Slaves of War first pages

Part One: Utarba

Chapter 1

Anthony Gray sat with three other ragged men, huddled around a small fire made from wood torn from old packing crates, trying to extract as much warmth from the tiny blaze as he could, while still keeping his distance from his stinking companions. Even in Los Angeles the nights can be cold.

Their campsite was protected from the wind — and from the eyes of the police — by a warehouse wall, a wooden fence, and an abandoned flat bed truck left parked diagonally across the corner of the back lot. It wasn’t much of a place to spend a cold January night, but it was the best they could do.

Rigger, on Tony’s left, was an old black man who had been on the streets longer than anyone could remember, including Rigger himself. Across his knees was the stick he habitually carried — as gnarled as he was — which he used to help himself walk, and to keep off dogs. And in his hands was tonight’s prize, bought with money they each had scrounged and pooled together, a quart bottle of cheap hundred-proof vodka, from which he took a long pull before passing it to the man next to him, across the fire from Tony.

Johnson took the bottle gratefully. He was middle aged, the dirtiest of the four, and unusually heavy for a homeless man, not from over eating, but from something wrong with his metabolism. He took a swig of the liquor that tasted like rubbing alcohol, that not only served as antifreeze but as an anesthetic.

“Not so much,” Alf said. He reached out with a mitten-muffled hand and took the bottle. His age was indeterminable, as was his shape, bundled as he was in layers of ragged, discarded clothing, which he wore even in summer. He stuck the neck of the bottle into the lower part of his face, and his beard bobbled as he gulped. Then he passed the bottle on to Tony.

Tony was the youngest of the four, though he carefully concealed his age, which was several years short of thirty. Younger men, especially smaller men, were sometimes taken advantage of by the older ones, which was why the clothes Tony affected were so badly oversized, to conceal his basically scrawny frame. And so that the length of lead pipe he carried on a cord down inside his pants leg wouldn’t show. And, in spite of his haggard eyes, his soiled face, and his slack mouth, he was also the healthiest of the four, and only his experience in college theater kept that fact from giving him away.

He took the quart from Alf. The mouth of the bottle was wet, not only with vodka but with the spittle of the three other men. It had taken Tony a long time to learn not to gag when he put such a thing in his mouth. He brought the bottle up to his lips and tipped his head back. His mouth and throat worked but he swallowed only a tiny bit of the bad liquor. He belched and passed the bottle back to Rigger. “Anybody seen Matthiew?” he asked, naming a bum whose name always seemed to come up in connection with the missing tramps and bag ladies, and belched again.

“I heard he was at the La Cienega Mission,” Alf said.

“He’s not there.” Rigger took his pull and passed the vodka around to Johnson. “I was there this morning, they haven’t seen him for weeks.”

“He ain’t missing, is he?” Alf asked.

“Nah,” Johnson said after he took his snort and wiped his mouth. “He’s around. Freddy ain’t.”

“Are you sure?” Rigger asked.

“It’s the cops,” Johnson said. “He’s the seventh one this month. You c’n bet your sweet ass it ain’t somebody up on Wilshire taking ‘em in outa pity. ‘Less’n it’s one a’ them perfessers doin’ cancer research.”

This was the talk Tony was waiting for. Nobody paid much attention to homeless men and women unless they got in trouble, but they knew their own, and one by one they were dropping out of sight.

It was Tony’s turn again, and when he passed the bottle to Rigger it wasn’t much emptier than it had been, but the other three didn’t seem to notice. They took their share and two cycles later the quart was empty. The liquor, more than the fire, would help to keep them warm — for a while — though that was not why they drank.

“I wanna talk to Matthiew,” Tony insisted. He slurred his voice almost to the point of unintelligibility, as if he had in fact contributed significantly to the demise of the vodka.

“Goddamn what for?” Rigger asked. It didn’t take long to get drunk when you drank so much so quickly, and on an empty stomach, and was what you wanted to be in the first place.

“He said he’d find me a chicken,” Tony said. He rocked slowly back and forth where he sat on the ground. He blinked his eyes in the light of the small fire.

“Matthiew’s always sayin’ that,” Alf said. He coughed hard for a moment and spat something thick over his shoulder. “I don’t care to pay him what he asks.”

“Well I wanna see him anyway,” Tony persisted, but he would find out for sure just what Matthiew did ask, before telling anybody he’d gotten anything from him.

“Las’ I saw him he was goin’ to the Fourteen’ Street embankment,” Johnson said. His voice was very thick, and if tonight was like so many others he would soon fall into a stuporous sleep. And that, of course, was why he and Rigger and Alf drank.

“Goddamn what for?” Rigger asked again. He sat perfectly motionless, a bit more hunched perhaps, his scowl a bit deeper.

“Didn’ tell me,” Johnson answered.

“Bad place, that,” Alf said. He coughed again for a while. “Used to be a guy could sleep safe there, but not ‘ny more.”

“. . . I’ve slept there,” Tony said.

“Hell you have,” Rigger snorted. “You ain’t been around long enough. We stopped using that place las’ Chris’mas.”

“Goddamn what for?” Tony demanded, throwing Rigger’s words back at him.

“Guys don’t come back from there,” Alf said. ”Cops get ‘em.”

Johnson suddenly lay down on his side and started snoring. Alf and Rigger looked at him with owlish eyes.

“Gotta pee,” Tony said and struggled to his feet.

He staggered around the back end of the abandoned truck, and heard the soft sounds of the other two men falling over. He stopped and looked back, just long enough to make sure none of them had gotten into the fire. Then, on legs suddenly steady, he went on. In spite of the turns he’d taken at the bottle, he had had less than an ounce of the vodka and, without an audience, there was no need for him to stagger any more. He took his leak, safe in a pitch black corner, then he left the lot and walked toward Fourteenth Street.

