Relationships get complicated when you don't know who - or what - you really are. Esen must find a way to rescue a hapless group of chimeras, beings who are a new and unique blend of species she knows, when she can't become one herself. When Evan Gooseberry tries to help, he is shattered to learn he himself isn't entirely Human and begins to suspect his new friend Esen isn't what she seems.
Complicating matters, a mysterious contagion has killed the crew of the ship that brought the chimeras - and Evan - to Botharis. Everyone's been quarantined inside the All Species' Library of Linguistics and Culture, including over a hundred disgruntled alien scholars.
The risks climb as Skalet and Lionel continue their quest to solve the disappearance of Paul's mother's ship, the Sidereal Pathfinder, only to find themselves caught in a tangle of loyalties as Skalet is betrayed by her own Kraal affiliates, who infiltrate the Library.
All of which would be quite enough for one Web-being's day, but Paul Ragem hopes to rekindle the romance of his first love. A shame Esen hasn't told him who's hiding in their greenhouse.
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Shut the doors!"
"Get the nets!"
Pounding footsteps smother the words from their mouths. Alien feet don't appreciate the correct response to alarm is to seek sanctuary. Alien mouths don't know silence is safer.
Every Sacrissee knows better. She does, though her ears ring from the deafening concussion that shook the world moments before, filling the air with dust and stink. She struggles to move-suddenly can move as lights go dark, taking with them the strange blanket that had held her flat.
Flat is wrong.
Staying here is wrong.
When her feet find the floor, she runs.
Nasal bulb rigid with distress, she cowers before the opening of what had been a wide doorway, hiding within piles of still settling debris, coated in dust.
OUT is dangerous, every Sacrissee knows.
But the IN behind her offers no safety, only distraught Humans and the too-big, too-bright room where she'd been before the flat and blanket. There'd been Sacrissee in the room with her, too many and all young and all wrong.
She isn't sure why she believes that, but it is true.
Too much here is wrong, starting with the blue Human symbols where her fur thins over her hand. OOLA-TB333401. She tries-always tried, they all did-to rub them off. Her skin has grown red and sore. Leave it, Oola, as Humans called her, putting their creams on her skin, unable to say her proper name with their mouths. Easy, Oola. Lie down, Oola. You're doing well, Oola.
"Make it quick."
A whisper from outside the once-door. Oola crouches lower, pulls in her tail lest it betray her. Are these more sensible Humans?
Her first impression is favorable. These keep to shadows, are like shadows in their black garb, but keep talking, which isn't sensible. "First corridor left, straight to the fourth door," says one. "That's secure storage."
"And locked. Be ready to blow it too. Carefully."
They hadn't been careful with this door.
One steps too near, flushing Oola into the open. She runs, dashing across the perilous OUT with its sunbaked stones. She isn't alone. Others run, too, this way and that, coated in dust and panting with distress. Some are younger, smaller. She pushes them out of her way.
Some are older, much larger. She dodges those, aims for the welcoming shadow cast by the aircar parked across the stone.
Is stopped by a warning "Ssssuppptt!" and tail slam, for the shadow is occupied.
There are three, large and mature enough to feel the rut and be angered by youth, and Oola freezes in place, as she should.
Tails subside at her courtesy. "Come with us, little one. We will take you to a good place. A new IN."
Another: "We just got out ourselves-"
The third: "Would you leave her?"
When she hesitates, a hood is pulled back. The eyes regarding her kindly are yellow.
Oola leaps away before she thinks. Others collide with her. She collides with them. She leaps and spins, heart pounding. Moves ever forward, toward the gate. They all are, all but the wrong three, clinging to their shadow.
Through the gate is Rattisila, her beautiful city, with its comforting walls and arches, unlike this terrible, Human, place. Her IN. Sanctuary.
She is within the gate when a second explosion trembles the ground. She glances back. Smoke rises from the windowless building. They were not more careful. Giant words in Sacrissee and comspeak drop from their place over what had been the door, letters tilted and thus wrong, but she can read, and reads them as they fall.
1: Greenhouse Morning
When the first snow stuck to the last leaves of fall, I'd found the effect charming and hauled Paul out to see. Multiple times. However, by this point of winter, snow in trees meant wet frozen lumps landing on my head if I wasn't careful or even if I was.
Oh, I liked snow, under the right circumstances. Thinking of those, I held out a paw as I walked, catching plump snowflakes. My useful fingers were covered in warm purple knit, courtesy of Ally Orman who loved a creative challenge. I'd received an embarrassment of such gifts from the staff of the Library, who thought there were two of me.
