Under the Moons of Eden

by Christopher Leeson
Copyright 1996
Revised 11/99

Chapter 1

*The sly slow hours shall not determinate
The dateless limit of thy dear exile.*
KING RICHARD II

Our outfit, the 54th Battle Group Earth Alliance, was in transit to Cathara when an Asymmetric search-and-destroy mission intercepted us off Ophir. Since our light escorts had no firepower to match theirs, they did a good job of turning our fleet into slag before the escort commander broadcast the general order for a cold jump.

A cold jump for hyperspace! You have to be suicidal to try that, but our ships were going out like Christmas lights on the day after New Years and there wasn't any other way out. Against every rule in the book the surviving fighters and freighters flooded their unprepared converters with antimatter and pushed the button. We watched the beleaguered ships blink out of this spatial continuum -- in some cases permanently -- but ours wasn't going anywhere; a disabling shot had fused our Morrison stabilator and made us the last sitting duck in a pond of sharks.

The Asymmetrics -- or Assies as we usually called them -- knew that our systems were down and so didn't circle back with torpedoes blazing. Our colonel, lieutenant colonel, and two senior majors had gone down with their own ships or jumped away -- a circumstance which left me senior officer. Unconditional surrender was my introduction to independent command.

We knew that the Assies took prisoners; the kicker was that we didn't know what the enemy did with their prisoners. There had been no POW exchanges between belligerents, and not even the most routine sort of communication. Capitulation was a hard call, but I made it understanding that the enemy would gain little from capturing the personnel and basic equipment on board.

The Assies -- odd-looking critters -- boarded us to shut down our cannons, confiscate our infantry weapons, and lock our transport in a tractor beam. A few days of towing through hyperspace brought us to their intended destination, a new planet in Assie-space. It didn't look bad from high orbit: clouds, oceans, and plenty of green-tinged land. In fact, it seemed like a prime piece of stellar real estate.

This blue-and-green planet had never been on any Earther's chart, so it had no name and the Assies didn't volunteer one. Our captors didn't talk at all, except to have us pack our gear into the pods and prepare for a drop. That prospect was better than a blaster in the back of the head, but the Assies weren't wasting time with ceremonial send-offs. We were shoved into the planet's upper atmosphere, and that was it. The aliens, for all we could tell, jumped away and forgot about us.

#

We were abandoned, marooned with no instructions, no special equipment, nothing. Our prison walls were the .9G gravity of a nameless planet. We supposed that we had been deposited on an Assie POW world and were expected to live or die on our own. We definitely preferred choice number two, and so got to work setting up. It wasn't too long before the rank and file called our new home "Klink!" Well, why not? With everything going wrong, a low joke sometimes helps. Had we been able to see into the future, we might have started out calling it something much less polite.

Klink was an earth-type world with an ecology of chlorophyll plants, furry animals and flyers that, if you didn't look too closely, could pass for Terran birds. It has always amazed me the degree which alien evolution can parallel Earth's; of course, some people say that all the worlds originally came off the palette of the same Artist. Metaphysics was never my strong suit.

The first temperature reading we took was 18 degrees Centigrade. That was disappointingly chilly, but one of the fleet techs corralled with us calculated that we had set down during the winter season in the northern hemisphere. He estimated from the axial tilt and the latitude that the climate might be something like that of the Upper South in the USA. In other words, we could expect a long warm-to-hot summer, a short, mild spring and autumn, and a winter of intermediate length in which the temperature would occasionally drop below freezing -- which, under the circumstances, didn't sound too bad.

Klink was orbited by two moons and, as we learned, they periodically went into conjunction and looked like they were about to collide. To plot the conjunctions, the fleet techs advised, one had to take into account the immense complexities of dual orbits and apparent retrograde motion. For the life of me I saw no reason to bother.

How little we knew then.

Anyway, we called our heavenly bodies Big Boob and Little Boob because we were a bunch of sex-obsessed SOB's. Who could blame us? Women hadn't served in combat units for a hundred years, and so did not exist in our corner of the galaxy. The chances for sexual recreation aside, we were well off. As Captain Montgomery Ames put it in those early days, "We've got everything we need for a party, except dames."

As I said, there were no Assie guards to bother us, no camp administration breathing down our necks, no rules imposed from above. Weapons-wise, we had only bayonets, knives, and hatchets, but though we occasionally found the tracks of large animals, and even sighted them from a distance, the wildlife seemed to be shy of our human scent and gave us wide berth. As far as we knew, Klink had no intelligent life, and therefore the lack of hardware did not add up to any immediate problem.

More than the confiscated arms, we missed the communicators. Without them we held no hope for easy contact with other humans on Klink -- assuming that we were not the only prisoners. The planet seemed fertile and the climate mild. We wondered why the Assies hadn't developed Klink for themselves instead of "infesting" it with enemy aliens. Assies and humans liked the same worlds -- a fact which had resulted in a decade-long border war. Now it seemed damnably strange that the Assies would invade human space and take large losses in material and life when they had an unused high-order T-type world in their own back yard. I sometimes wondered whether there was a serpent hidden in this Eden waiting for the chance to bite.

A soldier wastes his time trying to understand alien psychology. The welfare of our exiled fraction of the 54th Battle Group Earth Alliance was the first order of business. Defeat is an unmanning thing, and so we had to keep our troops busy to maintain morale. Many of them had families back home, wives and children. The idea of permanent separation from loved ones is a bitter pill for a family man, and it's pure poison if you let him wallow in his loss. For that reason, I had my five captains and ten lieutenants drive the men hard during those first few weeks -- exploring, cutting timber, constructing shelters and latrines, and foraging for a food supply.

We were out of the war, probably for good, but our outfit was first-rate and I intended to keep it that way. Few of the rank and file were career men, and consequently didn't like the idea of living the army way for the rest of their days. I sympathized, but discipline had to be preserved. It was better to live in a well-ordered organization than degenerate into a pack of bewhiskered, self-pitying bums on a camp-out.

Our survey selected a campsite a couple miles from our original landing. It was on a slight rise overlooking a fast-running creek which analyzed pure and would supply our needs for water. That allowed the Group to get to work in earnest.

But a man can't lose himself in work all the time. Though our men were kept hard at it, the private soldier on a detail can at least put his shovel down when the sergeant or lieutenant is out of sight and gripe to his buddies for a few minutes. Even officers were able to talk things over with those who shared their rank. But I was the commanding officer and had to keep my doubts and anxieties to myself. I knew capture had badly shaken the ranks and so it was up to me to keep everyone steady. I had to preserve the impression -- the illusion -- that someone was in control. That meant acting like I knew the answers. The trouble was, I didn't know the half of them.

Pressure -- and loneliness -- will buckle a man if he doesn't have a friend with whom he can be honest and up-front. The closest thing I had to a buddy on Klink was Dr. Sebastian Lowry, the only surgeon who had been aboard when the Assies took us. Unlike most of my officers, Lowry was not a careerist, but had been drafted as warrant officer for the medical corps. Dr. Lowry had run a civilian practice, but even after a year in a military-medicine academy no career soldier would ever mistake him for one of their kind. I think that fact made it easier to achieve a rapport with him. Anyway, Sebastian was a clear-thinker, had brains and not brass in his head, and was always game for a round of poker.

Our encampment of 537 men and officers was hardly up and running before IT happened for the first time.

#

Klink's moons were beginning their next conjunction, pairing like the women's boobs they were named after, when Pvt. Rick Halder disappeared. The man had been standing in front of the members of his squad when, at 14:07, he turned into a silhouette of white light and faded from view -- without even leaving a sooty spot behind. We knew of no weapon that acted on human flesh that way.

As soon as I received the report, I put the battle group on alert and sent every available man out searching for enemy snipers. Because of the confusion, we only realized later that a second man, Pvt. Lionel Olson, was also missing. No one had seen him "go," but it seemed likely that he had vanished in the same bizarre fashion.

There was no follow-up attack and a search failed to identify anything unusual in the vicinity. At sunset, I ordered the perimeter heavily patrolled, although I knew men armed with knives could do little against a technologically superior attacker. Our pickets were not disturbed during the night and we resumed the search at sunup. The morning patrols soon turned up a new mystery.

Two women were discovered not far from camp, side by side, unconscious but apparently unhurt. Each was nineteen or twenty -- a dark-honey blonde and a brunette. Each wore uniforms like ours -- exactly like ours and much too large for them.

Our men reacted as if they had found treasure. "Isn't this an answer to our prayers, Major Breen!" crowed Sgt. Gold as we followed the females to camp borne on makeshift stretchers. "I only hope there's plenty more sleeping beauties where these two came from."

#

I followed the stretchers into the hospital where Dr. Lowry, assisted by his young medic, Alan Drew, transferred the women to the cots. The doctor observed that they appeared to be anesthetized, not comatose.

I thought back on Gold's excitement. Once Lowry brought the girls around, I could foresee all kinds of discipline problems. We had five hundred men starved for female companionship, and only two of the latter. The visitors would have to be sent home as soon as possible for their own good -- and ours.

"Why don't they wake up?" I asked the doc. "They're not brain-damaged, are they?"

"When I find out, you'll be the first one I'll tell, Rupe."

"They must be colonists from an earlier prisoner drop --" I conjectured, knowing that the aliens had captured several Terran outposts over the last ten years, and evacuated the settlers.

Lowry opened the brunette's shirt and read the tag around her neck. "What the -- ?!"

"What is it?" I asked.

"The tag says 'Richard Halder!'" Lowry replied slowly, his face a mask of bewilderment.

I read the tag for myself; it actually was Halder's. "How in hell did this girl get it?! It should have been vaporized with Halder, but here it is. Does this mean that Halder's alive?"

Lowry had no answer, but then Drew began searching the blonde and found a similar I.D. tag. It said "Lionel Olson!"

"You've got to bring them around, Doc," I urged. "We've got to know what we're up against."

"Then give me working space, Rupe! I mean it! -- Get out of here!"

In the infirmary a doctor was god, so I contained my impatience and left the medics to their work. There was not much I could do except wait. Because of the crisis I had suspended even the construction teams. Every day we had been packing away more of our modular shelters as more permanent barracks replaced them. Now I wondered whether we'd ever live long enough to need them.

We faced, I guessed, alien kidnappers using matter-to-energy-to-matter technology. BEM's who had such advanced capabilities would be tough customers.

Through it all I remained preoccupied by the mystery of the women. That first day a strange thought occurred to me: Was this bizarre affair an exchange, a trade, a couple of "their" people for a couple of ours? Who would do such a thing, and why? It wasn't human thinking -- it was a trade rat's! It was the expression of a very alien type of intelligence.

I had not been in my quarters long before Dr. Lowry came to my hut and started jabbering a report that made me think he had been breathing chemical vapors. More to confirm that diagnosis than to credit his report, I followed the good doctor to the infirmary on the double-quick.

I saw that both females were awake; one, the brunette, was sitting up, trembling, suffering from shock -- head bent, fists clenched, shoulders quaking. The other was in a fetal position and seemed even farther gone. I addressed the brunette:

"Excuse me, Miss --" I began, but stopped myself. What if what Lowry said was true? I realized that I didn't know how to address the patient, and so I softened my tone as not to frighten her.

"Can you -- can you tell me your name?" I queried.

Because the girl didn't raise her head I lifted her chin with my fingertips. Men who had been gut-shot sometimes had expressions like hers. "What is your name?!"

Frantic, she was trying to speak, but the words wouldn't come. "That's all right," I coaxed. "Take all the time you need."

"P-Private Halder, sir!" she finally answered. "D-Don't you kn-know me, sir --?! Christ, don't you know me?!"

#

I fought the idea until the facts could no longer be denied, questioning the young woman who claimed to be Halder intensely, since the blonde remained unfit for interrogation. I tried hard to doubt the brunette's stated identity, but she was desperate to convince me. I went away, believing in my head, but not in my stomach.

Two more men disappeared that afternoon and two more girls were found the next morning. As we feared, once able to speak, they identified themselves as the missing soldiers. Yet, for some strange reason, none of these transformed men remembered anything of their time away. Fear settled over the camp as every day the number of affected personnel grew.

In their strange new female incarnations, the metamorphosed soldiers usually looked eighteen to twenty, regardless of their original ages. Dr. Lowry observed that the transformed men -- the "transformees," as we soon began calling them -- had all come back in very good physical condition, with scars and physical defects removed -- including the last phalanx of the little finger that Sergeant Pitts had lost on Regis and now apparently had regrown.

Psychologically, all the transformees were suffering. Lowry suspected that the trauma was a side-effect, since normal trauma should not have come on well-balanced men so quickly -- at least not until they had time to appreciate the full meaning of their situation. Possibly, though, the effect could be rooted in terror, experienced during captivity and effecting the transformees now, even though the conscious memory of it had been erased or blotted out. The fear they had presumably undergone might be lurking as a nightmare just below the surface.

But Lowry emphasized that it was the speed of the trauma, not the fact of it, which was surprising. It was the nature of males, especially men accustomed to the military life, to be repulsed by any idea of effeminacy and everything was done to screen out weak material during recruitment and boot camp, and then beat into hard steel the ones who were left. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had gone the way of female-tailored battle fatigues, and even earlier.

A female transformation was consequently a terrible shock for the soldiers. It was as though the patients' minds were interpreting what had happened to them as a profound physical violation. They were exhibiting what the doctor thought was very like post-rape trauma in women. Unfortunately, Lowry had no treatment, not even a theory of treatment for any aspect of the metamorphosis.

Sometimes the transformees' reaction to their condition was so violent or hysterical that restraint had to be called for. After the first few days, there was no space for them in the infirmary, requiring Sebastian to farm out his patients to the huts. After all, their problems were mental and emotional, not physical. All the doctor could do was prescribe rest and call on the affected soldiers each day to monitor their progress.

In the meantime, we were trying to discover the agent responsible. Over the next couple weeks we sent search parties as far as a hundred kilometers out looking primarily for aliens. They discovered nothing whatsoever -- nothing, except the information that when a group went beyond a certain vague range from our main body, the same unseen powers acted, abducting and transforming searchers as if they were a separate group requiring separate attention from the planet Klink.

The men's anxiety grew daily as the transformation count rose. Since dispersion only increased our problems, I decided to keep our men close together. Whatever lay behind our predicament, it didn't respect rank; Captain Ames vanished two weeks after the first incident, only to reappear the next morning as a hard-bodied, angel-faced female with a halo of fluffy blonde hair. Ironically, it had been Ames who had remarked, "We have everything we need for a party, except the dames!" Now we had more "dames" than we wanted -- and were getting more every day.

At first, none of the stricken soldiers were fit for work. They spent much of their time in bed suffering from deep depression and huddling out of sight, ashamed to be seen, but sometimes they wandered the camp like somnambulists -- when not breaking into fits of whimpering or screaming.

None of the rest of us knew how to react and morale plummeted. That was the worst of it -- the fear. Rare friends came through for their transformed comrades, but to the majority, the transformees were pariahs.

I saw groups dissolve without a word when a woman, perhaps not looking where she was going or desperate for companionship, came near. Fear makes the human animal cruel, alas. The 54th had been a cohesive outfit; its members looked out for one another. They were not able to act that way now and were deeply ashamed of themselves. All our men, both the transformed and the others, took a heavy emotional beating and we had no clue where it was leading.

Then something ghastly happened. Lionel Olson, one of the first two transformees, had been lodged with Halder in a hut of their own. Olson never became rational and, a couple days after leaving the infirmary, she opened one of her own arteries with a utility knife and bled to death before we found her in the morning.

Olson's death hit us like a laser cannon. We had been idiots! We should have anticipated the possibility of suicide. I cursed myself for an incompetent, unthinking fool. But neither had the danger occurred to the mystified and harried Dr. Lowry.

Despite our regrets, it was too late to help Olson. All we could do was lay her into a grave and put a board over it explaining that Lionel Olson had died "a good soldier, a beloved comrade."

After that ordeal, we knew what we were up against and every new transformee was placed under a suicide-watch. This was intended to continue until Lowry felt confident that the soldier's -- the woman's -- emotional state was no longer life-threatening. This need tied up many people -- more each day, and the work on our camp slowed drastically.

Everyone's nerves frayed. How long did we have before there was an explosion?

* * * *

Chapter 2

*But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.* KING HENRY IV, Part II

I visited Ames in -- her? -- hut.

We often found ourselves guiltily referring to our miserable comrades as "hers" and "shes." We did it unconsciously, unable to help ourselves until it became too commonplace to notice. Sadly, that instinctive choice of pronoun reeked of unintentional insult. It was like telling these unfortunate soldiers that they were out of the club, that they didn't fit in anymore, that they had become different and apart.

Ames shared a hut with her friend and suicide-watcher, Capt. Philbrick. I found the transformed officer sprawled lifelessly on her cot and staring at the ceiling with an expression of torment. She didn't even glance my way, just lay there murmuring a many-times repeated one-word question: "Why?"

"Captain Ames," I addressed the traumatized woman carefully.

She blinked, then slowly looked my way, her eyes full of pain -- a real pain, but not of the physical kind. I thought that I had come prepared, but nonetheless found myself pitying what was left of a once personable and jocular officer. Everything I had come prepared to say now sounded hollow and foolish; I stood there with nothing to offer beyond the blandest inquiry after her health. What could I say or do to give comfort under such circumstances? I was no psychologist, no clergyman. I feared a misstatement that might do harm. Should I lie, tell her -- him -- what he -- she -- wanted to hear -- that she -- he -- would soon be all right, that Lowry was working on a way to reverse the metamorphosis?

Ames would have had to be pretty far gone to believe such rot. She knew as well as I did that Dr. Lowry believed the transformations to be genetic, not surgical. How could we then, with our limited means and resources, ever hope to unscramble a human being's chromosomes? Of course, given a major medical facility, a good deal could be done cosmetically by transplanting, by applying hormone therapy, but Lowry possessed neither the equipment, the pharmaceuticals, nor the training to attempt any such thing.

Unless we managed to capture the people or the equipment responsible and make it or them reverse the process, the transformees were almost certainly doomed to remain physiological females for -- well if not for life, for as long as our unknown enemy wanted to keep them that way.

I excused myself after a few minutes but kept thinking about what Ames had said. The captain had not been the first transformee who had asked that damnable question, "Why?" I would have supposed that their burning question should have instead been, "How?"

#

I tried to visit my transformed officers and NCO's regularly, all in much the same state as Capt. Ames -- able to shake their heads despondently to insistent questions, but seldom spontaneous or conversational. For that reason, my visits to Ames and the others degraded into a personal ordeal. How could I help them? How should another human being relate to one of these unhappy creatures, either as a commander or a comrade?

Fortunately, over the weeks, Lowry confirmed what common sense had been telling us all along. The transformees responded best if not treated differently, if accepted as the men they had been -- men who were impaired by stress neuroses and/or bearing physical wounds. Regard and respect, not pity, seemed to be the best tonic for our unfortunate mates.

#

Our command staff kept working on the theory of alien hostility. One idea we floated was that the Assies were subjecting us to psychological torture to break our spirit. But why? We were already their prisoners. If they wanted to break us, they had a thousand simpler methods to go about it. In fact, they had given no sign that they were interested in us at all. Or had they brought us here to test a new weapon? Not likely. A "sex-change ray" seemed like a damned fool weapon for a military campaign. Even if the enemy had such a thing, what was the strategic gain? Why not kill humans in the tried-and-true fashion?

At one staff meeting, Lieutenant Hawk wondered whether the transformation was an alien method of counting coup, a practice which existed among his Amerind ancestors in frontier days. Others argued that we weren't in battle. Our attackers were "counting coup" in a jail cell, the act of a coward, not a hero.

There was another idea offered -- that we were being progressively changed into a population intended to serve a yet-unknown purpose of the hidden master race. They desired slaves, perhaps. As women -- demoralized and physically weaker -- we'd presumably be easier to handle. It wasn't long before even more unsavory speculations were made along those lines. It sounded like sci-fi porn to me and if the Assies or some indigenous race of Klink intended to reduce us to slavery, why return the future "slave girls" to their friends instead of putting them to work immediately?

An even more repulsive theory postulated that the Assies or another alien race was female-poor and needed breeding stock -- a theory that Lowry firmly nixed. It was too far-fetched for his taste. Moreover, none of the women had returned pregnant.

Even so, his examinations turned up something strange -- a tiny anomalous particle buried in the medulla of each transformee's brain. What could this tiny bead-in-the-brain mean? I demanded. Lowry had no clue and, with his limited equipment and inadequate staff, he was not going to perform brain surgery on physically healthy soldiers.

The only good news in those first few weeks was that Private First Class Mark Hitchcock, an early transformee, seemed to be pulling out of her traumatic phase. Undoubtedly, we had to thank Pvt. Harold Roberts for her rapid progress. Roberts stayed by Hitchcock's side night and day through many bad episodes, and eventually the transformee began to respond to TLC. Lowry was impressed with Roberts' results and made recommendations to other suicide-watchers to try similar methods.

While I knew she was recovering, Pvt. Hitchcock appeared at my hut asking for a duty assignment much sooner than I expected. She still looked somewhat out of sorts, but Lowry advised me that a return to a semi-normal routine might be the best thing to bring her up to snuff. A person functions best, he thought, when feeling useful and a member of a team. I couldn't argue with that logic and it was my hope that the women could soon be reintegrated into the life of the camp. If it didn't happen, we would swiftly become a large, paralyzed mental ward.

How strange it was to sit there, taking stock of a soldier familiar to me, but whom I could not recognize by appearance and hardly by mannerism. To the eye, Mark Hitchcock was a red-haired girl wearing a uniform ludicrously large for her. I anticipated that clothing would become yet another problem. Pvt. Hitchcock had been a big, barrel-chested male. Now he -- she -- was only some sixty kilos in weight and about l60-l70 centimeters in height, her sleeves and pantslegs needing to be rolled up to keep them out of the way. She also needed to bore a new notch in the middle of her belt to secure her pants, even given the added purchase of her transmogrified hips.

I intended to put Hitchcock to work at something light. K.P. seemed a logical choice, but Lowry advised me against imposing anything that smacked of "housekeeping." He worried that the transformees might react negatively to anything that smelled of "women's work." Instead, I decided to attach the recovering Hitchcock to a foraging detail, which would give her a good deal of exercise in the open air but yet require little heavy exertion. On second thought I added Roberts to the same group. We didn't know how the men would react working side by side to a transformee and having Roberts on hand to look after his friend's interests made sense. Hitchcock seemed satisfied with my decision and I dismissed her.

Watching her go, I remembered that it was Hitchcock who had led Lowry into a disturbing new theory. The transformee insisted that she recognized her face -- her present female face -- in the mirror.

That seemed impossible. Hitchcock looked nothing like her former self, a thirtyish, prematurely bald, black-bearded man. As with most of the transformees, there was not even a family resemblance between her old shape and her new. Lowry accepted the premise as worth investigating and encouraged Hitchcock to remember everything she could. Finally the soldier was able to say that she had often seen her present face in her daydreams when she had been a man. Mark Hitchcock was telling us, in essence, that he had been changed into "his" own fantasy girl!

#

At first, Lowry could not put much credence in such a bizarre notion. He and young Drew nonetheless tested the theory, going around to other transformees equipped with mirrors and carefully-crafted questions. Many women had never looked carefully at their own reflection and had to be carefully coaxed before they would do so. To Lowry's and Drew's surprise, many transformees reacted like Hitchcock, claiming that their faces looked familiar. But one, an Arab-American named Ulad Jami, was even more specific. She had, to her consternation, found herself looking into the face of a fantasy belly dancer whose undulating image she -- as a he -- had been assiduously masturbating to since high school.

Dr. Lowry thought that he was on to something, so he worked out a theory and ran it by me.

The mind of every heterosexual man, the doctor alleged, harbors the immensely strong image of a particular woman. This image may be known to him only as a masturbation fantasy or daydream lover, but she actually represents the deeply-buried feminine aspect of his own psychology. She is his intuitive, emotional side, his "inner woman," so to speak. Psychologists have long been aware of her theoretical existence and have referred to her as the "anima."

In a healthy, integrated male personality, this anima, as counterpoised to the animus, the inner man, provided the emotional depth and dimension that a male needed for achieving and maintaining friendships, for appreciating and loving his mate, and for enjoying his children. In the same way, women possessed an unconscious animus as a guiding principle in her need to persevere against odds, in approaching the world logically, and in striving for long-range goals. The anima in man and the animus in woman gave the two sexes some much-needed common ground, a capacity for sympathy and understanding that prevented the sexes from reacting to one another as two alien races.

In most Earth cultures, masculine logic and feminine emotion remained in eternal conflict. The more masculine a man was, or sought to be, the more he instinctively repressed and denied his anima. By young adulthood, a man usually accomplishes this to a great degree. That may be why women seem able to make new friends easily over their entire lifetime, while males were most usually capable of doing so only in childhood and youth. True friends were carried along from his early days, until they were inevitably attritioned away and he was left alone at the end. The adult male, though he might acquire what was called chums, buddies, comrades, and pals, rarely achieved deep camaraderie after the days of his youth. Topics of discussion regarding hopes, fears, or expectations, normally remained out-of-bounds.

Women, for their part, had their own hard battles with their animus, but there were fewer social sanctions against a woman behaving in a masculine manner, hence her overall reduced psychological tension. In fact, during the short-lived feminist era, some women had given unbridled reign to their harshest animus-inspired qualities without suffering social sanction. Although the feminists celebrated what should have been seen as a problem, they failed to make it a virtue. An animus-worship that trumped, even trampled upon, feminine instinct was ultimately seen as dysfunction with sometimes-severe consequences. Psychologists differed in their recommendations but, within reasonable limits, it seemed that a little repression was actually healthy for both men and women.

Lowry had drifted, but now he returned to his main point. He contended that a man's anima was held prisoner and engaged in an eternal struggle for its free expression. As clever and seductive as a flesh-and-blood female, the wily anima early on discovered the one escape open to her -- the route of a man's libido. By nature, the male welcomed, even sought, the image of Woman, and into this needful void the anima cunningly flowed. Doing so, she attained a kind of freedom, but by entering into a man's libido the anima was forced to blend into the territory -- lest she be discovered and expelled.

The inner woman, therefore, generally incarnated herself as a desirable fantasy image. She usually took the form of a young and sexually-alluring temptress or sweetheart. In fact, this image was so powerful that males seeking a mate in the real world instinctively measured the women they met not, as once commonly believed, against the standards of their mothers, but of their own anima. Basically, they were seeking certain qualities housed within themselves in the guise of another person.

I managed to follow Lowry's theory for a short distance. It was well known that a man possessed a side which, unfortunately, got in the way of his being a good soldier. One aim of basic training is, as I have said, to burn off that aspect of his personality, and so a young recruit was put through hell-on-earth. Drill deliberately sought to drive him past the imaginary boundaries set by his inner weakness, to require him to be "all that he could be." Whenever a soldier flagged, accepted any personal limit, a bawling drill sergeant, his surrogate father figure, was johnny-on-the-spot to call him a "girl," a "pussy," a "faggot," or a "woman!" That kind of treatment inspired the recruit to redouble his efforts to be a man. But Lowry suggested that, despite this conditioning, the "inner woman" was never killed off. She was locked away in the human unconscious -- except for her libido image, which only intensified in compensation.

In the cauldron of the ultra-masculine military psyche, more than in the man on the street, the anima was transformed from what might have been a well-rounded persona into a 200-proof distillation of pure, ferocious, feline sexuality. In this form, the anima was always in front of a man's psyche, compelling him to seek her in the real world -- to find her in women of immediate and obvious allure: strippers, hookers, b-girls.

But while Nature allowed the anima to be transformed, it was very rarely killed. In fact, according to Lowry, to actually kill her, or hermetically seal her away without a means of expression, would deal a fatal blow to a man's mental health. The loss of his emotional resources had to produce a troubled individual, madman -- possibly a dangerous one.

I had always taken Lowry's ideas seriously, but I couldn't credit him in this case. That my men were trained, hardened fighters could be taken for granted. They had seen slaughter and been the agents of it; they'd felt friends die in their arms and taken life with their own hands. Tough and disciplined though they were, none of them were without feeling. Men had a full complement of emotion, I knew, but it was men's emotion. A male might have sex fantasies, but that didn't mean that he harbored a full-blown female persona inside himself. In fact, it probably meant the opposite.

After Lowry said his piece, I asked, "What are you driving at, Doc?"

As expected, Sebastian didn't have a worked-out theory, just a wild guess: "If you assume sufficiently advanced genetics, it's not hard to make a female from a male. You take away his Y chromosomes and clone his X chromosomes to replace them, or leave his Y's, but somehow mutate them to an X status."

I shook my head; it seemed that the good doctor had crawled out on the long limb of pure fantasy. There was much I could have said to set him right, but preferred not to be harsh; he was under as great a strain as I. "Surely there's more going on than genetic alteration," I suggested with a mild tone.

"That's true," affirmed Lowry, not picking up on my skepticism. "There's also morphing going on. My theory is this: Aliens don't know what human females look like, so they look for a pattern to follow. If these aliens telepathically tap into a male's mind, they'll readily isolate a powerful image of a healthy young female. This is the subject's central sex fantasy, or rather his anima acting as one."

I advised Lowry to keep his theory to himself. If word got out that our respected healer believed that the soldiers of the 54th would transform into masturbation fantasies, the morale of the bravest would break like dry spaghetti.

#

The role call of transformees grew steadily -- two a day, every day. Fortunately, another early transformee, Marduke, gave signs of recovery. I put her in Hitchcock's detail, hoping they might provide one another with sympathy and morale.

