by Michæl Brenner
Text ©2005 Michæl Brenner; illustration ©2005 Cubist

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   There was a fork in the tunnel ahead. Aleta sniffed the air currents carefully. To the left the air currents scented of cool fresh air and new snow. ‘Out,’ she thought. To the right the air bore the heavy scent of—Food!
   ‘Left! Out!’ she commanded her body.
   Food! The urge was almost irresistible; the smell tantalized all her nose buds and sent shivers through her body. She hadn’t eaten in several hours now, and her stomach was begging to be filled.
   ‘Out!’ she forced her paws to obey and ignored the whining goading of her instincts. The point was to get out, not to fill her belly. She ran towards the end of the tunnel with all her speed, carefully noting the ground before and around her for any changes in the ground consistency and texture. Too often even the slightest change could spell the difference between safety and disaster. Finally, the light of the outside world came into view and she raised her nose triumphantly.
   “Good girl!” called out a familiar voice, accompanied by an equally familiar scent.
   ‘Daddy!’ She rushed over and licked his outstretched, ungloved hand. She tasted his salt and a bit of the wool from the glove on his flesh. He was holding in his other hand a familiar bowl. Food! came the call as a pungent, magnificent odor wafted from it. She didn’t, however, try and tackle the man for the food. Such idiotic canine behavior was beneath her. Instead she sat down, careful of where she put her tail. She looked at him gravely and then bowed her head in a show of gratitude. The man chuckled and lowered the bowl of food; it was mainly walrus blubber with a few pieces of chicken and pig added in for flavor.
   Her canines easily tore into the soft juicy meat, though she was careful to chew as well as she could before swallowing—she hated getting a stomach ache from eating too fast. The man towering above her gently rubbed her soft body fur as she ate. “That was some time you made in there, you know. You’ve certainly beaten my old record. Of course I stopped for food before I left.”
   She made a sound suspiciously like a laugh, but he didn’t mind. He knew his daughter well enough to take it in stride. Of all the Mushers, she was the only one he’d ever met that could almost completely subdue her dog tendencies when she needed to. That didn’t mean she didn’t let them take hold too—she just never let her instincts cloud her better judgment. He couldn’t argue the same for himself.
   After polishing off the bowl she started to reshape herself, first concentrating on her hind paws, making them grow a bit longer and better for two-legged walking. She slowly moved to her legs, shifting bones and muscles to a more humanoid stance. She left her tail—she liked keeping that for as long as possible—and instead concentrated on her chest, stomach and back. The shift in this area was never as easy as the others—among other things, organs had to be moved around carefully—but all shifters learned the trick eventually. She decided to leave her smaller, canine nubs rather than take on her human breasts. For one thing the nubs were much more comfortable. She rose and adjusted her forepaws until they lengthened into suitable fingers, her thumbs reemerging from the dewclaws they’d become. Finally she adjusted her vocal cords and muzzle to allow for human speech. She knew mind speak, of course—everyone did—but there was something about the actual act of talking that was somehow much more satisfying, even if mind speak was faster.
   “Think the team’s ready to win this year’s race?” she asked, facing her father and smiling.
   “With you and your brothers on the team? I don’t see any way we can lose. Especially since the other teams are using some of those ‘modern’ techniques.”
   Aleta barked her amusement. Her father never did trust ‘modern’ things like protein meals and ‘aerodynamically correct’ sleds. She had to admit there was something more than a little unnerving about subsisting on grey, tasteless squares but she wouldn’t mind having a plastic sled to pull instead of the metal and wood one her family always ran. Not that there was anything wrong with the sled—it was made of the best oak and steel—but plastic sleds were a bit more durable.
   “I’m just hoping to show up that alpha wannabe Mitchen. He thinks he’s such a dom!” She rolled her eyes. Mitchen had a lot of good qualities, but he had an over-inflated self-image. Aleta thought it was almost funny the way he pomped and preened himself in public. The problem she saw with Mitchen was that he lacked any real ability to lead—he was very charismatic but too often he let his ego, rather than common sense, rule his decisions.
   “I’m not sure dominance is exactly what Mitchen tries for,” laughed Vertran.
   Aleta walked beside her father in anthro form. As a malamute she was built short and stocky, barely reaching five feet in height, but weighing almost a hundred thirty pounds. In human form this translated to a very buxom and muscular form, compact in most every way. She didn’t like her human form too much because of this. Her hybrid form was another matter; she could easily go without the huge breasts that bothered her so much in human form. She would never be any taller or thinner, but on the canine body the thickness looked like the power it was rather than plumpness. In full canine form the same was true. Some of her brothers were even larger than she was, though somehow they managed to pull off looking good in human as well as canine form.
   It was a typical winter’s day; the air was crisp and smelled faintly of frost. The sky was the palest blue with a few clouds to keep it from being monotonous. Her father was dressed in a parka and snow shoes. Most of the rest of his clothes, except the very bottom of his thick pants, were hidden beneath the parka. Aleta had taken off her clothes for the maze and felt no inclination to put them back on right now, choosing instead to carry them in her arms. Her fur was dense enough to protect her from the environment.
   Close to the Maze were the statues of the first Mushers. They had been created shortly after the first Run. The imposing images of a male deer and a female wolf held hands over a pedestal reading: United anything is possible.
   Though they rarely raced anymore themselves, the wolves along the way helped a great deal. Their packs were very familiar with the territory and they profited greatly from the race since it brought tourists. Aleta smiled secretly as she remembered something a male wolf had explained to her a few years ago; that what visitors saw had little to do with the true ceremonies of the wolven kind. Tourists were treated to a show which put myths and values on display, but didn’t show the truly sacred and holy aspects of their beliefs. He’d once offered to take her to an ‘inner’ ceremony since her kind and his had lived together for so long. She accepted, and had never quite been the same since. As she looked out across the white expanse from the safety of the tent, she thought back on that ceremony and shivered. The wolves were right to keep it secret…
   Her hot breath formed clouds in the air as they walked back home.
   “You got a letter in the mail today,” her father tried to say casually as he walked beside her.
   “Oh…” His scent telegraphed the idea, if not the exact message. He smelled slightly unhappy, or worried. She could guess what the letter was. “From the university?”
   He nodded and sighed, wishing he had better scent control. Was he really that obvious? Probably not—they’d just been through this too often before. “You really have a chance, you know. You could do a lot more with your life than just lead a sled team…”
   Aleta sighed in her turn, rolling her eyes slightly. “But I like the team! It’s what I’m good at doing. Look at how many races we’ve won—it’s part of our heritage! You, grandpa, greatgrandma, our whole family has been among the best racers, the best Mushers, around!”
   Vertran drew closer to his daughter, putting an arm around her shoulder as he licked her wet, black nose. “You can do anything you put your mind to, Aleta. Sure, you’ve got racing in your blood, from my side of the family, but don’t forget you’ve inherited a lot of collegiate savvy from your mother’s side.” He playfully rubbed her head between the ears; she smiled and panted lightly.
   “I know, I know. Mom graduated top in her class, her father was top in his class…”
   “And you’re no slouch in the smarts department either. I’ve seen you memorize the books on racing in less than a day. The team can run without you while you’re at college, you know, and I…” He sighed and lowered his head. There were some things he hadn’t ever told her. Maybe he should…
   “Daddy?” She licked at him in turn, sensing his need for comfort.
   “I don’t want you to always be guessing at what might have been, the way I do.”
   They stopped in the snow, just close enough to the town that the fluid memorial to the first shifters was barely visible. It was another pair of statues—but unlike the ones at the Maze, they slowly changed shape from human to hybrid to full and back again.
   Vertran took a deep breath. “When I was your age, I wanted to try something else other than racing a sled. I wanted to be a professional artist. But my father… he didn’t understand. To him, everything was about racing—it was the only purpose in his life. But not in mine. We had some terrible arguments, but the lure of racing was in my blood, as it is in yours. He made sure to use that lure to keep me away from college, from art in general. And I was so eager for his approval… Well, I gave up on my art for the family, always convincing myself I could start the next day… next week… next month…” He sighed again. “I never did get back to drawing. I’m not even sure I could, now. I’ve always regretted that I never followed my dreams. I don’t want you to have the same regrets.” He held the bottom of her muzzle in his hand and stroked it gently, then licked the side of her muzzle.
   “I won’t. I’ve got no regrets, because I’m doing exactly what I want to do!” She smiled and walked away. Vertran stood watching her; a breeze picked up some of the loose snow between them.
   “For now… but what will you do after?” he whispered softly and followed his daughter back to town, a slight limp in his right leg.

