When the plane landed at Kanpur, I had a disturbing feeling that our "friend" knew we were coming. What gave me the feeling? The humanoid bat-thing strapped immobile to the seats in front of me. Therefore, Fox's network of misinformation (which he only just told me about) was not perfect.
As the plane wheeled up to the gate, I remembered what Mr. Derksen had said about my assignment. "The first part is pretty simple," he'd said. "Just document the way that the Change has affected the daily lives of everyone. It'll be a special issue for the one-year anniversary, the new calendar the UN is proposing and all. We're giving you a special ultra-high res digital camera that you'll connect to a satellite telephone and upload daily, if you can." I nodded, admiring the camera. "And the second part?" I asked.
"That, is a little more serious. I said that we lost most of our photographers, but not all. There are two in India we've kept in contact with. One disappeared in Kanpur without a trace last week. His family would very much like to know what happened, so find out any information that you can, but don't put yourself in any danger."
The plane stopped at the gate, and some Paramedics rushed on board to treat the bat-creature. It had killed the co-pilot and injured the pilot before I stopped him, but then it dug it's teeth into my arm. Bob pulled my chestnuts out of the fire by punching it in the face, and knocking it's head against the engineer's console; knocking it out, but only stunning it. I hate this damned impulsiveness! Even after Martial Arts it's extremely hard to control.
A small low-Degree tiger morph introduced himself. "I'm Detective Rao Patel," he said quietly. "A friend of your friend, Jack. Could you and the rest of your party join me?" Fox, Bob, Hawkeye, and I gathered in the empty middle portion of the plane.
Jack had arrived here three weeks before us. Then he called right when he arrived on his satellite telephone-thing and said the guy might be in Kanpur. Why Kanpur? Even Fox thought that Calcutta would be a better place to start! But Fox had said that Jack was never wrong, so we trusted him.
Fox had gotten his own clearance, and Bryan said I could take along two others, preferably one with medical training (Bob), and one with some photographic ability. Unfortunately he thought that Coonie just would not cut it, because she was a painter. I argued with him about it for an hour, but no luck. Amazingly she'd accepted it calmly, then went to talk with Fox.
Throughout the long flight Hawk had seemed distracted and nervous, and had spoken little. I think he did not trust aircraft because he preferred to do the flying himself. I can't blame him after what just happened. We gathered around the Detective, and gave him our own versions of what happened. I have to admit that at first I mistrusted the man, since he was a tiger-morph and so was our Adversary, but the Doc said, He would not, could not fool me. This guy is for real. That put me at ease. She'd scanned the bat-thing while it was out. It's definitely that bastard's work. But he's stuck with genetics, which is slow. This job must have taken months.
The paramedics waved some sort of scanner that looked like it'd come straight out of Star Trek over the "patient", who had been sedated to insensibility. The cobra-morph paramedic's (the first I'd seen) hood spread wide, and her long neck whipped up with incredible speed in surprise at what she saw on the screen of another instrument. Her body movements were like liquid, and her forked tongue flicked from her mouth. She had the Hindu red dot on her low forehead, and her eyes did not blink, though they were getting clouded. Perhaps she would shed soon. "Deeetective," she said, her voice a almost a hiss. "Yyyou ssshould sseee thisss."
He excused himself, and walked over. "Yes what is..." he looked at the screen. I recognized it as one of those genetic-ID things. I smelled the sharp tang of surprise, then denial coming from Det. Patel, he started shaking his head violently. "No," he said. "No! It's Impossible! It can't be, he's been missing for months!" Then he started swearing in a language I did not know and collapsed on the floor, sobbing.
It was very heartbreaking to see tears flowing down such a strong face. He looked up at us. "It's my son," He said simply. Bob's ears lay back in apparent guilt. "He'd disappeared, like so many others. I figured he'd lost himself and that I'd never see him again. But this..." He wiped his eyes with his hand/paw. Then he looked at Bob, then at me, and his tearful face twisted into rage. Uh oh, I thought.
