02:03:16 - Shape, Come Back!
He wasn't exactly what you would expect. He stood, dressed in a perfectly tailored Armani suit jacket, black denim jeans, black Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars and a "Richard Wyland for Emperor" T-shirt. His head was shaved clean, except for a well-groomed Van Dyke. He was far from being "heavy", but had acquired a layer of internal protection to guard against the long Anchorage winters. In many respects, he looked like he'd be more at home behind the counter of a run down coffee shop. Funny thing was, three years ago, that's exactly where he was. Now he, Steve Keller, was the Founder and CEO of the moderately successful Keller Beverage Company.
His eyes swept the gathered audience with casual ease. Part of him hated "News Day". He hated the fact that he had to do a whole Dog and Pony show to these reporters and media hacks. He knew he didnt really have to do this, his company was privately owned. Still, he had been advised that it would be best to ensure that he was seen as the "boy done good".
His name was called. He took a deep breath and jogged out on stage to enthusiastic applause. "Thank You! Thank You! I'd like to get started quickly so that we can all get out of here and get on with the party afterwards." He waited for the new round of cheers to settle down.
"Our first year was rough, but that's no big surprise. We had successful distribution deals through most of the West, with our biggest markets being Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Langell Valley, Oregon. Hey, I don't know either, I just make the stuff. Year End Profits? Twenty-Two Thousand, Three Hundred and Eighty. We celebrated with two extra large pizzas, my treat." Wait for laugh to die down.
"Our second year we did better, expanding into British Columbia and Ottawa. Again, we relied on our tried and true sampling network. After all, it's good enough for drug dealers; it's good enough for me. We did better, clearing Two Hundred Thou. Enough for me to finally move production out of my mom's garage." Wait for more laughter to die down.
"Then the second quarter hit. Demand literally went through the roof. I'm glad you're all sitting down for this because unfortunately, I wasn't at the time. Ladies and Gentlemen, I want you all to know that we here at Keller-Bev make one product, a product that is universally panned by every single food critic out there. A product that scored lower than a hot-fudge and spam sundae on a recent NRN poll. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here to prove those snobby bastards have their heads so far up themselves, that they can hold comfortable discussions with their spleens, and I've got the numbers to back that up. "
"Last quarter, we received an order with cash up front for four point six, B as in Boy, Billion Dollars of Delicious Carffee. Now, just in case none of you have ever seen what four point six billion dollars US looks like, I'd like to show you this."
The lights in the assembly hall dimmed as a video flickered on the screen, it showed him walking into a large bank vault filled with gold bars. "Ladies and Gentlemen, you're looking at approximately five hundred and ten thousand 32oz. gold bars, approximately sixteen kilotonnes of twenty- four karat pure gold."
"And this is what twenty four and a half gallons of pure gold looks like." The slide changed to a huge warehouse, it was literally packed as far as the eye could see with bottles upon bottles of Carffee."
Our net profits for the first three quarters of the year are approximately two point four B as in Boy Billion dollars. And we've already been told that there is another equally large order expected in the next few weeks."
Steve paused and smiled somewhat ruefully at the gathered throng of slack jawed reporters. The only noise coming from the place was the whir and click of the tape. Sure, there had been some speculation about the company, but nothing, and I do mean nothing, compared to this.
"I'm sure you all have a few questions?" Steve asked innocently.
"You're kidding right?" Carla asked, "That stuff is revolting."
"Revolting to you and me, perhaps, but it's like candy coated crack to a fair number of races." Rhino replied. "How much caffeine is in one of those Carffee bottles, Jack?"
"Well, one is enough to get Phil curled up on the couch watching the Lifetime Channel."
Roger let out a low whistle. "Well, My Holiday shopping is done for next year."
"That's it! I'm telling Phil." Carla said as she reached for the intercom.
"JOKE, joke! I'm just kidding, I'm a kidder." Roger backpedaled.
Carla's finger hovered over the intercom switch for a second and let Roger sweat a few more heartbeats. She sat back, but continued to glare at him.
"How much do we know about Keller Beverages?"
