by Charles Matthias
© Charles Matthias -- all rights reserved
Part I: The Approach
It was a pleasant Thursday evening, the regulars in their regular places, and a few faces that were becoming a bit more common. McCurdy, a female donkey who had taken quite a shine to DeMule - and he to her - was sitting at the piano playing a quiet, almost reverent piece against the din of chatter about her, while Jack looked on, of course, drinking absent-mindedly from his bottle. Copernicus stood aloft at the pool table, frustrated over the conundrum that Raven was putting him into yet again. Wanderer and his Lupine Boys were at their usual table, not really paying much attention to anything but their own camaraderie. Stein, making a rare appearance these days, was in his shire form - more appropriate than his teenage form, which few knew about - and was sitting in a far booth reading a medical journal as he ate some fries. Donnie hunkered back behind the bar, watching over his patrons with a careful eye, but otherwise also gently at ease.
In fact, things were going so well, that not a soul stirred when the two strangers entered the bar from the front entrance. More accurately would be to say three strangers, as one was holding a leash connected to a German Shepherd. Both were dressed in dark suits, and the one holding the leash wore Ray- Bands over his eyes, giving his face a menacing cast. He was descended from wolf stock, but in contrast to the Lupine Boys, his bearing was nearly regal - while at the same time, it showed very little of the contempt that most of high birth had for the rest of the world. Atop his head he wore a beret, from which his upstanding ears poked out. His fur was completely black, making him look more like a shadow then a thing with life and substance. His head looked quite like that of a wolf, but for the Ray-Bands and beret. He was short though, barely five foot six, and it was obvious from the shoes he wore that he was plantigradal. Out from the back of his dress slacks descended a thick tail, one that stopped just short of the floor. It was nearly glossy in appearance, and it was obviously well groomed.
The taller of the figures was nearly nine feet in height. He almost reached the ceiling with his head, and his eyes looked querulously up at the roof, as if it would drop down and slap him at the slightest provocation. His crocodilian appearance was unmistakable, as his whole body was covered in greenish-yellow scales, and his head was very nearly the exact length and proportion a real crocodile would have had. His teeth were white, though, as it was obvious that he felt his appearance was important. His arms were mostly human in shape, and though his five-fingered hands did end in claws, they were all manicured. His tail was so long that he had to lean slightly forward to keep it from dragging on the ground, and his slacks, which were obviously hand tailored, extended down covering all but the last foot of his tail.
The smaller of the two called out, "Dr. Robert Stein!"
All eyes turned to the imposing figures. McCurdy stopped playing and looked at the two figures who had walked in, her hooves clattering as she took them off the piano pedals. Jack turned around, examining them from head to toe, taking a quick swig of his beer as he did so. Copernicus and Raven stopped their game, Raven only one ball from victory, and Coops marveled that any herpamorph would be naturally bigger than him - or would bother with wearing a suit! Wanderer looked at the figure who had walked in, and then at the dog who was tied up to a leash, and just shook his head. Bob Stein turned as well, putting the scientific journal away, and began to examine the figure, but he did not say a word. Donnie looked over the counter at the two potential customers, casting a disapproving glance at the public announcement, but otherwise saying nothing.
The wolf in the suit again called out, "Dr. Robert Stein, I need to have a word with you."
Once again, not a person said anything. Normally there would have been fingers pointing, and helpful advice given, but for some reason, this wolf in a suit inspired more fear than even his crocodilian companion did. All of them felt it, not a one could explain it; it felt as if Death himself had walked into the room. McCurdy, her left hand still on the piano, began to play an ominous-sounding theme. Then in the mood more, she turned fully back around, and with a flourish blasted out a riotous tremolo of sound, that shook everyone in the bar awake and back to their senses.
"Prokofiev's 'Suggestion Diabolique', I'm familiar with that one," the wolf in a suit said.
McCurdy stopped playing and looked back at the wolf. "I'm surprised you recognized it." she said, slightly amazed. "Not even he knew that one." She pointed at Jack, who got quickly defensive, but was interrupted once more by the wolf in a suit.
He pulled something out of his suit, and unrolled it for all to see. "This is a Grover Cleveland. This roll contains ten such bills. I will give it to the man, woman, child, animal, or whatever, who can help me find Dr. Robert Stein."
"Keep your money." Bob called out, finally rising, "I am Dr. Robert Stein. Who are you?"
The wolf in the suit turned to face him, and let his jaw hang open for a moment in delight. He tugged on the Alsatian's leash, and the dog immediately rose up, and began walking in the direction of Bob, with the wolf and crocodile following after. As they passed the pool table, the wolf rested his hand on the side, stopped the dog, and then sniffed the air. He then looked in the direction of Copernicus and Raven.
"The roll, to finish your game."
Copernicus and Raven were both stunned. Bob was curious as to why the man hadn't seen fit to come directly to him, but stopped to make light chatter with the resident pool denizens.
"It's our game." Copernicus pointed out. "And neither of us can afford to bet with you."
"Give me a few more days and I'll be able to," Raven said coyly to Copernicus.
Copernicus shook his head in disbelief. He still had yet to beat her one on one, but he was trying his best.
"No, I am not betting with you. I give you the money, if you let me finish the game," the wolf replied patiently.
"Why? It's our game," Copernicus insisted. Bob patiently waited for this display to end, and looked over at the other patrons, noticing that almost all were still focusing their attention on this strange wolf, and the crocodile who had yet to say a word.
"Look into my eyes." The wolf leaned forward, and lowered his Ray-Bands slightly. Copernicus stared into his face, then gulped, and leaned back, handing him the pole cue.
"Thank you. You are too kind, and now five thousand dollars richer." The wolf tossed the roll onto the table. Copernicus picked it up, and gave half to Raven, who smiled at the sight of five Grover Cleveland's in her hand.
All eyes were on the wolf as he walked around the table, with one paw always on the railing. Then he stopped before the cue ball, and breathed deeply. The wolf raised the pole, and set it squarely behind the cue ball. Copernicus was in shock, looking at the spectacle. Then the wolf struck the cue, it sailed straight and true, bounced off the wall, and slammed into a cluster of three striped balls, one of which then bounced off the eight ball, knocking it into the corner pocket next to Copernicus.
"Good shot," Raven said, impressed.
"Maybe we can play a game later. But right now, I have business to attend to." The wolf smiled.
"Yeah, maybe." Copernicus seemed rather suspicious about it, looking at the crocodile with wary eyes.
Bob continued to watch the advancing wolf, who turned momentarily towards Jack and McCurdy over by the piano. "Play me a loud one."
"A loud one?" McCurdy asked, a bit surprised at the sudden request.
"You have obvious talent, surely you can handle a loud one." The wolf gestured gentlemanly towards her. Jack narrowed his eyes, but then smiled, "Hey, let's play that duet we were working on."
"Sure, Jack." McCurdy smiled, scooting over to the right side of the piano, and Jack taking his place next to her, their tails hanging over the back of the bench.
And finally, the wolf sat down in the booth with Bob Stein. The crocodile grabbed a sturdy-looking chair, and sat at the end of the table, blocking the two's view of the bar. Bob looked at his two guests, and then pointed out, "You never told me who you were."
"You most certainly will have never heard of me. Be it my natural name, or the one I assume for tonight's occasion," the wolf told him. "I am Darkwolf."
"Fitting name," Bob agreed. Then, in an attempt to cut the ice, he added, "That was a nice shot you made in pool."
"Thank you. I never played pool before SCABS came. I guess I should thank you for that wonderful title to describe our condition."
Stein shrugged. "I called it that because I needed a title, and everybody likes acronyms. That was just the easiest one to use."
"Of course, now, you may be familiar with my companion, Dr. Jerome Standards." Darkwolf motioned to the crocodile that loomed over them.
Bob's eyes brightened. "Ah yes. I have heard of you, Doctor. I understand you've been engaging in research on SCABS. How goes the work?"
"We cured it." Jerome said, in his softest voice possible. "In selected cases, that is. There is still a long way to go with this, but we know that it is possible to not only prevent it, but to cure people."
"You've cured people?" Bob had dropped the fry he had been about to eat, and was sitting slack-jawed in amazement.
"As I said, in select cases. We have to yet to cure any cases of chronomorphia, or inanimorphia - but gendermorphia is a snap, and small cases of animorphia are curable, as well. Of course, I don't think polymorphs want to be cured," Jerome explained.
"Why would we?" Bob asked in surprise.
"That's right, you are also a polymorph. A rather powerful one at that, I understand," Darkwolf added.
"I am one of the more potent, but there are some that far outstrip me." Bob pointed out.
"I know." Jerome nodded. "I know five of them, or I knew of five, three are dead now."
"Fanatics?" Bob asked curiously.
"No, a car accident killed one, and the other two killed each other," Darkwolf explained.
Bob looked carefully at Darkwolf's face. He seemed not to notice the scrutiny. It occurred to him that Darkwolf was blind, which would explain the dog, and the Ray-Bands. It also made the pool shot all the more incredible. Just who was this Darkwolf?
"I'm sorry to hear that. So why do you want to talk to me? Do you need my advice on this cure? I'd be very interested in examining your research," Bob added, turning to look back at Dr. Jerome Standards - who was scratching at the underside of his long muzzle.
"I would be honored if you would look at my research, but that is not why we are here," Jerome replied.
"Why are you here, then? You obviously want this conversation to be kept secret, otherwise you wouldn't have asked Jack and McCurdy to play something loud. I know that the knowledge of a partial cure would be delightful to many here. However, what could be more of a secret than that?"
"The cure is useless, and pointless, unless we save the life of one man. Are you familiar with the name Isaiah Forsythe?" Darkwolf asked.
"Not that I can say." Bob replied, knowing that he had heard the name before, but not sure where.
"The Reverend Isaiah Forsythe, founder of the Great Ministry movement?" Darkwolf expanded.
"Ah, yes." Bob smiled, now remembering just who he was referring to. "Rev. Forsythe, he has a special ministry to victims of SCABS, the leading voice among the theological community for our rights."
"Exactly, " Jerome cut in. "What most don't know, though, is that he, too, suffers from SCABS."
"I thought he was human," Dr. Stein mused. "All the pictures of him show him to be human."
"He was originally a polymorph." Jerome confirmed. "I should know, I did the tests on him myself."
"What is our interest in him?" Bob asked.
"He is dying," Darkwolf said softly. "If he dies, then you can forget everything. If he dies, so does most of the world."
"That doesn't make any sense." Bob pointed out, wondering if these two weren't lunatics off the street come to play a practical joke on him. If that was the case, this was the nastiest practical joke he had ever heard of. Making him believe that there was, at the very least, a partial cure.
"Of course not. Because he is no longer a polymorph, but something else altogether. He has become something that we have never seen before," Darkwolf replied.
"Another class of SCABS?" Bob asked skeptically.
"No, a variation, an enhancement. An attempted cure gone terribly awry," Darkwolf replied.
"You see, Dr. Stein, I have been working on developing a cure for SCABS for the last
five years," Jerome began. "Three years ago, I developed my first serum, and all the lab tests said it would work. I had five volunteers for the experiment, and all of them ended up in similar condition."
"What condition would that be?" Bob was normally a patient person, but these two were not
telling him anything. Were they afraid that others might overhear them? Unlikely, since McCurdy and Jack were playing so loud, he could barely hear them!
