The Recruiter
The Posters at School

I have always found something romantic in long bus rides. It sounds silly, I know, but especially at night, when the bus is dark inside and the tiny reading lights make welcoming islands in the velvet darkness, I have always loved to sit by the window and gaze out. Depending how you focus your eyes, you can see the reflections of the lights inside, or the occasional glimmer of lights outside. It's comforting somehow, wrapped in the darkness, thinking your private thoughts and remembering. This ride tonight is no different. All around me are the sleeping forms of the new Recruits. I wonder if they feel the way I did on my ride. Let me tell you about it.

It started with the poster in school. One day, there it was, all dazzling colours and bold lettering, really grabbing your eyes and demanding attention. The figures on it seemed to be moving; shifting ever so slightly while your eyes were focused on the words, and when you looked at the graphics straight on, they seemed more real than the people around you in the hallway. None of us believed it at first, of course.

Join the Galactic Recruits! See the Universe! Meet new friends, learn unimagined skills! and so on. It was like a cross between the Navy and Star Trek. You know, "Join now and boldly go..." sort of thing.

Anyway, I figured some science fiction club had gone to great expense and great lengths to attract new members, and I wasn't terribly interested. Don't misunderstand me, now. I LIKE Science Fiction. I read the stuff all the time. I really enjoy good SF movies, I like all the Star Trek series, Star Wars, you name it. I've even been to a 'con' or two, or three. The thing is, quite a few SF fans are a little--offside, you know what I mean? Living in The Twilight Zone, sort of. So I really didn't think any more of these posters.

Until my friend, Andra, came up to me during my free period. I was hanging out in my favourite hideout in some bushes, reading a novel for English class, when Andra flopped down beside me.

"You going?" she asked.

I looked at her in a non-intelligent way. "Huh? What?" Oh, I'm quite the conversationalist when you get me going.

"You going to see the Recruiter? You know 'Join the Galactic...' and all that. The Recruiter is here today. In the cafeteria all day long. So, are you going?"

I looked at her some more. She gazed back unconcernedly, nibbling at the last shreds of apple clinging desperately to the seed pod--not even a core anymore. She does that.

"Why? Is there something I should know about? Something I missed, perhaps, in the posters?" I asked.

She shrugged a sort of well-nothing-in-particular-but-you-really-should-check-it-out shrug, seriously scanning the apple remnant for more molecules worth eating.

The early June sun fingered its way through the leaves of the bushes, glancing off Andra's watch crystal, dazzling my eyes for a moment. When the spots cleared from my retinas, I found her grey eyes gazing levelly into mine.

"I think it's for real," she said.

Back to the beginning

The Recruiter Himself

The Recruiter confirmed my worst suspicions. The most fanatical of fans that I have met have been people who didn't seem to be able to make friends out in the real world for a variety of reasons. Actually, one 'Admiral' I met at a Trek con didn't seem to be able to make friends anywhere. He was just weird. Anyway, as I was saying, my first glimpse of the Recruiter had me looking at Andra as though she had finally given up all attempts at sanity or intelligence. And she thought this was for real? Oh, sure, Andra.

I was more convinced than ever that the whole thing was some kind of a hoax, a fantasy. I figured they would get some guy who looked like your basic Recruiter Joe from the Forces or, at the very least, like the people in Starship Troopers or something. You know--tall, striking, square jaw, buzz cut, the whole bit. But, no. Here was this little short guy. I mean Little, with a capital L.

He was wearing a uniform that looked like the ones in the posters and it fit him well. He stood behind a table that had neat piles of pamphlets and stuff on it. There were maybe fifteen or twenty kids milling around, picking up the pamphlets and flipping through them, generally checking the scene out. At another table, a couple of kids were filling out forms. Applications to join the Recruits, as it turned out.

Andra and I strolled around the perimeter, looking things over. The Recruiter was talking to one student, answering his questions, but I could feel him watching us. He wasn't staring, but his eyes kept making contact with us at pretty regular intervals. For my part, I was looking him over, trying to get a handle on him. It wouldn't click, which really irked me as I'm usually pretty good at that sort of thing.

Andra nudged me and nodded questioningly at the Recruiter. I shrugged back and we sauntered over to his table. Super casual, you understand. Only a few of the other students there were female and none of them were signing up.

