UHS: A Picture's Worth

Steven Bergom

My father was an Earth Coalition soldier from Germany stationed outside of Athens when he met my mother. They had a short but intense love affair before Father was transferred. They kept in touch and it was in Geneva that he learned that my mother was pregnant. He pulled in a few favors and in less than two months he had a semi-permanent posting to the same base where they met only a few months before.

They were happy when they were together, or so I have been told, and doted on me when I was born in the fall of 2394. In time-honored tradition I was christened Philip Maximilian Schwartz in a cathedral that stood in Athens for centuries. There was laughing and dancing, food and companionship, and at the center of it all were my parents, smiling down on me, their son.

I have only brief memories of them, accessible in the period of time between waking and sleeping, because by the time I was two they had been killed in the terrorist bombing of the Acropolis. The authorities searched for my closest relative and found him in my uncle, my mother's older brother who had moved to New York to run a shipping company that barely made enough money to stay afloat.

My uncle was a direct contrast to my parents. While they gave their love unconditionally, Uncle Alexandros' grudging respect had to be earned, whether you clawed to the top by hard work or by stepping on the faces of people beneath you. I, however, started out with the unfortunate disadvantage of being born of a father not of the mother country, so I had twice as far to climb as his own five children, and he made sure to remind me of it at every turn. "Those barbarians were living in caves and worshiping trees when we were creating civilization!" he would say to me. "Why would you want bratwurst, nasty and disgusting as it is when you could have baklava, the honey-sweet food of the gods!"

Bratwurst and baklava. Those two words are symbolic of my life as a studied contrast. German father, Greek mother. Loving parents, stern Uncle. Bully, academic. Male, female. Seeming opposites of the other, yet still found on the same coin, where one cannot exist without the other. And that is me.

I grew up quickly, just as his three sons did, and found that my size was a definite advantage in intimidating the other children in my age group. In grade two I took their lunches, in grade three I beat them up, and by grade four I could get my way by just looking at my quarry and watching them squirm. In the fifth grade I learned a new tactic and could reduce the object of my attentions to tears by the precise application of verbiage to mock the geeks when they pulled short of perfection and the wimps for displaying obvious cowardice. And each time that Uncle Alexandros was called to the principal's office for a report on my actions he would act gruff and acknowledge the need for discipline but at home his constant derision of my ancestry would decrease. For a short while.

Oddly enough I never failed to produce high marks in my classes. Bully though I was, I was never the stereotypical type compensating for his shortcomings by taking his frustrations out on his peers, but the bully who wanted positive attention from a traditional role model.

My adoptive siblings never provided that attention; my 'sisters' were always at the stage of development that kept them away from me, whether it was the 'boys are yucky' stage to the 'we don't have time to drag around the little brat' stage. My 'brothers' had somehow inherited their father's disgust for my dichotomous heritage and avoided me if they could. The one person left in my family who might have provided a healthy balance in my life was my aunt, but she was saddled with the responsibility of caring for such a large household and often pawned my care off to the youngest of my elder brothers.

I should have been a wreck by the time that I entered high school but somewhere around seventh grade I discovered sports. I found wrestling, I found football. To a certain extent I found track and field, but only to further my performance in the prior sports. What I came to enjoy most about these sports was the fact that I could finally compete with people on a field that was level and fair under the rules of the game. I excelled at whichever activity I pursued and when we managed to defeat our opponents Uncle Alexandros would praise the skills of the team. In his words, though I had to strain to hear it, he said to me, "Good job, Philip."

In the summer of my fourteenth year Uncle Alexandros told me in no uncertain terms that it was time to earn my keep. With that I found myself working the Brooklyn shipyards building muscles by hauling boxes to and from freighters and working the heavy machinery that kept the docks running smoothly. I came home at the end of my twelve-hour shifts exhausted but happy because the grizzled old dock-hands that I worked beside were not as tight with their praise as my uncle.

It was subsequently the same summer that my uncle's shipping business started to turn an excellent profit, or so he said, because new furniture appeared around the house and my aunt often sported jewelry that I had never seen before. Though I worked the docks I never saw the reason for his apparent success, but when I perused the morning paper on my lunch break I noticed an increased number of reported crimes in and about the area where my uncle operated. Though I never had proof I was certain that his gains were of illicit origins.

As the years passed I saw my siblings receive gifts from their now generous father but the parcels seemed to run out just before he got to me. There wasn't even a "Maybe next time," just an empty hand and a slight frown. At those times I would make jokes in the silence of my mind, saying, "Sure we're a nuclear family, but the shells about the nucleus are filled and I am the lone electron, doomed to wander the quantum tableau."

Maybe it was a sense of injustice, maybe it was a desire to put his criminal acts to rights, but I'm pretty sure that it was a need to be contrary that led me to the desire to study law after I graduated high-school. My coaches and advisors all believed that I had the grades and leadership potential necessary to catch the eye of more than a few decent institutions of higher learning. There was only one thing that blocked my easy transition into the afterlife of government-required education.

Uncle Alexandros' arguments over my decision to pursue the legal arts, I believe, came less from his belief that lawyers and politicians muddy up the waters of society and more from the fact that he participated in activities that weren't, by definition, lawful. When I graduated from secondary school and still intent on my academic pursuit my uncle proceeded to kick me out of both house and family. There was no love lost between my adoptive brothers and myself as I packed away the few possessions that I had bought, but I thought I detected a tear from my aunt, though I couldn't be certain because Uncle was standing right beside her.

I left for Brooklyn the same afternoon that I finished packing and I found a bunk at the SleepRite bed-house. They were really nothing more than boxes 1-1/2 meters by 1-1/2 meters by 3 meters, just big enough to sleep in and have room left over for a few belongings. It was small, but it was cheap and had an address and I didn't plan on staying there too long if I could help it. I had a little cash from working odd jobs and some funds left over from my real parents that Uncle hadn't pillaged when he needed "money for his sister's kid's upkeep."

After laying claim to a bed my next order of business was to find a job that gave me a steady income without tying me down when it came time to move. Naturally I gravitated to the warehouse district where I at least had some experience and within a few days I was loading crates onto freighters bound across the North Atlantic. In the evenings before I could collapse from exhaustion, however, I was searching through the libraries for ways to finance my wanted education.

I should have been doing research on colleges in high school but I was effectively prevented from doing so by my uncle when I announced my future in law. He increased my hours at the wharf and kept a close watch on my schedule, when I should be leaving school and when I actually was. When the times didn't match up I was grilled for hours by Uncle over his supposed concern for my health.

The summer waned and I knew that I wouldn't be able to enter into a university in the fall as I really wanted. The problem was that my only hope was a full scholarship but most institutions required that the prospective student still be in school and be doing a significant project with a noted scholar. True, I could have chased down smaller scholarships but I would always be short of my goal, needing to supplement tuition with a side job. The local colleges were also a distinct possibility but I would still be faced with the need to work the docks and the small schools didn't have the degree program that a serious lawyer required in this day and age.

In late fall when ice started forming on warehouse walls and the cranes became more reluctant to start in the morning I was reviewing a relatively unknown magazine pulled off the network by the library when I found an ad placed by the Myrtraal embassy.

The Myrtraal are an alien race first encountered when a human colony ship was sent to the second planet of a remote star, which they also had designs on. We met and immediately peace broke out between our peoples. After ten years of talking at each other we finally deciphered the others' language and began talking with each other. Humans and Myrtraal were at roughly the same level of technology but they both had their strengths and weaknesses. Humans, it seemed, were veritable information sponges and had reached their pinnacle of engineering in a rather short time in comparison with the Myrtraal. On the other hand our little grey allies were absolute geniuses in the biological arts. Together those two disparate races worked on the colony and Epitychia, as it was later known, was named a success.

Later the Myrtraal established a college at Epitychia and before long the alumni of Epitychia Allied University became the most sought-after people in the sphere of human society. I have even heard it said that the United Earth Coalition Secretary General Jacques Franklin trained under the eye of our galactic partners.

In any case, the Myrtraal were advertising for a new university on their home planet's primary moon of Mnalik'tor. I hastily researched their claim and, in my preliminary investigation, found that it was an all-expense paid trip to one of the finest and prestigious educations that could be had anywhere. The part that made me want to jump for joy was that it would take me as far away from my uncle as humanly possible.

Though I entertained no real hopes of winning the scholarship I still contacted the Myrtraal embassy to have them send the necessary information for me to complete. I filled out all of the forms that they sent, read their documentation fully and made sure to release my school records for their perusal before I sent them in and turned back to my search for future enlightenment.

I was indeed surprised when, two weeks later, a message was waiting for me at the telecom center of the SleepRite. It informed me that the Myrtraal embassy had received my forwarded application and, instead of brushing me off as many other institutions had, they cordially extended an invitation for me to visit them in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sure that it was a hoax I re-read it several times to see if there was some sort of lie hidden in the text. To the consternation of the SleepRite customer in line behind me I even traced the path of the message through the net only to find that it had indeed been sent from the Myrtraal embassy.

In a short time I quit my job at the warehouse, collected the difference on my rent at the SleepRite and boarded the plane to the south United States. I was greeted at the airport by a human liaison who transferred me to a small complex set aside for applicants and told to get a good night's sleep.

Over the course of the following month I was subjected to a battery of tests and interviews that left me little time to think. Most of the tests were of the physical variety and went much farther than what I had to endure to play sports in school. They were uncomfortable, but since I knew what the light at the end of the tunnel was, I could endure it.

The grounds of the embassy were impeccably manicured, and it was there that I and my fellow hopefuls went when we were not being tested. Of course, I didn't know about the splendors of the mansion for the first two weeks of my residence due to the very fact that I was kept busy by proctors, Myrtraal and medical practitioners from daybreak to day's end. I only had enough time to sleep, and barely enough, at that. When I finally became relatively free of the sadistic machinations of the Myrtraal, I toured the grounds.

