Gislain hugged himself against the chill of the night and the bare, rock strewn ground upon which he sat. Shivering, he glanced up as the second member of the trio that formed his Silence Team knelt down beside him. The pale yellow light of Trelor's single moon spread a delicate halo around the amber&endash;hued fur covering Lehlachen's head.
"Are you all right?" she whispered. Concern etched the delicate lines of her feline, Anjehnian face.
After a long pause, Gislain nodded. "Sure." Unobtrusively, he hunched away from the warmth of her body. "Just not much to say."
"Major Bender says we'll be attacking the installation soon."
"Okay." A hint of irritation seeped into his voice. He did not care to be reminded of the impending Transformation. Tonight the safeguards used during their Federation training would be absent when they melded their minds and sent their projection through the force shield to destroy its generator. Tonight the opposing Consortium Team would be determined to destroy them. Tonight his first mission could well become his last.
"Perhaps you should sleep awhile before we --"
"No!" he said too loudly, half rising. Glancing about, Gislain rubbed his arms and settled back. "No." Sleep meant dreams, and dreams meant... "I'll be fine. I just need some time alone."
He could feel her eyes scrutinizing him, but he refused to return her gaze. "I'll wait for you over by the Sandalian," she said at last.
Gislain nodded. Surreptitiously, he watched Lehlachen retreat to the ridge of rock separating them from their objective, the shield protected enemy stronghold. Uncertainty never clawed at her resolve. Ready now and always, she did as told without the plague of those "unnecessary" questions pricking at him with painful insistence.
I do not want to kill, Gislain thought. Yet execution awaited him should he refuse to serve in the Silence Corps. If he held back during the assault, he and his Teammates would be obliterated by the Consortium Team. He had no alternative but to follow Lehlachen's lead. His love of life permitted him nothing less...and nothing more.
Angrily, Gislain stood. The leaders of the Silence Wars cared nothing for his approval of their decisions. No qualms disturbed their sleep after tearing him from his life on Meylan and Drafting him into a life-long commitment; a life that might end at any moment. To increase the number of planets under their control and to establish themselves as the uncontested rulers of the galaxy alone guided them. His desires ranked of no consequence in the grand scheme of things. As long as he possessed the latent telekinetic ability needed for their Teams, his fate rested firmly in the Federation's collective hands.
The neuter Sandalian that boosted, combined, and directed their powers remained unmoving next to Lehlachen. Gislain leaned against the crumbly rock wall and glanced over at the broad, mud-pie face of the alien.
"How much longer?" he asked softly.
The creature did not swivel its large, oval eyes in his direction. Only a delicate tremble flickered along its leathery hide. "Ten minutes. I will inform you when the coordinator issues the command for Transformation."
Lightly, Lehlachen touched Gislain's arm. "We must prepare ourselves."
Ignoring her statement, Gislain scanned the barren, sandstone hills towering behind them. "There's no chance our troops' power units can be detected before we attack?"
"Ease your thoughts, Gislain," Lehlachen said. "Those details have been considered and dealt with. Our only task now is to achieve a successful foray against the enemy. Once we have eliminated the other Team and disabled the generator, our soldiers will sweep through the remaining defenses with no difficulty. This outpost will be a valuable addition to our perimeter and a fitting start for our Team record."
Gislain raised a brow. For his Teammate, the battle was as good as over. For him, it had barely begun. Her recruiting-poster vocabulary did little to lighten his mood.
"It is time," the Sandalian said evenly.
Adrenaline flooded through Gislain. Automatically he moved into position and clutched one of Lehlachen's hands in his. She in turn gripped one of the neuter's four sinuous, upper limbs. Following her example, Gislain completed the requisite three-way circuit. Lehlachen's silvery eyes locked on his.
"To silence the enemy...silently," she said, reciting the Silence Teams' motto.
Blankly Gislain looked at her. Her readiness mocked his doubts, and her willing acceptance and conformity to the Silence Corps's creed confronted him with an unfathomable conundrum. The basic incompatibility of their perspectives made their intimate interdependence during battle all the more ironic and unsettling.
The mental pressure signaling the initiation of the Transformation pushed its way through the barriers of his conscious awareness. Stonily he waited and endured the arid plains of the first stage of linkage. The passage did not take long. The techniques had been well learned during their long hours of intense preparation.