The worst blow was the loss of Dr. Lowry. The morning after his disappearance, the stretcher-bearers brought him back in the shape of a fine-featured, dark-haired woman who appeared to be in her mid- to late-twenties.

I studied Lowry's altered face with consternation as she lay unconscious in the infirmary. She looked like the sort of woman that I'd have expected Sebastian to conjure, assuming his fantasy theory was true -- not a "dame," not a "babe," not the hormonal show girl and sex-sim types who were gradually making our camp look like a girlie revue. Sebastian Lowry looked like a lady.

"Anything I can do?" I asked Alan Drew.

"You're needed everywhere, Major Breen," came his slow, heavy reply. "I'll take care of -- of Dr. Lowry. -- But if you could, sir --"

"Yes?"

"I don't know the sergeant's friends and we're going to need to find a suicide-watcher for him -- for her, I mean."

I nodded sympathetically and looked at Sgt. Gold on the other cot. I recalled that it had been the sergeant who had said something about sleeping beauties. But my concern for Gold had to take second place to that for our doctor. For my friend.

The truth to tell, no transformation up to that morning shocked me more than Lowry's. Perhaps I'd assumed that our physician would be immune, or at least be the last to succumb. It hadn't happened that way, and now I realized, on not just an intellectual level anymore, that there was going to be no one who could resist it.

No one.

I took stock. Olson's suicide left us with five hundred and thirty-six men -- persons. In about two months, almost a quarter of our command had been transformed. In another six months -- what?

I refused to look that far ahead.

While I considered our ongoing dilemma, another disaster struck. Herb Woolenska, a demolitions specialist, left his comrades without a word shortly after Dr. Lowry's fate became known. He had climbed the steep hill overlooking our camp and then, from its highest cliff, jumped to his death.

Again I felt what I felt when Olson died, but what bothered me most was that this time part of me understood Herb Woolenska.

#

We buried Woolenska the next day, and that night I did my best to block out the image of his simple grave plot. I had lost men in combat before, but suicides bespoke a fundamental failure on my part. I wished that I could talk about my troubles to someone, to let out what was eating on me, but that had never been possible except, to a small degree, with Sebastian Lowry. Now, he was gone.

Emotionally, I equated Lowry's transformation with his death. I visited his -- or, as I might as well put it -- her bedside several times each day, a generosity with my time which I never extended to any of the others. Though she recovered consciousness quickly, Sebastian suffered a trauma like the others. Somehow I had expected -- or, at least, hoped -- that the same doctor who had so carefully studied the phenomenon of trauma would prove more resilient than anyone else -- that is, a little less human.

In the dark of night, I found myself trying not to think of transformees, of women, and especially not of Woman. Woman with a capital W, I mean. From an ideal of beauty and pleasure, to most men on Klink Woman had become the image of terror and loathing. She was the witch, the evil goddess, the Medusa. She was Circe. She was Scylla reaching out to rend; she was Charybdis swallowing entire crews. She was every image of fear and degradation that Mankind had every conceived in female guise. Forgotten was Mother, Sister, Wife, Daughter. I could almost wish there were no such thing as Woman in the entire universe.

Each night the phantasms of my unconscious mind invariably transformed into amazing shapes -- and too often into the shape of a woman. Not Scylla, not Charybdis, but Another. I didn't know her name for she existed nowhere except in my own mind and, despite our close association over the years, I had never named her. Or, more honestly, I had given her a thousand names, but none that were a part of her; they were like the names that a script-writer might give to a character. -- Which was appropriate, since the Nameless Woman had many starring roles in my fantasies: the sexpot saloon gal in the bustier, the show girl in feathers, the apache dancer with the slit skirt, the barbarian slave with the steel collar around her neck, awaiting the touch of her master -- the latter role gratefully filled by me.

She was lovely, this Nameless One. Lithe, light of complexion, hers were breasts that a man longed to knead with eager fingers. Her slenderness filled out into bewitching hips and her black hair was a'jiggle with springy ringlets. At times she seemed to come so close to me that I could see my reflection in those gleaming aquamarine eyes. She was my personal Woman, she of the capital W. If she had been a vehicle, her motor would have raced, if a space ship, she would have jumped to warp. But she was not a machine, but every woman I had ever desired. She could transform effortlessly into a bikinied beauty on a beach, and then to a sultry lover in a mountain chalet, waiting on her man with a champagne glass balanced in each hand, her lips lifted for a kiss, her breath and her flesh as fragrant as the scented logs on the hearth. . . .

"Damn it!" I muttered and, with an effort, drove the Nameless One away -- and kept her away by determinedly counting mathematical tables -- until I dropped into a fitful sleep.

I awoke with a headache, but felt disinclined to seek relief in my bottle of ILW tablets. I could work even as my head throbbed and we had to go easy on our medical supplies; the truly sick might be in dire need of them someday.

Crossing the camp after breakfast, a delegation -- a mob, really -- engulfed me. I demanded to know what was on their minds and it became clear that Lowry's transformation had shocked them out of their wits. They had abandoned hope of defeating the phenomenon and demanded leave to abandon the camp, to escape from whatever had us in its sights.

I tacitly reminded them that our detached parties had suffered separate transformations and going a hundred kilometers hadn't helped the situation one iota. I speculated that it might be a planet-wide phenomenon.

"Maybe not!" shouted a ring leader. "We can go out a thousand kilometers! Two thousand! You can stay behind with the women if you want!"

Their faces were like strangers.' Terror could turn otherwise sensible men violent, and so I maneuvered them, bleeding off a little pressure before it caused a blow-up.

"You may be right, soldier," I admitted impatiently. "I'll consider your proposal. If there's really a consensus for this, we should make it the first order of business at the next staff meeting. Just remember that detachment is a major undertaking, and it may have ramifications you men haven't considered. We can't approach such a serious matter slap-dash."

They didn't trust me, but they were as yet unwilling to call me a liar. Now that the situation had calmed, I pushed my way through the crowd, even yet half-expecting a blow from behind. But the men hadn't worked themselves up to outright mutiny as yet. Even so, that ugly outcome lay around the corner and, unless I played my bad cards very carefully, we were in for trouble. It wasn't lost on me that this was the first serious challenge to my authority and knuckling under to it would go a long way toward ending my ability to command.

Moreover, I firmly believed that flight would be counter-productive. When men were transformed along the trail of flight, what would the panicky mob of refugees do? Flee and leave the poor devils behind, to wake alone, traumatized and lost? Transformees needed watching, tending. Had we fallen so low? Was it dog eat dog now? Devil take the hindmost? Where was the esprit de corps of the proud 54th? How could our band of brothers turn against one another even in these bad straits?

Given my headache and gloomy state, I was much less than my best when Dr. Lowry paid me a visit.

I had not been expecting this call. It had only been three days since her transformation, much too soon for a transformee to throw off her trauma. While Sebastian lay asleep on her cot, her face had been serene and my sympathy had gone out to her; now those same features were tense and hard.

"How are you, Doc?" I inquired evenly. It was strange calling this woman "Doc." Despite everything my mind knew to be true, my instincts read her as a stranger.

"I'm fine," Lowry informed me tonelessly. "This shape will take getting used to, naturally, but I've got work to do and I can't worry about it."

"You've been through hell, Doc," I said. "You don't have to do anything before you're ready."

"Don't fuss, Major!" she fired back.. "A man, a woman. What of it? Two arms, two legs, a head. There's not that much difference. The breasts get in the way, of course, and it's inconvenient having to drop one's pants to piss, but half the human race gets along that way, so I can, too."

I wasn't so sure. I thought that the doctor was repressing and psychology warned that repression isn't good. Then again, I was no psych. Was it possible that Lowry was showing the very resilience that I had hoped for? I doubted that -- I even doubted that my caller was really Sebastian. She might still be a competent doctor -- in fact I prayed that she was -- but I could not convince myself that this edgy woman had anything to do with the cool, phlegmatic man of warmth and humor whom I had known for several months and only just begun to know well.

"If you really want to go back to work, you may," I told her. "But remember, doctors make the worst patients. If the going gets too hard, don't push. Knock off and let Drew take over. The company needs its doctor at h--, uh, his best."

Her chin jutted up. "You can't hurt me with pronouns, Major. I'll be fine."

Would she? Stress lines were clearly written into her cover girl features and I detected a neurotic tremble in her eyelids. The strain bottled inside the physician was betrayed at the corners of her grimly-set mouth.

With misgivings, I consented to her request and my visitor let herself out. Watching Lowry go, stepping along awkwardly in her huge shoes and baggy, over-long trousers, I was bothered that my former friend had only addressed me by rank during her visit and not by name. It had put distance between us and distance hurt. But her distance was merely a reflection of my own. Lowry was tormented, anyone could see that, and I doubted that she could be productive. Then again, work might be the best therapy -- just as it had been for Hitchcock and Marduke.

I had to talk to Drew. There was no one else close enough to Sebastian to give me worthwhile advice.

* * * *

Chapter 3

*Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.* AS YOU LIKE IT

The medic, Alan Drew, had had Dr. Lowry's confidence for at least as long as I'd known him. Drew also impressed me as sharp and competent. We threshed out the subject of Dr. Lowry, though the private would only reluctantly discuss his superior.

"I'm worried," he admitted. "She's pretending that she's all right, but she's -- not."

"Of course Lowry's not all right," I said. "But can't she work through this better than -- than most of the others? She's a doctor after all."

He shook his head. "She's not that different from the rest of us. What is it that you want me to do, sir?"

"Keep an eye on her. If she becomes a danger to herself or starts committing unacceptable medical blunders, you're the man best able to judge."

"If she suspects that I'm spying, it will poison our working relationship."

"It's not spying; it's evaluation and observation. For now, I want you to watch her, listen to what she says. If she needs moral support, be there for her. You're good with -- these people. I've seen it."

"Thank you, Major, but it's no trick handling transformees. People have to remember that they're human and respond best when treated that way." He paused then, but his face told me he had something else to say.

"Yes, private?" I urged.

He sent me a sober glance and plunged: "I had an idea that I wanted to share with Dr. Lowry, but in her present state of mind, I don't know when I'll be able to broach it with her."

"What is it?"

"I'm thinking of a support group."

"A support group? For the transformees? Who'd be in it?"

"There's about a hundred and thirty transformees now. Some seem to be settling down and facing up to what's happened to them. I think the time has come when they can start helping one another."

His proposal made sense. In fact, that had been my idea when I put Hitchcock and Marduke together. "You may be right, Drew," I said. "Any specific recommendations?"

"Why don't we put the most recovered transformees together in a work group of their own and have them barrack together, too. They couldn't help but start talking and working through their problems."

"We should take this idea to Lowry," I suggested. "This sort of thing has to be her call and unless I relieve her, we can't go over her head. But if she agrees, we'll put the recovering transformees with Marduke and Hitchcock, and transfer them to some sort of useful detail."

Working together, we listed a dozen women who had ceased to be basket cases, including Halder and Capt. Ames.

"Ames is still having a rough time," I said, "and Hitchcock and Marduke would be hard-put to deal with her if she flew off the handle and started pulling rank. We'll have to give our unit leaders the medical authority to keep her in line."

"I agree, sir."

I regarded Drew with some annoyance, unsure whether to reprimand him or not for his chirpy reply. I wasn't used to having privates sign off on my recommendations, but neither did I want to wear the proverbial chip and reprimand him on insufficient grounds. Drew was irreplaceable, and dressing him down wouldn't be a good way to kick off our new project. My head aching, I let the matter go.

Drew and I did present the project to Lowry a little later -- and a surreal experience that turned out to be! She either didn't understand or didn't care what we were talking about. Since it was clear that I wanted it, however, the doctor simply shrugged and delegated the implementation to Drew. That was the best we could get under the circumstances and so I started issuing orders.

The women on our list formed a furniture-making detail, since all the huts were in grave need of bunks, tables, and chairs. My greatest misgivings concerned Ames; the captain would be expected to work like an enlisted man supervised by privates. That couldn't sit well with her but, as it turned out, it never came to that.

#

The matter of the unrest was too important to ignore any longer. My staff meeting later that day considered suppressing the panicky men by force, but nobody was too keen on that. It would be like putting bottled explosives on the shelf. If the malcontents weren't allowed to leave by daylight, they'd probably decamp at night; we had no means to hold so many troopers determined to go AWOL. We hadn't even built a brig yet and it would be a bad idea to turn so many workers into imprisoned drones even if it were possible. It had to be better to lance the boil early and therefore I was willing to detach the restive men, thinking that once they realized that they couldn't escape the transformation plague by flight, they'd have no recourse but to return more tractable.

I placed my senior captain, Ted Crawford, in charge and appointed Lt. Morrow to assist him. The officer's orders were to discover whether any geographical limit to the phenomenon existed and, if not, to persuade the detachees to return.

I assembled the entire muster the next day and recounted the situation as I saw it, reiterating my doubts and my concern for the soldiers who would be transformed along the march. I assured the assembled men that if every reasonable precaution were taken to humanely care for casualties, I would not oppose the division of the unit.

In conclusion I said, "This is the only detachment we will be making. If you stay, it will be because you are committed to stick it out and obey your officers! If that isn't your intention, I recommend that you go with the others." Then, drawing a bayonet, I drew a line in the dirt. "Anyone who wants to join the detachment, step across this line."

The soldiers were looking at one another, muttering between themselves. Finally, fifty-three of them, a tenth of our number, crossed over. This included a disproportionate number of fleet techs, which was to be expected -- the new men had not as yet melded properly into our battle group. It bothered me that there were so many who were willing to go; it made me feel like a failed William B. Travis. It hurt that a handful of dirt-poor Texas sod-busters had shown more backbone in the hour of danger than dozens of former fire-eaters from the 54th. But the men of the Alamo faced only annihilation, not womanhood, and so I suppose that fact made all the difference.

"All right," I said, "now we'll need additional personnel to accompany the detachment as orderlies. It will be the duty of such soldiers to care for any transformees along the way and, as long as it remains feasible, return them to us here."

There was a good turnout of volunteers for this duty, including Hitchcock, Marduke, and several of the women whom Drew and I had been considering for our detail. The truth is, I couldn't accept as many willing people as offered themselves. In all, seventy-six men -- soldiers -- were detached. At my request, Private Drew led the auxiliaries and would remain with the detachment for as long as possible -- just a few days, we thought. The camp needed him too much to permit a longer absence, since Dr. Lowry remained an uncertain commodity.

Through the next day, Crawford and Morrow worked hard organizing and equipping their detachment. We hoped that the separation would be temporary but, in the meantime, the camp would be well rid of the panicky element.

We continued to lose our usual complement of men -- including Lipkin, who, ironically, was to be one of the detachees, and also -- in a heavy blow to our command structure, Captain Tritcher.

Interestingly, Tritcher, who had been black, returned to us as a very fine-boned and pale-skinned elfin blonde. If it were not for their dog tags, I wouldn't have known which soldier was which. As this was the first occasion of a race change accompanying a sex change, I asked Lowry for an opinion, but she proved to be uninterested and unhelpful. To my mind, though, Tritcher seemed to be the exception that proved the rule -- what was happening depended on a man's psychology, not his physiology.

Lowry had been dismayingly perfunctory in her examination of the latest transformees. Maybe this routine was becoming old stuff to her -- or maybe, more disturbingly, it amounted to further evidence of her distressed state. I offered a careful nudge to remind her of her duty:

"You've been through this, Sebastian," I remarked. "Can't you give these men advice to help them along?"

"I don't have advice for anyone, Major," she shrugged.

So blunt, so cold. I missed the old Lowry a great deal just then.

As I started to leave, I caught sight of a book of Shakespeare's plays lying on the table. "Your book, Doctor?"

"No, Drew's."

I picked it up. In high school and college, I'd read most of Shakespeare's plays. Unfortunately, during my army career, I had been much more likely to peruse Clausewitz or Fuller. I opened the volume to a random page and glanced at a line spoken by Petruccio in "The Taming of the Shrew:

"I am peremptory as she proud-minded; And where two raging fires meet together They do consume the thing that feeds their fury: Though little fire grows great with little wind, Yet extreme gusts will blow out fire and all: So I to her and so she yields to me; For I am rough and woo not like a babe."

"Say!" I exclaimed. "Couldn't we put on a play for the camp? It might be therapeutic."

"Therapy is my department, Major," Lowry informed me, nervelessly, like a machine. "-- And that reminds me. When you sent away my medic, you doubled my workload."

"I thought they needed him out there. Besides, he'll be back in a few days."

"Will he? Or will I have another useless, traumatized woman for a patient?"

I put down the book and left the infirmary without another word.

#

Daily, I noted the names of the vanished men and new transformees in my log. Every day more names; we were like a flock of sheep with the farmer coming for two of us each day with the gelding knife. I had never felt so helpless. We were fighting men with nothing to fight. We couldn't understand this assault; we couldn't run from it -- though we were still, futilely, trying to fight, understand, and run simultaneously.

The departure of the detachment left a need for considerable reorganization, especially in reshuffling the squads and work details. After a light supper, feeling restless, I went outside to pace around the perimeter under the light of Klink's twin moons, working off my depressed state.

The planet was beautiful, especially on nights like this one -- moonlight, the aroma of the vegetation, the trilling calls of the night-flyers, the wind in the trees, and a hundred little pipes, croaks, and squawks -- most of whose makers we still had not identified. At first, we had been too busy to care, and then too preoccupied to think about our surroundings. Would we ever have the presence of mind to enjoy the simple things? Maybe when we were all --

I forced that thought out of my mind.

I continued my walk, my ears alert to the tranquilizing evening sounds. Suddenly, I heard a sound that didn't fit -- it was coming from the infirmary, which fact set me on special alert. I drifted in that direction and the sound resolved itself into sobbing. At first, I assumed it was either Tritcher or Lipkin, but then remembered that both had been moved out and placed under their respective suicide-watches. Who was still in the infirmary crying as if in deep pain? I poked my head inside and realized that the weeping came from Lowry's room. Crossing to it, I put my ear to the door.

Yes, it was Lowry's sobbing. I heard her mutter a few distinct words, "God", "Please," and "Why?"

There was that damnable question again -- "Why?"

Sebastian, emotionally at least, was in distress. I nearly knocked, but something stopped me. I didn't want to get involved in something so personal. I hadn't been asked to help and I was no psychologist, no clergyman, and not good at consolation even as a layman. In fact, my attempts to support Sebastian over the last few days had been rebuffed harshly. What should I do? Try to hold hands with my old poker buddy? Have her cry on my shoulder? She'd throw me out in a second!

But there was more to it than the fear of rebuff. To give proper solace, the comforter has to be at peace himself and, at that moment, I was empty; I had nothing to offer. Worse, I couldn't shake the idea that it wasn't really Lowry behind that door, but someone different, a stranger, with whom I had never felt any connection.

I don't remember making a decision to go but, the next thing I knew, my legs were carrying me away, stepping so softly that my boots couldn't be heard over my friend's subdued sobbing.

#

I dreamed of Olson's grave again that night, but this time a new name and epitaph was cut into her marker. It read, "Sebastian Lowry, physician. A good man and a good friend."

I awoke in a cold sweat. What had I done? Had I been insane? The doctor was in no condition to be left alone! I thrust my legs into my trousers, ran bare-footed to the infirmary, and, not pausing to knock, shoved open Lowry's door.

She lay there curled up on the bed, still fully clothed. On the floor nearby lay a syringe; I stared at it, then at her. Sebastian didn't move, didn't seem to be breathing. I plunged forward and turned her over.

Startled, the woman's eyes opened. "Rupe?!" she gasped," -- Wha?"

"Are you all right, Doc? I thought --"

What relief! I had thought for an instant that she was dead, and didn't dare explain.

Lowry said nothing for a moment, just rested on her side, her eyes closed. Then she whispered, "It started coming out last night."

"What did?"

"The grief, the fear -- the loss of identity. The impossibility of facing this alone."

"I'm sorry," I said, my mouth dry, without daring to say exactly why I was sorry.

She shook her head. "I thought I was fine, but I wasn't. I was numb. When the shock wore off, the pain almost killed me."

I glanced at the hypodermic on the floor. "I almost killed myself," she whispered.

"W-What's in that thing?"

"Dicorahylaminophen. Instant death."

"Doc!"

Her head fell back upon the pillow. "I felt useless. I couldn't help anyone, I couldn't even help myself!" She let out a short, bitter laugh. "And, I wasn't all that keen on being a girl for the rest of my life."

She kept laughing, skirting the edge of hysteria, then began reciting, "There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead... when she was good... when she was good...!" Sebastian closed her eyes.

I took her hand between mine and pressed it reassuringly. Lowry blinked at me and whispered, "Rupe, I was alone last night, more alone than I've ever been. I desperately needed to talk to someone; there was nobody, and I guess I went kind of crazy."

I glanced away. I almost asked her why she hadn't talked to me, but I didn't have the right.

"I nearly went to see you," she whispered, "but I had my pride, I guess. I'd been treating you so badly that I couldn't stand to eat crow. That left me with no one to talk to except myself and the room. They both agreed I should kill myself. But I suddenly realized that I was talking to God, too. I told Him that this was too much for me -- that if He couldn't bring me back, he had to take away the misery and the pain, because if He didn't, it was going to kill me and -- and -- well -- I didn't really want to die!" She glanced at the hypodermic on the floor and winced.

I squeezed her hand. "God or no God, you made it through, Doc. You're a strong SOB and you're going to be fine after this."

"I don't know. I hope so."

"I'll get Mason to stay with you, or somebody else if you don't like him -- until you're yourself again. It won't be hard to get someone to stay with you. You've made a lot of friends."

She squeezed my fingers. "If I have, you're the best of them."

I sat there, suddenly unable to look into her face.

"There was a voice," Lowry went on.

"An audio hallucination?"

She laughed. Sebastian Lowry had always been a man of faith. That fact was not always obvious because he disliked sparring with skeptics.

"What did the voice say, Doc?"

"That I had to be brave. That this was the beginning of a new life for me, and while it would be different, it wasn't going to be bad. The voice called it a rebirth."

"Well, we've called it worse things."

"I guess that must have been a dream!" She said that without much conviction.

"Anything else?"

Sebastian suddenly sat up. "Yes. The voice told me that there's a reason for what's been happening -- and that we'll soon know it!"

"Don't worry about voices, Doctor. It wasn't real."

"But you don't understand, Rupe! -- The fear went away as soon as the voice spoke."

I was glad that Lowry was feeling better without giving much credence to her mystical experience. I'll say just this -- a dose of religion is a lot better than a shot of dicorahylaminophen in the arm.

Lowry eased herself against me, letting her head rest on my chest; automatically I put my arm on her back. Suddenly she seemed so much like any other emotionally-exhausted woman that it jolted me. I never supposed her gesture was sexual, but it definitely made me uncomfortable.

The doctor grew sleepy while I held her until, finally, I eased her back to the pillow and threw a sheet over her. The peaceful, innocent look, the one which I had seen on her first morning as a woman, had come back.

I waited by her bedside after that, hoping that Sebastian had defeated her personal demon and could start the climb back. There were many others who had much further to go than her. But I had a long way to go myself before I could be the sort of man or the commander that Lowry believed me to be.

#

Rawson and Lt. Chih were transformed a couple days later, with Rawson coming out like a star-club lap dancer, and Chih in possession of that delicate, toy-like beauty that Oriental taste esteems. I knew Rawson's friends and so quickly found her a suicide-watch. With a little inquiry, I found someone for Chih, too. Her new watcher was Zeev Yadin, a transformee whom Chih had himself stood by through some bad days and nights. Now she wanted to return the favor. Yadin seemed highly motivated and so, for the first time, I risked putting a traumatized soldier under the care of a transformee. Possibly, nursing a friend would be a better application of Yadin's time than making furniture.

That afternoon more disappearances, the next morning more women. It went on and on. In fact, it worsened. The third day after the departure of the detachment, Halder and Ames returned leading two more transformees. These had been the privates Stark and Big Bear. They hadn't gotten far before the curse of Klink caught them.

As it turned out, I was impressed by Ames' manner when she reappeared. The captain seemed to have finally emerged from her depression and, after a debriefing, I let her resume a sort of limited duty. If she did well, I intended to make her officer for what I was mentally calling the "women's battalion."

The following day Hardy and Marduke staggered in with two more transformees. The next day Hitchcock and Roberts returned with another pair.

Now that Hitchcock and Marduke were back, I talked to them about the support-group idea, explaining that it meant training the recovering transformees as carpenters. Marduke had been on the furniture-crafting detail before her transformation and so would make a competent instructor. They accepted the assignment with interest and good grace.

Drew and a man named Cotts were the last auxiliaries to return with transformees. Drew reported that the detachment was now too far away for any more traumatized transformees to be sent back. It appeared that Crawford and Morrow intended to continue on with the remaining group of 59 until they won clear or it became obvious to all that distance alone could not stop the transformations.

Evenings had become a mere hiatus between daily crises -- afternoon disappearances and morning discoveries. I suffered from frequent headaches which Lowry diagnosed as stress-related. Oftentimes, these were accompanied by nausea and I would vomit and afterwards lay enervated for more than an hour. I was recuperating from one such debilitating episode when the doctor visited me. She seemed to have something on her mind.

"What's the trouble, Doc?" I asked warily.

"All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl," she recited wanly. "I could use a game of cards, Rupe."

Sebastian was wearing her hair differently, I noticed -- not just shoved back over her shoulders and neglected, but combed and tied in a ponytail. Good grooming was a sign of a positive state of mine, of course, but I wondered why more transformees didn't cut their hair short.

"What's your game?" I asked.

She dragged a chair up to my desk. "Five card stud."

I took the pack of cards from my footlocker and shuffled them carefully. We had to be reverential regarding our cards, since playing with makeshifts, as we would be forced to do in the not-too-distant future, would not be half as much fun.

"I've missed our poker games, Rupe," Sebastian remarked suddenly, then added more pointedly, "I've missed the friendship that we used to have, too."

"We're still friends!" I reassured her emphatically. "If I've done anything to make you think otherwise -- well, it's this pressure!" I put the deck down. She cut.

"There's more to it than that," Lowry said, "but it's to be expected. I realize I don't look like the same person, don't sound like the same person, and I'm so knotted inside that I don't even act like the same person."

"You're the same. You have to be."

"Well, I suppose that's true," she shrugged. "-- Okay, deal 'em."

We played hand after hand.

After a while, Sebastian got around to talking about things that bothered her. It seemed strange to be thinking of my old friend as a "she" -- especially now that Lowry was speaking and behaving more like herself -- himself.

"It's that sense of violation that gets you down," she said, with a grimace. "I've never been raped, but it's got to be a lot like what I feel."

"Where do you go from here?" I asked delicately.

She shook her head, causing her ponytail to jiggle; the gesture would have been charming coming from a girl back home. "I suppose I'll get used to it," the physician said. "Life goes on. I wonder if this planet has more tricks up its sleeve."

"I sure hope it doesn't," I remarked with heartfelt sincerity.

* * * *

Chapter 4

*Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.* THE TEMPEST

One card session went a long way toward repairing our estrangement. Sebastian popped in the next day, but it wasn't to play poker.

"Pvt. Hitchcock is pregnant," she announced with a straight face.

I scowled across my desk at her. "Are you sure, Doc?"

"Even an army doctor could diagnosis this, Rupe."

"How did it happen?"

"The usual way. -- And it must have happened a couple weeks before she went off with the detachment."

"Roberts?"

She nodded.

"That fool! I'll --"

"Easy, Rupe. Hitchcock asked me not to let you go after Roberts. This sort of thing has to be expected; put men and women together in a subtropical paradise and, abracadabra, you get babies. It's called the facts of life."

"This is insane! It's against the rules!"

She shrugged. "We've been writing new rules every day?"

"Of course, but for crying out loud -- a baby! -- Well, it can be fixed, I suppose. No doubt Hitchcock wants an abortion."

"I'm not as sure as you are."

"What do you mean?"

"It was a very confused young woman who left my office a little while ago. She needs time to sort this thing out. She has to talk to the father, of course. Those two don't need a commanding officer putting his two cents into what is probably the most important conversation of their lives."

"I have responsibilities, Sebastian!"

"Parents have responsibilities, too, and they're important ones."

"What are you driving at?"

"I'd like you to go slow on this, Rupe. You've got to understand the kind of emotional bond they have. Roberts helped bring Hitchcock out of the lowest psychological hell that a person can sink to. Looking back, I don't find it all that surprising that they did what they did."

"What would you recommend?!" I inquired annoyedly. With my other problems, I didn't need Sebastian acting like the garden-variety know-it-all woman.

She set her features into a thoughtful moue. "I think the best thing is to do nothing for a while. Roberts and Hitchcock are going to be padding through hell for the next few days, even if you don't get on their case."

"Damn! -- Who would have believed this? -- Or do I sound too naive?"

She put her palms on my desk and leaned forward. "We were both naive. Up to now I've been thinking that transformation was limited to physical changes. Now I'm not sure."

"I don't like the sound of this, Doc."

"Do you think I do?" She looked me right in the eye. "-- Rupe, do I seem different to you."

I gave a short laugh. "You sure do! You look --"

"I don't mean the way I look. Do I behave differently."

"I don't know. You've been through a lot. You're still Sebastian -- I know that much."

"Well, I hope I am. But I've been thinking a few things lately that I'm sure Sebastian wouldn't."

"What?"

"Like, for instance, about how nice these yard dogs around here would look in formal suits."

"Forget it, Doc. There's obviously more in your head than black ties."

"Yes, but what if there's been an overwriting of certain files in our personality, while the rest of the program stays the same? What else could explain a guy like Hitchcock accepting a male lover so quickly?"

"How do you explain Roberts?"

She shot me a painful grin. "If it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, walks like a duck. . . ."