I wasn't the only one who took comfort in the beauty of the outdoors. On the many quieting walks I took I often encountered individuals or couples making their way through the elegant gardens or watching one of the many fountains on the property. Some of the faces I saw on those strolls I saw again and again. Many, however I saw only once.

Thomas Above was one of those faces that stayed around for the long haul. I saw him first sitting around a concrete court out back of the main complex watching a combined group of transients and permanents playing basketball. I watched them for a moment considering whether or not I should join in before I decided that a sport just wasn't worth playing except when the chance that someone could get hurt was relatively high. "Is this seat taken?" I asked.

Startled out of concentrating on a small book Thom stared blankly at me for a while before motioning me to sit beside him. "Please, feel free. Why aren't you playing with them?" he asked, pointing with his chin at the game in front of us.

I shrugged. "If it doesn't have body checks, it ain't worth playing. You?"

"I'm not really built for sports," he said holding his thin, hairless arms out in demonstration. "I have a tendency to get trampled if I'm not careful."

I nodded sagely. I offered my hand, introduced myself and Thom did the same. At that point the possibilities for conversation dried up pretty quickly.

We sat for a while, nodding our heads in a manner which stated universally, "I have no idea what to talk about." After letting the silence become almost unbearable I decided to break the tension. "I notice your head's shaved; is that for a political statement or…?"

Thom's jaw clenched visibly and, looking closely at his skull, I saw that it wasn't that he shaved his head but that he didn't have any follicles. I also noticed that he lacked eyebrows and that the arm whose hand I shaked was similarly lacking in hair. Rubbing my own rather hirsute arm I sympathized with him and decided to change the subject. "What's that you're reading?" I asked latching onto the first item that came into my sight.

Thom welcomed the change and launched first tentatively, then whole-heartedly, into a lecture on twentieth century poetry. "This is a collection of poems  — limericks, actually — by two fairly influential authors of the latter nineteen-hundreds. John Ciardi, who wrote mostly poetry of various sorts, and Isaac Asimov, who is best-known for helping to shape that century's tapestry of science-fiction, were colleagues. In the late 1970's they put together a collection of two gross poems, mostly as a way to see who was best."

"And four-hundred years later you're reading them." I shook my head in wonder. "How can you even stand that stuff? I'd always fall asleep in class when we started to discuss classical literature."

"Oh, I don't know. It's not so much all classical literature I like but things written around the time this book was. Just think: around then humanity went from a completely ground-based civilization to taking our first tentative steps into space. Of course, it took a while before we actually became productive outside of the Earth's atmosphere, but books like these contain the hopes and fears of a generation. I read these and wonder what it would be like to fear the unknown like they did…"

Throughout his dialogue I was rolling my eyes and wondering if I was able to put aside my dislike of basketball long enough to join the game. Thom noted my lack of attention and interrupted my ruminations by thrusting the book into my face. "Here, read some; it's not as bad as you think!"

I took the book suspiciously from his fingers and flipped through it stopping randomly on a page. "'Choice'," I read aloud.

Said Joe of a woman named Allison
There's a lady with whom I would dally, son
    For her body, you see,
    Is indubitably,
Where I would like to deposit my phallus on.

Without saying a word I turned my head to look at Thom who had the good graces to look profoundly embarrassed. "Okay, so it wasn't the best example of the literary arts of the twentieth century, but that doesn't mean they're all like this."

As he took his book back from my un-resisting fingers I chuckled softly. "Good, because if it was, I'd be more than a little curious as to how we evolved out of that fouled-up era."

Thom shook his head and pointed to the court where Charlie and Jared, the extremely competitive pair who organized the game, were arguing about who fouled whom. "Who said we did?" Thom asked wryly.

As I was nodding my head at his very astute observation I heard quiet footfalls behind me. "Is this a private conference," a light, feminine voice asked, "or can anyone join in?"

Thom glanced behind us and grinned. "Lindsey! Please, sit," he said, scooting over to make a place for her between us. "Your insights into human behavior are always welcome."

"What I know of human psychology would fill a thimble next to what you know, Thom," she said. Though she never spoke very loud, I could hear the traces of an accent. Coupled with her light-blonde hair and blue eyes I concluded that the accent must be Scandinavian. Later I found that my analysis was correct when I learned that her land of origin was Norway.

Lindsey settled to the space between Thom and me, took out a sketchbook from the pack she carried and, flipping to a new page, began a sketch of the game before us. She paused only briefly to nod at me when Thom made introductions and quickly turned her full attention to her subject. I didn't mind, I'm something of an 'art voyeur'; I like to watch an artist at work more than viewing the final product. It was something I enjoyed during the course of my schooling, but my reputation as a bully tended to make my classmates nervous. It was refreshing to partake a very relaxing activity without having that stigma attached.

"You're very good," I told her after watching her fingers dance across the surface of the paper, coaxing with pencil an image that, while still, made you believe the subject was about to jump at you. Lindsey blushed and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Have you had any showings?"

"No," she answered. "I'm not that good. I just like to draw to keep my hands busy." Adding a few final pencil strokes she turned to a clean page and started on another scene.

"But you are! Isn't she, Thom?"

"Most definitely. I keep telling her that but she doesn't listen to me."

I watched her work work for a few silent moments before speaking again. "Do you do commissions? Like portraits, I mean. I think I'd like one of me. You know, 'Philip Schwartz, B.C.'\smallskip" I said grandiosely, flourishing the title in the air with my hands. "Before college, I mean. What about you, Thom?"

Thom shook his head tightly and I figured that I should drop his involvement in a portraiture of any type. "Well, each to his own," I continued. "I think it would be a great idea to have a record of what we look like now. I hear that going away to a university really changes a person."

After a bit more discussion I was able to convince Lindsey to draw me. Negotiating a price was more difficult and I thought that her price of a high-quality paper and several pencils of varying hardness from a local art supply store to be too low, especially compared with the final product. For a tip I also bought her several sketchbooks which she seemed to go through at an alarming rate. Of course, she accepted the sketchbooks only after I forced them into her arms and refused them back, an accomplishment which only took several weeks.

For the remainder of our stay Thom, Lindsey and I tended to bum around the Myrtraal compound together, occasionally going out into the city to catch a play or visit the market. On the whole, it was probably my first real vacation ever and I took every opportunity to relax.

Into every life a little rain must fall, or so they say, and my own private drizzle occurred when during our long wait I received word of the death of my uncle. He had been found stuffed in a crate of scrap metal that dropped from a crane used to hoist it onto a waiting ship. The crate broke open on impact and displayed the grisly remains of the man that made my life a living hell. I spared little sympathy on his family, however, and turned my eyes fully on the way out that the Myrtraal offered.

In February of 2413 the steady flow of candidates ceased and our group became static at fifty. Two weeks went by, then three. Finally on Tuesday morning, the 26th of February, we awoke to a light blinking on the corner of the terminals in our rooms announcing a message needing our immediate attention. "View," I spoke to the waiting computer.

As I read the text my heart beat faster and my face grew hot. I worked my jaw soundlessly until I was able to whisper, "It's not possible, it's not possible!" While I re-read the message my door chime sounded. "Come in!" I called.

Thom stood in the doorway staring at me, incredulous. "Did you get a message?" I nodded. "And are you…?" I nodded again. "So," he finally asked after staring at me for a long time, "what do you think they're wearing on Mnalik'tor this time of year?" My only answer was to grin foolishly for the next day and a half.

We had less than a week to say good-bye to those who weren't included in the Myrtraal's final decision because on March 2nd we were shuttled to the Earth L5 WayStation. A day later we made our last farewells to Earth and docked with the ECF Dixon, our home for the next six weeks.

The Dixon had already finished her maneuvers about the sun and was using the resulting gravity assist to start accelerating to hyperspatial velocities. It was the job of our shuttle to catch up to the speeding ship. In so doing, if you haven't emptied your bladder before stepping aboard you will most assuredly find yourself with wet trousers when you disembark. I was one of the unlucky ones.

Thom was kind enough not to mention my lack of bladder control even though he had taken the pilot's advice and used the facilities before we began. Instead, he quietly led me through the corridors of the ship and took a tiny cabin next to mine. We washed, dressed in something appropriate for the ship and then, to the increasing consternation of the crew, examined our new surroundings.

To our distinct displeasure we found at the conclusion of our investigations that we were going to be awfully bored throughout the trip. We had forty-five days to contend with — twenty-one accelerating from Sol, six in hyperspace and eighteen braking towards Mnalim'neal, the star shining on the Myrtraal homeworld — and the only entertainment we had was a limited digital library, a small recreation center and whatever toys, gizmos and gadgets we brought with us. The crew was kept plenty busy throughout the trip, but any attempt on our part to accompany them on their rounds was met with a stern recitation on the regulations prohibiting civilians from entertaining dangerous activities on an ECF cruiser. This left us with very little to do.

After a few days of browsing the ship's sparse database I decided to see what Thom was up to. Eventually I found him in one of the larger 'gyms' gyrating in a slow dance. With controlled movements he alternately jumped, kicked and lashed out with his hands with a form that was as deadly as it was graceful. It didn't take much to imagine a cadre of attackers falling to the ground under well-directed techniques. After an eternity that lasted only a moment Thom stopped, formally placing his right fist to an open left palm and bowing, signaling that he was finished.

I clapped. "I thought you said you weren't too big into sports," I noted.

Shrugging, Thom said, "I didn't say that; I just don't like group sports where the chances of me getting trampled are high. I'm not that big a guy and self-preservation is a high priority for me."

I chuckled as I watched him scrub the sweat off his bald head and I had a brief thought that, with the water rationing while in transit, if he kept up this activity he'd soon be smelling worse than a load of dead fish. "What do you need to preserve yourself from anyway?" I asked. "Rough neighborhood where you grew up?"

