It was getting dark by the time I made my decision to take shape as a Joffer. It was a compromise, as any individual form had to be. Joffs are two legged, of medium height and generally noid (short for humanoid) with upright posture and bilateral symmetry. They’re also terribly slow, no match for most true predatory or prey species, either one. As an Aramite, I could crank up to 20 mph, give or take. The Joff who could maintain a 10 mph pace for more than a few seconds was rare. Joffs also lacked any ability to see into infrared or ultraviolet zones. They couldn’t even hear very well, stone deaf to high frequency sound.
However, they counterbalanced this lack with a formidable suite of benefits. Superior sense of smell, high functioning intellect with out-of-the-box intuitive leaps, an uncanny ability to survive where common sense said otherwise, mutable fur that warmed in cold weather yet dissipated heat in hot climates, and–most important of all–they were everywhere. They were one of the 98 species permitted by Gal law to trade on Thuringia, so I had enough experience of them to “play Joff” with some degree of expertise.
One final benefit: They could eat almost anything. Crucial, that might be, in the days ahead.
How crucial? Hard to know in advance, but I needed a body I could stick with for a while. Shaping as an Aramite had been an emergency decision, one short hop away from full-on panic when I realized I’d nearly been caught before getting off the shuttle from Thuringia. My reasoning had been simple. Who’d expect a high-intellect species to run around looking like a pebble-brain yellow ostrich? That part had worked out all right; it was the unexpected consequences that nearly bit me. Thankfully, changing hadn’t worn me out yet; I still had plenty of zip left. Most of my kin could copy into different shapes once or twice per day at most, after which they’d need three or four days to recover from that one-day effort. I was a prodigy among my people, capable of taking up to six different “looks” in eight hours or less and being good to go the following morning, but there was a tradeoff. By change #3 or #4, my buns would be dragging, my thinking slightly lethargic, my reactions slowed just a wee little bit that might mean my death in a hostile environment.
The wider world, I was fast realizing, thoroughly qualified as a hostile environment. Formal schooling had not prepared me for this. Don’t believe me? Talk to the sword. I pictured that bright-metal blade zinging through the air, ruffling my Aramite feathers in passing, and shuddered.
My nervous wanderings inadvertently led me to a seedier part of town. The official Presentations hadn’t shown this side of Hoptaek City at all. Beautiful place according to all the tourist-trap holochures. There were fewer tall-bird Aramites here; I stood out far too much. The buildings were rundown, moldy even on the outside, with not so many people on the sidewalks, which were cracked. Hardy weeds grew up through those cracks, seemingly impervious to grinding feet. Masochistic weeds? Fewer species in general on the street, though Joffers seemed plentiful, with numerous groups of ten to twenty running in obvious packs for both predation and defense. It looked like a place for rats and roaches, though no rat that showed its nose whiskers would survive the packers.
Interesting about the packs. Packs were outlawed by Galactic law, part of an overall mission to control trillions of citizens. Somebody here forgot to read the statute.
Quite likely, I suspected, plenty of these low rent residents couldn’t even read at all. Back home, no one ever told us poverty and/or illiteracy existed on Hoptaek or any other Gal planet. Many of these on-the-dole types wore weapons openly. Small spiked clubs, knives, short swords, throwing stickers, finger needles. Some, I chilled at the thought, might even have distance weapons hidden under their unwashed clothing.
Distance weapons of all sorts were expressly forbidden in the Galaxy. As they should be. I never could stand the thought of a laser licker, slug thrower, or mag scrambler. Take the guns and tax the rich, that was my family’s motto, Thuringia’s motto, and GCCC’s official policy.
Good for them.
Somebody here was bootlegging disties, though. Disties. Distance weapons. Eeeee-vil incarnate. Double shudder. Clearly, law enforcement was not a priority in this neighborhood. It shocked me. Where were the authorities? They had no presence here. I couldn’t understand it. A Coth wanting to carve me up for Cothian cuisine, that I could comprehend. But not this.
Pack people were starting to stare at me, never mind that I kept moving. To stop or even slow significantly was death. I’d been on-planet for less than half a day and already I understood that much. Aramite filet our specialty. Sword Education 101. Live or die, he who learns by the sword retains the lesson. Who says you can’t take it with you?
