by Leem

This story, in case you hadn't noticed, is a gender-reversed version of Flotsam.
After all, why should girls have all the fun of being immobilised?

The basic plot was inspired by Margaret St. Clair's 1953 story "Thirsty God".
The name Zairbhreena is used by kind permission of Cobalt Jade.

Composed and edited in Word 97 and Word 2000.

IT would never have happened, Alainn reflected (on those increasingly rare occasions when he was able to think clearly), if he and Jenarr 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," Alainn 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 sister gave us, and it turns out her figures are off by twelve days. Twelve days, Jen! Festival will practically be over by the time we get to Galatea."

Jenarr could feel Alainn's frustration building like a storm cloud. "Are you sure?" he asked. "I could have sworn -"

"Yes, I'm sure," said Alainn, "and right now I could swear at that idiot Jilarra."

"Hey, come on, don't talk about my sister like that," muttered Jenarr "If it hadn't been for Jilarra 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 Alainn.

It was an old argument, and one that Jenarr had little chance of winning. Alainn and Jilarra were simply two of those people who would never get along. Oil and water.

"I could almost suspect her of doing this deliberately," said Alainn, "But even she wouldn't be so crass as to ruin Festival for you. Not even to spite me." He sighed. "No, it's just her incompetence that's ruined it for us this time."

His 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 Jenarr and Alainn were going to miss it.

"Well, at least we'll make it in time for Final Day, won't we?" said Jenarr.

"Maybe," Alainn replied, "but by then all the best places and accommodation will be taken. And so will the best women. 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."

Jenarr sighed. Alainn was clearly determined to turn this crisis into a major sulk. The fact that both men had telepathic abilities only 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," he said, in the most conciliatory tone he could muster, "are you sure there isn't some way we can make up the time? No wormholes or anything that Jilarra might have missed?"

"Don't you think I've already - ?" snapped Alainn, then sighed. "All right, I'll check again, but don't hold out too much hope. The only time your sister doesn't make mistakes is when I'm counting on her to make them."

Oh well, thought Jenarr, at least re-checking the navigation programs would keep Alainn occupied for a while. Leaving his friend to his calculations, Jenarr took a shower. At least the water recyclers had no shortage of filters.

By the time Jenarr returned to the bridge, Alainn's fury seemed to have abated somewhat. "I think I've got something," he said. "Take a look at this chart."

"You know I'm hopeless at reading navigation charts," said Jenarr. "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?"

Alainn 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 Jenarr. "You're not suggesting that Jilarra added an unnecessary detour just to slow us up? You said yourself she wouldn't ruin Festival for me deliberately."

"Well, no, but maybe she thought she 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 Alainn. "Looks like she was just being superstitious."

"Superstitious?" said Jenarr. "There's only one 'superstition' I can think of that would be relevant. You're talking about the Adumreb Tetrahedron!"

"Yes," said Alainn, "the so-called ships' graveyard. The only reason Jilarra 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 women,+ he added telepathically, accompanying the words with a suitably risqué image.

"But the danger - " Jenarr protested.

"What danger? I told you, it's nothing but superstition. I can't blame Jilarra for wanting to protect you - come to think of it, that's about the only thing I can't blame her for - but there's really nothing to be afraid of."

"I don't know," said Jenarr. "What about all those ships that disappeared there?"

"Oh, come on, Jenarr. 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 disappeared over two hundred years ago," said Alainn. "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 Jenarr. "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." Alainn 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 women," (he projected an image of the scene into Jenarr's mind), "and we'll laugh at Jilarra for being so superstitious."

"Well... I'm still not sure about this...."

Alainn 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 Jenarr and Alainn had separate beds, having never felt the urge to make their friendship a more intimate one, although many of their friends had twitted them about their old-fashioned heterosexual attitudes. But, as Alainn had pointed out, there would be lots of gorgeous young women on Galatea during Festival, most of whom wouldn't mind a little old-fashioned heterosexual attention.

YEARS later, Jenarr could not recall just how Alainn had persuaded him to agree to take the shortcut. Perhaps Alainn was a telepathic influencer without realising it. In any case, his powers of persuasion were to have unexpected consequences.

