02:08:02 The Return of Shape

"Well, it's good, but I think I like the first one better."

Faint scratching was heard through the speaker system as the anonymous testers jotted down a few quick notes about what the test subject had said. Eventually the disembodied voice spoke again. "Well, that's good news. You're almost done. We have one last sample set for you to try and then you're free to go."

"Well, provided they taste like the first one, I almost wouldn't mind staying."

There was some good natured laughing at the comment, but everyone knew that absolutely would not be the case, regardless of how tasty the beverage in question was. A slit in the table opened and a set of cups rose up. They were clearly marked to differentiate, but give no indication as to what they were, just like all the others had been.

"Ok, so there they are. Now I know you're excited, but please, we really do need to have an accurate assessment. Take your time and let us know exactly what you think, ok?"

"Yeah, you bet."

"Good to hear. Ok, try the first one."

The test subject wrapped a tentacle around the first cup and raised it to a mouth. He sipped the beverage and smacked his lips together a few times.

"Well, it's got a nice citrusy flavor, and plenty of fizz, but it's not Carffee."

"No, no it's not. It's something special we were working on. Now go ahead and try the last one."

The creature smiled broadly (and a bit disturbingly) as it picked up the final glass and took a healthy draught of the beverage, and regretted it. "Auugh! Blech, that's stuff's horrible! It's too bitter and tastes like shiIIIIIIAAAAAAHHHGGYYYYYYRyAYAYyAYRAWQQRRQRQOUSZOIZUGPQ{Q{OORIWI(!#!"

The tester exploded -- messily. Once the heavier bits finished dripping from the formerly pristine ceiling and walls, a few servo janitors floated in through some of the newly opened fissures and began washing down bits of creature from the walls.

A safe distance away, a hand switched off the monitor and turned off the recording.

Next to him a very nervous and sweaty figure grinned with far too many teeth and began adjusting the metallic clasps of his fashionable business attire. "Well" the creature said in a chipper voice. "That test went a bit better than the last one, he lasted nearly ten seconds. I told you that antidote would do the trick. Although I suppose that I should speak to Muszynski about doubling the dosage and see if we can get twelve seconds out of it."

"Pijg? You said that we had an antidote." The other voice said. It belonged to a pinkish hominid dressed in strange black and dark blue garb from a backwater non-aligned planet. It had shaved it's top fur off and grew an ornamental patch around it's primary and secondary orifices.

If one's ocular translation devices were so attuned, they might have been able to determine the writing on the creatures torsal garb, but unless you knew who Richard Wyland was, you'd have no idea why he should be elected emperor.

The black garbed one spoke with the casual demeanor that Pijg lacked.

Pijg turned puce with fright. "I.. I did. You saw! He survived ten seconds. Choj-Keller..."

"An antidote does not mean surviving ten seconds, Pijg, it means surviving. I'm very disappointed, Pijg."

Pijg sat frozen for a second, then sprung out of his chair as a pint of the equivalent of adrenaline was instantly released into Pijg bloodstream. In the blink of an eye his fore claw was on the door handle. If he had been allowed to continue, Pijg would have broken several land speed records, even for his own species.

Unfortunately, those contestants generally have to be alive to compete. Pijg was having a rather difficult time fulfilling that qualification with a steel shank piercing his cerebral cortex.

Pijg's remains impacted against the door, the frame buckled slightly from the collision.

The steel shank slowly reformed into the hand of Steve Keller, Founder, President and owner of KellerBev, Inc. The multi-trillionare manufacturer of the galaxy's current favorite addiction of choice, Carffee.

This, of course, would come as a great surprise to Steve Keller, the guy that actually created Carffee in a coffee shop in Anchorage, Alaska, and who was currently rooting through his sofa for change for a taco.

"Number 72? You're order is ready. 72?"

"Yeah, thanks. Can I get some extra salsa please?"

