Note to my readers: Time and again, I’ve tried cranking out a “regular fiction” novel, yet no matter how great the start, it eventually winds up feeling like I’m trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Even the book, They Walk Among Us, featuring Treemin Jackson and Jack Hill as the primary protagonists, quickly morphed into something else. Mutant wolves, aliens, werewolves, witches, wizards, vampires, shape shifters of high talent, oh my!
Well, hey. I may be slow, but I’m getting there. Give me a science fiction track–though many purists would quickly relegate my work to fantasy–and I’m good to go.
Post apocalyptic fiction? Yeah, sure, I’m okay there, but Grunt (starring Michael Jade and crew) stands strong in that genre. I don’t need to repeat myself.
So the die is cast. Back to my preferred playground. I’m going to enjoy writing The Thuringian. A lot. Obviously, I hope you will enjoy reading it.
Caveat: The Thuringian bears no relation to the area of Thuringia in central Germany on planet Earth. This book is entirely a work of fiction, set in a galaxy far, far away, where I’m sure you’ll agree it belongs.
“What do you mean, you think a Thuringian may have escaped? It either did or it didn’t, eh?”
“Sir,” the private on duty replied, his eight legs and fifteen eyes in proper, erect, military posture but his attitude unfortunately cringing and servile, “there was no hint of anything wrong until the AI scanning the incoming realized it could not locate a passenger listed as Haockup Blemorse had, um, uh–”
“Out with it!” Captain Sheenks flicked his barbed tail around, scratched an itch between his many shoulder blades. This could not be happening. I was due to make Major next month! True and tried, they would hang the private in a net and drain his fluids for this, but it wouldn’t end there, oh no it wouldn’t. In his three-minds, the vision was stark. Bloody. Sheenks, IP shuttle captain, recommend no further advancement. It had happened to all of his fathers and two of his mothers, the Sheenks Curse, and now it was happening to him.
A Thuringian. A lousy, no-form any-form shape-taker copy-catter had stowed away on his vessel and was now loose on Hoptaek. What damage might be done? He didn’t care about the damage to Hoptaek planet or even Hoptaek City, where the Scuttlebug was berthed at the moment. The whole place, out here in the boondocks, mere spindust compared to the glories of Galaxy Central, repulsed him as it was. Ignorant hicks, a mere under populated twenty billion pit-scratching fools barely qualifying for Gloriosity membership. His bosses wouldn’t even send him back to Thuringia where at least the shapers could and would adopt forms pleasing to his senses for a few hardcoins. No, no, no, they’d find the most boring run they could, and there he’d sit, glommed out of his mind, for the rest of his doomed career.
“Sir,” the private continued, stiff and erect as ever on his spiny-haired, knobby legs, completely and infuriatingly proper. “This Haockup Blemorse had the regulation ID implants of a Tohorgan trader. His digital matchup, uh, matched up. The AI reports that he, uh, that would be Blemorse, must have somehow hacked the system to make it show him arriving on Thuringia two weeks ago.”
“Two weeks Standard calendar?” There were other calendars, though they all had to cross-reference to standard. Sheenks was simply–he didn’t know why he’d bothered to ask.
“Yes, sir. Standard calendar. Further investigation by the AI Core showed no Haockup Blemorse in Hoptaek records whatsoever. It appears–”
–“as though only our ship was compromised during the escape.” Wonderful. He could only do one thing. It was time to alert the Gals. This was a Galactic case if there ever was one. Maybe he would get more than a reprimand and a stalled career. Maybe he’d get sent to Galactic prison. He’d heard good things about the Gals. They treated you right in their facilities. Or so his fathers had told him.
CHAPTER ONE: INDIVIDUAL INITIATIVE
I am free! I am free! Giggling inwardly while maintaining serious exterior composure, I walked the streets of Hoptaek City. A few of the streets. It would take a lifetime to walk all of them. I am the first Thuringian to escape in twenty-seven generations. I should be celebrated for my accomplishment, praised to the fuchsia skies of Melonomania, touted as an example of what individual initiative can do.