Precisely forty-three hours after their original argument, Alainn 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 Alainn, waving a hand in the direction of the featureless viewscreen. "You see? Nothing. Just empty space."

Jenarr was still nervous. "Alainn, 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."

Alainn 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 Jenarr, "but I just can't help feeling nervous about it."

Alainn sighed yet again. He had been over the same argument with Jenarr tens of times and had grown profoundly weary of his friend's irrational fears. Even so, he persisted: "Jenarr, 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." He leant back in his seat and stretched his arms. "I'm already there in my mind's eye. We're both strolling down Central Promenade with a half-naked fembot on each arm. And I'm sorry to have to break this to you, but my two are a lot better than yours."

"Maybe," Jenarr began, "but that's assuming we ever -"

"That's it," snapped Alainn. "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 Alainn had turned in, Jenarr entered the cabin and began undressing quietly. Good, thought Alainn, at least he has enough courage to leave the ship on auto. Now we can both get a good night's sleep.

He was wrong.

SHORTLY after midnight, ship time, Jenarr and Alainn 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 Jenarr. "Is it a black hole?"

"I'm not sure," said Alainn. "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 Jenarr. "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,+ Alainn projected. +You're getting hysterical. You're rambling.+ With an effort, he projected +CALM+ at Jenarr. +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 Alainn.

"Never mind seatbelts," said Jenarr, "couldn't they have fitted some kind of anti-nausea device?"

"Hold on to your dinner if you can," said Alainn, "I'm going to have another try."

The ship tossed and turned like a leaf in a tornado, but try as he might Alainn was unable to break the ship free from the anomaly's gravity. Jenarr's dinner, by contrast, was doing its very best to escape the gravitational pull of his stomach.

"It's no use," said Alainn. "We're headed straight for it."

With an almost superhuman effort, Jenarr managed to control his nausea. "I knew this was a bad idea," he muttered. "I just knew it."

Alainn was forced to admit that he was right. There had been something dangerous in the Adumreb Tetrahedron all along. If only he hadn't been so impatient... but all he said to Jenarr was, "There'll be plenty of time for recriminations later. If we survive this." The ship lurched once more. Jenarr and Alainn felt as if space were being pulled inside out, themselves along with it...

ALAINN was woken by the sound of more blaring alarms, and by Jenarr yelling in his ear and his mind simultaneously.

+"Lan! Lan! Wake up! Wake up, Lan, we're going to crash! I can't land the ship!"+

For a moment Alainn was confused. +Land? But there are no planets out he - + But as soon as he looked up and saw what Jenarr had seen he was forced to revise his opinion.

There was a planet, and they were headed straight for it. It was already close enough to fill the forward viewscreen.

"Shit," Alainn muttered. He 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 Jenarr. "Don't just try! Land!"

Alainn did his 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 unnerving rate. Jenarr was convinced that they were about to be killed, but although he could not prevent some of his fear from leaking out, he managed to keep silent and allow Alainn to wrestle with the controls.

After several minutes of this, Alainn 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 flying by daylight. A pale orange sun was penetrating the clouds. "Look, there," said Jenarr, scarcely daring to believe their luck. "Just past those mountains, I thought I saw a flat plain."

"I think you're right," said Alainn. "Let's take a closer look."

As the ship flew over the mountain ridge, Jenarr'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!" Alainn exclaimed. "All we have to do is make a nice soft lan - " But even as he spoke, a sudden violent eddy caught the ship and hurled it toward the ground. Fortunately for Jenarr and Alainn, the ship's emergency stasis generator activated, saving them from potentially fatal injury. An omniscient observer would have seen the two men 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 Alainn. For a moment he was confused by the sudden change in their circumstances, but soon figured out what had happened.

So did Jenarr. "The stasis field must have come on," he said. "I think we're down."

Some people, thought Alainn, have an absolute genius for stating the obvious. Biting back a retort, he began to check the ship's systems for damage. "Well," he 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?" Jenarr demanded. "How long exactly?"

"Don't panic," said Alainn (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." Jenarr seemed unamused by this quip. Alainn 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, friend, we must have the luck of the devil."

"Maybe, but - " Jenarr faltered as Alainn shot his 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 he muttered, "This is weird."

"What is?" demanded Jenarr, who seemed eager to pounce on any tidbit of bad news.

