by Leem

The smallish print: interested websites and newsgroups may post this story in its entirety (including this paragraph) with the author's blessing, providing they include his name and make no unauthorised changes.

Note: the alien machines and their unexpected side effects on humans, as described herein, were inspired by Margaret St. Clair's story "Thirsty God" which can be found in Change the Sky and Other Stories (Ace Books, 1974). However, the use I have made of this concept is different from St. Clair's. No plagiarism or copyright infringement is intended or should be inferred.
Edited in HTML using Word '97, with lots of format tweaking. Have fun!

IT would never have happened, Alyssa reflected (on those increasingly rare occasions when she was able to think clearly), if she and Jenette hadn't been so impatient. If only they had avoided that shortcut through the Adumreb Tetrahedron they would have arrived safely on Planet Galatea. Did it really matter that they would have missed Festival? Another five years didn't seem such a long time to wait, considering where their hurry had gotten them. If only... but now, of course, it was far too late to do anything about it.

"LOOK at these figures," Alyssa had said on that fateful day. "I knew we shouldn't have left things to the last minute. I've been checking those navigational readings your genius brother gave us, and it turns out his figures are off by twelve days. Twelve days, Jen! Festival will practically be over by the time we get to Galatea."
Jenette could feel Alyssa's frustration building like a storm cloud. "Are you sure?" she asked. "I could have sworn -"
"Yes, I'm sure," said Alyssa, "and right now I could swear at that idiot Jennoth."
"Hey, come on, don't talk about my brother like that," muttered Jenette "If it hadn't been for Jennoth we'd never have had the creds to hire this ship."
"I could have found someone else to give us the loan for the ship, and a decent navigation computer," growled Alyssa.
It was an old argument, and one that Jenette had little chance of winning. Alyssa and Jennoth were simply two of those people who would never get along. Oil and water.
"I could almost suspect him of doing this deliberately," said Alyssa, "But even he wouldn't be so crass as to ruin Festival for you. Not even to spite me." She sighed. "No, it's just his incompetence that's ruined it for us this time."
Her anger was understandable. Festival was the greatest spectacle in this part of the galaxy. Legend had it that it began as a victory celebration after an ancient war. The war was long forgotten, but the celebration had developed and expanded to encompass practically the whole of human endeavour. Festival was fourteen days and nights of song and dance, theatre, poetry, sporting tournaments, feats of endurance, acrobatics, florronism, storytelling, food and wine, fantastic illusions, light sculptures, zero gravity ballet, dropvaulting... and, of course, the one thing without which Festival would not be Festival: sex! Sex, sex and more sex. Real, virtual, human, android, heterosexual, homosexual and everything in between. Every conceivable taste would be catered for (as well as several inconceivable tastes).
And Jenette and Alyssa were going to miss it.
"Well, at least we'll make it in time for Final Day, won't we?" said Jenette.
"Maybe," Alyssa replied, "but by then all the best places and accommodation will be taken. And so will the best men. We'll probably end up watching Final Day on holovid, and even with full-sense reception that's still no substitute for the real thing."
Jenette sighed. Alyssa was clearly determined to turn this crisis into a major sulk. The fact that both women had telepathic abilities had the potential to make the situation much worse. Their irritation with each other would be transmitted and retransmitted and fed back until, by the time they reached Galatea, the atmosphere on board their small ship would be intolerable. (For that matter, the literal atmosphere would also be quite stale. Because they had not foreseen the extra time, they had not stocked sufficient air recycler filters to last the additional twelve days.) "Look," she said, in the most conciliatory tone she could muster, "are you sure there isn't some way we can make up the time? No wormholes or anything that Jennoth might have missed?"
"Don't you think I've already - ?" snapped Alyssa, then sighed. "All right, I'll check again, but don't hold out too much hope. The only time your brother doesn't make mistakes is when I'm counting on him to make them."
Oh well, thought Jenette, at least re-checking the navigation programs would keep Alyssa occupied for a while. Leaving her friend to her calculations, Jenette took a shower. At least the water recyclers had no shortage of filters.
By the time Jenette returned to the bridge, Alyssa's fury seemed to have abated somewhat. "I think I've got something," she said. "Take a look at this chart."
"You know I'm hopeless at reading navigation charts," said Jenette. "What am I supposed to be looking at?"
"Here. This yellow line represents our course. Here's the Seabright System where we set off, and over here is Galatea."
"All right. So?"
Alyssa sighed. "Look, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, right? But as you can see, our trajectory twists and turns all over the place. Most of those detours are designed to avoid navigational hazards like stars and black holes, but right here there's a wide curve that takes us around a huge region of empty space."
"Wait a minute," said Jenette. "You're not suggesting that Jennoth added an unnecessary detour just to slow us up? You said yourself he wouldn't ruin Festival for me deliberately."
"Well, no, but maybe he thought he was doing it for your own safety."
"What do you mean? You said there are no hazards in that part of space."
"That's right, there aren't," said Alyssa. "Looks like he was just being superstitious."
"Superstitious?" said Jenette. "There's only one 'superstition' I can think of that would be relevant. You're talking about the Adumreb Tetrahedron!"
"Yes," said Alyssa, "the so-called ships' graveyard. The only reason Jennoth routed us around that part of space is that it's on the edge of where the Tetrahedron is supposed to be. If we fly straight through it we'll shave eleven days off our journey and be home for the second day of Festival. We'll miss Opening Day, but we can still catch all the main events." *And all the best men,* she added telepathically, accompanying the words with a suitably risqué image.
"But the danger - " Jenette protested.
"What danger? I told you, it's nothing but superstition. I can't blame Jennoth for wanting to protect you - come to think of it, that's about the only thing I can't blame him for - but there's really nothing to be afraid of."
"I don't know," said Jenette. "What about all those ships that disappeared there?"
"Oh, come on, Jenette. Don't you know that over three thousand ships pass through the region every year and never report the slightest trouble? This whole 'ships' graveyard' thing is just a myth."
"Are you sure? What about the Ocean Gypsy and the Zairbhreena? Those ships were on routine missions inside the Adumreb Tetrahedron, and they vanished without a trace. No wreckage. Nothing. They just stopped transmitting, as if they'd fallen into a black hole."
"Those ships vanished over two hundred years ago," said Alyssa. "Spacecraft were more primitive in those days. Hyperspace technology was in its infancy. There were a million and one things that could have gone wrong. The fact that they both disappeared in the same region of space is just a coincidence. There certainly aren't any black holes in there."
"They weren't the only ships to vanish," said Jenette. "I once scanned a telepathic article on the Galactic Mysteries grapevine site, that said over three hundred ships have vanished there in the past two centuries."
"So that's, what, three ships every two years, out of six thousand? I bet if you looked at any part of the inhabited universe the figures would be the same." Alyssa sighed. "Look, Jen, I promise you that nothing will happen to us if we take this shortcut. We'll arrive on Galatea in plenty of time to see the best of Festival, and we'll sit on the balcony drinking Chivrian cocktails with a couple of good-looking men," (she projected an image of the scene into Jenette's mind), "and we'll laugh at Jennoth for being so superstitious."
"Well... I'm still not sure about this...."
Alyssa sighed once more. "All right, look, we need to decide within forty-three hours if we're going to make the necessary course correction. It's getting late now. Why don't we sleep on it?"
Although they shared sleeping quarters Jenette and Alyssa had separate beds, having never felt the urge to make their friendship a more intimate one. Besides, as Alyssa had pointed out, there would be lots of attractive young men on Galatea during Festival.

