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The Chronicle HAS 2: Back to Unreality

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The woman who came through the front doors of the World Chronicle late on Thursday afternoon was a shapely, petite brunette in a tailored designer pantsuit and expensive yet understated jewelry, a pair of Ralph Lauren sunglasses reflecting the lazy bustle of the office as she approached the desk. She wasn’t the usual class of people that Vera was used to dealing with, but the receptionist still wasn’t that impressed.

The paper’s star reporter came by while the argument was still escalating and did a double take. “Eve?”

The small woman spun around. “Tucker?”

Tucker lit up and closed the distance between them. “Eve, I thought you’d left town! When did you get back?” Then he got close enough to see her face and pleasure turned to concern. “Eve, honey, what’s wrong?”

“Tucker, I have to see Donald,” she told him, her little hands with their perfectly manicured nails grasping onto his arms. “I just got back and it’s urgent that I talk to him, please!”

He took hold of her slender shoulders and realized she was shaking. “But why…Eve, you know Donald? How do you know Donald?”

“I just do!” She looked from Tucker to Vera in obvious desperation.   “I’m also familiar with…HAS.”

Vera’s mouth opened and then closed again. She pushed a button on her desk, a small purple button. “You should have said that first,” she scolded, but Tucker noticed that the normally unflappable receptionist suddenly looked worried.   “Tucker, take her to Donald, he’ll be waiting.”

 

Stern was indeed waiting; he’d almost had a heart attack when the purple alarm light started to blink in his office, a light he hadn’t seen since HAS had left the Chronicle to go to Denver.   They’d been gone nearly two years now…and now their special alarm had been activated. He didn’t jump when his door opened, but when he saw the woman with Tucker he sat down hard. “Good God, you’re the last person I expected to see. Dunne certainly, eventually maybe even Wilmington…but not you.”

“Donald,” Tucker ventured. “How exactly do you know Eve? Because I could swear that the two of you have never…”

“I need you to go round up Wes and Grace immediately, consider yourselves on standby and don’t leave the office unless I personally say it’s okay,” the editor ordered sharply. “And I’m not to be disturbed for anything less than a full-out alien invasion, got it?”

Tucker knew when he could argue with his boss and get away with it; this wasn’t one of those times. “Yes sir,” he replied, and couldn’t get out of the office fast enough. “I’ll…talk to you later, Eve.”

She didn’t answer, just sank down in the nearest chair like all her bones had turned to rubber and pulled off her sunglasses, revealing deep dark circles beneath bloodshot green eyes.   Then she shimmered and melted, inexplicably getting larger in the process. Stern thought he had never in all their association seen the chameleon look so exhausted, as though he’d been worn almost to the point of collapse.   “Where are the others?”

“Denver,” Ezra said softly.   “I…escaped.”

“Escaped what?” Stern demanded.   The look on the Ezra’s face was answer enough. “Them?   Tell me what’s going on, Standish, what have they done?”

“Not their fault,” was the reply.   “It’s this woman, a voodoo priestess who calls herself Rain, she’s after Dr. Jackson’s control medallion. She’s manipulating the others…”

Donald frowned. “You’ve dealt with worse problems that that, why don’t you just…”

“You don’t understand,” Ezra almost moaned. He lifted his head from the back of the chair to look Stern in the eye. “They’ve forgotten who they really are, all of them.   They actually believe the cover story now…part of which is their distrust of me. I’ve tried reminding them, tried to break the conditioning…but my efforts seem to have no effect at all save to make the six of them distrust me even more.” His head dropped back again as though it had become too heavy to hold up. “I need help.”

“You’ve got it.” Stern circled around his desk and sat on the edge of it, his frown deepening. “Now, what is it they’ve done to you?”

“Not their fault,” Ezra repeated again, shaking his head but not lifting it. “They don’t remember…what I need to do to survive. But I knew I couldn’t go on any longer; as it was I almost waited too long, the changes it took to get me here were almost too much.”   He forced himself upright in the chair so he could look Donald in the eye. “That isn’t important, we can’t let her gain control of Dr. Jackson or she’ll use his medallion to create an army of undead and he will cease to exist.”