"My condition," Darkwolf said. "I was one of the five volunteers. Only the reverend and I are still alive."
"You are a polymorph, as well?" Bob probed.
"I am now. Before the experiment I was just the lovely wolf-morph you see before you. Afterwards, my name was put down in the catalogue of polymorphs, as among the top ten most powerful in the entire world," Darkwolf replied, without the least trace of pride in his voice.
"That doesn't sound bad."
"Oh, but it is. You see, us five were so powerful, that we could change not just the physical shape of another person, but the very chemicals in their body." Darkwolf then spoke very softly, and Bob had to strain to listen. "The five of us, could kill with a thought. If I wanted everybody in this bar dead, they would be in five seconds. I don't need to see you to kill you. I don't need to touch you to kill you. I don't even need to be in the same room with you to kill you. I can just will it, and it happens."
"That sounds like a power that could be greatly misused." Bob said. It was the only thing he could say. If what Darkwolf said was true, then there was a great threat to the stability of any form of society.
"What do you think has been the cause of those recent deaths of the United States' enemies abroad?" Darkwolf asked rhetorically.
"You?" Bob suggested.
"Only one or two," Darkwolf explained. "Unless you're in the same zip code as I am, I can't kill you. My power is not that great. Forsythe can kill you anywhere in the world. That is why we need to save his life, because this power that we have gained has a curse: it is slowly killing us. Forsythe faster than me, since he has a more potent version of it. Although it is unfounded speculation, it is possible that, in his last moments of life, he may try to cling to those things in this life, maybe a reflexive action of anger against all those who might have given him the disease. Or he might die peacefully. If, however, he wants to get revenge on those who could have given him the SCABS, then everyone who has ever been affected by SCABS ... could die."
"That sounds pretty far fetched to me." Bob pointed out.
"Are you going to take that chance?" Darkwolf asked.
Bob twitched uncomfortably in his seat. "What about you, Dr. Standards? Where do you fit into all of this?"
"It was my cure that did this. I have ensured that none would follow in my footsteps in developing it that way, so that none could gain this power ever again, but I have kept copies of what I did, and what they are now like." Jerome replied.
"Why, then, do you think that Forsythe's death will cause this? You said three of the five are already dead," Bob pointed out.
"Ah, that's because they were just regular morphs at the time of the test. Forsythe was a polymorph, one of significant power even to begin with. However, to show that it is a possibility - when Marcus got hit by that car, the driver died. Not from the accident, but because all his cells exploded instantly," Jerome explained, a little downhearted.
"So how am I supposed to help?" Bob Stein asked.
"We need you to save the life of Rev. Isaiah Forsythe. Nobody is more experienced than you are in the vagaries of SCABS. There is no one more qualified than you are to heal him," Darkwolf told him matter-of-factly.
"If I say no?" Bob asked curiously.
"You won't," Darkwolf replied assuredly. Bob stared at the lupine face, tried to see behind the glasses, tried to see into his mind. Just what was going on there. He had never heard of any of this, and his office kept him pretty up to date. Yet, what choice did he have?
"Why don't you get Dr. Bryan Derksen to handle this? He has a lot more understanding than I do," Bob pointed out.
"We already have Dr. Derksen," Darkwolf said.
"You should have seen his face when he looked at my formulas." Jerome showed a reptilian smile. "His antennae went wild and he kept chastising himself for not seeing an obvious solution. With our combined minds, I'm sure that we can come up with a way to save Reverend Isaiah Forsythe."
Bob sighed, ate the last fry, and then looked at them. "I'm in."
Part II: Thickening
Copernicus turned on the TV in the bar that next evening, and set the channel to C-Span. There were muffled grunts, and a few who looked at him oddly, not thinking him to be the political type. In truth, he wasn't, but he had heard something interesting was going to be on the air tonight and he wanted to see it. It was a scheduled debate between State Senator Van der Walls, and Governor Wilson. The election was only a few weeks away, but most had ignored it since there really hadn't seemed to be any pressing issues that they were interested in. Apparently, from what he had heard, Van der Walls was trying a new tactic.
"Why you watching that?" Raven asked him. "Wouldn't you rather play another game?"
Raven held the pole cue enticingly, but Copernicus shook his head.
"I heard that this Van der Walls guy is starting to sound a bit like Barnes used to. I figure that we should listen in on this debate and see if it's true," Copernicus explained.
"Nobody's going to do what Barnes did," Wanderer predicted. "Nobody's that stupid these days."
"I don't know." Copernicus pointed out. "Those Humans First guys haven't gone away. They're still as fervent as ever, and I hear they're trying to make chapters out in the country, not just in the city."
"They're just a bunch of wackos. Nobody wants to listen to them anymore," Wanderer declared.
"I'll agree there!" Jack DeMule piped in. He was alone at the piano tonight. Apparently McCurdy had gone on a trip to see her parents down south, and would be back in a week. Copernicus noted that Jack was drinking a bit more than usual tonight.
"Still, if Van der Walls is doing what Barnes did, then we should pay attention," Copernicus pointed out.
"I think Coop is right." Raven winked.
"I agree." Donnie's voder chimed in.
"Well, why not." Wanderer shrugged. "C'mon boys, let's see what the politico has to say."
Two weeks to the election, and Van der Walls was ten points in the lead. He had been slowly gaining ever since he announced, and everything was working out for him in some measure. Of course, it should be, since people were quite easy to manipulate. His voter drives were helping as well, and he appealed in the back water counties where suspicion of one's neighbor was the law. Tonight however, was the gubernatorial debates, and he needed to be in sharp form -- otherwise his opponent, no slouch at politics, would wash over him.
They had set up two podiums from which each would be giving their speech. Of course,he had tried to stuff the audience, but that had gotten nowhere, and his staffers had just barely avoided a scandal over that. The audience he would face tonight would be his first noncommittal audience. His connection with Humans First was not common knowledge, of course, he had cultivated it ever since Barnes' death. Barnes had been a fool, staged one too many photo-ops. Sleeping with that prostitute didn't help either. Van der Walls was always the person who did the dirty work in the early days, and he was adept at appearing honest and trustworthy, so his reputation, while it had taken a few hits, was free from serious injury.
He had prepared his notes, and was ready for the barrage of questions that he was going to receive. The audience would get to ask the questions, and not the moderator. That made him a little more nervous, who could tell what wackos would be in the audience.
Of course, the time arrived before he realized what was happening. His wife and kids would be in the studio audience, but unable to ask questions. He kissed his wife and she wished him luck. He then got up at his podium, and looked over his notes, and then at the audience that would be fielding questions. Most looked to be ordinary folk, a few he recognized from some of his rallies. That was good, at least some support.
One person in the audience however gave him a sense of unease. He was in his twenties, obviously a SCAB, as he had horns growing out of his head, and bovine ears and expression. However, that was not what distracted him. His shirt read, "Great Ministries!". He hated that group, their pamphlet containing twenty reasons not to vote for Van der Walls had hit the streets a few weeks ago, and it had taken him and his boys hours upon hours of commercials to undo the damage that they had caused.
Well, as long as he was the only one, and as long as his wits were as dull as his expression, he would not pose a problem.
They would each get two minute introduction speeches. Unlike Presidential debates, this one was nearly without rules, except that responses could not take longer than a minute, and rebuttals no longer than thirty seconds.
Being the challenger he was given the floor to speak first. "My fellow citizens of this wonderful state, I stand here today asking to be your next governor." his deep baritone voice carried a tone of strength that was not lost on the crowd. He kept the self-satisfied smile to himself. "Although I greatly respect Governor Wilson, I cannot in good conscience let his policies continue to harm our children. For his policies say nothing against the greatest plague that has ever come across this planet. It affects any it comes in contact with. None are safe from it. It is called SCABS, and my heart cries out to all who are afflicted with this terrible malady.
"We must not forget that every one who suffers from it was once human. But how can we admit to ourselves that some who are now indistinguishable in mind and body from animals, are indeed still human? They are not, no scientific inquiry can show that, for they have become animals. This is destructive to the families it affects, and we need to care for them. We should not toss the afflicted out into the streets to die, that is inhumane, but it is also slanderous against real humans to suggest that they still have rights.
I am not against letting those who are still capable of reason continue with their lives, I do not want to take rights away from them at all. I just know that if we do not define humanity clearly and forcefully, before too much longer we could be electing a horse to the Senate, as happened in bygone Rome.
"Obviously this is not good, and the debate starts here, with the people. I have many measures that I would try to enact if I were governor. I want to tell you how we should take care of our kids, but I also want to address something that is also important, what do we do with our new one-of-a-kind animals. I want to show you that my care and concern falls on all, but always, to humans first."
Van der Walls leaned back on the podium, his speech receiving a hearty applause. He smiled, and cast a side-long glance at Governor Wilson, who was fidgeting nervously. Wilson looked at the audience, took a deep breath, and then began his speech. Van der Walls kept his eye on him, never letting a hint of his contempt for the man show.
"My fellow citizens, we are at a crossroads today. We can, on the one hand, say as my opponent does that the human shape is primal to reason and the continuation of our society. Or you can consider that humans are humans, no matter what form they wear. If, like Massachusetts Senator Celucci -- who as you know is part bird -- can serve as chairman of the Appropriations committee, then why can we not also look at those who look like animals to one degree or another, and not say, 'Yes, you are still a thinking being that I can call brother, sister, father, mother, son, daughter, or friend.'
"I applaud my opponent's efforts to take care of those who have been abandoned by parents who no longer have as much reason. That is the right thing to do, and I have been working on it. While my opponent talks, I have acted. I have set up shelters to take care of these kids.
"There is something, however, that offends me to the very core of my soul. We were placed on this Earth by God, and only He can truly judge who is worthy. It is a form of racism, the latest, but certainly not the last, that we feel when we look at the face of one who looks more like our pet cocker-spaniel than he does a man. We hate the difference, but then it strikes us, and we look at our face in the mirror, and cry out in anguish, and then realize that we shouldn't have voted for Van der Walls, for no longer are we considered humans nor do we have the rights of a human. You want your day in court? Talk to the Humane Society, they will give you a dog biscuit, give you a pat on the head, and then send you to the pound, in the world that Van der Walls wants to create.
"He says he wants a clear definition of humanity, but any definition will be based on physical shape, and that can allow no tolerances, or his plans will end in disaster and frustration. How would you feel if you woke up one morning with hooves, and when you go to work you are told that you can't do that because you aren't a human being anymore, but an animal. We don't work for peanuts here, folks.
"The Bible tells us that we are made in God's image. In the past, man has interpreted that as only white males. More recently, everything but white males. Now, anybody who does not meet the standards of a Van der Walls, is not made in the image of God. The image of God, is not a physical shape, but a soul, and that is something we cannot classify.
"So just what is a human? It's a lot of things now. I embrace everyone. For the hope of a cure for SCABS is one that seems more fleeting everyday. Every hope we hear of is dashed, every chance we see is snuffed out. Why can we not see that the love of God extends to all, not just to those whom a Van der Walls deems as human, but to all. I will not ever in my service abandon a single soul, nor revoke the promise of liberty that is given by this country because of the unfortunate incident of an otherworldly disease. That is why I should be reelected, not to serve some I or a Van der Walls deems worthy, but to serve all. Thank you."
