out a small piece of paper. On it was written these words:

Dear Jeffery Williams,

I know you hate being called that. I'm sorry. If you're reading this letter, then you know I've let the lifelong burden that I've carried go, and that I'm free from the pain that has lingered over me since the death of my family. I've spent many years trying to find someone who I can entrust the contents of this package to, and I have chosen you.

Within this envelope is twenty $1000 bonds from the Plague War, handed down to me upon my eldest brother's death. At the time of this letter's writing, the estimated worth of these bonds is over $300,000. This is a personal gift from me to you. Please, do not stuff it away in some forgotten Swiss bank account. Use it, buy yourself a home, indulge some in your life. Lord knows I never have.

Also in this packet is a small pouch that I ask you keep closed until you have established your place in life. Put them in the safest place possible, and leave them there. Do not forget where you have kept this pouch over the years. It is invaluable to both myself, and you.

I'm hoping to move into a small condo on the Yucatan. There's enough left in my accounts to pay for a place on the beach. I'll call you when I get there. Who knows? Maybe in a few years time, you can move in with me.

Until next we meet, Jeff.

Gabe

I slid the letter back into the packet, tears rolling freely down my face. I pulled out the clip of war bonds, securely fastened together with small rubber bands. I stuck my muzzle inside to see the small, black velvet pouch mentioned in the letter. Placing everything as it was, I resealed the packet and sat back heavily in my chair.

"I can't drive home." I said, as serious as one could imagine.

"I think Trey will be happy to take you there." Fox said.

"I didn't know him for long, Jeff, but he was on hell of a man." Jack said, trying to make the shock lessen a bit. It helped. A little.

"In time, things will get better, Jeff. Time heals all wounds."

There was only one thing going through my mind right now. I wanted this Dr. Chandra, and I wanted him to myself. "I'm not about to let this man get away with what he did to my friend."

"No one saw it coming, Jeff. Not even Gabriel." Bob said.

"I should have. I should have never said those things to my friend. If it hadn't wasted the time on my Power. I relied on it too..."

"There's no sense in beating yourself up for this, Jeff." Jack said comfortingly, "I can tell what's going on in your mind, and I too want a crack at Chandra. But the only way to approach this is cleanly and logically."

"To hell with that." I growled, "I'm going to stab him in the heart like he did Gabe. I'm going to watch him die, slowly and painfully."

Everyone sighed, not wanting to say anything at a time like this. I stood and took the packet with me. Everyone joined me at the same time, and together we walked towards the door, where Trey was waiting for me.

"Come on, Jeff. I'll drive you home." He said.

"I'd rather come back for the car later. Can I just get home now?"

Trey nodded and took my hand in his talon. Bob spoke up from behind me, "Don't bother to report in until after the funeral, Jeff. Take the time to mourn."

"I've mourned enough, Bob," I said flatly, "I want revenge now." Trey took the hint that it was time to leave, and as Fox opened his mouth to reply to that, he faded into a blue sphere of light, and was promptly replaced with a houseplant that stood next to my front door. Trey reeled slightly and collapsed onto the couch, his feather making a whuff sound against the furniture.

"Are you ok?" I said. I rushed to it, I could tell, mostly because I was already in a deep depression from losing my greatest friend, I feared that maybe my other friend was in trouble, too.

Instead, he waved me off weakly with a hand, "No... No, I'm fine. At least I will be in a little bit. Each time I teleport a full person, it really exhausts me. I can do maybe one at a time. Two is a stretch, and I think three would kill me."

I grimaced, "Please, for the love of God, don't say that. If you died... I... I..." I tried to finish my sentence, but it was drowned in the renewed tears that were soaking into the fur on my cheeks.

Trey stood and wrapped his arms about me sorrowfully, his wings joining in the embrace. I burrowed my muzzle into the feathers on his shoulder and cried like a newborn cub.

"They murdered him, Trey. They killed to get at me. Oh, God, they killed him..."

He didn't say anything. He just held me in his arms and covered me with his wings as best he could. I tossed the envelope with the war bonds into the couch and cried some more. Maybe I wasn't finished mourning my friend. Maybe I never would be.

I woke up the next day to the -clitter clatter- of keys typing on the keyboard. I stumbled out my bed and slipped on some pants, taking care to thread the needle in the back. It was strange that I didn't even remember getting undressed the night before. I moaned and gripped my head, the throbbing in my temples slowly bringing back what I had experienced the day before. At least I thought it was the day before. I couldn't tell now.

A cheerful voice chirped from the room across the hall, "I hear you're up, Jeff. No small feat for a bird-of-prey. You make a rather loud waker, you know."

"Yeah, Trey. I'm a lion, they're notoriously loud wakers."

"Long sleepers, too. You've been out cold for almost 48 hours."

I blinked, disbelieving. "What time is it?"

Trey popped his head in from the hallway, "It's 3:30 PM, December 30. You've been asleep for nearly two days, man."

I reeled, "Two... Two days?"

Trey nodded, "Yessir. Tried everything I could to wake you up, but you wouldn't budge." He smiled as best he could and walked the rest of the way into the room, taking a seat on the bed. He tapped a talon, indicating I should sit next to him, and I did. He promptly wrapped a wing around me and said soothingly, "How do you feel?"

"About what?" I said, trying to avoid the issue.

Trey frowned with the sides of his beak, "You're only kidding yourself, Jeff. You need some time to think this over, and not let yourself become enraged over this."

I felt more saddened than I had in the past few days. I remembered the hopelessness when I realized that there was nothing that I could do to save Gabe, I remembered the wrenching madness that gripped my heart as I roared. But most of all, I remembered the rage I felt towards the man that did this to me; the absolute rage and anger. It was an incredible pain that I had been dealt, and I wanted revenge.

"Jeff, stop that, you're scaring me." I heard Trey say. I was so lost in thought that it sounded like he was miles away. Apparently, I had started growling madly while I thought about Chandra. I had gone a bit farther than and had dug my claws into the no-rip fabric that covered my bed. Amazingly, it had held, and I released it from my grip.

"I'm sorry. I, I just got lost in thought."

"It's thoughts like that we don't need, Jeff. I can't have you flying off at the handle at every mention of what happened."

I sighed. Trey was right, I was letting the bastard win. He knew that I was one of the real threats to his plan. He also knew that the best way to attack a foe is often indirectly, and he had sure dealt all of us a crushing blow. "Damn him," I said aloud. "Damn him straight to hell."

"You'll get your chance, Jeff. I'll make sure of it." He stood and fluttered his tail feathers a bit. "I took the liberty of getting your car back from the hospital. It's got a full cell, by the way."

I smiled half-heartedly. The other half was still dead. "Thanks."

"It was the least I could do." He helped me up from the bed and handed me a shirt.

I took it from him gruffly and spat, "I don't need to be babied, Trey."

"I know. I just thought I'd be helpful while I'm here." He sighed and continued, "We're all going through the same pain that you are, Jeff. You don't have to do this alone."

I sighed, "Yes, Trey. I do. I'll be around." I walked towards the door and picked up the keys from the coffee table. It was then that I remembered how Gabe had used his Power to toss them in the air and stall them, then sling them up again. A deep frown crossed my muzzle and I clenched them tightly in my paw as I tried somewhat unsuccessfully to suppress the burning rage that welled up inside me. I noticed the envelope given to me at the hospital, and I dug around inside it. Finding the wad of savings bonds, I took them out and placed them in a pants pocket.