“We’ll stop her,” Stern reassured him.   “But first we are going to look after you.” His raised hand to silence Ezra’s protest. “You’re still in my employ, Standish, so what I say goes.   Come on, we’re going downstairs to hand you over to Sal’s tender mercies and then I’m going to dispatch Team Alpha to Denver to rescue HAS.”

The editor had a private elevator in his office, and he supported the exhausted chameleon down to the Chronicle’s hidden lower levels and dumped his half-fainting form in a chair while the pig boy hovered at his side. “Sounds like HAS is in it deep this time, they’ve been brainwashed by a voodoo priestess who’s after Dr. Jackson’s control medallion and they damn near killed Ezra,” he fired off. “I’m sure you remember how Hirati physiology works…”

“Half-breed Hirati,” Sal snorted, but his porcine features were twisted with concern.   “I should remember, I did the baselines for Ezra when you hired him – he was allergic to that cleaning solution we were using in the bathrooms, remember? I can tell just by looking at him that he needs to do some deep hibernation, probably about two weeks worth. What about the rest of them?”

“I’m sending Tucker and the others to Denver tonight; Team Alpha can bring back HAS if anyone can.” Donald looked as stressed as Sal had ever seen him.   “After you’ve seen to Ezra get together what they’ll need ASAP – and I want all three of them armed. I’ll be back downstairs with them in an hour.”

“Got it, boss.” Stern left and Sal immediately put the rest of HAS out of his mind and focused all his attention on the one member he needed to take care of.   “You need to eat before you hibernate, let me see what we’ve got …” He checked a list taped to one of the filing cabinets, running his finger down it. “Well, looks like the only animals down here that would be safe to eat right now are the rabbits. You have a color preference?”

Ezra roused himself a little. “Whichevah one won’t be missed by anyone, I wouldn’t want to devour someone’s pet. But I don’t think…”

“I know you’re not up to hunting,” Sal reassured him. “I’ll take care of it for you, it’s not a problem – I may like to play with them sometimes, but it’s not like I haven’t made rabbit stew out of one of them before, either. Now while I go get it, you change back to normal; that disguise is burning energy you can’t afford to lose right now.”

The chameleon simply nodded and began fumbling at the buttons on his shirt, but somehow he managed to get himself undressed and back in his true form by the time the pig boy returned with the freshly-killed rabbit. Sal made himself busy elsewhere while Ezra ate – out of respect for the chameleon’s privacy, not from squeamishness – and as soon as the rabbit had been devoured he helped Ezra get comfortable in a quiet corner and stroked his back until he was able to relax enough to slip into the trancelike precursor to deep hibernation. A little soft music took care of any background noises that might disturb him, and Sal very gently attached a few sensors here and there that would allow him to monitor the Hirati’s condition without having to initiate any later contact that might wake him. “Sleep well, my friend,” the pig boy whispered, and then went back to the main part of his lair to get busy with the other half of his assignment.

 

Donald returned to the basement with a thoroughly curious Team Alpha in tow about twenty minutes later and Sal didn’t even wait for him to ask. “If it had been a few hours more without eating or one more change he’d be dead,” the pig boy informed him, not bothering to hide his anger. “I got him to eat and now he’s so deep in hibernation that the building could fall on him and he wouldn’t wake up.”

“Good.” Stern looked angry too. “Is everything ready?”

“All they have to do is pick which gun they want to carry,” Sal assured him, gesturing toward a table where he had laid out a variety of guns and holsters. “I have boot knives for Tucker and Wes, too, since Grace already has her own.   Once I print out the necessary paperwork for each weapon they’re good to go.”

Team Alpha didn’t waste any time choosing their weapons; they’d done this before and already knew what they each liked, although they were a little surprised by the large-caliber guns they had to choose from this time. Grace had her gun strapped to her hip where it would be hidden by her long leather coat, Wes wore his a little higher attached to his belt where his baggy shirt would conceal it, and Tucker’s was comfortably secured in a shoulder holster preparatory to being covered by his favorite denim jacket. The tall reporter tucked the knife in it’s leather sheath into the top of his boot and made sure it was secure before he turned back to his boss. “Donald, where’s Eve?”

