Chapter 1: Warrior

I was good at my job, but not enthusiastic about it. Melliza, the aluminum hulled catamaran, with its twin water jet engines and its bow thrusters was a dream to pilot, and the run between Port Isabel and South Padre Island, and between Isla Blanca and the Laguna Atascosa wildlife refuge had long since been burned into my brains and my muscle memory. I could make any of my three regular routes with my eyes closed. Not that I would.

I was in my mid fifties, I had a bad valve in my heart that the doctors kept telling me I'd have to have surgery for one of these days. I had false teeth and an extra eighty pounds of beer belly that had been slowly growing on me since childhood. I wore glasses which had been thickening over the years right along with my waist, and which were now threatening to become bifocals.

During spring break each year, and during most of the summer season, my job offered one of the world's best perks for a confirmed and enthusiastic heterosexual such as myself. Endless waves of women and girls who were ready to become women, all wearing the bikinis they couldn't get away with wearing back home. From the spring break hard-bodies to the summer vacation families, it was a visual feast.

Something had to make the tiny little shack I could barely afford worth keeping, and that was it. I had been working the Laguna Madre harbors off and on for almost fifteen years now, since my divorce.

Yes, I was married once. Helena Boniface had allowed me to sweep her off her feet when we met. She thought my job was glamorous, and by extension, that made me glamorous. The glamor wore off pretty quickly once she realized I wasn't glamorous in any way. She left for a bigger pay check, a bigger life, and if you listened to her, a bigger dick. No surprises there I suppose, but who was listening?

The beginning of the end was a 'winter carnival' cruise down into the South Bay of Laguna Madre. It was a mixed bag of passengers and a small crowd, only twenty or so, mostly families, a few foreign business-types with a day off and no sense. This tour was usually taken by those people with little to spend, or those who'd already seen the good stuff. It was an evening cruise, and with the early setting winter sun, there was little to see in the way of scenery, except for the lights along the shore. We had to dress things up with the winter carnival hype, doing some fake Christmas trees, and old Palo, the tour guide dressed up as Santa. We played Christmas carols through the sound system instead of our usual mix of mariachi and elevator music, and served eggnog and beer for the adults.

Palo was the oldest of the tour hands, and his crew on this trip was Kristy James and Peter Lewes. Pete was a good guy, and Kristy was one of those College hard bodies who'd decided to drop out and stick around. I was the ship's captain, of course. Captain Ed. 'Good old Captain Ed'. I had two deck hands, both young local tex-mex school boys, Sammy and Fred. I had crewed with the two boys many times in the past couple of years, and they were good workers.

We had passed Clark Island on our port side about five minutes ago, headed for a loop through the Loma's, a series of seven islands, all of a size, except for Loma Silvan, which was smaller than the others. These shallow waters were a risk at anything but high tide for most boats our size, but it was high tide and Melliza's twin catamaran aluminum hulls drew very little water.

We were making for the waters between Loma Silvan and Loma de la Banderita when we hit something. The passengers reacted, with yells and some panicked screams at first. Most of them had been tossed to the deck by the sudden stop. Then the ship tilted for a moment, at the oddest angle, and in a calm sea, without even a winter storm from the gulf to raise a chop on the waters, without a rising swell for a warning, the bottom seemed to drop out from under us and the world went black.

I was awake for a while before I even realized it, afloat in a sea of muted sensation - no sound, no light, no feeling. I wiggled my toes experimentally, and felt some comfort when it seemed to work. The motion, or my attempt at it, must've triggered something. There was a sudden lightening of the air around me, and I heard a soft rustling noise from behind me. I strained to turn my head towards the noise, wondering if I was succeeding, and through a soft fog my eyes finally found something to focus on, smoothly gliding into view. Through that fog I saw a slick, oily mass of mottled skin, a series of small blue beads that looked like buttons, but which I realized were eyes once the cluster of tentacles beneath them came into focus. A mouth opened, and a hissing, popping noise struck me. I was looking at something as alien as anything I could have ever thought I'd see. Behind the hissing, were rows of sharp, triangular teeth. I screamed and twisted away in panic.

And blackness came again.

== Kiris IV, Kiris Retrieval Station ==

When he woke up this time, Ed could tell right away that something was different. He saw a wall in front of him, and when he looked down, a floor at his feet.

He saw his feet!

He decided that they felt like his feet. The perspective was right, but the feet looked bigger and rawer somehow than the feet he remembered. That one grungy toenail on his right foot that seemed to suffer permanent contamination from some sort of fungus looked clean as a whistle. Ed wiggled his toes, and the ones he was looking at moved. 'Yup, they're mine', he thought.

Ed tried tilting his head a little further down to see the rest of his legs, but when he did, a wave of vertigo hit him, followed by a surge of nausea. His stomach rebelled, and he felt the bile rising in the back of his throat. He was vomiting a few seconds later, and couldn't seem to turn his head enough to keep it from collecting in his mouth, he spat, and vomited some more, and the vomit seemed to collect where it would do the most harm. He began to choke on his own ejecta, and again panic rose, followed by the fog again and then the strangely comforting blackness.

The third time's the charm, they say, and for Ed, at least this time, it proved true. He woke feeling clear-eyed and alert. Again he saw a wall in front of him, and his feet beneath him. When he moved his head, he saw legs, and with a quick movement that didn't nauseate or panic him, pulled an arm around in front of his eyes. He had arms and hands. He touched nose, lips and ears in a quick trinity of reassurance. Then, being a man, reached down between his legs for that little moment of reassurance. Phew! There was a dick there, thank God! He thought, before suddenly re-examining the plumbing.

There was definitely something wrong here! This was not his dick! Ed knew how much of his hand the penis he had been born with filled, and this filled that with some left over. He looked at his hand again, focusing this time on the details of it rather than on the mere existence of it. This wasn't the hand he remembered. It was larger and younger!

Suddenly he was aware of himself standing in a room. He was naked and he was young, and had dark, reddish brown hairs everywhere that he had once had dull brown or graying hair. The legs holding him up looked powerful, as did the arms he held out. He made a muscle.

Yeah, then he laughed as he caught himself standing there primping!

Ed's awareness soon shifted from the body to the room. The wall he was facing was blank, white and featureless. He turned, and behind him found a slender clear tube that ran from ceiling to floor, with two smaller tubes of some silvery metal running alongside it. He could see a bubbling clear liquid moving down through the clear tube. He reached out to touch the tube, and a cloud of tiny clear filaments reached out to meet him. They touched and penetrated the flesh of his hand, writhing, as if seeking with seeming inquisitiveness, then, finding the hand was something unexpected, retracting to sink back into the clear column. Ed looked at the palm where he'd seen the filaments sink in. He had felt nothing, and there was no mark left behind. The entire column chose that moment to retract itself into a circular spot in the ceiling above him, leaving only a shiny metallic spot. There were a half dozen other spots on the ceiling where columns like his might be lowered.

Beyond the column, the far wall of the room appeared to have two windows, and Ed walked over to them. He touched the surface of the first one, thinking it might be a painting at first. There was a glassy-feeling surface, slightly cool to the touch, but behind it, or beyond it, maybe in it, all that could be seen were stars. Not the blinking, wavering stars he was used to seeing in the night skies of Texas, but what even he knew enough to recognize as the hard, unblinking light of stars as seen from space.

While Ed stared at what he still wasn't sure was a window, a soft musical tone sounded, and as he turned towards it, saw a door open silently in the wall to his left. In his mind he silently added the sound from all the old Star Trek TV shows. You know, the 'SHWEET!' sound that the doors made when they opened?

Ed was in space, he knew it, and if he hadn't already been thinking it, the wide, squat, oily looking body with the mottled skin and the face full of tentacles would have gotten him thinking it. He remembered panicking over this creature, or someone like it back when his brain was working on a much more basic level, anyone from Earth could understand why he was bothered. That face full of tentacles was kind of creepy.

They stood, a dozen feet apart, staring at each other. Well, Ed was staring. He could only assume his host, or whatever it was, was staring. Those tiny blue eyes were all facing him. There were a couple dozen of them, in three soft crescents clustered around a common center. The cluster of tentacles below the cluster of eyes began to move, and shortly afterward, the room spoke in a soft, soothing voice.

"Hello. My name is Trugar. I am the medical technician in charge of your care."

A translator of some kind? Ed couldn't tell where the voice came from exactly. Somewhere overhead.

"Hello, my name is Ed Bell. How are you doing?"

There was another slight pause, as whatever had translated for it did the same for Ed.

"I am fine, Ed Bell. More importantly, how are you feeling?"

"Please, call me Ed." He answered. "I feel pretty darn good, to be honest. I can't say I've ever felt this good in my life. You are definitely an alien, so I can assume we are on a space ship?"

The tentacle waving took a while this time before the reply began.

"Yes Ed. We are aware of the use of familiar addresses, such as first names, but did not want to presume. You are on a space station, permanently stationed in orbit around a planet called Kiris. As your people are called Humans from the planet Earth, I am a Penod from the planet Demelor."

"How is it I can't hear you speak, but your names can be said using words I can hear? Is that a hard translation to make?"

"The names we are using for these places are the transliterations of the names they have been given by the Skafti, the beings who have brought you here."

