Pack time was never wasted. In the three weeks between meeting me and showing me Aakia’s hologram, my new Joffer packmates both grilled and tutored me incessantly. Immersion therapy of the no-holds-barred sort.
Just because I fit their “all claws man” prophecy did not mean they were going to ignore basic security protocol. They were surprisingly open about their own backgrounds and interests, using them as magnets to draw forth my own story. Obviously, story it had to be. I couldn’t exactly say, hey guys, um, I’m the most wanted alien on Hoptaek right now and what you see is not exactly what you get. So I made stuff up on the fly. Thought I did pretty well, too, pat self on back. Made a lot of stuff up but salted it with truth, the best kind of lie, at least according to everything I’d read on the subject…and I’d read a lot.
My home planet isn’t even on the charts. My dad died young and I had a mean uncle who thought I should slave away on his farm for the rest of my life, so I cadged a ride on the first freighter heading off-planet the minute I was of legal age. Figured my uncle put a Hunt out on me, even though I was of age, so I kept a low profile. Which didn’t help me all that much ’cause the freighter labor boss figured me out and worked me hard for no pay. When the big excitement about a Thuringian escaping quarantine hit the news, we happened to be docked at Hoptaek Port. The crew got distracted, I saw my chance, and away I went, albeit without a cent to my name, just the clothes on my back.
Quian Quilwey and the rest seemed to take my tale at face value. That left me feeling both relieved and deeply guilty. I was pretty sure lying incurred bad karma. Not as bad as being a captured fugitive, though, and I didn’t dare tell them the full truth, so I was betwixt and between.
The pack members were not what they seemed, either. Here in this rundown neighborhood, where gangs were commonly violent, Galactic Law was routinely ignored, and the weak were routinely destroyed–murder, rape, incest, drug addiction, theft, robbery, you name it–one did not expect to find a squad of highly talented, spiritually minded individuals. Yet that’s what they were. Outwardly, their rough-bark camouflage was sufficient to make other packs think twice, and they would fight if they had to. About ten days after I joined them, a mixed group from three blocks Inward tried to take us out. There were at least thirty Snags, as they styled themselves. Half again our numerical strength. Thankfully, they only had one distie weapon, a crude, homemade slug thrower carried by their Parbik leader.
That’s right, a Parbik, one of the great cat species, four legged, all-clawed, long-fanged, with small ears and a long, barbed tail the Parby used like a harpoon. Parbies are solitaries; except when a female is in heat, they can’t stand to be around each other. Yet, rare though they were on Hoptaek, they functioned well as leaders of otherwise non-Parbik packs. Go figure, right?
They also couldn’t stand losing. During our encounter, that cat had lost big time. Our people took out the rest in short order, working in groups of three so that no fighter had his or her back to the enemy, ever. Our females were just as deadly lightning fast as I’d suspected. Quian had been hit with a slug from the Parby’s distie. It didn’t do that much harm, barely got through our leader’s hardened fur, but it had a lot of energy behind it and knocked him to the cracked sidewalk.
I’d darted in and slung his body to one side, out of harm’s way for the moment, kind of shocked when I saw his sizeable form sailing a good thirty feet before it landed. I might have hurt him more than the bullet, oops.
That move also put my back to the oncoming cat. He gleefully pumped three hard shots at me. I felt them. Think I went “Oof!” a little bit. But my Super Joff body’s hardened fur, with war-tense muscle below it, refused to yield. The slugs didn’t bounce like in the Ridico-Dig virtual reality games. They just sort of slammed up against my skin and stuck in the fur. This somewhat irritated my basic Joff aggression. As I spun to face my fast-charging assailant, his hips sort of swiveled and his wicked, barbed tail came shooting straight at my face. Seventeen thousand hours of martial arts practice came to my rescue then. My right arm shot up so that I took the barbed tip in my forearm rather than in my eye. A Parby tail, I found out, is a more effective weapon than a homemade distie. The tip slice-slammed through hardened fur, through skin, and pierced muscle.
Hot bananas, I had a tiger by the tail.
My right fist went into action of its own accord, twirling the tail around my arm, getting a good grip. Left knee came up, hard and fast and just in time. Broke the pussycat’s wide open, slavering jaw and knocked him out. Didn’t break his neck, more’s the pity.
The fight was over. Thankfully, the tail-tip hadn’t gone in far enough to get past its first set of barbs. It slid back out easily. Didn’t even feel any pain, my blood was still running so hot, though I knew I’d be sore later..
Quian Quilwey was back on his feet. He stomped over, giving me a look that was equal parts admiration and reproach–guess he thought I could have been a little gentler when I’d thrown him out of the way–and stomped the distie weapon until it was well busted. When a Joff hardens his body for combat, heels become hammers.