Stern sighed. “We’re getting to that. Sal, you get that paperwork finished while I brief them, we need to get moving.” He led the three reporters across the room and into the dim corner where the chameleon was curled up asleep. “All right, listen up because I don’t have time to explain this twice. Before the three of you became Team Alpha there was HAS, the World Chronicle’s Hazardous Assignment Squad. There are seven of them, and they went to Colorado to work for the feds about two years ago because they felt they weren’t needed here any more; at the time they weren’t too far wrong, but I kept them on the payroll just in case we needed them again.”

“In case we got into trouble, right?”   Grace shared her frown with Tucker and Wes. “So we basically muscled these guys out, is that it?”

“No, it was their decision to leave,” Stern assured her. “You don’t ‘muscle’ HAS into doing anything – or so I thought until this morning when Ezra showed up.”

Tucker blanched. “E-Ezra?”

“He’s a half-breed Hirati, a chameleon-like shapeshifter,” the older man elaborated. A wicked twinkle appeared in his eye. “Don’t call him a mimic unless you want to piss him off – you might get away with it though, Tucker, I think he likes you.”

Wes laughed, which earned him a dirty look. “Don’t tell me, let me guess. He also goes by ‘Eve’, right?”

“That is not…” Tucker began, glancing at the curled form of the sleeping Hirati and then looking away again with a shudder. “Eve is…was a woman – a very pretty, very female woman.   This isn’t!”

“He was an hour ago,” Donald observed dryly. “You seemed taken enough with him then.”

Tucker went from shocked white to embarrassed red. “Well I’m not now! This isn’t…I don’t…” He waved a hand at Ezra. “That is not my type!”

Wes was still chuckling. “Aw, I think he’s kind of cute, man. I’m sure you two could work it out…”

“No! I’m not…” Tucker groaned and covered his face with his hands. “Oh God, I don’t even think there’s a word to cover the kind of relationship this would be! But whatever it is, I’m not one.”

Grace had circled around the Hirati and was looking at things from a slightly different angle, and Wes saw her eyes light up like a kid’s at Christmas; he shifted closer to look where she was looking and saw why. Wes was impressed in spite of himself. “Well if you don’t want him I do,” Grace said happily.   “He can be any shape he wants as long as he’ll change back to this one for…”

“If he’s already pair-bonded with Tucker you don’t have a chance,” Donald interrupted her, almost hiding his smirk when the man in question flinched. “You’ll just have to ask him later. But right now this is all irrelevant and we’re wasting time. I want the three of you on the next flight to Denver; Vera already has your reservations and a packet of information for you to go over on the plane with all the details about HAS and some of the possible scenarios you’ll be facing. One of the members of HAS, Dr. Jackson, is a zombie who stays animated by virtue of a control medallion that another member, Sanchez, has in his possession. From what Ezra told me a voodoo priestess who calls herself Rain is after the medallion and has somehow managed to brainwash the other six. It must not have worked on Hirati, whatever it was, but it could very easily work on the three of you so you’ll need to be extra careful.”

“Okay, we can stop for my bag first, my apartment is farthest from the airport…” Grace began.

Stern cut her off. “You don’t have time to go home to pack anything so I’m giving you the company gold card, just buy whatever you need when you get there.”   He saw the startled looks the three of them exchanged and shook his head grimly. “This is serious business, and not just because of the medallion. None of you knew HAS – and you weren’t supposed to – but the seven of them were as close as family and as tough as nails.   The fact that under this woman’s influence they would turn on one of their own scares the hell out of me. I want you all to be extremely careful and don’t be afraid to use deadly force if necessary. Sal?”

The pig boy stepped forward and handed a laminated card to each member of Team Alpha. “These are your concealed-weapon permits, you’ll see they give you authorization to carry a gun with you at all times and if you show them at the reservation desk at the airport you’ll be escorted straight to the plane without going through any security checkpoints. Try to be discrete about it, though, and the same thing goes for the trip back.”