I was getting another headache. "I hope you're wrong," I said weakly. "I really do."

"I wouldn't be surprised if this thing doesn't go way beyond Hitchcock and Roberts."

"We can't let that happen!"

"Don't overreact, Major. It may not be so bad."

"Not bad? This is an army camp! Can you imagine having it full of babies crying day and night! Soldiers tied down caring for them?"

She shook her head. "What are soldiers for, Rupe, except to protect the families back home? I had a family, and frankly, it kills me to think that I'll never see them again -- especially the kids. If you'd ever been a father, you'd know that there's a lot more to babies than crying. There's magic in every one of them; you have to experience it to understand. -- And, anyway, the situation is only temporary."

"What's temporary?" I asked warily.

"Babies grow to be men and women. Think of them as future recruits."

"This isn't funny!"

"The day we stop laughing, is the day we'll go crazy, Rupe. How can you prevent people from getting together? -- Do you really think we should?"

"I don't follow you."

"All I'm saying is that there were families before there were armies. There were communities before there were military camps, and the world got along fine."

"We call that the Old Stone Age, Doc! And we're not a community. We're -- Oh, hell, I'm out of my depth. I'd like to knock some heads, but I've never hit a pregnant woman in my life!"

She leaned forward resolvedly. "We have to talk to the men, Rupe -- the men of both sexes -- and let them know that from now on actions are going to have consequences. If soldiers are going to be choosing partners, they have to expect children -- and they'll have to take responsibility for them."

"That's leading us into a quagmire, Doc. Go too far in and we won't be a military unit anymore."

"What else can we do? Forbid sexual liaisons? That's like forbidding alcohol or stimmers at an army base. You know how much good prohibition does when it gets in the way of basic needs. And here you're talking about an addiction that's older than alcohol, and a whole lot older than stimmers."

"What about contraception?"

"No got. I could do tubal ligations and vasectomies, but don't expect me to force anything like that on unwilling patients -- And, really, the problem will probably take care of itself in a couple months. Considering our rate of transformation, there soon won't be anyone left to --"

She couldn't miss the pain that came to my eyes. "Sorry, Major."

#

I called a staff meeting and had Dr. Lowry explain the problem. After a lot of uncomfortable officers mumbled out their opinions, I told them we'd be treating Hitchcock's condition as a medical problem not requiring discipline. In fact, I thought we ought to consider her condition a kind of discipline in and of itself. After that, I called a muster and had Dr. Lowry, for the third time, explain the situation. She warned the troops that sexual relationships were not recommended for the obvious reason that they carried very important, very long-term consequences. Even while I watched it, I thought I was witnessing one of those critical moments in history that changed the outlook of entire civilizations. I could tell from the troopers' bemused reactions that none of the presumed-guilty ones had entertained the remotest thought that they might have been courting parenthood. The women looked especially thunderstruck, while the men mostly seemed irritated and cheated.

Then I stepped in to lay down the law. I told the troops that we couldn't walk blindly down the path of least resistance. It would mean physical incapacitation for some of our people for months at a time, and also diverting labor from the necessary work of survival. In conclusion, I said that all sex was forbidden until further notice, under penalty of discipline.

Lowry shook her head, clearly not in total agreement with me, while the mood of the troops seemed a mixture of disgruntlement and puzzlement. I let them fall out then and went back to my hut, wondering how I was going to enforce my order against the strongest impetus known to man -- and woman.

The next day, shortly after the noon mess, Harold Roberts stopped by my quarters.

"Sir," he explained himself stiffly, "I'd like permission to marry Pvt. Hitchcock."

"Are you trying to be funny, soldier?" I frowned.

"No, sir! Mary -- I mean, Mark and I --"

"Mary?"

"It's a nickname, sir!" he clarified himself uneasily. "It doesn't feel right calling the girl in your arms Mark."

"I suppose it's not very romantic, either."

He swallowed hard and went on: "As I was saying, sir, Pvt. Hitchcock and I have talked and we think marriage would be the best thing."

"Best for which one of you?"

"Best for the child, I mean, sir!"

"The child?" There was no child; at least not yet.

"May I speak freely, Major?"

I threw up my hands. "Please!"

"Sir, in a couple months I might be a woman myself, but I'm a man at the moment and -- well -- I want to be the man that I was brought up to be. That means doing what's right. I think I'll be able to live with myself better if I did the honorable thing now. And, besides, I'd like to have a son -- or daughter -- with my name. It's probably my only chance to be a father."

It must have been his sincerity that kept my reply moderate and measured. "I can almost understand your reasoning, soldier. But no one here has the authority to perform marriages."

"Begging the Major's pardon --" Roberts began hesitantly.

"Yes?"

"I mean to say, sir, that -- that it seems to me that any small town back home can elect a justice of the peace to perform legal marriages, so why can't we do the same?"

"We're not a town, Private," I reminded him testily, "and we don't have elections!"

"I know, sir, but I was thinking that you could -- appoint someone."

I paused, trying to make head or tail of the whole crazy situation. "I suppose we could improvise anything we had to," I adjudged, "but would our actions be legal and valid under the laws of the Alliance?"

"Sir, it seems to me that the Alliance has its problems and we have ours."

So we did. "I think I'd better talk to -- Mary," I said.

#

I walked to Hitchcock's barracks and found her commiserating with several of her transformed friends.

"At ease," I told the girls as they threw themselves into attention. Then I addressed the pregnant private: "How are you doing, Hitchcock?"

"Very well, sir!" She sounded a little shaky.

"Would you like to sit down?"

"No, sir, I'm fine. -- Just a little nauseous now and then."

"I see. Do you know that Pvt. Roberts spoke to me a few minutes ago?"

"Yes, sir."

"How do you feel about -- his idea?"

Her glance lowered. "It's my idea, too, sir. But I suppose it does sound strange."

"You could -- terminate," I suggested tactfully.

The girl jolted. "I -- I don't think I'd like that, sir."

"Many in your position would, soldier."

"I'm sure that's true, sir!"

"I'd not trying to make you do anything you don't want to," I assured her, "but are you sure you know what you're getting into?"

"No, sir, I really don't. But now that it's happened, I guess we have to make the best of it."

"You have to think of your own welfare."

She shook her head. "It isn't my welfare that's important, Major. Hal has a stake in this, too. He stood by me and helped me when I really needed somebody. I owe him something."

"Do you owe him a baby?"

"Well, sir, it's not my choice anymore. The baby is coming, and anyway, I always thought that I'd like to have a couple of kids someday. If I'm still going to be a parent, this is the way it has to be. Isn't that right, sir?"

"I suppose it is," I conceded flatly.

"There's one thing I've been concerned about, though."

"Dr. Lowry should be able to meet your pediatric needs," I assured her.

"No, it's not about the care, sir. It's about milk."

"Milk?"

"Yes. Babies need lots of milk. We don't have any and -- well, that could be bad."

The room was very quiet for a moment, then Marduke's laughter pealed. The other women caught on and they joined in.

"What's so funny?!" demanded Hitchcock. "I don't want my son to starve to death! It's not like we've got a herd of cows around here!"

"We'll have at least one cow!" cackled Marduke. "That should be enough."

Hitchcock still didn't seem to get it. My headache was coming back and so I decided to retire and let Hitchcock's ho-ho friends cue her in in their own good time. I bade the troopers good-bye and felt relieved to be out of there.

I returned to my hut and sat at my desk, wondering if I dared let the men of the 54th start marrying one another. I knew damned well that it wouldn't stop with Hitchcock and Roberts once the ball started rolling. I would have had to be a psychiatrist to lead the Group through the approaching minefield -- but I'd been trained as a soldier; that was the only life I knew. I simply had no answers for the oddball questions which cropped up daily.

And besides the new uncertainty, there was always the old certainty -- that we would have two more disappearances at any minute. Then, in the morning we'd have two more --

#

So tired. I reached to steady myself against my desk, but my arms groped empty air. I suddenly realized that I was lying on my back and opened my eyes. The ceiling seemed to be turning broad gyrations. What was wrong with me? Had I fainted and fallen to the floor? No, my groping fingers told me that there was a cot under me. Someone edged up from the side. I blinked hard; my vision was fuzzy; I could only make out a white coat.

"Rupe," she said.

Sebastian.

"Take it easy, Rupe. We'll get you through this."

"Through what?"

My voice sounded thin and resonated strangely in my chest cavity. My hand went to my throat, but instead of the Adam's apple and familiar bristle, I found soft, taut skin like I hadn't felt since my early teens.

Terror shot through me; my hands leapt to my chest --

And then I screamed!

When I next came to, Lowry had her arms around me. "Easy, Rupe! Easy! It's not as bad as it seems. I've been there. I know."

"Lowry --!" I mewed but couldn't bear to hear that alien pitch sounding from my larynx. I turned my face away, knowing that Lowry could do nothing for me and that there were no cures for this. Transformation was forever.

"It's not so bad," Sebastian reiterated urgently. "It's strange at first, but you can beat it. People are beating it every day. You're a fighter, Rupe."

I faced toward her; her face was slick with sweat and looked strained.

"If you want to shout or swear, it's all right," Lowry was saying. "Don't hold what you're feeling inside or it'll floor you. Cry if you want to. Get those emotions out. You were a human being before you ever were a commanding officer, Rupe. There's no reason to be ashamed."

"Were?" I echoed croakingly.

"You're still our commander!" she corrected herself hastily. Then she tempered her shrillness a little: "And you're more than that. You're my friend. You can depend on me to help you."

I turned into the pillow again when I suddenly realized that we were not alone. Drew was moving about the room, tending to another patient. Yes, there were always two patients, I remembered. This time I didn't want to know who the other one was. I couldn't take any more.

Suddenly, I began to wonder what I looked like. None of the other men had become ugly, but still I dreaded to see my face. My trembling fingers went to a tickle on my cheek and grasped a tuft of strange-feeling hair. It was very long, even though I 'd worn it cropped short that morning -- or what still seemed like that morning to me. I pulled the lock so I could look at its color and texture. It was black, not my familiar sandy brown. -- And it was twisted with a strong natural curl!

I screamed again, then realized that Lowry was hugging me to her breast. I didn't want to be held that way -- it wasn't the way one man should hold another -- but I couldn't focus enough to tear loose. Tears burned my eyes.

Now the Terrible Thing had happened. What was left of my life?

The answer: "Nothing."

As Sebastian cradled me, one question tormented me. Why had this happened? Why had the all-powerful, all-knowing intelligence that haunted Klink done this to me? Why had it put its godlike power so determinedly against one miserable human being, and why did it waste its incomprehensible omnipotence to destroy an insignificant nobody?

"Why?!" I sobbed, and then darkness overcame me once again.

#

I dreamed that I was standing with my back turned against an immense void which gaped behind me. I could neither run from the abyss, nor turn to confront it. I heard nothing from any direction, and saw nothing -- not even a shadow. I felt no breathing on my neck, but I knew something was there -- and very close. Suddenly. . . .

I felt wasted, hung over, and then all the horrifying memories surged back. I touched myself fearfully, hoping that my last awakening had been a nightmare, but --

Lowry squeezed my wrist. "Rest is the best thing for you now, Rupert. I know how tough it is, but we'll have you up and around in no time."

"No -- no. . . !" I mumbled, not wanting to be up and around. I wanted to escape to the darkness, lose myself in the abyss -- live and die alone -- unseen, unremembered, my bones rotting to nothingness. I wanted no grave -- I wanted nothing remaining to remind people that Rupert Breen had ever existed.

Lowry left me momentarily and returned to place a bitter drink to my lips, which I tried to reject. She was not to be refused, however, and I soon forced it down. The doctor remained faithfully by me after that, until I once more slept.

#

"What are you doing?!" Lowry demanded as I pulled on my oversized britches.

"What does it look like, Doc? I've got work to do!"

"You'll do nothing but rest! You're not fit for more!"

"You went back to the grind after three days," I reminded her.

"And that was stupidest thing I ever did. It almost killed me. It'll kill you, too!"

"I don't need a mother hen."

"You need time and rest. Yell, cry, scream, beat your fists against the wall, but don't pretend that nothing has happened! Let Capt. Philbrick run the camp for a while."

"You're saying I've got nothing left to give?"

"No, that's not it."

"What happens when Philbrick becomes a -- ?" I couldn't say it, not even now.

"Someone will step in for him. Hopefully, it will be you."

"It will be me -- and it'll be today!"

"Oh yeah? And what are you going to do when you crash? And believe me, try to fly too soon and you'll crash hard."

"I'm fine, Doctor. Get off my back!"

She shook her head. "You're the walking wounded. You're a basket case and don't even know it."

"I know what I need to know!"

She took hold of my arm. "Psychologically, you're on thin ice, Rupe. In a day or two, certainly in less than a week, it's going to break and you'll go down -- deep. Good God, don't you think I know what I'm talking about!? Have you forgotten what I almost did to myself?"

I shrugged. "I've got two arms, two legs, one head. What more do I need?"

Sebastian still held onto my sleeve. "Rupe, don't do this. I can help you. Hitchcock and Marduke can help you."

"Am I supposed to make furniture with Pvt. Hitchcock for my commander?"

"You thought it was good enough for Ames --"

"It's not good enough for me! I'd rather be dead than a laughingstock!"

"You think you can take it? Well, let's see!" Lowry picked up a mirror from the table behind her.

"What's that for?" I asked, as jumpy as if it were a gun.

"If you're really on top of this thing, you can look at your face without breaking into a cold sweat."

I shivered inwardly, remembering a time like this one, when I was a kid and my cousin had brought a horror comic home with a cover that terrified me -- the picture of an earthman turned into a hideous mutant. I couldn't look at it, and whenever I closed my eyes that ugly picture was all I could see. The next day my mother wondered why I was being difficult about going to my uncle's place and after she'd dragged me there, I wanted to stay in the kitchen. I didn't want to go to my cousin's room where his new comics were lying face-up on the dresser.

Joe was a smart guy and it didn't take him long to figure out what was spooking me. Since he was a jackass at that age, Joe wanted to see me get scared and cry. For a joke then, he dragged me into his room and made me look at his new comics. I controlled my fear and looked at the grotesque illustration, betraying nothing, pretending I didn't have a clue to explain his -- Joe's -- strange behavior. I simply said, "Yeah, what?"

Maybe I had successfully shucked him, because now he wasn't so sure that he'd read the situation right -- and since he couldn't get a rise out of me, he dropped the subject flat. Between sports and girls, he had better things to do than hang around home and torture a six-year old. But for years afterwards I always probed his box of comic books warily when trying to find something to read, unwilling to be confronted by that awful picture. Even as a teenager the sight of it still repelled me.

"Give it here," I told Dr. Lowry, taking the mirror from her hand.

Now I steeled to disassociate myself from what I would see in the mirror. It would be someone else's image, not mine. I regarded the reflection of a clear-skinned, pale Celtic face -- aquamarine eyes full of suffering, a slender neck, and heavily ringletted black hair. It was all I could do to keep my face calm and not tear away.

It was The Face, the face of the Nameless One. Her mouth was a pinkish bow; the nose small and slightly upturned.

"Yeah, what?" I remarked, as if Lowry was behaving out of her tree.

"Bullshit!" she said.

#

I kept dressing. My last belt notch would not hold up my pants. What had Shakespeare said?

"Now does he feel his title hang loose about him, like a giant's robe upon a dwarfish thief."

Why had I thought about that? I was no thief. No pretender. What I was, I was by right. Pretense had nothing to do with it!

"At least let Drew go with you," pleaded Lowry, "in case something happens."

"What could happen?" I asked irascibly.

"We could lose you, Major; we really could."

"Doctor, I need to get back to my routine or I'll --" I rephrased that: "I need to keep busy -- especially now. The men need to know that their C.O. is fit and on top of things."

"But you're not!"

Ignoring her, I started toward the door, but then suffered an anxiety attack. I suddenly wondered whether Lowry was thinking about invoking her medical authority to relieve me of command? She was my friend, and so that would be an act of incredible treachery. Even so, I couldn't trust that she wouldn't go that far, and so I walked swiftly away before she thought of it.

Once in the open air, my confidence did not stiffen as much as I'd hoped. Instead, I was afraid that my men wouldn't know me, that I would have to explain who I was, and why I claimed the right to command them. Instead, the brutal fact turned out to be that everyone knew who I was and they stared at me, especially when they thought I couldn't see. I felt like Klink's newest monster every time I returned a salute.

"Tuong," I addressed the Korean-born sergeant in my path, "where can I find Captain Philbrick?"

He seemed embarrassed; his almond eyes darted left and right, but refused to fix squarely on me. "In his quarters, I think -- sir."

That stumble at the word, "sir" and his nervous glance swept my face. Nonetheless, I tried to ignore the stare and stammer and turned toward the row of officers' huts. I found Philbrick conferring with the lieutenants Stokes and Evans. Ames was there, too, since it was her hut as much as Philbrick's.

The officers snapped to attention. "At ease. Report, Captain Philbrick," I said. "What's happened over the last three days?"

Like Tuong, Philbrick had worried eyes and tried to avoid looking directly at me. "No word from the detachees, s-sir!" There was that damnable stumble again, but the captain hurried past it. "Perhaps Dr. Lowry mentioned that Pvts. Brouwer and Marietta were -- transformed -- the day after Gonzales and --"

"And me? Yes, go on," I urged him stiffly.

"And yesterday it was Petoska and Bakshi. That makes 237 transformees our of a current muster of 475."

The report trailed off there and I sensed that the officers wanted me to go away, like a family rejecting a disgraced member. Ames' expression bothered me most. What was she feeling? Pity? Jealousy that I still presumed to command though I'd kept her on suspension? Was she smugly satisfied? Did she think I'd gotten a deserved comeuppance? Suddenly, the cramped space left me short of breath and my shoulders began to shake.

"Major -- are you all right?" queried Philbrick, raising his hands almost enough, if not quite, to take me in hand.

"Of course!" I barked, or tried to -- my reply sounded like an off-key piping. I stepped away from him, mumbling, "I need to rest. Carry on, Captain!" I turned to go.

Ames pursued me to the door. "Major Breen?"

Turning with gritted teeth, I said: "Captain Ames?"

"Sir, is there anything that I -- that I can do? Would you like to talk?"

"I don't know what you mean, soldier."

I supposed she wanted to give me a pep talk or, even worse, sympathize. My icy glare warned her off.

"I mean -- nothing, sir."

"Very good," I nodded -- and left.

* * * *

Chapter 5

*When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate.* SONNET XXIX

Back in my quarters, I opened my log book to jot down the names of the new transformees, but realized that I couldn't remember who they were. Try as I might, I couldn't organize my thoughts -- an appalling feeling, like being high on stimmers. As I sat there confused, my hands began to tremble; I dropped the pen and, trying to pick it up again, kept dropping it, until it rolled over the desk edge and fell to the floor. At that point, I gave up and let my head sink to the tabletop while I drew deep, ragged drags of air.

"Excuse me, Major Breen."

I looked up; Drew was looming in the door.

"Come in, Private," I whispered hoarsely, hunching forward to hide my quaking hands under the table.

"Dr. Lowry's asked me to look in on you."

"Lowry should worry about more important things," I grumbled.

"I don't think so, sir."

"Are you trying to be impudent, soldier?!"

"No, sir. I only mean that it's her duty to give our commanding officer all the attention he deserves."

"I don't need that much attention. And why didn't -- the doctor -- come here her -- himself?"

"I assume that she, -- he -- feels that you might feel more comfortable if your attending medic was --"

"Was what?"

"A man."

I felt stung, but didn't know why. "All right, go back and tell Dr. Lowry that you saw me, and that I'm perfectly fine!" I wanted to get rid of Drew, especially since the shaking in my hands was worsening. Did Drew realize what I was concealing? He seemed to be watching me keenly.

"Is there anything else, Private?"

"Neither the doctor nor I think that it's good for you to be alone for the next few days."

"Are you volunteering to be my suicide-watch?" I asked coldly.

"With your permission, sir."

I threw my log book at him. "Get out of here!"

Drew dodged, cast back a worried glance, and withdrew.

Instantly I regretted losing my temper. Drew would report me to the doctor and it would look bad; she might not understand the degree to which I had been provoked. The inconsequential incident might give her the excuse she needed to remove me from command, making me a patient, a virtual prisoner!

I struggled for breath. The walls felt close-in. I opened my collar, sucking down rapid breaths. My head throbbed and I was growing nauseous, weak. I staggered to the empty rations drum that served as my nighttime chamber pot where, since I had had little solid food for three days, I vomited mostly regurgitated water. The worst of the nausea soon passed, but when I could finally stand I remained very unsteady on my feet.

I thought about checking in at the infirmary, but I didn't want Lowry to see me in such a state. Another part of me wanted someone's -- anyone's -- company, but a C.O. couldn't lean on a subordinate. I hadn't been there for Lowry when she needed me. Now I was alone myself.

My headache wasn't getting better, and so I put a couple tablets of LWI in my mouth and crushed them between my teeth. The bitter chemical choking me, I staggered to my canteen and guzzled a couple mouthfuls of water. That ended the coughing and I managed the few steps to my bed, which I fell into like a statue. I drew a towel over my eyes to shut out Klink's bright noon light, wanting desperately to sleep.

Instead, I lay in a semi-trance for a long while before I heard tapping at my door. My head felt hot and tight as I gasped, "Come in."

"Major Breen!" Philbrick blurted excitedly. "One man has disappeared!"

I couldn't understand his uncharacteristic dramatics. "We expected it, didn't we, Captain?"

"Sir -- only one man has disappeared -- not two!"

"One? Are you sure?"

"I've taken roll! Every man, every transformee, has been accounted for, except Culligan."

"Why only one?" I mumbled.

"I don't know, sir! Do you suppose it means something?"

For my answer, I dropped back against my pillow and lay there in silence until he gave up and stole quietly away.

#

After a nearly-sleepless night, I rose and joined the searchers. We soon found the feminine incarnation of Marcus Culligan -- who had become a younger incarnation of Lola Carlita, a Latin sex-symbol back in the days when Culligan had been a hormonal teenager wasting his money on adult sex-sims. But why had his been the only transformation? Any change in the familiar pattern could mean something significant.

Lowry had no theory and, disappointed, I said something sharp and angry.

"This isn't like you, Rupe," she replied with an even temper. "You're driving yourself too hard. Take a break."

I didn't want sympathy; it was salt in a festering wound. I stormed out of the infirmary but I had another fit of shaking outside and so, afraid of being seen, hid in a grove of trees until I bucked up.

I had to carry on despite my nervous condition, so I decided to inspect Capt. Komisov's work. The officer filled me in on his men's latest soil and water analyses, but it was clear there were no interesting developments since the last time. Maybe that was why my mind wandered and I grew confused over details, repeating the same questions over and over.

Komisov began to eye me strangely and I grew angry. Why was everyone staring, treating me like something strange? Mine was only a physical change and it in no way affected the person I was. Half the camp had suffered what I suffered, so why should they gape? They would be women themselves in a few weeks, and it would serve them right!

I stalked furiously through the center of camp, ignoring people who tried to address me. There were many transformees among them. What were they thinking? That I was like them? Well, I wasn't!

And what about the men? Why were their expressions so strange? Did they believe that I was unfit to command? Damn them!

The trembling returned, forcing me to retreat to my hut before anyone noticed. This time I didn't reach my bed before collapsing to the floor like a stringless marionette. I crawled laboriously to the cot, covered my face with a pillow, and curled into a fetal position.

It was hours later when someone shouted "Major!" I opened my eyes and cast away the pillow. I saw that the sun had sagged low in the west.

Philbrick again.

"What is it now, Captain?!" I asked blearily.

"The disappearances --" he babbled excitedly.

"Who now?"

"No one, sir! No one!"

#

I called in my officers. Transformation had nearly halved our staff. Ames and Lowry had recovered sufficiently to join us. Of my captains, Philbrick and Komisov were still sound, but the transformed Tritcher remained on suspension, while my senior subordinate, Crawford, was absent, his fate unknown.

"What does it mean?" I demanded.

"Maybe the enemy has decided to cease his attacks, sir," conjectured Komisov.

"Why? We're as helpless as ever! This process has been as predictable as a machine until now. Why the change?"

"I've been thinking, Major. . . ," Lowry began.

"Oh, so now you're thinking?!" I mocked.

She ignored my insult and continued evenly: "The transformation yesterday brought us to 50% women and 50% percent men, with the odd individual going to the female side -- Culligan, I mean."

"Yes, yes. . . !?" I said, "what's the point?"

"Yesterday, there was only one disappearance, and today there have been none, though hours overdue."

"What are you driving at, damn it?!"

"Maybe the intelligence or force assailing us is satisfied with a sexual balance of 50-50 --" suggested the doctor.

"Why?!"

"It's just an idea but --

"But what?"

"I can only guess."

"So what's your guess?!" I asked sharply.

"It might be that unisexual communities are taboo on this planet and so it -- someone -- changed the proportion to suit his own taste."

"This isn't a community! We're a military camp!"

"Yes, sir," Sebastian humored me. "But an alien mind with godlike powers might not have cared about that. Then, again --"

"Then again, what?!"

"Then, again, this sexual balancing act might have been intended to prepare us for some specific purpose."

"We've been speculating on that since the start!"

"I'm suggesting, sir, that there may be a -- function -- that a -- group -- half male and half female might best serve -- which an all-male or all-female group couldn't satisfy."

"What purpose?"

"I was thinking about Roberts and Hitchcock."

"I don't follow, Doctor."

"It's possible that we may be expected to become a breeding population."

"Shit!"

#

I accompanied Sebastian to the infirmary, half mad with frustration. It was incredibly frustrating to realize that had I been able to win the transformation lottery for just three days more, I still would have been myself! The odds had been seven out of two-hundred and forty-five in my favor, and I lost! I lost it all, and I lost it forever!

"Major -- Rupert -- you don't look so good!" Lowry observed tactfully, placing her hand lightly on my shoulder. Not liking patronization, I pushed it away.

"Get to the point, Doctor! You think that this could be a breeding experiment?"

"It's just a guess." She gave a laugh which was both bitter and brief. "Call it woman's intuition."

"Lowry!"

"Ease up, Major. There's nothing much to do except maintain morale and make scientific observations."

"We have to show the enemy that we're not going to be guinea pigs for their fucking experiments!"

"I like the way you phrased that," my companion noted with a doleful smile.

I balled my fists. "Can't you ever be serious?"

She shrugged.

"Sex has to be absolutely forbidden," I pronounced. "I think your theory is a crock, but if it's not we can't do anything that the enemy might interpret as cooperation."

"Prohibition won't work. At least not for long."

"In this case I think it will."

She shook her head. "In a few more months, with loneliness and sexual frustration building, with the women reconciling themselves to their fate and the men feeling more secure --"

"What are you trying to say?"

"I'm saying that pairing is going to look like the path of least resistance --"

"Damn it Lowry --" My voice cut off.

"Major, what's wrong?"

I started to shake -- and this time Lowry was right there, taking it in.

The spell was bad, very bad. I sank to my knees, my vision a field of spots; the air shimmered with them until I covered my eyes. The next thing I knew I was in bed, fighting to rise.

"Lie down, Rupe! You blacked out. You're not well!"

"Like hell I'm not!" I slipped around her and scrambled to my feet. Sebastian stood back and faced off with me, her mouth tight and her glance determined.

"I've been derelict, Major. I let you subject yourself to pressures which are obviously too great for your condition. You need rest, you need quiet. You have to go on medical leave."

"Don't say any more!"

"I have no choice but to relieve you, Rupe. I'll tell Philbrick to take command until you're on your feet."

"I'm on my feet already!"

"Face the facts! You're wound so tight that your spring is about to break. It's to be expected. You've changed into your favorite sex fantasy and it's driving you crazy."

"Don't call me crazy, Doctor!"

She paused and I sensed wheels turning behind her worried, fashion-model features. "Are you willing to take the mirror test again!"

"Are you still on that kick? Go ahead! I could look into it all day because I know the face I see isn't mine and it doesn't mean a thing to me."

"It's your face -- and it'll be yours for the rest of your life. If you're still pretending otherwise, your disconnection is worse than I thought!" She placed her hand behind my back and nudged me toward the infirmary "mirror" -- a polished metal sheet suspended on the wall.

"Look," she said.

I didn't want to, but I had toughed out this rubbish before and could do it again. Confronting the reflection, I saw the Nameless One for the second time, but she was an even worse mess now! -- her hair in snarls, her complexion sallow, dark rings lined her eyes, and her expression resembled a beaten dog's. That big slouching cap looked ridiculous and her sagging, over-sized uniform suggested a sickly child.

"If you wouldn't let yourself go, you'd be a lovely woman," observed Lowry with a hint of acidity.

"Don't say that!" I rebuked her, trying to turn away from the mirror. She suddenly clamped her hands on my shoulders and directed me face-front again.

"She's a very pretty woman, you know. But what makes her tick?"

"That's none of your damned business!"

"Maybe I can guess. Is she into filmy negligees and hot tubs or isn't she? Bikinis and volleyball at the beach? Scandalous doings in ski cabins? She's the kind of girl you've always wanted, isn't she?"

"I said --!"

"I know what you said, and you're not being honest! Tell me what you know about that girl."

"I don't know anything. She doesn't exist!"

"If a dick like you dreamed her, she must be good at only one thing."

Furious, I tried to tear away, but Sebastian twisted my arm behind my back, hard enough to give me pain.

"Lowry! Are you nuts?!"

"You're going to look at yourself until you can talk calmly about who and what that girl represents, or until you admit that you're not fit for command."

I could have slammed my boot heel into my tormentor's shin and broke her hold, but it was crazy to come to physical blows with my attending physician. Even so, I felt another surge of panic and closed my eyes.

