Shift


by Steve DuBois


This world is wrong, Ark-arr thought. I was a fool to come here. Her lungs could not adjust fully to the thick, syrupy air. Her legs quivered in the alien gravity, which turned every task into an epic labor. Her eyes suffered at the odd light, at the beasts which cavorted under strange blue skies, gorging themselves on the growths that sprouted everywhere, and upon each other.

Some even gorged upon her. The tiny vermin of this planet’s material plane came in endless, swarming multitudes, burying themselves in Ark-arr’s pelt, biting and sucking, sampling her rich, foreign blood. Scratching did little good. Shifting did better. When the itching and the irritation grew too much, Ark-arr flexed her mind, and changed, the blue skies and odd wildlife fading, replaced with a stark, sandy waste under a black sun. Ark-arr’s biology Shifted with her, her blood and breath adjusting automatically to the new atmosphere and environment. The alien parasites, she had discovered almost immediately, could not Shift. It seemed that all this world’s creatures were confined to the material. They had never known the darkside, the mirror reality to which the packs of Luna were native, and which housed the shattered remains of the voidship in which Ark-arr had traveled here. So she stepped outside of these lands, as into a cleansing bath. And under the dancing light from her still-blazing vessel, she found herself purified.

How different this darkside, though, from the one at home! On Luna, the lands of the Shift were rich in delight and sustenance. The material world, by contrast, was an arid waste, all dust and craters, seldom visited. Here, it was just the reverse—the material plane teemed with the stuff of life, while the darkside was barren and sterile, and the deep dimensions worse still. Pity these paper-thin creatures, prisoners of a single physical reality! They would never voyage down the planes, would never know what they were missing.

Yet they did know loss and pain. Ark-arr had known that from her first night here. When the sun went down, and Ark-arr’s shining homeworld hung above, she had thrown back her head and sang her penace. She poured forth her shame and her regret at the hubris that had led her to eschew the explorer’s proper path. She had perverted the natural joy of discovery and had voyaged outwards, not inwards, turning her back on Shiftcraft and the deep planes, seeking instead to sail beyond the sky. Now she was justly marooned, far beyond the help and companionship of the pack. She sang a mourning song, and as she did, the voices of her strange alien brethren rose in chorus, joining her.

She had seen them in the distance, like herself and yet unlike. Smaller and thicker of bone and sinew, yet just as richly furred, long-snouted and fearsomely befanged, and loyal to one another, as a pack should be. But they knew not the darkside, nor were they the masters of these lands. They had subordinated themselves to a species of sparsely-furred bipeds, and in doing so, had blocked all possible paths to their own advancement. She could not help them.

And what masters they had chosen! The bipeds came with skins upon their bodies and crude weapons in their hands, meandering aimless into peril. She had made the slavemasters pay for their effrontery; two of their eviscerated corpses still lay on the turf, their throats ripped out. Yet their kin barely seemed to notice. They had a beast’s sense of when to hide or flee, but no meaningful grasp of subterfuge or tactics—if they had, Ark-arr would surely have perished on the fire-hardened points of their spears. They gazed on her through narrow-set, incurious eyes. Then, unable to eat her or wear her, they wandered on.

Ark-arr watched them, these unworthy masters, in their indolence, and their ignorance, and their absence of ambition. And in time, she came to a decision.

Ark-arr could never go home. Her craft was wrecked beyond repair, and even when whole had not been built to rise in this sort of gravity.  She had made herself an outcast.  But with that status came a certain freedom. I am yet an explorer, she told herself, and an artist of change. I will traverse ways my pack has never known. I will turn my back on the darkside, and master the material.  I will work such a Shift such as has never been accomplished in all of history.

#

MacGruder couldn’t stop shaking. He couldn’t stop sweating. He’d put away enough antacids to kill an ordinary man, but his ulcer was still in overdrive.  His horn-rimmed glasses slid down his nose, and semicircular sweatstains darkened the armpits of his wide-collared shirt. He was wild-haired and wide-eyed, as wrong for network television as a man could be.

It didn’t matter; there were no cameras here. Within an hour, the greatest event in human history would unfold, witnessed by almost no one apart from the two dozen engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, and other assorted techies here in the heart of Cheyenne Mountain.

This was not Cape Kennedy or Houston, the antiseptic, photogenic mockups which NASA propped up before the world. This was the true dark heart of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—a gaggle of shirt-sleeved nerds enmeshed in a cacophony of bings, bleeps, and blinking lights, the whole shebang obscured by cigarette smoke and ankle-deep in ash. Today, hidden away from the world, he and his colleagues were going to land three men on the surface of the moon. Officially, of course, that objective was still years away from completion; as far as the world was concerned, NASA had yet to so much as test the command module in orbit. That was the cover story.