   Though they trained all year, Aleta and her team intensified their training as the time for the race sped closer. Each of the members needed to be in top physical and mental condition. Traditionally every team attempted a trial run sooner or later and planned for a four day trek along part of the trail. Rangers and medics, always kept informed of this, were always on the look out at key places along the run, ready to aid any team that might need help. A ‘buddy’ system was encouraged during the trial runs, rangers usually asking that at least two teams try to run next to one another for the course. This year her friend Jonan was going to run along side them. His team of shifter reindeer was an impressive force. It was well known that the first Akasala Run had been held by a team of mixed cervid and canine shifters, though as the teams became more family oriented, the teams took on single shifter types. It also became customary for the two different shifters to run separate routes for most of the trail—instincts while running tended to increase, generally distracting both.
   “How come you’re not going to be in the official race this year, Jonan?” she asked as their two teams finished getting ready to start.
   “To be honest, I don’t really feel like it. I nearly broke an ankle last year—kind of a wake-up call, I guess.” He moved the muscles of his muzzle into a smile and rubbed the back of his left ear as it twitched. “I’m looking into taking some college prep courses later.”
   “I hope that works out for you. I’m looking to beat that dom wannabe Mitchen this year.”
   Jonan made a happy, bellowing sound. “You ought to marry him, you talk about him so much,” he joked as Aleta mock-punched him. “Just because he likes to show off doesn’t mean he’s not capable. I’ve seen his team this year, they’re pretty damn good.”
   Aleta shrugged. “Well, he can try.”
   The start of the run was flawless. Aleta loved leading her family across the white plains and through the narrow trails, taking frequent breaks to rehydrate themselves and rest. The scenery was half the fun of the race, picking up the stray smell of rabbits and the dried smell of plants along the way. Jonan and his team kept pace with them throughout, though they both tried to go into the wind to avoid awkward instincts. The trouble began for both on the third day out. Violet-purple clouds had started to slowly roll in overhead and the wind was picking up. Both teams were starting to have trouble making headway, though neither found the conditions bad enough to stop just yet. Finally Jonan announced through mind speak that he and his team were going to wait the storm out.
   Aleata asked her own team by mind speak if they’d wanted to stop, but the answer was unanimously ‘no’ and so they continued to run, sure they’d make it home—it was only a few hours away and the weather was hardly the worst they’d ever run in…

