Change of Life
by John R. Plunkett

"Passengers are reminded to make sure that all their carry-on bags have current ID tags and to count their bags before entering or leaving gate areas," the PA announced. "Unattended items will be confiscated by Security. Items with verifiable ID tags will be forwarded to the destination indicated by the ID holder's current ticket. Otherwise they will be held in the Lost and Found on level C7 and must be claimed in person."

Joanna glanced down at her two suitcases, one in each hand. They were the same ones- and the only ones- with which she'd boarded the shuttle at New Canaveral on Terra. Everything else she'd brought with her to Chakona was checked through. She set the cases down, drew a data pad from the hip pocket of her baggy jeans, and consulted the map of Chakona Gateway Station. A quick query produced the shortest route to inbound customs. Taking up her cases once more she set out, joining the flow of passengers headed off to board other ships, shuttles down to the surface, or merely to visit the concourse for a change of scenery before continuing their journeys.

Inbound customs consisted of a long line of public terminals. Joanna waited her turn then inserted her visa into the slot. A screen on the machine's front lit up, showing the face of a youngish Chakat in a light gray Peace Force uniform. "Welcome to Chakona Gateway inbound customs, Mr. Kepler," shi began in a bright, friendly voice. "Please place your right thumb upon the blinking panel- "a control on the terminal's face flashed- "and look into the eyepiece with your right eye." Joanna did as instructed; the scan plate felt warm against the pad of her thumb. In the eyepiece, which resembled the objective of a microscope, she saw nothing but fuzzy brightness as an invisible laser beam scanned her retina. "I'm sorry, Mr. Kepler, but there appears to be a slight inconsistency in your documentation," the Chakat said apologetically. "Please take your identification to the customs desk behind you on the opposite side of the hall." The machine spat out Joanna's visa.

"But-" Joanna frowned. She pulled her card out of the slot and stared at it for a moment. "Oh right," she muttered as realization struck. "Mister Kepler." She slipped the visa into her pocket, took up her cases, and marched to the customs desk. Behind it four uniformed Chakats waited to serve patrons who, for one reason or another, chose not to use the self-service terminals. Again she waited, this time behind a portly Terran woman who'd apparently decided that she didn't need to follow instructions carefully when using the self-service terminals. Persuading the woman to listen took the inspector almost ten minutes; actually solving the woman's problem required only about thirty seconds. Finally the woman moved on and Joanna took her place.

"Good afternoon, ma'am," the inspector said brightly. "How may we assist you today?"

Joanna hesitated briefly before answering, inspecting the inspector. Shi resembled nothing so much as a tortoiseshell calico house cat... if one could imagine a house cat the size of a full grown African lion with a humanoid torso spliced in between the feline head and body. The torso might have belonged to a Terran woman of slender build in her late twenties or early thirties except that fur covered it just as it did the rest of the body. The long sleeved Peace Force tunic made it hard to say for sure but fur showed on the throat, belly, and hands.

One thing did not show. Joanna understood that Chakats were hermaphrodites, possessing both male and female reproductive organs. (Hence the pronouns shi and hir in place of he/she and his/her.) Since the inspector sat on hir haunches behind the counter Joanna couldn't verify this without being rather embarrassingly direct, even though the inspector wore no clothing on the lower, feline part of hir body. All the currently visible parts of hir looked entirely and only female.

"The self service terminal said that there appears to be a slight inconsistency in my documentation," Joanna said, offering her visa.

"Ah." The inspector took the card and fed it into a workstation on the counter. "Not to worry. I'm sure we'll have it cleared up in no time, Mr- ah." Shi nodded thoughtfully. Joanna T. Kepler might be a lot of things but male was most emphatically not one of them. Soft, smooth flesh defined her limbs and torso in a sequence of voluptuous curves culminating with a trim, narrow waist, broad, sharply flaring hips, and generous thighs. Prodigious breasts swelled the front of her tank top but nevertheless retained an eminently pleasing roundness and firmness. Her face, hands, and feet exhibited an incontrovertibly feminine delicacy but were not by any stretch of the imagination petite. Even in sneakers Ms. Kepler topped out around 190 centimeters. Her frame looked solid and well toned.

"Is there more than just a slight inconsistency?" Joanna inquired as the pause lengthened.