In gathering dusk, my bright yellow feathers stood out in stark contrast, even more so than they did in broad daylight. Danger, Boquo Thur, Danger! Plus, when you’re seven and a half feet tall, a big, walking load of sentient fowl flesh, how do you hide?
Short answer: You don’t.
Nobody followed me when I finally left Port Boulevard and headed down toward a rock-strewn beach. A few boulders here and there looked big enough for me to hide behind while I took shape. Why were no packers following me? I wondered, then realized: Aramites got wheels and they know it. Had I remained on the Boulevard, one or another pack of sharp-fanged slummies would have jumped me sooner or later. Probably sooner. Then it wouldn’t have mattered if I had wheels or not. They would have simply cut my wheels off.
I’d just found a great, gray rock and hunkered down behind it, leaning against the stone, when it spoke.
“Squark!” I yelped in alarm, leaping up and staring at the thing, open-beaked. Freaking boulder was sentient. With invisible vocal chords. My multiple Aramite hearts thudded from the adrenaline spike.
“Squark yourself.” The boulder snorted, though I couldn’t see any nostrils. You’d think nostrils would be a requirement for snorting. “I’m not running a chicken coop here, buddy. Feather off.”
Hoo boy. Feather off I did. Slow and easy, though. Who wants a big ugly rock thinking it owns the beach, eh? Chicken coop indeed.
Back home, our Thuringian education had gaps. Boy, did it have gaps. We’d never been told of this species, we’d never been told of the slums, so how many other details had been left out? After all, the Thuringians would never find out they’d been selectively informed, right? Quarantine keeps them confined to their planet forever. Or was there perhaps a more sinister reason, a reason “they” wanted us kept in ignorance? I felt a hint of conspiracy cultism stirring within me. This was a new thing. I’ve always been a raging liberal, a big government statist, of the firm and unyielding opinion that our revered Galactic Central Coordinating Committee could pretty much do no wrong, except of course in the matter of our stupid quarantine.
If talking boulders had been left out of our studies, what else were they hiding?
Man, I sounded like one of those distie-packing militia types. Cut it out, fool.
Fool laughed. Fool thought this whole situation was funny.
“Yowp! Watch where you’re stepping, Jumbo!”
“Kak?” I craned my long neck. Looked down, way down, toward my right foot. The talking plant, dusty green but looking much darker as light failed, grew no more than two inches high, a two foot square patch of ground cover. “A lot of rules about walking around here, aren’t there?” I remarked–not really a question–with dripping sarcasm. Which of course came out as, “Kak ka-k-k-kak!”
Utter darkness came to my rescue. Light gone entirely. Not even my pale feathers could be seen in this stygian environment, except by those who perceived infrared. Hopefully, neither talking boulders nor talking ground cover did that. Or if they did, hopefully they couldn’t care less. But this blessed night wouldn’t last long. Hoptaek planet is circled by 6 1/2 moons, the 1/2 moon having been chopped that way in some distant past war. Only rarely did this part of the globe lack for at least a little moonlight, but I’d planned it this way, knowing I might need the cover of darkness.
I took shape, de-feathering, shrinking, reforming as a Joffer.
To my intense relief, the discourses had fibbed; Joffers could see after dark. I didn’t know if it was a bit of infrared or what, but now I could tell–dimly, but I could tell–where and what everything was around me, dim shapes at least. The awareness of athletic prowess moved through me in a reassuring tide. I might not run as fast as some species, but man, I could fight if I had to.
Okay, so I detest fighting. Always have. Part of the liberal creed. Pacifism, compassion, and all that. But wow. Muscle, tendon, bone, all solid. Superb quick-twitch response. If I got my hands on one, I could snap an Aramite in two like a twig. I had fur that was all things to its wearer, including protective armor when threatened, capable of hardening. Maybe not enough to stop a determined knife thrust, certainly not able to repel a distie hit, but a kick or punch? Bounce time. Best of all, influencing my thinking as it did–as each different form must when donned–this Joff form came with attitude.
