Chapter One

The knife was wet with blood, the handle slippery with it, the huge blade dark and crimson. He was splashed with its color, drenched with its odor. The coppery smell, warm and fresh, filled his nostrils and lungs, exciting him.

There came no warning. Clairsentient experience blasted Aleisha with horrifying abruptness, the great ugly weapon physically somewhere else, yet at the same time up beneath her ribcage, slicing her heart in two.

Tactile experience was always the worst part, the touch and feel of every sensation immersing her right into the action, but clairvoyance and clairaudience gave her sight and hearing, completing the experience for her. Aleisha knew the event was physically remote, but the real-time encounter didn’t feel remote at all. For the duration it was her flesh, her experience.

The knife had punched into the victim, panic slamming the woman, her heart slashed open so quickly that everything washed out. Splashed out. No time to feel the promise of death, no time even for pain.

Aleisha’s own heart pounded, whole and strong, the sensation of death fading. This was not precognition. It was happening in the present, done and too late to stop it. Mercifully, the murder was over quickly, the pulse of shock and terror dissipating almost as quickly as the woman had dropped.

The experience should be finished now. Aleisha’s frown deepened when she realized the connection wasn’t fading, that something else was keeping her there. A strength tugged at her awareness, close to the victim.

Someone was looking at her. Not the killer, someone else. Something else. She could see him clearly now. He wasn’t Terran. He wasn’t Khekarian or Chiddran.

Terrans and Khekarians had just about everything in common and were believed to come from a single source. The Chiddran, also humanoid, were dissimilar and quite distinctive. All were mammal.

This species was something quite different.

Aleisha had no time to reflect on why he should be man-shaped, anthropological evolution was not a concern. He looked in his prime, beautifully muscled in that lean, natural strength sort of way. He appeared to be male. Consciously and subconsciously, a lack of mammary glands meant male and Aleisha adopted the preconceived notion without realizing it.

He looked reptilian to her. He had no hair, no fur, no eyelashes, yet his face was streaked with highlighting that added mammalian warmth and mammalian expression. Aleisha didn’t know what she was seeing.

Clearly of a primitive society, his clothing was a broad strip of cloth, although the drape of material that wrapped between his legs and around his waist was folded and tucked to a meticulous design. It was the color of shadows – he was the color of shadows, an interesting mix of browns and reds and charcoal.

His shoulders were marked, red and black lines forming natural patterning on naked skin. Skin, not scales. She also noticed that while his chest was not so decorated and the muscles looked right, he had no nipples. Whatever he was, he was not a mammal.

What riveted her attention, however, was his face. He was powerfully striking to look at, terrifyingly strange to see. His face was flat and broad with prominent cheekbones and a tight square jaw. His mouth was low and broad, his nose wide, his ears were each nothing but an angled hole with a faint hint of a ridge behind it. Sweeping up and back from his temples to meet across his large rounded cranium, more natural dark streaks displayed prominently, brown and red lines fashioning exotic beauty on soft shades of caramel skin.

His eyes captivated her, the one feature that stole  her breath away. They were large. They were expressive. Soft eyes currently frowning, they did not look reptilian at all. Intelligent eyes, Aleisha thought, eyes with streaks over the lids, giving them natural mascara, eyes with depth and feeling. Cougar eyes. The irises were russet, the vertical slits of his pupils narrow black lines.

It took just a moment to take all this in, a moment to feel awe at his presence, then Aleisha realized why her heart pounded with fear. She was seeing him clearly enough and he was also seeing her, staring at her, which was simply not possible. Aleisha wasn’t present – her perception was, but not her body. She gave him nothing to focus on.

The murderer was still occupied, now lowering himself with the woman’s body, wrapped up in the odor and the color of her life-blood. How could he not notice such a towering presence right beside him?

There was no time to work it out. The alien-native’s stare was fixed on Aleisha and he came forward, moving with sudden purposeful intent, stepping through both corpse and killer. Speeding forward now, he surprised her afresh, literally melting from her view.

Color washed from him first, becoming shades of grey before disappearing altogether, immediately followed by form. Line and shadow faded into nothingness.

The experience ended in that confusion, dropping Aleisha back into physical plane limitations.

