A Shadows Tale

NOTE: Please forgive any weakness in my writing style or grammar. As I sit down to write this, my tale, it has been more than 5 years since I have spoken English. Even if I could write these lines in the tongue which I have been speaking since this tale began, you would have no way of understanding it. After 5 years amongst these people, I still cannot read their language.

I will not try to explain why I could speak their language so easily. Suffice it simply to say that the language they speak isnt verbal and, once you get used to it, is actually a very simple language. Mine is far from the greatest mind the Earth has produced and I still learned to speak it in only minutes. I'll have a friend check over what he can so that you'll be able to understand me.

Five years can be such a long time that I no longer remember where it all started. I know that I was in a large room with a lot of people in it, like a bank or department store. There were people there, hidden in the crowd, who would not be noticed if they danced nude at the antarctic pole of the Earth on international television. The thought of joining them would not have crossed my mind even if Id known that they were there. Nobody noticed them.

All the kills were clean. The jacks were all armed and posed a clear danger to the honest people in the room. It all happened so fast that I cannot even remember how I know that, but I do know that to be the case. Hundreds of lives were at risk when the shadows acted on their protocol. Their pointers moved to the center of the room, drawing the eyes of our captors while the stingers killed off the armed men.

One of the would be killers was standing beside me, or just in range of my left arm, when he pulled his weapon on the closest pointer. There I reacted with a reflex I didn't know that I had. My hand flew almost without my volition into his adams apple with enough force to crush his neck. He was my first kill. Less than 7 seconds and all 9 terrorists were dead.

The pointers moved around pointing their silver wands at the bodies to instantaneously incinerate them. Shadows can leave no concrete traces of where they've been. My pointer, although she wasn't attached to me at the time, cut through the crowd to grab my right hand. Rotating my hand until the palm faced up, she pressed her wand to the center of my inner wrist.

It burned like having a car cigarette lighter pressed into the soft flesh of my arm but, looking into her dark eyes, I held my composure. She had mixed color eyes which faded from hazel brown to washed out green at the outer ring of her irises. I was drawn to her in the same way I felt she was drawn to me and I did not resist her. Her jet-black hair rippled down her shoulders like a flowing midnight sky.

A man, near the center of the room where I could not see him, called us to fall out and my pointer pulled my arm so Id know to follow her. He called me to move out with the shadows under his command so I went with my newfound friend. We got into a van, parked not far from the main doors of the building, and were locked into the windowless back with a loud cracking sound. There were fourteen of us who now formed a full seven pairs.

We remained silent, sitting on the benches along the sides of the van for the entire trip of unknown duration. I wanted to know my friends name and held silent anyway. Whatever I had stumbled into was serious enough for me to obey the example set by the others in the transport. All seven of the male stingers sat to the left of their associated female pointers, holding hands to unite their pairs.

My pointer and I were not yet a pair so she resisted.

Our driver pulled the transport into the hangar before the lock was released on our container. There was no way for me, or anybody else, to know where we were or how we'd gotten there from the building. It didn't matter to the others so it didn't matter to me. My pointer took me away from the others to a place along the wall of the empty hangar. The others were going into a room to the right of the van, however, we were to stand on the left side of the van where I could not even see into the room.

Our group leader, the man who called us to fall out earlier, stepped from the passenger side of the van, coming directly over to my pointer and I. He was a ghastly shade of white owing to the cloaking transponder in his wrist. The transponders bend ultraviolet light around us so that our images would blur on security cameras. My pointer had inserted one into my wrist before we left.

His hair was also dark black, yet, it was streaked with grey lines. He wore a white suit, with odd white tie, to enhance his invisibility in the crowd. The only color he wore was in the blue tennis shoes on his feet. There were no identifying marks of any kind on any of us. I did, however, notice a wedding ring.

While waiting for him to speak, I took the opportunity to look over my pointer. All I had seen of her to that time was her face and hair. She wore a black sweatsuit which didn't show off her immaculate figure. Many people would have called her a bit heavy, but, that is not how I saw her. She was perfectly proportioned to me. Her tennis shoes were red. Earrings were the only jewelry that I saw on her, and even they were understated, diamond studs.

"Well, 8," he began. "What do we do with him?"

She looked me over before saying anything. I was wearing jeans, otherwise, I fit into the odd group I'd fallen in with.

"Sir, we could use one final unit to complete our team."

"Are you sure that you would be willing to coach this outsider, 8?"

"Yes sir."

Then he looked me over. "What is your take on this all, young man?"

"I am not yet sure, sir."

"8 has made you a serious offer. She's willing to take responsibility for you."

"Honor requires me to live up to her expectations, then."

He picked up my right hand, turning it over to see the transponder burned into my wrist. "You've come too far to ever leave here. You are aware of this, are you not?"

"I am sir. I place myself at your command."

"Son, if you fail, 8 will pay the price as well."

Mere words were not enough so I knelt before him. This girl had placed her life in my hands and I could not let her down. I gave myself to them both.

"Pairs live and die together. If half of a pair is lost, the whole pair is lost. Do you know what that means, son?"

"Yes sir. We have a single life between us and neither can live without the other."

"Your ashes will be buried together at the same time."

"I understand."

Then he pulled 8 around into his place and pushed my head down until it rested against her breastplate. "Then do you pledge responsibility to her, and that your life shall be hers?"

"I do."

One of them, probably 8, placed a wedding ring on my finger.

"Then arise, unit 9."

Doing as I had been commanded, a ring similar to the one I wore was placed into my right hand by our team leader. Our rings were not ornate. The simple bands were a mix in color between silver and brushed aluminum, designed not to restrict use of the finger on which they were placed. We were not allowed to stick out in a crowd.

Group leader, unit null, pushed the top of 8's head against my breastplate in the same way that he had done with me. I came to attention, wanting to place my hands on her shoulders but restraining them behind my body instead. 8 had not touched me during the pledge so I assumed that it was not allowed. She could feel my heartbeat as I had hers.

She took the same oath I had, giving herself to me as I had to her. Null had to have some hesitation in bonding us into a pair as I had only been picked up on a strike run and my loyalty was not certain. I had meant my oath, as I had taken it, however, he had no way of knowing that.

Even I cannot tell you why I felt such loyalty for 8. Maybe it was love at first site or it could just have been that I longed to belong that badly. Id killed for her and touched her mind soon thereafter. There was a beauty in her duty driven loyalty which I wished to have. She broke protocol, risking her life, to have me. I wanted her for life as I could have no life without her.

Null put eight's left hand into my left hand so that I could slip on the ring with my right hand. When she stood, I gently placed my hands under her arms and helped her to her feet before me. Then I kissed her because that's how I imagined that I should act at that point. She was surprised, a little, but generally submissive. I thought that the shadows may not kiss.

"You belong now, each to the other, continued Null. You are expected not to wander or break discipline. We dont know you, 9, but 8 has given you the greatest and only gift she has to give. Be sure that you respect that and her."

"I shall, Sir. I know what she has done for me."

"Your union will be consummated in tomorows sex period. It's her first as it should be yours. Remember, 9, loyalty is what shadows are."

8 took my hand at last while we both bowed to Null. He dismissed us so that 8 could show me what was expected of us. She took me across the large room toward the doorway where the other shadows had gone.

"My name is Bob," I said.

"I am Synthia, but we go only by number here. Names are for when we were outside the strike team. Null handles all administration, I am called 8 and you are only referred to as 9."

"Ok. I just wanted to know your name."

She took me into the long room and to a bed around the far end of the left wall. There was a steel trunk at the foot of the metal frame bed, both of which were marked with the letter d. The room was sparse, functional without decoration or personality. Our floor was tile, the walls were dull white and the entire ceiling was covered with lighting panels. We had come through a double door at the front of the room and there was a similar door at the back of the room. Another, smaller, door was near the right corner at the back of our room.

There were 7 beds, labeled as A through G, with 3 on the right and 4 on the left. 8 and I were a pair so her significance as pair d was all that I worried about. I call our group leader Null because that is the symbol on his small door at the back of the room. We were allowed access to only the rooms with double doors, one of which led to the hangar and the other led to the showers.

"We are pair d, in case you had'nt noticed. Everything we have is marked with the letter d."

"All our stuff is marked with a d."

"You are the only thing I actually own and I am the only thing you actually own. Everything else is issued to pair d. We share everything."

"That will take some getting used to, yet, I'll addapt."

"I dont know what it's like on the outside. In here there is no separation of pairs. We wear the same clothes, share toothbrushes and stay together until we die together."

"You seem to keep comming back to the statement that we share everything. Is there something youre afraid of?"

She looked down to the trunk, then back up to stare into my eyes. "I was thinking of myself when I chose you. I'm afraid you'll not be happy here with me and bolt when given the chance."

"But, I cannot have you if I do that. This was my choice as much as yours. I could have refused."

"Refuse and you'd die there."

I put my arms around her, however, I did not pull her toward me. "I still could have refused. It's still a choice."

"You will not be dressing like that in the future. It's not allowed. You'll be issued a pair of shoes because we physically cannot share those. Pairs are rotated through chores keeping the barrocs going and I'll show you the ropes of that."

"Chores is something Im used to."

"When we come to attention, I will be on your right side. Give me your right hand and hold your left hand behind your back. If you ever are called to attention without me, then clasp your hands together behind your back."

