The two Sandalians waited quietly at the entrance to the Kendell. As he had for so many other passengers, the attendant slipped their cards into the computer to confirm their tickets. With professional control, the human operator suppressed the shudder which threatened to dance along his spine. Though intellectually he knew these big eyed, tentacled creatures simply possessed conceptual awarenesses housed in differently shaped containers, emotionally he had never been able to experience anything but disgust when considering them. There was just something...unnatural...about a species which required three bodies -- a male, a female, and a neuter -- in order to reproduce.
With impersonal efficiency, the computer flashed "Confirmed." Smiling (did Sandalians smile?), the attendant handed back the cards, making sure as he did so that he avoided contact with those leathery appendages. Startled, he blinked as the male Sandalian snatched the cards from his extended fingers and rapidly scanned the terminal, his large hairless head snapping about in jerky, disconnected movements. Strange sounds rose and fell from the alien's oddly shaped mouth.
With a gentle touch, the neuter Sandalian urged its companion away from the counter and towards the elevator. The male seemed decidedly reluctant to comply with those directions.
When at last the pair disappeared beyond a curve in the hallway, the attendant let the shiver he had been holding back escape from its cage. There definitely was something not quite right about that male. The attendant's brows furrowed. And another odd thing... A male travelling with a neuter... What had that article in the newscan said about --
Self-consciously, the attendant returned to the present. Apologizing, he took the extended card from the middle-aged man who waited with silent impatience for his attention. At least here stood someone he could understand: an aging businessman who had probably done nothing more bizarre in his life than try a new position with his wife. Smiling, the attendant slid the card into the slot and waited. At least there were some things in life you could always count upon.
The argument among the half-dozen actors mounted in intensity.
Annoyed, Hendren Lehmin glanced up from his book. He expected better behavior from first-class passengers, especially in a public lounge. Interplanetary flight dragged along tediously enough without having to deal with such utterly thoughtless people. Unconsciously he calculated the hassle factor of speaking to them directly and decided against it. If they did not quiet soon, he would, of course, talk to the Kendell's steward or to the captain himself, if necessary. Mostly, though, he wanted to be left alone.
The Anjehnian stood out as the worst of the lot, Hendren thought as he struggled manfully to regain the flow of the book's narrative. The alien would burst something if she did not calm down.
"The Consortium has every right to limit our appearances, Callen," the woman said forcefully. "They have access to information we don't. If they say our performance at Viddalya would cause tensions, then we --"
"That is utter tripe, Alensia." The human, Callen, leaned across the space separating him from his companion. "Whatever happened to artistic integrity? The Shield Peace guarantees us freedom of expression. If we cancel Viddalya, then we might as well pack it up. No one will want to book us."
Alensia shook her head in vigorous denial. "You're being melodramatic again, Callen. We have five other cities to visit. One won't matter that much."
Another of the six actors nodded. "I agree with Alensia. Besides, Batestell is our third planet in two months. I could use a rest."
Frowning, Hendren snapped shut the novel. He could not concentrate here, constantly distracted by such drivel. Perhaps the observation deck would be quieter.
As he strode past the disrupters of his peace, Hendren shot them a nasty scowl. Adding insult to injury, they did not seem even to notice his displeasure. He never bothered other people. Why could they not extend the same courtesy to him?
The dimly lit -- and, thankfully, nearly empty -- observation port helped to ease the churning in his stomach. Only a male Sandalian -- Embehloh, the steward had said his name was -- and his neuter companion occupied a pair of shadowed chairs nestled in one corner of the room. Whatever their business there, Hendren neither knew nor cared. As long as they did not impinge upon his little world, their concerns were none of his.
Since the force shield guarding them against the flare headed their way remained in place, few passengers ventured here. The shimmer of the shield rendered the stars nearly invisible. Quietly, Hendren chose a plush chair on the opposite side of the room from the Sandalians. It was not that he particularly disliked the tentacled creatures, he told himself reasonably. (He was not, after all, a prejudiced man.) At the moment, his mood merely dictated against any sociable encounters.
Flicking on the small light suspended above and behind his chair, Hendren settled down to continue the book he had brought along at his wife's insistence. To listen to her rave about it, The Stars in My Eyes loomed as the greatest tome in literature since My Awakening. Hendren, however, preferred to reserve judgement. He distrusted those things imbued with too much popularity. If the masses enjoyed it, it probably lacked true merit.