"Come on, Rupe, describe her. Can she carry on a conversation, or is she a total airhead who does her best talking on her knees? What does she wear to bed? Does she like to sleep naked? Does she like men?"

"What are you doing, Lowry?!" I gnashed.

"I'm introducing you to yourself. You two are going to be shacked up together for a lifetime, and you're going to have to make friends."

"Damn you, bitch!"

I struggled in earnest and the doctor did her best to hold me. I didn't want to hurt Lowry, but I had to stop her mouth, stop her from talking about things that I couldn't bear to hear.

"Lowry, let me go or I'll kill you --"

"Sure! And you're crazy enough to kill innocent people. No one would hang you for it; you're certifiable! That's why I can't let you go, Rupe. You're a danger to yourself; and you could be a danger to other people, too."

With a shriek, I put my foot against the wall and pushed, throwing her back. She fell against a table and I whirled, ready to tear at her with my bare hands. But I didn't see the scornful face of a foe -- just the stunned, worried expression of a physician and friend whose desperate, improvised treatment had failed.

But what sort of treatment had it been?

"I'm sorry, Rupert," she began haltingly. "Sometimes you have to re-break a fracture to set it right --"

I wasn't listening. I was no longer violent, but was beginning to tremble again. I had to get away.

I staggered to the door like a drunkard and stumbled outside.

"Rupert! Don't go!" Lowry cried behind me.

I walked swiftly away, with only the tattered rags of my dignity preventing me from running blindly.

Once out of Sebastian's sight, out of everyone's sight, I raced wildly away. I didn't know where I was running until I saw the foot of Woolenska's Bluff ahead, and knew to what fate my legs were carrying me.

#

Somehow I climbed the rocky incline -- sometimes clambering on all fours. I didn't see the way ahead; all I could see was the face of a snarled-haired girl with unhealthily circled, aquamarine eyes. I tried my strength to its limit -- the strength of this woman's body. From time to time, sheer exhaustion forced me to lie belly-down on the sun-heated stones to catch my breath. Whether such pauses were long or short, I didn't register.

Then, lungs burning, limbs aching, I rose and pressed on. I found myself high over the camp, which looked small and orderly, like rows of toy huts in a child's sandbox. I was possessed of a strange detachment. What was the camp to me? A place. The camp was no one's home -- certainly not mine.

I peered into the powder-blue sky, piled high with cumulus clouds like ice-cream castles. Where was my home? Where did I belong?

The truth was I had no home -- only a place, a job, a duty. Without my place, without my duty, I was nothing. If I died now, who would regret it?

A foolish thought. To the 54th, Major Rupert Breen was already dead even if he lingered where he no longer belonged, like Jacob Marley's ghost. But unlike Marley, he didn't have anything wise to contribute, no knowledge of how to live a better life. Maybe it was time to lay the ghost, to go where the dead belonged. Let no one fret over my grave; let no one be sorry that I was gone.

I inched my way up the incline and, finally, dragged myself onto the table rock at the summit of Woolenska's Hill. Utterly spent, lungs aflame, my breath came in hot pants. I shoved a mass of greasy snarls out of my face and rested my forehead on the warm bedrock.

Suddenly I felt ashamed. What was I doing here? Was I going to kill myself? Others had found the courage to endure -- Ames, Lowry, Hitchcock, Marduke. Was I like Woolenska, giving up, or Olson, too distraught to reason? Was I a coward?

Warm teardrops pattered the dirty hands on which my chin rested.

Tears!

I could die, and gladly, but not as a weeping, hysterical woman!

Self-pity didn't lighten my grief one bit. Lowry had reached out to comfort me, as Drew had, but my pride couldn't accept compassion. My body again quaked, this time with hard, choking sobs.

I rose to my feet at last and all around me trees, bushes, and boulders whirled as if I suffered from vertigo. My legs were weak, aching from the climb; I had demanded much from this skinny body, but my demands were over. I understood what I must do. Sucking a raw breath to energize famished lungs, I staggered toward the overlook --

-- The overlook from which Herbert Woolenska had launched himself into eternity. . . .

* * * *

Chapter 6

*Would I were dead! if God's good will were so; For what is in this world but grief and woe?* KING HENRY VI, Part III

As I inched closer to the brink, I sank down on hands and knees. Why did I bother? Was I afraid of falling to my death? What else had I intended? But the desire to live is a terrible, tenacious thing, and it takes all of human will to suppress it, even for a moment.

I cast one more look at the world, supposing it would be my last. Rocky pinnacles and forests rose as far as the eye could see, hills and ridges stretching jaggedly to the horizon, dwarfing the little bluff to which Woolenska had given his name. The familiar earth- and vegetation-colors, softened by haze in the distance, make the landscape resemble a painting by a Nineteenth-Century master.

I gazed at the broken rubble on which I would fall, blinking away the blur of saltine tears. I regarded the graveyard with its two tiny markers, the ground where Olson and Woolenska lay -- and where I, too, must lie tomorrow. No one was to blame for that -- nothing except blind fate, and my own lack of courage.

Tears had cast a veil over my sight and mucus filled my nose. I wanted to live, and I wanted to die, but could only do one or the other. I couldn't go back, nor did I desire to explore what lay ahead. My emotions, pent up for so long, ran from me like a rushing stream. I again sank to the stones, lying belly-flat against the ledge, cradling my head on my forearms. I could still see the place where I would die. . . .

#

Suddenly, behind me, I heard the gravel crunch.

"Easy, Major," said a man. "Don't move."

I glanced back. Drew! I felt horrified that he should see me so -- face wet, nose running, eyes red and swollen. The medic looked rough-used himself, sweat-soaked, winded, his stride slow and lame, as if he had come far without once pausing to rest.

"Careful, Major. Please. -- Come back from there. It's a long way down."

He was talking to me as if I were a child -- or a woman! Again I felt the wild impulse to throw myself over the dizzying drop.

Drew inched closer, fearing, I supposed, that any sudden move on his part would make me take wing like a frightened pigeon.

"Don't come any closer!" I commanded.

He paused to extend his hand to me, a hand gray with calciferous silt, and red where he had cut his knuckles climbing.

"That's an order, solider!" I yelled.

Lowering his arm, he said, "Then you'll have to come to me, Major Breen."

"Return to the camp, Drew. I want to be alone."

"I can't. Dr. Lowry told me to bring you back. She says you're not yourself and that I should disregard your orders if you refuse to come."

"Lowry has no right!"

"Of course she has the right, Major. It's for your own good."

Frustrated, I retreated a few additional inches toward the precipice.

"Don't, sir! Don't do that!"

"Lowry's the one who's not herself!" I accused wildly.

"Please, Major. There's no disgrace in what's happened to you. We only want to help."

"How can you help? By making me a prisoner?"

"We just want to keep you safe until you can think things over more clearly. There's no reason to die."

I flared, angry with myself for arguing with a mere private. Nonetheless, the resultant flood of adrenaline gave me the strength to stand. I swayed precariously over the edge --

"Major!" Drew ejaculated.

-- but caught my balance.

"Leave me alone!"

The medic moved a step backwards. "All right, sir. We'll both stay here and talk."

I searched his anxious blue eyes, trying to find mockery in his address of "sir."

"Let it go, Drew," I whispered. "I've sunk too low. I can't bear the disgrace."

"It's no disgrace. No one can help what he looks like."

"That's Psych 101 talking!"

"No, it's a soldier talking to his commander -- a man whom he views with regard and respect."

I was no commander, I was no man. I couldn't make a private obey my simplest order. I had lost my command. I had lost my place. I had lost the sense of who I was. It was as good as losing my life. I shifted my weight in the excitement of the moment and my foot slipped . . . .

. . . .There was nothing below me. . . .

#

With an action more rapid than thought, I caught a tree root projecting through a fissure and held on for all I was worth, my legs dangling over a bottomless void. I saw my personal biography like a thousand fleeting snapshots of futility and defeat.

Above me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Drew's arm waving.

"Thank God!" he shouted.

I said nothing, rendered mute by shock. He reached toward me, but his grasp ended a foot short of my clinging hands.

"I can't reach you, Major. You'll have to climb higher!"

My thoughts raced; I could prop my feet against the rock face and spring upwards. That would give me a few inches -- but if Drew missed me, I would probably lose my one-handed grip. I had only that one chance, a chance lasting only a second before I'd fall to my death. . . .

Time seemed suspended; my mind roiled. I wondered whether I should accept Drew's offer, or end my existence as I had intended.

Death seemed easy, almost as if Old Grandfather Time were extending loving arms my way. I could relax my grip and let Death catch me; even Drew would not know whether I died by choice or fell. I need not bear the infamy of suicide, and yet could escape the mockery my life had become.

"Major -- please," the young man pleaded. "You have so much to live for. Can't you see it?"

No, I didn't see it, but, for some reason, or for no consciously-worked-out reason, I braced my toes against the rock and made a desperate leap -- an all-or-nothing toss of the dice that meant life or death --

Drew's strong fingers locked with strength around my willowy wrist!

#

I was amazed that he could hold me, forgetting that my weight had recently been reduced from nearly a hundred kilos to only sixty or sixty-five. The soldier could gain little purchase on the ledge, and so he resorted to scuttling backwards on his belly. Like a sun-warmed lizard, he used what irregularities the stone offered for leverage, but mostly depended on friction and his greater weight to support me against the inexorable force of gravity.

Being dragged over the rock hurt my breasts, but when my belly, legs, and then my toes were drawn over the lip of the precipice, I knew I was saved -- had returned to life like a lost soul reincarnated -- but could any human being have felt less joy at his salvation?

Releasing my wrist, the young trooper swung to my side and carefully turned me over on my back.

"Are you hurt?" he asked concerned.

"You shouldn't have --" I stammered.

"I had to."

I closed my eyes. Drew had done his job; he would have done no less for any human being, even a felon condemned to die before a firing squad.

"I want to help you, Major."

My eyes and my nasal cavities were burning. I couldn't speak.

"If you feel like crying, that's all right, sir," Drew assured me with doctor-like compassion. "There's a lot of pain inside you, I know. This is the best time to let it out; no one can see or hear you."

I didn't want to do anything unmanly in front of a witness, but my life had become a twisted, irrecoverable wreck!

Drew squeezed my hands empathetically, then, to my surprise, scooped me into his arms and carried me to the shade under some small trees, where he eased me to the ground again. Before I realized it, my cheek was pressed against his shoulder, my arms wrapped tightly about his neck as I broke down utterly.

"I don't want to be like this," I heard myself saying.

"I know," he whispered. "I wouldn't either, but we'll get you through it. You can count on us."

After a while my sobbing ceased and my breathing came quieter, more even.

"I'm a woman -- ," I choked, trying hard to understand what that meant.

"Yes you are, Major," Drew replied with a low, thoughtful drawl. "So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?"

I was taken aback and stammered, "I don't know."

"Of course you don't, sir. But soon you'll know, and after that you'll be all right."

I shook my head. I couldn't be all right. Never again.

#

When I tried to squirm out of the young soldier's grasp, he let me go.

"We should climb down," suggested Drew. "Do you feel strong enough to walk?"

"I don't want to go back," I said, unable to look him in the eye.

"You have to. The only other place you can go is over that ledge, and I don't want to see that happen."

I shook my head, but did nothing to resist as Drew helped me rise and then stood back to gauge my strength. "Good, now let's go," he coaxed.

Then, steadied by his strong arms, we descended the slope. Many times, I had to stop to rest and sometimes Drew was practically carrying me. By the time we reached the bottom, I was completely used up and he took me into his arms and toted me along. I couldn't even protest, I was so exhausted, so despondent, but as we neared the grove which was the last barrier screening us from the full view of the camp, I got anxious.

"Put me down! I can't let them see me like this!"

He complied at once and I was relieved to find that my legs felt fairly firm when they touched the soil.

"Are my eyes red?" I inquired hastily.

"No, they're quite --" Whatever his intended observation, he abandoned it.

"Drew, please," I asked, deliberately not making it a command, "don't tell anyone what happened."

"I have to tell Dr. Lowry."

"Nobody else!"

"It'll be our secret," he promised.

#

I avoided looking at the men -- and the women -- along the way to my hut. Did they know what had happened? Had I been seen racing for the hill like a lunatic? Had anyone turned their binoculars upon Woolenska's Leap? That Drew had been sent to bring me home? I would lose all respect if it became known that I had nearly committed suicide.

Drew put me to bed; I grew drowsy very quickly and slept. When I woke, Lowry was seated beside me.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," I murmured.

She smiled. "If you can joke after what you've been through, Rupe, your prognosis is excellent."

"'Excellent,'" I echoed without much enthusiasm. "I'm alive, sure, but what kind of life is it going to be?"

"That's what I still ask myself every time I wake up in the morning," the physician grinned. "When I stop asking it, I'm sure I'll be dead."

When I didn't reply, a new thought ridged her brow. "Rupe, I'm as sorry as I can be. I never should have talked to you that way. -- At least not without a couple of husky orderlies on hand to keep you from running off."

"It's all right. I suppose shock therapy is the least that I deserve."

"What do you mean?"

I looked away. "If I told you, we couldn't be friends anymore."

She put her hand on the blanket covering me. "That's not going to happen, Rupe. Whatever's bothering you, it can't be so bad. I know you. You're the most decent -- person -- in the service. I'm proud to know you."

"You must have met some real scum buckets."

"Buddy, what is it?"

I swallowed hard. "I let you down."

"Me? When? How?"

I told her. I don't know why I had to tell Lowry my guilty secret, but it was something I needed to do. I had to let her know what sort of person I was before she did anything else to help me.

She grew silent; I looked at her, thinking that her face was paler than usual.

But there was no anger in her expression, just bruise.

"Neither of us is very good in the feelings department, are we?" Sebastian observed ironically.

"I guess not."

I reached out and touched her hand. "Can you forgive me?"

"Rupe, I've made mistakes, too -- like making my best friend and most important patient go suicidal. I'd say that we're about even."

I shrugged resignedly, knowing I had done far worse.

"Now, cheer up," she went on. "What's happened -- what's happened to both of us -- is damned strange, but it isn't terminal. It's mostly a lifestyle problem, and we're not alone."

"No, we have a whopper of a leper colony here."

"Hardly that."

"Can't we go on as if not much has happened? Do we have to make a big thing of sex?"

"Sex is a big thing, Rupe. Wait until you're having your first period. Wait until you look at a soldier and start thinking -- . Well, never mind, you get the picture."

"You're still doing that?"

"It seems to go with the territory, but I'm trying to control it. The important thing for one's self-respect is not to give in."

That's right, don't give in, I thought. Chastity wasn't so onerous. Monks did it. Anyway, I couldn't imagine myself attracted to a male, despite Lowry's warnings to the contrary. I'd probably end up a lesbian. What a fate!

I changed the subject: "Doc, you'd better be off. I don't have the right to keep you from your work."

"You're part of my work, Rupe! There's no way I'm leaving you unattended after so serious a crisis."

"I'm stuck with you then, I suppose. How long did I sleep? Are there any new problems today?"

"That's none of your business," she said with a smile to reassure me.

#

Two days had passed with no new disappearances and Lowry's prediction seemed to bear out. If her theory held water, our situation, our future prospects, had changed -- radically.

"Maybe we have a chance to reverse this thing," I ventured. "If someone wants Klink to have a half-and-half population, it might work in the other direction, too. If we collect all the women together maybe they'll start reverting!"

Sebastian's forehead wrinkled. "I've thought about that, too, Rupe. But even if it worked, it would be like trying to lengthen a rope with a piece cut from the other end; it doesn't get us anywhere. If we're going to be 50-50 no matter what we do, what's the difference which half is which? What we have to do is make sure that there are no new transformations. We've got a tall order surviving on Klink without this crazy distraction."

"I suppose you're right," I replied glumly, though it certainly seemed no small matter to me to which half of the human race I belonged. "That means we have to make sure that no men are isolated from female association. We've got to look over our records and estimate about how far a man can go from camp without transforming -- What are you grinning about, Doc?"

"It sounds like women are going to have a lot of power on this planet. If men don't cooperate, welcome to the sisterhood!"

I'd read too much history to agree. "Women's power is always an illusion, Sebastian. It exists only when men refuse to use force. That means you have to make nice-nice to the guys or else you're going to create an ethic where it's all right to bash you."

"Haven't you heard of those old-time matriarchies?"

"Sure, I've read about them. Matriarchies are a crock. They never really happen. Men simply rule behind a female facade, Sebastian. Strength is going to rule, whether the rulers are courtly knights or street gangs."

"Sounds pretty grim."

"It doesn't have to be. -- It wasn't before the feminists killed chivalry. You have to zero in on the best qualities of manhood and reinforce them. That way you get a knight and not a hoodlum. It's a child-rearing process."

"Well, we can't be knights, Rupe, so where does that leave you and me?"

"I haven't a clue," I admitted. "Anyhow, I'd rather think about other things. What did Philbrick say?"

"About what?"

"About relieving me, damn it!"

"Philbrick understood."

"Oh, he'd understand, all right! He knows a nutcase when he sees one!" I took a deep breath. "-- Okay, I have no duties, no responsibilities, no conceivable function in life. What am I good for?"

"We'll have to play it by ear," she said.

* * * *

Chapter 7

*There is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out.* HAMLET

Transformation trauma was a roller coaster; sometimes a person was up, but most of the time he was so far down that he wished he were dead. Any death-wish is dangerous, though, and because Drew and Lowry couldn't watch me all the time, they brought in others -- usually Halder or Cotts -- to pick up the slack.

During the worst of it, I could barely sleep four or five hours on a good night. The depression felt like a physical ache, permeating every corner of my body. An interminable, grinding despair accompanied it, the fear that life could never again be meaningful, purposeful, or even tolerable. I asked myself endlessly: "Who am I?" "What am I?" "Why am I living?" And most of all, "Why me?"

When I was feeling up, I could at least read. Unfortunately, worthwhile material was scarce, outside of Drew's Shakespeare and Lowry's Bible. Before long, Sebastian encouraged me to get off my back and begin a regimen of daily walks. I don't remember those first excursions, except that it seemed an ordeal just to place one foot in front of the other. I was always accompanied by someone to look after me. It wouldn't do to have Major Breen climb Woolenska's Hill again.

As my spirits improved, I once again enjoyed playing cards with Sebastian. When we felt like having a foursome, we brought in other players, usually Drew and Ames. The blonde captain did her best to be my friend, but something -- maybe our respective ranks or our past association -- proved to be an obstacle to true intimacy.

The camp operated smoothly enough; I'd given Philbrick the understanding that I expected him to run it as he saw fit and assured him that I wouldn't allow anyone to come to me and go over his head. He nodded without replying, but I knew he appreciated my pledge.

As he gained confidence, Philbrick directed the camp more in his own distinct style. Early-on, he made decisions that wouldn't have occurred to me -- decisions which, in fact, I probably would have rejected.

After we hit Klink, I'd run things by the "Book." I wasn't an unimaginative martinet, but I wanted to give the Group a sense of stability, a center, a focus. The Book wasn't perfect, but, at least, it let everyone know where he stood. Philbrick, on the other hand, was an experimenter. His most noticeable change was the relaxation of the uniform requirements. Because no clothes fit the women, he set up a committee charged with finding ways to make the transformees' clothing more comfortable and utilitarian.

Capt. Ames chaired the uniform committee which approved the new dispensations. I suspected that she had influenced Philbrick to authorize them. Philbrick was Ames' hut mate, her long-time friend, and -- I suspected -- her current lover. I wondered about that last possibility sometimes and didn't think that it served as a good example, but I neither confronted them nor sought gossip.

Before long, the transformed troopers were cutting away extraneous material, especially floppy, dragging pantslegs and over-long sleeves. Cutoffs became a common sight and, off duty, women were even allowed to go about clad in shirttails and drawers. To my mind, the latter fashion made them look like one-night stands the morning after.

Though the changes in the dress code gave me new concerns about discipline, I did not intervene. At least one innovation had my approval -- the design of new footwear. Mr. Chesterton, one of the fleet techs, got the idea of stripping the Carodite insulation sheets out of the useless drop pods and cutting tough soles for shoes from it. With the addition of straps fore and aft, the space-farer produced sandals which were far more comfortable than the oversized army boots that transformees had been condemned to wear beforehand.

#

In fact, I now wore the new sandals for my daily exercise, during which Drew was my most frequent suicide-watch. Very quickly, our relationship became more than strictly professional, although fraternizing with a serviceman ran against the very Book that I valued so highly. But, the truth is, rank can be a lonely thing. If one ever needed to abandon ceremony, now was the time for me.

It may seem ironic that I should let Drew get close to me since, like Lowry, the young soldier knew my weaknesses, knew my breaking point -- and a person isn't always comfortable being around someone who knows his limits. But looked at another way, our relationship may not have been so unlikely. Part of being a friend is letting down the mask, admitting that you have shortcomings, failings. I couldn't do this in front of my officers, but the medic's manner, or his personality, encouraged me to open up. Anyway, I had to have help to cope.

Over a couple weeks, I gradually accepted that Drew's camaraderie was genuine. For his part, the medic seemed to gain confidence that I would not suddenly about-face and treat him like an orderly. We talked about our respective backgrounds quite frankly. I learned that Drew was from Missouri and had attended the University at Rolla, where he studied pre-med. He was well read and sorely missed his library of English literature on Earth. He also enjoyed classic songs, many of which he had memorized.

Drew had never intended to be a professional soldier and he had been unenthusiastic when drafted straight from college. Previously, he had looked forward to attending the University of Illinois in Chicago -- specializing in prostatic surgery and research. Now his goal was to learn as much advanced medicine as he could from Doctor Lowry.

I laughed up my sleeve and he asked me why. I explained that it was because I suddenly recognized that I would never have to worry about prostate problems in my latter years. Silver linings, and all that.

As the days passed, we became quite chummy. I even persuaded Drew to sing some of those old-time songs of his. He had a strong, melodious singing voice and I grew determined, if we ever put on the company show that I had envisioned, to get him to perform.

We shared a love for Shakespeare and we talked over my idea of staging a play. He suggested that I would make a good Portia. I demurred; I was no actor and, personally, I never liked Portia as a character.

"'The Merchant of Venice' seemed to go sour at the point where Shakespeare let Portia carry her hoax on Shylock too far," I told him. "Harsh as his intended vengeance against his merchant-rival had been, Shylock had stayed within the letter of the law. Portia's impersonation of a justice was clearly a felony."

In the Twenty-First Century, judicial tyranny, along with a lot of other ruling-class abuses, had triggered a second American revolution. History's bitter lessons taught us that the greatest threat to democracy, Assies included, was the Ivy-League-educated in mandarin robes.

Drew was amused by my literary criticism and said that if I didn't like Portia, the second best role for me had to be Doll Tearsheet, who was always honest about what she was. "You idiot!" I cried as I slugged him in the arm, and then we shared a good laugh. Afterwards, in bed, I realized how unwise I had been to let a private get away with such a liberty.

As my strength and confidence returned, my walks became more purposeful. I no longer suffered from headaches or shaking spells. Relieved of routine duty, I was anxious to contribute nonetheless. For some reason, perhaps from the long agricultural tradition in my family, I grew preoccupied with the discovery and cultivation of Klinkian edibles.

I estimated our emergency rations would last for about another year, but were we facing old age and death on Klink? I encouraged Lowry and Drew to devote as much of their time as possible to testing what the foragers found as potential food substances.

The foragers also had been honing their hunting techniques, making snares, deadfalls, and experimenting with bows and arrows. The meats of many of Klink's mammal-like and bird-like animals proved nutritious, though one family of rodent-like creatures seemed to have a distinctly disagreeable gastric effect on humans. Local plant matter was, as on every world, tricky. We lacked test animals (at least any with Earth-evolved physiologies), so while Lowry's or Webb's tests might screen food for toxins (taking careful note of what might turn out to be useful chemical substances), we nonetheless had to conduct a series of human experiments, starting with the consumption of very small amounts of plant matter under close observation. We had some sickness, and sometimes what seemed to be allergies, but no fatalities.

#

After about an Earth month in my transformed shape, I seemed to be spending more days "up" than "down." Dr. Lowry rated my recovery as very good, though I realized that it was nowhere as swift as her own had been. I wondered at that. Had Sebastian possessed more spiritual reserves than the rest of us, or had it helped that she'd started as the least macho man in camp and had less far to fall? Nevertheless, my constant harping on the future problems of the camp convinced her that I was mending well.

I gave a lot of thought to the subject of long-term survival. It seemed clear that we would soon have to turn our primary focus to establishing a viable agriculture -- and pulling that off successfully seemed a daunting prospect. We didn't even know what crops to select. Lt. Webb, one of Komisov's best technicians, had been pursuing a course in soil conservation in alien xeno-ecosystems before he was called to active duty. Non-military skills such as his had become precious. Faced with nothing to fight as soldiers, we had little choice but to evolve into good farmers. Like old Roman heroes, we had to hang up the sword and get behind the plow. But first we had to reinvent the plow.

About that time, Lowry discovered another pregnancy, Pvt. Logan's. I took the news without undue excitement. I had ordered the curtailment of sexual relationships, but people had become more furtive on the subject than enthusiastic. Now, at least, it was up to other minds to deal with such problems. As it happened, Philbrick chose merely to reiterate the order which I had issued earlier without belaboring enforcement.

It wasn't enough and we knew it; people weren't turning in their friends for having sex, and the officers acted chagrined about poking around to detect liaisons. In fact, I suspected that the directive had already become a dead letter.

Interestingly, Logan, like Hitchcock did not consider termination. Naturally, it was her own business, but I worried about the viability of the 54th as a military unit -- even as a unit of men and women -- if we became saddled with a large number of children. Speak of army brats!

But I had other things to occupy my mind -- like my first onset of bloody cramps. I hated the discomfort and the mess but what could one do except sigh and bear it? Between babies and periods, it was small wonder that feminine psychology had evolved differently from the male's. I asked Lowry if she had anything to stop a person from menstruating and she recommended pregnancy. I didn't ask twice.

#

I had been sleeping soundly, but awoke covered in sweat, agitated by the fading images of an erotic dream. For the first time in a dream I had not been a man, but a woman. More than that, I'd been a woman with a man and -- oh, hell!

But even waking did not make me feel right. A craving gnawed me, as palpably real as hunger or thirst; I found myself getting out of bed, not bothering to dress. I had on an oversized T-shirt barely long enough to keep me decent as I hurried into the bright moonlight. The night breeze did nothing to cool my ardor. Where was I going? What was I looking for?

Had I been more myself I would have heeded the raucous chaos in camp. I saw women dashing about chasing men, or being chased by them, including a naked Sgt. Gold.

I spotted Philbrick struggling with Ames in front of their hut. He broke her grasp and shoved her into the hands of another man, who held her fast as she kicked and swore. Philbrick, now disentangled, started bawling orders to everyone within earshot.

I wasn't listening; I was myself an addict searching for her substance. I thought I was going crazy and knew that I had to find Lowry without knowing why. But as I ran barefoot into the infirmary I found myself face to face not with the physician, but Alan Drew.

"Major!" the young medic blurted. "Have you seen the doctor?! She got excited like the other women, then ran off. She's --"

He gave me a hard stare. My wild, feral look must have alarmed him, informed him that I was as badly off as Lowry. Now, at last, I understood what I'd been seeking. -- Panicking, I turned on my heels and fled.

#

Alan followed swiftly after me. The medic, benefiting from his longer stride, gained. Suddenly my bare foot came down on something pointed and I stumbled to a stop with a cry of pain. Alan was on me instantly, gripping me as if my life were in danger. I fought to get away but, before I realized it, I was struggling more to hold onto him than to escape.

"Major!" he gasped, "What's happening to you -- to all the women?!"

I released an incoherent growl, wanting to feel him, to explore his hard muscles, press his Apollonian angles against this flesh of mine. . . .

While he was trying to control me, I realized that I was fantasizing rape and enjoying it! I cried out in sudden dismay and collapsed to my knees.

"Major!" Alan exclaimed, taking me by the shoulders, holding me so firmly as he brought me up that I could neither come closer nor pull away. "What is it?!" he demanded, sounding angry -- men always sound angry when they're excited, so I wasn't intimidated.

"Hold me," I whispered.

"Maj--?"

"Hold me."

His face, lit by the moonlight, pleaded, "What is it? -- What?!"

I pressed my cheek against a hand which held me. The strength that I sensed in Alan Drew was like the perfume to a honeybee and a hot rush of emotion left me breathless. But I needed more than to be merely held; I wanted relief of a radical kind -- and knew this man could give it to me.

"Make love to me," I rasped.

"Major!"

"I need it -- Alan. I'm going mad!"

"There's something wrong! We've got to understand it. We can't give in."

"I can't stand the torture!"

"You have to, Major. You're strong!"

The night breeze, sweeping my tear-streaked face, chilled me without dousing my inner blaze. "At least kiss me!"

"It's not what you want!"

"I know what I want!"

His grip was hurting my arms. "No! You don't!"

"I order you!" I shrieked.

Alan gritted his teeth defiantly. "You can't give that order. Come back to your hut with me."

Powerlessness! I hated it. Wailing, I struck him with my small, balled fists. He ignored my paltry blows and scooped me into his arms as though I were weightless, and carried me back. All the while I was pressing my body against his, planting wet kisses on his shoulder.

Alan endured my advances and I was deluded enough to think that he enjoyed them. My body trembling with the anticipation of the two of us alone, I started to kiss his face and he could do nothing to stop me, other than shout.

