Web Shifters Book # 2
Who thought that was a good idea?
First Published in 2000 by DAW Books Inc.
Cover art by Luis Royo.
Finalist for the 2001 Prix Aurora Award.
Featured Selection of the SFBC
A drop of sweat coalesced on the bald head of the Human standing at the end of the long table, a drop large enough to create its own runnel over his forehead, hesitate in a bushy eyebrow, then push through to land in one eye. The Human blinked involuntarily, but remained stiffly at attention, as if pinned in place by the glare of the lights aimed his way. "You don’t appreciate the circumstances. Sir. There are …"
"Fifty years without a trace, without a sign, without proof, Project Leader Kearn." Out of the shadows, fingernails drummed a staccato on the table, a seven-part rhythm oddly disturbing to those accustomed to a different number of fingers per hand. "Five decades in which this monster of yours — this evil incarnate — hasn’t shown itself. In which you’ve been unable to convince any of our predecessors that the only one in existence didn’t die that day." There was a pause as the fingers opened a file. "No one here denies your scholarly accomplishments, Project Leader Kearn. Your research into, ah yes, into the commonalities of the folklore concerning such creatures -- among what I find a frankly astonishing number of species and cultures -- has added greatly to our understanding of one another. You are to be commended." The file was snapped closed. "But even you must admit actually hunting for this Esen Monster is a criminal waste of time and resources."
"It’s just a matter of time, Hom Slatth," the Human named Lionel Kearn offered numbly, finding it hard to control his wild impatience. It was Her fault he was embarrassed like this over and over again; Her fault he had to constantly remind these bureaucrats and their lackeys of the danger posed by such utter alienness.
It was Her fault he’d lost his first and only command, fifty years ago.
"I’ll bring you the evidence," Kearn continued, fighting the tendency of his voice to develop a whining note. Sector Commissioner Slatth, as most Niderons, tended to a regrettable aggression when faced with weakness of any sort — even this smooth and sophisticated diplomat had inflated his nostril hood in instinctive threat several times during Kearn’s briefing. And the others here -- three Humans, the bagful of Rands spilling off a chair, and a doleful pile of crystal at the end of the table he was supposed to believe was the representative from Picco’s Moon -- well, none of them were any better. They’d lost patience with him and with his quest even more quickly than the last set.
As he’d done many times before, Kearn consoled himself with the fact that his meandering through Commonwealth space brought him into differing jurisdictions quite regularly, ensuring a fresh stream of politicians and the chance to continue his work.
It also meant the same old arguments and resisting the same skepticism. "You’ve admitted my research has been extensive. I’ve found shapeshifter legends and horror stories everywhere. There must be more than one creature. And the Esen Monster can’t hide what She is," Kearn insisted firmly. " — not forever."
"Forever isn’t an issue, Kearn," Slatth almost hissed. "Your funding and career lasting to this particular year’s end is. Do we understand one another?"
The pause following this lengthened as Kearn fumbled for some meaningful rebuttal. Before he could speak, one of the other Humans from the meeting took advantage of his hesitation. "For all of this," the committee member from Inhaven poked a stylo dismissively at the huge stack of plas disks and other reports Kearn had willingly supplied. "For all of this, Project Leader, I remain unconvinced you are correct in attributing the events you witnessed to some biological entity. How could such a being exist outside of fairy tales? Is it not more likely your so-called monster was a Kraal device: some new weapon tech being tested? You know how paranoid they can be about their military secrets. I’ve heard rumors of a so-called ‘nightstalker’ device – a terrifying biological weapon the five major family clans abandoned as too dangerous, although I believe the term they used was ‘inelegant.’ Isn’t this device more likely than some mythological monster, Hom Kearn?"
"Respectfully, Sirs," Kearn couldn’t help rolling his eyes and kept his hands at his side with an effort that left him feeling dizzy. "The Kraal have been most supportive of my search. They supplied several of the most detailed eyewitness accounts —"
"My point exactly, Project Leader Kearn," the speaker continued. Sandner, that was his name, a lean older Human who had been a merchant at one time and still claimed to have close ties in the Fringe. Then why didn’t he remember the panic? Kearn asked himself bitterly. The loss of life, the abandoned ships: it had all begun in the Fringe, moving from its almost unpopulated mining systems to the more concentrated worlds of its boundary with the Commonwealth. Or did those on humanity’s frontier have selective memories of their past? a suspicion Kearn almost said out loud, before closing his lips over what was wisely kept private.
"All I’m asking is your permission to move through these next three systems," Kearn said instead, blinking another drop of sweat from his eyes. "Some cooperation from local authorities, your approval to open the records I need -- that’s all."
"And funding." This from Slatth, who pushed a long plas sheet with a detailed supply list into the nearest circle of light on the dark table. There was a rustle as the rest reached for their own copies, followed by discouragingly discordant chimes and other sounds as they started to re-read his requests.
