I’m a Shifter. Hundreds of years ago, extreme genetic modification was all the rage. The fad passed, but it left behind pockets of alt-humans with signficant differences from mainstream humanity. The Shifters are the largest alt-human community, and if you listen to some people, we’re the most dangerous. In my opinion, the reason people say that is because unlike other alt-humans, we’re indistinguishable from normies.
Until we Shift.
Most Shifters have one, or at most two animal forms committed to muscle memory. Me, I have a bunch. But for the past couple of years I’d been favoring my gray wolf. I liked this beast’s power, speed, and sheer scary factor.
The wolf also excelled at stealth. I flowed through the curtains of vines, carrying my backpack in my teeth. Ecosystem contamination is always a risk when you hang out your shingle as a trading post. These invasive vines, which I recognized from Ponce de Leon, had killed most of the trees stone dead. Bone-dry leaves and twigs littered the ground. My wolf did not crack a single one of them underfoot.
With a map in my head, I turned west at the corner of our pad and followed the next hedge to the south coast of our islands. I only had to break cover once, where a group of refugees had set up house in the corner of the empty landing pad. I dashed between their tents, leapt over their pit latrine, and disappeared into the next stretch of hedge before they properly knew I was there. Startled cries faded behind me. Most likely, they would not even be able to put a name to this predator from the planet their distant ancestors had come from.
However, anyone would think it was weird to see a predator lugging a tactical backpack in its teeth.
Fortunately for me, scrubby native bushes grew right down to the coast of our island, giving me an unseen vantage point to scan the mainland and the next island over. No one was driving along the coast road. I was too low down to see anything of the Sunderer ships except their scorpion tails, meaning they also couldn’t see me.
I jumped into the channel.
Holy hell, that was cold.
For an awful minute I couldn’t find the bottom.
I can’t swim a stroke. Not as a human, nor as a wolf. Jumping into the water had been an act of faith and calculation. I had assumed the channel was walkable, based on how much of that rock in the middle was sticking out of the water. Was it deeper than I had thought?
My claws scrabbled on the sandy bottom. I raised my head and gulped air—and the next swell lifted me off my feet again.
I sort of hopped across the channel, timing my lunges to the swells that surged through the channel to break on the distant beach. It was terrifying. The swells also dragged me inshore, so I ended up crossing the channel at a diagonal angle.
I didn’t lose my backpack.
I scrambled up a low crag and crawled into the bushes. I was no longer covered with Kimmie’s blood. Instead, I was soaked and shivering, and the cut on my cheek—now a wolf’s hairy cheek—stung from the salt.
I shook myself like a dog, then slunk uphill. The bushes got thicker. The leading tendrils of the invading vines entwined their tops. Now I was slinking under a roof of green leaves, which grew higher and denser as I got in among the dead trees on the edge of the Sunderers’ northern pad.
All the way, I was sniffing the air. A wolf has a much more sensitive nose than a human being. This is one of the biggest advantages of tracking in animal form.
Unfortunately, the reek of rocket fuel and combustion byproducts that saturated the wind covered any scent of human beings, except for the occasional punch of latrine odor where someone had snuck into the bushes to do a number two. I wasn’t going to find the sniper with my nose. I doubted the Sunderers had anyone posted in these woods, anyway. What would be the point? They wouldn’t be able to see out.
Chinks of daylight showed through the green roof ahead.
A sudden impact knocked me sideways.
I danced my feet under me and dropped my backpack in a silent snarl that would be a smile, if wolves did human expressions. Even before I felt the impact, I’d smelled a familiar scent: jackal.
The jackal now standing nose to nose with me was much bigger than a real jackal would be—almost as big as my wolf, and my wolf was bigger than a real wolf, tipping the scales at 82 kilos, same as me. Nothing is gained or lost in Shifting.
“Gotcha,” said the jackal, mushily, around the strap of the backpack he held in his teeth. Our animal forms are exact replicas of the Earth originals on the outside, but not on the inside. Shifting wouldn’t be much use if you lost your ability to talk.
“Kimmie’s dead,” I said.
Dolph’s ears went all the way back. “How?”
Dolph cursed for about thirty seconds straight. Then he said, “She was just getting good at handling MF’s tantrums.”
“They want a feud, don’t they?”
“He was aiming for me.”
“The only surprising part is I’m surprised. That faggot asswipe. If he wanted you he should’ve drawn down on you in the parking lot. I thought he was going to let it go.”
“He’s not a sniper. You see anyone up top of their ships?”
“Couple of maintenance guys.”
“They’re selling shit out of the back of their ships. Bootleg skins. Body-mod packages. They’ve even got a surgeon doing implants. Line’s out to here.”
“Let’s do a recce.”
We dropped our backpacks under a tree and flowed through the last few meters of the woods. Crouched flat, we parted the vines with our noses, a millimeter at a time.
I was looking at the legs of a Sunderer drang.
The junior soldier, identifiable as such by his black gaiters, stood with his back to us, casually holding one of those fancy-schmancy assault rifles with all the gewgaws. He was watching the crowd of people—refugees, shoppers, alien tourists—around the Sunderers’ impromptu ship boot sale. The intricately graffitied ship itself, as high as two houses and resting on a pair of auxiliary engines like duck feet, blocked the wind from several large screens, on which the Sunderers were showing off their digital wares. A line of people waited outside a grimy tent. I didn’t see Zane.
I did see the “maintenance guys” on top of the ship. They were tending to the ship’s .50 cal turret.
No freaking wonder that round had taken Kimmie’s head off. Our “sniper” had been the Sunderers’ .50 cal gunner.
The good news was they couldn’t lower the elevation of that thing far enough to shoot up their own pad, even if they wanted to. It was for area clearance. The Sunderers do a lot of that.
Dolph and I retired into the woods again.
His jackal’s big rabbit-like ears twitched. His lips curled back in a snarl. “Beast mode,” he whispered. It was a statement of intention, not a question. I still could have said no.
But the memory of Kimmie’s death overrode my misgivings. The very sight of these rapacious scumbags had revived the fury I felt when we met Zane. “Beast mode,” I confirmed. My heart was already starting to thud in anticipation.
We split up.
Dolph went west around the pad, to the other side of the ship.
I went back to the drang’s location and crouched directly behind him.
I gave Dolph a count of twenty to get into position.
Then I gathered myself and leapt out of the vines, pouncing onto the drang’s back.