YEARS later, Jenette could not recall just how Alyssa had persuaded her to agree to take the shortcut. Perhaps Alyssa was a telepathic influencer and did not realise it. In any case, her powers of persuasion were to have unexpected consequences.
Precisely forty-three hours after their original argument, Alyssa entered the course correction that would take the ship through the Adumreb Tetrahedron, and ten days later they entered the legendary ships' graveyard.
"There," said Alyssa, waving a hand in the direction of the featureless viewscreen. "You see? Nothing. Just empty space."
Jenette was still nervous. "Alyssa, have you ever wondered why it's so empty? I mean, there are no stars or planets for tens of light years. That can't be normal."
Alyssa made an impatient sound. "The matter in this region was probably dispersed by a supernova shock wave millions of years ago. There's nothing supernatural about it.
"Well, I just hope you're right," muttered Jenette, "but I just can't help feeling nervous about it."
Alyssa sighed yet again. She had been over the same argument with Jenette tens of times and had grown profoundly weary of her friend's irrational fears. Even so, she persisted: "Jenette, there is nothing out there. That means there's nothing that can harm us. No asteroids, no black holes, no nasty alien warships bristling with neutron cannon. We are perfectly safe, and we'll be on Galatea before you know it." She leant back in her seat and stretched her arms. "I'm already there in my mind's eye. We're both strolling down Central Promenade with a half-naked asteroid miner on each arm. And I'm sorry to have to break this to you, but my two are a lot better than yours."
"Maybe," Jenette began, "but that's assuming we ever -"
"That's it," snapped Alyssa. "I'm going to the cabin. You can stay here and look at the nothing that's threatening us out there. You can call me if there's any trouble, but you won't, because there won't be any."
Later that night, shortly after Alyssa had turned in, Jenette entered the cabin and began undressing quietly. Good, thought Alyssa, at least she has enough courage to leave the ship on auto. Now we can both get a good night's sleep.
She was wrong.

SHORTLY after midnight, ship time, Jenette and Alyssa were woken by strident alarms. Hastily pulling on some clothes they raced to the bridge.
The region of space ahead of the ship no longer looked placid and empty. The stars in the distance appeared to swirl and dance. It seemed their light was being warped by something in the ship's path - something that could not be seen clearly, but which seemed to be drawing the ship toward it.
"What is it?" cried Jenette. "Is it a black hole?"
"I'm not sure," said Alyssa. "I've never seen anything like it, not even in a training holovid. Hold tight, I'm going to try to reverse away from it."
The ship lurched violently.
"Oh, God," said Jenette. "You know, this reminds me of an old flatscreen vid series from the Dark Ages - the Twentieth Century or thereabouts. There was this ship with a female captain and it got lost and was trying to find its way back home and it seemed like every episode they'd encounter some strange glowing cloud and debate whether they should explore it and every time they did they'd get into trouble and escape by the skin of their teeth and then next time they'd just go and do it all over again - "
*Stop it,* Alyssa projected. *You're getting hysterical. You're rambling.* With an effort, she projected *CALM* at Jenette. *And do try to remember to breathe when you talk.*
The ship lurched once more. "I'm glad I insisted on having seatbelts installed," muttered Alyssa.
"Never mind seatbelts," said Jenette, "couldn't they have fitted some kind of anti-nausea device?"
"Hold on to your dinner if you can," said Alyssa, "I'm going to have another try."
The ship tossed and turned like a leaf in a tornado, but try as she might Alyssa was unable to break the ship free from the anomaly's gravity. Jenette's dinner, by contrast, was doing its very best to escape the gravitational pull of her stomach.
"It's no use," said Alyssa. "We're headed straight for it."
With an almost superhuman effort, Jenette managed to control her nausea. "I knew this was a bad idea," she muttered. "I just knew it."
Alyssa was forced to admit that she was right. There had been something dangerous in the Adumreb Tetrahedron all along. If only she hadn't been so impatient... but all she said to Jenette was, "There'll be plenty of time for recriminations later. If we survive this." The ship lurched once more. Jenette and Alyssa felt as if space were being pulled inside out, themselves along with it...