Surprisingly, nobody had been killed. The Snags lugged their wounded back down the street, back to their own part of the ‘hood, and we saw them no more. Would have someday, no doubt, but we left the city before they were ready to try again. On our side, I felt the bullet-bruises for a few days and I think Quian felt his even longer, but nobody had as much as a deep knife slice or a broken bone and we were all being stoic about our minor injuries.
So much, I thought ruefully, for my pacifism. Sorry, mom.
After that encounter, I’d been promoted. Nothing official and I certainly had no interest in usurping Quian’s role, but unofficially I’d jumped all the way to #2 in the pack’s hierarchy.
A couple of the vixens cast admiring eyes my way every now and then, full of invitation. I was a little tempted, but only a little. Part of it was my status as a virgin, a rare thing for a Joff of my apparent age. Another part, I’d like to think a bigger part, was my infatuation with Aakai. She was no virgin; I’d bet on that. I had no idea just how old this dream woman of mine might be, but ancient was probably not even close. Not that the pack data said anything about her age. I just knew.
There was an impressive range of survival talents in our pack. I wondered about that. The Law of Economy meant we’d need all of them. Quian, for example, was a builder, capable of putting together anything from a rude shelter to a functional bridge. Fox, one of the vixens who kept eyeing me, knew more about edible plants than I would have believed possible. She probably knew plenty about edible men, too. She made me nervous. I suspected telling her I was really the notorious Thuringian fugitive would have resulted in her licking her lips with anticipation, eager to try the exotic. Carn, a male with rare, light-colored fur, swore he could talk to animals; it was people, he said with a smile, who drove him bonkers. And so it went. More than half of the group had advanced education degrees ranging from music to engineering.
It made no sense for all these highly skilled people to be hanging out in the ‘hood…until you knew the underlying secret. Every one of them was a cliffhanger, a rebel to some degree, a seeker, an individual. Jofferian religions varied, as did the beliefs of those in their little pack, but basically they were all, to the best of their ability, following the inner dictates of Yoquay.
The Divine Mover.
Outlawed by Gal Standard Statute, no matter the word used to describe It. The GCCC could not afford to have its citizens believing in a higher power. To those whose iron fist–no velvet glove–held the entire galaxy in an unforgiving, rusty metal grip, Religion was a death sentence curse-word.
And yet, I thought, Yoquay calls us and we come. Surviving unbelievable odds, concealing our true thoughts from all others lest we be burned at the stake or worse, yet we come. And we are directed, we find each other, we plan to rescue one I know is an Adept–Aakai–who can perhaps point me to the Godman I seek. For such a one, a true teacher, a lodestone for those seeking God, must of necessity be skilled not only spiritually but at hiding as well, perhaps shifting from point to point, ever sought by the destroyers known as Our Good Government. Thousands, perhaps millions, perhaps even billions of Gal agents hunt him and yet he exists. Persists. Teaches those who are ready.
Maybe I was off in my head, wild imagination like my family believed? Maybe.
I had a sudden, disturbing revelation. Of our eighteen pack members, some would not make it. They would fall by the wayside, discouraged by the extreme effort required or perhaps by the extreme patience. Despite their seeming zeal now, here, in these shoddy yet familiar surroundings, some would betray us before this was over.
A sadness moved in me then, a deep, turgid current. Only three weeks had we been together so far, but in those 21 days I had come to love them all. We had shared stories, partly truth and partly fiction no doubt, but stories nonetheless. They had taken me in, marked me as one prophesied. We had fought together in the streets.
All this roiled through my mind as our pack prepared to go slip-sliding away from the city, out toward the West where the rules were different altogether. The surveillance sensors were still down throughout the city, overloaded from the crush of too many news loops triggered by my escape from Thuringia. The authorities had outsmarted themselves, relying on Super Tech that wasn’t really all that super when you got right down to it. It had limits. As an unintended consequence of my flight from Thuringia, the Gals had blown a fuse.
We moved on for many miles through a darkened city, walking swiftly all through the night, nothing moving in the streets but us. Quian held our communal money, of which there seemed to quite a bit. The pack had been saving up for some time, waiting for me. At the far edge, while millions of Hoptaek City residents still slept in their tall towers and one-level shacks, secure in the arms of their Good Government, Quian led us to a trio of ground fliers, antiques he assured us had been purchased, not stolen. We piled in, grateful to have powered transportation for a change, and moved out, away from the dawn rising behind us. The land ahead of us, I realized with a start, was nothing but desert.
Who among our people would fail? I knew not. I did not want to know. Yet the knowingness of my truth was inescapable. I would not be one of those who fell. If I could help those who did, I would do so. If I had to leave them in the lurch, well then, sadly I would do that, too. Whatever the cost, I will pay the price. And at the end, I will assist in the rescue of Aakai, or do it single handed if I am the only one left.
For the first time in days, the voice in my head spoke. Remember that.