"Well, they're privately owned, been in business for about three years or so. They've got one main product they've been farming out and doing moderately well, a carbonated sweetened, artificially flavored coffee beverage named Carffee. The owner is an ex coffee shop employee named Steve Keller who concocted the beverage as a prank on an unsuspecting customer. Fortunately, or un, that customer failed to get the joke and instead shared the concoction with several others. Next thing Keller knew, he was selling more Carffee than his normal sludge. Boy gets lucky and lands a distribution contract, and the rest is history."
"I don't get it." Carla said, "why is that unusual?"
"It's not. In fact we had no idea who this character was until Roger spotted something."
"Yes, I noticed that there was a rather odd anomaly on the sensors in the Anchorage area several weeks ago. I tried to make several people aware of it, but they were less than receptive."
"Roger, you make us aware every time a Guaw freighter backfires." Rhino sniped back.
"Look, it's not my problem that you don't find your duties stimulating enough."
"Ok, settle down kids, or no ice cream." Jack teased. "In all honesty, that alone wasn't that interesting either. We got reports that right after that point, bottles of the stuff were showing up in several black markets, some fetching as high as four Goblaiks. Even then, it wasn't really that surprising. What really got my attention was the fact that some how this Keller got a contract for a ludicrous amount of money and was able to produce a staggeringly large amount of Carffee almost overnight. He's being very closed lipped about who his "overseas" investors are, but we've got a hunch, they're probably significantly more over seas than just Asia."
"I see..", Carla said.
"We'll need to be careful with this one. We'll also need to get a bit closer so we can do some intelligence work."
Rhino leaned forward. "When do we move out?"
"'We' aren't moving out." Jack corrected, "well, not all of us at least. Most of us are too recognizable, the minute we're spotted the jig would be up."
"You're not thinking about sending in just Carla, are you?" Rhino asked.
"No, she's not ready to go solo yet, and I want to keep her as an ace for a bit longer."
"Right, so we're pretty much up the creek then, aren't we?"
"Couldn't you use a disguise?" Carla asked.
"Bah, disguises are worthless. Most species can see right through them, and if not, they've got devices that can. It's only totally backwater little specks like this place where women walk into bars without toupee analyzers and men are completely at the whiles of augmentation. No, out in the real galaxy you'd have to be far better at the game than just a few distracting layers of paint and a well paid doctor. No you'd have to have skill and cunning in order to properly pull it off. Real gene driven know how to get past the various bits of discovery that folks have. You .. " Roger's voice trailed off a bit. "Why are you staring at me like that, Jack?"
"Roger?" Rhino asked his boss, "Jack, are you nuts?" he declared more than asked.
"Roger's a yggsdrazine. He can change form."
"Do you have any idea how difficult it was to find this form?" Roger asked rather annoyed.
"That's not what he normally looks like?" Carla asked slipping comfortably back into a state of total confusion.
Rhino leaned toward her a bit and stage-whispered, "No, and be thankful you've never seen it either."
"What? I'd have you know that I nearly turned down a career in modeling to do this!"
"Yes, but I don't think that you'd make much fitting bits of plastic together, although sniffing the glue might have been a bonus."
Roger seethed at Rhino.
"Roger, Rhino." Jack snapped before things got out of hand again. "Roger, I understand that you can only imprint one form at a time, what do we need to do to provide you with this form again."
"Well, it's not that simple, imprinting takes a fair amount of effort. I must convince bits of me that they really need to be somewhere else."
"What about making a doll?" Carla asked.
"A what?" the rest of the room said simultaneously.
"A miniature version of him the way he is now. There has to be something in all the junk you keep upstairs that could do it, right?"
"Well, I suppose it's certainly possible."
"Then it's a plan. Roger, we'll get you wired up."
"Wait a minute? Where am I going?"
"You're going to perform a bit of recon at Keller Bev."
Rhino sat, still somewhat in shock that Jack would even think of a plan that insane no less put Roger on his own in such a situation. Eventually he just laughed as a stray thought crossed his mind. "Oh, great, Roger, the action figure. Now with kung-fu grip."