   Her home town of Nome was coming into view; the sight of the shifting statues of a male wolf and female deer, which normally cheered Aleta, brought small comfort now. The return trip had been hard, and her cousin Jare was laying on the sled with her right foreleg in a sling. There hadn’t been anything Aleta or the others could have done—the storm that had sent that branch crashing off its tree had also made it near-impossible to see past one’s own snout. She regretted now she hadn’t stopped them before—she should have realized it was instinct rather than logic that drove them to run in these conditions. It could have been a lot worse; a few seconds earlier, and it could have been her. With what she knew of medicine Aleta had made Jare as comfortable as possible, but her arm might not heal properly—at least not for racing.
   They reached inside the town and went to the nearest place they could, both for aid and for shelter from the storm’s fury.

   “Are you okay, Aleta?” her mother poked her nose in the bedroom once again. Ever since the storm Aleta had been unusually quiet and withdrawn.
   “I’m fine, mom. Just trying to—well…” she sighed. The race was only a few weeks away. Though no one blamed Aleta for what happened, including Jare, she still felt guilty.
   Gailè took the time to pad up to her daughter and sit next to her, doing her best to comfort her daughter without being patronizing. “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. The best you can do is not to let them weigh you down.”
   “I should have known better.”
   She felt her mothers warm, tender lick on her muzzle. “But that’s not all that’s bugging you, is it?”
   Aleta looked shocked. “Am I that obvious?”
   “Your scent has been off for days, it’s not just guilt—it smells anxious too. Something’s been worrying you.”
   “Well… Jare planned to race for a few more years before she left. Now she’ll never race professionally again. Dad has that limp he tries to hide. I’ve always loved racing, but…” She turned to her mother, a frightened, slightly tearful look in her brown eyes. “What will I do after?”
   Gailè hugged her daughter and started to groom around her neck comfortingly. “You know the answer to that, I think.”
   Aleta smiled and licked her mom. “Yeah—but if he says ‘I told you so’, all bets are off.”
   Vertran knew better than to say anything when Aleta told him her plans for attending a college in the south. He just smiled and hugged her.
   “I’ll make you proud of me, Dad,” she said, hugging him tightly, but then stood back. “But on one condition.”
   “Uh-oh. I should have seen this coming.” He chuckled. “What?”
   She pointed a finger to his chest. “You need to start your art again. And I won’t take any excuses! You and Mom don’t need to pull the sled anymore, and even when I’m gone Ertin or Mari could easily lead the team for the races. Mom has followed her dreams Dad, she owns her own bakery. It’s time you followed your dreams, too. Deal?” She held out a paw-hand. Vertran hesitated a minute then took it.
   “I’ll be sure to send you a picture of my progress, ’cause I know you’ll be checking.”
   Aleta smiled at her father. “Damn straight.”

