The University for Human Study:

An Introduction to the Age of Innocence

Steven Bergom

July 2417

Earth Coalition Fleet passenger ship Dixon, in-bound to the Myrtraal homeworld

Kevin Meechum mused that he would miss the tiny room as he packed his few belongings for the last time for several years. Sure it was cramped, hot and poorly lit, but when you spend nearly two months of your life in one place you get attached to that place no matter how uncomfortable it might be. Shipboard living was subsistence level at best, even on the larger passenger liners, but in space there was no, well, space, unless one had a personal yacht. Time, however, was all too plentiful and the hours stretched to the length of days when the only things to do was exercise in the half-gee gym or peruse the ship's severely limited library selection. Of course, if someone had someone like Lieutenant Dennon Masters to spend that time with…

As if the thought of her was all that was needed for a summons, the door slid open to reveal a short, well-muscled woman with blue eyes and blond hair cropped close for easy maintenance. "Ya' packed yet?" she asked as she unceremoniously plopped herself on the bed next to Kevin's duffel. "Th' shuttle leaves in five hours."

"Well, excu-use me! I didn't realize you were so impatient to get rid of me!" Dennon wrinkled her nose in exasperation and punched Kevin's shoulder.

"You know why. They need your bags for weight calculations so they can get fuel and trajectory right. You don't want the pilot to overshoot Mnalik'tor, do ya'?"

"I didn't think it was possible to miss a moon, and with all the training that you pilots get you could probably make it to the moon and back through a debris field and leaking fuel and still be back in time to get in a game of squash before you were scheduled back." Kevin paused as he carefully placed the last of his shirts into his bag. "Wait a minute; I thought you would want to pilot the shuttle to the Myrtraal primary."

Dennon crossed her arms and slouched back so that her shoulders were resting on the wall of the bunk. "I wish, but I told ya' that Jordan an' me were on alert status for the in-system descent. What are they thinking? We're not at war or even hostile with the Myrtraal yet the captain still thinks that we need to follow the books. Of course, what do the books know; we've never been at war with anyone outside earth and as far as we know there are only two other sentient species in the galaxy besides us. Th' best I c'n do now is bid you a fond adieu and all that crap."

She looked so cute there, angry at bureaucracy in general, that Kevin leaned in kissed her pouting lower lip. "Tell me; can that fond farewell be a long one?" Again he leaned in to kiss the officer on his bed but instead of a simple peck the kiss was extended to something that left them panting when they finally parted.

"Much as I'd like to say 'Yes', the answer would still be 'No'. Regs state that when on alert status I can't do anything that would interfere with a timely response to an emergency." Dennon smiled ruefully. "I think having to dress would be considered a major interference."

Kevin chuckled at the thought of his companion rushing through the tight corridors of the E.C.F. Dixon with her shipsuit hanging open and trying to get her second leg in. In return he gave her another kiss just as memorable as the first.

It was Dennon who broke off the second kiss regretfully. "We should stop now before we start doing anything that might earn me demerits," she said, smoothing out the wrinkles her hands had put in Kevin's shirt while they were kissing. "Besides, you need to be in the processing room in about fifteen minutes to make sure you got all your stuff and not piss off Matt for making his math hurried." With that she grabbed his bag, zipped it up and shoved it under her arm to head out the door. "Come on, slowpoke," she admonished Kevin as she slid the door open and exited the room.

Kevin smiled and shook his head. With one last look around the tiny cabin he followed Dennon out into the hall.

The hall was wide enough for two people to walk abreast, but it was common courtesy to leave the space to your left open so that you didn't collide with oncoming traffic and so that engineering teams running to fix a problem could reach their destination without interference. Because of this two people conversing on their way to another part of the ship were forced to talk over their shoulders. "So, what'cha expect you'll be studying when you get to Mnalik'tor, anyway?" Dennon asked when she was sure that Kevin was following her.

"Same thing I was studying when I left: aerospace engineering."

"Now, what I want to know is why would someone want to trek halfway across a spiral arm of the galaxy to get taught by a bunch of aliens that look like aquarium rejects?"

"Well, the Myrtraal are known to be some of the best teachers around, I still have four years left on my degree, and being a member of one of the first classes of the University for Human Study will look good on my vitae when I look for a job."

"If ya' wanted to have a good resume you shoulda' joined the fleet. We're always looking for good officers and you showed more potential on the simulators than a rookie who's logged a thousand hours. I have never seen someone pull some of the maneuvers you did in the sims!"

"Well, the controls weren't that hard to figure out and I had all that time back on Earth flying."

Dennon looked back at Kevin and smirked. "Those weren't the type of maneuvers I was thinking of… Seriously, I can't believe you learned to only fly bi-planes and not super-atmospheric craft."

"Well, the New Society for Creative Anachronisms has only certified 450-year-old planes as being anachronistic enough for use in the festivals. Troposhpere skimmers didn't become popular until well into the 21$^{st}$ century."

"Hmmph. You still managed to outpace the computer tutor on some of the advanced craft. Hey, if this college thing doesn't pan out why don't you send an application to Fleet Academy. They might object to your height and age but a good word from me should get you in."

"Height?" Kevin spurted. "And age? What're you talkin' about? If I remember correctly, you're twenty-four and I'm only twenty-one!"

"Yeah, but I entered the academy at sixteen and was flying a year later. The instructors think you're gettin' too old when you hit twenty. As to the height thing, they generally don't make fighter-craft for giraffes like you."

"Giraffe? Me? I'm only 1.75 meters, you midget!"

"Yeah, and let's see if you can catch this midget before she makes it to the shuttle!" Dennon sprinted down the hallway and Kevin was soon following after.

Lieutenant Masters wasn't really a midget but her short stature compared to Kevin's had made them an interesting couple for the duration of the cruise. When they first met Kevin had his nose in the ship map trying to find his way to the mess center when he tripped over Lieutenant Masters who had been lugging her flight suit from storage. At first Dennon wasn't very thrilled at running into one of the passengers. In point of fact, she chewed him out for not watching where he was going but he merely nodded, apologized and asked her where exactly they were on the ship. Dennon pointed him in the right direction and stalked off hoping that that would be the last she would see of him, but destiny has a way of working against someone's wishes. It seemed that at every turn they ended up in the same room together and after two weeks she decided to get to know him. He was actually quite interesting.

In order to counteract the boredom of a long cruise Dennon suggested that she teach Kevin the rudiments of spaceflight and soon the two found themselves together in the flight simulator doing more than running training programs. It was only a passing fancy, she told herself, but she was already missing Kevin and he had yet to leave the ship.

Dennon made it to the processing center before Kevin but he was able to tag her shoulder just before they crossed the threshold. Matt, the pilot for the shuttle that would be taking Kevin and eleven other students to the university, stared at the two over the top of his clipboard, looked at his watch and announced, "You're late."

"Aw, come on, Ensign. Where's your fun?" Dennon asked.

"In my cabin. I will retrieve it when I am off-duty."

Dennon scrutinized the ensign. "Give us a couple more cruises and we should be able to knock that seriousness out of you. All ensigns are way to serious for my taste!" She handed Kevin his now thoroughly rumpled duffel bag. "Well, I guess this is it. Make sure you hit the head before the shuttle takes off, and don't forget to write!" Dennon stood straight and gave Kevin a salute. He returned a rather sloppy imitation which the lieutenant attempted not to laugh at, but failed.

Dennon turned to leave the room but stopped short of the door and spoke to the pilot without turning around. "And Ensign, smile. That's an order," and she left.

Kevin turned to see his fellow passengers, a few holding back chuckles of their own, and then to Ensign Hunter who had his lips pursed and an eyebrow raised. "Well," Kevin said to break the silence, "I'm here."

The ensign continued to stare at the man in front of him for several minutes. "I can see that. Put your bag on the scale."