“When you’ll have HAS with you,” Donald said. “I want them all, I don’t care what you have to do to get them to come with you as long as five of them are still alive and the sixth is all in one piece when they get here. Whatever spell they’re under we’re probably going to have to break here even if you do kill the priestess, so be careful to play along with whatever version of reality they’re living in right now. Don’t try to get too friendly, though, and whatever you do don’t make the mistake of trusting any of them. Now go get the rest of your stuff from Vera and get moving, we don’t have time to waste.”  

 

A week went by. Team Alpha sent word of their progress to Donald several times each day, as per his instructions: they’d located HAS, they’d reconnaissanced HAS, they’d been spotted by HAS – he’d expected that one – and they’d passed off a cover story on HAS and had it believed. Sal had confirmed the acceptance of Cover Story #3 after he’d processed JD’s hack into certain government databases. “He’s good,” the pig-boy told Donald with a smirk. “But he’s not as good as me. Whatever spell he’s under must be slowing him down considerably, he didn’t even detect my fifth level firewall redirect.”

Stern shrugged that off; there had always been a friendly but intense rivalry between Sal and JD. “So they bought it, that’s good. What about the priestess?”

Sal changed tracks at once. “No one’s going to miss her,” he snorted.   “And I checked out the people Grace talked to, the ones who were so mad when they found out what the priestess was planning? They’re on the up and up; if they say they can keep her from doing anything else or manipulating that spell, then that’s what’ll happen.”

“I thought I remembered them from a few years ago, the rogue demon story,” Donald agreed, nodding. “All right, so that’s one priestess slated to do a disappearing act in the near future. We don’t need to worry about her any more. And Tucker says that HAS will come back here with them, although he thinks Larabee is still suspicious.” This time it was the editor who snorted. “Like he’s ever anything else. But he’ll come anyway, he’ll just be ready to kill whatever he finds here to get to Ezra. And what about Ezra?”

“Still the same, which is just what he should be.” The pig-boy sighed. “My estimate was right on, another seven or eight days of hibernation should see him through. He won’t be able to shift much for about a month, though, not if he wants to bounce all the way back.”

“I’ll put him on vacation – here in the city, I don’t want him taking off for parts unknown,” Donald said at once.   “God knows he needs one after this.   That’ll give him some time to get comfortable with the rest of HAS again as well. They’re going to have some serious kissing-up to do, and with someone as skittish as Ezra that’s something that can’t be rushed. And they’ll need the time to get reestablished here, too, so that works out all the way around.”

“I’ll record it in the schedule, five weeks…” Sal was already typing. “Okay, paid or unpaid?”

“Paid for Ezra, half-pay for the rest of them.” Donald frowned. “How much damage did Grace and Wes do to my credit card?” He interrupted again before the pig-boy could answer. “No, on second thought I don’t want to know. As soon as HAS is in the air with Team Alpha deduct one sixth of the cost of the whole trip from each of their Denver bank accounts – if that closes someone out, so be it. They can transfer their own stuff up here later, but make sure Ezra’s assets will be okay for another week, and if they aren’t do what you need to do to fix things.”

Sal barely blinked. “And what about the spell?   It looks like they’ll be here tomorrow night, do we need anything special?”

“I’ve got what we need,” Donald assured him. “Priestess Rain was slick but not very creative, thank God. Once we have the six of them contained down here it should be no problem to break the spell. Have knockout gas ready, though, because I seriously doubt we’re going to get them to go into the isolation chamber voluntarily.”

“I’ll have the inoculations ready for both of us, then,” the pig boy said, nodding. “Team Alpha won’t be happy with you.”

Donald snorted again. “They’d be a lot less happy if one of them got shot.   They’ll get over it.”

 

And they did. As a matter of fact, the first thing Tucker said upon coming to was, “Thank you.”

“Yeah, glad you did that, man,” Wes agreed, sitting up and rubbing the back of his head. “I just knew that any minute that Larabee dude was gonna go off like a bomb. Even the stewardesses were afraid of him. Is he always like that?”