"No. The martial arts are great for learning coordination, especially when you're trying to learn how to walk again." Thom had turned away when he spoke the last part and I don't think he meant for me to hear it. Once again he revealed a tantalizing bit of evidence from his life but I knew Thom wouldn't say anything more. It didn't matter, though, because he never gave me a chance to respond. "I need a sparring partner," he said. "Wanna' go a few rounds?"

I hesitated before answering, weighing his size against mine, as well as our evident states of fitness, in my head. "Are you sure? I'm a big guy and I don't want to hurt you…" I trailed off when I saw the naked amusement in his eyes and years of bad action vids and poorly-scripted comics came back to me. "Wait a minute; this is the part where I say I don't want to hurt you and then you proceed to beat the crap outta' me isn't it?" A smile flickered across his face when he nodded. "Okay, let's take it slow and don't rough me up too badly," I joked.

We moved to the center of the mat — it turned out that this room was used by the regular crew to keep up their Earth Coalition Force-mandated hand-to-hand combat training and was adequately padded against injury — and stood facing each other. We circled for a while, I threw a few half-hearted punches at him and he returned the same.

It was frustrating. I knew he was going to make his move but I didn't know when and that cajoled me into making a mistake. Throwing caution to the wind I had no sooner launched a fist to his face when I found myself contemplating why all the padding in the floor seemed to have deserted the place I landed on.

As I lay on the mat I realized that, for the first time in my life, the little guy was beating up me, the archetypal bully. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I liked it.

"Are you okay?" Thom asked. I groaned a response and he just said, "Next time, land on your side with your arm out to absorb the impact. You're less likely to get hurt that way. Wanna' go again?"

Oddly enough, I did, and I spent the remainder of the trip under the watchful eye of Thom. I was even able to coax Lindsey to attend our workout sessions and, when she wasn't drawing us or laughing at my attempt to master in weeks what more than likely took Thom years to learn, she actively participated in the lessons. Though I am loathe to admit it, Lindsey proved to be a much more apt pupil than I, but I did learn a little.

Of course, this is not to say that all of my time was spent in the proximity of our local karate master. The Myrtraal, in their infinite wisdom, had chosen equal numbers of each gender and many of us spent time getting to know one another since we would be spending several years confined together. Unfortunately Lindsey made it evidently clear that she wasn't in search of a companion and I was never able to determine if it was possible to use the standard bunks in our cabins for anything more vigorous than sleep.

Hyperspace came and went with most of us in a more or less constant state of nausea, but we knew that at the end of that week we were more than halfway to our destination. With increasing eagerness the first class of students approached Mnalik'tor and what we hoped we would call in five or six years, good ol' UHS.

We landed finally at the primary docking port of the university — most of us having learned our lesson and using the facilities before departing the Dixon, some of us not — and made our way into the atrium of the receiving area where we gawked at the sheer size of construction. It was not the base we had been expecting having lodged at L5; humans mercilessly engineered their extra-planetary dwellings where the Myrtraal built organically, constructing shapes that, though they may not have been completely pleasing, were comforting none-the-less.

While we stared, contemplating the fundamental differences in the two species' thinking an assemblage of Myrtraal came to us and, one by one, directed us to separate rooms. I asked my companions what they were doing but Thom shrugged and Lindsey made a quip about 'dividing and conquering' before we, too, were escorted away. I entered the sterile office and never even had time to make a comment about the Myrtraal's lack of manners in greeting us when I blacked out.

I sat up suddenly, panting in confusion at my surroundings. A welter of memories threatened to overcome me like a rising tide but I kept my head above the waves and sorted my thoughts. I remembered the Dixon, I remembered the shuttle to the moon and I vaguely remembered following a little, grey Myrtraal to a room away from the others, but anything beyond that was a jumble that only the most diligent of logicians could put in order. Instead of continuing I shook my head and decided to get up.

I walked to the wash stand by the door and hoped that there was running water. There was and I splashed my face to rid myself of the last vestiges of sleep. "Looks like I won't have to shave this morning," I muttered while rubbing my bare cheeks. The Myrtraal turned out to be excellent barbers having done a much better job than I usually did even with years of experience.

Nominally refreshed I found the door was unlocked and walked out wondering where everyone was hiding. The hallway was long and uniformly bland though well-lit. It didn't surprise me to find that each door, evenly spaced along one side of the hall, bore a number. I quickly memorized my own and started walking, keeping the doors on my left hand.

I soon came to the end of the hallway without discovering anything so I turned and trekked the other way. I counted ten doors before coming to a large open space that served as a hub for three more halls which were just like the one I just exited. Overall I suspected that if I were to look down on the living space it would look like a giant "H".

While I was examining a pair of doors in opposite crotches of the H that looked vaguely like those on an elevator I suddenly heard a voice behind me. "Phil! You're awake, too!"

"Don't do that, Thom!" I scolded, trying to convince my heart that there was no need to show me how fast it could beat. "It's bad enough with the place being so quiet without you sneaking around!"

"Sorry. I was just happy to see that I wasn't alone. I woke up a couple of hours ago and haven't seen anyone else yet. There's not much on this floor —"

"You mean there are others?"

"Ten, actually. We're on the fourth floor down… Here, lemme' show ya'." I followed Thom into his room which opened out to the hub. There he pointed to the terminal on his desk. "I found a map on the system when I heard you in the hallway. This structure — dormitory, if you will — is built ten stories into the surface of Mnalik'tor. We're on the fourth down from the top."

"What's that on top?" I asked, leaning over Thom to point at a structure on the top of the dorm. Thom didn't answer me right away, instead staring intently at my hand. When I asked him about it he shook his head and said only, "Something's different about you, I just don't know what…

"Anyway, I believe that is where we'll find the —" We both stopped when we heard a scream coming not from the floor we were currently on, but from above. We looked at each other briefly before racing out of the room and hitting the button for the 'vator.

We stopped on the third floor before finding the source of the screams on the second. When the door opened an hysterical Lindsey flung herself into my arms, sobbing and speaking in several languages at once. Like any man who finds himself in such a situation I had no idea what to do so I opted for muttering calming platitudes and stroking her hair.

I held Lindsey until she wore herself out from crying. When she was finally down to sniffling and rubbing the tears from her eyes I assisted her to the wall where we sat, Lindsey still huddled in my embrace. "Now, what's wrong?" I asked gently.

She looked about nervously and seemed ready to break into tears again. Swallowing back her anguish she just said, "This," and pushed back her long, blonde hair. Hiding beneath those golden tresses was a pair of now rather delicately pointed ears.

"What did they do…?" Thom breathed breathed.

Lindsey shook her head. "I don't know. I just woke up, went to the mirror and saw… this!" she pointed at her ears.

"Maybe they're trying to make Vulcans," I said. My companions looked at me strangely. "You know, like the cult of Roddenberry? Late twentieth century author, had a cult spring up about his tales about a century later?" They continued to look at me with confusion writ across their faces. "Fine. Blame a guy for trying to inject a little humor into a tense situation."

"No, that's okay," Lindsey said. "I… I think I needed that."

"He's right, though," Thom said beginning to pace. "We can't start loosing our heads. Something happened to us while we were out and as far as we know Lindsey has been the only one modified —"

"You haven't looked behind you, lately, have you?" I interrupted.

Thom looked at me curiously but then glanced over his shoulder. When he finally caught sight of what I was hinting at he jumped, grabbing at the thirty centimeter long tail. Naturally he winced when it wouldn't come off.

"That leaves me. What bizarre things have they done to me? I feel fairly normal."

While rubbing his backside Thom appraised me for long time. "Take off your shirt," he said finally.

I grumbled but complied, taking the time to note that we were all dressed in the same teddy-bear print pajamas. They were comfortable and I didn't mind too much the pattern our hosts had chosen for us but I preferred sleeping in a pair of boxers. I had unbuttoned the shirt only halfway when I noticed that my face wasn't the only thing that the Myrtraal shaved.

"What gives?" I asked staring at my hairless chest. "I needed that to stay warm!"

Thom commanded me to continue taking off my shirt when I stopped and they couldn't see what I was angry at. I did so and we discovered that all the hair on my torso, whether it be my chest, back, arms or knuckles, was gone. With a sinking stomach I also pulled up the legs of my pants to find that they, too, were denuded of what I considered to be my rite of passage into manhood.

I stood back up after cursing my smooth legs to look from Thom to Lindsey and back again. None of us, I realized, escaped the Myrtraal's modifications and I wondered what had become to the others in our little group.

A thought occurred to me then and with a horrified expression on my face I pulled out the elastic waist-band and stared down the front of my pants. No part of my body except for the top of my head had been spared the razor and I growled as I let the elastic snap back into place.

Thom was smirking at me and Lindsey was giggling mischeviously behind one long-fingered hand. I wagged a finger at her impotently but that only made her laugh harder. "Maybe they want you for the swim team," she suggested before convulsing in laughter.

"Don't take it too hard, Phil. Look at me: I haven't had any body hair for several years now and you don't see me making a big deal out of it. Maybe we can form a club for follicly challenged men!"

"Not a chance, baldy," I shot back. "In a few weeks I should be back to what I was and —" I was interrupted by several cold fingers trailing across my shoulders. I spun around to find Lindsey examining my skin intently, laughing no longer. "What?" I asked.

"I… Bend down; I need to look at your face." I complied and she manipulated my face back and forth, even running her fingers along my hairline to study something that I could not see.

When she was done she did the same for my hand. "Um, Lindsey, could you explain to me what you're doing?"

"When you shave, do you always get your face this smooth? I mean, don't guys always have a 'shadow' from where their beards grow in?" I nodded. "Here," she said, lifting the hand she had been examining to her face. "Feel. Now feel your own face. Do you notice anything different?"