Wilson stepped back to the podium, and Van der Walls was forced to admit that despite his disagreement, it was a good speech, and would take some time for him to show the people why Wilson was wrong, most especially in his characterization of him. The applause that he got was a bit more lively than what he received, and he cursed Wilson's speechwriters. Never before had he heard such fire from the man. Well, it would make the rest of the race interesting at least, and he would have to make a serious effort to stay on top of things. Victory was still probably his, but it just got a little bit trickier. Everybody gets all gooshy when it comes to liberty, and the idea that it could strike you was played well by Wilson. "Electing Van der Walls threatens your liberty" -- effective message and the central point of his speech. It wouldn't be too hard to counter this, but it would be costly.
Most of the questions that the audience gave were standard fare that he had prepared for, and he in them detailed some of his plans for the victims of SCABS, as well as began the process of dismantling the perception that he was going to take away the liberty of ordinary people. Wilson kept hammering away at what it meant to be human, and that if Van der Walls was elected, the definition would be very narrow. Van der Walls countered by pointing out that reason had to come in sometime. He pointed out a few real life examples of people who had in fact become animals. Wilson told of a few cases in which the victims at first appeared to be animals, but then gained their reason back. Van der Walls grudgingly admitted that, and then went on to point out that the definition he was proposing was going to be flexible, and very lenient, and only in the worst cases would people be classified as animals. Wilson did not respond to that.
The fire that Wilson had started the debate with, was ebbing, and Van der Walls was picking up in pace. He could tell that he had the hearts of the audience on his side now. The image of him coming to take away liberty must surely have been erased by now. He spoke of his plans to give the men who became animals a decent life, kept in captivity for research to see if a cure could be found. He never would deny that hope should exist. They have abandoned their responsibilities, so they should pay the world back, was his reasoning, and for this state, that sort of attitude worked nicely. Right up to that one question.
"If one of your children or your wife succumbed to SCABS, would you do these things to them?"
It was the bull from Great Ministries. Of course the moderator would have had to take that guy's question. He had seen the bull raise his hand that looked slightly hoofish for the last five or six minutes, but the moderator had not seen him yet. Now, the question was out in the open, and he could feel eyes on him. He did not feel the eyes of anybody watching on TV, nor anybody from the panel, but only from a few seated in the audience. He could feel his wife's eyes bore into his soul, her love hanging on his answer. He could feel his children looking at him expectantly, wondering how he would call their fate. The hesitation killed him.
"I..." he stumbled obviously shaken up with emotion. "I wouldn't have a choice. It would be the best thing for the people of the world." He mouthed the words, but he knew that nobody believed him.
The rest of the questions were a blur in his mind, he had no heart for them. Wilson answered ably, and the fire he expressed in the beginning of the debate, came back and powered his words at the end. Van der Walls just droned. He had lost the election, there was no way he could recover from this, all the newspapers would report it, and all the news broadcasts would show it over and over. There was no escaping it, and he knew it.
"Thank you, Governor Wilson!" Copernicus nearly jumped for joy. The rest of the bar joined the herpamorph in joyous exultation. The exploits of Van der Walls had at first seemed juvenile, but the things he suggested in that debate were horrific, much further and more diabolical than anything that Barnes had ever hoped to accomplish.
"I guess you were right, Coop." Wanderer admitted. "That Van der Walls is a psycho."
"Well, I don't think we have to worry about him anymore." Jack downed another beer, nearly slipping off his chair as he did so. "You see the look on his face when that bovine asked him that question?"
"I'll give him credit, he obviously loves his family," Raven pointed out. "Good thing, too, otherwise we might be talking about Governor Van der Walls, and how great Canada is looking this time of year."
There was a bit of laughter from the rest of the bar, and Jack slipped over to the piano, and began to play a light whimsical tune, missing many notes in his drunken state.
"Man, I wish McCurdy were here." he sighed, before belching, and continuing with his playing.
Neither Van der Walls' wife nor his children talked to him afterwards, but he didn't want to talk to them anyway. He went to his campaign office, and sat at his cushioned chair before his desk in a stupor. How could he have lost the race? One stupid question, and he was ended. He wanted to smash something in his fury, but his hatred for them did not let him. He would win, somehow, and he would punish them!
He heard the front door open and close, and saw a familiar figure step into his office. This man was the one who did the work that nobody wanted to know about it. He was the dirty man in the Humans First movement. Van der Walls had known him from his days when Barnes was still alive, but after Barnes had died, he'd never seen the man again. Of course, he'd tried to keep track of him, but keeping track of a polymorph is near impossible. His continuing orders were to find several of the spokespersons for the rights of SCABS victims, and to make them disappear. He had done a good job, for the most part, among those who were victims of SCABS. However, movements among humans were gaining strength, such as Great Ministries. What irked Van der Walls was that this man should never have come here, it was a great risk. One that he didn't want to take, but now it was too late to do anything about it.
"McMichaels! What are you doing here?" He asked in a shrill voice. "You know that I don't want people from Humans First at my election office. Especially not you."
"I found Bob Stein, he's back to his usual place again." McMichaels told him in a mellifluous voice.
"Stein? That bastard? Good, I hope you killed him." Van der Walls was still too miserable to really worry about anything but the disaster this election was becoming.
"No I did not. But I know where he is going, and I think I know a way that you can pull out this election." McMichaels replied casually.
"Oh? Do tell. I assume you saw the debates?"
"Yes I saw the debate. Wilson handled you almost effortlessly. You really shouldn't have balked on that question though, shows you as a ruthless bastard. People don't want that."
"I can hear all that from my pollsters. You can tell me other things. Obviously you've found something important, so spit it out." Van der Walls chided him.
"Well, apparently, a Dr. Standards has discovered something that he claims cures SCABS. I am not sure I believe him, as he is a government scientist, and not known for brilliance among his colleagues."
"What does he have to do with Stein?"
"He and a blind man approached Stein at the Blind Pig last night. I listened in on their conversation. He had a couple pianists play something loud, but with these ears, I could hear over the greatly exaggerated sounds of Liszt's Second Hungarian Rhapsody."
"Liszt's what?" Van der Walls asked slightly confused.
"You know, the piece that Bugs Bunny frolicked to?" McMichaels tried to explain.
"Can't say that I remember it."
"Well, anyway, it's not that important. What is important is that if he has found a cure, then you exposing it and revealing it to the world, would greatly damage Wilson, and bring lots of good will to your side," McMichaels reasoned.
"Yes, the man who cured SCABS, that would get me elected governor now, and heck, President in another few years. How can you get it?" Van der Walls smiled, the sting of his setback tonight no longer seeming to bother him.
"Well, I'd have to do something that you don't want to know about. It's fortunate that the Humans First movement you've nurtured in the permanent absence of Barnes has been researching possible cures, otherwise I don't think I could pull it off without getting caught," McMichaels answered calmly.
"You just do what you have to do. Cheat, lie, murder, whatever, just get me that cure," Van der Walls told him not caring what he said as a touch of euphoria swept over him. "Contact me next when you have the goods. You're excused. Oh, if you can do something unpleasant to Bob Stein in the process, please do. He's damaged our cause in the past, and frankly, that sort of action cannot go unpunished. I won't be happy until he's been broken like any other stud."
"Oh, another thing," McMichaels added. "The Reverend Isaiah Forsythe, the founder of Great Ministries, will also be there."
"Good, do something unfortunate to him too," Van der Walls said.
"That wouldn't really be in our best interest, as he can, and has, killed many with a single thought." McMichaels explained.
"How? That sounds like a bunch of poppy-cock to me." Van der walls seemed quite skeptical.
"Apparently an attempted cure that went bad. He has been used as an assassin for the US government for the past few years." McMichaels reported.
Van der Walls's eyes lit up. "Well if that gets reported, I guess we can kiss the Great Ministries goodbye, and good riddance! Don't kill him, but reveal that fact that he has killed people, that will destroy him. Then nobody can stand between me and destiny."
"Indeed, you are going to save the human race."
"Thank you McMichaels, as always you have been a great help." Van der Walls smiled at him as McMichaels excused himself. Van der Walls relaxed and basked in the glow of these revelations. What happened tonight was not that bad after all. A few days before the election, he presents the cure to SCABS to the world, along with test results showing that it works, and then everybody flocks to him. As an added bonus, the Great Ministries falls around the sins of its founder, leaving him no real opposition. He began to think about what color drapes he'd like in the Oval Office.
Part III: Medicine
Getting off the plane, Bob Stein felt the first bit of trepidation. He hadn't been to Washington DC in years, and the place looked as foreign to him as the bar must have to these two cool characters. Neither would talk about anything related to the cure or to Forsythe's condition. It was rather unnerving, staring at Darkwolf, the blind man who could kill with a thought, or so he said, and not seeing him return the stare. He had dealt with many who had lost use of their hands due to SCABS, and not a single one had bothered him so much as the simple case of a man who could not see. There was something about it that hurt him to the very core, for blindness was one thing he could not help to some degree.
They were met right outside the plane by a large truck with no windows, obviously so that Standards could get in and feel comfortable. Darkwolf invited him to sit in the rear of the truck, with Standards taking the middle seat. Well, he actually sat on the floor with his tail stretching underneath the back seat. Stein looked at the driver and passenger. He could see they carried weapons of some kind, and were dressed in official looking uniforms. On closer inspection, he could see that there was a pane of Plexiglas that separated them from the front seats.
"Why do they need weapons?" Bob asked. "I thought you could kill with a thought."
"Standard Operating Procedure. Besides, using my abilities too frequently might raise suspicion." Darkwolf replied.
Bob grimaced. "So where are we going?"
"Oh, I'm so glad you mentioned that." Darkwolf reached into his coat pocket.
Bob turned to look at the man, but saw instead a gun pulled out and pointed at his chest. "Don't worry, it won't kill you." Bob felt a small prick in his hide, reached a hand down and felt the small dart. The feeling in his whole body began to grow numb, and everything around him became foggy and seemed to slow down.
"You will awake in about six hours." Darkwolf told him, returning the gun to his jacket pocket. "Now do be a dear and fall asleep." Bob was faintly aware of Dr. Standards reaching up to cover his eyes with a massive scaly hand. After that, nothing.
Darkwolf sighed, inclined his head towards the comatose Dr. Stein, and then smiled a wolfish grin. He took off his Ray Bands, and twisted his eyes about, the fog fading from them. He looked down at the dog, and patted its head affectionately. "Kestrel, we have completed the first part. Now do be a dear and do what you have to do."
Kestrel wolfed in response, while Dr. Standards took care to make sure that Bob Stein's body was lying safely on the floor. Jerome checked Bob's pulse, and then moved around to clean out the man's pockets, dumping the contents into a black bag. Jerome handed the bag to Darkwolf, who took the bag and placed it in a briefcase. Darkwolf then picked up a phone and pushed a button, "Driver, head back to the airport."
Dr. Robert Stein awoke with a pounding headache. He sat up, and found himself lying prone on a medical table in a nearly featureless room except for a mirror on the far wall. He looked over himself, still the equine that he had been when he got off the plane. Apparently, they hadn't done anything to him. It took him a moment, but he realized that his clothes were gone. He then looked over the room, but the same off-white greeted him, except for his own visage in the mirror. It then dawned on him that he was in an observation room.
It took a few moments, but a door in the side next to the mirror opened up, and he saw Dr. Standards walk through. "Ah, you are awake. Sorry we had to do that. National Security matters are of the utmost importance here."
"Where am I?" Bob asked, feeling his head, twitching his ears.