He jumped up, claws extended. "You! You caused this! I'll kill you!!" Jack had obviously told him everything. Then he pounced... and was grabbed in midair by Bob, who held him tightly. "He did not!" yelled Bob. "But if you think a moment you know who did. This guy will obviously go to any lengths to get to Dave, not caring who he hurts in the process." But Det. Patel's statement had already had an effect on me. What if I did cause it? Was there something I could have done? All of a sudden I felt very guilty.
Don't feel that way, thought the Doctor. If there's anyone at fault it's me. I should have anticipated his actions, but did not. If anything I should have at least tried to shunt him to a node out in the middle of nowhere. But there are so many in the world, most of them abandoned, that I really could not control it. And, the fact that he had an escape plan... let's just say I've felt enough guilt for both of us. Then she was silent again.
In the meantime Detective Patel had regained his composure. We were now the only ones left on the plane, so he led us off by a different route. Then we entered a van with heavily tinted windows. Our luggage was inside. He turned to me, "Jack said you are a polymorph, could you perhaps change your look so you're not so conspicuous? Dinosaurs are quite uncommon here." In response I switched to a leopard- morph, just in case someone could see in. But I was not used to the fur, the ears, or the thin tail. So I continually felt off-balance, itched, and my twitching ears were more a distraction than a help. The major difference between my type of shapeshifting and Coonie's is that whatever I change into, it feels unnatural to me. Rao (the name which he preferred to be called) looked at me, "Better."
"Where's Jack?" said Bob, voicing a question that I myself was about to ask. "Ah, yes. Your friend. When he learned what happened, he thought he could make himself more useful by scouting out the local area more. I told him it would be futile, we'd already checked much of it in the past few weeks, but he wanted to be sure."
Fox nodded, "Standard procedure. When the mind has exhausted all possibility, try the book. Our Adversary probably has people like Jack working for him. This guy is going to be very hard to track down, Dave."
The van rumbled through the crowded streets of Kanpur. It was a very strange place, an unusual number of people milled around, mostly in tightly spaced groups. I'd never been to India. Hell, I'd never even been to Canada until last year! And the airplane fight had been painful on my tail. I really hated this long thing sometimes, and the suit is no help because this velociraptor-morph of mine is my "neutral" shape. And all of the species left in Main memory have tails anyway. My arm ached where the bat-creature had bitten it, scar tissue was being replaced by normal scales and muscle. I'd hate to think what would have happened if I did not have the suit.
Outside the heavily tinted windows, we entered what was obviously a private home. Jack was inside the large garage waiting for us. "Hay everyone!" he said when the door opened. He looked great. Focused, too. I asked him if he had had any luck. "A little," he replied. "He's around in this area, I'm sure. I had another one of those dreams on the way here on the plane." Whatever "those dreams" were, they always seemed to lead him in the right direction.
The Lab must be either well-hidden, or he must have discovered a few with a Power that could hide the place, but that was unlikely because no one as yet had shown up with a Power strong enough to be (literally) earthshaking. All Powers were generally limited to localized mental manipulations of the Laws of Physics, even reshaping objects was no more than moving molecules around, a more concentrated form of Jack's telekinesis. About half the population had shown up with one kind of Power or another, be it morph-norm shapeshifting (the most common), or something like Coonie's multiple-species shifting (the rarest).
When we transferred all our stuff up to the rooms where we'd be staying temporarily, I shifted back to my normal morph. God it felt good to have scales again! I had noticed lately they had lost some of their normal healthy semi-gloss sheen, and wondered if I'd shed like that cobra paramedic. Rao had excused himself to go to the place where they were keeping his son, Bob went with him. I decided since finding "Dr. Chandra" was not the only thing I was here to do, that I would go out on the street to take pictures. I was here to do a job, and I was not about to shirk it for personal reasons. So I took that neat camera and left apparently without anyone noticing.
On the streets, I scented something disturbing. There was an undertone of fear-smell I had not noticed in the van. It stood out sharply with my predatory senses against what I determined as the normal street smells of the city. Later, I found out that there had been a rash of unusual disappearances lately, and I should of checked that before I left.