As I reached for the door, Trey called out from behind, "Jeff?"

I turned around, tears once again welling up in my eyes, "Yeah?"

"You be careful, ok?"

"I will," I said as I headed out of the door and toward my car.

I drove around looking for a local branch of my bank for what seemed like hours. Gabe had said that I should enjoy the gift that he had given me, and I wasn't about to let his wish go unfulfilled. I was still unfamiliar with the surrounding San Diego area, and after weaving through the myriad of one-way streets for a while, I was thoroughly lost.

Blind luck sent me down a street that had a branch of my bank, and as I stood in line for the teller, I couldn't help but think about the past few weeks of my life that were missing. Just what on earth had gone on in the outside world as I lay in my coma? It seemed like things had become difficult enough with the Change, and that people showed their remarkable ability to adapt rather well, but now this? The loss of a loved one was something that no one could truly cope with, and the fact that the final few days of my friend's life I spent in a hospital bed was especially depressing. I had only one day with him before he was killed, no murdered. I felt guilty for leaving him like that, but deep down I knew I had no choice in the matter. Life had ordered me lemons, and I was going to make the person that served me to them choke on them.

"Sir, can I help you? Sir?" the receptionist said, her whiskers flitting back and forth nervously. I broke out of my reverie and noticed the rather small female fox-morph looking rather impatient with me.

"Oh, I'm sorry," I apologized, and handed the bonds over to her, "I'd like to sell these for their worth."

She gaped at the wad of bonds I handed her and nodded absently. She motioned for a manager, and a rather large looking goshawk joined her at the window. He looked incredulously at the bonds, too, then began instructing her on how to cash them in. I waited patiently, my mind wondering while the transaction went through.

I felt a tap on my shoulder after a few minutes. It was the manager, "Sir, if you'd follow me."

I nodded obediently and followed behind the manager into a small enclosed office. He sat behind a desk and offered me a seat on the other side. I took it somewhat heavily.

The manager spoke, "The serial numbers correspond to a special account opened by one Gabriel Walters 50 years ago. Could I see some ID?"

I nodded, almost fully expecting something like this. I handed over my drivers license. He took it and nodded, then pressed a button on the desk's edge. A small DNA scanner rose from the desk. "Added security, you know. Only two people can cash in these bonds, and your name matches. Just making sure, sir."

"I know." I placed my paw on the scanner while it did its job. After a few seconds, the electronic voice replied: "Subject: Jeffery Williams. Verification accepted. Item delivery in progress."

The manager blinked, "Item delivery?" Just then, a blue flash of light lit under the door, and it opened slightly. A small lowddie rodent morph that I couldn't immediately identify walked through carrying a small key in its hand.

He stopped, "Jeffery Williams?" he said with a thick foreign accent.

I nodded, "That's me."

He handed the key to me, "This was to be delivered to you upon the transaction of your bonds. Here." I took the key with some trepidation, and he nodded. Not more than a second later, he was gone, teleported back from where ever he had come from.

"That was unexpected." The manager said.

I gazed wondrously at the key I held in my hand, "That it was."

The rest of the visit of the bank went without incident. I walked out the door with over $300,000 and a small key in my pocket. As I got into my car, and began to drive off, I thought what on earth the key could be to. The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe that it was linked back to that pouch that sat in the envelope at home. I was tempted t o turn around and drive home, except that I didn't know exactly where that was. I was regretting not going out with Trey and Gabe that night.

As I drove back towards the general direction of my apartment, happened to find a road that overlooked the sea. The sun setting on the horizon, over looking the Pacific, igniting the sky with such a radiant display of pinks, oranges, and blues that my breath left me momentarily. I took the next off-ramp from the highway and slowly made my way down to the beach itself, looking into the sunset the whole way. I parked the car just off the beach and walked out towards the water the warm, but cooling sands ticking in between the digits of my paws.

I walked forward some more, the cold sea water just starting to lap at my feet. The horizon, in all its colors, was swallowing up the sun slowly. I stood in awe and watched as it sank lower and lower past my sight, as the sky snuffed itself and brought out the twinkling stars to rule the night sky. It was soothing to watch a sunset again. I couldn't remember the last time I had done so.

I went back to my car and cranked it up, and found my way onto the highway again. I drove until I found a neighborhood that looked familiar, and then as I approached it in the darkness I realized that it was my own. Threading my way through the apartment complex was not an easy task, as many of the tenants were heading out for an evening on the town. I seemed to be the only person coming home.

I parked outside of my apartment and got out of my car, locking it in the process. I tried the door and found it was unlocked. Opening it with my key, I found the house was totally dark inside, except for a small blinking red light indicating I had video message awaiting me. Luckily, the enhanced night vision I had from being a feline came in handy. So much so that I really don't have to use my headlights when I'm driving at nights. I walked over to the video-phone without incident and pressed the receive button. I was greeted with an image of Trey, and the number "1" in the top corner of the screen, indicating that there was one more message on the machine. I listened attentively to the message.

"Hey, Jeff. I'm going out tonight to have a little fun and to get this whole mess away from me until tomorrow. Fox took care of the formal wear, there are two black suits in my bedroom for the funeral tomorrow. Services start at 8 AM." His look became softer, and he said pleadingly. "Jeff, please try to have a little fun before the funeral. I don't care how, but I don't think Gabe would have liked you fretting over this. Please?"

He sighed, "I'll be back before midnight. See ya." His image cut off and was quickly replaced by another. This time it was Fox.

"Jeff, I'm not sure if you've heard, but I've already got the funeral preparations taken care of. But that's not why I called. I need to talk to you after the ceremony, in private. Until then, get some rest, loosen up, just do whatever you think you need to do."

I shut off the messages, and sighed. I couldn't relax, no matter what I did. The sunset helped, but when it was over, reality reared itself at me again, and the pain returned just as strong as ever. There was no escape from it. No escape until justice was served. I checked the clock on the display and it showed 11:45. Trey would be back anytime soon, as he never used a car unles he had to. He usually flew to where he wanted to go, or even teleported if he knew the place.

I walked back to my bedroom, noticing that the suits that Trey had spoken of were hanging on the outside of the door, and that the door was pulled closed. I shrugged it off and walked into my bedroom, stripping off my clothes. The only way that I was to prepare for tomorrow was to dream about what was never to be again. I crawled into my bed and curled upon myself, wrapping my tail about my face. Soon, just as I began to doze off, I heard the lock in the front door -click- noisily in my ears. I was to tired to investigate, so I surmised that Trey had just teleported outside the house and was coming in through the door.

Still, the door to Trey's room was pulled, and it made me wonder just a little. But my mind was on other things, so I shut my door a little more noisily than I would have hoped for and crawled into bed. I curled up, and soon the room slipped into darkness as I fell asleep.

The figure slid stealthily into the house and pushed the door close, the knife he carried glowing a faint red under his shirt. He pushe the door to and cringed as the sound of a loud -SLAM- echoed in his ears. He realized that it wasn't his door, but the one coming from the bedroom. He reached into his shirt an pulled out the knife, it's red glow illuminating the darkened living room. Quietly, he slinked into the hallway, noticing the two suits hanging on the other bedroom door. He grinned silently, knowing one of those suits would be filled with a dead man the next day.

He clutched the door handle and turned it. It swung inward with a -creak-, and in the knife's glow, the man saw the sleeping figure of Jeff, curled into a ball on his bed.

An evil smile broke upon his face, and he walked to the bedside, raising the knife above his head...