I didn't, and that started to scare me. When I turned my hands to look at them I also noticed that the callouses on my hands that had grown from years of lifting crates and ripping apart the guts of heavy loaders were missing. Even the ever-present smell of oil and transmission fluid was gone, something that the months I spent away from the docks hadn't been able to get rid of. "Phil," she said though I didn't want to hear her. "You don't have any follicles to grow body hair."

Thom and Lindsey backed off when I roared my anger and twisted to pound on the unyielding door of the 'vator. In that moment I think I knew a little how Samson felt when Delilah cut off his seven braids.

They let me vent my rage, pounding on the walls and screaming incoherently, until I was kneeling on the floor and breathing heavily. Thom bent down next to me and handed over my discarded shirt. "Why don't we get something to eat and figure out what we're going to do," Thom suggested. I nodded dumbly and followed Thom and Lindsey through the halls to the cafeteria.

The dining hall was lighted but quiet. Not a living soul inhabited the place and it took us nearly an hour to figure out the controls to the menu system and food slot. We made crackpot jokes about who was actually making the dishes but it was more than likely a robot system that delivered our meals swiftly and silently. "Never touched by human hand," I quipped. "I hear that's just like college food services back home." Taking our trays in hand and made our way to a table to eat.

"Look at this," Thom said from around a mouthful of an oatmeal-like substance that we later found out was the staple of every newly-awakened student. He was reading a data pad that he found in his room. "It's a list of everything that was done to me while we were knocked out."

"Can you look up mine?" Lindsey asked.

"No, you have to do that yourself. Each file is encoded for the student so others can't invade your privacy." Thom passed the data pad to Lindsey but when they offered it to me I declined. I didn't even pretend to understand the medical jargon and I probably never would so there was no point that I could see.

"Look! We both got this one," Lindsey said pointing to a line on the screen. "Metabolic acceleration. What does that mean?"

"It means we're going to be hungry," I said.

"It also means that we'll heal faster, which is probably a good thing if the Myrtraal are planning on continuing their experiments on us."

"The one thing this list doesn't have," Lindsey noted, "is what we're going to end up as."

"Oh, that's easy!" I said. "They're turning you into T'Pau, the Vulcan ruler."

"Naw," Thom argued. "She's turning into an elf. She already has the coloring…"

"I tell you, Vulcan is much more probable. I mean, look, more than likely, aliens have been studying our transmissions for years now and what they more than likely would have seen are the TV signals from the late twentieth century. Now, because the Star Trek phenomenon was so prevalent then the Myrtraal would have to use the character constructs from that era rather than some trite old mythology."

Thom shook his head at my arguments. "You forget, Phil, that Myrtraal is well outside the sphere at which early television transmissions would have propagated. And even if they reached out this far they would be too dispersed to capture in even an abbreviated form! In short, your Vulcan theory is total bunk because they don't have the necessary equipment."


"Ahh, but the Myrtraal have had interstellar travel for at least fifty years because that's when we ran into them. Therefore, in that time they could have easily captured radio signals from Earth at a closer location."

"But you still have to contend with the vastness of space! The inverse square law almost guarantees that anything beyond Pluto's orbit would never have a chance to be picked up. They would have to be at the right place at exactly the right time to have even minimal contact, and we know that they didn't because they were just as surprised to see us as we them on Epitychia!"


"Okay, then explain how they would have known much of anything about elves. Earth mythology is filled with so many different definitions of elves that it would be impossible to pin down a single characterization."

"You're assuming that they're studying every culture at once, which is quite stupid for an historians standpoint. Instead, pick one culture in one time-period and work from there! In fact —"

"Guys!" We finally stopped when Lindsey slammed the flat of her hand down onto the table. Startled out of a good discussion, Thom and I stared at our companion. "What the heck are you arguing about? This is serious! We land on a strange world, get hijacked by the people that are supposed to be our teachers and then wake up finding out they have been experimenting on us! What is wrong with you?!"

We stared at each other for a long, thoughtful minute. "Nothing," I finally answered, "but if we didn't do something silly, this whole situation would drive us crazy." I made the comment in jest, but we knew, all of us, that my statement was the absolute truth.

Over the course of the following week the rest of our menagerie were released from the thrall of the Myrtraal. Thom, Lindsey and I, old hands that we were, comforted and guided our comrades through the trials of waking up to such a bizarre, new world. With more people awake we were soon able to devote more time to exploring the confines of the Mnalik'tor base, finding classrooms, libraries and recreation centers. Of the Myrtraal, however, we found neither hide nor hair.

We spent endless hours in discussion, planning just what we would do when we finally made contact with our elusive hosts, but nothing definitive was proclaimed so most of the talking was nothing more than blowing off the steam of frustration. Plans were made to lynch the first Myrtraal we saw, and plans were made to start a riot. Of course, lynching a Myrtraal would be idiotic at best, and a riot just isn't a riot when there are only twenty-four people. We finally agreed that the best way to approach the little grey men with our grievances would be to wait until the first day of classes and bring it up then. That is, if the Myrtraal were still up to teaching guinea pigs.

As indicated on our individual schedules we filed into the main lecture hall on the first floor of the central complex and waited for the appointed hour for our honorable professor to show. Looking around I saw more than twenty people shifting in their chairs due to nervousness, trepidation, and, for a few, new tails. Except for the tail part, I wholly shared their emotions but I held the torrent behind a calm mask, unwilling to give anyone an upper hand.

At precisely eight A.M. a squat, grey creature waddled into the quiet hall and began to speak from the orifice in its belly. "I thank you for arriving as scheduled and I hope that you have found your accommodations adequate for use. On behalf of the combined governments of Earth and Myrtraal I greet you. If you have any questions, I —"

"What are you doing to us?" shouted someone from the back.

"Who do you think you are?" someone else yelled.

"Is it enough that you're throwing ethics right out the door?"

"What kind of a school is this?"

"I demand to be returned to Earth!"

"When the United Earth Coalition hears of this…"

"You're a bunch of mad scientists!"

"Who gave you the right to use us as science experiments?"

To that point the Myrtraal remained unmoved by the barrage of questions and jeers, but at long last he spoke just two words that silenced even the most vocal of the group. "You did.

"Now, I would like to speak this hour on what will be required of you during your stay at this humble university…"

We were silent during the rest of his lecture; the simplicity of his response gelled in our minds and I know that I was not the only one pondering the meaning of his rejoinder. What did he mean, 'We did'? We wracked our minds in an attempt to determine if the words spoken were truth or deception. Was it meant as a test, leading us on a merry chase through the topologies of human language, or were the Myrtraal being perverse, making us work on an unsolvable problem?

Throughout the remainder of the morning as we went from class to class we tried to gain clarification on the first Myrtraal's answer, but any question we put to the teacher was refused answer. If someone commented on the subject manner of the lesson, answers were immediately and helpfully supplied. Anything else was ignored. They did not vacillate, they did not equivocate; they just maintained a stony silence when they were queried on a subject they did not like.

When we were released for lunch we fumed, ranted and raved at the obstinacy that the Myrtraal displayed in answering very simple questions. It didn't get us anywhere, but it allowed us to vent and to move past our primitive emotive instincts so that we could more cleanly enter into logical discussion on a course of action. It was obvious later that we hadn't vented enough.

We started out just airing gripes. Mostly someone would say something rude about the Myrtraal and the rest of us would chorus our assent. Soon, though, the talk turned to taking action — fighting, taking a shuttle off the moon, sending an SOS to Earth forces — and at that point we polarized in our opinions.

Charlie, who sported rather rough and irritated skin, led the faction in favor of mobbing and emasculating whichever Myrtraal happened near us. Righteous in my anger and pain, I agreed with him and voiced my own hatred, easily slipping into the 'us and them' mentality learned on the testosterone-laden fields of sport. Our plans became more and more complex, even when calmer heads pointed out major flaws that showed anything we though of to be ludicrous.

"I think we're getting ahead of ourselves, here," Thom said, ever the voice of reason. "Before we jump into a rash course of action, we should look at this situation carefully.

"Our first instructor said that we had given them permission to experiment on us. Does anyone here remember saying anything that let them think that?" We all grumbled a negative or stiffly shook our heads. "How about papers? Did you sign anything that could be construed as giving your permission?" Here the grumbles turned rather embarrassed as we realized that none of us had actually read the release forms we signed in toto. I could tell that even Charlie, studiously staring at the floor, was uncomfortable with his response.

"I didn't actually read all the documents," Lindsey spoke up at last. "Maybe…"

"How could we?" someone I couldn't identify by voice answered. "That last one was over two-hundred pages of legal mumbo-jumbo! How were we supposed to know that we could have been signing our lives away?"

"Well, the legal precedence for human experimentation was set more than five centuries ago when scientists were studying malaria…" The boy, slightly younger than myself and who woke up after our trip as hairless as Thom, faded off when Charlie turned to glare at him. "I did a book report on it once —"

"Who the fuck's side are you on!" Charlie screamed at him. "I don't care about some stinking book report about what happened five hundred years ago!"

"Settle down," Thom said calmly. "It's possible that something similar could have been slipped into whatever we signed and we didn't know about it. Maybe we should have someone go over everything with a fine-toothed comb and get back to us about what was we actually agreed to. Phil," he said looking at me, "you've expressed an interest in things legal. Could you…?"

All eyes turned to me. I was uncomfortable under their scrutiny and unsure on how to answer. On the one hand I was sure that we had agreed to no such treatment as the Myrtraal displayed and wanted them to pay for what they had done to us. On the other, I was loathe to admit that there was a possibility that we had all been duped. Slowly I nodded my head. "I'll let you know what I find out."