His stayed alert, watching for the occasional patrol car, which might stop him just because of the way he was dressed. Many homeless men and women sought jail as a refuge, especially when the weather got really bad, and for them the warmth of a dry cell was a welcome change. Tony had spent a dozen nights in jail in the last six months, and was not interested in doing so again.

What the others had called the Fourteenth Street embankment was really a set of high culverts under a little-used overpass. The traffic that used to run on Fourteenth Street had been rerouted some years ago, and this section was now cracked and broken. The city had just not yet gotten around to doing anything about it. A stream at one time had run through the culverts, but no bum alive could remember when. Even when there was a heavy rain and a trickle of dirty water ran down the middle, the side culverts were usually dry.

Tony had heard about the embankment shortly after hitting the streets, and he had visited it once, during the day, but he had not in fact slept there. He had not thought much of it. But it had been spoken of time and time again, as a place once safe and now shunned. Except that homeless men still sometimes went there. And sometimes didn’t come back. Maybe it was time to visit it again, just in case there was more to it than he had at first thought.

It was at the Thirteenth Street bridge where one actually got down into the gully which ran up to the embankment. Fifteenth Street was too well lit for tramps. There once had been a well-worn trail down the slope to the bottom, but now it was half grown over, and there was so little traffic that more recent trash had not been kicked aside. At the bottom grew scrubby trees and bushes, their species almost unrecognizable in the darkness. They offered no concealment from the mercury lights along the bridge above and behind him; nor from the run-down office buildings across the street on the right, most of whose windows were dark; nor from the busy main street on the left, though that was on the far side of the block, past empty lots and thus too far away, especially at night, for anybody to see him from there. The bushes did conceal the culverts at the other end of the gully, under Fourteenth Street.

He was half way there and well beyond the light of the mercury lamps when he heard muttering ahead. The voices were coming from the culverts, too far away for him to recognize the speakers, even if they hadn’t been distorted by the echoing culvert walls. He hesitated a moment, then carefully, quietly, worked his way through the darkness toward them. He stopped when he could see the three great culverts, a couple hundred feet away, gaping mouths in the concrete of the embankment. He hid behind a bush to watch.

The culverts ran for over a hundred feet under the street overhead, straight to the other side of the overpass, where the gully beyond gradually rose to nearly ground level, just short of Fifteenth Street. Fires could be safely built inside this end of the culverts, but none were burning there now, and hadn’t in over a year.

An angry voice, coming from the central culvert, became louder, almost a shout. “I thought you said you had a chicken.” It was not a voice Tony recognized.

“I’ll get you your chicken,” Tony heard Matthiew reply. Where Matthiew got his chickens he had never been able to figure out.

“What the hell kind of chicken’s going to come down here?” the other wanted to know. Matthiew’s answer was too low to hear.

Tony left the the bush, went as far toward the side of the gully as he could, and pressed himself against the embankment wall. He looked into the side culvert, saw no shadowed figures along its length, and crossed quickly to the central culvert mouth, then crouched down low, so that his head nearly touched the ground, and looked in.

It was not as dark as it should have been in there, though the only light was coming indirectly from behind him, and none from the other end. There should have been light coming from Fifteenth Street a long block away, but there was none, just a blank blackness. Matthiew was standing half way along the culvert, which was twenty feet wide at that point, and beside him were three other men, wearing what looked like close-fitting space suits, complete with helmets. On the ground at their feet were half a dozen or so crumpled shapes, like piles of rags or discarded clothes, with discarded men still in them.

One of the space-suited figures stepped over the recumbent forms and went further back into the culvert. Then a globe near the roof of the culvert started glowing, revealing a large box on the flat floor underneath it, looking something like an over-large coffin. The space-suited figure touched something at the side of the box. The top of the coffin split in two lengthwise and, with a soft whine, opened to the sides.

Then Matthiew and one of the other suits picked up an unconscious man by knees and shoulders and carried him to the coffin. As they laid him inside, the other two strangers picked up another bum. Working in pairs this way, they quickly brought the unconscious men, eight in all, to the coffin-like box and put them inside, even though there was no way they could all fit.

Then the three space-suited figures, one by one, also climbed into the box. When the last had disappeared, Matthiew touched the same spot on the side of the box that the suited man had, and the two halves of the top swung closed. Then the box started to shimmer.

Matthiew turned and walked toward the culvert mouth. Tony ducked back and retreated to the blackness of the side culvert behind him. From there he watched Matthiew leave the central opening, and go off through the scraggly brush toward Thirteenth Street. When he thought Matthiew was well away, Tony returned to the central culvert and stepped inside.

The globe in the ceiling was no longer visible, and now the culvert was dimly illuminated by light coming from its other end, the way it should be. It was enough so that when Tony got to where the box had been, he could see footprints in the dirt, and the place where the concrete floor had been nearly wiped clean where the eight bums had lain. The box had left no marks.

Tony stared for a long moment at the place, then gingerly stepped into the empty space. His hair crackled in a sudden field of static electricity. However the box had been taken away, the process was not yet completed. He’d come too soon. He backed away, but the energy field grew stronger instead of weaker. And then, with an all but inaudible crackling, the box reappeared.

Now was not the time to be either brave or cautious. Expeditious was more the word. He turned and ran back toward the culvert mouth, the pipe inside his pants leg banging against the outside of his knee. Behind him he heard the soft whine as the lid of the coffin opened. He dashed out into the bushes, and took the most direct and open route back toward Thirteenth Street.

