Reaching out, Caleb brushed the damaged branch with his fingers. He dropped to a knee and scrutinized the ground, finding more disturbed undergrowth. He pulled his radio out and switched channels. "Engrim, what's your team's position?"
"We're probably a click or two to the east," Engrim answered. "Did you find something?"
Caleb moved a brush out of the way and studied the markings. "I may have, and I'd like a second opinion."
"Isn't Keldon leading a unit out here?" Engrim asked.
Caleb clicked his tongue rising to examine the damaged branch. "He headed south the moment we departed the settlement." He turned towards his squad and lifted a finger to his lips. "If we wait to get his thoughts, whatever left these marks will be long since gone."
"Fine," Engrim grunted. "We're on our way."
Caleb stowed his radio and waved his team closer. "Something passed by recently, but it's difficult to determine if the damage was deliberate or not." He tugged on his rifle's sling, pulling it off his back and twirled his finger over his head. "Everyone stay sharp and keep your heads on a swivel. I don't want whatever's out there to surprise us."
"Are we spreading out?" Mika asked as she examined their surroundings.
"We're staying in line of sight," Caleb ordered while he leveled his rifle above the agitated foliage. "It shouldn't take Engrim's team long to get here."
Mari spun away from Caleb and looked down the sights of her weapon. "And what information can you glean from the tracks?"
"I'm not sure," Caleb answered, inching to the right. "Whatever came through, barely disturbed the ground but snapped several twigs on the branch."
Namen's rifle tracked towards the branches above while he drifted closer to Caleb. "A pair of animals would account for the distinctive signs, correct?"
"It's highly unlikely that two different beings passed by this tree at roughly the same time," Caleb responded as he lifted his gun. "No, a single entity created both sets."
"Those markings are fairly distinctive," Mika commented. "What kind of creature can leave the stealthy and obvious tracks?"
With a wry chuckle, Caleb began circling. "No idea, I haven't seen anything like those markings before. Despite being unsettling, I think it's a plus."
"Excuse me?" Mari growled.
"It is unnerving because I have seen nothing resembling these before."
"That is definitely not positive," Namen replied, whipping his rifle back towards the ground as his finger danced against the trigger guard. "What could possess you to assume that's any kind of pleasant information?"
As Caleb's circle came to a close, he stepped away from the tracks. "Well, we may have found the shifting monster Tarian sent us to find."
"I wouldn't classify that as delightful," Mari retorted.
"More like an extra dose of grim news," Mika agreed, whipping the rifle towards an empty patch of forest. "Especially since our orders are to capture one of those things alive."
"And we're toting experimental weapons for that purpose." Silas checked his weapon and resumed searching the surroundings. "Yeah, I'll agree with Mika, this isn't pleasant news."
"Where are you all!" Someone called out.
"Who's that," Caleb mumbled as he whipped towards the source. "Engrim's team couldn't have gotten here already."
"Where are you guys?" The voice cried out.
Caleb inched closer, "Engrim is that you?"
A shadowy figure appeared from behind a tree, approaching Caleb's squad. "Stop pointing that rifle at me."
"Caleb, be careful," Silas hissed.
Caleb leveled the sights on the oncoming individual and braced himself. "Who are you?"
The mysterious person emerged from the shadows and continued to approach Caleb and his team.
"Who are you?" Caleb demanded as he inched toward the individual.
"I told you to lower that weapon, Caleb," the person barked, emphatically gesturing with his hands.
Caleb's finger eased onto the trigger. "Who are you?"
The man looked up, lowering his hood, and Caleb's green eyes stared out at the gathered squad.
Caleb squeezed the trigger, and a dart flew from the barrel and embedded itself into the mysterious imposter.
A howl ripped from the doppelganger's mouth, and more creatures emerged from the forest.
With his focus on the initial creature, Caleb fired four more darts at the thing. As the last fled the rifle, Caleb screamed, "We only need one of these things! Switch to lethal ordnance."
"Roger that," Mari said, dropping her weapon and pulling the gun from her back.
The rest of Caleb's team followed suit and started firing on the charging creatures. As bolts of light tore through the monsters, they fell halfway from the trees.
The faux Caleb pulled the last dart from his chest and snarled. "You'll pay for that!"
Caleb ejected the spent magazine, and while it tumbled down, he yanked the spare from his belt. He slammed the box into his rifle and retrained the sights to the contorting face of his twin. He squeezed the trigger and watched the dart's tip bury itself into the abdomen, depositing the chemical payload into the doppelganger.
The creature wobbled and unleashed a howl.
Caleb kept his weapon trained on the creature's neck and fired a pair of darts. As the second hurtled towards the monster, Caleb shifted his aim to the monster's torso, firing more darts.
"NO!" the thing howled as the darts forced more of the substance into its bloodstream. After a step towards Caleb, the creature tumbled to the ground.
"They're falling back," Silas cried out.
The rifle fell from Caleb's hands as he pulled his second weapon out. "Keep your head on a swivel while I check on my double."
"Faster would be appreciated," Mika barked as she prodded a corpse with her gun.
Caleb kneeled next to the shapeshifter and laid a hand on its stomach and felt it rise and fall in a slow and steady motion. "It appears to be alive," Caleb cried out, letting the rifle slide behind him. "I need some help to bind this thing for transport."
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The crew of a world's first colonization ship is commanded by Tarian. They enter the orbit of a planet in the same solar system to colonize the world. While orbiting the ship is given the green light to land and colonize the world, when things go...