Wings of Thought
I received the news in the spring of 3084, when my world was on the verge of falling apart.
We grew up hearing about it. T'heya-Mharra was the name of the Areihi homeworld. And we were always taught to fear them-Areihi, who could break your mind with a look, who could know all your secrets, who could anticipate your every movement. Your mind, your sanctuary, was nothing to an Areiha, who would sooner violate your final refuge than notice you. They'd rather kick us out of the Consortium of Galactic Races and drive us to extinction than deal with us.
That was the story we were told back when everything was simple. The '60's seemed so far away at this point that it was hard to believe I was only twenty-four. I felt like a few centuries.
I lived in my haven of ignorance until I was told I'd have to spend ninety days with an Areiha. They didn't say that, mind you, they would never say it directly. I gathered that he was some important member of his race. My people wouldn't care to keep him alive, but his would. So for diplomatic purposes, he had to stay that way. They'd never saddle me with such a burden out loud-they wouldn't do it to any decent citizen-but they said as much without saying it outright.
The insidious Kh'anaih plague had decimated several worlds by this point, and there was still no vaccine, not even the sign of one coming in the near future. When Silea was hit by the invading Tkliphir race as they began destroying our industrial resources, there were only a hundred survivors, twenty of which were apparently immune.
They put us in quarantine after the attack. Eighty of us died of Kh'anaih within the week. The rest killed themselves off. I hid in the basement complex.
Silea was a barren wasteland. I'd radioed for help, and received a response. It would be three months until a ship could come pick me up. The Consortium was in such a sorry state that half the foldgates that bridged our sectors were overloaded and indefinitely inoperable. Gods all knew when they'd get crews out to fix them.
I found him when I was looking for uncontaminated food in the abandoned spaceport. He was up in his quarters, which were unlocked. Technically Areihi were allowed safe passage anywhere. Gods all knew why his door was unlocked. Perhaps he'd tried to get out once. Silea was a good place to switch ship or just refuel, but no one stayed for more than a night.
Either way, I could tell he was dying. You didn't have to know anything about aliens to see it-the birdlike bones seemingly about to break through the bluish skin, whose greenish pallor had lightened its color to semi-translucency, the small round mouth half-collapsed, the third eye sunken, its vertical eyelids a sickly greenish color. I had to mention him in my report, and the implication was that this creature had to stay alive. So now I was fending for the both of us-myself and some supermutant freak whose psi rating was off the scale, not to mention the TK ability he was rumored to possess.
Oh yeah-and the ability to sense and manipulate several types of deadly radiation, the electricity-conducting crystals in his bones, the eye that could see aphysical beings (which hopefully included the pests that were screwing with the last remaining generator) ... the list went on. Maybe he could be useful. Maybe he still had the energy to ward khiiyh off the generator's big central crystals. Khiiyh were stray energy-creatures that took up residence in crystals and drained all their power, fracturing them and leaving them useless.
My life just couldn't get better.
The first time I paid attention to him, though, was when he offered.
I came in with the last of the crystal store, which he could draw some energy off of, and the last of the food they had for his kind. It was some kind of opaque liquid swirling with tiny blue, green and orange specks. It looked disgusting to me, like jjhaey poop. So I tried not to look at it as I passed the container and the crystals across to him.
It was the first thing he ever said to me. "Your generator's infested." His voice was a gentle, melodic tenor whistling, with a strange, soft sibilance to it. "The power was flickering again."
"Yeah, I know," I said.
"If you can help me move, I have the power to clear it," he said.
I spent as little time as possible in the creature's presence. He remained suspended on the force-net in his quarters, unreadable and impassive. I was sure he already knew every one of my faults, every one of my insecurities, and that if he wanted I was only another pawn to him. Gods all forbid I had to touch him.
"It's no trouble," he said. "Really. They are only khiiyh, crystal-eaters, but they have no defenses."
"I ..." I began.
"Can't do it?" he chided gently. "If it pleases you, I shall put up a shield. All you need to do is keep the force-net active. We need to stay alive, and we cannot do that with khiiyh in our power supply."
He'd said "our." What was he playing at? He had to be playing at something. Areihi were secretive, paranoid creatures. They neither offered nor accepted help.
