Cole had not remained hidden for long after Maria Cruz walked past. He felt the two Vardians moving in different directions and went after Meterand as the more dangerous of the two. Precious moments were lost trying to discern the identity of the other Vardian. He gave that up when he heard the sound of a weapon discharging nearby.
Slipping into Hyperspeed, he entered the morgue in time to see Maria go down and Meterand latch on to her throat. Meterand's dun-colored coat was already covered with blood. Maria's blood, he realized as she continued bleeding heavily, spurting blood into the air in a fine arc, bleeding out quickly even in Hyperspeed.
She was dying...
Cursing, Cole crossed the room quickly, wrenching Meterand from Maria and tossing him across the room. He knelt by the human and quickly healed the bite, noting that Meterand had latched on to a major artery. She would have been dead in seconds at the rate she was loosing blood, courtesy of Meterand's Vardian sense of efficiency. A race of killers, the Vardian warrior caste did not, for the most part, revel in it. It was a matter of necessity for them and always performed with the least possible expenditure of energy. They took great pride in killing with simple elegance.
The mauling after they died was different, must have been a source of some sick satisfaction to the Vardian. He had, as so many members of the warrior caste had before him, finally gone insane, the kill driving him into a bloodlusting frenzy. He would elevate from here, Cole knew, surprised that Zin had allowed it to go this far. The kills would become less efficient, the victims suffer more, and eventually not even Zin would be able to control Meterand.
Hyperspeed slipped as he finished healing the human Detective, still unconscious in spite of the fact that she was no longer losing blood. As Cole tried to ascertain why, he felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull and he was knocked to the ground. His head swimming, he struggled to his feet and flailed to try to dislodge Meterand, who seemed to have gained in size, weight, and strength.
When he did manage to knock Meterand free, he saw that he had indeed grown substantially. A fluffy bundle of fur, three feet at the shoulder, he would have looked absolutely ridiculous if he had not been covered in blood and snarling savagely as he circled Cole, looking for an opening. As before, he made absolutely no effort to flee, another sign of his slipping sense of self. Goaded by the instincts of his host, he was reverting to the kind of animalistic, predatory behavior that the Vardian people had not displayed for over a hundred thousand years.
It took Cole a moment to realize that not all of the blood covering Meterand had come from himself and the human Detective who still lay unconscious at his feet. At least one of her shots had found its mark. Meterand was bleeding heavily, leaving red paw-prints on the floor as he circled. Cole could feel the Vardian's blind rage. He was beyond any sense of self-preservation. He would go for Maria first if he could, simply to revenge himself on her. If he managed to disable Cole, he would kill Maria first and then go back to finish the Cirronian. Cole was going to have to be very careful or Meterand would kill her in spite of his presence.
Calling up everything he knew of Vardian psychology, he considered how to goad Meterand into slipping up, to take his attention from the human. There had to be a way. Mel's words of the previous week recurred to him abruptly: There are hundreds of different breeds out there. And those aren't even counting the mutts... Oh, yes. That would hit a Vardian where it hurt.
"Must be very hard for you, Meterand," he noted quietly, stepping between Maria and the Vardian. "I think it would be very hard even to take a human, but being stuck inside of a mutt..."
Meterand let out a low growl.
"I've been studying these Pomeranians since I became aware of you. They really are lovely creatures. Your host, though, is a very inferior example of the species..."
This growl was louder.
"You must find it frustrating." Cole adopted a sympathetic expression. "Going from an adult Vardian male in his prime to such an unimposing puppy. I wonder how Etala will react to it?"
That was all it took. Meterand lunged and locked his jaw around Cole's throat. Cole had gambled on the truth of the longstanding rumors about Zin's bodyguard and his wife and had shed his human form the moment the words were out of his mouth. If he had not, he would probably be near death by now. As it was, he was only in tremendous pain as sharp teeth locked onto the most sensitive part of the Cirronian body.
The pain had his head swimming and him on the verge of blacking out, but he was in no real danger, the majority of his circulatory fluid flowing through different channels than it did in a human body. The pain was the most intense he had ever experienced, but he did his best to ignore it, to focus on the fact that it was not simply his own life that would be forfeit if he failed to prevail against Meterand. Maria Cruz still lay helpless nearby, and if Meterand survived, there would be others. It was an effort, but he did manage to activate his Collector and slam it into Meterand's chest.