"Just look at these readings."

"Lan, 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," Jenarr protested.

"You're telling me?" said Alainn.

"Are you sure the chart hasn't just got turned upside down or something?"

With an effort, Alainn managed to control his impatience. "Jenarr, 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 Jenarr. "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 Alainn. "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."

Alainn had no answer to that. For several minutes neither man spoke. Jenarr 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, Jenarr 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 he felt a strange curiousity about the object, which kept drawing his gaze back toward it. This is ridiculous, he thought. It's just a big square rock. Probably shaped by the wind or something. But still his eyes were drawn to it like iron to a magnet. Finally he turned to Alainn and said, "Lan... 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 Jenarr, "do you think we could go outside? Maybe... explore a little?"

"Now wait a minute," said Alainn. "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 Jenarr. "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 Alainn did not reply. Great, thought Jenarr, now he'll sulk for an hour. But he was wrong. After some moments staring at the viewscreen, Alainn muttered, "I could swear that formation out there looked like almost like a building."

"I'd accuse you of changing the subject," said Jenarr, "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 Jenarr.

"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, Lan, 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, Lan?"

Once more Alainn spent several minutes gazing at the viewscreen. Finally he muttered, "All right. We'll go."

Jenarr could scarcely believe his 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." He could not prevent a stray thought from leaking out: +And if it stops Jen's nagging so much the better.+

Although Jenarr caught that, all he said was, "Thanks, Lan. I promise you won't regret this."

It would not be long before he realised the irony of his words.

WITHIN an hour the two men 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, Alainn was about to suggest returning to the ship when he felt Jenarr's mental cry: +Over here, Lan! 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 Alainn. "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 Jenarr. +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 Jenarr was already inside. Alainn saw no choice but to follow and try to keep his friend 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 Alainn.

"I can still sense something about it, though," said Jenarr.

"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, he 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 Jenarr and Alainn 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 Jenarr and Alainn 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. Alainn just had time to see Jenarr slump to the floor, the biolamp falling at his side, before he 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. Jenarr and Alainn 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 men realised the full extent of its side effects it would be too late to do anything about them

JENARR woke feeling stiff and dehydrated. He regretted not bringing any water with him. He 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, Alainn was also stirring. When Jenarr sat up his clothing felt strangely tight, and his boots were hurting his feet. Then he noticed his hands. His sleeves were several centimetres above his wrists, but that was not the most astonishing thing he saw. +Lan!+ he projected urgently. +Lan, wake up! Something strange is happening!+

Alainn was instantly awake. "What's wrong?" he said. "Hey, why are my clothes so tigh - " Then he saw Jenarr, 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 Alainn. "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 Jenarr. "You seem as lucid as ever."

"You want lucid? All right. We're leaving. Right now!" And with that Alainn leapt to his feet. There was a sound of tearing cloth, then a sickening thud as his head struck the stone ceiling.

When Alainn came to once more the first thing he saw was Jenarr's blue face hovering above his own. "Good, you're awake," said Jenarr. "Don't try to get up yet. You hit your head on the ceiling."

"But the ceiling's more than two metres high," muttered Alainn.

"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." Jenarr put a hand to Alainn's forehead. "That's strange," he 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 Jenarr.

As Jennar sat back, Alainn noticed for the first time that he was bare-chested, and realised he was feeling a draught on his own skin. "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..." he broke off as a spasm crossed his face.

"What's wrong?" cried Alainn. "Are you in pain?"

"Oh... God!... no," gasped Jenarr. "Just the opposite. I just feel... incredibly... horny!" By way of demonstration, Jenarr began to nurse his sudden erection. And even as Jenarr had spoken Alainn realised he was also becoming aroused. Sensuously; intensely; irresistibly.

All thought of danger forgotten, the men 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 man before, Jenarr and Alainn found themselves frenziedly masturbating each other. For hours their passion grew, their orgasms becoming more frequent and intense than they could have believed possible, 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 orgasms 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 men 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.

JENARR and Alainn woke lying side by side and face to face, one arm lying across each other's body, feeling relaxed and euphoric. Their arousal had finally faded, though their hands were still in each other's crotches. +Quite a night, wasn't it, blue boy?+ projected Jenarr.