Back on Thuringia, when we males played Extreme Sports in our bodies of choice, faux Joffers almost always won the war games. I’d mostly avoided them because they were natural warriors, but now I are one.
Fighting is forbidden in Thuringian society, yet we Thuringians are shape takers and Joffers possess shapes that fight for fun and profit. ‘Tis a conundrum.
I strolled back to where the mouthy ground cover had warned, “Don’t tread on me.” Ignored its fierce protests. Pulled it up by its wimpy roots, shaking out sand and ignoring its banty rooster threats. Ate it all, sufficient protein and minerals to keep me going for a while. Ate it alive, roots and all, relishing its protests as spice for the meal. The madder it got at being consumed, the better the flavor, sort of a mild spicy blend.
Swagger. Now, only now, experiencing it from the inside, did I comprehend the true nature of Jofferesque swagger. My shape taking had copied some of the clothing I’d seen, midrange stuff, neither as disreputable as most of the slum dwellers wore nor as hoity-toity fancy as one saw nearer the Port. I swaggered a bit farther, right up to the bossy gray boulder. This time, the mouthy rock kept its invisible mouth shut. Or at least inaudible. Whatever. Roll over on me, I thought at it sternly, and I will pitch you into the ocean. See how you like getting scrubbed with salt water for the next eon or two. There were other boulders in the vicinity. I would be inconspicuous while resting motionless, especially since I realized my fur chameleon-colored itself to match the rock. Curled up against the living stone, secure in my newfound arrogance, I went promtly to dreamland.
I slept, as they say, like a rock.
My dreams were of home, specifically the classes taught by my most acerbic instructor, Gagran Holas Thur. If I ever write my memoirs, sometime when I’m three hundred and eighty or so, presuming I last that long, I should explain that all Thuringians have “Thur” as a last name. Thur, meaning “from Thuringia.” Pre-career, one is most often given only one name of his own, hence my name of Boquo (inquisitive) Thur. Once gainfully employed, a second name is added to denote the wearer’s profession: Gagran (wise guy) Holas (professor) Thur (from Thuringia).
Not that this kindergarten discourse was included in my dream. Rather, G. H. was pontificating as usual, responding to one of my impertinent inquiries as usual. Short and stocky for a Thuringian, he paced back and forth across the front of the classroom, jabbing his stick-pointer in my direction, a gesture that reminded me uncomfortably of weapons designed to pierce and slice.
“Boquo has asked,” he said, smirking fiercely, “how to get off the Wheel of 84, the mighty implement of forced reincarnation that grinds us all exceedingly fine. Does anyone in the class have an answer for him? No? No? Ah, then if it is to be it is up to me, eh? Which is why they pay me the big bucks.”
This was a bitter joke. A stevedore at the space docks made triple the money given to a teacher. There were patches on the patches holding together the threadbare trousers he wore with overweening pride. Few beings can match the feeling of untouchable superiority achieved by a Thuringian scholar. Gagran Holas Thur was not an ascetic, exactly, but wore his poverty as a badge of honor. He also detested me for my endless questions. Yet I knew he would reply…which would of course stir up more questions, which I might or might not contain within myself for the remainder of the session.
It was not that I wished to be rude. It was that I possessed, or more accurately was possessed by, this burning need to know, and while his answers were seldom satisfactory, better teachers were hard to find on Thuringia.
“How to get off the Wheel of 84?” He stopped pacing, fixed his steely gaze squarely upon me and thundered, “Quite simply, young fool, you don’t! It took Sobeet Quark three million lifetimes to perfect himself before he graduated from the Wheel. You see yourself as better than the mighty Quark, young fool? Do you? Eh? Eh?”
There was no good answer to that. Openly doubting Quark the Deliverer could get you burned at the stake on Thuringia. Yet, as I’d known it would, his statement made me want to ask something else. Such as, how did he know I hadn’t already had more than three million lifetimes my own self, huh? Huh? Huh?
Amazingly, I kept my mouth shut and asked no more questions.