Less than a minute had passed between his hearing the gunshots and Collecting Meterand, even if it did seem far longer. He pushed the now normal-sized Pomeranian off of his chest and crawled over to Maria, reassuring himself that she was in no real danger. He looked up at the sound of shouts and footsteps, aware that he had to flee now. Too weak and in too much pain to use Hyperspeed, he crawled into a nearby locker instead. Grateful that it was unoccupied, he settled down to wait, painfully forcing his body back into its human form.
Vic's voice reached his ears. "Mar! Shit... Damn it! Make sure that thing is dead! Get a doctor in here! Mar, sweetie... come on..."
"Five more minutes?" Maria requested weakly, batting at the hands on her face and throat. She opened her eyes at the sound of a strangled sob from Vic. "Vicky?" she whispered in concern, struggling to sit.
"No, no... don't move, partner," Vic ordered, pushing her gently back into a prone position. "I need to figure out where this blood is coming from. Where'd it get you?"
Maria gasped as she realized that she was covered in blood, that the dog had locked on to her throat. She pushed her hands into her throat, trying to slow the flow of blood, muttering to herself, praying. "Santa Maria, madre de Dios. Luego por nosotros--"
"Hush, hush," Vic urged gently. He wanted to take her hands, but did not want to move them, either. He cradled her face instead. "Just hang tight. You're still alive, that means he didn't hit the carotid artery..." he soothed.
"Shit, you're right," she whispered, closing her eyes and breathing a sigh of relief.
"Here, give me room," Ramirez ordered. "An ambulance is on its way. Let me have a look at her, Vic."
Vic moved back only far enough to let Ramirez look Maria over, hovering anxiously.
"My God," Ramirez murmured, falling back and shaking his head.
"What?" Vic demanded. "How bad is it, Miguel?"
"She's not bleeding..."
"What?" Vic and Maria demanded as one.
"It must all be the dog's. She had
to have put three or four bullets into it."
"Five," a police-officer who had been in the building on another case contributed quietly. Like Vic and Ramirez, he had come running when he heard the gunshots. "All five hit. She's a crack shot."
"Like I could have missed. The damned thing was right on top of me," Maria muttered, sitting up. She immediately regretted the action as the room started spinning. Cursing, she grabbed onto the nearest person for support and found herself in Vic's arms. "Must have hit my head on the way down..."
"Yeah. You have a pretty big goose-egg back here," Ramirez told her. "Don't try to stand. I think you've got a concussion."
"I think I'm going to be sick..."
"Just breath through it," Vic urged gently, cradling her against his chest. "I've got you. You're going to be just fine..."
"If I can ever live down getting knocked out by a five pound dog..."
"Ah, smart-ass comments. Now I know you're going to be fine."
"If it weren't for Mel, I would."
Maria's laugh turned into a moan.
"Shh," Vic murmured. "You're okay. Just take deep breaths and concentrate on staying conscious."
"Yeah," she sighed, not bothering to try nodding. She snuggled into his chest instead, bringing her own arms up to encircle him, clinging to that source of comfort.
"You're okay," he repeated, as much to assure himself as her. "That thing is dead, isn't it?" he asked the officer whose name he had not caught.
"Oh, yeah. Five bullets, center-mass. It didn't stand a chance."
"Miguel?" Maria murmured.
"Yeah, Maria?" Ramirez asked anxiously, crouched next to her and Vic.
"Tell Nadia that Corey and Paul can play outside again," she murmured, looking up as a pair of paramedics hurried into the room, stopping dead at the sight of all the blood. "Relax, it's from the dog," she mumbled in disgust. "Just tell me one of you has an aspirin..."
After the Vic had followed Maria's stretcher from the room, Ramirez looked around, wondering if he should have the blood cleaned up or treat the area as a crime-scene. Of course, the case in question was most decidedly closed, he realized, staring at the dead dog. He frowned faintly as he saw traces of what looked like Day-Glo paint around its muzzle. Maria had been asking him for increasingly detailed autopsies on some of her odder cases, so he knew that she would be interested in this. Careful not to disturb the scene, he quickly collected a sample, knowing she would be interested.
"Shouldn't you be in bed?" Vic asked Maria as he walked into the hospital room. She had pulled a chair up to the window and was watching the traffic go by.
"No, I should be at work. Miguel autopsy that dog yet?"
"Yeah." Vic nodded faintly. "Thing must have been on some heavy drugs. Miguel's still working that angle, but its muscle-mass was like five times what it should have been and its brain..." He paused.
"What about its brain?" she prompted.