"Which is different from outside. I'm in your world now so I have to become like you." I know my statements were odd, but I had to show her my desire to be part of her world.

When I felt her knees bend, I let my arms drop free of her shoulders. I knelt beside her as she opened our trunk. She kept it well organized with small compartements for everything. Something in her movements told me that she had lived like this since childhood and knew no other way. It wasnt comfortable for me to interfere in her life the way that I would just by being with her and yet she had chosen me.

"We sleep here stripped to just underwear. You'll have to shower and change before meal period."

After collecting enough clothing for both of us, she handed our clothes to me and picked up the top drawer from the trunk. It contained things like toothbrushes and shampoo which we would need. Since I was new to our home, I held back and followed her closely. We went through the double doors at the back of the room, next to the door to Null's room.

The shower room had an odd design. There were 9 stalls lined up along the right wall, a wall running from the back of the room to 3/4 of the way to the front of the room, and lockers to our direct left. The wall in the middle of the room had sinks facing the stalls and split the showers on the left side of the room from the stalls on the right. There were 15 lockers on the wall beside us, facing into the showers. At the front of the lockers, on the left wall, there was another set of double doors.

I let 8 lead the way to our locker. It was a new feeling for me to be in a locker room used by both men and women, yet, I didn't want 8 to see me uncomfortable in her world. She was insecure enough in trusting me. Even in giving herself over to me she was not sure she had enough of a hold on me to keep me for herself. Nobody had ever wanted me the way she did.

"The door over there leads to the laundry room. Laundry is done every 2 days, here. Leave your outsider clothes in the locker."

"Ok," I replied. "I assume that somebody will collect my clothes?"

She opened the locker to show me three levels. The top level had a basket which slid into the locker on rollers along the sides. Below that was a bar with 4 hangars. In the middle of the locker, there was another bar with an additional four hangars. None of the lockers had locks on them, which I assumed was something she didn't notice. Taking her literally, I accepted that we were to use the same locker for our clothes.

"Our clothes do not have pockets or those slits in the front. Leave everything in your pockets and Null will take care of things. We don't carry anything which doesn't strap to us."

"I'm a bit bigger than you are. How do you know this will fit me?"

"We wear a form or armour. It's a protective fabric which can change size more than the difference between us without getting tight."

I was unsure if I was actually supposed to start undressing with her in the room or wait. And I didn't know how to ask without upsetting her. She handed me a hangar, so I took off my shirt while she went to one of the lockers at the end of the line for towels and rags. I made careful note that the hangar she handed me came from the bottom row.

"How do we organize the hangars in the locker?"

"Clean clothes go on the top row and dirty clothes, with the towels, go on the bottom row. That basket on the top of the locker is where clothes are placed when they come back from the laundry."

"Hopefully I'm not making you uncomfortable with these questions."

"I told Null that I'd help you belong. Honor is what Shadows are."

Then she handed me a hangar from the top of the locker and I was confused. She saw my confusion and started placing her own clean clothes from the pile in my arms onto the hangar. Apparently, we were supposed to hang all of our outfit on a single hangar so I followed her lead. The last thing she did was place the tray she brought into a slot at the bottom of the locker, withdrawing the soaps we'd need.

"She didn't face me when she started undressing, yet, I took that as a sign to finish stripping myself. I couldn't tell if she was uncomfortable disrobing with me and it would have helped me if I could have seen her reaction to know that I was doing the right thing. It was her world and I had to change to suit it. Nothing in her movements betrayed a nervous disposition but neither did her actions comfort me.

"What happened to the others?"

"They've already finished. All 7 pairs will be here when we shower in the morning. We have no designation here, however, I like the one corner, if you don't mind."

"You are the boss here."

Showering with 8 for the first time was a strange feeling. She was my wife now, and I was her husband, so we weren't doing anything wrong. The placement of the shower heads hanging down from the roof had us facing each other while we washed and I was not used to being watched. 8 seemed comfortable enough to convince me that she hadn't had a moment's privacy in all the years of her life. I'd say it was a comfort to her.

Our soap bottles and rags rested on a small ledge running completely around the shower surface. We didn't take the towels into the actual shower since that would render them too wet for drying off with when we needed them. The room was warm enough for us to comfortably walk back to the locker before drying off. She wrapped the towel around her, taking the tray to a sink on the wall opposing the stalls on the left wall and I followed suit. It seemed we had other things to do before getting dressed.

We brushed our teeth, combed our hair and shaved before dressing. 8 didn't need makeup to be beautiful and it seemed that she only wore it to escape notice when we went out on a strike run. I stood close to her so that I could feel her aura flow across my body while I used the weird shaver. Our command structure liked us clean shaven and the automatic razor did a very good job even on my thick facial hair. It worked just as well on 8's legs.

It was necessary to return to the locker for our clothes, so that is where we dressed. We both started with the top, even though she had an additional layer there which I didn't need. I helped her clench her bra behind her back just to show that I felt comfortable being with her. She didn't really need the help, yet, she was thankful for my act of kindness. Anything I did for her was another sign that I was going to stay with her for the rest of our combined life.

I'd never worn briefs without a fly and didn't know which way was the front. 8 showed me the D tag on the inside back of her own bottoms so that I would'nt have to ask. We did'nt bring socks so we didn't wear our shoes back into the main chamber. My shoes were, by appearance, good enough for legal use by a shadow. When we draped the towels over our dirty clothes, placing the hangars on the central bar and closing the locker door, we carried our shoes into the bunk room of our barrocs.

All 7 pairs were there when we entered the room. Two plates, a pair of cups and a pitcher had been placed on each trunk for the evening meal period. I find it worth noting, given the nature of the business I'd been inducted into, that we did say a prayer before eating. We sat on the floor, at opposing ends of the trunk, and ate in silence. Each pair interacted only within its pair.

Dishes were collected by pair B the first night that I was there. Each pair would have a turn at each duty required to keep the whole team going so I watched as the dishes were carried back into the hangar. I had noticed that there was no kitchen in the living quarters. It made about as much sense as our having brushed our teeth before the evening meal. 8 knew this world so I accepted that this is what we were to do.

At the time, I was just a talanted beginner with a great need of training to fit into the team. Nobody doubted that I had some natural skill as a stinger. My first kill took a measured 0.7 seconds which put me on the leading edge of average. Pointers carried the pulse wands, but, stingers always killed bare handed. We carried nothing else into battle and could use anything within grasping range to complete our mission.

8 couldn't train me since I was not a pointer. 5, elder of our team, seemed to want the job. He didn't ask anybody's permission before he approached from across the room and I was unsure of his intent. Our first lesson began by wrapping our shoes in rags and placing them on our heads. I was informed that, if I could trot without dropping my shoes on the floor, then I would move smoothly enough not to draw attention in a crowd. My jack wouldn't see me move in for the kill unless I drew attention to myself.

Jack is my translation of the idea we actually used and comes from an old game called bocce. With our speed, getting close to the jack, as in the game, almost insured a clean kill. As long as he didn't see you comming, hed be dead in under 2 seconds. However, 2 seconds is an eternity in combat. A total strike run can last no more than one minute from first point to fall out and we had as many as ninety jacks in any single run.

Even 5's coaching didn't make the trot easy. He was one of the best and could actually run without losing his cargo. I learned the lesson in about fourty five minutes, yet, its hard to tell how long it took since Null kept the times and we had no timepieces in our barrocs. One lesson down, he taught me to increase the force of my spin without dropping my shoulders. As long as I didn't do anything which would catch my jacks eye, I could kill without risk of hitting civilians.

Strike teams are surgical units. Over the time I was there, we had taken down terrorists, bank robbers and other heavily armed gangs interspersed with large civilian crowds. I didn't ask much about who or what the shadows are, assuming that it was not a legal line of inquiry. Everything I know about tactical command and our targets I guessed from experience.

Null came out of his room as 5 finished his coaching. The pairs then came silently to attention at the foot of their beds. I followed 8's instruction and stood at her left side, giving her my right hand and placing my left hand behind my back. Nobody wore shoes or socks in the barrocs for reasons nobody told me.

After inspecting us, Null gave a hand signal like the wings of a bird formed by his hands over his head and the lights were dimmed by about a quarter. 8 turned around, kneeling at our trunk, so I did the same thing. She withdrew two polished silvery boxes and gave one of them to me. The other one she placed on her head as I had with the wrapped shoes. These boxes were light and had much less friction in our hair.

It made no sense to me, however, we were then allowed to dance together to an odd sounding melody. We danced slowly, getting to know our partner's every movement in great detail. I'd actually have called it fun. 8's box slipped once and I almost lost mine twice. This was'nt a bad average for our first dance together. Null did not look displeased with 8's choice of partner.

A pair of quick claps marked the end of our night. We returned the boxes to our trunk before stripping down for bed. Null watched me intently while I did so. I think that 8 was somebody to him and I was a potential threat. That was a role I didn't want to play for a man who killed as cleanly as even the best of us. And Null was a team leader.

8 liked the left side of our bed so I took the right side. We slept on our sides with me facing into 8's back. I just liked watching her sleep. Null returned to his room before shutting down the lights entirely. Most places would have left a dim light, yet, we were expected to know how to move through the darkness if we had to. Relaxing, I felt 8's warmth next to mine beneath our blanket. But, although we shared a single large pillow, I didn't get close enough to touch her.

