“So, Lucie, how’s the new job going?” My younger sister Morna stood back to study the Bouvier whose coat she was trimming.
I picked up a broom and swept up the dark curls of hair that had fallen to the floor. “Oh—you know. My training officer, Detective Walnar, keeps making cracks about how nobody comes out of the Academy adequately prepared anymore. I don’t think she thinks much of my abilities. Guess I’ll find out shortly. My probation period’s almost over.”
“You could always go back to the regular forces, right?” Morna asked.
“I suppose.” I frowned. “But I’ve always had my heart set on the Offworld Issues Task Force.”
“You mean you didn’t secretly yearn to join the family business?”
I made a face. “Did you?”
She grinned and put the clippers down. “You know Dad wouldn’t let me anywhere near his precious space yachts. Not since that summer we worked together on the assembly line.”
I laughed and took that as my cue to head for work. As I made the short walk from Morna's grooming salon to the Precinct, a jump-jet headed for Innisfil Spaceport rumbled overhead. Freshly-landed passengers often brought new cases—even if it was just helping a Galvan overcome a misunderstanding with a local merchant, or keeping a couple of N’Kisi intent on settling an honor-feud from harming innocent bystanders. The promise of activity instead of desk-work prompted me to pick up the pace.
I slid into my chair with five minutes to spare before shift-start. Detective Denise Walnar, my training officer on the Task Force, grabbed her jacket and barked, “Don’t get too comfortable, probie.” I looked up, trying not to wince at the audible reminder of my probationary status. “A body’s been found, in an alley. Looks like there may be off-world involvement.” She headed for the door.
“Right behind you.” I scrambled to follow.
At the scene, Officer Sendy Jaymore waved us over, grim-faced. “Saw some scavenger bots headed this way,” she explained as we followed her into a dingy alley. “I came to investigate. And found this guy—”
I blinked, allowing my eyes to adjust to the alley’s gloom. Following the direction Sendy indicated with an outstretched hand, I saw the bloodied corpse, naked except for a pair of black boxer briefs, lying behind a battered dumpster.
The long, parallel gouges in the victim’s back, the puncture marks on the neck—I’d never seen anything like that before. A staccato burst from my wristcomm interrupted my ruminations. All units, report to Centennial Park. Riot in progress. I repeat, all units report immediately to Centennial Park.
Detective Walnar nodded to Sendy. “You go ahead. We’ve got this.”
As Sendy hustled to her vehicle, I frowned. “They said all units—”
“I heard that, too. But this is important. Maybe more important than it looks.” Detective Walnar waved me toward the corpse. “What do we know?”
“No identification on him, according to Sendy. I’ll see if we can find out who he is.” I snapped a photo of the victim’s face with my wristcomm and fed it through to the Big Brain, the Univac 5000 computer that took up half the basement at the Precinct. “Got a hit,” I said a few moments later. “Name’s Rupert Green. Ex-military. And—he works part-time in the crime lab.”
“A criminal might have had motive to kill him. Or grab his credentials, to get access to the lab.” Walnar studied the body for a moment, then turned to me, eyebrows raised. “Shall we see if we can find any clues?”
By “we,” I knew who she really meant. I slipped on a pair of disposable gloves, then crouched down to inspect the body. The damage didn’t look like it had been done by any sort of weapon—more like a clawed hand, or maybe teeth. Luckily, given my career interests, I’d signed up for both the basic and advanced courses in Cross-Galactic Studies at the Academy. I fanned out my fingers to take a rough measurement. “Not a N’Kisi—gouges are too far apart. Galvan—too deep for their thumb-talons.”
“And the grey matter under his fingernails?”
I gently lifted the victim’s left hand, taking a closer look. “Not sure. But I can feed the information to G-SIC.” The Galactic Species Identification Checklist, a sub-routine run by the Univac, should be able to make an ID.
“No.” Detective Walnar’s words froze me in place. “We’ll do this the old-fashioned way. By deduction.” Her expression softened. “I have a feeling that someone may be watching to see who accesses that particular program. Someone with a vested interest in keeping the identity of whatever did this, secret.”
“You have an idea.”
“A suspicion. I want to hear what you think.”
And then, it came to me. “It was a Chameleon.”
Detective Walnar nodded. “That’s what I think, too. We need to get back to the Precinct. Fast.”