ALYSSA was woken by the sound of more blaring alarms, and by Jenette yelling in her ear and her mind simultaneously.
*"Lyss! Lyss! Wake up! Wake up, Lyss, we're going to crash! I can't land the ship!"*
For a moment Alyssa was confused. *Land? But there are no planets out he - * But as soon as she looked up and saw what Jenette had seen she was forced to revise her opinion.
There was a planet, and they were headed straight for it. It was already close enough to fill the forward viewscreen.
"Shit," Alyssa muttered. She was already frantically working the controls. "Where the hell did that come from? We're less than a thousand kilometres from its surface. We're already experiencing atmospheric friction. It's too late to pull away. Hold tight, I'm going to try for an emergency landing."
"What do you mean, try?" demanded Jenette. "Don't just try! Land!"
Alyssa did her best. The small ship was buffeted wildly by atmospheric turbulence, and friction produced an alarming red glow in the viewscreen. At the same time the planet's rocky surface was approaching at an alarming rate. Jenette was convinced that they were about to be killed, but although she could not prevent some of her fear from leaking out, she managed to keep silent and allow Alyssa to wrestle with the controls.
After several minutes of this, Alyssa said, "Altitude one thousand metres. I think we're past the worst of it. All I have to do now is find us a landing site."
The ship was still rocking like a wild equinoid, but at least it was flying horizontally. And they were flying by daylight. A pale orange sun was penetrating the clouds. "Look, there," said Jenette, scarcely daring to believe their luck. "Just past those mountains, I thought I saw a flat plain."
"I think you're right," said Alyssa. "Let's take a closer look."
As the ship flew over the mountain ridge, Jenette's observation was confirmed. There was a broad plain stretching for tens of kilometres in every direction, its featureless grey surface broken only by what seemed to be sparse vegetation and a number of small rectangular structures that almost seemed too regular to be natural formations.
"We're safe!" Alyssa exclaimed. "All we have to do is make a nice soft lan - " But even as she spoke, a sudden violent eddy caught the ship and hurled it toward the ground. Fortunately for Jenette and Alyssa, the ship's emergency stasis generator activated, saving them from potentially fatal injury. An omniscient observer would have seen the two women freeze like statues at the controls, remaining rigid and immobile as the ship struck the ground and skidded for hundreds of metres. But they of course knew nothing of this, until the ship came to a standstill and the field was deactivated.
" - ding...?" said Alyssa. For a moment she was confused by the sudden change in their circumstances, but soon figured out what had happened.
So did Jenette. "The stasis field must have come on," she said. "I think we're down."
Some people, thought Alyssa, have an absolute genius for stating the obvious. Biting back a retort, she began to check the ship's systems for damage. "Well," she said after a few moments, "under the circumstances, things could have been worse. The hull's intact, apart from some minor heat damage and some dents. The engines are damaged, which means we won't be going anywhere for a while - "
"What do you mean, a while?" Jenette demanded. "How long exactly?"
"Don't panic," said Alyssa (yet again). "A day or two at most. The self-repair system's already begun to operate. And there's more good news. There's nothing wrong with life support - at least we still seem to be breathing." Jenette seemed unamused by this quip. Alyssa continued. "The sensors aren't damaged. We even landed right side up. Hey, look at that! This planet has a breathable atmosphere! If the bioscans don't show up any harmful organisms we'll be able to refresh our air supply. And if it's got fresh air it's bound to have fresh water as well. I'm telling you, girl, we must have the luck of the devil."
"Maybe, but - " Jenette faltered as Alyssa shot her a withering glance, but pressed on: " - just where in the universe are we?"
"Well, by my calculations we were about six days from the other side of the Tetrahedron, but I can get a more exact fix from the pulsar detector."
Pulsars could be found throughout the galaxy. They were tiny but massive spinning neutron stars, which emitted rapid radio pulses in time with their rotation. Each set of pulses had a characteristic frequency, which meant that pulsars could be used as precise navigational beacons.
"Since we're on the ground we'll only be able to scan above the horizon, a little less than one hemisphere because of the mountains, but that'll be more than enough to give us an accurate fix."
But after a few minutes she muttered, "This is weird."
"What is?" demanded Jenette, who seemed eager to pounce on any tidbit of bad news.
"Just look at these readings."
"Lyss, I can't read the readings, remember? Just tell me what they say. Please?"
Another sigh. "All right. Basically, what they say is that there are no pulsars where they should be, and lots where there shouldn't."
"But that's impossible," Jenette protested.
"You're telling me?" said Alyssa.
"Are you sure the chart hasn't just got turned upside down or something?"
With an effort, Alyssa managed to control her impatience. "Jenette, the first thing the scanner does is rotate the previous set of pulsar readings through three hundred and sixty degrees in every direction in order to find a match with the latest data. The system is as close to infallible as it's possible to get. And what it's telling me right now is that we are not in any known region of space. I don't understand it! How could we lose an entire universe? I mean, you'd think it would be too big to miss!"
"Maybe we didn't lose it," muttered Jenette. "Maybe it lost us."
"What do you mean?"
"That thing that we fell through... I think it was a space warp or something. That's why there were no stars or planets in the Adumreb Tetrahedron. It swallowed them all up. Including this one, I guess. And all those missing ships. And us too."
"So what are you saying?" Asked Alyssa. "That we're in some other part of the universe or something?"
"Either that, or maybe we're in some other universe altogether.
"That's ridiculous."
"Is it? I thought that's what the instruments were telling you. Unless you've got a better theory."
Alyssa had no answer to that. For several minutes neither woman spoke. Jenette sat staring at the viewscreen. There was little to see beside the grey plain. One of the squat rectangular formations stood a few hundred metres from the ship, resembling nothing so much as one of those hideous examples of dark age architecture - a twentieth century office block.
Suppose, Jenette thought, just suppose it really is a building... but that was surely absurd. The planet appeared to exhibit no sign of intelligent life. Even so, she felt a strange curiousity about the object which kept drawing her gaze back toward it. This is ridiculous, she thought. It's just a big square rock. Probably shaped by the wind or something. But still her eyes were drawn to it like iron to a magnet. Finally she turned to Alyssa and said, "Lyss... you said the atmosphere's breathable, right?"
"That's right. It's actually a lot fresher than the crap we're breathing right now. Like I said, if the scanners don't show any harmful life forms I'm going to replenish the onboard air tanks from it."
"Well, in that case," ventured Jenette, "do you think we could go outside? Maybe... explore a little?"
"Now wait a minute," said Alyssa. "I thought you were the cautious one. We don't know what might be out there. After what we've been through already, you're still willing to take that kind of risk?"
"I thought you were the adventurous one," retorted Jenette. "And you're the one who said there wasn't any danger in the Adumreb Tetrahedron, so don't talk to me about caution!"
For a while Alyssa did not reply. Great, thought Jenette, now she'll sulk for an hour. But she was wrong. After some moments staring at the viewscreen, Alyssa muttered, "I could swear that formation out there looked like almost like a building."
"I'd accuse you of changing the subject," said Jenette, "only it's really the same subject. I'd like to take a closer look at that structure. Just suppose it is a building? A real alien artifact, and we could be the first to discover it! Where's your sense of adventure now?"
"Right now my sense of adventure is asking me just what I find so compelling about a rectangular, grey rock."
"Maybe it's because it's the only remotely interesting object out there," muttered Jenette.
"Well, one thing's certain. If it was built by aliens they didn't have much of a flair for decoration."
"Yes, but just suppose it was, Lyss, just suppose. The first concrete evidence of alien life, after humanity has been searching for all these centuries! Can you imagine how rich we'd be? We could buy Festival!"
"Well, don't start counting your fortune yet, Jen. As far as we know it's just a rock."
"So let's go and find out. It's the only way we'll ever know for certain. Please, Lyss?"
Once more Alyssa spent several minutes gazing at the viewscreen. Finally she muttered, "All right. We'll go."
Jenette could scarcely believe her friend's change of heart.
"God knows I'm doing this against my better judgement, but neither of us is going to get any sleep until we find out for certain what that thing is." She could not prevent a stray thought from leaking out: *And if it stops Jen's nagging so much the better.*
Although Jenette caught that, all she said was, "Thanks, Lyss. I promise you won't regret this."
It would not be long before she realised the irony of her words.