"Revenge is a dish best served cold."

Trey blinked his eyes open at the loud clatter of the door slamming across the hall. Most bird morphs were notoriously light sleepers, and his species was no exception. He was especially sensitive to noise at this time; he had just gotten onto his perch and tucked his head in after a night of partying. His eyesight was phenomenal, but his hearing was a bit dulled due to his morphic form as an avian.

But the door slamming was enough to wake him. His curiosity aroused, he hopped lightly from his perch and stretched his wings, yawning tiredly. He glanced to the LED clock on his laptop's screen, and he sighed at it showing 11:50. He'd only been home for about half an hour, and asleep for about ten minutes. He walked over to the door and opened it; certain that it was Jeff that had slammed the door, but he thought he'd had better make sure.

Across the hall was something that Trey really wished that he'd never seen. Even in the inky darkness, he could see Jeff's curled, sleeping form lying on his bed and someone else, towering over the bed, a glowing red knife held over his head, at the ready.

For what seemed like millennia, the assassin stood there, the knife raised, ready to strike. Time seemed to slow, and Trey watched as the knife began to begin its downward slice, frozen and helpless. Downward, inevitably down, and suddenly, out of reflex, Trey's arm shot out at the intruder just as the glowing knife seemed to disappear into Jeff's sleeping body.

There was a soul-rending roar as Jeff cried out in pain from the attack. He erupted from his sleep and clawed blindly in the direction of the assailant.

"NOOOOO!" Trey screamed and he pointed a talon at the intruder. Instantly, the man's attention was drawn to the bird morph, and as he drew nearer, he began to convulse violently, the outline of his body in the night glowing with an iridescent green. Trey screamed in both agony and terror as his eyes drew into slits and burned themselves into the man. The intruder collapsed to the floor, his moaning turning to muffled gurgles as his form started to waver, and with a final cry of agony, his head dissipated into countless particles. Trey screamed at the dying form, and with a shriek of rage, he thrust his Power at the remnants of the man, and it exploded into the air, dissolving into nothingness.

Trey stumbled into the hall, the deed exhausting him to the point of collapse. He fell onto Jeff's bed, where the stunned lion morph was whimpering; pawing helplessly at his glowing red knife imbedded in his side. Trey noticed that in the struggle that Jeff had shifted to norm, and he feared that his friend might be losing his mind to the leonine instincts. He wrapped his hand around the knife's handle and pulled it from Jeff's side. The lion ROARED in pain, then calmed down and whimpered slightly. Then Jeff did something that lifted Trey's hopes. The lion kissed his cheek. Jeff was still in there, he hoped.

Trey grasped a bit of Jeff's mane in his talons and preyed to God that he had the strength to make it to the Institute's ER. He concentrated hard, and soon the room illuminated in the familiar blue light. Trey could feel his strength ebbing away, but he knew that he had to get Jeff to the hospital as soon as possible.

The bedroom disappeared in a blue flash, and was replaced by an eerily empty ER waiting room. Trey was sprawled out on the floor, the only strength remaining in him being used to breathe. He found the reserve to cry for help, and a nurse assisted his to his feet.

The lizard morph nurse recognized him immediately, "Mr. McElveen?"

"Jeff..." Trey breathed. "They... got Jeff." And he lost consciousness.

I woke up in the most exquisite pain. I pawed at the bandages on my left side and groaned in agony. I remember the bastard stabbing me, and Trey pulling the knife out of me, but after that, my memory is a blur. I think I shifted somewhere in there, but I'm not sure.

I glanced around myself and realized that I was in Trauma 3 in the Institute's ER. The white lights above me gleamed brightly in my eyes, and I shut them to block out the light and the pain.

A slight -click- of claws on the floor told me that someone was approaching. A soft, familiar, but overly exhausted voice said, "Jeff? You okay?"

"I... I'll live, Trey." I replied slowly. My mind was busy trying to overcome the Nullify Power on the knife and heal my wounds. I was making some progress, but it would still be more than a day before I was fully healed. I could concentrate all my Power on one cut better than many, so it was slow going, but going nonetheless.

"I've called Fox and Bob. They're on their way." Trey said weakly. I opened my eyes and smiled at the sight of my friend gazing down at me, the fluorescent light above haloing his head. I reached up and touched his tear-streak as a gesture of thank you, and he smiled.

"I damn near didn't make it here, Jeff."

"I know." I said, sleep wanting to overtake me again. I felt like giving in, but not this time. I'd missed too much of my life recently and wasn't about to lose even more.

Trey looked about him, as if what he was about to say was so important that no one but me could listen in, "Jeff. There's something more going on here. This isn't just about experiments, something fishy is going on."

I was obliged to agree. It seemed too trivial to take out the entire team, person by person, and as far as I know, no attacks had come upon Jack or Bob or any of the other members. Why was he deliberately coming after me, and Gabe before me?

No matter how hard I thought, every path I could imagine lead back to that black velvet pouch sitting in... my... living...

"Dear God, Trey. Where's the packet Gabe gave me? Is it still in the house?"

Trey looked confused for a moment, "It should be. I placed it in one of your drawers after you left yesterday to go to the bank."

I breathed a sigh of relief, "Thank God. I think that what's in that packet is the key to everything going on around here."

Trey looked saddened, "I... I would go and get it, but I'm too tired. I barely survived bringing you here. I can't make it back."

I shook my head ever so slightly. "No, Trey. I wouldn't open it anyway. I have to honor Gabe's wishes." Trey nodded in understanding.

It was then that Fox and Bob entered the room, looks of worry and grief on their faces. I sat up in the bed and shrugged Trey away as he tried to lay me back down. The pain raced in my body and I groaned, but fought through it.

Fox was quick to come to my side, "Jeff, just what the hell is going on?"

I looked at him, disbelieving, "For once, you don't know?" He shook his head. "Great," I sighed, clutching my side, "That makes two of us."

Bob added, "This doesn't make any sense. I mean, why would he want to go after you and Gabe? Jack and I are what he should be worried about."

"I don't know, Dr. Stein. I really don't know." It was a small lie, but even I couldn't be sure at what my mind was telling me about the packet. I laid back on the gurney and sighed, "Is it tomorrow yet?"

"You didn't miss much this time, Jeff. It's only 3 AM." I sighed and closed my eyes. I might be wounded, but I'd rather be dead than to miss the funeral.

"Jeff?" Fox called.

"Yes?"

"I still need to talk to you. After the ceremony today."

"Fine. I can't wait."

Before I slipped back into rest, I swore I heard Fox whisper, "You'll wish you could."

I woke up in the same bed about two hours before the funeral was to begin. I sat up, the stitched wound noticeably better, but still screaming in pain at every step. I saw my suit draped over a chair in the waiting room, so I tested my legs and walked over to get it. I winced with every pawfall, but I retrieved the black suit and walked back into the trauma room. I took off my hospital robe and attended to my dressings, checking the wound for anything out of the ordinary. Other than the melding red/green colors of the Powers colliding with each other, nothing seemed amiss. I slipped on my pants, ignoring the protests my body made. I'd be dammed if I missed the funeral because of Chandra, too.

Luckily, the stab wound did minimal damage to my internal organs. In fact, it seemed the assailant stabbed me in the one place that it would harm me the least.