“He’s not always that bad,” Donald temporized. “But yeah, pretty much. I’m surprised you were able to get him – or any of them – here without incident.   You’ll all be getting hazard pay for this assignment.”

“Good, we definitely earned it.”   Grace had opened her eyes, and when Wes helped her sit up she groaned. “Oh how I hate that gas…” Then she noticed the six members of HAS glaring at them from inside the isolation chamber and made a face. “But I hate them more. They can’t get out of there, right?”

“Oh, eventually they would, if we left them to it.” Donald shrugged, glaring back at Larabee and then offering Grace a hand to her feet.   Wes and Tucker helped each other up.   “But we’re not going to give them that chance.”

Larabee folded his arms across his chest and scowled. “I don’t know what you people are up to,” he growled over the open speaker. “But you won’t get away with it. And if I find out you’re working with that traitorous bastard Standish I’ll see you all go down.”

Team Alpha made faces at him, which resulted in Buck and JD pounding on the unbreakable security glass until their leader barked an order for them to stop. Donald just rolled his eyes. “All right, let’s get this over with. Sal!”

The pig boy trotted out, barely shooting a contemptuous look at the isolation chamber in spite of the fact that his appearance drew all six of the confined men up to the glass to stare at him.   He was carrying a dog-eared pad of yellow paper which he immediately handed over to Donald. “They’ve been breathing the herb mixture in for the past fifteen minutes, that should be more than enough.”

“Should be.” Donald glanced over the incantation written on the paper and then read it out loud.   It wasn’t in English, but the members of Team Alpha felt the power of the words swish around them, probing as though looking for something before it abandoned them and darted through the glass into the isolation chamber.

In the incense-laden atmosphere of the chamber the incantation became suddenly visible. Like nebulous tentacles, it twined around the obviously alarmed members of HAS and then constricted inwards, disappearing. Almost immediately, however, something else was pushed out and detached from the six men almost violently. It was greenish-gray in color and it writhed sickeningly in the air before breaking apart with a painful screeching noise and then dissipating into apparent nothingness.   Sal pushed a button on the pedestal that held the chamber controls and fans audibly kicked on, and after a moment and a nod from Donald he pushed another button and the confining glass slid up and away.

Tucker leaned toward his boss, keeping his voice low as though afraid to disturb the still frozen members of HAS.   “Um, shouldn’t they be…moving or trying to kill us or something?”

“They don’t even know you’re here right now – they’re not all the way back yet,” Donald replied in a normal voice.   “It won’t be too much longer, though.   Sal, you go back to Ezra and get a detailed report on his condition ready; they’ll definitely be asking for it, might as well have it ready for them. We’ll be coming up there as soon as I’ve had my shot at them.”

Sal crinkled up his nose in a not-quite-nice smile. “Have fun.”

“Oh, I plan on it.” And he did, in a way; HAS had put him through one hell of a week, Donald had every intention of taking it back out of them before they left this room. Tucker, Wes and Grace each found a comfortable place to settle, but he noticed that they all still had their guns and Grace was giving the oblivious Wilmington a look that screamed imminent castration. Somehow that didn’t surprise Donald at all – he knew Wilmington. He picked a nearby wall to lean against and waited, wondering idly how far toward homicide the six HAS members had pushed Team Alpha over the past week.

Five minutes later, five of the six men all started to blink; in ten, some of them were rubbing their eyes as though they’d just woken up. Which, in fact, they had. Donald knew the exact moment reality returned; the first thing Larabee did was look around the room with an expression on his face best described as aghast. “We…where is he? I know he must’ve come to you for help, why isn’t he here?”

“He’s upstairs with Sal,” the editor explained. “We’re monitoring his condition, he’s much better now that he’s been hibernating for a while. Another week and he’ll be good as new.”

“What do you mean, ‘good as new’, what ‘condition’?” Nathan demanded, pushing away from Josiah. “What happened to him this time?”