"Great. Now that that's solved we can —"

"What?" Charlie interrupted. "What can we do now? Oh, I know! We can all hop, skip and jump back to class and sit like good little boys with our pencils, papers and books. Then we can listen to the Myrtraal and turn in our assignments and everything will be happy ever after!" He finished to a crowd that was stunned at his vehement sarcasm. Sneering, he continued. "You're a bunch of fucking panty-waists! Wusses! Can't you see that this is not right? If I had a gun those bastards would have a few more holes that they could try to lie to us out of!"

"Yeah, that's a big 'if'," I heard someone say. "Even if you could get your hands on one the Myrtraal would have you under so fast you wouldn't know what happened."

"Give him a break! He's just blowing off a little steam."

"Well, he should find another way before he gets us all killed!"

"I don't see you having ideas!"

At this point the conversation degenerated into a verbally violent battle with unkind epithets and odious oaths being flung from both sides of the issue. Those for continuing to attend classes gave just as good as Charlie's followers. Through it all, however, Thom remained calm and level-headed, never raising his voice, and never giving in to the temptation to loose his own considerable mastery of the realms of debilitating discourse. Unfortunately this only spurred Charlie to near-violence because his competitive nature could not comprehend someone actively avoiding engaging him in contest.

With a final explosion Charlie lambasted Thom's complacent attitude and stalked out of cafeteria with another ten students hot on his heels.

I watched silently as the verbal combatants made their way to small groups around the cafeteria to continue the discussion privately. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. On the one hand I was enraged at what had been done to me, as minor as it was, without my expressed permission. On the other I remembered making a promise to myself to go to college at any cost. Through it all, though, was a sick curiosity of what exactly the Myrtraal had in store for me, and a voice not dissimilar from my Uncle's yelling at me for even entertaining that curiosity.

"Do you want to talk?" Lindsey asked, startling me from my reverie.

"Not really," I said. "I just don't know what to do. I mean here we are, light years from home, being turned into freakish concoctions of human mythology and we don't even know why. I just want to be me, not what someone else thinks I am!"

Sitting down Lindsey tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear, highlighting the fact that her ears were quite pointed, a far cry from the shape they were in when we left earth. "Then who are you?" she asked simply. "I can tell from the look on your face that you haven't really thought about that one. Maybe the Myrtraal are just giving you the chance to find out exactly who you are."

"I highly doubt that a group of grey midgets from halfway across the galaxy know more about humanity than billions of humans on Earth — past and present — do. And if I want to know more about myself I don't want to find out at the expense of someone monkeying around with my body!"

"It's not too bad. These," she said, brandishing her ears, "are actually beginning to grow on me."

"Sure, you've got a change that's already being done on Earth for a couple of credits in some back alley! What about the rest of us who've been changed  — or will be changed — beyond anything that our doctors can do? What then? We become pariahs and can never return home!"

"Phil, you're looking at the bad side of this! There are good things that they've done." I snorted in disbelief but Lindsey rebutted with a prime example. "Look at Marty over there; when he came here he had a really bad limp from a broken ankle that didn't heal right when he was younger. When he woke up he could walk without any pain."

I looked over at where Lindsey indicated and noted sullenly that she was right; Marty and a girl that I never quite caught the name of were dancing, an action I felt was inappropriate at the moment, but nowhere did I see him favor a leg or wince when he placed a foot wrong. "One example —"

"One example is all we have right now. I bet you a hundred credits that by the time the Myrtraal are done we will all have something beneficial done for them."

"This from someone whose only change is cosmetic."

"It's the same for you," she responded with some asperity. "You have the smoothest skin I've ever felt. Women for centuries have wanted skin like yours…"

Her comment awakened a memory left buried in my sub-conscious for years. In it I was eleven, maybe twelve, and I had just finished clearing years of accumulated debris from the backyard of Uncle's small home. It was hot and sweaty work, taking me weeks to complete and pre-empting any social time I may have had with my few friends. When I was done I walked into the kitchen bare-chested to find my uncle reading the newspaper. He looked up, scrutinized the few scraggly hairs on my chest and nodded approvingly saying, "You are growing up."

Wrenching my hand from beneath Lindsey's I dumped back the chair I was sitting on and stalked angrily after Charlie. The hallways were empty, but I never noticed so frustrated was I at the seed of a though that Lindsey planted in my mind. When I entered my room I slumped down in the chair at my desk and pounded my fist impotently next to the picture Lindsey drew for me so long ago.

A few more joined us after I left the cafeteria, bringing the grand total of protesters to fifteen. We didn't know what we attempted to accomplish with our disobedience, but I knew that we all hoped that we could in some way escape the nightmare that we had fallen into.

Our silent protestation worked well for the next few weeks, or so we thought. None in our group of fifteen went to classes or responded to messages that our Myrtraal masters sent our way. We thought that we were getting through until the first of us went missing. They eventually turned up with more modifications, twisted and turned in ways that hid their earthly origins, and we could only sit and wonder when we were going to be next.

To be fair, Thom's group of conformists were being abducted at the same rate that we were so the Myrtraal were not playing favorites, but we still felt like we were being punished. Our group began dwindling as we realized that we could not fight the Myrtraal until only Charlie, myself and three others were left to wallow alone in our rooms while everyone else went to classes, did their homework and generally acted like good little lab rats.

There wasn't much to do during the day. For the first week we gathered in someone's room and talked. We talked about our lives before coming to the university and before we heard of the Myrtraal. We talked of the injustices that were being performed on us and how we would get the attention of the Coalition forces so that they could take action against our jailers. Soon, though, we were talked out and spent the majority of the day staring silently at the walls. While we still had access to the Myrtraal database I made a half-hearted attempt at deciphering the agreement we had signed two months previously. It was slow going, partially because my lexicon did not yet contain the verbiage necessary to understand even the most simple of contracts, but mostly because I did not care. Someone else still controlled my life and I didn't want to give them the satisfaction of being prodded into any action which they may have predicted.

At five weeks I had made only the most cursory of reads of the labyrinthine legal lingo that balked and confused the most stalwart of students before signing. It hurt to even contemplate the task ahead of me and I had taken up staring at the ceiling in repose on my bed to pass the hours between meals which seemed too far apart.

It was on one of those long, lazy afternoons that I received a most unexpected visitor. Thom insisted that he was only making a social visit but I could tell he wanted me to give up my useless resistance, an action that I refused to take. Instead of quelling my desire for a coup, he just said, "Let's take a walk."

We wandered randomly, silently, through corridors that still reeked of the newness of their construction. As we walked I was struck by the fact that everything in the complex was sized for an average-sized human. Even the building design was utterly normal for 25th century Earth architecture. This was more than odd because the Myrtraal were a short species, standing not much higher than the waist of a full-grown human, and, being alien, would more likely than not have a completely different view on aesthetics.

Then again, the building design could be an attempt by our jailers to put our minds at ease. Depositing live animals in familiar environments has long been used on Earth whether it be Social Service organizations moving children, conservationists transporting duck species or zoo-keepers placing once-wild creatures in their shiny, newly-barred sanctuaries.

"So, when are you going to give up this 'strike'?" Thom said interrupting my ruminations.

"Never, if I can help it. No, Thom!" I said, precluding any chance for him to interrupt me. "I'm not doing it as some childish tantrum; I'm protesting the Myrtraal's disregard for our wants, our desires. I don't know about you, but I came here for one reason: an education. Is it so hard for them to consider? This was the only place in the galaxy I could find where I could get what I want and not have someone interfering with my goal. The least they could have done was leave me in physical peace! But, no, they couldn't do that. Instead they play with us like a child playing with blocks, giggling when they make a funny shape or when the stacked-up blocks come tumbling down!

"They don't really care about us; whether we get what we were promised or not is far from their plans. We are pieces of meat, ready for them to dissect at a whim!"

"I don't know about that. I actually see what the Myrtraal are doing as a way of improving us; fixing our weaknesses though we may not want it."

"You can't force medical treatment on someone who doesn't want it. No one — not even the Myrtraal — have that right! The only time you can 'improve' a patient is at their request, and I sure as hell didn't request to have this, whatever it is, done to me!"

"Oh, so you've finished studying that contract we all signed?"

"That's not the point and you know it, Thom! They twist our flesh around for their own amusement, making us no more than God-forsaken creatures that never would have survived anywhere on the evolutionary ladder. With each probe and cut, they are stripping away our humanity!"

"On the contrary," he replied calmly. "They're refining it!

"Look at it this way," Thom continued when I stared at him, stunned by his comment. "Philosophers, shamans and witch-doctors have been trying to figure out 'humanity' for millennia. What is it that makes us human? Is it our kindness, our competitive nature or even our creativity? More recently it's been scientists who've been attempting to solve the humanity riddle and the most that they can determine is that 'humanity' is a certain set of proteins and sugar molecules that attach in a specific order with only a minute deviation in that sequence allowed. However, they still have yet to explain the 'why' of it. The 'why' is what has got them stuck that last four centuries, but they at least know how to figure that part out: change something and see what its effect is on the final product. It's slow going because human reproductive cycles are so long and varied, and because we cannot safely vary human chromosomes.

"The Myrtraal have just figured a faster way of doing that; they can change in mere months what takes Earth scientists decades to do. They change us — tweak our bodies — and then observe what happens. It's sound scientific principle, even if it is a little morally reprehensible."

I rolled my eyes at his conclusion. "That's an understatement. So, what you're saying is that this university is nothing more than a giant microscope, right? 'Ooh, Mr. Scientist,'\smallskip" I mocked. "\smallskip'I'm ready to be stuck on a slide and be cut up for your study!'\smallskip"

"That's not what I meant —"

"Then what did you mean?"

Thom was angry when he turned to glare at me. Forcefully he bared his arm and brandished his bicep at me. "See this? Do you remember what my arm looked like? There were big scars here and here," he pointed. "They're not there any more, and my muscles are bigger."