He felt another static field before he had covered half the distance, growing in intensity ahead of him. He stopped running. Then, moving as quietly as he could, he turned to the shadows at the side where the main street ran beyond empty lots, and worked his way through the bushes, seeking deeper cover and darkness.

A voice called softly from back at the embankment. The words were clear, but in a language Tony did not recognize. He neared the side of the gully, and heard other voices in answer coming from near Thirteenth Street.

He climbed up the side of the gully, trying to be as quiet as his own thoughts. The street lamps at Thirteenth Street shone on him more directly here. He heard the traffic from the main street up ahead, but there was no traffic at all on the street fronting the office buildings behind him.

The side of the gully got steeper the higher he climbed, and at last he could go no further. Unintelligible voices called to each other from below — three from the right, three more from the left, all of them coming closer. Tony could not see the speakers, so he hoped that they could not see him either.

He changed his course and started to work his way along the slope, back toward Fourteenth Street, using bushes and scrawny tree trunks as support. Anybody familiar with this gully, as the six people below apparently were, would assume that he would go in the other direction, to where it would be easier to get out. And indeed, for a while, Tony’s ploy seemed to be working. He paused while the three voices from the culvert passed unseen through the dark bushes below him. They were not trying to be at all quiet, and were not at all in a hurry. Then he went on.

He paused again when he got to where the side of the gully cornered into the embankment. The six voices had stopped talking, though he could still hear vague rustling sounds from half way up the gully. He could not climb any further here, so he started down. He took extra care not to slip or make any noise.

They were coming back toward him, but were still some distance away when he regained the gully bottom. He stepped into the side culvert nearest him, halfway expecting to see that the far end was blocked off as the central culvert had been, but it was open, and the light coming from the far end showed that the way was clear.

He stayed as close to the arching wall of the culvert as he could, so as not to present a hard silhouette if someone should look in, and forced himself to walk. If he tripped and fell, the noise would bring them down on him in a moment.

The culvert was little more than a hundred feet long, but it seemed like a thousand. At last he stepped out the other end and began climbing the gentler slope to high ground.

He had gone no more than a dozen steps when a figure appeared at the crest of the slope ahead of him, silhouetted by the light from the street. Tony stopped, turned, and started back down. Another figure now stood on the other side of the gully, its mirror-finished helmet glinting in the distant street and building lights. Tony froze.

The two figures moved toward him as if they knew exactly where he was. He heard footfalls behind him, echoing in the culvert he had just left. His only chance was to try for the far culvert and then run like hell. He crossed the bottom of the gully as quickly as he could, but when he entered the far culvert mouth there was a helmeted figure, halfway along the culvert’s length, coming toward him.

He stepped back into clearer ground. Now was not the time to be subtle. He undid the stout cord that was tied to his belt, and pulled out the short piece of lead pipe which had been hanging inside down his leg. It had saved him more than once when someone thought maybe he had money, or might be an easy lay, or was not what he was pretending to be.

A space-suited figure came up to within ten feet of him and stopped. The suit was actually more like an old-fashioned jet fighter’s pressure suit than a NASA space suit. Other figures, their helmets gleaming reflections, came up to surround him at a similar distance.

