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Hidden in Sight

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Hidden in Sight

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Author: Julie E. Czerneda
Publisher: Science Fiction Book Club, 2003
DAW Books, 2003
Series: Web Shifters: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Picco's moon was where it all began for Esen-alit-Quar, Youngest of Ersh's Web. It was here where Ersh, the Oldest, had chosen to make her home; here, too, where Esen received her early training as a shapeshifter and member of the Web.

When Ersh's Web was destroyed, Esen and her human friend paul survived, and together they founded Esen's Web, a group composed initially of the two of them but one which expanded slowly to include a chosen few selected by Paul. For in their universe there were all too many species ready to destroy Esen, should they discover her true nature.

Still, despite the need for concealment, life had been good to Esen and Paul. They now had well-established identities, a thriving business, and numerous friends. It seemed as though they'd finally created a safe haven for themselves. At least until they receved word that someone was mining Picco's Moon, desecrating Ersh's Mountain.

Esen and Paul had no choice. They had to go to Picco's Moon and put a stop to the situation. But before they could even set out, they found themselves under attack on every front. Their carefully built haven gone, and loyal friends suddenly transformed into vengeful enemies, was there anywhere Esen and Paul could run, anyone they could to turn to for help, any way to defeat a foe they couldn't even identify?


Excerpt

Otherwhere

Fingers stroked death. They ran lightly along its edge, explored its flawless surface, caressed its hilt. Finally, they opened. The knife fell on the tabletop with an angry ring of metal to stone. Failure was inefficient.

"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 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 his 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 surfboard, 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 had 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 on 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 life span 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. My Human form might be that of a slight young girl, but I would never let harm come to my friend. My Web.

"Speaking of trading stories, my ancient Blob, I've a request."

I raised an eyebrow. "Shall I describe the undersea ruins in the Chidtik, given you were so close to joining them?"

He wagged a finger at me admonishingly. "Not so fast. Yesterday you promised to tell me your very first memory, or did you forget?"

I'd hoped he had. Paul had an excellent mind, but I'd noticed if I left an idea alone long enough, or offered sufficient distraction, he would occasionally lose his train of thought. "Yours was far too interesting," I told him. "How could my earliest thoughts compare with your effort to fly from the roof of the family barn?"

I wasn't going to deflect him this time. I could tell by the gleam in his eye that Paul's curiosity was fully engaged. "C'mon, Es. What's the first thing stored in that perfect memory of yours? There has to be something at least a bit embarrassing in your youth. I've confessed my sins--what were yours? It's only fair, Fangface."

"My first memory," I repeated, giving in as always. There was no resisting my Human web-kin when he was this determined. I confessed curiosity. I hadn't thought back to that time since living it. Unlike my current form's sake, unlike Paul's, I had no need to reminisce over and over again to make my past permanent in my own mind.

I had no ability to change or romanticize my past either. Whatever I'd experienced, whatever I learned, became part of my flesh. The only way to lose a recollection was to lose part of my mass before I could withdraw the memories from it--a painful and highly disorienting experience I'd suffered only once.

"Well, Esen?"

I sat up, moving to lean shoulder to shoulder with Paul against our cliff, and stared out over plains and mountaintops of wind-tossed cloud, imagining the landscape beneath, the cluster of beings busy with their presents, their futures, their pasts.

"It was five hundred and fifty-three standard years ago, and a smattering of days..." I began.

Otherwhen

Imagine being a student not for ten orbits of a sun, or thirty, but over two hundred such journeys. Granted, I spent the first few decades doing what any newborn Lanivarian would do: eating, metabolizing, differentiating, growing, eating, metabolizing, differentiating, growing... I remember it as a time of restlessness, of an awareness I was more, but unable to express this other than to whimper and chew.

The day did arrive when I opened my mouth and something intelligible came out. I distinctly remember this something--web-beings being possessed of perfect memory--as a clear and succinct request for more jamble grapes. My birth-mother, Ansky, remembers it as an adorably incoherent babble that nonetheless signaled I was ready for the next phase of my existence. So she took me to Ersh, the Senior Assimilator and Eldest of our Web, who promptly grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and tossed me off her mountain.

While horrifying to any real Lanivarian mother--and likely any intelligent species with parental care--this was Ersh being efficient. I was thus encouraged to cycle into my web-self for the first time. It was that, or be shattered on a rock seven hundred and thirteen meters below. Instinct, as Ersh rather blithely assumed, won, and I landed on the surface of Picco's Moon as a small, intensely blue, blob of web-mass. A somewhat flattened blob, but unharmed.