"I can't tell you that. Nor can anybody else here." Standards was still dressed in his usual black, and at the moment Bob thought it looked ridiculous. On Darkwolf he had to admit it made him look striking, but on the reptile Standards, it only made him look comical. Standards pulled out a white package, and handed it to Bob. "Clothes, sanitized of course. I'm sure you can understand why."
"I think so." Bob took the offered shirt and slacks, and quickly put them on.
"Do you need them?" Standards asked, bemused.
"I guess not." Bob admitted, sliding off the table, and then nearly falling on the floor.
"You're still a bit wobbly from Darkwolf's knockout juice. Would you like some assistance?"
"No, I can walk fine." Bob assured him, rising once again, and this time staying up.
Standards nodded approvingly. "Follow me, and we'll meet the others."
Dr. Jerome Standards led Bob down a series of corridors, where most of the doors had keycard locks and number combinations. He saw no windows in the place, and the atmosphere was obviously well maintained, no scent of anything but sterilized walls and utensils. Bob felt a growing unease come over him. Just who were these people that they needed to protect themselves by such stringent security protocols? He had heard of Jerome Standards of course, knew that he was the lead government scientist studying SCABS, but he had no idea that he worked in such a high security environment. Perhaps since he seemed to have found at least a partial cure, they felt it necessary to keep him under the utmost security. Of course, who else was going to know? Nobody could have heard them the way Jack and McCurdy were slamming away at the piano.
Standards punched in a combination at one door, and motioned for Bob to step through once it opened. It was another long corridor, and it had another security lock. Bob was feeling very confined by this environment, and wondered just how anybody could stand it. After going through that security lock, the passage opened up into a wide room, dimly illuminated, where two figures sat waiting. One was the familiar Darkwolf, wearing practically the same suit he had the night in the bar and on the plane trip. His seeing eye dog lay placidly beneath his paws. Sitting on the opposite end of the room was a cockroach that he was very familiar with.
"Bryan!" Bob smiled in delight, though still feeling a bit woozy.
"Good to see you, Bob." Bryan lit up, his antennae twitching in delight. "I see you got the treatment too."
"Welcome, Dr. Stein." Darkwolf intoned in a friendly voice. "So good of you to join us."
"Er, thanks." Stein said flatly.
"I really mean that." Darkwolf cajoled him. "Now, to the object of your desire."
Darkwolf pulled a large briefcase out from behind his seat, and set it on the table. He opened it up, and inside was a plastic container holding what looked to be a red rock. "Do you know what this is, Dr. Stein?"
"A rock?" Stein guessed.
"Very good." Darkwolf replied in a patronizing voice. "I am glad to see that you must have passed Earth Science with flying colors."
"All right, it is a Martian Rock." Bob admitted. In his studies, he had seen several photographs of them and there was a singular quality to them, not one that was easily duplicated on Earth.
"Good." Darkwolf nodded. "Jerome, please tell them what you know."
Jerome strode over to the rock. "As I have already told Dr. Derksen, this rock holds the key to curing SCABS."
Bob's eyes went wide. "That seems unlikely, considering that the virus came form Mars in the first place."
"That's what I thought at first too, " Bryan jumped in, "however, his reasons are very good, and actually quite obvious if you ask me."
"Thank you, Bryan." Jerome smiled, but it was not reassuring. "Since the disease comes from Mars, why not the cure? After all, this disease is breaking almost every known law of physics and biology. Obviously there must be things at work here that we do not understand with the extent of our science. Since our science is based off of observation, and our observation is limited to our five senses, then the reason this disease causes what it does must be based off of something that we cannot observe."
"So far that makes sense. Standard sort of stuff. I had reached a similar conclusion before I had to leave my work. Never had time to think about it though, just a passing thought." Bob shrugged. "However, if the disease works in ways that we cannot observe, what makes you think that you can possibly find a cure?"
"Arrogance." Standards admitted. "Simple arrogance, and the fact that I'm being paid to do it."
"But somehow, you think you've managed?" Bob pried.
"I've seen the results, Bob." Bryan admonished him. "They look like a pretty convincing start to me. Better than anything I was able to come up with."
"I prefer to think that we stumbled upon it by accident." Dr. Standards admitted. "I do not know why it works, but it seems to on limited cases."
"Giving them more of what made them the way they are in the first place?" Bob was incredulous.
"Of course not. That would be stupid. This rock contains no samples of the virus. We simply took a sample from the rock, and injected it into the victims." Standards said in brief.
"How did you know that it wasn't going to kill them?" Bob asked, not sure he could believe that such a simple thing like that would work.
"We didn't, but they had signed forms, and they knew the risk." Jerome Standards rationalized.
"Did it kill anybody?" Bob asked.
"Unfortunately, yes. Three people from our field study did die. We suspect that it was an allergic reaction to the minerals in the rock. We just haven't isolated which one yet." Standards admitted sullenly.
"However, we can accept such losses given the advancement that was made." Darkwolf added philosophically, scratching his seeing-eye dog between the ears.
Bob wanted to cry out how cold-blooded he was, but refrained from doing that for fear that this man was just as dangerous as he claimed to be. Bryan however, was not as tactful. "My goodness, that's barbaric!"
"Would you rather millions die from this disease over the next ten years, or a few volunteers who are willing to give their lives so that a cure may be found for others?" Darkwolf replied, completely nonplused.
Bryan hulked, crossing all of his arms.
"Well, that's basically what I can tell you here. We don't know why it works, or if the effects are permanent. All it could do is hide the symptoms. We don't know yet. You may freely examine the work I have already done, but later. First, I think we should really get to the reason why you two are here." Jerome interjected.
"Isaiah Forsythe?" Bob asked, still unsure of what this Martian rock portended.
"Exactly." Darkwolf smiled. "If you would follow me, I will show you where he is being contained." Darkwolf got up, and his seeing-eye dog led him over to a far door.
"Have you seen him yet?" Bob asked Bryan, as the two got up to follow Darkwolf.
"No, they've kept me waiting here for you to show up. It seems they had a little trouble finding you." Bryan replied. It sounded like he had been here quite a few days, and had begun to feel rather dismayed at being confined for so long.
The passage they were led down looked much like any other, but this one required a vocal scan on the part of Darkwolf for them to enter. Bob wondered just what his real name was, since Darkwolf sounded more like an affectation than anything else.
Beyond the lock was a darkened room with a single pane of glass set beside a door with a numbered keypad beside the knob. In the room beyond the glass lay a man strapped down to an observation table. Saliva dripped from his mouth, and he had open sores all over his body. Bob felt like he was going to vomit. This man did not look like he held the power over life and death of every creature on the planet, he looked like a plague victim who was in his final stages. Every now and then they saw him twitch, and once he screamed a blood chilling wail that died in a gurgle with blood seeping from his mouth.
"Are we too late?" Bob asked.
"No, he has a very strong sense of survival." Jerome pointed out. "I'd give him a few more weeks before he passes away. He's been building up to this for the last few months."
"He sounds like he's in agony." Bryan pointed out.
"I wouldn't doubt it. Considering what's become of his mind." Jerome stated sadly.
"What has become of his mind?" Bob asked, turning away from the sight of a man with oozing pustules and cracked skin.
"He's been purposefully driven insane." Jerome continued.
"Dr. Standards, I would like to remind you that what you are about to reveal is highly classified information." Darkwolf sounded quite unhappy with his colleague.
"Darkwolf, telling them what has happened may be the only way to save him. They are both doctors, they know what client confidentiality means. They aren't going to talk." Jerome replied hotly.
"If you think so." Darkwolf sighed.
"Anyway, after my failed experiment that gave him his power over death, our delightful government got a hold of my five volunteers, and trained them to be assassins. The reverend, of course, wouldn't have anything to do with killing anyone, so they tortured him until his mind left him. I don't know what sorts of tortures they did to him, but Darkwolf says they were rather nasty." Jerome explained, to the horror of both Bob and Bryan.
"It was not our finest moment," Darkwolf admitted.
"I'll say." Dr. Derksen seemed aghast.
"Now he's dying, and the last psychological profile that was made of the reverend is very frightening." Jerome intoned in a hollow voice. "I don't think he cares just who he kills anymore."
"I've seen the Reverend on TV recently." Bryan objected. "How do you all manage that?"
"One of our lower level polymorphs stands in for the reverend." Darkwolf replied.
"Why would you want to do that?" Bob asked curiously.
"The Secretary of Defense is a victim of SCABS, as you may recall. He places high priority on protecting those organizations that are favorable to SCABS. Forsythe simply happened to be an inspirational leader, and the Secretary did not want to see him go." Darkwolf explained halfheartedly.
Bob grimaced, taking another look at the stricken Forsythe, and then turning away in horror. This was truly a man in pain, and what they must have done to him had only made it worse. He did not care for Darkwolf, or Dr. Standards. He wanted to save this man because he needed saving, because he was in pain greater than Bob could ever remember feeling. "So how can we help?" Bob finally asked.
"Dr. Standards will show you his condition, and what we think is the cause of it. You will be given access to a lab to work your wonders. Jerome will also show you to a place where you can sleep when you are not working, and where you can get food. He will also give you the access codes that you will need to go where you have to. Do not try going elsewhere, for I cannot be held responsible for the consequences. If you see anybody but Standards or I in the lab, then stop them, for they will be an intruder, and we take no chances." Darkwolf briefed them in a crisp voice that carried a veiled threat along with it. Screw up and I'll kill you, it said.
"How do we know that you won't appear in a different form, you are a polymorph too, after all." Bob pointed out.
"I can assure you, I will always look as I do now." Darkwolf smiled, holding the leash to his dog very tightly. "Now I must go, I have my own work to attend to."
"What work would that be?" Bob asked.
"I'm sorry, that's classified." Darkwolf told him before exiting the way they had come.
Bob gave Bryan a knowing look. He did not trust Darkwolf, and the veracity of his claims was something that Bob was seriously beginning to doubt. Of course, like the man had said, did he dare take the chance that he was telling the truth?
Part IV: Absconded
Dr. Bob Stein was at least grateful that they were permitted contact with the outside world, although it had been made painfully clear that the topic of any conversations he had was severely limited. The first thing he had done when they had left him to his own devices was to call the bar, and let them know that he was fine, and that it looked like he would be gone for a few weeks. There were a few muffled grunts of disapproval, but he reassured them that they needn't worry about his well being.
"Good news though." Jack told him, being the first to get to the phone in the bar.
"What's that?" Bob asked.
"That Van der Walls guy running for Governor is pretty much dead now." Jack sounded giddy about that.
"Why should I care?" Bob asked, his mind preoccupied with the events that he had been immersed in.
"Van der Walls was worse than Barnes ever could hope to be. He actually advocated killing SCABS victims who he thought were animals for scientific research!" Jack was horrified.
"That does sound serious. I wonder why nobody knew this before."
"Oh, Copernicus said that he had heard some murmuring about it, but apparently this race has been real quiet, because the Humans First group until last night hadn't actually been supporting anybody. Of course, now that Van der Walls is trailing Governor Wilson by twenty points, I don't think we have anything to worry about." Jack reported.
"Well, there's always going to be a Barnes or a Van der Walls, we just have to stop them every time before they get too far." Bob replied philosophically.
"Yeah whatever." Jack grunted.
"How's McCurdy doing?" Bob asked him mischievously.