"It... showed signs of recent growth." Vic shrugged and pulled a chair next to her. "One anomaly of many, actually. There was nothing normal about this thing. All he can figure is that it was some weird combination of drugs, radiation, and gene-therapy... Strange."
"Its brain was growing?" Maria asked, remembering her conviction while facing the dog that it had understood every word out of her mouth.
"Yeah. Miguel says that would have killed it within a week. Brain was growing, but not its skull, so it was slowly being crushed. Probably explains the violent behavior, too..." He shrugged again. "How's the head?"
"Better. How was your date?"
"It would have been better if I hadn't gotten called to a scene halfway through..."
"Ouch." Maria sighed and squeezed his shoulder. "You going to be okay?"
"Not like I haven't been okay the other four times she dumped my ass..."
"Cheer up, partner. She'll be back. She always is." Maria winked at him.
He smiled faintly, bowing his head. "Thanks, Mar."
"Being there." Vic grinned at her. "So, when you get to go home?"
"Later today. Want to go out for a couple of beers to celebrate the fact that I'm not dead?"
"Sounds like a plan," he agreed, nodding. "Just not the Watchfire, okay?"
"Fair enough. I'll drag you back to that Karaoke place instead."
Maria laughed as Vic let out a pained groan and began to protest, knowing full well that he would be happily singing off-key within a few hours.
"Oh, these pants'll look just great on him!" Jess announced cheerfully, tossing them to Mel.
"We're here to get him new shirts," Mel reminded her.
"Hey, no reason not to coordinate a bit," Jess pointed out. Glancing around to make sure that Cole was out of earshot, she lowered her voice and added, "They'll really show off that great bum of his..."
Mel bit her lower lip, trying not to smile, knowing that it would only encourage Jess. It was the knowledge that Cole only had one other pair of pants and that those were ill-fitting anyway that finally convinced her to get the pants in addition to the shirts. Or so she told herself firmly. After what he had been through, he deserved a few new changes of clothes at the very least.
"He really does need more clothes," she said, ignoring Jess' smirk. "Cole?" she called, looking around.
"Here, Mel," Cole said, emerging from between two racks with a blue sweater in his hands. "May I get this one?" he asked.
"Cole, it's the middle of summer," Mel protested.
"Yes, Mel, but it looks very warm." Cole smiled widely at that thought.
"Yeah, well if it means that I can actually turn on the air conditioning for a change, I guess we'll get you a few sweaters," she agreed. As Jess wandered over to another rack, she moved closer to Cole and lowered her voice. "You still look kind of worried, Cole. Is everything okay?"
"Meterand bit me, Mel," he explained quietly. "I did not bleed much, but there was blood."
Mel frowned and shook her head in confusion. "And this is a problem because?"
"I was not in my human form at the time," Cole explained.
Mel stared up at him with wide eyes.
"Hey, guys, everything okay?" Jess asked, rejoining them with a shirt in her hands. "You want to try this one on, too, Cole," she announced, pushing it at him.
"I do, Jess?" he asked blankly.
"Definitely," she said, ushering him towards the changing room.
He glanced at Mel who nodded faintly, her expression assuring him that they would finish their discussion as soon as they had privacy.
"It'll really bring out those great, broad shoulders of his," Jess explained when Cole had vanished into the dressing room.
Mel just gave a distracted nod, ready to buy anything at all just to shorten the trip and get Cole alone again.
"Okay, so what's this about your blood?" Mel asked Cole as they put his new wardrobe on hangers.
"Cirronian blood is... not like human blood," he explained.
"How is it different?" she asked curiously. "I mean... will people be able to tell it isn't human blood?"
Cole nodded faintly and retrieved the shirt he had been wearing when he had saved Maria, showing her the bioluminescent stains among the rust-colored blood. Mel stared down at it with wide eyes for a long moment, more curious than ever as to his natural form. Seeing that he looked worried, she was quick to set aside her curiosity and reassure him.
"They won't even know it's blood," she promised him. "There's no way they would ever think that, Cole. It's going to be okay. It will."
"Yes, Mel," he agreed with a slight nod and smile.
"Never seen a thing like it," Miguel told Vic and Maria with a shrug. "It can't have been the only thing he was on, but it's probably responsible for a lot of the mutations..."
"What is it, though?" Maria asked, unaware that, in spite of the closed office door, they were not the only three privy to the conversation. Miles away, Zin, Lana, and Neko were following the conversation avidly via a hidden camera. "Why's it glow like that?"
"Probably some kind of bioluminescent bacteria."
"Bacteria, he calls it," Neko scoffed, watching the monitor.
