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Author: Julie E. Czerneda
Publisher: DAW Books, 2018
Series: Web Shifter's Library: Book 1

1. Search Image
2. Mirage
3. Spectrum

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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The first book in the Web Shifter's Library series returns to the adventures of Esen, a shapeshifting alien and member of an ancient yet endangered race, who must navigate the perils of a hostile universe.

Esen's back! And the dear little blob is in trouble, again.

Things began so well. She and her Human friend Paul Ragem are ready to celebrate the first anniversary of their greatest accomplishment, the All Species' Library of Linguistics and Culture, by welcoming his family back. He hopes. Having mourned his supposed death years ago, understandably, feelings are bent.

Instead, they've unexpected guests, starting with an old acquaintance. Paul's father has gone missing under dire circumstances.

Before he can convince Esen to help him search, a friend shows up to use the Library. A crisis on Dokeci Na is about to explode into violence. To stop it, Evan Gooseberry needs answers. Unfortunately, the artifact he brought in trade holds its own distracting secret. A touch of very familiar blue. Web-flesh.

The race is on. Paul, to find his father. Esen, to search for a mysterious legacy while helping Evan avert an extinction. What none of them realize is the price of success will be the most terrible choice of all.


1: Garden Morning

When my birth-mother Ansky answered the seductive howls of masculine desire as a Lanivarian, she didn't have far to go, being at a seaside resort for lonely singles.

Not, as Ersh expected, at a modern art fair gathering information on that species' trends in aesthetics and new materials for her Web.

Mind you, neither Ansky nor Ersh expected me to be the result, a genetic combination resulting in a web-being not having occurred before. Proving you can plan ahead all you want, but biology? Will win.

I faced my version of the same quandary now.

Something had consumed every leaf, tendril, and bud from my jamble grape vine. The forthcoming lack of grapes, a favorite of my Lanivarian-self, wasn't the point. Well, it was in the long view, which I usually took, but the problem was more immediate. What.

As for who? My name is Esen-alit-Quar, Esen for short, Es between friends or in a hurry. It's my true name, as the canid Lanivarian is, thanks to Ansky, in a sense my true form-being the one I was born as and the one I resumed the way a Human might snuggle into a blanket.

Much to my web-kins' dismay. For I am that as well, a web-being, able to manipulate my molecular structure at will. With practice. Occasionally I miscalculate, and all that stored energy is released in a contained but startling-even to me-explosion. Not a Lanivarian problem; another reason I sought the form when upset.

As today. I poked at the nearest denuded vine. I should have played it safe with a small experimental arbor somewhere else, but no. Having recently been reminded of jamble grapes, I'd ordered a full overarching trellis with seats and a table, along with a patio tiled in a mosaic featuring, yes, grapes overflowing rustic baskets, and it was all now a thorough mess.

"I doubt staring at it will help, Es." My companion made an earnest attempt to be helpful. "Maybe a local bug took a liking?"

"Can't be that. The field's intact." He knew I'd mean the Kraal military bio-eliminator field I'd had Skalet install over, under, and around the Library Garden, much to my web-kin's paranoid satisfaction. "Nothing in, nothing out. That was the agreement."

One I'd signed with every level of government on our host planet who'd cared that I was importing alien-to-Botharis plant life, as well as a couple who hadn't but didn't want to be left out, given the tariff I was willing to pay for the privilege.

My companion and friend, Paul Antoni Ragem, was technically an import, born in space, but he'd been raised from infancy on this very spot, give or take a hill, by a large and close family. Botharans like the Ragems assuredly did not consider themselves imports. Being polite, I kept quiet on the topic, though Ersh, Oldest of us, had been a bemused spectator when Humans arrived in space, and Skalet, who'd conspired to be the Kraal version of Human for generations, remembered the conflict over which twig of humanity would first settle this world.

History notwithstanding, today Botharis was officially a Human planet, almost part of the Commonwealth, sometimes aligned with the Kraal, its people cheerfully imagining themselves independent and remote, until we'd invited the universe to visit on a daily basis.