"McCurdy? Oh she's visiting relatives down south. Sort of a surprise visit she said, she'll be back in a week or so." Jack seemed a bit down about that, but that was natural when two young people started to like each other like Jack and McCurdy were doing.
"Well anyway, I've got work to do, I'll talk to you another time."
"Yeah, you too." Jack nodded.
Bob hung up the phone, and then looked over the notes and diagrams given to him by Standards. It was basically all the conditions that Forsythe was suffering from. Bob felt an uncanny familiarity with the conditions described, but couldn't put a finger to what it was. He walked down to the lab to join Dr. Derksen in solving this dilemma.
Dr. Bryan Derksen was handling about four beakers at once, and Bob stayed out of his way. This was highly irregular, he thought, why would two SCABS scientists be working on something that didn't look like anything he'd ever seen in relation to SCABS. Perhaps it was caused in part by the faulty cure that Standards claimed was given to Forsythe, or perhaps it was something else altogether. Whatever it was, Bob couldn't seem to put a hoof on it.
After reading and rereading the notes, he went to work writing down possible equations, and comparing notes with Bryan. Their results were strikingly similar, quite uncommon for two people working independently on the same project. After cleaning up a few failed and unfortunate missteps, Bob had a clear idea what was wrong with Forsythe. The solution to the problem seemed so elementary to him, he was surprised that Standards, who claimed to have cured one of the most widespread diseases of the age, had not been able to do anything for Forsythe.
"Doesn't this seem a little familiar to you?" Bob asked all of a sudden, lowering his pen, and looking at the cockroach who was busy mixing fluids.
Bryan continued to mix the fluids with two pairs of arms, but his head inclined towards Bob. "You are right. This does seem familiar in some respect. It's almost like I've done this before."
"I get the same feeling." Bob nodded. Then he grimaced, and approached a topic that was of more interest to him. "Do you really think they have found a way to cure SCABS?"
"I don't know." Bryan admitted. "The results I've seen look convincing, however meager they are. But the premise behind the cure seems to me to be so obvious that it is amazing that we hadn't already tried that. I know that I have searched and searched for a way to cure SCABS, but I have been balked at every turn. Perhaps they have stumbled upon something significant. Perhaps it just acts like aspirin, hides the symptoms for a while. We don't know yet. But the test results that they have shown me say that they have been successful in some cases, so obviously they must have something."
Bob shrugged. "What about Darkwolf? What do you think of him?"
"He's messed up in the head if you ask me. Probably as a result of going blind. What I don't understand though, is that if he is as powerful as he claims he is, why doesn't he just make himself a new pair of eyes? It sounds like he could do it, I have heard of cases of polymorphs re-growing lost extremities. If he is as powerful as he claims to be, why does he remain blind?"
"I don't know. I never thought about that. Then again, perhaps he's not as powerful as he claims to be. Perhaps he can, and simply does not show it. After all, he did make a beautiful shot in pool, I can't imagine how he could do it without being able to see the balls." Bob pointed out.
"Regardless whether he tells the truth or not, I think crossing him would be a bad idea." Bryan added. "Darkwolf scares me in a way that few do. I think he really could kill you, maybe not with a thought, but he certainly possess the capability to do it."
"He pulled a gun on me, and I didn't even see it coming." Bob admitted with a bit of chagrin.
"He did the same to me too, I was more amazed that he could make a dart go through my carapace." Derksen admitted patting his chitinous belly.
"What about Standards? Do you trust him?" Bob queried.
"I think he's trustworthy. He doesn't have that dishonest quality that Darkwolf does. Darkwolf always seems to be up to something. Standards seems to be just a scientist." Bryan replied, mixing a few more beakers.
"Well, anyway, back to the cure for Forsythe." Bob sighed, looking back over his notes.
Getting back to what he enjoyed most, Bob quickly lost track of time, simply pouring over the equations and biological factors that he needed to know and understand for Forsythe's case. It seemed so easy to predict what he would need and the different structures that were readily available to his memory made him once again ponder whether this was mere coincidence, or in fact, something deliberate.
One thing he knew was true, was that Forsythe was dying, and he wanted to save him. Did it really matter what he was dying of? Bob could not answer that question yes. He wanted to save that man, a man who had done a lot of good for the victims of SCABS. When he thought about it, he realized that he didn't care what this man had done. If he could save a life, then he would do it. It was a matter of decency, and to prove that there was still a human soul inside this shire body.
Bob put down his notes sometime later, and yawned. He looked at his watch, noticed that it wasn't there, and then reminded himself that all his personal possessions were being held in custody by the twin dark suits. He looked about the dim lab, smiled to Bryan, and then said, "I think I'm going off to bed."
"Well, see you tomorrow morning, if there is a morning in this place." Bryan replied whimsically.
Bob smiled, shaking his head in dismay. He then crooked one ear and tossed his notes on the table, "A pox on this virus!"
Bryan nodded, and watched Bob leave for the night. Then suddenly, he looked back at the notes, and flipped through them. He then examined the equations they had devised so far, looking back and forth between the two in utter amazement. He then had a sudden thought. It didn't make sense, but he knew that it was true, it all came back to him then, all of his study back in med school, it all returned to him. He left the lab, saw Bob standing stock still, and started, "I know what's killing Forsythe, you're not going to believe...." he stopped mid-sentence, finally noticing the other figure that was in the room beyond. He was a human male, with an utterly evil face, holding a shotgun pointed straight at Bob. Upon Bryan's entrance, he pulled another gun, this one just a pistol, and pointed it directly at Bryan's head.
"Now, turn around, the both of you, and open the door to the lab." the man said in a harsh voice.
"Who are you?" Bob asked, undeterred.
"Fuck you!" the man told him. "If you don't open that door, your head is going to be all over it, now move." he managed to keep his voice down, despite the obvious anger there.
Bob turned around, as did Bryan, and the both of them walked right back into the lab. "Stay against that wall to your right!" the man told them. Bob and Bryan lined up, keeping all of their appendages in plain sight. Bob heard the man turn the computer on, but resisted the urge to sneak a peek behind him. How had this man gotten in here? This place was more high security than the Pentagon. Hell, it might very well be the Pentagon! However he had arrived, he was certainly trying to steal everything that Standards had done, as it was all on the computer in the lab here. What made Bob wonder, though, was how he expected to get past the security cameras for very long.
It took him several minutes, each passing second like an eternity, wondering whether the man was just going to kill them once he was finished. That's what Bob would do, to better cover his tracks, as he had not worn a mask. This man seemed to do everything wrong, but then, that didn't explain how he'd gotten in here.
He heard the CD tray open up, and then close again. Bob looked over at Bryan, who was pointing at something with one of his arms. Bob took a look and saw that it was the light switch. Of course, Bryan would still be able to see pretty well with only the computer screen providing any illumination, and if you can't see, then you can't aim.
Before Bob was able to move, the man spoke again, "All right, Dr. Stein, today is your last day. No more will you harm us, or taunt us."
"Who?" Bob asked, not really expecting him to answer.
"Humans First of course, and here's a treat straight from Van der Walls himself. He wanted you to have this." the man replied calmly, telling them this like a man who didn't care, knowing that those who heard would be dead anyway.
Bob knew then that the moment to strike was now. He jumped at the light switch, striking it and sending the room into complete darkness. He heard the man shout in rage, and then in surprise. There was a clatter as the guns were knocked to the floor, and he could hear them scraping against it as they slid to far corners of the lab. Bob stayed down, listening in on the struggle between the man and Bryan. It was an unfair fight, Bryan simply had more arms than his opponent. Not that Bob minded, any wacko from Humans First deserved to get shown up. However, he never knew them for the colossal stupidity that this one had just shown. There had to be something going on here.
He heard Bryan cry out in shock then, and Bob wondered just what it was that the man had done. The next thing he knew the door had opened, and a bright flash of light struck them all. Bob was blinded by the light for a moment, everything going red, and slowly coming back into focus. When things cleared up enough for him to see, he looked over at the door. Darkwolf was standing there in a black robe. Darkwolf patted his unadorned seeing-eye dog once, and then called out, "Is everyone all right?"
Bob looked over to Bryan, who was still shielding his eyes. He did not see the man anywhere. Bob looked over at Darkwolf, and saw Standards approaching from behind him as well. "There was a man in here, he was planning to kill us and steal something from the computer."
Standards came to life, and ran to the computer, pushing Darkwolf aside. He looked over a few things, and then raked the table with his claws, letting out a bellow of anger. "Whoever it was took every damn file! They've got the cure, they have our test results, they have everything. Plus, our computer is in the process of doing a core dump."
"You mean?" Bob asked, horrified.
"That's right. Everything that we don't have hard copy of, is in the process of being eliminated. There's nothing we can do about it." Standards sounded completely dejected, and then he turned towards Darkwolf. "Did you feel anybody pass you when you opened the door?"
"Barely, he escaped my notice before I could act." Darkwolf admitted. "Did he say anything to reveal who he was?"
"He said he was from Humans First." Bob said still amazed that somebody that stupid could escape Darkwolf, who claimed many things. "He said he'd been sent here by Van der Walls himself."
"Are you willing to testify to that?" Darkwolf asked him.
Bob then grew suspicious. This situation seemed to perfect, almost like it had been planned. "To strike a blow against the Humans First, of course I'd do it."
"Good." Darkwolf patted his seeing-eye dog again. "Now, I wonder just how they knew."
"Whoever it was, knew me by name." Dr. Stein commented, looking over at Derksen, who was slowly getting used to the light.
"That would mean that there was somebody who was in the bar that night we approached you who really isn't who they claim to be. Somebody who could hear over the playing of the piano." Darkwolf reasoned.
"Nobody in the bar would betray us like that! Most have been there for years!" Bob objected.
"Perhaps it was somebody who was much newer to the place." Darkwolf pointed out. He leaned down to pet his dog once more.
Bob stewed with that thought before admitting, "Perhaps you are right. Would you permit me to talk to some friends of mine to see if anybody has been strangely missing?"
"Of course." Darkwolf smiled, grabbing a hold of his dog's tail. "Now, I need to get back to bed. I shall see you tomorrow, let me know what you find out."
"I need to report this." Standards pointed at the computer. "The guys upstairs are not going to be happy."
"I can imagine." Bryan told the disappearing herpamorph.
Copernicus judged the shot carefully, lowered his pole, and straighted behind the cue ball. He was aiming for the eight ball. With this shot, he'd be the champion again, defeating Raven for the third time out of five games. His aim was perfect, and his execution without flaw, until the phone rang, and his shot went wild, sending the ball bouncing off the table, rolling across the bar, and then slamming on Jack's hoof as he turned to get the phone.
"OW!" Jack yelled, holding the receiver in one hand. "Dang blast it!" He clutched his leg protectively, glowering at Copernicus who was still looking at the table in shock and disbelief. Fate had interrupted his game, it better have a good reason to!
"Jack?" the voice on the other end seemed concerned.
"I'm fine, just had a billiards ball land on my leg. Who's this?" Jack rubbed his bruised leg, still scowling at Copernicus.
"This is Bob Stein, I have a very important question to ask you." Bob sounded a little upset, and very tired. It must have been a long day for him.
"So what is it?" Jack asked.
"Can you remember just who was here that night we were interrupted by the crocodile and the wolf in black who asked to speak with me in private?"
"I think so."
"Good, can you tell me who was there that night that isn't there now, and hasn't been for a while?"
