Web Shifters Book # 3
In which Esen descends to the depths of an ocean,
And remembers what family is for.
First Published in 2003 by DAW Books Inc.
Cover art by Luis Royo
Finalist for the 2003 Prix Aurora Awards
Featured Selection of the SFBC
“I was expecting more – progress.” The voice was like the knife, flawless, smooth, and as deadly.
The one bringing the report nodded. “As were we. There is an admirable level of paranoia in our subjects, Eminence.” The Kraal touched the tattoos on both cheeks, bowing deeply. “We regret our lack of success.”
“As do I.” Inconvenient, to find the Youngest this careful. Yet reassuring.
Another sat at the stone table, reflected by its polished black surface; her hands, almost as dark as the stone, pressed themselves flat on the tabletop. Pa-Admiral Mocktap, tattoos glowing white against her skin, waited with unusual patience. Her ships did the same. The tattoos were marks of loyalty and obedience; the patience – perhaps -- came from familiarity. Trust wasn’t a word used by Kraal. A comforting congruence.
An ally of her own would be expedient. The trap into which foolish Esen had fallen – continued to fall.
She would not make that mistake.
“Time to flush our prey from its lair,” the deadly, flawless voice decided.
1: Cliffside Afternoon“You made that up,” I accused.
“It’s the truth, Es. I swear on my father’s grave.”
I eyed my Human friend with deep suspicion, all too familiar with that too-innocent look. “Your father isn’t dead,” I reminded him.
“Picky, picky,” he grinned. “Okay. I swear on my grandmother’s grave. Noah and I really did swim in the Chidtik Ocean without suits.”
“The body of your paternal grandmother was sent into the sun of her birth system, Hendrick,” I countered. “That of your maternal grandmother was recycled, by her wish, into an exact replica of her favorite sofa. She is now gathering dust in your Uncle Sam’s attic because no one in the family can bring themselves to sit on her. So you can’t use their graves either.” I paused to scowl. “No Human -- even one so reckless as you seem to have been in your youth -- would swim in the Chidtik without an environment suit.”
The fine lines at the corners of Paul Cameron’s eyes crinkled ever so slightly. “How do you remember all that trivia -- no, stop. Dumb question. You remember everything.” He leaned back, stretching up his arms up to cushion his head against the stone. We were enjoying a rare moment of peaceful weather -- in other words, the wind curling the clouds in front of our porch was whining instead of howling -- and Paul was relishing every moment. Including this latest effort to persuade me of yet another impossible feat from past. If he’d actually done all the things he claimed, it was quite remarkable he’d lived long enough to meet me, Esen-alit-Quar, Esen for short, Es in a hurry, or between dear friends.
“There may have been some mitigating circumstances,” Paul ventured peacefully.
“Such as?” I rolled over on my stomach to better watch his face.
“A night of rain, a surf board, and a keg of local beer.” He paused then nodded. “And some tall boots. I distinctly remember there were boots. I’ve no idea whose, but they did come in handy.”
I was growing convinced despite my common sense, and shivered though the sun was warm on my shoulders and back. A temporary layer of fresh water on top of that caustic ocean, a board to keep most of his body from the depths, boots to protect his feet from the scalpel-sharp crystals that passed as beach sand to the unwary visitor. It was possible after all.
It was supremely stupid. “Was it worth it?” I asked him.
The Human’s eyes gleamed. “Every minute. Even with my souvenir.” He showed me the underside of his left arm. I’d noticed the faint swath of a scar there before, but never asked about its origin. “Noah was a little drunker than I was and splashed me as we were coming out. I dodged most of it – but he had burns to his hand and wrist. Not that he remembers how he got them.”
“I will never understand the ephemeral urge to risk shortening an already too-short lifespan by taking such risks,” I said primly. “It is gratifying to know you grow out of it.”
Paul chuckled. “Which is why I’m sunbathing on the side of a sheer cliff, my feet almost at the edge of this ledge, trading stories with a shapeshifting monster.”
I didn’t argue, although it was no accident I was stretched out between Paul and that edge. ... I would never let harm come to my friend.
Excerpt from Hidden in Sight © 2003 Julie E. Czerneda and DAW Books Inc. Used with permission.