"I'm afraid so," the inspector replied. "The visa also indicates your species as Terran."

"Ain't that a hoot," Joanna commented, scratching the right side of her chin. She looked more like a Terran than, say, the inspector, but not by a whole lot. For example, Joanna's body followed a more strictly humanoid pattern, with only two arms, two legs, upright posture, and so on. On the other hand, silky black fur covered every visible portion of said body and, by the way her clothing fit- or didn't- probably the rest of her as well. A white patch starting on the bottom of her chin ran down her throat and onto her chest, covering her cleavage and the insides of her breasts. Another white patch started on the bridge of her nose and ran up onto her forehead, blending into a shock of snow white hair she wore almost brutally short. Through it poked a pair of rounded ears not unlike a ferret's. The head to which they attached also resembled a ferret's, extending forward into a pointed muzzle flanked by large, dark blue eyes. A fluffy, voluminous tail, black with a white patch on top, sprouted from the base of her spine, emerging through a buttoned flap in the back of her jeans.

"If it was only the gender I could write it off as a typo," the inspector explained.

"Yeah." Joanna opened one of her cases and rooted around until she found a card, which she handed to the inspector. "Someone did make a mistake with my sex and species, that's for sure."

The inspector slipped the card into a reader slot. Data appeared on the screen of hir workstation. Shi struggled to remain composed but couldn't help gasping. "I... see," shi finally said, rather hollowly. Without further comment she certified Joanna's visa and corrected the inconsistent fields. "Enjoy your stay on Chakona, Ms. Kepler."

"Thanks." Joanna recovered her cards, nodded, and continued on her way.

Nice ass, the inspector thought, allowing hir eyes to linger on Joanna's buttocks, which rolled in a most delightfully sinusoidal fashion as she walked. Hips and legs like that really needed high heels and a mini-skirt to set them off properly. Alas, Joanna didn't look as if she'd ever worn such things in her life- and probably hadn't, unless she'd done so on the trip out from Terra. The second data card had explained that a few short months ago Joanna's name hadn't been Joanna. She hadn't been a Morph or female either, for that matter.

"Thank you for calling Coast Data Solutions, this Verc, how may I help you?" Vercingetorix inquired. Shi pronounced hir nickname as "Verse" and smiled warmly even though the customer wouldn't be seeing hir face. But the features and motions of the computer generated image the customer did see were keyed to Vercingetorix's voice and would respond to very subtle clues. "Of course, Shir," Vercingetorix continued after a brief pause. "Please insert your customer ID card and I'll pull that up. I'm sorry? You already have?" Vercingetorix couldn't help frowning. Hir computer-generated alter ego did as well. Shi pressed the "refresh" key several times but hir workstation did not appear to recognize that the customer's card had been inserted. "Would you re-insert it, please?" shi inquired. "Thank you." She pressed the refresh key several more times but nothing happened. With hir right forepaw shi pressed the "mute" key, switching off the microphone on hir headset, and switched off the workstation. After counting slowly to five shi switched it on. The customer service screen came up, then a system message window opened on top of it, informing Vercingetorix that hir workstation had failed to authenticate with the network security server. There being nothing else shi could do Verc touched the "OK" button. The system message window vanished, replaced at once by a critical stop message declaring that the workstation's data link had suffered a catastrophic failure and for Verc to contact Network Services at once. "Bugger me," Verc growled, hir tail lashing. The thought of hir electronic simulacra saying something like that to a customer lightened hir mood but didn't help the situation any. "I'm terribly sorry, Shir," Verc apologized, switching hir headset back to live. "There seems to be some difficulty with the network. Would you hold please? Thank you."

Twenty minutes later the error remained, having defeated the floor manager and everyone at the help desk. A frantic call to Information Services returned a promise to send someone up.

"Think shi'll be cute?" inquired Torma, who occupied the station to Verc's immediate right.

"I should be so lucky," Verc sighed, rising to hir feet and stretching. Considering hir body style, chairs designed for humanoids wouldn't be much use. As an alternative some of the reps used low, padded benches equipped with casters. Verc preferred a soft blanket, which shi could fold neatly, rumple casually, or otherwise arrange however suited hir fancy. "It'll probably be some geek with food stains on hir shirt, a clip-on tie, and a pocket protector."