The TacoPurgatory employee blinked slowly at the shorn head and smiling van Dyke of Steve Keller, before flicking packets of heavily processed salsa-like byproducts onto the tray. "Yay," Steve chirped, "and you didn't strain anything doing that either! What a wonderful day!" The false smile dropped from his face like an airborne supertanker as he took the taco back to a small table to feast.

He had just taken a bite of deep fried beany semi-goodness when a rather dapper uniformed individual sat down across from him. The official began flipping through a clipboard. "Ah, here it is!" the figure said, "Mr. Steve Keller?"

Steve continued to chew as he stared at the individual with growing levels of suspicion.

"Right, well, you're hereby charged with several violations of Galactic Treaty ST-655 Section 381 Paragraph 291 regarding the introduction of a controlled substance without proper warning labels and addiction treatment programs, Section 14 Paragraph 91, failing to provide a toll free customer support number which does precious little more than play jangly versions of your corporate jingle for hours on end interrupted on occasion by pleas to stay on the line because your call is important; and your charged with having little bits of cheese stuck to the corner of your mouth. -- which isn't really against the law, but is rather disgusting."

Steve continued to chew, raising one eyebrow while pushing the other down in stark disbelief. "Excuse you?"

The figure was unphased and remained pleasant, "You are Mr. Steve Keller, correct?"

Steve nodded.

"Creator of the beverage called Carffee?"

Steve nodded again.

"Fantastically wealthy owner and CEO of Keller Beverage, the newly pan-galactic corporation that serves up frosty glasses of that previously mentioned insanely addictive product which has caused several well publicized riots and sparked at least two potential religious movements?"

Steve shook his head no.

The figure lost his charm and became rather intense. "And why would I believe you're not."

Steve casually swallowed and washed down his greasy excuse for Mexican food with a gulp from his cola.

"If I were anywhere near as wealthy and powerful as you think I am, would I be sitting here in a TacoPurgatory eating a ninety-nine cent value meal without any form of body guard or personal protection, talking to some friggin' idiot who's been watching way too many episodes of Babylon 5?" He took another draw, slurping noisily.

Roger sat back, idly tapping the end of a pen against the clipboard. "Honestly, no. You would have killed me on the spot, or at the very least tried." And with that the figure, clipboard and pen blinked away.

Steve blinked, but showed no other sign of surprise that the individual he had just been talking to had suddenly winked out of existence. Instead he took a second mouthful of taco.

He also registered very little surprise when the uniformed individual walked in to the restaurant and took the seat he had previously "occupied".

"Mr. Keller," The figure stated crisply, "My name is Rahhahggrraag-pthughltep, or if you like, Roger. I am with a group called Galactic Customs, and we need your help."

"I'm a bit confused." Steve said as he exited the shuttle.

"About what?"

"Back in the restaurant you were pretty open about what's going on. I mean weren't you a bit concerned that someone might have overheard you."

"Well, had there been any actual human beings there other than yourself I might have been a bit more guarded."

Steve, once again, did not react with a great deal of surprise. He did stop walking for a second, however. "So if those weren't humans, what were they? Holographic projections?"

"No, no, nothing quite so elaborate. A number of automation systems require regular updates for their lubrication systems. Those depots were created to help service them."

"So you're saying that TacoPugatories are actually.."

"..alien Jiffy Lubes, yes."

"That explains a lot. So, are you going to mind wipe me or anything after this?"

Roger opened the rear door to a low, flat, and unmarked building. "No, it's rather painful. Well, to you anyway, and really not necessary. First off, you have little idea where we are, correct?"

Steve nodded and entered the room, which turned out to be a small elevator it began to decend slowly.

Roger continued, "and since the individual you're going to help us deal with is both a master of disguise, utterly ruthless, and more than happy to reduce you to a smallish smoldering grease spot as wave good morning to you, I'm betting that we can happily rely on you to keep a low profile, correct?" Roger grinned for proper effect.

Steve finally showed a bit more emotion. "What!?" he screamed and alternated between pale white and bright red as panic and anger contended for control. "Who? What? No!"