The Recruiter watched us all the way with cool green eyes. We did the thing with the pamphlets, like people do. Picked them up, glanced through them, poked at the different piles. Finally, we met the Recruiter's gaze.

I saw that he had been appraising both of us and I was annoyed at first. Then I saw something I couldn't nail down--something in his eyes, or his mouth, I'm not sure--but I found I couldn't maintain a good annoyance, so I let it go altogether.

"Can I help you? Answer any questions, p'haps, or interest you in becoming a Recruit?" Those green eyes were really distracting and I tried not to stare down at him too much. Andra tossed a quick glance my way, which I bounced back to her. This was your idea, Andra. Take it away.

She turned to the Recruiter. "Well, we were sort of wondering what it's all about. You know, if we sign up or whatever, what happens next? Um, is this a job? Do we get paid or what?"

All the time she was talking, the Recruiter never took his eyes from her, and I grabbed the chance to study him. His fair hair was a little long and shaggy, just over his collar in back, but shorter on the sides and front. Not very military looking, I have to tell you. The eyes showed no emotion while Andra was talking but there was a hint of mischief in the back of them. He had a squarish face that seemed very masculine but you could see where dimples lurked waiting for him to smile to show themselves, and smile lines at the corners of his eyes. I decided this was no societal misfit. He was too self-contained, too easy inside himself, and I found I had stopped noticing he wasn't even four feet tall.

When he spoke, his voice was a pleasant tone somewhere between tenor and baritone with a faint accent I couldn't place.

"First of all, you can't just 'sign up'," he replied. "You have to apply for entry. There's a physical exam you have to take before your application can be approved and a couple of aptitude tests. If you pass all this, and you're accepted as a potential Recruit, then we take you on as a Trainee. You get paid standard minimum Trainee wages until you pass the tests for the next level. Training takes place at one of our Bases, so you have to be prepared to be away from home and family for several weeks at a time.

"If you graduate to the next level, your wages increase, naturally, and you get a visit home for a week before going into real Recruit Training. You'll be given several opportunities to withdraw from the Recruits, but should you decide to stay in, you'll be signed up for a specific period of time and you'll be far from home with very little chance for visits home during your enlistment."

I started to get the idea this might not be something Fannish.

"What about kids who just want to sign up for the summer?" I asked.

"If they qualify, we'll accept them as Trainees, but there won't be any advancement until they can stay on for longer," he said.

"Okay then," I said. "What about this 'learn new skills' bit? What kind of skills? Anything we can use in real life later on?"

A ghost of a smile touched his lips and a dimple almost winked at us. "Skills you cannot yet begin to imagine," was the somewhat cryptic reply. "But different for each according to the individual's talents. Recruits usually operate in groups of six or more--not normally greater than twelve and each is a 'Specialist'. It's a lot of very hard work. Not everyone is capable of meeting the demands." That last was a challenge aimed right at me. I hate challenges because I have a hard time resisting them. I had the sneaky feeling he knew that about me, too.

Andra and I traded looks. We agreed. This looked interesting and we'd get paid for it. We could use any of the "several opportunities to withdraw" and jobs were hard to come by for students coming out of high school. University was months away; summer break began in a couple of weeks and we had no job offers. Our parents would be thrilled we were doing something both lucrative and legal.

I spoke for both of us. "Where are the applications?"

His eyes flashed amusement and pleasure and a dimple showed for real as he handed us the forms and pointed at the adjacent table where we could sit to fill them out.

It had started.

To be continued...

Back to the beginning

The Applications

The applications were pretty simple and straightforward. Some parts were already filled in, like PLANET OF ORIGIN, STAR AND GALAXY CO-ORDINATES. I looked over at the Recruiter, wondering idly for the first time if Earth was his "Planet of Origin". We answered all the questions on general health, allergies and so on. The next-of-kin space had us looking at each other for a brief moment, but we kept on.

The few boys who had been filling out their own papers finished and took them back to the Recruiter. He checked them over and asked the guys to wait for a few minutes while he readied the aptitude tests.

I paused to watch him pull out some Virtual Reality type equipment from a container under the table. It was very compact looking--a sleek helmet and gloves, each set in different colours and designs. Very cool. I wondered what kind of programs they had, and looked forward to trying them out.

The Recruiter called the first boy. He explained the controls and the object of the game and let the kid go for it. The boy, Will Onizuka, pulled the gloves on and then settled the helmet on his head. I went back to my application when Will started moving his hands and responding to whatever he was seeing. It was just too distracting to watch. I turned my back on him.