When I woke, still snuggled next to the talking boulder gone mute, I felt oddly refreshed. This Joffer body was rugged, but it was more than that. The dream had helped me remember why I’d worked so hard to escape my home planet in the first place. There was a Godman out there somewhere, but not on Thuringia. This was something I knew, something far beyond mere belief or even simple faith. The Godman and I were destined to meet. It was time, and I’d read somewhere that when it’s time, there is no force in the Universe that can prevent the meeting between the true God-vessel and the seeker.
Obviously, I had to do my part. I had to escape my home prison planet, had to keep flesh and spirit together until the meeting could take place, had to follow each and every intuitive nudge to get through Life until then. Most of all, I must never give up.
Except for one of my sisters, my family had given up on me. But I must not give up.
To maintain my Joff disguise, I also needed a pack. I felt this, insistently, deep in my bones. A Joffer is nothing without a pack. Individualist I might be internally, but my outlaw nature must be disguised or the authorities would land on me like a ton of gray boulders.
I strongly suspected it would be easier to join a pack in the slums across the Boulevard than in the gleaming downtown area of Hoptaek. The biggest problem? There would be violence. My new form told me this. This form would also enjoy that violence. I didn’t know how to feel about that. It was sort of a combination of nausea, disgust, excitement, and nostril-flaring joy, all rolled into one. A nasty mix, but there it was. Outsiders think shape takers have it easy. Shows what they know. I had (a) my own identity, mixed with (b) my spiritually rebellious thoughts that threw traditional Thuringians for loops, all overlain by (c) the genetic entity impulses of this borrowed body. To be a true shape taker, a really talented one, is a tricky, tricky art. How does one utilize the impulses, strengths, and benefits of a taken shape without being overwhelmed by them? I’d always been able to do this. As my frazzled, disapproving parents well knew, I’d proven myself capable of shaping a hundred different forms by the time I was weaned from my mother’s milk. Now, at the near-adult age of twenty-seven Gal Standard years, there was nothing I couldn’t copy, right down to the smallest detail, emotions and all. Drove them nuts, my talent did. Mom could take the shape of thirty-two forms, none of which were as detailed or as emotionally and mentally rich as mine. Drove my uncle Rep nuts because he couldn’t even do that much.
Too good for us, you think you are. Get out of our house and don’t come back. Arrogant pup.
Rejection had hurt. I’d gotten out. I wouldn’t be going back. That I’d manage to break quarantine and flee to Hoptaek, that had never crossed their minds. Such a thing was beyond their comprehension. They likely still thought I was on Thuringia somewhere, hammering together pallets in a factory, working up something really mean to say to them.
My reaction to their rejection had terrible consequences. For years, I’ve been dreaming of a beautiful, highly spiritual, and passionate woman. Not infrequently, I hear her in my head, giving me insight. Support.
This lady is real. I know she’s real. Some would assume she’s an angel. Others–most others–would be certain I needed psychiatric treatment. When I fled Thuringia without even leaving a note for my mother, my secret paramour told me sadly, in great hurt, “That wasn’t very nice.”
I should have followed the rules of my caste. Should have discussed my need to leave with Mom. She might have told uncle Rep. He might have pounded me to a pulp. But I would have been acting within the rules of our society rather than abandoning a loving mother without so much as a word.
Aakai, as I called my invisible beloved–for the sake of security, not wanting some psychic snooper to find her through my mental carelessness–was a truly sensitive Soul. I trusted her wisdom implicitly, but she also trusted me…and then I’d betrayed that trust when I mistreated my own mother. This was not something Aakai would ever do. It hurt her deeply when I did it. In a very real sense, we were one, but I was an ignorant youth who’d launched from the narrow path down the proverbial slippery slope without even realizing I was sliding.
“That wasn’t very nice.” No, it wasn’t. Now that I was cut off from my home planet, there wasn’t anything I could do to rectify the situation, either. How had I been so blind, made such a mistake? The day before I left, I’d been working alone on a hillside, part of uncle Rep’s space moss farm, pulling noxious urgit roots from the fertile ground. Usually, I could get dozens of the wiry super-weeds out of there in a single shift, but not this time. One stubborn urgit, the third one of the day, fought for its life, clung to the soil like nobody’s business. The powerful standjack wouldn’t pull it, no matter how many tries or what the angle. In the end, I’d had to dig down around the taproot, deeper and deeper. Four times I rested. Once I gave up. Yet in the end, placing the standjack down in the hole I’d dug bit by bit, my own stubbornness prevailed.