He had barely found his place when an uncomfortable feeling crept up his spine. A moment later, Darren Tammelson entered the room. Hendren did his best to appear immersed in his reading. The subterfuge proved to be of no avail. Discretion or thoughtfulness did not reside in Darren's vocabulary.
Straddling an adjoining seat, Darren grinned his toothy grin and slapped Hendren on the arm.
"Hi, Hendren. Get tired of those damned actors, too?"
Uncomfortably, Hendren shifted his position. "I was just looking for a quiet place to read," he offered hopefully. Damn, he thought. If only his premonition had come a few seconds earlier, he might have had a chance to beat a retreat to his room. Unfortunately, he had never been able to utilize those vague warnings to his advantage. Without much expectation, he showed Darren his book to support his assertion.
Unfortunately, the young millionaire -- by inheritance, Hendren had learned from dinner gossip -- did not disappoint the older businessman. Glancing at the cover, Darren nodded absently. "Can you believe those people? If I were them, I'd keep a low profile."
Surrendering to the inescapable, Hendren closed his book. "How so?" he asked with a politeness borne of years of dealing with obnoxious clients and suppliers.
Conspiratorially, Darren lowered his voice. "Are you kidding? Three Anjehnians and three humans travelling together? You know the morals actors have."
"I'm afraid I don't quite --"
"You mean to tell me you haven't heard the news?"
Barely containing his irritation, Hendren shook his head.
"The murders on Batestell?" Darren asked, leaning back as though shocked at such a revelation of ignorance. "The lynchings of those human and Anjehnian tourists? Not everyone is as tolerant as we are, Hendren. Some people don't appreciate the idea of humans consorting with aliens."
Slowly, Hendren nodded. He did recall hearing some report about a self-appointed "morality force" on Batestell taking exception to the growing practice of inter-species sexual encounters. While the idea of such sex did not personally appeal to him, Hendren considered the methods employed to discourage such behavior more than a little drastic. As long as those involved did not flaunt their sexual actions in his presence, he saw no reason to become involved.
"I really don't see why --"
"Oh, come on, Hendren. Those actors share two connecting cabins. What do you think they do in there at night?"
Hendren thinned his lips. "I don't know, Darren, and I really don't ca--"
"Well, I think they're on mighty thin crust. If we don't watch these things, the next thing you know, someone will be trying to have sex with a Sandalian."
A mild panic shot through Hendren. Alarmed, he motioned in the direction of the two Sandalians. "Will you please keep your voice down?" he said, almost hissing
Nonchalantly, Darren craned his head. "Oh. I didn't see them when I came in." He shrugged. "But so what? They're probably thinking at each other anyway."
Surreptitiously Hendren gazed at the two aliens. Their broad, mud-pie faces revealed no expressions readable by a human. With bulging stomachs, leathery hides, and four ropy, upper limbs, they did not invite close scrutiny. The one time he had looked into their large, oval, dark-green eyes had left him shaken. He had received an impression of alien depths and...something...he had been unable to define.
Darren snorted derisively. "Look at them. Like they're holding hands." The tentacles were intertwined. "Hell, they need three of them just to have sex."
"That's not true, Darren. The males and females can have sex alone. The neuters are needed only when they want to reproduce." Why he bothered trying to enlighten this lout, Hendren did not know. Normally he would simply have let the misinformation slide. After all, the fact of Darren's ignorance fell outside his purview.
Darren grinned slyly. "Maybe. But I've heard they also use the neuter to link them telepathically when they're doing it. Ever wonder what sex would be like, Hendren, if you could hear and feel what the other person was experiencing?"
Hendren did not dignify such a question with an answer. Watching the immobile aliens occupied his attention. A sexed Sandalian rarely travelled without his or her sexed counterpart. While neuters often accompanied them, the neuters definitely occupied subserviant positions. The apparent equality between these two Sandalians raised questions Hendren did not care to consider.
A voice on the intercom saved him from such troublesome thoughts.
"This is Captain Ilstrom. The effects of the flare have now passed us. We will be collapsing the shield momentarily."