"What has happened to me?" Ed asked, the floodgates opening. "How did I get so young, and in such a different body? How far from Earth are we?"

"I cannot tell you how far away Earth is. The Skafti have not shared that information with me. The body you had when you were brought aboard the craft that retrieved you was inadequate to the purposes for which the Skafti retrieved you, so a new body was grown, using optimized genetic material from you species. Your current body's age is within the optimal range for your species, and should provide for maximum stamina, endurance, healing and adaptability."

Well, that explained a lot, in an 'I-still-don't-know-shit' kinda way, Ed thought.

"Who are the Skafti?"

"The Skafti are your employers and mine." Trugar said. "However, as a member of an unrecognized species from a primitive planet, your status is somewhat fluid. If the Skafti wish to use you in any public capacity, they will have to treat you as an intelligent being, and that gives you certain rights. The fact that I was allowed to treat you and the other humans suggests that you will be given those rights. I am bound by my oaths as a healer to report it if you are not, if I believe, as I do, that you meet the intelligence requirements."

"So I"m not a slave?"

"You are not. Slavery is one of the things the Rift Conventions abolished, many, many generations ago. Not that it doesn't still exist here and there. Those who still engage in the custom are remote societies, and insular. The Skafti are too much into trade and politics to risk dabbling in slavery."

"You said there were other humans. Did you mean the people who were with me when I was 'retrieved'?"

"Some of them, yes Ed. But others as well. The Skafti's retrieval procedures are not harsh, but the process is not without its dangers."

"How many other humans are there here? Where are they?"

"There are forty seven humans who have been successfully retrieved aboard this station. They are all in another location, and you will get to see them once you are done here. They have been awake and functioning a bit longer than you. You are the last to be brought back to full consciousness, as the medical efforts required for you were the most extensive. You were the oldest, and had the most significant health issues."

"Okay, so what's next then?"

"You have passed all the medical requirements for release, but the Skafti have a standard set of requirements in cases like yours, so you must pass a few physical tests. Nothing too strenuous."

With those words a foggy blur of light seemed to coalesce beside them, until it resolved into a more or less human form with a bald head and wearing nothing but a pair of shorts.

"This is a holographic projection based on your species. It will conduct some drills designed to test your physical status. Please put on the clothing in the drawer."

As Trugar said this a drawer slid out of what Ed had thought was a seamless wall, and sitting in the drawer it revealed was a pair of shorts similar to those worn by the holograph. Putting the shorts on was no different than any pair of shorts he'd ever stepped into, but once these were on, Ed could feel the material seeming to readjust itself to him until the shorts were a perfect fit. Perhaps too perfect, as they were form fitting and left little to the imagination.

'Oh well', Ed thought, 'I have nothing to complain about in that area any more, let 'em look!'

Trugar excused itself for the moment, off somewhere to monitor Ed remotely, he assumed. He made a mental note to ask it about gender the next time they were together. Then he was busy, as the holographic gym teacher ran him through his paces for over an hour. Most of it was pretty familiar stuff — sit ups, push ups, jumping, bending and stretching. Ed had no problems with any of it, and it felt good to be in a body that could do these things so easily and so well. He hadn't had that kind of body since he was an eight year old. In the end, he felt good, was barely sweating at all, and finally felt truly at home in the new body.

Trugar returned, and his holographic companion disappeared at the same time.

"You did very well." Trugar said. "The extra time required may mean you will have an easier time than some, in the end, but you are performing as well as could possibly be expected. Are you hungry?"

Ed swore his stomach grumbled the minute it asked. He was starving!

"Yes, I am." He said.

"I will escort you to the other retrieved humans now, and you will be able to have a meal there."

"Thanks Trugar. By the way. Are you a she or a he, or do those gender terms apply?"

"I am a he, as my species defines it. Gender is important to you?"

"Only because of some language issues. Whatever is doing the translating for us is doing a very good job, by the way."

"There will be some issues to resolve shortly with how you humans are allowed to deal with languages." Trugar said. "Translation devices such as this one are essential when it comes to differences such as ours, or when dealing with races that do not have a verbal speech component at all. Still, for the most part, the prominent races do communicate within the same basic parameters, and learning the major languages is advisable. Yours will have an easier time of it than most races, I expect. I have been told that your home planet is already multilingual, and most of the retrieved speak at least two languages already, I've noticed."

"I'm not what you would call fluent in anything useful besides English, but you don't live where I did without speaking good 'Tex-Mex'." Ed said, which was something of a lie. He was fluent in Spanish, having studied it, once he decided it was worth knowing on its own merits, during high school and college.

What he was also pretty fluent in was Yaqui, or Yoeme Noki. Yoeme is how the Yaqui call themselves. Your guess as to how that evolved to Yaqui was as good as Ed's, but his personal opinion was that it had something to do with the Rio Yaqui, the big river in the Sonora state of Mexico. There had been a lot of Yoeme in old Sonora. Ed's thoughts returned to his childhood.

The Escalante's, Anselmo and Herminia were the family's handyman and housekeeper respectively, and Ed grew up with their son David, who was a year older. David Escalante tried hard to be an American boy, and that eventually meant, in his mind, rejecting his heritage at the same time Ed was becoming fascinated with it. His parents weren't Pascua Yaqui tribe, the American Yaqui, but immigrant Mexican Yaqui from Sonora.

David learned English and baseball and cars and rock and roll while Ed was learning Yoeme and the mix of mysticism and Jesuit catholicism that passed as their religion. The Catholic aspects, particularly their emphasis on Lent and Easter fit in well with the practices of his parents. The Escalante's Yoeme nickname for him was Allea, which means happy. Ed was happy, as a child, sedentary - but happy.

He came back out of his thoughts as they came to a door and stopped.

"I will leave you here. The others are through this door, and they will be able to show you where the food dispenser is."

'Food dispenser huh?' Ed thought to himself as he watched Trugar trundle away on the dozen or so large, lower tentacles that he used for moving about. 'Maybe I could ask it for some Romulan ale.' He thought, grinning at his own silliness over that one. The grin was still on his face when he stepped towards the door and it opened silently in front of him.

Forty six people, Human people, met Ed inside the door. He knew four of them. Kristy James, Peter Lewes, Sammy Cruz and Fred Delgado.

Kristy looked almost unchanged and he recognized her immediately, though Ed's eyes had a hard time moving back up to her face once he realized she was wearing a pair of shorts and something like a sports bra, and nothing else. Peter Lewes was changed very little as well, but he could see that Peter was now a physical specimen like he had become. Sammy and Fred were older looking than he remembered, slightly more mature, but they had both been sixteen or seventeen, if Ed remembered correctly. The change was noticeable, but not huge.

He scanned their faces and the faces of the other people he saw in the room. They couldn't have all been from the Melliza, but he saw no spark of recognition in any of their faces. Ed Bell just didn't look like Ed Bell any more. A man he didn't recognize approached as the door closed behind me.

"Hi there!" He began, holding his hand out for a shake. "I'm Gordon Truitt. We had heard there was one more person undergoing treatment. It looks like we're all here at last."

"Guess I'm glad to be here, considering the alternative." He answered shaking the offered hand. "I'm Ed Bell."

"Captain Ed!" Came the cry from Sammy, Fred and Kristy. "Oh my God!" came Peter's comment a second later.

"He was the captain of our boat!" Fred called back to the rest of the crowd. Ed found a dozen people later who had also been aboard the boat, but didn't get a chance to see their reactions at that moment, because he was swamped by a group hug from his four former shipmates.

"Palo didn't make it?" Ed asked.

"No." Peter said. "We don't know if they tried to take him and he died, or if they left him. They didn't take any of the children aboard or any of the children's parents."

"We've done a survey of those aboard, and everyone taken was either unmarried or with their spouse or significant other." Gordon Truitt said. "The Skafti were able to be pretty selective."

"We seem to be from five different groups." Kristy said. "Our twelve, taken from the Melliza in Laguna Madre; eight from the sea of Japan; nine from a bus near Bergen, Norway; ten from a ferry near the Greek Island of Skopelos; and eight more from a small village near Boende, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

"That seems to be a pretty diverse group. How's the communications working?"

"The translation capabilities of these beings have saved us." Peter said. "It would have been a lot harder for us, especially with the Congolese. Everyone else had at least some working knowledge of English, but they all spoke only something called Lingala."

"I was told there was food here, and I'm starving. Any chance of getting a little chicken fried steak or something?

"Of course!" Kristy said, grabbing his arm. "The food dispenser is over here, allow me."

"How long has everyone else been awake?" Ed asked.

"Almost a month for most of us. A little less for a few, but everyone but you has been awake for at least three weeks."

We stopped in front of a small counter built into the wall. A smooth voice, from nowhere, asked. "Service or query?"

"Service please." Kristy said loudly.

"Attending." the voice answered.

"Go ahead and ask it for whatever you want. If it can't make it, or doesn't know what it is, it'll tell you."

"Chicken fried steak and gravy, cottage fries and buttered toast please." Ed said. There was a momentary pause.


"You are probably going to benefit from being such a late comer." Kristy said, "and from Fred and Sam being such chow hounds. They've probably waged all the culinary battles with the food system that you might have, unless you stray away from the standard Texan and Tex-Mex menus."