Kevin was glad that he had taken Dennon's advice on visiting the bathroom before entering the shuttle because the deceleration of the craft was pushing him hard into the webbing and if his bladder had been full, it soon would be empty like some of the other passengers who didn't have such sound words spoken to them. The Dixon was on a parabolic course about the local star and Ensign Hunter's trajectory needed to be precise and efficient, notwithstanding the passenger's comforts. The flight became much smoother when they approached the Myrtraal primary culminating with the ensign settling the ship onto the landing pad without a bump. Soon the airlock was connected, cargo was offloaded and everyone was ushered to the exit.

There was a veritable sea of short, grey bodies when Kevin disembarked that were the Myrtraal. Groups broke off and attached themselves to each student, guiding them off into separate directions. He had only a moment to gape before three Myrtraal found him. "You are Kevin Meechum?" one asked in passably understandable English.

"Uh, yeah."

"Follow us," another said. "Follow us," the third repeated.

"My things —"

"Will be placed in your quarters when you are ready. Now, you follow us." Kevin had a hard time telling his guides apart because, unlike humans, they did not dress, nor did they have any distinguishing features. They all were the same greyish-green color, had a bulbous head and a mouth on their stomaches with no discernible eyes. He followed cautiously, but snorted in amusement when he thought that humans must all look alike to them, completely ignoring the fact that they were able to pick him out of the crowd of humans.

"Over here," they said leading him to a chamber. "Strip, get clean."

"Now wait a minute! I was able to hold myself on the flight in. I'm —"

"No, must be clean before we can start." Kevin shut his mouth, realizing how useless it would be to argue and stepped in, closing the door behind him.

Inside the chamber was a bench for him to put his clothes on and a shower stall that looked like the sonic scrubbers he used at the spaceport before boarding the Dixon. He knew the Myrtraal were moderately fastidious, but he thought that the examination that he had been given before leaving Earth was enough to satisfy their needs. Obviously it wasn't so he stripped and stepped into the stall, palming the controls on the door to begin the cycle.

It was a bit like getting a shiatsu massage, but one that left your eardrums ringing for an hour afterwards. The one thing that the original designers had never been able to work out was the temporary tinnitus that one got from using the sonic shower, but he suspected that they never worked too hard on the problem anyway. It was a refreshed Kevin that stepped out of the stall and found that his clothes had been removed from the chamber.

"Hey! Where's my stuff! Is anyone listening? Hello?" The room was silent, but a door opposite the one he entered opened revealing a well-lighted, closet-sized space. He stuck his head in and when it didn't get chopped off he entered the rest of the way. As soon as he was in, the door slid shut.

Kevin pounded on the door and screamed, but there was no response. "Great," he said to himself. "I'm naked and trapped in a really tiny room by short aliens that lured me hear with promises of a good education. What else could go wrong?"

At that moment Kevin heard a buzz and then passed out.

August 2417

Dreams and near-lucidity plagued Kevin for a period of time that he could not measure. Memories danced on the edge of his awareness and when he reached for them, tried to gather them close, they tumbled away, leaving him balanced on the edge of a precipice. When he fell he became momentarily aware of his surroundings but was quickly — and rudely  — pushed back under to do battle with half-formed thoughts and mis-filed memories that sought vengeance for being ignored in the world of the waking.

In the far reaches of the unconscious mind where the sleeper still has a modicum of control Kevin pieced together the tantalizing glimpses of reality. As the puzzle slowly fitted together, he realized that the puzzle was much larger than he could comprehend in its entirety, but small conclusions became apparent. The most disconcerting of these conclusions was the feeling of being flayed; disconcerting not because he was in agonizing pain, but because he was rather intrigued by the sensations.

He also saw knives and saws and metal contraptions that he could not put a name to wielded by long, webbed fingers attached to strangely bulbous bodies that shifted and vanished as a mirage at noon. He pondered, and as he pondered he came close to a revelation. When that revelation came close enough to just touch with his outstretched fingers he was again dragged down into the blackest reaches of his mind.

Kevin's eyes flew open and he was momentarily disoriented until he realized that he was back on board the Dixon, still several light-years from their destination. He was in Lieutenant Masters' quarters, on Dennon's bed, and naked, just as was she. They had just proven that it was possible to have sex in the small bunks that escort personnel were assigned on the passenger liner. Kevin had insisted it wasn't possible but wasn't too upset at being proven wrong.

"Y'okay, honey?" Dennon asked as she lazily traced curlicues in the sparse hair of his chest. "You're breathin' a bit hard."

Kevin rubbed the remainder of sleep from his eyes. "Sorry, bad dream. Have you ever had one of those dreams that you swear was real, where every taste, texture and smell was so convincing that you couldn't tell if you were awake or not? It was like that.

"It was two weeks from now. Matt shuttled us down to the moon, the Myrtraal greeted us and led us each to a chamber. There I stripped, took a shower and passed out. I never woke up but I had the strangest sensation that I was being chopped into tiny pieces for a can of dog food."

Dennon laughed a throaty chuckle. At first Kevin was annoyed at how easily she shrugged off his concerns but realized how silly he was being and laughed with her. "I know, I know. I'm just being anxious about this grand ol' adventure I'm about to go off on."

His partner stopped laughing and bent over to gently kiss him. She pulled back but didn't lose her eye lock with him and said, "Silly boy! You're still dreaming, which means that in just a little moment, you are going to wake up!"

Kevin's eyes flew open and instead of Dennon's blue eyes and short-cropped blonde hair he saw nothing but blurs. He breathed painfully, grateful to be able to do so after so long a time in dreamland, only simulating it. Blinking worked to resolve his vision into recognizable shapes and he was soon able to make some sense in this new world. However, sense had obviously decided to take a vacation without letting him know where it was going because what he saw defied what he thought he knew.

In the center of his vision was a long, thin muzzle. Above the muzzle was a pair of dark, piercing eyes and two ears standing at attention on top. The whole thing was covered in a blue-black fur and sat on a massive chest with two furry arms crossed over it. It wore a white tunic and a gold chain around its long neck. "Am I dead?" Kevin asked with a throat raw from disuse.

The canine-headed creature rolled its eyes and muttered, "Sure, have a passing resemblance to the Egyptian god of the underworld and suddenly everyone thinks they need embalming! No, you're not dead."

"You sure? I feel like I've been on the rack for days and I can't move."

"That's actually a fair description of what happened to you. Right now the only way you can move is with that powered exo-skeleton that you're wearing, and still I doubt you'll be doing ballet in the near future."

Kevin closed his eyes and took another deep breath. The pain was ebbing away to a dull throb and his thoughts were becoming clearer even though his voice wasn't. "Who —"

"Am I? My name is Thomas Above, though you can call me Thom, and I will be you're Resident Assistant for this semester. I serve as liaison with the Myrtraal, arbiter of arguments and guide to new students."

"Where —"

"Are we? Mnalik'tor, primary to the Myrtraal homeworld. But more specifically, room 4356 of level 4 of dormitory A on the eastern side of the University for Human Study, where the humans not only study but are studied as well."

"How —"

"Did you get here? From the shuttle you went to the baths where you were knocked out. During that time they brought you through the medical complex where you were poked, prodded and otherwise operated on for three weeks. At the end of that period the Myrtraal placed you here and told me you were about to awake."

"Why —"

"Did they do this?" Thom shrugged. "Don't know. Many of us have theories, but most of them are so outlandish that they make the paranoia of the Cold War from more than four centuries ago look childish."

Thom was starting to annoy him; he was not letting Kevin finish any of his sentences and he was becoming frustrated. Counting to ten, he tried one last time. "Are you —"

"Psychic? No, but everyone seems to ask the same questions so I'm pretty much prepared for anything. Plus, because I am the RA I know that I'll be the brunt of many a practical joke so I like to get in as many barbs as possible in the beginning.