WITHIN an hour the two women were trudging across the barren landscape, leaving the business of repairing the ship in the "hands" of its self-maintenance systems. The bioscanners had confirmed that the planet harboured no harmful microorganisms, the temperature was a mild fifteen Celcius and the surface gravity was only eighty-five percent of Galatea's. So the journey of a few hundred metres over flat terrain would hardly be a strenuous one. Casually dressed and wearing sturdy boots they proceeded toward the rectangular formation. As they approached it it remained as grey and featureless as it had from the ship, but they felt a subtle yet irresistible compulsion to inspect it more closely. Yet when they arrived at the object they could find no sign of intelligent construction. To all intents and purposes it was just a rock formation. Profoundly disappointed, Alyssa was about to suggest returning to the ship when she felt Jenette's mental cry: *Over here, Lyss! I've found something!*
It was an opening. Tall, perfectly rectangular and located in the exact centre of the broad grey wall, it could not possibly have been the result of natural erosion.
"My God," said Alyssa. "You were right. It's a pity we couldn't find something a bit more impressive, but it's definitely artificial and it's not human. As soon as the ship's fixed and we've found our way back to our own part of space, we'll have to report this to the nearest Science Foundation bureau... hey, wait! Where are you going?"
*Inside, where else?* projected Jenette. *That's why I brought a biolamp. I figured if we were going to investigate a squillion year old alien building, we might find they hadn't left the light on.*
By this time Jenette was already inside. Alyssa saw no choice but to follow and try to keep her out of mischief.
The inside of the formation - or building, as they must now call it - was almost as featureless as the exterior, but the biolamp showed up faintly coloured geometric markings on the otherwise featureless walls.
"Not much of an artifact," muttered Alyssa.
"I can still sense something about it, though," said Jenette.
"Yeah, me too. I could have sworn we'd find something in here. I don't know why, I just had this - "
" - Feeling. Yes, I had it too. Well, maybe there is something here, but underground. There could be lots of chambers beneath this one."
As it happened, she was quite right. In fact, at that moment strange machines were stirring far beneath their feet. They had been observing the ship ever since it began its approach to the planet. For centuries they had awaited the return of their masters, and although Jenette and Alyssa were of the wrong species the machines had no way of knowing that. As soon as the ship landed, they had turned on their telepathic beacon. To the original builders of the mysterious edifice the beacon was simply a directional signal, but upon Jenette and Alyssa it produced a subtle but ultimately irresistible compulsion.
And so they had come. And the devices beneath the floor were prepared to go to work on them.
Once they were certain that their occupants had come to stay, the machines began to emit another telepathic signal, one that worked exactly as it was designed to do. Alyssa just had time to see Jenette slump to the floor, the biolamp falling at her side, before she too fell unconscious.
Once both humans were completely dormant the machines began to scan their bodies. It had been a great many years since they last had a subject to work on, but they had no sense of time. Jenette and Alyssa were not quite what the machines were used to, but after pondering the matter for some while they decided that they fell within the range of acceptable variation. After a brief pause the scanners transferred their biological data to the building's processing mechanisms, which set to work with mechanical efficiency. A few hours later, their tasks completed, the processors - perhaps feeling a certain mechanical satisfaction for a job well done - shut themselves down. The process was of course never designed to work on humans, but by the time the women realised the. full extent of its side effects it would be far too late to do anything about them