"Well as for the who, that would be you, or more precicely, the creature that happens to be declaring himself to be you. As for the 'what', it turns out that he 'you' has been trafficking in a substance that is the pan-galactic equivalent of heroin and since he's not filed any of the proper permits for it, as well as not made sure the proper governments have gotten their fare share of the profits, he's now very much wanted by a number of organizations."

"But I didn't do anything!" Steve protested.

"Well, you did actually create the substance in question, the beverage you called 'Carffee'"

"What? C'mon, nobody drank that stuff. I created it as a joke. In fact there was only one guy that asked about it. I told him how to make it. Hell, that junk cost me my job! My boss didn't think it was so damn funny and fired me a week later. Now I'm designing web pages for a living, and scraping up change for meals."

"True, I suppose, but let me say this. If you don't help us, we're going to have to press charges, and let me be the first to point out that a good number of your future fellow inmates have a ready supply of Japanese school girl uniforms in your size. Ah, we're here."

The door slid open and Steve looked down the military looking corridor. Roger put his arm around Steve in a jovial manner and led him down the hall. "Besides, this is your chance to help us take out the bad guy, do the right thing, save the universe, and all that other crap. Think of it as your chance to do battle with your evil clone."

Steve didn't feel very heartened by the options. Go to some freak jail, be exterminated, or be blackmailed by some weird science fiction group. "Fantastic. I'm living la vida Man-man. What do I have to do?"

"That's the beauty of it!" Roger said. "Nothing, just be your charming self."

Several meters below the surface of the sea raced a one man, err, Yggsdrazine sub.

"Are you sure that you're up for this?" Jack said with more than a bit of concern in his voice. It was heavily distorted both from the deep signal encryption and the transphase relays.

Roger calmly keyed the radio to transmit and spoke into his headset, "Jack, I'm fully aware of what the dangers are, but I'm the only one GC's got that can get in there and know what to look for. Look this island fortress is the traditional home of a secret order of shape shifting monks. Our version of the Shinto Priests, if you will. They don't take well to strangers, and abstain from all forms of technology. Only a Yggsdrazine has any chance at all even getting to the island, and only I have the imprint memory of the individual we're after."

Jack still was concerned, "I don't like that you'll be out of contact for so long."

"Neither do I, but if I bring a radio in, I'm dead for sure."

There was a bit of silence. Roger imagined Jack sitting, stewing because he knew Roger was right.

Finally there was a quick burst of static. "Take care Roger. We can't afford to lose you. No one else has the stamina to make it past the first volume of regs."

"Sissies."

Roger cut the main jet and the sub settled toward the bottom. He checked his rebreather unit and flooded the main compartment. In a burst of atmosphere roger shot out into the murky depths. His many eyes scanned for any of the myriad of predators that scavenged reefs like these. His tentacles pulling him along in a fluid dance. A flash of movement and Roger instinctively blended into the reef. It was a small fish startled by Roger's appearance. It swam away in a panic, but soon disappeared in a bloody spray as several lancers fought for it's remains. Roger held his ground. Lancers were nearly as cunning as ground sharks but just as deadly.

g'YAAArrrg-thud was a planet that was full of cultured cities and manicured lawns, far removed from her original wilds. Most yggsdrazine had never even seen a lancer or even a bomb-flea in person, no less swim in unprotected waters near majestic thorn corals. Granted this wasn't the outdoor simulator and things out here were quite live and very deadly.

It was good to be home, back out in the wild. He felt like a junior slug scout again.

Still, whenever roger felt homesick he managed to find some pleasant distractions, but however comforting it was jogging through the ganglands wearing a DEA jacket was. Roger still preferred his home world smell.

It was dusk by the time roger slithered onto the beach. He alternately dodged the sand bombers explosive quills and the occasional plummetino tree spike slicing heavily into the ground. But enough relaxing on the beach. There was dangerous work to do.

