By Marshall Norman McCarthy
Toronto, Ontario, Canada – 2048
Tracking a Shifter wasn’t easy, but let me tell you, it’s not overly complicated; not when you’ve got the right tools. Shifters, for some reason that I’m not qualified to accurately describe, give off a kind of “psychic radiation”. Something to do with their heightened brain power.
The processor affixed to the base of my spine gave my brain the ability to perceive this radiation as an aura. All I had to do was follow the glowing woman as I paced her through a river of drenched, bustling humanity.
The aura staggered, from left and then to right, drunkenly, or like someone who’d been wounded. I felt for my pistol, tucked under my arm, nerves tingling. I could almost feel her now, her vibrations like a distant call on a dark winter’s night.
Something was wrong, and trepidation caught in my heart. Rent was due weeks ago. I couldn’t ignore this much money… not again.
So I stalked on, as she stumbled, faltered and tripped through the crowd. I slowed my steps; her mind was almost there, almost close enough to touch. If she made me, she might do something stupid. Play it cool, hotshot. There were too many people around, if things got hairy. Shifters weren’t known for their concern for human life.
Soon the aura took an abrupt right down an alley. My brain threw up the clear vision of a memory, of that very alley…that very, dead-end, alley. I tried not to smirk, but the professional in me was excited about the potential for easy money.
Sure enough, I found her crouched in the shadows of the dead-end, clutching something to her chest. Her form today looked very much human, and pretty. Long black hair shimmered in the ambient light from the street; chocolate skin, almost black in the shadows was wrapped in a tidy, red blazer and skirt.
As far as I’d ever seen, Shifters took one of two forms. Beauty or horror; they’d either seduce you or scare the shit out of you. I found that one out the hard way, six years before. When I saw Jennie shift the first time, the woman I’d bent knee to, and become something alien… She told me the truth, with the fire-poker sticking out of scaly chest: that they’d come to infiltrate, assimilate and control.
Never knew why she’d told me that then, when her blood was on my hands. I just chalk it up to sentimentality.
At this beauty, aglow with mental prowess, I levelled my pistol and forced my mind to blank. It had to be the face: I couldn’t bear to see what it was about to turn into. My weapon made not a sound when the blue bolt discharged, turning pretty into devastation.
The woman’s body began to convulse the moment it hit the rain-soaked concrete. The bundle fell and rolled away, barely catching my eye. But the sound that wailed out from it, ripping the night, pull me around. It was a sound that no one could mistake, no matter the mouth that uttered it.
Crying. My eyes widened and teeth clenched. It sounded strange, animalistic, but I knew it was a child, an infant. Ignoring the quivering, peeling death throes of the Shifter – a sight I’d grown numb to – I rushed to the bundle, worried.
But when a diminutive hand, scaled and three-fingered rose out from the blanket I stopped dead.
In that moment, while the child yowled, I should have raised my pistol and added another head to my toll. I should have ended it then and there, but I had to see. It was an old rule, to look them in the face before you ended them. It didn’t matter if it was human or alien. It was a rule that I was cursed with.
So I swallowed the lump in my throat and took another step. The swaddled form stirred, as if aware of my approach. Standing over it, I aimed my pistol and stared down the sights…
All I could see were these big, black eyes, staring back at me. The child became quiet, its elongated snout stilled. All I had to do was pull the trigger. All I had to do was my job.
But those eyes, inhuman as they were, held something in them as universal as a child’s cry. Innocence. In my hand the pistol wavered and I felt my resolve crack.
‘No,’ I grated down at that wee, open mug. ‘I’m sorry.’ My pistol shook bad enough that I feared I might miss. Another lump rose in my throat, but this one I couldn’t swallow. Just do it! Leaning down, I eased my pistol into the infant’s face, steeling myself.
But that tiny, reptilian hand reached up then and grasped the barrel. I was struck dumb, watched those fingers flex. ‘Kweh,’ it chirped. That sound was like a pry bar driven into the fissure of my resolution.
‘Ah, shit.’ I took the gun from its face. The little bugger let go of the barrel, but held that hand up to me. Crouching, I held out a finger and it latched onto it immediately. It squeezed once and that was enough.
Enough to make me for a sucker.
* * * *
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada – 2060
‘Watch out; puny earthling!’
I smiled at Alyssa’s face, scrunched in the mold of a twelve year-old girl’s. ‘You’re getting good at this, kiddo, but human girls don’t have tails.’
In answer, my adopted daughter showed me that she’d mastered the art of petulance to perfection.
‘Put that tongue back in your mouth,’ I admonished half-heartedly and patted the couch cushion beside me. ‘Show’s about to start.’
The transformation that came over her face, turning from peevish to happy and sweet, made me question my earlier assessment. She might be better at this than I thought.
‘You know,’ she informed me as the opening scene flickered to life, ‘some girls do have tails, now. It’s quite fashionable; in fact, keeping my tail could help me fit into certain circles with greater ease. That’s what you want, isn’t it, Pop? For me to assimilate into your world and find safety in disguise? You know, you really should adhere to a higher order of logic.’
‘I forget, sometimes, your I.Q.’
To my surprise, Alyssa reached up and wrapped my neck in a hug. ‘Don’t worry Pop; at least we’re both in the triple digits.’
Smartass. I hugged her back, kissed her between the eyebrows and watched her settle down to take in the show. I was proud, looking at the bright young lady that I’d raised, knowing that it was her burning intelligence that would soon do me in. She’d always been curious about her mother’s fate and I was happy to remain cagey on the subject. But, I’d have to tell her soon.
Tell her that her mother is dead.
One day, I knew, she was going to sort it all out somehow. That I was a man who used to take money to kill her kind. That I was the man who once took money to kill her mother. An uncomfortable future awaited me.
But for now, I eased back and tried to enjoy the simple life. I pulled Alyssa into another tight hug.
‘What was that for?’ she beamed up at me.
‘For the future, kiddo. For the future.’