I didn't sleep well that night. 8 slept comfortably by my side and I wasn't sure that I was even allowed to brush against her soft, warm flesh. My intentions were honorable. All I would have asked was the latitude to drape my arm over her and rest against her in a loving embrace. Just this and nothing more.

Pair D was responsible for setting up the morning meal. Null brought the lights up in the morning and most of us awoke with no other signal. An anthem which I did not recognize was played over the speakers to mark the start of our day. I awaited 8's signal to tell me what I was to do. Our responsibility to the team was something I would need time to learn from 8.

First, we rolled into a standing position off the sides of our bed and then we centered the pillow. We took the top corner of the blanket so that we could pull it into a smoothe finish as a team. Pairs made their beds as a team. It took me a moment to get used to, however I saw what 8 was after without much coaching.

We put on our shoes to leave the room. Through the main doors, in the hangar, there was a large, delta wing craft. The hangar had no major doors for entering or leaving it, but this craft and the transport were able to enter and exit. As long as 8 didn't question, neither did I. She would suffer no further indignities on my account.

The back of the craft had a landing ramp which had been extended to the floor. If the ship had a pilot, we were not to know who he was. Two carts had been parked in the cargo hold ready for us to pull them out for the morning meal. Whatever held them in place for the flight had been retracted long before we got into the cargo hold.

Each cart had 4 shelves. A pair of plates were placed on each shelf and the shelves were labled with the letter of the pairs. Although I couldn't really understand the alphabet, I could match the letters to the ones on the trunks. It was a simple puzzle of matching the shapes. It was also something I figured I could do without embarassing 8.

Pitchers being too large to fit on any of the shelves, all 4 of them had been placed on the top of the carts. The cups, beside the plates, had been marked on their bottoms even though it was not really necessary. All of the dishes were an olive green as though whoever had designed them didn't care how they looked as long as they worked. Everything in 8's world was like that.

8 took the cart which only had 3 servings on it and I took the one with 4. I held open the double doors for her before passing back into the bunk room myself. Her pairs were on the right where Null's door required not having a bunk at the back of the room. It did not take us long to set up all 7 meals and return the carts to the aircraft even though I was inexperienced.

We drew out our clothes from experience so that didn't take long either. All of the other pairs were already in the showers before we got there. 8 and I disrobed quickly and without the awkward avoidance of the previous day. It was comfortable for us to in close contact. I knew the protocol and didn't hold 8 back with my ignorance.

Something caught my eye in the shower and I left 8's side moving toward the back corner where another pair already was. There was a black spot on the grout between two tiles which I had spotted across the room. I waved 8 over to look at the thing so she would know I had not wandered from her. It was something none of the other pairs would have done, yet I didn't know that.

I returned to 8's place in our corner as soon as I had seen the electronic device. 8 was embarassed and I couldn't tell if that was more or less than her fear of my disloyalty. We interacted more in the showers that day when each of us washed the other's back. Unity was the heart of our being a pair. It bothered me that I had jeopardized that.

Our return to the bunk room was delayed while 8 used one of the stalls and I stayed in the room with her. It was something I would otherwise have felt uncomfortable with, however I had become so comfortable with 8 that being without her would have been worse. I was suprised how much I had changed in my first twelve hours of marriage. Maybe my new form was who I really was. All I know is that I felt better as the new me.

Null had the pairs in our attention format when we got back. 8 and I went to our bunk and assumed the position just as our comrades had. He released us to our meal after the short prayer. I could feel that 8 was uneasy. She knew that Null would say something about my wandering off as I had. All the pairs were obsessed with pleasing Null as much as I was compelled to please 8.

The social structure, in retrospect, looked more like that of a cult than a tactical unit. My strike team didn't like the tactical strike teams, which I believed to be a normal thing for strike teams since tactical strike teams were millitary and therefore allowed to have acceptable civilian kills. We were obsessed with protecting the civilians around whom we acted and with pleasing our leader. Aside from Null, we were not allowed to even see other people. There were no passes or days off.

Yet I was happy. The whole team seemed happy and never complained.

After our meal, 8 and I retrieved the cart from the airship to collect the dishes. There was no pair assigned to either cook nor to wash dishes and we seemed to lack even the tools for doing either duty. We ate some kind of mixed meat and vegitable for breakfast, consumed with a fruit punch of some kind. I know that the punch had been spiked with some level of vitimin suppliments plus the obligatory immunal boosters. The dreaded 'they' wanted us in top shape at all times and what we would be exposed to on the runs could not be predicted.

I was approached by Null when I was alone near his door. 8 saw me enter the submissive attention posture and approached me on the right side to join me. Null had a gleam in his eye hinting that he liked to see pairs act in unison as we had, but hid it in formal protocol. He waved us through the small door into his office. The door was too small for us to hold our union while passing through it, however, we were back into our combined posture the moment we cleared it.

It was a small room, not much larger than the desk and bunk contained within it. His bunk had a trunk just like ours and was along the right wall as we entered the door. There was another small door behind his desk. The desk, containing some kind of electronic tablet on its surface, ran across the room in front of us leaving Null just enough room to get between it and the bed.

Null squeezed through the small opening to get behind his desk before saying anything to either of us. It looked bad because Null had taken us away from the others, yet I didn't know that I'd really done anything. 8 was upset and held her composure well. I felt the uneasiness in her trembling hand but was unable to do anything for her while Null was watching us so closely. If I had done as I wanted, Null would have been further annoyed and that would have hurt 8 more.

"Well, 9. You wandered in the showers this morning."

I knew it was unwise to be combatative or even self-assured with him so I swallowed my pride for 8's sake. "Sir. I saw a monitoring device in the grout between two of the tiles."

"That's not your problem, 9. You are monitored at all times as part of your contract here."

"I am an amateur and I saw it, Sir." It was hard for me to not feel that I had anything of value to contribute.

"Get to your point, 9."

"Sir. It was so poorly done that it doesn't look like one of yours."

"Doesn't matter, 9." Null seemed to feel that I had a point as much as I did, but he was the boss. I could not show insubordination even if we were alone.

"I should have followed 8's lead, Sir. I am sorry."

"Be sure that you do, 9. 8 is doing a good job thus far and you don't want to look bad on her record."

"No sir."

"Return to your team."

8 said nothing so I followed suit. We left the room through the small door which closed behind us. I vowed to myself that it would be the last embarrassment 8 would have to endure because of me. The incident was my fault alone and I accepted that.

Placing my arm around her back, I held her close and said, "I didn't mean to cause you strife, 8. I'm sorry."

She paused her stride. "I took an oath to instruct you and honor is what shadows are. It's my responsibility to show you what it takes to be a shadow. This was my oversight."

"I acted on an impulse you could not have predicted. It's my fault."

"Just stay with me, 9." She put her arm around me in match to my arm being around her and we walked back to our bunk together.

Pointers were trained in the back of the room near Null's door. Null had a target which could read the signals of the training wands to judge accuracy and speed. He stuck the target to one of the walls so that the pointers could be trained under adverse lighting conditions, including a strobe light. 8 was skilled beyond most of the others, however, I am happy to admit that I am more than a little bit prejudiced.

Stingers used the twenty foot wide walkway through the middle of the room between the bunks to train. We had to have fast, clean kills or civilians would die. The room had some form of a holographic generator which would allow us to train our strikes since the blows we used had to be instantly lethal. It would not have been acceptable for us to train against each other when we were training for quick kills. Null brought us a few I-beams to actually practice our control on.

The holographic projector created only images and your hand went right through the pictures when you hit them. That was good in learning control since you had to be able to judge your ability to stop if you missed. We had to have actual, hard targets in order to strengthen our hits or our hands would have dealt badly with the actual runs. Real targets stop the blows you hit them with.

We stayed in visual range of each other. The pointers could see their stingers working on skills as the stingers could watch their pointers. It was a bad idea to sit back and watch unless you wanted to be hit several times a minute, but it was possible for pairs to feel close even while training. Training was a team effort as much as it could be.

After a short while, I held back on a blow to the metal beam. My hand was beginning to hurt from the impacts and I was trying to protect myself from real injuries. 5 saw this and hit me in the gut hard enough to slide me fifteen or more feet down the opening between the bunks. It didn't stop hurting, yet I did stop pulling back. His life, as well as 8's, was at stake if I was in any less than top shape and we both knew it. I was to be allowed no quarter.

Null returned from his room after a long absence to signal our evening meal period. We were told that there was a reproductive period that night which is something that 8 and I had been informed just after our marriage. Pair 'B' was again in charge of the evening meal. I think that Null remained in the bunk room while the pairs showered and pair 'B' set up the evening meals for the team.

8 waited behind until most of the pairs had entered the shower and pair 'B' had left the room to fetch the carts. She had seen that the mark she'd branded into my wrist was still red and had a lesson to teach me which she had earlier forgotten. Seizing my left hand with her right hand, she placed my left palm over the burn on my right arm. It was actually hotter than when she had branded the mark on the outside and planted the transponder on the inside of my wrist.

"You have to remember this in every detail to be able to do it."