Even as the words died, the light above Hendren dimmed then brightened. Simultaneously, the smear of stars beyond the port coalesced into crystal clarity. Grasping at the opportunity to escape, Hendren quickly rose. The room would soon be filling with chattering tourists ready to view the Star Rainbow. For him, that stellar monument held no great excitement. He had been born under its awesome sight. Plus, a more immediate incentive to leave sat near at hand...
"You'll excuse me, Darren. I feel a bit of a headache coming on. I think I'll retire to my cabin."
"Oh, sure. Guess I'll just sit here and order a drink. Maybe I'll strike it lucky with one of the ladies."
But not lucky for her, Hendren thought. With a vague smile, he turned and headed briskly for his cabin. He nearly stumbled when his gaze met that of the Sandalian, Embehloh. He had not realized that his own scrutiny had been noticed and returned.
What bothered more, however, was the...odd...expression which haunted those alien eyes boring so intensely into his.
Rigidly, Embehloh sat in his chair staring at the retreating back of the human. The man's name was...was what?
Without being aware of what he did, the male Sandalian tightened his grip on the upper tentacles of his neuter companion. "He knows," he mumbled aloud. "He is not like the others. He can see. He...he has been sent by them. He knows the secret. Omteha, my mate... He knows what happened on Unideen. He is one of those who can see. What can I do? What can I do? He will tell them. He will tell them and then I will be --"
With gentle force the neuter Sandalian shook Embehloh's trembling body. "He cannot see alone, Embehloh. Don't you remember that? None of them can see alone, and I will not help them. And we were alone on Unideen. You, Omteha, and me. No one else. No one else knows but us. Please, Embehloh. Try to remember what --"
**No!** Tearing himself from the neuter's grip, Embehloh stood and staggered for the doorway. **There are too many voices. I will not listen. I refuse to listen. I will stop them. Yes! Somehow I will stop the voices...**
Impassively, the neuter watched Embehloh's flight. Still he runs, even as we ran from Unideen, even as we run now from our own people. Will the running never stop?
The neuter gave no outward sign of such thoughts. The remaining human who watched it could not see. Of that it was certain. The man was one of those who never would.
Wearily, the Sandalian rose. Embehloh needed its presence. It would offer what comfort that it could. What else remained for it to do?
Once settled into bed, Hendren felt much better. If only more people would emulate his example, he thought, and attend solely to their own spheres of interest. Despite the long period of interstellar peace brought on by the invention of the force shield, more than enough strife existed to go around. From petty backstabbers like Darren all the way up to and beyond the murderers on Batestell, none truly appreciated the golden age in which they lived. Before Dr. Ching of Terra discovered the principles which made the shield possible, the Consortium and its rival, the Federation, had waged intermittent and costly wars for control of the choice inhabitable planets. The shields had ended that once and for all. Ships and cities protected by shields proved impervious to attack. Though the governments had seemed reluctant to accept that reality, eventually they had reached an accommodation.
The officially recognized Shield Peace had come on Hendren's tenth birthday. For fifty years, he had lived under its figurative umbrella. Unfortunately for his father, sanity had returned five years too late. His merchant ship had been destroyed -- an "accident" the official explanation maintained -- along the very route his aging son now travelled with monotonous (but safe) regularity.
Embehloh gazed down on the sleeping form of his neuter companion.
At last! It slept. For too many hours it had remained awake, watching him, touching him, guiding him, speaking to him, forever speaking to him in those voices which...
Yes. He could see the situation more fully now. The neuter had...somehow...muted those voices. But once again, they came clearly, telling him what he already knew, reminding him of Omteha and what had happened on Unideen.
How could he have done such a thing! His mate... No more. Yes. No more. That human could see. He was convinced of it. The evidence had been there in his eyes.
Staring down at the mud-pie face of his companion, Embehloh smiled.
It says it will not help him, but I know better. It cannot help itself. That is its nature, and none of us can escape who we are.
Escape... The voices said there was no escape, but he knew the truth. Now that the neuter no longer dulled his thoughts and his passions, he could consider his problem with all the power of his intellect. Once he had been freed from the control of this one, the answer had come quickly.
Embehloh gave a silent laugh.
Yes, the answer stood brilliantly outlined in the light of true understanding. To see what was all-pervasive required the best of minds, the kind which he knew he alone possessed.
