“Because,” Third/Half said, claws dripping with hot white gore, “it is too soon in the composition for another major note.”

That left Tenth-Sharp, but like most males in the final submission, he was almost completely paralyzed. Half was able to terminate him with no assistance. Quite easily, in fact. His own now-sure knowledge of coming termination lent him strength along with exultation.

Twelfth/Tenth-Sharp, lying quite dead upon the floor, would dispute no longer. Neither would the other mating pair on the ship, now that dominance was established. Most likely, they would terminate themselves before Third/Half did so. She regarded the bleeding corpses with pleasant excitement. It was good to establish dominance so early in a mission. She had never done so before. Such quick violence stirred the Ekha profoundly.

Half/Third ordered the Anj to release the probes, then the two of them spent a few moments dabbing spangles of white gore upon one another’s face and shoulders. Half was now in full submission, reveling in the ritual. She was sure he would be a superb mate, until her pregnancy allowed her to terminate him. He would exult in his own final rending.

But that was still some time away. It would take several couplings before she could be assured of continuing the Ekha line. For the moment, there was still the menace in the nebula to contend with.


All through the rest of the duty cycle, Half/Third practiced for the approaching moment when they would contribute to the Great Song. They sang their combined notes, so deliciously close, until the ship’s hull vibrated at the frequency of their booming voices. By now, in their own chambers, the last remaining coupling pair would be paralyzed if they had not already rent themselves. Dominance was total. Down in their pit, the little Anj pranced and shouted in rapture.

No other note had come through on the song-claxon, indeed might not for some time, but the spaces between notes were equally meaningful. Out in the blackness of space, Melody ships were hunting the universe for lesser intelligences. The entire ship was poised, ready for their part in advancing the Ekha.

The planetary probes did not return on schedule, which was puzzling. Something, or someone, must have interfered. Third/Half had just sent word to the other four Melody ships to move in closer and assume orbit around the planet when the Anj down in the control pit positively exploded with chirps.

Third/Half leaned over the railing. “What is the meaning of this cacophony?”

“A ship, Great One!” an Anj said, looking up to the pod, while doing its best to stand on its stunted hind legs and utterly failing. Its fellows mobbed it, pulling it down.

“We have five ships, single-brain!” Really, the Anj were so dim, it was a wonder they could even consume nutrients or reproduce.

“Not Melody ship!” the Anj said, struggling back to the top of the slithering pile of bodies. It chittered hysterically in its own language, unable in its distress to communicate sensibly. “Other ship! Other!”

“From the planet?” Third/Half strode over to a screen, but could detect nothing untoward.

“No, Great One,” the Anj said, gaining tenuous control of its inferior self. Its squishy little face contorted with fear as it gazed up to the Conductor’s pod. “From the star!”

Third/Half’s hands reached for the controls and brought up a view of the sun in this system. Were more Melody ships coming to investigate? Irritation surged through the linked pair. They had been given Conductor’s rights in this matter. No one else should be intruding to impose their sensibilities upon the situation.

But that was most certainly not a Melody ship shedding fiery plasma as it emerged from a point locus in the system’s sun. The shape was huge and solidly oval, lacking the characteristic angles of Ekhat construction. It was not a Jao ship either, though there was a hint of their pedestrian esthetics in its flowing lines.

Anticipation of tuneful ecstasy flooded Third/Half. It was so seldom these days that the Melody had the pleasure of destroying a hitherto unsuspected species, and one so relatively advanced! What lovely music she and Half would make while reducing this ship to its constituent atoms!

The monstrously large ship was coming very fast, though, and already maneuvering to fire weapons. Below, in the control pit, the Anj were screaming, fighting one another in their frenzy to bring the Melody ship up to readiness to respond.

One ship against five, Third/Half mused. It would be a woefully short battle, but the note they would contribute afterwards to the Great Song would be magnificent. She would probably be assured of dominance for at least four or five more mating cycles. And already she was one of the oldest females of record.