"Care to place a small wager on that?" Torma inquired, casually twirling hir headset on the end of hir finger.

Verc almost let off with a flip response but caught hirself. Shi glanced at Torma and caught hir looking off somewhere. Verc turned, following the line of Torma's gaze. "Holy jumping Jesus," shi breathed.

"Amen, brother," Torma agreed with a nod.

All across the cube farm heads turned, like iron filings drawn by a passing magnet. The subject of all this attention happened to be a humanoid rather than a Chakat or other centauroid but nevertheless Verc understood at once why everyone stared. The woman resembled a skunk, with black fur, a white mane, bushy tail, and pointed, vaguely ferret-like face. She wore khaki slacks, gray tennis shoes, a pale blue short sleeved blouse, and a baseball cap with the words "Alpha Geek" printed on it. All that covered a body far more heart-stoppingly gorgeous and physically perfect than any Verc had ever before seen outside of the media or hir own lurid fantasies.

"Howdy." The skunk woman tipped her cap. It was designed for a higher, more rounded cranium than hers; a piece of string under her chin held it in place. "Don't worry. I'll have you fixed up in no time." Her voice sounded as sultry and perfect as the rest of her looked. Since there wasn't a chair, the woman had to stand. Since the desktop was positioned for the comfort of a sitting Chakat the woman had to bend over in order to operate the workstation's keyboard. As a result Verc found hirself regarding the woman's buttocks from the range of about a meter, with her tail arching up into the air like a canopy. The flap closing the back of the pants over the base of the tail didn't shut completely; Verc could just make out the waistband of a pair of lace panties and the point where the woman's buttocks began. Torma reached over the cubicle wall and made squeezing motions with hir hand while letting hir tongue loll out. Verc slapped Torma's arm away, primarily because it blocked hir view.

"That oughta do it," the skunk declared, straightening up and pressing the Enter key with a flourish. The workstation replied with an even more ominous and cryptic error message. "Well damn," she muttered, getting down on hands and knees and crawling under the desk. Torma sagged against the cubicle partition, eyelids fluttering and hir tongue hanging out, clutching over-dramatically at hir chest. Verc put a hand firmly on Torma's face and shoved hir back.

The skunk woman sat back on her heels, a roundish object about a centimeter and a half in diameter held between her left thumb and forefinger. She glanced over her shoulder at Verc with a knowing expression on her face as if she'd discovered some deep, dark secret. "This yours?" she inquired.

"What is it?" Torma asked before Verc could speak.

"To someone with a geometric bent, it's a icosahedron," the skunk woman replied, turning the object back and forth. Its twenty triangular faces glistened in the light, each one etched with a number inked in black. "That's a twenty-sided regular solid. But to another sort, it's known as a d20." She tossed it into the air and caught it. "Is this yours by any chance?" she inquired, offering it to Verc. With her right hand she typed a new string of commands into the workstation, without looking. Whatever she did worked; the error messages disappeared and the customer service screen came back.

"Yeah, I dropped that down there a while ago," Verc replied before Torma could interject. "But, y'know, it's been a while since I did that stuff..." shi shrugged. "Could you... y'know... show me how it's done now?" She smiled hopefully. As pickup lines went it was painfully lame and reeked of desperation. Verc knew that but couldn't help hirself. At that moment shi would have done anything, anything at all, for the promise of getting closer to that unspeakably gorgeous body.

The skunk woman's face lit up with a smile that made Verc's hearts flip-flop in hir chests. "I've love to," she exclaimed. "I've been looking for people to start a group." She offered her hand. "What's your name?"

"Vercingetorix Sharpclaw," Verc replied, taking the hand and shaking. It felt strong and soft. Imagining how it would feel stroking, say, hir back made Verc shiver. "But you can call me Verc. Everyone does."

"Vercingetorix?" The skunk frowned.

Verc shrugged. "My mother's named Boadicca and my big sister's Hannibal."

"Oh." The skunk scratched the side of her head. "Who's your dad? Caesar?"

"Frasi," Verc corrected.

"Oh." The skunk shrugged. "Oh well. Can't win 'em all, I guess."

"What's your name?" Torma asked.

"Jo," the skunk replied. "Jo Kepler."