Although the form was reasonably straightforward, there were a LOT of questions. About three pages of personal info and then an essay type question. Explain why you are applying for entry to the Galactic Recruits. I hate questions like that, so I answered, "Why not? I need a job. This looks good." Andra was writing an entire book in response to this. I signed my name and sat back to watch the guys doing the VR thing.

Onizuka had passed and was sitting nearby, watching the others. The second kid, Pete Carson, was crouched and moving in circles. He was so into whatever he was doing, it was eerie. You would have thought his life was on the line. He passed, too.

The third one, Marty Richard, was buzzed about thirty seconds into the game. The Recruiter told him to relax and try again. He lasted about forty seconds before the helmet blatted again. This time, the Recruiter took that VR set away from him and gave him a different one. He breezed through and the Recruiter flashed him a quick grin and a "Well done!"

The last guy bombed out totally on six different sets and the Recruiter shook his head. "I'm sorry, Applicant. Perhaps another time."

Barry just looked at him in disbelief. He hadn't failed anything since he started school, and was a straight A student. He was also a big jerk and it did me a world of good to see him crash and burn like that in front of the 'losers'. "You mean, that's IT? I can't play some crummy game and I'm OUT?"

"I'm sorry. You don't seem to have what we're looking for this time around. Maybe next time." It was a clear dismissal. Barry seemed ready to argue but when he looked into the Recruiter's eyes he must have seen something there because he turned on his heel suddenly and left.

By now, Andra had finished her novel and we went back to the Recruiter together. He looked over our applications and gave us that appraising look again. He seemed to be assessing our potential or something. He handed one of the VR sets to Andra, explained it all and let her go to it. While she was busy, he turned to me.

To be continued...

Back to the beginning

The VR Tests

"I'd like you to try something different," he said. I wanted to ask, "Why me?" but I just shut my mouth and waited. Sometimes that's best. He pulled out a set no one else had tried yet. This one even had a manual with pictures in it, which he went over with me.

He explained the objective. "In this 'game'," he said, and I swear you could hear the quotation marks in his voice. "You are in charge of a small group. You will have several quick decisions to make, of varying consquence. The idea is to get from your starting point to the ship--you'll see its location, don't worry--without losing any of your party. These creatures are hostile." He pointed to an illustration in the manual. "These ones are friendly or neutral. Try not to kill potential allies."

It was really wild. When the helmet was snugged down onto my head and the gloves closed around my hands like warm water--that's how well they fit--it was as if I had been transported. The graphics were unbelievable. Boy, if movie makers could only use this technology you'd NEVER be able to tell real actors from the computer-generated ones. It was as if I really was someplace else. Total 3-D effect. I could even smell the dust from the road, hear the sounds of battle around me. It was just incredible.

There I was, weapon in hand, my group around me, moving through alien terrain. The life forms kept popping up, like you see in movies where they're training police or Men in Black or something. I kept turning this way and that, trying to keep my eyes on everything, telling my people to watch out for the 'good guys'. I shot at hostile things, tried not to fry the neutral-friendlies, and kept my group together. Two of my people were carrying a third, who appeared to be wounded. Well, time to deal with that at the ship. It was so intense.

The pathetic whimpering of my comrade was distracting as all hell, but I couldn't spare the attention just then. I felt kind of heartless, but I wanted the group to survive, so on we went.

Andra told me later that I had looked even wilder than the second boy had. She said I had crouched and whirled and turned and jumped. I guess I must have looked pretty weird, but it was so real! She also told me it took about five minutes. It felt like an hour.

When my little group and I were safe at our ship and the medics were taking care of the wounded person, the scene faded out. I took off the helmet and stared hard at the Recruiter. He took the set from me, looking enormously pleased about something. His green eyes almost glowed with triumph as he put the helmet and gloves back in the box under the table. He nodded at me.

"I thought you would be able to do it," he said, so quietly that only I heard. "You're going to be a great Leader."

He looked around at the five of us, clapped his hands together and announced, "Physical examinations are being held in the gym after school. Please be prompt."

I wanted to ask him what he meant by giving me that "special" VR thing, but the bell rang, ending my free time. A great leader, he had said. It kept repeating in my mind as I hurried through the halls and slid into my seat in English class. A great Leader? Me?