"What else would a human make of that advanced a protein-string?" Zin asked. "They have no frame of reference for Migarian amino acid strings. They only have 20 or so of their own and those certainly don't bioluminescence..."
"Undifferentiated stem-cells, too," Miguel added. "Probably the reason that his brain was growing."
"Mmm hmm," Lana murmured, shaking her head. "Obviously he didn't bother to have the host's own blood tested for stem-cells."
"Quiet," Zin directed absently. "This is fascinating. A human view on Cirronian physiology without any knowledge that they aren't alone in the universe..."
"A few hormones we're still working on figuring out." Miguel shrugged. "What surprised me was that there was no testosterone at all... that level of aggression, I was really expecting to see quite a bit."
Lana rose, shaking her head and leaving the room. Zin and Neko stared after her in surprise. Gesturing for Neko to stay put and listen to the rest of the conversation, Zin followed Lana from the room.
"Something troubling you?" he asked her gently when he found her in the greenhouse, surrounded by dead and dying plants. The dozens of Vardian and Orsusian plants they had brought still refused to adapt to earth's air.
Lana shrugged helplessly, sighing. "That doctor may not understand what he's seeing, but those Detectives... they're too smart, Zin. They've seen too much already. And one of them is close to the Tracker's consort. What do we do when the connection is made?"
Zin sighed and spread his arms. "Come here, child."
Lana nodded and stepped into his hug, closing her eyes and resting her cheek against his chest. "What do we do?" she repeated.
"If they grow too close, then we will deal with them. In the meantime, they are as nothing to us," he told her firmly. "Daggon will not compromise himself and so he can not compromise us. The humans chose to see the only evidence of our existence here as evidence of some new drug. They willfully blind themselves, exactly as they always have in the past. This is our greatest advantage over them."
Lana looked up at him, nodding. "You're right, sir, of course. You usually are." She smiled and bobbed her head again, reassured by his words. "They are comfortable in their ignorance, even the curious ones."
"Precisely. And so they create explanations to suit their beliefs and we remain invisible to them."
"And as long as we remain invisible, we may continue to operate with impunity," Lana agreed, nodding.
"Mostly," Zin amended softly. "There does remain one obstacle to our victory..."
"Mel, do you have a moment?" Cole asked, entering the bar.
"Right back, Jess," Mel said, scuttling to join Cole before Jess could respond and ushering him up the stairs. "Yeah?" she asked anxiously.
"They have thoroughly analyzed my blood," he told her. "They did not recognize it for what it was."
"Oh, thank God," Mel murmured, giving him a quick hug.
He smiled faintly, hugging her back until she loosened her grip, then releasing her.
"What do they think it is, then?" she asked.
"They believe it to be a drug of some kind, the reason that Meterand acted as he did."
"You're kidding?" Mel asked, staring up at him.
He shook his head faintly. "There are things in my blood that they believe explain some of the mutations they found in his host. Humans call them stem-cells."
"The reason you can heal yourself so fast?" she realized, smiling faintly.
Cole nodded faintly. "They even dismissed the fact that it glows, Mel. They had no idea what it was."
"Oh, great. That's great, Cole," Mel whispered.
He smiled and nodded. "It means that I am safe from their attentions. I may continue to pursue Zin without fear. And I do not have to worry about you being in danger for sheltering me."
Mel stared at him with wide eyes. "That was your big worry?"
"Of course, Mel. What else?"
Mel, who had thought that his worry over the blood he had left behind was worry over his own discovery, just shook her head.
"You should know, Cole, that even if they did know about you, even if they were actively looking... you'll always have a place here, Cole."
"Thank you, Mel," he murmured, reaching out with both hands and gently caressing her throat. "It... comforts me that you care this much."
She smiled faintly up at him, loving the way that his hands felt on her throat. "Well, Cole, it... comforts me that you're still safe. I... life wouldn't be the same without you."
His smile widened and his eyes softened. "Mel..." he began.
"Shh," she whispered, brushing two fingers across his lips to silence him. "I'm just glad you're safe," she whispered. "I... life wouldn't be the same without you," she repeated, impulsively standing on her toes and planting a gentle kiss on his cheek. Blushing furiously, she quickly took a few steps backwards. "I should get back to the bar," she whispered, turning and fleeing.
Cole stared after her with wide eyes, one hand on his burning cheek. Slowly, his shocked expression was replaced by a wide smile.
"Life would not be the same without you, either, Mel," he whispered, shaking his head and returning to the war-room.