JENETTE woke feeling stiff and dehydrated. She regretted not bringing any water with her. She must have been lying on the hard stone floor for hours. The biolamp was still lit, lying on the floor where it had fallen. Nearby, Alyssa was also stirring. When Jenette sat up her clothing felt strangely tight, and her boots were hurting her feet. Then she noticed her hands. Her sleeves were several centimetres above her wrists, but that was not the most astonishing thing she saw. *Lyss!* she projected urgently. *Lyss, wake up! Something strange is happening!*
Alyssa was instantly awake. "What's wrong?" she said. "Hey, why are my clothes so tigh - " Then she saw Jenette, and could only stare in astonishment. "My God, Jen! You've turned blue!"
"I know. So have you."
It was true. Their hands and faces, even their hair and fingernails, had turned a uniform shade of aquamarine. Only their eyes were unaffected. "This is impossible," said Alyssa. "Hair and nails are dead tissue. Even if something changed our skin pigmentation somehow, our hair and fingernails wouldn't have been affected. We must have been drugged or something. We're hallucinating."
"I don't know about that," said Jenette. "You seem as lucid as ever."
"You want lucid? All right. We're leaving. Right now!" And with that Alyssa leapt to her feet. There was a sound of tearing cloth, then a sickening thud as her head struck the stone ceiling.
When Alyssa came to once more the first thing she saw was Jenette's blue face hovering above her own. "Good, you're awake," said Jenette. "Don't try to get up yet. You hit your head on the ceiling."
"But the ceiling's more than two metres high," muttered Alyssa.
"Well, so are you now. And me. I can't explain it, but somehow while we were unconscious we turned into... blue giants. And you thought a blue giant was a kind of star, right?"
"You shouldn't joke about this. We have no way to tell the full extent of these changes. They might be dangerous. We should get back to the ship right away and take a full medscan."
"All right, but you should rest a bit before you try to move. That was a bad bump." Jenette put a hand to Alyssa's forehead. "That's strange," she muttered. "There's no lump there. Does it hurt?"
"Now that you mention it, no. This is getting weirder and weirder."
"Maybe blue giants just heal fast," said Jenette.
As she sat back, Alyssa noticed for the first time that Jenette was bare-breasted. "Jen, why are you... why are we naked?"
"My clothes were too tight, and my boots were killing me. I figured yours must be too. Anyway, you needed a pillow and your clothes were ideal for the job. We can wrap them around us if we need to, just until we get back to the ship..." she broke off as a spasm crossed her face.
"What's wrong?" cried Alyssa. "Are you in pain?"
"Oh... God!... no," gasped Jenette. "Just the opposite. I just suddenly.. felt... incredibly... horny!" By way of demonstration, Jenette had begun to stroke her clitoris. And even as Jenette had spoken Alyssa realised she was also becoming aroused. Sensuously; intensely; irresistibly.
All thought of danger forgotten, they could do nothing but pleasure themselves. As time went on, their ardour only increased. No matter how intense their orgasms, they still needed more. After a while they began to share their sensations telepathically, but in the end the only thing that could satisfy their aching need was physical contact. And so, although neither of them had ever had sex with a woman before, Jenette and Alyssa found themselves making frenzied love to each other. For hours their passion grew, their orgasms becoming more frequent and intense until they seemed to blend into a single continuous blaze of ecstasy. They could no longer think, and could scarcely move except to stimulate each other. Home, Festival, the Adumreb Tetrahedron, alien artifacts... all were forgotten. The only thing they wanted was for their orgasm to last forever. But even blue giants do not have unlimited sexual energy, and eventually their fiery rapture faded into the embers of unconsciousness.
While the women slept, alien substances continued to course through their bloodstreams, reacting with the huge dose of sexual hormones they had inadvertently triggered and causing further physiological alterations.

HEIGHTENED sexual desire was a side effect that would have surprised the designers of the biological processors. Countless millennia before, their species had sought a new home, having almost destroyed the original. But the best they could find was only marginally suitable for them. It was colder and dryer and received far less health-giving ultraviolet. Any colonists would be horribly uncomfortable and their lives would be short. Fortunately for them, their technology provided a solution. If they could not find a planet with a better climate, they would adapt themselves to suit this planet's. After some years of research an automated process was developed which would adapt the colonists to their new environment, right down to the genetic level so their offspring would also be suited to the planet's climate. It was not long before colonists began filtering through the biological acclimation plants that had been set up on one of the colony's less hospitable continents. The grateful colonists raised a small and fairly cheap memorial to the volunteers (at least, their government claimed they were volunteers) who had been horribly killed or crippled during the research phase. Then, leaving the automated plants to their fate, they rebuilt their technology and began to do to their new world what they had done to the old.
It was one of their research projects - a failed attempt to create a new type of hyperdrive - that resulted in their planet's entire solar system, along with a few hundred thousand others, being swallowed up by a rift in space. In the upheaval much of their technology was destroyed, and though they did their best to rebuild, an alarming fact soon emerged: they were beginning to forget how their forefathers' technology worked. An unexpected side effect of the acclimation process was that each new generation was slightly less intelligent than the last. When they realised this they tried desperately to reverse the trend, but to no avail. Within another thousand years their entire species had reverted to tribalism.
Meanwhile the processing plants continued to wait patiently for new visitors. And eventually, through the rift in space, the visitors arrived.

