Funny how they're not so big and scary when you see 'em up close in the bright lights of Processing. When you first took the job, you found them terrifying, they moved so fast, they were so strong. After a while you got used to them, realizing that they were just one more kind of livestock.

(You know how to handle livestock, don't you Riley? Never name anything you intend to eat, sell or kill. It's easier that way, right?)

Take Hostile-17. You and your squad nailed it standing on the edge of a roof overlooking the USC-Sunnydale campus, ranting about something. Didn't even see you coming, and zap! One jolt to the base of the spine with a taser and it dropped like a rock.

(For such a little one, it recovered awful fast as you hauled it back to base. Took three more taser jabs and some serious kicking to subdue it again.)

What a foul mouth! What if its mother should see the body of her darling son out on a murderous rampage, spouting obscenities?

It would break her heart.

That is, if it hasn't already murdered her and the rest of the family in their beds.

They do that, you know.

(Just like in the movies.)

It sounds British so the family may have gotten away unscathed because of the distances involved. By the size of H-17 you think it may have once been some Junior High-aged foreign exchange student that maybe wandered down the wrong alley.

(But thinking's not what you're being paid for. You're being paid to round these things up so that the lab boys can take 'em apart to see what makes 'em tick.)

Tonight's been a busy one and the guys in Processing are overloaded. They ask you and your squad to pick up the slack and process this one yourself. Your men roll the thing over on its back and pinion it as you get out the special "extraction" tool that you keep on the back of your belt, straddling H-17 so that you can start with that ridiculous long black leather duster. You slide the blade under the buttons and give a quick practiced jerk upwards. With a rattling popping sound like acorns falling from the trees in October, the coat falls open even as the thing wearing it struggles but not as fiercely as before; thanks to all those taserings. You peel off the coat after slicing the sleeves open along the seams, tossing it to one side.

(Just like castrating steers back on your dad's farm: grab-slice-flip, all one easy motion!)

It snarls, snapping at your face; a few more kicks and baton blows from your squad distract it as you start on the shirt beneath.

It's even smaller beneath the shirt.

Kinda reminds you of that little shit you and the football team once cornered in the high school boys locker room way back home in Iowa.

(You didn't like him, that little guy. He was small and weird, and he hung around your little sister, Colleen. The team called him "Queerbait" and "Faggot!" even as you all piled on top of him in the middle of the communal shower, beating him so savagely that he had to be hospitalized for a concussion and six broken ribs.)

You glance briefly at H-17's hands as you start on its shirtsleeves. It even paints its nails just like that little guy, what was his name?


Is this thing wearing eyeliner?

(Danny wore eyeliner and spiked his hair so that he looked like a disheveled cockleburr.)

You're a "live and let live" kind of guy, so you didn't mind Danny at first.

(You thought he was funny.)

That all changed when Danny started making sheep's eyes at the baby of the family, your fairy princess of a little sister with her wheat gold hair and big blue eyes.

(Sort of like the girl you've been noticing around campus, a freshmen.)

Dark haired, hook nosed Danny was weird. His folks moved in from where was it, L.A.? Spokane? and bought the big house on the edge of town when you were in the tenth grade and playing varsity football with various university recruiters already looking you over. When you were a senior and he and Colleen were freshmen together, Danny started passing Colleen notes in class and walking her to the bus that took the two of you home out into the countryside every afternoon after school.

The thing you're processing impotently snarls up at you, straining to get at you against the many hands of your squad, face phasing back and forth between human and its real one even as you slice through the leather of its doubtlessly stolen heavily studded black leather belt.

(H-17's ribs are showing; not much meat on it, Danny was like that.)

Danny didn't listen to the music everybody else listened to - weird L.A. or Spokane shit, and classical (stuff you didn't learn to appreciate until you went away to college yourself) He read a lot of weird books like "Junky" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas".

Colleen didn't shoo him off like she did any other loser who dared come near her. Her face would light up just at the mention of his name, then she'd blush.

(Suddenly Danny was no longer amusing.)

What was worse, Danny started coming out on weekends to visit her on your family's farm, in the middle of the Iowa prairie - riding a ten-speed that had obviously cost a lot of money with leather saddlebags full of homework, a laptop computer and strange little fruit filled pastries called "rugalach" that his mother would send your mother. His old man owned the local corn syrup plant and could easily afford such things and the "rugalach" you had to admit, weren't bad with coffee. They'd go out into the fields for hours and come back holding hands and sunburned, giggling after spending the morning in the your mother's kitchen, books spread out all over the place, homework papers everywhere, laptop and pastries close at hand.

Your folks seemed oblivious even though Danny had pierced ears and painted his nails black and his parents didn't go to Church with the rest of the community.

(In those days, you thought everybody was a Lutheran.)

The lab technicians hover around the melee, hypos, phlebotomy kit and restraints poised and ready.

H-17s' trousers are next, your blade slicing through the heavy black denim and the thin silk boxer shorts beneath as effortlessly as it slid through the light cotton of its shirt, as easily as through the bootlaces of its Doc Martins.

The feet exposed are so small that they look like they belong on a woman.

(Danny was like that. Small. He went down with one punch - it was Chuck Schurmann who landed the first blow but you didn't stop him though you could have ended things right there before things went as far as they did. But you didn't because you didn't like how he hung around your baby sister.)

H-17 lies naked and gnashing it's teeth up at you - pupils contracted so tightly against the harsh white lights of Processing that they appear blind, blue blind, blind blue, every vein it's ever owned showing up like a roadmap in relief. The computerized tattoo gun now lies on the hard tile floor in a million pieces - the overeager tech who tried to put the standard i.d. barcode on the inside of the thing's right wrist once you'd removed the shirt now leans against the wall nursing a bleeding nose because H-17 had somehow freed that arm and belted him one. You give H-17 a good kicking in the belly, your boot connecting solidly...