I closed my eyes to shut out all unnecessary senses. It was as though reality was a collection of thick baloons in the fabric of time-space and she had placed her finger in a tear which was the burn on my arm. She caused the edges of the hole in my baloon to stick together, then the warm life blood of creation re-inflated the injury to its healthy state. Only the mark of my team remained branded into my arm.

It was a feeling that you have to experience to know which is why I cannot teach you to do it in these few short passages. As hot as it got, it never burned me. 8's touch on the back of my hand was gentle and loving as much as I felt for her. Her energy was not used in the repairs any more than mine were, although a distinct change took place which took power.

"That's amazing," I said.

"This is our first aid. It's something we learn as children, which is why I forgot that you didn't know it."

"Well, it's still amazing."

"Don't expect miracles. Only God can create life. This isn't even that usefull anymore."

"What do you mean?"

"It's good against the injuries of childhood, however, you get more than bumps, bruises, cuts and burns on the runs. We cannot raise the dead."

"It's still incredable, 8."

"You must come from a very simple place, 9."

She had our clothes out and we were in the showers before pair 'B' had the carts returned. 8 thought that I needed a haircut to remain within regulation, so she clipped a few inches off after we brushed our teeth but before we dressed. With great care, she gave me the required trim as an expert even though I don't think it was something she had done before. My appearance had to be right to her. We were forbidden to stick out in a crowd so we had to be undistinguished.

I took it upon myself to brush out her hair for her. It was actually that I wanted to do something for her and not that I thought she needed it. She seemed to enjoy having me do a little of her grooming as much as I enjoyed taking care of her hair. We were a pair and it felt good to act for each other from simple kindness.

Our evening meal was followed by a little more dancing to keep us in complete synchronization. The runs did not allow us to speak openly so we had to have an unwritten language of gesture and simple unity of mind to make things work. My ability to feel what 8 was going to do was essential to our team's performance. We did much better on our second day as I only had my box slip once and did not lose it at all. 8 was even better than that and didn't even risk losing her box.

The dance was rythmic and slow. We moved about in a complex patern to the rythem of the backbeat just enjoying the time we spent together. There was no fixed pattern of movements in the dance except the feel of the music itself. 8's people apparently had no structured dance. They used the music itself to choreograph their own movements. Of course, I was now in a strike team so this could have had nothing to do with the natural state of 8's society.

My gentle grasp of 8's soft body relaxed the cramps from my hulking form. I hadn't realized that she also had pulled a few muscles in the day's training. Without losing step, I used our first aid to close up the scratches on her back and erase the bruises from her perfect form. She knew what I had done and expressed her gratitude by placing her head on my left shoulder. It was odd that she could hold her posture well enough to hug me without losing the metalic box in her hair.

Null watched us from the shadows although he did not react to us in any way. He wanted 8 and I to get as close as the strike team depended on us being. I would not wander from my team as long as I held her in my heart. Loyalty to my oath to 8 cemented me into the team enough where Null could eventually trust me as much as any of the other stingers in his command.

I couldn't see it, but I felt that all 7 pairs in the room had a kind of super unity in our movements to the ever changing music. Only Null could see how the team behaved as a single entity when united by a single beat pattern. No matter how the beat changed, we all seemed to addapt in about the same way. You could not have overlooked our being as a single team.

8 kissed me as our dance concluded. That is when my box slipped, although it did not fall. Null signalled the end of our evening's exercise a little early so that our reproductive period would not interfere with our required sleep cycle. Everything in the teams is planned out in great detail. We would have 3 sex periods in any month. And only Null controlled the clocks so we were as dependant on his command as we were required to act together as a team.

It was not Null's way to watch us, so he walked back into his room. Before he did so, he looked at me so intently that I felt he could see through me. His stern gaze held a warning to me that I was not to allow harm to come to 8 at any time. My paranoia probably got the best of me since I'm sure he cared about all the pairs under his command. 8 seemed to be somebody he cared about as much as I did.

If I could have spoken to him at that moment, I would have told him that it was my first time as he wanted for 8. She was more to me than I had ever known enough to want. It would have meant nothing to me to be close to her physically if I could not have been with her spiritually as well. I wanted to be hers more than I wanted her to be mine.

I will not go into detail about our sex period. It is the only intimacy allowed to pairs which is by mutual consent only within the pairs. We were not guided or forced into any pattern of behavior except by the love of our partners. It was the most beautiful, spiritual and intimate experience 8 and I had shared. Even allowing that there were 6 other pairs in the room, we were alone together. Each pair respected all the pairs.

8 meant so much to me that I hesitate to even use the terms of sex period or even reproductive period since I feel that it cheapens the appearance of what she really meant to me. I could imagine being with nobody else and I would not share her. She had no reason to doubt my loyalty to her and I did my best to express that to her in words and actions. But these things were for her alone so I will not write them here.

We awoke the next morning in the very embrace I would have begged God for on the previous night. 8 and I were both up on just the lights as was becomming our pattern, although pair 'F' had been moved to the detail of the morning meal. It was laundry day so we stripped the bed just after getting out of it. Pair 'E' was assigned to actually do laundry, but we all had to have the laundry in place.

Each pair had an extra set of bed clothes in its trunk so that we could have our beds made in time for the morning inspection which would come before laundry was done. Actual laundry was done after the morning meal, however, I didn't know that at the time. Since our first duty each day was to hit the showers, we were headed to the lockers where all laundry was to be left anyway. We left our bedclothes in the baskets at the top of the locker.

Our morning routine was comfortable for us both and we were driven to get back in Null's good graces by being amongst the first ready for the morning inspection. 8 had a few bruises on her back which I had missed the previous night so I healed them while I washed her back. My hands were a bit sore so she took care of the swelling for me. It was comfortable for us to work together rather than just watch each other shower since we were now feeling free enough to touch.

Actually, it was me who felt uncomfortable to touch 8. She was my wife so I was more in my own rights to brush against her than I would have been if I'd been with one of the other pointers. It took me time to learn how to read her reflexes and tell if I was making her comfortable or if she felt I was getting out of permitted bounds. Null did all the planning and it was his place.

We even dried each other off. More than anything, I wanted to please 8 by making her look good before Null. I helped her with the bra hooks she could not easily reach, then dressed myself quickly. When I had finished, I closed the door on the locker and rushed to 8's side so we could enter the bunk room together. It would not have looked good for 8 before Null if we had looked like we rushed so we took a deep, combined, breath before opening the double doors.

Once in the room, we came together in our formalized position at the front of our trunk before any of the other pairs. Null seemed to be pleased with us by the gleam in his eye, yet he did not look directly at us. I caught his supressed smile and did not react any more than I absolutely had to. 8 clenched my hand a little tighter for a second so that I'd know she too had seen Null's reaction. We didn't want Null to see that we'd noticed his reaction even though it should have pleased him if he'd known we felt proud at his pleasure.

All seven pairs came to our posts before Null became tired of standing in place. Pair 'F' could be excused for comming in later than most of the other pairs since pair 'F' was responsible for our morning meal. I had time to wonder where Null got his food and who did his laundry but I didn't get too deep into it. He was part of the team and yet he was not with the team. It seemed his job not to get above us too far and still to get into a position where we realized that he was more than we were.

Null walked down the isle between the pairs before dismissing us. I hadn't seen him do that before, even though it was only the second time I had been there to see anything. He had something to tell us after we finished the meal and cleaning up the bunk room. None of the others acted as though there was something left unsaid so I kept myself calm as well. 8 was my guide in the new life that I'd entered.

8 and I dined quietly. The actual meal changed very little between days but 8 didn't take it as something she got tired of and I'd endure anything for her. We had forks, which we couldn't have eaten cleanly without, although there were no knives. I watched 8 eat for the first time, trying not to make her uncomfortable with me, just to see how her people ate. It didn't hurt that I liked looking at 8's face.

After we finished, Null heard the doors to the hangar open and close twice so he knew the dishes had been taken away. We all knew that he would be comming back once he felt we were ready so none of us were far from our bunks. Pair 'E' left to handle the team's laundry and the rest of us swept the floors. Each pair also polished the metal frame of the beds with those of us who finished first taking care of pair E's bed frame.

Our brooms were collapsable and fit easily into the trunks. Each pair had only a single broom but two polishing cloths. I took the broom to sweep up the area around our bunk while 8 started polishing our bed. The sweeping didn't take long and I soon returned to help 8 polish up the bed frame. Nothing we did really took that long. However, we wanted to do our best job since Null had to be happy with our work.

Pair F's return signalled that it was time to retrieve the basket from our locker. It wasn't necessary, yet 8 and I both went to get it. All of the pairs stayed together through every task mostly because we were uncomfortable when our pairs were broken up. Null must have known that keeping us together that strongly was inefficient and he still seemed to aim for it.

I watched as 8 took control over organizing our trunk. It was her trunk more than mine and I felt that she had lived as she currently lived for as long as she had lived. 8 gave no indication that she had ever been anything other than she was. Even with this realization, I watched carefully since I would eventually have to pull my own weight by working with the trunk even though 8 gave no indication that she even could feel reduced to her utility.

Most of the pairs, especially mine, were at attention the moment Null's door opened. We knew to expect him. Actually, everybody but me knew to expect him and I fell in line with my comrades. Null was not suprised by our readiness. I was just happy to be by 8's side without being trapped in Null's searing gaze. 8 even seemed happy with me.