He wasn’t going to get another chance. He spun and ran hard at the one behind him, wielding his two pounds of lead pipe. The figure raised what looked like a hair drier, the front end of which began to glow. Tony felt himself the center of a coruscating field of electricity, and the world around him went dark.

~~~

Chapter 2

He was lying on his face, dirt and beer cans and broken sticks under him. He could not see, and he was unable to move, and his thoughts felt thick and fuzzy. Then someone turned him over on his back. Somebody spoke unintelligibly.

Hands grabbed his shoulders and knees and lifted him. He was carried a short distance, then lowered into some kind of enclosure. It had to be the coffin-shaped box. There was a brief, intense flicker of light, and a sickening lurch. Other hands lifted him out.

He began to recover his senses, though his vision was blurred, his ears rang, and he had almost no control over his arms and legs. He moved involuntarily, and struggled a bit without meaning to. Those who held him knew that he was awake, and held him firmly as they set his feet on the ground. He made himself as limp as possible, feigning a greater disorganization and confusion than he actually felt. His vision began to clear.

There were four men holding him, wearing crimson and forest-green pressure suits. They were trying to get him to stand up by himself. Tony cooperated as he regained control of his muscles. The men wore opaque spherical helmets, and their suits, though less bulky than those worn by the men at the embankment, were otherwise very similar, but their shapes were different. Their torsos were short and compressed, but their legs and necks were unnaturally long, which made them about average height. Their arms, too, were long, their hands covered by black gloves, and there was something about their fingers which Tony didn’t have a chance to see clearly.

They were in a chamber about twenty feet on a side. The walls were covered with dials, gauges, readouts, light panels, and other instruments he didn’t recognize. He sensed movement behind him and turned his head. There was a kind of portal behind him. One of his captors, wearing a gray pressure suit, was coming from it. The gray suit was designed to conceal the disproportionate shape of the wearer’s body and limbs. One of those in green and crimson asked a question, which the other answered. Then the rest of Tony’s captors came from the portal, one by one.

Two of the men who were holding him let him go when they were satisfied that he could stand without falling over. The other two still held his arms, and led him toward a door in the far wall. His captors went out another door. Tony, still dissociated and frightened, just went along. Now was not the time to put up any resistance.

The corridor beyond the door was of unpainted steel, its seams and bolts left exposed. The floor was carpeted with thinly padded brown leather. They passed an opened door, leather covered though the hinges showed, beyond which were machines that were bulky and delicate at the same time. Other men in green and crimson worked there. They, too, wore spherical helmets and black gloves.

At the end of the hall was a chamber like the first, but larger, the walls with fewer electronics. Three large booths with half-glazed doors stood against the far wall. A half a dozen men — and women? — dressed like everybody else he had seen, were working at the controls. Four more were herding a group of bums, tramps, and bag ladies, maybe thirty in all. They were all docile, and allowed themselves to be led, three by three, to the booths. They went inside, the doors closed, there was a momentary flash, and the booths were empty again.

The two who were holding Tony spoke to others in the room, their language both liquid and consonantal. Tony understood nothing, but the gist of the conversation was clear. The people herding the homeless into the booths were being warned that Tony was to be treated with caution. The two who had his arms did not let go until two others came and took hold of him firmly.

They took him through the crowd and put him into one of the booths. The door closed behind him, and he turned to look back through the glass at the vapid, empty faces of the other captives. He felt the pulse of energy, like in the coffin but more powerful. There was a flash, and the scene outside instantly changed.

The room beyond was larger, though still all bare steel and leather. Guards in crimson and green, with black gloves, boots, and helmets that concealed their heads, were leading unresisting people from booths on either side of his, across the floor to doors in the far wall. Two guards came to his door, opened it, and took him out. They held him securely by the arms, instead of just directing him as they had the others, and marched him across the room. His booth was just one of twenty. There were massive banks of equipment on either side, tended by other men in crimson and green. An empty booth flashed, a woman appeared inside, and a suited figure lead her out.

The humans were all homeless, of all ages and races. They were the kind of people nobody would miss — tramps, bums, bag ladies, street walkers, others perhaps less visibly down on their luck, but none of them well-dressed or clean. And all of them followed placidly, without resistance or even confusion.

With a kind of shuddery shock, he finally realized the obvious, that his two guards were not human. They took him to one of the doors on the far side of the room, and led him down steel and leather corridors. Other humans were ahead of him and behind him, less closely herded than he was. There were doors along both corridor walls, and each person was led to a different one.

They came to Tony’s door and took him inside. The room was relatively small, with what looked like a shower stall, a hospital bed, a cabinet, and two chairs. His two guards stripped off his clothes and put him into the shower. One of the guards did something to controls just outside the door.

He was drenched in an antiseptic-smelling foam. The floor rotated under him while powerful jets of water from the sides played over him, effectively scrubbing him clean. Another shower from the ceiling, sluiced him off, then blasts of warm air dried him.

His guards took him out of the shower and laid him on the bed. One of them placed a short silvery tube against his neck and he went completely limp.

He didn’t understand all the things that happened to him after that, but he was probed, blood was painlessly taken, electronic devices were momentarily attached to his head, throat, chest, abdomen, groin, hands and feet. Then he was given another needle-less injection, which eliminated the last of the alcohol from his system, of which he hadn’t even been aware until now.

His guards picked him up and carried him, head first, toward what he had thought was the back wall of this chamber. But there was no wall, the room extended a lot farther than he had seen on first entering. When they got to the far end they put him into a huge chair of steel and leather, with bulky electronics along the arms and at his back.

His guards spoke to each other while they worked, but never to him, and their voices were not muffled by the helmets they wore. They had no difficulty seeing what they were doing, even thought the helmets were completely opaque from the outside.

They put straps over his upper and lower arms, over his legs at shin and thigh, across his chest and stomach. Then they lowered a large hood, studded with electronics, over his head. Probes inside the hood pressed against his head, especially at his temples, his forehead, and the base of his skull. If he hadn’t been completely paralyzed, he would have started screaming. He thought his bowels and bladder would give way, until he realized that he was completely empty.

He could not move, he could not see, all he could hear was his captors moving, then walking away, and then a door closing. He was going to be the subject of some fearful torture or diabolical experiment.

He was surprised by a vivid visual image from his childhood at home, not as it had really been, but as he’d seen it so many times in dreams. At the same time he heard a voice talking about a newspaper assignment, his boss’s voice though it was not really the same. He smelled hot fresh bread, and good black soil. He tasted wine. He felt shoes on his bare feet, felt as though his arms were waving over his head. The thought in his mind was of how to explain his disbelief in God.

The images changed, as they do in dreams. The house became a field, the voice became the sound of an outboard motor, the smell became that of hot tar, the taste was of coffee and baking soda. There were hands on his thigh, he was standing on his head, he worked a complicated multiplication problem.

The imagery — visual, audio, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, kinesthetic, and intellectual — was not in synch. Some sensations persisted for several seconds, others flickered by quickly. It was like an extremely vivid dream gone wild, with no plot, and no organization. But all the images were from his mind, his own memories and experiences.

The intensity increased, and then, as had happened several times in his life, the sensations crossed. He felt the color green, saw the flavor of tomatoes, tasted the shape of mustard. He had always treasured those experiences, and he willingly encouraged them now — the smell of sunlight, the mathematics of love, the gestures of ginger. The multi-sensory images — from his own dreams, his own memories — crossed and recrossed, a complete synesthetic experience. They did not confuse him. He knew what the sensations should have been. He understood the crossings.

He wanted it to go on forever, to bury his panic in sensations. He was afraid of what his captors were doing to him while all this was going on. Like Rigger and Johnson and Alf, what he really wanted was unconsciousness, to be out of this altogether.

Eventually his senses uncrossed and came back to normal. The imagery continued, more intense and more vivid than before. The synesthesia had been his own mind’s doing, then, not something induced by this machine into which he was strapped. He swam in a dream-sea of sensation until at last everything began to fade.

The descent into the blackness was relatively swift. Then there was a great pressure inside his head, a physical pressure at first, and then a mental pressure, as if he were trying to absorb an immense intellectual concept all at once. It lasted only a moment and then his senses returned, normal and not crossed. He was still naked, strapped securely in the steel and leather chair. Whatever that last thing had been, it left him with a slight headache and a slight nausea.

The imagery began again, only everything was foreign to him. Colors, shapes, and motions flooded his sight, but he could make no sense of them. Sounds, smells, tastes grew and evolved, but they were meaningless. Movements, thoughts, completely at variance with his body or his mind, swept him along. Once or twice his synesthesia returned, but now confusingly. This time he rejected the crossing of sensations. It made him feel as if he were going crazy.

The intensity gradually increased as each image changed and developed into something new. He was losing track of where he was, of how he had gotten there. Deep inside his head he felt connections being rewired. He didn’t understand it, but with each twitch, each new connection, his sense of self was slipping away.

He was flooded with information. He understood neither the subject nor the language, as if someone were reading a physics text to him in Russian, but somehow the information was there, as meaningless as the imagery assaulting all his senses, but there for him to use whenever he should learn how to use it.

Now he fought back. Before, the machine had been probing him, learning about him. Now it was teaching him, but more than that, changing him, obliterating his identity. He was becoming confused, unable to think, even in the deepest corner of his mind. It was only when his senses crossed, by accident this time, that he remembered who he was.

The synesthesia that he had always enjoyed was no longer pleasant, but he clung to it now. He forced the crossing, stored the information pumped into him elsewhere in his mind, resisted the destruction of his personality. The machine in which he was strapped could not cope with his internal cross-connections, and while he persisted in exercising them he was safe — he hoped he was safe….

The intensity increased until at last something snapped. Listening with his blinded eyes, hearing with the skin of his thighs, he knew that the session was over. He felt in his mouth the thought that if he let his senses return to normal, he might still lose himself. But he had to give it a try. He could not retain the synesthesia forever.

Touch became touch. Smell became smell. His senses became as other men’s senses.

He felt bruised. He felt as though he had suffered some terrible tragedy, some terrible grief. But the machine had not destroyed his personality. He knew who he was: Anthony Gray, reporter, investigator, prisoner.