"So, unless I miss my guess, you're probably really hungry right now. We're all hungry after we wake up from one of our 'visits' to the medical center, and you're probably hungrier than most since you've been out for longer'n most of us ever are. That and the Myrtraal have just kicked your metabolism into high gear to help in healing and development. I'll be back in a jif with somethin' for ya'." With that Thom left Kevin alone to ponder his new existence.

There wasn't all that much to ponder. With Thom's head out of the way Kevin could now see the white, textured ceiling. He could pick out several accidental patterns in the ceiling material, quite similar to finding patterns in clouds on a summer day. However, that soon lost his interest and he began to see how many of his muscles would respond to his conscious thought.

Much of his body still throbbed and ached, but he was in no noticeable pain. Since he wanted to see more of his room, he started with his neck, first trying to lift his head and then, when that didn't work, trying to get his head to fall over. Eventually by rocking his head from side to side he was able to convince long-dormant muscles that he was in charge and was soon looking past his right shoulder to the rest of his room.

The room wasn't too large; there was a nightstand directly to his right, a dresser was beyond that and a wardrobe was tucked against the corner of the room. On the far wall was a desk with a computer terminal on top, waiting for its first use. On the wall that his feet were facing were, from left to right, a door wide enough to fit his bed, a small vanity, a large whiteboard and a circular table, large enough to fit three people and both suited perfectly for studying or working on a project. All of furniture was made of the same greyish-blue plastic, the walls an off-white, and Kevin didn't have a good enough view to determine the color of the carpet.

Moving his head became easier, though not yet as simple as he had been able to move it before. Kevin had just figured out how to slowly raise his arm at the elbow when Thom came back into the room carrying a covered tray. "Ah, good, you didn't go anywhere."

Thom missed — or more likely, ignored — the dirty look Kevin gave him and placed the tray on a small table that was attached to the foot of the bed and could be slid up and down on casters. Thom bowed and in a faux French accent asked, "Would monsieur care to eat now?"

"Monsieur would love to eat," Kevin carefully replied, "but monsieur currently can't move to reach his food. Would the kind waiter care to help monsieur up?"

Again Thom bowed and then placed his hand on a vertical piece of Kevin's exoskeleton. "I would be honored. Is monsieur ready?" At a nod from the reclining student, he hoisted Kevin into a sitting position and pushed him back, placing pillows so that Kevin wasn't leaning against the hard wall.

Kevin sat gasping like a fish, his eyes wide and the fingers on both hands spasmodically opening and closing for several seconds. Thom sat on the edge of the bed and grabbed the sides of the young man's head and stared in his eyes. "Kevin, look at me!" he hissed. "Take deep breaths. With me: in, out, in, out… There, that's better, right?" Kevin nodded, still unable to speak. "Sorry 'bout that. I guess your nerves are still a little raw, there. They did a forced growth on your nervous system and your brain hasn't yet figured out what to do with the input. You're not actually hurt," Thom assured Kevin who was concentrating on breathing, "but you're going to feel some weird sensations for the next couple of weeks. Well, next couple of years actually."

"Thom," Kevin asked when he finally got his breath back. "Remind me to do one thing; when I get out of here and don't need this contraption to move, remind me to punch you. Hard!" The RA grinned showing a dentition that would scare a rabbit out of its skin and then moved the tray up into position for Kevin. Kevin found that his sudden movement had shaken loose some of the signals that he was sending to his muscles and was able to move his hand to the tray and grab a spoon in one long-fingered hand to the accompaniment of soft sounds of his exoskeleton. "What is it?" he asked of the contents of the bowl in front of him.

"It's a highly nutritious concoction of vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates that your body can handle for your transformation," Thom explained while fetching the chair from the desk across the room, "and pretty much the only thing your gastro-intestinal track can handle right about now. It ain't pretty, and it ain't tasty, but it'll kill your hunger in an instant. Just think of it as porridge." Kevin looked at the spoonful he had with trepidation but when a careful sniff didn't turn up anything too noxious, he took a careful bite. Thom was right; it wouldn't be served in any four-star restaurants, but at least it was edible.

While Kevin ate with a painful slowness Thom began talking about the university and what he would expect in his new home. The university was a twelve-tiered hexagonal structure with only the top level above ground. These tiers held classrooms, labs, a library per floor and three massive computing centers, only two of which were accessible to students. Around the university proper were all of the support buildings. With the north polar region as twelve o'clock, there was a recreational complex complete with a swimming pool and an indoor track, dormitories A and B, a biosphere at the six o'clock position, the landing pad at nine and the medical facilities covered the area from ten to one. Each dorm was ten levels below ground with the cafeteria on top giving a nice view of the moon's surface. The biosphere housed plants and animals from Earth and the one world that humans had so far been able to colonize. It was a popular spot for the students to relax and was managed in part by the biology students. The landing pad also was adjacent to the medical facilities for processing of the new students, but no one knew what those buildings were like inside because they were usually unconscious on their arrival.

"Any terminal in the complex is capable of accessing your medical files, but only you can access them; your privacy is guaranteed for anything personal. I am the only other student that can access your records, but only in an emergency and when you've been under the Myrtraal's knives, like now. I am under oath to respect your privacy, and will back off if you give the word. Any questions?"

Kevin stared at the mostly-eaten bowl of 'porridge' in front of him; he never knew how difficult it could be to just move a spoon back and forth from a plate to his mouth, but he was now nearly exhausted from the strain. "I thought this exoskeleton was supposed to help me," he panted.

"Help you, yes, do the work for you, no. The servos actually reinforce your own movements, keeping you from over-exerting yourself. Here," Thom said while reaching back to grab a data pad that was sitting on the chest-of-drawers. He tapped at the screen for a moment and turned it around for Kevin to see. "This shows everything that's happened to you as well as some of what's planned. Here it shows that you'll be wearing that exoskeleton for about five months and during that time the gain on the pickups will be turned down gradually so that you have to work harder to do things, effectively retraining your muscles. And here's the real nitty-gritty," he said tapping an icon on the screen. "It seems that they elongated your bones, reactivated growth regions (huh, didn't know they could do that!) and then did some funky things with your muscles and nervous system while they were at it. Kevin, how tall are you… were you?"

"A little bit more than one and three-quarters meters. Why?"

"Well, you are now somewhere around two-point-two meters. Congratulations: you are now the biggest man on campus!"

"What? How did they do this to me? How could they? I came here for an education, not to be turned into a guinea pig for their twisted experiments! Who gave them the right to cut me apart and change me to their whims? Who gave them the right?!"

Thom shrugged at Kevin's outburst; he'd heard it all before. "Actually, you did." Kevin stared at the jackal-headed creature before him for several long breaths. "When you signed all those forms they gave you, you gave them permission… Oh, you didn't read them all! I was hoping… Oh, well. Don't feel so alone, none of us had any clue what was going to happen. About five percent of the students just signed the forms without giving any thought, another five percent actually read all the legal mumbo-jumbo and didn't have a clue, but signed anyway. And the rest got so bowled-over by the writing that they just signed wherever there was a dotted line.

"Basically what all those two-hundred-odd pages of legalities that they set in front of your face said was that your body was in their hands to do with as they pleased with the only stipulation that they maintain you in good health returning you hale and whole to Earth when they were done. On the flipside, you will be getting a galaxy-class education out of the Myrtraal. Oh, and the legal phrases are iron-clad in conjunction with the Earth Coalition. If you don't believe me I'll introduce you to Phil he's our law student and he spent months picking apart the logic in our enrollment forms."

Some consolation. Why couldn't he have seen that there would have to be strings attached to the scholarship? The countless physical exams, psych evaluations and interviews with several of the indistinguishable Myrtraal should have tipped him off to something big happening, but Kevin only thought that they were just extremely phobic about human pathogens. Now he knew, and he had the physical scars to remind him at his every step for the rest of his life.