Naturally, I would not be praised but condemned, both on my home world and throughout the Galaxy as well. Seventy-nine trillion sentient beings live in Gal territory, so sayeth the last census. Our wondrous guvmint prizes order above all, and to have order, they believe, one must have conformity. Individual initiative is heresy. Oh, I know my politics, I do indeed, never mind that I haven’t quite yet reached my majority.
The last time a Thuringian did this, chaos and death ensued. Several planetary governments fell and the Galactic Central Coordinating Committee became alarmed. A psychotic, egotistical, drug-raddled fool, Harp Chordless had been before they fried him. Of course he’d wreaked havoc.
The propaganda blanket and a billion Forcers in uniform had spread the gospel: All Thuringians were like that. Haters. Terrorists. Criminals. Developmentally Disabled. Perverts. Peeping Toms.
It was not true but truth did not matter. Were I to appear in my birth form–a rather handsome young fellow according to our standards, nearly six bleebs tall, broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip, keen of eye, well equipped with a sense of humor and a taste for sex–Gal citizens everywhere would run screaming and LoPo squads would shoot me on sight. I really couldn’t blame them. Who wants to be sexually involved with a shape taker?
That’s a joke, folks. We’re all involved with shape takers when it comes to sex. Fems color and tease their hair into impossible temptations, narrow certain parts with restrictive garments, pad other parts, starve themselves to look holo star beautiful, slather on gallons of war paint. Ems bulk up, wear clothing to make them look even more bulked up, wear boots to boost height, cut their hair to masculine standards, practice war arts to shape and tone, wear shoulder pads and codpieces. And that doesn’t even count cosmetic surgery, liposuction, or morph machine work. Take me as I am? A rare mating call, that one!
Hypocrisy. Hating those of us who are better at shape taking than you are? Pure hypocrisy. Jealousy, even. Fear of the superior.
Stating that aloud, even at home, could get me killed. But I don’t care. I’m what some languages call a teenager, others a juvenile, which means I know everything, I’m invulnerable, and the rest of the Galaxy can go hang.
Passing a reflective building wall, I paused to admire myself in my current guise. Yellow feathers, metallic legs, rudimentary wings with grab-fingers midway along the wing bones, long neck, purple crest, beady bird eyes and a stout beak. A dust-scratcher, technically an Aramite, premier soil-fixer for bounteous agricultural production. It would be an unlucky farmer who tried consulting with me to fix his fields, but I could look the part, and did. Good looking species, the Aramites, and they know it. No passing pedestrian would think twice about an Aramite preening at his own prettiness.
It would be odder if an Aramite didn’t pause now and then to admire himself.
I had to giggle every time I passed a SIK. Without exception, each Species Identification Kiosk sported a hideous caricature of my race’s natural form, a monstrous thing of claw and fang, ready to devour children and have sex with buffaloes. The Aramite bird-form spat out those giggles as kak-kak-kak sounds few other species would recognize as amusement. If we really looked like that, our people would have given up procreation and become extinct eons ago.
Wowsers. This was fun. This was amazing. No uncle Rep to slap me silly.
Uh-oh. Kiosk, center front, official holo. Word-crawl in all thirteen major languages. Voice-over. Bright-flashing Thuringian caricature, strobe-strobe-strobe.
“Citizens of Hoptaek, ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! A Thuringian has escaped Thuringia and is believed to be loose in your city! ALERT! ALERT! ALERT! It may be anywhere! Most crucial, it may look like anyone! Anyone! Anyone! If you see anything that does not look right, tap your POM and report! Repeat, tap and report! Tap and Report! Citizens of Hoptaek, ALERT!”
“A Thuringian. Here. In our city.”
Yeah, and I’m an “It'” now. I looked down. There are only ninety-eight species authorized to visit my planet and this gal wasn’t one of them. I had no way of knowing what she was. Half my height (admittedly, an Aramite is a big bird), four legged, two armed, thick throughout–including between the ears, I was pretty sure–she wore nothing but a frilled pink skirt that stopped just above her brown-hide, furless knees. Her broad face radiated panic or something close to it. Her eyes, dark and ordinary except for being quite large, fairly bugged out as she stared at the holo. That AI-produced piece of PR kept repeating on loop, seen it once, you’ve seen it all, but Pink Skirt was hooked.
She spoke one of the Thirteen Basic Languages, though. I’d understood her well enough. It would only be polite to commiserate. Maybe I’d ask her a question.