~~~

Chapter 3

He was alone for only a moment longer. He heard the outer door open. Two sets of feet walked toward him. The hood was lifted from his head. He looked up at his two attendants, who had removed their helmets.

Their faces were not that inhuman. Their heads were shaped like human heads, though their necks were too long and flexible. They had two eyes, a nose, a mouth, all of approximately the right proportions and in the right places.

But where a human had hair, these people had bright metallic scales of maroon, tuscan, and mahogany on their terra-cotta colored skin. Their eyes were silvery instead of white, and the irises were horizontal ovals of golden amber, with pupils that were slits like a cat’s eye turned sideways. Their hands had four fingers, but there were two thumbs, one on either side of the palm. Tony watched in fascination as they undid the straps that held him in his chair.

“This one sure is different,” the one on the right said. Tony understood the alien words.

“They’re all different,” the one on the left said as he undid the straps on Tony’s shins.

“Practically no alcohol,” the first one went on. “A sound intellectual reflex. I think we’ve got a ringer.”

It was as if Tony had grown up speaking their language. Part of his processing had given him that. He was so amazed by his ability to understand their speech that he didn’t really understand what they were saying.

Their conversation was certainly casual and typical — comments on how many humans they’d processed this shift, uncertainty about what a certain portion of his training meant, planning to participate in some sport during their break, and so on.

They finished disengaging him from the training device, treating him like a mindless animal as they got him to his feet.

“Step down,” the one on the right said, and he stepped off the low pedestal on which the training device stood.

“Come along,” the one on the left said as the first went to the door. He followed them out into the corridor.

One or two other humans were also being taken from their training, but no new ones were being brought in. His two attendants — he couldn’t tell them apart — led him to an elevator which operated so smoothly that he didn’t feel it moving. They got out on another steel and leather corridor, longer than the previous one, and with more doors on either side. There were numbers on the doors which he could read, though the characters were like nothing he had ever seen before. They were in base twelve, which was reasonable, considering the construction of his captors’ hands.

They led him to a door with the number which, in base ten, was 27, and told him to go inside. He obeyed. The door closed behind him.

The walls were of bare steel as everywhere else, the seams and fastenings left exposed. The door was covered with leather, as was the lightly padded floor. There were no windows, the light came from the whole of the ceiling.

There was a cot along one wall, with only a sheet for cover. Against the other wall was a table, attached to the wall without legs. A chair stood pulled up to it, one that had been made to fit his proportions rather than that of his long-legged, short-bodied captors. In a corner was a low chest, which proved, when he managed to open the top, to contain a toilet and sink. Since there was nothing else to do, and though he had no need of them at the moment, he learned how to use these sanitary devices.

After what might have been ten minutes, or might have been half an hour, the door opened and an alien, dressed in crimson and forest-green like the others but with black trim, came in with a covered tray which he — or she — put down on the table. Tony just sat on his bed and watched, though the door was left open and unguarded. Now was not the time to try for an escape. Even if he got out of the room, he wouldn’t know where to go after that. The alien left without speaking.

Tony sat at the table and lifted the cover off the tray. On a plate were what looked like a slice of ham, a pile of mashed potatoes, and a generous helping of green beans. A glass held what looked and tasted like milk. Discovering a sudden and intense hunger, he ate.

The utensils were serviceable, and sturdy enough to be used as weapons, but he decided not to steal anything just yet. He wanted to avoid arousing any suspicions, and he did not want to make them start taking extra precautions. They seemed to trust him not to do anything against them, so he would play along for a while, until he learned just where he was, had figured out a plan of escape, and how he could get back home.