"Well," Thom interrupted the silence. "If you're done with that you should probably get some rest. You've only got about… le'see… today is Thursday… three days until classes start. I'll take you on a tour of the facilities tomorrow and introduce you to the rest of the residents of the floor."

Kevin started at the mention of time and could only stare as Thom rolled back the table and then helped him lay back down. Thom smiled at him, picked up the tray and left the room, pausing briefly to turn out the light and wish him pleasant dreams.

'What have I gotten myself into?' Kevin asked himself as he sank into sleep. The warm tracks of tears from his eyes were the last things he remembered before surrendering to the oblivion of his dreams.

The morning found Kevin with the data pad on his chest reading his medical records. The Myrtraal had everything, from the data they got from flaying him, detailed scans they took on Earth, childhood illnesses and a broken arm he suffered when he was twelve. Fascinating though much of the information was, he could only understand a fraction of it since his education so far had not covered the intricacies of biology, human or otherwise.

The data pad didn't just contain a history of whooping cough and broken bones; it was actually a dumb terminal for the entire student network. Through it he could find his class schedule, see his assignments, access reference texts, play video games and send messages to his classmates. Most of all, though, it had a map, and he was assiduously studying it for the first day of class was only three days away, a date that the data pad calmly agreed on with Thom.

True to his word Thom arrived at 8:30 with a wheelchair. "Come on," he said patting the seat. "You need to get out. You're starting to look dyspeptic."

"Aw, but Ma! Can't I sleep a little longer?"

Thom threw up his hands in mock surrender. "Forgive me for trying to take an interest on the continued good health of a son! But what do I know, slaving all day over a stove to cook a supper that no one appreciates. Maybe I should dig myself a grave and lay in it to die a little!" He was about to continue but Kevin's chuckle cut off his 'Jewish Mother' routine. "Seriously, kid, how ya' feelin' today?"

"Fine, except for the fact that someone tied lead weights to all of my limbs while I was asleep. What's on the agenda for today, chief?"

"Well, first I thought we'd catch breakfast in the cafeteria, then a tour of the complex and after that just hang with the rest of the crew. Sound like a plan?"

"Hm. I was planning on counting the cracks in the ceiling, but I think I should be able to put it off for another day. One question though: Could you help me up?"

This time when Thom helped Kevin up he made sure that the recently conscious student was fully ready for transferral from the bed to wheelchair. With a minimum amount of grunting and panting — mostly on Kevin's part — the pair were ready to go.

"Wait a minute," Kevin interrupted as Thom started to wheel him to the door. "I'm still wearing what I wore in bed, and I don't ever remember buying flannel shorts with teddy bears on them!"

"Ah," Thom replied. "That would be the Myrtraal sense of humor. Or the Myrtraal's complete misunderstanding of the human mind. We still can't figure out which it is. Either way it's normal uniform for around here; it's a college so don't expect everyone to be wearing tuxes and evening gowns. If it'll make you feel any better I c'n go get my bunny slippers!" Thom grinned showing well polished canines.

"You could do that but you'd still have a face only a mother could love!"

Thom's grin slipped but was immediately back in place when he made his reply. "Yeah, look who's talkin', 'Stretch'! Besides, I don't think you have any clothes that would fit you at the moment." Kevin looked down at his body seated in the wheelchair and agreed that he looked like nothing more than an adult sitting in a chair designed for a ten-year-old. "Let's go," Thom continued. "Food'll get cold before we even get there, so let's pick up the pace, shall we."

"We shall!" Kevin concurred and they left his room.

The hallway was empty, and so was the elevator that they rode up to the main floor on, but they were greeted at the doorway of the cafeteria by a cacophony of sights and sounds that was the hallmark of any college food service. There was the normal mixture of races and genders, speaking in a babel of languages, but also there was a plethora of forms; a satyr conversed easily with a walrus-man in one corner while a minotaur and a reptile-skinned woman discussed the finer points of logic. It was as if someone dropped a book of fantasy and shook loose the creatures clinging to the authors' thoughts therein to confound the laws of science.

Kevin vigorously rubbed his eyes. Nothing could have prepared him for the tableau now standing before him and it was only the simple fact that he could not move from his wheelchair that kept him from bolting out of the room. "Witches, warlocks, demons, sadists or mad scientists," Thom muttered from where he leaned on the handles of the chair. "Whatever you want call them, you have to agree that the Myrtraal are creative bastards. We better hurry before we lose a space at our table."

They walked to a bank of screens on one wall of the room. "This is where you place your order for your meal, and you'll need one of these," Thom said dangling a plastic card on a short cord, "to do it. First, swipe the card through the slot here and you'll see a list of daily requirements and where you are on those scales. Down at the bottom is a selection of items that will best fit your intake requirements. In your case you have… ew…"

"What?" Kevin asked his jackal-headed guide worriedly. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It's just that you have exactly one item on your list and it's more of what you had yesterday. Anyway, the number beside it is the number of calories in the meal. Now compare this with the fact that average calorie intake for a human is about 2000 per day, give or take a couple hundred." Kevin whistled in appreciation at the rather large number in front of his face. "And trust me when I say that you will need all that; the Myrtraal boosted your metabolism to compensate the need for healing and to fuel interim changes between surgeries. Now, choose your meal and it'll tell you how long it'll take you to prepare.

"Look at the next wall. See where there are a bunch of numbers: one, two, three…" Kevin nodded. "Those are the slots where your food comes out. When it's ready, your ID card, the one that you used to order your meal will flash the number where your tray will come out. Yours shouldn't take too long so I'll just order up my own breakfast and then go pick yours up." Thom ordered and Kevin unconsciously licked his lips at the selection he was given. "Don't get too hungry," Thom warned. "I have yet to eat a machine-prepared meal anywhere in the galaxy that didn't taste faintly of cardboard and plastic."

As Thom had predicted Kevin's meal was ready by the time they made it to the dispensers so they picked it up and went to a circular table near one of the exits that was already occupied by its own group of exotic creatures. "This group of vagabonds, migrants, stragglers and bohemians," Thom explained grandiosely, "are the people who have somehow found it necessary to cause my life to be a private hell by being the students who I have been charged with keeping an eye on, and therefore are your floormates. Kevin Meechum, this is Everyone. Everyone, this is Kevin, the new guy. Please don't hurt him too badly, I just dragged him out of bed this morning."

The assorted modified humans around the table grinned ferally at Kevin as he sat his tray on the table. "Uh, Thom?" he asked in mock terror. "You have fed them, right?"

"Don't worry, Kevin. They won't bite, though you may wish they had if you find yourself on the end of one of their pranks. Now, to my left is LaShawn Andrews. He's majoring in chemistry but don't let his bookish demeanor fool you because he's a mean racquetball player and is probably an excellent swimmer because the Myrtraal have been kind enough to fit him with gills but we wouldn't know because he's kind enough not to rub our noses in it." The dark-skinned acknowledged Thom's praise with a quiet smile and a nod to Kevin.

"Next is Vanessa Eaglefeather, among the last of the Navajo Indian tribe. I'll grant you that she's small — probably only thirty-seven kilograms soaking wet — but she will rip you apart if you make any small jokes.

"Across from you is Phil…"

"Philip Maximilian Schwarz," the brunette across from him completed. She (he?) held up her (his?) hand which Kevin shook dumbly noting that Philip was extremely feminine from her (his?) sweetheart face to her (his?) delicate hand. "How do you like it here so far, pretty boy?" she (he?) asked and laughed when Kevin could only stutter an incoherent answer.

"Phil, stop playing with him," Thom admonished.

Phil smirked at her (his?) quarry. "But it's so much fun, Thomas!"

Kevin was finally able to break his stupor and rounded on Thom. "I thought Phil was a guy!"

"Oh, but he is! Phil, show him the 'before' photo," Thom instructed and glanced down at the number flashing on his ID card, "while I go and pick up breakfast." Phil pulled a well-worn 2D picture from his pocket and handed it to Kevin.