There were plenty of other shouts just then and a great deal of movement, but I was beyond caring. Nothing was real, nothing except the male clutch that enfolded me. Though out of my mind, I was self-aware enough to grasp that acting this way would destroy our friendship. What could Alan feel for me from this moment onwards except contempt? I ceased my demented assault and collapsed into myself, the loneliest, most forsaken of human beings.

My escort veered from his direct route and I next heard the liquid rush of the stream bubbling over its rocky bed. I looked at the water, puzzled.

In a flash I realized his plan and cried out in vain as he submerged me into the creek. How useless to struggle; I could not resist the strength which rules the world.

Numb and shivering, I clung to him fiercely when he drew me out, desperately needing his warmth. Then, with a mutter I couldn't understand, Alan carried me away to my hut and set me on my feet next to the bed.

I staggered, but he steadied me, then helped me peel off my tee, leaving me naked before him. Despite my frigid dunking, I was aroused enough to jump at him, and only the knowledge of his strength made me forbear. He took one of my shirts from its peg and used it to dab the excess water from my gooseflesh. After that, he stepped around me to pull back the blanket on my cot. Instantly, I dove beneath it, shivering violently. Alan swiftly covered me and tucked me in.

While slowly recovering from my chill, I watched Alan taking off his own wet things. The sight of his bare pecs, classically Greek, was like food set before the tortured gaze of Tantalus in Hades.

"Can I use some of your clothes?" he queried evenly.

"Y-Yeah," I chattered, "anything."

He selected a shirt and pair of pants. Seeing him in my clothing struck me. How well they fit him, and how poorly they fit me. I found myself fantasizing again and in the dreamlike shadows of my hut, Alan became the officer, while I was only the nameless girl he brought home from the off-base bar. He would join me under the covers in a moment, use me hard, unsympathetically. I would warm to him, but he would not warm to me. In the morning, when I tried to get close to him again, he would push me away and press money into my hand --

I turned my face into the pillow, certain I'd gone insane. I had betrayed Alan and all that had been good between us I had ruined. I had offended, disappointed, demeaned him with my groping, with my crazy order. From now on we would only be medic and patient, officer and trooper. Our friendship was dead, killed by the madness that had taken hold of me in my sleep. I was so unhappy that I hid my face under the blanket, my eyes burning.

At that moment Alan sat on the edge of the cot and asked, "How are you feeling now, Major?"

"Awful. Forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive."

I peered from beneath the bedclothes, wanting to reach out, but not daring to do more damage. He put his hand on my shoulder and, encouraged, I slipped my own hand from under the blanket and took his. He didn't pull away, so I lifted his fingers to my lips and placed a light, plaintive kiss on them. . . .

* * * *

Chapter 8

*Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts, And thou art wedded to calamity.* ROMEO AND JULIET

Had I a man's strength that night, and Drew my weakness, nothing on Klink would have prevented me from raping him. I actually tried to, but only ripped his -- my -- shirt before he shucked me off. After that, exactly as I would have in his place, Alan bound me hand and foot. I must have been a sight -- naked, wild-eyed, and trussed like a kidnap victim.

My senior officers, first Komisov, then Philbrick, each extricated himself from the chaos outside long enough to look in on me.

"How is she?" Philbrick whispered. It was not the first time that I had been called a "she;" but Philbrick never had so referred to me in my presence. I would have resented it more, had I not been too far gone to care.

"Not good," sighed Alan. "Did you see Dr. Lowry?"

"No," grimaced Philbrick. "It's an orgy out there. We're restraining as many women as possible, but who'll guard the guards?"

"I don't know, sir."

Philbrick straightened up. "Carry on, Private. Make the major your priority. If we find Lowry, we'll bring her to you, too."

"Yes, sir."

Philbrick left abruptly and I thought that my reputation was going out with him. He had seen me tied like a rabid animal; what could induce him to return command to me again? I was ruined. I moaned in pain.

Alan comforted me, but his touch only added fuel to my fire. Understanding this, he whispered, "I'm sorry, Major."

I bit my lip and closed my eyes.

"Is -- is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?"

"Kiss me, please," I gasped.

There was a moment of silence before he said, "I shouldn't do that."

"I know you shouldn't! Do it anyway."

"Try to rest."

"I don't need rest!" I cried. "I can't rest."

"We shouldn't do anything that will make things harder once you get better, Major."

"I may never get better," I moaned. "I may be like this from now on. What will you do then?"

"I'll take care of you -- any way that I have to," he said.

#

I finally slept the sleep of exhaustion and awoke at dawn, still tied and my bladder killing me. I heard movement in the other room.

"Alan --!" I shouted, but stopped myself. I had never addressed the medic by his first name before and that slip bothered me to a degree which was ludicrous, considering all my other problems.

The young soldier slipped in through the door and eyed me warily. "Major? Are you feeling better?"

I looked at him hard, trying to read his thoughts. The respect and regard I detected in his expression encouraged me. "I've got to take a piss," I said.

"But what about -- ?"

"It's gone," I said breathlessly. "And if you let me loose, I promise that I won't try to seduce you."

"If I let you go, will you court martial me?" he asked wryly.

"That's the least of your worries." Suddenly, remembering that there was more to this nightmare than Alan and me, I asked, "What happened to us last night?"

He shook his head. "Whatever it was, it seems over now."

I laid back. If that sort of craving became long-term, it would drive a sufferer mad. "I'm glad it is," I said shakily, "but cut me loose now before I do something on my mattress that I'd rather not."

He did, then discretely withdrew. I took care of my needs and while I was dressing the medic called out that he saw Lowry returning to the infirmary.

"Let me talk to her first," I shouted back.

A few minutes later I found the doctor seated disconsolately on one of the infirmary beds dressed in just a robe. I guessed that she had eluded Philbrick's search throughout the whole night and that worried me.

The brunette glanced up, tired, dazed.

"Sebastian!" I exclaimed.

She closed her eyes with a tormented grimace. I sat down beside her and quietly held her hand.

"Rupe," Lowry smiled crookedly, "your bedside manner is getting better."

I returned a very brief laugh. "Handling emotional crises has never been my strong suit. It must be these new genes."

"At least you kept your jeans on. -- You did, didn't you?"

I shifted uneasily. "Nothing happened. -- no thanks to me," I added. "Bad night for you?"

"I don't know. I remember enjoying it while it was happening."

I got the story out of her in fits and starts. Half the time, Sebastian was laughing, and half of it, crying. The madness had come on her in the darkness, as it had come on me. The first person she'd seen was Alan Drew -- and had reacted to him as I had. Unlike me, she eluded him in the tall trees.

Only minutes later, Lowry ran into a young soldier, Stan Kitterson, and ordered him: "Stand where you are, soldier!"

She pulled rank on Kitterson, as I had tried to pull it on Alan. The difference was that Kitterson had not been advised that he could, or should, ignore the commands of the medical officer. Also, how much resistance could a young man offer when confronted by a beautiful woman demanding sex? They made love in a grove until Lowry had drained him dry, and they'd slept entwined in one another's arms until dawn. The spell of lust had dissipated by the time Sebastian awoke and she fled back to the infirmary in panic, as if Kitterson had been her ravisher, instead of the other way around.

Alan arrived at that point and I turned Lowry over to the poor fellow while I went to find Capt. Philbrick. Ames was with the latter, a little chagrined, I thought, but otherwise in good condition.

Philbrick regarded me suspiciously, but once I'd demonstrated my coherence he started speaking freely. The other women's experiences seemed to have been similar to Lowry's and mine. Some found men willing to have sex, and some were constrained and confined. Some of the women who were tied slipped their bonds before the night was out and shucked their virginity anyway.

This was serious business and it called for another powwow. To my relief, Lowry had pulled herself together in time for the staff meeting.

The affair baffled us, but one peculiarity seemed particularly important. Five women -- Hitchcock, Logan, D'Aubers, McKenny, and Bakshi -- had not succumbed to the madness, unlike more than two hundred others. Hitchcock and Logan were known to be pregnant and that suggested a theory. Philbrick asked Lowry to scan the soldiers for -- he used the word "anomalies," but we knew what he meant.

#

I waited outside the infirmary while Dr. Lowry examined the immune soldiers. Their readouts, as we feared, were positive. I felt sorry for the shocked soldiers. Motherhood had to be a staggering thing for anyone to face without preparation, but it was worse due to the strange circumstances of the 54th. Lowry told the gravid troopers to rest and come back once they had time to sort out their situation.

They were the lucky ones; they'd become pregnant through the conscious choice to go to bed with somebody. Scores of their comrades had had no say in the matter. I asked Lowry what we could expect for the Group as a whole and she estimated that it was normal for about two percent of sexual encounters to result in conception, but it would be a week before our equipment could detect anything. I noted the paleness of her face as she said that.

I realized there was going to be a lot of anxiety around the camp. If it hadn't been for the grace of God and Alan Drew, I might have been having rock-a-by baby visions along with everybody else.

At the end of the day the doctor made her follow-up report to Philbrick.

"What we experienced last night," Lowry began, "was not normal. We're reduced to guessing again. I mean --" Strain was written into the woman's drawn face. "-- I mean, I think that the -- the Madness -- was artificially-induced. If someone or something is affecting our basic drives, we have to ask, why? What's being gained and by whom?"

"Why didn't it affect the men?" I asked.

"Maybe it did," Philbrick suggested. "I've never seen a sorrier example of discipline and bad judgement in this outfit."

"A long time ago, I identified an anomalous particle lodged in the medulla of each transformee," Sebastian reminded us. "It may have nothing to do with what's happened, or it might have everything."

"How?" the captain queried.

"This particle may be a receiver for an externally-originating impulse -- one which affects human sexual activity. Whatever its nature, it was powerful enough to override almost all the usual inhibitions. But it's worse than that."

Worse? Wasn't it bad enough? I thought.

"As you've cited, Captain, the men were not normal, either. I have a theory. We know that human bodies, like many mammalian species, produce hormones known as pheromones. One of the most important functions of pheromones is to excite sexual interest in a prospective mate. Most legal and illegal aphrodisiacs use synthetic human pheromones."

She went on to explain that these airborne substances reached one's partner's brain through the respiratory system. Lowry thought that our transformees' pheromones had been artificially-enhanced and massively-released during the Madness -- in a manner analogous to sweating when the temperature rises. That might explain why so many men behaved irresponsibly.

"But even if this speculation were true," the doctor continued, "we're still left with the question 'why?' Every time I think about the phenomena we've experienced so far, the more certain I am that we're being biologically and emotionally manipulated. I believe that someone or something wants us to produce the largest possible number of children within the shortest possible time frame."

Philbrick and I looked at one another, neither with surprise nor disagreement.

Sebastian pressed on. "Why were the pregnant women exempt from the Madness? It could be because their bodies are awash in the hormones of the gestation cycle. But why has this immunity been built-in, unless the desired end of the Madness has been achieved -- pregnancy?

It fit. Our women were returned to us young, healthy, and physically attractive. The transformation process had halted when we were evenly divided, sex-wise. Were we the unwilling subjects of a breeding experiment? I gritted my teeth; it was too demeaning to contemplate.

The obvious question soon occurred to Philbrick: "Why would aliens want human children born here?"

"I'm getting on very thin ice," Lowry admitted, "the phenomena may not be human-specific. In fact, they're probably the reason the Asymmetrics avoided colonizing this world. Either the Assies couldn't disarm whatever is responsible despite their technology, or they've decided it would be too difficult or costly to bother. If our transformations are not of Assie design, and I don't believe that they are, other beings -- or automated equipment -- must be."

That made sense. If the phenomenon had attacked the Assie explorers as it attacked us, their people would have written Klink off as a place too problematical for settlement. On the other hand, what could be more natural than to use this mild and fertile world for another purpose such as a prison colony? Maybe the Assies even thought it would make a good joke on the enemy. Well, maybe -- but I'd have liked to put a blaster to the head of the comedian who dreamed up this stunt!

"As to why an independent factor would want to accelerate reproduction of higher life forms, there are many possibilities," speculated the doctor.

"For instance?" I asked.

"For instance, the secret masters of Klink may be philanthropic and realize that our settlement couldn't survive if all-male.

"Or, the original inhabitants of this planet might have suffered the catastrophic loss of their female population -- possibly through a sex-specific plague. If they faced extinction as a race, they might have created an elaborate process to transform males into fertile females on a massive scale."

"What about the -- insanity?" asked Capt. Philbrick.

Lowry shrugged. "Maybe the native males had as much or more psychological resistance to assuming the female role as human males do. If that were the case, the survival of the species depended on overcoming it -- and an artificially-induced mating frenzy could be one means to that end."

"Where are these people now?" I inquired. "If they're extinct, what made their plan fail?"

"That's a question for archeology," said Sebastian with heavy sigh.

"Why weren't we affected immediately after landing on Klink?" I asked. "It took about a month before the first transformations occurred."

"I don't know," Lowry admitted. "Maybe it takes a while for this planet to draw a bead on new arrivals."

The talk went back and forth, but we didn't make much more progress. It was clear that we lacked the capability to resist and so had little choice but to live with it and treat the symptoms to the best of our ability.

#

Would the Madness return? It was ironic that Sebastian and I had speculated how the circumstances on Klink gave women a natural superiority over men. The Madness more than redressed any apparent imbalance. If a woman -- or, at least, a transformee with a bead in her brain -- didn't play it sweet and cuddlesome with her man, he could put her through the Madness during the next cycle. Even a woman who was pregnant and temporarily immune to the phenomenon would still be dependent for other reasons. Gravid females always need help from outside, whether it's a government check or a husband. In a world of primitive agriculture and hunting, it wasn't going to be the government.

By the end of seven days, Sebastian's scanner discovered the expected new pregnancies. She found four, but only half the affected females had asked for a scan; the rest would rather not face the truth so soon. Four was already within the average that Lowry expected for the population as a whole. This caused the doctor to speculate whether the fertility of the affected women had been stimulated.

More perturbing to her, no doubt, was the fact that one of the new pregnancies was her own.

It bothered me to see my friend staggered by yet another unlucky blow. Lowry had taken as many emotional body blows as anyone else on Klink, and it was only her resilience, her determination to carry on, that sometimes made us forget. Nonetheless, she kept a stiff upper lip yet again while she broke the news to me -- a lip so stiff that I wondered if she wasn't repressing again.

I certainly expected some of the women receiving the unsettling news to ask for termination, but none did. This seemed impossible and Lowry, analyzing her own feelings as well as her observation of others, speculated that the option had been programmed out of transformee psychology. Apparently, in certain important areas we had less free will than a lab rat.

Philbrick observed that many of our people were pairing up and conceiving children. There seemed to be no way to control it, and if the old model of our organization was falling apart anyway, it would be wise to anticipate it. The most obvious successor structure required sanctioning marriage between transformees and non-transformees. The idea still seemed vaguely unnatural, but the alternative was a sexual free-for-all.

Philbrick realized that in order for Klinkian marriage to serve its intended purpose, it had to be more than a mere reassignment of roommates. It had to operate under rules which the command structure, and the Group, were committed to enforce. It had to have ritual, because ritual gave mystique and importance to societal institutions. Also, public ceremony allowed for group-participation. In this case, group-participation would go far towards establishing the marriage partnership as the basic community building block.

Deciding to take such a daunting step, we furthermore needed to put forward a person empowered to perform and sanction marriages. Philbrick didn't want the latter job, and so he appointed Captain Ames as a Justice of the Peace. She also headed a committee of formerly-married soldiers, both male and female, to draw up the rules governing Klinkian matrimony.

The commission deliberated a week and proposed a logical list of regulations. The most important was a pledge that the partners must materially support one another to the best of their ability; the same consideration was also extended to children begotten by them. Mistakes would be made and matches would fail, but care was taken under the rules that the couple's children should suffer least. Desertion of mates or offspring without justification would result in stern discipline, as would adultery -- since adultery bred quarrels and internecine strife was detrimental to the group's survival.

We also understood that the barracks system, which seemed natural in an all-male camp, had to end since communal living would not suit the needs of married couples or families with children. We therefore needed a great deal of new carpentry on top of all the other crucial things we had to accomplish in a short time.

In addition, the committee recommended that new mothers receive discretionary leave from routine duties, there being no day-care centers. Establishing the latter seemed out of the question; what was the sense of assigning someone the duty of raising another's children? What seemed logical at home came off as incredibly illogical on Klink. Almost everything we took for granted had been based on the needs of a high-technology labor force with a pervasive service infrastructure.

Like it or not, Klink would be a world of long hours of back-breaking physical labor, labor which men could perform best. The other work must naturally fall to the women, including child- rearing, which was itself a full-time job. Nobody necessarily liked this state of affairs, but what was the alternative? The only social structures that would exist for the next thousand years would be the family and the -- well, let's call it "tribe" for want of a better term.

More marriages took place in the aftermath of the commission's report than expected. Since Hitchcock and Roberts had requested their nuptials long before anyone else, their wedding was held first. The muster stood by as Ames recited the simple ceremonial script she had written, based on what she remembered from weddings attended and movies featuring weddings: "Do you take this --" "Do you pledge to --" etc. etc.

Without intending it, Hitchcock's wedding had established a lasting custom -- that of the bride taking her marriage oath under an assumed woman's name. For Hitchcock that name was Mary, of course -- and over the following days we were introduced to Ellen, Lorena, Ilene, Racine, Dysis, Colette, and many others.

* * * *

Chapter 9

*How all the other passions fleet to air As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair, And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy.* THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

The 54th had to do a lot to become self-sufficient -- enough to daunt the bravest soul. For example, amid the overwhelming richness of local flora, we still had to identify those species which might be cultivatable plants. We would also have to experiment with domesticating animals, and if successful, manage their breeding.

But man does not live by bread and meat alone. If our little outpost was not to fall into barbarism within a generation or two, we had to perpetuate our cultural heritage. I especially wished to preserve for posterity the history of our extra-stellar origin and our advent on Klink -- along with the Group's memories of our former homes, families, our knowledge of other places and other ways.

As I contemplated the subject, I wondered how the children of Klink would perceive the strange role of the Assies in our history. Would they feel the same animosity towards them that their parents felt? Or would they see the aliens as benign figures of myth, as gods who led their ancestors along the Sky Path into the Promised Land?

It would be up to the first generation to prevent the darkness of ignorance from descending. It worried me that we had so few books of value, and even these few would be lost in time, unless copies were made.

Above all, we had to see that the arts of reading and writing were passed on, as well as the fundamentals of arithmetic and geometry. I realized that knowledge could not flourish in a vacuum; we needed to create a societal order that made practical use of the civilized arts. The groundwork had to be lain diligently if poetry and engineering were to flower again once the population increased enough to support it.

But what should our first step be? To preserve our books, didn't we have to learn how to make paper? Ancient Egypt had done very well using the stems of the papyrus, and the Romans, as advanced as they were, failed to improve on the invention. Did Klink have anything like papyrus? Could we use fired mud bricks instead, like the ancient Mesopotamians? There was plenty of mud on Klink at least, but I shuddered to think of the entire Holy Bible arduously transcribed and preserved on bricks! One could build a church with a single copy!

But what about other civilized necessities, like clothes? It would be a shame if men reverted to wearing skins. Was there no shearable beast to provide us with wool? Was there no plant fiber to substitute for cotton? I had heard of primitive people on Earth deriving a supple cloth from boiled and beaten tree bark. Might there be a bark on Klink that we could similarly reduce to a durable fabric?

Inevitably, each problem I tried to brainstorm led to another and greater problem which had to be solved first -- such as if a man needs to fetch a pail of water, he first must build a pail. Life on Klink would be an unending series of challenges to our wits and ingenuity. Did any of our crew have knowledge that would speed us along and ease our burden? Clearly, we had to accept ideas and contributions from the ranks and not leave everything to an overwhelmed and uninspired leadership.

#

I saw Sebastian every day, but she never alluded to the baby she was carrying. What did she feel about it? I wanted to be a better friend than I had been in the past, but what could I do for her? Did I dare trespass on something so personal?

A couple weeks after the Roberts-Hitchcock wedding, I went into the infirmary and discovered Sebastian wearing a look of dazed disbelief.

"You're smiling," I observed carefully.

"You wouldn't believe what happened, Rupe!"

"What?"

"I was proposed to."

"By who?"

"Nobody special. Just the father of my child."

"Pvt. Kitterson?"

"The same. I guess he's feeling guilty, or responsible, or something."

"Well, he took his sweet time about stepping forward!"

Sebastian shook her head. "His offer was a carefully considered one. After all, Kitterson's not to blame; the aliens did this."

"You're very generous."

She shrugged.

"What are you going to do?"

"Well, I'm not going to marry Kitterson!"

"Why not?"

"I don't love him."

I stared open-mouthed.

"Love. You know what that is, Rupe. It's important when you're talking about marriage."

"Sure --" I stammered.

"Well, I don't feel anything when I look at Pvt. Stanley Kitterson."

"I suppose that's natural --"

She flashed me a crooked smile. "We left what's natural a few million light years back, old friend. Now we're talking chemistry."

Sebastian crossed to the table to pour a glass of juice from a small plastic tub. We were experimenting with a recently-discovered bush-fruit that we dubbed the "red berry," which had proven tasty, safe, and nutritious. "Want some?" she asked.

"Yes, thanks. It's hot outside."

I took the proffered beaker. Only faintly sweet, the pink mixture must have been three-fourths creek water. Still, red-berry juice made a welcome departure from our usual ration of powdered coffee or tea.

"If it had been someone else, not Kitterson, I might have said yes," Lowry remarked suddenly.

That floored me. "You don't mean it!"

"I said 'might.' I'm not sure what I'm capable of feeling or doing yet, Rupe. Are you?"

I dodged her question. "Do you have a particular man in mind?"

"Don't embarrass me."

This answer intrigued me. I wanted to explore it more and so said, "Stanley's got a nice body, though, doesn't he?"

"I'm surprised that you noticed," she quipped. "Or maybe I shouldn't be."

Despite her evasion, I wasn't put off track. I wondered who in the 54th could she find more interesting than Kitterson, and why.

A startling thought came to me. She could mean Alan Drew! They certainly worked closely together and had gotten to know each other very well. I suddenly realized that I had never heard a word of criticism come from one against the other.

The idea of these two forming a couple bothered me somehow. I suddenly saw a closed loop forming in front of me, my two best friends on the inside with me left in the cold.

"Klink calling Breen! How is it in the stratosphere?"

"Sorry," I said, "my mind wandered. You turned Kitterson down. You've got a Plan B?"

"No, and that scares me."

"You're scared about rearing a child alone, aren't you?" I hadn't intended to be quite so blunt about it.

She returned an uneasy glance. "It's hard, Rupe."

"I know -- ," I began, regretting that I had brought up the subject in the first place.

"No, you don't know! Not everything."

"Am I dumb or something?"

"No, of course not. But it's not just what goes on here on Klink. It bothers me that David and Wanda will soon have a baby brother or sister, and --" her tone grew shaky " -- and they'll never know it. And, well, that seems sad to me."

David and Wanda were her -- his -- son and daughter on Earth. Sebastian's separation from them had long been an open wound.

"They think I'm dead," she went on in that same unsteady tenor. "Maybe that's for the best. It would have to hurt them more to know that their dad was alive, but that he -- he could never come home!" Now Sebastian's voice began to break. "It would be hard . . . going back to them like this . . . even if it were possible. . . ."

I saw glittering beads in the corners of her eyes and reached out to her, wanting to comfort her, but she shook her head.

"I'm all right."

The physician steadied herself and we chatted for a while longer on other subjects -- about her work, about my ideas regarding agriculture, about the three R's and paper- and cloth-making. Nonetheless, I drew the impression that her heart wasn't into any of the subjects on the table.

"Did what you and Alan Drew went through during the Madness cause any problems?" Sebastian suddenly inquired.

Now this was a question from left field! "Well, no," I responded warily. "Did he say anything to make you think that we were having problems?"

"I just thought it was possible," she shrugged.

"I suppose it could have caused problems -- but it didn't!" I assured her.

She gave me a funny look. "Okay, it didn't. Sorry I asked."

Her sudden interest in Alan Drew had started ringing a bell in my mind. Why the odd question? Was Sebastian hoping for some friction between the medic and myself? If so, why? Maybe my relationship with Alan was inconvenient to her. Could she be jealous?

"Rupe, did I say something wrong?"

"Wrong? Of course not! Doc, what are you going on about?"

She gave me another quizzical look and abandoned the subject. Suffering from a sudden mood swing, I wasn't much company and so, after a couple more minutes of pointless conversation, I excused myself. While withdrawing I felt Sebastian's studying gaze burning into my back.

# I had hoped that my periodic funks lay behind me, but I found myself downcast for the rest of the day and could hardly sleep that night.

I got up listlessly the next morning and chomped down a ration biscuit for breakfast. Even this simple act depressed me; how would we provide for five hundred people once our limited stores were exhausted? Were we going to be starving by this time next year?

I looked outside; it was overcast, which did not improve my mood. I went to my logbook and started a new entry to give myself something to do. Before I realized it, droplets were spotting the pages. I wiped the splashes off the open pages with my sleeve and then pushed the book away before I damaged it more. I couldn't forget my conversation with Sebastian. She was my friend, she was the most important man -- person -- in the whole camp. She had suffered so much, had done so much for others. Her happiness had to come first, regardless of the consequences for me. Yet I couldn't shake off a sense of profound loss. My eyes burned and I started thinking that it hadn't been lucky after all that Alan Drew had saved my life on Woolenska's Leap.

I lifted my head suddenly. The death wish had returned!

My mind raced; if I was suicidal, I needed help immediately. I had to be with my watcher!

I left my hut and crossed to Alan's barracks. The young medic was with two other soldiers and the three young men snapped to attention. "At ease," I said, then added in a low and tentative voice, "Gentlemen, could you give Pvt. Drew and me some privacy?"

I waited for the men to disappear, then turned toward Alan, only to find myself at a loss for words.

"Sir?" he queried.

"I'm sorry," I began awkwardly. "I mean, I'm having a rough time. I -- could use some company."

He regarded me curiously and suggested, "If you're feeling depressed maybe we should take a walk together."

"If you think it would be a good idea."

Without answering, Alan lightly placed his hand on the small of my back and guided me outside. I found that while I had nothing much to say, I felt better being with -- someone.

"I had a bad night," I admitted finally. "I don't think I slept two hours."

"You do seem keyed up, Major. I'd recommend exercise. Or would you rather go to your hut and catch up on your rest?"

"I don't want to be alone."

He returned a kind of sphinx-like smile, saying, "Why don't we follow the stream?"

I nodded. There is something about the human eye and ear that loves water -- its sound, the feel of it running over feet and hands, the glint of its ripples under the sky. The sun had just come out and it was growing hot very quickly. We made for the coolness of the adjacent arbors, whose supple branches, like willow whips, bent so low that they swept the grass when the breeze stirred them. Once out of sight of the camp I relaxed.

"You were doing well," Alan remarked. "Did anything happen?"

"I was talking to Sebastian --" I began unwisely.

"Did you quarrel?"

"No. It's personal," I hedged.

"All right; don't tell me anything that you don't want to."

I was grateful to let the matter drop and we soon came to the "swimming hole," a broad, deep portion of the stream where the troopers liked to take their baths. The water was always cold because it issued from an artesian spring in the nearby hills, but a bracing dip would be a welcomed relief from the subtropical heat. I sat down; the shaded rock beneath me feeling cool through my denim. There were small brown animals playing on the rocks not far away, their faces fox-like, their gray pelts dotted with darker spots.

Some Klinkian animals were very wary, but others, like these, had no instinctive fear of humans. I supposed that they would acquire one in time; we had such ineffective hunting tools that we were unable to pass by easy prey, and that was sad. Klink, as we found it, reminded me of the Genesis story -- of the harmony which prevailed between the first animals and the first Man and Woman. Then Sin arose and fear came into the world.

While I definitely desired company, I could put little of what was bothering me into simple terms. I thought that I shouldn't sit there like a dummy, though, and tried to make conversation. But the first time I opened my mouth I betrayed myself.

"You and Sebastian are very good friends, aren't you?"

"Yes, we are. Why?"

"No reason."

He looked at me keenly. "There must be a reason. You hinted that talking to Dr. Lowry depressed you."

"It's just that --"

He waited patiently for me to go on.

I took a deep breath. "-- It's just that with people working together closely, they, well, they naturally tend to get -- close."

"I suppose the doctor and I are close, on one level."

"What level?"

"The level of working well together!" His penetrating expression made me look away.

"What's this about?" he asked.

"It's nothing. It's just that Dr. Lowry hinted -- just hinted -- that she was interested in somebody -- a man -- but wouldn't say who it was."

"You've never been a busybody before."

I looked back at him in surprise. I wasn't used to being spoken to by a subordinate that way but, again, his statement was within bounds for a friend, or a medical advisor.

"I'm not a busybody. I was just wondering --"

"You were wondering whether something was developing between Dr. Lowry and myself?"

I gulped hard. Had I been so transparent?

"Well, you needn't worry --"

"I wasn't worried!" I broke in.

"You don't have to worry," he persisted. "Sebastian is my superior and my friend, that's all."

"That's all I thought you were!"

"Besides," he concluded, "I'm not that kind of a man."

His words struck me powerfully. In one sense I felt relieved by them, but in another, and for reasons which evaded me, disappointed. "No, I didn't suppose that you were! Really, I don't know how the men can be falling in love and even marrying each other. It's -- illogical."

Alan shook his head. "I didn't mean that. I don't know what's logical or not anymore. What I'm saying is that I'm not the sort who could be interested in two people at the same time."

Two people? I stared in amazement; Alan's confession was even more appalling than Sebastian's. "You're interested in somebody?" I blurted. "-- No, don't tell me! It's not my business."