Null walked down the isle between us just as he had at the morning inspection. Then he returned to the back of the room to deliver his presentation.

"Coach position," he called.

All 7 pairs held their relitive positioning although we closed ranks in the isle before Null. We sat on the floor, four pairs on Null's right side and three on his left, like stone monuments lined up along an important ancient road. This left Null with a space about ten feet wide in which he could give his presentation between our columns. Null took a kneeling position between pair 'E' and I.

"You have another strike run comming up in two days. This will be your second run this week so make me proud. Since you are now a full seven pairs, I think you can handle 21 jacks."

Null gave a few hand signs and the holographic projection of a layout formed in the space between the columns of us. I do not mean to say that the projection was impressive, just that it was a valid means to an important end. Each of us had a clear view of the whole building floor plan so that Null could coach us in the exact tactics to be used.

"Your average strike run has been 37 seconds which 9 saved for you on your last run. 0.7 seconds is an impressive kill 9."

"Thank you sir."

"Now that you are a full team, I'd like to see you get below that magic 30 second mark. Under no condition can you go beyond the 60 second hard limit from first point to fall out. At one minute, I will call a mandatory fall out. It should not take you more than half that to get everything you have to do finished."

At first, I thought it was just me, however I noticed that the entire team nodded in unison to Null's instruction. He would not be impressed unless we actually did it, if even that impressed him. His drive to make his team better knew no bounds.

"We'll be comming in through these four doors near the transport. Do not clump and you may not enter until a crowd large enough to hide in enters your assigned door. Once inside, break up and spread out. I'll signal the pointers through the wand pulse codes when you are to enter the strike zone. Stingers maintain visual contact and stay in line."

The image rotated a bit so that we could get a clear view of the entryway and, most importantly, the cameras watching those doors.

"Pair B will go through this main entrance along with pair E. Watch yourselves since there are cameras all over this door. Pair C will use this small door here on the right where the greatest skill will be needed. Pairs A and D will take this door on the far left leaving pairs F and G to go through the right door."

Then the image was reduced a bit so that we could see the interior hall. It had a layout similar to that of a strip mall with a large passage through the middle, walls of tinted glass all along the front and rooms on two floors along the back of the building. There were cameras in many locations, however, the cloak transponders in our arms could not be activated before the strike reached first point or the effect on the cameras would draw more attention than our invisibility could cover for. We had to remain shadows.

"Once inside, keep the pairs at about seven feet of separation. Just close enough for visual inspection, but far enough apart not to arouse suspicion. Do not clump the pairs together. I will signal the pointers to lead off down this hall to the strike zone on the end of the lower floor. This has to be done on site because I don't know how many random civilians will be in the way."

Null moved the display to show the small room just one door from the far end of the lower level. It was to be crowded which is how the display showed it. Blue jacks were only armed with automatic weapons and red jacks also carried explosives. Civilians were white, grey or olive green. Camera positions were shown in bright green so that we'd know where they were.

"Pairs are placed in this room by skill. These positions will be adjusted as your training progresses toward the actual run. I want the pointers to move toward center with a counter clockwise rotation to their paths since this is a confined space. Get back to your stingers two steps after you note the first kills so that we can clean up fast. We leave through this small door behind 12 here."

Null's projection then went into action so that I could see the pointers walk a few steps to the right, moving slightly toward the center of the room, then doubling back to the stinger placement. I was placed next to 5, a position I liked, while 5 held the door to the room. My position gave me clean access to two jacks with a shot at a third which was actually closer to 5. If I'd been as paranoid then as I am now, I'd feel that five had been placed that close to me to keep an eye on me. 8 had one of the tightest orbits of any pointer on the run.

I was tempted to ask how much Null could trust the intelligence his report was based upon but I left it to the more experienced pairs on the team to ask, provided it was a permitted question. It would have embarassed 8 if I had broken a rule somewhere. Logically, I took the report as suspect until truth proved its reliability. Even protecting 8's honor within the team did not allow me to risk 8's life.

We were dismissed then by virtue of Null leaving so that he was no longer there to hold us in formal position. It was still early in the day so we could start training for the actual run and Null didn't train with us. 5 took control of the projection. Maybe 5 was the senior stinger or it may just have been pair C's chore for that week to handle the projections. He knew the signals.

There was only enough space between the bunks for two pairs to train at one time. 5 rotated the projection so that one pair had the clearing at the back of the room and one pair was at the front of the room. We could have forced 4 pairs into the projection, however that would have been tight and risked our colliding with the bunks. Ten shadows watched and coached the two working pairs go through their paces. Null may not have been in the room, yet I know that he was watching us. It was his job to know how we would perform.

Our first project was basic skills. Pointers had to maneuver the jacks into position just by moving through the crowd. Jacks would notice the movement and, given less than two second's chance, the stingers would pick them off before harm came to the pointers. The wands were deadly weapons, capable of mass destruction although pointers dared not use them as such since they were capable of missing their targets more destructively than the stingers. Tact was a specialty of shadows.

Some of the targets we were given vanished to see how we would handle the actual run with unpredictable obsticles. We weren't given the hardened targets, projections covering the I-beams, until after the evening meal. Then we started working on the jacks from single to multiple strikes. The pointers were extremely important to the task since they had to position all the jacks a stinger could handle in a three second period.

That night, I dared to sleep with 8 in my desired embrace. She accepted my arm around her and moved closer to the center of the bed so that we could both be comfortable. We entered sleep with a kiss. Null may have approved of our growing closeness or he may not have noticed it. As long as we did not break the protocols we were given, I did not see why Null would complain about our simple pleasures.

Awaking with the lights, we acted in unison even in the way our pattern varried from morning to morning. 8 and I were again in the first few pairs in position at the front of our trunk and ready for Null's inspection. The morning meal was heavier than it had been for the first two days of my service. I took this to mean that Null was preparing us for the strain of a strike run by enhancing our nutrition.

I happened to notice that my pulse felt slower than it had been when I lived on Earth. Just guessing, I'd say that whatever our command had done to me had given me a pulse of fourty seven beats per minute and a slightly lower body temperature. It was just a guess on both parts since I had no measuring hardware at my disposal. Whatever I had been dosed with had not harmed 8 in any way so I took it as making me more like her. That was a feeling I'd have liked even if it killed me.

Null gave us the use of the main hangar so that we could train where there was enough room for all seven pairs to work at once. I wondered how many other resources we had which we weren't using. There were at least eight other double doors in the hangar which could have led into rooms which would have been very useful to us. We weren't allowed to use the room until the airship left and we'd have to be removed before it could return.

5 had to relinquish control of the projector so that we could be worked in unity. Null stayed in the shadows in the same way that he would in the actual strike run, just manipulating things behind the scenes. We were worked hard and fast until we made no mistakes. Four pairs were moved around, but my pair was kept next to 5's pair where I wanted to be. Time mattered to the run so Null had to be there.

Our training in the projection ended when Null told us to return to the bunk room.

All the pairs took out their clothes for the evening shower while waiting for the ship to land. Pair 'B' handled the evening meal while the rest of us washed up from the hard day's work. 8 had pulled a few muscles and I had my share of bruises. We were back into top shape before we emerged with the rest of our team for the evening meal. Null lead the prayer and then retired to his room, presumably to eat.

After the evening meal, we danced again. It was the longest dance session we'd ever had, although I felt like time had no meaning. Pointers and stingers had to act in absolute unity reading only body language when we went on the strike runs. We would have the dance exercises even if they were not needed. Null was obsessed with making the team act like a single body under his command.

The next morning, we awoke with the lights again. Null was a bit late in his inspection, but he was always late on days when we had strike runs. Maybe he was setting up hardware for the run or he may just have been giving us a little extra rest so that we'd be in better shape for the actual run. After inspection, 5 walked us through the camera positions one last time.

Null took us through the double doors to our transport when he thought we were ready. We moved quietly and in pairs to the back of the waiting van. 8 and I stayed back with Null while the other pairs taking the lead. We were the freshman pair in the team and I felt that Null wanted to keep a close eye on me. I moved a little closer to 8 so that he'd know that my loyalty was with her. The whole team knew that I could run off when we landed.

Each transport was a little different from the outside. The vehicles were not supposed to stick out any more than we were. However, the inside back of all the vans was a cargo container with bench seats along the sides and no windows. Null closed us in with a loud crack of the locking mechanism.

It was a smoothe ride. If I hadn't known better, I'd say that we weren't moving at all until a few hundred heartbeats before we reached the target zone. Then the road took on an unevenness which we could feel in the dark container. There was no sound aside from our heartbeats inside the transport compartement. And our heartbeats were steadily calm.

Another loud snap marked the opening of our case. Once outside the van, we spread out into the parking lot. I made sure that Null saw me kiss 8 before we vanished into the darkness of the vast array of parking spaces. The transport stayed close to the back of the parking lot so that we would have plenty of room to spread out without looking like we were trying to hide. Then the transport moved off to wait for our fall out.

8 and I stayed close until we saw a large group of kids moving toward the door we were to use. Slipping into the group, we split just on the other side of the door. I moved forward to the windows and 8 kept moving toward the rooms at the back of the hall. We didn't actually get far apart at any time, although it felt like an ocean between us after having been together so long.