+That's an understatement,+ Alainn 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 giants would have on Festival?+ He tried to sit up. +Oh. God, I'm stiff. We've been lying on this hard floor for too long.+

Then he tried to move again, and so did Alainn.

+That's weird,+ Jenarr projected. +I can't seem to move my legs. They really must have gone to sleep.+

Then Alainn felt Jenarr becoming afraid.

+Oh, my God,+ projected Jenarr. +They haven't just gone to sleep. They're completely stiff! I can't move them at all... I can't move my arms either... I can't sit up... I can't even turn my head... oh, God, I can't move! I'm paralysed! I can't move! HELP ME!+

+Jen... I can't help you. I can't move a muscle either.+

+What are you 'talking' about? This is no time to fool around! I really need help here!+

+Jenarr,+ Alainn projected as earnestly as he 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.+

He waited a moment while Jenarr absorbed this. Jenarr 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, Lan? It can't!!!+

Alainn realised that Jenarr was in denial. +Jen,+ he 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 either. I'm sorry, Jen, but I'm afraid it is permanent.+

When Jenarr finally replied, his 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, Lan. I should never have insisted on coming here.+ He wanted to burst into tears, heedless of whether it would have seemed "manly", but couldn't even do that.

Alainn 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,+ Jenarr replied. +There's nothing we can do about it, so there's no point in recriminations.+

+Maybe it's nobody's fault,+ projected Alainn. +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 Jenarr. +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 Jenarr. +Lan,+ he 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 Alainn. +It's been hours since we last ate as well.+

+No, I don't. What does it mean, Lan?+

+Well... maybe it means we won't die of hunger or thirst. Maybe something's keeping us alive without our needing food or water.+

Jenarr thought about this for several moments. +Does that mean we'll just lie here paralysed for the rest of our lives?+ he projected.

+You know, technically speaking, we're paretic rather than paralysed, since we can still feel...+Alainn sent.

+Who cares what it's called?+ Jenarr 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,+ Alainn replied.

In fact, he was right. Their adventure was far from over.

AS it turned out, Jenarr and Alainn 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 men 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. +Lan, what is it? Who's there? I can't see.+ projected Jenarr.

+I don't know,+ Alainn 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 men had grown. Neither man 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 Jenarr and Alainn felt the creatures' hands - or paws - touching and stroking them all over, a sensation that was both disturbing and arousing.

+Oh, God,+ thought Jenarr, +you don't suppose they're going to... rape us, do you?+

+Actually, I was afraid they might want to eat us,+ replied Alainn.

+I just hope you're joking, Lan. Hey, you! Aliens! Can you hear me? Hello!+

If the creatures were able to receive Jenarr's thoughts they gave no sign of it. Instead they broke off their pawing and began to dance around the men, chanting rhythmically.

+No use trying telepathy on them,+ projected Alainn. +They're obviously far too primitive.+ He 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.+

Jenarr 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 Jenarr and Alainn onto their shoulders like pallbearers. (For the first time in hours their hands slid out from between each others' legs, resulting in a mild, and unfulfillable, sexual arousal.) There were at least eight of the creatures, four to each man, and they continued to chatter excitedly as they turned the men face up, supporting their arms, legs and shoulders, and carried them feet first through the doorway into the hazy red sunlight. The men's clothing and biolamp were left behind, suggesting that the creatures had no curiosity about them. The men'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 men 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 Alainn's theory that something else was sustaining them.) Lying face-up, Jenarr and Alainn 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 men, and assuming that they had grown to about 220 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 men 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 men 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 men for it probably wasn't as food.

As the day wore on, they were carried upward into the cooler, less arid foothills of the mountains. Eventually a cold drizzle began to fall. To the men it was like a subtle, exquisite form of water torture. +Where do you suppose they're taking us?+ Jenarr asked, as the creatures - seemingly unconcerned by the rain - carried them on into the deepening twilight.

+No way of knowing,+ Alainn replied, +but I just hope it's somewhere warm and sheltered. Right now I'd settle for a nice dry cave.+

As the men were carried on through the night, the drizzle became colder and more persistent, eventually turning to sleet. Apparently oblivious to the cold and damp, the aliens marched onward and mostly upward with their living cargo. Jenarr and Alainn 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 men 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!+ Alainn 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 Jenarr.