Far too quickly, the time for combat arrived. Without delay, the fragile, telepathic&endash;telekinetic assault by the Transformed group&endash;mind began.
Below the level of the Team mind, Gislain waited tensely for the instant of first contact. He and his companions shared many things while Transformed...but not all. Involuntarily, the dark memory of his dreams billowed up like a menacing storm. In those too-frequent nightmares, he experienced with realistic force the clash of Team mind against Team mind. In that subconcious realm, his Federation warriors had been beaten. Badly. In excruciatingly precise and vivid imagery, he had felt his brain ripped apart, his Team losing all coherence as the relentless blows came faster and faster and...
Unexpectedly, the expanding awareness of the group&endash;mind wavered and faltered.
For a panicky moment, Gislain felt himself slipping away from the Team connection, sliding again into the singularity that would spell their defeat.
Smoothly, the rock steady support of the Sandalian slid under him and halted his fall. Quickly Lehlachen moved in to assist, to buoy him up and draw him back into the close net of the Team.
A long moment passed as Gislain resisted that reaffirmation and integration, his subconscious fighting desperately for the safety of an aloneness he knew no longer existed. Still, he had no choice. Resolutely he shoved aside his concerns and watched his mental tremor slowly subside. Self&endash;doubts lurked more deadly now than any opponent. Though he did not want to kill, he did want to survive...and that required a strong and successful Transformation.
Like vapor coalescing into ice, the Team resolidified. Without comment, the Sandalian arrowed them steadily towards the target. The hemispheric force shield protecting the Consortium communication center loomed close before them. In its stolid fashion, the Sandalian signaled an alert to the waiting coordinator. Once the Team neutralized the generator, the Federation troops would advance.
If they neutralized it.
As they penetrated the perimeter, the Sandalian member of the enemy Team detected their projection. Instantly Gislain and Lehlachen attacked. A few precious seconds would tick by before the other Team could undergo Transformation; seconds that might provide the margin needed for victory.
Though a Team's limited mental range necessitated a close physical approach to the objective, Gislain knew they had little to fear from the installation's garrison. By the time a riposte could be launched from that quarter, the contest between the Teams would be concluded.
The target itself -- the generator -- possessed no moving parts. Disabling one required deft skill. It could be done, though; had to be done if they hoped to capture the outpost.
With speedy control hovering a hair's-breadth from frantic haste, the Gislain&endash;Lehlachen meld probed the generator. Nervous intensity spurred them on as they sought the weak link that meant success. Like a flare in the night, the proper avenue snapped into view. The relief of an easy victory began to wash away Gislain's uneasiness.
The enemy chose that juncture to counterattack.
With the devastating intensity of a blast from an energy cannon, the other Team slammed into the novice intruders. The ferocity and skill of a more experienced power caught the outsiders off&endash;balance and threatened to overwhelm them with the inevitability of a tidal wave. The seams of the Team mind stretched dangerously thin, a gossamer net to be shredded and sent drifting into the void.
Desperately Gislain fought to maintain the link with his comrades. The blinding, fierce pressure of the enemy thwarted his attempts to reestablish a full connection. Where was Lehlachen's strength? Her role was to lead, his to follow; that defined their Team relationship. But she struggled now, almost as battered as he. Her waning mental grasp threatened to leave him alone, naked and exposed to an enemy he desired only to avoid. He had implicitly agreed to support her in whatever she did. He had not agreed to absorb the brunt of the blows himself.
The threads stretched further, thinner, and Gislain found himself foundering like a drowning man, gurgling in a sea of his own life's essence. With a cry of triumph, the enemy Team recognized him as the key to its victory, the weak segment in the chain they hoped to sunder and destroy. Relentlessly it concentrated its efforts on his section of the Team mind.
At that frontal assault, panic flared through Gislain. Pummelled harder and harder, he watched in horrified fascination, knowing that soon the few tattered lines remaining between himself and his Teammates would be severed. Then he would die, horribly and alone.
Vivid nightmare images flashed through his mind in crackling déjà vu. His premonitions had proved all too accurate. Death slid over the horizon in slavering anticipation of his imminent demise. Though he fought to kill only because of the duty impodrf upon him, that made no difference now.