The first thing I noticed, which took a little examination, was that the writing was entirely in an alphabet unlike that used by 8's people. For all I know 8 was fully literate in a hundred languages and a dozen dialects of each. But, I was trapped with my team on the smallest side of a language barrier. Only the mission taking precedence kept panic from my mind.

A million segregate conversations cleared every so often so that I could hear that these people spoke a language I did not. I thought this odd since, although it kept me from hiding in the crowd, it also meant that any innocent question could expose me. My silence had to be kept hidden from the crowd so that I was not seen as different even though I was different. 8's presence kept me focused on the mission. She was unsure of her hold on me, as was Null, so she looked my way more than she should have.

I stayed within the crowd against the windows. My height is not such that I can be easily seen over most men so I was camaflaged in the puddle of nameless people. The camera could easily have seen my reflection in the window, but I thought that trying too hard to hide might actually expose me more than standing out just a bit. Nobody would see me who wasn't looking for me.

No ballerina could match the singular grace of a swan combined into the stealthy gait of a cheeta the way 8 did. She was the kind of beauty who would stick out in any crowd. Turning from one of her other admirors, I looked into the sky through the tinted windows and saw two moons. The lower of them was orange and the higher was an understated olive green in hue. It was a shocking moment that I would love to have shared with 8.

Focus on the mission brought me back to whatever planet I was on. 8 was not hard to find in the crowd when I turned back to look. I must have seemed the shy schoolboy chasing his unattainable dream girl throught the evening fog of people. It was a place which we were so at home in, and was so natural to any race, that we escaped detection in the illusion.

8 got a drink from one of the public fountains under a camera where it could not see her. When she crossed the room to follow Null's instruction, I made a point of getting a sip from the same place. We crept into the small, crowded room where some of the jacks seemed to sense that something was up. I noticed 5 in his place just after we slipped into formation. Null saw that the jacks were becomming uneasy but trusted us to keep them under control.

Null called first point before I knew that our full team had been assembled in formation. I took the first two jacks the moment 8 started her orbit. She turned fast enough to see me pick off the third jack who 5 hadn't had time for. 5 had five jacks in his range so I had my chance at the third one I could get. Unfortunately, I only got three hits in. 8 had vaporized two of the bodies and still had a chance to see me take down the third jack.

Fall out was called as the glow from the last jack's vaporization faded. I took notice that none of the civilians in the room seemed to notice that we were even speaking a language. Only Null had spoken, yet his command went unnoticed by the outsiders. They could less than not speak the language of the strike teams; they couldn't understand that it was a language.

The seven pairs united again when we got through the small door. We walked unnoticed through the wandering souls in the alley until we got to the hidden transport. Our transport could not hide itself in the shadows as we could, although I know that our command must have tried many things in the past. Civilians had seen the strike yet would take such poor notice of us that we'd never be found. We'd even been stripped of the scent trails used by tracking dogs.

As the lock clamped down and our transport started for home, I thought that we must be some part of law enforcement. Not leaving concrete traces was only so usefull in covering our tracks. Shadows had to be the kind of people nobody found because nobody wanted to find us. It was 8's world and, as long as I could be a part of it, that was enough for me even if I could never have any of the answers.

We returned to base in time for the evening meal. After the meal, we went over our strike performance. I would have been questioning why we hadn't done so on the run where 8 had picked me up, but I was more interested in the new feeling of belonging in 8's world. Although my place on the team had not yet been assured, I was definitely part of the team.

I took most of the criticism, yet I expected that as the new man on the team. 5 seemed to think that I sould have taken a fourth jack who was just to 11's side of me. Null just seemed to like that we were acting like a team. It would have bothered me if 8 had taken the same degree of advising that I did, but she was almost faultless in her run. As long as the team helped me improve, I didn't mind.

"You got down to 28 seconds, team," Null interjected. "It was your second confirmed kill, 9. 8 is going to make a shadow out of you yet. Nice run 5."

None of us replied with more than a nod. Null then left us to coach each other a little while longer before bed time came. 8 seemed proud of me. We slept nestled together comfortably after that. The team trusted me and that made 8 look good to the rest of our team.

Strike runs came two to three times a week with long training sessions each day. 8 progressed even though her performance was nearely perfect. I got to stay near 5 when we went out on the runs which is actually where I wanted to be. He took me in as a pupil and gave me a hard time so that his approval would mean something more to me than even Null's acceptance. My place on the team grew secure over the next ten months or so.

Over that time, I am told that our team became one of the top ranked strike teams in the tactical command. We could have been in special command, but I think that's a sub section of tactical command. Anyway, we were given a run against sixty-nine jacks who were planning to blow up an open air market. It was the toughest assignment we'd ever had and Null wasn't happy.

When Null isn't happy, none of us are happy. We didn't have enough pairs to cover all the entrances and it was the largest exit that we'd ever covered. 5's pair, C and my pair were placed near the exit gateway to keep it clear for fall out. The main entrance had to be covered by pair G. All but three of the jacks were carrying explosives. Cameras would not be a problem.

I remember that the lights were bright. That world didn't appear to have any moons and the people overcompensated with the flashy lights. Bright lights and crowds just seem to go together everywhere in the universe. Our team had never spooked the restless civilian masses into a stampede, although there were thousands of outsiders to account for and the chance of us being charged was not small. And it was our third run on a week with a sex period.

5 and I had to hold the gate open so we could reach the transport. If the public lost its civility, we would be overrun before we could get the jacks all down. The team did not like the odds, with almost ten jacks to a stinger, yet we were unquestioningly loyal to Null's command. He positioned us in the best way he knew how even though I doubt he'd ever seen a strike run like the one he had planned out.

8 had trouble getting all ten of my jacks, with option on an eleventh, into position, however no pointer had an easy time. The pointers could not ring together to keep in unison so we were relying on Null's pulse through the wands. As long as 8 could keep herself going, I would stay with her. Pairs had to run the show without the security of experience.

First point didn't hit all the pointers at the same time, but it was close enough. 8 didn't get a chance to whitness any of my kills. I went through all 11 in a blur just like we'd practiced in a hundred and more runs before. The entire string of kills was a single, fluid motion. My stride was still weak, but I could sprint into position before any jack got a clear shot at 8. No civilian casualties.

Then the unthinkable happened. Our intelligence had been wrong as there were five more jacks than anybody knew about and I think our security had been compromised. 5 took an additional two and missed seeing a third. I saw the third, although it took me 2.2 seconds to take him down. When I turned, 5 had been shot four times in the chest. His protective shirt couldn't stop the bullets. It was so fast that I didn't even hear the blast.

Anger almost got the best of me. I looked at 8 standing close to 6 and eliminated two more jacks before I lost them too. First aid did seal up two of the four holes in 5, but it wasn't good enough to save him. He died in the transport comming back to the hangar. Even losing 5 didn't make it a dirty run. First point to fall out took 34 seconds.

I'd been with the team almost a year before we lost a pair and it just happened to be the pair containing my closest friend aside from my wife. Null didn't give us the post mission briefing. The loss took him harder than it would otherwise have done since it was a strike run he really didn't want us to take. We'd have made Null proud if we hadn't lost pair C. The strike run had to impress tactical command which didn't worry about losing some of us.

8 took it as well as could be expected. As I'd written earlier, and accepted when I took my oath, pairs live and die together. We had lost 5 so we also lost his wife, 6. I'm not sure how many times 8 had been through the loss of a pair, but I know that it was the first time that 8 had been part of a pair during a loss. It hit her harder that she could now be responsible for my death. And I was only worried at the thought of causing her death.

We had a viewing after morning meal the next day. A strike team is your family from the moment you are branded into its service to the day you leave this dimension. Our mental health required a chance to say our goodbye to our fallen comrades after all the times we had been through. You are not allowed to even know anybody outside of your strike team once you are inducted into it.

Pair C was placed on a flat slab at the far end of the hangar just after the craft left. A blanket was placed over the bodies so that we could only see their heads and the outline of their forms. Pairs are lined up for final inspection in the hangar, then brought up to kneel in respect to the fallen shadows. We came up to the table in our formal attention position, pair by pair, dropping to our knees at 5's left side. No words were spoken during the parade.

There were no tears, perhaps since it was felt that crying would belittle the sacrifice our bretheren had made. It was a solumn occasion for which each of us would eventually have the singular place of honor. Pairs felt, each for the other, all not wanting to live without his partner and bothered at the though of causing the death of his partner. I just wanted to find a place where I could hold 8 tight and take her pain into myself.

Null stopped me when we broke left to return to formation. "Bodies are creamated and burried together, 9."

"That is a beautiful custom, sir"

"I just wanted to make sure that you knew what you were into, 9."

I paused, daring to slip my arm around 8. "I did not misunderstand you, sir. My oath was in words what was written in my heart for 8."

8 kissed me to keep Null from seeing her weakly hidden tears. I wasn't too proud to shed a few drops of my own pain, although 8's feelings were all that matered to me. Null had spoken his peace and left so that he didn't embarrass 8 with what he too had seen. We went back into our place in the line, then returned to our formalized position.