MacGruder shook his head, watching Logan struggle to pick burrito fragments from the keyboard in front of a telemetry monitor. You’ve got to wonder why the public buys it, he thought. An entire space program playing out in real time, in front of the public? Celebrity astronauts risking their lives before a global audience? I mean, did the government run the Manhattan Project that way? Has the government ever run anything that way?

What would happen if—God forbid—we messed it up? If we lost one of those rocket-jockeys the public’s fallen in love with? What would Congress say? How could a project like this possibly be left vulnerable to political pressure? Surest way in the world to hand the moon to the Russkies.

Never in hell. The Russians had had it right: work out the bugs behind closed doors. If things worked out, you could present your accomplishments to the world as a fait accompli: a bleeping ball in orbit, a man in space. But America, birthplace of Hollywood and P.T. Barnum, would do them one better. NASA would get things done behind closed doors, and once they had worked out all the bugs, eliminated the worst risks, they’d re-run the operation before the world, “plausibly live”. That was the way to keep the cash spigots open. That was the plan for the moon.

Could it work?  MacGruder had his doubts. The lunar orbit operation last year had been plagued by erratic behavior on the part of the astronauts. It seemed that every time the craft reached a certain point in orbit, everybody went a little crazy. Still, this trip had gone relatively smoothly so far. And as the lunar landscape slid by on the big screen at the front of the room, and the boys in the lander broadcast their signal into his earphones, checking off one item after another en route to touchdown, MacGruder found himself growing ever shakier and ever sweatier, his heart palpitating, his excitement rising. Christ, he thought. I’m vibrating like a coin-op bed in a cheap motel. Good thing history isn’t watching. She’d laugh her ass off.

Officially, nobody could know what they accomplished today. But MacGruder held out hope that someday, maybe, the curtain would be yanked aside. Could be, he thought, that future generations will look back on the year 1967 as humanity’s finest.

#

Blood was the key. Ark-arr had hunted down one of the bipeds and, in spite of her gravitational handicap, easily slain it. Enough had remained of her ship’s science console to investigate the thing’s fluids, to discern their properties, to uncover the strange similarities between the life on this world, and in this dimension, and that on her own. These were not Ark-arr’s people, but they were not so different as to transcend the possibilities offered by pack science. They would serve.

Beneath the black sun, she had treated the blood, analyzed the helical structures which encoded its properties. She had drawn forth vials of her own substance, and strategized. Yes, and synthesized, too. She infused the substance of the bipeds with that which was best in herself—her pack’s dynamism, their curiosity, their capacity for subterfuge. And something more. Deep within the stuff of life, she locked away a hidden trigger—a sight, unknowable to the natives of this world, would one day bring on a Shift of its own.

At last the thing was done. Ark-arr took one last longing look around her, at the darkside of this alien world. As harsh and vacant as it was, it had served her needs. Now it would be locked away from her forever. Her claws grasped the vial of altered blood, now encased in a syringe.  She closed her eyes, twisted her mind, and Shifted one last time.

Luna’s face shone down at full, bestowing a parting blessing. Ark-arr threw back her head and sang a salute, heard her strange alien comrades echo a reply. Her aching lungs drew in a final draught of viscous air as she lifted the syringe to her foreleg. Farewell to this form, and to femininity. Farewell to the deep sight. I go into the wilderness. But one day, thousands of generations hence, there shall be a restoration…

She plunged the needle home, and agony enveloped her. Beneath her pelt, bone and sinew shifted. Within her, organs mixed and melded. To a race unaccustomed to Shiftwork, and the accompanying biological changes, the results would have been fatal; as it was, Ark-arr collapsed into a shuddering, shrieking mass. Her cries drew an audience. From a distance, under Luna’s light, the bipeds watched. As they did, a new legend was born among them—one that would change with the ages, but which would never quite die.

Ark-arr rose again with the rays of the sun, up onto two legs, between which dangled the evidence of her new, unfamiliar sex.  She was nearly hairless except for a tuft on her head. Her paws had elongated into nimble fingers. Her new eyes beheld colors for which she had no names. She strode forth with tottering steps, and the things who had witnessed her transformation fled in terror before her.

No matter. There would be other bipeds, in other packs. She would show them her worth, win their trust. In time, she would find willing partners to bear her seed. And down the generations, as her seed spread, the ambitions of her new pack would grow.

Ark-arr’s lips pulled back, and she bared her new, flimsy fangs—not in a display of threat, but somehow, in one of joy. At the end of everything, she thought, I am yet an artist of change.

#

Had the world been watching, events might have proceeded with more decorum. When they replayed the adventure for public consumption, MacGruder resolved, they’d do it dignified. Here and now, though, human nature took over. With the white-knuckle tension of the landing behind them and champagne corks popping in Colorado, the three astronauts spilled out of the lander at Mare Cognitum like eager toddlers onto a playground.