“The six of you did,” Donald said evenly. He saw Team Alpha exchange surprised looks at his apparent coldness, but he wasn’t going to pull any punches with HAS and he didn’t think they deserved any sympathy.   “You damn near killed him, he almost didn’t make it here to ask me to pull your sorry behinds out of the fire. I am personally disappointed in each and every one of you – but most of all in you, Sanchez, because it’s your responsibility to control Dr. Jackson and you obviously haven’t been doing it.”

The exorcist dropped his head.   “I promised him…”

“Don’t talk about me like I ain’t here,” Jackson snapped. “And no one controls me but me.”

Donald ignored him, still focused on Josiah. “I can just guess what happened; I know what you’ve told me he was like before he died, and I’m guessing this priestess convinced you that she could put him back that way. Well I’ve got news for you, Sanchez, the only person who can do that is you, by using the medallion.”

The doctor’s scowl deepened.   “Ain’t nothing wrong with me, I haven’t changed…”

“Yes, you have.” Josiah’s voice was soft and sad as he lifted his head to meet the flat, glassy eyes of his dead friend. “You used to be the gentlest, kindest man I’d ever met, and the empathy you had for others was nothing short of a blessing. You’re still a fine doctor, Nathan, but you haven’t been nice for years. I…I didn’t realize it would be this way when you asked me to promise not to control you. This mess was my fault for not wanting to admit to myself that that promise shouldn’t be kept.” He raised one hand and wrapped it around the medallion that hung around his neck and the zombie shuddered and shut his eyes, becoming as rigid as a statue. “This is for everyone’s good, Nathan. Especially yours – you would have hated what you’ve become almost as much as I did.”

A long moment passed, and then the zombie opened his eyes again; this time, though, the expression that flooded his face was merely confused and a bit disoriented, not hostile and irritable.   “I…I feel…” He blinked, deliberately, and then smiled at his worried friend.   “You used it?” Josiah nodded, and Nathan nodded. “Thank you, Josiah. It was like I could feel my mind…filling up with something nasty, changing me, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Now I feel like me again.” He blinked again, looking at the other members of HAS. “I think I owe all of you a whole bunch of apologies, I’ve been pretty awful company these past few years.”

“I’m the one that owes everyone an apology – including you, Nathan,” Josiah rumbled. He was still fingering the medallion. “I let it go on, and Donald is right – I fell for what Rain told me, the whole story about how she loved you and how she could put you back the way I remembered without having to override your will to do it. I even helped her with…with the spell.”

“Damned stupid of you,” Larabee told him flatly. Like Donald, he wasn’t in the habit of coddling his men when they screwed up.   “You knew better, Sanchez. You could have gotten any one of us exposed, and Standish…”

“How is he really?” JD interrupted.   He had already released himself from his disguise, and his ears had a definite kicked-dog droop to them. “We didn’t really almost…”

“You most certainly did.” The dog-boy winced, but Donald was visibly unaffected by it. “Sal said another couple of hours or one more change and that would have been all she wrote.   You were all just damned lucky that whatever the priestess used on you wasn’t able to affect a Hirati.”

“What about her?” Wilmington wanted to know. “She was one fine looking woman, but we can’t just let her keep runnin’ around after this.”

“Taken care of,” Grace replied coldly.   “I…let the right people know what she’d been up to, she won’t be a problem for anyone else.”

“And quit staring at Grace like that, man,” Wes ordered sharply. This time it was Wilmington who winced, and Donald had to wonder just how ‘friendly’ the former cop had tried to get. Pretty friendly, if the way Team Alpha was bristling had anything to do with it.   “No means no, deal with it and move on.”

Tucker had yet to take his eyes off Larabee. “You need us for anything else, Donald?”

Donald held back a smile; that question had definitely been meant as an insult for HAS. Glad as he was to see the boy getting territorial, though, he needed to get them out of here before Tucker’s balls got him in trouble his brains couldn’t get him out of. “No, you three can take off now,” the editor answered. “Be back here tomorrow afternoon so we can discuss this whole thing.   And Grace,” he added, giving her a very pointed look. “Leave the gold card on my desk before you go.”