That night, 8 turned toward me rather than away from me when we slipped into bed. There in the darkness, we cried together. I gently pulled her head to my chest to dry her tears over my heart. She had to know that I had meant my oath and would not leave her side at any cost to myself. We were a pair for as long as we lived, each hoping to die last not causing the other's death. Each of us accepted our fate as a pair.

Pair C could not be replaced, however, we needed a new pair C to complete the team. The new 5 and 6 had fresh brands on their wrists when they were escorted into the bunk room by Null. We never saw an outsider while we were in the hangar. Everybody whom the team knew was on the team. Our new pair knew how to seal the singed flesh on their wrists in the way I had not.

The new pair was close enough to the size of the old pair that the same contents of the trunk could be used. Almost as a type of sad ritual, our new pair replaced the top tray of the old pair's trunk. It would have been sad if we hadn't run out of tears the night before. Everything which had been the old pair C became the new pair C with the exception of the few hygiene supplies in that single tray.

We moved on without skipping a beat. There was no known grave in which the old 5 and 6 could be visited. Without names, we had no headstones and would lie forever unknown in the cold ground. Maybe it was ironic that we were just so much fertilizer in death. Only the spirit survives, uniting the living, the dead and the unborn as one.

I took over 5's place as tutor to the new 5. He had done me a favor and I returned it the best way I could. This new man had inherited even 5's name and it would have been unforgivable to me if I had let him tarnish that name with a poor performance on his first strike run. Pair 'B' took control of the holographic generator. Null let us have two easy runs over the following week so that we'd be back in form for the hard stuff.

My place required me, no longer an untrusted outsider loging to fit in, to coach 5 as hard as the old 5 had coached me. Maybe he too would want to be by my side on the actual runs in the same show of loyalty I had shown his predecessor. I must have done something right since Null positioned 8 and I near the doors where the old 5 and 6 had been stationed. 8 deserved the honor of being the top pointer and I think she was also Null's favorite.

It took us most of a year to recover our high performance rating. We were still high ranking within tactical command, as I am led to believe by the strike runs we were given, however we had to bring in the new pair to complete our team. The new 5 took to me in the beginning, yet moved off to work closer with 3. That didn't bother me since he had learned all I had to teach. Pair G came to work at my side more regularely and I think that pair actually held rank on pair B.

When about two and a half years had passed with me in the team, something odd happened. All three sex periods in a month clumped into a single week. There was an unspoken understanding amongst the pairs, extending to even Null, that our wives were pregnant. We were worked for the rest of the month, then we had a year off. Tactical command had bred us.

I had the time, between the ongoing training which the stingers never stopped, to contemplate why I had been taken into the team. Most of the other pairs had been born in the tactical command. As far as I know, I was the only outsider that the team had taken in. All of the others, including Null, were from bloodlines which had been in the strike teams for longer than our history could know. Maybe I was new blood when they needed it.

Why had 8 been placed on this team without a partner when the new pair C had been assigned to us complete? It looked like the strike team needed some new blood to give it enough pairs to survive. But, I really didn't care as long as I got to be a part of 8's life and her team. I knew better than to question the tactical command.

More of the work fell to the stingers. We were proud enough not to care and took on the full labor of running the place just to honor our wives. 8 had known what she was talking about when she said that the cloth of our clothing could adjust its size without getting tight. There were no maternity clothes in the bunk room or, I assume, in the hangar. With 8 doing something more important, I took over keeping the trunk organized.

Pairs were unified to take up the slack. I paired with 13, from pair G, so that we could keep up on all the work which I would have otherwise had 8 to help me with. She wasn't incapacitated by pregnancy, yet she couldn't move around as easily as we could. The stingers were directly responsible for the pointers not doing more of the work. We felt that their job was more important.

8 wasn't comfortable and I made a point of expressing how much I loved her with every chance I got. We kissed more from affection than from pair bonding during that time. It mattered to the stingers that the pointers understood that we wanted to help them in any way that we could. They were the center of our world. However, they also were getting bored.

Null stayed back out of the way almost the entire time. He may have had a wife of his own, and I'm sure that he once had. His job didn't require him to guide us through this time so we were on our own. The team he commanded had been given time off so that even he would have time to himself. I'm just not sure that such a driven man as Null would want the rest.

Something told me that Null was watching us. He didn't need a reason any more than we had to be told that our every action had always been monitored by somebody. We were so used to his spying on us that we accepted it and acted as we always had. Oddly, none of the stingers in my team had any children or had been bred before. Null let us figure things out for ourselves.

All seven babies were born over two days. I'm almost sure that tactical command had something to do with that. 8 gave birth to our son, little Terran, on the first day. She insisted on washing herself, along with our little boy, almost the moment he was born. I healed her injuries and let her sleep through almost the entire next day. We had a lot to learn. Null had to return to the team in order to teach us the basics of childcare.

Stingers took the lead in this for the first three days as well. All our children were nursed at their mother's breasts and that is the one thing we didn't do for those three days.

We didn't have cribs in the bunk room. Our children slept between us on the same beds we used. They bathed with us as well. It was amazing how everything it takes to be human, if I was still human, could be compressed into a package that small. God's wonders were not lost in my eyes. For three months, our only task was caring for our babbies.

Then another door was opened to us. Directly across the hangar from us, there was a nursery which we were then permitted to use. Tactical command could not work us unless there was a safe place to leave our children while we trained for and went on the runs. We understood that the runs would not get easier. It was our function in life to complete whatever run Null assigned to us.

Training was lax during the first two of the three months, then intensified under Null's directives. We were allowed to train more in the hangar itself so that we could be close to our children, as long as nobody was in the hangar when the ships landed. There was no training in the nursery itself. I'm not sure that we wanted our children to know what we did, even knowing that they would one day hold the same job.

Children were only kept in the nursery while we were being worked. They still slept and washed with us. Our pattern of behavior adjusted so that we could enjoy what little time we had to be with our families without upsetting Null. He had once been on our side of the line, yet he had also served under a strike leader and could not cut us any slack. It was enough that he understood us or we would not have respected him.

At the end of the third month, we started working strike runs again. We had easy runs for the first two weeks. Three runs a week at smaller groups in confined spaces which we could plan out in exacting detail. Since we were only out of the hangar for about twenty minutes a run, it wasn't unsafe to leave the babies in the nursery. Somebody else, whom we were not allowed to see, actually filled in for us. It was most comfortable for us to feel that we alone had control over our children.

After six months, our children were left in the nursery at all times. Null didn't seem to mind that our first action upon returning to the hangar was to visit our children. We stayed in the nursery as long as the transport was in the hangar so no protocol was broken. 8 and I just liked to watch litle Terran sleep. It was unhealthy how much of our own care we skipped to have a spare moment with our children.

Reproductive periods returned once the children were moved to the nursery. At first, we could leave the bunk room at night to drop in on our children, but this practice was soon forbidden. The unseen nannies took complete control at night when we were not allowed to be around. All of our autonomy within our families was an illusion which we did not want to live without.

8 and I moved to a new level. We had a baby to think about and tried to remain pure in the faith that he would always be ours. It reminded me how much I wanted to take 8 back to the world I had so willingly deserted if only to have a chance to let her be a real mother. Tactical command owned us. Our life together was as some millitary beurocrat decided it would be so 8 could never enjoy the simple pleasures. I don't even think she had ever worn a dress.

In our entire time with the strike team, 8 and I never saw the sun together. We had been to a hundred or more exotic worlds and never got to enjoy them as a family.

Visitation with our children got more restricted after they had been in the nursery a full year. After they were a year and a half old, we needed permission to enter the nursery and it was required that the entire team have its visitations at the same time. Null seemed to be commanding us out of fear of the higher command. It almost lost him our loyalty. We had families of our own and wanted to live our play lives as much as we could be allowed.

Eventually, there came a time which we were told would be the last time we saw our children. I wish I could recall the words Null used, but they are lost in the sorrow of the moment. He had once had children of his own who were taken from him in the same way and I could feel it in his voice. The last time 8 and I saw our child, little Terran, he was two years old.

He had learned to walk over the course of time. 8's people spoke a language so simple that little Terran could express himself very well in their tongue. I'm a little prejudiced, for which I am not sorry. Terran was in perfect health, far better health than I had been in at his age. His intellect was growing as fast as his body.

His eyes had darkened with age and he had the same jet-black hair as all of us. It had the same mystic quality as his mother's river of flowing midnight, spotted with shimmering stars of reflected light. I held him close for the last time, knowing how much it hurt 8 by the way I felt about the whole affair. Falsified courage is hard to maintain in such an expressive language.

I handed him over to 8 so that she could hold him too. Then I wrapped my arm around her so that I held my entire family in my arms. Little Terran could not help but feel that something was wrong and I was not mentally competent to tell him what was happening. It had been more than a week since we had last seen him and this was most likely his second birthday. Leaving him was not the kind of a present I could have wished for him.

"What's wrong, daddy?"

"It's just good to see you after all this time."

"When will I see you again? You don't come by as much as you did."

8 had to answer, having a woman's gift with children which I lacked. "You've grown into such a big boy that you don't need us anymore."

"I don't want you to go away."

It was a scene which little 8 must have been through with her own parents when she was still Synthia. I could not imagine how it must have been for her, or little Terran, although I wanted to take their heartache into myself for them. Something more had to be said. More remained to be said and time would never come again to say it.