(...just like your foot connected with Danny's guts.)

H-17 slowly goes limp, head lolling, sharp chin to chest, so your squad lets go. The remaining techs move in, immediately pulling back as H-17 suddenly staggers to it's feet, snarling, weeping(?), bleached hair on end, trying to escape, trying to attack, trying to cover itself all at the same time.

The tears don't really bother you. "Mere reflex," your boss Professor Walsh once told you, "These things don't feel any real pain or emotions. It's all protective mimicry that allows them to blend in. Don't take anything you see or hear when dealing with them very seriously."

She's the boss, she's the one in charge, so obviously she's right.

(Otherwise you'd have to face up to the death of that demon-child last week when after your squad rounded up it's strangely docile mother from her den beneath a junked auto down in the city dump - you'd separated the two and the little one who looked like a cross between a Reubins cherub and a porcupine with rubber quills had screamed and sobbed in the arms of the tech who was taking it away for separate Processing while silent tears had run down the mother's face as she pleaded with you to let her and her baby go.)

Forrest gives H-17 a good whack across the back of the head with his baton and it staggers.

(The baby seemed harmless enough, cute even. You wished you could take its picture and send it home to your mother because she likes babies of all kinds, but that's against Regulations.)

Another blow from you to the face and H-17 falls over, landing on its side in a semi fetal position, nose gushing.

(Its cries had sounded an awful lot like, "Mamma!" as it struggled and finally broke free, pattering across the burnished concrete floor with feet no bigger than your thumb, shod with tiny white sandals with daisies on the toes. You knelt down in its path, sweeping it up in your arms but it slipped from your grasp, chubby little body straining heroically under a little pink sundress as it tried to climb the metal stairs meant for adults that its mother was being taken up.)

The techs move in and start taking samples, shaving H-17's head, delousing it. Your squad files out, their job done.

(The baby reminded you of a yearling calf deliberately separated from its mother on weaning day...)

You linger, watching.

(The mother turned and started wailing. One of your men shoved a gag in her mouth to shut her up. The little one almost made it, only to overbalance, flipping over backwards and cartwheeling back down the stairs, landing with a broken neck at your feet. The mother screamed through the gag like her heart was being ripped out as they dragged her off. Later you heard she'd bitten clean through her tongue and choked to death on the examination table. When you and your squad sterilized the nest later that evening, you found a picture of the thing's father in amongst the horde of stolen canned goods, disposable diapers and baby clothing - it appeared human and all three of them were holding each other and smiling in front of a nice suburban house.)

Whimpering, H-17 tries to get back up one more time and you move in even as the techs stand back; they've learned their lesson with this one.

(Brad later told you that Danny was making similar sounds by the time the coach came in and pulled him and the rest off of him.)

You stay the blow you'd begun to aim - painfully, slowly, H-17 tries to crawl toward the pile of shucked clothing, leaving a trail of blood. You place one booted toe beneath its chin and easily flip it onto its back. H-17 rolls over, gathers its arms and legs beneath it and doggedly crawls once more towards the discarded coat before silently collapsing onto its face. It expects you to hit it again; you can tell by the tension in the back.

(The Industrial Arts teacher later found you leaning sideways up against the wall out behind the wood shop on your knees, vomiting. Brad and the rest of the team protected you - they told the County Sheriff that you were out back copping an illicit smoke and were nowhere near Danny when it happened and didn't correct them even though you've never smoked a day in your life.)

The techs descend warily. H-17 has taught them a lot tonight, mainly caution.

(Danny never told anyone that you'd been there, why was that?)

Needles slide in and H-17 finally goes limp for real. As its eyes glaze over, pupils expanding unevenly in sky blue irises, its smashed and swollen mouth moves slowly, painfully, over and over again.

You lean down, curious.

"...give me back me soddin' clothes..."

(When Danny got out of the hospital, he tasted a shotgun. His parents sold the corn syrup plant and moved back to L.A. or was it Spokane?)

Because you don't want to have to face up to this, same as you avoided facing up to what you'd done to Danny...whose only real crime was to like your sister a little too much...

(You and your family drove 100 miles to Cedar Rapids to attend the funeral because that's where the nearest Rabbi was. Colleen stayed out in the car in the funeral home parking lot crying hard into your grandmother's shoulder.)

...the same as you don't want to face up to the death of what was clearly a little girl despite its bizarre appearance...

(Wearing the itchy new suit and red tie you'd just worn last week to a football scholarship interview at USC-Berkeley, you introduced yourself to Danny's folks with your parents standing behind you, apologizing to them for their loss as they stood looking so lost and small beside Danny's closed casket with its surrounding mountains of hothouse flowers. They both shook your hand, Danny's father in his funny little round cap with his arm protectively around Danny's mother's shoulder, painfully grateful that at least one of Danny's friends had been able to come to their only child's funeral, particularly you because you were all Danny talked about when he wasn't telling them about Colleen and how she wanted to be a doctor, how fantastic a football player you were ...they'd seen you play...and how he'd wished you'd toss the ball back and forth with him sometime after school but he didn't want to bug you because he wasn't very good at were maybe going to go to USC on scholarship? Our Danyen, our Danny wanted to go to Berkeley to study physics like his uncle Herschel who works for, the big football star, could have maybe shown him around, introduced him had he not ...the distance must have been too much for the others... how is you sister Colleen, is she here? Such a pretty girl...we liked her...It's so cold! Will she be all right out in the car? ...has anyone else from Danny's school come? ...not that they blamed them because the weather this time of year was so...) say, "Animals don't need clothing."...

(...and walk away.)