I put on my coat and buttoned the top button fine. But the second one squeezed the injury, making me double over in pain. I quickly, and awkwardly, unfastened the buttons and left them open. I was lucky the pants were half a size too big, or they too would have crushed my side, and my wound. I gasped for a bit of air, and tried to take a step out of the room, but nearly fell over. The pain was too much; I'd need something to steady myself when I walked. I stumbled over to the counter, against a near wall, and found a cane standing next to it. I grasped its handle and supported myself. With a few steps, I found that even though I might look like a decrepit old lion, I was a painless, decrepit old lion.

Now dressed for the sad occasion, I walked out into the halls and asked the receptionist where Trey and the others had gone. She said that she hadn't seen them since they came in, so I could only assume that they hadn't left yet. I thanked her and she smiled, and I went back into the trauma room.

I was surprised when I saw Trey there, resting on the bed and breathing heavily. I walked over to his side, "Are you okay?"

"I just killed a man, Jeff. I'm not okay."

I was about to open my mouth to reply, but I thought better of it. Instead, I said, "I'd like to thank you, Trey. For everything."

He shook his head and ruffled his feathers a bit in a gesture of resignation, "Look, I don't want to talk about it, ok?"

I wasn't about to hear that, "Trey, you know it's not a good think to keep your feelings bottled up. You can tell me anything."

I frowned so deep I swore I saw his beak bend. He looked away and said very quietly, "I liked it."

"You what? I didn't hear."

He turned to me and ripped into me with the words, "I liked it! I liked seeing him on the floor, writhing in agony! I liked blowing him into pieces. I liked doing it slowly and painfully! I enjoyed every minute of it! It that what you wanted to hear?!?" He seethed in anger, his pulse racing and his breathing fierce.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that your instincts took over back there."

He sighed and looked away again, "I know that. But it just seemed... wrong. I don't know, I just feel bad about the whole thing."

"You saved my life. I wouldn't feel to bad about that."

Trey seemed to perk up a bit. He sat up in the stretcher and smiled, albeit weakly, "Yeah, I guess you're right about that."

I grinned, then winced in pain a bit, "Aren't I always?"

We sat and talked for a while longer. He got dressed in his tux for the funeral. He looked rather nice: the black suit contrasting with his colorful plumage wonderfully. Bob and Fox showed up just before the time we were supposed to leave, and together we climbed into a limo that Fox had apparently "borrowed" from a local rental service. The drive to the funeral home was almost an hour, so we chatted along the way. The talk was mostly about Gabe, but after a while it turned to more personal things.

"So what do you think is behind all this, Jeff?" Fox asked. "It's not like the mad Doctor to come chasing after people."

I was reluctant to say, but I thought that it would be for the best if I told about the pouch in the envelope. I did, and I saw Fox's eyes get as wide as dinner plates.

"Open that bloody thing up, Jeff! What's in it??" Bob nodded assent. Trey shrugged, showing that he had no preference.

I, on the other hand, wanted to respect Gabe. "The note that Gabe sent me said that it was to be opened at a later date. I'd like to follow that, if you don't mind."

Fox sighed, "You really want to take that chance? Look, Chandra's already tried twice to.."

I cut him off, "Listen, I don't know if that's what Chandra's after, okay? It's just a theory. But no matter what you say, I'm not opening that pouch until the time comes! Is that clear?"

Fox say back heavily, his tail curling around his paws, "You could be making a big mistake, ol' chap."

"I made a mistake when I touched that patient in the ER back home, too."

Fox nodded, "But this one you could avoid."

The rest of the trip was spent in silence. Only the sound of my groaning as the wound screamed in pain split the still air.

We arrived at the funeral home and piled out, like a procession of depressed penguins. We headed in, and I was surprised at the size of the room. It had high, vaulted ceilings, and every time you took a breath, the sound echoed throughout the room. Chairs, at least 20 in a row, lined a very wide aisle, and at the head of the alley, on the altar, was Gabe's coffin.

Closed.

I bit back tears, "Oh God, closed coffin... How many times did that monster stab him?"

Trey whispered, "They lost count." I felt a new pain lance up my palms and into my arms as I clenched my fists, piercing my hands with my claws. I cursed under my breath and sealed up the cuts as fast as I could.

We took our seats and waited. Slowly, doctors from the Institute, family members that I had met and long forgotten their names, and even strangers from the street filled the voluminous room, until there was no one left standing. I looked around, abashed at those that had turned out for the ceremony.

Bob leaned over to me, "We shifted the ER over to County. The Institute is on minimal staff. Gabe had quite a few friends."

A tear soaked into the fur on my cheek, "I know. I was one of them."

I don't even remember much of the ceremony, only that a few relatives came and talked about how great a friend, cousin, and other relations he was. All I recall was staring at the glowing, mahogany coffin, wondering just where the hell my life took the plunge into the deep end.

I remembered him saying on the night he died that I was like a son to him. And it was now that I realized that I felt like he was the father that was always there by my side. I thought back to the day we first met, up in the OR, and how he guided me through my first time in surgery. I remembered the day of the Change, in the OR with Mr. Jameston, during the appendectomy. I remembered visiting him after his accident that day.

I let the world pass me by as I tried so desperately to hold on to the last remnants of my friend: my memories. Accompanied only by the pain that Chandra had given me physically, and the thoughts that flashed like a slide show in my mind, I cried into my paws, weeping away the sorrow and the pain that had accumulated over so many years of life.

And yet I knew that even though my friend, no... my father had completed his time on earth, mine was only beginning, and that I was left to carry on some legacy, some burden that, within the pouch, Gabe had left to me.

Pallbearers were called, and I snapped out of my private reverie when Bob stood up. I was not in the least surprised; the mahogany casket had to have weighed a considerable amount. Three others joined him, and I chuckled only softly when Trey tried to spread some levity by saying that Bob was the only one that really needed to be up there.

I noticed in a quick glance to him that he too, was crying.

The four lifted the casket easily, and turned towards the door. The entire procession stood, turned towards the aisle, and as the coffin passed, bowed their heads in silent prayer. I followed suit, but I did not prey for Gabe. I had done that everyday of my life. I vowed that the man that did this would pay, and pay dearly.

The procession marched on, and as they passed the rows they each filed in behind the coffin, beginning a sorrowful trail of tears out to the burial site. I lost myself in the crowd, my mind too clouded with emotions to even begin to comprehend what was going on. We all walked outside, into the hot, bright sun, and towards the freshly excavated hole where Gabe would be laid to rest for the final time. The pallbearers set the coffin on the lift, and then returned to the throng that had gathered around the grave.

Bob came and stood next to me, "For the love of God, I don't ever want to have to do that again. I don't know who's deader: Gabe, or me." I was obliged to agree, although right now, I couldn't really tell if I was alive or not.

A priest that had earlier spoken of Gabe came and spoke the last words: "Ashes to ashes... Dust to dust..."

The rest of the prayer was lost in rage. I stormed off from the ceremony, my mind an infinitum of hatred and sorrow, my body a skewered hull. I sat on a marble bench, ornately carved with scenes of both Heaven and Hell. I laid my muzzle on Satan's head and raked my claws into the slick stone. Exhausted, I sobbed, each wail sending sheets of agony from my side into the rest of my being. I cried until the exhaustion overtook me, sending me into silent nothingness.

"Jeff, it's over."

I awoke, my head still resting on the devil's sculpture. I looked up and saw Fox take the seat next to me, resting his weary body and leaning on the figure of Jesus. He gave me a look that beckoned for release, for something that would resolve all the pain we felt. But I knew that there was nothing in existence that would cure us from this agony.

