Exhausted from the ordeal of the Transformation and their subsequent attack on the Federation base, Krystina Blanc let go her grip on the hand of her male Anjehnian partner and the tentacle of the Sandalian neuter. Sagging to the sparse grass dotting their forward post, she leaned back against the boulder sheltering them from direct Federation view and closed her gray-blue eyes.
The rumbling bass of heavy explosives mingled with the sizzle and roar of small- and medium-sized beamers. The doomed defenders of the Federation stronghold battled for their lives against the advancing Consortium ground troops. The latter had to accomplish their goals quickly. The object was to capture this strategic location, not destroy it or allow the enemy to carry out some type of suicidal gesture designed to deprive their opponents the fruit of their victory.
The rough earth under Krystina's green and black uniform vibrated from shockwaves emanating from the destruction occurring less than a quarter-mile away. Faint screams of terror, fear, and agony drifted through the general sounds of mayhem like wraithes haunting a desolate moor. Whether those cries originated from soldiers wearing the earth tones of the Consortium or the sky spectrum of the Federation, she did not know...nor did she particularly care.
Peeling open her eyes, she noted that her Anjehnian Teammate, Vagra, appeared even more distressed than she felt. His feline-descended features dripped sweat while his stubby-fingered hands lay palm-up on the ground on either side of his short, muscular legs.
Swivelling her head, Krystina watched the Sandalian speaking to the Team coordinator. The alien alone offered no indication that the Transformation process and attendant telekinetic conflict adversely affected him...it.
Even after so many months of intimate contact with the neuter, Krystina had difficulty keeping the adjectives straight. "It" should be reserved for an inanimate object, not used to refer to a thinking, complex -- though decidedly odd -- being.
Frantic activity at the perimeter of the post signalled the arrival of the first casualties. Battered, maimed, burned -- and dead -- men bounced on stretchers carried by swearing medics or in the arms of their desperate, dirt-and-blood stained comrades. Even as the wounded and dying accumulated on the patchy grass like so many castoff and shattered statues, small, ultrafast air ambulances swarmed in below enemy line-of-fire and snatched up their human cargoes with the voracious speed of metallic raptors.
Dully, Krystina let the waves of external stimuli wash over her. The sights, smells, and sounds had grown far too familiar during her short tenure as a Silence Team member. Assaults against Federation force shield protected bases had increased in number at what felt like an exponential rate. Granted less time between Transformations for physical and mental recuperation, the stress had compounded in intensity with each telekinetic struggle to disable the shield generators of the enemy.
The biggest problem -- though not officially recognized as such -- came from trying to cope with the emotional residue threatening to bury her. Krystina had known little violence on her home planet, Slatter's Place. Her main interest in life had been to finish her economic education then launch her own business.
The Draft had ended that hope for good.
Draft Screening had unearthed her latent telekinetic ability. While earlier in the Silence Wars, advanced education would have granted her an exemption, such requests now received rejection with alarming frequency, all in the name of "equality." Without political clout, her worried parents could do nothing to spare her the pain of losing her dreams and her freedom.
Yanked from school, she had been carted off for training in a Silence Team. On Gold Point, she had met her first Anjehnian and Sandalian. Understanding and practicing the Transformation until the process became automatic had consumed a grueling two months.
Boosted and directed by the Sandalian, Krystina and Vagra had engaged in their first Silent Combat, sending their projection through the Federation shield, the only avenue that had yet been devised for defeating the barrier Dr. Ching had discovered so long ago on Terra.
As they had worked to disable the shield generator, the enemy Team had counterattacked. Seeking to tear asunder the invaders' bonds and perhaps even shatter their minds and bodies, the Federation Team had rammed viciously and repeatedly against them. Fighting for her life, Krystina had struck back...and won.
But the victory had left a bitter taste. She truly no longer cared if the dead and injured still arriving wore green or blue...not because their suffering did not tear at her compassion, but precisely because it did. Neither the drafted nor the Drafted on either side of the shields wanted or asked to be there. None of them desired a life both short and painful. None eagerly sought to inflict injuries on others judged by their respective leaders to be "the enemy."
No essential differences in ideology that Krystina could discern distinguished the Federation from the Consortium; none worth dying or killing for, anyway. Each side declared certain worlds their exclusive property...regardless of how the people inhabiting the contested areas felt about that issue. Each side believed their claims justified any use of force they could bring to bear.
The Sandalian shuffled up to Krystina and extended one of its four ropy upper limbs. "Come, Krystina. The battle is won. Time for us to return to the ship."
For a long moment, Krystina stared up at the entity that (with its kin) made the Transformation -- and thus the Silence Wars -- possible. Without the Sandalian neuters, the Shield Peace would yet be intact, shields impenetrable and invulnerable as Dr. Ching had intended.