He placed his hand lightly on my lower arm. "Of course it's your business, Major. Friends talk things over. You do consider us friends, don't you?"

"Yes, of course!"

"You might be the very person I need to advise me."

"Advice is cheap," I replied uneasily. Did Alan really expect me to advise him how to further his love affair? For some reason, my mood was sinking again.

"My problem is that I'm attracted to this -- woman -- but she's been having a rough time since her transformation and can't possibly feel the same way I do."

"Maybe you should try to forget her."

He smiled. "I couldn't do that -- not unless she told me straight out that she could never reciprocate."

"Then why don't you be up front with her?" I suggested, hoping that he wouldn't take my advice too seriously.

"Two reasons," Alan replied wistfully. "I think that she's slowly becoming accustomed to being a woman and, if I'm patient, the day will come when she won't reject me straight-off."

"That could take a long time," I warned.

"Maybe, but there's a worse problem. She's of a higher rank. It's always been drilled into us as soldiers to respect the braid and never fraternize, but it's driving me crazy! I want to touch her, I want to hold her, I want to tell her how much I care."

"It sounds hopeless," I adjudged. "You'd better give it up! You shouldn't chase after a person -- especially an officer -- unless they give you encouragement."

"I see things that encourage me -- many small, wonderful things. If I could only be sure that I'm not misunderstanding."

This was getting worse and worse! I tried to guess who it was that he was talking about. Capt. Ames? Tritcher? Lt. Pitts? Any one of those supernally beautiful women might have captured the eye of a man. Drew must have spoken to all of them at length through his medical duties. I suspected Ames especially -- she was such a cat -- always trying to draw attention to herself!

"I can't give up hope," sighed Alan. "Not until I'm forced to."

He was so stubborn! Unfortunately, men like Drew usually got what they set their sights on.

"It seems like you've got it bad for this -- lucky person," I observed.

"Lucky? It's a catastrophe! She's an officer; I'm nobody. We're friends now, but if I say the wrong thing at the wrong time it might be over!"

"Don't call yourself a nobody!" I admonished him. "In a couple years everything is going to be changed. You'll be a doctor by then, about the most important person around here. And you can be pretty sure that this separation into military ranks won't last forever. The people with special skills or insights are going to be the important ones. You have many talents and qualities that command respect."

"Do I? Like what?"

I drew in a deep draft of air, thinking hard and trying to answer honestly. "Well, you're steady, hard-working. You're intelligent and understanding. You've got taste, and talent. You're good at your job, and you have skills that we wouldn't want to do without. You're also a compassionate man with a fine -- uh, bedside manner."

"Anything else?"

"Well, physically, a woman -- if we had real women around here -- would find you an attractive figure of a man -- I imagine."

"I'm flattered."

"It's not flattery! -- And I'm not the only one who thinks so! No, I mean --" I felt my face getting hot. "It's, well --" Alan had a way of getting me flustered -- this time much too flustered to go on.

"I'd like to take a dip," the young man stated abruptly, thereby taking me off the hook. "Would you care to join me, Major, or would that be fraternization?"

"Technically it would be -- but everyone knows I'm crazy, so I can do anything I want."

"That's the wonderful thing about being crazy," he grinned.

Alan stripped to his shorts. I took off my sandals and cutoffs, exposing my own droopy drawers, but, unlike him, I kept my shirt on.

He jackknifed into the pool and I followed, feet-first. The artesian chill went right through me, but my inner thermostat quickly adjusted. We swam back and forth for a while, floating, dipping, paddling.

Before long, we emerged soaking wet and shook ourselves like dogs. I wrung my hair; it must have soaked up a pondful of water. Why had I kept it long all this while? I thought that it would make sense to get a short trim once I got back to camp.

"I hate this hair," I remarked.

"You shouldn't. It's -- lovely."

I looked at him incredulously; it was not the sort of compliment that I was used to. Instead of rebuking him, I laughed it off.

We went out into the sun to dry. I felt better after the swim, but Alan's mood had altered subtly and his glance was making me uncomfortable.

"That really wore me out," I jabbered. "I think I should catch up on that sleep now."

"Can I trust you to be alone?"

"I don't want to kill myself. At least not today."

"I really hope not," he replied.

* * * *

Chapter 10

*Thou think'st 'tis much that this contentious storm Invades us to the skin; so 'tis to thee; But where the greater malady is fix'd The lesser is scarce felt.* KING LEAR

I slept poorly that night and kept to myself the following morning. In the afternoon, thick black thunderheads rolled in from the west and although we were used to Klinkian storms, this incoming blow looked like a mean one.

Standing outside my door, I watched people hurrying about, battening down, covering equipment. I thought I should shutter my windows, but my mood was much too low.

I was thinking about Alan, the tumult of the storm echoing my own confusion. Alan was in love with a transformee! Had he lost his reason? Transformees weren't women. How could a normal man be attracted to one? Or was Alan Drew simply less of a man than I believed?

Anyway, I knew what I was. Alone. I thought of Rupert Breen and missed him so much that the pain felt like a knife through my body. Rupert had been indomitable; he never allowed his loneliness to wear him down. When would I be myself again, inwardly at least? Where was my vanished inner strength, my lost self-sufficiency? When would duty and service again be enough -- enough to fill my empty days with satisfaction and meaning?

Overhead, the sky had darkened to slate on which, I imagined, I could draw my innermost thoughts. What I found myself chalking down was a portrait of Alan.

That appalled me. Why couldn't I drive Alan Drew from my mind? Was it because I had tied the wreck of my life to his solid rock and was now afraid to be cast adrift again?

Lightning flared behind the treetops and the thunder roared with the voice of an angry forest giant. The boles near the camp shook violently and the harsh wind swept the storm's first stinging droplets against my cheeks like chips of ice. As the downpour grew more intense and lightning flashed and fired like heavy artillery, I stood there in place, quickly soaked to the skin.

Suddenly I saw someone running my way -- big, broad-shouldered, powerfully striding. I didn't recognize him in his rainwear, but, as the man jogged closer, he raised the brim of his rain-plashed hat and I recognized Alan. Private Drew, that is. He looked askance when he joined me.

"Major! What's wrong? You should go inside!"

I didn't move, didn't reply. Alan waited a few seconds before he took my arm and dragged me indoors, not against my will, but without my help.

"Aren't you well?" he asked anxiously.

"I was thinking," I replied, as if mollifying not a living man, but a phantom in a dream.

He barred the door against the wind, then turned my way.

"You're soaking wet, sir. You should put on something dry."

"Don't you mean, 'ma'am?'" I quipped forlornly.

He looked at me carefully. "I'll call you ma'am if you'd prefer, Major."

I shrugged. Terms of address seemed unimportant. "You were watching me?"

"Everyone saw you still standing outside in the storm."

The hut was now shuddering from the wind. Alan went about covering my windows while I stood there. The lightning cast blue flashes through every crack while thunder pealed and rain beat the roof like drumming fists.

"Have a chair. Stay until the storm passes," I suggested, turning on the battery-powered lamp.

Alan took off his hat and sat down, but did not lose his worried look.

"I'm all right," I assured him. "I've always enjoyed storms. It's been too long since I've taken time to watch one roll in."

"That's fine, Major, but you could get a chill."

"Did you come over to be my doctor?"

"If you need one. But first we have to get you out of those wet clothes."

"Sure," I said indifferently.

He went to my trunk where he found my bathrobe and a towel. I started taking my uniform off in front of him. Why shouldn't I? He was a medical man, and I was his patient.

When I was nude, I accepted the towel from his hand to dry my face and hair. Then I held my arms to let him slip my absorbent robe over me. Listlessly, I knotted the sash, while Alan removed his wet-weather gear.

It occurred to me that I was being a poor host, and so took a rations tin from the shelf. Company on a stormy day was a good reason to splurge a bit.

"A biscuit?" I asked.

"Thank you, sir," he said.

"Someday we're going to have fresh bread," I remarked, "if only we can find something to grind into flour."

"I can't wait!" he responded.

I handed him half of the biscuit and poured red-berry juice into a couple of aluminum mugs. "Sebastian brought it over this morning," I remarked casually.

He accepted the cup, saying, "I've been wondering whether this stuff ferments."

I shrugged. "It depends on Klink's microbes. The things we don't know about this world would fill a library."

"Finding everything out is going to keep life interesting."

I tasted the first crumbs of my half-biscuit. "We might not like everything we discover," I warned, though I meant nothing in particular.

"We have to know as much as we can, especially about what's dangerous or unpleasant."

"Lots of things are dangerous and unpleasant," I whispered. "Most things, in fact."

"What's that, sir?"

I eased myself against the desk and raised my cup in toast. "To progress, to survival -- and danger."

Alan likewise lifted his mug and took a sip. "It's very good, Major."

"My name is Rupert, you know. I'd like you to start calling me by it, at least when we're alone."

He returned a thoughtful frown. "I'd rather not."

I felt surprised and hurt.

"I mean, you don't look like a Rupert," he explained carefully. "I feel more comfortable with 'Major,' begging the major's pardon."

"Whether I look like it or not, Rupert's my name."

"What's your middle name, sir?"

"Eberhart. I never use it."

"I can see why."

I scowled; nobody likes to have fun made of his name; but I understood his sentiment. "Maybe that's why Mark calls himself Mary, and Micah, Ruth, and. . . ."

"I suppose it is," Alan agreed noncommittally.

Shifting my position, my robe inadvertently parted, baring one of my legs from the toe nearly to the hip. The sight instantly registered in Alan's expression, though he deftly corrected it. I smiled secretly and carried on as if I hadn't noticed either the slippage or his reaction.

"You're in an unusual mood, Major," he observed. "Did you sleep last night?"

I shook my head. "I woke about five. How are things going with you?"

"What things?"

"The pursuit of your unattainable love, for one thing."

He smiled ambiguously, but demurred to answer.

"It's not fair that you're keeping me in the dark," I said with a toss of my head. "At least tell me what she looks like. She -- she must be beautiful."

"If I described her you might guess who she is."

"That's the point."

"I might be embarrassed if you knew."

"Maybe I'd have an idea for helping you win her. I know my officers very well."

"And noncoms," Alan put in.

"She's a sergeant?"

"I didn't say that."

"I don't understand why you're being mysterious. If you're ashamed of having fallen in love with a man, maybe you shouldn't pursue this person!" There was more than a bit of acid in my challenge.

"She used to be a man --" he began defensively, then shrugged resignedly. "Maybe she still is, down deep. I don't understand any of this, Major, and I don't understand how I can feel the way I do, but I can't help it."

"Maybe you're lonely," I postulated.

He looked at me as if I were a code that he could almost, but not quite, decipher.

"She's -- she's very attractive, as you say," he resumed. "I especially like her hair and her eyes, but it's much more than that. There's this incredible magnetism about her."

I nodded, waiting for more.

"When she was a man she seemed distant, cold. But I respected her -- him -- even then. She -- he -- was the sort of man who put the good of the Group before himself."

"If I were you, Private," I advised him superciliously, "I wouldn't waste my time with a cold woman."

He shook his head. "She's not really cold. I should have realized that shyness often comes across as aloofness, especially in a man."

Shyness? A clue at last! I tried to match the word to a person. Second Lieutenant Kaopoulis, maybe.

"I think it's her shyness that made my heart go out to her --" Alan continued. "Underneath, I think she's surprisingly innocent and easily-injured. When a man sees vulnerability in a woman, well, he naturally wants to protect her, to keep her from ever being hurt again."

"Do you think you could do that for her?"

"Nobody can be another person's suit of armor, Major, but I'd certainly try my best."

I was struggling to keep my voice steady, but hated this conversation. "She's a lucky -- person --" I ventured, "to have a man like you interested, even if she doesn't know it yet."

"You don't think that she'd despise me -- as overprotective and smothering?"

"The right kind of protectiveness isn't patronizing."

"What's the right kind?"

"Everybody has to fight his own battles, Alan. It's insulting not to trust a person to stand on his or her own two feet. But, then again, everyone needs someone, somewhere, to retreat to for reinforcements, for resupply. No one can go it alone all the time."

For some reason, Alan chose that moment to rise and step closer; now it was my turn to feel uneasy. I had the impulse to cover my leg, but didn't want to draw attention to the fact that I had been -- what? -- teasing him?

"I've wanted to tell her what I feel for weeks," he said with strange intensity, "but I've been worried that if I speak too soon, it will probably destroy any chance that I have."

"Chance for what?" I asked with a slight quiver. "Do you really want to jump into bed with her that badly?"

"No -- I just want to hold her, to tell her honestly what I feel, to share my time with her. What happens after that, we'll just have to see."

The more powerful the interest he expressed in his mystery woman, the more depressed I became. I fought hard to maintain my composure.

"Maybe you need a John Alden," I suggested.

"Are you volunteering, sir?"

"Possibly," I nodded with feigned benignity, but my thoughts flowed treacherous. If I could only find who Alan was fixated on, I might be able to keep him and her apart. What a selfish thing to be plotting! What sort of person was I? -- But I knew what sort -- the sort who was fighting against loneliness, fighting with the desperation of a drowning man.

"I don't know now," he smiled. "John Alden was a washout as a go-between."

True. Legend said that Alden stole Priscilla from Miles Standish, the man whose troth he had agreed to plead. Love did not conquer all, but it often conquered honor. "John and Priscilla got mixed up in the male-female thing," I explained blandly.

"That couldn't happen here, I guess."

"Of course not!" I exclaimed. What was he suggesting? That I could fall in love with a transformee?

"Is there something wrong, Major?"

"It's nothing. It's just that, well, I've lost a lot of friends once they became romantically-obsessed. If that happened with us, I'd regret it. Besides, that girl of yours probably has some bad qualities that you're overlooking. I worry about you. If things go sour down the line, you won't be able to put it behind you and move on. This is a very small town."

"You may be right -- there's one bad thing about her that I've found already."

"What's that?" I asked hopefully.

"She doesn't have sense enough to come in out of the rain."

I grunted disparagingly. "She sounds like an airhead --" Only then did the words sink in. I stared at him, astonished, and for a moment our linked gazes communicated volumes.

What he saw in my eyes told him that it wouldn't be forbidden to put his arms around his C.O. or to crush his lips against hers. It would be perfectly all right to clasp her to him as if she were the heroine on the cover of an old romantic novel.

#

We didn't jump into bed; that stuff is for kids. Admitting that we loved one another was itself like crossing a mountain range. I still couldn't believe what had happened. When had it happened? What did it mean? I was a person that a man could love? Was I in love myself -- and with a man? Had I turned gay -- or was I something else, something almost impossible to contemplate? -- that I had become not only a woman in body, but a woman of emotion who could love and be loved by a man.

Whatever I was, wherever this thing was leading me, I wanted to be careful. What would people think? Soldiers would never follow an officer whom they held in contempt. Also, I wanted to be careful about making a mistake, one that could change my life radically and force me into circumstances I never had to consider before -- like Mary Roberts had to.

Reality had changed in a single hour! I had worried myself sick over some nameless rival and that rival never existed! I could have strangled Alan for putting me through such an ordeal, but instead of recriminating, we kissed desperately, clinging to each other as if this moment would be our last. We didn't say a lot, except breathless things like, "We shouldn't be doing this," or "This is crazy," and "What will people say?" but we were both singing sonnets, if non-vocally.

Later, sitting together on my bed, we finally came up for air long enough to discuss practicalities.

There were many to consider. How would the troopers react to a major, the commanding officer, taking a private for a suitor? For a lover? Alan's status might be raised a little, but he ran the risk of drawing resentment, envy, of being mistaken for an ambitious Lothario. For my part, I expected to be looked down on for granting "my favors" to one beneath "my station." But, everyone was beneath my station. That's what you got when you operated in a pyramidal hierarchy.

"We can't give you a promotion," I said, thinking out-loud. "It would send the wrong message. It's the old story of a good-looking subordinate sleeping his or her way to the top. I could resign my commission, though," I suggested.

He shook his head emphatically. "I want to give you the world, Major. I don't want to take anything away."

"Living is a trade-off," I sighed. "Anyway, no matter what we do, could you see me ever resuming command around here again?"

"I don't see why not."

I thought that his feelings were blinding him. "Even if I stop having suicidal depressions," I explained carefully, "there's no telling when we'll get another bout of Madness. Periodic insanity is not a good recommendation for command."

"It'll probably never happen again," he averred, though without much conviction.

"All I know is that Klink's secret masters seem to win every trick."

"Some of Klink's tricks are better than others," he whispered, as he slipped his hand into my robe and took fond hold of that thigh which had so captured his eye. . . .

#

After that, life was hell.

What an unaware babe-in-the-woods I had been! I had been falling in love with Alan for weeks, and all the while calling it something else.

And I was absolutely convinced that everyone knew I was in love with Alan Drew. I walked the camp not with confidence, but like a thief who senses the security patrols closing in.

Despite my anxiety, no one treated me differently, not even Sebastian who had proven herself so astute in the past. But I was different, inwardly, and that made the difference.

I should have been in bliss now that a gulf had closed between my mind and my emotions, but all I could think of was that other gulf which yawned open. Was I ashamed of my feelings? Would my apparent weakness cause people to lose respect for me -- and would it diminish their regard for Alan? Did it matter? I momentarily imagined myself as one regarded as camp trollop, scorned, sniggered at -- and decided that I didn't like that particular fantasy one bit.

#

Alan and I swam in the creek the next day, believing that since we had gotten away with it once, we might again. Another swim meant another wet shirt, of course and I went back to my hut to change, Alan escorting me.

As I took a dry tunic from my footlocker, my companion remarked: "You'd look sexy in that shirt."

"Oh?" I responded, not sure whether I liked being considered "sexy." There's nothing sexy about a service shirt.

"It can be, if you do things right," he clarified. "Just wear the shirt; make a tunic of it -- like a lot of the women are doing."

Not taking him seriously, I slipped the blouse on. "Oh, sure! You want me to go around like Halder, or Marduke?"

"Why not? You've got prettier legs than either of them."

"You've got to be kidding! Those two are gorgeous."

"You're gorgeous, too."

The compliment made my face warm, as if a sunlamp was shining on it. "Go on! A shirttail looks awful over these dumpy drawers. And don't expect me to walk around bare-bottomed."

"No problem. Haven't you been watching the girls lately?"

"That's more your department," I quipped.

"They've rediscovered the venerable loincloth. Let me show you how to make one."

"I don't know about this," I hedged.

"You weren't so squeamish on Helene, Major."

I lifted my chin defensively. "There, we were only facing planet-busters and orbiting cannons."

Alan laughed, but wasn't to be denied. For the next quarter hour I became his clothes dummy. He took a bootstring and girdled it around my waist, then subsequently ran one of my large handkerchiefs between my legs, pinning it fore and aft. (Alan suggested that sewing it to the girdle would be better.) After a little folding and tucking, I suddenly found myself wearing a very serviceable bikini bottom.

I regarded the result with misgivings. "Fun is fun, Alan, but I'm no sex-sim girl --"

"I always think of you as a sex-sim girl," he smirked.

The liberties the private was allowing himself were mind-boggling, but I had a bad case of the Drews. If I pinned his shoulders to the wall on this or any other excuse, it would hurt our relationship. Besides, I knew a few things about the psychology of men, both in and out of love, and so let him have his fun.

He looped a second bootstring around my middle, tying it in a slipknot belt emphasizing the narrowness of my waist, in effect creating a very short skirt out of the shirttail. Finally, he adjusted the tie, remarking, "Most women are wearing it with the knot a little forward on the right. Our C.O. has to represent the height of fashion."

"The beginning of Klinkian haut culture?" I remarked with a twitchy smile.

"I guess so. Anyway, you look fine."

"I feel like a chorus girl."

"Maybe you missed you calling."

"Hey --!"

He took my arm, suggesting, "Let's go outside, Major. I want everyone to know how beautiful my girl is."

I pulled away frantically. "Oh no you don't! Nobody's going to see me like this!"

"Come on, Commander. Ames will die of envy."

"Let her die anyway she wants to! I've got my pride --"

The dirty dog simply scooped me up, throwing me over his shoulder cave-man-like, then carried me to the door, which he proceeded to unbar.

"You idiot! This is assaulting an officer! I'll have you doing ten thousand push-ups! You'll be digging latrines for the rest of your life --! I'll --"

He put me down with a raucous laugh, then pasted a hard kiss to my gasping mouth. I pushed back and glared at him furiously, but my nonplus only incited him to greater mirth.

"Ease up, Major. I was only joking."

I calmed myself with an act of supreme will. He was such a clown -- but I had always known that. It was part of that funny mix of things that attracted me to him.

"I wish you'd stop calling me major," I sighed.

* * * *

Chapter 11

*Love comforteth like sunshine after rain, But Lust's effect is tempest after sun.* VENUS AND ADONIS

Along with everything else, Dr. Lowry had to address a hysterical anxiety among the expectant mothers -- namely that their babies might be born mutants with alien DNA or have other abnormalities. I easily understood how such fears originated -- someone had played outrageously with our genetics and it was only a small mental leap from there to wondering whether they would give birth to monsters. All Sebastian could do was reassure her patients that she could detect no hint of abnormality in the fetuses.

Everything I learned from the doctor about the physical and dispositional changes accompanying pregnancy reinforced my decision to play it chaste. I found it hard to understand how a woman, even a real woman, could ever want to become pregnant or, once she had experienced it, that she would ever allow it to occur twice -- but I thought it wise not to take a superior attitude on the subject. I had accepted a male lover; who knew what other attitude changes Klink had programmed into us?

It troubled Dr. Lowry that we had a paucity of pediatric-specific supplies. Forget the pharmaceuticals which we didn't have; we even lacked baby powder and faced a future in which our days and nights would be rived by the cries of chapped infants. Though we still had a little of the adult equivalent, its medicated dust, according to Lowry, would be too harsh for an infant's delicate lungs. Cornstarch would be the best solution, but -- alas -- Klink had no corn.

We were also bereft of much in the way of strong, absorbent cloth for diapers. To meet this crisis, I resolved to pursue my fabric-from-tree-bark theory as a personal project.

Accordingly, I sought the advice of everyone with botanical knowledge but, alas, none of our troopers had anything useful to suggest. Determined to do good nonetheless, I went about the area, sometimes accompanied by Alan, sometimes alone, taking samples of bark from every local species

After each day's search, I made a fire and subjected each specimen to boiling and subsequent beating, as I had read about primitive tribes doing long ago. I felt like a medieval alchemist conducting experiments on the basis of almost zero knowledge. As it turned out, however, no amount of boiling and pounding ever reduced any slip of bark I worked on into anything resembling cloth.

In less than two weeks I had ruled out every species of tree -- a term we used to describe any large, trunked Klinkian plant -- which we had so far identified. But I recalled seeing many trees growing on Woolenska's Hill, and so suggested another sample-collecting outing to Alan. He agreed -- perhaps because my returning to Woolenska's Hill alone bothered him, or perhaps because he realized that the trip promised us a little welcome privacy.

Alan was unshaven when he called at my hut that morning.

"My razors are dull," he explained. "Some guys are shaving with utility knives, but I didn't want to turn my face into hamburger before meeting you. Anyway, I used to wear a beard in college before I got drafted."

I nodded resignedly. One by one, the amenities of civilization were falling away. But more disheartening than the prospect of the 54th turning into a tribe of cave people was the thought of kissing someone who might soon have a beard like a 'Forty-Niner.

We hiked to the hilltop and, being very tired, sat down in the shade of a white stone outcropping to refresh ourselves from our canteens. Once out of the sun it didn't take Alan long to become frisky; he sidled close to me and took my hands in his. Fighting down my residual queasiness about intimacy with a male, I rested my head on his sweat-dampened shoulder.

Powerful memories came rushing back as we sat there quietly -- memories of our last time on this bluff. The mere fact that I was breathing I owed to Alan. I owed him more than I could ever repay -- and also believed that our shared experience had forged a bond stronger than Tosolian steel. In some civilizations, the act of saving a woman's life would make her the property of her rescuer -- his slave even, if he wanted her that way. I had read a novel where -- well, no use fantasizing about silly fiction.

"Alan, what's going to become of us?" I asked suddenly.

"I don't know. It's best to take things slow."

"I guess you have your reservations, too."

He shifted my way. "I suppose. I wish I had the nerve that Roberts does -- to be open about what I feel, no matter what anyone else thinks."

I looked at him annoyedly. "Do you think this business doesn't require nerve from the woman, too?"

"I suppose it takes even more," he conceded genially, adding, "You know, it's getting harder and harder to remember that you were our rangy, square-jawed commander."

"But I was," I sighed. "We've got to work through that fact, as hard as it is."

After a moment's reflection he asked: "What do you feel when you look at me?"

I gazed into his unshaven face, into those soft, powder-blue eyes, and replied with more lightness than I felt, "I like what I see -- mostly."

"Mostly? Come on, level with me!"

I slumped against the white stone. "It's hell," I confessed. "How can the sight of any male affect me the way you affect me? I can't stand the idea of being laughed at for weakness, or being thought queer."

Alan's expression suddenly sobered. I realized too late how my words wounded him. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded," I pleaded.

He nodded somberly. "I know you didn't."

To make amends, I nestled closer. He mollified enough to put his arm around me and draw me in. His hug felt good, but an internal dichotomy told me that despite my pleasure I must be doing something Wrong.

After a while, Alan grew restless, suggesting: "Maybe we should check these trees."

Reluctantly, I eased myself up. "It's as hot as Antares up here, but I came prepared."

With that I unbuckled my belt and dropped my trousers. Alan's eyebrows went up, noting that I wore a loincloth instead of my usual baggy shorts. While he watched, I arranged my shirttails and, from my breast pocket, picked a second bootstring to bind my waist.

"Is this an attempt to seduce me?" Alan inquired with a big, wide grin.

"It's for freedom of movement," I said matter-of-factly, "and it's much cooler."

"You could sunburn those beautiful legs, Major."

I turned, exasperated. "Don't call me Major! It puts a distance between us, and -- and I don't want us to have any distance."

"Like I said before, I'd rather call you Major than Rupert. It's too unfeminine. It puts another kind of distance between us, and I don't want that either."

"Don't be pig-headed, guy! On this planet Rupert will probably be considered a woman's name."

"I hope not!" he said glumly, then instantly brightened. "Say, I know -- what was it that your mother would have called you had you been born a girl?"

The question caught me flat-footed. "I don't know," I equivocated.

"Come on now, Major, every woman who's ever carried a child always has both a boy's and a girl's name picked out. Your mother must have told you -- mothers always enjoy humiliating their sons by telling them what their alternate name would have been. I would have been Diane, in fact."

"On this crazy planet, you could be Diane tomorrow!"

"I hope not -- it would spoil a lot of possibilities. But don't change the subject."

"Like I said, I don't know!"

He took my hand and pulled me down beside him.

"What now?" I scowled.

"I'll show you what now!"

He started tickling my ribs.

"Stop that!"

"Not till you tell me what I want to know!"

I fought down the urge to shriek. "If I told you -- you-you'd start calling me by it!"

"What's wrong with that?"

"It's not dignified!"

"Would it be dignified if I put you over my knee and paddled you till you came clean?"

I threw a punch at him. "Don't try it!"

He let me go. "Look, what's the big deal? All the women are changing their names."

"Not the officers!"

"Bull! Captain Tritcher is calling herself Jasmine now."

"She is?" I shook my head. "She looks like the king of Elfland's daughter; if I had her face and build, I'd call myself Eveleen, or Daphne, or something sylvan like that."

"Do you like those names -- Eveleen or Daphne?"

"Don't even think of it!"

"Come on, sexy. If you don't tell me your girl's name, I'm going to pick one for you myself."

"Stow it, soldier!"

"You know, your hair looks like those Gypsy girls in the old movies. I think I'm going to call you 'Gypsy.'"

I bopped him in the shoulder. "There, that's what I think of your damned Gypsy!"

"Gypsy-Gypsy-Gypsy!"

I took another swing at him; he ducked it and grabbed me about the waist. Once he had my arms pinned, he started tickling my ribs again. I yelled wildly, struggled to get away, but he was too strong for me and I was breathless with laughter by the time my captor deigned to show mercy. For a while we reclined there, me on my back, him propped above me gazing into my face with a long stem of grass between his teeth.

"You hayseed!" I rebuked him.

"Show some deference, woman, or you'll get more."

"Don't call me a woman, you -- man!"

His fingers were on me again.

"No, stop!" I laughed.

"Tell me what your girl's name is."

"No!"

He kept at it until I had enough. A person can only endure so much torture.

" -- M-Mom said she'd had 'Katherine' p-picked out," I gasped, then added: "Don't ever call me that!"

"Kathy-Kathy-Kathy!" he hectored. Exasperated, I swung at him again. This time he caught my roundhouse, pulled me forward, and pecked me on the nose.

"Damn you!" I cried, "Show respect to your commanding officer or I'll have you court-martialed!"

He looked me straight in the eye. "You've got to decide whether you want to be loved or simply obeyed, Kathy. -- Besides, who'd ever convict me for tickling the sexiest girl on the planet?"

"I said, don't call me Kathy! And don't be complacent -- officers are bad asses and they'll nail you if I asked them to. Besides -- Ames is much sexier than me."

"No, she's not."

"Give me a break!"

"I don't think that there's anybody on Klink sexier than you."

I had to admit, he had the knack for mollifying me.

I finally got around to asking Alan whether he had felt Dr. Lowry's pheromone effect that night of the Madness.

"And how!" he exclaimed. "It was the hardest thing I ever did, not touching you."

"You could have touched me just a little," I suggested.

"You're crazy!"

"Do you know anyone who has a better reason to be?"

Instead of answering, he kissed me. I knew then that it was going to be hard smooching with someone wearing a beard. Worse, he tried to sneak his tongue between my teeth.