There was a pleasant dinging sound, and suddenly a large plate with what looked like a fine chicken fried steak and potatoes breakfast appeared on the counter top.

"Coffee?" Kristy asked.

"Oh yeah!" Ed said with some enthusiasm. "Sounds great."

"Cream and sugar?"

"Black for me."

"Two coffees please!" Kristy said.

Kristy and Ed sat at one of the small tables that clustered around the dispenser and she watched him eat while she sipped her coffee. Gordon and another man, along with a woman from the Norwegian contingent came over after he was close to finished.

"Mr. Bell, there are a few things we'd like to ask you if you don't mind."

"Not at all." Ed said. "Pull up a stump."

He was introduced to Ken Itokawa and Berit Schau. Berit was almost as distracting as Kristy, Ed thought.

"We've checked with Pete and the others from your ship that remembered you, and while the rest of us are all still looking pretty much like young, healthy versions of ourselves, it appears you bear no resemblance to your old self. Do you know why?"

"According to Trugar, my body didn't make it through whatever process was involved in getting us all here. On top of that I had some genetic problems, including a bad heart valve. A new body was created for me, using ... how did he say it... 'optimized genetic material from my species.'"

"Trugar?" Kristy asked.

"That was the name of the Penod medical technician who got me squared away after I woke up."

"Are those the ones with all the eyes and tentacles?" The woman asked in heavily accented English.

"Yea, pretty unsettling at first, but once I got used to it I decided I liked Trugar. He had a good bedside manner as they used to say."

After Ed finished the last few bites of his breakfast, he decided it was his turn to ask a few questions.

"Kristy says that you all have been awake for at least three weeks already, and most of you have been here a month. What have they had you doing?"

"Not a damned thing." Gordon answered.

"We exercise every morning." Berit said. "There is a holographic instructor."

"Other than that, they've left us alone, as if they're waiting for something." Kristy said. "Maybe they were waiting for you to be ready?"

"Your guess is as good as mine." Ed said. "Maybe better. I've been awake and aware for less than a day. Have any of you seen our Skafti keepers?"

"Once." Ken answered. "We saw a bunch of them at the very beginning."

"What do they look like?"

"Short and stocky." Gordon said. "Faces that remind me of a badger more than anything else."

"Snouts and teeth, but the hands were almost human looking, and they have soft, hollow voices, when you listen to them instead of the translation."


The speculation that they Skafti were waiting for him proved to be just as wrong as all the other speculation. They sat on their hands for a couple more weeks after Ed joined the group. Beyond finding out where the bathrooms were, and finding one of the small but comfortable sleep surfaces in the 'sleep chamber', as everyone called it, Ed learned nothing new.

He had a small problem with the sleep chamber at first. They employed a 'sleep field', at least that was how he thought of it. You got very little time after your head hit the pillow, and then you were asleep. There was no laying in bed ruminating over the days events, pathetic as they were. Sleep was automatic and unavoidable once you lay down on the sleep surface.

This bothered Ed, mostly because he didn't like the feeling of loosing control, and it interrupted a lifelong ritual of his. It wasn't that the Yaqui influences of his youth had carried over to his adult life so much, or even that he was a lapsed Catholic, which is what his parents had considered him. He liked to spend a little time at the end of each day considering the four facets of the world as they related to him.

The Yoeme divided the world into four aspects: animal, people, flowers and death. Ed had borrowed that concept, greatly twisted from the meanings the Escalantes had tried so hard to share with him, and made it his own. At the end of each day he considered his animal aspect — how he dealt with the urges and passions felt or encountered during the day; his people aspect — how he had dealt with people, and how he had presented himself to people. Those two aspects of the world were pretty concrete. But the worlds of flowers and death he approached more abstractly. Ed asked himself at the end of each day if he could accept death, if it came for him. He had always felt that death was not a horrible fate waiting for him at the end of his life. It was the fate of every living thing, so why fear it?

The world of flowers was another story entirely. This was the spirit world. The Yoeme blended a lot of their original beliefs with the Catholicism of the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries that came to them, but Ed didn't borrow the trappings of anything, Yoeme or Catholic for his purposes. He used the framework of that origin to examine his own soul at the end of each day.

How do you examine your soul? How do you survive a daily crisis of faith where you convince yourself that you are not yet evil and that your beliefs are true? Or at least true to you?

A good question, and one Ed thought he might never answer. His ex-wife, in a period of evangelical fervor had condemned him to rot in hell for his lack of faith. Ed saw her faith as a blind subordination of will that he wasn't willing to consider. Her fervor barely lasted as long as their marriage, he heard.

So to be able to keep his routine, Ed took to spending a little time each evening before he went to the sleep chamber sitting, cross-legged in a corner of the main room, eyes closed and following his usual end-of-day routine. Most everyone thought it was meditation, but it wasn't really, at least not in the traditional sense. Even so, a few people began to join him. Gordon Truitt had been doing something similar from day one, according to Kristy, but he was always off in a corner by himself, and claimed that what he was doing wasn't meditation either.

Ed tried a couple times to explain what he was really doing to Kristy and a few others that had joined, but nobody really seemed to understand, always reading more into it than was there. It was really more like a nightly self-evaluation and mental inventory. He often thought of a line from an old movie that he used to love called Innerspace. Dennis Quaid's character, Lt. Tuck Pendleton looks at himself in the mirror, decides everything is fine and declares -'The Tuck Pendleton machine: zero defects.', followed by his trademark big, goofy grin. His nightly mental self exam was like that. He looked for defects and flaws, and hoped he could end the exam with a statement like Tuck Pendleton's. Ed rarely made it, but took pride in coming close most of the time. Well, as long as he'd ignored his growiing wasitline.

When things did begin to happen, they happened quickly. Ed saw his first Skafti in the morning of his fifteenth day. He agreed with Gordon Truitt's assessment. They reminded him of badgers as well, maybe with a little Lemur thrown in.

They were sorted into five groups of seven and two groups of six, seemingly at random. Ed's group included Kristy, but all the rest of the Melliza survivors that he knew were in other groups. There was a Skafti for each group. Theirs was obviously female. Once off by themselves, she introduced herself through the translator.

"Hello. My name is Chara. Today you will be taken to the learning center. You will receive a language implant and a personal translator while you are there. Some initial evaluations will take place during this time. The results of these evaluations will determine your initial placement within the Beheri."

That last word didn't translate, and they all heard it only as an echo of her speaking it.

"What is the Beheri?" One of the men in the group asked. This caused some silence before Chara finally answered.

"This is the ... collective enterprise for which the Skafti find continued reason to exist?"

The translator managed to convey the hesitancy with which she answered. They at least understood the words, if not the true meaning this time. This opened the floodgates, and suddenly everyone in the group was asking questions and demanding answers. Ed's group wasn't the only one, and soon the clamor had escalated to cacophony. It took only seconds of this to get him annoyed.

"People!" he hollered into the room at the top of his voice. "Quiet!!" he hollered a moment later to still the last few voices.

"Chara, if we object to being here, will we be returned to our home?" Ed asked loudly.

"No." She replied.

"Ever?" I asked.

"No." she said.

"Is what you are asking us to do today going to harm us, or put us in danger?"

There was some hesitation this time, and a couple of them conferred before she answered.


"This isn't a cruise ship folks." Ed said to the crowd. "Complaining and making demands is not going to help."

"Thank you." Chara said once we were back to normal. "Please follow me."

Their Skafti led them out the door Ed remembered coming in, and down the hall, back the way he remembered coming. That was an assumption, but Ed left it unvoiced, so who cares if he was right or wrong?

The learning center seemed very similar to the room he'd awakened in. There were the clear fluid-filled columns with the metal companion tubes running from the ceiling to the floor, as he remembered. None of the rest of my group showed any signs of recognition.

They were each ushered to a column and Chara indicated that they should stand with their backs against them. Ed did, and felt nothing, but a moment later the world went black.

I dreamt I was floating, and it wasn't a dream. The world was dark, but there was no world. A voice spoke from the darkness, and I didn't understand, but I knew every word. In the darkness, and without form, I ran where there was no ground, and jumped where there was no air. I kicked and punched and rolled. I aimed weapons I didn't have, flew and swam and danced. I lived and died a million lives in the blink of an eye, and when the darkness went away and was replaced by the face of Chara in front of me and the learning center around me, it was as if I had once been here a lifetime ago.

"Wow!" Ed said in English, then said it again in Skafti. "Sha!"

He might not have even realized what he had done, if Chara had not spoken then.

"Yes, you all can understand and speak Skafti now. You may have some problems with the speaking part until your vocal apparatus become comfortable with the language."

She had said it in Skafti, and there had been no translation.

"Perhaps we should speak in Skafti as much as possible for the time being to aide in the process?" Kristy offered in Skafti.

"Sounds good to me." Ed answered in Skafti as well.

Their group was led back to the common room from which they had come. So it was assumed. There had been no way to collect any sort of personal effects to leave cluttering the place, and it was always spotlessly clean every morning when they woke up. This could be a different but identical room for all they knew, but it seemed to Ed that knowing that wasn't important at the moment.

They were all eventually back in the room, and the Skafti began taking turns calling out names

A flowing display on her forearm began to glow, and Chara looked at it for a moment before addressing us again.