I nodded assent weakly, "Yeah. It is."

"I came to talk to you, finally. It's about the mission."

I sat up, gripping my side and moaning, "What is it? Want Chandra's head under glass?"

He sighed and looked away, like what he was about to say was going to destroy the both of us.

It was then that I began to worry, "Jesus, what is it, Fox?"

"I'm.... I'm taking you off the team, Jeff."

My jaw fell, "What the hell..."

"You're staying home. I can't risk putting you in danger like this..."

"FUCK THAT!" I roared, my wound flaring in agony, "Chandra is mine! He killed my friend, and he took a shot at me! I'll be god-fucking-damned if you pull me from this now." I bared my teeth at Fox and bore down on him like he was my prey. "Now you just forget what you said and everything will go back to normal."

But Fox did something that I did not expect. He retaliated, "AND IT'S THIS LOOSE CANNON ATTITUDE THAT I WILL NOT HAVE IN INDIA, DO YOU HEAR ME?! Not only are you a danger to yourself and the mission, but one irrational, irresponsible action and the rest of the team may be coming home in boxes, just like Gabe!" His eyes narrowed to slits as he glared back at me, meeting my gaze with equal ferocity, "Now you just forget you ever crossed my path, you hear me? Or I will have you sedated and on probation faster than you can blink."

I retreated. I was in no mood to argue, and I honestly had never had anyone stand up to me like that before. Besides, I was a hair's width from tearing Fox's throat out and leaving him a bloody mess on the ground. I sat back down with a heavy sigh and said, "Yessir."

He followed suit, "Jeff, I'm doing this for your own good. You're welcome to stay on at the hospital and help out there, but I just can't let you come to India, not under the circumstances."

I nodded, "I understand."

Fox stood, "Come on, Jeff. Let's go. Like we said, it's over."

Slowly, and not without effort, I stood, "No. This part is over. The real game is just beginning."

As we walked back to the limo, I contemplated just what was in the pouch, and just how I was going to smuggle myself into the front lines.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures."

Time was growing short. The second team, consisting of David, Bob, and the others were ready to go. They were in position in India; all they needed was some information on Chandra's base of operations. The time for recon was at hand, and not more than three days after Gabe was put to rest, then the plane was loaded up and ready for the flight.

I had stayed home from working the ER that day; long enough to contemplate the happenings that had taken place in the brief time that had elapsed. It all seemed to go by so fast, the days blurred by the passage of one incredulous incident after another.

And it all came to a screeching halt three days ago. My world crumbled down around me, and I felt more alone than I ever had before. My greatest friend had been taken from me, struck down in a fashion that I myself almost experienced. I touched the place that the attacker had stabbed me. Thanks to my Power, it had healed cleanly just this morning, leaving no evidence or scarring. But the scars it had left could not be measured with the eyes, but only by my own heart.

I sat by the videophone, on the couch, staring at the plain manila envelope that I had retrieved from my dresser drawer mere moments ago. It seemed like eons ago when I first looked inside this small package, reading the letter that Gabe had left for me inside. I felt empty, frightened. Alone.

Slowly, and reluctantly, I retrieved the small black pouch from the package and stared at it. I didn't need to read the letter to remember that Gabe had asked me, explicitly asked me not to open this pouch "until I had found my place in life".

But what was left? He was gone, the mission was leaving without me. I wasn't any more than I started out as. I was still Dr. Jeffery Williams, the leonine healer.

And then, like a bolt, it struck me. This was my place in life. I had trained myself: years of Med school, biology, internal chemistry, surgical techniques, poise, balance, and calm. And here I was.

I was there.

And I knew what I had to do with this pouch. Taking the slender, satin strings that held it closed, I opened the fabric container. A metallic twinge of air hit my nose immediately, and I dumped the contents on the table.

There was an old metal key, a small slip of paper, and a photograph.

I read the paper:

Jeff:

Only house on the beach. Yucatan. My vacation spot.

It struck me there that I had not noticed that Gabe was thinking about moving into a small condo on the Yucatan Peninsula when I had first read the note. But, from knowing him, I knew that he owned a small house, and went there for a vacation every year, even before I met him. It didn't make sense. Why would he move into an entirely new house when he already owned one?

As I pondered that point, I reached out for the photograph and looked upon it. It was an old black-and-white, and the date on it read 12-15-61. In the picture were a group of what looked like research scientists gathered for a group photo, possibly for some archive of some sort. In the bottom row, I just barely recognized Gabe's old human form, sitting in the front row. Next to him was a woman: young, beautiful, radiant. The picture of health.

Her face was circled. And upon closer inspection, I could tell that she and Gabe were holding hands.

None of this made any sense. I pondered for a moment, wondering what connection this had with Gabe, and why he wanted it given to me.

I sat there, wondering what to do next. Something else that I had just dumped out of the blue, or black as it were, was staring me in the face and demanding my attention. But Chandra, too, was accosting my mind with hideous memories of my fallen friend.

No. My fallen father, as he put it.

The pouch could wait. I picked up the visi-phone and dialed.

Just who I wanted to see answered on the other end. His face brightened every time it did so, "Jeff! Had time to cool off, I see."

"Trey, you remember telling me you took Bob to Hong Kong a few days ago?"

"Yeah, sure." He replied, his eyes trying to search me for what I was hinting at. I barely attempted to hide it.

"I need a favor. I need you to smuggle me into India with you."

Trey was silent for a few heartbeats. Then finally his voice returned, "I knew you were going to ask. Wild norm-shifted horses couldn't drag you away." He paused again. "Jeff, are you absolutely sure you want to do this?" Trey asked, his avian expression showing more than his usual concern. "You heard what Fox said. If he finds you out there..."

"I've weighed the risks, and I know what I'm doing. I've got to get back at that asshole for what he did."

"As much as I agree with you, pal, I think that you should stay out of this," Trey said, "But, knowing you, you'd find someway to get yourself into India." He sighed in resignation and looked away for a moment, his image flickering in the viewscreen. "Damn. Ok, I'll do it. Rendezvous point?"

"My living room. As soon as you get the time alone to pull it off."

"Ok. But you owe me for the rest of your life."

"I already do, remember?"

He grinned at the corners of his beak, and hung up.

A few hours later, and after more contemplation than I ever would want to quantify again, a blue flicker of light appeared in my living room. Trey motioned for me and I took his arm, and soon my living room was awash in the light, slowly fading and melting, the furniture undergoing its own Change. My couch became a small bench, my lamp a torch. And my potted plant slowly morphed into the rather agitated form of Fox Cutter.

Trey teleported me into their briefing room in India, I surmised. The room had low, moody lighting, and it reeked of jungle humidity. The high twitter of bugs and bustle surrounded my ears, the night sounds of India prevalent even to the deaf. The every sound vibrated my bones. Standing behind a chair was Fox Cutter, apparently waiting on me. To his side was Jack, tapping a hoof idly on the floor. Trey slumped slightly, tired from dragging me along, but after a few quick breaths, he was back up on his talons again.

I looked about as soon as the transport was over, "What's going on?" I hadn't expected to appear in front of the whole team. "The plan was secrecy, Trey."

The falcon pointed to Jack, "With him around, nothing's secret." He gave me that infectious grin. I didn't catch it.

Fox looked to me, "Are we all ready, then?" Everyone nodded, including me. "Well then, here's the plan. Satellite photos show us where Chandra's base is located. The mission is simple: get it, get info, get out. Sweet, succinct, and to the point. Got it."