In a distorted mirror image of his dreams, Gislain saw himself failing again; sinking deeper and deeper into the maelstrom of oblivion. Yet another part of him whispered a far different message. That dark pit promised death, yes, but peace nestled there, as well; restful peace and eternal surcease from the doubts, the expectations, the demands of others, and an existence that could only continue to --
With a gigantic mental lurch, Gislain shook himself from the grasp of those black demons clamoring for his submission, for his acceptance of the unavoidable. Frantically he beat at his tormentors, both those dwelling within and those stabbing from without. He would not submit to nightmares of any breed. He would not abandon his Team. More importantly, he would not abandon his self. He refused to die with his throat open and exposed in meek longing for a deliverance from pain.
With the wild energy of a cornered animal, Gislain struck back. Whirling and snapping, he tore in six directions at once, an exploding nova of unleashed ferocity. He would never surrender. Never.
Yet despite his fresh resolve, he could not win out alone. He had to reach...
"Gislain!" Lehlachen's joyous welcome flowed through him like an electric charge. Doggedly she sought to reunite fully with him. With each speeding second, the Team mind strengthened. Eagerly Gislain redoubled the intensity of his attack against the enemy...enemies?...who had endeavored to lure him astray with the siren call of nonexistence.
Suddenly the Consortium Team reversed roles, facing disintegration itself at the hands of a superior Team. The joy of battle surged through Gislain with the invigorating brilliance of a thousand lightning bolts. He wanted nothing more -- and nothing less -- than to destroy them all, to obliterate every trace of the creatures who hungered for his soul, who tried without regret to kill what he was and might become.
Death had brushed its bony fingers across his brow, shrivelling into distorted corpses any concerns with enforced duty or unquestioning loyalty. The encounter with the Consortium doppelgangers had erased forever his self&endash;imposed neutrality. The taste of blood lay heavily in his mind, unsettling yet glorious in the startling intensity of its flavor. Its deep red stain would mark him in a brotherhood more intimate and lasting than even the unity of the Team he now led.
With mad abandon, Gislain propelled his Team forward as no Team member ever had before. Battering, ramming, he exulted in the violent flow of Silent combat. Under that onslaught, the enemy stumbled and fell, doomed never to regain its advantage...or its life.
The human component of the Consortium Team -- a woman -- succumbed first to the determined charge of her enemy. Mercilessly Gislain slashed at the bond joining her to the Team mind. Abruptly, with a fading, high&endash;pitched mental wail, she vanished; her consciousness exploded into shards of dimming, dismaying thought.
With a scream of glory, Gislain yanked his Team onward, reveling in the swelling energy dwarving any he had ever known. He ignored Lehlachen's pleas to leave the others alone. Without their human member, the Anjehnian man and Sandalian presented no threat. But such vulnerability did not deter the force pulsing for expression within Gislain; he would not allow it to do so. He -- and it -- would no longer be denied.
He had been selected and trained for delivering death. He would not disappoint those who had chosen and forced such a fate upon him. He would return full measure and more for the skill and power they had bequeathed him.
The attack became a slaughter. Despite Lehlachen's underlying horror and the efforts of the Sandalian to break free, Gislain refused to withdraw until contact with the defenseless Team ended in a blank wall of delicious death.
Then it was over. He -- they -- had won.
Shining with confidence, Gislain dragged his Team into the heart of the generator. In moments the force shield shimmered and crumpled into nothingness. The destruction he caused would never be repaired. The Federation soldiers would see to that. Seconds after the Sandalian alerted the coordinator, the troops leaped into the air.
The physical battle blazed fierce but short; the enemy garrison was small and lightly armed. Without a shield, it had no hope of matching its opponents. Surrender stood as their wisest option.
When the coordinator relayed the news of the victory to the Sandalian, the alien neuter signaled for the Transformation to end. Shakily, Gislain disengaged, letting the intertwining tendrils of his thought and personality slip away with practiced ease from those of his Teammates.
Instantly, awareness of his surroundings flooded in on him. As that unprecedented fount of energy which had engulfed him gradually faded to barely glowing coals, Gislain sagged against the rock wall. Sweat drenched his uniform. In numb reaction, he closed his eyes. The entire episode had lasted no more than ten minutes. It would be days, however, before they fully recovered from their ordeal.
Sensing a presence, Gislain levered open his eyes. Trembling, Lehlachen stared at him, her perspiration&endash;beaded brow drawn down in bemusement, examining him as though he represented some bizarre, alien thing. Without flinching, he returned her gaze in weary defiance.
Silence grew into a barrier between them. Finally, she shook her head ever so slightly. "Gislain...," she said softly.