I was pleased. It meant something. I knew that, even then. I’d removed a deeply dug-in problem that had been with me for a long time.
A day later, the plan that came to me was put into action, and now here I found myself.
“That wasn’t very nice.” No, it wasn’t. I hadn’t meant to do harm, but then, do not the sages teach that the road to perdition is paved with the fine pebbles of good intentions? Now, walking across the Boulevard toward the first pack of Joffers I saw, I realized grimly just how much damage I had done. The evidence was there, back on uncle Rep’s farm, where I’d pulled the root. I’d only had enough dirt to half-fill the hole back up and had been too lazy to dig around for more, so clearly I’d left a wound in mother Thuringia, the soil itself, just as hours later I left a wound in my mother’s heart.
And in Aakai’s heart, too. I had been gifted with a lot of her help when it came to escaping Thuringia. She had helped me, but I’d failed to leave behind the slightest balm for my family. “That wasn’t very nice.”
I tamped down the memory and walked right up to the pack. Not a big one by Joffer standards, only seven males and three females, but the leader made up for it. A handsome fellow he was, with a keen eye, pleasant features, and muscles that rolled under his fur. I didn’t say anything yet. Most Joffers speak Gal Standard, but their home dialects influences the accent. I needed to hear him speak first so I could copy the accent.
“Challenge?” He looked at me evenly but showed no signs of readying himself for combat. I couldn’t say as much for myself. My Joffer body had somewhat taken over. The subtle cues are obvious: A particular rolling-gait slouch, ready to spring in any direction, restless movement in one’s fingers, a particular squint to the eyes. Surprisingly, this leader just wasn’t interested.
“Well,” he spoke slowly, pulling a metal toothpick from his pants pocket and casually cleaning his teeth, “I reckon I’ll have to accommodate you, stranger. Only thing is…not right now.”
Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “Why not right now?”
“Couple of reasons.” His shoulders rolled a little. For a moment I thought he was trying to fool me, but then I realized it was his way of shrugging. I didn’t have all the Joffer cues down yet. “One is, you look like you could whup me one-handed.” I knew that didn’t mean much because Joffers mostly don’t fight with their hands. Their feet and teeth are far more dangerous. Or so I’d been told. Like so much about this species, my information turned out to be woefully inadequate. “But the number one reason is, we’ve got bigger problems than wrangling among ourselves.”
That puzzled me some. Bigger problems than a traditional Challenge to the Death? My Joffer body, all primed for war, didn’t much like having to cool down without a tussle, but it did it. There was a mystery here, and sure enough, my curiosity had naturally gotten the better of me, and a fair bit of relief, too. Just because I’d studied martial arts didn’t mean I truly wanted to fight.
The whole pack moved on a little farther down the street. Not knowing what else to do, I tagged along at the back end of the procession like I was a bottom-of-the-pile submissive. Before I knew it, we’d left the street and were filing through a doorway into one of the modest cookie cutter homes facing Port Boulevard.
So what in the name of the Galaxy…?
The house looked bigger on the inside. More people, too. Must have been eighteen, nineteen of us packed into the sunken living room, yet somehow it didn’t seem crowded.
Until the pack turned on me. I wasn’t sure how it happened, but I ended up standing in the middle of a the room, shoes planted on some sort of blue, rubbery substance. The walls were painted a peach color and the window tech made it so we could see out but no one could see in. Plenty of light. More than enough to display the bared fangs and fighting claws of all those surrounding me.
I realized I’d made a serious mistake. It appeared there were more than a few subspecies of Joffers. The traders I’d known on Thuringia didn’t have claws at all. Happily, my curiosity powers a powerful observation capability. Their natural blades had come shooting forth from sheaths positioned along their inner forearms, from wrists to elbows. These people all wore short sleeved shirts to allow their claws to extend freely. When they did, fingers automatically straightened out of the way, then clenched, with claw tips extending several inches through their fists. Clearly superior armament; they could either slash or pierce with a punch behind it.