"Well, Wanderer and the Lupine Boys are roaming the city now, but they only left to do that a few hours ago. Other than that, the only people who aren't here are those two guys themselves, and McCurdy who is supposed to be visiting her parents. She was supposed to call me when she got there, but she hasn't yet. I'm beginning to get worried about her, but I dare not call, otherwise I'll spoil the surprise for her parents."
Bob sighed. "Thanks, Jack. I'm sorry I can't tell you more."
"What's going on Dr. Bob?" Jack asked.
"I can't say." Bob told him a little disconsolately.
"Well, whatever it is, I'm sure you can take care of it." Jack assured him, still massaging his leg.
"I hear you. I'll call back later. Bye." and Bob hung up the phone. Jack put the phone back on the wall, stooped over, picked up the cue ball that was lying on the ground beneath his feet, and walked over to Copernicus. "Lose something, Coop?"
Bob put the phone down, and looked over at Bryan, who was twitching nervously. "Well?"
"I think that it was McCurdy." Bob told him in a whisper.
"Who's McCurdy?" Bryan asked, confused.
"You wouldn't know her. She's only been there for about two weeks. Jack's taken a real shine to her, as she's a donkey, and can play the piano better than he can. With her ears, I can see how she'd be able to hear over the piano, play it just loud enough so that others can't hear, but soft enough so that she could." Bob explained.
"And she has been working for Humans First all this time?" Bryan asked.
"Apparently." Bob sighed. "I'm going to hate to see Jack's face when he finds out about this."
"But we saw a human male." Bryan pointed out.
"She, or he, is probably a polymorph." Bob pointed out.
"But why work for Humans First if you can be an animal?" Bryan seemed confused.
"Perhaps somebody who contracted SCABS killed somebody he or she cared for, and so he or she signed up for revenge. Who can tell? Now they have the cure, and we don't. And, according to Standards, if we don't find a cure for Forsythe, we'll all be dead in a few weeks anyway."
Bryan nodded glumly, then something came back to him. "I don't think so."
"You said yourself that Forsythe's condition seemed familiar."
"Uh-huh." Bob agreed, not sure just what Bryan was trying to say.
"That's because, just before the SCABS outbreak, it was a standard disease that every medical student had to cure. We both cured this thing in our college days."
"You're not serious!" Bob said in amazement.
"Oh yes I am." Bryan replied confidently. "What we have in there is common smallpox."
Part V: Revelations
Van der Walls had talked with his wife and kids, having to assure them that the chances that they would be mutated into an animal were slim, and that even if they did, he was not going to send them away for scientific study. His wife was still mad at him for that statement, although she admitted with her mouth that what he said made sense, it didn't make her feel any better about it, and she let him know it.
So, Van der Walls spent most of his time at his campaign headquarters, discussing with his campaign staff and manager what sort of commercials that needed to be aired. Buying air time was not a problem, he could afford lots of it. Undoing the damage that one simple question had caused, that was the problem. His own pollsters showed him ten points behind, and that was a very bad sign. Though once more the mobility was going in his direction, it was much slower than before, and certaily not enough to let him win the election for governor. Thoughts of the White House were still on his mind, but only peripherally.
It had grown late into the night, and most of his campaign staff had left. He excused himself from further discussions that day, and cancelled all his meetings for the next day. He had them buy some live airtime on the evening news for the following day, he didn't say why. His speech writers were rather flabbergasted that he wanted to give an impromptu performance. He promised that his speech would galvanize the race, and the fact that he didn't say why, was very frustrating for them.
He decided to walk home for once, unusual, but Van der Walls had always been a little odd, and he was quite capable of taking care of himself, so those left in his office took no notice of it. Van der Walls walked down a few blocks, and then took a wrong turn. He knew that he had, but continued on anyway. He passed through the park in the middle of town, sitting down on a park bench. There he waited, gazing at the sky and the scenery about him, bathed in a soft glow from a nearby street lamp.
A second figure joined him on the bench, a very familiar second figure, one that he had been waiting for. "Beautiful night, isn't it?" he asked Van der Walls.
"That it is." Van der Walls agreed. "I take it you have my CD that you borrowed?"
"Of course." McMichaels handed him a CD. "I assume you took care of my income?"
"Two hours ago." Van der Walls assured him looking idly at the CD, watching as the refracted light from its surface splayed across the sidewalk.
"Excellent." McMichaels smiled. "It has always been my pleasure to work for Humans First."
"I thought we said this was to be a discreet meeting?" Van der Walls asked, his eye narrowing ever so slightly.
"Of course we did, and we've engaged it without any important names, and there is nobody alive within ten miles." McMichaels assured him.
"Did you..." Van der Walls was afraid to finish the question.
"No, I've ended nobody's life, not even those whom you hoped for something bad to happen to."
"You're pretty free with words." Van der Walls noted unhappily.
"I'll be staying kind of low for a while. There is certainly going to be some heat, but as long as you forge your work sufficiently, they'll never be able to pin it to you." McMichaels advised.
"And what of you? Will I see you again?"
"I guarentee it. Though give it time, you don't want to see me too soon." McMichales rose from his seat, and walked off into the darkness. Van der Walls tucked the CD into his jacket, and rose as well. He walked off in the opposite direction, returned all the way to his car, and drove home. He told one of his staff who saw him that he had just taken an evening stroll to get a few things off his mind. He told his wife that it had been a long day, and tomorrow promised to be just more of the same.
Copernicus walked in the next day wearing a bumper sticker across his chest. Everybody was looking down to see what it was. "www.2030.gov" Wanderer read out loud, then looked slightly puzzled, "I do not understand what you are trying to convey. I never thought you would be a computer person."
Copernicus laughed throatily, "Ha! I bet nobody can guess what this means. It's not a computer thing either."
Raven looked over it, and then shook her head, "I can't make heads or tails of it."
The rest of the bar also had to admit defeat. Jack was so preoccupied by the phone that he didn't even turn about to see what it was that Copernicus was showing off. He thought it odd that he should have a bumper sticker on his chest, but other than that, let his thoughts return to where they really wanted to be - worrying about McCurdy. She still had yet to call, and she had been gone a full three days.
"So what does it mean, Coops?" Raven asked finally.
"Win With Wilson, in 2030, for Governor. Get it, www.2030.gov? I think it's really cool. I can't wait to vote for the guy!" Copernicus explained, tracing a claw across each section of his sticker.
"Do you really want to vote for him," Wanderer asked pointedly, "or is it that you don't want Van der Walls to win?"
Copernicus thought for a moment. "Both, really. I guess when I got interested in the race I found out that Wilson is actually very friendly to us SCABS victims. You all heard his speech and how he handled himself in the debates, I thought that would convince all of you."
"It has, we're just making fun of you Coops." Raven winked at him.
Copernicus would have blushed if he could, but instead sighed, and looked happily at his bumper sticker once more.
The first thing that had been on Dr. Robert Stein's agenda that morning was to find Darkwolf, and to get some answers out of him. He had looked for him that night after the break in, but he was nowhere to be found, and he had been very tired, so he just went and got some sleep. It had been a fitful sleep, and he really didn't feel all that much better this morning.
He finally found Darkwolf in the lounge. Darkwolf was sitting on a couch by himself in casual black shirt and shorts. Darkwolf had what looked to be a large leg bone in one paw, and he was chewing on it. Bob thought that a sight much more appropriate for Darkwolf's dog, but then remembered that he had grazed before as well, so he didn't mention it.
What was more surprising was the tone that Darkwolf took with him, even before he got a chance to say a word, "I have a bone to pick with you." Darkwolf pointed the bone at him, and told him in a very hostile fashion. The hilarity of the statement was lost on both.
"You have a bone to pick with me!" Bob was astounded. "You practically kidnap me, you lie to me right and left, then you suddenly seem to be incapable of anything, letting some guy break in and steal everything that you claim you are working for, and you say that you have a bone to pick with me!"
"That's right." Darkwolf continued, unfazed. "Why didn't you eat a bullet to stop him?"
"Die for something that seems more fanciful than factual?" Bob asked in horror. "Are you out of your mind?"
"No, and neither was Paul, Peter, Stephen, Samson, Zwingli, or Singh out of their minds when they died for something that seemed to others more fanciful than factual."
Bob recognized a few of the names, and then grimaced, "Look, we're not talking about religion here, we are talking science. In science, you need facts."
"No, you just need observations." Darkwolf replied. "Have you not heard what Dr. Derksen has told you of the case studies we've done? Have you not heard of the test results?"
"They were inconclusive." Bob pointed out.
"Still, why didn't you take that bullet?" Darkwolf asked.
"Because it wasn't meant for me." Bob replied.
"That, my friend, is an evasion." Darkwolf chided him, taking another bite into the bone.
"You are not my friend." Bob pointed out bluntly. "Now I want some answers. Will you answer my questions?"
"I am waiting for a phone call." Darkwolf told him. "Once I receive this phone call, I will tell you all."
"Why is the disease that Forsythe is suffering from Smallpox? That has nothing to do with SCABS whatsoever!"
"Ask Dr. Standards, maybe he'll tell you." Darkwolf replied.
"Do you know the answer to my question?" Bob was nearly fuming with frustration.
"Of course, I know everything that is involved in this case. I choose not to answer your question, however, and so will Dr. Standards if he is smart."
Bob wanted to scream at the top of his lungs. Getting anything out of this man was like moving mountains with your arms. "Why didn't you keep a backup of the cure? And why did it only take a few moments for that man to find what he needed and destroy the computer? He must have had some inside help, or...." Bob got another thought.
"Or what?" Darkwolf asked, chewing on his bone, listening to Bob's thoughts.
"Or this is a setup. But for whom?" Bob wondered.
"That's a good question. Now why don't you wait, and I'll answer it for you." Darkwolf smiled, and then returned to his methodical chewing.
Copernicus changed the channel once again on the TV set. He set it to C-SPAN as before, and there were a few other odd stares, but considering his chest wear, most were willing to accept Copernicus's interest in politics. Raven was trying to bait him once more into a game of pool, but seeing his preoccupation, let him be. Jack was too busy pacing by the phone to care, but Wanderer, with his Lupine Boys sitting by the front window, was watching him curiously.
"I didn't think that there was going to be another set of debates. With the convivial reaction Van der Walls received with the last one, you think he wouldn't subject himself to the mercy of the non-Court TV public." Wanderer idly mused.
Copernicus laughed a moment. "No, no, this is something else. The guy who pointed out all the stuff about Van der Walls is going to be making a speech. He put out a pamplet giving twenty reasons not to vote for Van der Walls. It detailed his anti-SCABS positions and his past voting record."
"Who is this dear soul then?" Wanderer asked, his curiosity piqued.
"The Reverend Isaiah Forsythe. He runs the Great Ministries foundation, a religious organization determined to bring comfort to victims of SCABS." Copernicus explained.
"I know who they are. So why do you want to listen to his speech?"
"Apparently he's going to expose several fallacies of the Humans First movement."
"Why bother, we already know them!"
Copernicus sighed, "Still, I'd like to listen."
Donnie leaned over the bar to get a good glimpse of the TV. Raven also leaned back against a stool to get a good view. Several of the other patrons did so as well. Copernicus leaned on the pool table, his attention rapt. Wanderer sighed, and began to watch and wait for the speech to begin. Jack DeMule still paced back in forth in front of the phone, oblivious to what was going on in the bar.