The first of them had descended the ladder too quickly and had fallen ass-backwards; mankind’s first words from the lunar surface had been “Ah, shit.” But since that moment, things had proceeded more or less according to plan, though with a tad more exuberance. There was a bit more low-grav bouncing than was strictly necessary, but the regolith sampling appeared to be proceeding apace. MacGruder had turned from the readout in front of him and was chatting with Cruz when he heard the mission commander’s voice over the comm:  “Hey, Roger?  You all right?”

The black and white image on the feed was grainy, but the tableau was nonetheless clear. One of the astronauts was motionless, his back to the camera, his head tilted back, staring at a sight previously unseen by human eyes: its the Earth, dark seas sworled with white, hanging huge in the sky, round and full.

MacGruder was imagining what it must have looked like in full color when the growling began over the comm—low, guttural, primal. The first astronaut was still staring skywards, his suit trembling, strange shifting visible beneath the rubber and nylon. The commander had bounded over to join him, but was now silent and motionless, staring up at the sky. The third member of the party stood in the foreground, his arm eclipsing the upper right of the frame, motionless.

“Cognition Base, this is Cheyenne Mountain.  Please update us on your—“  MacGruder got no further. In a moment of spectacular insanity, the astronaut in the foreground was unscrewing his glove from the aluminum wrist-lock ring that held it in place.  “Ed, for God’s sake! What are you doing!”  In the background, both figures were contorting wildly. The comm channel was full of barks and yips. The glove in the foreground tumbled to the lunar surface, and what was revealed beneath it was less a hand than a paw.

One of the suits in the background exploded, and a thing burst from it—human-sized, but lupine in form, with scrawny, elongated limbs, tongue lolling and fangs bared in what might almost have been a smile. A technician in the front row emitted a strangled shriek. The second background figure had unscrewed his helmet from its neck-ring—how do they manage that without thumbs, MacGruder wondered—and a canine form was squeezing free.  In the near-vacuum of the lunar atmosphere, the creatures should have been asphyxiating, their lungs bursting from internal pressure, water evaporating from every cell in their skins—yet somehow, they weren’t. Somehow they were capering, cavorting, playing, kicking up dust from the lunar surface.

And then…they just weren’t there.

They didn’t expand, or explode, or boil away into nothingness. They merely blinked out.  First the one that had been Roger, and then, in rapid succession, the other two. They were simply gone.

An eerie silence descended at Mission Control. It was broken by another piercing shriek from the technician, but as nobody replied or even acknowledged it, it faded. And MacGruder, his eyes fixed on the camera feed, felt something welling up within him. Something that told him that what had happened was no tragedy, but somehow right, that a plan had been fulfilled and a destiny achieved. That their friends were not gone. That they were fine; or, perhaps, better than fine.

The thing within MacGruder was whispering in the stillness. Calling out to him from down the aeons. Calling him to the moon.

He cleared his throat. “Well,” he announced. “This is gonna be hard to explain.”

“Explain to whom?” Keller replied. Over by the coffee machine, a bug-eyed astrophysicist was staring into a computer monitor, his features lit up in eerie green light. “The Administrator had a live feed. Nobody else outside of this room knows.”

MacGruder’s shakes were back with tectonic intensity, but a more important part of him was still. Inside his mind, gears were cranking, calling upon a long evolutionary heritage—an instinct to roll with the punches. To innovate. To reconfigure his plans to meet new circumstances.

“There was a fire,” he said.

Cruz turned to him, features blank. Slowly, he nodded. “A bad one. Pure oxygen atmosphere in the test capsule, you know. They never stood a chance.”

“Closed caskets, of course,” MacGruder concluded.

Morganstern stared over from an astrophysics readout. “But that doesn’t solve the problem,” he interjected. “President Kennedy made the promise that we’d go to the moon and come back within a decade. And that’s gonna be, um…” He swallowed. “That’s gonna be a little difficult to pull off, I think. I mean…anybody up for going back up there?” On the viewscreen, the lander stood alone, unfiltered sunlight casting diamond-edged shadows in the powdery, pockmarked surface, which was now marred by three ruptured and abandoned spacesuits.

Me, MacGruder thought. I wanna go. It was an ache, deep inside him, and he knew, somehow, that everyone else in the command center felt it. Its intensity made him want to throw back his head and howl. But there’s no way back. And there won’t be until we figure this out. Our next voyage will be inwards. Unraveling the dark side of the human genome. That’ll be the next big thing.

Still, the public must have their rocket show…

MacGruder leaned back in his chair, stared at the ceiling for a moment.  Then he reached up to click a switch in his headset. “Administrator Webb? This is MacGruder. No. No, we have no idea.” He licked his lips. “Yes, it’s bad sir, but there’s a way around it. We can still give the public what they want. We’ve got a couple of years to work with. I know a guy. Not in aerospace, sir, but in Hollywood. Special effects guy.”

MacGruder smiled faintly. A strategic shift was called for. “It’s amazing what you can pull off these days, with lights and computers. And he’s got this out-of-the way soundstage, see…”