To be continued...

Back to the beginning

The Physicals

When the final bell went, I was still in something of a muddle. Andra met me at my locker. "Come on, slowpoke," she said. "The Recruiter said to be prompt, remember? Let's go!" She started down the hall but I grabbed her arm.

"Andra, what do you think it's all about. REALLY all about, I mean?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe the Air Force is looking for potential astronauts. Who cares? It'll be a paying job for a while and if we don't like it, we can leave. So let's go."

She pulled away and I followed her, wondering what we were letting ourselves in for. When we got to the gym, there were about twenty-five or thirty students gathered in a loose group that included a few other girls. I was glad that Andra and I weren't the only ones. The Recruiter was back behind another table and there were two other people with him, both wearing a variation of his uniform. These ones had a symbol over the left breast that differed from the one on the Recruiter's.

He looked over the group of students, counting heads, referring to a hand size computer memo pad sort of thing. He nodded to himself and called us all to order.

"May I have your attention, please, Applicants." He paused and all eyes turned toward him. He had that effect on people, despite his size, or lack thereof. "You'll notice we have some equipment set up here." He gestured to the booths behind him. "These are to assess your physical condition. When I call your name please come forward to the Medicos. One of them will perform the assessment. If you meet the requirements, you will be considered eligible to become a Trainee. All right? Good. Will James Abbott and Sharon Atkins please come forward?"

It went pretty quickly, although I couldn't see exactly what was going on. Andra went fifth with another girl. The group dwindled. Those who passed went and sat in the bleachers. Those who didn't went away looking resentful for the most part. I saw Andra in the bleachers and thought, "OK! Andra made it. You have to, too."

Then it was my turn. The Recruiter caught my eye as I went past him to a booth. For a second, I thought he had winked at me but I must have been imagining things. He didn't seem the winking type. I scolded myself for having way too much imagination, and approached the female Medico. She took me to the booth which didn't seem to have a whole lot to it. Still, looks can be deceiving, right? I remembered the VR 'game'. It hadn't seem like much, either, at first.

At the Medico's gesture, I stepped inside the giant box. It was open on one side and the inside had some handles, a screen and some other things I couldn't even begin to imagine the purpose of. On the outside was another screen and some touch sensitive controls. Altogether, it looked pretty hokey, but that VR set kept poking me in the memory.

The Medico told me where to put my feet and hands and what spot to stare at. I stood there, feeling incredibly stupid, waiting for something, anything, to happen. After ten minutes or so, just when I was about to ask when we were ever going to get started, she stuck her head in the door and told me to step out. I thought of asking if something was wrong but when I got out, the Recruiter was there and before I could open my mouth, he smiled and said, "It's all right, Trainee. You need a little toning, but you passed the basic requirements. Please go join your friend."

So now it was 'Trainee' and not 'Applicant.' That felt okay. I waved jubilantly to Andra as I made my way over to her.

"What was that all about?" she asked.

"What was what about?" I asked in reply.

"The Recruiter. What did he say?"

"Whaddaya mean, 'What did he say?' He said I need a little toning, but I passed and go sit with you? Why? What did he tell you?"

"Nothing. He didn't talk to any of us." She waved to indicate the others in the bleachers. "He only talked to the ones who didn't make it. All the rest of us were told by the Medicos." She frowned. "When I saw him talking to you, I thought for sure you were gone, and then you came bopping over, happy as all get out."

I gave her my patented Skeptical Look. "Oh come on, Andra. He's gone over to every single one. He's been there every time someone came out of a booth. He's been back and forth between them like a friggin' Ping-Pong ball."

She looked at me with her best why-are-you-so-dense-and-unobservant look and explained patiently that yes, he was going over, but no, he only talked to the washouts. "There's something going on between you two," she decided. I rolled my eyes in utter disgust and turned back to watch the rest of the proceedings.

The last two were just going into the booths. I watched to see if Andra was just giving me a hard time or if her observations were bang on. One kid came out of his booth. The Recruiter was waiting, just as I had said, but he merely watched. The Medico spoke to the boy and waved in our general direction. The kid jogged over to us, his hands raised in a victory salute. Then the other person came out. Again, the Recruiter waited silently by as the Medico informed the new Trainee that he had passed. This one hurried over a little self-consciously, being the last to join our group. Of the original thirty-two who had eventually turned up, twenty-seven passed the physical.