Quaking, still leaning forward, a hand over her heart, she blinked,  then breathed deeply, trying to fathom meaning.

What was he, a ghost?

The small bedroom was quiet and still. The bedside light illuminated a cocoon of warm colors. The bed linen was coffee and cream, the draperies red and amber maple leaves, the walls fresh apricot. It was all clean and neat and silent. She was safe here. The room was calm, her psychic experience not impinging upon the atmosphere.

Aleisha closed her eyes, shuddering softly. She had experienced death before, but never a murder and never a killer’s lust.

Disturbed, she rose and headed for the door, then hesitated before opening it, halted by her image in the mirror mounted there. It seemed wrong to look so normal. Her cream nightshirt reached halfway down her slender thighs, her figure small and shapely. Her black hair was still neat in its ponytail, the drape of it showing over one shoulder.

She wiped a sheen of perspiration from her cheek and looked at her hand.

He would be seeing blood, the murderer.

Aleisha mentally searched through the images, trying to filter out meaning, but these people were strangers to her. The killer was huge. Tall huge. Muscle huge. Not a bodybuilder, just big and strong and unstoppable. Somehow linked…

Her thoughts solidified into mental stumbling blocks, toppling her into near panic. She stared into the mirror, horror building in her eyes, appalled at the realization.

No. The murderer could not be linked to her, to where she was heading, to what she was doing here. Yet he was, she knew it even as she fought to deny the possibility.

He was there.

There in the team of strangers she had crossed this part of the galaxy to join, there savoring the opportunities that travel in isolation gave him. There, active and hunting.

Aleisha moved forward, swinging open the door and hurrying into the hall. She needed to talk. She needed Charlie.

Behind her, line and shadow materialized, movement coming through the wall of her bedroom.

Color flooded in, bringing caramel skin and russet markings.

* * *

“Okay, I know I can’t quit, Charlie. I paid a lot of money to come out here. SEAS contributed, or rather Stephen did, and he wants his investment to pay off. Only it’s not going to pay off if I’m dead. But SEAS provides the support system, the link with the Core, I can’t believe they’d think ‘tough luck’ and just leave me in this situation.”

What situation? You had one hell of a nightmare and that’s got you scared, certainly, but that was days ago.”

The Old Man of Cenoth didn’t understand. In frustration, Aleisha heaved the cushion out from under her head and threw it at him.

Charlie caught it as it careened across his desk, but the stacks of papers and files that crowded it were too formidable to be toppled so easily. He frowned at her with false gravity.

Aleisha sighed, She stared up at the ceiling, unhappy and alone in her plight.

“I could have been a tourist,” she announced when Charlie’s attention turned back to his keyboard. “Only, for one, I can’t afford it and, for two, I don’t want just a handful of weeks, I want a lifetime.”

“Good for you.”

“I could be sitting in a hotel room somewhere. I could be contemplating phony thrills and tame excursions into cultivated land. How bloody boring.”

Charlie glanced at his monitor, then hit a button and the printer hummed into life, quickly spitting out a two page form.

“I could have been a pioneer, one of the first to claim a wild world. Only I’m not really trained for that and I don’t have a ship.”

“Not many explorers are seventeen,” Charlie commented passively.

“I could catalogue stuff, though, I could help scientists capture things in their invisible nets. Big things with teeth and claws and voracious appetites.”

“Which would gobble you up in no time flat.” Charlie collected the form and put it aside. He turned back to his computer and called up another one.

“Probably true. You see?” Aleisha rolled and sat up. “This is my best shot, to come after discovery and help establish a world for Terran habitation. I don’t know that Zumaridi counts, though.”

That got Charlie’s full attention, one finger poised over the print button.

“Oi, a hundred years established is not that long. More than ninety-eight percent of the planet is still unexplored, did you know that?”

“Yeah, okay.” She didn’t sound very excited about it. “What does Zumaridi mean? It means something, right?”

“It’s Swahili. Means turquoise.”

“Swahili? Bloody hell.”

“We’re lucky. The explorer who first shunted a Relay out this way and named the planet almost called it after her ship. We might have been called Audacious.” Charlie hit the button and another form slid from the printer.

“Close call, huh.” She offered a grin.