“Chameleons have the ability to re-create any living creature they acquire the DNA for, right? Is it possible the police force has been infiltrated?” I asked as we hurried to the squad car.
“I’m sure of it. That riot? They likely staged it to get people out of the Precinct.”
“Then—we can’t trust anyone.”
“No-one but ourselves.”
Sobered, I scrambled into the passenger seat. “If they get access to the crime lab—”
“There’s lots of DNA for the taking,” Detective Walnar said. “DNA we don’t necessarily want replicated. Strap in. We need to go catch a Chameleon.”
The hover-car sped through the road matrix on autopilot, sirens screaming. Despite the emergency, Detective Walnar seized the opportunity to quiz me, as usual. “What do we know about the Chameleons?”
“They're a nomadic race, always looking for new territories to exploit.” Barely repressing a short but heartfelt oath, I scrunched my elbows in instinctively as our vehicle darted through the gap between a truck and a hover-bus. “The Chameleons morph their bodies to resemble local life forms—all they need is a small sample. A hair, some skin cells.”
“And why are Rupert Green’s clothes missing?”
“The Chameleon likely put them on, once he’d switched over.” I paused, frowning. “Killing Green like that—he must have known the body would be found, and the unusual patterning of the claw-marks noticed. Don’t the Chameleons usually rely on stealth?”
“Green’s ex-military. He might have pretended to cooperate, then counter-attacked.”
“If the Chameleon felt threatened, and lashed out—that would account for the killing.”
“What do you think they’re up to?” Detective Walnar shot me a sideways glance.
“Gathering DNA for the Infiltration Team, the Five Hundred, to change into human form. So they can create chaos.”
“It’s their first run at Earth, as far as we know,” Detective Walnar said. “If things prove too difficult for them, their track record suggests they’ll move on. Let’s do our best to help them decide that’s their best option.”
The first thing I noticed when we reached the first-floor reception desk was the unnerving quiet. No officers striding through the lobby with a sense of purpose. No perps being escorted to Central Booking. Just Sally Zelenko at the reception desk.
“What’re you two doing here? There’s a city-wide call out to Centennial Park. All units were ordered to report.”
“Captain Schuster wanted us to pick up additional pepper spray and a few canisters of tear gas,” Detective Walnar said.
“See to it quickly, then.”
Once we’d made it through the double doors and out of Zelenko’s sight, Detective Walnar leaned against the wall, her face pale.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“I just hope they don’t find Zelenko the same way as Rupert Green.”
“You mean she’s—”
“Didn’t you notice the back of her hand? Zelenko has a scar, from a blaster-burn. And it’s gone.”
“The burn’s from an injury she suffered five years ago.”
“But it’s not part of her fundamental DNA. Got it.” I squared my shoulders. “So she’s one of them.”
“Well, we’re past her now. Let’s go check out the crime lab.”
Inside the crime lab, I could see Rupert Green’s doppelganger rifling through the storage boxes, stopping now and then to stuff objects into a large grey sack he carried attached to his belt.
We’d decided to do a quick scout, then withdraw and make a plan once we understood what we were up against. As though on cue, Detective Walnar nodded and pointed behind her. That was our signal to go to the pre-arranged meeting place. I was about to move when I heard a scuffing sound against the concrete floor. Walnar must have stepped on something.
So much for avoiding notice. My mentor spun to face the Chameleon. When the alien raised his stun-gun, she drew her own in a practiced motion. The air crackled as blue rays shot in opposite directions. When the dust settled, both combatants had fallen.
I scuttled over to Detective Walnar and checked her pulse. Sluggish, but still there. I walked over to the Chameleon, handcuffs in hand. Got ya now.
But instead of fastening the cuffs around his wrists, I stood, irresolute. Sure, I could take him into custody, but then what? The Chameleons would know we were onto them, but that wouldn’t stop them. They’d just go on to Plan B for DNA acquisition. And there’s so many ways they could do it. Pose as a Santa at the mall. Infiltrate a hairdressing shop . . .
I glanced back at Detective Walnar. I’d gladly listen to an hour of her lectures in exchange for the opportunity to bounce ideas off her. Should I look for help elsewhere in the Precinct? I bit my lower lip. The Sally Zelenko experience had taught me caution. I didn’t know the other officers the way Detective Walnar did. There was no guarantee I’d be able to tell the humans from the Chameleons.
