Chapter 16

Third-Note-Ascending was having trouble integrating with her mate again. Manifesting at a mere half-tone above Third’s own mental signature, Third-and-a-Half-Note-Ascending was keeping his distance so that their mental fields could not properly synchronize. It was a willful act on his part, she was quite sure, not something over which he had no control. Like many males, he was finding the needs of sexual submission unsettling.

The result had been blatant discordance since entering the Conductor’s pod this duty cycle. She could not think well under such circumstances and strongly suspected Half could not think at all.

Without warning, the song-claxon transmitted a note three octaves below her own mental tuning, powerful and pure, lasting six long breaths, a mighty contribution to the Ekha. Somewhere in this sector, an infestation of non-Ekhat sapience had been sterilized from a world. The entire ship, even the serviles, stopped to contemplate the beauty of the moment. The next such note might not come for quite some time. Each musical interlude had to be properly analyzed and savored.

Third did not recognize the singers, but her admiration surged. They were magnificent. She must corral Half and make him submit so that when their opportunity came to contribute to the on-going Melody composition, they would match such brilliance.

Half seemed not to have noticed the splendid performance. He was spidering on his six legs around the ship’s conductor pod like a newling, poking at this, fiddling with that. A possibility existed that she had chosen her mate unwisely. She might have to terminate him, before another of the ship’s mating pairs rose to dominance. She was still reluctant to do so, however. Half had a great deal of promise, to go with his obstreperous nature. It would be tedious to begin anew with another mate. The final result might well be a lesser coupling, which would most likely result in the same outcome of submission to another pair.

Manifesting even a half-tone higher or lower would ruin the composition-in-progress, over time, sending the ship’s Ekhat neuters into paroxysms of disgust and giving either one of the two other mating pairs the surge they needed for dominance. Like all females, Half was intensely aggressive. She would far rather rend her own limbs from her body than have it done for her by a rival.

Third sometimes wondered what her existence would be like had she been one of the far more numerous neuters produced by Ekhat mating pairs. Less anxious, certainly. But there would also be much less in the way of exultation.

Crossing the conductor’s pod, which was suspended high above the control pit, she surveyed sensory input screens scattered across the far wall. The vile dust and gas in the planetary nebula obscured the readings, reflecting beams back upon themselves, slowing down what should have been an easy search for whatever menace lurked here.

Below, small gray and black patterned Anj slithered about in the control pit. Only one quarter the height of an Ekhat, when they stood on their hind legs, they were nevertheless competent with mechanics when not paralyzed with fear. The latter happened all too often, of course. But it had long been Melody policy to breed serviles for fear, accepting the drawbacks. Terror quickened the servile reflexes, alleviated tiresome delays, and left the Ekhat more time for composition.

Something lurking in this area of space had silenced a Melody ship in the not-too-distant past. The lost notes had left a void in the composition presently being conducted in this sector of the galaxy. The remaining ships would have to parcel out the missing tones among themselves and fill in where necessary. A heavy burden. There was no room for error in the Melody. Every note must express itself to perfection or the music that was their life would veer into cacophony, making them as unfit to exist as the Harmonies.

“Are you still examining that ball of rock?” Half said as the two circled one another. “It cannot be the source.”

“Perhaps the True Harmony once harvested here,” Third said, searching for an opening in the other’s mincing gait in order to close. She could feel the electric tingle of his mental field approach and retreat, never quite near enough for the two of them to think effectively in tandem. “It would be like that faction to waste a few random notes here and thus encourage the native sapients to fantasize themselves capable of attaining the Ekha.”

Below, three of the little Anj became agitated, keening to one another in their atonal babble. They slithered over and under one another, squabbling, checking controls, fighting one another to adjust settings. Third noted their discomfort, but did not investigate what had occasioned it. Such matters were not the responsibility of Conductors. She had to keep her coupling’s mind clear for the music that was the divine Ekha — if she could ever force Third-and-a-Half-Note-Ascending to function properly.

Twelfth-Note-Descending entered the pod so that Half had less room to circulate. Twelfth’s mate, Tenth-Sharp-Ascending, followed. Both of them seemed so closely synchronized that even their great red eyes blinked as one. The sight enraged Third when she considered her own shameful state of discord. It frightened her also, of course.

Still, Third and her mate still held the edge of ascendancy, she thought. “What?” she demanded, and was heartened to hear Half’s voice at least speak in modulation with her own.

“Debris, Conductor-of-the-Moment,” Twelfth and Tenth-Sharp said, their voices twining beautifully. “The chemical signatures indicate both Ekhat and Jao, along with Lleix, whom we had thought to be completed long ago.”

“Jao and Lleix,” Third said. This time, Half’s voice lagged behind hers by a good quarter of a beat. The short hairs between her eyes itched. Disgraceful! Had her rivals noticed and been emboldened as a result? They must have!

“Those tuneless rebels infest no worlds in this sector,” she said, desperately trying to make her single brain work out the conundrum of their former serviles partnering with a supposedly extinct species. This time, Half did not even attempt to speak at all, remaining silent as though this discussion did not concern him.

“No, indeed,” said the synced pair of rivals. “So the question becomes why would they venture into this environment with all its inherent dangers, and when did they become allies?”

Half was eyeing Tenth-Sharp, and Third took advantage of his inattention to move in so closely that their bodies brushed. With a sudden surge, their mental fields finally merged and fell into sync. She was no longer just her woefully singular self. She was part of they, and they, each augmenting the other, were much more capable of bold, forceful decisions.

Half’s body took up her confident stance, every movement precisely mirroring Third’s. The two of them spoke together in exquisite modulation. “Send probes to the ball of rock we have detected. Let us listen to the leitmotif playing down there before we extinguish it forever.”

“Is that expenditure of resources necessary?” Twelfth asked. Her tone had a desperate tinge. She too had recognized the full merging of her rival. Her mate Tenth-Sharp stood completely paralyzed. “Why not just destroy the planet and be on our way?”

By the end, her voice was quavering hopelessly. The time had come. As a single organism, the newly synchronized coupling leaped forward. Half wrestled Twelfth into immobility while Third gouged out one of her rival’s eyes. Then, she dug deeply into the brain and severed her former rival’s cerebral tree.