Leopold entered the dim room, which boasted about the same amount of personality as the Chief himself. No decor of any sort graced the bare walls, and the sparse, practical furniture made sitting on a porcupine look more inviting. Chief Mantis valued functionality above all else, and preferred not to waste time on what he described as “unnecessary, frivolous frippery.”
In the center of the room, a massive oak desk was positioned directly across from the door so as to provide the most intimidating effect. A small pile of papers, perfectly uniform, was all that sat upon its surface. Two hard, straight-backed chairs in front of the desk awaited their next unfortunate victims with grim expectation.
From behind the desk–in a larger, equally uncomfortable-looking chair–sat Chief Mantis himself, still and silent as a statue. Several other agents of the G.A.G.G. were already gathered on one side of the room as well. A couple Leopold recognized. Zolabrax (a.k.a. “Brax”) Wasp stood off in the corner with a bored expression, while Sam Ladybug from the science department stood in the midst of the others looking rather nervous and out of place. Even Frank Grasshopper was there–Leopold groaned softly as Frank gave him an exaggerated wave. Nothing ever seemed to quench his enthusiasm, unfortunately.
Leopold turned back to the Chief, then stood to attention and saluted. “Agent Leopold Hubert Caterpillar reporting for duty, sir.”
Chief Mantis looked up at him with large, unblinking eyes and his hands folded together. “Please, come in,” he replied in a low voice. Even though he had transferred to the American headquarters as a fresh recruit, Chief Edward James Mantis retained his British accent with prodigious care.
Leopold squeezed in between Sam Ladybug and a beetle whose name he didn’t know. Judging from the curious looks on the others’ faces, no one else knew why they were there either. The Chief rose from his seat and slowly looked up and down the row of agents. Finally, he folded his hands again and spoke.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice. Many of you had long distances to cover, but we need the best of the best for this mission. ”
The agents all stood a little taller and nodded gravely. All except Frank.
“Well now, that’s juss whatcha got ‘ere, Chief! An’ we won’t letcha down, neither!” the grasshopper boomed far louder than was necessary for such close quarters, making the stick bug who had the misfortune of standing next to him jump several inches into the air.
“Yes,” Chief Mantis replied calmly. “You all have my utmost confidence, and your various areas of expertise will all prove invaluable for the mission at hand. So, without further ado, I’ll hand it over to the Senior Guardian in charge, Agent Henry Francis Caterpillar. He’ll brief you on the details.” The Chief took his seat again and fell silent.
Henry fluttered his brilliant wings and cleared his throat. “Thank you, sir.”
There was just a hint of nervousness in his voice. And no wonder, Leopold thought. This was Henry’s first time overseeing a mission, and it sounded like a serious one. Then again, everything sounded serious when the Chief was speaking.
Henry stepped aside to reveal a map of the earth stretched across the wall behind him. “You have all been summoned here today because you are being assigned to Operation Night Crawler. A few days ago, our team aboard the International Space Station picked up signatures of an incoming meteor. It was–”
“Pardon me, sir,” the beetle interrupted.
“Yes, what is it?” Henry turned to look at him.
“Just to clarify, I believe the word you are looking for is meteoroid.”
“What?” Henry snapped.
“Well, sir,” the beetle explained, “technically speaking, a small rock in orbit around the sun is called a meteoroid–or asteroid, if it’s larger. They aren’t called meteors until they have actually entered our atmosphere.”
Henry glared at him. “Fine. They picked up signatures of an incoming meteoroid. Any other semantic issues we should worry about before continuing?”
“Nope. We’re good to go now,” the beetle replied pleasantly.
Henry rolled his eyes and turned back around to the map.
“Given the meteoroid’s small size, it posed no threat to the planet and was allowed to enter the atmosphere where it should have burned up miles above the ground.”
“‘Should have’?” said Leopold. “Did it not?”
“No, it didn’t,” Henry answered, his face once again in a scowl. “Which was some cause for curiosity at the very least. Our scientists studied all the data gathered on the rock’s composition before it entered the atmosphere, searching for traces of any unusual substances that might explain this behavior. Nothing was found out of the ordinary, however, and it was determined to be a fluke. That is, until Sam here noticed an anomaly in the data so small that it was completely overlooked before.”
Sam Ladybug looked modestly at her feet.
At this point, Chief Mantis rose from his seat and pulled a file from his desk drawer. “Are any of you familiar with the ancient alien race known as Anamorphagus?”
The agents all exchanged wary glances. Of course they all had heard the rumors about Morphs. It was a tradition of sorts to see who could scare the new recruits most, an effort that usually included horror stories about the mysterious Morphs.
The beetle beside Leopold shot a leg into the air and replied, “Sir! The Anamorphagus race, otherwise known as ‘Morphs,’ come from the far reaches of our galaxy and are considered a highly advanced and hostile race. They can change their appearance at will, taking the shape of anything they come into contact with. This allows them to perfectly camouflage themselves with their environment. They attempted to invade earth some sixty years ago, but were stopped by the G.A.G.G. and are now banned from our planet.”
“Precisely,” Chief Mantis nodded.