There were, as far as they were concerned. Esolesy Ki, who oversaw the Garden, cheerfully did vague non-important tasks and was the only Lishcyn on Botharis. My other identity here? Esen-alit-Quar the Lanivarian-also the sole representative of that species on this cheerfully backwater world, not that I'd planned it-and curator of the All Species' Library of Linguistics and Culture. Which I had.
With Paul Ragem, who was himself Human, born here, and my first, best friend.
I scuffed my feet along the path, wishing his home planet had more to offer in boots than rubbery sock things meant for sick bovines.
There were far more mes, of course, none of whom I'd shown our staff. I'd particularly not shown them the real me.
The real me? Esen-alit-Quar is my name, as Lanivarian is the form of my birth. Esen for short, Es between friends or in a hurry. My real nature-my species, if you will? Web-being.
Not an informative name, granted, unless you knew more about us, which very few did and if my web-kin, Skalet, had her way, no others would. On that, we'd come to an understanding.
I wouldn't tell anyone else, and Skalet had agreed, as if granting a great favor, that those who already knew of our existence-because of me-could continue to live. She'd even, in unguarded and rare moments, admitted Paul was an exceptional member of his species, which he was, despite being perilously curious.
Along with compassionate, brilliant, stubborn-
Our colleague Lionel Kearn, on the other hand, seemed to have earned Skalet's respect. Something I'd been trying in vain to accomplish the past 554 Commonwealth standard years of my life. I wasn't sure Skalet's improved regard was altogether safe for poor Lionel, but he continued to breathe, so there was that.
What were we? Descendants of Ersh, the first of our kind to leave our natal interstellar home and acquire intelligence. Ersh went from mindlessly gobbling the products of stars to develop an unfortunate taste for living mass, in particular that which could think and scream and pass along cultural nightmares to be a bother later.
After causing more than her share of mass extinctions, Ersh, no longer mindless, developed a conscience. More, she declared a purpose: to remember the accomplishments of those likely to become extinct.
To assist in this purpose, she made us, the members of her Web, each budded from her flesh. Except for me, but no one expected me. Among Ersh's rules for us? Respect what lived and thought and, above all, remain hidden from it.
A Web-being has perfect memory, including that of our molecular structure which we manipulate at will. It prevents aging tissues and dispenses with unpleasantries such as poison or disease-causing visitors, so we're essentially immortal. Ish. We share what we've experienced as individuals by biting chunks of flesh out of one another and assimilating the information stored therein.
Precisely balanced chunks, of course. We're conscious of our mass at all times and it wouldn't do to be greedy. Ersh, as Senior Assimilator, taught us restraint while sorting our new memories through her own body first, deciding which to share. Rarely the fun ones.
As a bonus, we can become whatever living shape we, or another of our Web, have assimilated. For a while and with effort; otherwise there's an explosive, though local, release of accumulated energy. I'm getting much better at that.
Any living shape capable of thought, that is, because Ersh's personal evolution locked us into that requirement. It's safer for all that way.
Our ability is not only ideal for storing information about ephemeral species-for Ersh insisted we collect everything possible, from biology to poor habits-it's essential camouflage. Semi-immortal shapeshifting aliens who ate one another being awkward at best to explain, there was our bothersome lineage. Our kind, through Ersh, was responsible for consuming the life on entire planets, even if it had been ages past. Ersh had made sure I alone learned that troubling history.
There's a downside to being a Web-being, at least for me. When we cycle our flesh into that of another species? We remain ourselves. Who we are. Unique individuals of that species, down to the correct relative age.
Suffice to say my Human-self, Bess, elicits a distressing parental instinct in other Humans that's rarely helpful, a tendency to be dismissed that occasionally is, but, regardless, I avoid being one as much as possible.
Ersh avoided being Human too, unless for my education. As a Human, she was a terrifyingly ancient female missing most of an arm. Sacrificed, she'd remind me endlessly, to keep our existence secret from ephemerals.
A deeply disturbing example that hadn't stopped me rescuing and making friends with a curious Alien First Contact Specialist named Paul Ragem. Ersh knew I'd some issues with impulse control.
Ersh was gone, most of her, immured into the rock of her mountain on Picco's Moon. I'd some bits hidden away in a cryofreezer I really should assimilate and be done with, but as I'd already consumed several, her memories rising up to my shock and dismay at the worst times, the appeal was limited.