My awareness cycled fast. They figured I was a Clawless, maybe even a neutered GGF, a Galactic Government Functionary. A lousy bureaucrat, perhaps, because of course only the Clawless would be selected to work in such capacity. Most likely, they figured me for an US, and Undercover Snoop intent on uncovering their dirty little secrets and turning them in to be rounded up, tortured, brainwashed, surgically altered, whatever the Gals did to slummies like these when they didn’t think or act right.
What about toe-claws? I didn’t see any, but….
My school chums and I used to play a game called think fast. The game had honed my mental reflexes considerably and I’d seen enough. I had to give up a few ounces of mass to either arm, forming and firming my own claw-sheaths. That didn’t take long.
In the meantime, the circle was closing in, teeth bared, lips curled back. The girls in the group were letting the guys take the lead, which made sense. Some of those vixens looked awfully fast, but against a fur-armored male with his blood up and half again their mass, they wouldn’t fare well. No snarls, but they made rumbling sounds in their chests as they advanced.
“Welcoming committee?” I drawled. Shining black claws ripped shirt cuffs as they extended, gleaming in the streaming daylight coming through the window. I’d decided to go them one better. The toe caps of my shoes hinged back out of the way to reveal another full set of claws where my toenails used to be.
Not as long as the wrist-claws, they were nonetheless impressive. The circle stopped closing. There was no rumble from my chest; I prepared for war in silence. My fur had hardened of itself. I was full of joy.
In a word, I was ready.
“Huh,” the leader remarked, and the rest of them quit rumbling. “We figured you for a Smoothie.”
I got the context. “It’s not always wise to show the Gals everything you got.”
“Ennit the truth,” he nodded. His claws retracted. Slowly, so did the others. Leader Man and I could adapt mighty quickly. It took the rest of them a while to cool down with no place for all that war prep to go. “Glad to admit we didn’t have to do it,” he admitted. “Even with all of us jumping just one of you, we’d have gotten hurt. I’ve never seen muscle density like yours.”
“You haven’t?” I was honestly surprised.
Then it hit me. Thuringians are not small people. I’d been able to shape take as an Aramite because our mass, despite the seeming size different, was pretty close to even. Joffers were built on a slightly smaller scale, a big male massing around 20% less than I did. I could have taken shape as a giant Joffer but didn’t want to draw that much attention to myself, so I’d stuffed my total mass into a big-but-not-monster sized Joff body.
Result: My muscles were indeed dense. My bones were probably stronger than the average rock. Even my hide was extra tough. Yay me.
We all talked a while, had something to eat, and now–because of my Super Joff body, I thought–the pack decided I was okay. Weird. Didn’t end up leader, which I didn’t really want to be anyway, but did get to join the pack.
Three weeks later, by which time I’d realized this bunch had a whole lot more to them than met the eye, they hauled out the holo.
The girl was beautiful to my Thuringian eyes. Even to my Joff senses, she was right up there with the best of them, exotic flowers and remarkable animals, several thousand different sentient beings, and all. Slender, delicate of feature, with a hairless face, jet black eyes and brows, lips as full as those of a Thuringian, silky hair of several different hues–brown, red, blonde–that fell halfway to her waist. Her forehead was high and intelligent…there just wasn’t anything wrong with any part of her.
Our pack leader, Quian Quilwey by name, explained for my benefit. “This lady lives on Hoptaek, but far away from the city, out west in the boonies, near Ocean. She needs to move, but she’s trapped.”
“Trapped? How?” I couldn’t stop staring at the holo.
“Don’t know the details. Financially for sure. Word we got is that her husband died years ago and she’s been broke for a long time. Barely getting by. Widows aren’t treated well by our wonderful government and the best career paths are closed to females altogether. But there may be other traps as well. Bottom line, she needs a rescue. I was given to understand it would be time to head her way when an all-claws man turned up. Which, to our surprise, turned out to be you. So, you interested in seeing the West?”
I nodded dumbly, too stunned to wonder how he’d learned all this. “Word we got,” he’d said. Not that I cared where we were going so much, just as long as this woman was at the end of the trail. I had to go. I’d seen her in my dreams.