"Got it," I said. I was echoed soon by Trey and Jack.

Fox continued, "Team 2 needs the info that this recon is getting. We've sort of thrown every one together, but it's needed." He gave each of us a stern look, "Jack's leading the team since he's got the most training. Trey, you're demo, if necessary. Don't be afraid to RDS if needed."

I blinked and looked to my friend, puzzled, "RDS?"

"Don't ask," he said. I pursued no further.

Fox cast me a disgruntled look, "I'll talk with you alone. The rest of you can get ready." They nodded and exited the room that I had materialized in.

Fox growled, "I don't give a damn why you think you're here, Jeff. You are here to protect the lives of Jack and Trey, need the necessity arise. Like I said earlier, I will not have this mission become your personal vendetta. But, having reconsidered, I rather have you out there, trusting your judgement rather than my convictions."

I smiled, taking in everything that he said. "Agreed. But if it comes down to it, Chandra is mine." I unsheathed my claws, their razor-sharpness glinting in what little light shone in the room.

Fox sighed, "I can't guarantee that, Jeff. But as much as I hate to admit it, I'd like to see you take that step." He motioned towards the door, "Get ready. We leave in 20 minutes. I don't care how you get that information on the base, just do it."

I snapped to mock attention and saluted, "Yessir!"

The excursion to the base was made in complete silence. My amplified night vision from being feline was a greater asset than anyone expected. Trees, water, roads, and even people were just as visible as they were in the broad daylight. I kept the team pointed in the right direction, towards Chandra's home base. I sketched the path we took on a slip of paper, trying my best to view the dark marks on the sheet as best I could, even with my vision at night. It was still difficult.

As we approached the complex, I handed the paper to Trey, and he tucked it under his wing feathers with a nod. Creeping up to the edge of the thick underbrush that surrounded the old Plaque hospital, Jack, Trey, and I stalked to within striking range.

Jack probed the area with his mind, and then reported just below a whisper, "No sign of metal opposition, team. I'm a little surprised at our adversary, I expected more."

And I knew there was more out there. I had something, *something* that Chandra wanted, and I didn't know what. I felt like I was being lulled into a false sense of security, and the lack of opponents justified that.

"This is too easy," I commented.

"Then lets go in there and get the job done." Trey said.

"Shielding on, folks." Jack ordered, and we switched on our recon suits that we had donned while we were getting ready earlier. The suits were constructed of a most amazing fabric: stronger than Kevlar, while absorbing most sounds made by the wearer during times of movement. When engaged, the suit melted into a dark black hue, nearly indistinguishable from the night itself. Simply perfect for stealth.

Without a sound, Jack parted the brush and Trey crawled through, followed by Jack and me. We hugged the ground, crawling quietly along, my eyes keeping peeled for any sign of movement, Jack ears doing the same for sound.

We inched forward, and when the entire team was convinced of the safety, we stood and sprinted for the entry gates, our suits masking our movements perfectly. Trey spread a hole in the most certainly electrified chain-link fence wide enough to drive a Mack truck through. Jack waved us through and we entered the main courtyard.

I suddenly felt the most damning sense of impending doom, so much so that it froze me right where I stood while Trey and Jack continued towards the entrance to the complex. It turned out to be a rather drastic mistake, for no sooner than I froze a shot rang out from above and a searing pain lanced through my arm. I roared and Trey and Jack spun around just as floodlights perched upon the concrete walls bathed the courtyard in light so bright that it rivaled the sun from space. Trey instantly spotted the gunman, and then just as instantly dispersed him.

I clenched at my arm and ripped out a small tranquilizer dart, the plunger all the way down, the sedative within me. Only one thought gripped my mind at this moment, "Trey, get out! Now!"

It was then, as the world became black for the umpteenth time in very few days that Chandra, whoever he was... was after me. And only me.

"Some secrets are best left untold."

Bright white light. Where ever I was, it was immersed in a radiant glow of fluorescent light. The first thought that breached the cloud that still hung over my mind was that I was dead, and the light was the light of God Himself.

Then there was a hollow coughing sound, followed by the instantaneous flicker of the light. I realized that God didn't hiccup like a fluorescent light, and I began to wonder where I was again. I managed to open my eyes, blinding myself somewhat, but immediate inspection of my surroundings concluded that I was in some sort of operating room, lying on my back, my tail hanging below me through a tiny hole in the operating table. Further examination showed that I was also strapped to the OR table with tight leather straps which seemed to glow a faint pink when the light from above mixed with theirs. Above me, there was some sort of observation deck, encased in glass. I was in some sort of hospital.

The haze was slowly dissipating from my thoughts, and it came to me there that I had been caught and captured by Dr. Chandra. An absolute bloodlust for the monster built up inside me. I thrashed against the table, unsheathing my claws and scraping against the cold metal slab I was latched onto. My wrists and ankles ached from where the straps bound them to the bed, and after I roared out my displeasure, I slunk back, exhausted and sobbing softly.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. I tried, Gabe. I really did.

A door opened. I tiredly turned my head towards the sound, but I found my field of vision did not reach to the entrance. I growled lowly, both in inquiry and in defense, "Who's there?"

No reply.

I try again, more urgently, "Who's there?!"

Still no reply, other than another hiccup and flicker from the faulty fluorescent light.

Finally, my patience is worn through, and I thrash against the straps and roar, "Who the fuck is there?!?! Damn you!!!"

"You needn't attempt escape, Dr. Williams. There's no way out."

I froze. How did he know my name? "Who are you?"

"You know damn well who I am, Jeff." I strained to see, contorting my neck to the side as far as it would go without breaking. I caught a glimpse of what looked like the stripes of a tiger, and my efforts were greeted with the movement of my captor fully where I could see him.

He was a high degree tiger morph, and wearing a doctor's coat. He had a pen and paper in his paws, and a rather large hypodermic needle at the ready in his coat pocket. I surmised it was for me. The man's large toothy grin spoke only of complete and utter madness, and the glint in his eye showed a lust for power that even the Devil couldn't match.

I was scared. Utterly terrified.

He walked to the side of the table and sneered down at me. "I'm the man that killed your equine companion, Dr. Walters."

Oh, I lost it then. I wriggled on the table, straining to break free from the straps. I roared at him, "I'll kill you, you hear me?? I'll fucking rip your goddamned throat out, you bastard! Just let me... Mutherfucker!"

"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I can't do that." He said, mocking me. "See, if I let you go, I won't get what I want."

I stopped again and cast my hate-filled glare at him, "What the fuck do you want?"

"I want that damn pouch, Jeff, and the shit that came in it."

My heart skipped about ten beats. I tried to rationalize all this. I must not have been knocked out all the way, and I mumbled something about Gabe's pouch while I was out, and it raised Chandra's curiosity, just like the cat he was.

Somewhere in me, I laughed at the sheer mindless stupidity of that comment.

Apparently, Chandra read my expression, "Oh, yes. I know all about that little envelope and black velvet pouch, Jeff. I have friends in high places."

I knew there had to have been a leak somewhere. There was no other way that this bastard could have know about the pouch, where Gabe lived, hell even where I lived in San Diego. "Who snitched, you bastard?"