He carefully made his way through the undergrowth stretching his senses out as far as he could. He moved quietly, Barely crumpling a dry leaf or setting a bug skittering.

He was very surprised to wake up in a cell room.

"Wha? Huh? Who?"

"Ah, good morning!" a shadow said. "Can I offer you a nice refreshing juice or maybe a snack? They're all natural and chock full of delicious nutrition!"

The voice... Imagine, if you will, suddenly awaking in a dark dungeon and hearing a very chipper Dracula trying very hard to convince you that he's kicked the whole "blood drinking" thing.

The shadow separated from the dark recess and seemed to be silhouetted against the blackness. He stood, black on blacker, his eyestalks weaving in a hypnotic dance as he moved, slowly. "I trust your rest was refreshing. I must say that you gave us quite a scare."

"That I made it so far into your compound?" Roger stated defiantly more than asked.

The shadow froze. "Uhm, no." He replied, as if surprised that it was even an issue. "Actually, we were amazed that you survived stumbling on top of a concussion beetle nest."

The shadow finally emerged into the half light. He was dressed in a traditional monks sash. Roger guessed him to be somewhere in his mid three hundreds, considering that the average yggsdrazine lived to be eighty. Although two of his eyestalks continued to bob and weave of their own accord, Roger wasn't staring at those.

Roger was far more intent on the tray of pre-packaged goods that the old ygg carried. They stood out much like seeing a bag of Doritos in King Arthur's Court would.

"As I was saying," the elder ygg continued, "you gave us quite a scare. Several of us were gathered together in the main courtyard practicing when you... dropped in. I fear you owe Brother Gharrgar'trp a bit of an apology, and possibly a few headache tablets."

"Practice?" Roger asked, very much aware of the history of this island.

"Yes." The old ygg perked up. "Several of us were going over new tactics for higher door-to-door sales returns. 'Good Day Sir and or Madam, may I inquire about how fresh you're feeling today? Might I suggest a lovely all herbal laxative formula fresh from the mountains of H'Krawark-ptua that's guaranteed to have your bowels..'"

"Uhm, yes, I see, but isn't that a bit.. well.. at odds with the whole Order thing?"

The old ygg looked a bit put out that Roger interrupted him, but then looked a bit confused, "Order thing?" There was a quick pause then a sudden flash of recognition. "Oh! You mean the Order of the Shifting Sands?" The old man chortled a bit. "Ah, yes, the secret order of shifters", he said in a lighthearted spooky voice, as if summoning the boogie man. He chuckled again at his own joke.

"Uhm, yes. I understand that they're very powerful." Roger said, still not wanting to lose sight of his objective.

The old ygg laughed again, "well, yes, maybe in the 45th dodecuary, but those days are long gone. You see, in this modern age of holonets and biodetectors, there's not much call for someone who can be an end table for a few days. Plus, furniture polish gives me a rash. No, we've had to get with the times m'boy."

"Get with the times? But I thought that you abstained from technology."

"Abstain?" The old ygg laughed. "Hardly. Granted we've still not gotten cable, but that's probably more due to the fact that the last four installers were eaten by lancers. I'm surprised you didn't see their rafts on the shoal where you parked your sub."

Roger sighed heavily. This was not going the way that he had planned.

"It would have been far easier to simply pull into the main dock, you know. Brother Chgrawchrg is even offering free tumblers with every fillup. Would have saved you the trouble of risking your tentacles with those darn lancers and stumbling into that nest of beetles. You know you really should watch out for them. They're bright red and about this big and make a 'bree-bree-ka-TOOM' noise. Well, I'm guessing you probably just heard the 'bree-bree' part, but.."

"YES! Right, well, thank you. I'll certainly be on the watch for those in the future."

The old ygg looked hurt and insulted again. Roger could hear his mothers' voices yelling at him for his short tempter and disrespecting his elders. His -- considerably -- elders.

"I'm sorry, Brother..", Roger said very apologetically.