I shrugged. His arm didn't look any larger than when I first saw him, but then I hadn't been taking precise measurements every day. "So? What's your point?"

"My point is, the Myrtraal aren't just randomly making changes, they're trying to make us better!"

"Better at what? If they don't know what humanity is — and I sincerely doubt they do — how can they make us better? For all we know, they're making us worse."

At an impasse, we stared at each other from across the corridor that we were in. Thom looked frustrated at being unable to convince me to end my part in the boycott of classes but what he didn't know was that his arguments, specious as they were, had an effect on me. Instead of thinking about the unfairness of their intimate control on my life, I was thinking about their reasons for doing what they did. A million purposes flitted across my consciousness and more than a few of those purposes petrified me.

"Where are we, Thom?" I asked after a long, drawn out moment.

"Somewhere far away from all that we found familiar."

I laughed a little. "That, too, but I mean, where are we in the complex? I don't remember this hallway."

Thom looked sheepish and chuckled, shaking his head. "I don't know, but it should be easy to figure out. We just need to find a room and ask the terminal that's inside."

We only had to walk a couple dozen meters before a doorway appeared. It was large and re-inforced but that wasn't out of the ordinary since some of the labs on the lower levels required shielding because the risk of explosion was greater than normal. We checked around for a less conspicuous room that had a terminal but finding none we just shrugged our shoulders and palmed the plate for the door.

We didn't find what we were looking for. We found something else.

A vague image of a dozen Myrtraal swarming over us and exclaiming, "You don't belong here!" was foremost in my thoughts when I awoke after an unknown length of time. I remembered a room filled with computer equipment, each machine flashing diligently in an unknown transmission. A concerted rushing assaulted my ears, pummeling my brain with a thousand individual slaps, and then, darkness.

I don't know if they drugged us, activated a subdermal chip or used mental telepathy on us, but after that brief glimpse of the unmarked room Thom and I were knocked out and dumped in our own beds, none the wiser about the purpose of our lives. They frail-looking Myrtraal had the ability to take us awake as easily as when we were asleep, and that frightened me. I finally concluded that resistance was futile, and a few days later I was able to convince Charlie the same.

Why did all of our attempts and stopping — or at least stalling — the Myrtraal's continued experimentations fail? There are many reasons; the Myrtraal are an older and more patient race than humans. The Myrtraal are more devious and we were only a couple dozen college students. The Myrtraal were the good guys and, since Good always wins over Evil, we lost. The planets were in a strange alignment. We were being punished for the sins of our parents, neighbors and their pets. The list goes on and on, and while many of the items contained a certain validity, there is one fact that stands as the primary reason why the Myrtraal's experimentation continued as inevitably as the tides: We had no place else to go.

We were literally trapped. We were in a self-contained environment on a moon circling a planet orbiting a star hundreds of light years from the lump of rock, dirt and water that we were born on. Several members of our group entertained thoughts of overtaking the shuttle-bay, but even if we could get there there was A) no one capable of piloting a shuttle, B) no way of getting past the meteor defense screen, and C) no destination within the range of a shuttle's fuel cells. Even if, by some strange quirk of coincidence or fate, the shuttle reached past the orbit of the Myrtraal homeworld at a place where a passing interstellar ship could see you, the only vessel on a route between Earth and the university was the Dixon, and that only showed at the beginning of the trimesters to drop of students and supplies.

The chances of escape was less than the possibility of hitting a five millimeter bearing by blowing a sewing needle through a straw at it from fifty meters.

We were stuck and we really weren't sure whether it was for the remainder of our college careers, or the remainder of our lives.

I tolerated the Myrtraal's little experiments. I tolerated them in the same way as one tolerates their boss' children when they're stuck babysitting the brats, unable to discipline their unrestrained antics for fear of reprisal from the parents. The only good that came of the grey guys' tweaks was the disappearance of my receding hairline that threatened male pattern baldness. Just think: most men look forward to their hair migrating from the tops of their heads to their backs; I suffered from just the opposite.

And I suffered in silence. I tried speaking with my fellow protesters, but we were uncomfortable around each other having failed our primary objective of getting the Myrtraal to stop. Around those who displayed more than a modicum of trust in our hosts I felt uncomfortable, feeling their accusing eyes on me at all times. With Thom and Lindsey, my two dearest friends at this God-forsaken prison I discovered an altogether unpleasant fascination in the Myrtraal's handi-work.

Shortly after I left my self-imposed solitary confinement Lindsey woke with an ear-splitting scream. Her hands which had been used to create numerous beautiful and awe-inspiring works were bound in the bandages that marked the Myrtraal's attentions. Thom and I held her close, comforting her and plying every known technique to convince her that her hands weren't gone forever and that we wouldn't think any less of her if they were. While I rocked her in my arms I couldn't help but think about what lay beneath the cloth and plastic and what I would do if I had taken the attending physician's place. Then, with a sick feeling I looked at Thom and found myself captivated at the changes wrought in him; where he was rugged I was smoother, where he was growing muscles I…

I held myself in check after that thought and stayed only long enough to make sure that Lindsey was all right. What was happening to me? Why was I enchanted with that which I found so utterly distasteful? I wracked my brain for the answers but my brain steadfastly refused to respond. In desperation to avoid contact with my fellow students I stayed in my room as much as I could, and when I needed to go out I sat as far from anyone as I could, keeping my back to them to keep from even accidentally cataloging the myriad modifications around me.

In my exile I began a serious effort to decipher the Myrtraal's contract. By the end of the first trimester of classes I had yet to make a dent in my understanding of the long document and my concentration was so great that I missed the arrival of the new students from the Dixon only a dozen days before. It was while I poured over my notes that I felt a presence over my left shoulder. "Can I help you?" I asked without turning around. "Or would you like to purchase tickets to stare over my shoulder for the next hour."

She cleared her throat and asked quietly, "Are you Mr. Schwarz?"

"Just call me Phil."

"I'm Theresa. And I'm Tracy. May we have a seat?"

"Sure," I said. "That is, if you don't mind the half-assed ramblings of someone who has spent too much time reading legal documents and not enough studying them." The figure behind me moved and the voice I assumed belonged to a single person was shown to be two as a pair of twins moved around the table to sit across from me.

It would be inglorious to describe Tracy and Theresa as beautiful. I'm not saying they weren't, but 'beautiful' is a subjective term at best. Every person has a distinct concept of beauty and what may put one individual into a rapture may cause another to consider in detail various porcelain bathroom fixtures. However it is defined I can be fairly certain that a suitable cross-section of the human populace would agree that the twins sitting across from me were above average on the scale of beauty.

I know I certainly did.

They were twins, identical in every noticeable detail; they had the same white-blonde hair, parted on the side so that it framed their cherubic faces. They wore the same white shirts and khaki shorts, and even made the same wince when they sat down. "Tails?" I asked.

"Yes!" Tracy said with surprise. "How did you know?"

"You get used to it, around here. More than a dozen from my class got tails when they woke up the first time and they reacted the same way when they sat down. It'll take a while," I assured them, "but you'll get used to it."

"I certainly hope so," Theresa started. "It hurts…"

"…{to} sit down," Tracy continued. "Anyway, I heard…"

"…{that} you're studying…"

"…{the} contract…"

"…{we} signed."

"Can you help us?" they finally completed together.

I sat staring at the sisters, bemused at their ability to complete each other's sentences with ease. From the earnest looks on their faces I honestly believed that they didn't realize what they had just done. Perhaps they did on an academic level, having been informed of their trick by another observer, but I doubt they gave thought to what they did, much as we do when we bring a fork to our mouths while blindfolded. "I wish I could help you," I said, "but I'm still trying to understand the legal terms that the Myrtraal have so graciously filled the contract with. At the moment I'm still trying to figure out the difference between 'quoad hoc' and 'ad hoc'!" Their faces fell in synchronization and I felt like a heel for causing their apparent disappointment. "But I'm working as fast as I can. Rome wasn't built in a day, you know."

They brightened a little at my reassurances and I didn't feel quite so bad. "That's okay. We just want…"

"…{to} know what…"

"…{to} expect."

"Scared?" They nodded. "We all are, but nothing terrible has happened to us," I said, silently adding a 'yet' to the end of the sentence. I knew that I needed to turn around the conversation or it would get gloomy, fast. "So, have you been on a tour of the place?"

We talked for quite a while and I found that it was generally pointless to differentiate between who said what; Tracy and Theresa were as identical as the word implies. They thought, talked, ate, breathed and felt in the exact same way and anything that one said could just as easily have come from the other. Oddly enough, even though I didn't try to tell them apart in my own thoughts, I was the only one at the school then and now who could do so in actual fact. After we were accused of playing a practical joke on the rest of the student body, surreptitious experiments proved otherwise.

Eventually our conversation waned and I noted that we should probably walk around to work out any kinks that settled in our joints while talking. Standing up wasn't easy for me and Tracy and Theresa rushed to my side when I nearly fell over, grabbing onto the table for support. "Are you okay, Phil?"

"I'm okay. I just sat too long, is all. I got my pelvis worked over a couple of days ago and I'm still having trouble finding where my center of gravity went." I chuckled a bit at the memory of plastering myself to the walls in order to stand somewhat erect that first day. It was odd that I could do so since, at the time, I was swearing so vehemently that no one dared get near me. I had gotten over the worst of my clumsiness in the intervening time, but it took a lot of concentration to walk even the shortest of distances.

"That reminds me: Are either of you good at sewing? My hips seem to have swollen a little with the last operation and I'm afraid I'm having trouble putting on my regular pants." They laughed at me, all traces of their former melancholy erased, and made comments about me getting a little 'hippy'. It stung me a little — though I did not, at the time, know why — but I smiled all the same and commiserated with their good humor.