“Suck up,” Frank Grasshopper whispered loud enough for the other agents to hear and chuckle under their breaths. Chief, however, did not look amused.
“This is no laughing matter!” he scolded them. “The Morphs have no regard for life and would destroy this planet as soon as look at it, if it suited their purpose. When they last came to earth, they were studying our planet’s climates, ecosystems, species, and so on. As it appeared to be a peaceful exploratory mission, they were mostly left alone. We even attempted to meet with their leaders and form an alliance. It was an exciting time for us–first contact with an alien race. However, our feelings towards the Morphs changed when we discovered their true intentions.” Chief Mantis sighed and once again folded his hands. “It turned out that their unique bodily functions, commonly known as ‘morphing,’ require massive amounts of energy to sustain. So they must eat constantly. Their own home planet, we believe, must be nearly wiped out and unable to keep up with their demanding appetites. Thus, when they came to earth they were actually determining if our planet was inhabitable.”
“You mean they want to come live here?” asked someone in the back.
Chief nodded slowly and lowered himself back into his chair.
Leopold shifted uncomfortably. “Sir, what do Morphs eat?” He thought back to his precious tree with its buffet of delicious leaves. There was no way he was sharing it with a bunch of aliens.
“We don’t know exactly,” Henry answered. “They didn’t give us much of a chance to study them last time, which puts us at a significant disadvantage. And, as you’ve probably guessed by now, the anomaly Sam discovered a few days ago also occurred when we were first invaded by the Morphs. It’s possible, though inconclusive at this point, that they leave behind some sort of ‘signature’ we can detect with our technology.”
“Woah, Nellie!” roared Frank Grasshopper. “Juss a minute, pardner! Are ya sayin’ that them so-called ‘Morphs’ might be returned ‘ere, in direct violation of their ban?”
“Yes,” Henry growled through clenched teeth. “That’s what I’m saying. And don’t call me ‘Nellie.'”
“Aargh, lemme at ’em!”
Frank hopped all around the office, yelling at the top of his lungs like a maniac the whole time. He shot from the floor to the ceiling, to a wall, to another wall, back to the ceiling, over and over again.
“I’ll nab ’em all and send those flea-bitten varmints back ta their hole-of-a-planet where they belong! Why, I’ll knock ’em from ‘ere ta kingdom come! Juss let ’em try an’ eat me, boss! Those dirty rotten no-good space invaders–why, I’ll bite ’em right back!”
The other agents all sighed and shook their heads, while the Chief’s large eyes followed Frank’s every movement in stoic silence.
“Frank–” Henry started, but the grasshopper landed on the floor again and raised his fists.
“I’m tellin’ ya, boss! I’ll whoop ’em all! I’ll whoop ’em fifty times each, at least! And then I’ll–”
“SETTLE DOWN, FRANK!” Henry shouted. “The Morphs aren’t in this room, for crying out loud!”
Frank lowered his fists, still breathing heavily. “Roger that, sir. I’m juss sayin’, if ya send me to find ’em, well…I’ll beat ’em like a red-headed stepchild! The whole lot o’ them!”
Several agents snickered under their breath.
Chief merely blinked once. “I haven’t the pleasure of understanding you. What, pray tell, is a ‘red-headed stepchild’?”
Frank’s mouth hung open stupidly for a few seconds. “No idea, sir!” he concluded. “Heard a human say it once. Thought it was appopriate.”
Chief stared Frank down until he shuffled back to his place, then waved a hand at Henry. “Proceed.”
“Right…” Henry scratched his head. “Well, I’m glad to see you share our enthusiasm for dealing swiftly with this problem, agent. However, please refrain from ‘whooping’ them all. If there are Morphs at the site, we need at least one brought back alive for questioning.”
“Or…” Frank mumbled, “we could juss whoop ’em all at once and be done with ’em.”
Daggers shot out of Henry’s eyes. “Except that there are a whole lot more of them out there somewhere in space–which means if we kill the few Morphs who might’ve made it past our defenses without questioning them, we’ll still be in the dark about any future plans they might have for us.”
Frank crossed his arms and shrugged. “Fine. We’ll keep one alive.”
“Thank you,” said Henry. “Now, we know the rock landed in a field about eighty miles south of here.” He pointed to the spot on the map. “What we don’t know is how many of them there might be. So, you are all being sent to investigate the scene of the crash and gather what evidence you can find. Odds are if any Morphs did ride in, they didn’t stick around. But if you do encounter them, deadly force is permitted. Just remember to try to capture at least one alive.”
Brax Wasp raised his hand. “Ezzcuse me, zzir,” he buzzed, “but given our lack of ezzperienzze with fighting Morphzz, how ezzactly do we go about fighting them?”
“You will all receive a special weapons and tactics training before departure,” said Henry. “That is scheduled for tonight, so you can leave first thing in the morning. We don’t want their trail to go cold, after all. So rest up this afternoon.”
“Any questions?” Chief Mantis asked. They all shook their heads. “Very well. Report to Training Room 3 at eighteen hundred hours. Dismissed!”
To be continued…