People alone on the streets had a hurried look to their expressions. Bird morphs tended to take off just as soon as they left the shops. Even with the population less then half of what it had been in my reality originally, there was still several crowded areas. Mostly hoofed mammal morphs in what I thought was unconscious herding behavior, with the children in the center of the group. Safety in numbers; I should have gotten the clue and gone back right then, but I did not. I also got fearful stares from many, mostly when they saw my sickle-claws. Why couldn't I have been a horse like Bob? I'd change form but I had none with a long enough time limit, and I really did not feel like making multiple shifts. The energy for the shift has to come from somewhere, and that Leopard-morph was quite tiring because I don't use it much.
As I walked towards the outskirts of the city, taking pictures as I went, the houses started to become shabbier and shabbier almost to the point of being shanties. The smell-of-fear had grown in proportion, and people would close their curtains when I passed by. If I did not know how to control my predatory instincts I think I would have started stalking people. That sent a shiver up the entire length of my spine, from tail-tip to the base of my skull. Just because one lookes like a predator does not mean one has to act like one. The hallmark of a sentient being is the ability to use one's intelligence to apply one's instincts for the benefit of others, no matter if they are of your species or not, the Doctor had told me once.
With my perception heightened by the fear-scent, I now got the uncomfortable feeling I was being watched. I hate that feeling, like eyes drilling into the back of your skull. So I decided it might be prudent to start back. I don't know what I was thinking, but I decided to walk back rather than fly, and I took a shortcut through an alley that was on the suit's map. Big mistake.
I entered the dim alley and was promptly surrounded by a pack of large, growling dogs who appeared out of nowhere! Half of which promptly shifted to morph. Their long-unbathed smell was incredible, a combination of dirt and dog-breath, and they all came from downwind so I did not scent them. Then they began shouting at me in Hindi, I had no idea what they were saying. Any ideas, Doc? I asked. Just a sec... she thought back. I heard a computer voice say: "TRANSLATION MATRIX ENGAGED."
I can only translate one way. Sorry. At least I knew what they were saying. But I must have paused too long, because I was rushed from behind by a howling mutt. If I did not have that variable time perception, he would have thrown me to the ground. I countered just before he connected with what my sensei calls a "Dragon Whip", releasing my force-wave from the tip of my whipping tail and knocking him backward about twenty feet, unconscious. Then they all attacked me at once, howling their anger.
The feeling of being in some kind of arcade game increased to being almost unbearable. The next few minutes were a blur of punches, tailwhips, snarls, howls, my own battle screams, power-slashing ("Dragon Claw") with both feet and hands, bites with my knife-like teeth, the wet snapping sound of breaking bones (theirs), and keeping away from my Powers if I could. I did not enjoy the prospect of cutting them in two, though I had to belly-slash a couple with my sickle-claws, if I was not preoccupied at the moment I would have thrown up as their intestines boiled out of their bellies. Strangely enough, what I felt was a kind of euphoria! I think that was a good thing, at least at the time, because if I'd stopped and thought about what I was doing they'd of killed me then and there.
My Sensei had said that I had a "uncanny natural ability that he'd seldom seen" (well, I was a Black Belt already), and I used it here. But there were still too many of them for me to handle alone. I'm not saying that none scored on me, but the suit kind of made their claws and teeth ineffectual, though the flashes of pain almost made me black out. By some incredible stroke of luck none that attacked me had any Powers.
They finally had to (dog)pile on top of me, and then forcibly hold all five limbs to the ground, and clamp my mouth shut with their paws because my battle-scream (another Power I'd discovered, it could shatter glass windows and deafen those within ten feet) hurt their ears. The biggest dog, The Alpha male, made ready to bite my throat out with red, glowing teeth that reminded me uncomfortably of the claws of that wolf while on that road trip with Jack.
Pack behavior. I should have known! I recognized it from my own racial memory, though I myself felt no inclination towards it. I wondered if the suit could heal me fast enough... And I got one of those dumb insights I sometimes get in these situations. This was probably how that photographer disappeared. The guy had been a white-tailed deer. I would not be surprised if they'd eaten him.