Suffice to say most Botharans weren't entirely sure who'd let us in and maintained their distance. Until today.

The fine lines at the corners of Paul's gray eyes crinkled. "Then it's a puzzle that isn't going anywhere. Correct?"

Laughing at me, that was. Might deserve it, I admitted to myself, if not aloud, but I wasn't ready to stop glaring at the vine. "Today of all days. I want everything to look its best," I muttered. Plants never cooperated-"I can transplant a rose in time."

"Don't bother, Old Blob. They aren't coming."

My head whipped around so quickly my ears flapped. "What? But-" There were tables. I'd sacrificed flowers for each. There were- "Why?"

Paul gave a little shrug, nonchalant to someone who didn't know him. To me the movement was so full of hurt and disappointment I snarled in answer. Wanted to bite.

"It's not like that," he said, reading me with equal ease. "Just bad timing. Everyone's busy. My aunts have problems at the farm. My cousins-" Paul stopped and gave a more honest grimace. "It's my fault, Es. It was too soon to invite them here. They aren't ready."

Too soon? It had been over a year since we-I-bought this land from Paul's family, among others, bringing him back from "presumed dead" when I'd put his name on the deed with mine. I'd anticipated a blissful reconciliation. Paul's Human Web restored.

Ersh had warned me, Look before you leap and drag everyone with you.

Paul's first and, so far, only face-to-face meeting with his family had taken place the very next day, outside the Deed Registry Office of the Hamlet of Hillsview.

To my naive amazement, the news had already spread throughout this rural community, and a small crowd was waiting. Outside, there being only room for two plus staff inside the office and that if you didn't want to sit. A crowd filled with a rich array of faces, forms, and voices, each with their tantalizing echo in Paul's own. Names he'd told me-or hadn't. Ragems and Lefebvres. Powells and Terworths. Camerons, too.

When they first saw Paul, faces had lit with wonder and deep-felt joy, as I'd fondly hoped, and Paul began to open his arms.

Then they saw me.

In hindsight, I grasped I might have been a shock; none would have encountered a Lanivarian on their planet before.

At the time, all I could think was I shouldn't be here.

For each and every face had filled with anger. At Paul. They looked at my dear friend as though he'd recently eaten babies or committed some other heinous act-in Human terms-when he'd been returned to them and why weren't they still glad?

Then they'd turned to glare at me.

I didn't like remembering what happened next, how Paul had tucked me behind him, how he'd tried to speak, offered to explain-to these, his family, the people who'd raised him, people he'd lost and given up and who should have been glad-

A shouted "Monster-lover!" ended it. Despite the many who hushed the speaker, the hands held out in apology, Paul pushed through those gathered without another word, entering the deed office with me in tow. When we'd finished our business inside, his family was gone.

I didn't like remembering the look on his face then, or his silence the next day and the next. By the third, he appeared to put it all behind him. I'd doubts of that, but Paul hadn't needed to tell me to stay out of it. Even I understood there was nothing his "monster" could do that wouldn't make things worse. Until they got to know me.

Maybe his family had gathered to talk, and sensible heads prevailed. Or they'd felt a burden of guilt-as they should, in my admittedly biased opinion. Whatever the impetus, it wasn't long before a great-aunt called the Library and asked to speak to Paul. I didn't know what was said in that likely tense conversation, nor in any of those to follow, because "speak to Paul" soon became a distracting flood. Aunt after aunt taking their turn. Uncles. Cousins-Paul had so many cousins, he had trouble getting work done. Including, at last, his Uncle Sam.

My friend would recite their names to me, including new nephews and nieces, as if to prove his family-his life-was mended.

I knew better. It wasn't, not yet. Not when all they did was talk at a distance. I knew Humans better than that, especially this one, and I'd seen his hope for today's reunion.

"Not even your Uncle Sam?" Sam Ragem was Paul's mother's brother, and they'd been close, once. I loved Paul's stories about him. Especially the one where Sam had a sofa in his attic purportedly made from the remains of his mother, Paul's maternal grandmother, Delly Ragem having insisted she be recycled into something useful. Unfortunately, no one could bring themselves to sit on her. I planned a discreet nibble, to test the truth of this for myself.