Roger peeked above the counter to make sure that no one had spotted him. They hadn't. The rest of the diners at L'Arcs Des Or continued their dining blissfully ignorant of the fact that there was now an unconscious member of the kitchen help lying at the feet of his exact replica. Roger inspected the details knowing that those made all the difference. He made sure to get the canvas right on the shoes as well as the color of the beard right. Thankfully, he didn't have to worry about a difficult hairstyle since his chosen quarry was completely bald.
The newly reformed Roger peeked above the counter once again. It was still clear. He slid his body double into a small coat closet to sleep off the sedative, and made his way toward the kitchen.
"Steve! There you are." A man in a dark suit waved and started walking toward him. Roger looked behind him quickly to see if he could spot this Steve. Possibly it was the person he needed to watch.
"Steve?" He felt the man grab his arm. "I'd like you to meet our investors. This is Mr. Brakar and Mr. Pryor. Gentlemen, may I introduce you to Steve Keller, President, CEO, Chief Cook and Bottle washer of Keller Beverages, Inc."
Inside Roger panicked. He managed to prevent himself from reflexively spraying the two men with ink and managed a cultured, "Ahh, urr, heh, uhm, Hi!"
"Steve, there's no need to be nervous" the first suit said. These two are simply here to discuss the next deal."
"The next deal?" Roger/Steve said totally loosing track of what his mission might have been.
"The next Carffee deal" the tiny Jack voice in his head replied.
"Right, that deal. Sorry, just been a bit out of sorts lately." Roger danced.
"Well, you've been non-stop lately, Steve-o." Whoever this suit was, he was becoming increasingly more annoying. "Tell you what, no business 'til dessert, Huh? I'm starved how about you two?"
The others nodded and made polite comments about how good they had heard this place would be. Internally Roger winced, things were going even worse than he had imagined.
They took their seats and a waiter quickly rushed to take their orders.
"I'll have a vodka gimlet." Blue suit ordered. The other two ordered their drinks as well, iced green tea for Brakar and a Russian Coffee for Pryor. Roger noted that those were odd drinks to choose for an establishment such as this. He noted that he should keep an eye on them during the dinner.
That was when he suddenly felt an eye open on his foot.
In a flash Roger's hand was over it and he willed the eye to disappear back into the shoe.
"Something wrong Mr. Keller?" Pryor asked.
"No!" Roger/Steve replied a bit nervously, "No, just had a bit of a cramp, that's all. Ah, see, much better. Thanks."
"Your beverage sir?" The waiter asked again. Roger looked at him in surprise. Roger scanned the menu quickly, "Right, uhm, I think I'll stick with water for right now."
"What? No Carffee?" Blue suit jibed.
Roger looked at him in horror, "What? No, that stuff would..", the hissing in his earpiece reminded him of who he 'was', and he quickly countered, "..not go very well with what I'm hoping to have tonight."
The Blue suit laughed hard at that comment and Roger/Steve smiled back. "Ol' Steve here is a ton of laughs!" He turned to Brakar and Pryor, "Steve may be the maker of Carffee, but he just hates the stuff. I keep telling him how it's gonna come back to haunt him, but I just can't get him to take even a swig of the stuff. Still, I'm guessing that's not important to you two, now is it?'"
"Your beverages," the waiter announced, "Are we ready to order?"
"Well, sounds like Steve is, tell ya what, you go first and we'll pick up after you."
"Uh, sure!" Roger said, the creeping terror returning to his voice. "Do you have steak here?"
Blue suit laughed again, The waiter reacted as if he had been asked the same question by a three year old the official one millionth time. "Yes, sir. We do have steak here."
"Great, how rare are you willing to serve it?" Roger asked as he glanced back toward the menu. He noticed that his thumb had become some form of snake and was making its way up the binding of the menu. He closed it quickly and winced a bit.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"I like my steaks nice and juicy, you see." His right leg itched. He felt his hand scratch it, which wasn't as disturbing as the fact that the newly formed hand extended from his crotch.
"I will speak to the chef, sir. Would you like a salad?"
