Chapter 1

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Doug Berman clutched his instruction sheet tight in both hands and watched the newcomers filing into the Center's main gymnasium. The other orientation guides pressed forward, and as they mingled with the arriving personnel fragments of conversation drifted back:

"Welcome to Pharos Center. How was the trip? What base did you come from?"

"—still technically an army station so there's plenty of red tape. I'll make sure you find the dotted lines—"

"--processing ASAP, so you can settle in. Over here, we'll get you—"

"--signed for the research hitch? Yeah, it's a rehab facility, but they don't take heavy-duty nutbuckets. Just the ones they can't discharge without scaring the natives. Follow me—"

Some of the new arrivals still wore standard-issue military fatigues, but most were dressed in tee-shirts and shorts in a rainbow of colors. In or out of uniform, sweat and sand were the predominant fashion accessories after a long truck ride through the Nevada desert.

Orientation days brought a welcome respite from Pharos Center's daily routines. The normal military schedule was suspended so that volunteers could assist with the influx of new personnel, which meant that most of the staff got a half-day off with pay. When the convoy arrival was announced, everyday tasks had been set aside, and the volunteers had arrived here just before the trucks.

One by one, the newcomers paired off with guides and formed into orderly lines outside the temporary office cubicles on the center line of the basketball court. Doug swallowed nervous butterflies. He had been wrong to volunteer, bonus pay or not. Somebody was certain to laugh at him. Somebody always stared. Bonus or no bonus, he never should've let himself be talked into this.

The crowd parted around him, giving him a moment's clear view of his reflection in the mirror behind the aerobics mats. Wide blue eyes stared back, dark spots in a pale face under a shock of pale yellow hair that defied styling.

He watched his left leg twitch up, and the reflection's face gained color from a fierce blush that brought out the white scarring at temples and throat. He saw other peoples' reflections looking away, embarrassed by being caught staring. Doug couldn't blame them. Even he couldn't help staring at himself. He was too tall, too gawky.

Too old. Eight years, he had lost to jolts of electrical current applied at the order of a military court. Eight years of his past and that potential person's future, erased in a few moments of convulsive destruction. Eight years of life and any possibility of ever living a normal one.

As if that hadn't been enough punishment, the commuted death sentence had stripped him of more than memories. Hell was having a mind just clear enough to know how damaged it was. Six months into his new life he was barely capable of walking and talking simultaneously without messing up one or the other, and mental discipline was as difficult to master as physical control. He could hardly function within the narrow confines of his normal duties. He had no business being here.

The reflection stared blankly back at him, no hint of the inner turmoil reaching unresponsive facial muscles. The butterflies in his stomach grew teeth and chewed at his insides, and he turned away from the sight of his own inadequacy. Even that gesture went awry, with a lurch sideways that nearly cost him his balance.

Someone caught him by the elbow. "Hey, you okay?"

Doug concentrated on his neck muscles and made his head nod. His office mate smiled at him. "Come on, Doug. You can do it. It's only one afternoon, and the docs do all the real work anyway. Tomorrow we go back to boring old data entry and dream about spending the bonus."

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