I'd thought I'd lost the rest of Ersh's Web. Lesy and Mixs to Death, an invading, non-sentient Web-being who gobbled them up, our own flesh the tastiest. Skalet when her favored form, the Humans called Kraal, had failed in their attack against Death. Ansky, my birth-mother, to her formssake at the time, the Articans.
If you see a theme about being careful what you are, it's true.
In the end, Paul and I found a way to stop Death. Because no good deed goes without dire consequence, as Ersh would say, Lionel Kearn and others pinned what Death had done to other species on me, the Esen Monster. To keep my secret safe, Paul didn't cut off an arm.
He did worse. He pretended to be dead for fifty years, severing himself from his family and friends, the future he'd thought to have. Now he was back, but the wound had yet to heal, if it ever could.
I paused, looked around to be sure no one was watching, then stuck out my tongue to catch a large, lazy snowflake. Unlikely to find anyone else in the Library Garden at this hour-or season, for that matter, most of the plants dormant or dead-but dignity mattered.
I tried for a second snowflake, only to miss. It came to rest on the tip of my nose. I stared cross-eyed down my snout until the flake melted, then licked off the drop.
There'd been snow the night Paul learned I wasn't safe, when I'd seen fear distort his dear face and known it was of me. I'd run from him then, not trusting him or the nascent friendship between us. Run straight to Ersh, as it happened, forced to share what I'd done.
Fortunately for Paul, I'd an ability only Ersh among the others possessed: I, too, could sort the memories in my flesh. What my kin tore away in their jaws to assimilate contained what had happened, but not my friendship with Paul. Later, I became even better at sharing only what I wished.
Unfortunately, with Ersh now so much rock, this ability meant I was, though Youngest and least, now Senior Assimilator for the Web of Esen.
As for my dignity, I wasn't worried about Paul, or Lionel, catching me licking snowflakes, though the former enjoyed throwing balls of snow for me to chase that occasionally connected. Chasing was fine, but this me wasn't fond of being wet.
No, since I'd learned Skalet too had faked her own death, recently coming back to life to be part of the tiny Web of Esen, I'd avoided any behavior likely to reinforce her disdain for my callow youth. Such as snowflake licking.
Frozen stems and branches rattled in the freshening breeze. The wind heralded a forecasted plummet in temperature, and as clumps of snow began to plop onto the path, I stopped dawdling. Being on a secret errand.
The Garden's greenhouse was my destination, as it was every morning. The building was private and mine, not that Web-beings needed or cared for possessions, but we could, I knew from experience, grow fond of inanimate things. My Lishcyn-self had a great fondness for silk as well as fudge. Which wasn't a great combination of loves unless, like me, you could use a steadily increasing girth as an excuse for more shopping.
As for the Garden? To be blunt, as a Web-being with a conscience and friends, I needed easy access to living mass. What was encompassed by "plants" was an excellent, didn't-take-it-personally, source to assimilate at need. My Lanivarian-self had assisted Ersh in her greenhouse, but it was my Lishcyn-self who'd come to love growing plants.
To indulge that love, I'd brought in hundreds of species from as many worlds, kept from venturing onto Botharis' own verdant landscape-itself hardly free of invasives, but I'd promised-by Skalet's Kraal bio-eliminator field overhead and underground. According to the Library's mission statement, our Garden was for the respite and comfort of visiting scholars. A bit of home, away from home.
It wasn't quite a lie.
The truth was no one had the time. Scholars arrived in a rush to learn if their offering of new information for our databases-which included the one in my flesh, not that we mentioned that-had been accepted. If yes, it was another rush to pose their question at one of the many species-specific inputs, conveniently located within their appropriate habitat zones. Receiving their answer-which I'd verify against my flesh if necessary, not that we mentioned that either-they'd have to hurry to catch the last train to the spaceport before their ship left.
Their haste was entirely our fault. The Library wasn't designed for overnight guests or even much in the way of a linger. We'd cheerfully expected Botharis to build a proper shipcity, or at least stations in orbit.
But no. Not yet. Admittedly there was a ramshackle village growing between the train station and the field-the reliable profit to be made from gullible aliens coupled with the onset of winter inspiring several local entrepreneurs to dig in and stay put, adding whatever they could carry to shore up walls and roof their marketplace tents-but only Constable Malcolm Lefebvre appeared to notice, being called on occasion for over-festive behavior or theft of what shouldn't be there in the first place.