   Aleta shifted uncomfortably in her human form as she was given the packet of papers for the college entrance exam. There was no rule that said she couldn’t be anthro—several others in the room were—but she decided it would be best to stay in human form for this one test. She focused her attention, just as she did whenever something important was going on. None of her animal senses would help her in this situation; in fact, some of her instincts might be a hindrance, especially since she was right next to an anthro deer…

   The day of the one hundred third Akasala Run arrived and teams from all over gathered to participate again. It was a three hundred mile run in full, a hundred fifty each direction. It was an event in the local traditions stemming back to ancient legends about a similar race supposedly held long ago. Aleta looked at the competition. Though the race gave both prize money and a trophy for her, the real joy was the run itself, the thrill of the wind on her fur and the freedom of the open spaces. Most of the sleds were plastic and had odd racing colors on them. It was a fairly recent tradition and Aleta didn’t approve. Too flashy. She watched as Mitchen started to take off his clothes, as a form of strip show, before the people gathered there. While mostly female members found the exhibition delightful, Aleta noticed a few males watching as well. Personally she couldn’t understand why Mitchen had to be such a show-off. She’d arrived in anthro form to minimize the need to strip and change.
   Mitchen, however, changed slowly as he stripped. Aleta rolled her eyes and went quadrupedal. ‘What an idiot,’ she thought. However, she refocused her attention, the race was about to begin.

   The first part of the test proved relatively easy, her mom had helped her study and prepare for it. Mainly it was essay and writing questions, how to spell, word associations and other things that occasionally made Aleta wonder if the people that made the test were either mad or sadistic…

   The first part of the race was ended as they pulled into a stop along the way. They were making excellent time; only Mitchen’s team was able to hold close. Aleta had learned that though he could be undisciplined, Mitchen was no fool when it came to racing—not anymore. He’d apparently learned a great deal during the last summer. In any case it didn’t matter to her what he did, so long as her own skills remained at the top. It was too easy to lose oneself in the thrill of running, so unlike her family members Aleta had to keep at least one part of her mind human enough to look for not only the trail, but other signs her instincts would normally miss.

   The essay and religion section of the test wasn’t too hard to figure out, and in fact was almost enjoyable. Aleta laughed at how simple the religious questions on wolves were. The test makers had no clue—but then, they weren’t supposed to. With the second part of the exam came a brief break. The third part was the history and geography section. Not her favorite area, but the final part was math and science. She wasn’t looking forward to that…

   They’d made it all the way to the town of Akra, half way through the race, one hundred fifty miles done over several days. Aleta and her family carefully resupplied for the return journey. With the amount of calories they needed to keep healthy she couldn’t just take any food along. She noticed that Mitchen’s team somehow managed to live on the grey squares. They were light enough that he didn’t need to resupply since they’d taken a full load of them. Aleta shuddered. How could they not want real food? It also took away from the pack bonding at the center bowl. Sure, there was an occasional dominance fight, but it was all part of being a family, and no one was usually serious…

   The last part of the test was the most serious for Aleta. Though she knew the end results of the test were simply for placement purposes—she’d already gotten confirmation that she’d been accepted—the thought of being placed in a lower rung was disconcerting. It had taken her and her family months, but finally some of the math made sense to her, at least enough (she hoped) to pass the test with. The questions started out easy enough, but grew progressively harder. ‘But I can and will pass this!’ She never gave up on something once she started it, and that had always worked to her advantage…

   The finish line was just ahead—she and Mitchen were neck and neck! «Give up, Aleta! You know I’ve got you whipped!»
   For the past few lengths she and Mitchen had been sparring mentally while their teams followed. Fortunately both sides were more interested in running than in fighting with the goal so close.
   «Eat my dust, bone breath,» she replied, focusing more of her attention on the goal than on witty comebacks. She didn’t care if she lost a verbal spar to Mitchen if it meant winning the race. And it seemed it would, it was harder to do three things at once—run, fight instincts to go cavorting madly, and talk at the same time. Mitchen had lost an inch.
   «You can’t win!» He tried to pull ahead, but made a slight deviation to the right—not critical, but telling of how his dog side was trying to redirect the course towards his home rather than the finish line.
   «Wanna bet?» She pulled ahead another inch, there were only a few more feet…Mitchen redoubled his efforts, but it was too little, too late—Aleta won by a half an inch.
   Aleta slowed her family down after crossing the finish, just as Mitchen did. Her father beamed with pride while Mitchen hung his head and tail…

   Aleta turned in the exam and sighed. She’d done her best, now she could only wait. As she left the testing area, she noticed that most of the others looked similarly relieved, and maybe a bit anxious. She smiled, different shifters in form, but they still shared a common humanity of fears and joys and hopes…

   The results of the test could have been better, but were far from bad. Aleta would only have to take two math courses to improve her skills. In all other areas she’d either start at or above base level for beginners. Her father had yet to stop showing the results around town, and her mother was still hugging her whenever she got a chance. Whatever came now, Aleta knew she’d be able to handle it!

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