To be continued...

Back to the beginning

The Questions

The Recruiter walked over to a place in front of us all. He waited a moment and all eyes turned toward him. Silence descended. It must have been his aura or something. You found yourself drawn to him when he was preparing to speak, and you listened really carefully to what he had to say. Every now and again, if you focused on his physical reality, it always came as a shock to realize he was less than four feet tall--and that with an inch of sole on his boots. It was the first time I had encountered that kind of magnetism or charisma or whatever you want to call it, and the effect it had on this motley group of high school seniors amazed me. I had never seen almost thirty teenagers get that quiet, that fast, in my life.

"Applicants," he began. "You have passed the preliminary selection process. All that remains before you become Trainees officially, is for your applications to be carefully examined, your references checked and so on. When you have been thoroughly cleared, you will have earned the right to be called 'Trainee'." I swear to you, he looked right at me and twinkled. I was starting to think Andra was on to something. "You will be informed by registered mail before the end of the school year. For those who are accepted, training will begin IMMEDIATELY summer holiday begins. Are there any who wish to withdraw at this time? No? Yes?"

One hand went up. You could feel the Recruiter's disappointment but all he said was, "P'haps next time, then, Applicant Riley." He made a notation on his little computer. I knew the kid who was leaving. Robbie Riley's family ALWAYS went away for three weeks as soon as the last day of school ended and I guess he couldn't bring himself to break family tradition. Especially since this was the last year of school.

The Recruiter continued, "If any of you have any questions, now is the time to ask. Otherwise, we are done for now."

We all glanced at each other self-consciously. You know what it's like when there's a group of people who know each other somewhat at least to see, if not to talk to, and there's a new situation. Nobody wants to be first, although EVERYBODY has at least one question they want to ask.

I stared pointedly at Andra. She's usually the one who instigates things and I usually go along for the ride. I wondered if she would be a leader; if the Recruiter had misjudged. After what seemed an eon of shuffling and throat-clearing, one of the boys raised his hand.

"Yes, Applicant Chisholm. Your question?"

Chisholm stood up, all embarrassed, glanced around at the rest of us and asked, "If we're accepted, sir, uh, where will the training take place?"

"I'm afraid I cannot give you the exact location at this time, but it will be at a Recruit Base. Details regarding transportation and so forth will be in the letter. Anyone else?"

Were there! Chisholm had broken the ice and a flock of hands flew up.

The Recruiter answered every one, calling each person 'Applicant' and their last name. I was impressed that he had managed to memorize all our names so quickly. By and large, the questions were dumb, I thought. They were asking things like, "Can we phone home? What's the food like? Will there be TV?" Stuff like that. It didn't seem to bother him, though. He never seemed exasperated or amused or anything. You got the feeling he had done this so many times before that he had heard every possible question, but he just answered each one seriously, respectfully. It was decent.

In the background, the Medicos were dismantling the booths and packing up. I held up my hand.

"Yes, Reznik?" He looked at me.

I stopped, my mouth half-open to ask my question but caught off-guard. Not 'Applicant Reznik', just 'Reznik'. I saw some heavy-duty amusement in his eyes. He knew I had caught it, and he knew that I knew there was something funny going on. He raised an eyebrow at me.

"Your question?" he asked.

I snapped my mouth shut, annoyed that I had let him throw me off stride. "How often do we get paid and how?" It wasn't what I had originally intended to ask but I couldn't get the words out for my real question. I really wanted to know his name. But my mind was going around and around in dizzying circles.

"Your wages will be deposited into a bank account you designate, every two weeks, in the local planetary currency of your choice."

Local planetary currency. Give me a break.

To be continued...

Back to the beginning

The Letters

So, there we were, two days left before summer vacation. Some of the others had already received their letters. Apparently, a few of them were turned down. I found that surprising, in a way, when I heard it through the grapevine. I wondered what the standards were for acceptance. Some of the rejected ones had way better marks than I did and were the ones that you knew corporations would get in line to hire. It was very strange.

I had been thinking things over for the past couple of weeks, still trying to figure out the whole story behind the Galactic Recruits. I couldn't find anything much about them anywhere. Not in the library, not on the Internet, not anywhere. All I could find was a small page on the World Wide Web that said the Galactic Recruits were an exploration/peace-keeping group with bases all around the world. It had an email address to contact them if you wanted to join. I wanted to know who was behind them, where they originated from and who the heck thought up the name, anyway. You know what I mean? It's like the Miss Universe contest, where all the contestants are from Earth; you see my point?