Aleisha was typical of the very young. She had joined Space Exploration And Settlement, SEAS, the moment she was the required sixteen years of age and had been placed with a Terran Registered Advance Construction Team, a TRACT. She was here to join it. It wasn’t at all a bad start, Charlie reflected, TRACTs usually ride the front pioneering wave where their skills were most needed. Their primary role remained construction, building Relays in space and cities on the ground. In some locations, such as on Zumaridi, they made up the road teams that delivered essential stock and machinery across the globe.

“You’re not regretting this TRACT’s occupation, I hope.”

Aleisha thought about it. Moving stock around the countryside by road was basic and slow, but until Relay linked the distant villages and towns by teleport, there was no other choice. Flying was expensive, so it was the road teams that provided the vital network between settlement and settlement, and settlement and city. Anyway, it established roads.

“No,” she answered, then frowned and grew agitated. “How else will I get out there? Are you nuts?”

That earned a familiar chuckle. “Good.”

These teams did more than just crisscross the wilderness, of course. Being originally construction and engineering groups, they handled repairs, performed general maintenance and undertook construction assembly. Some teams supplied medical care. Mostly, though, they were out there by themselves, deep into lonely locations as they travelled.

Aleisha sagged. She supposed psychopaths would find that attractive, too.

“I just wanted this to last a lifetime, not a weekend.”

Charlie exhaled a sigh of mild annoyance. This child had seemed so level-headed when he met her. Excited, young, like a kid on Christmas morning, but sensible, too, a good head on her shoulders. Then came the nightmare and all the joy had gone out of her.

“If there is such a thing as a killer on the loose, what makes you think he will target you?”

“I don’t know. Fear maybe. This knife was, like, huge.”

“Personally, I think it was too much pepperoni on our pizza the night before.”

“Pepperoni?” she queried, her tone sharpening. With nimble grace and a burst of frustration she sprang up, arriving at his desk and landing in one of the chairs opposite him. “That is an insult, Charlie. Did you dream about him, too?”

“Don’t be silly, I don’t suffer from nightmares. Perhaps it was the cheese.”

“I know the difference between clairsentience and cheese! Anyway, I was wide awake.”

“You thought you were wide awake.”

“I know what wide awake is, Charlie. I was wide awake.”

“Not when it began, right?”

Yes, when it began.”

“You dreamt you were awake.”

She glowered at him. “Did I dream that I got out of bed, that I disturbed you and you came to find out what was wrong? We had mugs of hot cocoa, at what point did I really wake up? Wouldn’t I have gotten out of bed twice?”

Charlie tried a scowl of his own. “Okay, Oh Smart One. Why don’t you accept what an old man says and put all this worry behind you.”

“What about the alien-native? Didn’t that confirm the experience to you? They’re real, you said so.”

“I said no such thing! Anyway, you said it was a ghost.”

“And you said they had a reputation for appearing and disappearing.”

“Which doesn’t exactly make them real. They’re a myth.”

“I didn’t know about the myth, Charlie. I know what alien-natives are, generally, every planet boasts them, but I didn’t know about these ones. I thought alien-natives were animals. How could I have known about these ones?”

“Same way as anything else by the sound of it. Telepathy needs only one sender.”

“Was this one sender fantasizing about an alien-native while thinking at the same time about the psychopathic killer? My, how versatile. While we’re at it, how did the sender know what the victim felt? The victim, by the way, was dead by this point, so she wasn’t looking at any alien-native. And nor was the killer!”

Forget the psychopathic killer. Forget the alien-native. And forget the sarcasm, too, thank you very much, I’m too old for it. All I am saying is that you should give Stephen a realistic chance. That’s all. End of story. Don’t let shadows and visions scare you. You’re on a quest, remember?”

“I thought I was on a quest and I was meant to be here, now I’m not so sure. And I shouldn’t have told you!”

“Never mind. Let’s stick with what we know for fact.”

“I don’t know anything for fact,” Aleisha answered sourly.

“I do. I don’t know the man, he’s been here all of six months and most of that time on the road, but I saw his file. Stephen is vastly experienced, he’s not likely to be a raving maniac.”

“I never said it was him.”

“He spent two years working Extension Twelve, which is raw, and thirteen out along the Far Reaches. That’s some feat. Coming here, he’s gone retrograde, against the tide, as it were, coming inward closer to the Core rather than Riding the Wave the way most teams travel. Probably wants to stock up and touch base with civilization. That doesn’t sound like a killer.”