Woops. Forgot. Aramite body no talkee intelligently. “Kak” indeed.
Amazingly, the populace seemed to be getting pretty wound up. Not just the panic-prone Pink Skirt, but waves of pedestrians filling the broad, golden hued streets for as far as I could see in any direction. What the five thousand levels of air taxis thought, I had no idea, but here on the pavement, you’d have thought Intergalactic War 49 was upon us. Moans, screams, squawks, grunts, burbles, shouts, bellows, whistles, croaks, gargles, and snorts of a thousand different species roiled into the blue-tinged air like the thousand rivers flowing into Ocean, creating a current of sound that made me think of Cheep DeTarik back home. Thuringia’s renowned composer would have killed to hear this.
For me, it got boring after a while. I have a short attention span.
Easing back from the SIK, extracting myself from the worst of the crowd press, I began drifting, just sort of meandering along Port Boulevard, observing people. There weren’t many other Aramites out and about. A few, enough to keep me from standing out too much, but not a lot. We few moved slowly, our heads bobbing the way the heads of all long-limbed, two-legged birds do, casting bright, cautious eyes toward the various Kiosks as we passed them but mostly hugging the building walls.
Not that I was feeling all that cautious. I’m just not wired that way. Mom says I’ll learn. Uncle Rep considers me a lost cause. He has a lot of names for me, reckless blasphemer being one of his favorites. Knothead, idiot, bonehead, bigmouth, brain dead, ingrate, deadbeat, rule breaker, those round out the list.
I’d made the mistake of speaking my mind around him a few times. He was muchly unimpressed. I was mostly bruised.
My bright bird eye also noticed the sun. It would be down soon. I’d need to figure out where to spend the night, come up with a meal, that sort of thing. Not easy, I began to realize, in a major city of this size. All citizens and all visitors–except me–carried implants that identified them, listed their addresses and occupations, allowed them to shop. My “implants” were mocked up, shaped by my talent. Not being officially issued, trying to use them for anything but passing SSRs (Street Security Readers) would be asking for trouble. They were constructed purely from my imagination and my imagination isn’t that good.
I thought about flipping the bird (heh) to a few of the innumerable invisible Readers, but then I thought better of it. See? I can be disciplined when there’s a reason.
Ah, but there was no rush. I was indestructible, right? Something would come up. In the meantime, I savored the flavors of Hoptaek City with deep and abiding joy. This Aramite body had decent hearing, better than average eyesight, and a surprisingly sensitive sense of smell. We Big Birds are a tall species; I was able to observe the thrum of beingness from a height that allowed me to note the rippling ebb and flow of thousands, to sample their scents–some savory, some sweet, some sour, some clean fresh air, some so stinky a Thuringian SmellBeast would scrabble away from them in horror. Exotic. Vibrant. Thrumming with the electrical power of Life. I found myself loving the masses, loving each individual, even loving the oppressive GCCC policies that trapped my people on Thuringia. After all, were they not so trapped, would I be able to revel in the knowledge that I was the first in many generations to sample the greater society of which we were but a dust-mote small part? No. No, I would not be able to revel. Thank you, oppressors.
I looked down. Ah, I knew of this species. It’s not like every school lecture found my ears when I was in class. Dull yellow-brown skin, not like my bright feathers. Short, his black-haired head coming up only to the base of my neck. Slender, dressed in a one piece black tunic of sorts, a jangle of magkeys hanging from a brown leather belt. Two legs, rather short. Two arms, rather long.
“Kak,” I agreed. Aramite.
“I thought so,” the little man said, nodding in satisfaction. “I didn’t think you were a Shorsk.”
Having no idea what a Shorsk might be, I held my counsel, merely fixing him with my bright eye.
He held his palms up. “Would you care to join us for dinner? My family tries to host an off-planet species at least once a week, but we’ve never had an Aramite over. It would be an honor. And,” he hurried to add, “we can send out for suitable victuals. There is the instant delivery, you know.”