Both Walnar and the Chameleon would be out of commission for an hour, give or take, and about five minutes had passed since they’d shot each other. That left me with 55 minutes to come up with a plan. I glanced around the room. So many nooks and crannies. Shelving units behind which an adversary could hide. Ready to pounce . . .
I’d never been more aware of my vulnerability.
I stared at the fallen Chameleon, trying to imagine him not as Rupert Green, but as himself. What were his vulnerabilities? I shuddered, thinking of the body we’d found. Chameleons were extremely formidable opponents in their natural form. But they were willing to shed that form when it suited them. Scouts such as this one volunteered to take on other semblances in order to gather the DNA necessary for their infiltration plans, and thereby became subject to all the frailties of their new species, for the six months they were locked into that guise.
And the Five Hundred who formed the attack team would take the DNA samples collected by the scout and morph to human form, also for six months.
I frowned as I tried to remember the special lecture in Advanced Cross-Galactic Studies, where a battle-scarred Marsilvian who had seen action with the Galactic Space Services shared his experiences with Chameleons, Nalagrads, and other species. Something he said about the change-over ceremony . . .
And then I had it. Vanity. That’s their Achilles heel.
There wasn’t much time, and I’d need help. Fortunately, I knew one person I could trust. I toggled my wristcomm and called my sister.
“They found Sally Zelenko. Bound and gagged, in the storeroom.” Relief showed on Captain Jann Schuster’s face as she relayed the news to Detective Walnar and I. “That’s the last of them. Now, will someone please explain why we let a Chameleon walk out of here with a bag full of DNA?”
“Like most species, the Chameleons think their own natural form is the best possible iteration of themselves,” I said. “So, when the Five Hundred assigned to take over a planet morph into their new forms, they must overcome their aversion to making the change. They use the ceremonia mutato to get through that mental barrier.”
Detective Walnar nodded. “The scouts, like the one in Rupert Green’s form, will bring the DNA directly to the doctor-priests for preparation. They’ll prepare goblets of strong drink, each with a DNA sample added. Each member of the Five Hundred gets a ceremonial goblet.”
“They gulp those down in unison, so they all morph at once,” I explained. “And key to our whole plan is that it’s taboo to mess with the samples once they’re collected. Not even the collector can go back into the bag once the gathering is complete. That way, nobody can rig the outcome—give their friends the more flattering or powerful samples, for example.”
“If the Rupert Green Chameleon follows the protocol, they won’t discover Lucie’s ploy until too late,” Detective Walnar said. “Smart.”
“What exactly is that ploy?” Captain Schuster asked.
“I confiscated the DNA the Chameleon collected, and substituted dog hair from my sister’s grooming salon.”
“So they’ll turn into dogs?” The Captain chewed on that for a moment, then grinned. “I suppose it’s possible they’d still come planet-side and wreak havoc, but it’s unlikely. Chameleons like an easy target. Plus, they’re a very proud people. They won’t want to be seen like that. I’m thinking they’ll move on, with their tails between their legs, so to speak.”
“What wouldn’t I give to be a fly on the wall when they change over.” I gazed upward.
“Better still, how about a flea on the wall?” Detective Walnar smirked. In response to Captain Schuster’s startled look, she shrugged. “What? I’m not allowed to have a sense of humor?”
“You could trot it out more often,” I said.
“Look,” Detective Walnar said. “You’ll make a fine Offworld Issues Task Force member. But our job is demanding, and a lot can ride on our success or failure. I know I’m tough on you sometimes, but you really need to know your stuff to succeed at this job. For what it’s worth, I think you have what it takes.”
“Well, my inbox isn’t going to empty itself,” Captain Schuster said. Taking the hint, Detective Walnar and I rose from our chairs. As we headed for the door, the Captain’s voice followed us. “Next time the two of you go chasing Chameleons, try not to get shot. There’s less paperwork involved.”
“Let’s hope there’s not a next time, right, partner?” Detective Walnar said.
Partner? Not probie?
“Sounds good to me,” I said. “Sounds good to me.”
Lisa Timpf is a retired HR and communications professional who lives in Simcoe, Ontario. Her speculative fiction stories have appeared in New Myths, Future Days, Bards and Sages Quarterly, From a Cat's View, and other venues.