Requests? Those were the absolute essentials – the list a pared-down version of the minimum needed to keep his ship, crew, and search underway. Kearn swallowed. This group was going to be tougher than the last two; perhaps they’d already decided against him and were merely trotting out their excuses.
There was no thought in his mind of ending his quest. He would find Esen and the rest of Her kind, no matter that they could travel through space, hide in any form, or rip apart a starship as casually as he might peel a piece of fruit. He would find them. They would no longer be a threat to the Commonwealth.
Even if he had to do it alone.
1: Office Morning; Warehouse Night
A teardrop in an ocean as my species experienced time.
A quarter of a lifespan for the being whose image smiled back at me from the clutter on my desk. Through his eyes, it had been time enough for maturity, for a new generation to begin, for a swift series of years to bind us as close as the strands of my former Web.
I cleared a space on my desk by the simple expedient of shoving the centermost pile of plas and tapes to the floor, then placed the small, carved box within the opening. Habit made me listen for sounds from the outer office, take a quick look around. I was alone. The rest of the staff of Cameron & Ki Exports would be later coming in; my friend and partner, Paul Ragem – now known as Paul Cameron -- usually spent the morning over at the shipcity dickering with traders.
I tapped the side of the box once. Its opaque sides folded open, revealing a small medallion inscribed with our company’s logo: our names entwined about a starship, the date added below. Tilting my head, I made myself examine it critically. Was the silver oval too plain or pleasing in its simplicity?
Most importantly, would it perform its function? Only time, I thought, aware of the irony, would tell.
I was still alone, but that privacy wouldn’t last. I didn’t so much have an office and run a business as I orchestrated within a pit usually filled with a cheerful pack of Humans and other beings, all of whom considered me less an employer than an eccentric and generous Aunt they could cajole into almost anything. That their opinion was quite accurate and I had the business acumen of a Quebit was beside the point. The staff were bold and curious at the best of times. It was, oddly enough, a very good environment for someone with secrets.
Such as this medallion, which I opened with no further hesitation.
And what I did next.
I released my hold on this body, discarding Esolesy Ki the Lishcyn but not the Esen of my core, warming the surrounding air slightly with the exothermic result, exulting in the expansion of sensation and relief of effort as my molecular self assumed its true configuration: the tear-drop Web-form of my kind.
My kind. I drifted in the luxury of perfect memory, reliving the time when I had been one of six, that six as much a single entity as different personalities and goals could become.
Enough. The past, however clear to my inner vision, was not what mattered now, nor did I dare risk staying in this form in any place so insecure. Not only did the First Rule of my Web forbid revealing Web-form to aliens, with the notable exception of Paul, I had no intention of letting anyone see me struggling to stay in the seat of this chair as a large glob of cobalt blue jelly. Paul’s response the last time had been memorable, to say the least.
I extruded a hair-thin portion of myself, sorting memory as I did so. This was something I’d learned from Ersh, the Senior Assimilator of my former Web and the first of my kind to gain a conscience.
Sorting done, I braced myself then touched the interior of the medallion with the tip of the pseudopod. Automatically, its tiny lid snapped shut at the contact, neatly nipping exactly the portion of myself I’d planned to sacrifice. I transferred another, immeasurably smaller, portion of mass, carefully memory-free, into energy and used it to twist and reform my molecules – to cycle -- back into the Lishcyn form fast enough to able to witness the medallion sealing its edges.
I held it up to the light. Beneath the silver was a muted blue glow, almost undetectable. The metal warmed to my touch, but if all worked as it should, the inside would be cooling, its miniature cryounit sucking the last heat from that tiny piece of me. Preserving it. Preserving the memories biochemically stored within.
Fifty years, I repeated to myself as I wrapped Paul’s anniversary present in a truly lurid gift wrap I knew he’d like — carpeted with images of quaint little rodents in neckties — it had taken fifty years for me to find this gift.
And to find a way to share with my first friend.
Share. My imagination painted that scent over the wildberry tang of the air conditioning, a molecular message of trust and willing sacrifice. Once, I had been part of a greater whole, the Web of Ersh. Share. Her message on the wind would command us to offer our flesh-borne memories to one another, an exchange as precise as it was physically uncomfortable. There was, I thought pragmatically, a lot to be said for simply writing things down.
But it was the nature of my kind to form jagged teeth, to consume living flesh, and to assimilate the biochemical information locked within. Literacy was something we’d — acquired — over the millennia.
Today was today. Paul’s gift was ready, one I knew perfectly well he and he alone in this area of space could appreciate for what it contained. A vulnerability, to have revealed my true self to an ephemeral those fleeting decades ago; my greatest strength, to have gained him as my friend.
Time to celebrate.
Excerpt from Changing Vision © 2000 Julie E. Czerneda and DAW Books Inc. Used with permission.
Bumper Sticker. I couldn't agree more. This lives above my writing desk. (Prototype by J'sBF)