"Howdy all and welcome to Casa du Kepler," Jo exclaimed. White teeth against a black face made her grin even more dazzling than it already was. "This is Liberty Hall. You can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard."

Despite its grandiose title Jo's living quarters consisted only of a small sized unit in a decent but not overly fancy arcology on Berdoovia's south side. For a Chakat the place would have been rather small, more like a studio than an apartment. For a humanoid- even one of Jo's stature- it was adequately roomy. Apparently most of Jo's visitors were Chakats or other centauroids; the unit's furnishings consisted of a couple low couches and tables, with only one or two chairs.

"I resent that!" a voice called from within.

"Oh, poo." Jo glanced over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue. "I wasn't talking about you. I'm sure your parentage is above reproach."

Verc tried not to stare but couldn't help it. For starters, Jo's tongue was remarkably long; Verc couldn't help speculating about some uses to which it might be put. Below that, Jo wore a white tee shirt with a color picture of a winged warrior woman on the front. It didn't show any cleavage to speak of but the swell of her breasts lifted the hem quite a ways away from her belly. A pair of knee-length denim cutoffs clothed her hips and thighs. Here too the tail slit didn't close securely, revealing tantalizing glimpses of what lay underneath. From the knees on down Jo's long, incredibly shapely legs were bare to the world. Jo's feet, currently bare, were of humanoid construction but equipped with long, decidedly claw-like toenails. Feet were not something Verc thought much about in assessing a potential sex partner, but Jo's feet were the most gorgeous examples of their kind Verc had ever seen.

"Folks, allow me to introduce Chakat Starbrite," Jo continued, waving Torma and Verc inside. "Shi, like me, is a professional dice-head and just loves popping cherries."

Verc forced hirself to smile. Physically Starbrite resembled a leopard and hir pelt did as well, at least on hir forequarters and torso. The rest of hir pelt was that of a silver point tabbey. Shi looked younger than Jo, in hir early to middle twenties perhaps. Verc moved in and sat quickly so shi wouldn't embarrass hirself by unsheathing in front of everyone. Starbrite wasn't that attractive- too thin, in Verc's opinion- but Jo was, and in Verc's mind the phrase "popping cherries" had very specific connotations.

"Verc and Torma here work at Coast Data Solutions, in the customer service department," Jo explained, taking her seat. That happened to be an overstuffed recliner surrounded by end tables: one on either side and one she moved directly in front. The left table held a clipboard, several engineering pads, and an assortment of pens and pencils. On the right rested a candy box now full of more different types, colors, and sizes of dice than Verc had ever imagined possible. A portable workstation sat on the remaining table; a sticker showing a winged unicorn had been applied to the back of the screen. "Have a seat, grab a drink if you want. Star and I were talking about ordering take out; we've got it narrowed down to pizza or Chinese."

"What do you do, Starbrite?" Verc asked. Taking a cue from Jo shi selected a spot within easy reach of the coffee table. As instructed shi'd brought a pad and pencil; hir only die consisted of the one Jo had found under hir desk. Shi felt obscurely inadequate; Starbrite's collection wasn't nearly so large as Jo's but shi did have a leather pouch in which to carry it.

"I service fast food kiosks," Starbrite replied. "It ain't much, I know, but it supports my habit."

"Habit?" Verc blinked.

Starbrite picked up an icosahedron- a d20- that seemed to be made of silver. "Gaming," shi clarified, tossing it up into the air and catching it.

"So what is role playing, anyway?" Torma wanted to know. Shi hadn't brought anything, not even a pencil.

"What indeed." Jo settled back in her chair, her tail hanging off to the left. "That's a doozy of a question, ain't it Star?"

"It's a game," Star said. "But it's not like most games. It isn't so much about winning or loosing as how you play."

"How is it played?" Verc inquired.

"Most role playing games are played with one or more players- that's you- and one game master, which in this case is me," Jo replied. "Each player controls one or several characters, through whom they interact with the game world. I, as the GM, play all the incidental- that is, non-player- characters you meet along the way. I'll also describe places and events and adjudicate how the game world reacts to what your characters do."

"What makes you qualified to be GM?" Torma asked.

"Extensive knowledge of the game system, the fact that I've prepared an adventure, and fifteen odd years of experience with gaming," Jo replied.