+If you call this surviving,+ replied Alainn. +Hello! Can you receive me? My name's Alainn and this is Jenarr. Please talk to us!+

By way of reply, the men 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 Jenarr.

+Maybe they've gone insane from being paretic for so long,+ replied Alainn.

+Oh, you're a great comfort,+ Jenarr retorted.

After a brief rest their bearers picked up the men once more and carried them upward past the lower terraces. When they reached the fifth level they set the men down again for a few moments. For once they were seated in an upright position with their backs against a pillar. Jenarr found himself facing one of the niches. What he saw there astonished him. +Lan! Look at this through my eyes!+ he projected.

The blue figure that sat paralysed and statue-like 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 a mane of 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 Jenarr 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 very long, narrow penis that stood solidly erect and throbbed rhythmically. A member of a species in which the males suckled their young, perhaps? Its green eyes scanned Jenarr's body with quiet interest. +Can you receive me?+ Jenarr 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 Jenarr. He seemed to feel its thoughts reaching out, but frustratingly could make no sense of them. He tried linking minds with Alainn, but no matter how they, and the alien, tried they could not communicate. +I'm sorry,+ thought Jenarr 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.+ The alien closed its eyes again as if in acknowledgement. Perhaps it did understand. And then the natives came and carried the men 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 Jenarr, 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 frozen occupant certainly was human; a naked, handsome young man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties. He too had a glowing crystal fastened to his forehead. He also had a huge erection, the longest and thickest they had ever seen, and it was throbbing and quivering in time to the jewel's flickering. His eyes stared glazedly ahead, and he seemed not to notice the newcomers. +Can you hear me?+ projected Jenarr.

At that moment the crystal upon the man's forehead faded and took on the appearance of dull glass. His penis remained erect, but momentarily stopped throbbing. +Ohhh,+ he projected. +They've... they've stopped. For... a while. So... hard to... think while they're....+ For the first time his eyes moved, and he gave a long, pitying look at Jenarr and Alainn. +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... or... defecate... and the... women here don't... menstruate either. There seems... to be some kind... of energy field here... that... sustains us... almost like... we'd all... been turned into... plants that can... live on... air and atmospheric... moisture alone.+

+Can you tell us your name?+ asked Alainn. +I'm Alainn, and this is Jenarr.+

+I'm... Jordan. Jordan... Schreiber. I was Chief... Clerk aboard the... Zair... Zairbhreen...a.+

Jenarr was astonished. +But that's impossible,+ he projected. +Unless there were two ships with that name... Jordan, 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 Alainn. +Jordan, 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 Jordan's eyes was tragic to behold. +Jordan,+ projected Jenarr, as gently as he 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.+

+Jordan, I don't know how to tell you this,+ thought Jenarr, +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.+

Jordan gave a humourless mental laugh. +What's... the use of... having perfect muscles... if... you can... never use them?+

That was ironic, thought Alainn to himself. 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. Meanwhile Alainn was puzzled by the fact that Jordan continued to maintain his astonishingly large erection regardless of his emotional state.

+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 Alainn.

+Why... sex, of course.+ Jordan 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'... amplified sexual... sensations. When... our bodies respond...the... jewels... feed our orgasms...to the natives... and so... it goes... back... and forth...amplified by... the jewels... until... it's almost... agony. We men... have been... altered somehow.... Once the jewels... are in place... you'll have... giant... permanent... erections like me... I... can't ejaculate, except for... a little clear... fluid, but... I 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 Jenarr.