Kevin did a double-take when he saw that the person the picture looked nothing like the grinning young lady before him. Instead Kevin saw a dark-haired, barrel-chested young man with a thick coat of body hair wearing swim trunks and throwing someone into a swimming pool. He looked more at home on a wrestling mat, Kevin thought, than this person before him who looked like they would be happier on the arm of a dashing prince. "Quite a bit different, huh?" Phil noted. "It was probably most traumatic when they took my chest hair. Do you know how much it means to a guy to have body hair? It's like a rite of passage, a mark of manhood." He shrugged. "Oh, well, can't change things now."

"You mean, they, um… well…" Kevin mimed scissors with his right hand and coughed self-consciously.

Phil shook his head. "No, they left all that and from what I can tell from my file, they're not gonna' do anything else to me." Phil took the picture back from a now red-faced Kevin. "The one thing that I have to admit is that I never had as much luck with women as I do now."

"Yup, he's a really ladies' man," Vanessa added.

"That's 'lady man'," a man to Phil's left but separated by a chair quipped. He looked nothing so much like a werewolf — with all of his hair shaved off, of course. "Jerry Henderson," he supplied to Kevin. "If you want to meet some women, let me know and I'll introduce you around."

"Jerry, will you knock it off!" Vanessa interrupted. "You are not God's gift to women no matter what the voices in your head may tell you."

"How would you know? You have yet to taste of the fruits of my passions."

"Actually, you don't need to do that." The discussion between Vanessa and Jerry was taking decidedly unfriendly overtones and Kevin didn't want it to go any farther. "I'm already pretty well attached."

"To whom?" Jerry asked.

"I know," an oriental man to Kevin's right said. "It was that pilot on the ship, what was her name? Masters! You were always with her, weren't you?"

Kevin looked at his neighbor. He remembered him from the Dixon, but could barely recall his name. Kevin snapped his fingers at the elusive memory as consonants and vowels slowly wound their way into a moniker he could place with the Asian. "Tanaka, right?" Tanaka nodded. "I didn't catch your first name, though…"

"Don't bother. Just call me Ralph. It's much easier than saying my name, and too many people mangle it to make it worthwhile to try and correct them." Ralph shifted his chair to face Kevin. "Actually, I'm surprised you even remembered that much; you weren't around the rest of us that much."

"Well, Dennon and I had much more interesting things to do that really didn't involve more than two people." A concerted 'Oooh' rose from the rest of the table. "Flight simulators! They only fit two people!" The crowd around him stared at him skeptically. "And we did some other, ah, extracurricular activities."

Without looking at anyone else Vanessa, LaShawn, Phil, Jerry and Ralph all started chanting, "Kevin's gotta' girlfriend! Kevin's gotta' girlfriend!" This was broken up shortly by the return of Thom with his breakfast.

"Kevin, are you giving them fodder already? I'm telling you now, it's gonna' be a lo-o-ong semester!"

But Kevin wasn't listening; instead he stared at Thom's tray, filled with several apples, bacon and waffles stacked high and topped with butter and syrup. He looked forlornly back at his own bowl of 'mush' and then back to Thom's tray. Thom watched him in amused silence and said, "You're not gettin' any. The only thing that you can eat is what's in that bowl, and I'm not about to mess with what the Myrtraal recommended."

"And how long am I going to have to eat this?"

"'Bout two weeks," Ralph supplied. "Or however long it takes your body to adapt and heal from the initial modifications."

"If you want, you can have some of mine," offered a voice that came from the chair that had been sitting empty next to Phil. Kevin looked up and stared into startling blue eyes, made even more startling by the fact that her skin was blue as well. She was waving a forkful of… something… in front of Kevin's face and he was sorely tempted to try it.

"I wouldn't," LaShawn spoke for the first time. Ralph sputtered indignantly, apparently having fallen for the trick when he first arrived and wanting to see someone else go in for what was on the blue-skinned girl's plate.

"Why's that?"

"Ask why Jenny's blue."

"Why's Jenny blue?"

"Because she lost an earring," Jerry cracked but grimaced in unfeigned pain when Jenny hit him in the shoulder.

"Because," Vanessa said, "Jenny has been fused with a symbiotic plant and needs several minerals which make her meals taste like the potting soil used in the biodome."

The remainder of the meal was spent in much the same way; someone would make a comment, another would provide a rejoinder and the rest would laugh, groan or pelt the offending party with napkins or food depending on the severity of punishment warranted. The bluff comraderie, like the bad food, sleepless nights and strange professors, were a staple of college life and Kevin was glad to be a part of it once again. 'Again' because Kevin had already experienced college life unlike many of the students at the University for Human Study.

"I started college when I was fifteen," he related when the group thought it odd that he had celebrated his twentieth birthday at the beginning of the year. "I had various scholarships and jumped around from major to major not finding anything that I was really interested in. So far I have tried math, physics, foreign relations, English, information technology, mechanical engineering, art, psychology and history. Nothing was interesting me and it wasn't too long before the free money stopped flowing in as fast as it did in the beginning. I was looking around for something to stick with when I found the Myrtraal advertising in the back of a catalog. I contacted their embassy, took a test, had every nook and cranny of body and brain examined and then signed my life away."

By this time most heads around the table were nodding in agreement. "It was pretty much the same for all of us here," Vanessa added. "Except the going-to-college-at-fifteen thing. The lack of funds and devil-with-a-document thing is familiar, though."

"Where-at did you go to school?" Phil asked.

"A couple'a schools, actually. I started at a little school in —" Kevin started but was cut off by a crash that came from near the entrance to the cafeteria. At the center of the commotion was a short woman berating a horse-headed student who was awkwardly trying to get back to his hooves. His attempts made it obvious that he hadn't had his new feet for long. Except for the hairless tail thrashing angrily behind her the young woman was surprisingly normal in a room filled people stretched, muscled and furred beyond simple definitions of humanity.

"Wh-who is that?" Kevin asked, stunned at the display before him.

"Kara Marks," Vanessa answered. Kara finished her tirade, stalked to the meal dispensers, took her tray and sat down at an empty table, belligerently not looking at anyone else in the room. When she was seated heads turned back to their meals and the level of conversation crept back to where it was before Kara's entrance.

"And what, may I ask, is her problem?"

Jerry sniffed. "Penis envy," he said simply, to which Jenny responded by again punching him in the arm, an amused expression notably missing from her face.

Thom considered Kevin for a moment before speaking. "I'm going to tell you this, not because it is gossip, nor do I mean it as such. Our private lives are just that — private -- and if someone wants something secret we leave it that way. What I'm going to tell you is something everyone at this table already knows, and I'm telling you now so that you don't make a wrong comment in her presence. You too, Ralph, since I know you haven't heard it either. Do you understand?" The two new students nodded at the serious expression on the jackal's face. "Good.

"Now, Kara Marks was one of ten students who came in last semester, except for some reason the Myrtraal didn't do anything to her right away. Instead they waited, as did she, while the others from her ship were, shall we say, modified. Finally, about a month into the semester she woke up and found that she had that tail you see on her. And a penis."

"Whoa, whoa! She what?"

"She now, courtesy of the Myrtraal surgeons has a penis," Jenny added calmly. "Actually, the correct classification for her now would be 'hermaphrodite'."

Kevin thought about what he was told while Ralph stared at the remnants of his breakfast. "Wait a minute!" Kevin spoke at last. "I thought that our medical files were closed only to us…"

"And your Resident Assistant," Thom completed. "I was in her room when she awoke, and she wasn't too pleased, to put it mildly. I tried talking with her several times over the next few weeks but she made it apparent that she wants to be alone. I advise you to respect that," Thom admonished, stared each of the newly transformed young men in the eye and then dropped his serious fa\c{c}ade signalling the close of the discussion.