"Yes, uhm sure." Roger concentrated hard trying to remember all of the details of the imprint. Forcing himself back into proper shape. "And whatever else you feel I might like." Roger/Steve slid his chair back and stood up abruptly. "I'm sorry, but I've really got to go to the bathroom. Bad Mexican for lunch I'm afraid. I'll be back in a few minutes. Please, carry on without me."
Roger turned and sprinted toward the bathrooms.
Roger leaned back against the wall of the stall. With the toilet in here, there was hardly any room at all, no wonder humans suffered so many intestinal problems. It wasn't the food, he was sure of that, but his ability to shift was rapidly slipping. At least he was bipedal and vaguely human, for the time being.
He took a deep breath to steady himself before leaving. Shrugging on the dinner jacket, even if it was a little tight against his barely controlled form, Roger stepped into the vestibule. He was almost to the front door when someone called to him.
"Is sir all right?" The maitre d' said approaching.
"Yes," Roger said. "Everything is fine."
"Sir, your left hand seems to be a schnauzer."
"What?" Roger said. He looked down at the dog, which looked back up at him. "Ah, yes. Transporter accident, you see."
"Car," Roger said. "I meant car accident. It was horrible. This was the only way to save poor Pepe's life."
"I see, sir," the maitre d' replied. To his credit, he was as stoic as ever, and showed no reaction.
"I'll just uh, just be going now," Roger said, pushing open the door.
"Will Richard Nixon be going with you or should I seat him with your party?"
"Sorry?" Roger said. When he turned around, he found that a section of his left leg had broken through the pants seam and had become the upper half of Richard Nixon. "Oh," Roger said. "I'll uh, I'll take him with me."
"Very good sir."
"Jack!" Roger hissed into his earpiece, once he was in the parking lot.
"Yeah, Roger," Jack's voice came back. "What's going on?"
"We got big problems," Roger said. "I'm having problems holding onto my form. You have to pull me off scene."
"Understood," Jack said. He then cupped the mouthpiece and said something to someone else that Roger didn't hear. "What happened, Roger?" he asked, uncovering the mouthpiece.
"I think it was the guy I imprinted on," Roger said. "I think he was another shape changer."
"You're sure about that?" Jack said in the debriefing.
"Jack, are you sure that is a coffee cup?" Roger asked back. For the moment, Roger had reverted back to his natural form, a three hundred pound, multi-eyed, multi-tentacled horror that would have been the feature attraction for any live action Japanese School-girl Hentai magazines had they known.
Jack lifted the cup up and looked at it. "Well, the coffee was pretty darn hot and it wasn't screaming, so I'll say, I'm reasonably confident that it is."
"Well, I know that whoever this 'Steve' person is, he's not human, unless you lot have some skills you haven't bothered telling anyone else about."
"Do you have any idea what he is?"
"No, I couldn't tell. I could tell in a heartbeat if he was a normal shapeshifter, well, unless.."
"No, it's impossible, it wouldn't make sense."
"What wouldn't make sense?"
"Shape shifting is a bit of a skill for us. A bit like your 'martial arts', except that some form is native to all yggsdrazine. There are those, however, that become true masters of the art. It is said that they could become anyone or anything, size, density, even opacity mean nothing to them. There are only a few, and they keep to themselves in a psuedo-religious order on a remote island. To go there is to die or become one of them. No one has ever returned."
"And you're saying this could be one of them?"
"No, yes, I dont know. They refuse to have anything to do with the outside world. If this is one of them, there's something very odd afoot. I'm sorry Jack, that's all I know."
Jack sat thinking for a few minutes. "Ok, get dressed before Carla sees you. I'll leave the lights off so she doesnt panic if she walks by. Is that a problem?"
"No. Jack, look, about the mission, I'm sorry."
"Roger, you've nothing to apologize for. None of us expected this. You did the job as well as you could, thats all we could ever ask for. Well done."
Jack walked out of the room and headed toward the mess hall. Rhino and Phil were sitting there discussing the finer details of coffee preparation when they heard Roger's angry scream.
Five seconds later, Phil and Rhino were rolling on the floor as a very, very angry six foot, three inch Malibu Barbie arrived demanding to know who switched the dolls.