Van der Walls turned the limousine TV off in disgust. They were no longer going to bother him, he would see to that. When he presented to the world the cure for SCABS, how could anybody resist voting for him, he the one who saved mankind from the greatest plague of the twenty-first century. Of course, he would get his revenge against Forsythe as well, showing that he was a murderer. The idea that he really had killed people seemed odd to him, so out of character for one who claimed to share a message of love; still, it mattered not, the evidence would show that he had.
He rarely made an appearance at the Humans First headquarters. His connection with the non-profit organization was not one that was widely known, at least it hadn't been until Forsythe had spread his pamphlets all over the state. Now his appearance hardly seemed dramatic at all. He was greeted by a few orderlies who were overjoyed at his presence, a few who declared to him that they would not stop fighting for the supremacy of man, and a few bootlickers who praised him for his speech at the debates.
He ignored them, telling them that he had pressing business, and must not be delayed. The research and development team was located in the basement, and their laboratory had a sick smell of decay to it. It was odd how basement laboratories always seemed to smell so acrid and foul. The head scientist, a Dr Bowman, was a lean and sour man, wearing a constant expression of disapproval that made him look like he had just eaten a lemon. He nearly smiled at Van der Walls appearance. "What do you want?" he asked in a slippery voice.
"This CD contains information that you might find useful." Van der Walls handed them the CD that McMichaels had given him the night before.
"What's on it?" Bowman asked as he snatched the CD from Van der Walls's hands.
"The cure to SCABS. Or at least a partial cure, I'm told." Van der Walls told the unpleasant man triumphantly.
Bowman's eyes widened, and he looked at the CD, scrutinizing the laser scored lines, as if they would reveal their mysteries to him if he stared hard enough. "Are you sure?" he asked, finally taking his eyes away from the CD.
"Absolutely, slip it in and see for yourself." Van der Walls told the doctor.
"Oh, of course! Of course!" Bowman pushed a young orderly out of the way, and opened up the CD chamber on the main computer, and checked the contents of the CD drive. He saw but two files. Both self-extracting. One was marked cure.exe and the other forsythe.exe. Before either could do anything, the cure.exe file began to upload, and the computer screen went black. Charts began to flash by, and a window popped up before them.
Van der Walls moved the mouse to the [YES] button, and clicked. The window vanished, and soon the names of files began to scroll down the screen. They moved so fast that Van der Walls could not read them. The, inexplicably, the screen went black. Suddenly the modem program came to life, and began to dial.
"What the Hell?" Van der Walls asked, stunned.
"We must remember, that each life on this Earth is a precious one, be it a man or an animal. The Lord our God knows when even the simplest sparrow falls, do you not think He knows of our plight as well? Do you think He is ignorant of the fact that some of His people have grown claws, hooves, muzzles, tails, and other assorted features that distinguish them from what we have thought of as the defining human physique? We cannot be eosophobic at the dawn of a mystery, we must have resolve to solve the challenges that have been set before us.
"The Humans First movement, which I denounce, stands in the way of everything decent. They stand for more fear, they stand for division, and hatred. They claim they want to save humanity, but they only demean what it means to be human. They think that God has given them the right to determine who is human and who is not. They think they can tell whether you have an immortal soul or not.
"The mystery that has dawned before us, SCABS, is not one that should be feared. We have no choice but to admit that it is here to stay for quite some time. One day, a day that could be very much like today, a cure will be found, but it could be twenty years from now, fifty years, one hundred years, or even a thousand years. It may very well be tomorrow. The truth is, we just don't know. Since we do not know when a cure will be found, if one will ever be found, why do we feel that it is a new time to spread hatred? Why does Humans First feel that the world cannot continue without their help at sorting things out?
"We have done something they said was impossible: we have showed that SCABS victims are human beings to the core, no matter what skin they wear! I will never stop preaching a message of hope, I will never cave in, nor let them win one single step, for the day we let them gain power, is the day we let the freedoms that our forefathers fought for disappear upon the ash heap of history. When somebody can define you as an animal deserving of no rights, then the people will groan under the unrighteous hand of a tyrant.
"Humans First's intentions seem at the outset to be charitable. They have done many things that we have in Great Ministries. They have helped to build shelters for children, they have worked in feeding the hungry. However, their help comes with a price, and a requirement. You have to look like them to gain their help. This has happened before in our history. Remember Hitler? He persecuted those who did not fit his ideal of a super race. This is just what Humans First want to do. If you do not meet their standard for humanity, then you will be freely persecuted.
"I may take some heat for the comparison to Hitler, truly one of the most evil men to rise to power in the last hundred years, but I stand by what I say. I denounce them, the Humans First movement. I do not suggest that the people involved are all little Nazi soldiers. Hardly -- they are simply misguided souls in need of redirection. I want to help everyone realize just who their neighbor is, and just whom they should love, and not hate. Christ told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, how can we do that if we are putting them in zoos, slicing them up for scientific research, etherizing them like common animals, or any other number of things that Humans First wants to do? How can we? We cannot.
"I know, that in the end the common sense that we have, and our history will show you all the horrors of hate and prejudice. Listen to me now, and hear the words of a different message, the words of hope and love. Listen now as we..." The Reverend's speech was cut short by the ringing of the phone in the bar.
"Turn that down!" Jack shouted, as he pounced on the phone in feverish abandon.
Darkwolf, flanked now by Dr. Standards who had joined him in the lounge, picked up the phone which had begun to ring. Bryan came into the room just then, holding a set of papers in one hand, and then looked at Bob's face, which was one of nervous anticipation. Bob watched as Darkwolf raised the phone to his ear and mouth.
Each word from his mouth resonated through them as if they had no skin nor any flesh to their bodies. "Senator Van der Walls. You are under arrest for conspiracy against the government of the United States of America."
Part VI: Aftermath
Dr. Robert Stein looked across the intervening space between him and the wolf. Darkwolf put the phone down, and yawned, his tongue extending out of his mouth in a very canine-like fashion. Standards fidgeted behind Darkwolf, obviously uncomfortable under the vicious scrutiny of Bob and Bryan's eyes.
"So, this was all a ruse to trap Van der Walls?" Bob asked finally.
"Precisely." Darkwolf agreed, repositioning his beret atop his head.
"Then let me guess, there never was a cure?" Bob, feeling somehow violated, bemoaned.
"No, that was all a clever forgery." Darkwolf replied.
"What about those test subjects I saw?" Bryan seemed shocked at this revelation. "They looked very convincing."
"All of it was faked." Standards explained in his booming voice. "There is no cure, there is no partial cure, there aren't even any remotely positive results. The Martian rock theory we explained to you was just a clever idea I had a few years back, an unorthodox idea at that. It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now. It just was clever enough to be believable without having to produce documentation explaining why it worked."
"But why claim that you had a cure if you didn't?" Bob asked, now confused.
Darkwolf took a deep breath before replying. "We are working for the United States government. The Humans First movement has made some enemies in high places, most notably the Secretary of Defense, who is also a SCABS victim. I have been charged with the job of making sure that they never become a serious political force. I oversee all sorts of projects, including this present one to stop Van der Walls."
"Why didn't you guys go after Barnes? He was the one who started the movement, after all," Bryan asked.
"We were going after Barnes, Dr. Derksen. However, he lost the election anyway, and died before we were able to spring our trap. We knew he had murdered that prostitute, but he covered his trail sufficiently so that we were unable to bring charges against him. It didn't matter though, he really didn't concern us. If he had won the mayorship, we would simply have twisted a few arms in the state legislature, and they would have completely reorganized local governments, effectively taking Barnes out of office."
"They can't do that." Bryan seemed aghast at the sort of politics Darkwolf was suggesting.
"It's perfectly constitutional. Local governments are creatures of the state, without any power whatsoever," Darkwolf explained smugly. "Barnes was never a threat to anybody. Van der Walls, however -- if he had won the governorship, there would have been nothing that we could do, except arrest him on criminal charges, and even then, he needed to be impeached by the legislature to lose all authority. No, Van der Walls was a real problem. We needed to make him commit a crime."
"So you invent this cure, and plant McCurdy in both camps to make the intelligence gathering look sincere," Bob reasoned.
Darkwolf looked a little confused. "Who's McCurdy? Dr. Standards, do you know who they are talking about?"
"You mean she didn't do it?" Bob was the one now amazed.
Darkwolf inclined his head slightly, "Dr. Stein, tell me one thing. Who is missing from this room?"
Bob wasn't quite sure what he wanted, so he replied, "A lot of people I wouldn't mind having with me at the moment."
"No, Dr. Stein, that is not the correct answer. Dr. Derksen, care to hazard a guess?"
Bryan looked over the people in the room. Dr. Jerome Standards was standing behind the couch, towering over them all like some gigantic monolith. Darkwolf was sitting by himself on the couch, still holding the bone in one hand. Bob was sitting across from him, and of course he himself was leaning on the back of the other couch. Nobody was missing, except....
"Where is your dog, Darkwolf?" Bryan asked. Bob looked down at Darkwolf's side, and sure enough, the canine companion that he used as his eyes was not there. Bob looked about, but did not see him anywhere.
"The only person close enough and with good enough ears to overhear our conversation at the Blind Pig." Darkwolf crooned.
"Your dog was the guy who came in here and threatened our lives?" Bob was aghast.
"He always bit the hand that fed him," Darkwolf remarked philosphically. "Kestrel was his code name. His real name is McMichaels. He is an actual member of Humans First, but we offered him more money than they did. Would you like to meet him? He is dying to apologize for his inexplicable actions the other night."
"Show him in," Bryan remarked.
Standards moved over to the far door, and opened it. In stepped the exact same man whom they had seen the night before. He looked much the same, but this time, he was not frantic, nor was he pointing a gun in their face.
"So you're his dog?" Bob asked the man.
"Well, I was for a time. Being a polymorph does have its uniqueness." McMichaels agreed.
"Now you should apologize to them, McMichaels, you scared them a good bit that night." Darkwolf replied in a patronizing tone of voice.
McMichaels came around the couch to stand between Darkwolf and the others. He sneered at the wolf for a moment before he lowered his head slightly, "I would say that I never meant you any harm, but that would not be true. Until they bought me, I was intending to kill you, Dr. Stein. Understand, that once the contract is over, and everything is settled, I will have no restraining desire to spare you."
"That's friendly," Bryan said, not expecting such open hostility. Bob's eyes were distracted for a moment. Darkwolf had put his hands beneath him, and was rising ever so slowly and silently. Bob quickly looked up into McMichaels' expression and sneered. "Go ahead and try to. Many have, all have failed. You may have fooled us once, but not a second time."
"That's where you are wrong, Stein. I now know what you look like, and there is no place that you can hide from me. In fact, I would have killed you that night, but you managed to turn off the light. Resourceful you may be, but I will catch you in...."
McMichaels stopped suddenly, not because his train of thought had been diverted by something he saw, but by what Bob saw. As Bob watched in stunned amazement, Darkwolf fully rose, and grabbed at McMichaels' neck with both arms. He pushed forward, and with one swift motion, snapped McMichaels' neck. Darkwolf released him, and his body fell to the couch next to Bob. Bob scooted off the couch, looking at the dead man, and then at Darkwolf in complete surprise.