Instant delivery? Why not. My sizeable stomach growled with anticipation, hoping for a bushel of quagh seeds. Mom always says I’m naïve, that one day I’ll find myself in real trouble because of that, but I’ve never been naïve. It’s just that some of my drinking friends back home were rather shady characters. “Kak,” I said agreeably, and followed the little man through the crowd. His home was not far, only about five standard galactic miles. His short legs churned steadily along, speedy enough, the pavement-covering pace of the lifetime city dweller. He also talked nonstop so that I found it unnecessary to contribute anything but an occasional, agreeable kak. A really nice guy, I thought. The legends of surly urbanites were clearly overblown. His family, he informed me, had come from the planet of C0th in the Tyquo solar system some three generations ago. All the males in his family tree were storekeepers, depending on their women for bookkeeping and other important functions. His second wife was young and beautiful, his seventeen children both blessing and curse, thank the Ultimate Creator they were all grown and on their own but the three youngest.
His yellow-brown skin, I realized as we walked, was somewhat reptilian. In the lengthening rays of the lowering sun, there was a hint of scale along with a certainty that his segmented hide was tough and protective. Rugged exterior, heart of gold.
The door into his store was wide, sturdy, and polished to a sheen no City Forcer could criticize. “Head on in,” he gestured cheerfully. “Living quarters are in back. I just need to lock up. Keep the honest citizens of Hoptaek honest, you see.”
I stepped past him, noting with interest the clean-steel look of his store. Implements hung on the walls. There were tables with troughs and gutters in the floor. The whole setting looked almost…surgical. What did he sell here, I wondered? What sort of store was this?
I’d like to be able to say it was some brilliant sixth sense that warned me, but it was nothing like that. I simply heard the locks click, started to look back in curiosity, and my bright bird eye, placed wide as eyes are placed on most prey animals, caught the flicker of swift, blurring motion. How I was able to lower my oversized fowl body, especially the long neck that whipped aside and down, I will never know. Not at that speed. Perhaps it was an ancient, hardwired Aramite defense, pure instinct. Or my eleven years of martial arts training on Thuringia might have played a part.
The sword whistled through the air where my neck had been. The Coth was so surprised by this that he could not keep his body from completing the turn, especially since he’d had to go up on tiptoe to get the angle he wanted. The sword tip clanged hard against the metal wall next to the metal door, rattling my host for a split second, vibrating his body from toenails to teeth.
That split second was all I needed. The clicks I’d heard had been the sword as it left the hi tech scabbard, not the door locks. The door stood slightly ajar. My hollow-boned bird body didn’t like it much, but still there was mass enough to crash the heavy door into the friendly little vibrating man, sending him off balance. With that, I was out the door and running on my long bird legs, yelling bloody murder. Which, coming from an Aramite throat, smote the early evening air as, “Squack! Skork! Skaak!”
I was learning the Aramite language rather rapidly. Yay me.
The crowded street had thinned some. I was able to bowl over a few pedestrians whose unintelligible curses followed me, leap over a few others, dodge around even more, and make serious tracks. Chancing one final look back toward my aborted dinner date, I saw something I’d missed going in, entranced by the little liar’s entrapment chatter as I’d been. Over the door, in bright Gal Standard language, hung a sign that declared,
ARAMITE FILET OUR SPECIALTY
The wicked little swordsman had not followed me into the street, most likely because obvious weapons in public were outlawed. That, or he knew he couldn’t outrun Big Bird. Aramites got wheels. I slowed down. Stopped. Caught my breath, my feathers fluttering. Different rules inside that building? “Must be,” I muttered to myself. Or as it sounded to those passing by, “Kak-k-k-kak.” “Must be within the law to murder Aramites as long as they’re dumb enough to walk in there. Birdbrains. Never mind that they’re sentient. The law must consider them animals, or maybe some gray in-between barely sentient category. I need to get to a law library.”
Better yet, I thought, would be to hook up with some pretty young thing who could tutor me until I was savvy enough to avoid the dangers of the city. Back home, I was known as quite the ladies’ man, crook my little finger and the beauties swoon. But how would I find a helpful chickie-poo here? What girl, regardless of species, would dare mentor an outlaw Thuringian? I didn’t know what the penalty would be for harboring a notorious desperado like me. I just knew it would be terrible.
No. No, I would have to go it alone, at least for now. The first order of business was no longer food, or drink, or shelter. I had to find a place to hide, just long enough to change forms.
Into what, I did not yet know.