Fingers interlaced, her hair stroking his cheek, they’d walked the nights of ninety-nine worlds. Floated in space to watch planets spin. Lain naked on mossy ground, lost in one another, under so many stars—
Those had been real. These couldn’t be. The ceiling lay be¬neath a covering of formed concrete, plas, and a significant amount of natural stone, a roof he’d built to keep out more than the night sky. Could be a dune curling overtop as well, it being sandstorm season.
Yet, still, stars twinkled overhead, wheeling in formation as if he watched them through time.
A dream. That was it. He shut his eyes, fingers straying to the cool metal band around his wrist. Touch seemed odd, for a dream.
He opened his eyes. Looked up. Surely only in a dream could a segment of that starry scape flex . . .
Bend . . .
Lean down, closer and closer, those stars about to crush him—
For the— “No more!” he shouted, furious. “Get out of here!”
A heavy arm—something arm-ish— lopped across his chest and slid away. Jason Morgan squirmed in the opposite direction. “On! On full!”
The portlights obeyed, blazing into every corner of the room.
He was alone.
“I heard you the first time.” Huido Maarmatoo’kk emphasized the “first.” “A Rugheran was on your ceiling. The starry kind, like the ones you saw on Cersi, not the dark greasy kind here. Your shout woke me from a most pleasant dream, you know.” A sigh like rain on plas.
His hands wanted to tremble. Morgan wrapped them around his warm cup, guiding it to his lips with care. The kitchen felt strange. Too bright. He hadn’t, he thought abruptly, sat at this table for— e hadn’t, since, that was it. Hadn’t left his quarters.
Hadn’t bothered to move, in case it hurt. Fine plan, that was. All of him hurt.
Most of him stank.
Not that it mattered.
“Yesterday, you saw a Rugheran in the accommodation. You shouted then, too. And threw a jar of something at it, making a mess, at which point it disappeared. Can’t say I blame it.”
Morgan glowered through the steam at his companion. Gleam¬ing black eyeballs, each on their stalk, lined the opening between the gently pulsing disks that served as a head. Unblinking eye¬balls. He should know better by now than try to stare down a Carasian. “It’s not my imagination. They travel through—” the M’hir, he almost said, and flinched. “They don’t use doors. You know that. They’re here and they’re real.”
Unlike what else he saw when alone: the curve of a smile, the luxurious flood of red-gold hair, somber gray eyes flashing with sudden heat—
Always, always, no matter how he tried to stop there, stay, the ending followed. The furious boil of waves on an unreal beach—
Her fingers, letting go—
That hollow, inside, where she’d been.
He’d curl into a ball and shiver until he fell asleep or passed out, always cold. So very cold—
A soft chink as clawtips met under his nose. Morgan refocused. “What?” He tried not to snap, wearily grateful Huido bore with his tempers and accepted his silence. He wasn’t ready to talk.
They hadn’t spoken in what might be days, come to think of it.
Something was different. He blinked. His friend’s massive car¬apace was peppered with gleaming metal fragments, between the usual hooks for weaponry, the fragments from a groundcar that had exploded too close. Huido’d removed the largest to keep as souvenirs—but that wasn’t it.
The black shell was a maze of fresh scrapes and gouges, some deep. “What happened to—” Morgan’s voice broke. Gods. “What did I do?” a whisper.
“You weren’t yourself,” Huido informed him. The big alien eased back, wiggling the glistening pink stub of what had been his largest claw. “Nor am I. After molt, I will be magnificent once again! We need more beer.” In a confiding tone, “Beer speeds things up.”
He’d hit bottom, that’s when they’d last spoken. When he’d— Morgan’s face went stark with grief. “I cursed you. Ordered you to leave.”
“Bah. Why would I listen? Your grist wasn’t right.” The intact claw, capable of severing his torso in half, tugged gently at his hair. “Better. Still stinks.”
“I attacked you.” Morgan remembered it all now, too well. He’d been wild, raving. Huido had squeezed himself into the door opening to seal him in his quarters. Morgan had struck out with whatever was in the room—until he’d collapsed, sobbing, at Huido’s feet.
Eyestalks bent to survey the marks. “You tried,” the Carasian corrected smugly, then chuckled. “I’m glad you didn’t hurt your¬self.”
Morgan reached up. After a second, the centermost cluster of eyes parted, and deadly needlelike jaws protruded, tips closing on his hand with tender precision. “Huido—”
The jaws retracted and Morgan found himself reflected in a dozen shiny black eyes. “The past.” The lower claw snapped. “The present! Why are the Rugherans here?”
The Human dropped his gaze, staring into the sombay. “They’re looking for—” His sigh rippled the liquid. “For her.”
“To the Eleventh Sandy Armpit of Urga Large with them!” Huido roared, shaking dishware and hurting Morgan’s head. “Tell them I said so!” After a short pause, he went on in his nor¬mal voice. “You can talk to them, can’t you?”
“I don’t want to.” It sounded sullen even to him, but Morgan couldn’t help that, any more than he couldn’t help but hear the Rugherans: their matrix-like speech, emotion blended with sin¬gle words or the simplest of phrases, flooded his mind despite his tightest shields. Cruel, to come to him here—
—where he came for peace.
It hadn’t always been so. The first time Morgan set foot on Ettler’s Planet, he’d been dumped there. His own fault, having yet to gain the most rudimentary knowledge of what offended non-humans. The Trants could have removed his limbs for suggesting—well, being dumped had been the best option, suffice it to say, and one reason he’d gone on to learn everything he could about the manners of others.