Just as the head Mutt lunged forward, he was abruptly lifted up and hung upside-down in midair, swearing and snarling viciously. Quiet shots rang out from the roof above. Jack and Fox had arrived! Fox had some kind of gun, and used in with amazing accuracy, pinning them with some sort of dart. Jack was getting these odd facial expressions, and more of the pack ended up upside down with their leader. Just hanging there! "You really need to let us know you're going out, old boy!" yelled Fox. I waved my thanks emphatically as the mutts who were holding me down were tagged with the dart or pushed away with Jack's mind.
It was a three story building, and to my horror Jack and Fox just stepped right off the roof! I think Jack was somehow lowering himself and Fox down, he was concentrating firmly by the way his ears were set. When they landed, with another mental effort all the hanging mutts fell to snoring, and dropped abruptly to the ground. Jack had put them to sleep, Fox's dart had had a similar effect on the others. I looked at him in astonishment. "I've been practicing," he said. "And so have you, it looks like," he commented. Looking at the scattering of bloody and unconscious (I hoped) bodies, most with long slashes on their limbs and torsos that streamed blood, and limbs that went in unnatural directions. The feeling of euphoria suddenly left me, and nausea asserted itself. The pack had been large, over twenty members. I'd taken out about a dozen before Jack and Fox arrived.
"Let's go," said Fox. "I really don't want to stay around here, and can you clean yourself off? You're spattered with blood." Blood? I suddenly felt the warm stickiness all over. Blood! I really felt sick now, and if the Doctor had not taken control I would have retched my gizzard out. I felt a tingle as she cleaned me off, and change my form to a mule-morph like Jack, who looked on approvingly. Fox picked up what was left of my camera and we quickly boarded a van.
All the way back Fox apologized for not getting me at least some training in regards to things like what just occurred. I felt numb and detached, my emotions were bottled up. When we reached the house, I got a surprise. Coonie was there. She'd taken the shape of one of the stewardesses on the plane, one who had made a pass at me in fact, but I'd been too distracted by own discomfort to notice. I'm only human after all. "I'm OK, Coonie. I think." The Doctor had given me control back. Seeing Coonie again as herself enabled me to get my mind off what had just happened for a moment. I was glad she was here, because I really needed her right now.
Rao had returned some time earlier, and we told him what happened. I definitely not hide how guilty I now felt. "You acted only in self defense," the short tiger-man said. "I can make that stand up in any court of Law, but right now I doubt anyone could trace the incident to you because the streets have been taken over by these pack-gangs; the canine ones are the worst, but there are feline, reptile, avian, what-have-you as well. They must have assumed you were a member of one of the reptile gangs. Incidents like you were involved in are only too common. You probably gave those mutts their just desserts, I know about that particular pack-gang, and they were the worst of the bunch."
He sighed "This is how it's been, under the influence of that madman. He ignores the general populace except as test subjects for his experiments, with the full support of a government that he controls, thus the police are powerless because we have no money. He's pushed us into the trap of instinct, predators and prey, with no brains attached. The predator's eat the prey! We were nothing like this before, you in America have not had these sort of problems on the scale we've had. He's got this country wrapped around his finger!" The last part was almost a roar. He had become fixated on revenge, I would notice later. Revenge for his son, who was now being treated much like my father was back home. I almost agreed with him, but I knew that justice, not revenge, was the way. Bob sent a DNA sample from Rao's son back to his Lab in La Jolla to see if they could do anything.
The next few nights were horrible for me. I unbottled my emotions at night, and did not leave my bed for a while. The Doctor might be able to accept the guilt for what happened to the Universe, but I alone was responsible for killing those people. It gave me nightmares several nights running, I relived the fight over and over and over, (Damn this memory of mine!) and woke up screaming several times. I relived it in slow motion, backward, forward, and even sideways if that's possible (and I swear that it is) Coonie helped me through, and I spent long hours just talking about it. It helped, but not much. There was blood, sapient blood, on my claws, and nothing could make it go away.
