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Imposter (1990)

Imposter (1990)

©1990, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (199). Imposter. Unpublished short story.







A Short Story by Dallas Denny


Roberta the Keeper plopped her broganned feet onto the rusty desk and made a pronouncement which was more accurate than she realized: “There’s something downright queer about that cat.” The mottled white flesh of her belly was visible between shirt and pants. She raised a meaty hand and rubbed it absently, moving the belly noticeably left and right, up and down. “She ain’t been the same since she was away.”

Hartsell Wattley, Curator of Mammals, flinched at the word “queer,” hoping Roberta was using it in the classic sense, and not as a subtle dig. Hartsell decided the keeper was incapable of subtlety. “What do you mean, Bertie? And would you please get your feet off my desk?”

Roberta allowed a foot to slide over the edge of the desk. it picked up velocity, striking the floor with a thump. A second thump followed. “Come with me,” she grunted, maneuvering her not inconsiderable mass into an upright position. Her breasts came to rest approximately six inches from Hartsell’s nose. “Despite what the name tag says,” the curator thought, “she’s definitely not a ‘keeper’.” He followed Roberta out of the vaguely air-conditioned office and into the hot, moist Florida night air. Much to his annoyance, Hartsell began perspiring immediately.

The being in question ran back and forth along the edge of the moat, snarling at two passing teenage girls. It was an albino leopard, white on white, with green eyes and fangs that made Hartsell shudder. When the cat saw Roberta the Keeper, it visibly calmed. It approached them, its eyes glowing like radioactive limes. There was an intensity to the creature that impressed even Roberta. “See?” she lamented. “Sucker was never like that before. Couldn’t stand me. Sam was the only one she would let near her. Damn near took his arm off last night when he went to feed her. There’s no explaining it. Something must have happened after she was let out.”

Hartsell sucked air into his mouth. The big cat was making him nervous. He wished it would go to the other side of the enclosure. “It was gone how long? Overnight? No telling where it went or what it did. Someone may have scared the devil out of it. But it was always a temperamental animal. It’ll come around. I think.”

“She was no more temperamental than any of the other cats.  At least she was predictable. I don’t think I know her no more, Hartsell. It’s a strangeness about her. This leopard has done changed its spots.”

“We’ve not heard the last about it getting out,” Hartsell said glumly.

“It was some of them friends of animals nuts that’s always skulking around here,” Roberta protested. “Animal rights types. They let that cat loose. It weren’t your fault, and it weren’t mine, neither,”

“Well, the media sure had a field day, We’re lucky it didn’t scare somebody half to death, If it had, you and I would be out of our jobs, even if we weren’t to blame.”

“There’s something else. She was fed right before she was let out. She shouldn’t of been hungry like she was when she came back, not in the short amount of time she was away. She put down nearly thirty pounds of meat as soon as she was back. She should of been sleepy and happy after that, but instead she acted half-starved. Ate twenty pounds of horsemeat just now, and wanted more. And then there’s the matter of that other cat.”

“The dead one.”

“Yeah. I know our clouded leopard, and so does Sam. I mean, we know her. You spend time with something alive, it gets to be just as much an individual as a person. You know its marks and peculiarities. That carcass was our clouded leopard. And yet this is our clouded leopard, too. I tell you, they were the same animal.”

“Now Bertie, you know that’s not possible.”

“Then where did the extra one come from? Clouded leopards don’t exactly grow on trees. Especially albinos. It must of been something them activists did. Yet they would never have killed her on purpose. I tell you, Hartsell, I don’t understand it, and I don’t like it. I think that was our leopard dead out there in that field, and this one is someone else’s. An imposter.”

From long association, Hartsell knew to trust Roberta’s hunches. He eyed the creature, which was now stretched languidly on the limb of a tree. It was certainly a handsome beast. “You may be right,” he sighed. “But even so, we have what we started out with—an albino adult female clouded leopard in good health. If this specimen isn’t ours, it’s a ringer for the one we had. Until someone comes forward, claiming to have lost it, we’ll treat it as ours.”

“Could be I’m wrong. Sam didn’t see the dead body, you know. He swears this one is ours, and he should know. He raised it from a pup.” Roberta grinned.

* * *

 Zara lay on the branch, her paw dangling. She watched the humans through half-shut eyes. She didn’t know their language, but she was aware she was the topic of conversation. She sheathed and unsheathed her front claws, keeping an eye on Roberta’s considerable bulk.

Zara was a clouded leopard, anatomically, physically, chemically, behaviorally. Her whiskers were clouded leopard whiskers, her fleas clouded leopard fleas. But Zara had not been a clouded leopard forty-eight hours earlier. She would not have been one at all except for a series of unfortunate circumstances.