+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 Alainn and Jenarr, they carefully positioned them within their niches. The stone was shockingly cold against their bare skin, but they could not even flinch. Their backs were completely stiff. The aliens posed them like mannequins, facing forward with their arms by their sides. Then they placed the jewelled torcs upon the men's heads, making sure the jewels were in contact with their foreheads. The men instantly felt as if iron rods had been inserted into their anuses, forcing their penises to grow and harden almost painfully while the aliens watched and masturbated excitedly. Within moments their erections were longer and harder than they ever had been (even allowing for the fact that their bodies had grown), yet they continued to grow and grow, along with the sense of arousal that the jewels were force-feeding them, while their scrota began to swell as if to keep up. Gradually their erections continued to lengthen and thicken until they were almost twice their normal proportions, quivering and vertical. At the same time their genitalia became more and more sensitive, as if their nerve endings were multiplying to fill the available area. The increase in sensuality did not stop there, however, but quickly spread to their entire bodies, becoming more and more acute until every breath of wind upon their chests, every drop of freezing rain on their arms and faces, felt sensuous and erotic. It was as if every nerve ending from their heads to their feet had been transformed into an erogenous zone in its own right. What was more, their senses were telepathically fused together by the jewels. Each man could feel everything the other felt, which only made every sensation twice - no, more than twice - as intense.

Two of the aliens, fighting aside others for the privilege, knelt before Jenarr and Alainn and took the humans' huge, rock-hard erections deep into their mouths, while continuing to nurse their own penises by hand. The men wanted to hurl the wretched creatures away, but their muscles remained incapable of the slightest movement. Over the course of the next few minutes the aliens' lips, tongues and throats coaxed their bodies to a fever pitch of sensual arousal. When the first orgasm came neither man was sure whose it was, but an intense wave of ecstasy burst from his penis and rapidly spread to the rest of his body. For several endless minutes they both felt as if every square millimetre of their bodies were climaxing. They wanted to howl and moan and writhe with ecstasy, to tear the jewelled circlets from their heads... but they could do nothing at all. They could only remain mute and stiff as statues in their niches.

Over the course of the next few minutes the men climaxed again and again and again until they thought they would go mad from the intensity of their sensations. If only there were something, anything, they could do... but there was nothing. An omniscient observer would have seen them apparently sitting calmly with dispassionate expressions upon their faces, belying the turmoil they felt. They were doomed to remain helpless and inanimate no matter what happened, no matter what they were forced to endure, for the rest of their lives.

And if what Jordan had told them was true, they couldn't ever die.

Eventually the creatures were called away by their fellows. Reluctantly they removed themselves from the men's gigantic, permanent erections, and squawked something that might have been either obscene or reverent before departing.

At least their overwhelming orgasms had stopped, although their bodies remained in a heightened state of sexual stimulation. Jenarr and Alainn felt a profound sense of relief, but they knew it was only to be a brief respite.

Down in the arena the men could see a group of perhaps forty aliens, looking like ants from this distance, standing around in anticipation. Another alien, which might have been from the party that had brought Jenarr and Alainn, 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 Jordan had warned them, Alainn and Jenarr could feel everything they felt: every touch, every thrust, every penetration, every climax. Compared to this, the sexual arousal they had felt from the aliens' earlier fellatio was 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. From time to time some of the aliens would also manipulate their captives' bodies in person.

The aliens' sensations were amplified a hundred - no, a thousand - fold by the telepathic crystals, received and re-experienced by the humans and other paralysed spectators, whose own bodies responded in kind. These sensations were then fed back to the aliens, whose own responses were amplified again... and so the telepathic sensations were amplified back and forth until it was impossible to tell where one climax ended and another began. Of course the aliens were able to remove their bracelets and leave whenever they had had enough. The captives had no such choice. And any aliens that left were soon replaced by others.

Alainn was dimly aware that his face was moist, not from the endless rain but from tears caused by the intensity of his sensations. The aliens had taken every man's dream - permanent arousal and unlimited sexual gratification - and turned it into a living nightmare. It was more than mortal flesh could bear. Yet there was nothing the frozen captives could do except bear it, and pray to whatever gods might look down upon this benighted planet that it wouldn't last forever.

OH, GOD, thought Alainn, wishing he could scream with ecstasy as helplessly he felt his orgasms blending together into one endless, universe-shattering climax. If only I could move. If only I hadn't taken that short cut. If only I'd followed Jilarra's advice just for once....

And then his last conscious thought wove itself into a loop that ran eternally through his brain as a counterpoint to his never-ending orgasm:


Author's closing note:

The situation I've left my frozen heroes in is pretty extreme by anyone's standards. Still, I can't help feeling curious...is there anybody reading this who'd actually like to be frozen in agonizing ecstasy alongside Jenarr and Alainn??

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