Torma frowned. "Sure, but I still don't get it. What's the point?"

Starbrite looked shocked. Jo merely smiled but her eyes took on an almost maniacal gleam. "What's the point?" she echoed. "Do you read, Torma?"

"I do," Verc cut in.

"Fiction or non?" Jo continued, her gaze shifting to Verc.

"Fiction more than not," Verc admitted.

"What sort? Fantasy, sci-fi, romance, other?"

"Fantasy," Verc said after a brief hesitation. Romance was probably more like the truth but shi found hirself not wanting to admit that.

"When you read a story, do you see it?" Jo asked. "Is it like watching a movie in your head? Do you find yourself imagining strange, exotic places filled with strange, exotic people?"

Verc nodded. The way Jo's face lit up increased her beauty by several orders of magnitude and took Verc's breath away.

"Have you ever imagined yourself in the story instead of, or in addition to, the characters put in there by the author?" Jo asked. "Have you ever thought, 'if I were this person I'd do something different?'"

"All the time," Verc declared, though in truth shi rarely did. Verc believed that if shi had time to wonder about such things it meant that the story wasn't sufficiently compelling. But Jo obviously saw things differently... and Verc wanted so very much to be on the same page.

"That's what role playing is," Jo concluded. "It's about stepping into an imaginary world, in the persona of someone who lives in that world. It's about storytelling. Interactive storytelling. You can think of me as the author... but all I do is set the stage. Where the story truly comes to life is where you- you can think of yourselves as actors- step into it. Where you get to say to yourself: 'what would I do if I were this person, in this place?'" She grinned. "That' the fun, and the whole point, of role playing."

"Hmm," Torma commented, still sounding somewhat doubtful.

"How do we start?" Verc wanted to know.

"You make a character," Jo replied. "The genre we'll be playing in tonight is basic swords and sorcery. It has the advantage of being something most people are familiar with and the system's simple but reasonably flexible. Start with a sheet of paper, a pencil, and four d-sixes. That's these, the square ones." She laid out two sets of four.

"May I have a sheet?" Torma asked.

"Sure." Jo tore a page from one of her engineering pads. "Take your d-sixes and roll them. All at once or one at a time, does' matter. Eliminate the lowest number and add up the other three. Do that six times, so you end up with six numbers between three and eighteen."

Verc picked up her dice. After brief consideration shi cupped them in both hands, gave several good shakes, and let them fall. They came up four, three, three, and three. Shi scooted one of the threes aside; the others added up to ten, which shi wrote on hir pad. Five more rolls produced twelve, twelve, twelve, fifteen, and thirteen.

"Ready?" Jo leaned forward, glancing at Verc's numbers. "Not bad," she commented with a nod. "Now, think about what sort of character you want to be. Perhaps you're a dashing swashbuckler, or a brave knight-"

"Wait, I'm not done," Torma cut in. Shi was rolling hir dice one at a time and so far had only produced two final numbers.

"Don't worry, I'll come back to you," Jo assured. "If I'm busy, Star'll help you."

During the exchange an image had formed in Verc's mind. "I want to be a knight," shi blurted suddenly. "A knight in shining armor."

"Excellent choice." Jo grinned. Verc smiled; in hir mind shi imagined hirself as a brave knight in brightly polished, richly decorated armor. Jo would be... a princess, in a lavish gown, rushing forward to embrace the noble warrior who'd rescued her from the terrible beast-

"W- what?" Verc stammered, eyes wide. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch that."

"A knight is a type of fighter," Jo repeated.

"Shouldn't shi be a paladin?" Star suggested.

"Maybe, but let's save that for the two hundred level program," Jo replied. "Now, Verc, write down your stats. There's six: strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. Assign one number to each. Since you're a knight- a fighter- you want to put your highest numbers in strength, dex, and con. Strength increases your ability in hand-to-hand combat and lets you carry more stuff. Dex increases your ability in ranged combat, and con helps you resist damage more. I'd suggest you put the 15 in strength, 13 in dex, 12 in con, 12 in intelligence, 12 in wisdom, and 10 in charisma."

"Okay." Verc obediently recorded the numbers as indicated.

"Now, you pick a species," Jo said. "To keep things simple,you're all going to be Terrans." -Make up characters in advance

To Be Continued