"Sam has company staying over. I told him they'd be welcome, too, but it's a Ragem rule. You don't bring added guests," Paul said heavily.

We'd no guests at all now, and bite remained an option, an undertone affecting my voice. "While I've experience with the stubbornness of Ragems," I dared grumble, "you've been home a year. When will be long enough?"

"I let them believe I was dead for fifty, Old Blob." Flat and grim. Then he sighed. "It might take a while longer."

I whined at the grief in his tone. The guilt. Shared it. "You did it for me." To protect what I was from everyone else and I knew, deep down, that if nothing had changed in our lives-

Paul Ragem would have let himself remain "dead" to his family.

I feared they knew it. That be it Uncle Sam or cousin, they kept their distance because they knew Paul hadn't come back for them, however much he'd felt their loss. However much he now wanted to fix this. Not something I'd say aloud.

"What's done is done." His eyes flashed with something stern. "My family and friends will argue over who's to come first till they wear themselves out, then they'll all simply show up at the door one day."

"And we'll be ready," I said promptly. "I'll keep the tables out. Cut flowers daily. I can sleep by the door." I paused. "I'll need a comfy mat."

Paul laughed as I'd intended. "What would I do without you, my friend?"

"Not be ready," I replied smugly.

His mood had lightened, I could tell, if not how much was because of me, and how much he did for me. As far as I was concerned, this upsetting business of his reluctant family and so-called friends wasn't over.

Likely suspecting it, Paul changed the subject. "Speaking of ready-it's time to get to work."

"I'll meet you there."

"There" being inside the All Species' Library of Linguistics and Culture, ready for the first trainload of new clients already inbound from the landing field. In the early days, Paul would greet each arrival, relishing the chance to practice his language skills, after which I'd guide them to their respective habitat zone, relishing the chance to observe each species at close range. If the item of information the client brought was new to the Library's collection, it'd be accepted, and they'd be allowed to ask it a question. Answer received, they'd head back to their ships.

I missed those days. It had been so civil, before the word got out. Which might have had something to do with the pamphlets being given out at Hixtar Station-suffice to say, now hourly trains, usually full, disgorged a stampede of eager clients who raced to learn if they'd get their question, as if we ran a contest. If they "won," they waited impatiently for the answer. If not, they milled around in a disgruntled mass, waiting for the next train out.

Paul and I still interacted with clients and delegations, only now our time was reserved for those either experiencing problems our staff couldn't handle or being a problem our staff didn't deserve. Senior academics were the worst. Closely followed by industrial spies, but at least they were professional.

Many asked why we didn't make the collection available through the usual tech channels. There were times I could see the attraction, especially when I had to coax maintenance to clean up what non-Humans left behind to show they were disgruntled-or happy.

But no matter the challenges, Paul and I were in accord. Insisting clients travel this far off the lanes-and by Botharan insistence, they had to come through Hixtar Station first, making the trip even longer-to ask one question per visit about linguistics or culture winnowed the number to the serious-mostly.

To me, it also felt right, something my friend understood. In person was how my kind exchanged information, admittedly a more painful process. Ersh would approve-

Paul's finger scratched that soft spot behind my ear. I leaned into the caress. "So, Old Blob. What will you be today?"

It being a benefit of the Library's influx of clients from species far and wide that I could show up in any form without question. Almost. There'd be some issues giving orders to staff safely unfamiliar with my ability to be any form at all, and not every version of me was, to put it bluntly, old enough to be out alone, but as long as I could keep Skalet from installing bio scans and alarms?

I'd the freedom to be anything.

As did she, but Skalet only appeared as S'kal-ru the Kraal Courier, wasting a perfectly good opportunity to smile and shed pheromones for once.

"This me," I told Paul, leaving it at that. To staff and clients, my Lanivarian-self was his counterpart as the Library's curator, and the more visible me. "As soon as I'm done here."

His gaze fell on my poor plants, but he charitably refrained from declaring the situation hopeless. "See you there."

Copyright © 2018 by Julie E. Czerneda


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