I squirmed away with a wry face. "You're moving too fast!"

"Too fast? At the rate we're going, Rip Van Winkle would wake up before he missed anything. What sort of sex life did you have in your last incarnation, Kathy?!"

"A sex life very different from this one!"

"Well, at least you're learning to answer to your name!"

"Oooh!" I cried, shoving him furiously.

He took that as a challenge and his hands were suddenly all over my body, working his hands into my shirt. I gasped as he fondled my breasts; not long before, I had been embarrassed to have that pair of jugs pushing out in front of me, but their possibilities in lovemaking seemed to be fantastic!

I also was becoming aware of how easy it was for a woman to be persuaded by someone she really cared about to go too far, despite any apprehension regarding the well-attested consequences.

#

What to do? By being so stubbornly virginal I felt that I was cheating Alan. -- And I guess he felt the same way, because he suddenly asked, "How did men control themselves before contraception?!"

"They didn't. They sired a lot of bastards. -- Except that I read a few used sheep guts for condoms, like Casanova."

"Did it work?"

"He only had one bastard -- at least only one that he knew about. -- Not a bad record, considering his life style."

Alan's stare became intense and serious. "Our children wouldn't be bastards, Kathy. I'd marry you in a minute."

Children? The idea was mind-boggling.

"Did I say something wrong?" he asked.

"Are -- are you proposing to me?"

"I suppose I am."

I bit my lip. Marriage? Wifehood? Possible motherhood?

"Major?"

I rolled away, shaking my head. "This is crazy, Alan. If I became a man again tomorrow, this would seem like weird dream."

"A sexy dream."

"Okay, a sexy weird dream."

He reached out but I eluded him and got up. "We'd better buckle down and examine these trees," I proposed, eager for a subject which I could handle better.

He sagged backwards against the stone. I could almost hear him thinking, "Women!"

Well, there was no help for it. I turned toward a hilltop grove to see what I could find. I recognized some species in it, though most had no names yet. I suddenly fantasized myself as Adam, naming the animals, or, at least, the trees. To the human mind, names are important things; every living creature, object, or artifact has to have its own name. But aren't names an illusion? For millions of years Klink's trees had grown very well, oblivious to the fact that they were nameless. Also, calling me Kathy or Rupert changed nothing about the person that I was inside.

Alan and I took samples of any bark that appeared unfamiliar, but none of them inspired us with hope that we were close to finding a source of cloth. Getting warm and tired again, we returned to the shade of the white-rock outcropping.

Only now did I take a good look at the stone. I pushed my thumbnail into it and noticed how soft and greasy it felt. Suddenly I had an idea and asked Alan for his knife.

He obligingly handed me his utility blade and I dug its point deeply into a joint, prying off a big flake. Once I held a sample in my hand, I found that I could easily cut the stone, even chip off bits with my nails.

"What is it?" the soldier asked.

"I think it's talc!" I exclaimed. "Do you know what this means!"

Laughing, almost cheering, Alan read my thoughts:

"Baby powder!"

#

Sebastian was pleased with our discovery and I felt elated that I had finally made a positive contribution to Klinkian civilization. In ages unborn, people suffering from chapping and heat-galling, or from the tearful cries of unhappy babies, would thank me. Afterwards Alan kidded me that posterity would erect a statue to "Rupert Breen, Discoverer of Baby Powder!" -- But that would never happen unless we discovered writing paper to record discoveries as earthshaking as mine.

That night, still euphoric, I took a walk and, gazing skyward, noticed that the moons were at their point of conjunction again. The silvery orbs seemed separated by less than the thickness of a playing card. A disquieting thought fluttered through my mind.

I recalled that the moons had also been going into conjunction when the first transformations occurred, and again as the Madness struck. Both events had to do with sex and there seemed to be a disturbing symbolism in the position of the orbiting bodies. To a primitive mind the conjunction of the moons might have suggested heavenly entities mating. Did Klink time its weird phenomena to the phases of its moons?

A single coincidence does not make a rule of science, true, but I hurried on to knock on Alan's barracks-room door. "Gentlemen?!" I called from without.

Recognizing my voice, the medic met me at the threshold.

"Major, you wanted to see me?" he queried respectfully. His mates were within earshot and we were both still trying to be cagey about our affair.

"I was hoping I could see you tonight, Kathy," he whispered once we were off by ourselves.

"That's nice," I said, "but I had a special reason."

"What's up?"

I explained, but he didn't seem to take the matter of the moons too seriously. In fact, even to me my idea had begun to sound like astrology and, hence, foolish.

"Well, as you say, the conjunction is tonight," Alan remarked noncommittally. "I guess we'll have to wait to see if anything happens."

"I'd feel better if I didn't have to wait alone."

He smiled and his hand, already resting lightly between my shoulders, guided me to my door. Once inside the hut, I snapped on the lamp, brought out the cards, and we played a series of poker hands. It was hard to keep my mind on the cards, and it was the company, not the moons, that was preoccupying me.

* * * *

Chapter 12

*But virtue, as it never will be moved, Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven, So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd, Will sate itself in a celestial bed. . .* HAMLET

It was getting late and the lamp's solar battery was dimming for want of a recharge. I'd begun to feel silly about my alarmism when a strange shiver ran through me, like a taut cord plucked deep in my psyche.

Alan looked up from his cards. "Major?"

"It's starting again!"

Alan sprang up and grasped me close; he meant well, but his embrace threw fuel on the very fire that I was struggling to suppress.

"Kathy! What can I do?!"

"Don't let go of me!"

Alan realized that he had only one recourse and so dragged me to the bed where he started tying me down as before, over my raving protests.

How I fought, knowing the long hours of torture that lay ahead! Alan only bound my hands to the frame of the cot this time, while steadying my kicking by holding my knees. I withstood my raging need as long as I could, then cried: "Fuck me!"

"Kathy, I love you so much," Alan declared, "but you don't really want that!"

"Drew!?" a woman pronounced suddenly from the door; Sebastian was standing there and I knew that she must have heard Alan's avowal of love, but, in my state, I didn't care.

"D-Doctor," stammered Alan. "Are you all right?"

"The whole camp is going up," she said urgently, "except for the pregnant ones. How's Rupe?"

"It's bad. I can't leave her alone tonight."

Dr. Lowry nodded. "There's not much anybody can do, but I have to help Philbrick monitor this thing. You do whatever you can -- whatever you have to -- to pull the major through."

"I will," he promised.

As Sebastian vanished, I envied her! If being pregnant was the antidote for this torment, I wanted to be pregnant!

As my time in hell passed, I was only conscious of my own feverish tumult and hardly grasped the magnitude of Alan's dilemma. Everything he might have tried to ease the suffering of a patient or friend -- a kiss, an embrace, soft words -- would only have incited my incendiary need.

He watched me agonize for what seemed like hours; then, with grim resolve, he commenced unbuckling my belt, stripping me from the waist down. My breathing went into abeyance, anticipating his follow-up.

While holding one of my thighs pinned, Alan slipped a finger between my nether lips, causing me to gasp at the boldness of the act, and also the physical sensation. He next commenced agitating his digit against my sensitive inner lining and I moaned.

"Does this make it better or worse?"

"Don't stop!" I rasped, too far gone to be ashamed.

My vulva became wet; I felt like there was a tungsten bulb between my legs, glowing ever brighter and hotter. My body broke out in a slick of perspiration. Beads ran down my flesh, tickling me, cooling me in the draft. The sheet under me grew progressively more damp.

He persevered; I felt the muscles of my thighs quiver like jelly and my vagina expanded and contracted in small spasms, alternately hugging Alan's fingers in welcome, and relaxing to invite them deeper still. My clitoris felt hard and stiff, giving the illusion of possessing a male erection while warm pulses were speeding from the center of my being to my shoulders and toes. My breasts became twin pyramids of blood-suffused excitement, their nipples chaffing against the coarseness of my shirt.

After a period of build-up, release came -- an overwhelming surge, from scalp to soles, like a warm wave across a pool. The torrent scudded me into its swirling backwash and I suddenly went limp with relief.

"Are you better now?" Alan asked hopefully.

"I don't know. Don't leave me!" I murmured.

Despite my best hopes, my craving mounted again after the briefest respite. "It's coming back! Do something! Please!"

"I don't want to take advantage of you!"

I began to sob, to wildly tear at my bonds and then, exhausted, pulled my knees into a fetal position.

Maybe it was either Alan's desire to help me, or the pheromones assailing his resolve -- probably both -- but he suddenly changed position, urged my knees apart, and I beheld him through the V of my open thighs, bowing his head as if humbling himself in prayer.

"Y-Yes!" I yelled as his tongue touched me electrically. Yet, as much as I wanted it, the act of cunnilingus served only to turn up my sexual heat, like cranking up a burner on a cooking range. Possessed by a rampant erotic madness, I again attempted to tear the bonds from my hands, until my wrists burned and my shoulders ached.

As his mouth ministered to me, I could feel my juices flowing once more; blood pounded in my temples and my breath came in short, ragged gulps.

My incited pelvis ground my sex against Alan's mouth as I got what felt like fellatio, except that it evoked a wider, more all-encompassing response. His actions drove me helplessly into a second orgasm and I shrieked at the top of my lungs as a wash, stronger than the last, sloshed through me like a tsunami.

I finally sank back, tamed and softened like heated and beaten metal. Alan finally drew away, allowing my mind time to clear. "I shouldn't have done that," he said roughly, as if his throat was parched.

"No, it was good."

"How -- is it now?"

"Better," I whispered, "but -- oh, God, it's coming back!"

Alan groaned, unsure what to do.

In mere moments, the desire had rebuilt itself enough to have grown uncomfortable. "Please," I pleaded, "I have to touch you."

"You shouldn't. You could lose control. . . . I could, too."

"Please!"

His sense and compassion must have wrestled in desperate urgency.

"Please. . . !"

Resolvedly, his hands went to the cords that bound my wrists and in a minute I was free.

I got to my knees and threw my arms around him, trying to drag him down on myself. I frantically fumbled open the buttons of his shirt, then crushed my mouth against the blond hair of his bared chest. I wanted to kiss every square inch of his body.

"Please, Kathy. I'm your medic."

"You're my lover!"

Reluctantly, Alan permitted me to press him to the cot while I painted his torso, arms, neck, and shoulders with kisses. I soon began to tongue-bathe him, too, my saliva flowing like a fountain. I savored his human flavor, the salt of his perspiration.

Images of the women whom I had been with, filled my mind just then. In a strange way, they had prepared me for this hour. I had not only received pleasure from their ministrations, but also, in a sense, instructions in giving it to another.

My hands went to Alan's belt; he tensed, but let me strip him to his briefs. I afterwards lavished my kisses on his legs, tracing a trail of osculations over his knees, along his shins, down to his feet. I especially kissed his feet, assailing them as if I were the most abject of oriental odalisques.

I subsequently repaid the tickling that Alan had given me on Woolenska's Hill and he shivered as my tongue teased at his feet, his fists clenching large handfuls of the bedclothes reactively, his heels digging into the tick. I culminated my pedal assault by putting his big right toe into my mouth and sucking it with long, deep pulls. I persisted at this because it met a stinging need within me, the need to have him inside me -- but it was not nearly enough.

I looked up; Alan's erection, constrained by his skivvies, had tented the material strongly. A feral urge swept through me as his manhood proclaimed itself like a shrine calling for worship. I had been taught well by my previous lovers, and so I had the confidence to put one knee on the bed and pull his shorts down. As if in afterthought, I doffed my shirt, its piping an unwanted reminder of my superior rank. I wanted nothing to mark me as more than his equal, more than his possession.

Despite his excitement, he tried to hold me off. "You'll hate me tomorrow if I let you."

"I'll go insane if you don't," I warned -- and, at that moment, believed it, too.

With parted lips, I captured the crown of his manhood and stroked its sensitive under-side with my harlot tongue. His pelvis shifted in response and he loosed a keening breath through his teeth. I had supposed that a penis would have a bad taste, but it did not -- a fact which made performing my first fellatio all the easier. I took in as much of him as I could, then applied friction by bobbing my head up and down while swishing him with my firmed-up tongue. Fantasies of my male self making love to the Nameless One returned while I worked, but he was me and I was her. For perhaps the first time, I was completely and utterly her.

My hands clenched the lower part of his manhood, their heels resting in the forest of his pubis. I could feel his organ swelling larger within the confinement of my mouth the more I excited it. Encouraged, I began working the point of my tongue against its tiny slit, as if trying to enter it.

Alan's moans let me know that I was experiencing everything that I hoped. Alan could no longer constrain himself and the hundreds of millions of spermatozoa that defined his virility, suddenly rolled over one another in a mad rush to freedom, filling my mouth with a tumultuous burst. I coughed, swallowed reactively, but in my state felt no repulsion.

The culmination now brought on my own orgasm; I spasmed and savored my throes with a demented cry of exultation before falling aside to gasp for breath. By the time the aftershocks of our mutual release had quelled, Alan was sunken breathlessly in the tick and I had rolled across him, my head pillowed on his hard, firm abdomen, my hand on his hip.

#

A dedicated care-giver, Alan stayed with me throughout the dark hours. Never properly conquered, my infernal need fiercely rebounded again and again, like Antaeus, but each time it waxed less pitilessly because my Hercules and I met it dauntlessly, feeding it together. Then, sometime in the night, driven beyond my limits of endurance, I passed into slumber.

When I awoke in the half-light of dawn I saw Alan asleep on the floor next to my narrow cot. The buzzing bee of shame stung the instant I set eyes on him and I sprang up to flee, but Alan was awakened by the rustle I made.

"Kath -- Major!" he exclaimed.

I froze, unable to turn and look at him. What was he thinking? What should I think about myself?

Tears burned my eyes.

"Don't," he said in a gentle if strained tone. Then, rising, he put an arm around me and stroked my snarled hair.

"Don't hate me!" I mewed, knowing that I had betrayed and demeaned him by making him do things he knew were wrong.

"It's all right, Kathy. That wasn't you last night. I don't know if it was me either."

I broke down entirely and he held me close, my wailing subsided.

As the light grew stronger, we belatedly remembered our responsibilities and thus, with a supreme effort, pulled ourselves together. Hurriedly dressing, we ran to the infirmary to get Lowry's report and found Philbrick already there. Simultaneously confronting the two people whose esteem mattered most to me, I hardly dared glance Alan's way lest a guilty look incriminate us. Irrationally, I swung toward the mirror on the wall, worrying that my aspect betrayed how I had passed the night. Fortunately, I only appeared disheveled and red-eyed. I saw Lowry's reflection looking at me. I shivered; how much did she suspect?

"I hope you're all right, Major," Philbrick remarked.

I turned sharply. "What do you mean -- ?" Then, I forced myself to settle down. "Report," I said, forgetting for a moment that I was not his active commander just then.

Lowry answered for him. The second Madness had been very like the first, except that this time we had more than a dozen sane women to help our men resist the passionate advances of the females. This they were glad to do -- especially when the man involved was their husband or lover. The males, better prepared this time, displayed sturdier discipline, too.

The Madness had revealed a couple new pregnancies, obviously occurring between the first Madness and the second. We knew we could expect more pregnancies now, since considerable sex had occurred, despite the command's efforts.

When I told Lowry and Philbrick about my moon-conjunction theory, neither scoffed. Two incidents might represent a coincidence, but three amounted to a subject for serious inquiry. Now we had to address the knottier question: If the moons were linked to Klink's sexual phenomena, how and why?

#

Needing rest after a harrowing night, I returned to my hut alone and flopped onto the cot. I slept for an hour and a half before waking, and realized that the next time I stepped out that door I had to face the world as a changed being.

Also, as little as I liked it, I had to face Sebastian.

I reached the infirmary door feeling like a guilty cadet about to call on his superior for a reprimand. I found Dr. Lowry in bed with her sleeping-room door open -- which caused me to wonder whether she was only exhausted by her all-night activity, or whether pregnancy was taking its toll.

"Come on in, Rupe," my comrade beckoned wearily. At least she hadn't called me 'Kathy.'

"What's on your mind?" she asked.

"You didn't mention what happened last night."

Sebastian regarded me keenly. "I didn't suppose you wanted me to bring up your love affair at a staff meeting. Are we going to have to worry about serious -- aftereffects?"

"No!" I exclaimed, flushing hot. Then, collecting myself, I said, "But it would bother me a lot if you started looking down on me."

She gave a weary grin. "What are you talking about? Can anything be worse than what I did last month?"

"I don't know," I replied contritely. "What I did was bad enough."

She sat up and extended me her hand. I accepted it and seated myself beside her.

"Rupert, don't be embarrassed. People are taking lovers all over the place and we've got to accept it. Somewhere along the way you picked up the idea that you're made of steel. Nobody believes that except you."

"I wish I were a little less human."

"But you're not, and that's a good thing -- believe me."

"What should I do?"

She took my hand and squeezed. "I say hold on to that guy. He's a prize. In fact, I admire your taste in men."

"I can't believe we're having this conversation!"

"Am I to understand that you're calling yourself Kathy now?"

"You know how it is," I hedged.

"It's a good name. You look like a Kathy."

"Oh, great! I'm a Kathy!"

"Don't sweat it, Rupe. I'll probably change my name one of these days. If I have a son, he can be Sebastian."

"You could call him Stanley instead," I quipped with a crooked smile.

"Oh, please!"

I put an arm around her, saying, "I'm sorry you don't have anybody yet, Sebastian. It's hell when you do, but I think it's even worse when you don't."

"I'm keeping my options open," she assured me. "I'm such a good catch that I can afford to be particular."

We both laughed and then moved on to other topics -- topics which weren't quite so sore and personal.

Lowry ventured the theory that the moons may have been sacred to an indigenous race, which either still lived unseen or was now extinct and represented by nothing more than automated equipment left behind. As I had theorized earlier, the "mating" of the moons of Klink may have represented the sexual cycle in their culture, a kind of St. Valentine's Day love-fest that comes a lot more than once per year. The Klinkians could easily have timed their sex- and sex-drive-altering equipment to follow the lunar cycles.

I thought hard about that proposition. Exactly how much time did we have until our next little plunge into Hell? We'd have to ask one of the techs to work out Klink's lunar ephemeris.

It was at that exact moment that our appreciation of Klink changed forever. Alan burst into the infirmary, crying, "Major! Doctor! Crawford and part of the detachment are back.

"-- And they have strangers with them!"

* * * *

Chapter 13

*There's place and means for every man alive.* ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

The strange clothes worn by some of Crawford's party impressed me first -- a kind of off-white, pull-over tunic -- not solely a female garment, because one of the men, one of the strangers whom Alan had noted, wore one, too. Next, I noted a couple of short-haired, quadrupeds tethered behind the returnees -- pack animals.

To my relief, Crawford still wore his familiar, craggy shape. On the other hand, I recognized none of the women -- correctly assuming that they were transformed soldiers, with the probable exception of a pair who were elderly. So far, I knew, none of our men had transformed into old women. There was also an elderly male stranger, the one in the tunic.

Philbrick, arriving belatedly, saluted Crawford and the two of them grasped hands in camaraderie. "Ted," blurted the former, "it's been four months! Where in hell did you find other human beings?"

"There's a whole village of them, Ben -- more than one, in fact! I have to talk to Major Breen."

I stepped forward. "I'm Major Breen, Captain," I informed my subordinate tonelessly.

Crawford swung my way, surprise writ large on his face. I sighed silently; authority figures were supposed to be like bronze statues -- constant, unchangeable -- admirable adjectives which never fit reality.

"I turned command over to Captain Philbrick," I explained. "-- For health reasons."

"Yes, Major," acknowledged Crawford with a sharp salute.

I glanced uncomfortably toward the remainder of his party. Crawford took the shift of attention as his cue to begin the introductions, commencing with the three strangers: "This is Casimir," he explained, nodding at the unknown male, "and this is Irina and Natalya." These latter were the elderly women. "They were originally from the Protos II agricultural colony, which was Ukrainian. Only Casimir speaks English."

"You're very welcome," Philbrick greeted the newcomers with a cordial handshake.

"Thank you, General," Casimir responded, his English thickly-accented.

"I'm Captain Philbrick," our commander corrected the man's error.

Moving swiftly ahead, Crawford reintroduced us to our transformed comrades, then, given leave by Philbrick, Ames stepped forward and welcomed back the women -- most of whom looked uneasy under all the attention. The female captain ordered the new transformees to fall in behind her and led them away for debriefing. The returnee males and the three Ukrainians remained clustered behind Crawford.

We had long suspected that Klink held other human prisoners besides us, but here at last was proof. Wanting to ask a thousand questions, I invited my senior captain along with Philbrick and Dr. Lowry into my hut to confer. Then Crawford quickly filled us in on what had befallen his detachment since we had last seen it.

As anticipated, the daily disappearance of men had proved to be the bane of the journey. Wherever a pair of troopers vanished, Crawford always left volunteers to wait for their reappearance. At first, the auxiliaries were instructed to escort the transformees back to our base camp, but even before the end of the first week increasing distance had rendered that option impractical.

Subsequently, Crawford's volunteers had to bring the transformees forward with all possible haste. But transformation was not his only problem. The detachment remained fear-ridden; Crawford was forced to walk a narrow line, not yielding to his subordinates' panicky whims, while yet trying to avoid conflicts that might provoke a blow-up.

Before too long, the captain had exhausted his stock of auxiliaries and so chose to remain behind with the last of them himself, letting Lt. Morrow take the main body forward. Crawford gave instructions that when men were transformed thereafter, they should wait along the marked trail until he and his group, advancing from the rear, arrived to assist them. It was a risk leaving traumatized people on their own for any length of time, but the captain had no choice.

Thereafter, encumbered by a growing number of traumatized women, Crawford proceeded in the wake of the detachment at a deliberate pace, watching for the stakes left behind by Morrow to indicate where additional soldiers had disappeared. During his progress, Crawford's group was steadily augmented by volunteers coming from the rear with earlier transformees.

After a few days, Crawford's band reunited with the main detachment. These, he discovered, had given up, demoralized by their inability to find a geographic limit to the transformation phenomenon. Morrow had persuaded them to cease their pointless meandering and wait until Crawford came up.

Once he did, Crawford reorganized the camp and waited for the last stragglers to join them. Then the detachment just hunkered down and endured, its officers waiting until the men realized that they had no option but to return to the main camp. To their surprise, once they'd been out in the wilderness for nineteen days, the transformation phenomenon ceased, the sex-ratio having been equalized.

Not exactly understanding what had happened, but grateful for it anyway, Crawford was about to lead his detachment back toward our camp when his foragers found signs of unknown human life. This spoor was carefully followed, and the captain's scouts discovered four strangers -- Earthers -- two males, two females. These spoke only Ukrainian but were decidedly friendly. Crawford quickly grasped that they came from a village of their own and so the entire detachment accompanied the Ukrainians to their home, reaching it after a few days march.

The settlement, one of five in the area, was established seven years earlier by the evacuees of Protos II. Like the 54th, the Ukrainians had soon become acquainted with the phenomena of transformation and the Madness. Fortunately, because they already had a high proportion of natural-born females, the occurrences of transformation, while startling and mystifying, did not devastate their community psychology as it had devastated ours.

Though transformation still afflicted the villagers occasionally -- whenever a population imbalance toward the male side arose or when too many men inadvertently congregated at too great a distance from a sexually-balanced enclave -- the Ukrainians had learned to minimize it by traveling in sexually-balanced groups.

There was still a lot that the Protos II colonists didn't know for certain, but they had learned that only transformees were affected by the Madness -- though those who were pregnant or suckling infants were immune. Interestingly, the colonists had never observed a transformation until a boy had gone four or five years beyond puberty -- and, prior to youngsters achieving this age, Klink's phenomena seemed not to include them into the equation at all. Similarly, no transformee seemed to simulate a girl younger than about sixteen. Natural-born women, it had become clear, were never transformed, neither into males nor even into more nubile women, and males who wandered alone or lived as hermits also remained unchanged. During their years on the planet, the colonists had not seen any transformee revert to his original sex.

I took in this last bit of intelligence with a sharp sense of disconsolation. Though I'd assumed that I'd have to face the rest of my life as I was, this confirmation dashed any residual hopes. On the other hand, the news that normal children were being born to transformees would surely set our worried mothers-to-be at ease.

Regarding other matters, the Ukrainians, like us, had not been revisited by the Assies since landing. The colonists did occasionally encounter other parties of human evacuees and POWs and, whenever possible, they exchanged goods and skills, but had found that it was the civilian groups who had the most to offer. Soldiers were good at short-term survival, naturally, but were generally devoid of skills that communities needed to thrive over the long term. The problem was that soldiers were mostly young and had limited education and life-experience.

The arrival of Crawford's party naturally caused great excitement in the villages. Their hospitality was effusive, and the Ukrainians knew how to deal sympathetically with the transformees. Crawford informed his new friends of the fate of the 54th, and the community leaders debated the best means of extending aid our way. When the first Madness struck, the villagers saw to it that the transformees did not suffer more than was absolutely necessary.

Crawford discovered that the villagers had domesticated wild plants and animals, and also had acquired new ones from older human communities on Klink. It was a European Union group which had provided the beast that the Ukrainians rechristened the "byerblyood" -- the species of draft animal now grazing at the edge of camp. At this point, Crawford mentioned that the sex-change phenomenon never affected animals -- not even the dogs and cats that accompanied the colonists from Protos II. Go figure!

The adoption of some thirty new mouths to feed had put a strain upon the villager's food supply, but they farmed the visitors out as widely as possible and took shorter rations themselves. Fortunately, the additional labor provided by the detachment would eventually increase the next harvest somewhat, but the payoff was months away.

Because of the grievous burden that their visit was imposing, Crawford only waited until the detachment was well settled-in, then selected the fittest of his people for a return to our camp. At that point, of course, a significant number of his women were still seriously traumatized and could not advisedly travel. Then, too, the generous villagers had offered both males and females the chance to be schooled in a large array of rustic skills that we would need in the future. Because not all of our people could be brought to the Ukrainians for training, the village council had voted to send three of its accomplished elder citizens back to us along with Crawford. #

Now that he'd returned, Crawford accepted command from his junior, Philbrick, and as his first act in his new role requested that I, Lowry, and Komisov (who happened to speak a little Ukrainian) take charge of our visitors. After explaining our assignment to the newcomers, we stowed their packs, broke out rations for their refreshment, and escorted the three into a shady grove for rest and debriefing.

Casimir was a small, wrinkly man with white hair, but still admirably spry. Irina, a woman of about fifty, was plump and motherly, while Natalya, leaner and a little older than Irina, gave the impression of keen practical intelligence.

After the initial courtesies and homilies, our conversation turned inevitably to the subject of the types of assistance our communities could exchange. The women's enthusiastic flood of words had to be interrupted frequently by Casimir, lest they race too far ahead of his plodding efforts to translate.

It didn't take us long to realize that the villagers offered us much more than we could ever reciprocate. What they needed most was drugs, medical knowledge, and training. The planet had so far revealed very few diseases which affected humans, though there were minor infections which the colonists had brought with them, or picked up from other exiles, and these persisted in the population. Beyond this, there was the occasional accident and degenerative illnesses -- such as heart disease and cancer. But, most of all, they were interested in reducing their birth-related losses.

Interestingly, of all the women, transformees suffered the fewest childbed complications and miscarriages, and fewer of their children were afflicted with birth defects. Apparently, Klink knew how to build a topnotch childbearing machine.

Because of our own needs, Dr. Lowry explained that she could not visit the Ukrainian villages soon. We would, nonetheless, share whatever drugs and medicines we could, though these were scant and precious. Sebastian went on to conjecture that Alan might profitably spend time in the villages instructing our new comrades in first aid and battlefield surgery. I grimaced; if my lover was planted amid a bevy of natural-born women I feared that I might end up looking second-best. Therefore, if Alan ended up sent away on assignment, I was determined to go with him.

That we could offer so little to these generous people made us feel like mendicants. In addition to material things they could give us, such as livestock, there was the knowledge of self-sufficient crafts that our visitors offered to share. Casimir was a farmer with a knowledge of how to coax yield from stubborn land, while Natalya was primarily a midwife, and Irina a woman of many useful domestic skills. Our "girls," the latter said, must begin to learn about supporting our "village" with food preservation, gardening, making yarn, as well as weaving.

I smiled, knowing that "woman's work" wouldn't sit well with the transformed soldiers. Nonetheless, in a subsistence economy, men's strength, speed, and endurance were best applied to tasks such as hunting, plowing, and lumbering. Women, physically weaker and often burdened with children in constant need of supervision, naturally assumed the work of processing raw materials in the home. When you thought about it, there was nothing undignified about this sort of mutually-supportive division of labor. In fact, it was scarcely to be avoided.

The Ukrainians told us that the detachees who still remained at their villages would return in the spring. By that time they would have skills to take the place of the volunteer Ukrainian teachers -- teachers who would be joining us in a few weeks. It amused me to think that so many of our formerly troublesome and near-mutinous detachees were away at "college" learning to be model housewives.

"Most important," Casimir translated for Natalya, "we came because we wanted to help the young mothers."

I perked up at this remark. "You were so certain that we'd have mothers that you came all this way?" I asked, knowing that before the detachment departed not even Hitchcock's pregnancy had been discovered.

Natalya laughed and Casimir translated: "Dear little dyovawchka, there are always many, many young mothers wherever you soldiers are!"

Sebastian looked so chagrinned she caught the midwife's eye. The latter moved over next to our doctor and proceeded to feel her breasts, her belly, and hips. The Ukrainian woman glanced back at her comrades and cheerfully announced: "Byepyemyennaya!" Sebastian flushed, guessing correctly what the word meant. To my eyes, the physician's delicate condition had not begun to show at all.