Gathering my things I started away but Tracy and Theresa flew to my sides when I stumbled. I was embarrassed at having to need their help even though everyone we passed saw only me with my arms around the shoulders of two very admirable young ladies.

Like that first day we stayed together throughout the trimester. At first I was the one who had gone before, able to guide them through the pitfalls of university life. Then we were comrades, studying together, talking together, laughing together. When one of us would go under the knife, the others would help with recuperation. When the twins came back from a session with their skin itching and sore, I rubbed a cream recommended by the Myrtraal into their skin. When my knees and feet were mangled they both massaged me back to serenity.

Somewhere along the way our massages turned into caresses and those caresses became much more intimate. It didn't take long before our intimacy led the three of us to sharing a bed and we found comfort in the joining of ourselves into one being. For the first time in my life I was happy; at peace, even. I could forget my uncle's distaste for anything not Greek and I could even forget, briefly, what the damnable Myrtraal were doing to our bodies. It wasn't just the sex; I spent my formative years with several lovers, but to a teenager just coming of age, sexual intercourse is more often about releasing a heretofore unknown tension than experiencing deep emotional contact. At long last I found joy.

Just like a boat on the open sea, though, that joy could still be toppled by an unpredictable storm.

We were lying in my bed, tangled after a long and involved session of love making. Tracy lazily etched designs on my hairless torso while I scratched a patch of fur that was growing on Theresa's back. Theresa stared at me for a long time before gently caressing my bandaged face and asking, "What do you think they're turning us into, Phil?"

I winced a bit as Theresa's finger touched my brow just a little harder than my nerves were used to. Three days prior I had awakened to a face stitched, sculpted and hidden behind layers upon layers of drug-imbedded cloth. "Don't know," I croaked. My throat, too, had not been spared the skilled surgeons' scalpel. "But I can tell you the Myrtraal are not turning the two of you into anything."

"And what do you mean by that?" Tracy asked archly.

I looked them over carefully, noting their lithe figures touched with identical patches of white fur. Earlier in the term their own faces had been sculpted and sported a nose and chin that was drawn out into a triangular muzzle. I drew out my lascivious study of their bodies, noting the increasingly agitated twitchings of their tails. "Well," I said finally. "Anyone else might say you're turning into vixens, but I of course know that you've been a pair of vixens all along!"

With that Tracy and Theresa dug themselves — if at all possible — closer to me and affected their revenge at my pun by tickling me. I strained to ignore the feelings their fingers and partially furred bodies sent up and down my spine and threatened to burst from between my jaws as gales of laughter. While mostly healed, the muscles and tendons in my jaw were still tight and any over-exertion on their part hurt quite a bit.

After several nigh-painful minutes the girls relented and I was left to pant at the delicious agony they gave me. "Since, we're not changing into anything," I heard Theresa ask, "what must our dear Phil here not be turning into?"

"Well, assist me in examining him, dear sister." I could feel their fingers and hands touching, lifting and poking my body in many places, intimate and otherwise. "Look at these legs; they're so smooth!"

"And don't forget the hips, Tracy. These are child-bearing hips if I ever saw them." Their hands moved farther and played with my chest.

"You know, if he only had breasts I could swear that he was a she!"

Theresa wrapped her hand about my dick. "But you mustn't forget this! This makes him a boy, I think."

"I know," Tracy teased. "He's a girly-boy!" They giggled but I had long passed the point of even listening to them. Instead, I remembered when I was only seven and my cousin had a rash. For lack of a better treatment  —and acute embarrassment preventing him from telling his parents — he confiscated a bottle of his mother's lavender-scented lotion. He used only a small portion but it was enough for my uncle to notice when he walked into the room. Uncle Alexandros screamed at his son, ranting at how none of his male progeny were to be 'fags', or even effeminate in any way, and watched as his son scrubbed off any hint of the lotion with a stiff brush and strong soap. I, too, carried a small portion of his anger if only for having been in the same room with my cousin, and I vowed then and there that I would avoid, at any cost, the full brunt of my uncle's anger on that point.

I returned to the present to Tracy saying, "… he needs is a dress!" They weren't looking at me, and even if they were they wouldn't have been able to see the anger on my face, covered as it was in the bandaging from whatever had been done to it. Instead they mistook my heavy breathing for a rising passion, normally a prelude to intimate endeavors and so were completely unprepared for my outburst.

"I am not a girl!" I screamed hoarsely. "I am a man! Nothing can change that, not some midget alien nor you!" Tracy was the first to be thrown out of my bed and Theresa was right behind her, both too stunned at my sudden ferocity to cry out. My rant continued for several minutes culminating with my man-handling two frightened and naked young women out of my room. Even after they were gone I continued to yell at the closed door until my voice came out in a squeak.

Panting, I stepped back from the door. A motion caught my attention and I turned to find a figure looking back at from the mirror above my sink. For the first time in several months I really looked at myself and could not help but agree with Tracy's and Theresa's conclusion: if you traded my penis for a pair of breasts, I would look exactly like a young woman.

"No," I whispered, denying what the mirror showed me. "I am not that. That is not me!" I struck the mirror, again and again, hoping that I could break its impervious surface and repeating in what voice I had left, "That's not my body!"

Eventually I dragged a sheet off the bed and draped it over the hated image. I stared at the sterile white for a long time before tacking Lindsey's rendering of me to the center, hoping that the image would in some way be me. Retreating to a corner of the room as far away from that mirror as possible I ground my teeth against the pains in my face and the tears that threatened to spill because, as my uncle once told me, only women cried.

It was in the middle of the break before my third trimester at the university when the bandages on my face and neck were removed. I awoke in the morning and couldn't feel their pressure, but I didn't touch my face to see what had changed. The mirror over the sink was still covered so that I couldn't look at my beardless face. I didn't want to look.

With zombie-like movements I made my way to the cafeteria where I maintained hopes of getting my meal and sitting down with my friends as we always did and joke about life in general. 'Nothing will be different,' I told myself. 'Everything will be exactly the same as it always was.' I repeated my mantra at every step wishing that normality would be reinstated.

The dining hall may have quieted when I stepped in; I don't remember. I felt as if all eyes were on me, and that is all that matters. The line at the menu screens was longer than usual and I unconsciously made note of faces that I hadn't seen before. They were the new students, fresh from Earth and still unaware of how completely they had put their lives into the Myrtraal's grey hands.

While I waited in somnambulistic grace for my meal selection at its pre-ordained slot I felt a presence off to my right side. I didn't consciously ignore it but a small part of my mind was screaming for it to leave. "Hey baby," the presence finally spoke. "You're a real looker. You've got a body that belongs in a center-fold!"

I turned to face my supplicant. He was slightly shorter than me and had the self-absorbed look of someone who thought that they were God's gift to women. "I'm not…" It had been days since I used my voice at a level above a whisper and it didn't sound the least bit correct. I coughed to clear my throat. "I'm not a…"

I trailed off into stunned silence and stared blankly into the man's chest. What came out of my mouth was not the baritone that I had lived with since puberty, but a feminine alto that sounded not unlike the few recordings I had of my mother. The implications of this most recent change to my body crashed in on my brain and the desire to see what my face looked like warred against the horror of what I knew that I would find.

"Stunned, I see," the young man grinned with an oily smile plastered across his face. "The name's Henderson. Jerry Henderson, and if you want to find out how stunned you can get then we can go off…" He had been trailing a finger across my jaw when he said that but got no further. With an animalistic snarl I grabbed Jerry's arm and the front of his shirt and with a move ingrained by the practices I had with Thom on the Dixon so many months previous, I threw him over my head.

I didn't even stay to watch him land so it was to the sound of a very large crash and Jerry's pained screams that I stalked out of the dining hall. I had one destination in mind and anyone who was in my way got run over without impunity.

Thom tracked me down later that day — or week, I'm still not sure — among the copious law books that the Myrtraal had imported from Earth. "So there you are," he said as he sat down in a chair across from me. "What're you doin'?"

"Researching." I didn't raise my head from the tome that I had my nose in. To one side I had the entire text of the agreement I signed before coming to this God-forsaken place and to the other was a data pad that I was furiously scribbling notes in.

"Ah, I see. We had been wondering what happened to you since Jerry —" I cut him off with a particularly violent stab of the stylus onto the pad, wishing that it would give me the satisfaction of cracking the display but it remained disconcertingly whole. I had been hoping that my terse replies would dissuade Thom from staying but it was not to be.

"You know, this isn't going to help anything, Phil. You are still who you are and nothing at this point is going to change that. You're not the same person who arrived here last April; you need to accept that and move on. We're all changing, even that new kid, Jerry. He's scared and whatever he said to you was just a product of trying to adjust to an environment that he's not familiar with.

"Oh, and in case you're wondering, when you threw Jerry he landed on a couple of chairs and a table. Broke his back in three places and several of his internal organs were pretty well messed up. Even the Myrtraal were stretched at fixing his spinal injuries and Jerry's initial transformation schedule's been pushed back to compensate. You really did a number on him!"

I may not have looked it but I was paying attention to every word Thom said. I didn't care just how injured that Henderson boy was because he got what he deserved.

Thom started to get up from his chair. "Come on. We need to start getting ready for the next session of classes."

"I'm busy."

"Oh? Doing what?"

"We need an answer."

Thom came around the table to my side to speak gently to me. "No, Phil, we} don't {\em need} an answer, we {\em want an answer. It's you} who seems to {\em need the answer." With that Thom left me alone to search through musty volumes and sterile databases for the clues needed to answer the riddle that the Myrtraal had set out before me.

The weeks passed swiftly because I did not pay attention to time. I spent my days and nights in the library, never leaving except when the Myrtraal continued their machinations on my mortal flesh and I found myself waking up in my bed. I took no notice of these changes, not even when my pectorals first sported a large pair of breasts.