With a fluidity of motion that would have startled those had seen him of late, Embehloh strode across the cabin and plunged his hand into a side compartment of his luggage.
Triumphantly, he straightened to his full height. The long steel blade which he held wrapped in his tentacles flashed in the cold, hard light of the cabin.
The time for action had come.
Hendren had progressed through nearly half of The Stars in My Eyes when the light above his bunk dimmed.
"That's odd," he murmured. Normally the captain announced beforehand when the shield was to be activated. Hendren shrugged. One more evidence of the staff's incompetence aboard the Kendell. When he arrived on Batestell, he would have to register an official complaint with the company. Perhaps they would offer him free passage next trip. Taking a sip from his juice glass, Hendren returned to his reading.
A minute passed. Hendren put the book down on his lap. That crawling feeling of impending unpleasantry crept along his skin. Nervously, he glanced at the intercom. Perhaps he should call the bridge and see if anything was amiss.
Before he could reach for the button, klaxons shredded the evening's calm.
Moments later, the door to his cabin slid open. Hendren twisted under his covers to protest this unwarranted and outrageous intrusion into his privacy...
...and found himself smothered under waving tentacles.
Instinctively he struggled to free himself. He proved no match, however, for the incredible strength of the Sandalian. Its cool tentacles clutched his head in a grip he knew he resisted at his own peril. What the creature wanted, he had no idea. What terrified him most, though, was the sight of the Anjehnian woman, Alensia, tightly held in a pair of those same ropy tentacles. Her lightly furred face, now pale and tight, turned towards him. Her gray-green eyes bulged in ragged-edged fright.
"Let me go!" Hendren shouted. "What are you doing here? Leave me alone."
"Sandalian, freeze!" The new voice barked its command from the doorway. Squirming, Hendren glimpsed the taut face of the security officer, Lt. Merrick. A needler wavered in her hand. Her strained expression revealed that she stood on the ragged edge herself.
Not releasing its hold on its captives, the Sandalian slowly turned. "It is the only way to save Embehloh. They must come with me."
With a shock, Hendren listened to the alien. Never before had he heard one of the neuters speak. Its low, uninflected voice chilled him almost as much as the implications inherent in its words.
"You can't help him, neuter," Lt. Merrick said, obviously fighting to control her breathing, trying without success to reason with the Sandalian. "Embehloh is inside the force shield, alone. No one can help him now but himself."
"You are wrong, Lieutenant. I -- we three," it said, nodding at Hendren and Alensia, "can help my friend. Please stand aside. No one will be hurt."
"For God's sake, Lieutenant!" Hendren screamed. "Do as it says."
Lt. Merrick glanced behind her as Captain Ilstrom arrived.
"Let the Sandalian through," he said. "It can crush their skulls before we can kill it."
"That is most wise, Captain Ilstrom," the Sandalian said.
Reluctantly Lt. Merrick backed into the corridor. The tip of her weapon never left the neuter's skull. "Harm a hair on those passengers, Sandalian, and you're dead."
Hendren's captor said nothing. Rapidly it proceeded towards the center of the ship and the force shield generator.
More guards kept curious passengers back from the doorway to the generator station as the strange procession reached its destination. A few of the more excitable people screamed at the sight of the alien and its entourage.
"Get these people out of here!" Lt. Merrick yelled. "Now!"
How much success her orders had, Hendren could not tell. With a heart-thudding finality, the door whispered closed behind them.
Without wasting time, the Sandalian spun its two captives around. Hendren's heart stuttered in his chest. Before them curved the shimmering edge of the force shield. Within it, the wavering images of two technicians lying face down in pools of glimmering red greeted them. Behind the unmoving bodies, on the floor and leaning back against the force shield generator panel, sat Embehloh, his eyes closed. A strangely hilted, long-bladed knife protruded from the middle of his naked chest. Purplish fluid, still weakly pumping from that wound, stained his alien flesh.
"Let the passengers go, Sandalian," Captain Ilstrom said quietly. "Can't you see that Embehloh is as good as dead?"
The neuter shook its head. Equally softly, it said, "No. My friend yet lives. I can hear him still."
"What's going on?" The panic in Alensia's face had faded.