But I'd never encountered one. So how could I know?
Moving him was a simple task, not nearly as horrible as I had thought it would be, though I didn't know what I'd expected. He curled up, completely acquiescent, on the force-net, letting me guide it down into the maze of the basement, out into the canyon where the crystals were situated.
I never went out here. I stayed in the compound. Going outside was dangerous. There could be mutants out there, things could have breached the perimeter. There could be crazies, random immunes driven mad in the desolation, or warriors from the deep desert. There were a number of dangerous things out there. Silea was a mining colony. It had never been concerned with luxury. It was never safe here.
I took him over to the generator, which was housed in a low building. The big crystals were safe in their tanks, so I hoped he could reach them from inside. I wasn't going to try to open those, or lower him into one without dropping him in the cushioning liquid and frying him instantly. As nice as it would be to be rid of him, that was a particularly gruesome way to die.
I balanced the force-generator carefully, directing it through the door. The locks were easy enough to bust by now. They hadn't been maintained, and the harsh, corrosive atmosphere helped me here. He was a little less resilient to atmospheric changes than I was, or maybe it was because he was sick. This far north it was blistering cold, and Areihi were technically classed as an avian race, so he didn't take the cold well. Anyone could tell he was molting his bright plumage. There were metallic feathers everywhere in his room, slowly losing their luster beneath the light of Silea's dim sun and weary grey sky.
Inside it was dark and musty and cold as a tomb. It was like a cave in here, and we had to be careful of the walls. This basin was crystal-not good enough to mine, but good enough for the complex. However, no one had wasted time smoothing the walls; they were a mass of small shards ranging from less than a centimeter to nearly six inches long.
I approached the huge, sunken tanks at the center of the room, weaving my way through a mass of pipes. Heavy machinery clung to the walls and climbed into the black depths over which we traversed. He was safe until the force-net upset-I was safe as long as I moved carefully, but I breathed a sigh of relief when we were on the final stretch of catwalk.
"Here," he said when we reached the tank. "My influence should conduct through the fluid surrounding the crystal itself."
Oddly enough, the generation crystals were beautiful. They glowed with a hungry, fierce burning, but their surfaces were a coruscating rainbow of color that made them seem nearly as liquid as the substance they were suspended in. Their light pulsed softly, like a silent, luminescent heartbeat.
He leaned up on the force-net, placing one hand against the tank. He was one of the few creatures so avian who had hands. Most believed they were evolutionary leftovers that had not yet lived out their usefulness. They were flat, with three finger-like appendages, two of which were like insect legs-too long, with too many joints-and the other of which was short and wide and looked oddly unfinished.
There was a momentary interruption in the deep G-chord humming of the generator. It wasn't discordant. A good crystal couldn't be discordant, and the ones here were good to obliviously sing in minor G for a long time, years yet if the khiiyh stayed out of them.
I could never explain what I saw next. It was like watching a shimmer ease out of his hands and into the tank, running like wax from his skin. It was literally no more than a difference in the air. You could see it, but not look at it. You were aware of it, and your brain would translate it to something like sight, but it was a sight I'd never seen and a sense I'd never used. Humans were blissfully mind-blind.
Oh Discord! I thought. If his very proximity has triggered some latent freak talent in me, that'll be it. I'll lose my mind.
He leaned back, clearly exhausted. "That's it," he said, falling back on to the force-net. "It's good until I'm out of range-and by then, you'll have professional help."
He doesn't talk like a freak, I thought. If his voice weren't so odd, he'd sound just like a human. I knew enough about Areihin to realize that its structure was much different from that of Galactic One, which was still the dominant language, even though we were required to know up to Galactic Seven and most knew them up to Thirteen. Fourteen and Fifteen were composed of sign language-and most of us could get by in one or the other-Sixteen and Seventeen of sense-glyphs (some of which most could understand), Eighteen of scent, Nineteen and Twenty of high-frequency sound, Twenty-one of low-frequency. And I didn't know the rest, but there were thirty. His people were more suited to Six, which I knew, so why did he speak in One?
Suddenly, interrupting my questioning train of thought, there was a great sound like a cross between violently escaping steam and ripping cloth-and the entire room went dark, and utterly, coldly silent.