He finished the meal and went to the cot to lie down. The door opened immediately, and the lizard-like alien entered to remove the tray. Tony had not seen any cameras or spy-holes, but his jailers obviously could observe his every action. He gave them nothing to watch, he just lay on the cot. The alien returned after another short but indeterminate time — or maybe it was another one — carrying a bundle of clothes. He — or she — put them on the table without a word and left.

The uniform, which included pants, shirt, boots, and underwear, was a perfect fit. Though cut to resemble what the aliens wore, it was of a different shade of crimson, with much less green, and there was no black except for the boots. He felt better now that he was dressed again, then lay down on the cot again, to wait and think.

There was no way to tell the passage of time. The lighted ceiling did not change. There were no sounds other than his heart and breathing to count seconds by. He dozed for a while.

He had a slight headache when he woke. It reminded him of the pressure he had felt in his head while undergoing his strange training. He probed his scalp with curious fingers. He could find no scars, bumps, or bruises, but there were a number of places that felt … funny. When he touched those places, he felt a strange sensation inside his head, as if something had been implanted in his skull.

Eventually he had to use the toilet. No paper was provided, but he discovered that pressing a certain button caused some kind of sonic device to clean him. Or maybe it wasn’t sonic, but some other technology. That information had not been given to him.

He tried to ascertain the extent of what he had been taught but, except for the language and how to use the toilet, nothing presented itself to his internal intellectual questing. The knowledge was there, but would not be available until it was needed and, at the moment, no knowledge was needed whatsoever.

After a while he slept again, to be wakened by the same or another alien bringing another meal. This time it was chicken, french fries, and corn. At least, that’s what it looked like and tasted like.

Some time later, maybe an hour, maybe two, another alien came in. His uniform had insignia at collar, shoulder, and breast, a simple horizontal bar of silver. Seeing this triggered some of the knowledge that had been forced into him. This person was the equivalent of a corporal, and his previous attendant had been only a private or similar. Tony’s uniform, by comparison, indicated that he had no rank at all.

“Come with me,” the corporal said. His long neck bobbed once, and the light glinted off the maroon, tuscan, and mahogany scales on his head.

Tony got to his feet and followed, exactly as he was bid, as a mindless automaton. He could have let himself be himself, but part of his training had included an attempt to destroy his sense of self, so he tried to behave as if it had in fact succeeded. What he needed now was real information, and time in which to absorb it, not undue attention from his captors.

The corporal led him to the elevator. Though his legs were significantly longer than Tony’s, his movements were slower, so Tony had no difficulty keeping up. From there they went to a small room which contained only one of the transporter cabinets. These were used for short distance travel, though he didn’t know what a “short” distance was, whether a few miles or a few million.

The corporal got into the transporter with him, touched a control panel, and led him out into a room which held six electronics-packed chairs, similar to the one in which Tony had been trained, but less bulky. They had no straps, and the hoods which hung above them on complicated goose-necks were more the size of a football helmet than a steamer trunk.

“Get in the chair,” the corporal said. It was a simple instruction, given as if he expected to be obeyed without question. Tony did as he was told. Another corporal leading another human came in a moment later, then another, until all the seats were filled.

The ends of the chair arms had knobs for his hands, with grooves for his fingers and thumbs. His feet found depressions in the dais floor. The corporal lowered the helmet-like hood which, this time, left his face uncovered. With a gentle push the corporal set the helmet firmly on Tony’s head and Tony felt a contact being made, at each of those strange places in his skull.

His consciousness expanded. Certain recreational drugs were supposed to do that, though he had never experienced it. His awareness was not only just in his head, but in his whole body, and in the device in which he sat. Part of him was still aware, in a more natural way, of the alien, the other humans in their machines, the rest of the room, but his attention was focused on himself, and on his own machine, which felt like just an extension of his body. The lights in the room dimmed. The corporals went around behind the human subjects in their chairs. A voice came from inside Tony’s head.

His corporal was giving him instructions, calmly, insistently, telling him what was expected of him, and how to do it. What he had experienced before had been an involuntary imprinting, a reconfiguring of his mind and perceptions. This time his intellectual cooperation was needed.

He learned how to turn on the machine, and how to switch it from mode to mode. When he pressed his left thumb against the side of the hand knob, a kind of reticule appeared in the center of his field of view. Pressing it again turned it off. Other finger presses changed the scale — though with nothing to view he had no idea what the scales were — or changed the focal length, depth of field, angle of view, and so on. At least, that was what it seemed like, compared with what little he knew about cameras. As he pressed various switches in various combinations, the reticule would change shape, size, color, and the scale markings would change. It was like learning a steno machine, which he had tried once.

Other finger combinations opened windows, like on a computer screen, displayed around the edges of his view. Others connected him to various communications channels, which now were running only dummy messages. He could change his whole orientation, without actually moving his body, by twisting or tilting the hand knobs, and could move by using the foot plates, just like a throttle and brake.

He practiced, and this first session lasted until, at his corporal’s command, he could demonstrate his mastery of the system. Learning how to drive a car by this method would have taken about two minutes. He still did not know what it was to be used for. He couldn’t tell how long the session lasted, only that he was very hungry when it was over, and his bladder was full.

He and the other “recruits” were taken to a kind of dormitory. Even here, in quarters to be occupied by humans, the walls were stark steel, the furniture leather covered. There was a main room, with eating and food-dispensing facilities at one end, and twenty-four small bedrooms around the lounge area at the other. His group of six was one of four similar groups, only one of which was in the lounge at the moment.

He took care of his immediate need, then went to the eating area, and tried one of the food dispensers. It was a simple device. Pressing buttons opened a panel, inside which was a tray of hot food. He took this to one of the tables where two other people from another shift were sitting, a man and a woman, both apparently in their fifties, though the strain of their previous life made it hard to be certain.