"Ed Bell, Kristy James and Kanu?" Chara called out. "Please gather behind me." Ed and Kristy began moving forward together, and were soon joined by one of the Africans.

"You three have been assigned to my Benu."

Benu was another of those words that didn't translate. With the Skafti language percolating in his brain, Ed understood it to mean, more or less, an aspect of the Beheri which was beneficial.

The door to the learning center opened and another Skafti, wearing the same sort of uniform as Chara, came in and walked up to the three of them standing behind Chara.

"I am Corporal Rega. Please follow me."

They were escorted down the same corridor, not back towards the room were they had left the others, but in the opposite direction, until the corridor they were in opened up on a huge multi-leveled open plaza. The room was full of people of every size, shape and description. Imagine a room the size of the old Astrodome in Houston, filled with an Astrodome-sized group of aliens from the cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie. There was no band playing here, and it was well lit and airy, but the background din of so many voices talking in so many languages, pitched high, low and in between, and you have some idea of how it hit them.

Kanu looked a little wide eyed. He was one of the villagers from the Congo, and Ed was concerned that he was having trouble adjusting to all this.

"You alright Kanu?" he asked in Skafti. Ed didn't think the two of them could have communicated in anything else at the moment, even if they wanted to. Their humanity and knowledge of the Skafti language were the only common points they shared.

"There are so many kinds of people? So many different skins their spirits wear?"

Curiously, Ed recognized that the Skafti word for spirit, Tehe, was similar to the Skafti word for flower, Tehu. He had to assume that this similarity to the Yoeme was coincidental. Probably just a linguistic bit of happenstance. Now was not the time to be bringing spiritual significance to any part of what was going on.

"Many shapes, but their souls are still souls, right Kanu?"

They circled the plaza rather than attempting to walk through it. And came to what Ed assumed was a bank of elevators. Yet another silently sliding door opened. He had managed to get over the tendency to substitute the silent 'shhwwee' sound in his head, but this time Ed was thinking 'Ooh! Turbolift!!'.

It is sad sometimes to know you have grown up with a certain outlook. A certain geek-ish outlook. Ed was determined to keep that aspect of who he was buried for now. Perhaps this new Ed Bell would be different.

"You three are the first of your kind to be welcomed into our benu, the Iri Var." Rega said as we stood in the lift, or whatever it really was. "Soon you will give your oaths, and your new life will begin."

If there was a new Ed, he was as blown away as the old one when that door opened again. Up, down or off on a tangent, the movement had been unnoticeable, but its results definitely were not. They were in a hanger, and in that hanger were space ships!

In huge letters along one wall of the hanger were painted words which he realized he could now read. The Skafti lettering said 'Shuttle Bay 2-15'.

"Shuttles!" Kristy said beside him.

Ed's eyes, and his sense of proportion did some adjusting, and he realized that these were probably all far too small to be full-fledged space ships. The largest of them wasn't even as big as an old Earth space shuttle. Only a couple of the dozens of craft had wings.

They followed Corporal Rega to one of the shuttles and he found them seats, showing them how to strap themselves in. They sat for several long minutes, during which another half dozen beings arrived and took seats in the shuttle.

"You may find this ride unsettling." Corporal Rega told them. "The shuttle has gravity generators, but the compensators are not as powerful as those aboard a normal ship, and not all the effects of movement are canceled."

Ed barely heard him. He was still struggling with what the Skafti had said in the lift.

Iri Var. In Skafti Iri meant 'bringers of', and Var was their word for death.

Iri Var, it turned out, is the Skafti version of the army, navy, air force and marines, all rolled into one. Their shuttle trip had been short, moving them to the Calis, a real space ship, which they got to see through the shuttle's view screens as they approached it.

"The Calis is a multipurpose transport, intended to move personnel and equipment wherever it is needed." The corporal said as he took us through a maze of corridors to a huge barracks. "We will be aboard for ten days en route to Ai Ru, one of the core Skafti worlds, and the location of the Iri Var's primary training center."

The barracks looked like it had room for a couple hundred, but there were only twenty or thirty people there when they arrived. Corporal Rega led them up to a being who wore a uniform similar to his, and the two of them exchanged what Ed assumed was a salute, when each of them slapped their open left hand onto their right shoulder. Or haunch might have been the proper term as it applied to the sergeant. He had six legs and two arms and a long thin head that seemed to be all neck. A pair of squinty black eyes stared out from that head, and they looked us over silently for a while before glancing down at a forearm display like the one Ed remembered Chara having.

"I am Sergeant Gan. You three are new I see. You look something like the Orminites, except for the hair. We've got four Ormin here, if you'd prefer bunking near them?"

Ed looked at Kristy and Kanu, and neither of them did more than shrug.

"Doesn't matter to us, I guess." Ed answered. "We are from a non-space-faring race, so you are all new to us."

"You Engeri need to report to the night crew over at the Red and Black partition you can see towards the back." The sergeant said to two of our companions from the shuttle. They were both wearing wraparound sunglasses. "The rest of you fall out and find a free node. We'll be breaking orbit shortly."

They weren't sure what a free node was, but the sergeant didn't wait for a reply, and they were suddenly on our own in a room full of alien strangers.

"Do you think we should ask someone what a free node is?" Kristy said.

"Perhaps it is what they call a bunk?" Kanu asked. "The activity of the others here seems to be centered around the sleep fields like those we had back at the space station."

That made sense to Ed, so they tried to find a spot they liked that they could settle down in. He was shooting for one along one of the edges, so they had at least one side that didn't face someone else. Not that the sleep fields left you worried about restless nights. Looking around he realized that some of their companions were sitting in mid-air rather than laying down.

"We need to find out how to do that." he said, nodding to an example as they passed by. With only thirty people in the huge room, there was no problem finding sleep fields near the edge. They stopped near a small blue-green fellow with long ears and friendly eyes who was sitting on his field in the manner they were curious about.

"Excuse me, but could I ask you a question?" Ed asked. "These sleep field things are new to us, and we don't know how to operate them for anything except sleeping. We see you are using yours to sit in. Could you show us how to do that?"

"Sure." The creature said. "Low tech recruits are you?"

"Way lower than this." Kristy said. "We managed to send a few men to the moon orbiting our home planet, and a few unmanned probes to other planets in our system, but that was about it."

"My name is Ledda. I'm from Parandi 9. What do you call yourselves?"

"I'm Kristy, this is Ed and Kanu. We are from Sol 3."

They made their introductions and then Ledda gave them a nice introduction to the Skafti universal comfort station, military version.

"You came from the processing center at the Kantes Station, I take it?" He asked later as they all sat on their 'bunks', getting to know each other. "You had to have been taken rather than recruited, I'd guess."

"Yes." Kanu said. "I wonder how it is possible for these people to take us. Are there no laws amongst these beings to prevent taking innocent people from their homes without asking?"

"Yes and no." Ledda answered. "Primitive societies, those without space travel or unified governments are supposed to be off-limits for recruiting unless there is some near term mass extinction event predicted for their planet. Were you aware of any likelihood of that happening?"

"No, but there were many governments with the capability of launching weapons that could very well do that sort of thing." Ed answered.

"I would suspect that something like that was predicted to happen then, or some other natural event which might have caused it. A predicted collision with an object in space, or a stellar event. Did your scientists believe your home star to be stable?"

"We are not scientists, but to the best of my knowledge our scientists did believe our star was very stable." Kristy answered.

"Well, I would expect that even if you could return to your planet today, the day is not too far off when you would not be able to or want to." Ledda said. "That is how the Skafti usually operate."

"How reliable is that 'usually'?" Ed asked.

"Pretty reliable." Ledda answered. "The Skafti do have enemies, politically and otherwise, who would like to catch them doing something unsavory or unethical, so they would be careful to make good choices, but even if it were not so, they are a fairly honorable species, compared to most. Odd in some ways, pretty normal in others, but when you start comparing species across the galaxy, you have to ask yourself how is it possible to decide what's normal?"

"What about meals?" Kanu asked. "On the station we had food dispensers. Is it the same here?"

"Here it will be." Ledda said. "I hear that once we get to the training facility it will often be a little more primitive. I guess that's by design."

"We're still absorbing the concept that we are suddenly members of a military force, even if only in training." Kristy said. "I never had any kind of military training back home."

"Me either." Ed said. "I had health problems that kept me from serving."

"I was once in the military of my home land." Kanu said. "before the current unrest, when I was young. The military there now is at the center of a horrendous and cruel conflict which finds my people pitted against each other. I am happy to be away from it."

"How quickly were you selected from your group?" Ledda asked. "Were you among the first or the last?"

"I'm not absolutely sure, but I think we were the very first ones selected." Kristy said, to which Kanu and Ed immediately agreed.

"Interesting." Ledda said. "They select for the best units first, the Iri Voch. They are considered the elite. If you are going to that Peshbenu, your training will take much, much longer than mine."

More new Skafti terms that didn't quite translate. All in good time, they assumed.

"Many of my people volunteer for service in the Iri Vas." Ledda said. "The Parandi often make good pilots, especially for surface to orbit combat craft. I have taken the pre-recruitment tests back home and I have high hopes for qualifying in that area. We have never had anyone selected for the Iri Voch."