He gave me that wry sneer again, "Detective Rao Patel, here in India. I took the liberty of kidnapping his son before the Change for a bit of protection from the Indian government, and for any information that he could give me." His sneer merged into a gin of pure insanity, "The man's a veritable gold mine. And his son reacted rather well to the genetic experiments I put him under. Oh, Patel begged and pleaded for his son's life, giving me whatever I needed. But the little child was such a tempting toy." He began to cackle, his laugh echoing off the walls of the room, enhancing the madness that was slowly creeping into my own mind.

I couldn't bring myself to speak. Instead, I mumbled, "You bastard."

His look became serious, like some rapid mood swing junkies undergo, "Where's the pouch, Jeff? I want that damn pouch."

"Fuck you." I began to wonder about the contents of that pouch. What the hell did this asshole want? Not that I cared. There was no way he was getting it.

"So be it." He withdrew the needle from his coat pocket, undid the cover on the syringe, and gave it a test squirt. It was clear. "I took the liberty of implanting you with a control device while you were having your drug-induced catnap. After I inject you with this bio-catalyst, I can control your every movement. Even added an enhanced time perception routine to the implant." He commented as if it was off the cuff. He brought the syringe down, the needle hovering over my arm, the tip brushing into my fur.

I was between a rock and a sharp place, and there was no way out. Jesus God, I had to tell, or give it up like some mindless zombie. I closed my eyes and offered a prayer of redemption, then whispered, "My bedroom, third drawer from the top, under the books."

Chandra grinned, "Thank you," just as he jabbed my arm with the needle and pressed the plunger.

Fuck.

I could feel my consciousness being shoved aside, pushed away into a tiny corner of my mind, and some new one, something almost robotic coming to the fore. I screamed at it mentally, but it paid me no mind. I felt the straps release from the table, and I sat up involuntarily. I beat upon myself, trying to make my body reach out and claw away the doctor's throat, but nothing would respond. My arms and legs were out of my control. The implant had done its job.

Damn you, I thought. Damn you straight to Hell.

My head turned to look at the mad Chandra, his evil little sneer accompanying his even more evil little laugh just perfectly. I spoke to him, my voice responding to some intangible command, "Yes sir. What do you need of me?"

He answered, "I know you're in there, Jeff, and can hear me. I'm sure you'll love this. Not too long ago, the second team decided to make its move. I managed to capture one of their members. I'm using her as a trap for the rest. You, Jeff, will be joining the rest of my squad to kill them when they make their rescue attempt."

Holy mother of God.

I stood there, in the shadows of the operating room, watching them bring in the slumped form of their captor, a female half-raccoon/half-leopard morph. I seethed in my little corner of consciousness, my anger being brought up to a boiling point. I was trapped inside my own mind, my body being forced to fight against those that I had spent the last few weeks with. And there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.

Life just isn't fair sometimes.

There was an incredible noise, like the howling of a Scottish banshee amplified to infinity. I cowered, the sound not seeming to affect the body, even though I knew my ears had to be bleeding. The reverberating shriek pierced the walls, and the glass from the observation deck obliterated, falling to the floor in heavy piles of sand, the guards standing under it knocked unconscious.

Out from the observation deck leapt some amalgamation of a giraffe and a velociraptor, and it shifted straight into the dinosaur and smacked the lion morph that had brought in the captive. He picked her up carefully, almost lovingly, and handed her off to Fox.

Fox. It was the second team.

Dear God, no, I screamed from inside my head.

Fox protected her while Jack jumped from the observation deck, slowing his descent telekinetically. It was the moment of truth, and I could only watch helplessly as I fought against my friends. I looked around my mind for some weakness in the implant that Chandra had stuck inside my head, but none was to be found. It was as if the technology that was used was far beyond any that was in use now. I whined pathetically, curling upon myself, awaiting the inevitable.

Some banter between Chandra and the rest was exchanged, and my body suddenly stepped into the dimly lit room, the florescent light switched off to mask movements. Not that it mattered, my feline eyes caught most every movement even in the dim light. And just as suddenly, the fight started, and I pulled mentally at the implant that was controlling my body. I screamed and tugged, trying to budge it with my thoughts, but nothing seemed to work. I diverted my attentions to seeing what I was doing, and gasped in horror when I saw that my body was priming itself to attack David.

The velociraptor had made short work of the lizard, slitting him up the middle. My stomach churned inside my captive self. I'd seen viscera many times in my profession, but under controlled conditions. I hoped to God that in David's certain euphoria that he recognized me, and wouldn't attack. Or would at least see that I was being controlled.

David was lost in watching the others fight their own opponent, but my body was trained upon him. Suddenly, all the motion in the room seemed to speed up. Jack was spinning his rhino opponent at a faster rate, arms blurred in motion, words scrambled. I was confused for a moment, but realized that the implant had turned on the accelerated time perception routine. Shit, I thought, David, turn around. Look at me...

Which he did, his movement a smear in my eyes. But in the quickened pace, the implant got in a few swipes at David. He dodged, then he seemed to slow down. Instantly, I knew that he could perceive time at a slower rate, and he quickly matched the implant's perception. His tail slung around, a ball of kinetic energy zooming right by myself. My eyes turned to watch it as it passed, and in the distraction, David leapt up and came crashing down on top of us.

The pain was intense. It was as if something exploded all around me, the shockwaves sending ripples of agony through my being. My other state suddenly blacked out, leaving me alone in the recesses of my mind, the throbbing discomfort leaving me without anyway to attack the implant. I sat, praying that someone would see me, praying that Fox would notice, or that Jack would recognize me.

Everything was silent for a long time. I huddled upon myself, waiting for whatever was to come to me. It seemed like an eternity. I thought of Gabe, and how I had failed him. Chandra had the pouch now. There was no doubt that he had sent someone to retrieve it. I thought of Trey, and where he was now, how he must be feeling. I wondered why he hadn't come with the second team. I crouched there, sobbing mentally, wondering just how my life had gone to pot in a few short, short weeks.

It was then that an intense pressure released from my head, and I was thrown to the front of my mind. I pried open my eyes, willing them this time, and turned my head. Pain exploded through me, and I immediately opened the book in my thoughts, switching on my Power. A warm, tingling sensation traversed my being, and slowly, carefully, my senses returned. I smelt dirt, rain, and the blood of the dying. I heard muttered conversations, rotating helicopter blades, and the throbbing in my ears. I saw the team, collected in triumph. I rolled to my stomach, my strength returning, and pressed my arms to the ground, attempting to stand. I failed, and collapsed back to the ground with a grunt.

"Fox...." I moaned, a prayer that he would hear me.

He did. "Dear God. Jeff? Jeff is that you?"

I smiled, despite my pain. "Fox, I'm gonna need some help here..."

I felt two large hands on my side, and soon I was in the air, being carried like I was a pillow. I gazed up blearily and saw Bob looking down at me, his equine muzzle looking very, very concerned, "You still with us, Jeff?"

"Barely. Can I please get out of here?"

"That's where we're headed. Just hang on."

The tingle of my Power kept on, healing me from the inside. Bob carried me out of the compound, towards the waiting tiltrotor. He laid me on the inside and started attending to me. The rest of the group loaded up into the transport, and David quickly took my side.

"Sorry for banging you up back there."

I grinned, "Not a problem. Just glad I was second." David smiled back, and the helicopter lifted off the ground, spiriting us away.

It was a few weeks later that I was healthy enough to return to San Diego. My Power helped immensely, and I was healed long before then, but I wanted to remain in India and take in the natural beauty there, something that I seemed to have missed in my brief stay. David and the rest decided to take the long way back, flying across the Pacific Ocean to San Fran, then sailing down to San Diego from San Francisco on a sailboat that David's cousin Dan had brought for them. They stopped at the hospital I was resting at and wished me a speedy recovery. David apologized again, and again, I told him it wasn't any big deal.