“It doesn’t rule out that he’s got one with him.”

“Whatever. I can’t see a capable man like that putting up with something so out of kilter. He’ll soon be back out there, too. His ship is a Bastion, big mean-looking thing. It’ll be luxurious inside. His is exactly the sort of team you want to join if you want to explore raw galaxy, he knows what he’s doing.”

Aleisha sulked, gazing at him with big eyes, but taking in his experience nevertheless. The old man was Cenoth’s dispatcher. He was known as Supervisor of Import and Trade, a title bestowed upon him by the road teams. Stemming from that fancy heading, he was also irreverently known as the SIT Master, but those sassy enough to call him that were also nimble enough to dodge the attempted clip around the ear that often resulted. It was clear the teams loved him.

Charlie was eighty-one years old, his hair silvery grey and noticeably thinning. He was small in height, out of shape and soft with inactivity, but his character shone with natural good humor. Aleisha felt as drawn to him as everyone else, warm and safe in the company of a favorite grandfather. She wanted him to understand. She wanted him to care.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” she said.

“I’m merely trying to explain something to you. If you go back home needing SEAS help, they will want your return fare paid back. With hefty interest. You don’t want to be in the unenviable situation where you owe SEAS a great deal just because you’re scared. Not to mention sitting back there at home, wondering what the hell got into you and why you ran away.”

“That wasn’t what I had in mind. Okay, so I have to meet Stephen and stay until I can get a transfer. Will he sign a release for me?”

Exasperated, Charlie allowed his arms to free-fly. “Eventually, I should think. Not many want a reluctant crew member. Did you feel this way back home? About this venture?”

“No fair, I was half a galaxy away!”

Charlie returned a bland gaze. “One sixteenth. We’re very small in the scheme of things. Anyway, time and distance don’t matter to psi, that’s the way I understand it. Is your answer the same as no?”

“You can’t expect me to have seen it from there. I know there are those who can look into other planetary systems if they choose to focus in that direction, but I didn’t have a destination to focus on until six weeks ago, and then I was too excited about coming.”

“Child, don’t you think that maybe it is the excitement that’s giving you fears?”

“How? SEAS sent me through the first jump known as The Big Lulu, then I had to wait over a year at E-One.”

“My lord,” Charlie radiated a smile at a rush of old memories. “I’d forgotten the name they’d called it. It reflects not on time of travel, of course, but on distance in light years. There was another.”

“Doing the Doozy Step,” Aleisha supplied. “The first one out to the pioneering hub, Extension One. From there the jumps are shorter, but E-Six is still a long way out from E-One. On this side of the Terran Zone, E-Six is our last fully civilized world. I’ve waited for ages to come out beyond Six.”

It was Relay that made it all possible. It was teleportation on a grand scale. Noetic science had brought forward an understanding of psi that had supplied the crucial advance necessary to allow instant deep space travel. Without that holistic comprehension of how the Universe works, there wouldn’t have developed the sophisticated technology central to true expansion.

“Six is the gateway to the raw places,” Aleisha went on. “Eight’s the most civilized there is from Six, true enough, and Twelve and Fourteen hardly count as anything yet, and the whole of the Far Reaches stretch out from there. Anyway, at E-One they supplied free accommodation until I could be placed. I still had to work and pay for any training myself. Which I did. For over a year.”

“Maybe you picked up on something else. Did you consider that?”

His words produced another moment of reflection. “Not connected to the team at all?” She wondered if that was possible and was momentarily heartened. “Is there a maniac on the loose?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“There’ll be a body.”

“Oh, that’s nice.”

* * *

Thain was hunkered down on the floor, squatting comfortably as he watched the two. He was in the gateway, that space between worlds where he could watch the physical realm and interact with it to some degree without fully entering that level. To those in the room, he was invisible.

From the gateway, he could watch the astral sphere, too, which was an energy place of effects in the making, thoughts taking on form which reached across into the other realms with their influence.

Thain did not understand the melodious sing-song chirp of mammalian communication, but he watched the pretty patterns form around their heads as the old male and the young female spoke together. Some patterns lived but briefly, others lingered and grew, creating future paths for these strange and alien creatures.