A gong sounded, and the area's lighting began to flash.

"We are breaking orbit." Ledda said.

Their ten days aboard the Calis were educational, to say the least. They did meet the Ormin on board, and they did seem very human, except for the lack of hair. They all had high-pitched, squeaky voices, and were obviously uncomfortable in the gravity they were sharing. Ed hadn't thought about it before, but they were grouped together with these others because they shared a common set of physiological parameters, but that didn't mean they were all as comfortable with the 'average' settings the Skafti used. For the Ormin this meant that the gravity in the common areas was about twenty percent higher than they were used to.

That twenty percent was about as big a difference as the Skafti would allow, and at the other end of that spectrum in our group were a couple of Tomon — large, blocky quadrupeds with Horns like a good 'ol Texas longhorn and a mouth full of what looked like very sharp, needle-like teeth. They were also the first beings any of them had seen with obvious signs of scales.

One of the first thing they had noticed, back when they awakened on the space station, was that the Skafti day was a little shorter than an Earth day. Since they were allowed to eat and sleep whenever they wanted there, it made little difference. On the Calis though, they observed a normal Skafti day, and meal times followed the Skafti standard, or rather the 'universal time' which had been modeled after it.

The 'universal day' was divided into 15 'tan', and each tan was divided into 45 Lotans, which were themselves further divided into 90 hotan. A hotan was a touch longer than an Earth second, so a lotan was close to two minutes and a tan was close to an hour and a half. That made the Skafti day approximately 22 hours, as close as they could calculate. With no Earth clock to use for comparison, the three humans had no way of knowing for sure.

The Skafti had three meal times in their day. First meal was after awakening. Two more meals, lighter than the First meal, came at 3 tan intervals. Lights out came at ninth tan.

The Calis' food dispensers were a bit problematic at first. They hadn't received the data the ones in the processing center had, and food items familiar to them weren't available for the first four days. They notified Sergeant Gan, and he passed word up channel.

"The beings upstairs must like you homins." the Sergeant told them when they found the dispensers had finally been updated. "Four days is damned quick for something like this."

"Humans." Ed corrected automatically. "We appreciate the effort, and some of what we had to eat while we were waiting was pretty good. Educational too."

Ed don't know if it was the return to familiar food, or if his days had been numbered all along, but that fourth day, after the third meal, Kristy jumped him in the waste facilities.

As little concern for privacy as the Skafti seemed to have when it came to sleeping and bathing, as evidenced by the communal areas they built for those purposes, they did at least have some concept of privacy when it came to restrooms. There were long rows of 'waste cells', which were the only areas they had access to that had doors which could be closed. These rooms strove to be universal, and whatever fixture you needed came up out of the floor or out of the wall once you'd closed the door.

Kristy and Ed took their usual walk to the facilities after the last meal had a chance to settle, about an hour before lights out, and when Ed broke off for a waste cell, he was surprised to have Kristy shoulder him in, closing the door behind them.

"This has gone on long enough, Ed." She said. He had a little trouble dodging the toilet that came up out of the floor. The toilet was close to what they were used to, but it sat a little lower and was a little wider. Ed forgot about the toilet immediately though. Kristy was in the process of stripping her top off. He had seen Kristy in the showers of course. There was no privacy there. Ed was used to heading straight to one of the waste cells after their shower because he would develop a problem that prevented him from getting anything done until it had been taken care of.

This wasn't the showers, and Kristy's dark nipples were stiff with excitement.

"I need sex, Ed." she continued, beginning to slide her shorts off. "You have been a perfect gentleman, but dammit, I don't need a perfect gentleman right now, I need a stiff dick!"

'Well, I have that, sure enough.' Ed thought. 'Guess I'd be glad to oblige her.' he said so as he struggled to get his shorts off over his stiff cock.

"I guess I'd be happy to oblige, Kristy."

Kristy didn't look for help or stop to consider how to proceed. She pushed him down to a sitting position on the toilet and climbed on. As hard as he was, and as wet as she was, and as desperate as they both were for this at the moment, their first coupling was done on biological autopilot, and was quick, hard and heated. Ed's roar, and Kristy's scream when they climaxed in turn echoed through the waste cell.

Kristy sat there for a while afterwards, silent and sweating against Ed. He lifted her head up, once the stars had stopped spinning, and kissed her. She let out a long, low laugh after they broke the kiss, and he joined her. The natural movements they made as they laughed together produced some interesting sensations where they were still coupled. Ed had softened, but not completely.

"Oh God!" he said.

"God yes!" Kristy added, doing something with her muscles that squeezed Ed's dick lightly. She lifted slightly, then dropped down. "Do you think you can go again, a little slower and less primal this time, so we can enjoy it?"

"If I enjoy it any more than that last time, I may not live through it, but I'm your man. Lets go." he said, flexing himself.

"Mmmm." she said, flexing against him. He felt himself growing harder, and they began moving slowly in a rhythm as old as humanity.

"You are mine, aren't you?" she said into his shoulder later.

Of course Ed was. He always had been.

== Ai Ru, Kri Masa Training Center ==

None of them couldn't have revealed much about Ai Ru for a while after they got there. They made orbit and were transported to Kri Masa within a tan of their arrival. There were view screens in the shuttle that brought them down, but with their control of gravity, The Skafti shuttle dropped straight down through the dark sky on the night side of the planet. It was the middle of the night at Kri Masa. All they saw were lights. Lots and lots of lights, though the area they ultimately descended into was surrounded by a great deal of darkness.

"It looks like We'll be isolated." Kristy said.

"Looks like they don't want us mingling with the citizens until we're housebroken." Ed said.

That was the last cute comment he had the energy to utter for another six weeks.

It was a given, they all assumed, that everyone had learned Skafti by the time they arrived, but they sure didn't know Skafti like the instructor who greeted them at the door of the shuttle knew Skafti!

They were colorfully and loudly encouraged to move, at speed, towards a distant building, where they were told, in the same manner, to line up and wait for further instructions.

The voice belonged to Sergeant Hok, they were informed, as they stood in that line. Then some deficiencies in the forming of that line were pointed out, and they corrected those deficiencies, again accompanied by loud and colorful Skafti encouragement. Only when the Sergeant was finally, and regretfully satisfied did the camp commander put in her appearance.

"I am Commander Lega." She said as she walked down the length of their line. "Every deficiency, every failing, every weakness that Sergeant Hok and his staff find will be reported to me."

The Commander had an artificial hand. The artificiality of it became obvious to Ed as she turned to walk back up the line. It didn't look artificial in the way it would have back on Earth. Hers was bright, shiny and metallic, yet smooth and flowing, as if the entire thing were made of liquid. Like those liquid metal terminator robots from the movies.

"If you prove to be too weak, too prone to failure, too full of deficiencies, you will see me again, and I will be affixing my signature to the papers which wash you out of the Iri Voch." Commander Lega continued. Ed hadn't had that much practice reading the facial expressions of the Skafti, but even so, the measure of distaste which formed as she spoke was obvious. "If that happens, you will be moved back to the Iri Var, or perhaps given an assignment in a civilian benu, where you will lead a useful and fulfilling life, but it will not be Iri Voch!"

The Skafti may have been a high-tech society, but they believed in starting with the low-tech side of things when it came to training the Iri Voch. Much of it would have been at home at any boot camp known to man. A lot of running, obstacle courses, muddy fields, climbing up, climbing down and getting over under or around. Beyond that, they were taught survival techniques — how to build a fire from a couple pieces of wood and some attitude, how to make shelter, clothing, and equipment starting with nothing.

"If you do not die in training, if you do not wash out, if you show some signs that the evaluators back at the retrieval points or recruiting centers you came from were correct in their initial readings, you will someday fire a weapon and wear the battle armor of the Iri Voch." Sergeant Hok would say. "But today you will make a fire, and if you have time, maybe catch and kill something, and eat a meal today."

After three weeks of primitive training, amid primitive conditions and with either no cloths or nearly no clothes, They were finally issued uniforms. Gray-green, form-fitting once piece suits that self-adjusted in the same ways the shorts and the women's tops that they had received on the space station did.

While the initial field training had been brutally low tech, the Skafti were used to many of their recruits needing education and training in what were considered the basics of Skafti society and technology, so those who needed it got extra hours of work whenever they were not in the field. Ed was surprised at how many there were.

The Skafti had medical and technological methods of increasing their capacity for learning, and the rate at which they could learn, but while some of it was sort of miraculously 'planted' in their minds, they still had to do a lot of the learning the old fashioned way. Almost old fashioned, anyway. Most of the instructors were holographic, after all. Still, some of the teaching had to be done by real people. There were no holographic tutorials for some of the basics of life, so they had to learn them from someone who already knew them.

What kind of things were the real instructors teaching? Imagine you had an ancient Roman living at your house. He might figure out the shower and the bed pretty quickly, but what about the television and the dishwasher. Could you find anything on the educational channels designed to teach someone how to use your cell phone? An iPod? The microwave?

So some of the teachers were real, and some of the lessons were basic facts of life. As they were being taught to kill, they were also being taught how to live.