Zara had no business being on Earth. Had problems not developed with her spaceship, she would have been safely home by now. Had she allowed the craft to repair itself in deep space, as would have been reasonable and proper, she wouldn’t be in her present predicament. But she was, after all, at temporary loose ends, and rather than wait in boredom while the self-fix bioforms grew and effected repairs on her craft, she had elected to explore the planets of the star near which she had found herself.

A cultural xenographer by trade, Zara had spent an annum at the research station on Rigel VII. The marsupoid inhabitants had been primitive. She had been profoundly bored, lonely, and sexually unfulfilled. She had chalked up the experience and the marsupoids as a waste of time. And then she had stumbled upon this world. Unlike Rigel VII, this planet was interesting. It was heavily industrialized, on the verge, perhaps, of space travel. There would be a wealth of material here. Zara had decided to risk an unauthorized landing.

Zara’s method of study was that of participant-observer, at a level possible only because of her species’ evolutionary history of parasitic polymorphism. To Zara, participation was total. She became that which she studied. Zara, like her ancestors, had the unique ability to become one with the observed. Her ancestors had shapeshifted to survive; she did it sometimes for intellectual stimulation, and sometimes for purposes of camouflage. And sometimes, after the fashion of her forefathers, she shapeshifted to survive.

Zara’s race was able to mimic an organism on a cell-by-cell basis. within a short period of time—mere hours—Zara could be a cell-for-cell copy of a model organism. She would share its feelings, its hormonal states, and its memories, yet still possess her own. She could hold a shape indefinitely; she was, in fact, trapped in it until she found an organism to mimic, a supply of protein, and a good deal of uninterrupted time.

With care, Zara could preserve the life of the model. It was, in fact, of great ethical concern to Zara that she not take a life except in defense of her own. With time and enough protein, Zara could leave the model bewildered and perhaps a few pounds lighter, but essentially unimpaired. But if she was interrupted before she could bring the model back to life, she left a dead body.

That was what had happened with the leopard. Zara had landed in a wooded area near a large population center. She had programmed the ship to hide and repair itself and set out to explore the countryside. She had been in her customary travel form, which to a leopard newly released from captivity must have looked like easy prey. At any rate, it had attacked her, and in self-defense, she had gone into duplication mode. Conditions weren’t optimal for keeping the model alive; Zara was concerned with not dying herself. Yet she had been nearly successful in making the copy without loss of the original. Discovery by early-morning joggers had caused instant pandemonium, and she had had to break contact, leaving the other leopard physically intact but unanimated. Zara, unsure of what she had become and what was happening, had been confused and weak and easy to capture. And so she now found herself in what she recognized to be a zoo.

Zara wasn’t overly concerned about her lot. She was resourceful, and her undiscovered talent of mimicry was a secret weapon. She planned, at earliest opportunity, to sequester one of the keepers, duplicating it and leaving it alive.

It would, of course, be a female; Zara’s race had no sex to speak of. Reproduction was by fission. She, like most of her conspecifics, preferred the female form. She had no liking for or interest in or understanding of males, for they didn’t reproduce. In fact, she had little understanding of females. Mating was something she found intensely repugnant. Her dislike was instinctive, having to do with the introduction of foreign DNA into her body. That was precisely the method by which her species commandeered its models. Even the thought of another creature’s genetic material entering her body of the moment was revolting.

Zara was taking precautions to avoid another unfortunate death. As the model she had selected had more mass than her present form, she was storing proteins, in a very concentrated and dense form, in her gut, and she had allowed her body to grow measurably larger. This made her ravenous, for the horsemeat she had polished off scant hours ago was already stored in concentrated form: bone, sinew, and muscle. She needed yet more protein, but she was patient.

She didn’t think it would take her more than two or three days to amass the necessary bulk. Then she would need only uninterrupted access to a human form with handy opposable thumbs. Chances were she would be back at her ship before it had finished repairing itself.

* * *

 The female clouded leopard came into heat on the third day after its return. Sam, his arm in a sling, was on hand when the male was let into her cage.

* * *

 A thoroughly shaken Hartsell sat in the office of the head curator. When he could bring himself to speak, he said, “It’s as if it resented the male, Janet. It went straight for it when it tried to mount her. Nearly tore its throat out. When Sam tried to intervene, it leapt at him. It would have got him, too, but thank God Bertie jumped in between them. It’s a pussycat around Bertie. It just melted, and I got Sam out of there fast. Bertie managed to get a noose around its neck. When she led it back to its enclosure, it was as happy as could be, rubbing against her legs like a tabby.” The coffee cup quivered in his hands. “Bertie has a theory that this isn’t our cat. Of course, I told her that was nonsense, but still, it’s acting very strangely. It had never turned on the male before.”