Next the midwife turned her exuberant attention my way, her fingertips playing lightly over my body as they had over Sebastian's. Her thoughtful expression brightened, and she tripped out a long string of incomprehensible syllables.

"Natalya says that you are not pregnant now," explained Casimir, "but thinks that when you are you shall have an easy time of it. Your pelvis is good and your babies shall have room to grow; also, she thinks your breasts shall make much milk."

I swallowed hard, tried to keep from scowling, and told Lady Natalya that this was very good to hear. The woman, in response, hugged me as if I were her own child. Ukrainians, as we were beginning to learn, tended toward demonstrativeness.

In the course of that same conversation, we also discovered the colonists' name for Klink. "We call it, 'Ray,'" Casimir remarked. "In your English, 'Eden.'"

I nodded, contemplating the irony. Eden had been the mythic garden country where God had made the first woman from the body of the first man. It was such a logical designation that over the next few weeks we accepted Eden as the best name for the planet, while "Klink" was demoted to being merely the name of our camp.

The exchange had been so intriguing that before we realized it twilight had darkened into night. We escorted our guests to the huts set aside for them, at which point the Ukrainians bade us to tarry for a moment until they returned. To our surprise, they quickly reappeared with gifts. Casimir presented Captain Komisov with a bronze dagger, while Natalya gave Sebastian a large shawl decorated with vegetable-dyed crocheted flowers. Irina gave me a tunic much like the one she, Natalya, Casimir, and some of our returnees wore.

We accepted these gratuities gracefully and the Ukrainians sent us on our way amid another barrage of hugs and kisses.

#

Walking with Sebastian to the infirmary, my friend started jabbering about a new idea for eradicating infectious diseases on Eden. "If no one incubated an active contagion, such as flu," she explained, "flu would utterly vanish. As long as the population remains small, circumstances present us with an incredible opportunity."

Well, that might be true, but I had more immediate matters on my mind. For that reason I cut short my friend's excited chatter by asking her to wait a quarter hour before sending Alan to my hut. She flashed a wondering smile, but simply nodded and asked no questions.

Still thinking about those Ukrainian girls that Alan might meet, I changed my clothes, arranged my hair, threw on my robe, and waited. When Alan arrived he looked a little unsure of himself -- and maybe a little unsure of me. Much to my relief, he began our conversation nonchalantly, asking about the interview with the Ukrainians. Perhaps he hoped I had merely sent for him to fill him in on that subject. After giving him a quick summary, I pointedly mentioned that I had received a gift.

"What would that be?" he asked with an intrigued smile.

I opened my robe and let it drop to my feet, dramatically displaying the Ukrainian tunic. "How do you like me in peasant-girl chic?" I asked nervously.

Alan gave a breathy whistle. "You make one hell of a fine peasant girl, Kathy!"

"Thanks -- I guess."

" -- Except for one little thing."

"What?"

"That hem could be higher."

That irritated me. "The hem's high enough!" I flung back, but immediately softened my tone: "You really don't want me giving those baboons out there everything I'm giving you."

"I sure don't!" he exclaimed, letting me know that I had put my foot into my mouth yet again. I faced away from him, my cheeks flushing hot, but he stepped up, placed his hands on my bare arms, and turned me about. I glowered up into his face, trying to let him know how much he'd peeved me. If he knew he didn't show it, for he smoothly drew me to him, engulfed me in the warmth of his embrace, and whispered: "After last night, I was expecting a bawling out and a court-martial -- for contributing to the delinquency of an officer."

I nuzzled the hollow in the center of his deep chest, my stature and his making it a perfect fit. "Rupert Breen might court-martial you," I said lightly once I'd come up for air, "but I'm just his dizzy sister Kathy."

He put is index finger under my chin and raised it until I was looking into his eyes. "That's who I want you to be," he said with a smile, then gave me a peck on the nose.

* * * *

Chapter 14

*For I am he am born to tame you, Kate, And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate Conformable as other household Kates.* THE TAMING OF THE SHREW

A few weeks and one Madness later, our camp welcomed eighteen more visitors from the Ukrainian villages. Intending to act as instructors in home crafts, animal husbandry, and agriculture, they even brought along livestock -- small animals which could be raised like rabbits, flyers with clipped wings to be bred for meat and eggs, and several more of those miniature, camel-like beasts that the Ukrainians called the "byerblyood."

Though not a pupil myself, I spent much of my time working with our guests. Irina quickly located a patch of "pahlatnaw," a native plant which the Ukrainians had learned to grow for fiber. When the seeds ripened in autumn, we would gather them for springtime cultivation. Pahlatnaw, our guests informed us, was the source of the light-colored cloth that the Ukrainians wore. Now that we had a raw material for yarn, we required looms for its weaving. Marduke's carpenters did yeoman work constructing several of these under Irina's supervision.

One problem confronting us was that none of our women liked the domestic chores to be expected of them. It wasn't that these duties were outrageously disagreeable in themselves, nor even very different from work routinely expected of the soldiers since basic training. It was the notion of accepting a role which many still psychologically resisted. Fortunately, our expectant mothers were somewhat more obliging; it had dawned on them, if not yet on the others, that they would need many new skills if they were to confidently rear a needful infant.

While I understood the rejectionist sentiment, what was the alternative? If we tried to join the men at heavy labor, erecting additional huts and sheds or grubbing land, we would only have proved that we actually were weak sisters and other important work would have gone undone. It seemed to be a problem not easily solved. I envied the future girl-children of Eden, who would grow up without their mothers' ambivalence toward "women's work."

Crawford finally issued an order requiring the troopers to accept their assigned craft-training, like it or not. His stern decision resulted in considerable grumbling and indignation, but I appreciated the need for it and did my best to smooth things over. Counseling was not a role which I had much practiced, but under the straits of necessity I discovered an aptitude for it.

Besides jawboning the women, I learned the basics of weaving -- thereby mollifying the dissidents by example. The best one can say of weaving is that it allows a person's mind time to wander. No wonder that history continually referred to women at the loom -- it takes time to make even a single diaper-sized item. But as the months passed and the waistlines of our comrades grew, we were conscious of the importance of our work.

While many of us studied, a few engaged in teaching. Dr. Lowry began training four colonists in medical procedure. One of these, a personable Ukrainian who had been a veterinarian on Protos II, possessed a solid background. To everyone's amusement, he took to our lovely young doctor from the first day and every time Sebastian turned around the man was there at her elbow -- and neither tact nor bluntness put him off.

Another Mad Moon -- as we now called this roughly-monthly affliction -- came and went -- and it was the last straw for me! I was sure there had to be some way to deal with Eden's curse without surrendering to it. Inspired by past reading, I decided to take a page from the lurid book of Casanova.

Accordingly, I appropriated a few entrails from the carcass of our first butchered byerblyood and proceeded to boil them sterile. After that, I cut them to length and sealed one end, first by tying it off, then searing it with fire. Full of anticipation, I presented my creations to Alan. He seemed to share my enthusiasm for empirical experimentation, and we embarked on the study together.

I was jittery when the moment came. While the two of us had engaged in a lot of foreplay, the idea of offering a male lover coitus still gave me pause. It implied submission, a rite of passage into a sort of life which I was instinctively reluctant to enter. Yet, if I wasn't willing to give 100% of myself, Alan might find another who would.

My guy began his lovemaking by running his fingertips lightly across my breasts. My nipples stiffened instantly at the touch, tingling with tiny pin-pricks. Sensing my excitement, Alan buried his face in my hair, nuzzling my scalp. He loved my curls, so I'd kept them longish, though they were a terror to wash and comb.

"My Gypsy," he whispered, spreading kisses across my forehead, temple, and cheeks, savoring the scent I wore -- flower petals soaked in distilled spirits, a concoction of Natayla's. He took little nips of my ear lobe, gradually making my body ache with a building need.

But I was too overwrought to be much more than passive. Alan's weight pressed me deeply into the narrow cot, his muscular arms engulfing me. My breasts flattened against his chest and my lips against his mouth. I released a small cry as I felt his index finger probe between my thighs. I reflexively writhed and, obeying an unconscious dictum of Nature, spread my legs wide in submission and invitation.

At last Alan, his lips still fixed on mine, took his penis in midsection and rubbed its tip along the length of my vulva. A shudder ran through me and after a couple minutes, sensing that the moment had come, Alan inserted himself carefully. I gasped; this was the moment of crisis that I had feared and delayed for weeks. What would it feel like? How would it change me? Only my intense trust in Alan kept me from thrusting him away and bolting for the door.

He grew harder and larger in the process of entry, of merging with my being, until our four thighs pressed flush. A thrill raced through me and registered outwardly as a convulsion. He savored my capitulation for a moment, then began to move inside me. I couldn't believe what I was feeling, so far outside it was of all my past experience. At first, I wasn't sure whether I liked it or not, but he brought me along slowly, his great tool like a fire-maker's, coaxing flame from the merest smolder of dry thatch. At first he was deliberate and slow, his movements evoking moans and mews from me. But Alan's lovemaking waxed ever more intense, more kinetic, as he went along -- and I couldn't help but rouse to his overwhelming strength and control -- of both himself and me -- and admire his endurance. I unconsciously clenched his slick hips, not to resist his movements, but to assist them; my legs locked desperately behind his knees, to keep him at his work -- as if abandoning it had ever crossed his mind!

The increasing pitch of pleasure charged me, changed me, turned me from stiff, cold clay to warm, sticky putty. Up to that point, I had been pretty much lying there like a log, but my anima fully took over and I began to respond to him in earnest. My intellect wasn't so far along, unfortunately, and in fear-reaction I tried to suppress the warm, buttery feeling which was flowing from my limbs and breasts down to my loins.

Poor frightened virgin -- you won't get away! Mother Nature had me exactly where she wanted me, and after all the time she had expended in coaxing me in bed with a man she wasn't going to let me slip the hook. The dam burst under the pressure of the buttery flow and its hot rush coursed through me like an arroyo in flash flood. I let out a moan and bear-hugged him with all my strength.

My release was the trigger, but Alan held the gun. His spasm came as a shock and, afterwards, we lay panting, arm-in-arm, overcome by euphoria.

"I can't get enough of you" he whispered a few minutes along.

"I've got plenty more byerblyood guts," I reassured him, nestling closer.

"There aren't enough byerblyood guts in the world for the way I feel about you."

I smiled, closed my eyes, and slept peacefully against him. If this was part of being a woman, the future didn't seem half-bad just then.

#

I took a good, hard look at myself in the morning. Who was this clear-complected young woman reflected in my shaving mirror -- she with the aquamarine eyes and the cascading midnight curls? Was she nothing more than a two-dimensional fantasy dreamed up by a sexually-frustrated teenager and brought to fruition in the mind of a lonely career soldier? Were those feelings, desires, and drives which moved her genuine? Was she an alien creature imposed on me or was she my twin? Was she just an emotional expansion of myself? Had she existed only these last few months, or had she always been with me in spirit? Were those qualities which defined her newly-minted, or were they my long-repressed second nature?

I sighed with resignation, but without understanding, and tried to give the woman in the mirror some sound advice: "Your emotions are out of control, Gypsy. You trust too easily. You take risks. You could get hurt."

She wasn't listening. She had stars in her eyes.

#

Alan and I experimented with our byerblyood entrails every day, until the supply went bad. I saved one makeshift condom in a bottle of distilled spirits as an antidote to the torture of the next Mad Moon.

Alan kept proposing to me, but I couldn't agree to marry him -- not as long as I was unwilling to commit to the logic of marriage in every way. Taking a lover served as an emotional and physiological safety value and it came easily. Accepting wifehood, on the other hand, was tantamount to promising to be something that I was not yet prepared to be. Worse, the idea implicit in marriage, the establishment of a family, was so alien a concept that my instincts revolted against it. But there was more to my reluctance than that. There was a sense of inadequacy. A mother had to be someone pretty terrific; I couldn't believe that I was good or smart enough to make the grade.

When the Mad Moon came, our fifth, numerous other women about the camp went crazy as expected but, to my surprise and horror, I wasn't one of them.

At first, we couldn't understand it, didn't want to understand it. When the terrible truth could no longer be denied, I was thunderstruck. Alan held me close, tried to reassure me, told me that he would love and care for me always, no matter what happened.

But not only was I frightened, I was infuriated. To have my life turned on its head by something as trivial as condom failure! Damn those rotten byerblyood guts! I had been cheated, double-crossed by Fate. I talked urgently to Sebastian the next morning.

"Why didn't you ask my advice before you went into the condom-making business?" she admonished me sternly. "Even the best materials have a sixteen percent failure rate. Using a makeshift is like playing Russian Roulette."

"I don't need this!" I protested.

"All right, Rupe, no use getting unstrung until we know the worst. Get under the scanner."

She checked me, shook her head, then wished me her hearty congratulations.

"Is that all you have to say?!" I snarled.

"What else should I say?"

"Tell me what to do!"

"Take things easy, eat well, and get plenty of exercise."

"I don't mean that!"

"Suppose you tell me what you do mean!"

I looked away. There was nothing more to be said.

"Pregnancy is only phase one," Sebastian commiserated. "In nine months, when you hold that little bundle of joy in your arms, your problems are really going to begin."

"Thanks a lot!" I growled, swinging to my feet and grabbing my uniform.

Soon anger faded and worry returned. I felt staggered but, once I settled down, I realized that I was much better off than those women who had been shanghaied by the Mad Moon. I was pregnant because I had made love to the man of my choice -- and not once but many times. Even so, how could I resign myself to motherhood when I had never given serious thought to becoming a father?

On the positive side, from here on Alan and I could make love any way we wished, as often as we wished. Thus, though in bondage to my biology, I also found a kind of liberation -- or, at least, a freedom to indulge my proclivities with abandon. We started playing love games -- make-believes that I hadn't permitted before, except in my daydreams when I had been a man. As a woman I had been afraid to go too far. But pregnancy was as far as a relationship could go; anything short of that was tame.

During the following weeks I acquired some insights which had always eluded me before. As a man I had marveled at a woman's capability to bear a child, but from my current perspective that seemed nothing compared to the sorcery which a man effected over the woman who loved him. I found myself nursing an awe of Alan, and, indeed, of the whole male-based creative power.

But sorcery was one thing and everyday practicalities another. We agreed after a week that there was no longer reason to put off asking Ames to arrange our marriage.

To my exasperation, Ames decided that the major's nuptials had to be the best wedding ever. Besides, she said, we were long-overdue for a party honoring our Ukrainians friends. No sooner had the news of my impending matrimony spread around camp than people began to speculate whether or not their major was knocked up. "Is she or isn't she" even became the subject of a drawing.

All right, it was a circus. I would have preferred a quiet ceremony, but Ames wanted an elaborate program featuring song, dance, Shakespeare, and comic skits. And she also wanted to hold that oldest of army traditions -- a drag show. Of course, that was only a euphemism for Camp Klink's equivalent -- a girlie show.

When the Ukrainians heard of our upcoming espousals, they treated the earth-shattering news as something to gladden the heart, but nothing out of the ordinary. I didn't like to have the whole thing trivialized, but what was worse, I couldn't hide from Natalya the fact that I had become slightly "byepyemyennaya!" On the other hand, now that my condition was up front, I felt free to pump her for advice about pregnancy and the care and feeding of a child.

#

Irina made me a veil of bug-netting and Casimir requested the privilege of giving me away. I invited Sebastian to be my best man -- or, I should say, my maid of honor. All that was left at that point was to tie the knot officially.

On the morning of the big day, Natalya helped me prepare, arranging my hair, adorning my gift-tunic with flowers, scenting my flesh with perfume, and finally applying some simple makeup to my face (mainly talcum powder and red-berry stain for lipstick, with a bit of vegetable-oil-and-malachite eye-liner). I felt silly, but if I wasn't willing to act the bride all the way, I might as well marry in my uniform -- which would have embarrassed Alan. There was no point spreading the mortification around; I was toting such a load of it that a little more couldn't hurt me.

Alan himself got a clean shave that morning from Pvt. Sandrino, who seemed to be turning into the village barber.

With butterflies in my stomach, I was led before the officiating Captain Ames on Casimir's arm. Alan was there at the side of Pvt. Harrison, his best man, both of them dapper in their best togs. Sebastian pushed a bouquet of white and violet flowers into my arms and my husband-to-be took my hand while I stood there more or less dazed.

Ames commenced the "We are gathered" part, but I wasn't listening until she got to: "Do you, Katherine Breen, take this man, Alan Drew, to be your lawfully-wedded husband, to have and to hold, to love, honor, and cherish, until death do you part?"

I set back my shoulders and said that I did. Alan recited his vows with somewhat less desperation.

"I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride."

The battle group still had some photographic film, so wedding pictures were taken. When I looked at the prints immediately afterwards they made me cringe -- like viewing the evidence of one's own fiendishly-contrived initiation. But it was not many days before I was regarding them in a very different light -- as irreplaceable keepsakes to be preserved with the greatest of care.

Afterwards we partied. The Ukrainians led us in a frenetic dance that they called the "prizawek," and we retaliated by roping them into a square dance. Only a single round of "vinawe," as the Ukrainians had named their fermented beverage, was served before the main show began -- the supply of it being much too limited for more.

As far as the performances went, the Ukrainians, who loved to sing and dance, gave the 54th a tough act to follow. Our guys put on a series of celebrity impersonations, some pretty good, some absolutely awful. Cheers went to our "chorus line," some of our girls taking a fling at the can-can.

With the help of a couple of Ukrainian ladies, Ulad Jami, now called Sonja and married to Nathan Michaels, had thrown together a belly-dancer outfit; her earnest undulations almost did it justice and, anyway, the scantiness of it was appreciated by the untransformed males.

Following Sonja's performance, three comic scenes from Shakespeare were enacted -- including the famous quarrel between Kate and Petruccio from THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. After that, a local writer presented an original skit involving a wife hiding her lover when her husband comes home unexpectedly. Shakespeare was scarcely put to shame.

The showstopper had to be Ames' act. Billing herself as "Melissa," the captain emerged dressed in her best uniform and ground out an enthusiastic striptease. (Her fantasy girl had been an ecdysiast, which he hadn't guessed before.) Some officers looked uneasy as Melissa did her thing, but the privates loved it. Still, I wondered how Ames expected to function as a figure of authority after such an exhibition. I also wondered what Crawford would say to her or, for that matter, what her lover, Philbrick, thought.

Next it was Alan's turn. A born ham, he had volunteered to sing some of his old-time songs for the crowd. I squeezed his arm to encourage him but, to my surprise, he took a firm hold of me and dragged me with him to the stage. When he let go I attempted to run for cover, but Alan would have none of that. He set me on a stool and then drew another for himself.

"Just sit there, honey," he told me. "I'm going to serenade you."

"Wait till I get you home, you snake!"

"Ladies and gentlemen," Alan addressed the assembly, "I guess you don't need to be introduced to our other guest of honor, Major Rupert Breen. But, excuse me, we've got to get used to calling her Major Kathy Drew now. Anyway, I want you to know that this little lady has gotten to be a big part of my life, and that she's getting bigger every day!" The mob tittered evilly; I could have punched Alan out!

"When a man loves a woman as much as I love Kathy," my new spouse went on, "plain words can't say it all. A fellow has to have poetry. Here's a song that expresses how I feel about the person who means everything to me. It's called 'The Heather and the Broom.'"

He balanced his instrument -- a sort of guitar that one of the Ukrainians had been teaching him to play -- on his knee and, smiling my way, began strumming. His song was the one that I'd heard him practicing all week:

"I come from the land Of the primrose and ling. I saw the fleet falcon And heard the lark sing. I mimicked the warbler And whistled its trill; I watched the clouds drifting As I climbed up the hill.

"You loved me so kindly You loved me so well, You showed me the magic You could weave with your spell. Your grace stilled the storm, Your kiss quelled my woes, And your eyes mirrored the gleam Of the stars as they rose.

"We journeyed together Through seasons of love, As proud as the eagle, As calm as the dove. We felt our joy growing Through trials forlorn; I stood by your bedside When our child was born.

"You loved me so kindly You loved me so well, You showed me the magic You could weave with your spell. Your grace stilled the storm, Your kiss quelled my woes, And your eyes mirrored the gleam Of the stars as they rose.

"We'll pale like the hoarfrost That withers the rose. We'll fall like the leaves do When life finally goes. But remember, my darling, The heather and broom, Whose beauty in springtime Shall spread o'er our tomb.

"You loved me so kindly You loved me so well, You showed me the beauty You could weave with your spell. Your grace stilled the storm, Your kiss quelled my woes, And your eyes mirrored the gleam Of the stars as they rose."

As he sang the last reprise, my eyes misted. His song had driven home the surety of loss and bereavement -- the certain fact that one of us would have to go on alone one day. Such was the mortal's fate and it could never be avoided. Notwithstanding, I vowed then and there not to let a single day of the life we shared be wasted -- especially not these precious days of our youth.

His serenade finished, Alan gave me a hug and the crowd clapped quietly in empathy.

I thought the act was over and so stood up, but Alan nudged me back into my seat and addressed the audience again, saying:

"I can't sing more sad songs -- I'm too happy. But there's an old tune that'll fit this occasion much better. I've written new words to it and I hope that all of you, and especially you, Kathy, will enjoy it. I call it, 'Major Breen.'"

'Major Breen'? My ears pricked up. This sounded like a dirty trick set to spring and I braced myself for the worst.

"Tra-la-la-la-la la-la-la Happy Birthday, Major Breen Happy Birthday, Major Breen!

"Tonight's the night I've waited for, Because you're not our C-O anymore; You've turned into the loveliest gal I've ever seen. Happy Birthday, Major Breen!

"What happened to that stiff hard case? Our camp commander now wears paint on her face. I can't believe my eyes You're just a soldier's dream! It must be magic, Major Breen!

"When you were on our backs, You were worse than ague. Then when we hit Helene, We thought we'd have to frag you.

"Every night and every day, You made us toe the line. But Fate's gone and changed you, Life's rearranged you, From now on you're going to be mine!

"So, if I smile with sweet surprise It's just because you've filled out Right before my eyes. You've become the only woman I could love, Thank you angels high above!

"If I smile with sweet surprise, It's just because you've filled out Right before my eyes. . . ."

The music trailed off and Alan finished his song softly and a cappella:

"You've turned into the prettiest girl I ever knew . . . ."

I'll never forget the look in his eyes just then.

". . . Let me tell the world I love you -- Kathy Drew."

I let Alan draw me close and, with the whole world watching, we kissed a kiss that shut out everything else in the universe -- everything, that is, except ourselves.

* * * *

Epilogue

*True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings; Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.* KING RICHARD III

With only a few more pages in my journal, I must bring this memoir to its close. But my decision to end it is more than a matter of mere writing material. Were I to go beyond this point, my narrative would cease to be the story of a man of Earth named Rupert Breen, and become, albeit seamlessly, that of Katherine Drew, a woman of the planet Eden.

It's not that I believe that Katherine's life must be an uninteresting one -- far from it. I have, in fact, begun recording the chronicles of the 54th on clay tablets, using a space-saving shorthand which I worked hard at developing. But Kathy's story would be impossible to present except as a diary because, unlike Rupert's life, Katherine's has only begun to unfold -- at least I hope that that is true.

I shall now summarize the more important events of the last few months. Except for several detachees who chose to marry and remain at the Ukrainian villages, all of our people have returned to us. Klink is one of several hamlets in this area now, since Casimir convinced us that it would be wise to establish numerous small settlements, thereby shortening the men's journey to the fields each morning. It takes many large fields and a wide hunting ground to provide for over five hundred people.

A new spring has come and, though it seems as if they arrived only yesterday, most of our Ukrainian friends have departed for home. Among those who have remained behind are Casimir, Irina, and Natalya. These three have no families to return to and, perhaps, they understand how much we still need them. They have become the grandfather and grandmothers to all of us and we consult them frequently -- whenever the wisdom and good sense that comes with a long life is needed. One can scarcely believe how often that is.

Another Ukrainian staying with us is Mikhail Chatilov. Widowed childless after five years on Eden, Mikhail has dearly wanted a new wife and family. His efforts won the hand of one of our women, she who now calls herself Rachel. I have to confess that I played a matchmaker's role in this case, advising Mikhail on the subject of his beloved's tastes and how to get on her good side. My intervention must have helped, for his courtship flourished despite its very rocky start. It was hard to suddenly start calling Sebastian Lowry 'Rachel Chatilov' -- but, no doubt, she has found it equally difficult addressing me as Mrs. Katherine Drew. Regardless, I think the match will be a good one for Rachel. She has so far voiced no complaints about her partner, either as a companion or a father.

Yes, a new Sebastian Lowry is now with us. I think, and I pray, that this gift of Eden will help heal the wound that Rachel has endured since the loss of her original family. And, between her husband, her infant, and her work, she will have little time to grieve for the past.

But, the first child born in Klink was Lucy Roberts. Mary and Harold still hope for a son and have decided, should they have more than one, that the first should be a Roberts and the second a Hitchcock -- otherwise the name of Hitchcock would disappear forever and that would not be fair. Alan likes their plan and suggests that we follow their example. The idea of having more than one child no longer seems so daunting and so, God willing, there may yet be a house of Breen established on the planet Eden. I might also add here that Mary's little girl has never yet lacked for milk, though her mother once feared her starvation.

Melissa got pregnant lately and she and Philbrick were married. Crawford seems serious about a Ukrainian woman named Nadezhda, whom he met during his stay at her village. By the way, Alan and I passed some months in the Ukrainian hamlets training their best and brightest in medical procedure. My technical role was "official liaison," but in reality I acted more often as Alan's nurse-assistant. As a result, I learned more about medicine than the students whom Alan had come to teach.

Living away from the battle group was an education in other ways, too. For one thing, it was the first time since my own childhood that I've been able to observe and interact with youngsters of all ages. Sebastian was right; there is an undeniable magic in children, one which must be experienced to be appreciated. I also learned a lot about how real women think by means of sharing in their society from day to day. Yet I still feel more comfortable in the company of men.

Alan attempted to realize Sebastian's -- Rachel's -- program for eliminating infectious illness on Eden. We may have made progress in this regard but despite all we do, who knows when the population may be reinfected by new exiles dropping from space? I have suggested to Rachel that if we successfully eliminate pesky but non-lethal diseases, our descendants might totally lose their resistance. My worry would then be that if these strains were later reintroduced to Eden from space they will take a heavy toll. She is now considering the risk factors of her program very carefully.

Alan and I are now back where we belong. Despite my fears, he was not lured away by any Ukrainian temptress, though some of them must have tried. There is much that binds us together after all, not least of which is the child whose tossings and turnings I feel within me even as I write these words. Soon, very soon, I shall behold my son or daughter, and then I shall know that pride of the life-giver -- that same pride which has decided the course of so much human history.

Even were I not facing imminent child-rearing, there would be no lack of things to do. Although I have no doubt that Crawford would return command to me for the asking, the privileges and burdens of rank no longer hold any special appeal; life seems full and rich enough without them. Anyway, Crawford fits the image of an all-purpose "tribal chief" better than ever I could -- at least, the way that things have worked out.

I hear hail-fellow voices and laughter around me. Yet it is never far from my mind that sorrow may instantly turn joy into mourning. Our cemetery so far holds only two graves, but with the march of time there shall be more -- many more. The closer I come to bearing life myself, the more conscious I am of death's overawing shadow. The more my contentment grows, the more I recognize that sadness and separation is the inescapable destiny of all mankind.

When I visit our little graveyard, as I sometimes do, I think of the future families of Eden -- the Breens, the Lowrys, the Chatilovs, the Hitchcocks, the Drews, the Roberts, and many others, but I regret that there shall be no Olsons, no Woolenskas. These two young people didn't have to die -- not so soon, so foolishly, so uselessly. They never knew, and none of us was as yet wise enough to tell them, that they feared only the unknown. It is an awesome thing, the unknown, but while it must be faced, it never should be feared. The unknown which destroyed these fine young soldiers turned out to be nothing more terrible than the gift of immortality.

I speak not, of course, of the immortality of the individual. The tomb must eventually receive the whole of the 54th, since, as Xerxes once lamented, the greatest of armies quickly turn to dust. It is not armies, but families which are eternal. My generation shall pass away, as have others before it, but we will yet live on in our children's flesh, and in their memories. Perhaps, if we live well, we shall also be remembered well.

None of us expected to leave a legacy when this strange adventure began. We of the 54th had been sterile seeds fallen upon dry and barren ground. But, as if by magic, that has ceased to be true; we have become the seedlings of a mighty forest that is yet to be. We have, in fact, discovered ourselves in the midst of a miracle -- the miracle of Man in partnership with Woman.

Today we plant, but who knows the name of the harvest? Not four thousand years separate the farmers of Jericho from Earth's colonies in the stars. In the passage of another four thousand years what will the seeds of Eden yield? Villages, city-states, kingdoms, nations? Another empire in the sky? The possibilities are too awesome to contemplate.

I, Katherine Drew, Rupert Breen, or whatever name I call myself, wish that I might live those four thousand years to see it happen before my eyes. Sadly, my fellow castaways and I may do no more than lay the foundations upon which others must build. There is much we can do in the short span granted us, and much that we must do. But we should never forget precisely what we are building and whom we are building it for.

Now my log is nearly full. Let me end the story of Rupert Breen with this single thought:

Nothing that we dream, nothing that we aspire to, nothing that we achieve, has any purpose -- not unless it extends beyond ourselves, not unless it seeks the well-being of future ages, not unless it strives to reach out and clasp the hand of Destiny. . . .

It is nothing at all -- unless it is for the children.

THE END