Kanu had not stuck with Ed and Kristy, once they'd arrived. He seemed to favor the Ormin, and Ed suspected that the physiological similarities were encouraging enough to make sex a possibility. He was morose and withdrawn around the couple when they were together, and barely better away from them. He had hated military service back on Earth, and wasn't enjoying this new version much either, despite his early successes. If they had known him better, perhaps Kristy or Ed might have prevented it, but four weeks into the program, Kanu attempted suicide in one of the waste cells.

He wasn't the first to do so, apparently, but he was the first from their group, and the cluster was a gloomy place for several days. Of course the waste cells, as much as they had been designed to give those who felt a need for some privacy a place to go, were also designed to watch out for these sorts of things, and Kanu was 'saved' by a suddenly arriving medical team. He was treated and brought before Commander Laga, where she signed the papers removing him from the rolls of the Iri Voch.

Ed and Kristy never saw him again.

A week after the suicide attempt, they moved on to real weapons and combat training. They had slowly collapsed down to a single 'barracks' as their numbers diminished, and when they were all moved to their new location at the end of week four, they saw the next class come in, and Ed remembered then that there had been others in the camp when we had arrived, moving in orderly fashion here and there. He had just been too busy and too tired to wonder who they were. He imagined these newcomers would be going through the same thing.

Sergeant Posa, their first real combat instructor was not Skafti. He introduced himself as an Argantan. Argantans were the second species they'd encountered that were similar to humans, but they were, Sergeant Posa told Kristy and Ed privately, universally hairy, thin and wiry. Collectively their society had a history of warfare, and individually, the warriors of Arganta had a history of martial excellence. 'He certainly can kick our asses.' Ed thought.

Once they began to show some progress with hand-to-hand techniques, they added knives, swords, sticks, darts, you name it. If it could be swung or thrown and kill or injure, Ed swore that at one time or another in that six weeks, they had it in their hands.

"Almost anything is a weapon in the hands of the Iri Voch." The Sergeant took pride in saying.

They saw other humans in the new group coming in, and received permission from Sergeant Hok to visit with them during their off hours. There were eight humans in the new class, none of them looked familiar.

It must have been odd for them, seeing two fellow humans from Earth, dressed in the uniforms of the Iri Voch, while they were still barely dressed in their minimal processing center shorts and tops, approach them in the mess hall.

"Welcome to Kri Massa." Ed said in English. "I'm Ed Bell, and this is Kristy James."

"Luther Rutan." The nearest man said. "We don't all speak English, I'm afraid."

"What news of Earth?" Kristy asked in Skafti.

"There had been reports of an asteroid." One of the women said. "Before they took us, I had been hearing that there was an asteroid coming, a big one."

"There was a lot of panic when the announcement was first made saying we had a year and a half until the end." Another woman said. "A lot of people died in riots, but it wasn't going to matter. We were all going to die anyway."

"The scientists were saying it was too big. It was going to wipe us out, wipe out all life. Some people saw that as an excuse to do whatever the hell they wanted with the rest of their time."

"We're under the impression that the Skafti began pulling people off the planet in small groups as soon as it was confirmed that this would happen." Kristy said. "Have you heard any more than that?"

"That was what we were hearing too." a slender man with sandy hair said. "Once the riots started they became a little less secretive, I think. I had heard several BBC reports of 'strange craft in the sky' and missing citizens. Of course it all made sense when I woke up in the processing center."

"Bullshit!" said another of the men. "Sorry, name's Wyatt Ames. I don't think anything made sense when we woke up in the center. It made sense later, but not at first."

It was little more than that, the first time. Some introductions, and a little word of home, and some hope that the Skafti had taken more humans than Kristy and Ed had thought.

"There may be enough of us left, that we won't die out, if we can keep in contact with each other." Kristy said later in one of the waste cells, after a strangely melancholy, yet urgent session of lovemaking.

The two of them had been doing a lot of thinking, once they began the ball rolling. It made them realize there were questions they hadn't thought to ask yet. One of them got them an interview with Commander Lega.

"I understand you two have questions about mating?" She asked, once they had been told to be at ease.

"Yes sir." Ed said. "We are of a species which didn't exist, to my knowledge, off our home world. We have learned that our home world is due for an asteroid impact which will render it lifeless. Those of us retrieved by the Skafti will be all that is left of us."

"Earth, you call it?" she asked. "I've read your files of course."

"We are learning what it means to be Iri Voch, but we cannot be Skafti, so we must try to be ourselves. To that end, Kristy and I wish to be bonded, to be a couple."

"You are worried that this may not be permitted in the Iri Voch?"

"Yes." Kristy agreed. "Also we wonder about having children some day."

"These are understandable concerns, especially for a refugee species such as yours. Do I assume correctly that the arrival of more homons in the camp has spurred these questions?"

"Humans." Ed and Kristy simultaneously corrected. "Yes. We wish to share our thoughts on this with them. We remember what happened to Kanu, because we let him isolate himself, and hope to prevent that from happening again."

"Nothing you do or say can guarantee that, but I agree that it would be a good thing for you to try. You have my permission to speak further with the other humans. As far as bonding goes, that will have to wait until you have left Kri Masa. I will send a message with you to your next station. Your status will change there, and a bonding will be possible."

A week later, with their time at Kri Masa almost over and all the preparations made that they were allowed to, they made a point of meeting with the others again.

"The Skafti may have saved the human race, if they've rescued enough of us." Ed said to the group. "I am living proof that they are adept at manipulating genetic code. I was a mess of a man on Earth, but here I'm more than I ever dreamed I could be. Even if the numbers are few, they can provide the genetic material needed to ensure more humans in the future."

"We're all optimized, compared to what we were on Earth." The sandy haired fellow said. He seemed to have moved into something of a leadership position amongst the group. "But farmed chickens were physical specimens compared to their wild and free cousins, and it didn't do them any good in the end."

"The motives of the Skafti aside, the question is, are you prepared to put out some efforts to preserve the species?" Kristy said. "If you are, there are some things we think we all should be doing."

"The motives of the Skafti aside, what do you suggest we do?" he asked.

"While you are here, you are in danger of isolating yourself, and loosing hope. Don't let that happen." Kristy said. "We were three when we came, but we lost our third. He tried to commit suicide, and is no longer among the Iri Voch. I'm not sure if they let him remain in the Iri Var, or moved him to another benu entirely."

"You are all currently primed for learning. The Skafti have opened us up to learning, so learn! Keep the old Earth languages alive by sharing them with each other and learning them."

"Forget politics and the kind of history that we learned in schools. Remember the places and people of Earth that made us proud." Ed said. "Tell each other about the Grand Canyon or the Great Wall, talk of the sea and the mountains, the desert winds or the open plains."

"Remember Einstein and Ghandi and Mother Teresa. Pass along the words of people who are our shining examples." Kristy said. "If they're not familiar to you, it doesn't matter! You're not remembering for yourselves, you're remembering for those who will come after us. The next generation."

"We will be leaving a record, for others who follow in the camp data system." Ed said. "Commander Lega has given us permission. Add to it when your time comes, and near the end of your time here, keep an eye out for others of us, as we did with you. Use it, and share it, and together, maybe we will keep who we were and where we came from alive."

"Remember Earth. Remember what it means to be Human." Kristy said in parting.

There was a ceremony, their last day at Kri Masa. More of a mustering out, as they were gathered for transport to their new stations. Ed was surprised that not everyone who made it through this basic training was automatically moving on to the same place, but instead we were splitting up into groups. Kristy and Ed were part of a smaller group of eight who boarded a shuttle and headed into orbit where they became passengers aboard a ship called the Igen.

Six days later the Igen dropped them off on a planet called Ketik, and a camp called Kri Ruvai.

== Ketik, Kri Ruvai Training Station ==

They weren't hustled out of the shuttle by a screaming instructor this time. Instead, the eight of them from Kri Masa, along with twelve others who we had joined them on the ship, walked calmly down the ramp and into the base itself from a rooftop access point. It was raining and windy, and they were ushered out of the weather with due haste.

"Welcome to Kri Ruvai. I am Captain Risch." the uniformed figure who greeted them said. "The rain and the wind you saw briefly is the prevalent condition on Ketik. You will get used to it, or drown trying."

The loud, grating sound that followed this statement was laughter, they decided later. Captain Risch it seemed, thought himself a witty person.

At Kri Masa they had slowly but inevitably lost all the quadrupeds and others whose physiology made it difficult, if not impossible for them to climb or swim. They were all bipeds or multi-peds. There were some there more agile than Kristy and Ed, and some less, but there were none left who could be called slow or awkward. Ed was wondering who they would be loosing here, but the camp commander put those thoughts to rest very quickly, once they were mustered in front of him.

"You are here because you are Iri Voch." Commander Paruz said. "Unlike your previous station, there is no way to wash out of this one. You are Iri Voch. Whether it is tomorrow or a thousand years from now, you will die Iri Voch."

There was a loud 'Hu!' from our collective throats then. It surprised Ed to hear his own voice adding to it.

"You have two hours each morning for exercise. There are no instructors. You are Iri Voch, you will keep yourselves fit. You will have weapons and armor training. Those who do well will advance quickly. Those who do not will keep at it until you are competent. There are no incompetent Iri Voch!"

"Hu!" They replied again.

