“I’ll get started on some initial research,” Aiinacs said.
“Yeah,” Zack said, “we should get started on that. With Alex gone… this is gonna be a lot of work.”
“Yes. Unfortunately, it seems you are needed elsewhere. Jason is here to see you.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s here? Now?”
“He just arrived a few minutes ago.”
“Fine. Send him down.”
“Who’s Jason?” I asked.
Zack sighed. “He’s my handler.”
“Handler?” I frowned.
“Handler. Case officer. Boss. Whatever you want to call it.” Another sigh. “He comes with an assignment, and I have to drop everything I’m doing until I’ve completed it.”
“Are you a spy or something?” I remembered a show I used to watch about spies.
“Government asset. The work varies. They’ve found a lot of uses for us. Myself and Alex, that is.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask… What exactly are you, anyway? What species?” It was a bit of an awkward question, but it had been bugging me for a while. I’d seen a lot of different furry species, and Zack didn’t seem to fit with any of them. Fur, strange ears, a tail… that’s pretty normal, but Zack also had patches of scales, which you don’t normally find in mammals. And he’s covered in intricate designs, way beyond the usual spots and stripes.
He gestured to a blue-and-orange swirl on the back of his hand. “You like?”
I nodded. “It’s cool.”
“Thanks.” He smiled. “As for what I am… It’s a complicated question, actually. I have a certain degree of control over my anatomy, and I’ve kind of experimented throughout the years, so I’ve… changed.”
“So… are those patterns from shapeshifting? Can you teach me how to do that? I can change my feather color a bit, but I could never get it to stick like that.”
“It’s not like the kind of shapeshifting ‘cubi do,” Zack explained, “A ‘cubus has a normal form, and can fill some tiny pockets under the skin, change some pigments like a chameleon, change their look a bit. It’s quick and effective, but limited, and hard to sustain. Without your supervision, the pockets will even out, the pigments will jump back, and you’re back to normal. And those pockets can only fill or drain so far.”
“Yours doesn’t work like that?”
“What I do is actually controlled mutation. It’s a very slow process–I have to wait for a whole new generation of cells to grow in before the effect is noticeable–but there’s no limit to how far I can go, and it’s not just cosmetic; I could give myself a second heart if I wanted.”
“No way. How can that–”
“Magic and biology, working in harmony.” He smiled. “All kinds of things are possible when the right systems work together.”
“Like a magic computer.” I nodded.
There was a knock at the door. Zack let a man inside. A human, from what I could tell.
The man frowned at me. “Who’s this?”
“Um… hi. I’m… Luke.”
“He’s a friend of mine,” Zack said.
The man blinked. “Did you say your name was… Luke?”
“Do you trust him?” He whispered to Zack.
“I haven’t known him for long,” Zack whispered back, “But… he’s a good kid.”
I pretended not to hear. My hearing is a lot sharper than most people’s, so I can’t help but pick up on private conversations sometimes.
“Someone broke into a warehouse. Took a lot of dangerous items, including a sample of a certain symbiotic organism. And…” The man pulled some papers out of his coat and showed them to Zack. “He left a message at the scene.”
Zack stared at the paper for a long time, then whispered “Luke’s a lot tougher than he looks. He’s a mortal god. I… I say we let him know the basics. It sounds like we may need him.”
“Agreed.” The man turned to face me. Tried to force a smile, but it was clearly fake. “Okay, Luke. My name’s Jason.”
He told me basically the same stuff he told Zack, and then handed me two pieces of paper. The first was a photocopy of a note, found at the scene of the break-in. It was just a series of symbols. Clearly encrypted. The second was the decrypted version of the message.
Tsk. Tsk. Tsk. All these dangerous artifacts, locked up in one place? With such pathetic security, I might add. You should take more care in protecting such important things.
No doubt you realize the havoc I could wreak with these items. And you desperately want them returned. And you desire me behind bars, or perhaps hung for treason.
What do I desire? I have little use for money. Power, I already possess. My demand is quite simple: I want to play a game.
My opponents shall be Zack and Luke. You know who Zack is. Luke is a young incubus you will meet shortly.
If they win my little game, I will tell you where to find the missing items.
The game is: catch me if you can.