Otherwise I slept in the library, drifting off between the pages of an open book or collapsing from exhaustion in the stacks. When I awoke I picked up where I left off and continued as if I was never interrupted.

Food was brought to me and sometimes I would eat. Often, though, the plates went untouched and the meal was quietly replaced by whoever brought the trays. Sometimes it was Tracy, sometimes it was Theresa. And sometimes it was Thom or Lindsey. I didn't care, at the time; I was intent on my quest and nothing could distract me from it.

And so it was no surprise that my third trimester at the University for Human Study came and went without my notice.

After months spent in the library researching, collecting and cross-referencing cases from myriad eras and governments in Earth history I was a wreck. I should have suffered at the hands of poor nutrition, little sleep and no exercise except for the expert ministrations of the Myrtraal who continued their implacable program at changing me into whatever it is they wanted. Still, I had my answer when I called everyone together in the cafeteria.

There were many more students than I could remember having enrolled at the university. I could barely recognize the first members of the first class. Lindsey looked like an elfen princess, Jared had legs that belonged to a goat or other ungulate and Charlie looked distinctly reptilian. Thom was most surprising of all with his canine snout and that blue-black fur that he has now was well on its way to covering his whole body. He was busy playing mother hen to a clutch of young students that were as wide-eyed and scared as we had been when we first woke after arriving from the Dixon.

Too soon the assembled group quieted and stared at me expectantly. Despondent, I walked forward and gave my findings in a voice that I had tried hard to ignore. "A long time ago," I began but stopped and coughed to rid it of the dust of neglect. I tried again. "A long time ago, we learned that the Myrtraal were searching for students to populate their new university, a joint venture between the Earth Coalition and Myrtraal themselves. The Myrtraal, we knew, were excellent teachers having proven themselves on the Epitychia colony, where humans met their first extra-terrestrial intelligence.

"Much enamored with their promise of a high-quality education we jumped when they guaranteed a tuition-free experience. They interviewed us, inspected us and scanned our bodies and minds down to the very particles that give us existence. When they were done whittling down the prospects, they ended up with us. With a hearty congratulations they patted us on our backs and gave us forms to sign. So many forms that our minds were swirling with legal rhetoric that would have put the entire legislative branch of the Earth Coalition government to sleep. We read the first two or three pages, skimmed the next ten and skipped through the final hundred, paying only enough attention to put our initials and thumbprints where it was appropriate. That was our mistake.

"In that document the Myrtraal  — and to some extent our brethren humans — have shown their research, finding policy dating back to even the Code of Hammurabi and the Torah. Each word was carefully chosen, each divot filled, each loophole tied shut. Until such time as the Myrtraal deem us ready we may not quit the course that they have set for us. They will give us our minds, but we must give them our bodies. There is no recourse, no stay of execution; we must live the path we set foot on and have done to us what we, in our ignorance, have allowed us to become, guinea pigs to the scientist Myrtraal.

"Welcome all to The University for Human Study."

I was beset upon all sides by students who wanted to ask me questions, to argue my findings or just to lynch me. It made no difference to me what they wanted to do because any action they took against me would be a better situation compared to the life I was forced into. I didn't want to live, and was vaguely resentful of Thom and his confederates as they held back the masses intent on ripping me limb from limb. Eventually sleep, malnutrition and depression overcame me and I collapsed.

I woke several times over the course of the following week but didn't care enough to move from my bed. Sometimes the low voices of people talking, attempting not to wake me, reached my ears. I heard Thom most of the time and I am ashamed to say that I wished him gone from my room to leave me in peace. Even when they noticed I was not asleep they would speak to me, attempting to elicit a response from my comatose form. Instead I lay there with my arms around a pillow, staring at the wall.

Eventually I was left alone to contemplate a hopefully hasty demise. What else could I wish for? Even in the $25^{th}$ century mankind had yet to fully reconcile itself with alternative sexualities and I was brought up in a household where to be a man meant to be physically strong and emotionally stalwart, yet here I was, big-hipped and buxom, crying into my pillow. I was no longer a man in the sense of the word that I had been taught, but neither would I accept being called a woman.

My solitude remained unbroken for several days until one afternoon when my door-chime was rung incessantly. I ignored it, hoping that whoever had politely let me be would politely continue that policy. When the chime fell silent I rejoiced but buried myself further under the covers when the door was rudely opened and two figures stepped into my sanctuary. "We know you're in there, Phil," a voice informed me.

"And we know that you're not asleep," another remarkably like the first continued. "No one can sleep this long." They moved to my bed and pulled the sheet from over me and stared at me for a long while. Tracy plucked the pillow I had been curled around away from me. I fought weakly but didn't need to since she replaced my comforter with her own white-furred body. Theresa took up position behind me, spooning tightly while I held Tracy as close as I could. After several dry sobs my arms fell weak and the twins got to work.

Murmuring encouragements they muscled me out of bed and down the hallway to the bathroom where they stripped me and shoved me under one of the water showers. They, too, got undressed and joined me, turning the water temperature to as hot as we could stand and scrubbed several weeks worth of dirt and grime from my body.

I was glowing pink when they finished washing and drying me. To top the experience they put on a show as they buffed each other with their towels but I was too sunk in melancholy to respond. When they were done they escorted me back to my room where they continued their ministrations.

While Tracy lit several candles Theresa placed a blanket on the floor and bid me lay on my stomach. Like an automaton I complied, using the pillow Theresa handed me to support my upper body without crushing my breasts. With all in place they each claimed a part of me and began rubbing an herbal-scented oil into my skin.

I don't know where they got the oil and candles — or even if they made them  — but their ministrations leached all the stress of research and the pain of discovery from my muscles. They never spoke but I knew on some alternate level when I needed to turn over for them to continue the massage. I could never give an approximate time for how long they soothed my tense muscles but when they were done I felt more revitalized than the week that I had spent in my bed.

This is not say that I immediately jumped up and showered the world with flowers and good tidings. I was still a rag-doll to be moved at the whimsy of the two girls before me. They picked me up from the ground and placed me in a chair, intent on immaculately grooming me.

While one fussed over my hair and the other my nails, I was fed a protein drink procured from the cafeteria. I sipped it bit by bit through a straw, grimacing at the choclatey flavor and unused to eating anything.

I was completely relaxed and half-asleep when I was told to stand up so Theresa and Tracy could dress me. I complied with their instructions, leaning on one or the other when I threatened to overbalance my unsteady equilibrium. Cloth was draped around me, tugged, adjusted and taken off until Tracy and Theresa stepped back to observe me one last time. With a final nod they stepped forward and turned me around to look in the full-length mirror that I had been adamantly ignoring for quite some time. In the mirror I saw once and for all the reason I avoided it: a woman.

Maybe if the person who stared incredulously back at me had been ugly or even slightly flawed, I could live with myself. What I saw was a beautiful young woman dressed in a short, flower-print skirt and a V-neck white cotton shirt that showed off well-developed breasts. Her arms were muscled, but not with the hard angles of the wrestler that once used that flesh. There was not even a hint of the package that hid in her crotch beneath perfectly-shaped hips and the entire visage of youthful womanhood was marred only by the look of utter horror in her eyes.

My horror, and it was in my eyes.

I know that they were trying to make me feel good. It is a well-documented fact that dressing well and looking one's best improved one's psychological outlook, helping them perform at a higher than average level whether it be physically or academically. I understood the theory, but instead of making me feel better their actions drove home the point that the Me I was looking at in the mirror was no longer the Me that I had grown up with. Instead the dam I had been holding inside burst and I wept tears of anguish, of loss and of betrayal.

I would have fallen to the floor if Tracy and Theresa weren't there to catch me. They escorted me to my bed where they clung to me, comforting me with their presence. In time the flow stopped and I was left with dry sobs. I do not know which of the girls started but soon they were kissing and licking the tears off of my cheeks. I held them tighter to me, curling my fingers through their fur and scratching them as absently as one pets a cat in their lap. Before long I returned their kisses and the kisses moved from the innocent comfort to a serious intention that needed to be filled. We stripped naked, I finally moving under my own volition, and proceeded to have sex; an uninhibited m\'enage a trois.

You might think that after intercourse with a pair of voluptuous vulpines that my manhood would be reaffirmed and all would be well in Phillip-land. Unfortunately this is not a story; it's real life, and as so often happens in real life I still have not fully accepted what the Myrtraal have done to me.

When we came to the next morning I took stock of my life and reasoned that, since I could not change the past, I could continue on the road I had set out on so long ago and continue in my pursuit of a law degree. My endless hours in the library had already provided me with a good foundation of practical law and the Myrtraal were more than accommodating in adjusting my course load to reflect that. It also felt good to get a handle on my life rather than letting events dictate its course.

In my off-hours, however, I hit the weight room with a vengeance. I can never retain my original muscular appearance because whatever those short, grey aliens did to me ensured that I would never lose the soft curves of femininity, but I could at least lose myself in the repetition of physical activity.

Tracy and Theresa are still my constant companions; we spend most evenings together and more often than not find ourselves in one or the other's room to sleep. They are my support and it is for them that I stay at the university just a little bit longer, hoping to complete my education at the same time they do and set out for Earth together.

I guess I am happy, now. I have come a long way from being the bully-cum-intellectual that Uncle Alexandros spurned. I am not the man that he expected me to be, and I am sure that I never will be. Where he preyed on the corruptibility of men I help my peers and show them there is life in the face of adversity. The twins show me that I am needed and loved by their presence and after the students settled from their rage they thanked me for my performance of a service that they never would have touched. Even though I am easily a better man than my uncle could ever have been I still, in the quiet hours of the night, wait for my uncle to say, "Good job, Phillip."