The group finished their meals without interruption, continuing the light banter that Kevin found would characterize every conversation. Someone would make a comment, and if it was one of the girls — or Phil -- Jerry would make an offhand comment on the superiority of men or inferiority of women. He was an unapologetic chauvinist and took an almost childlike delight in the fact that Phil had been given the outward appearance of one of the fairer sex. Of course he was never able to comprehend the fact that Phil had been a fairly good wrestler and maintained much of the strength he had when he was tall, dark and hairy.

The rest of the cadre tolerated Jerry's comments and ignored Jenny's and Phil's retaliations. This was their time to relax before school and the real world were given lease to pound them against the rocks of life. As such they tried to pack as much fun and relaxation into the time that they had.

They eventually split up for the day's activities; Jenny left for the arboretum, Phil went to join his two girlfriends on the eighth floor and LaShawn quietly followed a still-arguing Vanessa and Jerry to wherever. Kevin had to look twice as he watched the short girl leave because, even as drastic as his own modifications were, Vanessa's were even more so. Her calves had been shortened by the same amount that her feet were lengthened and even more work was done her tendons and muscles. All of this forced her to walk on tiptoe, subtly reminding Kevin of velociraptor skeletons that he had seen on tours of the local museum when he was younger.

Though he had already seen much of the complex, Ralph joined Thom and Kevin on their tour saying that he would like an experienced guide to point out those things he missed. Kevin privately suspected that the oriental boy was trying to curry points with their RA but kept his mouth shut.

They started with the exercise center, a haven for any type of athletic training one might aspire to. The ground level sported a track already with runners of various body types sprinting around it at speeds matching or exceeding record-setting Olympic paces. Of course, one had to recalculate the actual speeds because they were running in just less that one Earth gravity. Though the entire moon was larger than Earth's, it was still nowhere near the nine-tenths gee that the Myrtraal felt was optimal for healing. To compensate, large gravity generators were installed at the base of the complex and at the top-most two levels of the sports center and the fields could be adjusted either up or down to facilitate training in diverse gravities. Times for these gravity changes were posted and Kevin was warned to be aware of them since he probably would not want to be stuck out in the center of the track when 1.4 G was instated.

Even though the center only contained five floors, those floors still extended as far into the moon as the other buildings. Descending there was a floor for weight training, a floor devoid of equipment for aerobics and other sports that required a large amount of open space, a pool for lap swimming and finally a pool for other water sports. There was no lifeguard on duty but their hosts had installed monitoring equipment at strategic points around the complex to keep track of the progress of all their charges.

They skipped the dormitories as they were already quite familiar with them. Thom mentioned that though they were officially labeled 'A' and 'B' some enterprising students had christened them 'Wallace' and 'Wilson', respectively. Wallace was the first to be occupied and still wasn't filled so Wilson was left empty for the time being.

In the biodome they would have missed Jenny hiding amongst the foliage except for the fact that she stepped on a twig when the trio walked past her position. Thom convinced her — without too much difficulty  — to guide them on a tour of the facility and she was soon happily showing off all of the flora and fauna housed beneath hundreds of square meters of glass.

The lower levels were saved for breeding projects but the main floor of the 'dome was built artfully as a park where students could spend time resting in a natural atmosphere far removed from the artificiality of the residences. Jenny joked that the real reason for the popularity of the 'dome was that the plants within generated a higher concentration of oxygen than at any other point in the complex giving the visitor a light buzz that was pleasantly addicting.

Jenny bid the trio farewell and after a late lunch they finished their tour by inspecting only a fraction of the giant central hub. Most of the levels were specialized according to discipline and the two new students would only be seeing the top levels on a daily basis for their first semester at the university. Ralph split from the group to find the location of his classes while Thom helped Kevin find his own.

Dinner completed Kevin's day as he nearly fell asleep in his tasteless porridge-like concoction. An amused Ralph aided Thom in getting Kevin to his bed where he quickly drifted off to a dreamworld full of pencils, pens and prudent professors.

Monday arrived all too quickly for Kevin. He slept fitfully and woke up with dreams of being late for class — by several months -- cascading through his head though a glance at his clock assured him that he was still early by several hours.

He discarded the teddy-bear pajamas and dressed in a pair of slacks that he had cut to knee-length and a T-shirt. The shirt was one of the longer ones that he owned but it still had a tendency to show off his bellybutton, constantly reminding him to make friends with one of the residents who had some facility with tailoring to get some new clothes made up. The Myrtraal supplied cloth, scissors and thread, but the students were on their own after that because the Myrtraal didn't wear clothes and probably found more than some amusement at the humans' attachment to non-protective garments.

Breakfast consisted of the same brownish oatmeal-like substance with a faint Vegi-mite aftertaste and the early morning mumblings of a student body protesting the strangely modified sleeping habits that early morning classes had forced on them. Afterwards Kevin found his way to an auditorium where a nameless Myrtraal began lecturing on galactic biodiversity.

The teaching methods of the Myrtraal were not terribly radical, but they were different enough to Kevin to warrant a change in his thinking. The morning was given over to general education, where students of all disciplines gathered in various classrooms to learn what the Myrtraal felt were the basics needed to survive in the galaxy. Psychology, musical theory, art appreciation, physiology, astronomy and biodiversity were all discussed with equal attention and commanded the same respect from the teachers as those subjects directly relating to the student's major course of study. The afternoon, however, was given wholly to the discipline of the individual student.

Kevin was placed with a group of four other students who also were training in aerospace engineering. They ranged from rank beginner to one who was among the first class to enter the Myrtraal University. They were expected to work together with a professor/advisor Myrtraal to complete a project of the Myrtraal's choosing, helping each other to learn what was essential to the completion of the project and the completion of their degree. Instead of structured teaching, Kevin found it to be more of a directed group study mixed with a heavy helping of apprentice-journeyman-master relationship.

But Kevin wasn't thinking about that as he made his way to the cafeteria after he was let go for dinner. When he had arisen in the morning he noted that much of the stiffness that he had experienced since he first woken up after arriving had lessened, and that the wheelchair he had been using was gone. He was forced to move about the complex under his own power and even though the exoskeleton provided much support to his weakened muscles it still required that his muscles moved to give impetus to the frame. As his legs became heavier with each step he gripped the railing along the wall of the long hallway ever tighter and tried to convince his feet to take one more step.

"Ah, Kevin! I see that your prof kept you long this evening," came a voice from behind him. He was too tired to twist his head to see who it was and it took all of his concentration to hang on to the railing and ignore the temptation of gravity.

"Hi Thom," Kevin managed between pants. "Lovely weather we seem to be having!"

Thom stopped beside Kevin. "Well, we wouldn't know since we're stuck inside a climate-controlled environment, but if you mean that the local solar winds are lighter than usual then, yes, we're having lovely weather. So," he asked conversationally, "was your first day of class as exciting as you thought it would be?"

Grimacing, Kevin tightened his grip on the banister. "Oh, wonderful. A bit more intense than human professors, but not much different. I should be able to manage."

"Great, great. I'm glad you're not having too tough a time." Thom glanced at an illusory watch and sighed. "I hate to have to run, but I'm meeting some friends for supper. 'Later!" he said and began walking down the corridor, away from Kevin, who was quickly losing his grip on the slim rod of metal.

With a sharp cry Kevin's grip faltered and he fell hard on his knees. Thom turned his head briefly but stopped only when Kevin called out to him. "Dammit, Thom! Aren't you going to help me?!"

Thom blinked in surprise at the young man whose exertions had left him breathless. "Oh, did you need help?"

Kevin looked up at the Resident Assistant, pain, anguish and frustration writ clearly on his face. So stunned was he that Kevin could only stare as the jackal-headed man strode elegantly back to his side. "I'm sorry," Thom apologized, crouching next to Kevin. "Truly I am, but the one thing that we practice here is self-sufficiency. If you don't ask for help, you don't get it. It's kind of a survival of the fittest thing, I know, but it really does force us to recognize our strengths and weaknesses. Most have an easier time of learning this lesson because they're not so heavily modified as quickly as you were.