We moved around the city quite a bit, Fox did not want me out there while I was like this. The guilt and stress of what happened had started, then accelerated the shedding process, and as I bared my soul to Coonie (introducing her to the Doctor, whom she liked from the start) my skin flaked and peeled away. I washed the dead scales away, whole sheets at a time, in the River Ganges; seemingly washing my soul at the same time. I was no longer an innocent, but not a cold-blooded killer either. The water washed away a multitude of sins; was this not the River of Life?
The next day, just over two weeks since we arrived, I went out again, this time with Coonie in her "Hawkeye" guise. She never went out in public without "being" Hawkeye, who had been snuck back to the US by Fox's associates. She was very good at imitating his mannerisms, and she got his voice down perfect. She'd managed to eliminate any outward sign that she was not naturally a hawk-morph (or that she was female, too. Her shapeshifting Power is amazing), and I often forgot that she was a she.
Fox and Jack finally finished going over the city with a fine-tooth comb. Then Jack got another one of his dreams, and they pointed towards Madras. Great. He must have Labs scattered all over the country! Looks like we were going to see more of India after all... But what was I supposed to take pictures with? Film was rather scarce here. The Doctor surprised me on that one. With this suit, all you have to do is look at a scene, compose your shot, then make a mental "click" and there you have your photo. Then you can use the interface to upload to Bryan.
You can do that?! I thought, astonished.
Well, I can now. It was sort of a birthday present, but you need it now. Or is it "Hatching Day" in your case? She grinned mentally. There had been isolated cases of extreme-Changed bird and reptile morphs laying eggs... But they were much less common than Siamese twins, and the eggs' embryos were (mostly) human and kept in a huge incubator. The obstetricians thought that they would lose their small beaks after hatching.
We followed Jack's lead, and went to Madras. What a country! Beyond their problems caused by our "friend" there was beauty here, a lot of it. I uploaded over a hundred images a day to Bryan, so many, he had to ask me to stop sending so much! They were having trouble choosing what was to go on to the final cut. I took more than enough to make up for "Hawkeye"'s apparent lack of productivity (then again, Coonie learned quickly, and after a week or so was taking as many pics as I was. God she's great!).
Fox and Jack made a great team. Jack had had a government job before all this, and if I asked him if it was working for the CIA he shook his head. "I was a database manager for a small office of the Department of the Interior. I just liked James Bond for the action." So much for that theory.
Rao searched for "Dr. Chandra" with a fixation that scared me to my hollow bones. Whenever we'd exhausted all the possibilities in an area, he'd destroy something fragile. Jack's satellite telephone was almost a casualty. We moved on after exhausting a whole area, both of photographic opportunities and otherwise. I think we ended up seeing half of the country that way. We finally ended up back in Kanpur about three months later on a lead from one of Fox's associates. "See, didn't I tell you he was in Kanpur?" Jack said. And he was, too. There was a Lab right under our snouts on the river right outside the city. The guy had to be accessible in order to get his "volunteers" after all. We'd been on a wild goose chase for the last two months! That even made me angry enough to shred a mattress or two (of course I paid for it afterward).
Bob's medical training had come in quite handy, especially when we visited the various poor villages, I spent about five million of my own money in donations of medical supplies. His Lab back in La Jolla returned a recommended treatment for the genetic modifications made to Rao's son, and informed him that they thought they might have a possible memory treatment for my father up and running soon! That gave me hope again.
Then one night as we were discussing the previous day's events over a meal of hotly-spiced foods a message arrived for Fox. It had been signed by several people. It seemed there were more involved in this than I thought. So much for keeping our group small...
The message indicated the location of the Lab, a rough layout, and as a bonus exactly where "Dr. Chandra's" office was supposed to be. Fox decided that he was going to case the place today, posing as another scientist specializing in genetics, he'd learned a lot from Bob over the past few months, and his speed at learning things astounded me.