The astral impinged upon both the dense physical plane and his own lighter etheric realm where life was as easily influenced by thought and emotion. In either world, the forms and shapes and pretty colors escaped direct observation. If he truly entered this densest sphere, the physical, the pastel thought designs would disappear and these creatures would become plain and mundane, mostly ugly and clumsy to his eye. If he transitioned to his own realm, he again lost the astral pictures and perception of this world, too.

It was the hues and structure of these astral prototypes that informed him most clearly what their communication was about, although some of the imagery was easier to read than others. The travelling group he had accompanied for half a year thought a lot about eating and a lot about mating. It was not offensive, the members being young people full of life and hunger. Some of them thought about mating nearly all the time.

All thoughts presented pictures. Some thoughts were light and brought laughter. Other thoughts were dark and brought menace.

With the endless patience of his kind, Thain observed the emotions in this room as they sparked and drifted in colorful array, pumping out great swathes of tints and form as the two talked, beautiful eddies breaking away into swirls and ribbons, active for a time in their own right before dissipating. The constants stayed. Renewed thought grew stronger, thicker, denser, building up the colors of the aura into often magnificent rainbows of intent and function.

The female creature here was pretty in her colors. Normally her lights were fuzzy, a good thing, but this time they were hard-ridged and vibrant, showing high emotion. She was upset about people, strangers to her. He knew they were strangers because there were no faces to them in her thoughts. The elderly male creature had gentle colors that certainty and maturity brings, his lights showed a delightful haziness which portrayed an openness rare to this age group of this species. His disposition would be pleasant, he would be a kind individual.

Thain’s interest was in the talent of the young one. It was of great importance that he understand her. Any of her kind could perceive him if he entered into their world of dense existence, but this one could observe him inside the gateway, this in-between place they normally could not see at all.

That made her an anomaly.

Yet she could not see him all the time, even though he now occupied the gateway where she had so unmistakably seen him earlier. More than that, she had seen him across a vast distance. Why, then, could she not see him in the same room as herself?

A greater anomaly!

She had perception that opened and shut.

He did not understand the mechanism or the reason for that. All he knew was that she was a threat to his people. He needed to understand the extent of it.

The young one rose from her place and moved out of the room. When she did not return quickly, Thain focused upon her energy and was transferred to where she had gone.

It was a cooking area. He was still squatting comfortably, this time on top of a working surface in the center of the room. He was as content there as anywhere else and remained, watching and listening.

A water-holder was making noises as it came to high temperature and the young one was serving into two drinking holds a measure of brown powder. Thain detected the sweet smell of their special importation and sugars. Chocolate, although he had no word for it. It was a favorite with the mammals.

Thain had never tried it and was unlikely to. He knew they put animal secretion into it.

The old one joined the young one as she filled the holds with steaming water. She carried them to the table.

Their chirpy language continued. It was a pretty sound. The female’s colors were growing calm, the violent activity in the images around her head settling now into more soothing shape and her normal healthy fuzziness was returning.

As she pushed one of the holds towards the male, she presented Thain with an opportunity. He reached out a hand and gently stroked her forearm.

She brushed at the spot without thought, without notice.

She could detect him, then, yet did not know it? Thain’s confusion intensified. How could she not know this?

Communication would need to come at some point. He had watched her at night, but she had not woken to his world. He saw the astral of her dreamscape and when she left her physical body, she slipped away quickly and did not see him at all. This also was strange to him.

If he chose, he could enter her dreamscape and approach her there, but he had not done so. Not yet. He wanted to learn if she could detect him again on her own. If he needed to be forceful, he could also pull her out of her dense physicality, or seek direct answers through merging his soul with hers, but first it was better to merely observe, to enjoy their colors together and to wait and see what she could do.

A container of white liquid was passed from one to the other, the horrible liquid poured into both holds.

It was that secretion from a living animal. Like pus! Eat the muscle, yes, consume the fat and skin and tissue, even blood, but all secretion should be discarded. It was pus of their own kind. Mammal pus! These horrible aliens put it into their food and their drinks.

He knew all about it. Some of it rotted and went quite solid, but they ate it all the same. Disgusting creatures.

*

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