Well, as long as everything was legitimate--and it seemed to be, according to the information my Dad got from the Army base. He and Mum were surprised I had opted for a para-military thing but they accepted it pretty well.

And then, there it was. My letter. I came home from my chemistry exam with my brain in a whirl--formulae and things bubbling over, and there was the letter on the hall table. I didn't open it right away. I took it into the kitchen and looked at the envelope while I got myself some lunch. When my sandwich was ready, I called Andra.

"I got my letter," I said when she came on the line. "You get yours?"

"Yeah. It came this morning. I'm in. How 'bout you?"

"I don't know yet. What does your letter say, exactly?" I took a bite of my sandwich and chewed.

"Hang on. It's right here." I munched more and drank some milk, listening to the rustle of paper over the phone as she fished out her letter and unfolded it. "It says, 'Dear Applicant Hartwick, this is to advise you that you have been accepted as a Trainee Recruit. On the last Monday of June, the bus to transport you to Base will be at the Jarvis High School at 8:00 a.m. You will need a small bag of personal items only. All clothing, toiletries, et cetera will be supplied. Please be at the front door of the school no later than 7:45 a.m. Congratulations, and welcome to the Galactic Recruits'...yada yada yada. Neat, eh?"

While Andra was reading to me, I opened my own letter and looked at it. The body was the same, but mine started with, "Dear Trainee Recruit Reznik, this is to confirm your status as a Trainee with the Galactic Recruits..."

This was really starting to get to me, but I kept it to myself. "Yeah. Neat," I said to Andra

"So? Are you in, too? Open your letter!"

"I already did. I'm in, too."

Andra whooped and said she would come right over. I hung up and sat staring at the letter.

To be continued...

Back to the beginning

The Bus Ride

The following Monday, my dad drove me over to pick up Andra. He was taking us to the school to meet the Recruit bus. He was being something of a mother hen to both of us, but that was okay. I guess he was worried about his 'baby girl' going off into the world or something. We got to the school around 7:30. There were a couple of others there that I recognized from the physicals. Dad wanted to hang around, but I reassured him for what seemed like the twenty thousandth time and sent him home. Andra and I were now Grown Up and On Our Own. Too much.

A few minutes later everyone was there and along came the bus, pulling smoothly to the curb. It was a real nice one, too. No chartered old school bus for this group. This was a long distance bus with tinted windows and a big luggage space underneath. The door opened and there was the Recruiter, standing on the steps, looking us over and nodding to himself. Everyone had turned up.

It didn't take long to get us boarded. The Recruiter called each Trainee by name and ticked us off a list as we came forward to get on the bus. Andra and I chose seats way in the back, the last row. It was a good place to discuss whatever we wanted and to observe everyone else. When the last Trainee had climbed on board, the Recruiter stepped in and nodded to the driver. The door whooshed shut and we were on our way.

It was pretty exciting and not unlike going off to camp for a couple of weeks. There was that kind of an atmosphere on the bus. Lots of laughing, a little horseplay, but not too much under the Recruiter's steady eyes.

He walked down the aisle, not swaying, not needing to hold on to anything. I had never seen anyone so steady in a moving vehicle. He stopped at each Trainee to talk briefly, answer questions. He was being quietly pleasant to everyone but you could sense steel under his velvet exterior. I hoped he wouldn't be our drill sergeant or whatever the Galactic equivalent was. Finally he reached Andra and me.

He smiled a little. I was really starting to like those elusive dimples, even if I was aggravated with him. "How is everything so far?" he asked.

Andra half shrugged. "Okay, I guess. I mean, you know, there's not much happening yet."

"Enjoy it while you can, Hartwick. Training will more than make up for it. How about you, Reznik? Any questions for me?"

I looked him straight in the eyes. "Lots. But not right now." I turned away from him and looked out the window at the streets of Toronto slipping by as the bus wended its way to the highway. I heard him leave and I peeked back to see him choose a seat a few rows down from us. I winked at Andra. She looked at me and sighed, shaking her head.

"Why are you doing this? Are you sure you want to alienate him? Is everything okay?"