 * * *

 Zara regretted her rash action. She had surrendered too completely to the tooth and fang and savage instincts of her feline form. Yet they had tried to breed her! The thought of it made her ill.

* * *

“Damn if that cat’s not getting bigger,” Roberta said to no one in particular. Zara, had she understood, might have yawned in agreement. Counting the concentrated proteins she had secreted here and there in her body, she massed nearly three hundred pounds. Selecting Roberta as the model had set her back a day or two, for Roberta weighed far more than the other humans Zara had seen. But Zara admired the keeper’s body, for it was large and powerful. She awaited only the opportunity. She knew it wouldn’t be long, for Roberta, hoping to catch one of the prowlers who were still randomly releasing animals, had taken to prowling the dark corridors of the zoo at night. There would be ample time to duplicate.

That night, Zara had her chance. Roberta spotted a skulking figure and took after him. Pandemonium broke loose. The emergency lights went on and then failed as the activists cut the power. A medley of snarls, coos, whinnies, barks, snarls, trumpetings, screams, and growls filled the night as the animals, sensing something novel and dangerous, grew excited. A wildebeest, released from its enclosure, passed, sprinting down the sidewalk, stirring the predatory instincts of Zara’s appropriated form. And then two humans appeared and laid a long plank across the moat. Zara crossed the moat in two leaps, brushing aside one of the forms. The other managed to slip a noose over her head as she passed. Zara was jerked to a stop. Turning to confront her assailant, she was sprayed in the face by a chemical that blinded her, stinging her eyes and nose. She lashed out with a paw, heard the sound of tearing flesh. She felt a looseness as the noose was dropped, and she bounded at full-speed into the undergrowth.

Still half-blind, Zara ran headlong into a tree, knocking herself half-silly. She continued more slowly, soon becoming aware of two living shapes ahead of her. The wind was toward them, and she couldn’t smell them, but she could see two bipedal shapes. A voice cried out in fright. She recognized the voice as Hartsell’s. Panicked, she sprang at the larger form beside him, at Roberta, who she had often seen with Hartsell.

It wasn’t Roberta. It wasn’t even a human. Unfortunately, Zara, sure she was dying, began assimilation and damn the torpedoes. She quickly modified her claws and fangs and sank them deep in the furry mass to which she clung, injecting quick-acting neurotoxins. The struggling of the animal slowly stopped. Ignoring Hartsell, who was crouched against a bush, gibbering, she erected a radiating structure of bone and skin and began assimilating as fast as friction would allow.

Zara was thoroughly depressed. Her new form was clumsy and bearlike, completely unlike the sleek cat-form she had abandoned. Worse, she now had the metabolism of a vegetarian. She glanced at the pile of bamboo shoots that was her sole food and gloomily estimated it would be more than three months before she would have enough protein stored to effect another change. Three months was an inexcusably long time. When she got back—if she got back—she would likely be out of work. But worst of all was her present body. She considered with envy her previous form, the cat form, uncapturable now without a model. Damn this body! To make matters worse, she was sure she was going into heat. There was a peculiar sensation of pressure in her middle.

* * *

Roberta the Keeper, acting Curator of Mammals since the unfortunate Hartsell Wattley had his nervous breakdown, leaned on a rail overlooking the panda enclosure and picked at her teeth with a bamboo shoot she had garnered from the pile on the ground. She winked at the large black-and-white animal on the other side of the moat. It was sitting with its legs splayed, regarding her and occasionally rubbing its groin against the ground. “Yep,” she said. “Yep, it sure do look like you’re coming into your time.” She made her way out of the cage and walked to Hartsell’s office, where she leaned back in the creaky chair. “Chew on this, Wattley,” she said, and deliberately planted her feet on the desk.

She picked up the phone. “Janet? I got good news. The panda is coming into heat. She’s gonna be ready by this time tomorrow, or the next day at latest. Would you notify the press, and call the San Diego zoo and tell them to get that big male up here pronto?” She thought for a moment, remembering the dead clouded leopard that had been found beside the incoherent Wattley. The imposter. How it had reacted when it had been mated. “Listen, Janet. There’s no reason to have a repeat of the last time, with our panda not letting the gentleman panda get within a half mile of her. Why don’t we have the zoo carpenter build a framework so we can immobilize her? Sort of like the stocks of a long time back. Yeah, so she wouldn’t be able to get away. Sure. I’ll get him right on it.”

Outside in her enclosure, Zara rubbed her backside against the wall and wondered for the hundredth time what the future would bring.