Now, I was standing in front of a phone, placing an international call to San Diego. The other end picked up, and I chose videophone from the menu that popped up on the LCD viewscreen. The display flickered, and I smiled when it showed exactly who had answered.

"About time you called, Jeff." Trey said. "Need a lift?"

"Yeah. And bring that pouch."

"Chandra never came for it, man. Just thought you'd like to know."

I breathed a huge sigh of relief, "Yeah. Thanks for telling me."

He nodded then hung up. Not moments later he reappeared beside me, that familiar blue flash of light coalescing into his avian form.

"I really, really wish I could do that." I said. He merely grinned and extended a clawed hand. In it was the velvet pouch that I had kept secret.

I took it. "Thanks, Trey. One more thing, however." He raised a feathered eyebrow as I dug around in my wallet that I carried with me. I extricated a small photo of a beach house and showed it to him. "Take me there, Trey."

"Will do, Jeff." He took my arm and instantly, the sting of salt air penetrated my nose. The sounds of waves crashing against the seashore filled my ears, and the sight of the sun setting into the horizon instilled me with a sense of extreme awe.

"Wow...." Trey summed up. I nodded in agreement.

Together, we strode up to the old beach house, its Victorian design sticking out like a sore thumb against the barren but beautiful shoreline. The house itself was older than Gabe was, built by vacationing Europeans that didn't want to stray too far from their own ways of life. I stepped up onto the porch, the old wood creaking beneath me. I took the key from the pouch and unlocked the front door, swinging it open wide.

The door opened directly into the living room, something that disobeyed its exterior design. Trey and I both walked in. The furniture was covered with sheets, keeping the fine film of dust away from the antique furniture. Gabe new how to unwind, that was for certain.

I looked towards a small table that sat between two couches, and there on the top was another note, and yet another key. The key was smaller than the one that opened the house. It seemed to be used to open a small trunk or lock, but not something large. I reached down and picked them both up while Trey continued to examine the rest of the house.

The note read:

My bedroom. Lower left drawer in my desk. Please, be careful.

A chill ran up my spine. Be careful? Jesus, Gabe, what were you hiding?

I spoke not a word to Trey, but headed upstairs immediately, my feline curiosity piqued. The stairs were steep, and spiraled upwards. I exited into a hall, facing a door that I tried without thinking. It opened up into a room, where in a bed with the covers pulled back stood, and next to it a small desk sat.

Trey called from downstairs, "Yo, Jeff? Where are you?"

"Up here, but I'm kinda busy. Wait on me, ok?"

"Okay, but you've got to check this kitchen out!"

I didn't reply, but instead knelt down at the desk, sliding the key into the tiny lock that held it closed.

I turned.

Click.

My heart leapt into my throat. Slowly, I opened the drawer, and looked in.

Another note. And a large gray safe marked "Biohazardous Material. Strain 48B containment." On top of the safe was a pair of rubber gloves. I put them on carefully, slipping them over my paws awkwardly. They didn't seem to be made for morphic hands.

I took the letter up and opened the envelope. Spreading the paper open, I read carefully, and as I went along my heart began to beat faster and faster.

Dear Jeff,

Thank God. Take the photograph and look at it. This is a picture of a team of research scientists called the Omega Project, covertly formed by the U.S. Government to try to find an answer to the Plague during the late 1950's. I was a part of that team, fresh out of college and ready to go. The circled woman next to me was named Janice Walters.

She was my wife.

Together, with this team of scientists, we worked on some way to neutralize the way the Plague was killing the population by mutating the virus itself, changing it so that we could administer it to currently infected victims. The plan was to try to make the new strain work against the old, while still matching the way it mutated. It was a near impossible task, but we tried nonetheless. We created over forty strains of the Plague, each one a little closer to the last. After they all failed, they were destroyed.

Strain 48B was supposed to be our triumph over the illness.

It turned into a horror story that I can barely place on paper.

The note was wrinkled and discolored in a couple of spots, like teardrops soaking into paper...

Through a series of events that I will not recall here, quarrantine was breached. The virus infected ten of the fifteen members of the team, including Janice.

She and the others were reduced to a pile of cells within seconds. In our efforts to create the cure, we created the most dangerous weapon ever imagined.

All attempts to destroy the virus failed: heat, cold, everything. In a last effort, the remaining tubes were put into cold storage and hidden here, in this house. None of the remaining scientists trusted the government enough to leave it with them, so I stowed I here, away from civilization and prying eyes. We left the only traces of our work with the CDC. We all thought it would be safe here.

Until the CDC's computers were hacked into by one Dr. Chandra while you were in a coma. I knew that I had to get it to you before he possessed it, so I formulated this type of scavenger hunt to guide you here, and keep Chandra away. There is enough in this safe to murder everyone in the world at least a thousand times over. If he gets his mitts on it...

Thank you, Jeff. Thank you so much.

I blinked as a small key fell out of the opened envelope. I took it up and placed it into the keyhole on the safe and opened it. I lifted the top, and thick gases boiled out, like from a cold storage bin. As I pulled, four test tubes of a clear liquid came up with me, situated in small stands that hung from the lid.

It was then I realized that I held Armageddon in my paws.

I quickly set the lid back down and locked the safe, my heart beating faster than I could count. I took out the letter and shut the drawer quietly, locking it as well. I stood, swooning at what my friend had left me.

And like him, I had every intention of leaving it here.

I ran from the room and back downstairs, clutching both keys and letters. I called for Trey to follow me, and he did, albeit confused. I exited the house and locked it, then ran out onto the beach, my friend in tow.

"What the hell is going on, Jeff?" Trey asked finally.

"Something big, Trey... Something big."

After I got back to San Diego and the Institute, I explained what I had discovered. Looks of horror and astonishment were abound, and I felt that I had betrayed my friend again. A plan to take the safe from the house and dispose of it was proposed, and I only put forth one suggestion: launch it into space. I felt rejected, and I did not want to stay any longer than was necessary. I hung around for a few weeks, earning a bit of money from my pay at the Institute and placing it in the bank. Trey had already left to go back to his studies, and I bid him a fond farewell. I said that as soon as I got back to Montgomery, I'd take him out to dinner to celebrate. He smiled and disappeared.

Soon after, I packed my bags, and prepared to leave my house and San Diego when the phone rang. I answered it, and Fox appeared at the other end.

"You don't have to go, Jeff."

"I know. But I'd rather, really."

He looked pensive, "Jeff..."

"Yes?"

"Bob would like to speak to you."

I nodded, and watched as Fox moved over and Bob took his place. He, too, looked saddened and worried, "Jeff. You know that we took the safe from the house, right?"

I nodded, "Of course." I set my bags down, still unsure whether I was leaving or not.

"It's orbiting Neptune by now, Jeff."

I smiled. I'm glad that they took my suggestion. "That's comforting to hear."

"This should be too. Your parents called. They're moving out to San Diego to live with you. Oh, and Trey sends his regards. He mentioned something about having dinner tonight on the beach."

I smiled and tossed the suitcase back into the hall. Seemed I was going to be here a bit longer.

"So, Jeff? Can I expect you to be on call tomorrow?"

I smiled from ear to ear this time, "I'll be there, bright and early, Bob."



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