"There are sixty beings in this class. There are three captains. Each of you have already met your captain, and each captain has two corporals who will assist him and you with your training. Dismissed."

Captain Risch presented them to corporal Asi and Corporal Nem, and asked them to escort the group to their barracks.

"Bell, James? If you'll remain with me please?"

Other than a couple of 'hu!'s yelled along with everyone else, Ed hadn't opened his mouth even once so far at Kri Ruvai, and he was in trouble already?

Captain Risch somehow recognized the look on his face and laughed, a slightly less grating version of the laugh they'd gotten earlier.

"Word was sent ahead from your previous station." He said. "Commander Paruz is waiting in his office to see you. Follow me."

They jog-trotted from the formation hall down a series of corridors until they arrived at an open door. An officer sat at a desk, behind which could be seen another office, partially obscured. The officer tapped something on his desk, then spoke.

"Commander? Captain Risch is here with Bell and James."

"You can go right in." He said almost immediately.

The commander was standing behind his desk, and motioned them forward to stand in front of it. Captain Risch and the officer from the front office stood behind us. There was a large black machine of some kind on his desk, with two flat gray disks on top of it.

"Bell, James, it is my understanding that you two wish to be bonded. Is that correct?"

"Yes Sir!" Kristy and Ed said almost simultaneously.

"Very well. Would you each place a hand on one of the disks?" He said, motioning to the machine on his desk. They both did, and there was a brief glow beneath their hands. A sheet of material came spooling out of the top of it, and the commander took it, gave it a glance and put it on the desk in front of him, breaking into a tight smile.

"Congratulations. You are now officially recognized anywhere in the beheri as a bonded couple. A beheri bonding is the most widely recognized in the galaxy." he bragged. "These records are kept electronically, but this printout is for ceremonial purposes." With that the commander brought out a small tube from a drawer in his desk, placed the flat end of it on the printout and pressed down. A glimmer of light escaped from between them, and when he lifted it, there was a very stylish hologram embedded in the material. Ed recognized it immediately, as its duplicate could be found on the right shoulder of everyone in the room except the newlyweds.

The commander handed Ed the printout, and he glanced at it then passed it in turn to Kristy.

"Bonded couples in the Iri Voch aren't unusual, but the bondings don't often form this early in the process. Still, its understandable I suppose, given your refugee status. I would expect others amongst you homons will be bonding early as well."

"Humans." Kristy, Captain Risch and Ed all said simultaneously. That generated one of the Captain's laughs.

Fast, thorough and without much emotion. That same description was frequently appropriate when dealing with the Skafti. Sadly, another Skafti constant was their odd sense of privacy, or rather, lack of it. This meant that even the newly bonded didn't get any consideration for privacy. The captain dropped them off at the group's quarters and told them there would be a group assembly in half a Tan. That was close to 90 minutes, old Earth time. They were each assigned a storage cell by Corporal Nem. The sleep fields were first come, first serve, just like they'd been at Kri Masa. As soon as they had the precious printout stored in Kristy's storage cell, which was their only possession other than uniforms, Kristy dragged Ed to a waste cell, which in that moment became their honeymoon suite, and almost all of those remaining minutes were spent executing a little connubial bliss. It was near the showers and they weren't late for the assembly.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what I have in my hands is the standard issue Iri Var pulse rifle." Corporal Asi said. Indeed, it looked very much like a rifle might have on Earth, a little smoother flowing, with a larger bore on what Ed assumed was the business end.

"The standard issue pulse rifle is a selectable mode attack weapon that is capable of firing either single or triple pulse blasts. Each blast is rated at 150 luhn. For those of you still getting used to the Skafti standard units and measures, this is enough energy to kill an unarmored Skafti or Skafti-equivalent lifeform. It will damage or destroy even moderately insulated electromechanical systems and will knock most unshielded biosynths out of action for at least half a Tan."

They learned to shoot a pulse rifle, they learned to care for a pulse rifle, how to keep it clean and happy so it would kill on command. They carried them wherever they went at first, though the ones they were first issued did not have power cells. When they went to the practice range, the instructors had a power cell that they shared, as each 'candidate' stepped up to take their turn.

Ed had held and fired a .22 caliber rifle when he was a boy. It had been David Escalante's, and he was a dedicated 'plinker', taking his rifle out into the outskirts of town to plink away at cans, bottles and whatever small scurrying critters happened by. Ed hadn't enjoyed it then. He had been intimidated by the feel of the cold, hard steel and a little put off by the hard edge that David took on whenever they were shooting. Ed was a lousy shot and only went a few times before he started saying no when David asked.

Despite his childhood memories, Ed loved his pulse rifle, and he found he was good with it. He focused his artificially enhanced, wide-open, ready-for-learning brain cells and muscle memory and worked hard to move beyond good, and Kristy came along for the ride.

Two weeks after they'd begun rifle training the group was introduced to pulse grenades, MAM charges and seeker units.

Pulse grenades operated off of the same technology as the rifles, but they were designed to deliver a much higher volume discharge, and were meant to be thrown or launched from their rifles. They were sort of a cross between the old Earth hand grenades and RPGs, they weren't rocket propelled, and they weren't guided. They were more like a hand held mortar than anything, and were designed to tackle things a standard pulse rifle couldn't crack.

MAM charges were explosives. The kind you set next to something you really wanted to blow up. They used a matter/anti-matter reaction, and were, as Corporal Asi described them, 'highly energetic'. The charges came pre-assembled in several sizes, the largest of which was about the size and dimensions of the bags used as the bases in baseball. They only got to see one of those fired off, and it required a field trip to one of the airless moons that orbited the planet.

Seeker units were hand-launched guided missiles, but they, like most everything that required propulsion, used some kind of gravity generator. They were fast, close to silent, and curiosities only until the first time they saw one explode.

These devices were impressive, and the Iri Voch that was growing in all of them was enthusiastic, but they paled in comparison, in Ed's mind to what came with it.

Battle Armor. Yes, it is something that should be capitalized now and then.

This wasn't the power-assist stuff like what Ed remembered from Starship Troopers - the Heinlein novel, not the abortion of a movie they made back in the 1990's on old Earth. It didn't make you jump higher or run faster, but it kept you safe, warm and dry (or cold and wet, if that was what your species required.) It would stand up to most field weaponry, including the Skafti pulse rifle - though three or four shots from a pulse rifle would eventually overload something if the discharge cells didn't have time to cycle.

What made the battle armor so awesome was the electronics, or the Skafti equivalents. The suits had a communications suite that tied into the Skafti battle-net, allowing suit-to-suit communications, as well as links that could tie into the entire network. In theory an Iri Voch, sitting in the jungles of some hostile planet in the middle of a firefight, could be directing operations for an Iri Var battle group, deep space Nova class battle carriers and all.

Along with the comm suite, came the detection gear, both the standalone stuff built into the suit and the links to the orbital arrays that usually were inserted around any planet where the Iri Var were operating. They had infrared, ultraviolet, chemical, gravitic, x-ray, radio and particulate detection systems that were as adept at spotting rotting food as they were nuclear reactors.

The introductions to the suits were gradual, but again assisted by the overnight educations that got pumped in via the sleep fields. They learned to put them on and take them off under every possible condition. They ran in them, slept in them, grew comfortable in them, and then, after their fifth week, things got serious.

== Helidi, Middle of Nowhere ==

They got dropped into the middle of a jungle on a planet they learned was called Helidi. Ed abbreviated it, and just called it Hel. Their sleep fields had been used against them and they were kept asleep until the day they woke up in the jungle in groups of six. They were left on Helidi for 35 days. No pulse rifles and no supplies, except for their battle armor and standard issue field knife, strapped into its familiar spot.

The denizens of Helidi did not like them much, and chose every opportunity to demonstrate this. Their group lost two of six, and did better than most. One group was wiped out completely.

They might have lost three themselves but Ed was carrying Kristy strapped to his back, with her broken leg in a makeshift splint, when the pickup ship came. You don't even want to hear about the creature that could shatter a leg through Skafti battle armor. Someday Ed planned to return to Helidi and kill one of the bastards just to make himself feel better. Who cares if they are just mindless beasts?

Helidi was the Skafti equivalent of a wilderness preserve. The entire planet. No one who was ever called Iri Voch existed who hadn't survived their 35 days on Helidi. Everyone at Kri Ruvai took on a new measure of respect in Ed's eyes from then on. They had been measured in that way as well. Upon their return, that nifty patch that Ed had noticed on everyone's shoulder appeared on theirs as well.

== Ketik, Kri Ruvai ==

It has been noted repeatedly that the Skafti have different ideas about privacy, but that was not the only way in which their thought processes differed from Ed and Kristy's. Once they were back, they were turned loose on the final phase of their training, and it was a killer, but not the way you're thinking.

Six months of independent study. Oh, and during those six months, there were a couple of surgeries here and there.

Independent study. They were given access to the Skafti datanet, with all the access that their benu granted. Study, learn, explore, whatever the hell they wanted. No restrictions, no limits, no questions.

Ed was sure they were tracking every single data request, but he didn't care. He dove into the Skafti histories to begin with, while Kristy struggled with their technical and scientific records. At the same time both of them tried to collect as complete a picture of what had happened to the rest of old Earth's refugees as possible.