"McMichaels was an idiot," Darkwolf explained. "He took our money, and he was not going to do anything against us personally, because he believed I could kill him with a thought. However, we could not take the chance that he would just do with his money what Barnes and Van der Walls have done. Besides, I did not like him."
"You just broke his neck!" Bryan looked at the dead body, at one point repulsed, but on another, attracted.
"Yes. Terrible thing, that." Darkwolf shrugged.
"Was it true, were you taking a chance with our lives? Would you have let him kill us?" Bob asked, badly shaken.
"No, I was not going to let him do that, but I was willing to take the chance that it might happen anyway. I valued your lives too much to do that."
"You valued our lives, yet you lied to us about everything that we were supposed to do, as well as everything about you?" Bob snorted in disbelief.
"I know my methods are unusual, but I had no choice, and there was no time." Darkwolf replied calmly.
"Why do you need us?" Bryan asked in frustration. "The thing you wanted us to do, heal Forsythe, is all a sham, since what you have given us is Smallpox, nothing significant, nothing related to SCABS at all."
"Yes, it was all faked, and yes, it is true that what I asked you to do was completely a lie." Darkwolf admitted.
"Then why did you come to get us? That information could have been leaked to Van der Walls in any way you wished." Bob pointed out.
"Van der Walls is a cautious man by nature, and just the hint of a cure was not going to make him take a chance. I had to give him everything he wanted. He wanted to get at Forsythe, at you Dr. Stein, and he would have loved a cure. I was surprised he didn't jump at the other bait we gave him."
"What would that be?"
"The power to kill with a thought."
"You mean you lied about that, too?!" Bob was aghast. Was there anything this man had said that was true?
"Of course." Darkwolf smiled. "Nobody has ever had that power, and I seriously doubt that SCABS will ever give anybody that sort of power. It is simply an elaboration of the disease, that if looked at in the right light, could be feasible, but really is not. I have no power to kill with a thought, and Forsythe most certainly does not."
"Does this mean that neither you nor Forsythe are polymorphs, either?" Bob asked, feeling somewhat relieved that this power did not really exist. It always seemed to him to be a bit of a stretch, but the reasons they had given for it seemed logical, and Darkwolf seemed imposing enough to have such a power. One thing was for certain, Darkwolf had one of the most powerful personalities that he had ever met. Refusing a demand from this man would be nearly impossible.
"I am a polymorph," Darkwolf replied candidly. "I will not tell you about Forsythe, though, since he is too nice a guy for me to betray."
"Why did you bring me in on this, though? You seem to have had no reason for me to be here." Bryan asked, his antennae twitching nervously.
"Dr. Derksen, I would have just as happily left you out of it than bring you in. I only brought you in to get Stein. I never wanted you, but I did need you."
"Nobody wants the cockroach!" Bryan lamented.
"So you used us, then." Bob champed back his anger at this affront. "You just used us."
"Pity." Darkwolf shrugged nonchalantly.
Bob nearly exploded with wrath at the ambivalence with which Darkwolf treated his feelings. Bryan sighed, and then turned around in a huff. Standards shifted uncomfortably, and then finally spoke. "If it's any consolation to you two, he used me as well. I have spent the last three years falsifying research for his grand scheme. I could have actually made a contribution to science, but I've been too busy playing politics."
For some reason, this calmed Bob down a bit. However, it made Darkwolf do something that he never had done before. Darkwolf was still sitting in his seat, but his mouth frothed and champed. His tongue bit out, and lashed with fury. "I have been blind for the last six years, and all for this! I have spent my last six years in darkness to stop these people, and you all think that you have been so put upon! You make me sick! I did what was necessary, and I expect nothing from you, and yet you whine, bitch, and moan like a bunch of two year olds. Well, I've had it!"
Darkwolf ripped off his sunglasses, and the milkiness in his eyes faded from them, and the now seeing eyes burned with an intensity that made Bob's flesh crawl. "I have had the power to change my circumstances all along. Yet until now, I have resisted in every sensitive situation. You dare not even think about what this does to the mind. The strain is great, and I will go through it again when I need to."
"Six years you've been planning this?" Bob asked in horror. He'd had no idea that Darkwolf had been asked to sacrifice something like his sight for this. "Still, it was your choice. You didn't have to be blind, there were other ways you could have gotten him --" Bob gestured to McMichaels' prone body "-- into the establishment without anybody being the wiser. There seems to have been no reason for us to be here other than to satisfy some sick desire on your part. You didn't need us at all, and you jeopardized our lives for this, all for your crazy scheme."
"I didn't have time." Darkwolf bit off the words. "I had to guarantee that Van der Walls would commit a crime, because there was no other way we could be sure that he wouldn't win the election. You know as well as I that it would have been a disaster if that had happened. I made the decision that was necessary. I needed to be absolutely sure that he would take the bait, so I gave him as many lures as possible. I apologize that I had to do that to you, but, considering the amount of the compensation you both are getting, and the fact that nothing bad has happened to you, except a false hope was dashed, I see no reason for you to continue complaining."
"Compensation?" Bryan asked, turning back around.
"That's right, I'm paying you each a significant sum. I know that wasn't part of the agreement, you both volunteered. However, we of the government believe in just compensation."
Bob snorted. "You still haven't proven to me why you had to lie to me, or why we had to be here at all. If McMichaels was in on it, then what was the point? You could have just sent him in to Van der Walls, and sent us to Tahiti or something. If you just told us what you had planned, then we would have cooperated quite willingly."
"Perhaps it would have been better that way," Darkwolf admitted. "However, I could not take the chance that one of you two might leak something to a friend. I had to lie to you in the bar, because it was entirely possible that somebody there, say this McCurdy, could have been listening in over the din of the piano. I had to lie to you the rest of the time, because it was always possible that Van der Walls might not have trusted McMichaels, and have sent somebody with him. Fortunately, this didn't happen, but if he had, and you all had not been at the facility, then he might not have used the CD. I apologize for lying to you, I know that you did not appreciate it, but look at it from my point of view. There was no other way that would have worked as well as this did."
Bob grumbled, begrudgingly admitting that Darkwolf had a point, but steadfastly refusing to forgive him completely either.
"To lessen the pain, I'm paying each of you half-a-million dollars. Put that into research, or buy a house, I don't care." Darkwolf told them, smiling slightly.
"I'll never trust you again." Bob said, still angered at the way he had been used.
"And that is the smartest thing that you can do," Darkwolf told him. "However, if I lie, I have a reason. You may never understand it, and I don't care if you do. I just wanted you to know that."
"Look, I'm not impressed." Bob scowled.
Darkwolf shrugged, "Suit yourself. Now I'm going to take a long vacation, if you don't mind. My work is finished for now. And so is yours, I'll be taking you back to your homes in short order." Darkwolf seemed to be perfectly calm now.
"You don't need to tranquilize us, we aren't going to tell anybody anything." Bryan pleaded, looking into the seeing face of Darkwolf, and finding his gaze very uncomfortable.
"Perhaps." Darkwolf shrugged, then faster than either could react, he had his other gun in his hand, pointed at them. "Perhaps not." Both Bob and Bryan felt the darts penetrate their skin, and both inwardly cried out in anguish and frustration at this completely inscrutable man. Within moments, both were crumpled on the couches, neither conscious.
Standards moved over to lay them down on the floor comfortably, and then looked up at Darkwolf, who was just sitting there. "I hope I came in at the right time."
"It was fine." Darkwolf smiled. "I was getting pretty sick of their sniveling, though."
"You weren't blind for six years." Jerome reminded him. "You've been blind for maybe two weeks."
"Neither have you been forging your research for the last three years, but they don't need to know that." Darkwolf cautioned his friend. Darkwolf looked over at the body of McMichaels, and nudged it with one foot. "It's safe to get up, Marcus."
The prone figure of McMichaels rose to his feet, and repositioned his head. "That's the last time I die for you, Darkwolf."
"It's amazing in this day and age, how easily people are fooled by the simplest of methods. They probably never suspected that a polymorph could simply change their neck structure to make a snap, but not to kill him." Darkwolf mused.
"Who cares, I just hate having to lie still like that while you guys yell at each other, it is not that easy!" Marcus McMichaels replied.
"Well, you make yourself scarce, and don't ever show your face anywhere near these two again." Darkwolf advised.
"My pleasure." McMichaels looked at the prone bodies, and then walked out the door he came in.
Standards looked a little uncertain. "Is it really necessary to perform all these charades for these two?"
"We have to tie up loose ends. Besides, I felt bad about having to lie to them so much. I knew it was necessary, but it was not my favorite thing to do. They are both good fellows, and it was a shame to deceive them such." Darkwolf regarded the bodies philosophically for a moment, and then sighed. "Now, do be a dear and put the suitcases with the unmarked bills in their domiciles when we return them." Darkwolf replied, to which Jerome just sighed, and got back to work.
"So what happened?" Copernicus asked Jack, after he put the phone back on the receiver.
"McCurdy is fine, her car just broke down in the mountains of West Virginia, and she had trouble getting to a phone." Jack relayed, looking much relieved.
"I don't think that's the only thing that she had to say, considering that you were talking with her for about five hours." Copernicus noted. "I missed the rest of the speech, this had better be good stuff!"
"It's private, I can't tell you." Jack argued, taking a sip of his beer, finally after so many days of worrying, being able to just enjoy it.
Copernicus gave up, and walked back to his pool table. He made another shot halfheartedly, and looked up at the television set absent-mindedly. What he saw caught his eye immediately. It was Van der Walls being led by what appeared to be federal agents. "Turn it up!" Copernicus yelled over the din of the bar.
Somebody increased the volume, and all eyes were fixed on the TV, all of them wanting to know the significance of this development. The off-screen reporter had already been speaking. "....for charges of conspiracy against the federal government. Senator Van der Walls, a gubernatorial candidate, will still be on the ballot in November, but if he is convicted of the charges, then he will have to step down. The arrest of Van der Walls has sparked protest among the members of the Humans First movement. However, many of the members of that organization are also party to Van der Walls' crimes, and will stand for trial as well, on similar charges. One federal investigator hopes to bring this matter to trial within the next few days. Van der Walls has refused to comment to the media. In other news...."
Copernicus sat dumb-struck. "Wow, I guess we won't have to worry about him at all!"
Wanderer was similarly amazed. "You think that a guy smart enough to win office would not be stupid enough to do something like conspire against the government."
"Not everybody is as smart as they seem. We all get desperate at times."
They all looked to see who was speaking. Amazingly enough, it was that figure who had come in here about a week ago to talk with Bob Stein. He was alone, though dressed once again in a black suit and beret. He wore no sunglasses, and his bright eyes stood in stark contrast to the rest of his coloring.
"Didn't expect to see you so soon." Copernicus said lamely, not sure what else to say.
Raven looked from Coops to the figure, and smiled. "I think you promised him a game of pool."
"That I did." the figure admitted. "My name is Darkwolf. Sorry I did not have time to introduce myself the last time, I was in a bit of a hurry. Now I am able to practice leisure."
"Where's Bob Stein?" Wanderer asked him, not sure he was completely comfortable with the way this man carried himself.
"Oh, don't worry yourself about Bob." Darkwolf picked up a pole, and gripped it experimentally with his hands. He leaned over the table, examining the way it lined up. "He was a little tired after our joint venture, so I left him to sleep."
Darkwolf looked up at them all, examining their shapes, putting the sounds and scents to sight as well, matching each image accordingly. "Now, do you like stripes or solids?"
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org