“Hello,” he said as he sat down. They looked up at him without curiosity. “My name’s Tony,” he said, and extended a hand to the man. The man hesitated, took the proffered hand limply, but did not say anything. Tony looked around the room at the men and women sitting at tables or in chairs. There was no conversation, none at all. Everybody just stared blankly. He could think of several reasons why this might be so, but now was not the time to pursue the issue. The room was certainly being monitored, and any unusual behavior would bring him unwanted attention.

He ate in silence and watched the people. The food looked familiar, tasted like what it looked like, was reasonably seasoned, but otherwise uninteresting. The other five recruits in his shift eventually figured out how to use the food machine, and sat wherever there was room. The previous shift did not greet them, object, or offer to help.

When he finished his meal he disposed of his empty tray and went to sit next to a man who seemed to be a little less torpid.

“Do you know where we are?” Tony asked softly. He had to be careful, but he couldn’t just sit and wait forever.

The man looked at him without curiosity, and said something in what sounded like German. Tony tried again, this time speaking in the alien language. “How long have you been here?” It felt strange to be using the words with such facility.

“Four times in the chair,” the man answered in the same language.

“Why are we here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where are you from?”

“Wiesbaden.”

Tony was not going to get any conversation here. The man’s intellectual capabilities seemed to be intact. There was just no personality to make use of them.

He sat for a long moment, trying to think of a strategy. This man and any of the others would answer his questions to the best of their ability. But these people could not contribute to a conversation, or interact meaningfully in any other way.

It wouldn’t be safe to question anybody too closely. His captors might take exception, even if these people didn’t and, as a consequence, decide that he needed further processing.

Asking the right questions was the real trick. A lot of information had been pumped into him and, if he approached the problem the right way, he should be able to discover much of it. After all, he had known what a transporter was, and how to use the toilet and the food machine.

He closed his eyes and visualized the corporal’s not-quite-human, terra-cotta face. Not human, he thought, but —

Utarba. A proud race, a strong race, a good people, at least according to their view of themselves.

He was not used to this kind of meditation, and could get little more from what was buried in his unconscious. He gave it up and, since it was too boring to just sit out here, he went to his bed cubicle and went to sleep.

He came awake as if to an alarm, though there was no sound. He got out of bed and knew that he should wash and eat, so he did. The corporals came again shortly after breakfast, and led him and his shift back to the chair chamber. Once again the humans got into place and the helmets were lowered. The training, when it began, took advantage of his previously learned skills.

He seemed to be looking out into the deeps of space, though he knew there was only a dark wall in front of him. The image was being send directly to the visual center of his brain. It was a bit confusing at first, until he learned how to suppress the input from his eyes without closing them, and how to focus on what was being shown to him more directly.

What he was seeing was like the best quality computer graphics. His field of vision was far greater than what was possible with his eyes, covering almost a complete hemisphere. It took some getting used to.

Graphic 3D representations of objects — he couldn’t tell what they were — floated around him. He was directed to focus his attention on first one image, then another, learning how to see telescopically and microscopically at the same time. No matter how distant the object — within a certain arbitrary limit — his perception of it was perfect, and at the same time the image conveyed more information about itself than could actually be seen.

He was looking at the solar system. On the one hand, he was seeing the individual planets and other bodies, but on the other hand he was seeing the system as a whole, dynamic even though there was no detectable motion.

The sun was not blinding, it was just an image which, if he looked closely, told about its mass, temperature, magnetic activity, and other attributes with which he was not familiar. This information was not presented with words or typical symbols, but by means of shape, color, sound, texture, “feel,” each of which he could interpret without further instruction, even if he couldn’t understand them. All his senses were used to convey the information.

He looked at the planets, as directed, one by one. He learned to read the graphics presented to him, to understand them so that he could detect surface temperature, mass, rotation, orbital velocity, atmosphere and so on. At the same time, he could even see — or feel — a tracing of the orbit around the sun…

Earth was particularly interesting, not only because it was home, but because this scanning system allowed him to detect the electric power net of developed countries, the presence of nuclear power plants, and even, subtly, the density of life in various areas.

It began to get confusing. He was, he realized, perceiving his home world both analytically and synthetically at the same time. It was like the rather inaccurate concept of right brain versus left brain.

He wanted to pursue this idea, but was instructed to examine the readouts on the other planets. They were equally detailed, but he didn’t know what all the data meant. Mars, for example, showed indications of life, but it was not like that on Earth. Something was going on in Jupiter’s atmosphere, a complicated thing with components and interrelations to other events, but he had no idea what it meant.

His attention was directed outward. His viewpoint moved, past the orbit of Pluto and Charon. There were two other planets. The nearer one was hard and cold. The other one was massive and hot, a brown dwarf, nearly a tenth of a light year away. Further out was the Oort cloud, the sphere of cometary material that surrounded the sun at about a quarter light year. Beyond that, aside from solar wind and other telltales he could not interpret, was nothing but the stars.

And the stars. Most were just a part of the background, but a number of nearer ones were within this device’s observational limit. He thought he recognized Alpha Centauri, its companion Beta, and its distant neighbor Proxima, simply because they were so close to his vantage point. Others he could not name, not having his own personal knowledge to draw from. As far as he could tell, he could range and detect individual stars out to about ten light years. As far as he could tell.

He was perceiving things both ways again, with both sides of his brain, as it were, when it struck him that he had seen nothing that might be the station where he was now. What kind of ship or station was he on? The session ended all too abruptly.