JENETTE and Alyssa woke in each other's arms, lying side by side and face to face, feeling relaxed and euphoric. Their arousal had finally faded, though their hands were still in each other's vaginas. *Quite a night, wasn't it, blue girl?* projected Jenette.
*That's an understatement,* Alyssa replied. *It was a lot of fun, but we've really got to get back to the ship. The medcomp can figure out what's happening to us and maybe even reverse the process.*
*Why bother to reverse it? Can't you imagine the impact a pair of horny blue giantesses would have on Festival?* She tried to sit up. *Oh. God, I'm stiff. We've been lying on this hard floor for too long.*
Then she tried to move again, and so did Alyssa.
*Oh, my God,* projected Jenette. *I'm not just stiff! I can't move my legs! I can't move my arms! I can't move anything! I'm paralysed! I'm paralysed! HELP ME!*
*Jen... I can't help you. I can't move either.*
*What are you 'talking' about? This is no time to fool around! I really need help here!*
*Jenette,* Alyssa projected as earnestly as she could, *I'm not fooling around. I really can't move. We both turned blue. We both got bigger. We both got horny. And now, God help us, we're both paralysed.*
She waited a moment while Jenette absorbed this. Jenette projected, *Maybe... maybe it's just temporary, like the arousal we felt. Maybe it'll wear off in a few hours. It can't be permanent, can it, Lyss? It can't!!!*
Alyssa realised that Jenette was in denial. *Jen,* she thought, *I think this is what happened to all the other crews that disappeared in the Tetrahedron. They never returned because they couldn't move. I'm sorry, Jen, but I'm afraid it is permanent.*
When Jenette finally replied, her thoughts were bleak. *So we're trapped, aren't we? We're just going to lie here until we die of thirst or starvation. Oh God, I'm sorry, Lyss. I should never have insisted on coming here.* She wanted to burst into tears, but couldn't even do that.
Alyssa gave the mental equivalent of a sigh. *Hey, if anyone's to blame it's me. I was the one who wanted to take that shortcut through the Tetrahedron.*
*I guess it doesn't really matter who's to blame,* Jenette replied. *There's nothing we can do about it, so there's no point in recriminations.*
*Maybe it's nobody's fault,* projected Alyssa. *I felt as if I was being drawn here somehow. Maybe this place was designed to lure people here and trap them*
*But why?* asked Jenette. *And who or what would want to do anything like that?*
*I don't know. I just wish I knew what happened to the other people who came here. We didn't find any bodies here.*
*That doesn't prove anything. There are lots of these buildings scattered around this plain. The other crews might be lying in them.*
For a long while neither of them had any further comment. They continued to send commands to their muscles, but there was never the slightest response.
After a long while a thought occurred to Jenette. *Lyss,* she projected, *do you feel thirsty?*
*No, I don't. Strange. It's been hours since I drank anything. You too?*
*I remember now. I was feeling thirsty when I woke up the first time, in fact I was almost dying for a drink. But now I don't.*
*And you don't feel hungry either?* asked Alyssa. *It's been hours since we last ate as well.*
*No, I don't. What does it mean, Lyss?*
*Well... maybe it means we won't die of hunger or thirst. Maybe something's keeping us alive without needing food or water.*
Jenette thought about this for several moments. *Does that mean we'll just lie here paralysed for the rest of our lives?* she projected.
*You know, technically speaking, we're paretic rather than paralysed, since we can still feel...*Alyssa sent.
*Who cares what it's called?* Jenette retorted. *Being able to feel only makes it worse. We could be trapped here forever. Oh, God. That would be worse than being dead. It's just like being dead, except that we're able to experience it!*
*I can't believe it could end like this,* Alyssa replied.
In fact, she was right. Their adventure was far from over.

AS it turned out, Jenette and Alyssa were not the only beings who had sensed the artifact's telepathic beacon. It had also been felt by the local residents. The signal was a rare occurrence, and they knew that whenever they felt it, it meant something special had happened. And so they set out to follow the beacon to its source. (Their bodies would be of no interest to the building's processing system, since they carried the genes of those who had already been processed.)
Several hours had passed, and in their state of sensory semi-deprivation the women had fallen into a kind of trance. They were awakened by a noise at the chamber entrance. Reflexively, they both tried to leap up, only to be cruelly reminded of their frozen condition. *Lyss, what is it? Who's there? I can't see.* projected Jenette.
*I don't know,* Alyssa replied. *I can't see either. I just hope to God whatever it is isn't hostile.*
After a moment, they became aware that someone, or something, was leaning over them. It seemed quite short, even allowing for the fact that the women had grown. Neither woman could see the creature clearly as they could not turn to look, but in the corners of their eyes it appeared somewhat humanoid. That didn't necessarily make it intelligent, of course.... The creature and its fellows chattered excitedly for a few moments. Then Jenette and Alyssa felt the creatures' hands - or paws - touching and stroking them all over, a sensation that was both disturbing and arousing.
*Oh, God,* thought Jenette, *you don't suppose they're going to rape us, do you?*
*Actually, I was afraid they might want to eat us,* replied Alyssa.
*I just hope you're joking, Lyss. Hey, you! Aliens! Can you hear me? Hello!*
If the creatures were able to receive Jenette's thoughts they gave no sign of it. Instead they broke off their pawing and began to dance around the women, chanting rhythmically.
*No use trying telepathy on them,* projected Alyssa. *They're obviously far too primitive.* She could not have guessed, of course, that the creatures were the descendants of a highly advanced technological species. It was a fact that they themselves had long since forgotten.
*Now what are they doing?*
*Maybe they're preparing to sacrifice us to their gods.*
Jenette had a thought. *Maybe they think we are the gods. After all, we came from the sky, didn't we?*
*Right. And now we've been "miraculously" transformed into living idols. After all, what could be better from a priest's point of view than a god who just sits there and can't answer back?*
*God, now where are they taking us?*
The creatures had stopped dancing and were lifting Jenette and Alyssa onto their shoulders like pallbearers. (For the first time in hours their hands slid out of each others' genitals, resulting in a mild, and unfulfillable, sexual arousal.) There were at least eight of the creatures, four to each woman, and they continued to chatter excitedly as they turned the women face up, supporting their arms, legs and shoulders, and carried them feet first through the doorway into the hazy red sunlight. Their clothing and biolamp were left behind, suggesting that the creatures had no curiosity about them. The women's heads slumped backward, giving them an upside down view of where they had just been. As their bearers turned past the corner of the stone edifice, they could see their ship less than five hundred metres away. It must have finished repairing itself and replenishing its air supply by now, and would be patiently awaiting the return of its crew....

