This exclusive enovella, set shortly after the events in Hidden in Sight, features the first glimpse of Esen and Paul’s All Species’ Library of Linguistics and Culture.
The Human Commonwealth has spread into a section of space well and truly claimed by others, a wealth of intelligent species who doubt we’ve much to offer. The only recourse? Diplomacy! At least that’s what Evan Gooseberry, assigned to the Human embassy on Urgia Prime, firmly believes. Enough to fight his own deep terrors and remain where even a walk outside is an exhausting challenge.
But what happens when a species’ misunderstood biology is its diplomacy?
The stakes are high; the situation desperate. Doubted by his superiors, Evan stands alone.
Unless he can accept help from the strangest alien of all: Esen-alit-Quar, Esen in a hurry, Es between friends. Having come to Urgia Prime with her friend Paul on their own mission, the remarkable Webshifter is willing to do whatever she can. There’s only one problem.
Esen is everything Evan Gooseberry fears.
Web Shifter’s Library
Excerpt from “The Only Thing to Fear” (spoiler-free)
The block around this end of Kateen’s Embassy Row boasted fifteen caf shops, a dozen or so restaurants almost affordable on a junior political assistant’s salary—plus the hundred that weren’t—and drop-by stalls lining any walkway without prohibits. The drop-bys’ fare was cheap and varied to suit a clientele that rivalled the shipcity for diversity, and the flimsy eateries showed up in time for breakfast, breaks, and lunch, in fair weather.
Which this wasn’t and hadn’t been for days. The Urgians wanted a sparkling city for their festival; to a species who colored sunsets to suit tourists and elevated climate control to an art, nature was the obvious choice for a thorough cleansing.
Evan Gooseberry sighed and hunched under his auto-brella. Sheets of rain chased one another across the cobblestones. What bureaucratic misstep put cobblestones in the one district where foot traffic included those whose feet varied from hooves to wide suckers continued to baffle–
Lightning flashed. Blinded, Evan focused urgently on his breathing, moving his diaphragm in and out, in and out, fingers clenched on the staff of his ’brella. So when the THUNDER clap arrived, vibrating every bone in his body, he gave a startled grunt, rather than the usual full-out scream.
Earned dessert, that did. Before he could be tested again, Evan hurried through the rain. Ruthie’s Caf was just ahead and served delicious pie. He’d reward himself with a piece. Or maybe a scone.
He stopped in his tracks, squinting through the drops. It couldn’t be.
Another figure was entering Ruthie’s, torso swathed in a too-familiar shiny pink raincoat, long elegant limbs tiptapping over the cobbles like fingers drumming on a plate.
Evan spun on his heel, breathing in, breathing out.
The shakes were fine. Those he could handle. He refused to vomit, not again or here, and definitely not out in the open. The thing was surely inside the caf by now.
It’d be out again in an instant, scurrying along the road with terrifying unpredictability–
Making Ruthie’s another place he couldn’t go.
Couldn’t go yet. The rephrasing was important. He’d achieved so much these past twenty weeks. Thunder banged along the buildings, rattling windows. Once, he’d have run in terror. This time, he barely flinched. He’d made progress—which was why he was here, after all, serving in the Commonwealth’s embassy on Urgia Prime, in this city. You couldn’t avoid the weather and you couldn’t avoid the Urgians, with their boneless bodies and arms like so many snakes.
Habituation was the only way. And worked, Evan reminded himself, however tedious the wait. He was doing well. Better than expected, really. He was comfortable interacting with Urgians, so long as he didn’t have to touch an arm—
Until this. He wasn’t ready, in any sense, for an added challenge. By all he’d checked and researched, he should have been able to avoid the arachnoid Popeakans, who were shy and reclusive and stayed within their own embassy.
Except for this one, intent on contaminating every eatery in the city until there was no place left safe to enter–
Gorge rose in his throat and Evan swallowed. Like any other alien on Embassy Row, the being was about ril’s business. Ril was the pronoun for undeclared gender, Popeakans having five of increasing self-absorption, and clearly the polite default when encountering one swathed in a pink raincoat.
If not doing one’s utmost to prevent such encounters. When he’d learned how close the Popeakan Embassy was to theirs, he’d vomited, quietly, in the office restroom.
—yet, Evan told himself, walking away.
An art, the walk of Evan Gooseberry, Junior Political Assistant, composed of precise and thoughtful steps, with nary a slip and never an intrusion into another being’s space. From his point of view, passersby were more concerned with their own footing on the cobbles and the tendency of larger beings to, deliberately or not, run over those smaller. He took quiet satisfaction in his seeming invisibility.
An invisibility solely in his mind, for the walk of Evan Gooseberry had done more to advance Human diplomacy among the contrary species of Embassy Row than any promises or proposals by his superiors, the Commonwealth—and humanity–being recent arrivals in this well-settled and highly civilized portion of space.
Nor were any of his steps wasted. Evan knew to a heartbeat how far he could wander from the modest if sturdy building housing the Human contingent on Kateen and make it back to his workstation in ample time.
A quarter of his allotted break over meant he was down to Caf o’Borden. Thunder rumbled and Evan brightened. Buttered sweet roll, it was.