Grace acquiesced, but Donald knew she’d stuck her tongue out at him behind his back and he could hear Tucker and Wes kidding her all the way to the elevator. He smiled. Team Alpha was fine.

HAS, on the other hand… Donald looked them over, decided they’d be okay too, and left it alone. If there was a problem Larabee would take care of it. “You all have some time off to get yourselves relocated back down here,” he told them. “Be ready to return to duty in five weeks, the usual arrangement. How you work out everything that’s happened is your problem, but where Standish is concerned I’m gonna be keeping an eye on you so don’t screw it up.”

There was a round of nods, and then Vin Tanner spoke for the first time. “So can we see him?”

“For a little while – and no trying to wake him up if you know what’s good for you.” The warning had been directed at Wilmington and JD, who looked suitably cowed by the implied reprimand. That wouldn’t hold them for long, though, Donald knew, so without another word he turned on his heel and walked over to the stairs that led to the uppermost lower level and Sal’s den, knowing that HAS would follow him.

The pig-boy was lounging in his central chair when they came in, grinning. “That didn’t take very long,” he observed, and then pulled himself out of his seat with a grunt and left the protective circle of his desk, waving HAS ahead of him. “Go on, he’s back there. Just don’t get too close and don’t make any loud noises. He still needs at least a week more of hibernation, and if you disrupt the cycle he’s in now it’ll be longer. Not to mention that if you wake him up he might eat you,” he deadpanned.

Larabee shot him an absentminded glare, but stalked past him without comment in the direction indicated.   Donald and Sal trailed behind the group, and shared a knowing smile when they heard the first gasps of disbelief.   The others had, of course, expected to see the chameleon’s familiar human disguise and not his true form. Donald had to wonder from their reactions if any of them had ever seen Ezra’s true form before. He was still mostly humanoid but his small, slender body was covered with short pinkish-purple fur and his facial features, although recognizable, had a vaguely feline appearance. Curled up in the near-fetal position of hibernation he looked very small and very harmless…and very vulnerable. “He slept so much, was so hard to wake up…” JD said softly.

“Shape-changing burns a lot of energy, Hirati need to recharge frequently,” Sal informed him.   “That means lots of sleep and lots of small, regular meals to keep their energy levels up. He stuck it out in Denver as long as he could, but he was just about used up when he got here.”

Buck started to reach out and stroke the soft-looking fur…and then thought better of it. “He looks like a stuffed toy I had when I was a kid.”

Donald cleared his throat. “Most stuffed toys don’t have a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth,” he commented wryly. “The Hirati are carnivores, hunters - even cannibals if they feel it necessary and they often do. That’s probably the reason Ezra stays here instead of seeking out his own kind, they would consider a half-breed to be just as much prey as a human would be.”

“They eat…people?” Vin wanted to know, looking disturbed. “They hunt us?”

“It’s rare for one of the full-bloods to get to Earth,” Donald said dismissively. “There are…stringent security measures in place to keep them out, but obviously those measures failed when it came to Ezra’s mother. I have no doubt that she ate his father, probably right after conception, and it’s amazing she didn’t kill and eat the child as well as soon as he was born. The fact that he survived being with her until he reached adulthood is just a miracle.”

“Maybe not,” Chris said slowly, doing what Buck hadn’t been able to and running his hand across Ezra’s shoulder.   “I checked his background myself, and when I pushed him he told me some things. His mother left him anywhere and everywhere, he’s never been with her for longer than a week or two at any one time. Maybe that was because a little bit of humanity had rubbed off on her and she was actually protecting him.” He stroked the pinkish fur again, a slight smile coming to his face. “Wouldn’t have thought he’d be this soft.”

Vin moved up beside his leader to see for himself, and he also smiled when he felt the silky texture under his hand. One of the monitors suddenly beeped and Sal made a beeline for it, alarming everyone; Vin, however, felt the gentle vibration under his hand and recognized it for what it was at about the same time the pig boy announced with a smile, “You guys must be doing something right, you made him purr.”