FOR hours the helpless women were carried across the featureless grey plain by the small aliens. From time to time their - what could they call them? Captors? Worshippers? - would stop, setting their burdens down gently, so they could eat and drink. (The humans continued to feel neither hunger nor thirst. This almost certainly confirmed Alyssa's theory that something else was sustaining them.) Lying face-up, Jenette and Alyssa were able to get a better look at them. In the course of several such stops they were able to build up a detailed picture of the aliens. They seemed to be about 130 centimetres tall (compared to the women, and assuming that they had grown to about 210 centimetres). They were certainly humanoid in form, possessing two short, powerful legs supporting barrel-like torsos, two long arms with what appeared to be two elbows apiece, and hands with three long fingers and what seemed to be two thumbs, one on each side of the palm. They wore no clothing, and the fine brown fur that covered their bodies did nothing to conceal their large, human-like genitalia. There were both males and females in the group, and the females also boasted big, pendulous breasts. The aliens' faces had ferocious looking, elongated jaws with masses of small, sharp teeth. But their large slanted eyes, although not appearing very intelligent, did seem to display emotions other than mere savagery. Or at least so the women profoundly hoped.
Somehow, in this arid landscape the aliens managed to locate small streams from which to drink. They ate what appeared to be strips of dried meat, taken from shoulder pouches that looked like leather. This suggested that there were large animals somewhere on this continent although the women had not seen any. At any rate, the fact that they apparently had plenty of meat was a possibly reassuring sign. Whatever they wanted the women for, it probably wasn't as food.
As the day wore on, a cold drizzle began to fall. To the women it was like a subtle, exquisite form of water torture. *Where do you suppose they're taking us?* Jenette asked, as the creatures - seemingly unconcerned by the rain - carried them on into the deepening twilight.*
*No way of knowing,* Alyssa replied, *but I just hope it's somewhere warm and sheltered. Right now I'd settle for a nice dry cave.*
As the night wore on the drizzle became colder and more persistent, eventually turning to sleet. Apparently oblivious to the cold and damp, the aliens marched onward with their living cargo. Jenette and Alyssa were afraid they might freeze to death. But would death really be less preferable than continued existence in this state?
As dawn finally began to break the sleet eased off a little, and in the dim light the women began to discern what seemed to be buildings, or what might once have been buildings. It seemed to be the ruin of an ancient city. A little later they found themselves being carried through a grey stone tunnel. When they emerged from the other end they seemed to be in a stadium or amphitheatre of some kind. Several circular tiers surrounded a huge stone arena that was open to the sky. On the far side of the arena a number of the aliens were engaged in what might have been wrestling or a mating orgy.
*Look, Jen!* Alyssa projected. *Do you see what I see?*
The terraces surrounding the arena contained upright oval niches at regular intervals, many of which appeared to contain blue figures.
*My God! Do you think they're other survivors, like us?* thought Jenette.
*If you call this surviving,* replied Alyssa. *Hello! Can you receive me? My name's Alyssa and this is Jenette. Please talk to us!*
By way of reply, the women received lots of confused sensory impressions, many of them erotic, but no coherent thoughts. At least one thing was certain: they were human.
*Why can't they reply more clearly?* sent Jenette.
*Maybe they've gone insane from being paretic for so long,* replied Alyssa.
*Oh, you're a great comfort,* Jenette retorted.
After a brief rest their bearers picked up the women once more and carried them upward past the lower terraces. When they reached the fifth level they set the women down again for a few moments. For once they were seated in an upright position with their backs against a pillar. Jenette found herself facing one of the niches. What she saw there astonished her. *Lyss! Look at this through my eyes!* she projected.
The blue figure that sat paralysed in the niche was not human, nor was it one of the natives. It was a tall, graceful and beautiful creature with long, slender arms and legs, an angelic face with large, cat-like eyes and fine blue hair that fell below its shoulders. Upon its forehead was a circlet, which bore a small, glowing jewel. It was impossible to tell what colour the creature had been originally, but Jenette could not help but imagine that its skin and hair had been golden. It had a pair of small, pert breasts with prominent nipples, but astonishingly it also had a long, narrow penis that stood throbbing and erect. A species in which the males suckled their young, perhaps? Its green eyes scanned Jenette's body with quiet interest. *Can you receive me?* Jenette projected. *I'm sure you must be intelligent. Can you tell me who you are and where you're from?* The creature closed its eyes for a moment, then stared intently at Jenette. She seemed to feel its thoughts reaching out, but frustratingly could make no sense of them. She tried linking minds with Alyssa, but no matter how they, and the alien, tried they could not communicate. *I'm sorry,* thought Jenette finally. *I know you want to talk to us, and we'd love to talk to you. I don't know if you can understand me, but I'm sorry this had to happen to you. You're very beautiful, at least in our eyes.* The alien closed its eyes again as if in acknowledgement. Perhaps it did understand. And then the natives came and carried the women off again.
A few minutes later they found themselves set down again before a pair of empty niches, which presumably were to become their new homes. At least, thought Jenette, the overhanging tops of the niches would keep the rain off unless the wind was blowing toward them. Chattering excitedly, their bearers departed.
Next to the vacant niches was one whose occupant certainly was human, an attractive young woman who appeared to be in her mid-twenties. She also had a glowing crystal fastened to her forehead. Her eyes stared fixedly ahead, and she seemed not to notice the new arrivals. Her nipples stood firm and erect, as if she were sexually aroused. *Can you hear me?* projected Jenette.