"Ask and ye shall receive, eh?"

Thom chuckled. "Something like that."

Kevin leaned against the wall breathing hard, but less so than a few minutes before. "It's a bullshit philosophy, but I think I can understand the reasoning. Thom," he concluded, "could you help me to the cafeteria?"

"Sure, Kevin. I'd be honored." With that Thom gripped the exo-skeleton about Kevin's waist and hauled him upwards without a grunt. "You're light boy," he commented. "You need to get some meat on those bones!"

"Yeah," Kevin answered moving his feet in a feeble attempt to keep the strain of walking off Thom. "And if the Myrtraal keep feeding me the same glop, it should only take about two or three years!"

November 2417

Kevin's ears were still ringing from his alarm clock as he stumbled out of his room and into the hallway. He found over the course of his life that he was generally immune to the noises that populated the environment and could easily sleep through such things as a fight, a raucous party or a tortured cat. With that in mind he had programmed his computer to wake him up to the sound of a foghorn, digitized, preserved and played back from a recording made in the early 21st century before the last lighthouse was torn down.

Tugging his shirt into some semblance of order he blearily hauled his two-plus meter frame down the hall and to the elevator shaft. Much of the strength he had lost after the Myrtraal dissected him had returned, but his stamina was still lower than before and the strain of walking up four flights of stairs left him out of breath and lethargic for the rest of the day. Soon, though…

The elevator was slow as it always was during the students rush to breakfast and Kevin fidgeted in anticipation, continually tugging at the seams of his clothes. "Getting better at tailoring, I see," said a voice from behind him.

"Vanessa," he greeted when he turned to see his diminutive floormate behind him. "Yeah, my last efforts and sewing have gotten better but I still can't quite make the seams match. At least they aren't splitting like they used to! What've you been up to this past week?"

"Getting behind in my classes," she replied, hobbling painfully up to Kevin. "Actually, it looks like I've been finding out what else our gracious hosts have in store for me. Look at this," she motioned to her back. "We seem to have the same fashion consultant!" Instead of the full exo-skeleton that Kevin wore, however, Vanessa sported a brace that served to immobilize her shoulders and providing little movement for her arms.

"Impressive," he commented, moving around to get a better view of her back. The greyish plastic of the brace was elegantly worked over what looked like the beginnings of a hump. "And the tail would be a recent addition too, huh?"

Twisting her head to look at Kevin she snorted. "Yeah. 'Found that one out the hard way. Since I can't turn my neck all the way I couldn't see it until I tried dressing. I knew something was up when I couldn't pull my shorts up all the way." She paused, blushing a little before speaking again. "Um, since I can't see it, could you, uh… you know…"

Kevin smiled. "Sure. It's about a half meter long, thick, like a lizard's, and —" Vanessa yelped when he touched her tail and he leapt back washing his hands in attrition. "Sorry! I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to… that is…"

"No, no! That's okay. It's just that… I've got new nerves there and when you touched it felt… like…" Vanessa shook her head. "I don't know. It was just weird!" Kevin's cheeks lost some of the heat of his blush but he continued to stare her. Vanessa cocked her head and asked, "What?"

"I was, uh, thinking that if you just add wings you'd look a whole lot like a small dragon. I mean, you've got the digitigrade feet and the tail; the only thing missing is the big wings." Vanessa continued to stare at Kevin who was fidgeting under her scrutiny. Finally the doors to the lift opened and motioning with his hand Kevin said, "'Vator's here."

They rode the elevator in silence until they reached the main floor. After they'd ordered their meals and were waiting for them Kevin broke the silence by asking if the Myrtraal were in the habit of abducting students in the middle of the semester. He learned that though they worked to some hidden timetable they generally avoided long procedures during the height of their studies. Usually a student was gone for only a day or two — a week at the most -- and it was relatively easy to catch up. Longer stays in the medical facilities were saved for the time between semesters and for the students' induction.

When their meals arrived Vanessa struggled with her tray until Kevin took it from her and juggled both hers and his own as he followed Vanessa to the table they shared with the rest of their floormates. "And so I said to Professor Smith," Jerry told the group, "if it ain't a ketone then I can't dance to it!"

There were laughs from around the table but mostly groans as the hairless wolf-man completed his story. Ralph smiled appreciatively but looked perplexed. "That was great but I still don't see how you can tell the Myrtraal from each other."

"You don't," Vanessa said while settling uncomfortably on her chair. "It's just that if you consider whichever Myrtraal is teaching you a subject as having always taught that subject you lose fewer brain cells than if you try to figure them out."

"And that's good advice," Phil added. "I'm in the first class that got here and I still can't tell which is which; to me if you've seen one short, grey, chubby Myrtraal you've seen them all! Heck I can't even tell which is male and which is female, or whether they even have two — or more — sexes!"

"I wouldn't say that," Thom said as he took his place at the table. "I can tell them apart."

Phil shot him a look of pure disbelief. "Yeah, how?" Thom responded only with a mysterious smile and placed a finger to the side of his substantial nose before attacking his breakfast with gusto. Phil stared back at him and hard but when Thom didn't react he sighed and returned to his own meal.

They ate in relative peace until they were interrupted by someone screaming from the entrance. "Get out of my fucking way, dammit!" Heads turned briefly to verify that the voice belonged to Kara Marks and turned back to their own meals, disinterested.

Kevin, however, continued to watch as Kara moved hesitantly in the general direction of the order stations with her arms in front of her and violently shoving anything that came into her path. "What's with her…?" he asked.

Phil raised his head to look at Kara. "Hm? Oh, it looks like she got some eye work done. They put a mask over your eyes so that they can finish healing without dust and stuff getting in. You shoulda' seen Jerry here when they changed his eye-color! We couldn't stop laughing for a month after he got the bandages off!"

Jerry snorted at Phil's recollection. "Don't laugh, girly-boy! I was bruised from head to toe with all the things I ran into."

"Jerry," Phil said as Kevin watched Kara swing at someone and miss. "How many times have I told you not to call you that."

"Like you can hit me from across the table!"

"Jenny," Phil asked, "would you care to do the honors?" Jenny, who had arrived at the end of Jerry's remarks, nodded her blue-green face and calmly hit him over the head with her tray. The tray was made of a light-weight plastic so, though it left no permanent damage, it made a satisfying 'thunk!' as it contacted Jerry's cranium. Jenny smiled calmly, piled the dishes that she had transferred to a nearby table back onto her tray and sat next to Phil.

"Well?" Kevin asked Thom.

"Well what?"

"Aren't you going to do something?"

"About Jerry? No. He deserved it, and one of these days those poundings he gets will finally bury the fact into his head that, though he looks like a beast he doesn't need to act like one."

Kevin snarled in frustration, aware that Thom was deliberately ignoring what he was focusing on. "Kara, dammit! She'll get hurt if no one helps her!" As if on cue Kara tripped loudly over a chair, landing on the hard floor with a smack that was audible at the distance their table was from her.

"Remember what I told you, Kevin," Thom stated calmly. "She didn't ask for help, she doesn't get any help."

Trying catch anyone's eyes Kevin looked about the table but found everyone absorbed in their own tasks. Phil, Jenny and Vanessa were discussing something inscrutable to men, Jerry was rubbing his head while finishing his breakfast and Ralph who had been as interested in the scene Kara was creating before had his head firmly bowed to a bowl of oatmeal.

"If no one else is going to do something, I will!" Kevin said, standing up and preparing to walk over to Kara. Thom caught his arm and stopped him, though.

"That is not how we operate here," Thom said quietly. "Remember what I said —"

"Damn your Nietzchsian \"Ubermensch bullshit!" Kevin said fiercely, drawing the attention of every eye at the table, and looks from a few surrounding tables as well. "Just because they don't say the words doesn't mean they aren't screaming for help!" He tore his arm free from Thom's grip and with one last glare at his RA turned and stormed away.