They were surprised by the numbers. Ed thought there would be a couple thousand people retrieved, but in the end there had been 124,631 people retrieved. Of those 74,655, about two thirds, wound up in the Iri Var. The percentages were revealing. There were only 18 humans in the Iri Voch.

"Ed, look at this." Kristy said from across the room one day. Ed went over to where she sat watching a data readout flow across her display. "The Dur Vai has ordered the Genetics council to re-scan the human genome, and reclassify it."

"Do they give a reason?"

"We surprised them, it appears, with the high percentage of us that were found to be fit for the Iri Var."

The Dur Vai was the administrative benu, and the civilian benu most heavily dominated by the Skafti themselves.

"This could mean a little more favorable outlook for us, as a group." Ed thought out loud.

They were still pondering those possibilities a few days later when the first surgeries came due.

You know Wolverine? The comic book character? Or maybe you saw the movies back on old Earth? Okay, maybe your parents did. Wolverine had an adamantium skeleton. He had this really incredible healing ability, but it was the adamantium skeleton that made him so tough. Of course he had the wicked claws made out of the stuff too.

There's no such thing as adamantium, but Ed and Kristy got the Skafti equivalent as their first surgery. A mesh of nano-woven metallic microfibers now sheathed every bone in their body, as well as all of their internal organs. The broken leg that Kristy suffered on Helidi would have never happened if they had these sheaths then.

Yes, in theory Ed could now get kicked in the balls and laugh it off.

He did not run off looking for someone to test this for him though, he was still a little wary. Besides, despite the Penod doctors best reassurances, his entire body felt itchy for days. Imagine an itch you can't scratch, and then imagine it everywhere, from head to toe.

Yeah. At least the sleep field doesn't care. They were still getting their full amount of sleep.

The Skafti, Ed had been learning, had been expanding through this part of the galaxy for close to three thousand years. It was not a race, in their minds, to find and exploit suitable planets, it was simply another aspect of the beheri.

Not every planet the Skafti found was settled immediately, not even among those that were likely candidates. Not every intelligent species they encountered was brought into the beheri and given purpose within it.

There were many benu within the Skafti Beheri, and some species found their niche within them. Pai Sud, the medical and genetic benu, was almost completely made up of Penod and a few brilliant and determined individuals from a variety of other races. There were three races that were more or less equally represented in the Maga, the science and technical benu. The Skafti themselves of course; the Tolchorans, a race of warm-blooded spider-like creatures with a lot of legs and hands and bright, bright minds; and the Diadin, a pseudo-amphibious symbiotically paired species from a world called Caalb.

"I don't know if we could ever be as brilliant, technically or scientifically, as the Tolchorans or the Diadin, but I believe we could at least be as good as the Skafti. As a species, I mean, not you or me." Kristy said one evening. "Particularly if we had Tolchoran teachers. The universality of the technology the Skafti have, and the common understanding of it within the many races in their beheri is due mostly to the Tolchorans."

The fact that the Tolchorans were one of the first species that the Skafti came across when they began moving through the stars may well have been the key to their success. The Tolchorans were dramatically non-aggressive, and were content with the few planets they had settled, willing to expand only when they needed to. They were a more advanced society, technologically and socially, than the Skafti when they met. The Skafti, ever adaptable and pragmatic, began recruiting them into the Maga almost immediately. The Dur Vai was pragmatic too, but the recruiting there was slower. The advantages the Tolchorans brought to the Skafti society in general were slower, and done more by a sort of osmosis, as Skafti leaders were exposed to them.

"The Tolchorans are almost a 'separate but equal' partner species in the Skafti society." Ed said one day after reading a treatise on the subject that he had found in the Skafti datanet archives. "When you look at their interaction with the Skafti as a whole, both within the beheri and outside of it, there is a lot of the basic structure that is Tolchoran."

The Skafti, and the Tolchorans were both pragmatic and practical species, with no grand plan to conquer and no great fear that others might wish to do what they chose not to. But they could be almost cruel sometimes in their approach to things.

The second surgery grafted an artificial neural net alongside their natural ones. The neural net would tie into the battle suits, and through that into the rest of the Iri Var electronic and pseudo-electronic equipment.

The existing natural neurons and synapses complained about this, long and loud. The five weeks following the surgery were spent battling a fire that burned from within and would not end. They fought their own bodies every waking moment for the first two of those five weeks until the Penod doctors finally intervened and let them stay in the sleep fields for all but a single Tan each day. At the start of the fifth week they were able to begin weaning them back to normal activity as their existing nervous systems finally adjusted and things began to approach normal.

It seemed hard and cruel, but Logai, a classmate put it in perspective.

"It is cruel, but it is necessary." he said. "The jungle, the surgeries, the pain and discomfort, it is all meant to temper us, like the steel on the edge of our blades."

"We are being hardened for what lies ahead?" Ed asked.

"Of course." Logai said.

Put that way, it made some sense, Ed thought, but it still hurt dammit!

They studied and exercised, learned and grew closer.

The final surgery was the exact opposite of what had been experienced before. The surgeons opened their skulls and inserted a few small nodes here and there within the cavity, tied them into the new neural net they'd finally gotten used to, added some storage in a few other places they weren't using and then closed them up again. No pain, no itch, no burn.

Instead, each of them wound up with their own personal 'Jiminy Cricket', as Ed called them, a disembodied voice to guide and assist them. The Skafti, and the technicians who taught them how to use it called it an Ora. That was a Skafti term, originally a name from one of their own legends, a mythical figure who guided the lost souls of the Skafti through the fields of the dead to the afterlife beyond.

== Urjat System, Narisi Flight Station ==

They moved back into space, to an orbital facility called Narisi in the Urjat system. There were five planets in the system, and two separate asteroid fields. Two of the planets were gas giants with close to a dozen moons each. One of those moons was large enough to have an atmosphere and liquid water seas on the surface.

During their time at Narisi, they became pilots. Only shuttle pilots at first, the controls were standardized and the procedures were simple enough to learn, especially with the Ora there in the back of their heads. They were given a standard shuttle training course, the same course taught everywhere in Skafti space, and at the end, were certified shuttle pilots, employable anywhere. Unlike their bonding certificate, Kristy and Ed didn't get a printout as a keepsake this time.

With the commercial shuttle certification out of the way, they moved on to a variety of other orbital craft. Learning to fly transports, fuel barges, and a dozen different kinds of military cargo and personnel transports. Every kind of dedicated surface-to-orbit ship in their benu, and a lot of the most common ones outside of it.

Ed keep returning time and time again to comparisons with things he knew from old Earth science fiction, books, movies and television. When it came time to fly the Rek, the Iri Var combat fighter craft, Ed struggled and failed to find a comparison.

The antigrav generators that were the standard drive for most planetary and orbital craft were incredibly efficient systems, in and near planetary space, but they were slow and clumsy in some ways. The Rek used something called subspace threshold wave generators that, in combination with the otherwise standard gravity engines, provided incredible speed, thrust and maneuverability. They used fuel at a hundred times the rate of a standard drive, but they were lightning fast, and man could they dance!

Rek were limited to planetary and in-system distances only. The engines and navigational and computational devices needed for interstellar travel were massive and complex, and there was no way to fit them in something the size of these fighters. There were ships in the Iri Var fleet whose purpose was to transport fighters to wherever they were needed, and they functioned a lot like the aircraft carriers of old Earth's navies.

They all had to learn how to fly them, but they were not going to get certified on them. The true Rek pilots had special neural implants, far more pervasive than the ones they'd received.

"Remember Ledda?" Ed asked that night.

"The Parandi who showed us about the comfort stations?" Kristy asked.

"Yeah. He was hoping to get selected into the Rek program as a pilot. I thought it was a bit of boasting at the time." Ed said.

"Its admirable, what these people do so willingly, given the drastic alterations they have to go through." Kristy answered.

Drastic enough that it left them unfit for combat anywhere outside of a Rek. Their Ora made those used by the Iri Voch look like mere pocket calculators too, but man did it let them be good fighter pilots!

The only way their group of Iri Voch could do it at all was to let the Ora take charge for a while, and for that reason, none of them expressed a desire to change jobs with the Rek pilots. They wouldn't have qualified anyway. They just didn't think 'right' for that job.

Ed called his Ora 'JC'. Yea, he said Jiminy Cricket to Kristy, but she understood the initials as well as Ed did. Ed thought JC would come in handy when he was too busy doing things like dodging blaster fire or charging enemies positions. JC could keep an eye on the electronics and the data coming in from the comm and battle nets, as well as being smart enough to keep in touch with the orbital resources available in the field.

The Skafti year, based on their home planet's orbit, was 279 days long. Slightly more than one full Skafti year had passed since Ed and Kristy had been retrieved. In that time, Kristy and Ed had become soldiers in an alien army, surgically altered and augmented, and trained to use equipment that was only a science fiction author's dream on old Earth.

And in the end, they had been given a confidant, confessor and aide that rode in their minds and swam in their thoughts, and tapped them into the FTL datanet that covered almost an entire arm of the galaxy.

Healed, trained, educated, armed and armored, Ed and Kristy left Urjat as Iri Voch, which in Skafti meant 'Bringers of Dread'. Elite soldiers and masters of their trade.


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