I decided to tell her everything then--the whole story from my side, including the wording of my letter. She looked through me for a few minutes after I was done and then she said, "Why don't you just go ask? He's sitting by himself. Go for it." Andra always was direct that way. Me, I like to mull things over, keep them to myself for a while and try to figure it out on my own. Most of the time it worked fine, but there's something to be said for Andra's method, too. I told her I would think about it.

The bus drove on. We stopped at one of those places off the highway for lunch. The Recruiter told us to choose what we wanted and he would pay for the group. Some kids took advantage and pigged out on all kinds of things. I just took something light and some milk and a sandwich to take on the bus. I had a feeling the ride wouldn't be over any time soon. I mean, if we had only another hour or so to go, we would have stopped sooner or not at all. It's been my experience on long bus rides that they stop about halfway to your destination. If that held true, we had about another four hours to go. I wondered again what we had let ourselves in for.

When we were on the road again, I noticed a lot of the others starting to doze. Full bellies and the motion of the bus, combined with an early morning after a mostly sleepless night, were putting them to sleep. Andra was feeling drowsy herself and announced her intention to take a nap. She's one of those people who can't read or anything on a moving vehicle--not even an airplane. I can read, write, do just about anything. I got up so she could stretch out on the big back seat. And besides with half the bus conked out, it looked like a good time to confront the Recruiter. I went and sat beside him. He looked up from his laptop computer and smiled.

"I was wondering how long it would take," he said.

"What's going on?" I asked.

To be continued...

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The Conclusion

To give credit where credit is due, he didn't play stupid or pretend he didn't know exactly what I meant.

"You're going to be a Leader," he said simply.

"But I'm not Leader material!" I protested. "I always follow Andra's lead. SHE'S the one who should be a Leader, not me. It's just not my style."

"That's part of the reason you're going to be so good. Look, Reznik, every Recruit has a Specialty. Those 'Virtual Reality' games you tried were to find your basic talents, your skills. Those talents will be honed into each person's Specialty. Then a team will be drawn up under a Leader. Every team assembled will have a group of Specialists whose abilities will be specifically chosen for that mission. Every team member is vital and every Specialist has a subcategory or two in case anything happens to any one of the Team. In fact, every member is trained to act as Leader, should something untoward render him or her incapable. But natural Leading ability is very rare and precious. Many groups go out with an Acting Leader, not a natural one.

"You may not think you have what it takes but I assure you, you do. Your score on the Simulator says so. Your body language says so. Your very person says so. That's why your application was approved so fast, why you were accepted so quickly. We NEED Leaders, Reznik--natural ones with talent.

"Your training is going to be more difficult, more intense than these others', but it will be worth it. Are you game or do you want to withdraw?"

I shook my head. "I think you're crazy," I said. "But I'm in." I paused. "What's YOUR Specialty, Recruiter?"

He smiled ever so slightly. "I read people. I can see changes in behaviour that most others miss. I can see Talent. I can see what makes people react to things the way they do and I can use that knowledge to great advantage sometimes." He saw the question in my eyes. "No. I'm not telepathic. I'm just very observant."

"You manipulated me." I had no doubt. A lot of things were coming suddenly into focus.

"Only marginally. You can't resist a challenge and I offered you a big one. That's another of your strengths, Reznik, but you'll have to learn to curb it a little bit. You're going to be a great Leader and I Recruited you." He settled back in his seat, satisfied with himself. I pondered the things he had said and implied, and decided I would see this thing through to whatever conclusion it brought. My curiosity would never give me a moment's peace if I bowed out now and the Recruiter knew it. He knew I wouldn't take any of the 'opportunities to withdraw', that I was now and for however long, a Galactic Recruit. I did have one more question for him--well, two really, but I just could not bring myself to ask if Earth was his Planet of Origin. I settled for the other question.

"Recruiter," I said. He looked up at me. "Do you have a name?" His dimples put in an appearance just for me.

"Yes. The closest any Earth language can come to it is Rapsim ba Sharaval. Call me Rapsim." I just nodded a few times. Then I got up and went to a seat by myself where I could sit and think about things. It was almost too much, but at the same time terribly exciting. I sat and stared out the window at the passing scenery, trying to imagine what lay ahead.


Now, here on this bus, I'm the Recruiter. This is my second go at it, and I found a Leader. Here he comes now. I wonder if I looked that irritated when I sat down with Rapsim so long ago. I have to go now. I have questions to answer. And he has a life of adventure before him.

The End

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