Captain Ilstrom glanced from Embehloh -- protected (or entombed?) forever behind the force shield -- to the neuter and then to the Anjehnian. For a moment longer, he hesitated. "Embehloh came down here alone. Killed the two technicians on duty. Then he set the shield radius to three meters and turned on the generator. As long as the controls are in there, there's not a damned thing we can do to turn it off."
"Can't you shut off the power or something?" Hendren asked. He was having difficulty breathing. One of the tentacles wrapped half around his throat.
"The generator runs off its own power source. It can maintain itself for decades."
"Then what--" The question died in Hendren's throat. Someone -- or some...thing -- lurked, rummaging for he knew not what, in his mind.
**Do as I say, and harm will come to neither of you.**
The Sandalian? Hendren wondered.
**Yes. Questions I will answer later. Now we must act. Before it is too late.**
But you can't -- Hendren protested.
**Do not argue.** Such a strength of will lay behind those words that Hendren would never have believed it possible that it belonged to a neuter Sandalian. No one had ever suspected that a highly developed intelligence existed in Sandalian neuters. Apparently, everyone had been wrong.
The experience that followed began in horror.
Hendren found himself alone in a featureless void, sound and sight banished to some nether realm beyond his understanding. Nothing existed except himself. He waited, terrified, and felt his thoughts slipping away into the icy silence of nonexistence.
Without warning, warmth bathed him. That glow was Alensia, or at least some essence which defined her here. Frantically the two wanderers embraced each other, comrades forged together in the instant of ultimate despair. Thoughts and emotions and aspirations blended in an involuntary interweaving tighter than the finest cloth. Deep down, Hendren knew that here was a mixing which would never completely leave him.
Time passed. How much, he found it impossible to tell. A nudge from some other source moved them from their newly won sanctuary. Reluctantly, the projection of their unity glided forward. Like an ethereal bubble, it touched the periphery of the shield, slowed, then penetrated through to the other side.
Incredibly, they found themselves within the generator. The control connections stood out starkly before the...entity...they had become.
How? Alensia asked.
**So the circuit is broken.**
The image formed clearly within their combined awareness. The team they had become had to reach forth with an unsuspected telekinetic power and sever the proper threads.
**You must cooperate.**
No, Hendren said with an unsettling combination of hurt and defiance. I can't. I won't. I will not aid a kidnapper. You have intruded into my life -- into my mind -- and stolen what was not yours to have.
**Please. Time is running short. Embehloh will soon die.**
His death comes at his own hands. He has made his choice. It is not right for you to interfere or to force me to help you.
A pause. **Yes. You are right. I cannot force your mind to work. I could meld you while you were frightened and confused. Now, I can do nothing but threaten your body. That I would prefer not to do. Please. Help me.**
**Very well. I shall tell you what I had promised not to reveal.
**Embehloh has been sick of mind since the death of our mate on Unideen. We were on a research mission. That will never be completed now. At least not by us.
**He blamed himself. He let her go alone into the jungle. We never found her body. Soon afterward, the delusions began. Voices he heard in his head. Night and day they tormented him. He was convinced it was Omteha, our mate. He was wrong, of course. The voices were those of his own guilt and anguish.
**I did what I could to ease his pain. Touching him physically and mentally helped. It drained me, though. Such constant contact was much more than I normally experience.**
Hendren could feel the binding which held the trio together beginning to weaken.
**I hid the truth from my people. When they asked after Omteha, I lied. I thought my silence would buy the time needed to heal Embehloh. From planet to planet we've run. I should have realized the impossibility of helping him to escape from himself.
**I remained awake too long trying to protect him. Tonight I dozed. Only for a little while. Long enough, though, for him to leave me. I came as soon as I awoke, but I was too late. He hoped to hide behind the shield. He hoped that by cowering there he could be free of the voices, be free of the demons he believed were invading his mind. When that did not work, he stabbed himself to silence the ghosts.
**I do not know what else to do. Please. Will you help me?**
Hendren could feel the pleading urgency of the Sandalian, the warmth and willingness of Alensia. He knew the neuter could kill him in an instant. He knew, as well, that such an act would not save Embehloh.