But this neuter could no more be responsible for its presence on Hondreau than could she. The male Sandalian, Embehloh, had long ago set in motion the chain of events culminating in their present predicament. Travelling on the Consortium passenger ship, Kendall, and distraught over the death of his female partner, Embehloh had stabbed himself next to the force shield generator designed to protect the ship during emergencies, then activated the shield set to a ten-foot radius. Desperate to save its...companion?...friend?...lover?...master?...the neuter accompanying Embehloh had kidnapped a human male and an Anjehnian female on the ship, forming the first primitive, makeshift Team. Penetrating the shield, the neuter had disabled the generator...too late, though, to save Embehloh.
From that tragic origin had flowed the continuing stream of pain that had been christened the "Silence Wars" from the manner of attack utilized by the Teams. The Federation Teams even enshrined that insanity in their motto: "To Silence the enemy...Silently."
When the first formal Consortium Team attacked the Federation base on Kaven's World and its shield winked out, the Shield Peace abruptly vanished, as well. The commander of that outpost, Major Phan Kriegson, had conveyed the essence of the situation to his superiors before he, too, was killed. From that inauspicious beginning, the race for control of the boundary between the two realms -- the Contested Zone -- had spiralled upward with dizzying speed.
"Did you hear me, Krystina?" the neuter asked with its characteristic equanimity.
Krystina nodded and wrapped her slender fingers around the leathery appendage. Grunting, she stood and brushed off the seat of her uniform. Beside her, Vagra pushed himself erect, as well.
As the neuter turned away, Krystina impulsively grabbed a limb. Impassively, the Sandalian turned to face her.
"Yes, Krystina?" it asked.
Searching that broad, mud-pie face with its large, oval, dark-green eyes, Krystina could not quite name what she wanted to find. This being acted not only as an intermediary for the Silence Teams but also for the sexed Sandalians in making love and reproduction. Yet did the soul inhabiting that yellow, fleshy body with its bulging stomach exist for itself in any way? Did it never reach for...for...
At a loss, Krystina shook her head in a forlorn gesture conveying both sadness and resignation. Whatever the answer to such a question might ultimately be, for them the issue was moot. Assignment to a Silence Team stood as the functional equivalent of a death sentence. No Team survived whole for long. Even if a member somehow miraculously outlasted his or her Teammates, the result usually devolved into a life more to be pitied than envied. Some outcomes truly were worse than death. When the time arrived for her own demise, however, she wanted to be the one to select the time and place, not the impersonal forces driving the Silence Wars.
"Never mind," she said.
As she stepped into the waiting transport that would convey them to the ship and their next assignment, Krystina glanced over her shoulder one final time.
The shattered, anonymous bodies of their protectors continued to pile up on the field behind them, a mute legacy to the wisdom of their invisible military and political leaders.
General Hokura Fyken poured Dall Colm another glass of red wine then leaned back into the form-fitting comfort of his favorite living room chair. While some might decry his plebian habit of personally serving subordinates as an undignified assault on the integrity and authority of his position, General Fyken brushed aside such criticism and complaints as petty jealousy. A truly powerful man did not concern himself with the casual opinions of underlings nor define his self-esteem in terms of meaningless rituals dictated by others. As head of the Federation's Central Security Command, he dealt all day with stiff formality and rigidly defined protocols and rules. A taste of informality now and again in the privacy of his own quarters formed a welcome respite from the rigors of an otherwise structured existence.
Besides, a friendly, intimate chat often produced unique opportunities to understand and...guide...those who carried out the orders he meticulously devised.
"Your journey to Meylan went well?" he asked.
Sipping at the lush vintage, Minister Colm waved a dismissive hand. "Except for some execreble allergies and the usual detours around Consortium incursions, the trip went well. Boring, but fine."
Steepling his fingertips, the general nodded his approval.
Carefully, Colm set his crystal goblet on the stand next to his chair. "And I do appreciate the use of one of your personal cruisers. It shaved days off the transport time."
Fyken smiled graciously. "Think nothing of it. Glad I could ease the burden of your task." He cocked his graying head to one side. "Besides, it wouldn't do for you to travel by normal military transport or, horrors, civilian lines. We still need to play this pretty close to the chest."
The general leaned forward. "How near to success would you say we are?"
Licking his lips, Colm pondered how best to respond. "The data we've received to date indicate substantive progress in understanding the underlying physiological structures and processes that potentiate the neuter Sandalians' ability to bind opposite-sexed human-Anjehnian pairs into boosted units able to meld low-level telekinetic predispositions into functional wholeness."
A hint of irritation flickered across Fyken's sharp-edged features.
Minister Colm shifted his position. "Um," he said, awkwardly clearing his throat, "given the research on Meylan, we'll soon understand how the neuters do what they do. Once we have that, we can move on to replicating it artificially."