The long wait until the next session was deadly dull. Boredom would be his greatest enemy. He tried several times to talk to people, but got no satisfaction from their minimal responses. He ate and slept. There was nothing else to do. There was no segregation of sexes, since even sex drive had been suppressed. And he thought about why he was here, what he and these others were supposed to do eventually. That information had not been given to him.

The third session was more interesting. He was above the plane of the ecliptic, and all around him were 3D symbolic objects which represented different kinds of ships.

His task was to maneuver his point of view among them. As he did so, he learned to read what the various types of ships were — scouts, fighters, cruisers, or at least the Utarba equivalent of those, as well as many other kinds of which he did not comprehend the significance. He could detect, from looking at a ship’s image, how much power it had, what kind of weapons, its velocity, and other data less familiar. He learned to use special detectors that, given a real ship, could tell him even more about it than the preliminary readout. And as before, he could see everything in two ways. Like seeing a printed word both a representation of its meaning and as its composite letters. Or something like that.

The reason for this training was becoming clear. The Utarba were involved in a military endeavor of some kind, and humans were being used as control computers. Pigeons had been tried as missile controllers, sitting in a transparent nose-cone, directing the missile toward targets they had been trained to recognize by sight. For a pigeon, success meant death. Tony wondered if it would be the same for humans.

There were other sessions at regular intervals. They involved communications between himself and his Utarba supervisor, the use of weapons, the control of damage, and the use of spy equipment, among other things. And each time he got better at perceiving things as a whole, not just as an assemblage of parts, or an undifferentiated unity. But none of what he learned told him who the enemy was, or hinted at the fate of the human brain-slaves.

He took what opportunity he could to pay attention to his own reactions to his training, because it seemed, especially during the later sessions, that he was two people, not just one. On the one hand, he perceived the images presented by his machine, saw patterns and relationships, and accommodated his actions to the changing conditions. On the other hand, he analyzed the information, interpreted instructions, and calculated data. Somewhere in between, he coordinated these two functions. Right brain, left brain, coordination. All of which was perfectly normal, of course.

The times between sessions were hard to get through. All the other humans were content to just sit and wait. Their processing had left them with no initiative, no curiosity, and therefore they were able to deal with the unrelieved boredom. In fact, they probably weren’t bored at all.

The group that had been there the longest seemed, at last, to recover some small sense of self, but they were taken away before Tony could get any meaningful conversation from them, and a new shift of beginners was brought in. This happened a second time, and a third, until Tony’s group was the eldest. He didn’t know where the others went, but if he was going to make any effort at escape, it had better be soon, before he, too, was taken to some place from which he might not be able to return.

The ships or stations on which his processing and training had been done never appeared in the simulations. He could only guess that he was somewhere beyond the orbit of Earth, possibly above the plane of the ecliptic, as his training on ship identification had suggested. He might not need to know exactly where he was, if he could trace his way through a succession of transporters.

His last session was over. He would have just one more rest period before he was removed, perhaps to actually perform some of the feats he’d been taught. When everybody was more or less quiet, and most of the people were asleep, he went to the outer door of the lounge.

The door was latched but not locked. He had watched the corporals touch a plate on the jamb when they wanted to leave but he had not dared to experiment. Now was the time to give it a try. He put his hand on the plate next to the door, and tried to duplicate the corporals’s finger movements. And then he realized that the Utarba had used all six fingers to make it work. So, with the index finger of his left hand to help, he undid the latch and the door slid open.

There was nobody in the corridor. He quickly retraced his route of so long ago, when he had first been brought here. He found and entered the transporter room which, at the moment, was empty.

The Utarba’s training was working to his advantage now. He could clearly visualize the corporal’s movements as he had operated the transporter booth before. He knew enough, now, about Utarba devices to be able to figure out, he hoped, how to give the transporter the reverse command. There was no sense in not taking the chance.

There was a flash, and the view outside the transporter booth changed. But it was not the station from which he’d come. It was another, populated by lizard-like Utarba of various ranks, doing things with incomprehensible equipment. They saw him, and their surprise gave him the chance to work the controls again.

He thought he had reversed the sequence but apparently there was more to it than he had observed. Again the flash, and the view beyond the booth was different. He was not back in the training center. He was elsewhere, a kind of officer’s lounge or something similar.

And this time they were ready for him. Two Utarba sergeants opened the door before he could try the controls again, and reached in with their overly long arms and grabbed him.

They were expert. Though physically less massive than he, they were strong and well trained. They had him helpless, holding his arms and shoulders, before he could even think about striking out at them. They crowded into the transporter booth with him, and this time, with one of the sergeants working the controls, they returned to the training center.

But not to his shift’s lounge. Instead he was taken, forced to walk in an uncomfortable hopping manner by the pressure they were exerting on his arms, to another chamber with a training chair more complex than the one he had been in recently, and different from the one in which he had first been processed. He was forced into it, strapped down, and the hood lowered over his head. He felt the contacts made on his skull, and then the lights went out.

He retained consciousness, though all sensory stimuli had ceased. They had failed to abolish his sense of self before, and now they were going to try in earnest. Anxiety grew in him until he thought he couldn’t stand it any more.

But nothing happened. It was just total sensory deprivation. He was not even aware of his heart beating or his breathing..Just as he began to drift off into a kind of psychotic dream, they reversed the process.

Intense sensation of every kind flooded every nerve. It was like his initial processing, only more violent, a constant flickering, never giving him time to identify any one sensation. He was completely aware of his body in every possible respect. Freezing and burning, dark and light, sound and silence, all perceptions on overload.

And then it stopped again, and he went back to the nothingness.

And then overload again.

He lost track of how many times he cycled through. At last he lost track of everything altogether.

~~~