Gislain did not respond. Nothing he could say would satisfy her unvoiced questions. The ability and strength he had revealed should not have been. That fire had shone magnitudes brighter than any Team had experienced in the past. Even more unexpected had been his eager and uncharacteristic acceptance of a talent for mastery and conquest. Woodenly he watched his Teammate turn and walk briskly away. Hugging herself tightly, Lehlachen squatted upon a distant rock and sank into a dark reverie.
With detached calm, Gislain wrapped his arms around his knees and drew them close to his chest. As the night poured into and through him, his lids drooped closed on a contemplation of his own.
Eventually Lehlachen would understand. If she did not, though, it mattered little. She had no choice. No avenue for escape short of death existed for her anymore than for him. They would each do their best because they did want to live; because the Silence Wars would continue on with or without them. The only value which mattered, the only certainty to which he could cling was his life...their lives.
The crisp crunch of boots on gravel echoed against the rock walls. Annoyed at the distraction and the interruption, Gislain opened his eyes. As the troop commander stopped before him, the newly blooded Team member tilted back his head.
The major -- Bender, was it? -- fairly glowed in the cold moonlight. Probably no more than ten years Gislain's senior, the steel&endash;gray hair framing Bender's angular face fostered the impression of a maturity beyond his thiry-plusyears...that and a disciplined demeanor hiding visions of witnessing death more varied than Gislain could possibly imagine. None, however, could be as intimate and penetrating as that which the Silent Warrior had so recently inflicted upon foes unseen and physically untouched.
The major's large hands rested on his utility belt.
"Good news!" he said, smiling. "The outpost sustained only minimal damage. We suffered just eleven casualties ourselves. Headquarters sends its congratulations. They estimate that at our current level of action, we should be able to reclaim this dustball for our own in another two months. Soon we'll have this entire sector of space under our control."
Gislain continued to stare in empty silence at the soldier. The major's broad smile faltered and then faded in confusion. Slowly Gislain let his eyes slide to one side.
The Sandalian crouched along the rock wall observing them. It would do whatever was required of it. It did not ask questions. It never had doubts. It also never revealed any of what lurked deep within that alien skull.
And Lehlachen...? What had happened to her comfortable, dependable view of the war? In the next battle, who would lead whom?
Gislain shifted his gaze towards the major.
The soldier glanced, puzzled, from one Team member to the next.
A moment passed as reflections of all that had happened and all that would flitted through Gislain's overloaded mind.
The problem shoving spikes into his brain did not really lie with the Silence Wars. It never had. It huddled like some vicious, snapping vermin within the dusty corridors of his own soul. The Draft and the rest stood as abominations, yes, but had they now been transformed into no more than convenient excuses? He had thought himself a civilized being, protecting his integrity and conscience by remaining forever aloof from the actions forced upon him. No one could hold him responsible for what he had not selected to do. Tonight, however, that pleasant, soothing veil of delusion had been ripped away...and by his own hand. Beneath that thin cover of respectability lurked the savage, snarling animal he had been afraid to face all along; the beast that stared down the destruction and death he abhorred; the carnivore roaring its supremacy as it drowned out that tinny, even more unsettling voice whispering in favor of his extinction, enticing him even now with its false promise of serenity and absolution.
In vain, Gislain shied from that defiant fighter, that part of him refusing to flinch or apologize for saving itself.
Abruptly, he stood, his legs stiff and cramped from tension and stress.
For now, he would merely act. He intended to use his newly-recognized talent as circumstances and his world dictated: ruthlessly, relentlessly, rigorously. Perhaps the pain would fade. If not, he would encase it in a cage no one could ever break. No one.
Gislain laughed; a chuckle at first, then louder. His fear had evaporated, and with it would go the nightmares. Though one of "them" now, his future lay where they could not follow. One day he would have no need of Teammates and Anjehnians and Sandalians. Of that, he was convinced. Tonight the Federation and Consortium had unleashed a creation of their own that would challenge their very existence. And they did not even realize their peril; did not yet know that the old saying, "Be careful of what you ask for because you may get it," applied here in ways they could not even imagine.
As Major Bender stared in obvious concern, Gislain continued laughing. Wetness blurred his vision. He felt safe, though. His secrets would remain his own until the time came to reveal them to the galaxy. He knew he was safe, because in the darkness of the night, no one could see his tears.