Grimly satisfied at the minister's squirming realization of his error in spouting tech-eze, the general slapped the arm of his chair. "The sooner the better! The whole notion of having to rely for our defense on alien creatures rankles me. I won't rest easy until we have completely secure, fully human Teams. We need to move on this before the Sandalians suspect our diversion of select neuters from Team membership to research subjects."
"That, uh, may take some time, General. To date, no neuter has successfully Transformed a human-human pair. Studies on how to substitute for the Anjehnian component may require additional time and funds, and, in any event, must await the success of artificially induced Transformation."
Settling back, Fyken curled a hand into a cage. "Let's eliminate one obstacle at a time, shall we? First, we cut the Sandalians out of the loop. The Anjehnians' turn at exclusion will come next."
Colm pursed his lips uncertainly. "The second phase of the operation remains unchanged?"
The general nodded, once, curtly. "Of course. Once we blunt this latest series of Consortium initiatives, we round up the neuters from the Sandalian enclaves scattered about the Federation and inter them in isolation for the duration. Exterminate those we cannot otherwise effectively curtail. The Consortium must be deprived of a pool for traditional Teams once we deploy our second or third generation pure human Teams. When their agents uncover the details of our strategy, I want it to be too late for them to respond with anything other than panic. We'll flood the field with reliable human-human Teams and overwhelm whatever resistance they attempt to mount."
He frowned at Minister Colm. "These Wars must end and end soon. Both our physical and human resources are stretched dangerously thin. Taxes are rocketing upward even faster than our inflationary financing of the Wars' costs. With the recent expansion of the Screening to all corners of the Federation, the economic problem can only intensify. We must crush our adversaries before we face the precarious embarrassment of widespread civil unrest.'
"Of course," Colm said. "As I noted in my report, though, obtaining neuters for our research without raising unwelcomed suspicion grows ever more difficult."
Fyken downed half of his wine, his expression hardening. "The curiosity of the sexed Sandalians will have to be squashed. Restricting their movements in certain sectors helps, but we cannot yet -- unfortunately -- totally quarantine them. The Consortium dogs would pick that scent up immediately. Our dilemma would be much diminished if we could discover the location of their homeworld," he said reflectively.
Crossing his legs, Colm nodded. "Even on Meylan there have been unpleasant reminders of our problems. In fact, a protest occurred there during my visit."
"What kind of protest?" Fyken asked, his interest perked.
"A demonstration against the upcoming Draft Screening. The local security forces quelled the trouble handily. Our people never had to intervene."
A heavy line creased the general's forehead. "Hmm. On Meylan, of all places. Consortium influence, perhaps? If they suspect so soon, I need to inform Ops to move quickly in containing their agents."
"Oh, no! No," Colm said, alarmed. The last thing he needed were interlopers in his territory. "All indications are that local talent instigated the incident. We have the primaries under appropriate surveillance. Overall, they have a woefully overblown sense of their own importance in the scheme of things." He chuckled to demonstrate his unconcern. "As an amusing coincidence, one of the peripheral members is the son of our lead researcher on Meylan. I --"
At Fyken's sudden, dark scowl, Colm felt his insides congeal in nervous dread. How could he have been so stupid to reveal such a thing?
"I don't like the sound of that, Minister. Don't like the sound of it, at all. That's one coincidence too many. I'll see to it that more personnel are immediately assigned to bolster your current staff."
"Thank you, sir," Colm said, burying the grimace begging for expression. "I appreciate your assistance."
"What about this head researcher? Any problems with him?"
Colm hesitated a fraction of a second too long. "None worth mentioning. He's one of the top men in his field."
"Don't ever try to hold back on me, son," Fyken said in a coldly even tone. "I don't like it."
"Oh, no, sir! Of course, sir. I didn't mean that... It's just..." Colm inhaled deeply to calm his jitters, ignoring as best he could the twin streams of sweat springing from his armpits. "His research is impeccable. The only fault I can detect is in his administrative talent. You know these scientist types: all theory, no practicality. Dr. Rendau has trouble completing the proper paperwork in a timely fashion."
"Is that all?" Fyken said, relieved. "Don't let such foggy details interfere with his primary duties. As long as this Rendau produces what we need, I can stall the bean counters. Results are what matter now, not how we get them. Understood?" he asked, his question arrowing out as an order.
"Of course, sir. Proper focus is crucial."
"See to it then. We don't have all the time in the universe."
Realizing he was dismissed, Minister Colm rose, wistfully eying his unfinished wine. "Yes, sir. I'll see to the details."
As Colm headed for the door, the general called out. "Minister?"
"One thing more," Fyken said, pointing a finger skyward. "Even if this Rendau boy is nothing more dangerous than a headstrong brat, keep a casual eye on him. If for some reason the elder Rendau should grow...troublesome...in the future, the boy may prove a handy lever we can utilize against him."
Colm nodded, smiling. "Yes, sir. I understand. I understand completely."