Hendren recoiled from the responsibility demanded of him. He was being asked to do the impossible. A force shield was -- had always been -- impenetrable. That had been a given throughout his lifetime, a rock solid foundation upon which the stable tranquility of his entire life had been built; a peace which had enmeshed him in the totality of its comforting embrace. Now it lay within his power to take an action that could -- probably would -- disrupt the known galaxy and all who existed within it. His old, safe life would be no more, shattered forever; revealed as nothing more substantial than the tattered wisps of an early morning mist. The neuter requested a ruinously heavy price...and in return for what reward?
**Hurry! Please do this. I love him, and he will soon be gone.**
Unbidden, an image of his wife, Lehsa, solidified in Hendren's thoughts. Despite her faults and her often petty ways, he knew how desolate his life would be were he to lose her. Though he had never before accepted that truth, he realized he would do anything to keep such a tragedy from happening.
Very well, Hendren said, heartsick at what he was agreeing to do. I'll help you.
Immediately, the team projection delved into the intricacies of the generator. Under the neuter's guidance, they quickly disabled the critical sections.
Instantly the shield collapsed into oblivion.
The tripartite being they had become started to drift down and into the mind of Embehloh. There, however, existed a barrier none could traverse. The Sandalian was dead.
Black sadness washed over them in an all-encompassing wave. Pain such as Hendren had never experienced pierced to the very core of his soul. Uncontrollably he wept in his mind.
**I have not much time. When I set you free, I become a prisoner for life. Perhaps you, as well. They know now that the shield is imperfect. They will not rest until they know how this act was done.
**It would be better were I to die. My people will never forgive me for violating the trust that was ours.
**I thought I could reach him in time. My people would say I loved him too much. That nothing -- no one -- was worth revealing the secret we have guarded for so long. Yet when I saw him dying there so far from my arms, and at the same time so close, I could not resist doing all that I could.**
But why us? Hendren asked.
**You two possessed the latent telekinesis I needed. Alone, I can do nothing. I am an intermediary; in the sex life of my people; in the transforming of potential into power. With the talents you unknowingly have, I did what I was forbidden by my people to do. And still I failed. I mourn now for our peoples -- yours and mine -- as well as for my mates, for today I have again unleashed the comets of war.**
Gradually the triple entity dissolved into its separate parts. Hendren opened his eyes to see guards hustling the neuter Sandalian out the door. Beyond that opening, passengers stared in at them, wide-eyed and humming in incredulous excitement. There would be no keeping this event a secret. The actors crowded close to check on their friend. Behind them stood Darren with his arm around a woman's trim waist. He seemed more concerned with her than with the death which hovered so near.
Lt. Merrick confronted the crowd. "Please go to the starboard lounge. This is now a Consortium matter." As she walked into the corridor, pushing away the more persistent spectators, the door closed behind her.
So many secrets, Hendren thought, and the wrong ones had been revealed.
Ship's doctor, Rys Anox, knelt beside Hendren. Gently he inserted a hypodermic into his patient's arm.
"What's that?" Hendren asked. He felt exhausted. His pulse thundered in his ears.
"It'll help you to relax." Dr. Anox turned. "Where the hell's that stretcher?"
Hendren felt like a lump of lead as he was lifted onto the canvas. Tears welled into his eyes at sight of the dead husk that had been Embehloh. Guards stood at attention before it with their weapons drawn and ready. What had once been a living, breathing, hurting being was now a top secret weapon of war.
"Where's Alensia?" Hendren asked in sudden apprehension.
With an effort, he turned his head. The Anjehnian lay upon another stretcher. The attendants paused at a signal from the doctor.
There was no need for words. A hand touching a hand sufficed. Wearily Hendren let his head fall back.
He knew that much was now gone: the strange communion the three of them had experienced; the aloofness and detachment from others he had cultivated all of his own life; the golden age that had been the Shield Peace. All lost because of a love that refused to surrender to the inevitable; a love which would not take "no" for an answer; a love which would pay any price for one last chance to survive, even a price it had no right to demand.
The implications of that night slowly sank into his mind. He could barely imagine the changes which would come to both his inner and his outer worlds. Yet despite all of that, Hendren knew there had been no other choice he could have made. In that final moment of contact, he had experienced -- had felt as though it emanated from himself -- the essence that had been the Sandalian neuter. And he knew now, as surely as he knew anything, that the loneliest sound in the universe was the silver silence of death.