"Nor do we, Terran," I said. "You cannot always do what you like and you will not always like what you have to do."

Crying, 8 put Terran down and turned so that he could not see her face. I felt it was better that he see his mother cry than that they both live with matters unresolved and important things unsaid. While running my fingers through her long, soft hair, I kissed her where Terran could see us embrace. 8 had to face her son if only to show him how much she did care.

Everything in the room stopped when little Terran replied, at the top of his voice in the alien language, "then just tell them no."

He was definitely our son. 8, with tears in her eyes, did not believe what she had just heard. I confirmed her hearing to her.

Her voice was strained, yet she spoke to him anyway. "You be a good boy, Terran. Your father and I are proud of the big boy you've grown into."

Little Terran, like 8, may have thought that supressing his emotions made him more of a man at that point even thought he was not a man at that point. I made the counter point of not holding back from my face the expression of that which was clearely written in my heart. What 8 felt meant more to me than what I felt for myself and yet I could not deny that I too had feelings. Our son was being taken from us even though we had done all that was asked of us and even the more which was implied.

"Please don't go away," he pleaded.

There was nothing I could say to make the moment vanish into the emptiness of dead, forgotten time. My face had born out the truth for Terran to always remember. "We would love to stay with you forever, but we cannot. You be a good boy as your mother asked."

"No," he shouted again! "Stay here and make me be good."

I could not deny a little pride at our son's stubborn stance. 8 thought the denial was unthinkable, seeming to fear retribution which I had no knowledge of. She was nervous, looking about the room to see who had taken notice of the scene. All six of the other pairs, plus their children, had taken notice of us. Null had not even entered the room.

With a hug, gently kissing my son on the cheek, I said, "This isn't going to help us any, Terran. Make your mother and I proud. Promise us you'll be good."

8 smiled all that she could, kissing him as well. Either of us would have given anything, even having nothing, not to have had that one incident in our lives. "Never forget that we love you, Terran. We'll miss you."

We expected Null to come for us, but he did not. When we returned, with the other pairs, Null did not enter the room. He may have been afraid to face fourteen of the most efficient killers in the Orion arm of the Milky Way after what his command had done to us. It is also posible that the loss of his own children, especially his firstborn, had wounded him in a way that had not and would never heal.

Nobody bothered to eat that night. All the dishes were returned to the transport untouched. We drank what we could, to replace the fluids we had cried out, although that was all we could force our bodies to accept. 8 did not retract from me, yet she rejected any attempt at intimacy between us as I understood that she would. As much as I wanted to take her pain away, even at the cost of adding it to my own, I knew that it was something which she would have to do without me. All I could do was be there to dry her tears.

Null had no choice except to give us easy runs for the next two weeks. Even without reproductive periods, which we would have rejected anyway, we were down to two runs a week for a full month. Command drove us back into form after that and we threw ourselves into the work to hide from the wounds we had all shared. Sharing of the private pain did not make it any less of a private agony from which each of us had to recover alone. Things came back slowly, however we did come back into shape as a team and as pairs.

Sex periods, even knowing that we would not be bred again for a while, were guarded affairs within the pairs. I loved 8 too much to push her and she honestly loved me enough to be there with me. We had tasted something more and wanted it back. Nothing else mattered.

8 and I had a hard time for a little while after that. Pairs were never separated and it was not that we ever wanted to be apart. Neither of us blamed the other, or anybody at all for our loss. We'd have given anything to be together with nothing more between us. Yet, we had nothing to give. It was just hard to admit that our greatest gift was our love.

Nothing would have taken me from 8's side. 8 took the loss hard, as if I have not already stated this clearely over the past few paragraphs. I have also been told that I fixate on saying that I did not know this would happen and that is also true. Both of these things are immaterial. With the team, I may have killed as many or more than six hundred people in a blinding whirlwind of surgically precise strikes, I had willingly left the planet of my birth and all the life I had known there, yet the only regret I have is that I could not have taken 8 to a world which would allow us to keep our son.

My pair remained the top pair in our strike team. 8 and I were so close that I could feel her thoughts at a hundred and fifty paces as though she was inside my head. The wound we shared never truely healed, although we did recover out ability to work at peak over the next year. I am almost glad that 8 didn't have to lose another child.

We had to be close to our second breeding when little Terran was three years old and some change. Null pretended to forget what we'd been through and pushed us as hard as ever. It is almost ironic that my last run with the team would be just a larger version of the first run I'd had with the team. If only the writing of the event flowed as feely as the memory and all the blood encrusted tears.

It was our second run that week, comming on the heals of a reproductive period. 8 and I were again complete together, feeling comfortable as a pair. I cannot speak for the rest of our team except to say that we liked being together as a family again. We did a little coaching during our training, however, this wasn't as necessary as it had been earlier. Nobody really needed the post run briefings which we still had anyway.

I even wish I could say that it was one of our largest, most distinguished runs, but it was not. By God it hurts that it was such a pittiful run. Only twenty seven jacks and only one of them carried anything larger than his gun. Not that an automatic weapon isn't impressive when you find yourself on the wrong end of it, just that it was one of the most downbeat runs for the team. It was not the kind of run I wanted for my last run.

Null called first point and graceful 8 danced the floor to draw my jacks into line. We saved as many as three hundred lives when we took them out. 8's movements were a kind of smoothness which can only be achieved by the development of an innate skill. She could be no less than the best pointer in all of the tactical command. I know now as I did then that I was not worthy of the skill she posessed.

8 then confirmed my last two kills. Being the top stinger of the group, due in no small part to 8's perfect performance, I had been assigned five jacks for the run with no options on the jacks around me. Only three of them were down before 8 got back to use her wand, even though less than four seconds had passed. She confirmed two of my kills while vaporizing the first three.

We moved so fast that we had dead time waiting for the remaining six pairs to finish their runs. Null had never coached us on what would happen in such an event so we stood in place.

Null called us to fall out while I stared, longing to hold my beloved 8. I stepped from the pack once we got through the small door to do just that. 8 knew that I loved her and I tried hard to make sure that she always felt it as much as knew it. In retrospect, it looks like I knew that something was about to change my life forever. My body could not get close enough to 8.

I did not see the explosion, but I felt it. One, four, eight and nine went down.

Metal spikes had been projected into my left arm and deep into my ribcage, but it didn't matter at all to me. 8 was laying on top of me, having taken most of the blow. I offerred her all the strength and life which remained within me, yet she would not be healed. Only her safety mattered. Our blood had an element which glowed to light the dark alley.

She had lost almost all of the organs in her lower body, plus about all of her prescious blood. The blast had been placed in just such a trajectory that it would take out 8 and I. Our comrad shadows, one and four, had simply been hit by recoil. However, I digress as paranoia consumes my judgement.

8 tried to speak. "I'm sorry," she said.

We shared her last breath in a final kiss. I never got to tell her that it was alright and that she had done nothing wrong. No force of my body could give my life to her even as much as I wanted to. It was my only solace that I too would soon be dead and again by her side. The woulds to my body were bad, although they did not have to be terminal for me to make my appointment.

Shadows are not allowed to leave traces and I would not have left her if I could have. Our blood spatter lit the outlines on the sidewalk like a phospherescent paint bright enough to walk back to the transport by. Minutes, hours, days, years and seconds are all the same length in times like that. The distortion forbids me to recall, as though I cared, what the civilians around us were doing during all of this. Only four of us had been hit.

Back on the transport, Null locked us in with a loud thud which I did not hear. I held 8's body in my arms knowing that she had left the empty shell for her new body in a better world where I would soon join her. It was almost a comfort that our bodies had merged their remaining blood. Anything of 8 which I could still feel meant more than the universe itself to me.

I wrapped my one good arm around her waist, locking my nearely dead left arm into my right hand to keep it in our final, mortal embrace. When next we met, we would no longer be mortal. We would not be in a world where our children would be taken from us. 8 would be in a place where it was allowed for her to be a woman and for me to be a man; Her man. Pain tried to crush me, but I surrendered for it to take me.

We stayed in the embrace until I lost consiousness. It was both my duty and my greatest desire not to awaken again. 8 could not be with me as long as I was stuck on the wrong side of the mortal devide between her new world and our old world. Time had come for me to meet destiny. Destiny did not meet me with fear, yet I embraced its calling.

They never told me what happened to one or four. I did wake up, against everything I wanted and was sworn to, back on the Earth. My old clothes had been returned to me and I had been placed in almost the same spot. Although I couldn't recall how to read English at the time, I found out that only about an hour had passed. That's more than the total time which 8 and I had been apart while we were with the team.

Their doctors had done a good job putting me back together and I do not fault their good work. I have no scars and everything works. It is the simple fact that their work took me away from 8 which I resented. They left me part alien, and all alone on a world where I did not belong.

I had been left only two trinkets of my time with 8. They allowed me to keep the strike mark and my wedding band. Somewhere, deep down, I wanted to know what I had done which was so bad that I had to suffer this fate. Null had to hate me for something to dump me back to Earth. What had I done to deserve such a harsh sentance?

If I was to take my own life, then I would not be allowed the ceramonial significance of having my ashes mixed with 8's. My death had to be permitted by the tactical command or I would never get what I wanted most. And, what would God think of me if I did what I begged him to do to me?

Votes for: A Shadow's Tale

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