At that moment the crystal upon the woman's forehead faded and took on the appearance of dull glass. *Ohhh,* she projected. *They've... they've stopped. For... a while. So... hard to... think while they're....* For the first time her eyes moved, and she gave a long, pitying look at Jenette and Alyssa. *So it's still... happening. It got... you too... I guess... it'll... never stop... trapping... people. I'm... so sorry... for you. You know... you'll stay alive without... needing food or... water, don't you? You won't urinate... defecate or... menstruate either. It's almost like... we've been turned into... plants that can... live on... air and atmospheric... moisture alone.*
*Can you tell us your name?* asked Alyssa. *I'm Alyssa, and this is Jenette.*
*I'm... Jade. Jade... Schreiber. I was Chief... Clerk aboard the... Zair... Zairbhreen...a.*
Jenette was astonished. *But that's impossible,* she projected. *Unless there were two ships with that name... Jade, can you remember what year you set out?*
*Yes... I think so... it's hard to... remember sometimes, but... yes, it was... Galactic Era... 1049.*
*Oh, my God,* sent Alyssa. *Jade, it's currently GE 1267! If what you're saying is true, you've been in this condition for more than two hundred years!*
*Two... hundred?... No, that can't be... hard to tell... how long, but... I kept telling myself... it couldn't last... forever... that I was... old and... someday I'd die... and be freed.... Two... hundred?*
The shock in Jade's eyes was tragic to behold. *Jade,* projected Jenette, as gently as she could, *How... how old were you?*
*The day... we got pulled into that... cloud, or whatever... it was... was ten days... after my sixty... fifth birthday. I was... looking forward... to my first... rejuve treatment... when we... got home.*
*Jade, I don't know how to tell you this,* thought Jenette, *but something has rejuvenated you. You don't look a day over twenty-five. And even after being paralysed for all this time, your muscles are still firm.*
Jade gave a humourless mental laugh. *What's... the use of... having perfect muscles... if... you can... never use them?*
That was ironic, thought Alyssa to herself. And there was another irony. The victims of the Adumreb Tetrahedron had received a genuine immortality treatment, and no one back home would ever know about it.
*But if... what you're saying... is true... then there... really is no... escape, not even... death. We're... trapped here... forever.... It will... never... end... they'll... just go on... using... us.*
*Using us for what?* demanded Alyssa.
*Why... sex, of course.* Jade replied. *You see... this jewel I'm... wearing. All of us... have them. They're... some kind of... empathic amplifier... attuned to the... native's sexual... responses. Don't know... where they... found them. Ancient... technology, I guess...like the... things that altered... us. We... feel the natives'... sexual... sensations... and the... jewels... feed them back... and amplify... them until... it's almost... agony. The men... have been... altered somehow... they have... permanent... erections, you know... they... can't ejaculate, but... they always have... multiple orgasms. Like the... women. There are... others here too... aliens... not sure if they're... male or... female... hermaphrodites, maybe...*
*Yes, we saw one of those,* projected Jenette.
*Right. And the more... of us... humans and... aliens there are... in the... niches the... more intense...it gets... for the... natives. We're like gods... to them... and... groups of them... take it in... shifts to... worship us... sexually. Day and... night. They perform every kind of... sexual act... you can... imagine, and we... can feel... every single... touch. Everything. It never stops, except... for a short... while... like now. They're probably just... waiting until... your jewels are... prepared.*
Sure enough, after a few more minutes the aliens returned with a pair of the jewelled circlets. Picking up Alyssa and Jenette, they carefully positioned them within their niches. The stone was shockingly cold against their bare skin, but they could not even flinch. The aliens posed them like mannequins, facing forward with their arms by their sides. Then they placed the jewelled torcs upon their heads, making sure the jewels were in contact with their foreheads. One of them placed a hand upon Jenette's breast and squawked something that might have been either obscene or reverent, before being called away by its fellows.
Down in the arena the women could see a group of perhaps forty aliens, looking like ants from this distance, standing around in anticipation. Another alien, which might have been one of the party that had brought Jenette and Alyssa, walked over to them and gestured, then walked into the centre of the group. The aliens set up a shrill wailing that was probably their equivalent of a cheer. The next moment they set about caressing, copulating, fellating, masturbating and buggering each other with gusto.
The exact details of what they were doing could not be seen, but just as Jade had warned them, Alyssa and Jenette could feel everything they felt. Compared to this, the sexual arousal they had felt back at the alien building was like a candle next to a forest fire. It almost felt as if they were on fire. The aliens reached orgasm quickly, but were capable of frequent re-arousal. Their short but intense climaxes came so often they usually overlapped, producing a continuous wave of ecstasy that would never break. The aliens' sensations were amplified a thousandfold by the telepathic crystals, received and re-experienced by the humans and other paralysed spectators, then fed back to the aliens and amplified again and again until they were too intense to bear. Yet there was nothing the spectators could do except bear them.
Oh, God, thought Alyssa, wishing she could scream with ecstasy, if only I hadn't taken that short cut. If only I'd followed Jennoth's advice just for once....
And then for a very long time she could think of nothing at all.

The End ...?

The smallish print continued: will our heroines ever escape? Will the human and alien captives ever be freed from their sexual bondage? Will the human race make contact with the hermaphroditic aliens? Will humanity ever learn the secret of immortality?

Um... good questions... anyone got any ideas???

Acknowledgements: special thanks to Cobalt Jade (http://members.aol.com/cobaltjade/CJhome.html), author of The Tale of Lassok and Zairbhreena, for kind permission to name a starship the Zairbhreena. In honour of this, I named one of my characters Jade Schreiber ("Schreiber" = "Writer", geddit?)

While we're on the subject of names, the Seabright System is named after Margaret St. Clair's pseudonym "Idris Seabright", and Galatea is of course named after the statue that the sculptor Pygmalion brought to life (with a little help from the goddess Venus).  As for the Adumreb Tetrahedron, that should be obvious... shouldn't it?!

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