Kara massaged her shin. She couldn't feel any blood so she felt reasonably sure that she was okay. Nothing was broken, but she knew that she would have a large bruise. Whoever had pushed the chair in her path would pay, and pay dearly, he would. She would see to that! She would —

Kara grimaced as another spike of pain raced up her leg from her ankle. Grimacing, she shifted her foot so that it was in a more comfortable position. 'I will not cry!' she told her self. She couldn't even if she wanted to. Whatever those grey-skinned freaks had done to her they left her without the tears to cry with. Grinding her teeth she silently swore at the Myrtraal for carving her up like their own little lab rat.

"Pardon me, but do you need a hand?"

Swinging her arm at the intruder Kara gasped when her hand connected not flesh but steel and plastic. "Sorry 'bout that, but I have this nifty exo-skeleton thingy that keeps me upright at the end of the day. I'm Kevin," the voice said. "Like I asked before, do you need some help?" Kara shut her mouth, hoping that this Kevin person would leave, but he apparently took her silence as assent and pulled her to her feet.

He guided her nimbly through the maze of chairs and people to a solitary table — her usual, he assured her — and left with her ID to select her breakfast. "Since you didn't indicate a preference," he said brightly, "I just chose something I would enjoy. Is there anything else that you need? No? Well, then. Bon apet\'it!"

Kara stared sullenly ahead of her. She had never felt so humiliated in her life being guided around like some kind of invalid. "You don't have to stand there, you know," she spoke. However no one moved because no one was there. Kara sighed and fumbled with her silverware and napkin before settling down to eating her breakfast.

Each day for the next ten days Kara was greeted at the doorway to the dining hall by Kevin who acted the guide dog in escorting her through the crowded dining hall and to her seat. After she was seated he retrieved her breakfast  — for which she never spoke a preference -- and left her silently except for an occasional squeak of an un-oiled exoskeleton. Each day she never answered his cheery greetings and never gave him a thank-you.

On the eleventh day Kara woke to find the blinding mask gone. Though disorienting at first she was able to make her way to the cafeteria without suffering any more bruises or scrapes. She paused at the entrance to glare at everyone in turn. At the sound of a familiar laugh she turned to see a tall, awkward young man studded with a facsimile skeleton pinned to his limbs crammed into a chair that was much too small for his frame. He met her gaze without flinching even when her now slitted green eyes gathered back the light in the room and reflected it at him.

They stared for several seconds before Kara nodded. Just as solemnly Kevin nodded before turning back to his comrades and the conversation at hand. Kara snorted before turning and stalking to the terminals where she could order her own breakfast without the aid of anyone else. No one would guide her to her table, no one would hold her seat for her, no one would carry her tray as if she were a child. She would be, right and properly, alone.

December 2417

Thom was humming as he strolled through the hallways of the central university complex. He hummed mostly because the alterations the Myrtraal had performed to give him a jackal's face had left his lips without enough control to whistle, but also because the semester was virtually over. Most of the core group projects had been turned in, examinations were complete for all but a small number of the students and now if one listened closely one could hear the strains of parties in full swing echoing through the air ducts despite the sound baffles.

The night was still young and the celebrations would last well into the following morning, but there was one person that had been notably absent from the revelry. Thom eventually found Kevin in the biodome sprawling his more than two meter form with his back propped against a planter and looking out over the desolate landscape of the moon Mnalik'tor. "Watching the sun set?" the RA asked noting the long shadows of boulders outside the glass. "It takes about three days so you might be here for a while."

"Didn't think anyone would come lookin' for me," Kevin said without picking up his head.

"Yeah, well, it's my job as Resident Assistant to make sure that everyone on my floor is having a good time. You don't look like you are, so what gives?"

"I got in contact with the Dixon this afternoon. She's inbound and starting her parabolic maneuvering."

"So that means we have about a week before we get the new recruits." Thom crossed his arms and moved just into Kevin's line of sight. "But that's not what's eatin' ya'. Spill it."

Kevin sighed and shifted his gaze to his friend. "I talked with that annoying ensign I told you about. I was trying to get in touch with Dennon but she wasn't aboard; she got promoted when she got back Earthside and is second-in-command of a unit on the moon base."

"Well congratulations to Lieutenant Masters, or what is it now… Lieutenant Commander Masters," Thom amended when the lanky young man supplied the correction. "So, you gonna' send her a letter?"

"Ensign Hunter wouldn't hear of it. He said it was against regulations to carry cargo that was not officially sanctioned, even if it's only a few hundred kilobytes of data." Kevin snorted his amusement. "I think I may have offended him somewhere, even if it was only by the fact that I got the girl and he didn't."

"Some guys do strange things over jealousy," Thom commiserated. "How about subspace. The Myrtraal have a transceiver here…"

"Don't know much about subspace, do ya' Thom?" When Thom shook his head Kevin explained. "Subspace travels well over short distances but the farther the sender and receiver get, the more likely a subspace packet will get scattered, kinda' like the inverse square law, but more dramatic when you hit the Archivald limit where any plasma-based subspace packet will instantaneously course you can get around this by using repeater stations that intercept the signal before it self-destructs and boosts it. The downside of it all is that the boosting invariably degrades the signal. There are some techniques to fix the degradation but power costs are prohibitive and are usually limited to government and military bands."

"So, if I understand what you're saying, your letter would probably never reach Dennon," Kevin nodded at the conclusion. "That means you are cut off from your girlfriend, and more importantly, your last connection to Earth."

Kevin stopped nodding to blink at Thom in confusion. "How…"

Thom eased himself down beside the already seated student, idly noting that Kevin's legs seemed longer than a few weeks ago. "It wasn't too hard to figure out. And no, I didn't look through your records; that part is off-limits to me. You don't have any relatives or parents, or at least anyone on Earth that cares about where you are, now."

"No. I spent all of my life in orphanages."

"'Figures. The Myrtraal were very careful in choosing who was to come here. Of course they chose the smart ones and the ones who would be most likely to survive their tinkering, but they also picked those that have nothing holding them to Earth. No family, no friends, nowhere to go but up. It's only logical: if they make a mistake, they want to make sure that no one is going to follow up with a lawsuit, no matter what those contracts we signed state."

Kevin turned the statement over in his mind, examining the logic. The isolated student was a safety net; even though a lawsuit would come up for naught, the Myrtraal would receive negative publicity and turn the tide of humanity against them. The Myrtraal, though they were masters of biology, could not hold a spark against the fires of human aggression and physical engineering and would not be able to stand up against Earth in a fight.

"What about you, Thom? What happened to your family?"

Thom's face tightened before he said roughly, "I would prefer not to talk about that." Kevin responded with a simple, "Oh," and the two were quiet, sharing the view of the starry, airless sky.

"You know, we're not really alone. It may sound trite, but we're really a family here. When no one else will have us, we have each other." Thom stood, dusted his hands off and held one out to the still-seated Kevin. "Now come on; your brothers and sisters are waiting for you to join the party."

Kevin looked at Thom's hand for a moment before clasping it and pulling himself up, much more steady on his long legs on this the last day of classes than he was months earlier. "Lead on, 'Dad'! By the way, what's so special about this party? I didn't think we had anything to party with!"

"Well that's not entirely true," Thom responded as they began walking back to the dormitory. "The Myrtraal open a kitchen or two for us to do some cooking, and some of the biological science student prepare what they've grown in the biodome. This year Jenny was able to get some coffee plants grown and made up some fresh java. Of course, I should warn you," Thom added conspiratorially. "If she hands you a cup and says it was fresh ground this morning, don't take it!" Groaning at the pun, Kevin followed Thom's furry form wondering if it wouldn't be safer to hide amongst the plants for the rest of the evening.