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This was a sci-fi short story from a collection. It was before 1980, maybe a lot before that. It had a "spy" feel to it. The main character was tracking down a shape-shifting alien. It ended with the shape-shifting alien getting trapped in water and drowning. As it drowned, it shifted franticly between various alien shapes. After it died the main character commented, 'At least we know one thing about it's home planet - they don't have any birds', as the alien could have shifting to bird to escape the water.

It came to mind recently because the final scene of the shapeshifter frantically trying to escape the drowning was very reminiscent of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 frantically shapeshifting to escape the molten metal. So much so that I wonder if the writers were inspired or influenced by the older short story.

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    There is something like this in the novella Who Goes There that the classic film The Thing was based on. But it's a bit different. Halfway through the protagonists discuss why the alien cannot take the form of a bird, then at the end it changes shape while it's being killed with a blowtorch. Dec 8, 2023 at 8:32

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Well it took a lot of digging, but I found it. It's by ERIC FRANK RUSSELL and it was published under several different names:

  1. "I, Spy",
  2. "Venturer of the Martian Mimics" ,
  3. "Spiro" in 'The Other Side of The Moon' edited by A. Derleth 1949 (this is where I read it. ),

Edit: Found the text: https://archive.org/details/Weird_Tales_Canadian_Ed._v38n04_1947-05/page/n79/mode/2up

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    This is available for reading here, from p.79: archive.org/details/… . I find that, often, generalist search engines have become quite useless to find old publications. Now I check directly the local search engines of websites hosting archived content.
    – J-J-J
    Dec 9, 2023 at 10:30
  • fixed. I had found an old article talking about the stories that mistakenly said Metamorphosite was an alternate title for I, Spy. I found a correct list of titles on the Internet Speculative Fiction Database isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?51 Dec 10, 2023 at 20:51
  • I would also like to mention Russell's story "Legwork", in which the alien wasn't a shapeshifter but a full-up hypnotist able to convince people that he was human. Dec 10, 2023 at 21:05

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