Unharmed, but I recalled being overwhelmed with foreign sensations as my universe widened along every imaginable axis. I floundered to make some sense of it all, until, suddenly, everything became right. I knew without being told this was my true self, that there was nothing unusual in losing touch, sound, sight, and smell while feeling the spin of stars and atoms, hearing harmony in the competing gravities of Picco and her Moon, seeing the structure of matter, and being perfectly able to distinguish what was appetizing from what was not.

Appetite. I formed a mouth, small and with only one sharp edge, then began scanning my new universe for something to bite. There!

Not knowing what it was, I ripped a mouthful from the edible mass so conveniently close.

Ersh-taste!

Ideas, not just nutrients, flooded my consciousness, new and nauseatingly complex. Ersh-memory. Even as I hastily oozed myself into the nearest dark and safe-looking crevice, I gained a word for what was happening to me. Assimilation. This was how web-beings exchanged information--by exchanging the memories stored within their flesh. Our flesh.

Exchange? I was mulling that over when a sharp, unexpected pain let me know I'd paid the price for my knowledge.

My studies had officially begun.

What followed were times of wonder and the expansion of my horizons... okay, what really followed were centuries of always being the last to assimilate anything and being convinced this was a plot to keep me stuck with one of my Elders at all times. In retrospect, it was probably more difficult for them. The ancient, wise beings who formed the Web of Ersh had made plans for their lives and research stretching over millennia and, as they routinely assured me, I hadn't been so much as imagined in any of them.

Maybe in Ansky's. Ansky's outstanding enthusiasm for interacting with the locals meant I wasn't her first offspring--just the first, and only, to taste of web-mass. The rest grew up clutched to what I fondly imagined were the loving teats, bosoms, or corresponding body parts of their respective species.

I was tossed off a mountain to prove I belonged here, with Ersh and whomever else of my Web happened to be in attendance. While they could have cycled into more nurturing species--the ability to manipulate our mass into that of other intelligent species being a key survival trait of my kind--I'm quite sure it didn't occur to any of them. I was not only Ansky's first, I was a first for the Web as well, having been born rather than split from Ersh's own flesh. This was a distinction that made at least some of my webkin very uneasy. Mind you, they'd been virtually untouched by change since the Human species discovered feet, so my arrival came as something of a shock. Ansky was firmly reminded to be more careful in the future. Her Web, Ersh pronounced sternly, was large enough.

We were six: Ersh, Ansky, Lesy, Mixs, Skalet, and me, Esen-alit-Quar--Esen for short, Es in a hurry. Six who shared flesh and memories. Six given a goal and purpose in life by Ersh: to be a living repository of the biology and culture of all other, tragically short-lived intelligent species. It was an endless, grueling task that took years of living in secret on each world, ingesting and assimilating the biology of each ephemeral form, learning languages, arts, histories, beliefs, and sciences, all while traveling the limits of known space.

Not that I was ever allowed to go.

Ersh had dictated I was to stay on Picco's Moon until I was ready. Ready? I understood waiting until my body grew into its full web-size. After all, mass had to be considered when cycling into another form. It was wasteful, if entertaining, to gorge myself simply to cycle into something larger, then have to shed the excess as water anyway upon returning to web-form. Then there was the issue of learning to hold another form. The others presumed my staying Lanivarian from birth till impact meant I'd be able to distort my web-mass into any other I'd assimilated. They were wrong. While I could immediately return to my birthform for a moment or two, after all this time, I still couldn't hold other forms for any duration. I might have done so faster, had Ersh chosen to teach me what I needed to know--and had the others refrained from terrifying hints I might explode if I wasn't careful--but Ersh had definite ideas of what and how I was to learn.

Which was the real reason I still wasn't "ready" after two hundred years. Ersh had insisted I be taught--by the others, as well as herself. Since this teaching could not be done by assimilation alone, and she found fault with almost everything I did learn--not surprising, considering I had four teachers who'd never taught before--"ready" seemed unlikely to occur within even a web-being's almost endless life span. I was stuck on Ersh's rock, safe and utterly bored.

It would have been nice if it had stayed that way.

Copyright © 2003 by Julie E. Czerneda


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