The old ygg softened a bit at the apology. "Sipkowitz, It's all right my boy, we don't get many visitors here and we tend to forget ourselves."

"No, no, I'm sorry, it's just that I'm on a very important mission and I wasn't quite prepared for... " Roger lazily waved a few tentacles about.

"..for thirty dodecuaries of legends to be a few old yggs tending a run down temple? Well, it does keep away the solicitors. Like I said, we don't get many visitors here. You're the second one we've had in as many years, really."

Suddenly Roger became very interested. "Second?"

"Why yes, there was another young ygg that came through here a bit more than a year ago. He was the one that introduced us to the idea of branching into product distribution. He had this wonderful idea that if each of us could find someone interested in selling our products, we could get a commission from those product sales. Which reminds me, would you like to sample some of this tasty tree sap cola? It's guaranteed to put the tension back in your tentacle."

The old ygg offered the beverage with an expression like a small, hopeful puppy. Ok, a small hopeful really old dog with far too many legs and eyes, but -- you get the point.

Roger conceded and tried the beverage. It actually wasn't that bad, in fact, it tasted rather nice. "Mmm, this is pretty good. What's it called?"

"Carffee."

There are several very expensive fountains that have been inspired by a yggsdrazine spit takes, Roger outdid all of them.

So, you're certain that he is the one, Roger?

Yes Jack. Once I got back to the capitol I was able to do a bit more research on him. It turns out that he was a small time con that worked the slums of the upper east side until he found his way to the Temple. Once there he set up a pyramid distribution scheme involving the monks repackaging smuggled goods as local herbal remedies.

Did you get them to stop?

After I showed them the spectral analysis of the 'Tree Bark Elixir' they were trying to sell, they were more upset that the only natural ingredient was some air that had accidentally entered the bottle.

Good, good.

The monks told me that our buddy was more than a bit interested in learning the secrets and they were rather bored so they taught him. Apparently he is more than an apt student.

That's a concern.

To put it lightly, yes. Fortunately the monks were a bit upset with their star student once I brought them up to date on his most recent activities. They managed to give me a few little tricks that might help.

Anything you can pass along?

Well, maybe one, but honestly I don't think you lot would be able to make your arms bend like this...

Ehg, Roger! I just ate!

Sorry Jack. Also, if you don't mind, I'd like to keep knowledge of this little excursion as quiet as possible.

Why?

Our lad is currently employed by our friends over at GTG.

Galactic Transit Gate? Any hard proof?

No, unfortunately. It's mostly rumor and grapevine. Nothing that could stand in court.. yet.

So what of the monks?

You know, for a group of highly trained religious assassins they're surprisingly pleasant company. A bit like finding the nice old man with the cat down the road trimming his rose bushes with throwing stars. I talked with my cousin who runs a touring agency. There's a big "Back to Nature" movement going on back on g'YAAArrrg-thud. The monks all natural lifestyle and meditation will be a big hit. Plus they put on a fantastic show.

Didn't you say they were assassins?

Well, yes, but they pose about as much of a threat as if I were to try to take out your American president with a baseball bat, and they know it. They're more into the religious aspect and the training than the killing bits anyway. Plus, they're lousy salesmen.

Ah good.

What about our own Steve Keller.

The original?

Yes.

Well, we've completed most of the scans we need, he redid the eHalibut logo, and he's either been slapped or slugged by most everyone here.

Even Shimo?

No, Shimo had a bit of a run-in with the dishwasher.

Do I want to know?

No, not really, but what was left came out spotless.

So where is he now?

Playing Counterstrike with Rhino. Roger, are you sure that having a civilian here is a good idea?

Jack, trust me. In this case, it's not a problem. He already knows what kind of danger he could be in, and even if he were to say anything, who'd believe him?

Frankly the worst thing I can imagine him doing is writing some sort of goofy web-serial or something.

True. I suppose we've nothing to worry about then.

Right.