We anxiously awaited his return throughout the day. The suspense was almost unbearable. To pass the time, I practiced my moves. Dragon Whip, Dragon Claw, jump-slash, jump-kick, high-jump, etc. It was a kind of meditation exercise my sensei taught me. Through this the time passed quickly, because Jack had to break me out of my self-trance to tell me Fox was back, and he had news.
"He's an simpleton, old boy," said Fox. "A mad, sadistic simpleton, but an simpleton non the less. I think he tried to use his 'mind control' thing on me. I acted like I was under his control, but for some reason I could hear everything he wanted me to do, but felt no compulsion to do anything." I was not so sure about that. If one of our group was being controlled, then we had to know. "Jack?" I said.
"Right," he replied. Then he got a look of concentration on his face like I'd never seen before. It caught Fox unawares, and he clutched his head, and stared at Jack for a second. Sweat shone on Jack's hairy face for a moment, then the look of concentration stopped. "He's clean." Fox looked at Jack in shock.
"Of course I'm clean! I just told you! But I understand the precaution, this 'Dr. Chandra' may be a moron, but he's a devious moron. I found out that he's been running from us these past few months. I have a bad feeling if we go we'll be walking into a trap."
"You may be right," said Bob. "But I, for one, am willing to take the risk." His deep voice rung with conviction. I think he still felt a bit of guilt for Rao's son, who was still in a concrete cell. Bob is one of those kinds of people who hate those who fool around with Mother Nature without good reason, like fixing my father's memory. Rao nodded his agreement, a dangerous glint in his orangish eyes. The rest of the group agreed to go, including Coonie as "Hawkeye". We made our plans for three nights hence.
The time came. I altered my coloring to be a dull black, a relatively simple modification that would insure I would not be seen. Jack and I crept closer and closer to a complex that seemed more like an old, disused oil refinery than a laboratory, the red light from the setting sun put the tanks and pipelines against the sky in bold silhouette. The wind shifted, now it was blowing in from the river. The smell that reached my naris was awful! A combination of rotten eggs, garbage, and something that had been dead a week all mixed into one. "That's a sure sign that he is here. He seems to have this disturbing, blatant disregard for the environment. He might have killed a rare species that might have cured cancer!"
That was at the heart of much of this world's philosophy, even Third World countries had strong laws that balanced environmental health with development of cities and natural resources. Chalk up another crime for our "friend". "At least one good thing comes of it," Jack continued. "The stink masks our scent, so it'll be tough for any of his sycophants to sniff us out."
Fox, Rao, and "Hawk" were going in via a rubber raft on the river, and I felt sorry for them in that stink. Fox thought it would be dangerous for Coonie to Shift too close to the place, and she could not fly at night in her current shape without breaking her beak on something. I worried about Rao, and hoped he could contain himself if he ever got close enough to see him. Bob was to be our backup, the "cavalry" as it were. Kind of appropriate.
Jack, unwilling to use his telekinesis so close, rode hanging on to my back when I had to shift into a large crocodile-norm to cross a swampy area near the river. Unlike Coonie, my type of shifting made no "sound" like hers did, so she was stuck as the hawk-morph for now.
All seemed going well, Fox reported they'd penetrated the grounds with a prearranged signal, a kind a single metal ping directed at Jack. They were in, and we were close. Up against the fence now, to a hole Fox had found in the perimeter fencing that he was sure no one knew about. We crawled through... Light! Damn, understated the Doctor.
When my eyes cleared of the flash-spots, a snake- morph pointed a strange looking gun at my face. My reflexes were good, but not as good as the snake's. I was effectively helpless. I was bound up in cuffs and chains, my claws were clipped and muzzle strapped shut painfully. Jack was held forcibly by a large, incredibly large elephant-morph! Jack's face was contorted in an effort to do something, but one (or several, Jack was quite good with his Powers) of our captors was obviously talented like Jack, who at some point fell abruptly from a contorted face to snoring. Damn!
"Gotcha," said a voice from a loudspeaker. Then a pressure on my mind made me fall into a dreamless sleep.