That sorry day, he’d prided himself on a close escape. Instead, he’d been left in the worst place for a telepath, even one of his latent ability, for this world’s Human population contained more than its share of the minimally Talented: those whose thoughts leaked constantly, without self-awareness or restraint. Morgan’s natural shields protected his mind from others.
He didn’t know how to keep their minds out of his.
Half-maddened by the bedlam, somehow Morgan had taken an aircar and flown out into the desert, unable to stop until he reached quiet.
There—here—he’d stayed to recover. Only Huido had been welcome, the painful maelstrom of Carasian thought patterns at a level easy to avoid.
Later, healed, and having traded with Omacrons, non-human telepaths, for their mind-shielding technique, Morgan was able to protect himself. In space, in the Fox, he hadn’t needed shields at all.
With Sira, he’d wanted none. Her thoughts had been his—her mindvoice the last he’d heard. The last he ever wanted to hear. He’d never open his mind to another’s again.
Till the Rugherans, who had no right—
The Human set down his cup. It tipped, spilling dark liquid. Unfair. Huido kept the kitchen spotless. “I’ll get that.” He rose and was forced to grip the table to steady himself. It took longer than he remembered, walking to the counter, and he had to con¬centrate: pick up the wipe, return, clean the mess.
Eyestalks twisted, following his slow progress. “You need a molt, too.”
“Wish I could.” Something about molting— “Order as much beer as you want.”
A chuckle. “Fear not, my brother, I’ve taken care of it—and a case of Brillian brandy, for variety.” A less happy, “If not the storms.” The Carasian loathed sand, claiming grains worked into the seams of his shell. He cheered. “While we wait, I could take care of your unwanted visitors.” With a disturbingly coy tilt of his carapace, Huido indicated the weapons, most illegal even here in the Fringe, housed on the pot rack.
Morgan shook his head. “Let them poke around till they’re satisfied.” No need to point out the unlikelihood of any weapon affecting beings of the M’hir.
As for the Rugherans’ reaction . . . should more than a jar be tossed at them?
He’d prefer not to—
The kitchen tilted. The Human lurched into his chair, sending the rest of his sombay, and cup, to the floor. He cursed under his breath. A newly hatched Skenkran was stronger. “What’s wrong with me?” under his breath.
Shiny black eyes converged on him, then aimed idly—and simultaneously—anywhere else: the weapon-containing pot rack, the ceiling, the floor, the walls.
Done it to himself, that meant.
Morgan let out a slow breath, tasting the stink on it, the truth.
He’d ignored his body’s needs. Refused food. Drank himself to sleep. Refused to move. He’d a vague memory of feeling the pinch of shots. Stims, likely.
For how long?
Judging by the tremor in his hands, it could have been weeks.
Neglect? Cowardice. He winced. Hadn’t he told Sira: Let go and live?
Hadn’t she asked the same promise of him?
Shouldn’t have taught her to be a trader, he told himself, meaning not a word.
Morgan summoned his remaining strength and stood. “To¬morrow,” he announced.
One eyestalk swiveled back to him.
“Tonight, then.” Three more joined the first. Doubt, that was. “Some supper—just not—make anything,” he capitulated. “I’ll eat it.” No guarantees it would stay down.
The full force of the Carasian’s gaze returned. “At the table?”
“Don’t rush me.” The Human pretended to squint at the lights. “Too bright. And the Rugheran ruined my sleep.”
But his lips cracked, stretched by the ghost of a smile. The first—since.
(Posted with permission from the publisher.)
#againstthedark Giveaway Details:
Courtesy of DAW, I have a copy of To Guard Against the Dark plus a mass market of The Gulf of Time and Stars for one (1) lucky winner!
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About the Series:
The Clan Chronicles is set in a far future where a mutual Trade Pact encourages peaceful commerce among a multitude of alien and Human worlds. The alien Clan, humanoid in appearance, have been living in secrecy and wealth on Human worlds, relying on their innate ability to move through the M’hir and bypass normal space. The Clan bred to increase that power, only to learn its terrible price: females who can’t help but kill prospective mates. Sira di Sarc is the first female of her kind facing that reality. With the help of a Human starship captain, Jason Morgan, himself a talented telepath, Sira must find a morally acceptable solution before it’s too late. But with the Clan exposed, her time is running out. The Stratification trilogy follows Sira’s ancestor, Aryl Sarc, and shows how their power first came to be as well as how the Clan came to live in the Trade Pact. The Trade Pact trilogy is the story of Sira and Morgan, and the trouble facing the Clan. Reunification concludes the series, answering these question at last. Who are the Clan?
And what will be the fate of all?
About the Author:
For twenty years, Canadian author/ former biologist Julie E. Czerneda has shared her curiosity about living things through her science fiction, published by DAW Books, NY. Julie’s also written fantasy, the first installments of her Night’s Edge series (DAW) A Turn of Light and A Play of Shadow, winning consecutive Aurora Awards (Canada’s Hugo) for Best English Novel. Julie’s edited/co-edited sixteen anthologies of SF/F, two Aurora winners, the latest being SFWA’s 2017 Nebula Award Showcase. Next out will be an anthology of original stories set in her Clan Chronicles series: Tales from Plexis, out in 2018. Her new SF novel, finale to that series, To Guard Against the Dark, lands in stores October 2017. When not jumping between wonderful blogs, Julie’s at work on something very special: her highly anticipated new Esen novel, Search Image (Fall 2018). Visit www.czerneda.com for more.